Ken MacLeod – intelligent, political science fiction with great characters and storylines

I like science fiction that is thoughtful.  Action is good, I like that as well, but I like things that make me think, look at things in a new light, and re-evaluate what I know or believe.

One of my favorite authors (I have a lot of favorite authors) is a Scottish fellow by the name of Ken MacLeod, a former zoologist, computer programmer, political activist, and bio-mechanical researcher.  He keeps an active blog called The Early Days of a Better Nation about his interests, thoughts, and observations that makes for interesting reading, though, to be fair, I don’t follow it with any regularity.

My introduction to him was via his Fall Revolution series, a set of four books that do not need to be, indeed probably should not be, read in order.

The Fall Revolution series

I began with The Cassini Division and was instantly hooked, reading the book in one evening and completing the rest of the series within the week.

The Fall Revolution series focuses on the events leading up to a Singularity, the point where humans can upload their minds into machines, running faster and replicating themselves, creating new and more powerful intelligences in a run-away burst of hyperinflation of the mind.  The story arc follows the political events taking place at this time and what the future looks like after the singularity.  Society fragments and a faction escapes to another planet into the future (distance equals time) through wormhole.  On New Mars their society embraces the uploaded and AI minds and adopts an anarchic-capitalistic social and political system.  Back in the Solar System the fast-folk, the uploaded and AI minds, have been fought to a stand-still and confined to Jupiter, where they are guarded by The Cassini Division lest they escape.  The Solar System has adopted an anarchic-communist model.

The early books deal with the characters laying the groundwork for these competing political ideologies and why society splits.  The later books about what happens when characters from these societies re-encounter one another.  The Sky Road takes place in the interlude when Earth is recovering from the wars triggered by the split.

These books explore what it means to be human, the potential of technology, and the limits of ideology.  Political discussion between the characters is a main theme, though not at the expense of great action and a beautifully described setting.  A friend of mine once commented that real people didn’t have the sorts of political discussions the main characters do and I had to laugh, because I and many of my friend do have nearly exactly the types of discussions the characters have.

These books fall into the space-opera and future-history sub-genres for anyone who is keeping track.

Another fantastic series by Ken MacLeod is the Engines of Light series, which should be read in order.

Engines of Light series

The Engines of Light takes place in a 100 light year region of space on the other side of the galaxy where humans and hominids from all of human history and pre-history have been sent by annoyed god-like intelligences, along with jumbled ecosystems from all of Earth’s history.  Intelligent dinosaurs have most of the technology and starships are piloted by giant squid who are the only creatures with the neural architecture necessary to navigate interstellar space.

The last group of humans, a joint US/Russian cosmonaut team, has a star-drive, but cannot use it and one of the cosmonaut families has devoted its energies to solving the navigational problem.  The story revolves around what happens when an ancient, static, star-faring culture goes through a massive shift in the balance of power accompanied by the introduction of new political philosophies.

This series has some of the most interesting aliens I’ve encountered.

Throughout Ken MacLeod’s work his characters are well constructed.  They act and talk like real people, are driven by lofty ideals and petty jealousies, they are perceptive, idealistic, pragmatic, and oblivious in realistic proportions.  They are fun characters to read about and the situations they find themselves in are unusual, but flow naturally in the stories.

As an ex-girlfriend of mine said of Ken MacLeod when I read this series to her, “He writes with authority.”

His other books are good as well, in particular Newton’s Wake and Learning the World.  His books have gotten difficult to find the US bookstores, but they are easily available from online retailers.

Alastair Reynolds and the Revelation Space universe

Defining sub-genres of science fiction is a difficult task as few authors limit themselves wholly to one form of expression.  I tend to like hard-science fiction, that is sci-fi that is based on science as we know it, although often taken to large extremes.  In general this means that  hard-sci-fi does not have faster than light technology or telekinesis or other easy plot devices in that manner.  If something on the order of, say, telekinesis is integral to the story, there is a technology based explanation for it such as microscopic smart-matter clouds linked to a brain implant or something similar.  A stretch, perhaps, but the explanation makes sense, especially in light of the current advanced in machine/brain interfaces.

Reconstruction of Video from Brain Activity

Another sub-genre that I particularly like is space-opera.  This is the genre that most people are familiar with, StarWars and Star Trek fall firmly in the space-opera category with faster than light drives, time travel, and the Force.  Space-opera tends to take place over an extended storyline, numerous years of TV series, multiple movies, and books of 6 or 7 hundred pages each in a series of 3, 4, 5, or more books.

One of my favorite science fiction authors straddles this line, leaning a bit to the hard-sci-fi side of things, but by no means neglecting the sweeping vision that constitutes space-opera.  His collection of books and short stories rides up against another sub-genre called future history, which I’ll go into in another post.

Alastair Reynolds is a Welsh astrophysicist who worked for the European Space Agency for about 16 years in the Netherlands before returning to Wales to focus on his writing more closely.  When he talks science you should listen because he spent a large portion of his time doing science.  My favorite books of his fall into the Revelation Space series.

Revelation Space cycle

The first book, the one the series derives its name from begins with an interstellar archaeology mystery on a desolate alien planet whose indigenous bird-like aliens went abruptly extinct a million years ago.

The setting is far in our future, half a millennium or so and humans have spread widely through the galaxy and have fragmented into a number of bizarrely diverse clades, some of whom are described in detail, others mentioned in passing.  Ultras maintain the trade network between inhabited planets, living vastly extended lives due to the relativistic effects of traveling aboard their four kilometer long self repairing lighthugger ships that roar though the interstellar space a mere fraction below the speed of light, driven by immensely powerful Conjioner drives.  The Conjoiners living at the edges of the solar systems and Demarchists on and around the massive titan-like moon/planet Yellowstone aslo have extended lives, because they have infused heir bodies with microscopic medichines.  Engineered primates work in ship repair holds, ship-rats are part of the immune system of starships, and intelligent pigs gather in human killing gangs.

Two of the driving themes throughout all the books and short stories are how different human factions deal with one-another as they diversify, and the question of where are all the aliens.

The latter question is known as Fermi’s Paradox.  By all rational accounts the galaxy should be teeming with life, and at least some of that life should be intelligent and technologically savvy.  So where is it all?  Admittedly, despite the best efforts of SETI, we have not looked for long, nor over a very large area, but the question remains.  Alastair Reynolds proposes an answer, but it won’t make you sleep better at night.

In fact, much of his work is dark, very much so, with heavy Gothic overtones and characters who are ruthless in a society that has been in conflict and danger for much of its history.

His characters are interesting, insightful, and complex, driven by their egos, morals, and intellectual curiosity.  They are people put in difficult situations and forced to make hard choices, people who are resourceful and unique.  Problems in Alastair Reynolds’ universe are not easily solved, have no simple solutions, and violence is often not an effective solution as the characters are often far outmatched in their capacity to employ violence.  Information is the powerful tool, and what many of the characters seek.

As you can tell, I love this series.  It does not have to be read in order.  There is a temporal sequence to the stories, but the tales themselves stand alone, though some of the characters move between them and actions in one books affect the outcomes in other books.  A number of short story collections also take place within this universe, and make for good reading.

Alastair Reynolds has some other books as well, Pushing Ice, Century Rain, and Terminal City to name a few, but, with the exception of Pushing Ice, I was not so fond of those books.  My personal preference.  To me they seemed to lack the depth of any of the Revelation Space books, though they had interesting ideas and were well written.

Why Science Fiction?

I never tire of listening, I am never satisfied.  If you know more stories tell them to me.

– Saunaka via William Buck’s 1976 retelling of the Ramayana

I read a lot.  I read a lot of different sorts of things, but Science Fiction is one of my staples, and one of my favorite subjects.  I read so much of it that many of my friends come to me for recommendations on what to read.  They do so because I am not an indiscriminate reader; I am picky, I am critical, and I love the genre.

As far as novels go Science Fiction is one of the few, perhaps the only, genre that captures the spirit of intelligent speculation, that truly explores the “What if?” question, the only genre that extrapolates from current trends and toys with future prediction, and the only genre that fundamentally relies on a basis of scientific principles.  That is not to say that there is not excellent sci-fi that walks the fuzzy line of fantasy, or that there are not a number of excellent books in other genres, rather it is to say that science fiction must base its collective imagination on what we currently understand of the universe and where that understanding could lead.

Science Fiction is often not taken seriously, in part because there is so much bad sci-fi out there and in part because many people consider it to be pure escapism.  At the same time certain “classics” of Science fiction are required reading for what they say about society; books like 1984, Brave New World, A Handmaid’s Tale, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Fahrenheit 451.  These are fantastic books, but they are older, old enough to be taken seriously now by those stogy folks who decide school curriculum.

Over the last 50 or 60 years Science Fiction has proliferated like no other genre and a great number of fantastic works of literature and excellent stories have been written.  At the same time our lives have been increasingly infiltrated by and reliant upon technology, so much so that many of the things we take for granted now would have been (were!) considered unrealistically far in the future just a short time ago.  Technology has crept so far into our lives and bled into other written genres that many stories now contain some small science fiction-like aspects to them.

Technology is often part of the bedrock of Science Fiction and the genre relies on extrapolation from what currently exists, but at the same time Science Fiction has given us words for technology that did not exist when the books were written but now do.  Snow Crash and Neuromancer were seminal works in the cyberpunk sub-genre and have given us not only some of the words we now use to describe the internet, but provided some of the ideas as well.  Google Earth, that wonderful piece of software so many of us can spend hours exploring is based partially on a piece of software used by the protagonist in Snow crash.  Arthur C. Clarke first did the math on geosynchronous orbits and suggested placing satellites there and at the L4 and L5 points; now we have satellites in those places that we rely heavily upon every day.

Our understanding of the universe has grown by leaps and bounds, demonstrating that the universe is larger, wilder, stranger, more detailed, and far more cryptic and we ever thought.  Science Fiction has had to evolve to keep pace and to leap ahead.

Science Fiction has also given us some of the most memorable  movies and TV shows of all time; Star Wars: A New Hope, Alien, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and BladeRunner to name a few.

On these pages I will introduce books and authors I particularly like, occasionally delving into movies, TV shows, or actual science as the mood strikes.

I’ll put up a page of reading recommendations that will slowly be expanded as well.

All of your comments, suggestions, insights, and recommendations are enthusiastically welcome.  I will not write about books or authors I have not read, and I ask that you respect that these are just my opinions.  If I like a book you particularly dislike, or I do not like a book that you like, I am indicating nothing more than my personal preference and taste, which I will attempt to explain in my writing.

Thank you and I hope you enjoy these pages.

The background image – StarWars meets Firefly over the rings of Saturn