NB: All page references are to the UK first editions.
Ken MacLeod is an intensely romantic writer. His work is engaged with the intensity of feeling between people and landscape, people and people, and people and ideology. The majesty and humour of his writing is, I think, a function of this romance: love after all is both obsessive and mocking. In Dark Light, part two of the Engines of Light Trilogy, Matt Cairns is caught up in yet another revolutionary situation in his extended life, “What he doesn’t expect is the acute pang of nostalgia that the smallest hints of a revolutionary situation bring. (244)” Reading a MacLeod novel—even reading the names of characters, Jonathan Wilde, Myra Godwin, or of chapters, Bright Star Cultures, The Queen of Heaven’s Daughters, The Sickle’s Sang and The Hammer’s Harvest–can be a little like that for the politically attuned reader, acute pangs of nostalgia sweeping the reader into the moment.
The landscape of a Ken MacLeod is in love with the urban sublime. In The Stone Canal, our first sight of Stras Cobol is described, “A three kilometre strip of street, the canal-bank on one side, buildings on the other, their height a bar chart of property values in a long swoop from the centre’s tall towers, to the low shacks and shanties at the edge of town where the red sand blows in off the desert and family-farm fusion plants glow in the dark.” (6) The scene is cinematic, we rush into the image and into a future.Superficially a riff on William Gibson’s cyberpunk imagery there is a love of the industrial that cannot be matched by the cyperpunk discourse which is, in its own way, as hostile to industry as any New Humanist writer.
A clue to understanding this deeply romantic approach to the sparkle of Mordor can be found in Learning the World. MacLeod draws his imagery explicitly from the rich tradition of British industrial socialism, represented in the medievalist glory of Ford Maddox Ford’s painting, Work (1852-1865). In The Stone Canal, in chapter 18, The Malley Mile, Jonathan Wilde wakes up to find himself part of a mechanical and virtualised labour force, “Cylindrical, they had arms at mid-section which appeared capable of articulating and extending in any direction; ‘hands’ like bushes, fingers repeatedly dividing and sub-dividing; the trunk covered with lenses, nozzles, aerials and hatches; four shorter, sturdier limbs for gripping and grappling.” (264) Instead of revulsion Wilde feels only wonder, and wonder too at the thing he is building. ” I looked down, and saw the part of that work which I, at that moment, in that place, had the enormous privilege to do. Fine tuning that interference-modulator was what I had been born and re-born to do. I set to work with the joy of a craftsman devoting his life to carving the door of a cathedral, certain of the credit it would bring him in a better life to come.” (278) A labourer worthy of his hire, and clear on his self worth.
This sense of wonder and pride at the madeness of the world runs through the novels. Hugh Morrison of Intrusion admires the labourers, “calm, deliberate men, with steady hands and steady girlfriends”. Atomic Discourse Gale flies to the centre of the world with Constantine the Oldest Man, and sees that “Featureless from the distances at which I had always seen it, it now looked complex, with gigantic pipes snaking across it and great clusters of machinery clamped to it. Wheels turned and pistons and elevators moved up and down. Rectangular black slots became visible. Here and there on the surface and we flew towards one. (5)
Macleod even finds romance in the ruins of industry, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson in The Night Sessions walks his bicycle along “A slope of rubble sprawled halfway across the road.” (34). Hugh Morrison works in the Victoria Road, where houses are “of red brick rather than sandstone….doors barred with nailed cross-planks, windows masked with charred and spray bombed chipboard… (Intrusion, 42). But this is not a celebration of decay but of potential, a harbinger of a new industrial rennaisance, high tech in the Scotland of The Star Fraction and of Descent, of wind farms. The marginal economy of both The Highwaymen and Intrusion sees collapsing industry and replaces it with solar panels and syn bio in Intrusion. There is love in the landscape of a Ken MacLeod novel, a love that is future directed, that sees ruins and contemplates planting, that sees always the promise of the future.
When it comes to people there is both a frivolous and a serious side to MacLeod’s take on intra-personal romance. On the frivolous side there is the crush on wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses. Always described in lavish detail, frocks such as Cat’s dress when she weds Jordan, the dress in the photograph of Annette, indicate a fondness for frills and furbelows rooted in the fashions of the 1980s. When Alec in The Restoration Game bemoans the loss of such fru fru, Lucy Stone takes it upon herself to make sure he sees a modern bride. Clothing is an indicator in most of these books of a playful performativity and although men do get some finery (Jonathan Wilde is rather fond of his black silk shirts, and Matt of his denim, and the interplanetary tradesmen of Cosmonaut Keep of their embroidered tunics) it is the women who get to play with crinolines and silk, laces and velvets. In Dark Light of course Matt gets to wear a silkshalwar kameez as he takes the role of a woman within a berdache tradition, while Gail is understood as a man in her jeans and checked shirt, not because of her clothes (the gender division is about societal roles) but it reinforce the point. There is the excuse in some books of the rising temperature, disappearing ozone layer to excuse parasols and bonnets but there is a strong hint of the American South in fashions in The Fall Revolution Quartet. However, by the opening of The Sky Road, when Merrial “walked through the fair” “Her long black hair … caught around the temples by two narrow braids; the tumbling of the rest showed traces in the late sun…She wore a gown of plain green velvet…” (The Sky Road, 1/2) the pre-Raphaelite flavour which infuses MacLeod’s politics is vivid in his sartorial eye. In perhaps my favourite description, when Elizabeth buys a dress from a second hand shop (there is many a eulogy to vintage fashion shops) it has “a bodice of embroidered leaves, in satin and silk and autumn colours; its long, wide skirts of organza over a net a darker shade and stiffer texture, faded and fraying to cobweb consistency towards the hems” (Cosmonaut Keep, 65).
On the more serious side, people in MacLeod novels truly love each other. When Jonathan Wilde writes of his attraction to David Reid, it is love at first sight, “Our minds came together like magnets, with a clash.” (25). MacLeod’s novels are so frequently structured around pairs and partnerships that it is a shock when they are not. Jonathan and David in The Stone Canal, named for perhaps the Bible’s most famous friends; in The Night Sessions Detective Inspector Adam Fergusson and Skulk who literally dies for him; Elizabeth and Gregor in Cosmonaut Keep and later, in the final pages of Engine City; and most poignant Matt and Salasso who go out in a blaze of glory and rise again, bound together with Volkov (because a beloved enemy is as much a true love as a beloved friend) as one new being:
It remembered having hands with four digits, only one of which was opposable, and with those hands controlling a skiff that skinned across endless forests…It remembered swaying on two legs, through a city of lights, and shouting a strange language while colourful explosions lit the sky overhead… It remembered looking out from behind a transparent curved pane at a red hot surface…
What memories it thought, for one so small to have. (271)
Only one of the relationships indicated above is a romance in the conventional terms. Jonathan Wilde is married to, and clearly in love with, Annette, a love that will last beyond his own lifetime and accompany him to the stars. But it is his love for David Reid that is centre stage, and reduces Annette to the context in which his tempestuous affaire with David plays out. This pattern in which there is a love, and another love, is surprisingly common. Hugh’s love for Hope in Intrusion is strong and true, but underpinned by a much older love for Voxy. In Cosmonaut Keep Elizabeth initially loses Gregor to his infatuation with Lydia. Gregor is bowled over by Lydia, deflected from his life’s course by wild infatuation, but he lives in a society in which Eros is regarded with suspicion and supplanted by Storge, a rarely used term in our world. Storge love is rooted in a true awareness of the others’ flaws, its romance is a romance of the day to day. Thus Gregor does not “settle” for the more mundane Elizabeth, but rather embarks on a life long romance with her and her work.
One advantage of MacLeod’s approach position is that sexual romance always remains the context within a novel rather than the driver and MacLeod manages to avoid the “motivated by a man” syndrome that crops up with two many female heroines (in books written by both men and women). The Restoration Game is perhaps the best example of what I mean: Lucy Stone’s own relationship with Alec gets put on hold while she heads off and does something interesting in Krassnia (he gets to be Penelope, heading home to look after the sheepfold and spin genes, if not wool). In the past her great grandmother has abandoned one lover to head back home and serve her country, and her mother has abandoned at least three. That the mystery of Lucy’s parentage remains unsolved, is part of a construction in which there are some things more important than romantic love. That would, mostly, be love of an ideology.
It is not just that a MacLeod novel is political, it is that it dances a romance with politics. Some of this is an exercise in nostalgia and mocking nostalgia. Matt Cairns and Jonathan Wilde both long for the scent of revolution in the air but both understand that this is fundamentally unhealthy. In the Stone Canal the scene in which Tamara is reminiscing about all the anarchist battles in history Wide responds
“Well, I hate to break this to you at such a late date and all, but there’s one vital thing all the great anarchist battles of history have in common…
‘They were all defeats.’ (215).
Which would seem like a dismissal of Tamara but is in reality an acknowledgement and dismissal of his own Achilles heel.
MacLeod characters, even when seemingly apolitical—Lucy Stone, Lucinda Carlyle, Hope Morrison—are embedded in a world of ideas that matter intensely to them. This is why Lucy, who has not inherited her mother’s direct interest in politics, ends up heading to a revolution in Krassnia to see if she can sort out myth from historic disinformation. It’s why Lucinda Carlyle pursues the policies of her family while positing it as “business” and therefore politically neutral and quite distinct in her mind from the Communist Korean space collectives of the monoculture farmers of America Offline. It is why Hope quite unexpectedly becomes a resister, discovering that her ability to live within the system was entirely predicated on her understanding that she would be thus be left alone. At the moment that compact is broken, she discovers that she is political after all.
For those who are self consciously political, the works of MacLeod are engaged in a Romance with Perfectionism. Perfectionism is a Puritan ideology which espouses a trajectory of growing into Grace. It is the antithesis of Calvinism in that it relies on faith through works, a slow, gradual conversion, and an underlying assumption that one can create a kingdom here on earth. The dispute at the heart of the Cosmonaut Keep novels is about what this means: the long lived Cosmonaut Volkov is still following the template set out by Marx and is trying to generate bourgeois capitalism in order to issue in statist socialism; Matt Cairns prefers low level anarchy and decentralisation while Lydia who like all her trading family skips across thousands of years has no time for anyone who thinks they can sacrifice the now for the future and with the wisdom of Maimonides argues: “I know that doing right by people who live now is the same as doing right by people who may live then, and I know that what you’ve tried to do is wrong.” (Dark Light, 260)
But the doctrine of perfection can lead to disillusion when the possibility of perfection is wiped out or becomes the enemy of the state. David Reid is harried by right wing pamphlets which gradually push his thinking in new directions; Myra Grant moves from American spook to honest broker for nuclear weapons to the leader of a barbarian horde which will change the world. In The Night Sessions, the novel which perhaps is most concerned with conversion we see the many ways in which faith persists and is wiped away: the doctrine of DCI Frank McAuley, “Severe on racism and sexism, strong on human rights and human relations” turns into horror and torture as in the name of revolution and destruction of the old faith based order and war, he orders torture with dispassion. Jonathan Richard Campbell, evangelical Christian who preaches to self-aware robots is shaken to the core both by the actions of his followers and the realisation that one of his ostensible converts, the robot Graham Orr, has taken the doctrine of perfectionism and turned it into a new faith, in which God has abandoned the people of the Covenant; “He has chosen a new people. A people not of the flesh. He has chosen the robots.” (316) a people without original sin. Among the conversions of MacLeod’s work only two are sudden, Jordan in The Star Fraction and John Richard Campbell in The Night Sessions. For both, there is a moment when the world flips, where it looks different and can never be restored. Both lose not only their faith but their faith in faith and both become highly manipulative. Zealotry in a MacLeod novel is not for the faithful but for the faith-lost.
If the early works of Ken MacLeod depict those who are in love with the ideological structures of their world, even as they resist or seek to change them, then the five most recent books seem focused more on the failure of ideology and the difficulties of living in what Frances Fukuyama once—misleadingly—called a post-historical world, but which it might be better to think of as a post-Perfectionist world. They are novels of lost love: post political, post romantic. Thus, in The Execution Channel (2007), we have a novel that is, in John Clute’s terms, a narrative of Thinning, a world in which those who actively support the state do so in part because they see no other choices left; have confused winning the skirmishes with winning the war; confused staking out goals with having war aims.
MacLeod confronts us with a hard uncomfortable historical alternate: that a different result in the 2000 Presidential election is not turn off to utopia we have missed, but a deviation in the path that is still resolutely on the same route to nowhere. In The Execution Channel, a Democratic President still takes America into war, but over eager to prove himself a reliable hawk, introduces torture harder and faster. The paradigmatic ideology of America as the only real nation persists, and the tendency for the UK to follow on its coat-tails is reinforced rather than undermined. It is a world in which conspiracy theories are layered upon conspiracy theories so that the most recent renders the previous more plausible.
In The Execution Channel there is an intense sense that both individuals and whole societies have lost their way, that the love and loyalty that people are expected to feel for their homeland is gone. Roisin, daughter of the protagonist Travis, notes ‘It’s like my father once said: “This fucking country is going down/”. I just don’t want to go with it.’ (UK: 188). Only peripheral characters in The Execution Channel—Evangeline the peace worker, Alec the soldier—do anything because they believe in it. In the snapshot MacLeod gives us of US mid-Western society through the mother of Mark Dark, conspiracy blogger, we see a nation still hooked on Perfectionism but without an image of what that Perfectionism might look like.
In each of the novels up to 2007 and the publication of The Execution Channel, there is a strong sense that whatever the short term outcome, the long term outcome is outward and upward. Space and space exploration may take the place of Heaven but there is a clear sense of a Republic of Heaven in the stars. As the political world has become less optimistic, MacLeod’s novels have reflected this in subject matter, but also in genre. If previous novels were romances, I want to conclude by suggesting that Intrusion can be read as a horror novel. As a story form horror, like romance, overwhelmingly relies on the status of the protagonist as innocent, untouched, and unaware of the dark forces /seducer that lurks. Like romance, horror assumes the “other” is fascinated by the protagonist, and as this turns out to be true in romance, so it always turns out to be true in horror.
Unusually, the protagonists of Intrusion are apolitical in the truest sense of the word. Hugh may muse on politics but Hope rarely does. They are people simply living their lives within the structures they have inherited, taking for granted the constraints because they have not tested them. They are “untouched”. But Hope, as she does acknowledge, is precisely constrained by the Perfectionism of a previous generation. Hope works from home because protective health and safety laws keep her out of the workplace; she monitors her alcohol levels because the government protects her fetus; as with many a romance heroine she is complicit in her own restraint because that is the easiest way to move within the world. It is only when she moves outside of her allotted space that she becomes aware that she may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in her.
The horror novel has a trajectory in which the threat comes ever closer, it moves from the distant (the stories we see on the news about a law case) to the ever more intimate (the pill placed on the table). When the government tries to seduce Hope with faux concern, it tries, as with any over-controlling “romantic” lover to isolate her from potential allies, and eventually tries flat out coercion and brutality, at which point Hope and Hugh flee. If this is a romance of people and ideology it is one that has gone badly wrong. Seeing the plot in this way helps to understand why Hope rejects the assistance of Maya, the activist. For all Maya sees herself as the radical, she is still tied to an engagement with the abuser (the government), convinced that she can intervene, change the relationship and win out. Hope, because she is an innocent, understands far better as a consequence of her exchanges with both midwife and MP, that to engage is collaborate with the process, to forge her own chains. That refusal to engage — to argue her corner per se—explains why Hope becomes a test case: the indifferent courted is far more threatening to the ideology of the state/the courtier than is the classic oppositional rejection. Think once more of the romance structure; without the frisson of outright rejection, the romance burns but tepidly. Intrusion, which is full of in jokes about romantic ideas of “protection” embodied in a woman’s frilly apron, is the true opposite of a romance, a horror novel.
Postscript. Writing this piece involved a complete reread, at much the same time as I have been engaged in a re-read of Robert Heinlein. Perhaps it is Heinlein’s determination to mine his own work and create a seamless futuristic history, because I know that what I am about to say is not true (if only because several MacLeod novels are alternate histories of other MacLeod novels) but on this reread every novel seemed to slot into a place along a time span of hundreds of thousands of years, and now, when I read The Stone Canal I imagine Matt Cairns somewhere in an office a few years after Jon Wilde’s death, not realising that he is about to miss out on the transformation of Earth. I mourn that Travis has the misfortune to be around as the Faith Wars break out between The Execution Channel, The Highwaymen and The Night Sessions; and that the secular republic of Scotland is a mere breathing space before the City burners arrive in the Myra Godwin sections of The Sky Road. I just know that Atomic Discourse Gail’s family will one day stumble across the planet of Mingulay. And this too is a Romance.