Thanks, everyone, for all this. It’s gratifying and somewhat bemusing to have my work given so much thought, and such warm appreciation, from contributors like these, and on a site like this. I’m particularly grateful to those who’ve given my books the great and welcome benefit of their critical attention and/or enthusiasm over many years.
I’ve decided to respond to each in turn, in an order that follows the order of the books referred to: Farrell and Shalizi focus mostly on the Fall Revolution books, Walton takes in the Engines of Light trilogy, Harihareswara deals with The Restoration Game and The Human Front, and Mendlesohn covers everything up to Intrusion. There will be references back and forward—some points raised by Farrell and Shalizi, for example, are better answered in relation to later stories. And in my own life, some events that shaped my early books are only explored (and then obliquely, with much misdirection) in later ones.
Like most writers of fiction, including science fiction, what strengths I have are in imaginative rather than analytic thinking. So my explorations of influences below shouldn’t be taken as any pretence that I’ve fully understood them.
Dreams of Reason – response to Farrell
The themes around rationalism in the Fall Revolution books come most directly from sources that are themselves derived from earlier and more fundamental thinking about rational choice, economics, and game theory. So they’re secondary thoughts about (mostly) secondary works, and therefore part of the long-established SF practice of grabbing some bright piece of pop sci and running with it. These sources are for the most part name-checked or heavily signalled in the texts.
Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker haunt the pages of The Star Fraction. As I’ve sometimes said for a cheap laugh, I thought at the time that the ideas of Richard Dawkins weren’t getting enough publicity. Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation and David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom get a look-in, and in the latter case a shout-out, in The Stone Canal. My notion of fractional reserve banking, about which I would rather not sit an exam, probably came from Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. From Friedman and Rothbard (and Nozick) I appropriated the institutions of anarcho-capitalism in Norlonto and Ship City. (I mixed them with my own labour, honest, with enough and as good left over.)
All of these texts I’d read in the context, as Farrell points out, of the early 1990s collapse of the Soviet bloc and the resurgence of free-market theory and policy—and, of course, the forebodings of that denouement in earlier decades. I’d been worrying away at the economic calculation argument since I first stumbled across it in the 1970s—in that respect David Reid’s experience was mine, though entirely accidental and self-inflicted. In the 1980s I read socialist versions of the calculation argument in Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism and Geoff Hodgson’s The Democratic Economy, and they helped to make sense of living through the Fall of the East.
As is also alluded to in The Star Fraction, Leon Trotsky himself was well aware of the Brutzkus/Mises/Hayek argument, and his criticisms of Soviet planning in the early 1930s follow it part of the way at least. (‘If there existed the universal mind, that projected itself into the scientific fancy of Laplace …’) This may have had consequences under the radar. There never really was a Black Plan, as far as I know, but there were Black Planners. Some old comrades of mine from the International Marxist Group knew all about computers and their possible role in economic planning. They’d already taken on board the market-socialist critique, and they beavered away to influence socialist administrations of various kinds. They started with Livingstone’s London and have long since worked their way up to China. If they ever make it to the ships, it’s game over.
A half-formed hint I threw out in The Star Fraction was that there might be a deep connection between the Hayek-Mises case for the ‘impossibility of socialism’ and Jonathan Searle’s Chinese Room argument for the impossibility of AI. That thought was probably sparked by the depiction of Gosplan in Adam Curtis’s Pandora’s Box BBC series: a room into which pieces of paper arrived, were processed algorithmically, and the results sent out on other pieces of paper, without any necessary connection with the real world or understanding by the human beings in the room of what was being done. Whether there’s anything to that is well above my pay grade, so I hand the question over to the many here for whom it’s probably well below.
I have no eccentric views on global warming, nor on electronic cigarettes.
The robot revolt in morals – response to Shalizi
Cosma Shalizi has outlined the True Knowledge, and traced its possible roots, and its complications and implications, far better than I ever could. Something like it is, as he shows, explicit or implicit in many more rigorous and respectable real-world bodies of thought. Unfortunately I have to admit that my own route to imagining it owed little to any of them.
I got a sharp reminder of this a few days after I first read the contributions here, when I happened to notice that the political philosopher whose portrait is on the classroom wall in Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is Spinoza. The Amsterdam rationalist wasn’t a direct inspiration of the True Knowledge—though as Shalizi says, he easily could have been. But Heinlein’s novel was—specifically a sentence that (like so many of Heinlein’s) sticks annoyingly in the mind.
Here’s Major Reid, teaching History and Moral Philosophy:
‘To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives … Force, if you will!—the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax.’
And here’s how that line came to inform the True Knowledge.
In 1997 I’d written my first two novels and left my characters and (I hoped) readers hanging in an unexpected slingshot communist utopia and wondering where it all went from there. I was wondering about that too, with a certain urgency. I’d shoved a shedload of individualist anarchism (Benjamin Tucker et al) into the character of Jon Wilde, and I was still exploring that region when I came across the next twist.
Svein Olav Nyberg, a mathematician and (at the time) an eloquent proponent of Max Stirner’s egoism, was like me working at Edinburgh University and got in touch because he’d enjoyed my books to date. We had many stimulating conversations. Through Svein Olav’s online journal non serviam, I came across the writings of the English autodidact egoist Sid Parker, and thence Dora Marsden. This once influential, now often overlooked feminist, modernist, journalist and editor essentially invented the True Knowledge over a century ago.
All growing life-forms are aggressive: aggressive is what growing means. Each fights for its own place, and to enlarge it, and enlarging it is a growth. And because life-forms are gregarious there are myriads of claims to lay exclusive hold on any place. The claimants are myriad: bird, beast, plant, insect, vermin – each will assert its sole claim to any place as long as it is permitted: as witness the pugnacity of gnat, weed,
and flea, the scant ceremony of the housewife’s broom, the axe which makes a clearing, the scythe, the fisherman’s net, the slaughter-house bludgeon: all assertions of aggressive interest promptly countered by more powerful interests! The world falls to him who can take it, if instinctive action can tell us anything. – The Illusion of Anarchism, The Egoist, No 18, Vol 1, September 15 1914
Elsewhere, I think, she got the bit about how a baby’s smile is a weapon in its struggle for existence, and had a good intuition of how that comes to be. When Benjamin Tucker accused her of ‘archism’ (as opposed, in every sense, to anarchism) she proudly adopted the label. Sid Parker brought Marsden’s iconoclastic thinking to the attention of new readers, and up to date.
As I later wrote, in non serviam #18:
All forms of anarchism, even individualist anarchism, have a moral basis in the rejection of domination. How inconsistent to proclaim ‘the war of all against all’ and to disdain the use of that war machine, the state, when it acts in your interests!
The political applications of this insight are far wider than may be apparent to those whose heads are, as Parker has aptly put it, ‘stuck in the anarchist tar-bucket’. And they are not necessarily conservative, or ‘right-wing’, in their implications. Over the past couple of decades, and partly as a result of libertarian argument, millions upon millions of people have allowed their interests to be sacrificed to ‘the free market’. Like a starving man who believes it is immoral to steal (which it is, but the egoist will always ask ‘So?’) they have put property rights ahead of their property.
The spooks of idealistic socialism have been thoroughly exorcised. But a realistic socialism rests not on morals but on might – and the sovereign franchise, as one of Heinlein’s characters puts it, is might. No egoist should have the slightest qualm about using it, and encouraging others to use it, if it is in his interest to do so. The spooks of libertarianism still haunt the world, and Parker has exposed them as rags on a stick.
I still remember pacing along the quay at South Queensferry, and that particular piece clicking into place. The True Knowledge was born right there, and although its subsequent imaginative application was in a novel about a communist utopia, its immediate context and real-world relevance was to allow me to justify in the most tough-minded manner I could ‘a realistic socialism’, the ‘very moderate social democracy’—and, by extension, movement in the direction of something like Nove’s ‘feasible socialism’—that I in practice support for want of anything more exciting that looks remotely, well, feasible.
So if, as Shalizi suggests, Bowles and Gintis have derived social democracy from premises as bleak as Ellen May Ngwethu’s, the True Knowledge was from the start on more or less the same page as they are, even if Ellen May is not. The complicities of social democracy in the power of ‘their own’ capitalist states can also be explained by the same theory, as Shalzi’s discussion makes clear. Solidarity at a national level can become scabbing (or worse) at an international one.
It’s of course true, as Shalizi indicates, that the insight can also be applied in a narrowly ‘selfish’ way by individuals making their own separate peace with a stronger power. Roisin, in The Execution Channel, does this when it dawns on her that she’s living in an imperial world, and she’s an imperial girl. Likewise Geena in Intrusion, for whom her cynical supervisor’s exposition of academic Critical Theory as the necessary self-consciousness (and equally necessary self-mystification) of a capitalism deliberately sustained for fear of the alternative comes as a personally liberating relief.
Spiral staircases – response to Walton
Jo Walton’s characteristically warm and enthusiastic piece is difficult to respond to with anything but equally warm thanks, which I know isn’t enough. (But thanks, Jo! For this and much else.) Perhaps the most I can do here is give an anecdotal account of how I came up with the structures she anatomises.
Walton, I suspect, guesses right when she identifies Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as the ‘vector of influence’ for the helical structure. But there were two moments of inspiration beyond it, which came long after that classic had impressed me (and its structure impressed itself on my mind).
The first was sheer coincidence. After Iain Banks had revised two of his space operas (their first drafts had been hopefully submitted and serially rejected) and got them published to great acclaim, I tried to persuade him to try the same with another. Use of Weapons —the first Culture novel he wrote—might not be such a hopeless case as he thought. He challenged me to find something salvageable in it. I went through it striking out purple prose, but its main problem couldn’t be blue-pencilled. Thanks to its elaborately contrived structure, the climax to both main strands of the story—and the big expectation-reversing, jump-from-your-chair reveal—happened in the middle of the book.
Around about the same time I happened to read one of E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest novels, the opening line of which was ‘He woke counting seconds’. The star-travelling hero had counted down until the suspended animation kicked in, so finding himself counting forwards told him he’d survived the experience. When Iain came round to see how I was getting on, I suggested out of the blue: Why don’t you tell the ongoing events in chronological order, and the flashbacks in reverse order? And that way …
That was a moment.
Another was when I was planning my second novel. I’d written The Star Fraction with no expectation of writing a sequel. I had no idea what to write next, but the world of the Fall Revolution cried out for further exploration. I suddenly noticed that Jonathan Wilde, who in my first novel appears as a minor character in his nineties, would have been born at roughly the same date as me. So if he was real he’d be alive now, and he could have had the same sort of past as I had. He might even have gone to Glasgow University in the 1970s … and I still had my notes and diaries from that time.
I repeated the trick of taking a minor character from one book and making them central in another with Myra in The Sky Road, as well as the helical structure: in this case, a column-dodging shift to avoid the painful slog of recounting her progress across the continent at the head of the Sheenisov horde, which would have taken a lot of research, and in my hands wouldn’t have made much of a tale anyway.
By the time I wrote my next book, Cosmonaut Keep, the structure had become perhaps too easy a habit, and I haven’t used it since. But it’s a weapon I’ll keep in reserve. And there’s another departure in the Engines of Light books, which I’ll also keep in reserve, for the next section.
Restoration games – response to Harihareswara
The Restoration Game owes a lot more to my real life; and real events than to video games, about which I know next to nothing. It’s an immense relief that Harihareswara, who really does know about video games and tech start-ups from real life, doesn’t just fall about laughing at my notions of what, say, working in a games start-up is like. It’s sobering (and, in terms of understanding how readers have responded to some of my books, useful) to be reminded how far certain events and personalities have moved from common knowledge to obscurity.
I must admit I hadn’t thought of ‘restoration’ as a theme in The Human Front, but now that she’s pointed it out, it seems pervasive. The Human Front is a jeu d’espirit, and may be too slight for the weight of its background story, which is horrific. The novella itself has several origins, or branching timelines in its history, in ‘Aha!’ moments like those I’ve just talked about with Walton. The first, of course, was the idea of an alternate history where the Jonbar point was an entirely mythical event. The second was when I realised, as I gloomily contemplated researching an alternate 1950s and 1960s, that I actually remember almost half the 1950s and all the 1960s (yeah, I wasn’t there) so I could draw on my own memories rather than other people’s memoirs. A third was when I’d written half of it and didn’t know where to go with it, and Iain said: ‘It’s science fiction – you can go anywhere!’ So I did.
Finding you’re a pawn in someone else’s game can be quite a revelation—a reveal, even. And the most shocking reveals are reversals. Spy stories, real-life and fictional, often turn on that sudden re-evaluation of the character’s back-story. (Philby! Of all people!) You think you’re a player, and you find you’re being played.
I had this unsettling experience in October 1999, watching an episode of the BBC series The Spying Game. It dealt with how first the CIA, then the National Endowment for Democracy, had funnelled support to dissidents in Eastern Europe.
‘One route for the NED’s money was Jan Kavan,’ (an exiled Czech dissident from the 1968 generation). ‘He had a special van, built with a secret compartment, in order to smuggle thousands of books and printing machines into Czechoslovakia. […] Kavan was also given thousands of books by the International Literary Centre in New York, which is now known to have been funded directly by the CIA.’
Reader, I was in that van.
How I came to be in it I’ve told elsewhere, but in this context suffice it to say that in all my novels since that moment in 1999 when I learned the laugh was on me, Trotskyists appear in a rather less forgiving light than they do in the Fall Revolution books. A minor character in The Restoration Game makes a disturbing historical speculation that I can by no means endorse, but which makes sense of a lot of things—in the novel’s convoluted back-story and in the real world, from my inconsequent clandestine expedition to the greatest reversal/reveal of our time: the rise of China as a market economy with a Communist government. Perhaps some Soviet oppositionists were playing a longer, deeper and darker game than even Stalin suspected, or any ‘Mexican ice-pick’ could stop; a game that their successors have continued. Behind any screen may be a Black Plan.
In real life, it’s never Game Over till it’s over.
Domestic extremisms – response to Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn has been a perceptive critic of my work for a long time, and a friend for almost as long. She’s one of the few people to whom I could say (as I once did) ‘All the churches in Britain started as parties in the Revolution!’ and be at once understood (and have the hyperbole forgiven). Her identification of the romantic strain—in relation to people and place, urban and rural, natural and industrial—in the novels is acute.
So too is her identification of The Execution Channel as ‘in John Clute’s terms, a narrative of Thinning’. The text aches with the loss of a land. Travis mourns the gradual, almost imperceptible loss of the Britain, and England, in which he grew up, a slow darkening in which ‘the deaths of certain public men, from suicides or heart attacks’ each mark another slat nailed across the window. (That exact image came to my mind that evening at the Glasgow Worldcon in 2005 when I heard from Charlie Stross that Robin Cook had died.) The lost revolution that Roisin grieves is that of England in the seventeenth century and America in the eighteenth. ‘That America had been for nothing: that dismayed her.’
That image too originated in a dark thought of my own, from June 2004:
When the President claims for himself powers outlawed in every country issuing from the English Revolution, and last exercised when James the II & VII personally supervised the splitting of Presbyterian shins, I guess we have to admit that in the long run the English Revolution failed.
Oh well. Freedom can always choose another people.
I fortified myself against despair a day or two later by revisiting a local copy of an early social contract of that revolution, the Scottish National Covenant:
It’s on vellum. You can still see the shape of the lamb. It’s hard to read: the orthography, if not the language, has changed since 1638. It’s harder yet to grasp its significance: the rant against the Roman Antichrist, the intolerance to all outside God’s true church, the professed loyalty to the King’s Majesty are now alien. But some phrases still leap out: ‘a free monarchy’, ‘the fundamental laws, ancient privileges, offices and liberties of this kingdom’, ‘the people’s security of their lands, livings, rights, offices, liberties, and dignities preserved’. The cramped signatures at the foot, of the lord, the councillors, the burgesses and the ministers of Queensferry.
Given the explicit references back to Scottish Calvinism (however transmuted politically and indeed theologically) in four of my five most recent books, I find it hard to agree with Mendlesohn’s contention that:
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.
In my own presbyterian upbringing I never heard of Perfectionism, other than passing references to it as a quaint aberration of the Methodists. It certainly has never crossed my mind as a pole in any dialectic in the novels. The romance, when revolution has lost its lustre or its likelihood, is with improvement, with reform, with meliorism. Sandra Hope, like all the other stubborn church ladies (among which I’d include Evangeline, the old Communist) who toil in the backstage of these novels as they so often do in real life, is following (in my mind at least) the injunction to ‘be not weary in well doing’, weary though they often are. The doctrine that self and the world can be improved by good works, and a kingdom built on earth, is entirely mainstream Calvinism.
Nor am I entirely in agreement with Mendlesohn’s reading of my more recent books as more pessimistic than my earlier work, and as foreclosing the long-term prospect of ‘upward and outward’. The republic of heaven is there in The Night Sessions, for the robots at least, and perhaps for us. In The Restoration Game, it’s already been long since reached in the real world (if that world is itself real) and is possible in ours. And it’s all over Descent.
Mendlesohn sheds a very interesting light on Intrusion by arguing for a reading of it as horror rather than romance. (A sudden thought: could one strand be read as a gothic? There’s a husband with a dark secret, an inherited curse, and a family home with a hidden vault. Would Hope’s own version begin: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Miavaig again.’?) My only caveat would be that in authorial intention it followed a more direct genre imperative, that of dystopia. Adult (as opposed to YA) dystopia, I’ve always thought, has to follow the formula: ‘An oppressive system takes on a brave individual—and wins!’
But even in that dystopian text the republic of heaven remains within reach. Space is still being explored. New exoplanets are swimming into focus. The sinister Dr Estraguel tells Geena just how close the world has come to a vast improvement, the moment a majority becomes convinced of its possibility—and therefore, on his cynical take, the urgent necessity of preventing the population from realising the possibility.
Mendlesohn is more right in her postscript than she allows herself to be. The novels aren’t parts of a future history, but they share a secret history of the future, inspired by historical materialism. Dr Estraguel’s diagnosis was put forward much earlier by another cynic, Dave Reid in The Stone Canal:
‘We’re the camp of the revolution […] Because your Yank dingbat libertarian pals are right—the Western democracies are socialist! Big public sectors, big companies that plan production while officially everything’s on the market … sort of black planning, like the East had a black market. Marx said universal suffrage was the rule of the working class, and he was right. The West is Red!’
The Black Plan is imaginary, but black planning—non-market allocation within capitalism—is not. If it were ever to be combined with democracy and liberty, we would have socialism or something like it. The more or less rapid transformation of the entire immense superstructure may be rather less rapid than than some of us have hoped or expected, but as one Hegelian Marxist wryly put it; ‘The Absolute is not in a hurry.’
Nor am I, but I still think we’ll make it to the ships.