Ken MacLeod Seminar

by Henry Farrell on May 5, 2015

A public service announcement: we’ll be publishing a seminar on Ken MacLeod’s books next week, with contributions from me, Sumana Harihareswara, Farah Mendlesohn, Cosma Shalizi and Jo Walton, as well as Ken himself. It’s shaping up to be a lot of fun.



TheSophist 05.05.15 at 7:30 pm

Any suggestions as to what I should read beforehand? I know next to nothing about MacLeod or his works.


Luis 05.05.15 at 7:57 pm



christian_h 05.05.15 at 8:10 pm



Matt 05.05.15 at 8:24 pm

@TheSophist: The Cassini Division contains one of my favorite takes on posthuman intelligence in SF, if you’re into that sort of thing. For reference my other favorites in this vein of speculation are A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Accelerando by Charles Stross, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. You can read The Cassini Division alone though it is actually a sequel to The Fall Revolution and The Stone Canal. I read Cassini first and read the others of the series afterward.

MacLeod’s futures that touch Earth explore left-anarchist and right-anarchist societies in some detail. He is more sympathetic to left-anarchism but treats right-anarchism respectfully enough to win Prometheus Awards. The outright villains are the old nation states, usually the USA, that are trying to just control the world with brute military force. I mean, in The Cassini Division the right-anarchists nearly end humanity, but it’s an accident without malice. The left-anarchists of the Cassini Division fortunately prevent the destruction of humanity. Neither of the major societies is without its flaws; both appear an improvement over anything offered on Earth in 2015.

I feel bad saying this about an author whose works I have really enjoyed, especially one who will soon have a symposium here, but his wordsmithing isn’t great. He’s no Iain M. Banks or John Crowley. His beautiful concepts linger, and I remember his books fondly for them, but find myself tripping over the prose a bit when I re-read them every so often. But if you like speculative ideas, he is worth reading and re-reading.


Neville Morley 05.05.15 at 8:34 pm

Come for the SF, stay for the political-theoretical in jokes… Great stuff.


Niall McAuley 05.05.15 at 8:37 pm

Newton’s Wake is good, and entirely self contained. Learning the World is also self contained, but not as good, IMHO.


Daniel Nexon 05.05.15 at 9:08 pm

Awesome! Can’t wait.


LFC 05.05.15 at 9:56 pm

Come for the SF, stay for the political-theoretical in jokes

I hope there will actually be some of the latter, b.c basically I don’t give a sh*t about SF itself. I realize that’s probably a minority opinion among CT readers/commenters (but I also don’t give a sh*t about that fact).


LFC 05.05.15 at 10:00 pm

I realize now that Neville Morley prob. meant that those jokes are in MacLeod’s bks themselves. Whatever.


harry b 05.06.15 at 12:36 am

You’re kidding. We really have Jo Walton? Wow.


Mark Pontin 05.06.15 at 8:22 am

People –

I live in California so with all respect I strongly advise everybody that IMHO as Americans you’re at a disadvantage because Ken’s best work is not his older “new space opera” stuff that Americans are familiar with and that’s being referenced by other posters above. Rather, it’s the (self-contained) near-future stuff he’s been writing in the last decade, which often is not getting published in the U.S.

I particularly recommend INTRUSION (published in 2012), which can be had from AMAZON UK, since it’s received no US publication and it may be Ken’s best book. Check out the U.K. reviews.

THE NIGHT SESSIONS did receive U.S. publication in 2012 — the last MacLeod book that did — and was written just before INTRUSION, and is pretty good, too. I also have a soft spot for THE EXECUTION CHANNEL from 2007, a novel that features a timeline where Al Gore was U.S. president when 9-11 happened, but which may annoy some.


Francis Spufford 05.06.15 at 10:00 am

Woo-hoo! I think I want to disagree respectfully with Matt@5 about the wordsmithing, though. He’s not a beautiful writer, like Crowley, and his prose doesn’t have the attacking-baroque-whirlwind quality of the late lamented IMB, but to me it seems terse, drily witty and well-made, and I think it’s getting better and better. Yes, the ideas are often the predominant pleasure, but there are fine things achieved in the writing too, especially in the more recent books, like the hideously-euphemised New Labour torture scene in Intrusion, or the unreliably jealous narrator of Descent. And for my money The Execution Channel is the best near-future dystopia of recent times, a really un-cosy catastrophe.


x.trapnel 05.06.15 at 12:21 pm

I agree with those who’ve recommended that newcomers read The Execution Channel & Intrusion. Great stuff.


Phil 05.06.15 at 1:37 pm

Awesome! I still remember pulling “The Star Fraction” off the shelves in, hmm, probably Heffers in Cambridge all those years ago. Will be following the seminar with interest.


Richard M 05.06.15 at 9:47 pm

A short index of Ken MacLeod books by political ideology promoted:

The Star Fraction: Revolutionary Communism
The Stone Canal: Anarcho-Capitalism
The Cassini Division: State Communism
The Sky Road: Barbarism
Engines of Light Trilogy: Feudalism
Learning the World: Neoliberalism
Night Sessions: Secularism
Restoration Game: Gnosticism
The Execution Channel: Liberalism
Intrusion: Libertarianism

Some of those are a bit dubious; I went with the one that either was shown as working better than you might expect (the semi-utopias), or was the most obvious counter to the the dominant ideology of the dystopias.

Of course, YMMV as to which is which…


Montagu Norman 05.06.15 at 9:52 pm

Richard M. wins the internet today…


Phil 05.06.15 at 10:31 pm

I’ve only read two of Ken’s books, The Star Fraction and Descent. I was quite powerfully gripped by the former – not gripped as in page-turner, more as in conspiracy-theory or evangelical-tract; I had a weird, enthralling but oppressive sense that I was reading something both true and important. Or so I formulated it afterwards, although I couldn’t immediately explain how ‘true and important’ was oppressive & enthralling wrt dystopian space fiction but not when reading about, say, voting systems or Newtonian mechanics, both of which qualify on both counts. I guess fantasy is the tertium quid, and what aligns Ken’s Fourth International In Space with those other forms of mind-altering literature: not “this is both true and important”, but “this amazing story playing itself out in my mind is both true and important”.

Never had that with sf before, and never really got it since – apart from when I read M. John Harrison’s Light, although I won’t say any more about that here. Except that shortly after reading Light I read Ken’s most recent book, the aforementioned Descent, which is actually about someone who has a UFO encounter and then gets visited by a Man in Black (and after that, as they say, things get weird). On paper(!), my true/important/fantasy spidey sense should have been on high alert pretty much all the way through. In practice, not really. (It was fine. Quite Banks-y.) On his (sadly closed) sf review blog Adam Roberts reported a similar lack of the compelling and dangerous quality we associate with theorising around conspiracies and the paranormal, although he put it down to a thinness in the subject matter – conspiracy theory actually not being all that dangerous, despite subjective evidence to the contrary. I’m not sure about this, & for some time I was vaguely planning to write a three-way comparative review of TSF, Descent and Light, starting essentially from the paired questions “Why does this book scare me? What’s wrong with me?” and “Why doesn’t this book scare me? What’s wrong with it?”. But, y’know, life, other commitments.

So I’m looking forward to sum poasyum. I shall comment. I may not comment from a position of expertise, but I shall definitely comment.


otpup 05.06.15 at 10:36 pm

I really enjoyed Engines of Light but it was clearly Left Anarchist in tone (to an annoying extent to my softish-on-social-democracy sensibilities). The fact that there was a feudalistic (Babylonian descended) system could not in any reasonably interpreted as advocacy or a model. That said, I thought Engines of Light (I think I’ve seen it referred to as the “The Intelligent Universe” series) was truly fascinating, biologically inspired, hard sci-fi. And the dominant systems in EOL are definitely non-human, with the sympathies clearly toward the chaotic, fractally organized nano-engineers. (And completely agree with Ken’s politics or not, his depth of sophistication and sympathies, helped rekindle my interest in sci-fi).


N Lees 05.07.15 at 12:06 am

The seminar sounds great. I remember reading ‘BRUNEL UNIVERSITY AND SCIENCE PARK plc WARNING FREE SPEECH ZONE’ in The Star Fraction and being utterly gripped by the book, and indeed the rest of MacLeod’s books, from that point on. Working at the very same university last year inspired me to re-read Star Fraction and it was as good as I remembered, although some aspects are endearingly dated.

Of his recent novels, I’d argue that the Restoration Game was the best. It’s very, very insightful about the consequences of the defeat of ‘actually existing socialism’ and the fact that the restoration game never really ended – whilst optimistic enough about the possibility of a restoration of a different kind.


Plarry 05.07.15 at 10:21 pm

Looking forward to it. Off to the bookstore…..


bianca steele 05.08.15 at 12:29 am

I haven’t read all these, but Richard M @ 15 is pretty funny, though I’m not sure “advocating” is correct.

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