From the category archives:

Ken MacLeod Seminar

Ken MacLeod seminar

by Henry Farrell on May 19, 2015

The posts in the Ken MacLeod seminar, in order of publication:

Farah Mendlesohn, And This, Too is a Romance.

Cosma Shalizi, “The Free Development of Each is the Condition of the War of All Against All”: Some Paths to the True Knowledge.

Sumana Harihareswara, Games, Simulation, Difference and Insignificance in The Restoration Game & The Human Front.

Jo Walton, Helical Construction in the Work of Ken MacLeod.

Henry Farrell, Rationalism and the True Knowledge.

Ken MacLeod, Response.


by Ken MacLeod on May 19, 2015

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. [click to continue…]

Rationalism and the True Knowledge

by Henry Farrell on May 15, 2015

The introduction to the American edition of *The Star Fraction* contains Ken MacLeod’s second-most famous dictum – “History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine.” The Fall Revolution books are all about history and people trying to make it (or perhaps more accurately, histories, and people trying to make them). They’re also books that reflect a very specific historical period – when the Berlin Wall had fallen or was about to fall but the Washington Consensus had yet to gel – a moment where the cold logic of nuclear deterrence still held, sort of, while the political transformation of Eastern Europe and the new market anarchism of Sachs, drugs and rock and roll was starting to get going. Maybe the closest thing to the manic intensity of the first three books (and chunks of the fourth) is the Zone of Thomas Pynchon’s *Gravity’s Rainbow* – black markets, hustlers, ideas, freewheeling politics, and the frozen arc of the Rocket still hanging above it all. They’re also (and much more so than Pynchon, whose zaniness is often forced) very *funny* books – they don’t play anything for obvious laughs, but are riddled through with intellectual black comedy.

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There’s a technique that MacLeod uses in several novels which I call helical construction. In helical construction, the story is told in two interwoven strands, each strand entirely separate from the other, both progressing forward in time and joining at the end. Chapters alternate between the two strands. If you consider the events of the book chronologically, the events of the past strand all take place before any of the events of the future strand, but the reader encounters the two strands in tandem. This casts shadows in both directions in terms of plot, foreshadowing, reader knowledge and expectations, and subverts a lot of the traditional ways stories are told.
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I had, frankly, been afraid of trying to read Ken MacLeod, because I wasn’t sure I had the prerequisite domain knowledge. I studied Russian and majored in Political Science at UC Berkeley,[^fn0] and wasn’t sure that this had given me enough expertise on the history of Communism to jump into his work. Now that I’ve overcome this fear, I should check whether there’s a market for a MOOC, “Remedial Ken MacLeod Prerequisites,” in which I discuss leftism in the twentieth century, MacLeod’s crony and [former Big Pharma dispenser][1] Charles Stross, and the landscape of rural Scotland, or, “Reds, meds, and sheds.”

Then again, perhaps that’s unnecessary; even if you think a Mexican icepick is a margarita with extra salt, you can still enjoy *The Restoration Game* (novel, 2010) and, to a lesser extent, *The Human Front* (novella, 2001). Spoilers commence here!
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> [_Attention conservation notice_]( A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don’t actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses. Also, spoilers for several of MacLeod’s novels, notably but not just [_The Cassini Division_](

I’ll let Ellen May Ngewthu, late of the Cassini Division, open things up:
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