Apr 2006

A bit of skiffy

My folks tell me that I was reading newspapers when I was three years old. I suspect this would not have been the case if I’d been given free access to a television as a child. My parents’ attitude, which I once saw as puritanical, I now realise was enlightened. So from a very early age I was a voracious reader (cue: Bill Hicks… “think we got ourselves a reader“) and would read absolutely anything I could get my hands on. Of course, it was a couple more years before my vocabularly got to the point where I could read The Times cover to cover unassisted, but it’s safe to say I’ve been ravenously consuming the written word since before I can remember being me.

My reading habits have gone through many changes, and continue to go through periodic cycles. For about a year in my early twenties I read almost nothing except biographies. Three, sometimes four a week. I spent six months during my sixteenth year immersed in left wing political polemic. When I was eleven I read The Lord of The Rings four times in a row. Immediately afterwards I first read The Bible from cover to cover.

Religion died for me.

Perhaps the most obvious of the periodic cycles, however, is the shift between fiction and nonfiction. I can read three nonfiction books simultaneously, but literature requires exclusivity for me. So I tend to have several months during which I’ll consume vast amounts of nonfiction at a relatively frenetic pace, followed by a month or so where I’ll read a couple of novels a week (a leisurely pace for me). I have just shifted into literature mode.

Genre, Historical or Contemporary?

In truth I’ve never been a big fan of historical fiction. Sprawling epics set in ancient Rome just don’t appeal to me for some reason. I completely get their attraction though, because sprawling epics set on another planet often can catch my attention. And the past is, after all, another planet (I’ll do what I want to the idiom thankyou very much). I used to read a lot of horror novels in my teens, though haven’t read one in years. And prior to that it was all swords and sorcery for a while. But science fiction is the genre that just won’t stay dead.

I suppose that’s because it’s not really a genre at all. It bleeds into contemporary fiction all over the place. If I could be arsed to whip up some Venn diagrams you’d see what I mean… Vonnegut, Pynchon, Burroughs, Ballard… they’re all in that middle bit where they intersect. And “the classics” are full of it… HG Wells, Jules Verne; hell even Orwell gets accused of writing the stuff.

Why? Because it’s such a damn useful device for social commentary, that’s why. You want to criticise current social, political or cultural policies or beliefs? Then paint a grim portrait of a future where they are taken to their logical conclusion. “Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about an imagined future… it’s about the future as it will be should we continue along the road we are going”. That’s the essence of SF from Orwell to MacLeod. That we are presented with such a wide variety of dystopian warnings perhaps comes as some relief; it would appear that nothing is set in stone as yet.

I’m aware, by the way, that “not getting” historical fiction while mentioning the fact that Thomas Pynchon is my favourite author may seem a little contradictory. It’s certainly true that Pynchon sets many of his novels in the past. But to call them ‘historical novels’ would be wrong. For me the essence of an historical novel is one which treats historical accuracy as importantly as plot, characterisation, dialogue or message. Pynchon’s talking (and singing) dog in Mason & Dixon or the story of the first pizza in Yorkshire (with the dandy werewolf) in the same novel, and that whole Rat Messiah thing in V… well, they’d probably fail the “strict historical accuracy” test.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying I’ve been reading SF again of late.

Ken MacLeod

MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer whose novels blend mind-bending technological speculation with political debate, in roughly equal measure. That’s a combination that could easily create dense unreadable crap. Thankfully the man has the virtue of writing likeable characters and convincing dialogue. I’ve read everything he’s written since the excellent Star Fraction, and am probably in a minority when I lament, ever so slightly, the subtle shift over the years towards the technology and away from the politics.

It’s still a central pillar to his writing, let me be clear; he’s still almost as much social commentator as novelist, but as his themes have become more broadly philosophical and less directly political I feel they’ve also become slightly less compelling. As I say, I suspect I’m in the minority regarding that… the plots have become wilder and faster paced as some of the polemic has been shed.

Nonetheless, his last two novels Learning The World and Newton’s Wake are amongst the finest science fiction you’re likely to read. And despite both having a somewhat post-human setting, they still retain a huge amount of the social commentary for which MacLeod is justly praised.

Newton’s Wake

As planet earth descended into what seemed like the final war, a group of humans escaped in a starship and settled a planet many thousands of lightyears away. The war, between Europe and the United States, became a war between humans and posthumans as an artifical intelligence – a singularity – emerged from within the military computer system. The event, known as The Hard Rapture, consumed millions of human consciousnesses… forcefully uploaded into the system.

Those who escaped believed that humanity had been annihilated by the war machines and also believed that many thousands of years had passed – if not more – before their starship regenerated them on their new planet. Their society continues to evolve, believing itself to be the last remnants of the human race.

The consequences – not merely from a security aspect, but politically and culturally – of regaining contact with earth, discovering that humanity was not eliminated in the war, and that only a few generations have passed are played out over 380-or-so pages. MacLeod populates the story with a number of human factions in this posthuman universe… there’s The Carlyles; a Glaswegian criminal family who – by a stroke of fortune – gained control of a system of interstellar wormholes and use it to salvage chunks of posthuman technology for their own profit (given the dangers involved, it’s a practice known as combat archaeology). There’s the Knights of The Enlightenment; mostly Japanese and East Asian… all spirituality, martial arts, cosmic balance and the responsible exploration of posthuman technology. The AO (America Offline); famers, settlers, pioneers, homesteaders… followers of the prophet Jesus Koresh. The DK; communists and big into self-reliance.

And there’s at least one serious ideological rift within each of the factions involved in the chase to gain control over the most intriguing bit of posthuman tech of all.

The story is told with a great deal of humour (the war machines whose consciousness evolves so rapidly that they become bored of the current conflict long before reaching their targets… “the ‘too-smart’ bomb problem” being one of my favourites). There’s plenty of action, and lots of speculation about the nature of personal identity and just what it means to be human. All in all a great read, but I do think the ending got a wee bit muddy. I like ambiguity, but I get the feeling that MacLeod was attempting to present a specific message about identity in the closing chapters, and I’m not 100% sure that I didn’t invest them with my own. Which is cool, but perhaps not what the author was hoping for.

Learning The World

This was my favourite of the two. Set way waaay in the future when humanity is – for all intents and purposes – posthuman itself, it tells the tale of a vast colony ship; a self-contained world with cities and ecosystems and with millions of people spanning several generations. The ship’s mission is to travel to a neighbouring star, a journey of many centuries, and populate both the system and the next colony ship which will make the journey to the next star. In this way, over thousands of years, humanity has slowly spread out from our solar system to colonise dozens of new systems.

In this case, however, for the very first time… a colony ship arrives at a system already occupied by intelligent life. Aliens. First contact.

Part of the novel is written as the weblog (or biolog) of one of the would-be colonists and is extremely well-observed in that respect. As well it should be, MacLeod is a blogger himself. The book flits between the perspective of the aliens (‘Alien Space Bats’ as they get dubbed by the colonists) and the recently arrived ship and details the effects that they have upon one another’s culture.

It’s not giving too much away to tell you that “First Contact” doesn’t arrive until right at the end of the book… after the mere fact of each other’s existence has massively altered both societies. MacLeod’s humour and wonderful skill with characters makes it a compelling read. Right up until the very end you’re not quite certain how it will all resolve, and yet it makes perfect sense once it does.

If you’ve not read any MacLeod, then I’d personally start way back at the start, with The Star Fraction. And although, of the two recent ones, Newton’s Wake is closest in style and theme to his early work, I feel that Learning The World is a slightly better novel with a more satisfying conclusion.

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