Ken MacLeod’s DESCENT is an alien abduction story for the twenty-first century set in Scotland’s near-future, a novel about what happens when conspiracy theorists take on Big Brother. It comes out in paperback this week, and we asked Ken what is is about Scotland that brings him, and other writers, back to it as a science fiction setting again and again.
Two months ago, Scotland was in what Charles Stross called ‘The Scottish Political Singularity’. The referendum made the entire political future so uncertain that even planning a near-future novel set in the UK had become impossible – not least because you couldn’t be sure there would still be a UK to set it in.
My novel Descent, just out in paperback, was written before the result looked close, but I was careful to leave the outcome of the then future referendum open to interpretation. In earlier novels such as The Night Sessions and Intrusion, I’ve also left it up to the reader to decide if the future Scotlands described are independent or not.
Preparing for a recent discussion on ‘Imagining Future Scotlands’ I realised that the majority of my novels are at least partly set in Scotland, or have protagonists whose sometimes far-flung adventures begin in Scotland. And it made me wonder why there haven’t been more. With its sharply varied landscape, turbulent history, and the complex, cross-cutting divisions of national and personal character which Scottish literature has so often explored, Scotland may inspire writers of SF, but as a location it features more often in fantasy.
The result is that there have been many Scottish writers of SF – including Orbit’s very own Michael Cobley, Charles Stross, and the late and much missed Iain M. Banks – but not many SF novels have been set in Scotland. Of those that are, quite a few are written from outside the genre, such as Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. Flying even more cleverly under the genre radar, Christopher Brookmyre has been writing what amounts to an alternate or secret history of contemporary Scotland – some of them, such as Pandaemonium, with SF or fantasy elements – for two decades. And within the genre, there are some well-regarded novels I haven’t read, notably Chris Boyce’s Brainfix. I can’t help feeling I’ve missed stacks of obvious books. If so, I look forward to being corrected in the comments.
Let’s start with straight, unarguable genre SF.
Halting State by Charles Stross is a police procedural set in a near-future independent Scottish republic. Unlike many fictional detectives, the heroine is married, and her wife understands her. The multi-viewpoint second-person narration, though disorienting at first, soon becomes transparent – you could say you get used to it – and apt for a novel set partly in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. From the opening shots of a bank robbery in virtual reality, the story has you under arrest and briskly frogmarched along.
Time-Slip by Graham Dunstan Martin is a much grimmer vision of a future Scotland. Decades after a nuclear war, the Scottish Kirk has resumed its dour dominance of society. Our sympathy for the hero, a young heretic who founds a new religious movement on his rediscovery of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, fades as the implications sink in. It’s a thought-through and engaging novel, sadly out of print, but easily available secondhand.
Not quite SF, but set in a (then) future with a deft touch or two of technological extrapolation, the political thriller Scotch on the Rocks is an old-school Tory take on an armed insurrection for Scottish independence. Sex and violence are never far away. Glasgow gangs and Moscow gold play a bit part behind the scenes. Given that it was written by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond, this isn’t surprising. What is surprising is the sharpness of its insight into the issues that drive the independence movement, from cultural alienation through economic decline to nukes on the Clyde. The speeches, give or take the odd detail, could have been delivered this September.
Moving to fantasy, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is often rightly cited as a landmark in Scottish literature. It was an avowed influence on Iain Banks’s The Bridge, the closest Iain ever came to writing SF set in Scotland. But my own favourite of Gray’s novels is Poor Things, a Scottish revisioning of Frankenstein that confronts the poor creature with the harsh self-confidence of the Victorian age and that age with her outraged innocence.
Michael Scott Rohan’s science-fantasy novel Chase the Morning starts in Scotland – or at least in a port very like Leith – and casts off for worlds unknown on an endless ocean, full of adventure and romance. Its striking image of the Spiral, in which ships magically sail upward beyond the horizon to farther seas in the sky, was inspired by the vista down the Firth of Forth. On some evenings looking down the Firth you can’t tell where the sea ends and the sky begins, or what’s a cloud and what’s an island. Like all good science fiction and fantasy, this novel and its sequels make us see the real world in a different light.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget Scotland’s abiding presence in the wider field: Victor Frankenstein built the mate for his creature on a remote Orkney island; the Mars mission that opens Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land had as its prime contractor the University of Edinburgh; and Star Trek‘s engineer Scotty was born in Linlithgow . . . a few miles from Scotland’s notorious UFO hotspot, Bonnybridge.
The semi-final round of voting for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards is now open until 15 November, and we have ever more titles in this round than in the opening round! Get your votes in for your favourite fantasy, science fiction and horror books of 2014.
Charlie Stross is a genius. If you ever get the chance to talk to him, you’ll find the ideas flying so thick and fast that you have to shift your brain into a higher gear just to keep up. You’ll also come away from the conversation with several new ideas about how you’re going to change the world and an armful of science fiction reading recommendations (for other writers’ work, not his own, because he’s just that kind of guy).
You know those moving walkways you get in airports? Where you’re walking down them, but the ground is also moving underneath your feet so that when you jump off at the end just walking at normal speed is like hitting a wall, smack, bang, and everything is moving at normal speed again, too slow?
Talking to Charlie, or reading his books, is like running down that walkway.
Now his books might not be for everyone – I understand some people (not us) prefer life in the slow lane, that some readers just can’t handle this much raw plot, character and awesome things happening, that they want something a bit more sedate. I imagine these are also the kind of people who prefer to cook without spices, who like bland TV and even blander books, because anything else might be a bit too much excitement.
But that’s why I’m so pleased by Charlie’s continued success at the Hugo awards. You love Charlie’s work, you’ve supported him at these awards again and again. This is an author who has broken records for the number of consecutive times one can be shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel. His sixth shortlisting broke the record. NEPTUNE’S BROOD, in the 2014 awards, is his seventh.
NEPTUNE’S BROOD has mermaids, communist squid, roving gangs of accountant-privateers, zombies, spacefaring clergymembers, superhuman assassins, murder, backstabbing, family feuds and an incredibly intricate and utterly unprecedented financial con that could only occur in a universe with no faster-than-light travel.
If you’d told me before I edited NEPTUNE’S BROOD that something including all those elements would become one of my favourite novels, I might have laughed. How could one book fit so much in it? Now, I would tell you that ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that every interstellar colony in search of good fortune must be in need of a banker.’
On top of the squid and the mermaids and the banking, NEPTUNE’S BROOD is also a genuinely moving story about a woman searching for her lost sister. The fact that that sister is actually a copy of her grown in a vat, and both characters are metahumans – the race artificially grown to replace humans when we proved too fragile for the trials of space travel – is by the by.
NEPTUNE’S BROOD is, according to io9, ‘the perfect book for our times’.
SFX call it ‘a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi mind-expander from one of the genre’s most reliable imaginations’, and SF legend Alastair Reynolds says ‘NEPTUNE’S BROOD is fast-paced and imaginative, with fascinating ideas about the economics of an interstellar society constrained by real physics. Above all else, though, it’s just terrific fun’.
But don’t listen to them. Read it yourself, and find out how a space opera with no faster-than-light travel can be the fastest, wildest ride of your life.
Today we publish THE RHESUS CHART by Charles Stross in stunning hardback. This adventure sees IT guru and secret agent Bob Howard go up against some bloodsuckers from the London financial district. When a small team of investment bankers at one of Canary Wharf’s most distinguished financial institutions discovers an arcane algorithm that leaves them fearing daylight and craving O positive, someone doesn’t want the Laundry to know. We all know big cities can suck the life out of you, and our technologically-able hero is about to find out the truth behind this lasting adage.
If you’ve not discovered the Laundry (the top secret agency who deal with the supernatural) yet this is the perfect place for new readers to start.
To celebrate Charles Stross is running a competition to win some amazing Laundry swag, including a signed first edition hardback of THE RHESUS CHART. All you have to do to enter is head over to his blog and comment with the wackiest, funniest or most unfair reasons you think that employees might be pulled up for disciplinary action at the Laundry, the British Secret Service Division for dealing with the Supernatural. Entries will be judged by Charlie who’ll arbitrarily pick the cleverest reasons, or just the ones that make him laugh the loudest and the longest. There are some examples here, to get you started:
We’re very pleased to report that we have three shortlisted nominees on the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel! Our congratulations go to ABADDON’S GATE by James S.A. Corey, SHAMAN by Kim Stanley Robinson, and NEPTUNE’S BROOD by Charles Stross (also nominated for a Hugo Award this year). The awards are voted on by readers of Locus magazine, and the full shortlist is:
MADDADDAM, Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart; Bloomsbury; Talese)
ABADDON’S GATE (US | UK | ANZ), James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS, Karen Lord (Del Rey; Jo Fletcher)
SHAMAN (US | UK | ANZ), Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
NEPTUNE’S BROOD, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK) (UK | ANZ)
Congratulations also to Ann Leckie, whose debut ANCILLARY JUSTICE (nominated for many awards this year including the Hugo and Nebula, and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award, the BSFA and a Kitschie) was nominated in the Best First Novel category. The shortlist is as follows;
ANCILLARY JUSTICE (US | UK |ANZ), Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, Helene Wecker (Harper)
THE GOLDEN CITY, J. Kathleen Cheney (Roc)
A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC, Emily Croy Barker (Dorman)
And finally, we ourselves are shortlisted in the Best Publisher category! Best of luck to the other nominees.
Bob Howard is an intelligence agent working his way through the ranks of the top secret government agency known as ‘the Laundry’. When occult powers threaten the realm, they’ll be there to clean up the mess – and deal with the witnesses.
There’s one kind of threat that the Laundry has never come across in its many decades, and that’s vampires. Mention them to a seasoned agent and you’ll be laughed out of the room.
But when a small team of investment bankers at one of Canary Wharf’s most distinguished financial institutions discovers an arcane algorithm that leaves them fearing daylight and craving O positive, someone doesn’t want the Laundry to know. And Bob gets caught right in the middle.
The newest Laundry Files novel, and a jumping-on point for readers new to the series, THE RHESUS CHART will be released in hardback and digital July 2014. Cover design by Crush Creative.
Don’t forget you can now buy all four of the previous Laundry Files novels in these gorgeous paperback editions.
Happy publication day to Benedict Jacka! The latest Alex Verus novel, CHOSEN (UK|ANZ), is released today, after much anticipation from the fans!
Alex Verus, the Camden-based mage who just can’t stay out of trouble despite his ability to see the future, returns in CHOSEN, when someone comes looking for revenge for deeds Alex commited in his past, as an apprentice to the Dark mage Richard Drakh . . .
See Benedict talk about CHOSEN’s moral abiguity here in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea: ‘In FATED, CURSED and TAKEN, Alex had gotten into quite a few fights, but not because he wanted to – it had usually been a case of self-defence. But what would he do if someone was coming after him for a justified reason? What if they wanted him dead for something that really was his fault?’
Alex Verus has a considerable number of readers rooting for him, including Harry Dresden author Jim Butcher and Laundry Files author Charles Stross, so let’s hope he survives the experience!
Harry Dresden would like Alex Verus tremendously – and be a little nervous around him. I just added Benedict Jacka to my must-read list.”
– Jim Butcher
Whoop-ass excitement from the new master of magical London”
Fancy some spy-fi on your morning commute? The first two adventures in Charles Stross’s Locus Award-winning supernatural thriller series the Laundry Files came out today as audiobooks: THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES (UK|ANZ) and THE JENNIFER MORGUE (UK|ANZ). You can click on the images below to sample the first chapters now!
NEVER VOLUNTEER FOR ACTIVE DUTY . . .
Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob’s under a desk restoring lost data. His world was dull and safe – but then he went and got Noticed. Now, Bob is up to his neck in spycraft, parallel universes, dimension-hopping terrorists, monstrous elder gods and the end of the world. Only one thing is certain: it will take more than a full system reboot to sort this mess out . . . THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES is the first novel in the Laundry Files.
SOME AGENTS HAVE ALL THE FUN. OTHERS SAVE THE WORLD.
Bob Howard is an IT expert and occasional field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty’s Secret Service that deals with occult threats. Dressed (grudgingly) in a tux and sent to the Caribbean, he must infiltrate a millionaire’s yacht in order to prevent him from violating a treaty that will bring down the wrath of an ancient underwater race upon humanity’s head. Partnered with a gorgeous American agent who’s actually a soul-sucking succubus from another dimension, Bob’s mission (should he choose to accept it) is to stop the bad guys, avoid getting the girl, and survive – shaken, perhaps, but not stirred. THE JENNIFER MORGUE is the second novel in the Laundry Files.
You can now buy the entire Laundry Files in the new paperback cover style (click on the image for the full size covers). THE RHESUS CHART, the fifth novel in the series, will be out July 2014.
“It won’t be long until you have to answer another question: why would they ever want to have anything to do with a planet, ever again?”
You can find Part 1 of this piece at this link, posted last week on the Orbit blog.
If you posit a future populated by human beings – or posthumans – who are able to live in space without rapidly dying of asphyxiation or radiation exposure, it won’t be long until you have to answer another question: why would they ever want to have anything to do with a planet, ever again?
Planets are bundles of matter so massive that their own gravitational field smooths out their bumps, dragging them into a roughly spherical shape. They’re so massive that most of their volume is inaccessible, hundreds or thousands of kilometres underfoot when you’re standing on the surface. They’re also a royal nuisance if you are a spaceborne society: it takes an inordinate amount of work to give an object lying stationary on the surface sufficient kinetic energy to overcome its gravitational potential energy, i.e. to put it into orbit.
It seems logical that a space-based civilization would therefore only bother with a planet if it provided resources unavailable in smaller gravity wells, such as asteroids. And the fly in the ointment with this issue is that most planet-bound resources are far too cheap to be worth boosting into orbit. Oxygen? Water? They’re everywhere. Carbon? There’s an entire class of asteroids – carbonaceous chondrites – made of dirty carbon. Metals like platinum? They might be rarer in free-floating rocks than in planets, but in the process of planetary formation they’re likely to sink towards the iron/nickel core while the proto-planet is still mostly molten. (We know from seismic studies that the core of the Earth is not only incredibly hot and under tremendous pressure, but it’s almost certainly made of heavier elements than the upper mantle and crustal rock formations.)
So what can you mine on a water world that would justify the expense of settling its hydrosphere?