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.
Ryan, the star of Ken MacLeod’s latest SF thriller, DESCENT, had a childhood encounter with an unidentified flying object in the hills above his home town. He’s done his research – he knows of all the hoaxes, justifications and explanations for UFO sightings, but can’t even begin to explain what happened to him. And in a future Scotland where nothing seems secret, where everything is recorded on CCTV or reported online, why can he find no evidence that the UFO ever existed?
DESCENT (UK|ANZ) is a science fiction story for the 21st Century – a story of what happens when conspiracy theorists take on Big Brother. To celebrate its release today, here’s our rundown of some of the weirdest reported alien encounters…
Aliens aren’t just little green men – sometimes they look like ABBA.
‘Space Brothers’, ‘Nordic aliens’ or even ‘Pleiadians’ are the blond, beautiful human-looking aliens who many UFO believers have reported communicating with since the 1950s.
The first person to report contact with this type of alien was George Adamski, who reported seeing UFOs twice with friends before deciding on the third time that the craft must be looking for him! Separating from his friends, he saw the craft land and a blond man emerge, who claimed to be an alien named Orthon, who warned Adamski of the dangers of nuclear war and took him on a trip around the Solar System. That wasn’t the end of it, either – in the sixties Adamski claimed to have attended an interplanetary conference on the planet Saturn.
Once upon a time people would tell stories about how they were kidnapped by fair, beautiful elves in the woods – now it’s beautiful aliens. Why the obsession with blondes, though? It’s all a bit disturbing. (Some theorists have claimed ‘Orthon’ was a lost Nazi soldier testing a new aircraft.) Read the rest of this entry »
As Summer comes to an end, here at Orbit we’re already looking forward to the amazing selection of books that next Spring brings. We’re very pleased to present a selection of covers for some of our exciting releases in the first half of 2014. It promises to be a very good year.
Click on each of the covers to see a larger version, and let us know your favourites.
Art Credits: Reign of Ash: Illustration by Larry Rostant; Heaven’s Queen: Design by Kirk Benshoff; Dance of Shadows: Photo Illustration by Gene Mollica & Michael Frost, Design by Kirk Benshoff; The Girl With All The Gifts: Design by Duncan Spilling; Cibola Burn: Illustration by Daniel Dociu, Design by Kirk Benshoff; Path to Power: Illustration by Raphael Lacoste, Design by Kirk Benshoff; Justice: Design by Wendy Chan; Broken Eye: Photo by Shirley Green, Illustration by Silas Manhood, Design by Lauren Panepinto; The Ripper Affair: Photo by Shirley Green, Illustration by Craig White, Design by Lauren Panepinto; Cursed Moon: Photo by Shirley Green, Illustration by Don Sipley, Design by Lauren Panepinto; The Fifth Season: Design by Lauren Panepinto; The Widow’s House: Design by Kirk Benshoff
If you could fix the world, with just one pill, how far would you go to force society to swallow?
Imagine a near-future London where advances in medical science have led to the development of a single-dose pill which, taken when pregnant, eradicates many common genetic defects from an unborn baby.
When Hope Morrison refuses to take the pill, is this a private matter of individual choice, or wilful neglect of her unborn child?
‘This near-future sci-fi novel could almost be a sequel to George Orwell’s 1984 – 2084, perhaps’ Sun
‘A disturbingly real socialist dystopia’ Guardian
‘Thoughtful, plausible and scary’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Excellent’ Daily Mail
‘Intrusion is a finely-tuned, in-your-face argument of a novel… MacLeod will push your buttons – and make you think’ SFX
‘The message is powerful and the warning crystal clear’ SciFi Now
‘MacLeod creates a frighteningly plausible dystopia’ Interzone
‘A twistedly clever, frighteningly plausible dystopian glimpse’ Iain M. Banks
‘A haunting, gripping story of resistance, terror, and an all-consuming state that commits its atrocities with the best of intentions’ Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
‘MacLeod certainly delights in raising questions which creatively discomfort his fellow socialists’ Morning Star
‘It’s all so close to the bone it’s almost painful… Intrusion is a rather frightening vision of the road we are taking with our smoking bans and our obesity epidemics and our CCTVs. Particularly if you’re a woman’ Bookbag.co.uk
There’s more to being a writer than writing (and reading and research and self-promotion and whatever that leaves over for, you know, life).
There’s also all the other jobs that being a writer qualifies you for, such as reviewing books and teaching creative writing. Being a science fiction writer gives you expertise on all that and on science, technology, and the future.
If that’s what people think, who am I to tell them otherwise?
Actually, most of the time I can hold my head up – though do hold my hands up about one or two occasions when I’ve been asked for a media comment on some scientific breakthrough about which I know next to nothing. (‘So, Ken, what do faster-than-light neutrinos mean for the Scottish off-shore wind-farm industry?’)
One area where I’m fairly sure I’ve delivered the goods is in public engagement with science. Some time ago one of my former tutors at Glasgow University asked me to give a guest lecture on SF and the public understanding of science, and invited me back to give the same lecture several years in a row. I’ve since delivered variants of the lecture in far too many venues. When it achieved peer-reviewed publication in the SF studies journal Extrapolation, its work on this planet was done.
In 2009 I was one of two writers in residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, based at Edinburgh University. Part of a network of research institutions set up to look at the social aspects of the new life sciences and their associated technologies and industries, the Forum specialises in connecting social science research to policy-makers, the media, and civil society. It’s sponsored numerous events at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and supported creative residencies – last year it was a playwright, this year it’s a photographer and a documentary film-maker. In 2009 it was me and Pippa Goldschmidt – a terrific new writer (look out for her forthcoming novel, Wider Than the Sky) and former astronomer who as a civil servant once held the official job title ‘Controller of Outer Space’. Together, we fought crime…
Two of our initiatives I’m particularly proud of are: The Human Genre Project, a website of poems and short stories inspired by genomics; and The Social Sessions, a series of public events that included Ian Rankin and Lyn Anderson talking about crime and DNA, science journalists and social scientists discussing ‘Climategate’, and poets on science as an inspiration for poetry. The sessions came out of a wild notion that Scottish writers and journalists could be lured to relaxed, open-ended, informal discussions that offered free wine. ‘Hmm … it’s a crazy idea, but it might just work!’
Working with social scientists taught me a great deal, such as not to say ‘Social scientists and, uh, actual scientists …’
Especially not in conversations with social scientists.
Some of what I learned – and a lot I made up – is in my novel Intrusion. Along the way I also did some work with science communications people, which (via yet another outing for my SF-and-science lecture) got me an unexpected but welcome commission: to write what may be my most widely-read work to date: the script for an online informational comic about stem cell medicine, Hope Beyond Hype.
After the Edinburgh launch event for Intrusion at Pulp Fiction back in April, I was told a big secret, which I found hard to keep (but did). A few days ago it was officially out in the open: I’ve been appointed Writer in Residence at Edinburgh Napier University, with the job of mentoring students on the MA in Creative Writing course.
My immediate predecessor in this post was the great Dr Who writer Rob Shearman. The course leaders Sam Kelly and David Bishop know all there is to know about SF and about the ways of SF writers. It’s a wonderful opportunity and terrifying responsibility, and I’m looking forward to it.
The stormtroopers wasted no time in commandeering the decks . . .
After last year’s shenanigans at the SFX Weekender, we couldn’t wait to do it all over again. Excitement levels were therefore approaching unstable levels last Friday, as the Orbit UK team – along with THE FALLEN BLADE author Jon Courtenay Grimwood and FATED author Benedict Jacka – caught a train to Prestatyn, to attend the third SFX Weekender. The convention – run by top British science fiction magazine SFX – has quickly become one of the most anticipated events in British SFF, and this year was again well-attended by authors, editors, scriptwriters and journalists, as well as TV stars of shows such as Red Dwarf, Torchwood and Doctor Who – not to mention hundreds of happy fans and cosplayers!
Orbit's Anne Clarke on the publishing panel
After settling into our chalets (an upgrade on last year, as they had double-glazing!) we watched our very own Anne Clarke on the How To Get Published panel and enjoyed the Kitschies Awards presented by Pornokitsch’s Anne Perry and Jared Shurin. Later, we met up with INTRUSION author Ken MacLeod and SEEDS OF EARTH author Michael Cobley, and headed to a party thrown by our friends at Tor UK.
On the Saturday, once we’d recovered from our cake and alcohol intake from the previous night, we really got stuck in to the panels and signings. Mike, Ken and Benedict all signed books for fans at the Forbidden Planet booth, and took part in some pretty packed panel discussions! Benedict debated genre definitions with other urban fantasy authors on the What is Urban Fantasy? panel, Mike asked whether literature is the only place still flying the flag for space opera, and Ken MacLeod discussed apocalyptic fiction on the We’re All Doomed! panel, making interesting points about the class aspects of survivalist fiction and the ‘cosy catastrophe’. Read the rest of this entry »
If you’re in the US or the UK, here are some of the places you can see Orbit authors in February, from bookstore signings to conventions.
February 2-4th: SFX Weekender
This convention in Prestatyn Sands, North Wales, will play host to several Orbit authors. Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Benedict Jacka, Michael Cobley, and Ken MacLeod will all be on panels and signing books (full schedule) — and we will have exclusive early copies of MacLeod’s Intrusion and Jacka’s Fated available. Plus, our own Anne Clarke will appear on the “How to Get Published” panel on Friday evening.
Saturday, February 4th
Gail Z. Martin at B&N Carolina Place Mall, Pineville, NC, 1 PM.
Mira Grant (with Stephen Blackmoore) at Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA, 3 PM.
Friday, February 10th
Gail Z. Martin at B&N Morrison Place, Charlotte, NC.
Saturday, February 11th Gail Z. Martin at Books-a-Million Concord Mills, Concord, NC.
Wednesday, February 15th
N.K. Jemisin (with Livia Llewellyn) at KGB Fantastic Fiction, New York, NY, 7 PM.
February 17-19: SheVaCon
Gail Z. Martin will be at this science fiction convention in Roanoke, VA.
Thursday, February 23rd
Kate Griffin & Benedict Jacka signing advance copies of their new books (both being published in March) at Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, 6pm
February 24-26th: MystiCon Gail Z. Martin will be at this SFF and horror convention in Roanoke, VA — including a launch party for The Dread in the con suite at 7 PM on Friday.
Saturday, February 25th
Gail Carriger as keynote speaker at the inaugural Passion & Prose Conference, Long Beach, CA.
Walter Jon Williams at Page One Bookstore, Albuquerque, NM, 7 PM.
Sunday, February 26th Gail Carriger at SF in SF, San Francisco, CA, 1 PM.
Gail Carriger at Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA, 6 PM.
Monday, February 27th
Robert Jackson Bennett at Book People, Austin, TX, 7 PM.
Wednesday, February 29th Yes, it’s a leap year! Gail Carriger will be kicking off her tour for Timeless at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hill Crossing, Beaverton, OR, 7 PM.
‘This is one of the great ironies of contemporary literature: the books that ask the deepest and most profound questions tend to be situated in the most marginalised of genres . . . Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game, like his previous novels The Execution Channeland The Night Sessions, are works of science fiction so worryingly close to reality that he may well be hailed as a prophet . . .’
So says Scotland on Sunday and I’m hardly inclined to argue. As you can see, Ken MacLeod‘s latest novel, The Restoration Game, published earlier this month, is already garnering high praise from the critics:
As ever, MacLeod’s grasp of political intrigue is first rate, and in Lucy he’s created a complex heroine forever in doubt as to the true nature of events’ Guardian
This is a writer at the peak of his powers’ SFX
Hear! Hear! And to celebrate publication, we are delighted to present this small but perfectly formed interview that Ken did on a recent trip to Orbit Towers.
What, exactly, is the hitherto undisclosed secret of Ken MacLeod? Watch closely and learn. The answer may shock you . . .