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Day May 7, 2005

Books #25 and #26: The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod

I’ve been reading more than posting would indicate, so I’m going to try to catch up on a few posts this weekend. Much of my reading lately has been journal articles, and not directly relevant to the 50 Book Challenge, but I’ve got a few books to discuss.

Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series are among the best fiction I’ve read recently, having finished books one and two: The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal. I read the books out of order, randomly picking up The Cassini Division some weeks ago while heading to Yale. At the time, I thought the third (and “final” in the sense of chronologically latest and climactic) book in the series was good fun, and thought little more about it. I subsequently went back and read the first two, and the breadth of MacLeod’s achievement in the series is clear.

Speculative fiction is one way that we imagine the consequences of continuing our present course. Orwell is the most relevant example from the mainstream, but in smaller ways much of our literature does so. Science fiction simply allows this speculative imagination to be overt and more forward-looking, in exchange for a potential loss in realism. Charles Stross made much the same point recently in a discussion of trends within American and British speculative fiction. Stross also noted that American science fiction is in a transitional period. Overt depiction of politics or social change is either missing, or replaced by fascination with outright dystopia. We either imagine the future to be much like today – strong-state capitalist democracy, or we imagine the unraveling and decline of our civilization driven by the complete commoditization and commercialization of everything formerly considered “social” or “political.” Here, of course, I’m thinking of William Gibson, the Stephenson of Snow Crash, Bruce Sterling, etc. In other words, when Americans imagine a future that isn’t exactly like today, we imagine a dark future where the worst tendencies of our present society run rampant. There’s an argument to be made that such imagingings aren’t a bad thing; that dystopian social visions serve a valuable purpose in reminding us of the “forest” that lies behind the “trees” of our daily battles over the economy, culture, and law. Perhaps not surprisingly, I believe that this argument is precisely what Rorty expresses in the final chapters of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

What makes the British writers feel different, and more “vital,” is the lack of “canalization” into futures which look like Bubble America run amok. Ken MacLeod, in the Fall Revolution series, accomplishes something very interesting – the artful mixture of utopian, dystopian, and pedestrian concerns that really describe any major social change. Stone Canal cements and widens the story begun in The Star Fraction, describing how AI technology interacts with three major social forces: libertarian capitalism, various titrations of socialism and communitarianism, and Green luddism. What makes MacLeod’s future feel expansive is the recognition of multiple social possibilities beyond the single globalized capitalist society which forms the obsession of the “cyberpunk” American authors, and which is celebrated as the triumph of “democracy” worldwide. Forget the politics and economics itself for a moment since MacLeod is clearly more leftist than virtually anyone in American politics today; progressives would do well to emulate his ability to imagine a future whose “forest” is more than simply the sum total of today’s “trees.”