Frontiers 2016 Reviews

Roads to the future: can sci-fi predict them?

Written by Mary Leonard

Nothing is written. The future is ours to shape. When you take the cities, spare the scientists and engineers. Whatever they may have done in the past, you need them for the future. Let’s make it a better one. (The Sky Road)

Back in 1999 there were reasons for optimism. The Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and global capitalism was providing ever-increasing growth to create wealth and spread democracy. The American political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama had written a book on The End Of History And The Last Man, picturing liberal democracies and free market capitalism as the final settled pattern of human society.

But Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod’s novel The Sky Road (1999) painted a very different picture. It depicted the world of the 2050s as dangerously unstable, racked with crises in capitalism and global revolution, with a fragmentation into smaller aggressive states and a rapid advance of militant groups, a world of tightening national security and increasing readiness to consider using nuclear weapons.

Valentina ran down the locations of their orbital nuclear weapons and launched a simulation of an immediate strike, in the light of the new information about the battlesats’ capabilities. Stopped. Ran it again; and again; all in a few seconds, but a waste of time nonetheless. The answer was obvious. The nukes could get close enough to the battlesats to take them out – but near-Earth space was a lot more crowded than it had been when the doctrine of that deployment had first been developed. There was no way to avoid thousands of innocent casualties and quadrillions of dollars’ worth of damage to space habitats and industries. (The Sky Road)

Less than two decades on, it looks all too likely that our world of today is going down the MacLeod track. But how did he come to his picture of the future?

“It’s always safe to predict instability, especially at a time when everything seems stable,” he says.

Most of my ‘predictions’ come from a radical analysis of politics and economics, drawing rather eclectically on libertarian and Marxist theories. Once you accept that power relations matter in international affairs, and that ‘long waves’ of expansion and depression can also be expected to continue, you can basically draw the graphs and see where the lines get all jittery. I got a lot of the details wrong of course. I had Britain electing a radical government in 2014!”

In fact, he says, there is a lot he just never even imagined. “9/11 came out of the blue, as did the ‘Arab Spring’.  There is nothing in The Sky Road or its connected novels (The Fall Revolution Series) to indicate that I expected massive upheavals in the Middle East.

And Russia has been, at least for now, pulled together as a new capitalist power rather than continuing its Yeltsin-era decline and social disintegration.”

From the islands

Born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in 1954, where his father was one of three ministers at that time, he had as a teenager many differences of opinion with his parents over religion. In fact, there were times he felt that anything he was interested in attracted their disapproval. Academically the pull was towards science and this led to many debates about creationism versus evolution; something which he believes is much more prevalent in society today than most people imagine.

Ken MacLeod

Born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in 1954, where his father was one of three ministers at that time, he had as a teenager many differences of opinion with his parents over religion. In fact, there were times he felt that anything he was interested in attracted their disapproval. Academically the pull was towards science and this led to many debates about creationism versus evolution; something which he believes is much more prevalent in society today than most people imagine.

It was also as a young teenager that his interest in science fiction was ignited by reading the 1957 novel Rocket to Limbo by Alan E. Nourse – the story of the search for a lost starship, the Argonaut, that sets off in the year 2008 to Alpha Centauri but never returns. It wasn’t until some years later however, that he began to write.

This underlying tension between his parents’ beliefs and his own, along with the isolation, wide open spaces and rural nature of his childhood, has undoubtedly left its mark on him and also appears in his writing, most evidently in the autobiographical work The Human Front (2002) which is essentially an alternate history. In The Sky Road rural Scotland is also the setting for a rocket launch site, and the tinker people can be imagined as the descendants of rural Scots – self-sufficient and able to turn their hand to any job, but also arousing suspicion and seen as slightly backward.

What hypocrisies, I wondered, did the tinkers practise, if they themselves would on occasion turn their hand to the leftward path? Until Merrial had mentioned it, I’d suspected no such thing: but then, with the tinkers’ virtual monopoly of an understanding of the white logic, it was in their interests to publicly disparage the black. Optical and mechanical computing, and more especially the delicate interface between them – the seer-stones set like gems in the shining brass of the calculating machinery – were their speciality and secret skill. What would happen if people outside their guild were to start exploring the left-hand path in earnest, as a public enterprise rather than a private vice, heaven only knew. A new Possession, perhaps; in which case the tinkers might have to engineer a new Deliverance. It was not a reassuring thought. (The Sky Road)

To the city

MacLeod states frequently that the only thing you can be certain of is change, and he himself felt this acutely when he moved to Greenock with his family in the mid 60s.

It was a “great culture shock” from the peace and space of Lewis to the hustle and bustle of mainland Scotland, but one which further defined his political and social views.

His interest in science fiction continued to develop, although he says the idea of using science fiction to attract people into science is all wrong “because all you get is a bunch of woolly-headed dreamers”.

He feels that he might have been better off sticking with arts subjects rather than science – “because I was not good at maths” – and says he chose zoology because it was the least mathematical of the sciences. Fortunately he found his teachers inspirational and, after completing his degree at Glasgow University, he went on to Brunel University in London to do his Master’s.

This was a second culture shock. Brunel University was “raw and new”. It had grown into a university out of the former Acton Technical College. There were many left-wing groups in the area at that time and the Trade Unions were strongly institutionalized. The young Asian community was becoming militant in response to racial discrimination by the police and attacks by the National Front, which resulted in the huge Southall demonstrations of 1979.

MacLeod’s political leanings were already very much to the left – socialism, communism and for a time in the late 70s/early 80s, Trotskyism; although he later moved to more orthodox communism.

I was fascinated by the science fictional possibilities opened up by Marxist ways of understanding capitalism and the future – that you can expect the future to be turbulent and involve complicated cycles.”

“You want my advice, kiddo, you stop worrying about socialism and start getting ready for barbarism, because that’s what’s coming down the pike, one way or another.” (The Sky Road)

It is quite possible that without being fully aware of it we are now in a system that is in long-term crisis that will be very hard to get out of.”

From science to science fiction

With these political ideas turning over in his mind and also working as a computer programmer, he says: “I ended up not being a very good scientist and I was only able to continue my research part-time thanks to the generosity of my supervisors.”

It was also during this time that he met his wife Carol, and they married in 1981.

He went on to complete his thesis on the biomechanics of bone – how bone adapts to mechanical stress and strain and changes density in accordance with the forces that act on it; and then he took a step back from science and began writing seriously.

A close friendship had previously grown with the science fiction author, the late Iain M. Banks, whom he found “very driven”, and with whom he loved to discuss ideas. But the push-start for his own career came when he heard from a mutual friend that Banks was “fed up with hearing about the books I was going to write”.

The Star Fraction, his first novel, was finally published in 1995, after two rewrites, “so the plot was understandable”.

I had very little idea of where it was going and kind of made it up as I went along.”

He says he continues to struggle with plot and structure, an opinion which is shared by some reviewers who have said, particularly of The Sky Road, that the plot is complicated, hard to follow and full of distracting political references. However, this probably has more to do with MacLeod’s own deep and subtle knowledge of political, economic and geographical situations.

Other reviewers have described him as “formidably intelligent and extraordinarily original”.

The impact of the internet

During this time, he moved with his family from London to South Queensferry, still working as a computer programmer, which gave him a unique preview of the possibilities of the internet and the opening up and availability of information.

I became aware of the internet before most people did. To an extent it has developed exactly as I thought it would, but not many people were evangelistic about it in the early 90s. We never thought about the possibility of a dystopian regime coming into power where you had to make available all your connections, business and personal, sexual fantasies, ideas, hobbies, likes, dislikes and yet that is what we have actually created. At the time we were excited about this new realm of free expression and discussion and we were slightly surprised when others saw it as dangerous.

Some people thought strong encryption would make everything private, but there are trust issues all the way down. Enthusiasm for privacy and strong encryption today is seen as enabling terrorists and child pornographers to hide.”

Her own software was wrapped around her, its loyalty as intimate, and as hard to subvert, as the enhanced immune-systems in her blood. It was personal, it was a personal, a unique configuration of software agents that scanned the world and Myra’s responses to the world, and built up from that interaction a shrewd assessment of her needs and interests. (The Sky Road)

It is both liberating and oppressing and there is no doubt that it does make available a vast amount of information which was once obscured.”

Social media has since taken the power of the internet to yet another level and made it possible for anyone to spread information very quickly and widely. One example is flash mob organisation such as was seen with the Yes campaign for an independent Scotland; another example is the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

“These are a sign of the chickens coming home to roost as a result of what happened under Thatcher,” he says.

A second wave of digital utopian enthusiasm flowed with the uprisings of the Arab Spring, but it ebbed just as quickly with the realisation that these uprisings could be easily squashed by military force.

Some states use social media, fake identities, fake bloggers to reinforce official narratives, sow disinformation and discredit opponents. I imagined a situation like this in my novel The Execution Channel (2007) but the reality has far outstripped it. Now everyday life is a continuous trade-off between privacy and self-exposure.”

The neoliberal shift

Since the 1990s, he says, the world has been heading steadily towards increasing insecurity which he blames on “neoliberalism” – the doctrine of leaving as much as possible to the market.

This has made most people, even in the better-off parts of the world, debt-laden wage slaves. Nobody can feel free or safe when they can at any moment be reduced to penury by an economic downturn or a shift in market conditions.

When there is insecurity the drive is always towards strong state security and a wariness of social freedoms.”

But what about insecurity giving rise to experimentation, more imaginative problem-solving and a spur to make things better and expand horizons not just on earth but also into space?

Yes, he says, it is true that instability and even war can spur progress in various ways.

But the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the 1950s and 1960s was also a great period of innovation and imagination of positive futures. The world is in many ways a better place now than it was when the original series of Star Trek was launched, but it’s hard to imagine such an optimistic series being launched today.”

The main thing that science fiction gives to the people who read and write it, he says, is to expect that the future will be different and to expect technological and social change, and that is something a lot of people find difficult to take on board.

It is not about prediction. “If science fiction writers were really that good at predicting trends we would all be a lot richer than we are,” MacLeod adds.

When I was working as a programmer and had just finished the first draft of my first book I was already working on machines that were more advanced than the characters in those first chapters.”

However, one of the trends he did get right was how ubiquitous tiny cameras would become and how hard it would become to conceal anything that was going on.

Journey into space?

He grew up with the Science Fiction of the 40s and 50s, but by the 60s science fiction was quite clearly getting the future wrong. Space travel was imagined as the next big thing, perhaps a century before its time.

There is a different kind of interest in space these days and new possibilities. I have been struck by how many people follow the astronauts of the ISS on Twitter. And then you get others like me who go out and watch the space station going over when we are reminded about it.

Space tourism might take time to kick off, but it will become the future and economic logic dictates that it will become cheaper and cheaper. 10-20 years from now a trip into space could be as affordable as a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.”

Among his favourite books are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

He has taken the possibility of human habitation of space much further than I have. I’m not sure how attractive living in space would be. It’s not something I’m personally drawn to, but I know the kind of people who would like to do something like that.”

He also mentions Marshall T. Savage’s The Millennial Project – Colonising the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps, which he believes could be possible given the right conditions – political and social.

Capitalism is in crisis and we need to look beyond it to a more socialised approach and a co-ordinated effort, especially if we are going to venture out and colonise the Solar System, he says.

Sending human explorers back to the moon and Mars would be very worthwhile and more efficient than sending a machine.”

Journey into smaller spaces

These days he believes increasing mastery of the very small scale is going to become more important – genomics, genetic engineering, biotechnology, as well as synthetic biology, building new genes from scratch, and other micro and molecular stuff, will be the ones which bring the biggest changes in the forseeable future.

And how does he personally see that future?

Turbulent but hopeful. I have a tendency towards optimism. I think there are huge problems that can be worked through. I do not think that civilisation is doomed. I think we are only beginning to think rationally.

I am impressed with industrialisation, with new industrialised countries. Although I don’t hold China as a role model, I think what it has accomplished, providing 30 years of continuous economic growth, is remarkable, and also other Asian industrialised countries show a lot more progress than ever thought possible in the 1960s.

The future is bigger and infinitely more varied than utopia or dystopia. In some of my own more recent novels I’ve tried to imagine both positive and negative aspects of a world in complex and contested transition, as in Descent (2014), or of a world being more or less consciously or cynically held back from the socialist tipping point, as in Intrusion (2012).”

There is even a role for small rural communities and not just as rocket launch sites such as Lochcarron in The Sky Road.

Developments such as microsatellites such as those being built by Clyde Space have all kinds of potential applications in farming, land management and environmental monitoring. With good internet access you can do manufacturing and design almost anywhere, and there is plenty more to be done in agricultural and ecological research.

There is an immense amount of possibility out there. If we avoid catastrophe – war, climate change, all the usual – humanity will, in the next century or so, begin changing the Solar System in noticeable ways, and also changing ourselves, but we’ll still be very far from being as gods.”

Behind the statue Mars was rising, a blue-green dot in the East. Whatever became of the ship, whether it soared to a safe orbit or was blasted to smithereens, other ships would get out there somehow, on the sky road. (The Sky Road)

Ken MacLeod spoke on Voyage to the Future in the 2022 Orkney International Science Festival.

About the author

Mary Leonard

Mary Leonard began her journalistic career on The Orcadian. Since then she has lived and worked in different parts of the world. She now lives in Edinburgh where she works as a psychotherapist and counsellor and continues to enjoy writing.