Socialist Worker

Ken MacLeod: science fiction can help us learn to change the world

Award winning science fiction author Ken MacLeod spoke to Socialist Worker about his new book

Issue No. 1976

Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod

What were you hoping to achieve with your new novel?

Learning the World is set more than 14,000 years in the future, with humanity spreading out slowly through the galaxy. There’s no faster-than-light travel, and so far, no aliens.

A huge interstellar ark arrives in orbit around a star and the humans discover to their surprise that there’s intelligent life on one of the planets. The aliens are at a late 19th century level of technology, and of course notice the arrival. This raises all kinds of problems and conflicts on both sides.

The story takes two familiar science fiction elements – the colony starship and the first contact – and slams them together, with what I hope are interesting and entertaining results.

Do you think science fiction (SF) novels are better placed to discuss politics than other forms of fictional writing?

They’re better placed to examine political ideas, but not always so good at dealing with the political process. Spy stories, thrillers and crime novels can often be far more realistic about how politics works.

What SF can do that these genres can’t is to imagine radically different societies, or to ask questions like what will happen if this goes on?

What would be the consequences of some social or technical change or scientific discovery?

What would have happened if history had taken a different turn? SF asks the same sort of questions that historical materialism does, even if the answers might have a historical materialist climbing the wall!

You’re known for your political writing. Do you set out to make a political point at the beginning of the writing process?

I very much don’t set out to make a political point. Like most writers, I start from some ideas or even just an image. That can be a political idea.

In my first four books, one of the original ideas was of present day revolutionary socialists living in a future where they’d obviously failed and civilisation was going down. There’s a world revolution against the US empire, but the working class is too battered to have another go at remaking the world.

The world gets remade by red or green forces that have developed on the margins, like the barbarians after the fall of Rome. Now, obviously I don’t hold that out as a likely prospect, let alone a desirable one. But I think it’s fair to say that these novels sparked a lot of arguments.  

You often have greens as bad guys. Now that issues such as climate change and the use of nuclear power are coming to the fore have your opinions changed?

No, not in the least. What I object to in the greens isn’t the recognition of environmental problems. Of course they’re real problems. What I object to is the idea that the answer is to throttle technological progress and make the workers tighten their belts.

One of the very first socialist pamphlets I ever read, from Socialist Worker way back in 1970 or so, said that with atomic power and automation we could build a world of “peace, leisure and abundance beyond the wildest dreams of the utopians”.

I’d still hold out for that. 

What is your next project?

I’m working on a near-future and very explicitly political novel called The Execution Channel, which is about the present war moving towards an inter-imperialist war. And, of course, about people who are fighting against that outcome.

But I can’t promise a happy ending. One of the difficulties of this kind of book is that you’re writing about things you hope won’t happen, and that you in fact are – in writing and in other ways – trying to make sure don’t happen. But nobody said it would be easy.

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Learning the World by Ken MacLeod (£17.99) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 12 Nov 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1976
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