Utopian Q&A: Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod is the author of seventeen science fiction novels, from The Star Fraction (1995) to The Corporation Wars trilogy (2018), many articles and short stories, three novellas and a few poems. He was politically active in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now a member of the Labour Party. He blogs intermittently at The Early Days of a Better Nation and tweets at @amendlocke.
Rowan Fortune: It has been over half a millennium since Thomas More wrote Utopia, coining the name of a genre that applied literary wit to the dream of a better world. This conversation of texts played a pivotal role in shaping the narratives of modernity, as well as the novel, modern prose fiction’s most distinctive medium. However, the utopian imagination has also been read back into the earliest human stories.
Humanity is at a crisis point, beset by systemic catastrophes of ecology, economy and political legitimacy, the basis of which can be found in the upheavals of More’s period—the land enclosures and earliest intimations of industrial revolution. Utopia is often said to be at a low point, relatively dormant since its flowering in the 1970s. And yet, even discounting other mediums, novelists continue to explore utopia; for example, in the work of Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alan Jaccobs, Robert Llewellyn, Ada Palmer, Nisi Shawl, and Cory Doctorow.
Even in dystopian times, this imaginative leap makes its simple demand on artists.
What is your earliest memory of utopia?
Ken MacLeod: The first written utopia I can remember is a short story by Poul Anderson, ‘The Last of the Deliverers’, which I must have read around 1969. In this story cheap solar power and some new kind of energy storage have enabled a vast spontaneous decentralisation of the US and USSR to small, rural, but high-tech communities of free artisans and peasants. There’s an eccentric old man in the narrator’s town, a Republican who’s nostalgic for the lost dynamic days of capitalism, and one day another eccentric old man wanders into town: a Communist. Nobody has a clue why either of them is arguing and, later, fighting to the death.
That anarchist utopia was the first idea I had of a future I would have liked to live in, and it stimulated me to look into anarchism and socialism. At that age this consisted of reading most of a shelf of politics and sociology in Greenock Public Library and talking about ideas with my school friends. I remember walking home along Inverkip Road late on a summer evening after one such earnest discussion about Marcuse, and the sight of the electric train on the local branch line gliding around the side of the hill and the neon lights of a petrol station, which suddenly turned Greenock into a glimpse of some benign industrial post-capitalist future, all automation and California.
Unknown to me at the time this improbable combination of automation and the counterculture did exist and it became Apple. Utopian ideas have unintended consequences—in fact, it could be argued that these are, if not their only, then their most important consequences.
Are there facets of society you can imagine becoming utopian?
I really don’t think in terms of utopia. The first Marxist classic I read was Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels, and it kind of stuck! Engels respected and warmly admired the great utopians like our local hero Robert Owen, but he criticised them for thinking that all that was needed was to design a future society and then convince the world of its benefits. And Marx was if anything sharper on the coercive and elitist aspect of utopian thinking, asking: if people are the product of their environment, as all the utopians thought, just who are these people who have somehow risen above that influence and presume to educate the rest of us? Who educates the educators? Look instead for the emergent, the future in the present, the elements of the new society in the old, and learn from and in turn try to bring some more clarity and strength to that, and so on. When Marxists put or found themselves in exactly the position of towering above society, they proceeded to educate the population very much in the despotic utopian manner decried by Marx. The education was so successful that in due course the Marxist educators got educated themselves.
How is utopia most expressed in your life?
I don’t think you can point to everything voluntary and cooperative in everyday life and call it utopian, or communism, or anarchy. That approach has some propaganda value, but there’s a danger of its being too easy an argumentative victory. I’ve certainly experienced moments of social freedom in various struggles and in incidents of self-management at work. And to the extent that the commons exist, they have to be defended and enlarged and appreciated: the NHS, public libraries, parks and so on. I have a special place in my heart for the RNLI, which is still (as far as I know) entirely supported by voluntary donation and almost entirely staffed by volunteers. And the Blood Transfusion Service in the UK is about the purest communism in everyday life I can think of: it literally is from each according to ability, to each according to need. Blood for the revolution, that’s how I nerve myself for the needle.
If you had to live in a fictional utopia, which and why?
I’ve often said that Iain M. Banks’s Culture is the only utopia that everyone would like to live in, and I would too. But as he often said, it’s not about us or for us; it’s for a slightly better species. Otherwise the most attractive utopia for me is William Morris’s Nowhere, which has the delightful draw of being relaxed, and mercifully free of the moral pressure that weighs so heavily on Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres. (A passing reference I made to the oppressive aspects of life on Anarres got a sledgehammer response from the author of the encyclopaedic Anarchist FAQ.) However, it’s been many years since I last read The Dispossessed and News from Nowhere, so I’m relying on the impressions they made on me at an impressionable age.
How has the idea of utopia influenced your writing?
As you may have gathered, I’m not that keen on utopia. One idea that influenced me came from Colin Ward’s educational textbook Utopia, in which he asks the very good question: ‘Are you living in someone else’s utopia?’ My only dystopian novel, Intrusion, is set in a society which is in many respects a New Labour utopia: everyone is helped to make healthy choices, climate change is being dealt with so well that a new Ice Age is imminent, and if you’re tortured it’s with a sterilised needle and afterwards the police hand you a leaflet with the phone numbers of trauma counselling help-lines.
My first novel, The Star Fraction, was in some ways inspired by Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in that you have lots of competing mini-utopias, and in its three sequels I explored some of them. There’s a free-market utopia in The Stone Canal, a communist utopia in The Cassini Division, and an anarchist utopia in The Sky Road, all of which have their disadvantages as well as their attractions. The last was strongly influenced by the experience of a summer working with a road-mending gang in the Highlands. They were spontaneously self-managing and they actually did hunt in the morning, fish in the evening and criticise after dinner, or anyway during tea-breaks. The society is a bit like the one in ‘The Last of the Deliverers’, and after all those years it’s still the one I’d most like to live in.
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