A Trotskyist libertarian cyberpunk?

Ken MacLeod, science fiction's freshest new writer, achieves the highly improbable with wit and style.

Topics: Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Libertarianism, Books,

The action has hardly begun in “The Cassini Division” when the characters start making jokes about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. “Gold is such a useful metal,” says one woman at a cocktail party in the 24th century. “You know, Lenin thought we’d use it for urinals.” The smart-ass response — from warrior woman Ellen May Ngwethu, protector of the Solar System — is fast in coming: “Not his only mistake!”

Never mind that for readers at the end of the 20th century Lenin’s legacy is little more than a vague footnote. Capitalism has won, the game is over, the socialists have long since been relegated to history’s dustbin. But here’s this crazy Scot, Ken MacLeod, imagining a far future full of socialist mercenaries obsessing about Leon Trotsky, cracking jokes about “smart-card carrying” Union members, and laying out a smorgasbord of possible libertarian reorganizations of society. It’s nuts — “The Cassini Division” is set four centuries in the future, and people are still arguing over whether property is theft.

It takes a clever writer to pull off this kind of neo-socialist/libertarian science fiction legerdemain. But that’s MacLeod — a fiercely intelligent, prodigiously well-read author who manages to fill his books with big issues without weighing them down. A former computer programmer who has read his Marx carefully, MacLeod helps his own cause with an unremitting wit that makes poetry out of a happy confluence of technological and socialist jargon. War, then, becomes “the state’s killer app.” Even better, when a wild artificially intelligent computer program mangles the computers at a company at which the staff is busy betting on the stock market, the overseer is alarmed, but notes that it’s not quite “the terminal crisis of capitalism” — alluding to both Marx’s belief that capitalism is doomed to spectacular failure, and the drone-like fixation of all these nerds on their computer terminals.

Maybe we should be glad that no one else in science fiction is concocting puns that mix dialectical materialism with nerd culture; there’s no doubt that such jokes can get old fast. But in MacLeod’s fiction, they never do — there’s too much else happening. If it’s not the anarchic warfare among fundamentalist Christians, libertarian “space movement” fans, Green environmentalist barbarians and the ominous Men in Black, then it’s the posthumans, smart guns and autonomous artificial intelligences who are pushing the story forward at breakneck speed.



“The Cassini Division” is the third in a series of four loosely linked novels — “The Star Fraction,” “The Stone Canal,” The Cassini Division” and “The Sky Road” — all of which postulate different possibilities for future political organization against a backdrop of personal intrigue, exploding technological change and good old sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. In the extraordinary “The Star Fraction, the hero is Moh Kohn — “a yid kid with an AK and an attitude” whose communist mercenary defense agency contracts out services to clients in a United Kingdom fragmented into hundreds of mini-states. In the equally ambitious “The Stone Canal,” an “individualist anarchist” named Jonathan Wilde battles the lapsed socialist David Reid across a time span that starts in the early 1970s and ends in the 24th century.

How can that be? Well, one of the fixtures of Macleod’s fiction is the fact that technology has advanced to the point where humans can perpetually rejuvenate their bodies. Characters stick around for hundreds of years, and there are often multiple versions of the same “person” causing trouble throughout the novels. So it’s not much of a surprise when both Reid and Wilde turn up in “The Cassini Division.” This time around, however, the hero is 200-year-old Ellen May Ngwethu, whose job, in the vaguely socialist Union that now spans most of the solar system, is to do the “dirty work” that no one else wants to soil their hands with. In this case, that means defending the solar system from the Jovians, malign descendents of humans who uploaded their brains into computers and colonized Jupiter.

The Earth is still recovering from the Green Death — a combination of deadly plagues, out-of-control nanotechnology and fanatic environmentalists (MacLeod regularly enjoys poking fun at the Greens and their “evil goddess Gaia”). And now the “fast folk” on Jupiter are threatening to break free from their giant planet and wreak havoc. There’s also the problem of the libertarian anarchists who live on the other end of the wormhole — they could return any day now and disrupt the Union with their rock ‘n’ roll and primitive, archaic affection for capitalism. (These kooks still use money, for crying out loud.)

The scene is set for plenty of action, but Ngwethu is a tricky protagonist to identify with — and not just because, like most male science fiction writers, MacLeod has a hard time creating believable women characters. Ngwethu is also a racist — she doesn’t believe that conscious machines are people. She also swears by the “true knowledge” — the unvarnished idea that might makes right. She’s quite happy to be personally responsible for smashing a string of comets into the surface of Jupiter and wiping out every trace of Jovian life, if there’s even a chance that the Jovians are a threat to real humans. Moh Kohn, the idealist from “The Star Fraction,” is a lot more fun and so is Jonathan Wilde — even when his libertarianism is unabashedly self-serving. Ngwethu is a tougher call.

But “The Cassini Division” is the first of MacLeod’s novels to be published in the United States, so Ngwethu will have to bear the burden of introducing MacLeod to American audiences. Tor Books, his publisher, is starting with “The Cassini Division” on the assumption that the British-flavored politics of “The Star Fraction” might baffle some readers. This is unfortunate — not only is it a bit odd to start a tetralogy in mid-stream, but “The Cassini Division” is also a simpler, less psychologically rich work than Macleod’s first two books. Plans are afoot to release “The Stone Canal” early next year, however, and if the first two books do well, “The Star Fraction” will follow.

If so, American readers have cause to be gleeful. MacLeod is a breath of fresh air blowing through the all-too-formulaic genre niches of science fiction. Cyberpunk is far from dead — likewise class struggle. As MacLeod points out in “The Star Fraction,” the “space movement” is an opportunity for workers on (and off) the world to unite. And, as even Ngwethu comes around to realizing near the end of “The Cassini Division,” those workers don’t even have to be human to have a right to decent working conditions.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>