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.

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