Interview Ken MacLeod, June 2007

The tools of tyranny

In his latest novel „The Execution Channel“, Scottish SF author Ken MacLeod made a clear point of his political opinion. With he talked about how disappointed he is in the US and Great Britain, and that his book is not meant to be a general „Bush-bashing“.

Zitat: „I still believe in the world becoming a better place in the long run.“ Ken, despite an unexpected positive twist in the end, your latest novel describes our near future – or possible present – as a place where everybody cheats as much as they can. Are you a pessimistic person?

Ken MacLeod: Not at all! I have high hopes for the long-term future of humanity. It’s the short term – the next few decades – that I expect to be quite difficult. There are serious possibilities of great upheavals from environmental crises alone, and when you add to that the growing tensions between the major powers, and the fast-accumulating stresses in the still booming global economy, you can see that the future depicted in „The Execution Channel“  is far from the worst possibility.

Likewise, the reason there’s so much deception in the book is that most of the characters are in one way or another covert operatives. In several situations your protagonists display a deep disappointment with what has become of America and Great Britain. Did you once believe in a world becoming a better place? Possibly with an Anglo-American lead?

Ken MacLeod: As I’ve said, I still believe in the world becoming a better place in the long run. The disappointment in America and the United Kingdom is not that I ever expected these countries to lead the world to a better future, but that I had assumed they had a basic concept of liberty hard-wired into them by their bourgeois revolutions. It is now obvious that this was naive. The US and UK are as capable as any other countries of reaching for the tools of tyranny: disappearances, indefinite detention, torture, and all the rest. Of course, both nations have in their imperial pasts done much worse things than they are doing now – the difference is that now it’s done not only far away and unseen, but in or from the home territory and quite openly. This is not totalitarianism, far from it, but the widespread acceptance of these practices is disturbing. The backdrop of „The Execution Channel“ is quite interesting: Al Gore instead of George Bush had won the 2000 election, but nothing went better. Instead, the trenches are deeper than ever and a world war is looming. Do you allege that the actual Mr Gore is a hypocrite?

Ken MacLeod: No, I don’t. The actual Mr Gore is a politician who has made compromises, as all politicians must, but whose personal integrity I have no reason to doubt. As it happens, I do think the world might well be different and better if Gore had won in 2000, but the point made by the suggestion that it wouldn’t is that these matters are affected by more powerful forces than the personality of a particular president. In practice the Democratic Party leadership in Congress is just as committed to the war’s continuation and possible extension as the Republicans. I didn’t want the book to be read as just a fictional form of partisan 'Bush-bashing'. „The Execution Channel“ is about the war of information, which is raging all around us already. Again, Mr. Gore seems to be playing a vital role in this: His internet lobbying activities culminated in the so-called Gore Bill from 1991, opening the former Information Super Highway for a wider public. Today, Mr Gore advises Google’s management – which could only be the tip of the conspiracy iceberg.

Ken MacLeod: That kind of conspiracy theory is not one that interests me. Rich and powerful people sit in the same boardrooms as other rich and powerful people. So what? That’s not conspiracy, that’s capitalism! Actual covert operations and actual conspiracies exist and are important, but they don’t run the world. Nobody does. What is worse: A right-winger claiming socialistic ideas, or a socialist siding with the right?

Ken MacLeod: It all depends on the context. Neither of these is a bad thing in itself. Come to think of it, I’ve been accused of both. But seriously, anyone who could give a definitive answer to that question would have to understand the entire history of the 20th century – at least! In your book, the CIA even cooperates with islamistic extremists. Which end would justify such means?

Ken MacLeod: Ask them – they’re doing it right now, and have done for a long time. The US support for the Afghan mujahedin, from the 1979 Afghan revolution and throughout the 1980s (partly financed by Saudi Arabia and organised through the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI) was the largest ever US covert operation. In the 1990s, as Brendan O’Neill has detailed in "The Spectator„  and “elsewhere„, hundreds if not thousands of the same mujahedin were airlifted, with clear US connivance, to Bosnia and Kosovo. And today, as Seymour Hersh reported a couple of months ago in “The New Yorker" the US have once again arranged with the Saudis to give covert support to Sunni jihadists, this time to counter Iranian influence. The 'muj pipeline’ referred to in the book was not something I made up. Why have you picked France as a European country of at least some integrity? Why not Germany?

Ken MacLeod: I’m embarrassed to say the main reason is because I've never visited Germany, so I wouldn’t have been able to give scenes set there any convincing local colour. In fact, Germany is a country I know far too little about, and understand even less. However, the idea of a near-future France as a little bit anti-American doesn’t seem too far-fetched, let’s say. Just because the character Travis admires France because it’s French doesn't mean that I disparage the national characters of other countries. I do, however, agree with him in disparaging England, and with his daughter in disparaging Scotland. Would you do something like Travis and work for a foreign intelligence service?

Ken MacLeod: No, of course not! Anyone can easily set up imaginary situations, or recall historical situations, where doing that sort of thing is justifiable. The situation Travis is in is not one of them, but I hope I’ve written about his situation in a way that shows how it could seem like that to him. Blogs form vital tools of information and disinformation. Do you think they are a kind of swarm intelligence that, to the dismay of MI5 and the likes, will gain even more importance?

Ken MacLeod: Blogs are only one component of the swarm. More and more documents, articles, arguments, video and audio material are becoming available on the internet. Connections between facts that previously might have taken months or years of research can now be made with a well-formulated Google query. Of course, you have to know how to formulate it, and you have to be alert to the possibility that someone is gaming the search system. If you begin with ignorance or prejudice, you’ll probably end no better. There’s a scene in Bruce Sterling's novel „Heavy Weather“ that anticipates such a problem: a homeless man with a hand-held device containing the entire Library of Congress and a search engine, which he consults obsessively. He’s one of many who have been sucked into an endless search for connections, building ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. What’s your take on the future of the internet? Will it become a brave new world controlled by Googlezon?

Ken MacLeod: A slogan of cyberpunk, I think from one of William Gibson's novels, was 'The street finds its own uses for things'. A year or two ago I said at some SF convention that now the situation is that 'The suits find their own uses for things'. But the internet is very hard to control – to quote another old slogan: 'The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.' My take is that the big corporations and governments will continue to try to control it, and users and hackers will find ways of evading the controls. It’s a bit like the stock market – as soon as the regulators control one form of trading, traders invent a new financial instrument that the law hasn’t yet caught up with. Could you live without the web and computers, writing your books on a typewriter?

Ken MacLeod: Yes, indeed, but they would be somewhat different books. They might even be better. But it would be difficult to write a modern science fiction novel without internet access. Which authors influenced your work on „The Execution Channel“?

Ken MacLeod: In SF, J. G. Ballard and some of the old British catastrophe novels. Some of the spy thriller elements were influenced by John Le Carré. In terms of conspiracy and disinformation, I drew on years of reading the British journal „Lobster“, edited by Robin Ramsay, which deals with these matters in a sane and interesting way. What made you write a near future SF spy thriller after many space opera and hard SF books?

Ken MacLeod: I felt that I’d done as much in space opera as I wanted to for the moment, and that near-future politics without obscure political groups might be interesting to do and have a wider readership. At a more basic level, I had about ten years of accumulated anger at the state of the world which I’d never put into a novel – so here it is. What were your first steps into reading Science Fiction? What lead to write?

Ken MacLeod: When I was a boy I read science fiction without distinguishing it from other kinds of adventure story. Then, in my early teens, I read „Rocket to Limbo“ by Alan E. Nourse. This was a novel that had all the Golden Age devices: generation ships, faster-than-light travel, psi powers. I was immediately hooked and proceeded to read every science fiction book I could find in the public libraries and second-hand bookshops of Greenock, the town where I grew up. Like many fans I tried to write SF, very badly. I sent one very bad story to „New Worlds“. Hilary Bailey, the editor, rejected it with a kind note. Later I sent a few short stories to the British SF magazine „Interzone“, all of them mercifully rejected. It was in 1987, when I was in my mid-thirties, that I started to write my first novel. One reason why I made the attempt was that for years I had been telling my friend Iain Banks about all those ideas I had for SF novels, and I heard from a mutual friend that he was getting a bit tired of this because he knew I could write them if I put my mind to it. So I did. Do you know any German SF writers? If so: Which do you read and like?

Ken MacLeod: None at all, sorry! What is on your current reading list?

Ken MacLeod: A lot of the good science fiction of the past few years, which I really should have read by now and haven’t. It’s all very embarrassing because I know the authors! Just think of any good recent titles and assume they’re on my list, OK? Apart from that, I’m currently reading a novel by Somerset Maugham, „Of Human Bondage“ , and big book called „Studies in Mutualist Political Economy“, by the American anarchist Kevin Carson. And what’s next from Ken MacLeod?

Ken MacLeod: I’m working on a novel provisionally titled „The Night Sessions“, about religious terrorism in a world that has in large part turned away from religion. Thank you for this interview, Ken!

Ken MacLeod: Many thanks for the opportunity, and all the best to the site and its readers.

This interview was conducted by Frank Dudley