Picking up a Ken McLeod novel for the first time was a remarkable and delightful experience. McLeod is a “politically engaged” science fiction writer (of course all science fiction writers are politically engaged, but in this case he is consciously and intelligently so) and was the subject of a series of acute and largely laudatory analyses on the Crooked Timber politics/philosophy website. Coming across a copy of Descent was thus a challenge difficult to pass over.
What was even more pleasurable was to find that the book was not only dedicated to Iain Banks, who had been a friend of McLeod (who helped edit two of Banks’ earlier books) but was also rather plainly an attempt to write a Banks book, and one which comes off tolerably well. It is a book arranged around a central conceit which is also a puzzle (standard science fiction trope, but one which Banks specially foregrounded). There is the usual dreadful male Banks central character, whom we follow from his self-absorbed and sexually inept adolescence all the way to his self-absorbed and socially inept young adulthood, and a plethora of gorgeous trim fit brilliant Banks women (mostly, however, dressed in technicolor frills and flounces rather than skin-tight black leather) surrounding him, some of whom he pursues and some of whom pursue him (shades of Crow Road). And there are dreadful moral ambiguities and sinister political implications, as in Complicity. What-ho! We have a Pope, and we know it will please you!
Except — well, this isn’t Banks. In some ways this is a relief, for Banks was in a dreadful rut long before he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him (and which, again, he anticipated via Complicity). The book lacks the slovenly structuring which defaced much of Banks’ work, and reads both easily and luminously — there is almost none of the pretentious look-at-me-i’ve-got-a-good-thing-here which makes Banks intermittently irritating to read. McLeod is out for the euthanasia of the hipster, and in this book he very nearly succeeds in dragging irony to the berm and having a duly appointed agent of the State shoot it in the back of the head.
Och, ah’m just a wee bairn whan it comes tae th’ Scots, but nevertheless it’s apparent that there are problems with the tropes of the book. They are brilliantly handled, but intrinsically there are enormous problems with them.
The central trope is that there are aliens among us. Of course, this is the conspiracy theory which is repeatedly debunked in the book — first by the central character, who is a teenage ironist and knows that everything of this kind must be bullshit. But then (after his alien abduction which is so standard that it cannot possibly be real and is obviously a teenage wet dream) he meets a sinister Man in Black, as well as being confronted by evidence that the Greys were among us in medieval times. And then he looks into the matter again and finds out that all the debunking he knows about is a cover story. But then the debunked truth is debunked. But is the debunked bunk itself a cover story for the real bunk? And is the real bunk itself debunkable, or is it a slam-dunk?
The core evidence is that British Aerospace (British Aviation Systems, in the novel, presumably to avoid being sued since their representative in the book is a ghastly and odious figure — whose name, intriguingly, recalls a rather conservative British science fiction writer) has got hold of some fantastic materials and forcefield technology with which it is able to build things which look very like flying saucers. The trope is that maybe this tech comes from the Greys, who are represented as (in the Internet mythos, anyway) a pottering bunch of not tremendously advanced aliens who have been spying on the Earth from the Moon since we were hominids, using primitive space ships made of the equivalent of balsa wood and Mylar.
Of course, this correlates very precisely with the mythos of the Roswell incident, as presented by Whitley Strieber and others. The spaceship turns out to be alarmingly simple — albeit completely incomprehensible. But assuming that America was able to down an alien spaceship, how would it be able to make sense of what it found? Space technology would probably look very simple when based on a million years of exploring reality, but how, without that million years of exploration, would we discover it? What would Australopithecus have made of the smashed shards of a broken smartphone?
Well, problem solved, for McLeod brings in the Philadelphia Experiment. The United States has had interstellar flight since 1943, thanks to Albert Einstein, Robert A Heinlein and L Ron Hubbard, as a by-product of trying to make a destroyer invisible using the Unified Field Theory. The Greys only had little puttering ships which hobbled from star to star at a few thousand klicks a second, so they traded all their tech, and especially their displacement tech (with which they could use forcefields to facilitate abductions — though actually that was what the Philadelphia Experiment was supposed to be about in the first place) for the ability to go home in jig time thanks to the U.S. Navy.
And that’s why every fit young lassie is wearing a crinoline which doesn’t need whalebone hoops and doesn’t ever get dirty; everybody’s got a dress made of flying saucer fabric. It’s amazing they don’t all get airborne.
Now, does all this strike you as tremendously plausible? Not the thing itself — it’s perfectly possible that such technologies might exist, that aliens might possess them. But it’s incredibly implausible that the United States would have made a breakthrough such as interstellar flight as a by-product of trying to develop invisibility and teleportation, and that aliens, after a million years, would still know nothing about such matters. It’s still less plausible that the United States, given such omnipotence, would not display such omnipotence in its policy towards the rest of the world. Actually, the rest of the universe. The home planet of the Greys would be occupied and we would seen be seeing Greys carrying CEOs’ briefcases, or perhaps Greyskin rugs in front of the 1%’s fireplaces. If we were allowed to see anything at all in a world where the USA could zap anybody they didn’t like into vacuum and control every planet around every star for hundreds of lightyears around. No, things would be very different if Uncle Sam could do that. And, definitely, Uncle Sam wouldn’t hand even a smidgen of that tech to their friends in Britain, let alone to the Scots. (Remember how the Americans tried to stop the British from getting the A-bomb? And that was obvious tech based on physics which everybody in the world understood.)
OK, so that trope is problematic. Another trope — the gradual speciation of the human race — is also plausible up to a point, but McLeod’s notion of incorporating this with having a touch of Romani blood in you, so that those with the right touch of Romani blood can’t interbreed without that touch — this doesn’t seem much like the way speciation operates in the real world. Most likely McLeod is upset at the way the Romani are being treated in contemporary Europe, and good for him. Also, the notion that the Romani are part-Neanderthal doesn’t really correspond well with what little we know about both the background of the Romani and of the Neanderthalenses (who were, let’s not forget, and even McLeod admits it, of our own species). That’s a sideline (although a sideline that really fucks up the central character’s life and ultimately turns him into an even more horrible person than he is before the big fuck-up takes place).
But the Big Issue of the book is politics — of course, given McLeod’s predelictions. The beginning of the book is the good old New Bad Future — everything’s in decay, everybody’s dissatisfied, there are tiny acts of rebellion and sabotage everywhere but no hope whatsoever for this independent Scotland or those horrible barmpots down south either. The War on Terror continues with the Americans in occupation of Iran and various other places and naturally getting their bums kicked, and nobody can do anything about the loonies who are in charge.
There are, however, the revolutionaries. But nobody knows who they are. You can’t get in touch with them. They do distribute leaflets, but nobody reads them because they are boring bilge. Yet somehow they are said to be responsible for everything that goes wrong everywhere. So do they even exist, or are they just a creation of the government who are constantly ramming through new repressive legislation to suppress them? It’s all rather as if the government were deliberately fostering fear of the Greys coming to abduct us so that they could spend more money on anti-flying-saucer artillery. The parallel isn’t exact, but McLeod is obviously aware of it.
Hold on, though. Not even the Socialist Workers’ Party was that dim-witted. If there were a revolutionary movement they would be out to win some support, and under the circumstances such as McLeod describes would probably manage it, too. These revolutionaries don’t behave like revolutionaries — maybe McLeod’s general disillusion with Trotskyites (or at least Cliffites) is coming through here, but still, he should make a more plausible set of figures than that.
Anyway, one day the government decides to act. Not against the revolutionaries. The world’s governments suddenly act against finance capital. They nationalise the world’s banks and they invade the world’s tax havens and shut them down. Oh, all the banksters get gigantic payouts, but from now on credit comes from the State and from nowhere else, and the mobility of money depends entirely on State permission — more or less the way things used to be in the People’s Republic of China. Initially the revolutionaries perk up and say “Woo-hoo! Chaos! We just need to exploit the chaos, and the ruling class will collapse!”. Then, when chaos doesn’t come, the revolutionaries say “Fuck it.” and announce that they’re going out of the revolution business. In fact, they’re all going to run off and set up start-up companies instead.
This is rather less plausible than the United States having the power to exterminate all its enemies with no comebacks and then not using that power. Why in the world would a global political system very largely controlled by finance capital decide to turn off the money spigot, shut down financialisation and return to manufacturing capital as the sole target of investment? Or, putting it another way, why didn’t they do that when finance capital fell on its arse and pulled the whole planet down with it in 2007-8? McLeod’s “Big Deal”, the crucial part of his political trope, is a depoliticised fantasy, a wet dream wetter than anything dreamed by his central character (who “wanks himself raw” over a Space Sister in a Star Trek uniform he meets in one of his visions).
But even this is more credible than what happens next. The “New Improvement” is the bullet McLeod is saving for irony; masakhane, we are building, everybody has a job but the new metamaterials use no raw materials, no pigs were harmed in the making of this metabacon, the cranes are going up and the superballoons and superspaceships are going up even higher, soaring ever more, towards our limitless future — and apparently all thanks to a few crumbs of technology dropped upon us by aliens.
But no, not only the aliens are involved. Also, the revolutionaries who have gone into business are all Steve Jobs/Richard Branson types, in control, with focus, fully capable of ensuring a planned society which transforms the world into this humming hive of happy workers. They have steered the Big Deal into the New Improvement and now things can only get better. There’s a lot to the book which is being left out because why spoil it, but the insistently repeated image is of the ramjet-powered spaceplane which initially rises high, but then must plummet again from the balloon, but don’t worry, long before it hits the ground it’s moving fast enough for the ramjets to ignite and then it can rise again, soaring forever. Like the future. Just as the aliens want. Just as the businesspeople, or are they revolutionaries still, want.
What McLeod is killing off here is not just irony, it’s also consciousness of how the world is working. It’s a bland Popular Mechanics vision of the future — no wonder that McLeod explicitly compares it with a 1950s image. It’s desirable, but it’s also completely implausible, unfortunately, because there is no political backing for it, no indication of how the current socio-economic system which would never tolerate anything like that could be swept aside. Perhaps as South Africans who remember how the plans for making a workers’ paradise out of post-apartheid South Africa were first watered down by COSATU, then compromised and stalled by Mbeki, and finally killed off altogether by Zuma. That didn’t happen by accident, it happened because the ruling class didn’t want it, and the ruling class wouldn’t want what McLeod wants.
Oh, what the hell. The book’s a book for a’ that. Go read the flipping thing.