|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
On Wednesday evening I'll be at Edinburgh City Chambers, speaking at a free public seminar organised by the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group, on the topic of 'A Year to Go to the Big Vote'. Needless to say, I'll be arguing for a No vote. My sparring partner will be pro-independence blogger Kate Higgins. The event runs from 7 - 9 pm, doors (and Word Power bookstall) open 6.30, admission free.
At the end of next week (Sun 29 September), I'll be at Shoreditch Town Hall, taking part in FutureFest, a festival of ideas and discussion about the future, organised by education/innovation charity Nesta; specifically, I'll be speaking in the Sci-Fi Writers' Parliament, in which SF writers including Pat Cadigan, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross will propose radical legislation for future polities.
The following weekend, on Saturday 5 October, I have a session at the Wigtown Book Festival, talking with Stuart Kelly about my own work and that of Iain Banks.
At 8.30 pm on Wednesday 9 October I'm in a formal debate as part of the Durham Book Festival, on the challenging question 'Is great science great science fiction? Do we create scientific facts or do scientists simply discover what’s already there?' with Professor Tom McLeish (molecular physicist), Professor Patricia Waugh (English studies), and Dr Andrew Crumey (novelist and former physicist).
After all that, the panel on Technology and sutainablity: Kill or Cure? on Saturday 19 October at Battle of Ideas should be an absolute walk in the park, I don't think. But I'm looking forward to it.
Monday, September 16, 2013
My visit was as a guest of Fairies and Flying Saucers, the university's research cluster on fantasy and science fiction, and they looked after me well: Joseph Norman was at the bus stop to welcome me, and he showed me to the comfortable accommodation of the Lancaster Lodge and then met me in the bar for a pint or two before he and others took me out for a curry.
The conference was held in the Antonin Artaud building, and it ran smoothly, with breaks and refreshments at just the right times. My opening talk was billed as the keynote, which it certainly wasn't: despite much preparatory thinking and note-typing, when it came to delivering it I fell between the two wobbly stools of rambling anecdote about the man (and boy) and amateur analysis of the work. However, the audience listened sympathetically and laughed occasionally, and the questions that followed were well asked. SF critic Paul Kincaid was kind about my talk, and gave the whole conference such a good write-up that I really can't better it. (A full report is projected for Foundation issue 116, a special issue on Iain.) Two new books, The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders and Gothic Dimensions were passed around, and their editor and author respectively each gave well-received and stimulating talks. It's exciting and indeed moving to see so much scholarly interest in Iain's work, coming at it from so many different academic angles.
Joe kept things on schedule, and after the conference finished on time, I had an hour for a reading -- from the opening of Descent -- and a Q&A, all professionally and unobtrusively photographed. Then about twenty of us headed through a light rain to dinner and subsequent pints and conversation at the fine local pub The Malt Shovel, whose very existence I had managed to miss in all my years at Brunel.
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
Friday, July 26, 2013
Marx's Grundrisse, a collection of extracts from Marx's notebooks, in which he allowed himself some bolder speculations than he ever saw into print. I explained to Iain that the Culture was very similar to Marx's conception of communism: a stateless and classless society based on automation and abundance.
Iain was interested and I think persuaded. But, I went on, the Culture on his telling didn't seem to have come about through class struggle, revolution, and the rest. How, then, could it have come about, given that Iain was as sceptical as I was about the likelihood of such a society being handed down by benevolent rulers from above? By way of answer, Iain pointed to his pocket calculator. He said that on his last vacation job, on a construction site, one of the full-time workers had borrowed it and worked his way through a stack of wage slips, to discover that he and his mates weren't getting all the pay they were due. The site workers had taken the result to the management, who duly if perhaps reluctantly shelled out the back pay that was owed. That, Iain said, was how he'd envisaged the Culture coming about. Conflicts of interest between classes and other groups there would be, but the sheer availability of information and computing power would arm the majority with facts and arguments that would enable them to prove, as well as enforce, their claims. The consequent advance in consciousness would allow the opportunities offered by automation and abundance to be grasped, first in imagination then in reality, and make opposition to their realisation irrational, futile, and weak.
'I bet that's the first time you've ever had to say, "Honestly, officer, I really am a left-wing extremist ..."'
However friendly he was to the radical left, Iain had little interest in relating the long-range possibility of utopia to radical politics in the here and now. As he saw it, what mattered was to keep the utopian possibility open by continuing technological progress, especially space development, and in the meantime to support whatever policies and politics in the real world were rational and humane. For Iain that meant voting Labour. After the party mutated into New Labour he switched his practical vote to the Scottish National Party and his protest vote to the Scottish Socialists and (I think) the Greens. Even before then, in the early to mid 1990s, he'd come around to the view that Scotland would never be safe from the ravages of Tory governments it hadn't voted for unless it separated from England. This support for independence didn't come from nationalism but from reformism, and from a life-long, heart-felt hatred for the Conservative and Unionist Party.
In Iain's view, popular access to information was decisive to any hope of progress, and control of information was central to the power of the ruling class. One of his few intellectual heroes was Noam Chomsky, who has for decades argued and documented this over and over. Iain made a point of being well-informed himself, and seemed to have read the Guardian from cover to cover every day. The most radical writings -- Chomsky's apart -- that he ever enthused about to me were those of John Kenneth Galbraith, George Monbiot and Will Hutton. Iain valued the far left mainly as a source of information that even the Guardian was likely to gloss over. He followed my own adventures and misadventures in Marxism with a sort of sympathetic scepticism, always keen to read whatever rag I was flogging at any given time, and to listen to my explanations of why which paper I was selling sometimes changed over the years. It was my later explorations of libertarian thought that most sorely tried his patience. I could never persuade him that libertarianism was anything but a shill for corporate interests: a common misconception, and one that many libertarians have worked hard to confirm.
In his view, the left's most stupid and repeated mistake was to accept that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend,' which he saw as at the bottom of most of the left's disasters. He had no illusions in existing socialism, and no hopes for the better in its collapse. He opposed every war the British state waged in his lifetime, with the one exception of NATO's war over Kosovo, which he argued for before it happened and never repudiated. Fortunately, this wasn't the first step on a slippery slope. He was even more vehemently opposed than I was to the attack on Iraq -- I tried to at least see a certain logic to it from the imperialist point of view, whereas he saw it as utter folly and madness from the moment it was mooted, an adventure that would sow destruction, multiply terrorism, and do incalculable harm to the interests and security of the UK and US.
He blamed Blair absolutely for the Iraq war, and never forgave or forgot the crime. Anger over what was going on in the Middle East impelled him to his two best-known political gestures: cutting up his passport and sending it to 10 Downing Street, and refusing to have his own books published in Israel. The former action was mocked, the latter attacked. Iain took not a blind bit of notice.
In summary, Iain's political views were, by and large, what you'd expect from an Old Labour supporter and Guardian reader with an informed interest in the analyses of the radical left. What was perhaps more unusual than his views was the consistency and tenacity with which he held them, and his confidence that they must in the long run prevail if civilization was to survive. He saw quite clearly that events weren't going the way he would have liked them to, but never saw any reason to revise his reckoning that neoliberalism just didn't add up.
Monday, July 01, 2013
Brought to you by the folk who like to conduct gruesome fictional experiments on stage and play in the dark, This Side of Paradise will be a heaven on earth. Compèring the night is science fiction visionary Andrew J. Wilson. Bringing the paradise to life with original stories and instruments of science are writers Ken MacLeod, Ariadne Cass-Maran, Erin McElhinney, Halsted Bernard, Hal Duncan and Tom Moore.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Iain Banks died last Sunday. I have lost my oldest friend. I was asked to speak about him for radio and TV, and I have. I was asked to write about his SF, and I did. I've tried to write something more personal, and I've failed.
Here are a few lines I wrote some years ago, for an introduction to a German edition of Consider Phlebas. It outlines an outlook implied in the Culture books.
To live a human life is to die. Immortality is for gods. Humans can become gods, but to do so is to cease to be human, and that too is a kind of death. In accepting mortality the humans have the chance, their only chance, to make their lives complete, sufficient, shaped; and to get out of the game while they're ahead.
This is what gives the book, with all its violence, its fundamental gaiety. Life may be a game of damage, but it is a game to be played with grace, every day new under the sun.
Iain did that.
Saturday, June 01, 2013
First, there's the Futura Sci-Fi Convention, a one-day event on Saturday 15 June in Wolverhampton's innovative arts centre the Light House. My fellow guests of honour are Adam Roberts and Ian R. MacLeod, so I feel honoured indeed, and I'm very much looking forward to it. The day and evening event has all the usual features of an SF convention: panels, GoH readings, kaffeeklatches, signing sessions, book stalls, a real ale bar etc, without the hassle of hotels and all for a modest £25 (or £100 for a group of five). Details and bookings here.
My second upcoming public event is in July. Napier MA Creative Writing student Anni Telford has made canny use of her contacts to set up a series of workshops for writers featuring three-quarters of the Napier MA Creative Writing course team. Stuart Kelly talks about writing creative non-fiction next Friday (7 June). I'll be talking about writing SF and fantasy on Friday 5 July. David Bishop will teach the dark arts of writing graphic novels on Tuesday 23 July. Full details and bookings here and the same with a downloadable flyer from the group putting on the workshops, the Booktown Writers.