The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, April 24, 2014

From the archives of Atlantis

To review the memoir of an activist who lived well to the left of official Communism is usually to begin with an apology for its subject's obscurity, and for the difficulty of explaining to the average reader the weight given in the text to storms in teacups and brawls in backstreets. All the more so when the activist concerned was a leading member of an organization usually (though in this case imprecisely) referred to as Trotskyist.

No such apology is needed for Daniel Bensaid's An Impatient Life (Verso, 2013). Quite the contrary. At the time of his untimely death in 2010 Bensaid was France's best-known Marxist public intellectual, and his cast includes a surprising number of names known even in Britain. Many of his minor characters went on to achieve remarkable things in intellectual, cultural or political life, not only in France (and not only on the left). His major arguments are about questions that concern us all, or should. The events he lived through, from the Algerian War of Independence through May 1968 to the rise of a new anti-capitalism and a new Latin American left, continue to shake the ground we walk on. The personal element is related with an eye for the telling detail, the sore spot and the tender touch that would credit a good novelist.

Nonetheless, Tariq Ali is right to say in his foreword that 'Reading much of this material today is like delving into the archives of Atlantis.' (The foreword is followed by an eleven-page list of abbreviations.) Sebastian Budgen, who kindly sent me this review copy, has written an informative and moving overview of Bensaid's life for fellow Atlanteans.

For those unfamiliar with that world beneath the waves, two aspects of Bensaid's memoir may stand out. The first is the remarkable structure: almost every chapter begins with a personal recollection, stage by stage from childhood on, and expands into an erudite theoretical reflection that brings us sharply to the present -- in fact to our present, beyond the narrator's death. From love to Leninism, journalism to Jewishness, Bensaid always has something interesting and original to say.

The second is the truly amazing range of individuals and events that were influenced and affected by the activists and actions noted and footnoted on Bensaid's pages. For anyone interested in the recent past, it's a sustained series of surprising revelations of how the world was in fact changed from the one Bensaid was born in to the one we live in. If we want to change it further, we have a lot to learn from Bensaid's unrepentant self-criticisms.
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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Events for April

I have two events at the Glasgow literary festival AyeWrite!. The first, on Friday 4 April, is a panel in memory of Iain Banks, with reminiscences and readings by me, Ron Butlin, and other friends of Iain.

4 Apr 2014 6:00 P.M - 7:00 P.M at the Mitchell Library

The second, on Thursday 10 April, is a conversation between me and Robert Shearman (Dr Who writer, horror writer, former Writer in Residence on the MA Creative Writing course, and all-round good guy) on what the future holds and the present conceals.

10 Apr 2014 6:00 P.M - 7:00 P.M at the Mitchell Library

The following week, I'm giving a two-hour workshop at the Edinburgh Science Festival, on The Science in your Science Fiction: How to get it right. It'll cover inspiration, research, the dark arts of infodumping and incluing, and much else, and will conclude with a not-too-scary writing exercise.

Date: 16 April 2014, starting at 6 pm at the National Library of Scotland. Suitable for ages 14 and up, it costs £10 / £8.
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Friday, March 28, 2014

World-Building the Real World

Last week there was a brief flurry of interest in a 'NASA study' that predicted the collapse of civilization. The study turned out not to be by NASA and to be founded on eight equations. This sort of thing makes soothsaying look solid.

A global industrial civilization has never existed before, and while highly interdependent it seems to contain enough redundant links to make it resilient. A lot of horrible things could happen, but it would go on. Some civilizations do go on for thousands of years. China and Egypt spring to mind, but even Europeans could just about get away with claiming that the Roman Empire is still around, and they're living in it. That said, there are imaginable if unlikely events that could knock over civilization across a wide area or even the world without necessarily wiping everyone out. A limited nuclear war or an unstoppable plague or an asteroid impact or a big coronal mass ejection could kill billions and still leave millions of survivors struggling to cope.

The Knowledge Full Cover_lowres
Most of them wouldn't have a clue what to do. A precondition of an advanced industrial civilization is a very fine-grained division of labour. This makes astonishing achievements routine, but necessarily leaves everyone involved a little vague about the details of what everyone else does. The premise of Lewis Dartnell’s new book, The Knowledge, is that it’s a manual for the survivors of a disaster that wiped out 90% of humanity but left the infrastructure basically intact. What would they need to know in order to survive and start again?

Dartnell starts his thought experiment with ‘the grace period’ in which there are still useful supplies to be got from the cities, and goes on through rebooting agriculture, food and clothing, medicine, mining, manufacturing, transport, electricity, communications, chemistry … and so on, all the way to ‘the greatest invention’: science itself. At each step, he uses his attention-grabbing premise to make the mundane details of how to make everything from bread to soap to cement to steel interesting and interconnected. I didn’t know that a lathe is a sort of von Neumann machine, or that retrieving at least one long-threaded screw from the ruins is crucial. The conclusion is inspiring, the guide to further reading gives due recognition to post-apocalyptic SF, and the bibliography can keep you reading until the asteroid comes.

I can see this book becoming a manual for writers of post-apocalyptic SF and historical fiction, steampunk and the like, but far more important is its relevance to the rest of us in understanding how the world we live in actually works.

I was sent an advance proof for comment, and I’ve just received a fine hardback with my quote on the back: ‘This is the book we all wish we’d been given at school: the knowledge that makes everything else make sense.’ True to my word, that copy’s going to the nearest high school library. But I’ll buy the paperback and keep it in easy reach, and in a safe place.  

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Impending commemorations

This Saturday afternoon (March 15) I'm at Huddersfield Literary Festival, for a Celebration of the Life and Works of Iain Banks. I'll be on for a half-hour talk on the poetry of Iain Banks, followed by a panel with John Jarrold and David Barnett about Iain's contribution to SF. Details.

Next Thursday (March 20) at 6.30 pm I'm giving a short welcome and talk at the opening of the University of Stirling's Iain Banks exhibition.
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Saturday, March 08, 2014


Here's a Scottish Book Trust podcast in which I talk with Ryan Van Winkle about Descent. Kirsty Logan and Tim Sinclair are on before me, also talking about their new books.

I have a review of The Science Fiction Handbook, edited by Nick Hubble and Aris Mousoutzanis (Bloomsbury, 2013) in the Morning Star. Basically I outline the history of SF criticism as I understand it and then heartily recommend the book, which I have read and have already started lending to students.
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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Descent launch at Blackwell's

My novel Descent (UK/ANZ/Amazon UK/ sample here) is being launched at Edinburgh's fine bookshop Blackwell's on Thursday 6 March.


Date: Thursday 6th March
Time: 6.30pm
Venue: Blackwell’s Bookshop, 53-62 South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1YS

I'll be reading from the novel and answering questions and generally talking about it. I've described Descent as being 'about flying saucers, hidden races, and Antonio Gramsci's concept of passive revolution, all set in a tale of Scottish middle class family life in and after the Great Depression of the 21st Century. Almost mainstream fiction, really.'

The event finishes at 8 pm, and no doubt discussion will continue in one or more of the local pubs.

This event is ticketed, but tickets are FREE. Tickets are available from the front desk at Blackwell’s Bookshop or by phoning 0131 622 8218

For more information or if you would like a signed copy please contact Ellie Wixon on
0131 622 8222 or
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Friday, February 21, 2014

Scottish Independence and the Left

On this year’s MA Creative Writing course at Napier University about half the students come from the US or Germany, and at commencement last September I felt like telling them how lucky they were as writers to be spending the next year in a country whose future was up for grabs in that very year, and how the buzz of argument and excitement around them would light up their work for years to come. How often, outside of outright revolutionary situations, do writers have a chance to overhear or take part in passionate and wide-ranging debate about politics and society in every café or pub or bus queue?

If I’d said that, of course, the students from Scotland would have laughed in my face, and the students from other countries would by now have five months of perplexed disappointment behind them. This month, though, with a few polls showing a small shift to Yes followed (not coincidentally) by a drumbeat of solemn warnings from businessmen, bankers, a united front of past, present and would-be future Chancellors of the Exchequer, and a past Prime Minister about the economic consequences of separation has set the land loud at last with the sound of tables thumped, pints splashed and cups and keyboards rattling.

Well, up to a point…

Anyway, my contributions so far have been my widely unremarked essay in Unstated and a recent blog piece for the social research site  TheFuture of the UK and Scotland looking forward to Scotland After No, with Pat Kane putting the case for the other side. We each gave it our best shot, and raised not so much as a twitterstorm among the zealots.

So I was delighted to get an invitation from the illustrious Edinburgh University Socialist Society to take part next Wednesday, 26 March, in:
a panel-style debate on Scottish Independence , with a socialist twist. We will have four speakers, all from the left, from both pro- and anti-independence positions but not attached to the two main campaigns.
Questions will be taken both in advance and from the floor - You can send in your questions to the panel to Rory Scothorne ( who will be chairing, or with the hashtag #redindyref on twitter.

The speakers are:

Jim Sillars, former SNP deputy leader and author of "In Place of Fear II: A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland".

Cat Boyd, trade union activist and member of the 'Radical Independence Campaign', a coalition of the left and far-left seeking independence as a means to achieving a greener, more equal society.

Pauline Bryan, labour movement activist and member of the 'Red Paper Collective', a labour-movement campaign seeking to emphasise class above nation in the referendum debate.

Ken MacLeod, science fiction writer and "techno-utopian socialist".’

 Time: 17:45 until 20:00.

Place: Appleton Tower Lecture Theatre 4
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