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K E N   M a c L E O D : Morality, Mortality, Mentality
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, October 2000)

Ken MacLeod
    Photo by Beth Gwinn
 
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Ken MacLeod was born August 2, 1954 in the small town of Stornoway in Scotland's Western Isles. Moving to the industrial town of Greenock when he was ten, he discovered science fiction; between the ages of 14 and 21, he devoured all the SF books he could find. He earned a degree in zoology from Glasgow University in 1976, then began studies in biomechanics at Brunel University outside London. In 1981 he married, had two children, and for ten years read almost no SF.

In the late '80s he began writing one of the stories he had been talking to friends about for years. The resulting manuscript, The Star Fraction (1995), earned MacLeod a two-book contract, and would be the first of his four novels in a loosely related series that explores communism, socialism, and libertarianism. This first novel was the runner-up for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and winner of the 1996 Prometheus Award. His second book, The Stone Canal (1996), won a second Prometheus Award. MacLeod got another two-book contract and in 1997 was able to give up his day job and write full time. The Cassini Division followed in 1998 and was nominated for a Nebula Award. The Sky Road (1999) won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel. His latest novel, just published in the UK, is Cosmonaut Keep.


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Index to Locus Interviews
 
 

''I used to think the Net would change the world, but the world has changed the Net. We get more information, but you still have to know where to look. The business of becoming well informed is not necessarily all that different to what it was when the main sources of information were newspapers, mass media, and public libraries. The Net really is a fantastic dissemination of both truth and complete falsehood, and it absolutely proves Mark Twain's comment that 'a lie can get around the world twice before the truth has got its boots on.' To update that, all we have to say is that a falsehood can propagate around the Net much faster than anyone can look up and document the fact or slay the factoid. It's unstoppable. I actually enjoy being able to find the goofiest ideas, most outrageous lies and distortions, because I like to know what the multifarious enemies of peace, truth, freedom, and so on, are doing. I don't really believe in the Devil, but if the Devil is the Father of Lies, then he certainly invented the Internet.

''As for the way the world has changed the Net, all the old, boring institutions of finance, government, industry and so on have moved into the playground, and libertarians and anarchists are once again revealed to be a vanishingly tiny minority of the population. The Net has become more representative of where society is at. Unfortunately, if I could imagine what the most profitable uses of it were, I wouldn't be sitting here I'd be out trying to find a way of getting rich on it before the crash. (There may be a financial crash coming, but the Net is here to stay.)"

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I started writing The Star Fraction, in '87 or '88. It came along very slowly, because I had absolutely no idea what the plot was, or whatever. I just had the initial situation: a woman scientist finding her laboratory had been broken into. As she's surveying the damage, this well-armed, hunky guy turns up and offers to help. That's basically how it started. I had no idea who had broken into the lab or what had been going on or anything.

''I eventually finished the first draft and sent it to Mic Cheetham, Iain [Banks]'s agent. She liked it, but said it was very hard to discern the plot and the motivations of the main characters which are rather important parts of a novel! I couldn't see what on earth she meant. We met, went to a Greek restaurant, and talked about it. Mic said, 'If it was a film, what would you put on the poster?' I said, 'It's a story about a man who gets killed, but his gun goes on fighting.' She said, 'Yes, that's it. Now write that book.' So I rewrote it, and this time it was possible to work out what was going on without reading it twice. (It's still a rather complicated and obscure plot.)"

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''Somebody described Ellen May Ngwethu, from The Cassini Division, who has no compunction in wiping out whole non-human races, as 'the most evil protagonist in the universe.' I certainly don't think she's evil from a human point of view, and I don't believe there's an extra human point of view that matters to us. Ellen's belief is mine, that fundamentally human beings are their own moral arbiters, our little moral center. So there is no 'good' external to the question of what is good for us. But without some form of religious belief, there's literally nothing else to go on, to drive us. I don't think morality has any meaning whatsoever once it moves beyond the human. So aliens are entities which we may find ourselves dealing with in an entirely pragmatic and non-moral fashion. What we usually call 'morality' is sympathy, what the Scottish philosophers called 'the moral sentiment.' Things like sympathy, empathy, solidarity, all presuppose something in common, certain emotional capacities, and I don't think there's any necessary progression of that beyond the human species. So in that sense, we have no obligations towards non-human entities of any kind whatsoever."

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''Humanity is in a very funny position, because most people believe their minds or their souls are immortal. Ironically, if religious belief in immortality was to disappear, a kind of scientific belief in immortality or very long life will have taken its place. Possibly even a reality of it will have taken its place. On the whole span of human history, the number of people who have ever had to face up to a finite life span, and knowing death is the end, will probably be a little blip, a little minority in history. Maybe just us."

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''My new book, Cosmonaut Keep, is the beginning of a new series which will be largely space opera. I'm hoping to have a lot of fun writing it, and to give my readers some enjoyment too. It is a move away from some of the earlier themes and interests, though we still have a capitalist America and a communist Europe, almost a satire a mid-21st-century Europe dominated by Russia. But that's just the starting point of the space opera end of the story. It's based on humanity coming across, or being given (it's never entirely clear), two pieces of an impossible technology: a sort of anti-gravity aircraft, and a method of traveling at exactly the speed of light. When this magic engine is turned on, you subjectively are instantaneously at your destination, although objectively it takes you as long as the light would have taken to get there. I'm sure these are impossible, but at least they're not totally ruled out by relativity and so on, and it has some entertaining consequences from the point of view of plotting.

''The other part of the background is that there have been past alien interventions in the history of Earth, at least in the form of removing people and many other animal species, and transplanting them to a different part of the galaxy. So you're looking at variations on the kind of 'lost colony' SF trope."


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