Saturday, February 28, 2015

"The Star Fraction" - Ken MacLeod

What would I have done without the Fourth International? As a marxist cadre in my early twenties I experienced the camaraderie of a close-knit community, endless parties and discos, a structure and framework to my life plus a mission of the greatest importance - the future of humanity itself.

Ken MacLeod's "The Star Fraction" is Trotskyist science-fiction. Published in 1995, twenty years after I attended countless demos and endless meetings in smoke-filled rooms above pubs, the comforting ambience of daily life in the revolutionary-left is summoned again as an old friend.

Macleod is entranced by one of his female characters, the intriguing Catherin Duvalier (part of her allure is the absence of that terminal 'e'). Here is how she is described, entering a bar:
"She moved liked a dancer, glanced around like a fighter. She had a shining halo of blonde hair, bright blue eyes, skin the colour of pale honey, high cheekbones and the kind of jawline that the rest of humanity would take about half a million years to evolve. She wasn't tall, but she had long legs, covered to just below the knees by a dress that had quite plainly been made out of cobwebs beaded with morning dew."
And here's the Wikipedia summary of the plot:
"The world is controlled by the US/UN, a sort of semi-benign meta-dictatorship which doesn't rule directly so much as enforce a series of basic laws on a vast number of microstates. Many of the microstates are in a near-constant state of low-intensity warfare. Among the laws enforced on them is a prohibition on certain directions of research, such as intelligence augmentation or artificial intelligence; precisely what is prohibited is of course secret, and as violation of the prohibitions will result in the swift and efficient death of everyone directly involved, scientific research is a dangerous proposition at best.

"The main characters – a trotskyist mercenary, a libertarian teenager from a fundamentalist microstate, and an idealistic scientist – find themselves caught up at the center of a global revolution against the US/UN. The revolution was planned, and partially automated using financial software, in order to break out when a certain set of conditions were reached. The stakes are raised at the end of the book, when it is revealed that the autonomous financial software has evolved into an intelligent form, which might cause the paranoid US/UN to make a "clean break" with the earth, knocking the planet back to the stone age with the orbital defense lasers."
Ken Macleod is part of that Scottish SF 'mafia' which also included Iain M. Banks. The group has consistently eluded true eminence, Banks coming nearest although he never wrote the definitive great science-fiction novel. Macleod is a competent writer and you are prepared to relax and be taken into his world. There is of course a 'but'. He lacks stardust - the originality, audacity and sheer intelligence to pin the reader back in surprise and remake their worldview. Few have it, of course: for the remainder we hum along -  'hmm .. yep .. that's interesting' - and don't wholly feel the guilt of wasted time.

This was a nostalgia-fest for me, both the left-wing politics and the sub-Neuromancer tech-extrapolation (who 'jacks in to modems' these days?). The conflict which informs the plot is that of oldtime Marxist-Leninist proletarian vanguardism vs. the identity politics of the truculent middle-classes: greens, ecologists, gender politics. In my time this was all just getting going: we welcomed these strange new allies in the struggle for workers' power; in the 1990s the conflict was a battle for primacy, while latterly, in the historic absence of any significant worker radicalisation, the far-left has finally been captured altogether.

Still, I may have been one of the few readers who knew the difference between a faction and a fraction without having to look it up.