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MacLeod, Ken

Entry updated 27 March 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1954-    ) Scottish author who began publishing work of genre interest with The Star Fraction (1995). This was the first novel in the four-volume Fall Revolution sequence, which also included The Stone Canal (1996), The Cassini Division (1998), and The Sky Road (1999). Together, these books comprise one of the fullest and most thoughtful stagings of political (see Politics) debates in sf. Although MacLeod is avowedly socialist, he is also visibly sympathetic to other points of view such as Libertarian thought, and his novels tend to be venues for genuine debate rather than preaching in the manner of, say, late Robert A Heinlein. The initial setting of the series is a faction-ridden future Britain, in which the eponymous revolution takes place in the first book. However, much of the action soon shifts to "New Mars", a planet many light-years away linked to Earth by a Wormhole; there is also a perceived threat from Posthuman "fast-folk" now inhabiting Jupiter. Although MacLeod is evidently acquainted with a wide range of science-fictional speculations, especially involving Computers and artificial intelligence (see AI), the most striking feature of these books – and a rare one for sf – is their sense of pluralism, that there may be more than one right answer to the questions they pose. MacLeod also has an appealing sense of Humour, and it is no surprise that these books established him as one of the leading British sf authors. The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal both won the Prometheus Award, and The Sky Road won the BSFA Award.

A second sequence followed, the Engines of Light trilogy comprising Cosmonaut Keep (2000), Dark Light (2001), and Engine City (2002). This again takes an initially Earthbound Near-Future setting – in this case, with a resurgent USSR – but moves on to other, very distant worlds after First Contact takes place. MacLeod's knowledge of past sf is especially evident here, and the expansiveness of the story approaches Space Opera. In these books, MacLeod's work more closely approaches those of his Scottish contemporaries Iain M Banks and Charles Stross, both in its exuberance and its jokiness. MacLeod does not, however, renounce his continuing interest in how societies structure themselves and understand otherness.

Since then, MacLeod has concentrated on singleton novels, the first of which was Newton's Wake (2004). This was a thoroughly unbound picaresque, whose jaunt across planets and Virtual Reality evoked Banks even more strongly. Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005) again addressed the question of First Contact, though in this case from the Alien as well as the human Generation Starship point of view. Its intriguingly worked-out non-human viewpoint and its sympathetic portrayal of a very different society make it one of MacLeod's finest works. The Execution Channel (2007) returned to Earth, very explicitly taking on the legacy of the 11 September attacks on the USA and the ensuing "war on terror". Along with The Night Sessions (2008), it is probably MacLeod's most direct and angry work. The Night Sessions is similarly Earthbound, and particularly concerned with Religion and the apocalyptic narratives it has often promulgated. Intrusion (2012) portrays a low-key but troubling Dystopia opening in Near Future London, where the discovery of a Drug that immunizes unborn babies from most genetic defects becomes tied into state surveillance (through both direct observation and data-mining), routine police Torture and persistent interference in citizens' lives "for their own good".

MacLeod has published short fiction infrequently, a selection being assembled along with some nonfiction in Giant Lizards from Another Star (coll 2003). This material perhaps demonstrates, as do the novels, that he needs space to develop the arguments he wants to rehearse. If MacLeod has a single problem as an author of fiction, it is that the debates he opens up do not easily allow of closure, but that stories in some way need to end. The exceptionally sudden ending of The Execution Channel is perhaps the most obvious example of this, as is the sense with several other of his works that the narrative could continue for many more pages.

MacLeod approaches sf with two very distinctive interests. The first is an ironic yet affectionate sense of the genre's history and tropes. The second is a deep fascination with the question of how intelligent creatures organize themselves in groups and societies. In a genre devoted so overwhelmingly to narratives of individual triumph, he seems an increasingly important and humane voice. [GS]

see also: Basilisks; Eastercon; Internet; Living Worlds; Power Sources; Seiun Award; Sidewise Award; Space Elevator; Spindizzy; World Ships; Worldcon.

Kenneth Macrae MacLeod

born Stornoway, Isle of Lewis: 2 August 1954



Fall Revolution

Engines of Light

  • Cosmonaut Keep (London: Orbit, 2000) [Engines of Light: hb/Lee Gibbons]
  • Dark Light (London: Orbit, 2001) [Engines of Light: hb/Lee Gibbons]
  • Engine City (London: Orbit, 2002) [Engines of Light: hb/Lee Gibbons]
    • Engines of Light (New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2003) [omni of the above three: Engines of Light: hb/Chris Moore]

Corporation Wars

Lightspeed Trilogy

individual titles

collections and stories

about the author


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