Well Burrowed, Old Mole! Reflections on MacLeod’s The Star Fraction
When I first read it at the age of 16, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod was a revelation to me. I was already a voracious reader of Iain (M) Banks, especially of his novels that deal most directly with political concepts such as The State of the Art and The Player of Games. But reading Ken MacLeod was a discovery of a different order of magnitude. Science-fiction takes ideas more seriously than any other genre. It refuses the conformity of presentism, daring to provoke the human imagination into considering different alternatives about the way that things might be. But whilst much science-fiction focuses on the technological aspects of alternative futures, The Star Fraction is about the future of History in the ‘capital H’ sense: struggles between ideologies, movements, classes and states. Ken MacLeod is aware of the fact that politics is not going to disappear, the future will present us with tough choices about our collective destiny. We may not always live long enough to understand the full consequences of those choices – although with the right innovations in biomedical science some of us just might…
MacLeod’s introduction to the US version of The Star Fraction has been up for a while over on the blog for the Centre for a Stateless Society. The book is a reflection on a social-scientific, not technological, possibility: that comprehensive central planning is very likely unworkable for micro-economic reasons but capitalism may well be unsustainable for macro-socio-economic reasons. Like a lot of science-fiction, The Star Fraction presents a what-if: ‘What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?’. It’s still a pertinent question to ask.
As MacLeod himself reveals ‘History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine’. The Star Fraction is a work of social-science-fiction written by someone with a subtle understanding of the materialist theory of history, an insider’s knowledge of computing, and first hand experience of the travails of the socialist project. The cyberpunk stylings are mainly there to give the book it’s flechette-gun-volley velocity and impact – as well as to give concrete substance to some humanist worries about whether technology actually needs us in the long-term.
One of the cleverest things about the original The Star Fraction novel is the fragmented system of micro-states imposed on the UK by America’s invasion of Europe. I didn’t realise it when I first read the novel, but the UK’s political system is supposed to be a degenerate and oppressive version of the minimal-state market-anarchist system outlined in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the book ‘actually existing libertarianism’ is imposed externally by a occupying superpower – just as ‘actually existing socialism’ was in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
Global financial crises generated by out of control algorithms, flying death-robots killing Islamist terrorists at the behest of the world’s last superpower, fascists in the shadow of the acropolis, grass-roots hackers’ movements releasing gigabytes of diplomatic cables – the world seems more like a MacLeod novel every day. This all reminds me that I really need to get a chance to read Farah Mendelsohn’s edited collection of essays, The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod. I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t able to go the Science-fiction and International Orders seminar, which featured both MacLeod and Chris Brown, at the LSE back in 2011 too.