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The New British Catastrophe
An interview with Paul Raven
February 2007

© Beth Gwinn
Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod was born in Stornoway, on Isle of Lewis, Scotland, in 1954. Since graduating zoology at the University of Glasgow, he worked as a computer programmer and has found time to complete a Masters thesis in biomechanics. He's been married to his wife Carol since 1981, and has two children, Sharon and Michael.

Ken MacLeod Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Human Front
SF Site Review: Newton's Wake
SF Site Review: The Human Front
SF Site Review: Cosmonaut Keep

The Execution Channel
Learning the World
The Human Front
Newton's Wake

Ken MacLeod is a name synonymous with the British wave of New Space Opera. With ten novels and a slew of short stories to his name, his work is renowned for blending science fiction and radical politics in books that both entertain and challenge the reader. I interviewed Ken during a brief writing hiatus in the run-up to the publication of his forthcoming near-future thriller, The Execution Channel.

To start off with, maybe you'd give us a brief blurb for The Execution Channel, in your own words?

The situation is this: fighting has spread across the Middle East and Central Asia to the borders of China. In the US, refugees from climate-change disaster subsist in FEMA camps or on the streets. China and Russia aren't the only states considering their options in a world with a lone and unpredictable superpower: certain nations of Old Europe are secretly preparing for the worst.

So much for the world in 2006. A few years more of this and we're in real trouble...

James Travis is a [British] middle-aged middle manager in a software company. He has a son in the army, a daughter in a peace-protest camp outside a USAF base, and a compromising relationship with a foreign intelligence service. When a nuclear explosion destroys the base, Travis, his son, and his daughter are all in serious trouble with the authorities. Travis drives north to try to rescue his daughter, and into worse trouble. And that world a few years down the line is even more refracted by disinformation than the present.

It's a rather different type of novel from much of your previous work. How did the idea gestate?
My initial pitch for the book, to myself, was: we've done New Space Opera. Now let's try New British Catastrophe. That got me thinking about the catastrophe novels of John Wyndham and J.G. Ballard and others, and how their catastrophes were always things that weren't likely to happen -- walking plants, a wind from nowhere, giant wasps, volcanoes in Wales -- instead of the catastrophe that everyone really feared. It was as if they were deliberately averting their gaze from nuclear war. That got me to the first point: to focus on what we really fear -- nuclear attack, terrorism, torture.

The science fictional elements are very subtly deployed -- almost subversively so. Did this make it a challenging story to write?
Yes. What I found most challenging was to have in my mind a very clear future history leading up to the present time of the novel, while not specifying it -- with dates and so on -- within the story. I was also more reserved about bits of gadgetry and cool kit than I usually am. I'm hoping this book will be read by people who don't normally read SF, as well as people who do. The balance there can be tricky. Another problem in writing near-future SF is that at any moment some shocking, world-shaking event could twist the future into a different shape. The solution I came up with -- on a suggestion from a friend, Farah Mendelsohn -- was to set the book in a future that's already different from ours, because it has a different past. Just what the divergence is, I'd like to leave the reader to find out while reading it.

Was it difficult pitching something so different to your agent and editor?
Not at all -- they were both very keen.

The texture of The Execution Channel is almost that of an espionage thriller -- albeit one with all the glamour and heroism sanded off. Did you immerse yourself in different or unusual source materials before getting started?
I've read bits and pieces about intelligence agencies and disinformation over the years, from spy novels to serious studies -- I'm a regular reader of Robin Ramsay's excellent journal Lobster, for example. A book I read years ago which is very good on the inherent ambiguity of the business -- the 'wilderness of mirrors' aspect -- is Leopold Trepper's memoir, The Great Game. My friend Nick Fielding has written books on the MI5 whistleblower David Shayler, and on the 9/11 terrorists. While I was gearing up for the book I read a couple of John Le Carré novels, and Tony Bunyan's The Political Police in Britain, and re-read Philip Agee's CIA Diary. This helped to get a few details right, or a least sounding right.

Your depiction of the world in The Execution Channel is unflinchingly bleak, but you've avoided explicit violence almost completely. Was this a purely aesthetic decision, or is it saying something more subtle?
It wasn't a conscious decision; it arose out of the circumstances of the characters. The effect of being constantly aware of violence going on somewhere else, though, was part of what I wanted to indicate. I've been very struck by the way J.G. Ballard's media landscape of violence and atrocity and perversion has become part of our real world. Hence, among other things, the Execution Channel of the title.

During the process, did you find yourself questioning the wisdom of writing something so close to the bone?
Absolutely, yes! I was just getting the ideas together and had pitched it to my editor when the 7 July 2005 London bombings happened. I felt very uneasy about the book for a while after that -- not because it dealt with terrorism, but it dealt with a breakdown in relations between Muslims and the majority in Britain. That subject was already being discussed in what in some cases was an inflammatory manner. And then I thought that maybe this was a very good reason for tackling the subject.

Are you prepared for people to conflate the author with his art, and assume you to be expressing support for certain factions or ideologies in the non-fictional world?
Yes. But it'll be interesting to see just which ideologies or factions I'm assumed to be supporting. The real ideological core of the book is not in the ending, but in certain reflective moments of two of the major characters.

Can we expect more novels in the vein of The Execution Channel, or is this a brief excursion from your favoured path?
I have a contract for two more near-future novels. Beyond that, I can't say, but I have an idea for another very-far-future novel [...] and plenty of material left to mine in the future implied in Learning the World, which I've already used as a setting for two short stories, one of which has been accepted for an anthology of New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strachan.

Thanks ever so much for taking the time to do this interview, and best of luck with all your projects, present and future.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Raven

Paul Raven is a dishevelled library assistant from the south coast of the UK. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation or neural prosthetics. Drop by his web site at the Velcro City Tourist Board

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