Ken MacLeod‘s introduction to the North American edition of his 1995 novel The Star Fraction appears in the omnibus volume Fractions: The First Half of The Fall Revolution by Ken MacLeod (New York: Orb, 2008), and is reprinted by permission of the author and of the publisher, Tom Doherty Associates.
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The Star Fraction is the first of the ‘Fall Revolution’ books, and my first novel. I started writing it with no idea of where it would end up, let alone of making it the start of a series. It still isn’t: the four books can be read in any order, and the last two of them present alternative possible futures emerging from that mid-21st century world I imagined at the beginning.
In this scenario, a brief Third World War – or War of European Integration, as its instigators call it – in the 2020s is followed by a US/UN hegemony over a balkanized world. The Fall Revolution in the late 2040s is an attempt to throw off this new world order and to re-unify fragmented nations. But, as one of the characters says, ‘What we thought was the revolution was only a moment in the fall.’ His remark has a theory of history behind it.
History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine. One such theory is that society evolves because people’s relationship with nature tends to change more radically and rapidly than their relationships with each other. Technology outpaces law and custom. From this mismatch, upheavals ensue. Society either moves up to a new stage with more scope for the new technology, or the technology is crushed to fit the confines of the old society. As the technology falls back, so does the society, perhaps to an earlier configuration. In the main stream of history, however, it has moved forward through a succession of stages, each of which is a stable configuration between the technology people have to work with, and their characteristic ways of working together. But this stability contains the seeds of new instabilities. Proponents of this theory argue that the succession of booms and slumps, wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, which began in August 1914 and which shows no prospect of an end, indicates that we live in just such an age of upheaval.
This theory is, of course, the Materialist Conception of History, formulated by the pioneering American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and (a little earlier) by the German philosopher Karl Heinrich Marx. These men looked with optimism to a future society, and with stern criticism on the present. Property, wrote one of them, ‘has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation. The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property … Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society …’
Beam me up. But before stepping on the transporter to Morgan’s ‘higher plane’, it might be wise to check the specifications. One constraint on the possible arrangements of a future society was indicated by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. He argued that private property was essential to industrial civilization: without property, no exchange; no exchange, no prices; no prices, no way of telling whether any given project is worthwhile or a dead loss. Given that every attempt to abolish the market on a large scale has led to the collapse of industry, his Economic Calculation Argument seems vindicated. Unfortunately, there’s no reason why the Economic Calculation Argument and the Materialist Conception of History couldn’t both be true. What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?
The Star Fraction is haunted by this uncomfortable question. For me, it was acutely felt when I was writing the book, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a socialist I had become interested in the libertarian critique of socialism. The fall of the bureaucratic regimes of the East found me neither surprised nor sorry.
No, what was – and remains – dreadful to contemplate was not the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ but the catastrophic consequences of the attempt to introduce actually existing capitalism, and the apparent inability of the millions who had brought down the bureaucratic dictatorships to assert and defend their own interests in the aftermath.
In this novel, these issues are seen through the eyes of characters who are flawed and often mistaken, but sometimes heroic. The ideologies through which they try to make sense of it all range from British-style ‘industrial-grade Trotskyism’ to American-style ‘black helicopter’ libertarianism. The big questions about history and economics fuel the adventures of angry white guys (and angry black women) with guns, whose actions tip scales bigger than they know. Their world is one where the New World Order is coming to get you, with black helicopters and Men in Black and orbital gun-control lasers.
And then there’s all the stuff I made up, which begins on the next page.