Let’s do a bit of time-travelling. In early 1990s east coast Scotland, two friends meet to discuss their efforts at writing a breakthrough science fiction novel. One is Iain Banks, already tipped as an up-and-coming, if controversial, young novelist, who is trying to sell a revised version of a science-fiction novel he wrote some time back. The other is Ken MacLeod, who has yet to make his first sale. Over a series of pints, sometimes in a pub in the shadow of the mighty Forth Bridge, they discuss publishing, writing, the awfulness of the Tory government, the possible future course of socialism, the role of 9-to-5 jobs in a modern post-industrial globalised economy and the state of science fiction. The author photograph on the dust jacket back flap of his first novel shows MacLeod as a typical Leftist rough-and-ready activist. And out of this fervent came that novel, The Star Fraction.
It is a cyberpunk take on factionalist Leftist politics in a balkanised 21st century Britain. In 1995, when the novel was published, this was still a possible future (though it would take a major leap of faith to imagine the fragmented far Left achieving the level of boots-on-the-ground presence that MacLeod imagines). Now, more than twenty years on, this reads more like an alternative history, where Tony Benn was a philosopher, not a politician, and a state of open – and semi-legal – warfare exists between the State, a revolutionary army deposed from power by a resurgent monarchy, various statelets and their organs of state control, the USA, the UN, and a patchwork of revolutionary militias and mercenaries. The main protagonist, for example, is a mercenary security operative for the Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers’ Defence Collective; other organisations are equally appropriately named. In the 1970s, one British trade union was likened to Beirut; think of the Lebanese civil war and you will begin to understand the complexity of the world MacLeod has created. There are fundamentalist religious groups, political groups, anarchists, all the shades of Leftists you can imagine and special forces of all allegiances and none. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, as someone once said.
The said protagonist carries a modified Kalashnikov for which the phrase “the gun spoke” is, for once, not a metaphor. He gets involved with a research scientist working on neural biochemistry. There are antiheroes and villains, AIs and love stories. It will help the reader if they have at least some familiarity with the British Left; not just the trade union movement and the Labour Party, but other groupuscules and parties, the iconographic texts of the Left and individuals such as Tony Cliff and John Pilger (just two of the journalistic icons namechecked in the book amongst many more). It helps if you know that in some circles, Leo Trotsky is (still) referred to as “the Old Man”, or if you can sing the words to Red fly the banners, O!.
Having said all that, the story itself is reasonably straightforward once you accept the premise of the balkanised Britain, can cope with multiple viewpoint characters, and are happy with what turns out to be a fairly standard cyberpunk plot underneath all the subversiveness. Technology is resolutely mid-1990s, extrapolated, but bears a strong resemblance to the earlier works of William Gibson. The text is riddled with allusions, puns and references. The pace is fast.
MacLeod’s later novels calm down somewhat, and in those books he does not wear his political heart so much on his sleeve. But in this first outing, you get the unadulterated raw Left-wing spirit.