[The following contains spoilers.]
Ken MacLeod goes to great trouble to try and disqualify his writing as literature. As usual, his latest novel Descent comes disguised as sci-fi. The book’s publisher, Orbit, specialises in sci-fi and fantasy; the cover’s blatant alien-abduction imagery might introduce the sort of book that you’d find an adolescent boy or a rather wretched adult pouring over. The book looks embarrassing and one might almost think that the purpose was to deter serious readers. I became conscious when I was in Costa yesterday that I was always careful to keep Descent face down on the table, as if I was a housewife with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. I have hitherto taken pride in being never prudish about anything, but sci-fi must be the exception.
Descent actually dabbles tastefully in sci-fi. The story is set within almost all of our lifetimes, beginning about ten years from now and ending sometime in the 2030s. MacLeod essentially pumps the near future full of our own newest existing technologies, with Google Glass and domestic drones now ubiquitous (although driverless cars appear to be on the scrapheap). The subsequent future might seem a little too stone cold for some sci-fi fans, since we reencounter the latest technologies without their customary hype and exhilaration. There is a jokey allusion to this when the narrator Ryan is briefed about the invention of an uber-upgraded Google Earth and a page later he is “already bored with the topic.”
Yet looking to the future only leads MacLeod to write more keenly about the present; and to capture, at times with startling authenticity, all the intricate rhythms of our interactions with online technology. We are soon straining to catch any sense of the futuristic at all, and indeed Descent elsewhere verges on becoming a historical novel. The vogue for alien-abduction, at least for me, peaked after the mid-90s and thereafter spluttered on in mounting distress. Once 9/11 “Truthers” were on the scene, the remaining ufologists resigned themselves to an unglamorous retirement. When MacLeod’s young characters gossip earnestly about the survival of the capitalist system, this seems to be even more out of place in the future. Students may have talked like this in the 1970s; they don’t, I’m sorry to report, now.
It may be rare to come across barefaced Marxism anywhere within literature these days, but in Descent progress remains a humdrum, unspectacular force. History burbles on rather aimlessly, with capitalism improving things here and there, but without thrilling leadership or grand drama. The revolutionary is ostensibly reduced to the “infinitesimal flaw” that will one day shatter a crystal. The Trotskyists are still about, presiding over a newsletter with the confidence-inspiring title of “What Now?” At first this might seem to echo Laurie Penny’s jibe that “even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker.” It transpires, however, that the Trots are still peddling their rags because these are the only remaining media which cannot be monitored instantly by the state. MacLeod’s topsy-turvy sci-fi thereby recycles the obsolete into a means to progress.
This genre-bending extends to our own relationship with the book, since it is often addressed directly to us. Descent initially appears to have tumbled back into the present from the future, but it soon seems that we are future readers, living in the future as well. Perhaps we are perusing Ryan’s narrative on our futuristic computerised spectacles. We are told that a future economic boom “was much the same where you were,” which only makes us think how nice it would be to live through such an eventuality. With its 1990s aliens and 1970s Trotskyists, Descent might seem to be raking through the dustbin of history rather than gazing up at the stars, but we have been actually slipped into the future without us even knowing it.
Back in 2014, MacLeod persists in selling his book as sci-fi, with a silly sci-fi cover, to the tiny mad village which consumes this genre, when Descent is probably wasted on these people. Yet if Descent seems to be increasingly understocked as sci-fi, MacLeod’s next tactic is to try and make out that his novel is “bloke-lit,” or “the kind of book Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons do so well.” We must get serious here – Descent is in fact an ambitious comic novel. It deserves to be thrust before the general reader, rather than being fostered upon a certain clique or market. With my snootiness towards sci-fi, I would have never heard of MacLeod or bothered with his books were he not a Lothian author. Our literary processing mechanisms need to be more alive to what he is about.
MacLeod’s previous novels may have possessed a wry, subversive element, but it seemed that this humour was structural or somehow encased in the architecture. Descent, on the other hand, is richly merry on the surface and it enjoys having fun. You can rely upon it for constant entertainment, from the doomed aircraft passenger who sees his life flashing before his eyes “through decades of visual capture” on his glasses; to a yarn about the CIA rendering detainees to extra-terrestrials. The satire roams about like a pub fighter, taking swings at anything that catches its eye, and its stamina is inexhaustible. At times, Descent seems to be too cluttered with targets, with conspiracy theorists, New Atheists, humanities graduates, “the fucking patronising affectation ae scribin’ official communications in Synthetic Fucking Scots,” social media etiquette-enforcement, and even the erstwhile Revolutionary Communist Party whose politics apparently pervade this book all getting abuse (the last “didn’t go out of business, they went into business”). Yet this is a lavish satirical novel, and dazzling in the scope of its moral application.
Let’s glance over the story. The sixteen year old Ryan Sinclair fears that he has encountered a flying saucer in the hills outside of Greenock. At first the humour, in the family home around the dinner table, is goofy and pleasantly Spielbergian. Ryan is not unnerved by his memory loss and abduction flashback, but annoyed at finding himself inhabiting such flagrant clichés. Naturally, the aliens deliver the purest, most unqualified tribute to Humanism that Ryan has ever heard (“You must rely on reason and science”) and naturally Ryan is inspired to flee immediately to church. This being a Ken MacLeod novel, however, the humour rolls a little further than expected and church teaches Ryan about “the psychological element of being taken out of yourself and caught up in the ritual.”
Ryan relates that as a teenager his “generational rebelliousness consisted of a yearning for order.” His father is at one point described as “heraldic, monumental, archaic,” and this gentle old-world authority will remain a star that Ryan is condemned to follow. Ryan is picking nettles for the family soup when he hears news about the military invasion of international tax havens. You might think that an anti-capitalist militarism is rather like soup made from nettles, and yet Ryan’s acceptance of this initiative reflects his soft, somewhat brainless attitude to authority.
He gets engaged to a stem cell specialist who has surrendered her science to the idea of genetic determinism or species exclusivity. She discovers “aliens” within her own race even as Ryan’s own aliens had urged him to become more human. The humour is switched off abruptly, commencing a slide into Lanark-style desolation, but it picks up again once we are entering the novel’s fiendishly farcical terrorist conspiracy. If Ryan often addresses us directly, we may suspect that this note of confiding friendship is strange to him. We are made repeatedly aware of the remoteness of his private experience within an age of mass surveillance and mass biographical exposure. He does not author his life but simply reinterpret it and his narrative ends up recounting the same events over and over again, from different angles, to increasingly claustrophobic effect.
The novel works better, incidentally if you give up trying to follow every detail about the Rammie’s engineering and every twist of the conspiracy. It acquires a half-nightmarish dreaminess, with scarcely-identified flying objects plunging out of the sky and grubby men-in-black turning up in the wee hours with tall stories. Revolutionaries are absorbed into the state and the state becomes a “passive” revolutionary. Once Ryan thinks that he has achieved a definitive interpretation of his life, the sinister pseudo-Tory Baxter melts into a decent fatherly figure and Ryan becomes his special adviser. Ryan falls fatuously in love in a stinking rom-com happy ending that would make even Hugh Grant vomit. At the end of the book he is still fantasising about benevolent aliens and the cliché is now reassuring.
Which brings me back to that cover. Perhaps if I had actually looked at it, rather than trying to furtively conceal it from everybody around me, then I might have noticed that the image contradicts the title. Ryan is illustrated being sucked up into the overhead saucer and this Enlightenment is his Descent. The novel ends with Ryan considering which of his friends are revolutionaries, and concluding that, “All I know is that I’m not.” Perhaps he is living in a historical moment when becoming a revolutionary requires one to be, for once, beamed down to Earth.
[Tychy previously reviewed the first sci-fi novel to be published in Kyrgyzstan.]