Why is Science Fiction Going Back to the Near Future?

William Gibson says reality has become science fictional, and therefore all his science fiction is now set in the present day. Authors like Charles Stross and Margaret Atwood have followed suit, writing books set in the near-future. What is this obsession with near-future SF? We asked io9's muse, science fiction author Ken MacLeod, whose latest book The Execution Channel is set in a not-too-distant future, and marks a strong departure from MacLeod's far-future space opera phase that included books like Learning the World, Newton's Wake, and the Engines of Light trilogy. MacLeod says he turned to the near-future out of fury with the present. Read our interview with him to find out more.

Why did you decide to move from far-future tales like Learning the World to near-future ones like The Execution Channel? Do you think that near-future writing is more politically or socially relevant?

I decided that after writing the Engines of Light trilogy, then Newton's Wake and Learning the World, I'd done everything I wanted to do, for the moment, in space opera; and meanwhile had accumulated a whole new decade's worth of fury about the world as it is now and the way it's going. Certainly near-future writing can make more immediate political comment, but far-future tales can be just as direct. Learning the World raises as a question the possibility that we may have, as Darwin put it, 'a secure future of great length'. Which, if you think about its implications for the present, is fairly political, because the default assumption is that we don't.

Do you think near-future novels are considered more "literary" than far-future ones by readers and critics?

That's what I've found - The Execution Channel has had more mainstream reviews than any of my other novels. But it isn't so much near-future as a matter of writing SF while appearing to write something else - well, the mainstream writers are writing something else! But I wanted to write something that looked like a techothriller but keeps faith with SF - a book where the lab doesn't burn down at the end. But not to worry, I'll be back to the far future sometime, if we're spared (as we say in Scotland).

Are there any political philosophers you consider to be science fictional? I'm thinking of how Karl Marx talks a lot about things happening in his future Utopia - fishing in the afternoon and philosophizing in the evening and all that. But there's obviously a lot of these sorts of speculations going on in any political philosophy that cares about the future. Any political theory or theorist in particular that you find compelling as SF?

Actually, Marx talks very little about future society. Even that famous quote comes from an unpublished work. Marx's most science-fictional vision is of 'the automatic factory' - for Marx, reducing the amount of time spent in boring, unfulfilling work is the basis for human freedom. Freedom begins when the working day ends. It's all very current and it's all right there in Capital. I've speculated elsewhere that Marx's approach to society - look at what's emerging, look at the technology, look at the underlying conflicts that these bring out - may have in some vulgarised form actually inspired the emergence of science fiction itself. Science fiction is an adventure playground in the materialist conception of history.

But in my own case, the political philosophers whose ideas most directly give rise to SF are the libertarians. Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia more or less compels you to think science-fictionally: how would this work? (Or not work, as the case may be.) You start imagining a crazy quilt of societies, and for me it was not far from there to something like Norlonto in The Star Fraction. Then there are the ecologists, but I can only imagine dystopias about them ...

When is science fiction a form of political intervention?

That's a tricky one. At one extreme, the answer could be 'almost always' because by presenting any picture at all of the future (or other possible worlds, or alien civilizations, etc) the writer is making certain assumptions about what can and can't change in society and in human (or human-like) behaviour. At the other, the answer could be 'only when it's written by mainstream writers' because only they tend to have the approach of 'Hmm, let's address an issue of pressing current concern using this garish prop set and crude tool-kit left lying around by science fiction' and produce some crass, clunky polemic. But seriously, I suppose the answer depends on the intention of the writer, which can be more, or less, conscious and more, or less subtle. These are different axes, by the way! The book I'm reading at the moment, Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels, is a good example of being both conscious and subtle.

Image from the cover of MacLeod's first novel (set in a near future!), The Star Fraction.