Campus inspires award-winning sci-fi novels
Keen-eyed science fiction fans may have spotted the Brunel campus in the novels of award-winning science fiction writer and Brunel alumnus, Ken MacLeod (Mechanical Engineering, 1998). Ken spoke to PhD student, Joseph Norman, about his time at Brunel, his friend Iain Banks, and how his scientific research influenced his writing.
“Around the roundabout and along the main road past the RAF barracks (DANGER: MINES), swing right into Kingston Lane. In through the security gates, scanned and frisked by sensors. The sign above the gates announced:
Brunel University and Science Park Plc
FREE SPEECH ZONE”
This high security version of our campus is found in a far-future vision from Ken MacLeod’s debut novel The Star Fraction (1995). In this political thriller, winner of the Prometheus Award and nominee for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1996, Brunel science researchers investigate controversial areas such as intelligence augmentation: in the dramatic opening sequence described above, a security officer attempts to prevent an armed break-in at one of the campus science labs.
Since then, Ken has published a further 13 novels and various shorter works, and has become a major British author especially within the field of science fiction, tackling important contemporary issues such as terrorism, genetic engineering and climate change. Ken’s fiction is regularly nominated for science fiction awards – he has won the British Science Fiction Award twice, in 1999 for The Sky Road and in 2008 for The Night Sessions. His novels are renowned for their challenging engagement with political issues surrounding Socialism as well as Libertarianism, but are sure to stimulate thought in readers whatever their political views. Ken returned to Brunel in Intrusion (2012), also short-listed for the Clarke Award, where technological advances into surveillance and genetics have enabled the so-called ‘Nanny State’ to increase its influence.
Ken’s experience of Brunel and of scientific research is first-hand. Beginning his studies in the late 1970s, Ken was belatedly awarded an MPhil in Biomechanics from the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1988, supervised by the “very patient and helpful” Professor Alan Yettram (then Reader in Mechanical Engineering). Ken’s thesis, entitled ‘The response of bone to mechanical stimulus’, explored the way in which “bone changes its shape and its weight both internally and externally in response to the stresses and strains upon it.”
With characteristic modesty, Ken explains how “my transition from researcher to writer was basically because I wasn’t a very good researcher. By the time I’d completed my MPhil I was working as a computer programmer.” While Ken hasn’t made extensive use of his research in his fiction, he gives a nod to Professor Yettram in a short story, describing “‘Yettram Coils’ embedded in spacesuits and used to electromagnetically stimulate muscles to counteract bone atrophy during weightlessness”.
While he eventually chose a career as writer of science fiction rather than investigator of science fact, having direct experience of real-world scientific research and “some idea of how science and scientists work” gives Ken’s fiction an authentic feel. Ken was “particularly privileged” to be a Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh Genomics Forum during 2009.
During his time as student at Brunel, Ken’s living arrangements were somewhat unconventional: then a member of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a small group at the fringes of “a large, active labour movement in West London”, he lived alongside ten other politically engaged Brunel students and graduates, in a housing association “in the shadow of the EMI factory” in Hayes. “There were three houses that formed one household,” he explained, “sharing cooking and that kind of thing – quite practical if you’re living with ten people!”
Whilst living in Hayes, Ken was visited by his old school friend Iain Banks, also a popular Scottish writer of mainstream and science fiction. “Iain wrote ‘The State of the Art’ whilst he was staying there,” Ken explains. “He would go into Brunel University to research the year 1977, the time in which that story was set.” As many readers will be aware, Iain Banks sadly died of cancer earlier this year, shortly before the release of his final novel The Quarry.
During Ken’s time at Brunel, campus was very different to today. He describes it as “pretty bleak” and mostly “wind-swept concrete,” with fewer facilities and green areas. Last visiting the University in 1988 when he collected his degree certificate, Ken’s descriptions of it are drawn “from memory, and from Google Earth.” I suspect that Ken would be struck by the way campus has been transformed since.
Despite these differences, however, those familiar with the Brunel campus will recognize it in Ken’s fiction: The Star Fraction’s protagonist Moh Kohn is described as “walking towards the redbricked accommodation blocks”, or “along narrow pathways, over a little bridge.” Interestingly, this familiarity quickly becomes uncanny when one realises that the surroundings depicted, ostensibly in the future, are based upon recollections from thirty years previously. In science fiction terms, this phenomenon is known as ‘retro-futurism’.
Intrusion takes the form of a dystopian novel. These ‘bad places’ of the future, familiar to many from literary classics such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and from films such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange(1971) – itself partly filmed on campus – often draw upon fears of a state system whose protective policies become too restrictive and slip into a hellish regime of authoritarian and totalitarian control.
Ken’s novel has been legitimately compared with those of Orwell and Huxley, but – as he makes clear – while there is a clear satirical tone to his novel, he has tried to present a more balanced and optimistic portrayal of a state system than most dystopian fiction.
My conversation with Ken provided fascinating insights into the career of a distinguished novelist, and into the creative process, revealing the ways in which fiction can examine the changing nature of our societies through technology and science, and also how real world science – with its process of insight, research, development, experimentation, and publication – mirrors the development of fiction.
Ken is currently Writer in Residence on the MA Creative Writing course at Edinburgh Napier University, and is revising his next novel, provisionally titled Descent.
Ken will finally return to see how the campus has changed, as he joins us as the keynote speaker at a Symposium on Iain Banks’ Utopia in September. Further details and booking can be found here. Keep up-to-date with Ken’s activities on his blog: http://kenmacleod.blogspot.co.uk.
By Joseph Norman
PhD Research student