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  • Detonating New Shockwaves of PossibilityAlternate Histories and the Geopolitical Aesthetics of Ken MacLeod and Iain M. Banks
  • Phillip E. Wegner (bio)

This woman from Oslo had on an enormous dress dotted all over with pockets. She would pull slips of paper out of her pockets one by one, each with its story to tell, stories tried and true of people who wished to come back to life through witchcraft. And so she raised the dead and the forgotten, and from the depths of her dress sprang the odysseys and loves of the human animal who goes on living, who goes on speaking.

—Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos [The Book of Embraces] (1989/1991)

According to Feynman, a system has not just one history but every possible history.

—Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (2010) [End Page 31]

One of the more interesting developments in the british science fiction boom of the last two decades, and distinguishing it from the earlier New Wave, has been the emergence of major writers based and often setting their fictions in Scotland. Located on the contested periphery of the British nation, and working in a moment when both the issue of national devolution reemerges to prominence and worldwide political and financial crises erupt, these writers are uniquely situated to respond to the set of cultural, social, political, and economic transformations bundled together under the concept term globalization. Two of the most significant figures in this regard are Ken MacLeod and Iain M. Banks. Both are best known as the authors of landmark multivolume series, MacLeod’s The Fall Revolution quartet (The Star Fraction [1995], The Stone Canal [1996], The Cassini Division [1998], and The Sky Road [1999])1—and Banks’s Culture series, beginning with the novel Consider Phlebas (1987) and extending up through last year’s The Hydrogen Sonata (2012).2 Both writers also published significant examples of the alternate history subgenre in the opening years of the new millennium, with MacLeod’s The Human Front (2001) and Banks’s Transition (2009). Bracketing the first decade of the twenty-first century, these two works, especially when considered in conjunction, have interesting lessons to teach about both the monumental global changes that occur in this period and the role of science fiction in our emerging world.

These two works similarly participate in the project of what Eric Smith names “postcolonial science fiction” as “the literary and cultural expression of globalization, postcolonial SF is formally equipped to offer critical mappings of its geopolitical structures” (2012, 16). Smith maintains that postcolonial science fiction has displaced the now reified strategies of magical realism as the preeminent vehicle for thinking the global, “whose unique parameters demand an altogether different set of representational strategies than those deployed by Carpentier or even Gabriel García Márquez” (2012, 14). This framework enables Smith to provide original readings of fictions by Salman Rushdie, Nalo Hopkinson, Vandana Singh, Amitav Ghosh, Manjula Padmanabhan, Lauren Beukes, and Tobias Buckell, among others, and I hope to extend his project to include these Boom Scottish writers as well. Moving beyond older national paradigms, these diverse works together contribute to [End Page 32] the formation of what Fredric Jameson names the “geopolitical unconscious,” which reworks what Jameson describes as an older national allegory, the latter also at work in high magical realism,

into a conceptual instrument for grasping our new being-in-the-world. It may henceforth be thought to be at least one of the fundamental allegorical referents or levels of all seemingly abstract philosophical thought: so that a fundamental hypothesis would pose the principle that all thinking today, is also, whatever else it is, an attempt to think the world system as such. All the more true will this be for narrative figurations, whose very structure encourages a soaking up of whatever ideas in the air are left and a fantasy-solution to all the anxieties that rush to fill our current vacuum.

(Jameson 1992, 3–4)


In her useful study of the alternate history, Karen Hellekson distinguishes between three different forms of this popular science fiction subgenre, each defined by a specific relationship between the moment of the break...


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