The story behind Descent by Ken MacLeod

The story behind the story of Descent begins just after I'd sent in the finished version of my previous novel, Intrusion. That beginning is on a notebook page headed '2/3/11 Next Book Ideas'.

'Aliens among us, done right and played straight ... Speciation as possibly going on unnoticed, showing up as infertility ... relict hominids who are actually 'among us' ... a MIB who appears as a minister/priest at various points in the character's life ... Grey aliens as not funny, but as human screen memories of the really alien aliens'.

From another notebook came a note to myself about a review in Fortean Times of Mark Pilkington's Mirage Men, which argues that the entire UFO mythos of crashed saucers and a government cover-up -- brought to a mass audience by The X-Files -- is itself the result of a decades-long disinformation campaign by elements of the US state apparatus. I bought the book and read it. It's a great read, and wonderfully catches the moments when Pilkington himself begins to wonder if there isn't a core of truth in the mythos after all, and the hairs on his neck stand up.

A novel began to take shape in my mind, about a young man whose teenage encounter with a UFO had warped his life, and about a woman who talked him out of his strange obsessions, and a wife or girlfriend (the same woman?) who was upset that they couldn't have children - at least, not with each other...

But my publishers were very keen that I follow up Intrusion with another book with a hot social issue at its heart. Flying saucers, hidden races, and government conspiracies didn't really cut it. I wasn't at all put out, because I knew myself there was something missing.

Back to the notebook:

'8/8/11 - make all this a fantasy/psychological/ background to something else in their relationship with each other and the world around them

genes race disc saucers aliens nation religion friends families fantasy google surveillance

What's the big theme/issue?'

I discussed the book with Anne Clarke, my then editor at Orbit, in a cafe during the Edinburgh Book Festival. We were both very conscious that since the crash of 2008, money in publishing had become tighter. You can't just wave a hand and say: 'Um, another one with a spaceship on the cover.' Every author has to make a pitch for every book. It suddenly struck me that the hottest of hot topics was that very same economic crisis. Everything snapped into focus.

'Suppose,' I said, thinking aloud, 'all the major governments nationalise the banks overnight. I mean take them over, not bail them out. It would be like having a revolution, but without being aware of it.'

In Anne's eyes, a light came on. 'Send me that proposal.'

But even when that proposal got the green light, and I had stacks of scribbles and notes and an outline of the basic story, and I'd squirreled away observations and details from visits to the satellite manufacturing company Clyde Space and Edinburgh's new, state-of-the-art MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, I still had a structural problem: the story took place at different stages, years apart, in the main character's life. I found the answer in the local charity shop, where I picked up and flicked through a copy of a book I'd already read: Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. Or maybe it was High Fidelity. Doesn't matter, because in these books Hornby solves that very structural problem. In fact, the entire sub-genre of bloke-lit solves it, because the problem of pulling together in the present a life damaged by past errors is what bloke-lit is about.

By sheer coincidence, that very day in March 2012 I had a book launch for Intrusion in the Edinburgh bookshop Pulp Fiction. The event went well, and afterwards I was told by Sam Kelly that she'd like me to be the next Writer in Residence on the MA Creative Writing course at Edinburgh Napier University.

'It's mainly about advising students on the big decisions they make about their work,' she explained. 'Structural and plot problems and so on.'

'Ah, yes,' I said, as if I understood, and told her about my bloke-lit template idea. She agreed that this was the sort of thing she had in mind. Later, when I took up the post at Napier and was working on my novel, students took their writing problems to me and I took my writing problems to Sam, and everything worked.

As I've said in an interview with the LA Review of Books, Descent is 'about flying saucers, hidden races, and Antonio Gramsci's concept of passive revolution, all set in a tale of Scottish middle class family life in and after the Great Depression of the 21st Century. Almost mainstream fiction, really.'

And my next book? Nothing is set in stone, but you can expect a spaceship on the cover.

Ken MacLeod
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