Gareth L. Powell’s British Science Fiction Award-winning Ack-Ack Macaque is a novel about an uplifted monkey who battles an android menace in an alternate version of Europe,so you’d be excused for thinking its all the product of flights of fancy by the author. Not exactly, argues Gareth. He joins us today to talk about the facts behind the craziness of his super-fun trilogy (which continued in Hive Monkey and ended with Macaque Attack; all three books are now available in an omnibus edition).
Since Ack-Ack Macaque came out in 2013, people have been commenting on the craziness of some of its ideas. It is, after all, a thriller about a monkey pilot fighting androids in a world where Britain and France merged in the 1950s. However, far from being a work of outright fantasy, much of what is in the novel is actually based in fact.
Now, as Solaris releases the omnibus edition of the complete Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, I thought it might be time to examine the real-world inspirations for the story.
Of all the ideas in the book, this one seems to be the one most readers have struggled with. But it almost happened for real. According to this 2007 article in the Guardian, the French prime minister came to London in September 1956 with just such a proposal. In our world, the British declined his offer; in the world of Ack-Ack Macaque, because of an early and unexpectedly victorious outcome to the Suez Crisis, they said yes.
Lighter-than-air craft are a staple of alternate history stories, often thrown in with little rationale save that they add flavour to the background. In Ack-Ack Macaque and its sequels, they exist for political reasons. With the French and British shipping industries facing post-war decline, the new Anglo-French government decided to turn them over to the production of airships. Initially they were petrol-driven, but later switched to lightweight nuclear-electric engines, helping to loosen Europe’s dependence on foreign oil. And, as this BBC report from 2014 suggests, similar airships may be also be making a belated comeback in our reality.
3. Neural Prosthetics and Uplifted Monkeys
Ack-Ack Macaque is a monkey who has been raised to the intelligence of a human being thanks to computer processors implanted in his brain. It sounds outlandish, but scientist can already interface a primate brain with a computer well enough to operate a robot by thought alone, and have done so in both humans and monkeys. It’s not a great leap therefore to imagine that in another fifty years, this interface will be powerful enough to integrate artificial neurones into a living brain—allowing both the uplifting of monkeys such as Ack-Ack, and the repair of damaged humans, such as Victoria Valois. These developments also potentially lay the pathway for the integration of a human brain into an artificial body—something that plays a big role in all three of the novels.
4. Parallel Universes
In quantum physics, the idea parallel timelines exist is known as the ‘Many Worlds’ theory, and it has been used in science fiction for decades. You might remember the mirror universe in Star Trek, which housed an evil, bearded Spock. They are a great way to write “what if” stories, the most famous of which is probably Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, which depicts a USA under joint Japanese and Nazi rule following defeat in WWII. Now, though, one researcher at the California Institute of Technology has claimed to have discovered evidence of these other universes in the radiation left over from the Big Bang.
Although Ack-Ack Macaque, Hive Monkey and Macaque Attack are works of fiction and primarily designed as thrilling entertainment, it was very important to me that they were built on a solid and believable base. If I was going to write a book about what it meant to be human, using non-human or post-human characters to explore the boundaries of the human condition, I knew I had to find plausible explanations for their existence. Tempting as it was, I couldn’t just drop an intelligent monkey into the story without having a reason for him to be there. And I wasn’t setting out to write some sort of one-joke slapstick. Despite the (often grim) humour that runs through them, these books are intended as serious works of science fiction, with plenty to say about who we are, where we’re going, and what it’s going to be like when we get there.