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Stewart Hotston

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The problem with winning power

There’s a saying – ‘No one ever changed the world by being nice’. I don’t know how true it is, but I believe it about 60%. Certainly peaceful protest has succeeded in moving the chairs around but I’m not sure whether it’s only when peaceful protest and violent resistance meet that societies really change. You could say I’m really, truly hoping Greta Thunberg manages to inspire us Gen Xers and Millennials fulfil out duty to future generations and change the world before it gets overwhelmingly violent.

However, the above is really only by way of starting this short essay.

I’ve been pondering why it is so many of us here in the UK (and also our friends across the pond) find it hard to occupy the middle ground now.

One obvious argument from my side of the debate is that it’s fine to not discuss my future with nazis and fascists. It’s a pretty strong argument. And I also think, when faced with such extremism it’s valid to argue the call to moderation is one I should set on fire because it too is my enemy for giving space to those who won’t be satisfied until I’m no longer part of the world we currently share.

However. This doesn’t satisfy me. It might be right and it is definitely a simple argument to grasp.

yet it can’t be the whole story. Why not? Because I think we can only unravel the mess we appear to be in (or the period of enhanced and lively political engagement depending on your point of view) by understanding a little of what really constitutes it.

I know it’s trite and probably cliched to say this, but really we’re talking about power. But I don’t think what I’m about to say isn’t your normal discussion about power.

Those of you who are friends of mine on facebook will have seen me mention the work of Mary Douglas this past week. In particular books such as Natural Symbols and Purity and Danger. Much of what I want to think through here will be (inelegantly) crabbed from her thinking, so really, do yourself a favour and go read them instead of me!

Assuming you’re still here I want to think about power not in its exercise, but in what it means for communities. Power is, in most meaningful senses, about agency. It is about being able to act as one wishes. This is additionally so for communities. The big difference is that communities are made up of many people and so have sets of rules by which those people know they are a part and know they are outside. Rules of taboo, punishment, transgression etc. are all about saying who belongs and who is outside. To use the technical term, they are what defines the sectarian nature of any community.

Part of a community exercising its agency is to say ‘you are not a part of us’ or indeed to say ‘you belong here’. The interplay of the individuals own agency and that of their community is important and communities can crush those within (and without) through the means of enforcing their shared understanding of belonging. In a very real sense, to break the law (whether it’s to each coffee cremes when everyone agrees they’re an abomination or to engage in cannibalism) is to set oneself against the community.

So far so dry.

I want to briefly tie this into the superhero narrative we have and which modern western culture appears to find so appealing in the mainstream now. (and I’m a massive geek, so @ me here because I’m a big consumer/lover of this content) There’s a very common narrative that superheroes are really crypto-fascists. It’s a strong reading and one I basically support but it’s not deep enough. The problem with superheroes is that they’re basically representative in a large way of how we wish the world worked. Simplistically we wish we could, as individuals, go off and, with magical powers, fix all that’s wrong. Additionally, we tend to wish those problems could be personified and dealt with in a single struggle where it was clear what was right and what was wrong.

Apologies – I’m being overly simplistic. Yet I believe the above cod-psychology holds if we think about how communities address their concerns – and that’s through stories. We tell one another stories of how bad our enemies are, of how they’re lying, evil and happy to commit unforgivable sins. Not because we wish them ill as a primary motive but because it helps us defend our own values and helps mark them out as being separate to us, as being outside us.

For highly sectarian communities (and this is definitely a feature of the extremist politics we experience now) the barriers between being in and out are very sharp. For more moderate communities you see fuzziness, tolerance, a gradient which provides a lot of wiggle room. I think we’ll all recognise that right now, we experience both on our side and that of the other a very sharp divide. You’re either with us or against us. I’m being descriptive here rather than explicative so a little bit of the latter.

Sectarian communities are effectively defensive in nature. Their world view is one filled with insecurity and fear – fear of being corrupted, of the community failing. It can fail because of only one thing – that the outsider somehow corrupts us, that we weren’t pure enough. You’ll see this played out wherever you see ideological drives for purity – such as Momentum trying to oust the deputy leader of the Labour party or the withdrawing of the whip from 21 Tory MPs for daring to dissent. Game theory tells us those are disastrous moves BUT that’s not the rationality in play. The rationality in play behind these kinds of actions are ones designed to maintain purity, to identify and keep the corrupted outside of the community lest they corrupt us to. This drive to stave off the end of the community is built from three elements. One is agency – the community has values it wishes to actualise. The second is it feels threatened, it feels like if it loses it might disappear and this drives the third element – it believes in the story which makes it a community. These elements combine to create a set of motivations that are not those of trading power and achieving progress but of defence and survival.

People who are looking to survive will act as they deem necessary – if you believe losing the argument represents an existential threat, it becomes possible to justify any action as reasonable because to fail to take it could lead to having no life to regret sticking to ones values over. See this article in Time Magazine for a great example of a value driven community (US Evangelicalism) which has fallen into the sectarian trap of believing it’s under siege and acting defensively as a result.

This brings me to the main point of this post. Why votes and ‘opinions’ appear to have become the pivot points around which we’re building our mutual sectarianism. Led by the hard right, which is a community under deep existential threat in the West (at least), they’re acting as defensive communities – a vote like the referendum becomes not about facts but about the power it will give them to establish borders around their values. These values are shifting because they’re not that important – it’s the exercise of power in the name of survival which is important here. The actual values can be fleshed out later – do we mean full on fascism – well maybe, if that’s what served to protect ‘our way of life’. It’s also why a second referendum on Europe for the UK is irrelevant (even if legally vital) because those who won the first time around see that as the boundary which protects them. Anything to the contrary is simply another attack on them. You cannot overstate the insecurity this community feels across a whole range of social issues which crystallise around the idea of those who are outside and the pollution they bring when they are invited inside. As an aside – we can then see that many of these people aren’t ‘racist’ in the old fashioned NF/BNP/KKK sense. But they are racist because they see their identity centrally as white english speakers and the ‘other’ as outside of that. They’re just as prejudiced towards Polish people as they are Indians and Chinese.

When people get on the news and say ‘there’ll be riots if you betray 17.2 million people’ they’re not talking rationally as we understand it. They are, however, talking rationally from their point of view. THey’re expressing that their boundaries are being crossed and they will act to protect their definition of who is inside and who belongs outside. They will purify those inside who are ‘not true believers’ and they will guard the gates to stop anyone from coming inside. They’re not saying there will be riots (although there may be) – they’re saying ‘this is THIS important to me’.

I don’t know if this is particularly enlightening. I hope it is. I’m trying to say why the facts as people in my community find so important are so irrelevant to these types of community. I’m trying to say why they can’t see the legal frameworks, the four estates and our cherished checks and balances are vital to restricting magical untamed power from wrecking havoc. Why? Because, right now, they want power (their power) to wreck untamed damage on those outside their community who they perceive to be at their borders massing for invasion. To be clear I don’t mean actual invasion, I mean psychological invasion, an invasion where their myths are cast down, their narratives about how the world is and should be are shattered and replaced with new ones.

How can we talk to these people? Should we? We have to remember they have set a specific set of values as matters of purity and taboo. For many of us those items are too extreme or basic for us to often know how to tackle.

I would say this – these values bring them comfort. Othering those not like them (Remainers, poc, women with agency, foreigners, experts etc.) provide them comfort when they can actively exclude them. They already feel defensive and this act helps them feel as if their walls are impregnable. It gives them agency. Helping people exit from cults is very difficult and there’s a good JSTOR paper on how the exit process can cause more damage than healing.

If we are to tackle this, we must continue to propose our own myths, to dismantle their taboos. We don’t dismantle taboos with facts alone. It can’t be done. We can only dismantle taboos and ideas about purity by establishing our own forms of these values. This runs the risk of direct conflict as different mythic ideas clash. I think if we’re interested in establishing that racism is NOT ok then we have to accept that potential outcome.

So…to conclude. Like properly.

  • we should give up the notion that facts will convince people who are defending values
  • We MUST develop our own positive myths around why the society we want to live in is a good one and we must be prepared to defend it. i.e. we have to fight them a little on their own ground
  • We must remember that constitutional, legal and social niceties, conventions and norms are seen as contemptuous if they serve the ‘other’ for communities under siege
  • We must continue to defend the above for all the obvious reasons as well as the fact they protect us from ourselves
  • We cannot be neutral but we can also call people in these communities to their positive values – to their better natures. Almost no member of those communities sees themselves as bad people and we can use our own myths and narratives to call out those positives.
  • Attacking them, belittling them and humiliating people who feel defensive will only make them more defensive. However, when their ideas clash with mine, I must call them out but as one peer to another. We should always treat them, not necessarily with respect of their ideas but with the knowledge that their values are significant for them and we should therefore take them seriously. Seriously enough to oppose them.
  • Finally – narratives among the community of outrage are explicitly designed to build those values and to ensure emotional engagement remains high. As I’ve said elsewhere, we must develop our own myths and stories if we are going to counter these kinds of arguments. But how we build positive myths is for another day.

Why can’t we get there from here?

I was fortunate enough to speak at the LSFRC’s Productive Future’s conference yesterday at UCL’s School of Art. I managed to see a couple of other sessions too and they were universally well presented and provoked plenty of discussion afterwards in each case. I particularly liked Dan Hassler-Forest’s paper on the economics of the mega-franchise.

Below are my, edited, notes on the paper/speech I gave. Long story short – I have been concerned for a while now that much science fiction is lagging on the issues that really face us today – one of which is our relationship to energy. In the notes below I posit a couple of reasons why I think we struggle to develop that relationship as writers and I add one additional argument based in our relationship to neo-liberal capitalism which arose out of a question I was asked at the end of the talk.

Introduction

Thank you for having me. I’m coming at this as an economist, scientist and author. These three elements of my background will inform the construction of my argument and I’ll present my own thoughts based through these lenses. Before we get going though, a little bit about what we’re going to cover.

  • what we’re going to cover
    • Definitions – energy
    • Physical considerations – that is, the what, the who and the where of our relationship to energy
    • Theory – what would a physicist say about energy? How does that divert from socially constructed meanings ascribed to energy
    • Science Fiction and how what we write reveals about us
    • The future – what kinds of subjects would I love to see us thinking about more carefully
    • Conclusion – what can we hope for through literature
    • Time for questions
  • But first a little about me – physicist, economist, banker, author blah, blah, blah.

Overview of Energy – a question of definitions

  • Energy is a word used in all sorts of contexts – from hard science where energy is a fundamental building block of everything to new age philosophy through to synonyms for our gas and electricity supplies.
  • In science fiction we have energy weapons (just about any space opera), light sabres, psychic energy (c.f babylon 5, Star Trek, Transcendence etc. etc.). The list goes on. For me, the concept of energy is multi-variate in nature with definitions as poorly defined as they are widely spread.
  • For the purposes of this presentation I’m interested in three uses of the word
    • Energy as a physical resource – such as solar, oil and fission
    • Energy as in physics – a raw measure of joules, electron volts etc.
    • Energy as in useful sources of power for cars, ships, people and spacecraft – agnostic about the physical resources. i.e. how we use and consider energy as a motive force.

Physical Considerations – where, how, who – The Politics and Economics

  • The energy we use is not invisible or intangible. It takes up space, needs to be moved and managed and, in most cases, comes from a primary resource such as wood, water and oil.
  • The implications of this are perhaps well understood by companies and politicians but not by the average lay person – modern supply chains are complex, multi-national and hidden by design even from the individuals working within them. Getting oil from the gulf of Mexico to a car in China is a chain that crosses dozens of countries, navigates months of time and passes through companies employed hundreds of thousands of people. See here for instance for a fantastic infographic on the subject. Rutherford’s maxim that complicated ideas should be explainable to a barmaid does not stand.
  • This is partly a capitalist imperative – to reduce the agency of consumers who are forced into dependency because they cannot source their own supplies and cannot tinker. All innovation must be created by an economically motived agent, not a community agent because this is how you maximise profit for your shareholders.
  • Most ordinary people do not think about how their electricity is generated. They couldn’t tell you what green electricity really is – if you asked them how does green electricity get to your house they’d not be able to tell you it was a stupid question.
  • Furthermore the scale of the energy market – whose financial instruments, derivatives, futures and contracts with multiple benchmarks, currencies and timescales is too overwhelming for even experts to really understand. You only have to look at Goldman’s predictions of oil going to $200 a barrel in May 2008 about thirty days before it collapsed to less than $37 in Feb 2009 demonstrates the point well.[1]
  • So where does that leave us? There are a couple of strong narratives both in factual reporting and in fiction.
  • The first of these is that we don’t need to think about energy. We live, in advanced late stage capitalist economies, post scarcity. Energy is infinite (or at least abundant in the fact that it is ALWAYS there when we turn on the lights). The infrastructure we’ve built guarantees it fades into the background as a certainty we don’t need to consider – unlike for most of history where we’ve had to concern ourselves each day with whether we’ll have enough calories to make it through.
  • The second is well demonstrated in M L Ross’ book summarising the Curse of Resource Wealth first posited by Auty et al.[2]. Resource rich countries do not benefit from their resources. Or at least, the majority of the people in those countries. Consider Nigeria[3] where political violence between the state, local politicians, the companies and locals appear to be the only booming business despite the vast reserves of oil.
  • As always the truth is more complicated. Britain, Norway and the US, to name just three, have or have had deep resource benefits and did end up as ‘failed states’. In my mind it’s really more a sense of post colonial classification as post colonial powers look on at the eviscerated cultures they’ve then abandoned and scratch their heads to an answer. Any answer will do that doesn’t implicate their decade or centuries long pillaging as being largely responsible for environments in which these kinds of outcomes find fertile soil[4]. Better yet a narrative that blames those left behind for their own woes.
  • Contemporary thrillers understand that energy is politically volatile – there are many movies and novels about oil for instance (the very best of them being Oil! which was remade as the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood) but they often draw a straight line between governments and corporations as bad and people on the ground as good. They do not explore how those governments are often simply reflecting the actual exigencies of what their populations are demanding in terms of services and standards of living.
  • This comes back to the first idea – that we don’t need to think about energy and its intersection with the wider population.
  • Popular explorations of geopolitics and how societies survive have also entirely overlooked these links – Tim Marshal’s Prisoners of Geography and Jared Diamond’s Collapse or his Gun, Germs and Steel have strong central theses about why politics turn into guns being fired and they are not driven by the need for energy. Jared’s theories about scarcity and even his ideas about the impact of the horse skirt the edges of this but don’t take the heart of it seriously – that a need for energy security – be it fuel to cook, fuel to heat our homes and mine our bitcoin drives much of the conflict we’ve witnessed over the last 50 years.
  • The problem is, energy security is effectively at the heart of US projections of power. It also informs Russia’s tilt to supplying energy to China after Western sanctions hit, activity in the Yemen. I met a number of oil industry executives in 2003-2005 and they were exceptionally clear we went to war in Iraq because of energy security concerns over and above anything else. I remember one conversation on this matter with a CEO stood on their construction floor where they were building new drill bits which were ordered before the resolution was passed at the UN authorising the invasion.
  • Energy has huge social, economic and political meaning.

Theoretical Considerations – Domain, Range and Extensibility

  • Having explored the physical I want to step back a bit and think more abstractly before bringing these two threads back together and addressing speculative fiction’s coverage of energy more directly.
  • Energy is, in its purest sense – not dependent on people. The largest delivery mechanism of energy to the planet earth is the Sun, the second is our molten iron core. Neither of these need our input or can even be influenced by us.  
  • How does that come into culture and is it helpful where it does?
  • Most discussions about energy are filtered into common language designed to make them graspable. It’s that mechanism that more often than not leaves us unable to really grasp the neutrality of the science of energy. By which I mean we’re at its mercy not that it doesn’t matter.
  • For instance, Electron mass is ½ MeV. And the mass of that very famous particle because of which most people have heard  of CERN, the Higgs Particle is 125 GeV. Does this mean anything to anyone except physicists? If you tried to write a sci fi thriller about this where would you even begin?
  • How many calories have you eaten today? Most of us can’t parse that statement realistically without help from apps and information on the back of food containers. Why not? Because it’s hard, not because we’re dumb (although that’s often the underlying message of press coverage).
  • So forget asking what we mean by the horse power of your car? Or how much energy is there in the universe.
  • When thinking about how we can parse this into Sci Fiction, and perhaps into normal everyday language we should borrow an idea from mathematics about Domain, Range and Extensibility.
  • Energy is everywhere. This is its Domain
  • However, energy cannot be extracted from all things. Even if all work requires energy – this is its Range
  • Another way of saying this is as follows: not all types of energy are equally available to us (i.e. high energy photon which had 10Kcals of energy, enough to heat a cup of tea but no real way of harnessing it. Or when we burn petrol we don’t recoognise that the heat and noise oof the conversion are forms of lost energy which we’ve failed to capture).
  • We know energy is tough to harness and that laws of entropy mean there are ever diminishing returns for us. Carnot’s engine is learnt by undergrads but is not well known elsewhere. Yet it impacts what we can reasonably expect humanity to achieve. What energy can we expect to be able to harness? How can we do it and how do we cope with the possibility we will always be on the losing side of the equation?
  • These are questions not well addressed by a Science Fiction grounded in post scarcity economics. We tend to see worlds which have everything they need regardless of their energy system or we have apocalypse where there’s nothing (although they still somehow have enough to eat with some notable exceptions such as McCarthy’s superb The Road)
  • There is a religious impulse in this thinking – a strong desire to see one of the basics of a society which works as one where we have abundant energy so we can then focus on the surface elements rather than the infrastructure. You can see in many sci-fi texts (cf. Alita: Battle Angel) that the poor live among the infrastructure and the rich do not see it. In real life we are the rich in the West and we do not see the infrastructure of our energy consumption and so do not question either our position nor its impact on others except by waving our hands in their direction as if it’s their fault.
  • Further still, we are too often left with magical thinking in our forecasts about human energy consumption. Consider climate change, bitcoin and AI. I’m avoiding references here because I, too, am a writer and it’s just not done to highlight other people’s creative choices.
  • Mini-conclusion – energy is vitally important. Most people can articulate that but they can’t articulate why. They also have no grasp of what we mean by energy – be it theoretically or physically considered. People have no better idea what a barrel of oil can power, where it comes from or how many are produced a day than they do about HE photons or the impact of a gamma ray burst and its implications for a goldilocks zone within most galaxies.

Science Fiction – common flaws, notable successes

So now I want to discuss how all this scene setting influences the landscape of what we discuss in science fiction. We can all name the most common tropes:

  • Faster than light and other forms of space travel – Star Trek, Star Wars and any number of other texts such as Interstellar and Children of Time.
    • The flaws to this are beyond the lack of science supporting it.
    • The flaws are about the energy requirements and about how they could drive wars and conflict, cooperation and entirely new branches of science. c.f the energy requirements of the current writer’s favourite, the Alcubierre drive.
  • Cryptocurrencies – a new breed of thrillers and discussions from people like
    • Neal Stephenson, myself, Kim Stanley Robinson, Doctorow and Friedman
    • Bitcoin mining is energetically expensive and remains a poorly scaling store of value with no real economic application at this point despite its obvious libertarian political rationale – see the FT Alphaville blog for reams of articles on this point. Izabella Kaminska in particular.
  • Fusion – free energy. The Abyss! Space Opera.
    • It’s ok to completely ignore this stuff and just write soap. Personally, I’m not advocating we only see hard SF.
    • But sci fi can do so much more. It can present to us the challenge of energy and scarcity. Think about the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is the stand out example of addressing these issues.
  • The AI – from 2001 to Diamond Age to Ancillary Justice
  • Construction and maintenance of Cityscapes – Lavie Tidhar in Central Station, Rendevous with Rama and SevenEves and Red Mars.
  • Production of Metamaterials – relatively poor examples of how new materials can change everything. Again, we end up looking at people like Stephenson but too often they’re macguffins rather than realistic looks at how new tech changes everything. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is interesting.
  • The support of transhumanism – any Kurzweilian approach to humanity. Zero K by Delilo is a really strong mainstream example which crosses boundaries.

The thing is they rarely talk through the key technological and economic problems of these technologies because, most of the time the technology is magic – not necessarily even internally consistent.

  • After all, AGI is terribly expensive to run.
  • Who provides the power to maintain a brain in a computer?
  • Why mine for materials in space when the energy required to get there would out weight the benefits from what could be brought back to earth by orders of magnitude?
  • As we’re all aware, in the real world, pursuit of energy security drives politics. Science Fiction is all too often the preserve of a homogeneous (and by this we mean white) cultural artefact and so entirely misses the political and racial streams of energy security.

The Future – plausible, implausible, impossible

My thesis then is this: energy is hyperreal. It is too large and too broadly defined an idea to be grasped well, even by subject matter experts. Hence we see speculative fictions struggling with how we get from where we are today to other futures – we struggle with developing the idea of Asimov’s Future History when it comes to energy. Part of this is by the cultural/political design of neoliberal capitalism, part of it is simply the scale of the political energy economy is too large for people to grasp.

Our abiding energy myth in western democracy is about abundance. It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even have memes about it being added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We have no new myths about energy scarcity yet. No stories we tell of how we arrived as a post scarcity environment for some and not for others, how we fought wars to create this world and how those wars are going to be fought and fought again as long as there isn’t truly abundant energy for all.

Here’s a trio of ideas I’d love to see in the literature – stories presenting possible futures to us where these kinds of technology are present but are also central to the worlds we’re creating.

  • There’s already a burgeoning field of Energy Economics[5], [6], [7] with its own journals and conferences. This is an exciting real world development and its subjects of study are ready made for political science fiction. I really hope that given we’re developing a language and pattern of thought which actually addresses these issues today we will start to see stories picking up on this and bringing these ideas into the mainstream
  • Zero carbon footprints – the challenge of lifestyles which could accommodate this and the importance of deflationary economics – the conflict in the heart of capitalism against deflation. My own employer is working toward being carbon neutral – if large companies can do this then there is language and conflict to explore.
  • Deflationary economic systems – Nouriel Roubini interview on FT Alphachat

What can we do through literature?

As we see new language discussing how we get from here to there I truly hope speculative fiction develops stories about the journey and not just the aftermath.

Explore the challenges of developing new technologies which are fantastically energy hungry

What are the challenges for authors though? Economics of course – stories have to sell. But also audience tastes. Info dumping, political appetite and making a point all turn readers off.

But speculative fiction can change the dimensions of the Overton window to allow us to see discussions about the hidden infrastructure as normal, about peeling it back being what we do.

Additional references

https://www.frontier-economics.com/uk/en/sectors/energy/

https://www.nber.org/programs/eee/eee.html

http://www.biee.org/

https://www.nature.com/subjects/energy-economics

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy-economics


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/21oil.html

[2] https://press.princeton.edu/titles/9686.html

[3] https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/system/files/publications/wp120_maehler.pdf

[4] Political Research Quarterly, volume: 67 issue: 4, page(s): 769-782

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_economics

[6] https://www.iaee.org/

[7] https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publication-category/energy-economics/?v=7516fd43adaa

Let the past die

I’m here to talk about The Last Jedi. Again. Like twelve months after everyone else stopped. Why? Because of this podcast from the Financial Times’ Alphachat series (which I totally recommend by the way). In Andrea Nagle draws an insight which hadn’t occurred to me: that conservatism in the States is under attack but not from the left. It is under attack from the Alt-Right.

She outlines how the Alt-Right’s (we can call them neofascists if you like) mantra has developed over the last decade and how one of its defining features is a break from traditional conservatism. This break occurs because a new generation of right leaning people look at conservatism and see it capitulating each and every time it’s been challenged over the last thirty years. They see the only way to shore up and overturn the losses is to discard that form of conservatism and create something new.

Not only that, but this becomes a call to ideological radicalism rather than an incremental movement towards old ideas. No longer hold to compromise positions but simply develop new principles (communicated as old principles because the strength of the MYTHs of conservatism remain as seductive as ever). These principles become hills to die on and, if the chance occurs, to skewer others on as well. Gone are fiscal probity – in comes racism, anti-immigration. Discussions about PURITY (and for that see Mary Douglas’s excellent Purity and Danger for a clear explanation of why this is such a powerful myth).

A great place for these kinds of myths to reform and take new shape is among populations that have created ideas about being under siege. In technical terms they’ve become sectarian. Evangelical Christianity is a superb example of this in the US (and increasingly in the UK). See this superb long piece on the relationship between the two in the US. I don’t agree with it all, but the central insight that Evangelicals have entirely lost touch with the core tenets of Jesus and swapped them out for a fin de siecle long defeat narrative is spot on.

The above is all quite academic. I want to tie this into a central theme – why we shouldn’t laugh at Kylo Ren. Nor should we dismiss him. And by that I mean we shouldn’t laugh at Brexiters, nor Trumpists, nor dismiss them.

The second point should be obvious by now. Kylo Ren runs the First Order. Trump is President, Brexiters are possibly going to get the very worst of their wet dreams come true. Dismissing them is like dismissing the massive great hole in the side of the Titanic. SO for the rest of this, read Trump or Alt-Right, or Fascist or even Boris Johnson into every mention of Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is a terrifying opponent because he was born to power. He was given every chance to have empathy for others, to do good in the world. At each step he’s mixed with those who HAVE done good in the world yet somehow has decided the world works differently to every model he’s been shown.

As well as having had every privilege, he’s also very wealthy. He’s had mentoring along the lines of conservatism. Snoke, Hux and others have helped him see a coherent view of the world in opposition to those who he never clicked with. His own internal struggles somehow make more sense to him when he sees it from Snoke’s point of view. Yet they still lose Starkiller base. They still can’t defeat the common people and their republic – even after totally dismantling all the protections, systems and ways of expressing themselves. The eradication of the new republic still doesn’t let them win!

So he thinks and realises the old ways, the conservatives, can never win. They need to go. When Kylo Ren says ‘destroy the past’ he doesn’t mean destroy the republic, although he certainly thinks they need to go. He’s actually talking about the First Order. Not only does he kill Snoke but when Hux disagrees with him (quite sensibly), he publicly assaults and humiliates him.

Kylo Ren is not a child throwing temper tantrum. He is not ineffectual or mad or stupid. He is only absurd because he’s destroying conventions we’ve accepted as right and normal. It is surreal but it’s not stupid.

Those around Kylo Ren don’t last long. But Ren doesn’t need them to. He’s building something new and part of the vision of that is chaotic and constructive destruction. He’s bought into the idea of blood shed makes everyone stronger and if it’s those around him in service of his vision that’s probably about as strong a message as he can send – we are ALL to be sacrificed to build a new world.

Further still – he knows he’s the only one to really understand what’s he’s trying to do, so he must endure, he must be in control lest the less pure, the less insightful water down his vision. When Trump Christians say they prefer Trump to Pence (an Arch- evangelical) they back it up with ‘because Pence is too nice to do what needs to be done’.

After a while his people are suspicious over everyone but him.

His failures don’t matter except to his enemies. His successes matter to everyone.

Kylo Ren is a perfect embodiment of the enemies liberal and social democracies face right now. He is an uncaring populist, a demagogue and a man with a vision most of us can’t begin to comprehend because of the horror true implementation implies.

The Last Jedi also contains some strong arguments for how to defeat people like this both in popular opinion but also practically.

Lesson 1 – Luke’s fight with Ren. Luke doesn’t fight Ren. He simply distracts him while everyone else organises. He stands up to Ren but does not engage him on his own terms. He let Ren wash himself out while his own people look on in horror at his foolishness.

Lesson 2 – the survival of the rebels creates a MYTH of overcoming an enemy who wants to destroy the world the rest of us have built.

Lesson 3 – sacrifice – Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to stop the enemy fleet is something NONE of Ren’s team would ever consider doing. They would sacrifice others for themselves and their ends but never themselves for others. If we want the world we have now to continue and to improve Holdo is a massive lesson for us about how we build it.

Lesson 4 – The detour to Canto. It’s absolutely vital to the story because it shows how others prosper on our suffering. It shows life under fascism it shows that the rich don’t care if you suffer and they SHOULD NOT be idolised. Celebrities are an opiate we should put in a bin and burn far from home.

Lesson 5 – Mavericks get you killed. Don’t rely on those who think they know best when they have no plan or that plan relies on defying everything we’ve learned. Everything Poe Dameron does gets people killed. Everything he does fails and from it he takes that he’s succeeded. Until he learns he HAS to work with others everything he touches turns to shit. It’s vital we learn this lesson because we, as a culture, have swallowed the idea of ‘big men’ being the arbiters of history and being our heroes who make everything right again. It’s the biggest piece of bullshit going and if we fall for it, like Poe, we’re really just weakened shadows of Kylo Ren.

I maintain The Last Jedi remains the best Star Wars film. If only because it’s got everything in it I want about the politics of now and is, ultimately, a message of hope about how nobodies like Finn, Rose and Rey can make a difference.

There are no easy solutions

WARNING – I’m cross and may well also be imperious and condescending in what follows.

Hard problems are hard. They can be complex, sophisticated and often intractable. I work in an environment where projects typically take months or years from start to finish and involve dozens of people from multiple groups – many of which have conflicting aims and agendas. My main role is to bring these people together and keep them together throughout the time necessary to get complicated, difficult projects done and to find ways to reconcile many situations where there’s no good answer, where someone doesn’t get their way (or multiple people).

I say the above not to sound great but because my experience of the world is framed from this kind of experience I tend to assume everyone else views the world this way. I realise, if only from watching people’s responses to the Brexit process that most people don’t live this kind of experience.

This week Hansard published a report suggesting that a growing number of people would settle for a strong leader, a benign dictator if you will and after I’d stopped despairing I wondered why people might be feeling like that.

I was reminded of a number of conversations I’ve had about how parliament has operated in the first quarter of 2019. Many, many people I come across are despairing of how the Brexit process has gone – they lament the foolishness, the self-centredness and apparent dimwittedness of our parliamentarians.

I want to propose a counterpoint to this – as part of a larger discussion about difficult subjects being difficult. From my perspective parliament has done exactly what it should have done through this process. It has taken on what is a very, very hard problem – how to deliver something most people don’t want and just as many people don’t understand and a similar number can’t say what they want. In taking this on, Parliament has, in my view, adequately reflected the country and the constitution has performed admirably. It has held off an executive which has authoritarian tendencies (if one is being generous one might suggest this is driven by frustration at the challenge of the problem). It has been unable to make up its mind – which if one reflects on just how close the vote was is pretty reasonable. It has broken along the lines of the issue – not ideology (although that has driven individual pockets of action). All in all, our system has delivered to us exactly what it’s designed for – representation. You might think it should deliver what you want, or perhaps ANY decision – but that would be its failure.

BUT I think there’s more to say on this. Brexit, like many technically hard problems (and I mean that in the philosophical sense in which there may be no answer we can derive that we can know to be optimal or even satisfactory) is a challenge for which there isn’t an easy answer.

I have witnessed over the last few months a growing demand that someone ‘DO SOMETHING ALREADY’. I want to push back against you if this is your feeling. You are wrong to ask for this. Not only that, but you are endangering the very systems designed to ensure we make the best decisions we can. You might complain about the people engaging in solving our problems as being venal, corrupt, imperfect or worse. Fine, that’s probably true to a greater or lesser degree. However, you are wrong to suppose those elements are the sole driving forces behind the apparent chaos of the process we are witnessing.

We are witnessing this process through a glass darkly. 24 news cycles might suggest we have insight into what’s going on but we really don’t. We’re as far from seeing what’s being calculated as we ever were. Distance has been replaced by obfuscation – leaving us right where we started before continuous coverage. It is a mistake to think that because you’ve read about it you have any real idea of what’s behind decisions presented to us.

Secondly, people are flawed. However, they’re no more flawed than you. If you think otherwise, I’ll show you someone with the really dangerous flaw of not having any self-awareness. The systems we generally agree make for good decision making factor these in – not to rule those foibles out but to ensure they have as little impact as possible. All people try to find ways around these rules (whether you’re illegally downloading music, speeding or deciding on a hostile immigration environment, the calculus is strikingly similar). The rules exist to hold us back, yes, but they also help us avoid the mistakes others have made or foreseen could occur without them.

Thirdly – solving hard problems takes time. No one person can resolve them, no simple answer will unlock them and no short-cut will deliver what you want without hurting everyone else. The art of diplomacy is helping everyone win when everyone knows they won’t like such an outcome. It’s why negotiating trade deals, climate change agreements and large commercial contracts take years to close. People work hard throughout that period in small incremental steps not because they’re slacking but because THIS IS THE ONLY WAY to success.

The excuse that people are tired of the process is really an admission that they themselves aren’t really capable of engaging in the same level of depth. At best it’s a failure of imagination wrt how difficult problems can be and at worst it’s an arrogance nearly always unsupported by that person’s own life achievements (and yes, I am being deliberately dismissive).

The complaint that those involved are morons…well it’s harder to argue that’s at least partly true. However, it is also often a shorthand for saying the problem’s simple and we should get on with it…by which we mean the world should like we want it to and no one else matters. This is a selfish, shortsighted view and one I have time for than being ‘tired’ of the whole thing.

The idea that simply refusing to compromise will win the day? Sigh. It does explain why so many families have kith and kin to whom they’ve not spoken to for years. Even if you can get away with such relationship destroying misery…well good luck next time and good luck when you need someone else to aid you.

So…long story short. Please relish this process, or at the very least understand it is very, very hard and what we’re witnessing are our systems working very hard to manage that somehow. British democracy is working well. British politics is being disrupted and tired ideologies on both left and right are being torn to shreds. These are all good things and we would really run a mile from morons who say ‘if we had a monarch in charge it would be better.’

I like open democracy. I dislike monarchies of all forms and the Sultan of Brunei should remind us just how dangerous they really are. Soooo, could we all agree that open democracies are worth cherishing and protecting from their detractors?

The alternative Non-fiction authors list

So this has been a challenge. I’ve struggled – realising a little about my preferences for non-fiction and, frankly, the absolute dearth of mainstream non-fiction by POC that isn’t somehow about race or the impact of colonialism. I probably need to say that when I think of non-fiction I don’t mean self help or biography. I mean either skirting the academe or thoroughly enmeshed within it. I mean philosophy, science, mathematics, history etc.

I googled ‘author’ for the picture for this post…the entry is a white male…because of course it ****ing is. However, this isn’t a post where I rant about the racist skew of search engines. It’s not even a post where I rant about how the academe is basically skewed towards white people (men) or how we can lament how it’s easier for a white person to get commissioned to write about non-white issues than it is for those being written about. For instance, I can’t/won’t write about Henrietta Lack’s because it’s a white person who was entrusted to write her story (even if, hint, hint, you should totally read it).

I promised a list of non-white authors who wrote non-fiction I, personally, think you need to encounter. Some of this is inevitably about race and empire but much of it is not.

Man, beast and zombies by Kenan Malik

There ain’t no black in the union jack by Paul Gilroy

Life on the Edge: the coming age of quantum biology by Jim Al-Khalili

Why I stopped talking to white people about race by Renni Eddo Lodge

I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou

Orientalism by Edward Said

The Emperor of all maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee

What young India wants by Chetan Bhagat

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Lastly, and because he had a massive impact on my life: The wretched of the earth by Franz Fanon

Democracy isn’t broken but the ships sailing on it are sinking

I’ll start this post by saying it’s not about Brexit. It’s not about the ERG’s contemptuous hankering after full throttled no holds barred capitalism to feather their already overflowing beds. It’s not about the Labour party’s utter lack of morals while in opposition – being populist and opportunistic while appearing to have no real sense of what it means to represent the people who vote for them.

Oh no. It’s about about what the hell the above means for us one year from now, five years from now and when my children are old enough to think about voting for themselves.

I contend that democracy remains one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Representative democracy across two chambers with an independent judiciary and free press puts it up there with the ECHR and the US Constitution. Human society is an amazing thing – a repository for our learning, for checks and balances which can bring benefits to everyone that no individual could ever accrue for themselves (despite what baffling morons like Ayn Rand believe).

Gav Smith recently posted how no one would ever vote for the conservatives again. He’s probably partially right. There’s a discussion there about how, even if that were the case, Labour would find it hard to win a majority. 

The question I want to ask is this: what are the current political parties for?

Labour’s history is amazing – its genesis and the ideas behind it were ground breaking and challenging to the whole of society. 

Conservatism, even if we can afford to be a bit more jaded about it also has a history well worth thinking through carefully and not dismissing out of hand. The world looked very different 50 and 100 years ago.

However, I would contend their peak impact, socially and culturally, is past. All major parties are on the decline – both in terms of membership but also because the things they care about more vociferously appear to be of decreasing relevance to people like you and me. 

Stated policies are often unachievable (despite being popular) and then abandoned. People demand honesty but then crucify those who make mistakes. Perhaps most difficult is that most people don’t belong to political parties, don’t attend meetings and don’t act on behalf of those parties even if they are members. 

However, this isn’t people’s fault. That would be to mistake parties having a god given right to exist. They don’t. Parties that don’t represent us should die. Actually, they should be taken out and shot before they start doing us harm because poorly populated parties become the province of the extremist and the incompetent – often because those two types of character find meaning and safety within the identity of political parties. 

We’ve seen, with the rise of populism (and all the incoherence associated with it), a genuine disgust over the ineffectiveness, hypocrisy and perceived corruption of the major parties. If populism tells us one thing worth knowing it’s that our major parties are dead and they just don’t know it yet. 

So back to the question – where do we go from here? With increasingly damanging and irrelevant major parties the challenge for the ordinary person is who to vote for. Do I vote for a party which doesn’t represent me (for instance, I have witnessed outright antisemitism in the labour party and more generalised classism, sexism and racism among conservatives), hold my nose and hope it is, on balance ok or is there another alternative?

I’d love to see the rise of an alternative, centrist, party. One that supported universal basic income, the rights of entrepreneurs, scientific and social innovation and the protection of our most needy. Who wouldn’t? However, of the recent attempts to see parties like this launched every one has disappeared without trace. 

We appear to be stuck with two major parties (and the SNP and LD as minorities) because the system they are a part of gives them some kind of vulcan death grip on airtime, funding and organisation. Yet I’d say there’s an equally important reason why nothing’s growing up in the middle – because we, as a society, have stopped congregating together, stopped having common enough experiences (in work especially) to provide the necessary fertile ground for a new party to emerge based on common understanding and policies. 

This leaves me bewildered. Not because I don’t understand the reasons for why we don’t appear to be able to replace our current sinking ships with something better suited to the modern society we live in but because I don’t see any way to replace them without some major upheavals in the way we live as British citizens. 

Let me put this another way. I’m a natural labour voter. In principle at least. But I can’t vote for Corbyn. I also can’t vote for a party which refuses to act as effective opposition. So who do I vote for? 

I don’t want to vote for the Conversatives for reasons I hope the utter farce they’ve made of Brexit makes obvious. Indeed, their average voter is literally not going to exist within two decades, leaving them quite literally dead in the water. 

I don’t want to vote for the Lib Dems or the Greens who are basically ideologically hollow and unforgivably naive respectively and can’t vote for the SNP (although I’m not especially happy about voting for any nationalist party). 

Let me lay out some of the issues I wish would form more substantial parts of policy:

  1. How we fund increasing social costs with an aging population while admitting this may well be a circle than can’t be squared
  2. How we look after our weakest most vulnerable people rather than assuming they’re scroungers and chancers
  3. Climate Change – God we need serious politicians on this and literally anyone other than Lord Lawson
  4. The labour market increasingly appears to be operating as a panopticon with no rights for average workers (and certainly no funding to take on abusive employers). We appear to be volunteering for this rather than challenging the rights of employers to police our morality
  5. Public space is disappearing faster than during the enclosures but we say nothing as those representing us close down our rights to congregate and travel freely with no accountability or right of challenge
  6. Law and order. Science says a lot of things about this but we’re stuck with firing world leading scientists who dare to speak the truth about drugs, incarceration and institutional racism
  7. Access to law – legal aid is a vital component of an independent judiciary. Too many people can’t access legal redress because they can’t afford to it. This MUST change. If we believe all people should be subject to the same laws we must invest in a system that allows it

There is no party focussing on this. They may have policies, I’m sure I’m going to get people mansplaining to me about the party they’re signed up to. Guys…I’m pretty smart. I’m also pretty widely read. I understand what’s being said and if you can point to where these are actually being implemented I’ll sign up. Seriously. 

The title of this post was about sinking ships. If it’s not obvious by now I think our parties are those ships and they’re doomed. yet there aren’t other ships to transfer onto. Which leaves me with a huge conundrum – democracy only works if the demos participates. Yet without a compelling set of representatives many people will opt out rather than feel compromised. They see their representatives not representing them and they feel robbed of power. This isn’t apathy – this is powerlessness. Because we’re less organised than before (even if more connected) we tend to lack the ability to challenge our representatives effectively when they stray from what we want them to reflect of our views. In a world where most of our representatives are disconnected from the challenges we face (mainly because so many of them are independently wealthy, privileged and highly educated) it’s an easy route to take to turning away from them completely. 

Can democracy reinvent itself with new, compelling, reasons to participate? I really, really hope so because right now I can’t see what comes after the current ships sink. 

My own prognoses for this would be as follows:

  1. double the number of MPs – the original number was set to be able to realistically engage with local communities. This was when the population was half the size. Ergo, more MPs actually means better representation
  2. Double their salary. Crikey – there’s just a few hundred of them. We spend more money on keeping the crinkle cut yellow buffoon safe when he comes visiting. It’s a drop in the ocean and, if we truly value democracy, we should be prepared to invest in the system that keeps it working in our favour. It would also mean that we can attract good people from backgrounds who can’t afford to give up other careers (including looking after their children) for what might be just five years in office. 
  3. Create a democratic second chamber with longer terms (say 10 or 15 years) which operates a little like the US Senate only without the gerrymandering. It has shown itself to be a very effective check and balance on the short-termism of the parliamentary executive.

I suspect the above would help only a little. The bigger issue is how we develop new parties who reflect what the majority believe and desire rather than listening to the extremes on both sides. I’m not suggesting referenda – please save me from the tyranny majority rule. I’m suggesting hoping, praying for a system where my representatives reflect my positions more than half the time rather than substantially less. 

If the above doesn’t happen a democratic deficit we’re only just now beginning to observe will grow like a disease, eating at the bones of our society until we’re left ripe for authoritarianism of one form or another and we’ll be defenceless to resist. 

Why you shouldn’t want a TV debate

I keep seeing people saying we should have TV debates between leaders. They say it like it’s crucial to our democracy that the senior ranking MPs of the two main parties have some kind of face off in a TV studio. I see arguments in the media that it is madness not to have them perform like monkeys in front of the nation so we can say to ourselves ‘they won’ or ‘they lost’.

Personally I think it’s a terrible idea.

I like the fact we’re in a representative parliamentary democracy. I like all three of those words.

I like representative because it means the people who represent us at a local level get to make decisions on the basis that we trust them to do their job rather than jumping at every jumped up moronic plebiscite we’ve had this week. (Can you tell I’m a remainer?)

I like Parliamentary because it means we aren’t ruled by a president (god forbid we have a sodding king by another name). Most people sing I’m the king of the castle and reference chopping of the rascals head…I sing it the other way around. Just ask my kids if you don’t believe me. I’m a radical republican (not a Republican!) and anti-monarchist. Parliament is a system whereby decisions are made by consensus building and an executive not a single leader.

I like democracy because it means, in practice, that if you dick me around I can vote you out. I like that. I like how it’s overseen nearly every major social innovation around equality and rights in the last 200 years.

Together we should be thanking our lucky stars and doing everything we can to support that system. By support I mean rooting out corruption but also communicating positively with our representatives and supporting them socially, emotionally and also letting them know when we disagree with how they’re representing us. (We really shouldn’t be threatening them or sending dick pics or whatever other mad stuff people are probably doing right now).

How exactly does a TV debate help this? Does Corbyn win? Can May? I don’t see it, I also don’t see how them winning helps the parliamentary system maintain its strengths, checks and balances. Sure, it helps media sell advertising space, but their arguments for why we want them only work if we have a presidential system. Which we don’t. Only a few thousand people get to vote on May and/or Corbyn. It’s likely not you. It isn’t me. I vote for an MP who works in the executive. I believe I’ve even had some wins on subjects I’ve written to them about (repeatedly, patiently and, I hope, not too madly).

For all the many flaws with our system that I’m sure people will take time to internet explain to me, our system is pretty good. It could be better for sure. But it could also be worse. We could have an orange proto-fascist in charge deciding things by executive order. Our current set of politicians might not be of the calibre we want, but they’re not, on the whole, massive racists or misogynists or basic corrupt bastards. Some are, but you know what, most of them aren’t – my MP, for instance, isn’t any of those things.

We should not be clamouring for a presidential system or supporting cynical moves to make it appear to be one thereby undermining a consensus driven executive.

Just my two pennies.

An angry writer

Brexit was a wake-up call for me. Trump came later but I still wasn’t done grieving for the world I knew by then. I have to say I was so angry I didn’t know what to do with myself. The Brexit results – 24th June 2016 – were delivered on my birthday, so as someone who loves mixing with other cultures, values the freedom to move throughout Europe and who believes in the rule of law (and that law serves us and helps reign in our worst impulses) the vote to leave symbolised so much more than the catastrophe that’s unfolded since.

This is a long way of saying that what I’m interested in writing about has changed.

Authors such as Jesmyn Ward, Hari Kunzru, Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead and Octavia Butler have taken me on a journey – and there’s probably no better phrase than they’ve awakened me. I feel like I’ve often felt the revolutionary impulse, but given I’m a banker with a family and house you could be very much forgiven for thinking if I did have it, I’ve certainly not lived it.

Richard Sennett writes about this in his book, The Corrosion of Character, where he says that in a highly regulated work environment, we no longer have to have moral expressions because so much of what we do is decided for us. I agree to some extent – the main issue for me is that the possibility of expressing our morality is shrunk to simply what we think in private with it taking a HUGE energy to get us over the threshold that leads us to act beyond the routines we have in everyday life.

The last two novels I’ve written have had anger at the heart of them. The first is looking at the cost of being free in contemporary society – what do we give up for convenience and what happens to us when that convenience is used against us? My thesis is that we’re so enmeshed in the web of making daily life more bearable (in the face of intense pressures to work and perform according to society’s norms) that when we do have to go against that flow it can unravel our lives almost instantaneously.

Zygmunt Bauman writes about how there is an implicit morality running through this conformity and that if we do deviate it’s seen as being a sign there’s something wrong with us rather than with the thing we’re fighting. In other words, as victims or resistors – we are seen as the problem – especially if it’s the mainstream we’re struggling against.

My current WIP is about slavery – openly about slavery and its evils both for the owners and the enslaved. It’s about why slavery ends, why it persists and questions whether equity for the enslaved can be achieved peacefully.

I’ve also written three short stories for publication in the last year. ALl three have been shot through with anger – in the characters, at the worlds they live in and with what options are available to them.

All of the above deal with injustice of some sort explicitly. I would wager it’s utterly impossible to write about the micro-aggressions that make live incrementally more stressful for less privileged people meaningfully in a book as simply part of the story rather than the driving narrative. The refusal to give up a seat, the cat calling, the drive by racist chant, the being followed around a super store or the soft exclusion from social activities. When writing, one feels the need to make the point, so larger, more obvious issues tend to get focussed on, but it’s the micro-aggressions that frame the entire debate; they provide the psychic landscape for the larger events to occur without shocking us into action.

Consider the murder to Kamal Khashoggi – it’s been shocking but in part only because we’re aware of it after a masterful media campaign by the Turkish government. Don’t get me wrong – what has happened is absolutely awful – but check out the Committee to Protect Journalist‘s project and you’ll see literally hundreds of murdered reporters just from 2018 alone. Where is the outrage for their spent lives?

Through this process I’ve realised that the writing that most excites me carries a sense of righteous anger with it. Anger at in justice, anger at oppression.

Don’t get me wrong – it also carries hope that we can overcome, that we can keep fighting back the darkness in our souls, but first ANGER.

I’m just plotting out a novel (in between working on my actual WIP) and it will be explicitly about truth and why we want journalists to shut the hell up with their insistence on shining a light into dark places. It’s obvs sci fi – but it’s also obvs about who we are right now, today.

I don’t think anger can be sustained without it becoming bitterness – so I want to channel it into my writing and into, more active perhaps, forms of protest. But I want to persuade others to act, not simply act myself and it seems to me that putting stories out there which remind us we should be outraged, that help up empathise with others and which show us evil can be fought back and the good fought FOR might be the most useful thing I can do.

Please, please, please go to the CPJ’s website above and look at their resources/advocacy requests. If one of you does this I’ll feel like I’ve done something to make the world a better place today.

Why identity matters to us all but may stop you selling your stuff to others

My last three long works have, or are going to feature a multiplicity of genders, races and that’s by design. On the completed side, there’s a hard science fiction novella featuring an all female cast and a novel with multiple sexual identities across the main characters. My current WIP is a long work – which is based in a society where gender fluidity is the norm and slaves are identified because they’re non-gendered.

I’m happy with these stories, love what they’ve allowed me to explore and I’ve deliberately chosen to construct them in this manner.

I’ve adopted this approach because I want to tell stories with these characters at the heart of what I’m writing – to explore their challenges and, in no small part, to allow me to work through the issues such ideas bring up. I’m not preaching to anyone about it and, to be honest, I’ve worked pretty hard to make these characters meaningful in their own sense – so that it’s not a side show that all the characters are female, or that there are people of every skin colour present. They’re there because they are – not to make a point, not to fulfil a stereotype or satisfy an agenda.

Yet this week, as I prepared for a number of panels in the upcoming FCon, I was reminded by one of the panel members as they discussed their experience of the world of publishing, just how hard it is to get from the word on the page to the audience. Furthermore, just how much hostility there is for all of the ideas I’m loving writing about. Homophobia, transphobia, plain old racism and deeply rooted sexism and misogyny appear to be present at almost every gate to getting stories out there (except self-publishing, because then you can just get on with it).

There’s a reason why non-white people are voted off Strictly and it’s the same reason why marketing people are wary of stories that are going to exclude possible audiences – because it hurts sales. It’s collusion with those forms of oppression – collusion with those ignorant hateful attitudes for sure, but it’s something else too.

Poor sales mean businesses stop making money and then people lose their jobs and whatever progressive hopes and ideas they had lose their channel into the public debate.

You can hate gatekeepers because they are the unwilling (I hope) face of society’s wider nastiness – they’re the people we see – the casting agents wanting young beautiful (by their standards) women to portray having sex with maverick older white men as the dominant picture of success. Literary agents who only want fantasy stories about the orphaned wunderkind who comes along to ‘magic/assassin/mythical’ school and beats everyone at their own game and changes the world within a context of hetero-normative relationships and maintaining the status quo of those in power…again.

Yet they are just that – gatekeepers – they understand the calculus and often, regardless of their personal preferences, are completely powerless to affect any change.

Do I wish they were braver? Of course I do (and the completed works of my own I’ve listed above have found homes), but when being brave gets your head chopped off does that have any point? Sometimes I think yes – better to resist fascists than capitulate. However, other times I think better to make small compromises on the promise of making the other side move at the same time. Sometimes not ceding the floor is the right thing to do just as much as sometimes you have to rip the other side’s face off or die trying (metaphorically of course, although I’m a sword fighter…so…I think it’s probably ok to punch nazis since they want to stuff me in a gas chamber).

I’m not going to stop writing stories with themes that I’m passionate about – with characters that I deliberately want to see from all edges of society who aren’t secretly super powered divinely ordained kings of old (which is why, incidentally The Last Jedi is brave enough to kick your faces in – who the hell wants to discover the galaxy’s fate is actually in the hands of a divinely chosen single fricking family??? I thought we were done with divine right…right?)

However, I think I need to acknowledge that many people out there aren’t going to want to read them – because I don’t judge my cis or trans characters. I don’t tell you that there’s a moral choice between hetero, homosexual or other identity. I’m interested in what those perspectives tell us about who we are for their own sake.

I wish I knew how to say this better. Sometimes people want to be homemakers. Sometimes they want to be part of a team and sometimes they want to self destruct. It’s these nuances that make writing (and living) so interesting. They don’t always fit in with the dominant narratives our society feeds us as ‘natural’ but screw that – shouldn’t we be questioning what we believe is natural, shouldn’t we approach our comfort zones and disrupt them? Isn’t that part of the point of fiction?

I hear the ‘I just want to be entertained’ argument a lot. Generally that’s code for ‘I want to escape to a fantasy that suits my prejudices’, which is of course why so many people hated TLJ – because it punctured the idea that maverick men can save the universe alone.

I’ve had this discussion with my kids – that films should make us FEEL something. That we should be wary of being manipulated by how other people tell stories but we should remain open to being moved to wonder, sadness, joy, despair and rage. Stories that deliver us out the other side having only confirmed our unspoken prejudices are, generally, unrepresentative and regressive (and I’ll debate that with you all day long) – stories that leave us washed out, excited, exhilarated, worried, scared, hungry and angry – those are the ones worth something.

I hope to write those stories. Sometimes I think I manage it. Regardless of that, I hope you can be brave enough to buy stories that aren’t obviously about people like you, that aren’t showing you nothing but a blurred out mirror with only the bits you like reflecting back.

Why? because then my friends who write together with those buy, market and publish those stories will be able to justify changing the world – because you’ll have done it first.

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Lucy Mitchell - romance author - book blogger

Writings By Ender

One Hell of an Apprenticeship

Adrian Faulkner

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Fantasy-Faction

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Alternative Realities

Why have virtual reality when you can have alternative reality?

1001Up

1001 video games and beyond

Fringeworks - Blogs

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Shadows of the Apt

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Tickety Boo Press Ltd

Quality books. Quality anthologies. Quality authors.

KnightWatch Press

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading