The Christmas Story

As a child I was sometimes taken to church at Christmas.  I saw countless nativity scenes, both 2D and 3D.  (Often, like the German advent calendar above, they linked the old christmas story to the wintry weather of Northern Europe, where the Christian holiday has subsumed an older solstice festival.)  I sung many carols (‘In the deep mid-winter, long ago, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….’).  I heard readings from the gospels.  I saw nativity plays, and even participated in at least one (I was a shepherd).   I was exposed to all this, but I don’t remember at any point, even for a moment, believing the story- the virgin birth, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men – was actually true.  In fact it seemed to me obvious that nobody really did, just as it was obvious to me that no one really believed in Santa.

But I liked the story.  I liked the way it came round every year, like midwinter itself, and I liked the way that we all came back to it together.   For me, it became a story about human birth: the mystery of a living being emerging into the inanimate mineral world (‘hard as iron’, ‘like a stone’), a tiny thing, dwarfed by the great inanimate universe, but yet in a way, bigger than all of it put together.  The story wasn’t true, but it brought me into the presence of a truth, allowed me to experience it not simply as a fact, but in my imagination.   It allowed me to participate in it.

The value of these stories is not just a question of their literal truth or falsehood.  This is what Dawkins and Co don’t get, useful as it is to have them yapping round in the yard to see off the fundamentalist crazies.  The fundamentalist crazies don’t get it either.

One of the most interesting writers on the complexities of the distinction between truth and falsehood is Philip Dick: it is his constant theme.  His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, famously, is about real humans hunting down fake ones (the crucial difference being the capacity for empathy).   Many of the real humans in the book subscribe to an austere religion called Mercerism, and regularly commune by electronic means with the figure of Mercer himself, forever toiling up a barren hill, while rocks and stones are thrown at him.   Late in the book, this central scene of Mercerism is shown to have been faked up in a studio: Mercer, it seems, was just an actor, the hill a painted set.

But here’s the interesting part.   People carry on being Mercerists anyway.   The ones who exposed the hoax were androids, andys, fake humans.  Their mistaken assumption that, by exposing the hoax, they’d destroy the belief system, was perhaps itself evidence of their lack of human understanding, their fakeness.  Empathy and imagination, after all, are closely related things.


The City & The City, by China Miéville

I live in Cambridge where, every summer, hundreds of foreign teenagers descend on the city to attend the various language schools.   Often they move around in large crowds, instantly recognisable because of the standard issue language school backpacks and t-shirts.  Often they hire bikes (this city is, after all, the UK capital of bicycles), and can be seen wobbling along in groups, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, or even going round roundabouts the wrong way.

And the thing that strikes me about them is that they are not really here.   Physically they are in Cambridge, but they aren’t really present in it.   We notice their language school livery and their Latin looks and pay no further attention, dismissing them as transients who will soon be gone. They hardly see us at all.  I even tested this once.  A group of Italian boys were walking towards me, filling up the entire width of the pavement.  They needed to make room for me.  The only way I could have got out of their way was to press my back up against a wall.  But I kept walking, and sure enough one of them walked straight into me.  He looked startled, as if surprised to discover that I was actually solid.

You see the same thing with British tourists abroad.  Waiters fetch things for them, but they hardly even make out the waiters’ faces.  Physical location is only one aspect of where we are, and not really, most of the time, the most important one.  We are much more interested in other kinds of nearness.  Look at someone walking down the road, talking to a lover on a mobile phone.

In The City & The City, China Miéville draws attention to these other kinds of nearness and distance, by imagining a place where it is not just normal to ignore and discount much of what is physically present, but actually compulsory.  The two city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same piece of territory, and are so interwoven that, in some places, they share the same streets.   But their citizens learn from an early age to ignore the parallel city alongside their own, seeing only their own buildings, and their own people, and noticing, but then immediately ‘unseeing’, the buildings and people of the other place, whose otherness is signalled to them by small differences that they’ve learnt to instantly recognise (rather in the way that, so I’m told by people who come from there, Northern Irish folk establish almost at once whether someone is a Protestant or a Catholic) .  A person in Beszel, therefore, must not stare at, think about, speak to, or in any way acknowledge a person in Ul Qoma, even if in terms of purely physical space, they live next door to one another.  To violate this principle is to commit ‘breach’, and is a serious crime.

But this is not the same thing as saying that each city must deny the existence of the other, or that Ul Qomans and Besz must never meet.  On the contrary.  It is perfectly possible to travel from Beszel to Ul Qoma, with the necessary visas, by passing through a border post.  Having crossed over, and been issued with a visitor’s badge, a person from one city may return to the same physical spaces he normally inhabits, but as he is now legally ‘in’ the other city, he must now ‘unsee’ his own city, but may look at leisure at the sights that, when ‘back home’, he would have been forbidden to notice.  Miéville has fun with the ramifications of all this: there is even an ‘Ul Qomatown’ within Beszel, which Besz people might at first glance feel obliged to ‘unsee’, since it superficially resembles Ul Qoma.

This is one of those books (like, for instance, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, which I discussed here previously, and like much of Kafka and Borges), which works by unfolding the implications of a single odd premise, while allowing its metaphorical possibilities, its resonances with the real world we actually inhabit, to gradually take root in our minds.   The story is a police procedural, about a Besz policeman investigating a murder which turns out to have Ul Qoman ramifications, and this provides a device by which we can gradually learn more and more about the relationship between these two states.   As the policeman attempts to solve the murder, the reader (or myself at least), is equally absorbed by the possibility of in some way getting to the bottom of the nature of this cleft city, and of the shadowy institutions, beyond the ordinary police of the two states, that maintain their separate existence, by punishing breach violations that might be as small as looking at a shop window in the ‘other’ city.

It gets a little busy and plot-driven towards the end – when it is being made to deliver the solution to the crime required by the police procedural genre, this strange imagined world does feel a little as if it is being crammed into a space that is just too small for it  –  but this is an original, clever and compelling book.  The single scene which most haunts me, is one in which the detective Borlú, during a working trip to the foreign country of Ul Qoma, walks down the Ul Qoman street that, in terms of physical space, is the street he lives in back in Beszel: he passes, but carefully unsees, his own front door.

The City & The City on Amazon UK.


Incidentally (and this is the kind of thing that you learn when you have a Wikipedia dependency as bad as mine), there really does exist a pair of intermingled towns in two different countries.  The Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog consists of more than twenty enclaves in and around the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau.  There are even Dutch enclaves within the Belgian ones.  See here for more.

A new story

I’ve just finished writing a new short story.

I can spend days slogging away at a story, adding words and ideas, playing with points of view, but the good bit – the bit when I know the story’s going to be strong enough to go out into the world – is the moment when it comes alive and begins to write itself.   From that point on I find, as I work and rework it, that there’s more in the story than I realised.  The things I consciously wove into it are only part of it.  It speaks about things, and makes connections, that I didn’t plan with my conscious mind, yet are unquestionably part of the design, like the details in a dream, which your own mind constructed, and yet whose meaning doesn’t immediately dawn on you, and is never completely clear.

It is a lovely feeling when this happens.  I can’t think of many that are better.  I feel sort of cleansed and redeemed, and just more alive as I go about my day.  Sounds a bit over the top, I dare say, but that’s how it is, and it reminds me that writing these things really is more than just one of the things I do, but is a big part of what my life is all about.

You can’t force those moments though.  In the meantime, you just have to keep trying, like a surfer who has to keep paddling out again and again, and heaving himself up again onto his board, before he catches a wave he can really ride.


The Guernsification of the UK

The Euro, one of the world’s major currencies, is on the point of collapse, with untold consequences not only for the third of a billion people who use it, but for the millions more in countries for whom the Eurozone is a major trading partner (which of course include the UK).  The leaders of the European Union meet to to try and avert the catastrophe, and, rising magnificently to the occasion,  the UK’s governing party decides to use this moment to pursue its own narrow political agenda.   I’m no economist, and no expert on politics either, but something about the sheer, petty nimbyism of it all really sickens me.

Our dear leader was particularly concerned, of course, to protect the City of London, that fine institution that has served us so well in recent years, against excessive regulation that might ‘reduce its competitiveness’.  We seem destined to become a kind of overgrown Guernsey or Isle of Man, a marginal place that makes its way in the world as a comfortable haven for rich people who don’t like paying tax, and for financial institutions that don’t like being overseen.

From Bodhisattva to St Josaphat: the adventures of a story

I visited some Buddhist temples during a recent brief visit to Thailand, and this led me to reflect on the differences between Buddhism and Christianity (see previous post) but also on the similarities.

I noticed that large statues of the Buddha tended to have a smaller Buddha sitting in front of them.  I assume (perhaps wrongly) that the smaller Buddha represents the historical Siddharta Gautama, while the larger figure represents the universal spiritual state which he is supposed to have attained. It struck me that this relationship was not entirely from different from the relationship in Christian theology between Jesus and God.  And there are other parallels.   Both religions have a tradition of celibate monasticism.  Each bears a similar relationship to a parent religion (Hinduism and Judaism respectively).

I wondered if it was possible that Buddhism, as the older of the two by several centuries, might have had a direct influence on the formation of Christianity.  It’s not implausible, given that both Palestine and Northern India were within the sphere of influence of Hellenistic culture.  (Idea for a historical novel: a bright young Jewish man in Nazareth in Roman-occupied Palestine, hears about Buddhism from an Indo-Greek soldier in the Roman army, and decides to try and do something similar).

Anyway, when I was looking up possible connections,  I came across (in wonderful Wikipedia) one particular connection which I had never heard of before: the story of Barlaam and Josaphat.  This story was originally about the early life of Gautama Buddha, but ended up as a popular story in Medieval Europe, when both characters were regarded as Christian saints by Catholics and Orthodox Christians alike .  The name Josaphat comes, apparently, from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva, successfully modified as the story was retold and retold first in Persian (Bodisav), Arabic (Budhasaf then Yudasaf), Georgian (Iodasaph), Greek (Ioasaph) and finally Latin.

I find it rather delightful that the founder of one religion can find himself a saint in another.  I find it delightful too that a story can itself have a story, making its way slowly from Asia to Europe, and from the Buddhist world, to the Islamic world, and on into the Christian one, passing from language to language, and changing all the while to meet the needs of its new hosts.

The one in the crown is Josaphat, formerly known as Buddha


A Buddhist temple

I don’t know if they call it an altar but, at one end of the room, there is a tall symmetrical gilded structure, very intricate and ornate in design.  On the floor in front of it, is a forest of objects, including statues and another ornate artefacts.   I guess they are presents from worshippers.

But here is what holds me.  In the middle of that gilded screen is a window, and inside that window, set back a little way, is a golden Buddha, illuminated by a light from behind the screen.  Its face is serene.  From certain angles it seems almost cruel.   It is at the very centre of the gilded intricate structure and at the same time behind and completely apart from it.  It looks out at the world, and is at the centre of a teeming and restless structure that resembles golden flames, yet it is itself untouched.

How unlike a Christian or Muslim god.  It is not a father demanding respect and obedience.  It is not a king or a judge who will dispense eternal reward or punishment.  It is not a shepherd looking out at its flock.   It does not dictate holy books.  Nor has it died for us and come alive again, or loved the world so much that it has gave us its only son.

Why doesn’t it care for us?  Why doesn’t it offer us help, out here on the far side of the screen, out in the world of grief and pain and dreariness and hate and wickedness?  Do our sufferings mean nothing to it at all?

But those are the wrong questions.  They are questions for a father or a son or a king, a creator apart from us and above us.  And this is not separate from us.  It is the thing that looks out from our own eyes.


The current occupation of the square outside St Paul’s cathedral higlights for me a problem in the modern world.  Lots of us can see what a rotten, cruel and dangerous system capitalism is, but few of us have a blueprint for an alternative system that would actually work.

Once upon a time, the generally accepted alternative to capitalism was socialism: state ownership of the means of production.   But this is an idea that has lost its appeal since the collapse of the Soviet system.  There are still those who argue that the Soviet system was an aberration from ‘true socialism’.   I personally am not convinced by that any more.  I think socialism does require a very overbearing and very intrusive state like the Soviet Union, because it means stopping people from doing things that people are naturally inclined to do: make deals, accumulate wealth, gain the maximum return from the exercise of their talents.  (In fact, incredibly intrusive and controlling as it was, the Soviet system didn’t in any case stop people from doing those things: it just drove these impulses underground, and let them find expression in ways that slowed the system down even more.)  Certainly a socialist system wouldn’t need to be tyrannical  if everyone was very very nice and very very selfless – but on that basis any system would be kind and just and fair.

However the idea of a ‘pure’ market system, untainted by state intervention, is equally utopian and actually incoherent.  For a market to deliver its benefits there must be competition, but this competition has to have rules.   There need to be a law of contracts.   There need to be standards, so that competitive advantage can’t be gained by endangering health, destroying the planet etc etc. There need to be ways of preventing the growth of monopolies.

Many people who are “anti-capitalist” operate essentially defensively.   They try to protect the shrinking parts of society which are still (at least to some degree) outside of the market system (ie public services, state benefits, wildernesses, public spaces), and the share of the communal cake that goes into these.  This is important, but it’s not very radical.  It doesn’t really address the problems caused by the capitalist machine itself.   Most of us find the intricacies of the machine itself rather dull, but it’s that we need to be looking at.

And it seems to me the way forward lies not in abandoning the whole idea of markets, but by recognising that society does (and must) make the rules by which the market game is played, and then looking carefully at what the rules should be, and changing them so that they create incentives from which society will actually benefit, rather than incentives for dangerous and anti-social behaviour.

A very small example of the kinds of change that could be made is the ‘Tobin tax’ or ‘Robin Hood tax’ (which has been advocated recently by among others Bill Gates and the Archbishop of Canterbury).  This is a tax on financial transactions (originally, it was proposed just as a tax on foreign exchange transactions, but it could be applied to transactions such as trading in shares).  This addresses a very serious problem with capitalism as it now stands.   Large parts of our economy are dedicated not to producing useful good and services (the real economy), but to betting on the performance of the rest of the economy.   Many of our brightest citizens are wholly given over to this activity, creating a parallel house of cards economy which creates nothing, but uses the real economy as its plaything.   (I heard a bright young speculator boasting recently on the radio that it made no difference to him whether the economic situation got better or worse: either way he could make money.)

A Tobin tax would create a disincentive to excessive speculation (if you buy and sell constantly all day, the tax would mount up, and eat away at your margins of profit).   It would also draw wealth back from the casino of speculation into the real economy that produces goods and services.

(In modern post-Thatcher political discourse, a distinction tends to be made between the public and private sector, with the former seen as a drain on the latter.  Perhaps a more useful distinction would be between the useful productive economy – which includes public and private elements – and the parasitic casino.)

I’m not saying this tax would solve everything, far from it, but it does seem to me an example of the way in which rules can be changed.    There are lots of other possibilities.  (Incentivising mutuals and co-operatives?  Tougher anti-monopoly laws to prevent giant corporations such as the Murdoch empire gaining too much power?).  My point is that we can be as ‘anti-capitalist’ as we like, but ultimately, if we don’t want capitalism as it stands, we need to figure out, in detail, a different framework within which economic activity can take place.  Simply ‘defending public services’ is not enough.


Science fiction and religion

I took part in a panel discussion on this recently at the British Science Festival at Bradford (along with Steven French, Una McCormack,  Shana Worthen and Katy Price).   Coincidentally  (and very usefully), my friend Prof Rowlie Wymer had delivered an inaugural lecture on this very same theme the previous day at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. He plans to write a book on the subject.

On the face of it, it’s odd how often science fiction (which after all has ‘science’ rather than religion in its title) deals with religion.  But it’s a perennial theme (my own The Holy Machine being one example). Rowlie Wymer pointed out that even avowedly atheistic writers such as Stanislaw Lem or Arthur C. Clark can’t leave religious themes alone.

There are several connections.  Firstly, SF is a form of fiction that is interested in Big Questions.  It deals with people’s relationship with the universe, and not just people’s relationship with other people.   This is something it has in common with religion.   Secondly, SF is interested in how people and societies cope with new and unfamiliar environments.  It would be impossible to seriously deal with this question without considering religion, which up to and including this point in history, has provided one of the means by which people explain to themselves how they fit in.   (In Dark Eden, I show a society that is beginning to evolve its own religion).  Thirdly, SF traditionally deals in ‘sense of wonder’ which (as Rowlie Wymer pointed out) is not unlike some forms of religious experience.

We live in a world in which religious fundementalism frequently makes itself the enemy of science.  In that battle I’m definitely on the side of science.  A set of beliefs about the world that are based on accepting as literally true an old book written one or two millenia ago versus a set of beliefs based on systematically examining the evidence.  There’s no contest.  To dismiss the latter in favour of the former is just infantile intellectual vandalism.

But I don’t align myself with atheistic fundementalism either.  To reject religion in all its forms as worst than useless is, in its way, also intellectual vandalism.   It is to ignore the fact that science looks at the world from a particular perspective which is not the perspective from which we actually live our lives, and is least good at answering the messy complicated questions which most concern us as human beings (for most of us are not going around worrying about what happened in the Big Bang or the precise nature of the fundemental building blocks of matter).   There are a whole set of questions about life which cannot be answered in terms of cause and effect, cannot be answered at all, in fact, in the way that science answers questions, but which can be assuaged by stories.

Stories are pretty basic.  Every night in our sleep, our brains weave our experience into stories.  Stories are what we naturally do, not causal explanations, and religions have provided or inspired a pretty good batch of stories.

I am not defending literal-minded religion, or even religion at all, but I am saying that ultimately facts are not what our lives are about.   In order to engage with the world, and other people, we need imagination.



Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Book coverThis is a staggeringly original and intricate piece of work, the best and most ambitious book I’ve read for a very long time.   The author begins by denying that it’s a novel, but it reads like one, has diverse and well-drawn characters and is beautifully written.   It’s just that the characters are not all linked together into a single big story, and the fictional elements (or semi-fictional, blending real historic figures and real events, with made-up characters and events) are interspersed with factual information about the Kruschev era Soviet state, and in particular its centrally planned economy.  By denying it’s a novel, the author gives himself permission to provide this stuff undigested and thereby avoids having to load down his characters with ‘As you know Bob…’ – type dialogue.  (In short: this ‘not-a-novel’ strategy is a way of avoiding – or perhaps legitimising – what SF writers and readers call ‘info-dumps’).

As it happens the info-dumps are just as riveting as the rest of the book, and are incredibly well informed, not only about the Soviet system, but about all kinds of other stuff.   About computers for example.  There is even a virtuoso account of the way that smoking causes cancer inside a cell.

I think it is a novel, though.  The main character in it is the socialist dream, which Spufford convincingly argues survived all through the time of Stalin, right into the Kruschev era and even on to Gorbachev.   These people may have been tyrants, but they genuinely believed in the idea of a socialist economy, directed by reason rather than by blind market forces.    (Why otherwise, he points out, did they not go down the Chinese road and convert the economy to capitalism, while keeping political power in the hands of the Party?)

The book is very vivid on the actual workings of a planned economy: an economy in which, if a machine breaks down in a factory, the company can’t just buy a new one, but must apply for one, and this application must then somehow be accomodated in the entire Plan for the entire country.  It is an economy which only works by finding ways of getting round its own rules.

For a little time there, apparently, in the Kruschev era, clever economists, computer scientists and mathematicians thought they might be able to find ways of making this juggernaut not only work, but actually work better than the capitalist countries with their markets.    Having seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, we, in 2011, know this isn’t going to work out, living as we do in the age of Russian oligarchs, but they didn’t know it then, and thus (as the author observes in an interesting article here)  ‘An immense overhang of obvious consequences teeters above the events of Red Plenty, invisible to characters. And so the book became a kind of comedy, an unwitting comedy whose jokes don’t exist within the world of the story.’

He goes on: ‘I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it. But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past. I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences. Whatever it is.’

I suppose history is almost entirely made up of people busying away at projects which, in the end, don’t work out.

Incidentally, when I was trying to think of another book which was not-a-novel in anything like this kind of way, a Russian instance came to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace,  also claimed by its author not to be a novel.

Red Plenty on Amazon UK.




The empire stumbles

As the Murdoch media empire stumbles (at least in the UK) in the unexpected glare of negative publicity, it is fascinating to hear the palpable relief of politicians (of all hues, seemingly) to have come out from under its power.

It’s different in degree of course, but I’m reminded of the fall of Mubarak or Ceausescu: suddenly a power that seemed unassailable, is seen to be vulnerable, and those who were cowed into silence, or felt obliged to curry favour, find themselves able to express some of the dislike, resentment, even hate, that they’d been concealing all those years, perhaps even from themselves, as they attended the lunches and the weddings and ate the canapes.   Different in degree again, of course, but I’m reminded too of recovering victims of Stockholm Syndrome.

Fascinating, but also disturbing.   We knew Mubarak and Ceausescu were dictators, but Murdoch’s power was more subtle, and though we knew it was there, we perhaps can only get a really visceral sense of its full extent, when we feel the relief of its temporary absence.

But it is a temporary absence.  The empire is stumbling but has not fallen, and even if it does fall, there are plenty of other empires and would-be empires that would happily take its place.   We shouldn’t just sit back and enjoy the drama of the empire in difficulty, or allow the sole legacy of this moment to be a tinkering around with rules of privacy or with mechanisms for dealing with press complaints.  If this story is to be more than a redtop  melodrama of villainy exposed, then the opportunity needs to be seized not to rein in freedom of speech, but promote it by legislating to ensure plurality.

Surely it would not be unreasonable to say that no individual and no private company can own more than one daily paper, or more than one weekly?  And surely it would be reasonable to insist that if you own a newspaper, you can’t also own a TV station of any kind?    And surely genuine plurality requires too that a substantial portion of the media should not be under the control of private corporations and/or beholden to advertisers.

It is worth remembering that this whole spectacle is being unfolded for us by Murdoch’s rivals.  (The BBC for instance is positively crowing ).  Even this we are not watching unmediated.   How could we?   We have to rely on others.  The important thing is to ensure that we have a lot of different others to rely on, with a lot of different interests and points of view.