Dortmund

• March 26th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

This is me at Dortcon, with the other guests of honour, artist Lothar Bauer on the left of the picture (a man of few words, who says his pictures speak for him: we are flanked by two of them here) and fellow SF writer Karsten Kruschel on the right.

Dortcon pic

As with Sferakon last year in Zagreb, I was a little daunted in prospect by the idea of attending a convention whose primary language would not be English, but (also as with Sferakon) I was made extremely welcome, people put themselves to a lot of trouble to make sure I was included, and I had a great weekend.  Special thanks to Arno and Gabi (my main hosts), Michael who first suggested inviting me, and Gregor who acted as my interpreter when one was needed (making me feel like some kind of international statesman, as he murmured into my ear.)

I know a huge amount of work and worry, over a long period of time, goes into planning these events, which most attendees (including me) don’t really see.  What I see, and most attendees see, is a little peaceful island, where gentle and imaginative people can gather for a couple of days of conversation and friendship and playfulness.

This was my first real visit to Germany. Fascinating listening to German spoken all around me.  Perhaps because, from an early age, my sisters and I were cared for by German au pairs, I’ve always liked the sound of the language.  I find it musical, where many English people find it harsh, and could quite happily just sit and listen to its cadences, even if I didn’t have someone to interpret.  The tantalising thing about it is that, though I can’t understand it, it’s so obviously a close cousin of English that I can’t quite let go of the idea that, if only I tried hard enough, I could.

It’s interesting how every country has its stories, its past events, it’s preoccupations, which it must keep going over and over, just as individuals have events in their own lives that they must visit and revisit over and over: the old DDR and what had happened to it when Germany was unified, for instance, was clearly one such topic, even more than twenty years on.

My fellow writer and guest of honour Karsten grew up in the DDR.  He told me all SF in the DDR had to depict a socialist future (so as not to violate the Marxist creed of the inevitable triumph of socialism).   When he studied for a PhD thesis on dystopian literature, he had to have special permission to look at George Orwell’s 1984, which was held in the university library but was forbidden to the general public.  He had to go to a special room to read it.

Now to me, that sounds like a scene from an SF novel in itself.

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The Wichita Lineman

• March 26th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights

I consume music in a spasmodic kind of way.  I might go for months without deliberately listening to any music at all, and then will latch onto some song or fragment that fits my mood and play it to death.  Right now it’s this, “The Wichita Lineman”, not as most famously recorded by Glen Campbell but by the man who wrote the song, Jimmy Webb.

I’ve had to do some driving these last couple of days and have been listening to it over and over in my car on the album “Ten Easy Pieces”.  It’s a little fragment of a song – I gather that Webb hadn’t even finished writing it when Campbell first recorded it – and in one way it’s almost about nothing at all, just a tiny snatch of the random thoughts of the lineman as he wanders the roads by himself and climbs up the phone lines: about his job (“if it snows that stretch down south will never take the strain”), and how he could do with a vacation, and how he rather desperately loves someone.

What’s so clever is how the music fits so perfectly with the words. At the beginning and end, and in between the verses, it comes back to this morse code-like motif, like the signals going back and forth along the lines.  It’s as if, up there on his pole, silhoutted against the sky,  he stands apart from our busy human attempts to communicate, to keep in touch, to stave off aloneness.

There’s immense loneliness in the song, it seems to me, but it’s achingly beautiful too.  I see in Wikipedia that someone or other described it as “the first existential pop song”.  I’m not sure about that.  It’s predated, for instance, by Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay”  (another of my favourites, which surely could also claim that title), but it’s a truly great song.

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Dark Eden en Francais

• February 13th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Electre_978-2-258-10966-7_9782258109667

I’m delighted to say that Dark Eden will come out in French on April 2nd. The book will retain the English title.  This is the rather striking French cover design, which I see as the dark planet Eden against the brightness of Starry Swirl.

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US cover for Mother of Eden

• February 13th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Here’s the cover for the US edition of Mother of Eden.   The story is set on both sides of the sea which Eden people call Worldpool.

 

Mother of Eden US cover

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The Holy Machine for 99p!

• February 3rd, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

The kindle version of the Holy Machine is available this month for 99p.  Good God, you’d pay that for three mouthfuls of coffee!

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Early reviews of Mother of Eden

• January 30th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Earlier than I expected, this review from Steven Shaviro*, which I noticed this morning, was the first I’ve seen of Mother of Eden.  He likes it.  Phew!  The book is due out late May/early June, in US and UK editions.

This evening I find there’s another review  (also positive, I’m pleased to say) from Speculiction here.

(*He wrote a longer piece about Dark Eden here.)

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Violence and ideology

• January 20th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

Another main source of authority in Islam (see previous post) is the Hadith: stories about the actions and sayings of the Prophet that were transmitted orally and written down some time after his death.  In the following hadith, for instance, the Prophet (who, as I noted before, gives himself the right to use his female captives for sex), deals with an man who admits to adultery:

Narrated Abu Huraira: A man from Bani Aslam came to Allah’s Apostle while he was in the mosque and called (the Prophet ) saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.” On that the Prophet turned his face from him to the other side, whereupon the man moved to the side towards which the Prophet had turned his face, and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.” The Prophet turned his face (from him) to the other side whereupon the man moved to the side towards which the Prophet had turned his face, and repeated his statement. The Prophet turned his face (from him) to the other side again. The man moved again (and repeated his statement) for the fourth time. So when the man had given witness four times against himself, the Prophet called him and said, “Are you insane?” He replied, “No.” The Prophet then said (to his companions), “Go and stone him to death.”

This quotation can be found (among other places) on Sunnah.com, a website which aims to “provide the first online, authentic, searchable, and multilingual (English/Arabic at the individual hadith level) database of collections of hadith from our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.”  Once again, my point is that, while it may well be true that the brutal actions of radical Islamists are unrepresentative of the attitude of mainstream Islam, those actions seem to be well supported by the sources – the Quran and the hadith – which mainstream Islam still accepts as the ultimate authority.   Mohamed lived in the time that we know in Europe as the Dark Ages, and he was a man of his time.  His attitudes and behaviour, as reflected in the sources accepted as authoritative by Islam as a whole, looks much more like a role model for organisations such as the Taliban or Islamic State than a role model for a tolerant, pluralist religion that is comfortable with liberal securalism.  I don’t see how this fact can be completely excluded from the conversation.

*   *   *

All that said, though, Adam Shatz is right when he says that “ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter.”   As he goes on to point out:

The Kouachi brothers [i.e. the Charlie Hebdo assassins] were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention… It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’.  (Italics added by me.)

I myself remember a time when, as an odd, socially isolated, angry teenager with vague, unfocussed left-wing ideas, I was briefly drawn to the idea of violent acts of terror against ‘the System’.  (I was very taken for instance, by the Lindsay Anderson film “If…” in which some schoolboys climb up onto the roof of their school and machine gun parents and dignitaries arriving for a speech day).  Luckily for me (and, I guess, for others too!) this never got past the level of fantasy.   But it does mean that I understand, from personal experience, Shatz’s point that, in looking for the cause of violence, we can’t just look at the ideology that happens to be used to justify it but also at the social and psychological context which makes that ideology attractive.  I felt excluded and alienated and very angry – that was the root cause of my brief interest in the idea of political violence – but in the left-wing terrorism of that time (the mid-seventies) I saw a means of dignifying the violent expression of my anger by redefining it as a fight in a noble cause.  (Without ideology, as Shatz says, a violent act would make me a criminal; with it, I could see myself as a holy warrior.)  Angry people who want to hit out, will use whatever rationalisations they can find.

This makes the whole thing extremely complicated.  On the one hand, in this context it seems likely that mockery of Islam in a country like France or Britain, will actually add to the sense of alienation that young Muslims already feel, and therefore stoke up the anger which is the real root cause of the violence.   On the other hand, the ready availability of ideological justifications for violence within the core traditions of this particular community is surely a problem in its own right.  Yes, ideology can only go so far in explaining behaviour, but it is a factor all the same.

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Islam and mockery

• January 16th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

The longest exposure I have had to a Muslim society is the couple of occasions I have stayed in the Moroccan seaside town of Oued Laou in the company of my friend Jonathan, who speaks Moroccan Arabic. Small things I’ve noticed and liked are that the standard greeting to a stranger is “Peace be with you”, and the way that any discussion of future events is routinely followed by the phrase “insha’Allah” (God willing), but, for an outsider, the most obvious manifestation of the Muslim religion occurs at intervals through every day, when the loudspeakers at the top of the town’s main mosque crackle into life and you hear the beautiful call to prayer, echoed by other mosques across the Laou valley and up on the surrounding hillsides. At these times, if you go into the little market, many of the stalls are simply unattended. Their owners can be seen through the open door of the mosque, shoeless, praying. I find this moving, admirable even: the idea of a community which, at regular intervals through the day, sets aside its own individual concerns and preoccupations, and submits itself to the mystery at the core of the universe itself. I can see how, by comparison, modern secular western society might seem shallow and narcissistic. And I can see why someone taking part in these rituals that are shared by Muslims across the world, might experience Islam as a religion of peace.

A not-particularly religious Muslim friend spoke in similar terms about the month of Ramadan. There was something rather wonderful, she said, about the idea that an entire community was moving together through this season of abstinence and self-denial, reminding themselves that there was more to life than simply the pleasure of the senses. As a child, when my (also not particularly religious) parents sent me to Sunday School, I acquired a somewhat similar feeling about the traditional Christian calendar. Though the religion itself didn’t rub off on me (or on my parents either, as it turned out!) I still like the idea of an entire community (and in days gone by, an entire society) moving together through a story, repeating it over and over: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter…

Religions are sometimes characterised as a set of ‘beliefs’, of propositions, of statements about what is and isn’t true, and while most of them do include this element, it is quite a narrow way of looking at them, for there is a great deal more to them than that. They are also customs, practices, shared ways of doing things, collective acts of imagination. Whether the stories we enacted in Sunday School were literally true or not, they certainly brought me closer to some of the mysteries of life, and part of that was to do with the cycle itself, the repetition, which somehow made them much deeper than a single telling would have done.

I’m sure the same is true of the customs of practicing Muslims, and for that reason I don’t find it hard to see why these practices and rituals seem profoundly precious to them, and why they should be distressed when others mock. Life is hard, and it can seem empty and futile. Each of us tries to find ways of imbuing it with some sense of purpose, or beauty, or meaning, but all of those ways are fragile.  We should be as respectful and gentle as we can with one another’s attempts. Mocking other people’s religious practices, just for the sake of it, is simply rude and inconsiderate in much the same way as it would be rude and inconsiderate to barge into a concert that other people were enjoying and shouting out abuse, just because the music wasn’t to our own taste.

There is a “but” though.

* * *

Islam may be more than just a set of “beliefs”, but nevertheless (like most religions, and more than many) it certainly includes beliefs. To be specific, a core belief is the idea that the words of the Quran are the infallible word of God. And this is where things get complicated, because these words sanction behaviour that, in modern terms, would be heinous criminal offences in most parts of the world . To give one example, the Quran very clearly states in several places that a man is entitled to have slave girls and to have sex with them.

Here are Surahs 23: 1-6*:

(1) The believers must /(Eventually) win through –

(2) Those who humble themselves / In their prayers;

(3) Who avoid vain talk;

(4) Who are active in deeds/ Of charity;

(5) Who abstain from sex,

(6) Except with those joined/ To them in the marriage bond,/ Or (the captives) whom / Their right hands possess –/ For (in their case) they are / Free from blame.

See also, among others, Surah 4:24, which prohibits sex with married woman unless they are your captives (in which case it’s fine), or Surah 33: 50, which begins “Oh Prophet! We have / Made lawful to thee / Thy wives to whom thou / Hast paid their dowers; / And those whom thy / Right hand possess out of /The prisoners of war whom / Allah has assigned to thee…”  Here, note, it is Mohamed himself who is being told by God that he can have sex with women he’s captured in war.

Of course the Quran is of its time, written in the early decades of the seventh century, when England was still a collection of petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that wouldn’t come together as a single country for another 300 years. I am sure that the Angles and Saxons who settled Britain, and the Romans who preceded them, and the Vikings who were to follow, would all have had a similar attitude towards female captives, and certainly the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians alike traditionally view as the word of God, contains similar notions. I’m even prepared to be persuaded that Islam was in many respects ahead of its time, back in the seventh century. (Perhaps it’s Islam’s misfortune that its founder felt the need to lay down very specific instructions which aren’t terribly amenable to reinterpretion). But the fact remains is that what is being sanctioned in these verses is, in modern terms, the crime of rape: the feelings and wishes of the women and girls simply do not come into the equation at all. And, right now in the twenty-first century, Islamic State in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria are using the authority of the Quran to justify capturing girls, making them into sex slaves, and even (in the case of IS) giving out a nicely printed leaflet confirming that it is fine for their followers to have sex with girls (including prepubescent girls) that they capture.

I know that many Muslims would say that such behaviour is not consistent with their own understanding of the religion, and I really do believe them: religion in practice really is a much more complex, idiosyncratic and many-layered thing than its doctrines would suggest on cold examination. But until a modern Islam emerges that is able to draw a clear line between itself and the idea that the verses of the Quran really are literally the word of God, Muslims can’t expect their religion or their prophet to be exempt from the criticism and mockery of those who find many of those verses to be brutal, abhorrent and medieval**.

Which I guess was Charlie Hebdo’s point when they printed their fateful Nov 2011 cover on which a cartoon Mohamed tells readers, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing.”

 

*I am using the translation edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and distributed free by the Albirr Foundation UK (10th edition, 1999).
** I’m using the issue of women and slavery as an example, but I could have used others. IS’s use of crucifixion as a punishment for their opponents, for instance, is also specifically sanctioned by the Quran, which states that that “execution, or crucifixion, / Or the cutting off of hands / And feet from opposite sides, / Or exile…” are the appropriate punishment for “those who wage war against Allah and his messengers” (5:33).

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Interview with Verushka Byrow

• December 28th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

This interview took place some months ago, but has only just been posted here.  They were rather interesting questions, though, looking through my responses, I seem to have been a slightly jaundiced mood at the time.  The interviewer is based in Sydney.

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Hierarchies in Eden

• December 15th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

In the article I discussed in my previous post, David Brin argued that a rigidly hierarchical pyramidal social structure was an “attractor” in the mathematical sense of the word: a pattern or shape towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve.

I’ve often seen Dark Eden described as a ‘dystopian’ novel but, though life may seem grim in Eden, the society itself, as described at the beginning of the book, is actually in many ways utopian.  It has not settled into one of those rigid hierarchical pyramids.  There are no distinctions between rich and poor; women are at least as powerful as men; murder and rape are unknown.

In the second Eden novel (Mother of Eden) all this has changed.  Most of Eden has succumbed to the pyramidal attractor, and the majority of its population live in one of two highly stratified societies, one founded by John Redlantern, the other ruled by the descendants of David Redlantern.   In the case of the ‘Johnfolk’ at least, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are really no more than serfs, ruled over in a more-or-less feudal way, by ‘chiefs’ who are the heirs of those who were John’s lieutenants in his protracted struggle against the Davidfolk. The great rift in Eden’s human community that was depicted in the first book, was the catalyst which set in motion the process of stratification which  also included the increasing dominance of men over women.

One of the things I was interested in exploring in Mother of Eden is how those hierarchies work.   My main protagonist, Starlight Brooking, comes from one of the few remaining exceptions to the pyramidal norm, and she finds it bewildering that such a very number of people can exercise so much control over so many.  Why don’t the people at the bottom of the pyramid simply refuse to do what they’re told?

She discovers there are many reasons, one of which is the fact that the system of stories and beliefs which people use as their source of meaning has, to to speak, been rigged so that it bolsters the status quo.   Another is a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ kind of paradox: yes, if all the ‘small’ people rose up together, they could defeat the ‘big’ people, but if some stand up to the big people and the others don’t take their side, they’ll end up a lot worse off than they would have been if they kept their heads down.   Another again is that even people who seem low down in the pyramid, and look like they are getting a pretty bad deal, do in fact turn out to have at least some stake in in maintaining the structure as it is.

I won’t say how it all works out for Starlight, but I will say that I think people sometimes forget that last point when they are thinking about politics in the modern world.  It simply isn’t the case that the world can be divided up in ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the rest of us’, however much we’d like to place ourselves squarely on the side of the good guys.  In a country like the UK, even middle-income people who don’t think of themselves as especially well off are, by global standards, not only very rich, but quite possibly richer (at least in purely material terms) than will ever be possible for the human race as a whole.

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