Meritocracy

• August 11th, 2016 • Posted in All posts

I was interested in this article asking whether meritocracy in the UK is a sham.  I live in Cambridge and for a time I used go and write in the Cambridge University Library (I was eligible for a library card at the time as a member of staff of Cambridge’s other, marginally less famous, university: Anglia Ruskin).  I got into the habit of working in the cafe there  -I find a background hum of voices more conducive to writing than absolute silence- and I can tell you that I could go all day without seeing a single black face, or hearing a single regional accent.  There’d  be some foreigners, but  the British people in there, students and academics, were almost all white and almost all spoke with the  distinctive accent, somehow both languid and gushing, of the English private school system.   (I myself was no exception btw: I too am white, I too went to private school.)  That tells you quite a lot, I think, about the extent to which we live in a meritocracy!

What we do live in, though, is a society which sees being a meritocracy as a desireable goal, a society which, when it talks about equality, talks about equality of opportunity, about removing the obstacles that prevent gifted people from poor backgrounds from achieving their potential.  There’s not a lot of talk about people whose talents are not exceptional, people who are not especially bright, people who are of average or below average ability, even though this group, by definition, includes more than half of the population.

Equality of opportunity is desireable, but it’s not sufficient, a point made in the article by the former Labour leader, Ed Milliband (someone who I never thought I’d look back on with some degree of nostalgia!).   A meritocracy, per se, would not necessarily be good society.  In fact, thinking about it now, I’d go as far as to say that, if I was designing a society in which the power of an elite was to be permenantly entrenched, I’d make it a meritocracy, and give it an excellent universal educational system, designed to ensure that anyone with above average ability, from whatever background, could be identified from an early age and channelled to a position in society commensurate with those abilities, and that anyone particularly gifted could be co-opted into the elite.  That way the elite could be constantly strengthened, while working class communities would be continuously deprived of those who would otherwise have been their natural leaders and spokespeople.

Then again, perhaps, I’m being unfair?  On reflection, I suppose that what would moderate such a society, and make it more humane, would be that the elite would contain many people who had memories of, and family connections with, the rest of society, whereas the more stratified system we have now means that many or most of those people I overheard in the University library, may never really have known anyone from outside of their own class.

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Writing Daughter of Eden

• August 8th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Story-telling

A couple of events are lined up now to mark the publication of Daughter of Eden in October (Oct 6th: London, Oct 25th: Birmingham.)  I’ve already written two more books to follow it: the first a collection of new short stories (non-SF for a change), the second a new novel, set in North America in a hundred years time.  Right now, though, I’m really looking to seeing the final Eden book out there.

It seems to be a pattern with me that I faff around with a novel for several months, struggling to find my way into it.  And then suddenly something will click, and the novel kind of writes itself.   The faffing generally involves a lot of pacing around, eating stuff from the fridge, frittering time on the internet, and spending whole days writing stuff that I know in the evening I won’t be keeping.  But I haven’t yet found a reliable way of short-circuiting it.

The turning point for Daughter of Eden was when I decided to abandon the alternating narrator approach used in the other two Eden books, and have one character tell the whole story, relying on hearsay for events she wasn’t present at.  The sole narrator, and main protagonist is Angie Redlantern, who appeared at the beginning of Mother of Eden as Starlight Brooking’s best friend.   Daughter of Eden centres on Angie’s own adventures after the departure of Starlight.

Once I’d made my mind up to settle down behind Angie’s eyes, the story really started to flow.  Angie is a very different kind of protagonist from John Redlantern in Dark Eden, or Starlight in Mother of Eden, and I enjoyed seeing Eden from her perspective.  She is a much quieter, more unassuming, gentler figure, her confidence set back by growing up with what people in her part of Eden call a ‘batface’ (i.e. cleft palate/harelip).  At the beginning of the book she is living a very humble life: a ‘low person’ , as the Davidfolk call it, right down at the bottom of the pecking order.  The big things happen to other people.

But suddenly, she finds herself dealing with huge, cataclysmic events: more cataclysmic than anything in the other two books.  I enjoyed watching her grow, while human society on Eden turned itself inside out all around her.

Daughter cover

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Optimism, Stories and The Switch

• August 5th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights, Climate, Other people's books

Science fiction is usually set in the future.   It’s true that quite often it is only nominally the future -much science fiction is set in worlds that are no more plausible as a depiction of a real future than, say, Arthurian romances are plausible as depictions of a real past-  but even so, one of the functions that SF performs is providing an imaginative way of thinking about where we may be headed.

An SF writer must primarily be a story-teller, though.  There has to be tension and jeopardy in the imagined world, in order to generate a story.  Fictional utopias, worlds where all humanity’s problems have been solved, are notoriously screamingly dull.  (Which sometimes makes me wonder if we would really even want to live in a utopian society, or whether, like David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, we’d feel compelled to destroy it in order to get away from the tedium of it all?)  It’s much easier to set an interesting story in a dystopia, or at least in a world which is at least as flawed as the present, and I’m not sure its even possible to set an interesting novel in a utopia unless the utopian society is placed under some kind of external threat ( as in Huxley’s Island, or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

I mention all this because I like to read about positive developments that might improve things in the future, and as someone who writes about the future (and worries about it, as we all do), I always feel that I’d like to disseminate what I read, but in fact it is very hard to do so through the medium of SF.  I think maybe I just need to accept that non-fiction is a better medium for writing about such things.

the switch cover

The Switch (by Chris Goodall) is a very readable book about the hopeful possibilities arising from the fact that solar power is becoming cheaper year on year, to the point where it will soon be a much more cost-effective source of energy than fossil fuels.  Early solar panels cost many thousands of dollars per watt of power,but ‘by the mid 1970s the figure had fallen to $100 a watt.  Now the cost is about 50 cents and the decline still continues’ and ‘in the sunnier parts of the world, photovoltaics already offer electricity at lower total cost than other forms of power’.  Even in more northerly countries, PV [photovoltaics] is dramatically reducing in cost: ‘In Britain the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels has already pushed PV almost to cost parity with planned gas-fired power stations’.  And ‘because PV is so utterly reliable and almost maintenance-free, it is a perfect investment for pension funds seeking consistent yearly returns for the thirty-five years of a panel’s life.’

But there’s an obvious problem with PV which is that sunlight isn’t constant and can’t be turned on and off to meet demand.   Actually no other source of power can be turned on and off at will like that without at least some cost, but clearly PV doesn’t work at all in the night,  generates power in the middle of the day whether it is needed or not, and generates less power when the sky clouds over, even if more is actually needed during those times.  Most of the book is therefore about developments around the world aimed at addressing this problem, which the author sees as eminently surmountable.

There are a number of layers to this.  One is to manage demand more effectively.   There are already schemes whereby companies are paid to enter into an agreement to cut energy use at short notice when there is a spike in demand, which can often be done without affecting productivity.  For example, a papermill produces pulp and stores it, and then turns the pulp into paper.  Provided there is a sufficient store of pulp, pulp-making can be paused at any point, without reducing the overall output of the mill.  In the same way domestic fridges and freezers can be turned off for short periods without ill-effect and chargers for electric vehicles can be set to stop charging at periods of peak demand, and resume charging at periods of lower demand.

Another way is to store the energy.  Pumped storage – that is: using surplus power to pump water uphill, and then allowing that water to flow down through a turbine to generate power at times of energy shortage- has been the main means of doing this on a large scale, but there are a limited number of suitable sites for this.   There are also new solar powerstations being built which, instead of using PV, concentrate solar energy to generate heat that can be used to power turbines even when the sun is down (Morocco has made a big commitment to this approach and is currently developing the largest such scheme in the world).  Increasingly though, large-scale storage in batteries is becoming an option, because batteries are reducing in cost year on year, much like PV, albeit not quite so quickly.   In countries where there is steady sun throughout the year, this book suggests, a combination of PV and banks of batteries may on their own be able to provide sufficient power for household use.

However in countries with long, relatively dark winters, batteries will not be sufficient.  The later chapters of this book explore emergent technologies, not yet as far advanced as PV or batteries, which can use surplus power to synthesise  fuels, by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with carbon dioxide to make methane or ethanol.  One of the attractive things about this approach is that there is an existing infrastructure of storage tanks and pipelines which are currently used for fossil fuels, as well as gas powerstations that could equally well run on synthesised fuel.   The book describes a range of different approaches being taken around the world towards mimicking what plants do naturally, using sunlight to make fuel, and doing so on a commercial scale.

I couldn’t make a novel out of all this -perhaps some people could, but I couldn’t- and yet it is a fascinating story.  I guess the truth is that the really creative people here are not story-tellers who imagine worlds, but the scientists, engineers,  entrepreneurs and politicians, who actually make things happen in the real world that we all inhabit.  I know that a lot of people would argue that the rate of change towards these new technologies is still far too slow to tackle climate change, but that’s a question about political will.   The political choice to shift away from fossil fuels is only even theoretically possible if viable alternatives are available.  The encouraging story this book tells is that they are, and getting more viable all the time.  The other encouraging point -and I’m simply not qualified to judge how realistic it is- is that a time is arriving where market forces themselves, regardless of politics, will pull us in the direction of solar power and power storage, and away from fossil fuels.

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Daughter of Eden signing, Forbidden Planet, London Oct 6th

• August 3rd, 2016 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I’ll be signing copies of Daughter of Eden, the third and final Eden novel, at Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Ave, London, on Oct 6th, 6 – 7 pm, October 6th.   Do come along and say hello if in the area!

Daughter cover

(If you are nearer to Birmingham, see previous post about event there on Oct 25th).

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Talking about Eden, Waterstones, Birmingham, Oct 25th

• August 1st, 2016 • Posted in All posts, News & events

If in or near Birmingham on 25th October, I hope you’ll come along to this event at Waterstone’s where I’ll be talking to Tom Hunter, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke award about my new novel, Daughter of Eden, 7-9 pm.

Daughter cover

I’ll also be doing a signing at Forbidden Planet, London, on Oct 6th: details to follow.

 

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Frogs

• July 25th, 2016 • Posted in All posts

We have a pond in our garden.  We dug it out twenty years ago and, though I hack the vegetation back from time to time, it became pretty overgrown with irises spilling out of their planters to create a thick jungle-like mass of stems and roots along the sides of the ponds, which gradually extended itself outwards over the water, with ivy weaving itself between its stems.  Many frogs have colonised the pond over the years, and they haul themselves out onto the thick knotted roots of the irises.  Here are five of them lying motionless in a pile, as if rehearsing (I sometimes think) for the role of iguanas in a scaled down version of Ballard’s Drowned World.

frog pic

The trouble was that there was very little open water left in between the irises, and I decided yesterday it was time to remove them completely and start again.  It was a day’s work, cutting through all those roots, disentangling the plants from one another and hauling out masses of vegetation which must, in total, have been several times my own weight.  I was left with  a huge pile of greenery and roots, a rectangular pond that suddenly looked absolutely enormous, and many frogs swimming back and forth around the edges, scrabbling frantically at walls they could no longer climb.  I had left them several ways they could get out, but their familiar routes were no longer available, their familiar jungle had disappeared completely, and in the short-run they were flummoxed.

I’ve been feeling a bit like that myself lately.   Strange new things are happening in the world.  In many countries, authoritarian leaders and sinister clowns are on the rise, and institutions which seemed to provide stability and security in the past are unravelling.   Here in England, the Brexit vote exposed a deep rift between relatively prosperous cosmopolitan urban areas that voted Remain (as I did) and rural, poorer or more working class areas that felt it was time to pull up the drawbridge.  (Even within my own county of Cambridgeshire, the vote varied between 73% for Remain in the wealthy, high-tech city of Cambridge, and 71% for Leave in the poorer and more rural area of Fenland.)  No one knows where we’re headed any more, both our main political parties are riven, and one of them is rapidly tearing itself apart in a bitter and sometimes violent fight.

I’ve felt that I ought to write something about these things –after all, my novels all deal with social change– but I’ve been struggling to know what to say.  Although I voted Remain, and felt pretty grief-stricken by the result, I did not feel like joining the chorus of outraged Remainers, so unexpectedly outvoted by a mysterious Other of 17,000,000 people that had (or so you’d think!) suddenly emerged from nowhere. Many Remainers now seemed inclined to characterise Leave voters as racists or dupes.  Many argued that they should never have been given the opportunity to vote on a complex issue which only educated people could understand.  Someone, in the great tradition of the English middle-class, started a petition.  (I love the absurdity of that: a petition to overturn the outcome of a referendum!)  There was a big demo in London.  There were calls for parliament to exercise its prerogative to ignore the outcome of a nationwide vote which that very same parliament had legislated into being.  Like the frogs in my pond people were scrabbling in their familiar places, without quite grasping that the roots that they used to climb up were no longer there.

The world has changed.  It’s that kind of world. Seen from space, this stormy, restless planet flashes constantly with lightning.  My generation in the ‘West’ has lived through a long period of political stability, but in historical terms, that’s the exception not the rule. There is a way out of the pond, but it isn’t in the same place, and we need to stop looking there.

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Living on the planet Zarg: Clarke interview

• June 14th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

Interview here with Tom Hunter, of the Clarke Award.

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How I write

• April 30th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

My friend Tony Ballantyne has been asking writers to describe their writing process, posting the results on his website every month.   Here is what I wrote for him.

If you haven’t encountered Tony’s work, I recommend it.  He is one of the cleverest people I know, in fact quite possibly the cleverest.  (I won’t embarass him by saying that, by the way: he doesn’t really do that kind of humility.)  Annoyingly, apart from being a talented and productive writer, having a degree in maths, and being a deputy head of a secondary school, he also plays several musical instruments and is a member of a brass band.  His novels are unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.  However there is something about his particular vision, dark,  witty, humane, and occasionally tinged with a rather scary version of Christian theology (the latter particularly apparent in Recursion), that occasionally reminds me of Philip K. Dick.

His latest novel is Dream Paris -full of strange Ballantynian angles on the French revolution and politics in general- but you’d probably do better to read Dream London first.

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The Party is Over

• March 21st, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, c100 CE: Satire 10.77-81)

A public that pays more attention to reality TV than its status as free citizens cannot withstand an unremitting encroachment on its liberties by calculating, unscrupulous and power-hungry leaders (Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, 2012 CE)

The party is over

I haven’t even finished reading this book yet, and I may well have more to say about it later.  It is packed with sharp, pithily expressed and extremely scary observations about the break-down of the American political system and its corruption by corporate money.  A Republican who worked as a staffer in Congress for nearly 30 years, Lofgren is pretty scathing about the Democrats, but his most bitter attacks (at least so far) are directed against his own party which he describes as becoming less and less like a political party and more like ‘an apocalyptic cult’.

What he really exposes is a kind of doublespeak in which strident claims to be defending something – the constitution, liberty, democracy, the national interest- are used to conceal attacks on that same object.  ‘Let us now dispose,’ Lofgren writes, for instance, ‘ of the quaint notion that the present-day Republican Party is conservative.’   He defines the GOP, as it now exists, as a ‘radical right-wing party’, which doesn’t really conserve and protect anything, for all that it invokes the memory of a romanticised past, but seeks to completely transform society in the interests of the very wealthy* using whatever means possible and with a kind of Leninist ruthlessness.

The American political system works in a very different way from the British one, but there is much here that is familiar to a British reader all the same.  For instance:

The GOP reflexively scorns so-called elites (by which it means educated, critical thinkers) to mask the way it is utterly beholden to the true American elite.

I am particularly struck by Lofgren’s observation that the current Republican Party deliberately seeks to undermine the credibility of government itself:

Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government – i.e., the Republican Party – will come out the relative winner.

Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.

A UK parallel is the relentless attack on the quality of public services, which is always ostensibly in the name of making them better, but which in fact reduces the standing of the services themselves.   But we also have a culture of cynicism about politicians and government in general, and I’ve long thought that (for instance) leftish comedians should be more aware of whose interests such routine and unfocused cynicism actually serves.

*Interesting fact: according to Lofgren under Eisenhower’s Republican presidency in the 50s, the top rate of income tax in the US was 91%.  Even the new leadership of the British Labour Party, characterised by many as unelectably left-wing, only proposes a top rate of 50%.

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Marcher on offer

• March 15th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Just to let you know that the signed hardback edition of Marcher from Newcon Press, with its striking cover by Ben Baldwin, is currently on special offer here, along with a number of other publications from Ian Whates’ excellent imprint.

aaa marcher cover

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