• May 25th, 2017 • Posted in All posts, Audio delights

A Canadian student group apologises for including he Lou Reed song ‘Walk on the Wild Side‘ in a playlist, on the basis that the lyrics of the song are transphobic and therefore ‘problematic’.   Transphobia seems a pretty weird charge to lay against this particular song -a song which actually celebrates a transexual character in its opening verse- but let’s leave that aside.  What I find actually creepiest about this story is the use of the word ‘problematic’.

To be clear about this, I don’t mind people strongly objecting to what other people say.  ‘I find X’s views utterly obnoxious’, is fine.  So is ‘X’s views are racist” (and indeed so is ‘ X’s views are transphobic’, whether or not it happens to be a reasonable charge in this particular case).   But ‘X’s views are problematic’, which in a way sounds more polite, less confrontational, I find quite nauseating.

I’m trying to figure out why.   I think in part it’s the very politeness that I object to, the tight, anal, priggish, self-control that is implied. But I think perhaps also it’s the implication that there exists a single correct account of the world, which the speaker possesses and others do not.

Thus, while ‘I find X’s views obnoxious’ is a good strong statement about X’s views, it’s also a statement about the speaker, an implicit acknowledgement that the speaker is a particular human being with a specific viewpoint.  ‘X’s views are racist’, while it makes no statement about the speaker, at least lays out a specific charge which defenders of X may if they wish challenge or refute.  ‘X’s views are problematic’, on the other hand, suggests that the speaker knows for certain how the world ought to be described, and is therefore able, in almost clinical way, to identify even small deviations from the true path, in order that they can be nipped in the bud.

Human beings have been trying to describe the world for several hundred thousand years, for Christ’s sake!  No one has finally reached some sort of perfect understanding.  Not even you!  In fact, there isn’t even such a thing, only a series of approximations, each of which, in its way, is problematic.



Tweet tweet

• May 24th, 2017 • Posted in All posts

When I joined Twitter originally, I it was because my daughter had persuaded me that it would be good way to promote my books, let people know about new posts here etc. ‘Well,’ I told myself (like some gullible kid accepting a free sample of heroin), ‘what harm could it do just to try?’ I am now addicted. I must spend many hours each week looking at it, and use it as my primary source of news.  Yet –and I guess this is probably true of all the best addictions– a large part of me really loathes it.

When I say I loathe it, I’m not talking here about the really nasty things, the trolling, the rape threats, the racism, the routine anti-semitism.  Those are vile of course, but I tend to hear about them at second hand.  I am talking more about things I see every day.

Dissident dissents.  Dissident labelled.   Comforting straw man used as punchbag.

So, for instance, I attempt to have a debate with someone who disagrees with me, and instead of engaging, they project onto me some stereotype they have of people who disagree with them, and shout angrily at this imaginary being.

Intruder dismissed.  Intruder dehumanised.   Echo chamber restored to full working order.

Or.  I come across a conversation between people I more or less agree with.  An outsider joins in who takes a different view.  The outsider is headed off.  ‘That shut him up!’ someone observes.  ‘Not so much “him” as “it”’ says another.  They all duly ‘like’ this response.

Offender identified.  Offender pilloried.  Cosy sense of community achieved.

And then there are the great feeding frenzies of indignation.  Someone outside your own circle says something that you disapprove of: Exhibit A.  You share Exhibit A with your followers, held at arm’s length with tongs. Howls of outrage ensure, continuing agreeably over many hours, becoming increasingly ad hominem all the while(Not only is Exhibit A despicable, but the person who said it is physically repulsive, sexually perverted etc etc.)

But I suppose this isn’t really Twitter I’m talking about.  It’s the human race. Twitter just makes these things more visible.   Irving Janis described all this back in the seventies when he characterised ‘groupthink’ as including the following:

  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group…
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid
  • Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  • Mindguards— self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information

I find myself increasingly thinking about the role of biology in this.  It seems to me that many behaviours which we think of as typically human are simply part of our animal nature.  Creatures right across the animal kingdom –not just mammals, but birds, fish, insects, crustaceans…– engage in elaborate and time-consuming behaviours intended to protect their territory and see off intruders.  It’s one of the main functions of birdsong, for instance.

And, after all, that’s what Twitter is named after.


My Next Novel

• May 12th, 2017 • Posted in All posts, News & events

My next novel, America City, is now at the proof-reading stage.  It even has an Amazon page already, though you can’t yet preorder. I’m getting rather excited about it.  It’s starting to feel real.

This book will be a new departure for me in that all three of its predecessors were set on my sunless planet, Eden, but this takes place in North America in the twenty-second century.  No more glowing forests or hmmmphing trees, though I think readers may still be able to spot links of various kinds between America City and the Eden books.

Like my previous novels it’s to be published in the UK by Corvus, and should be available from 2nd November.

And there’s another book behind it too, my next short-story collection, Spring Tide, already good to go, and also to be published by Corvus.  It should be coming out in the UK in the Spring of 2018.  This is a new departure too.  I have published two previous collections, and one of them won me a prize, but this is my first collection to consist entirely of previously unpublished stories, and my first ever published fiction, whether in the long or short form, that really could not be defined as science fiction.


Cambridge event with Brian Catling: April 27th

• March 23rd, 2017 • Posted in All posts, News & events

If you are in or near Cambridge on April 27th, I am meeting Brian Catling at Heffer’s bookshop at 6.30pm – 8pm.  Details/tickets here.


To Become a Warrior 2017

• January 20th, 2017 • Posted in All posts

I first wrote ‘To Become a Warrior’ in 2002.  It was published in Interzone, and subequently in one of Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best anthologies.  It’s about Carl, a poorly educated, not particularly bright young man who’s been left outside of the prosperous, liberal society of which he is nominally a citizen, and his recruitment by a murderous gang of ‘shifters’ who want to take the world back to the world of the Vikings.

It was one of a number of stories set in this world, the first being ‘The Welfare Man’ written in 1993.   Judging by reprints in anthologies and reader’s polls, they have been among my most popular stories.  However, I didn’t include them in either of my story collections, choosing instead to incorporate them into my second novel, Marcher.

My work as a social worker – when I wrote the story I was only a couple of years on from working as the manager of a social work team- had given me a powerful sense that even a prosperous, economically booming, middle class town like Cambridge (where I lived then and still live now), has another side to it, people who share no part of the prosperity.  There was the famous Cambridge, with its beautiful old buildings, its ancient University, its IT and biotech industries, its bright, educated, liberal-minded citizens, and there was this alternate Cambridge which no one comes to visit, where I would go as part of my job.

When I incorporated ‘To Become a Warrior’ into the novel Marcher, I shifted from first to third person, added and changed details to make it fit in with the rest of the book, swapped around some characters, and gave the story two additional endings, in keeping with the novel’s theme of branching time lines and alternate presents.  Below, I have restored the original first person short story, except that  this time I have opted for one of the other endings.

I’m putting it out here now to mark the inauguration of Donald Trump.   A clamour of rage and fear is going up today from the members of, so to speak, my own tribe, the liberal middle class.  We see everything we value under threat, and we look around for people to blame.  But I have a strong sense, which I’ve tried rather clumsily to explore in previous posts (for instance this), that we ourselves must take a share of that blame. If you leave people outside, they turn to others who offer to take them in.

Anyway, here it is in full, ‘To Become a Warrior ‘ to mark this historic day:

Read the rest of this entry »


The smartsplaining voice

• December 5th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

There’s a lot of talk these days about a growing contempt in the world for evidence, for experts, for reason itself.  It’s a real concern. Not much hope for the future if decades of meticulous scientific work on climate change can all be tossed aside by know-nothing ‘common sense’.  Not much hope for a decent society if obvious lies can be uncritically accepted as true, while facts are dismissed out of hand

But another kind of ugliness that’s been coming to the fore lately is the voice that says, in effect, we smart people know best, and those thick people should just shut up and wait to be told what’s good for them.  Weary, angry, contemptuous: the smartsplaining voice, it might be called.

Clever educated people who are good at reasoning, should be careful not to assume that this alone makes them right.

I remember once in my social work days, visiting a barely literate client and her saying to me resentfully at the end: ‘I suppose you’re going to go away and write this all down, aren’t you?’  However reasonable I was, however conscientious, the fact remained that my interpretation of events was going to go on the record, and hers was not.

A few years later, after a change of job, I acquired a reading ticket for the Cambridge University Library, and had the habit for a while of sitting in the cafe over there to write.  As I half-listened to the people at the tables around me, academics and students coming and going with their cups of coffee and tea, I noticed that I could go all day without even once hearing a regional accent of any kind, only the distinctive drawl of the British private school system.

There’s no question in my mind that every one of those people in the library would have been much better at rational argument and far better-informed than that former client of mine in her council house three miles away.  But every one of their arguments, however beautifully constructed, would necessarily be based on their own experience and what they’d read, and I’ll bet that neither their experience nor their reading equipped them to know anything about that woman’s world.  (This is true of me too, incidentally, although my former job afforded me small glimpses into it.)

So when some of them become politicians, or economists, or entrepreneurs, their judgements about the world, however carefully reasoned, will take almost no account at all of what that woman feels, what’s important to her, how she imbues her life with meaning.  Their judgements will, on the other hand, be very amply informed by the needs of people like themselves, what’s important to them, what imbues their life with meaning.

And that makes me think that what may look like a revolt against reason itself, may be in fact be a revolt against a class that is very good at reasoning, and very good at explaining why the world ought to be run in a way that suits that very same class.   Not revolt against reason as such, in other words, but revolt against reasoning that (however unintentionally) is rigged in favour of the reasoners.   After all, if you’re good at reasoning, you’re good at rationalising too.

Which is why I think that members of that class, including me, would do better to think about what we’ve been excluding from our view of the world, than to dismiss whole groups of people as ignorant thugs.


End times?

• October 31st, 2016 • Posted in All posts

Trump actually winning now seems rather likely, but even if he loses, the very fact that so many support him may be a sign that the checks and balances of the American political system have now been weakened so badly (and some would say deliberately) that it is only a matter of time before they cave in and crumble.

Sooner or later, empires do fall.  When you live in one, its power seems so solid, its essential logic so unassailable, that it easy to imagine that it will go on for ever in the same familar way as it’s done all your life.  But the algorithm is never perfect.  Sooner or later, it either comes up against some external fact which its design didn’t anticipate, or is snarled up from within by its own unintended consequences.

The particular genius of Anglo-Saxon institutions, people sometimes say, is that they are both solid and flexible, allowing them to adjust to changing times without coming tumbling down.  It’s pretty impressive that the US constitution has lasted since 1789, or that the British constitution has evolved more or less peacefully since the Glorious Revolution in 1688, but their survival has always depended on their legitimacy being generally accepted, even by people who, in other respects, disagree profoundly with one another.  When I go out to vote, here in the UK, I’m always struck by the sight of the representatives of the various rival parties chatting amicably to one another outside the polling station, and even helping each other by telling each other the names of voters so they can tick them off on their lists.   There are plenty of countries where members of rival parties are killing each other, torturing each other, locking each other up, countries where the loser in an election will promptly declare a foul, and  begin a civil war.   But those people chatting and joking outside my polling station demonstate to me that, whatever their political differences,  they are still all players of a peaceful and orderly game whose rules they all accept.

But when something approaching half of the population believes that the whole system is rigged, and when serious contenders for office begin to argue not just that their opponents’ views are wrong or harmful, but that their opponents themselves are criminal, evil, illegitimate or traitorous then it seems to me that the game may nearly be up.


Hate-filled ignorant scum

• October 28th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

I’ve been struck for some time by the increasing invisibility of working class people in Britain.   Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I’ve been struck by the increasing invisibility of class as a social division.  The concerns of progressive-minded people have shifted away from class to other divisions -gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability- to a degree that, as Owen Jones points out at the beginning of his important book, Chavs*, the kind of derogatory comment that would be completely unacceptable if applied to, say, an ethnic minority, or to women, or to people with disabilities, can now be quite openly made about people who are working class or poor.  This was particularly evident to me in the wake of the Brexit referendum.  I was very stuck, not only by the way that liberal middle-class Remain voters tended to characterise working-class Leave voters as ignorant, stupid, bigoted and racist, but also by their shock at being defeated.  Many Remain voters, it seemed, only knew folk who voted Remain.  There was a whole bloc of people out there, whose lives and opinions they knew almost nothing about.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s working class people were not invisible in the same way.   The city I grew up in, Oxford, was at that time a major car-manufacturing town.  Trade unions were powerful working-class organisations and, though I came from a middle-class and not particularly political background, in my teens I would have been able to name probably nine or ten trade union leaders in the same way that I could name senior government ministers.  Changes since then have not abolished the working class, but fragmented it, disempowered it and rendered it invisible as a class to the point that some middle-class people, who clearly lead very sheltered lives, now speak of a classless society, or a post-class society, or of us ‘all being middle-class’ now.

The changes, described in Owen’s book, include, the dismantling of much of manufacturing industry, the attack, begun by Margaret Thatcher, on trade union power, and the deliberate policy of the Thatcher government, through the selling off of social housing, to encourage as many working class people as possible to begin to think of themselves as middle-class home owners, or at least to drive a wedge between them, and those that remained in social housing.  The Labour Party, a party originally established with the precise purpose of ensuring that working class people were politically represented, was to carry on with this programme.  Under New Labour, as Owen notes, the idea of emancipating the working class people morphed from improving conditions for the class as a whole, to helping individual working class people to become middle-class.  The emphasis shifted from ‘equality’ to ‘equality of opportunity’.  ‘The new Britain is a meritocracy’, Tony Blair said when he came to power, though the term ‘was not originally meant to describe a desirable society…[but] was meant to raise the alarm at what Britain could become’ (Chavs, p 96).

Not all working class people can become middle class.  ‘If everyone became middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call-in centres?’ (Chavs, p 250).   And not everyone has the same aptitudes.  But the shift of emphasis from improving the condition of a whole class, to helping people with the necessary abilities to leave that class and join the middle class, means that those who are left behind can be blamed for their own problems, and the poorest among them can be described in terms which, if applied to ethnic minorities rather than social classes, could have come straight from some 1930s Nazi tract:

‘…that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country…good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and are incapable of feeling love or guilt’ (Carole Malone, News of the World, cited in Chavs, p 22)

One of the interesting points raised by Owen, and one which very much chimes with my own experience, is that denigration of working class people isn’t confined to the right-wing of British politics, but can also be found among liberal and even left-wing people.  I read an article in the Guardian a few years ago, reporting on a poll which found that the middle class was now more ‘left-wing’ than the working class.  And in the comment thread I came across the following, offered, as far as I could tell, without conscious irony:

… [The working class] consistently vote against their own interests. I have always imagined that the reason is that they think they are “middle-class” as was my own family’s delusion. However, I suspect that the real reason is that they are just hate-filled ignorant scum and we middle-class people should just say fuck them.

Hate-filled, ignorant scum.  ‘One of the ways people have made their snobbery socially acceptable…’ says Johann Hari (cited in Chavs, p 116) ‘[is] by acting as though they are defending immigrants from the “ignorant” white working class’.  Indeed some commentators quite specifically contrast hard-working immigrants with lazy good-for-nothing British workers.  Writing in the Times in 1994, Janet Daley (cited in Chavs, p 118-9) characterised British working-class people as a ‘self-loathing, self-destructive tranche of the population’ and contrasted them with the ‘religion, cultural dignity and… sense of family’ brought by people from ethnic minorities, who were only held back by the ‘mindless hatred of the indigenous working classes, who loathe them precisely for their cultural integrity…  I fear long after Britain has become a successful multi-racial society, it will be plagued by this diminishing…detritus of the Industrial Revolution’.

*   *   *

I heard a lot of that kind of talk from Remainers in the aftermath of Brexit.  But it seems to me that describing working class British people as ‘hate-filled ignorant scum’ and contrasting them unfavourably with immigrant workers was never exactly calculated to endear them to the European project.

*References are to the new 2016 edition of this book, published by Verso