Towers of Babel

According to the BBC, average life expectancy in the UK is levelling off, no longer climbing steadily as it has been for many years:

University College London expert Sir Michael Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation, saying it was “entirely possible” austerity was affecting how long people live.

If one reads this levelling out as an indication that the general level of health may be beginning to fall then yes this may be concerning, particularly given that life expectancy varies dramatically between different demographic groups: some communities are clearly not getting their fair share of healthy life.

But that said, what I want to ask is: Did we seriously imagine that life expectancy could continue to rise indefinitely?  And, if this were possible, would that even be a good thing?  Or, to rephrase that second question (given that we can probably agree it would not be a good thing if it simply meant more and more people living for decades in care homes with dementia, poor mobility or both):  Would it be a good thing even if ageing could be arrested and good health could also continue indefinitely?

Leaving aside the question of what sort of lifespan is actually biologically possible, it seems to me obvious that death has to be the corollary of birth.  The planet’s resources, including actual physical space, are not infinite, and, if new individuals are going to be born, then old ones do have to die to make room for them.   That being so, in a situation where it was technically possible to abolish ageing and extend human life indefinitely, the question would have to be: would the Earth be better off as a planet of childless Methuselahs, or as a planet where lifespans remained limited but there were children?  Living indefinitely and having children is not sustainable, except perhaps for a small elite.

But this sort of question is not asked very often.  In a narcissistic, individualistic age, the kind of question more likely to be asked is ‘Would I like to postpone my own death, and should I not be given the right to do so?’ or ‘Does not every individual have the right to extend their lives as long as they want?’   As if the world itself was a parent and the human individual a child entitled to infinite unconditional love.

Across the planet, millions are short of food, fish stocks are declining, agricultural land is lost to desert and sprawling cities, rain forests are cut down for farms.  But outside the city of Cambridge where I live armies of construction cranes  mark the sites where yet more medical research facilities are springing up like towers of Babel, reaching for immortality.


It’s nearly a year since my mother died.  My father died a couple of years previously.  So I am parentless.  There’s been a difficult period of adjustment to this fact, but I’m finally beginning to get used to it.  It feels good.

I was present at the moment of my mother’s death but I felt nothing.  I felt a stony absence where one might expect feeling to be.  It was the same at her funeral.  To this day, I have not shed a single tear for her.  (I only shed a couple for my father.)   Immediately after my mother died, I sat alone with her body for a while. I didn’t speak to her, and I am still careful not to speak to her as some people like to do to their dead. I do not want to give any sort of house room to the idea that she might be alive or listening.  Nevertheless, as I sat by her body, I imagined she spoke to me.  As it became more gaunt in the final days, her face, with its prominent nose and pointy chin, had become a little witch-like, reminding me of her sharp face in pictures from my early childhood which always stir in me a certain icy fear.  And now, alone with her body, I imagined her saying to me in a harsh, mocking voice, ‘Don’t imagine you’ve got away from me because you never will.  Now I’m inside your head.’ I didn’t literally hear this, but it was vivid enough to frighten me, and I had to resist an impulse to run from the room.

I should be clear that she had never actually spoken to me in that way since I was a child.  She was no monster.  She had a number of admirable qualities.  She was creative and talented and liked to laugh. She was a good neighbour.  I don’t think, generally speaking, that she was deliberately cruel or unkind, and I completely understand that there were reasons for her limitations.   She was also very affectionate towards me and, a lot of the time, I enjoyed her company.  But my absence of grief tells me one thing that I wasn’t entirely sure about until now: I did not love her.

It feels wrong to say it, it feels ungrateful, it feels disloyal, but love isn’t something you can just switch on.  Undoubtedly my mother deserved to be loved, and I performed, as best I could, the part of a loving and affectionate son.  I’d even say the affection was real.  It just wasn’t love.

My mother said to me on more than one occasion that she herself was only capable of loving anyone if she pitied them.  This explained a lot.  I’m simplifying of course, but there was a sense in which, when we were children, you simply couldn’t get loved by her by being brave or healthy or happy.  On the other hand, if you were sick, or maimed, or distressed, my mother, who was a doctor, was always interested, to the point  that there was often rivalry between myself and my siblings not to be the best, but to be the most wounded.

I didn’t completely get this until sometime into adulthood.  Indeed I think that for a while I myself bought into the idea myself that love and pity were synonymous, and (even more weirdly) that being maimed was synonymous with being lovable. (Thank god, I was past this before my own children were born.)  But the fact was that revealing your wounds to my mother, while it would certainly attract her interest, came at a great cost.  She would want to wallow in them, to build them up and make them define you, and to discuss them with her friends, much as other parents discuss their children’s changing circumstances and achievements, the latter being things that, like my father, she showed remarkably little interest in.

There was also an ever present risk that she might suddenly turn, for though she preferred us to be wounded, she did not want us to be more wounded than herself. The competition to be the most wounded was one she saw herself as very much part of and, if you made her feel that her position was challenged, her frightening, sudden, witch-like anger might suddenly flare and she’d tell you that your problems were nothing compared with hers.

So I learned as an adult never to reveal anything of my inner self, and certainly not to tell her of any problems I might have.  We developed a not-unpleasant, bantering, affectionate kind of relationship which I think she enjoyed, and often I did too, but I did not trust her with my core self, or anything even close to it.  In fact I think I was around forty before I learnt to trust my core self with any other adult at all.  And I guess that explains why it was possible for me to feel affection for her (which, after all, you can feel for people you don’t know very well),  but not love, which surely requires that you are able to make contact, to some degree, at a level that feels like your core.

I know what grief feels like.  Grief is like a hard cold wall, seperating you from something precious that someone gave you and that you can never, ever have from them again.   Her death has not separated me from something precious and  I have not grieved for her.  It’s true that I have often grieved, over my life, for the absence of something I would have liked to have had from her and my father, and, in the aftermath of their deaths, I have certainly recapitulated some of that.  (Four months after she died I saw a news story about the death of the ‘clown of Aleppo‘, a brave young man who did his best to cheer up the children there, and for a short time I was quite beside myself, though it was the first time I’d ever heard of him!)  But that’s another matter entirely.

I find myself thinking of suns and black holes.  Both have gravity, and both can draw other, smaller bodies into their orbit, but suns give out warmth, and black holes suck it in.   I would have liked parents who could warm me, but at least now they can no longer suck away my own warmth.  And I don’t even have to feel badly about depriving them of it, because at last those two needy people no longer need anything at all.


The most serious car crash I have ever been in happened nearly thirty years ago.  We were driving from out of town towards the Elizabeth Way Bridge in Cambridge, returning from a trip to the sea, and my wife was just stopping for a red light at a pedestrian crossing, when a young man coming in the other direction at about 70MPH lost control of his scooter as he came down the bridge, veering wildly across the road to smash right into the front of our car.  The engine compartment was crumpled like a carboard box and the scooter lay in pieces on the road.  We were showered with fragments of our own windscreen.  There was a stink of smoke and hot oil.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but having established that none of us were hurt beyond a few small scratches, I climbed out of the car.  The scooter rider had somersaulted right over the roof of the car and was sprawled on his back on the road behind us.   He was unconscious.  His skin was grey with shock.  The only sign that he was alive was a pop-pop-pop of his breath coming out through his lips.  I had no idea what to do for him, and was in no state to think clearly about anything at all.  (Later it made me think about soldiers in wars, facing traumatic events, one after another, for hours on end: Tom Hanks in that amazing scene in Saving Private Ryan, standing in the middle of  the Normandy landings in a kind of disconnected fog.)  Other people took charge of him.  An ambulance came.  He died in hospital that same night.

People came out of houses and from the cars that had stopped behind us to attend to the injured man. Someone invited my family into their house and made drinks for our frightened kids: my oldest daughter aged three managing her fear by announcing things very loudly and firmly to everyone present.  Someone else came out with a fire extinguisher and sprayed it over our crushed engine. The whole thing -our adrenalin-flooded bloodstreams, the nearness of death, us being the centre of attention, the sudden emergence of a kind of temporary community from behind the closed doors of houses and cars- had an eerie, unreal feeling.

The next few days were strange.  A police officer came round and so did the parents of the dead man who the police had put in touch with us. He’d been their only child, and had just left their house after a meal when he had the crash.  (He’d been through a difficult time, they told us, but they’d been hoping that he’d begun to turn a corner in his life.  They had barely begun to process what had happened.)   And we experienced something that I wouldn’t have anticipated or thought possible: every few minutes for the next couple of days, the crash replayed itself in my head.   I almost literally heard and felt the moment of impact, over and over again.  My whole head ached with it.

Going back to the immediate aftermath of the crash itself, one thing I remember, because I made a particular point of remembering it, is me telling my future self, ‘Looking back on this, with all the strangeness, all the heightened physical arousal, all the drama, it may seem to have a kind of glamour, like the glamour that people imagine that war has.  But I’m telling you now, it is not glamorous, not in any way.’

* * *

I’ve just read Ballard’s Crash, which of course is all about the glamour of car crashes.  Although I’ve read a lot of his work (I’ve written about some of it here, here and here), I’ve avoided this book up to now, unable to face its perversity.   But I’ve finally read it, 44 years after it came out.

By all the rules Crash ought to be completely unreadable not only because of its subject matter -the whole book is about a sexual obsession with car crashes- but also because, in common with other books of Ballard’s, it lacks the progression, the unfolding, that you expect in a novel.  The third paragraph is already talking about ‘windshield glass frosting around her face like a death-born Aphrodite…  her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer’s medallion, his semen emptying across the luminscent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine’.   The narrator (a character teasingly named Ballard) is hooked on this stuff pretty much from the off, and the rest of the book is filled with scenes and language of this kind, which get neither more nor less extreme.  In place of progression, the book remorsely repeats, over and over, the same basic ideas.  Again and again we are presented with mixtures of some combination of blood, semen and mucus with engine oil or coolant.  Again and again the image recurs of parts of the dashboard imprinted on the human body.  Again and again the characters obsess about matching the angles of the human body (intact or mangled) and the angles of sex, with the angles of a car in its smashed or pre-smashed form.

And yet it is readable. It is actually a lot more readable than many more conventional novels I’ve read or attempted to read recently, and I’m trying to work out why.

For one thng, as I’ve noticed before, Ballard’s books work like paintings.  Words have necessarily to be read one at a time, but the time element is much less important in Ballard than is conventionally the case with novels.  What emerges is not so much a story as a picture, very detailed and intricate, which all that repetition, like repeated brush strokes, serves to consolidate in the mind.

Ballard’s writing is also emotionally very cool.  Characters are never appalled, or terrified, or horrified, or grief-stricken.  At most they are ‘uneasy’ or ‘unsettled’.  And they are viewed with a cool eye too.  There’s no authorial judgement on them.  These people are driven by a bizarre sexual obsession but the way it is presented doesn’t really invite a sexual response or even a response of disgust or revulsion, in spite of the extremely graphic details involving ‘faecal matter’, ‘anal mucus’, ‘vaginal fluid’ etc etc  You could say the presentation is clinical, but it also makes me think of the psychological phenomenon called dissociation, an emotional detachment from reality.   In psychology, dissociation is typically a defensive response to a reality too terrible to process (again, I think of Hanks’s character standing dazed on that beach in Normandy), and in a book like this it serves the same kind of function for the reader, making it possible to continue through material which otherwise might drive one to fling the book away.  Only later, as I gradually processed what I’d read, did I see that I’ve been presented with a vision of modern consumer society as pornography, as artifical images that are simultaneously hyper-seductive and completely dehumanised.

The other thing that keeps you reading is simply the intensity of the vision:

We had entered an immense traffic jam. From the junction of the motorway and Western Avenue to the ascent ramp of the flyover the traffic lanes were packed with vehicles, windshields leaching out the molten colours of the sun setting above the western suburbs of London. Brake-lights flared in the evening air, glowing in the huge pool of cellulosed bodies. Vaughan sat with one arm out of the passenger window. He slapped the door impatiently, pounding the panel with his fist. To our right the high wall of a double-decker airline coach formed a cliff of faces. The passengers at the windows resembled rows of the dead looking down at us from the galleries of a columbarium. The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.

* * *

It was planes rather than cars that did it for me as a child, and specifically war planes.  It was that same glamour, that same intoxicating mixture of speed and modernity and death.

I remember when I pretty small, maybe 6 or 7, I developed for a while a fear that a plane would crash into our house.  I never told anyone about it, but it haunted me continuously, day after day.  But even then I didn’t stop playing with planes.  I can even remember noticing the contradiction once while playing on my own, noticing that I was living in fear of planes, even while I fantasised about being a fighter pilot.  I had compartmentalised my mind so effectively that planes could simultaneously be objects of desire and objects of dread.

This makes me think of Ballard’s childhood experiences in Shanghai, described in fictionalised form in Empire of the Sun.  Surrounded by horrors, completely in the power of enemies, he learns to admire and be excited by the things that most threaten him.  I guess this was where he learnt to separate emotions from phenomena in that way, so fundamental to his writing voice, that allows him to explore territory where almost no one else would go.

Angie Redlantern speaks

Daughter of Eden is now out as an audiobook from Audible.   It’s read by Imogen Church and, listening to the sample, I think she’s done a really wonderful job of it.  I felt I was listening to Angie Redlantern herself telling the story.  Which was a strange and rather moving experience, given that Angie (possibly my favourite Eden character) came out of my own head.  Click on this link for the free sample and judge for yourself.

Modernity isn’t what it used to be

I was thinking (vaguely) about  J G Ballard and his seductive apocalypses: empty swimming pools, crashed Zero fighters, abandoned atomic test sites, Sputnik-era satellites, disintegrating artistic communities in decaying Californian villas.  And it struck me that modernity itself was seductive in the mid-twentieth century. Deadly, perhaps, doomed, toxic, even unspeakable, but nevertheless very sexy.

And it struck me then that modernity is no longer sexy.  There’s nothing sexy about these tablets and phones we fiddle with so obsessively.  They’re desireable, no doubt, but not in a dangerous or sensual or edgy way.  Their appeal is to the anal desire for neatness and tidiness, the kind of gratification that, according to Freud, begins with the pride taken by our infant selves on seeing our little toddler turds safely deposited in the potty.

Ballard said, apropos of Crash, ‘I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums up everything: the elements of speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods with the technological landscape.’  He wasn’t saying this was a healthy situation, but there’s no denying its glamour.

It struck me that the equivalent image for our current era would a person immersed in rearranging the icons in their smartphones.

* * *

A slightly different thought that also came to me was that, in spite of much trumpeting about the breakneck pace of change these days -the way the world has been turned upside down by the internet, vastly greater computing power and so on- in fact my own experience (I was born in 1955) has been that the pace of change over the period of my life has actually been much slower than in my parents’ generation.   The attitudes and mores of the current generation of young adults are much more similar to those of the generation (mine) that reached adulthood forty years ago in the 1970s, than were the attitudes and mores of the 70s generation to those of the generation forty years before them, which reached adulthood in the 1930s.  The idea of the ‘generation gap’ was current in the 1970s, for instance, but we have no equivalent term now.

Think of generally accepted attitudes to race, social class, sexuality or marriage in the 1930s, the 1970s and the 201os, and surely it’s obvious that the 1930s are the outlier, meaning that the pace of change has slowed.  (In fact, in some respects, the 2010s show signs of things moving back towards older forms.  My children’s generation have much more conservative ideas about marriage, for instance, than were the norm in their social class in the 1970s.)

Or think of popular music.   Who could deny that the music of the 2010s is much more similar to that of the 1970s, than the latter was to the music of the 1930s?   In fact music from the 1960s and 70s remains well-known and liked by the current generation of young adults, and the music of the 201os is still played within a similar framework (look at all the bands at Glastonbury which still use the electric guitar/bass/keyboards/drum format that was typical of 60s and 70s bands).  But in the 1970s we knew virtually nothing at all about the music of the 1930s.

So it looks to me as if computers and the internet may have been slightly less earth-shaking, culturally speaking, than we often imagine.  Perhaps in the long-run, they will been seen to have been much less instrumental in changing social attitudes than mid-twentieth century innovations like television, cheap air-flight and (the biggest of all in my opinion), reliable contraception.

All of which could explain why present day modernity seems so much less sexy than the modernity of forty years ago.  If cultural change is indeed slowing down rather than speeding up, then one would expect the new to seem less shocking and exciting than was case back then.  We have many new conveniences, it’s true, but convenience and glamour are very different things.

*  *  *

This isn’t good news for science fiction writers, I’m afraid, and perhaps explains why the genre no longer has the prestige it had in the days when Ballard started out.

Moonshots once seemed like the beginning of the future, but now are receding into the past.  And, however hard we try, ever more sophisticated devices for organising information just do not have the same allure.

Problematic (Words I don’t like #1)

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.

Tweet tweet

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.

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. (Summary: Dissident dissents.  Dissident labelled.   Comforting straw man used as punchbag.)

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

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 whileNot only is Exhibit A despicable, but the person who said it is physically repulsive, sexually perverted etc etc. (Offender identified.  Offender pilloried.  Cosy sense of community achieved.)

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

My next novel, America City, is now at the proof-reading stage.  It even has an Amazon page already. 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 also has an Amazon page).  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.

Spring Tide

My third short story collection differs from the previous collections in two respects.  Firstly, all the stories are original to this book and have never appeared in print before.  Secondly, this book will represent my first published foray outside of the parameters of science fiction.  Some of the 21 stories in this book include fantastical elements, but none of them (at least according to my definition) could be described as SF.

From Corvus, early 2018.

Spring Tide on Amazon UK.

America City

The United States a century in the future.   As a result of climate change, powerful hurricanes hit the east coast every year, each time a little further north.  And large areas of the southern half of the US have insufficient water, meaning that many towns and cities, and whole swathes of farmland, are no longer viable.  Each year a steady stream of refugees from southern states heads north, but they meet an increasingly frosty welcome, and some northern states are threatening frontier controls to keep them out.

Holly Peacock, a bright young British PR professional who has settled in the US, begins to work for a charismatic US Senator called Stephen Slaymaker, who rose from poverty via army service in Africa, to build up one of America’s largest trucking businesses.  Slaymaker is campaigning for a huge government-funded programme to shift the American population northwards, and so prevent the north-south divide from tearing America apart.    When Slaymaker stands for President, this Reconfigure America programme is at the core of his platform and Holly’s job is to win support for it.

But how to sell the idea to northern voters that they should welcome in millions of refugees from the south, and pay for it too in their taxes?  Working closely with Slaymaker, Holly finds a way, but it involves fighting dirty and has catastrophic consequences which she didn’t anticipate at all.

From Corvus: November 2017

America City on Amazon UK.