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.

The smartsplaining voice

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.

The Party is Over

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%.

The violent faith

The grail legend has always had certain hold on my imagination since I encountered it as a child, and I’ve often thought about using it in some way in a story.  Partly for that reason, and partly because I’m perennially fascinated by the way that stories evolve over time, I recently read a translation of the original grail romance by Chretien de Troyes and then an interesting book* by Richard Barber which looks at how the story has changed over the centuries.   It was a bit of an eye-opener.

One point that Barber makes is that the original grail stories were written for a particular audience. These tales of knightly valour were written for real-life knights and, like so many books still do, served the purpose, among others, of flattering their readers.  For instance, looking at the original de Troyes story, and at the extracts of other medieval versions cited by Barber, I was struck by the amount of bling involved. You are constantly being told about the beautiful and costly possessions of the knights and ladies in the story, and being reminded that such things are their due as members of the gentry.

More chillingly, in one early thirteenth century version of the story (The High Book of the Grail), we are reminded of the business of those real life knights:

…the Good Knight went out to scour the land where the New Law [i.e. Christianity] was being neglected. He killed all those who would not believe in it, and the country of was ruled and protected by him, and the Law of Our Lord exalted by his strength and valour. (Barber, p 51)

The High Book was dedicated to Jean de Nesle, a leading figure both in the brutal Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and in the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars that followed . I happen to have also read a book** recently about the latter.  Ordered by Pope Innocent III, it involved (among other things) the massacre in 1209 of the entire 20,000 population of the town of Beziers.

* * *

All this came back to me when, reading the commentary around David Bowie’s death, I was reminded that there had been some controversy about Bowie’s ‘blasphemous’ use of Christian imagery in his video for ‘The Next Day’.  And I was particularly struck by a comment of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey:  ‘I doubt that Bowie would have the courage to use Islamic imagery. I very much doubt it’.

What a strange and revealing remark.  People like Bowie wouldn’t mock Christianity, he is really saying, if they thought they might be killed for it.  And Carey should know!  His own Anglican church is the largest denomination in the English-speaking world, after all, not as the result of kindly Episcopalians gently persuading Catholics and others of the error of their ways, but through the use of violence and terror.  Read Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels for a description of a process which included, among other things, monks who refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the English church being publicly castrated and disembowelled.

* * *

Yes, and in the same way, the reason that there are no Cathars today in the South of France is not that the Roman Catholic church engaged in rational argument with that version of the Christian faith, treating its beliefs with respect, and showing the kind of sensitivity to the feelings of its adherents that Bowie was told off for failing to exercise. No. Cathars were hunted down, tortured to make them inform on one another, and burnt alive until their entire faith was completely exterminated.  In one case, the Catholic authorities learned that an elderly woman had asked for the Cathar equivalent of the Last Rites. She was taken from her death bed and thrown onto a fire.

The versions of Christianity that we know today are actually only a small subset of the ones that have existed in the past, and the Cathars are only one example of the alternatives that were annihilated by the violence of their more ruthless or more powerful rivals. It’s interesting to consider what kind of effect this Darwinian process has had on the content of Christian belief itself.  For a religion, too, is a story written for the benefit of an audience, and this religion, in the form we know it —the form that now asks for its feelings to be respected—was written for generations by or for those who regarded killing and torture as legimate ways of treating those who disagreed with them.  Lord Carey’s strange comment suggests to me that he and his church have a long way to go before they fully recognise the implications of that.  It reminded me of a husband telling his wife she ought to be more grateful that he doesn’t beat her any more.

*Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: the history of a legend.  Penguin.
**Stephen O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy: the life and death of the Cathars.  Profile Books.

An unsung Einstein

This article by Sophie Heawood struck a chord with me. She’s writing about her daughter, who she “hoped and prayed… wouldn’t want to start down the road of passive pink princess crap, not when she could be out climbing trees and building dams and doing stimulating things with her life”, but who insisted on wearing a pink tutu and ballet shoes for her third birthday.

“I’m not saying the fight in me has completely gone,” she says. “But I am starting to wonder why mums like me write this stuff off so vigorously: isn’t it more sexist to regard things that are girly as not being good enough?”

I had a similar thought at the recent World Science Fiction Convention, listening to a woman panellist extolling an author (I forget which) for her strong, powerful ‘bad-ass’ female characters. I’m absolutely in favour of having powerful female characters behaving in ways that are stereotypically masculine, but it struck me at the time that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that stereotypically feminine characters, whether female or male, are somehow inferior. That, as Heawood implies, is just sexism in another form, and do we really want to give out the message anyway that soldiers, say, are better and more interesting than nurses? Challenging sexism shouldn’t be about denigrating the stereotypically feminine and extolling the stereotypically masculine. It should be about validating both and making sure that people of either gender are able to play whichever role suits them.

As a not particularly ‘bad-ass’ man, I’m proud to have worked most of my adult life in social work, a stereotypically feminine profession (like nursing), which is overwhelmingly female. Last time I checked, the social work workforce in the UK was something like 85% women, and this is certainly true of the social work students I now teach. Do I think that these women are wasting their talents by not training to be engineers or bankers? Certainly not. Am I bothered that both genders aren’t equally represented? Not particularly. (Who knows whether our dispositions and preferences are entirely socially determined, or whether there’s a biological component, but either way, it’s important that people are able to do the kind of work they are drawn to, not what others think they ought to do.) What does bother me though is that difficult, demanding and manifestly important activities like looking after people in hospitals, teaching in primary schools, or protecting children from abuse, should be regarded as less important and less prestigious, than stereotypically masculine activities like building dams, or playing with money.

Some years ago – I was involved at the time with a fostercare agency – I attended a Christmas dinner that the agency laid on as a thankyou for its carers. The woman sitting next to me was a working class single parent. She was not particularly well-educated, and certainly not in any way famous, but I found myself telling her that I felt a bit like I was sitting next to a kind of Einstein. This woman took in children who had been through absolutely horrendous experiences: children who’d been serially raped before they even started school by the adults on whom they were entirely dependent for care, children who couldn’t get through a night without screaming because of the flashbacks, children who trusted no one and wouldn’t let anyone near them. She took them in, took all their rage and rejection, their violence and chaos, and somehow hung in there, calmly and steadily, for months and years, until even they began to feel they’d arrived somewhere safe. Very few people have this kind of talent. Most people, and certainly me, would very quickly buckle in that blast of misery and terror.

In a more rational world, a woman like her really would be esteemed as highly as famous scientists and great leaders. I guess that will never happen, not least because part of her talent lay in knowing that her own ego wasn’t the most important thing.  But don’t tell me that some action hero is a better role model than her.


I’m taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London this August (details here).

Below are some preliminary thoughts for the panel on Philip K. Dick. (Through a Hollywood Adaptation, Darkly: Thursday, August 14th, 18:00 -19:00). The other panellists will be Christi Scarborough, Grania Davis and Malcolm Edwards, and the blurb for the panel is as follows:

Thanks largely to the ever-increasing number of film adaptations of his work, Philip K Dick is one of the small number of genre authors whose names have been commoditised: “Dickian” is now a shorthand for paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities, or even for the condition of twenty-first century life in general. But to what extent is this cliché precis an accurate reflection of the breadth of Dick’s work? What other themes and preoccupations can we see in his novels and stories? How far does his influence on modern SF really extend — and what rewards does his work offer to new readers today?

No one could deny that paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities are major themes in Dick’s work, and Dick is indeed sometimes hailed as a kind of uniquely prophetic voice on ‘the condition of twenty-first century life’, a post-modernist ahead of his time. But yes, this is a cliché precis. Not only is there a lot more to Philip Dick than it suggests, but, even as a summary, it is somewhat misleading.

First of all, while Dick’s shifting realities may seem post-modern, Dick wasn’t really a post-modernist at all. Post-modernists emphasise plurality and flux: there isn’t one reality, but many different realities. Dick’s work may superficially seem to conform to this view of the world, but in fact what he depicts again and again are people dealing, not with many different equally valid realities, but rather with falsehoods and illusions which seem real, but are actually fake. Dick’s characters are always searching for authenticity, for reality in the singular. They may never find it, they may fear that it can’t be found, but they never stop looking for it. This isn’t post-modern, it’s positively pre-modern, and the more so in Dick’s later works where he is increasingly drawn to Christian theology, albeit in a particularly dark, scary and Dickian form. (No one ever describes as Dickian the belief that the world is a battleground between the followers of Christ and the servants of darkness – it doesn’t chime so well with a vision of Dick as edgy, contemporary, prescient – but it’s very much part of the vision of his later work.)

Secondly, I think the conventional precis of Dick’s work overemphasises the extent to which his work can be read as a social commentary. I would argue on the one hand that his work operates much more at the psychological level (as opposed to the sociological one), and, on the other, that he is at least as preoccupied with things that he sees as timeless, as he is with the condition of society at a particular point in history. (One of the appeals of writing SF, it’s always seemed to me, is that it does allow one to step outside the parochial concerns of the present moment.)  Of course Dick’s work reflects the time it was written in – a time which was simultaneously one of great optimism and one of terrible darkness and violence – but the two deepest roots of his writing, it seems to me, extend outwards on either side of the ‘social’. On one side, many of his preoccupations are very personal ones: for instance the figure of the dead female twin, which appears again and again in his work (Valis, Flow my Tears, Dr Bloodmoney…) comes directly from Dick’s own biography: his own twin sister Jane died in infancy. On the other side it is metaphysical, concerned with the place of the human soul in the universe (which is where Dick’s quirky version of Christian theology comes in). His greatness lies in the way he linked up the personal with the universal.

Here are some recurring themes I’ve noticed in Dick’s work:

A sense of loss.

This, I imagine, had very personal origins for Dick. Parents grieving a dead child are not best placed to welcome a baby into the world, and I would guess his life felt very lonely indeed from the start. (Look at the dark, lonely and guilt-ridden childhood depicted in the brilliant short story ‘I Hope I shall Arrive Soon.’) Dick’s experience wasn’t unique though. A feeling of loss, of absence, of insufficiency, is part of the human condition. Hence the Biblical legend of the Fall.  Valis is a particularly terrifying vision of a fallen world, a world in the sway of darkness, but the same vision is to be found in Flow my Tears and Palmer Eldritch among many others. And the figure of the dead twin sister (elevated in Valis to a dead female demiurge), which so clearly comes from Dick’s own biography, is turned into a powerful metaphor for the feeling of loss and absence which we all know.

Even those famous ‘shifting realities’ are also in a way representations of loss. That’s what loss is like. We think something is real and then it is snatched away from us. Ragle Gumm in Time out of Joint (surely the prototype for the film The Truman Show?) imagines the world he’s in is real, but it turns out to be a crude set of stage props, Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream finds what seems to be a real animal, and then finds the tell-tale battery compartment.

In the story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’, we find another take on ‘shifting realities’ and their relationship to loss. The main character Victor Kemmings is starting out on a ten year journey to another planet, during which he is supposed to be in a state of cryogenic suspension. Something has gone wrong. He is still conscious and faces the prospect of spending the next ten years lying all alone in a kind of coffin. Realising that he will go completely mad, the intelligent spaceship tries to ease the situation by feeding him his own memories, but Kemmings’ past is so painful to him that this only makes things worse. Finally the ship hits on the idea of feeding him, over and over, the illusion of arrival. Again and again, Kemmings reaches his destination and disembarks, only for the illusion to unravel and the ship have to run it all over again. It keeps Kemmings sane for ten years, but at a cost. When he really does arrive, he still can’t believe it’s real.

If we have to retreat into illusion to keep ourselves sane, the story suggests, the price we will pay in the long run is that nothing will ever seem quite real. This is very much a psychological explanation for those famous paranoid scenarios – and one consistent with the work of object relations psychologists such as Bowlbly, Klein or Winnicott – as opposed to a sociological, political or cultural one.

The cherished possession

Another figure I have noticed many times in Dick’s work is what I call ‘the cherished possession’. This is some treasured object which has huge significance for the character. In Do Androids Dream, for instance, Deckard longs to possess a real animal. He keeps an electric sheep as an affordable substitute, but what his heart is set on is a real one, and he spends a lot of time hanging around outside pet shops and thumbing through his catalogue.  In High Castle, Mr Tagomi possesses a jewel which somehow exists of itself, and not simply as a human projection. In Flow my Tears both the powerful policeman Felix Buckman and his sister-lover Alys are assiduous collectors of objects of many kinds and Buckman secures his sister’s co-operation at one point by making a present to her of a particularly fine postage stamp for her to ‘put it away in your album in your safe forever’. In the short story, ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’ (about which I once wrote an MA dissertation: hence my particular emphasis!), the cherished object is a poster of ‘Fat Freddy’ from the Furry Freak Brothers comics called ‘Speed Kills’, signed by the artist Don Shelton. (Both the poster and the artist are real, incidentally. The poster in question is below.)


These cherished possessions are, of course, subject to the same anxious doubts as other aspects of Dick’s world. Supposedly real animals may turn out to be electric ones, a supposedly authentic object may turn out to be a fake. In High Castle there is a debate about the authenticity of a cigarette lighter alleged to have belonged to Franklin Roosevelt. Yes, there are letters of authenticity, but how do we know that they themselves aren’t fake? Exactly the same debate takes place about the Gilbert Shelton poster in ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.’


One other thing that isn’t so often commented on in Dick’s work is that, however dark the scenario, however terrifying the forces against which they are pitted, the characters themselves are never completely devoid of good humour or hope. ‘I mean, after all,’ says the indefatigable Leo Bulero in Palmer Eldritch, ‘you have to consider we’re only made out of dust… But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it.’

In the poisoned Earth of Do Androids Dream millions of people subscribe to the stoical religion of Mercerism, using devices known as ‘empathy boxes’ to connect themselves to the vision of their prophet, Wilbur Mercer, as he struggles eternally up the slopes of a bare mountain in spite of rocks and stones that are constantly being cast at him. At a certain point in the novel a TV programme exposes this central scene of Mercerism to be a forgery, faked up in a film studio with an actor playing Mercer against a crude painted backdrop (close examination reveals the actual brush-strokes).  And yet somehow in spite of this the truth of Mercerism – its utility in enabling people to engage with one another and with their harsh existence – remains undimmed while those who exposed the artifice turn out to be artefacts themselves.  (They are androids, famously distinguishable from human beings by their inability to experience empathy).

In suggesting that it is the would-be debunkers, not the Mercerists, who are missing the point, Dick cuts through all the paranoid doubts about reality and authenticity which are such a constant theme of his work, and challenges his own definition of reality (in Valis) as ‘that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away’. If we are to have a shared reality with other people then this has to be able to include things that are sustained only by belief. After all empathy itself depends on our belief in something that can never actually be proven to be true: that other creatures have feelings which are in some way equivalent to our own.

The EngLit gaze

Many years ago, I went through a phase of writing down all my dreams.  I quickly got much better at remembering them, to the point where writing down a night’s dreams could take an hour or more and was becoming quite a chore.   And then a weird thing happened: I began to dream about writing down my dreams.   After a long and complicated dream, I would write it down, feel relieved that the chore was done, and then wake to find that not only did I have to write down the initial dream, but the bit about writing it down as well.   The act of writing about the dreams, I realised, had changed the character of the dreams themselves, and I abandoned the  project.

*   *   *

In this short article, I included the following quote from a book review by Rachel Cusk:

How does the novel become new again? One way is by its movement into fields of life not yet documented.

I’ve not read any of Rachel Cusk’s books, or anything by Jonathan Lethem who she was reviewing, but when I read this I was immediately struck by her notion that the purpose of a novel was to ‘document’ areas of life.  It seemed to me an odd word and an odd conception of the function of fiction, and yet I felt I’d seen the same idea expressed in various ways many times before.  And the more I thought about it, the more it struck me what a recent conception of literature that is.  As I said in the article, it’s difficult to imagine that Shakespeare was trying to document anything, for instance.

Since writing the article, I’ve asked myself another question.  Document for whom?   Who is that looks at novels and works of literature as documentary records of their times?  And the answer, it seemed to me, was academic students of literature.   Of course if you study Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf as an academic exercise, you inevitably read their work as, in part, a record of the times in which they were written, whether or not written with that intention.

EngLit as an academic subject is relatively recent, but many writers now, and particularly writers who aspire to write literature, have themselves studied it.   Even if they haven’t studied it, writers who want to be admired and taken seriously are surely aware of its gaze, aware that in the long run, literature academics are often the ones who determine which works continue to be read and contine to be seen as important.   And perhaps that makes ambitious writers crave the  approval of that particular set of eyes? ‘If those people want to read works of literature as documentary records,’ they perhaps at some level think, ‘then documentary records are what we must write.’

Or it might equally be: ‘If stylistic innovation is what impresses them, then stylistic innovation is what I’ll give them’.   My point here isn’t so much about the specific notion of literature as contemporary record, as about the way in which (as with my dreams) external observation of a process alters the character of the process itself.   Literary academics enjoy intertextuality, for instance (the way one text refers to, and plays with, other texts), and I’ve certainly come across works of fiction that played with intertextuality in such an arch and knowing way that it reminded me of a child trying to impress grown ups.

My hunch is, though, that in the long-run, the great books – the ones that students of literature end up finding interesting in the future – actually won’t turn out to be the ones that played too much to that particular gallery.   After all, whether intentionally or not, any book is a document of its times and any book includes resonances, shadows and borrowings from other works, so, with or without self-conscious gallery-playing, there will always be things for the literary studies people to explore.  And the great books of the past were written without having to consider that particular gaze.

“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb,” wrote the Australian poet, Les Murray, and I’m inclined to agree with him.   Gentrified suburbs tend to be pretty and nice to live in, but, with their self-consciousness, their inhibitions, their niggling social anxiety, no one would call them the most exciting places on Earth.

Voices from Eden

There is already a British audio book version of Dark Eden (read by Oliver Hembrough and Jessica Martin), but I’m very much looking forward to hearing the new US audio book from Random House Audio which is still under development.   This will involve 8 actors, so that the book’s various narrators can all have different voices, but what is particularly intriguing about it is that the producer Janet Stark  and her cast of actors are attempting to develop a whole new Eden accent for the recording.

What will this sound like?   Everyone in Eden is descended from just two people – a white man from Brooklyn, New York, and a black woman from Peckham in South London – so one thing that we can be sure of is that the accent will bear traces of both those different sources.  During the early years too, the entire human population of Eden consisted of a single family – mum, dad, kids – and some of the characteristics of Eden English derive from that fact.   Parents with little kids tend to simplify their speech, even when speaking to one another, and this effect would be even more pronounced in the absence of other adults (or the written word) to pull the speech of family members back in the direction of adult norms. This is the source of the use of double adjectives for emphasis – something that little children often do – and the tendency to drop direct articles, but it will have had an effect too on pronunciation and on the rhythms of Eden speech.

But all that is only part of the story.  The accent of Eden would not just be a blend of its two sources.  People play with language, change it like clothes. They get bored with saying things one way, and try another.  New things appear and become cool, others fade out of use.  Who could have predicted the trend towards a rising inflection at the end of a sentence in spoken English here on Earth, or the more recent fashion of beginning sentences with the word ‘So’?  The people of Eden have lived in isolation for 160 years.  Less than 160 years after white settlers first arrived in Australia, Australian English had developed its own distinct and instantly recognisable accent, and that was in spite of continuing contact with the mother country, and continuing large scale migration (even today more than 10% of Australians were born in the UK).

I think the spoken language of Eden would be slow.   Both the source accents are fast, clipped and urban, but Eden folk are as rustic as it is possible to be, and rustic people tend to speak slowly (think Somerset, Queensland or Alabama).   I think too that it would be more musical, more singsong. These are people with no TV, no books, no video games, no movies.  The repetition of oral traditions is much more important to them than it is to us.  I think they would savour language and linger over it in a way that we don’t.

As to those double adjectives which everyone notices (and some people hate!), I hear them with the first adjective emphasised and drawn out, with a slight fall at the end towards the lower, shorter repetition:  B-I-I-I-G big.

But then again, sometimes Eden folk do it the other way round.  They just feel like it.  That’s what humans are like.

The blog tour continued

Following on from my post in this series, Tony Ballantyne and Una McCormack were the next links in the chain.  Links to their posts are below.  There are lots of things they say that apply equally well to me.  (I guess you expect that with friends!)

Here’s Una’s post.  ‘…What the trappings of science fiction allow me to do,’ she writes, ‘is move from the particularities of specific real-world situations in order to think abstractly about… well, everything really…’    Exactly so!

And here’s Tony’s.  ‘…I get ideas all the time,’ he writes, ‘and I write them down to be used later, but every so often one idea collides with another and I suddenly get really excited and I just have to begin writing.’   Precisely, and without that collision, there’s no storyIt’s the lightning bolt that brings it to life.