Fermi’s paradox solved?

The galaxy is vast, the number of planets enormous, so how come we never hear from any alien life forms?

Professor Galacticus proposes the following explanation:

There is a lot of life in the galaxy, and he surmises that all of it will be carbon-based and all of it originate in water.   As a result, in every planet in which life takes root, deposits of carbon and hydrocarbons will build up over millions of years as organisms die, form sediments, and are subjected to various geological forces.

In a relatively small proportion of living planets, Galacticus suggests, the process of biological evolution will have resulted in symbol- and tool-using intelligence.   This in turn brings into being a newer and much faster secondary evolutionary process, corresponding, roughly speaking, to what we call culture.

At a certain level of development, culture stumbles upon the vast reserves of chemical energy that built up millions of years before it came into being.  By exploiting these reserves, culture is able to massively accelerate its own evolution – Galacticus speaks of ‘putting on seven-league boots’ – because the enormous increase in the productivity of each individual allows large numbers of individual to cease to be involved in meeting the basic physical needs of the species and thereby become available for other work.

In such a context, highly complex activities such as space travel become possible: activities which require individuals to devote themselves to doing things with no immediate practical benefit at all.  And when cultures embark on the project of space travel, they naturally begin to contemplate the possibility that other cultures, on other planets, are doing likewise, and begin to develop means of searching for, and communicating with, those putative others.

However all this occurs in a very narrow window for, unknown at first to the individuals who make up these cultures, they have set in train a force that will destroy them.  This force is not nuclear weapons, as some have surmised it might be, nor poisonous pollution, but something seemingly entirely innocuous: a very common substance, and one that is not merely non-toxic but actually essential to life. Carbon dioxide.

By the time the danger becomes evident, cultures are already so massively committed to fossil fuels that change is difficult.  It is not technically impossible – the explosive development of technological knowledge which the ‘seven-league boots’ have made possible means that a switch to some combination of alternative energy sources is entirely feasible in purely engineering terms – but it is psychologically and sociologically very difficult indeed.  Almost every one of the intelligent life forms in the galaxy has gone well past the point of no-return – or will do so – before they have fully taken on board the nature of the threat.

And then the physical world takes over, positive feedback loops of various kinds kick in, and, very rapidly, the culture, what is left of it, is reduced to a precarious existence in which the very idea of attempting to communicate with aliens, just for the sheer fun of it, is simply laughable.

‘Hence,’ says Professor Galacticus, ‘the silence from the sky.’

*  *  *

‘You may think,’ he adds, ‘that I am making far too many assumptions about the psychology and sociology of unknown life forms, but I don’t think I am.  You see, their basic psychological equipment is always going to be the product of a biological evolutionary process.   We know how creative such a process is, and we know the diversity it has achieved, but it has one deep limitation.  It is reactive rather than teleological.   It is not aimed at anything, but is simply based on the accumulation of a kind of trial and error knowledge, and this makes it very weak at dealing with an unpredented threat.

‘I would, however, be very pleased to be proved wrong.’

Waterloo Sunset

I very much enjoyed this programme about Ray Davies. I was struck by his comment about one of his songs (I think it was ‘Days’) that the words might seem ‘a bit naff’ on their own, but he felt that the music transformed them.   Actually that is true, I think, of quite a bit of his stuff.   People usually praise the words, the little observations and stories, but on their own the observations are not necessarily all that original.  There are a lot of songs, for instance, about the fears and longings of suburban life (‘Mr Pleasant’ or ‘Shangri-la’) which, taken just as stories and observations, are amusing but quite commonplace.  But the music really does transform them into something else.

In fact I’d say his musical inventiveness is, if anything, rather underrated, or at any rate not so often remarked on.  His back catalogue of songs (imagine having written ‘You really got me’, ‘Days’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’!) is quite exceptionally varied in terms of moods, rhythms and musical colours, and is full of lovely details and surprises.  Listen, for instance, to the way that the strange and melancholy song ‘See my friends’ changes its feel and rhythm in the middle of each verse, opening up, and then drawing back again.

For various reasons, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t encounter ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at all until about 5 years after it came out.  But when I did finally come across it I was really blown away, and I still am.   It really is the most amazing marriage of words and music.  There is actually not one single word of description of the sunset itself, yet when I listen to this song, the harmonies rising up over the melody instantly evoke to me an enormous brightly coloured sky, towering up over the little figures of Terry and Julie, and the people swarming out of the underground, and the song’s narrator, watching the whole scene from his window.

(As I’ve observed before, vivid descriptive writing isn’t so much a matter of providing detailed instructions of a scene, as of giving readers/listeners permission to construct the scene for themselves.  This is a perfect example.  We all know what sunsets look like, and don’t need to be told, but we do need something to trigger off the whole set of associations, something to allow us to pretend that a sunset is happening right now.)

The Glastonbury version of the song here is performed with the Crouch End Chorus, which includes my good friend Clive among its tenors.  Lucky man.

(Clive lives in North London, where Davies grew up and still lives, very much in the surroundings in which the programme is filmed.  The programme reminded a bit too of an odd but interesting book by another North Londoner that I wrote about here.)

How empty and worthless is the power of kings

At first glance, it is hardly surprising that oil companies and the like fund efforts to debunk the science on climate change.   It’s in their interests to do so, right?  Just as it was in the interests of tobacco companies to try to debunk the evidence of links between smoking and cancer.

But then you think, hang on, don’t oil executives have children and grandchildren, the same as the rest of us?

This is something more complex than cynical self-interest.  It’s a deep category error.   Climate change is being seen as an essentially political threat, a thing to be outmanoeuvred, fobbed off, discredited, or managed through spin and symbolic placation.   There’s a failure to understand that this isn’t about interest groups, it isn’t about the politics of left versus right.  It’s about air, and water, and ice.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Canute is supposed to have said, when the tide refused to obey his command to stop, and began to wash around his feet.

It’s not nature that’s fragile, it’s us

I think we’ve got it all wrong about  our relationship with nature.   For years we’ve been presented with the idea of nature as something precious and fragile and vulnerable, which is threatened by us crass and oafish humans.  This invites a hard-nosed, macho, ‘realist’ response: ‘Tough!’, ‘Too bad!’, ‘Nature’s going to have to look after itself.’

But nature isn’t fragile.  (What hubris!)  Nature is exploding supernovae.  It’s the eruption of Krakatoa.  It’s Hurricane Katrina.  It’s the tsunami that devastated Japan.  It’s the force that created the dinosaurs, and the asteroid that destroyed them.  It’s the electric storms that can been seen from space flashing continuously across the surface of this violent violent planet.

The question isn’t how to protect nature.  Nature doesn’t give a damn what we do.  The question is whether we want to go on being part of nature, or whether we’re just going to chuck in the towel and let it sweep us away.

(Thoughts prompted by this rather hard-hitting post about impending climate catastrophe.)

(NASA photo of Hurricane Katrina).

The Ice Cat Oojus

(This post is about the story ‘Atomic Truth’, in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Asimov’s SF.)

‘Atomic Truth’ is particularly dear to me personally, but it was literally years in the making.

The original idea came from watching the changed behaviour of people following the invention of mobile phones: the way that people who are ostensibly together in one place, are often, for all practical purposes much closer to other people who are physically remote.   As a matrix in which to live, it seemed to me, physical space and the material universe were gradually declining in importance.

We’ve never been confined to literal space and time of course.  We’ve always used the ideas of nearness and distance to refer to many other dimensions (‘a close likeness’, ‘we’ve grown apart’, ‘a distant cousin’, ‘Sorry, I was miles away.’)   But now for the first time in history, everyone can literally see and hear things that are not physically present, even when they’re just walking down the street, or riding on a train.

‘Atomic truth’ is Richard’s name for the world in which foxes and deer still live, even if humans don’t.

I wrote the first version of this story long ago, before smartphones and iPads and all of that.  But it stubbornly refused to come completely to life.   The breakthrough was when I rewrote the character Richard as suffering from schizophrenia, so that, even though he didn’t wear bug eyes, he too was visited by things that were not physically present.   And when I gave Jenny an autistic brother, so that she was unfazed by, and sympathetic to, people who were in some way odd, that made possible the little encounter at the end of the story that up to then had eluded me.

*  *  *

All the people in my stories are quite distinct in my mind from anyone real, but some of Richard’s characteristics are based a friend of ours who died some years ago.  His name was Brod Spiiers and he shared a flat with my wife and I for a year or so in Bristol.  If you were a student in Bristol in the 1970s, or lived near the University, you might remember him.  He used to sit on a wall outside the Wills Building on Queens Road and sort of beg, though it was done in the most dignified way.

Brod was a lot older than Richard when we knew him, but like Richard, he had his own set of mythological beings that he used to talk about and draw pictures of, inscribed with his own unique language.  (I remember, for instance, ‘the Ice Cat Oojus’).  And he had a rather delightful explosive laugh which would erupt at completely unexpected moments, as if his sense of humour was somehow at right-angles to everyone else’s.

Brod Spiiers: Self-portrait

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr.

[This piece contains many spoilers!]

James Tiptree, jr built a reputation in the 60s and 70s before revealing that ‘he’ was in fact a woman called Alice Bradley Sheldon.  I really don’t know why I’ve not explored ‘his’/her work before.

These are subtle stories that demand intelligence and attention on the reader’s part (I had to read the story ‘The last flight of Doctor Ain’ twice, for example, before I got it).  Many of the stories deal, in some way, with gender – a preoccupation of mine also – and quite a lot of them deal with male abuse of women.   Interestingly, this is often done from a male perspective.  Sexual desire, frequently and often quite graphically depicted (there are a surprisingly large number of erections in this book), is almost always shown  from a male view.

In ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ the main protagonist is a scientist, male but liberal-minded and not exactly hyper-masculine, who is sharing a spaceship with two macho astronauts.  The story captures beautifully captures his male insecurity in their presence, his (well-founded) anxiety that they feel contempt for men like him ‘who can manipulate only symbols, who have no mastery of matter’ –I know that feeling! – and his grudging admiration for them:

‘And for the thousandth time he is obscurely moved by the rightness of them.  The authentic ones, the alphas. Their bond. The awe he had felt first for the absurd jocks of his school ball team.’

And here – a woman, writing as a man, looking at her own gender from the viewpoint of a male character – is the male scientist’s take on how woman relate to one another:

‘Like ants, he thinks.  They twiddle their antennae together every time they meet.  Where did you go, what did you do?  Twiddle-twiddle.  How do you feel?’

It does look that sometimes.  It really does!  (But I remember, from way back when I was a little child, envying the closeness and intensity of it.)

These are feminist stories, I suppose, but it has to be said that Sheldon’s feminism is of a fairly dark and fatalistic kind.  When you learn that poor Alice was to end up killing both her husband and herself with a shotgun – they were found side by side in bed – it certainly fits.  Of the 18 stories in this collection, two depict worlds in which men have died out, one a world in which men are killing all the women, and two have female astronauts kill off the men on board their ships.  One – a wonderfully sensuous piece – has a female creature devouring her male mate.  Three, not counting the men-killing-women one, go the whole hog and wipe out the entire human race.

Part of the reason for the pessimism – part of the intellectual reason at any rate: there are surely much more personal ones – would seem to be a view that we can’t escape biology, and that male aggression and the male drive towards dominance are simply biologically determined.  In ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, the main female character observes:

‘Women have no rights… except what men allow us.  Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world.  When the next crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish…  We’ll be back where we always were: property.  And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was.  You’ll see.’

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’* (the only Alice Sheldon story I’d previously read) the close relationship between male sexuality and male aggression is subtly altered by biochemical means so that men begin to systematically kill every woman and girl they meet.  It ends up with the feel of a zombie movie, except that, instead of zombies, the apocalyptic killers are the male half of the human race.   In the world of this story, a religious ideology has emerged to justify the slaughter (woman are evil and must be destroyed to fulfill God’s will), but Sheldon is clear that this isn’t the real cause of the killing at all.  It is simply a cultural rationalisation of what has become, for biochemical reasons, a simple biological imperative.   Cultural beliefs are only the clothes we put on over drives and needs which we can’t choose or control.  Since it’s the biological aspect of gender which is the bit that can’t be changed, it’s not surprising the most positive worlds depicted in this book (or at least the most positive human ones) are the ones in which men have died out.

We are the puppets and playthings of biology: that seems to be a fairly constant theme.   ‘Love is the Plan the Plan is Death’ (a beautiful piece of writing, and one of the best stories in the collection) is told from the viewpoint of Moggadeet, a spider-like creature, attempting to break out of the biological program: the Plan.  But the Plan wins. Even the attempt to escape the Plan was part of the Plan itself.

In some of the stories, it is not so much the sexes that are pitted against one another by nature, as two principles: the gentle nurturing principle, the urge to care, versus the ruthless thrusting one, the drive to dominate.   The latter is necessary to survival, and is even sometimes seemingly admired, though it cruelly crushes the former again and again.   In ‘We who Stole the Dream’, a gentle race of aliens, the Joilani, are horribly and brutally oppressed by humans (in many ways, including sexually: this story includes some of the book’s many ugly scenes of sexual violation.)  But, in different circumstances, the Joilani too turn out to be more than capable of embodying the ruthless principle of domination.  (Would a world of only woman really be a gentler place?  Or would some of the women simply step into the roles vacated by men?)

One of the most ambitious accounts here of human beings as simply the puppets of biology is ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.  Seventy-five pages long, this is about first contact with extraterrestrial life, and is one of the stories in the book where gender relations are not the main theme. (Or not exactly: Dr Aaron Faye’s intense and incestuous relationship with his idealistic younger sister is fairly central, and the whole story is ultimately about sexual reproduction on an interstellar scale.)   A star ship on a ten year exploratory voyage to Alpha Centaurus has identified a planet with organic life some years travelling time ahead of it, and a scout ship has brought back a specimen of alien life.  ‘Here we are,’ thinks Aaron Faye, as the moment approaches to come face to face with it:

‘Here we are, he thinks, tiny blobs of life, millions and millions of miles from the speck that spawned us, hanging out here in the dark wastes, preparing with such complex pains to encounter a different mode of life.  All of us, peculiar, wretchedly imperfect – somehow we have done this thing.  Incredible, really, the ludicrous tangle of equipment, the awkward suited men, the precautions, the labor, the solemnity – Jan, Bruce, Yellaston, Tim Bron, Bustamente, Alice Berryman, Coby, Kabawata, my own saintly sister, poor Frank Foy, stupid Aaron Faye – a stream of faces pours through his mind, hostile or smiling, suffering each in his separate flawed reality: all of us.  Somehow we have brought ourselves to this amazement.  Perhaps we really are saving our race, perhaps there really is a new earth and heaven ahead…’

It’s that feelgood moment towards the end of a movie when something wonderful has been accomplished, and the camera pans round the faces of the motley crew of characters who have somehow, between them, made it happen against all the odds. But this movie doesn’t end here, for Faye couldn’t be more wrong.  What’s really brought them there is a biological system in which the whole of Earth’s evolutionary history is simply a necessary component.  Having come out into space and performed their function, human beings, like the threshing tails of sperms, cease to have a purpose at all.

(Biology does not always come out so badly here, though.  In several stories, the two principles locked in struggle are simply life and death, with death, however destructive, however frightening, the necessary and inevitable driver for life.  In two of these stories -‘On the Last Afternoon’ and ‘Slow Music’- characters have a choice between staying with the cycle of death, sex and suffering, or escaping to a sexless, disembodied, eternal life among the stars.  The former seems the braver choice.)

One of the most poignant stories for me – and also one of the most beautifully accomplished – was ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters!  Your Faces Filled of Light!’* It begins by presenting two overlapping but incompatible reality frames, whose relationship with one another is initially unclear.  In one frame, a wonderfully cheerful young woman makes her way on foot across an America that is entirely peaceful and safe.   ‘Heyo, sister!’ she greets everyone she meets, entirely confident that they will be benign and interesting and fun to be with, ‘Any mail, any messages?  Des Moines and going west!’  In the other frame, the inhabitants of ordinary 1970s America go about their own dull suspicious lives, puzzled, irritated or concerned by an odd young woman who talks to them in a funny way, and calls everyone ‘sister’ whether they are men or women.  The link between the two frames gradually becomes apparent, until eventually they violently collide in a sickening scene which I found really heartwrenching.

That said, a close rival for it, for sheer painfulness, was ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’.   This is a much less accomplished story in technical terms (one problem being that a large chunk of back story is dumped down into the middle of it which is very much ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ –  a fault that’s present in one or two other stories here – and there’s none of the clever scientific plausibility of ‘The Screwfly Solution’).  A woman astronaut, born with a repulsive pig-like nose, has been abused and rejected throughout her life: male astronauts routinely shove her underpants over her head while they rape her, so they don’t have to look at her face.  She became an astronaut because of a drive she has had since childhood to find her way to a ‘pig world’, somewhere in space, where she’ll belong.   And, after she’s murdered her male colleagues, she finally finds it.  It is a hidden sunless planet with lavender skies, inhabited by cute unthreatening aliens, but unfortunately deadly to humans due to high radiation levels.  Here she finds her true soulmate in a piglike alien who has loved her, and been calling telepathically to her, all her life.   They die in each other’s arms, she because of the radiation, it (or ‘he’ as she decides to say), because, in its love, it draws all her pain telepathically onto itself: Liebestod in My Little Pony land.

I found this clumsy, agonised story very uncomfortable.   It was the escapist fantasy of a horribly abused and lonely little girl, and reading it was like watching the author stripping naked, much as its protagonist, Carol, actually does strip naked, to satisfy their curiosity, in front of the aliens peering in through the windows of her ship.

It’s funny (both in the sense of a joke, and in the sense of ‘strange’) to think that when these stories first came out, they would have been read by a predominantly male audience, and that most of them would have been believed to have been written by a man.  Tiptree was like an undercover agent, operating behind enemy lines.

A strange, disturbing and brilliant collection.  The author is fascinating too.  I have already ordered her biography.

Her smoke rose up forever, on Amazon UK

* These two stories were actually published under Alice Sheldon’s other, female, pseudonym of Raccoona Sheldon.

The innocence of bad guys

I was thinking about this article by Howard Jacobson, in which he talks about the enduring appeal of bad guys in fiction.  And I was thinking about our dogs and cat.

*  *  *

People often describe other people as behaving like animals (i.e. like non-human animals) when they behave badly.  This has always struck me as a bit unfair to animals.  Animals don’t rape or commit genocide or engage in torture.

But living in a house with animals it strikes me that certain kinds of crime really are very animal indeed: crimes like shoplifting, burglary, picking pockets, mugging, looting, opportunistic, amoral crimes, crimes motivated by nothing more complicated than ‘I’ll have that.’   The hitmen in films like Looper or Pulp Fiction, who kill for a living, without malice or anger, and without regret, strike me as being quite animal.  When Amundsen was travelling to the South Pole, he killed dogs that were no longer needed and fed them to the others.  I’m sure they tucked in without worry or remorse.

Animals (or at least the ones I’m acquainted with) take things opportunistically and without compunction, and they defend what they’ve taken as long as they think they can win the fight.   They are capable of being delightfully and genuinely friendly, but incapable of being kind.  They are capable of being horribly aggressive, but incapable of being cruel.  If one of them picks up a thorny twig to play with, he’ll bash it against your legs without a thought as he runs by, not out of inconsiderateness, but because he simply doesn’t do that kind of consideration.

They’ve never eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

*  *  *

Sometimes morality is portrayed as being the opposite to the pleasure principle, but that’s just silly.  What point does life have without pleasure?  (To help others?  To help them to do what?)  Pleasure is simply the sum total of things that make life worthwhile, and it just doesn’t make any sense to say that life could have an additional purpose.

Genuine morality is the pleasure principle, but with the rest of the world factored in: other people, other creatures, our future selves.   It doesn’t tell us to forego pleasure per se, but it might tell us to forego pleasures that will lead to harm elsewhere, or later on.  It doesn’t tell us to pursue suffering, but it might tell us to be willing to suffer here and now for the sake of pleasure elsewhere, or later on.

It’s morally wrong to behave as if you were the centre of the universe, because it’s factually wrong.  As a matter of fact, you’re not.

Animals don’t know that, though.  They act as if they themselves at this moment were all that mattered.  And this works perfectly well for them, because evolution has provided them with appetites and drives that will allow the simple pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain to address longer term or wider needs without them having to even think about it.

But we do know it, and so we do have to think about it.  We can only not think about it by lying to ourselves.  And that does damage to us, because it requires us to build partitions across our minds.

*  *  *

And yet there’s a huge price to pay for this knowledge.  This awareness that we should think about things beyond our immediate selves and our present impulses, adds layers of calculation and anxiety to every choice we make.  It takes away spontaneity.

I think that’s why bad guys are fun to watch.  They appeal to us not because they are wicked and knowing per se, but, oddly enough, because of their innocence.    They remind us of a kind of innocence and simplicity that animals have and we have lost for good.  They remind us of what we had to give up when we ate that bloody fruit.

The Long Journey of Frozen Heart

Although the first draft of The Holy Machine was completed in 1994, its origins actually go back to two short stories, both published in Interzone in 1991. One was ‘La Macchina’, which I included in my collection The Turing Test.  The story was about two brothers on a trip to Florence, but it  included many of the key elements of the book, including the idea of syntecs (robots covered in living flesh), syntec brothels, robots ‘going rogue’ by becoming sentient, and the Holy Machine itself.

The other was ‘The Long Journey of Frozen Heart’.  I lifted this entire story to provide the subplot about Ruth Simling and, for this reason, I didn’t include it in The Turing Test collection, feeling that readers of both books might feel a little cheated when they recognised the same storyline unfolding.   But I like the story and I’ve decided to make the full text of it available here.  (I’ve tidied it up a bit.  I seem to have become a better editor over these 21 years!*)

I was standing in a queue in the now-defunct Magnet furniture store, when I came up with this story.  Dreamy, melancholy muzak was maundering away in the background, melancholy yet at the same time loveless and mechanical, and the phrase came into my head: The Long Sad Journey of Frozen Heart.  (I later dropped the ‘Sad’: I felt that was over-egging it).  Within a very short time, the entire story had written itself in my mind, with very little in the way of conscious direction on my part.

Thinking about it now, I wonder if I was thinking about ‘Frozen Journey’, the title given, when it was first published, to Philip Dick’s short story ‘I Hope We Shall Arrive Soon’, on which I was some time later to write an entire dissertation.  This has never actually occurred to me before, but there are certainly thematic similarities between the two stories, since both deal with a protagonist trapped in virtual reality, and both include a disembodied and powerful helper.  In the Dick story, the protagonist has to be kept in virtual reality if he is to remain sane, though this results in long-term damage to his ability to believe in the real world.  In ‘The Long Journey of Frozen Heart’, the protagonist, Mary Louisa Ann (aka Frozen Heart), chooses to leave virtual reality to reclaim her authentic self, even though this will result in her death.

I wanted the story to have a slightly fairytale-like feeling.  In the back of my mind was the Hans Andersen story about the little mermaid who chooses to be given human legs and live on land, even though every step she makes there will be agony.  And perhaps there’s something of Andersen’s Snow Queen here also (a story which I found wonderful and terrifying when it was read to me as a small child): Gerda’s heroic journey; Kai, with the mirror splinter in his heart, playing with jigsaw pieces made of ice.  (There’s a bit of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in here too, and just a pinch of the Irish legend, ‘The Voyage of Bran’.)

This story, and ‘La Macchina’, and indeed The Holy Machine, all deal with the way in which human beings escape from reality into imaginary worlds, shutting out things that they find unpleasant or difficult or frightening, something that becomes ever more tempting as technology makes possible ever more convincing simulacra: battle without danger, sex without meeting anyone, empire-building without taking risks and without achieving anything real at all.  It is the emptiness of these constructs, which can be built and discarded in a moment, that Frozen Heart chooses to leave behind in order to recover her own real beating heart.

The Long Journey of Frozen Heart.

* I’ve also updated it a little.  In the 1991 version, the Otherverse was simply ‘the Net’, and it only contained 99 worlds.  Which seems a bit retro now.

Living in Omelas

I worked for 18 years of my life, as a social worker and social work manager, in the field of children and families.   I now work part-time as a lecturer in social work.   In the course of my work I recently came across this interesting book, by Mark Drakeford and Ian Butler, which looks at the Maria Colwell child abuse inquiry and its legacy.  I guess this, to most people, will seem a topic of rather specialist interest, but it occurs to me that it is, or ought to be, of more general concern.

Maria Colwell died in Brighton in 1973, at the age of 7, as a result of physical abuse by her stepfather, Mr Kepple.   Social workers had placed Maria in the care of her mother and stepfather after she had been fostered for several years by an aunt.  When Maria died, two social workers from two different agencies had been visiting the family, as had an Education Welfare Officer, and concerns had been expressed for some time about Maria’s care by neighbours and others.   Why had she been returned home?  Why had warning signs not been acted on?   The Inquiry resulted in the child protection system which still, broadly speaking, continues to exist, but it also laid down the pattern for a succession of similar public inquiries that were to follow, at regular intervals, up to the present time, Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly (Baby P) being famous and relatively recent examples.  They have become an odd kind of ritual (whose atavistic nature I tried to capture in my story ‘Johnny’s New Job’).  Public acts of contrition are performed.  New procedures and guidelines are introduced.  Individuals are named, sacked and subjected to media lynching.

(The savagery of the latter has grown steadily more extreme since the Colwell case.  Not only social workers and other professionals, but their children and family members, have been subjected to harassment and abuse.  When the Baby P scandal was blowing up, The Sun newspaper printed photographs of some of the professionals involved, with a phone number under each, so that readers could call and dish the dirt.)

Curiously – and I tried to capture this in Johnny’s New Job – public interest in these occasional high-profile scandals is not matched by an interest in the roughly 2 children a week who die in the UK as a result of maltreatment by their carers, or  interest in the social conditions in which abuse and neglect tends to occur (for child abusers, believe or not, do not just spring spontaneously into being).

As for the critique of the professionals involved, and particularly of my own profession of social work, it remains pretty consistent.  The charges are incompetence, negligence, naïvity (and of course I don’t deny that these things can be present) but also that the social workers are motivated by ideology rather than common sense.  However the nature of the ideology that social workers are charged with being wedded to has an odd habit of suddenly switching from one thing to its opposite, like the identity of the enemy in Orwell’s 1984. (Remember the Great Hate, when the enemy started out being Eastasia, and switched halfway through to being Eurasia, with Eastasia as the trusted ally?)  In the Colwell Inquiry, as Butler and Drakeford remind us, social workers were charged with being obsessed with blood ties, which had resulted in them taking Maria from loving foster-carers and returning her to her neglectful mother.   But the exact opposite charge is also laid from time to time.  This, for example, is from a Daily Mail article written in 2005 which alleged that children were being removed unnecessarily from loving parents:

Today in the Daily Mail we reveal the profoundly disturbing details of how decent people can be caught up in a nightmare they don’t understand, how happy, cared-for children can be torn from their mothers and given to strangers and how a remorseless administrative machine insists it’s all for the best.

Of course it is entirely possible to err in both directions, and I’ve no doubt that this occurs, but the fact remains that, if children are not to be removed from their parents at the first whiff of the possibility of their coming to harm, this means leaving children with parents in situations which might turn out to be harmful.   Wherever the threshold is drawn for draconian interventions, there will be false positives and false negatives.   Failure to accept this can lead to a system that becomes preoccupied with the pursuit of information, of unattainable certainty, at the expense of its wider brief of providing help and support.

But again, these more nuanced arguments are of very little general interest, as compared to the interest that is aroused by the great set piece of the ‘child abuse scandal’, the calls for sackings and so on.  There’s something much more primitive going on here than the rational activity of trying to understand why a tragedy has occurred.

As is often the case, a great SF writer has something to say on all this.  Ursula Le Guin, in her superlative story ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’ (along with her ‘Semley’s Necklace’ it is one of the best short stories I have ever read), spends most of the word-count conjuring up a utopian society called Omelas, full of pleasures and delights of every kind.   Only towards the end, do we learn that the price to be paid for all of this is paid by a single wretched child, held captive and abused in a squalid cellar.

Unfortunately, the real world is like this.  Those of us who live secure and comfortable lives, must do so in the knowledge that, hidden away from us, but probably not far away, are others, children, who cannot conceivably be to blame for the situations they find themselves in, living with violence and hatred and horror.   If we are to enjoy our pleasures, our meals in restaurants, our holidays, our interesting jobs, then we have to find a way of doing this in the knowledge of these others who are, figuratively if not literally, imprisoned in their cellars nearby.   We want to put them out of our mind, but, more than that, we want to feel justified in doing so, and one excellent way of achieving this is by telling ourselves that something ought to be done about those children, but it is someone else’s job .   That way, if we find ourselves confronted with direct evidence of those children down in their cellars, we are released from guilt, and can feel instead a righteous and indignant rage.

This isn’t to say that professionals involved in these scandals are necessarily blameless, but only to point out that by heaping blame on them, we don’t magically exonerate ourselves.

It’s good, Jim, but is it SF?

In a previous post – in fact in more than one, if I’m honest – I bemoaned the fact that a large number of general readers of intelligent fiction will never look at my stuff simply because it’s science fiction.  The odd thing is that, more than once, I’ve seen reviews by people who do read SF saying that my books aren’t really SF at all.

Here’s an example.  I’m not complaining in any way about this kind and wonderfully positive review of Dark Eden (which I very much hope will tempt some of those non-SF readers to give the book a try.)   I’m also not saying the reviewer is wrong: there is no single straightforward definition, after all, of what is SF and what is not.  But I am genuinely curious to know why he/she thinks that Dark Eden ‘isn’t really science-fiction, although it is set on an alien planet’.

It is set on an alien planet, a planet with no sun, with an entire ecology of animal and plant-like lifeforms which have evolved to generate their own light and derive their energy from the planet’s own hot core.  And it deals with the descendants of two marooned astronauts, trying to come to terms with this world.   This is easily science-fictional enough, I’m pretty certain, to exclude the majority of non-SF  readers, so I wonder in what sense might the book be described as not really being SF?

I’m honestly not sure, but I think possibly what this and one or two other reviewers may mean is that, having established this world, I let it become the background to a human story, rather than the source, in itself, of the plot.   The story is about the lives of the people in Eden, their society, their emerging politics, rather than being based on a series of revelations about the nature of Eden itself.   Is that it, I wonder?

My personal feeling about those revelation-type plots is that they tend to spoil the fictional world.  Although in a way it is background, in another way the planet Eden is, to me, absolutely the core and heart of the book.  And I wanted the reader to experience Eden as we experience our own planet, as the foundation of the characters’ lives, rather than as a puzzle or a riddle to be unpicked and solved.   It’s a matter of personal taste, but, with one or two great exceptions, I’ve never been that keen on ‘mystery’ plots in general.   (I’ve never really taken to whodunits, for instance.)  I don’t feel that solving puzzles is fundamentally what life is about.

Does this way of using my science fictional backdrop means that the book as a whole ‘isn’t really SF’?  It’s not for me to say.  I aim to write a book that it would please me to read, and don’t consciously seek either to celebrate or to challenge the traditions and conventions of any particular genre.  I simply go with what seems to work.  And since what works for me always seems to involve alien planets, or robots, or time travel, or virtual reality, or parallel timelines, I’ve always assumed that it was SF.