The Hunters, by James Salter

The HuntersJames Salter’s first novel, and the only book of his that I’ve read, was originally published in 1956.  It’s about American fighter pilots in the Korean War, a transition point in aerial warfare, when the planes were jets with swept-back wings, but still fought each other with guns, as the fighters of WW2 had done.

I bought the book after reading an article on Salter in the LRB by James Meek, which observed that twentieth-century American novelists tend to depict the military as victims, but that The Hunters had more in common with the Iliad or Beowulf than with Catch-22.  In this book, aerial warfare is not depicted as a cruel waste of young men, but as a kind of princely sport.   Salter himself was an USAF officer for some time, and was a fighter pilot in the Korean War – he himself shot down a MIG fighter above the Yalu River – and his attitude to this experience is evident in his preface to the 1997 edition:

It was said of Lord Byron that he was more proud of his Norman ancestors who had accompanied William the Conqueror in the invasion of England than of having written famed works…  Looking back, I feel a pride akin to that in having flown and fought along the Yalu.

All this is very remote from my own experience, my own stance on life, my own temperament, and my own sense of what I’m capable of, physically, emotionally, morally.   I dislike war and the readiness to resort to war as a means of solving problems.  I seldom win at competitive games.  I’ve worked most of my adult life in a profession in which women outnumber men by eight or nine to one.  But I nevertheless found myself interested in this book about an exclusively male world in which hunting down MIGs is

… a child’s dream and a man’s heaven, living a medieval life under sanitary conditions, flying the last shreds of something irreplaceable, I don’t know what, in a sport too kingly even for kings.   

The only strand of connection I have with this world is that I was fascinated by fighter planes as a child.   I owned many books about them.   I loved to see them in the sky, and, when I had the chance, to go and look at them close up, their silvery riveted wings, their cramped cockpits filled with mysterious dials, their sleek forms made unspeakably glamorous by their association with speed and power and death. 

WAR mag coverAnother thing I remember from my childhood was a form of comic book that we used to refer to as ‘war mags’.  They were a kind of graphic novel, I suppose, or graphic novella anyway.   I don’t remember ever actually buying one, but they were passed about at school and I must have read dozens of them, each one containing a single story about British soldiers or airmen in World War II, fighting against the Germans (who said things like ‘Britisher schweinhund!’) or the Japanese (who said ‘Banzai!’).  There were a lot of blazing machine guns and grim-faced men, but fighting the enemy was always the backdrop to a more personal story about male relationships.   As I recall a typical plot involved rivalry or even bitter hatred between two men, or perhaps two groups of men, who were supposed to be fighting on the same side.   A happy ending might be the resolution of this conflict, and a new friendship, or at least a new respect, ‘forged in the white heat of battle’, or alternatively the death of a real bad egg, paying the price of his own lack of courage, or integrity, or loyalty to his mates.

The Hunters, it seems to me, is essentially a literary war mag.   The plot centres on the rivalry between Cleve, the main viewpoint character, who desperately longs for ‘kills’ but somehow keeps failing to be in the sky at the right moment, and Pell, a shallow and selfish man who is quite prepared to place his comrades’ lives in jeopardy in his pursuit of the five MIGs that will make him officially an ‘ace’.   

At one point, Cleve is on the tail of a MIG and about to make a kill when Pell radios for help:  he’s being pursued by MIGs and is unable to extricate himself because, when he tried to jettison his disposable fuel tanks, one of them got stuck and is now hanging half off, impairing his manoeuvrability.  Cleve, honourably, abandons the chase to rescue him, even though he’s desperate to add a second kill to his solitary success.   Pell subsequently shakes off his drop tank and goes on to claim the destruction of another MIG as his crucial fifth kill.  Basking in glory back at base, he crowns his ingratitude and dishonesty by insinuating that Cleve, the man who gave up a kill to save him, is a coward who avoids a fight. 

All this is pure war mag, it really is, but I guess that the world evoked by war mags wasn’t entirely a fantasy, and that Homer wasn’t making it all up when he wrote about those fierce and competitive warrior-princes.  A particular kind of grouping, held together by a code of honour, and driven by a very clear and very narrow definition of success for which its members are willing to risk everything, really does exist, and really is one of the many ways in which human beings manage to imbue their lives with meaning.  There are odder things, after all.  There are people whose entire life is organised around the need to get a bicycle round a circular track a fraction of second faster than anyone else.

Salter’s sparse, Hemingway-like prose works well, writing about men who are not in the habit of discussing their emotions and would regard it as sissy to wax lyrical about beauty.  Occasional, carefully rationed outbursts of lyricism are all the more effective for emerging from out of this Spartan restraint, particularly the evocations of those mysterious landscapes of cloud and air, far enough above the ground to be separate worlds, which are the medium through which the pilots fly and seek their enemies.   Salter’s sudden, temporary viewpoint shifts, too, going against all the usual rules, are daring and interesting and worth studying as a technique.  The war mag plot is sometimes rather predictable – when a pilot’s longing to get home to his wife and sons is described in more detail than any other pilot’s homesickness, or when a gun camera is jammed at the beginning of a mission so that there will be no photographic evidence of any kill, or when a legendary MIG pilot known as Casey Jones puts in an appearance on the enemy side, you just know what’s going to happen next – but it drives the book forward and keeps you turning the pages, just as it did in the war mags themselves.

War mags never had women in them.  Here, the few women characters, described almost entirely in terms of their physical attractiveness to the men, are entirely marginal figures – they include barmaids, waitresses , prostitutes, and one young Japanese woman who very briefly becomes an object of romantic yearning – but I guess this is may be realistic, in a novel written from the perspective of the male pilots.   When you focus exclusively on a single narrow objective, presumably editing out as far as possible the horror of the deaths you cause or may suffer yourself, your grasp of the rest of the world must indeed become attenuated, utilitarian and shallow.  Cleve half-grasps this himself, though much of the time he seems to accept that this narrowness of vision, and the risk of a horrible death, are prices worth paying for those solitary existential moments among the clouds, hunting and being hunted.      

Slavery by Another Name, by David Blackmon

Book coverAs a writer of made-up stories, I’m increasingly in awe of writers who tell stories about real people, reconstructed from historical evidence, and increasingly drawn to reading them.

This book is about the way in which, after the formal abolition of slavery, white Southern society was able to reintroduce black slavery in a new, but equally brutal, form which continued to exist until 1945: well into living memory.  Douglas Blackmon brings this story alive by repeatedly drawing out individual lives from the historical backdrop: real tragedies, real attrocities, and occasional real acts of courage.  It’s a history book, and a very harrowing one, but its also a real page-turner.

The way the new form of slavery worked was by sentencing people to hard labour and then selling them on to local employers.  This happened at the state level, but it happened in an extraordinarily off-hand and corrupt way also at county level, where local officials would arrest black people as a source of saleable slave labour, often on trivial or made-up charges, such as playing with dice, talking loudly in the presence of white women, ‘vagrancy’ or riding in empty freight cars.  Leaving their employment without permission of their employer was also a criminal offence.  They’d be found guilty in a flimsy quasi-legal process in which they’d have no legal representation and then required to pay fines and court expenses which they could not afford.  At this point, a white farmer, logging camp operator or mining company would come forward and agree to pay the fine in exchange for so many months of labour.   At times of need (harvesting time for instance), large numbers of black men might be rounded up in this way, and sometimes specific black men, known to be good workers, would be arrested in this way at the request of would be purchasers.

These convicts (even if only convicts for using bad language or dropping litter) were then bought and sold by one employer to another, whipped, tortured, forced to work very long hours and live in appalling conditions and not infrequently killed  (unlike antebellum slave owners these new masters had no long-term interest in keeping ‘their’ slaves healthy and alive).  They were also routinely kept on far beyond their original notional ‘sentence’ by being charged with additional offences or required to pay off additional debts in a system where there was close collusion between white public officials and white purchasters, and no sort of checks or balances whatever for black people, who’d been excluded from juries, excluded from participation in government, and were kept in a permanent state of fear, not only by this quasi-judicial form of oppression, but by lynchings, and by the most amazingly coarse, open, brutal and contemptuous kind of racism.  A governor of Georgia, pardoning a white man charged with rape, comments that he seriously doubts that it possible to commit the crime of rape against a black woman, so voracious and uncontrollable are black women’s sexual appetites (a view which of course gives white men carte blanche to indulge their own sexual appetites with any black woman they like).  A white US senator from the South, hearing news of a lynching in Illinois, comments that at last the Northerners are learning how to kill and burn niggers.

The double standards are breath-taking.  Black people are controlled by a mendacious, sadistically brutal and sexual predatory system because they are supposedly untrustworthy, violent and unable to control themselves sexually.  White men who’ve beaten and murdered black slaves escape prosecution or (occasionally) receive the most desultory fines, while black men are sentenced to work for months in darkness under the whip for riding an empty freight car.

Blackman’s concluding message is to remind us that the historical burden from under which black people in the US are trying to emerge is much much more recent than most people would like to admit.   (And of course disenfranchisement and segregation went on much longer even than this particularly form of slavery.   The year that Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man was the year in which I was born.)   What this book vividly and painfully shows is that those who are denied power and political participation are also denied justice and truth, but I guess it also shows that those who have power also, in a way, deny themselves the truth, for their power gives them the ability to replace reality with their own self-serving projections.  Having power over others which we haven’t earned turns us into babies.

Wondering how things had moved on since those days, I found myself looking up the websites of Southern state legislatures.  I was somewhat relieved to find that in George and Alabama, the proportion of legislators who are black seems to roughly correspond with the proportion of black people in the population in general, which is surely progress of some sort.  It’s a curious quirk of US history that all the black legislators seemed to be members of the Democratic party, the party of segregation, and the ruling party under which the attrocities described by Blackmon took place, while the representatives of the Republican Party, the party of emancipation, seemed to be entirely white.

I recommend this book, which came out in 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It has several excellent reviews on Amazon UK.  Oddly, and I wondered why this was, there were no reviews of it all on

Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo

I wrote here previously about my distaste for a new Oxfam ad, which seemed to me to perpetuate the nauseating stereotype of Africa as a pathetic and helpless victim dependent for its salvation on the outside world.  (I wonder how much investment has been lost to Africa as a result of this stereotype, perpetuated, ironically, by aid agencies trying to use pity to get money from us to help Africa?)

My daughter Nancy recently spent a year in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest countries, and my wife and I spent two weeks there with her.   As we drove across the country, the delivery end of the aid business was everywhere in evidence.  One after another along the wayside were clinics, schools and orphanages funded by European and American aid agencies.  The Malawian government itself has something like half of its budget provided by foreign aid.

Malawi is a delightful country – its people are friendly, interested, and courteous in a charming old-fashioned kind of way, and certainly not pathetic or helpless – but I felt uncomfortable about what I was seeing.  Where was all this going?  Is it useful, healthy, or even sustainable in the long run, for a country to have its basic services largely provided by external donors, and often administered by them as well?  Was this really ever going to help the country reach a point where it could fund its own institutions?  Where were the industries, where were even the beginnings of the industries, that would make this possible?

So I found myself asking the question: does aid really help?

Certainly the evidence thus far is not encouraging.  As the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, observed: “In the last 50 years, you’ve [the rest of the world] spent US$400 billion in aid to Africa.  But what is there to show for it?”  Dambisa Moyo – she is a Zambian economist – observes that just 30 years ago Malawi (among other countries) had a per capita income that was higher than that of China. Why has one country shot ahead, and the other remained stuck in a state of dependency?

Well of course there are a number of possible reasons for this, and I couldn’t help feeling that Moyo skated rather lightly over some of them. (China, after all, has been a state and an urban civilization for thousands of years, long before any country in Europe, while Malawi, like most African countries, is a recent invention, and its modest cities have only existed for a century or so).   However I remained struck by Moyo’s thesis, which is that, far from being a solution to Africa’s problem with development, aid is in very large part its cause.

Aid supports rent-seeking – that is, the use of governmental authority to take and make money without trade or production of wealth.  At a very basic level, an example of this is where a government official with access to aid money set aside for public welfare takes the money for his own personal use.  Obviously there cannot be rent-seeking without rent.

It isn’t just a matter of outright corruption, though.  In all kinds of ways, Moyo argues, aid creates a system where the best way for ambitious people to get on is to gain access to the money tap, rather than to create wealth themselves.  A mineral resource such as oil can have a similar effect, resulting in a country’s elite simply living on the income derived from the sale of that resource, rather than building up an economy that would deliver wealth when the oil has gone.

Indeed, aid may not only discourage local economic activity, it may even actively undermine it:

There’s a mosquito net manufacturer in Africa.  He manufactures around 500 nets a week.  He employs ten people who (as with many African countries) each have to support upwards of fifteen relatives…

Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who… goads Western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets… at a cost of a million dollars.  The nets arrive, the nets are distributed and a ‘good’ deed is done.

With the market flooded with foreign nets, however, our mosquito net maker is promptly put out of business.  His ten workers can no longer support their 150 dependents (who are now forced to depend on handouts) and one mustn’t forget that in a maximum of five years the majority of the imported nets will be torn, damaged and of no further use….

The gift of nets, in other words, creates a need for more gifts, and so on and on.  It’s not hard to see how such a pattern, repeated in many different ways and at many different levels, could indeed result in a permanent dependency on external aid.

Moyo advocates a gradual phasing out of aid as we now understand it, and discusses a range of different ways in which Africa could begin to finance its own development.  Her suggestions include trade, a sore point for Africa since most donor countries take away with the left hand what the right hand has given by denying Africa fair access to their markets, but Moyo points out that there are other new trading partners in the rest of the developing world (notably China and India), and opportunities for trade within Africa itself, or indeed within single countries.  They also include foreign direct investment in capital projects (such as China is now enthusiastically engaged in), borrowing money in capital markets, use of micro-finance (a means of providing small loans for local businesses which has been very effective in other parts of the world), and making better and more effective use of Africa’s own savings.  (Apparently there are huge quantities of savings in developing countries, but in the absence of access to an appropriate banking system, they are often simply held in cash, or in the form of other assets like gold, with the result that they are not available to the economy: ‘borrowers cannot borrow, and lenders do not lend’).  To those who might object that African countries would find it difficult in raising money in these kinds of ways, Moyo’s response is that dependence on aid is one of the things that make it difficult.

I’m no economist, and I’m not familiar with the literature on aid and development (as I am sure would be evident to any development expert reading this post), but I found her arguments compelling.   I suspect many people of a leftish persuasion would be inclined to dismiss her essentially market- and business-orientated solutions out of hand, but I don’t feel so inclined myself.  Another thing that struck me about Malawi (based on my own observations and those of my daughter) was the very visible presence of European and American development professionals, travelling back and forth across the country in their SUVs, doing deals, attending meetings, enjoying a bit of R & R with their families in lakeside resorts.  I’m not saying these weren’t good people doing their best, but I would much rather have seen business people looking for opportunities for investment and trade.

The Politics of Climate Change, 2nd ed, by Anthony Giddens

In a previous post, I discussed this video clip of an American woman, emerging from a cinema after seeing the film ‘Chasing Ice.’   She’s clearly on the conservative side of the  American political spectrum.  ‘I love Bill O’Reilly,’ she says (he’s a right-wing commentator on the Fox News channel), ‘I watch Bill O’Reilly every day, and I’m proud to be an American, but…’

It’s the ‘but’ that fascinated me, the ‘but’ that she felt obliged to insert before she went on to say how badly she’d been shaken by the movie and how, in spite of previous scepticism, she now recognised climate change as a reality and a threat.   Why a ‘but’ rather than an ‘and’?   If you are proud of your country, doesn’t it logically follow you’d want to protect it from being ravaged by drought, storms and global chaos?  Surely protecting a thing is something you do because of your love for it, not in spite of it?

I’m only pretending to be surprised though.  Politics is a very tribal thing.  All of us (liberals and lefties as much as conservatives) tend to subscribe to approved clusters of beliefs, rather than working out for ourselves what we think about each individual issue.  The newspapers we read, peer group pressure, our own inertia – all tend to have the effect of homogenising these clusters of beliefs, so that we end up with a comforting ‘us’ and ‘them’ (and thus a linear dimension – left-right, liberal-conservative –  to represent the entire multi-dimensional space of possibilities).  These are ‘our’ views.  Those are ‘theirs’.  And of course ‘their’ views are always based on ignorance, fear, self-interest, or a refusal to face reality, while ‘ours’ are always based on wisdom, courage, decency and deep understanding of the world.

It so happens that a concern about climate change has come in America and elsewhere to be associated with the political left.   Research cited by Giddens in this book shows that Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans to believe that global warming is a reality, and more than three times as likely to believe that it is the result of human activity.  That’s why the woman in the clip says ‘but’.  She knows this is an idea that is associated with ‘them’, and she wants to make clear that her essential loyalties remain, nevertheless, unchanged.   (I know how she feels.  It’s uncomfortable to admit to a view that doesn’t fit the consensus of the group that assumes you are ‘one of us’.)

One of things that I appreciated about this book is that Giddens identifies this as a problem.   A concern about climate change really should not be associated with a particular political position:  (a) because a change in the global weather system is going to affect everyone’s children and grandchildren, whatever they happen to believe about the appropriate mix in society between state and private enterprise (and all the other issues on which we disagree politically), (b) because nothing useful is going to happen if this remains just another political football to be kicked back and forth between two teams:

“Responding to climate change should not be seen as a left-right issue.   Climate change has to be a question that transcends party politics, and about which there is an overall framework of agreement that will endure across changes of government. (p 74)”

In the same vein, Giddens also argues that we need to be very careful not to automatically conflate climate change with the usual ‘green’ concerns.  Being ‘green’ is of course another cluster of beliefs and lifestyles, which are assumed to all belong together but may in fact need to be disaggregated:

“For example, a key green value is that of ‘staying close to nature’ – or, more briefly put – conservation.  It is a value that has a certain aesthetic quality to it.  It is very possibly important to the good life, but it has no direct relevance to climate change.  Clashes can easily occur between conservationist values and policies relevant to global warming – for example, conservationists might resist the building of a nuclear power station, or a wind farm, in a particular area of the country.”

Greens of course (with a few exceptions) usually hate nuclear power, and Giddens acknowledges that “the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the possibility of nuclear terrorism and the difficulty of disposing of nuclear waste” but one of the overall thrusts of this book is that “no course of action (or inaction) is without risks; and that, consequently, there is always a balance of risks and opportunities to be considered in any policy context.”

He calls this ‘the percentage principle’ (as opposed to the precautionary one).  I know it well from my career in social work. We can’t eliminate the possibility of nasty thing happenings, not least because reducing the risk of one nasty thing typically increases the risk of others.  If we are to avoid the worst consequences of runaway climate change, therefore, we will be need to willing to take some risks, and to accept some changes that, in themselves, we don’t particularly welcome.

I wouldn’t say this was a great book.  It helped me to crystallise a few existing thoughts, rather than providing me with new ones that had never occurred to me.  But it was worth reading.

Climate change is an odd kind of threat, as Giddens points out:

“Since the dangers… aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, many will sit on their hands and do nothing…  Yes waiting until such dangers are visible and acute… before being stirred to serious action will be too late.”

He calls this Gidden’s paradox.  I’m not sure the thought is so original as to justify him naming it after himself, but the problem is real enough.   The way to get round it is to keep foregrounding the issue, and for that reason, as much as any other, I think this book is to be welcomed.

Sweet Home, by Carys Bray

“I’d pestered and pestered to be allowed outside to play in the fine scatter of snow and eventually my mother gave in.  She packed me into my red snowsuit, fastening the zip so high that it caught my throat.  Then she escorted my outside and positioned me on the patio.  My eyes were awash with unshed tears as my father called, ‘Say cheese.’  Afterwards, when I wanted to play they said it was too cold and made me come straight back indoors.  They have forgotten this.  It is something that has been… unremembered.  They refer to the photograph as ‘that lovely picture of you having fun in the snow.'”

In 2010, I was one of the judges for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.  As well as the main prize, which is given for single-author collections (that year it was won by Jeremy Dyson for The Cranes that Build the Cranes), we were also asked to give an award for individual short stories submitted by students on Edge Hill University’s creative writing programme.   This proved to be an easy task, for we were all immediately agreed that the most outstanding submission was a story by Carys Bray that began:

“I have been looking for a baby to borrow for a number of weeks.  I’ve offered to look after several, even some I don’t know very well.  But their mothers seem suspicious.  I ask nicely.  I say please and I smile.  I remember to ask if it’s a girl or a boy and how old it is, although I’m more interested in its length than anything.”

The story, ‘Just in case’, is included in this new collection from Salt, along with 16 others.   They are all  more or less about domestic life.  Many of them, like ‘Just in Case’ are downright dark, and others are sad and bleak.  A dementing old women in ‘My burglar’ hides her possessions in strange places because she is convinced that a burglar comes in the night, and their resulting absence then becomes more evidence of the threat, and a reason to hide yet more things.   The ‘Wooden mum’, worn out by the incessant crazy-making demands of her autistic son Tom and the cruelly underming ‘help’ of her mother-in-law, reflects on the moment when Tom was born, and she imagined herself the happiest woman in the world.   A father in ‘The Rescue’ waits outside the flat of his heroin-addicted son in a concrete corridor in a tower block, for someone from somewhere to come and rescue him, as those Chilean miners were rescued from underground.

But this book is not just an orgy of bleakness and despair.  The quote I started with cames from a story called ‘Love: terms and conditions’.  It begins with a woman  visiting her parents with her husband and three children, and being reminded of her own wretched childhood, but it ends with an account of how she has managed nevertheless to achieve for her own children ‘a family where love doesn’t track a base rate of obedience’ (what a brilliant line!).   You can see this is hard for her, you can see that sometimes she tries too hard – at one point, remembering how she wasn’t allowed to play in the snow, she tries to get her reluctant children out of their warm beds to come out and enjoy the snow in the middle of the night – but she has succeeded.   Life is often sad, and that can make us afraid to tell hopeful stories for fear that we are sugar-coating the truth, but this story really earns its happy ending.

It’s a difficult thing too, I think, to write about family life, which unlike wars and love affairs and murders and all the other staples of fiction, does not tend to come with a beginning, a middle and an end, but follows a daily cycle, on and on for years.  But it’s a trick that Carys Bray pulls off in various ways.  The final story in the collection, ‘On the way home’, works like a relay race in which the baton is passed on from family to family.  In the final scene, a little girl called Anna realises that her mother is fed up with her for grazing her leg and making a hole in her tights. “The mild rebuke presses a slump on Anna’s shoulders.  Mummy is disappointed again.”

Her mother tells her to wait while she goes into a shop.   When she comes out again, she is holding a  lollypop in a bag.

“‘ Don’t worry about the tights, sweetheart.  That looks sore.  Does it hurt?’

“‘A bit,’ Anna admits.

“‘I know something that always makes people feel better,’ Mummy says.  She hands the lollypop to Anna.  Then she crouches on the pavement of Bridge Road and places winter-cool lips on the exposed cap of Anna’s knee where it pokes through the hole in her tights, round as a biscuit.

“And on the nobble at the base of Mummy’s neck, in the delicate fuzz of hair, Anna places a soft, dry kiss of her own.”

What a great ending.  It made me wonder why literature deals so little with such kisses, and treats them so lightly on the whole, and yet deals so often with, and treats so very seriously, the quickly fading kisses of romantic love.

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.

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.

Scarp, by Nick Papadimitriou

This is an odd book, an attempt to evoke a piece of semi-urban landscape which most people don’t even recognise as a geographical entity: the escarpment which runs north of London between Hertfordshire and the old county of Middlesex, which the author christens ‘Scarp’.   To the north and south of it, he points out, other strips of high ground have names and identities and are seen as distinct features – the South Downs, the North Downs, the Chilterns – but Scarp is to all intents invisible.   The book describes his attempts to get to know it, to get inside it, and to make it visible and tangible, trudging to and fro across it, sleeping out in it, reading about it, gathering up scraps of it, fantasising about it, studying it on maps.

Scarp isn’t ‘beautiful’ like the South Downs.  It is never going to be made into a national park, or find its way onto the lid of a biscuit tin.  Suburban sprawl, satellite towns, sewage works, golf-courses, and major roads are flung across it, creating new, human geographical categories (towns, boroughs, motorways…) which cut across and camouflage the physical fact of Scarp.  But, as the author says, ‘everywhere is somewhere’.  I like this thought.  Our conventional idea of communing with landscape is to leave our urban dwellings to visit ‘wildernesses’ and beauty spots.  But this is limiting, perpetuating an artificial division between the human and the ‘natural’ which actually diminishes nature (perhaps rather in the way that men diminish women by reducing them to objects of desire, fantasy and idealisation).

I remember many years ago, when I lived in the hilly city of Bristol, wondering what had become of the streams and rivers that had shaped the land on which the city stood, and suddenly realising that of course they were still there.  The rain still fell, the laws of gravity still applied, the same amount of water must flow across the land along the same pathways.  True, the streams now ran through drains beneath the roads, but the essential machinery of the land remained unchanged.

It’s this kind of insight that Papadimitriou seeks to deepen and integrate into his understanding when he describes litter-clogged streams in concrete culverts, squashed squirrels on dual carriageways, the musty smell of abandoned industrial units… all in one and the same breath (so to speak), as he talks about wildflowers, hedgerows, sheep fields, trees and birds in flight.  And this weaving together, this refusal to go along with conventional oppositions of human/natural, ugly/beautiful, spoilt/unspoilt, negligible/significant, also includes an attack on the boundary between interior/exterior, as he adds to the mix his own state of mind, fragments of autobiography, and scraps of the documented or imagined lives of people who live, or have lived, in this same landscape.

It’s a rambling book – you could even say it was a bit of a mess – and, some way into it, I wasn’t sure it was really to my taste.  I suppose I’m not a natural reader for this book, in any case, as I can’t call to mind the specific places he evokes.  I was also slightly irritated in the early chapters by aspects of the authorial tone: Papadimitriou, it seemed to me, was a little too self-consciously inviting the reader to see him as a sort of driven obsessive out of some JG Ballard story.  (Papadimitriou himself talks about how his ‘internal balance would oscillate between the ego’s surrender in the face of a larger entity… and a desire to gain ownership and mastery of that same entity through cultural production’, and I guess that the bits that bugged me are the bits when the needs of the ego became a bit too dominant in that particular tussle).  Anyway, as I read on, I stopped noticing this (and/or Papadimitriou seemed to stop talking about himself in that particular kind of way).  I also stopped worrying that I was only getting a tiny fragment of what the author would have had in his mind as he described these scenes, and allowed myself to be absorbed in the project itself, tapping into my own memories of comparable places to fill the gaps and allow myself, so to speak, to join in.

It was when he described a particular rubbish-strewn piece of wasteland (a scrappy little piece of ground between two busy roads) in which he used to hide while playing hooky from school, that this book really got under my skin.  I’m not aware of any place in my own past which is exactly like that, and yet this scene hit me with great force.  A somewhat solitary and troubled teenager, I did play hooky from school myself, once going into hiding for several days and nights, and, during that time, I too found myself hunkering down in odd little corners, trying to entertain myself and keep myself warm beyond the gaze of the adult world.  So perhaps some of those memories were what this triggered.  But, for whatever reason, I had the sense that the book had somehow found a mainline to my own unconscious, the wellspring of my dreams.  (In fact, reading this passage was like suddenly remembering a place that I had visited in my dreams.)  After that point I was fine with whatever Papadimitriou wanted to tell me.  I particularly loved the Appendix, purporting to be the journal of a hairdresser called Perry Kurland, scrawled in the pages of a Caravan Club of Great Britain logbook.

I myself am interested in landfill sites.  I can’t really say exactly why, but there is something I find quite fascinating about these wide low man-made hills of refuse, usually infested with seagulls, and covered with black plastic pipes to carry away the methane from the stew beneath.   I crane round to look at them when I drive past them – there is a particular fine group of them that I often pass between Bedford and Milton Keynes – and then mull over pleasurably in my mind the processes, chemical and mechanical, that must be taking place within them, and the engineering challenges that must face their human guardians.  (How do they trap that methane for instance, and what do they do with it?  How to they encourage the ground to settle?).  Why, when you think about it, should this pleasure be any less worthy of celebration  than the pleasure of watching a mountain stream, or leaves falling in autumn, or flames flickering in a fire place?

Intrusion, by Ken MacLeod

I read a while ago, in a book about Queen Mary, about a teenaged servant girl in Mary’s reign who was tried, convicted and burnt at the stake for suggesting that the bread and wine in the communion service did not really turn into the flesh and blood of Christ.   It seems bizzarre now that such a thing could be seen as a capital offence (indeed a worse than capital offence, requiring not merely death, but prolonged excruciating pain).  But those who tried her and found her guilty, those who tied her to the stake, those who lit the fire, must somehow in their minds have been persuaded, or more or less persuaded, that what they were doing was justified (even though many of them would have been old enough to have lived and worked under Mary’s protestant brother Edward, when what was now compulsory had been a crime), or how otherwise could they keep on going?

To live, to stay sane, to get on with our lives, most of us adjust, accept (within parameters) the rules, and even (at least to some extent) buy into the rationale (Foucault’s ‘regime of truth’) that is said to justify those rules.  The death of that servant girl made many people complicit, gave them a stake (no pun intended) in believing in the rationale.  Perhaps that, even more even than its obvious deterrent effect, was its real point.  Queen Mary, as I understand it, would sincerely have believed in the weird cannibalistic doctrine of transubstantiation, but, in terms of the machinery of power, that is a minor point.  The point is to shape and control.

What Ken MacLeod has achieved in this clever and erudite book, is to bring into focus the rules and assumptions that shape and control us in our own society by the time-honoured method of extrapolating them into a near future context, where they are a little more obvious pronounced.   Torture is  routinely and unabashedly used, for instance, rather than furtively as now, and this is justified by the need to fight terrorism.  (In a nice touch, you get offered trauma counselling afterwards).  More insidiously, and more challenging to me personally, with my own career in social work, are the ways in which public health and child protection are also used as a means of control in the world of Intrusion.

Hope Morrison is being pressured to take ‘the fix’: a pill which will correct most harmful mutations in her unborn child.  It isn’t exactly compulsory, but not to take it, you are told, will lead to questions being asked about your parenting, since what truly protective parent would want to deny her child protection from disease? And if you don’t take it, this becomes part of your profile, a profile built up by surveillance of many different kinds, from the ring you wear on your finger to monitor your health status, to the cameras that watch you at home and in the street.   If you don’t take the fix, and have visited unlicenced open air cafes where people take cafeine and smoke, and have had contact with people who themselves have come under some kind of suspicion (perhaps because they are Asian, and have been questioned under torture about links with Hindu extremists, and have said something or other to make the torture stop), then things start to look pretty bad for you. And if your husband…  Well, read the book.

I must admit, when I read Intrusion’s early digs at current anti-smoking policy, I wondered uneasily if I was letting myself in for a Jeremy Clarkson-style rant about health-and-safety-gone-mad etc.  But MacLeod is doing something much more subtle than that, showing how the very reasonableness of (for instance) concern about public health or child protection, can be used to rationalise a regime of surveillance and control, in which midwives, doctors and social workers feel quite justified in being part of the same system as torturers, drone pilots and secret police.   Surveillance and control always have a rationale, always seem more-or-less justified to those complicit in them, but they always have additional consequences to those that provide the rationale.  (In the book, pregnant women aren’t allowed to work in places where smoking once occurred: ostensibly it’s about the health of unborn babies.  In practice it restricts women’s access to employment.)   I admit that, in a career in social work, the existence of these kinds of additional unstated consequences are something that I have often worried about (as indeed have many others: see this book for instance, which argues that social workers’ belief in their own benevolence is precisely what makes them effective agents of control).   MacLeod goes on to show that even the critics of the system, even those whose function is to expose and anatomise it, can in fact be part of the machinery that makes it work.

There’s a lot more to this book.  It’s sharp too on the way that things mutate over time: an Indian Marxist group absorbs Al-Qaeda and becomes a globalist Nihilist network, the Labour Party becomes the party of the Free and Social Market (which helps people to make the consumer choices they would have made if they’d been properly informed), Iran becomes a militantly atheistic ally, India a hostile threat.  It’s interesting on the way that unorthodox ideas can be permitted if they are part of a recognised belief system, but not if based on personal belief.   It’s strong on the technology of control, the way that devices that make life easier for us, also have the effect of making us trackable and measurable and countable (as is already the case of course, with mobile phones, google, debit cards etc etc all making us much easier to track than was the case with their predescessors).

And the book is also a well-constructed page turner, with a plot (hinging not only on Hope’s resistance to the fix, but on an unusual genetic ability possessed by her husband) that leads the reader willingly through this scary, and in many ways very plausible, world.

Intrusion on Amazon UK.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

This is the most engaging novel I’ve read for a while.  It’s about the Iraq War but is entirely set in America.  Billy Lynn is one of a group of soldiers who took part in a conspicuously heroic action in Iraq, an action which was fortuitously captured in its entirety by a Fox TV cameraman, and put on the internet.   Billy and his surviving fellow-soldiers are being paraded around the USA (and particularly, some of them notice, to swing-states), in order to boost flagging support for the war with their story of American heroism and military success.

The story is told, in the third person and the present tense, from the viewpoint of 19-year-old Billy himself, who played a particularly prominent role in the famous firefight.   The whole book covers a single day in which he and the other soldiers visit the Dallas Cowboys football stadium, where, as well as a football game, Destiny’s Child will be performing, and the soldiers themselves will be taking part in some unspecified event.  They are being followed around by a Hollywood movie producer who has promised to make their story into a film, and is constantly on his Blackberry to well-known stars and funders.

The book is funny, I suppose, though the funny things are so close to being real, that they didn’t exactly make me laugh.  What we are shown is the attempt by the well-heeled supporters of the war and of George W Bush, to repackage these young men’s terrifying existential experience to meet their needs, personal and political, and the young men’s growing awareness of just how much they are being used (and used by people, by and large, who themselves have always managed to avoid being directly exposed to war.)

Reviewing this book in the Guardian, Robert McCrum observes ‘The unintended consequence of Fountain’s bravura performance is to reduce the experience to words and style. It is… extraordinary writing, but essentially fiction for non-fiction readers.’  This doesn’t make any sense  to me at all.   The writing is consciously stylish (and very occasionally I felt it wasn’t sure what style it was aiming for), but I felt the experience of these soldiers was rather vividly conveyed, and that Billy himself, a very young man attempting to negotiate the transition to adulthood in quite exceptionally weird and difficult circumstances, was really beautifully drawn.