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.

3,096 Days, by Natascha Kampusch

The tabloid-sounding quote on the cover is misleading.  This is a serious and thoughtful book, by a young woman who was kidnapped by a stranger at the age of 10, and remained his captive for the next eight years.

It is very disturbing to read.  At times I found the claustrophobia hard to bear, even at second hand. For the first six months Kampsuch was confined in a small hidden underground room, which could only be accessed through three doors, the last one made of concrete, which were so elaborately locked and concealed that it took her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, an hour to get through them all each time he came to visit her, and an hour again to seal it all up again when he left.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her fears was that he would have an accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him as a slave, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her with fists and with hard objects without warning.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  Yet he also kitted out her dungeon like a girl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, fetched her books and magazines at her request.

What is striking about the book (apart, of course, from the story itself) is the firm, clear, individual voice in which it is written.  Kampusch refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster, or herself as a helpless victim, whatever the pressure from the media and society to do so:

The perpetrator must be a beast so we can see ourselves as being on the side of good.  His crime must be embellished with S & M fantasies and wild orgies, until it is so extreme that it no longer has anything to do with our lives.

And the victim must have been broken and must remain so, so that the externalization of evil is possible.  The victim who refuses to assume this role contradicts society’s simplistic view.  Nobody wants to see it.  People would have to take a look at themselves.

She says that her refusal to reduce this story to thriller-like categories of black and white, but to insist on shades of grey, has led to her being criticised and subjected to abuse on the internet.  But she is absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her ability to see Priklopil as not all bad, is a symption of the Stockholm Syndrome.  She hates this label, which she says victimises her all over again, and she insists that her behaviour was essentially rational.  Priklopil was the only human being she had contact with for eight years, and she made of that the best that she could.

Her firmness in rejecting the stock narratives that others try to impose on her story, is matched by her small acts of resistance to Priklopil himself.   He demanded she call him ‘maestro’, or ‘my lord’, and tried to get her to kneel in front of him, but she steadfastly refused, knowing  that it was essential that she hold something back.  Somehow, this young woman (she is still only 24, a year younger than my own oldest daughter) managed to hold on to a sense of integrity in these appalling circumstances.

Naturally, when reading the book, one identifies with Kampusch.  The appalling claustrophobic loneliness, the miniscule scope for manouevre, the constant anxiety, the fear for the future: for many of us, it isn’t entirely alien territory, for unhappy times in any childhood feel a bit like this: helpless, trapped, alone, cut off from what you need or long for.  (The comparison of everyday unhappiness with this ordeal may seem grotesque, but it is one that Kampusch herself makes, reflecting on her own lonely and unhappy childhood before her captivity.)   These claustrophobic feelings are ones that most of us are familiar with, I imagine, to some extent, and it is uncomfortable to be reminded of them, or to have to imagine them in the unbelievably extreme form that Kampusch herself endured.

But even more disturbing is to consider Priklopil in the light that Kampusch shines on him.  Her insistence on not making him a horror-movie monster, is very powerful, forcing the reader to consider him not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a person on a continuum with the rest of us.  Priklopil, as she sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to seen other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Kampusch refers to the Greek legend of the sculptor Pygmalion, who didn’t like women, but fell in love with the idealised woman he’d carved in stone.   Attempting to meet needs for intimacy by trying to bully or manipulate others into playing roles that we have assigned to them: it’s hardly unique to Priklopil.

Images of the cellar room where Kampusch was confined, from BBC News.

Six Degrees by Mark Lynas

I might as well admit it, I’ve been massively in denial about climate change.   I have worried about it in the past (I even wrote a couple of stories about the threat: ‘Greenland’ and ‘Rat Island’).  But latterly, I’ve been minimising the problem to myself, even persuading myself that there might be upsides as well as downsides. ( After all, I’ve foolishly been telling myself, there have been times in the past when the Earth was so warm that there was no polar ice at all.)

This book has certainly opened my eyes.   To deal with the ‘upsides as well as downsides’ point first: yes, there have been times in the past that were much warmer than now, but they came about as a result of gradual temperature changes over millions of years.  What we are facing now is a change so sudden that life will not have time to adapt.   It is comparable to the great extinction events we find in the geological record, which nearly ended  life on the planet.   And indeed this really could end up that way.   Lynas takes us through six scenarios, from one to six degrees (based on the average increase in the global temperature), and the six degree option is pretty grim reading.

Even the one degree option isn’t exactly pretty.

Of course, as Lynas repeatedly cautions, the science is inexact.  The global weather is an incredibly complex system in which countless different factors interact.  We know that meteorologists can’t precisely predict the weather day by day, and clearly they can’t hope to get it exactly right when looking decades into the future.  But there is no dispute that increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane will increase the global temperature, and there is no doubt that human activity has increased the presence of these gases.   The details may not all be right, but the overall story is indisputable.  And (really!) unless we do something about it, it will have a lot more implications than just things getting a bit hotter.

Nor will it just mean events like the loss of the beautiful coral reefs: sad but with little direct impact on our lives. It will mean the inundation of coastal cities, and of huge swathes of land, such as Bangladesh and the coast of China, where hundreds of millions live.  It will mean the desertification of much of southern Africa and southern Europe.  It will mean more and bigger hurricanes, wreaking destruction over a much wider part of the globe.  It will mean positive feedback loops kicking in – the release of methane from newly thawed permafrost, for instance, or the burning of the entire Amazon forest – that will accelerate these kinds of events until they are running away so fast that nothing can stop them.  And of course these things will have huge geopolitical consequences: mass migration, wars over land and water, countries defending themselves like fortresses against the desperate beating on their gates.

It struck me, reading this, and confronting my own denial (which is like the denial of alcoholics, the denial of rapists, the denial of child abusers, who simply cannot bear to face the harm they do), that if we don’t try and do something about this, it pretty much invalidates any other claim we might wish to make to be doing our bit to make the world a better place.  What is the point of working for human rights, if we let the world degenerate into the kind of dog-eat-dog place where human rights are as worthless as paper walls in a hurricane?   What is the point of thinking about the needs of developing countries, if we stand by while they become deserts or seas?

In fact, never mind these grand public issues, how can we even claim to really care about our own children and grandchildren, if we don’t do anything to stop their world being ruined?

The crazy part is that this is all the result of an almighty bonfire we’ve been having, burning up, in a matter of decades, fossil fuels that took millions of years of solar energy to form.   And, since the fuel isn’t infinite, it will run out anyway, and the bonfire will end whether we want it to or not.  So it’s not even a choice as to whether to stop or not stop the burning.  It’s a choice between stopping now, before it is too late, or in a few decades, when it will be.  We are gambling the future of our species for the sake of a decade or two of business as usual.

I’m going to write more about this.  I think there’s a task for science fiction here, a responsibility even.  Let’s get back to exploring worlds that could really happen, and move away from writing about starships and galactic empires that we know quite well will never ever come about.

Six Degrees on Amazon UK.

Six Degrees on Amazon US.


Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank

The Great Depression between the wars resulted in a grassroots backlash against capitalism, and moves towards greater state intervention in the economy, but, in the US today, the most significant political movement to have arisen out of the current economic crisis, is one that calls for still less state intervention.  Thomas Frank illustrates the difference between the two eras by contrasting the ways in which the 1773 Boston Tea Party was invoked in each one.  In 1932, a farmer who took illegal direct action to support his demand for government help for poverty-striken farmers, justified his action by saying ‘Seems to me there was a tea-party in Boston that was illegal too.  What about destroying property in Boston harbour when our country was started?’   But ‘what makes the rebel’s blood boil today,’ Frank writes, ‘is not the plight of the debtor but the possibility that such “losers” might escape their predicament – that government might step in and do the things that those Iowa farmers wanted it to do eighty years ago.’  At a Tea Party rally in 2009 one sign read ‘Your mortgage is not my problem.’  (Given the popularity of Christianity on the American Right, I’m intrigued to know how ‘Your mortgage is not my problem’ can be squared with ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ [Matthew 12:31], but let that pass.)

This excellent book, packed with pithy observations, is an exploration of a bizarre phenomenon: a crisis caused by unfettered capitalism, followed by populist demands for yet more unfettered capitalism.  The apparent contradiction is explained in part by the fact that this new political movement doesn’t identify the core problem as the collapse of the capitalist financial institutions, but rather as the government bail-out that followed, not only because it resulted in a debt which the taxpayer has to pay, but because it distorted the workings of the market.  Ironically enough, given their hatred of the term ‘liberal’, this lot are extreme economic liberals.  They view the free unfettered market as being the God-given natural order, and any intervention into it as unnatural, tyrannical and ‘socialist’.  (‘Clear-thinking Americans must begin to view Socialism as a prosecutable crime and recognize those who conspire to advance it as in fact criminals,’ chillingly writes one Tea Party pamphleteer cited by Frank.)

To some degree I agree that markets are ‘natural’, in the sense that I believe that people will, almost inevitably, do deals with one another, and try and get the best return they can for their work.  (It happened even in states such as the Soviet Union which tried to abolish the market.)   But politics are also ‘natural’ in this exact same sense of stuff that is bound to happen, bound to be part of the picture, as is expecting the community as a whole to help out in a crisis, collective action etc etc.   Capitalism, and the notion of the ‘free market’ are, after all, very recent historical developments,  and, as Frank points out, the ‘pure Capitalism’ that these people dream about has never existed, and could never exist.   It is a one-dimensional concept, an essentially Utopian idea which, like all Utopian ideas, only works if you exclude reality from your worldview.

Frank is interesting on the way in which this libertarian right wing mirrors, sometimes quite consciously, the left.   It uses the language of injustice and class war, for instance, to pit ‘ordinary decent Americans’ (including billionaires!) against a ‘liberal’ elite, which it sometimes characterises as fascist or Nazi.  And Frank sees its adherents as blinkered in much the same way as the leftists who visited Stalin’s Soviet Union in the years after the Depression, and managed to avoid noticing famine, terror and gulags, and see instead a socialist Utopia.  What is terrifying in all these cases is the capacity of human beings to persuade themselves that something is its exact opposite.  ‘Freedom is Slavery’, ‘War is Peace’, ‘Poverty is Plenty’, went the slogans in Orwell’s Oceania, and now we have billionaires as victims, liberals as Nazis, and poor people as the cause of the problem.

Of course, as Frank points out, the misty soft-focus dream of an America consisting of decent hard-working business people (regular guys like you and me) competing in the market place, is essentially a facade (rather in the same way, I suppose, that the rhetoric and iconography of socialism was used as a facade for tyranny under Stalin).   The folksy Tea Party rhetoric distances the movement from big business, depicting the latter as monopolistic, in cahoots with the state, on the scrounge for subsidies and lucrative government contracts, but it is nevertheless big business’s purposes that the Tea Party serves.

We have no exact equivalent of the Tea Party in the UK, but there are plenty of people here who have taken the opportunity presented by the crisis in capitalism, to roll back the state still further, and give unfettered capitalism still more freedom to act.   I strongly recommend this book.

Pity the Billionaire on Amazon UK.


The City & The City, by China Miéville

I live in Cambridge where, every summer, hundreds of foreign teenagers descend on the city to attend the various language schools.   Often they move around in large crowds, instantly recognisable because of the standard issue language school backpacks and t-shirts.  Often they hire bikes (this city is, after all, the UK capital of bicycles), and can be seen wobbling along in groups, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, or even going round roundabouts the wrong way.

And the thing that strikes me about them is that they are not really here.   Physically they are in Cambridge, but they aren’t really present in it.   We notice their language school livery and their Latin looks and pay no further attention, dismissing them as transients who will soon be gone. They hardly see us at all.  I even tested this once.  A group of Italian boys were walking towards me, filling up the entire width of the pavement.  They needed to make room for me.  The only way I could have got out of their way was to press my back up against a wall.  But I kept walking, and sure enough one of them walked straight into me.  He looked startled, as if surprised to discover that I was actually solid.

You see the same thing with British tourists abroad.  Waiters fetch things for them, but they hardly even make out the waiters’ faces.  Physical location is only one aspect of where we are, and not really, most of the time, the most important one.  We are much more interested in other kinds of nearness.  Look at someone walking down the road, talking to a lover on a mobile phone.

In The City & The City, China Miéville draws attention to these other kinds of nearness and distance, by imagining a place where it is not just normal to ignore and discount much of what is physically present, but actually compulsory.  The two city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same piece of territory, and are so interwoven that, in some places, they share the same streets.   But their citizens learn from an early age to ignore the parallel city alongside their own, seeing only their own buildings, and their own people, and noticing, but then immediately ‘unseeing’, the buildings and people of the other place, whose otherness is signalled to them by small differences that they’ve learnt to instantly recognise (rather in the way that, so I’m told by people who come from there, Northern Irish folk establish almost at once whether someone is a Protestant or a Catholic) .  A person in Beszel, therefore, must not stare at, think about, speak to, or in any way acknowledge a person in Ul Qoma, even if in terms of purely physical space, they live next door to one another.  To violate this principle is to commit ‘breach’, and is a serious crime.

But this is not the same thing as saying that each city must deny the existence of the other, or that Ul Qomans and Besz must never meet.  On the contrary.  It is perfectly possible to travel from Beszel to Ul Qoma, with the necessary visas, by passing through a border post.  Having crossed over, and been issued with a visitor’s badge, a person from one city may return to the same physical spaces he normally inhabits, but as he is now legally ‘in’ the other city, he must now ‘unsee’ his own city, but may look at leisure at the sights that, when ‘back home’, he would have been forbidden to notice.  Miéville has fun with the ramifications of all this: there is even an ‘Ul Qomatown’ within Beszel, which Besz people might at first glance feel obliged to ‘unsee’, since it superficially resembles Ul Qoma.

This is one of those books (like, for instance, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, which I discussed here previously, and like much of Kafka and Borges), which works by unfolding the implications of a single odd premise, while allowing its metaphorical possibilities, its resonances with the real world we actually inhabit, to gradually take root in our minds.   The story is a police procedural, about a Besz policeman investigating a murder which turns out to have Ul Qoman ramifications, and this provides a device by which we can gradually learn more and more about the relationship between these two states.   As the policeman attempts to solve the murder, the reader (or myself at least), is equally absorbed by the possibility of in some way getting to the bottom of the nature of this cleft city, and of the shadowy institutions, beyond the ordinary police of the two states, that maintain their separate existence, by punishing breach violations that might be as small as looking at a shop window in the ‘other’ city.

It gets a little busy and plot-driven towards the end – when it is being made to deliver the solution to the crime required by the police procedural genre, this strange imagined world does feel a little as if it is being crammed into a space that is just too small for it  –  but this is an original, clever and compelling book.  The single scene which most haunts me, is one in which the detective Borlú, during a working trip to the foreign country of Ul Qoma, walks down the Ul Qoman street that, in terms of physical space, is the street he lives in back in Beszel: he passes, but carefully unsees, his own front door.

The City & The City on Amazon UK.


Incidentally (and this is the kind of thing that you learn when you have a Wikipedia dependency as bad as mine), there really does exist a pair of intermingled towns in two different countries.  The Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog consists of more than twenty enclaves in and around the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau.  There are even Dutch enclaves within the Belgian ones.  See here for more.