Two Tribes

Six boxes of hardback copies of Two Tribes have arrived for me to sign for those who like collecting signed new editions. (If that’s your thing and you want one, you can preorder from Goldsboro).

The book will be out in early July, so just over a month away. I had a skip through one of the copies in a break from signing, to remind myself what kind of book it is.

Most of it isn’t science fictional at all, but is set in London and Norfolk in the latter part of 2016 and early 2017. But the framing device is science fictional. The narrator is 250 years in the future, constructing the story from diaries and other sources, and giving herself a fair amount of license to guess things, or even make things up.

The story itself deals mainly with an architect called Harry who has recently separated from his wife and lives in London, and a hairdresser called Michelle who lives in a small Norfolk town called Breckham, and an unlikely and unexpected relationship between them.

The thing that prompted this book -or one of the things anyway- was a map of the results of the 2016 EU referendum, as they applied to East Anglia where I live. The whole region was a sea of ‘Leave’ but I happen to live in Cambridge, which was not only one of two islands of ‘remain’ in East Anglia (the other was Norwich), but the remainiest place in the entire country (75% remain). Yet an hour’s drive away, the Fenland area in the north of the same county was one of the leaviest (71% leave).

I voted remain, and have always had a warm feeling for the whole European project, so I was very saddened by the referendum result, but I thought to myself, how would it be if instead of looking at all this as me living in an island of correctness in a sea of error, or an island of civilisation in a sea of barbarity, or an island of decency in a sea of intolerance, I was to look at it more in the way that, say, an outsider looks at the political geography of Belfast.

Some areas of that city are strongly and publicly unionist, others are equally strongly and publicly nationalist, but from an outsider’s perspective this is not one group of people who are right and decent, and another who are wrong and bad, but rather two tribes, who have been brought up to have different allegiances, and have learned to see the same question in an entirely different way.

I think that’s how the great Brexit divide will look in a couple of hundred years for, after a certain point, when we look at the conflicts of the past, the issues being fought over lose their heat. The world has moved on into an entirely new place, and they are just not meaningful any more. And that’s the kind of perspective I tried to write from in this book.

In the case of the Brexit vote, there are factors apart from geography that inclined people to vote one way or another, and in particular I was struck by the fact that the ‘leave’ vote was proportionately higher in poorer areas of England (Scotland is different because Scots have the SNP) and in the poorer socioeconomic classes. (Cambridge is not only the remainiest but also one of the very richest parts of the UK.) So, as well as the two tribes of ‘remain’ and ‘leave’, I was thinking when I wrote this book of the two tribes that are middle-class people (and specifically the liberal professional middle classes of which I am undoubtedly a part) and working class people.

Being middle class is definitely one of my topics at the moment. I touched on it in America City, and also in Beneath the World, a Sea, and it continues to be a theme in the book I’m writing now. Most novelists are written by middle class people (or arguably all, since being a writer might itself be defined as a typically professional middle class occupation). As a rule that fact is simply a given, the base from which other topic are looked at, rather than as a thing to be examined in itself. But that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

Needless to say, I was also thinking about Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Isolation stories

I’ve posted 20 stories here, loosely linked (in some cases very loosely) to the theme of isolation: isolation of many kinds, good, bad, literal, metaphorical etc.

Scroll down for the stories. Because of the way I posted them, they appear below in reverse order, but if you want to read them as a collection you may like to go back to story (1) and work back through them in numerical order. I arranged them in what I thought was a pleasing order and although all of these stories work as stand-alones, in a couple of cases a story is a sequel to another which I posted earlier in the sequence. Story (20), ‘Sky’, for instance, is a sequel to story (1), ‘Cellar’.

Personal favourites of mine: ‘The Kite’, ‘Atomic Truth’, ‘The Perimeter’, ‘Aphrodite’, ‘We Could Be Sisters’.

Isolation story: (20) Sky

This story could be read on its own but it’s a sequel to ‘Cellar’ which opens this collection of ‘isolation stories’, and works better if you’ve read that too. This is the last story I’m going to post here, and it seemed an appropriate note to end on (The two stories bookend my Spring Tide collection also.)

I’ll leave these stories up there at least until the lockdown is over. Hope you enjoyed them.

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Isolation story: (19) Piccadilly Circus

This story can be read on its own but is actually a sequel to ‘The Perimeter’ which I also included here as number 9 in this series of ‘isolation stories’.

It first appeared in Interzone in 2005 and is collected in The Turing Test.

I’ve almost finished posting these stories. Just one more to go tomorrow.

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Isolation story: (18) The Caramel Forest

It can be pretty isolating to be the child of parents who aren’t getting on. I feel sorry for families right now who are in that position.

This was the cover story in Asimov’s SF in 2012 (the artist was Laura Diehl). It was subsequently collected in The Peacock Cloak, along with another story, ‘Day 29’, which was also set on the imaginary planet Lutania.

Lutania is the prototype for the setting of my most recent novel, Beneath the World, a Sea. In the novel, however, I moved it from an alien planet, to a remote place in South America, the Submundo Delta where life is entirely different to, and completely unrelated, to life anywhere else on Earth.

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Isolation story: (17) Monsters

Clancy the traveller (see story 12) visits a poet in an obscure provincial outpost. The one who is most isolated in this story is an animal, a kind of carnivorous horse, which has been shut away in solitary confinement all its life.

This story was first published in Interzone in 2003 and was collected in the Turing Test.

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Isolation story: (16) Johnny’s New Job

Not the most subtle story I’ve ever written.

I used to be a social worker and then a manager of a team of social workers. This story poured out of me more or less in a single burst of rage, when the ‘Baby P’ tragedy was in in the news (the murder of Peter Connolly by his mothers boyfriend), and the media and the government were conducting one of their periodic carnivals of shame. During a previous such event, a fellow team manager had told me, ‘I managed to get my kids out of the house just half an hour before the TV cameras arrived on my lawn’.

My experience in that job has made me much more forgiving than most people are of the ‘mistakes’ made not only by social workers but by anyone who has to make decisions in real time, in the messiness and uncertainty of the real world. I did not feel inclined to condemn the police officer who ran towards an innocent Brazilian electrician and shot him, believing him to be a suicide bomber. And I will not be one of those calling for heads to roll in the aftermath of this Covid-19 episode. Hindsight makes all kind of things look like obvious mistakes that simply don’t look that way at all when they are happening.

This story first appeared in Interzone in 2010 and is collected in The Peacock Cloak.

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Isolation story: (15) The Gates of Eden

Nothing whatever to do with my Eden books, this is a short, non-SF story from my Spring Tide story collection. The only connection is the myth of ‘the fall’ itself.

‘The Gates of Eden’ qualifies as an isolation story, I’d say, simply on the grounds that there is only one person in the whole story: a middle-aged businesswoman on her way to a difficult meeting.

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Isolation story: (14) The Land of Grunts and Squeaks

Something happens which means that people can no longer relate to one another as they used to do, and have to find new ways of communicating.

The stories I’ve been collecting together here all deal with isolation of some kind or other, but this one is surely the closest analogue of the isolation we’re currently experiencing.

This story was written for a recent anthology called Once Upon a Parsec, published by Newcon Press, and edited by David Gullen, who had the brilliant idea of ‘fairytales told by aliens’ as a theme. Do check it out. There are stories by Jaine Fenn, Una McCormack, Kim Lakin-Smith, Paul Di Filippo, Adrian Tchaikovsky and many others.

My thanks to Ian Whates of Newcon Press for permission to use the story here.

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