Hierarchies in Eden

• December 15th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

In the article I discussed in my previous post, David Brin argued that a rigidly hierarchical pyramidal social structure was an “attractor” in the mathematical sense of the word: a pattern or shape towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve.

I’ve often seen Dark Eden described as a ‘dystopian’ novel but, though life may seem grim in Eden, the society itself, as described at the beginning of the book, is actually in many ways utopian.  It has not settled into one of those rigid hierarchical pyramids.  There are no distinctions between rich and poor; women are at least as powerful as men; murder and rape are unknown.

In the second Eden novel (Mother of Eden) all this has changed.  Most of Eden has succumbed to the pyramidal attractor, and the majority of its population live in one of two highly stratified societies, one founded by John Redlantern, the other ruled by the descendants of David Redlantern.   In the case of the ‘Johnfolk’ at least, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are really no more than serfs, ruled over in a more-or-less feudal way, by ‘chiefs’ who are the heirs of those who were John’s lieutenants in his protracted struggle against the Davidfolk. The great rift in Eden’s human community that was depicted in the first book, was the catalyst which set in motion the process of stratification which  also included the increasing dominance of men over women.

One of the things I was interested in exploring in Mother of Eden is how those hierarchies work.   My main protagonist, Starlight Brooking, comes from one of the few remaining exceptions to the pyramidal norm, and she finds it bewildering that such a very number of people can exercise so much control over so many.  Why don’t the people at the bottom of the pyramid simply refuse to do what they’re told?

She discovers there are many reasons, one of which is the fact that the system of stories and beliefs which people use as their source of meaning has, to to speak, been rigged so that it bolsters the status quo.   Another is a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ kind of paradox: yes, if all the ‘small’ people rose up together, they could defeat the ‘big’ people, but if some stand up to the big people and the others don’t take their side, they’ll end up a lot worse off than they would have been if they kept their heads down.   Another again is that even people who seem low down in the pyramid, and look like they are getting a pretty bad deal, do in fact turn out to have at least some stake in in maintaining the structure as it is.

I won’t say how it all works out for Starlight, but I will say that I think people sometimes forget that last point when they are thinking about politics in the modern world.  It simply isn’t the case that the world can be divided up in ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the rest of us’, however much we’d like to place ourselves squarely on the side of the good guys.  In a country like the UK, even middle-income people who don’t think of themselves as especially well off are, by global standards, not only very rich, but quite possibly richer (at least in purely material terms) than will ever be possible for the human race as a whole.


Where are the aliens?

• December 14th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Climate

I enjoyed this article by David Brin.  It seems to me to exemplify the way the science fictional imagination works, connecting together, in a single speculative sweep, ideas that come from astronomy, mathematics, biology, history, politics and economics.

Beginning with the Fermi Paradox (that is: if we are not alone in the universe, how come we aren’t detecting any aliens?), Brin moves on to consider the question as to whether we should actively seek to identify ourselves to putative alien civilizations.  He’s cautious about this, and considers there to be a real possibilility of alien species having very different priorities to ours: “would our favorite models of ‘human nature’ … apply equally to a sapient race descended – say – from pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers? Or solipsistic omnivores (bears), or herd herbivores? Or ants?”*

Brin then discusses the way that even human societies (societies developed by “gregarious apes”) have a strong tendency to form pyramid-like hierarchies. Our present western society he sees as an exception to this:

Across the last two centuries we have experimented with a different attractor model – one that is diamond-shaped, with an empowered middle that both outnumbers the poor and is unafraid of the rich. In the Enlightenment Experiment, arenas like markets, democracy, science, courts, and sports successfully harness regulated competitiveness to create tsunamis of wealth and free exploration, while also allowing and encouraging countless opportunities for willing cooperation. The resulting society roils and froths. It may seem chaotic, especially for those who dream of simple, perfect utopias. But inarguably it has outperformed – in just two centuries – all of the preceding feudal pyramids… combined.

He thinks that this diamond shape is constantly under threat from forces seeking to pull society back to the old, stagnant, feudal pyramid, and takes a swipe here at those who think of free markets as somehow ‘natural’ states that thrive without external intervention:

Anyone who claims that competitive arenas can remain effective without carefully negotiated regulation to suppress cheating should try this experiment: set up a sports league without rules, in which the strongest players are free to unite in a single team, if they so choose. (To make the experiment perfect, establish it without even laws against violence and murder: think Rollerball.) …

When the strong can side with the strong against the less-strong, you quickly get cartels and monopolies, then inherited ruling castes, and the old cycle is re-established. It is being attempted as we speak.

It is indeed.  People like myself, whose political instincts are on the ‘leftward’ side of the political spectrum (insofar as that is even a meaningful concept: but that’s for another time!), are prone to conflate the idea of ‘free markets’ with the idea of ‘capitalism’, but in fact the idea of a free market is a false front behind which monopoly capitalism hides, much in same way as the idea of people’s power is the false front behind which communist tyrannies hide.  By calling on the idea of ‘free markets’ capitalism resists the very regulation that is necessary for genuine pluralism in the market place, and, if still unchecked, it becomes first monopolistic, and finally a new kind of feudalism.

Brin wonders if the pyramidal structure is an ‘attractor state’ so powerful that it provides a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox.  If stagnant, rigidly hierarchical pyramids are the default structure towards which societies of sentient beings are inevitably drawn, then perhaps this explains why there aren’t societies out there which are dynamic and technologically advanced enough to be detected?

At this point, though, I find his argument a bit of a stretch.  We need to bear in mind, I think, that those ‘tsunamis of wealth and free exploration’ have been acheived, not simply by a certain kind of social structure, but through an unprecedented level of exploitation of the resources of the planet**.  I’d suggest that a much more plausible explanation of the Fermi Paradox can be found in what we now know about climate change.  Perhaps to achieve a sufficient level of technological sophistication to be detectable across space, a society has to draw so massively on its planet’s reserves of stored up chemical energy, that a civilization-destroying ecological catastrophe becomes inevitable?

Obviously I hope I’m wrong, and that societies of sentient beings can find other ways of progressing that don’t involve self-destruction.   Or at least that we can, even if none of the others out there have yet managed it.

* I had some slightly similar thoughts about wolves and bears here.
**And indeed, exploitation of people: which actually suggests to me that the diamond shape is something of an illusion, and has always looked much more like the old-fashioned pyramid when seen on a global scale.  (Much as apartheid-era South Africa might seem ‘diamond-shaped’ if you only looked at the white population, but was very decidedly pyramid-shaped, if you looked at the population as a whole.)


Digital Fausts?

• December 11th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

I thought I’d write a few lines about an article I read on Saturday about how Facebook avoids UK taxes, by shuffling money around in the usual way (like Starbucks, which will apparently pay no corporation tax at all in the UK for the next 3 years).   But when I searched for the article on Google (yes, I know),  I was invited to access it via – guess what? – my Facebook account, and warned that this would mean sharing information about myself.

I begin to wonder why I have anything to do with this outfit, let alone voluntarily provide it with information about myself, my views, my contacts, my choices, that it can use to make money, and others can use for whatever purpose they like.

I’ve been thinking lately about flashback scenes in movies and stories (see here and here), when characters look back to the early days, when they saw the signs, but paid no heed.  I was put in mind of them by news about climate change (which I still think will come to eclipse every other question).   But one can easily envisage another movie, in which characters look back wonderingly at the days when they first voluntarily surrendered their privacy to huge international organisations over which they had almost no control.

Maybe it would be a good thing if the whole phenomenon really were to fade away like bubonic plague, as some have suggested it may?   And perhaps it would be a good thing too, if we were to stop falling for things that are supposedly ‘free’ but which we actually pay for with our souls?


The world changes forever: no one notices

• December 6th, 2014 • Posted in All posts


For obvious reasons, I take a certain interest in other people’s takes on the Eden myth, and my eye was caught by a newspaper story about this painting ‘The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man’, painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder in 1613.

What strikes me as brilliant about this beautiful image is the way that Adam and Eve, on the point (according to the story) of changing the entire course of human history, are tiny figures in the background who you’d barely notice if their significance hadn’t been signalled by the painting’s title.

The painting is like a seventeenth century version of the flashback scene that I wrote about in a previous post.  Significant events, events whose consequences will be felt for millenia, don’t come labelled as such, and may look at the time like little details, hardly worth noticing at all.


Sola fide

• December 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

A new story of mine, ‘Judgement’, appears in a new anthology, In the Empty Places, published as a fundraiser for the Bantuan Coffee Foundation, a charity which helps victims of child prostitution and trafficking in Indonesia and elsewhere.

The story imagines what it would be like to discover that we lived in a world where the Protestant theological principle of sola fide was literally true, so that anyone who did not believe in Christ, regardless of their own conduct, really would be damned forever.

It is terrifying to live under a brutal dictator who may torture and kill you if you dare to criticise him, but imagine living under an omnipotent and omniscient creator who is so incredibly cruel that, if you don’t believe in him, he won’t even let you die, preferring to have you tortured for all eternity!

Others will have to judge how well the story works, but it certainly terrified me when I was writing it!



• December 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Climate

It’s like being in a disaster movie or novel.  Not in the main story, though, not in the drama itself, but in one of those little flashback scenes where the narrative glances back at how it all began: the small apparently innocuous signs, the little details that people noticed but didn’t think much about, the other preoccupations that now look so trivial, but which seemed more pressing at the time.

This is the hottest year on recordNext year looks like it may be even hotterFourteen of the fifteen hottest years ever have been in this century.

The movie returns from the flashback to the main narrative.  “Why didn’t they see it?” the characters ask one another in bemusement.  “Why didn’t they do anything about it?”


An unsung Einstein

• October 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

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

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

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

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

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

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


The bones of St Josaphat

• September 12th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

A while ago I wrote a post here about the story of St Josaphat, a story which itself had had adventures and travelled through many lands.  It began as a story about Buddha, but had crossed into Persia, then the Arab world, then Georgia, then the Greek world, and finally into the Latin world, with Buddha’s Sanskrit name (Bodhisattva) gradually changing as the story passed from language to language, and the religious background also changing from Buddhism to Islam to Christianity, so that Buddha becomes the Christian saint, Josaphat.

I came across a coda to that story in a book review* I read recently in the LRB:

In 1571, the doge of Venice presented a sacred relic to King Sebastian of Portugal: a bone from Josaphat’s spine.  It is still in a silver reliquary in the St Andrieskerk in Antwerp.

So a real flesh and blood human being becomes the subject of a legend.  The legend travels half-way round the planet, and there it is made real yet again.  I find that delightful for some reason.

* The review by Eliot Weinberger was of  In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage became a Medieval Saint, by Donald S. Lopez Jr and Peggy McCracken.



• September 12th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

When I was a student (in the mid-seventies) I once travelled by myself to the Western Isles of Scotland.  As the passengers gathered to disembark at Lochboisdale in South Uist, something happened which I hadn’t anticipated at all: I suddenly became aware that no one around me was speaking English.  The strange, remote, very Northern place into which I emerged, was utterly foreign to me in almost every way, and its people even spoke a different language.  (Not only did the people there speak Gaelic, incidentally, but as I was to discover, they were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.)  But there was just one thing that was familiar: the letterboxes.  They were red, just like the ones back home in England, and the ones I’d seen on family holidays in Wales.  For some reason I found this touching.

A few days later, I arrived at Lochmaddy in North Uist, equally Gaelic-speaking, but almost entirely Protestant.   I was hoping to catch a ferry across to Skye, but it turned out there wasn’t one for two days (for there were no sailings on Sundays).  The harbour-master, a stern, dignified man for whom the word ‘dour’ could have been invented, said I could sleep in the little waiting room, and he invited back to his house for tea.  His wife was there, his daughter and a baby grandchild.  A lavish tea was set out for me in the dining room, and then they left me alone to eat it, while they all adjourned to the living room to chat to each other in Gaelic.  This seemed to my English sensibility a strange mixture of aloofness and generosity.

I also remember being introduced to the baby as a Sassanach.  The word simply means Saxon, and is one of those fossils from the past that can be found in every language: a reminder that about the same time as Gaels from Ireland (known to the Romans as Scotiae) were busy settling and invading the land of the Picts and making it into Scotland, people from Saxony and Angeln in Northern Germany were equally busy settling and invading the land of the Britons to the south and making it into England.   The harbourmaster’s ancestors had arrived in Britain from the opposite direction to mine.  No wonder Scotland seemed foreign.

But of course it isn’t really as simple as that.   Lowland Scots are also historically Sassanach, for one thing, and we are all a mixture by now anyway.  (For instance, my maternal grandfather was Scottish and called McIntosh, clearly a Gaelic name, so presumably some of my ancestors came from the same side as the harbourmaster’s.)   And anyway wouldn’t a boy from Edinburgh or Glasgow have found Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy just as foreign as this boy from England had done?  The Scottish border isn’t really the boundary between two different cultures and two different origin stories, but a line across an island in which there are many different cultures and stories, almost all of which can be found on both sides of the line.

Nations are arbitrary things.  In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut coined the word granfalloon to describe a entirely arbitrary group of human beings that nevertheless see themselves as belonging together (in contrast to a karass, which was a collection of people who had a real core likeness to one another), and he suggested that nations were the biggest granfalloons of all.  But I think this kind of super-rational analysis often misses the point.   These arbitrary loyalties, however superficial they seem, are actually pretty deep rooted in human nature (deep enough for people regularly to show their willingness to die for them) and have enormous utility.  Like a magnet under a pile of iron filings, or a piece of string dipped into a solution of copper sulphate, they provide a focal point for for the formation of structures, enabling very diverse collections of people to engage collectively in projects which they could never see through as isolated individuals.  Saying that the formation of grandfalloons is irrational and arbitrary is a bit like saying sexual desire is irrational and arbitrary: from a certain perspective it is – why the attachment to this particular set of things? – but from another perspective it is simply part of our nature, and serves an important purpose.

What is certainly true about granfalloons, though, is that new ones can be created.  Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter much if Scotland secedes from the UK or remains part of it.   The map of Europe has been a constantly changing thing throughout history, with nations sometimes combining or being aborbed into bigger ones (Courland, Aragon, Prussia, Brittany, Piedmont…), sometimes breaking down into smaller ones (Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Austria-Hungary, the United Netherlands…), sometimes shifting the boundaries between one another.   Either way, life carries on, economies adjust, people redefine themselves in terms of the new granfalloons available.  For this reason apocalyptic predictions of what may happen if Scotland secedes (everything from prices going up in Scottish Asdas, to perpetual Tory rule in the UK) strike me as silly.   We will all come out of this as inhabitants of a properous, stable Western European country, either way.  If we split, it will be messy for a while, like a divorce (which can also feel like the end of the world), but in the end we will come through and life will go on.

One thing I wasn’t expecting, though.  Until recently, I have if anything been slightly in favour of separation, not out of any hostility to Scotland, but simply because it’s fun sometimes to rearrange the furniture and try something new.  Oddly, though, now that the day of Scotland’s vote is almost upon us, I find myself feeling quite anxious and unsettled.   If it turns out to be Yes, I discover, I will miss an indefinable something represented by that comforting red letterbox in Lochboisdale.  Hard to say why, but it will feel like losing a part of me.

But then again, I feel that way about changing my job or moving house: interesting in prospect, but when you get close to it, you are suddenly aware of nice things you will have to leave behind.


Mother of Eden: revised publication date

• August 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Publication date for Mother of Eden has now been put back to Spring 2015.  This will be the publication date both in the UK and the US.

This book has been through quite a metamorphosis since an early version appeared under the title Gela’s Ring (in Tony and Barbara Ballantyne’s online magazine Aethernet.)   I’m very proud of it – in several different respects it’s my best book yet – and I feel confident as I can be that it’ll be worth waiting for.