Idea for an Alternate History

The so-called culture wars have a tendency to map all debates into two pre-existing camps: us and them. This can result in certain positions becoming associated with one side or the other in a way that seems almost arbitrary. (Why, for instance, would we associate concern about the environment more with social liberalism than with social conservatism? Isn’t it liberals who embrace change, and conservatives who want to keep things the same?)

This polarising tendency appears to be particularly pronounced in America but my sense is that it is more pronounced in Britain than in other European countries. If this is true, I wonder whether it is a product in part of ‘first past the post’ electoral systems which tend to result in a competition for power between two dominant parties, and make it hard for third parties to make headway? (Isn’t that what we mean by ‘culture wars’: the intellectual equivalent of an adversarial two-party system?)

Anyway, I think it may be partly as a result of this kind of binary thinking, that Liberalish, Remainish people often lump the Brexit vote together with the election of Trump, as if they were exactly the same phenomenon. (They’re both ‘them’ things, and therefore they are essentially the same). This is understandable but lazy. Of course there are large overlaps, but there were people who voted for Brexit who wouldn’t have dreamed of voting for Trump, and there were reasons for voting Brexit that had nothing to do with Trump-style nationalism.

So much of politics is about projection. ‘We’ project things we don’t like onto ‘them’ and mock the things they value, while projecting everything all that is good and virtuous onto the things we do value. Indeed the very fact that ‘they’ despise something, makes us value it even more, to the point of uncritical idealisation.

A narrative emerged among some Remainers, for instance, in which they mocked or condemned patriotism but declared themselves proud Europeans, while among some Leavers the opposite was often the case. But is there any moral difference between identifying with a country and identifying with a continent? (If there is, what exactly is the the land area that is necessary to make identification with a piece of territory become virtuous?)

Breaking away from larger entities, defending the integrity of large entities, or joining together to form larger entities are all quite common political processes. They can all be presented as progress, and can all in different circumstances be associated with political positions that may be described as left-wing, right-wing or neither.

I find myself imagining a parallel timeline where it’s the right-wingers who are the biggest fans of the European project, because they want to enhance and perpetuate the global power of the wealthy, developed, culturally Christian countries that once divided the world between them. and it’s the fascists who want to unite the ancestral homeland of the white race into a single giant state. (The lefties in this universe, I decided, would be advocates for organisations such as the Commonwealth or the Francophonie that build links between countries across the global North-South divide.)

PS: If you imagine something that seems plausible, I’ve discovered, it may well turn out to already exist. (I didn’t know that ‘rogue planets‘ were really a thing, for instance, until after I’d invented one for a story.) Since writing the above, I’ve learned that the British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, did indeed advocate uniting Europe into a single state.

Worldbuilding

Someone quoted the following quite widely-cited passage from M John Harrison in something I read recently:

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.

M John Harrison: More context here

Do I agree? Well, it depends what kind of worldbuilding he means. Some worldbuilding is necessary to any sort of story-telling – all stories need a context of some kind, and sometimes the context is at least as important as any of the characters – but some worldbuilding isn’t necessary in that way, and too much of it can be counterproductive (though it is perhaps a little melodramatic to say that it should make us feel ‘very afraid’). Of course Harrison is right that for a writer to construct a whole world is in any case impossible. Even to precisely describe a wooden chair would take more words than the word count of the average novel. The reader must be allowed to do much of the work (work to which we are well accustomed, since in life also, we must assemble a sense of a complete world from a collection of fragments and guesses.)

Harrison’s own novel The Sunken Land… is, I’d say, a rather good piece of worldbuilding. The story ostensibly takes place in contemporary England, partly in London and partly in the Midlands, but the setting is an imaginary place nevertheless, and one of the main pleasures of reading the book, and the thing that most lingered in my mind afterwards, is this place’s peculiar, queasy, dreamlike flavour. (The one moment that jarred is when the narrator mentions ‘the debacle of Brexit’, thus ceasing to be the narrator and becoming just the author.)

The Sunken Land is saturated with watery imagery: flooded fields, flooded houses, flooded gardens, dampness, houseboats, phials of muddy water, things that live in water, the River Thames, the River Severn, taps, kettles, toilets, a map of the oceans, the pools that form in sodden fields where you can still see grass and flowers beneath the glassy surface… This squelchy stuff, which all of us can easily assemble in some form or other from our own watery memories, comes together in the book to form an extended metaphor for the main protagonist’s depressed, sunken state (and, in a less clearly defined way, a metaphor also for the country we live in), so it’s absolutely essential to the whole enterprise that we enter into it. But he coaxes us to do this, not by precisely describing and explaining everything, which would be impossible, but by convincing us that he has immersed himself in it.

Lots of novels fail to do this. I have given up reading many books because I can’t experience their settings as anything more than clumsy cardboard cutouts, which no one has ever really inhabited. And if even the author hasn’t been there, why should I as a reader even try?

The kind of worldbuilding that Harrison dislikes is the kind where the author gets overinvolved in making stuff up, fussily providing piles of detail which just gets in the way of our own imaginations. The classic case of this is Tolkein’s imagined languages, alphabets and the whole vast historical/mythological backstory he created for the Lord of the Rings (though, to be fair, he summarised much of this material in appendices to avoid overloading the books themselves). Tolkein clearly had fun making this stuff up and, since I used to make up languages, alphabets and mythologies myself as a kid, I understand the pleasure of it. It’s the sort of activity that feels comfortable and safe because it’s intellectually engaging but also emotionally neutral, a bit like doing crosswords, or sorting out a stamp collection, or playing solitaire on your phone. (These days I look things up on Wikipedia that have no bearing on anything important to me at all. I find it restful.)

I don’t myself see anything sinister in this sort of activity, but it doesn’t have much to do with story-telling, or the literary arts, and most of us probably wouldn’t want to feel that we’d spent too much time on it, at the cost of other more lively and more outward-looking pursuits. It can be an escape from stress, though, and readers as well as writers find it so, which is where the ‘nerdism’ comes in. Some people enjoy absorbing themselves in the minutiae of imaginary worlds such as Tolkein’s, or J K Rowling’s. Some people learn to speak Klingon, or enact scenes from their favourite fictional universes, taking a holiday from the real world in those non-existent places. The kind of worldbuilding that Harrison disapproves of is (I think) the construction of these sorts of intricate non-places to hide in, something that is often referred to as escapism, by those who dislike science fiction and fantasy.

I’m sort of with him. Yet at the same time I think it can be a hard line to draw, this line between necessary worldbuilding, which Harrison’s novel is a good example of, and the escapist kind which he despises and which, as he puts it, is not ‘technically necessary‘. After all, any novel or story, however literary, however serious, however engaged with painful and important topics, is necessarily in part an escape from the quotidian world, for writer and reader alike. Even a discussion such as this is in part an escape of that kind. Even the learned arguments that take place amongst eminent critics and distinguished scholars.

Going back to Tolkein, his worldbuilding was obsessively, nerdishly thorough in areas (such as language and mythology) which he liked to think about and yes, this is unnecessary from a story-telling point of view. But there are also areas in which I’d argue that Tolkein’s worldbuilding was actually insufficient. It isn’t satisfying, for instance, to have talking birds appear to resolve the final crisis, when for the rest of the novel animals have just been animals. And, more generally, his anthropological imagination is weak. He gives no clue, for example, as to how an Orc society could possibly function. (How could Orcs raise children, or live in groups, or fashion weapons and armour, if they were really as lacking in empathy or loyalty as he depicts?) I’m pretty sure he gave this very little thought.

The question about worldbuilding is not whether its a good thing or not, but whether any given instance of it is sufficient for, and proportional to, the story-telling task of which it forms a part.

Utopia can wait

Two kinds of statement seem to come from the more radical wing of climate change activists:

(1) Unless we end greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years it will be too late and we will see a catastrophic collapse of civilisation and of the biosphere,

(2) We will only end greenhouse gas emissions if we completely get rid of the present capitalist political/economic system.

While I accept the possibility that both these statements may be true, I really hope they’re not, because there is absolutely no way that a completely new and fully functional political and economic system is going to be constructed in the next few years.

I mean, it’s not even as if we have blueprint of how such a system might work. You can’t just say you want ‘a society that values people more than profits’, or ‘a society that lives in harmony with nature’, and call that a plan! How are resources going to be distributed? Who is going to be in charge? (Oh, the people are going to be in charge are they? Is that the same ‘people’ who voted for the governments you say aren’t doing enough?) What is going to prevent the pursuit of short term gains that lead to long term harm? What incentives for work are there going to be? What is going to prevent the system being hijacked by its own elites, like Communism was? etc etc.

Lots of different kinds of people have their place of course, and this may in part be a matter of temperament, but speaking for myself, I am much less impressed, when it comes to combating climate change, by radical heroics than I am by meticulous practical work. XR cofounder, Roger Hallam, apparently thinks that nothing will change without a major insurrection that leads to large number of activists going to prison. I can’t see myself that large numbers of people being sent to prison will necessarily have the desired effect. I can imagine all sorts of possible consequences of insurrections of that kind, including the rise of brutal authoritarian governments with no interest in climate change at all.

Remember that Lenin believed he was leading the Russian working class on the fastest route to socialism – and that Russia ended up with petro-capitalism and Putin.

Personally I’d rather see large numbers of people working on problems such as mass energy storage, affordable green fuels, and carbon neutral cement. It’s solving problems like these -and the political and business headaches that come with them – that’s going to stop climate catastrophe. Utopia can wait.

Inspector Sane

Idea for a detective series: Inspector Sane is clever, skilled, and emotionally mature, and is thus an asset to the force, but is also happily married, observes appropriate professional boundaries when dealing with suspects and witnesses, is not a heavy drinker, does not suffer from depression, is not haunted by ghosts, operates strictly within the rules, and does not act as if in a one-person crusade against the forces of evil. In particular Inspector Sane tries very hard not to work outside paid hours and is frequently seen stubbornly negotiating for time off in lieu if forced by circumstances to work late.

All these driven, maverick, fucked-up detectives you actually see on TV!

(a) They valorise the idea that there is something noble about a police officer who refuses to be accountable (do we really want that?),

(b), more generally and perhaps even more insidiously, they valorise the idea that it is admirable -heroic even- to prioritise work over family, over personal relationships and even over mental health.

(Thoughts prompted by learning that my daughter and her husband, who have nothing to do with the police, have been expected to work to 10pm on a regular basis.)

Vermin

I haven’t read this book yet – it’s on its way to me- but I’m keen to do so because it connects with something that I’ve been thinking for a while, which is that, even in their concern to protect ‘nature’ against the depredations of humans, human beings are anthropocentric. The ‘nature’ people seek to protect is a kind of much loved park or garden that they don’t want to change in any way.

For instance, people who worry about species becoming extinct are often in favour of measures that would involve killing large numbers of animals that are thriving and prospering. Red squirrels (‘indigenous’) must be protected. Grey squirrels (originating from North America) are ‘vermin’ to be controlled.

‘Vermin’, like ‘weed’, is an entirely human category which means ‘successful species we don’t like’. Some flightless bird that stumbles about on a small island off New Zealand, and survives only because for thousands of years there have been no ground-living animals to prey on it or compete with it, must be protected by killing any new arrival that threatens it. But possums, introduced to New Zealand by humans, and now thriving there, are vermin to be wiped out.

I don’t say that people aren’t entitled to make these choices -I’d be sad myself if red squirrels died out, and sad if New Zealand’s flora and fauna became simply a compendium of European and Australian species. I’m just pointing out that they are essentially aesthetic choices, based on human preferences, and have nothing to do either with animal welfare (I’m sure British grey squirrels and New Zealand possums enjoy being alive every bit as much as the animals they are supplanting) or with protecting nature. Species evolving in isolation, and species competing with one another when circumstances bring them together are equally natural processes (see for instance The Great American Interchange) and are both important drivers for evolution.

So, if you deliberately protect species against their competitors, you are actually stopping one of the ways in which new species come into being. British grey squirrels and New Zealand possums may threaten indigenous animals, but, given time, they themselves will evolve and diversify into new indigenous forms. Admittedly this takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years*, but the fact that this is longer than the lifespan of human beings or human cultures is our problem, not nature’s.

*PS Having since read the book, which gives many examples, I have now learned that new varieties, and even new species, can sometimes emerge much more quickly than this.

Hard to categorize

I was asked by this website (shepherd.com) to pick a category of book, and then list five favourites in that category. I picked the category ‘hard to categorize’. My list is here.

The first four books I’ve been aware of for a long time (since my teens in a couple of cases). The Molly Keane I only came across recently.

Lorry Drivers

I heard a news item on the radio last week about the department store chain, John Lewis, getting ready for Christmas. It concluded with a reassurance from John Lewis that there would be no shortage of lorry drivers because they had put up lorry drivers’ pay and were busy recruiting. In fact, they have put up pay by £5,000. Many other chain stores have done the same.

The current shortage of lorry drivers in the UK is due in part to Covid, but there seems to be general agreement that Brexit is also a factor, because it means that companies can no longer recruit drivers from other parts of Europe.

I’ve seen this presented in Remainer contexts as another example of how bad Brexit is, but if I was a lorry driver who’d voted for Brexit, I wouldn’t take that view. I’d see it an example of Brexit helping me, just as I’d hoped, and I’d be pleased. Driving lorries isn’t an easy job, and up to now it hasn’t been particularly well paid. £5,000 a year is a big raise.

And, if I was lorry driver who’d argued in the past that companies were holding wages down by bringing in workers from poorer parts of Europe, I’d be angry. I’d be angry that up to now I’d been told that this was a myth put about by racists and xenophobes.

A very Remainer friend of mine once said that Brexit would be bad because we’d no longer have access to all these excellent plumbers and cleaners from Eastern Europe. Bad for the cleaner- and plumber-using classes perhaps, was my thought at the time, but not necessarily bad for the cleaning and plumbing classes.

September

I’ve been known to say that September is my favourite month. There’s still a bit of summer left, but also some autumn. Sometimes in September the light has a particularly kind of intensity that’s unique to this time of year.

So I love September, but I also hate it. I associate it with coming back from a holiday, when the grass is overgrown and strewn with dead leaves and rotting apples, and I know that I’m going to have to go back to school very soon, or back to work at a job that worries me sick – and when I know that next it will be October, and then November and winter.

My feelings about months and seasons are different now from how they were when I was young, because time flows much more quickly – months come and go, seasons whirl round, I never have the feeling that I once did of summer stretching ahead almost forever, or of winter doing so either – but I still have the same ambivalence about this time of year.

Assuming I live until my mid-eighties, as my parents did, I’m in the mid-September of my life, which is to say, about three quarters of the way through. At the end of this year I will start receiving my state pension. It will be nice to have of course, but at the same time it is a message from the state: ‘nothing is expected of you any more.’ The fact that nothing is expected doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to give, of course – I think I have a couple more books in me, I still have things to give as a father and a grandfather… – but still, the message is a reminder that I’m entering the final part of my life.

I’m not like Frank Sinatra. I do have regrets. I’ve done many shitty things. But I think what I regret most of all is my own timidity, which I think lies at the core of most of those shitty things anyway. Timidity, I’m calling it, though I could call it cowardice: the thing that stopped me from grasping nettles, the thing that stopped me properly confronting things that needed to be confronted. At the root of timidity, or so it seems to me, is a lack of trust in one’s own self: ‘I do not trust myself to be able to deal with this situation,’ the timid person says, ‘and so I’m going to avoid it altogether, and maybe even pretend to myself that I haven’t even noticed it.’

But of course one shouldn’t spend September thinking about all the things you should have done in April or May or June. The winter is coming. No sense in wasting this time too.

(Postscript: on reflection, it isn’t particularly original to say that a lack of trust in one’s self causes timidity! After all, ‘trust’ is a synonym of ‘confidence’, and so all I am really talking about is a lack of self-confidence. But interestingly using the word ‘trust’ made the idea seem fresh to me, so that it had the force of a sudden flash of insight! I suppose this is simply because ‘self-confidence’ has become such a widely used term that its meaning has become blunted. When I was a child, teachers also talked a lot about ‘self-respect’, which is a different idea and an important one: more of an ethical principle, a duty towards oneself which is akin to the duty one had towards others.)