Here’s the new cover for the paperback version of America City. It will be out on Sept 6th, and can be preordered now.
I’m very pleased to be part of this original audio collection of six SF stories, which have just been published by Audible. Most of my books, including my latest short story collection Spring Tide, are available as audio books, but this is the first time that I’ve had a story whose first appearance was in audio format.
My story is called ‘When Will We Get There?’ (the title being a deliberate homage to one of my very favourite stories, Philip K. Dick’s ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’), and it is beautifully read by Clare Corbett.
The other five stories in the collection are by An Owomoyela, Nikesh Shukla, Lauren Beukes, Ken Liu and Paul Cornell, so I’m in distinguished company.
My wife Maggie and I recently spent a few days in Venice. Extraordinary place. It’s has been going round in my head ever since, even in my dreams, like some kind of mystery my brain is trying to solve.
But leaving all the rest of it to the side, here is just one thing we saw there which in itself keeps going round in my head. It’s in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name (which you can see across the water if you stand outside the front of the Doge’s Palace) and is a painting by the Venetian Renaissance painter, Tintoretto: The Last Supper.
The original is getting on for six metres wide, so you need to make this picture as big as as your screen can make it if you are to get any sense of it. The thing that struck me at once, not even knowing yet who the artist was (I am no art buff), was the drama and almost eerie immediacy achieved by the arrangement of the figures and by the sharp contrasts between light and shadow. I suppose by far the most well-known picture of the Last Supper is the famous mural by Da Vinci, which is at least as dramatic as this one in terms of what is going on between the characters, but nevertheless seems to me (on the basis of reproductions) to be much further removed from the viewer, much cooler and more static.
What I get from this painting was a powerful sense of what a mysterious, explosive, dynamic thing a moment actually is. Everyone in this picture is present at the same point in time, but no two of them have the same sense of what is going on. A couple of disciples towards the left of the picture, for instance, seem to be involved in a conversation of their own that may not even be connected with the famous event unfolding in the middle of the table (an event to be re-enacted over and over again for the next two millenia, including on the altar immediately below where this picture is hung!) The disciple immediately to Jesus’ left seems withdrawn into his own throughts as he watches, perhaps to avoid having to engage with Judas sitting opposite him. Judas, as jealous people passive-aggressively do when trying to undermine someone else’s big occasion, seems to be trying to draw into conversation the disciple being given bread by Jesus. The waiters are getting on with their various jobs: at the near end of the table one of them is asking one of the disciples whether he wants anything else and the disciple is very clearly indicating with both hands: ‘Not now. Something important is happening.’ The semi-transparent angels meanwhile swirl above the scene, drawn in by what (within the terms of this story, obviously) they already know is an event of cosmic significance. Everyone is experiencing this moment in a different way, so that it will explode outwards into the future in many different directions, but, in this instant, they are all in one room, and the same light falls on all of them.
Venice is full of huge Tintorettos. There are lots of them in the Doge’s palace (including some incredibly detailed and energetic battle scenes, which I admired but was not particularly moved by). And the Scuola Grande di San Rocco has three whole floors of them. Most of these didn’t do much for me, I have to say, but they build up to a gigantic, twelve metre-wide Crucifixion in a side room on the top floor which rivals, and perhaps surpasses, the Last Supper for sheer energy. (Again: you need to make this image as big as you can to get any sense of it: it’s packed with detail.) As with the Supper, everyone is seeing different things and many are completely missing the famous drama going on immediately above their heads, but it is a single moment nevertheless, and the whole thing blasts out at you like an exploding bomb.
In this article, John Harris makes a point that I have made here a number of times ( a monotonous number of times, I fear) about the contemptuous dismissal by middle class liberals of those who had the audacity to vote against their wishes and preferences in the Brexit referendum of 2016 (another nice piece on this can be found here). As Harris points out, Leave voters, scolded for being lazily indifferent to evidence and suckers for simplistic explanations, are also frequently characterised as idiots and racists, even though this in itself is of course a lazy and simplistic generalisation. (But it seems it’s okay to make sweeping generalisations as long as it’s our side that’s doing it.)
Harris refers to an ugly and fatuous Venn diagram retweeted by Ben Goldacre (which is painfully ironic, given that Goldacre has made an entire career out of challenging lazy thinking, dodgy statistics and poorly reasoned claims). So let’s do a mental Venn diagram. Let’s start with a circle for Leave Voters and a circle for Remain voters. This is straightforward: the two circles are separate because you can’t do both.
If we were to add a circle for racists, I fully concede that it would overlap a lot more with the ‘Leave’ circle than with the ‘Remain’ one, because disentangling oneself from foreigners is, on the whole, something that would appeal to racists. There is no evidence to suggest that the ‘racist’ circle encompasses all or most of the 17m leave voters, or that some racists didn’t vote remain -after all, the idea of a powerful union of the predominantly white nations of Europe is not without fascist resonances- but yes, probably most racists voted Leave, just as most Islamist terrorists are probably practicing Muslims, so feel free to put a smaller ‘racist’ circle on the diagram that has a largish overlap with the ‘leave’ circle and a smaller overlap with the ‘remain’ circle. Just remember that to conclude from that that all leave voters are racists is as lazy and unfounded as saying that all Muslims are terrorists.
But how about a circle representing voters who are less well off and more economically insecure? The evidence suggests that a larger part of this ‘left behind’ circle overlaps with the ‘leave’ circle, than overlaps with the ‘remain’ circle. (Of course a part of it overlaps with neither, because a lot of people didn’t vote at all).
On the other hand, a circle representing relatively prosperous voters -the ‘doing alright’ circle- overlaps more with the ‘remain’ circle, rather than the ‘leave’ one.
‘Ah,’ the doing alright remainers are prone to retort to this news-and I speak as a doing alright remainer myself- ‘but that’s because we’re the better educated and/or more able part of the population. Those left-behind people do not not understand the issues, and so are ruled more by prejudice, and are more easily duped.’
Yes, but we would say that wouldn’t we? It’s more comfortable for us than, say admitting that we voted for a status quo that has looked after us pretty well, or admitting that many leave voters may have voted the way they did because they were fed up with a status quo that (under Tories and Labour alike) hadn’t served them particularly well at all. It’s certainly more comfortable than admitting that a lot of us didn’t show much interest in whether they were doing well or not.
‘But can’t they see they’d be even worse off under Brexit?’ now howls the chorus of doing-alright remainers. Well, let’s leave aside how unappetising it must be to vote on the basis that ‘this lot will screw me over, but they might screw me over a bit less badly than the other lot.’ Let’s consider instead the possibility of drawing another circle, which represents those who understand how the economy really works. How big would that circle be? Would you be in it? And if you say you’d be in it, what exactly do you mean by that? Do you mean you really understand how the economy works, or do you mean you’ve read some articles which made sense to you, and were written by people you trusted? I’m certainly not in that circle, and, considering that I’m fairly bright and pretty well-educated, I do wonder how many people really are. In fact, I’m actually not sure that anyone is. (Ask yourself how many people predicted the crash of 2008, or what happened to that complete collapse of the Eurozone that pundits were predicting in the early years of this decade? Or consider whether there are any questions at all on which all economists agree in the way that, say, all biologists agree on the essentials of evolution?)
All of which is not to say that there is no such thing as economic expertise, or that experts are a waste of time, but rather to make the point that even professional economists are a very long way from certainty, and the rest of us form our views not on the basis of our own detailed understanding of how the economy really works, but on who we choose to trust. In that respect, I suggest, remainers are not so different to leavers as they may like to think. And I’d also suggest that ‘left behind’ folk would not be thinking in a wholly irrational way if they declined to believe experts who told them that the continuation of the status quo was in their interests.
What I keep coming back to is that no one wins elections by insulting the majority of the electorate. Politics (as I tried to portray in America City and Mother of Eden) is about doing deals. It’s about different groups in society, who may not have all that much in common, nevertheless entering into alliances with one or another. If you lose an election it makes no sense at all to blame the voters who didn’t support you, because you need to win at least some of them over to your side. The side that lost is the side that failed, the side that was trusted the least. It should be looking at itself to find out what it was doing wrong and what it could do differently, not casting around for scapegoats.
[PS The tweet included above was intended an illustration of the way that Remainers, just like Leavers, are prone to simplify, and not to single out the guy who tweeted it, who was entirely up for a conversation about this.]
In its efforts to be truly scientific, the academic discipline of psychology (which I once studied) relies very heavily on the controlled experiment. There are good reasons for this. As with randomised drug trials, it’s a way (among other things) of elimating the biases, preconceptions and prejudices which inevitably creep in with a more subjective approach. But I wish that psychologists (and indeed scientists more generally) would acknowledge that the methodological self-discipline they impose on themselves does mean that many important and even fundamental questions are simply left outside of their purview. Often, I’ve found, that, rather than admit that their approach has limitations, scientists will simply deny the validity of questions they can’t answer.
For instance, when the idea of the Big Bang was first popularised, the obvious layman’s questions (So what made the Big Bang happen? What was there before the Big Bang?’) were often dismissed as meaningless on the basis that, since there was no time at all until the Big Bang, there was no such thing as ‘before’ it. This drew a sort of figleaf over the fact that the ‘Big Bang Theory’, supposedly a theory about the origin of the universe, in fact completely sidestepped the real questions about the origin of the universe that occur even to very small children: ‘Why is there anything here at all? Where does it come from? How can something emerge from nothing?’
You might say that these questions are simply unanswerable: any explanation would involve postulating some previously existing thing, whose existence would then in itself require explanation. But that doesn’t alter the fact that they are valid questions. Their very unanswerability is, I would say, a profoundly important aspect of the human condition which ought to occasion some humility about the limitations of scientific understanding. Frontiers may be pushed back, but at the core of everything there is always mystery. To deny that, is to deny our own experience.
* * *
Incidentally cosmologists are talking these days about the time before the Big Bang. It seems that, now that there are interesting ideas to explore about the multiverse and bubble universes, the question is no longer meaningless!
* * *
One phenomenon which is extremely resistant to the experimental method is dreaming, since our dreams are invisible to anyone but ourselves and our dreaming selves are never in a position to make notes or measurements (or at any rate, not notes or measurements that will still exist when we wake.) And I’ve come across experimental psychologists being very dismissive about the importance of dreams.
Again, it seems to me, this is an instance of being reluctant to own up to limitations: ‘We are the experts, we don’t know how to answer these questions, so therefore they can’t be important questions.’ Not really ‘scientific’ behaviour, so much the behaviour of a jealous priesthood. After all, if we only took seriously the things and processes whose existence could be demontrated by rigorous experiment, we’d have to jettison most of the contents of our lives, and surrender judgements that we’re perfectly capable of making to professionals to make for us on the basis of a much narrower range of data than we ourselves would naturally deploy.
* * *
I once went to a doctor asking for help managing some symptoms which I knew were the result of anxiety. (The cause of it was no mystery: there was a very big thing I was worrying about). He had me fill in a multiple choice questionnaire, totted up the scores and informed me that I was suffering from anxiety.
* * *
But back to dreams. You only have to consider you own dreams to see the subtlety and complexity of what is going on in them. To give one example: recently both we and our neighbours had building work going on at the same time in our adjoining terraced houses. In the case of the neighbours, this work was so extensive that they had to move out completely for the duration. During this period I had a dream that our builders had accidentally knocked a whole through our shared wall, so that I could see right through into their living room. In my dream, my neighbour Simon came to have a look at the building work, and I greeted him through the hole in the wall, expecting him to be as amused as I was by this tempororary problem. In fact, though, he was angry. It was unacceptable, he said, that our builders should broach their boundary in this way.
Leaving the content of this dream aside (and I haven’t yet extracted any deep meaning from it, although it reminds me of a thing that sometimes happens in conversations when you assume a level of intimacy that the other person is relucant to cede), what strikes me here is what such dreams reveal about the process. In my dream, I expected a certain response from Simon and was surprised when I didn’t get it. Instead I got another response that I didn’t anticipate, but which was also psychologically plausible, and which had been generated for me by another part of me, separate to the part of me that, in my dream, I identified as ‘me.’
One part of my mind, in other words, was generating, not just random thoughts and images, not just random firings of neurons, but a world and characters, as in a story, with which another part of my mind, the story’s protagonist, could interact as if they were real places and people. That’s a fairly complex thing going on there.
And, what’s more, that same ‘other’ part of me -the part that, in my dreams, presents itself not as me but as the world- doesn’t just generate a setting and characters, but also symbols and metaphors. For instance, I once dreamed I saw a blind man begging in the street, completely unaware that right behind him was a broken cash machine pouring out bank notes. Whatever part of me it is that generates the dream world and invents plausible motives for its characters, had here (as on many other occasions) constructed a fairly decent metaphor, in this case for someone who is very unhappy but failing to recognise the opportunites available: my own situation at the time, as I realised when I woke up.
This is not random firings of neurons! This is intelligent story-telling. It shows how dreams include the same basic elements as stories told in waking life, even though we are supposedly ‘unconscious’ when we construct them.
But then, at its core, all story telling is unconscious: you reach into yourself for something and, if you’re lucky, eventually something pops up from…well… somewhere. Another of those unanswerable questions about how something emerges from nothing.
* * *
It seems to me likely that one of the functions served by dreams, as by other kinds of story, is to provide a kind of virtual reality studio in which we can explore or extend or consolidate our experience. (I doubt, incidentally, whether this theory could be demonstrated or refuted by controlled experiments, but supposing it couldn’t be, that actually has no bearing on whether it’s true, only on whether it’s amenable to the scientific method.)
And dreams aren’t even confined to humans. Anyone familiar with dogs knows that that they can be seen running, or barking, or whining in distress in their sleep. Story-telling seems to be hardwired into us, running so deep that it predates the evolution of human beings.
What is the content of animals’ dreams? What does a squirrel dream of? How about a lizard, or a fish? Impossible to answer, but still perfectly reasonable questions.
Possibly the most cheerful piece of music I know of. You definitely need to watch this until the two soloists do their chicken dance.
Two sisters grow up in a small town in Idaho beside the large lake that claimed the lives of both their grandfather and their mother, and the railway bridge that spans it. Their grandmother looks after them until she too dies, and then two great-aunts who are more accustomed to shabby-genteel life in a hotel room than managing a household with children, and then finally their odd, solitary, distracted aunt Sylvie, who has lived her life as a transient, picking up work here and there, riding in boxcars, gathering odd little yarns from passing acquaintances. The sisters and their aunt live a deeply eccentric life, largely cut off from the rest of the community. One of the sisters (Lucille) eventually breaks free of this, the other (Ruth, who is also the narrator) does not.
An important character in this book is the material world -the lake and its shores, the house, the bridge- which for a lot of the time is Ruth’s (and her aunt’s and her sister’s) main companion. Here, for instance, Ruth and Lucille are out by themselves on the frozen lake. Over on the shore fires are burning in barrels to warm the townsfolk who come down to skate on the ice, but the two sistes, typically, are far out at the extremity of the area that is swept of snow to provide a skating rink :
The town itself seemed a negligible thing from such a distance. Were it not for the clutter on the shore, the flames and the tremulous pillars of heat that stood above the barrels, and of course the skaters who swooped and sailed and made bright, brave sounds, it would have been possible not to notice the town at all. The mountains that stood up behind it were covered with snow and hidden in the white sky, and the lake was sealed and hidden, yet their eclipse had not made the town more prominent. Indeed, where we were we could feel the reach of the lake far behind us, and far beyond us on either side, in a spacious silence that seemed to ring like glass.
Or here is a beach on the lake:
The shore drifted in a long, slow curve, outward to a point, beyond which three step islands of diminishing size continued the sweep of the land toward the depths of the lake, tentatively, like an ellipsis. The point was high and stony, crested with fir trees. At its foot a narrow margin of brown sand abstracted its crude shape into one pure curve of calligraphic delicacy, sweeping, again, toward the lake.
These are empty vistas. Their emptiness is part of their mystery and their allure. But human relationships are evoked with the same elegance and economy. Here is Lucille beginning to pull away from her sister Ruth and from the eccentric isolation of their life with Sylvie. Ruth has gone to fetch a dictionary at Lucille’s request (in order to find out what ‘pinking sheers’ are, Lucille having decided to make herself some decent clothes from a pattern) and, opening up the book, she finds it full of dried flowers, carefully pressed there by their long-dead dead grandfather:
“Let me see that,” Lucille said. She took the book by each end of its spine and shook it. Scores of flowers and petals fell and drifted from between the pages. Lucille kept shaking until nothing more came, and then she handed the dictionary back to me. “Pinking sheers,” she said.
“What will we do with these flowers?”
“Put them in the stove.”
“Why do that?”
“What are they good for?” This was not a real question, of course. Lucille lowered her coppery brows and peered at me boldly, as if to say, It is not crime to harden my heart against pansies that have smothered in darkness for forty years.
A theme that runs through the book is the paradoxical nature of loss, the way that something or someone lost can be a much bigger matter than the actual presence of that something or someone would ever have been. Lucille is fighting this when she hardens her heart against the flowers. And it is her that manages to escape the odd solitary menage she shares with her aunt and sister.
Towards the end of the book, Ruth reflects on how how she and Lucille lived lives dominated by the shadow of their mother’s absence. But…
…if she had simply bought us home again to the high frame apartment building with the scaffolding of stairs, I would not remember her that way. Her eccentricities might have irked and embarassed us when we grew older… We would have laughed together at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous. Then we would telephone her out of guilt and nostalgia, and laugh bitterly afterward because she asked us nothing, and told us nothing, and fell silent from time to time, and was glad to get off the phone.
Ruth’s degree of insight stretches credulity a little here. One accepts the literariness and poetry of Ruth’s voice as a device, but it is hard to believe that this drifting isolate, looking in at the world from outside, could really acquire any kind of understanding of the bitter, guilty dutifulness of the middle-aged grownup children of a not-very-satisfactory mother.
But never mind. What I got very powerfully from this book -and I keep coming back to it in my mind- is a demonstration of how absence becomes addictive. Look at the photo on the cover. How much more myterious and alluring is the part of the railway track in the distance that is disappearing into the mist, than the part in the foreground you can see perfectly clearly. Dwell too much and too long on absence, and mere presence will never be enough.
I’ve just read this book, but it was first published at the tail end of the Obama presidency. It articulates concerns I share and have attempted to express here a number of times: the growing invisibility of class as a social division (as compared to other divisions such as gender, sexuality etc), and the way that political parties on the political ‘left’ have ceased to identify with the interests of working class people and becoming instead the mouthpieces of the liberal professional class. Frank is writing specifically about the American Democratic party. This is ‘still a class party,’ he says. ‘In fact [Democracts] show admirable concern for the class they represent. It’s just that the class they care about doesn’t happen to be the same one that Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.’*
Frank asks why the Democrats are ‘so bravely forthright on cultural issues’ [by which he means ‘culture wars’ issues such as abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage…] and yet ‘their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy. What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question [massive and increasing inequality of wealth] is beyond their control?’ He notes that the standard explanation for this is the power of money and the ability of moneyed interests to influence politicians through campaign finances etc, but he suggests that this is only part of it. He argues that there are ‘different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them -the hierarchy of money- many of the Democrats’ failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning and status.’ He goes on to say that ‘We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase “the One Percent”; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative however, what we need to scrutinise is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status.’
He observes, ‘We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place…we think of them merely as “the best”. They are where they are because they are so smart…’ Ceding authority to professional experts is, he acknowledges, ‘tolerable to a certain degree -no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example…. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as “social trustees”? What happens when they abuse their monopoly power? What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?’
Myself, I see this happening around me all the time. I don’t mean by this – and I don’t think Frank is saying this either- that the professional class is acting in its own interests knowngly and cynically. We human beings have a need to see ourselves as ‘the good guys’, and we rationalise our self-interest in various ways as being in the common good. What I see is liberal professional people telling each other, sometimes pretty stridently, that they are the real left, the real good guys (being as they are against sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc), asserting that their view of how the world should be run is simply correct (because they, after all, are the class of experts), and becoming increasingly hostile to the elements of their own working class that no longer accepts their authority. Like all powerful classes, they (and really I should say we because it is my own class I am talking about!) believe themselves to be both entitled and virtuous. One of the great things about being a highly educated elite which is against sexism, homophobia etc etc is that you can be pretty certain that the less educated, less intellectual part of the population will tend to subscribe to more old fashioned views than you do on gender, sexuality and so on, thereby making it rather easy for you (in spite of your privileged position) to claim the moral high ground. You just have to keep class off the agenda.
‘When the left party in a political system severs its bonds to working people,’ Frank observes, ‘-when it dedicates itself to the concerns fo the particular slice of high-achieving affluent people- issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.’ I have certainly noticed over my lifetime how the idea of social justice has gradually stopped being about reducing disparities of wealth, and has come to be about equal opportunities, about ensuring that everyone can make use of their talents. As Frank notes: ‘Another term for this understanding of equality is Meritocracy, which is one of the great defining faiths of the professional class.’ He quotes the journalist Chris Hayes** who writes:
The areas in which the left have mad the most significant progress -gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination- are the battles it has fought for making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats – collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality- are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview.
The trouble with meritocracy, it seems to me, even if such a thing could ever be achieved (which is dubious given that successful meritocrats can easily ensure that their children get a head start in the supposedly meritocratic race), is that it has nothing to offer to people who are not especially talented or skilled: and after all, half of the population is by definition of average or below average ability. And this is the trouble even with the idea of meritocracy as a desirable political goal. A meritocratic culture is one that celebrates high achievers, that fetishises exeptional ability and exceptional attainment (Frank describes this very persuasively), and has no interest in those who are merely ordinary.
This fact may rebound on the ideology itself, though. Frank observes that, although the Democratic Party (like the British Labour party) consciously uncoupled itself from its old blue collar allegiances, it nevertheless assumed that it could continue to rely on blue collar votes because working class voters had nowhere else to go. Recent events, in the US and America, suggest that this assumption may be spectacularly wrong. As the musician Brian Eno observed: ‘There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it because we didn’t make it. We expected we were going to be the revolution.’
*Frank doesn’t discuss the British Labour Party at all, but its own transition is, in a way, even more striking, given that the much older Democratic Party has represented all kinds of interests over the years (including those of slaveowners and segregationists) but the Labour Party’s very name reflects its origins as a party specifically created to ensure that the interests of the working class were represented in Parliament.
**From Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. (A book I have not read.)