Isolation stories: (3) The Turing Test

My third ‘isolation story‘. (Scroll down for the others). This is the title story from my first collection, which did very well for me, and in a way launched my career (thanks to Andrew Hook who published it and entered it for the Edge Hill Prize). The story was originally published in Interzone in 2002.

This story is about existential isolation rather than the literal kind. The narrator and protagonist, Jessica Ferne, is the subject of another story in the same collection, ‘We Could be Sisters.’

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Isolation stories: (2) Atomic Truth

Here’s the second of my ‘isolation stories’ for self-isolated people, all of which will deal in some way with the theme of isolation. ‘Atomic Truth’ is one of my favourites out of all my work. The isolated character, Richard Pegg, is based in part on a real person, Brod Spiiers -he died many years ago- that my wife and I used to know (more background to the story here.)

The story was first published in Asimov’s SF in 2009 and was later included in my second collection, The Peacock Cloak, from Newcon Press.

Looking at it now, I’m struck by the fact that, for some reason, even though the story is set in the future, I several times use language from the past (‘burger bar’ for instance). I don’t think this was a conscious decision. Perhaps I did it partly because I knew Brod Spiiers in the seventies. But I guess Richard Pegg is also, to some extent, a young me. I was a pretty odd and isolated young man. I used to hitchhike everywhere those days, and his encounter with Jenny reminds me of conversations I had back then with some of the drivers who gave me a lift.

As with all these stories I’m reproducing here, the text comes from my final manuscript and not from corrected proofs, so there will be typos I’m afraid.

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Isolation stories: (1) Cellar

As a tiny contribution to keeping people entertained over the period of the Covid-19 lockdown, I thought I’d post some short stories here which in my mind are connected in some way to the theme of isolation. (The versions I’m posting here are based on my final draft MS rather than on corrected proofs, so I’m afraid there may be more typos than in the printed version.)

I will start with ‘Cellar’, the opening story from my collection Spring Tide. It’s about very extreme self-isolation, deliberately chosen. Come to think of it, a lot of my stories deal with isolation, so I’m spoiled for choice. I’ll put up another story in a day or two.

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If you subscribe to a belief, certain thoughts become unthinkable. So, for instance, if you subscribe to a belief in socialism, and you are presented with the various historical examples of socialism failing to deliver, you have to conclude that it just wasn’t done right, or was done in the wrong circumstances, and needs to be tried again, because the conclusion that socialism doesn’t work isn’t available to you. (Feel free to substitute laissez faire capitalism in that example: it is equally applicable). In the same way, if you believe that a loving and omnipotent god created the world, you have somehow to find ways of explaining the existence of (for example) agonising and degrading diseases that are consistent with such a god, because the much simpler explanations available to an atheist aren’t on your list of options.

Belief results in a certain inflexibility, in other words.

But belief is nevertheless essential to life. For one thing, we have to make decisions all the time in situations where there isn’t enough exact information to be certain of what the outcomes will be (this is true of almost all political decisions and all but trivial personal ones), or where the judgement to be made involves values (again true of most political and personal decisions). Without beliefs we’d have nothing to guide us.

The inflexibility of belief, while sometimes a problem, is also the key to its usefulness. It allows us to set or harden things that would otherwise be fluid. In order to be able to think about ourselves as coherent human individuals, and not just a bundle of impulses, we have to ‘keep faith’ with decisions already made. Marriage, for instance, involves keeping faith with the idea that you love someone and belong with them, even through times when you don’t actually feel love and aren’t enjoying being together. In other words you have to believe that what you felt in the past was real, even when it doesn’t seem so now, and you have to believe that you will feel it again. And the same applies to other kinds of commitments: an example in my case would be the writing of a book, which would never get done if I didn’t force myself to keep plugging on through long periods when I felt almost certain that the whole project was worthless, and that I nothing left to say.

Faith, in this sense, is a kind of belief that allows us to tie together the past, the present and the future, even though all we can ever actually directly know is the present. I think of it as a kind of human chain, such as might be used to rescue people from a shipwreck, except that this chain is made up, not of different individuals, but of different iterations of the same individual. For someone prone to self-doubt and mood swings, such as myself, holding hands with your past and future selves can be pretty challenging. (My wife would vouch that I can easily move in a single day between cheerful optimism to existential despair, and sometimes find it hard to give any credence to my former self of only a few hours ago.)

I hate to admit it, but I suppose what I’m talking about now is the kind of belief that’s referred to in a thousand cringy Hollywood movies when one character tells another ‘you’ve got to believe in yourself’ or ‘if only you believe in yourself anything is possible’. Clearly the latter is a lazy cliche: no amount of self-belief will make me (say) a premier league footballer. But it is true that you do need to believe in your ‘self’ in order to be able to achieve anything substantial, because unless you believe in a coherent self that is continuous over time, it is impossible to commit yourself to the work involved.

Your ‘self’ is, in fact, just a particular example of a whole class of entities that are necessary in order to function in society, but which owe their existence to belief. A nation is such an entity. Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an ‘imagined community’. This is not the same thing as an imaginary community, because an imagined community really does exist. It’s just that it only functions because it is imagined. And imagination in this sense is closely related to belief. Believing in oneself and believing in a nation both entail being able to imagine a connection with a bunch of people you can’t actually see and can’t directly know: in one case these people are your future selves, in the other, compatriots you’ve never met.

Recent divisions in the UK are characterised by some as a rift between the blind belief of the ignorant and the rational evidence-based thinking of the educated (I’ve seen this thought expressed earlier today on social media). But actually both sides are sustained by beliefs in imagined communities. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t the same ones. ‘I am a European first and foremost’ is resonant for some, ‘I am English [or British, or Scottish, etc] first and foremost’ is resonant for others. Some, I know, even combine both. For many only one of these statements is real and the other is simply a fabrication. But these are all statements of belief, elements of the stories that we choose to live by, not facts that can be objectively verified.


Politics isn’t really about personalities. They’re just the puppet show. And politics isn’t really about ideas either, or not in the way some people seem to think. It’s about alliances. It’s about putting together coalitions of different classes or interest groups. Each group has its own ideas, its own story it tells itself, and the trick is to find some overarching idea or story which connects with enough of these different stories to allow a variety of groups to buy into it.

Historically in Britain, the Labour Party managed to be the titular party of the industrial working class but also the party of an important section of the professional middle classes, the delicado class as I have called them*. (The Democratic Party in America managed a similar alliance in the twentieth century, though it has presided over many different groupings in its two hundred year history). This is not to say that the delicados and the industrial working class see the world in the same way -they obviously don’t- or that they have the same priorities or the same values, but they had enough common interests and common enemies to make it possible to construct a story that both could buy into. It was a story, I suppose, about using the state to make society fairer, and to reduce the power of inherited privilege, which had an appeal to both these groups, though for different reasons.

I would say the last flowering of this alliance in the case of the Labour Party was the Blair era. Blair was able to draw in a substantial number of new middle class voters who had previously voted Tory, while still retaining the traditional industrial working class vote. (My feeling is that he didn’t actually earn the latter, but was able to benefit from historical loyalties which had yet to fade.)

I think recent electoral politics in Britain have shown that this old alliance no longer holds. In Scotland, Labour has been displaced as the dominant party by the SNP (I don’t know enough about Scotland to understand the alliance which this represents, but clearly it has drawn support from both of Labour’s traditional constituencies). In England, the Brexit vote and the recent election show that Labour can no longer take for granted the support of the voters it was originally set up to represent. The Conservatives have managed to find a story -and like the SNP’s, it is a story about nationhood and independence- which suits many of these voters better. A new alliance is forming between the non-delicado section of the middle class, and the old working class.

If we see politics as just being about ideas, and we are convinced that our idea is simply ‘right’ (as opposed to being the story our particular grouping prefers), we don’t respond effectively to the loss of an ally, because we conclude that our former ally is mistaken, or misled, or no longer worthy of us. And so we keep plugging away at the same idea, waiting for others to see the error of their ways, when the fact is that our story simply doesn’t appeal to enough people. No group can expect to have things exactly the way it wants. We need a new idea.

It seems to me that the political ‘right’ (I actually hate the lazy simplification that divides politics into ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’ but I’ll use it here for brevity), understands this at the moment better than the political ‘left’. You need to find out what different sections of the population want, not just in a practical sense (jobs, public services etc), important though that is, but in the sense of symbols and stories, and you have to deliver enough of what people want to make them feel like joining, or remaining part of, your alliance.

*See America City.

Behaving Badly to Prove you’re Good

The people of A, finding themselves easily able to dominate the people of B due to A’s considerably more advanced technology, realise that they could if they wanted enslave B people, bring them back to A, and make them work for nothing, thereby making life considerably more comfortable for A people.

However, A people do have some sense that treating other humans as possessions is wrong. (Indeed they have an uneasy feeling that treating other people as objects is the very definition of wrong.) This makes things very awkward, because the idea of enslaving B people, and getting all that unpleasant work done for nothing, really is very appealing, yet it is important to most As to think of themselves as good people who do the right thing.

Luckily, they find a way round the problem. They decide that actually it’s fine to enslave B people because B people aren’t fully human and therefore the usual rules don’t apply.

Some A people get so carried away by this thought that they declare that the enslavement of B people is actually in B people’s own interest, because in that way the Bs will be able to learn from the As what it means to really be human. Others decide that B people are so manifestly inferior that they should be treated with exceptional harshness and severity in order to contain their inherent wickedness. Their own cruelty is thus made thoroughly moral by their awareness of the cruelty they are thereby keeping in check.

However, for reasons irrelevant to the present story, a time nevertheless comes when the government of A decides to abolish slavery, and to grant citizenship to all the former slaves. In legal terms, B people are now the equal of A people. Indeed, legally speaking, they are A people. (By now, after all, few ‘B people’ have ever set eyes on B.)

But many A people refuse to accept that B people really are their equals. After all, if they were to admit that B people are as human as themselves, that would mean admitting that their behaviour towards Bs up to now has been appallingly bad. Therefore they persist in their belief that B people are inferior, and continue to treat them harshly, so as to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong with their former behaviour, that they have nothing to be ashamed of, and that they can therefore continue to think of themselves as good.

And since they continue to treat B people harshly, this means that, even a generation after the emancipation of the B people, many A people still cannot allow themselves to think of Bs as their equals, because that would mean admitting, not only that the former enslavement of B people was wrong (which actually wouldn’t be so hard to do, given that the current generation weren’t implicated in it), but that their behaviour since has also been wrong.

And so, for many generations, many A people persist in treating B people harshly and cruelly in order to prove themselves that they really are good people.

Good guys and bad guys

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a conference at University College Dublin earlier this month called Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump, and then to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Literature in Dublin with the other keynote speakers, Aleksandar Hemon and Karen Bender, and the conference organiser Dolores Resano. I had a great time.

The following is (more or less) the text of my keynote speech.

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