stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Why register?

Is voting in a British general election a right, a duty, as most people think? Was it worth registering to vote in 2017? Many Western countries are trying out electronic, internet-mediated forms of voting, with the vast majority of them assuming that the ubiquity of social media and general internet use, and the ease and convenience of online voting, will increase voter turnout. The case seems pretty obvious. It can be a pain having to go to a voting station. It might be raining. Hell, it might be snowing. Voting might involve a long journey, for instance if you live in a rural location. And voting by post is a bit of a faff.

A recent BBC technology report (spring 2017) highlighted the situation in Estonia.

Estonia is the only country where online voting has become widely used. In the most recent parliamentary elections almost one in three votes was cast online, but officials admit the system has not boosted turnout. “It didn’t take people from the no-voting area because that’s not enough,” Priit Vinkel, head of the electoral office in Estonia, told Newsbeat. “Having a novel, convenient method of voting is not enough…”

So the indisputable convenience of online voting – that simple act of pressing a button – was not enough to increase voter participation. Voter turnout remained exactly the same.

But voter turnout has nothing to do with voting methods. It is typical of established political thinkers to assume that the problem is one of logistics, since they are beholden to the standard view: you must vote, it is your national duty, women died for the vote, therefore you must vote. The standard view blames voters themselves for their apathy, and this view is much amplified by the media. It is typical too of those enamoured of the status quo to encourage belief in a system that specifically and deliberately disenfranchises the majority of people in Britain. Both Labour and the Tories benefit from keeping the first-past-the-post system, and both parties have continually refused to seriously consider a fair system. When in 2010 the LibDems were allowed a referendum on PR, the Tories knew perfectly well that the entrenched system would win out. All they had to do was play on fears of coalition, national chaos etc then let the apathy created by the chasm between voters and politicians do the rest of the work. Easy.

This is how the apathy discussion typically goes around election time. Register now! Too many young people don’t register and don’t vote. You must register! If you don’t register, you can’t vote, and you can’t complain.

Let’s shift this mode of argument to another sphere to expose how ludicrous it is. Suppose Britain is divided up into 600+ localities in which the relevant factor is whether or not individuals have green eyes. You’ll be allowed a meaningful vote or some other interaction if green eyed individuals are around half of the population of your locality, but if you don’t like the status quo the system will blame you for not taking part, even though eye colour is a factor determined by heredity. Or, you could wear contact lenses. Register now! You must register for contact lenses!

Just as having green eyes is a factor of heredity and nothing to do with politics, so living in a particular constituency is nothing to do with politics. You could for instance live in North Shropshire, which has been true blue since 1835. That’s before Queen Victoria. I mean, we’re talking Blackadder territory here…

Voting in a general election is a vote in an approximate direction only – a system where we give credence to our leaders in the vain hope that they will get on with it in a decent manner; without fiddling their expenses, for instance. This is partial democracy. A two party first-past-the-post system is identical in all meaningful qualities to a one party system. Both systems maintain a stranglehold on the nation through an explicitly unfair system; two sides of the same bad penny. Both Labour and the Tories exploit first-past-the-post and the consequent abyss between individuals and politicians in a quite unscrupulous manner. The British electoral system is just about fit for the 19th century.

Voter apathy has nothing to do with voting methods, electronic, internet, pencil and paper or otherwise. Voter apathy is not the fault of voters. Voter apathy is caused by a political system utterly unfit for purpose, one that deliberately disenfranchises people then blames them for their lack of interest.

Some people say, well, if you vote against the main party in a safe constituency at least you’ve had your say and you’ve added to the numbers of the losing candidates, which is noticeable. That’s pure self-delusion. Nobody remembers who came second. In a first-past-the-post system nobody gives a damn who came second.

Did you register to vote? Did you follow the lead of everybody exhorting you to register, in social media memes, newspaper articles or pieces to camera, all of which failed to mention the context? Well, if you happened to live in a marginal seat, then fine. But of the 650 seats in the House of Commons around 200 this year are generally considered to be marginal, and therefore meaningful.

Makes sense to you? Thought not. Welcome to 19th century Britain.

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Thinking Big: Gamble, Gowlett & Dunbar

This is one of the best surveys of the evolution of the human mind that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few…

Presented by Robin Dunbar (very well known in the field, and originator of the Dunbar Number), Clive Gamble and John Gowlett, Thinking Big: How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind is the written culmination of a major, well-funded anthropology project called Lucy, whose intention was to investigate the social brain theory of human evolution. In a nutshell, this theory as presented in the book uses archaeological evidence, evidence from the great apes and from remaining hunter-gatherer societies to show how the need to grasp increasingly complex social interactions – represented by the Dunbar Number of the species in question – led to the evolution of the brain, of the human mind, and, although the authors almost never refer to it, of consciousness.

The Dunbar Number is the number of individuals that an individual can keep in mind in genuine social interactions, and for human beings it is around 150. This number comes up in all sorts of circumstances, showing how we, though technologically advanced, are true to our ancient roots. 150 comes up in social media, in military organisation, in English village life, and in a myriad other places. Apes have smaller numbers, chimps smaller still, reflecting the fact that their social networks are smaller.

Beginning with a survey of the anthropological field, the authors then move through our ancestors of 2.6 million years ago, through later hominids, and then through homo heidelbergensis, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens to show how all the evidence links together in support of the social brain theory. Human ancestors living in increasingly complex societies faced immense selection pressures from themselves, as only those able to keep in mind complex relationships were able to thrive. Interestingly, the evolutionary pressure from environmental factors (eg climate change) is comparatively played down.

There is also an explanation for one of the more puzzling events in our past, the “cultural revolution” of 40,000 years ago, when music, sculpture and art all appear in the archaeological record. This mystifying and very sudden explosion of culture is more easily explained by the preceding slow and steady emotional and psychological development of homo sapiens, which the authors point out leaves no trace, but which is clear from their evidence. Here they cite laughter, music and chanting, and family life, with only the latter leaving faint “real” marks in our environment.

This really is an exceptional book, confirming Thames & Hudson’s place in providing outstanding work in the field of archaeology, anthropology and human evolution. The authors should be proud of their achievement.

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You’d Better Free Your Mind Instead

I didn’t know China Miéville was about to publish his book October about the 1917 Russian Revolution when I wrote my most recent novel Woodland Revolution.

In early reviews of Miéville’s book (published last week) much is made of his adroit handling of his material, professing no original research but telling a compelling narrative with all the skill that this gifted author has. But as I read the reviews, and contemplated buying the book, I grew increasingly aware of the fundamental difference between my concept of revolution and that of others.

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In Miéville’s epilogue to his book he notes that the Russian Revolution didn’t have to end the way it did, with Stalin and the gulags. On Radio 4 today he spoke eloquently about the role of women in the October Revolution, and the subsequent bullying of them back into the position of second class citizens, by what continues to be one of the most repulsively misogynistic societies on the planet. But the facts remain. There was no liberal government after 1917, there was no long-term emancipation of women, and there was no hope. There was in fact all the things we remember from that era: authoritarianism, genocide, murder, nuclear weapons, macho posturing and war, war, war.

Why might this be? Although Miéville is undoubtedly sincere in his admiration for the Russian Revolution, I wonder if he is looking at the most fundamental description of that event. It was without doubt a vast, wide-ranging and cataclysmic thing, but did it occur at the most fundamental possible level of change? Well, I don’t suppose Miéville believes that it did, but in my opinion his book adds to the wealth of work which presupposes that a revolution of social order counts as a true revolution. I don’t think it does. 1917 merely exchanged one vile social structure for another one, and it was always going to be that way. Miéville argues that revolutions are a form of hope, a kind of large-scale social optimism, and he thinks they are therefore a good thing. But what is a revolution?

My most recently written novel Woodland Revolution was inspired in exactly the opposite way to Miéville’s book. Whereas Miéville takes a world-shattering event as the reason for writing his book – ten days that shook the world – my novel was inspired by seeing a dead fox on the side of the road on my way to work one morning. The fox had been hit by a car: roadkill. Half of its body was mangled and flattened, but the other half, brilliant orange-red in the morning light, remained pristine. This tiny event had an enormous impact upon me. It led to the title of my tenth novel No Grave For A Fox – a phrase which dropped into my mind seconds after driving past the fox – but it also led to the gelling in my mind of a novel I’d wanted to write about animals, life and death, and revolution. Over April this year I wrote that short novel.

In Woodland Revolution, a wolf and a dog see wolf roadkill at the side of a road. The wolf discoverer is very young and has no grasp of the meaning of death (for this section, Sylvia Anthony’s book The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After was useful), whereas the dog, a little older, does grasp the basic meaning. Through the novel, which uses a mythic structure over the notional duration of the wolf’s life (and through one notional year) a couple of “revolutions” occur, one from an ancient social system and one from the new system to one newer still. In the latter stages of the novel however the wolf grasps that such “revolutions” are in fact no such thing; they are merely the exchange of one inhumane structure for another. And so, through the act of living her life, this wolf brings about a true revolution.

All the characters in this novel are animals, which I suppose makes it count as a fantasy, though, as usual, I can’t imagine what my long-suffering fans are going to make of it. But I’m an author who follows his muse – I go where it leads.

The Russian Revolution was a revolution only in name. True revolution can only come from within. Change follows as a consequence. Social structures in Russia – the autocracy of the Tsars, the authoritarianism of Communism and then Stalinism, the death-dealing stranglehold of Putin – are all identical systems, each one a manifestation of a still deeper force in society, of its most fundamental level. If and when such manifestations fade away we’ll have humane societies – should we survive as a species that long. But we won’t have them before then. Not even in Russia.

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Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

… by Frans De Waal.

In this, his most recent book of many on the subject of animal intelligence and primate intelligence in particular, the noted researcher and author Frans De Waal pens a passionate defence of animal cognition and sends many well-deserved rockets at those who try to find defining lines between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom.

I liked this book a lot, but I do have reservations about it. The author is a psychology professor and a director of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre, with a long back catalogue of works discussing animal intelligence… or, rather, cognition.

The difference between intelligence and cognition is one of the main foundations of this excellent book. De Waal uses a lot of evidence from his own wide-ranging research, the work of other researchers and some anecdotal evidence in making the case for animals as cognitive creatures. He makes a number of essential points in the earlier parts of the book, in particular pointing out the extraordinary pro-human bias (both deliberate and accidental) followed by too many past and present researchers. His plea is for animal cognition to be understood in an evolutionary perspective. Thus, for instance, it is pointless testing elephant self-awareness with mirrors too small for them to use – just one of a host of points he makes to show how human researchers have a strong bias towards themselves.

Other points hit home just as hard. De Waal is of the opinion that there is no sudden dividing line between human cognition and animal cognition – it’s all a matter of degree. I don’t entirely agree with him there, but the point is perfectly valid. Why should cognition, and ultimately consciousness suddenly appear in evolution when nothing else has? This “keep your hands off the mind” attitude is in fact a result of the assumption that human beings are special in some way, and De Waal is in no doubt that such attitudes are the result of a couple of thousand years of cultural indoctrination.

De Waal is particularly good in this book on how human researchers are constantly baffled by how animals don’t “get” their trials and experiments, putting down the results to animal stupidity. But this is most cases is because the experiments have been designed from a human point of view, not that of the animal in question. De Waal gives many excellent examples here.

I do have a few reservations about this otherwise superb book. De Waal is notably reluctant to discuss the issue of consciousness, except as a small part of one chapter. It could be that the book was not the right place for such a discussion, but I think it is a major lack. Also, De Waal is hazy in some of his evidence and conclusions. In the chapter on time, he discusses various possible instances of animals perceiving a flow of time, the vast majority of which could just as easily be explained as abstract links made without a sense of time. But the one piece of evidence which does show it – that chimps start off earlier in the morning to reach special fig trees if they have camped overnight further away – is hardly remarked upon. Our sense of time is the conscious perception of the order of real-world events, and so a troupe of chimps grasping that there is more space and therefore time to take account of the further away they are from the fig trees is a clear indicator. I don’t think De Waal understood this.

I was also struck by the almost total lack of discussion in the book of death and death rituals in animal behaviour. Given that in human evolution the perception of death and subsequent cultural death rituals came before the cultural explosion of 40,000 years ago, this is a striking omission. I suspect De Waal is personally skewed away from any concept of human specialness, towards a kind of cognitive continuum. This, I think, means he did not want to present too much evidence against his case.

Overall though, this is a fascinating, welcome and very thought-provoking book. I think its author has positioned himself as a champion of animal cognition, and this also is welcome and laudable, but I think he is reluctant to admit that human cognition is most likely of a different order to animal cognition. However, in saying that, I have committed the same error as thousands of others in lumping together “animals” as if they were one great bland entity. They are not. So let’s say this. Human beings are different in some way to those animals – chimps, bonobo, elephants, corvids, dolphins and whales – who are closest to us on the cognitive scale. Whether that difference is qualitative or quantitative is a moot point – and one which urgently needs investigation.

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Beardy Marx, Hairy London

In Hairy London – a very silly novel with a very serious theme, which is set somewhere in Victorian/Edwardian times – I used a few real people as fictional characters, including Karl Marx. One of the main characters, Velvene Orchardtide, scion of the landed gentry and rather fond of stealing from his parents, is forced to leave the bosom of his family home and undertake the Suicide Club quest initiated by Sheremy Pantomile, which is to find the true nature of love. Early on, Velvene and Marx have an inconclusive meeting in Highgate Cemetery, where Velvene has crashed his bovine balloon:

Velvene described as best he could the purpose of the Suicide Club and Pantomile’s wager, concluding, “I found myself short of funds, and so put my name forward. I mean to uncover the true nature of love and win the money.”

“Huh,” Marx grunted. “A waste of time. You are a crippled man in a crippled society, journeying around your Empire as if it were a playground, while the common person, the authentic person, struggles against the oppression of the upper classes.”

“So you say,” Velvene retorted, “but some of us who find ourselves, through no fault of our own, born into wealth become philanthropists-“

“An illusion! What use is some? You are alienated from everything in your world. You know nothing of real life, of poverty, of work, of struggle, of disappointment, of the crushing of opportunity. And here you are now, jousting with me and daring to tell me you seek the truth of love? You would not know love if it clung on to you with the passion of a young woman.”

Velvene at this point has little understanding of himself, of his curious circumstances and of the nature of the struggle suggested by Marx, but as the novel progresses he does gain understanding, and in the end becomes something of a hero. But what was Marx on about in the cemetery scene above? What was Marx’s concept of humanity?

In Beyond The Chains Of Illusion the radical humanist, Marxist and former Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm noted that one of Marx’s fundamental points is that the nature of “man” (i.e. human beings) is comprehensible, a concept which at the time went head-to-head with the prevailing idea that we are all a blank sheet for culture and other forces to write upon:

Marx, in assuming the existence of a nature of man, did not concur in the common error of confusing it with its particular manifestations. He differentiated ‘human nature in general’ from ‘human nature as modified in each historical epoch.’

Yet even Erich Fromm at this stage in his life’s work would add:

Human nature in general we can never see… what we observe are always the specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures… In his earlier writings, Marx still called ‘human nature in general’ the ‘essence of man.’ He later gave up this term because he wanted to make it clear that ‘the essence of man’ is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual… For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilisation.

In my own work I’ve made a few changes to this stance, using the term ‘human condition’ to mean the unchanging, biologically/evolutionary-determined aspect of ourselves, and ‘human nature’ to be the historically dependent, ‘visible’ aspect. The human condition in my view is inviolate, and leads, according to cultural conditions, to various types of human nature. I also disagree with Fromm in that in my opinion there is no bar to what I’ve called a scientific description of the human condition. Fromm was insistent in all his later works on humanity assembling of a full understanding of the human condition, a process he was very much a part of and which he memorably contributed to in his seminal work The Sane Society.

Marx, then, grasped that human nature at least could be assessed and discussed, if nothing else. And of course he saw the consequences of not understanding the true needs of human beings:

Marx chuckled. “You’ve read Montesquieu then,” he remarked. “If a person becomes active, productive and independent, then yes, they may be counted authentic. But it involves releasing themself from chains of illusion. And you? Look at you. You wear clothes created from the subjection of the masses in Lancashire. Your chronoflam is gold removed from a foreign country that your King rules but has never visited. Your club for the idle rich employs servants who make the myriad delicacies upon which you feast, and all for a few pennies. Wager? I wager this – that you have never done a full day’s work in your life.”

Such is Marx’s early challenge to Velvene Orchardtide.

What then of love? Is it something forever beyond grasp, a phantasm, an illness, a spiritual affection perpetually enigmatic? Or did it evolve over hundreds of thousands of years, along with emotion and a host of other aspects of the human condition? Hairy London presents three possible answers to the question at its conclusion, but Velvene and Marx had a second encounter much later in the book, where the two are somewhat more courteous to one another:

“And what of love?” [Marx] asked.

“My research continues.”

“Who then have you questioned?”

Velvene, annoyed again, decided to oppose Marx by attacking. He replied, “Tell me, do you believe, as Freud and Reich do, that man is a tabula rasa, or do you side with Jung, who believes all men are born with unconscious personality already within him?”

Wrongfooted by this question, Marx peered long and hard at Velvene, then glanced away and said, “I suppose I side against Jung.”

“Then we are born, effectively, a blank sheet of paper?”

“Yes.”

“Well, where then do our personalities come from?”

Marx considered, then replied, “I suppose they come from the real world, from our experiences, placed inside us through memory.”

As this conversation develops, I take Marx away from his real stance:

Do you suppose that more might be placed inside us, perhaps through the actions of our parents, our siblings, our family, eh?” [Velvene said.]

“I suppose that to be perfectly possible.”

Velvene considered. “Then it must be that love, and all the other psychological templates, are also placed inside us, in such a way as to chime with the theories of the estimable Mr Darwin.”

Again Marx considered this point, before answering, “You mean, because we are all of the same species, descended from apes, we all partake of the same mental template?”

“Yes, sir!”

Marx… said, “What a remarkable idea. What then shall we decide about love?”

Velvene felt ideas flooding his mind as the implications of his notion arrived. He replied, “Though we all partake of the same mental template, we all grow up in different conditions, eh? The working class man has a different experience of life to the imperialist. Therefore, it must be that we all approach love from different angles.”

“And yet every man and woman across the world experiences love in the same way.”

“Well, true, true…” Velvene murmured. He thought for a moment, then said, “You must be correct, Mr Marx. Though we are all different in the circumstances of our lives, love is universal. It must therefore be an aspect of our mental template.”

“Moreover, it must be a deducible aspect – as with any scientific theory.”

Velvene nodded, intrigued. That was a notion he had never considered. “By reasonable extension of what he have decided so far,” he said, “love must be an aspect of the process of placing experience inside us as we grow up.”

“But what aspect?”

This takes Marx well away from 19th century thought. Although the idea of different classes of people in, say, British culture approaching life differently is in accordance with Marx’s historically-dependent ‘essence of man’ notion, the pair do agree that love is essentially a universal experience.

“But my point is this,” [Velvene said.] “If a man truly… loves a woman, would he not want everything possible for his beloved, eh? Including her freedom, her happiness, her enjoyment of life.”

“He would want that,” Marx replied. “I certainly wanted that for my wife.”

“Then this surely is what love must be. It is the way we most profoundly understand the beloved, so that they may experience the best of what life has to offer. After all, we enter this world knowing nobody – yet we, as a social animal, have no option but to know the people around us.”

“Indeed!” Marx said. “Then love, understanding, and freedom must all be words for the same thing.”

Velvene felt excitement course through him. “They must be! And though I have heard it said amongst cynical, and often very young men that love is blind, the opposite must be true. Love is like spectacles. We see better through it.”

“A remarkable analogy, sir! I believe I may put that in my pamphlet.”

And so it is a universal experience. In The Art Of Loving, Fromm wrote:

… mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls separating man from his fellow men, which unites him with others… In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

Love, understanding and freedom are all words for the same experience:

“There exists however,” Velvene said, “a dilemma in the experience of our lives. We, ourselves, are most vividly and continuously experienced. We know our own deeds and wishes, our every idiosyncrasy and foible, feeling, thought, hope and desire. But no other human being, however close, is experienced in this intimate manner, eh? There is always the impossibility of feeling precisely the same feelings as another, of having different thoughts, of remembering different experiences – in short, of being different people. This dilemma is resolved by the experience of union.”

“What do you mean by union?” asked Franclin.

“Well, I mean love. Our need for communication and our need for union are similar in the sense that they draw people together through society. But union has a more profound quality. Communication between people is an aspect of living, though it can in some cases be deep… But union does not have any aspect of chance. We do not live, as it were, casually creating union with others. Union has a different meaning. Union relates, as Marx pointed out, to the actual experience of the human condition, to the experience of living a human life. Union is the exchange of the experience of life, whereas communication is the exchange of information relating to life… union, by which I mean love, is the experience of understanding others. Union indeed is an inevitable part of life, because we simply have to understand others.”

“Love is inevitable, then?” Franclin asked.

“We are born,” Velvene replied, “without any knowledge of the world, and so we have to create our memories by learning about life. At least, most [psychologists] think so, Mr Jung being the notable exception, eh? Love, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of our evolution from apes.”

“What then is your wager presentation?” Lord Blackanore asked.

Velvene turned to face him. “The purpose of love is to facilitate the appearance of other human beings in our minds. It is our method of bringing other people, wholly independent of the self as I have explained, into our minds, to be understood. The experience of love is the experience of union. Indeed sir, loneliness is unbearable precisely because true understanding of the self and of life is inextricably bound up with the true understanding of others.”

“I do not follow.”

Velvene nodded. “… Love is indeed a paradoxical experience, eh? It preserves the integrity and independence of those involved. Love requires freedom to exist, for without freedom, Blackanore, why then it would be but a tie of necessity, eh? Love and freedom and understanding are therefore conceptual equivalents… You see, love is not blind. In fact it is the very opposite, eh? Love gives us an improved experience of others, since it is the very experience of the truth of these others, not just the perception of some surface quality.”

Thus does Velvene Orchardtide redeem himself.

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Hairy London – cover

The Largest Lie

The largest lie of politics is back in play again, and the full lie will be told on June 9th.

This lie is: your political act as a British individual is voting in a general election.

The overwhelming majority of British politicians want you to believe this lie because politics in Britain, as in most Western countries, is a passive activity – indeed, it is now a spectator activity also. Politics would become an active procedure if your vote mattered: if you felt that, by casting a vote, your activity was relevant and meaningful. But it is not, for several reasons. The main reason is that, in a first-past-the-post electoral system, any vote cast in a safe seat for any of the political parties is meaningless, with the exception of votes cast for the ruling party where the voter genuinely wants that party to win. Only in marginal seats – the minority in Britain – does voting have any general human meaning, since in those seats there is a direct connection between the act of voting and the outcome. The majority of people in Britain are disenfranchised by this archaic and ludicrous system.

The second main reason your vote is not meaningful is that we are organised on the national scale, as we shall be for the foreseeable future. This means we operate a partial democracy. We individuals do not vote actively and democratically – we elect our rulers, then sit back to await events. This system automatically halts any chance of politics being relevant to individuals in communities, and, at least as important, meaningful to them.

To quote Erich Fromm: “Democracy can resist the authoritarian threat if it is transformed from a passive democracy into an active democracy – in which the affairs of the community are as close and as important to the individual citizens as their private affairs or, better, in which the well-being of the community becomes each citizen’s private concern. By participating in the community, people find life becomes more interesting and stimulating. Indeed, a true political democracy can be defined as one in which life is just that, interesting.”

In other words, the media-spread lie that somehow a “national voice” is being expressed in a British general election is nothing but delusion. There is no such thing as a national voice in a country of 60 million people: the idea is utter fantasy, designed in the main to divert attention from the paralysing lack of activity inherent in the current system. A national voice could only be heard by some sort of abstract national entity. But there is no such thing. We are human beings. We are small, and we live in communities. Voter apathy exists in the main because of the lack of meaningful connection between voting and politics as it is done in Britain.

In my opinion (and I’m aware that this opinion is shared by few), no meaningful change, with the exception of occasional historical accidents, can take place within a political system which is authoritarian, passive due to scale or type, or which in other ways acts directly against the needs of human individuals. The only alternative is to reject such systems and lead by example.

If voting is a meaningless activity, what do you do if you live in a safe seat such as North Shropshire, or if like me you find the entire charade a sick, ridiculous, pointless waste of time? The lie is: voting as a British individual is your only political act. Politicians want you to believe this lie. But it is not true. Politics in such flawed situations can be other things, which the “leaders” you elect do not want you to consider. The British system expects you to place all your faith in one single leader – a typical conceit of patriarchy. The system expects you to accept the status quo. The system in fact expects you to manifest the status quo as part of national duty. But the system in 21st century Britain is designed for a male-dominated economic elite and nobody else.

Your alternative political acts include: consumer strikes, consumer choice (eg going vegetarian and buying Fair Trade), and refusing to accept the “right” of stockholders and other management forces to control the economic agenda. When I was an employee of Waterstones in the early 2000s, Waterstones became a company with stocks and shares, and all employees were given free shares as a consequence of this change. I was the only member of staff in my store to refuse these shares on moral grounds, a decision which iirc lost me about £300. Other alternative political acts are more long-duration and nebulous, and include exposing patriarchy in all its forms, rejecting and exposing the lies of capitalism, and so on. This can be done by communication. In the age of the internet that is much more difficult than it used to be, but it is still a meaningful activity, especially if through chance you have a louder voice than others. Of course, not everybody is comfortable with only long-term activity.

Idealists locate the directions of paths. Realists find the paving materials. But we do need both.

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The Employment Problem

In recent months much has been written by various media publications about the likelihood of jobs being “taken” by robots and other automated systems, including by AI (or AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – as it is often called now). There are various possible scenarios: hyper-rich individuals owning AGIs and thereby removing the need for employees, resulting in mass unemployment; a huge change in the types of jobs being done, as with the change from manufacturing to services in the case of Britain over the past few decades; or perhaps a strengthening of the exploitation effects inherent in the capitalist system. In my novel No Grave For A Fox I had the latter option prevalent, with the nexus embodied in various android-type bodies. In Beautiful Intelligence the effect was not so obvious, the main employment effect being a decentralising one.

But in the Factory Girl trilogy I also considered these options, despite the 1910-11 setting. The automata (or horas as they are sometimes known) which are one of the mysteries of the novels are owned by Sir Tantalus Blackmore, a classic Victorian entrepreneur who exploits everything and everybody to become as rich as possible – or so it seems at first glance. But, whatever his motives, Sir Tantalus does own outright the ability to utilise the automata made by his Factory. In this regard he is deemed one of the sources of the wave of mass unemployment affecting my alternate Britain, as shown in this early conversation between Kora and Dr Spellman:

They stepped out of the hansom cab, waiting on the pavement while the automaton lifted Dr Spellman’s luggage off the rack. “Will you pay it?” Kora asked. “No.” “Why not? You paid the one in London.” “Yes,” said Dr Spellman, “but he was human.” “That is not fair. How can the Factory make money if nobody pays the automata?” Dr Spellman chuckled. “A very good point! You’re not daft, are you? Well, you see, the local Council pays your father for the automata who do all the work.”

In other words Sir Tantalus has a monopoly, which even extends to public use, as exemplified by the Sheffield Town Council having to pay him.

Although there was unemployment in Edwardian times, I did have in mind future possibilities when I was preparing the scenario for the three novels. Sir Tantalus is a private individual. He has broken the link between people giving their labour in return for a salary. Labouring individuals can associate into unions, which gives them power, since, if the business is dependent on labour, they can go on strike. This is not the case with Sir Tantalus or with any private individual who might use an AGI. If, rather than changing the mode of employment, an AGI owner bypasses labour entirely via their AGI then that labour loses its power of strike; and this is perhaps the worst danger of future AGI use. Such an owner would have the ability to accumulate capital without any hindrance – and that has never happened before.

Sir Tantalus enjoys exactly this option. Although there is mystery behind the creation of the automata, he in essence – especially in the early days of his operation – can accumulate as much capital as he likes, since the automata, like AGIs, have no power of strike.

And Sir Tantalus does what any self-obsessed Victorian entrepreneur would do in the circumstances – he sucks up to nobility:

Roka … nodded. “Is [Sir Tantalus in Parliament], then?” “Not in Parliament, no. What he does is far more cunning. He influences from behind the scenes to get what he wants. Why, he’d like to be a lord, you know, but…” “But what?” Dr Spellman shrugged, standing up to continue walking. “He was born into a poor Yorkshire family. Real lords don’t want him anywhere near them.” “That’s not fair.” Dr Spellman chuckled. “It’s one of his weak points, his obsession with nobility. His envy eats him up, Roka.”

Regarding unemployment, there are two sides to the argument in the Factory Girl novels, one which sees the automata as beneficial (pro-hora) and one which sees them as usurping (anti-hora).

Rather surprisingly, Sir Tantalus stands in the latter category:

Sir Tantalus continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether the achievement of hora emancipation – of Abolition, as Parliament would have it – would in fact be a hollow victory. In Sheffield you perhaps do not see the cruel tide of unemployment that affects London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. My Factory gives work to more people than you can imagine, and I am glad for that. But as an older man, with little time remaining to him, I can see that there are too many horas in the world today. They do all the work we ask them to. But what of the little man? What of the ordinary man? It is for them that I worry.”

Later in the trilogy the reason for this becomes clear. But others are pro-hora:

“Regardless of the origin of the hora,” Lenin continued, “the hora is a worker, and as such acquires rights such as any worker should enjoy. Though we use the hora as an automatic worker to do tasks such as we do not wish to do, the hora is part of the great commonality of the working class – and it is being exploited by capitalist masters. In the essential regard about which I speak, the hora is akin to the man.

The above speech by Lenin should not perhaps be too surprising. (Lenin lived in Britain for a few years from 1902, so I thought it would be appropriate to have him play a small part in my novel.) But there is another aspect to these considerations which I wanted to use as a main part of the plot, and that is the way capitalism, unlike nature, posits no limit to growth. Though Lenin rightly saw automata as workers, he did not in my novels grasp the dangers of their mode of manufacture. He only saw the end result – employment in Sir Tantalus’ Factory for the men of south Yorkshire, and a force of hora workers who deserved rights. But the danger becomes clear in the third volume, The Girl With No Soul:

Agricultural fields lay littered with inutile horas, thousands of them, their steel exteriors glittering in the sunlight. In distant lanes he saw hundreds more walking apparently at random. The sheer quantity horrified him, and he realised that the Factory was still over-producing. What was Sir Tantalus doing inside?

The outer streets of the city were also strewn with horas, and with hora parts, as if a kind of grisly mechanical fury had ripped through the place. Through a gap in the blinds he observed lines of men at soup kitchens, elsewhere rubble and shattered glass; and everywhere a chaotic press of people with pale, starved faces. Police patrolled the streets in groups – never alone – and there were even a few army officers in uniform.

Over-production – a small, curious, and mostly ignored effect in the first novel – has by the time of the third novel become an overpowering concern. As Erasmus later says:

“Roka – you already know this to be true. You, a Marxist, can see the madness of capitalism, which uses resources as if they are unlimited. Capitalism posits no natural limit to economic growth, and therefore dooms the culture in which it exists – and its environment too. Now do you see?” She nodded. “Capitalism is cancer…“

This is the equivalent of the first option presented in the introduction to this post. A proliferation of automata, like a proliferation of AGIs with nobody to control their creation or use, swiftly gets out of hand. Humanity is blithely doing itself out of an existence. At a time of global population explosion that’s not wise…

The second option is a change in employment styles. In Edwardian times, with severe social stratification, there was little chance for such ‘portfolio careers’ as they’re known today. Most people, especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, had a trade for life. It is in fact the far-sighted men of the Malthus Brigade who change the options for the malformed horas which they collect and adapt:

AutoRoka continued, “Malthus wrote about a future where disease and famine checked the growth of population, suggesting there was a limit to such growth.” Roka said, “Do you believe then that people will all die of starvation in the future?” The man [Ernest] shook his head. “Not people. We’re talkin’ about automata. Thee not noticed ‘ow many of them there are these days?” Roka shook her head. “It’s why the police waste so much time gatherin’ up the loose ones. Soon we’ll be drownin’ beneath them.” Roka grimaced at the image. “You really believe that?” “Oh, aye. It’s inevitable. So we’re takin’ malformed automata, which otherwise would do nowt, to make a force.”

And Ernest sees further, albeit under the spell of mass unemployment:

“ … The whole bloody Empire is built on automata labour, thee sees. No automata – no Empire. No nothin’, in fact.” “I suppose so,” Roka agreed.

Employment not only brings a salary to an employee, it offers far more. Human beings live in entwined worlds of meaning, and employment is one of the main sources of purpose in life. In previous centuries it was obvious to some that making an individual perform the same task over and over again militated against humanity. We cannot do production-line work and remain sane.

If we create a future in which AGIs dispense medical diagnoses, direct trade deals and trade itself, drive cars, trains and planes, or perhaps run all our personal finances, we are creating a future with far less space for meaning. We’ll be making stressed, anxious zombies of ourselves – and there’ll be billions of those.

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The Girl With Two Souls

Black & White

The Rat & The Serpent was another of those “characters used as real people and as cultural archetypes” novels. It was inspired by an experience I had in Exeter one summer evening. I was standing on a roadside pavement, waiting to be picked up from work, when an intense thunderstorm began to lean in over the city; and it was moving straight towards me. As it approached, colours began to leach out of the city around me, as the storm-dark clouds neared. It wasn’t raining yet, but everything I could see seemed to be in black-and-white because of the drastic reduction in light and because of the density of the clouds. As I surveyed all this, a thought popped into my head: would it be possible to write a novel entirely in black-and-white, just as a black-and-white film might be made? I watched people running this way and that with their black umbrellas and I thought: what if it was soot falling from the sky, not rain?

Those were the basic thoughts which I began with. Later, I devised an upwardly mobile plot and created the four main characters. The novel focuses on Ugliy, who is a disabled street beggar living in the dark, soot-shrouded city of Mavrosopolis. After some unpleasant experiences he decides to attempt to climb into the lowest of the formal social levels, that of citidenizen, where he hopes to find a just and bearable life. He has one unusual advantage however: he is a shaman of the black rat. Using his native guile and his special abilities, he makes the attempt, and succeeds.

But once he is a citidenizen he finds more social levels above him. He also sees worse stratification, worse inequality and worse corruption. So he decides to rise further, buoyed by his friends and by his social conscience. Eventually however he finds himself in the dilemma of not knowing how far to progress, since a particularly vile and secretive cabal exists at the top of the social pyramid.

The first chapter was difficult to write, but once I’d got the hang of imagining only in monochrome the rest flowed quite nicely. In fact, once I got going it was surprisingly easy to do: I wanted to write a gothic novel, I have quite a gothic imagination, and the whole black-and-white thing helped a lot.

I employed a few carefully devised writing aids. The novel is set at night – so no blue sky and yellow sun. All the food mentioned in the novel is black, grey or white. The most difficult thing however was not mentioning blood. There are a few hand-to-hand fights in Ugliy’s ascent, and all had to be of the sort where no blood is shed. I not only had to imagine the novel in black-and-white, I had to avoid anything with strong colour associations that would break the monochrome spell: sky, blood, apples, butter, and so on.

Reviews were mixed. One reviewer commented that the novel was an uneasy allegory, which in retrospect is a fair point, though at the time of writing there was no such sense in my mind. But it does read as something of an allegorical tale. It is in fact a variation on the Little Prince folk story, a point made plain in the book’s introduction.

One reviewer said: … Some style choices made it difficult for me to follow… [The film] ‘Metropolis’ was a blend of mythology with technology in what might be described as a Dystopic environment written in a style that tried to emulate some epic classics. And that’s what you get from The Rat and the Serpent which almost becomes something of an anachronistic style of writing.

Would I write it differently now? Yes I would. But not too differently perhaps.

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The Rat And The Serpent

Natural Limits In Flowercrash

Flowercrash was the third novel in my “loose trilogy” which began with Memory Seed and Glass. It was intended to follow the stories of the noophytes (the ‘electronic characters’) from Memory Seed and Glass – Tanglanah and Laspetosyne especially – but also some human characters, these latter people being the descendants of the original survivors of Memory Seed. In the many centuries between the first and third volumes, the noophytes had jumped into the Spaceflower, travelled to the planet of the gnosticians, failed there, and returned to Earth.

My intention was to make Zaïdmouth – the environment of the urbs of Flowercrash – a lot more welcoming than that of Memory Seed (the topography of which it exactly copies since it is the same place). However, there are limitations there, and these were an important part of the background to the characters’ stories.

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One of the drawbacks that humanity has with its technology is the sense of being able to do anything, any time, anywhere. This attitude breeds a sense of freedom that we do not actually have. Fossil fuels for instance have allowed us to achieve remarkable things, but the greenhouse effect limits us. We are not free, we are constrained, and until we recognise that situation we will continue to destroy irreplaceable parts of our planet. No capitalist, technophilic economic system however has any interest in such constraints, and in fact ignores the unsustainable foundation of its mantra of continuous, unlimited growth by not factoring that foundation into any of its calculations.

The urbs exist under one particular limitation, which I used to constrain and modify the plot. Hidden deep beneath the ground is a vast network of electronic systems, some of them left over from Memory Seed, some new and devised by the noophytes. These networks however have an annual rhythm that follows the progress of the seasons:

“… The electronic networks mustn’t be disturbed during the winter, when Our Sister Crone renews her strength.”

Public networks come online in the spring, like flowers appearing:

People began to notice an increase in the numbers of insects, but as yet they were only odd bees, hoverflies and groups of butterflies acting in concert. And night flowering networks began to attract moths, so that in one district it was difficult to come home from inn or Shrine without some hairy-winged creature flapping into a face.

And:

The next warm spell, expected in days, would catalyse the process of growth, and soon packets of data in their trillions would be navigating the matted networks of Zaïdmouth.

One of the main characters, Nuïy, grasps the link between artificial bees and the networks:

Lit by the afternoon sun he saw fields of shining domes, and above them what seemed at first to be smoke, but which he soon recognised as bees of the autohives that lay north of Aequalaïs. For a few minutes he watched. There were thousands of domes. The bees of this vicinity operated under mysterious laws devised by the deepest flower networks, combining to form a kind of social entity.

This apiaristic system is also dependent upon ecological conditions, which the bees follow.

My intention with all this was to make working with the networks difficult, i.e. limited. Human beings had to accede to the real world and its limiting ecology. They could not and should not impose their own will upon the situation:

Manserphine sat at the nearest flowers and examined their screens. These being winter blooms, the screens were granular, as if she was looking through frosted glass, and the data windows below were somewhat difficult to follow. From an inner pocket she withdrew her insect pen, a device made to mimic the pollen gathering attributes of a species of insect, which allowed for network manipulation without the presence of actual insects. Like most pens, the end was shaped as a generic bee, which lacked the precision of a pen made to mimic a particular insect but which made for ease of use amongst more than one species of flower.

Here Manserphine manages a limited use of the winter networks by utilising a device. But, overall, the networks are ‘down.’ These networks are also ecologically varied by urb; that is, characterised by local variations, like an ecosystem:

If the networks she wanted to explore were in Aequalaïs then there she must go, and if her own life was somehow linked to that urb, then all the more reason.

Here, Manserphine is unable to access Aequalaïs’ networks without being in that dangerous urb – another natural limitation. She is aware of those limitations, albeit rather annoyed by them:

The miniature screens inside the newly opened flowers were insensitive to her insect pen, so she was forced to resort to the old standby of anther tickling… “This is going to be difficult,” she said. “To find out important things I would have to get inside the Shrine. The flower networks around here are just too strange, not to mention quiet because it is winter.”

The urbs of Zaïdmouth however are no hippy-dippy paradise. To the south, masculine values still have some sway:

In connecting drum sensors to the networks, the clerics of the Green Man had devised a method of influencing the traffic of data independent of flower technology. Under suitable trance conditions, usually achieved by means of Deomouvadaïn’s herbs, a talented enough drummer could transfer immense quantities of data, or change procedures, even entire systems. But the concentration required was too much for even the best drummer, and perfect precision was impossible to attain.

The women of Veneris are more receptive to the idea of following the seasons, but the men of Emeralddis still think imposing their will upon nature is a good idea:

Nuïy could not help himself … “If the flower networks crash, everything created by the un-men will collapse. Then we can take over! The un-men will not want the flower crash. Therefore we must have it.”

(Un-men is the male term at the Shrine of the Green Man for women.)

The general theme of this novel is the physical embodiment of the formerly abstract (and not conscious) noophytes, who in Glass realise their mistake. In a lengthy conversation with Manserphine, Zoahnône says:

“The flower networks constitute a local ecology unique on this planet. If the balance of this ecology is upset by careless behaviour, sourced in humans or in gynoids, then the flower networks will die, and with them all the knowledge that presently they hold. The beauty of this knowledge is alone a reason to save it, quite apart from its utility…”

“I still don’t see the link between remaking gynoids and saving culture,” interrupted Manserphine.

“This is the link. As I said, the flower networks comprise an ecology. Part of this ecology is abstract. The metaphors of knowledge contained in the networks can be influenced. If those metaphors become overly cold and intellectual, concerned with simple power or selfish acquisition, then the flower networks will fade. If on the other hand the metaphors become warm, emotional, concerned with moral value and the joy of existence, then the flower networks will survive.”

“But why?”

“Because each network flower is a proto-gynoid,” said Zoahnône. “We enjoy the benefits of an ecological technology… If these proto-gynoids are predisposed to embodied existence, then the metaphors of the networks will over time evolve to account for that, bringing about the result I desire. They will do this because metaphor and physicality act upon one another in a never ending cycle. But if the proto-gynoids are predisposed to the temptations of interchangeable existence, then the intellectual metaphor will over time come to dominate.”

Here Zoahnône points out to the naïve Manserphine that the networks and the people using them exist in a self-reinforcing unity, not unlike the negative feedback/positive feedback mechanisms of Earth’s Gaian system, or Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘strange loops.’ The women of Veneris understand some of this through their Shrine of Our Sister Crone, but the men of the Shrine of the Green Man do not. Their attitude is explicitly narcissistic: they intend to domineer, to impose their will upon the reality of their environment. They can’t even see women as people in their own right – in calling them un-men, they describe them only in terms of themselves.

As I suggested in my The Freedom Delusion blog, the idea that we can do anything we like on our planet is a dangerous, self-destructive delusion. We are not free, and those political and cultural systems which emphasise freedom at the expense of everything else are arrogance personified. The planet limits us through natural ecology; and the time has come to recognise that.

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