|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Saturday, June 06, 2020
• 2019: An Introduction – Donna Scott
• The Anxiety Gene – Rhiannon Grist
• The Land of Grunts and Squeaks – Chris Beckett
• For Your Own Good – Ian Whates
• Neom – Lavie Tidhar
• Once You Start – Mike Morgan
• For the Wicked, Only Weeds Will Grow – G. V. Anderson
• Fat Man in the Bardo – Ken MacLeod
• Cyberstar – Val Nolan
• The Little People – Una McCormack
• The Loimaa Protocol – Robert Bagnall
• The Adaptation Point – Kate Macdonald
• The Final Ascent – Ian Creasey
• A Lady of Ganymede, a Sparrow of Io – Dafydd McKimm
• Snapshots – Leo X. Robertson
• Witch of the Weave – Henry Szabranski
• Parasite Art – David Tallerman
• Galena – Liam Hogan
• Ab Initio – Susan Boulton
• Ghosts – Emma Levin
• Concerning the Deprivation of Sleep – Tim Major
• Every Little Star – Fiona Moore
• The Minus-Four Sequence – Andrew Wallace
My short story 'Fat Man in the Bardo', originally published in Shoreline of Infinity 14, and I'm well chuffed to see it here.
(TOC layout copy and pasted from the redoubtable Lavie Tidhar, who as you can see also has a story in it.)
Wednesday, May 06, 2020
So I was happy to contribute a story to an anthology of SF, fantasy and horror conceived and edited by Ian Whates at NewCon Press, and compiled and published with breathtaking speed. At a quarter of a million words from some of the leading names in the field, a paperback version would be an epoch-making brick that cost a significant chunk of cash. Electronic and weightless, Stories of Hope and Wonder is a steal at £5.99 / $7.99. Every penny of the proceeds goes straight to providing PPE and other support to UK healthcare workers. A significant amount, I understand, has already been raised and donated. More is needed.
They can't wait. Buy it now.
Monday, April 13, 2020
NewCon Press. Some years ago, between book contracts, I started writing a paranormal romance as an exercise, leaving it half-finished when the awaited boat came in. An online publisher showed interest in it as a novella, and was happy to wait until I'd finished The Corporation Wars. When I completed the novella two years ago, it was still front-loaded with an opening more suitable for a longer work, and for that and other reasons it didn't quite make the cut. I tinkered with it some more, and passed it to Ian Whates, who liked it and helpfully suggested further improvements. And after many vicissitudes, including a last-minute page-proof realisation that a Skye summer sunset was about an hour and a half later than I'd originally written, it's good to go! I'm very happy with the book's editing and production, and downright thrilled and delighted with Ben Baldwin's cover.
I'm not sure if Selkie Summer meets the criteria for paranormal romance, but it's still about a young woman who falls for a paranormal entity. It's set in a contemporary Scotland much like ours, except that certain paranormal entities definitely exist and this is taken for granted as a fact of natural history. Partly as a consequence, there is no Skye Bridge.
It was due to be launched by me and Ian at Cymera 2020, which has now been cancelled (though it has some online content, and will have more, so keep checking it out). Meanwhile, you can hear me reading from the opening chapter in the online version of Edinburgh's monthly science fiction and fantasy cabaret, Event Horizon.
Another event that has had to move online is the Edinburgh Science Festival. I was honoured to be asked to give a short talk on a non-religious topic at the Festival's traditional St Giles service. I happened to have just read a book that got me thinking about contingency, Corliss Lamont's Freedom of Choice Affirmed, so I freely chose to talk about that. And as the contingencies we all know worked out, it's now online here.
Edwin Morgan Twenties, a set of five selections of twenty poems by the late great Makar, with introductions by Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Ali Smith, Michael Rosen and me. You can buy the set for the bargain price of £16 (UK post free) or pick and mix.
'Space and spaces', the one I wrote the introduction to, brings together many of Morgan's science fiction and space poems -- and one or two that make a more metaphorical use of 'space' to brilliant effect. Like the other selections it's a mere £4 (UK post free) and is available here.
UPDATE 14 April 2020: Selkie Summer is due to be published 19 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from NewCon Press.
Monday, February 17, 2020
Democratic Left Scotland, n.d. (2018)
Neal Ascherson, the subject Tom Nairn, and the painter, Sandy Moffat.
It has already been reviewed, briefly and enthusiastically by Davie Laing, and lengthily and discursively by Rory Scothorne. There's no need for me to review it here, inevitable quibbles though I may have – I can only recommend it, as a small piece of history, and a useful summary of an argument that is still influencing that history.
The title, apt as the pun on 'painting' no doubt was for the occasion, does less than justice to the content: a concise intellectual biography of Nairn by the journalist who did a great deal to make his ideas part of common sense. Ascherson saw Scotland in an international context provided by his own wide-ranging life; Nairn's intellectual formation was likewise cosmopolitan; and for both Scotland was key to dismantling the 'archaic' structures of the British state.
The pamphlet can be obtained by sending a cheque for £4 (10% discount for orders of 10 or more) to:
Democratic Left Scotland,
9 MacAulay Street, Dundee DD3 6JT
If the archaic structures of 'cheque' and 'post' are too constraining, you can always enquire of the publisher by telephony and the interwebs:
Telephone 07826 488492
Email stuartfairweather [at] ymail [dot] com
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Edinburgh University Press, 2020
How well I remember Scotland in the 1980s! Scunnered by the failure of even a majority vote to establish a Scottish Assembly, snookered by the Cunningham Amendment, gubbed in the first round of the World Cup, gutted and filleted by Thatcherism, disillusioned by repeatedly voting Labour and getting Tory ... only the writers and artists remained standing, to produce a body of self-confident work that firmly established the nation on the global cultural map. Together with dedicated political and civic activists they in due course lifted its spirits to the heights of gaining its own Parliament. They accomplished a devolution – or independence -- of the mind and heart, well in advance of its political achievement.
I remember it like this, of course, because I wasn't there. I was in London, reading all about it in the columns of Neal Ascherson and the volumes of Tom Nairn. Now and again I'd browse a journal or pamphlet from the Scottish literary or political edge. Scotland from afar seemed to have a more democratic, more socialist and more egalitarian spirit than England – particularly the South- East of England – and this consciousness showed through in the culture it had inherited as much as in the culture it now produced. And since I moved back in the early 1990s, the same story has become received wisdom, not least among writers and artists.
According to Scott Hames's new book, the real story is a bit more complicated than that. So much more complicated, indeed, that it's hard to summarise. If he's missed a magazine, a literary feud, a Commission or a Report, it's not for want of looking. The discussion is sometimes dry, the narrative always engaging. The savagery of the spats he disinters from the archival peat-bog is eye-opening. Hames contrasts 'The Dream' of literary nationalism with 'The Grind' of political procedure (characterised in this case more by friction than motion). Two features stand out, all the more because in retrospect they're often overlooked. The first is how radical an aim devolution seemed, and how bright it shone in the literary imagination. The second is how conservative – how conserving -- a manoeuvre its implementation was, driven far more by the need of the British state and the Labour Party to 'manage national feeling' than by the SNP, whose votes were read as fever-chart symptom rather than political challenge.
In focusing on the cultural and the political, Hames avowedly and explicitly omits the economic and the social. This is fair enough in its own terms, but it's liable to leave the reader's inner vulgar Marxist – if they, like me, they have one -- sputtering. The oversight, if we can call it that, is overcompensated in the novel whose analysis gets a chapter to itself: James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still. It's the most ambitious Scottish realist novel for decades, grand in scale and scope and an immersive read. Ranging from the late 1940s to the early 21st Century, the novel interweaves family sagas and stories of personal individuation with political and parapolitical history to tell one overarching epic: the growth of national consciousness.
And therein lies one problem with it. It's as if at the back of every honest, decent Scot's mind is a relentless yammer of 'You Yes Yet?' Older generations are permitted to die in the old dispensation, shriven by their invincible ignorance, but those who live in the light of the new have no excuse. If they step off the path to nationhood they sink in the slough of self-loathing – as the two major pro-Union characters, an alcoholic police spy and a Tory MP undone by a secret fetish, in the end do.
Robertson conducts a large and varied cast through a long time and a complex plot with great skill to a most satisfactory click of closure. But, Hames argues, the difficulty of integrating the characters' lives with a political history that mostly consisted of tiny conventicles and ceilidhs in literally smoke-filled rooms and debates in widely unread periodicals, and that now and then took public form as 'set-piece' events in parliaments and streets, can defeat even the best novelist – even though Robertson was himself on those marches and in those rooms. It's a problem familiar in science fiction: one reviewer cited refers to Robertson's 'info-dumping', a term from the lexicon of SF criticism.
Hames's final chapters deal with Scots, the language, in relation to Scots, the people – and 'people' too is ambiguous, referring as it can to the nation as a whole or to 'the people' as opposed to the elite. Here Scots is an abrasion almost as raw as Gaelic, and more widely felt. At the risk of rubbing it, here's how it went. Centuries ago, Scots was an official language, known as Inglis. It was used at Court and in courts, in poetry and prose. For readers outwith Scotland, you wrote in Latin like any other literate European. After the Union of the Crowns and the Treaty of Union, the United Kingdom conquered a third of the world, and English replaced Latin as the de facto lingua franca. Scots was pushed out of administrative, then everyday upper-and-middle-class speech. Its several dialects became the language of the working poor of town and country. (Except in the Highlands, where the people were schooled and regimented straight from Gaelic into Standard English, which of course they spoke in their own distinct way.)
In the first Scottish literary renaissance, MacDiarmid and others sought to revive Scots as a national language, which they called Lallans or (because of the fusion of Scots dialects) 'Synthetic Scots'. This produced some great poems, but in polemic and reportage it can come across as as affectation. Fights between the Lallans-scrievin old guard and the younger, more outward-facing literary intelligentsia flared in the 1960s and 1970s. But some new writers found another aspect of the language question, and one that far from being esoteric was central to everyday life, at least in the Central Belt. Modern vernacular Scots is different enough even from Scottish Standard English to separate the home and the school, the working class and the middle class. That difference could literally hurt, could smart and bruise, from the classroom tawse and the playground clout. At the same time, and very much as part of what Nairn excoriated as the conservative 'tartanry' of the proud Scot, the Scots language appeared in print as a quaint rustic dialect, in English spelling spattered with apostrophes, from Burns Night to the Broons patronised to within an inch of its life.
Now here I do remember personally, from the 1970s. Seeing for the first time urban West of Scotland demotic speech rendered phonetically in print, in Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket by Margaret Hamilton, and 'Six Glasgow Poems' in Tom Leonard's Poems (1973), was a mental liberation. Almost as much, for me, as seeing for the first time Highland English dialogue accurately conveyed, in the children's novels of Allan Campbell McLean. The release came from not being patronised or mocked. Only that!
Not a lot to ask, you might think, but this modest request was seldom met with comprehension, let alone satisfaction. As an issue with which to elide class hurt with national grievance, it packed a wallop. But only, or mainly, on the individual level. In a country and at a time where upward social mobility is closely connected with further education and a change in language, the typical agonies of the intellectual of working-class origin growing away from their roots and the socialist of middle-class origin separated by accent and vocabulary from the class they most wish to speak to (or, problematically, for) are widespread enough to make these private pains a social force.
Scotland's peculiar development, however, has meant that Scots has very little chance of becoming the national language. Stranger things have happened, but... Naw. More likely, and well under way, is its official celebration as one of several languages spoken in Scotland. This provides gainful employment to some, and bewilderment to schoolchildren who speak what they think is English, but which they are now taught (in English) is another language, Scots.
As Hames suggests, this linguistic and social devolution within the devolved polity serves to defuse any class and national charge that spoken Scots still has, and offers its speakers symbolic representation in the place of – or at least, quite independently of – any actual power. The identity politics of a section of the working class is assimilated to the identity politics of the nation, to which its characteristic manner of speech is supposed to lend authentic voice. What this contributes to the material condition, let alone the social and political self-confidence, of the working class within Scotland is another matter entirely. All those years after Trainspotting, it's still shite being Scottish.
Like the devolution settlement as a whole, this uneasy arrangement leaves a lot of unfinished business. Looking back on the Scottish 1980s that I saw only from a safe distance, I have a wry suspicion that somebody was running a Gramscian strategy through those smoke-filled rooms. That self-effacing Modern Prince has yet to have their share of glory. Be that as it may, the smoke-free Scotland of 2020 cries out for an analysis of likewise Gramscian canniness. Scott Hames's book is avowedly not it, but points towards that, and beyond to an unknown 'utopian' future wherein we speak for ourselves.
Tuesday, January 07, 2020
Zero Books, 2016
It can be disconcerting to read a book that upends your way of looking at the world. It's even more disconcerting when that book claims your own work as part of its inspiration. About which, more later.
The book's title and Soviet-kitsch cover are deeply ironic: baiting for some, and bait for others. In the alternate-history world Cunliffe imagines, Lenin is almost forgotten, because he succeeded. (It's tempting to add 'beyond his wildest dreams' but success beyond Lenin's wildest dreams would have meant spreading the revolution to the canal-builders of Mars.)
For what Lenin and the Bolsheviks set out to do in 1917 was to detonate an international, indeed global, revolution. This was an immediate perspective, where revolutionary romanticism meant staking all on the world revolution breaking out next week, while sober realism meant bearing in mind that it might be delayed for a few more months. In fact even the realists were too optimistic: it was delayed for a whole year. In November 1918 the red flags went up over the naval base at Kiel, and flew over all Germany within days. And then...
Well, everybody knows.
But what if the grip of German Social Democratic reformism had been that little bit shakier, and the revolutionary Left that little bit better organised and luckier? Cunliffe speculates on what sort of world might now exist, and how it might have come about, if the revolution that began in Russia had not only spread – as it did – but won, as it didn't.
In this missed turn of history, a decade or so of wars and civil wars see the capitalist core countries having gone socialist. The major independent underdeveloped countries have gone democratic, and the former colonial holdings have mostly opted to remain in loose voluntary federations that have replaced the empires. It's not all plain sailing but the resulting democratic workers' states of Europe and America are much less repressive than Bolshevik, let alone Stalinist, Russia was in our world. Planning emerges from increasing coordination (as indeed it did under the New Economic Policy) rather central imposition. Industrialisation proceeds at a brisk but measured, rather than a frantic, pace. Art, science, culture and personal freedom flourish. This is a world with no fascism or Stalinism, no Depression and no Second World War. Whether or not the reader finds it feasible or desirable, it's attractively and vigorously portrayed.
Cunliffe's alternate history has no decisive moment (no Jonbar Point, to use the science-fictional term) that I can see. Instead, the international revolutionary working-class movement (which, as Cunliffe usefully and repeatedly reminds us) actually did exist at the time is imagined as having been just a little bit stronger in arm and clearer in mind than it was in our world. It's by no means an unrealistic speculation. Even in our world, it was a close-run thing. So close, in fact, that stamping out every last smouldering ember of world revolution took tens of years and tens of millions of lives. But its suppression is now, at last, complete.
E. H. Carr, in an article or interview for New Left Review, remarked that all of Marx's predictions had come true, except for the proletarian revolution. Cunliffe's view is gloomier: he thinks that they all came true, including the revolution. It really happened, in 1917-1923, and the revolutionaries bungled it.
When most readers of the Communist Manifesto encounter the passage about how throughout history classes have waged 'an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes' the example that springs to mind is the Fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarians. What Marx and Engels were really alluding to, Cunliffe argues, was subtly different: the Fall of the Republic, rather than the Fall of the Empire. It was the class struggles of patrician and plebeian in the Roman Republic that ended in mutual ruination, and stymied any chance of further progress centuries before the Empire fell.
If readers of the Manifesto are socialists, the common ruin they envisage for bourgeoisie and proletariat is a nuclear war or environmental catastrophe. No such luck, Cunliffe tells us: the common ruin has already happened. The class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is over. The good guys lost. Get over it.
But the non-socialist reader can take no comfort. The suppression of communism, Cunliffe claims, undermined capitalism, sapping its economic dynamism and political stability. With no competing model – however unattractive in many respects – to keep it on its toes, capitalism becomes a couch potato. With no union militancy and shop-floor organisation to contend with, capitalists have less incentive to innovate and rationalise. With no need to integrate the working class in the affairs of state, mass political participation and engagement have been texted their redundancy notices.
The result, however, is that the elites and the rest of the population are more mutually alienated than they ever were in the class struggle. To the political class and state authorities, the ideas and attitudes of the underlying multitude are as a dark continent, viewed with alarm and suspicion, alternately patronised and deplored. Unmoored from the clash of material interests, politics drifts into a Sargasso Sea of slowly, pointlessly, endlessly swirling debris. Debate degenerates into a grandstanding narcissism of small differences around an elite consensus dedicated solely to keeping the show on the road. Political apathy and populist eruptions are its morbid symptoms. The ruin was mutual, and the ruins are where we must henceforth live.
This exhausted order could in principle totter along indefinitely, were it not for the instabilities, internal and external, that result. The political and moral authority of the state quietly unravels, even as its hard power and reach expand. As Britain's riots of 2011 starkly exposed, social order itself can dissipate overnight. And the quest for moral authority at home is transmitted all too easily into rash adventuring abroad, in the name of democratic and liberal values. To explain, say, the Iraq war as motivated by strategic or economic concerns, a 'war for oil', as leftists are wont to do, is misconceived. There's no underlying interest to expose: the war's liberal-democratic rationalisation really is what it's all about. As Tony Blair said: 'It's worse than you think. I believe in it.'
Readers of my own novels, particularly the Fall Revolution books and some of the more recent ones such as Intrusion and Descent, may find some of the themes outlined above familiar. In the early 1990s when I started writing my first novel, I was convinced that the Left had suffered a whopping, world-historic defeat with the fall of the Soviet bloc regardless of how critical or even hostile they had been to it. However, I did expect that this defeat would in time be overcome.
[Added 10 Jan 2020 The controversial magazine Living Marxism (which became LM and then Sp!ked) spelled out the depth of the defeat and its consequences forcefully in the 1990s, and naturally I paid attention. Cunliffe seems to have drawn on that school of thought too, and in fact has spelled out its logic in Marxist terms more clearly than most. Hence, I think, any parallels. As Cunliffe has kindly clarified, the main source of inspiration in my work for Lenin Lives! was the alt-history novella The Human Front, which doesn't deal with these themes at all.]
Whatever else it does, Lenin Lives! answers a question that has baffled better minds than mine: how on earth did a splinter of the far left mutate into a cadre of contrarian libertarian Brexiters? Two lines of explanation are often explored. The first is that they remain revolutionary communists under deep cover, engaged in some nefarious long-term scheme. The second is that they have been themselves subverted, suborned by the corporations from which they receive funding. I could go into the various reasons why both are wide of the mark, but I've already gone on long enough. By now you can figure it out for yourself:
It's worse than you think. They really believe in it.
Tuesday, December 31, 2019
So if you wanted to know what I thought about Brexit, Trump, Corbyn etc you'd have to look at my Twitter feed. Even on Twitter, I've more or less stopped arguing. Life's too short and I have books to write. But I should have said more here about recent developments in Britain while they were happening.
I registered as a supporter of the Labour Party in time to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I joined in time to vote for Richard Leonard. And I've been reasonably active locally since, knocking on doors and going to meetings. Inverclyde, the constituency where I live, used to be solid Labour and is now solidly SNP. After a massive swing to the SNP in 2015, the gap narrowed to a few hundred in 2017. We worked very hard to close it over the past couple of years and harder still in the election campaign, to be rewarded by a vastly increased SNP majority.
As for the rest of the UK...
Leave was England's Yes.