The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

John McDonnell: My Part in his Rise

In the spring of 1977 I was a resident of Hayes, a research student at Brunel University, and a raw and active supporter of the International Marxist Group. The IMG had a few hundred members and was widely considered to punch above its weight. It did, but in so many directions that it hit mostly air.

The then Labour Government led by James Callaghan tried to deal with the crisis of the postwar settlement by extending social reforms in exchange for wage restraint. This strategy, begun under Harold Wilson, was known as the Social Contract, and was already under severe strain. The reforms were significant but seemed inadequate, and in any case their effects were for the most part jam tomorrow. Wage increases were jam today. The government's policies were widely opposed by the left inside and outside the Labour Party, by a militant minority of trade unionists, and by broader unrest among women, black people and disaffected youth. In Northern Ireland, no hope for an end – of any kind -- to the Troubles was remotely in sight. The Labour Government was opposed or pressured from the right, of course: by sections of the state, the City, almost all the press, the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher, and the small but fast-growing National Front and other fascist groups. Seldom has the spotlit enclave been more relentlessly shelled.

Looking back, standing candidates against Labour in local elections might not seem the best use of the far left's slender resources, but stand candidates we did. The IMG stood four candidates in that year's elections for the Greater London Council. Hardly anybody had heard of the IMG, so its candidates stood as Socialist (IMG). We had badges and everything. I may still have one.

One GLC constituency in which we stood was Southall, central to which was the largest Asian community -- overwhelmingly industrial working class and small-business in social composition -- in West London. The Socialist (IMG) candidate for Southall was Gerry Hedley, a modest, serious and cheerful militant. A lecturer in art, he had no roots in Southall, but he had support and endorsement from local activists who did. When Hedley addressed one meeting of what seemed like hundreds, from bearded elders to young radicals, he got supportive speeches from the platform in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English.

One local labour movement left-wing activist whose support we were keen to get was John McDonnell. I, along with a far more dedicated and experienced comrade, met him in a cafe to sound him out. McDonnell may have agreed with many of our criticisms of Callaghan's Labour, but he was adamant that he wouldn't endorse our candidate. The Labour Party's rules, then as now, were strict. Any member who supported a non-Labour candidate in an election would be slung out on their ear. McDonnell had no intention of that happening to him. In the end, we pleaded with him to at least privately vote for us, and perhaps hint to a few close and trusted comrades that lending us their vote might... McDonnell was having none of it. We parted cordially, empty-handed.

If we'd been more persuasive, or if he'd been less staunch in his loyalty to the Labour Party, John McDonnell would almost certainly not now be the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Say not the struggle naught availeth.

This footnote in history has two footnotes of its own:

1. GLC May 1977 Southall election results (Source, pdf) (See also)

Seive, Mrs Y. Labour 13,330
Schindler, R. Conservative 12,417
Stevens, K. Liberal 2,094
Franklin, Mrs B.P. National Front 1,872
Hedley, G.A. Socialist (IMG) 996

2. Gerry Hedley became Reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art and an innovative researcher in the field of fine art conservation, where he is still – many years after his untimely death in a climbing accident -- remembered with great respect.
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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Time Enough for Thought

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn, Unbound, 2019.

Full disclosure up front: the author is an old friend. Unbound is a crowd-funded publisher, and my name is one of hundreds listed who pre-supported this book.

Heinlein was for better or worse one of the great names of science fiction. In his generation and age-group, he stood alongside Asimov and Clarke as one of the genre's public intellectuals: the chaps who got called into television studios to talk about moonshots. Asimov and Clarke, for all their obvious differences and Clarke's agoraphilic sublime, were united in their basic world outlook. Both were liberal secular humanist futurists, and what you saw was what you got. Heinlein was something else: an original moralist, complex and contradictory but always (it seemed) confident. He got under his readers' skins and into their minds in unexpected ways. In that respect, oddly, he can better be compared to Le Guin.

In my early teens, reading the stories collected in Revolt in 2100 ('"If This Goes On—"', 'Coventry', and 'Misfit') had a lasting impact. Heinlein had a knack for the throwaway, delayed-action bombshell: a casual reference to a theology curriculum that included 'mob psychology and basic miracles' being one from that book. And Starship Troopers gave me a lot to think about at the time, though probably not the thoughts the writer intended, which says something for him.

I've read nearly all the juveniles, many of the short stories and nearly all the novels except the late long ones, which I've always bounced off.

Heinlein has been the subject of a definitive biography, major critical studies during and after his life, and an immense and growing amount of academic and fan criticism. But he remains so vast and various that there's always more to say, and Mendlesohn says it here. Her approach has been to read (re-read) every publicly available thing Heinlein wrote, and only then to read (re-read) everything in print, and a lot of what's online, about him.

After a brief introduction and a useful potted biography, Mendlesohn devotes successive chapters to Heinlein's fiction (short stories, juveniles, and adult novels), technique and rhetoric. She then applies her close reading of the texts to Heinlein's handling of civics and politics, racism and antiracism, ethics, sex and sexuality. Heinlein's political shifts are related to his deeper consistencies in interesting and unexpected ways: individual and community, patriotism and radicalism, democracy and revolution, family and free love all turn out to have more complicated dialectics across his work as a whole than a partial reading -- which is, of course, all that most readers have – would suggest.

Mendlesohn's dismantling of the disaster of Farnham's Freehold -- and her answer to the inevitable appalled question 'What the fuck was he thinking?' – is patient and persuasive. The discussion of sex, sexuality and gender in Heinlein's work is full of surprises and rigorously argued.

This effort to read with fresh eyes has paid off. On almost every page there's a new insight or an arresting remark. Mendlesohn takes Heinlein seriously as a thinker, and makes you think.
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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Boldly Going

I'm proud to say I have a story in issue 14 of Shoreline of Infinity. 'Fat Man in the Bardo' takes up the widely overlooked plight of the innocent victims of thought experiments, human, feline and otherwise. Of course, as itself a thought experiment, the story only makes the problem worse, but I'll just have to live with that responsibility. The story appears in very good company: fiction, poetry and non-fiction from a wide range of writers.

And there's more!

The enterprising folk at Shoreline of Infinity are putting on an Event Horizon special for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The topic is:

Science Fiction: can it guide us to a glorious future ... or will it lead us to disaster and dystopia?

8pm – 9.30pm, THURSDAY 11th April 2019

Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh

Tickets £8.50/£6.50 from the Science Festival website, here.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Event Horizon extends to Glasgow

That fine SF magazine from Scotland, Shoreline of Infinity, has been going from strength to strength. One of its innovations has been to sponsor a regular cabaret in Edinburgh, Event Horizon, featuring readings, music, and the jokes of Russell Jones, poet by day and MC by night. As a student Russell worked in a Christmas cracker factory, where he swept up rejected jokes off the floor and (contrary to regulations) stashed them for later use. Over the years his deployment of these jokes has inspired scientists and students in Event Horizon audiences to work on a time machine to go back and stop him before it's too late.

Meanwhile, you can now hear these jokes and much, much more in Glasgow, this very week!
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Monday, December 31, 2018

Astounding revelations

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee, 2018, Dey St.

I was given this book for Christmas, started reading it on Boxing Day, and finished it yesterday. So this is not a review. Instead, it's a few reflections provoked by reading the book. You can read about the book, with links to many rave reviews, here. I can only add my enthusiastic recommendation.

The first surprise, for me, was the sub-title. I knew, of course, that Hubbard was a popular pulp SF writer before he became otherwise famous. I knew too that Campbell had been keen on Hubbard's original discovery of the secret of life, Dianetics. Until I read Astounding I had no idea at all that Hubbard was in his SF heyday as big a name as the other three. Nor did I realise just how much Campbell put into Dianetics, the book, and dianetics, the movement.

I'm just old enough to have read Campbell editorials in Analog more or less live – a friend in Greenock High School lent me a stack of then-recent back issues. I had read a bit about Campbell, so I knew he was a legendary editor. The writers I most looked up to looked up to him. His distinctly right-wing musings and his brusque manner of thought meshed perfectly with the attitudes I'd already picked up from Heinlein and other Golden Age writers. It's sobering (as well as, in a way, inspiring) to see the extent to which what I thought of as 'the science-fictional outlook' (basically, that the world is best approached as an engineering problem) was constructed by a handful of Campbellian cadre back in the 1940s. The trouble is that though these guys inspired lots of people to become scientists or engineers, they could be a little slapdash in their own constructions. One Analog editorial that sticks in my mind was about how little we knew of Mars from limited, local sampling of its soil. Campbell pointed out that some minerals on Earth are so rare they're only known from one location: for instance, greenockite, found only in and around Greenock. This (I've just learned), is not quite true. The mineral isn't found only in Greenock, it wasn't discovered in Greenock, and it's not named after the town of Greenock.

Among Campbell's more respectable enthusiasms was General Semantics, which it seems both he and Hubbard got via Heinlein. The most famous and overt influence of General Semantics on science fiction was A. E. Van Vogt's novel The World of Null-A, but smatterings of the jargon were widespread in Golden Age SF – I recall 'time-binding' from Fritz Leiber as well as Heinlein, 'the map is not the territory' from all over, and the solemn declaration that 'A difference that makes no difference is no difference' from the mouth of Spock in one of James Blish's novelizations.

As reading Astounding has reminded me, I may have got a stronger dose of General Semantics myself as a by-product of its prominence in SF. Possibly fed up with my third-hand blather on the topic, my English teacher, Joan Woods, shoved at me her well-thumbed copy of Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. I read it over a summer holiday and it did me a power of good. The notion of 'extensional orientation' (very roughly, paying a lot more attention to the world around you and paying a lot less respect to your current ideas about it) was almost literally an eye-opener.

It turns out you can learn quite a lot about Earth from local observation in Greenock.
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Monday, December 10, 2018

The Corporation Wars Trilogy

My three Corporation Wars novels from Orbit are now available (Amazon US / UK) as a one hefty paperback. They now look and feel like what they are: one big novel in three parts.

I can't let that last link pass, by the way, without quoting from it:
MacLeod manages big Ideas (political and futurological) and propulsive action without short-changing either side of that classic science-fictional tension-of-opposites, a trait he shares with Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross. I’m going add one more name and then duck behind the sofa: Heinlein.
The trilogy gets a good write-up on The Verge and on the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, which says:
MacLeod’s excellent Corporation Wars trilogy (Dissidence, Insurgence, Emergence) is collected into a single omnibus edition, telling the whole story of a universe where vicious, ruthless companies use sophisticated AIs to wage cold and hot wars over mining rights. The commands take time to transmit to the robots, however, and in the space between them, the AIs have to make their own decisions—a dangerous situation that indirectly leads them to sentience and self-actualization. Seba is one of those freshly sentient AIs, and sparked a revolution among its fellow “freeboot” minds. Trying to keep them under control is Carlos, a soldier who, via technology, has been reincarnated over and over again. When Carlos and Seba begin to see each other as pawns in a game larger than them both, things get truly interesting—and having all three books in one binding is going to be very convenient once you’re totally hooked and unable to stop turning pages.

It looks great, and is out in good time for Christmas. You can read a sample from the opening here.
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Monday, November 26, 2018

Thank you, Ursula

The Scottish Book Trust invited me to speak for ten minutes introducing the Glasgow Film Theatre's showing of Arwen Curry's documentary Worlds of Ursula k. Le Guin.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin Official Trailer from Arwen Curry on Vimeo.

It's a great honour to be asked to introduce this film. Thank you for inviting me.

The blue badge on my lapel says 'Thank You Ursula'. I picked it up a few months ago at the Locus Weekend, a science fiction event in Seattle, and going by the number I saw being worn at that and other local events the sentiment was widely felt. I'm sure you all share it. We miss Ursula Le Guin, and we have a lot to thank her for.

For her novels and stories and criticism, of course, and for more than that.  Among the many tributes on her death was that of John Scalzi who said that Le Guin 'was a supporting column of the genre, on equal footing and bearing equal weight to Verne or Wells or Heinlein or Bradbury. Losing her is like losing one of the great sequoias.'

Her loss was felt well outside the genres of science fiction and fantasy. She had achieved mainstream literary recognition, with a National Book Award and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But again it was more than that. For many in what seemed increasingly a dark time, she was a tribal elder, a wise woman.

She drew on anarchism, feminism, anthropology, ecology, and Taoism, but never uncritically or unquestioningly. She could be wickedly funny. In her essay 'A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy' (in the aptly titled 2017 collection No Time to Spare) she pointed out that plants are, as science is only now beginning to discover, sensitive and communicative beings. 'We don't know what the carrot feels.' We should eschew the slaughter of plants and live exclusively on water and oxygen.  'It is a pity that the Ogan movement by its nature and principles is fated to be, in each individual case, rather short-lived.'
I can't claim to have read all of her work, and I'm probably not alone here in that. But all of it that I have read has affected me deeply. As I've said elsewhere, her work 'embodies the stubborn virtue of seeing with both eyes, in depth and in colour, without looking away from or ignoring uncomfortable truths. ... Ursula Le Guin may be the SF writer most respected by the literary mainstream; the most studied academically, her work set texts in countless courses. She remains subversive, and her work dangerous reading, because it changes the reader and makes them look at the real world in a different light.'
One of the many remarkable things about Le Guin was how much she developed. Her early novels were fairly standard adventure SF. What made them stand out was their philosophic depth and poetic language. I first read City of Illusions in my late teens or early twenties, which as you may suspect was a long time ago. Some of the images, the lines, and the mood remained so strong in my memory that a year or two ago I began to worry that a novel I had been failing very hard to write for many years might be an unconscious plagiary of City of Illusions. So I re-read it, and I was surprised to find how kind my memory had been. The good bits I remembered were all there but they were embedded in a plot and setting and devices – alien invasion, telepathy, mind control -- that any competent pulp-SF writer could have written. What matters is that the good bits were what she built on. She very quickly shook off the husk of clunky skiffy plotting and worldbuilding and went on, as we all know, to write novels and stories that no one else could have written.

The first of these that I read was The Left Hand of Darkness, which again was in my late teens. This time I was blown away. One of the cover quotes of that edition was from Damon Knight, who said 'from the first page you find yourself totally immersed in it, and at the last page you come out of it with a start and a shiver', and that start and shiver captures exactly how I felt, when the narrator encounters Earth-human beings again after spending years in the company of Gethenians. It's us who look alien.

You get the same effect reading The Dispossessed, from different angles and all through the book. It escalates. You, the reader, are almost certainly living in capitalism, under a state; and you see how strange that would seem if you had always lived in a socialist anarchy. And of course the anarchy and the socialism look strange and alien to you. And then you see how some all-too-familiar aspects of your life here and now crop up in the imperfect utopia of Annares, and you also see how attractive, in many ways, the wealth that presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities is and would be to the exile from Annares. And on and on it turns and spirals. Then, quite suddenly and almost in passing, you see how both sides, Urras and Annares, look to someone from Earth. From our Earth, the ruined Earth of our probable future if we don't do something about it.

And again you fall out of the book with a start and a shiver.

Then there are the short stories, 'The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas', 'The Day Before the Revolution', 'Nine Lives', and one of my absolute all-time favourites, 'The Author of the Acacia Seeds, and other Extracts from The Journal of Therolinguistics'.

And then there's the fantasy, of which other than some short stories I have only read The Earthsea Trilogy. I read that to my daughter when she was still young enough to need a bedtime story but old enough to enjoy it; and I have to say there were places where it was hard to read without my voice cracking.

In her National Book Award acceptance speech Le Guin said:

 Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Her words went around the world and she is with us as long as they are. Thank you Ursula.

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