The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Catching Up

I've recently finished my latest SF novel, provisionally titled Learning the World and even apart from the looming Christmas I've not been short of things to do. Having recklessly agreed to write short stories for no less than four anthologies, three of them deadlined for next year, I feel as if I'm climbing the lower slopes of Mount Stross. I also have my next novel to think about. And I still haven't decided what it's going to be. I have three ideas knocking about in my head at the moment. The first, on which I've actually done some research and note-taking, is The Bright Command (formerly pencilled in as The Dark Queen's Day), an addition to the still small sub-genre of Dark Lord revisionism. (That's where the multiracial horde with lowly accents and ugly faces who build noisome factories all over fantasyland are the good guys. I like Lord of the Rings, don't get me wrong, but aren't there moments when it feels a bit like Gone With the Wind without the frocks?) It won't be fantasy. It'll have some fantasy look-and-feel, at least at first, but it's straight SF. The setting is a planet elsewhere in the infinite universe that is another Earth with a different history and geography, but with enough similarity in languages that I don't have to make up funny names. The second, to which I've given some incoherent thought, is a kick-start to the hitherto non-existent genre of New Cosy Catastrophe: a good pint of Wyndham with a side of Ballardian bitter and twisted. The strapline for The Execution Channel is 'The War on Terror is over. Terror won.' And finally, a mere evil gleam in my eye, is Storm the Sky!, an epic of the socialist industrialisation of the Solar system. Of course if I really was on the Stross curve I would write all three.

Speaking of Stross, I've been reading his forthcoming Accelerando, and it's really, really good. It has the sort of conceptual density you'd expect from someone taking cyberpunk as default, as read, as a done deal, the way cyberpunk took New Wave, New Wave took Golden Age, and Golden Age took Gernsback.

One thing I haven't been doing is blogging. So here are some links to better stuff than I could write anyway. Via the always interesting and often wrong SIAW, a good piece about Neil Ascherson's much-linked-to review of Deutscher on Trotsky. Then, if you like, you could always read a much more surprising lament for Deutscher by Peter Sedgewick, of whose writing it could (almost) be said, as he did of Orwell:

Every page is compulsively readable, and usually says something very funny, even if it happens to be wrong.

There are virtually no other political journalists from this period
[...] whose collected output could be printed today except as a dreadful warning.

Sedgewick wrote a likewise surprising and informative (and regretably incomplete) study of Orwell, and (just to show that he had a finger on the pulse of his own time, the 1960s) a quite remarkably spot-on review of the then high-point of English Marxist thought, the famous anthology Towards Socialism, pinned forever to the dissecting-board as Theory at the Hour of Wilson.

Paying for People Power

Conservative columnist and historian Mark Almond recalls his days as a Cold War bagman who 'carried tens of thousands of dollars to Soviet-bloc dissidents':
Throughout the 1980s, in the build-up to 1989's velvet revolutions, a small army of volunteers - and, let's be frank, spies - co-operated to promote what became People Power. A network of interlocking foundations and charities mushroomed to organise the logistics of transferring millions of dollars to dissidents. The money came overwhelmingly from Nato states and covert allies such as "neutral" Sweden.
The hangover from People Power is shock therapy. Each successive crowd is sold a multimedia vision of Euro-Atlantic prosperity by western-funded "independent" media to get them on the streets. No one dwells on the mass unemployment, rampant insider dealing, growth of organised crime, prostitution and soaring death rates in successful People Power states.

In 1989, our security services honed an ideal model as a mechanism for changing regimes, often using genuine volunteers. Dislike of the way communist states constrained ordinary people's lives led me into undercover work, but witnessing mass pauperisation and cynical opportunism in the 1990s bred my disillusionment.

Of course, I should have recognised the symptoms of corruption earlier. Back in the 1980s, our media portrayed Prague dissidents as selfless academics who were reduced to poverty for their principles, when they were in fact receiving $600-monthly stipends. Now they sit in the front row of the new Euro-Atlantic ruling class. The dowdy do-gooder who seemed so devoted to making sure that every penny of her "charity" money got to a needy recipient is now a facilitator for investors in our old stamping grounds. The end of history was the birth of consultancy.

Grown cynical, the dissident types who embezzled the cash to fund, say, a hotel in the Buda hills did less harm than those that launched politico-media careers. In Poland, the ex-dissident Adam Michnik's Agora media empire - worth $400m today - grew out of the underground publishing world of Solidarity, funded by the CIA in the 1980s. His newspapers now back the war in Iraq, despite its huge unpopularity among Poles.

Meanwhile, from the shipyard workers who founded Solidarity in 1980 to the Kolubara miners of Serbia, who proclaimed their town "the Gdansk of Serbia" in October 2000, millions now have plenty of time on their hands to read about their role in history.
As a somewhat less successful former bag-carrier myself, I know how he feels.


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