|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Monday, January 14, 2013
The panel that investigated the complaint and exonerated the accused was made up of five women and two men, most of whom had worked closely with the accused and all of whom had known him for years. As is painfully clear from the transcript, they all took their duty to be impartial with the utmost seriousness, despite its manifest impossibility. Why they nevertheless went ahead with the investigation is difficult to explain, at least in terms that make sense to anyone on the outside.
The debacle has now gone mainstream. It turns out that earlier outrage over how the case was being handled lies behind the formation of two declared opposition factions in the run-up to the conference. We learn that China Mieville, the well-known writer and a long-term party member, is aghast. The high-profile SWP blogger and author Richard Seymour is in open revolt. These and others have saved their own honour. Whether they can save that of their party remains to be seen.
The SWP has made plenty of enemies over the years, some of them on the left. I'm not among them, despite my often stated disagreement with much that the party thinks and does. All the more vehemently, then, should I say that this latest development leaves me sick. It was through the SWP's precursor that I made my first acquaintance with Marxism. The organisation's journal from the 60s and 70s shows an engagement with the real world that was, shall we say, not always obvious in some other parts of the left particularly at the time. I soon found my way, for better or worse, to a different tradition (and then another again). When the latter collapsed around me, and the world continued to burn, I joined the SWP for a couple of years in the early 90s. I made my disagreement with some of the party's most cherished verities clear before, during, and after my membership, and these disagreements have only deepened since. Never once did I face anything but argument. Others have had less happy experiences with the SWP. Its internal life and its way of relating to broader movements have left all too many people with lasting grudges. Maybe I was just lucky. Twenty years later, I still know, like, and respect people I met back then. I hope some of them are fighting against the disaster their party's leadership has brought down on their heads. Unless that fight succeeds, the party is done for.
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
'Humanism,' wrote H. J. Blackham, 'proceeds from an assumption that man is on his own and this life is all and an assumption of responsibility for one's own life and for the life of mankind - an appraisal and an undertaking, two personal decisions. Less than this is never humanism.'
Coming from the first director of the British Humanist Association, and author of Humanism, the Pelican Original (1968) from which the above is taken, this seems authoritative enough. Challenging enough, too, when you think about its implications - which, of course, Blackham spent the rest of his fine book doing.
One that he missed is hidden in the phrase 'the life of mankind'. When we read that today, of course, we immediately politically correct it to 'the life of humanity', but we probably have much the same vague mental image as Blackham may have had in 1968, something like a blur of National Geographic pages flicking past, maybe the UN flag, the Earth from space, babies in Africa, suits in Manhattan, lab coats and microscopes ...
Whatever it is, it's wrong. Because 'the life of humanity' surely includes future humanity, and future humanity is much, much bigger than we think. Even if we never go out into space on any large scale, and merely send out machines to beam us solar energy, ward off asteroid impacts, and explore, and the human population stabilises at ten billion or so (or whatever anyone, Greens apart, considers a stable population) we're still talking about vast numbers of human lives over the next thousand years, or ten thousand, or hundred thousand, or million years ... and why stop there? Some species have survived almost unchanged for tens of millions of years. There's no reason in principle why we shouldn't be among them - or, if we aren't, having some cultural continuity with our successors. Nor is there any reason, in principle, for our civilization to collapse.
Taking responsibility for that is a big, scary deal. We're living in the very early days of human civilization. And that's just the start. If we relax the constraint of most of us staying on Earth, to imagine the future of humanity we have to go out on a clear night and look up.
Now try taking your proportionate particle of responsibility for that.
Saturday, January 05, 2013
Among the many satisfactions of Ken MacLeod’s fiction is his confidence in literature as a tool of political engagement. Intrusion (Orbit, £18.99) is a vision of life in a near-future Britain where nanny-state supervision has edged into soft-totalitarian surveillance and control. The plot revolves around an expectant mother seeking an exemption from the genetic “fix”, a single pill that guarantees a healthy foetus, but things get rapidly less cheerful from there in this steely, brilliant piece of work. Sidewise Award-winning novella The Human Front, from the enterprising radical publisher PM Press. Like other volumes in the excellent Outspoken Authors series, this edition comes with additional goodies: an interview with me by Terry Bisson and a couple of of my short essays, one of them written specially for this book.
Looking back ... The Human Front features flying saucers and revolution, as does the Engines of Light trilogy. Looking farther back, so did the very first SF novel I set out to write, in my mid-teens. The working title of that premature, immature and now mercifully lost effort was 'The End of Heaven'. I tried to inveigle Iain Banks and another friend into co-writing it. They (wisely) declined. Despite extensive background research, drawing on sources that ranged from Chariots of the Gods to Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla, the draft never amounted to more than a few closely-spaced pencilled pages. Some of it became part of the mulch from which my real first novel grew. It was in quixotic recognition of this that I inflicted on The Star Fraction the abandoned work's banal opening line: 'It was hot on the roof.'
The novel I'm working on, provisionally titled Descent, features a UFO encounter, albeit one that (even as a teenager, when it happens to him) the protagonist doesn't attribute to aliens. It also features a revolution, albeit one so peaceful and legal that most people don't notice it as such at the time. Unlike my previous stories, Descent takes on board the UFO experience as it exists in the real world, rather than elaborating an ironic rationalization of the UFO mythos. Part of its inspiration was a review in Fortean Times of Mark Pilkington's well-received Mirage Men, a book which I've since read and found very useful indeed. Pilkington shows that the story of a government cover-up of the truth about UFOs - the standard X-files trope - is itself a government creation, and is quite deliberately kept going by various governments and intelligence agencies.
You might think from all this that I'm fascinated by UFOs. I'm not. Pilkington's book was - with Neil Nixon's Pocket Essentials on UFOs - the second UFO book I've read in years. As a teenager I read everything on the subject I could find, and by taking everything at face value and trying to make it all fit together, learned that it was a mirage and a mare's nest. (The only SF book to do full justice to this aspect of the phenomenon is Ian Watson's Miracle Vistors, which captures exactly the escalating sense of unreality that takes over any attempt to make sense of it all.) I lost interest in the topic, but kept a vague suspicion that something beyond our present knowledge was behind it all. In my thirties I came across the standard sceptical treatments (starting with Ian Ridpath's classic article and found that there wasn't. Even now, I find myself surprised to learn how much some elements of the standard story - the MIB, for instance - were simply made up.
So like almost all SF writers - as taxi drivers everywhere discover to their astonishment - I'm a rock-ribbed sceptic about flying saucers and little green men. But I still write about them - in fact, off-hand I can't think of any other current SF writer (apart from those writing for film and television and franchises) who has written so much. Maybe Descent will at last get flying saucers and the coming revolution out of my system, but I make no promises.
Tuesday, January 01, 2013