“And the greatest of these is charity*” *aka love
I consider the novels I write to be political fantasy. I’m not going to get into the whole debate about what’s Science Fiction and what’s Science Fantasy (life is to short) – by ‘fantasy’, I simply mean novels that take a big (and generally unlikely, or ‘fantastic’) “what if” as the starting point for the world in which the story takes place.
My big “what if” is “what if a land where equality, fraternity and liberty actually did reign supreme really existed?”. I call it Shehaios. The Fair Land. The Whole Land. The Home of the Free.
Why do I call this political fantasy? Because for me politics is about the pursuit of an ideal. A belief, for instance, that we can make things better for our descendants, as our ancestors made things better for us. My novels explore the way various characters do – or don’t – seek to do that. The stories they tell themselves. The constructs they create. The legacies they leave. That is a political story.
Out here in the real world, we who believe in creating a better world for our descendants are at a crisis point right now. The path we all thought was going to take us whistling our cheery way to that better future has led us to the brink of hell. We are at a point where the decisions we make over the next few decades could determine whether or not our civilisation survives and evolves, or crashes into oblivion. We could ultimately be determining whether the planet remains a place human beings can inhabit. The UN has warned us how limited a time we have left to get a grip on climate change, before the planet itself takes control of our destiny. According to figures published by that well-known generator of fake news, the World Wide Fund for Nature, we have already exterminated 60% of the world’s animal population. We are choking the seas with our waste, squabbling over land, and our insatiable appetite for energy is rapidly compromising our supplies of air and water.
This is all big, scary stuff. Taken together with the breakneck speed of technological development, most of us just feel we want to get off the merry-go-round before we throw up.
But life is a complex adaptive system – change is a constant state. Trying to stop change doesn’t stop change happening, it just means you have no understanding, let alone control, of it. This ride is scary, but we have no choice but to stay with it. If you’re hurtling round a racetrack, the worst thing you can do is to let go of the steering wheel. Humans have been outstandingly good at adapting. We’ve learned to survive, even live, in the most hostile environments – in hot places, in cold places, under the oceans, even off-planet in outer space. We’ve learned to fly. We’ve learned to communicate, and now we can do that almost instantaneously from one side of the planet to another. We raise our voices together and create amazing sounds. We appreciate and are able to create beauty. Above all, we’ve learned to store and share knowledge, and understand what our species’ dominance of the world we live in is doing to that world.
If we don’t value these amazing human attributes, and use them to inspire us to work out how to survive on this planet, the ingenious adaptability of life will simply take another route. Unfortunately for humanity, Gaia doesn’t really care about our future. Mankind will be just an interesting layer of geology buried in the Earth’s crust.
This is a depressing prospect. Its so depressing, and so huge, we don’t know what to do with it. The temptation is just to give up, stick your head in the sand and hope you die before the worst happens. But although humanity as a real, amorphous mass of fearful, fallible, flawed people often drives me up the wall, I am rather fond of quite a number of human beings, and some of them are very young. I don’t want to bequeath them this vision of the future.
I want to believe in a land where equality, fraternity and liberty really do reign supreme. A land that actually stretches the length and breadth of the Earth’s habitable surface – because if it didn’t, how could it truly embody any of those qualities? If you have to live in a particular place, have a particular heritage or a particular store of resources to enjoy equality, justice and peace, that is not freedom. By definition, equality cannot be confined to an elite, however the elite defines itself.
These lofty ideals have informed great political changes in the past. Such revolutions are always conducted by people, and the people inevitably don’t adhere to the ideal that inspired the movement in the first place. They are, like all of us, fearful, fallible, and flawed. But we should not use the fallibility of human nature as a reason not to pursue the ideal.
Likewise, given human nature is what it is, the likelihood is that actually creating a global Fair Land is impossible. But that’s the nature of ideals. It should not be a reason not to try.
Politics in practice of course is the pursuit of power, and it’s corrupted by endemic self-interest – all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Narrow-minded self-interest has spread its tendrils of decay throughout the whole construct of power, from Presidents and Prime Ministers to the lowliest voter who sabotages themselves by believing they can make no difference so its easier not to try. Cynicism and defeatism are the enemy of idealism. Progress comes through faith, and hope. Which is why my novels also lead me to ponder the nature of religion.
It is my premise that human beings created god, rather than the other way round. I came to this conclusion by observing that my dog (whom I loved, and who responded with something that I interpreted as love) never saw the need to say her prayers, and was incapable of reading a holy text. If there was an omniscient, omnipotent Creator of all things, why did that Creator only endow humanity with the ability to communicate with Him? Having done so, why did He make that means of communication so appallingly bad that there were multiple different versions of how He wanted us to behave? Nah. That doesn’t sound like God to me. That sounds like people telling stories.
But stories are how we humans communicate. Ask any marketing professional. Stories are particularly how we communicate complex, abstract ideas. Having created a god, we and others can come to believe in that god, and by doing so we give that god agency. He/she/it can effect change.
Now, I grew up in a country very much shaped by the Christian religion – and Protestant Christianity at that. So my take on religion is very much shaped by that form of Christianity, as my take on history is very much shaped by the history of Britain and Europe – I am British, I am European. I write what I know. As an adolescent, I was very enamoured of the New Testament, of a prophet who preached about loving your neighbour, sharing your wealth, and pursuing truth. Who turned water into wine, fed the 5,000 and threw the moneylenders out of the temple – and in doing all this, claimed to be the Son of God. This is my kind of a god. I think this is the kind of god who inspired the Abolition of Slavery act, the campaign for universal suffrage, the rise of the Labour movement and the social changes that has brought about. So if you ask me now, ‘do I believe in God?’ my answer is that I believe in my god.
My god is the god of love. The Way, the Truth and the Light. I think believing in compassion, justice, fairness and a common humanity is powerful, and can bring about change.
Many of us alive today, particularly in Europe, enjoy a common public good we take for granted – public education systems, public health, pensions, employment rights, state support for the physically, mentally or socially disabled. With our short human memories, we think it could be no other way. Our complacency denies the suffering, heroism, and dogged determination of those who kept the faith in times when such priveleges would have seemed impossible for the vast majority of the population, and in denying that heritage we abdicate responsibility for stewarding the wealth we have inherited. For decades we have been working towards rolling out these privileges around the world – turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000. But we neglected to throw the money-lenders out of the temple.
In a world where basic resources and habitable land surfaces become increasingly scarce, we need to learn how to defend that public good and continue to establish it globally – because make no mistake, far from dismissing climate change, the rich and the powerful have already seen the writing on the wall, and they’re doing their damndest to make sure they grab as much of the pie as they can while we’re not looking. If we wait for the prince to give us a kiss before we wake up, we’ll be back to depending on his whims for the right to live on this planet.
We who live in established democracies have power and influence our ancestors, working the land of their feudal masters, could never have dreamed of. Their well-being – their very survival – depended entirely on the mindset of their overlord; whether he understood and appreciated his responsibilities for the people who depended on him, or not. Some did. Some were good rulers. Others weren’t. They lead their people to death and destruction. Their wars never had anything much to do with the safety, security or well-being of the people who fought them, they were conducted entirely to serve the ambitions of the warlords. Wars have no place in the creation of the Fair Land.
In a democracy, we choose our own leaders. We must start choosing ones who want to create the kind of world we believe in, the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to live in. The others, the ones who choose the road to destruction, are incredibly good con-artists, but you can spot them in a moment, because everything they use to fire people up is a negative. They don’t inspire you. They don’t empower you. They get you feeling angry and discontented, ready to find someone to blame rather than engage with trying to make things better. They frighten you with phantoms to keep you from facing up to the big scary reality that actually, you are responsible for shaping the future of your people. And we’re human. We can’t not fall for it. I get angry. I want to blame people for not seeing what’s being done to them. I despair and I want to give up. But I know that I can’t, because that’s letting them win.
We have to keep the faith, and truly believe in creating a better world for our descendants. We are in charge of our own destiny – never more so. But none of us can do it alone. We have to join with others who share that ideal, and do it together. I’ve just taken part in my first fiddle rally, playing with Cowal Fiddle Workshop, and for much of the concert, I was miming – the bow was moving, but there was no contact with the strings, because I’d stumbled over a tricky bit and lost track of where I was in the music. A significant number of the orchestra was doing the same – but we weren’t missing out the same bits, so overall it sounded great. That’s how we do it. If you lose hope, you just let others take over, while you do whatever it takes to keep yourself sane and hold on to hope. Take a break, play music, re-connect with nature, re-connect with people you love. With joy. With hope.
When you are feeling bullish, and strong, you can take up the flame and be the strength for the down-hearted. You can give joy to others when they’re feeling disheartened, and comfort to the bereaved, the wounded, the destitute. This is the power of love, and we must believe in it. In the greatness and kindness that human beings can be capable of. People rise to greatness on the shoulders of others – we’re not all going to be Martin Luther King. But we can be in the congregation.
Look, I have to tell you something. Shehaios exists through magic. In the real world, there is no Magician, and there are no magic answers. All we can do is start asking the right questions, facing up to the truth no matter how scary it is. Then maybe we can start having a grown-up discussion about where we might find some answers. We might find that my little bit of knowledge and experience, put together with yours, uncovers a way of doing things that had never occurred to either of us before. That’s how human beings create things. That’s the magic. Some people actually call it science.