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The Politics of My Novels

At the beginning of 2020, in those mythical pre-pandemic days, I wrote a blog post discussing the politics of The Tamboli Sequence. I was recently re-reading it while gathering thoughts for my next novel, Scouring Juventas, when I realised I'd missed a few important nuances from this post, particularly about the impact of history being written by the winners. As it also used the old novel names, I decided it deserved an update, allowing me to add my most recent novels plus the associated short stories in Mutterings of Consequence.

Basically this is a big copy-paste-edit-expand exercise to do justice to the topic. I'll focus on the political background infiltrating the stories and try to answer the question, 'is that what you believe yourself?'

The novels themselves are very much focused on the characters and how they react to the world-shaping events in which they've become entangled, with the politics really there to provide a context to their actions. I definitely don't see them as novels about politics, but some were a form of therapy for me to try to make sense of the politics of the world that was happening around me at the time I was writing.

I've covered that novel-by-novel below, in as spoiler-free a fashion as I can. I'm going to break this post up with a few headings in the pretence that it has some structure rather than being a long, sprawling brain dump.


Liberal Outlook

First, let's cover some generalities to set the context. I make no apologies for my currently unfashionable liberal outlook on the world. For example, I'm very pro-EU – increasingly so as I've understood its history, its roots immediately after the second world war, and its role in keeping Europe in an unprecedented era of peace ever since. There's a strong argument that can be made that in terms of international cooperation, it's one of the greatest achievements in human history, for all the faults it may have.

I'm hoping Brexit will allow the EU to reform and progress towards greater integration and long-term stability without the UK acting as a brake. It needs to get its act together over Hungary and Poland too. As I say, it has plenty of faults and a degree of democratic deficit, but I'd still rather be a part of it, working together, than outside, raging forlornly against it.

I also hope the UK can make the best of its life away from it, and we don't continue further down the path of xenophobic nationalism. Maybe, in a generation, we may return, but only if our current nationalistic tendencies have abated and we genuinely want to be part of something larger.

Given my generally liberal outlook, you might be surprised how illiberal are some of the things my protagonists say. Often they may be issues I've considered in darker moments when the news has depressed me, but I then took them to the extremes with the characters given what they were going through. Often, they're things that may feel alien to us but make more sense in the context of the history of the world in which the characters are living.

Aspects of the novels also play with Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance, which states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Or put it another way, in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance. The short story A Redivision of Community in Mutterings of Consequence is pretty explicit about this. Whenever you see someone campaigning for 'free speech' – such as regularly in The Spectator magazine – it's usually for the right to be intolerant, especially of minorities.


The Importance of History

That brings me to one recurring theme – that history is written by the winners. You'll regularly see my characters stating something that may be strange for us in our times, but seems perfect common sense for them, because of their understanding of the history of how their world was formed. None of which means that that history is entirely true or tells the whole story. Finding out the truth about the past is something my characters regularly have to do, which always changes their views about the present.

Control of history is vital in forming opinion. You can see that battle all around us today, for example, with the UK political right trying to maintain a hold on the "British Empire civilised the world" narrative (yes I know that's a gross simplification of the argument) and trying to airbrush our role in slavery and other atrocities we've committed. For me, patriotism is being proud of the things your country has achieved but owning up and remembering the things you did wrong. Otherwise how can you stop repeating them?

Similarly, there are plenty of attempts to rewrite history, constructing new false narratives to allow darker aspects of history to be repeated. It was quite a shock to listen to two young men in my immediate (former) family categorically state that Nazis were left-wing, before moving on to why women were genetically inferior and how they 'used their sexuality to...' They'd both been sucked into far-right politics (for which it was important to have the narrative that you weren't on the same side as Hitler) via a combination of GamerGate, Jordan Peterson and the men's rights movement. It was pretty sickening to hear and not something I was going to take without speaking out – which is part of the reason they're now part of my former family!

That's a definite theme I've used more than once – that the human race doesn't adequately learn from the lessons of its history, and when it does, it often takes the wrong inspiration from it. It's hard to argue against when we're reusing and falling for the same techniques from the 1920s and 1930s that took the world to war.


A Flawed Humanity

That leads to a topic that pops up occasionally in my stories – is humanity is inherently flawed? Can it be trusted to decide for itself? Those are extreme viewpoints, but from the perspectives of my characters, given the things that they've seen, it's understandable they may think that, especially when those perspectives are from outside of humanity itself.

For example, it's a logical extrapolation from the viewpoint of Raj Tamboli at the start of A Vision of Unity, so that's something that crops up more than once in The Tamboli Sequence – usually inspired by his thoughts.

It's not my belief, by the way, although I do occasionally despair in my darker moments. Individually, people can be wonderful, whatever their politics – loving, thoughtful, creative, inspirational. It's typically only when en-masse we're whipped up by malicious leaders into nationalistic frenzies that we spiral down into darkness. Is that inherent in human nature? Can we ever cure ourselves of the disease of fearing others different to ourselves? I don't know, but it's not a battle I'm willing to give up.



One thing I haven't mentioned is that of diversity of representation. I've tried to ensure that my characters – including the main protagonists – in each novel have a good balance of gender (including transgender), sexuality and ethnicity without making a fuss about it. I don't feel qualified to make many statements about modern day issues facing any minority group, but as my novels are typically set in the future, the problems would likely be different. It's important to me to at least try to be representative.

I do make one comment in A Revision of Reality about things becoming more difficult again for transgender people, as it's a side-effect of the church's control, and I also reveal there was a transgender character in A Vision of Unity. So why didn't I mention it in the novel itself?

[Trying to avoid spoilers here] Basically because I didn't want to fall into the trope of making a big deal about a character from a minority group, only to then kill them off. It stuck out like a sore thumb in the first draft. So the character was always written as transgender – and was an important part of their relationship with a protagonist – but I didn't explicitly mention it within the novel. However, I wanted to acknowledge it eventually, which I did in A Revision of Reality.

Did I get that right? Probably not, but it felt the right thing to do at the time.

In terms of culture, I'm probably less successful in not having a western-centric viewpoint, but in many cases, the reason why the culture of a world is as it is turns out to be a major part of the story – certainly in The Tamboli Sequence and The Mufflers stories. In Memory of Chris Parsons in set in rural England anyway.


Right, now onto the novel-specific thoughts. I'll start with A Division of Order, as I carelessly wrote the second novel of The Tamboli Sequence trilogy first, initially envisioning it as a standalone novel.


A Division of Order (formerly known as Long Division)

It won't be too much of a surprise that it was the tactics of Nigel Farage's Leave campaign before the Brexit referendum that inspired me to write this novel. These days I try to avoid using the word 'fascism' as it's bandied about too widely by all sides, but this is the one time I feel the need to use it.

The final pieces of the novel fell into place when I read Robert O Paxton's excellent book The Anatomy of Fascism, outlining the history of its emergence in 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany. It's a useful reference as it predates the more recent resurgence of the far-right (and the far-left's slide into antisemitism) in western civilisations.

It was hard not to see the parallels in the techniques used by Farage and his associates with those from the early days of fascism's emergence. Too often, people remember how fascism ended up – with stormtroopers, death camps, and so on – and forget the tactics used to sway the population to gain power in the first place. We need to stop it before it's too late, although it may already be so.

I decided that it would be interesting to explore the use of the techniques of fascism in the closed society of Juno, which has no history of these tactics to warn them against it. To add further texture, Juno starts as an authoritarian, ethnically segregated society in desperate need of reform itself. If you had the choice of which side to support, which would you choose?

I will admit that this theme isn't exactly subtle in the novel. OK, I do hit you over the head with a mallet at times. I mean, look at the section names: Philosophy, Propaganda, Struggle, Revolution, Reckoning. If you do a Google search for these, you'll quickly come across a well-known work featuring these terms going by the initials MK. There are also some not unsubtle names for the pamphlets distributed by the People's Resistance. When you get that far, go take a look at the infamous International Jew pamphlets from Henry Ford.

That's another theme of more than just this novel – beware saviours, even ones you personally agree with, as their motivations are probably not what you imagine, and they can lead you down paths that are hard to get off of once you've started. I've made no secret of my disgust of politicians like Nigel Farage, who deliberately stoke up division and hatred to push their agenda. Then again, I've also seen those on the 'other side' equally happy to use misinformation to further their own cause. Think for yourself, do your own research and don't follow blindly – a lesson I've learned belatedly.

Popper's paradox of tolerance was definitely on my mind at the end of the novel, which is why I explored it further in the sequel short story A Redivision of Community in Mutterings of Consequence.


A Vision of Unity (formerly known as Integration)

Civilisations rise, civilisations fall. Why should ours be any different? That's the starting point for A Vision of Unity, when the main economic and technological powerhouses are in the Indian subcontinent and Africa, having grown to dominance after western civilisations have fallen to chaos caused by targeted misinformation through hybrid warfare, with the carcass being fought over between China and Russia who are about to inflict nuclear warfare on each other – and the rest of the world.

That's really just the background premise to have all the conditions in place for Raj Tamboli to have to risk everything to transform the world to match his own blueprint, rather than anything overly critical to the story itself. To rub it home, one of the main protagonists, Carole Cantor is the daughter of refugees who fled from England to India.

The concept of misinformation bringing down western societies was largely inspired by James Patrick's eye-opening book Alternative War covering the history of Russia's interference in our democracies. He makes the case that we've fought – and lost – a war without even noticing. I don't buy into all of his arguments, but it certainly set me thinking.

Now Russia isn't the only force at it, but right now, I'm at a loss to understand how democracies can sensibly survive the level of misinformation that is spread online, on social media, and increasingly even these days through the traditional press. How can people make rational voting choices when they only get their news through personally selected sources that serve to reinforce their existing prejudices? Yes, I'm aware I've been guilty of that too, and even when you're aware of it, it's hard to get it right.

I recently had a conversation with a Farage-worshipping, Muslim-hating family member who, after telling me people weren't swayed by Russian misinformation, then went on and spouted several favourite topics of Russian propaganda that she believed were fact, such as that it was the EU's fault that Russia HAD to invade Crimea. I'm pleased to say she's also now a former family member, someone who wants to be able to get on a bus and only be surrounded by 'her own people,' by which she meant white.

This type of misinformation used to be on the fringes of society, but it's now mainstream. Indeed, the current UK government was no longer troubled by the truth during its 2019 general election campaign, with expertise derided, the pillars of liberal democracies eroded, and the fires of division stoked to achieve the desired outcome. In a world where expertise is no longer valued and truth no longer matters, the race to the bottom has only just begun.

How can democracy survive in such a post-truth world? I don't know what the answer is, but in A Vision of Unity, it didn't. The implication thereafter is that social media was much more tightly regulated to keep society stable. I'm not proposing that as an answer, but it is definitely a problem.

By the way, in the novel, this is definitely a case of history being written by the winners. Clearly, although Russian (and other) external misinformation played a part in the Brexit referendum – and by extrapolation to the downfall of western civilisation before this novel begins – that's far from the reason why it happened. It fed into the narrative and exacerbated its divisions, but we were more than capable of inflicting that on our own, through homegrown lies and misinformation, and even occasionally the odd rational argument, although they were few and far between on both sides. The same would have been true of the subsequent history alluded to here.

However, the narrative that the downfall of civilisation was caused primarily by misinformation would have been extremely useful for those governments wanting to stop their own countries from heading down the same path and using it to control the flow of online information. I'm making no moral judgement here, as I don't know what the answer is, but there's a little more background detail in the short story In Memory of Psykhe, soon to be added to Mutterings of Consequence.


A Revision of Reality (formerly known as Transformation)

A Revision of Reality acts as a sequel to both A Vision of Unity and A Division of Order, uniting both stories and bringing them to a fuller conclusion. I didn't want to just rehash the themes of the earlier novels, so what other method of control of large swathes of human society could I plunder for my story? [Lightbulb moment] Religion, of course!

I've studiously avoided any criticism of specific religions, other than a passing sarcastic remark about the use of confessionals to gather information about a community, as I've nothing specifically against any faith – although I have a bit of an anathema for organised religion of any kind given the harm they have caused over the centuries.

I have a lot of respect for those who live their lives according to a faith of their choice – but I do have a major problem with those who want to impose the tenets of their religion upon others, or to impose the mores of a couple of millennia ago on a modern, more ethically-advanced society. I bestow particular scorn on adherents like Ann Widdecombe, who don't believe it is possible to be a good, moral person unless you're a Christian. Take a hard look in the mirror, you repugnant person.

I was raised as a Church of England Christian, serving time as an angelic choirboy when I was around ten years old. OK, the main reason my friends and I joined the choir was to play in the choir football team and play hide-and-seek in the graveyard before choir practise, but hey. Gradually over the years, I've drifted through agnosticism into atheism, largely driven by my experiences and the harm I've seen caused to individuals by the intolerance of many in the church.

There was a specific moment that inspired one aspect of A Revision of Reality. I remember sitting in the choir stalls, listening to the rector's sermon on how you had to be a Christian to enter the kingdom of heaven. I thought: is that fair? If I'd been born in an Arabic country, I'd be destined for hell? What sort of kind, benevolent God came up with that idea?

More importantly, what gave the church the right to be the gatekeepers of heaven?

That was the perfect way in. In A Revision of Reality, Earth now had its own equivalent of a true Afterlife – which needed a pseudo-religion in the way as gatekeepers who could use access to it to control the human race once more. With a quasi-religion also on the rise on Juno, it was all fitting together nicely. Add a somewhat supernatural being into the mix who actually does know the meaning of life, the universe and everything, then there was a lot for me to have fun with. And I did.

Even then, I couldn't leave this world alone. I had to pick at the scab of the theme that a failure to learn from history causes it to repeat in the short story A Subdivision of Humanity in Mutterings of Consequence, sending the trilogy full-circle. It also served to form the inspiration for the location of my next novel, Scouring Juventas.


In Memory of Chris Parsons (AKA My Family and Other Ghosts)

This is a more personal, family tale in which the politics of the world play a more minor role. I wrote this partly as a way to make sense of a few issues in my marriage rather than the society around. Seeing as we're now separated, I'm not sure this self-therapy was particularly successful, but it has left me feeling happier with myself and life in general.

There is a background element of politics in that it takes place in an England ostensibly having fallen to neo-fascism, but that's as much me poking fun at my own far-right concerns as anything else. You'll need to read the story for that to make sense without me giving away any major spoilers.


The Mufflers Novels

It's hard to talk about The Mufflers novels without giving too much away. There's definitely an opening theme of learning a major lesson of history, but the history that's been written by the winner is only part of the story. The old world was brought down by its reliance on technology, so the central tenet of the survivors' agricultural society is to outlaw any such advanced technologies.

That's only part of the story, naturally.

The society of the region of Portsea at the start of The Muffler's Ministry is fair, caring for its population and allowing them to flourish individually – but entirely undemocratic. I guess you'd call it benevolent authoritarianism with socialist leanings. It's pretty stable, and most people are happy – until something goes wrong.

The evolution of Portsea's politics leading from this is a theme that will drive the arc of the first three Mufflers novels, one of which I haven't written yet. In the second novel, The Muffler's Mission, you get the chance to compare it to the regions surrounding Portsea, including the xenophobic Brightgate. Things take a slightly more fun turn when you get to the chivalric region of Emforth, partly democratic, partly held together by mobile government. Amusingly (to me), I loosely based this on the EU with a bit of English mythology thrown into the mix.

Being a light fantasy series, there's less politics leading directly from our current world, but as you can see, I can never resist the theme of the lessons of history being critical to a society.



In conclusion, none of the above is really what each story is about, nor is what drives the characters forward, but it does provide the context within which each story takes place. As I say, much of this is a way for me to try to make sense of the world as it is now, but once I set the characters free into those worlds, they had a life of their own and went in directions I wasn't expecting.

Just don't confuse the characters' thoughts with my own. They're usually driven by the environment within which they live, and the expectations of society around them. Obviously, my own opinions drive the themes of the stories, but not what the characters always choose to say. They tend to have a mind of their own.

You can probably work out from what I've written that I'm one of those much-derided centrists of lore, with left-leaning bias but tolerance for sensible centre-right arguments. I can go further left before my morals start to bristle than right, but I dislike extremism on either wing, especially where it leads to the politics of division. My belief in freedom of speech is tempered by the paradox of tolerance – the stability of society is more important than an individual's right to abuse others. Obviously the paradox has problems of its own, like who defines the limits of intolerance, but I have found it a useful prism to view issues through.

That's probably way more than you ever wanted to know.

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