Sunday, 28 April 2013

My Uncle's Thumb

A few years back, my uncle (who reads this blog, so my apologies if I'm getting the details of the story wrong) got a bad infection in his thumb (or finger?), bad enough that the medical professionals involved in the decision advocated amputating the thumb. My uncle is a keen (and excellent) guitarist and pianist, and the loss of a finger was a horrible prospect for him. Fortunately, a better solution was found, the infection dealt with and the finger saved.

My point? Not every solution to a problem is necessarily a good thing.

Some friends of mine (some of whom also read this blog - Hi Andy!) are going to a public debate titled 'Was Thatcherism Good for Britain?' this week. I won't be joining them, partly because it's at an inconvenient time, partly because in this city it seems very likely to devolve into a shouting match, and partly because I think they're asking the wrong question, for several reasons. I felt it probably worth saying something, then, even though I'm not going to the debate.

First off, the use of the past tense here is pretty inappropriate. Commentators seem to be more or less in agreement that David Cameron is a Thatcherite. It's pretty rare to find anyone who strongly objects to calling Tony Blair a Thatcherite, and even Gordon Brown is semi-regularly accused of Thatcherism. So it's wrong to suggest that Thatcherism is 'over', a thing of the past. The details and effects of Thatcherism may be different these days, but the ideology is still going. But OK, perhaps we can read the question as 'were the policies of Thatcher's premiership, insofar as they represented a consistent ideology, good for Britain?'

(It's worth noting that the question of whether Thatcherism is even an ideology at all is a loaded one, but I think we can worry about that some other time.)

A bigger worry from the present perspective is that there are at least three things 'Thatcherism' could refer to. The first is Thatcher's nostalgia-driven, oppressive social policy, the second is her brutal, authoritarian leadership style, and the third is her laissez-faire economic policy. Since the first gave us Section 28 and all it stood for (among other things, I'm sure, but Section 28 is the one I'm most familiar with), and the second, if nothing else, created the precedent for Tony Blair's wars and war crimes, I think it's fair to say that the suggestion that either might have been good for Britain is in exceptionally poor taste.

That leaves Thatcher's economic policies. Apart from mentioning this, I'm not going to tackle the arguments put forward by right-wing ideologues in favour of free-market capitalism (I don't really have the level of understanding I'd like, and I don't have good sources at my fingertips), but I do want to do a quick 'my uncle's thumb' argument here.

The problem that Thatcherism is supposed to have solved, economically, is the unmanageable power of the British trades unions in the 1970s. I'm not going to deny there was a problem there, although it's arguable whether the problem was the power of the unions or their failure to cooperate effectively and take a long-term view. My point is simply this; what we have now is rather the opposite - ungovernable, tax-dodging, media-controlling corporations. There's no question that the union problem has been dispensed with - the last time a strike affected me, its net effect was to spare me an exam I might otherwise have done rather poorly in.

The power of the unions, remember, was the power of the British people. The immense, overwhelming problem we have these days is a feeling of disenfranchisement and hopelessness, the feeling that nothing we can do can change public policy or wrest back control of our government from corporate interests. The unions of the 70s were an infected thumb, but are we better off without them, or did they just need a good course of antibiotics?

The stated intention of Thatcherite economics and all similar capitalist models is to give corporations more freedom - more power - so it's not like we can argue that Thatcher wasn't trying to create the current situation. Is the current situation better than it was thirty years ago? (Actually, in some ways - notably communications technology - it is, but I don't think most of those ways can be traced to Thatcher's policies, and certainly not to her ideology).

Which of course, finally, brings us to the question of what 'good for Britain' means. If we mean purely GDP, well, that fell for the first half of Thatcher's reign, but then improved sharply. If income inequality is a better measure, Thatcher oversaw the most significant rise seen in this country in the modern era (p.9 offers an overview). Thatcherites will of course prefer a GDP-based judgement; Thatcher's critics will argue that low inequality tends to better reflect quality of life. There's the question of whether 'Britain' means the British crown, the ~62 million British citizens and residents, or something more abstract.

Ultimately, while it's good to have a public discourse (possibly not face to face, given what I've said before about the effects of anger in public contexts) about political issues, there are so many weaknesses with the question offered that I can't see this particular debate being much use. I don't have time or space to give a detailed argument, but a better question might be 'Thatcher's economic policies had the explicit intent of reducing restrictions on the behaviour of corporations. Have these policies been successful, and if so what was their effect on the quality of life of the British public?' Wordier, I know, but that's the price of clarity.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Sample Me!

As of Saturday, I've adjusted the settings on the Season Two episodes of The Second Realm at Smashwords to allow people to sample the first 20% without 'buying' (you can still pay what you like, with no minimum price).

Sampling was disabled because I guessed that most of the people downloading episodes from Smashwords would be people who'd found the series here and gone there to get it in e-reader-friendly formats - people who know that you can sample the whole series completely free on here.

To put it bluntly, that guess appears to be dead wrong. The four episodes of season 2 (don't forget the newly-released fifth) have generated a grand total of 14 downloads/sales over the last four months. In the same period, the eleven episodes of season 1 produced 500 downloads. Alright, the first season episodes can be downloaded in full without a Smashwords membership, but even averaged out that's ten times as many downloads per episode.

I need to do something to get those 500-downloads-worth of readers reading season 2, and wherever they're coming from, I think some sampling may help. Immortal Remains, released five months ago and barely promoted at all - in particular, lacking the benefit of subsequent releases in a series - has generated almost as many sales as the four Second Realm episodes put together, and, counting samples, more than twice as many downloads.

I'm not expecting this to be a magic bullet, obviously. There are no magic bullets in this business. But it is important to keep tweaking your strategy - this is one of the pieces of advice you'll hear most often from the old pros who've gotten into self-publishing (particularly Joe Konrath). If what you're doing doesn't work, change what you're doing.

BUT, and this is very important, it takes time for anything to work. I put this sampling strategy to the test for four months (because I forgot to change it last month, but still, three months). I'm still not sure I'm not jumping the gun a little bit by not giving it six months. The thing is, time feels a lot longer to live through than to talk about, and it's very easy, when the numbers climb at the average rate of one a week, to feel like you've been 'trying something' for ages with no success when really, it's only been a month.

Remember always - a successful author is one who kept going. The only way to definitely, absolutely and forever fail in this business is to give up. Try new things, but don't panic and abandon them when they take a few weeks to work. They may never work - but give them a chance.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Second Realm 4.5: The Only Thing We Know is That We Know Nothing

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The Rabbit Hole

5. The Only Thing We Know is That We Know Nothing

Pevan glared at Chag's back as they followed the Separatists and the Court Guard dispatched to find them a room to meet in. The little man had really put his foot in it this time. She hadn't even had a chance to check that Rel was okay after bearing the brunt of Ashtenzim's Second-Realm imprecation. Taslin had been looking after him, but that was cold comfort.

Ahead, the Guard ducked under a low archway and began to descend the stairs beyond. This was a primitive part of the Court, its walls crude shapes cut out of a material halfway between plaster and stone. It was rough to the touch, but the roughness seemed to come away on her fingertips when she ran them along the surface.

They'd left the familiar, stable parts of the Court behind almost immediately on leaving the trial chamber. Either the Separatists had demanded something closer to what passed for nature in the Second Realm, or the Gift-Givers wanted them well away from any other humans. What it meant for Pevan was claustrophobic corridors, uncanny lighting - candles that glowed from within instead of burning, or lamps where the flames hung downwards - and the near-certain sense that at a couple of points their winding path had doubled back through itself.

The staircase ended at a single door. The Guard pulled it open and pressed itself back against the wall. Ashtenzim oozed past, carefully keeping its tendrils well clear of the Guard. Lienia had already had to squeeze itself narrow, its thousands of metal hoops squashing from more or less circular down to long, thin ovals, but now it pulled tighter again to get through the gap. Without the rattle they'd grown used to during their stay in the Separatists' lair, the sight was eerie, as if Realmspace itself was squeezing the Wilder to fit.

Chag started to follow, but the Guard barred his way with a forearm that had to be almost a full yard long. Its wrist wasn't much thicker than an infant's, though, giving the whole limb, even the whole creature, a deceptive air of extreme delicacy. Voice almost as stiff and dry as a Separatist's, the Guard said, "I must wait here. I will escort your return to the Great Hall."

It lowered its arm again. Chag just gave a cursory nod, but Pevan let her relief show and offered the creature a quiet "Thank you." It felt good to do that small kindness in the midst of so much tension.

Not that that was enough to keep her from looking back nervously as the door swung closed on silent hinges. The room within looked for all the world like a small Warding Hall, low roof supported by two rows of four stout pillars, each a single continuous lump of dark grey stone. There were no hooks or cuffs fixed in the pillars, but there was a single-step dais at one end of the room. Had the Gift-Givers picked this room deliberately to spite the Separatists?

Although the dais was better-lit, torches doing a fair impression of burning in sconces on the back wall, the Separatists had halted not far inside the door. Chag seemed to have no complaint about joining them, even though the dimness took his thin face and turned it cadaverous. The bags under his eyes had only grown deeper since his stay in Federas' prison.

Ashtenzim wasted no time on pleasantries, its voice falling into the stillness like stale bread. "We must be brief. The trial of Relvin Atcar, and the Talerssi the Gift-Givers will amass from it, present a potent threat to our interests. If there is anything we can do to forestall them, then we must know soon."

"What does Talerssi have to do with it?" Chag's tone made him sound angry, as if the Separatists had wronged him somehow. It was so hard to make sense of the little man's moods sometimes. "If Rel wins the case, he gets off scot free and can join us then, right? Or he loses and they punish him. Where's the Talerssi?"

"Rel's not joining you of his own accord." Pevan folded her arms. "Particularly not after you tried to lay claim to us all at the trial. It rubbed me the wrong way, and he's a lot more stiff-necked about stuff like that."

"Relvin Atcar is not trying to win the case." Ashtenzim hung still, but vigorous ripples ran through Lienia. Pevan took that to mean it was the latter speaking. "His lack of information was no fault of the Gift-Givers, but it reconciles his actions to the Treaty. The case cannot be resolved. This means Talerssi to the arbitrator. Quilo will not hesitate to use that against us." The ringed Separatist gave a final shake and dropped back into its usual gently-shifting pattern.

"That doesn't make any sense at all." Chag sounded like he was taking it personally. What had gotten into him? "If the case fails, that's not your fault."

"Talerssi is something you cannot understand, Chag Van Raighan. Few have ever rivalled Quilo's strategic ability with it."

"So what do we do, then?" The strain in Chag's voice had as much fear in it as anger, she realised. It was in the ratty flicker of his eyes, too. Powerlessness, she supposed. Well, things were definitely out of their control.

"Tell us what happened at Vessit." Ashtenzim oozed back into motion, taking control of the conversation again, its voice utterly flat. "How did Relvin Atcar come to be under the Gift-Giver, Taslin's, authority?"

"Keshnu did some trick, made her take his Talerssi or something." Even low and sullen, Chag's voice whispered back from the low ceiling and bare walls in a way Ashtenzim's never could. Odd that the little man should seem so dissatisfied now when he'd been so keen to come along only half an hour ago. Still, she could remember the feeling of sudden icy vertigo that had rushed through her when Keshnu had wormed his way out of the Separatists' trap, and on that point at least she sympathised with Chag's anger. He finished, "Something to do with an interruption."

"You were instructed not to give anyone a chance to interrupt."

"We were instructed in a lot of things." Pevan could feel how close her voice was to a growl, but the Separatists would get the point. "It's time we were informed about something."

Ashtenzim - or it could just as easily have been Lienia, for all Pevan knew - didn't give her a chance to bring up her question. "Human rhetoric is not welcome among us, Pevan Atcar. Please refrain from it."

"No. I refuse." She folded her arms, wondering if the Separatists knew enough about Dora to have learned to fear this pose. Probably too much to hope for. "I refuse to support the Separation until you have answered the allegations that Taslin made about it. How will it affect the First Realm?"

"Shouldn't we give a report first?" Chag shifted uncomfortably from side to side. He'd never looked more like vermin. "None of us has all the information we want. Can't we at least try to start on the friendly foot?"

She glared at him.

"Come on, Pevan. The Gift-Givers aren't going to execute Rel in the next half-hour." He turned to Ashtenzim again. "After I went with Keshnu to free Rel, Taslin told Pevan that for humans, the Separation could be a disaster on a par with the Realmcrash. Is there any truth in that?"

Lienia rattled - with sound, this time, though it didn't echo - and there was a spasm somewhere deep in Ashtenzim's coils. One of them said, "Predicting the exact consequences of the Separation for the First Realm will remain impossible until we have the aid of a human Clearseer." The words fell further apart even than was normal for Separatists. Were the concepts involved really so difficult for them to grasp?

Pevan made no attempt to soften her tone. "Not good enough. I'm not committing myself and my brother to your cause until I have some answers."

Chag bit his lip. "No, it's our turn now. We messed up in Vessit." To the Separatists, he said, "We arrived in the wake of the first of the two big Realmquakes. Rel was convinced that Keshnu had caused it. When he learned that Taslin would only have authority over him for a day or so, he insisted on waiting in case Keshnu... well, so that he could intervene if there was another quake.

"The next afternoon, the really big quake hit. I..." He stopped, his gaze dropping to the floor. "I'm not sure I can explain it in terms that will make sense to you, but I panicked. Badly enough that I wasn't able to make any further contribution. I don't know what happened next. Pevan?"

She rolled her eyes at him. At least he'd been honest. "I took Rel to the Abyss. Keshnu was doing something to it, so Rel attacked him. I took care of the other Wildren there, but then Dora turned up and convinced me Rel had misjudged Keshnu. Taslin said she could stop Rel. The next I heard was the following morning, when she was seen fleeing Vessit, carrying Rel. We guessed she'd come here."

Chag started to say something, but she scowled at him until he subsided, then turned her ire on the Separatists. "Now, what about my answers?"

"Why did you not return from Vessit immediately on Relvin Atcar's release, as instructed?"

Pevan gritted her teeth. "What. Will. The-"

"No." Chag cut across her, his tone altogether firmer, his beady eyes narrow. "Pevan, cooperate, please?" The appeal did not really sound like pleading. "None of us are ever going to get the answers we need if we can't compromise."

"I can't believe you're swallowing this." What was wrong with him? "Does what Taslin said really not bother you at all?"

His face darkened, and she could see him forcing himself to relax. "If the Separatists are right, she has a vested interest in the status quo. You can't deny she met us with outright hostility today."

"Gift-Givers don't lie." She folded her arms, then let them fall back to her sides and straightened up when she realised how childish she was starting to look.

"Yeah, except by omission." Chag spread his hands, palms up. "Or wasn't your brother just arguing that if they'd told him more, he could have made a better decision?"

She bit back a surge of anger, at least far enough that she could get her next sentence out squarely. "And 'the exact consequences are impossible to predict' doesn't sound like dodging the question to you?" She rounded on Ashtenzim. "Predict some not-so-exact consequences, dammit!"

"Please refrain from emotive rhetoric, Pevan Atcar." It took all Pevan's training not to hear mockery in the flat voice. "The Realmspace around us is beginning to be affected."

"Sorry, Ashtenzim." Chag had clearly snatched the moment to take a deep breath and calm down. He turned back to her, tucking his hands into his pockets, as if he was an interpreter, and the Separatists' maddening focus a forgotten language that needed translating. "Pevan, did Taslin say the Separation would be a disaster, or that it could be? Because if it's the latter, she could be being just as loose with the truth."

He cocked his head to one side, a picture of reasonableness. She gritted her teeth and stared past him at the torches. What had the Gift-Giver's exact words been? The confrontation had been fraught, and while Dora had certainly taken Taslin's warning for truth, Rel had said that Dora's judgement was impaired. That she was becoming a Wilder, or something. That could mean she was capable of telling whether Taslin was lying, but it could also mean she'd adopted whatever Taslin's motivation was for the deception.

Finally, she had to shrug. "I can't remember. That doesn't mean I'm happy to let the question rest."

"Can you at least let it rest until we've got through this report?" He took his hands out of his pockets to spread them again. "You still think the Separation's a good idea, right?"

Did she? If she remembered one thing from that jarring encounter by the Abyss, it was Dora saying, Are you prepared to give up your Gift? She'd woken with that question ringing in her ears the next morning. It felt like a long time since she'd used her Gate for more than getting from A to B, but she hadn't forgotten the sensation of floating that came from catapulting herself a hundred feet straight up and letting gravity net her short of the sky.

She looked down, scuffed her feet on the bare stone floor. "I don't know, Chag. I like being Gifted. I don't think I should be the one to make the decision."

His face fell. If he'd looked hollow-cheeked and half-starved before, he looked soulless now. Mouth hanging listlessly open, he turned to Ashtenzim. When he spoke, he did so in the muted, hopeless tones of a depressive. "We didn't return straight away because Keshnu sent search parties out after us. At least some of them could definitely feel Pevan's Gateways, and we feared that if we headed North they'd be able to pick up our trail and catch us up."

"They had no grounds on which to arrest you." In a way, Ashtenzim's voice - or Lienia's, if it made any difference - was like Chag's, expressionless and monotonous. But the Wilder sounded too inorganic, as if its vocal cords were steel wire rather than flesh. What had prompted the change in Chag? He knew she'd been having doubts about the Separation.

He droned on. "I wasn't sure whether they might have been able to seize me on grounds of human justice. I didn't think to ask before we left whether my exemption as your bearer of Talerssi would apply to purely First-Realm crimes." The little man's eyes never lifted from a point in the air just slightly in front of Ashtenzim's shifting form. Pevan might as well not have been there.

What had she said that was different? That she liked her Gift? She could see that upsetting a Witness, but he had to have known anyway, didn't he? She made no secret of it. And despite her best efforts to keep him at arm's length, they'd gotten to know each other pretty well over the past month. Maybe she'd put him in mind of his brother for a moment. Rissad was probably even keener on his Gift, and that couldn't have been easy on Chag, growing up.

Ashtenzim's voice - maybe it was easier just to think of it as the Separatists' voice - cut through her musing. "Your explanation earlier implied that you felt you could have returned, but Relvin Atcar insisted you stay. Why did you humour him instead of obeying your instructions?"

Did she really have to explain even that? Chag didn't seem to fancy trying. She said, "Rel identified a threat to the Realm. As Gifted, we were obliged to investigate and respond to the best of our understanding."

"You are not Gifted. You belong to the Separatists now."

"I don't belong to anybody." Again, heat filled her. Ashtenzim was not making it easy to be reasonable, and there was scant hope of any support from Chag. At least his head came up a little at the sharpness in her tone, but he didn't meet her eyes. "And I will not abandon my duty or my Gift. If the Separation is a good bet for my kind, I'll work with you, but I won't leave human beings suffering and the First Realm in danger to do so. Rel said there was a threat. I trust him. We stayed."

"His belief was incorrect. You should have returned."

She rolled her eyes. "Well yes, as Rel was trying to explain when you burst in, we had no way of knowing that. Knowing what we know now, I wish we had returned straight away, even if I do still want answers about the Separation. This should all be irrelevant. Do you still intend to pry Rel away from the Gift-Givers?"

"We must, to forestall Quilo's tactics if nothing else. However, we should not conduct further planning in the Court. Even if the Gift-Givers find no way to spy on us directly, we may leave impressions they can trace later." As the Separatists' voice paused, Pevan found herself checking the walls, looking for scratches or marks that hadn't been there before. A foolish idea. Ashtenzim finished, "You will return to the white cave with us."

The Wilder started to drift towards the door. It took Pevan a moment to realise that he meant they were going right now. "Stop!" she shouted, and when Ashtenzim did not, she moved to block his path. "You haven't answered my question."

For a moment, she thought Ashtenzim might actually walk into her. Her gut tightened and she braced for the agony of contact, but he stopped just short. With adrenaline coursing through her system, it was actually faintly sickening to peer so closely into his writhing, bronze-skinned form.

She shuffled backwards a step and managed to fight her breath back under control, using the few seconds that bought her to formulate her question precisely. "I want to know what kind of consequences the Separation is likely to cause in the First Realm."

A shudder ran through Ashtenzim, then seemed to spread out through Lienia as well. "There may be some Realmquakes and local physics disturbances."

Pevan felt as though someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water over her. Every muscle in her body tightened, until she felt like she'd implode under the strain. She forced air into her lungs and leaned slightly to look past Ashtenzim at Van Raighan. The thief's face was hanging slack again, like a particularly stupid puppy's. At least he had the decency to look shocked, though she couldn't believe it was a surprise to him any more than it was to her.

She said, "Does that sound like another Realmcrash to you?"

"No, I..." His mouth opened and shut a few times, his hands tracing vague, meaningless gestures.

Pevan stepped around Ashtenzim, but the Separatist didn't resume its path to the door. Instead, like a parody of a child's mobile, it rotated on the spot to follow her movement. She ignored it, kept her attention on Chag. Her throat caught as she tried to speak, but she pressed on. "Ninety-nine out of every hundred people in the world died in the Realmcrash. You can't be happy with the idea of having that again."

The little man's voice squeaked as he answered. "It won't be anything like as bad. We don't depend on electronics the way pre-Crash society did. Lots of people died just because their machines didn't work anymore." He swallowed. "We just had two Realmquakes, and they weren't too bad, were they?"

"You didn't go into Vessit yesterday." The strength was coming back into her voice, but she knew she sounded cold. Well, Chag had earned it. If Wolpan had been here she'd probably have flayed him where he stood. "Don't you think I'd have brought more than starvation rations back if the town had them to spare?"

He stood his ground, face twitching in a whole range of different little ways. "We can prepare people, it's not like it will just happen overnight. No-one has to die."

"We should be doing that before starting to make plans to actually carry the Separation out." He cringed, and she piled on extra pressure. "And if there are that many lives in the balance, we have to let other people decide."

"No, we can't do that. People always decide in favour of the status quo." He walked up to her, tried to take her hand, but she shook him off. Hand held to his chest, he went on, "You see that, don't you? The Gift-Givers are actively trying to stop us approaching people. How could we persuade the whole First Realm?"

"If you can't persuade them, it could be because you're wrong about what people want." She clenched her fists to keep from seizing his shirt and shaking him. "How many people would accept the trade-off, anyway? One in every hundred to live. No-one is going to go for that, regardless of what the Gift-Givers do to you."

"That's my point." There was a wildness in his eyes, now, desperation in the imploring look he threw at Ashtenzim. The Separatist remained impassive. "Think how much better life will be if we don't have to fear the Second Realm all the time! We could live in peace and rebuild. No Sherim, no incursions, no Gifts."

Pevan forced herself to take a step back. "What's so bad about this life? If you're right, I've got a lot more to complain about than you. I grew up nearer a Sherim than any other child in the Realm. I've been Gifted for a year and a half, and in that time we lost Dieni and Temmer. I've seen and fought off more incursions than you've known in your life, probably." She poked him in the chest, hard. "If you think I'm going to trade hundreds of the civvies in my town, or even a handful of them, for your vision of peace, you're a fool. And you deserve your reputation."

He took her last words like an arrow to the gut, staggering backwards. When he looked up at her again, tears glistened on his cheeks. "No... No, you have to see. You have to see."

Something about the way he said it, like it was a slippery rope he was clinging to, kicked something at the back of her mind awake. It had been her affirmation that she liked her Gift that had toppled his mood earlier. It fit too well with this pleading.

Whispering, almost to herself, unable to believe it, she said, "This has nothing to do with the Separation, does it?"

His head snapped up to look at her, eyes wide as a snake's hypnotised prey.

She said, "It's about me. You really are in this for me."

Dizziness rose over her, her head going light. Her vision clouded, and she was turning, stumbling for the door. Chag reacted too slowly; the Separatists not at all. She heard the bang as the waiting Guard slammed the door after her, and then he - it? - was lowering her to sit on the staircase.

For a moment, his awkward voice buzzed in her ears. She shook her head and regretted it as a fresh wave of coloured spots bubbled across her eyes, but her hearing did straighten out. He'd asked her what assistance she needed.

She almost retched when she tried to speak. Curling to ease the spasm in her gut, she managed to pull herself most of the way to standing. Her voice rasped against her dry tongue, but she got the words out. "Just get me back to the Great Hall."

He lifted her, one of those delicate, unearthly arms under her back and the other under her knees. Bony and stiff as the support was, it gave her something to focus on through the whirl of not-quite-logical stairs and doors and hallways. The only thing she was sure of, as they passed through galleries and colonnades that were full of something like daylight, was that this was not the same route by which they had descended to the strange basement room.

Before long, the haphazard and ugly styles of the old, foundational parts of the Court fell away, to be replaced by the familiar mix of black and white marble. She asked the Guard to set her down, and was pleasantly surprised when he complied without protest. Her legs were unsteady, but she found her footing after only the length of one hall.

From there, it was just a pleasant stroll through some of the less well-travelled areas of the Court. They passed occasional Guards, patrolling or standing at post in courtyards, but she only once caught a glimpse of a Gift-Giver, robed in what looked like a very pale green or pink, turning a corner far ahead.

She needed to come to some sort of a decision about the Separatists and what to do about them, but she could tell from the surge in her blood at the thought that she wasn't ready to do so quite yet. Dora would have been able to kick her into shape in short order, and even Rel might have been useful, except for the fact that Taslin probably wouldn't let him out of her sight. That left Atla. Perhaps she could at least steady her nerves by talking to the boy. His grasp of the bigger picture was dim at best, but she couldn't fault his character.

He was waiting in the Great Hall when she got there, just staring up at the leafy ceiling. If you spotted the Hall building while flying down from outside the Court, it looked just like the rest of the place, dark slate and black gables, but somehow, from the inside, the Gift-Givers had managed to preserve this one magnificent piece of Second-Realm strangeness. The walls looked like they had been designed to open the space to the sky; branches laden with every shape of foliage and several colours of bloom spread across the opening, shimmering where sunlight fell through them.

It was nourishment for the soul, though Pevan wondered idly if Chag felt the same way. Atla seemed to sense something amiss as he turned and walked towards her. His smile of relief shrank and fell, his brow pinching in worry. He said, "Is everything alright?"

She took a deep breath. "Anybody ever try to impress you with actions you disapproved of?"

His frown turned puzzled, and he stared at her.

"Never mind." She waved the question away. "In some ways, I guess I shouldn't talk about it. Some of it ought to be private. Let me ask you a different question. Do you like being Gifted?"

"I... uh, well, I think so?" He cringed back a little, apparently from his own answer. Pevan chose to suppress her almost automatic eye-roll. Still struggling to see his thoughts through, he went on, "Do I count? I mean, uh, I'm not qualified... It's a big job, and I don’t... well, I don't know if I can really say yet."

She let herself chuckle. "Apart from the stuttering, you've done alright by me so far. What we've done today... this is what you can look forward to for the rest of your life. Are you happy with that?"

"Um... well, I-" He caught himself, gave her a sheepish look. "Sorry."

At that, she did roll her eyes. The apology was worse than the stammer. "I was joking. The question stands. What have you made of the day?"

"Is this a test?" He frowned again, wringing his hands. "I mean, uh, why are you asking?"

"Call it curiosity." She shrugged. "I love my Gift, I wouldn't give it up for the world. Chag feels very differently, and I'm only just starting to realise that." That thought made her pause, turning to look up at the ceiling. She'd assumed that people wouldn't be willing to trade some of their loved ones for peace, but... More folks lived in the South, where Chag and Atla were from, than up North. What would she think - how would she feel - if Atla agreed with the thief?

When he spoke, though, his voice trembled. "Are you and he, uh..?"

It took her a moment to figure out what the other end of that sentence was, and another to summon up the right level of laughing scorn. "I hope he didn't tell you we were. There's a Clearviewing that shows us as lovers, but it belongs to a path that I think we've diverged from."

"You're not... uh, there isn't someone else?" His voice dropped even closer to a mumble.

She caught herself short of answering, seeing the approaching disaster. It was so hard to remember that Atla was her own age. The boy - and he was a boy, a child, however much Pevan was a fully-developed adult - was just so adolescent. Of course he'd be fascinated by the mysterious stranger who'd swooped down out of the legendary, perilous North to carry him away from his humdrum life.

The question was how to let him down gently. She needed him functional, not heartbroken, and however stout he'd been on the journey, it was hard to imagine he'd been in love before. There was no time to cozen him, either. She smiled, as broadly and gently as she could. "I have a bit too much on my plate right now to worry about it, don't you think? Chag, Rel, the Abyss, the Separatists. I'll have to make some decisions soon, obviously, but as Gifted it's best to be businesslike about it. Something you'll have to think about, too."

He looked down at his hands again. "Yeah, I guess."

"There's no childhood sweetheart waiting for you back home in Lefal?" She put a little levity in the words, hoping to see him blush, maybe even bluster some adolescent brag.

Instead, he frowned. "No. I thought maybe, when I got my Gift, but... No."

Pevan raised her eyebrow, surprised. The Guide's face was by lengths more mournful and distant than should have been possible. Whatever his story was would have to wait for another time. In place of a searching question, she laughed gently. "It's not an attractive thing, being Gifted. The air of danger's all well and good, but take it from me," she reached over to clap him on the arm, "a lady wants someone who's not likely to die before forty. Some men like a Gift in a woman, or at least so I fervently hope. Something to do with not wanting to have to look after a shrew as she withers, probably, but a lady'll always go for the man who'll care for her."

Atla managed a grin, and if it was a little on the wan side, it looked genuine and simply conflicted, rather than false.

"You didn't answer my other question," she prompted.

"Huh? Sorry?"

"Today." She let her voice stiffen just a touch. "Does it bother you that this will be your life?"

"No." The answer seemed to surprise him, or maybe the speed of it did. His attention turned inward for a moment, then he looked up at the ceiling. She followed his gaze, enjoying her share of the moment. Quietly, without bringing his eyes back down, he said, "No, this is alright." Then he did frown at her. "I mean, bits of it were a bit scary, and it's not easy, I'm not taking it lightly." He waited for her to nod. "But I feel... um, I guess it's the feeling that I can make a difference. It matters that I can do this."

She ruffled his hair, drawing a brief scowl. "Good. That's the first step on the way to being a good Gifted, rather than just an able one." He smiled, but a stone dropped suddenly into the pit of Pevan's stomach. Her tongue and lips drying as she spoke, she said, "You felt powerless before?"

The thought troubled him. She tried to wet her palate while she waited for his answer, but nothing came. By the time he spoke, she felt as though she could barely move her tongue at all. He said, "I wouldn't, uh, put it quite like that. It's not so much powerlessness that bothered me, just... well, I guess it comes down to not really having a place in the village."

"What do you mean?" She tried to keep from sounding too incisive, but the net result was that her tone became teacherly, patronising in its sing-song happiness.

"I have four brothers." He shot a strange mix of frustration and longing at the middle distance. "All older, none of them Gifted."

"Ah." Coliter, the youngest of the Webberat sisters back in Federas, shared some of Atla's insecurities, though there was no way Coliter would ever make a good Gifted. Pevan gave the lad another kindly smile. "Hand-me-downs, the small bed, and not much room left in your father's workshop for you to learn?"

It was hard to characterise the sharp change in Atla's features. His eyes became startled, dark pits, the tension etched hard around them. "H-how did you know?"

"Happens in every village, I expect." She patted him on the arm again. "You're lucky, and it's probably to the benefit of your family, too. They haven't made it hard for you?"

"No." He shook his head, but his face began to droop into sadness. "I miss them."

"Chin up, remember?" She let her tone do the work of recapturing his focus. "Especially here. This whole place is about making the effort to present yourself well, remember."

When he stood straight and put on his serious face, he piled on maturity. The transformation was striking. He even spoke more surely. "It's hard, being Gifted. I mean, I can be a Guide, Bersh's training's been great for that. But I hadn't even thought about all this other stuff..."

"Likely Bersh hasn't either." Pevan shrugged, studying the boy's face. "It's no criticism, really. Probably he's never needed to be a Gifted before. Most Four Knots are all the authority most towns could need. But there's no reason not to understand how to play the role. You'll find yourself working with strangers a lot, people who need to trust you at a first impression."

He nodded, face as fixed as a statue's.

"Okay, let me ask you another question." She paused, waited for him to nod again. This was the question she was really worried about, and it almost stuck in her throat. "If I- If you could make the entire Second Realm disappear right now, so you never needed to use your Gift again, and neither did anyone else, would you do it?"

Atla spoiled his appearance of maturity by chewing his lip for a second, but when he met her eye there was no doubting how seriously he took the question. His voice dropped a few notes, his intonation as even as a Wilder's, though more gruff. "What's the catch?"

She grinned despite herself. "Top marks. If I'd thought to ask that, we might not even be here."

"Ask it?" His face went wide, and he lent back just a tiny little bit. "Of who?"

"The Separatists." She hugged herself, broke eye contact to watch a pair of Gift-Givers crossing the Hall, half-way to the far end.

"That's what they mean by Separation? It's not just not going to the Second Realm anymore?" He waited for her nod, and continued. "So what's the catch?"

She rolled her eyes, scowling. "Reports vary. Taslin said it would be as bad for us as another Realmcrash. Chag reckons the Separatists have the right of it, and it'll be a lot more benign than that. Just a few localised physics disturbances and some Realmquakes."

"Realmquakes?" The face that had seemed so fresh and innocent only a minute before had hardened to the point that the widening of his eyes made him look as much angry as afraid. "You mean like y- two days ago?"

"That's what I thought. I'm inclined to believe Taslin's account, from how cagey the Separatists were." She folded her arms and looked back along the hall, suddenly uncomfortable looking Atla in the eye. His tone when he spoke justified the discomfort. "So, we're going to stop them, right?" It was easy to imagine that Dora might have sounded like that as a trainee.

* * *

Next Episode

Monday, 15 April 2013

Those Pesky Academics... (like me, for example)

Scott Turow's been making public statements again! That should keep me in blog topics for a while...

Actually, Techdirt, David Gaughran, Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath have done a pretty good job of responding to Turow's latest steaming pile of paranoid, vitriolic logorrheia. However, they've all missed out one particular paragraph, which was the one that really made my blood boil.

It's this one:
"The fracas with the Hathi libraries is emblematic of new fractures in traditional literary alliances. For many academics today, their own copyrights hold little financial value because scholarly publishing has grown so unprofitable. The copyrights of other authors, by contrast, often inhibit scholars who want to quote freely from those works or use portions in class. Thus, under the cri de coeur that “information wants to be free,” some professors and others are calling for copyright to be curtailed or even abandoned. High-minded slogans aside, these academics are simply promoting their own careers over the livelihoods of other writers."
Three out of five of these sentences are problematic (by which I mean 'misguided, misleading and in some cases outright hateful'). To whit:

The statement that academic copyrights hold little financial value for academics - this is certainly true, but not because scholarly publishing has become unprofitable. With a new academic monograph tending to go for something like £50 (yes, you read that right - and don't expect them to come much below £20 in paperback), you can bet someone is making money off these things. It's not the authors - most likely it's the desperately-struggling academic presses, who have the most to gain from switching to the lower-overhead business models of the new digital publishing but, being part of the entrenched university system, are perhaps even more resistant to change than the big six.

The claim that copyrights 'often inhibit scholars who want to quote freely from those works or use portions in class' is just flat-out false. There are extensive, well-defined and generous protections for fair use. The only prohibition is about providing photocopies of a copyrighted text to students, where the limit is generally no more than one chapter per book - and I've only once encountered a situation where this was a problem, in eight years of university life.

The one that really got the steam coming out of my ears, though, was the last sentence. Mr. Turow is accusing those of us who oppose the modern copyright framework of doing so purely for self-aggrandisement. Did you notice the strong implication that this is a deliberate attack on other authors? I guess to Turow it looks like that, since his world apparently revolves around the Author's Guild and its 8,000-odd members, who are probably the authors with most to gain from copyright as an institution.

First off, the accusation is very patently untrue. The arguments I, and many others more eloquent and forceful than myself, have offered are much deeper and more thorough than 'high-minded slogans', and are the product of conviction, not cynicism. The problem goes far deeper than that, though - after all, why is Turow laying into academics?

It's clear he's desperately searching for villains to fit his narrative of 'real authors' versus 'the new publishing'. In the rest of the article, he attacks libraries, Amazon, Google, and the Supreme Court of the United States of America, for crying out loud. Why is it to his rhetorical advantage to add a group as cuddly and harmless as academics to that list?

Because 'academic' is a poweful, loaded label. It still conjures up images of stout, bearded old men cloistered in luxurious, book-filled offices, growing fat on their tenured professorial chairs. People don't really seem to know what 'academics' do - outwardly, I think, it all seems to be caps, gowns and very little heavy lifting.

Well, I am an academic (or at least a very-late-stage-trainee). I can assure you that this picture of academic life is an anachronism, a vision constructed in the late 19th or possibly early 20th century. The most painful inaccuracy is encapsulated by this description of the working conditions of the average US academic.

Okay, it's not sweat-shop stuff, but while the pay is better per hour than behind the counter at McDonalds (far fewer hours are available), the insecurity, stress and oppression are much the same. And these adjunct professors are the best and brightest minds of their generation, the Einsteins of tomorrow, the people who lead the fight against the most profound challenges of our time - global warming, overpopulation, peak food and water, and so on.

And yet, academics get to bear the brunt of a campaign of marginalisation by the political right (you've heard the cries about 'the intellectual elite', I'm sure), which is exactly what Turow is playing on here. Academics are no threat to Scott Turow, to Author's Guild members, or even to authors in general - in fact, it's spurious to treat academics as if we're not authors. We're authors in greater need of some unionisation than most, since the legacy publishing model works least well in small niche markets and ours is the most niche of nichey niches.

Turow's looking for enemies to demonise because he doesn't want anyone identifying the real problems in publishing. I have a couple of theories about the identity of those problems, but they'll have to wait for another time - expect painful reading. Until then, just remember that... well, just remember Scott Turow's an idiot. It's not just academics he's wrong about.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Of course I'm going to blog about Thatcher

The death of Mrs. Thatcher is an event that has been much-anticipated and much-debated in Britain. It has, of course, been an anticlimax; no great voice in the sky spake forth, declaring 'Well done, my children, ye have outlasted the demon I sent to test ye, and now I shall dispose of her disciples'. It does feel a bit like that was what we were expecting/hoping for.

But the death of the woman is not the death of her ideology. If there is literal or metaphorical dancing on her grave, it is premature. Trite though it has already become to say it, her death changes nothing and her poisonous, brutal ideology remains definitive of British politics (and for those of you about to leap to its defence, just don't. There are lots of statistics flying around, but the one that's stuck with me is that apparently under her rule, the proportion of British children living below the poverty line rose from around 14% to around 33%. That is not OK.)

I don't know enough about economics (and I'm tempted to suggest that neither does anyone else - certainly not the vast majority of people) to fairly evaluate the policies that defined Thatcher's reign. I can comment on her leadership style - divisive and at times (section 28, anyone?) outright hateful - and her foreign policy decisions - it probably was right to defend the Falklands, but probably not to sink the Belgrano - but these are not the policies for which she will be most remembered and hated. Instead of any of those discussions, though, I want to pick up on the two themes I've seen most in the responses to her death, and offer an argument that both are wrong, based on two principles of public discourse.

The themes first. These are roughly the dancers on her grave (of whom, in Liverpool, there are a very great many) and the people of my generation and younger who have posted messages saying vague things like 'There was good and bad to her, we should let her family mourn in peace' or 'Now is not the time for a political row'.

It's childish to be vitriolic and hateful. The end of Thatcher's political career was something to celebrate, certainly, but that occurred in about 2002 when health issues forced her to withdraw from public life. The end of her ideology will be something to celebrate if it ever happens, but as long as her vicious, small-minded disciples - Tony Blair, David Cameron, George Osborne - keep their influence, there's very little to celebrate. And it is disrespectful, for all that Thatcher offered very little respect in return.

It is unforgivable, however, to be vague, to refrain from critical engagement. Thatcher is the dominant figure of post-war British politics, probably more responsible for the current (deeply unwelcome) state of modern Britain than anyone else. Her disciples still rule us. To shrink or shirk from confronting them on the subject of her ideology, at this time of all times, is to cede all the current battlegrounds without a fight - a concession we might never recover from.

The principles I want to offer are these: first, that one should only and always speak from knowledge, or to ask questions. I was born in 1987, about four months before Black Monday blew the legs off Thatcherite economics. I can just, I think, remember hearing of her ouster as leader of the Conservative party in 1990 - I have no specific memory, except of the feeling of relief. My three-and-a-half-year-old mind, influenced in the main, I assume, by my stringently cautious, politically moderate father, could only feel that 'the bad guy' had been vanquished (a feeling I have had at every subsequent change of prime minister except the most recent, of course). I have since tried to gain some understanding of the era of my birth, but there is a limit to what one can get from books and BBC documentaries.

Most of my friends, the people I've seen commenting on Thatcher's death, are people younger than me, with less experience, less knowledge of the period. That lack of knowledge has produced childish vitriol and noncommital vagueness in equal measure. The people I know who did live through Thatcher have been fairly silent, either too numbed or too wise to enter the debate. When one of them does choose to speak, however, the results are a dramatic contrast with the deliverances of my generation - this is Russell Brand's contribution (Russell Brand, for crying out loud! If you're less coherent and eloquent than Russell flippin' Brand, you need to stop talking).

My second principle I address not just to those moderates urging compassion for the family, but to those Thatcherite supporters arguing that now is not the time for criticism, because it would be 'disrespectful'. The principle is this: that you do no-one an honour by failing to be honest with or about them. You do not support someone by denying their faults, or allowing their mistakes to go uncorrected. While those using this moment for triumphalism and celebration are out of line, those using this opportunity for a critical review of her policies are doing exactly what must be done.

There will never be a better time to review Thatcher's life. We can now take it as a whole - the things she did will not change, and she can no longer decide to repudiate them or modify her views - but the memories of her tenure are still fresh. We can still find many people who were there, who knew her or who suffered under her policies, to testify. We can still hope to learn, to seek the knowledge from which we can then speak.

Anger will not help the critical process. But a woman who hurt and damaged such a large number and broad spectrum of people has earnt too much anger to have any fair or just expectation that it be put aside. That anger is evidence, and our entitlement as human, feeling creatures. Those who Thatcher angered must be allowed to speak, and to speak angrily (the only limit being that the right of free speech comes with the responsibility to speak well).

The correct response to Thatcher's death is just the correct response in all situations - seek understanding. Seek understanding of why she felt her policies were necessary, why she was able to convince others, why her policies didn't work (I'm sure she didn't intend to double the proportion of children under the poverty line), and why they created the Britain they have created. It is understanding that will breed solutions.

Speak from knowledge, or to ask questions; respect Thatcher's life and legacy by honest and forthright analysis; seek understanding. Good principles all round, I feel.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Dress to... what?

Here's a starting point. Please, please read that post. It's one of the most lucid and telling things I've ever seen on the subject of rape, rape culture, Steubenville and gender perceptions generally. When I first read it, I was deeply frightened that people - particularly young people - could think that way as a normal matter of course. But, introspective as I am, I realised that, somewhere at the bottom of my mind where things are primitive and atavistic, I have that thought too. I hope I'm human enough to rise above it - at very least, I think I have been so far, but eternal vigilance is required in all such matters, and I don't think I'll ever consider myself able to assume that part of my brain forever silenced.

We're dealing with a huge topic here, and one that I'm underqualified to talk about most of, but there is one thing I've noticed as a writer which led me to some interesting thoughts on one particular common justification rapists and their advocates use - the 'look at the way she dresses' argument (actually 'argument' is giving it too much credit, but I'm not sure I can think of a better term right now).

As writers, we tend to deal with characters' choices about clothing only when the choices are unusual or special in some way - the necklace that was left in Grandma's will, the lucky underpants, the wedding dress and so on. It's pretty rare for us to have a character stood in front of his/her wardrobe in the morning thinking about what balance between comfort and presentation is appropriate for the day, what they feel like wearing, etc.

But those ordinary choices are interesting, or at least they can be. What factors affect our sartorial decisions? Comfort is obviously one, but anyone who's been into a city centre on Saturday night in January, with snow on the ground and bare arms on almost everyone of both genders, can see it's not the only one. There are practical motives - safety equipment, work uniforms - but while the design of these is an interesting topic, it's not one I know anything like enough about tailoring, safety or uniforms to talk about.

There's definitely something else at work, though. Let me start with a non-contentious example, one I'm fully-qualified to discuss: myself. You will almost never see me not wearing a shirt, despite the fact that I find shirt collars uncomfortable, buttoned cuffs irritatingly restrictive, and my build (slender, but long-bodied and thick-necked) is awkward enough that most shirts fit me quite badly. Why? And why, within the handful of shirts I own that I'm happy to be seen in, can it take me so long sometimes to work out which I want to wear on a given day?

There's an element of comfort, since the shirts I own have a clear hierarchy of irritation and unpleasantness factor, and an element of smartness, since the more comfortable ones get worn more often and therefore look a bit more worn-out. But mainly, it's to do with constructing a self-image. It's something I do to make myself feel a bit more professional and grown-up when I'm sat at my desk writing, blogging, networking, promoting and so on.

As somebody working part-time and generating a very low income yearly, while spending so much of my time on my creative activities, I feel a hefty tension with society's idea of a respectable adult. Dressing smart while I work makes it feel like work, not slobbing around in my flat wasting my life. It ameliorates at least some of that tension.

What I'm getting at is that we're self-absorbed creatures. Our decisions and judgements are about ourselves, and wherever possible they are about the world that revolves around us.

Let's take that principle and apply it to a more contentious case, then: so-called 'provocative' clothing. I hate that term - it's probably one of the most entrenched linguistic mechanisms of rape culture. The argument I'm going to make is that clothing is never 'provocative' because when women make decisions about how they want to dress, those decisions aren't directed towards others, towards men they are 'trying to provoke'; they're self-directed decisions.

I can obviously speak from no personal experience of being a woman choosing what clothes to wear (the one time I wore drag, my outfit was selected for me, and the whole evening was a tragicomic disaster). I can only speak from the experience of being someone who worries a lot about my personal image and the way society views me. What follows is speculation, and by all means correct me if I'm wrong - as a philosopher I'm interested, but as a writer this is something I feel I need to know and understand if I am to do my job.

So, why might, for example, a young woman dressing for a night out or a party wear a short skirt or a low-cut top? Apply the principle that our decisions are mostly self-absorbed; what social constructs does this woman stand in relationship to? Most obviously, the set of arbitrary and somewhat unrealistic standards of beauty which modern culture has set up. Well, we can all understand wanting to feel beautiful/attractive/handsome, can't we?

But think about the times when you've wanted to look good. My guess is that, unless you were targeting some particular person, had someone specific in mind that you were trying to attract, it was your own idea of beauty that you were trying to recreate. Not necessarily your own idea of what you find attractive, but your own idea of how society's templates apply to you. You might ask a friend for advice, but most of your decisions are going to be made looking in a mirror or imagining looking in a mirror in some way.

So you're either dressing for some specific person, or for your own nebulous concept of beauty. Your decision was never about sending any kind of signal to the rest of the species that you were ready for mating. Our hypothetical young lady isn't thinking 'what will make all the actual men who will see me dressed like this lust for me?', she's thinking about 'what kind of person do I want to look like?'

And that applies even if the person she wants to look like is a sex icon known to be lusted after by all the boys.

So far, so good. But I noticed that something interesting, something deeply troubling, happens if you apply the same principle of self-absorption to a male looking at such a lady. Before I explain further, let me stress: I don't think any of what follows justifies the attitude that sometimes results. I don't believe there's such a thing as 'asking for it'. I offer the explanation I'm about to offer in the hope that it contains some suggestions as to how we might better educate young men to not be rapists.

Our male sees our hypothetical young lady and makes two subconscious assumptions - that she's heterosexual (and even according to the most generous estimates of the prevalence of homosexuality, at 10-20%, this assumption is more or less justified), and that she dressed the way she did, as we have already discussed, because she wanted to feel beautiful (for want of a better short way of putting it).

But while the woman's decision to dress to feel beautiful was self-directed, the man's interpretation of that decision is also self-directed. That is, his interpretation of her concept of beauty is as relating to him, not as relating to her. And beauty as relating to the beholder is an attractive power.

The thought process that follows is something like this: beauty is about attracting people, this woman is looking to attract men, I am a man, therefore she is looking to attract me - I am a member of the group she is trying to attract. It's a small step from that to the assumption of consent that those schoolkids in the article I linked to above seem to be making.

And the perception of that step as short is part of the essence of rape culture and victim-blaming. So often in the unenlightened parts of culture (and no, I'm not going to pull punches - if you blame rape victims, you are unenlightened, and you are an inferior human being. No buts), we see men portrayed as incapable of resisting taking that step when it is that short. It becomes the woman's task to make that step as long as possible if she wants to avoid being raped.

But the actual problem with the male attitude is much deeper. It's in the self-absorptive psychological mechanism that turns a woman's relationship to societal standards of beauty (an already-problematic phenomenon) into 'dressing to seduce'. The self-absorption itself is, of course, a gender-neutral, species-wide problem that interferes with all sorts of other human social behaviours, and we have to get better at training people to be less self-absorbed in general - let this be one more argument on that point.

Ultimately, what I'm getting at is this: discussions of clothing have no place whatsoever in the discourse about rape. If your solution to rape is anything to do with what women wear at all, you are on the wrong track.

Friday, 5 April 2013

'Live Like Common People'

The current fad in British social media circles is for this petition. It asks (or demands, depending on how you look at it) that our Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, the man primarily responsible for the biggest part of our austerity-based welfare cuts, live up to his claim to be able to live on £53 a week for a year (there's some ambiguity as to whether this is supposed to be before or after paying rent and utilities).

The petition has over 400,000 signatures (including mine, because I was feeling flippant when I saw the link). It's a combination, no doubt, of sincere belief that the man needs enlightening and desire to see the bastard suffer for what he's doing to us (the welfare reforms are completely unnecessary and unjustifiable, but the proof of that will have to wait until another day).

Anyway, it's an acknowledged problem everywhere that politicians tend to be well above the average income among the people they rule. I've touched on this before in a theoretical sort of way, but it's worth saying something more practical about it. Politicians very rarely have any experience of being poor, and poverty is not something you can understand unless you've experienced it.

If that sounds self-pitying, bear with me until the end of this paragraph. In total, across the last three years, I've spent under £20,000. My total cost of living has been that amount or under (for comparison's sake, that's equivalent to at most £130 a week before rent and bills or £59 after - but my actual budget has generally been much, much less, coming down to an average of about £20/wk after).

Despite that, I'm not poor.

Nor have I ever been, really, because there's a lot more to being poor than just living on a small budget. I've fed myself on under £3 a day for months at a stretch, sure, but I've always had a safety net in place. My parents, while not by any stretch of the imagination rich, are very good with what money they have and have set aside a fund for covering any emergencies my sister and I might face while finding our feet in the world.

So for example, when my computer conked out last summer, victim of what looked like a hard drive error that could have spelt doom for both my writing ambitions and my PhD, I could call home and ask for funds for a replacement (it turned out to just be a broken RAM chip, all of £15, but that was one of the most stressful weeks of the year all the same). And it's not just outright disasters; my day-job is sporadic and difficult to predict, and as a result in the first year I worked there I made about half what I'd budgeted on, and my folks covered the shortfall.

My point is well-put by Polly Toynbee in this article about the petition, but perhaps best-put by Jarvis Cocker;
'Cos when you're laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.
You'll never live like common people
You'll never do what common people do
You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do
It's easy to think that being poor just means not being able to afford stuff, and we're all familiar with that. I'm sure even Bill Gates has things he wishes he could afford (the end of human suffering, apparently). But that's not poverty, or at least it's not the most important thing about poverty, the thing that no simulation can caputre.

Poverty is about fear - the fear of losing your home, the fear of another thing breaking that you can't afford to replace (and what if this time it's something you can't live without?), the fear of watching your life slide out of view. A fear I've been quite fortunate never to have seriously felt - the closest I've come is fear of the shame of having to go home and admit to my parents that I've failed to make enough to live on again. Personally significant, sure, and unpleasant, but hardly worthy of the name 'fear'.

And making IDS (as the British press has long since taken to calling him) live on £53 a week for a year or even a decade will never make him feel that fear. If all you do is limit his budget, well, he's still got at least one house of his own, his own car, a houseful of luxury goods, probably mostly top-of-the-line and decently reliable. Take all that away, strip him of all his savings and earthly wealth, he's still got his name and reputation to trade on; there will always be talk shows, after-dinner-speaking engagements and punditry for him, opportunities and markets to which the truly poor have no access at all.

It's a great recurring theme of political discourse - how do we make the politicians see what it's like for us? How do we make them live like us? Heck, in ancient Greece when Plato was giving birth to political philosophy, he argued that the leaders should be banned from owning property to remind them that they were servants of the people, not masters. But none of this will ever bridge the gap, because simply by being our leaders, they are set apart, presented with opportunities and security we will never enjoy (this doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate the occasional honest and sincere attempt - I salute you, Mrs. Goodman).

Here's another petition, one which, while less satisfying, is at least a step in the right direction. Rather than trying to conjure up a fear which cannot be simulated, it seeks some actual facts which might be translatable into political language in a way that the experiences of individual citizens could never be. It's a step in the right direction, and I'm all for more science in politics and policy-making, but I'm not sure this particular idea will help at all (though again, I signed the petition).

See, just as the IDS petition appeals to a fear he'll never feel, this one appeals to a conscience that I honestly believe most of our leaders lack. Somewhere in the broad but sparsely-populated band between ordinary wealth and the Bill-Gates-rich, there live people like IDS who are rich enough to be totally secure but still have lots of people to envy the wealth of. And where they are, it's easy to develop a mindset of 'might makes right' - there's no-one to stop them doing what they want, and the people they're most likely to hurt can't hurt them back, so there's no loss to them. At a very deep level, they just don't register the suffering they cause in others as relevant to their decisions.

There's a fundamental disconnect not just of circumstance but mindset between us as citizens and the politicians who lead us, and I can think of only two ways to counteract it. The first is the ballot box - some 30-40 million people are eligible to vote in Britain, and fewer than 10 million actually stand to benefit from the Conservative agenda IDS is pushing - but when people already feel powerless, trying to get them to turn out to vote is just a new version of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The other solution is to show that these policies will actually hurt the people pushing them, not just the rest of us. These are policies, remember, that explicitly promote inequality - inequality, says the government, drives aspiration and thus achievement. People who work hard will earn their way out of poverty, and rightly so, while those who stay poor must deserve it. That's the rhetoric, but what it means is a strict (and in actual fact entirely arbitrary) division between the haves and the have-nots. So the task is to show that inequality is bad for the rich as well as for the poor.

And it is. There's so much to be said on this topic, and I'm not really qualified to say any of it, but, though these days it's much-contested, The Spirit Level is a great place to start. I'm not saying that either of the petitions I've linked to is a bad thing - at worst they're harmless and we get to see another cabinet minister squirming, and I signed both - but for me the key to actually getting the austerity agenda turned around is the effect it will have on the lives of the rich. It's a difficult message to push, but then so are all the good messages.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Freedom to Write: Your Own Worst Enemy

I was going to write a different post for today, about video games and literature. But a voice at the back of my mind started to whisper that I was making mountains out of molehills, that no-one would care, that no-one was interested in my petty little objections to stereotypes... and so on. So, in the hopes of shutting that little voice up, at least temporarily, here's the somewhat-overdue last part of this series of posts.

I think that, as writers, we all go through this worry. Our writing comes from very deep inside us. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that that makes it inherently narcissistic and self-serving. There's a conflict between the worlds in your head, which demand expression, their characters screaming to be let out, and the world outside, which seems to be full of grown-ups who do serious, dispassionate things like washing up, commuting and having jobs.

Even as I sit here typing this, by the way, I've got that little voice nagging me if I really believe anyone else has such a pathetic, selfish problem.

I normally try to avoid obscenity on this blog, but fuck that little voice with a big, sharp, splintery stick (because, yes, Richard, the best possible way to emphasise this topic is with a mental image that no-one wanted to think about...).

I talked briefly in the opener to this series about personal or psychological freedom to write - the freedom you give yourself. What I meant by that is freedom from that little voice. This might be the hardest of the three freedoms I identified to achieve, because it's your own attitude you're going to have to fix. You're going to have to teach yourself that you have a right to write, a right to express yourself through your work,to write about whatever you want to write about and not let the little douting voice put you off.

(Sidebar: There are all sorts of pathological psychological conditions which can produce severe versions of this effect - depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and so on. If you find yourself constantly experiencing this kind of doubt, particularly if it's across everything else you do as well, get professional help. I'm in the process of counselling for exactly these kind of problems at the moment. Your problems are not insignificant - and the fact that you may think they aren't is usually one of the strongest signs that they are.)

I can't offer counselling - I have absolutely no training and very limited experience in that area. What I can offer, and I hope it will help, is the reason why you should write even if you think no-one should care. In fact, I can go one better - I can give you a reason why you absolutely should write the stuff you want to write, but that you think no-one will care about. Hopefully this will keep you going (and me, too - I still want to write that video-games-and-literature post).

Let me start from this: there have been lots of great writers. Whether you point to Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens, or any of the greats of non-English literature (about whom, being an arrogant anglophone, I have basically no knowledge at all...), you have to ask yourself what you've got to offer that they haven't.

Hint: the answer isn't 'nothing'.

What you have to offer is the stuff that's most unique to you. Trite as it sounds, there's never been a writer quite like you before. By way of example, my first novel was a narrative deconstruction of the aesthetic theory of Lady Gaga, told through the story of a man posing as a woman to stalk a pop star via the internet. I doubt anyone else ever could have written it (or would have wanted to - and just so we're clear, it's not autobiographical :-P ). I still have difficulty convincing myself anyone would want to read the thing, but it's what I have to offer (someday, when I get round to giving it the rewrite and polish that any first novel needs).

Another example from my own experience; I'm taking a break from The Second Realm at the moment and working on a short story about a character dealing with more or less the same psychological issues I am. Partly as a coping mechanism, but mainly because the great inspirer in the sky reached down, handed me the story and said 'Write this down, it's yours'. Needless to say, despite all the aliens and stuff (I'm not going to start writing boring stuff just because I'm being serious, now am I?), it's a pretty intense, personal experience, and publishing it will be worse.

There's a wonderful quote from Patrick Rothfuss' 'The Name of the Wind' which (though actually about something slightly different) I feel sums up the feeling perfectly:
"Go out in the early days of winter, after the first cold snap of the season. Find a pool of water with a sheet of ice across the top, still fresh and new and clear as glass. Near the shore the ice will hold you. Slide out farther. Farther. Eventually, you'll find the place where the surface just barely bears your weight. There you will feel what I felt. The ice splinters under your feet. Look down and you can see the white cracks darting through the ice like mad, elaborate spiderwebs. It is perfectly silent, but you can feel the sudden sharp vibrations through the bottoms of your feet."
Possible scientific inaccuracies aside, I think that's a beautiful metaphor for the creative process. Go out to the furthest place you can stand, stay there well past the point of safety, and see what happens. It might not be best for your health and well-being, but it's only when you're right out there that you stand to do something special.

All the danger and the fear come from the exposure - the stripping bare of your deepest and most passionate parts (no, not those parts. Put that away, for Heaven's sake). And because brains are trixy things, yours is going to find any excuse to avoid that, to avoid the fear, the chance of humiliation, the mockery.

So it convinces you that the humiliation is inevitable. That the things you want to write about don't matter and will be regarded as silly or frivolous by the world at large. That when people have a positive word for you, they're just being kind, not honest. That when they don't, it's not because they're busy, or just as wrapped up in their own problems as you (how could they be, when your problems are so unusual and pathetic?), but because they revile you so much they can't even bear to be polite.

But the things that are most personal to you aren't just the things that are most important to you. They're the things that are most important about you as well, and you have a right to tell the world about them (just so we're clear, that's not the same as the right to make a public nuisance of yourself, pestering people in the street to listen to you ;) ). The world has a right to know, and I guarantee you someone out there is interested enough to listen.