22 December 2014

Winter's Tale with a Sting

“Out of the grey condensed sky, snowflakes fell. Like paratroopers dropped by mistake behind enemy lines, they drifted silently to the ground. Motionless they lay, waiting for an instruction that never came. More would arrive and the layer of pristine paralysis thickened. In Kuan’s world, every snowflake was different. In Shiyan, they were all identical, each one possessing the same solitary beauty as the holographic image projected in the virtual altar inside the House of Ou-Yang.”

In Kuan’s Wonderland, the arrival of winter brought our protagonist ever closer to the moment of truth, when he finally realised what those with power in Shiyan were planning all along.

In our own world, there is a similarly pervasive sense of naivety. People assume that there is nothing much to choose between politicians, when in fact the diverse agendas on offer could mean life and death differences for countless citizens. Perhaps an allegorical tale set in a strange realm may help trigger alarm bells that would otherwise remain silent.

Find out more by clicking on Kuan's Wonderland

18 November 2014

The Unbearable Emptiness of Time-travelling

When H. G. Wells introduced the Time Machine back in 1895, it served as an ingenious device to tell a dystopian story. By travelling to the distant future and returning to the present, the protagonist could share with us what the world could degenerate into if we did nothing to stop the polarisation between the haves and have-nots. It was a classic cautionary tale.

But sci-fi blockbusters today have become obsessed with Wells’ idea as a convenient plot filler and forgotten about his didactic concerns. From the reboot of Star Trek, through X-Men: Days of Future Past, to Interstellar, the most calamitous situation is always to be saved ultimately by someone in the future intervening to reconstruct the past.

What they overlook is that to posit time as the fourth dimension is to locate it as a unchangeable component of the space-time continuum. Whatever has happened cannot be undone. A moment thought would suffice to demonstrate that with infinite opportunities in the future to alter the past, if such alteration were possible, our memories would be continuously scrambled with nothing left to constitute any conception of our ongoing existence.

And to address this, there has long been a consensus that even if time-travelling were possible and someone from one point in time could affect events further back from that point, the impact would not in fact alter that past event, but only create an additional alternate timeline. So more and more alternate universes could be generated – some with the disaster in question averted, some with other unforeseen complications arising – but the tragedy that happened in the original past would remain a tragic event in that timeline.

So whatever heroic time-travelling deeds may appear on screen, they are just diversions from the dreadful events unfolding in the past presented to us at the outset. In truth, at best another world had been created, but in this one, things were as bad as ever. No one has been saved – only that in some parallel universe, a world with similar, but more fortunate, inhabitants has been brought into being. If you were about to be tortured, and someone said a clone of you had been produced on the other side of the world and given a luxurious lifestyle, it would not be of much comfort to you.

That is the vacuity of ‘time-travel’ salvation.

Our minds could of course jump around, to our memories of the past and imagined visions of the future. Vonnegut showed masterfully in Slaughter House 5 how shifting time perspectives could create greater literary depths. But in so doing, he also reminded us that we could never erase disasters that had befallen us with a dash of time-travelling. The bombing of Dresden, the massacre in Nanking, the inhumanity of Auschwitz, cannot be rubbed out of the space-time continuum. It is precisely because we can never change the past that we must strive for a better future.

12 October 2014

Nightmare on Downing Street

Dystopian novels should hold up a mirror to the horrors that await us if we do nothing to divert disturbing trends. In Whitehall through the Looking Glass, I painted a picture of life under a shameless plutocratic government. More recently, when giving my views to the Civil Service College, I warned that we might not be far off from the pervasive oppression portrayed in the story.

“In this timid new world, privatisation and deregulation will keep handing more power to large corporations until there are no viable checks or balances against them. Civil servants, on short-term contracts, will be made keenly aware that they have to spend time in the private sector to impress their corporate masters (inside and outside government). Those who cannot point to a successful track record of serving business interests are unlikely to reach the upper echelons of Whitehall.

And once a corporate-led government has consolidated its position, it will remove any obstacle to the development and application of advanced technology to expand its powerbase and the profits of its allies. In the absence of any genuine public scrutiny, the power of surveillance, information manipulation, and promotion of addictive consumerism will be deployed without constraint. Few civil servants will dare to blow the whistle. Those who do can expect a long prison sentence. And with 24/7 monitoring, probably with the aid of bio-technology, there is little chance of escaping detection.

A government conducted for the benefit of the business elite will also want to make sure the majority of the population are unable to pool their resources to act collectively. The rich will accordingly be liberated from paying taxes, public services will be largely dismantled, and welfare safety nets will vanish altogether. At the same time, corporate leaders in the government and the media (including the privatised BBC) will work seamlessly together to present the most vulnerable people as deserving of scorn and ill-treatment – thus diverting public frustration towards those least able to defend themselves.” (excerpts from ‘What would Whitehall be like in fifty years’ time?’, in Despatches, the Civil Service College newsletter: [p.2].)

Now we hear that the Government has just appointed as the chief executive of the British Civil Service someone who has had no experience as a civil servant, and whose sole credentials are a career in the private sector where he had presided over health and safety problems in the oil industry and disputes in pushing for more fracking. On top of his key public sector role, he is allowed to keep his £100,000 a year post with a brewing company. That is not fiction.

16 September 2014

Dystopia Goes to Hollywood

When political writers such as Huxley, Zamyatin and Orwell first developed the dystopian genre of fiction, it marked the beginning of an intellectual movement to alert the world to societal trends which, if left unchecked, could take us all into an irrevocable nightmare. Now tales of dystopia have become mainstream screen entertainment. Is that good news or bad?

In the last decade (2005-2014), there have been one or more major dystopian films released every year. We have selected a dozen to see what they have to say about the socio-political dangers lying in wait for us:
2014 Divergent
2013 Elysium
2012 The Hunger Games
2011 In Time
2011 Atlas Shrugged
2010 Book of Eli
2009 The Road
2008 Blindness
2007 I Am Legend
2006 Children of Men
2006 V for Vendetta
2005 The Island

These films fall broadly into three categories. The first is about government becoming too over-bearing and resistance is called for to put an end to its transgression. These include:
‘Divergent’: people are divided into artificial groups based on their dispositions, and those who do not fit into a pre-determined group have a precarious existence.
‘Atlas Shrugged’: hard-working business people are threatened with excessive taxes and regulations, and decide they will go on strike.
‘Children of Men’: government has become so controlling in managing dwindling resources as the human race can no longer reproduce.
‘V for Vendetta’: government acts without constraint and seeks to crush any dissident voice with ruthless oppression, and a rebel leader rises to destroy it.

All these films suggest we should not allow any government, with its monopoly in the use of legally-sanctioned coercive force, to go beyond acceptable boundaries. But while they dwell on the spirit of resistance, they are much less clear about the rationale for opposing the government. Of course governments should not arbitrarily divide people or impose impossible burdens on businesses. But for public safety, governments do on certain occasions have to segregate people who pose a threat to others’ lives. And even the most ardent laissez-faire advocates would admit that leaving businesses alone without any regulatory framework is hardly likely to bring about the best of all possible worlds. A government which abuses its power should indeed be restrained or even overthrown, but what counts as crossing the line and what amounts to appropriate counter-moves are precisely the key factors to consider. Sometimes the true dystopian nightmare begins when a government is simply swept away with no collective and democratic alternative to take its place.

This takes us to the second category of recent dystopian films, all of which are concerned with the collapse of government when civilised rule is displaced by pervasive vulnerability in the midst of lawless chaos. These cover:
‘Book of Eli’: only a determined few can stand up against the strong who will exploit and even crush others in the absence of any government to protect the public good.
‘The Road’: a few individuals may heroically try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where others are roaming around to hunt people for food.
‘Blindness’: when nearly everyone has gone blind suddenly, anarchy breaks out and nobody can feel safe anywhere.
‘I Am Legend’: a mutated virus has wiped out most people and turned many into cannibalistic predators, and one survivor looks to escape to an improbable sanctuary.

The unifying theme here is the horror that would envelop us if some disaster should result in the total collapse of government, leaving people with no protection from thoughtless attackers, and no basis for determining or enforcing justice. These films effectively convey the sense of unremitting crisis that would ensue, but unlike John Wyndham’s dystopian classic, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (which anticipated the plot of ‘Blindness’), they neglect to show how, beyond surviving against the immediate trials of the post-apocalyptic situation, the only long term hope rests with rebuilding some form of viable government.

So far, we are warned to be ever vigilant both against allowing government to act irresponsibly and allowing government to collapse irrevocably. The third category of recent dystopian films turn their attention to what contemporary governments should urgently address if societies are not to fall apart. These include:
‘Elysium’: the superrich have taken off with the resources they have amassed and literally left the poor behind on a dysfunctional planet.
‘The Hunger Games’: the superrich have their life of abundant luxury in their own district while others are made to live in utterly impoverished areas.
‘In Time’: the superrich can extend their life span with a ‘time’ currency while the poor are short-changed and programmed to die young.
‘The Island’: the superrich have clones of themselves made, and the clones are killed when their body parts need to be harvested to rejuvenate the wealthy ‘originals’.

The recurring theme of these films echoes what many political theorists and economists have been highlighting: if a wealthy elite is allowed to become so much richer and hence more powerful than everyone else in society, the corrosive inequalities will leave everyone else at their arbitrary mercy. Apart from ensuring it does not abuse its powers, and maintaining the basic infrastructure for general security and public services, a government has a crucial role to play in preventing one group of citizens from exercising de facto dictatorship over all others by virtue of their concentrated wealth.

Some may be disappointed that dystopian films dwell on atmosphere and effects too much at the expense of telling a fuller story of the dangers we need to avert with the help of a democratic and responsive government. But they do help to raise awareness of political issues and shift cultural norms as to what threats are no longer tolerable. And it is not marginal thinkers or radical activists who are now saying that we need to pay more attention to safeguarding the essential functions of our government, holding it to account for its actions, and most urgently of all, pressing it to reverse the widening gap between the superrich elite and everyone else.

17 August 2014

Redrawing the Utopia-Dystopia Roadmap

According to the historian of political ideas, Gregory Claeys, utopias and dystopias lie at opposite ends of a spectrum of human possibilities. Utopias represent the hope for a communitarian coming together of mutually caring people, happy to share equitably, and willing to make sacrifices if called upon to protect the common good. By contrast, dystopias embody the horrors of a fractured society, wherein some have come to wield unchallengeable power over others, and individuals are left in a state of fear, distrust and isolation.

Although conventional thinking treats ‘utopias’ and ‘dystopias’ primarily as genres in fiction, Claeys connects this pair of concepts to the wider activities of political advocacy and social experimentation. This insight shows that attempts to build utopias and guard against dystopias should be considered not simply in terms of appeals to our imagination through storytelling, but also of appeals to our reason through political theory, and appeals to our concerns with improving our lives through new social practice.

The function of utopian advocacy is therefore about guiding people towards a far more communitarian form of human association, utilising a combination of political arguments to set out why it would be preferable to organise for solidarity and democratic cooperation; community practices to demonstrate how alternative social arrangements can work; and fictional drama to rouse interest in the better future that we can yet build.

This can be supplemented by dystopian warning in the form of: political critiques to challenge both the complacency that allows power inequalities to corrode social bonds, and the dangers of pseudo-utopian revolutions that would bring about even worse oppression; community protest to confront misguided reforms that seek to dismantle shared protection; and dark tales to expose the nightmare that may be in store for us unless we join forces to avert it.

Historically, with the exception of the likes of Francis Bacon, William Godwin, and H. G. Wells, few advocates have attempted to use all three approaches to map out the path for society to follow. But some of us have tried to do precisely that more recently, because if those promoting the communitarian ideal in literature, political theory and practical reform are theoretically aligned and strategically united, they stand a much greater chance of success.

Contemporary advocates for a more communitarian form of society may, therefore, want to consider drawing on the political formulation of Communitarianism, the community empowerment practices promoted under the banner of Together We Can, and the dystopian novels Kuan’s Wonderland and Whitehall through the Looking Glass, to present a joined-up set of directions to show where we need to get to, how we can move forward in practice, and why staying where we are is not an option.

13 August 2014

Waking Up to Dystopian Inequalities

In blockbuster drama, our dystopian future is full of cataclysmic horrors and explosions. But what is horrifying is that behind the scene, without a sound, the absolute rule of corporate superpowers is virtually upon us. The chasm between those who can dictate terms to everyone else and the rest of us is so vast that many have given up hope of ever closing it. Yet that is precisely why we must sound the alarm in ever more distinct ways to capture public attention.

Kuan’s Wonderland uses allegory and sci-fi to show up the kind of life people have to endure when inequalities tear the fabric of mutual respect to shreds.

According to Kate Pickett (Director, Equality Trust, & co-author of The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better), “Kuan’s Wonderland is a didactic novel that doesn’t hesitate to entertain the reader. It shows that political theorists can engage a wider public with an imaginative medium such as popular fiction without losing intellectual force. The Equality Trust welcomes this opportunity to work with Henry Tam with the publication of the learning resource for his novel as part of our Young Person’s Guide to Inequality.”

To find out more about why Kuan’s Wonderland is recommended reading to get people thinking anew about what inequalities can do – click here.

11 August 2014

When Plato Met Potter

Political philosophers have come up with some very radical interpretations of the world, yet in trying to change our perception of it, they keep writing fairly traditional books. But if the battle of ideas is really going to stir our imagination, why not try to light the infamous ‘cave of ignorance’ with the wand of popular fiction?

With my novel, Kuan’s Wonderland, I decided to splice the DNA of a political philosophy I developed into a gripping sci-fi fantasy adventure. …

Read the rest of the ‘When Plato Met Potter’ article on BookBrunch

05 August 2014

Readers’ Feedback: Whitehall through the Looking Glass

The following extracts are taken from Customer Reviews posted on the ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’ page on Amazon:

Great fun for politicos and sci-fi fans
“I was sufficiently enthralled by Whitehall through the Looking Glass that I read it cover to cover (pixel to pixel, perhaps) in a single day - ironically, a day off on a business trip to the former people's paradise of Sweden. What a lot of fun. Science fiction in something of the style of the early Asimov, combined with a biting satire on neoliberal trends in the post Cold War West. Much of this fiction (sadly the politics as much as the technology) is likely to become fact sooner than we imagine.”
By ‘Con Grano Salis’ (5 out of 5)

Amusing yet very disturbing sci fiction
“A disturbing story depicting the state of our world in the not so distant future - a plethora of political characters many with extreme and selfish views. The poor getting poorer; the rich horrifyingly rich and powerful, - the painting of a desperate world on the edge of extinction. But regardless of all this I found myself chuckling at the book's events and people - people, who rang a bell somewhere in the back of my mind - people one had read about or personally come across in work situations - how horribly familiar it all seemed!!! A fascinating read.”
By ‘G. Samuel’ (4 out of 5)

A masterpiece! Best book of the century so far!
Whitehall Through the Looking Glass is a political sci-fi thriller with a fantastic storyline. It is a real page turner! Tam writes with both intelligence and wit, engaging the reader, and forcing them to look past the minutiae of life and into the very mechanisms that control our everyday existence. It is one of those rare novels that has the power to change the way you think, and I would be very surprised if it doesn't win many awards! Thoroughly recommended!”
By ‘Caroline’ (5 out of 5)

A page-turner with purpose
“Henry Tam has done something that's very hard to pull-off. He's written a real page-turner, a novel that is easy to read and full of invention, twists and unexpected turns. But he's also provided an insight into modern government - the craziness of a civil service which is committed to serving the public, but which simply serves the interests of the powerful. Although the novel is set in the future it can be read as a very exact account of how power really works in modern Britain.”
By ‘Dr. J. Duffy’ (5 out of 5)

Cracking good read
‘Cracking good read’ 5 Stars (28 April 2014) By YakinaMac
“Full of Machiavellian characters and dark humour, with a great twist in the tail. Anyone who's worked in Whitehall will find much to smile at in this sharply observed novel.”
By ‘YakinaMac’ (5 out of 5)

Too True
“A deliciously funny book which moves at great speed as the government promotes privatisation and begins to hand over to the all-powerful Consortium. Once you’ve read this, you will listen to the news with fear as you hear echoes of the early moves of the Consortium and how they are preparing to get control of the UK now. As only an ex-insider could do, it exposes with merciless humour the vanity and ambition of the top politicians and their civil servants. It shows just how high they have to jump to please and the terrifying world that emerges, with a disappearing state, no longer willing to provide protection against poverty and vulnerability. All of this against a backdrop where privatisation becomes complete and control of the people is almost successful. With an Orwellian touch, it is full of vision for what can happen if we stop caring about how to share power fairly. This is a call to action to reclaim a fair and positive government of those who still care and take it from those who don't.”
By ‘freedom22’ (5 out of 5)

Disturbingly brilliant
“A great read - engaging characters written by someone who's obviously had first hand experience of the political world. Definitely didn't see the final twist coming!”
By ‘pageturner’ (5 out of 5)

04 August 2014

Readers’ Feedback: Kuan’s Wonderland

The following extracts are taken from Customer Reviews posted on the 'Kuan's Wonderland' page on Amazon:

“This book is not what I expected, it’s fast pace and adventurous. Thinking I would be reading something of a dystopia fantasy novel, which I must say this has many elements of, it’s also has a good mix of fantasy in there but with thought provoking reflections on society. The only thing I think you could compare it too would be the 'His dark materials' series be Philip Pullman.”
By ‘robert a segrott’ (5 out of 5)

Wonderland Indeed
“I can't remember the last time I was so gripped by a book. It kept me up late three nights in a row while I finished it. Indeed I contemplated abandoning work for a day just so I could find out what happened next. It's a very seductive read - you don't have to suspend your disbelief for very long before you're a part of its world. And the main characters are so carefully drawn that you engage with them immediately, so you want to find out what happens to them.

It's clever without being clever-clever. It covers a range of emotions without being melodramatic. It's by turns funny, moving and frightening. And the end, and the book's message, are very powerful. (The message is lightly delivered though - this isn't a tub-thumper.) … The fact of the matter is I don't know another book like it. I don't think it has a "kind". Get reading. You won't regret it.”
By ‘A.J. Marks’ (4 out of 5)

A Good Mystery
“I'm always on the look out for a good mystery and this fits the bill. I enjoyed not knowing what was coming next and the way it all came together in the last few chapters was something else. Not sure it fits into the usual fantasy genre, it's totally unique.”
By ‘Pete7Reviews’ (5 out of 5)

Beautifully Descriptive
“This book is beautifully written and paints the surreal landscape with vivid imagery. A page turner which left me thinking... You can't get better than that!”
By ‘GazzaBee’ (5 out of 5)

A political allegory with overtones of Vonnegut and undertones of Kafka
“I was 16 when I first read 1984. I loved it. As I grew older, each time I re-read Orwell's book, I saw a story that was subtly altered. I drew different comparisons, based on the way my life was changing, and my new experiences. Although Kuan's Wonderland has a less straightforward narrative arc than 1984, it's the same kind of book: there are so many layers of meaning, intertextuality, and interwoven themes, that a reader will be able to return again and again, and see fresh details each time. As soon as I'd finished Tam's novel, I had a huge urge to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Although this book may on cursory inspection seem like a science fiction novel, it's a lot more than that. Even if you don't usually like the genre, if you're interested in society and politics, you're likely to be hooked right up until the end.”
By ‘Helen M’ (4 out of 5)

Great Book
“Tam has created an extraordinary world and a story line which makes the book a delight to read. The plot is full of action and constant surprise. But more than that, there is a depth to the book and a clear moral and political challenge for each of us to consider. In short a very enjoyable, stimulating and worthwhile read.”
By ‘Anton’ (5 out of 5)

A many layered masterpiece
“This is a great story you can enjoy at a number of different levels. You can follow Kuan and his collaborators as they move breathlessly through an ever-changing worldscape of technological and psychological challenges. You can enjoy the characters, well-drawn despite their constantly changing external form. You can be intrigued by the religious references in the chapter headings and some of the locations through which Kuan moves. You can reflect on the underlying political analysis, which is evident but not pushy. And you can read to the end (which you must do) and (in my case, at least) still have an intriguing question mark in your mind as you close the book.”
By ‘Charles W’ (5 out of 5)

Fascinating Book
“A dark and worrying fantasy tale … more suited to adults than children.”
By ‘G. Samuel’ (4 out of 5)

Real page turner with a great twist
“Imagine the bastard lovechild of Pan's Labyrinth and 1984 - if you can - and you might get a flavour of what's waiting for you with Kuan's Wonderland. You'll be glued to the page as Kuan is snatched from home and transported to a bizarre, parallel world, full of sinister characters where nothing is ever quite as it seems. The twist at the end is inspired - it will be playing on your mind for days after you finish reading.”
By ‘YakinaMac’ (5 out of 5)

Brilliant Surprise
“Came across Kuan's Wonderland by chance and really loved it. The more I read, the more I realised that nothing was what it first seemed - it's packed full of twists. The first few chapters are a good read but make sure you read it right to the end, you'll have missed out on something special if you don't. It felt a bit Doctor Who in places (the good episodes)... I've recommended it to my friends.”
By ‘pageturner’ (5 out of 5)

A gripping tale of changing worlds and extreme loyalty
“This gripped me from the start and whenever I picked it up, I was straight back in the story with Kuan as a force for good, fearless and challenging to the different powers trying to crush him. Kuan moved swiftly between different worlds, their rules and his dilemmas becoming clear in each place. Shape changing characters and high-speed action kept me curious throughout about the complexities of Kuan's quest. The echoes of our own political world, where cruel power priorities fight with altruism and equality, were portrayed with both horror and a wry humour, making it an enjoyable read, full of political and human depth.”
By ‘freedom22’ (5 out of 5)

23 July 2014

The Future is Bleak, & it's Here

The latest novel in the Synetopia Quest series, 'Whitehall through the Looking Glass', has been widely acclaimed on its publication. Here is an extract from the review by Simon Duffy, Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform:

"Henry Tam has done something very difficult and done it very well. He has managed to write an enjoyable page-turner and to provide a clear-headed critique of politics in modern Britain. His book describes how the British Government continues on its current journey to a system where the interests of the powerful, the rich and the corporate have taken complete control of all political life."

Read the full review here.

22 July 2014

Lifelong Learning for Lifelong Resistance to Injustice

The event with WEA in June (2014) went very well and showed us all how dystopian fiction can be a powerful vehicle to stimulate group discussions about the problems of inequality and exploitation. I look forward to working with colleagues at WEA and other learning organisations to promote reading circles and discussion forums with the help of Kuan's Wonderland and Whitehall through the Looking Glass. Next up, a talk with sixth-formers and later on, a session at U3A with retirees. It really is a way to engage with people of all ages about the challenges of social injustice.

For more about the ongoing collaboration with WEA, see:
'A Novel Exploration of Inequality'

16 April 2014

My thanks to readers for your reviews

Latest review of Kuan's Wonderland:

"This book is not what I expected, it's fast pace and adventurous. Thinking I would be reading something of a dystopia fantasy novel, which I must say this has many elements of, its also has a good mix of fantasy in there but with thought provoking reflections on society. The only thing I think you could compare it too would be the 'His dark materials' series be Philip Pullman.
definitely worth a read."
- Robert A Segrott, Amazon Customer Review