24 December 2015

Dystopian Writings by Henry Tam

Long before ‘dystopia’ became shorthand for any kind of terrifying event set in the future, it denoted a specific genre of political fiction. Around the first half of the 20th century, Wells, London, Zamyatin, Čapek, Huxley, Burdekin, and Orwell wrote novels that presented societies that had degenerated into an appalling state because of their flawed governance. They wanted to draw attention to the grievous socio-economic trends that would concentrate too much power in a few individuals or an elite group, who could then exert total control over everyone else. With two world wars and an extended period of global economic collapse in between, it was not surprising that writers with first hand experience of the fallout from unrestrained capitalism and the rise of totalitarianism should want to focus attention on these dangers and help prevent their recurrence.

In the first half the 21st century, extremist cravings for repressive controls and the spread of crony capitalism have plunged the world into pervasive insecurity. Financial crises, climate change threats, countless caught up in wars, scapegoats routinely persecuted – all stemming from a powerful few steam-rolling their agenda forward. Henry Tam’s ‘Synetopia Quest’ series follows the core dystopian tradition in holding up a mirror to contemporary political failings, and drawing out the unsavoury development that can only be reversed through an inclusive redistribution of power. Each novel in the series tells a distinct story in its own unique setting, while a central character appears in all of them in different guises as the quest to end oppression unfolds.

Kuan’s Wonderland
An allegorical tale about a young boy taken against his will to the mysterious realm of Shiyan, where nothing is as it appears. His efforts to find a way home to his father is repeatedly thwarted. But just when he is about to resign to accepting what this strange world has to offer him, he discovers what that could mean for his father and their homeland. So alongside the curious characters who have come to his aid, he seeks to unmask and bring down the insidious oppressors.

- “An unmissable page-turner” (President, the Independent Publishers Guild).
- “Simply a tour de force … full of plot surprises and layers of deeper meaning” (Ann Walker, Director for Education, WEA)
- “Original and very engaging” (Fantasy Book Review)
- “A great book to open debate and enquiry with young people on society and politics.” (Chief Executive, Young Advisors)
- “I can't remember the last time I was so gripped by a book … It's by turns funny, moving and frightening.” (A. J. Marks, Amazon Review)
- “The ending is tense, unexpected and powerful.” (Ben Chu, The Independent newspaper)

Kuan’s Wonderland is the recommended novel of the Equality Trust in their resource guide for promoting understanding of the problem of inequality.
(Find out more about Kuan’s Wonderland or order it here).

Whitehall through the Looking Glass
A satirical novel about how a group of powerful corporations known as the Consortium, working in cahoots with multi-billionaire monarch, George VIII, come to control those governing both Britain and the US. By using the monitoring and manipulation technology of the Super Utility Network, the Consortium expands its power until there is no one left who can stand in its way. Or so it appears, until a defiant civil servant and a secret resistance movement threaten to bring its reign to an end.

- “[A] timely reminder of the dangers of the rapidly-accelerating corporatisation of our political and economic life.” (Frances O'Grady, General Secretary, TUC);
- “Beautifully, deftly written, [it] is dark and compelling reading.” (Dame Jane Roberts, Chair, NLGN)
- “We need Tam's absurdist vision of Whitehall to help wake us all up” (Simon Duffy, Director, Centre for Welfare Reform);
- “One of those rare novels that has the power to change the way you think” (Caroline Anslow, Amazon Review)
- “It should be read by anyone interested in the state of our democracy” (Sonny Leong, Chief Executive, Civil Service College).
- “It kept me hooked to the very end.” (Baroness Kay Andrews, ex-Government Minister).

Whitehall through the Looking Glass has been selected by WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) reading circles to facilitate discussions of current political issues.
(Find out more about Whitehall through the Looking Glass or order it here.

The Hunting of the Gods
A saga about the conflicts on Earth as it enters the sixth century of its Present Era. Its technologically advanced inhabitants have established beyond all reasonable doubt that life on the planet was created by the gods no more than 500 years ago. From the beginning, the two dominant immortal rulers have fought each other for ultimate supremacy. Now their hold on power is threatened by revolutionaries with their own contrasting agendas. But none of the rebels knows what they are truly up against until a resurrected man brings forward a revelation about the past that will transform their future.

(The Hunting of the Gods is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2016)

20 November 2015

Dystopian Origins: how did we get here?

After Thomas More wrote ‘Utopia’ in the early 16th century, Europe was rapidly transformed, first by the major scientific breakthroughs in the 17th century, then by the political revolutions that shook the 18th. By the 19th century, there was widespread belief in the prospect of progress towards a world that could be perfected through science and democracy. Utopian writings proliferated about how such perfection could be achieved.

The outlook spread to the rest of the world as well, and in China, the reformists indeed referred to ‘Science’ and ‘Democracy’ as the twin teachers that would bring their country to a more enlightened and successful future. Kang Yu-Wei wrote his utopian masterpiece, ‘The Book of Great Unity’, setting out how universal harmony and cooperation could be secured.

But something around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century brought dark clouds to the horizon. Instead of mapping out more utopias, minds turned to the new genre of dystopia – writings that would focus on how dangerous trends, if unchecked, could ruin society in the worst possible terms.

Looking back on history, it’s not difficult to see what transformed the world’s zeitgeist. Industrialisation had led to an ever widening the gap between owners of capital and ordinary workers, produced vast pollution, and accelerated urbanisation that created overcrowding and public health hazards. The lopsided economic system, exacerbated by public policies that favoured the superrich even more at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, led to the Great Depression. Unemployment and marginalisation fuelled extremism, which paved the way for gross atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi, Italian Fascist, Japanese militarist, and Stalinist regimes. The tragedy of one world war erupting was repeated within merely two decades with a second world war causing even greater devastation. That was to end only with the use of nuclear weapons that demonstrated grotesquely their potential to wipe out humankind.

Within a single generation, writers such as H. G. Wells (1866-1946); Aldous Huxley (1894-1963); George Orwell (1903-1950); and John Wyndham (1903-1969); had produced dystopian masterpieces that depicted the threats posed by unregulated capitalism, totalitarianism, religious deception, the stoking of prejudice, unaccountable technological and military development, mass surveillance, and the widening gap between the powerful and ordinary people.

Science and democracy still provided invaluable support to improving human existence, but the focus had shifted to the dangers that might get in the way. Utopias might be built in the future, but today dystopian trends must be detected and halted fast if there is to be a future of free and constructive development.

In the 1950s and 1960s, steps were taken in the western world to constrain corporate excesses, erect a welfare safety net for all, tackle prejudices and discrimination, and reduce global conflicts through the European Community and the United Nations. But from the 1980s on, all these achievements have been rolled back by the champions of military jingoism, economic inequalities, and traditional prejudices.

It is not surprising that dystopian literature and drama are once again prominent in contemporary culture. The threats they seek to counter are sadly multiplying around us once again.

23 August 2015

Triffids, High-Rise, & Lord of the Flies

Dystopian literature is often regarded as being preoccupied with an overbearing authority imposing unreasonable rules on people. While that is a central theme in novels such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, that is only one aspect of dysfunctional governance to be exposed. Another, equally important, warning concerns the total breakdown of governance.

Let us take three novels that may serve as an antidote for anyone who thinks the best way to keep oppressive governments at bay is to do away with government altogether. Anarchists, libertarians, anti-government militias, have for their different reasons considered the disappearance of government controls as inherently preferable. But however appealing a utopia of diverse individuals living happily with no enforceable rule to bind them may seem, the actual consequences may be highly disturbing.

In John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of The Triffids’ (1951), an unforeseeable natural disaster combined with an unfortunate accident of genetic plant engineering had left the vast majority of people blind while flesh-eating plants stalked and killed sightless people wandering around in a confused state. The pervasive blindness and deadly triffids are Wyndham’s symbols of forces that could rip society apart and render every individual vulnerable at all times. No heroic person could single-handedly save the day. Instead Wydham skilfully showed that amidst the chaos, there would be gangs out to rob others, fools who would risk their own and others’ lives pointlessly, and even militaristic groups imposing “neo-feudal” order on the defenceless. The only hope came with the beginning of a new democratic community rebuilding itself over at the Isle of Wight with fair rules and effective enforcement to protect their members.

In William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1954), there was no inexplicable ailment or mutated predators, but what was at first sight an idyllic island on which a group of school children had been marooned, quickly became a terrifying battleground. In the beginning, when the residual sense of respect for law and order still held sway, Ralph was able to organise activities to some extent for their common good. Yet when the infrastructure for ensuring compliance vanished totally, the unreasonable and the uncaring had no compunction about trampling over others. Thus Jack took advantage of the anarchic state to wreak havoc. Two boys were killed, and the island was left to burn. The survivors were finally rescued by the arrival of the naval officer who would connect them back to a world governed by the rule of law.

Without the successful attempt to re-introduce democratic governance, chaos would just keep proliferating. This was most dramatically illustrated by J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ (1975). From Wydham’s world, through Golding’s island, we’re now down to Ballard’s block of high-rise in London. The people who lived in this residential building were not under any external threats, but they were fuelled by internal tensions that were symbolic of wider social class differences – the superrich looking down from the top floors, the frowned-upon stuck on the lower floors, and the middle sections feeling squeezed by the others. Ballard depicted how negative emotions, left unchecked by any objective system of governance, would boil over to the point that the people caught up in them would rather push the rule of law away (as when some of the residents deliberately kept the police away by pretending everything was find in the high-rise) than to end their escalating feuds.

These three dystopian novels make a powerful case in telling us that dystopian failure of governance may not just take the form of an all-controlling authoritarian state, but it can also come from the state being pushed aside, leaving the irrational and aggressive to ruin everyone’s lives. The threat of oppressive governance must be tackled by replacing it by good governance, and not by the elimination of governance itself.

Whitehall through the Looking Glass’: a satirical dystopian novel about a Consortium that comes to take charge of both Britain and America.
Kuan’s Wonderland’: an allegorical dystopian novel about how wealth and dogmas rule in the surreal world of Shiyan.

10 August 2015

Kuan’s Wonderland: a quick guide

A young boy, raised by his solitary father, is captured and taken to Shiyan, a bizarre world where shape-shifting beings can morph into superior forms if they meet the challenges set by their masters. He is pressed by torturers to reveal a secret he is not aware he possesses. He finds himself cornered by Potokans, creatures despised and feared in equal measure. And he almost loses his life when he succumbs to temptation to take the Blessing dispensed by the mysterious Curator.

Exhausted by his failed attempts to escape, Kuan’s hope is revived by Amo, a being who only ever manifests herself as a small flame. She promises to help him reunite with his father. As they look for a way out, the boy is offered a chance to attain the highest form in Shiyan if he does the bidding of the most powerful figure in the realm. But as he gradually discovers what that involves, he begins to have second thoughts. At the same time, he starts to remember a dark secret connected with his father.

In the end, Kuan has to decide what to do when Shiyan splits into warring factions, knowing that what father would have wanted him to do requires him to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Kuan’s Wonderland has been widely acclaimed for its pace, imagination, and layers of political meaning:
• “Dark, twisted, sardonic, … [it is] an unmissable page-turner. Henry Tam has created a fantasy universe unlike any that has come before.” (President, the Independent Publishers Guild)
• “Simply a tour de force. It is … full of plot surprises and layers of deeper meaning.” (Ann Walker, Director for Education, WEA [Workers’ Educational Association])
• “It is vital that young people understand the problems of power inequality if we are to bring about change and Kuan's Wonderland offers a unique, imaginative, way of introducing them to the issue. We highly recommend it!" (Julie Thorpe, Head of School & Youth Programmes, the Co-operative College)
• “The fast-moving adventure in a new world, which sparkles with visually captivating creatures and imaginative technology, has already begun by the first line. … [The ending is] astonishing.” (Fantasy Book Review)
• “… a mesmerizing novel. It makes the imagination spring to life with amazing visions of strange beings and places.” (Nicolette Burford, Director, Documentary Film-Makers Cooperative)
• “A great book to open debate and enquiry with young people on society and politics.” (Gary Buxton, Chief Executive, Young Advisors)
• “An innovative and valuable way of engaging young people to explore issues surrounding equality and democracy in a way which speaks to them.” (Rachel Roberts, Director, Phoenix Education Trust)
• “… fast-paced while containing beautifully written and memorable passages. And the ending is tense, unexpected and powerful.” (Ben Chu, Economics Editor, The Independent newspaper)

You can get:
The E-book version from: Amazon UK or Amazon US
The Paperback version from: Barnes & Noble or CreateSpace

When The Equality Trust launched the ‘Young Person’s Guide to Inequality’ in 2013, it selected Kuan’s Wonderland as the novel to recommend to raise interest in the problem of inequality.

According to Kate Pickett (Director, Equality Trust; & co-author of The Spirit Level):
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.”

The supplementary learning resource setting out the key themes and discussion points of the novel, can be downloaded for free from the Equality Trust (beware of spoilers): ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality'.
For a selection of readers’ comments on Amazon Review, click here.

For the article ‘When Plato Met Potter’ (published on Bookbrunch), click here.

For ‘Political Engagement of the Surreal Kind’ (excerpts from an interview with Henry Tam in ‘Shout Out’), click here.

03 August 2015

Whitehall through the Looking Glass: a quick guide

In the not-too-distant future, the Consortium has brought America, which it practically owns through its corporate subsidiaries, back under the British Crown. In return, all it asks for is unfettered control over policy decisions in Whitehall.

In this timid new world, nobody dares question the Consortium, and everybody is expected to carry out orders. But while many of his civil service colleagues jostle to be of the greatest service to their new political masters, Philip K. Rainsborough decides that enough is enough. He sets out to expose the Consortium’s dark secrets. Unfortunately, the Consortium has on its side the Super Utility Network, the most advanced opinion manipulation technology in the world. And as life for most people sinks into chaos and misery, the Consortium remains as popular as ever by serving up gimmicks and endless scapegoats.

Caught between the Consortium and subversives who want to overthrow the government, Rainsborough is desperate to find a way for a peaceful regime change. He is given a chance when Chief Supt Carrie Edel seeks his help in a murder case that may bring down the Prime Minister. But what is actually asked of him amounts to treason. In any event, even if he can pull it off, he suspects he won’t live to tell the tale.

You can get:
The E-book version from: Amazon UK or Amazon US
The Paperback version from: Barnes & Noble or CreateSpace

What do commentators say about it

“Forget ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘The Thick of It’; if you want a sharp satirical look at life inside the corridors of power, read Whitehall through the Looking Glass, written by a true insider. Apart from the humour and a storyline full of remarkable twists, Tam’s novel also has a serious message about the dire consequences when corporations take over the running of a government. It should be read by anyone interested in the state of our democracy.”
- Sonny Leong, Chief Executive, Civil Service College

"Tam strips back the veil on a world dominated and decimated by a ruthless consortium. But, chillingly, its relentless pursuit of profit and power is legitimised by a hollowed-out democracy in which citizens, manipulated by the technologies of surveillance and suggestion, submit meekly to their thralldom. The narrative is all the more compelling because Tam's world is often as familiar as it is fantastical. This is not so much a lesson from history as a warning from the here and now. It's a cautionary tale and a call to action, but also a gripping read."
- Peter Bradley, Director, Speakers’ Corner Trust

“This is a timely reminder of the dangers of the rapidly-accelerating corporatisation of our political and economic life. With private firms increasingly running our NHS and administering welfare, so many of the services we cherish are at risk from the profit motive. From utilities to railways, we’ve already seen how the interests of shareholders and bosses trump those of workers, service users and taxpayers. As the general election approaches, Tam’s book is an important reminder of the risks of crude neoliberal ideology”.
- Frances O'Grady, General Secretary, TUC (Trades Union Congress)

“Beautifully, deftly written, Whitehall through the Looking Glass is dark and compelling reading. A deeply sobering wake up call to us all against the political complacency of our times.”
- Dame Jane Roberts, Chair, NLGN (New Local Government Network)

“Henry Tam knows how government works, and how fragile democracy is. With his insider knowledge and surreal imagination, he has given us an extraordinary dystopian tale about corporate greed and political collusion. It kept me hooked to the very end.”
- Baroness Kay Andrews, former Government Minister

“The bleak, but believable, picture of corporatism gone crazy combines with a witty and insightful portrayal of the civil service to make for a novel that is both funny and scary in equal measure.”
- Toby Blume, Founder, the Archer Academy

“Although set in the future, the civil service lampooned in Whitehall through the Looking Glass is instantly recognisable to anyone who's been part of it. Tam’s novel paints a superb picture of how people can be governed, or rather manipulated, by unscrupulous politicians. Funny, alarming, and poignant, it’s quite an achievement.”
- Ellie Roy, former Crime Reduction Director, Home Office, UK Government

“[Whitehall through the Looking Glass is] a fascinating and disturbing narrative on where global corporate power and neo-liberal orthodoxy is leading us, though perhaps we are already half-way there.”
- Stuart Weir, Founder, Democratic Audit

Must-Read Political Satire

Readers’ positive comments have included:
“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 … 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.” (Con Grano Salis)

“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. … Thoroughly recommended!” (Caroline)

“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 … 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.” (Dr. J. Duffy)

“I found myself chuckling at the book's events and people … people one had read about or personally come across in work situations - how horribly familiar it all seemed!!! A fascinating read.” (G. Samuel)

“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.” (YakinaMac)

“A deliciously funny book which moves at great speed as the government promotes privatisation and begins to hand over to the all-powerful Consortium. … With an Orwellian touch, it is full of vision for what can happen if we stop caring about how to share power fairly.” (freedom22)

(Full versions of readers’ reviews of Whitehall through the Looking Glass can be found here.)

For a shortened version of the interview with Henry Tam in ‘Shout Out’ magazine on the writing of Whitehall through the Looking Glass, click here.

For Simon J. Duffy’s full review of Whitehall through the Looking Glass for the Centre for Welfare Reform, click here.

Excerpts from ‘What would Whitehall be like in fifty years’ time?’, can be found in ‘Nightmare on Downing Street’.

01 July 2015

Diagnosing the Dystopian Syndrome

It may not be possible to fool all the people all of the time, but history has shown repeatedly that it is all too easy to fool enough people for long enough to trap a whole country under dysfunctional governance and ruin countless lives.

There has never been a shortage of tyrants and tricksters who claim they can bring improvements when they just plan to amass enough power to dictate to everyone else. And all too often they get away with their deception since demagogues know how to exploit irrationality, and rich manipulators can always churn out the most convincing lies money can buy.

But there is a way to cut through the miasma of falsehood. Wells, Orwell, Wyndham, Atwood and others have shown how the misruling of society can be highlighted by presenting its insidious symptoms in a captivating narrative that challenges us to deal with them.

Although they conjure up different fantastical events or futuristic scenarios in which to set their stories, the symptoms they target share three core elements, which together constitute what I have termed the ‘Dystopian Syndrome’. Their manifestations are the surest signs that the governance of society needs urgent resuscitation. The three elements are: ignorance, isolation, and inequity.

Let us take ignorance first. A well-governed society would enable its members to learn continuously from each other, drawing on the objectively verifiable evidence and coherent reasons put forward, and revising their beliefs and attitudes in the light of shared experiences. This provides the basis for critical understanding of claims made about the world and leads to informed judgements about what should be believed or rejected. But an authority which dogmatically or deviously propounds views without due justification will breed ignorance. The absence of any thoughtful authority on the other hand will be just as bad, since an ‘anything goes’ culture allows superstitions, prejudices, errors to become entrenched without being challenged and displaced.

The second element is that of isolation. The purpose of any social grouping is to enable people to cultivate supportive relationships with others, share the good times and care for each other in the bad, and build a sense of mutual responsibility in utilising resources fairly and sustainably. Any system of governance which perverts this aim and deprives sub-groups or individuals of a chance to live well like others is inherently flawed. So is any system that penalises targeted citizens without due cause. Where a system fragments to the point that it in effect leaves most if not all its members feeling insecure with nothing more reliable to count on, it would have failed completely.

Last but not least, there is inequity. No system of governance is likely to secure, or deserve to secure, the acceptance of its members if it does not respect the notion of reciprocity. People are ready to cooperate with each other provided the risks and benefits are shared out through joint deliberations and mutual agreement. But once some can decide on outcomes irrespective of what others may think, inequity corrodes social bonds and gives rise to distrust and resentment. Irrevocably giving the power to decide to just one person or an elite group is a recipe for oppression, as is removing all procedures for collective decision-making since that would just leave some to exploit the vulnerabilities of others without any public constraint.

All three elements of the dystopian syndrome are actually becoming ever more prevalent in the world today. Nationalistic extremism, religious fundamentalism, plutocratic exploitation, the arms & surveillance industry, anarchic rejection of the rule of law, all infect and damage the governance of our society. Dystopian fiction may just help to stir the imagination of many who would not otherwise engage in political deliberations, and inject renewed resistance into our democratic veins.

‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’: a satirical dystopian novel about a Consortium that comes to take charge of both Britain and America.
‘Kuan’s Wonderland’: an allegorical dystopian novel about how wealth and dogmas rule in the surreal world of Shiyan.

14 June 2015

Utopian Jekyll & Dystopian Hyde

Utopian portraits of the ideal society and dystopian depictions of dysfunctional governance may at first glance appear to be as different as heaven and hell. With the former, perfected laws and customs are shown to banish negative dispositions, and enable harmony and cooperation to prevail. Whereas with the latter, people are seen as systematically oppressed, and caught up in fear and atrocities fuelled by the worst of human traits.

But the utopian impulse may actually have a much closer and darker relationship with dystopian scenarios. J. C. Davis, in his book, ‘Utopia and the Ideal Society’, reviewed the works of a wide range of utopian writers and found one distinctive feature that characterised their output – namely, the prescription of detailed rules and practices that regulated human interactions to such an extent that individual spontaneity was largely displaced by socio-economic rigidity.

Davis noted that utopian blueprints contained extensive proposals on the premise that these would transform human interactions comprehensively. Unlike the reform projects of thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and Robert Owen, whose ideas were often considered too pragmatically open-ended to be truly utopian, the utopian plans in the tradition from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy were admired precisely because they offered to bring about total social unity in every key sphere of life.

Although the reformist followers of Bacon and Owen have often been attacked by critics for not coming up with a guaranteed path to reinvent society within a fixed timescale, they are the ones who have steered progressive changes over time to bring about the tangible betterment of people’s lives. By contrast, utopian ideas have historically had three outcomes.

First, they had been taken up in small communities but the demands on those involved would prove to be too much, and those communities were not sustained beyond a short period of time. In the second type of cases, their proponents adapted their practices so that on the one hand, human nature would not be forced into remoulding itself to fit a purist ideal, while on the other hand, collaboration with the wider society was developed to pave the way for gradualist reforms elsewhere.

Thirdly, there were the notorious cases of blueprints for the ideal society uncompromisingly implemented on a national scale even though they had not been embraced by the general public. In all these cases, the new laws and arrangements imposed on society to make everyone conform to the unquestionable ideal led inevitably to repression.

Ultimately the problems facing society can only be tackled effectively if we engage in a process of inclusive and continuous learning. By adapting their proposals experimentally in the light of what people think and feel about them, the Baconians and Owenites successfully secured improvements for our common wellbeing. But anyone proclaiming to have come up with an absolutely thorough and unquestionable solution that has to be delivered without exception, regardless of what subsequent experience may show, can only be inviting us to go down the most dangerous path.

Dystopian writers have been at the forefront in exposing utopian fantasies – the communist revolutionary, the plutocratic ‘free’ market, the fundamentalist theocracy, or the dogmatic anarchist – and their warnings must continue to be heeded. Otherwise, the utopian Jekyll would once again transform into a dystopian Hyde.

Read ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’, for a satirical dystopian novel about an attempt to create the perfect corporate-run society.

Or give ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’ a try, for an allegorical dystopian novel about an ideal world where everyone lives in pre-planned harmony.

23 May 2015

Power Disparity & Dystopian Breakdown

Fascination with reports on catastrophic accidents and stories about apocalyptic horrors may be due in part to a sense of relief that one has not been caught up in the former or is ever likely to be trapped in the latter.

But accounts of dystopian events grip us precisely because they bring to our attention the calamitous consequences that could unfold if we allowed certain trends to continue. Instead of serving up escapist or sensationalist diversions, dystopian writers are concerned with presenting us with danger signs, pointers to underlying threats, and what should be done before it is too late.

All the paradigmatic dystopian writers have one core diagnostic perspective in common – power disparity. When some in society have managed to amass excessive power in relation to others, what tends to follow is that the powerful few impose their will on the rest, and irrespective of the suffering caused, no one by then is strong enough to resist them.

In ‘The Time Machine’, Wells paints a grotesque picture of what the growing divergence between rich and poor can lead to. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell depicts a world in which an unaccountable political regime with totalitarian powers can manipulate and ruin everyone’s life at will. In ‘Oryx and Crake’, Atwood presents the dire consequences of handing too much power to a scientific genius even when his intentions are not inherently evil. In ‘Brave New World’, Huxley shows how an elite can perpetuate its dominance by breeding ‘inferior’ stock and promoting drug-induced contentment. In ‘Fahrenheit 451’, Bradbury sets out the slippery slope that awaits any society that lets a self-styled elite take control of what it can learn and discover through books and the media. In ‘The Iron Heel’, London foretells how corporate leaders can band together to crush any resistance from government or workers. And in ‘The Chrysalids’, Wyndham gives us a disconcerting portrait of how ‘religious orthodoxy’ backed by unquestionable power will deal with those who are ‘different’.

Although some novelists and screenwriters have dipped into this genre superficially and whipped up 2-dimensional political, religious, business or scientific figures as easy targets, the real problem behind dystopian breakdown has always been recognised by those who take the issue seriously as the polarisation between the excessively powerful few and the increasingly disempowered majority.

Beyond the realm of fiction, historical works have also provided some of the best dystopian stories – their being true only adds poignancy to them. For example: the degeneration of the Roman Republic towards the brutality and chaos of imperial Rome; the growth of power that transformed humble Christian congregations into a Church that tortured and killed in the name of God; the power imbalance that fuelled colonial oppression; the plutocratic irresponsibility that brought about the Great Depression and the rise of fascism; the powerlessness of those who lived under Soviet totalitarianism; and the contemporary dehumanisation of the poor under neo-liberal regimes. (For an account of the problem of power disparity through history, see ‘Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle’)

To counter dystopian trends, power needs to be redistributed from those with too much already to those with little. To do that, the disempowered must join forces. And one of the key prerequisites for people to line up behind any collective endeavour is the development of a shared understanding amongst them of the problem they face and what must be done about it. Dystopian literature has an important role to play in nurturing such a shared understanding.

For a satirical dystopian novel about corporate-led government over Britain and America, try ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’.

For an allegorical dystopian novel about how wealth and power divides society in the surreal world of Shiyan, try ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’.

15 April 2015

The ‘Good’, ‘Bad’ & ‘Ugly’ in Dystopian Fiction

The popularity of dystopian fiction has of late generated a lot of interest in cataloguing together novels that present a disturbing vision of the future. But without differentiating them by their political intent, which is the essence of the dystopian genre, their significance simply cannot be appreciated.

From a progressive perspective, the dystopian structure can be deployed to depict three very different types of societal future. These may be termed ‘The Good’, ‘The Bad’, and ‘The Ugly’, corresponding as they do to the three political scenarios of: ‘progressive aims being fulfilled’; ‘progressive aims being thwarted’; and ‘progressive aims being pursued by anti-progressive means with disastrous consequences’.

So to kick off, who would present ‘The Good’ outcome of a progressive future in undesirable dystopian terms? Who but the regressive-minded desperate to preserve oppressive customs or exploitative arrangements regardless of the harm they bring to countless people. For them, attempts to cut back discrimination and inequalities are tantamount to destroying all that is decent in society. This can be found in the dystopian works of writers such as Jerome B. Holgate (whose 1835 ‘A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation’ depicted the ending of slavery and the occurrence of interracial marriage in purely negative terms); Anna Bowman Dodd (whose 1887 ‘The Republic of the Future’ attacked the emergence of socialist and feminist ideas as ruining the lives of people); and Ayn Rand (whose 1957 ‘Atlas Shrugged’ foretold the ‘disaster’ when rich ‘entrepreneurs’ were deprived of their freedom to act as they pleased).

Let us turn to ‘The Bad’ scenario of a future dominated by a self-absorbed elite, rampant consumerism, and deepening social divisions. H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Machine’ gave us a terrifying glimpse of the human race split into the Eloi and the Morlocks; Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel’ warned us how the corporate elite would end up trampling over anyone who stood in their way; Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ showed how the class system would become entrenched even at the level of our DNA; Stephen King (aka Richard Bachman)’s ‘The Running Man’ depicted how corporate hegemony would strip away human sympathy and leave everyone in the moral gutter. And my own dystopian novels follow this tradition in exposing the nasty effects of corrosive inequalities.

Then there is ‘The Ugly’ situation wherein zealots seek to bring about justice and harmony by the most anti-progressive means. Whereas progressive reformists want to see a more open, inclusive society where the democratic cooperation of citizens is everywhere the norm, some radical revolutionaries have claimed that a powerful, unquestionable ruling regime could bring about the best of all possible societies by imposing some form of rigid uniformity from above. To show how these utopian dreams are in fact precursors to unrelenting nightmares is what characterises the third group of dystopian writings. George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (and in allegorical form, ‘Animal Farm’) presented us with a preview of all totalitarian regimes claiming to act for the common good; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ opened the reader’s eyes to what such regimes would do in practice irrespective of their official proclamations; and John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ depicted vividly how self-justification would go side-by-side with the unjustifiable ruthlessness when anyone were handed such power.

There are many ways to look at dystopian writings, but a politically illuminating way is to explore if they actually take aim at the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly of what our society may become.

17 February 2015

Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction

Humpty Dumpty once said that a word meant whatever he chose it to mean. And the Humpty-Dumpties of modern media clearly think they can do the same thing when they use the word ‘dystopian’ to describe any unpleasant scenario any writer may conjure up for the future.

But merely a horrid situation does not a dystopia make.

A dystopia is the outcome of any dysfunctional attempt to create or subvert a utopian vision. An asteroid hitting earth and wiping out half of its population is a monumental disaster, but it is not necessarily the precursor to a dystopia unless in the aftermath, some people try to institute a new form of society with anti-utopian consequences.

So to understand what truly constitutes a dystopia, we need to begin with utopian aspirations. And while ‘utopia’ has also been loosely used to refer to anything some individual may fancy as an ideal world, there is an indisputable historical basis for connecting ‘utopia’ to a core set of societal transformations.

We can take three representative books that between them set out the main utopian themes for overcoming society’s deficiencies. It is important to note that they are utopian in the sense that while they recognise how far prevailing conditions were from what they present as an alternative, they do not envisage the need for any fantastical or other-worldly intervention for those conditions to be reformed in the direction of the alternative proffered.

These three books appeared between 1516 and 1656, during a period that witnessed a series of revolutionary changes in England that were to have major intellectual and political impact on the whole of Europe, and eventually across the world. It began with the declaration that the Pope and the Catholic monopoly of religious ideas were to be firmly rejected; a declaration made not by some quirky mystic or obscure theologian, but by the King of England himself. And it was to end with political upheavals that cost another English King not only his throne, but also his head.

The first of these books is Thomas More’s Utopia, which set out a moral vision of society wherein mutual respect and community bonds were secured through the minimisation of inequalities. No one was to possess or command access to much more resources than others; and none was left vulnerable through having too little of value to live on. The second is Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, with an intellectual vision of society that recognised no authority on what was to be accepted as true except for when a given claim or hypothesis had been tested through observation, experimentation, cross-examination, and remained open to further revision. The third is James Harrington’s Oceana, which put forward a political vision of society that was democratically governed by citizens none of whom would be significantly disadvantaged in exercising their power over those who were to rule on their behalf, especially with land ownership spread more evenly, and political offices rotated frequently.

These three utopian tracts engendered in England radical currents of thought that were to come together in the cooperative communitarian outlook of the Owenites in the 19th century. Communities, on this view, should continue to progress towards the fuller realisation of three related objectives: mutual responsibility in sharing common resources and supporting each other in solidarity (the vision of Utopia); cooperative enquiry in checking and validating truth claims in every domain (the vision of New Atlantis); and citizen participation in securing democratic governance for the good of all (the vision of Oceana). The extent to which these tendencies are advanced, at the personal, organisational, and societal level, provides a measure for attaining what has been termed the Cooperative Gestalt.

Accordingly, dystopian portrayals of the future are best understood in relation to how they envision the Cooperative Gestalt of a society and its members come to be severely and systematically displaced. For example, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, the disposition to care for others on equal and respectful terms is pushed aside by alienation and distrust promoted by an oppressive hierarchy; the disposition to establish what warrants belief through open exchanges is held back by an unquestionable regime that has the sole say about what is ‘true’; and the disposition to take others’ views and concerns into account when making collectively binding decisions is subverted by the inclination to submit to the diktats of a Big Brother, a World Controller, a Commander, or some faceless ‘authorities’.

The art of dystopian fiction should ultimately be judged by how moving, imaginative and memorable it is in showing us the loss of the vital constituents of the Cooperative Gestalt. Whereas classic utopian writers have painted for us the dimensions that together would give us all a better society to live in, dystopia is where the readiness to embrace these improvements is institutionally and culturally suffocated.

For more examples of how dystopian literature can highlight the threats to the Cooperative Gestalt and alert us to the dangers to our most precious dispositions, take a look at:
Kuan’s Wonderland; or
Whitehall through the Looking Glass

25 January 2015

A Novel Exploration of Inequality

Kuan’s Wonderland tells the story of a ten-year old boy being snatched from home and taken to a bizarre world, where he is suspected of being an enemy of the state. As hope of escape begins to fade, he tries to adapt to his new life only to discover the true nightmare awaiting him.

Suitable for anyone aged 14/15 (KS4/Year 10) upwards, Kuan’s Wonderland has been widely acclaimed as a fantasy adventure & political fable, as well as a novel resource to help explore problems of inequality and exploitation:

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.”

Julie Thorpe (Head of School & Youth Programmes, the Co-operative College):
"All the evidence points to the fact that more equal societies are happier places and yet the country we live in remains one of the least egalitarian and most divided in the world. The co-operative movement is committed to creating social institutions and enterprises where all members have an equal right and opportunity to participate and have their voices heard. It is vital that young people understand the problems of power inequality if we are to bring about change and Kuan's Wonderland offers a unique, imaginative, way of introducing them to the issue. We highly recommend it!"

Rachel Roberts (Director, Phoenix Education Trust; & Supporter, Student Voice):
“In our experience of working in schools we see young people are highly concerned with issues of justice, respect and equality. We also realise the value of empowering young people to explore these topics in an open way which captures their imaginations, awakens their curiosity and allows to develop their learning and understanding by following their own motivation. Kuan’s Wonderland and the resource guide which accompanies it enables just this. It is an innovative and valuable way of engaging young people to explore issues surrounding equality and democracy in a way which speaks to them.”

Nicolette Burford (Director, Documentary Film-Makers Cooperative; & Producer/Director, ‘No Room for Manoeuvre’):
Kuan's Wonderland is a mesmerizing novel. It makes the imagination spring to life with amazing visions of strange beings and places. Readers young and old will be intrigued by the story and both teachers and students are going to have much to talk about and around it. There are very few books that offer so complex yet so clear and captivating a plot that mirrors the excesses, impunity, treachery and manipulativeness with which governments and oppressive regimes amass and abuse power to further the selfish interests of a small minority. The learning resource developed by the novelist and the Equality Trust will clearly be of great value to young people and schools.”

Pat Conaty (Fellow, New Economics Foundation; & co-author of 'The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy'):
“There is ample evidence that cooperative forms of interaction, in business as well as in social relations more generally, work much better than the top-down approach which is regrettably still the norm in our economy. To change the prevailing mindset we need to explore new ways to engage people of all ages in thinking about why mutuality and equality are vital to our wellbeing. The Equality Trust and Cambridge University are leading the way in showing how this can be done with Henry Tam’s novel, Kuan’s Wonderland – a thought-provoking political fable, and the accompanying learning resource, ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’.”

More details about the 'Novel Exploration of Inequality' project are available from: The Equality Trust.

24 January 2015

Contesting Dystopian Visions

Dystopian stories in novels, films and TV drama, have become fashionable of late. But while they compete in painting nightmarish scenarios of our future, they do not provide a shared vision of what the source of the imminent threat is. That is to be expected if one looks back on the history of dystopian writing. Some have focused on the restrictions placed on individuals – e.g., nameless subjects of a totalitarian state in the case of Zamyatin, or wealthy business executives in the case of Rand. Others have presented a dire fate for humanity resulting from some unexpected disaster – e.g., the arrival of the new-born in Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, or what preceded the journey recounted in McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.

However, one strand that runs from Wells’ ‘Time Machine’, through London’s ‘The Iron Heel’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here’, King’s ‘The Running Man’, to Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’, shows that there is a core theme that many dystopian writers are concerned with – namely, the ruthless demarcation of society into the wealthy elite and the vulnerable masses. Of course they weave their contrasting accounts of how the pervasive divisiveness give rise to different kinds of problem – self doubt or even self loathing; starvation; resentment and hatred; environmental destruction; ending of the rule of law. And they come up with strikingly diverse responses – armed rebellion; drug-induced contentment; socio-biological transformation; and suicidal retaliation.

The reason why dystopias about wealth-driven fissures in society resonates with me most is that at the dawn of the 21st century, the inexorable expansion of corporate power is simply the biggest threat to our wellbeing. It is already pushing people into self-numbing consumerism, soul-crushing poverty, or in other cases, seething anger against the prevailing order. It is also fuelling unprecedented profit-led environmental destruction, and paving the way for plutocratic governments that will exclusively serve the rich and impose stringent controls over the rest. Unless writers and activists rouse the public to reverse its hegemony, the worst of all possible dystopias will be upon us soon.

02 January 2015

A Novel Indictment of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is nothing more than a fig leaf to cover up the most shameless campaign to reverse the democratic distribution of power, and hand ever more control and resources to the wealthy corporate elite.

Whitehall through the Looking Glass is a dystopian novel that shows what could happen if the current trends of rewarding the privileged and scapegoating the vulnerable were allowed to continue.

Frances O'Grady, the General Secretary of TUC (Trades Union Congress), has described it as “a timely reminder of the dangers of the rapidly-accelerating corporatisation of our political and economic life. With private firms increasingly running our NHS and administering welfare, so many of the services we cherish are at risk from the profit motive. From utilities to railways, we’ve already seen how the interests of shareholders and bosses trump those of workers, service users and taxpayers. As the general election approaches, Tam’s book is an important reminder of the risks of crude neoliberal ideology”.

The novel is available in both e-book and paperback format:
E-book version: Amazon UK or Amazon US
Paperback version: Barnes & Noble or CreateSpace