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’.