28 December 2018

5 Predictions from ‘ The Hunting of the Gods’

What radical innovations did I conjure up for the futuristic Earth in ‘The Hunting of the Gods’? There are quite a few, but here are five that are particularly significant:

[1] Heartbeat Surveillance
The unique heartbeat of every individual is registered and tracked. Scanner can detect any individual and identify who it is instantly. No one can disappear from the pervasive surveillance system. One further use of this technology is that in line with the agreed protocol, governments share their information on how many of their people have died in war so that fighting will stop when fatalities on either side has reached one million (with victory going to the side with under a million killed at that point).

[2] Cloning/Memory Transfer & Identity Therapy
Others have imagined the technology for cloning a body to transfer one’s memory into. But in ‘The Hunting of the Gods’, we have the realisation that such a technology does not preserve one’s identity, it merely creates another being with a replicated memory when one’s true self is terminated. The new self then needs therapy to cope with bearing the guilt of the previous person while trying to realise that one is a new person.

[3] Virtual Immortality
People can live in a relatively youthful and healthy state depending on the dosage they can access for longevity treatment. Most people cannot afford any treatment, and given the lack of nutrition, will die young. A minority can get the medication to live like a youthful middle-aged person until they are 100 or 150. With a weaker dose, some live a long but not quite youthful life. But those on the highest rung can secure the supply that will guarantee them virtual immortality (though it does not make them invulnerable to violent attacks).

[4] Human Reproduction & Biological Convergence
Any pair of human partners can for a fee, submit a request for a foetus to be incubated in a commercial facility that will use randomly selected and mixed genetic codes from a data bank. Ethnic differences have disappeared and all inhabitants have a similar ‘mixed-race’ profile. As men and women alike acquire an offspring in the same way, there is little divergence in what careers they pursue. However, strong divisions still surface as a result of political leaders presenting targeted scapegoats as enemies.

[5] Microbot Technology
Microbots are small dot-sized automatons that can combine to form larger units to perform a vast variety of functions. They can carry out domestic chores, basic gardening, visual projections, medical tasks, and many other duties, including, where a special licence has been granted, military actions. Separated as individual microbots, they can vanish from human sight with ease.

24 December 2018

Dystopian Essays

What can dystopian fiction tell us about the society in which it is written? What do different approaches reveal about the concerns of the authors and how they want to tackle the underlying threats? What forms of utopia risk degenerating into dystopia?

Here are 10 essays on dystopian themes you may find of interest:

'Dystopian Origins: how did we get here?'
: on what gave rise to the dystopian genre.

'The Politics of Control: Huxley, Orwell or Burdekin?': comparing Huxley, Orwell, and their lesser known contemporary, Katherine Burdekin, whose novel, Swastika Night is insightful and terrifying.

'Triffids, High-Rise or Lord of the Flies': on the common themes of lawlessness and disorder in three contrasting novels.

'Utopian Jekyll & Dystopian Hyde': on how utopian intentions can turn into dystopian rule in practice.

'Power Disparity & Dystopian Breakdown': on the central theme of widening power gaps as a precursor to dystopian nightmares.

'The ‘Good’, ‘Bad’ & ‘Ugly’ in Dystopian Fiction': comparing the political targets of different dystopian novels and what they reveal about their authors' attitudes towards social issues.

'Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction'
: on the core communitarian themes and their relationship to the cooperative gestalt in the writings of Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and James Harrington.

'Contesting Dystopian Visions': on the recurring dystopian concern with the concentration of wealth in an elite and the consequences for the vulnerable masses.

'Dystopia Goes to Hollywood': a look at the popularity of dystopian films and the opportunities they offer to widen serious political discussions.

'Redrawing the Utopia-Dystopia Roadmap': on some of the ideas that may inform a remapping of utopian and dystopian writings.

01 October 2018

Silver Age Superheroes (DC and Marvel)

What led me to write my kind of novels? As a child growing up in the 1960s, I was fired up by sci-fi ideas, alien worlds, and superheroes battling villains of every form. Much of that was down to the Silver Age of comics inaugurated by DC and Marvel. The heroes of that era were not just outstanding in protecting the defenceless against powerful enemies, they stood for a new hope that justice and fairness could prevail over deceit and domination. I can still recall the excitement of finding the latest issues appearing on the comics stand …

There were Superman & Captain America, the ultimate Red, White and Blue heroes, whose idealism extended beyond the US, as they regularly led from the front, fighting for the world against the most serious threats wherever these emerged. Back in the 1940s they helped to defeat the Nazis, and through the 1960s they continued to stand ready to deal with any powerful megalomaniac.

Then at the first sign of trouble, Batman & Spiderman would literally swing by and knock any villain out cold. Yet beneath the mask, each carried a deep psychological scar. Bruce Wayne as a boy watching his parents shot dead by a street mugger, and Peter Parker realising a criminal he didn’t stop went on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben. But the pain made them stronger and more resolute.

With Wonder Woman & Thor, the powers of Aegean and Nordic divinities flowed through them. They could hold off an invading army, match Hercules in strength, and defeat those who sought victories through lies. The warrior from Themyscira could make any deceiver reveal the truth, while the prince of Asgard would repeatedly foil his brother Loki, the god of deception.

Aquaman & Namor the Sub-Mariner were both mixed progeny of the land-based human race and the sea-dwelling race of Atlantis. The two races had mistrusted each other, but in Aquaman (in the DC universe) and Namor (in the Marvel universe), they found common cause in having a noble hero who would fight for all of them in repelling real enemies who threatened their existence.

While one abnormal explosion released energy that turned Barry Allen into the fastest person in the world, another one changed Bruce Banner into the strongest human being on Earth. But the Flash & the Hulk never had it easy. With unexpected shifts in timeline for one, and anger-fuelled disorientation for the other, they both had to keep working on controlling their powers for the sake of others.

Oliver Queen fought for social justice as well as against common criminals; Matt Murdoch hunted down gangsters and as a lawyer defended the wrongfully accused. As Green Arrow & Daredevil, they did not have super speed or strength, but they developed their combat skills through relentless training. To make things even more challenging, Oliver had a sidekick with a drug addiction problem, and Matt was blind.

Green Lantern & Doctor Strange took us to completely different realms. Hal Jordan was chosen by the cosmic Green Lantern Corp to be their champion on Earth, and given the power ring. Stephen Strange was chosen by the Ancient One to be the sorcerer supreme on Earth, and given the amulet that housed the Eye of Agamotto. The projection of will power as a solid force and the casting of mystical spells were awesome to behold.

Hawkman & Iron Man came closest to being modern knights in shining armour, even if Katar Hol’s was made of Nth metal while Tony Stark’s was made with Nitinol. Suiting up gave them the power to fly, withstand the hardest blows, and take to the offensive against any criminal whose latest weapon acquisition might otherwise have given them a deadly advantage.

The Silver Age was the age of science, and Ray Palmer and Hank Pym were two of the greatest scientific minds (of the DC and Marvel universe), and they worked out how to shrink objects and enlarge them, and became the Atom & the Ant-Man respectively. It was surprising how being tiny could overcome fearsome enemies, though being super smart was a more predictable asset.

J’onn J’onzz or Norrin Radd, better known perhaps as the Martian Manhunter & the Silver Surfer, were alien beings brought to Earth against their will, and unable to return to their home world. Possessing greater powers than most of the superheroes mentioned above, they coped with their own predicament stoically while tirelessly helping the people of their adopted planet.


In addition to the 10 pairs of solo superheroes from DC and Marvel I looked back on above, I was a huge fan of teams such as the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Justice League, and Avengers. But I’ll save my reminiscence about them for another day.

12 April 2018

Political Engagement of the Surreal Kind

[Below are extracts from my interview with Shout Out UK, about the thinking behind my dystopian novel, Whitehall through the Looking Glass, and its predecessor, Kuan’s Wonderland.]

Your last book was called Kuan’s Wonderland, I’m sure most of our readers will have not failed to miss the reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. How does Whitehall Through the Looking Glass follow on from your last book, and why did you choose to make such explicit reference to Alice in both titles?

Lewis Carroll was fascinated with logical puzzles and he created surreal worlds in his stories to engage readers, old and young, in thinking about those puzzles when a more formal presentation of them would have bored them. I’ve always been a great admirer of Carroll. But for me, the surreal worlds I create are to engage people in thinking about political puzzles – what is wrong with certain forms of society? what can be done about them? Kuan’s Wonderland is more of an allegorical tale – it’s part ‘Animal Farm’, part ‘Star Trek’, but turns out to be something completely different with the final twist. Whitehall through the Looking Glass is in part a prequel to Kuan’s Wonderland, but also takes the story beyond where the first novel ended. It’s essentially a political thriller – a mix of ‘1984’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and Sinclair Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here’.

Why do you think a novel is such a great form through which to explore political ideas?

It gives the writer the opportunity to paint a vivid picture of what would happen if certain political ideas and practices win out against others. Not many people enjoy reading through detailed policy analyses or dense expositions of political theories. But few can resist a good story. It is particularly powerful when you can present the reader with both characters they can come to empathise with, and characters they can look upon with derision. Once drawn into the fictional universe, they relate to events and problems with far greater intensity than they would in relation to abstract facts and figures.

Upon who did you model the characters that dominate and reside within your Whitehall?

Nearly all the characters in the novel owe something to people I have met or worked with in Whitehall, especially in the senior civil service. There is no simple one-to-one correspondence. Each fictional figure is a composite drawn from a number of real-life people, with in many cases a good dose of Dickensian exaggeration stirred in.

How did you conceive the ideas behind this book? What inspired this vision of the future in politics, social dynamics and technology?

After my first novel, Kuan’s Wonderland, which was set in what appeared to be an other-worldly realm, I wanted to turn to the world we inhabit. And three trends struck me as more menacing than anything else: first, the way plutocrats were tightening their grip on government policies; secondly, how the public were increasingly deflected by the media controlled by large corporations so they overlooked the key political issues of the day; and thirdly, the rapid technological development that was making data capture about every minute aspect of our lives a simple and routine task. I asked myself what it would look like if these trends were to continue unabated, and the corporate elite at the heart of all of them were able to pull them together into a strategy of dominance. The Consortium was born.

In the book you describe ‘The Consortium’ a league of large corporations acting together to exercise total dominance over the UK and US, do you see big business being able to put aside concerns over their own balance sheets and stop competing with one another in order to act with solidarity for the greater consolidation of power to big business?

The powerful, be they medieval barons or modern corporate giants, have always zigzagged between fighting amongst themselves and joining forces to crush their common enemy. I don’t think they can stay united on a permanent basis, and the novel hints at internal problems within the Consortium as time goes on. But there will be times when they think the gain in coming together is great enough to make it worth their while to eliminate those who get in their way. The law is the only thing that has historically stood in the way of monopolies and cartels, it shouldn’t be surprising that given half a chance, big businesses will rewrite the law to enable them to grow richer and stronger without any serious competition.

How closer do things like TTIPs (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and the obsession of successive government with Public/Private partnership get us to the world of Whitehall Through the Looking Glass?

TTIP, Public-Private Finance Initiatives, corporate lobbying on an industrial scale, party donations followed by the award of billions of pounds’ worth of public contracts, board positions waiting for government Ministers when they leave office, secondment of top accountancy firms’ staff into government to advise on the drafting of tax regulations before the same staff return to their firms to advise their clients on tax avoidance – these all suggest that we are not far from the world of Whitehall through the Looking Glass. Large corporations have been securing an insidiously powerful influence over every major aspect of government. If you look at what billionaires such as the Koch brothers are doing in America, and how the Republican Party is becoming simply the political wing of transnational corporations, the nightmare scenario of the novel is really not far off at all.

How large a role do you think there is for fiction and literary arts to get people involved in politics?

There is huge potential to use fiction – novels, drama, films – to get more people to take an active interest in politics. As an academic and an activist, I’m very familiar with the expectations different people have in different contexts. Some people want detailed arguments, statistics, and critical analyses. Some want rousing speeches and rallying calls. But for those who are not open to either of these approaches, we need to go back to the oldest form of human engagement – storytelling. Weave a good tale and let people see what they make of the heroes and villains. Few political writers are making use of popular fiction to reach the public; and not enough people at the forefront of literature are prepared to use their art in the cause of politics for fear of being dismissed as partisan. But hopefully, Whitehall through the Looking Glass, and Kuan’s Wonderland will show what dystopian novels can really do for political engagement. During the Adult Learners’ Week this summer, for example, I [worked] with WEA to run an event called ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’, [to] consider how sci-fi/fantasy fiction can help to raise political interest. And the Equality Trust is promoting Kuan’s Wonderland and a companion learning guide as part of their 'Young Person’s Guide to Inequality'.

To find out more about Whitehall through the Looking Glass and Kuan’s Wonderland, and how to get them in your preferred format, go to: www.hbtam.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/dystopia-of-powerful-novels.html

To read the interview with Shout Out UK in full, go to: http://www.shoutoutuk.org/2014/05/08/whitehall-looking-glass-novel-expose-corporate-govt/

30 March 2018

A-Z: 26 Curiosities from Kuan's Wonderland

Here is an A-Z selection of some of the allusions and references in Kuan’s Wonderland that may interest you (beware of spoilers):

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: There are echoes of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books throughout the novel. Wu-yin, the white cat morphing into an Alice-like girl is one such moment. A deeper homage is to be found in the closing poem – a variation of the melancholic acrostic at the end of Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Batya’s pebble: Batya, the orangutan-like outsider asks Kuan to return the emerald pebble to his son, a memento about a father-son relationship the meaning of which only becomes clear when it is no longer in Kuan’s possession.

Camus, Albert (1913-1960): The Rebel and The Plague are major influences on Kuan’s Wonderland; the Clinic for Potokans is named ‘Oran’ after the city where the story of The Plague is set.

Dante’s Vision of Hell (from The Divine Comedy): The 9 Circles of Challenge mirror Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell (hence the use of names such as Minos, Asterion, and Antaeus). What for the Mauveans merits the highest honour is therefore the most unforgivable.

Elephantium: Comparable to any substantial energy-producing substance which has many harmful side-effects, and which enables those who have control over it to enrich themselves and dominate others.

Father: The psychological motif of the novel is the transition from asking, “will father save me?” to “can I save father?”

Guantanamo: A hint to the final destination is given with Kuan, and the two characters who have been steadfast in helping him get to where he will find the truth: Tan and Amo (Note: the ‘K’ in ‘Kuan’ is pronounced ‘G’ in Chinese). A former British resident, Shaker Aamer, was held at the US Guantanamo Bay facilities for over ten years before he was eventually released without ever having been charged with, let alone convicted of, any wrongdoing.

Hades: hell is where the mind is imprisoned with no hope of being released.

• ‘I’m About To Die’: Amadeus’ most heinous retribution is to trap his victim in the inescapable moment before death, so that one is consumed by ever-lasting despair. It captures the state of mind of arbitrarily held and tortured political prisoners.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (1505-1580): this classic Chinese novel (also known as The Monkey King), often available in comic book versions (like the one Kuan was reading), uses the format of a fantasy adventure to tell the story of someone struggling through a long and trying journey to discover vital truths kept in an inaccessible place.

Kafka, Franz (1883-1924): The Trial is an important influence on Kuan’s Wonderland, but it is from the title of another Kafka novel (with its theme of being inescapably thwarted) that a recurring symbol in our novel is derived – The Castle. Kuan’s predicament follows him on the submarine, FSS Castle; the place known as Schloss 22 (‘schloss’ - German for ‘castle’); Rook Mansion (‘rook’ is another name for ‘castle’ in chess); the city of Bastille (‘bastille’ - French for ‘castle’); and with Dr Erica Lee in jeopardy on Chengbao Island (‘chengbao’ - Chinese for ‘castle’).

Long March (1934-1935): The chapter heading ‘Long March’ (referring to the difficult journey for Dr Lee and the Potokans to escape to Chengbao Island) alludes to the historical Long March when the Communists in China, being hunted down by their enemy, escaped on foot over some 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) over 370 days. Around 7,000 of the 100,000 soldiers who began the march made it to the end.

Moon: a recurring motif about painful separations. The poem by Su Shi (1037-1011), referred to by Dao in the novel, contains this final stanza,
“People may be joyful or sad, together or kept apart,
The moon may be bright or dim, full or hidden from view,
This unavoidably is how it has always been.
Let us hope we endure,
And though far from each other, we can in unison admire the lunar beauty.”

New Beginning: The prophecy of Amadeus demands for its own fulfilment the cleansing of all impure elements in Shiyan so that an imagined past can commence again. It is a staple of religious and ideological charlatans.

Orwell, George (1903-1950): Animal Farm as a political fable in part inspires Kuan’s Wonderland, but it is 1984 which is most strongly echoed. Can you spot where ‘1984’ is displayed in the novel?

Peterloo Massacre: when Dao mentions the name of his uncle, ‘Peter Lu’, to Kuan, the latter is reminded of the Peterloo Massacre, a historical incident that took place at St Peter's Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd estimated to be around 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation (15 civilians were killed and 500-600 were injured).

Quantum Level Nebula: Amo’s home turns out not to be in some far off nebula, but in a tiny space far closer than Kuan could have expected.

Reflectors: This ubiquitous technology, embedded in every reflective surface in Shiyan to transmit and receive all forms of signal, is a reminder of how communications are widely monitored and manipulated in contemporary society.

Shiyan: The name of our dystopian world means ‘experiment’ in Chinese. At one level it represents the plutocratic experiment initiated by Dao (serving as a warning to countries such as China which in embracing it, risks creating oppressive divisions). At a deeper level, it is an experiment for Kuan to see if turning his back on the world he has left behind is a feasible way to cope with the tragedy in his life.

Typewriter: The typewriter motif points to the reason why an innocent person is wrongfully imprisoned in the story. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and a downside of that is that anyone typing out unwelcome words can end up being locked up without charge for years.

• “Underground spirits and their reflected sound”: This phrase comes from Terry Pratchett’s word play on ‘economics’ in The Colour of Magic (1983). In our novel, Kuan asked if it was true that such spirits were responsible for bringing Potokans into the world. In fact, it is precisely the economic system that is the cause.

Vortex of Charybdis: The vortex signifies the danger of death by drowning, and is part of the series of incidents throughout the novel which eventually led Kuan to the realisation of what the eerie splashing sound he heard was about.

Wuchang Tearoom: The Tearoom where Kuan met up with Agent Tan to talk about the “mission” gets its name from the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, which heralded the Xinhai Revolution to end the Qing Dynasty and replace it by the Republic of China.

Xian: The character of Chief Engineer Xian (the one with the leopard head atop her human body) shows how dedication to a patriotic or environmental cause can be manipulated into serving the opposite if one does not question what one is being asked to do by those in more powerful positions.

Yearning: Kuan’s and Amo’s yearning to regain the life they have lost provides the emotional engine for our story, propelling us to the shock revelation of what has in truth been lost.

Zamenhof particles: The name given to the particles, which supposedly enable diverse beings to communicate with each other in Shiyan, is derived from Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), the inventor of Esperanto (the international language).

01 March 2018

20 Dystopian Classics: how many have you read?

Dystopian literature emerged in the 20th century. When the optimism for progress in the late 1800s was confronted by a series of unprecedented disasters in the early 1900s, a new genre was born to highlight possible futures and warn against the dangers of misrule.

To look back on the dystopian classics is to revisit the major forms of dysfunctional society, many of which still pose a threat to us today.

Here’s a chronological list of 20 dystopian classics of the 20th century:

'The Iron Heel' (1908) by Jack London.
A group of powerful business people take it upon themselves to get rid of all protection for workers and systematically eliminate anyone who dares stand up against their exploitative regime.

‘The Sleeper Awakes’ (1910) by H. G. Wells.
A man awakes in the distant future to discover that an oppressive regime is now in power, yet when that is overthrown, the new leader betrays the people by imposing ruthless controls over them, provoking a new rebellion.

‘We” (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
A ruling clique seeks to retain absolute power by imposing mass surveillance and stripping people of their sense of individuality. But some people begin to discover there is an alternative beyond their confines.

‘Brave New World’ (1932) by Aldous Huxley.
A hierarchical social system is sustained by dividing all new born into classes with distinct capability, diffusing all potential frustration with a ready supply of pleasure-inducing substance, and promoting a culture of unquestioning contentment.

‘It Can’t Happen Here’ (1935) by Sinclair Lewis.
A politician with the public persona of an affable man-of-the-people gets himself elected as the President, and proceeds to use his power to crush all opposition, while amassing more wealth and power for himself and his cronies.

‘Swastika Night’ (1937) by Katherine Burdekin (writing as Murray Constantine).
The Nazis have won the Second World War and established an enduring regime that exploits non-Germans, marginalises non-Nazis, and dehumanises women. History has been completely rewritten but one man has a true record of the past.

‘Animal Farm’ (1945) by George Orwell.
An allegorical tale wherein the rebel leaders promise equality for all until they have seized power, after which they deviously widen inequality and deepen exploitation until they are no different from those they overthrew.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) by George Orwell.
A regime that turns deception into a round-the-clock strategy, feeds the masses with jingoistic stories, monitors the behaviour of the people, and inflicts psychological torture on anyone suspected of dissent.

‘The Day of the Triffids’ (1951) by John Wyndham.
Disorder spreads when the unforeseen consequences of genetically modified plants, combined with the loss of vision amongst most people, leave individuals exposed to harm until a new democratic sanctuary begins to be developed.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953) by Ray Bradbury.
Society is rendered ignorant by the burning of all books, and control of the masses is reinforced by entertainment that ranges from mind-numbing TV drama and reality shows that focus on the hunting down of those designated public enemies.

‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) by John Wyndham.
Following a devastating nuclear war, a regime rises to impose its own religious orthodoxy on the survivors and eliminate any ‘deviants’ not conforming to the prescribed normality.

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ (1960) by Walter Miller.
A monastic order preserves fragmentary learning after deadly weapons have wiped out most of humankind, not realising that the fragments contain information that will one day be used by irresponsible rulers to develop and deploy similar weapons.

‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut.
An ailing ruler controls his people with a mixture of physical threats and the secret promotion of quasi-religious doctrines that will breed a sense of contentment. A substance that can destroy the world then falls into the hands of this ruler.

‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (1968) by Philip K. Dick.
Android slaves are made to do all the dirty work and subject to arbitrarily shortened lifespan. When they question if there should be alternative arrangements for their existence, they are hunted down one by one.

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (1971) by Ursula Le Guin.
A doctor discovers his patient can alter realities through his dreams, and seeks to change things better for the world and himself. But each attempt to bring about a new utopia is ruined by overlooked details or unforeseen twists.

‘The Running Man’ (1982) by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman).
In a society structured purely for the profit of rich corporations, a destitute man is forced to go on a reality TV show where he will get money to pay for his sick wife’s treatment, if he survives being hunted down by professional killers.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) by Margaret Atwood.
An oppressive regime uses force to quash dissent and deploys religion to reduce women to the roles of wives, child-bearers and servants. A resistance movement emerges but it is hard to tell who fights for it and who is a government agent.

‘The Children of Men’ (1992) by P. D. James.
As for some unknown reason, children can no longer be conceived, the government takes on absolute power to determine whose lives are to be curtailed, and what to do about the dwindling labour supply and the end of the human race.

‘Parable of the Sower’ (1993) by Octavia E. Butler.
With the extreme rich living in their own protected domain, everyone else descends into abject poverty, with many becoming vulnerable to being robbed and killed by others. A young woman hopes to escape and build a new, fairer community.

‘The Ice People’ (1998) by Maggie Lee.
In a bleak future where, in the midst of the returning ice age, men and women are divided into antagonistic camps, food is scarce, robotic pets are turned into killing machines, lawlessness threatens to destroy everyone.

24 January 2018

Novel Explorations of Political Deception

Henry Tam’s Anti-Con novels – 'Kuan's Wonderland'; 'Whitehall through the Looking Glass'; and 'The Hunting of the Gods' – explore how tricksters and ideologues can con people into submitting to their callous rule, and why we must make the case for a better future. Each has its own distinct setting. While some of the characters appear in one or more of the novels, the stories are largely self-contained.

Tam’s fiction has been praised in diverse quarters: “An unmissable page-turner” (President, the Independent Publishers Guild); “Simply a tour de force” (Director for Education, WEA); “Original and very engaging” (Fantasy Book Review); “The ending is tense, unexpected and powerful” (Economics Editor, The Independent newspaper); “A sharp satirical look at life inside the corridors of power” (Chief Executive, Civil Service College); “Beautifully, deftly written” (Dame Jane Roberts, NLGN); “An important reminder of the risks of crude neoliberal ideology” (General Secretary, TUC); "It's a cautionary tale and a call to action, but also a gripping read" (Director, Speakers’ Corner Trust).

Kuan’s Wonderland
In this allegorical story, a young boy, Kuan, is taken against his will to the mysterious realm of Shiyan, where nothing is as it appears. He hopes his reclusive father will come to his rescue, not suspecting that both father and son may be the target of a dark conspiracy. In his attempt to escape from Shiyan, where the lower order routinely pledge to give more of their time to do the bidding of the ruling elite, Kuan encounters a host of enigmatic characters, from the unseen Curator to Dr Erica Lee, to whom the motherless boy develops a deep attachment. In the end he has to face up to a painful secret from his past and make the ultimate sacrifice to save his own world from annihilation.
(Find out more about: Kuan’s Wonderland)

Whitehall through the Looking Glass
This satirical tale begins with a group of powerful corporations known as the Consortium, working in cahoots with multi-billionaire monarch, George VIII, coming to rule over both Britain and the US. In this timid new world, civil servants jostle to be of the greatest service to their new political masters, except for Philip K. Rainsborough when he learns of the Consortium’s real agenda. Alas, the Consortium has on its side the Super Utility Network, the most advanced opinion manipulation technology in the world. Rainsborough gets a chance to bring down the government when Chief Supt Carrie Edel asks for his help in charging the Prime Minister with murder. But who can he really trust?
(Find out more about: Whitehall through the Looking Glass)

The Hunting of the Gods
The technologically advanced inhabitants of Earth accept beyond all doubt that life on the planet was created by the gods 500 years ago. In that time, all racial differences have merged into homogeneity; gender discrimination has vanished; the poor die young; and the elite prosper and live very long indeed. There is nothing beyond the grasp of the gods except how to make peace with each other. From the beginning, the two immortal rivals have divided the world into interminably warring realms. But during the latest conflict, rumours start to circulate that the reign of the gods must be terminated. Amidst the revolutionary intrigues stands a recently resurrected man whose past has long been forgotten by everyone. Rebels turn to him for help, but his second coming may soon be over.
(Find out more about: The Hunting of the Gods)

The Author
In addition to his novels, Henry Tam has had many books and articles published on social and political issues. These include Time to Save Democracy; Communitarianism, which was nominated by New York University Press for the 2000 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order; and a global history of the progressive struggle, Against Power Inequalities, which has been acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. He has also been a senior adviser in the UK Government; lecturer at Cambridge University; Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, University of London; and a speaker at key events on democracy and governance around the world from Washington and Warsaw to Oxford and Strasbourg.
(Learn more at: Henry Tam: Words & Politics)

01 January 2018

The Politics of Control: Huxley, Orwell, or Burdekin?

Talk about writers of dystopian novels, and the two names that come up most will be those of Huxley and Orwell. And there’s the perennial debate about which out of ‘Brave New World’ (1932) and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) gives the more prescient warning.

Over decades much has been made of the contrast between the Huxleyan vision of control through artificially induced contentment, and the Orwellian nightmare of control through fear and surveillance.

In ‘Brave New World’, a stratified society ensures the lower classes are systematically disadvantaged and kept from rejecting their station in life by a false consciousness generated by a supply of cheap pleasures. It is so inescapable that the rebel in the story gives up all hope of defying it and commits suicide. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, a rigid hierarchy diverts the masses with sensationalist media stories and jingoistic propaganda, while intrusive surveillance and psychological torture combine to crush the spirit of the would-be insurgent.

However, one key aspect of the politics of control that neither Huxley nor Orwell dealt with is that which was the subject of the novel, ‘Swastika Night’ (1937) by their contemporary, Katherine Burdekin (who wrote under the name of ‘Murray Constantine’). In her novel, Burdekin depicted a world in which the Nazi Party not only won the Second World War but went on to keep control of its oppressive empire for centuries by means of a dehumanising hierarchy. Under this system, gender and ethnic differences are turned into markers for separating the privileged upper class Germanic males from non-Aryan males, who were treated with disdain; and women, who were deprived of all respect and used to breed labourers for the working class, and heirs for the elite.

Instead of crowning Huxley’s or Orwell’s as the definitive vision of dystopian politics, we should consider them alongside Burdekin’s. The three together provide a more comprehensive and accurate picture of how the nightmare of oppressive control may come about. All three set out a callously demarcated system wherein the few at the top can do as they wish, and the lower down you go, the more you have to do as you are told – no question asked.

But each of the novels elaborates on a different approach the powerful uses to maintain their hegemony over others. Huxley highlights how superficial pleasures can divert rebellious impulses into mindless indulgence. Orwell draws out the systematic deployment of fear as a weapon to eradicate dissent. Burdekin shows us how a myth of superiority/inferiority can be inflated by stoking latent prejudices until it becomes a key lever to deepen submission.

Oppressive regimes that endanger society will not exclusively take just one of these dystopian forms. They will almost certainly combine elements from all three. Fundamentalism has nothing to do with whether someone is wearing a keffiyeh or a suit. Just look out for those espousing such views: preserve privileges for the lucky few and deny them to the majority; deregulate the market for cheap pleasures irrespective of the consequences; expand mass surveillance without any corresponding increase in public accountability; prolong detention without trial; bring in ever harsher punishment; demonise ethnic minorities; deprive women of equal respect and control. They are the ones we must guard against.