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/