Locus does Phoenicia’s Worlds

phoeniciaLocus, November 2013 has a glowing review of Phoenicia’s Worlds. It would be boring to type out the whole thing, so here’s the take-home message from the closing paragraphs:

“This is a dense, busy, skilfully-designed future setting that draws on a wide range of SF conventions, tropes, inventions and machineries. “Headspace” is an immersive computational/communication environment available via implants; “black boxes” are powerful AIs that can behave like persons (as the governing intelligence of Phoenicia does); the Discourse and Lawcore are the AI/headspace-enabled bases of the Nuevan governmental-legal system. There are space elevators, orbiting pseudo-suns, matter-annihilation starship drives, wormholes that depend on quantum-entangled particle pairs, and so on. But the book seems more interested in those conventions as story enablers than as Nifty Ideas in their own right – they are just there, Heinlein-style, as part of the environment, the way they might appear to a character. (Though the wormhole/entangled particle technology does get a brief chalk-talk to explain why it’s necessary to return to Earth to build a new portal.)

Against this solidly built backdrop, we watch the social and generational tensions play out, wonder how Alex is going to deal with a hostile Earthside faction that cares little about the fate of Nueva, follow Quin as he works with and against the shifting power structures of the troubled world that was born the same day he was – and wonder whether and how each will adapt to changing metaphorical and literal climates. This is not ground-breaking SF – there are no amazing new imaginary technologies or exotic aliens or funhouse booga-boogas. Instead there is something just as hard to pull off: a story that uses the resources of the genre to build an engaging blend of adventure and intrigue in a convincingly detailed future world.”

How the SOE and Pinochet ended up in a space opera

phoeniciaExcept that, okay, they didn’t. But in an indirect way they did inform the development of Phoenicia’s Worlds.

In the early 1940s, Britain stood alone against the Third Reich, one small island facing a continent beneath the bootheel of a fascist dictatorship, with but a narrow stretch of water between them. If Britain fell then so would European civilisation.

So, naturally, everyone on the British side pulled selflessly together to fight the common foe, right?

Did they hell. The various intelligence and covert organisations whose job it was to fight Nazi Germany spent half their time fighting each other in an endless squabble for resources, rights and precedence. Read Leo Marks Between Silk and Cyanide – it makes for jaw-dropping reading. Things got to the point where the SOE operation in the Netherlands was so compromised that we were literally dropping agents straight into the hands of the Gestapo, and Marks knew this but he couldn’t get anyone to believe him. Or, if they believed, to care about it.

[Don’t just take Marks’ word for it. I’ve read the memoir of his opposite German number in the Netherlands, Hermann Giskes, who backs it up – and comes across in fact as much less of a monster than Marks imagined.]

And yet, if you had actively put it to one of those idiots in London that their activities were at best hindering our war effort and at worst helping the enemy’s, they would have been genuinely outraged at the suggestion. No one was actively, consciously betraying their country. As far as they were concerned they were all 100% patriots doing what was best for everyone.

So, take that thought and hold it: the ability, nay inevitability of human beings to concentrate on the small picture rather than the big and convince ourselves that it’s for everyone’s good.

Related to this is an even less rosy aspect of human nature: our ability to fixate so firmly on one unacceptable option that any other option, even if infinitely more unacceptable, becomes preferable. “X did Y but they achieved Z”: how many times have you heard that? It’s a false dichotomy: it becomes, in the mind of the apologist, a straight choice with No Other Way. Thatcher destroyed whole communities but she saved the economy. Stalin murdered millions but he modernised the USSR. (And no, I’m not equating Thatcher with Stalin – please.)

And any apologist for the late Iron Lady’s good friend Augusto Pinochet – and there are many of them – will sooner or later trot out the line “but he saved Chile from Communism.” Pinochet isn’t alone in the ranks of saving-the-world-from-Communism dictators but, for some reason, he is the one that has always particularly got my goat.

It is, to borrow Captain E. Blackadder’s pithy critique of pre-WW1 foreign policy, bollocks.

It was bollocks in Chile and it was bollocks throughout South America for every right-wing dictatorship propped up by the west because Communism was perceived as the only alternative. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks.

Here is a strange fact about Communism that no paranoid right-wing loon ever seems to understand: no nation has ever turned to it out of perversity, and it has never been inevitable. What does it is desperation. You don’t want to be rich, you just want to have enough to look after your family, but you are so poor and the system so rotten that this will never happen no matter how much hard, honest work you put in. Then along come the Communists who say they will build schools and hospitals. Meanwhile the government grinds you into the dirt and expects you to be grateful for the privilege. So who do you turn to? You don’t know that the Communist’s promises will turn out to be pie in the sky. All you know is what you have now, and pie in the sky is better.

As the British proved so successfully in Oman – round about the time the Americans were pursuing their arguably less successful anti-insurgency policies in Vietnam – you fight Communism by being better. The Communists say they will build schools and hospitals. You make sure that the right side does build schools and hospitals. They surrender a little of their wealth and power – just a little – and, yes, military action is taken against the small minority of hardline insurgents. And you win. Pinochet and his vile ilk could have turned back the tide almost overnight by following this course of action.

But no. That would have meant being slightly more left wing, which was out of the question. Thus, to save this ghastly fate befalling the country, it became okay for a government to turn on its own people, spy on them, torture them, murder them, because the alternative would have been perceived as Communism – which it wouldn’t have been, of course, just a very mild case of social democracy – and that would have been totally unacceptable.

Humans, eh?

And so I came to write Phoenicia’s Worlds.

I didn’t write it to write about these themes and there are no overt references to either of the above cases in the novel. It certainly isn’t a commentary on or critique of the War Against Terror or the austerity package that is meant to save us all from a debt-ridden fate worse than death; I actually started to write Phoenicia’s Worlds before 9/11 so nothing more recent than that was on my mind. Instead, these two excerpts exemplify beliefs about human nature that are so entrenched within my being that, when the basic scenario of a beleaguered planet struggling for survival suggested itself, I knew exactly how people would react to it. And that was why I felt it would make a good novel.

Appropriate appropriation

Recently I’ve had the pleasure, from afar, of watching a couple of Internet storms on the topic of cultural appropriation. In this context, that’s when a writer decides to set a character or society in an historical culture different to their own, and then gets it egregiously wrong in a manner that is compounded by their own wilful ignorance and implicit claim of the superiority of their own culture.

I can see why it hurts and offends. I’m a public school educated science fiction writing Christian believing scion of the military – that’s four quite key components of my persona that people who don’t get just Do Not Get, and I’m invariably irritated when people get them wrong. (I suppose you can add other categories to that list: English, male, quite tall.) It’s mild stuff compared to the compounded grievances of entire cultures that have been mis-represented or persecuted for centuries. Yes, I can see why cultural appropriation – or maybe that should be mis-appropriation – upsets.

I utterly fail to live in fear of fatwas by Mayan fundamentalists who are offended by my heinous and quite upfront misrepresentation of their culture in The Vampire Plagues. I did however stop and think about what I was doing/had done in Phoenicia’s Worlds

Phoenicia’s Worlds begins on a colony world settled by a multitude of ethnic and societal groups from Earth, all of whom arrived on the starship Phoenicia before the story begins. The most dominant are a group calling themselves Los Hijos de Castilla, the Sons of Castille, a group who were dedicated to reviving the mores and culture of old Spain 1000 years hence. They woke up first from hibernation, they took over and named the planet (La Nueva Temporada), and they’re in charge despite being, by the time the story starts, very much in the minority.

How is this not cultural mis-appropriation? Their Spanish extends to their names and a few words or phrases that I gleaned from Spanish-speaking friends and Google Translate. They are nothing like the real Spanish.

Well, first, this is the future 1000 years hence, and any similarities between the present Spanish and my lot will already be pretty thin. Events of a 1000 years ago can still have an effect in the present day, but the societies at either end of that millennium are probably going to be quite different. (Queen Elizabeth II can trace her descent to William the Conqueror: the similarities between the two individuals are quite minimal.)

Second, even if the Hijos were present-day Spanish, the book isn’t about them. It’s about the society of their children and grandchildren on their new world. Any immigrant society in a new place immediately becomes its own thing. My people aren’t Spanish, they aren’t Castilian, they’re Nuevan – a society I created and can do what I like with.

And third, even the Hijos (at least the more honest ones) accept that they’re completely faux. At least, faux as genuine Earth-based Castilian Spaniards go. Completely bona for Nuevans, of course. Maybe a few founders of the movement could legitimately claim Spanish descent, but it’s all a bit silly and, deep down, they know it. I would give the same treatment to, say, any political group trying to revive the values and culture of Saxon England. The more they admitted that they were giving it their best shot but weren’t actually, you know, Saxon, the more I would respect them for it. I will generally accept anyone’s self-identification at face value because who am I to say otherwise about what is going on in their hearts? But the more serious and po-faced they were about it, the harder I would find it to take them seriously.

I chose the Spanish because part of the plot revolves around the fact that La Nueva Temporada is stuck in the grip of a fierce Ice Age and badly needs terraforming to be habitable. Okay, maybe there was a bit of good old English xenophobia at work here. Who would it be funny to stick on a freezing cold ice world? Why not the Spanish? Ho ho, hee hee.

In a future post, how the plot of Phoenicia’s Worlds was also affected by the shenanigans of the British Intelligence services during World War 2.