The imaginary constructions of science fiction fill us with awe at their alien vastness. Which have you explored, and what was the most overwhelming?
Sci-fi fans call it “sensawunda”, that awe and amazement that the best science fiction stories can inspire in us. The entire world felt it recently when scientists declared that observations of a distant star might have revealed an alien megastructure. Did inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 star system encase their sun in solar panels to harvest energy? Or was this our generation’s canals on Mars moment? The sensawunda effect is so powerful that, even with scant real evidence, we are swept into believing.
Look. I like Conan. If stories let us play out our secret fantasies in widescreen technicolor, then clearly there’s a part of me that longs to be a muscular barbarian, crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. While Robert E Howard’s original Conan stories aren’t quite as good as the epic John Milius/Oliver Stone movie that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, they are still gems of pulp fiction well worth reading.
Conan’s rippling pectorals have proved a suitable fantasy vehicle for generations of geek boys, but the macho white male is only the fantasy ideal for a minority. As Lisa Cron argues in her excellent Wired For Story, the power of story reaches far further than mere entertainment. Our brain thinks in stories, but when stories don’t reflect our lived experience and our sense of identity, our brain will often reject them.
As levels of inequality continue to sky rocket, the plight of the rich is getting worse by the day. We’re not saying it’s as bad as what orphans, women, people of colour, plague victims, the undead or supermodels who marry short rockstars have to go through…oh wait maybe we are.
by Richelle Richenstein
The poor get poorer while the rich get richer. And not satisfied with winning at that game, the poor also hog all of our attention with their “suffering“. But when rich pricks bleed, do they not…wait. Hold on. Yes. No. I think.
So. On a wet Wednesday morning I Ubered a Humvee driven by a former Navy SEAL that put in the lowest bid to escort me past the attention seeking poor who would no doubt try to disrupt my attempts to expose the suffering rich.
First stop, Wall Street. “It’s hard,” Said Trent Ahole, a 36 year old hedge fund manager cum crossfit instructor. “My bonus this year was an embarrassing seven figures. I couldn’t even tell my girlfriend because she’s a Buddhist. So instead I just bought her a Tesla X.”
Too Many Teslas. It’s a problem all billionaires can empathise with. Andy Hoskowitz bought his 5th after selling his tech start-up, Bangr. “We set out to disrupt the personal services industry.” Says the 50 something as we luxuriate in his penthouse jacuzzi. “Because of me, no man will ever have to fear being overcharged by a call girl or rent boy again.”
Where would society be without such entrepreneurial spirit? I meet with Amanda Du Port in one of her show case fashion stores, where she shares her experiences of the hatred so often meted out to the rich. “Try telling a mother of three the layoffs won’t come into effect until AFTER new year. They won’t show the slightest gratitude. That’s why I never go to the Asian factories…talk about harshing your buzz.”
“Being rich is just like winning at monopoly. You sneak money out of the bank, make up the rules as you go, bully the other players until they stop calling you a cheat, and then build a bunch of hotels.”
“I’m intensely relaxed about people getting desperately poor.” A senior British politician tells me ‘off the record’. “But it does rather clutter up the streets with bums, whores and filthy, thieving children. That’s what’s so great about gentrification… all those chain coffee shops. Too expensive…the stinkos can’t even go in ’em!”
Inheritees have been known to compare their lot to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. “All I do, day after day after year after year, is Lear jet from one claustrophobic five star resort to another, forced to pose in humiliating designer dresses by my paparazzi oppressors.” Madrid Travelodge texts back to my question, along with an accidental upskirt photo of her knickers.
To paraphrase Kermit T. Frog, it’s not easy being being tanned, toned, slender & Very Fucking Rich. If the poor are reading this, I hope they’ve learned that lesson by Reading My Words. If you’re rich, I’m here to let us all know, we are not alone comrades!
Mars has always been, as cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, a “mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. For the ancient Greeks, the red dot in the night sky was an aspect of Ares, god of war, who unleashed conflict when the balance was lost between Apollo – god of reason – and Dionysus, god of the irrational and chaos. This conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian chaos has been projected onto Mars ever since.
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks makes a powerful argument for peace as the ultimate strategy.
Incredible thanks to my patrons for making this essay possible. And to my beta readers, in particular Sarah Imrisek and Joshua Newman, for challenging my arguments.
Games have always been seen, to a greater or lesser extent, as models of life. Monopoly makes its social metaphor explicit; he who owns the most of London wins at capitalism. Chess has long be called the “game of kings” because its dynamics are a close parallel to courtly intrigues and human politics. Poker is favoured by gamblers and economists alike, both professions that study the interplay of probability and human psychology. It’s a commonplace assumption therefore to say that people who win at games tend to win at life.
Games as models of life took on a new importance in the 20th century with the development of game theory, a branch of mathematics pioneered by John Nash, whose life and work were popularised in the movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes Nash schools his math nerd friends on the dynamics of chatting up girls; never talk to the most beautiful girl first because her less attractive friends will then reject you. Nash’s insight was that human relationships and transactions could be understood as a game, a game in which those who understood the “mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision makers” would have a major advantage. You may not know it, but the principles of game theory are today a driving force in economics, politics, military strategy and many other areas of modern society.
“Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars.”
The marketing industry quickly adopted game theory. When you’re persuaded to buy a new Mercedes by a barrage of advertisements, it’s your tendency to value objects as symbols of status in the game of life that is being exploited. This marketing technology reached its apogee in the late 2000’s concept of “gamification”. If you’ve ever found yourself returning to the same supermarket, petrol station of coffee shop again and again to fill up your loyalty card, you have been “gamified”. Reward Schedules, Behavioural Momentum, Countdowns and Disincentives are just a few of hundreds of documented “game dynamics” that are now routinely employed by marketers to capture your attention and manipulate your behaviour. Games evolved these dynamics to keep you playing, now businesses employ them to keep you shopping.
Games have leapt from the parlour to the big screen, as computers have replaced board games with the high resolution spectacle of modern video games. Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars. By even the most modest estimates, video gaming is the world’s most popular entertainment. But all that gaming isn’t just a distraction. We are, as a society, becoming experts in the dynamics of gameplay. Game designer and commentator Jane McGonigal argues that videogames are training a generation of “expert gamers”, masters of game strategy with over 10,000 hours game play experience, an army of high level problem solvers ready to reshape society as an Epic Win.
I call the pervasive influence of games in today’s world “ludification”, derived from the Latin term “ludus”, meaning game or play. While gamification implies the many positive applications of game play in today’s world, ludification reflects on the problematic aspects of that same process. Ludus means game, but it also means deception. Games seem to offer a model that allows as to triumph over many of the problems the world throws at us. But while it’s clear that games can make us winners, too often we overlook how they also make us losers.
The Player of Games is the second novel in Iain M Banks’ science fiction sequence the Culture. Banks’ science fiction novels fit loosely into the genre of Space Opera – epic adventures and battles fought between the stars. As a story The Player of Games sits well alongside novels like The Hobbit and Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy; a comfortable, somewhat naive human is forced to journey into a strange world and discover their true self. Like much of the best science fiction, Banks’ work also reflects on the real world, and as the title suggests, games are at the centre of the allegory that Banks weaves.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture’s most famous game player. Board and card games, as the Culture is oddly lacking in computer games, despite being a super advanced galaxy spanning civilisation. Gurgeh’s life, in common with all citizens of the Culture, is utopian. He lives in a beautiful estate on an “orbital” artificial world. Nobody in the Culture works, unless they get bored. There is no poverty, sickness, violence or indeed any real suffering of any kind. There is no discrimination, people can change their gender or any aspect of their identity however they wish. This utopia is made possible by Minds, artificial intelligences who do all the real work in the Culture, an issue that is central throughout the sequence.
Gurgeh faces one of the few problems imaginable in a true utopia. In a world of absolute equality, how does a human satisfy their need to be special? Gurgeh’s solution is his mastery of games. While citizens of the Culture can have anything they want, Gurgeh’s status as the greatest living player of games is uniquely his. However, Banks hints that this makes Gurgeh something of a throwback, a man too rigid to even swap his gender (Gurgeh has always been male and only sleeps with females) who needs to win dominance over others to feel complete. In another world, perhaps even in our world, Gurgeh might have been a great general or king, a business leader or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But in the Culture, he’s simply a player of games. Famous, but ultimately no more significant than any other individual.
The Minds that govern the Culture have their own hobbies. The nature of the Minds is explored in all of the Culture novels, but it’s enough here to know that they are benign rulers, who will basically do anything to make human existence comfortable. Minds have unique personalities, but they all have vast intelligence and, importantly, a rather wicked sense of humour. As they continue to explore the universe, the Minds often turn up less advanced and usually more brutal alien societies. While being largely pacifist, the Culture does frequently intervene to make these alien civilisations less awful. In fact, the Minds rather enjoy the vastly complex thinking required to tinker with an entire society. It’s a rather entertaining game to them.
“Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play.”
The Empire of Azad is one such alien civilisation. Despite stretching over a few hundred star systems, Azad has somehow managed to retain an Imperial political structure. Banks argues that Imperial systems are deeply inefficient, so civilisations that expand beyond their home planet nearly always transition to far more utopian systems of government. The Azadians have maintained their deeply unjust Imperial system for one important reason: a vastly complex game called Azad, from which the empire takes its name. Azad is used to determine who governs the empire. The game provides the empire with stability by making sure the most competitive and ruthless individuals wield power. The cost, as we will explore in more detail, is that Azadian society is a deeply unpleasant place to live for anyone not in this ruling class.
Azadians come in three genders – male, female, and apex. Apices wield all power, while males and females have been selectively bred to lower their intelligence. Poverty is widespread in the empire, and lower economic classes can be beaten or killed by the rich without consequence. The many alien cultures conquered by the Azadians are enslaved. In one moment of The Player of Games we are told of a conquered alien being shaved of its fur, in an image that echoes the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people. Later in the novel we discover that the empire has secret broadcasts seen by its elite, broadcasts of live sexual humiliation, rape, torture, and the mass murder of children. Aspects of the empire are glamorous, intoxicatingly so, but Banks leaves us in no doubt that it is a fundamentally horrific place.
Gurgeh is, through a series of machinations plotted by the Minds, sent off to, quite literally, beat the Azadians at their own game, which he duly does. The emotional charge of the story turns on Gurgeh’s own transformation from game player to fully rounded human being, as he is taught the ultimate inhumanity of a society based on games. Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play. The allegory is completed when, in the story’s denouement, we learn that while Gurgeh has been making his moves, the real “player of games” are the Minds who have manipulated him into this quest. Mind’s that are machines, but who demonstrate that even a machine can choose to act humanely.
Which of Mr Banks’ two imagined societies seems more realistic to you? The utopian vision of a galaxy spanning Culture where humans live lives of pleasure? Or the empire of Azad, where a privileged elite of the most ruthless and cunning oppress and exploit all others? I suspect that, if answering honestly, most of you believe that Azad is more like human reality than the Culture. A brief glance at history shows humans repeating all the same sins as Azadians, over and over again.
Which society would you rather live in? I hope for your own well being that you answer the Culture. But again I suspect many of you will say the question is overly wishful. Whatever we might rather, the real world is like Azad. There are rules, and hierarchies and winners and losers. The world is a game, and given the options, you’d rather be a winner.
The ludification of our world is the triumph of the desperate hope and belief that we can, we will, indeed we must, be among the winners. And it’s a process driven by primal fears. John Nash, the father of game theory, was a profound paranoid schizophrenic whose fears were so powerful they manifested as crippling delusions. If you saw every human as a player in a game, driven by a selfish agenda, capable of any deception, as Nash’s game theory suggests, you’d be crippled with paranoia as well. Maybe you do. Maybe you are.
“the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history”
It’s hardly possible to look at the marketing industry’s cynical adoption of “gamification” as anything but the most scurrilous form of manipulation. Yes, the human desire for status and various other psychological traits are easily gamed to sell us everything from Coca-Cola to Coco Chanel. But what good does this do for anyone? Seriously, tell me, because I’m totally unable to think of anything.
Video games could conceivably produce a generation of super skilled Epic Win problem solvers. If game designers like Markus Persson (Minecraft) or Jenova Chen (Journey) are any guide this might happen, but it will be despite the best efforts of the vast industry that ahs made games, for all their potential, into the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history. If Gamergate is any measure it seems more likely that videogames are training an entire generation as vacant minded hyper-consumers, entirely lacking in both critical thinking and basic human empathy. Ideal citizens of the empire of Azad.
But let me put it to you that Bank’s allegory is more hopeful than you suspect. The Player of Games, the Culture and Azad are a fiction. But the two tendencies that they represent – towards competition and violence on the Azadian side, or towards cooperation and peace on on the Culture side – both exist within the human heart. And they are both necessary to our health and happiness. The real question is how we balance them.
At the climax of The Player of Games, Gurgeh plays a final match with emperor Nicosar. This final game of Azad is played over many days, and for high stakes. Gurgeh’s victory ultimately, as the Minds of the culture calculated it would, topples the entire Azadian empire. But how Gurgeh wins is where the story’s real meaning hides. While Nicosar deploys his pieces as an Imperial army, Gurgeh shapes his forces in the peaceful model of a more advanced civilisation. And over time, Gurgeh’s peaceful society simply absorbs and overwhelms the attackers, and turns them toward peace. Gurgeh wins the ultimate game, by learning not to think like a player.
Its been my lived experience that expert game players are no better at life itself than anyone else, and are often worse. The man who whips his kids at Monopoly isn’t necessarily winning at being a dad. Chess players when they involve themselves in real world politics, like Gary Kasparov’s disastrous tilt at Russian president Vladimir Putin, seem to have learned no transferable skills from the game of kings. Economists proliferate everywhere, just as priests did in earlier ages, and everywhere their influence touches our economic problems rapidly multiply. Games it seems are not particularly good models of reality at all.
Instead many of the great victories of the last century have gone to those who, like Jernau Morat Gurgeh, play by the rules of peace. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent politics succeeded in freeing the entire Indian sub-continent from British rule. Martin Luther King’s insistence on peace as the path towards civil liberties for black Americans triumphed over violent strategies deployed by both sides of the conflict. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s compassionate use of Peace and Reconciliation committees averted the potential of horrific bloodshed in post-apartheid South Africa. Wherever you look, progress is made by those who refuse to play by old rules of violence and bloodshed. And where those rules are still asserted – in Iraq, in Syria, in North Korea and elsewhere, human suffering only multiplies, nobody wins and we all lose.
Did the violent Azadians lead to peace, or to infinitely more skilled players of games in the Minds of the Culture? Ultimately they are one and the same thing. What the Minds understand is that peace is a far more powerful strategy than violence. It’s a lesson we could learn ourselves, with a glance at our own history. Instead the ludification of modern society continues our losing strategy of turning to violence as our first and last resort. Violence might win on the limited scale of a chess board or a Call of Duty map. But in the vastly more complex space we call reality, violence loses again and again. If games are to fulfil their great potential in the world, they need to choose winners who play the strategy of peace.
It’s a little-known fact that one of the all-time bestselling writers of westerns lived most of his life in the English market town of Melton Mowbray. JT Edson, who died in 2014, wrote more than 137 novels, most of them westerns, and claimed in all seriousness “never to have even been on a horse”. A former chip shop owner, Edson developed a love of escapist fantasy in his youth, and approached writing westerns just as he later approached writing sci-fi.
The world of the western is about as historically accurate about 19th-century America as the world of the Shire in Lord of the Rings is about pre-industrial England. Both are fantasy worlds, abstracted from reality, crafted by expert fantasists. The pre-eminent western author, Louis L’Amour, loved the mythology so deeply that he began to write novels as a way of escaping into it. Like sci-fi and fantasy authors, writers of westerns, even when their sales stretch into millions, remain at the margins of mainstream culture. So it seems almost inevitable that over time the western and the fantasy have cross-bred.
You don’t have to actually play a role-playing game for it to fire your imagination, so why don’t RPG manuals count as books?
I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.
Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.
A review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s relationship to other stories by Neil Gaiman, and the trauma of fantasy.
All great fantasies are formed in response to experience. And often, the experience of trauma.
J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes us in to a fantasy world of elves and dragons, but it’s the depthless grief of a young man who experienced the first World War that gives the work its sombre magnificence. Tolkien signed up with twenty friends and was the only one to return from the trenches. He was a rare survivor of a lost generation, one that never truly recovered from the trauma of Passchendaele and the Somme, just as young Frodo Baggins never recovers from the trauma of carrying the One Ring to Mordor.
J G Ballard cast his fantasies in the language of science fiction, depicting one shattered urban landscape after another in novels from The Drowned World to Crash, Concrete Island and Highrise. But it was with the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984 that Ballard’s fantasy life returned, with crystal clear insight, to reality. Ballard’s childhood was shattered by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in World War 2, his separation for his parents and internment in a prisoner of war camp, from where he observed the swift collapse in to barbarity of the middle class English society he had grown up in. A collapse his novels recreated again and again in fantasy.
From Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and it’s satire on the crushing oppression of the British class system, to the orphaned children of Diana Wynne Jones that reflect their creator’s own turbulent childhood, great fantasy writing always has its roots in the real. And like Ballard, great fantasy writers are often at their best when they return to the reality that shaped them.
Fathers are very important in the writing of Neil Gaiman. The Sandman comics that catapulted Gaiman to cult status begin with a father inducting his son in to the mysteries of the occult, and a secret ritual to summon and entrap Morpheus of the Endless. Decades later Morpheus escapes, and the son is left trapped in endless dreams of waking. The unfolding story arc of The Sandman turns on Morpheus’ relationship with his own son, Orpheus. Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, is adrift in the badlands of America when he is drawn in to the mystical plots of Mr Wednesday, soon revealed as the Norse god Odin, and then later as Shadow’s long absent father. Anansi Boys also features a young man attempting to come to terms with the legacy of a father who is also a god. It seems that time and again Gaiman’s fantasies return to the relationship of a son to a powerful, and often mystical, father figure.
The father in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from powerful or mystical. He is in fact quite ordinary and flawed. Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys brings him closer than any other previous work to directly exploring the paternal relationship that has influenced so much of his writing. The directly autobiographical aspect pulls the story in a literary direction that, rightly or wrongly, his earlier fiction has not been recognised for. And it leaves the reader guessing, what in the novel is imagined, and what is the author’s true experience?
The novel’s narrator recounts a series of horrific events from a childhood spent in a large family house at the end of a long contry lane. The young boy’s life with sister, mother and father is mundane in its joys and tensions, until the suicide of the family’s lodger unleashes a series of supernatural manifestations. These are complicated by the Hempstocks, a neighboring family of grandmother, mother and daughter who have lived around those parts for raaaather a long time. Trinities of women are another of Neil Gaiman’s repeat motifs, but with the Hempstocks he grants them a far more central, and humane identity than in previous manifestations. A hike in to a weird and alien environment ensues, and an ancient evil is unleashed.
The real horror in The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrives in the form of a young woman, Ursula Monkton. Employed as an au-pair for the boy and his sister, it is soon clear that Miss Monkton and her short skirts are not all they appear to be. But it is Ursula’s effect on the boy’s father that ushers in the true darkness at the heart of the book. For all its otherworldly fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple and brutally told story of the trauma children face when confronted with the frailties of their own parents. The graphic sexuality and violence that errupt at key points in the story mean that, despite surface similarities to earlier children’s stories like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children. It is however a book that will resonate powerfully with anyone attempting to process the darker aspects of their own childhood. And in an age when childhood ends early, and often brutally, that makes it a book for almost everyone.
The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as an older man looking back, recounts these events to us the reader in part as an attempt to understand them himself. The after effects of encounters with the supernatural, and of emotional trauma, are another central theme of Gaiman’s writing. The young Rose Walker, at the conclusion of The Doll’s House, retreats for months in to solitude to consider her encounter with both dreams and nightmares in the realm of Morpheus the Dream King. There is an aspect in all of Neil Gaiman’s fiction that is permanently at war with mundane reality and our experience of it. His early writing, on projects such as Miracleman, and his collaborations with Dave McKean on Violent Cases, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch seem to step beyond fantasy and become active deconstructions of reality. The Ocean at the End of the Lane recaptures the conceptual energy of those earlier stories. Reason and common sense construct the narratives of our waking lives, but for the millions of readers drawn to Gaiman’s stories, the un-logic of dreams and fantasy are just as valid a way of understanding life, the universe, and everything.
Of all the writers creating literature today, Neil Gaiman is arguably the greatest at articulating that fantastical nature of reality. Inevitably, given the massive publicity surrounding its author and this this his latest work, some will ask if The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as a work of fantasy, can also be a work of literature. Increasingly, it is a question fading in to the oblivion of irrelevance. Like all great writers, Neil Gaiman is not constraining his vision to pre-definied notions of genre or literature. Instead, through his contribution to literature, he is redefining its boundaries to include our inner worlds of dreams and fantasy as essential ways of seeing our reality.
It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.
On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.
Almost two years ago I ditched all my worldly goods, except for a backpack and a laptop, and went travelling. I suspect many people would assume an experience of that kind would be a little scary and make them feel rather insecure. But for me, the opposite is true. Getting rid of the physical possessions that most people rely on for a sense of security has made me feel much happier. But why?
Alan Watts was very close to my age of 37 when he published The Wisdom of Insecurity, the book that first brought him to widespread public attention. Today Watt’s philosophy of Zen buddhism and Eastern wisdom is more familiar, but in the first half of the 20th century, before the counter culture, his worldview was radically different from mainstream society.
Most of us believe that we become more secure by protecting our self. The world, we believe, is an aggressive place, so the more we can separate our self from the world, the safer we will become. So we walls and houses, make laws, employ police and security guards and imprison people who break the rules. We separate ourselves from nature, and panic when dirt or insect life invade our artificial spaces. And we hoard things, we fill our houses with stuff because it makes us feel secure. And most of all, we crave money. We live our entire lives in relation to financial calculations of what will make us richer or poorer.
The irony, as Watt’s adroitly points out, is that the very things that make us feel secure, actually increase the risks and problems in our life. Cut off in our houses, watching our tvs, we lose the community, family and friendships that actually make us secure. Divorced from the natural world we plunge in to depression and behaviours like overeating, which create so many of the health problems from heart disease to cancer that cripple our lives. We pursue money, but lose sight of real wealth. Our bank balances swell, but we miss all the experiences that make life valuable.
“the working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels”
The wise alternative, as the title of Watt’s short book make clear, is to actively choose insecurity. We’re actually more secure with fewer material possessions, because we are more flexible and better able to adapt to change. We are more secure living in a community than walled away from other people in our houses. We are more secure if money is distributed around the community, rather than hoarded by the most fearful individuals, so that no one is hungry or has reason to steal. These things seem obvious when considered openly. And yet we continue to repeat the same mistaken drive for security over and over again.
The Wisdom of Insecurity is a wonderful expression of Zen buddhist philosophy, addressed to the modern desire for security and the plague of anxiety that dogs modern life. Our material circumstances seem better than ever, and yet we live in states of anxiety that are barely comprehensible. Watt’s makes the cause of that anxiety blindingly clear, and his book is an essential read for anyone attempting to unpick their terror in the machinery of modern life.
“The externalised symbol of this way of thinking is that almost entirely rational and inorganic object, the machine, which gives us the sense of being able to approach infinity. For the machine can submit to strains far beyond the capacity of the human body. and to monotonous rhythms which the human being could never stand. Useful as it would be as a tool and a servant, we worship its rationality, its efficiency, and its power to abolish limitations of time and space, and thus permit it to regulate our ives. Thus the working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels. They spend their days in activities which largely boil down to counting and measuring, living in a world of rationalised abstraction which has little relation to or harmony with the great biological rhythms and processes.”
If you recognise yourself, batted around by the machine’s wheels and pushed in to action by your iPhone status alerts, the The Wisdom of Insecurity is one step towards finding a different way of being.
The megastructure is one of science fiction’s most enjoyable guilty pleasures. There is no other genre of literature that takes quite such glee in describing buildings, whether made by the hand of man or alien. Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is little more than a guided tour of the titular spacecraft through the eyes of its human explorers. Only in science fiction can an entire novel be dedicated, in immense descriptive detail, to conveying the spectacle of an imaginary structure to the reader.
SFs most famous megastructure is the ringworld, a stripe of artificially-constructed land encircling a star, first envisioned by author Larry Niven in his 1970 novel Ringworld. The idea made Niven one of the most famous SF authors of his day, at a time when the novel was still the most powerful way of casting the full spectacle of sci-fi into the imaginations of the audience. Movies and television reached a far larger audience, but too often fell short of the spectacle sci-fi readers created for themselves.
Imagination is a powerful force for progress. So why has it been sidelined in the one place it should be most welcome – literature.
In his now famous quote, Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. When Einstein wrote those words in 1929, those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.
Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to the National Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”
It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.
This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding. That’s not a criticism of STEM subjects or their creative potential, but as Einstein was trying to tell us, those subjects are at their strongest when honed by a powerful imagination.
Such an imagination can look at our world today and see the vast potential for it’s future, and the terrible risks that threaten progress. It’s no coincidence that the imaginative literature of science fiction has made utopia – the discussion of how to make a better world (a discussion Le Guin has played no small part in) – one of its core themes. It seems more than credible that the forces that might lead us to a dystopian future might tend to surpress those powerful imaginations that can envision their defeat.
Imaginative literature itself has been in a virtual civil war in recent years. When fantasy novelist N K Jemisin called for a global literature of imagination, in a speech that echoes Le Guin’s both in its meaning and its passionate intensity, it was a recognition that imagination can not be limited by gender or race. But the venomous, racist attacks made on Jemisin in response suggest that some, a small but bitter minority, do not agree. When that same, bitter minority were involved with block voting at this years Hugo awards, they were sent packing by award voters outraged at an attempt to limit and politicise imaginative fiction.
Anne Leckie’s clean sweep of this years major awards for science fiction, and Sofia Samatar’s victory at the World Fantasy Award, suggest imaginative literature is indeed becoming global and starting to overcome boundaries that had held it back. Despite, or perhaps because, of the barriers placed in its path, imaginative literature arrives in 2014 far stronger than it has been for decades. Ursula Le Guin’s honouring at the National Book Awards is one of many indications that, far from being excluded any more, imaginative literature is now at the very heart of literary life.
But if anyone is responsible for that change it is not publishers, or even writers, but readers. The internet and it’s massive disruption of the traditional publishing industry has allowed readers not just to vote with their wallets, but to evangelise for imaginative literature across thousands of blogs and fan forums, to support diverse new writing through crowdfunding and other platforms, and to become the new writers, editors and independent publishers of imaginative literature. There’s a grass routes revolution in publishing, and the power of imagination is at its heart.
Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.