A Million Caesars: Phillida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar

From the first moments of Phillida Lloyd’s all-woman production of Julius Caesar I knew I was in safe hands. A row of studied female prisoners was marched out, perfectly studied in the peculiar manifestations of gender in institutionalised women: quiffed, buzzed, or tied-back hair; swaggers, struts, and the careful movements of the self-contained ones, the ones with pent-up energy. Still, it was only when when the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play itself burst in and interrupted the cons’ politicking that I become conscious that I was in the presence of something extraordinary.

There is something deeply Shakespearian in the gender reversal employed here, something that became a touch of genius when set in a prison, where, as Caesar struts and Brutus and Cassius plot, screws stroll overhead shining torches and twirling their keys. Once, one conspirator was told to leave by a prison guard, forcibly removed by only a few words backed by systemic violence; her replacement fluffs her lines, and is theatrically beaten by the other inmates.

We are not watching the prisoners stage a play within a play, but a play within a cage; the bars of that cage are composed of gender, discipline and surveilance, and systemic gendered violence.

Nothing I say about the genius of its production can take away from the superb acting that allows it to work. Once immersed in the play itself the four figures around which action revolves take centre-stage: thumb-and-forefinger smoking Brutus, played by Harriet Walter with straightforward butch honesty, Jenny Jules’ loyal Cassius,  agonisedly caught in a situation spiraling outside his control, the luminous charisma and tiger-like sexuality of Cush Jumbo’s  (historically doomed) Marc Antony, and Clare Dunne’s Octavius (historically, later the first emperor Augustus), delivering calculatedly brutal violence with a Belfast accent.

Indeed, there was one stroke that I missed: Clare Dunne also plays the doomed, sacrificial Portia, occupying the dual role of eventual victor and first to die after Caesar; the ghost that Brutus later sees is Portia, and at the play’s end Portia dances nude around Brutus’ dying troops, bringing us back to considering the soldiers as sons and lovers, constituents of the families that can no longer be reproduced after the conspirators unleashing the unstoppable forces of struggle for state power.

Through their machinations the main characters come to embody these forces, and through the gendered habituses – usually unnoticed ways of dress and movement and social interaction – of the cast as well as the deft production touches of other cons spotlighting and filming them, the performativity of gender itself leaps into focus. Still, this isn’t a production about undoing gender, but about reproduction of violence, and the key, forever obscured fact that both are intimately tied in together.

It takes a lot to untie and tease out those links. In the light of recent British media mendacious foolishness around Suzanne Moore, in an era where the most visible manifestations of feminism are iterations of columnar idiocy, it is clearly required to emphasise that gender is both a socially, discursively imposed fact and a performance; something the murderous reaction to the inevitable moment when the first personally privileged, naive trans woman to have a womb surgically implanted will doubtless, sadly show.

As it is, this Caesar manages to shed light on those links too: this is indeed a “play within a cage”, with all action onstage being shaped by the whims of the screws, the reality of offstage power.

What it also does is bring out hidden elements of Shakespeare’s text: with the actors’ genders reversed, the genderedness of Brutus’ pre-battle confrontation with Cassius leaps into focus, and all Brutus’ talk of “heights” and “tides” becomes plainly his outfacing Cassius’ more cautious masculinity with his own. This then, as in the original, segues into Brutus’ surely implied homosexual liasion with the flute-playing Lucius, and it is after this that he sees Portia’s ghost, the ghost of the reproductive family he effectively killed when he murdered Caesar.

With the all-woman nature of the cast, something extraordinary happens to gender. Homosociality between men, with eroticism sublimed or barely visible, becomes outright homoeroticism. Indeed, the entire Roman aristocratic class, bonded through their masculinity, seem instead as though they are in an extended polyamorous relationship, a way of seeing homosociality which has almost certainly not been tried, and which suddenly seems worth trying.

At the play’s conclusion, the Roman soldiers fall dead one by one, danced around by the ghost of Portia, now carrying a baby. She silently asks and answers one question: how is society reproduced? Through violence. Then the screws announce lights out, and darkness falls.

Whatever one’s gender, I’d swear you’ll be left with two things: a lingering longing for the beauty of Cush Jumbo’s Marc Anthony, and a sense of juissance from the new-found ability to sensually trace and unpick the lines of engendering and violence in your own life and retold story.

On Being Working Poor

It’s time to share a story.

I grew up with parents who themselves grew up identifying as “Working Class”, and so I internalised the value of hard work. By the time I was 25 I had had twelve separate jobs, with the only break being a few months while at university and not also working, and a month or two between temping roles. I always performed well and was never sacked; either I had to leave to move, or the role itself simply came to an end. My father considered me lazy due to having had so many jobs. As I said to him then, things have changed since his time.

Living in London I was never rich. When I did have surplus income, it went to pay off student debt. After this, I had enough to stand my round at the pub, and that was about all. My girlfriend at the time used to be homeless, and so due to her experiences I was terrified of being homeless. I stayed in an unhappy and unhealthy relationship for too long out of fear, and in the end she threw me out.

Initially being unemployed was not so bad. I found somewhere to live, which was covered by housing benefit and £10 per week of my JSA. The room was tiny, perhaps 8 feet long by five feet wide, but it was mine. As it was such a poor area, I was able to feed myself for a week for between £8 and £10, mostly eating pasta with a little protein, stew, curries. I volunteered for Citizens Advice, who paid my travel costs, let me snack on food brought in by paid staff, and insisted on not letting me pay for a round at the pub. I had one or two better-off friends who would occasionally treat me to a meal in Soho. Most of the rest of my £50-odd per week went on travel.

This was in 2009. Since then, travel costs in London have soared, rents have increased, housing benefit has decreased, and soon no under-25s will be able to claim housing benefit at all.

When I claimed JSA for the first time, I received a letter stating that the £1000 of tax I was then owed would be taken from the JSA I was paid, on a one-for-one basis. When I researched this at my advice bureau, it appeared to be legitimate.

I was outraged by the unfairness. Yet this isn’t the last unfairness I faced.

(I have to say, in the defence of the DWP, that this is actually not the case, nor is it what happened. Whoever wrote that letter did so in error. One cannot claim tax owed back while on JSA, but neither is it taken from you. Perhaps there is some regulation that allows owed tax to be taken when JSA is paid, but it is not one that is customarily enforced. Several years later I found that this tax was actually not taken from me, and I was able to reclaim some of it.)

Later that year I got a job. I worked part-time for another advice agency. As in every other adult job I had had, I was put on an emergency tax code. This meant that tax was taken at a flat rate of 20%. In theory, the emergency tax code means that you receive your personal allowance of tax-free income over the year. In my case this has never been what actually happened. I did not receive any personal allowance, and was taxed at 20% on all my pay.

That year was a very cold winter. I was only working part-time, and travel costs ate up a huge amount of my pay. I worked extra hours in order to try to make ends meet, but in the end, after bills, rent and council tax, and travel, I had less to live on than when I received JSA. As the weather got colder, I found that I couldn’t afford to heat my room, so, as I had done in Scotland, I wore more and huddled under blankets. Every month I would ask my manager to sort out my wages, and every month she would claim that next month they would be sorted. Nothing ever changed.

With my unheated room and walking to work through the snow, I got sick and was sent home one day as I couldn’t climb stairs. For a short time I could barely walk, and had to rely on flatmates to deliver food. I tried to return to work, but I still was unable to manage the stairs. I was terrified. All I wanted was to get well.

I was lucky to receive ESA. On ESA I had more money than I had ever had in my life. Not only could I afford to heat my room, I could afford to buy clothes that fit me properly, and I could occasionally travel to see friends. As ATOS cracks down on more and more claimants, this will be an opportunity for recovery, for a decent life, open to fewer and fewer people.

I was lucky in being the kind of sick the system is designed for, designed to force people to be. Over time, and with warmer weather, I recovered. Once properly well, I got a discounted gym membership, one of the last group to do so before many London boroughs effectively abolished discounts for those on benefits. (When I became a student, and was offered a bigger discount than ever while those on benefits received limited hours and a tiny discount).

Back to that 20% flat rate of tax. I am certain I am not the only person to be taxed on all of their income. Since returning to university I have talked with far more people, and found my situation was hardly unusual. Activists across Europe, across the world talk of “the Precariat”, of precarious work, short-term contracts, constant insecurity. This was my experience, as part of the new working class. Precarious work, on emergency tax code, thus being taxed at 20% on all my income, and always scraping to get by.

The new working class, same as the old working class.

I also know quite a few people being paid a lot more than I used to be, when I sat below the poverty line.

And I learned one stunning thing: these people are not paying very much tax.

One standard trick now used by both public and private sector employers – indeed, the NHS now employs many contractors this way, although it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between working for the NHS and a private company – is to have people set up their own company, work for it, and receive part of their pay as dividend, thus avoiding paying both higher rate tax and some National Insurance.

I’m not an accountant. Tax and National Insurance are complicated, and change year on year. I welcome comments. Still, it is possible to make some back of the envelope calculations. For those using the employed-by-own-company trick, generally it is better to receive up to around £25k as wages, and the rest as dividend. Knowing this, it is possible to look at the working poor, and at the working rich, and to make some rough calculations on the rate of tax and NI both are paying.

For someone working full-time at minimum wage, their income is around £12k per year. They thus pay just over £500 in national insurance. If they are being taxed on emergency code they will be paying roughly £2000 in tax.

Of course, most people doing precarious work do not work for a full year. If they work for a full year, they have to be treated as employees under employment law, and acquire more rights, though of course David Cameron is trying to change this.

Generally, people doing precarious work will work for most of the year, and have periods on JSA and on Housing Benefit. They will struggle to bridge the gap between work and benefits – there is usually a significant delay before benefit is paid, and housing benefit is paid four weeks in arrears. Of course, this assumes that they were let go, and that they were not held by the DWP as deliberately leaving work – in that case, no benefit for them. Thus, even in the best case scenario of being eligible for benefits they will get into debt and end up paying interest and charges to cover this period. Moving back into work causes a similar delay. There used to be a four week run-on for housing benefit for those unemployed for six months or over, to ensure they could pay the rent while waiting for their first paycheck. This is now being phased out.

In any case, our theoretical (very lucky!) precarious worker is earning £9500 after tax, and paying £2500 as tax and NI, some of which they may, if they understand the system and claim it before three years elapses, get back.

This is a tax rate of 20.8%.

Let us take someone on the UK median wage of £20,800 (2010). Earning this much, it is likely that they have a contract, that they are not a precarious worker. The numbers will vary somewhat for self-employed people, but for an employee they will pay £1584.96 in NI and £2,539 in tax. (http://iknowtax.com/)

Thus, they are being taxed at a rate of 19.8%.

Now, let us take someone earning a fairly reasonable rate of £180/day as a “self-employed” contractor. They work 5 days per week, and 48 weeks a year – bank holidays and all that, and everyone needs a few (unpaid) days off sometime. This works out as £43,200 before tax.

Up to 25k they are a waged employee. They pay £2088.96 in NI and £3379.00 in tax. (http://iknowtax.com/)

Above 25k they take their wages as dividend. So that’s 43200-25000 = 18,200 as dividend. On that dividend, they pay a flat rate of 10% up to 34,370 of total annual income. (http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/tax-on-uk-dividends) After 34,370 they pay 32.5%, up to 150k. So that’s 10% of 34,370-25,000, or 10% of 9,370, so £937. And finally 32.5% on the rest of their income, on 43200-34370, on the remaining £8830. 8830×0.325 is 2869.75, so a not inconsiderable £2869.75.

So they are paying 2088.96+3379+937+2869.75 total, so £9274.71.

Thus, they are being taxed at a rate of 21.5%, only slightly more than the person on £12k per year.

(Someone earning rather more by working in the city or as a management consultant will pay a bit more – earning £100k/pa will cost you £31309.71 in tax, so a rate of 31.3%.)

Still, our people working as consultants have several privileges that precarious workers don’t. They have enough income that they can save a buffer, meaning they won’t be dependent on fickle benefit payments to cover the gaps. They can afford a mortgage rather than rent, bringing their housing costs down. They will pay the same in council tax, or a bit more if they choose to live alone. They will pay the same for heating, probably a bit less, as owners can get grants and ensure their property is properly insulated, and receive monthly bills rather than use more expensive token meters. They can pay less VAT overall. (Compass think-tank produced a fair report on the overall regressiveness of the UK tax system here.) They can choose where they live. Their lives will be lived with far less stress, ensuring they can make good decisions (chronic stress restructures the brain, leading to bad choices). They can escape the feeling of inescapable grinding poverty, and the barrage of newspaper headlines about benefit cheats, entitled scum, and so on. In general, everything will be financially and emotionally much better.

Not so for those doing precarious work. Not so for me. Now while on JSA I might now be instructed to work for free, or lose my benefit. If I can’t afford the rent, if under 25, I will in future have to return home, or, if estranged from my family, like many queer and other youth, become homeless. I would have had to choose between that unhealthy relationship and the street.

At least in prison, you have a heated room and food. At least in prison, your labour is not generally exploited to make others rich, though in moves led by the US this is changing.

It is becoming more and more clear to me and to others that work simply does not pay, or if it does, it pays only the wealthiest. Marx may not have been right about a coming dictatorship of the proletariat, but he was certainly right about the extraction of surplus value from workers to benefit a tiny, wealthy class.

And it’s only getting worse. New Labour’s policies are not significantly different. The TUC march for the right to work, but for the precariat, this amounts to the
right to work oneself into an early grave, to freeze, to starve. The soaring number of food banks in the UK is no coincidence.  It is a taste of things to come.

In 2011, when the riots happened, I felt genuine fear. But then I thought. I thought, what if those young people had not only gone through what I went through, not only absorbed the neoliberal lies I had been told, but experienced racism, experienced endless stop-and-searches too? Can you still blame them? Or can you begin to imagine a world where taking things makes sense, when those things can be exchanged for heating, for food?

What has happened in the UK is that we have become a society divided against ourselves. Left and Right are both weak, and in parliament almost identical. The older hate the younger, seeing them as feckless, when working culture has changed entirely. The working poor suffer, and stew, and grow angrier, and do nothing. Those on moderate incomes despise the poor, who they see as benefit-scrounging cheats. The working rich see their success as down to themselves, and devil take the hindmost, for have they not sacrificed much – as contractors, they can be hired and fired at will, unlike staid long-term-employee types. Almost everyone sees things as a matter of individual choice, rather than systemic failure and historical consequence.

I rather doubt some marxian revolution lies ahead. What I fear lies ahead is some repeat of the darkness of the 20th century: the tearing apart of social relations, but not this time between countries, but between rich and poor, between the political class and everyone else. The 20th century saw brutalisation on a mass scale that led to it becoming the century of industrialised death. Revolutions were armed, counter-revolutions were certainly armed, the systemic problems of Germany, of Russia, and of global capitalism were never resolved, and the result became mass slaughter.

What we are seeing now is a different kind of brutalisation. Under the rhetoric of “individual choice”, antiquated morals evaporate, but so do human structures and human feelings. Every day in London we all walk by a massively increased number of homeless people, barely noticing them. Soon the mass evictions will happen, to force out the “undeserving poor” (http://t.co/K1qr2dWU). It may be, with the soaring numbers of council evictions, that this is happening already. Yet to get by day to day we must be perfect selfish individualists, forcing our way to the front with style and aplomb. I personally feel like a fool for having believed in a social contract or working to directly help others at all. There is only actions, and consequences, and power.

I do, however, fear for our and therefore my future. What individual choice, what “rational incentive” are we offering the working poor, but to kick off? What incentive do the rich have, except to exploit more, except to turn a blind eye to more?

No Future

When I saw this banner on the October TUC march, I felt both thrilled and repulsed. Through writing this, I realised that I agree with it completely. More will feel this way. I only hope that a way can be found, or made, to avoid the coming darkness ahead.

Never has that question “Socialism or Barbarism” seemed more apt than now.

Some brief notes on “Pure rationality”.

Recently a moderately prominent UK journalist wrote a blog stating that, as a member of “the left”, he was against abortion. As it was tweeted to 35,000 followers it caused somewhat of a storm, leading to accusations of “twitter mobs” and “dogma” flying right and left.  Another Angry Woman covered this issue extremely well here.

As is typical in these cases, the writer of the original article stated that he is open to “rational debate”, similar to discussions I have been part of in the past where many responses, particularly those by women, are labelled as “not sensible”.

“Purely rational” is always code for a debate to be set in ways that favour the privileged: it erects an “irrational” straw man, or in this case a “hysterical” straw woman in opposition. It is absolutely absurd to argue that one point of view does not factor emotions into decision making while one does; it is, with supreme irony, against all logic, as well as against all that science tells us about the brain, what we know about how human beings make decisions (rather than how they justify those to others), and most of what philosophy tells us about human experience. 

When one states that a debate must be “sensible” or “rational”, one is indeed setting out the linguistical battlefield in a way to favour privilege: that which society constructs as masculine, the upper middle class corpus of language, and so on. It favours those with power, in this case to enact laws which affect them in only the most passingly indirect of ways.

“Rational” assumes that one can know the totality of another’s experience, or that their experience is simply irrelevant. It is an expression of power, whether emotionally experienced as such or not; when disempowered by this ontological absurdity enforced as reality, one’s natural reaction is of course emotional in turn. Emotions are drives, and drives are influenced by culture and the structure of social relations; they do not happen in a vacuum.

It is not “illogical” or “post-structural” to state that one can only have limited knowledge of the universe, and that one cannot solve all problems by a-priori reasoning. Indeed, current scientific understanding points towards knowledge as  something which is conditional and difficult to attain, a vision of the universe that makes a great deal of sense given the thousands of years of human endeavour and inch-slow advancement of material culture which it has taken us to reach this point.

A “rational perspective” cannot be taken on with an effort of will, it must be carefully built out of attempts to un-learn unconscious biases as well as successful ways of resolving social conflict and hurt rather than leaving it one-sided, hidden, and un-resolved. It is a painful communal project of the willing, not the crusade of the lonely, gifted thinker.

And it is something which may ever be approached asymptotically, which will always remain tantalisingly out of reach.

Information is a precious thing. Indeed, the contribution of those who possess wombs is more valuable in a debate about wombs than that of those who do not. We would not make this argument about ice-fishing; it would be immediately apparent that a veteran fisher would know more than an untutored novice. Why, then, do we continue to let moribund rhetorical constructs about the nature of debate shape our thoughts, and so our relations with all those around us?

(In the course of formulating these thoughts, I was accused of causing an “unedifying spectacle” due to the reactions of others. For a few thoughts on the historical policing of guilt, innocence, and women who breach social norms, see this excellent post on Scolds, Lies, and Innocence. )

Lord of the Rings and structural Orientalism

On first reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, at the age of nine, I loved it unquestioningly and, once finished, immediately began reading it again. Later, in high school English, I wrote about it as an epic synthesis of myth, overwhelmingly sourced from the peoples who were later themselves synthesised into Englishness: Saxons, Danish, Scandinavians, Normans, and so on. I also became uncomfortable with the largely simple good-versus-evil binary of the text, and the axiomic irredemability of Tolkien’s Orkish “race”.

There is much to evoke deep discomfort about Lord of the Rings. Many writers have found the racialised depictions of Orcs, Haradrim and Easterlings disturbing, especially their juxtaposition with the idealised, hyper-white beauty of Tolkien’s elves.

Yet little has been written about the structure of the Lord of the Rings. It is fairly well known that Tolkien re-worked many myths in the compiling of his “legendarium”; most notably, that of Turin Turambar from the Norse Sigurd and the Finnish Kulervo. Yet Tolkien did not restrict his borrowing and reworking to English and Norse myth.

The death of Boromir and the Song of Roland: Sounding the Horn

The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving work of French literature, records Charlemagne’s victory over Muslim rulers in Spain; the song itself alters the historical betrayal of Charlemagne by his Basque allies into betrayal by one man and the death of Roland at the hand of “Saracens”.

Transfigured by Tolkien, the betrayal is instead that of Sauruman, whose army of Orcs comes upon Boromir and the two hobbits. Like Roland, Boromir bears a great horn; like Roland, he is massively outnumbered and is overcome; like Roland, his allies do not reach him in time, and find only dead bodies.

Curiously, the name of Roland’s horn, Oliphant, is transfigured again by Tolkien into the name of the gigantic elephants of the far South; Boromir’s horn is simply the Horn of Gondor (Gondor’s real world namesake, Gondar, was part of Christendom’s historic southern bastion in Ethiopia); its sounding leads to Aragorn on his first steps not East with Frodo, but West, along the path that will lead to him claiming his rightful crown.

El Cid and Gandalf: the White Riders

A rider, clad all in white and riding a white horse, returned from the dead to lead the “forces of good” to victory. Not simply the story of Gandalf, but part of the legend of El Cid, who in many tales was embalmed and tied to his horse after his death to lead his charging knights to victory against the Moors. Like Gandalf and his sword, Glamdring, El Cid also had a famous, named sword, Tizona. Like Gandalf, who selected his white horse Shadowfax from the stables of King Theoden, El Cid obtained his horse as a gift: in many versions, he chose his horse from the stables of his godfather, or was given it by a king.

What is more, film representations of both legends have striking similarities.

El Cid (1961)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqFWBNB2xfI

Note the orientalised “Moor” at 1:11 and the “barbarous” skull-bedecked tower he stands in, the sounding of the giant gong at 1:16, the preponderance of black-cloaked “Moors”, and the barbarous-looking siege towers at 4:13.

For those who don’t want to sit through all of that, here is El Cid appearing, after death, haloed by white, and causing the “Moors” to flee in panic (6:11): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqFWBNB2xfI#t=06m11s

Here is Gandalf’s charge of the Orcs at Helm’s Deep, from the 2002 film:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sL9vUjm2mIE&feature=fvwrel

The iconography of the “White Rider” has been embraced by European fascist groups; “White Rider” is also a 1987 album by Skrewdriver, the most prominent white power band in the world.

The Corsairs of Umbar and the Battle of Lepanto

From the victory at Helms Deep, the heroes move on to confront the traitor Sauruman and then to aid Gondor. Aragorn, driven by need, takes “the Paths of the Dead” where he holds a dead, ghostly people to their oath to Gondor. He then leads this undead army to a city in the south of Gondor, Pelargir, where the “Corsairs of Umbar” are attacking.

Who are these Corsairs? Corsair as a term originally applied to the pirates of the Barbary coast, who later fell under the dominion of the Ottoman empire. Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, was among those enslaved by them. The Ottoman navy was defeated in 1571 at the battle of Lepanto, which assumed mythic resonance; Cervantes was also present at Lepanto, and there was badly wounded.

The Siege: Minas Tirith and Vienna

If the archetypal battle against “Corsairs” was Lepanto, the archetypal European siege was that of Vienna. Besieged by the Ottoman empire in 1529 and again in 1683, its relief marked the ascendance of European dominance of the world. Attacked from the South and East from a city historically friendly – Byzantium fell in 1453 and became the capital of the Ottoman empire – the territorial parallels with Minas Tirith under attack from its former sister-city Minas Morgul are obvious, and the battle has the same enormous significance for Gondor as the relief of Vienna was considered, by contemporaneous European writers, to have for Europe.

While one final battle is fought by Aragon in defence of Gondor, at the gates of Mordor, it takes little space in the text, and is not resolved through human action but in a sense through grace, as Gollum grabs the One Ring and plummets into Mount Doom, destroying Sauron and his empire.

The Orientalised Other

Structurally, then, we can see how Lord of the Rings, in particular the sections concerning Gondor, mirrors the perceived historical conflict between “Christendom” and “Islam”. While such a model had limited historical validity even then – it seems foolish to conflate the relatively tolerant Al-Andalus of before around 1150 with the later slave-taking, sometimes European-captained Barbary pirates; it seems as foolish to conflate the diverse, squabbling European powers which fought them – such models certainly do not function in a helpful or predictive manner now.

In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said describes the process of construction of a model of the Orient as “other” by Western scholars, in particular the ideological production of Islam as unchanging, monolithic, and antithetical to “Western values”.

While Tolkien himself explicitly argued against political or allegorical readings of his work – he intended it as a linguistic project – it is clear that many of the myths which he drew upon are certainly political and unconsciously centre conflict against a dark, evil, inhuman “other”.

Criticism of Tolkien in this vein is certainly nothing new. Michael Moorcock, in his excellent essay, stated “I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they don’t exactly argue with… white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.”

The “natural order” and Aragon’s right to rule

Aragon demonstrates his power and right to rule by being able to hold the ghosts of the Dead Men of Dunharrow to their oath to Gondor. Here Aragorn first demonstrates his sovereignty, his right to rule as part of the natural order; it is his blood claim to the crown of Gondor that the undead sense and defer to, and thus he exerts his claim over nature, that is, over the fact of death itself.

While Aragon’s myth is that of Arthur, the king returned to save the land from disaster, it is worth examining precisely who he is saving it from – a constructed “other” that only Sam ever wonders about, and at that powerlessly and wistfully:

“He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

And with that he ceases wondering, and so do we.

Hierarchy is woven through the fabric of Lord of the Rings, in a fundamental, existential sense. Aragorn deserves to rule; Samwise is happy in his place as servant; Orcs are inhuman and deserve death; Easterlings and Corsairs must be driven back and subjugated. All have their place in a “natural” order. It is only when we reconsider that natural order and consider the world less in terms of hierarchy than of systems, that the “other” becomes humanised, that eternal conflict can end.

Patterns in myth and mythical patterns

There is much that I still find profoundly moving about Lord of the Rings. Yearning for a deep and unknowable past is, after all, an inescapable characteristic of advancing capitalism which is forever more deeply invading the structures of everyday life. Yet it also tells of time flowing inevitably onwards, and that the past is inevitably left behind. I must now admit that much of my own uncritical enjoyment of Lord of the Rings has flowed from my own white privilege.

If the unsatisfactory paradigm of “Islam” and “Christendom” as competing power blocs ever had validity, it was from a time when the power of each was roughly equal. This is certainly no longer the case now. The First World War that so affected Tolkien led to the creation of Iraq, and when ongoing Western hegemony dictated that it be invaded in 2003 this led to around a million excess deaths. US-led war with Iran now seems plausible, despite the immense power disparity. All the while, economic inequality grows, and global warming goes unchecked. It would seem timely to change our paradigms, our patterns of thought, and so our myths.

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”

On Criticising a Game of Thrones

Trigger warnings: discussion of rape and rape culture.

Spoilers: GOT/ASOIAF spoilers!

There is a great deal of intelligent, elegant writing both by and on the genre of fantasy. Sadly, there seems to be something about GRR Martin’s epic A Game of Thrones series that brings out the worst in all of us.

Let me clarify: I very much enjoy both A Game of Thrones on television and the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. I also hold the apparently radical opinion that one can enjoy something and still find it problematic.

Laurie Penny’s review of A Game of Thrones has caused somewhat of a storm across the SFF blogosphere, with the descriptive phrase “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” and the contention that GOT has “goodies and baddies” proving catalytic to critical responses.

Clearly, there is more to GOT than a simple dichotomy. I personally get the greatest amount of pleasure from reading it as a parable, watching the personal and political constraints of feudalism shaping characters’ actions and beings in ways which can hardly be written off as “good” or “evil”. I really enjoyed Charli Carpenter’s post on Game of Thrones as theory, and if you’ve read this far, you likely would too.

However, there is much in what Laurie says about the inherent “goodness” of the Starks that really can’t be written off as simplistic analysis, as not present in the text. The Starks make terrible kings, it is clear, with one Hand being executed and the King in the North finding his own doom when both find themselves constitutionally unable to play the games of politics.

Still, the surviving Starks are, although young, simply devoid of flaws as she said, and, together with their uncanny communication with wolves and inherent link to nature, clearly axiomatically “good” in some sense. The fact that the messy human world will not allow them to rule is a rather different story, and the sundering of Sansa from her wolf by her father’s hand rather symbolises her being cast out of the “natural” order by political marriage. Whether Anya Stark will ever be reunited with her own abandoned wolf remains to be seen.

While the best of the Starks end up dead as a result of their own actions, the best of the Lannisters, Tyrion, was indeed a rapist from the start, though against his own will. Forced by his father to rape a prostitute with whom he fell in love, as part of a grotesque punishment, Tyrion starts off an offence against nature: his dwarfism is felt as an insult and marring by the entire Lannister family, and he killed his mother in childbirth. From these beginnings he goes on to become the most responsible of the Lannisters, for which he is effectively cast out of the social order, ending up by killing his own father and fleeing.

The “good-evil” dichotomy is definitely present in AGOT, although, like some elements of rape culture and like some basic tropes of orientalist racism (in Dany’s freeing of the slaves),  it is deconstructed over the series. This doesn’t mean it is not present, and while “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” doesn’t encompass the entirety of the series, it remains a valid description of many generic fantasy tropes – most of which are not deconstructed at all. We write about these things because we still do live in a culture with stark problems: if we were free of rape culture, I could walk down the street free of harassment and my flatmate could go to the beach on her own, many disparate writers have found the treatment of race in AGOT problematic, and so on.

I am, however, very surprised at the level of resistance to Laurie’s  statement that “the quest for the good ruler” is the (other) main theme of the series. This seems rather obviously true, as the main premise of the plot is internal division while an existential threat, the coming Winter and the Others gathering in the North, is ignored; Winter, indeed, is coming, and the people of Westerros will need to stand united against it if they wish to survive.

By the end of the fifth book the main candidates for the mythical role of Returned King seem to be  the hardened, canny Stannis, Jon Snow, whose precise parentage and possible claim to the throne is obscured and who may not survive, and the uncannily beautiful Danerys, linked with nature through her dragons and the resurgence of magic in the world which they either channel or portend. The dragons seem key, with their dragonfire a historically potent weapon against Others; still, it is also likely that GRR Martin will play things out more complicatedly than this. There still remains a bevy of compromised, interesting Southerners in play, after all.

Sadly, I have not yet seen any refutation of Laurie’s points which doesn’t itself indulge in the fundamental attribution error of considering her understanding “superficial”, rather than the brevity of her piece to require superficiality, or which doesn’t simply set up straw women to tilt at, claiming that Laurie wanted to watch “Sweden with wizards“, rather than maybe considering whether  it might be possible to address those themes with just a little less triggering rape culture and normative violence. Pointing out that these things are still damaging of themselves is not the same as calling for censorship. As for me, I can’t help but find feudal rape culture just as viscerally upsetting as the real thing, but I’d rather remain watching and enjoying – while also pointing out problems – than lock myself in a metaphorical room just because it’s safer.

A Game of Thrones very clearly really is about society’s leaders, rather than ordinary people who are swept along or aside; just because the consequences of this are repeatedly shown does not mean that it is not the case. Yet, there is a huge underground tension in the novels between whether the plot being driven by the feudal “1%” really is “natural” or not. The surviving Starks are forced into an education among the common people that will leave them far less naive than their dead patriarchs. Varys may be one of the few to rise into the ruling class, but he is also one of the few of the ruling class to truly care about the people of the kingdoms. Jon finds himself undone by the requirements of his position; in making tough decisions he undermines the institution that has him as Night’s Watch Commander, and faces an attack from his own men.

Even Danerys, with her Valyrian purple eyes and white hair and inborn right to rule by commanding dragons, finds her despotic orientalist ruling style little use in actually helping the people whom she wishes to help. One can’t help wondering if the magic-enhancing dragons really will save Westerros from the Others in a storm of fire, or end up eventually causing whichever mysterious problems led to the “doom of Valyria”. Perhaps the common man or woman of Westeros does think that the problem of who can rule them can “go to the Others”, yet if they are not free to store corn against Winter that is exactly what will happen to all of them.

I don’t believe that we can read a text in only one way, but it’s disingenuous to argue that Laurie’s view on this type of story isn’t very valid indeed. With no discussion of any alternative to austerity present at the recent Tony Blair-headlined Astana Summit, I’m pretty worried about my own society’s reaction to  existential Winter myself. Maybe we’d be better off without a ruling class at all, but if we’re stuck with one for the moment I’d bet my dragons on Tyrion Lannister over Blair any day. Isn’t that in itself pretty telling on behalf of reality?

Whose academy? Academic feminism, privilege and the Age of Austerity

Does academic feminism oppress women?

This piece holds that it does, broadly arguing that universities, like other societal institutions, are patriarchal and exist to further the interests of men, and that academic feminism often silences non-academic feminists, reinforcing existing authority and ways of being rather than supporting calls to action and effecting real change. It argues that “You don’t need to read books to be a feminist. You don’t need to be able to read at all.”

What is academic feminism, and does it have a case to answer? There is a vast range of feminist writing, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it begins: was it with Wollenscroft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with the aristocratic female poets of earlier centuries, with women who did not write in English? These are books as separate from academic feminism, though: academic feminism can specifically be said to have begun around the establishment of the first Womens Studies departments in 1970.

What we can also definitely say is that in recent decades feminist argument has often been used by those in power to state that women need educated along the path to becoming equals; that the West is inherently superior – an argument used to justify the Iraq war, despite the deterioration of conditions in Iraq and the immense misery and suffering the war has caused to women; and to state that certain groups of women such as straight women, practitioners of BDSM or trans women are inherently anti-feminist.

The “third wave” of feminist thought of the 1990s also has many specific criticisms of the “second wave” of the ’70s and 80s centred around the flaws with essentialist thought and the intersectionality of oppression: by avoiding binary distinctions, by playing with and owning the language we use, and by fighting all kinds of oppression that affect women, it was thought that we could progress towards real gender equality. A great deal of queer theory was written, taking its inspiration from radical communities and activists which pursued a critical, non-assimilationist politics.

Many of the most criticised “second wave” feminists were and are academics. Roz Kaveney’s criticism of Sheila Jeffreys centres around the essence of her feminism as an academic, theoretical project, and criticism of the recently-glitterbombed Greer does likewise.

Modern academic feminism, however reluctantly, also includes figures like Catherine Hakim, who argues that feminism is over and that any oppression women suffer is because they are not trying hard enough. Clearly there is much to criticise about all periods of academic feminism. But is making individual critiques enough?

Looking back from 2012, the inherent superiority of “feminism 3.0” is becoming less clear-cut. There are many accounts of ’70s and ’80s feminism being vastly more diverse than the academic history suggests, and a general project is taking place to reclaim and rethink the term “radical feminist”, and re-read and re-appreciate the many fierce “second wave” feminist thinkers, some of whom, like Dworkin, were not originally academics.

We are also facing an age of austerity, and feminist thought is re-focusing on the economic realm, the intersectionality of struggle and on the function of labour. So what does this mean for academic feminism? Does the academy specifically function to oppress women?

The wider role of academia

Anti-oppressive critiques of academia can be taken back to not long after the Enlightenment itself. Edward Said, writer of Orientalism, deeply critiqued the role of 18th and 19th century philologists in “fixing” representation of the orient and of the “orientals” living there. This school of thought was a crucial influence on the intellectual ideas used to justify the emergent forms of fascism in the 1920s and 30s.

However, in the same piece Said calls for a current return to philology, a discipline which can only be broadly categorised as the creative study of language. Academia is a terrain in which disciplinary boundaries and the weight of evidence are constantly shifting, and a mode of study which was once reactionary may later be undertaken to different effect.

It is also difficult to place the role of academia in society in relation to the geopolitical and the economic. Marx believed that intellectuals held a crucial position in driving revolutionary change, and Gramsci later developed this into a specific critique of the social role of intellectuals in society: “all men are intellectuals” [and presumably women] “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”.

Gramsci called for “traditional intellectuals” – today’s academics – to be joined by “organic intellectuals” from the working class to effect social change. This is somewhat of an oversimplification of Gramsci, and it is worth noting that the vast majority of people today fit Marx’ definition of the proletariat – those who must exchange their labour for the means of subsistence, whether that means be rent or mortgage. It seems likely that many online-educated social justice activists might themselves fall within his definition of “organic intellectuals”. Still, there is a general critique here: academia has a social role in propping up current hegemony, and it cannot simply wish that role away through sufficiently stringent enquiry.

Chomsky, writing more recently, suggests that common sense is and should be sufficient to understand the social sphere, and has somewhat disagreed with Marx’s take on the role of state power for some time. Chomsky also specifically dislikes Marx due to Marx’s role as a theorist: Chomsky feels that ideological change must not come from the auspices of some overarching theory, but from practical argument, evidence, and common sense. Quite what Chomsky thinks of the radical anthropologist David Graeber, who appears to share and comprehensively evidence this view on state power, is still a mystery.

None of these thinkers seem to take a position specifically against academia, however, calling instead for critical self-evaluation. Giroux, writing this year, draws on the writing of the Brazilian radical educator Paulo Freire to argue that Occupy is right to insist on an emphasis on education as part of participatory democracy; neoliberalism is stifling critical thinking in academia, and critical thinking is essential for any kind of real democracy. “Education cannot be neutral”, he states.

But let us not vanish here into the competing arguments of male thinkers. Decades before Occupy, feminist bell hooks had met Friere and considered the same issues, concluding that literacy is essential for the feminist movement: “because the lack of reading, writing and critical skills serves to exclude many women and men from feminist consciousness. Not only that, it excludes many from the political process and the labour market”.

bell hooks practices a notion of praxis similar to Friere’s, combining reflection and action and, in teaching, requiring this from both students and teachers. Teachers must be aware of the power disparity they possess when in the classroom, and take a holistic approach emphasising well-being and self-actualisation of both student and teacher.

Clearly a part of this must be being critical of the role of academic outside the classroom, as well. However, nothing about academia functions specifically to oppress women – though it may have a social role of oppression, this is one which functions intersectionally, and cannot be combated by a posited removal of one axis of oppression alone. Remove gendered oppression, and we still have race, class, and so many others. And perhaps you don’t need to be able to read to be a feminist, to survive under capitalism: but it helps.

Neo-liberal governmentality – who watches the watchers?

Under neoliberalism, we watch each other.

Critiques of academia in previous generations centred around its social role, too.  Writing in 1969 on the back of a decade of student-led upheaval, Chomsky stated “It is pointless to discuss the “function of the university” in abstraction from concrete historical circumstances”. And while the 1960s shook the capitalist world to its foundations, the dreamed-of revolution never materialised. It seems likely that Chomsky’s views on “the marketplace of ideas” would now be rather different, as the market is more obviously a creation of the state.

The critical thinker Michel Foucault also shared later Chomsky’s and Graeber’s understanding of the state’s relationship to the market – at least until the birth of neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, “It is the market form which serves as the organizational principle for the state and society”. This sea-change in conception, if not in political fact, has resulted in a definite change in social relations under neoliberalism, referred to by Foucault as “governmentality”, and characterised by”social responsibility becoming a matter of personal provisions”.

This regime has necessary implications for anti-oppression work. Current models of privilege are intertwined with governmentality, asking that the individual take responsibility for their own white privilege, male privilege, and so forth, and individually work to educate themselves and, so far as possible, remain aware of their own privileges as the first step towards dismantling them.

Thus systemic racism and other forms of oppression can only be challenged by first making an intervention – challenging someone – which is predicated on neoliberal understandings of the self. A hegemony which is based on global racism, sexist division of labour, resistance to the social model of disability, and so forth, can only be opposed by first intervening in a way which is based on this hegemony. Challenging privilege often meets with a vitriolic response. Among frantic derailing and privilege defence, there is also sometimes a component of generational resistance to neoliberal social relations. It is worth understanding this and, where possible, to treat it separately, in order to better challenge the privilege which it conceals.

This resistance is no excuse, of course, for perpetuating oppression. Older systems of social relations also perpetuated oppression, failing in the end to overcome it and often having their struggles derailed and rendered futile by lack of attention to other forms of oppressions, to intersectionality. For many people, older concepts of community and communal struggle did not prove to be communal at all. What, as feminists, can we learn from this dynamic?

Firstly, that the privilege-based model of oppression came not from academia, but from grass-roots activism. Innovative responses to current conditions need not come from the academy, nor need academia to give them legitimacy. Using academic language is not the same as being politically part of academia, nor is it necessarily the same as not being understandable.

Secondly, that academic expression is not always optimal or desirable. Frequently the most impenetrable academic theorists – Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak – are those articulating the most interesting ideas, rendered near-unintelligible by their need to simultaneously defend themselves against hostile male colleagues; this elaborately-buttressed language renders their ideas unassailable, yet difficult to use effectively. Yet it is also a style, just as technical writing is a style, and without this style neither theorist would have been able to have the significant influence which both have had. We cannot simply choose our mode of speech, it is also determined by our environment. An idea may not currently be articulable within one way of speaking, while being so within another.

Thirdly, that there is at least one privilege that it is massively difficult to address within our current understanding: that of the English language. Currently the English language is globally dominant, and as bell hooks argued that literacy is essential to empowerment, our current understanding is that the English language is essential to global empowerment. Yet English is simply not added to a non-anglophonic person’s choice of means of speech: there is a power disparity globally, with many writers from non-anglophone countries choosing to write in English simply to find an audience. Hegemony tends to edge out other choices, to perpetuate power dynamics, to present a totality from which there is no easy escape. We must be mindful of this ambiguity of language, and place it in context among global oppressions which can be pitted one against the other, amongst hierarchies of power, privilege and being which invisibly rule.

And we must not simply watch one another, as individual actors, but recover some sort of sense of solidarity and communal struggle. The queer community is  built around this: grass-roots, communal, informed by academia, against imperialism, patriarchal capitalism and every form of oppression. Yet there are some profound ambiguities here: in being defined against something there is the potential to create both in- and out-groups, to repeat the mistakes of the past. The language-slippage of “queerness” seeks to counterbalance this, but will it be enough?

Academic language is essential to governmentality, as neoliberalism uses academic language to legitimise its ruling strategies, to ensure that we govern ourselves as (neoliberal) consensus sees fit. Whether we want it or not, academia and academic language is shaping up to be a major battleground as neoliberalism is becoming austerity neoliberalism, a process which is the natural consequence of changes during decades before.

Austerity and Academia

Now we have left the early days of neoliberalism and entered an age of austerity, in which previous liberal certainties appear to be under attack.

Academia is under attack, also. In 2010 funding formulas meant that Middlesex Philosophy – a department that cut across language divides in studying (often, presumably, in translation) French and German philosophy – was cut. Other UK university cuts have followed suit, with London Met soon to become little more than a technical college. The University of Sussex is finding itself increasingly far from its 60’s radical roots, as the future of its Sexual Dissidence comes under question, while increasing support is being given to Security Studies. The state and the market are acting to close in the gaps, to solidify one particular set of interests – and these are broadly not the interests of women.

Women are under attack. Austerity is a vitally significant moment for feminism. Cuts are having a vastly disproportionate effect on women, leaving women unemployed, without childcare, forced into remaining in abusive relationships, doing more unpaid work, being pushed inch by inch back towards the margins. Meanwhile, most feminist discussion in the media consist of manufactured attacks by women on other women. Something is entirely rotten here, and it must be fought.

Feminism and Austerity are holding a conference to examine austerity and to combat and resist negative changes in academia – as well as in the wider public sphere, considering challenges to women’s writing, art and performance as well as scholarship.

While this is worthwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that any approach which attempts to fight austerity in academia alone will not be enough. We need solidarity across the board, between classes, races, genders, between all people committed to making a better world than the ideologically and linguistically whitewashed dystopia which austerity capitalism offers.

Being an individual is not enough, and neither is being a class.

How should we speak to power?

If we cannot choose not to fight on every front, we can at least prepare the battlefield.

Academic feminists must become conscious of the social role of academia, particularly under neoliberalism. We must also be conscious that academic language is a particular kind of speech; different kinds of speech have different relations to power under different historical conditions. At present, academic speech is heavily privileged under neoliberalism: this makes it both a tool, and a potential accidental weapon against those with less privilege.

While it is not quite true to say that academia oppresses women, the writer who argued that it did was quite right to not spend her time casting about for references to permit her to argue from authority.

Where I have done so, it is more an attempt to weave a tapestry from which a pattern can be discerned, than to argue in order to convince, to force, to educate without doing so mindfully, to compel. These issues exist together with other “women’s issues”, together with all people’s issues, in a way that ties women’s work across time and across space. This is a pattern of progress for some women – and only some: first worldly, sociologically middle class, articulate, here.  We must act mindfully to ensure systemic change for all, before the thread is rudely cut off.

What we can do is be conscious of our speech, and speak appropriately. We can challenge privilege where others are unconscious or uncaring of it; we can snark to each other and in the face of power, as marginal speech acts to build solidarity. We can speak to power openly on our own terms, rather than adopting a different discourse, rather than labouring emotionally to make our words palatable to others.

What we cannot do is disengage from power entirely, but often we are better speaking to each other, so that when we do address the mass media we do so honestly and giving the minimum potential for distortion. So that when we speak to each other we do so as as close as we can come to equals, as feminists and allies, as mindful human beings.

When we do speak to power, we should do so to amplify the voices of the unheard, rather than to put forward our own interpretations and agendas: under neoliberalism, they are not entirely our own.

And when we do leap up to take action, we can do so united as one body rather than striking alone against one form of oppression. We stand at a vital point in history, and our words and actions will weigh disproportionally in the scale of what comes next.

Seven SF novels for radicals, utopians, and dreamers

So what is SF? Partially a hazy roadmap, partially a utopian dream, and very often a mirror of present conditions, the genre resists settled categorisation just as it resists elevation to the hallowed heights of literary fiction.

Where to start?

1) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. The three books, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars articulate a vision of a future well informed not only by possible technological progress but by history, sociology, and politics. Poetic and evocative, they are well worth a read by anyone wishing to give texture to their dreams of space.

2) Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution Series, particularly The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division. Optimistic on technological progress, realistic on real world geopolitics, realpolitik, and on “with how little care the world is run.” I think on re-reading I’d be a bit critical of the depiction of one female character, but in a future where people are constructed and rebuilt pinning down what’s ethical and what’s not will be a tricky job indeed. Highly reccommended.

3) Iain M. Banks Culture Novels. It’s a bit difficult to pick favourites here: many would plump for Excession, while Use of Weapons, The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas are darker, more accessible, and more human. (My personal favourite Banks is the poetic, guttingly sad Against A Dark Background, which isn’t even a Culture novel at all, so best to ignore that for now).

The Culture novels are best described as a cross between an anarcho-syndicalist post-scarcity utopia, and a liberal utopia and mirror of the Now. While the Culture is definitely utopian, it’s effectively ran by small, genial cabaals of artificially intelligent Minds that use people and species as unknowing pieces on a chessboard. This is a situation which would once sound like echoed theories of dubious conspiracists, but as the evidence begins to come in, reminds one of our far less intelligent and altruistic rulers more and more each year.

4) Ursula K. Le Guin: either The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, or, frankly, both. Deeply informed by feminism, anthropology, and the social and political base to technology, Le Guin’s books blazed a trail that affected every novel in the genre to come after them.

Being less directly concerned with specific technological advances, Le Guin’s books have a great deal more space to breathe and to play and to give rise to both striking personal and political insight. Neither novel would be the first SF I’d recommend, but they might easily either be the most critically influential.

5) Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. While not looking into the future but the past, Spufford’s far from uncritical examination into the apogee of Soviet technology and economics sheds a vastly needed amount of light into where everything went wrong with the Soviet dream… as well as hinting at the potentiality for similarly critical examination of the capitalism which co-evolved with and eventually defeated it. Absolutely essential reading.

6) The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Written in 1971 in the USSR and refused publication for a number of years, it was later turned into the Tarkovsky film Stalker – a film made twice as the first version was “accidentally destroyed” by the processing service.

Roadside Picnic is now available to read free online, and, as a novella, it is possible to do so relatively quickly. But just why was this short novel so subversive? In brief, it is a critical examination of the impartiality and social function of technology that, in its depiction of a hostile “zone”, echoed Soviet environmental pollution and foreshadowed Chernobyl. Vital reading.

7) Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m going out on a limb here, as I haven’t actually read Parable yet, but based on how superb Wild Seed and Lillith’s Brood are, it has to be reccommended.

Here we have something striking: the only clearly dystopian novel here is the only one by a person of colour. Why is this the case? And why have I recommended Parable rather than either of those I have read? And why, interestingly, why have I not recommended anything by Sam Delany, whom I hold in the highest possible regard?

I have to confess that I found reading Lillith’s Brood disturbing, and that this was due to the power disparity between the aliens and humanity, and that my finding this disturbing was due to my white privilege. (Perhaps how disturbing I found it is the highest recommendation of all). Wild Seed is excellent, but is not science fiction: Butler’s examination of power and community reaches far into the past before arriving at the present. And Delany: Delany has not written any science fiction novels for far too many decades.

So here we are: all of the white Western delvers into the future who I mentioned above – Banks, MacLeod, Robinson, Le Guin – are working on dreams of futures where global racism is no more, but it is strikingly difficult to find a convincing vision of this by anyone who is not white. Clearly we have much further to go on this than we realise, and Octavia Butler’s Parable represents much of her most recent thinking around the subject.

And here we are.

And for the wild card, and because I never miss an opportunity to recommend it: neither SF nor a novel, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years sheds more light on the present through the lens of the past than any examination of possible futures could. Potentially epoch-defining, and a beautifully constructed and illuminating read. Go.