How the BBC should approach a female Doctor (not entirely serious…)

Jem @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar has summarised some important things that the new season of Doctor Who will need to get right with introducing and portraying a female Doctor. They are serious points.

I thought I would write my own “The Doctor is now a woman. Here are the things the BBC needs to get right” piece.

This is not quite as serious…

  1. The Doctor still likes and plays cricket: The Doctor, particularly 4 and 5, were keen cricketers and while that hasn’t turned up quite as much in NuWho, it would go a long way to reassuring fans that it is the same character. (Also, the Women’s World Cup cricket tournament is taking place now and the players prove that they have all the skill and competitiveness, so the Doctor as a woman should definitely still be into the game.)
  2. The Doctor has big pockets with Useful Things in: Many previous Doctors have kept useful things in their pockets, such as jelly babies, a sonic screwdriver, various forms of alien currency and whatever is actually useful to escape the situation in this week’s episode. These things should definitely NOT be in a handbag!
  3. The Doctor still punches Nazis & other racists, jerks, etc: and they expect it even less because those types usually turn out to be sexist as well! I mean, this is kind of what the Doctor does, ever since the first ever Dalek story…
  4. The Doctor still flies the TARDIS badly, except when helpful for Plot Device: Because that’s pretty much how a large number of stories get started, or used to be. (Also, the show should neither pander to, nor explicitly acknowledge in rejecting, the stereotype of “bad women drivers”. River Song already showed she can handle TARDIS)
  5. The Doctor still loves getting that “It’s bigger on the inside!” reaction: and generally showing off what the TARDIS is/can do. Jodie Whittaker should definitely get to have that moment from her first companion!
  6. While the sonic screwdriver plays the role of a “magic wand”, it should definitely NOT be a Magic Wand: I’m looking at you, Steven “Curse Of Fatal Death” Moffat!

As I said, this is a very tongue-in-cheek take on the issue, but I hope that a few serious points are detected in the underlying thoughts.

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Generosity and failings: thoughts occasioned by the Queen’s Grenfell Tower visit

Today, HM Queen Elizabeth II visited a relief centre for the Grenfell Tower fire victims, and there praised the bravery of firefighters and the generosity of the volunteers now helping out.

Hardly controversial, but I want to explain why generosity is, nevertheless, a failing – or at least, a sign of a broader problem.

I am, as part of my project to become familiar with classics in a variety of subjects, been reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and the infamous author explains that a prince should not be afraid of a reputation for miserliness, since to earn a reputation for generosity he must overspend and then impose burdensome demands on his citizens, who will then resent him. Far better to spend wisely and give only what is needed, so that when a crisis occurs one has the resources available to meet the demands: thus, he will gain renown for the right reasons.

But the people whom the Queen praised were not princes. They were ordinary citizens responding to the crisis.

So I turn to another great, though this one of an altogether different reputation and era. Clement Attlee wrote a pamphlet explaining the leftwing thesis that charitable giving is a form of selfishness, whereas accepting higher taxes is the truly virtuous form of giving. The core of this logic is that, when a person gives to charity, they do not give to those with the greatest need, but those that apease the individual’s emotions: it is a reward for being “proper” in the eyes of the person giving. Sadly, nearly 40 years of Tory and tabloid pressure to push the idea of a “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor (and you will see already the tabloids *ahem* The Scum, The Daily Fail, painting the victims of Grenfell as undeserving – this is their SOP) have made people feel as if charity is the better course, because they wish to reward the “deserving”, when the focus should be on helping all the poor, regardless of subjective value judgements about virtue or “deserving”.

But the generosity of the people helping at Grenfell relief centres, is not “charity” of this nature. I am sure that the assistance being offered survivors is not offered with any kind of conditions, the way charitable giving is. These are likely not the same people whose votes put into power those who opted for low taxes, who made the decisions that led to this disaster, and who have pushed the shameful attitudes described in the previous paragraph. Their generosity is not a failing in that way. The only way it meets that category is that it should never have been necessary. Which is to say, generosity here is a symptom of a failing elsewhere.

Which leads me back to “The Prince”. This time, I ask, who is the Prince in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea? Well, it is the council itself! We could try to pick out one person to play the role, but the council as a whole is the body whose decisions have acted as the decisions of Machiavelli’s Prince would have done.

And what path have they followed here? They have sought to be generous to the wealthy and ignored the citizens, being miserly where they should have been generous.

The belief in charity and generosity as the solution to problems is what allows poverty to continue, and as such is a part of the problem. Poor people have to be generous to one another because that is the only way they can survive when society allows the wealthy to choose whether or not to be “generous”, and to let them claim it as a virtue when they choose to do so. Disasters happen when preventing them depends on generosity, instead of on the proper collection and use of taxes in a progressive system.

The generosity of volunteers should not be required. The council should be dealing with it, they should be spending money regardless of charity or generosity, because their citizens are in need.

So generosity gets praised, and the wealthy think they can get away without doing anything except what makes them feel good.

Generosity is a sign of failure.

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Finding principles & faith: thoughts on Tim Farron’s “conflict”

Tim Farron has quit as leader of the Liberal Democrats, claiming that he couldn’t negotiate the conflict between his faith and the liberal principles as regards LGBT rights that the party espouses.

In some ways, I am sympathetic. As Farron presents his case, it seems like a conflict between private beliefs versus the collective position of the party, and that is something very familiar to us Lefties from seeing how Jeremy Corbyn’s personal opposition to renewing Trident is counter to the Labour Party’s official policy. In my favourite political fiction, The West Wing, there’s a scene backstage before a public debate in which Democrat nominee Santos and Republican nominee Vinnick discuss their personal views on abortion rights (IIRC) with Santos being “pro-life” but standing for a pro-choice party and on a pro-choice position, while Vinnick is in the opposite situation: pro-choice but standing for a party whose position and supporters are “pro-life”.

Some of these positions can consistently be held: people have argued (incorrectly, as it turns out) that Farron has voted for LGBT rights and therefore his personal views are irrelevant to his political position.

I can accept that sort of argument when it comes to the legal status of abortion: as long as a person votes for the right to a personal choice regarding abortion, and allowing personal conscience to govern the woman’s choice (I can’t stand by personal conscience on the part of medical personnel whose job may include providing abortion or contraception services).

Similarly, Trident is a passive thing (or at least, we hope sincerely that it should always be so) so feeling personally that we shouldn’t have it is a matter of personal choice, so long as the Party line is allowed. Mr Corbyn spoke against Trident in parliament, but in this he did his duty as leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, to put the government’s position to the test.

But a private belief that homosexuality or transness is a sin is not like the other positions. Merely tolerating such differences is to say “I will put up with your wrongness”, and that is a position that will affect interactions in many more ways. People have many reasons for being the way they are, whether choice, “born this way”, some kind of unconscious post-natal influence, or any other, and none of these reasons is any more or less valid than any other.

It is legitimate, therefore, to look at the ways in which tacit, implicit or otherwise subtextual pressure exists in the position that homosexuality is a sin (however “accepting” one may be of the sinner) and to judge someone’s character for taking such a position.

As Jemima @ Sometimes It’s Just a Cigar outlines, there are many ways to be a Christian and not all of them include an exclusion of LGBTQ people, so it is a choice for Tim Farron to hold to that article of faith rather than to the principles of LGBTQ equality.

I, too, am a Christian. I found my own way to Christ and along the way picked up one or two variant beliefs that are not found in the orthodoxy, certainly of the Western churches. This meant that I didn’t have the same pressure on me that some did.

I also found my own way to my sexuality and gender identity, as a sadomasochist Dom-who-switches, bisexual, genderfluid nonbinary person. My belief is that this is not a “choice” for me; but that God has called me to this and for His(Her/Its/Their) reasons and purposes, and that I try to be the best I can be and to serve as best I can to help others and love others the way Gospel calls believers to do. I hope that I have done this well.

But to reach this point, I did have to look to Scripture. I was gratified to find in Paul’s epistles text that reflected my own view, painting the old Mosaic Law as raw and blunt, able only to condemn, and that adherence to it was no longer required because the Spirit was a true guide: that the Law has not been erased but rather superseded, a guide for wise men rather than for the obedience of fools. Anyone citing Leviticus or Deuteronomy has not accepted the Spirit, but condemns themselves! But Romans 1 still seems to condemn homosexuality, even after Paul makes this eloquent case for freedom from the Law.

But I noticed something. You can take that verse out of context and portray it as condemning homosexuality, but when read in context with the other admonitions, I find it says more about Paul’s beliefs about homosexuality than it does about LGBTQness. Taken in context, the meaning is much more about sexual acts that do harm to others, or that lacks care or compassion or conscience. That can go equally for selfish straight sexual behaviour (I’m looking at you, PUAs and MRAs!); equally, homosexual love and acts within a caring relationship are never covered.

“All things are permitted, but not all things are beneficial”, says Paul in 1 Corinthians. The Spirit, not the Law, is a guide to what is beneficial, and as I wrote above, this is what I strive for in all my interactions, including sexual ones, whether they are short-term, intended to be longer term, or even “no strings attached”, as is the case with one partner now.

I had always struggled with the orthodoxy that said homosexuality was a sin. How could a form of love no different from any other, be a sin when so much of the Gospel seemed to be about love? But in studying the teachings, I found I could make sense of it: as ever, humans bring their own prejudices.

So Tim Farron claiming his faith as the basis for his anti-LGBT beliefs is putting the cart before the horse: the homophobia comes first.

But the most important commandment is “Love God”, and the second is like it: “Love your neighbour”. In the words of Jemima, “Every Christian has to decide for themselves whether they think queer people are merely something to be tolerated or simply people, to be loved as we are called to love all.”

Posted in Gender, Religion, Sex | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meanings of forgiveness

I have an issue with forgiveness.

More accurately, I have an issue with understanding what people mean by forgiveness, because I keep running into articles or blogposts about forgiveness and what roles it plays, that say that the thing that I understand as forgiveness is not forgiveness, but leaving me unclear on what the distinction is between what I think it is and what other people think it is.

I’m put in mind of this again because someone whose writings on counselling and emotional development I really respect, Karen @ Counselling In Northumberland, writes Is Forgiveness Necessary? and says that the thing I think of as forgiveness is an important step, but then says that forgiveness isn’t necessary but a personal choice.

I am left wondering what it is I’m missing about “forgiveness” that other people understand in it that goes beyond:

Recently I wrote a piece for Welldoing which discussed letting go of resentment at failures our parents had made. It is important to understand that this is not for their benefit, but for our own. We let go so we can look more dispassionately at the past, and so anger and resentment do not eat away at us, like the invisible worm of Blake.

Working on this anger, finding a place for it, an outlet, can be incredibly healing.

Forgive and forget

The obvious place to start, it sees to me, is to look more deeply at how I construct forgiveness in terms of my own emotions and attitudes.

For me, forgiveness is that state at which it is possible to say that, when I see the person who wronged me in trouble, I would help them the same way I would help a stranger in trouble. It means that I no longer feel a desire to do them harm in retaliation or retribution for the wrong done me (though I may feel that there should be protection against them). It does NOT mean that I welcome them back into my life, or in any way mark down as insignificant to me the harm that they did, and it doesn’t mean I would ever give them the chance to do harm to me in future. It is a state of saying that I am emotionally freed from the harm without dismissing that harm or how it felt.

There is a well-worn cliché of “forgive and forget” and, it seems to me, some people conflate the two into a single concept of forgiveness.

But for me, my position is “I forgive, but I never forget”. Some people might view my attitude as one of bearing grudges, because my not-forgetting means that the past harm does change my relationship with a person, but for me, I have forgiven them because I have no ill will towards them. I just am not going to pretend that they didn’t hurt me, and I’m not going to give them another chance to. I am, however, going to say that I will not feel anger, hatred, or violence towards them. (These things lead to the Dark Side of the Force, don’t you know?)

Letting things go

Karen describes how the social norm of “sorry/that’s okay” is taught from an early age:

Many of us will remember as a child being told to say sorry, and mouthing the words with little understanding of what they meant. It is one of the first sets of rules we teach toddlers to help them navigate the world. If you hurt someone, say sorry. If someone hurts you, they must say sorry, then you both must put the hurt away. Sorry is an ending, a line drawn, and must be accepted.

This certainly sounds familiar, but I remember how frustrating it was, too. You had to say sorry even if you didn’t mean it and felt your action was justified. You had to act as though the sorry was enough, even if deep down you felt it was anything but.

I remember vividly from when I was 5 years old and I knew I had done wrong, I had hurt another child. The teacher stood us opposite one another and told me to say sorry. I said to the teacher, “Okay, but go away first”. This was because I knew that if I said sorry while the teacher was standing over me, then it meant nothing. But I really was sorry. So I needed the teacher to go away so I could mean it.

I tell this anecdote this time, to point out that the effect of this “If someone hurts you, they must say sorry, then you both must put the hurt away” rule was that you weren’t allowed to act on it, but I would feel it anyway. If anything, I learned, get your retribution in before they make you accept the apology!

It’s easy to see why you need that rule for young children: there needs to be some way of preventing hostilities and retaliations going on and on forever. Just as a peace treaty doesn’t wash away the bitterness between two peoples, the “sorry/okay” formula simply prevents fresh hurts from piling up when children have to share the same spaces day after day. But, as Karen expounds, this is not always a healthy or rational approach for adults. It is also not, in any way that I understand, forgiveness.

But we do get this narrative of “letting things go” or “moving on”. Politicians who have fucked up and want to escape the consequences of their fuck-uppery are always talking about “moving on” (it was a perennial Blairism, for example; now we have a very similar thing with May and “the national interest”). Similarly, “letting things go” is more often used to mean, “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen”, or, “That is the past and has no relationship to the present”.

Again, I don’t see any of this as necessary to forgive someone. Because I don’t ever forget, I don’t process things as ever being “let go” in that sense. With “move on”, it only has relevance when there is some kind of fuck-up and the problems the team were working on still remain, at which point it makes sense to say rationally, “Now is not the time for recrimination, now is the time to rescue what we can from this catastrophe.”

Saying ‘I forgive you’

Karen writes:

It is rare that something which harmed us in the past stops ever causing hurt. It can fade, like an old scar, which we forget most of the time, but it never goes away. This can actually be reassuring to some survivors, who do not want to feel that their past is closed off to them. … Finding a path which acknowledges the past without overwhelming us can take time but it is possible.

This feels to me like the definition of forgiveness, but many disagree. For instance, Karen follows it with: “We can let go of anger, move forward with our lives without saying ‘I forgive you’,” as if these are two different things.

The interesting point for me here is the wording: “without saying ‘I forgive you’.”

This frames forgiveness as a transaction, as something that passes between people when it is communicated, rather than a state of being or feeling for one person. Is this where my understanding differs?

For me, to feel forgiveness for someone is more likely to be expressed as “I have forgiven you”, something that happened in the other person’s absence.

Perhaps, hypothetically, I would have this conversation:

MOTHER: “Why haven’t you forgiven your brother?”
Me: “I have.”
MOTHER: “So we’ll see you at his party?”
Me: “I’ve forgiven him, but I have no wish to be around him again.”
MOTHER: “That’s not fair if you’ve forgiven him.”

(These are not my real relatives, I hasten to assure you!)

I would feel absolutely that it was perfectly fair and perfectly consistent with my having forgiven my hypothetical brother. It seems that some people would think that I could only claim to have forgiven my brother if I continued to go to parties and other social events with him.

If my hypothetical brother called me and apologised and asked for forgiveness, then I would say I forgave him, but if he then expected me to change my behaviour back to what it was before the hurt, he would be disappointed. (An apology intended to pressure a change of action is, in my mind, no apology at all.)


Karen says there is no obligation or necessity to forgive, but then defines the process of healing as including the thing I define as forgiveness, so the question is, what is there that I think there’s no obligation or necessity to do?

There is no necessity and no obligation to welcome someone back as if they never hurt you. There isn’t even any obligation to have any future contact with them beyond what you may need to do in life (say if it’s a workmate). I don’t think forgiving someone requires you to say anything to them or act as if they didn’t hurt you. It is not a clean slate or status quo ante, but rather, a detachment from the hurt itself, and from vengeance or animosity.

I have a different definition of forgiveness, and I still don’t know what the reason is. I am sure that there is nothing in terms of the intent of Karen’s piece that I disagree with, the only reason to mention it is the way the word “forgive” is used, and how it exposes a difference with the way I use it.

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New Project! “Dragons, Dragons, Fairies, Boobs”

(It feels good to be talking for once about ACTUAL writing, rather than politics and depressing stuff like that. Although this is still sort of politics because… well, you’ll see.)

So last week on The Last Leg, Sue Perkins summed up Game of Thrones for Josh Widdecombe as “Dragons, dragons, fairies, boobs.”

I immediately decided that should be the title of a kinky, queer, hot, inclusive fantasy novel and thought , who better to write it than me? Probably lots of people, to be honest, but if I let that stop me I would never do or create anything so the idea has been stumbling round my brain gathering concepts and themes and ideas from various corners until finally characters and direction have started to coalesce into something that I want to write. Something that is just me writing stuff that I find hot and fun and people I want to see being brave and bold and doing hot and fun things in between.

I don’t want to give the whole thing away too soon, but I do kind of want to squee about the characters who have sprung naturally into the worldbuilding and who make me so excited to write this.

The first thing I looked at was, “Why would there be two ‘dragons’ in the title?” and that was my route into the central worldbuilding concept around which I could start to build a lead character. And I thought, “What if there’s a type of people who are called dragons, or related to dragons somehow, by analogy more than by magic/type?” I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim recently so obviously I want to steer clear of anything too similar to a “Dragonborn” character, but maybe I could do something else with that? Another thing I wanted to do was to challenge heteronormativity in my fantasy world and because I am NB myself, I wanted to find a way to make trans and nonbinary genders normal in my world. So maybe dragons are nonbinary, and there are people in this world who have or acquire nonbinary characteristics, so that people liken them to dragons? Maybe the term is not always meant well and can be derogatory? The term I came up with was “Child of dragons” or “Dragonkind” to rhyme with wind, not mind (i.e. German “Kind” meaning child) – and Dragon from that is more derogatory. But in general the concept of being a dragonkind is totally normal and broadly accepted, with some caveats. (For example, my lead character hides hir dragonkind-ness to better cater to most sexual partners’ tastes.)

Because of how much I love and absorb the writings of Jemima of Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar on things like sexworkers’ rights and so on, I also wanted to write a world in which sex work is treated as normal and a positive career choice, equal to any other. Something (I forget what) that she tweeted tonight made me think again of sexworkers as protagonists and I thought, “Why not make my lead character be a nonbinary sexworker who goes off on a more-or-less traditional fantasy quest adventure and the sex work is just kind of a part of the background of how the adventuring team go along? I was planning to have plenty of fucking between the party’s members anyway!” There can be sexual relationships aplenty without going down any of the “saved from whoredom by love” routes.

So then I started thinking about other characters. Some of them have to have boobs, because that’s in the title. There’s also the ambiguity of “fairies” and, well, I already knew I was going to have gay sex in it (gay, bi, whatever – lots of varied sex, basically) so the play on words was a bit too much. So there will be fairies as in supernatural magical beings and whether or not “fairies” also refers to the derogatory term for gay men is up to the reader to decide.

All of this is all very well, but of course I stumbled when I realised that by making my NB characters “dragonkind”, was I implying a “born this way” narrative? What space in this world for trans people or people who are born with more binary-tending physical traits but who feel themselves to be more dragon-like? Well, I decided I would have to put those people into my world and see what happens. In my opening passages so far, I have tried to show that dragonkind-ness is something of the spirit, not really physical (maybe some form of magical process helps blur gendered bodies?) but that still leaves transness as a question and I figure the best way is just to plonk someone trans into the story and let the world react to them as “normal” – with the existence of dragonkinds (Dragonkinder? Hmm, I need to work out what I want the plural to be!) then I imagined the scene where my protagonist meets a trans person (who’s probably going to join the quest) and asks if they’re also dragonkind, like hir. I imagine that some trans people would get that a lot in that world and it probably doesn’t go down well, at least when cis folk do it.

All of which gives me a party of at least the following:

  • a nonbinary sexworker
  • a trans person (whether trans man or trans woman not yet decided)
  • a man who has sex with men (bi, gay, or IDs as straight but does it anyway – yet to decide) and is probably pretty “camp” but still a badass warrior and accepted as such

I probably will have a couple more characters in the team, probably cis male and cis female, if only to give plenty of pairing opportunities for the above. All the characters will be kinky as fuck, into all manner of BDSM, fetish and other non-normative sexual behaviours, of course.

Why? Well, a wise writer who offers advice on such things said, “Write the book you’d want to read” and, while I’m not sure I’d want to read it, I’d damn well want to tell the story and get super turned on by doing so, and above all writing is fun and this story feels fun.

Oh yes, I’ve decided that a key element will be some kind of book, and the quest starts in a library, and probably the cis woman is a librarian who joins the quest. The quest for the book leads them to intervene in a plot that threatens to tear apart the world, or society, or otherwise suitably cataclysmic consequences.

I suck at coming up with Fantasy names and places and such so I’ve decided that I’m going to take British names and cycle vowels, so my lead character is called Enne (Anna). (Maybe hir second name will be a homophone for “B”? Or would that be a bit too clunky and obvious?)

* * *

So, yeah. I’m excited by this new idea. There will come a time when the excitement wears off and the hard graft starts but I love the idea I have, I already feel warmth and affection for Enne and the other character I’ve started writing so far, so when that time comes I will have what it takes to keep going with them and guide them to their outcomes.

Posted in Gender, Kink, Writing about writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Digging into the pollsters (GE2017)

So a few days ago I remarked on the YouGov article about how the different polling companies are all using different methods to weight their samples this time around, after the generally accepted model they all used in 2015 led them to make inaccurate predictions.

It occurred to me after the latest round of opinion polls were published that the “rolling average” graphs of voting intention being used by most media outlets – which present a mean average of the polls in the last 14-day period, or of the last 7 polls published, for example – were pretty much meaningless in this context. [CORRECTION: The BBC average uses the median average of the last seven polls, not the mean average] The results are so different from one another that they are outside of the error margin – if a poll predicts 33%, it could be anywhere from 30% to 36%. If another poll predicts 40%, then its error margin is 37% to 43%. For context, the range of results from the polls over 1st-2nd June for Labour has a high of 40% and a low of 34%, and for the Conservatives a high of 47% and a low of 40% – which is to say, they are outside of the error margins allowed.

There is no grounds for assuming that an average of the different methods will in any way be more accurate than any of the individual polls. The results aren’t comparable and the point (as outlined by that YouGov article) is to test the different methods to see which works. A rolling average tells us worse than nothing about what’s going on.

More useful would be to see individual graph lines for each of the different polling companies.

I haven’t found a source that offers this, but the Guardian’s poll tracking page does allow you to filter poll results by company, meaning you can get a crude (if annoyingly unscaled for time) graph representation of the changes in the polls and indicate what trends the polling companies indicate each in turn. (You just have to keep in mind to watch the dates of the polls and try to compare even time periods.)

Ipsos-MORI and ComRes have only published 3 polls since the election announcement, so they don’t give much of a sense of trends and changes. Most of the other companies have polled at least once a week so it’s possible to get a sense of how things are changing. Bearing in mind that the error margin is around 3%, I’ve assumed that a variation of 1-2% doesn’t mean anything but larger moves might indicate genuine changes. I’ve looked at polls taken since May’s 18 April announcement of a general election.

Panelbase shows the Tories staying level (within error margin) until their 1 June poll, where there’s a 4% drop from the previous (23 May) result of 48%. For Labour, while no individual change from week to week was outside the error margin, the trend has been consistently upwards so that overall their numbers have climbed from 27% on 24 April, to 36% in the latest.

YouGov shows something different: a gradual trend downwards for the Conservatives (with a blip on 12 May of a 3% jump up, before returning to the level predicted by the downward trend the week after). From a high of 48% on 2 May (and that off-trend result of 49% on 12 May), the Tories were on 42% in the 2 June poll. Labour, meanwhile, stayed within margin of error around 31% until a sudden jump to 38% for the 25 May poll, and subsequent polls have remained within the margin of error of that result.

TNS BMRB (who don’t seem to be included in the BBC’s results) show a mix of these two. Their results for the Tories vary up and down within margin of error, but both top and bottom of that range have trended downwards overall so that the low result of 46% for 25 April and high of 48% on 2 May, is now compared to 42% on 22 May and 43% on 30 May. Their results for Labour show two jumps outside of error margin: from a start of 24%, a jump to 28% on 8 May, and then another jump to 34% on 25 May (2 June showed 33%).

ICM poll shows Tories staying within margin of error of their 47% result on 1 May (and 22 May). The latest result on 1 June was 45%, which is within the margin of error I outlined above. Their results for Labour stay at 28% or occasional results within margin of error until their 22 May poll, which shows a big jump to 33% (their latest shows 34%, which is margin of error).

Opinium have the Tories consistent since the General Election announcement, on 46% or within error margin of it, until their 31 May result of 43%, a jump downwards. Labour trended upwards consistently from 30% on 26 April to 37% on 31 May.

ORB put the Tories on 45% in their 1 June poll and this is consistent (within a 1% error margin) of all their results since the announcement. Labour trended upwards consistently from 31% (4 May) to 36% (1 June) with a blip of 38% on 27 May.

Survation is one of the most intriguing to look at. I’m leaving out their most recent poll because the BBC reports that this used a different methodology (internet vs phone polling). For the Tories, their 22 April poll showed them on 40%, but the next poll after that showed a jump to 47%, which remained consistent until their 22 May poll, when the Tories dropped to 43%. On Labour, they show a consistent 30% level until 20 May, where they jump to 34% and remain there until a week later (27 May), they show another jump to 37%.

* * *

Out of seven companies, the division in the types of movement are split evenly: on Labour, three show a general trend upwards, while four show Labour’s result moving in occasional large jumps. On the Tories, two have them staying level, two have them trending downwards and three show a big jump downwards.

Now, judging by when the polls show big jumps, a big change happened, it seems, between 20-22 May. There was a big event on the evening of 22 May but I would absolutely not say that that was the cause. The change must have taken place before the suicide bombing in Manchester. A quick search for news around that date indicates that a possible cause was the launch of the Conservative manifesto on 18 May! Those that show a later jump for Labour, I suspect, would correlate with the Sky leaders’ “debate”.

The questions are: whether the Tories will remain steady or drop again before election day; and for Labour will the steady trend upwards continue until polling day, or are the “jump” graphs accurate, indicating that they will probably stay level from now until polling day?

There is no consensus on the shape of both graphs: the only thing I can say is that neither company that showed a Tory trend downwards also showed a Labour trend downwards: both of them indicated a sudden jump rather than a gradual change.

With less than a week until polling day, there isn’t much time for there to be further changes.

The range indicated for the Tories is 42%-45% in the most recent polls (leaving aside the recent Survation poll that put them on 40%, and that I said one of those 45% was in a margin of error range from 47%). This is quite tightly bunched and the question is, does the Survation internet poll indicate a new drop, or continuation of a downward trend, into the last week? Perhaps it indicates that the methodology is closer when it comes to modelling Tory turnout. As I noted from the YouGov article before, the big difference seems to be how they model youth turnout.

The Labour Party range is 34%-38% (again, leaving out the Survation internet poll, and also not including the Ipsos-MORI poll on 1 June which put them at 39% and 40% respectively). That looks neatly bunched with the Tories, but with Labour there is a gap in the range so that it forms two groups, a low group and a higher group, with more results in the higher group. These results have changed more over time, too, which adds a greater variability to frustrate attempts to draw conclusions.

There is still no way to use this analysis to predict the result on polling day. The behaviours are too different. But I hope it does give a better idea of what might really be going on.

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Question Time, Nukes, and Jeremy Corbyn

In the wake of the apparent eagerness of the BBC Question Time audience last night to unleash nuclear holocaust on the world in a pre-emptive first strike against the middle east and North Korea, I have a few thoughts to express.

Before I get into this, I’d like to point out that, unlike a lot of the Corbynistas, lefties and socialists out there, I believe there is value in retaining a nuclear deterrent for this country. I am not convinced that Trident is the best option for Britain, but that is the sort of thing that a strategic defence review would look at in detail. I am not ever likely to be in the position of making policy on this sort of thing, let alone having the responsibility of writing the “letter of last resort”. I wonder if a more useful weapon might be a tactical rather than strategic warhead, but then I worry that if the full horror is lessened somewhat by that sort of decision, would it make nuclear war more rather than less likely? To put it mildly, I feel very strongly that any decision about nuclear weapons should be taken as carefully and with as much deep reflection as possible.

Consequently, it’s not the sort of thing that sways my vote overall. I am not competent to make such big decisions. I have a well-read layperson’s understanding of the history, politics, science and so on, concerning nuclear weapons. Were I to be Prime Minister, then I would have available far more expert sources to advise me and inform me. (The competence of a PM might be measured by how willing they are to listen to those sources. Theresa May fills me with no confidence she even asks them in the first place.)

So, I am in theory in favour of retaining a nuclear capability.

Mr Corbyn last night made a few statements that he essentially rejigged each time the audience badgered him on it:

  • He would seek through diplomacy to avoid a situation where the use of nuclear weapons seemed imminent
  • Any situation where nuclear weapons were likely to be used meant it was already disastrous for the world and this country, regardless of whether nukes were used or not
  • He would not authorise first-use (i.e. no pre-emptive strike)
  • He would send a “Letter of Last Resort” to Trident commanders if he was made PM
  • He would seek to negotiate multilateral nuclear disarmament (in line with our commitments as signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)

The first point seems uncontroversial. To paraphrase, “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war”. The pacifist, liberal, pinko, commie Britain-hater who uttered those words was, if I recall correctly, one Winston Churchill. Corbyn is only saying the same as Churchill, although how much Churchill meant it is another question!

To support the second statement, I will turn to that other pacifist thinker, Sun Tzu. Oh, wait, did I say pacifist? I meant author of “The Art of War”. This classic document includes the immortal phrase that if you have to fight, you have already lost. This is the statement that Corbyn made.

I’ve watched a few “war games” programmes on the BBC: either dramas or simulations. A drama is where it’s scripted and the participants are actors; a simulation is where the events are scripted but the people responding are professionals or retired professionals and demonstrating for the viewers how our leaders would make their decisions faced with a crisis. The one thing that all these make clear is that, by the time you get to a situation where nuclear weapons use seems imminent (regardless of whether you’re considering a pre-emptive strike) then conditions must have reached an appalling humanitarian and military crisis, regardless of who the enemy is or why you’re considering it.

By the time you even start thinking about the big red button as a response to a situation, it must already be so bad that this country has already objectively suffered a huge loss.

My next thoughts are about the nature of the weapon we have, and cover Corbyn’s third point as well.

Trident is designed as a retaliatory strike weapon to deliver strategic warheads designed to obliterate major industrialised cities or centres. It’s designed this way because it was designed and built for the Cold War, when we thought that Russia was the most likely aggressor and that the aim would be global domination of one mindset over another.

The fabled “4-minute warning” was always a myth in those circumstances. That was closer to the flight time of the Russian missiles to Britain, and the general public would have less than a minute’s warning, if that. The only people with time to reach shelters would be those directly informed: the generals, the PM, and a few others.

That’s why the Letter of Last Resort was so important, and that’s why Trident was so important. Our aircraft bomb delivery systems (the “V-force” bombers) were obsolete – the planes would be annihilated on the ground before they even had a chance take off.

So for Corbyn to say that he wouldn’t authorise first use, all he’s really saying is that the weapon we’ve got is intended for retaliatory use, and since last night he didn’t rule out authorising such use (though in the past he has said he wouldn’t authorise it) all we really have is that he wouldn’t use Trident in a way that it wasn’t designed for.

Trident is a strategic weapon designed to obliterate industrialised cities. It’s a multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV), meaning each missile carries several warheads, each of which can be aimed at a different city.

It is not designed for tactical targeting or to take out smaller sized targets. It is a weapon intended to reduce several cities of 100,000 or more people each, to rubble and ash. It is not designed to hit military targets, or precision targets. It’s designed to kill civilians, en masse. It was a part of the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD (and the acronym was deemed sickly appropriate) by which the threat of nuclear war was deterred by the fact that if ever one side launched against the other, they could be sure that a massive retaliatory strike would obliterate their entire population, leaving nothing behind and ensuring that they didn’t gain anything by the attack.

I grew up in the 1980s, when all these acronyms were flying around: MAD, MIRV, ICBM, and so on. The threat of potential nuclear annihilation in a Soviet/USA showdown or accidental launch was ever-present (it’s why I relate strongly to the line about “For we who grew up tall and proud/ in the shadow of the mushroom cloud” from Queen’s Hammer To Fall). I watched the scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor has a brief vision of an H-bomb being detonated in a major US city, and being incinerated by the fireball. I worry that people a few years younger than me don’t remember what that was like – they don’t have that emotional connection to the issue that I do. My parents were part of the Peace Campaign, and CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and that was a part of my upbringing. I still believe in principle in the things we campaigned for back then although, as I said, I take a somewhat more bleak view such that I feel that a nuclear deterrent is a sad necessity.

My point is, facts like those above are a part of my background in a deep and emotional way. They mean things.

I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would actually launch nuclear weapons. The consequences of such an appalling act would be horrific and, as a Christian, I would not like to face my Lord Jesus on Judgement Day and try to justify the weight of those deaths on my soul. My support for a nuclear deterrent is on the hope that it would never have to be used, and that sadly, the past 20 years or so of diplomacy and world actions seem to show that the USA only listens to those countries it thinks have their own nukes (and even then, not always). The aim should be to change that situation, though. (Another reason why Trident might not be right for us: although we build our own warheads, they are useless without the missiles, and those come from the US, and effectively have a veto built in so that the US can stop us launching unless they approve.)

To return to the point that we all lose if nukes are used. I remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, in which a reactor meltdown released huge plumes of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. We think these days of the heavily-irradiated landscape immediately around the city as being the aftermath, but at the time for a few years afterwards, there were much higher levels of background radiation found far away, in the UK as well. These were most noticeable in sheep in the highlands of Wales and Scotland – the radiation entered our food chain! (One of my favourite CND campaign images was a protest march: two men and a sheep, “Nuclear-free UK!” “Nuclear Free Europe!” “Nuclear-free lambs!”) The consequences of a nuclear warhead being detonated in anger would spread far beyond the target nation.

Jeremy Corbyn’s position, as outlined last night, was responsible and appreciative of the full consequences of what it would mean if Britain ever felt it had to deploy a nuclear weapon. He spoke of honouring our treaty obligations and seeking multilateral disarmament, helping to get rid of nuclear weapons worldwide. (The NPT requires signatories including the Big 5 at the time it was written, to disarm as soon as is practicable. None of the Big 5 have taken steps to do so…)

I am in favour of multilateral disarmament.

* * *

In summary: while I am no longer in favour of unilateral disarmament, I cannot find anything controversial about the position Mr Corbyn outlined last night and feel alarmed that so many people – even people old enough to have lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation – seem to view the prospect of using nukes almost with glee.

It is reasonable to seek to avoid nuclear confrontation by early and determined diplomatic negotiation and action. The pre-emptive murder of many hundreds of thousands of civilians is a strange thing to contemplate, and to judge someone willing to do it as more suitable to lead the country seems absurd.

And this country signed up to a worldwide pact to get rid of nuclear weapons as soon as may be achieved, so saying that is an aim is just saying that we honour our commitments.

And, because I mentioned the song in the post – Queen Live at Wembley performing Hammer To Fall:

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Polls, youth, and experimental weighting

There seem to be very widely different predictions from the various polling companies in the run-up to the 2017 General Election, with some much closer than others.

I was curious as to which polls I should put more trust in as the general Election approaches, and remembered how in the aftermath of the 2015 election, some polling companies had been more accurate than others in predicting the final result.

So I went on DuckDuckGo to search for whose poll was closest.

I didn’t really get back a useful answer to that question in terms of which polls to trust. But I did find a fascinating piece from YouGov published today about why the results seem so widely varied, and what’s going on in those companies.

Two points stuck out for me strongly: the first is that, as the title of that piece says, this election is being treated as a testing ground for different fixes made in response to the opinion polls’ 2015 failure (although many polls there were within margin of error). Different companies are using different methods to weight their samples and try to model the outcome based on their answers.

The other was this observation:

The reason the polls got the 2015 election wrong was down to sampling, particularly among young people. The sort of young people who took part in polls were too engaged and too likely to vote, meaning polls ended up with too many young people voting. Polling companies have taken different approaches to solving this, but they broadly fall into two categories. Some have tried to improve their samples to reduce the number of people who are very interested in politics. Others have changed their turnout models so that they assume the same low level of turnout among young people as happened in 2015.

Generally speaking, the polls that continue to show a large Conservative lead are those who are basing their turnout models on the pattern of turnout in 2015. Those that show smaller leads are basing turnout on how likely people say they are to vote.

The author concludes that there are two possibilities on election day: either the younger voters turn out, and Labour do well; or turnout by age matches 2015 and the Tories have a strong win.

My conclusion is that, perhaps more than ever, young voters are the key to this election and have a real chance to shape the world they want to live in.

Incidentally, YouGov’s most recent poll showed a 42-39 split (which is a statistical tie – it’s in the margin of error) and this was based on a weighting “recruiting more people who are less interested in politics and weighting by political interest and education” and also “we weight down people who didn’t vote in 2015.”

I refuse to have hope. The closest I will come to “hope” is to imagine that May will have a smaller majority in Parliament. I don’t want to jinx things by for even a second imagining that Corbyn could win; I don’t want to risk the utter dashing of that hope if I do start to believe it’s possible.

But please: vote. Vote Labour. Let me hope again!

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Utopia is only completed in the mind

So last weekend I was inspired by an interview in Doctor Who Magazine to write a bit about the questions that I think about as a sci-fi/fantasy minded writer and fictional world-builder, when it comes to the question of creating Utopian settings for stories.

One of my favourite bloggers, Jemima @ Sometimes It’s Only A Cigar, saw my piece and spun her own ideas off from it, talking about how ideas of Utopia and Dystopia affect political discourse and (sometimes violent) actions. A lot of them seem to come back to the quote from that magazine interview:

“Utopia is somebody else’s idea,” Frank considers, “Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia. Utopia has to defend itself, it’s my Utopia, so you can’t have it!”

Jemima writes:

By naming the ideal, imaginary world of intelligent BDSM dystopia we are saying that we recognise that what might be perfect for us would be hell for others. Although I struggle to see who would not wish to be tied into stocks in the Bigg Market, I am not so arrogant as to assume my fantasies are universal.

It struck me that my considerations focussed on “a world that works for everyone”, and a broad social Utopia that is designed to function well and with positive outcomes; but Jemima’s discussion started from a more personal, individual, basis, talking about a world that would be perfection for those who designed it, but that others, with different ways of being and different desires might not fare as well in such a world as they imagine.

To me, when I think of a Utopia I immediately imagine a “best fit” solution to make all those involved comfortably off and satisfying whatever needs they may have (including excitement, adventure, kinky sex, whatever it is you need to feel alive…). But to a lot of people, they think not of day-to-day satisfaction and fulfilment but of the ultimate pleasure existence – and that, necessarily, is going to conflict with others’ self-interest and ultimate pleasure. Or, they think of the smoothest possible existence for themselves.

The two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives and Labour, in some ways can be seen as representing these two different views. The Tory promise has consistently been that you (or a large enough proportion of you) can have your perfect, smooth, world – through more choice, fewer restrictions on your money and where you spend it, and a bigger, safer wall (figuratively) around your lifestyle, to keep out that which causes you disgust.

This has proven popular but has also repeatedly proven to be a lie. More and more people find that their personal Utopia has been plunged into chaos and Dystopia by Tory policy in order to make room for someone else to more closely achieve theirs.

The Labour Party (even when it was rebranded as “New Labour”) has always taken the collective view of the world they would try to build. Interestingly, the new Clause IV is a much more Utopian style statement than the old Clause IV was (which dealt with class struggle and control of created wealth): it describes a world intended to work “well enough” for as many as possible, “in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”.

The promise here is that no one gets perfection but everyone gets something “good enough”. To those who actually do get their smooth, perfect, Utopian existence under the Tories, this seems like a threat and a loss; to many others it feels like giving up on their ultimate dream pleasure existence and “settling”, which they don’t want to do. But if you are used to perfection, even the slightest imperfection seems like Dystopia, and that is why so many of the most powerful figures are so determined to paint a Jeremy Corbyn government as a horrific Dystopian outcome.

True Dystopia, though, is already experienced by too many people today. As Jemima points out with some examples:

There are genuine things to fear, the treatment of disabled people is already dystopian in the UK, the proposed tory regulation of the internet straight from 1984. We are already criminalised for consensual thoughts and desires, and it is only going to get worse. Moves like the rape clause also show that far from having to create nightmare scenarios we are living within the nightmare.

Dystopia is “I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next week” or “I don’t know if I’m going to be kicked to death/arrested and imprisoned/unable to access basic services, because of who I am or what I believe”. It is not “I have slightly less of my income over 3 times the national average, than I used to”.

As Jemima put it: “We cannot build a perfect world because in doing so we cling to the extreme belief of destroying imperfections, but maybe we can build a better, imperfect one.”

In my earlier piece, I referenced the agent in Serenity, talking about Utopias that are built on violence (Jemima’s blogging partner Carter discusses this concept as well, in a broader piece). Jemima’s remark that, “I am not talking about a belief system, but the internal belief, that the world is so bad that only violence can change it,” reminded me again of that character, a person so convinced that all imperfections must be expunged in violence, and that his own violence must also be expunged at some point. The agent was willing to commit atrocities because he believed that any measure was reasonable to bring about the world he believed would be a Utopia.

I’m reminded of the adage in Gillian Cross’s “The Demon Headmaster”: “The man who can keep order can rule the world, but the man who can bear disorder is truly free.” The title character is obsessed with order, and uses mind control techniques to enforce it, adhering only to the first part of the saying. In this he is like many an ideologue who would build a Utopia, and damn the consequences (and anyone who finds it dystopian). And inevitably there will be imperfections tha ultimately bring the ordered existence crashing down.

“The one who can bear disorder is truly free.” Compare again, Jemima’s closing thought: “We cannot build a perfect world … but maybe we can build a better, imperfect one.” In order for a Utopia to actually exist, it must accommodate everyone who lives in it but in order to do that, everyone must be able to “bear disorder” and be comfortable (maybe even happy) with the minor imperfections that remain.

Utopia starts in the mind, as a dream of a better world. And in the end it is only ever completed in the mind, with a willingness to live happily in the moment.

* * *

To close, I’ll just share a couple of amusing youtube videos about dystopias in video games:

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Questions for your Utopia

In the June edition of Doctor Who Magazine (available in May in UK, I assume because overseas sales or something?), there is an interview with Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the writer of episode “Smile” (the one with the emojibots and Vardy nanobots).

In it he discusses one of the themes he set out to tackle (to be honest, I don’t think he did that well on it in the story, but it’s still a great episode): the subject of Utopia.

“I’m not just bored with Dystopia, I think there’s a question that Dystopian fiction may have normalised some of our modern politicians. Now, we’re living in Dystopia and are we living in Dystopia because we imagined it too much?

“Anyway,” he continues, “we’ve imagined what bad is for a long time, so should we start imagining what good is?”

Is that a problem with Utopian ideals – there will always be somebody like Ralf Little’s Steadfast stirring up passions to take back paradise from the robots that built it in the first place?

“Utopia is somebody else’s idea,” Frank considers, “Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia. Utopia has to defend itself, it’s my Utopia, so you can’t have it!”

These are some fascinating questions to think about with regards to writing and fiction.

  • Why do Utopias appear more rarely than Dystopias?
  • What roles might Utopias play in fiction?
  • How can we design a Utopia? What are the problems that have to be worked out in the worldbuilding process?

Why are Utopias rare?

This is relatively easy to answer.

The essence of all stories is conflict, whether that is internal, against nature or circumstance, or against other people. In order to hold the reader’s interest, your protagonist must have a need and face some obstacle to answering that need.

The essence of a Utopia is to remove the obstacles to meeting the population’s needs. Threats and conflicts tend to be removed and are imagined to have no place in the Utopian world ideals.

So it is very hard to set a compelling story in a genuine Utopia. Instead, the story must focus on the “fly in the ointment” that makes it less than perfect, or construct the Utopia as a Curate’s Egg, where the good is rendered worthless by the bad and under the surface, the Utopia is revealed to be Dystopian.

Another challenge is that Utopias tend to be seen as stable, self-preserving, and in that sense conservative. Stories rely on change. While it is possible to have a “reset” at the end of each episode where everything goes “back to normal” in episodic fashion, but these stories tend to be less satisfying.

Finally, Utopias are hard to create. To write a Dystopia, all one has to do is pick a problem with the current society and exaggerate it to grotesque form or scale, and see what comes out of that. To write a Utopia, you need to find sustainable ways of resolving all the problems – which means seeing what they might be.

What roles can Utopias play?

While it’s hard to set a story in a Utopia, a Utopia can easily be a beginning or an end for the story. If the story’s conflict comes from the disruption of a Utopia then the conflict and threat to the protagonist(s) is clear. The threat can come from outside or inside, but if it comes from the inside it is probably a pseudo-Utopia in that there was a fly in the ointment or some Dystopian tendencies already there.

In order to create a compelling challenge, the Utopia cannot merely operate as before but its internal operations must start to break down so that the Utopian nature is disrupted. My instinct would be to have it break down completely so that once the external threat is removed, rebuilding must take place and perhaps the old Utopia will need to be replaced.

Alternatively, the Utopia can be the conclusion. Here, the story would for the most part be set in a Dystopia, but the protagonist(s) succeed not only in bringing down the Dystopian rule, but also overcome the challenges to instating the new, better, Utopian system that they fought for throughout. An example, to which I’ll return in the next section, is Robert A. Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, in which a theocratic autocracy is overthrown by a rebellion motivated to restore democratic ideals and whose goal is to “maximise individual liberty”, the antithesis of what went before.

The “Utopia under threat” storyline can work out in a different way: as described above, a Utopia tends to be seen as resisting change. But what if some circumstance arises that requires the rules and structures governing the society to change in order to survive?

The conflict occurs between those who feel their way of life under threat and urgently wish to change radically so they can defend it, against those who see the changes as doing more to destroy the way of life and resist them.

A version of that storyline plays out periodically in the political Left, and in the Labour Party in the UK particularly. The turmoil over Tony Blair’s “modernisation” is an example; and the conflict between the Right and the Left over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (a conflict that was presaged by the tension between anti-austerity Left and austerity-Right under Ed Miliband) can be seen in the same way, although in those storylines there is no Utopia but rather a fight over whether it can be achieved.

All of these allow an author to imagine a “best of all worlds”, or at least, a better world than ours, in which perceived problems have been solved. The challenge is either to imagine it then destroyed or disrupted, or else to imagine how it might come about.

I have a story idea in mind that conforms largely to the “Create the utopia” arc, but that the methods of its creation are anathema to the ideal, so that those responsible become seen as criminals. (The agent in Serenity is an example of this concept: “There’s no place for me there – I’m a monster!” And in general Serenity discusses a “Dystopian underbelly” worldview.)

My final remark on the role of Utopias is to mention Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, which in many ways seems to resemble a communist ideal of a post-capitalist economy. It is as close to a Utopia as one can imagine, but the writers find many ways of putting the society to the test, with external threats and internal emotional conflicts that sometimes test the ideals and principles that keep it Utopian. By placing the stories largely on the fringes of the Federation, and in its military/conflict/problem-solving body (Starfleet), there’s plenty of scope to challenge the protagonists.

How can we build a Utopia?

As mentioned above, the worldbuilding for a Utopia is much harder than for a Dystopia, simply because you have to solve everything. To be truly Utopian, the people’s needs must be met and their conflicts easily resolved within the system.

This brings up possibly the biggest problem, and the essential tension that pushes Utopias away from the ideal and into “Dystopian underbelly” territory.

In the passage I quoted at the start, the DWM interview with Cottrell-Boyce touched on it:

Is that a problem with Utopian ideals – there will always be somebody like Ralf Little’s Steadfast stirring up passions to take back paradise from the robots that built it in the first place?

“Utopia is somebody else’s idea,” Frank considers, “Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia. Utopia has to defend itself, it’s my Utopia, so you can’t have it!”

The question is, “How do you deal with the dissenters?” People who for whatever reason don’t fit in with the version of Utopia that you’ve laid out. Those who find it stultifying, deadening or disengaging – or who feel excluded or marginalised within it? Those who for whatever reason do not or cannot play by the rules that maintain the Utopia?

People being what they are, and as varied as they are, there are almost certainly going to be people who disagree with how things are done and the question of how the society deals with that often is where the ideals become, shall we say, less than ideal!

Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 is unusual in that he both describes the set-up of the Utopia, and then in the second part looks at the society 50 years or so later. He looks at it through the lens of how it deals with a dissenter, and in so doing discusses concisely some of the key problems not only of designing a Utopia, but also of modern progressive and social justice campaigning.

In two speeches – by David McKinnon (found guilty for punching someone for an insulting remark), and the Senior Judge – Heinlein addresses several points. I’ll quote the points and counterpoints together to make it easier to discuss them in context, rather than quote the whole passage as a single block.

McKinnon: You talk about your precious “Covenant” as if it were something holy. I don’t agree to it and I don’t accept it. You act as if it had been sent down from heaven in a burst of light. My grandfathers fought in the Second Revolution – but they fought to abolish superstition – not to let sheep-minded fools set up new ones.

Judge: The Covenant is not a superstition, but a simple temporal contract entered into by those same revolutionaries for pragmatic reasons. They wished to insure the maximum possible liberty for every person.

You yourself have enjoyed that liberty. No possible act, nor mode of conduct, was forbidden to you, as long as your action did not damage another. Even an act specifically prohibited by law could not be held against you, unless the state was able to prove that your particular act damaged, or caused evident danger of damage, to a particular individual.

We shall leave for the moment the practical problems of Heinlein’s mode of utopian libertarianism and why it’s not an ideal that can be implemented today (as some people who bleat about free speech would have us do). Leave aside also that it is an incomplete version of Asimov’s 1st Law of Robotics: “A robot must not harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm.” (Asimov discussed the problem of omitting the second part in “Little Lost Robot”, though not where applied to rules of human behaviour). Heinlein’s Covenant offers no requirement to protect people from harm, only to not cause harm (and to protect socity from those who would cause harm).

The Judge outlines the Covenant as “a temporal contract entered into”, while McKinnon states that he doesn’t agree to it. This is the point raised by Cottrell-Boyce: “Utopia is somebody else’s idea. Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia.”

People being people, there will always be some who object to the way things are, or who don’t fit neatly into the society as outlined. As in Heinlein’s story, a common solution is ejection from society – banishment, “shunning”, being “sent to Coventry” in Revolt in 2100 (where Coventry is essentially a reservation). But that means there must be an anti-Utopia to which the dissenters are sent, a place of punishment in all but name, though in Revolt the nature of that punishment is effectively created by the people previously sent there.

One way or another, your Utopia will need a way to handle those who reject the current order, either by wishing to see it changed or who simply choose to break the rules that keep it functioning.

MacKinnon: You’ve planned your whole world so carefully that you’ve planned the fun and zest right out of it. Nobody is ever hungry, nobody ever gets hurt. Your ships can’t crack up and your crops can’t fail.

If one of you safe little people should have an unpleasant emotion – perish the thought! – you’d trot right over to the nearest psychodynamics clinic and get your soft little minds readjusted.

Why do you bother to live anyhow? I would think that anyone of you would welcome an end to your silly, futile lives just from sheer boredom.

Judge: You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled. You are free to hold and express your aesthetic opinion of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes. You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish – there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon, and death in the jungles of Venus – but you re not free to expose us to the violence of your nature.

The alert reader will notice how the Judge’s remarks about where to find excitement reflect the role of Starfleet in Star Trek’s Federation that I remarked on earlier. Indeed, the final section of Heinlein’s novel deals with some of the dissenters who opt for this sort of military-style service.

But the bigger question, the one that an author engaged in worldbuilding a Utopia needs to address, is how to make it seem like a world worth living in. A famous writer (my memory says George Orwell, but I could be wrong) once said that no Utopia anyone had written sounded like a place he’d want to live in. How do you avoid making a world in which all “fun and zest” has been erased along with the negative emotions?

A question left unaddressed by the Judge (and not directly raised by MacKinnon) is where those with extra-Utopian (for want of a better term) emotions or desires find fellow spirits, people who share and appreciate the same things. The idea that everyone will share the same desires, or that there will be simple clusters of desires so that the laboratories or Starfleet, or whatever, will be sufficient, seems shortsighted. Companionship seems not to be addressed in Heinlein’s world (perhaps a consequence of the individualism underpinning the principles of the society?)

The other thing that a Utopia needs is a system for making policy and responding to the circumstances that life throws at the society. Someone must run the economy (although in some versions, this is done for us by computers or robots, or other overseers, who ensure the economy provides every need). Someone must allocate resources for research, policing, education, healthcare and so on. Someone must make whatever real-time emergency decrees are necessary. Again, all of this might be handled from computers.

In Star Trek’s Federation, there are democratically elected leaders and there are military commanders in Starfleet whose job is to handle these questions. When the Federation is threatened by outside forces (e.g. the Dominion in Deep Space 9) these are the bodies that have to decide how to meet that threat (and in one DS9 story, come into conflict, with the possibility of a military coup bringing down the Utopian society from inside).

* * *

Utopias are hard to design. A lot of the time, people trying to do so look at the world and say that certain things and behaviours will have no place there, either by banishment or because they believe that the structures of their Utopia will simply mean they never arise. Sex workers, BDSMers and trans folk will all be familiar with being told by a certain branch of feminism that they will be eradicated in the Feminist Utopia that replaces patriarchal Capitalism.

People of colour have also often noted that there is a pasty-white skin palette in a lot of future societies, some of which are supposedly Utopian (in Ursula LeQuin’s Lathe of Heaven, an attempt to create a racism-free Utopia produces instead a society with only one race – although this is an intentional parody and explained because the person who is tasked with creating it is from a world so conflict-ridden that imagining people living in peace proves beyond him).

So as a writer, as well as thinking about all the practical issues of how the society is going to function, what its role in the story is, and what keeps people living in it, you also have to think carefully about how it deals with the awkward people and who is excluded either directly or by omission. For example, when I read Heinlein’s story, as a BDSMer I felt excluded because by the objective measures demanded by his society, a cane welt (for instance) seems sure to be regarded as “damage”; some of the darker emotions that form the basis for so many aspects of play would be the sort that people would view as a threat or have “readjusted” away. And yet, What It Is That We Do, we do because it feels to us the opposite of damaging.

I have one more point to add. Cottrell-Boyce questions whether by imagining Dystopia, we brought it about. My feeling is, we write them as warnings because we see them coming and want people to see it coming too, and stop it. What that means is that people didn’t heed the warnings until too late.

Which is why we now need stories of overturning Dystopia and achieving something better.

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