“Human beings can get hung-up on their own stories”

Cat’s enjoy their lives without needing to turn them into stories. Human beings, very often, because they see their lives as stories, they want to create the story that is to come, but we know that’s very difficult, unless you’re really writing a book. […] Human beings can get hung-up on their own stories.

John Gray, on Desert Island Discs


“my main interest as a story-teller is in the way that real people behave in different situations, what it really means to be a human being”

I think of myself as a realist, not a fantasist at all, because my main interest as a story-teller is in the way that real people behave in different situations, what it really means to be a human being. If I write fantasy, it’s only because by using the mechanisms of fantasy, I can say something a little bit more vividly about, for example, the business of growing up.

Philip Pullman, interviewed in imagine … Philip Pullman: Angels and Daemons
(also see review of the programme here)

“let’s remember watching a film is not a brave act of resistance”

Without succumbing to hyperbole, this feels like an important moment in pop culture history, and I’m happy I got to witness it.

However, some of the early responses to Black Panther illustrate the lofty and unfair expectations which we often place on black art. For example, that Beyoncé’s seminal 2016 album, Lemonade, was criticized for not outright destroying the patriarchy showed how our culture refuses to allow black art to exist as entertainment. And it’s tempting to imagine that Black Panther will not only improve black representation in media, but radically change the state of our politics too.

But by conflating the film with the the resistive efforts of grassroots activists and organizers, we risk disrespecting our radical traditions, which are increasingly being commodified by corporations whose interests have never been with the people.

That “self-care” and “community” have been reduced to catchy self-help and festival slogans proves how easily these ideas are rendered meaningless under late capitalism. If we behave as though purchasing a ticket to see a film produced by Disney is a form of resistance, we fail to distinguish between black art that touches on revolutionary themes, and the actual work required for revolution itself.

There’s no denying how necessary Black Panther is for representation. In a world where diversity is so often treated as an act of charity instead of a reality, this film challenges the pervasive idea that our heroes can only be white and male.

It provides generations of dark-skinned girls and women with heroes who share the same features which society ridicules them for. But as people descend upon their local cinemas to see what’s been touted as an excellent film, let’s remember watching a film is not a brave act of resistance. There’s plenty more work for us to do.

Khanya Khondlo Mtshali

“What counts as a dystopia, however, is partly a matter of taste”

What counts as a dystopia, however, is partly a matter of taste. Aldous Huxley may have meant Brave New World (1932) as a warning but I suspect many people would find the kind of world he describes – genetically engineered and drug-medicated but also without violence, poverty or acute unhappiness – quite an attractive prospect. If the nightmarish society Huxley imagines is fortunately impossible, it is because it is supposed to be capable of renewing itself endlessly – a feature of utopias and one of the clearest signs of their unreality.

John Gray


Spoiler alert!

H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is a story set in a dystopian future where people’s emotions are regulated and their access to information controlled. The protagonist, Mira A, a musician, stumbles upon the guitar music of Agustin Barrios, a (real) Paraguayan musician from the early 20th Century. His music, and his story, and other fragments of information about Paraguay (all taken by the author from The Paraguay Reader), cause or precipitate or otherwise give a theme to Mira A’s mental disintegration, which ends with her being expelled from her society into exile in the wilderness, where violence and war and disease still exist.

To begin with, this story felt very very familiar. I have, unwittingly, been training myself since childhood to read science fiction and to understand its tropes and themes; it didn’t take long for me to pick up the terminology and to understand what was going on.

All the modern sci-fi trappings are there, smart clothes, 3D-printers, Neuro-Mechanicals (think ‘Electric Sheep’), and Mira A runs on a Power Spot to capture her bio-energy (like the exercise bikes in the Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’).

H(A)PPY has its own technology, there is the ‘Sensor’, which provides information, but is not, according to Mira A, a ‘censor’, because the users effectively censor themselves in the information they ask for. There is also the ‘Graph’ which seems to be both monitor and interrogator, it keeps a constant record of an individual’s internal monologue, the colours of the words changing to reflect the taboo-ness of the word and the concept it represents (these colour changes are in the text of the book itself), and also interrogates the individual on behalf of society over what they are doing at any given moment. Lastly there is the ‘Stream’, which seems to be the output of the Graph, plus continuous surveillance footage, both of which are available for anyone to view (an obvious metaphor for social media).

There are also ‘clamps’, some kind of brain implant. After Mira A’s Graph becomes too erratic, risking an ‘Excess of Emotion’ event, she has her clamps adjusted, she thinks to fix a fault in her ‘Oracular Devices’ (presumably what connects her to Sensor, Graph, and Stream) that is causing her emotional instability, but, obviously from the outside, to ‘fix’ her, which belies the idea of ‘choice’ in this society.

(I find myself having to use terms like ‘seems to be’ and ‘presumably’ to describe the technology, this is not hard SF by any stretch of the imagination.)

There is, though, some ambiguity over whether it is truly a dystopia or a utopia; violence and disease and hunger have been eliminated, but the cost of this is social conformity. Barker effectively spells this all out on the first page:

This is also familiar from many other dystopias and utopias. Not all dystopias are clearly so from the inside; there are the obvious, grim dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, where the main characters know they are oppressed, but there are also dystopias like Brave New World, were everyone is doped up on soma and believes themselves to be happy.

All dystopias are metaphors in one way or another for the real world, and also cautionary tales, while utopias try to offer the possibility of change; both challenge us about what kind of future we want to create.

Utopias can, potentially, be oppressive, More’s original Utopia demanded social conformity, and, as this academic paper points out, utopias such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time may demand too much of some readers, in terms of living differently to the current status quo, and appear dystopian to them – this is not meant to be flippant; I am not sure that I, being institutionalised to my current life, would cope well in such a utopia, but I would still be able to see that it was a utopia, even if I couldn’t live happily in it.

The idea of constant, perfect, happiness is a chimera, something that can only be achieved by drugging or brainwashing the population. In H(A)PPY, the population is expected to ‘choose’ to regulate itself. Being free and being happy are not the same thing.

In The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman, personality is controlled by viruses, Milena, the protagonist, is immune to the viruses, she cannot fit in. In Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, people have machines with which to dial up their emotions. In Ian McDonald’s Out on Blue Six the ‘Compassionate Society’ decides everyone’s role from birth, and causing anyone any kind of pain is a crime. I have vague recollections of reading, as a teenager, a Star Trek: TNG spin-off novel called Gulliver’s Fugitives, which took-off Fahrenheit 451 by describing a totalitarian society that did not just ban reading, but banned any imaginative thinking at all.

Other aspects of H(A)PPY are also familiar from previous dystopias, there is ‘The Unknown’ also called ‘The Simulation of the Real’, outside of society, where war and disease still exist. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (a book which pre-dates and influenced 1984), there is the world outside the ‘Green Wall’ that surrounds the ‘One State’; in Brave New World there is a ‘Savage Reservation’.

Also in We, the buildings are all made of glass, echoing the concept of the Panopticon, and 1984 has its ‘Telescreens’. In H(A)PPY anyone can observe anyone else’s Stream; under constant surveillance (real or imagined) nobody dares to non-conform.

Mira A can escape observation by staring into the light to disable the technology that monitors her; in 1984, Winston Smith has the chance fact that his Telescreen is placed in his home in such a way that he believes he can be unobserved.

It is, perhaps, impossible now to do anything truly original in either utopian or dystopian fiction.

H(A)PPY does differ from all the above-mentioned books, in that Mira A is a very unreliable narrator; it is impossible to work out exactly what is going on, because most of it is happening inside Mira A’s head, rather than the ‘real’ world she inhabits. Is any of it real? Are any of the other characters, or their actions real? Does she imagine/hallucinate the whole thing?

Perhaps, despite its conformation to dystopian sci-fi tropes, it is best understood not as social commentary at all, but as metaphor for creative rapture, and the social isolation and internal disintegration that can follow; or as mental illness following social isolation.

This interpretation is supported by the accusation levelled against Mira A that she wants a narrative, and the refrain ‘terrible discipline’ that appears throughout the text, with reference to her and Agustin Barrios’ practices as musicians.

On the other hand, this is something science fiction can do (see this paper on the science fiction and critical writing of Samuel R. Delany); science fiction can make literal what literary fiction does metaphorically: time slips, reality distortions, encounters with alien others. But comparing Barker to Delany does Barker no favours.

The Paraguayan texts interspersed throughout the narrative, while interesting in their own right, seem arbitrary, they are connected to the story only because they inspired the author in real life; any artist, any ‘exotic’ culture, could fill that role.

H(A)PPY lacks any real sense of threat or menace, there is no equivalent to O’Brien or ‘Room 101’ from 1984. Mira A does get her fingers broken, right at the end of the book, before she is cast out into The Unknown, but we don’t know how it happens because we only see her hallucinations of that time.

H(A)PPY won the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize which is awarded to fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the form.”

The text is very colourful – we are effectively reading Mira A’s Stream throughout, but it doesn’t seem all that inventive to me. Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus (2001) plays with text in a similar way, illuminated texts go all the way back to the Middle Ages, and many children’s picture books will do more exciting things with illustrations and text.

If I’m being completely honest, the mathematical illustrations:

Just made me think of this meme:

But the real question is, was it a good book? Was it a gripping, compelling story, did I feel emotionally invested in the fate of Mira A? In all honesty, no, not really. It felt very thin and shallow, if I wasn’t thinking about it now to write a review I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it at all (and as you can see, from the above, I was thinking just as much about every other dystopian/utopian book I’ve ever read).