You don’t need to have read my slightly overlong Part I to follow this, although they do go together well. This is a teaser for how I sometimes use politics, ethics and news-type questions in my books, reasonably spoiler free. Call it an amuse bouche before the starter and main meal.
If this post is a little long for you to read on your lunch break, here’s the headings. Pick the ones that intrigue you and scroll down.
– Does a system where we have to pay for our own healthcare mean we’ll take better care of ourselves?
– Will we ever see an atheist elected president/prime minister?
– Can population control ever work?
– Can an honest person actually succeed in politics?
I ended the last post with a ‘Save our NHS!’ paragraph, so let’s go there first.
Does a system where we have to pay for our own healthcare mean we’ll take better care of ourselves?
When a doctor helped me with some of the research for Shadow’s Talent, we got into a conversation about the future of healthcare and he told me the book might be a good platform for exploring the idea that adopting the American system in the UK would be disastrous. I feel like I padded this down, because the book wasn’t really designed as a political statement, but one trick I did include was an answer to the above question.
Investing in our own health means we’re going to look after it more? Errrrrk, wrong! Even worse: you can do all the healthy living you want, and change your ways for the better, and worse can still happen than getting ‘hit by a bus tomorrow.’
Shadow makes an early comment about his family have a good insurance policy for him because (1) a farm is not the safest of places to grow up, and (2) he’s a little bit accident prone. Okay, a lot accident prone. He does appreciate that not having much money means his family has to compromise in other ways to afford this kind of care for him, but at the same time he doesn’t really show it too well when he goes climbing trees without ropes and riding dirt bikes about the place at daredevil speeds. He also grew up working in apple orchards and likes a little cider. Or, as one critic of the book put it ‘spends half the book either drunk, stoned or both.’
The flipside: he also takes exercise (boasts of running 5 miles in 30 minutes in one scene), eats plenty of fruit and veg because that’s what his family can afford to feed him from their own back yard, and unlike his friend Kit (who’s a doctor) he doesn’t smoke tobacco. He’s probably not going to cost any health service much money later in life once he grows out of being so cavalier with himself. Cue a line about him imagining his seat at the family’s dinner table being empty because he did something stupid. Yeah, he does have a conscience about taking care of himself.
When the cost of keeping him alive later on really escalates, most insurance companies would be hammering on the door asking questions about why he needs so much care even in his state. I wish I’d played this up a little more, but in my mind his policy would only pay for so much. His family are still in financial trouble as it is, and now they’ve got extra costs for him which despite everything are really not his fault – his ‘accident’ as he always calls it having been attempted murder.
The debt becomes part of the family’s vulnerability, and when [spoilercover] comes knocking with money to offer, I felt like perhaps such an opportunity would not have existed if it weren’t for a mountain of debt caused by a basic human right: the right to stay alive.
Carrying on into GotN, all the way to Shadow’s hard-monologue in front of the Seekers’ Council, I really enjoyed writing Arko Rockford’s pernicious little line to Shadow: ‘Do you believe you are special simply because you are alive? I do not.’ Why did I despise this character for that line? It’s not because Shadow’s in any way special (although it’s pretty easy to argue that he is by that stage), it’s that Rockford assesses the value of someone’s life based on what they’ve earned rather than what they offer the world.
What does Shadow actually offer? It’s relatively spoiler free: he’s offering himself as a medical guineapig for what’s actually a pretty risky clinical trial, which if it comes off could fundamentally change medical care as Earth knows it. (Forgive me a bit of reader baiting: Deception Crossing is the book where I’m currently setting it up to go majorly fucking wrong, and for all the wrong reasons.)
If every citizen is of fundamental worth despite misdemeanours (and idea which I try to believe in, personally) then it stands to reason we should be helping each other out in some ways. A health system where we all pay for each other’s care instead of running ourselves into the ground with debt and unaffordable policies might not be such a bad thing. Shadow’s argument: we had such a system once under Sammy McCaffrey, and you lot let capitalists take it back over again. Bring it back and you’ll actually be doing your job and looking after the world’s prosperity.
(Did I mention I’d quite like to see the British health system saved before the Tories can insidiously privatise it any more?)
Enough about health. Let’s really risk pissing some people off – let’s do God.
Will we ever see an atheist elected president/prime minister?
Long story short: I really hope so! Probably because I actually intend to lay a few quid down and bet on this. I’ll make it a hundred year bet so I can leave the slip to someone in my will and hope they get rich after they bury me. Because honestly, I think the odds are LONG.
On record, I’m fine with having a good elected leader who’s Christian, or any other religion. I respect those with religious beliefs even though I don’t have them, but I’m strongly in favour of church and state being separate. We can still have morals and ethics, and religious groups will still have a voice on important issues. Supposedly that’s how it is now, but if that’s the case then why can an outspoken unbeliever not reach the top spot in politics?
It’s a complex question, but rather than ask it let’s have fun and kick the hornets’ nest: this is especially the case in the USA. If you aint Christian, you aint gettin’ elected, bro! (I seriously wonder how many presidents have actually pretended to be, and went to church just as an act.)
Speculative fiction time: what if someone came along in politics and said ‘I’m SO sick of this?’ I know, I’m risking the Hitler flags here, or Stalin, but let’s not go down the holocaust/genocide route. Let’s say our politician wants to change attitudes rather than exterminate his people, and knows a couple of people in major science industries who might be about to make research breakthroughs in mind-control…
This is how a lot of the backstory and worldbuilding for Talent Show got started. My atheist politician, also a devoted socialist, was called Coburn, and his interplanetary business partner was Galt Devrish – the head of the Seekers’ Council. Who eventually did turn out to be a sociopath who was doing part of his research on his own son, Esteban. Cue a chain of events that unravelled a government and a Seekers’ Council which had, until then, kept crime and disorder at an all time low, kept everyone employed, and actually managed to achieve something close to social equality. All without the need for religion being a driving force behind it. Trouble was, Coburn did it thanks to thirty years of abusing the Talent mind power, and having a spy network ripped straight from the Stasi handbook. Religious opposition did exist, but guess what? Mind control wouldn’t work on everyone, and it wasn’t as easy as he thought. Cue a few graves getting dug.
Is an atheist president necessarily better? No, not if that’s their methods. An imposed view is never a real one, and the right to choose has to be there. One of the most overtly pejorative lines I’ve ever had a character speak was Sammy McCaffrey saying ‘Religion is just like smoking – we tried to eradicate it because it was bad for us, but ultimately you can’t take away the right of the people to be stupid.’
Please don’t take that to be the author’s view, readers! Sammy was an asshole with a few redeeming features – namely he built a planet-wide health service with his family’s billions and by the time of his death barely had a penny in his own pocket. Apart from a surprise he left in a very hidden place for his grandkids, Tethryn and Avery, but that’s another story.
By the timeline that starts Shadow’s Talent off, this stuff is all political history. So, what lessons have been learned, if any?
Personally, I think we often do learn from history but when you look at the news, I have to wonder if we have some pretty odd ways of showing it. And yeah, some people just don’t seem to at all. We do live in a world where people would take a leader like my fictional Coburn and say he was a great man who ‘did what was necessary.’
In all my books, the line I keep coming back to with the infamous Lockyer family, ‘A Lockyer always does what’s necessary’ is the essence of that very problem: just how many interpretations of ‘necessary’ can we have in a world like this? Necessary doesn’t always mean right, ethical, moral or fair in political terms, even though in an ideal world, it should. (Momentary sidetrack, that family catchphrase did start out because I wanted my own version of the ‘A Lannister always pays his debts,’ trope, I admit it. Hat tip to George RR.)
So, is it ‘necessary’ to have fewer human beings in the first place?
Can population control ever work?
Let’s not single China out, because they’re not the only country where it’s been tried, but I think it’s fair to say that no government has ever managed to implement a policy that was (1) completely successful, or (2) didn’t involve gross abuse of its citizens.
Let’s speculate: what if Earth’s population took a staggering crash and people actually did realise that now there were less people living on the planet, natural resources and the climate were recovering and there was no more battling for living space and access to overstretched services?
Ding ding, Hour Zero!
I first heard the term as ‘Stunde Null’ in a lecture at Sussex Uni given in German, and recalled it when I got this idea. I added the following ideas: the crash happened because oil reserves ran out, Earth’s population wasn’t prepared, and people started to realise that survival wasn’t going to be as easy as ‘everyone shares what’s left.’ Cue the fighting, blow it up to global proportions, make World War III a giant collection of civil wars that goes on for years. Decimate a planet, leave a few survivors. But what ends the fighting?
Maybe a rescue mission from another planet that has (*gasp*) OIL! Now they’re stepping in before Earth’s humans can make each other virtually extinct. The people who land become known as Seekers. Planet Carnathia is going to help Earth back on its feet, but there are going to be some conditions…
Not to mention they’ve brought a mind power with them. Under strict instruction that the Seeker class do not pick Earthlings as their partners and spread the genepool, but oh-snap, there are always rule breakers…
Back to population control though. Let’s say people actually have learned a lesson, and ‘Make Earth Great again’ (Sorry, I just had to!) was all about a collective pact to (1) Not fight over oil quite so damn much (2) Not to overtax natural resources by creating a population who all need a bite of the cake but end up starving with only the crumbs left.
Shadow being an only child comes up in conversation a few times, and at one stage it’s referred to as a ‘Transitionist’ belief that one child is enough per family. Supporting characters Todd, Walter, Kit and Avery are all only children as well, although in the case of Avery’s family (the still infamous McCaffreys) there’s an apparent rule breaking going on there, due to the extensive size of his network of relatives. People with power and money sticking to the rules when it suits them, anyone?
Could population control work? Yeah, maybe, if we had a truly serious rethink about how many of us the planet can cope with in the future. One-child policy might not actually solve population problems at this stage, this is all pure speculation rather than something I think is definitely a solution. And I have a friend who’s expecting her second kid now, so I’d better tread on eggshells with this one anyway!
I just wonder though, if we had the oil, zombie or supervirus apocalypse we’re all so fond of reading about and watching, might there actually be some advantages in not returning to the ways of old once we salvage the wreckage?
Say we did a complete reset and re-thought how we elect people and what we want them to stand for. Here’s my favourite question:
Can an honest person actually succeed in politics?
Every time I despair over the world, it’s partly because I think the answer to this one is a resounding no, and I couldn’t be a politician on this very basis. On the days when I’m a little more mellow, I wonder if someone might emerge who could change this.
The two Carnathia’s Undergound books, Fighter’s Mark and Defiance, are me clinging to this idea. Usually if someone asks me what my books are about, when you boil it down to one thing, I have a headfit trying to answer. With these two though, it’s easy: they’re about the power of telling the truth.
Enter Senator Jeremy Galbraith. The poor man’s blisfully unaware that a formshifting killing machine has stolen his youngest son’s identity. How would a man who has a reputation for being a glimmering light of integrity in Carnathian politics handle that kind of truth, if he ever finds it out? Forget that for the moment though. His introduction in the book is a meeting with his ‘son’ where he tries to steer him towards the straight and narrow – give up ring fighting where he keeps crippling opponents for life and start a legitimate, honest and peaceful business.
Add Oscar Murdoch to the mix – a young man with some pretty big disgrace in his past, but one redeeming feature: after a little persuasion, he’s prepared to be honest about it. When the senator’s ‘son’ picks him out as a partner for a business venture, the Senator makes a public speech about standing by a person who deserves a second chance, on the basis of one big thing: honesty.
Oscar’s the good guy. Screft is a liar, con-artist and killer. Is he going to learn that redemption lies in telling the truth about what he’s been doing, before it’s too late?
Even better: if Senator Galbraith discovers that his son Bobby is really Screft, would he tell the world the truth or would he see an advantage in having a form-shifter on his side? Imagine it: if you could ask such a person to impersonate anyone in the political game and go into a meeting, what could you discover?
Dishonesty and political manipulation and even murder are quite the draw to some people seeking to get ahead, or get right to the top spot. House of Cards anyone? Very glad I discovered that show while I was writing those two books.
What does my senator choose, when it comes to the crunch? Nice try!
Let’s just say I think that people like him genuinely do exist in politics.