Random Musings: Lessons in Mind Control #StanlysGhost

I recently reviewed Stanly’s Ghost, the final installment in Stefan Mohamed’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. This is a fantasy adventure series aimed at young adults and you may read my review here. For many it will be a fun, action packed tale of intrepid if somewhat geeky heroes fighting monsters and evil overlords. They save the world, and more specifically their friends, from the power grabbing intentions of a ruling elite led by a smarmy yet dastardly megalomaniac named Freeman. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the story, what I took from it were parallels with our current reality.

One of the powers being abused by the bad guy is mind control. He and his acolytes use this not only to subdue and get their way but as an instrument of torture, a way of destroying those who attempt to thwart their plans. In the basement of their headquarters are prison cells within which superpowers may be neutralised. Freeman prefers to harness these superpowers for his own ends, but any who refuse to comply with his demands are taken down.

The hero, eighteen year old Stanly Bird, is in many ways charmingly naive. He wants above all else to do what is right. The problem is that to thwart Freeman’s plans he has to engage in similar activities. Stanly also harnesses mind control to get others to do his bidding. This is often to the good – he banishes a wife beater – but to get rid of Freeman it is suggested he will have to kill, or at least send his enemy to another realm, preferably one where he will suffer for his misdeeds. Freeman had sent Stanly to another realm in a previous book in the series, supposedly for the greater good. What is the difference?

All this set me thinking about the UK where political thinking has recently become more polarised. The last General Election (in 2015) was challenging as no parties seemed to represent ordinary people, that is, those who could not directly benefit the politicians. It was hard to choose who to vote for when all candidates talked in misleading soundbites and demonstrated blatant self-interest. A change was needed, and with the subsequent battle for the Labour Party leadership and then the vote for Brexit this was achieved. Now the country seems even more divided and discontent. The uncertainty that change brings is not being well received.

Before the General Election many complained about the Prime Minister, Cameron. They are not happy with his successor, May. The Labour Party leader, Milliband, was widely mocked for his willingness to compromise, yet his successor, Corbyn, is disliked for his steadfastness – he is regarded by many as ineffectual. Before Brexit many complained about the waste and perceived cronyism within the EU. Now leaving it is being decried as a national disaster. Change is demanded, but only if it follows the agenda of particular groups.

“I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It’s just the EU that I loathe.”

In Stanly’s Ghost, Freeman has taken the power that Stanly’s previous actions granted him and used it to achieve a number of good things. The country is stable, infrastructure projects provide work, sustainable power sources are harnessed. There is still discontent, particularly amongst those who struggle to accept the empowered living openly and displaying their differences. Certain unempowered people would prefer to go back to when they could regard themselves as superior.

To take Freeman down would be to throw the country, and possibly the world, into the unknown. New leaders would emerge, and they may be no better. What right have Stanly and his friends to forcefully decide what is good for the wider population?

“A revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.”

One plot line in the story involves a drug that could be added to the water to quietly remove all superpowers. In one sense this would make everyone equal. Stanly argues that individuals should not have the drug foisted on them, that they should be offered a choice. Who would choose to give up their privilege? It may be commendable to wish for a better life for the downtrodden and oppressed, but few are willing to sacrifice the comforts they enjoy in order to achieve equality and the downgrade in their own lifestyle that this may bring, even when they can see that they bear a degree of culpability for other’s suffering. Think of the current attitude towards immigrants and refugees.

The superpowered in Stanly’s Ghost use mind control. In our world this is achieved through the skewed and biased dissemination of information. It is too easy to regard those who hold views that are anathema as fools. Both sides do this. The reality is a great deal more complex than many seem able to accept.

“Beware the new imperial elite: athiest, rational, convinced of their rights, prepared to trample the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and local institutions for themselves and substitute central control and governance ‘for the greater good'”

Stanly struggles with his conscience as he tries to decide what he should do. In a fast moving environment, where knowledge that may damage the standing of the powerful is witheld, it can be difficult to discern what the right decision may be. With hindsight there could be regret, but who can say with any certainty how any alternative result would have played out?

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

“Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be”

Stanly’s Ghost is published by Salt and is available to buy now.

The quotes I have used in this post are not taken from the book. They have been inserted to illustrate points of view, not necessarily my own.

Book Review: Purity

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Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, is a story about power – within relationships and across nations – and the psychological damage it can cause to the powerful and the overpowered. Several of the key characters appear to be mentally unbalanced, forever seeking validation through emotional blackmail. What they think of as love is possession and control.

The story, which spans more than half a century, is told from the perspectives of each of these characters in turn. As with memory, the details vary depending on who is recalling events and where they currently are in their lives. What is common to each thread is the visceral honesty which can be disturbing and distasteful to read. The animal instincts and selfishness are presented unadorned.

The reader is first introduced to Purity Tyler who considers her name an embarrassment so calls herself Pip. She is working in telesales and living in a squat having amassed a huge debt getting through college. She is a good daughter, regularly phoning her needy mother, but has many neuroses including a lack of impulse control. She wishes to find out who her father is, a subject that her single mother has always refused to discuss.

A German visitor to the squat, Annagret, invites Purity to join a collective in Bolivia run by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. His Sunlight Project is presented as something akin to Wikileaks, shining light into the corners of the internet which the powerful prefer to keep hidden. Andreas grew up in East Germany, the child of prominent government employees. It soon becomes clear that he himself has plenty he wishes to hide.

When the Berlin Wall comes down Andreas meets Tom Aberant, an American journalist who is, at that time, facing the end of his ten year marriage to the mentally deranged Anabel. Andreas wishes to pursue a beautiful young girl whom he has come to know through his work as a counsellor at a church where he has been living. He asks Tom to help him, regarding him as a friend despite having only just met. The secrets he confides and the actions they take will haunt Andreas for the rest of his life.

The background to and inter-relationships between these characters are explored in excoriating detail. There is a great deal of masturbation and sex, there is cunilingus, porn and abuse. All of this is recounted alongside, and perhaps as a reaction to, the mental gymnastics that the parents and partners play as they attempt to bend those they claim to love to their will.

I found elements of the story difficult to read but consider it well written. The author gets under his reader’s skin with memorable characters and challenging situations. Do we blame upbringing or mental illness for a character’s flaws? Is it mental illness or an honest representation of base thoughts to which many are prone?

The search for purity is a recurring theme as well as a play on the protagonists name. Beauty and purity are mistakenly conflated, guilt excised by distance from the harmed. That each of the characters made mistakes in their treatment of others is undeniable. The exploration of the extenuating circumstances of those failures, the deliberation over how typical these experiences may be, are what give this tale its strength.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fourth Estate.   

 

Book Review: Devil

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Devil, by David Churchill, is the first book in a planned historical trilogy. The series of books, The Leopards of Normandy, will tell in imagined detail the story of William the Conqueror. This first installment concentrates on William’s parents and the circumstances of his birth. Drawing from known historical facts the author weaves a compelling tale of power, sex and violence. He brings the characters to life.

The Duchy of Normandy was created to bring peace between the King of France and the Viking invaders who had slaughtered, raped and pillaged their way across the lowlands of Flanders, the seashores of Brittany and the vineyards of Burgundy for more than twenty years. Their leader, Rollo, was now in his sixty-fifth year and felt ready to settle down. In exchange for fealty the King offered him land and a title. He became the first Duke of Normandy.

When Rollo’s great-grandson died the Dukedom passed to his eldest son, Richard. However, there was enmity between Richard and his younger brother Robert, William’s father. Both were young men who were all too willing to fight for what they believed were their rights. Overseeing this bloody feud and attempting to broker peace was their father’s brother, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Although he sided with his namesake in many areas of contention he refused to condone his choice of partner, a lowly tanner’s daughter named Herleva who became William’s mother.

The detailed history is fascinating but it is the imagined personalities and the causes of each intrigue which make this book so hard to put down. This story is not just about battles won and lost but is a tale of individual courage, risk, a lust for wealth, power and vengeance which spanned a continent. The distances between places matters when the fastest means of transport is a horse which will tire or a boat which may be sunk or becalmed. Hunger, thirst and cold are as deadly as spears, arrows and boiling tar.

The ruling classes in France and its neighbouring countries were closely related through blood ties and political marriages. The elder Robert’s sister, Emma, had married two Kings of England, Ethelred and Canute, bearing each of them sons. Canute had a second wife who also had a son. These children were sent away young to be raised in the countries they were destined to rule. When questions of succession arose in any of these lands it was common to have titles taken by force leaving those with blood rights bearing grudges which they would raise their children to avenge.

The history covered in this book is known so there are few major surprises in the plot. The way in which it is told though makes it a worthwhile read. What is gained is an understanding of why things happened as they did, even those acts which seem brutal and shocking by today’s standards. If history could always be told in such colourful detail it would be far more enjoyable for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

 

 

Random musings from a history course

Yesterday I completed the third on line course that I have studied through FutureLearn, six weeks of finding out more about England in the time of King Richard III. The main lesson that hit home was how many aspects are recognisable and relevant today. To quote Hegel: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

Prior to the 14th century, peasants in England were tied to a landlord through tenancy agreements that required them to maintain their dwelling and work both the land that they rented and common land. Starting at the beginning of the 14th century a series of crises, including poor harvests, murrains and famines, resulted in population stagnation and economic decline. This trend, clearly established in the early 14th century, was dramatically accelerated by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348-9. The most recent studies set the overall mortality figure as high as 50% of the population. Plague returned in the 1360s, and population remained low throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

The great mortality of the 14th century resulted in increased demand for labour in both town and country, and a corresponding rise in wages. The government of the time made strong attempts to control this and acts were passed that tried to curb the process. Records of transgressions reveal the strategies used by the workforce to improve their situation. It is clear, for example, that workers were now resisting attempts to make them stay in the same place, or enter into contracts that committed them to fixed wages for extended periods; mobility offered much greater opportunity for improved pay, and net mobility seems to have been in favour of the towns. Peasants were clearly abandoning the ties that held them to a perpetual subservient relationship.

The wealthy often strive to depress wages for the workers they rely on for their wealth. In Britain today we have a situation where the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and successive governments are doing all that they can to maintain this. Those who wish to find a job are often required to work unwaged in order to receive the safety net of benefits which ward off starvation and homelessness. The benefits system retains a series of sanctions that force compliance; payments are withdrawn if meetings are missed or if a recipient is not deemed to be trying hard enough to abide by the rules, however nonsensical they may be. Numerous deaths have been reported amongst those who have had benefits withdrawn, the stress and hardship of the withdrawal being cited as a factor in their demise.

Even amongst the more affluent, work experience placements and internships are now a common means of gaining contacts in order to secure future employment. These can be tricky to organise, often requiring the exploitation of familial associations only available to a few. With higher education costed to ensure that it may only be afforded by the rich, or those willing to accept the lengthy restrictions of a huge debt, certain jobs have been put beyond the reach of the new peasantry.

The middle ages saw a period of improvement in the lives of the poorest which the wealthy resisted. Alongside this improvement came innovation, for example the introduction of the printing press which enabled the production of affordable books (yay!). Alongside  increased mobility, information could be disseminated more easily. With the decrease in subjugation the masses were not so easy to control, a situation which those in power feared as it threatened to disturb their own, comfortable and established lifestyles.

I am not suggesting that modern Britain is returning to the conditions of the middle ages, but I find it interesting to note the parallels. Throughout history periods of economic growth have benefited all in society with innovation and improvements in living standards, yet the powerful continue to feel threatened by such changes. Ever eager to protect their own positions they put in place barriers and controls, suppressing those who they deem lazy or undeserving, promoting only those they recognise, who agree with their personal point of view.

On a lighter note, another parallel that I noted between 14th century England and the present day was to do with food. As peasants moved to the towns to find work, landowners could no longer find or afford enough labour to work the land in the old ways. This led to an increase in keeping livestock. Broader affluence alongside changes in supply resulted in the poorer classes eating more meat, a commodity previously beyond their means. As peasants regularly placed beef, pork and mutton on their tables, the wealthy looked to differentiate their meals in other ways. Consumption of, for example, birds that were hard to catch became popular amongst the gentry looking to impress their acquaintances. Hunting was restricted and poaching policed to ensure that only the wealthy had access to certain, elite foodstuffs.

This desire to eat exotic meals that were not available to the masses reminded me of the food fads that exist today. Certain TV chefs love to promote innovation, eating combinations of ingredients that would not previously have been known about or considered. Previously unheard of ingredients become popular, fading away when too many people start to use them as standard. Quinoa anyone?

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Book Review – The Year of the Flood

Having enjoyed ‘Oryx and Crake’ many years ago, I was predisposed to be impressed by this, the second book in Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. It did not disappoint.

Set in a dystopian future the book chronicles the lives of a wide cast of disparate characters, thus enabling the reader to better understand the new world order. It works as a standalone read, although the references to characters from the first book of the series add interest.

As with other futuristic books by this author, the world she creates is all too believable. From the brothels to the beauty parlours to the segregated housing and healthcare for rich and poor, the reader will recognise the direction in which the modern world could be heading. The book is both comic and frightening in it’s perceptiveness.

It is easy to read but has depth and action in abundance. Although it is tempting to despair of the foolish and selfish actions that have lead to this place in time, there remains humanity, friendship and compassion within individual relationships, alongside the power struggles inside the many groups. It feels real and therefore all too believable.

Leaps of faith are required, such as the creation of a new race by Crake (for which the first book offers background), but the studies of religion, power and humanity’s acceptance of what should be horrific, are spot on.

It is a story of love, friendship and survival that spans twenty years in the lives of the main protagonists.

Another recommended read from one of my favourite authors.

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Learning from history

I love history. From Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ to Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’; through fictional novels woven around historical facts to memoirs of growing up in cultures I find hard to imagine; the places, times and experiences relayed show how much has changed about the way we live, yet how little the people portrayed differ from ourselves. Humanity may have adapted to a different way of living, but we still think and feel as our ancestors did. We still react to our immediate, personal circumstances and cope, because we have no other choice if we are to survive.

So much of the history that we are taught as fact has been gleaned from the merest scraps of information. Archaeologists and anthropologists become very excited when new finds are uncovered as they may revisit premises and further their understanding. They are not afraid to question established orthodoxies; to share and build on knowledge gained elsewhere. They will interpret the artifacts, location and any other information available from elsewhere to establish the historical story as best they can. They make educated guesses based on what is already known; what has gone before and what we have now; they use their expertise, but do not try to claim that they can explain everything fully. It is often the unknown, the what might have been, that makes the tale so compelling.

More recent history benefits from information preserved in writing. The oldest scripts would have been written by the very few scholars; wealthy or religious, educated men with time to write and resources to allow this pastime. The writers may have had employers or sponsors; they were most likely under the influence of the rulers of their age. The histories of the time need to be read in this context to be understood. The physical evidence preserved in land and grave can often tell of a more sinister undercurrent pervading the culture of the time. Social history is complex and often disregards the impact of events on the poorest yet most prolific.

As literacy spread, so too did the nature of the writings preserved. Life expectancy and leisure time increased for many allowing the slightly less wealthy and even some women to start writing accounts of their lives and times. The official records would still be produced by the powerful victors and, through the ages, some have tried to destroy accounts of histories that did not tell the tales that they wished to be perpetuated. The power of propaganda was well understood and the general population considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves.

Eminent historians are well aware that context and bias must be taken into account; authenticity can be scientifically checked but reliability is harder to gauge. Talk to a sibling about their memories of an event from a shared childhood and differences in recollection become apparent. When a history is recorded it is from the perspective of the writer whose own recollections will vary over time.

With the advent of the internet it sometimes seems that we can research the true facts with just a few clicks. Unfortunately the very opposite is too often the case. The hidden agendas of the powerful come into play as their influence and subterfuge skew the perceptions of the general population, still considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves. One of my pet grievances is the way in which global warming, now referred to more accurately as climate change, has been presented to the public over the past thirty or so years.

I am not an expert in science or climate science, merely an interested observer. I can see the sense in not polluting the soil where we grow our food or the air that all living things need to survive. I understand the benefits of biodiversity and the importance of being good stewards during our time on this earth. What I object to is the pervasive anthropomorphic climate change industry and the lies woven as facts to influence decisions made by the wealthy countries of the world to financially benefit the few at a significant cost to so many.

The Natural History Museum in London has a display in it’s dinosaur section showing temperature fluctuations over millions of years. It is clear that the earth’s climate changes regularly and has always done so, even before man walked this earth in his present form. These climate changes are very gradual in terms of a human’s lifespan but obvious in the geological evidence that exists. Keeping detailed records of temperature, rainfall and other weather phenomena are a very recent practice (from around a century ago) and the data collection methods have changed over even this short period of time making reliable, scientific comparison tricky. Examples of extreme weather are mentioned in some historical documents but these do not provide a clear picture (mentions refer to the effects of the Little Ice Age which was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period but climatologists and historians working with local records cannot even agree on either the start or end dates of this period just a few hundred years ago).

Given that this is a controversial topic in which I have an interest, I will save my opinions on recent climate change pronouncements and their impacts for another post. I see it as a prime example of the wealthy and powerful trying to force their opinions on a gullible public with a clever mix of carefully placed publicity and misinformation. More than anything though, it is a lesson in how history can be skewed to suit the influential of the time.

It can be hoped that, in the not too distant future, the truth will be uncovered by those who are capable of unearthing the evidence and interpreting the facts with critical and impartial deliberation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we can learn from history if we open our eyes to how and why it has been written. Our descendants may well look back on our gullibility and wonder how we could not have questioned what was being done ‘for our own good, and that of our children’. I hope that they do not judge us too harshly for not taking more affirmative action to prevent the inevitable impact of our inaction; for passively complying with the wishes of those in power.

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