As a writer, I know others who avoid what they’d brand as ‘political’, and that is fine for them. But, I came into writing to be political – being political, having awareness of ‘stuff’ is why I write – not crime (cosy or violent), not romance, not whimsy, not fantasy – I began writing my first novel prompted by some thoughts about what drives social change. How can a person not be themselves? Above all I want to be objective, (even if the concept of objectivity is denied to be possible today, I believe it is possible): and especially not to “preach”.
Change has complexity. Initially good and compassionate attitudes and changes have this way of slipping towards something less than perfect. How does this come about? New possibilities can look wonderful, progressive… they’re also open to manipulation for profit. To exploitation. These interact… some people fear change, or have special reasons to resist…
How do we stop that happening? Would we want to? Is cracking down on society and forcing traditional values and behaviour – often longed for, in a nostalgic terms, by some people – a solution? Can the clock be turned back?
Social change can never be turned back. We may be able – or think we are able – to change the future. But we can never return to the past. Not because nobody wants to, but because too much has changed, and become different, over time.
For example, we can’t easily reverse climate change by “cracking down”. That won’t bring back the lost species. The ruined rainforests. I say we can’t easily, as with care, international cooperation, and willingness to do without the comfortable ways we’ve learned to live with, we might. But that’s unlikely to occur, given that most countries will have special interests. Fast air travel, foreign holidays, cheap food, clothing outsourced to be made in poor countries, are what we have come to expect. It would take an enormous commitment in the face of huge opposition from those who benefit and profit to change. And the beneficiaries include all of us – you and me in our small ways, our governments and multinational companies in their powerful ones.
Progressive, beneficial medical advance can’t help driving social change. Some will disagree, but reliable *contraception and safe clinical abortion were introduced by idealists passionate to improve the lives of women, particularly those caught in poverty, the ‘less well off’ majority. Not to offer easy recreational sex to both genders without consequences. Its opposers argued on both moral and religious grounds that ‘misuse’ was inevitable. It has indeed resulted in huge shifts in public attitudes. Personally I detest the phrase ‘sexual revolution’, since there’s so much more than ‘sex’ going on…also has removing ‘sex’ from ‘relationship’ been helpful and without consequences for women? (Think #MeToo, for example.) Genetic research, combined with legal abortion, has also changed public attitudes, in a way which could be seen as sinister. Introducing safe legal abortion opened up new possibilities in eugenics. Moral and ethical questions shift about. Few people now would consider it better to carry a dysmorphic foetus to term. (And this future may be applied to female foetuses, and to what other groups among the ‘inconvenient’?) Is this murder? The furore surrounding ‘pro-life’ can influence voters.
But back to my writing. My first novel tended towards a scifi mystery, its roots in the story of Dolly the sheep, successfully produced by cloning at the Roslin research centre near Edinburgh, in 1996. As I read up the historical background, and learned more about the scientific process, the story changed, evolved, and became domesticated. Where it works better. Hopefully the mystery concerning a shockingly dysmorphic baby, investigated (illegally as it would be now) by two Cambridge students, from very different family backgrounds, highlights several moral and ethical questions, not wholly confined to the field of science and medical advance.
A follow-up story goes on to look at an on-going everyday problem: ever since women gained equality in education and opportunity, we expect to be able to successfully combine career and family. However, who then cares for the kids? When career opportunities and family crises clash, what and whose ambitions, talents, and goals take precedence?
My prompts have always come from the effects of social change and the pushback from traditionalists. An ever present ‘dialectic’. History is increasingly driven by a combination of invention, its usage, and most significantly our desires. Our desires may be to eliminate suffering and improve life. But equally they may be hijacked by ambitions for profit or pleasure. Leading to destruction.
Objectivity, though it ‘doesn’t sell newspapers’, can be useful. I may be political, but I also try to simply lay out life as it is, not what ‘my’ Utopia might be. Asking the awkward questions does tend to look political.
*women’s lives in the 1920s? Follow this up! COMING SOON: This Thursday, 29 October, Who’s left holding the baby? – class & contraception in the 1920s, a guest blog by writer Fiona Veitch Smith, author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series... to celebrate the publication of Poppy’s latest investigation, The Art Fiasco, set in 1924…