Sunflowers in the Snow – a #FlashFriday story

Picture by Bill Damon via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Bill Damon via Flickr creative commons

There was a crowd outside the cemetery gates. Tall men and women, warmly dressed against the cold snap. As Michael passed them he caught a glimpse of flattened faces beneath hoods, hats and scarves. They were Neanderthals, part of the community that had grown up in Longsight over the past decade. To social scientists it was a fascinating insight into the formation of communities. To Michael it was one more minority interest complicating his constituency.

“This way, minister.” Cowley, his slender and obsequious assistant, led him through the gates, snow crunching beneath their feet as they strode towards the cemetery manager’s office. Despite the cold and the intimidating presence of the crowd around the gates, relatives had been in to pay their respects, and flowers lay amid the snow on several of the graves.

“Mr Totman.” The woman who met him at the door wore a smart black suit, her hair tied back. “I’m Lydia Boyd, the manager here. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Michael never knew how to respond. What could you say? No words would ever bring his husband back.

“I’m afraid the heating is broken in my office,” Boyd said. “But the seats are more comfortable in reception anyway.”

She settled down into a padded grey chair, and Michael took the one opposite. Cowley lingered outside the door making phone calls – the business of government didn’t stop for personal tragedy.

“You said we needed to talk,” Michael said. “About Chris’s funeral.”

“Yes.” Boyd’s expression was sad, but her gaze didn’t waver from his. “I’m afraid that the genome tests following Christopher’s autopsy revealed a substantial proportion of Neanderthal ancestry.”

Michael frowned.

“That’s impossible,” he said. “Both his parents were human, and born long before the first cloned revivals.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” Boyd handed him a sheet of paper, showing the results from the test. “Nearly all of us have some DNA from Neanderthals and other archaic humans. So while these tests are successful in keeping Neanderthals out of human cemeteries, they also very occasionally exclude others too.”

“That’s absurd!” Michael rose to his feet. This was where Chris’s family was buried, where he’d wanted to be buried. The thought of not doing that stirred up all the pain of the past few weeks, and he found himself choking on his own words. “Can’t you change your rules?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “If I had my way I would open up the gates and let those protesters win. Everybody would be buried here, homo sapiens or Neanderthal. You know that they bring flowers to the graves? We won’t even let them bury their families here, but they still make sure that the graves are tended.”

“Surely you can make an exception.” He felt desperate, nothing but her denial sinking in. “I have money. I can make a donation to the cemetery. Or to you, if you prefer.”

“Minister.” She rose and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “You should be careful. That almost sounded like a bribe. And I’m afraid that the law is clear, a law that you voted for. The Prime Minister said, ‘we do not force people to be buried in the same ground as pets, can we make them accept graves alongside anything other than our own species?’”

“Then there must be something wrong with the test. Chris was a human being!”

“Do you think she isn’t?” Boyd pointed out through the glass doors, past Cowley, to where an aging Neanderthal in a long coat was placing sunflowers on one of the graves.

“But the test is for being a true human.” Uncertainty and grief made Michael wobbly on his feet. He leaned against the door, forehead pressed to the cold glass.

“The test is for Neanderthal DNA,” Boyd said. “What you’re talking about is far harder to pin down.”

The Neanderthal woman looked directly at Michael. She didn’t wave or make that strange little frown others used to tell him how sorry they were. But her eyes communicated her understanding of his hurt more completely than anybody saying “I feel sorry for your loss.”

“Her husband died recently too,” Boyd said. “That’s not his grave, of course.”

A sense of conviction rose in Michael, one he hadn’t felt since his first election campaign. He stood up straight, turned and shook Boyd’s hand.

“Thank you for taking the time to talk,” he said. “I’ll contact the undertaker about Chris.”

He opened the door and strode out into the snow. Cowley, seeing his master spring into action, snapped his phone shut and scurried after him.

“Is the funeral arranged?” Cowley asked. “I have the invitations ready.”

“No.” Michael stopped in the cemetery gates, looking out at the sad, silent faces of the protesters. He felt like he might cry at any moment, like only the drive to act was holding him back. “Contact the media. We have other things to deal with.”

He joined the crowd, making eye contact with each quiet figure in turn, falling into the moment of shared sorrow. Tears ran down his cheeks, yet he felt a lightening of his burden, a sense of release.

“Then call the Prime Minister,” he said, turning to the shocked looking Cowley. “I don’t think he’ll want me in his government anymore.”

He pulled out his own phone, found a picture of Chris and showed it to the Neanderthal next to him.

“My husband,” he said.

The Neanderthal pulled a picture out of his pocket, a smiling Neanderthal woman in a flower print dress.

They stood together in grief.

 

*

This story was suggested by my friend Lynda, who thought I could take inspiration from a radio program about evolution and the fact that we now have full DNA sequences for at least two different hominid species besides ourselves.

Challenge accepted, and completed.

I already have a few ideas for future flash Friday stories based on other people’s comments, but if you have a suggestion then please leave a comment and I’ll add it to my ideas list. It’s always good to get more ideas.

If you enjoyed this you might also like my other Flash Friday stories, a growing collection of very short fiction. And for more science fiction stories, check out my ebook Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Farage the storyteller

Last week saw extreme conservatives do well in European elections. Parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) got the sort of success their leaders could only have dreamed of five years ago, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth across the political spectrum.

As with so much in life, the experience of reading and writing fiction can bring something to the discussion about these results.

FutUndBeidl

Stories and politics

The thing about politicians like Nigel Farage, UKIP’s ubiquitously grinning upper-class leader, is that they tell powerful, simple stories. They present a conflict – immigrants threatening our way of life. They present an antagonist – Europe. They present a hero – themselves. There’s a sense of challenge – things are getting worse! – and of hope – Farage to the rescue!

This story might bear little relationship to reality, but that’s not the point. As the ballot box testifies, it’s a story that people find moving.

Losing the plot

Mainstream politicians are losing ground in large part because they don’t understand this. They talk about GDP growth and reform, but they don’t present a story. In fact it would be harder for them to present a convincing story – after all, they’re far from underdogs in this fight. But if they could find ways to tell better stories – and they have the staff and resources to find a way – then they might do better.

As Hugo Chavez showed, you don’t have to be in opposition to tell a powerful political story.

The power of stories

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world. Part of the power of stories is that they can convince others to see the world the way that you do. And until other parties find ways to tell better stories, to lead and shape public perceptions instead of being led round by their opponents, they will never make back their lost ground.

 

Picture by FutUndBeidl via Flickr creative commons.

Bankers – the new daleks?

Doctor Who is going to face a villainous banker. Of course he is. Since the financial crash bankers have become a pop culture pariah, a go to baddie that guarantees an audience reaction. It’s fair enough – the creators of our culture have a duty to address current concerns, both for the good of public discourse and for the good of their own income. But are we really handling this issue right, in science fiction, fantasy and beyond?

Doctor Who

A villain as old as pantomime

Lets face it, the banker villain isn’t a new trope. Despite the efforts of It’s A Wonderful Life, bankers have turned up as bad characters more often than good, whether they’re foreclosing on the hero’s house or corrupting the values of the young with their materialistic ways. Even Mary Poppins, that childishly bonkers work of fabulous fantasy, has banker villains and a character whose arc is about learning not to be such a banker.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6DGs3qjRwQ&w=420&h=315]

 

If Mary Poppins thinks you’re a bad egg then you really are in trouble. But bankers have hit a new cultural low in recent years, and that raises some complicated questions.

Not all banks are made equal

The cultural slum status of bankers undoubtedly has a lot to do with the financial crisis and the mechanisms that brought it about. The increasingly complicated and dubious techniques being used by hedge fund managers have rightly drawn criticism. When men in skyline offices are profiting from mechanisms that destroy years others’ hard work then something is amiss. Some of these people were literally living off the misery of others.

This is the image of banking picked up on by Joe Abercrombie‘s Valint and Balk, the shadowy, manipulative bankers who occasional peak out from behind the scenes of his fantasy world. Even in a world where banking is far less commonplace, the bankers have managed to make themselves villains.

Just before the crisis I worked in a company that published data on investment funds. It was a spirit crushing job, our work completely divorced from the real, productive world. I didn’t stay there long, but I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of banking isn’t about those funds. There’s a wide spectrum from the micro-finance idealists bringing money to poor Indian villagers, through the helpful mechanism of high street banking, to the bloated leviathan of high stakes investment banking.

The problem is that our culture seldom reflects that variety or that nuance. The grasping investment bankers are a minority, but they dominate the way we portray modern finance, and that’s starting to undermine those portrayals. The banker as villain is becoming a cartoonish cliché, and much as I love Doctor Who I doubt it will avoid that trap.

The pantomime villainy is making the message less powerful, causing people to react against the demonisation of bankers and forget that there is a real problem here.

Money is power

It’s a cliché but it’s true – money is power. And right now that form of power is in conflict with political power. The power of finance is eroding state institutions, investment bankers taking over from the politicians. It is, in my opinion at least, a profoundly undemocratic trend. At the ballot box we all have equal power, in the market place our power depends on our wealth, whether earned, inherited, stolen, or otherwise acquired.

This is an issue that science fiction in particular is well placed to address. It’s a big feature of Richard Morgan’s excellent Market Forces. Whatever your views on this change, it’s one worth exploring, and science fiction’s capacity to look to the future is a great way to do that.

More variety please

If that exploration is to have any impact then we need a more nuanced approach to portraying bankers and finance, one that acknowledges and explores the difference between the helpful little guy and the huge corporate villain. Literature, TV, films, games – these all have the power to change views and so shape the world.

Even an episode of Doctor Who.