Je Suis…?

Over the past week I’ve read numerous articles and had several conversations with friends about the terrible attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which extremists killed both staff and those protecting them. It’s the sort of issue I’d normally steer away from discussing here. After all, this is a blog about writing and about imaginary worlds, not real politics.

But I’m someone who makes his living off words, to whom freedom of expression is vital both in principle and in practice. So today I’m going to talk about reactions to this attack, attempts to put them in context, and how I feel about all this.

Context good

The initially public reaction to the attack was one of shock and horror. But as the days passed, people have quite rightly tried to look at this in context. This was a terrible event and an attack on free speech. Worse atrocities happen on a regular basis, and stir far less of a reaction from us in the west. Free speech is attacked from many angles, and we don’t often rise in outrage. I agree with the people making this point – we should be outraged about those things too. We should be as focused on them as on this.

It’s also important to put this in context and understand what led the attackers to do what they did. There are huge issues to consider around disenfranchisement and what’s pushing people to join extremist groups. Why they felt a need, and had the opportunity, to lash out in such a horrifying way. If we don’t consider that context, then we invite more of the same. Because this attack wasn’t about Charlie Hebdo and what it said. It was about the attackers and where they were coming from. They were going to lash out at someone, and this magazine was unfortunate to be the target they picked.

Examining the victims

But there is a contextual point people have raised that’s more problematic, and that’s the material published in Charlie Hebdo.

I want to be really clear on this. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticise this magazine, that the attack on its offices makes it some kind of martyr or sacred cow. As far as I’m concerned, everybody and everything should be open to critique, not least a small print French magazine that set out to provoke people with its cartoons. The free speech from which that magazine benefits extends to its critics as well.

But to me, that’s a separate issue from discussing this attack.

When people have critiqued the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo over the past week, it’s been to point out that they are offensive to some people, that they were designed to draw ire. The implication seems to be that they shouldn’t have done this, that if they’d been better people this wouldn’t have happened. The same critique is implicit in attempts to shift attention onto the Muslim policeman who died in the attack. His death is every bit as tragic as the cartoonists, every bit as worthy of mourning. Maybe he was somehow a better person than the others, but even if he was that doesn’t matter. We should be no more or less outraged for the other victims than we are for him. None of them did anything that justifies their murder.

They were all victims. Talking about their character starts us down a slippery slope towards victim blaming.


We all have things that we find offensive. But while there are reasons some of those things should not be said, the fact that we find them offensive is never a good reason. Offence is our reaction, not the other person’s action.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall and I have very different views on certain issues, issues which she addresses in her fiction. We stand in such different places that, if it came down to it, we would each accept imprisonment in defence of completely opposing principles. But if Victoria expresses an opinion on this that I find offensive, and I respond by going to her house and punching her in the face, does her opinion make my behaviour any more reasonable, or the hotdog salesman I punched on my way past any more of a victim than her?

No. Of course not. In this hypothetical, she was voicing her opinion and I was being an arsehole. The nature of that opinion is beside the point.

For the record, I would never punch Victoria Randall. She’s lovely, I’m a pacifist, and I can’t afford the plane tickets to the United States.

Je Suis Charlie

So given all of this, do I stand with those saying ‘Je suis Charlie’, however problematic that reaction may be?

I do. Because in my view free speech should not be limited by the opinions or character of the speaker. Because I want us to react against all the terrible things, and if this is the one that galvanises us then that’s a start. And because to me those words are a way of saying that I will not be dictated to, that I will stand by my words even when threatened. No-one is likely to threaten violence at the things I write, but if they feel the need then they should just bring it on.

Je suis Charlie.

An interview with Victoria Randall

Among the most fascinating things about books are the people who work with them. Whether they’re writers, collectors, publishers, librarians, or any of the many other people whose lives connect with this wonderful art and the business around it, I’m endlessly intrigued by how people think about books and writing. To explore that further I’m going to be publishing a series of interviews with people who deal with books in different ways – I’ve already lined up a couple of indie authors, a bookseller, a slush pile reader who’s studying the short story market, and a collector of antique editions. If you’d be interested in taking part as an interviewee then please let me know and I’ll get in contact.

Today I’m kicking this off with an interview with Victoria Randall. I discussed Victoria’s novel Get On Board Little Children in a post on science fiction and the population ‘problem’, but today we get to learn a bit more about Victoria and her writing.

After all the preamble, here’s the interview…

Tell us a bit about yourself and your book

I enjoy writing but take long hiatuses between books. My first book, The Witchstone, came out in the seventies; then I got busy raising kids and pursuing a nursing career. My next, The Ring of the Dark Elves, was published in 2003; and the Children in Hiding trilogy from 2013 to 2015. Obviously, look at any library or bookstore and you will see stacks of books, multitudes of them worthy of reading,  many very valuable. We have to pick and choose, so adding dreck to an already about-to-topple pile never appealed to me.

Get On Board Little Children

 Why did you choose the idea of population control as the one to explore?

This idea found me. I read the news frequently, and I noticed that whenever a news story came out about child abuse, many commentators would say “we really ought to require a license to have a baby.”  It’s a reasonable stance.  We need a license to drive a car or motorcycle, get married, start a business, and of course bringing a new human into the world is a much more complex and important project.

The problem is that then you get the government involved, and the notion of punishment. And you might end up with a situation such as in China, which is deplorable. So I thought I would explore what might happen if a license were required here in the US.

 How did you go about developing the idea and working out details?

I’m still working on that, with the third book, City of Hidden Children. I decided to take it in stages: Book One is about the challenges faced by a woman who is pregnant with an unlicensed child. Of course if it were set in China, it would not end well. But in the USA, we still might have possibilities; partly because even in my dystopian future, the dream of America as a land governed by and for the people is still alive in people’s minds. Book Two is about a small child who is seized by the government, and her mother’s struggles to reclaim her. Book Three is about that same child, grown to adolescence, and the struggles she faces in coming to terms with her status as a non-citizen.

How did you go about getting published, and why did you pick that approach?

My first book was published by Pyramid. It was nice; the advance was enough to buy five acres in Oregon to start a homestead. That didn’t work out, but I still have part ownership in “Bird Farm.”

I tried working with an agent to publish subsequent books, but that did not work out. So I published the second book through a POD company. Expensive, and the book cost too much to buy. So now that self publishing through Amazon is available, it seems ideal. Of course you have to market yourself, and I don’t have time to do that, but at least my books are out there. And it’s been fun learning how to create books for myself, both ebooks  and paperbacks on Createspace.

What’s next for you writing-wise?

I’m working on book three, City of Hidden Children. My cover artist, Brandon Graham, suggested that I publish the trilogy as one volume, so I might do that. Brandon is my second son, and he’s a graphic artist, two time Eisner award nominee and the author/illustrator of King City, Multiple Warheads, and the Prophet series.  I’m  pleased that he agreed to create my covers because he’s a very busy guy.

Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently?

I usually read several books at once. I just finished Syncing Forward, by W. Lawrence, and David Robbins’ The Empty Quarter, both excellent.

On my to-read list is Andrew Knighton’s Riding the Mainspring. [interviewer’s note – look at Victoria’s impeccable taste! or blatant pandering to the interviewer – who can tell?]

Currently I just started Second Chance by Dylan Hearn, which looks very good, and am wading through a splendid 900 page book titled Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Abe Lincoln is my hero, and it’s fascinating to read about what he had to face during the Civil War. Did you know that a member of his cabinet was accused of being a “fanatical bigot” because he opposed slavery? And that the Emancipation Proclamation was called “a fatal mistake,” a “radical step,” because it freed the slaves, who were considered less than human?

First, in my books, I try to tell an exciting story. But beyond that, they are about the inestimable value of each person, in the hope that some reader’s heart, somewhere, will be touched to appreciate anew the intrinsic worth of her unborn child.

* * *

Thank you to Victoria for taking the time to be interviewed. I’m totally with her on being a huge Lincoln fan, though I haven’t yet mustered the courage to tackle all 900 pages of Team of Rivals – one of these days. And while I don’t share all of Victoria’s views, it’s always good to see authors using fiction to explore the issues that concern them. You can find out more about Victoria and her books on her webpage – please go have a look around.

Science fiction and the population problem

It is a truth near-universally acknowledged that human population is growing so fast it’s going to doom us. The UN estimates that by 2075 there will be 9.2 billion people living on planet earth. Bearing in mind that for most of human history we could be counted in the millions, and not always big millions, this is a pretty scary figure.

Fortunately, science fiction is here to help us reflect upon our responses, and it’s telling some interesting stories along the way.

Lets talk about population

I’ve recently encountered three stories that approach the problem of over-population and our response to it in different ways.

Victoria Randall was kind enough to send me a copy of her book Get On Board Little Children. It’s a book that asks how a government might respond to control the ever-growing population, with restrictions on family sizes and a growth in abortions. It also asks how a family, unable to afford a licence to reproduce, might respond to this, leading to a modern version of the old underground railroad.

Get On Board Little Children

While the story of Get On Board Little Children didn’t grip me as much as I would have liked, it showed some fascinating responses to both the over-crowding problem and to the restrictions used to tackle it. From people becoming more attached to their pets, through families raising children in hiding, to secret networks smuggling pregnant women out of the US, it highlighted the fact that our responses are not monolithic, that people will deal with this issue in different ways.

Channel 4’s drama series Utopia shows a very different response. In this, a shadowy group unleashes a conspiracy to brutally cut the human population and so allow the remainder to survive. The human response is seen in people resisting the conspiracy, going on the run and desperately fighting back.


American show The 100 also tackles the problem of human over-crowding, though without addressing our current situation head on. The plot is driven by the remains of humanity being stuck in a space station that can no longer support them. The space station itself can be seen as standing in for an over-crowded Earth, the different responses of the characters reflecting ways we can react, whether it’s plans for a harsh Utopia-style population cull or a doctor’s desperate attempts to prove that another solution is possible outside the space station.

Don't trust that guy - He was on Lost!
Don’t trust that guy – he was on Lost!

All of these stories portray bleak situations and bleak reactions. It’s hardly surprising – the idea that we’re screwing so hard we might wipe ourselves out is a terrifying one, and the idea of giving up on the chance to have children is one many people are uncomfortable thinking about. It goes against our every biological imperative, not to mention human psychology. This is dark stuff because it touches on some very deep fears.

Ms Tunnel, meet Mr Light

Despite this, all three shows have a hopeful element to them. They show resistance – to oppression, to manipulation, to mass killings, to the possibility of humanity being snuffed out. Whether it’s Sophie in Get On Board Little Children going on the run for the sake of her unborn baby, or Abby on The 100 frantically trying to prove that Earth is inhabitable, they show the strength of the human spirit.

This is what the bleakest science fiction often does well – saying that we can stare into the darkness and yet still find hope.

What about the other futures?

What none of these stories address is the possibility that we might get it right. There’s plenty of science fiction where this is a non-issue, because it’s not what that story is about. But where are the futures where we tackle this issue and find a good answer? Or where we’ve come optimistically out the other side and are dealing with the complexities of a packed but stable world? I like my stories dark, but I do like a bit of variety as well.

Of course all of this may be missing the point. Those UN population figures also predict that population will eventually level out. Falling infant mortality, while contributing to population growth in the short term, actually ends it in the long term. In countries where children usually survive people have less of them and the population levels out. If we can cope with that 9 billion peak then we may come through this without enforcing reproduction licences or jettisoning dissidents into space.

Still, what these stories show is the power of science fiction to help us explore the problems facing us, to address them in different ways, and to come out the other side hopeful.

Does anyone have any other examples of stories dealing with the population ‘problem’? I’d be interested to know what else there is out there.