A life spent marinating in politics, policy and journalism doesn’t make it easy to be an idealist.
In fact, any youthful pretensions I might have had to such a self-description are long gone.
I’ve seen and heard too much over the decades to view the world in more than shades of grey. I find I can usually see both sides of most situations. Man is fallen, and the best we can do is constantly help him back to his feet. What choice do we have?
Despite this, I remain an optimist. It would be difficult to carry on if that wasn’t the case. My beliefs are rooted in experience – that improvement is almost always slow, hard won, and based on painstaking negotiation and compromise.
This can be infuriating, and at times heartbreaking. Hypocrisy is an ever-present devil on the shoulder. You need to stay healthily sceptical without ever slipping over into cynicism. But that’s the price of living in (thank God) a democracy. You must win the argument first. And we do, sometimes, make things better.
In recent months, with all the misery being inflicted around the world, I’ve found myself pausing occasionally to be grateful that I was born in this comparatively safe, peaceful, progressive, compassionate country.
Still, there are times when even that’s not enough. My safe space, my ultimate retreat, has always been to disappear into the pages of books – into fiction, to be precise. And I can often judge how I’m feeling at a subconscious level by what I’m choosing to read at any given time.
For the past few months, I’ve been mainlining science fiction. In fact, the last 17 novels I’ve read have belonged to just two series – Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, and James SA Corey’s The Expanse. In my downtime, I’ve chosen to flee this grim planet for the escapism, drama and excitement of a life among the stars.
Sci-fi doesn’t deserve the snobbery it gets
Sci-fi has a bad name among the snobbier critics. But, as usual, the snobbier critics miss the point. The genre’s best works stand on their merits. Its greatest writers – I could fill this column with a list, but my personal favourites include JG Ballard, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K Le Guin, Tamsyn Muir, Christopher Priest, Arkady Martine, William Gibson and Adrian Tchaikovsky – ask hard questions about what it is to be human, using imagination and vision, philosophy and religion, science and technology, and often the sharpest of humour.
If you doubt me, search out a copy of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, in which a group of Jesuits make first contact and puzzle over whether God’s love would encapsulate inhuman extraterrestrials. It’s a reasonable question – I mean, we know they’re out there, don’t we?
After a devastating defeat on the battlefields of Mercury, Darrow begins the long road home. The Red Rising series continues in the sequel to Dark Age by @Pierce_Brown.
— Recorded Books (@recordedbooks) July 25, 2023
Red Rising and The Expanse have captivated me. Both are set in the far future, when humankind has conquered the solar system. People have chosen to live, procreate and die not just on Earth, but on Mars, on moons, even on manmade structures that float in space.
Both, in their different ways, explore the very issues we are wrestling with ourselves: refugees, exploitation, racism, gender, class, climate, revolution. Neither strikes an absolutist note – the authors are too intelligent and subtle for that – but operate in those essential shades of grey. Perhaps that’s what’s drawn me to them.
There’s also something special about giving yourself over to a well-written, lovingly crafted series. I think of Patrick O’Brian’s 20 extraordinary Aubrey-Maturin novels, or George MacDonald Fraser’s 12 eye-watering Flashman books, or Hilary Mantel’s three Thomas Cromwell masterpieces. You’ll have your own examples.
Human nature and its inescapable flaws
Over the course of Red Rising and The Expanse, the main players age and grow, succeed and fail, make good and bad decisions. You come to know them intimately.
Key characters, whose lives have spanned several books, die suddenly and shockingly, leaving you bereft. You immerse yourself in new worlds with their own laws and political structures, and they become second nature, even highly believable.
And always, always, although these stories help you escape the surly bonds of Earth, you are drawn back to human nature and its inescapable flaws. There is always the Other; alien, suspicious, unfathomably murderous and warlike, and ultimately misunderstood.
Innocents die, leaders preen, arms dealers grow rich, and the misery continues. We will never grow out of that cycle
There is the choice of seeing a complex situation only in black and white, with a kill-or-be-killed mindset, and there are always those who choose such a path. There is always a man who wants to be king – think of the despicable acts of Putin in Ukraine. There are always irreconcilable fundamentalists – consider those causing such pain in the Middle East; those jaw-dropping interviews with anti-Israel marchers on UK streets who had no idea Hamas began this conflict by slaughtering and kidnapping.
Solutions are never discovered this way, though. Innocents die, leaders preen, arms dealers grow rich, and the misery continues. We will never grow out of that cycle before the heat death of the sun decides matters for us.
Where we succeed, accord only comes through the hard, slow, painful work of establishing areas of mutual understanding and empathy, of opening minds, of diplomacy and sacrifice. That’s as true when you’re battling laser-armed Martian rebels as it is when you’re simply attempting to end a dispute among the local community council.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank, Reform Scotland