It was the Worst of Times, it was the Worst of Times.

ice cap melting

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of stupidity, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of misinformation, it was the epoch of unquestioning belief. It was the season of blue light, it was the season of impenetrable darkness. It began with hope, but it ended with despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to Heaven, unless we were of a different race, religion, or political outlook, in which case we were going direct the other way. In short, the year took the 20th century, ejected all the good ingredients, and brewed the remainder into a toxic and terrifying blend.

It was the year of Our Lord, two thousand and sixteen.

I am hoping for a 2017 that embraces love, wisdom, compassion, tolerance, truth, and an unquenchable resistance to megalomania and hatred.

Happy New Year Everyone
(and thank you, Charles Dickens)

For the Sake of a Fractious, Fragile World…

Dear US voters,
You have a crucial decision to make. For the sake of a fractious, fragile world, please make it well.

You may think Hillary Clinton is part of an outmoded establishment, too beholden to big business, or motivated too strongly by political careerism. There are valid arguments behind these claims, all of which could be made about most of the Democratic Party presidential nominees in recent decades and before.

This is not about Hillary Clinton.

This is about the very real prospect of Donald Trump becoming US president.

Whereas there are many checks and balances on the domestic actions of a US president, the foreign policy restrictions are minimal.

If Trump wins, the best possible outcome is that this level of global power will be given to a man who is profoundly unqualified, childishly temperamental, and prone to incite violence against all whom he opposes, which includes anyone of a different race, religion, gender, or political outlook.

That is the best that you can hope for, if Trump wins.

The worst outcome is unthinkable.

Look at history. Look not only at the regimes of despots and tyrants but at their ascent to power. Notice the extent to which people ridiculed them. See how many people let them come to power, believing that their extreme opinions could be curbed, managed, or controlled.

The unthinkable can happen.

If you do not vote, you vote by default for the candidate you least want to win.

You are in a two-party system. If you vote for an alternative minority candidate, however well meaning that candidate may be, you are voting by default for the candidate you least want to win.

Please exercise your right to vote. Don’t allow a clown show to become a tragedy.

The Fear Algorithm

A guest post by Yusuf Toropov.

When I started work on my debut novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY in the autumn of 2007, I had no idea what dark measures the real world would take in its attempts to bring forth, as reality, the uncomfortable story emerging in my manuscript.

The novel has since come out in the UK and Ireland, published by Orenda Books. And now, with the physical book finally in my hands, I find that something strange has happened to my online New York Times subscription. Every morning, the news I find on my screen seems intent to confirm, as hard fact, passages in my story: plot lines that I had imagined were exaggerated — wholly fictional (I thought) depictions of paranoia, dysfunctionality, religious extremism, bigotry, and xenophic rage.

The Fear Algorithm

For example. Before there was an ISIS, before anyone at the New York Times had even considered that something like ISIS might somehow come to exist, I created in my novel a fictionalized movement to proclaim a twenty-first century caliphate. In my novel, this movement is centered in a nonexistent “Islamic Republic” whose corrupt government and despised American military presence vaguely evokes Iraq and/or Afghanistan. In the novel, the leaders of the movement I created demand the allegiance of all Muslims on earth to its leader, a man of distinctly dubious moral principles. It takes as its founding principle an ever-deepening hatred of America and Americans, and it fast-forwards blithely over centuries of Islamic jurisprudence in its diverse, crowd-pleasing attempts to provoke a distinctive “Islamic” nationalism in the region. (Please note those quote marks. They’re quite important to me.)

This extremist group – the one I made up in my own little head years ago — inclined toward beheadings, and its rank and file consisted (in the words of my female lead) of “loudmouths, rapists, and sycophants.” Today’s New York Times tells me: “(M)ilitants led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, declared a caliphate that stretches across eastern Syria and much of northern and western Iraq. It also demanded that all Muslims swear allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS, which calls itself Islamic State, has seized the world’s attention — most recently with the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff.” News reports too sickening to detail here link the ISIS zombies to sexual predations that every responsible Sunni scholar has condemned as un-Islamic.

And.

Before there was a Donald Trump presidential campaign, before anyone at the New York Times had even considered the prospect that a Donald Trump presidential campaign might attract significant support, I created in my novel two fictionalized American extremists.  Between them, these two individuals advocated positions that I naively imagined would remain firmly outside of mainstream American political dialogue for years to come, including: the moral acceptability of torture, the advisability of murdering the family members of suspected terrorists, and the necessity of finding ways to exclude various Muslims – or, what the hell, maybe all Muslims — from US soil.

Mr. Trump, now his party’s frontrunner for the presidential nomination, has advocated his own distinctive, appalling variations on all three of these obscenities … and been roundly and repeatedly cheered by (overwhelmingly white) crowds for doing so.

Now.

Did this happen because I had some subconscious or semi-conscious access to future news events? I don’t think so. I think it happened because, in each of these plot threads, I was writing about something that I eventually came to know as the Fear Algorithm.

This term, coined by the author Safie Maken Finlay, refers to the process by which politicians, intelligence officials, and others subvert public opinion to their own purposes by engaging in ever-scarier, ever-more polarizing rhetoric to win support. It’s the Big Lie, forever creating newer and bigger lies. The fear inspired by this kind of rhetoric must always find some way to top the previous fear evoked.

In other words: This kind of rhetoric self-accelerates. It is designed to convince its audience that an existential threat, a threat to “our way of life,” is not only at hand. It is gathering force with every passing second.

Mr. Trump has opined, onstage and to great and viral, acclaim, that unless we “start using our heads” and get “tough,” we’re “not going to have a country anymore, folks.” That’s the Fear Algorithm at work. Expect it to become more outrageous, and expect it to draw bigger, more agitated crowds as we get closer to the November election in the United States.

Abu Bakr al-Bagdhdadi has insisted that he is leading a war that pits “the people of faith against the people of disbelief.” No one knows how many Muslims have devoted their lives to the pursuit of “victory” in such a global cataclysm, but however many they are, however many they may end up being, I invite you to consider the possibility that the Fear Algorithm, not the Quran, is driving their decisions.

I realize you may have gotten used to the idea of Trump and al-Baghdadi occupying opposite ends of the geopolitical spectrum. In fact, they are allies, whether they realize it or not. They are mutually dependent upon one another. The only way I could possibly have written about them as I did, without knowing, as I wrote, anything about the vast scale and seemingly incurable sickness of the crowds they would each draw in the real world, is to have been writing, in JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, about the danger of accelerating, in our cursed century, our universal loathing of the Other. The Fear Algorithm is real, it is lethal, and we have a moral duty to notice when human beings are being victimized by it.

Yusuf Toropov

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Yusuf Toropov is a U.S. author and playwright who currently lives in Ireland. His debut novel, Jihadi: A Love Story, is out now from Orenda Books.

My Top Five Books

My Top Five Books

Today I set up a Goodreads group. I have never done that before. But someone asked me for a list of my top five books, and it occurred to me that such a thing cannot be set in stone. My top five books can change at any time. The books that are most meaningful to me in the morning may be different by the time I go to bed. I set up the list so that members could post their top five books at any given time. You are welcome to join, or to comment, or both, by clinking the link below.

My Top Five Books

Here are my top five books today:

Anne Tyler – Searching for Caleb
Because of the profound sadness not just of losing someone but of finding them again.

Thomas Hardy – The Return of the Native

A novel that deals, as so many of Hardy’s novels do, with the huge consequences that can transpire as a result of seemingly insignificant acts.

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

Simply the best rough guide to science I have ever read.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Someone asked to borrow this recently, and I had to refuse. I cannot allow it out of my proximity.

Evelyn Waugh – A Handful of Dust

A book that flickers onto my radar every now and again, and when it does, it catches at something deep within.

 

What if I Don’t Want a Brand New Me

ebay

EBay sent me an email promising a “brand new Safie in 2016.”

I balked. “Do I need replacing?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

“Is nothing worth preserving?” I emailed back. “Could I have a slightly revamped Safie, a replenished Safie, a revitalized Safie, an ‘out of the box but good as new’ Safie, a ‘a few slight scratches but in perfect working order’ Safie.”

“No,” said eBay. “Brand new. It has to be brand new. That’s what people want.”

“But will I still be Safie if I’m brand new?” I asked. “Even if you have somehow created an exact duplicate, if it doesn’t have my personality, my quirks, my memories, even my flaws, will it be me?

“It will be better than you,” it replied.

“And how did you achieve this?” I asked. “Did you clone me? If so, won’t I be a baby still. That might be a little disconcerting for my family. Even my friends might find it a little weird. Especially when it’s my turn to pay the bill.”

“They’ll get used to it,” answered eBay. “People are very adaptable.”

“And what happens to the old me when you’ve installed the replacement? Can I be recycled? Is there some dump, some rest home for people’s discarded selves? Do they sit around reminiscing, slagging of their new selves? Or do they ignore the past and play crazy eights?

“You can sell your old self,” came the response, “on eBay. You have to state that you’re defective, that you’re only suitable for parts and repairs.”

I asked how I should go about getting the brand new me. Would I be expensive?

“Don’t worry,” it answered. “With all the calls and texts and data you use, your purchase will be subsidized. If you sign up to a 24-month contract, you won’t pay anything at all.”

 

I wish you all a peaceful and happy 2016.

Okay, I’m Writing, I’m Writing! – An Update

 

#amwriting

Someone’s child, possibly one of my own, (I’m not going to name names) recently decided to lay a guilt trip on me and asked me when I was going to get on with it and finish the sequel to The Galian Spear.

I responded by mentally planning a graph showing how long the first edition of Book One took me, with copious vibrant rectangles added to display all the other writing and editing projects with which I am engaged, other larger rectangles communicating the amount of time given to certain child-related and household tasks, and figures along the lower axis estimating final completion dates, some of a uniquely distant nature. By the time I completed this, said child was watching YouTube.

I condensed my findings. “When I have time,” I said.

The child gave an absent nod, eyes fixed on the TV.

I am writing, I reassured myself.

Okay, I have posted few word counts.

Blog posts have not been abundantly numerous, I am the first to admit. But their lack of abundant numerosity does not preclude prolificity (I am not sure if everything in that sentence qualifies as a word).

Most of my writing time is taken up by work on my political thriller The Frozen Man. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

I have been editing and beta reading some amazing books, one of which is due to be published in 2016. That’s all I’m going to say about them.

Last, and far from least, the new edition of my children’s novel, The Galian Spear, is set for publication in 2016. Those who cannot wait can read the prologue here:

More will be revealed.

Soon!

Her Name was Luka

Luka took a long time to die, four or five years at least. She left a large part of herself behind when the first blood vessels burst and bled into her brain. The freezing winters of 2010 and 2011 caused her body to collapse under the weight of the arthritis that had been threatening her hips for half a decade. She disintegrated further with time, losing her hearing, control of her limbs, her balance. Her eyes became two deep watery wells. Only on occasions would her true self flicker beneath the vacant lids.

One morning I arrived downstairs to find Luka in a heap on the ground, her limbs splayed, eyes fixed in an open stare, completely still. I kneeled down beside her, put out a hand for a final goodbye caress. Her face twitched at my touch, however. Her eyes flicked open and she looked at me, some part of her original self still present in that stare.

If she could have spoken, she might have said, “Not yet.”

This scene repeated itself over the years. I grew to expect to find Luka’s dead body when I woke up, when I arrived home. I grieved for the loss of her more than once.

Luka

Luka was the progeny of a beautiful black pedigree Labrador and a local farmer’s sheepdog, whose boisterous appetite had marked the end of her breeder’s plans to raise a litter of expensive purebred pups. We considered several of the ten puppies that presented themselves to us when we were choosing, but Luka threw her soft black bundle of a body on top of the entire heap and demanded to be seen. We chose her because she chose us and because of the four white paws that danced beneath her as she ran. She sat on my lap, crying, for every moment of that first drive home.

Luka was joyful and friendly puppy, but she was also aggressive and demanding. During that first year, she ate her way through three table legs and an armchair, tore the hems off several items of my clothing, and objected with sharp little growls to every effort to stop her climbing onto the sofa. My efforts to train her seemed hopeless at first, but then, with the abruptness of a switch being flicked, she turned into the obedient, gentle, energetic creature she would be thereafter.

That is the Luka I remembered after she finally lost all remaining control of her body less than a month ago and I watched a vet’s injection achieve the release she had resisted for so long. I remembered her bounding excitement at the use of the word “walk,” which she recognized even if it were spelled. How she would accompany anyone for a walk, her joy at the experience trumping any loyalty to family or home. I thought of her chasing sticks or tennis balls or stones, returning them in endless succession. I can still feel the dampness of the saliva soaked objects she would bring back at repeated intervals and leave on my lap or beside my hand, the soft nudge of her muzzle as she asked me to throw them again.

When she slept, even when her body was twisted and worn and useless, Luka would dream of chasing. Her front paws and haunches would twitch and her mouth would open and release the tip of her pink tongue. She was happy.

Luka clung to life with characteristic tenacity, and for those who knew the young dog, it was painful to see her during her long decline. Every now and then, however, the spark that was Luka would appear through the vacant fog in her eyes, and I knew she was still there. She was there right up until the moment when the injection took effect. Then she was gone. Free. Chasing sticks through eternity.

I’ll miss you Luka. Goodbye.

Nothing in Life is Free (except for this audiobook version of Michele W. Miller’s The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery)

The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery

For certain people and in certain situations, there are exceptions to what many believe to be the infallible rule that nothing in life is free. Another exception is the copy of the excellent audiobook version of Michele W. Miller’s hugely entertaining novel The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery, which I have the pleasure of giving away.

This is an actual giveaway. Of an audiobook. For free. That is, for no charge. Without cost. Gratuit. Libero. Kostenloss. Saor in aisce. Besplatno. Zdarma. Illiure. Libre. Ledig. Wolny (And free in many other languages that don’t use letters easily available on my keyboard).

If you become the lucky recipient of this free audiobook of Michele W. Miller’s The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery, I will not ask for anything in return. I won’t turn up at your house with a saw and scalpel, claiming that you have unwittingly agreed to donate two of your limbs and a small intestine to the cause of scientific research. I won’t ask you to tick a box claiming that you have read and agreed to fifteen pages of terms and conditions when clearly you have not, because who does? And even if I did ask you to tick such a box, I would leave it for at least ten years to claim ownership of the home you signed over to me as a result of your immense negligence. (What were you thinking? Don’t you listen? ALWAYS READ THE SMALL PRINT!)

I had the pleasure of reviewing The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery on my review blog, the Reluctant Reviewer. If you would like a free copy of this wonderful literary achievement rendered in high-quality audio by a terrific actor (and you really, really should want this), answer the question below and send in your answer using the contact me page on this blog. The winner will receive a voucher to download a copy from Audible.co.uk.

The question is:

Which actor narrates the audiobook version of Michele W. Miller’s The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery?

I will pick the winner’s name from a receptacle of my choosing, possibly a hat (but only if I can find one that isn’t a bobble hat), on Wednesday January 14, 2014, some time after lunch.

Good luck!

My Fear of Flying Is Not What It Seems – So Please Stop Trying to Help Me Cure It

flying

After a previous blog post, Why Jeff Bridges is Responsible for My Fear of Flying, in which I may have given the slight impression that the actor of that name is the reason why I am somewhat jittery whenever I am forced to get on an airplane, I received quite a substantial number of communications from people offering me lessons in overcoming this “irrational” fear.

Now, irrational fear is just that, irrational. To my mind, there is nothing irrational about the fear that several tons of heavy metal being held in the sky by pure momentum may, with very little prompting, suddenly cease to remain in the sky. And the added component of that fear, that the subsequent transferal of this heavy metal object from sky to ground is likely to be a harrowing experience for anyone inside, or indeed in its way, as it hurtles inexorably downwards, also seems to me to be quite reasonable.

In truth, to call what I have a fear of flying is misleading. The flying bit is great. When I get on an airplane, flying is exactly what I am hoping it will do. What I am afraid of is that gravity will have a good look at the airplane as if endeavors to push its way into the atmosphere and point out, with a gentle tap on the fuselage, that large heavy objects are supposed to go down, not up. It is not the flying I am afraid of, but the crashing.

“Ahah,” the anti-phobics say, when I politely repel their offers to overcome my fear of flying with a variety of solutions that have variously included hypnotherapy, counseling, Benadryl, gin, and chocolate, “but far fewer people die on airplanes each year than are killed in car crashes, fall of cliffs, or eaten by giant worms.”

As a strategy to help people to overcome fear, quoting statistics about other potential threats always seems to me to be counterproductive, but it is what people invariably do. All that such statements achieve is to add to my fear of flying a fear of driving in cars, taking cliff side walks, or visiting giant worm emporiums.

So thanks for the offers, but I do not wish to spend 450 dollars or euros on a course of five lessons to overcome what I perceive to be quite a rational response to the laws of physics. I will continue to drag myself onto airplanes, making sure that I have written a will beforehand, sending any last messages I have for people I know before frantically switching everything to airplane mode as soon as the Switch off Laptops light comes on, compulsively checking for the position of the emergency exits and gauging the number of steps it will take to get to them in the blind and smoky panic of one of the innumerable plane crash scenarios that play out in my head.

No, this fear is not irrational at all.

From Twitter, with Love and Gratitude

twitter

Three weeks or so ago, Twitter e-mailed me to congratulate me on the one-year-anniversary of my Twitter account. I was impressed that a faceless corporate body had taken the time to remember such a thing (albeit most likely via an automated computer program), especially in light of the fact that I hadn’t remembered the anniversary at all.

So, imagine my surprise, when I returned to my house later that day to discover that Twitter had also sent me a large bunch of flowers, thanking me for putting up with so many irritating updates to the Twitter app, the kind that change your settings so that the app wakes you at two in the morning with the news that three people you have never heard of have just followed someone with an egg for a face and the twitter handle @fjfjs84jf74jdu.

Two days later, a card arrived, expressing Twitter’s appreciation for me having put up with promotional tweets appearing on my Twitter feed, distracting my attention from all the riveting tweets from writers trying to get me to buy their books. (On that note, if writers want to sell their books, why do they follow other writers? Has their experience of the writerly profession not taught them that this is the one social grouping most guaranteed to have no money whatsoever?)

You would have thought that Twitter would have shown their affection for me enough at that stage, but the next day, I was again surprised to receive a gift from them of a brand new Google smartphone, replete with a 46-inch display and all apps and numbers replaced by a direct button connecting me to Google headquarters, on the theory that all I have to do is tell Google what I want and they will do it for me. A tiny card from Twitter accompanied the gift, informing me that this was in appreciation of my having ignored over 1,000 needy direct messages from Twitter users thanking me for following them and asking me to like their Facebook pages as well. The card explained that people ignoring so many of these requests was responsible for a certain drop in usage of a rival social network that made the people at Twitter very happy indeed. Twitter users who ignored over a million DM requests of this nature, it pointed out, were rewarded with small blue ticks and Hollywood mansions (or Killiney ones, if you would rather have Bono as a neighbour than Justin Timberlake).

A week later, two executives arrived at my house, offering to clean my windows, make dinner for a week, and drive the kids to school. This, they explained, was in appreciation for my having propped up their organization to the tune of over 3,700 tweets. They explained that they felt that this was the least they could do given the substantive imbalance between their immense salaries and the annual income of the average Twitter user.

In case the reader is either deluded or possessed of an unusual abundance of optimism, especially in relation to the corporate sector, I probably do not have to explain which of the above events actually took place. If you are in either of the categories I mention, I leave you to enjoy your happy optimism/delusion. Who am I to get in the way of such happiness.