Blog hop: Accessing The Future Fiction

The Future Fire is crowdfunding an anthology on Accessing the Future, exploring ‘disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality’. The Future Fire, and the editors (Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad), are pretty awesome people, with a track record for publishing interesting intersectional fiction, so it’s a really promising project, and I encourage you all to support it.

In line with that, Djibril collared me via twitter to take part in the blog-hop, ‘Accessing The Future Fiction’ to raise awareness of the Indigogo campaign. My mission is to answer for you the following questions:

  1. Tell us about your Work In Progress (WIP) / Current Read (CR) and the world it’s set in.
  2. Who are the most powerful people in this world?
  3. Where does their power come from?
  4. What physical and/or mental characteristics underpin their positions of power?
  5. How does this affect the weakest people in the world?

Tell us about your Work In Progress (WIP)

I have two main works in progress at the moment, both of which are on hold until I finish the dreaded PhD, all of which is currently being held up by both physical and mental illness (exhaustion caused by iron deficiency and depression). So for me it’s just interesting to note this real life intersection between physical impairment and fictional flights of fancy. It leaves me a question, though: do I tell you about my superhero novel? Or the one with the clones?

Let’s go with the superhero novel, as it’s the closest to completion.

The novel is set in a world very much like our own, except that somewhere in the mid-twentieth century, certain people started to develop superpowers. Or what we might call superpowers – whether their abilities and physical differences from the norm make the characters who possess them either super or powerful is up for debate.

The main character, Daniel Loxley, has both visible privilege and invisible abilities and illness. He is a white middle-class man, but he is also bisexual, and he suffers from a depression that grows to an incapacitating extent towards the climax of the novel. He is also a superhero. Danny was born with wings – wings that he can absorb into his back, so as to appear like a normal man, or have burst forth, allowing him to soar above the city and all its problems. He’s also stronger than the average bear and more resistant to injury (although by no means invincible). On evenings and weekends he is the Winged Guardian – protector of Archester. By day he works as an advertising creative, whose poor time-keeping is leaving him in hot water, both at work and amongst friends.

On Saturdays, Danny catches lunch with his superhero best buddy, Street, a black woman with superhuman strength – much stronger than Danny. By day, Street is a social worker dealing with troubled kids. By night she tackles their troubles head on. Although they are close, Danny and Street don’t talk about their real lives – each tacitly afraid to reveal too much about themselves. And when Danny is overwhelmed by an experience saving a child from a burning building, he doesn’t have Street’s phone number, doesn’t know her real name – there is no one he knows he can talk to about his problems, except for Angela, a wealthy woman and complete stranger who discovered Danny’s identity by accident.

The action of the novel takes place in the fictional city of Archester, which I wanted to present as a specifically British city in the way that Metropolis, Gotham, and so forth have come to represent American cities. It therefore combines that eclectic mix of old and new architecture that marks most British cities. It has a castle and a cathedral and old city walls, but it also has striking modern skyscrapers of metal and glass, the sumptuous modern apartments of the wealthy, the middle-class suburbs, and the inner city poverty. In this way, the world of The Winged Guardian (working title) is in many ways just like that of any British city, only, you know, some of the people have superpowers.

Who are the most powerful people in this world?

None of the protagonists. It’s not really a story about the most powerful people. If anything, power in the story rests with groups of people, not with individuals.

Danny is white and male and middle-class, but he’s also had a side of himself that has been completely ostracised his whole life. About which he has been taught from childhood he must not tell people. It means that when he is at his most vulnerable, he cannot turn to any of his friends.

Angela has wealth, but not Bruce Wayne levels of wealth. She invested a small inheritance in a friend’s internet start-up in the early naughties and has done very well by it. She has a nice apartment in a nice area of the city. She’s free to use her time to create her own art and invest in the art of others. Her wealth gives her the freedom to look after Danny when he really needs it, but she doesn’t have the kind of wealth that would enable her to single-handedly enact real change.

Street has physical strength, but feels powerless to help those in her community who really need her help in her day-to-day life.

It is his own inability to affect real change that, combined with post-traumatic stress, leads to Danny’s very public mental breakdown.

Power lies with the media, and public perception, and inaccessible politicians. On the smaller scale, friends can help one another and sometimes save individuals, but the societal roots of the problems that lead to crises persist.

Shit, that sounds a lot more negative than the book is. I think in part because I’m trying to minimise spoilers. But yeah, I guess… power lies in collective action, not individuals.

Where does their power come from?

Hmmm, tricky to answer when we’re not talking about individuals. I suppose three forms of collective power  are loosely grouped.

1. The power of the mob – public reaction, public prejudice, publish lashing out on easy targets to blame for their own pain

2. Civic power – power of the police and social services to govern the way we live and try to protect the innocent and downtrodden. It’s a power granted by our collective agreement that such services are valuable, but undercut by bureaucracy, insufficient funding, and the tide of political will

3. The power of activists – a more fragile power. Small groups of people trying to change the way we think about society and act towards each other; powered by passion and ideology and the persuasiveness of the individuals making up those groups, I suppose.

What physical/mental characteristics underpin their positions of power?

Pfffffffsdfmdm – again, this is a difficult question to answer when I don’t see any of my characters as really in positions of power. I mean, Danny’s boss has power over him, I suppose, but not so much in the wider world? I suppose that’s interesting to discuss anyway, although I’m not sure if that was quite what you were intending.

Danny’s boss is a compassionate, but organised person. She can be flexible, but also hard-edged. We first meet her early on in the novel when she calls Danny to task for being late into work, again, and letting his team down. She bears the threat of possibly firing Danny if he can’t get his shit together. But at the same time, when the crisis really hits him, she wants to work with him to get him through it. She is not without heart, and she will try to work with the rules on behalf of her people, but at the end of the day she is also working on behalf of the business.

I suppose you would say she is mentally strong and willing to make the tough decisions, but also possessed of a broader grasp of the situation and able to see those employees as people with needs that require support, too.

How does this affect the weakest people in the world?

Well, I answered that last question specific to Danny, who is not the weakest person in the world. He’s certainly vulnerable, but ultimately, he is not without friends and family, he is white and middle-class, and male. It could be worse.

I suppose his boss’s support of him when he needs it most is a real plus. It gets him going again and helping himself. But her initial critiques of him when she doesn’t know what’s going on do have a negative effect. Ultimately, though, she’s not taking action that reaches beyond helping those who are already fairly well off – working for a successful advertising company. And how could she? She doesn’t have power that extends beyond that.

Street is the person who works most closely with the most vulnerable – the poorest people, people who have very little, or no safety nets at all. People who do not have friends like Angela to take them in when they can’t look after themselves. And Street has very little power within that field. She works within the confines of the state, and the state just doesn’t care sufficiently about these people. Which is what leads to the kind of political, racial, class, and religious tensions that generate events like the bombing in which Danny gets caught up in. Street takes to the streets at night to try and make a difference she cannot behind the desk in the day, but even so, it’s hard to quantify whether she makes a real difference.

I suppose, at the heart of the novel, is a real question about power, and in whether it is something any individual can possess (outside of roles bestowed by the people as a part of their governance). I’ve become increasingly puzzled by the idea that someone like Superman could really be a ‘God among men’ just because he has superpowers. I mean, they’re pretty great superpowers, but he’s still just one man, and I don’t know that I buy into the idea that Just One Really Cool Man can save us all. Superpowers =/= power in any significant sense. Symbols have power, but even where a single person has become a kind of symbol in their own right (Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Mandela, Martin Luther King), I’m not sure how much they achieve simply through that, and a lot of that symbolism comes from being a leading light in a movement, not from some nebulous notion of personal power, and certainly not from simple physical power.

This has been an interesting exercise for me. I’d thought about the individual power dynamics, and the interplay of privilege, with regard to this novel before, but not so much in the context of the wider world. I suppose it reveals some of my own anxiety about our abilities to affect real change and help those who are really in need. As is the case with a lot of my WiPs, there’s a strong theme of the importance of sharing information – telling each other about our experiences and listening when someone does speak up. Making ourselves into the kind of people others feel safe talking to. For myself, I find being able to talk openly about mental health issues is so important, and making such subjects taboo is really damaging. Lack of understanding and misunderstanding breeds prejudice. Raising awareness and the humanising of ourselves to one another is of central importance.

So I guess that neatly rounds us off to the conclusion that anothologies like Accessing the Future play a really important role in doing that. Go support them. You know you want to.

I nominate Jessica Meats and Mina Kelly, should they choose to accept it!

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