Political Fiction and Contemporary Ireland

by niamh on March 9, 2011

‘Fiction is a route to political truth’, says Gideon Rachman in the FT recently, noting in particular Hisham Matar’s moving novel In the Country of Men, set in Libya in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule, and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, through which we may get some feeling for life in modern Cairo. Reflecting on the great Russian novels, Rachman says that literary fiction in Russia seems to have given way to crime fiction in recent times. Which makes me wonder what novels I might recommend to someone interested in gaining insight into contemporary Ireland.

In Ireland as in Russia, for whatever reason, the genre of crime thriller is flourishing. Journalists and dramatists such as Gene Kerrigan and Declan Hughes set their novels in the Dublin criminal underworld. John Banville adopts an alter ego, Benjamin Black, for his detective fiction evoking an unfamiliarly noirish 1950s Ireland. The Twelve, by Stuart Neville, is about unfinished business in the aftermath of the Northern Troubles. Alan Glynn’s fast-paced thriller Winterland dramatizes the world of politically well-connected Dublin builders and businessmen at the height of the construction frenzy of the mid-2000s.

But the Irish literary imagination doesn’t seem to engage very readily with grand socio-political issues or state-of-the-nation fiction. It is perhaps too soon to have a literary meditation on the calamitous economic crash. But even so, there has been relatively little serious fictional treatment of the rapid shifts in Irish society during the 1990s and 2000s. Why might this be?

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New Crooked Timber Blogger

by Henry on March 9, 2011

Niamh Hardiman, who has been blogging for us and off, has very kindly agreed to come on board as a permanent member of CT. She is a senior lecturer at University College Dublin (where both Maria and I did our degrees), working on a variety of issues in European and Irish political economy. We’re really happy to have her join us.

Obama and Bush

by John Quiggin on March 9, 2011

The announcement that military show trials are to recommence at Guantanamo Bay, combined with the brutal and vindictive treatment of Bradley Manning, make it clear that, as regards willing to suppress basic human and civil rights in the name of security, there is no fundamental difference between the Obama and Bush Administrations. The first obvious question is, why? The second is, how to respond?

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When the Machine Started

by Henry on March 9, 2011

The great “what will we do when the machines take over” debate continues, but surprisingly little attention has been paid to the arguments of licensed speculative economists science fiction writers, who have been engaged in this debate for some decades at least. The Bertram/Cohen “thesis”:https://crookedtimber.org/2011/03/07/oh-noes-were-being-replaced-by-machines/ receives considerable support from Iain Banks’ repeated modeling exercises with slight parameter variations, which find that the advent of true artificial intelligence will free human beings to spend their time playing complicated games, throwing parties, engaged in various forms of cultural activity (more or less refined), and having lots and lots of highly varied sex. With respect to the last, it must be acknowledged that extensively tweaked physiologies and easy gender switching are important confounding factors.

But it isn’t the only such intellectual exercise out there. Walter Jon William’s Green Leopard Hypothesis (update: downloadable in various formats here – thanks to James Haughton in comments) suggests, along the lines of the Cowen/DeLong/Krugman argument, that a technological fix for material deprivation will lead to widespread inequality and indeed tyranny, unless there be root and branch reform to political economy. But perhaps the most ingenious formulation is the oldest – Frederik Pohl’s Midas Plague Equilibrium under which robots produce consumer goods so cheaply that they flood society, and lead the government to introduce consumption quotas, under which the proles are obliged to consume extravagant amounts so as to use the goods up (the technocrats fear that any effort to tinker to the system will risk reverting to the old order of generalized scarcity). This is a world of conspicuous non-consumption in which the more elevated one’s social position the less possessions one is obliged to have. Crisis is averted when the hero realizes that robots can be adjusted so that they want to consume too, hence easing the burden. One could base an entire political economy seminar around Pohl’s satirical stories of the 1950’s and 1960’s – he was (and indeed arguably still is, since he is still alive and active ) the J.K. Galbraith of the pulps. If, that is, J.K. Galbraith had been a Trotskyist. I’m sure that there are other sfnal takes on this topic that I’m unaware of – nominations?