This actuary and science fiction

I was looking through my old blog posts the other day and came across something I wasn’t looking for. Actuaries and Science Fiction told the story of a one-off visit I made to the Birmingham Science Fiction Group (BSFG), when the guest speaker had been the late great Brian Aldiss, who told the story of a time Kingsley Amis had had dinner with Margaret Thatcher. He told her what his book Russian Hide and Seek was about, to which she had responded that he needed to get himself another crystal ball.

By coincidence, I have just joined the BSFG nearly 10 years later (well I needed to think about it!), attending my first meeting online (Anna Stephens – really good about writing for Warhammer and Marvel in particular) and now very much looking forward to seeing Alastair Reynolds at my first in person meeting next month. I now have a bit more context for the Kingsley Amis story, as Andy Beckett has an account of a dinner Amis had at Thatcher’s Flood Street house in the late 70s (before she became Prime Minister). He wrote at the time:

I was rather overcome with the occasion and the fairly close propinquity of Mrs T…very much a new face to me as to most people, too much so to take in a lot about the fare except that it was properly unimaginative, and, as regards drink, ample enough. The hostess wore one of those outfits that seem to have more detail in them than is common, with, I particularly remember, finely embroidered gold-and-scarlet collar and cuffs to her blouse…[she was] one of the best-looking women I had ever met and for her age…remarkable.

And he also attributed the following quote to Thatcher herself:

People have always said that the next election is going to be crucial. But this one really will be, and if it doesn’t go the way Denis and I want then we’ll stay [in Britain], because we’ll always stay, but we’ll work very hard with the children to set them up with careers in Canada.

Anyway, back to Aldiss. He had told the story as he felt it showed how Thatcher (and he was not just picking on her as he felt this was a view held by many) misunderstood science fiction. It was not about prediction of the future, but for people who “liked the disorientation” of portraying an unfamiliar landscape.

Ursula K. Le Guin goes further in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (just finished it and, if by any chance you haven’t read it already, it is an amazing piece of immersive world building which will leave you never feeling the same way about gender again). As she says:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are offered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honoured in their day than prophets, and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business…All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.

And, my favourite bit:

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

Who wouldn’t want to do that? It struck me while I was reading those words how the pandemic was something which changed all us survivors a little (and some a lot of course) and in ways that are often hard to put in words. But we are changed and there is work to do to try and understand how, even if that cannot be completely put in words.

The other thing from the introduction which has stayed with me is Le Guin’s contention that, while we read a novel, we are bonkers: believing in people who have never existed, hearing voices, perhaps even becoming other people. As she says:

Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

But what about when you can’t close the book? Are we, to a greater extent, condemned to some level of future insanity? As William Faulkner said:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

In 2013 I tried to suggest that actuaries might also be about portraying an unfamiliar landscape and trying to work out what would hold true under different circumstances, and that they should therefore put themselves about a bit more, even if they sometimes made themselves look a bit foolish in the process. As William Hynes reminded me at yesterday’s excellent An introduction to alternative economic thinking event (recording available soon from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries), the group of economists responding to the Queen’s question as to why noone saw the 2008 crisis coming, concluded:

In summary, Your Majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.

If a failure of imagination is the main problem, I would suggest that science fiction must be at least a part of the solution. Looking a bit foolish at times is a bit of a speciality for me, so you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I am devoting most of my time from here on in to an almost certainly doomed attempt to write what Le Guin might regard as a good novel. I have been here before, way back in my pre-actuarial past, and have a nice back catalogue of unpublishable books and rejection letters to look at whenever I forget that I have no idea what I am doing. But if I find myself shouting to noone in particular that what I am trying to say cannot be said in words, I might dare to believe that I am on the right track.

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