Freedom of Trade

Ben Frost

Ben Frost


Just over two months since my last short story, I’m posting a new one called Freedom of Trade and already in less than an hour it’s earned nearly two dozen mostly negative votes on Stories Online. But let’s be honest if I was expecting to get positive votes from a website whose readers are predominantly American redneck men who vocally support the more rabidly libertarian tendencies of the Republican Party (but not so much the Bible Belt tendency), I’d never post to the website and would most certainly not post Freedom of Trade.

However, it could be said that the exact target of this story is well chosen in this case as the story is a fairly brutal attack on exactly the most libertarian aspects of the American Dream. It basically posits the notion of what a world that is only a couple of steps away from the real world would be like if the libertarians did indeed have their way and capitalism was truly as free as the Rand Pauls, Ayn Rands, Alan Greenspans, Donald Trumps and the like seem to say they’d like it to be. Although they perhaps might support the open and free sale of guns and pornography, they might draw the line at hard drugs and indentured sex workers (which is just an obfuscation for sex slaves).

In a sense, this story could be seen as a companion piece to Thoroughly Modern Emancipation in the sense that it is a kind of satire on America’s worst traits and its woeful history with regards to the institution of slavery, but there are many differences and they definitely don’t belong to the same universe (to use a Stories Online concept).

Whereas Thoroughly Modern Emancipation is a kind of alternate history story where the slave trade never gets reformed, Freedom of Trade isn’t set in any specific place or time, and it isn’t really set in America. It could just as well be set in any English-speaking country in a kind of parallel present.

So, what’s the purpose of the story besides a way of annoying Stories Online readers in what they believe is a hermetically sealed environment where they can voice their peculiar opinions without fear of contradiction?

Well, inevitably there is the serious side which is to imagine just how untrammelled capitalism might work. The sex slave angle is more just a conceit to build a kind of story around something which is both rather horrible in practice (if you pause to think about it) and also titillating to those who in countless websites (and not just sex story sites) believe that this kind of thing is good fun rather than something nightmarish and squalid (as can be seen in the movie, Room).

And I wonder how much the negative votes the story’s attracted already is simply because this vision of libertarianism is disturbing to exactly those people who most avidly advocate it.

President Donald Trump and Vice-President Sarah Palin

Apocalypse in New York

Apocalypse in New York

Let’s imagine that every nightmare you’ve ever had has come true and the United States of America votes for President Donald J Trump and Vice-President Sarah Palin.

Just how would this play out in reality?

In truth, Donald Trump is probably no worse than the other Republican hopefuls. Ted Cruz is, if anything, a worse candidate and the others are either downright scary or ridiculous to an extent that only the most stupid are unable to recognise. But he and, of course, Sarah Palin are way worse than David Cameron who has turned out to be the worst thing that has happened to the UK since Margaret Thatcher. In fact, while Cameron presents himself as some kind of Blue Liberal, his government makes Thatcher’s term in government seem remarkably moderate in comparison.

What would a Trump government do?

The hopes of all those who are not natural sympathisers of the Republican Party as we currently understand it (which probably includes the majority of Republican senators and presidents from before the 1980s) is that reality and pragmatism would determine the direction of policy rather than the nut-job ideas that masquerade as policies at the moment. Instead of being racist, sexist, anti-environmental, xenophobic, intolerant and hypocritical, a Trump presidency (like Nixon’s and Eisenhower’s) would temper all the nonsense that appeals to its base support (stupid white southerners) with the recognition that the world’s environment really is going to shit, that nuclear war isn’t worth the posturing, extremists don’t respect American rhetoric and the interests of the top 62 billionaires (whose wealth equals the wealth of the world’s bottom 50% ) doesn’t equate to the interests of humanity and the planet we live on.

However, people thought that in 1932 when Germany’s government changed, foolishly thought this was true of the Soviet Union, hoped might be true of Mao’s China and sometimes wish could be true of North Korea. But I fear that Trump may have more in common with the Salafist extremists whose malevolent influence now dominates Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Just as ISIS and the chess-hating Islamic clerics have taken advantage of the common desire for a simplistic interpretation of Islam, Trump and Palin have taken advantage of the stupidity of that sizeable minority of the first world’s most unequal society and the one that is also most obese, most likely to be shot and most likely to be burdened with phenomenal debt to pay for the medical care that is free in most of the rest of the world’s wealthy nations.

So, it is just about possible that America will be so disenchanted by Hillary Clinton (or that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is genuinely unelectable) and we see America ruled by the two most ridiculous and dangerous leaders ever known, able to pursue their appalling policies with the support of the already insane Republican politicians in the Senate and Congress.

And then, either the world doesn’t survive the first or (God forbid!) second term, or America squanders all the international good will it’s earned since having elected Obama as president and further sinks in international standing as it further fucks up its environment, arms itself to the teeth at the detriment to its already strained public sector, and sees its faith in the power of capital rewarded by its flight to tax havens and more politically stable nations.

There are those who might welcome this as the necessary pre-condition for world revolution, but the last time these conditions were in place (as a result of the First World War), the outcome was very unpleasant indeed.

I would much rather the risk wasn’t taken and even though Hillary Clinton is no Obama, no Mandela and no Kennedy, she may be preferable to any of the current Republican candidates.

But then, that honour could also be extended to a bucket of cold shit.

The Austerity Floods

Winter weather Dec 27th 2015.

Winter weather Dec 27th 2015. Members of a Mountain Rescue team paddle along Huntington Road in York, after the River Foss and Ouse burst their banks.

There are several responses possible with regards to the floods in Britain, the peculiar weather in the United States (tornados, snow and unseasonably warm, but not in the same place), warm winter in Switzerland, forest fires in Australia and floods elsewhere throughout the world. The most obvious is that “We told you so”, but unfortunately a smug response isn’t really a satisfactory reply to the misery of millions and the tragedy of thousands, especially given that in many cases the overstretched emergency services have only saved as many lives and property as they have thanks to genuine heroism and great self-sacrifice.

In truth, as far as the Western World is concerned the issue isn’t that the authorities are ignorant of the worsening affects of climate change, but that they wilfully ignore it (sometimes also accepting cheques to do so from the Koch brothers and other wealthy sponsors) and in many cases in the pursuit of a narrow political agenda has actively made things worse.

With regards to the latter, I would urge anyone from the UK to read this article by George Monbiot in the Guardian that spells out the ties between austerity for those unlikely to ever vote Tory and the subsidies for the Tory paymasters, and how this has contributed to the chaos caused by the floods:

Obviously, my own opinions are fairly close to those of George Monbiot, but even for those who might protest at the implication that the interests of the wealthy are necessarily to the detriment of the remaining 99% and the planet we all share, it does seem fairly indisputable that this blind creed of “taxes bad and public spending worse” does conflict with what is required to prevent the damage caused by the climate change that in itself is a product of the doctrine of greed to which almost all Western (and most non-Western) powers follow so blindly.

What use is austerity when its end result is mass poverty, environmental degradation that will spare no one and the ever-growing risk of civil unrest?

Beyond Satire

Republican Candidates 2016

Republican Candidates 2016


It is a cliché of course to say that this or that event is so ridiculous, so absurd, so egregious or so thoroughly disgusting that it is beyond satire, but the truth is that there is much happening in the world now that is exactly that.

As a writer who characterises himself as a satirist, the woeful set of characters who parade themselves for the nomination of Republican candidate for the presidential elections is an obvious case. ‘Ridiculous’, ‘stupid’, ‘insane’ and so on are simply not sufficiently descriptive as adjectives for any one of these characters any of which would normally be considered well beyond the pale.

As someone with a kind of moral compass who is concerned about the survival of the planet and the people who live on it, who is concerned about social justice and the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged, who is opposed to social discrimination on any non-moral grounds and who would rather live in a world where the transition through the 21st century to the next should have as few nasty shocks as possible, the crowd of sociopathic, self-seeking, deluded and ultimately dangerous individuals is truly shocking. And of all of these, Donald Trump is only the worst because his demagoguery even shocks those of the only moderately extreme right (i.e. they aren’t so stupid as to actually believe the nonsense broadcast on Fox News).

This has not been a good year for those of us who would like satire to act only as a warning of how bad things can be, rather than an objective view of the world. The Tories won the British General Election and continue to slash and burn in pursuit of an austerity imposed only on those who can least bear it. Rupert Murdoch has shown that however much evil you perpetrate, in the end money and power in the media will always buy you a Get Out of Jail Free card. The American congress has successfully immobilised the American political process and laid the blame on a president whose main strategy seems to be to be as moderate and compromising as he possibly can. And now like the fools who step in where all but angels fear to tread, all the world’s powers have signed up to an agenda set by the most insane extremists since Pol Pot and the Cultural Revolution, who instead of a Proletarian Year Zero and a Little Red Book, parade a perverted version of Islam distilled from somewhat unspecific passages selected with care and prejudice from the Quran. And provoked by outrages in France, Egypt and elsewhere, we now demonstrate that no lessons at all have been learnt from the debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which are now in a much worse state before the body bags came home).

Sometimes, I wonder whether my satirical fiction No Future rather than being a satire is some kind of Nostradamus-like prediction of what will actually come to pass.

Or maybe that my satire, rather than being extreme, erred more on the side of caution.



Lesbian Fiction

Having a break - Sostene

Having a break – Sostene

I recently got another very nice review for my novel Alif on Smashwords by a reader, SophieD, whose preference, judging from the list of books she enjoys, is for Lesbian fiction, especially those set in imaginary societies. And on all counts Alif  is clearly a novel that delivers.

However, it does raise an issue that often causes me concern. Why is it that so much of my fiction involves lesbianism and, given that I am not a lesbian, is it right that I should write on such matters?

This is a difficult one to answer because an axiom often used is that one should only write about things you know about. But this is a crime that I’ve committed countless times. Not only am I not a lesbian, I’m not even bisexual, I’ve never had sex with a man, I am not at all attracted to sexual relations with children or animals, I can’t imagine having a sexual relationship involving any of the elements of Bondage, Submission, Dominance or Masochism, and the list goes on. (My sexual peccadillos really are nothing to write home about).

But on the other hand, I’m also not black, a fundamentalist Christian, disabled, transgender, a prostitute, a mediaeval peasant, or countless other things that I’ve written about.

I suppose all I’m saying is that fiction is an opportunity to imagine oneself as something different to what one is.

But, on the other hand, a reader is well within his or her rights to demand that the fiction is a truthful reflection of what that might be.

And that is, of course, where the difficulty lies when someone writes as much as I do from perspectives that are absolutely imaginary.

I partly dodge that accusation by making most of my fiction satirical or ‘about’ something. In that way, it can be argued that since the object of the stories is not just an explication of a certain type of person or lifestyle, it has other objectives which can therefore justify not being an absolutely true reflection of the fiction’s characters.

Another way I have of dodging the accusation is that I do make a huge effort to be as truthful as I can be. I’ve had many friends and associates who belong to most of the social or sexual groups I employ in my fiction (not to mention different races, religions and social backgrounds), so I use as much of that as I reasonably can. And where I can’t be sure, then I use that range of behaviour, attitudes and emotions that are common to everyone. I might not know for sure, for instance, what it is for a man to be attracted to another man, but I do know what it’s like to be in love and I do know what sex with another person can be like.

So, this is a kind of roundabout way of saying that I am genuinely very pleased that a reader of lesbian fiction has enjoyed my fiction and that my portrayal of lesbian relationships have not been too far wide of the point.

Into the Unknowable

Into the Unknowable

Into the Unknowable

I suppose I ought to simply ignore bad reviews of my fiction and indeed this review of Into the Unknowable by Austin12345 is so unambiguously bad that perhaps that’s exactly what I should have done.

However, he is right. There is a great deal of what could be called pornographic in the novel as indeed there is in the whole of the Anomaly Trilogy. I can only accept the criticism as it stands, though I think the sexual element isn’t really much more prominent than in many other Science Fiction novels and is mostly there to justify the novel appearing in Sex Fiction sites (many of which are becoming increasingly queasy about the darker side of sex or indeed of life as a whole). Perhaps I should just eviscerate the sexual content. It wouldn’t make much difference to the length of the novel and would require only a few tweaks to maintain the narrative. By this I don’t mean that I’d remove the incidence of sexual activity, just the explicit depiction of it.

However, out of interest I looked at the rest of Austin12345‘s reviews, of which there are many. They are all reviews of Science Fiction novels, many of which promise similar Space flight adventures as in the Anomaly Trilogy, and most of which also earn the reviewer’s scorn.

I think I’d probably agree with Austin12345 in his assessment of much of what he’s reviewed (although I’ve not actually read any of the novels that he covers). His criticisms relate to poor editing, poor use of English, repetitive style and being derivative. None of the others, however, are criticised for being pornographic so, whereas Into the Unknowable is not criticised for the stylistic reasons most of the others are.

Where I might disagree with Austin12345 is his belief that the Science in Science Fiction has to be Scientific. Although that’s what I prefer and I really have problems with novels with faster-than-light space travel, unrealistic distances between bodies in space and countless misunderstandings of the physics, biology and chemistry of the universe, those Science Fiction stories are generally the ones I avoid. But if I reviewed a novel which contravened the Laws of Science, I’d generally let this pass rather than use this factor to be the reason for damning it outright. (Though with universal access to Wikipedia one would have thought it would be dead easy for a Science Fiction novelist to check the facts).

What these reviews tell me is why I don’t and wouldn’t post negative reviews on the internet. There are too many targets and there is too much opportunity to be critical. It’s great fun to read Austin12345‘s reviews and I have been tempted to write such fun reviews myself on the huge body of shoddy amateur fiction on the internet.

But, beyond being fun, what would the purpose of it be?

I’d just upset a lot of people (often in a very hurtful way) and nothing would be gained. The badly written novel would remain bad. And the only ones to get satisfaction are those like me who don’t mind a chuckle at someone else’s expense (and no doubt shouldn’t).

That’s why the only story reviews I shall ever post will be ones of stories where I believe there is considerable merit.


Teenage Jihad




It is difficult to know what to say after the horrendous attacks on the innocent citizens of Paris on Friday. The horror we all feel is not only because we feel sympathy for the victims but also the all too obvious reflection that if this could happen in Paris in the sorts of place where there isn’t normally an apparent need for security then it could happen to any of us anywhere in the world: not just Beirut, Baghdad and Kabul where we have become inured to such carnage, but also in Paris and no doubt London, New York, Berlin and Moscow.

However, little analysis has been done as to what type of person becomes attracted to commit these crimes. An article in the Guardian gives some insight as to what incites this Teenage Jihad, and what it reveals is that the stay-at-home terrorists who carry out such atrocities have rather more in common with fantasists like Anders Breivik and the bored American teenagers who at least once a week shoot up fellow students and cinema-goers.

You could say for Breivik and for the teenage followers of Islamic State that there might be an element of ideology underpinning their relish for massacre, but I would say that the tenets of Islam, just like those of the radical Right, are not necessarily a set of instructions to take AK47s into the street and shoot down strangers. In fact, I think the real motivator is the attraction of inflicting violence on other people and the means to do it. In all these cases, Anders Breivik, the American teenagers and the ISIS jihadists, there is a very similar pattern.

First there is the motivation, which as we know from the countless cases of American teenage mass-murderers, is often a very weak kind of excuse that becomes hardened over time more by a process of reinforced self-delusion than brainwashing or even ideology. Although many of the teenage jihadists may well think their reward lies in the afterlife, my guess is that it is rather more nihilistic and much more about going down in a blaze of glory. It is likely that it is more images of a Hollywood hero dying in the final few frames of a movie with a grim smile and suitable background music than images of an eternity worshipping Allah that motivated them towards what most of us would consider the ultimate sacrifice.

Secondly there is the means. In America, these are bought over the counter at Walmart and other reputable stores. It’s not that difficult to buy weapons in Sweden and Norway (although mostly as protection against bears and wolves). And Islamic State has the necessary stash of weaponry in Syria and Iraq and also has the means to distribute these lethal weapons to French, Belgian and other teenage militants should they show the willing to use them.

Thirdly, there is the planning which when stretched over a long time and conducted sufficiently dispassionately, will make the whole exercise into a kind of game that appeals to an aspect of human nature that we all share and that is the need for a kind of purpose and meaning to our daily lives. The problem with the planning involved here is that the end result isn’t to pass an exam, catch the right combination of trains and planes to get on holiday or organise a pension, but to be involved in action that will almost certainly end in the perpetrators’ death.

The preparation and cost ultimately leads to a sequence of events that for those engaged is probably more like a video game. It is exciting, it is deadly and, for the kind of people most attracted to it, the carnage and chaos is undoubtedly fun.

Which it most definitely wasn’t for those in the cafes, restaurants and concert theatre where the guns and bombs were used.

I don’t know what the right response to all this should be and I guess the security services and the elected governments have a duty to apprehend the criminals and secure the safety of ordinary citizens. And after so much provocation, I would be surprised if the conflict in the Middle East doesn’t lead to a more conventional kind of warfare. But this has all become very ugly, will become uglier still and there will be much injustice perpetrated on both sides before it’s resolved.

What I don’t expect to see is the same restraint practised by the National Rifle Association and the American Republican Party towards the continued sale of lethal weapons in the United States extended towards the rights and freedoms of Muslims whether in America or on the other side of the globe.