A Kinder City-Social Science Fiction and the New Canterbury

by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, University of Kent

Canterbury is rich in writers of all sorts, perhaps the result of university creative writing courses, the wide range of independent tutors, groups and bookshops and the many opportunities in the city to talk about one’s writing and engage with readers. Also, of course, many of the people who live here just enjoy being literate and make books part of their lives. I’m one of them.

Recently I have been publishing novels. A Kinder City, out now, is my most recent and this article is about how and why I wrote it. It’s what might be called social science fiction or SSF. If science fiction is about how new discoveries and new technology might impact on our lives, social science fiction is about how all the social changes and developments that might make a difference to us. It deals with how our lives might change and how we might strive to control them for the better. In some ways SSF books can be thought of as thought experiments. You can use them to try something out. What if all the inequalities of race and ethnicity were inverted overnight, or the internet really did rule our lives, or we built a wall with armed guards to keep immigrants out, or all the ‘winner take all’ privileges of wealth meant that ordinary people simply became the slaves of the rich?

My book imagines a world run entirely on market principles so that all behaviour and interaction must be governed by a calculus of hazard and advantage, profit and loss? No place for compassion, humanity, friendship or love. What then?

For one thing, such a world would need to frame the supremacy of supply and demand in law and establish an incorruptible police to enforce it and ensure that the One Law, the law of the market, reigned supreme. For another, investment would be stimulated, monopolies would flourish, growth would be rapid and the gap between rich and poor would widen to a chasm. But maybe people wouldn’t attach such importance to differences in gender, faith, sexuality, class, ethnicity, age, region and all the rest. It’s the money that counts.

The story imagines the catastrophic impact of such a system on the environment. There would be nothing to stop the wealthy from buying up nature and seeking to extract the maximum wealth from it. If everything is market-based why not a market in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat? Sold to the highest bidder! The challenges of life in MarketWorld in some ways resemble the problems we face as a result of our contradictory but simultaneously commitments in the 21st century. On the one hand we have made the market the most important institution on the planet. On the other hand we have become increasingly unhappy about the consequences of market power in the gulf between rich and poor nations, in the looming environmental disaster and in poverty in our own society, coupled with a permanent housing problem and the insidious growth of workplace stress as the century progresses.

The novel tells the tale of some of the citizens of this imaginary future, in particular of Sarah, an outsider, and of David, a rather prim enforcer who believes in the virtues of market law. No matter how many times Sarah is told that the market solves all problems she just doesn’t get it and rebels against the grim law of the market David falls hopelessly for Sarah. Their relationship is, to say the least, tangled, and their struggle with the wealthiest citizens in MarketWorld forces them to confront their own assumptions as they journey through the underside of their society.

I also explore some of the issues about law and politics in such a world. How could people protest if any conflict is to be seen as an attack on market freedom? Would solidarity be possible? How would peoples’ ideas about the life they wanted and about their family and their friends change? What about corruption and bribery – just an extension of market principles or a subversion of them? What would citizenship be and would it matter? Would it just depend on money?

Then there is the place of those who don’t – or can’t – succeed in the market. How would welfare or social care work without a state, if there was such a thing? And so on.

Writing in this way enables me to think through ideas about how the real world is changing and how it might change. When we reflect on the New Canterbury, the rapid expansion of the city and the weakness of any regulation, the pressures for further growth, the determination to build the economy around commuting, tourism, trade, education and health and social care, we see a world just a little bit like MarketWorld.

We need to consider what all this means for the environment on which we depend, not just for recreation but for our mental and physical health and, for some us, our livelihood. What will it mean for the already sharp inequalities between people from different backgrounds and for those living in different parts of the city?

Books like A Kinder City help us to reflect about some of these issues and the possible consequences of different directions in development from a variety of perspectives. We have many scientific approaches to them, based on reason and the debate between different interpretations of facts and priorities. We are not entirely rational creatures and most of us wouldn’t want to be. SSF novels can add an approach that includes our emotional side and enables us to think about where we are and where we are headed from a completely new perspective.

It’s not clear that current approaches resolve our problems in a satisfactory way. Why not consider different ways of thinking? Novels have their shortcomings but they do enable us to ponder the issues that face us in terms of how real people with their passions, mistakes and emotions might respond and how that might work out. One strength of thought experiments is that they don’t cost anything. If we don’t like the direction in which one takes us, we can vary the starting conditions and envisage a different outcome.

Canterbury is a city of workers, commuters and voters. It is also a community of writers and readers. The diverse work that they produce and discuss merits attention because it shines a different light on the issues that confront us. The value of SSF novels is that they help to broaden understanding of how cities like Canterbury are changing and where it might be headed.

Peter Taylor-Gooby, author of A Kinder City available through most bookshops and e-book outlets, for example: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09WYYM15L/

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