The Secret Origin of Marvel’s Earth-616 (the Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Marvel Studios logoI been working or a book about Marvel’s Earth 616. The working title is
The Secret Origin of Marvel’s Earth-616 (the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or Alternate Universes and Why To Make Them.
If you’re a publisher interested in this, please get in touch. Make me an offer I can’t turn down. Here is the idea and the opening extract:

Summary

The Marvel universe is one of most successful cultural phenomena of recent times. Marvel Studios produces films that consistently outgross most others. Marvel’s stories and pantheon of characters exist within a ‘multiverse’ consisting of multiple universes, and the principal one is called Earth-616. Most of the films, TV series and comic books take place within this version of the universe.

The universe was created by David Thorpe when he was writing Captain Britain in the early 1980s while editing comics for Marvel UK. Originally intended as an alternative universe, it subsequently became the main one for Marvel’s stories.

This is his story of its origin and meaning, and discussion of his other comics projects. In the process David discusses how he came to work for Marvel and what it was like, the golden comics scene in Britain in the 1980s when Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore rose to fame, the importance of alternate realities and secret identities, the reasons for the appeal and success of Marvel superheroes and the Marvel universe, and relates fascinating anecdotes about Marvel and other comics creators and top literary authors of graphic novels he subsequently commissioned and edited.

Foreword

Just over 30 minutes into the movie Spider-Man: Far From Home, Mysterio tells Spider-Man that we live in a multiverse. “This is Earth dimension 616. I’m from Earth 833.”

Hoo boy, as Stan Lee used to say. I got a thrill when I heard this. Because I invented Earth 616, which is where most of Marvel’s films and stories are set.

Sheesh. For, at the time of writing, the total worldwide box office revenue for Marvel Cinematic Universe films is US$ 22.56bn, four times more than DC Comics’ superhero films. It’s the most successful film franchise of all time.

There’s a story on the Internet that I don’t like superheroes. Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re aspirational. They’re inspirational. And these days you can’t get away from them.

As a child I decided I wanted to work for Marvel Comics one day. And would you believe it, I did – in the early ’80s, in the London Bullpen, although I was more like a lamb than a bull and we didn’t use pens, they were so old school, we had a modern golfball typesetter. I edited comics and penned a few tales about Captain Britain. I invented a few crazy characters that, in the Marvel way, took on a life of their own.

And an alternate universe. And the concept of the Marvel multiverse.

How was anybody to know at the time that by this universe, Earth 616, despite the best intentions of its creators, would go on to become the main Marvel universe, in which most of its stories take place. And many other universes within the multiverse have since mushroomed and continue to do so.

This book tells how that universe – and the idea of alternate universes within Marvel – came to be – because of the crucial role of Marvel Comics and superheroes in my life. Think that’s sad? Read on.

‘Cause along the way I reflect on why so many people love superheroes, and on the vital importance of alternate universes and secret identities to me – and perhaps to you, even if you don’t know it.

I also reveal some other interesting stories about the inspiration for Earth-616, the origin of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and more about the rest of my involvement with literature and comics.

If it changed my life for the better it might change yours. I hope so.

Preface

Everyone needs at least one universe to escape to, as long as there’s a way back.

A universe in which you can be yourself.

Discover who you are.

Find treasures.

And emerge into the mainstream universe more whole than when you left, bearing gifts – for yourself and for others – gifts that enrich your life and work.

A universe isn’t necessarily another place.

It might be another way of looking at the same universe.

It might be a secret universe inside yourself.

Or it might be the same universe with something very subtly changed.

And that thing could be you…

Why Marvel has universes!

I didn’t set out to create the Marvel universe, of course, and no one was more surprised than I to discover that I had. No one person could do that anyway. It’s in the nature of the beast that Stan Lee and his rogue’s gallery of artists brought to life, like winding up an immense clockwork machine that it is a collective endeavour, the product of many creatives who together make up a hive mind.

It evolves over the decades by a kind of unnatural selection that ensures its ongoing survival and adaptation to changing tastes and markets. It’s like a massive instance of that surrealist game, Le Cadavre Exquis, or The Exquisite Corpse, where successive players complete a story with disregard for what went before, a notion that appeals to the surrealist in me immensely.

So the Thor of today bears only passing resemblance to the Thor of the early nineteen sixties. Each age gets the heroes it needs and deserves. And the Earth 616 of today is not the same as the one I dreamed up. But the concept of alternative Earths is the same, and, though many, they are finite and connected. Marvel needed this concept to resolve a number of paradoxes and questions concerning the relationship between its version of Earth and ours, not to mention, when the movies started being churned out, between the version in some of the comics and others, and the one in the movies, each of which are necessarily self-consistent but mutually inconsistent, if that makes sense.

Earth 616 was a convenient pre-existing universe to serve this purpose. No matter that our intention in creating it had been almost the opposite: to create a version of Earth separate from the rest of the Marvel universe where we could do what we liked. The Marvel way is nothing if not pragmatic. So I didn’t mind when I discovered this is what had become of my baby.

On the contrary how could I help but feel immense pride that the small seed I planted in the garden of Marvel’s past beginning with the Captain Britain story in Marvel Super Heroes #377, September, 1981, has borne such strange fruit. It’s provided a rich ecosystem to support amazing entertainment. It provides another example of one of my mottos in life, which is: you never know – you can never tell what will happen when you put things out there. It could have vanished without trace. But it didn’t, proof of another belief, that you can’t keep a good idea down.

So if you enjoy the Marvel cinematic universe as much as I do, making seem real all those epic escapades that boggled my brain as a youngster, providing hours of escape from dull everyday life (the real reason why I like and why I’m sure you like superheroes), also be grateful that these cosmic battles and wanton destruction don’t occur in our universe and that Thanos isn’t going to be an uninvited guest at your birthday party.

This book tells why.

What is Earth 616?

Marvel Comics is 60 years old. For the first 25 to 30 years there was just one Marvel universe, and it was nameless. With the exception of non-superhero characters (like Millie the Model and Rawhide Kid) and characters linked to franchises (Transformers, Star Wars), all of Marvel’s stories were meant to build into a consistent meta-novel, hundreds of thousands of four-colour pages in length.

The amazing Spider-Man, invincible Iron Man, fabulous Fantastic Four, uncanny X-Men, incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, the Silver Surfer, Captain America, the mighty Thor. Just to utter these names is to conjure worlds of associations for fans! From the time of the publication of the first Fantastic Four in November 1961 and the first Spider-Man tale in Amazing Fantasy 15 in August 1962, the characters and their adventures proliferated, expanding exponentially over the years in an intricately connected web of fantabulous interdependent developments.

From the start, Rule One of Marvel was that writers and readers were meant to know everything that had gone before. Writers would build on the first few years’ foundations laid by writer/editor Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck, an increasingly massive and complex superstructure, a towering edifice housing thousands of corridors, stairways and rooms, each containing a story, an event, a character. Editors’ footnotes often explained these internal references and cross-references. It was meticulous, miraculous and maze-like.

Woe betide writers and editors sometimes accidentally overlooking a past incident, or contradicting one, for they would suffer a deluge of letters from fans notorious for possessing the memories of elephants. (“In Human Torch #3 Xemu was called Zemu.” ) Anyone pointing out such a genuine and significant mistake would be rewarded with a no-prize, but editors would frequently contrive creative reasons to explain away these apparent anomalies.

To start with, when everything was written and drawn by a small team, Rule One made sense. This was when Marvel was owned by publishing company Magazine Management run by Martin Goodman, publishing besides superhero comics, pulps, “girlie” magazines, Hollywood scandal rags, true crime, horror, western, humour, paperback books, and comics. The Marvel Bullpen that Stan hyped in the letter columns and editorial pages in early Marvel comics probably had no more members than the fingers of your hand. In the early days of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, Stan Lee was crammed in a cubbyhole of an office with Flo Steinberg, a part-time Sol Brodsky, and the occasional production artist. The artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and so on, were freelancers who would pop in to drop off their work in exchange for a cheque from Flo. No one had time for error-checking.

Besides, a self-consistent universe was a great way to sell more comics – you had to read them all to get the full picture. Cross-title continuity and guest-starring of one lead hero in another’s title were encouraged (the appearance of Spider-Man always improved sales). As more writers and artists were drawn into Marvel’s gravitational orbit, and the number of titles proliferated, the superstructure became more and more unwieldy, in line with the Law of Increasing Complexity which states that simplicity never lasts, just as entropy – disorder – always increases.

So mistakes were frequent, and spotted by letter writers.  The best ones were Spider-Man being called Peter Palmer (in his second story), Hulk being David Banner, and Mister Fantastic’s hands often being drawn left-for-right by Kirby (not difficult to get wrong when his arms stretched and tangled so far!). Ever one to turn a problem into an opportunity, Stan made up the “No-Prize” in 1964 to reward spotters, but only if they could provide a plausible reason why it wasn’t really a mistake. It was a joke — there was no actual prize/award – but many readers didn’t get it, so after three years a real no-prize was invented in the form of an empty envelope bearing the message “Congratulations, this envelope contains a genuine Marvel Comics No-Prize which you have just won!”. Needless to say, some still wrote back wondering whether Marvel had inadvertently forgotten to put their “prize” in the envelope.

Under editor Paul Neary’s direction I created Earth 616 as a way of avoiding such contradictions. Taking over Captain Britain from me, Alan Moore continued this innovation.

I didn’t just create one alternate Earth, but almost an infinity of them: the concept of a Marvel multiverse, which was straddled and steered by the sublime Saturnyne and her faithful Avant Guard team. Once the multiverse’s existence came to the attention of the New York bullpen, they began to realise their own possibilities for it. Writers who came up with fabulous storylines for characters that couldn’t be published because they’d break Rule One of Marvel now had a way out: situate them in an alternate universe! The Ultimates are a foremost example.

There was one critical factor in why Earth 616 became the opposite of what we intended by its creation, i.e., the main Marvel universe: we did not tell the New York bullpen why we invented it. I just guess that they assumed our stories actually happened in the same universe as theirs – because their, original, universe, crucially did not yet have a number. Neither did I, or Marvel UK editor Paul Neary, or Alan Moore ever give it one – the square root of minus one for example. If we had, things would be different. Earth square root of minus one would have been the main Marvel Universe and 616 would have remained a minor dimension, perhaps a dumpbin for weirdo British superheroes.

Artist Alan Davies encouraged writer Chris Claremont, when he took over writing the character again on Excalibur to explicitly state this assumption that “our stories inhabited the same universe”, and this is how Earth 616 became the principal reality for the majority of Marvel’s superhero tales.

That’s the power of naming.

Not that editors in the NY Bullpen necessarily went along with this. Several are on record as saying that they never use the term Earth 616, and they would like it to die out. But nobody has told Marvel Studios. They continue churning out movies – 23 so far at the time of writing grossing over $22.5 billion – set in this dimension. And no one has told Disney, who own Marvel since 2018, hence the excellent documentary series on its streaming channel, Marvel 616.

Some people have become totally pedantic about this. These fans and creators hold to the tenet that Earth 1218 is our reality, where superheroes and other super-powered beings don’t exist, and we read Earth 616 comics while watching movies set in Earth 199999.

They argue that the movies can’t exist in the same reality as the comics because things happen differently, such as Hank Pym made Ultron in The Avengers comic book, not Tony Stark as in the movie. Both The Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock were big players in the Infinity War comics but they are absent from the movie. And Black Widow and Hawkeye were definitely not founder members of the Avengers in the comic book, as they are in the movie.

But so what? In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Aunt May is relatively young and fit, while in the original comics she is grey-haired and frail, Ned Leeds didn’t exist, and MJ was a red-head. Peter Parker didn’t tell anyone he’s Spider-Man in the ‘sixties, but in the movie this secret is known to a select few. Who cares? It’s explicitly set in Earth 616 and follows on from the Avengers movie quartet storyline, ergo they’re in 616 too.

The same myths and legends from cultures as diverse as India and Greece have been told scores of times in a multitude of interpretations. Those vivid tales of Karna or Krishna from the Mahabharata have been adapted for screen and stage over and over. Compare Ovid’s version of Orpheus and Eurydice to Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Pasolini’s movie. There are scores of variations and differences but the stories’ hearts are identical. That there are differences doesn’t signify that they take place in another universe.

This is the purpose of a legend or myth: they are open to reinterpretation by successive generations, as long as they remain faithful to the essential truth they carry, to the personalities of their characters and to their themes. We love to see or hear familiar stories retold again and again but with changing emphases.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were insistent that their stories had a similar status – that they were the modern era’s equivalent of Greek, Norse and Roman pantheons. Perhaps they are. Whether it’s Batman versus the Joker (so what that it’s DC?), X-Men versus Magneto, or The Hulk versus his alter ego; or whether it’s Ariadne and Theseus versus the Minotaur, Icarus and the power of flight, or Prometheus and the theft of fire from Olympus leading to his punishment and Pandora’s box, we never tire of them. Because these tales, like that of Earth’s heroes versus the death-god Thanos, and his love for Gamora, tell us profound truths about human existence.

So of course the Marvel cinematic universe is identical to the mainstream comics’.

But what do you think? I think alternative universes are a different order of meaning. They’re not reinterpretations of similar storylines, they’re different ecosystems, different ‘what ifs’. It’s like the difference between two arrangements of the same song and two totally different songs. Listen to Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends, compared to the Beatles’ original, or Paul Anka’s My Way as sung by Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious. Both wildly unlike each other but recognisably the same chord progressions, words, melody. Bob Dylan and many rap artists even frequently change the words during performances, but, as they say, the song remains the same.

When Alice went through the looking glass, she entered a parallel world and met the Red and White Queens, who didn’t exist in her world. When Captain Britain entered a parallel world he met Captain UK. There’s the difference in a sentence.

The authors of the title Deadpool had meta-fun with this concept of multiple realities, and the notion that we, the comics readers and creators, live in a different universe from the comics. Borrowing ideas from Laurence Sterne’s satirical eighteenth century novel Tristram Shandy and Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, they sent the eponymous anti-hero to our reality, now numbered by Marvel as 1218, to kill themselves, but Deadpool failed because by definition he can’t appear in a reality with no superheroes and instead he created yet another alternative universe.

At this point these lines from the Tao te Ching, one of the most ancient and profound books on our Earth, come to mind:

The name that can be named is not the real name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Let me paraphrase:

The name that can be named is not the real name.

The nameless is the beginning of our universe.

The named is the mother of ten thousand universes.

The bottom line is that stories set in Earth 616 – not to mention other universes – are proliferating (in line with the aforementioned law) and super-successful. Marvel’s films and tv series, from Thor to Black Panther and Spider-Man, consistently rank high in ratings and box office. It’s bigger than the James Bond franchise. Marvel has become like Apple – a global giant and brand worth billions. Steve Jobs was Stan Lee – the front-man and the face of the intellectual property he championed and the company he led. I’ll analyse this success later.

It was certainly nothing like that when I was employed by them. Those were the wilderness years, when it kind of lost its way, unable to perceive the value it held. It was subsequently owned by make-up company Revlon for a while, who spectacularly messed up. For the Babani Brothers, who ten years earlier held the UK licence and owned the British bullpen, we might as well have been pushing out stories about teddy bears; they didn’t care as long as they could cream off a little profit and own a Rolls Royce.

In that wilderness we were able to plant a seed, one which would grow, like Jack’s beanstalk, into a mighty Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, encompassing the world and inhabited by giants.

This book is the story of that seed.

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How to write climate fiction!

This is the third in a series of three posts about climate fiction. You can find the first here and the second here.

Fashionably dressed man and woman sitting in an open expensivecar

Who are they? Send in your answers…….

If a citizen living in pre-20th century Britain were to be told that in the future they would be able to travel anywhere in the world in a few hours, to buy any food from anywhere in the world at a local shop throughout the year, have free healthcare, most likely live until their 90s, and hold a device in their hands which could give them any kind of knowledge they asked and permit them to talk to anyone in the world, and to see their faces, they would think the future was some kind of paradise.

Well we live in that age and we know different. We have threatened ourselves with the end of life on earth including our own end, in order to have these unnatural luxuries. We know the cost.

It seems to me that in imagining a future free from climate change we must be careful to imagine what kind of costs that might have. Every decision presents a dilemma. The purpose of governance is damage limitation; minimising the negative consequences of any decision. Unintentional consequences must be thought through.

Climate fiction consciously thinks through these consequences.

Why do we need climate fiction?

Because climate facts alone have not convinced sufficient people to make a difference.

Human beings are fundamentally emotional before being rational. You want to reach our hearts? Don’t rely on facts.

We are also storytellers. It’s how we remember things ever since we learned to walk upright. If I tell you the story of how Uncle Norman went too close to that cliff in the north-east and fell off you will remember to be careful yourself. This works because we have an emotional connection to Uncle Norman.

Stories connect with emotions and we are more emotional creatures then we are factual.

Of course you have to know your facts. You should have researched the science and the solutions. Perhaps you are involved in solutions in your location.

Give them to people.

What is the future of climate fiction?

In a trivial sense, since we are now and henceforth living in a climate changed world, then all fiction will be climate fiction if it’s not set in the past.

Climate fiction is no longer the exclusive province of science fiction and fantasy, if it ever was.

Any genre, including poetry, can take climate change as its theme, and already has.

Personally I am waiting for a climate comedy that will really break out and reach audiences that have not been reached so far.

Here is a poor attempt to use humour to make a serious point: As I’m writing this, energy companies are raking in huge profits. The breaking news is their bosses are making a public announcement: “We are the evil geniuses who caused climate change. Just give us £2000 each and we’ll make it go away.”

This is satire that is also plausible. They can do this too. If Microsoft can promise to offset all the carbon dioxide it ever caused to be emitted, so can the energy companies, by using their vast wealth to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. That should be a condition of their being able to conduct business as usual.

Mass-market soap operas are making a reference to climate change. It’s become a subject impossible to ignore.

Why not write a short story?

I’ve written many short stories about climate change. Some of these are about the unintended consequences of action on climate change, so they serve as cautionary tales.

These stories – At the Crux and For the Greater Good – reflect my interest in ‘one planet’ thinking – the ecological footprint as a measure of sustainability. I asked myself: if the country set itself the same task as one planet development in Wales – of satisfying the needs of inhabitants within the confines of a global fair and equal distribution of environmental impact – what could be the implications for the population? Living like this would demand monitoring of the entire ecological impact of the country and dividing it by the population each year.

School Strike for Baby Hope and Beacon arose from my experience of being in my local Extinction Rebellion group. We had many successful actions in Swansea and joined the national demonstrations in London. School Strike For Baby Hope appeared in Teens Of Tomorrow: Stories of Near and Far-Flung Futures, which explored possible futures through the stories of twelve courageous teens.

In 2015 I was invited to the Free Word Centre in London’s Islington, with fifty-plus other writers. They paired us with climate scientists to instruct us in aspects of climate change, from the history of climate change to the impact of refugees fleeing Africa and other hot spots.

We were then asked to imagine the consequences. The result was a collection of short stories that was published by Cambria Press under the title Weatherfronts: climate change and the stories we tell, and launched at the Hay Festival.

The previous year my cli-fi novel Stormteller was published.

We all feel threatened by climate change. We feel powerless to do anything about it. So I wanted the novel partly to be about giving some degree of optimism. It looks at the question of rewriting the endings of stories: ours – about climate change – and two old legends.

How will your climate fiction empower people?

You are about to write something, aren’t you, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

So tell me. Who are those people in the picture at the top of this page? What do they have to do with climate change? We should be told. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.

 

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The history of the future

This is number two in a series of three blog posts about climate fiction around the following discussion to be held at the Life Centre, Newcastle on 14 September 2022: https://www.life.org.uk/events/cli-fi.

Read the first post here.

Life Speakeasy Climate Fiction event promotion Image

Humanity – and I mean that part of humanity which rode the crest of the industrial revolution – began the 20th century believing that with science we had conquered the world; Nietszche declared that God is dead, Einstein seemed to prove that we had taken his place when he united energy, matter and time, but Freud discovered a new side to human beings, a hidden part, our unconscious minds, that could trip us up when we least expected it.

That would happen in the 20th century, with two world wars, the Holocaust, and the invention of the atomic bomb. We learnt what it meant to be God – with as much power as was attributed to God – if you are a human being (with an unconscious mind).

Ever since then we have been so dominated by the idea that we could destroy the planet at the touch of a button that we have been unable to deal with the bigger existential threat, climate change, even though science warned us about that too, 60 years ago (both threats have provided a context for my life). We have been paralysed in the face of this unprecedented warning.

In this overwhelming context Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most pertinent and prescient novel ever. The first wave of climate fiction novels and stories lived in its shadow, as did most dystopian fiction. Apocalypse was our creation; the end of the world our doing, not God’s judgement. Dr Frankenstein was a scientist; his creation turned into a tragic monster.

Cover of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein penguin Classics edition

Science has delivered huge benefits, but there have been unforeseen consequences.

It is the job of science fiction and climate fiction now to reconcile science with humanity, humanity with science, and to let humanity understand how it can live with its unconscious mind, unifying itself to become decently and properly responsible for every living thing on the planet that is their home.

To achieve this requires some humility on our part.

No writer is producing work of this nature better than Kim Stanley Robinson. Ministry for the Future paints one picture of how we can confront our dire future, with a set of plausible solutions.

Front cover of the book the Ministry for the Future, and a photograph of Kim Stanley Robinson its author

Front cover of the book the Ministry for the Future, and a photograph of Kim Stanley Robinson, its author

Some of these he discovered in his own research, others he has imagined. His book has inspired many, who now seek to close the circle by applying these solutions in the real world.

How rare it is that a work of the imagination has such power.

The third post in this series is here.

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Climate change is here. It’s the job of writers to give us hope.

urban food growing in Detroit, USA

A solution to climate change from my book One Planet Cities: urban food growing in Detroit, USA.

I’m David Thorpe, a writer of climate fiction amongst other things, including lots of academic books and articles on climate change, but I’m probably best known for my work for Marvel comics.

I wrote a comic book in 1990 for Greenpeace to educate children about global warming. I started writing my first climate fiction novel Stormteller ten years ago.

This led me to be on the first climate fiction panel at the Hay literature festival and make contact with Dan Bloom who is responsible for popularising the term clifi.

Climate fiction’s roots were in dystopian fiction. Its first phase was to try to scare us out of our complacency into action with dystopian, apocalyptic stories of scorched and drowned worlds.

We are now in the second phase, I believe, where we are depicting solutions to, or ways of living with, climate change.

It’s something I called for in my 2018 Book, ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits, which itself contains hundreds of examples of such solutions and a climate fiction short story.

We are now headed for certain for some kind of climate changed future. So the idea that describing an undesirable future would inspire people to avoid it didn’t work. It’s already here, with forest fires, unbearable heat and flash floods.

We need to imagine a successful future before we can build it. Writers are well-placed to do this, with our imagination and storytelling skills plus a little research.

These are messages of hope. Hope is what we need. Hope that even if it’s too late to save ourselves we can at least save our children from the disasters we can see coming if we carry on doing nothing.

There are thousands of solutions out there, for climate adaptation and mitigation. Most people don’t know about them, including politicians, so there is plenty of material for writers and for stories.

And God knows we need some hope as we swelter in the baking heat, the land burns or houses drown.

The purpose of climate fiction is not simply to warn the world about what is happening, but to aid preparations for what has not happened yet.

The most alarming global trend, apart from still-rising emissions that mean we are on course for 2.5C of heating, is the unexpected speed with which it is already causing chaos.

Given what we now know about the impact of the present 1C of warming, it is no exaggeration to say that this trajectory is not only suicidal but murderous.

The purpose of writing messages of hope is like delivering a placebo: if the doctor tells you you have a chance of recovery from a fatal disease this is like a placebo and you are more likely to live than if they tell you you are certain to die.

Stories describing how people are coping with climate change give us that hope.

Stronger than hope is faith or belief. Better than faith is knowledge.

Science gives us knowledge. Religion gives us faith (but it has its own problems). Writers can give us hope. This is our job now.

This is the first in a series of three blog posts around this theme. Read the second one here.

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I never expected this

It is now eleven months since my life changed completely because I had a stroke. I was in hospital for 11 weeks. I thought my recovery would be a lot faster.

Nothing can prepare you for a stroke. You don’t think about it until it happens to you. I thought that because I had a good diet, always been vegetarian, and exercised regularly I would continue to be fit until my 90s.

Then one day you wake up and wham!

Several months later I am still in a wheelchair and my left arm is fairly useless.

I want to thank first of all my partner who takes good care of me, which is a miracle in itself, and the team of domiciliary carers who work for Carmarthenshire Council and help me to get dressed and have a shower every morning.

Let’s also hear it for the NHS nurses in Glangwili hospital, the occupational therapists and physiotherapists, counsellors, my personal assistants who I’m able to employ because of the direct payments from Carmarthenshire Council and because I receive attendance allowance, the government support.

Nurses and social care staff are underappreciated and underpaid and there aren’t enough of them but they are amazing people doing wonderful work and we need more of them.

Meanwhile my recovery is very slow but at least it is going in the right direction. And I am coming to terms with a whole different kind of lifestyle than what I had imagined for myself at this time of life.

Coming on top of my cerebral palsy makes it more difficult. I’m trying to sort out which symptoms are due to this since they are lingering after the others clear up.

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What’s left to write about

Various Dadaist collages and artworks by Raol Hausman, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst and Richard Huelsenbeck

The world is now so post-dada that absurdist meta-commentary has become mainstream. How should writers respond? What is left?

102 years after Cabaret Voltaire and 340 years after Candide we find ourselves in a similar age of pessimism where everybody except our noble leaders can see that we are headed for disaster.

Think you can survive by pursuing expanded consciousness or mindfulness? But I don’t want to be mindful of the current shitspace, nor let my consciousness expand into it. That’s the precise reason I want to escape.

Besides cultivating your own garden and burying your head in the sand of eternal Netflix bingeing, the only other response people have is the darkest humour.

But, sadly for the cynical intelligentsia, reality is beyond satire, unless we are talking about the fad for identity politics and fiction. This fad favours certain minorities over others: if you are black, a woman, gay or transgender this is your time, for what it is worth, since the average attention span is now less than the time it takes to repress an unpleasant thought.

Any other minority is invisible as they have always been. The favoured minorities have their day in the spotlight, but, as this is the end of the world as we know it, no one is watching except their friends.

The original dadaists wanted to escape the horrors of World War I. I want to escape the whole damn shitshow.

Do you do this by following Voltaire and describing in minute detail like a correspondent of the Apocalypse every atrocity the privileged and powerful are inflicting upon the majority and upon the natural world?

Some are scrambling to turn their smallest piece of suffering into click bait, while those who are genuinely suffering are passed by like beggars on the sidewalk; pity is a rapidly inflating emotion. We don’t like to feel it.

Shame is the other taboo; it does exist, just as much as before, but few will admit to it.

Do you describe the fundamental importance of friends and family relationships as the only thing that truly matters when the shit hits the fan?

But I abhor horror and cruelty, and family is too often dysfunctional. Where does that leave me? Confused. Mixed up. Angry. So that’s what I write about.

I can’t be only one who feels like that. How about you?

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Books to change your life

Sometimes reading can change your life. This post tells you the books that changed mine. Tell me what books changed yours?

Read more on the Shepherd website

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New climate fiction! Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut!

I have two new short stories out! Both very different kinds of climate fiction…

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut

So It Goes Vol. 10 – The Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, The Good Earth: Vonnegut and the Environment is a new compendium of stories honouring the wise fool’s commitment and advocacy for Our Good Earth.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote about the evolution of man and his destruction of the environment in his 1985 novel Galapagos.

This collection tackles everything from forest fires to floods to all kinds of environments as they relate to people and their struggles and joys.

My contribution is “The Sense of Smell”, a very short tale involving a little  girl lost, set in a future sustainable city neighbourhood. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s a pre-order link: https://kvml.square.site/product/so-it-goes-vol-10-the-journal-of-the-kurt-vonnegut-museum-library/518

Teens Of Tomorrow: Stories of Near and Far-Flung Futures

AND… Teens Of Tomorrow: Stories of Near and Far-Flung Futures explores possible futures, near to today, through the stories of twelve courageous teens grappling with their realities and the roles they aspire to play as the future unfolds before them. Stories like that of:

  • a boy scientist battling lions in Kenya
  • a student activist taking on the caste system in India
  • a teen mother joining a climate strike (my contribution)
  • an anti-gun protester at a school shooter drill
  • a cyborg social media star striving to self-actualize
  • and a space colonist fighting corruption amongst her own crew.

Incorporating personal issues of race, sexuality, gender, ability, class, religion and politics with global matters such as the environment, technology, healthcare and social reform, these stories are as urgent right now as they will be in the turbulent years sure to come.

Buy on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Teens-Tomorrow-Stories-Far-Flung-Futures-ebook/dp/B096SCTWSW/

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In praise of the NHS

I’m in Glangwili hospital, Carmarthen, recuperating from a stroke. I’ve written this rap poem to say thank you to the incredible nursing, physio and OT staff, who every day go beyond duty to help all patients. I hope someone records this!

Scene: Hospital waiting room

Patients (slow intermittent chant throughout)

We are patients

we are patient

We are waiting

to be seen.

We are patients

we are patient

We are waiting

to be seen… [etc.]

 

Nurse

We treat all who come through our door

Don’t matter if you’re rich or you’re poor

Young, old, you’ll all get told

where your bed is and where your ward

 

Doctor

24/7 we’ll diagnose

Always open, we never close

Get you in triage, process you

You need a heart massage or an abcess removed

 

Nurse

Do our best whatever the cause

We’ll stop your clots and wash your sores

We’re overworked and underpaid

but we’ll make sure your bed is made

 

Doctor

X-ray, ultrasound, MRI

Our technicians’re always standing by

You’re in safe hands, we’re here to care

 

 

 

Don’t be scared, we are your prayer

 

Nurse

Got an allergy or a sports injury?

Maybe a Caesarian delivery?

Did you smoke or drink or work too much,

Get into a fight on Saturday night?

 

Doctor

We’ll treat you just the same

Whether you or no one is to blame

We won’t begrudge you, We won’t judge you

Whatever it is that now bugs you

 

Nurse and Doctor (together)

So come on in, wait your turn

All human life is our concern

Come on in, wait your turn

All human life is our concern…

 

All

We are patients

we are patient

We are waiting

to be seen

We are patients

we are patient

We are waiting

to be seen

We are patients

we are patient

We are waiting

to be seen…

 

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Despair at climate change, and how (maybe) to deal with it.

Woman despairing at burning forests

I feel so sad for the future of all life on Earth, and for my children’s future.

I’ve been involved in environmental activism, research and the business of testing and spreading solutions to environmental problems for 30 years.

I always thought we had a chance of saving ourselves and nature from the worst that could happen.

But today I am in despair.

Sir David King, a chief British climate scientist, knows that there are already enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to warm the planet to dangerous degree.

We’ve already passed scary tipping points.

We have the solutions

It’s not that we don’t have the solutions, we do have many of them.

I’ve got one here. And more here.

It’s not even that the politicians and CEOs of corporations, who have the ability to do what’s needed, are still in denial.

It is that they pay lip service. They want to have business as usual and fix the problems. This is not possible.

It is possible for people to have a decent quality-of-life and to solve these problems.

But this entails a change in attitude and understanding. Such a culture change must come before the system can change.

Why isn’t this happening?

We can learn something from the so-called culture war going on in most developed countries nowadays.

The right wing is winning most of these culture war battles.

They win, not by saying that the so-called woke culture is wrong, i.e. racism does not exist.

They win by saying the woke people threaten your way of life. For example, immigrants threaten your jobs.

Take this approach by analogy to the subject of climate change.

Activists can say: we can create thousands of green jobs in eco-renovation. This is good news!

But it is not good news to mainstream business, or to the unions, upon whom both the Tories and the Labour Party depend in the UK.

Too many business models are threatened by the transition to a green economy. These businesses and unions have big lobbying power.

Extinction Rebellion achieved the goal of getting the government to declare the climate emergency and to have a citizens assembly.

The citizens assembly made its recommendations to the government.

You wouldn’t know it, would you?

These have been ignored, because the voices of business are louder in the ears of the Tory government and the voices of the unions are louder in the ears of the Labour opposition.

This is one reason why nothing is done about making existing buildings consume much less energy.

It is why nothing is done about making all new buildings zero carbon.

It is why they still building on greenbelt land, and planning new roads, and tearing up woodlands for HS2.

It is why we have a crazy trade deal with Australia to import sheep when we have plenty of sheep here.

The list of madness is endless.

Only when the fear of the effects of climate change is greater than the fear that their business model will suffer will the main political parties show the kind of leadership that they need to show.

By then it will be too late.

We have already passed the point at which we could make cheap, reasonable changes and still save civilisation from disaster, as suggested by Sir Nicholas Stern in 2006.

This is why Sir David King is proposing drastic geo-engineering.

I can’t seriously see this working. Can you?

So what can you do as an individual?

I can only suggest that you do your best to make where you live as resilient as possible, and start learning practical skills, like growing your own food.

When supply lines dry up because of extreme weather and the supermarket shelves are empty you will need all the skills you can master.

Please, if you feel the same way, I’d like to hear from you.

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