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Monday 24th
posted by Morning Star in Arts

STEPHEN ORAM tells Paul Simon how our current willingness to use social control methods — not for serious political debate and activism in the main, rather for trivia — informed his novel Fluence

Stephen Oram’s second novel Fluence projects current social trends forward by about a decade and reveals a future that has subtly eradicated compassion and dissent.

The country is now run for and by five big multinationals who have replaced all state functions. Inhabitants are constantly monitored, their status and income — the Fluence of the title — measured through their compliant popularity on social media.

The book’s main characters, Amber and Martin, both work for one of the multinationals — one is on the way up to a higher social status and the other barely clinging on to his.

The Morning Star called it a “gifted, detailed and believable novel.”

Oram’s style and literary focus has been influenced by what he dubs “the slightly warped mind of Iain Banks,” Neil Gaiman and George Orwell.

“I have a particular interest in anarchy, especially in community-based power and decision making, but I’m much more interested in observing a particular aspect of our current society and then stretching and twisting it to its extremes.”

With his future society stratified into bands named after the colours of the rainbow, I wondered if Aldous Huxley had also been an influence.

He disagrees. “With Fluence I wanted to convey the idea of different strata levels easily and in a way that could be remembered because I get really frustrated reading books that make it hard to get a grip on what’s happening. That’s why the Fluence strata follows the rainbow from red down to violet. I didn’t intend to echo the classifications in Brave New World.”

In Fluence Oram maintains that he has only nudged current trends forward a little bit, observing our current willingness to use social control methods, not for serious political debate and activism in the main, rather for trivia.

“We seem to be entranced by consumerism, often despite our best intentions. One of the triggers for Fluence was when, promoting my first book, I began to understand more about the manipulative power of the social media algorithms that decide who sees what.”

The importance of algorithms dominates the lives of the main characters who strive to rise to a higher or avoid collapsing into a lower-strata during a once a year accounting.

“In the book the algorithms are important because they determine your level of influence by calculating your social media popularity and other less obvious characteristics such as the clothes you wear.

“In the real world, the fixation on mass popularity, epitomised by celebrity, is prevalent and social media has brought it to everyone’s doorstep with public assessments of how popular you are — the number of friends and likes you get. Human nature leans toward liking someone who is already popular and so in a world where an algorithm makes that decision, based on a corporation’s unknown agenda, you can see the potential to shape society in a far more subtle way than ever before”.

For the author’s overriding concern is that we should take the time to really understand the deal we’re making with the capitalist giants, especially around our personal data.

We should treat with caution their claims that this is just about personalisation and understand that it can exclude exposure to new things and manipulation by those controlling the newsfeeds.

Oram’s perceptiveness comes from his acknowledged position as both an insider and an outsider. Describing his paid work as that of a “bureaucrat” as well as having “spent a lot of time on the fringes of conventional and non-conventional groups,” Oram sees how many organisations on the extremes of that spectrum often struggle with the complexity of being human.

“Observing their norms without being totally immersed in them helps me find the nuggets of strangeness from which to extrapolate an alternative world,” he asserts.

But surely his alternative world today where the state has “withered away” is at odds with the capitalist state currently being at its strongest ever?

“It’s an interesting question and I’m not sure I know the answer. Is the capitalist state stronger than ever or are we in the process of handing power to those who provide us, the consumers, with shiny sweeties? With so much debate about the relevance of politics, it’s possible to imagine a time when nobody will want to be a national politician and there’ll be a vacuum the corporations would be only too willing to fill.”

Reflecting the influence of libertarian communism, Oram seems suspicious of any structures that exist above the purely local.

“I’m speaking at the Greenbelt Festival in a couple of weeks about the extent a society should pro-actively cater for those who want to opt-out and a couple of ideas that are floating around are a universal basic income and devolution to a level where different cities operate different social systems and you choose where to live — look out for an anarchist Milton Keynes.”

So how do we counter this threat? In Fluence, one of the characters suggests that it is not enough to drop out of a totalitarian society, rather to work against it from the inside. Is that Oram’s view? Once again, he answers as both an insider and an outsider.

“I think you have to recognise that society is complex and any simplistic approach is going to miss the point, unless your goal is to be a dictator. If you’re not talking about full scale revolution then you need agitators and you need those that will influence and shape from the inside.”

Oram’s third novel turns the close-future genre on his head and reflects his fascination with complexity. From the sound of it fairness and equality have been achieved, but not everyone is happy.

“It’ll be something along the lines of a multi-generation family living in a utopian society that has ways of keeping any backwards drift in check. Although one person’s utopia is often another’s dystopia.”