Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between


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Based on a true story

This tiger is real and would probably bite you.

A real tiger (not CGI)

I was interested in the most recent revelations (perhaps too strong a word) about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and this piece by Robert McCrum as I’d been thinking a bit recently about the importance of being able to identify what’s ‘true’ in stories and, as McCrum puts it, our “profound, unconscious need to know what genre we’re in.”

I’ve written before about how weird the process of making things up is – that as a novelist it’s not enough to lie convincingly, but rather you have to create interesting semi-patterned fabrications like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist. And if you get it right, the reader will join you in the conspiracy. As Dom Grelsch says to Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas: “Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”

If any book tests the boundaries of genre it’s Cloud Atlas, but even so we have developed tacit cultural agreements about what is and isn’t considered plausible within our stories. At one extreme, in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett writes about the Pirahã people who never tell stories about subjects beyond their direct knowledge, and always demand evidence based on personal experience. (Everett, a former missionary, has all sorts of trouble explaining Jesus to them.) But at the same time, forest spirits can literally take the form of people and animals, and be present even if unseen. Continue reading


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Socialists, eugenics and time travel

A bit of a longer post this time. A recentish piece by Jonathan Freedland on socialism’s past enthusiasm for eugenics got me thinking about (sorry that should read ‘has given me an excuse to write about’) one of those literary Fabians, H.G. Wells, and how he provides an interesting case study on this topic.

A neon sign, Venice

At the turn of the 20th Century, Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. In 1904 he wrote:

“The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Eugenics was by no means only a socialist preoccupation, but Freedland rightly recognises that neither was it at odds with the Victorian-Edwardian Fabianism that it prospered under, with their love of Science and Progress and Planning and Engineering, and other grand ideas starting with capital letters. Of all Wells’ fictional work, The Time Machine (1895) is a useful little prism through which to examine the reasons that eugenics held such allure for ‘progressive’ thinkers in the late nineteenth century. Continue reading