Quackery via cartography
You better believe the earth is flat
Imagine, for a moment, you wanted to convince the rest of us that the Second World War involved the German-led EU — allied, of course, with the free peoples of Wakanda — defeating the Nazi UK and US.
Tall order? Surely.
If Simon Edge is right, however, your response should be not so tall.
Edge’s fifth novel, The End of the World is Flat, concerns a well-funded, cleverly conceived attempt to invent the past and sell it to the present under the banner of compassion, anti-racism, and kindness. The novel works precisely because cod science and cod history are routinely sold to the Great British Public (and not only us) in the name of compassion, anti-racism, and kindness. Meanwhile, those who speak up for facts and reason are either siloed in conservative-leaning publications or expelled from the lefty outlets and organisations they once thought their homes: The Guardian, the Labour Party, Stonewall. At times, it seems as though conspiracy theories may as well be called spoiler alerts.
Instead of Stonewall’s attempt to tell us people can change sex and that female is a feeling, Edge introduces his readers to quackery via cartography. A small but beloved map-making charity, The Orange Peel Foundation — rather than winding itself up, its worldly tasks complete — is taken over by a Silicon Valley Big Tech-cum-Bond Villain billionaire who believes the world is flat. Its CEO, an experienced geographer unwilling to get with the programme, is shoved arse-backwards out the door, her silence bought with a “colossal” sum of money. And, of course, a bit of lawyerly dark arts: the now commonplace non-disclosure agreement.
Flipping a charity from persuading people that the Mercator Projection is inaccurate — notoriously making Greenland too big and Australia too small, so much so that people often don’t realise the latter is roughly the same size as the US minus Alaska — to trying to persuade people that the world is flat is, ahem, something of a leap. This means its new “tame” CEO takes a different tack. He draws on academic nonsense developed by a half-smart Yank with a name almost — but not completely unlike — “Judith Butler” to suggest it’s improper to divide the world into things we perceive and our perceptions of them. Instead, all we can go on is perception, which means the only thing we can reliably discuss is what we think we saw.
This is allied with the tedious twaddle one now associates with scandal-plagued development NGOs based in, say, Haiti. Edge has glorious, madcap fun puncturing decolonisation balloons and sticking his fingers up at academics who claim there’s some sort of prejudice against “the Global South”. The “anti-hemispherical” claptrap is funny precisely because it pretends Australia and New Zealand don’t exist or that India, the country with the largest number of people in absolute poverty, is not in the Northern Hemisphere.
Some of the funniest bits involve Edge’s inspired recreations of Twitter pile-ons. Orange Peel’s bots and activists set out in ways familiar to anyone who’s spent time on the Hellsite to police other people’s speech. In doing so, they draw on yet another bonkers academic spin-off: the idea that language constructs reality rather than describing it. This means expunging “global” and replacing it with “worldwide”, sacking a Woking geography teacher for refusing to dispose of the globe in her classroom, and running courses for quangos and corporates where nonsense is propagated by stealth.
Yes it’s London-centric but the “city” in need of saving is also a stand-in for you and me
Edge is particularly acute on the extent to which some activists don’t believe what they’re saying, so can be bought, while others really have “taken on” (as my mother used to say), and money doesn’t matter. Of note is his portrait of the relationship between the young man who reigns supreme after Orange Peel’s old CEO is sacked and his husband, an NHS junior doctor. The scene where the deeply Christian medic — coming off the back of an eighty-hour week — blesses his husband’s involvement in something he knows to be pseudoscience is both haunting and moving.
Helen Joyce of The Economist compared Edge’s satire to Swift’s, and while I can see her point, I don’t think the fit is quite right. Edge is gentler than Swift, for starters, and less bitter. He’s more interested in help than hindrance and likes his characters. Even baddies are rounded out and given genuine motivations. His portrait of London is filled with affection. To my mind, a better analogy is with Aristophanes, especially his great play The Frogs. In The Frogs, Athens — mired in the depths of the Peloponnesian War — is in terrible trouble and needs help. Dionysus (the god of fun, frivolity, and booze) disguises himself as Hercules (antiquity’s Superman), venturing to the Underworld to bring back a famous (but dead) poet. Of course, his costume doesn’t work properly and yes, it’s very funny.
Why do you need a poet? Dionysus is asked. “To save the city, of course”. Remember, too, that “poet” to an ancient Greek or Roman meant anyone who wrote fiction, not just obvious versifiers like, say, Sappho. Euripides (a playwright) was also a poet, as was Apuleius (a novelist). Edge is not simply holding social foibles and cod science up to ridicule. He’s also doing what Aristophanes thought poets should do in circumstances like these: save the city from itself.
Yes, The End of the World is Flat is London-centric, but the “city” in need of saving is also a stand-in for you and me, gentle readers all. The Californian tech mogul using Orange Peel to provide cover for his Silicon Valley influence-peddling is the real interloper. Edge enjoins us to fight off his imported American nonsense and save our city with grace, wit, and charm.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe