Stories Worthy of Respect in a Democratic Society: The Novelization of TERF Island
A review of Simon Edge's fiction
Simon Edge began commenting on ‘gender identity’ in 2021 with The End of the World is Flat. Published in June 2023, his newest novel In the Beginning recycles the same characters with a new lead, expanding his theme with a new story, borrowing truths stranger than fiction to write uncanny speculation about the present.
Publishing has been an especially harsh environment for wrongthink lately, especially gender-related wrongthink. In order to tell stories worthy of respect in a democratic society, Edge has substituted zany beliefs that are not yet in fashion for those that are, circumventing the sensitivity readers. It is not quite as courageous or clever as Pramoedya Ananta Toer smuggling his fiction out of the Buru Island prison camp, but it will serve a similar purpose.
In both novels, Edge shows FIBs (Fashionably Irrational Beliefs) taking over everything, first by design and the second time by accident. Edge takes the term FIB from British Indian writer Ghurwinder Bhogal, who explains that “human intelligence evolved less as a tool for pursuing objective truth than as a tool for pursuing personal well-being, tribal belonging, social status, and sex.” In other words, the smartest people on the planet can adopt the dumbest beliefs just to remain one of the elite. Rob Henderson calls them “luxury beliefs” because the wealthy are insulated from the consequences they impose on lesser mortals who refuse to share them.
Edge depicts a world in which global elites kowtow to the most absurd FIBs imaginable — that the earth is flat, that geology offends a fictitious tribe of Indigenous creationists — for fear of provoking backlash. Both novels are of course a commentary on the real world, the one in which elites have actually imposed absurd beliefs about human sex upon the rest of us in policy and law, and without a debate, because this is not a debate, because FIBs cannot survive ten seconds of actual debate. They must be imposed through blasphemy codes and taboos instead.
At his best, Edge portrays the stunned moment of realization that one is living in the real world, which has somehow gone mad while they were not watching. Tara Farrier is Kevin McCarthy learning about the pod people in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with lesser stakes. She arrives in London from the war zone in Yemen, hoping to change opinions on a complex conflict, only to be derailed by a FIB that the earth is younger than 10,000 years old. How could an atheistic society fall for such silliness?
The answer, which Edge understands but does not explain, is that the crisis of meaning in the modern world afflicts the most affluent, least-theistic societies most. ‘Gender identity’ is purely a First World problem created by the alleged death of God, per Friedrich Nietzsche. We accept all gods and none, becoming modern pagans as new forms of magical thinking fill the void left behind by the dead spiritual regime. Canterbury is still the spiritual capital of Britain, but the new Anglican canon law has been written by Stonewall.
In both of these stories, characters with no interest in ideological struggles become the targets of cancel mobs. Edge has drawn more inspiration from real-world controversies to write In the Beginning than its predecessor. He has re-imagined the Maya Forstater case as the Tara Farrier case, complete with its initial disappointment, the reversal on appeal, and ultimate vindication in spectacular testimony, adding story elements from his imagination.
Real life drama, and social media drama from real life, are his narrative fibers. Emily Zola is an allegorical JK Rowling who creates a firestorm by defending Tara. Tara is dismayed that her son’s girlfriend is a campus protester. Personal and public dramas entangle as satisfying story.
What makes the work fiction, and succeed as fiction, is the deft way Edge neatly avoids the thing he is really writing about. These books make no mention of gender identity, save for an incidental transgender character in the first book. His world exists alongside ours, as a commentary on our world, with all the political issues arising from ‘gender identity’ simply missing.
In the Beginning starts with a creative writing student, Polly Lennox, hating her class, and ends with Polly apologizing to Tara for the throwaway story she wrote about a “potter goddess” with an unpronounceable name. Through circumstances as improbable as the internet, a fictional goddess has been mistaken by academia, government, and major media organizations for a living cult of worship. If that seems ridiculous, Edge reminds us in his afterword that so-called “two-spirit” identities were invented in 1990. He does not add that to say this in public is likely an arresting offense in Trudeau’s Canada.
If I have a criticism, it is that Edge has written two happy endings in these novels. By using a neat allegorical FIB for ‘gender identity,’ Edge also avoids confronting the harmful effects that it has on families, on adults, on children, on society. Edge wants to give Joey Talavera, his erstwhile villain in The End of the World is Flat, a measure of redemption in the second book, and it works for his story. He wants to be humane, for his characters to restore humanity to a world gone mad.
But there will have to be a Truth and Reconciliation Committee for all the children being harmed with puberty blockers, the women losing their sports to men, the female prisoners forced to share cells with men, here in the real world. It is easy to forgive a random Palo Alto billionaire for thinking the world is flat, much harder to forgive elite FIBs that harm women and children.
Simon Edge will therefore need to write a third novel. Perhaps someone has a plan to shrink the brains of children, ostensibly in order to keep them happy? Edge enjoys mocking California academics off-stage, and he has another ready-made inspiration in Diane Ehrensaft. Maybe he can work in a sinister Moloch cult of activists behind the scenes. Whatever plot he chooses, the stakes must increase to round out a trilogy, for there is only so much lighthearted fare that can be drawn from the gender FIB, which has devastated so many families.
That said, these books belong on the gender critical bookshelf. ‘Gender identity’ is bound to go out of fashion, and then humans will spend the next century explaining to ourselves just what sort of foolishness we got up to for the last decade and why. Stories that communicate the current insanity to the future will be essential.
The fiction of Pramoedya Ananta Toer is now seen as primary source material for historians writing about the political mass murders of the 1960s in Indonesia. His works are cited side-by-side with prose accounts from survivors. Likewise, Edge sits well with Graham Linehan, Hannah Barnes, Helen Joyce, and Kathleen Stock. He has novelized the historical moment of “TERF Island” brilliantly. Can he top himself again? I look forward to finding out.
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