Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Perceptions of society

Descriptions of a society is like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant; a partial insight is indistinguishable from a lie.

Iceland just had a referendum on its constitution. Over two-thirds approved and, moreover, over two-thirds voted in favour of specific reforms that they felt the new constitution had to have.

The story told about post-crash Iceland is almost like a fairy tale. A nation that threw out the banksters and cleaned up after being betrayed by its financial class. A left-wing government was voted into power. The debts of the public were written down. Financial crime was prosecuted and corrupt government officials brought to justice. A new constitution has been crowd-sourced and written by the people themselves. The government refused to kowtow to the demands of the UK, EU, and the IMF, and through unorthodox economic policies has returned to economic growth. The government has rejected austerity. They passed a media freedom/free speech law that was written with the advice of Wikileaks.

That is the story told about Iceland in foreign media.

And it’s almost entirely a lie.

Some small fry in the finance industry have been prosecuted and convicted. The big fish not only all got away but continue to own large chunks of Icelandic society. The so-called left-wing government followed the IMF playbook to the letter, receiving praise from the IMF for the work they’ve done. Most of the policies they have put into place would make Thatcher proud. Two officials were prosecuted. One got away with a slap on the wrist (no punishment). The other’s crimes were so blatant that despite the best efforts of various factions in Icelandic society, they had no option but to convict him for insider trading.

The rest all got off scot-free, despite receiving large amounts of money from the banks.

The debt write-downs were almost instantly rolled back by index-linking. Icelandic society is in the middle of the greatest mortgage crisis in its history. It’s a powder-keg waiting to explode.

The constitution wasn’t crowd-sourced but written by a committee appointed by parliament (itself largely composed of the same corrupt members of parliament who ran the place pre-crash). The committee draft, which is what the Saturday referendum was about, is non-binding. The referendum question was whether the new constitution (which will be written by MPs) should be based on the committee draft, not whether it should become our new constitution. The Independence Party, the likely winner of the election next spring and so the party that would have to implement a new constitution, is already claiming that it isn’t bound by the results of the referendum because they don’t feel like it. (Essentially, their logic is as tenuous as that.)

The Icelandic government has already paid most of the Icesave debts, despite what the media may tell you. The dispute between the UK, Iceland, and other EU countries is entirely about how much interest is owed, not about the validity of the debt itself. The supposedly left-wing government tried time after time to accept the UK/EU demands but were overruled as the President forced a referendum on the laws. Which is a Presidential power that is very likely to be dropped from the new constitution.

Yes, there’s a good chance that the gloriously democratic crowd-sourced constitution will be used to roll back the reach of democracy in Iceland.

By any calculation, the Icelandic government has engaged in unprecedented cutbacks in social services, healthcare, education, and support for the elderly.

The growth of Iceland’s economy is probably down to capital, trapped in the country because of the currency controls, overheating the real estate market.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative that was passed by the Icelandic parliament was a non-binding resolution, which is a handy way of disposing of things you never intend to implement. The actual media laws that were passed require the registration of every single media outlet, TV, print, radio, or website, that intends to deliver news and commentary to the Icelandic public. Failure to register will result in a fine. The same media law includes new provisions for blocking the IP-addresses of illegal content.

Most of the news you hear about Iceland is a partial truth that, like the blind man describing an elephant as a snake, becomes a lie.

The truth is that Iceland is a corrupt oligarchy that, unless it changes its course radically, is on the verge of collapse.

Why is this important to fantasy and science-fiction writing?

Because every story is composed of partial truths, a weave of limited perspectives that build a picture. Even an omniscient narrator can only describe one thing at a time.

A single society can be represented in so many different ways, can be shown to be so many different things. Who you choose to describe and follow, whose position and perspective is central in the story, is as important to world-building as the actual details of the world themselves.

The details of education and wealth won’t come into it if the lead character comes from a class without access to schools and money.

Interior decoration trends and detailed architecture is a sign of a high culture and a sophisticated society if your lead is a member of the elite but becomes an emblem of corruption and sleaze if your lead is an unprivileged labourer.

And, finally, a country can seem to be an utopia to outsiders who only stay for a few weeks when they visit, but feel like a confining dystopia to those who can’t escape it.

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