Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to author Simon Edge about his new book, in which a fictional flat-earth advocacy group campaigns against the idea of a spherical earth (not to mention the "globularist" "TERGs" who oppose the new 'True Earth' orthodoxy) in the name of social justice.
An excerpt from The End of the World Is Flat by Simon Edge
Shane Foxley, the new CEO of the Orange Peel Foundation, is lunching with Ricky ‘Simpleton’ Singleton, owner of the website Earth News, to win his co-operation in his quest to convince the world that the earth is flat.
‘How’s it all going?’ said Ricky. ‘I don’t suppose you want to tell me the real story of why Mel [the previous CEO] left in such a hurry?’
‘There’s nothing to tell,’ said Shane. ‘Mel set up a charity from scratch. It went on to achieve everything she’d ever wanted it to do, at which point she decided her work was done. I was humbled to be asked to step into her shoes, and I only hope I do half as good a job as she did. I’m sorry if you’d prefer something more scandalous, but the truth can often be disappointingly dull. However,’ he rushed on, as Ricky showed signs of wanting to argue, ‘I do have something I want to tell you about which I think you’ll find interesting.’
‘Oh yes? What’s that?’
‘Well…’ Shane had rehearsed this speech meticulously and it needed delivering with care. ‘I don’t know how much you’ve followed this but, in the past few months, we’ve built on our success in cartography by taking more of a public stance on, erm, human geography. Highlighting the unheralded consequences of globalisation for the disempowered and the left behind, for example.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen some of that. I did wonder what—’
‘And that led us into a new and fascinating area,’ Shane continued, anxious not to be blown off course. ‘There’s a whole field of study in universities across the world which is beginning to challenge some of our most basic assumptions about the earth and the way we represent it to ourselves. Some of this is quite complex, but the key idea is fairly simple. Namely, we live in a world where privilege and inequality have been entrenched for centuries, and it’s possible that much of what we consider to be objective reality may be a social construct. Perhaps it’s designed to reinforce the structures on which that privilege and inequality depend.’
Was Ricky’s wrinkled forehead a sign he thought Shane was talking rubbish? Or was he just frowning with the effort to keep up? Either way, the only option was to press on.
‘Such as the artificial division of the world into two hemispheres. We end up treating the South as lesser than the North, don’t we? What if that was the point all along?’
His guest shook his head. ‘It’s not artificial. The equator is a real thing. It’s the midway point on the surface of the sphere between the two poles, which mark the axis of rotation.’
This was not a good time for Ricky Simpleton to start being smart. ‘That’s what we’ve been traditionally taught. But this new thinking—its advocates call it the True Earth movement—is beginning to question those assumptions. The whole concept messes with your head at first, I know, because it’s so challenging. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Think of it like quantum physics: just because something presents itself to our senses in a particular way, that doesn’t mean it’s really like that.’
Ricky put his head on one side, considering the question. The genuinely intelligent response at this point would be to tell Shane to stop talking cobblers. He hadn’t done that, which was encouraging.
Shane pressed on. ‘We’ve deliberately put ourselves at the forefront of all this. That hasn’t been without risk, because we’re challenging all kinds of vested interests, but it’s paying big dividends in terms of support from the public, particularly from progressive millennials. That’s why I thought you’d be interested. They’re your main target demographic, aren’t they?’
‘I’d obviously be more than happy to put you in touch with some of the most important academics in this field, such as Dr. Sonali Rao of the Peter Amber Institute in California. You may have seen her articles in The Guardian? She’s in the vanguard of all this, and it would reflect brilliantly on Earth News if you did an interview or profile. This debate is going to get more and more central over the next few years. If you get in at the start, by offering your support to the pioneers, you’ll really own the story.’
Ricky nodded. These, presumably, were concepts he could understand.
‘There’s also going to be some pushback. Between ourselves, there’s quite a battle coming and it may get messy. But the controversy will give you something to get your teeth into. You journalists like nothing better than covering a dustup, don’t you?’
‘I wouldn’t put it quite like that. But tell me more.’
Shane dropped his voice and leaned across the table confidentially. ‘Have you heard of a journalist called Ginny Pugh?’
‘Can’t say as I have.’
‘She writes for The Guardian a fair bit, and she has positioned herself on the conservative, populist side of all this. As you can imagine, it’s easy to ridicule some of these new ideas if you appeal to the lowest common denominator, which is what populists always do. It’s even easier when you’re backed by rich and powerful right-wingers in the US.’
‘Oh yes. I can send you chapter and verse, but the simplest way to see for yourself is to google Ginny Pugh and Christopher Columbus. Turns out she’s a big fan, which tells you all you need to know about her.’
There was a smidgen of truth in this. Erika had dug up an article Pugh wrote for an obscure online publication expressing disquiet at the fashion, mainly in the United States, for tearing down statues of historical figures who’d fallen from favour. Most frequently toppled was Christopher Columbus, about whom Pugh insisted she had no illusions. She acknowledged that his arrival in the Caribbean led to the extinction of the indigenous Taino people—Shane had made a point of remembering their name—and that the subsequent settlement of North America was a catastrophe for the continent’s original inhabitants. She merely wanted to point out that the extermination of Native Americans in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries couldn’t be laid at the door of a fifteenth-century explorer who never set foot on the mainland. Furthermore, rampaging mobs weren’t best-placed to deal with nuanced questions of historical responsibility.
Unsurprisingly, this article generated a storm on Twitter. Angry keyboard warriors who read no further than the headline—‘Why we should think twice before knocking Columbus off his plinth’—condemned it out of hand. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, religious conservatives loved it. Pugh won praise from the Association for American Freedom, the equally right-leaning Heritage Union and the ultra-traditionalist Sons and Daughters of Columbus.
‘I don’t know if you’ve seen the new acronym for people like Pugh,’ said Shane. ‘They’re becoming known as TERGs, short for True Earth-Rejecting Globularists. I predict that coinage will enter the language as the battle-lines form.’
It would if Shane had anything to do with it. Before leaving the office, he’d sent an encrypted memo via Robbie to Lapu-Lapu City, asking the bots to start using phrases such as ‘all TERGs are racists’ and ‘die TERG scum.’ They shouldn’t spell the acronym out. Nor, for the moment, should they direct the expression at any particular individual. That way, people would become curious about the phrase, and its correct use would be a badge of belonging for those who understood what it meant.
‘I can’t say I’ve noticed,’ said Ricky.
‘I bet you will from now on. Like red Peugeots.’
‘I’m still not clear where this Ginny Pugh character fits in. Has she been attacking your work?’
‘Good question. Not as yet, but I’m almost certain she will. She’s been sniffing around, and I know the signs. That’s why I wanted to tip you off at this stage, so you’ll know the background when it actually happens. I really hope you’ll take our side and we’ll be able to rely on your support if the situation gets nasty. More wine?’
Excerpted, with permission, from The End of the World is Flat, by Simon Edge. Published by Lightning Books, 2021.
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