“This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That's a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede into the background ...”

-Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men


“Why isn’t my life like a situation comedy? Why don’t I have a bunch of friends with nothing better to do but drop by and instigate wacky adventures? Why aren’t my conversations peppered with spontaneous witticisms? Why don’t my friends demonstrate heartfelt concern for my well being when I have problems?”

-Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes


After reading The Cunning Man, a couple of readers asked why it took so long for Adam (and Taffy) to realise Arnold was the traitor in their ranks. It’s a fair question.  In hindsight, there’s a great deal about Arnold’s actions that doesn’t quite make sense if you assume he’s one of the good guys.  He pushes constantly for action, insisting to all and sundry that the magicians are responsible for everything and therefore the mundanes have to strike first, constantly pouring oil on the fire.  And, to add insult to injury, how could Taffy’s former life catch up with her unless she’d been betrayed by someone who knew it would have an effect on her?  It could not be explained by random chance, or simple bad luck.


The explanation is quite simple.  Adam, like almost every other young man, wants to be part of a group, one that suits him.  This is a deep and primal desire, one that is very difficult to ignore or put aside.  Adam spent most of his life unable to bond with other young men.  He had no interest in becoming a dockyard worker, a craftsman apprentice, a railway engineer or indeed anything else mundane, while magicians rejected him because he had no magic.  He was seen as a faker, a poser, and the magicians his own age treated him with a degree of – at best – quiet contempt.  They didn’t not welcome him.  They certainly didn’t warm up to him.  He was never considered one of them.


This made him dangerously vulnerable when he went to Heart’s Eye.  He would have found it hard to bond with Lilith even if she had been a lot more welcoming to him, because he grew up in a city where male-female friendships were extremely rare.  Jasper was thoroughly unpleasant to him right from the start, while The Gorgon was his superior as well as a demihuman.  Adam was feeling alone and isolated when Arnold introduced himself and they had enough in common, at least on the surface, for them to start to bond.  Adam did not have the insight to realise, as the reader does in hindsight, that this was completely one-sided.  He saw Arnold as a friend, to the point he refused to consider there was any malice in his actions until, it was far too late.  An enemy can be the evilest evil-doer who ever lived.  A friend is merely misguided.


It helped, of course, that Arnold appeared to Adam’s prejudices, none of which were unfounded.  He’d spent most of his childhood hoping to become a magician, only to be rejected by haughty magicians who’d won the genetic lottery.  He had been bullied for daring to seek a magical apprenticeship, for daring to enter the magical quarter; he’d been hexed and jinxed, even cursed, for daring to exist.  And it wasn’t that different at Heart’s Eye, where both Jasper and Lilith hexed Adam from time to time.  Arnold was pushing at an open door when he realised Adam could be extremely useful.  Adam had good reason to dislike magicians, and to assume a magician was behind the attacks on mundanes, and it blinded him to the real threat.


This is a common problem in modern-day society, although the results are rarely quite so dramatic (at least from an outsider’s point of view).  We all want to be part of a gang of friends who are equals and yet, at the same time, we also want to stand in the spotlight and be hailed as a hero.  We want to be on the winning team, or even on a team, and we also want to be the one who scores the winning goal, however defined.  I don’t care who wins the World Cup, but I care a great deal who wins the Hugo or Dragon Awards.


And this can turn poisonous.


The desire to be part of a group is one that is easy to exploit, when the group is unbalanced, and leads to toxic friendships.  Someone desperate for companionship will often overlook their friend’s darker aspects, which leads to a dangerously unbalanced relationship.  (Example: Amphibia’s Anne and Sasha.)  Someone desperate for attention and status can wind up as a de facto servant, accomplice and court jester, a person who’s position is never secure and can be destroyed at any moment.  (Example: Harry Potter’s Peter Pettigrew.)  Someone desperate for protection can wind up treading a very dark path, which will end badly even if they eventually come to realise they’ve made a deadly mistake.  (Example: Harry Potter’s Severus Snape.)  And when it dawns on the ‘friend’ that they have been exploited, they can react very badly.


A toxic friendship can lead to some very bad habits.  A person who sees the toxic behaviour as normal will run straight into a brick wall, when they encounter someone with a steadier moral compass and a healthier idea of friendship.  Sometimes they’ll heal, sometimes they won’t.  A person who is aware their position is constantly insecure will start shopping around for other prospects, particularly if they have been forced to swallow their pride time and time again.  (There’s only so many times you can swallow your pride before you start to choke on it.)  They won’t just be looking for a stronger protector, they’ll be looking for a way to pay their old abusers back in full.  And a person who has a moment of clarity, and realises he has gone down a very dark path, may find it impossible to break free.  It isn’t easy to admit one’s mistakes without earning the enmity of your former friends, while still remaining unaccepted by saner people. 


This is often exploited by extremist groups and cults.  They start small, luring prospective marks into their clutches step by step.  They work to isolate the mark – if the mark is not already isolated – and reshape their view of reality.  They’ll make the mark more and more complicit in their bad habits, which will make it harder for the mark to go back to their old life when they realise the truth.  And then it will be too late.   


But why does this even happen?


There’s been a lot of talk about inclusion over the past decade.  Most of the chatter is focused around diversity, about ensuring that everyone feels included regardless of their race, gender, sexual preferences, whatever.  This tends to cause more problems than it solves.  On one hand, people join groups because they are interested in the group’s subject (football, for example, or computer games) and pointless charter about something irrelevant to the group’s reason for existence suggests, very strongly, that the person doing the chattering doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  On the other hand, the more you try to force inclusion, the more the in-group will push back.  It takes time to be accepted and the more you force your way in and demand acceptance, the longer it will be before anyone treats you as a real friend.


The sad truth is, people develop – emotionally as well as intellectually – at different rates and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to catch up with your peers.  Someone who is at the bottom of the pecking order may never catch up, something that will grate on them until they either give up or let their pain – and yes, it is pain – drive them into doing something stupid, dangerous and murderous.  It is not easy to reach out to these people because they have been bullied so often they see a helping hand as just another slap, a friendly face as nothing more than the smile on the face of the tiger. 


This leads to all sorts of problems, made worse by a lack of shared understanding and goodwill.  For example, there was a lot of chatter a few years ago in geekdom about ‘fake geek girls,’ very little of which was actually helpful and none of which made life easier for anyone.  Indeed, even discussing the issue from an dispassionate point of view isn’t easy.  On one hand, we have male geeks who have been constantly shamed and humiliated for their geekiness and insist on vetting girls – through trivia questions – to make sure they’re real geeks before letting them enter the club; on the other, we have female geeks who are understandably offended by being asked to prove themselves and regard it as nothing more than sexist gatekeeping.  And everything gets out of hand from there.


But to go back to the topic at hand, is there anything we can do about how the desire for friendship can be weaponised?


It isn’t easy.  The urge to interfere is overwhelmingly powerful.  Parents can screw up their children’s lives by trying to ensure they’re included, or by being ultra-permissive in hopes of ensuring their children are surrounded by lots of friends.  (The first fails because no one wants to be forced to play with someone, the second because the friends are just taking advantage.)  Schools make things worse, by pairing up incompatible kids or tolerating bullying or even trying to mandate friendships in ways that make friendships impossible. 


If it was up to me, I’d do three things:


First, I’d let friendships develop as naturally as possible.  Children, as they grow into teenagers, will start to gravitate towards others who share their interests.  I’d do my best to encourage this by letting them form their own clubs, in hopes of attracting others, rather than trying to dictate to them.


Second, I’d work hard to encourage fair play and equality in the truest possible sense – the rules will be clearly defined and clearly applied to everyone.  My aim is not to be ‘one of the boys,’ something that will inevitable ruin my efforts, but to be an impartial judge.


Third, I’d try to ensure that everyone got a chance to shine.  They don’t share the same interests, and expecting them to be good at everything is pointless, but I’d ensure – for example – that a chess club victory is given the same applause and reward as a football club victory. 


Will any of this work?  I don’t know, but the truth is we have an ever-expanding population of angry people who feel disconnected from society and disrespected, their concerns dismissed as laughable (at best), by the few who take a moment to notice them.  This is a recipe for trouble.  It is time we took action before it is too late.


And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.


It’s growing harder to make a living through self-published writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little helps (particularly reviews).


Thank you.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2022