|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Monday, November 18, 2019
I returned just over a week ago from eight days in Beijing, courtesy of the China Association for Science and Technology, which on Sunday November 3 held the China Sci-Fi Convention 2019. My airfare, and our hotel stay during the convention weekend and some incidental expenses, were covered by CAST. One further hotel day was covered Tsinghua University. (My wife's airfare, and other hotel days, we paid ourselves.) Throughout our stay, including all but the last of our sightseeing days either side of the convention, we were most cordially guided and helped by science fiction scholar Fan Zhang, and accompanied by student volunteer translators.
Riverside Hotel on the outskirts of the city. The hotel lobby was already prepared to greet SF fans. While Carol slept off the jet-lag, Fan took me and Francesco out for dinner with a local publisher in the nearest restaurant, which was miles away and reached by a DiDi (local equivalent of Uber) cab. The restaurant was in a residential suburb of high-rise apartments, in a street with a lot of people on bicycles and mopeds as well as in cars, and was big, ornate, and well-patronised. This was my first experience of eating Chinese food in China. I can recommend it.
For our first full day Carol and I decided to explore the hotel's own neighbourhood. This turned out to be the sprawling Beijing International Garden Expo Park, which extends from some rather neglected and run-down exhibits from the 2013 expo to a succession of stunning, elaborate traditional Chinese formal gardens.
One exhibition that we encountered by accident was the Astronautical Theme Park, which had two disused hypermodern exhibition buildings, a closed but still imposing 1.2 scale model space station, and a battery of rocket and spacecraft models on various scales. Grannies and small children wandered through it, over cracked concrete and dry grass. A crow had nested in the upper stage of the tallest rocket. Every few minutes a high-speed train whizzed by on the overhead viaduct. In its melancholic, nostalgic futurism this park was the most Ballardian sight I'd ever seen.
On we wandered, into a Garden Valley built over an old landfill site, past some fish and lily ponds to a viewing platform high above. The approach was by a ramp so wide and long it was like walking into the sky. From there we looked out over Beijing. The city has a few skyscrapers, a CBD cluster, and lots and lots and lots of high-rise apartment blocks. It was a fine day with only a slight haze, and we noticed a zigzag line across the distant hills. The Great Wall!
By mid-afternoon we were searching for refreshments. We later found there are indeed plenty of stalls, but along a main route through the park which just happened not to be the one we'd taken, except now and then accidentally. We went into what was called a souvenir shop, which turned out to be full of jade pieces – from expensive-enough bracelets to eye-filling work at eye-watering prices. In yuan, the price tags of these enormous and elaborate carvings had lots of zeroes. After a mental conversion to sterling, they still had lots of zeroes. But you could see why. The shopkeeper (having evidently sussed us as not likely customers) was warm and friendly, urged us to sit on furniture fit for a palace, took photos for us and waved us a cheery goodbye.
We left the park (which I've only begun to describe) late in the afternoon, via a visit to the shop at the exit gate, which sold soft drinks, snacks and tourist tat. In China this includes quantities of revolutionary kitsch, which seems to fill the exact market niche that royalty kitsch does in the UK. The shop also had a table heaped with of vintage pocket-sized comic-books on patriotic and revolutionary themes.
The following day, after an interview by Cora Chen for Science Writing, a popular science and science fiction magazine, I was introduced to Cece, my volunteer translator. She managed to do what had defeated me and even Fan: she set me up an account on WeChat, the universal communications app in China. Then Carol and I promoted ourselves from tourists to tour guides and conducted Rob Sawyer, Francesco Verso and Jim Kelly around the gardens, accompanied by Cora Chen and by Cece and Vivian, our translator volunteers.
The convention was held in the gigantic conference centre behind the gigantic Riverside Hotel, and was quite unlike any other SF convention I've been to. It was officially sponsored, with representatives from government ministries and other institutions giving opening speeches. Simultaneous translation was available throughout. Huai Jinpeng, the leading Party official at CAST, spoke frankly of China's continued need for further development in science and technology as well as science fiction, and of the importance of 'the sci-fi industry' to Chinese socialism. Professor Wan Yu recounted the field's current statistics and status, which are already impressive. The success of Liu Cixin's Three-Body trilogy and the blockbuster film The Wandering Earth have raised the international profile of Chinese SF, and written SF is seen as an inspiration and source for TV, film, videogames and their associated merchandise, adding up to a multi-billion-dollar sector with huge growth potential.
The group I was in included Francesco Verso, Tullio Avoledo, Robert J Sawyer, Lavie Tidhar, James Patrick Kelly, and Ian McDonald. Other writers from overseas, who spoke on other tracks or in the opening ceremony, included Kevin J. Anderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Russell Davis. We were only a small part of the convention, which featured many high-profile Chinese SF writers and scholars including Hugo winners Liu Cixin and Hao Jinfang, internationally active fans such as Carolina Gomez Lagerlöf, Crystal Huff and Vincent Docherty, as well as presentations and exhibitions from the media and tech industries. Altogether there were at least a thousand fans in attendance, and the convention was well covered by the Chinese media.
The afternoon session was followed in short order by a banquet. A Chinese banquet consists of many small courses, and many toasts. (Options for the toast were wine, orange juice and a potent Chinese spirit.) Our hosts from every institution involved went around the tables chatting to each individual, group or couple, and each such conversation was concluded by a toast. After that we were hastened through to the conference centre, where a less formal banquet (buffet-style) was going on for the attendees. A local band was performing Frank Sinatra songs. We took a glass or two of wine from the circulating trays, picked up our freebie bags and headed off for an early night.
On Monday, after a later than usual start, Fan decanted us all to the Holiday Inn Beijing Deshengmen, much closer to the city centre. Rob invited us and Jim to go out with him and a local friend, Nancy. Nancy took us further downtown by foot and by taxi, via lunch at a local diner, to two very different bookshops. The first was Zhengyang Shuju Two, in a courtyard containing a pagoda tower, and specialised in books and memorabilia of Old Beijing.
The second was the Beijing Book Building, the biggest bookshop in China. It's like a very big Borders, with one small difference. Near the entrance there's a bookcase of 'Leaders' Works' – on one side Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, then on the other an aisle devoted to Mao and Deng and their comrades and successors, and on to the works of President Xi Jinping. A table alongside displayed copies of Reliable Marx, a recently-published popularising work. Next, a couple more aisles on 'Party-Building in the New Era' and 'Honest Administration'. And then, for aisle after aisle and floor after floor, book after book on everything else: art, craft, science, economics, management, history, philosophy, and Chinese and foreign fiction of all kinds – science fiction very much included.
A hasty half-hour browse there was followed by a taxi back to the hotel, a quick change, and another taxi that took me, Rob, and Jim to Tsinghua University, to a regular weekly class taught by Jia Liyuan (who writes SF under the penname Fei Dao) on writing science fiction. We each spoke for about thirty minutes (with an interpreter) on various aspects of the craft. The class was of about fifty people, more or less evenly divided between men and women, and between science and humanities backgrounds. They listened with great attention and asked searching questions. The campus was still whizzing with bicycles when we emerged at about 10 pm.
On Tuesday morning Fan took Jim, Rob, Carol and I (with Alice, our translator) to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Besides beauty, the scale of the succession of walls and palaces gives an overwhelming impression of power.
By contrast the Summer Palace, which we visited in the afternoon, gives an equally powerful impression of tranquillity.
On Wednesday Fan took Carol and I, Rob and Jim, and Alice to the Great Wall. The views are sweeping, the climb exhilarating, the Wall astonishing. We had a good day for it, clear and sunny and above all dry – climbing a succession of steep ramps and steeper stairs was challenging enough in these perfect conditions, and must be outright scary in the wet. At some parts it's like clambering on a roof. Naturally we were overtaken at various stages by old folk and small children.
On the (even steeper) route down I paused at the foot of a stone ladder that I'd descended one stoic step at a time to see a young woman dance down, arms out.
Fan then took us all out to dinner, during which we discovered that Alice was a science fiction fan herself, and in a science fiction club at her university in Beijing. Quite a small club, she explained, with only a few hundred members...
For our last day in Beijing, Carol and I took a walk through two linked parks south of the hotel, along the shores of Xihai Sea and Hoahai Lake, to a busy historic shopping street with a marked variety of shops – from the boutique where we admired but didn't buy exquisite and expensive painted fans to the dusty, untidy antique shop where I bought a small green stone Buddha for 800 yuan. After buying gifts and souvenirs at shops and stalls in between these extremes we negotiated (with some spontaneous help from a young woman passer-by) a late-afternoon taxi ride to The Bookworm – a thriving English-language bookstore, library, cafe and meeting place which, as we'd sadly learned, was about to have to close down (as indeed it just has).
There we met Rob, Jim and some local friends for a beer, a quick dinner and a lively discussion, followed by an all too brief session with a science fiction fan group which (like the shop's clientele in general) was a mix of expats and locals. The local fans had interesting things to say about Chinese SF, based on their own reading of it from childhood on. The expats gave an interesting perspective on how fast Beijing is changing. Air quality has improved markedly over the past few years, as Rob Sawyer had noticed as soon as he arrived.
An early start on Friday, as we met Fan in the lobby at 8 and he arranged us a final taxi, to the airport. Our warmest thanks to him! -- and to all who made our trip so unforgettable.
Monday, September 16, 2019
J. A. Smith, Zero Books, 2019
Around 2010 or so, I attended a Battle of Ideas panel on populism and/or Euroscepticism, featuring David Aaronovitch and (I think) Bruno Waterfield. In the discussion, someone said that populism reacted to a political system that empowered elites and excluded ordinary people. Aaronovitch retorted that ordinary people had never been more enfranchised: if you were discontented, there were plenty of parties to choose from, petitions to start or sign, FOIA appeals to make... How much more open could a political system be?
I pointed out from the floor that if you read comments on blogs and below-the-line on newspaper articles (this was before Twitter and Facebook took off), you found a boiling pit of fury and hostility towards every element of the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuity: the EU, climate change policy, immigration, 'political correctness', smoking bans, forever wars, bank bail-outs ... and a real sense that railing against them online was all that could be done.
To which Aaronovitch responded: 'These could all be by the same two hundred people!'
I had no come-back to that, not even in my mind. Well, we ken noo.
The unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has some things in common with the unexpected size of the Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, the unexpected victory of Leave in the EU referendum, the unexpected victory of Trump in the US, and the unexpected surge of the Labour vote in 2017. Each was more than a surprise. They registered as events that shouldn't have happened, and by all past reckoning couldn't have happened: an anomaly, a shock, an affront. Social media played a big part in all of them – sometimes at the expense of face-to-face campaigning, the ground game, but this under-the-radar aspect contributed to the shock of their actual or near success.
Ironically enough, Britain's unprecedented and unparalleled post-referendum upsurge of a mass pro-EU movement, with its huge street demonstrations, tragic face-painters and flag-wearers, and hashtag #FBPE, could itself be seen as a variety of populism: one that constitutes a different 'people' against a different 'elite'. Instead of 'the bankers' or 'the establishment', the villains become hedge-funds and disaster capitalists. #FPBE have their own conspiracy theories: Cambridge Analytica, Russian dark money, Putin. Heck, they're even convinced that the BBC is biased against them. From the outside, viewed in the small shiny rectangle of the smartphone screen, #FBPE can seem as closed-minded, obnoxious and deluded as the Brexiters do to them, as the cybernats did to me, and as Corbynism's own online army (in which I'm a very minor footslogger) evidently does to New Labour's middle-aged old soldiers (aka 'centrist dads').
But, as Smith puts it, populism is always 'other people's politics'. The bright rectangle is always a window, seldom a mirror. Smith walks us through that mirror. If we can bear to look at it, he argues, Corbynism too is a populism, and all the better for it. All populisms say the 'unsayable', but not all of them say the same. A left populism would blame the powerful, not the powerless, for social problems. Trump says things his supporters wish they 'could' say, whereas Corbyn says things his supporters have been for years on end inwardly screaming for someone, anyone with a public platform to say. There's no doubt that Corbynism has constituted a 'people' of its own: the leftists and socialists who never went away but were excluded from any recognition in the mainstream, and who were largely isolated from each other and indeed unaware of each other's existence. Like the cybernats, now a permanent presence in Scotland, they can be repeatedly dismissed as an online bubble – until they suddenly manifest in the real world. 'Where did all these people come from?' – as a Labour candidate is heard to ask in 2017 as her canvassers are reinforced by an army of volunteers, mobilised by Momentum's 'My Nearest Marginal' app.
Strong and persuasive though this book is on the emotional and ideological intricacies of how a populist appeal can gain traction, and how it can confound the expectations of the sensible centre – tracing, for example, the success of Donald Trump's transgressive rampages, and the conniving nods and winks of irony and deniability in the memetic tactics of the alt-right – it has little to say on the record of left-populism itself, barely glancing at its greatest debacle: Syriza. But to ask that of it would be to ask for a different book. (It's not like there aren't plenty of left critiques of left populism to choose from.) This one does its own job, and does it well.
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
The then Labour Government led by James Callaghan tried to deal with the crisis of the postwar settlement by extending social reforms in exchange for wage restraint. This strategy, begun under Harold Wilson, was known as the Social Contract, and was already under severe strain. The reforms were significant but seemed inadequate, and in any case their effects were for the most part jam tomorrow. Wage increases were jam today. The government's policies were widely opposed by the left inside and outside the Labour Party, by a militant minority of trade unionists, and by broader unrest among women, black people and disaffected youth. In Northern Ireland, no hope for an end – of any kind -- to the Troubles was remotely in sight. The Labour Government was opposed or pressured from the right, of course: by sections of the state, the City, almost all the press, the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher, and the small but fast-growing National Front and other fascist groups. Seldom has the spotlit enclave been more relentlessly shelled.
One GLC constituency in which we stood was Southall, central to which was the largest Asian community -- overwhelmingly industrial working class and small-business in social composition -- in West London. The Socialist (IMG) candidate for Southall was Gerry Hedley, a modest, serious and cheerful militant. A lecturer in art, he had no roots in Southall, but he had support and endorsement from local activists who did. When Hedley addressed one meeting of what seemed like hundreds, from bearded elders to young radicals, he got supportive speeches from the platform in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English.
One local labour movement left-wing activist whose support we were keen to get was John McDonnell. I, along with a far more dedicated and experienced comrade, met him in a cafe to sound him out. McDonnell may have agreed with many of our criticisms of Callaghan's Labour, but he was adamant that he wouldn't endorse our candidate. The Labour Party's rules, then as now, were strict. Any member who supported a non-Labour candidate in an election would be slung out on their ear. McDonnell had no intention of that happening to him. In the end, we pleaded with him to at least privately vote for us, and perhaps hint to a few close and trusted comrades that lending us their vote might... McDonnell was having none of it. We parted cordially, empty-handed.
If we'd been more persuasive, or if he'd been less staunch in his loyalty to the Labour Party, John McDonnell would almost certainly not now be the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Say not the struggle naught availeth.
This footnote in history has two footnotes of its own:
1. GLC May 1977 Southall election results (Source, pdf) (See also)
Seive, Mrs Y. Labour 13,330
Schindler, R. Conservative 12,417
Stevens, K. Liberal 2,094
Franklin, Mrs B.P. National Front 1,872
Hedley, G.A. Socialist (IMG) 996
2. Gerry Hedley became Reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art and an innovative researcher in the field of fine art conservation, where he is still – many years after his untimely death in a climbing accident -- remembered with great respect.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Full disclosure up front: the author is an old friend. Unbound is a crowd-funded publisher, and my name is one of hundreds listed who pre-supported this book.
In my early teens, reading the stories collected in Revolt in 2100 ('"If This Goes On—"', 'Coventry', and 'Misfit') had a lasting impact. Heinlein had a knack for the throwaway, delayed-action bombshell: a casual reference to a theology curriculum that included 'mob psychology and basic miracles' being one from that book. And Starship Troopers gave me a lot to think about at the time, though probably not the thoughts the writer intended, which says something for him.
I've read nearly all the juveniles, many of the short stories and nearly all the novels except the late long ones, which I've always bounced off.
Heinlein has been the subject of a definitive biography, major critical studies during and after his life, and an immense and growing amount of academic and fan criticism. But he remains so vast and various that there's always more to say, and Mendlesohn says it here. Her approach has been to read (re-read) every publicly available thing Heinlein wrote, and only then to read (re-read) everything in print, and a lot of what's online, about him.
After a brief introduction and a useful potted biography, Mendlesohn devotes successive chapters to Heinlein's fiction (short stories, juveniles, and adult novels), technique and rhetoric. She then applies her close reading of the texts to Heinlein's handling of civics and politics, racism and antiracism, ethics, sex and sexuality. Heinlein's political shifts are related to his deeper consistencies in interesting and unexpected ways: individual and community, patriotism and radicalism, democracy and revolution, family and free love all turn out to have more complicated dialectics across his work as a whole than a partial reading -- which is, of course, all that most readers have – would suggest.
Mendlesohn's dismantling of the disaster of Farnham's Freehold -- and her answer to the inevitable appalled question 'What the fuck was he thinking?' – is patient and persuasive. The discussion of sex, sexuality and gender in Heinlein's work is full of surprises and rigorously argued.
This effort to read with fresh eyes has paid off. On almost every page there's a new insight or an arresting remark. Mendlesohn takes Heinlein seriously as a thinker, and makes you think.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
And there's more!
The enterprising folk at Shoreline of Infinity are putting on an Event Horizon special for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The topic is:
Science Fiction: can it guide us to a glorious future ... or will it lead us to disaster and dystopia?
8pm – 9.30pm, THURSDAY 11th April 2019
Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh
Tickets £8.50/£6.50 from the Science Festival website, here.
Monday, February 25, 2019
Meanwhile, you can now hear these jokes and much, much more in Glasgow, this very week!
Monday, December 31, 2018
I was given this book for Christmas, started reading it on Boxing Day, and finished it yesterday. So this is not a review. Instead, it's a few reflections provoked by reading the book. You can read about the book, with links to many rave reviews, here. I can only add my enthusiastic recommendation.
The first surprise, for me, was the sub-title. I knew, of course, that Hubbard was a popular pulp SF writer before he became otherwise famous. I knew too that Campbell had been keen on Hubbard's original discovery of the secret of life, Dianetics. Until I read Astounding I had no idea at all that Hubbard was in his SF heyday as big a name as the other three. Nor did I realise just how much Campbell put into Dianetics, the book, and dianetics, the movement.
I'm just old enough to have read Campbell editorials in Analog more or less live – a friend in Greenock High School lent me a stack of then-recent back issues. I had read a bit about Campbell, so I knew he was a legendary editor. The writers I most looked up to looked up to him. His distinctly right-wing musings and his brusque manner of thought meshed perfectly with the attitudes I'd already picked up from Heinlein and other Golden Age writers. It's sobering (as well as, in a way, inspiring) to see the extent to which what I thought of as 'the science-fictional outlook' (basically, that the world is best approached as an engineering problem) was constructed by a handful of Campbellian cadre back in the 1940s. The trouble is that though these guys inspired lots of people to become scientists or engineers, they could be a little slapdash in their own constructions. One Analog editorial that sticks in my mind was about how little we knew of Mars from limited, local sampling of its soil. Campbell pointed out that some minerals on Earth are so rare they're only known from one location: for instance, greenockite, found only in and around Greenock. This (I've just learned), is not quite true. The mineral isn't found only in Greenock, it wasn't discovered in Greenock, and it's not named after the town of Greenock.
Among Campbell's more respectable enthusiasms was General Semantics, which it seems both he and Hubbard got via Heinlein. The most famous and overt influence of General Semantics on science fiction was A. E. Van Vogt's novel The World of Null-A, but smatterings of the jargon were widespread in Golden Age SF – I recall 'time-binding' from Fritz Leiber as well as Heinlein, 'the map is not the territory' from all over, and the solemn declaration that 'A difference that makes no difference is no difference' from the mouth of Spock in one of James Blish's novelizations.
As reading Astounding has reminded me, I may have got a stronger dose of General Semantics myself as a by-product of its prominence in SF. Possibly fed up with my third-hand blather on the topic, my English teacher, Joan Woods, shoved at me her well-thumbed copy of Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. I read it over a summer holiday and it did me a power of good. The notion of 'extensional orientation' (very roughly, paying a lot more attention to the world around you and paying a lot less respect to your current ideas about it) was almost literally an eye-opener.
It turns out you can learn quite a lot about Earth from local observation in Greenock.