The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, September 22, 2003

Monkeys of the World, Unite!

The recently burgeoning field of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, as it now likes to call itself) has encouraged many people to believe, rightly or wrongly, that many of the behaviours and dispositions appropriate to capitalist society (and class society generally) are hard-wired.

I look forward to the rush of right-wing ideologues proclaiming the naturalness and rightness of trade unionism.

(I've read about this in New Scientist and Nature. The link is via Electrolite).

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Sunday, September 21, 2003

Science Fiction Rant, Cont'd

What is it that distinguishes, and justifies, SF as a genre?

For thousands of years, people have been huddled around the campfire, telling stories. The stories were about what went on around the campfire (who was sleeping with whom, who had become king and who had plotted to depose him, etc) and about the figures that were seen in the enormous distorted human shadows that the campfire projected onto the surrounding darkness: gods and demons, ghosts and monsters.

Then, some time around the seventeenth century, the sun came up.

'Nature, and Nature's laws, lay hid in night.
God said "Let Newton be!" and all was light.'

Science fiction is the stories we tell about the surrounding landscape that then became visible, the world seen in Newton's light. As Swedish SF critic John-Henri Holmberg has said, it's the literary expression of the Enlightenment.

It's often not a very good literary expression. I'm not defending cardboard characters, clunky plots, chunky exposition or any other literary sins of SF. What I want to take issue with is the criterion of judging SF by its degree of closeness to 'realistic' or 'fantastic' literature, the literature of the campfire and the dark.

One of the most insidious ways of doing that is to privilege SF that deals imaginatively with social and political issues. Speculative political fancies have been respectable since Plato, who is more or less the Form of Respectability in the Western canon. Thomas More could write an approving speculative fiction about communism and remain respectable, not only canon but canonized. The most respectable work of recent SF is very likely Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. To outflank any unwanted agreement, let me say right away that this isn't because it's feminist, because it isn't - it's Mills and Boon monogamist to the bone, as well as subtly homophobic and biological-sex-essentialist; and it isn't because it's communist or anarchist. James P. Hogan gave a much more attractive and indeed more plausible depiction of a communist anarchy in Voyage From Yesteryear, and I don't see that book on academic SF courses.

No, The Dispossessed is respectable because it's an SF book that people with no interest in SF can read comfortably. Its sole real SF content, the theory of the ansible, can whizz right over their heads. It might as well be radio. The real focus of interest is all the cosy familiar campfire stuff about the Individual versus Society, and Society versus Society, which plugs it neatly into the Great Tradition. In short, it's SF for people who don't like SF.

SF isn't fundamentally about that. Getting that right is good, don't get me wrong. Do for heaven's sake have some understanding of human beings before writing about them, at least to the extent that you do write about them. But what SF is fundamentally about is not the Individual versus Society, or Society versus Society, but humanity in the universe.

SF needn't thereby lose in human relevance and universality, because the situation it posits is both objectively true and universal to the human being, as a knowing subject confronting a knowable object. If SF about that is despised and rejected, rather than criticised and improved in terms of its own project, then both the Individual and Society are, in the long run, in deeper shit than any dystopia.

And that, comrades, is the real social relevance of SF.

Shopping as Sisterhood

Is this really an article by Naomi Wolff in praise of shopping, or is it a clever parody?
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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Liberated Iraq

We've heard a lot recently about how Arab and/or Muslim countries need to get up to speed on smashing fundamentalist terrorism, and developing non-oil industry, promoting scientific and technical education, and advancing women's rights. We're told that there's something fundamentally 'broken' in Arab or Muslim culture that prevents them from doing that. This is usually advanced as part of an argument for bombing the shit out of countries that actually do some or all of these things.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Preach it, brother!

I wish the local anti-smoking single-issue fanatics and their dozy pals in the Council and Parliament understood at least this much and then fucked off and got the life they evidently so sorely need:

New York State just passed a draconian anti-smoker bill. It was rammed through the legislature in four days, by weasels who ignored the desperate pleas of tavern and restaurant owners who know it will devastate their business. This is not the way democracy is supposed to work. It's a good model for a totalitarian regime, though. When the law goes into effect, my tavern patronage is going to drop dramatically. A bar where I can't smoke is as useless as acting lessons from Jennifer Lopez.

The Big Lie is that it's to protect workers in the hospitality industry. But talk to any nicotine nanny long enough and they'll admit their real agenda - they want to make it so difficult to smoke that people will quit. It won't work. They'll only succeed in annoying the hell out of us, and annoyed smokers calm down by lighting up.

(Via (and via a vast vicus of recirculation) James Hogan's entertaining if eccentricblog-like entity.)

Anti-smoking is one of those issues, like porn-censorship, animal rights and gun control, that can drive me to drink and libertarianism. These are issues I wish the left would drop, or agree to differ on, or take the non-PC (and pro-working-class) side on, as it used to on all of them back in the day (i.e. as recently as the 1970s). I like to think Frederick Engels, an enthusiastic fox-hunter and cigar-smoker who once wrote, 'The Republic will always be in danger while the soldier has a rifle and the worker has not,' would have agreed.

Does Science Fiction Have to be About the Present?

In articles and interviews which I've ruthlessly recycled as talks at SF conventions, I've put forward a by no means original thesis that SF can be more illuminating about the time of its writing than about that of its imagined future. In an interview or Q&A session at Swecon 2003, Alastair Reynolds pointed out that while there may be some truth in this, there are a great number of stories that aren't - even unconsciously - about the present, but quite straightforward and conscientious attempts to imagine what the real future might be like. He mentioned Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars.

Good point, I thought, and stole it at once. It's about time I came up with another topic for SF convention talks. Especially as the next one I'm due to give is in Dublin, and too many people there might well have heard me rambling on about SF-as-contemporary-reference before. (Some of them may have read this by then. They can have fun seeing how much I've changed my mind in the meantime.)

Besides, that whole argument gets uncomfortably close to a capitulation to the oft-heard claim (which deserves to become known as the Atwood Defence) that what is really interesting and important about SF just is its contemporary reference; that some novel that might superficially appear to be SF (because it's, say, set in the future after some genetically engineered plague has wiped out most of the human race) isn't really SF but satire, and really about the present, and not related to that vulgar stuff about rockets and rayguns and talking squids in outer space, and therefore may deserve serious consideration and can be safely opened without risk of releasing alien germs to which normal Earth readers have no natural immunity and which could sweep through the entire literary community and all die, oh, the embarrassment.

So, with space helmets on, brass bras brightly polished, and phasers set to stun, let's boldly go in search of SF that really is about the future, and whose contemporary reference is reduced to as close to a trace element as humanly possible.

Interestingly enough, the division between what I'll boldly call pure SF and SF-as-satire cuts across, rather than between, a lot of the themes and tropes and subject areas of SF. Let's start with the most obvious: stories set in the far future. Clarke's The City and the Stars, already mentioned, or Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker are undoubtedly novels which, while inevitably of their time, are not fundamentally interested in or secretly about their time. They are about the far future of humanity and the universe. But what about Michael Moorcock's 'Dancers at the End of Time' stories? They are about an opulent, irresponsible decadence, about ennui, about fin de siecle, rather than the literal end of time.

On to the second most obvious: post-apocalypse stories. It seems to me that Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is a story that can be understood without much reference to the time in which it was written, and gains little from applying a knowledge of that time to it. It looks at a post-catastrophe recovery of civilization sub specie aeternatis. The closest it comes to contemporary comment is in its final section, set a thousand or so years in the future, and in the eerie sense that section conveys that our civilization is a post-catastrophe recovery civilization, as indeed it is.

Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold, on the other hand, is so embarrassingly about contemporary concerns, as refracted through the nastier parts of Heinlein's mind, that to discuss it is to push at the fallout shelter's open door and let in all kinds of toxic and radioactive stuff. In this novel the descendants of Black Americans have come out on top after a nuclear war, and become slave-holding (and slave-castrating) cannibals. If that doesn't reflect racial and sexual fears I don't know what does. Whether you cut the Dean of Science Fiction some slack and read it in the spirit of Swift's A Modest Proposal, or read it (as I do) as a racist tract maybe one notch above The Turner Diaries, it has to be thrown out of court as a serious attempt to examine what a post-nuclear world might be like.

(More examples later.)

For now, though, I want to raise the possibility that the (British) New Wave is exactly what Mike Harrison recently accused Charlie Stross of saying it was: the source of all that was wrong with British SF for thirty years. (I take no position on whether Charlie said that or Mike misunderstood him - I've read most of the now famous New Weird discussion, and I can't be arsed.) It marked a turn from rationality to irrationality, from outer space to inner, from exploring the universe to inspecting navel fluff, and from popularity to respectability. Yes, 90% of Trad SF was crap. 90% of New Wave SF was crap, and boring, miserabilist, depressing crap at that. It was an abandonment of everything that justifies SF as a genre, in favour of what is acceptable to mundanes.
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Sunday, September 14, 2003

Post-modern post-Soviet fun

I'm adding the eXile to my sidebar links. It's, as far as I can make out, a Moscow English-language listings mag, that runs the sort of gonzo journalism that is laugh out loud funny, kind of like P. J. O'Rourke but without the PC liberal piety. (I am not being ironic.) It makes you realise how pathetically limited our journalism, however alternative, really is. It's the sort of stuff that makes you wonder why you bother writing science fiction, when there's a vast dystopian anarcho-Stalinist bad-acid flashback fast-forward experiment going on on a few thousand kilometres away, and I don't mean America.

You can read about young Russians flipping burgers in the USA, nice Russki girls falling for American creeps, and the true (or completely fictitious, but, Karl H. Marx on a bicycle, it's good fiction) nature of the Russian far left:

The abbreviated name of our organization, VLKSM, stands for the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. Pre-1991, that was the name of the mammoth shite conglomeration every Soviet citizen of a certain age had to be a member of and which served as a fucking hotbed of anti-Communist propaganda and a fucking hornets' nest of future New Russian motherfuckers in the perestroika years. Inherent in the purified VLKSM of today is a certain organizational disproportion. The guys who drink (some are even so hip as to take barbiturates with their alcohol) and, in general, are fun to spend time with and hold the most bizarre and reactionary views, whereas the true Marxist-Leninists are teetotalers, don't smoke, and, frankly, I don't understand how they propagate. Parthenogenesis? Therefore Denis (the Red Brigades buff) and I have to drink with the right-wingers and think with the left-wingers, which is kind of embarrassing and not entirely politically correct, if you ask me.


Pasha, 34, and his close co-worker, ex-anarchist Dima Kostenko, 30, can boast an army of some 200 scattered throughout Russia, and they have been editing that pain in everybody's ass-the newspaper Bumbarash-2017-for years now.

Bumbarash is a character in a 1930s novel by the heroic Arkady Gaidar (grandfather of pig Yegor Gaidar)-a brave Red Army soldier with a somewhat naive, primeval perception of things around him, a kind of Commie Holden Caulfield. "We are all Bumbarashes now," said Pasha when launching the newspaper some years ago, correctly implying that nobody in the far Left now really understands what the fuck the situation in this country is all about. 2017, on the other hand, is the tentative date for which the next Great October Socialist Revolution is scheduled. Bumbarash is the hip Communist publication, featuring stuff such as a picture of Pol Pot with the caption "The Greatest Humanist of the 20th Century," ads reading "A Molotov Cocktail Will Help You Get Through The Day" or "The Magical World of Class Struggle-Discover It for Yourself!", instructions on how to "break OMON chains using trucks with the tires set on fire," and praise for Lavrenty Beria's spotless ethics and conjugal fidelity. That's postmodernism for you.

How can anything the Western far left has to offer compete with that?

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Friday, September 12, 2003

Meanwhile, at the other end of the pipeline ...

Michael Meacher's article on the endless war cites a remarkable claim that five of the 9/11 hijackers received US military training in the 1990s. I have no idea what the status or provenance of this claim is, but it's not as implausible - or as evidential for far-out conspiracy theories - as it might seem.

Because, after they had brought down the revolutionary socialist government of Afghanistan, castrated and lynched its last progressive President, and plunged that country into a postmodern postapocalyptic dark age, Bin Laden's boys had by no means outlived their usefulness to the US. There was one other inconveniently independent walking-dead workers' state on the Eurasian landmass, at the other end of the proposed Caspian pipeline route, and thousands of the throat-cutting, woman-hating, teacher-skinning muj scumbags were duly airlifted into the fight that brought it down, too.

Later some of them went to work and study in Germany.

You might think, for a passing moment, that the horrendous blowback from all this might have got the US government to kick the muj habit.

Hell, no.

Apart from the Chechen rebels (not classified as a terrorist organisation as late as 2001, and currently holed up in the former Soviet and now US sock-puppet state of Georgia) right now the US has a cosy relationship with a gang of anti-Iranian muj terrorists in the north of Iraq, and with another gang of pro-Iranian muj terrorists in the south (where, according to Riverbend, they've been given the job of guarding the border with Iran).

The US is still mainlining muj. That old Afghan heroin is pretty addictive stuff.
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Thursday, September 11, 2003

What else not to forget

Riverbend reminds us that:

American long-term memory is exclusive to American traumas. The rest of the world should simply ‘put the past behind’, ‘move forward’, ‘be pragmatic’ and ‘get over it’.

Read the rest of this bitter, brilliant blog.
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Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Other Shoes

The line change in Bush's speech was simply to drop all mention of a search for WMD, or any claim that there was an imminent threat. Now, Iraq is the front line of the War on Terror, where the enemy is being engaged in the rubble of other people's streets instead of America's.

This is a remarkable notion, really. It's not like getting people to fire RPGs at Humvees is going to deplete the pool of people willing to go on a 'martyrdom mission'. Think about what a few hundred, perhaps a few score, dedicated and competent people could do, if they were willing to die and take as many as possible with them. There's talk again about 'waiting for the other shoe to drop'. I can imagine off the top of my head enough 'other shoes' to fill Imelda Marcos's wardrobe. (As, I'm sure, can you.) An experienced guerilla fighter with a professional competence in civil engineering could think of a good deal more. We haven't seen systematic asymmetric warfare yet. If the endless war goes on, we'll see it.

I don't know how many Americans still believe that Iraq not only had WMD before the war but actually used them in the war, as a significant minority did quite recently. As it is, nearly seven out of ten believe it very likely that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the 9/11 attacks.

Now, call me an optimist, but I find this quite encouraging. If most Americans supported the war for the same reasons as sophisticated pro-war liberals do, let alone for the reasons the neocons do, I'd despair. But when support for a war is based on nothing more substantial than a complete lie, how strong can it be and how long can it last?
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Sunday, September 07, 2003

Humanist Philosophers

One of the books I've read recently is Julian Baggini's excellent Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press). I can warmly recommend it. It deals with a number of philosophical, ethical and historical issues in a very clear and straightforward way. I've learned a lot from it. As its author says:

It does exactly what it says on the cover. What I hope is distinctive about this book is that it mainly concentrates on a positive case for atheism rather than on attacks on religion. If you think atheists are all miserable, nihilistic amoralists, this book should put you straight.

It does.

Dr Baggini is a member of the Humanist Philosophers' Group, and a little rummaging around the British Humanist Association's website turns up an interesting piece by another of its members. Dr Stephen Law's Darwin Day Lecture explains why, while "scientific creationism" may superficially look scientific, its method of reasoning is close to madness.

In an entirely literal sense.
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Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia

It looks like a line change, and possibly an Inner Party purge, are underway or imminent. Down the memory hole goes the increasingly risible WMD snipe hunt. The sinister visages of the neocons vanish from the telescreens. A better rationale for the long-planned endless war is in the pipeline.

Stay tuned for tonight's speech from Big Brother, bringing you the latest thinking from the Ministry of Peace.
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Saturday, September 06, 2003

From Here and There

Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

Death of autistic boy under apparent exorcism ruled homicide. Dwight Meredith raises sensible and sympathetic questions about what resources were (not) available to the
boy's mother. I have other and less charitable thoughts myself.

The Whiskey Bar mulls over the numbers on the economic recovery.


A conservative libertarian shows how radical that position can be: if you don't think any war can be progressive, you are not going to fall for the war on Iraq.

David Kay is quoted as admitting that UNSCOM was riddled with spies, as the Iraqis said at the time.

The Blue Sea of Death

The Royal Navy is considering using "Windows for Warships". Let's hope they never have to attack Nigeria.

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Thursday, September 04, 2003

The Last Circle

Anyone who digs a little deeper into the links on the Ukraine scam will soon realise the element of truth in Kostas Mavrakis's remark on post-Trotsky Trotskyists:

Here we are penetrating the domain of infra-Trotskyism which is no longer amenable to a sustained theoretical critique in the absence of that minimum of coherence and rigour which the founding-father had managed to maintain. It is the last circle of hell in which the confused multitude of sectarians delivered up to their obsessions talk agitatedly to themselves.

To be fair, not all Trotskyists are like that, and Mavrakis's then-favoured sectarians, the Maoists, often are.

The current documents of the FI, such as this one on
LGBT liberation, or this acute analysis of the situation after the war in Iraq, are a good deal more subtle, informed and humane than one might expect from the Trotskyist label.

So, while I have plenty of disagreements with Trotskyists, I don't tar them all with the same brush. As the FI says:

Today there is a very great diversity of groups originating or identifying with 'Trotskyism'. Some have maintained relatively coherent international organizations, while others have broken up into national or federated groups. This is even truer of ex-'Maoist' organizations. Unification of 'Trotskyists' or ex-Maoists, in the name of a programme or politics turned towards a past epoch of the revolutionary workers' movement and based on defending an organization's record, cannot be useful in any way to a regroupment or even a fusion. Rapprochement between organizations identifying with Marxism and the socialist revolution can make sense only in relation to the battles, the real movement and the tasks of today and the future.

If those who fell for the Ukrainian scam had understood this they could have saved their money and their credit, but they are most unlikely to ever understand it. They prefer the last circle of hell, where at least it's warm and they know everybody.

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