The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Forty Whacks

Last week I was at the second installment of Stitch and Split: Selves and Territories in Science Fiction, in Seville, sponsored by the Universidad Internacional de Andalucia. On the plane over I had a window seat. Saw the white cliffs of Dover, the Channel Islands, Britanny, the Bay of Biscay and then a long stretch of Spain. You can tell a country's system of inheritance from the air. Big fields <- primogeniture. A book idea: interesting stuff you can see and figure out from the window seat of an airliner. I can imagine a children's book, but also an adult one.

The University had a taxi waiting for me at the airport. The hotel was in an area called Triana, across the river from the older city and close to the Magic Island of buildings from Expo 92, and to the enormous former monastery in which the university has some rooms, and where the event was taking place.

I freshened up and got there in good time. The university's organizer for the event, Isabel Ojeda Cruz, a very attractive and pleasant young woman, took me through hundreds of metres of architectural marvel to meet Stitch and Split event organisers, the two Belgians I'd met at the earlier gig in Barcelona - Laurence Rassell and her partner Nicolas - as well as other participants and the translator, a bouncy muscular guy who has translated a lot of top-level meetings and is fairly sceptical of the top level as a result.

A Spanish SF writer, Juan Miguel Aguilera was also on the first evening, and he talked about space colonies. I missed some of his talk through not having my translation headphones gadget on the right channel, or something. My talk ('We are one people') was a run-through of the Fall Revo future history and an explanation of what political motives it had (basically a re-work of the Nova Express article from way back) - against identity politics and balkanization. A lot of lively discussion followed.

After that we had a break then watched Born in Flames (1983) a film by Lizzie Borden. This film is a cult classic, and deservedly so. Its innovative style and editing stand out and the passion of its creators and actors is evident, and it's a film I intend to see again. As a comment on the earlier discussion it was an inspired piece of programming by Laurence. The premise of this documentary-style film is that ten years after America's peaceful, democratic socialist revolution, women are still oppressed, and a new campaigning movement, the Women's Army, arises to fight this oppression. This would have been a fascinating film if that is what it had been about, but it isn't. It's still fascinating, but in a train-wreck kind of way.

First, we soon find that there has been no socialist revolution. The economy is obviously still capitalist, and not even what a hard-liner might call state capitalist. The new order is called 'social democracy' but it is not even that. Sweden could knock spots off the place. Absolutely no social gains are shown or implied. Not only has nothing changed for women, nothing has changed for anybody, apart from the rhetoric of the rulers. However, this is not a point made strongly in the film. Its whole thrust makes no sense unless it is saying that socialism makes no difference for women, but does for men.

The oppression of women in the future socialist America is in no way subtle. They are forced out of industrial jobs in favour of 'male heads of families'. They are raped in broad daylight in the street. Rape rehabilitation centres are set up to reintegrate rapists into society. Rape victims get nothing. Leave revolutionary or democratic socialism out of it - there is not a Stalinist or Social Democratic bureaucrat in the world who wouldn't jump at the chance to fix women's oppression at that level by pulling women into factories and pushing rapists into labour camps, as formerly existing socialism did. The actual forms of women's oppression in actually or formerly existing socialism didn't get a look-in.

The very best feature of the film was some rap-style singing by a young woman in one of the radical feminist radio stations.

The women's army has a charismatic lesbian black construction-worker leader, who has a charismatic black older feminist mentor behind the scenes. Their first actions are defending women raped in broad daylight in the streets, or hassled by boors on the Metro. Then they escalate to a big demo in New York. This is shown by clips of women's liberation demos of the 1970s, in which unfortunately for the film's thesis the banners and placards of revolutionary socialists are prominent.

The heroine is sacked from her construction job. Women demonstrate in hard hats for union jobs. Nothing happens. The young female editors of Socialist Youth Review, journal of the youth wing of the ruling party, denounce them on television. They, unlike the radical women, wear bouncy styled hair, blouses, and skirts. They mouth absurd lines without conviction. Young white men riot for jobs. Young black men riot for jobs. Secretaries strike for job advancement prospects. After more of this sort of thing, the women's army gets serious, as only macho New Left Americans can get serious: they pick up the gun.

The heroine is arrested on return from the Saharan republic, where she has been getting military training from disaffected/betrayed Polisario women. She dies in prison in an apparent suicide, but actually a murder. The Socialist Youth Review women see the light, denounce this in their journal, and lose their positions on the editorial board.

Women's Army cadres seize television studios at gunpoint and forcibly broadcast their version of events. Repression hammers down. The radical feminist radio station is blown up. The Women's Army then plants a bomb in the transmission mast at the top of ... the World Trade Center. The last frame is of a big explosion at the top of the Twin Towers. Fade to black. Credits roll.

Scattered applause from the audience.

I asked feminist SF critic Catherine Ramirez what she thought of it. She said she found it painful to watch.

The next day I wandered around the centre of Seville, taking in the Cathedral and the Alcazar. For sheer aesthetic overload I've seen nothing like either of them since I stood in front of the wall of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus. I also happened upon the Seville Book Fair, at which I was startled to find a stand of literature from the Fundacion Frederico Engels, associated with the website In Defence of Marxism. I had a brief and friendly conversation with them, mainly about recent events in Spain.

That evening the British academic and political theorist Salman Sayyid gave a carefully reasoned discourse on how SF was an intrinsically anti-political genre, of which more later, and Catherine Ramirez gave a lecture on slavery and freedom in the SF of Octavia Butler.

I have to say that though I disagreed with it Salman's talk was the high point of the two days I was there, and the discussion that followed was intense. The film that evening was Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin, 1991), a hilarious send-up of the maddest UFO conspiracy theories combined with an account of US interventions in Latin America (explained as its struggle against the aliens).

After each evening we all went out and had dinner around midnight, for 10 Euros and 13 euros per head respectively, of some of the best food I've tasted anywhere.


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