The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, July 30, 2011



Lighter notes

I've written a piece (to be published in SFX issue 214) on Nineteen Eighty-Four for the SFX Book Club, and discussion of the book itself is now open.

My short story 'The Surface of Last Scattering' has been just been accepted for the September special SF issue of Technology Review. And from what editor Stephen Cass tells me, it's going to be one very special issue, and well worth looking out for.

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Monday, July 25, 2011



Hope not Hate

This photo is from the Norwegian AUF (Labour Youth League)'s page about the Utøya summer camp, which makes very painful reading today.

You can sign an online book of condolence and solidarity here. Please do.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011



Gates of Oslo


Fascism is defined by its function, not its ideology. Its function is to attack and, in a severe enough crisis, to destroy the organised labour movement. Its ideology depends on time and place. Many ideas we traditionally associate with fascism have lost traction. The Third Reich and the Corporate State have as drawbacks their detractors, their admitted downsides, and above all their defeat. Nobody worth recruiting gives a toss about the Jewish conspiracy - except Islamists, and you don't want to go there, though some have tried. Ranting about Black people might get you a hearing in parts of the US, but the idea doesn't really travel. And yet, there's a niche for fascism, waiting for fresh ideas to fill it.

The Blind Watchmaker of the memes looks down, blindly, and tinkers ...

The confessed perpetrator of the Norway massacre has given us the thinking behind it. (Via.) Gramsci, 'Cultural Marxism', the Frankfurt School, feminism and political correctness as the root of the problem, the EU apparat as its enforcer, Muslim immigration and Islamist terrorism as its consequence or indeed as its weapon ... now we're getting somewhere.

An ideology for justifying violence against racial minorities, the Left and the labour movement has been developing in plain sight, rather than in the underworld of NSDAP re-enactors. It has now led to a massacre of the children of the one of the most moderate labour movements in the world.

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

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Monday, July 18, 2011



From unidentified flying objects to the speeches of Brezhnev

Things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. When they change enough, whether slowly or suddenly, they may change into something else. Things are connected to other things, to an extent that we can't imagine but can find out, and we won't go far wrong if we imagine that everything is connected to everything else.

In other words, everything has a history, and everything has a context. For practical reasons we may have to think about things as if they weren't changing, and as if they were separate things, just there by themselves. But when we're trying to really understand how the world works, we have to remember that our ideas about things may have been formed by leaving aside the changes going on in them, and the connections between them. And we have to bring history and context back into our thinking about the things, and that may mean changing our ideas about them.

And that's dialectical materialism. No scientist would disagree with it, though scientists (like other people) often forget it. I get outraged by the way some Marxists think they can pronounce, on the basis of their supposed all-embracing philosophy, on particular questions of science. They're behaving exactly like clerics of a church that thinks its theology is the queen of the sciences.

When did Marxists start behaving like that? Marx and Engels themselves certainly didn't. One Marxist who was also a scientist, the Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek, argued that the rot started with Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Reading a piece by Adam Buick about Dietzgen and Pannekoek many years ago got me on to reading Dietzgen, and introduced me to a very different take on dialectical materialism than the one you find in the standard manuals, and one that I found actually useful in thinking about scientific questions, and indeed in thinking in general. Both Marx and Engels, though they had some criticisms of Dietzgen, agreed that he - a tanner by trade, entirely self-taught - had figured it all out, more or less independently of themselves.

Earlier this year, after I'd written a post about how some Marxists have misunderstood the notion of 'the selfish gene', I decided to read or re-read half a dozen popular introductions to dialectical materialism. I could have saved myself the trouble. When you've read one, you've read them all. It didn't make any difference if the writers were Trotskyists or orthodox Communists. They all use the same arguments and the same illustrations. They're hard to tell apart, and it's hard to take from them anything that makes you think - hey, that's useful, I could use that! They don't provide any intellectual tools, of the kind you can find in any introductory philosophical textbook - Simon Blackburn's Think, for instance - or in Dietzgen's recently reprinted The Nature of Human Brain-Work.

Not that I didn't learn anything:
'All man-made cosmic bodies are the products of scientific thought. And as thought need not necessarily be unique to earth-dwellers and there may be other beings in the universe who may well be our intellectual superiors, it is natural to suppose that other cosmic bodies whose origin is so far not clear to us may also be the products of thought. Then why not suppose that the Earth with everything there is on it is also a product of thought?'
That intriguing passage is from the second page of the first chapter of ABC of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975 (English translation, 1978). It is, of course, the opening gambit in an argument that the Earth is not, in fact, the product of thought. The argument wends on and on, through the whole history of philosophy, to culminate in a quotation from Leonid Brezhnev about the freedom, social equality and justice of Soviet life. This compact hardback of 510 small pages has outlasted the state in which it was printed. The paper and binding are good enough to outlast quite a few more. But I can already see the faint traces of brown at the edges. Like all paper, it's burning, very slowly. Some day it'll crumble.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011



Cult books

What are the requirements for writing a cult book? Readable style, significant subject-matter, and reckless assertion. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. The Female Eunuch. Chariots of the Gods. The Phenomenon of Man. The Teachings of Don Juan. And, of course, The Outsider, by Colin Wilson.

Consider Wilson on Roquentin, the narrator of Sartre's novel La Nausée:

'Roquentin feels insignificant before things. Without the meaning his Will would normally impose on it, his existence is absurd. Causality - Hume's bugbear - has collapsed; consequently there are no adventures.'

It's the aside - 'Hume's bugbear' - that does the trick. Years later, you'll read Hume and marvel. Likewise the capitalization of 'Will'. This isn't any old will, you see, the kind that gets you and me out of bed in the morning - no, it's the Will of Schopenhauer's Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, to whose 'formidable dialectical apparatus' Wilson has given a nod and a passing wave a few pages earlier.



In his long, frank and often (sometimes intentionally) funny autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose (Arrow, 2004), Colin Wilson explains the genesis of his extraordinary first book, published when he was twenty-five years old and a complete unknown who had left school at sixteen. He really had read all the books he cites, and thought about them at length. He'd written about them, in his journals and notebooks, for over a decade, meanwhile endlessly drafting and redrafting his first novel. In the process, he accomplished in passing the key requirement for becoming a publishable writer: write a million words. ('Of crap', I sometimes add, by way of encouragement, because that's what mine were.) The Outsider was an overnight success, but the high-brow critics who'd praised it to the skies soon woke up with a hang-over. Wilson, it turned out, wasn't Britain's answer to Sartre and Camus. None of them, as far as I know, put their finger on what he actually was. Far from being a charlatan, Wilson was an intelligent and sincere young man who read more than enough to put most undergraduates to shame, but who'd never had what a university education could have given him: a training in critical thinking. Instead, he tried to make everything he read fit together and make a coherent story. I did the same myself at the time I read The Outsider, at the age of sixteen. Many of us do.

Wilson went on writing, about a hundred books, about everything: astronomy, crime, the occult, psychology, philosophy, sex, wine, music, UFOs ... always with the same theme as his first. He enjoyed a second success with The Occult, sometimes with the same critics, who this time should have been even more ashamed of themselves afterwards, but weren't.

I've always admired him; for his optimism, his enthusiasm, his energy, his self-belief. In one of his many books he says that it's better to think you're a genius when you're not than to think you're not when you are. There's no doubt on which side he falls. His autobiography is genuinely engaging and inspiring. If I could sincerely write a cult book a tenth as good in its way as The Outsider I'd do it in a heartbeat, if only for the money - another subject on which Wilson is eloquent, and unsparing of his own blushes.

Ideas, people, ideas! What's the world waiting to hear about from me?

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Thursday, July 14, 2011



Religion and SF

My contribution to the Guardian discussion on SF and religion is now online.
If science is the theology of nature – with the wilder reaches of physics standing in for its scholastic philosophy – SF is its mythology, its folklore, its peasant superstition. Television, film, anime and computer games supply the statues and holy pictures, which (this time) really do move.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011



Cultural Differences

The second part of my interview with Polit.ru is now available. The interview has a rather odd structure, in that it was built around questions sent in by the site's readers. I'm sure my delightful interlocutor, Anna Sakoyan, did a fine job of translating it into Russian. One question was about artificial intelligence, and I gave Google Translate as an example of its everyday emergence.

Here's how Google Translate repaid the compliment:
They say you are interested in the subject of earlier artificial intelligence. And now?

Too, but doing it is not so hard as before. I think the reason is that in the 1990s among Internet users and geeks was the craze for artificial intelligence and its development prospects. Particularly interested in the prospect of the human mind to move neuron by neuron in the format of the software. I like this idea seemed a little unrealistic. This is discussed in my first novel "The Stone Canal» (The Stone Canal) and the "Cassini Division": The Problem of superhuman intelligence feed was the main issue. From these calculations it was fun to play. And then we were arguing about what the philosophical significance of this phenomenon.

Incidentally, I had long been convinced that artificial intelligence can not in principle have consciousness. But there is a touching detail: the reason for this belief was wrong understanding of dialectical materialism (which is probably familiar to some readers of "Polit.ru"). I draw this conclusion from the wording of that consciousness - is a highly organized form of matter in motion, that is has under a biological basis. For some reason I then decided that only the physical brain can be conscious. And I did not immediately realize that the cause of the difficulty in movement, in complexity, so to speak, of the material, rather than what it is this material. Once I finally decided to his satisfaction, that question, I stopped to think about artificial intelligence.

When I see him, I believe in him.

In an interview with "Polit.ru" Bruce Sterling said that in his opinion, "the researchers continue to lose interest in this issue" because "it refers to an outdated paradigm." What do you think?

Interesting look. I think so.

When a creation of artificial intelligence to understand reproduction of the human mind as a program - it's a waste of time because the human mind we are already there. It would be nice, of course, if we had some superhuman intelligence, but in practice, technology and science, particularly cognitive science and computer science, do not seek to recreate human intelligence, and to simulate a much more primitive processes.

For example, computer video seriously progressed after attempts to mimic the human left eye and turned his eyes to the device insect, found it much more productive model for development. Actually began the process by which things around us become more "artificially intelligent", and we, in general, not particularly concerned about this. I was surprised, for example, how fast Google-developed translator. I have the feeling that he is improving constantly, and I think that this is due to the use of algorithms, in fact dictated by the principle of natural selection. And so machines become more intelligent without being holders of artificial intelligence, which is described in science fiction.
When I see him, I believe in him.

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Psalms from Saturn

'What can SF teach us about God?' This burning question is the Guardian's question of the week, and yesterday Roz Kaveney kicked off with a nice brief introductory survey of how SF has dealt with religion, touching not just the familiar bases (Blish, Miller) but some lesser-known (and intriguing) examples.

In the series pitch, my own work is described as 'powerfully atheistic'. I'm not sure I see it that way myself, but I'm delighted with the description. I'd wear it on a T-shirt, at least at a con. My own contribution to the series - in answer to the less loaded question, 'So how does [SF] help us think about our place and purpose in the universe?' - has been accepted and will appear later this week. It'll probably be described by some as 'feebly faitheist', but I can live with that. For background reading, look here for a time when Church of Scotland (and Free Church!) ministers got a great sugar rush about the possibility of pious aliens.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011



Cultural Learnings

There's part one of an interview with me over at Polit.ru, transcribed from a Skype phone call and translated into Russian. Thanks to the magic of technology, many non-readers of Russian can translate it back into their own language. In English, you get passages like this:
I am a citizen of the country's position, namely Great Britain, which regularly participates in the harassment of other countries. So the standoff of the attacks, at least in words, this is one of my tasks.
And this:
You use your book as a platform for intellectual experiments?

Yes, I like to think of things in detail. And artwork is a very interesting way to explore opportunities. For example, in my first Theatrology autumn revolution (Fall Revolution) I considered market libertarian type in comparison with the Soviet Union and socialism; I then, in particular, about the theme of moving left to politics of identity. And from the very beginning, I was faced with the ideas of anarcho-capitalism, with ideas to build a fully market-oriented society. I immediately introduced myself tells the guys with guns who rush — fun everywhere this fantasy, of course. Write about this, of course, is not the same that face it. I think some of the readers "Polit.ru" something knows this. But all this is included in the narrative.
It's better than the original, really.

If you prefer something a little less challenging, there's a nice short email interview with me in Public Service Review: European Science and Technology 10.
[I]n SF fandom – the communities that form around a shared interest in SF – there are a few scientists, but almost all fans are interested in science. Any scientist with an ability to speak in public can draw a capacity crowd at a SF convention, and get a lot of informed and intelligent questions. And the great thing about SF fans is that they talk a lot to anyone who will listen, so they'll spread what the scientist spoke about to all their friends and relations.
At least in words, this is one of my tasks.

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