The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, April 29, 2010


A few weeks ago SF author Philip Palmer asked me to suggest a science-fiction or fantasy-related song for the 'SFF song of the week' slot on his blog. For some reason all I saw of the requirement was 'SF' and 'song' and my mind went blank as I tried to think of a song with some skiffy content. Oh, now it's easy enough to think of some. But right then, the one I thought of surprised me, and it wasn't at all obvious. But Phil liked it, and I think it was a good choice. Here it is.

Elsewhere, Scotland on Sunday Books Editor Stuart Kelly has read The Restoration Game and liked it; and in the same post, contemplates the 'similarities between early Christians and Star Trek fans'. I think I'll drop him a line recommending a browse through Making Light.

Wait, this the internet! [Moments later.] Done!

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Faceless internet blogs are forever blabbering on

In today's Sunday Herald regular columnist Joanna Blythman repeats a misconception that I've come across before: that 'bloggers' are people who write comments in the online forums of newspapers. This is a bit like thinking that 'journalists' are people who write letters to the editor. A person labouring under such a misconception might wonder why anyone should bother reading these strange 'printed newsheets' full of the uninformed scribblings of 'journalists'.

She concludes:
Glowing exceptions apart – and to be honest, I’m struggling to think of them – my reluctance to plough through pages of web comments is also a reaction to the abysmally low standard of writing that prevails. Why waste precious time wading through postings from cowardly, faceless bloggers who click on their internet search engine, find a chat forum, and then let their bellies rumble? We all have better things to do. Don’t we?
I'm not sure whether to envy her for the amount of time she has for more productive activities, or pity her for the amount of delight she's missing. Because the glowing exceptions she's struggling to think of add up to a daily growing volume of writing - of good blog posts and thoughtful or witty or for that matter scurrilous comments - that would on any given day take far more than 24 hours to read. And that on any given day already takes up far too much of mine.
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Thursday, April 22, 2010

New on the Human Genre Project

Some recent additions to The Human Genre Project, which is still growing steadily (and always open to new contributions): Identity Theft, a flash fiction by Genomics Forum Writer in Residence Pippa Goldschmidt; far-future SF short story A cult of identity by Jennifer Rohn, of LabLit fame; Fragile X, a poem by Nick Wood; another SF short story, this time about fickle fashions in future genomes, the aptly-titled New Look by Alexander Chisholm; the moving and witty poem Last Town on the Map by Chaya Bernstein; and a clever allegory, The Gatekeepers, by Dr. Karibo Moitra.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

' There's every reason to believe that human civilisation will continue into deep time'

Gosh, did I say that?

Yes. It would be great to hear from the Astronomer Royal or such, but it's just me.

And: 'A lot of the formal rules of the left are still based on 19th century communications technology, which meant newspapers'.

Hey! I wish I'd said that! Oh, wait, I did.

I'm impressed with how socialist feminist blogger and journalist Laurie Penny, who talked to me at Eastercon, has managed to distill my handwaving and rambling into a coherent interview in the Morning Star, available in tomorrow's (21/4/10) dead tree version from all good newsagents. Laurie is a genuinely encouraging and invigorating person to meet, and indeed a reason to think human civilization will continue into deep time.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

The famous Café Bristol

The Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, during which leading Soviet and Communist officials (among others) confessed to (among other things) plotting to murder Stalin, seize power, and restore capitalism, all with the direct aid of hostile foreign powers including Nazi Germany, were among the defining events of the Twentieth Century.

Anyone who has looked at the controversy over the Trials in any detail, if they know anything at all, knows this:
'Investigation of the few tangible “facts” alleged in the [first] trial proved fatal to the frame-up. For example, one of the defendants, Holtzman, testified that in November 1932 he had met [Trotsky's son] Sedov in the: “lounge” of the “Hotel Bristol” in Copenhagen and went with him to meet Trotsky and receive terrorist instructions. It was proved conclusively that Holtzman was not among the people who called on Trotsky and his wife, their friends and guards during the short time Trotsky visited Copenhagen to lecture in defense of the Soviet Union. Still more devastating, it was discovered that the Hotel Bristol had been torn down in 1917 and not rebuilt until 1936!'
Shortly after the non-existence of the Hotel Bristol in 1932 was established, the Stalinists countered as follows:
'Holtzman testified that when he arrived at the station he crossed over to the Bristol Hotel. Now opposite the station there is no Bristol Hotel. There is, however, the Grand Central Hotel, and in the same building there is a Bristol Café. Further, at the date mentioned, it was possible to obtain entrance to the hotel through the café. It may be that Holtzman, seeing the sign above the café, was confused as to the name of the hotel.'
(Soviet Policy and its Critics, J. R. Campbell, Left Book Club (Gollancz) 1939, page 264.)

To which Trotsky's defenders, in turn, countered thus:
Harking back to one of the mysteries of the first trial, the DW [Daily Worker] gave a sizable bit of its valuable space in the issue of February 26 [1937] to a plan of the Grand Hotel, Copenhagen, allegedly showing that one could enter a café said to be called the Café Bristol through this hotel – though how Holtzman could have proposed to ‘put up’ at this café still remained unexplained!
(Holtzman's exact words had been: 'I arranged with Sedov to be in Copenhagen within two or three days, to put up at the Hotel Bristol and meet him there. I went to the hotel straight from the station and in the lounge met Sedov.')

Furthermore, the only photograph of 'the famous Café Bristol' that the Stalinist press produced showed an establishment with the conspicuous sign 'KONDITORI BRISTOL' above its entire frontage, and with an entrance apparently several doors away from the nearby (also clearly signed) entrance to a hotel. Two witnesses to the Dewey Commission testified:
Directly next to the entrance to the hotel, and what appears as a big black splotch in the photo, is actually the location of the Café next to the Grand Hotel; and it is not the Konditori Bristol! The Konditori Bristol is not next door, but actually several doors away, at quite a distance from the hotel, and was not a part of it in any way, and there was no door connecting the Konditori (“candy store” it would be called here) and the Grand Hotel! Although there was such an entrance to the café which is blackened out in the photo, and which was not the Bristol.

In other words, between the Grand Hotel and the Konditori Bristol there was a café and between the hotel and the café there was an entrance, but there was no entrance at all connecting the hotel and the Bristol Konditori. B.J. Field and Esther Field were actually in that café and they were also in the hotel, so they are speaking from personal knowledge. They say further.

As a matter of fact, we bought some candy once at the Konditori Bristol, and we can state definitely that it had no vestibule, lobby, or lounge in common with the Grand Hotel or any hotel, and it could not have been mistaken for a hotel in any way, and entrance to the hotel could not be obtained through it.
And there, for nearly seventy years, the matter rested.

Then a Swedish-resident researcher, Sven-Eric Holmström, did what no one (it seems) had done in all those decades. He went to Copenhagen, where the very same Grand Hotel stands to this day, and investigated for himself. The result has now been published (PDF) by the American online Marxist journal Cultural Logic. I must admit that I would never have thought of tackling the problem the way he did. I would have assumed that any investigation at this late date would have to involve memoirs, or the testimonies of very old people - which would, of course, have left the question still open. I would have been wrong. Whatever one thinks of Holmström's wider argument in the article, he has settled the specific question of the connection between the Café Bristol and the hotel beyond a reasonable doubt, and in a way that does not rely on testimony. What it does rely on is so obvious that one can only wonder why no one thought of doing so before. It appears to be conclusive.

But this was concrete evidence; it was a fragment of the abolished past, like a fossil bone which turns up in the wrong stratum and destroys a geological theory. It was enough to blow the Party to atoms, if in some way it could have been published to the world and its significance made known.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, chapter 7 (Penguin Modern Classics, 1970, p66)

Some readers may - as I did - have this same uncanny sensation when they look at the photographs in Figures 7 and 8 of Holmström's remarkable piece of historical sleuthing. They may also appreciate the grim irony, in this and its own context, of the above Orwell quote.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Apophatic atheology: an April apologetic

A great deal of needless offence and rancour, it seems to me, is caused by the unfortunate tendency of certain believers to take the speeches and books of atheism literally. To an unwary or hasty reader, perhaps caught up in or reacting against fundamentalist readings of the texts, it may seem that atheists are denying the existence of God. Nothing could be further from the truth! What could it possibly mean, to deny that a being, agreed by all to be inconceivable, exists? That would be to claim knowledge of the unknowable. Atheists are not, of course, such fools. They are asserting, in common with all believers who have reached the age of reason, that they have no conception of the Inconceivable.

Likewise, when a Dawkins asserts that natural selection makes a Creator unnecessary as an explanation of design in nature, or a Hawkings avers that that his current understanding of time makes an act of Creation superfluous to the temporal origin of the Universe, they must be understood as giving the Creator the highest praise of which such men are capable. This praise is exactly like declaring one's admiration of a supreme artistic or athletic accomplishment by describing it as effortless. When Hitchens (the elder) declaims that religion poisons everything, he is making the same heartfelt protest against the unworthiness of the human vessels of divine revelation as has been made by saints and reformers from the beginning.

Atheists, by speaking of the non-existence of God, proclaim the depth of their devotion to and understanding of the divine hiddenness. Let us therefore agree, this particular fine morning in April, to cultivate our own gardens.

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