Sunday, July 31, 2011

Simone Weil, “On Bankruptcy”, 1937

[I have wanted to quote the essay below (actually the second 3/5 of the essay, but independent of the first 2/5 of it) for some time, but whenever I re-read it, it is more Frenchly disjointed than I remember. I thought this was an appropriate time to make the extra effort.]

An economic system is not like a building, and economic ills are not like falling masonry.

In every domain accessible to human thought and activity the key is provided by a certain conception of equilibrium, and without it we only fumble in the dark; the mathematical symbol of equilibrium is proportion, beloved of the Pythagoreans.  It was by conceiving a certain equilibrium proper to the human form as represented in marble and bronze that the Greeks invented sculpture, and their achievement was repeated by the Florentines of the fourteenth century.  And the Florentines invented painting when they conceived the idea of pictorial composition. Bach is the purest of musicians because he seems to have set himself the task of studying every mode of equilibrium in sound. Archimedes became the creator of physics by his mathematical construction of the different kinds of lever. Hippocrates based his science of Pythagoreanism by assimilating health to equilibrium in the functioning of the different organs. The miracle of Greece, which was mainly due to the Pythagoreans, essentially consists in having recognised the virtue of the idea and the feeling of equilibrium. 

Economic life has not yet been touched by the Greek miracle. We possess no conception of the equilibrium proper to an economy. Men have never conceived it; but it is true that the study of economics is not yet two hundred years old. It would be no exaggeration to say that all economic studies up to the present have been fruitless. Economics has not yet had a Thales, an Archimedes, or a Lavoisier. This failure is probably in large part to the revolutionary doctrines which appeared just over a century ago. The revolutionaries wanted to prove the bourgeois society had become unworkable and therefore they made no attempt to conceive an economic equilibrium for the given state of affairs; and as for the future, they took it for granted that the revolution would automatically solve all economic problems by abolishing them. No revolutionary has ever seriously attempted to define the conditions of economic equilibrium in the social regime he looks forward to.  And as for non-revolutionaries, for polemical reasons they have become counter-revolutionaries, uninterested in studying the reality before their eyes and interested only to advertise its merits.  All of us today, in all parties, are suffering the disastrous consequences of this intellectual dishonesty, which, moreover, we all more or less share.

We do, it is true, possess a sort of cheap substitute for the idea of economic equilibrium. It is the idea, if such can be called, of financial equilibrium. It is disarmingly simple. It consists of putting the ‘equal’ sign between resources and expenditure, each of them calculated in terms of accountancy. Until recently this criterion seemed to meet all requirements, whether applied to the State or to commercial and industrial undertakings or to private individuals. And it was at the same time a criterion of virtue. Like every other ideal, the bourgeois ideal of paying one’s debts has had its martyrs, of whom César Birotteau will always be the best representative; but even in the 5th century B. C. the aged Cephalus, to convince Socrates that he had always lived according to justice, made the claim: ‘I have told the truth and paid my debts.’ Socrates doubted if this was a satisfactory definition of justice. But Socrates was a troublesome person.
Today this criterion has lost much of its prestige, both economic and moral; but it still survives. People still apply Cephalus’ formula to the state, or at least one half of the formula; no one requires the State to tell the truth, but it is considered scandalous if it defaults on its debts. 

It has not yet been understood that the good Cephalus’ formula is inapplicable on account of two phenomena, which go together and are almost as ancient as money itself: namely, credit and the remuneration of capital. In his luminous little book What is Property?  Proudhon demonstrated not the injustice or immorality of property, but its impossibility; by property he did not mean the exclusive right to the use of goods, but the right to lend them at interest, whatever form the interest might take: rent, lease, or dividend of any kind. Yet this is in fact the fundamental right in any society in which wealth is normally thought of as investment income.
So soon as capital, whether in land or in any other form, is remunerated and this remuneration figures in a large number of public or private accounts, the attempt to achieve financial equilibrium becomes a permanent factor of disequilibrium. The evidence leaps to the eye. Capital invested at 4 per cent is quintupled in a hundred years; but if the income is reinvested there is a geometric progression so rapid, as always, that an interest of 3 per cent will multiply capital a hundredfold in two centuries. 

No doubt the proportion of land or other goods put out to rent or interest has always been a small one; and no doubt the income is not all reinvested. But the figures given above do nevertheless indicate that it is mathematically impossible for a society based upon money and loans at interest to maintain financial probity for two centuries. If it were maintained, the fructification of capital would automatically ensure that the entire resources of the community passed into the hands of a few people.

A rapid glance at history is enough to show the subversive role consistently played, ever since money existed, by the phenomenon of debt. The cancellation of debts was the principal feature of the reforms of both Solon and Lycurgus. And later on the small Greek cities were more than once shattered by movements in favour of another cancellation. The revolt by which the Roman plebeians won the institution of the tribuneship had its origin in a widespread insolvency which was reducing more and more debtors to the condition of slavery; and even if there had been no revolt a partial cancellation of debts had become imperative, because with every plebeian reduced to a slave Rome lost a soldier.

The payment of debts is necessary for social order. The non-payment of debts is quite equally necessary for social order. For centuries humanity has oscillated, serenely unaware, between these two contradictory necessities. Unfortunately, the second of them violates a great many seemingly legitimate interests and it has difficulty in securing recognition without disturbance and a measure of violence.

[The Malthusian insight at the core of this, that a dependence on lending capital at interest at rates above the rate of overall economic growth is inherently unsustainable, seems to me pretty solid. What do you think?]

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Rule Number One

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

(A. E. Housman)

Arguing axiomatically, from the position that life is a treasure and thou shalt not kill, the statement of Clam – 7 is perfectly correct. But, given my operational definition of the ‘tao’ in terms of ‘not doing things that, if everyone did them, would mean society would cease to exist’, it seems obvious that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered.* Homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice’ might plausibly therefore be a greater threat to society than the mass murder of people we do not see and cannot talk to, and it might well be necessary to fight it tooth and nail.
So it is incumbent on me to come down on the ‘Nature’ side of the Nature/Nurture debate in this instance. If one does not chose to be homosexual, but it is a genetic inheritance that one cannot help, it is not conceivably a condition that is likely to spread through society to such an extent that it will cease to exist, and does not contravene the ‘operational tao’. In fact, if it is genetic, it would seem that the best way to get rid of it would be to encourage everyone with any homosexual tendencies whatsoever to behave as homosexually as possible, so that they are removed from the gene pool. I was speculating about a future history where such an outcome had come to pass, and homosexuals were a strange historical curiosity, when I realised that the more interesting question was how a genetic predisposition to homosexuality could have arisen in the first place.

This is no problem for me because I can come up with all sorts of ‘just so’ stories to explain how group or kin selection could make homosexuality adaptive.

But it is a problem for those evolutionary biologists, like Richard Dawkins, who have an unreasoning prejudice against all forms of group selection. I can only see them explaining homosexuality as something like sickle-cell anaemia, a maladaptive by-product of some gene for ‘demihomosexuality’ that somehow confers a reproductive advantage on individuals. I wonder how popular that makes them?

With regard to my other assertions of seven years ago, there is a whole other post in how the world has reacted to the election of President Wossname; and I am still quietly confident that those WMDs will turn up in post-Assad Syria somewhere...

And I promise to get on to the deconstruction of the Roddenberry Utopia, real soon now.

*: I have realised this is really only a failure of imagination, since the rules of society are not immutable constants, and even with 1st century technology it is easy to postulate rules for a functioning society in which all sexual behaviour is homosexual but that would be recognisable as Christian in all other respects by a member of the 21st century Australian religious right. So it is not as incumbent on me to believe homosexuality is genetic as I first thought.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


That was probably not the best timing with those last two posts.

My impression is that there is a tendency in the media to push this Norwegian mass murder toward the 'psycho madman' box in the face of evidence to the contrary, in the opposite way to the tendency after the shooting in Tucson. It is obviously in the self-interest of journalists on the right to minimise the political aspects of this tragedy. But you would think journalists on the left would go berserk over a real "Tea-Party"-inspired mass murder on such a terrible scale. Part of this is doubtless due to the extreme self-absorption of the rebel colonists who dominate the English-speaking press.  But I think there is something else:

A lone psycho pushed over the edge by "your" inflammatory political rhetoric is one thing;

A terrorist who carries out a well-organised act of political violence against "us" is quite another thing, and much scarier, that we would rather not think about.

Here is  a disingenuous note from Mark Steyn to the effect that the terrorist was not Islamophobic because he did not target Muslims, but people racially similar to himself.

No, he was just Islamophobic *and* logical. Muslims are not invading Norway in longboats. They are being invited by a left-of-centre government. There is no point attacking the symptom and not the cause. If you are Islamophobic and logical and have taken on board the pessimistic messages coming from a lot of the right-wing commentariat that Europe is doomed, you will despair of ever making a difference at the ballot box. So political violence will start to look attractive. Killing one prominent left-of-centre politician is not going to make a lot of difference. Killing a terrible lot of potential left-of-centre politicians just might, though: since it will (a) reduce the potential talent pool of the left-of-centre party, and hence its effectiveness, for a long time to come; and (b) potentially discourage a much larger number of potential left-of-centre politicians from ever getting involved in the game, not just in Norway but in other countries, with similar results . 

So, if you are a left-wing student politician anywhere in the world: do not be intimidated. Stay the course. Otherwise the terrorists win.

Monday, July 25, 2011

There but for the grace of God...

I should like to reiterate that the conviction of Faheem Khalid Lodhi to 20 years in prison was a grotesque miscarriage of justice. It chills me whenever I think of it that in our country someone can be sentenced to such a term for planning an attack on infrastructure with 'the exact target, timing and method yet to be determined'.

It is seven years since I nailed my colours to the mast. As far as I can remember the letter quoted in that post, written about the time Christina Green was conceived, was the first time I had recorded any such thoughts in any medium. I hadn't written anything down, and I hadn't said anything to anyone, because I was - very vaguely, probably even less seriously than Faheem Khalid Lodhi - keeping my options open to plan something, someday, with the 'exact target, timing, and method yet to be determined'. And I didn't want to leave any tracks at all. Writing that letter was closing the door on that option. It was cowardice, not bravery. A step away from fanatical conviction, not towards it.

I used the line 'Human being is a process, not the name of a thing' as the ‘grab’ line in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald about stem cell research, sometime in 2001-2003. The letter was published, but without this line that I had put in to get their attention. They must have just decided it was ungrammatical and silly. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

First and Last Things

The first actual content in this blog was this loose translation of ‘The Milonga of Manuel Flores’, by Borges, from where I could probably have gone anywhere.

The original poem is one of those places where what C.S. Lewis called Joy almost breaks through the veil of humdrum reality for me:  “I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read, 'I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is dead, is dead.' ...I knew nothing about Balder, but instantly I was uplifted.... I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described....”

Of course the truth is that I have almost no Spanish at all. One of my big regrets is that when I was growing up in the part of Mexico occupied by the rebel colonists I never bothered to learn it. It was such an unglamorous, uninteresting language to the young me. Thinking about this got me thinking about the many links between my family and the Latin American world and how being an Anglophone Catholic in the occupied territories was in retrospect a kind of amphibious existence; neither of the two cultures in the bicultural society could really be considered the ‘other’.

Which reminded me that I had a strong urge to show you the picture below earlier in the year.

The shopping centre at the bottom right is where Gabrielle Giffords was shot. If I remember correctly, I bought my copy of ‘Awful Green Things from Outer Space’ at another shopping centre that once existed on that site. The triangular building at upper left is St. Odilia’s, where I was an altar boy, and where Christina Green sang in a choir with the same name as my Mum's guitar. 

I don’t really have any words but I wanted to show you the picture.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I had a pretentious title for the blog post on the price of gold I was going to write, but not for this one. Oh well.

On the weekend I saw this half-decade’s answer to ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’.  The children did not like it much. Sample dialogue:

Daughter of Clam: Isn’t he wearing a sentient creature?

Son of Clam: I don’t want to think about it.

Son-of-Clam-who-is-admittedly-rather-critical-in-general gave it an interim rating of 7/20, downgraded to 2/10 by the conclusion. He said it had instilled a strong fear of food which he expected to persist for some time. Though it appeared to be gone by dinner.

‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ is straight science fiction in the classical mould in a way that ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ was not. It follows the standard recipe of postulating a scientific or technological advance and exploring the logical dramatic consequences of that advance. In this case the advance is in carbon capture technology, in the form a machine that can convert water (and carbon dioxide) into food. (I added carbon dioxide there, when I mentally converted the lead character’s explanation of how the machine worked into real science. It was MUCH easier to do than mentally editing out Jar-Jar Binks from ‘Carry On Up the Naboo’, or whatever that film was called). The machine escapes, as they do, ending up floating high in the atmosphere and drawing energy from lightning and stuff to create food.  It then wreaks havoc when it is exploited by a greedy government, creating planet-wide destructive weather patterns that are almost as unbelievable as the ones in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’.  The Hero Scientist saves the day. I should say that the film also featured a sensible Heroine Scientist, as a steadying force on the rather ditsy Hero Scientist, who starts out pretending to be dumber than she is to conceal her inner nerdiness. In a neat twist on an ancient trope, she is first seen to be beautiful when she puts on glasses and ties her hair back.

I thought it was interesting – and very encouraging, for us wannabe Hero Scientists who *may* be working on giant robots with laser eyes as we speak – that the Hero Scientist was lauded as a Hero at the end, despite being the one whose actions, er, destroyed the city. I had recently noticed this unbelievable outcome appear in an even more extreme form, in ‘Megamind’.  I am humbly thankful for this ‘get out of jail free’ card for Hero Scientists in popular culture, so many years after the invention of the atom bomb. 

What really struck me was the picture of government in the film. ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was a sympathetic portrait of the Bush/Cheney administration, whose faintly disguised analogues were shown as heroic, if clueless, but government in ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ has no redeeming features. The film is set in a town where the collapse of the sardine fishing industry has left the economy in ruins. The Mayor, in a picture perfect illustration of how unimaginative government is when it tries to think outside the box, spends the annual budget of the town on a sardine-themed amusement park. This initial demonstration of fiscal profligacy is then reinforced many times over on a metaphorical level. The Mayor enthusiastically scoffs the food that comes from the sky, snatching cheeseburgers from old ladies in the aftermath of the original rain of food, and is seen to get fatter and fatter and fatter as the movie progresses. He makes more and more extreme demands on the machine that are the proximate cause of it breaking down and wreaking havoc. All the NPC inhabitants of the town happily go along with Mayor’s excesses, and he effortlessly resists all attempts by the Hero Scientist to get him to moderate his behaviour.  

The Mayor explicitly sets himself up as a father figure for the Hero Scientist when he is trying to get him to do what he wants, in an obvious reference to the usurpation by the welfare state of functions traditionally performed by the family. An even clearer reference to the infantilisation of society at the hands of an ever-expanding paternalistic government is the Mayor’s golden boy, a former child actor featured on the tins of sardines once produced in the town, who still goes around in a nappy. In the end the Mayor leaves the town in the lurch as it is about to be destroyed, escaping on a raft made of a giant toasted cheese sandwich. He is unable to stop himself from eating it as well, and in the very last scene we see him going under. 

Productivity increases are made possible by science; the response of government to these productivity increases is to bloat uncontrollably. This is the core message of the film, made with no subtlety whatsoever. 

So I kind of liked ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ despite the fact that it made me afraid of food too.

Today is the 7th anniversary of this blog.

Because I too am infected with the self-referential spirit of the age, I intend to revisit my posts exactly seven years on, if they are at all interesting, and comment on them. The first one was not (at all interesting), so I shan’t bother today.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion

Damning with faint praise is bad. And relentless negativity is bad. So the only way I can think of starting this, in my current mood, is with some effusive over-the-top praise for Julian May’s work.

I thought the Saga of the Pliocene Exiles was... really good. I have been meaning to re-read it for some time but can’t find the first volume of the four. What has always stayed with me in a particularly intense way is the story of the guy who goes back in time following the woman who isn’t at all interested in him, and dies forgotten in an out of the way corner of the narrative remembered by no one. See, I can’t even remember his name. I remember the woman’s name started with ‘M’. That was my first encounter with the couplet that most of my native-born fellow-citizens associate most closely with Robert Menzies (pbuh): ‘I did but see her passing by/And yet I love her till I die.’ I liked the old palaeontological couple, and good old Stein who pissed in Odin’s mead bowl, and Felice the psychopath/professional athlete. In fact, a lot of the characters have really stuck with me in all these years since I last read it as interesting and appealing people.  The world where they did their stuff was also well done: it was obviously created by someone who had kept one eye on New Scientist to make the Pliocene as scientifically accurate as they could. I remember being troubled by the body count when I first read the series, for the same reason I gave up trying to read the only Anne Rice book I ever tried to read: ‘This is demographically impossible. No society could survive this.’ But then I realised that was the whole point. The Tanu/Firvulag society is shown to us in its death throes, the equilibrium it had attained having been trashed by the influx of all these pesky humans, and the story is *about* its collapse.

In the SPE I was especially taken with the little fragments we were shown of the world of the Galactic Milieu. I thought they were just boffo. As a possible future, it was imaginative, unique, and seemed carefully thought out.  I wanted to read more about it.  I liked the way the Galactic Milieu made such a big deal of Teilhard Chardin, because rather than despite I think he was a fruitcake. If aliens turn out to be enthusiastic fans of any human philosopher or theologian, it is a lay down misere that they will pick a fruitcake.

So I eagerly awaited the books about the Galactic Milieu, more than I think I have eagerly awaited any other books with the possible exception of ‘God Emperor of Dune’.  ‘Intervention’ I also really liked.  Where the SPE had shown us sympathetic portraits of the people who didn’t fit into the utopia of the Galactic Milieu, ‘Intervention’ did a good job of showing why a lot of equally sincere people – plausibly a majority of people – would have welcomed it, Earth being such a mess and all. And it quoted another bit of poetry, this time one I had already heard in German class, that I was especially fond of: ‘Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten/sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten./Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen/Es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!’  But that’s not important right now. Except perhaps to show that the sort of people who don’t feel like being ruled by superpowered psychics and aliens still come across as more my kind of people, though they aren’t drawn with as much affection.

Everything is set up splendidly for a meaty social and political confrontation between equally sincere groups of people wanting what is best for humanity.

But then... this is all thrown away. In the Galactic Milieu Trilogy the forces opposing the Galactic Milieu turn out to be manipulated and controlled by a ridiculous cartoon bad guy. Everything touched by this shoddy plot device is spoiled. For me, to the degree that I couldn’t finish the GMT when it first came out, after waiting for it so very eagerly, and didn’t read it to the end until 2009.

I can’t find anything relevant on the first page of my Google search for ‘hydra galactic milieu shoddy plot device’. Maybe one day this will change.

Some signs Fury/Hydra is a shoddy plot device:

1) Fury/Hydra is evil for the sake of being evil. No rationale for it being so evil is ever given except that people’s souls taste nice. It is just smash, kill, destroy.

2) Fury/Hydra cannot be defeated by having its magic ring destroyed in the fires of the volcano in which it was forged, the only allowed justification for 1).

3) Fury/Hydra is ridiculously overpowered. So far as I can remember, any individual metapsychic ubermind that tangles with it gets swatted. (Of course not everything that is ridiculously overpowered is a shoddy plot device, but this is one of the Fourteen Secret Signs known to the Elect.)

4) Fury/Hydra is not consistent with the universe of the books as revealed to us elsewhere. If you want to make the anti-GM forces the pawns of some sinister overpowered demonic being, fine, there should be good and evil Lylmik just like there are good and evil Eldila. But Fury does not seem to be a neevil Lylmik, or anything else that can be fit into the categories of sentient being described elsewhere in the series.

To expand on 4): Julian May is supposed to be a Catholic, and by validating the theories of Teilhard Chardin, and showing high-ranking Milieu humans professing Catholic beliefs throughout the series, she implies that there is a considerable overlap between the worldview of the Galactic Milieu and something that cannot be too far removed from an orthodox Catholic worldview. But Hydra, as described, is practically the *least* Catholic plot device possible.

Catholicism is all about free will and redemption. Fury is created unconsciously out of some fragment of a good character’s personality: no free will there. The younger generation of Remillards are recruited to it in utero: no free will there. The unconscious creator of Fury finally eliminates the menace by committing suicide. Not very Catholic. None of the human components of Hydra are ever redeemed in any way. Not even the possibility of redemption is discussed. Throughout their lives they are two-dimensional bad guys, addicted to being evil, who never think for a moment that they might be on the wrong path, despite being exposed throughout their lives to the full armoury of the Sacraments: they are baptised, confirmed, take part in the Eucharist, are exposed to all the things that in a Catholic world evil spirits are supposed to flee from in terror. By omission the Church is shown to be utterly powerless. If it was seriously part of the evolving metapsychic noosphere, as the GM implies by its endorsement of Teilhard Chardin, one would expect it not to be.

Why inflict this shoddy plot device upon us? There must have been better ways to manipulate the narrative to make us barrack for the Galactic Milieu vs. the Metapsychic rebels. I don’t know.

I would have been *so* much happier if this shoddy plot device had been excised and the GMT had been straight future history without an overarching narrative: a James Michener-style century-long epic about the Remillard family and Earth’s embedment in the Galactic Milieu. That would have been good.  Not every trilogy needs ‘a plot’.

Ever since I heard David Byrne’s quote:  “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily”, I have thought: “Plot is a trick to get people to read words for longer than they would ordinarily”. The Galactic Milieu trilogy are three books that would have been better off without one.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Der Untergang des Abendlandes, Part CLXXXIV

While I was sleeping, there were two big milestones in the history that came back from holiday on 8/8/8: The last flight of the Space Shuttle and the independence of the South Sudan. 

I have a copy of ‘Star Trek: The New Voyages 2’, published in 1977, with an Introduction by Jesco von Puttkamer and an Epilogue by Nichelle Nichols. As do you all, I am sure.  Still, bear with me while I quote:

Let me tell you about that magic moment out there in the high desert of California when dream and reality came together in a spark of greatness and purpose for humanity.  The year was 1976, the day – the 17th of September. Out there among the tumbleweeds, on the lot of Plant 42 run by the Rockwell International Corporation, two thousand invited guests from all walks of life were assembled to witness the roll-out of the first U.S. Space Shuttle. 
 ... The eyes of the distinguished crowd fixed on the corner of the main hanger when John Yardley, NASA’s head of Space Flight, gave the signal for the long-awaited moment. The motor of a low-slung tow truck growled into the expectant silence, punctuated by a muted drum roll from the military band: The bow of Orbiter 101 nosed slowly around the corner. On both sides of it was painted the ship’s name, Enterprise.

And in that instant when time seemed to freeze, the band- clear and triumphant- struck up Alexander Courage’s rousing theme from Star Trek.

A moment never to be forgotten! For many, the joy was visceral. Like one, those two thousand were on their feet, yelling and clapping with delight. Up front, in the first row of seats reserved for VVIPs (very, very important persons) a small group of people stood petrified: there was Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig. They, who had portrayed the ‘beautiful crew’ of the starship Enterprise, now witnessed the birth of the Shuttle named after their fictional vessel. 

... I looked at Gene- his head was cocked to one side as he listened to the music, and he clearly had tears in his eyes. Dee told me later about the goose bumps and the tingling in his spine when the Enterprise made its appearance. Tears burst from Nichelle’s dark eyes when she saw it – that gorgeously beautiful white space machine in the brilliant sunshine there underneath the Mojave sky. Later she told me about her feeling of being part of history in the making, of glimpsing destiny, of so much more that words could not describe.

Star Trek and the Space Program . . . what had brought them together?
... As a form of science fiction, Star Trek teaches us that our future is represented by an infinity of options or alternatives. Some possible futures are positive, others negative – but none of these options is predetermined or predestined. It is up to you and me to decide on a direction for the future and work toward making it more probable than the others. Star Trek fans are often asking what they can do to make the future they want come about. Let’s not ignore that dream, nor any other upbeat vision of the future, for there is something self-fulfilling in all visions. The energy of the soul, focussed  on such fantasy, should not go to waste.

And there  is the Space Program . . . As longs there is the determination to build the Space Shuttle, as long as there is growth, there will be hope of a positive future for humanity.

And here are a few words from Nichelle:

I used to say as a figure of speech that I felt Uhura calling me to get busy – calling any of us to get busy – so that her world could exist. Somewhere along the line it got to be more than a figure of speech. I kept finding myself in strange places. On a NASA C-141 observatory flight, where no ‘civilian’ had gone before. In Huntsville. In Washington. In the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Viking touchdown on Mars. On the Mojave Desert, watching the Enterprise roll out...

And once, maybe with that feeling of- I will have been here before, someday...

So, the glass being half full, unmanned space exploration is of course vastly cheaper and more scientifically productive.  And there has been a long tradition in popular culture of space exploitation by ruthless corporations; there are profit-making opportunities out there, and as technology improves they will get more and more profitable. There’s no real problem with a future that looks more like ‘Alien’ than ‘Star Trek’. Surely.  

You know Uhura’s name comes from ‘uhuru’, the Swahili word for ‘freedom’. 

It is a word associated with the wave of hope that swept across Africa in the early 60s when countries were first becoming independent and had not yet ended up in the grip of corrupt, incompetent, and frequently genocidal dictators. I wish the people of South Sudan – which I want to keep calling ‘the’ South Sudan – the very best of luck with their new country. I know they will need it.  

Here’s what a long-serving African leader had to say about it last October:

Addressing the one-day Arab-African summit held in Sirte, Gaddafi described Sudan’s likely breakup as a “fever” that will spread throughout Africa.

“Ethnicities [in Africa] will demand independence, linguists [in Africa] will demand independence, tribes [in Africa] will demand independence, this is a dangerous matter. The final word is for the people of the South [Sudan] and the whole world is awaiting this,” the Libyan leader was quoted by the state agency (JANA).

“This is a foregone conclusion, that Sudan might become divided but this is not the important thing. It is imperative that we remain vigilant and keep in mind that this is not the end, this is the beginning .. the beginning of the crack in Africa’s map,” he told the gathering, which was attended by Sudan’s President Omer Hassan al-Bashir.

And I think he may be right. This is the first break from the old map that was drawn up by the European powers, the artificial map that was part of the Western Order and was drawn up for the convenience of the European powers and not the people who lived there. ( I remember reading a paragraph somewhere a quarter of a century ago about how the different peoples living in Uganda had almost nothing in common, they were ‘as different as the inhabitants of Finland and Greece’ . Hey, I’ve just realised there is another political entity of more recent coinage that also has subjects as different as the inhabitants of Finland and Greece, because they are. Hehe! What goes around comes around, European map-drawers...)

Parenthetically, the fissioning of Africa into a lot of tiny countries is part of the back story to ‘A Wreath of Stars’, my favourite Bob Shaw book, which also it seems came out in 1976.  The fictional African country Gil Snook works in is explicitly not a cartoon pretend country, but a fragment of Kenya.  So I can take the optimistic view that this historical event is taking us closer to the potential future where there is an inhabited anti-neutrino world inside the Earth. 

What these two things that happened while I was sleeping have in common is that they are both striking symptoms of the passing of one world order.  Since Sputnik the main political and economic power of the West has also taken the lead in space; now it’s not. Since the Congress of Berlin the political geography of Africa has been determined by the powers of the West; now it’s not.   

So, happy birthday, South Sudan!  You should so go ahead and do this.
And good luck world. 

And sorry Uhura. :(

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Criticism is easy. Art is difficult.

I really ought to read it all again before embarking on a discussion of what I rashly called the ‘shoddy tricks’ involved in the creation of the utopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Colour Mars” trilogy. But life is short, so I will just wade into it with ten or so minutes of preliminary research.  

KSR goes to a great deal of trouble to take us through the violent and drawn-out birth pangs of his utopia, with all the interminable arguing between different factions, to make it seem plausible, but there are things that bug me about the way he does it. I felt I might have been going overboard in calling them ‘shoddy tricks’, but flicking through quickly now I think it was the right terminology to use.

#1:  In the ‘free for all’ period of Martian settlement of the 2050s, where anyone who wants to can go there, KSR has omitted groups that would certainly want to go to Mars in large numbers and once there would be disruptive of his program and be violently opposed to elements in the utopian Martian constitution. The ones I immediately thought of were:

1a. Fundamentalist Muslim groups. There are secularised Bedouin-ish folk aplenty, and Sufis, but that whole raging current of Salafist energy that has been convulsing the world and changing Islamic practice to make it even more antithetical to KSR’s vision is absent.  They are people who would definitely be keen on having a tabula rasa on which to create their own utopia, and who would have the resources to get to Mars. Of course they were easier to ignore in the first half of the 1990s, I expect.

1b. Ruby Ridge Type People. As well as counter-cultural left-wing misfits, there are counter-cultural right-wing misfits. Instead of hanging around free-love communes arguing points of anarcho-syndicalist theory, they are holed up in their cabins in the mountains, clinging to their guns and religion and wishing the gummint would f*** off. They will be off for Mars like a shot. 

1c. Mormons. If you want to make the desert bloom, who are you going to call? Especially given the weird extraterrestrial elements in their theology, I have always thought Mormons would be early and enthusiastic space travellers.  Like the Salafists they are going to have their own very clear ideas about how they want their utopia organised, though they are less likely to bring the whole thing crashing down if thwarted.

The default option for dealing with ideologically inconvenient groups like this in future history is to not mention them and hope they have gone away, as in David Brin’s “Earth”. 

#2: There is something about growing up on Mars that makes people more receptive to KSR’s utopian vision. It is not clear whether this is from the interdependency that arises from having to cooperate or die in a hostile environment, or is just some mystical Arean thing. If its is meant to be the first, I don’t think the ‘planetary’ interdependency would sink into everyone’s consciousness so fundamentally as KSR supposes, and what you would get instead would be an enhanced sense of loyalty to *your* community. 

F’rexample, in Blue Mars (p.107 in Marco’s copy which I have to give back to him):

 ‘People claiming that some fundamental right is foreign to their culture... They aren’t going to get away with that here.’

Art noticed more than a few delegates frowning at this sentiment, which no doubt struck them as a version of Western secular relativism ...

The young Martian natives, however, looked surprised that this was even considered an issue. To them the fundamental rights were innate and irrevocable, and any challenge to that struck them as just one more of the many emotional scars that the issei were always revealing, as a result of their traumatic dysfunctional Terran upbringings. [Clamly emphasis]

#3: The next may be the shoddiest trick. A natural disaster strikes Earth, which both makes it more receptive to KSR utopian ideas and lets Mars break free without too many hassles. The disaster mimics the sea-level rise of global warming, but happens all at once. It isn’t presented as anybody’s fault, not even by the terrestrial governments we know are, and always will be, keen on pinning the blame for everything bad that happens on some scapegoat.  

Of course, there will be natural disasters, and they will have unpredictable political and social effects,  but if one aim of the books is to show how such a utopia *could* come about, then having so much of the plot hinge on the adventitious collapse of the West Atlantic ice shelf is a shoddy trick. (Of course if it actually *was* engineered by the Martians, as I suspect, then it is a neat plot twist. And not admitting that the Martians did it is an even neater gesture to the co-creative role of the reader. To which I humbly tips me lid.)

p.155 of Blue Mars, Sax speaking  in Switzerland: ‘The flood marks a break point in history ... It was a natural revolution. Weather on Earth is changed, also the land, the sea’s currents. The distribution of human and animal populations, There is no reason, in this situation, to try to reinstate the antediluvian world. It’s not possible. And there are many reasons to institute an improved social order. The old one was – flawed. ... So we see the flood as an opportunity – here as it was in Mars – to – break the mould.’

As a coda here is something I wrote a few years ago when I read the following statement from Kim Stanley Robinson rejecting the view that there can be such a thing as 'right-wing utopian science fiction':

'I don't think there are opposing utopian schools in sf, as your question suggests, because I don't think there's any such thing possible as a "right-wing utopia." Right-wing politics by definition tries to prevent or reverse change; for it the current feudal regime is already "utopia" so there is no need to think utopia as a project. You have to distort the word "utopia" out of all recognition to make it fit any right-wing book; as for instance, "the world would be great if it were run by a junta and had biological communists to fight forever, so Starship Troopers is a right-wing utopian novel." True maybe, but useless. It has to be acknowledged that the expansion of legal rights to more and more people (women, ethnic minorities, children, the disabled, alternative lifestyles)--that is to say, social progress in history, the utopian track of history--has been a left-wing project and a left-wing accomplishment." []

This is an odd statement which tells me a lot about the narrow vision of KSR.

To a free marketeer, this 'current feudal regime' is not utopia - the market is born free, but everywhere is in chains, groaning under heavy burdens that prevent it from being the mighty Archangel for eliminating poverty that it can be.

To someone who believe that people should be free to act as they like, speak as they like, and think as they like, this 'current feudal regime' is not utopia - every day there is a new stupid law, and the debate on another topic is declared over.

To a social conservative, this 'current feudal regime' is not utopia - we live beneath the smoke of Auschwitz, in the sprawling new suburbs of the Cities of the Plain. The world is going to Hell in a handbasket.

And it tempts me to write a sprawling novel about not a ‘right-wing utopia’, but about a whole competing family of ‘right-wing utopias’ playing out across space and time.