Friday, 24 October 2008

"Remember, remember the 4th of November..."

It is almost time for the US Presidential Election and, if polls are any indication, it looks like nothing can stop Barack Obama’s relentless march to glory. I can almost taste the hope from this side of the Atlantic. But it’s worth remembering that, as Obama himself joked at the Alfred E. Smith dinner, he was not born in a stable. He will not be the Messiah, he is not the liberal dream-president, and he is far to the right of the political spectrum.

Throughout this election season it has become clear how centralised the Republican and Democratic parties have become. Neither candidate has mentioned decreasing the US military budget; a staggering fact since the military-industrial complex consumed $600 billion American taxpayer money last year. It garnered not one mention in any of the debates. Neither candidate has talked about nationalising the healthcare system – in fact, the entire issue has been off the political agenda since the early days of President Clinton. The healthcare system in America needs complete reform not Obama’s extension of federal healthcare (and certainly not McCain’s ‘give-everyone-$5000-and-hope-they-spend-it-on-healthcare’ plan). The issue has never been raised. Neither candidate has mentioned the outrageous melding of church and state which has essentially turned the US into a theocracy over the past decade. As Colin Powell asked, why would a Muslim candidate be a bad thing? Both candidates are content to wield the name of God as a tool to win over the voters.

The candidates are very close to one another politically, way too close to give the American public any sort of choice over what will happen to their country. The two-party system is ruining America as the only real politicians for change are marginalised and forced to run as independent candidates. Ralph Nader has been consistently liberal throughout his career: he has raised the issues above, he has questioned what the Bush administration has been doing for eight years. He has called for the perfectly just impeachment of George W. Bush. He is the candidate that represents the true left-wing and yet Obama is the one heralded as the liberal hope for the future. According to the Political Compass as seen above, Nader is closest to Ghandi whereas Obama is in the same political square as Thatcher and Hitler.

Ralph Nader would get my vote were I an American but I don’t think any of his supporters want to see him blamed for pushing the Republicans into power like he was after the 2000 election. So, as Noam Chomsky recently said, there’s no harm in choosing the lesser of two evils: that is most definitely Obama. I don’t think there’s any way that the American public can screw things up this time and Obama will be good for the country and the world.

America: please vote for Barack Obama and don’t let the morally bankrupt septuagenarian and his book-banning, moose-hunting, expensive-clothes-wearing, ridiculously-poorly-educated, hockey-mom running mate anywhere near the White House.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

"Close Encounters of the Worst Kind."

Aliens were supposed to land on Earth yesterday. That is, according to an Australian medium called Blossom Goodchild. Goodchild claimed that on October 14th 2008, an alien craft 2000 miles long (or 2000 miles in diameter depending on the shape of the craft) would appear over the southern states of the USA, more specifically above or around Alabama. The belief in this psychic vision was so widespread that bookmakers stopped taking bets on the aliens appearing.

Putting aside practical considerations for a moment, let’s discuss Ms. Goodchild. It is my opinion that all psychics are either deluded or money-grapping liars. I do however appreciate it when psychics are consistent: rather than claiming to be ‘psychic’ it’s better if they specify the reach of their fictitious powers – telekinesis, telepathy, precognition, necromancy, etc. Ms. Goodchild claims to be a “channelling medium working with spirit and cosmic energies”, in other words a necromancer, but principally she channels one Native American chap called White Cloud. Despite White Cloud’s apparent wish to share his message of life and love with the world, Ms. Goodchild has spun out his teachings to three books which she restrictively sells at 20 AUD each. White Cloud told Ms. Goodchild about the coming of the extra-terrestrials – The Federation of Light – back in August. How White Cloud knows about these aliens approaching is unexplained but so is the fact that a Native American ghost appears to an Australian woman.

The preceding is nothing more than an invalid ad hominem argument though. Onto the practical considerations. A 2000 mile long ship would have covered a good deal more of the United States than Alabama. It would have been visible from most of America and would have had damning consequences for the country. A ship that prodigiously large would affect weather systems and thus disrupt the global flow of nature. It would, upon sudden arrival, block the flight paths of or destroy hundreds of planes already in the air; some would most likely crash thus beginning the alien’s message of peace by killing people in the thousands. Due to the ship’s size any microbial life-forms residing on it, for example bacteria from the far reaches of space, would be brought to our planet in quantities of tonnes, as would any alien gases or other substances clinging to the sides of the craft. These, once deployed on an unprepared Earth, would have the potential to create a global endemic or at least negatively affect our environmental balance. Due to these negative consequences and the pall of darkness that would cover all of the United States, I do not imagine that the incumbent Commander-in-Chief of that fair country would have appreciated the ETs dropping in: since he can’t tolerate humans of a different religion, beings from another solar system probably wouldn’t have a chance. Load the nukes!

[Insert obvious picture from Independence Day here]

A further thought is that the aliens message (as seen and transcribed here), aside from displaying a wonderful grasp of English, is packed with ‘Earthian’ references. There are references to the concept of a ‘soul’, to following one’s ‘heart’ (a piece of Earth anatomy), to governments, media, and even to love and trust. Delightful, but it seems strange that beings from another planet would have frames of reference so close to our own. Wittgenstein said that if a lion could talk, we would be unable to understand it. Yet The Federation of Light, beings far further removed from humanity than a lion, are able to commune through Ms. Goodchild so clearly.

The aliens did not come to Earth. Yesterday was a big empirical verification of the falsity of psychic claims. If Blossom Goodchild really does believe that she’s a psychic, she could make more money by submitting to the JREF’s million dollar challenge than by selling New Age kitsch and books that she has (literally) ghost-written for a Native American spirit.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

"Speculations on speculative fiction."

There has been an increasing effort lately to move speculative fiction – whether fantasy or science fiction – into the mainstream previously dominated by literary fiction (or fiction with a ‘realistic’ and contemporary setting). This has been helped in no small part by the success of J. K. Rowling and the flux of children’s fantasy rip-offs which have helped to popularise the speculative fiction genre-group. Michael Chabon’s latest literary offering The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was a popular science fiction work even going so far as to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Lost, Fringe and Heroes are all bringing speculative fiction to a wider TV audience (while the infinitely better Battlestar Galactica sits in the relative obscurity of cult TV-dom). The biggest performer at the box office this summer was The Dark Knight, a superhero movie. Halo 3 is one of the bestselling video games of all time. All pointing towards a gradual acceptance of more speculative fiction by the public rather than normal literary fiction.

So what makes good science fiction?

Firstly the scientific or futuristic element must be intrinsic to the plot. Science fiction fans herald Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as two of the greatest examples of the genre and yet both are stories that could as easily be told within a contemporary or even historical setting. Dune is basically the story of a man who fulfils his destiny utilising religious belief: a thoroughly mystical affair that could be told in feudal Europe. Foundation is the story of the fall of an Empire and attempts to establish a new one, again utilising religious belief: could just as easily be told at the end of the Roman Empire or within contemporary United States. For these novels the spaceships, technology, and generic capital-city-planets are scene decoration, nothing more: sugaring the pill to make it easier to swallow. Whereas in Battlestar Galactica for example the space setting is intrinsic to the plot: the point is that they wander lonely through the emptiness of dark space where there is no other civilisations.


Thirdly, and almost antithetical to the first desideratum, science fiction must be relevant. Although the science fictional elements must play a part, the work should have a deep and abiding message for us today, not exactly a moral – certainly nothing as ham-handed as C. S. Lewis. But the work should make the reader think and should have some kind of philosophical message such as are present in Philip K. Dick’s writing or even Jorge Luis Borges (by and large a speculative fiction writer). General science fiction themes include ethics and morality, the nature of war, metaphysical thought experiments, or destiny.

Fourth, good characters: ones that do not have to be contemporary. It’s patronising and annoying to assume a work needs a ‘lead-in’ character for a wider audience. Write characters befitting of the setting. See R. Scott Bakker and George R. R. Martin.

Fifth, the work needs to be unique. It may be difficult to find a unique science fictional element, especially since George Lucas plundered all the tropes to create the Star Wars films. However it does make a work much more readable and exciting, whether the uniqueness lies in the setting, the technology, the characters, the belief systems, the writing style/presentation, or the underlying message.

Finally, good speculative fiction is escapist. There’s no denying the thrill of diving into another world and, let’s be honest, what sane person doesn’t want to escape the real world at the moment?

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Review - The Traveller

There are broadly two attitudes towards national security: the view that focus should be directed inwards at criticism of one’s own government and infringement of civil liberties or the view that focus should be directed outwards at enemies of democracy and oppressive regimes who seek to extend their dominance. These two attitudes are exemplified in two similarly titled science-fiction stories, The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks and Message from a Time Traveller by Dan Simmons. One of these stories rang true with me, one I found ridiculously offensive: ironically the one I disagreed with was the better written and the one I agreed with was derivative and cliché-ridden.

Message from a Time Traveller is ridiculously offensive albeit interesting. The story was an insult to Islam and the opinion expressed – that all Muslims detest the West – is completely ignorant. The message itself was clear: that liberals are wasting their efforts by creating in-fighting among country’s citizens (well, the USA’s citizens) and that they should be more focused on fighting an actual enemy abroad who seeks to destroy their very way of life. Based on the story, Dan Simmons seems to believe not that there is a vast network of terrorists attacking the West but that Islam as an entire religion is attacking the West and the democratic system. This attitude is ridiculous: it characterises millions of people with one sweeping generalisation and it implicitly suggest that their religious beliefs should be subordinate to the US’s own beliefs namely the beliefs of freedom and democracy.

The Traveller on the other hand (a novel as opposed to Simmons’ short story) is terribly written but rings terribly true. The characters are shallow caricatures, clichés abound, the dialogue is written in the intensely serious style that characters in Bruckheimer films use, and the narrative structure itself was peppered with set pieces remarkably similar to parts of the Star Wars trilogy. It is the story of some rebellious freedom fighters battling against the oppression of a seemingly invincible ruling system with their only advantage being the last individuals of a group hunted to extinction who can use mystical powers (hence the similarities to Star Wars). The background however is interesting as it tells of a society where shadowy manipulation through fear and intrusive social monitoring mechanisms have led to citizens being little more than drones, or worse, prisoners in a virtual ‘Panopticon’. The mysterious author, John Twelve Hawks, at least partly blames this hidden totalitarianism of modern society on the philosopher Jeremy Bentham which is about as unfair as Simmons’ opinion of Muslims; Bentham was not some rapid arch-conservative fascist, he was an intelligent moral philosopher who campaigned for gender equality, abolition of slavery, the separation of church and state, and argued for a rational system of utilitarian morality (a flawed system but a noble ideal nonetheless). Twelve Hawks focuses on Bentham’s design for a prison and illegitimately extends Bentham’s design far beyond its intended use on convicted felons.

But I digress. In an insightful essay at the end of the book, Twelve Hawks talks about manipulation of society by powerful individuals who use fear and the power of nightmares to keep control and the gradual erosion of our civil liberties in the name of security and protection from these invisible threats. It’s a view similar to that expressed in Adam Curtis’ seminal documentary series The Power of Nightmares (although Curtis presents a more mature argument). We now live in a society where the citizenry are routinely lied to (why do we never talk about those WMDs?), where we are told about threats that don’t exist to scare us, and where we freely accept the limiting of our freedom so we can feel momentarily safe. The media scare us, the Neo-Conservatives of America fight tooth and claw to stay in power, and we fall deeper into a distracted stupor watching reality-TV and imbibing inane celebrity gossip while mercenary information-gathering groups watch us through the millions of surveillance cameras that punctuate our civil existence.

There are two attitudes towards national security. While I agree strongly with the view as expressed by John Twelve Hawks (whomever he may be) that we must fight internally against our own governments first and foremost, I can recognise the right-wing point of Dan Simmons: that at some point in the future there may be genuine threats to our security (although at present they are greatly exaggerated by the government and the sensationalist media). The existence of a thesis and an antithesis is generally a call for synthesis and we need a balance between protecting ourselves from outside aggressors as well as the machinations of insidious governmental control. I place priority on individual liberties and the failings of a government subjugated by the lies of rich and greedy individuals who feel no moral qualms about controlling the population of a planet through fear, lack of education, and moral pontificating.