Thursday, 28 April 2011

Royal Wedding

I see from the news that the bookies are enjoying the preparations for the wedding between Prince William and a-little-bit-posh-but-definitely-not-a-baronet Kate in their usual manner by offering odds on the likelihood of any combination of events that one might dream up. You know - if it will rain or not, what colour the best man's suit will be, whether the Queen will punch anybody - that sort of thing.

I didn't get around to making any bets but here are my predictions for tomorrow;

1) At ten o'clock the Libyan rebels release a video revealing that they are in fact a branch of Al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden comes out of hiding to lead the charge into Tripoli and the Americans order NATO to start an immediate bombardment of his position. Meanwhile, the BBC interviews the cook who made the cake for the royal wedding's reception.

2) As the rebels storm his compound and long range missiles land around him, Gaddafi sword fights with Bin Laden on top of a minaret. In London, the BBC journalist talks to a 90 year old woman who has the nation's largest collection of royalty-themed mugs.

3) With a dramatic lunge Osama sends Gadaffi's weapon flying from his hand. However, as the Libyan dictator prays for his life, an Israeli helicopter lands a few metres away from him. It turns out that Colonel Gadaffi was a Mossad plant all along, kept in power to secretly forward the Israeli agenda. Elsewhere, the BBC focus their cameras on the cheering crowd and talk about what it means to be British as the happy couple walk down the aisle.

4) As the Israeli aircraft shoots down two RAF typhoons and flies across the border trailing smoke, the BBC interview the Libyan ambassador about how he feels about not being invited to the royal wedding.

I suspect that the odds would have been pretty good.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Racial Essentialism and Fantasy/Science Fiction

I've been mulling over writing a blog post about this for a while but only as I was girding my loins in preparation did I remember that I'm nicking the idea almost entirely from another blog I read a bit back and had forgotten about; the awesome Blasphemous Geometries series by the creator of the Ruthless Culture blog ( Being fairly new to this blogging business I don't know if I can be sued for this pretty harmless bit of plagiarism.

Preamble (and copyright worries) aside, set species or racial traits are a staple of much science fiction and fantasy. Give the average sixteen-year old male a picture of an Orc and he will probably hazard a guess that it is war-like, unintelligent and ferocious without needing any further context. Without realising it we are bombarded with this basic idea by mainstream fantasy games, books and films such as Small World, Lord of the Rings and Star Trek/Wars. Surely this reinforces certain attitudes that we may then take across into real life political discussion? Namely that conflict between certain races is near inevitable and that assimilation between cultures is a pipe dream due to their radical differences.

Now my problem with this is that I'm usually left wing and liberal in my views. I'm more likely to read George Orwell than George Bush's memoirs in the world of non-fiction. While I have read my fair share of Nietzsche, Machiavelli and Nozick it was more in a sense of 'know your enemy' and interest in gaining knowledge about historical and philosophical topics than with any sympathy for their viewpoints. So why am I prepared to let these almost crudely racist (or speciesist if you prefer) caricatures pass in the sci fi that I read?

I think the answer is that there are other things I like about the genres mentioned. A book with some slightly odious politics in it might have passages of beautiful desciption, brilliant atmosphere and style, engaging fight scenes or a radical new way of looking at the universe that you couldn't find anywhere else. Rarely is the political angle so blatant that it ruins my enjoyment of the book (I'm looking at you Peter Hamilton, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein).

Also you can rarely tell the political slant of science fiction without reading the book. Milton Friedman's works usually have some reference to the Free Market, monetarism and Margarat Thatcher in the blurb. 'Ringworld' on the other hand has a picture of a gigantic ring in space and some whaffle about an unlikely group of aliens launching a daring expedition into unknown territory on the back. Its political angle is a lot harder to work out. It took me quite a few pages to work out that Larry Niven really was that sexist and wasn't just being ironic.

So it generally seems worth reading through the crude politics and racial (/species) stereotyping to get to the good bits. On top of that there is the gambler's desire to hit the jackpot. Occasionally in these wide genres your faith is rewarded when you come across an author who brings a persuasive left wing, pacifist or even anarchist approach to the theme. I'll gladly save fellow lefties a bit of searching by recommending Ken MacLeod, Iain M Banks and Joe Haldeman. Not only are their politics more kosher than many of their fellow genre writers, they are truly amazing authors whose novels are well worth reading.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Doctor Who!

First episode of the new series is up on iPlayer tonight and I've got a few comments to make. I went into it without having read too many spoilers and so only knew that it was set in the Wild West (which actually turned out to be false. 1968 America was the scene of the show) and Nixon was involved. I was quite sad to learn of my mistake. Nixon vs Cowboys would have been almost as good as Spitfires in space.

For the first half of the programme I didn't like it at all. Too many in jokes and cheesy bits. The opening sequence was bizarre and the 'I wear a Stetson' line was too obvious, especially when followed by River Song's display of sharpshooting.* The only one that made me laugh was the Doctor's request for '12 Jammy Dodgers and a fez' while trying to work out the location of a mysterious phone call.

Also they pulled that bloody Doctor dies in the first five minutes thing again. We know he doesn't. You don't have to be much of a Dr Who obsessive to know that Matt Smith is here for the duration of the series. Even as a framer for the series it is a bit tired and old. I much preferred the cracks in time from last series that only later on were revealed to be caused by the exploding Tardis. Still we'll have to wait and see how it develops. We aren't usually hit with something so monumental so early in the series.

Luckily the episode got better as it went on. I really like the Canton character. The repetition of the name, Canton Everett Delaware the Third, made me think he must be a character from history. I was thinking involvement in Watergate or inventor of the many worlds theory throughout the episode but neither fit with the facts and a quick internet search didn't find anything so I guess he's probably fictional.

The aliens also have a lot of potential. The Men in Black/Grey-alikes are terrifying and have a bit of a mutant human vibe to them that may or may not be going anywhere. I won't ruin the ending but the reveal about the 'Spaceman' and subsequent cliffhanger ending were both high points.

* Interesting that she later managed to miss multiple shots at close range when firing at the slow moving, semi-submerged 'Spaceman'. Hmmm.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Cameron's odious speech

Bravo, Vince Cable, bravo. Just because Clegg seems to have given up on an independent policy doesn't mean that every Lib Dem minister has to.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

"The government has appointed former Labour minister Alan Milburn to monitor its progress on a series of indicators, including whether top universities are allowing enough state-school educated children in. He told the BBC: "Sadly, we still live in a country where, invariably, if you're born poor, you die poor. Just as if you go to a low-achieving school, you tend to end up in a low-achieving job."" - quote from the BBC news site.

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that lack of wealth shouldn't be an obstacle to those with the aptitude for university. Neither do I support the government hiking up tuition fees to exclusionary levels similar to those charged in the USA.

However, it is a little worrying that a former MP doesn't seem to know what 'invariably' means. Coming from a poor background makes you more likely to be poor throughout your life, sure, but there are always going to be exceptions who manage to escape from poverty. There is enough bias and spin in media and government debates about wealth inequality and equal opportunities already without an experienced politician, who should know better, unnecessarily making things worse.