TRUTH, LIES AND THE INTERNET: SOME THOUGHTS

Demos yesterday published a new report “Truth, lies and the internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency” by Jamie Bartlett & Carl Miller. While it contains a number of points that can’t, reasonably, be disagreed with, it’s one of those reports about the “internet” that lacks a proper historical and social context, drawing parallels with history but then assuming that because the internet is “new” it’s challenges are some how sui generis. It bugged me enough to pen a fairly lengthy response… Continue reading

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IT’S TIME FOR LABOUR TO GET OFF ITS KNEES

So, Ed the Leader has spoken.

It was one of those speeches that I’ve got too used to as a member of the Labour Party where our representatives say some sensible things but then wrap them around a wad of stupidity calculated to appeal to the centre even as the right (Labour and Tory) and their sympathisers in the media succeed in dragging what is perceived to be the “centre ground” of British politics so far to the right that soon only people with Stretch Armstrong limbs will be able to comfortably reach it. Continue reading

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DEAD WATER

I appear to have misplaced my copy of Dead Water by Simon Ings, which is annoying and makes reviewing the book tricky because my notes are scribbled all over it. If anyone finds a copy in a second hand bookshop somewhere with the phrase “I fucking love this” repeatedly scratched in the margin in HB1 pencil, could you please send it back to me. Of course, thinking about it, it’s possible that those words might be scrawled over practically every copy of this book.

Dead Water is seriously good. Continue reading

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KOSMOS AT THE BFI: SOVIET HISTORY THROUGH AN SF LENS

It is a cliché to argue that science fiction is never about the future but always about the time in which it is made. Yet, as with many a cliché, there is often a nugget of truth beneath the grimy accumulation of lazy associations. So it was hard to watch the range of films that the British Film Institute put together as part of its Kosmos season – a celebration of (mostly) Russian (mostly) SF that ran through July & August 2011 – and not see them as marking out the ebbs and flows of the history of Eastern Europe’s and particularly Russia’s last century. In one sense this was all familiar ground to any fan of sf cinema. The screens were full of spaceships and heroes and aliens and there were lots of beautifully realised special effects to admire. Individually some of the films were even familiar either as arthouse classics like Solaris or through cheesy, recut American incarnations like First Spaceship on Venus (The Silent Star). And yet taken together there was something quite distinctive here – a cinema about a people’s hopes and fears for the future that has developed its own conventions and conducts its own conversations with its past and present.

It is always potentially misleading to see history as narrative but it is difficult to look at these films and not see an arc that rises to a peak of confidence and courage at the time of Sputnik, Gagarin’s and Kruschev’s interlude as leader of the USSR that gave birth to a cinema that was bright, outward-looking and hopeful. And then came the long retreat. The grim decline of the Breshnev decades created its own sf aesthetic – one with a focus that was increasingly internal and that seemed driven to the point of madness as the Soviet experiment collapsed into chaos.  And then in the aftermath – for it turns out that the end of Russian communism wasn’t the end of history –  came attempts to make sense of it all, the suffering and the glory.

Here, then, were monuments that marked the birth, brief flowering, long decline and legacy of the Soviet experiment.

Continue reading

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IS POLITICS “A LITANY OF FUTILITY”?

So watching the (mostly dreadful) debate in Parliament today about the riots, Paul Graham Raven (@PaulGrahamRaven) made a comment in a tweet that hoping for progressive change in politics in the “last decade feels like a litany of futility”. Being more of a pint-half-full person and slightly obsessive about the details – I decided to check.

There have been laws passed in the UK in the last decade that I believe are mistaken or downright stupid/wrong [Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), Identity Cards Act (2006) – never implemented, various immigration, asylum and nationality acts, UK Borders Act (2007), Digital Economy Act 2010 are just a few of the examples] but in the interests of looking on the bright side – I thought I’d take a look back at the bills passed by Parliament in the last ten years and highlight some of the good things that have come out of our legislature. Continue reading

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AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD BLIND

Watching the little shits who are causing the riots in London wreck and rob and burn their way through the streets can’t help but make you angry. The urge to give them some of their own medicine – to respond to violence with violence – is almost overwhelming. But it must be resisted.

You won’t often find me agreeing with a Conservative Home Secretary, but one thing Theresa May got right this morning was to reject the idea of rushing to put the army on London’s streets or to escalate things by bringing in “exotic” weaponry like water cannon, baton rounds or tear gas.

The cries on the rolling news channels for “something” that “must be done” are entirely understandable but they are also a seductive distraction from the real issue. Worse, to react by instinct rather than to think things through will have consequences that may last for generations. Continue reading

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ANALOGIES, ECONOMICS AND THE AMERICAN DEBT “CRISIS”

Perhaps the strangest and most depressing thing about the situation unfolding at the top of American politics this month has been how little of it has anything to do with the actual economic situation facing America. As I started writing this piece there was a senior Republican congressman on my television explaining how the Boehner plan (which would cut another $900bn of government spending out of an economy that was already finding growth hard to maintain) made sense. It was, he said, because when a family finds money tight they can’t go on eating steak and lobster, they have to cut back and have hotdogs and fries.

The comparison between the American government budget and a household budget has been a repeated theme in this unappealing bunfight. It’s a favourite narrative of the Tea Party and senators like Ron Paul. There’s a longer – but still simplistic – version of this argument here (from Reddit via boingboing) which describes the debt ceiling as like an individual’s relationship with their credit card.

It’s the kind of analogy that one has come to expect from American politics – folksy, simple and fundamentally wrong. Continue reading

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JOHN STUART MILL AND THE HORROR IN NORWAY

When faced with appalling events such as those that occured in Norway yesterday it can be difficult to respond rationally. The murder of so many young people who were guilty of nothing more than enthusiasm and idealism inspires pity, grief, anger and disbelief. There’s no reason that could excuse such an act but that it has been committed by a madman whose motivations appear to be driven by allegiance to a lunatic ideology of xenophobia and hatred strikes particularly hard at those who, like me, believe that politics (and even, sometimes, the conflict of fierce political argument) is a force for good in our society, an essential part of the struggle to create a better society.

There is a particular (though admittedly minor) irony in these events that Breivik, the man who appears to have brought this horror to pass, chose to use a quote [turns out it was a misquote – see comments below – I should have checked more carefully] from John Stuart Mill in one of his few public statements. In a twitter message a few days before the bombing in Oslo and the massacre on Utoeya he used this quote from Mill:

“One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” Continue reading

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DID THE NETWORK BEAT MURDOCH?

Judging by the excitement in some circles it appears that there are an awful lot of people who believe that something fundamental has changed this week as the disgraceful antics at the News of the World finally bubbled to the surface of the nation’s political consciousness. Murdoch’s News International empire has definitely taken a battering and News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB appears to have suffered significant damage, if it is not fatally wounded. Ed Milliband’s decision to stick his neck out and make a direct attack on News International represents the first time since Labour’s nadir in the 1980s (and the evisceration of first Michael Foot and then Neil Kinnock) that a party leader has been willing to be openly critical of Murdoch and his henchmen. Whatever the outcome, Milliband has been braver than I expected and he has dragged other politicians and the political debate with him. That clearly marks a very significant – and welcome – shift in British politics and it may yet prove a very damaging blow to Murdoch. Continue reading

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POLITICS, ECONOMICS, DEBT, SPENDING & GROWTH – INSPIRED BY AN SF STORY

So I was reading a story submitted by an author in a writing group I belong to and he’d decided to write a story with a political background. It was supposed to be set in the future but he couldn’t resist dropping in one of those slightly ranting asides about the present state of the nation that are the punji-stake-floored trap that skewer so many writers who decide to have a stab at writing explicitly about politics. These traps are particularly deadly if your understanding of the political situation is drawn only from the soul-sucking, half-witted jabbering that passes for political debate on our national media. Continue reading

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WOMEN IN SF: A SLIGHTLY RELUCTANT CONTRIBUTION TO THE DEBATE

If I’m honest if I don’t feel entirely comfortable with contributing to the women in science fiction debate that’s been filling the blogs and tweets of people whose opinion I like and respect (links below). It’s not that I don’t support equal opportunities for modern women writers (or even just women in general) or that I’m against promoting the neglected works of women writers of the past – on the contrary I fully support both the principles and the practice of what people are trying to do.

My concerns stem from an awareness of the fact that I’m probably not the best person to comment. For a start I’m, you know, a man and therefore this is not an area where I have experience of the pressures and the discrimination facing women writers trying to break through in the sf genre. I know how bloody hard it is as a white man trying to sell stories so I’m sympathetic to those with the same ambition who face higher hurdles but I can’t claim to know what that’s like. But the second, and more salient, point is that I’m a bit of an offender in the whole “ignoring-women-in-sf” thing. Continue reading

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WHY I’M NOT HAPPY WITH THE AV RESULT EVEN THOUGH I VOTED “NO”

So I voted no on the AV referendum (for reasons set out here), therefore you’d probably imagine I’m delighted with the result.

I’m not.

I’m angry. Continue reading

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WHY I’M VOTING “NO” TO AV EVEN THOUGH I SUPPORT ELECTORAL REFORM

Actually, that title should probably read, “Why I’m voting “No” to AV because I support electoral reform”…

Electoral reform is something I’ve been interested in for many years. I’ve been a bit of a nerd about electoral systems (amongst many other things) since university when I spent two years as the student union’s returning officer getting more familiar than anyone really needs to be with the intricacies of the voting system/form of torture that is sometimes called Single Transferable Vote (STV). I want a better electoral system, I support proportional representation and a major overhaul of our political structures.

Theoretically, therefore, I should be an ardent supporter of the “Yes” campaign in the forthcoming referendum. And, to be honest, if you’d told me before this campaign that I would be voting against an opportunity to introduce a different electoral system, I wouldn’t have believed you. But as it became clear what was actually on offer in the referendum I began to develop serious concerns and these have only been deepened as the debate goes on.

What follows is my attempt to explain to myself – I don’t expect anyone else to read this, it’s very long – the reasons behind my decision to vote “No” in the May 5th referendum, though I’ll do so with considerable regrets. Continue reading

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GENESIS

There is no point mincing my words. As a work of fiction, Bernard Beckett’s Genesis is a bit of a disaster. While there are interesting philosophical points raised, Beckett has made the fundamental mistake of forgetting that the first task of a novelist is to engage and entertain. If instruction is the author’s goal – and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that aim – then it should emerge from the plot and characters. Genesis is too didactic. Beckett is too determined to teach us a lesson – even to the point that the story is told through the framing device of a viva voce examination. Continue reading

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JOURNEY INTO SPACE

Before starting this review I want to congratulate artist Chris Moore and the (uncredited) designer at Penguin responsible for the cover of this book. It was a brave design choice to park the title and author’s name on the little spaceship in the bottom left hand corner of the cover, but the masses of negative space created, and the minimalist feeling it lends the cover, immediately creates the feeling that this book is a classy artefact and delivers an image of smallness and isolation that is wholly apt. Very nice. Continue reading

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OTHER EARTHS: IN PRAISE OF A DOG EARED PAPERBACK

Does anyone need another reworking of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? It’s not like there’s ever going to be a re-imagining of the story that’s more balls-to-the-wall than Apocalypse Now, so what more needs to be said. Continue reading

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BLINDSIGHT…

Or “In a Chinese Room, not far from the loo”

I have been a little unwell. Nothing serious, a stomach bug that my four-year-old daughter shrugged off without so much as a backward glance to check whether there was any puke in her curly locks (there was, we found it later) but which put dad in bed for two days. Rubbish? Me?

Of course being too sick to move far enough from the toilet for long enough to go to work but not so sick that you can’t sit up in bed with an endless supply of weak lemon drink does have advantages – like the chance to read, uninterrupted. Continue reading

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THEATRICAL SF

There’s piece on today’s Guardian theatre blog by Andrew Haydon that starts interestingly, wondering why science ficiton – which can make an impact in cinema, television and, of course, literature – isn’t embraced more by the theatre. He goes on to list a number of previous theatre sf productions – including Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut – and a number of more recent, smaller productions that all sound interesting – especially Unlimited Theatre’s work (anyone thought about approaching these guys for a con?). Continue reading

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THE EXECUTION CHANNEL

When I first picked up Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction in 1995 I hadn’t been reading much science fiction for a while but I had just picked up Red Mars, which had gone a long way to reigniting my interest and I was looking for more.

I don’t know what attracted me to MacLeod’s book – the black cover wasn’t that remarkable – but pick it up I did and read the blurb. Then I distinctly remember opening the book and reading the first chapter, dragged along by the opening action.

It was like someone had written a sf book just for me. Continue reading

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IRON MAN: CAPITALIST ICON?

Jonathan McCalmont’s always provocative SF Diplomat blog has published an interesting piece on Iron Man.

His reading of early Iron Man as a straightforward, modernist, anti-communist hero is perfectly defensible, but I’ve felt there was always something more to Iron Man/Tony Stark’s character that, typical of the work of Stan Lee, has meant that there was scope for the character to grow and adapt. Continue reading

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IN RESPONSE TO CRITICISM OF A REVIEW

Well, if nothing else it’s nice to see that I’ve made it to the top of someone’s list about something. Scott Edelman is upset by my review of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet at The Fix. Thanks to Niall at Torque Control for bringing this to my attention… I think. Continue reading

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ARTHUR C CLARKE

As I’m sure most of the sf fans reading this blog will know, Arthur C Clarke died today. In one sense the death of a 90 year old man who’d not been well for a very long time shouldn’t come as a shock – and yet I’m surprised and saddened. Continue reading

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THE ROAD

I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (lauded as a masterpiece pretty much everywhere, except here). I think Asher is far too harsh on The Road – at the very least it is a beautiful exercise in sparse writing that creates a genuinely uncomfortable sense of dread in many passages. His complaint about crimes against the English language borders on the perverse – and I think he’s wrong too to say that the book portrays a bleak view of human nature. Actually the boy and his father are beacons of decency in an unbearably harsh world and, not to spoil the ending, the conclusion is at least partly hopeful if not, in any sense, cheerful.

Continue reading

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300 AND THE MYTH OF SPARTA (PART ONE)

Watching 300 last week it struck me how, like most things, pretty much everything everyone thinks they know about Sparta is wrong.

Like, for example, everyone knows the Spartans were uniquely cruel in exposing children to the elements if they were considered weak. Continue reading

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300 AND THE MYTH OF SPARTA (PART TWO)

(Part one is here)

One of the very strangest things about the representation of Sparta in 300 is the treatment of the Ephors. If you’ve seen the film then you’ll know that they are portrayed as twisted and mis-shapen mystics, a kind of ancient race living high on a mountaintop above the Spartan city who spend their time molesting drugged-up, lithe, young women and betraying the Spartans to the Persians. Continue reading

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ASCENT

I’ve just finished reading Ascent, the newish novel by Jed Mercurio. It’s the story of Yefgenii Yeremin an orphan of Stalingrad and “the great patriotic war against fascism”. Yefgenii is blessed with a talent for mathematics and engineering and supremely acute eyesight. This combination of skills take him into the VVF, the Soviet air force that is fighting a secret war against the Americans in Korea, and thence to legendary status amongst his peers as “Ivan the Terrible”, ace of aces. In the background as Yefgenii rises are his opponents – American pilots like Grissom, Armstrong and Schirra – who would go on to form the backbone of the Mercury and Apollo programmes. Continue reading

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SIXTY DAYS AND COUNTING

I’ve said before that, for a genre that so often finds its writers dealing with big political ideas, relatively few science fiction authors demonstrate any sense that they have a clue about how politics really works. This leads to things like the sci-fi revolution and improbable conspiracies (sci-fi governments are good at keeping secrets, real governments are crap – politics is a career for people who love talking) and half-arsed characterisation. Continue reading

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THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION

Sometimes reading throws up odd sychronicities – and my experience of reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (a ‘mainstream’ writer’s take on both sf (alt-history) and the crime thriller in one book) came shortly after I’d finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and No Country for Old Men (a ‘mainstream’ writer’s take on both sf (post-apocalyptic trek) and the crime thriller in two books). Continue reading

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BRASYL

This is a book that, for me, ended up being more than the sum of its parts.

There was quite a lot here that I found disappointing, at first, but as McDonald interleaves the three different plot threads across three different worlds/times I found myself being drawn by the story and worrying less about the niggles.

Continue reading

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GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD

I finished reading Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road yesterday. It’s a wonderful book – a straightforward action-adventure story in the very old style but lifted way into the stratosphere by Chabon’s mastery of language. Continue reading

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