Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reading for promise

A useful bit of thinking as I pull together some reviews for here and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Case of Conscience and Category Failure

It’s a monstrous thing to let the fate of an entire people hang on a piece of religious or political casuistry – itself covering for fear of the Other.

But as our history suggests, it’s also a very human response.

Exploring this theme in a science-fiction setting is the great merit of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience – a mannered novella from the 50’s subsequently padded out to a full-length work.

The premise is a unique one. Ramon Ruis-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist/priest surveys a new planet, Lithia, which shows disturbing parallels with the Biblical Eden. Considering its native, peaceful sentient reptile species, he comes to the conclusion that they lack original sin. These Lithians, like their entire world, are a snare of the devil and need to be quarantined.

There then follows a “Four Angry Men” debate between the survey team’s members – the Jesuit being joined by the Imperialist, the Liberal and the Pragmatist – to decide the fate of the planet.

The implications of their decision and subsequent actions – which I will gloss over in the interests of avoiding spoilers - are then worked out in the expanded but inessential second half of the book.

A Case of Conscience itself demands a leap of faith – that scientists in space, never mind Jesuit scientists in space, would not be competent to study another culture without resorting to misapplied theology. Significantly, there are no social scientists on this mission from the hard-science 1950's. 

That aside, it is an excellent demonstration of our tendency to explain away any novelty by reference to what we already understand. Each proposal by the survey team members to shun, exploit or embrace Lithia is a straw man with a purpose; they all reduce the complexity of an alien culture down to a single view-point based on preconcieved ideas and categories.

The first 87 pages are vital, thoughtful if a little dated reading. The rest is an unnecessary coda.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Masters dissertation

Big thanks to my parents, who checked what was on their oldest computer before consigning it to Silicon Valhalla. As a result, they've re-united me with the text of my Masters dissertation (title page omitted).

It's 100+ pages of comparative analysis of traditionalists and modernisers in Labour and the German Social Democrats during the 1980's and early 90's. 

In German.

Taking the rhetoric of party conferences and  the motions debated there as core primary sources.

Yep. Specialist audience for this, right?

At the time, I loved writing my dissertation, and nothing else I did at university served to ground me in critical thinking like doing my own research and investigation for it. The irony in writing your magnum opus in a second language you haven't used for 15 years is that I now have to read it with the occasional aid of a dictionary.

Maybe it's time to refresh my German again?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Basecamp storified

And here's the story of Basecamp in tweets. :-)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Music without resolution: Bohren & Der Club of Gore

We're so accustomed to music which seeks resolution, there's something unsettling about music which withholds it. Ambiguity invites interpretation, allows a piece to hold contested meetings, contains multitudes. 

Bohren & Der Club of Gore take this principle and apply it to a genre already riddled with doubt: after-hours barfly jazz.

I've rarely heard a band so immersive - listening to them is being surrounded by fragments of film noir, built of sax, piano and Sargasso-slow rhythms, going anywhere/nowhere.

As a taste, here's Prowler, from their Sunset Mission album. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I have a book to review - how exciting!

Yes, for the first time since those heady - and mildly embarrassing - days of student music journalism, I actually have been given something to review. Big thanks due to Theakers Quarterly Fiction, a rather nifty e-published compendium of SFF short stories and reviews, for letting me have a shot.

And what's the book? It's Apocalypse Now Now, the modern fantasy debut by Charlie Human, featuring this rather amazing front cover.

My elevator pitch summary? I guess Harry Potter coming over all Ferris Bueller in the streets of Cape Town will have to do for now. And, yes, I liked it, although I want to read it again before committing my thoughts to paper.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Scientists in white satin?

To cheer me up on a day of enforced relaxation - I've sprained my ankle at Basecamp - and prepare me for a morning of writing, here are some motivating Me Party dancefloor tunes.

Was Not Was, Wheel Me Out: apparently the spoken word on this seven-minute disco rock behemoth is David Was' mum! Can anyone confirm this?

Giorgio Moroder - Knights In White Satin (sic): fifteen minute Eurofunk workout for a Procol Harum classic? Why thank you, Giorgio! Genius, in spite of the unintentionally comic husky vocals.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

6-year work anniversary yeah!

Six years ago this week I left the civil service and ran off to join those renegade masters at Friends of the Earth.

Folks, it's been life-changing, and I'm grateful and proud to be part of the good fight.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Dear conservative science-fiction writers of America...

UPDATE: I am no longer taking comments on this thread. What I've received so far doesn't inspire me to hope for a meeting of minds, so I'm stopping it here before an exchange of views becomes an argument.

Hello there.

You don't know me, but I'm a guy with a blog the other side of the Atlantic who loves science-fiction.

I'm not anyone in fandom. Heck, I'm not even no-one in fandom.

I am a fascinated and appalled rubbernecker at the ongoing, overlapping disputes in science-fiction fandom - the infighting in the SFWA, the various Hugo award dust-ups, and the ongoing furore on diversity and gender in speculative fiction, most recently over at the Grauniad.

I haven't seen this kind of ring-a-ding since studying the British Labour Party's internecine struggles in the early eighties. Which may or may not mean anything to you, but trust me, it's really saying something.

I'll be open with you - I'm not your political bedfellow at all and would take different positions on a lot of these issues. But I think we could at least agree on the value of SF as a genre and a way of seeing the world which has meant so much to many.

And it's across that common ground that I reach out to American conservative SF writers, bloggers, fans and say: stop shooting yourselves in the foot by giving house room to people making racist statements.

You won't get anyone outside of your corner to listen to you if you don't.


I don't think you fully perceive how the words and deeds of your self-appointed spokespeople are being understood by readers with no dog in this fight.

So let's have a look at the corner you seem to be at risk of painting yourself into.

As you probably know better than I, the conservative slate proposed by author and polemical blogger Larry Correia for nominations for the prestigious Hugo Awards included a novella by Theodore Beale, better known online as Vox Day.

Beale is on record with some shocking statements - here's one beyond-the-pale example aimed at fellow author N K Jemisin - and had been expelled from The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) last year.

Now, there's a conversation to be had about how and whether to read authors with detestable views. I'm not pro-censorship, I'm pro-context. But putting someone making offensive outbursts on a conservative voting slate for the shortlist for the prestigious Hugo Awards - that sends an entirely different message to the one I think you hoped it would.

Would Beale have gotten onto the shortlist for Best Novella - which he succeeded in doing - if he hadn't had this kind of support? We'll probably never know. But the point is that the Beale-boosting contaminated by association the conservatives-and-libertarians-overlooked-in-SF position the slate was intended at least in part to raise.

Correia mounts a mainly art-for-arts-sake defence for the inclusion of Beale on his slate (it's a long post so I'd suggest scrolling or searching for it). Unfortunately, he presses onto to defend Beale's record on race, which seems at best naïve in light of his public utterances.

It's important - and welcome - that Correia clearly states on his blog that he's not racist himself. But this shielding of Beale further damages the slate and any message you wanted to carry beyond people who agree with you. It starts to look suspiciously like trolling the Hugo's, and it's highly disrespectful of people who were rightly offended by Beale first time around, not least  N K Jemisin.

If you want to talk (and listen), come away from the walls and into the centre of the room. If you don't want only the loudest and angriest voices to be heard, speak up.

You're experienced and successful writers, for goodness sake. You have the talent to take part in the debates rocking science-fiction in a respectful way. You can hear and be heard.

There is another way.