There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers…and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined
- George Orwell on his discovery of the writing of H.G. Wells, as quoted by Cynthia Crossen of the Wall Street Journal, in a context that is quite worth reading, as is the follow up discussion at io9. Come to think of it, these sorts of “respectable people” (along with those who believe that housing is not a high risk investment and therefore expect to be bailed out with my savings when this turns out not to be so, those who are in favour of the television licence fee, and…) may be what I have in mind when I proclaim how much I despise the middle class, as I am prone to do.
Via the David Thompson blog – which has a weird and wonderful collection of oddball stuff every Friday, I came across this aspect of science fiction movies.
Some nifty photos and links on this website as well.
Dominic Lawson tears into the moral cant and dubious economics of those who want to festoon the UK with windmills as a solution to so-called man-made global warming. As he says, other countries, such as Germany, have spent large sums on such alternative technologies but have not, yet, been able to retire conventional power stations at all.
I am quite a fan of tidal power, as alternatives go (although I think that no serious energy policy that sidelines nuclear power is worth considering as a practical one). Unlike the wind, which is dependent on weather, tides are as regular as the orbit of the Moon. Reversible turbines could be powered by the regular, big currents that sweep to and fro in the coastal waters of countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Spain. And unlike windmills, they would not, hopefully, create a bloody great eyesore or hazard, either.
“Where are they?” is a question I would rather had remained unanswered, Mbotu mused. The stone-like bench, lost in the giant and austere entry hall, was cold and uncomfortable. It grew more so as time passed. He had been punctual. One does not keep ones God King waiting. The reverse, however, is a given. Mbotu had once done so himself. Was it only a year? Just one year since he had held the highest office there was: Secretary General of the United Nations of Earth. It might as well have been a millennium ago. The now redundant world government had succeeded beyond the wildest imaginings of its 20th century founders. After three centuries, war and everything associated with it had been abolished. No one was hungry; there were no rich, no poor; the environment had been saved and the excesses of unfettered capitalism had been reined in by the gentle power of the institution to which he had given over his life. Mbotu’s thoughts were interrupted by the echoing footfalls of an approaching functionary.
“You will be seen now.”
By the time the elderly Mbotu rose aching from the bench, the figure was already in motion. Instant and unquestioning obedience was simply assumed. No further words were exchanged and he followed as quickly as he could.
A lift took them to the top of the five kilometre ‘palace’, if that was the right term for the new seat of government. When the door opened it was as if he had crossed light-years to another world and in effect he had. This was the private residence of the alien warlord who now claimed the once peaceful and unarmed Earth for his own.
“Sit”, said an imposing alien figure. “Be comfortable”. As if realizing Mbotu’s thoughts, he added “There is no need for formality here. You are fully aware of your place and it is time to integrate you into the Imperial Government. You will be assigned quarters here. You will be restored to your former position and will retain it for so long as you are obedient and successful in carrying out our wishes. Earth must begin to pay its own way in the Empire and repay our investment in it. Our requirements are simple enough. You have advanced technology and global infrastructure. You will convert it to production to support our fleet and invasion forces. If all goes well, in a century or so you will supply troops as well.”
“But… we have no knowledge of arms and war”, interjected an appalled Mbotu, “We have expunged even the basics of dangerous technologies from our libraries and archives. They have been outlawed for generations!”
“We know. That is in fact why I am here and you are there.” After a pause he continued. “Perhaps I should explain the realities of the wider universe. Most civilizations travel a path similar to yours. They go from warlike tribes to larger and larger conglomerates hacking and beating at each other with primitive weapons. Then comes the first technological transition and wars which become more and more terrible. Those who survive become a single global state by one path or another. Since there is no longer a threat to be met, defences atrophy. There is no need for advanced arms, nuclear weapons or standing armies. Most societies degenerate to the point where they have only small special units for solving problems for the supreme ruler of the planet.”
He continued. “A few, like you, are more extreme. You have eliminated your military entirely. You have destroyed traditions which reached far into your past and once allowed the training of effective soldiers. Even if we had allowed you ten years warning you could not have fielded a fighting force worthy of respect. You blocked the development of nanotechnology, advanced spaceships, nuclear power, directed energy weapons, force fields and a hundred other things you deemed too dangerous. Your population became coddled and addicted to a safe and easy, if somewhat impoverished, life. The concept of self-defence, even if you still allowed so much as a sharp blade to be manufactured or kept, have become as alien to your population as invaders from another planet.”
“You believe you had a golden age, but soon enough your population will be taught the lie and will support our rule. By our standards you accomplished a global and equal poverty for all but the ruling class like yourself. We will return adventure to your decadent and risk averse populace. We will give you the option of thousand year lifespans and travel to the stars. Your children will be will be our willing adventurers and soldiers.”
Mbotu, steeled by life as a bureaucrat, diplomat and politician, stayed calm. “You say most. Obviously you are an exception.”
“Yes. A very small number of civilizations follow the path to Empire. From time to time we fight each other at the edges of our vast catchments, but for the most part we take the easier path. There are so many like you that it would be a waste of resources to spend our time locked in bloody combat and destroy the very planets and populations we seek.”
Mbotu changed the subject. “How long have you known of us?”
“Space is vast and the stars are like dust. Occasionally we stumble upon a pre-technological species, but for the most part we just listen. By the time we hear the first radio broadcast your sort are already into the endgame of the nation state. When we first arrived your Europeans were nearly ready for harvesting but there were still many capable of causing us annoyance. Your United States had the technology and fight to give us big problems. A deadly challenge to their supremacy might well have pushed them into developing some of the now proscribed technologies and made invasion too costly for us. Others like China and India had populations whom we would have had to mostly wipe out to stop them from fighting.”
“Over the millennia we have learned the virtue of patience. A few centuries is usually enough. Once you are decadent, disarmed and centralized…” the alien did what could pass for a shrug, “We arrive with a show of overwhelming force and you surrender without a shot. There are usually a few hold outs, but they are easily dealt with and turned into object lessons without wrecking what we want: a developed planetary civilization that will supply us the tools for the next conquest. You were not able or willing to fight for your freedom.” He paused for effect. “And now you are ours.”
[Copyright 20090712 Dale Amon, all rights reserved]
Like many people, I thoroughly enjoyed the new Star Trek film, which seeks to “re-boot” the series by going back to the early days of Messrs Kirk, Spock, Scotty and the rest in much the way that the makers of Casino Royale tried with some success to do with 007. I liked the paciness, humour and action of the ST film a lot; some of the cast were great. I thought the fellow who played Spock stole the movie with such brio that he should be probably up before a court for grand larceny. But I have a reservation: I thought that the guy playing Kirk was often a total jerk, albeit with some redeeming qualities, and it was wildly improbable that a starship would have employed him as a commander at that point. Yes, I know that the very premise of the movie is fanciful, but there has to be enough credibility and character development to make it work at even the level of fantasy (that is why Lord of the Rings triumphed as a movie series, for instance).
And this guy thinks the same way. But even so, Stark Trek is well worth the money and far more enjoyable than a lot of SF films I have seen in recent years.
Io9 lists their ten best sci-fi libertarian stories: and the mix is an interesting combination of the obvious and the outliers. The anarcho-socialist tradition, mostly British, is referenced, revealing some surprises on the influences that could be fictionalised as libertarian utopias. My own favourites are that hoary old goat, the fabian Wells, providing a counterpoint to his scientific socialism, and Eric Frank Russell with his homage to Gandhi.
Some would criticise the absence of L. Neil Smith, Ken McLeod and others, but lists are always a springboard for discussion, an opportunity to find works that did not blip the reading radar.
You might find this initial pilot for an animated not so far off future, ‘Tranquility Dome’, a lot of fun. The author, Chip Prosser, asked me to take a look and now I am wondering how soon the next episode will be available!
There was coffee. Life would go on.
- William Gibson. The Winter Market.
In truth, the anthology Burning Chrome contains some very fine short stories. I tend to think that it is a shame that Gibson gave up publishing stories pretty much immediately after he published his first novel, however iconic that novel might have been.
Oh my God! Jeanette Winterson has written a science fiction novel, The Stone Gods, as a speculation. Nor has she taken the marketing escape of disguising her presence by the addition of the cunning initial. There she is, in plain sight, unadorned, investing the enterprise with the gravitas of her literary reputation. As Ursula K Le Guin remarks, Winterson commits genre.
The story appears to involve a parable of our own world, allowing Winterson to derive her own dystopia from Orwell’s tradition of extrapolation. Unleavened by reality or experience, the future is a hell of advertising and reality television. Did she read Pohl and Kornbluth? Whilst Winterson’s themes of abandoned childhood and the nature of adoption inform much of her fiction, this departure allows us to see how literati react to the symbols of ecological disaster and despair.
The banal title invokes the destruction of Easter Island as symbol for the future of this Island Earth. What limits the visions of the future that mainstream writers depict as a simplistic outlier. The acceptable vision of the future is the resource crisis, the one that swamps our media daily, and forms the backdrop of Winterson’s love story.
The choice of future does not negate the quality of the story, and Winterson serves up a provocative narrative. Yet, does her painted future display a certain narrowness. The degrading and deserving darkness that many prophecy as the outcome of the civilisation they revile is easier to write than the complex and enriched society that few foretell and fewer understand.
Okay – it’s like this. There’s a tribe living by a river, and in the river there are crocodiles. The tribe has one particular piece of wisdom passed down through the generations. It goes like this: if you happen to meet a crocodile, don’t stick your head in its mouth. Every now and then – and who knows the reason – people ignore this advice. Which is sad. Because they die. But very stupid because they were warned. They had a choice. The moral of this story is – you can’t afford to be stupid. There are crocodiles.
- The words of Steven Moffat, as spoken by Julia Sawalha, in the final episode of Press Gang. Few things recently have pleased me as much as the announcement that Moffatt will be the new showrunner of Dr Who. The rumour today is that Neil Gaiman will be writing for the show, too, so there is lots to look forward to.
Bryan Appleyard has some interesting things to say about science fiction (hat-tip, Glenn). As a commenter said in the Times’ letters section though, Bryan focuses a little too much on the dystopian side of SF, on science-out-of-control. There are some nice touches though: he is right to examine how SF has affected the course of science, as well as the other way round.
The problem with a newspaper article like this, unfortunately, is that you can only really skim the surface of the subject. SF is pretty vast – hey, like the universe itself! There are bound to be vast tracts of land that get overlooked. Appleyard does not mention the more positive, life-affirming side of hard science fiction in the works of people like John Varley or Vernor Vinge, for instance (two of the best writers of the lot, in my opinion). And he barely mentions Arthur C. Clarke, Neal Stephenson, Ken MacLeod and R.A. Heinlein. Mention of the latter, of course, brings us onto the fact that SF has often been quite daringly political; it has used imagined futures to play around with cultural, social and ideal political scenarios (regular readers of this blog will know what I mean, such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Stephenson’s Snow Crash, etc).
But, to be fair to Appleyard, he takes SF seriously. As he points out, there seems to be more interest in fantasy instead: the enormous popularity of Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett, being just two examples. Maybe I am missing something, but I have never been interested in that side of the genre. My wife keeps badgering me to read Pratchett. Another sub-genre is what one might call “techno-military” SF; Heinlein wrote some of this in things like Starship Troopers; a good current example are the writings of John Scalzi.
Here’s a pretty good dictionary of science fiction.
“I like Canary Wharf. It is where Dr Who fought against the Cybermen.”
A friend of mine, who as you can tell, is a Dr Who fanatic. I will never be able to think of London’s new financial district in quite the same way again.