Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Alexander Bogdanov, Soviet SF Writer and Originator of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

September 18, 2021

One of my friends gave me a copy of A.M. Gittlitz’s I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, for which I’m really grateful. It’s fascinating! Posadism is a weird Trotskyite sect, founded by Posadas, the nom-de-guerre of Homero Cristalli, an Argentinian Marxist. They were hardline Marxists, joining other Communist and Trotskyite guerrillas fighting a war against capitalism and Fascist oppression across Latin America and Cuba. From what I remember from an article about them in the Fortean Times, they also looked forward to an apocalyptic nuclear war that would destroy the capitalist nations and allow the workers of the world to seize power. This is frightening, as any such war would have destroyed the planet or at least killed countless billions and sent the survivors hurtling back into the Stone Age. Unfortunately, it was also shared by Chairman Mao, who really couldn’t believe why Khrushchev hadn’t launched a nuclear attack on America during the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev was certainly no angel. During Stalin’s reign he was responsible for organising purges of dissidents in Ukraine and when in power led a brutal crackdown on religion that sent thousands of people of faith, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, shamanists to the gulags. He was also responsible for creating the system of curtained shops which served only members of the Communist party. But in refusing to start a nuclear war, Khrushchev helped save the world and showed himself a far better man than Mao.

But Posadas also had some other, rather more eccentric views. He believed in establishing contact with intelligent aliens and also believed dolphins were another intelligent species with whom we should establish real, meaningful contact and understanding. A college friend of mine told me that they wanted to make contact with aliens because of their belief in the inevitable victory of Marxism. If there were alien civilisations, they reasoned, they would have achieved true, Marxist socialism and could therefore help us do the same. It sound completely bonkers, but they took their views on dolphin intelligence from the scientist and psychologist John Lilley. Many others shared their views. I have a feeling that dolphins feature in several of Larry Niven’s novels as intelligent creatures with whom humans have a relationship as equal species. To help them interact with us, they have been given artificial arms and mobile pods containing the water they need to support them.

There was a brief resurgence of Posadism on the Net in 2016, and the book contains amongst its illustrations a number of memes posted by them. One contrasts the despair and defeatism of capitalism and the mainstream socialist parties with Posadism. It features a grey alien looking on accompanied with slogans like ‘Solidarity with the space comrades’ – not ‘space brothers’, note, like the old-fashioned UFO contactees talked about, but Marxist aliens determined to overthrow capitalism. Other slogans included ‘It’s Communism, Jim, but not a we know it’, clearly a parody of the famous line from Star Trek, ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it’. And there’s also a parody of one of the famous sayings of the Space Prophet himself, Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Posadist meme reworked this as ‘Dialectical Materialism so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.’ They are also in favour of fully automated luxury communism. This is the doctrine, embraced by Yannis Varoufakis amongst others, that mechanisation will make most workers redundant. To prevent the immense harm this will do, the only choice will be for the state to take over industry and run it so that everyone has free access to goods and services. This got reworked in one of the Posadist memes as ‘Fully automated luxury gay communism.’ I have to say this sounds distinctly unappealing. Not because I’m opposed to gay rights, but because it sounds like only gays will be allowed into the new utopia. I hope if it comes, it will benefit everyone, whatever their sexuality.

In fact the idea of fully automated luxury communism and alien contact goes back a long way in Marxist history. Alexander Bogdanov, an early rival to Marx, wrote an SF novel, Red Star. Inspired by Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket pioneer, and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this was about a revolutionary from the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising, who is abducted to Mars. Martian society is advanced both technologically and socially. All the factories are automated, so that goods are plentiful and money is obsolete, as everyone has access to all the goods and services they need or want. As a result, Martians share their possessions. What work remains is entirely voluntary, but done idealistically for the good of society. This includes young Martians donating blood to increase the lives of the elderly. (see page 5 of the above book).

As the Bard says in The Tempest ‘Oh brave new world that hath such people in it!’

Posadas was an eccentric with some extremely dangerous views, but some of his ideas aren’t so daft. If mechanisation proceeds, then I feel that fully automated luxury communism, or something very like it, will have to come into existence. It’s the only humane alternative to the grind mass poverty and despair depicted in dystopian SF stories like 2000 AD’s ‘Judge Dredd’, where 95 per cent of the population of Megacity 1 is unemployed and films like Elysium, where the world’s masses live in shanty towns, workers are exploited and disposable, and the rich live in luxury orbital colonies.

And serious scientists are still looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, following American astronomer Frank Drake and scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan. Interestingly, the book states that Sagan, a Humanist and left-wing activist, denied being a Marxist. But he and his wife Anne Druyan smuggled copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, so that Soviet citizens could read its real, suppressed history. I think most SETI scientists believe that real aliens would probably be so different from us that their political and institutions may well be inapplicable to us. Nevertheless advocates of SETI believe that aliens may nevertheless be able to give us vital scientific information, including the cure of disease and how to extend our lifespan. It probably won’t be Marxism, but if the aliens do have something like it or Fascism, then these ideologies will become popular on Earth after contact.

Communist aliens sounds like a ridiculous idea, but until we make contact, we won’t know if there are or aren’t any.

As for the Martian society of Red Star, the absence of a money economy, the abolition of scarcity and work as a purely voluntary activity sound very much like the Federation in Star Trek. Thanks to contact with the Vulcans and other aliens, humans had overcome racism, poverty and starvation. People didn’t need to work, but they did so in order to better themselves. It should be said, though, that the series never openly advocated socialism. It simply said that ‘the economics of the future are different’ and implied that both capitalism and socialism had been transcended. Nevertheless, the parallels are so close that the far right, like Sargon of Gasbag and his fellow Lotus Eaters, have been moaning that Star Trek’s communist. I doubt it, not least because the actress who plays Seven Of Nine is married to a Republican politico. I think Star Trek is broadly liberal and presents an inspiring utopian society. One of the complaints about Star Trek: Picard is that it has now abandoned this utopian optimism in favour of portraying the Federation as a standard SF dystopia and that it’s liberal slant has become too shrill and intolerant at the expense of good stories, plots and characterisation. Utopias are unattainable, but we need them to inspire us, to show us that ‘another world is possible’ and that, in the words of The Style Council, ‘you don’t have to take this crap/ You don’t have to sit back and relax’. Or work yourselves to death to increase the profits of already bloated big business elites.

Apart from this, the book is also a fascinating look at the history of Marxism in Argentina and Latin America, and I intend to review on this blog when I finish it.

As for aliens, well, I’d rather we made contact with benign Space Comrades than the little Grey buggers that haunt our nightmares of UFOs, abductions and malign conspiracies at the moment.

And yes, the title very definitely is taken from the poster of a UFO hanging in Fox Mulder’s office in the X-Files.

Cartoonist Kayfabe on the US Army’s Guide to Cartooning

September 7, 2021

Face front, true believers, as Stan ‘the Man’ Lee used to say at Marvel. Here’s a bit of fun I found on the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube. In it, comics creators Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg look at a little curiosity from the past. Back in the middle of World War II, the US army produced a booklet intended to teach squaddies the basics of cartooning.

The booklet was part of a series of such manuals intended to teach basic craft skills to wounded and shell-shocked troopers when they were recovering in hospital. It was also to give them skills that would help them find a job when they were finally demobilised. These booklets weren’t long. They were deliberately made short enough so that a trooper could have one in a pocket or in his kit bag. Other manuals in the series included leatherwork, knot-making and carpentry.

Although short, the booklet does cover all the basics of cartooning, such as proportion, perspectives, drawing action, the need to observe the wrinkles in clothes and so on, including tips on drawing noses and ears. Unfortunately, it also contains a section on ‘racial symbols’ – basically drawing national stereotypes, which includes two racist caricatures. One of these is of a Jew, which is especially distasteful given the nature of the regimes the US and its allies were fighting at the time.

The booklet’s own artwork is very fine and is stylistically similar to many of the great comics’ artists who were emerging at the time. The two speculate whether it was done by Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, a metaphor about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, or Stan Lee. Although both were in the army at the time, both were actually occupied on other projects. In the case of Lee, it was working on pamphlets about the VD. The pair also note that the booklet doesn’t say anything about sequential storytelling. It’s intended to teach single panel cartooning, the type published in newspapers at the time and which was massively popular.

I’ve got a feeling it was US army course on cartooning that produced the great American SF novelist, Harry Harrison. I think he trained as a cartoonist and started working in comics and from there found his way into writing SF short stories and novels. Harrison is probably best known for his comic SF novel, The Stainless Steel Rat, about a reformed criminal, ‘Slippery’ Jim diGriz, who works for a galactic detective bureau staffed with similar ex-crims to catch the villains, tyrants, murderers and general menaces to society that the ordinary police can’t. One of his other novels is Bill the Galactic Hero, which is a satire on the army and militarism, as well as spoofing Asimov and some of the other leading SF authors of the time. It was written, along with a number of other novels by various SF writers, as a reply to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and its glorification of war and the armed forces. In the book, the captains of the space navy aren’t the six-foot good-looking guys that appear in the films. Those are all actors. They’re members of the galactic aristocracy, and so are terribly inbred with low IQs. The aliens they are fighting against aren’t the aggressors as portrayed in the army’s propaganda, but are an otherwise peaceful race, the victims of human attack. When Bill finally meets one, who explains this to him shortly before it escapes, he asks it why they’re fighting them then. The alien replies that it doesn’t know, but ‘we think you like it’. When Bill is finally allowed some leave, he travels down to the nearest planet with a group of other squaddies. One of them is a man, who has had half of his face shot away and replaced with cybernetics. Another man wires himself into a saline drip that feeds him a mixture of alcohol and glucose so he can be flat out unconscious drunk for the duration. And at the end of the book Bill meets the Biblical Cain, here described as the first soldier, who gives him tips on how to be successful and survive as a squaddie.

Bill the Galactic Hero isn’t biting satire. It’s tone, like the Stainless Steel Rat, is largely light. But that doesn’t stop it making some very serious points about the lunacy of the armed forces and the hell of war amongst the jokes. I think it’s significant that Harrison had served in the war, while Heinlein was rejected as unfit for active service. It’s been said that the people who are least likely to start a war are those, who have actually fought in one.

And if Harrison did come into literature through the US’ army training on cartooning, there’s an irony in that it launched the career of one of SF’s great satirists of the military, along with just about everything else.

Quinn Looks at the Rave Reviews for Dune

September 5, 2021

Here’s a bit of fun to kick off Sunday. Quinn, the man behind the aptly named ‘Quinn’s Ideas’, is a Black American SF/comics writer and creator. He has a taste in classic SF tales of star-spanning galactic empires extending over centuries and millennia, intelligent stories that are part of the tradition of SF as ‘the literature of ideas’. Books like Asimov’s Foundation series, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion and especially, Frank Herbert’s Dune. Dune has now been adapted by Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. Dune opens in America the end of October. I think it might the 20th, but I’m not sure. However, the critics have seen it, and the reviews are in. They rave about it!

Quinn wonders if his audience can tell that he can hardly contain his excitement. Well, it is noticeable. He’s almost shaking with joy and expectation. The critics have loved the film, including the musical score by Hans Zimmer. Amongst the praise, one critics compares it to the moment audiences first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. This is high praise indeed! 2001 has dated, but it still one of the great SF films of all time. I was a junior school kid when I first saw Star War, and it completely blew me away. Michael Frayn, the literature professor and broadcaster, said in an interview about his favourite movies that he saw it, and the first moments immediately seized and amazed you. This was the moment the star destroyer appeared in pursuit of the princess Leia’s rebel ship. It appeared and grew and continued growing.

Quinn hopes the film lives up to this hype, as he wants it to be remembered as the cinematic version of Dune, not the 1980s David Lynch version. This took liberties with the book. One of these was the portrayal of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He was presented as a stupid, screaming madman. As Quinn says, the Dune miniseries was much better, although it had a much lower budget and the costumes were ridiculous. I have to differ from him here. I do agree with him that the Dune miniseries is an excellent adaptation, especially in the portrayal of the Baron. He’s closer to the character in the book, camp, but intelligent, subtle and cunning. I don’t know about the book, but the miniseries made him a kind of Shakespearean villain. He hated the Atreides because of the way that House looked down upon his family for generations. It recalled the line from King Lear where Edmund rants about how he is marginalised and excluded because he is a bastard, and so excluded from the throne. The Baron in the miniseries also versifies, celebrating his coming victories in rhyming couplets or haikus. Where I disagree is that I don’t think the costumes are ridiculous. I think the costume designer took his inspiration partly from 16th century Europe, shown in the uniform of the emperor’s Sardaukar shock troops, and also east Asia. The Harkonnen armour looks very much like it was inspired by Japanese samurai. Of course, it’s space age version of sixteenth century and Japanese armour and fashions. The costume of the guild ambassadors with their curiously curved headgear looks like it was inspired by some of the weird hats in Moebius, such as the one worn by his hero Arzach. I do, however, dislike the Fremen costume. I realise this is supposed to be clothes worn by harassed, persecuted desert-dwellers, but it’s tough rough and crude. The traditional clothes worn by modern desert peoples, like the Bedouin, are of much better quality even though these peoples may also be poor. I also found the miniseries’ version of the still suits, which collects the characters waste fluids from sweat, urine and faeces, and reprocesses them into drinkable water so that they can survive in the desert, disappointing. But then I don’t think they could ever match up to the stylish suits in the David Lynch movie.

I’m really looking forward to the new Dune movie, and hope to see it at the movies here, lockdown permitting. The trailers look superb and selected critics, including Quinn himself, were invited to special screenings of the first ten minutes of the movie. This massively impressed them. I’m a fan of both David Lynch’s Dune, which I consider to be a flawed masterpiece, and the miniseries. But I really hope Villeneuve’s version lives up to the hype. As Quinn’s commenters point out, what impresses the critics and the ordinary person in the auditorium are two different things. Blade Runner 2049 impressed the critics, but audience were much less impressed. It may be the same with his Dune, though I sincerely hope not. Any way, here’s the video he posted, so judge for yourself from his comments.

Trailer for Lovecraft Country – Short Lived SF/Fantasy Hero Tackling Racism and the Monsters of Cthulhu Mythos

August 28, 2021

Lovecraft Country was a short-lived SF/Fantasy series on H.B.O. last year. Set in the era of Jim Crow, its Black hero travelled across the American south, faced with White institutional racism on one hand and creatures like H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Cthulhu on the other. I found the trailer for it on Kinocheck International’s channel on YouTube. According to their blurb for the show

Based on Matt Ruff ‘s novel of the same name, Lovecraft Country follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he meets up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback. Lovecraft Country (2020) is the new mystery movie starring Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett and Wunmi Mosaku.

I admit, I had my doubts about this show. Mr H in his review of the show said that it looked interesting, but that it wasn’t actually based on anything Lovecraft had written, although there were references to him and his monsters. I was also afraid that the series would take the opportunity for some very heavy-handed anti-racist preaching, of the type where all the White characters would be racists and all the Blacks good, decent, innocent victims. Andy Ruff, who wrote the source novel, is White, but Quinn, the Black YouTuber of the Science Fiction channel, Quinn’s Ideas, praised it and said that Ruff was exactly right in his depiction of the time. This is praise indeed, as some of the literature by White authors exploring anti-Black racism has been criticised as patronising, sometimes with good reason. Looking at the trailer, however, it seems that the series was actually quite good.

Unfortunately, we may never know. It’s been cancelled. The show’s writers and creators have said that there will not be a second series, which could be a real pity. I hope one of the other channels will repeat the series and if it’s out on DVD I’ll buy it, although that may be something of a forlorn hope given the way everything is being channelled from DVD onto the streaming channels.

Tokyo Bans Sale of Comics ‘Subversive of the Social Order’ to Children

August 28, 2021

It seems to me that there’s a real war going on in ostensibly democratic countries against freedom of speech and conscience. I don’t think this is confined to either the left or right either. In Britain we have had a successions of governments that have been determined to limit the right to public protest from David Cameron to Johnson with his wretched Criminal Justice Bill. And before then there was Tony Blair and his attempts to control what was being said about him and his coterie on state broadcasting, just as Berlusconi was doing to the Italian state media. John Kampfner wrote a rather good book about it, Freedom for Sale, a few years ago, arguing that governments from Blair to Putin were trying to bargain with their peoples. They got material prosperity in return for severe infringements on their ability to protest against their governments. Well, Blair was wretched, but he did at least tackle poverty with no little success. Cameron, Tweezer and Johnson are simply increasing it.

On the other side of the political aisle, the right are complaining about the imposition of curbs on free speech as part of the campaign against hate crime and the ‘cancel culture’. Some of this is exaggerated. Zelo Street demolished some of the claims Toby Young, Douglas Murray and the rest were making about right-wingers being prevented from speaking at universities by giving the precise statistics. These showed that, while it had happened, the percentage of speakers cancelled was minute. But I do think they have a point. For example, it should be accepted that trans people should not despised, persecuted or suffer discrimination. But I think there are legitimate issues and questions voiced by gender critical feminists about trans activism and that there are spaces that should only be reserved for ‘cis’ women. But to some people, simply voicing what to many people are reasonable questions and criticisms constitute hate speech. There are similar problems regarding the reporting and discussion of racial issues. Nobody should want to empower real bigots and Fascists, but it does seem that legislation put in place to protect minorities from real hate has now expanded into Orwellian thoughtcrime.

And these attempts to limit freedom of speech have got into what is permissible in comics. One of the astonishing snippets I found while flicking through Paul Gravett’s Comics Art yesterday, was that in 2011 Tokyo municipality expanded its ban on the sale of certain comics (manga) and animated movies (anime) to children under 18 by including materials ‘excessively disruptive of the social order’. (Page 72). I realise that Japan is a very conservative society. The right-wing Liberal Democratic party were in power for fifty years or so after the end of World War II. The country is very Confucian in that one respects one’s elders and superiors. Gender roles are very traditional, as are conceptions of nationality. I don’t know if it’s still the case now, but under Japanese law at one time a person could only be a Japanese citizen if both their parents were ethnic Japanese. I gather that there are ways you can become a naturalised citizen, but it’s extremely difficult. It’s also supposed to be a very conformist society, in which children are taught at school that ‘the nail that stands up must be hammered down’. But this attack on comics is extreme.

Such attacks on the four-colour funnies and related media haven’t been restricted by Japan by any means. In the 1950s there was a moral panic in America and the United States against comics, one of the major figures in which was the Austrian psychiatrist, Dr Frederic Wertham. Wertham was one of a number of left-wing, emigre intellectuals who believed that popular culture had assisted the Nazis into power. He believed that American youth was being corrupted into crime and sexual deviancy by comics. He accused Superman of being a Nazi, despite the fact that the character’s only similarity to Nietzsche’s superman is the name, and that the Man of Steel’s creators were American Jews. Batman and Robin were an idealised homosexual couple, an accusation that has continued to plague attempts to reintroduce Robin in the strips. Oh yes, and Wonder Woman was a sado-masochist feminist lesbian. I doubt any of these accusations would have been recognised by the kids who actually bought and read the strips. But Wertham’s denunciations were taken up by a variety of groups, from the religious right to the Communist party and led to the passing of laws across America banning or restricting the sale of comics to children. The ban led to the collapse of particular comic genres, specifically the horror and true crime comics, which were particular targets of the legislators’ ire. It also affected the SF comics, because some of them strayed into politically dubious areas. The superhero comics survived, not because they were the most popular, but because they were the type of comics least affected by the new regulations.

One of the SF comics singled out for censorship was a story in which an astronaut from Earth travels to a world populated entirely by robots. His face hidden in his spacesuit, he tells the robots that they’re being considered as candidates for joining a galactic federation. Shades of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets by a slightly different name here. However, the robots are divided into two types, blue and orange, and there is hatred and conflict between them. At the end of the story, the astronaut informs them that they have been rejected because of these divisions. It was only when the people of Earth rejected their differences and united, that real progress was made, he states at the end of the story. In the last panel he removes his helmet, and reveals that he’s Black.

Shock horror! An anti-racist message! This was too much for one New York judge, who wanted the strip banned on religious grounds. He believed that God had only given speech to humanity, and hated the idea of talking robots. But the underlying issue is obviously its attack on racism at a time when Jim Crow was still very much in force. Eventually the judge had to back down, and the issue degenerated into a fight between the publisher, EC, and the authorities over how many beads of sweat they could show on the Earthman.

Well, at least there were comics creators in America prepared to deal with the issue. Pat Mills, the creator of zarjaz British comic 2000 AD, says in his book about British comics and his career in them, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! that even in the late 1960s, the policeman heroes in British comics were making quite racist comments about Blacks. Part of what made 2000 AD’s predecessor, Action, so controversial was that Mills and the other creators there had been determined to make it as relevant as possible to contemporary British youth culture and deal with the issues and stories affecting and demanded by the young readership of the time. It was originally going to be called ‘Boots’, after Dr Martens’ distinctively rebellious footwear, followed by the years. So ‘Boots 1977′, Boots 1978’ and so on. But this was too much for the publishers, and the name Action settled on instead. In the end, the comic only lasted a couple of years because it was so controversial, with the major criticism that it was far too violent. 2000 AD was its successor, but here, unlike Action, the violence would be done in support of the law. This led to Judge Dredd, who was deliberately designed as a Fascist cop. The strip’s founding artist, Carlos Ezquerra, was Spanish, and so incorporated into Dredd’s uniform the style of the Fascists then making life a misery in Franco’s Spain, the helmet, the shoulder pads and the eagle badge. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the light reflected in Dredd’s visor looks like ‘SS’. Dredd was thus partly a comment by Mills and Wagner on some of the authoritarian trends in contemporary policing. Other strips tackled issues of racism and religious bigotry – Strontium Dog and Nemesis the Warlock, for example, and sexism, like The Ballad of Halo Jones. There was also a strong anti-war message in the ABC Warriors. Mainstream American comics had been tackling some of these issues for a decade or so previously. There were issues of Spiderman, for example, that tackled racism, and the Blaxploitation craze of the 1970s led to the appearance of Black superheroes like Powerman, Brother Voodoo and the Black Panther. Since then, and particularly since the collapse of the Comics Code Authority in the 1990s, comics have become an accepted and critically respected medium for the discussion of political and social issues. This has reached the point where Conservative and more traditional fans and comics creators believe that the medium and related forms of popular culture, such as SF and Fantasy film and television has become too politicised. In their opinion, contemporary comics writers and artists are too concerned with pushing overt messages about racism, sexism and gay rights at the expense of creating good, likeable characters and engaging plots and stories.

Martin Barker describes how comics have always been the subject of suspicion by the left and the right, going back to the Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls of Victorian Britain, and the cheap, popular novels being read by ‘the democracy’ in his Comics, Ideology and Power. Girls’ comics seem to me to have come in for a particular bashing. They were attacked by conservatives for being too radical and challenging traditional female roles. The left attacked them for being too conservative and not teaching girls their proper, traditional place. Barker shows how these attacks were way off, tearing to pieces specific criticisms of various strips. He argues that children actually subtly negotiate the content of the comics they read. They accept only those elements of the strips which appeal to them and ignore the rest. They do not simply accept everything they read. Barker’s final chapter is a passionate attack on those, who were trying to censor comics at the time he was writing. This included Thatcher and the Tories, but he was also angry at his own camp, the left. Brent and Lambeth councils were also leading an attack on popular literature through their zeal to purge their municipal libraries of anything they considered racist.

And they attack on popular literature has carried on. I remember the furore at the beginning of this century against the Harry Potter books. American Evangelical Christians accused J.K. Rowling of leading children into Satanism and the occult. Well, I admit I’ve only seen the films, not read the books, but I must have missed that one. It’s always seemed to me that the Harry Potter books actually were part of a long tradition of supernatural fantasy in children’s literature going right back to E. Nesbitt and beyond, and including The Worst Witch and Gobbelino the Witch’s Cat. Their attacks on Potter contrast with the Pope’s, who praised them and J.K. Rowling for encouraging children’s imaginations. There was also a rabbi, who wrote a piece praising Potter as a kind of model for Jews.

I’m not a free speech absolutist. I believe the promotion of certain opinions should be outlawed. Obvious examples include anything that encourages the sexual abuse of children or real hatred and violence towards minorities. I have no problem with the law banning the incitement to racial hatred. This was introduced in the 1920s or ’30s with the aim of combating the rise of real Fascism in the form of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Arnold Leese’s The Britons and other violent, deeply racist and anti-Semitic outfits. I also believe that parents have every right to exercise concern and control about what their children read or listen to, or are taught at school regarding certain highly controversial issues.

But I am afraid that the rules against certain types of hate are being used to silence perfectly reasonable criticism. One of the quotes that my accusers have cited to show that I am an evil anti-Semite is a statement where I say that every state and ideology should be open to discussion and criticism, even Israel and Zionism. There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic in that. Even the wretched I.H.R.A. definition of anti-Semitism states that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic only if it is applied solely to Israel. But that sentence makes it very clear that I don’t single out Israel and Zionism for especial criticism. I simply state that they should not be above it. But to the anti-Semitism hunters, this is obviously too much.

I am very much afraid that freedom of speech, discussion and conscience and true liberty of the press is under attack. The Conservatives want to close down any view that isn’t their own, all while arguing they’re simply standing up for free speech against the censorious ‘woke’ left. And there are forces on the left trying to close down reasonable debate and criticism under the guise of protecting people from hate.

We have to be careful, and defending freedom of speech and publication from attacks, whether by left-wing councils like Brent and Lambeth in the 1980s, or right-wing local authorities like Tokyo and its law of 2011.

This should not be a partisan issue, but should stretch across the political spectrum. But my fear is that it won’t. And as both sides struggle to establish the kind of censorship they want, real freedom of expression will die.

Reply from Local MP Karin Smyth to Letter Against Tory NHS Privatisation

July 19, 2021

Firstly, sorry for my silence the past few days. The TV company we’re with were upgrading the network in our area and we lost internet and TV reception. The TV came back on as expected, but we still couldn’t get the internet. We had to call an engineer out and the first opportunity for one to come was today. Well, he did indeed come and fix it, so all should be up and running as usual. We hope.

Last week I put up a piece about the pro-NHS group, We Own Out, encouraging people to write to their MPs asking them to vote against the Tories’ latest wretched health bill, introducing more privatisation into the NHS. I wrote to my local MP, Karin Smyth, as requested, and got an excellent reply from her last week. Here it is.

“Thank you for your email regarding the new Health and Care Bill which was debated for the first time in the House of Commons yesterday. I voted against the Bill along with my Labour colleagues but it was passed with a large government majority. Jon Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health, made a very strong contribution and you can read the whole debate on the Hansard website here. There was not time for me, or more than 30 other MPs, to speak so I was unable to place on record yesterday why this legislation is such a missed opportunity which fails patients and their families in Bristol South.

Before I became your Member of Parliament I worked in the NHS and witnessed at first hand the wholesale chaos of the last reorganisation of the NHS in 2012 pursued by the then Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government. Up until that point there had been a general consensus about how to improve healthcare in our country: enhanced GP services, more care within communities to help support people closer to home and a stronger role for local government. Instead of listening to those of us within the NHS about the problems their plans would create the government simply ploughed ahead with a market and competition based system.

So now the government has accepted the almost complete failure of their last attempt and is having another go.

What they should be doing is giving new life to the NHS to enable it to fulfil the objectives set out by its founders in the pioneering post-war Labour government – high-quality healthcare, free at the point of use, fit for the modern world. But instead of a focus on improving care we have a proposals to create nothing more than a cronies charter, giving the Secretary of State huge unaccountable power to interfere in local NHS decision making with dozens of new, appointed, positions of responsibility. There is nothing to tackle the workforce crisis which means it is becoming harder and harder to recruit doctors, nurses and other staff. It is the fault of government, not hard pressed staff,  that people in south Bristol found it difficult to see a GP or were waiting for an operation even before the pandemic.  

In the coming months the Bill will be subject to line-by-line scrutiny and I expect to be part of the committee which undertakes that work. I will have a relentless focus on amending it to improve outcomes for patients and their families, through an integration of health and social care based on quality rather than cost saving or even cost cutting. I want to see effective, locally accountable and properly funded health services of which we can all be proud.

I will be updating you regularly on that work. We must all keep up the pressure on the government to make sure the National Health Service, on which we all rely, can meet our health and care needs in the 21st century.

Yours sincerely

Karin Smyth
Labour MP for Bristol South”

I’m very grateful for her reply. I’ve heard Karin speak before at local meetings of her disgust with the Tories’ privatisation of the NHS. She has said that she became an MP specifically because she felt so strongly about what they were doing to this most precious of British institutions.

I think she is a member of Labour’s right-wing, but am absolutely confident she will fight for the NHS and do exactly as she says she will about scrutinising and opposing this vile piece of legislation.

James Lindsay Versus the Postmodernists Who Think 2+2=4 Is Racist

July 10, 2021

No, I’m really not making this up. This is what some of the idiots who support Critical Race Theory actually believe. And it really does frighten me what will happen if this morons ever get the power they’re aiming for.

I came across the video from The Same Drugs in which host Meghan Murphy talks to James Lindsay. Murphy’s a feminist, who graduated in gender studies. She’s very definitely on the left and says that her views on welfare and the economy are socialist. However, she now describes herself as a liberal because of the immense importance of defending free speech and debate. Lindsay is also a man of the left. He’s a doctor of mathematics, although he says that he’s been away from the discipline for so long that he wouldn’t describe himself as a mathematician. He’s a member of the group with Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose that attacks and refutes Critical Race Theory and the other forms of Postmodernism which reject rationality, evidence and reasoned debate because these are all supposed to be the oppressive values of White males.

I started watching this video, but didn’t get any further than about ten minutes because I was so astonished at what I was hearing. Lindsay apparently got into an internet argument with radical postmodernists and racial activists, who really do believe that 2+2=4 is a form of colonial oppression. Lindsay says the fight started when he put up a kind of Devil’s Dictionary in the tradition of Ambrose Bierce, giving satirical definitions of words sending up CRT and related ideologies. In this instance, it was about Critical Race Theorists rejecting 2+2=4 because by choosing four as the solution, other values were suppressed. This was then picked up by his opponents on the other side, who then posted on Twitter and social media that, yes, 2+2=4 was racist. One of these was the woman in charge of decolonising Seattle’s educational curriculum. Another was a Guardian hack, who snidely posted that it was rich of him to say that while using Arabic numerals. He points out that she couldn’t refute his mocking definition, because that really was what she believed. She could only respond by attacking him. And then he was met by a flood of people trying to prove that 2+2=5. When asked if you can do this, he replies by saying that it isn’t. All the proofs they’re using are wrong. This was then followed by people talking about how western traders cheated the various indigenous peoples around the world, who can’t count beyond three. Yes, they also exist. This was to show that 2+2=4 really was part of an ideology of imperialist and colonialist oppression. Lindsay states that the people arguing against him were maths educators rather than mathematicians, including someone on a science and technology course at Edinburgh University in Scotland.

This is genuinely frightening as it’s a rejection of one of the simplest, foundational sums of mathematics, and by extension, all maths simply for reasons of ideology. Of course people have been speculating that their might be other regions in the cosmos or multiverse in which 2+2=5 for some time. There’s a bit in the Tim Burton SF flick, Mars Attacks, in which Piers Brosnan’s scientist character explains this to a fashion journalist. Back in the 1990s I picked up a postmodernist book on maths, which claimed it was taking God out, and the body back in. And when I was at school there were various books for children which contained trick sums that gave stupid values for simple sums like 2+2=4. These were always based on a carefully concealed mistake.

Well, western maths goes all the way back to ancient Sumeria, Babylon and Egypt, and I’m very certain that these African and Asian cultures knew exactly that 2+2=4. As did the superb mathematicians of Islam, India, China and Japan. And I think it’s insulting to any Black people wishing to study maths and science that these idiots are now telling them that the foundational principles of western mathematics aren’t suitable for them and are a form of ideological enslavement which must be torn down in order to decolonise the discipline.

I am sure the people, who believe this nonsense regard themselves as intellectual sophisticates at the very cutting edge of maths and progressive politics. But I think they’re really just barbarians, who will wreck maths and science with pseudointellectual gibberish, destroying western civilisation for an intellectually bankrupt, racist ideology.

Cartoonist Kayfabe Review’s Jack Kirby’s ‘Eternals’ #1

July 7, 2021

This might interest those of my readers, who are into UFOs and the theories about ancient astronauts. Cartoonist Kayfabe is a channel on YouTube hosted by two independent comics creators, Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg, which reviews and talks about comics. In the video below, which they put up yesterday, the pair review the first issue of comics legend Jack Kirby’s book, The Eternals.

Published in the 1970s, this was based on the theories of Erich von Daniken, that humanity had been visited in antiquity by aliens, who had been worshipped as gods. In Kirby’s strip, the aliens were the Celestials or Space Gods, immense giant humanoids wearing weird armour or spacesuits, rather like the world-devouring Galactus of Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic. In the strip the Space Gods had come to Earth in the distant past, genetically engineering humanity’s pre-human ape ancestors. The result was three species of humanoids, the Eternals, humanity and the Deviants. The Eternals possessed immortality and superpowers, and were taken by humans as gods. One of the Eternals is called Ikaris, which is clearly a version of Icarus, the character from Greek myth. While the Eternals were generally benign and largely aloof from human affairs, the Deviants were actively hostile. Their genome was unstable, with a result that they were monstrous in form and envied and hated Eternals and humans for possessing a stable body plan and good looks. One of the Deviant characters was a man, who looked human, and so was hated by the rest of the Deviants and forced to compete in lethal gladiatorial contests for their amusement.

I first came across the Eternals as a back-up strip in the British version of Marvel’s Star Wars comic. From what I remember, the first tale had Ikaris, in disguise as Ike Harris, leading a party of human explorers into an ancient South American temple. The temple is, in reality, a monument to the Space Gods, who then return to Earth. The temple becomes their landing site, with one Space God standing sentinel over it. This then becomes a forbidden zone to the three other species. The Celestials have come to judge their experiments, taking fifty years to make their observations and gather information. If humanity or the other races fail the test, the Space Gods will exterminate them.

Kirby was a master of cosmic art, and this strip shows how skilled he was at drawing beings from outer space of immense power. The various ancient astronauts depicted in the temple’s carvings and statuary are clearly influenced by the art of the ancient South American Indian civilisations such as the Aztecs and Maya. This very much follows the views of von Daniken and similar authors, who interpreted a carving of an ancient Mayan king from the temple of Palenque as portraying an ancient astronaut piloting a space capsule.

There have been a multitude of comics about flying saucers since Kenneth Arnold made his sighting of a group of mysterious objects over the Rockies in 1947, which launched the modern UFO phenomenon. The Eternals is an example of how a similar, related theory – ancient astronauts – also entered popular culture in comic form. I don’t think the strip actually lasted very long. Either I stopped reading it, or the strip disappeared from Star Wars comic after a few issues. Despite this, the characters have remained part of the MCU and a film based on the strip, which I’ve blogged about previously, is currently being filmed, trailers for which have been released. Kirby’s art is awesome, and the strip marked Jolly Jack’s return to Marvel after a period with DC. I think Kirby had left because of his dispute with Marvel and Stan Lee over who had created many of the most iconic Marvel characters. Although he had returned, there still seems to have been considerable resentment against Kirby at Marvel. Piskor and Rugg comment on the overwhelmingly hostile tone of the letters Kirby’s editors at Marvel chose to publish in the comic.

I really enjoyed the first Eternals story and its premise, though I think I got bored with it as the tale went on. I shall be very interested indeed when the film finally comes out, as I’m currently in two minds whether I want to see it. It could be very good, and it’ll be great to see Kirby’s designs for the Space Gods appear on the silver screen. It’ll also be interesting to see what effect, if any, it has on the paranormal milieu. Will it lead to a revival of von Daniken and the ancient astronaut theory?

Cartoon Kayfabe Reviews Book on the Art of Jack Kirby

July 5, 2021

This is one for all the comics fans. Jack Kirby is one of the truly great figures in American comics. With Stan Lee he created some of Marvel’s best known and most beloved comics characters, like Captain America. Kirby grew up when the immigrant Jewish community in New York was still poor and rough, and like many other similar communities, riddled with gangs. Kirby said he came from the type of background where the best job a man could aspire to was being a mechanic, and I think he was seen as being a bit odd for wanting to be an artist. Nevertheless, he managed to realise his ambition and get away from the gangs, although he also said that part of him enjoyed running with them. 5′ 2” and pugnacious, he wasn’t averse to stepping up to the challenge if someone threatened him. The famous cover of Captain America beating up Hitler was published before America entered the War and upset the American Nazi party. One of the Hitlerites came into the hotel where Kirby was staying at the time, demanding a word with him. To the consternation of his workmates, Kirby got up and went down ready to sort the man. But by the time he got down to the lobby, the Nazi had departed. Probably luckily for the Nazi. Nevertheless, the fear of Nazi reprisal was so strong that Stan Lee and Kirby were both given FBI protection for a time.

One of the book’s editors/producers is Eastman, of Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, and the book is an overview of Kirby’s long artistic career, from when he was just starting out as an aspiring artist to his retirement. I was never a great fan of Kirby, as although he could do cosmic like no one else could, drawing huge, awesome machines and men and women like gods, I didn’t think he could draw the ordinary human form very well. But the book shows that he was actually a very good naturalistic artists with fine sketches of the major figures and celebrities of his time. One of whom was Adolf Hitler.

Kirby seems to have worked at anything and everything to pay the rent. At one time he was an artist on the Disney cartoons, drawing the figures for the moments between the main action. But he was learning all the time and ambitious, looking for new and better jobs and taking with him the skills he learnt. During his comics career he not only worked on superheroes, but also cowboy, commando and romance comics, turning to these parts of the industry when the superhero genre was decimated by the moral panic of the 1950s. He also did his patriotic duty and served in the army during the Second World War, and this fed into the war strips he drew afterwards. The self-portraits Kirby drew of himself before and during his army years show the immense change armed combat had wrought on him. Before he enters the army he’s clean cut, but afterwards he becomes more lined and grizzled. He shows the same effect on soldiers on the cover of one of his war comics. This features a man writing a letter home to his mother, saying that the invasion of Europe was just like a day at the beach. The man’s face betrays otherwise, and Kayfabe and his companion note the 1,000 yard stare. Apparently when the servicemen wrote home, they really did describe the War in those terms as they obviously really didn’t want to cause their families to worry about them.

Kirby’s final years were overshadowed by a quarrel with Stan Lee over who created the Marvel characters, with Kirby claiming that he was the real creator of some. He left Marvel and carried on working long after he should have retired on strips like Devil Dinosaur. Towards the end of his career it looks like this amazing artist was being helped by others in the studio. But in his prime Kirby was extremely prolific. At his height in the 40s-50s he was producing a hundred pages a month. I think that’s why his human forms are so sketchy – he was churning them out and an incredible rate, too fast for very naturalistic art, simply to put food on the table for himself and his family. He also incorporated many of the latest developments in popular art into his comics, like pop art and black light, in order to connect with readers and appeal to their changing tastes.

One of the most remarkable episodes in his career was the use of his concept art for an abandoned film project as cover for a CIA operation to rescue the hostages in Iran. Kirby had been hired to work on a film version of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Although the film wasn’t made, the CIA used the art as part of the cover for their operation, which was that they were film makers seeking to make an SF film in the country.

Kirby was indeed one of the giants of the comics industry, and Kayfabe’s review of the book, which I think came out in the ’80s or 90s, is an excellent review of his long and amazing productive career. The characters he and Lee created still continue to enthral readers across the world, and, I hope, to inspire future generations of comics artists and creators.

The Casual Criminalist Tackles the Weird Deaths of Brazilian Ufologists

July 4, 2021

Here’s a bit of high weirdness which sounds like something straight from The X-Files. In this video, host Simon Whistler discusses the strange events surrounding the deaths of two Brazilian men c. 1967. The two men were electronics technicians and were found dead on a mountain, their eyes covered by lead masks. Although described as masks, these were eye protectors or sunglasses, but made of solid lead. What killed them, and why were they wearing these weird face coverings? One suggestion is that the men had been smuggling electronics equipment into Brazil. They had gone to the mountain to meet the smugglers, who had killed them. Another explanation is that they were smuggling plutonium and had been killed by the smugglers. The problem with that is that although they had the equivalent of $10,000 in today’s money, it still wouldn’t be enough to buy a bit of plutonium.

The real explanation seems to be that they were members of a secret society, the Scientific Spiritualists, many of whose members were electronics technicians. The Scientific Spiritualists were dedicated to making contact with extraterrestrial and astral beings using electronics and drugs. The lead glasses were supposedly to protect their eyes from the brilliance given off by the angel they expected to call down. It has been suggested that they were killed by extraterrestrials after one of their jury-rigged gadgets destroyed an alien spaceship. This seems extremely unlikely, not least because it seems impossible that an alien race capable of sending a spacecraft across countless light years to Earth would make it so flimsy that a home-made device built by a couple of humans could destroy it.

Another explanation is that they were murdered by a hitman on behalf of the medium running the men’s spiritualist church. A prisoner already in jail for one crime confessed to killing them, saying that the medium was aware of the cash the two had on them and wanted the money for herself. However, the likeliest explanation, as put forward by Charles Bowen of Flying Saucer Review, and you know you’re in trouble, according to Whistler, when the most rational explanation comes from that magazine, is that the two went to the mountain seeking a UFO encounter and overdosed on the drugs they’d taken.

The case is one of the great, unsolved cases of ufology and a genuinely intriguing mystery, although it looks like Bowen had solved it. I think Whistler and his team have been behind a number of YouTube channels, mainly about science and engineering, if I recall correctly, and have now turned to crime. Whistler clearly struggles with the Brazilian names and bits of Portuguese, and finds the weird milieu of which they were a part hysterically funny. Which it is, although some people who take ufology more seriously might find this annoying.