Posts Tagged ‘J.G. Ballard’

Yay! David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’ Now Back in Print

May 7, 2019

Bit of good news for fans of classic SF. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s last week, I found that David R. Bunch’s Moderan was now in print. This was published in 1971, and is really a series of vignettes originally published in small magazines, as well as the big SF mags Amazing and Fantastic. These are set in a future in which organic humanity has decided that its reached the end of its natural evolution, and to evolve further it must transform itself into machines. This process is described as it affects the hero, Stronghold 10. The style is superficially sympathetic to heighten what the reality of what this new, cyborg humanity has become: immortal, but paranoid with each stronghold at war with their neighbours.

Brian Aldiss gives as sample paragraph of Bunch’s prose style, which explains the background to the novel, in his and David Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree:

Now, to turn tedious for a time, this is what happened. Flesh-man had developed to that place on his random Earth-ball home where it was to be the quick slide down to oblivion. All the signs were up, the flags were out for change for man and GO was DOWN. To ENDING. Flesh-man was at the top, far as he could climb as flesh-man, and from there he was certain to tumble. But he had the luck to have these brave good white-maned men in the white smocks, the lab giants, the shoulders, and great-bulged thighs of our progress (what matter if they were weazened, probe-eyed, choleric scheming, little men sometimes – more often than not, REALLY?) authors of so much of man’s development and climb to that place where he was just due to die, expire, destroy himself and his home at this grand stage of development to make new-metal man and set him in the Strongholds upon the plasto-coated Earth that had been man’s random and inefficient home. New-metal replaced flesh (down to the few flesh-strips and those, we hope, may soon be gone) the bones were taken out and new metal rods, hinges and sheets put in (it was easy!) and the organs all became engines and marvellous tanks for scientifically controlled functional efficiency forever. YAY! Don’t you see?! Our Scientists made of life-man (the VERY-STRANGE-accident man) essentially a dead-elements man, one who could now cope with eternity, but he certainly was not a dead man. AH! Heavens no! He was alive! with all the wonderful scienc3e of the Earth ages, and just as functional as anyone could wish. YAY! science, take your plaudits now! You’ve shown what was meant from the beginning for the VERY-STRANGE-accident man. (p.324).

Aldiss states that it’s a technophobic piece in the SF tradition of questioning technological progress that began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moderan was out of print for a long time, so I’m looking forward to reading it some time. Bunch also wrote poetry in an avant-garde style very much like his prose, though in verse. A collection of his pieces, of which only one or two were SF, The Heartacher and the Warehouseman, was published in the 1990s. The title poem is set in the Moderan world, and is about one of these cyborgs coming to a warehouse carrying his pump in his heart. He complains that he – and all the other cyborgs – have no heart. The cyborg warehouseman, suspicious, retreats behind his armoury of weapons, informing him of all the cyborg bits and pieces they have, like hearts and mechanical fingers. But he fails to understand the man’s real complaint – that their civilisation has no heart in the metaphorical sense. The warehouseman drives the Heartacher away, but wonders what will happen to him as he retreats back into his cubby-hole.

It’s one of those pieces that was acutely relevant in the 1990s, when there was much talk among the chattering classes of transhumanism and cyborgisation. It was the decade when Radio 3 broadcast the series Grave New Worlds examining these possibilities through interviews with writers, artists and scientists, including Paul J. McAuley, J.G. Ballard and the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who really has tried to turn himself into a cyborg in performances in which he wired himself up to the net, so that images found online would work his body automatically through galvanic stimulators some Borg organic puppet, and by giving himself a third, cybernetic arm. It’s still relevant as prosthetic limbs continue to improve. While these are an immense benefit to those, who have lost their real limbs through accident or disease, it does raise the question of how far this process can go and humans become the cyborgs of SF. This was the central question David Whittaker was pondering when he created Dr. Who’s cybermen. Bunch’s novel also seems to have influenced one of the writers of Dr. Who Magazine way back in the ’70s. One of the comic strips, Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman, was about a cyberman, who had some how retained his emotions and compassion. The story was set on the planet ‘Moderan’. And in the 1980s the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, expressed concerns that people, who were heavily reliant on medical machines suffered a loss of creativity when he explored the possibility of similar mergers between humans and machines in his class Man and the Planets.

I’m glad that this lost classic is back in print. But still more than a little annoyed that it, and other SF works like it, are overlooked by the literary crowd in favour of those by ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan. Sorry to ride this old hobby-horse again, but a few weeks ago there was an interview with McEwan in the I. The newspaper mentioned to him that Science Fiction fans were upset about him denying that his book was part of the genre. McEwan repeated his sentiment, saying it wasn’t SF, but was based on him considering real world issues. Well, so is much Science Fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. Aldiss has praised it as the first real work of Science Fiction as it was based on science as it was known at the time. This was Galvani’s experiments making the severed legs of frogs twitch and move through electricity. McEwan’s attitude shows the basic contempt of many literary authors and critics for the genre. They’re keen to borrow its tropes, but sneer at it as essentially trivial fantasy, unlike the serious stuff they’re writing. Much SF is, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But there is a very large amount which isn’t, and which deserves to be taken as seriously as so-called ‘serious’ literary works like McEwan’s.

 

Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

Mars as Communist Utopia in Pre-Revolutionary Russian SF

June 7, 2018

I thought this might interest all the SF fans out there. One of the books I’ve started reading is Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mark Ashley (London: The British Library 2018). It’s a collection of SF stories written about the Red Planet from the 19th century to just before the Mariner and then Viking probes in the ’60s and ’70s showed that rather than being a living planet with canals, vegetation and civilised beings, it was a dead world more like the Moon. It’s a companion volume to another book of early SF stories from about the same period, Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, also edited by Mike Ashley. The Martian book contains stories by H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury – from The Martian Chronicles, natch – Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller, and the great novelist of dystopias and bug-eyed psychopaths, J.G. Ballard. It also contains pieces by now all but forgotten Victorian and early Twentieth writers of Scientific Romances, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George C. Wallis, P. Schuyler Miller and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Both books are also interesting, not just for the short stories collected in them, but also for Ashley’s introduction, where he traces the literary history of stories about these worlds. In the case of the Moon, this goes all the way back to the Roman satirist, Lucian of Samosata, and his Vera Historia. This is a fantasy about a group of Roman sailors, whose ship is flung into space by a massive waterspout, to find themselves captured by a squadron of Vulturemen soldiers from the Moon, who are planning an invasion of the Sun.

The history of literary speculation about Mars and Martian civilisation, is no less interesting, but somewhat shorter. It really only begins in the late 19th century, when telescopes had been developed capable of showing some details of the Martian surface, and in particular the canali, which the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed he had seen. The Italian word can mean ‘channels’ as well as ‘canal’, and Schiaparelli himself did not describe them as artificial. Nevertheless, other astronomers, like Percival Lowell of Flagstaff, Arizona, believed they were. Other astronomers were far more sceptical, but this set off the wave of novels and short stories set on an inhabited Mars, like Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous John Carter stories. I remember the Marvel adaptation of some these, or at least using the same character, which appeared as backing stories in Star Wars comic way back in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting, and to contemporary readers somewhat strange, that before H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the vast majority of these stories about Mars assumed that the Martians would not only be far more scientifically and technologically advanced, but they would also be more socially and spiritually as well. Just like the Aetherius Society, a UFO new religious movement founded by George King in the 1950s, claims that Jesus was really as Venusian, and now lives on that world along with Aetherius, the being from whom they believe they receive telepathic messages, so there were a couple of short stories in which Christ was a Martian. These were Charles Cole’s Visitors From Mars, of 1901, and Wallace Dowding’s The Man From Mars of 1910.

Other utopias set on the Red Planet were more secular. In Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, of 1893, the Martians are handsome and intelligent, and their women totally liberated. Another feminist utopia was also depicted by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley in her A Woman of Mars of 1901.

And in Russia, the writer Alexander Bogdanov made Mars a Communist utopia. Ashley writes

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvesda (‘Red Star’, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (‘Engineer Menni’, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bodganov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language. (Pp. 11-12).

So five years before the Revolution, Mars really was the ‘Red Planet’ in Russian literature. I’m not surprised it wasn’t translated into English until the 1980s. British publishers and censors probably disliked it as a piece of Communist propaganda, quite apart from Anglophone western Puritanism and the whole issue of free love. No naughtiness allowed on the side of the Iron Curtain, not even when it’s set on Mars. Russian cinema also produced one of the first SF films, also set on Mars. This was Aelita (1922), in which Russian cosmonauts travel to the Red Planet to start a revolution, though at the end it’s revealed that it’s all been a dream.

Meanwhile, Mars as a planet of mystery continues in the French SF series, Missions, shown at 10.00 Thursdays on BBC 4. This has French spationauts and their American rivals landing on the Red Planet, only to find a mysterious altar constructed from lost Atlantean materials described by the Romans, and Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, who has been turned into something more than human with three strands of DNA. In reality, Komarov died when the parachutes on his spacecraft failed to open when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Tragically, Komarov knew it was a deathtrap, but went anyway because Khrushchev wanted another Russian space achievement to show up the Americans, and Komarov did not want his friend, and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin to go. It’s a tragic, shameful waste of human life on what was a purely political stunt, and Komarov is, because of his desire to save his friend, one of the great heroes of the space age.

But Missions shows not only how much people really want us to travel to Mars – to explore and colonise – it also shows how the Red Planet still remains the source of wonder and speculation about alien civilisations, civilisations that may not be hostile monsters intent on invading the Earth ‘for no very good reason’, as Douglas Adams described the motives of those aliens, who wanted to take over the universie in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the French spationauts, Jeanne, has dreamed of going to Mars since being shown it through a telescope by her father when she was a little girl. Electromagnetic scans of the area, when developed, give a picture of her face, and ‘Komarov’ tells her he has been waiting millions of years for her, and she is the true link between Mars and Earth.

Yes, it’s weird. But different. And it shows that Mars is continuing to inspire other forms of SF, where the Martians aren’t invaders – or at least, not so far-but benevolent guides waiting for us to come to them and make the next leap in our development. Just like Bogdanov in 1912 imagined that they would be ahead of us, and so have created a true Communist utopia.

Alex Jones: People Are Having Sex with their Cars

January 15, 2018

More madness from the ever fertile imagination of Alex Jones. In this clip from The Majority Report, host Sam Seder and friends comment on a clip from Jones’ InfoWars show, in which the conspiracy theorist rants about how there is a movement encouraging people to have sex with cars.

He starts off by talking about sex robots, before going on to claim that people are having sex and marrying their dogs and cats, and are having sex with cars. He then claims that if you identify as blind, and pour ‘Draino’ into your eyes to blind yourself, the governments of the US, Britain and Canada will pay you money to support yourself as you were mentally ill. He then goes on to say that he fancies buying one of these sex robots just to torch it. We need, he says, to form a human union and defy the elites, who are controlling us. They want to make normal sex biologically impossible, in order to absorb us into the Matrix. People have been brainwashed into this by Hollywood.

Seder and his crew make the point that they have no doubt that some men will insert their penises into whatever they can find. His female co-host states that when she was working on Death and Taxes there was indeed a man arrested for having sex with his car. She was part of a jailhouse protest to get him released. There’s a lot of joking about what the chants were ‘Ha-ha, ho-ho, let the carf***er go!’ But there’s hardly a movement for people to have sex with their vehicles.

They also speculate that Jones himself has personally bought one of these sex robots, and this whole segment is him trying to explain it away in case anybody else has seen it and come to the conclusion that Jones is a pervert.

Okay, there are people out there building sex robots. One of these appeared a little while ago on Philip Schofield’s show on ITV. There was even a Spanish brothel stocked exclusively with robots, which closed down after three works. One of the sentient robots on the Channel 4 SF series, Humans, which was based on the Swedish TV series, ‘Real Humans’, was one of the machines in an all robot brothel. Which incidentally escapes and goes on the run after killing one of the customers. I think Ray Kurzweil has also predicted that in a very few years people will be having sex with robots. One of the underground comics in America is Wet Satin, whose female creator writes stories based on women’s sexual fantasies. One of illustrations from the comic, at least as it appears in Dez Skinn’s survey of comics across the world, has a woman in the tender embrace of C-3PO. This surprised me, as I’d assumed that R2D2’s best mate was a little too camp to be an object of sexual desire for women. But obviously not. And Tanith Lee wrote an SF story about a woman, who has a romance with a robot, The Silver Metal Lover, way back in the 1970s.

But sex robots are just a progression from blow-up dolls, and while they are being developed, there’s no movement for people to marry them or outlaw normal human reproduction in favour of everyone having sex with machines. At the moment, the sex robots are pretty crude. They’re not really sentient machines, like all the other robots being developed at the moment. The type of mechanical people, with whom you could have a proper relationship, like C-3PO are a very long way off. Most people, I guess, won’t find them attractive, and will regard anyone with the money to buy them with the same contempt they regard those men, who buy inflatable women.

And yes, there are people, who have sex with their cars. Jones waxes somewhat graphic about this, talking about ‘fully lubed-up tailpipes’ and claiming that normal peeps, who won’t have sex with robots or cars, will be attacked as prejudiced or homophobic. Way back in the 1990s Channel 4 screened a documentary late one evening about people, who were sexually attracted to cars. I stayed up to watch part of it, as I’ve got a strong tolerance for weirdness. But this was too weird and creepy even for me, and I turned it off and went to bed, feeling somewhat soiled. I have a feeling it comes from a peculiar mental disorder, in which people attribute human features and characteristics onto inanimate objects. This goes much further than simply giving your car a name, or referring to it as ‘he’ or ‘she’. This is more like the mad German woman, who married the Berlin Wall a few years ago. This story got a few laughs on Have I Got News For You. And then there was J.G. Ballard’s infamous novel, Crash, filmed by David Cronenberg, which is all about a secret society of perverts, who get off on car crashes. The film was highly praised by the British small press SF magazine, The Edge, but sent the Daily Mail into a frothing rage, and they organised a campaign against it. It flopped massively over here, taking only a few tens of thousands of pounds before it was banned.

So while there are mentally ill perverts and transgressive writers, like Ballard, who explore cars and sexuality, like the sex robots there is absolutely no movement to normalise this. I can’t imagine a time when anyone, who has sex with an automobile or similar inanimate object won’t be regarded as a pervert, or simply a person with severe mental health problems. No-one’s going to accuse anyone of being unfairly prejudiced or ‘homophobic’ towards people with this kind of prejudice. And incidentally, that comment from Jones shows his prejudice against gay rights by equating homophobia and homosexuality with what are actually forms of mental illness.

As for people pouring drain cleaner into their eyes deliberately to blind themselves, this shows Jones’ anti-welfare outlook. He clearly thinks that such people should not receive state aid after damaging themselves. But these people do need help, most pressingly before they actually decide to harm themselves. I’ve known people, who suffered from very severe depression and were prone to self-harm. It’s not something they’d voluntarily do, if they could avoid, but brought about by a mental condition that they’d far rather not have. Jones is therefore severely misrepresenting them if he thinks that those, who do suffer self-harm, willingly and cheerfully go about it. Again, it also shows Jones’ own prejudices. He thinks someone, who blinds themselves with drain cleaner, would do it for the same reasons some people identify with the opposite biological gender. Er, no, Alex. There’s a difference between self-harm, and transgenderism, regardless what some of the Republicans say about male to female transpeople being ‘castration fetishists’.

Jones is clearly wrong in just about everything he says here about there being a secret conspiracy to normalise and promote these sexual practices. He doesn’t have anything really profound to say about the prospect of robot prostitution or sex robots. But it is clear that he has a very vivid, lurid imagination.

Pro-NHS Political Comment in Paul McAuley’s ‘Something Coming Through’

December 27, 2016

something-coming-pic

One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.

McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.

Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.

Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.

Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.

One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.

Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.

I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.

It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.

And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.

The Ballardian Totalitarianism of Cameron’s Britain

November 17, 2013

Last Thursday the Mirror ran a story reporting the Conservative’s deletion of their election promises from their website. They noted that this was the re-writing of history like that done by Big Brother’s totalitarian dictatorship in Orwell’s classic 1984. It was Orwell, who coined the classic statement that he who controls the past, controls the present and future, though he phrased it far better than my own memory allows here. The Mirror also reported that, astonishingly, Conservative Central Office attempted to defend their actions with the excuse that they were trying to help visitors find their way around their website better. The Mirror did not, however, pick up the similar totalitarian impulses behind this attitude. While Orwell’s description of the way absolute dictatorships distort and re-write history is well-known, this last aspect of such tyrannical regimes is far less famous. It comes not from Orwell, but from that old author of transgressive SF, J.G. Ballard.

Ballard’s novels and short stories, such as High Rise, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition and Super Cannes, are set in depersonalised, alienated futures, inhabited by psychopaths and characterised by social breakdown and savage, extreme violence. His novel, Crash, filmed in the 1990s by David Cronenberg, is about a subculture of the victims of motor accidents, who gain sexual pleasure from car crashes. The novel itself was so shocking that the publisher’s reviewer wrote a note about it say, ‘Author mentally deranged – do not publish’. Cronenberg’s film was so extreme that it sent the Daily Mail into another moral panic. Acting once again as the guardian of the nation’s moral purity, the Mail launched a campaign against it and the film flopped as a result. Many see it as a classic of SF and transgressive cinema. Ballard himself was completely different from the violent and psychotic characters in his work. Visitors to his home were surprised to find him living in respectable suburban domesticity, caring for his sick wife and raising his children. Listening to his cultured Oxbridge tones on the radio brought to mind a gentleman, who enjoyed a good malt and a good cigar, and whose favourite reading was Wisden, rather than the delineator of brutal violence and bizarre and extreme sexuality. Ballard is now recognised as one of the great SF writers of the 20th century, and his work has garnered respect outside the SF ghetto in the literary mainstream. This is partly due to the way it examines the role played by the media, including news reportage, in shaping the post-modern condition.

Back in the 1990s Radio 3 ran a short series of five interviews with writers, artists and scientists. Entitled Grave New Worlds, the series explored the transhuman condition. Amongst the guests on the programmes were the SF author Paul J. McAuley, the performance artist Stelarc, feminist writers on women and digital technology, and J.G. Ballard. The conversation got on to the subject of Ballard’s then recent novels, in which the heroes enter gated, corporate communities. Instead of peace and harmony, the heroes find that these communities are based on violence, in which brutal attacks on outsiders are used to bond together the communities’ inmates. Talking about these savage dystopias, Ballard stated that in his opinion the totalitarianism of the future would not use force, but would be characterised by servility and obsequiousness. It would claim to help you.

There is an element of this spurious claim in previous totalitarian regimes. At times both the Nazis and Stalin’s Communist states claimed to be somehow helping their victims. The propaganda films produced by the Nazis to allay international concerns about their treatment of the Jews, purported to show the victims of their deportations happily working on their new, luxurious plot of land in the special areas allocated to them in the East, rather than the violence and horrific, mass murder of the Concentration Camps. The Jews featured in these films were all forced to do so by the Nazis, the victims of beatings and torture before and after they appeared in front of the camera. Immediately after the filming was over, I believe some were taken away to be killed in the death camps.

Stalin’s propaganda for his collectivisation campaign similarly showed crowds of joyous peasants voluntarily entering collective farms bursting with food and abundance. Kniper’s stirring song, Wheatlands, written for this campaign, contains lines where the peasant subjects of the song declare that they weren’t forced iinto them. They certainly did not show the squalor and deprivation within the collective farms, nor the mass starvation caused by the campaign in the Ukraine and other areas of the former Soviet countryside.

Back in Nazi Germany, a group of shopkeeper’s in Munich took the Nazi’s professed commitment to the Corporate state at face value, and attempted to set up a similar corporation themselves. This new body was expected to regulate trade and prices. The result, however, was inflation. The Nazis reacted by dissolving it and arresting its members. They pasted notices over the arrested individuals’ shops, stating their offence and that they were ‘now in protective custody at Dachau’. This somehow suggests that it was for the victims’ benefit, rather than their punishment.

Ballard himself was a high Tory, who felt that increased legislation was stifling Britain by making it too safe. He wrote Crash while he was a correspondent for a motoring magazine. Driving along the new motorways, he felt the experience was too bland and antiseptic, and so in his imagination created a cult around a charismatic psychologist, Vaughn, whose members got their sexual kicks from staging the very accidents road and motor vehicle legislation was intended to remove. The violence in his novels, like Super Cannes, was a deliberate attempt by these societies to counteract the debilitating ennui experienced by their wealthy members by stimulating them at the most primal level through violent threats to their lives.

Now my memory of the 1970s was rather different from Ballard’s. Admittedly, I was only a boy at the time, but I do remember the road safety films. ‘Clunk Click, every trip’, with the vile Jimmy Savile, told you to wear a seatbelt. ‘Don’t be an Amber Gambler’ warned drivers of trying to rush through the orange light at crossings. There were also campaigns against drunk driving and speeding. Dave Prowse, the man behind the Darth Vader costume, appeared in one set as the ‘Green Cross Man’, helping kids cross the road safely. Alvin Stardust also appeared in one of these. Rather than the bland landscape of antiseptic safety Ballard complained about, these public information films traumatised a generation of children with images of mayhem, destruction and carnage. Cars were totalled, and drivers, passengers and pedestrians ground to bloody pulps on regular programming slots – usually just before Grandstand on Saturday afternoons. Rather than senses-dulling boredom, I’m surprised these films didn’t turn everyone watching them into quivering nervous wrecks at the thought of venturing out on the highway.

Despite Ballard’s own Right-wing political views, his observation that future totalitarian regimes will be manipulative and claiming to serve their victims, rather than adopting the naked use of force, does describe the style of Cameron’s own administration and its steady erosion of personal freedom. The ostensible rationale behind the Work Programme and Work Fare, is supposedly to get the unemployed back into work by helping them acquire the necessary skills and the habit of working. The terms and conditions imposed on Job Seekers by the DWP is presented as a ‘Job Seekers’ Agreement’, as if it were a bargain struck between two equal parties, and freely accepted by the unemployed, rather than forced on them through economic necessity. Esther McVey even had the gall last week to claim that the people suffering from sanctions on their benefit, were those ‘who refused the system’s help’. They were made to look like recalcitrant, who had gone back to recidivist scroungers, rather than the victims of a highly exploitative system that sought for even the smallest reason to deprive the poor of an income.

The papers also this week carried the news that the legislation proposed by the government to replace the ASBOs would also allow local councils to ban peaceful protests and demonstrations on the grounds that these constituted a public nuisance, or would annoy, upset or inconvenience local residents. It’s a totalitarian attack on free speech, but again masked by the claim that somehow people are being protected. Now the authorities will act to curb and ban demonstrations that may lead to violence or a breach of the peace, such as Protestant marches in Northern Ireland that go through Roman Catholic areas or demonstrations by the BNP or English Defence League that enter Black or Muslim areas. While the authorities’ actions against such marches are resented by the groups planning them, I doubt many people object to the bans on the grounds that the marches are deliberately provocative and would result in violence. Cameron’s legislation goes further than these entire reasonable concerns. Instead, they allow public protests to be banned simply because the residents in the area in which they are held may find them simply inconvenient, like being too noisy. The legislation’s main objective is to stop political protest. It is, however, disguised with the claim that it is giving local people the power to stop troublesome individuals upsetting the rest of the community, like the cantankerous pensioner, who was given an ASBO to stop him being sarcastic to his neighbours.

There is also something Ballardian about Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson’s own background. They were members of the elite Bullingdon Club after all, an elite society of the extremely wealthy. Even if they don’t go around beating, maiming and killing non-members as an exercise in corporate bonding, nevertheless they seem to have a shared contempt for the poor coming from their common background.

So Ballard was exactly right. The new totalitarianism does indeed claim to be helpful and somehow serving you, even as it takes it away its citizens’ incomes, their rights to free speech and assembly, and their pride. It’s just that Ballard got the political direction wrong. He thought it was going to come from the Left, rather than the Libertarian advocates of deregulation on the Right.

Shock! Horror! Cadaverous Author of Macabre Novels Calls Slumlords What They Are! Channel 4 Newsreaders Amazed!

October 5, 2013

It’s been an interesting week for the Coalition and their supporters receiving a drubbing by journalists. Mike, over at Vox Political, has put up a good piece about the way Mehdi Hassan demolished Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail on Question Time. Hassan had rebutted Letts’ arguments by asking who the person, who really hated Britain was: Miliband senior, a Jewish immigrant, who fought for his country, or the Daily Mail. This is the newspaper, he reminded us, that insinuated that Stephen Gately’s death was somehow due to his homosexuality, attacked Danny Boyle for including a mixed race couple in the Olympic Games opening spectacle, called Olympic champion Mo Farah a ‘plastic Brit’, despises immigrants and Muslims, and seeks to undermine the NHS.

Last night, Have I Got News For You also laid into the Daily Heil. They covered the Mail’s slander of Ralph Milliband. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye naturally showed the Mail’s hypocrisy by pointing out its pro-Nazi past, complete with its headlines screaming ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ and opinion piece praising Nazi Germany and dismissing the allegations of Nazi atrocities. Hislop also pointed out that Paul Dacre, the Mail’s editor, also showed a signal lack of patriotism, as he did not pay any tax to his country, avoiding it through a complex network of offshore companies based in the Bahamas. He also said that it was a bit rich for Dacre to accuse others of totalitarian sympathies, considering that Dacre’s own staff call him ‘Mugabe’ because he’s ancient, won’t retire and despises the opposition.

The day before this, on Thursday, Channel 4 covered the brilliant state of the housing market under the Coalition in an investigatory feature entitled ‘Generation Rent’. It showed that the present, younger generation have little chance of getting on the housing ladder due to the lack of properties being built. This was due to the recession. Mortgages on the properties that were available were exorbitantly high, so that most young people simply cannot afford them. They were thus forced to rent. This also was difficult and expensive, due to a lack of affordable properties. Many of the homes and flats were aimed at the affluent, not ordinary peeps wanting a roof over their head. The programme talked to a number of landlords, as well as tenants forced to rent due to property prices. Among the landlords interviewed was one, who bought properties simply to rent out to other landlords.

The programme’s guest commentator for this section of the programme was Will Self, the cadaverous novelist, whose grisly works include Great Apes and How The Dead Live, as well as other tales of mayhem, mutilation, perversion and horror. Self’s own private life has supplied much newspaper copy in its time. He was for years a drug addict, whose finals in philosophy while a student at Oxford were interrupted by his arrest for the chemicals. One newspaper also printed a long, spurious story in which it was alleged that the master of the modern macabre had found the company of John Major so insufferably dull while sat next to him on a plane trip, that he resorted to heroin to liven the journey up. Self’s clean of drugs now, and like that other master of the extreme and transgressive, his friend, J.G. Ballard, Self lives in bourgeois domesticity with his wife and child.

He’s probably not the best person to provide a sympathetic view of the housing market and industry. A year or so back the roof of Self’s own house collapsed, and he duly appeared on the News talking about the incident. When Snow asked him what he thought about the issue, Self described the landlord, who rents to other landlords as a ‘rackman’. Snow blanched at this. No doubt with the spectre of Outraged of Tunbridge Wells writing in to denounce yet more Channel 4 left-wing bias, he said that Self could say it, but they couldn’t. Self’s reply was short, ‘I don’t know – I don’t think it’s actionable.’

But Self’s description is accurate. It precisely describes the situation many young people now face, in which they cannot afford to buy, and the rents on those properties they can afford are raised so that they eat up a progressively larger proportion of their income.

What also was not remarked on the programme was that this situation had created a further potential for racial/ nationalist friction. One of the developers interviewed was Francis Liu, a Chinese businessman, who specialises in the construction of one-room apartments. These combine bathroom, living room and bedroom in the same space in a kind of even smaller bedsit. They look horrendous, like Bruce Willis’ cramped home in the Fifth Element, but without Moebius’ and Besson’s visual flair and style. Channel 4’s reporters interviewed some British people, who were forced to live in them now, because that’s all they could afford. Liu’s apartments weren’t particularly cheap at £70 a week. They were also aimed at foreign investors from the Far East. This looks to me like a recipe for danger.

Globalisation and Neo-Liberal economics has succeeded in creating a trans-national elite that have more in common with each other, than with the citizens of their countries of origin. Hence all over the world there’s a growing indifference to the plight of the poor by the super-rich. Mass immigration, as populations from the Developing World move to the developed West and North in search of jobs and better opportunities, is already a major political issue. It has led to the rise of far-Right movements across Europe, like the Golden Dawn in Greece, and increasingly harsh anti-immigrant measures in Italy and elsewhere. It is also not only Western culture that has racist elements. There is also racism in Chinese culture. I can remember finding in Waterstone’s in Bath nearly two decades ago a large, hardback academic book on Chinese Racism. One of the Chinese students I knew at university told me a few years ago that he was horrified at the level of anti-Western prejudice and hatred in his country. Some of this hatred is due to the immense feeling of humiliation felt by the Chinese at their defeat in the Opium Wars, and the division and virtual colonisation of their great nation by the European powers.

The racist and nationalist Right in Britain and the rest of the world is motivated by resentment at the way foreigners are, or are perceived to be, given preferential treatment to the indigenous, host population. The Daily Mail and other right-wing tabloids have frequently attacked the government’s immigration service for accommodating asylum-seekers in luxury housing. With Liu and developers like him building properties mainly or exclusively for rich foreigners from the Far East, then it’s easy to see how this might enrage the existing, poorer local population, excluded from this luxury market. Liu was building his properties in Leeds, which I think may also have suffered from the effects of poverty and unemployment resulting from Thatcher’s decimation of British industry. The local population likely to be priced out of properties like Liu’s is not only White, but also Black and Asian, including families of Chinese descent, who’ve been British since coming here in the 19th century. Years ago I read a book on Japan by a Times journalist. He noted the resentment and controversy that had erupted in Australia when Japanese developers began building luxury beach complexes, which were to be owned solely by the Japanese. The construction of luxury rented properties, aimed at the Far Eastern rich, threatens to create similar tension and conflict over here.

Regardless of their ethnic origins, the landlords taking advantage of the current housing market to raise rents to ludicrous levels are Rackmans, has Self described them. It’s another example of how the Coalition’s policies are increasing the gap between rich and poor in the name of liberalisation.