Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

On the Selection of a Female Dr. Who

August 6, 2017

The week before last, the BBC finally broke the tension and speculation surrounding the identity of the actor, who is going to play the next Doctor. They announced that the 13th Dr would be played by Jodie Whitaker, an actress, who has appeared in a number of crime dramas. Like many people, I was shocked by this radical departure from tradition, but not actually surprised. The Doctor has been male for the past fifty years, but thirty years ago the Beeb announced that it was considering making the next Doctor a woman as Tom Baker was leaving the role and preparing to hand it on to the next actor. In fact, the announcement was joke dreamed up by the Baker and one of the producers and writing team, and the role went to Peter Davison. The announcement of a possible female Doctor resulted in a few jokes, such as ‘the most painful regeneration of them all’. One of the British SF media magazines – I can’t remember whether it was Starburst or Dr. Who Magazine, then went on to make a serious point, that nothing was known about the Time Lord family, and so it was quite plausible that this alien race could change their genders during regeneration.

I can also remember Mike telling me at the time that there was also a feminist group in the European parliament, who wanted a female Doctor, who would have a male assistant, which she would patronise, in a reverse of the usual situation. The role of women in Dr. Who has been somewhat contentious down the years. Critics, like the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, the author of How To Be A Woman, have criticised the show’s portrayal of women in the Doctor’s companions. She claimed a few years ago on a TV segment about the show that they usually were there to say, ‘But Doctor, I don’t understand’. Others have also made the point that their role tended to be stereotypically passive and traditional. They were to scream when threatened by the monster, and be rescued by the Doctor. It’s quite a controversial statement, though I do remember seeing one of the team behind the Classic Dr. Who saying that there was some truth in it. They had tried to make the Doctor’s female companions less stereotypical, and stronger. So you had Zoe, one of Patrick Troughton’s companions, who was a computer scientist from the future. Romana was a Time Lady, who had majored in psychology at the Academy. In her first appearance in the Tom Baker serial, ‘The Ribos Operation’, it was made clear that she was actually more intelligent than the Doctor, who had scraped through his degree after he retook his exam. Sarah Jane Smith was a feisty female journalist, who was fully prepared to talk back to the Doctor, representing the new generation of independent young women that came in with ‘Women’s Lib’ in the ’70s. And the strongest female companion of them all has to be Leela, a female warrior of the Sevateem, a primitive tribe descended from a group of astronauts sent to investigate a jungle world. Leela mostly wore only a leather bikini, but she was skilled with the knife and the deadly Janus Thorn, a poisonous plant, whose venom killed within minutes. Leela was quite capable of defending herself and protecting the Doctor. In the serial ‘The Invisible Enemy’, for much of the story she is the active member of the team, after she proves immune to the sentient virus that infects and paralyses the Doctor. There were also attempts to introduce strong female villains, such as the Rani, a renegade Time Lady of the same stripe as the Master, but who specialised in genetic engineering and biological transformation rather than mechanical engineering. But the producer or writer conceded that as time went on, these strong female characters tended to become weaker and more stereotypical, so that they ended up screaming and waiting to be rescued by the Doctor.

The stereotypical role of the female companions has become more outdated as traditional gender roles in society have changed, and Science Fiction as a genre began exploring and challenging issues of gender and sexuality. There’s a tradition of feminist SF, which has been present from the emergence of the genre in the late 19th century, but which became more prominent with the rise of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s. A few years an anthology of female utopias, created by late 19th and early 20th century female writers, Herland, was published. It took its title from that of a female utopia described by an early American feminist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. Feminist SF writers include Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her ‘Earthsea’ fantasy novels, and Sheri S. Tepper. Russ is an American academic, and the author of The Female Man. She considers that the rise of the women’s movement is a far more revolutionary and profound social change than space travel and the other technological conventions of Science Fiction. And many of these SF authors, both female and male, have created worlds and species, in which the genders are fluid.

In Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, conditions on the planet on which the book is set are so harsh, that little time is available for procreation. The people there are neuter for most of the time. However, they have a breeding season, during which they may become male or female. However, the adoption of a particular gender doesn’t necessarily recur, so that a person, who is female one season may be the male in the following season, and vice versa. Michael Moorcock also experimented with gender identity in some of his books. The Eternal Champion may be male or female, depending on incarnation. And at the end of the Jerry Cornelius book, The Final Programme, Cornelius is transformed into a beautiful hermaphrodite, which leads humanity to its destruction.

Other SF writers have envisoned futures, where humans are able to transform the bodies in a variety of ways, according to taste, including switching genders. In Gregory Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ novel, Across the Sea of Suns, the crew of an Earth ship sent to investigate the centre of the Galaxy following the attack of the Mechs, a hostile galaxy-spanning machine civilisation, devise special pods, which can remake and refresh the crew. This includes changing gender. And Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels are also set in a future, where humans are able to use technology to switch genders easily. In Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, the bored, immortal rich of the titular city on a world orbiting Epsilon Eridani, are able to use nanotechnology and genetic manipulation to change their appearance, often into outlandish forms. One character, a woman, is called ‘Zebra’, because she has covered her self in black and white stripes, and sculpted her hair into a mane that runs down her back. She tells the hero, Tanner Mirabel, that this is only her latest appearance, and that she will probably change it and move on to another in the future. She also states that she hasn’t always been female either.

In the 1990s there was a particularly strong demand for Science Fiction to challenge gender stereotypes. This was a reaction to the traditional image of the genre as dominated by White males, and focused on issues of surrounding technology and hard science. Thus one of the American SF societies launched the Arthur C. Clarke award for Science Fiction that challenged traditional stereotypes. There has also been a demand for a better representation of women amongst the genre’s writers. The anthology of ‘Dieselpunk’ stories therefore has roughly as many women writers as men.

The exploration of gender roles has also included explorations of sexuality, including same sex attraction. Gay fans of Star Trek in the 1980s hoped that the new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, would include a gay character, a wish echoed by David Gerrold, one of the writers of the Classic Trek series. They were disappointed when the series did feature a story, where Riker becomes romantically involved with a member of the Jnai, an alien race, who have evolved beyond gender, but where it re-emerges occasionally amongst a persecuted culture of throwbacks. Riker becomes attracted to one of these throwbacks, a female, and attempts to rescue her after she is arrested. However, he arrives too late. The corrective treatment meted out to such people has worked, and she is now as sexless as the rest of them.

Gay fans of the series felt that they had been cheated. Instead of a forthright endorsement of homosexuality, they’d been given a kind of half-hearted nod. The issue of gay rights was there, but so heavily disguised that it may as well not have been there at all. They also objected to it on the grounds thta it seemed to reinforce the prejudiced view of opponents of gay rights, who declare that it is about removing gender altogether. This prejudiced was clearly expressed by the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, a couple of years ago on his show, Infowars. Jones ranted that gay rights was a ‘transhumanist space cult’ intent on creating a race of genderless, cyborg people.

Er, not quite.

Gay characters and the exploration of alternative sexuality have been part of Science Fiction since William S. Burroughs’ books The Naked Lunch, and Samuel R. Delaney, a Black American writer, who also uses his novels to explore racial issues. Gay characters and issues of gender and sexuality have also been a strong element in the modern Dr. Who series. Captain Jack Harkness, a time traveller from the future, who became the lead character in the spinoff series Torchwood, is bisexual, and Ianto in the second series of that show was gay. This is probably mainly due to the series having a strong gay following, and that the writer behind its revival, Russell T. Davis, is also gay. For those, who can remember that far back, he was the creator of the gay series, Queer As Folk on Channel 4 in the 1990s.

There’s a sort of inevitability to the news that the next Doctor would be female, as the new Dr. Who series has also experimented with issues of gender roles. In the episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, Matt Smith’s Doctor revealed that the Time Lords changed their gender, when explaining that another Time Lord he knew always retained the tattoo of a serpent on their arm throughout their regenerations, even when they were female. In the series before last, a Time Lord general shot by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerates as female. And then, of course, there’s Missy, who is the female incarnation of the Master. My guess is that these changes were partly used to gauge how the audience would respond to a new Doctor. Once it was shown that most accepted the idea that Time Lords could regenerate as the opposite sex, then the way was clear for a female Doctor.

The show has also several times had strong female leads, while the Doctor has been more passive. Thus, in the last episode of the First Series, ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose Tiler becomes virtually a goddess, mistress of space and time, after peering into the heart of the TARDIS, saving Earth and Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor from the Daleks. Catherine Tate’s character similarly rescued David Tennant’s Doctor from Davros and his Daleks after she gained all his knowledge as a Time Lord. And in one of the stories featuring the revived Zygons, it seemed to me that apart from the Doctor, all the characters in positions of authority – the heads of UNIT, scientists and so on, were all female.

The programme has also experimented with male gender roles. In one story about a year or so ago, one of the characters is a man, who has an alternative identity as a superhero following his childhood encounter with an alien device that can grant people’s deepest wishes. In his normal life, he’s a childminder.

It’s been said that there’s a division between TV and film SF, and literary Science Fiction, with the audience for TV and film uninterested in science fiction literature. I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, and the audiences for the various media clearly overlap. And literary SF has had an influence on Doctor Who. In the 1980s the BBC tried to recruit SF writers to give the series a great connection with SF literature. And several of the stories in recent Dr. Who series have shown the influence of literary SF. For example, in the last series, Earth suddenly became a forest planet, as the trees grew and spread everywhere. This, it was revealed, was to save humanity from some cosmic disaster. This looks quite similar to a book by Sheri S. Tepper, in which trees come to life to save people from danger and disaster. And to me, the name of space station in the last series’ story, ‘Breath’, Chasm Forge, sounds a bit too close to ‘Chasm City’ to be entirely coincidental, although the two stories are very different.

I also think that there have been social and political considerations that may have influenced the decision to make the next Doctor female. As well as the general demand within SF fandom for more women writers and female-centred stories, I got the impression that the audience for SF on TV may have slightly more women than men. This is not to say that the numbers of men watching SF is small – it isn’t – but that the fan organisations may have a very large female membership. I certainly got that impression from Star Trek. If that’s also the case with Dr. Who, then the series’ writers and producers would also want to cater for that audience.

I also think that there’s probably pressure too to create a female character, who would act as a role model and encourage more girls to enter science, particularly male-dominated subjects like Maths, physics and engineering. There have been initiatives to do this before, but they’ve had limited effect. You may remember the video one governmental organisation made a few years ago. Entitled Science: It’s a Girl Thing, this featured attractive young women in lab coats tapping away to a pop tune. Many women, including female scientists, felt it was patronising and demeaning. As the Doctor is very much the hero as scientist, who solves problems through his superior Time Lord scientific knowledge, I think those concerned to see greater representation of women in the sciences would welcome the Doctor’s transformation into a woman.

I have to say that, provided the transition is done well, I don’t think a female Doctor will harm the series. As I said, the rumour that there might be a female Doctor along the way has been around since the last Tom Baker series back in 1980s or thereabouts. If done badly, it could easily reduce the series to farce or pantomime by being just that little bit too incredible, or just plain weird. But the idea of gender-swapping Time Lords/Ladies hasn’t been so far, and from previous experience I think it will be done properly. The series might lose some viewers, but I think many of the real, hard-core Whovians, like Mike, won’t be bothered at all. I hope so in any case, will watch the new series with interest.

The Tory, Privatise Enterprise Cure for Stressed Teachers: Electrostimulate their Brains!

July 3, 2017

Everything about this says Bad Science, as in the book by Ben Goldacre. And ‘bad’ in every definition of the word. Not only wrong scientifically, but also morally. But it’s what you get all too often with the Tories in charge.

Mike over at Vox Political has today posted up a piece commenting on a story in today’s Torygraph, hyping the use of an electronic device, the Alpha-Stim, which Leigh Academies Trust are offering to their staff at seven secondary schools, seven primary schools and a special educational needs school in Kent to treat the symptoms of stress amongst their staff. The Torygraph says that the device is the size of a mobile phone, and works by sending micro-pulses of electricity to the brain to stimulate the production of alpha waves. This supposedly helps relieve anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. The Trust is offering it along with other therapies. The extract Mike includes in his piece quotes one Peter Caunt of Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust, who says ‘We know this type of therapy works’ before going on to say that the question is whether it is cost-effective.

Mike compares it to the shock treatment used on very disturbed people, which works by burning out part of their frontal lobes. He states that he personally knows people, who’ve had it done, and they have not been the same afterwards.
He asks why the schools management company isn’t trying to solve the problem by making teachers’ lives less stressful.

He wonders if the real reason is that the company’s bosses want to turn their staff into compliant little teaching zombies, who won’t complain, because they’ve had their conscience burned out of them along with the stress.

He also makes the point that the Trust used to be headed by Frank Green, who was appointed to a two-year stint as schools commissioner by Michael Gove. This shows the strong connection between the company and the Tory party.

The device should, apparently, be used for 20 minutes each, but some teaching staff are using it twice or three times. So Mike asks the obvious question of what kind of teachers they’re like afterwards.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/03/the-tory-cure-for-stressed-teachers-is-electrocute-their-brains/

Everything about this is highly dubious. It looks very much like something straight out of the accounts of bad, if not pathological science, from the pages of Ben Goldacre, Martin Gardner and others. Ben Goldacre, you may remember, wrote a book, Bad Science, about this kind of nonsense a few years ago. the Sceptic, Martin Gardner also attacked bad and pernicious science a few decades ago in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. This looks like a prime example of it, to go with other, earlier pseudo-sciences like eugenics, lobotomies, Lysenkoism, Nazi ‘race science’ and monkey glands.

As for electro-convulsive therapy, it was devised by a German Jewish doctor, who fled Nazi Germany to Fascist Italy. Deciding that it could be an effective method of treating the mentally ill, he started by testing it on tramps he and the authorities rounded up off the street. Adam Parfrey published an essay on it, ‘Gimme Shock Treatment’, in one of his books on the extremes of belief in 1990s America, Apocalypse Culture or Cult Rapture. That essay made it very clear just how nasty it was.

It’s still used, but proper medical professionals only resort to it in the case of severely disturbed people, where there really isn’t much choice.

And everything known about the brain should say that tinkering with it, unless you know exactly what you’re doing, is an appallingly bad idea. The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. Modern neuroscience has succeeded in identifying which parts of the brain produces which mental function, but even so, there is a vast amount we don’t know. Raymond Tallis, who is a Humanist and former neurologist and neurosurgeon, wrote a book, Aping Mankind, with the aim to show that much human thought and mind couldn’t be reduced to neurological functions. He stated clearly that he wanted to show that thinking was ‘as mysterious as walking on water’. Given the vast complexity of the brain, and its vulnerability, it really is stupid and dangerous to mess around with it in this manner.

Remember a few years ago, when many doctors started to worry about possible brain damage caused by putting mobile phones next to your ear? They were afraid of the health risks posed by putting what is a microwave source next to your brain when talking on the phone.

It also reminds me of the ‘feedback cult’ of the ’70s. This also noted the connection between alpha waves and mood. It therefore encouraged people to hook themselves up to special monitors, which registered their alpha waves, and then learn how to control them and so altered their mood, all for supposedly beneficial purposes. That was also debunked some time ago.

The alpha-stim also sounds to be me like something that escaped from the Human Potential labs in the ’60s and ’70s. The Human Potential movement was one of those weird movements based on psychology that emerged in the 1960s, promising to bring people fulfilment and happiness through their programme of therapies. It still survives in various forms, and developed strong links with corporate capitalism, to the point where its detractors have called it a corporate mind control cult.

Adam Curtis devoted a programme to it in his documentary about the legacy of Freudianism, The Century of the Self, over a decade ago now. And what the programme revealed about it was truly chilling. The movement and its doctors managed to convince the medical profession to let them try to treat a selection of patients suffering from schizophrenia. The treatment consisted of dosing these poor souls up to the gills with LSD, and then attaching electrodes to electrify their brains. And all the while they were taught to repeat to themselves, ‘I am comfortable in myself’.

They interviewed one poor young woman, who’d been a victim of this nonsense. The treatment was a horrible, ghastly failure. It was perhaps a mercy that the woman said that she couldn’t remember much about it now, except that sometimes she had it done several times a day. It was this kind of appalling medical experimentation that the producers of Classic Star Trek took solid aim at in the episode ‘Dagger of the Mind’.

As for this latest rubbish, it also reminds me of an episode in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, when Doctor Bashir is called on treat Garak, the station’s Kardassian tailor and spy. Garak, like many other Kardassian secret agents, had a device implanted in his brain to stimulate his pleasure centres, so he could get through being tortured. Garak, however, has become so miserable that he started using it recreationally, and so has become addicted. Bashir has no choice but to find out what he can about the device, and try to remove it from his friend.

Which all sounds dangerously close to what’s going on here, with the exception that it’s teachers being treated with it, not alien spies.

I am really not at all surprised that it’s the Tories, or a company that’s associated with them, that’s peddling this nonsense. The Tories just love pseudoscience. I’ve reblogged stuff from Kitty S. Jones and other disability bloggers about the model of sickness devised by Unum and their pet psychiatrists at Cardiff University to have people thrown off benefit and declared fit for work, has been roundly debunked by other medical professionals.

And a little while ago, Private Eye in its ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column took a pot shot at a Tory-controlled council in Kent or that part of the world, where the local authority had cut council services, but was funnelling tens of thousands of pounds to a company headed by one of its female members, which specialised in using Neuro-Linguistic Programming or some other kind of dodgy therapy to offer spurious treatment to council staff.

Which, again, sounds very much like what’s going on here.

And then there was the case of the Leaderene herself, Maggie Thatcher. Thatcher was into Ayur Veda, a system of alternative therapies brought to the world by one of the dodgy Indian gurus, who rocked up here in the 1960s. Thatcher treated herself to baths, where along with the water there was a weak electric current. Obviously, she thought it would do her some good. I’m quite sure there were many others, who wish the voltage had been somewhat stronger.

This looks to me very much like a potentially harmful pseudoscience. As for Caunt’s statement that ‘we know it works’, that’s what Tory spokespeople have said about work improving people’s mental health, and other mental professionals, not to mention normal, ordinary people without a financial or ideological stake in it, pointing out that it’s rubbish. And I’ve no doubt it’s the same here.

This is just bad science, which is being hyped by company that obviously finds it cheaper to have their staff trying to make themselves less miserable by running electricity through their brains, than actually trying to do something more positive and concrete to improve conditions for them.

Pretty much like British society as a whole, where instead of offering real guidance and support to the unemployed, their harangued and demeaned by Jobcentre Staff through stupid, nonsensical models of unemployment and disability supported as government policy.

TTA Spacecraft 2000 – 2100: Videos, Spacecraft and Book Cover Art

April 19, 2017

I put up a post at the weekend about a video I’d found on YouTube, in which a fan of Stewart Cowley’s Spacecraft 2000-2100 had made a short CGI film as a tribute. The film was a promotional video for the book’s fictional Terran Trade Authority, the global governmental organisation that had overseen the construction of the spacecraft which had taken humanity to the planets, and from then on to the nearest stars, meeting friendly creatures from Alpha Centauri, and fighting a war against aliens from Proxima Centauri.

The book Spacecraft 2000-2100 was a ‘future history’, of the type that was quite common in SF from the 1950s to the 1970s, when scientists and science fiction writers were confident that it would only be a matter of decades, perhaps only a few years even, before humanity established colonies in space – orbital cities, bases and then colonies on the Moon and Mars. FTL – Faster Than Light travel would be invented, and humanity would go on into the Galaxy ‘to seek out new life forms and new civilisations’, in the words of the Classic Trek.

The spacecraft in the book all came from SF book covers by some of the great space artists of the ’70s – Chris Foss, Angus McKie, Peter Elson, Bob Layzell, Fred Gambino and Jim Burns, around which the author, Stewart Cowley, wove his story of invention and exploration. It’s one of my favourite space books. The spacecraft depicted and their settings had a strange, otherworldly, literally alien beauty, even when the scenes were of industry or simple rocket launches. After I found the first video, I found another. This one is rather more complete. It uses the same computer techniques to recreate the spacecraft, as well as a whole scenes from the book. The spacecraft race across alien landscapes, rise into the air, hover above vast future cities, or prepare to dock with huge space stations.

I also found this video by Scott Manley on YouTube, where he talks about the book. He found it amongst his father’s old things, which rather dates me. Along with some of the other facts he mentions, he talks about the picture of an alien spaceship, which was plagiarised a few years ago by another artist, who entered his version for the Turner Prize. Apparently, the book was also republished in 2005, but was not well-received. The future history had to be rewritten, and some of the pictures were replaced by computer art. There has, however, also been a Role-Playing Game created, which is set in the same universe as the book.

Here’s a few of the book covers, from which the art was taken. Top far left is by Angus McKie; top let is Tony Roberts, bottom left is Bob Layzell, while bottom right is by Peter Elson. Neither of the two bottom images appear in the book. Other pieces by them do appear, and these show Layzell’s and Elson’s style
This and other great pieces of SF art can be found in the book Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History by Steve Holland (New York: HarperCollins 2009).

Star Trek Spoof: Kirk Takes Dodgy Pills Prescribed by McCoy

April 14, 2017

This is hilarious. It’s a fan spoof from YouTube, which presents itself as a trailer for a missing episode. It isn’t, of course, but it’s still fun. Kirk has been given some red pills by Dr McCoy, which are causing him to see some very strange things indeed, to the concern of Mr Spock.

Of course, you know when you’re a Trekker when you’re able to name, or at least describe, the episodes from which the various figures and the main clip of Kirk, Spock and McCoy were taken.

Harlan Ellison’s ‘Dangerous Visions’ Published as SF Classics

January 7, 2017

Also looking through Waterstone’s SF shelves last week, I found that Gollancz has published the groundbreaking short story anthology, Dangerous Visions as part of their range of classic works of Science Fiction. The book, edited by Harlan Ellison, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’, caused uproar when the stories were published in the early ’70s. Several of the stories had appeared in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, and constituted the American equivalent of the British ‘New Wave’. The controversial subjects of some the stories and their sexual explicitness resulted in a questions in parliament about the magazines’ perceived obscenity. This came after the arts council had renewed its grant to Moorcock’s magazine for the following year, which is more than a little ironic. Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, quote Ellison as saying of the ‘New Wave’ writers ‘these guys is blasphemous’. However, in their opinion the American writers were far more traditional and less radical and iconoclastic than their British counterparts. But if you’re interested, you can now read it again and judge for yourself.

The ‘I’ Newspaper on the Invention of Star Trek-Style ‘Tractor Beam’

January 4, 2017

The I newspaper today reported that Asier Marzo, an American doctoral student, now a research assistant at Bristol uni, has invented a tractor beam using sound which can be built by anyone with a 3D printer.

The article by Tom Bawden runs

Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek were given a huge boost last year when a doctoral student in America developed the first sonic tractor beam capable of pulling an object towards it by using sound waves. But alas its use was confined to fancy labs with expensive equipment.

Now, thanks to that same individual – who has since become a research assistant at the University of Bristol – it has become far more accessible, at least to anyone with 3D printing technology.

The tractor beam has long been a staple of science fiction, used in a series of Star Trek episodes to capture and tow other space ships, while the Death Star’s tractor beam memorably catches the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

A do-it-yourself handheld acoustic tractor beam will now become widely available, according to a new paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” said Asier Marzo, the researcher behind the developments.

“Now, we have made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter,” he said.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what’s called a metamaterial, which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths. The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.”

With an effect that is determined by the shape of the tubes, the research team focused on optimising the design to allow fabrication with common 3D printers, ensuring it could be constructed by home hobbyists. (The I, 4th January 2017, p. 23).

I think the pseudoscientific explanation for the tractor beams in Star Trek is that they use gravitons – the subatomic particles that carry the force of gravity – to pull other ships and objects towards them. In an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Wesley Crusher is shown having invented a handheld tractor beam. I think it’s in the episode ‘The Naked Now’.

There are some very clever things now being done with sound. There was a piece on The One Show or perhaps the Beeb’s pop science programme, Bang Goes The Theory, where they showed how sound waves could be used to levitate a series of small objects. I have a feeling it was the discovery of acoustic levitation back in the 1990s or early 2000s that inspired one episode of Far Scape, ‘Taking the Stone’ where Chiana joins a group of alien thrill seekers. These young people get their kicks from leaping off a cliff above an alien echo chamber while humming. If they get the tone right, the sound waves resonate and break their fall. If they don’t, they plunge to their deaths. I can’t imagine that ever catching on as sport in real life, but you never know.

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.

Trump and Putin Revive Nuclear Arms Race

December 24, 2016

Yesterday, Mike put up another piece commenting on statements by the American president-elect and Vladimir Putin that they want to strengthen their countries’ nuclear arsenals. Trump had made a tweet on Thursday saying “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump did so the same day that Putin issued his own statement, declaring that “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”

Mike makes the point that the threat of nuclear Armageddon will not make the world more secure. It will not make rogue states like North Korea abandon their nuclear programmes. Instead, Mike urged us to listen to George Takei, whose family personally experienced the horror of the atomic bomb in Japan in World War II.

Star Trek’s Mr Sulu tweeted “Trump wants to expand our nuclear arsenal. I think of my aunt and baby cousin, found burnt in a ditch in Hiroshima. These weapons must go.”

Absolutely. I can remember the very large, and vocal demonstrations against nuclear weapons in Japan during the new Cold War of the 1980s. The Japanese had every good reason to demand the reduction and abandonment of the world’s nuclear arsenals: their country had experienced the terrible carnage produced by these horrific weapons.

Mike also reports that back in May, Trump also stated that he would support South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons for their own protection.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/23/why-are-trump-and-putin-suddenly-keen-to-revive-the-cold-war/

Mike’s also reported that Trump has followed up his idiotic tweet by making his intentions clear in an interview with Mika Brzezinski, one of the presenters on MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme. He said, ‘Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all’.

Mike makes the point that his comments risk needlessly inflaming tensions with Russia, pointing out that what is currently repeated in the western media about eastern Europe and the Middle East is propaganda designed to manipulate public opinion. He also argues that Putin could adopt the opposite approach, and concentrate on saving precious money and resources through the same policy, that has been considered by Labour Jeremy Corbyn. This means killing or otherwise neutralising terrorists’ leaders through surgical strikes, leaving them without effective military direction.

He also points out that technological weapons are also increasingly susceptible to infiltration and sabotage.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/24/while-trump-spends-all-his-money-on-nuclear-weapons-what-will-the-russians-do/

Trump’s determination to ramp up America’s nuclear arsenal is bizarre, given his previous statements during his presidential campaign in which he deliberately gave the impression that he would be scaling down America’s military intervention around the globe. However, on examination this does seem very much in line with Trump’s determination to go back on every single one of his election promises, with the exception of repealing Obamacare.

Remember the noise he was making about going to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’, and would stop the corporate domination and corruption of Congress? That’s gone. After attacking Hillary for being a fully paid-up stooge for Wall Street, Trump has himself gone and appointed Wall Street bankers – including one from Goldman Sachs – to his cabinet. In fact, if anything, he’s increased the amount of corporate corruption. He’s allowed his daughter, Ivanka, to stay with him during negotiations with heads of government in either Japan or China, despite the fact that Ivanka Trump is also a businesswoman, who could use the information from these interviews to gain a clear economic advantage. And his sons have been raising money for their father by selling tickets to the extremely and not-quite-so filthy rich for them to attend dinners with him and go on hunting trips. All Trump’s talk about tackling corporate power has been a lie. Instead, it’s very much business as usual.

And it appears to be very much the same here. Counterpunch has published several articles over the past couple of months discussing how Barack Obama has been talking to senior military staff in Washington. He has already started to expand America’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons. He has also considered the possible use of low-megaton ‘battle field’ nukes in a limited nuclear war in Europe. The American comedian Jimmy Dore has several times ripped into Obama on his internet show, bitterly attacking the false image of the soon to be ex-president as some kind of dove and peacemaker. Far from stopping wars, Obama has carried on George Dubya’s brutal military policies in the Middle East, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Libya and Somalia. And so this new policy, announced by Trump, really isn’t new at all. It is, as Max Headroom used to say, merely ‘more… of the same’. The difference here is that Max was a fictional character with a satirical edge talking about pop music. The pilot for his series, 20 Minutes into the Future, showed a decaying Britain with massive poverty and homelessness, dominated by ruthless and unscrupulous media corporations. It’s a dystopian vision that is still very relevant today, even if the human brain is far too complicated to be successfully mapped and modelled electronically to produce an AI like Max.

As for the reason behind this dangerous policy, Counterpunch also published a piece describing Hillary Clinton’s vision of America’s role in the world. She seemed to be intent on expanding America’s military power to the utmost. She and the rest of the hawks talked about ‘full spectrum domination’, which means that America is the superior, dominant military superpower with the ability to bomb everyone else back into submission. At the same time, her domestic policies were aimed at keeping the working class as poor and as desperate as possible, so that she could sell American products cheaply to the emerging east Asian market.

It’s also been argued that America spends so much on the military because it is the only way that the American state can stimulate the country’s economy. Leftwing commenters and political analysts have argued that the experience of the Second World War after the Great Depression taught the American industrial and political class that America needed state intervention to create prosperity. This is, however, the Keynsian economic position, which is vehemently rejected by the Republicans and Libertarians as ‘socialism’ or even ‘Communism’. The only way the American state can effectively intervene in the American economy in a manner that is ideologically acceptable, is by doing what the Nazis and Fascists did in Germany and Italy, and invest massively in a re-armament programme. And like the Fascist states, the state has to use its armed forces to maintain its investments and public support for the rearmament programme. This was part of the reason for the outbreak of the Second World War.

As for Trump’s statement that he is prepared to allow South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, this is grossly irresponsible. Especially in the case of Saudi Arabia. In the case of Japan, it unacceptable for the same reason that the country has difficulty launching its own spacecraft. In the 1980s Japan developed its own rocket launcher to carry its satellites and probes into space. One of these probes was amongst the small flotilla of spacecraft that met Halley’s Comet in 1986. From what I’ve read, the country has only used its launcher a few times because of fears that it would be taken as a missile attack by the Chinese. The same would be true of South Korea. Political scientists and foreign policy analysts have argued very strongly against threatening China, as they respond by passing on nuclear technology and armaments to other nations, such as Pakistan.

And I cannot imagine anything more stupid, more calculated to result a nuclear holocaust, than giving atomic weapons to Saudi Arabia. This is a militant theocracy that has sponsored horrific terror campaigns throughout the Middle East and against America itself. Elements within the Saudi aristocracy and political elite, including its intelligence minister and possibly, if I remember correctly, the current king, sponsored al-Qaeda and ISIS. Terrorist organisations like them, who use suicide bombers and deliberately target civilians, simply cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. But that is what would happen if Trump allowed Saudi Arabia to acquire them.

Trump’s renewal of the nuclear arms race is therefore simply a continuation of Bush’s, Obama’s and Hillary’s arms policies. And it’s insane. During the Cold War of the last century, there were at least three instances where NATO and the former Warsaw Pact were on the edge of full-scale nuclear war. We escaped some of these by the skin of our teeth. This time, we may not be so lucky.

George Takei Condemns Trump’s Plan for Muslim Registry

November 22, 2016

A few days ago, one of Trump’s stormtroopers caused massive outrage by citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a precedent for the imposition of a Muslim registry. This is a clip from an American news programme, in which George Takei, who played Mr Sulu in Star Trek, along with many other roles, condemns this vile proposal. Takei’s a Japanese-American, and he and his family, like about 120,000 others, were interned. He states this was a terrible crime, and reminds the viewer that Ronald Reagan publicly apologised for it and paid reparations to the surviving victims in the 1980s. He states clearly that America is a country of law and due process, which internment and Muslim registration massively violate. He makes it clear that Japanese-American internment should never be used as a precedent, as it can only be such for persecution and injustice. He states further that he has been speaking about Japanese-American internment for most of his life, including recently at Penn State college, in the hope that it would never happen again. Now this seems a real threat, and he urges all Americans to come together to prevent his occurring.

The programme also shows that Trump has no clear idea how to go about it either. When asked if he would just register Muslims by going to the mosques, Trump merely says, ‘No, but other places’. Takei rightly condemns this as the criminalisation of entire religion.

Reichwing Watch: Trump Spokesman Cites Japanese Internment to Justify Muslim Registry

November 18, 2016

This is terrifying. It’s another clip from Reichwing Watch, from a news programme in which a spokesman for Trump tells Megan Kelly, the news anchor, to her face that Japanese internment during World War II has set a precedent for Trump’s proposal to have all Muslims entered in an official register. To her credit, Kelly tells him that he cannot use this as a precedent, and reproaches him for using it to get people frightened. The Trump surrogate laughs this off, but says that the president still needs to protect America. She argues back that the protection extends the moment you enter America.

This should terrify everyone, who is sincerely worried about the march of Fascism, including anyone with a knowledge of Roman civilisation. Firstly, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II as enemy aliens led to horrendous suffering and deprivation, and is still naturally resented by Americans of Japanese heritage decades later. George Takei, I understand, the actor who played Mr Sulu in Star Trek, was particularly active in Japanese-American civil rights organisations. American politicos have denounced the internment, and I think the government has paid the victims reparations. And it certainly was deeply unjust that when many Japanese-American servicemen were giving their lives for America, their families, friends and other members of their community were being herded into camps. It is repulsive that Trump’s spokesman should cite this as a precedent, and it does raise the issue of what Trump will do next. If he’s prepared to cite Japanese-American internment as a precedent, is he also considering interning Muslims as well, despite his mouthpiece’s smiling denials?

The American Constitution famously promises Americans freedom of religion. And religious freedom has been at the heart of American democracy, ever since Richard Baxter argued for it, including not just Christians, but also Jews, during the British Civil War. Baxter afterwards emigrated to the nascent US, and the proud, American tradition of religious toleration begins with him in the 17th century. Now Trump’s threatening to reverse this.

Trump’s proposal for Muslims to be officially registered reminds me very strongly of the ancient Roman attitude to religion. The Roman Empire was religious pluralistic, but retained a system of religious suppression. Because the Romans were afraid of the threat of insurrection and rebellion from clubs and other associations, including religious gatherings, they operated a system in which only those religions, which were not considered dangerous to the state, were officially tolerated. The Romans persecuted Christianity because it was not one of the religio licitas – permitted religions. Christians were seen as subversive, because they worshipped Christ as God, instead of the Roman Emperor. Hence the determination to make Christians sacrifice to the Emperor’s numen, his divine spirit, and the statements in the early Christian apologists that, although Christians didn’t worship the emperor, they nevertheless were good citizens, who prayed for him and the other authorities in their services.

Trump is threatening to inflict on American Muslims the type of system that led to the terrible persecution of Christians in ancient Rome.

And where America goes today, Britain and other nations follow tomorrow. I’m not a secularist, but this threatens religious tolerance and freedom right across the modern, democratic West.

And apart from the real danger it poses to Muslims, it also threatens to give the radicals a weapon to use against us. The Islamist bigots, going all the way back to the radicals demanding the suppression of the Satanic Verses and Rushdie’s death, whipped up opposition and hatred towards non-Muslims and the secular state by telling them that they were in danger from White and non-Muslim persecution. Way back in the 1990s the Beeb filmed one of these preachers of hate, Kalim Siddiqui, in his mosque, telling his congregation that ‘British society is a monstrous killing machine, and killing Muslims comes very easily to them’. When the team questioned Siddiqui about his words, he started ranting about how the Satanic Verses was the first step towards a ‘holocaust of Muslims.’ This is sheer, poisonous bilge. The book wasn’t blasphemous, and it certainly wasn’t published in preparation for such an monstrous atrocity.

But accusations like this were used to motivate British Muslims, or some British Muslims, into political involvement and opposition to British secularism. And you can bet that ISIS and al-Qaeda will use Trump’s wretched registry to whip up support amongst Muslims by citing it as proof that western society really is intolerant and that we really do have a genocidal hatred of Muslims.

We don’t. Regardless of individual religious affiliation or lack thereof, we need to stand united against this. We can’t let Trump divide us and make the denial of our collective freedoms seem respectable policies. Because it won’t just be Muslims. After them, it’ll be other groups. No-one will be safe from this type of intolerance.