Posts Tagged ‘V for Vendetta’

Vox Political on the Questionable Effectiveness of Privacy Safeguards In the Government’s Snooper’s Charter

March 1, 2016

This is another very interesting and telling piece from Mike over at Vox Political. The government has promised to tighten up the provisions to safeguard privacy in its act giving the intelligence services greater powers to intercept and store personal information from the internet, according to BBC News. It’s been described, rightly, as a ‘snooper’s charter’. It’s been on the table for months, along with cosy reassurances from the government that everything will be fine and this is nothing to worry about. It’s rubbish. Clearly, this is a threat to the liberty and privacy of British subjects. Once upon a time the intelligence services had to take a warrant out from the British government in order to tap phones. This piece of legislation gives them free warrant – or freer warrant – as an increasing amount of legislation over the years has gradually extended their ability to tap just about everyone’s electronic communications. This is dangerous, as it effectively makes everyone automatically suspect, even if they have done nothing wrong.

A week or so ago I posted up a piece I found in William Blum’s Anti-Empire Report, about the way the EU a few years ago condemned Britain and the US for spying on EU citizens. The European authorities were, at least at that time, particularly concerned about the way the US was using intercepted information for corporate, industrial espionage, not to counter any terrorist threat. So there’s a real danger that the British authorities will do the same. A long time ago, in that brief, blissful gap between the Fall of Communism and the War and Terror, the spooks at MI5 and MI6 really didn’t know what to do. The old Soviet Communist threat had evaporated, dissident Republican groups were still around, but Sinn Fein was at the negotiating table and there was a cease fare. And Osama bin Laden had yet to destroy the World Trade Centre and try to kill the president. Prospects looked bleak for Britain’s spies. It looked like there might be cutbacks, job losses. George Smiley, James Bond and the others might be faced with going down the jobcentre. So the intelligence agencies announced that they were going into industrial espionage. Lobster covered this revolting development, with appropriate boastful quote from the agencies concerned. So, if you’re a struggling businessman somewhere in Britain and the EU, with little capital but some cracking ideas, be afraid. Be very afraid. Because this bill will result in the Americans stealing your idea. Blum gave the example of a couple of German and French firms, include a wind-power company, who found their secrets passed on to their American rivals.

Mike also adds an interesting piece comparing the supine attitude of our own legislature to that of South Korea. The opposition there has been engaged in a week-long filibuster to talk their electronic surveillance bill out of parliament, to deny it any votes and any validity whatsoever. Bravo to them! Now if there’s a country that has rather more need of such a bill, it’s South Korea. They are bordered on the north with a totalitarian state that has absolutely no respect for the lives of its people, and which makes terrible threats of military action backed by nuclear warfare. It is run by a bloodthirsty dictator, who has killed members of his own family with extreme overkill. Really. He shot one of his generals to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun.

I got the impression that South Korea is like Japan. It’s an extremely capitalist society with the Asian work ethic. And it is extremely anti-Communist. I can remember being told by an spokesman for the Unification Church, who came into speak to us in the RE course at College, that the anti-Communist parts of Sun Myung Moon’s creed were nothing special, and were part of the general anti-Communist culture of South Korea. I honestly don’t know whether this is true, or whether it was then – this was the 1980s – and isn’t now. But clearly, the South Korean have very good reasons to be suspicious of espionage for their northern neighbours.

But their equivalent of this law is too much for them. And it should also be for us, if we genuinely value our privacy and civil liberties. But I’m starting to ponder whether we truly do. John Kampfner in his book ‘Freedom for Sale’ describes in depth the way Tony Bliar and Broon massively expanded the intelligence gathering powers of the authorities in this country, transforming it into something very like Orwell’s 1984. I kid you not. One local authority affixed loudspeakers to the CCTV cameras on particular estates, so they could order you around as well as keep you under surveillance. Pretty much like the all-pervasive televisions in Orwell’s Oceania. Kampfner also called into question the supposed traditional British love of freedom. He argued that it was actually much less than we really wanted to believe. Blair and Broon made no secret of what they were doing, and the British public in general bought it. Partly spurred on by the hysterics of the populist press, with Paul Dacre, Murdoch and the like demanding greater and more intrusive police powers to fight crime and terrorism.

Even Niall Ferguson, the right-wing historian and columnist, was shocked at how far this process went. In the 1990s he went on a tour of China. When he came back, he was shocked by the ubiquitous presence of the CCTV cameras. Alan Moore, the creator of the classic dystopian comic and graphic novel, V for Vendetta, said in an interview that when he wrote the strip in the British anthology comic, Warrior, back in the 1980s, he put in CCTV cameras on street corners, thinking that it would really frighten people. Now, he observed, they were everywhere.

I’m very much afraid that everywhere we are losing our liberties, our rights to freedom of conscience and assembly. That they’re being stripped from by a corporatist elite in the name of protecting us from terrorism, but which is really a façade for a military-industrial complex determined to control, and control absolutely and minutely. And what makes the blood really run cold is the sheer apathy of the great British public to this process.

I’ve been mocking Alex Jones of the conspiracy internet site and programme, Infowars the past couple of days, putting up pieces of some of his weird and nonsensical ranting. Jones is wrong in so much of what he says. He’s a libertarian, looking in the wrong direction for the threat to freedom. But fundamentally, he has a point. There is a campaign from the corporate elite to strip us of our freedoms. And our leaders – in the parliament, the press and the media, seem quite content to do little about it.

Police to Interview Suspects By Bodycam

November 17, 2015

According to an article in The Canary last week, the government is considering passing legislation to allow the rozzers to interview suspects in the street instead of in an interview room back at the cop shop. These interviews will, however, be recorded by bodycam.

The article begins

Pilot plans to allow police officers to interview suspects on the streets via body cameras, rather than at police stations, has raised concerns among civil liberties groups.

Currently, while the formal caution that police recite when arresting somebody states clearly that anything they say may be used in evidence against them, officers are not formally able to interview someone until they have been taken to a police station. Crucially, once at the police station, the suspect has the right to independent legal advice, and they are entitled to pre-interview disclosure.

This pre-interview disclosure is vitally important as it is designed to ensure the person and their legal representative understand why the person has been deprived of their liberty, the nature of the allegations made against them, and the reason why they have been arrested. Without this disclosure, and access to a solicitor, the suspect is extremely vulnerable, especially if unfamiliar with the complexities of the law.

Unsurprisingly, given the cuts to the police service, these proposals have nothing to do with access to justice, and are primarily concerned with saving money. Hampshire Chief Constable, and national police spokesman for body-worn video, Andy Marsh stated:

‘I think this will lead to swifter, fairer and more importantly cheaper justice.’

The emphasis seems to be most definitely on cheaper justice, with fairness coming a very poor second. The article quotes two critics of the scheme, who point out that current practice is based on decades of experience of the abuse of police powers. And that the people, who will suffer through this innovation won’t be the experienced, hardened crims, but inexperienced suspects unsure of their rights and the law.

The full article can be read at: http://www.thecanary.co/2015/11/11/fears-raised-cheaper-justice-policing-plans/

A number of points can be made here. Firstly, there’s the danger of serious breaches of justice in allowing the police to interview suspects away from the interview room and the presence of a lawyer to represent them. The government seems to think that allowing the interview to be recorded by bodycam will somehow be an acceptable substitute for removing established procedures involving formal, recorded interviews. It looks simply like they’re desperate to get convictions, and are willing to use this technology as a pretext for removing established judicial safeguards. Hey, it’s all recorded on camera, so it’s properly supervised. It can be wrong, can it?’ This seems to be the attitude.

It also shows how the government seems to be believe that increased surveillance technology is automatically a solution. Now, I’m very much aware that there is the view that Paris was targeted by ISIS for their butchery, instead of London, because the City of Light had much less CC TV coverage. But surveillance cameras, as the French also knew, carried their own dangers of creating a pervasive, surveillance state. Alan Moore when he wrote V for Vendetta in the 1980s placed surveillance cameras on the streets in his Fascist future Britain, thinking that this would really scare its readers. Well, it’s now thirty years or so after the strip, and surveillance cameras are everywhere and no one takes any notice, a fact the great man himself has remarked on. I’m sure surveillance cameras have an important use, but they should be adjuncts to, not substitutes for, traditional policing.

I also wonder what will be done about recorded interviews in which the individual is left off without charge. Will they still be retained? What about a person’s right to privacy, and not to have the state keep records on them when they are innocent? There have been cases where innocent citizens have found that the rozzers have continued to keep files on them even after they were released and declared innocent. I’m very much afraid something similar could happen here.

And there is the danger of the wider misuse of such technology as the Tories make Britain become ever more authoritarian and Fascistic. Way back in the 1970s the police were required to compile useful intelligence on potential suspects. This ended up with the bluebottles deciding someone was suspicious, based no more on the fact that they were a Punk, or a pregnant teenager. And one of Cameron’s brilliant ideas was for the cops to take the names and particulars of strikers on picket lines. He’s had to climb down on that, but given the backing the Tories have always received from rabidly anti-union groups, I doubt believe this has gone away. Not completely. So there’s a real threat to civil liberties there.

And lastly, there’s the rather more fantastic threat that this is the start of something like the Borg. They’re the cyborg race from Star Trek, who have merged into a single, collective intelligence – a group creature, so that their society resembles a giant ant’s nest. We’re nowhere near that level of cybernetics yet, but one of the more interesting comments about the Google Glass computer spectacles was that it practically made the wearer one of the Borg. Google Glass were the hi-tech specs that allowed you to surf the internet while walking about, and for your on-line friends to see what you were seeing. I can remember back in the 1990s there was a similar experimental arrangement being tried out by the computer geeks at one of the American unis. A friend of mine, who played Shadowrun, a Dungeons and Dragons-type game based in the world of cyberpunk and computer hacking, seemed unsurprised when I told him about it. He called the technology and the people who used them ‘gargoyles’, which was the term used in the game for people, who used cyberspace technology to experience the sensations experienced by another person.

So, in the game’s parlance, this technology effectively makes the rozzers the justice ministry’s gargoyles. And with others seeing what they see, it’s almost ‘1984’ and the Borg. It’s just that they haven’t been mentally connected to the internet yet, so they aren’t yet like the Robomen of the Dalek Invasion of Earth.

But it’s early days yet. Give the Tories time. They are Borg. Resistance is futile. We will be assimilated.

TYT Reports ‘V for Vendetta’ Finally Screened on Chinese TV

October 31, 2015

This is a slightly more optimistic piece from The Young Turks from 2012. It seems that the Chinese government has finally screened Alan Moore’s story about resistance to a Fascist, totalitarian state. They point out it was never screened in Chinese cinemas. As they say, ‘Oops! How did that one get past (the censor).’

They point out that a lot of Western movies are available in China anyway, and it might simply be due to a new Chinese leader taking power. My guess is that it’s possibly been screened because it’s such a cult film that attempts to stop people seeing it have largely failed. It’s also possibly been made palatable by the fact that the totalitarian state is a Fascist, 21st century Britain. Even so, the precise shade of political party and geographical location shown in the movie doesn’t alter its anti-authoritarian message, or make much of it any the less relevant.

China is a one party police state, which incarcerates and tortures its political prisoners. The scenes in which the guards and staff at the concentration camp are shown disposing of the bodies of hundreds of victims of human experimentation will, amongst older Chinese, recall the mass deaths that resulted from Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

China is also a state that robs its criminals of their organs for transplant surgery before they are executed. Thus Chinese prisoners are the victims of forced medical procedures in that way, another, though possibly not an exact parallel to the horrors in the movie.

The film is similarly set after there has been a holocaust against Muslims, resulting in their extermination and the outlawing of their religion. China similarly is cracking down on its Muslims, and many of the country’s indigenous Muslim ethnic groups, like the Uyghurs, feel that they are being systematically dispossessed, marginalised and persecuted in their home province of Sinkiang.

Among those sent to the concentration camps are homosexuals. In one part of the movie, Natalie Portman’s character is incarcerated to make her experience what the state’s victims go through. During her incarceration she reads letters written by Valerie, a lesbian, who really was rounded up by the regime for her sexuality. I don’t know if homosexuality is illegal in China, but it certainly is in other Asian societies, such as Singapore, and strongly disapproved of in many nations where it is legal, such as Japan. My guess is that it is illegal in China, and that this will be another uncomfortable parallel with the current regime.

But whatever the oppressive government, the Turks’ point out that the film does have a universal message that people should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

As our government tries to shut down the Freedom of Information Act, it’s plain that they are. Very.

Lobster Reviews Ulf Schmidt on British Human Medical Experiments

October 17, 2015

Experimental Human Animals Art

A page of classic comics art depicting humans as experimental animals. I got it from the 70s Sci-Fi art page on Tumblr. Not quite the image IDS wants to project with his comments about the disabled as ‘Stock’.

This is another book review, which reveals something of the dark history of human medical experimentation by the military in this country. It’s a review of Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments, by Ulf Schmidt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) £25, h/b. This is the type of book the Daily Mail really hates. As their blustering against the Brazilian human rights rapporteur shows, one of the many irritants that really send the Mail into a xenophobic screaming fit is when foreigners dare to criticise Britain’s increasingly poor human rights record. Their usual response is to accuse the foreign critic, whether judge, human rights activist, whatever – of hypocrisy, and to try to smear them by pointing out the human rights abuses in their countries.

That won’t work here, for the simple reason that Mr Schmidt is professor of Modern History at the University of Kent, and has been Wellcome Trust’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. He has also published several works on Nazi experimentation on humans during the Third Reich, such as Medical Films, Ethics and Euthanasia in Germany, 1933-1945 (2002), Justice at Nuremberg (2004), and Karl Brand: The Nazi Doctor: Medicine and Power in the Third Reich (2007). He is clearly very definitely both a senior, respected academic and someone, who has not been afraid to confront his country’s Nazi past, and the experimentation on humans there that would make most civilised people sick. Also, as an academic text, the book is far outside the type of book the Daily Mail and its readers are likely to read or review. And so you can be quite sure that the Tory press are very definitely going to ignore it.

Much of the book is about the experiments on humans to judge the effect of chemical and biological weapons. Although the book includes America and Canada, much of its focus is on Britain and the research carried out by Porton Down. Schmidt acknowledges that the soldiers upon whom the experiments were carried out were volunteers, but raises the awkward question of whether they were properly informed of the possible consequences of the experiments. Several squaddies have died and many left seriously disabled. He mentions the case of one serviceman, Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, who died after being exposed to Sarin in 1953. If the death alone was not scandalous, there is the fact that it took his family fifty years to find out the true circumstances of his death. He also notes that the Americans were interested in the resistance of different racial groups to mustard gas, and that Porton Down released a ‘plague-like bacterium’ on to the underground in 1963.

The review also states that the book also has a lot of loose ends and opportunities for further research. Like the case of British officers, who were sent to investigate Nazi medical experiments and the gassing of the Jews for Nuremberg. Nobody, however, seems to know what they did with the information and there remains a strong possibility for an ‘Operation Paperclip’, in which the Nazi doctors involved were recruited by their former enemies. He also discusses how Porton Down followed America in pursuing research into the military application of LSD, like the US’ MKULTRA. One of the doctors involved was an American, who sought other human guinea pigs amongst the mentally ill shut up in America’s psychiatric wards. The book’s reviewer, Frewin, discusses the possibility that some of the British doctors mentioned in the book seems just as shady. He raises the possibility that one of two of them were conducting similar experiments over here.

It’s interesting that, just as this book’s been published, Points West, the Beeb’s local news programme for the Bristol, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are did a feature on Porton Down and its history. It seems the facility had been making some kind of public outreach, which looks like a bit of PR to allay possible public fears. Rather more disquieting is the way Ian Duncan Smith referred to disabled people as ‘stock’, and suggested that the poor could make money by offering themselves for medical experimentation. Mike over at Vox Political pointed out that his was very close indeed to the attitude of the Fascist doctors experimenting on humans in the dystopian future Britain of V for Vendetta.

There’s a problem here in pursuing research into human experimentation in Britain by the massively secretive nature of the British political establishment. Americans were informed about the true extent of their nation’s experimentation on service personnel, the poor and disadvantaged racial minorities with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act by Clinton in the 1990s. This resulted in the release of a torrent of declassified documents revealing a very dark history of drug and nuclear experimentation, frequently on people, who had no knowledge of what was being done to them. One of the documents revealed how an Indian woman was regularly injected with radioactive material at a nuclear facility, which she was led to believe was a hospital and the doctors were treating her for cancer. It’s secret history that forms the basis for American conspiracy culture and the massive suspicion many Americans feel towards their own government, from Alex Jones and Info Wars to the type of people portrayed in the X Files in the form of the Lone Gunmen.

The problem is that, for all America’s faults, they are a much more open society than Britain. Possibly because of its origin in aristocratic political discourse, where important decisions were to be kept to responsible gentlemen in smoky rooms, and the proles kept at arms length, the British state has always been very reluctant to divulge any kind of potentially embarrassing information. It might upset confidence in the Establishment, as well as cause some ex-public schoolboy various other ministers and civil servants went to school with to lose his pension and his career. It was, for example, only a few years ago that Britain acknowledged the true extent of the terror tactics it employed to quell the Mao-Mao rebellion in Kenya. Blair’s passage of a British version of the Freedom of Information Act has done much to make the British states less secretive, more open and transparent. This is, however, now being undermined by the Tories and their collaborators in this from New Labour, like Jack Straw. So we probably don’t know the true extent of human experimentation over here. Another factor that makes me wonder if we ever will is that at the time some of these experiments were performed, Britain still had an Empire and the tests were done in some of our former colonies. Nuclear weapons, for example, were tested on south sea islands. So many of the victims may well now be the citizens of independent nations, and so considered less important and more easily ignored than British citizens.

Simon Pegg and SF and Comic Book Infantilism

May 23, 2015

I was on holiday last week, which was why I haven’t put anything up for a few days. Never mind – I’m back now, and ready to pour more scorn, criticism and bile on the Tory government and the establishment sycophants and global corporate exploiters that support it.

But before I do, I’d like to tackle one issue that’s been bothering me, ever since I read about it in the papers and Radio Times last week. Simon Pegg got in the news for claiming that contemporary culture was being infantilised through Science Fiction, comic books, and the movies that were based on them.

As Pegg himself admitted, this is deeply ironic comic from him. He’s made his name as an SF and comic book nerd. In Spaced, the comedy he co-wrote, he played a struggling comic book artist/writer, who worked behind the counter at his local SF and comic shop. As well as the zombie rom-com, Shaun of the Dead, he also wrote Paul, his homage to science fiction geekdom, in which he and Nick Frost play a pair of SF geeks, who stumble upon the real alien that the US government has kept secret ever since the Roswell crash. The interview in the Radio Times, in which he made the comments, begins with a discussion of his role as Scotty and one of the writers on the new Star Trek movie.

Pegg made his comments about the infantilising effects of comics and SF when talking about how he was trying to smarten up and not be a ‘slobby husband’ for his wife, Maureen. As part of which, he had stopped drinking, turned to living a healthier life style, and stopped dressing as a teenager. The Radio Times then went to state how this new, adult perspective had changed his view of Science Fiction and comics. It said

This new grown-up perspective chimes with Pegg’s views on the culture in which he made his name and plies his trade. As Mark Gatiss said in Radio Times last month, “The geeks have indeed inherited the Earth.” On the other hand, this empowers the fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well.

But on the other… “Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.

Now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things comic books, superheroes … Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, “he continues. “Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

Now Pegg hasn’t said anything that a multitude of other, SF writers haven’t said before. Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles, famously said that the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction was thirteen. Brian Aldiss, who amongst his various works wrote the short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, on which the Kubrick/ Spielberg film A.I. was based, was highly unimpressed by Star Wars. In his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, he made the sneering observation of its massive fan popularity that ‘a thousand throats thirsting for escapism must be slaked (if not cut)’. Many SF authors moved away from writing SF over their careers, such as Christopher Priest. Priest denies that he was ever an SF writer, but does not despise the genre or its fans. He’s said that he still has affection for the genre. Michael Moorcock, the editor of the SF magazine, New Worlds, leader of the SF ‘New Wave’, and author of the cult Elric novels, in the edition of the 1979 series on SF writers, Time Out of Mind, also stated that Science Fiction was essentially an immature form of literature. Moorcock then considered that the reason why so many SF writers had stopped and gone on to other forms of literature was simply that they’d grown up.

The great Polish writer, Stanislaus Lem, made pretty much the same point from his own personal experience in his book on Science Fiction, Microworlds. Lem’s an extremely highbrow Polish writer, who amongst his various works wrote Solaris, which was later filmed by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem has been very strongly influenced by the South American ‘magic realist’ writer, Borges, and was deeply impressed by Philip K. Dick. In Microworlds, he talks about the ‘transformation of trash’, in which the shop-worn props of Science Fiction – robots, aliens, mutants and spaceships – were transformed into a new kind of serious literature by Dick. He hoped, through his own writing and literary criticism, to make a similar contribution and raise the literary standards of the genre so that it could take its place as serious literature. He abandoned this, and the genre itself, as impossible.

Moorcock also began his career keen to raise the literary standard of Science Fiction. He was keen to import the experimental styles explored by William S. Burroughs and other, contemporary, literary writers. Again, in Time Out Of Mind, he talks about how he find his attempts to do so rejected and condemned by the SF old guard, particularly Frederick Pohl.

Now it’s fair to say that much Science Fiction is escapist fantasy, as is much literature generally. Nevertheless, much Science Fiction literature and cinema has tried to tackle serious issues. SF at times has been the ‘literature of warning’, exploring the terrible consequences that could arise if a particular political, social or technological course is pursued now. It’s also been used to critique and criticise existing society. This was particularly true of SF in the former Soviet Union, where writers like the Strugatsky brothers wrote in the ‘Aesopian mode’, to present Science Fictional fables to say obliquely observations about the true state of Soviet society, that could not be said openly.

It’s possible to draw up a list of Science Fiction novels, films and short stories, that have made serious points about human existence and the state of society. Most fans of the genre undoubtedly have their own favourites, or can think of others, that also do this. This is just happens to be the list I’ve drawn up at the moment.

1. War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells’ novel of the devastation of Earth by Martian invaders had its origins in a discussion between Wells and his brother about the destruction of indigenous, primitive societies, by European colonialism. Wells wondered what it would be like, if a similarly technologically superior invader came and did the same to Great Britain, the leading imperialist power of the late 19th century.

The book remains relevant to contemporary society even today, more than a century after its publication. Stanislas Lem has praised the book for its depiction of the nature of total war, and what it feels like to be the victim of an invader determined to wipe you out utterly. Lem lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of his home country. Apart from their aim of exterminating the Jews in the Holocaust, the Nazis also saw Poles, along with Russians, Ukrainians and the other Slavic peoples as ‘subhuman’, who were to be worked to death as slave labour. Their treatment of the Poles was similarly brutal. Lem felt that Wells’ novel of alien invasion gave a far better depiction of what the Nazi occupation was actually like, than many purely factual accounts of this dark period in his country’s history, to the point where he got annoyed with them and discarded them.

2. Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the dehumanising effects of biotechnology, in which humans are artificially gestated in hatcheries. In this technocratic, hedonistic society, real culture has withered away and society itself grown static because of the concentration on the purely sensual.

3. Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Karel Capek’s stage play introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. It was one of the very first to explore the possibility that humans could one day be overthrown by their mechanical creations. The robots in the play aren’t mechanical so much as artificially created humans, very much like the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Capek was writing at the time working class, radical Socialist and Communist revolutions had broken out in central and eastern Europe, and the play can also be read as a parable about their threat to the bourgeois European order.

If anything, the book has become even more relevant today, as scientists and social activists have become increasingly alarmed at the threat that robots might shortly do exactly as described in the book. Kevin Warwick, the Reader in Cybernetics at Reading University and former cyborg, begins his pop-science book on robots, March of the Machines, with a chilling depiction of the world of 2050. In this world, the machines have very definitely taken over. The mass of humanity have been exterminated, with those few remaining either living wild, if lucky, or enslaved as domesticated animals by their mechanical masters.

Some international agencies share this alarm. There is a pressure group actively campaigning against the construction of killer robots. A few years ago the international authorities were so alarmed that they actively forbade the use of such robots on the battlefield after one country made the suggestion that such machines should be used today, based on existing technology.

4. Silent Running

After working on 2001, Doug Trumbull wanted to produce a less coldly-intellectual, more emotional SF film than Stanley Kubrick’s epic. This was film is one of the first with a ‘green’ message, about humanity’s destruction of the environment. It’s about one astronaut’s quest to save the last green spaces from Earth, now preserved on spaceships, from destruction. He disobeys the command to scupper his ship and return to Earth, and takes them to safety in the rings of Saturn.

Other films exploring similar themses include Zero Population Growth and Soylent Green. In Zero Population Growth, the world is massively overpopulated to the point where most animal and plant species, including domestic pets, have become extinct. The government therefore mandates a total cessation of reproduction for a generation. The film tells the story of a couple’s attempts to preserve the life of their child after the wife finds out she’s pregnant. The husband and father is played by Oliver Reed, who was a brilliant actor as well as notorious drunk.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room!, was the first SF book to explore the possible consequences of the global population explosion and mass starvation.

5. Solaris

Based on Lem’s novel of the same name, Tarkovsky’s novel explores the problem of communicating with a genuinely alien intelligence, and what this would say in turn about human nature. The story follows the attempt of an astronaut to find out just what is happening aboard a space station orbiting the eponymous world. The planet itself is one vast organism, which creates replicas drawn from the human explorers’ own minds to try and work out what they are. One of these replicas takes the form of the hero’s ex-lover, with whom he begins a second, doomed romance.

Among its comments on space and humanity’s place in the universe are the lines ‘There are only a few billion of us. A mere handful. We don’t need spaceships. What man needs is man.’

The film was remade about a decade or so ago by Steven Soderbergh. His version is shorter, but apart from adding a sex scene and making Snow, the physicist, a Black woman rather than White man, there really isn’t much difference between the two, to the point where in some places they’re shot for shot the same. I prefer Tarkovsky’s original version, but you may feel differently.

6. Stalker

This is another movie by Tarkovsky, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. The stalker of the title is an outlaw, who makes his money taking people into, and retrieving objects from, a mysterious, forbidden zone. In the book, the normal laws of nature do not apply within the zone, and its hinted that it is due to the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In Tarkovsky’s version, the zone is result of some kind of disaster. Tarkovsky’s film explores the nature of guilty and responsibility as the various characters attempt to venture further into the zone. The highly polluted, dangerous environment has a destructive effect on the biology of those entering into it. The Stalker himself has a disabled daughter, Monkey. Some hope for humanity is indicated by the fact that, although she cannot walk, Monkey nevertheless has developed psychokinesis.

Although this is another classic of Soviet, and indeed SF cinema generally, I think it’s seriously flawed. Tarkovsky cut out most of the special effects sequences from the books on which Stalker and Solaris were based, in order to concentrate on the human characters. As a result, the film suffers from a lack of genuine, shown menace, and instead is verbose and actually rather boring. Also, the central character in the book is far nastier. In the final scene in the novel, he wilfully sacrifices his accomplice to one of the Zone’s traps, so that he can retrieve the central, alien object coveted by everyone venturing into the zone – a golden ball that grants wishes. This is a film, which in my view does need to be remade by a director like Ridley Scott.

7. Blade Runner.

Apart from its sheer immense style, and the beauty of some of the scenes, this is another film that attempts to explore human nature through the mirror of its artificial, bio-mechanical opposite. Although it’s told from Deckard’s perspective, in many ways he’s actually the villain. The Replicants he hunts are bio-engineered slaves, who have escaped their bondage and come to Earth in the hope of extending their extremely short, artificial lifespans. They can’t, but in the process grow and develop in psychological depth and as moral beings. To the point where they are morally superior to their human creators. The penultimate scene where Batty saves Deckard from falling shows that he has passed the Voight-Comp test, which judges a subject’s a humanity according to their empathy and desire to save a trapped, struggling animal. It also has one of the most quoted poems in SF cinema – I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’

8. They Live.

This alien invasion drama is also a sharp satire on modern, global capitalism. A homeless construction worker discovers that the world is secretly dominated and exploited by skeletal aliens, who are at the heart of global capitalism. While it’s a low-budget action piece, Carpenter has said in interviews that he intended to give it an extra element by using it to criticise contemporary politics and economics. In the film, humanity’s exploitation by the interplanetary corporate business elite and their human shills and partners is responsibility for mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness – all to boost profits. If you cut out the aliens, this is pretty much what the bankers and global corporate elite have done and are still doing today. And it’s got the classic line, ‘I’ve come to do two things: kick ass and chew gum. And I’m all out of gum.’

9. V For Vendetta

This is another film, which has been denounced by the author of the work on which it’s based, in this case the SF strip of the same name by Alan Moore, which first appeared in the British anthology comic, Warrior before being published by DC in their Vertigo imprint. The strip was very much a product of its time – Thatcher’s Britain, and the new Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The strip envisaged the emergence of a Fascist Britain following a nuclear war between the US and the Eastern bloc. Moore has said in interviews that the strip attempted to explore the moral ambiguities of violence, whether it can be justified against innocents as part of a wider campaign against an unjust system. He also wanted to make the point that many of the supporters of the Fascist regime could be considered otherwise good people, just as many otherwise decent Germans supported the horrific Nazi regime.

It’s a superhero movie, which does nevertheless accurately show the realities of life in a Fascist dictatorship – the mass internment of political prisoners, arbitrary censorship, and experimentation on those considered subhuman or ‘dysgenic’ – in the language of eugenics – by the authorities. It lacks the contemporary relevance of the original strip, as Margaret Thatcher and the Tories did have strong links to the far right. Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet, for example. The strip explored many of the issues thrown up by contemporary stories of corruption in the political, social and religious establishment, like paedophile clergy. Despite Moore’s rejection of the movie, it’s still a piece of genre, comic book cinema that does try to make an extremely serious point about Fascism and intolerance by placing it in modern, 21st century Britain.

10. Children of Men

Based on the book by P.D. James, and starring Clive Owen and Thandie Newton, this is another dystopian yarn. This time it takes a completely different view of the future and its perils from Soylent Green and Z.P.G. In this future, humanity has been afflicted with mass sterility. No children have been born for 18 years. Owen plays a policeman, charged with protecting an immigrant woman – Newton – who carries the only child to be conceived for over a decade. As a consequence of the sterility, society in volatile and unstable. Only Britain has a relatively stable system thanks to the establishment of a Fascist-style dictatorship.

Although fiction, James’ book nevertheless explores a genuine social issue. Globally, populations are falling, to the extent that some demographers have predicted a population crash sometime in the middle of this century. In Britain and much of Europe, they’re below population replacement level. This is particularly acute in Japan, and is one of the causes of that country’s massive investment in the development of robot workers. Much of the fall in birth rates is due simply to people limiting the number of children they have in order raise their quality of life. There is, however, the additional problem in that the sperm counts of western men is falling, to the point that during this century a significant number will be considered medically sterile. Children of Men is another dystopian work that is chillingly plausible.

It’s possible to go on, and add further works of serious SF cinema, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Zero Theorem and Gattaca, with its depiction of a stratified society ruled by the genetically enhanced. Now I have to say that I agree with Pegg that an awful lot of SF films since Star Wars has been escapist fantasy, and can see his point about some of it having an infantilising effect. This is by no means true of all of it, as I’ve attempted to show.

Even films like Star Wars that are pure, or mostly spectacle can be worth serious discussion and consideration, if they’re done well. For all its escapism, Star Wars was astonishing because it showed a detailed, convincingly realised series of alien worlds, machines and space craft. Moreover, the second movie – The Empire Strikes Back – did present Luke Skywalker with a genuine moral dilemma. His friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids have been captured and are being tortured by Vader and the imperials. Skywalker is faced with the choice of trying to help them, and in so doing losing his soul, or preserving his moral integrity by letting them suffer and die. His confrontation with Vader present him further with another, particularly acute moral dilemma. Vader reveals himself to be his father, and so if he kills him, he commits parricide, a particularly abhorrent crime. This also has literary antecedents. In one of the medieval Romances, the hero is faced with the revelation that the leader of the foreign army devastating his lord’s realm is his father, and so he is confronted with the terrible dilemma of having to kill him.

Now I don’t think that the potential of Science Fiction to explore mature issues and genuinely relevant problems has been fully explored in the cinema. One of the solutions to the problem is for fans of genre cinema to try and support the more intelligent SF movies that are released, such as Moon, which came out a few years ago. This would show producers and directors that there’s a ready audience for genuine, thought-provoking, intelligent SF as well as the gung-ho, action escapism.

Robin Ince and Alan Moore Explore the Hollow Earth

April 7, 2015

Next Saturday on Radio 4 at 10.30 am, the cult comics writer, Alan Moore will be one of the guests on Robin Ince’s show, Hollow Earth: A Travel Guide. The blurb for the programme states

Robin Ince explores the Hollow Earth theory, which suggests that a substantial interior space inhabited by all manner of creatures exists beneath the Earth’s crust. This idea has been around since ancient times. With the help of a classicist, a biblical scholar, a literary critic and graphic-novelist Alan Moore, Robin sets out to investigate this imagined world.

The Hollow Earth and subterranean worlds and civilisations have been a feature of SF for well over a century. Examples include Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, Jules Verne’s At the Earth’s Core, the subterranean civilisation of the Great Race in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar books. I remember these last from the Marvel adaptation that used to run as backing strip in Star Wars comic when I was at junior school. More recently, Stephen Baxter, the quantum physicist and SF novelist, wrote a series of novels about an underground people that reproduced asexually evolved from a lost Roman legion.

This won’t be the first time Moore has appeared on one of Ince’s programmes. He appeared with him on one of the other radio programmes hosted by Ince, discussing the nature of science. Moore is one of Britain’s best known comics creators, the author of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, so this should be quite interesting.

Secret Society: 1980s Documentary on British Culture of Political Secrecy

January 16, 2015

The government’s response to the terrible events in France last week, when gunmen murdered 12 people, including the staff of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and then held people hostage in a Jewish supermarket, has been to pass further legislation attacking basic civil rights. This legislation not only gives the security services further powers to monitor telephone and internet communications, it also provides for suspected returning terrorists to be denied entry to Britain. Terrorists and those convicted of ‘terrorist-related activity’ may also be subject to a form of ‘internal exile’, under which they can be removed from their homes and placed anywhere up to 200 miles away from their family and friends.

Dangers of the Government’s Anti-Terror Laws

There are provisions within the new legislation to regulate and protect the public, such as the creation of a human rights committee to oversee the law’s application and prevent abuse. Critics of the laws have pointed out that it is unclear how the proposed committee would operate, and who would sit on it.

This should be a cause for serious concerns, considering the way the government has already tried to cut down on our basic democratic freedoms, all under the pretext of protecting us from terrorism. The Tories and their Lib Dem lackeys have tried to pass legislation creating secret courts. These would try cases relating to national security in secrecy, excluding the press and the public. The accused and their lawyers would denied access to sensitive evidence, and would not know who their accusers are. This is a Kafkaesque travesty of justice, of the type the great Czech writer described in his novels The Castle and The Trial. It is an attack on the basic foundation of British justice since Magna Carta, that you may know who your accuser is, and the crime for which you have been charged. It is telling on this point that Cameron, when asked what Magna Carta was when he appeared on American television, didn’t know.

Official Secrecy, Workfare and ATOS

And then there is the culture of official secrecy, which still continues despite the Blair government’s publication of the Freedom of Information Act after the American model. The government has passed further legislation to weaken it. It has refused to publish the precise figures of the numbers of people dying after they were found fit for work by ATOS after requests by bloggers and disability rights campaigners, including Mike over at Vox Political. Johnny Void and others have described how the government has also refused to release the names of the firms signed up to the workfare scheme. The government’s excuse for this is the frank confession that the measure is so unpopular that if they do, the firms using unpaid workers under the scheme would be placed under such stress that they would be forced to withdraw and the scheme collapse.

Highly Placed Paedophiles and Murderers

The most sinister, odious and pernicious aspect of this culture of official secrecy has been the protection it has given to highly placed paedophiles, such as the Lib Dem politician, Cyril Smith. A dossier of 22 paedophile politicos has now been passed on to the police. Horrifically, three people may have been murdered by a paedophile ring of politicians using the Elm Tree guest house in the 1980s. A male prostitute, who went to these orgies claimed that the ring had been responsible for murders of two boys, one White and one Asian. A worker for Lambeth Council, Bulic, was also found dead a week after stating that he felt his life was in danger due to his knowledge of the ring and its activities. Leon Brittain, Thatcher’s secretary of state, was handed a dossier on such highly placed child molesters by Geoffrey Dickinson in the 1980s. Brittain claims that he passed them on to MI5, who misplaced them.

The obsession with official secrecy, in which successive governments have withheld information from the public, is responsible for serious miscarriages of justice and threatens to undermine basic political and civil freedoms. It has also allowed the vicious, sadistic and exploitative abusers of the young and helpless, such as Thatcher’s friend, the monstrous Jimmy Savile, to escape justice.

Duncan Campbell’s Documentary, Secret Society

Government secrecy was also a major issue of national importance and interest in the 1980s. One of the small, single issue parties that appeared in the 1987 general election was the ‘Deep Throat’ party. This was a group of five men, who refused to make any statements, and refused to show their faces as a protest against ‘excessive government secrecy’. More seriously, that same year the BBC broadcast the documentary Secret Society by Duncan Campbell. In the words of the blurb put up for it on Youtube on Edgar Lobb’s channel, this covered

‘secret groups, committees and societies that operate silently within British government. The first episode about secret cabinet committees features author Peter Hennessy, Clive Ponting and MP Clement Freud amongst others. In this freedom of information tour de force Campbell exposes the secret decision to buy U.S. Trident nuclear submarines as well as laying bare the cabinet level dirty tricks campaign against CND and its general secretary Bruce Kent. Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan, the British Atlantic Committee, The ultra-right Coalition for Peace Through Security and the cabinet secretary come in for sharp criticism for keeping key decisions secret from MP’s. The series consists of the following 6 programmes: 1. The Secret Constitution: Secret Cabinet Committees; 2. We’re All Data Now: Secret Data Banks; 3. In Time Of Crisis: Government Emergency Powers; 4. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO): making up their own law and policy; 5. A Gap In Our Defences – about bungling defence manufacturers and incompetent military planners who have botched every new radar system that Britain has installed since World War II; 6. Zircon – about GCHQ with particular reference to a secret 500 million satellite. Missing are last two (5 and 6) programmes. His support for this series was one of the key reasons BBC Director General, Alasdair Milne (who was replaced by Michael Checkland, an accountant) was sacked. This Journalistic Coup d’Etat was conducted by Lord Victor Rothschild, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Marmaduke Hussey in 1986. The BBC’s independence has been under sustained assault ever since. Secret Society was suppressed from high above since it was simply too controversial as it openly exposed various secret groups operating invisibly inside British government. They made damn sure no one would ever discover them but they were very wrong. Find out who they are and what are they doing without your knowledge.’

The Situation Today

Maggie’s Politicisation of the State

It’s a very interesting series, and still deeply relevant today. It shows how deeply ingrained the culture of secrecy is in Westminster. Conservative hacks on the Spectator, Daily Mail and elsewhere, like Quentin Letts, lined up to criticise Blair’s administration for politicising the civil service with the immense numbers of SPADs – special advisors – they took in to supplement and replace that of the civil servants, whose job this traditionally was. Yet this programme shows that it really began with Thatcher and her campaign against CND. It also shows how the Maggie’s government was prepared to lie and spread what was basically propaganda in order to support a pro-nuclear stance, as well as spy on and disrupt CND members, meetings and protests, quite apart from the use of government resources and civil servants for her own political campaign.

Official Sale of Personal Data

The episode ‘We’re All Data Now’ also remains relevant. It shows how official bodies were intent on spying on us, and governmental bodies were keen to sell our personal information to private companies right at the beginning of that trend. It’s grown immensely in the nearly thirty years since that programme was first broadcast, and is now, more than ever, a danger to our privacy and personal freedom. Especially as the Coalition believes it has a right to sell our personal medical history to private health companies. All in the interest of promoting greater efficiency and competition, of course.

It’s important here also to note that the weak legislation that was put in place to protect our personal details from government acquisition did not come from British politicians, but was forced on them by the Council of Europe. The Conservatives and Farage’s UKIP would like to scrap the current human rights legislation, because it has, they feel, been imposed on us by the European Community. It hasn’t. As Mike and others have shown, it comes from the Council of Europe. This episode, nevertheless, shows what we can expect if the Tories and UKIP go ahead with their plans. The present protection for personal information was only grudgingly conceded after pressure from the Europeans. With that removed, we can expect the wholesale scrapping of the current human rights legislation, and the further development of an authoritarian surveillance society, which regards its citizens’ personal details as just another product to be acquired and sold.

Nuclear War and the Britain of V for Vendetta

As for the discussion of the secret preparations for the establishment of American military authority in Britain, and the more or less complete dismantlement of democracy and its replacement with a military dictatorship, this is very much the kind of Britain that Alan Moore and John Lloyd portrayed in V for Vendetta. In the original Warrior comic strip, the Fascist British state had arisen after a nuclear war between the West and the Warsaw pact over the Solidarity crisis in Poland. It was a projection of the worst elements of the Thatcher administration, and followed from a general concern in British comics at the time with the renewed anti-immigrant campaigns of the National Front and the Monday Club within the Tory party. The Britain portrayed in V for Vendetta was not under American control. However, the provisions in the secret treaty with America providing for the establishment of secret courts, the mass conscription of labour, the imprisonment and internment of pacifists and political dissidents, and the creation of a dictatorship are very much like that of the dystopian Britain in the strip.

Anderton, ACPO and the Underground Press

As for ACPO, James Anderton was notorious at the time as the right-wing policeman, with a bitter hatred of homosexuals and other social deviants and misfits. A biography of him that appeared a few years ago bore the title, God’s Cop, after his statement that he believed he was doing ‘God’s work’. Manchester’s Picadilly Press, which published, among other literature, the highly transgressive Lord Horror, which cast Hitler, the Nazis and Lord Haw Haw in the style of characters from the fiction of William S. Burroughs, were raided regularly by Anderton. They took their revenge by sending him up in their comics and fiction.

Duncan Campbell remains very much active today, campaigning against the growing encroachment on our civil liberties of state surveillance. There are a number of videos of him speaking on this topic on Youtube, and he also has his own site on the web.

See Part 2 of this article for a description of the contents of individual episodes.

Mike on Yesterdays ‘Million Mask March’ against the Beeb

November 6, 2014

Mike over at Voxpoliticalonline has posted this piece on the ‘Million Mask’ demo against the Beeb’s continuing censorship and falsification of the news. It begins

‘Million Mask March’ leads to Broadcasting House lockdown

Now why do you think the BBC’s headquarters at New Broadcasting House were locked down while angry people in masks inspired by V for Vendetta protested outside?

Did BBC bosses feel that the accuracy of their reporting was a thorn in the side of the anonymous thousands outside, who had gathered to protest against austerity, mass surveillance, oppression and unconstitutional government? This is hardly likely, as they could not even get right the identity of the character the marchers were emulating.

The BBC’s news story was headlined Thousands take part in London ‘Guy Fawkes’ protest but the masks are in fact worn in imitation of V, the lead character in Alan Moore’s story about an anarchist who engineers the downfall of a fascist British government in a near-future England (the rest of the UK having been destroyed in a catastrophe). The march takes place on November 5 because that is when V starts his campaign (by blowing up the Houses of Parliament – hence the Guy Fawkes mask that he wears).

The article is at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2014/11/06/million-mask-march-leads-to-broadcasting-house-lockdown/

Now I have to say that while the Beeb may have put it on the news, I don’t recall seeing it in either Independent yesterday or today’s I, though it is up on the MSN news. I notice on the Beeb’s website it’s only under London news, thus hiding from the rest of the country the fact that people are marching against Britain’s state-owned, national broadcaster. Clearly, this is all a bit too politically embarrassing for the authorities.

As for their failure to connect it with the film, ‘V for Vendetta’ or its comic book predecessor, you can see that as an example of how disconnected and out of touch the Beeb’s news team is with popular culture. Or, alternatively, the Beeb really is afraid of making an explicit connection to the Alan Moore’s cult creation, in the fear that it will resonate with even more of the disaffected masses let down by a corrupt television media serving a Fascistic state.

Resign, Tyrant, Said the Type-Type Man

September 23, 2014

Harlan Ellison on being spied on by Big Brother in Reagan’s 1984 America

Okay, so I’ve been away from blogging for a few months now. I’ve been working on a book. It’s my doctoral thesis on the origins and growth of the town of Bridgwater in Somerset from prehistory to 1700. It’s now with the publishers, and hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before it comes out. I’ve also been taken up and somewhat distracted by a few other projects. Nevertheless, I hope to get back to blogging regularly.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of the sheer size and scale of the American intelligence agencies’ surveillance of their citizens, and British complicity with it, has raised questions about the gradual diminution of personal freedom and the transformation of our societies into Orwellian surveillance states. This is just part of process that has been going on for a very long time, since the 1980s. Alan Moore, the veteran comics writer and co-creator of the V for Vendetta comic strip with the artist David Lloyd, stated has stated in interviews how amazed he is by the complete acceptance of CCTV cameras on Britain’s streets. When he included them in the strip as a visible sign of the totalitarian Fascist state in which the strip was set, he was absolutely sure it would terrify everyone to the point where they simply wouldn’t accept them. Now, as he remarked, they’re everywhere. Niall Ferguson, the right-wing historian and columnist, has also made the same point. He remarked in an interview on how he first noticed them after he came back from a visit to China. He too felt that they were a threat to individual liberty, and could not understand why no-one else was alarmed by them or saw them this way.

This concerns have become more acute with the Tory and Lib Dem decision to establish secret courts, functioning as a Kafkaesque travesty of justice. In these courts, people will be able to be tried without knowing the evidence against them, nor who their accuser is. All for reasons of ‘national security’. It’s frighteningly like the corrupt and murderous judicial system of the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s legal code. In addition to the laws, which were made known to the Iraqi public, there were also six pieces of legislation which were kept secret. Very secret. They were so secret that even knowledge of these laws was a crime that could land you in prison or worse. For all their claims to be the defenders of personal freedom, with the establishment of these secret courts the Coalition is laying the foundations of the kind of totalitarian state described by Kafka and Moore, only in 21st century Britain. And the surveillance of citizens by the Western intelligence agencies, for merely having political views the authorities considered dangerous or subversive, goes back even further.

Looking through Youtube, I found this interview with Harlan Ellison, the veteran SF author and screenwriter, from 1984. It’s part of a discussion about the relevance of Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name in contemporary America. When asked about this, Ellison states that he thinks it’s extremely relevant, because he’s lived through it in Reagan’s America. He described how, shortly after Reagan became governor of California, he began to hear clicks and noises on his telephone, suggesting that it was being tapped. He dismissed the idea, until he went out to empty his wastepaper basket in the trash one morning, and discovered an engineer for the telephone company outside, connected to the wire leading into his house. Checking with people he knew, who were in a position to know, he found out that it was indeed true, and his phone was indeed being tapped.

Ellison made sure, however, he had his revenge. Knowing that whatever he said on the phone would be written down and filed, he made sure that his phone conversations included some interesting and highly derogatory comments about the then leader of the free world and star of Bedtime for Bonzo, whose title character was a chimpanzee, and arguably the better actor. For example, the great author would remark that Reagan beat his mother and did not confine his romantic interests to those with the two legs, but also those with four, a wagging tail and wet nose. Here’s the interview:

It’s not hard to see why Reagan and his cohorts should view Ellison as a potential subversive. He’s an outspoken atheist and a card-carrying liberal. This was in sharp contrast to Reagan’s administration, which was strongly based on the American religious Right. Ellison had been a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement. On one of his own videos on Youtube, he discusses his participation on the Civil Rights March on Selma with Martin Luther King. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was hostile and deeply suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, which they suspected was a Communist initiative. So Ellison’s participation in that would have been enough to arouse the authorities’ interest and suspicions in him. In addition to writing some of the most outstanding episodes of the original Star Trek series, such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, Ellison was one of the major figures in the SF New Wave, whose other leading writers included Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds in Britain. This was markedly countercultural, and attacked contemporary literary and social conventions. In one of Ellison’s best known short stories, Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man, for example, the hero is a lone, vigilante prankster. The story is set in a dystopian society in which time is rigidly controlled, the Tick-Tock Men of the title making sure that everyone perform their allotted tasks rigorously according to the time table. The hero, Harlequin, tries to subvert this by performing practical jokes deliberately intended to upset the time table, and the rigid social order that it supports. These include releasing a torrent of jelly beans all over people as they go to work in the morning. Ellison himself declared of the SF writers in the New Wave that ‘these guys is blasphemous!’ In Britain too the movement caused outcry, and questions were raised in the Houses of Parliament about Moorcock’s New Worlds. There was concern about the allegedly obscene nature of Norman Spinrad’s story, ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’, which was then being serialised in the magazine.

Eventually, Ellison says, the clicking noises simply faded away and the authorities presumably lost interest. This was probably when they realised that, no matter how objectionable they found his politics, one of SF’s greatest writers was not actually planning to overthrow the government of the US, invade Guatemala, or even deluge the sidewalk with a tide of jelly beans. They may even have agreed with his comments about Ronald Reagan. It does, however, show that under Reagan, prominent intellectuals that didn’t share the president’s highly reactionary and paranoid views could be spied upon, simply for having those views, regardless of whether they were innocent of any crime. And as Snowden’s revelations showed, the surveillance state has expanded massively since then.

We do need the security and intelligence services. According to today’s I, Isis, the Islamist terrorist organisation Iraq and Syria, has called on its supporters to attack and kill citizens of the US, Britain, France and the other coalition countries. The work of the various intelligence agencies and their surveillance is necessary to stop ISIS and other terrorist organisations from carrying out their threats. But individual freedom – freedom of conscience, speech and publication also needs to be preserved. These are also under threat from the Right, though legislation like the Coalition’s secret courts. They need to be strongly rejected, and proper safeguards against further encroachment on our civil liberties put in place. The answer to the old question ‘Who watches the watchers’ has always been: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

Resisting the Tories War on the Poor: Bring Back the Underground and Alternative Comics

December 24, 2013

As I’ve written in previous blog, one of the problems facing Left-wing opponents of the Coalition and its vile policies is how to get the message across, when the media are nearly all biased towards the Conservatives. One possibility may be to use comics and graphic novels, following the examples of the great underground and alternative comics that first appeared in the 1960s and ’70s, before expanding and changing, along with the rest of the comics world in the ’80s and ’90s. Two of the most famous examples of comics creators using the medium to make extremely serious political points were Brought to Light and Aargh in the 1980s. These were a response to atrocities committed by CIA-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the Thatcher government’s attempt to pass the now notorious Clause 28 respectively. This last piece of legislation was intended to prevent schools promoting homosexuality. Gays and libertarians were outraged by what they saw as the official promotion of homophobia, and feared that it would be followed by even more punitive legislation directed at gays themselves. Since Mrs Thatcher’s death, there has been some attempt to rehabilitate her regarding her attitude towards homosexuality. It’s been rightly observed that she did not personally hate gays, and that an attraction to one’s own sex was no obstacle to serving in her cabinet. Thatcher’s economic model was, however, Chile under the Fascist dictator General Pinochet, who was a personal friend of hers. At a time when homosexuality was far less tolerated than at present, there was a real fear that Thatcher would not only import Pinochet’s monetarism, but also follow him in destroying personal and political freedoms over here. Under the Right-wing totalitarianism Thatcher seemed ready to establish, gays would also be brutalised and persecuted, as well as other social and political groups the government deemed offensive or a threat. This was the background to the Fascist dystopia depicted in Moore’s and Lloyd’s comic strip and graphic novel, V for Vendetta.

Moore also contributed to Brought to Light, writing the strip ‘Shadowplay’, illustrated by the American comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. ‘Shadowplay’ is a bitterly funny history of the way the CIA had backed Right-wing dictators and conspired to overthrow left-wing regimes, as well as engage in other, illegal and extremely unethical tactics across the world, as told in a sleazy bar by a cynical American eagle. It’s an example of the way comics, in the hands of good writers and artists, can be used to make deadly serious political points based on fact in a manner that it is entertaining as well as informative.

Shadowplay art

Art from ‘Shadowplay’ from Brought to Light, written by Alan Moore with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, showing the caricature-based artistic style used to make their point about the CIA infamous legacy of atrocity and human rights abuses.

Moore also contributed to Aargh!. This was a collection of strips, whose title was an acronym supposedly standing for ‘Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia’. Although it was a British response to Thatcher’s Clause 28, it followed a line of American underground gay comics from the 1970s, such as Harold Hedd, Barefootz and the lesbian comic, Dynamite Damsels, culminating in the anthology, Gay Comix, published by Kitchen Sink.

Aargh1

Page from Aargh!

The underground comics were largely a product of the 1960s Hippy counterculture, and much of their contents were based around drugs and sex. This is shown very much in the work of the best known of the underground comics creators, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a comic about the weird adventures of a group of hippy drug freaks. In the 1970s a number of explicitly political underground comics appeared, including Slow Death Funnies, Edu-Comics and Anarchy Comics. Slow Death produced a number of issues, each devoted to a particular topic, such as the medical-industrial complex, nuclear power, the campaign against the Vietnam War and Greenpeace. As well as satirical strips, they also included facts and figures. Edu-Comics also produced a number of individual comics devoted to particular issues, such as All-Atomic Comics (1976) and Energy Comics (1980), which attacked the nuclear power industry.

Atomic Comics

Pages from All-Atomic Comics showing the mixture of satirical strip and factual contents.

Britain also had a number of political underground comics, such as the Optimist and Committed Comics. The Optimist appeared in 1976, and featured strips that discussed squatting, the dole, abortion and hypothermia amongst British pensioners.

Optimist

Cover from The Optimist.

Committed Comix, for its part, had strips discussing Northern Ireland, gay rights and the rise of the National Front.

Back to the Thirties

Back to the Thirties strip from Committed Comix, warning of the rise of the extreme Right-wing National Front.

These underground comics helped create a tradition of highly political comics that continued well into the 1990s, with titles such as Downside. This was a soap opera set in Thatcher’s Britain, which strongly criticised her government and its policies, and which ironically used quotes from her for each issue’s titles.

Downside Thatcher

Other comics in the 1980s devoted to particular contemporary issues include Strip AIDS, El Salvador: A House Divided and Palestine. Alan Moore also produced another political comic in consultation with an American conscientious objectors’ group, Real War Stories. This was intended to promote its anti-War message through presenting the reality of armed conflict, based on the experiences of real soldiers.

Apart from these Underground and alternative comics, mainstream comics also became far more adult with an increasing demand from their readers for them to include more mature themes and issues. One issue of Daredevil attempted to show the horrific effects of drugs on American schoolchildren, while another superhero comic, The Vigilante, dealt with child abuse. In Britain a range of comics were produced by Fleetway, aimed at readers over the age of 16. These included Crisis, and its strip, ‘Third World War’. This was about a pair of teenagers drafted in to serve the multinational food corporations as they exploited the Developing World.

Crisis Cover

Cover of Crisis.

Most of these new, adult strips didn’t last very long. The new emphasis on gritty realism and politics did not attract the younger readers, on whom the industry traditionally depended, and the comics industry in general suffered a massive collapse after the initial boom of the 1990s. Nevertheless, despite this decline, 2000 AD has survived. Many of its strips, including Judge Dredd, were sharply satirical. As the millennium approached, for example, the comic decided to celebrate the approaching year of its title with a satirical strip harking back to Mach 1, one of the very strips in the new comic. Mach 1 was based very much on the Six Million Dollar Man. Instead of bionics, however, Mach 1 owed his massively increased strength and speed to ‘compu-puncture hyperpower’. To help him control it, Mach 1 had a special computer implanted in his head which gave him advice. 2000 AD took this early strip, and reworked it into a strip satirising Tony Blair, the then current prime minister. He appeared as Blair 1, with his inbuilt computer advisor, Dr Spin. Two of the problems facing the fictional PM was how to support single mothers, as well as what should be done about the abandoned mines left through the closure of the mining industry by Major’s regime. Dr Spin’s advice is to solve these problems by combining them, so that the single mothers are then sent down the mines. A long line of them appear in characteristic miner’s gear, singing ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go! We work all day for rubbish pay, thank you, Tonio!’ Other politicians skewered by the strip also included Chris Patten and Anne Widdicombe.

The 1980s also saw the appearance of Diceman, a comic in which the individual strips were adventure games that could be played by the reader, and whose narrative and ending depended on the choice they made as they progressed through the game. It was the graphic successor not only to similar, text-based games like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, but also to the various ‘Have Your Own … Adventure’ books aimed at younger readers, which used comic strips as the format for similar adventure games. Diceman was a spin-off from 2000 AD, and many of the games were based on its strips and characters, including Slaine and Nemesis the Warlock. It also shared the satirical slant of its parent, and several of its games attacked the leaders of the British and American governments. Thus, Diceman ran the strips Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game, and one in which the reader played Ronald Reagan. This was illustrated by that veteran of underground comics and political subversion, Hunt Emerson. These were humorous in tone. One of the problems presented to the reader in the Reagan strip is that, as the present, your popularity is falling. The way to regain popularity is to launch an investigation into your own family tree, in the hope that a suitably popular and glamorous ancestral link can be found. The reader thus spun the dice to decide, who the investigation would say Reagan was related to. The highest numbers produced the most popular relatives, who duly boosted your score as Ronald Reagan. The most popular of these was the Queen, followed by ‘a lot of Irishmen’. The lowest score, however, made you related to Bonzo, Reagan’s chimpanzee fellow star from his film, Bedtime for Bonzo. The strip also made extremely serious and alarming factual points, such as when it discussed some of the occasions in which mistakes and malfunctions had left the world a millimetre away from nuclear war. One of these, for example, was when a technician accidentally dropped a spanner down the shaft of a nuclear silo.

A number of alternative comics have also appeared in Britain, which also include a strongly political element. These include Pete Loveday’s Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man, whose hero is a hippy going from one weird experience to another. Like the Underground comics before it, much of the humour in this centres around the alternative culture and the various festivals that had appeared by the ’90s, and drugs. It also showed and satirised the demoralising experience of job hunting, government cuts to unemployment benefit at the Job Centre, and the callous attitude of hospital administrators, eager to get people out of their hospital beds as quickly as possible in order to accommodate the next person in the queue.

Russel Job Hunting

The reality of looking for a job, as depicted in Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man.

Russel DofE

Russell finds that Unemployment Benefits are being replaced by payment in kind. From Russell: Part 2.

Russel Hospital Admin

Apart from the political comics themselves, many contemporary British comics artists and writers entered the field through the Underground comics, including Brian Bolland, Angus McKie, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Hunt Emerson and Steve Bell, known for his political cartoons in the Guardian and the Indepedent, like Maggie’s Farm. There are also a large number of younger comics artists and writers out there in the wider fan culture, many of whom have got around problems of finding a commercial publisher by publishing their work themselves. Comics are also no longer confined to print and hardcopy. A few artists have taken to the web to publish their work. There is thus a large pool of talent available to create such comics, and the developments in comics publishing over the last couple of decades means that a political comic attacking the governments’ welfare policies could be published independently, or on-line and so get around the problem of finding a commercial publisher that way. Graphic novels have established comics as a medium in which serious issues can be discussed, and the growth of comics and their readership has meant that Waterstone’s now has a section devoted to comics and graphic novels. I also believe that Forbidden Planet would also be willing to stock such a comic. As well as conventional, mainstream comics like Batman, Superman, Spiderman and so on, Forbidden Planet has also stocked the independent, alternative and underground comics, including some of the very political work published by Knockabout. It might even be worth some of the comics companies republishing some of the old satirical strips. Margaret Thatcher has passed away, but her shadow still looms large over the British political landscape, with politicians on both the Right and the Left presenting themselves as her political heir and successor. It would thus be a timely reminder of how much suffering she caused in her day. And some of the issues discussed in the British undergrounds are still all too relevant. The references in The Optimist to pensioners suffering from hypothermia is, tragically, one of these. There was shock a few months ago when it was revealed just how many tens of thousands of senior citizens had died of the cold the previous winter.

Rather than a comic, published in serial instalments, I think the best way of using the comic strip to satirise and attack the government would be a graphic novel, or anthology, dedicated to the issue of poverty and the Coalition’s war on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled, like Brought to Light, Aargh! and the others in the 1980s and 1990s. The harshness of the government’s policies and the immense suffering they have created, such as the very many disabled people, who have committed suicide after being found fit for work by ATOS, surely warrant a similar treatment to the issues graphic novels explored and publicised in those decades. I am not saying that such a graphic novel or comic would be sufficiently influential to persuade the public to vote Cameron, Clegg and the others out. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and one of the creators of British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, was once asked on Radio 4 whether he thought satire could change anything. He answered, ‘No’, and pointing out that no matter how viciously Spitting Image caricatured and attacked Mrs Thatcher and her government, people still kept voting for her. Nevertheless, if told with wit and style, such a graphic novel or comic might still reach and affect some people, who would otherwise find politics boring and help change the minds of those, who would otherwise quietly accept the Right-wing media’s misleading reporting and views of these issues. If even some people change their mind as a result, or are encouraged to vote against the government or become politically active against their policies, then such a graphic novel or comic will have succeeded.

A political comic attacking the government and its welfare policies would doubtless be extremely controversial. This is nothing new. The underground comics were notoriously controversial, and in the 1970s were the subjects of a series of obscenity cases in America that decimated the underground scene. Their counterparts over this side of the pond were similarly attacked. I remember that back in the ’70s and ’80s Knockabout always seemed to be raided by the police. Martin Barker in his book, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics, has also pointed out how mainstream children’s comics have also been the frequent target of official disapproval. Many of these were on the grounds that they were cheap rubbish that kept children away from reading proper literature, or that they indoctrinated their younger readers with the wrong values, either from the subversive Left or capitalist right. Barker wrote the book while Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, and popular literature, particularly comics, was coming under increasing attack. In the postscript to the book Barker makes a passionate defence of comics in the face of growing demands for censorship. Although comics and graphic novels are now better accepted than they were in the 1980s, his comments are still relevant today.

‘In this book I have worked hard at being the analyst. Assessing and weighing, investigating and evaluating. Not above a bit of anger when I find bad theory and empirical misrepresentation, but basically cool. Perhaps every now and then a bit of laughter or passion when something I really love comes up before my eyes, but most of the time outside it all. This is, of course, not true at all. I live in this damned country at this damned time and comics are part of my and my children’s lives. And I now say passionately: let us have as many of the things as we possibly can. In the face of the capital-calculating machine called Thatcherism which used morality like murderers use shotguns, all the little things like comics matter. Little by little, the cohorts of the ‘competitive-minded’ seek to shut down, enclose, militarise our imaginations. Comics prise open the bars just a little. Dreaming, eh? Give that chap a ‘short, sharp shock’! I am quite willing to say passionately: all those in whom humanity remains prized about the ‘laws of the market’ have no business (you own none, you have none) helping to block the dreaming that people manage to do. Imagination, fantasy, call it what-you-will, is not some fixed drum which, filled with the wrong stuff, will then be unavailable for other purposes. For heaven’s sake, let us have dreamers; or we will have hell. My defence of the comics is, to me, in the end a defence of the right to imagine.’ (p. 301). He then proceeds to attack comics’ left-wing critics for their censorship, which they share with Thatcher.

Comics and graphic novels have a long tradition of highlighting social and political problems, and satirising and attacking repressive governments and exploitative organisations and corporations. This tradition provides a fertile ground for attacking the present, repressive, exploitative government, and I’m sure there are plenty of talented and enthusiastic young comics writers and artists willing to do this. Such a graphic novel may not be successful, but it would be worth trying, and might, just might, help change a few minds.

On the subject of the way comics in the 1980s began to tackle serious, adult issues, here is an edition of the 1980s documentary series, Signals from 1989, I found on youtube. Entitled ‘The Day Comics Grew Up’, it features interviews with Alan Moore, Archie Goodwin, John Byrne, Tom Veitch and Jim Baikie, amongst other writers and artists, talking about their work and the demand for comics to include such mature, serious subjects.

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Sources

Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1989).

Pete Loveday, Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man (London: John Brown Publishing 1991).

Pete Loveday, Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man, Part 2 (London: John Brown Publishing 1993).

Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (London: Phaidon 1996).