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Humanity’s true face

Foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead argues that everyone should read science-fiction (or perhaps more accurately, speculative fiction), not because it has the best prose, plots or characters, but because it gives us a chance to see outside of our usual frames of reference, and possibly encounter humanity in a new light.

Taken as a whole, the field of science fiction today is where most of the most interesting thought about human society can be found.  At a time when many academics have become almost willfully obscure, political science is increasingly dominated by arcane and uninspiring theories and in which a fog of political correctness makes some forms of (badly needed) debate and exploration off limits, science fiction has stepped forward to fill the gap.

— Mead, Walter Russell. “Literary Saturday: Science Fiction is a Genre That Everyone Should Read.” Via Meadia/The American Interest, 18 September 2010.

I’m sympathetic to Mr. Mead’s argument on several levels: as a former science-fiction reader who once thoroughly enjoyed the genre; as one who mines the currents of history for patterns that might be applicable today; and as one who holds Mead’s intellect in some esteem. I’m not sure any of these things can overpower the catalyst that drove me away from science fiction, which is a tendency to explore new frontiers of the human condition in exactly the same way.

I refer not to similar plots, characters or superficial elements, but the underlying theme, which usually—when boiled down to its simplest elements—is a novel-length Facebook status update from the author, saying in essence “Wouldn’t it be great if human nature were no longer a limiting factor, and we could dispense with x, which bugs the crap out of me?”

Sure, it would be great. And if your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle.

Why I find much science-fiction/speculative fiction hard to take is that if one has a decent knowledge of history, religion and anthropology, one will understand that humanity actually has hard-coded limits that will be nigh-impossible to transcend. Or more accurately, that our superficial layer of cultural software can be changed relatively easily, but most of what plagues us as a species is the result of our neurological firmware, which has evolved into its present condition over millennia and will take literal millennia to add any new lines of code.

Let us take, for example, emotion. Every human being is going to (at some point) feel love, hate, joy, sadness, anger, relief, pride, shame, et cetera. Much of the time we can decide whether or not we want to embrace or suppress specific feelings in a specific instant, but we don’t have any control over whether emotion itself occurs at all, and sometimes strongly-felt emotion can override our reason. Our collective evolutionary, genetic and neurological heritage thus dictates that the emotion switch is stuck in the “on” position for all of us, with an occasional involuntary “override” capability. On a macro level this means humanity is subject to irrationality, and will be until evolutionary pressures millions of years down the road might decide that we must evolve a “cutoff” capability. Any human civilisation where we still resemble actual homo sapiens is going to have a certain amount of irrationality and illogic built-in by default.

Lots of the firmware that creates annoying problems has a perfectly good, reasonable role. Like all manner of flora and fauna we discriminate (in the objective—not perjorative—sense). The human brain is a generalization machine; it looks for patterns inductively and deductively. It has evolved this mechanism in its firmware to help all humans adapt to our various physical and social environments; it is not merely an inculculated software artefact of one specific culture. Operating at a certain baseline level the ability to identify a pattern, associate it with a predicted outcome, and act to achieve our desired outcome is good. That ability keeps us from eating food that has gone bad, from touching red-hot objects, and so on. But as everyone knows we can easily run into problems by over-utilising this necessary survival skill (or by providing lousy inputs).

An individual can modify his or her software generalisations, if they are self-aware enough to a) know that they are happening and 2) they desire to either embrace or reject the conclusions. What is completely beyond the individual’s control is the firmware, the part of the brain subconsciously assimilating data and making generalisations, every moment of every day. We can and should pass laws to prevent certain kinds of discrimination in public life and commerce, but we can never hope to eliminate the firmware in the brain that inductively and deductively arrives at generalisation-hypotheses. It’s used in too many facets of human (and animal) existence. Ergo prejudice of one kind or another will always be with us, as a species (even if culturally, we conquer the usual racial / gender / orientation kind).

History and religion become useful wells to draw upon because they show us that man’s inner struggle hasn’t changed much over the past few thousand years. We may have newer gear—spacecraft and computers—but in the end we are governed by the same evolutionary programming handed down from our ancestors eons ago. We wonder at the vastness of the cosmos and our small place in it. We wonder how we might best fulfill our potential in a world where the outcomes are uncertain and the stakes so high. Sometimes that striving takes us into conflict with others who have the same (or a different) goal. How we decide on and pursue that goal depends on our cultural software, but our evolutionary firmware is the why. Nobody arrives on the planet and wants to sit still and do absolutely nothing until the day they pass on.

Background knowledge of history will also tell you what utopian experiments have already been tried and found wanting. (Hint: it’s all of them.) The great failing—if not defining feature—of utopian projects of all eras is that they generally try to paper over mankind’s firmware with less-sturdy cultural software. This might last for three or four generations at best, but ultimately our firmware will reassert itself.

Regrettably, when one reads science-fiction that tries to get around humanity’s firmware limitations, the authors tend to run for all-out transhumanism (whereby humanity’s limiting factors are solved by experimentation, genetic and biological manipulation, et cetera).  But because the author’s also writing the story for humans today—who generally don’t want to read about persons and things they cannot relate to—you get post-humans who are either 1) a little bit too human, which kind of nukes the premise of the story, or 2) are sufficiently un-human to the point of being uninteresting to the human being who has to slog through the story in the here and now.  It’s a hard, virtually impossible balance to strike, and as a result I find myself reaching for histories rather than science/speculative fiction.

And let’s not even get into the facepalm territory of why some authors give spacefaring civilisations with faster-than-light drives ultra-low-tech bullets and projectile weapons.  Tomorrow’s Earth-bound fighters and gunships already have planned directed-energy weapon upgrades.  And we’ll have those operationally deployed before the first manned interplanetary spacecraft sets out for Mars.

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Low key pioneer: a review of West with the Night

A review of West with the Night by Beryl Markham
293 pages.  North Point Press, 1983.

I was motivated to read this book based on its prominence (within the top ten) on National Geographic Adventure‘s “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time” list.  My anticipation was further heightened by an endorsement on the back of the book from one Ernest Hemingway, himself no slouch in the writing department:

I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.

After that kind of build-up, it would be easy to disappoint; but Hemingway is not exaggerating.

Beryl Markham

West with the Night is concisely written and edited; it will evoke the sights, sounds and emotions of bygone days with exquisite and almost effortless efficiency.  The prose is not sparse, but there is not a wasted word in the whole volume.  Its series of chronologically-ordered vignettes recount Markham’s childhood and adult experiences in what was British East Africa of the early 20th century, and they are all rather captivating.  These accounts are bookended by more contemporary events in her flying career, although the aviation-related portions are written with the layman in mind and a minimum of technical jargon.  Here is a taste of the prose:

[Woody] was flying a German Klemm monoplane equipped with a ninety-five horsepower British Pobjoy motor.  If this combination had any virtue in such vast and unpredictable country, it was that the extraordinary wingspan of the plane allowed for long gliding range and slow landing speed.

Swiftness, distance, and the ability to withstand rough weather were, none of them, merits of the Klemm.  Neither the plane nor the engine it carried was designed for more than casual flying over well-inhabited, carefully charted country, and its use by East African Airways for both transport messenger service seemed to us in Kenya, who flew for a living, to indicate a somewhat reckless persistence in the pioneer tradition.

— Markham, Beryl.  “The Stamp of Wilderness.” West with the Night.  New York: North Point Press, 2001.  p. 35.

Like her contemporary Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (who wrote the much more famous novel Out of Africa), Markham’s personal life had its share of marital disappointment and ill-fated affairs.  But more remarkably, not a word of this makes it into print; the focus is squarely on capital-A adventures and exceptional events.  Markham spares no narrative room for the angst-ridden worries of the heart, not even to let us know she got married a couple of times.  All very understandable, as her life was exciting enough and there was no need to mine her romantic life for additional drama.

There are other useful comparisons between the two books, as well.  Out of Africa reflects an adult European’s concern with bringing agricultural and social order to Africa’s wilderness, and paradoxically having that very wildness and freedom tame the European.  West with the Night is a much more interesting tale of growing up African, possessing that sense of limitless freedom from the very start.  Karen von Blixen is often held up as a bit of a feminist icon, but to these eyes she seems to spend more time struggling than achieving.  Beryl Markham, on the other hand, easily gains access to male-dominated roles both in the native and European realms.  She acts with easy confidence and never agonises over her choices nor the demanding situations that sometimes result.  Markham’s winning attitude and technical competence (whether in horse training or pilotage) seem to have won her de facto equality amongst her male peers; unlike von Blixen, it is a thing already attained, not some future status to strive for.

Markham's aircraft after crash-landing

For gentlemen, this is part and parcel of its charm; West with the Night is Out of Africa for men.  Instead of being filled with the latter’s agricultural drudgery and melancholy tone, Markham’s tale is hopeful and confident, featuring adventures with native villagers, wild predators, and superior airmanship.  It does turn reflective and melancholy at times, but it is not a defining feature of the story.

I will relate one personal anecdote which ought to underscore my appreciation for this work:  I had initially obtained a copy via the public library, and long before the pages on the final chapters had been turned, I had resolved to purchase it.

Recommendation: Buy

NOTE: I’ve borrowed Bob Tarantino‘s Buy/Borrow/Avoid rating system, and I should take a moment to explain my rendition of it.

Buys are well-crafted and arresting books which I judge to have enduring usefulness as works of reference, or lasting appeal upon re-reading.  I would consider keeping these on my bookshelf for at least a decade, if not more.

Borrows are engaging books which can not sustain interest in successive readings, or will otherwise not survive a ten-year span on my bookshelf.  This may be due to choice of subject matter, or a narrowly contemporary topicality soon overtaken by events, and so on.

Avoids are books whose authors or publishers fail in their primary purpose, to produce a well-crafted, appealing work of literature.

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The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time

Find the Way, originally uploaded by JoMiD.

In May of 2004, National Geographic Adventure magazine did the world a great service by creating a list of the most compelling adventure books ever published by man.

It might seem an impossible task to rank 100 great, but very diverse, books in terms of fine gradations of greatness. Yet anyone can tell you why they prefer one book over another. And that’s what our panelists did. We asked them to assign a number of points to each book, taking several factors into account: the book’s pure literary merit; its “adrenaline factor,” or the level of excitement they felt reading it; and its impact on our history and culture. When we tallied the scores, we found the books that rose to the top were those that succeed on more than one front: great writing about great deeds.

Looking over the list, I see that I have read perhaps a half-dozen of the hundred, which is its own sort of special blessing.  For this means that my enjoyment of literature must now undergo a Renaissance.  If I were to complete one of these books every month, the supply is vast enough that I should still have an eight year supply of non-fiction adventure books to read.  And that is something worth rejoicing over.

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General Hillier on the future of NATO

NATO had yet to articulate a clear strategy for what it was doing in Afghanistan.  It failed to operate as one cohesive block in dealing with Pakistan, greatly diminishing its ability to affect what happens in that country—which, by the way, affects everything in Afghanistan.  In short, Afghanistan has revealed that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse, decomposing, and somebody’s going to have to perform a Frankenstein-like life-giving act by breathing some lifesaving air through those rotten lips into those putrescent lungs, or the alliance will be done. Any major setback in Afghanistan will see it off to the cleaners, and unless the alliance can snatch victory out of feeble efforts, it’s not going to be long in existence in its present form.  As Dr. Barney Rubin, an internationally renowned expert on Afghanistan, said, “NATO is condemned to success in Afghanistan.  Anything else will be the end of the alliance.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF]. A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 477. [Emphasis mine]

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Turning the Titanic

hillierA few days ago my wife spotted A Soldier First—the autobiography of General Rick Hillier, CMM, MSC, CD—at the library, and brought it home for me.  It is an engaging read and the prose style is fairly casual, much like the general speaks.  I am told National Post journalist and reservist Chris Wattie lent some assistance, but in the main, the written flow of Hillier’s thoughts is uncannily like that of his actual public speaking style.

The most illuminating aspects of the book are not necessarily those that deal with ISAF in Afghanistan and the general’s well-known career as Chief of the Defence Staff; I found the descriptions of the institutional culture of the Canadian Forces to be highly illuminating.  I had always thought that careerism and the survival mentality were gradually inculcated as one aged, advanced in rank, and became reluctant to risk the gains of one’s life work; in fact it turns out that the CF was more or less deliberately creating that mindset at the junior officer level.

In the summer of 1976, when Hillier was going through Phase 4 of his Armoured Officer training, the CF had created a manpower SNAFU:  it had several times as many armoured officer candidates as the Armoured Corps required.  So the Army set out with brutal efficiency to whittle down its overflowing cup and eliminate, as fast as possible, as many surplus bodies as it could.

So that summer became an exercise in survival.  In fact, it was a slaughterhouse: out of the sixty-five who started the course, only twenty-eight graduated at the end of the summer.  The rest failed…

…Some pretty good people went out the door that summer, and the experience left an overwhelming impression in the minds of everybody who was on that course that this was just not the way to do business.  It says something about the state of the leadership of the military and the incredibly poor training process at the time that we lost so many good young men.  It was appalling.

We spent the first week of the course in garrison, taking classes, refreshing skills from previous courses, and then deployed to the training area, or “into the field,” for the practical-training part of the course.  The instructors began weeding people out right away.  By the time that first week was over, some of the men were already on formal warning of shortcomings because their inspections weren’t good enough or they had not received a high enough mark on one of their tests.  If you got three warnings from the course staff, you were out.  By the time we got out into the field to actually start learning how to command our vehicles and a later troop of tanks, some guys were already more than halfway out the door.

By the end of that week, we knew what was happening and became very cynical about it…

The experience shaped, in a dramatic way, my approach to leadership.  I believe in doing things almost the exact opposite of what we encountered that summer—respecting individuals, bringing them along, training and developing them, occasionally jacking them up but always on a path to make as many as possible the leaders we needed.  Instead, the CF, and specifically the army, treated great young men deplorably, created a culture of survival, and as a consequence, lost many of the very good ones.  Every day that summer we all worried that we would be the next to go.

…The course staff even started a bit of a competition among themselves to see who could fail the most students.  I failed my share of tests but was never on warning and so wasn’t concerned that I was going to be kicked out, but we were so gun-shy about the way things were being run and had so little faith in our instructors that we didn’t believe a thing they said.

The situation was so bad that Hillier did not believe his instructors when, during a training exercise,  they told him that his wife was in the hospital for an emergency operation.  The instructor offered to release him from his training that day so that he could go be with his wife, but young Hillier thought they were probing for a weakness or looking for a way to sabotage his resolve and fail him out of the course.  He carried on with his training task, and was surprised to learn that his wife’s hospital trip was genuine.  He did not trust his instructors to tell him the truth.  The CF later formed an inquiry and examined the running of the Phase 4 course, with disappointingly predictable results.

Toward the end of that summer there was an inquiry into how the course was handled.  Colonel Nicholson, the Combat Training Centre commandant, stood up at the mess dinner at the end of our course and said, “The inquiry’s done and we’ve proven that the leadership is great, and everything is exactly as it should be.”  Everybody in the room thought that this was great and applauded, except for the handful of us who survived.  We sat there shaking our heads.  That course had almost nothing to do with learning how to lead a troop of tanks; it was about hanging on desperately until it was over.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 45.

Unfortunately, as the young officer would soon find out, that directionless, survive-at-all-costs mentality did not end in training, either.  Hiller was posted to the 8th Hussars in Petawawa as their intelligence officer, and made the dispiriting discovery that risk-averse leadership was alive and well at the regimental level in a line unit, too.

When I arrived in Petawawa and joined the regiment, I saw that what had occurred in Phase 4 was not the exception, but the rule.  The same attitudes and approaches that we had experienced were reflected throughout the army…

The actions of many of the regiment’s leaders articulated what I thought were questionable values.  Some of them were more concerned with looking after themselves or their careers than looking after their men.  There is an old army adage that an officer’s priorities are supposed to be his mission, his soldiers and then himself, but that certainly wasn’t the rule in the 8th Hussars.  Many of us really did believe in those priorities, but the actions of others made me question whether they did.  It was a tough baptism…

The army and the rest of the Canadian Forces—after decades of training, few operations, a Cold War, government inattention and being on the back burner in Canada—were becoming a bureaucratic organization, just another department of the Government of Canada, administered by managers, not leaders.  We had moved away from many of the best characteristics of leadership—focusing on getting the job done and giving the soldiers a vision of how to get it done—and had replaced it with bureaucratic process, turning the military into a risk-averse organization that didn’t give us the results needed.

The same problems were evident throughout the entire brigade command structure, not just the 8th Hussars, and caused me to ask, numerous times, what the hell we were doing.  I saw little in that first year that inspired me to want to continue to be a leader, an officer, or to continue to serve in the Canadian Forces.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 46-48.

There are also some barbed words for the CF’s procurement policies, and how seeking a “made (or modified) in Canada” solution often results in expensive, less-than-stellar gear.  In 1979, as a young captain deployed to Germany with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Hillier (and doubtless other other armoured crews) ran into a serious problem with the fire control system on the then-new Leopard C1 main battle tanks.

When we bought the Leopards from the Germans, someone in Ottawa had decided that the German fire control system wasn’t good enough for Canadians, so we had to go put in our own.  We bought a unique-to-Canada computerized fire control system.  Once the gunner fed the range and all the other factors into the system, the gun did the rest; we were supposed to get a kill every time.  In cold weather, the system worked like magic.  What nobody realized was that the system was connected to the interior roof of the tank’s turret—in reality a thin piece of metal.  In hot weather, the turret roof would buckle slightly—just a few milimetres, but more than enough to shift the sight completely out of alignment…

It took more than seven years for the Canadian Forces to solve that problem.  It took the army more than three years just to admit that there even was a problem.  Everyone who looked into the issue said, “No, it’s the gunner’ fault,” or “Put a few wet sandbags on the roof of that turret and we’ll be good to go.”

…Our problems with the tank sights were caused by our tendency to Canadianize everything that the Canadian Forces purchased, taking something that worked perfectly well for others and deciding that it wasn’t good enough for us.  The Canadian Forces have thought that way for decades, and we worked really hard over the past few years to change that thinking.  If an American-built weapon is working fine or a British vehicle drives beautifully, then let’s buy it as is.  Otherwise we end up with a unique, Canadian-modified beast that causes us technical headaches and costs us money.  Canadianized pieces of kit are hugely expensive to maintain because there are usually fewer of them.  Secondly, if there are problems, they end up being uniquely Canadian problems, and the CF has to go through long and expensive procedures to identify and resolve them.  I learned in Germany to put an appetite suppressant on Canadianization. Despite our efforts, this is still a major challenge.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 64-66.

It is more than a little frightening to think that, had the Cold War gone hot at some point between 1979 and 1987, Canadian tankers would have rode into battle with fatally flawed equipment, forced on them by a department that didn’t want to use the perfectly serviceable German original.  And it is no less than enraging to realise that this flaw was effectively off the radar of Canadian politicians and the public, even though it would have been painfully obvious to Canadian armoured crews themselves—not to mention any allied crews who took part in multinational exercises and armoured corps competitions.

These passages are, I think, emblematic of why Canadians took to General Hillier so readily.  Even as a gold-braid-bedecked general officer, he is a man unafraid to slay sacred cows and to speak the truth plainly, without theatrics or ornamentation.  His many predecessors have not been so outspoken, nor drawn as much attention to the unsung triumphs and travails of the average young man and woman in uniform.  I am skeptical, however, of General Hillier’s claim to have changed the default institutional behaviour of the Canadian Forces, from a risk-averse bureaucracy into something a little bolder and more concerned with serving the nation.  He did indeed change it, albeit temporarily; the question is whether that change will outlast him in any significant degree.

My fear is that the transformation he hoped to effect within the Forces is stillborn, or at best half-complete.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the CF procurement battles underway and know that the useless, money-wasting Canadianization fetish is alive and well.  And statistically we may be sure that careerists are alive and well in any organisation, even the Canadian Forces.  But in what density and concentration?  The best we can hope for is that there are more future Rick Hilliers in the ranks than Jean Boyles or Larry Murrays, and that future Canadian governments continue to fund the Forces at a level where they can thrive, not just survive.  I fervently hope that succeeding generations of officers are, in fact, risk-taking leaders who look after the men and women under them, and not survival-minded careerists/managers who only want to save their own skin and hang in there for the pension payoff.

As the general says so ably, long periods of underfunding the Forces from the Nineties to the early Aughts had a dramatic and profound effect upon those in uniform:

…we found ourselves shelving plans to rebuild atrophied capabilities, saw our budgets cut by more than 25 per cent, our training slashed to an almost non-existent state, bases closed and the numbers of uniformed men and women reduced drastically.  In a perfect storm, then, our confidence in who we were and our pride in being soldiers, in the most generic sense, was shattered.  Several scandals, including those in Somalia and Bosnia, compounded our stress, while frozen, insufficient wages spoke eloquently as to our value in the eyes of our government and Canadians.  Most of us in uniform, key to coping with humanitarian crises worldwide, were not making enough money to feed or house our own families.

The perception across the junior ranks was that we, the leaders, had broken faith with those we led, and if there is one thing I learned over the years, it is that perception is reality.  Our soldiers did not trust us.  We could do little to address the key issues that weighed so heavily on them and their families.  The Canadian Forces moved into crisis and focused on survival, not excellence or shaping for the future or serving Canada.  We were largely incapable of coping and “SALY” [the “same as last year” mindset] had been responsible for a lot of that.  After thirty to forty years in an organisation where everything was the same, leaders could not handle the sudden, global changes or the enormous issues those changes created.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 93.

What is interesting is that in spite of all this, General Hillier appears to have had much warmer relations with the former Liberal government (mainly MND Bill Graham and former PM Paul Martin) than he did with their Conservative successors (MNDs O’Connor and MacKay, and their boss PM Stephen Harper).  Too many of the general’s critics, particularly on the left, imagine the opposite; that he, Mr. Harper and—quelle horreur—Mr. George W. Bush were the coziest of pals.  (Just Google “rick hillier” plus “bush” for a plethora of examples.)  That delusion is not supported by the general’s own account.  On the other side of the aisle, whatever conservatives may think of Paul Martin (and his Minister of National Defence), it is worth pondering that as Finance Minister and famous budgetary “Dr. No,” Mr. Martin helped craft the era of decreasing CF budgets described by General Hillier above (and elsewhere, as a “decade of darkness”)—and yet in spite of all that, Hillier counts Martin as a good friend today.  Either the General does not hold Mr. Martin partly responsible for those dark times, or he is a man that does not hold grudges.

There is much more, of course—lively accounts of operations in Bosnia, and naturally the bulk of the book revolves around the political machinations in Ottawa (through governments of two different parties) during the Afghan campaign.  A Soldier First is an engrossing read, especially for anyone that has served (or their families).  It offers much sunlight into areas of the bureaucratic mind that ought to be cleansed.  Canada would do well to have more officers of a similar mind, who can express themselves so capably.

The Tiger returns!

book_glassesBlogger and friend Ben the Tiger is once again converting thoughts into electrons, over at his new literature-oriented blog—The Tiger Reads.  I was a little sad when Ben shut down his previous blog, as his writing style is very engaging, backed by a sharp intellect.  I look forward to reading his future critiques and remarks upon the world of arts and letters.

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Do SciFi nerds dream of believable interaction?

seanyoung_bladerunnerDue to the sheer volume of amusing John Scalzi quotes put up by Nicholas Russon of Quotulatiousness, I have wondered whether there might be life in the genre after all, and warily tuned in to AMC TV’s SciFi Scanner blog.  This is probably a bad idea because, as a recovering scifi nerd, I have a puritanical zeal not unlike a recent ex-smoker exhorting his still-toking buddies to get with the program and ditch the nicotine.

When I was a young lad (of say 6 years old) I had just about every Star Wars action figure (and associated vehicle/playset) ever devised and marketed, Star Wars bed sheets, a pint-sized original series Star Trek uniform, and a host of other goodies.  When I was in elementary school I used to draw a cartoon series featuring characters from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The film was awe-inspiring, what can I say.  As I grew older, that younger fascination with space opera and science fiction moved into the print realm, and I devoured everything I could—Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sawyer, even pulpy and ridiculous 1950s throwaway dime-store novels.  And who didn’t love Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the Philip K. Dick story it was based on?

But eventually as I entered my 20s, the appeal of science fiction faded well into the background.  Obviously Mr. Lucas certainly didn’t do it any favours with his odious Star Wars prequels, but that wasn’t the whole story. Whether I moved away from it, or it moved away from me, scifi stopped resembling anything like a future I could halfway believe, let alone like and want to spend a lot of time exploring.

My sci-fi interest had a brief resurgence in my 30s when the rebooted Battlestar Galactica miniseries was aired, but that died out quickly as it became apparent that BSG-reboot would not be a battle-filled epic about a remnant of humanity fighting a last-ditch war for survival, but instead a tired old angst-filled entrail-reading wherein a remnant of humanity grapples with what it means to be human when both humans and machines share sentience and similar biology, but dissimilar belief systems.  Man, I’ve never heard that one before.  BSG really put the nail in the sci-fi coffin for me because the mini-series started off with characters who seemed to have a solid grounding in military thinking and discipline, but then they reverted to hand-waving caricatures with more talking than flying as soon as it transitioned to a regular TV show.  Based on the mini-series I was hoping for a space-oriented Band of Brothers, with a lot of attention paid to the minutiae of a wartime future fighter squadron; what I got instead was Alias with a heavy salting of Imitation Space-Flavoured Pixie Dust.

And I’ll be blunt.  I have enough drama in everyday life to not require any supplementation via broadcast media.  I could fill this blog with stories of iconic ancestors, scheming heirs, dastardly deeds, betrayal, buried secrets, trailblazing technologies, family fortunes, criminal enterprise, legal battles, last-ditch/last-minute deus ex machinae, love triangles, introspection, changed belief systems and character development, but I consider it bad form to air the details of Thanksgiving dinner to the general public.  So in my down-time, whether it be reading or partaking of audio-visual media, I don’t want to see fake people having fake drama.  I can phone a half-dozen relatives and hear real drama any day of the week.  What I want to see is professionals doing their jobs in a believable way, reacting to extraordinary situations in the way professionals do.  I don’t care that they have personal drama; I’ve had personal drama and had to work through it, going to the office every day, no temper tantrums, no punching anyone, no Oscar-worthy meltdowns, no lengthy arm-waving debates about whether the cyborgs that have deviated from their programming and improperly installed network appliances deserve the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of us flesh-and-blood humans.  (Short answer: they do, if they can learn to install the appliance properly, every time, with minimum supervision.)

Real people take these things in stride and get stuff done; arm-waving and meltdowns send a strong message to your team that you are not the man to work with in a crisis.  Too many unprovoked Shatneresque speeches about the human condition get you escorted to the door, sans building pass.  Suffice to say it bugs me when supposedly exceptional leading characters don’t have the basic constitution, fortitude and emotional intelligence of the average guy working in the office next door.  And if there is one thing that scifi tends to lack, it is not necessarily a specialist’s appreciation of physics, chemistry, biology, or any physical or applied science.  It is an ordinary human’s appreciation of how ordinary humans interact.  I suspect this is because scifi nerds do not place a premium on believable emotional interaction.  If they did, George Lucas’ and Hayden Christensen’s homes would have been burned to the ground after Attack of the Clones.  And Oliver Crawford and Gene Coon should never have worked in Hollywood again after penning the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield“.  You say it’s stupid to have murderous emotions based on obvious and superficial pigmentation differences?  You don’t say.  We never would have realised that without Star Trek.  It’s a miracle the different human phenotypes didn’t slaughter each other and completely denude Earth of human civilisation before the January 10, 1969 air date.  Didn’t Marco Polo burn and pillage all of China and Mongolia for not looking sufficiently European back in 1266?  That’s why Italian remains the lingua franca of Asia today, right?

Another thing that bugs me is when scifi authors construct a cosmology around “Wouldn’t life be better if we didn’t have to deal with Human Emotion/Condition A?”  Maybe it would, but here’s a news flash:  things like anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, jealousy, guilt and a whole panopoly of human irrationality are not going away any time soon.  They have been encoded in our psyche by millions of years of physiological and social conditioning; before we even emerged as the species Homo sapiens.  Hell, higher order animals have these emotions; they aren’t unique to us, and they obviously serve a physiological and social purpose in mammalian evolution.  If we ever lose them it’s going to be a million years down the road and things aren’t just going to be a little bit different.  They will be drastically different: we won’t even recognise future humans, in the way that a Neanderthal would have trouble recognising us for what we are.

Retire the lame old scifi tropes, the Pinocchio syndrome, the Butterfly Effect, the Theme Planet, the thinly disguised Allegory to a Current News Item.  But most of all, instead of focusing on the technical criticisms of why Macguffin X wouldn’t really work (or should be classified as Science Fantasy instead of Science Fiction), try focusing on Characters That Act Like Real Humans Would.  Then we can get back to the nerd theological discussions of why Macguffin Y is better than Macguffin Z.

Category: What Really Grinds My Gears  Tags: , ,  Comments off

The fundamental flaw of the Islamic state


…is the indivisibility of secular law and religious practice:

The idea of a separate Indian Muslim state, once it had been formulated couldn’t have been resisted. The idea was put forward in 1930 by a revered poet, Sir Mohammed Iqbal (1987-1938), in a speech to the All-Indian Muslim League, the main Muslim political organization in undivided India.

Iqbal’s argument was like this. Islam is not only an ethical ideal; it is also ‘a certain kind of polity’. Religion for a Muslim is not a matter of private conscience or private practice, as Christianity can be for the man in Europe. There never was, Iqbal says, a specifically Christian polity; and in Europe after Luther the ‘universal ethics of Jesus’ was ‘displaced by national systems of ethics and polity’. There cannot be a Luther in Islam because there is no Islamic church-order for a Muslim to revolt against. And there is also to be considered ‘ the nature of the Holy Prophet’s religious experience, as disclosed in the Koran … It is individual experience creative of a social order.’

To accept Islam is to accept certain ‘legal concepts’. These concepts – revelatory, but not to be belittled for that reason – have ‘civic significance’. ‘The religious ideal of Islam, therefore, is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of the one will eventually involve the rejection of the other. Therefore, the construction of a polity on national lines, if it means a displacement of the Islamic principle of solidarity, is simply unthinkable to a Muslim.

…Muslims, to be true to Islam, need a Muslim polity, a Muslim state.

— Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, Kt., TC. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey.  New York: Vintage Books, 1982.

Category: Aut disce aut discede, Pro Victoria  Tags: , ,  Comments off