Chomsky on Srebrenica

NB: See subsequent posts on Chomsky for more on this.

From yesterday’s Observer:

…a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone’s “outstanding work”. Does he regret signing it?

“No,” he says indignantly. “It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work.”

How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?

What a wanker. I should have mentioned it at the time, but Eric Gordy over at East Ethnia has a comprehensive take-down of Johnstone’s claims about Srebrenica; and there’s another good compliation of relevant links here, including the guilty pleas of two senior Bosnian Serb officers involved with the massacre and the official report of the Bosnian Serb government (which actually estimates the number of deaths as being slightly higher than the Red Cross did).

I can see why Chomsky and his admirers feel that it is necessary to challenge the view of the world peddled by this, or any, US administration; but once your desperate urge to prove that American policy is wrong overcomes your ability to tell truth from lies, especially about atrocities such as Srebrenica, you have stopped being a “top public intellectual” and become merely a wanker.

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Chomsky interview

The Guardian has withdrawn this piece from their website, so I’m preserving the text here.

Emma Brockes
Monday October 31, 2005
The Guardian

A note to readers: On November 2 the Guardian published a letter from Noam Chomsky in which he was strongly critical of the interview below. Subsequently Professor Chomsky complained to the readers’ editor about the interview on a number of specific points. The readers’ editor has been investigating the complaint and has been in direct correspondence with Professor Chomsky. The readers’ editor will publish his findings when the matter is resolved.

Despite his belief that most journalists are unwitting upholders of western imperialism, Noam Chomsky, the radical’s radical, agrees to see me at his office in Boston. He works here as a professor of linguistics, a sort of Clark Kent alter ego to his activist Superman, in a nubbly old jumper, big white trainers and a grandad jacket with pockets designed to accomodate a Thermos. There is a half-finished packet of fig rolls on the desk. Such is the effect of an hour spent with Chomsky that, writing this, I wonder: is it wrong to mention the fig rolls when there is undocumented suffering going on in El Salvador?

Ostensibly I am here because Chomsky, 76, has been voted the world’s top public intellectual by Prospect magazine, but he has no interest in that. He believes that there is a misconception about what it means to be smart. It is not a question of wit, as with no 5 on the list (Christopher Hitchens) or poetic dash like no 4 (Vaclav Havel), or the sort of articulacy that lends itself to television appearances, like no 37, the thinking girl’s pin-up Michael Ignatieff, whom Chomsky calls an apologist for the establishment and dispenser of “garbage”. Chomsky, by contrast, speaks in a barely audible croak and of his own, largely unsuccessful, television appearances has written dismissively: “The beauty of concision is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts.” Being smart, he believes, is a function of a plodding, unsexy, application to the facts and “using your intelligence to decide what’s right”.

This is, of course, what Chomsky has been doing for the last 35 years, and his conclusions remain controversial: that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren’t as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the “massacre” at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)

While his critics regard him as an almost compulsive revisionist, Chomsky is more mainstream now than ever as disgust with the Bush government grows; the book he put out after the twin towers attacks, called 9-11, sold 300,000 copies. Given that until recently he worked full-time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there remain suspicions over how he has managed to become an expert, seemingly, on every conflict since the second world war; it is assumed by his critics that he plugs the gaps in his knowledge with ideology.

Chomsky says this is just laziness on their part and besides, “the best scientists aren’t the ones who know the most data; they’re the ones who know what they’re looking for.”

Still, of all the intellectuals on the Prospect list, it is Chomsky who is most often accused of miring a debate in intellectual spam, what the writer Paul Berman calls his “customary blizzard of obscure sources”. I ask if he has a photographic memory and Chomsky smiles. “It’s the other way round. I can’t remember names, can’t remember faces. I don’t have any particular talents that everybody else doesn’t have.”

His daily news intake is the regular national press and he dips in and out of specialist journals. I imagine he is a fan of the internet, given his low opinion of the mainstream media (to summarise: it is undermined by a “systematic bias in terms of structural economic causes rather than a conspiracy of people”. I would argue individual agency overrides this, but get into it with Chomsky and your allocated hour goes up in smoke). So I am surprised when he says he only goes online if he is “hunting for documents, or historical data. It’s a hideous time-waster. One of the good things about the internet is you can put up anything you like, but that also means you can put up any kind of nonsense. If the intelligence agencies knew what they were doing, they would stimulate conspiracy theories just to drive people out of political life, to keep them from asking more serious questions … There’s a kind of an assumption that if somebody wrote it on the internet, it’s true.”

Is there? It’s clear, suddenly, that Chomsky’s opinion can be as flaky as the next person’s; he just states it more forcefully. I tell him that most people I know don’t believe anything they read on the internet and he says, seemlessly, “you see, that’s dangerous, too.” His responses to criticism vary from this sort of mild absorption to, during our subsequent ratty exchange about Bosnia, the childish habit of trashing his opponents whom he calls “hysterical”, “fanatics” and “tantrum throwers”. I suspect that being on the receiving end of lots “half-crazed” nut-mail, as he calls it (he gets at least four daily emails accusing him of being a Mossad agent, a CIA agent or a member of al-Qaida), has made his defensive position rather entrenched. Chomsky sighs and says that he has never claimed to have a monopoly on the truth, then looks merry for a moment and says that the only person who does is his wife, Carol. “My grandchildren call her Truth Teller. When I tease them and they’re not sure if I’m telling the truth, they turn to her and say: ‘Truth Teller, is it really true?'”

Chomsky’s activism has its roots in his childhood. He grew up in the depression of the 1930s, the son of William Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, Russian immigrants to Philadelphia. He describes the family as “working-class Jews”, most of whom were unemployed, although his parents, both teachers, were lucky enough to work. There was no sense of America as the promised land: “It wasn’t much of an opportunity-giver in my immediate family,” he says, although it was an improvement on the pogroms of Russia, which none the less Chomsky can’t help qualifying as “not very bad, by contemporary standards. In the worst of the major massacres, I think about 49 people were killed.”

The house in Philadelphia was crowded, full of aunts and cousins, many of them seamstresses who weathered the depression thanks to the help of the International Ladies Garment Union. Chomsky was four years old when he witnessed, from a passing trolley car, strikers outside a textile plant being beaten by the police. At 10 he wrote his first political pamphlet, against the rise of fascism in Spain. “It was all part of the atmosphere,” he says.

The Chomskys were one of the few Jewish families in an Irish and German neighbourhood, and Chomsky and his brother fought often in the street; he remembers there were celebrations when Paris fell to the Germans. His parents kept their heads down and until their deaths, he says, “never had an idea of what was going on outside”.

Chomsky had a choice of role models. There was his father’s family in Baltimore, who were “super-orthodox”. “They regressed back to the stage they were at even before they were in the shtetl, which is not uncommon among immigrant communities; a tendency to close in and go back to an exaggerated form of what you came from.” He smiles. “It’s a hostile world.”

Or there was his mother’s family in New York, who crowded into a big government apartment and got by solely on the wages of a disabled uncle, who on the basis of his disability was awarded a small newsstand by the state. Chomsky chose the latter and his radicalism grew out of the time he spent, from the age of 12, commuting to New York at weekends to help on the newsstand.

“It became a kind of salon,” he says. “My uncle had no formal education but he was an extremely intelligent man – he’d been through all the leftwing groups, from the Communists to the Trotskyists to the anti-Leninists; he was very much involved in psychoanalysis. There were a lot of German emigres in New York at the time and in the evening they would hang around the newsstand and talk. My uncle finally ended up being a pretty wealthy lay analyst on Riverside Drive.” He bursts out laughing.

It was a time, says Chomsky, when no one knew what was going to happen. They discussed the possibility of a socialist revolution, or of the country collapsing entirely. Anything seemed possible. Compared with these sorts of discussion, he found high school and, later, college, “dumb and stupid”. He was thinking of dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania when he met his second mentor, Zellig Harris, a linguistics professor who encouraged him to pursue his own academic interests. Chomsky had grown up in a household where language was important; his parents spoke Yiddish and his father wrote a PhD on 14th-century Hebrew, which the young Chomsky read with interest. And so he pursued a study of linguistics and many years down the line formulated a ground-breaking theory, that of “universal grammar”, the idea that the brain’s facility for language is innate rather than a function of behaviourism. It sounds to me as if he was an arrogant young man who thought, with some justification, that he knew more than his teachers. Chomsky bridles at the word arrogant and says: “No. I assumed I was wrong and took for granted that the standard approach [to linguistics] was correct.”

Even though he went on to study at Harvard, he still, in a rare concession to the romance of outsidership, describes himself as “self-taught”.

There were only a couple of years in the mid-1950s when he gave up activism altogether. He had met and married Carol Schatz, a fellow linguist, and they had three young children. Chomsky had to choose whether to commit himself to activism or to let it go. The Vietnam war protests were getting under way and, if he chose the former, there was a real danger of a jail sentence, so much so that Carol re-enrolled at college in case she had to become the sole breadwinner. But Chomsky was not, he says, the sort of person who could attend the occasional demo and then hope the world would fix itself.

“Yeah, my wife tried to talk me out of it, just as she does now. But she knows I can be stubborn and that I’ll carry on with it as long as I’m ambulatory or whatever.”

These days, Carol accompanies her husband to most of his public appearances. He is asked to lend his name to all sorts of crackpot causes and she tries to intervene to keep his schedule under control. As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone’s “outstanding work”. Does he regret signing it?

“No,” he says indignantly. “It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work.”

How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?

“Look,” says Chomsky, “there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you’re a traitor, you’re destroyed. It’s totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous.”

They didn’t “think” it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law.

But Chomsky insists that “LM was probably correct” and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. “It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong.” It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. “And if they were wrong, sure; but don’t just scream well, if you say you’re in favour of that you’re in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers.”

Eh? Not everyone who disagrees with him is a “fanatic”, I say. These are serious, trustworthy people.

“Like who?”

“Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy.”

Vulliamy’s reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994. He was present when the ITN footage of the Bosnian Serb concentration camp was filmed and supported their case against LM magazine.

“Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.”

But Karadic’s number two herself [Biljana Plavsic] pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity.

“Well, she certainly did. But if you want critical work on the party line, General Lewis MacKenzie who was the Canadian general in charge, has written that most of the stories were complete nonsense.”

And so it goes on, Chomsky fairly vibrating with anger at Vulliamy and co’s “tantrums” over his questioning of their account of the war. I suggest that if they are having tantrums it’s because they have contact with the survivors of Srebrenica and witness the impact of the downplaying of their experiences. He fairly explodes. “That’s such a western European position. We are used to having our jackboot on people’s necks, so we don’t see our victims. I’ve seen them: go to Laos, go to Haiti, go to El Salvador. You’ll see people who are really suffering brutally. This does not give us the right to lie about that suffering.” Which is, I imagine, why ITN went to court in the first place.

You could pick any number of other conflicts over which to have a barney with Chomsky. Seeing as we have entered the bad-tempered part of the interview, I figure we may as well continue and ask if he finds it ironic that, given his views on the capitalist system, he is a beneficiary of it. “Well, what capitalist system? Do you use a computer? Do you use the internet? Do you take an aeroplane? That comes from the state sector of the economy. I’m certainly a beneficiary of this state-based, quasi-market system; does that mean that I shouldn’t try to make it a better society?”

OK, let’s look at the non-state based, quasi-market system. Does he have a share portfolio? He looks cross. “You’d have to ask my wife about that. I’m sure she does. I don’t see any reason why she shouldn’t. Would it help people if I went to Montana and lived on a mountain? It’s only rich, privileged westerners – who are well educated and therefore deeply irrational – in whose minds this idea could ever arise. When I visit peasants in southern Colombia, they don’t ask me these questions.”

I suggest that people don’t like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite. “There’s no element of hypocrisy.” He suddenly smiles at me, benign again, and we end it there.

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Interview questions

This time I’m asking, not answering. (Oddly, I much prefer answering these questions to asking them! There you go.) But since seven of you asked for questions off my previous entry on the subject, and I’m trying to think about packing for a seven day trip tomorrow, so I’m afraid you get two personalised questions each and three generic ones – though they are the generic questions that I have most enjoyed answering in the past. (Including the crude one.)

Remember the rules – post in your journal, and invite people to ask you for questions to interview them with.

Looking forward to reading them!

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OK, this is just silly

Blame :

‘s Halloween party:

___avenue dressed as a catcher for the White Sox.
_idlethreats dressed as a new superhero: Blood Shield.
ailbhe dressed as a pitcher for the Marlins.
ajshepherd dressed as Mary-Kate Olsen with her very own conjoined Ashley.
akicif dressed as a pixie.
alarielle dressed as Barney the dinosaur.
alese dressed as a circulation.
alexmc dressed as a Mississippi RestaurantsCo. employee.
alliemay dressed as the Governor of Delaware.
altariel1 dressed as Meatwad.
andrewducker dressed as Captain Kirk from “Star Trek”.
andwatagain dressed as a chicken, and it suited them disturbingly well.
andyhat dressed as a Level 2 barbarian.
ang_grrr didn’t dress up, spoilsport.
annafdd dressed as a Egan, McCollum & ShipmanCooperative employee, and it suited them disturbingly well.
apestaartje dressed as a new member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Bitter Overlord.
apotropaism dressed as a goblin.
applez dressed as Master Shake.
artw dressed as a toxic cavity.
autopope dressed as Anna Nicole Smith.
aynathie dressed as a pixie.
banskid dressed as Mary-Kate Olsen with her very own conjoined Ashley.
barsine dressed as David Letterman.
beedevil dressed as a airborne devil.
blonde222 dressed as Bette Midler.
blufive dressed as a 1990’s grunge child.
bohemiancoast dressed as Osama bin Laden.
bonsaii dressed as Lance Armstrong riding a bear.
bopeepsheep dressed as Martin Van Buren.
bouncingbelle dressed as a funny ghost, though it looked more like Madonna.
brightglance dressed as a Gap employee.
bring_back_food dressed as your uncle.
brisingamen dressed as a part-time internet supervisor.
britzkrieg dressed as Emperor Palpatine, though it looked more like Emeril Lagasse’s aunt.
bugshaw dressed as the equator.
burkesworks dressed as a disturbing self-made character called “Doofus Rhinohead”.
busarewski dressed as Optimus Prime.
butterbee dressed as someone called “Edward Kosloff”, but you’ve never heard of them before.
captain_wesker dressed as the Vicount of Crary.
ccfinlay dressed as the spirit of their dead grandmother Rachael, though it looked more like Tom Cruise.
cdpoint dressed as Christy Turlington.
ceemage dressed as Elmer Fudd, and it suited them disturbingly well.
chance88088 dressed as the President of San Marino.
cherylmorgan didn’t even show up and doesn’t get any candy.
chess dressed as a Level 1 sorcerer.
chilperic dressed as a ambition.
clute dressed as Lyndon B. Johnson.
coalescent dressed as Paris Hilton.
communicator dressed as a outfielder for the Royals.
crazysoph dressed as a character from Harry Potter and the Eternal Stars.
creaney dressed as the Adjacent Power Ranger.
crystalfrog dressed as a squirrel.
cs_writing dressed as a assistant network administrator.
cusu_academic dressed as Oprah Winfrey.
cusuwg dressed as George W. Bush.
cwgerard dressed as Elvis Presley.
cygny dressed as William Taft.
dace_holenfor dressed as William McKinley.
daegaer gets drunk, strips naked, and somehow emerges dressed as Matt Damon’s grandmother.
daveon dressed as a elk.
davesangel dressed as your sister.
davidstewart dressed as a new member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Bitter Bandit.
deadspeaker gets drunk, strips naked, and somehow emerges dressed as a 1990’s grunge child.
deannawol dressed as a relative fraction.
dear_hubby dressed as a bear.
deborah_c dressed as a 1990’s grunge child.
del_c dressed as a bottle of Androdimus.
despotliz dressed as a circuit.
djm4 dressed as the love child of Hugh Grant and Monica Lewinsky.
dougs dressed as a senior computer programmer.
draco_luva dressed as Daria.
eastethnia dressed as the Duke of Glover-Hample.
eiko82 dressed as Ted Williams, and it suited them all too well.
eimear_rose dressed as something hyper, but what, specifically, you can’t tell.
elise dressed as a catcher for the Indians.
elmyra dressed as Mary-Kate Olsen with her very own conjoined Ashley.
ephiriel dressed as the Cardinal of Movance.
etherealfionna dressed as Alyssa Milano.
eugie dressed as George Clooney.
eyeliner297 dressed as a new superhero: Scarlet Woman.
feorag dressed as someone called “Penny Mros”, but you’ve never heard of them before.
fjm dressed as a bottle of Bostargraf.
flemmarde dressed as a screwdriver.
fluffcthulhu dressed as a total witch.
flyingsauce dressed as a Level 4 bard.
givali dressed as something successive, but what, specifically, you can’t tell.
grahamsleight dressed as Keanu Reeves riding a cat, though it looked more like a deer.
greengolux dressed as someone called “Leslie Petri”, but you’ve never heard of them before.
gummitch dressed as a degenerate orchestra.
h0pal0ng dressed as a new member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Friendly Swami.
habseligkeit dressed as a new member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Mad Ambassador.
hawkida dressed as a bottle of osellac.
hddod dressed as Cameron Diaz.
hedgetrimmer dressed as your father.
hells_librarian dressed as Bruce Willis.
hfnuala dressed as Nadja Auermann.
ianmcdonald dressed as the love child of Tobey Maguire and Tipper Gore.
ias dressed as a Care Bear.
inner_storm dressed as Anna Nicole Smith.
irishlass04 dressed as a character from “The Best Years of Our Lives”.
jacobsmills dressed as a 1980’s yuppie child.
james_nicoll didn’t dress up, spoilsport.
janecarnall dressed as the Governor of Hawaii.
jdigital dressed as a character from Harry Potter and the Concept of Earth.
juleske dressed as Scotty from “Star Trek”.
kate_nepveu dressed as Gwen Stefani.
kenmaher dressed as a swelling cyclone.
kennedybak dressed as a cleavage.
kharin dressed as a Bryan Nahm Manufacturing employee.
kulfuldi dressed as a mummy.
lamentables dressed as Barbra Streisand, though it looked more like a eagle.
las dressed as a ball.
lauriemann dressed as Michael Vick’s father.
leedy dressed as a disturbing self-made character called “Zippy Bananachunks”.
leex dressed as a bankrupt ghost.
leila_azziza dressed as a disturbing self-made character called “Snotty Rhinobuns”.
liadnan dressed as a investment.
lopt dressed as the Wild Power Ranger.
lostcarpark dressed as a SergiowayCorporation employee.
luned dressed as the Bottom Power Ranger.
major_clanger dressed as Tom Cruise.
marykaykare dressed as a pixie.
megolas dressed as a character from Harry Potter and the Blue Witch.
mevennen dressed as the spirit of their dead grandmother Jasmine.
mik_yesha dressed as a fullback for the Jets.
min_baro dressed as Beavis.
mind_expander gets drunk, strips naked, and somehow emerges dressed as Optimus Prime.
minny dressed as Julia Stiles’s grandfather.
mireille21 dressed as a ghost.
mkjuliemk dressed as the equator.
mr_renaissance dressed as a safety for the Eagles, though it looked more like Martha Stewart.
msisolak dressed as the main character of “Unforgiven”.
mylescorcoran dressed as a E&P Farms employee.
nalsa dressed as Daria.
nancylebov dressed as your grandfather.
natural20 dressed as Ronald Reagan.
new_brunette gets drunk, strips naked, and somehow emerges dressed as a diplomat from Lesotho.
nhw dressed as a associate bug terminator.
nickbarnes dressed as the spirit of their dead grandmother Mandy.
ninebelow dressed as the Governor of Ohio.
nmg dressed as a bottle of Patretromex.
nrivkis dressed as a devil.
nwnotes dressed as Oprah Winfrey.
nyphur dressed as a screwdriver.
omegar dressed as Chewbacca.
original_kaos dressed as a Level 9 wizard, though it looked more like the Porcelain Power Ranger.
papersky dressed as Lt. Cmdr. Data from “Star Trek”, and it suited them all too well.
peake dressed as the Cardinal of EmmaTown.
pickwick dressed as Jesus, though it looked more like a quarterback for the Ravens.
pickwickpapers dressed as a raccoon.
pnh didn’t dress up, spoilsport.
politicinternet dressed as the spirit of their dead grandmother Angel, and it suited them disturbingly well.
prosewitch dressed as the President of Afghanistan.
purple_pen dressed as Ronald Reagan.
purplecthulhu dressed as Wesley Crusher from “Star Trek”.
purplepooka forgot to put on clothes!
pvaneynd dressed as a Doherty, Mudd & Wessel, Inc. employee.
pwilkinson dressed as Mary-Kate Olsen with her very own conjoined Ashley.
qatsi dressed as a diplomat from Luxembourg.
qdbii dressed as a buffalo.
rangerdewshine dressed as the love child of Jim Carrey and Britney Spears.
rfmcdpei forgot to put on clothes!
rozk dressed as Ozzy Osbourne.
rparvaaz dressed as someone called “Muhammed Norton”, but you’ve never heard of them before.
sammywol dressed as the main character of “A Christmas Story”, though it looked more like your aunt.
sbisson dressed as a devil.
scattyme dressed as Sandra Bullock riding a skunk, though it looked more like the love child of Jean Claude Van Damme and Queen Elizabeth.
sdn dressed as a character from Harry Potter and the Hammer of Strength.
seawasp dressed as the Urgent Power Ranger.
secritcrush dressed as a bottle of Cereroxgraf.
sevenorora dressed as a deposit.
shebang_zine dressed as a WASE Technology employee.
shsilver dressed as the Lord of Oxymeaoid.
shutters_i dressed as Denise Richards’s grandmother.
sinclair_furie dressed as a Care Bear.
sisterdew dressed as Grover Cleveland.
skyra123 dressed as your grandfather.
slimmeroftheyea dressed as something stable, but what, specifically, you can’t tell.
slovobooks dressed as a eagle.
smhwpf dressed as a ghost, though it looked more like a Care Bear.
sneerpout dressed as Optimus Prime.
srk1 dressed as a capital.
stellanova dressed as Venus Williams.
stilldancer dressed as something horny, but what, specifically, you can’t tell, and it suited them all too well.
sugarimp dressed as a halfback for the Panthers.
sulkyblue dressed as a new superhero: Hyper- Star.
surliminal dressed as the Earl of East Penam.
susansugarspun dressed as the Governor of Delaware.
swisstone dressed as a character from “L.A. Confidential”, and it suited them disturbingly well.
synan dressed as a disturbing self-made character called “Buttercup Girdlehiney”, though it looked more like your grandmother.
tamaranth dressed as Julia Roberts.
theferrett dressed as the love child of Jim Carrey and Julia Roberts.
thette dressed as Tonya Harding.
ticking_fool dressed as Butt-head.
tnh dressed as a MistycoLtd. employee.
vickimann dressed as Rush Limbaugh riding a horse.
vnp dressed as someone called “Tasha Blattner”, but you’ve never heard of them before.
watervole dressed as a new superhero: Fighting Tornado.
wiselamb dressed as John F. Kennedy.
with_this_voice dressed as a cat.
wwhyte dressed as Optimus Prime.
wyvernfriend dressed as the Eternal Power Ranger.
yhlee dressed as a halfback for the Patriots.
yonmei dressed as the Cardinal of Ciclonix.
yourownmeretrix dressed as a pimp.
zhaneel69 dressed as the Duke of Corlog.

Throw your own party at the Hallomeme!
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Imminent travels

Right, am off to the airport to drop Anne, Fergal and Ursula for their flight to Birmingham: off to stay with Anne’s sister and family near Swindon for a couple of days, then Kidderminster and Anne’s parents for another couple of days, returning I think on Thursday.

And tomorrow I go on what I hope is my last extended trip of the year: three days at a staff meeting in Prčanj, Montenegro (forecast temperature 21°C, 70°F), followed by 24 hours in Vienna (forecast temperature 13°C, 55°F) and then the weekend in Kiev (forecast temperature 8°C, 46°F), returning on Monday 7th. It will be my first time in Ukraine, though not in Austria or Montenegro.

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October Books 10) Going Postal

10) Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

This book was famously withdrawn from the Hugo awards shortlist by its author, on the basis that he wanted to relax and enjoy the WorldCon. It’s impossible to know how well it would have done; it’s a very different book from the five that were actually on the list. His personal popularity, plus the fact that none of his novels had previously made it to the Hugo shortlist, would certainly have gained him a large sympathy vote for his entire œuvre, not just for this book.

I would still have voted for , but nonetheless, this is a good book, one of the best of the Discworld series. The basic plot is that Lord Vetinari appoints a petty criminal to run the Ankh-Morpork postal service. He invents stamps, and must confront the “clacks” semaphore signallers, in one of Pratchett’s better characterised narratives of personal redemption.

The background of Pratchett’s well-established fantasy world, undergoing its own sort of industrial revolution is further developed; the clacks system combines the failings of post-privatisation British railways and telecoms. As well as lots of golems and the first proper banshee of the Discworld series, we encounter more human weird creatures in the form of Discworld’s own versions of philatelists and phone phreaks.

And the whole thing is leavened by characteristic flashes of wit, such as the minor goddess Anoia, whose field of operation is Things That Stick In Drawers:

Often, but not uniquely, a ladle, but sometimes a metal spatula or, rarely, a mechanical egg-whisk that nobody in the house admits to ever buying. The desperate mad rattling and cries of ‘How can it close on the damn thing but not open it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?’ are as praise unto Anoia.

And then the punchline:

She also eats corkscrews.

How true.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

Interview again


1) Do you generally read the journals of random strangers? I do occasionally browse lj’s of people I don’t know, but the process is usually guided rather than random – for instance, a search for people posting about “epistemic communities” a couple of weeks ago brought me into contact with . I also often check out friends’ friends lists just to see how my entries look (worrying about posting too often) and I think that’s how I came across your journal, possibly via .

2) Brussels sprouts – love ’em or hate ’em? And would you force your kids to eat just one bite? Two very different questions for the price of one, but important ones. The easy one first: I like cooking and eating Brussels sprouts, though not to the extent that I go out of my way to find them. The other one: We haven’t really mastered the art of forcing our children to eat anything they don’t want to. It is simply impossible to negotiate at all with the girls, and F has determined views about his food (no meat except sausages, no funny-looking vegetables including sprouts).

3) What is on your tshirt in that user icon? Answered here.

4) Have you ever (wanted to) skydive? No, not really. I remember John Noakes doing it on Blue Peter in 1973; I followed the Stephen Hilder case with morbid intrerest; but the activity doesn’t appeal to me at all.

5) Are books a necessity or a luxury? (and what do you think my answer is?) I think my answer is the same as yours – that they are a total necessity – considering I noticed you also on Library Thing recently! (Incidentally, you and I are the only users to have logges Harry Turtledove’s Colonisation: Down to Earth – I thought it was a woeful effort; what did you think?)

As before, comment if you want questions.

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More Librarythingness

Three Library Thing users own Purple Homicide, by John Sweeney, an account of Martin Bell’s victory over Neil Hamilton in the Tatton constituency dutring the 1997 election. All three of us also have the following Iain (M) Banks books: A Song Of Stone, The State of the Art, Against a Dark Background, The Bridge, Complicity, Use of Weapons, Feersum Endjinn and Look to Windward. Oh yes, and we also all own Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

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A Feast for Crows

I bought the electronic edition from Powell’s online store during the week (easily half the price I would have to pay for a new hardback in a Belgian bookshop). Funnily enough it doesn’t seem to be available any more from that source (check here). Anyway, my PDA’s battery only lasts a couple of hours at a time, so I’m in thr frustrating position of being two-thirds of the way through but can’t get any further today as the charger is at work.

I’ve skimmed enough on-line reviews to know that there is no grand climax coming, but I am really enjoying it so far: in particular, I like the parallelism of Brienne and Jaime’s separate engagements with honour. And we are seeing just enough of the Stark sisters to feel that more is happening there. More on this once I’ve finished it, in what will certainly be a spoiler-laden review behind cut-tags, but here I wanted to flag a couple of linguistic points:

I notice Martin using “one-and-ten”, “two-and-ten”, “three-and-ten” instead of “eleven, twelve, thirteen”. Also “good-daughter” and “good-son” instead of “daughter-in-law” and “son-in-law”. At some point very soon after I have finished A Feast for Crows I will go back and see if he had those usages in the earlier books to, but I don’t think he did – anyone care to set me right on this?

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More interview questions

From :

1. What was it like studying at Miskatonic University? You’ll have noticed from my user info that I studied there twenty-five years before I was born, so you’ll forgive me if my memories are a little blurred.

But, gosh, the odd taste of the sherry, the unusual Chapel choral traditions, and the uncanny dwindling of student numbers throughout the years we spent at good old Miskatonic, all left a strong impression. After what happened to the First Eight, the rowing club never really picked up again…

2. Have you ever met a laicized priest? Crumbs, yes. I don’t know any particularly well, but there are a lot of them around. (As I think you know, one of my ex-girlfriends became a nun, and then later came out, both of the order and in the other sense as well.)

3. Who was the last person you lied to? A journalist who asked me for an interview yesterday afternoon, and I replied that I didn’t know enough about the subject and didn’t really have time. If I’d been in the mood I could certainly have made time and talked about the subject, but just didn’t feel like it.

4. What five words do you think are beautiful both in meaning and in sound? This has been a fiendishly difficult question to answer. It’s very difficult to think of individual words – I prefer great sweeping descriptive phrases or sentences. I’ve been very amused by the surveys of “beutiful words” in languages I know, the Dutch opting for the extremely precise if old-fashioned conjunction desalniettemin while German speakers apparently prefer the concept of Habseligkeit (which, I have only just realised, is not really related to Seligkeit). Some words are interesting just because of their oddness – next week, for example, I shall be spending several days in the town of Prčanj, where the “a” is barely pronounced. The town itself is supposedly very beautiful, but few would say the same for the name.

Looking at the famous British Council list of seventy beautiful words, the only one that jumps out at me as having real star quality is tranquillity – not just for its real meaning, but also for its lunar landing associations. Another favourite word of mine that I’m slightly surprised didn’t make it to the list is exotic. I have to admit that after that I am drawing a blank.

If I have to pick five words in total, I’m going to have to reach out beyond English, indeed into languages that I don’t really speak. Next on my list is then the Italian word chiaroscuro, as in the painting style; love the way it sounds, love the way it looks. And after that, the Georgian delicacy khinkali – once tasted, never forgotten. (Georgian is not always a beautiful language – the word for “trainer”, for instance, is  mtsvrtneli, with two syllables.)

I’m getting really desperate now. I think I’ll have to reach into place names as well as ordinary word. Lisdoonvarna is a beautiful word; I’ve never actually been there but it has associations for me of crystal clear days following heavy rain, and a slower pace of life. It seems a good place to finish up this question.

5. Coffee or tea? Coffee – indeed, Nescafé with milk and two sugars. But with the following exceptions:

  • Tea with milk – mid-afternoon; all day if I have had very little sleep the night before.
  • Tea with milk and sugar – immediately after a long journey.
  • Green tea – while eating East Asian food.
  • Herbal tea (preferably vervain) – when going to bed.

If you want questions, leave a comment.

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Interview questions

From :

1) Your job seems to straddle the line between diplomacy, politics, thinktankery and NGO-ness. Where in those areas would you like to end up? That’s a pretty good description of my job as it is right now! Though while it is somewhere between all four of those categories, is closer to the think-tank/NGO side of the line. Some would question whether there is a clear division between think-tanks and NGOs, but I am not one of them.

At some point I would like to be on the inside, though. I would very much enjoy being an elected politician, but on the other hand am not yet geared up to the process of getting elected after my 1990 and 1996 experiences. If I could have some formal diplomatic role for a few years, perhaps then ending up in electoral politics, I would be pretty pleased.

2) Your kids are growing up going to Belgian schools (I think?). Will they be Belgian? They do indeed go to Belgian schools, and I suspect they will eventually be entitled to Belgian citizenship. Whether they choose to exercise that right is a different matter. I am inclined to feel we’ll keep them on UK or Irish passports, unless and until there is a compelling reason (such as the child’s clearly expressed wish) to get a Belgian one.

3) What positives have you gained from being in fandom? Good question. I almost wonder to what extent I am “in” fandom, though I suppose that participating in half-a-dozen panels at a WorldCon makes any argument that I’m not really that involved look pretty threadbare…

Of course, there’s the excitement that you get from any shared community; but more particularly, the feeling that others share my motivations for reading sf, that it is a literature of ideas, probing beyond the boundaries of this world (whose more sordid aspects occupy my working hours) and looking for new insights into the human condition and our relations with the universe. When I’m properly awake, I find discussing sf with like-mided people an extraordinarily stimulating experience. If I’m tired, I just enjoy reading it and reading about it as an escapist activity.

4) Have you found your faith has helped with accepting your daughters’ disabilities? (is that the right word? illness doesn’t sound right to me.) Your post about B’s first communion has stuck with me as a real and good change from the church as I tend to think of it. Well, thanks. disability is indeed a better word than illness, in that one usually either recovers from or dies from an illness.

I like to think that my faith helps me generally, and am a bit reluctant to single out the family situation in this regard. I have a happy marriage, three beautiful children, and a successful career; much to be thankful for.

I certainly wouldn’t want to go down the line of the worshippers of Our Lady of the Stone in Tienen, near here, who believe that mental disorders can be cured if the correct rituals are performed while wearing the sacred headgear.

5) Will you ever move back to NI? Dunno. A few months back I answered this question (when asked by ) by saying “only if I can afford it”. I should really add that the availability of adequate help with my children would be a big issue as well. Having said that, if all else were equal and I could do my work from in front of a computer screeen anywhere in the world, I think I’d rather do it there than here.

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Getting it right for a change

There’s a general strike today, and I have a 9 am breakfast meeting, so I left home at 0700 expecting the traffic to be worse than ususal – yesterday I had to drive to Antwerp, and the heavy traffic meant it took me over an hour to get from my office to the Antwerp turning from the Antwerp ring road, which would normally take about twelve minutes.

But in fact the traffic today was unusually light, and I was in the office before 0800. A better driving experience than some others I’ve had recently…

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Neat little coincidence

There are precisely three Library Thing users who have logged copies of Enemies of the System, by Brian Aldiss. All three of us are also the only Library Thing Users to have logged Aldiss’ short story collection, Space, Time and Nathaniel and his novel Earthworks, and also – this one really did surprise me – we are the only Library Thing users to have logged Keith Brooke’s novel Keepers of the Peace.

(We also, all three of us, own Timescape by Gregory Benford, Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge and Excession by Iain M. Banks, but lots of other people have them as well.)

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A welcome return

Locked post because of copyright:

Will full juice be back for all by . . . Easter?

Q. When am I going to get my electricity back?

A. The latest statement from Florida Power & Light is that “we expect to have all power in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties fully restored by, at the very latest, Easter.”

Q. Why is it taking so long to restore power?

A. Wilma’s unexpectedly strong winds caused major damage to three of FP&L’s five longest extension cords.

Q. Is my water safe to drink?

A. Your water is perfectly safe, although the South Florida Water Authority does recommend that before drinking any water or touching it with your bare hands, you should boil it “until the worms stop moving.”

Q. How are the levees holding up?

A. We spoke to a spokesperson for the South Florida Levee Authority (SFLA), who assured us that South Florida does not have any levees, but if we did, they would definitely be in bad shape.

Q. I keep hearing that, since the traffic lights are out, I should treat a stoplight intersection as if it were a “four-way stop.” What does this mean?

A. It means that, when you reach the intersection, you should do what you normally do at a stop sign here in South Florida.

Q. You mean, ignore it?

A. That is the South Florida way.

Q. Where can I buy gasoline?

A. Vermont.

Q. How will the hurricanes affect the schools?

A. The school year started earlier than ever this year, smack dab in the middle of hurricane season. Incredibly, the school schedule has been severely disrupted by — you are going to be very surprised — hurricanes! Who could have predicted such a thing? In any event, our kids have missed a LOT of school. Many 10th-graders no longer remember the alphabet. This could really hurt our standardized-test scores. So the Broward and Miami-Dade school boards have decided to lengthen the school year by adding a new month, to be inserted between November and December. It will be called “FCATember.”

Q. You’re kidding, right?

A. I don’t know any more.

Q. Why are we getting so many hurricanes lately?

A. Climate experts, after studying changes in ocean-water temperatures over the past 50 years, now believe that the recent increase in hurricane activity is being caused by a cracked mirror in the kitchen of my mother-in-law, Celia Kaufman. It cracked a few weeks ago, and since then not only have we been nailed by roughly a dozen hurricanes, but also Celia had a car accident, my brother in-law Steve hurt his back, the Dolphins offensive line has been penalized for 4,752 false starts, and President Bush, apparently without even realizing it, nominated a former Texas State Lotto executive to the U.S. Supreme Court. “This can’t all be coincidence,” state the climate experts. “Somebody needs to FIX THAT WOMAN’S MIRROR.”

Q. So is the mirror being fixed?

A. FEMA is working on it.

Q. So we are doomed.

A. Correct.

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Feeling a bit ashamed of myself

Just yelled at a journalist and put the phone down on her because she was asking stupid questions. Questions like, “Won’t the Kosovo negotiations have great difficulty, given that the two sides have opposite points of view?” To which I answered, “Well, if they had the same point of view, there wouldn’t be a need for negotiations, would there?” But her question, “What about the fact that the Russians have called for a delay in talks starting?” was really the last straw; I said, “No they’re not, they approved the decision to start talks at the UN Security Council on Monday. Next time you call me, do some research first. I find your questions really unprofessional and I have better things to do with my time.”

Normally I can find it in myself to interpret even the most stupid question in such a way as to cover the subject I really want to talk about – and normally journalists don’t mind, as it makes for a more interesting interview. But somehow I couldn’t rise to the occasion this time; still suffering from aftershock I suppose. I hope I haven’t ruined this poor woman’s afternoon. (Though I hope she does do a bit more research before her next interview; and I doubt if she will ever call me again.)

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Why Americans are overweight

In Slate:

the source of America’s obesity epidemic wasn’t portion size, or lack of exercise, or the decline in smoking. It was the invention of the automatic transmission. Here I was, the typical, atrophied American, barely able to press the clutch without my slack muscles begging for relief. Automatic transmissions became widely available in the 1940s. Over the decades, as Americans have increasingly embraced them, they’ve increasingly increased. Since you need both hands to drive a stick shift, there’s no way you can also be sucking down Slurpees and shoving in Big Macs. It’s because of automatic transmissions that we’re becoming blob people who will soon have to be hoisted into our behemoth vehicles.

Well, it’s a point of view.

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Still in recovery

Despite yesterday’s drama, I had to get up at 0600 this morning to get into town by train for a breakfast meeting with a foreign minister. One of these things where he was addressing a group of about 100 people over breakfast; except that I was one of the select ten people at the top table with the minister. Who doesn’t actually speak English. But his French is good. Oh well, one more for my list. No need to get up so early tomorrow.

Found it very difficult to concentrate on work thereafter. Had a very pleasant lunch with an ex-intern, which took the sting out of things a little. (Oddly enough, am seeing another ex-intern for lunch tomorrow.) But a lot of the day seemed to be dealing with post-crash paperwork; getting a new copy of the green card faxed from the insurers (somehow I mislaid the original yesterday) and then faxing it in turn to the bloke I crashed into as for some reason my handwriting at the time was not legible.

Am ever more grateful to all you guys for moral support, but particularly to M. from the Dutch Inter-Church Peace Council who looked after me yesterday afternoon. We knew each other quite well back in Bosnia in 1997, but this was the first time I’d seen her in three years – we had been meant to meet up at a meeting she organised last year, but she fell ill at the last moment. (Though she did drop me a friendly email earlier this year.) I hope that if ever I have an old acquaintance pitch up on my doorstep with a similar tale of woe I will be able to rise to the occasion equally well.

No marks at all to the research institute where I was making my presentation, the reason I drove up to the Hague in the first place. The lecturer in charge smelt suspiciously of booze for so early in the day, and did not endear himself to me by trying to lecture me about the politics of Northern Ireland as a substitute for making small talk, let alone reassuring noises about the crash. The students clearly had no idea who I was, and the promised map of the Balkans to illustrate my talk was in German and dated from the Cold War, so included parts of three countries which have ceaased to exist in the meantime. There will be a modest speaker’s fee, plus travel expenses at the standard rate, but all in all it was not worth it.

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Lessons learned

1) ALWAYS WEAR A SEATBELT. (I got this one right, at least.)
2) If the tyres are a bit low, PUT SOME MORE AIR INTO THEM.
3) If the road is wet, remember that IT TAKES LONGER TO BRAKE.

and most of all

4) Next time, get up twenty minutes earlier and TAKE THE TRAIN INSTEAD.

Thanks, everyone, for your support. Temporary replacement car will arrive this afternoon.

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Early start; pouring rain; wet road; running late; tyres slightly under-pressurised; me a little over-pressurised; traffic jam in the outskirts of the Hague; sudden braking not quite effectively sudden enough; big bang, airbags out, smell of gunpowder (or whatever it is they use), car in front swerves across the road and hits the central barrier.

All a bit of shock really, but nobody hurt, and both cars were drivable afterwards if dented. But I’m now sitting at someone else’s desk awaiting instructions on what to do next. I don’t fancy driving back to Brussels from the Hague with the airbag hanging out over the steering wheel.

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October Books 9) A Personal Matter

9) A Personal Matter, by Kenzaburō Ōe (surname also spelt Oë).

After the Nobel laureates discussion, I did a bit of research on those writers who were recommended to me; in most cases I simply put one of their books on my Amazon list, but I was interested enough in what said about this one to go out and get it straight away from the bookshop near work.

It’s an intensely written novel about a man whose wife gives birth to a baby with a damaged brain; and he slips back into alcohol and the arms of a former girlfriend while deciding if he will let the child live or die. The prose is very direct, so much so that I found the sex scenes spell-binding but not particularly erotic or arousing.

I found the geography of the book particularly intriguing; the landscape of the city is described in detail, yet nothing seemed particularly Japanese about it – perhaps showing how well Ōe manages to grasp the essentials of the human condition. At the same time there is a sub-plot with a small Balkan diplomatic crisis (probably Bulgarian, though the author is vague) and with Africa portrayed as a place of escape and refuges – an interesting contrast to the colonial approach of the last novel I read!

Tough reading for me, for a number of reasons, but worth it in the end.

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October Books 8) Ten Years to Oblivion

8) Ten Years to Oblivion, by “Clem Macartney”

Older readers who grew up in Northern Ireland (ie , , , and perhaps ) may remember the BBC’s veteran political correspondent, W.D. “Billy” Flackes, who would pop up on “Scene Around Six” every evening to explain to us what was going on in the twisted world of Ulster politics. It is not generally known that Flackes wrote three science fiction books in the early 1950s, one (Duel in Nightmare Worlds) under his own name and two (Dark Side of Venus and Ten Years to Oblivion) as by “Clem Macartney”.

Ten Years to Oblivion was published as issue 12 of the magazine “Science Fiction Monthly” which ran for almost seven years in the 1950s, and sold for the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence. (It cost me a bit more.) The plot is as follows: we are in the year 3094 ADNungis explained, “It is a self-contained community, for the Jungas are forbidden by law to mix socially with Zugs, and, of course, the two races are not allowed to intermarry.”

Chiffley remarked that he seemed to have read about that sort of thijng in Earth’s ancient history, but the Zug ignored the interruption. Interestingly, there were also at one time interfering busybodies locally, the Onyks from “the vast continent across the water” (subsequently wiped out by the cosmic disaster):

There was a bit of trouble at first because the Onyks objected to the only other race on Raz, the Jungas, being underprivileged and providing the labour force for the Zugs, as they always have done. But this was smoothed over because the Zugs pointed to the superior physique of the Onyks and claimed that their own was not capable of withstanding the heavy demands that are made by the Atomic Energy Council on their workers, who had to work in the ore mines, the foundries and other heavy industries, and the luxury goods workshops.
Nowadays, the Jungas live in rebellious exile on the former continent of the Onyks, under the leadership of the Zug leader’s banished brother (since they are obviously not capable of generating their own leader).

Now, it is pretty obvious to me that this represents the take of one Ulster journalist on the general question of colonisation (the human spacemen actually come not from Earth but from a recently colonised outer planet) and the specific question of apartheid, which in 1951 was in its very early days in South Africa (the National Party won the 1948 election on a platform of introducing it; and stayed in power for four and a half decades). Colonial rule was still in place in almost all of Africa (bar Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Libya which became independent that year), and Harold MacMillan’s “winds of change” speech was ten years in the future. And it’s not just the British – the Philippines had only just become independent, and Hawai’i and Alaska were still several years from statehood; it was not until 1955 that Belgium began to discuss maybe withdrawing from Congo over the next thirty years. It seems difficult to believe from half a century later, but I guess that in 1951 the question of whether the South Africans had found a viable way forward was one about which reasonable, intelligent people could have a serious discussion.

It’s awfully tempting to try and read a bit more local and personal content into this. The connections between South African and Ulster politics are a matter of record. It was of course the then recently voted-out South African leader, General Smuts, who had played a key role in persuading Unionists to accept the 1921 settlement. The chairman of the 1925 Boundary Commission was a South African judge. Republicans still see their struggle as intimately linked with that of the ANC, though Unionists’ enthusiasm for the Afrikaners is less visible now than it was in my childhood. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir Basil Brooke, was the man who had declared in 1933 that he would never have a Catholic about his own place, and who would be given a hereditary peerage the following year. The Northern Ireland establishment had recently weathered a strong challenge from the South, where Costello’s government had declared a Republic and withdrawn from the Commonwealth, as well as making a serious (though ultimately ineffectual) effort to help Nationalist candidates in the 1949 Northern Ireland election (before disintegrating in early 1951 in a row with the Church). Although Flackes had been working in London since 1947, he must have been following events at home, and he was a clever enough man to see the linkages.

One can’t, however, take it much further than that. Indeed, the moral conclusion of the novel is ambiguous. The Zugs turn out to be hostile and treacherous, which suggests that their society may not be quite as utopian as earlier chapters suggested. As the humans obliterate the Zugs’ city and civilisation, one reflects that “it was conceived in fear and cloaked in invisibility, and fate marked it out for early destruction.” But no effort whatsoever is made to save or even warn the Jungas and their leader on the other continent before their planet is destroyed at the end of the book (and no regret whatsoever is expressed for the fate of the Zugs, who are collectively annihilated in retaliation for their leader’s behaviour).

Ken MacLeod argues in his fascinating essay in The Cambridge Companion to Sceince Fiction that sf “is essentially the literature of progress, and the political philosophy of sf is essentially liberal.” There are, of course exceptions; and this may be one of them. The 1950s were obviously a weird time.

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October Books 7) Babel-17

7) Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany

I’ve read only one Delany novel before, one of his minor ones (either The Towers of Toron or The Fall of the Towers, not sure which) and wasn’t wildly impressed. This is miles better, and helps me understand why he developed the early reputation that he did. I had been expecting something like a half-way point between Zelazny and Dick; in fact, Delany comes across as more disciplined than either. A lot of Babel-17 is about sensing the universe in a different way – Delany’s spaceships require three navigators, an Eye, an Ear and a Nose, who experience space by visual, auditory and olfactory means; and the language Babel-17 itself, the centre of the whole mystery, is also about a new way of understanding the universe. Where a Dick novel would leave you wondering if it all made sense, Delany leaves you in no doubt that there is a real universe out there and it’s just a matter of how you choose to interact with it. As for the Zelazny comparison, Zelazny would sometimes let his joy of writing get in the way of having a sensible plot; but Delany’s plot is actually rather simple, and as it turns out almost cliched. There’s also an aspect all Delany’s own, which is the polyamory of several key characters – indeed, one former lover of our heroine is the rather transparently anagrammatic writer Muels Aranlyde.

OK, only 8 more Nebula winners to go…

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Hey, !

Have you ever tried playing “Space Impact” on a Nokia mobile phone? F was trying it this afternoon and I was unexpectedly reminded of you. (And more indirectly .)

For some reason, the player’s space ship’s pilot’s name is Geneva.

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