Thursday, 31 January 2008

Teasing The Paranoid

by Charles Pooter

I have a theory that designers of iconic mass-produced items sometimes insert mysterious symbolism into their designs to both make themselves feel important and to wind-up the paranoid amongst us.

An early example of this is reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, included on the dollar bill, with its famous pyramid and all-seeing eye. I suppose we can forgive this, as I doubt that 18th Century designer Pierre Eugene du Simitiere could have predicted the popularity of Masonic conspiracy theories in 21st Century America.

"Novus Ordo Seclorum". I prefer the Little Man, What Now? motto: "Orbis certe sufficit".

Entering the computer age, we have the bar code. I'm convined that George Laurer deliberately designed the three control bars at the beginning, middle and end of a UPC barcode to resemble the bars that represent the barcode number six. What better way to scare the Beejesus out of a certain type of evangelical Christian than to encode the Mark of the Beast into their groceries?
"Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six" - Rev. 13:18. "He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name." - Rev. 13:16-17. "There is nothing sinister about this nor does it have anything to do with the Bible's 'mark of the beast'... It is simply a coincidence like the fact that my first, middle, and last name all have 6 letters." - George Laurer, inventor of the barcode. See, look how he's winding them up further with the name thing!

Which brings us to the modern day. I recently moved house and had to get a new UK photocard driving licence. When it turned up in the mail, I noticed the design had changed slightly. Being a nerd, I examined it noticing that it had a new holographic anti-fraud feature. I tilted the card to look at the hologram design: a steering wheel which turns as you tilt the card. Cute. But, hang on, what's that in the background? A pyramid! A pyramid with rays eminating from it as they do from the all-seeing-eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill!

The "holographic feature" is labelled number 10. Erm, you'll just have to take my word for it that the pyramid is there!

Someone, somewhere is chuckling to themselves at their successful inclusion of this symbol in the UK driving licence. When the first website goes up declaiming the use of this "illuminati" symbol on the photocard, designers will drink a toast to another successful wind-up.

Heaven and Hell 2

by Charles Pooter

No offence intended.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Spoilers in BAUMs - An Open Thread

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Bakelite And Uranium Mondays is proving something of a success - in that each story chosen so far has proved easy enough to review, but substantial enough to justify a BAUM a week. There have also been some nice unexpected side effects: each article has rocketed to the front or second page of Google, suggesting that these are adding something of value to the interweb's body of knowledge. We at Little Man, What Now? are therefore likely to persevere with this project for a while yet.

However, we are open to the accusation of spoiling, and have heard in some back chatter that we've killed a few stories dead. The science fiction short (although we will try to do other genres too) tends to depend on the build up and the reveal, meaning that by having any sort of in depth discussion of story structure, plot and themes we weaken the story for the audience, and this is pretty unavoidable if we want to engage in any analysis. We've tried in each case to reveal as much as possible about the story without shedding any light on the primary twist, but we realise that one person's primary twist is another's minor feature. So, we hand you an open thread in which to give us some feedback. Would you prefer less information about the plot, or are you happy with the tone of BAUM?

I have to admit, my personal tendency has been to give more, rather than less, information. Classic short stories are not easily acquired separately, and I'm not particularly expecting this series to sell anthologies to people, and therefore I am mostly interested in discussing their place in the history of the genre, and ranking them on Google for the casual reader, rather than selling these stories to you: The Regulars. Still, we value your input, so please... Open thread:

All other BAUM issues gladly taken, I (Edwin) realise that BAUM is eating up a lot of my productivity at the moment, and normal service will attempt to be resumed shortly. When I am suitably inspired by other topics.

So, to our faithful, singular, reader... We thank you for your thoughts.

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: Not Long Before The End by Larry Niven

by Edwin Hesselthwite

The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1969
“Not that that would help the Warlock. He who carried Glirendree was invulnerable to any power save Glirendree itself. Or so it was said.

"Let's test that," said the Warlock to himself.”
Today's BAUM sits in the borderland of SF's great divide, and manages to raise two major issues about the genre. Not Long Before The End (1969) is the first in Larry Niven's Warlock/Mana series, and is an example of the science fiction series as composed of unitary short stories. At the same time, it is written in that barren desert between science fiction and fantasy; there is no topic more likely to result in a fistfight among science fiction fans than the relationship between the twinned genres (all-right, one other topic — George Lucas), and this story manages to stand with a foot evenly in each camp.

Niven is probably most famous for the creation of coherent imaginary universes. Between 1964 and 1974 Niven published 26 novels and short stories set within a common thousand year timeline, a universe he called Known Space. Known Space is a fully realised world, populated by the most nuts-and-bolts physics based flights of imagination — most famously his sun-encompassing Ringworld and spaceship-destroying Neutron Star — of any writer of the '60's era. It was written during a period when Moorcock, Dick, Aldiss and Ellison were actively moving SF into the counter-culture world of drugs, stylistic innovation, psychedelia and sex, and it was at least partly as a reaction to this culture that Niven wrote unashamedly Heinleinian fiction. Known Space was staggeringly successful, and there was a period when almost every year he walked away with one or even several of SF's major awards.

His primary form, the serial as fully developed universe, had been around since the dawn of SF. By basing multiple stories in the same universe, the serial form allows you to simplify your writing process (the work of establishing your style and setting has already been done) while allowing you to market your story to the magazines as the latest in a successful run. Once the universe's internal rules and history have developed you have a serial that can be greater than the sum of its parts. Some successful examples are Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality Of Mankind, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Asimov's Foundation series. It's a form that can only exist in Science Fiction (although Salinger's Glass family stories come from a similar stock) and is a corner of some of the more ambitious work in the genre. As an aside, some of the most hideous crimes against the genre have been committed by an author trying to kludge already written and successful stories retrospectively into the same universe (see, also, Asimov's Foundation series, or King's Dark Tower). There are also serious risks to working with this form as you write yourself into a smaller and smaller imaginative corner while your fans become evermore rabid: see Terry Pratchett's progressively less imaginative Discworld series. With ambition comes risk.

Not Long Before The End was written by Niven in a setting that could not be further from Known Space: heroic fantasy. He is flamboyant about this, starting with the sentence "A swordsman battled a sorcerer once upon a time", and he goes on to use many of the clichés of the genre, from the sinking of Atlantis (with explicit mention of plate tectonics) to dinosaurs being the remains of dragons. Nonetheless, NLBTE is pure Niven, and it is clear that before writing this story, he had long been living in this setting inside his head. In a 15 page story Niven managed to introduce The Warlock, a major character who would re-appear in much of his fiction, he also set out the rules and tone of a consistent imaginary universe, subverted the traditions of heroic fantasy, and wrote an entertaining adventure story. Small wonder that NLBTE was nominated for The Hugo award.

The story opens with The Warlock, supposedly a great sorcerer but really one of Niven's stock adventurer/scientist heroes, realising that he is about to be attacked by a swordsman with an enchanted weapon. This is the '60's, and Niven writes the swordsman into that great '60's caricature: the square too un-hip to understand what's going on. In the course of the story, the wizard and the swordsman do battle, the wizard (of course) wins, gets the girl and walks off into the sunset. But, obviously, there is more to it than that.

Fantasy and SF have always been strange bedfellows. Twinned together since birth they are often co-categorised as Speculative Fiction, but the need for intellectual content and concept in much of science fiction is often at odds with the escapism and whimsy integral to much of fantasy. The common requirement for a highly developed imaginative world means they draw similar writers and readers, but the trappings and underlying priorities of story structure are at odds and many dedicated fans of one violently reject the other. High fantasy, a world of heroes and elves, is also ripe for subversion. The most famous example of such is probably Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series (1968), where she tried to subvert the gender and race elements of the genre in her usual stellar fashion. In the Warlock series, Niven attempts the similar trick of forcing heroic fantasy to fit the intellectual consistency typical of his Heinleinian fiction.

The world he creates in this story is one where the source of magic, mana, is a finite resource. Without giving too much away, he sets it on Earth somewhere in the region of 10 000 years ago, and he manages in this story to reveal enough information about this world that we are able to get a firm handle on it's society, history and an understanding that despite the dramatic transformational power of magic it is subservient to the basic principles of physics (there is a lovely joke in here about the enchanted sword coming up against the conservation of momentum). The idea of writing hard fantasy, with the basic idea of entropy (one of science fiction's biggest ideas) as applied to magic, had legs. So, despite the relatively few publications in this series (9 further stories and novels), other prominent writers chose to write within the world Niven created, in an anthology called The Magic May Return.

Of the further stories set in the Warlock's world the best is probably What Good Is A Glass Dagger? (1972), but the definitive novel that would hook these stories into a wider audience never materialised. Niven has always been limited in that while he is a superb short story writer (there is nothing primitive about his prose, and his twists are masterful), he clearly struggles with the structural complexities of a larger novel. I suspect this is what has often led him to collaborate with other authors, with variable degree of success. Over the last thirty years his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle (an unapologetic polemicist) have become increasingly politically charged and his own works have shown less care and craftsmanship. There have recently been two novels by these two, set in The Warlock's world, that I am very wary of reading.

Back in '69, the early Warlock stories were a wonderful breath of the best elements of science fiction, lashing their intelligence across the lazier landscape of heroic fantasy. Not Long Before The End was a battle hymn for the brainier side of science fiction in the New Wave/Hard SF wars of the late sixties, and it contained within it the seed of all that would follow, and much that failed to arrive.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The British Revolution

by Edwin Hesselthwite

A Very English Uprising


Two men are standing in the front room of a house in the north of England. They carry themselves with a manner of authority, suggestive of influence in the local community.

“Well, Yorkie, you've been reading as much as I have about the steel works and the mills? Everyone's getting restless. I think we’re going to have to head South, remind them again.”

“Aye: you talk to yours, I'll talk to mine. Bring what you think is necessary.”

9 hours later, after some rousing speeches, some disorganised trudging, and a broken wheel on the Great North Road.

“Ok, we’ve barely passed Sheffield, it's pissing it down, and my back is killing me. I’m not saying we should give up on taking our pikes to Parliament, but shall we take a break for a pint? Then we can organise some proper coaches in the evening and really take the hammer to Whitehall.”

Birds continue to sing in Parliament and Trafalgar Squares. An unusually large pigeon turd lands on the tip of Nelson's nose, and splashes slightly.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: Lillian by Damon Runyon

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Guys And Dolls and Other Stories - (1932)
And what is it but luck that has Wilbur Willard all mulled up to a million, what with him having been sitting out a few seidels of Scotch with a friend by the name of Haggerty in an apartment over in Fifty-ninth Street? Because if Wilbur Willard is not mulled up he will see Lillian as nothing but a little black cat, and give her plenty of room, for everybody knows that black cats are terribly bad luck, even when they are only kittens.

Take out your whisky tumblers, loosen up your craps-wrist, and start up your Jelly Roll Morton records - this weeks BAUM is played out amongst the the disreputable bars of Broadway in the Twenties. In an effort to make sure BAUM doesn't become purely an SF ghetto, I thought week three was the time to throw in some noir imagery. First anthologised in 1931 in Runyon's first paperback, Lillian is 13 pages of New York fairy tale.

Lillian is pure Damon Runyon, concise, witty, with a twist at the end to make you grin, the story might be what you take away, but what you are reading Runyon for is the style and the setting. Runyon almost single handedly invented the imagery of the wrong side of the street New York, his frankly gorgeous prose takes you to a world inhabited by men called Horse Thief because "it is the consensus of public opinion from coast to coast that he may steel one if the opportunity presents", where men wear hats and running the odd scam is just part of the local character. Runyon's world is handed to you in first person, present tense historical, a bizarre narrative viewpoint that Runyon polishes to perfection. The narrator, a suspicious character but somewhat more conservative than his associates (his stories never show him getting his hands dirty), acts as cypher for the street's stories. Never one for short sentences, his prose drips with slang, invented words and so many commas that you need a paddle to drive them away. Take a look at the above quotation for assonance and alliteration - the repeating "ll" patterns amongst "w" alliterations show a real beauty in lyrical prose. The time and place he develops is so evocative there is even a word for it: Runyonesque.

So, Lillian. Lillian is a story about one man (he happens to be a singer, and a good one), his alcoholism, his ex-girlfriend and his cat, both of whom go by the name of Lillian. And from the first line of text the prose starts rolling along, carrying Willard from night club to flop house. He's not a villain, and despite the crime and grease the stories of Runyon are fairy tales of a sort. Hard men gambling their earnings to their victims, safe crackers responsible for minding the baby, Runyon's world is one written in brilliant colour...

And as you would expect of stories like this: such is the fiction, such is the man. Runyon was a professional sports journalist (hence the razor-sharp stylisation), who made a name for himself as one of Hearst newspapers (that Hearst) lead column writers, preferring to spend as much attention on writing about the people and the atmosphere as about the sports event he was attending. He proved so succesful that he became a lead journalist in all fields for Hearst. He lived and breathed Broadway, with numerous friends among the underbelly. His fiction has proved extremely suitable for film adaptation (most famously the musical Guys And Dolls), but noir is no longer as popular as it once was, and Runyon's fanbase has fallen off a little.

In writing this review I had intended to emphasise the story, singular... But I find that the works of Runyon are interwoven. Like Jorge Luis Borges or Ivo Andric these short stories should be savoured, they are rich enough to give you indegestion if eaten all at once, but I recommend them all. If you are the podcasting kind, I suggest wandering across to the Damon Runyon Theatre, a link site of dubious legality that contains links to 40's radio versions of some of his best shorts. Runyon's prose style is so distinctive that no one has ever really tried, or succeeded, in imitating it.

Hat? check... Type writer? check... Where's my whisky?

Harry Chinese Kid Looking for Love

by Charles Pooter

We here at Little Man, What Now? would like to wish the hairy Chinese kid all the best in his search for the love of his life:

The world's hairiest man is looking for a new love on the internet after breaking up with his girlfriend.

Yu Zhenhuan, recognised in 2002 as the world's hairiest man by the Guinness Book of Records, is using an online dating agency.

"I was amazed to see his picture there, since I'd been hearing he was going to get married soon. So I called the media," says the person who broke the story, and who wants to remain anonymous.

Yu, 29, confirmed: "We got to know each other through the internet, and had been seeing each other for three years. Unfortunately our relationship has come to an end."

And he added: "My whole body is covered with hair, and my parents are worried I won't be able to find a wife. Many girls are shocked when they see me in person.

"I feel like King Kong, hideous, but with a soft and tender heart," he told Zhejiang Online.
The hairy Chinese kid: looking for love.

It would be presumptuous of me to offer Yu advice in this field, but all I would say is that not all women like the smooth, waxed look. Whilst you may have a tad more hair than, say, Sean Connery in his prime, some women have unique tastes and the internet is undoubtably the place to find them.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Quick Link

by Charles Pooter

The excellent William N. Grigg on those Ron Paul newsletters.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Polly Toynbee and the Meaning of Life

by Charles Pooter

Polly is predictable (wrong) as ever. You gotta love (hate) her.

Her argument in favour of Government vampirism is entirely "utilitarian". This being the case she really she has no logical reason to be against the organs of those who are almost dead from also being harvested for use by younger, more deserving citizens. In practice of course, subconscious utilitarianism will take place anyway. Doctors will not be able to stop themselves trying just that little bit less hard to resuscitate the 40 year old biker with the crushed skull, knowing that the six year old schoolgirl next door really needs a new heart very soon and that the biker will be a vegetable anyway if he ever comes round. The fact that the biker's heart will be theirs automatically when he dies will make their unconscious utilitarian urges even harder to resist.

There is no "implied consent" for anyone to use your corpse after death. There already exists the common-law concept of next of kin. Almost everyone has their next of kin recorded somewhere and this person is someone who can probably be trusted to give an opinion about the wishes of the deceased.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: The Streets Of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison

by Edwin Hesselthwite

New Worlds Science Fiction, September 1962, where today's BAUM was first published
“‘Get back in that ship.’ he shouted, not hiding his anger now. With a smooth motion his gun was out of the holster and the pitted black muzzle only inches from the priest's stomach. The man's face turned white, but he did not move.”

Week two of BAUM and already I'm breaking promises, plans to review The Man Who Lost The Sea by Ted Sturgeon have been placed on hold. Instead I have chosen to go for a classic anti-missionary tale by Harry Harrison, a story that has been published as both The Streets Of Ashkelon and An Alien Agony (and primacy of title is a little debatable).

The Streets Of Ashkelon (as I will call it for the rest of this article) is legendary writer Harry Harrison's most anthologised story. Harrison is famous for writing high action stories (his Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld serieses are canon) that mix classical liberal polemics with spy-romps and planet smashing, and while TSOA may be thinner (it is only 15 pages long) on the high-action it stands as one of SF's most infamous diatribes. It was first purchased for publication in Brian Aldiss's More Penguin Science Fiction, which also included a re-publication of last week's TTUTW, and which is still in print under a different title. It's an influential story for taboo-breaking, and most notably, it's reasonable to suggest that Hugo and Nebula award winning classic novel Speaker For The Dead by Orson Scott Card owes it a debt. Both stories contain a similar set-up of missionaries amongst the dwarf aliens, in which the aliens are treated as innocents in the religious sense but still with sharp and pointy teeth.

TSOA is far more forthright than TTUTW, with the directness that would come to represent the 1960's generation of SF writers. The central conceit being: how would aliens react to a Catholic missionary? The lead is John Garth, a trader who has lived for several years alone amongst the Weskerians (of the planet Wesker), his project is coming to an end but he is loathe to leave. The Weskerians are a race of dwarf sized amphibians, on a world without enough materials for them to have developed a technology, leaving them innocent but intelligent when the missionary, Mark, arrives. The story revolves around the interaction of Mark's moral teachings, and their previous training in logic, empiricism and the scientific method from Garth. In the hands of Harrison it, of course, ends in blood, mud and tears intermixed with lots of passionate debate.

TSOA was at the beginning of a sea-change in SF. While pulp SF had always had a strong element of political commentary in it (Ted Sturgeon's much earlier Mr Costello, Hero is a blatant anti-McCarthy rant, go listen to the podcast linked), the major publishers had traditionally shied away from the issues of God and sex. TSOA, written for an early attempt at a taboo-breaking publication (which subsequently failed to materialise) is probably the earliest SF story to wear it's anti-clerical sentiment so openly on it's sleeve, and to achieve wide-acclaim for it (it was rejected from major magazines repeatedly on initial submission, leaving it to find an English venue for an American writer). Mark is treated very much as a cypher for all the weak arguments Harrison clearly feels undermines organised religion, but he is not drawn as weak, and Garth is the classic Heinleinian SF pragmatist, a hard, honest, whisky drinking intellectual. As the decade progressed this theme was to be repeated (most famously in Michael Moorcock's Behold The Man), but never with the conciseness and power of the ending found in TSOA.

Stylistically it's not as weak as this summary would suggest, there are some gorgeous turns of phrase present here, the last sentence is a real kicker, and he doesn't scrimp on describing the planet. Much like last week's story, Harrison uses a lot of clichés as shorthand, thereby allowing him to ignore some aspects of story construction (Harrison manages to write a story about a trader with less than two paragraphs discussing trading). I continue to view this as valuable, a cliché is better than dragging a perfect 15 page story out to a 40 page ramble. While the humans' backgrounds are ignored, The Weskers are described in detail, a fully realised alien species, and the story would have far less impact if they were less well-drawn. Harrison has decided what aspects matter, and cut the rest. In terms of tone, Harrison creates a set-up that is desperately gritty and empirical, there is no room for honour and false sentiment on the mud and marsh of Wesker, and it is this hyper-realistic tone that makes the climax hit as hard as it does.

In terms of dating, there are no descriptions of technology that date the story, this is a human visitors meet alien planet story of the classic kind, and he avoids description of the spaceship and goods. This is so carefully done that I could easily imagine this being published on Escape Pod at the present time. With this thought in mind, the anti-clericalism would probably cause just as many problems now as it did at the time of publication (SF is again quite a conservative place), and thus this story is still unusually passionate and taboo-breaking.

I have a long, deep fondness for this story, and the art that went into it. There is a place for stories of religious exploration, and TSOA is the definitive SF anti-clerical rant. The story's brevity allows it leeway on it's politics and it's sufficiently intelligent to keep this in the character's behaviour, not in the narrative voice (as happens often in writers such as Heinlein's political SF stories). TSOA is a classic, and is rightly one of the most widely anthologised stories in the history of the genre (48 reprints, and counting).

Harry Harrison

Libertarianism != Neo-conservatism

by Charles Pooter

Note to non-nerd readers: "!=" means "not equals" in some programming languages.

Neil Clark links to this hopelessly confused piece by Tom Hodgkinson. I think for some hacks, neo-conservatism (or indeed libertarianism) just mean "American politics I don't like". I left the following comment on Neil's blog:


I read your stuff and like it, even if I don't agree with a lot of what you have to say.

But please do not conflate neo-conservatism with libertarianism (as the writer of this linked piece has done). You may not agree with libertarianism (Which anyway has a diversity of opinion at least as varied as Socialism. Indeed some strains even overlap with certain non-state Socialist ideas), but to confuse it with neo-conservatism does it a great disservice.

It is true that some American and British libertarians have erroneously supported such actions as the Iraq war, but I would say that these are the minority. In many libertarians you will find allies in the fight against imperialism, you will find agreement with your support of civil liberties and with some more-enlightened libertarians (such as the mutualists) you will find sympathy with your anti-corporate views.

To be sure you will never get agreement with your pro-nationalisation stance (command economics doesn't work) or some of your more socially conservative viewpoints (we should all be allowed to go to hell in our own way), but then you already knew that. Argue with libertarians by all means, but don't label us as neo-cons.

Quote of the Day

by Charles Pooter

“Guido is sceptical about multi-authored blogs. They have to have a tight-focus to be successful. Waffling about anything and everything doesn't work” — Guido Fawkes
As William Gibson would say, “O well.”

More Swedish Pirate Action

by Charles Pooter

As this quote of the day and its linked article demonstrate, Sweden is at the forefront in the battle against IP (Imaginary Property) . In this extremely interesting interview, Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish Pirate Party explains how Sweden's head start with fast domestic 'net connections (10 megabits per second in 1998, 100 megabits per second now) raised file sharing up the country's political agenda. He also explains how weak the opposition's arguments are and how framing the debate in terms of civil liberties (essentially, a totalitarian level of surveillance would be required to truly prevent file sharing), put the enemy on the back foot. Well worth reading the whole thing.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Quote of the Day

by Charles Pooter

“Decriminalizing all non-commercial file sharing and forcing the market to adapt is not just the best solution. It’s the only solution, unless we want an ever more extensive control of what citizens do on the Internet. Politicians who play for the antipiracy team should be aware that they have allied themselves with a special interest that is never satisfied and that will always demand that we take additional steps toward the ultimate control state.”
Karl Sigfrid, Swedish MP and Moderate Party member.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

A Rare Display Of Political Courage.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

The self appointed leaders of the Green movement, acting like any sensible lobby, choose political lines and sticks to them like the front at Passchendale. This is great for consistency and hammer-blow lobbying, but not so good for the purposes of logic and energy policy. No issue has alienated me, personally, more from the green movement (whose broad aims it would be foolish to oppose) than the common intractable stance when it comes to nuclear energy, best summed up by the usually sane Peter Tatchell's absurdly ill-conceived post today on The Guardian's CiF. I would fisk each any every point of flawed reasoning if I didn't think it was so fruitless to argue with a fanatic.

I have always wanted to back the Green movements ideals, but any movement so willing to misrepresent the holy grail of energy production — Tokamak Fusion — as being more of the same as fission, should be viewed with distrust. Nuclear power has it's dangers, but reactor technologies have changed radically since Britain's main Magnox reactor producing era in the 50's and 60's (built demonstrably with the intention of weapon's plutonium production more than energy). Many of the problems of the technology have been eliminated, or should be viewed in the context of modern geochemistry. One issue indeed - that nuclear reactors are always built on the coast, and that water-born isotope chemistry is much more complex and diffusive (plumes of anthropogenic isotopes tend to spew out into the sea from the waters used to cool the reactor, and then behave in complex geochemical ways) - has never been resolved to my satisfaction, but the ongoing research on the topic continues to influence reactor design and placing. The tendency to mis-represent nuclear power as either science fiction or as dangerous 50's technology is contradictory and disingenuous.

So, when it is clear that the government has decided to push ahead with replacing our ageing reactors with modern models, in the face of massive media (the BBC are particularly fond of pandering to baby boomer nostalgia on the issue) and lobbying opposition, I feel the need to pat our elected representatives on the back. This is the right decision — more please, ditching ID cards would be nice.

Enrico Fermi's CP-1, the world's first nuclear reactor, constructed in a Chicago stadium in 1942. Modern reactors are not built to the same design.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

New Hampshire: Please Vote Ron Paul

by Charles Pooter

In which a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman makes an uncharacteristically impassioned plea to the voters of New Hampshire.

In 2004 The Guardian launched a patronising and misguided attempt to brow-beat a small group of American voters into voting for John Kerry. Operation Clark County led to a flood of letters being sent to the small Ohio county attempting to persuade the voters to take the international dimension into account when selecting their candidate. This effort highlighted everything that the world hates about Britons:

  • our patronising arrogance
  • our seeming disdain for the provincial, the domestic and the homely
  • our misguided belief that our imperial past imbues every bore in every British pub with the patrician qualities needed to lecture the rest of the world about international affairs

These attitudes are borne of our imperial past and our degraded present. We would rather comment on the mote in your eye, whilst ignoring the hefty great mock-Tudor beam in our own. Operation Clark County rightly and delightfully backfired (see: Dear Limey assholes).

With this in mind, I write the following with caution. Please accept that this comes from the heart and that I write it knowing that I will subsequently feel foolish for doing so. Nevertheless, I also know that in this instance I must write what I feel. Publish and be damned as they say.

In summary: voters of New Hampshire, please vote for Ron Paul in today's Presidential primary elections.

I have always loved America. More specifically, it is the myth of America that I am in love with. Of course I have consumed a lot of American culture (who in the West hasn't) and I've actually visited once (more than many of the USA's most vocal European critics though). But I've eaten a lot of French food and yet don't love France in the same way. The reason I love America is that I love liberty and the ideals of America are the ideals of liberty.

I find it a truly amazing thing that men living nearly 250 years ago could conceive so clearly of how a free people could live. It astounds me that concepts such as free speech, due process and limited government were enshrined so clearly in the founding documents of a new country created all those years ago. Of course, many of those ideas came from my own country, where hints of their origins can be found in Magna Carta and more explicitly in the works of Englishmen like John Locke and Thomas Paine. But it was in America that they truly came to fruition and in America where a new country was created according to those principles.

However we are all grown-ups here, we know that the constitution is not a document handed down from God, that the American founders were not infallible beings and that concepts such as "manifest destiny" led to the practical extinction of the peoples who already lived on the American continent. We know that from the start the vision of liberty has been corrupted. America has been the home of slavery and of injustice. It experimented with imperialism in the Philippines at the beginning of the 2oth Century, just as it now does in Iraq at the start of the 21st. But, as much as the narrative of the American revolution and the subsequent history of the country has been mythologised, there is a kernel of something grand and beautiful within the shell of American political culture.

There are the grand words:

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...”

There is the recognition that dignity and happiness can only come through individual liberty:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

And there is the tradition of non-conformists like Benjamin Tucker to Henry David Thoreau:

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root" - Henry David Thoreau

Ron Paul

Of all the candidates standing for election to become President of the United States, I believe that Ron Paul is the only candidate who truly believes in the ideals of liberty. In other words he is the only candidate who truly believes in the ideals of America. His voting record shows that he is committed to the constitution. He believes in a small federal government, deferring most decisions to the state level. This is what the founders believed. He wishes America to become disentangled from foreign conflicts that are not in her long-term interests. This is what the founders believed. Dr Paul is not stupid of course, he too knows that the constitution is just a piece of paper, but he also understands that the more that America has strayed from the principles and ideals that underlie that document, the more that its political culture has become poisoned.

In terms of America the ideal, Ron Paul is the only true American standing in this election. Vote Ron Paul to strike at the root.

To New Hampshire conservatives

True conservatism is about liberty. It is about the freedom to solve problems by yourself as individuals, families and local communities. Conservatives should be sceptical of those who claim that big Government can solve all of life's problems. Ron Paul shares your scepticism and his voting record proves that he is committed to smaller Government and for limiting the federal state to those functions specifically allowed by the constitution. Other GOP candidates claim to share this scepticism but their conduct in public office proves otherwise. To a man, they have engaged in pork-barrel politics and corporate whoring. They have controlled both houses of Congress and the executive branch and have enlarged the federal Government. Often Ron Paul has been the sole voice in Congress against such enlargements.

Conservatives should also be sceptical of sending America's armed forces to fight wars that do not serve the interests of your country. If you love your country and you respect your fighting men and women, you should vote for Dr Paul, the only candidate guaranteed to bring the troops home to defend America's borders and interests.

To New Hampshire liberals

The New Hampshire primaries are "open". If you are not a registered Democrat you can vote for a GOP candidate. I urge all unregistered liberals to vote for Ron Paul. If you see Dr Paul as a threat to your favoured policy or program, I ask you this: at what level of Government is intervention more likely to work? Localism is one of the great liberal values. If social programs are run closer to home - perhaps at the state level - they will be less monolithic, more accountable and will allow for a diversity of solutions in different states. If you implement one solution at the federal level, can you be sure it will be the right one? Will it be easy to change it once it is in place? You are sceptical of massive corporations imposing "one size fits all" solutions on the public. Shouldn't you be sceptical of candidates who want the federal government to do the same?

Dr Paul will attempt to return power to the states. He will not prevent New Hampshire running a state-funded health care scheme, just as he will not prevent the state from explicitly legalising abortion. A vote for Ron Paul is a vote for diversity. As left-wing British blogger David Lindsay says:

"Only states' rights, as advocated by Ron Paul, can bring social democracy to America, just as only national sovereignty can restore social democracy to Europe."

As for foreign policy, Ron Paul is the only candidate you can trust to bring the troops home. You can't trust Obama and you certainly can't trust Hillary. Liberal interventionism and neo-Conservatism are two sides of the same coin: both breed hatred of America and both distract the public and politicians from solving the problems you have at home.

The constitution is a liberal document. It was written by liberals and is the blueprint for a truly liberal society. Don't allow conservatives to steal your radical heritage. Vote Ron Paul to get a truly liberal president.

To all New Hampshire voters

Whatever your political opinions, I ask you to examine the candidates on a personal level. Look at how the other candidates have shilled for special interests their whole lives. Notice how they attempt to manipulate you with saccharine ads and empty promises. Even when the media presents one favoured candidate as more honest or down-to-Earth than another, look at their voting records. See how they only vote on party-lines or according to who pays their bills. See how their opinions change from one year to the next. They all sold their principles and their souls long ago. Compare them to Ron Paul. Look at his voting record, not on the shallow level of whether or not he support your favoured cause, but look at his consistency and his purity of vision.

Never mind that he is a family man and clinician of great personal and professional integrity, watch his interviews on YouTube and see how he gives straight answers to questions often deliberately designed to trip him up. Notice how all his answers are informed by his opinions, not by whatever demographic may be watching at that particular time. Notice also that he is not naive, that he is clearly politically savvy, but that these smarts are displayed without dishonesty or evasion. Besides all this, I ask that you watch his videos and try to deny that there is a fundamental decency about the man that just shines through.

In Conclusion

Today the residents of New Hampshire have the power to alter the course of the planet. You can confound the corporate media and the vested interests. You have the power to kickstart the campaign of an honest man. A campaign which could conceivably steer America back onto the path of liberty. You have the power to show that liberty and freedom works. You have the power to bring the fighting men and women of America's armed forces home to protect your borders, rather than fighting foreign wars whilst embroiled in the "entangling alliances" that Jefferson warned of. You have the power to help Ron Paul to make America the shining beacon of liberty to the world once more.

Please, for the sake of America the country and America the ideal, and to give hope to all those across the world who are Americans in their heart, please vote Ron Paul.

Live free or die!

Monday, 7 January 2008

John K. is a Genius and The World Should Shout His Name!

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Images from A Yard Too Far in Ren And Stimpy

John Kricfalusi is the original animator and creator behind Nickelodeon legend The Ren And Stimpy Show. I won't go in to the long story of his biography (in which dismissal from successful projects seems to play a repeat role) suffice to say that he has built himself a reputation as the Francis Ford Coppola of animation... A genius of high standing who hasn't been allowed near a substantial budget since his days of equal parts folly and glory (and Nickelodeon then ran his Ren and Stimpy project into the ground).

He now writes a blog called all kinds of stuff, that uses his expert knowledge of the process of animation to dissect Golden Age cartoons and show the real mechanics of the form. This brings out a lot of information that wouldn't be at all obvious to the layman, and show in equal parts a passion for the ambition of the original form, and a love for the under-utilised potential that animation still has.

He's recently been on an incredibly hot streak of content, discussing virtuoso animators Bob Clampett and Tex Avery's use of what he calls "animation grammar" and I direct you his way with a few choice links:

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: The Tunnel Under The World By Frederick Pohl.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1955
“On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burckhardt woke up screaming out of a dream.

It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life. He could still hear and feel the sharp ripping-metal explosion, the violent heave that tossed him furiously out of bed, the searing wave of heat.” — the beginning of The Tunnel Under The World.

Little Man, What Now? today proudly presents a new repeating feature. Bakelite And Uranium Mondays is intended as a weekly/biweekly (we haven't decided yet) fixture where we will review individual works of of short fiction (predominantly, but not exclusively SF). Please look back to my review of Star Fourteen where I go a long way to explaining why I think short fiction is pivotal to the SF form. After a brief visit to a few bookshops demonstrated the difficulty in buying good anthologies covering the older classics of the form, I thought reviewing them might be a good way to bring them to a wider audience, so they won't be totally forgotten. We'll see how this pans out, but I have elements like period politics, what dates a story, influence on later works and style as features I plan on emphasising (other Little Men will of course go their own way).

To start this series I've picked a personal favourite, The Tunnel Under The World by Frederick Pohl, first published in the January '55 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, edited by Horace Gold. Pohl is among my SF heroes, and TTUTW is his most widely anthologised work (I recommend this anthology). It's influence is broad enough that it's been identifiably the source for other works, with the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F Galouye and the movie Dark City drawing heavily from it's style, plot and imagery.

The plot opens with an unexplained but forgotten explosion, that leads to one of SF's stock ideas: what if you woke up, and realised that you were living the same day over and over? The hero, Guy Burkhardt, is living in Groundhog Day. But this version comes with a strong dose of cosmic horror and dread. A good SF short often works a bit like a steel trap, if you have too much information the snaps don't quite come off, so I don't want to give away too much of the plot and ruin the carefully orchestrated reveals. This story is particularly notable for this, because Pohl manages to pull off a particularly clever double-twist on the last page, giving it an unusually strong hammer-blow ending.

With avoiding spoiling this in mind, the major theme is advertising. A common topic in Pohl's work that he always approaches it with a mixture of fascination and dread. To give some background, in his autobiography The Way The Future Was Pohl describes the 3 years he spent working as an advertising copywriter after the War: “advertising is addictive and it rots the mind”. This came from being (he claims) extremely good at parting people from their money, and finding it went completely against his morality. This experience was clearly used to flesh out the novel The Space Merchants and as the central threat in TTUTW, where advertising seems to have become the driving force behind everything.

The style is pretty stock-50's SF. Pohl is an excellent literary stylist when he aims to be (most clearly seen in his '66 classic Day Million), but his 50's stories usually aim for the steel-trap SF mentioned above, here he has intentionally stripped away all plot-free elements. The hero Burckhardt is an everyman and the villains are equally fleshless, although not to the point of caricature. As a story with a strong element of horror behind it, this minimalism enhances the tension, and would lose a lot in more high-minded hands. Further, the story has dated remarkably well, with only one key technological plot element sticking out to the modern reader. By staying away from too much specific technology the story has managed to avoid taking on too many of the trappings of the period. So, while the politics strongly resonates with a 50's style McCarthy-era paranoia (Pohl was a documented ex-member of The Communist Party), he avoids mention of the Institute sized supercomputers that strongly date his peer and friend Isaac Asimov's '50's work.

Pohl's obsessions with advertising, overpopulation and corporate shennanigans are an excellent reminder that the modern politics of the Naomi Klein generation is nothing in the least bit new. His (and Cyril Kornbluth's) novel The Space Merchants is an anti-globalised-capitalism watershed of the 50's. TTUTW is probably his punchiest work on the topic. There is a bleakness to the imagery, and an underlying misanthropy in this story (Pohl does not retreat into evil cliches or making the unseen hands aliens) that make this a classic that has stuck with me since I first read it at the age of 14.

Addendum: I have discovered a website where the story is podcast (from an old 1950's Radio show called X Minus One), strongly recommended.

Next: The Man Who Lost The Sea by Theodore Sturgeon.

Dark City, which owes TTUTW a debt.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Easter Eggs

by Charles Pooter

David Lindsay comments:

I Saw Easter Eggs For Sale Today. I really haven't the words...
I have:Mmmmm sacrilicious!