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Same Planet?

Not for the first time Ruth Davidson has come to my attention. I have previously noted her resemblance to Benito Mussolini.

It struck me a while ago that she is largely responsible for the present mess that the UK Parliament has got itself into over Brexit. At the last general election – one in which the UK’s future relationship with the EU was the most important issue facing the country – her campaign consisted solely of insisting that the Scottish electorate reject any more unneccesary elections in the form of a second Scottish independence referendum. (The irony that that general election was itself totally unnecessary in that Theresa May had a perfectly workable majority and no need to bother the electorate seems to have been lost on Ms Davidson.)

The upshot, however, was that the number of Scottish Conservative MPs increased from its previous derisory level to 13. Given that Mrs May managed to lose Tory MPs in the rest of the UK this was something of a triumph for Ms Davidson. However its consequence was that rather than Theresa May losing power those 13 Tory MPs gave her an outside shot at a Parliamentary majority, with DUP help.

The outcome we all know. The Westminster Parliament has been unable to come to any agreement on what the future relations between the UK and the EU ought to be and all is chaos. Without those 13 Scottish Tory MPs there may well have been a different Government – under a different Prime Minister – and an orderly withdrawal from the EU might have been cobbled together. British politics would not then be in its present parlous state. And we have what is arguably another “unnecessary” election.

Yet, what lay in my post on my arrival back from holiday? (A holiday I might add in which my visits to Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland and Sweden showed a degree of civic engagement with the elections to the European Parliament sadly not in evidence in the UK in previous years to this – and given the lack of posters on lampposts round my area in this year too. A coincidental mayoral election in Rostock might have added to the interest there, though.)

Well there was a Scottish Tory European election leaflet barely mentioning Europe (if at all) but pleading for votes so as to forestall a further Scottish independence referendum. Ms Davidson it seems has only one tune. Her cupboard is bare. If it weren’t for the prospect of another independence referendum what on Earth would she campaign on? She has nothing to say on any other subject.

Since she has seemingly learned nothing and has forgotten nothing perhaps Ms Davidson is a Bourbon rather than a Mussolini.

The Threat to the British Constitution

Britrain doesn’t have a constitution.

Not a written one anyway.

The unwritten one contains the single provision that Parliament is sovereign.

Yet a former holder of high office in the UK government has pronounced that a “suicide vest” has been placed around it.

The language in which he articulated this – of a piece with a previous outburst about “letterboxes” – is clearly intended to speak to a certain kind of inhabitant of the UK – those who have been primed to believe that the British way of life is under attack by people with “un-British” belief systems.

If that way of life is indeed under attack it is not by people from foreign shores (or even by those from Britain who have been brainwashed by terrorists into believing their faith is persecuted here and worldwide) or with alternative belief systems. There is at present no direct threat to the fabric of Britain, either from foreign powers or from agents of inhumane ideologies inimical to independent thinking.

Possible threats to individual citizens from individual terrorist outrages (but that was also true of the IRA without them being demonised in the way we see of “Muslims” now) or actions tacitly approved by foreign governments, yes; systematic undermining, and takeover, of the institutions of the UK, no. Anyone who says there is is guilty of hyperbole and their motives for making such a claim ought to be questioned.

But if anyone did put a suicide vest around the British constitution it was not the present, but the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron – Mr Irresponsible striking again!

He it was who undermined Parliamentary sovereignty by calling a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU without the certainty of winning it.

That vest was detonated – along with his accomplices – by none other than the same man who makes the “suicide vest” claim against the present PM.

The EU referendum result implicitly placed the populace at large – or at least that minority of it whose votes prevailed – as being more sovereign than Parliament. There is nowhere to go after that.

Parliament – despite the present one being elected since the referendum and so technically, under the (admittedly non-existent) constitution, more sovereign than the referendum result as it is subsequent to it – cannot act in any way that ameliorates the consequences of that result. Too much anger would be stoked thereby – and there’s enough about as it is.

In the seventeenth century the English – and Scots and Irish – fought a war (several wars actually) over principals like this. The least we must demand of actors in the present constitutional crisis – becaue that’s what it is – is that they use language that does not stoke any fires.

Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 383 p. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Jan-Feb 2017.

 Invisible Planets cover

Chinese SF has been making something of a splash in the wider world of late. This volume – containing thirteen stories (bar one all award winners in China) by seven authors, four women and three men, along with three essays on the form’s Chinese incarnation – provides the opportunity to delve into its ripples but perhaps dangles an invitation to a question. Do these examples of Chinese SF exhibit traits which are specifically Chinese in nature? Is it possible to discern characteristics unique to a culture’s literary output and, within that, to its SF?

In the broad sense, surely yes. Russian literature for example has a very different feel to that written in English. So too its SF. But does Invisible Planets spread its net widely enough to allow any such judgement? (I myself, though, having noted a qualitative difference in the broad sweep of US SF as opposed to that from the UK – which was then all but solely English – and so deliberately set out to write a novel that could only have arisen from a Scottish background, might be the wrong person to ask.)

In his introduction Ken Liu specifically warns us not to expect the contents here to be monolithic, that SF from China will be as diverse in nature as that from anywhere else, and cautions us that the stories he has chosen may not be representative; though he does note that SF from Singapore, the UK and the US “are all quite different” from each other, even if there are “further divisions within and across such geographical boundaries.”

He offers us “science fiction realism” from Chen Qiufan, the self-proclaimed “porridge SF” (neither “hard” nor “soft” – the terms apparently have slightly different meanings in China where hard refers to the inclusion of more technical material) of Xia Jia, “wry, political metaphors” from Ma Boyong, the “surreal imagery” of Tang Fei, “dense language-pictures” from Cheng Jingbo, the “fabulism and sociological speculation” of Hao Jingfang and Cixin Liu’s “hard science-fictional imagination”. Apart from Cixin Liu, most of the authors (whose names are all rendered in Chinese style, family name first) are “rising stars” and all work in professions.

The fiction starts with three stories from Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan.) The Year of the Rat sees an unemployed graduate forced to join the Rodent-Control Force dealing with the genetically engineered NeoratsTM infesting the Chinese countryside. In The Fish of Lijiang, people exposed to time dilation or compression require occasional readjustment which they obtain by meeting up with those of the yin tendency to their yang. Body films, patches which express personality in response to muscular tension or temperature, feature in The Flower of Shazui which reworks the old tale of a man fascinated by a prostitute who is beyond his reach. She nevertheless requires his help.

Xia Jia also makes three appearances. In the at times dream-like A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight foundling Ning is the sole living inhabitant of a village of ghosts whose days as a tourist attraction are gone. He nevertheless does not age beyond seven. Tongtong’s Summer sees Tongtong’s grandfather needing care after a fall. This comes in the shape of Ah Fu, a robot controlled from afar via a telepresence body-suit. Soon grandfather is interacting remotely with others in his position. Packed with invocations of opposites and apparently inspired by the poem “With Dreams as Horses” by Hai Zi, Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse (a story original to this book) sees the dragon-horse awaken after centuries to a world long bereft of humans. It meets a bat and they travel together telling each other stories.

Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence might be taken to be a reflection of Chinese experience in its depiction of a time when web access and everyday discourse is restricted to only allowable words but its explicit reference to Orwell’s 1984 (and implicit one to Fahrenheit 451) implies a wider relevance. The inevitable attempts to circumscribe the rules lead to an ever narrowing list of healthy words. Marring this slightly was that some aspects of the story were seen from our frame of reference rather than its.

Hao Jingfang has two contributions. Invisible Planets uses a Scheherazade type storyteller (without the jeopardy) describing fantastical planets and their inhabitants to suggest how both interactions with others and experiencing stories can change us. Her Hugo Award winning Folding Beijing sees that city – out to the sixth ring road – as a kind of time share, with three Spaces taking turns in occupying the ground over two days before the cycle recurs. During two such Changes Third Space denizen Lao Dao, wishing to earn enough money for his daughter to attend kindergarten, makes the dangerous journey to take a message to the less crowded and much wealthier First Space.

Xiaoyi is the fifteen year-old titular character in Call Girl by Tang Fei. It isn’t sex she sells, though, but stories related to her ability to manipulate space and time. Cheng Jingbo’s Grave of the Fireflies is an almost indescribable admix of fairy tale – princesses, magicians – and end of the universe SF – the stars are going out – in five sequential sections headed three successively apart days in February yet spanning centuries.

We round off with two stories from Liu Cixin. The Circle is a reworking of a chapter from his Hugo winning novel The Three Body Problem. An ancient Chinese mathematician develops a binary calculating machine utilising soldiers carrying flags. In Taking Care of God two billion members of the God civilisation which created the conditions for life on Earth and oversaw its development are deposited on the planet’s surface from a horde of ageing spaceships. In exchange for the Gods’ knowledge their wellbeing is catered for by billeting each of them on a family. Inevitably tensions ensue. Their science turns out to be too far advanced to be intelligible and their daily habits tend to forgetfulness. There are echoes here of Aldiss’s Heresies of the Huge God, Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and a touch of Leinster’s The Greks Bring Gifts. (Whether Liu was aware of, or even intended, these cannot be judged from a distance.)

The three concluding essays delve into various aspects of Chinese SF. Liu Cixin’s “Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” covers SF’s century-long history in China, its original incarnation optimistic, its later role in the People’s Republic era where it was seen as being only for children, to be educative about technology, the startling absence of Communist Utopias within its purview, its new-found literary credentials and confidence, all as a lead-in to explaining the origins of the pessimistic vision imbuing his trilogy.

Chen Qiufan’s “The Torn Generation” contrasts the anxiety of the younger generation with the thoughtlessness of the older. “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China the writer cannot fully explore or express the possibilities of extreme beauty and ugliness without resorting to science fiction.” These are not strictures necessarily confined to China.

In the final essay, where Xia Jia tries to answer the question asked of her at a convention “What Makes Chinese SF Chinese?” she covers some of the same historical background as Liu Cixin, saying the breakaway from science-popularisation was motivated by binary oppositions such as China-the West, underdeveloped-developed, tradition-modernity, and concludes that while the Chinese SF community is full of internal differences she does find some commonality as the stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience, but, “Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.” Alternative futures. Any SF reader will drink to that.

But it’s the stories that matter. All here work well as SF. Their characters behave as characters do, with love, jealousy, resentment, tenacity, fear, and loathing. Apart from references to aspects of Chinese daily life and culture they could easily have originated from non-Chinese sources. Taken in all, however, I did note a tendency to didacticism, a leaning towards the fantastical, an awareness of contrasting opposites, an air of detachment. None of that would make them uniquely Chinese, though, and whether or not Chinese SF really is a creature all to itself, on this evidence it’s certainly worth reading.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the fiction written in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all quite different” (is all quite different,) interpretive (interpretative,) one of the China’s most elite colleges (one of China’s,) maw for mouth rather than stomach, Xian Quan (Xiao Quan,) hid (hidden,) “When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday. (Only if he’d started on a Sunday.) The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight, (is slightly clumsy; balanced in weight?) “has to transfer buses three times to get there” (has to change buses? Has to take three different buses?) “archers loosened volleys from their bows” (loosed volleys.)”There were a total” (there was a total.)

Three Days On

When I got downstairs on Friday morning still trying to digest the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership and the intention to resign of Mr Irresponsible aka Call me Dave aka David Cameron – who may now forever be known as the man who wrecked Britain – the sun was shining (briefly,) the birds were chirping, the bees were humming, so in one sense the vote didn’t matter. The sun will shine (at times) the birds will chirp and the bees hum (well we can hope) under any political circumstances.

But of course it does matter. The UK has been thrown into political turmoil, a rudderless chunk of driftwood at the mercies of whatever vicissitudes the markets and the attitudes of our spurned EU neighbours may put in our way and with both its major political parties internally at odds now that the Parliamentary Labour Party is attempting a putsch.

(I must say it takes a particular political genius, Dave, not only to trash your own personal political future, your place in history and the country’s fortunes with one act of folly but also with the outcome of that same act to throw into sharp relief the divisions between your political opponents such that it is they who make the headlines.)

The only stable political entities within the UK for the foreseeable future are the devolved ones in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and the likelihood of the last one remaining stable is dubious at best.

But it seems that these devolved assemblies have to agree on EU withdrawal and to consent to the required changes in the Acts which set them up (see articles 70 and 71 of this House of Lords document.) Given that a substantial majority of Scots who voted in the referendum expressed a wish to remain in the EU the Scottish Parliament is unlikely to do this. What a mess.

Today the sun isn’t shining, I can hear no birds chirp nor bees hum. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to me.

Flodden

Today is the 500th anniversary of the most disastrous encounter between the forces of Scotland and England in history. (Bigger even than the 9-3 reverse at Wembley only 50 years ago. But that was a mere football match.)

On the 9th Sep 1513 14,000 men died on a battlefield in Northumbria. 10,000 of those were Scots – including most of the Scottish nobility and even the King, James IV, himself, the last British king to die in battle. The Battle of Flodden Field was at one and the same time the biggest clash of arms between the two countries plus it was the last mediæval and first modern battle on British soil. Never again was the longbow to be a major weapon, never before had artillery been employed.

My memories of reading about this were that it was an unnecessary tragedy as James had only invaded Northumbria as a sop to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. England’s king, Henry VIII had gone to war with France and Louis XII had appealed to the Scots king. One of the peculiarities of this situation is that James’s wife was Henry’s sister, Margaret. She had apparently asked him merely to “break a lance” to honour his obligations. I doubt that she thought he would not return.

Reading the BBC History magazine a couple of weeks ago it turns out that Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, aware of his tenuous right to the English throne had foregone the English claim to Scotland and signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace. Henry VIII had no such inhibitions – or else was eager to bolster his own position – and had recently reasserted England’s overlordship over Scotland. James, then, in effect, had no option but to stand up to Henry.

His initial efforts were successful, taking three castles in short order. He then set up a strong fortified position on Flodden Hill and awaited the English forces. The English commander, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, apparently accepted battle on James’s chosen ground. However, being out of favour with Henry, he was desperate for a victory and instead of attacking at Flodden Hill, he made a flanking manœuvre, interposing his army between the Scots and the border. James was furious at this unchivalric behaviour and had to make a quick redeployment to Branxton Hill instead. Perhaps it was this anger that led to his lack of judgement in the battle. Wikipedia has the details of this dispute over the proposed battleground slightly differently.

Flodden Memorial from path
Flodden Memorial from path.

Flodden Memorial

The plaque reads, “Flodden 1513. To the Brave of Both Nations.”

The Scots artillery was heavier but more cumbersome and so less effective but at the beginning of the battle the Scots left completely overran the English right (if only!) and retired from the battlefield expecting the rest of the army to achieve overall victory. In the centre, however, things did not go so well. From their position on Branxton Hill the Scots could not see the boggy ground in the declivity between the lines.


Flodden Memorial. View to Branxton Hill

Flodden Memorial. View to Branxton Hill. From English start line.

Flodden Memorial from Scottish line

Flodden Memorial from Scottish line. Memorial is just left of centre here.

The Scottish Start Line at Flodden
The Scottish start line at Flodden.

The Scots infantry, armed with long pikes, whose efficiency had been proved in European battles, soon lost the essential formation necessary for success as they slipped and slid on the uncertain footing. The pikes also could not be anchored securely due to the underground conditions so were useless defensively. The English infantry, armed with much shorter billhooks, waded in to bloody effect. Dead bodies and blood soon made the conditions even worse.

Flodden Information Board

To their credit, as one of the information boards on the Battlefield Trail says, the Scots did not cut and run, but bravely fought on.

The memorial, built in 1910, is inscribed to the brave of both nations. I have been told the only other battle memorial to acknowledge both armies is at Quebec but cannot confirm this.

There is an information centre – in a red telephone booth – in Branxton village. It claims to be the smallest information centre in the world.

Flodden Information  Centre

James had been making his court and kingdom one of the most cultured in Europe, and Scots into a major European language. That process came to an abrupt end on his death.

The result of the battle at Flodden, the subsequent decline of Scotland’s influence, is probably the main reason why this post is being written in English rather than Scots.

The irony is that, despite the result of the battle, it was not Henry VIII’s descendants that would unify the crowns of Scotland and England and be monarchs of the UK but rather James’s, through his marriage to Margaret, their son James V and granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots, down to her son James VI and I.

The disaster is said to have inspired the traditional Scottish lament for the fallen, Floo’ers o’ the Forest,” sung here as The Flowers o’ the Forest by Isla St Clair.

Syria and Parliament

It seems that an outbreak of sanity has occurred in the UK Parliament with its vote against military action in Syria.

Now, chemical weapons are horrible things (even if you are just as dead being killed by high explosive or shell fragments or blast or a bullet; it is difficult to see a moral difference) but I fail to see how attacking Syrian government forces can make life better for the average Syrian even if responsibilty for the use of such weapons were to be established beyond doubt.

Not to mention the wider implications. Pour oil on to a fire, why don’t you? Bombing yet another mainly Muslim country will only encourage those Muslims who have a grievance against the UK already.

[And don’t forget there are many reasons for that grievance. I noted only yesterday that British forces were involved in killing locals in Iraq in the 1920s. This followed the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which laid the path for the eventual Jewish takeover of most of Palestine. Then there was the overthrow of Mossadeq in the early 1950s. The collusion with Israel over Suez in 1956, the Suez invasion itself. The illegal invasion, on totally spurious pretexts, of Iraq in 2003. This is just those instances of UK intervention which impact on the Middle East. (A term which is itself anglocentric.)]

Quite how adding in another external faction to what is a civil war in Syria would help in resolving the situation there is also beyond me.

Just because people say something must be one doesn’t mean you can do anything you like.

Mr Irresponsible (aka David Cameron) has once more shown himself up to be a blustering bully. I suspect his enthusiasm for miltary intervention in Syria is that he believes sending in the armed forces helped both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to be re-elected. (A belief in which he is probably mistaken.) What he hasn’t learned is that the Iraq invasion – or, more accurately, its aftermath – poisoned the opinion of most British people against the assertions of Government spokespeople and Prime Ministers over the reasons for using troops and weaponry.

Military action against Syria could be like stirring up a hornet’s nest with a stick. There is no telling what the consequences would be.

A better response to use of chemical weapons, or any atrocity, would be to make sure that anyone responsible for what are considered war crimes is held to account by the international community. This would mean instant arrest should they stray outside whatever jurisdiction is keeping them safe from it and then arraignment before an international court. This stricture ought of course to apply to anyone, from whatever country, not just those our politicians say they don’t like.

And as to the effects of chemical weapons it might be best to deluge Syria with kits containing antidotes to the chemicals likely to be used – which would render their deployment pointless.

It wouldn’t stop the killing though.

I’m afraid this has been a somewhat unfocused rant. I can’t see a quick way out of the present Syrian imbroglio, the two sides seem too far apart for that.

Civil wars tend to be intractable. Intervention in them needs to have a purpose beyond, “Something must be done.” I didn’t think any of our politicians – least of all Mr Irresponsible – had enough wisdom to see beyond such simplicities. Parliament has at least resolved not to do more harm.

For the moment anyway.

Unfinished Business

Not only was Margaret Thatcher less than forthright in her testimony to the Franks committee, it now seems she intended to dismantle the welfare state. She apparently claims in her memoirs that she was only horrified at the proposal by the thought it might be leaked, but it was all of a piece with her known predilections.

Well, contrary to her dictum, I think that there is such a thing as society. I only wish it were more cohesive.

The country I knew and grew up in was devastated by her policies. The United Kingdom is a harsher, less compassionate, more squalid place as a result.

Her heirs and successors in the present Government are well on the way to completing the demolition project.

You’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Scottish Independence?

So in 2014 the people living in Scotland will at last be allowed to vote on their continuing presence in the UK.

I used the formulation “at last” because it will be the first time. When Scotland and England with Wales merged in 1707 the only Scots who had a vote on the proposal were members of the then Scottish Parliament. There was widespread discontent in the general public at the time.

Still, over three hundred years we have had time to accustom ourselves to it.

The likley outcome in 2014?

No to independence.

There will be a lot of scaremongering about how Scotland cannot afford to go it alone though other countries of similar size do alright (Denmark anyone?) and newly independent ones (Slovakia?) don’t seem in a rush to remerge.

The status quo will seem a safer option but that too is a leap in the dark – especially if the little Englanders in the UK were to force withdrawal from the EU. Scottish fisheries might be better off in that circumstance but I doubt anything else will be.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Short of FIFA removing Scotland’s right to separate representation* in the World Cup and European Championships the majority of Scots won’t vote for independence.

(*Given the national team’s current efforts maybe not even then.)

Day of the Long Knives

I was amused when I heard that Mr Irresponsible, aka David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, had reshuffled half his cabinet.

The same thing was done by Harold Macmillan, Conservative Prime Minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in 1962 when it was dubbed Night of the Long Knives in comparison with the Nazi purge of 1934.

(Macmillan may or may not have uttered the phrase, “Events, dear boy. Events,” under which I have categorised this post.)

Whatever, the Night of the Long Knives incident offered his Labour opponent Harold Wilson a brilliant line when he talked about this some time later. Wilson said, “I remember the then Prime Minister sacking half his Cabinet – the wrong half, as it turned out.”

I wonder if Ed Miliband can somehow reuse that one.

Infamy

I suppose a seventieth anniversary is something special but perhaps it is more so when it involves an almost iconic event.

7/12/2011 marks seventy years since the Pearl Harbor attack, the event which turned relatively localised war into World War. “7th December 1941: a date which will live in Infamy,” – FDR.

It is sobering to realise that the Second World War lasted less than four years after that. The US and UK have now had troops dying in Afghanistan for much longer than that; and in Iraq for not much less time. Not so many troops dying admittedly, but dying nonetheless.

I vaguely remember Gore Vidal saying something to the effect that the difference between Pearl Harbor and the September 11th attack was that no-one saw the latter one coming. He had a personal reason to blame the US authorities for the war with Japan, though. His lover died in the Pacific fighting.

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