Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 16:59 on 20-08-2016, James D
I find the bad faith of everything Moorcock writes on the relationship of politics and literature so overwhelming that I can't take him seriously even when he does have a good point.

Well keep in mind we're examining the views of a human being across a career that spans 50 years. He changed his mind sometimes, he wasn't always careful about what he wrote or said. The problem with his potboiler heroic fantasy stuff was that it typically sold much better than his more politically-minded works - The Ice Schooner, The Black Corridor, the Colonel Pyatt and Jerry Cornelius series - so he absolutely made concessions in his politics for money and fame. Arguably, however, it was all to fund and find an audience for his politically radical fiction, which is what he's been focusing on almost exclusively during the latter part of his career.

Let he who is without compromise throw the first stone.
at 13:12 on 20-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
That is a valid observation. One wonders, whether this focus on the aristocratic class is a result of Moorcock wanting to adhere to some of the tropes of the genre in order to tell a different take on it. Or was he adhering to those tropes because the work was more marketable in the market that way? But I think you could interpret it to come to a different conclusion as well. In Elric's case, for example, the Melniboneans are thoroughly corrupt and fading away, their original power having originated from an unholy alliance with the gods of chaos. And Elric gets his strength from equally unholy alliance with Stormbringer.

The thing with having the central character be someone of higher class might have an explanation in expediency, as well as a hidden desire for conservatism in the social order. A character who is of higher class has more opportunities for different plots on the face of it, much like affluene in real life allows more choice in life decisions. If you want the character be educated, or free from some societal constrains without wanting to spend narrative effort to explain the situation, the conventional choice is a higher class male, which might be something that a great many writers of educated, upper middle class backgrounds think they understand and identify with better. Which of course brings with it all sorts of unfortunate implications which might easily overshadow anything else the narrative is ostensibly trying to achieve.
at 12:03 on 20-08-2016, Bill
I'll agree that not all of Moorcock's heroes are aristocrats, but I was referring specifically to the fantasy potboilers--the Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon stuff, all of which center on aristocratic characters and treat the aristocracy as the only important class. (I know Robert E. Howard is unpopular around here, mostly for excellent reasons, but Conan's arc from barbarian to king based on the strength of his sword arm rather than his pedigree is far more egalitarian than anything in Moorcock's fantasy.) As for special destinies being bad news, that idea is very common in aristocratic cultures, where aristocratic suffering is treated as more meaningful than that of the ordinary people. I find the bad faith of everything Moorcock writes on the relationship of politics and literature so overwhelming that I can't take him seriously even when he does have a good point.
at 11:00 on 20-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Yeah, Moorcock's Special Destinies are usually bad news and the heroism of the protagonist is rarely straight-forward.

On the subject of reactionary vs. radical authors, one thing to consider is the relativity of one's own political position and also to the different interpretations of what it is to be radical or reactionary. Since if radicalism is taken to be the willingness to change society in deep and (most probably) disruptive ways, which is the original meaning of being on the left(in the context of the French revolution) and of being radical in its political aspect, it is possible to consider Heinlein to be radical, since he can be considered a libertarian or a right leaning anarchist.

Carrying from this definition of radicalness, or being on the left, it could be argued, that those arguing for the dissembling of states and the absolute freedom of the markets are quite radical and on the left, since they are aiming at disrupting the society as it is to create something better, no matter what the short term costs are.

Of course we could then start to dissect whether this free market ideology, call it what you will, is really all that new and it is arguable that it is only reheated classical liberalism with problems raised by the socil liberals and socialists handwaved away and sweeped under the rug of impressive sounding (but ultimately too idealistic and unrealistic) economical theories and political philosophies from the start of the 20th century and especially those that were in their context just very strong reactions to the rise of the Soviet Union in the 20s'.

But getting from that back to the idea of relativity, what we consider reactionary or radical depends very much on our own position politically. If we think that the difference between reactionary and radical is not a discrete thing, but rather a continuous spectrum from one end to the other, with a middle point a sort of mixture of both positions, it seems to me by my own experience, that if one is very radical, everything towards reactionary is reactionary to a degree, even if on the spectrum it is still nearer to the radical end than the reactionary end. It might be a bit too abstract a way of considering it, but I tend to think that it is part of why social democracy was often considered a form of class betrayal by stalinists or why in the american political discourse (and to a degree elsewhere) being on the centre right or social liberalist can be called socialist or communist and there are plenty of people who accept this sort of simplification.

That was a bit long. Apologies.
at 07:26 on 20-08-2016, Adrienne
Bill - Arthur B can certainly speak to Moorcock's oeuvre better than I can, but afaik, while his novels are mostly about how some people have Special Destinies, those people are neither (necessarily) aristocrats nor AT ALL exalted in any way by said destinies. Having a Special Destiny in a Moorcock novel is generally a recipe for grinding efforts toward getting anything done at all.

Moorcock has a lot of problems -- not least of them that his name is, as Metafilter would say, eponysterical -- but he's always been pretty unabashedly anti-establishment.
at 18:00 on 19-08-2016, Robinson L

Ah yes, I remember when that essay was first linked in this site years ago. It's not a very structured argument, bouncing from topic to topic and back again, but the content and the slightly histrionic writing style keep me engrossed.

The central argument: most "classic" science fiction and fantasy is fundamentally reactionary, and so are its writers, seems to me at this point uncontroversial. I have no illusions about Tolkien's politics*, but I must admit I find his storytelling much more engrossing than, say, le Guin's (heresy!). And I could run down a whole list of others, encompassing most of my favorite fantasy and science fiction works, Star Wars certainly included (I have no expectations of radicalism from Pratchett, either, but he still sometimes manages to shock and disappoint me, especially in his last few novels). Then again, we could justly lay charges of sexism and xenophobia against several of the the authors Moorcock holds up as exemplars of radical fiction (mirroring the historical and contemporary problems of sexism and xenophobia and a host of other -isms in radical movements).

*Then again, there's always this, and this.

I'm not nearly so well- or widely-read as some genre fans, but to my knowledge there hasn't exactly been an explosion in far-left sci-fi/fantasy since Moorcock published that essay (though there have been some notable works: The Fifth Sacred Thing being a standout example both in terms of its political sensibilities and its literary quality, by my reckoning). Then again, radical politics are, by definition, a niche interest, and it seems to me the height of silliness for anarchists, communists, and other radical leftists to search for hidden left-wing messages in "classic" and mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Far better, it seems to me, to accept that most of these stories - as with so much else that we interact with on a daily basis - is going to be at odds with our values and sensibilities to a lesser or greater degree, and consume them or not based upon whether we derive enjoyment from them. There, was that really so hard?

(As a sidenote, I recently read a book of interviews with anarchist fiction writers - including Moorcock, natch - with a glossary of other anarchist fiction authors at the back, and another glossary of authors who were not themselves anarchist but were still of interest to anarchist readers. Included among the latter were Frank Herbert, Heinlein, and Tolkien. The book seemed to take a "big tent" approach, not subjecting its candidates to rigorous screening for political and ethical acceptability. Given the penchant of leftists to disown and denounce each other over the most minuscule points of doctrinal or strategic disagreement, this was likely the best approach, but it means some truly puzzling figures made it through the net.)

Also of interest, there's this more recent, more coherent, and less hyperbolic - also much longer - essay by David Graeber on the underlying political sensibilities of the Superhero genre.
at 15:36 on 19-08-2016, Bill
Is that the same Michael Moorcock who wrote endless reams of fantasy potboilers built on the premise that persons of noble, or better yet royal, blood have SPECIAL DESTINIES that exalt them over the rest of us peasant shlubs?
at 07:41 on 19-08-2016, Adrienne
I had totally forgotten about this Moorcock essay, which may be of interest to some other folks around here. :)
at 15:00 on 12-08-2016, Robinson L
The other day, I saw a report where apparently, they're working on a television adaptation of Patrick Ness' "Chaos Walking" trilogy. Given Ness' storytelling sensibilities*, I would suggest Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat as ideal candidates for scriptwriters. Especially when you consider Ness is writing scripts for the Doctor Who spin-off show, Class - it's only fair they return the favor.

*i.e. melodrama up to eleven
at 23:36 on 02-08-2016, Orion

When I was at University of Chicago, Westboro Baptist once came to campus. My Episcopalian friend met them with a "God Hates Figs" sign (Mark 11:12-14)

I'm not sure if they noticed him though, because apparently the fraternity brothers had also decided to counter-protest, by stripping to their briefs and blasting "It's Raining Men" on the boom box.
at 03:30 on 26-07-2016, Robinson L
I haven't been following Pokemon Go, not my kinda thing. I only really found out what it was yesterday. So I don't understand all the details of how it works, including gyms and their protectors.

However, it seems that one player with a social conscience and a sense of humor has bequeathed the notorious Westboro Baptist Church gym with a Clefairy (fairy-type, natch) named LOVEISLOVE as its Pokemon guardian. Ah, sweet Schadenfreude.

As a sidebar, this story has gotten me thinking, and now I want to attend a Westboro Baptist Church rally with a sign reading


*People who wear any kind of blended fabrics
*Anybody who touches a woman while she's menstruating
*People who use the wrong kind of shingles on their roofs
etc. (those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head)
at 22:59 on 25-07-2016, Shim
"Like Innsmouth, but with more rape" seems to be a distressingly common approach. I just read one by Brian Stableford, there's that whole Alan Moore thing.

It feels so point-missy, it reminds me of Dan's Tam Lin argument. Like someone's going "You know what would make the panic-inducing confusion of slowly realising you are stranded alone in a strange place surrounded by people who view you as an alien intruder and plot your horribly-unspecific doom for reasons you don't even understand but vaguely associated with mysterious cults, and whose unknowability gradually unfolds into not actually being human at all, even more terrifying? If they also do ordinarily horrible things for ordinarily horrible reasons."

On the other hand I have never read any Brian Lumley to my knowledge. I actually quite enjoy both pastiche and the pulpier end of weird fiction, partly because I actively shy away from genuine horror. Still, what I've heard of his work so far hasn't managed to enthuse me.
at 19:53 on 24-07-2016, Arthur B
Brian Lumley is a subject which I'm pretty touchy about. I think his contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos have been at best pulpy disposable trash (1) or irritatingly trite and reductionist (2), at worst either utterly asinine and point-missy (3) or actively doubling down on some of the worst aspects of Lovecraft's writing (4). A lot of his non-Mythos stuff I have found similarly disposable.

Necroscope I remember being something of an exception, but not much of one. The first novel mashed up Cold War psychic espionage with a pretty unique body horror-type conception of vampires, and that was quite fun. But at the series went on he just tacked on more and more stuff until it became this totally ridiculous, unwieldy cartoon which entirely lost the atmosphere of the first book. (There is an entire sub-series that is basically set in a fantasyland run by vampires.)

I don't think he's quite as bad as Robert E. Howard, who I felt never really wanted to write horror so much as adventure fiction with horror affectations because he really didn't want to write about situations of helplessness (see how Howard's protagonists can get out of most situations with their fists, with only occasional exceptions), but I think Lumley does tend to slip into adventure fiction mode if he isn't careful, which is a shame because there's glimmerings of him being able to really deliver the goods on the horror front but I feel that he rarely (if ever) has, with the first Necroscope book being as close as he's got.

But I hasten to add that it's been years and years since I read the series. It'd probably be good fodder for a Reading Canary article.

(1) The early Titus Crow stuff was OK in a August Derleth/Lin Carter cheap pastiche sort of a way.
(2) The idea that Azathoth is just a nuclear explosion, for instance.
(3) Like Kthanid, Cthulhu's good twin brother - you know he's the good twin because he's sparkly!
(4) In particular, I seem to remember him writing a bunch of stuff that took the whole Shadow Over Innsmouth premise and doubling down on it, entirely failing to consider how racist the idea is and adding a whole bunch of rapey stuff in the bargain.
at 07:30 on 24-07-2016, Craverguy
So...the Necroscope books. Are any of them any good, or is it a "not even once" type deal? Inquiring mind want to know!
at 23:23 on 08-07-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
I don't think that there is much antipathy towards former Soviet (or eastern block) countries either, but my cautious guess is that if you want your mooks to be a bit different than your basic bratva setup, you get the same effect from using other nations from the Soviet block. That is, they are considered tough and callous, because of the Soviet history and there are lots of economic hardship and conflict to go around in addition to the reputation of organized crime. Chechens get more points because the audience might remember the two wars and the purported terrorism. Going by my memory of Person of Interst alone, I think there was at least two mentions of chechens there, one of them a terrorist cell, as well as Polish, Bulgarian and Ukrainian organized crime. In addition to the oft-portrayed Russian mobsters. Perhaps a list could be made.

On Star Trek, the biggest obstacle to a good show in the tradition of Star Trek might be that it is such an established franchise that the product is seen as something that money can be made of, which means pandering to the supposed audience, which might lead to conventional and "safe" content and avoiding any meaningful progressiveness or social commentary. On the other hand, it is made for the small screen, which might very well mean that they will get more freedom to push the envelope and make something not seen before and courageous. Courageous from the point of view of those people that always think the audiences want something safe and uncontroversial. In other words, will they just go for the nostalgia button or will they actually try and make something new?
at 15:30 on 08-07-2016, Robinson L
Thanks Sunnyskywalker and Arthur - you both voiced points I had in mind without properly being able to articulate.

I'm also really digging these ideas for potential debates around issues of science, religion, nihilism, and similar themes. It's definitely the sort of stuff I could see a good Trek show exploring in some really interesting ways.

Sunnyskywalker: Uhura being not just a black woman, but a black woman from Africa whose first language is Swahili

You know, I don't think I'd realized that before. Cool.

James D: Well, Julian Bashir was of course a prominent Arab crew member, and the actor who plays him is Muslim in real life, but I don't think his religious views were ever brought up one way or the other.

I don't think they were, either. And actually, it took me a long time to realize he was Arabic, but I was pretty young when the show first aired.

On which point, DS9 concluded its run in 1999, two years before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, and the subsequent explosion of anti-Arab racism in the US (and at least some parts of Europe). Since then, no official Trek show or movie I'm aware of has had an Arab among the main cast, when we need positive portrayals of Middle Easterners in movies and TV more than ever.

And I do think it needs to be (at least one) Arab character, because while the hateful rhetoric is couched in religious terms, the actual violence and discrimination laps over onto non-Muslim Middle Easterners, Sikhs, and the like.

@Janne: You raise an interesting point about people from former Soviet countries as the go-to mooks of our era. I confess I hadn't noticed it, personally, but I can easily believe it.

Now I think about it, it's interesting to consider the politics of who gets cast as generic bad guys in American TV and film. Specifically, I don't think there's much popular sentiment of distrust or hatred directed toward people from former Soviet-block countries (well, except for a bit of anti-Russian bias, mainly). Similarly, US film studios and networks are notoriously enamored of casting English villains (also Germans, because World War II still has a lot of cache out here), but the popular mainstream view of England and Germany still seems to be highly positive, and moderately positive, respectively.
at 01:40 on 08-07-2016, Sunnyskywalker
It would definitely be nice to de-center Christianity in any religion vs. no religion dynamic, and have something else serve as the representative religious option, for sure. With an ensemble cast plus recurring guest stars and a Planet of the Week, they could even get really wild for TV and have more than one of each! To play off any glum atheist character, the security chief could be an optimistic atheist who thinks people can create meaning and that it's logical to try to be as fair and kind as possible because there's only one life and so we shouldn't ruin it for anyone. (A security chief who's able but reluctant to kill because they're reluctant to utterly destroy life, as they see it, would also be interesting.) The Muslim character could explain that yes, this mission has taken them to a Muslim-dominant planet, but they were settled/converted by a different sect, so they might not actually see hir as "one of them" for diplomatic purposes. Complexity!

As for the movies, iirc, Uhura is supposed to be from Kenya. Let's see if she ever gets a line or scene establishing in passing whether she's Muslim. It won't be quite as topical as if it had come up in passing in 2009 that btw, this long-beloved and heroic character is a Kenyan Muslim, but better late than never...
at 10:00 on 07-07-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
An interesting pairing could be had by having a devout muslim crew member be in the McCoy role, a scientist, but not as thickheadedly rational as the opposition. So in the Spock role one could have a glumatheist, a pessimistic nihilist (one would have to come up with a proper motivation to explain their presence there in the first place though) to offer a foil to the deist and vice-versa. It might be hard to write a sympathetic character, who is a nihilist, but hardly impossible, as he could well be a very ethical humanist (or sentietist? In a universe of sentient aliens).

A glumatheists meeting with a Q like presence would be interesting, especially if a pessimistic nihilist would expect a superior being to be a cthulhu like creature in behaviour at least. So it might be an arc for the character to evolve in his nihilism, perhaps.

And of course I don't mean that in TOS Spock and McCoy can be reduced to such caricatures completely, but I'm talking more about character dynamics. Similarly, those philosophical aspects would not have to be everything about the characters, but to have the science vs. religion debate to be had by two protagonist characters neither of whom are christian, would be a fun and fresh angle.

If going by contemporary political expectations, the muslim character could well be from Chechnya or turkmenistan. I've spotted several chechens playing the role of villainous terrorists or being your basic mooks. Perhaps it is because they have a familiar name, but are sufficiently unknown to serve as base-line villains. Former Soviet ethnicities seem to be one of the main sources of cannon fodder these days.
at 10:40 on 06-07-2016, James D
Well, Julian Bashir was of course a prominent Arab crew member, and the actor who plays him is Muslim in real life, but I don't think his religious views were ever brought up one way or the other. It would be cool if they made it more explicit with a new character, but I doubt they will. I'd be (pleasantly) surprised if they rock the boat at all.
at 10:26 on 06-07-2016, Arthur B
I think including a prominent Muslim character as one of the heroes would not only help dial back the smugatheist "psssh, obviously in the future we'd be past all that horseshit" but also be a nice parallel to the inclusion of Chekov, who was a Russian character with access to key systems of the ship presented to the world at a time when the Soviets were the enemy du jour.
at 04:31 on 06-07-2016, Sunnyskywalker
Serial television definitely seems like a better medium for Trek. It allows for a true ensemble cast instead of two heroic guys plus sidekicks and comic relief, so you can actually showcase a variety of protagonists and story types. And it's easier to use that classic Trek conclusion, "Wait, let's all put down our phasers and talk about this like reasonable beings. We can learn to understand each other and work things out peacefully." (I mean, I would like to see more Hollywood blockbusters try that too for a change, but it's easier to get away with it when you can promise the network you'll blow something up next week.)

I am now imagining the new helm and navigator being a Mexican transman and a bisexual Iraqi Muslim woman who constantly try to one-up each other using Chekov's old gag of "Hey, my people invented that thing!" Except this time they're usually both right. And then they'd go off and discover new life and new civilizations and have tense relationships with their siblings who've founded weird cults or something and feel sad about not seeing that scary blob alien until after it had already eaten a redshirt. It would be awesome.

The extent to which the original cast hasn't dated as much as you'd think is sad, though. E.g., Uhura being not just a black woman, but a black woman from Africa whose first language is Swahili and who is awesome at math and languages and rewiring subspace radios would be almost as revolutionary today as it was in the 1960s, I think. I mean, look how almost none of that comes up in the movies, even when they easily could have found reasons for it to be useful to the plot! (And every time she does language stuff, it's either minor and not useful until Kirk recognizes the significance, or useless.) I'm glad that racist networks aren't keeping her from dating Spock anymore, but she could drive the plot occasionally too. But we've only got two hours to show three hours' worth of manpain, so.
at 03:36 on 06-07-2016, Robinson L
James D: I don't think Star Trek has even had a plain old homosexual.

I'm pretty sure it hasn't, (except maybe for some of the Mirror Universe characters on DS9), which is disgraceful. And yeah, I'm probably overreaching all plausibility with my wish list here, but I keep coming back to the fact that for its time, the Original 60s Trek was doing serious cutting edge stuff in terms of its social (particularly racial) politics. It was pretty radical in terms of its inclusivity.

It seems to me self-evidently obvious that any self-respecting Star Trek show in the 2010s needs to have at least one LG or B core cast member. That's a bare minimum. But if we're going to have a new Trek show, I really, really want it to go beyond the bare minimum, and by my reading of the current cultural climate, trans* and non-binary issues are the next frontier for queer politics, at least in the USA.

I think it's reasonable, given the franchise's history, to hold it to an exceptionally high standard when it comes to social issues (that is, "exceptionally high" for network television, which I put a few steps above regular "decent fucking human being" standard). I expect I'll likely be disappointed, but I'd argue that if so, then it's due to failings on the part of the production crew and/or network executives, not my standards are unreasonable.

Okay, that's probably enough *descends soapbox, unstraps Minority Warrior gear*
at 00:21 on 06-07-2016, James D
And please, please, please can we have at least one main character who's trans*/genderqueer/otherwise non-binary?

Good luck. I don't think Star Trek has even had a plain old homosexual.

Garak was originally envisioned by his actor as being omnisexual, which is why in his first appearance he blatantly flirts with Dr. Bashir, but just that was apparently too much and was dropped for the rest of the series.
at 10:15 on 05-07-2016, Craverguy
I'm now imagining with some glee the reaction if Fuller took Robinson's advice and the sort of people who support Trump came to the realization that there was a prime time network drama with no straight white male cast members (except maybe one cast as an alien, and therefore loaded down with makeup and prostheses to conceal that fact).