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Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Second charity Mikalogue

Sophie Morel wrote: As I'm French and a mathematician, anything involving France, or the French language, or mathematics would be nice. Or the Beatles. I really like the Beatles.

The result - I do not know how to do accents or circumflexes in this thing, so please try to imagine them out of the kindness of your hearts. Aussi, je crois que je parle Francais vraiment pire que vous, Sophie; je suis desolee.

Kit: Mika, ma cherie?

Mika: What?

Kit: Est-ce que tu parle Francais?

Mika: Is lunchtime?

Kit: J'ai - um - te donne beaucoup de - um- kibble - a douze heures et quart. Tu l'a mange. Ce n'est pas l'heure de dejeuner.

Mika: Is always lunchtime! Give more food!

Kit: Hang on, Mika, do you speak French? Did you understand that?

Mika: Don't care what your cunning arguments. Mika's tummy knows it is lunchtime!

Kit: Ah. So you weren't really listening?

Mika: Ce n'etait pas necessaire. Mika knows all.

Kit: Oh. So are you really hungry?

Mika: Always. Also bored. Is too wet to go in garden and all the beetles is hidin. Nothing to chase!

Kit: I don't think Sophie meant that kind of beetle, sweetie. She meant the musicians. You know, 'All You Need Is Love'? That kind of thing.

Mika: Is true needs love. Stroke Mika. Then give lunch and play with!

Kit: Baby, you've had your lunch and I'm trying to work!

Mika: Doesn't matter. Mika knows mathematics. Is countin. What Mika wants counts more than what Kit wants.

Kit: That is, indeed, a school of thought.

Mika: Ooh, look, is somethin in garden. Charge! Mika the Mighty!

Kit: Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

A big merci to Sophie for her generosity towards the citizens of Haiti.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


BSFA survey

Some time ago, the British Science Fiction Association sent me a questionnaire as part of a survey they were doing, on the subject of, well, British science fiction and how I related to it as a writer. For those who are interested, it's now online.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


The Fire Raisers

Hands up those of you who've seen Max Frisch's play from 1953, The Fire Raisers.

No? Okay.

The Fire Raisers is a dark comedy originally written in German, set in a town where a gang of arsonists has been at work burning down houses. Biedermann, our respectable protagonist, finds himself with two lodgers on his hands who keep bringing in and storing barrels of flammable liquid, fuses and other combustibles; when he asks them what they're playing at, they cheerfully tell him that they're fire raisers.

Unable or unwilling to believe such a thing, Biedermann nervously tells them to stop joking. No, they say, we really are fire raisers. But Biedermann simply can't accept that this could be happening in his house, or that anybody who was a fire raiser would just tell him so straight out like that, so he laughs it off and lets them have matches and turns a blind eye until the day they finally burn his house down.

Apart from it being a good satirical play, why am I bringing it up?

The reason is this: art very often expresses a political opinion and always expresses a worldview, and there exist artists of notable talent whose political opinions or worldviews seem, if you look at their art works, really unpalatable, even shocking. Does he really think that about women? Are those political views serious, or being sent up? Does she mean that, or is she just testing our reactions? And so on.

Faced with such artists, there's an extremely common critical reaction: critics assume that the artist is, in some way, joking. They're deconstructing the bad old tropes, not endorsing them. They're a prankster who likes to deceive audiences and you shouldn't believe anything you say. They're being ironic.

Are they? Sometimes, perhaps. But having a fine sensibility for art doesn't preclude you from being a jerk, after all; being intelligent about narrative or cinematography or descriptive prose doesn't make you not stupid or wrong about other things. Artists are human beings, not subject to a different law from everyone else, and human beings can have bad attitudes. It may very well be that someone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but the tendency to assume someone must be joking, that they couldn't be serious, has its own risks and blind spots. Some artists put an 'ironic' hat on views they genuinely hold in the hopes that this will get them out of standing to them. Some artists are so convinced that their nasty views are correct that it won't occur to them that any person of good character could object. Some artists have a marvellous time letting all their nasty attitudes run rampant and then stick a moral little platitude or a punitive ending over the surface to imply that they don't really think that way, otherwise known as 'having your cake and eating it.' All artists have to produce what they can and hope for the best. There's such a thing as a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

So in the lexicon of critical responses, I think it's always worth considering this possibility: it may be that, perhaps, they really are a fire raiser.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


A tendency to deprave and corrupt

Here's a fact: the British Board of Film Classification, which determines which films can be released uncut, which have to be cut and which can't be released, has to make its decisions about what's obscene based on the Obscene Publications Act: a work that has a tendency to deprave and corrupt a significant proportion of its likely audience.

The film critic Mark Kermode, whose reviews I always find enjoyable even when I don't agree with them, put up a post some time ago about how some people propose doing away with that definition and substituting a simple list of things that can't be seen; Kermode rightly points out that this would be a step down.

But what about this 'tendency to deprave and corrupt' criterion? In a way, I think it's kind of a great definition, because I can think of almost no works of art that actually would deprave and corrupt their audiences. People aren't really like that; it takes more than a couple of hours' worth of fiction to make any kind of dent on someone's moral character. Life can deprave and corrupt, but fiction really tends not to. If to be considered obscence something has to demonstrably deprave and corrupt its audience and film censors interpret that sensibly, we can live in an era of great artistic freedom.

But thinking about it a little more, another thought occurred to me. What strikes me as most likely to deprave and corrupt is not fiction, but lies presented as fact. For instance: in the precursor to the available-online The Authoritarians, The Authoritarian Specter, psychologist Bob Altemeyer included a chapter entitled 'The Effects of Hate Literature', documenting experiments in which he tested how susceptible to malign proganda his students were. Specifically, found that students who showed a universally strong agreement that the Holocaust was an undeniable fact showed a marked weakening in that agreement - not a change to outright Holocaust denial, but to a weaker conviction that the Holocaust happened - if he had them read, alongside the confession of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess, either a pamphlet by an Auschwitz guard claiming that Auschwitz was a cheerful place where nobody was killed, or in a later experiment a series of flat, unsubstantiated statements denying the reality of the Holocaust. Implausible pieces of Holocaust denial genuinely made students, at least in the time between reading them and filling in a form, become weaker in their conviction that the Holocaust was a real tragedy; they were swayed by Holocaust deniers. It would be hard not to conclude that was a tendency to deprave and corrupt.

(The Authoritarians repeats a lot of the experiments documented in The Authoritarian Specter but not this one, largely, I suspect, because students proved equally susceptible no matter how they scored on the test for authoritarianism, so it wasn't relevant to the main thesis.)

Propaganda specifically sets out to deprave and corrupt - or at least, to convert an audience to a particular way of thinking, and the ways of thinking that invest heavily in propaganda tend to be fairly depraved. All of which rather suggests that if the Obscene Publications Act were an international rather than a national law, you could make a strong case for defending The Evil Dead and prosecuting Fox News.

But when I apply that kind of logic to fiction, I find myself running into Kermode's favourite movie of all time, the The Exorcist. I saw a documentary a few months ago that described how belief in exorcism actually rose after that film, and talked about the 'actual case' that the story was based on, a boy in his early teens. (My apologies for doing this from memory; I can't find it online.)

Among the talking heads was a neurologist who went into some detail about the kind of brain seizure that can produce all the symptoms the church classified as 'possession' - convulsions, spasms which can give the sufferer brief fits of immense strength, hallucinations and so on. The good doctor's point was simple: such conditions can afflict people, teenagers often grow out of them as their brains develop, and a common reason for the brain to develop such a tic is stress.

From this, we might deduce that strapping a child to a bed and shouting at him for days at a time, an extremely stressful experience, will only stand to worsen his symptoms, not unlike making a boy with a broken leg go for a run. Which would tend to the conclusion that an exorcism isn't just of dubious merit; it may be horribly harmful to a person who's already sick.

That's one of the things that is so disturbing about exorcisms. The other thing, and even more disturbing than the neurologist's explanation, was the interview with a priest who had known the original 'exorcist'. This priest discussed his friend's ordeal, talking compassionately about how terribly draining it had been for the priest, how frightening and exhausting it had been and how much it had taken out of him.

You got that? It was all about how awful it was for the priest. That man did not say one word about how it had been for the boy, the person actually pinned down. It was like listening to a man describing how hard it was for the poor rapist that the woman kept scratching him.

I've talked about the problems of depicting exorcisms before, but in such works of fiction the problem is simple: in such a story, the hero is the priest. The 'possessed' victim is barely a character: the fight is between the priest and the 'demon', and the poor soul actually suffering from the affliction disappears from view, a piece of territory to be wrangled over rather than any kind of agent in their own life. At the end of The Exorcist the priest is actually provoked to attack the 'possessed' child - which I hope was artistic license, because if a priest tries to beat up a sick teenager he should be in prison. In the extreme forms beloved of movies, it's a predatory form of pastoralism, in which the the priest's faith and endurance and heroism are the only issues, and the rights of the victim aren't even considered. It's a myth that presents a grand and admirable struggle in what is actually the cruel and inexcusable mistreatment of somebody mentally ill.

So if fiction isn't liable to deprave and corrupt - which it really isn't - what can we think about fiction that presents itself as 'based on a true story'? Especially when it presents the abuser as the hero?

I'm not in favour of banning such fiction either; burning is no argument. Far better to put out counter-information and answer words with words. But for myself, I think there's a profound moral ugliness in exorcist-as-hero stories that is for the most part invisible, which is why I'm raising the subject again. They are horror stories in which the horror is blamed on the victim while the real villain wears the martyr's crown.

What does anyone else think about these issues?


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