What Liberalism Means to Me

One thing half my twitter timeline seems absolutely certain of at the moment is that the real problem in the world today isn’t the fascists, so much as the liberals. These liberals are perpetuating white supremacy and anyone who doesn’t support Jeremy Corbyn is exactly as bad as Donald Trump and objectively part of the problem.

(For those who don’t follow Politics Twitter, there’s a *lot* of line-blurring going on at the moment as to where US political issues end and UK ones start, so a discussion about the cancellation of the electrification of the railway between Manchester and Leeds is liable to veer off into one about bringing down Confederate statues, largely because the latter is sexier.)

Now, blaming everything on liberals is their right, though personally if I was supporting someone who said we have to stop freedom of movement to stop foreigners coming over here taking our jobs, and who appointed as shadow equalities minister someone who wrote a column in the Sun saying that Pakistani men rape white women, I’d at least be considering my own side’s culpability in appeasing racists. But the odd thing is that most of the people they’re talking about are not liberals. They’re generally Labour moderates or soft-leftists, or even Tories.

See this, for example, from Laurie Penny (not singling Laurie out, it’s just one I saw today):

So stand up if you have ever dismissed the words and deeds of organized racists and violent misogynist movements as simply examples of freedom of speech and therefore by some arcane metric acceptable; stay standing if you have ever argued that the center-left needs to court anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiment to win power.

That’s from a piece called “A Letter to my Liberal Friends“. And yet the people I know who have fought hardest against that kind of attitude are liberals. To quote a friend’s locked Twitter account “I follow a lot of big L Liberals and despite continued assertions otherwise, we pretty much all like the idea of punching Nazis. So if you could find another epithet for the guardianistas you’re on about (most of whom vote Labour, not Liberal), that’d be great.”

The problem with all this is that many on the left use “liberal” interchangeably with “centrist”, when the two are in fact very different. It is possible to be a moderate liberal *and* a centrist, just as it’s possible to be a moderate Tory or social democrat and be a centrist, but in the same way one wouldn’t define socialism by Ed Miliband standing in front of the Ed Stone, it makes no sense to define liberalism by its most moderate adherents.

So when I defend liberalism, I am *not* defending centrism. Which isn’t to say one can’t put together a perfectly good defence of centrism, but that I am a *radical* Liberal. Centrists can fight their own battles, or send drones to fight them for them (I’m kidding). I think many of the more vicious attacks on centrists at the moment are incorrect, but that’s not what this is about.

But be aware that I am NOT speaking for all liberals here, and I *am* more radical than many.

I know the political compass test is hugely flawed, but it’s useful in that it’s widely known. Here’s my own current score after taking the test a few minutes ago:

That is not an uncommon position *at all* for Liberals in the UK. Most of the Lib Dem activists I know get scores in that rough area. Not especially centrist or moderate. And certainly not very “let’s not make a fuss about oppression”.

So what *is* it that liberals believe, if it’s not “fascists have a point”? Well, I wouldn’t like to speak for anyone other than myself, but I’ve recently been rereading a few great Liberal writers — Mill, Popper, and so forth — and especially rereading Conrad Russell’s utterly masterful An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, which traces the intellectual threads that have animated British Liberalism since the 17th century.

And while it’s not at all possible to summarise four hundred years of thought and the consequences of that in a few paragraphs, I think I can give the gist.

Liberalism is, in essence, about power, consent, and boundaries. It is about making sure that everyone has the chance to be the version of themselves that they want to be, and to live the life they want to live, without anyone else being able to stop them. It’s about removing all unjust power relations, whether they be imposed by society, government, or employers, and ensuring that any power one individual has over another is by consent, revokable, and the minimum necessary.

It’s about dismantling all oppressive systems of power, getting rid of all privilege, whether the inherited privilege of rich people owning houses and poor people having to pay rent to them (“why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?” asks the party song), or the privilege of white over black, male over female, Christian over Muslim, British over foreign, abled over disabled, cis over trans, monogamous over poly, shareholder over employee, boomer over millenial, straight over LGB+.

It’s about decisions being made by the people they affect.

It’s about the harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill’s wording, I wouldn’t use “his”, but he was writing in the 19th century). Note that this does *not* mean the kind of fundamentalist free-speech frothing you get from some quarters — Nazi speech causes harm to others, and indeed that’s its entire intent, so it’s *entirely* acceptable to exercise power to prevent Nazi speech.

It’s about celebrating people’s identities, whatever those identities are, but also about ensuring people don’t have those identities imposed on them by others, whether legally or through social pressure. Whether someone wants to transition and have a different gender recognised by society, or they want to cross a national border and live somewhere else, or convert to a different religion, there should be no barriers in place to stop them doing so, and their decision should be celebrated as allowing them to live the life they are best suited to.

And it’s about taking those principles and constantly reexamining one’s ideas in light of new information, and applying the same principles to new situations. (Hence the joke “a liberal can become a conservative in twenty years, without changing a single idea!” — and most Lib Dems could name quite a few people they know who that one applies to…)

I’d urge anyone who wants to know what liberals actually think to read Russell’s book. The Amazon link above should work, but it’s out of print so copies may become unavailable. However Nick Barlow did an excellent series of blog posts reviewing the book’s major arguments, linked here. But also look at what liberals themselves are saying, people like Nick, or Jennie or Richard or Alix or Sarah or Richard or any of dozens of others.

You’ll find they disagree with me, and with each other, a lot of the time. But what you won’t find is any of them defending fascism as freedom of speech, or arguing for a stronger anti-immigrant stance to appease racists.

There are many words for those stances, but “liberal” is not one of them.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Books I’d Like, That Aren’t Like Me?

I need to read more fiction that isn’t by white males, but it’s very difficult to find stuff I’d love, and I wonder if anyone here can help with that?

You see, I have fairly specific tastes for fiction, and the stuff that really appeals to me is… well, it’s pretty much exclusively written by white men. But it’s not *only* written by white men, and I think I have an absolute responsibility to read more of the stuff that isn’t.

Of course, I read anything I get recommended, and I read all the Hugo nominees most years (I didn’t get to all the novels this year as the surprise election got in the way), and I find plenty of good stuff by women and BAME people that way — but “good” isn’t the same as what I love. Something like The Long Way To A Small, Angry, Planet by Becky Chambers is definitely a very good, enjoyable, book, but it’s not one that satisfies the particular itch I have. I’d put it in the same category as, say, Ben Aaronovitch’s books, or Agatha Christie’s, or Stephen King’s — all authors who I can happily read and enjoy (I’ve read all of Aaronovitch’s stuff, and the bulk of the other two), but whose works don’t stay with me and cause me to think about them for weeks, months, or years afterward.

(Actually, a couple of Christie’s books do — The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None).

What I’m after, ideally, are idea-based novels, with a multiplicity of narratorial voices. Metafiction is always good, as is time travel. I like self-aware narrators, stories in which multiple layers of reality collide, and books which posit wildly different ways of organising society. I like plots based around solving a puzzle — whether a murder mystery, a puzzle about the nature of the world, or a problem in politics. I like books to be thematically dense, and to have plots and structures that reflect the thematic concerns.

I tend not to read for character — I can appreciate a well-drawn character as well as anyone, but it’s not why I read — and I strongly dislike long descriptions of the physical environment (because I’m aphantasic) but I also don’t like the kind of “clear prose” that reads like it was written to be adapted into a film without any changes.

Now, I’ve asked for recommendations like this before, and what I’ve done then is describe the kind of book I want, usually by reference to white male authors, because so little of what I’ve read in the style I like is by anyone else — up until last year I could name a handful of short stories in City of the Saved and Faction Paradox anthologies and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and that was more or less it. But since the start of last year I’ve read three novels by women (or co-written by a woman in one case) which are absolutely the sort of thing I’m after, and so I thought I’d talk about them, and ask for recommendations *of books like them*.

The first of those is one I already wrote about, The Lathe of Heaven. I won’t rehash everything I said there, but will just say that it’s *exactly* the kind of thing I’m after reading more of.

Second, there’s The Just City by Jo Walton. This is the first book of a trilogy, and I intend to read the second and third volumes (I bought the second a year or so ago, but bounced off it because I tried reading it in a period when my mental health was wrecking my concentration. I’ll be trying it again). I was sure I’d reviewed it here before, but apparently not — and when I’ve finished the trilogy, assuming the other two books in the series are anything like as good, I *will* be posting a long review, because this is frankly one of the best SFF novels I’ve ever read. It’s a book I’d recommend to literally anyone — with the important caveat that one of its major themes is bodily autonomy and consent, and so there are several rape scenes, fairly graphically depicted, in which the rapist is someone previously portrayed as a sympathetic character or friend of his victim. These scenes are *not* gratuitous, and are *absolutely* necessary for the themes the book is working through, and at no point does the narrative treat them as excusable, but they may be all the more distressing for that, so people with triggers around that may want to avoid the book or only read it when they’re in an appropriate state of preparedness. Those scenes distressed *me*, and I’m (thankfully) someone who has never experienced anything like that.

The novel has Athena and Apollo set up a colony, in the past, to which they bring everyone throughout history who has ever read Plato’s Republic and prayed to Athena to live in that state (including a number of prominent historical figures, as well as people from our own future). Aided by robots (whose sentience or otherwise is a major theme of the book) they build the Republic, precisely as described by Plato, and the novel describes the problems they face. It takes Plato’s ideas utterly seriously, and as such is an incredibly strong critique of them. It’s told from multiple first-person perspectives — a child slave brought to the Republic, a nineteenth-century woman who wanted to live in the Republic because it treated women as equals, and the god Apollo, incarnated as a human to try to understand humans. It’s an utterly fascinating work, and *precisely* my kind of thing.

And finally there’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. I read this because of Stephenson, who’s a favourite writer of mine, but my guess is that here the plot and ideas came from Stephenson, but most (not all) of the actual prose came from Galland, just judging from the prose styles. This is another story that sits on the border of science fiction and fantasy — there’s a science-fictional handwave explanation for magic having existed in the past but no longer existing in the present day, and for time travel which allows a government agency to try to rectify that, and so various characters go back in time to liaise with witches in pre-revolutionary America, Elizabethan and Victorian London, and earlier time periods. But they find that changes to the past have some unpredictable effects on the present, and that not everyone is working towards the same goals…

It’s an epistolary novel, and has some wonderful pastiches of different writing styles and genre collisions — there’s a lovely bit, “The Lay of Wal-Mart”, which is a Viking saga about a gang of marauding Vikings who get a witch to send them to 21st century America and invade a supermarket:

The West-march of the Walmart
Held all the food in the world,
Bottled beer by the boatload,
Frost-kept food, milk and meat.
Setting up for a siege behind barricades
The Norsemen fetched food, collected clothing,
Turkish trousers with flies in the front
Kept closed with clever contraptions,
Tiny teeth, meshing like millipedes’ legs,
Gnashing, knitting, concealing the naked.
Zipper the Fatlanders called it.
Cock-catcher it was to Hunfast, the hapless.

The best analogy I’ve come up with to describe the book is that it’s clearly the same kind of thing as Stephenson’s earlier Anathem, but is to that book as the Doctor Who story City of Death is to Logopolis — a time-travel comedy romp, even involving a subplot very like the multiple Mona Lisas from City of Death, and getting by on wit and a general sense of joy and playfulness, but almost exactly as clever as it thinks it is.

All three of those books get as high a recommendation as I can give (with the caveat that D.O.D.O ends on a cliffhanger and leaves a ton of plot threads hanging), and I want more of this. So, where can I find it?

(Incidentally, no need to recommend Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library, which I’m told ticks all these boxes — I have it downloaded and it’s on the digital TBR pile already).

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

I Aten’t Ded

I’ve just only had one full night’s sleep since Thursday. Proper post tomorrow.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Dog Advice

Just putting this out here in case anyone can help me, though I suspect not.

My wife and I have had a rather neurotic Jack Russell terrier, Gary The Wonder Dog, for the last couple of years — he’s eleven or twelve, but we adopted him because of family stuff, so he was pretty set in his ways when we got him.

He’s a great little dog, with only two real flaws (and one of them can be solved by just never giving him Dentastix). The one that can’t be fixed is that he gets terrified he’s being abandoned when I go to bed every night — he practically has a panic attack more nights than not, and this distresses both of us. (He never gets like that when alone at other times — he’s actually a rather standoffish dog who likes his personal space — just bedtime.)

Now the obvious solution to that would be to let him in the bed with us. But while he’s OK in bed with just Holly, if I try to get into the bed he’ll get incredibly territorial, snarl, snap, and generally make it impossible for anyone to rest.

We can’t put his bed in the bedroom, because then he just jumps onto the bed. Does anyone have a suggestion for any way I can actually go to bed without causing my dog unnecessary distress?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments


So Netflix have a new series, Atypical, centred around an autistic teenager. I watched an episode out of morbid curiosity. It did not go well.

It still went slightly better than I imagined it would going in, to be honest. This is a show featuring a neurotypical actor cripping up, with no autistic people involved in the writing, production, or performances. That would, in itself, be an immense demerit on pure “nothing about us without us” grounds, but the problems with the production went further than that.

When questioned about this, the production team started talking about how they’d talked to the parents of autistic people. Not to autistic people themselves, but their parents. Now that in itself is a major problem — our parents *cannot speak for us*, and in many of the most vocal cases, the wishes of parents (that their children be “normal”, that their autism be “cured”) are diametrically opposed to those of autistic people ourselves. Of course there are many parents of autistic people who are nothing but good and caring about their children, and I count many among my friends. But there is nothing at all about being a parent of an autistic person that makes you any better informed about autism than anyone else, and talking to our parents is no substitute for talking to us.

(The argument made that some particularly nonverbal people, especially those with comorbid disorders, can’t talk for themselves has some validity, but doesn’t apply here, as the character in the series presents much the same at age eighteen as I presented at age thirteen or so. Whether one considers the autism that people who are unable to live unassisted, or who have an inability to communicate, qualitatively different from what I have or not, the character here is clearly one who has the same thing I have. And people like me can talk for ourselves.)

But they went further than that, and consulted with UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment. This is an organisation that views autism entirely in terms of “deficits”, and which brags on its website “Our Milestones: 1960s: Dr. Ivar Lovaas established behavior modification as the first effective treatment for autism.”

To be clear, “behaviour modification” is the exact same thing as “gay cure” therapy — punishing people for behaving in ways which are natural and comfortable to them, until they conform out of fear. Lovaas *tortured* children, giving them electrical shocks for daring not to make eye contact, or for stimming behaviours they used to calm down. Any organisation that considers this “effective treatment” and brags about it on their website is, by definition, not an organisation that anyone should be talking to about autism, or about anything at all.

(And it really *is* the same thing as “gay cure” “therapy”. Lovaas also wrote about his techniques in papers such as Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors in a male child and The behavioral treatment of a “transsexual” preadolescent boy, with his colleague George Rekers. To see how well that worked out — and if you’re not triggered by discussions of homophobic/transphobic child abuse and suicide — click here.)

Lovaas was on the UCLA faculty until his death in 2010. His colleagues, the people he trained, the people he was in charge of — those are the people that Atypical chose to consult, rather than involving *any autistic people at all at any level whatsoever*.

Amazingly, given this, Atypical, from the one episode I saw, is *only* horribly offensive and perpetuating negative stereotypes, rather than being some sort of The Eternal Jew-style call for our extermination.

Again, I only saw one episode — I simply couldn’t stomach watching more — but the main character is defined solely by his autism. He has no characteristics other than autistic ones. To be fair to the series, those autistic characteristics are rather accurately portrayed, as far as they go — he has a special interest which he’ll talk about at any opportunity without realising he’s boring people, he isn’t very good at understanding non-verbal social cues, he has sensory processing issues which mean loud rooms are bad for him, he insists on 100% cotton clothing because anything else makes him uncomfortable and he has other sensory issues, he is extremely honest, and he goes into unnecessary detail in explaining things to people. He gets words stuck in his head, going round and round. These are all traits I recognise from myself, especially at his age.

But that’s *all* there is to him. He’s a collection of autistic traits without a person to hold them together. And this is a problem for a few reasons.

Firstly, his special interests are scientific in nature, and this is in itself a stereotype. I am, personally, a white cis male autistic person who had scientific special interests as a teenager, but not every autistic person is me. One of the reasons autism goes undiagnosed in women is that their special interests often tend in a different direction, and the media stereotype of autistic people isn’t seen to apply. (Honestly, Elle from Legally Blonde, with her special interest in fashion and law, seems to me like a perfect example of an autistic woman in fiction, though it’s been sixteen years since I saw the film so may be misremembering).

Autistic teen white boys who like technology and biology (in this character’s case, especially penguins) are boring. Why not an autistic black girl with a special interest in literature?

Then there’s the more disturbing aspect — the series is set up to be about his desire to have sex, and in the first episode we see him following PUA advice and “negging” women, as well as unthinkingly lashing out at one who touches him. These are both, in themselves, not implausible, but I think they were at the very least unwise. They were played as being understandable mistakes for the “character” (such as he is) to make.

The problem is, behaviour very like that but for wildly different motives is often excused, especially in nerd/geek spaces, on the grounds that the perpetrator may be autistic, even though the vast majority of the time he isn’t. This show *will* lead to more people being persuaded that it would be ableist to complain about harassment, stalking, or abuse, even though it really, *really* isn’t.

(Quick way to tell the difference — an autistic person may behave in an inappropriate or harmful way out of ignorance of unwritten social rules, but if told their behaviour is inappropriate or harmful, *will be mortified and stop*. If they don’t stop, that’s not because they are autistic, it’s because they’re an abusive prick. Of course, some autistic people are *also* abusive pricks, but in my experience the proportion is rather lower than among neurotypicals, not higher.)

But the biggest problem is the whole tone of the show.

It’s a semi-serious family sitcom, no different in tone or style from a million 90s US network sitcoms like Malcolm In The Middle. But the scenes with any members of the family *other* than the central “character” are played as straight.

There are only two sources of comedy in the whole thing. One is the main character’s workmate, who is “humorously” open about his sex life. The other is the main character getting things about the neurotypical world wrong, and upsetting either himself or the people around him. And in every one of these scenes, we’re meant to be laughing at, not with, the main character. Ho ho he has to use noise-cancelling headphones when on a date in a noisy room, because assistive devices are funny. Ha ha other people judge him for laughing to himself on the bus and having an odd posture, because accidentally forgetting to comform to other people’s judgmentalism for a moment is a bad thing. Hee hee he smiles too broadly at a woman and scares her off because he looks creepy, because someone failing to put on a perfect imitation of someone with a fundamentally different neurology is something that deserves mockery.

This must be that famous neurotypical empathy I’m told so much about.

And the thing is, you *could* do a really, really, *really* good piece of comedy about an autistic person in a neurotypical world, *by having the neurotypical people be the funny ones*. With an autistic character you could easily point out all the absurdities of everyday life that most people don’t notice. There is a huge amount of stuff that is taken for granted that is utterly nonsensical, on every level of society, and having a character who doesn’t understand those things could point out their absurdity. It would be a perfect lens through which to do a whole range of comedy, from observational comedy to social satire. It would be easy to write an autistic character who combined a genuine lack of understanding of social conventions with a sort of Tricksterishness — part Groucho Marx or Bugs Bunny, causing everything around them to collapse, while they remain a calm centre.

But that would involve treating autism as a perfectly valid mode of existence, rather than doing something that’s half-way between a freak show and Mr. Magoo — except that at least Mr. Magoo had a certain naive honesty about it and just freely admitted it was mocking a disabled person, rather than trying to pretend it had some redeeming social qualities and was an “important” piece of work.

There are autistic writers in the world (I am one). There are autistic actors. And these are careers in which autistic people are disabled by society, because more than most jobs they rely on networking, self-promotion, and other skills autistic people lack. So if you want to make TV about us, fucking hire us and let us tell our own stories. Don’t make a freakshow featuring a neurotypical cripping up, ask people who are proud of their involvement in torturing minority kids with electric shocks to give you advice, and then look for ally cookies.






This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Prometheans: Wheels Within Wheels

The 1979 Prometheus Award was originally intended as a one-off event, awarded by the writer L. Neil Smith (who would himself go on to win three of the awards once the Libertarian Futurist Society established itself in 1982 and started awarding them annually). The first award went to Wheels Within Wheels by F. Paul Wilson.

As an opening statement of what the political priorities of the award-givers were, at least at that time, it couldn’t be clearer. The book is essentially a tract about how any attempt at all by government to regulate trade in any way is utterly evil (with a passing bit about how the gold standard is the best basis for an intergalactic currency). There’s a rudimentary conspiracy-mystery plot, but the following is not at all an inaccurate summary:

In the future, the United States Federation is a group of statesplanets which all have independence under a constitution charter which guarantees states’ planets’ rights to make their own rules. However, despite its success, there’s a political party which claims to want to reform it and give the federal government more power. They appear just like a bunch of idealists, but are secretly conspiring for their own nefarious aims.

These socialists Restructurists have a power base in the South an agrarian planet without much of an economy, and there’s a problem there. There are natives living on that planet, who the human colonists refuse to allow to eat at their lunch counters, and the Restructurists are going to use this to pass an equal rights act on that planet, forcing people to allow the natives to eat at the same counter.

However, a white man an Earth man comes to the planet, and is horrified – not by the refusal to serve the natives, which he finds a little distasteful but understandable, but by the possibility that legislation interfering with free trade might be passed! To avert this horror, he explains to the natives the concept of the economic boycott, for which they worship him almost as a god. Their boycott of the restaurant that won’t let them eat indoors forces the restaurant to back down, thus proving that the equalities legislation isn’t necessary, and the white saviour Earth man becomes a hero to all.

However, the evil Restructurists want to ensure that their legislation passes even though they know it’s not necessary and no-one, not even the people it’s meant to help, want it, and so they murder this heroic Libertarian Freedom Rider and use his death as the excuse they need to pass the evil trade-interfering equal rights act.

No, this is not an exaggeration or a mischaracterisation at all. That’s the substance of the plot. And it is made very clear throughout that while segregation is distasteful in Wilson’s eyes, it’s an acceptable kind of distastefulness:

“When you come down to it, most Terrans around here just don’t have any respect for the Vanek because the Vanek don’t care about respect and consequently do nothing to engender it.

“And it’s not racial antagonism as many outsiders might thing.” Again, the sidelong glance at Junior. “The fact that the Vanek are partially alien has nothing to do with it”

“Lip-service equality!” came the angry reply. “A forced equality that might well cause resentment on the part of the Terran locals…No, Mr Finch, if equality’s going to come to Danzer and other places like it, it’s gotta come from the locals, not from the capital!”

This character is someone who the viewpoint character considers to have legitimate concerns, and is meant to be a somewhat, though not wholly, sympathetic character. It’s made very clear throughout that other than a few virulent Klan-type racists, most of the people there just don’t like the Vanek people (who lived on the planet before the humans arrived) because they won’t fit in and they have a weird religion and don’t work as hard as normal people, and if they just showed a bit more respect for themselves they’d get more respect from their neighbours.

And all of this is written in a prose style right out of the 1940s – the same arid passages of undescribed people with no individual characteristics expositing at each other in unidiomatic leaden English that one would find in much of the early work of writers like Asimov.

And there’s a reason for that.

While this book was published in 1978, it’s a fix-up novel, based on a shorter version published in Analog in 1971, one of the last things edited by John W. Campbell. And this has Campbell’s fingerprints all over it, if not in the actual writing (Campbell often suggested plots and themes to writers) then in the style it’s trying to emulate.

You see, John Campbell was both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to science fiction. Campbell was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (which later changed its name to Analog) from 1937 through to his death in 1971, and in the first ten years of that time he was largely responsible for science fiction aspiring to the level of literature at all.

Before Campbell, there was basically a single science fiction plot – a square-jawed hero gets miraculously transported through space or time, and there either gets involved in thrilling pulp adventures involving Martian princesses or encounters a series of metaphors for the writer’s own political views, and then either gets transported back to his home time/planet or remains for more adventures. Think Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, John Carter, Adam Strange. That was, to all intents and purposes, the entirety of science fiction before Campbell.

Campbell insisted on actual plots, and for his stories to be actually about things. He acted as a mentor to writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, and would often suggest ideas to them – Asimov’s Foundation series came from discussions with Campbell, for example, and Campbell was also the real originator of Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and suggested the plot for “Nightfall”, the Asimov story often considered the best science fiction story ever written. Similarly, Heinlein’s Sixth Column was a rewrite of an unpublished Campbell novella. (Campbell had himself been a writer before becoming an editor – the films The Thing and The Thing From Another World are based on his story “Who Goes There?”)

The first ten years of Campbell’s editorship, he was the best editor in the field. But unfortunately, he set a baseline level of quality and left it there, never raising it, while other magazines like Galaxy started insisting on things like competent prose, and characterisation, and other things which Campbell never paid much attention to. Astounding/Analog was still, in 1971, doing the same thing it always had, even as writers like Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, and Ursula LeGuin were all doing things which Campbell would never have approved of, even had he understood them.

Because the other side of Campbell is that he was a reactionary, bigoted, crank, and he made this very clear in his editorials. Take this example, from June 1961:

The essential idealisms of the two sides in 1961 were that of the Abolitionists in the North, demanding that the slaves be freed, and the equally idealistic Southerners, who were defending their peaceful, happy way of life.

Before we get angry cries about the poor, suppressed Negro slaves in their “peaceful, happy way of life”, please remember that the fact of history is that the Negro slaves didn’t revolt against their theoretically-cruel masters during the war period. They worked their fingers to the bone trying to maintain the economy of the home-front while their masters were away fighting for that way of life. This being a fact the theoretical idealists of the time – and later – don’t like to notice, it’s not ordinarily looked at very carefully.

He goes on to say that black people were then (in the 1960s) trying to enslave white people in return.

Campbell’s racist views had a stifling effect on his writers even in the 1940s – Asimov said that one reason his stories never featured aliens was because Campbell would always insist that humans were superior to aliens, because he couldn’t cope with a worldview where white American men weren’t the best, so the left-leaning Asimov just didn’t write stories with aliens in, to avoid the problem.

But here, in Wheels Within Wheels we have the Campbellian view expressed absolutely in fictional form. It’s not racism to say that other races are lazy and have no self-respect so you won’t respect them yourself, it’s just basic sense. And institutionalised discrimination against other races may be impolite, but trying to ameliorate it by legislating against it is the ultimate evil – political correctness gone mad! They don’t even mind it until a white man comes along and tells them they’re being oppressed, and the real fighters against oppression are the libertarians who fight against equalities legislation.

This stuff would have seemed noxious even in the 1940s, but coming in 1978 – after Dhalgren, The Female Man, and the whole New Wave, it commits an even worse crime for a science fiction novel. It’s stuck in the past.

Coming next, a book in which the major villains are fans of Hamilton..

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Glen Campbell

I’ll be doing a proper blog post in a couple of hours, but just wanted to acknowledge the death of the great singer and guitarist Glen Campbell.

It’s not necessarily a sad thing that he has finally died — by all accounts for the last year or two there was nothing of him left, as a particularly nasty form of Alzheimer’s had taken away all his functioning, and indeed when I saw his friend Jimmy Webb live last year, the tour was explicitly positioned as a tribute to Campbell, and he spoke of him in the past tense. But whether “he” died today or a couple of years back, it’s still a great loss.

Campbell was deeply involved in some of my favourite music. Everyone knows, of course, the great string of hits written for him by Webb in the late sixties — “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston”, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and more — and there are very few voices in popular music that have had the sheer beauty of his. Maybe Roy Orbison, maybe Tim Buckley. A handful at most.

But he also sang on two of the greatest soft pop singles ever recorded, “Guess I’m Dumb” (written for him by Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman in 1965), which is frankly better than most of Pet Sounds, and “My World Fell Down” by Saggitarius, which manages to outdo the Beach Boys at their own game.

And, indeed, he played with the Beach Boys for a short period, replacing Brian Wilson. They called him in because he’d played on many of their records so knew the parts — he was a top session guitarist before becoming a star in his own right, and played on records like “Surf City” by Jan and Dean, “Mary Mary” by the Monkees, “Hey Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords, and many, many more records I love dearly.

It’s a sad loss.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment