The Skylark of Space, by E.E. (“Doc”) Smith

It’s Vintage Science Fiction Month [well it was, back when I started this review…] And what could be more vintage than The Skylark of Space?

This is it. This is novel Asimov called the first classic of science fiction; that Pohl ranked as the single most influential SF novel not by Wells or Verne. First written – or at least begun – almost exactly a century ago, how does The First Space Opera hold up today?

…well, I’m honestly not entirely sure how to answer that question.

I could probably just leave the review at that picture…

But first things first. What is it?

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Political Idiocies

Although I’m fairly opinionated in terms of politics, and try to keep informed on what’s going on, I have to say it’s not the evil that gets to me most.

No, it’s the sheer stupidity.

Evil – intentional or accidental – is an inevitability in politics. There are a lot of people in the world, many of them with quite odd beliefs and priorities, and we won’t always get our own way. They try to make things one way, we try to make things another. You can account for evil. In some cases, you can even respect it – most of these people are genuinely trying to make the world a better place, even if their views on how to do so are utterly wrongheaded.

But what really, instinctively, viscerally irritates me about politics is idiocy. Ineptitude. The very least we should be able to expect from our enemies – or friends – is basic competency!

Take, for example, Trump’s package of immigration restrictions. Now, I don’t intend to get into an argument about whether these are morally good or bad, or even their strategic value in the long term. Those are contentious questions. But what I think we should all be able to agree on is that whatever the merits of the theory, their implementation has been, politically speaking, monumentally moronic.

Let’s look at it this way: imagine you want to swing public opinion against a particular government policy. What ought you to do? Here’s a few suggestions…

  • make the debate about real, specific people, with real faces and life stories. Far away people about whom we know little are hard to empathise and easy to ignore. Names, faces, stories, individuals are what you need the argument to be about if you want to get people on your side. And what has Trump done? He’s put specific individuals into detention on American soil, while not isolating them from journalists and lawyers, creating a ready-made cast of characters for the public to feel sorry for;
  • make the debate about cruelty and unfairness. People might sigh over policies that are harsh or inhumane, but cruelty and unfairness are what get them pissed off. You can sell “tough but fair”, but it’s really hard to sell “tough and unfair”. And what does Trump do? He detains men who have risked their lives collaborating with the US armed forces. Everyone knows that that’s unfair. He detains elderly grandmothers, and he detains five-year-old children, separating them from their parents. Everyone knows that that’s unnecessarily cruel. And he has people asked about whether they personally support Trump as a precondition for entry into the country, and nobody can deny that that’s ridiculously unfair;
  • make people confused and afraid by stressing any vagueness or confusion. When it’s clearcut and simple, people are glad they weren’t affected personally and move on – but when nobody really knows what’s going on exactly, they get worried and distressed. And what does Trump do? He rolls out his policy without any guidance to people on the ground and contradictory statements by senior officials, so that nobody really knows what’s going on. Why is one person let free, while another is detained, and a third is detained without access to lawyers? Are dual-nationality travellers affected, for instance? Yes and no, appears to be the answer;
  • create specific times and places that can act as focuses for protest; when discontent, like sparks from a fire, is spread out and abstract, it’s easy to overlook it, easy to let it die away in the cold and the wet; but when discontent is focused in a particular place, at a particular time, each person’s anger can sustain that of others, and the fire can rage on for weeks, or even months in some cases. And what has Trump done? He has created the perfect protest sites: concentrated enough to bring large crowds together, and bring the journalists to monitor the crowds, but numerous enough to allow every protestor in America a potentially accessible site;
  • find cracks in the policy that allow fruitful lawsuits to be brought and other potentially successful small-scale campaigns. You don’t have to overturn the policy itself that way, that’s not the point. The point is that if you can mount a plausible case against an element of it, it spreads doubt about the legitimacy of the entire edifice. People feel uneasy about things when they see courts taking challenges seriously, or when they see authorities backing down. And if nothing else, these challenges create a steady stream of news stories to stop people forgetting about the issues. And what has Trump done? He brought out his policies without, in essence, having court-proofed them first. His policies raise strikingly obvious legal concerns – by issuing Visas and Green Cards with one hand, promises and rights attached, and ignoring them with the other – and they do so without any of the due diligence, consultation and legal i-dotting and t-crossing that scares courts away from challenging things like this. His detain-first-and-maybe-release-shamefacedly-later-when-journalists-notice approach also maintains the story by offering a drip of releases, a trickle of new stories, new victims, rather than clearing things out of the way one way or another and drawing a line under it; and he even tried to do this when the person responsible for enforcing it, ultimately, was still an Obama appointee. When you end up having to sack someone within a week of appointing them to their caretaker position, there’s no way to come out of that looking good.

Long story short: everything that Trump enemies should have been trying to do to rally opposition to these measures… was already done for them by Trump himself. It’s like he went down a checklist of ways to screw up. And I don’t approve of these policies, but still… as a reasonably intelligent person, it’s just plain irritating to see people in power be so calamitously bad even at doing bad things. It’s reassuring in a way – the hyperbolic fears about Trump’s new fascist dystopia are plainly exaggerated, if for no other reason than that Trump’s regime clearly don’t have the elementary competence required to dictate anything to anybody. But it’s also sort of scary. There ought to be a dozen different people around Trump with the foreward-thinking (or basic political awareness) to spot these problems and steer him away from them. It wouldn’t have been hard. No self-respecting political operative should have allowed that executive order to apply to people currently in transit – that’s just so fundamental. Anonymous people not allowed on planes in Iran? That’s controversial. Specific five-year-old children in solitary detention at US airports, on US soil, within marching distance of major US population centres, and all with the awareness of US journalists? That’s a crisis. More of the fire could have been taken out of the affair by some relatively minor adjustments to automatically exempt the most contentious victims – exempt special visas, green card holders, maybe post-graduate scientists, etc. That might not make a lot of moral difference, but it would make a huge difference to public opinion. And it goes without saying that they should have lined everything up before firing – an ironclad order with clearly defined terms, guidance issued to staff simultaneously, legal loopholes addressed before signing.

So either everyone around the President is an imbecile, or else they can see how terribly managed this is but don’t have the influence to do anything about it. And frankly those thoughts are both worrying, because next time it might be something really critical that they’re bollocksing up.

 

Of course, it’s not just the Republicans who have problems in the simple-mindedness department. Take the Supreme Court fight, for instance. Democrats in the Senate apparently want to fillibuster any nomination Trump makes. This is understandable, given that the Republicans started it. But “but mummy, he started it!” is very rarely an effective rhetorical approach when it comes to persuading unaffiliated observers. So there are two ways that this can go:

  •  Say “we’ll be looking very closely at the nomination, and we hope the President will nominate somebody we can all quickly move to confirm.” This makes you look reasonable and fair, while not actually committing you to anything. Then when he nominates someone you can say “we deeply regret that the President has chosen to make this a partisan issue with this appalling nomination. As you know, we were willing to work with the President in the interests of the nation, and we were reluctantly willing to confirm even a conservative nominee, because unlike our Republican colleagues we put our constitutional duty ahead of our party – but unfortunately the President spurned that offer of bipartisanship by nominating somebody who is so extreme that we plainly cannot support their confirmation in good conscience.” And people say “hey, the nominee must be bad if they’re putting up this fight over them!” – and when the Republicans say the fillibuster is a break with tradition and imperils the functioning of government, just say “hey, nominate someone moderate next time and you’ll have no problem!”…
  • Or, come out ahead of the nomination and say “we’re going to fillibuster the nomination, whoever it is”. And people say “clearly this isn’t about the appropriateness of the nominee, it’s about party politics”, and they think you’re the one being unreasonable. And then Trump has absolutely zero reason to nominate anyone even vaguely moderate, since you’ve already told him it’ll be the same level of fight no matter whom he names. And then he and the Republicans can turn around and say “look, the Democrats are misusing the fillibuster as pure obstructionism, and we’ll clearly never get a justice confirmed so long as the fillibuster remains”, and then they’ll abolish the fillibuster and the Democrats will be more screwed than they were to begin with.

But needless to say, a number of Senate Democrats have gone for the bullet-to-own-foot Option B!

This is an easy one, people. The ‘reasonableness’ gambit gives you a chance of pressuring Trump into a more moderate pick, and makes your protest when he doesn’t look more legitimate. The obstructionist approach lands you with a more extremist Justice and probably the loss of the fillibuster, while also alienating swing voters. The only upside is that this development is probably close enough to Trump’s announcement that it’ll get overshadowed and people might not notice it – but the fact it’s happening at all is a head-slapping moment.

 

Honestly, there’s a fight going on for the soul of the world right now, and both sides appear to be staffed with buffoons who either don’t know or don’t care how to actually win…

 

…Still, at least the Labour Party is still here to make even Republicans and Democrats look like they know what they’re doing…

 

Reduplication in Rawàng Ata

Apologies for the seemingly random formatting that WordPress insists on adding and subtracting…

Rawàng Ata is a language that employs several forms of reduplication, and for several purposes. Several parts of speech can feature reduplications. Continue reading

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

The 29th installment of my ongoing complete Discworld re-read.

Permit me a slightly fanciful new classification of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. There are novels that, it feels, he wrote because he needed to write a new book: books like The Last Continent, for example. There are novels that, it feels, he wrote because he had what he thought was a cool idea for a book, like Feet of Clay or Maskerade. There are novels that it feels as though he wrote because there was something he wanted to write about – Soul Music, for example, or Jingo. And then there are a small number of novels that, I can’t help but feel, he wrote because he was born to write them. The Colour of Magic, oddly, is one of those books – it may not be one of his best novels, but it’s one I can’t possibly imagine anybody else (or even the same author at any other time in his life) writing. Another is Small Gods, his widely-acknowledged magnum opus.

And a third is Night Watch. Continue reading

Where to start Discworld: suggestions and explanations

So you want to read the Discworld* novels. Congratulations on making an excellent decision!**

But there’s one big problem. There are 41 Discworld novels***. Where do you begin? ‘At the beginning’ is not necessarily the best answer in this case.

I don’t have a best answer for you – that would probably be against the spirit of Pratchett, having just one best answer for everybody, on something as subjective as reading orders. But hopefully I can outline a few very good answers, some not bad answers, and maybe if I have the time some really awful answers just to warn you off.

Before we get there, however, I should probably say a few words about why ‘begin at the beginning’ isn’t as obviously correct an answer as it might at first seem, and a few words about reading order for the series in general. So: Continue reading

Today I learnt…

…getting a minor link in passing in an io9 article makes getting linked by reddit look like a normal day. Seriously: the scale is so different that on my stats chart everything up to the moment io9 linked me is now just a straight line… I had more views yesterday than in March, and March was a good month…

Not that I’m complaining or anything. Or excited, really – 90% of those views probably just saw how ridiculously long my post was and closed the window, 10% prodded a few pages and then closed the window, and maybe a handful might check back some time. Which isn’t a problem, but I’m not expecting any long-term effect of this brief public exposure. [I’m slightly curious why io9’s writer chose to link to me in the first place – I’m flattered, but it’s not like I’m well-known. I’m guessing they just googled the book to collect thoughts when they were writing the post and mind happened to come up for some reason.]

But anyway, if any of you io9 people happen to have hung around to read this: hi! Feel free to poke around, and feel freer to comment on anything.

How I’m currently organising my SF&F on Goodreads…

Something monumental has occured: I have started to organise my Goodreads books by genre.

I tried doing this once before, when I joined GR… but I found the ad hoc categories I’d picked deeply inadequate, and rather than slowly reforming them I just scrapped them all in a fit of pique.

So now I’ve created a different set of ad hoc categories without adequate forethought, and I’ve no doubt it’ll all be different this time.

Continue reading