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My name is M Harold Page and I recently sold a short story with a dragon in it.

As I wrote the story, I could hear the voices of snarky snobbery in the back of my head:

"Oh look, LOL, you could reduce all Fantasy maps to a blotchy version of Europe but swap in Orks for Mongols.... OMG another book about E'lves and D'warves... (chortle) Historical fiction for authors too lazy to do research."


"Sigh. Isn't it time to explore other cultures?"

Yes it's pretty easy to snark at -- call it - Traditional Fantasy, and also to give it a political kicking critique. It is, after all, a genre in which everything is possible, and yet where it usually delivers European-style secondary worlds and archetypes.

I think the snarks and critiques rather miss the point. However that's for a different blog post. Instead let's consider the short defence of Traditional Fantasy, which is the starkly simple:

"Go [redacted] a [redacted]! My reading time is my own."

To me that's a pretty unassailable position.

Clever people with loud views on genre often forget that most of us consume books in the ragged gaps in our lives - on a train or bus to work, while watching over a sleepless baby, or just before keeling over exhausted at night. Nobody is entitled to our reading time.

They also forget that it's not a zero sum game with other literature, writers, or sources of information. Having Traditional Fantasy as a go-to precludes neither reading other kinds of books by other kinds of people, nor engaging with the political world through other means; Sometimes I put down my Conan to read the Guardian. Nor does a love of Traditional Fantasy necessarily imply any sense of entitlement that might, just for hypothetical example, manifest in wanting to hijack a popular speculative fiction award. (Blackgate Magazine, for whom I blog, likes its Traditional Fantasy, but spurned its puppy-soiled Hugo nomination just as soon as the editor could find a big enough poop-a-scoop.)

However, as I said, the clever people forget, and in forgetting feed a casual snobbery against Traditional Fantasy.

This matters because snobbery against a genre really means snobbery against actual people; those who create and consume the genre in question.

Sure, who cares if you tease my wife for binge-reading almost the entire Wheel of Time while on maternity leave?

But stop and think about the result when a High School English teacher slaps down a teenager who writes a book report on the latest Joe Abercrombie. And, consider the practical professional implications when those in charge of the various literary pork barrels - festivals, grants, residencies, teaching gigs - exclude Fantasy writers because what we write doesn't really count as literature

The snobbery against Traditional Fantasy also matters because it feeds a more general snobbery against Speculative Fiction, that snobbery really being part of a nasty little power struggle between the old and the new middle class tribes.

The old tribe gets its culture from the private ("independent" as in "posh") school system, from certain sorts of degrees from certain kinds of institutions. Its members often come from established middle class families, passing privilege down the generations via contacts and inside knowledge as much as actual resources.

Members of the old tribe like smart clothes and typically get their spirituality from expensive yoga retreats. They are suspicious of intellectuals, but aspire to refined tastes and defer to a tribal intelligentsia that likes post modernism, "serious" literature, and opera, that dabbles with champagne socialism, and claims to enjoy "crucial" plays about the underprivileged in which nothing much happens.

The new tribe are the Geeks. Us.

At our best we're as meritocratic as we are inclusive. We come from all backgrounds. Our sense of style veers wildly between practical and playful, and is always more semiotic than fashionable. We get our spirituality from fire festivals and Yoda memes. We aspire to being an intelligentsia. Many of us are hands on activists. We prefer screen to stage, and insist on stories where things happen (like that bit in Firefly where Mal...). We like all sorts of books, but, historically at least, have a soft spot for those with rockets and elves on the covers.

And we are the new technocrats. Not a lot goes on in business or academia without a card-carrying geek making the computer side of things work, or handling the bewildering maths or abstract concepts. We may not have taken over the world yet, and we're certainly not overrepresented in the 1%, but our rise is as inevitable as that of the 19th century factory owners and industrialists.

Normally, the old tribe would just absorb or overawe us - hand out knighthoods and teach us to eat with a knife and fork. However, we see mainstream culture as just another set of options, and we play very different games of social dominance:

"You do improv theatre? That's cool! Did you know I'm a GM?"

It's like watching Sparta and Athens come to grips... infantry versus navy.

A good way to win a war is to move it onto a battleground of your choosing and then define the interaction so yours is the most powerful side - our King Robert did that to the English back in 1314. And that's how I see what's happening: By a sort of collective unconscious reflex, the old tribe pushes back, dismissing geek culture, ignoring it in their arts columns and literary festivals, writing grant rules to exclude it, putting down the things that give us pleasure: "You may be clever, but your tastes are childish. Get back to work, techno-peasant!"

And we often buy into it enough to say;

"Oh no, not MY tastes. I read [Your Genres Here]. But those tastes over there? Those are childish."

Oh that was the other good way to win a war; Divide and Rule.

This is why Traditional Fantasy deserves a more systematic defence than just that of mere personal preference, which is what I'll get to in my next blog entry.

Oh, and that dragon story?

I told those voices to go to hell, and for good measure put in skeletons, elves and dwarves. When I settled to my next gig - a franchise short story about battling wizards in a ruined city - the snarking snobbish voices in my head had stilled forever.

Or.. (shameless plug)... perhaps I just can't hear them over the remembered sound of Jutes and Ostrogoths clashing in the breach at Orleans while Attila's archers storm the parapet and bring down an arrowstorm on the mercenary shieldwall...

NSA Headquarters Yes. Yes we can. The last year has brought with it the revelations of massive government-run domestic spying machineries in the US and UK. On the horizon is more technology that will make it even easier for governments to monitor and track everything that citizens do. Yet I'm convinced that, if we're sufficiently motivated and sufficiently clever, the future can be one of more freedom rather than less.

bloody water

It's about three years since I predicted that the Iraq occupation would slide into a genocidal civil war in this blog, and I really wish I'd been wrong.

It's also been about that length of time since I decided to try and keep politics out of my blog. After all, arguing politics in a weblog probably doesn't do much good; it alienates some readers, attracts others, and if I'm going to be brutally honest, part of the reason I maintain this toe-hold on the web is to seduce readers (who will, I hope, want to read my fictions rather than my opinions).

Still, I can't keep quiet all the time.

The Lancet isn't just any medical journal, it's one of the big three that you used to — and probably still do — find in common rooms in hospitals all over the UK (along with the British Medical Journal and sometimes the New England Journal of Medicine). It is not noted for publishing random speculation, agitprop, and crank letters — it's the top journal of record in its field. Getting an article into The Lancet is like getting one in Nature, or Science: it's a big one.

So when it turns out that tomorrow's issue is carrying a detailed epidemiological study that indicates 655,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion in 2003 (Full PDF of the article here) I had to sit up and take notice.

This is an epidemiological study of surplus mortality, because the occupiers are refusing to keep records of civilian deaths. (Which, I should note, is strictly illegal and a breach of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, but let it slide — one more indignity among many). As such, it can't nail the precise death toll — but it points in the general direction. Mortality has risen from 5.5 per 1,000 per year prior to the invasion to 13.3 per thousand (and most recently, to 19.8 per thousand between June 2005 and June 2006).

Quadrupling the death rate in a country isn't something that you can write off as statistically insignificant. It correlates very clearly with the invasion and subsequent occupation, and the detailed breakdown ascribes 31% of the death toll to military action by the occupiers (with the remainder due to other causes including gunshot wounds and bombs).

The spin machine is, of course, already trying to play down the news. As this biased AP wire article puts it

A controversial new study contends nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war, suggesting a far higher death toll than other estimates.
(Way to go! Start by pinning the "controversial" adjective on a piece that's been peer-reviewed four times for the most authoritative medical journal on the planet. Let me just point out that's why I felt like pinning the "biased" adjective right back on the author.)

Rather than examining the statistical basis of the report, the propaganda continues:

one respected group puts its rough estimate at closer to 50,000. And at least one expert was skeptical of the new findings. "They're almost certainly way too high," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He criticized the way the estimate was derived and noted that the results were released shortly before the Nov. 7 election.
While the CSIS is officially bipartisan, its executive is dominated by Republicans, with a particular leaning toward Defense Department officials, Wall Street investment bankers and oil company executives. And if you can't figure out what kind of spin they would like to put on the Iraq occupation in the run-up to an election their friends and donors are running in, you're too bloody stupid to read my lips.

In case you think the Iraq business is all in the past and it's time to move on, let me remind you that as of September 30th, the USS Eisenhower and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 are en route to the Persian gulf, and the rhetoric for an attack on Iran has been hotting up since January. Think it won't happen? The Eisenhower (and another carrier group) are due to arrive in the gulf on October 21st. Now who's planning something convenient in time for the election?

No less an analyst than Bob Woodward warns that Bush invaded Iraq in the first place to secure the last mid-term elections. Now it looks very much like he's doing it again.

"This is not analysis, this is politics," Cordesman [of the CSIS] said.
Dead right (and as a denizen of a Republican think tank he should know). Bush's analysis is that if he attacks Iran in the two weeks leading up to the mid-term, he can roll the swing vote. So he's getting ready to do it all over again (hey, it worked last time!), despite the body count.

Now I've said enough, and I'm going to get back to my job (which is finishing the current novel I'm working on before I get stuck into the next one).

Your job, if you're voting in the upcoming election, is to decide whether you want to let a politician who cold-bloodedly ordered 655,000 murders in order to win his last mid-term election get away with the same trick twice, on behalf of his page-buggering, bribe-taking buddies.

But don't mind me. I'm just a foreigner, and my opinions don't count.

In the first extensive study of the causal/correlative relationship between the use of pornography and sexual offenses, researcher Anthony D'Amato (of the faculty of law at Northwestern University) has concluded that rape statistics have declined 85% while availability of pornography rose significantly throughout the USA over the preceding 25 years. The Reagan-era Meese commission failed to derive a causal link proving that pornography caused sexual offenses; this appears to be a study proving the exact opposite — that availability of pornography reduces the incidence of violent sexual assaults. (Possible explanations are considered; follow the link for details.)

So it is quite interesting to see that the British government has decided to respond to this study by cracking down on pornography in a manner likely to backfire quite spectacularly (as well as infringing seriously on the right to freedom of speech). More details at the Prattle (thanks to Feorag) via the link above. (Home Office consultation process report here; more details on the origin of a stupid moral panic scare campaign here. (It appears the conviction of the man accused of murder that provided the impetus for the campaign has been referred back to the Court of Appeal.)

This government has created an average of one new criminal offense for every day it has spent in power — and it's been in power for nearly a decade. I am getting more than a little sick of these control freaks ...

Caution: author about to express political opinion! (Flee for the hills, if you don't approve of that sort of un-authorly behaviour.)

Dr Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary (new touchy-feely cabinet ministerial post) has just called for the closure of Islamic schools that promote isolationism or extremism.

She said the government had to "stamp out" Muslim schools which were trying to change British society to fit Islamic values.

"They should be shut down," she said. "Different institutions are open to abuse and where we find abuse we have got to stamp it out and prevent that happening."

Yes, indeed, she's quite right.

And while she's on the subject, perhaps she'd like to enhance her credibility by doing something about the overwhelmingly Christian fundamentalist faith schools that have been springing up like toadstools under the Blair government (42% of the City Academies trumpeted by Kelly and Blair are avowedly Christian Fundamentalist institutions which in some cases teach creationist nonsense in biology classes) and that two thirds of the UK's population are opposed to?

Certainly one might have fewer grounds for accusing Ruth Kelly of partiality if she applied her criticism of extremism across the board. But given her own religious affiliation (and Tony Blair's notorious piety) that's not terribly likely ...

Authorial opinion: There's a big difference between the new fundamentalist brainwashing academies and the old-school going-through-the-motions religious curriculum that was standard (and slept through) in all English schools back when I was subjected to it. The atmosphere of an avowedly religious institution is inimical to the development of cross-cultural tolerance; teaching kids in an environment in which One True Faith is exalted and all deviation is sneered at as Error is a sure-fire way to inculcate intolerance and hostility.

We need to get religion out of education in the UK and adopt the French model of strict separation right now, before we find ourselves drowning in brainwashed extremists of whichever stripe. The only way to do it is to do it even-handedly — simply banning Islamic schools at this point would inflame the extremist sentiments Ruth Kelly is so keen to stamp out — so a complete ban on all religion in schools is at this point the route of least resistance.

And let's face it, every cloud has a silver lining: the extra teaching time freed up by ditching dogma could be usefully used to improve the dismal standards of mathematics and grammar in school leavers.

Ah. So the details of last week's horrendous "worse than 9/11" conspiracy are now coming out piecemeal.

It appears that none of the conspirators had assembled any bombs or bought plane tickets. Several of them didn't even have passports, making it rather unlikely that they'd be able to smuggle an imaginary bomb onto an imaginary flight.

And they'd been under surveillance for up to a year before the sudden arrests, prompted by the confession of one man who "broke under interrogation" in Pakistan, a country notorious for torturing confessions out of prisoners.

(This rubbish is used as the basis for mass arrests and a huge security clampdown that results in close to 30% of all commercial flights in/out of British airports being cancelled for a week.)

Meanwhile, our glorious Home Secretary, John Reid, is saying "people don't get it" and that he's going to introduce a new anti-terrorism bill into parliament in the next session.

I'm afraid some of us do "get it". And we're not impressed.

Anyone got a photograph of Emmanuel Goldstein for me to link to?

"Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts."

For full details, see this paper ("A False Sense of Insecurity (PDF)", John Mueller, Ohio State University.)

This is nothing new. Here in the UK we've lived through 30 years of terrorist insurgency in Northern Ireland; it only ended recently, and it claimed 3000 lives — a per-capita death rate for the UK roughly five to six times higher than 9/11 (for the UK as a whole — it's much higher if you consider only Northern Ireland). Guess what? More people died in car accidents in NI during the Troubles than in the Troubles themselves.

It used to be said that patriotism was the first resort of the scoundrel. Now terror-mongering is giving it a close run for its money. When someone tries to scare you, the first question you should ask is "who benefits?" Al Qaida and their friends carry out terrorist actsin order to terrorise you, with a specific political agenda in mind. Why are the US and UK governments trying to do the terrorists jobs for them? And what is their fear-facilitated agenda?

From today's Sunday Times:

ID cards doomed, say officials

TONY BLAIR’S flagship identity cards scheme is set to fail and may not be introduced for a generation, according to leaked Whitehall e-mails from the senior officials responsible for the multi-billion-pound project.

The problems are so serious that ministers have been forced to draw up plans for a scaled-down “face-saving��? version to meet their pledge of phasing in the cards from 2008.

However, civil servants say there is no evidence that even this compromise is “remotely feasible��? and accuse ministers of “ignoring reality��? by pressing ahead.

One official warns of a “botched operation��? that could put back the introduction of ID cards for a generation. He added: “I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail.��? Another admits he is planning Home Office strategy around the possibility that the scheme could be “canned completely��?.

Read the whole thing here.

... That the World Transhumanist Association have decided to award me the 2006 H.G. Wells award for Outstanding Contributions to Transhumanism.

(I'm still not entirely sure why — my contributions are of a purely fictional nature — but I'm pleased as punch; I just regret that I can't be in Helsinki this August to receive the award in person at TransVision 2006.)

The definition of a real Virtual Reality environment is one where somebody can hold a coup d'etat in it and make it stick in the real world.

Adolf Hitler or Ann Coulter: can you tell the difference?

(It's remarkable how similar their rhetoric is, when you put it under a microscope like that ...)

Just in case that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, here are a collection of cats who resemble Hitler.



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