Friday, August 12, 2005

Back in the USSR

To many observers the collapse of the Soviet Union marked a collapse as well of the Marxist vision of an ideal society. The disastrous outcome of the events set in motion by the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 seemed to suggest that any attempt to build a society based on the destruction of "bourgeois" property rights and the replacement of the free market by social planning would be doomed from the start. At the least, the failure of the "Soviet experiment" poses a major challenge to Marxists and to all those whose vision of a better world was linked to the communist utopia of proletarian revolution and classless society. Could this failure be explained without abandoning the essential elements of the Marxist vision? What lessons might Marxists learn from the Soviet experience? As Mike Haynes pointedly puts it, "Standing stark in the middle of any discussion of a possible better world is the history of the USSR".

Class Theory and History offers explicitly Marxist analytic surveys of Soviet history. It concludes that the Soviet Union never succeeded in building a genuinely communist or socialist society. The system that collapsed in the Soviet Union in 1991, they argue, was "state capitalist," and its failure cannot therefore be taken as indicative of the failure of Marxist socialism and communism. The potential for a truly communist society and a genuinely Marxist movement remains, they suggest, but those who seek to build such a society and movement must learn the harsh lessons of the Soviet experience.

Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, both economics professors, approach Soviet history on a highly theoretical level, analyzing the productive relations in Soviet society with sometimes mathematical precision. Their strikingly original argument, which they acknowledge is "not, in the main, a work of empirical history" (p. xiii), "foregrounds the social organization of surplus" (p. xii) and concludes that "the USSR represented, across its entire history, chiefly a state form of capitalism" (p. x). Their book is aimed toward a more specialized readership of political economists and theoretically inclined historians. -Henry Reichman

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

MacLeod: "Is Serious the New Fannish?"

Originally at The Early Days of a Better Nation

Last weekend I was at Interaction, the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention (the Worldcon) in Glasgow. The venue was the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre with its associated hotels. Constructed on a formerly derelict stretch of Clyde shore, the SEC and the Science Park across the water from it look some spaceport of the future.

If you want links to blogs by people who were there, Cheryl is rounding them up. (If you're reading this much after it was written, go here and scroll down.) My own impressions are limited by the fact that I was on thirteen programme items from Thursday through Sunday, and had neither time nor energy to go to any others apart from the opening ceremony and Christopher Priest's Guest of Honour talk.

The opening ceremony was fun and I was pleased to see that it used part of a greeting to the con by Edwin Morgan, the poet laureate of Scotland, which I and Ron Butlin had recorded some months ago. (The rest of that DVD, including two readings and an interview, may be available to any serious fannish or academic panel that may want it. Ask me sometime.)

Almost every panel was packed out. The SEC concourse looked a lot quieter than it had ten years ago at Intrsection, the previous Glasgow Worldcon. This was almost certainly because most of the con was at panels. The programming had a strong backbone, and the discussions were mostly sensible, though I had a qualm at one point when I found myself citing SF stories in evidence. Is serious the new fannish? There seemed to be fewer people in the sort of costumes that the media like to equate with SF fandom. This may well be because I've grown blase about them in the last decade.

Also in the past decade I've made a number of friends in fandom. I met quite a few of them there, and I hope I made some new ones. Carol and I thoroughly enjoyed the various bid and fandom parties that swirled around the balcony of the Hilton stairwell. Patrick Neilsen Hayden took us out to dinner. Orbit threw a fine party. I talked to my editors and agent about the next book. Charlie won a Hugo, as did Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Farah and Edward wangled an invite to the Hugo nominees' party for contributors to their winning volume, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. So Carol and I got in. For that and all other hospitality, much thanks.

The Dealer's Room trade seemed steady rather than busy. The NESFA people were pleased to see me, and I them. They gave me a book and discussed my forthcoming NESFA collection (for Boskone in February 2006). I bought Parietal Games, the new collection of essays by and about M. John Harrison, from the Science Fiction Foundation stall. It looks good and I will no doubt blog about it later. Ever the sucker for space movement memorabilia, I bought badges of Gagarin, Koralev, and a pioneer cadre of cosmonauts from the Russian fans' table (manned by the same guys as ten years ago, selling the same commie kitsch). Their Worldcon bid is for Moscow 2017. I wouldn't rule it out.

Biodystopian hysteria at a bookstore near you!


Margaret Atwood has visited the future before, in her dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale. In her latest, Oryx and Crake, the future is even bleaker. The triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event. As Jimmy, apparently the last human being on earth, makes his way back to the RejoovenEsence compound for supplies, the reader is transported backwards toward that cataclysmic event, its full dimensions gradually revealed. Jimmy grew up in a world split between corporate compounds (gated communities metastasized into city-states) and pleeblands (unsafe, populous and polluted urban centers). His best friend was "Crake," the name originally his handle in an interactive Net game, Extinctathon. Even Jimmy's mother-who ran off and joined an ecology guerrilla group when Jimmy was an adolescent-respected Crake, already a budding genius. The two friends first encountered Oryx on the Net; she was the eight-year-old star of a pedophilic film on a site called HottTotts. Oryx's story is a counterpoint to Jimmy and Crake's affluent adolescence. She was sold by her Southeast Asian parents, taken to the city and eventually made into a sex "pixie" in some distant country. Jimmy meets Oryx much later-after college, after Crake gets Jimmy a job with ReJoovenEsence. Crake is designing the Crakers-a new, multicolored placid race of human beings, smelling vaguely of citron. He's procured Oryx to be his personal assistant. She teaches the Crakers how to cope in the world and goes out on secret missions. The mystery on which this riveting, disturbing tale hinges is how Crake and Oryx and civilization vanished, and how Jimmy-who also calls himself "the Snowman," after that other rare, hunted specimen, the Abominable Snowman-survived.

Chesterton once wrote of the "thousand romances that lie secreted in The Origin of Species." Atwood has extracted one of the most hair-raising of them, and one of the most brilliant.

LA Times on human enhancement

Today's LA Times has an editorial on human enhancement. Following the "precautionary principle", the author believes we should stop developing human enhancement technologies: "Why do we trust our long-term well-being to the irrational faith that the good consequences of our ingenuity will outweigh the bad?".

Before developing his arguments, the author acknowledges that "Biological engineering is not just about curing disease anymore. The incentives and profits are moving toward drugs, gene therapies and other technologies to enhance human performance - memory, creativity, concentration, strength, endurance, longevity". As a 2002 report of the normally staid National Science Foundation proclaimed, the 21st century "could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment," all through research on human-performance enhancement".

Then he says that the development of human enhancement technologies is not controlled by ordinary people, who will be relegated to the role of passive consumers with no decision making power. The simplest answer to this objection is, I believe, that enhanced citizens will be able to participate more effectively in policy through better access to information and better reasoning power. An enhanced citizen would be, if anything, much less likely to follow subliminal advertising placed in mass media to "smartly" steer the minds of the people. Also, that ordinary citizens have no say is unfortunately true for so many other important things that focusing on human enhancement is just missing the point. The problem is elsewhere.

But what I find really disturbing is the statement "How would more direct communication of thought [through direct brain-to-brain interfaces] help Israelis and Palestinians better understand one another? Unable to use the ambiguities and subtleties of language to soften the impact of one's raw convictions, might conflict actually be amplified?". This is just a restatement of the old lie, affirmed by many religions, that ignorance is better than knowledge (and "dignified" disease is better than health, etc.). On the contrary I am sure that is Israelis and Palestinians could really "touch and feel" the point of view people in the other camp, it would be much easier to find win-win solutions. In this case as in so many others, knowledge is better than ignorance, and empowerment is better than powerlessness.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly


"America in the near future has lost the war against drugs. Though the government tries to protect the upper class, the system is infested with undercover cops like Fred, who regularly ingests the popular Substance D as part of his ruse. The drug has caused Fred to develop a split personality, of which he is not aware; his alter ego is Bob, a drug dealer. Fred's superiors then set up a hidden holographic camera in his home as part of a sting operation against Bob. Though he appears on camera as Bob, none of Fred's co-workers catch on: since Fred, like all undercover police, wears a scramble suit that constantly changes his appearance, his colleagues don't know what he looks like. The camera in Fred/Bob's apartment reveals that Bob's intimates regularly betray one another for the chance to score more drugs. Even Donna, a young dealer whom Bob/Fred loves, prefers the drug to human contact. Originally published in 1977, the out-of-print novel comes frighteningly close to capturing the U.S. in 1991, in terms of the drug crisis and the relationships between the sexes. But the unrelenting scenes among the addicts make it a grueling read."

Now that you know the story, click here to see the Quicktime trailer of the movie based on the novel A Scanner Darkly.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Bioconservative Bigotry's New Frontier

[via Amor Mundi] In a new public relations campaign, the Christian bioconservative Center for Bioethics and Culture is now encouraging its supporters to purchase and sport blue wristbands emblazoned with the words "THE HUMAN FUTURE."

What, you may be wondering, do these bioconservatives mean by the human future?

Well, one thing we can say of it from the outset is that there would appear to be only one future that is a "human" one for the CBC.

How fortunate for us all that there are bioconservatives on hand to let the rest of us know all the many kinds of humans that fail now and will come to fail in the future to pass muster as proper humans.

Wearing this bracelet, say the organizers of “The Human Future” campaign, is “raising the red flag” [this despite the fact that the bracelet is blue] “when human dignity is at stake.”

Always remember that there is a decisive family resemblance between the conventional anti-choice politics of social conservatives, which would hijack the concept of "life" in the service of projects to take away every woman’s right to make informed healthcare choices -- and the efforts of bioconservatives to hijack the concept of human "dignity" in the service of projects to ban and restrict therapeutic choices and avenues of medical research for everyone. And all this just to better reflect their own parochial interests and tastes. (And usually it is literally the same people who are making these parallel arguments.)

"The Human Future" campaign, the CBC continues "is about celebrating the beauty and complexity of human life in all of its various stages from the zygote to the death bed." The enthusiasm of bioconservatives for fetal not-quite-yet persons and vegetative no-longer-quite-still persons is, of course, too well known. No doubt it is a matter of coincidence that in speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves bioconservatives can multiply their own voices incomparably, especially in an era when fewer and fewer people otherwise seem to make choices and voice opinions these bioconservatives approve of.

True to form, the promised bioconservative "celebration of complexity" turns its attentions soon enough to the policing of every trait, every capacity, every technique, every value, every lifeway that nudges the least bit outside the straightjacket of customs and norms that define "dignity" for bioconservatives in particular. Apparently this is the sort of "celebration" that is possible only so long as everybody is attending exactly the same party, whether they want to or not. One recalls H.L. Mencken’s definition of "puritanism" as "[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

"CBC is about equipping people to face the challenges of the 21st Century and we use all the tools necessary to raise awareness about these issues," declare the campaign’s organizers. Permit me a moment to relish the rich commonplace hypocrisy of bioconservative technophobes enthusing even figuratively about "equip[ment]" and "tools"… and now let’s look a bit more closely at "the issues" about which the CBC would raise our awareness.

"[I]ssues related to the taking, making, and faking of human life are the issues that will dominate the 21st Century," the CBC assures us.

One is disappointed to discover that lives lost to back alley abortions, lives lost to sexually transmitted diseases left unaddressed in "abstinence only" sex-education programs, lives lost to treatable diseases left untreated among uninsured Americans and among countless people in the developing world due to the impact of intellectual property regimes beholden to the profits of Big Pharma, lives lost to starvation in the midst of abundance, lives of soldiers and civilians lost in illegal wars, lives lost to deliriously proliferating handguns, lives lost to deteriorating environmental standards, safety standards, healthcare standards, lives lost to multiplying Greenhouse storms… that none of these lives lost would appear to represent the sort of takings of life that exercise the bioconservative imagination, particularly, if the CBC website is any kind of guide to their preoccupations. Now, aborted fetuses… well, boy, that’s another matter!

As for makings of life that represent 21st Century "issues," assisted reproductive techniques are apparently very troubling, even when they eventuate in perfectly recognizable fetuses. For issue that is not "an issue," what is wanted, don’t you know, are very particularly the fetuses that conventional couples arrive at through coupling conventionally. Also, cloned kittens as pets are a problem. Designer super babies and clone armies are also unexpectedly something to worry about quite a bit, even if you are not a writer of dystopian science fiction novels. Curiously enough, worrying about such B-movie monsters turns out to provide all sorts of otherwise counterintuitive insight as to why a pregnant woman shouldn’t be able to know whether or not the fetus she is carrying has phenylketonuria and why we shouldn’t spend money to cure Parkinson’s Disease if embryonic stem-cells are involved. I had no idea!

Most intriguing of all, of course, is the suggestion that in the 21st Century one burning "issue" will be that some apparently living humans will be, in fact, just “faking human life.” Clearly, the bioconsevatives are trying to get out ahead of the 21st Century Cylon Problem. One hesitates to ask just what kinds of genetic and prosthetic medical therapies will be enough to nudge some humans toward the status of "fake human life." Perhaps I should rethink that Lasik treatment, especially since I've already got that whole queer problem happening (why, I'm probably just a fake human just fake living already!).

I wonder, will these 21st Century fake humans know that they’re fakes themselves or will only the bioconservatives know? Just think how terrible it would be to be living your life, muddling along with your modest hopes and pleasures and frustrations, thinking all along you’re a human being with, you know, a human life, and then discover all the sudden that because you’re a medically delayed twin (clone), or the product of some other assisted reproduction technique, or the beneficiary of some genetic therapy or whatever that therefore you’re not a human at all, not living at all, not a rights-bearing, dignity-inhering human at all, but a fake after all! If only more people had donned the bioconservative blue bracelets while there was still time!

This bioconservative campaign looks like to me like something of an historical first: A declaration of pre-emptive bigotry against certain kinds of human beings who don't even exist yet.

One would have thought their hostility to people of other faiths or too-different versions of their own faith, to gay people, to scientifically-literate people, to cheerful nonconformists, to anybody who thinks poor people and women are actually already proper human beings, and to anybody anywhere on earth with scarce oil or other resources they happen to be entitled to by virtue of wanting them would be quite exhausting and time-consuming enough for conservatives without adding to the enemies list as well "all people who may undergo life-enhancing consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical therapies that bioconservatives are unfamiliar with or otherwise scared of at the moment."

Of course, one expects American social conservatives to treat the humans they disapprove of as subhumans. The soldiers of the Christian American “culture of life” can always be counted on to declare their bigotry loud and proud (and at considerable length) in this way. But you have to hand it to them this time, getting ahead of the curve like this, joining hearts and hands to extend their antipathy to people who haven't even managed to arrive yet on the scene.

Bioconservative bigotry has found a New Frontier. I have no doubt at all that there will be many more to come.