Courtesy of Boing Boing, this collection of inflated sculptures by Victorine Muller, including a PVC Squid.
Small press obsolescent.info is calling for submissions to a Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology. No Cthulhu stories, please.
The enormous squid-related story of the week involved a paper presented at the Geological Society of America, claiming that a giant kraken had not only killed 14-metre Triassic ichthyosaurs, but had played with their vertebrae. To call the evidence for this extraordinary claim minimal would be a euphemism; to even call it evidence would be difficult to justify.
Still on the subject of enormous cephalopods playing with their food, I give you Octopi Wall Street, a history of the American media’s use of monstrous molluscs as metaphors.
Chitosan, derived from the chitin in squid pen, has been used to produce proton-conducting transistors.
(* memo sent to Doctor Who producer after the word was mispronounced on an episode)
My story “Canterbury Hollow” from the Jan/Feb issue of F&SF is available free at Del Rey’s Suvudu site. Enjoy!
For any of you who may have feared that humanity has lost its inventiveness, I present Archie McPhee’s Tentacle Mustache.
I’m a big fan of the current Doctor Who. Matt Smith is up there with David Tennant and Tom Baker as the most engaging of all Doctors, and under Steven Moffat the show has extended its sense of excitement and playfulness. But there is a big problem looming for Moffat and co.: they are writing too many time travel paradox stories and if they are not careful, the paradoxes will end up eating their story arcs.
Time travel stories generally divide into two forms: those in which the time travel is a narrative device to put the characters in different settings, and those in which the time travel is itself the point of the story. The first sort of story, the time-tourism story, is primarily interested in exploring; a good example is the Irwin Allen television series The Time Tunnel, in which a broken time machine hurls its characters into new settings every episode. One week they’re on the Titanic, next they’re on the first manned (yes, this was the 1960s) mission to Mars. Time travel here is just a mechanism to shuttle characters around in history — and this version can be very cheap to film as the series can draw on sets and costumes stored for other series. A famous literary example is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the method of time travel is a blow to the head (clearly not intended as a scientifically plausible time machine!), and Twain’s purpose was to satirise contemporary nostalgia for the Middle Ages.
The second type of story, where the mechanics of time travel matter, generally focuses on question of destiny, the moral questions of changing the past, and other philosophical intrigues. “A Sound of Thunder” (the short story, not the godawful movie) and 12 Monkeys are great examples.
Both types of stories can be mixed into the same narrative, as in Back the the Future, a time travel paradox story and a scathing look at 1950s values.
Once upon a time, Doctor Who was very firmly in the time-tourism camp. The Doctor and his TARDIS would jump about through time and space and have an adventure at each location. In the very first series, the Doctor and his companion Barbara appear in Mexico just a few years before the conquistadors are due to arrive, and Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of an ancient high priest. As she admires the many achievements of the Aztecs, uses her position to convert the Aztecs from their culture of human sacrifice, reasoning that their culture might survive the conquistadors if human sacrifice is abandoned. Ultimately she persuades only one person, a priest who exiles himself from Mexico, and meanwhile the Aztecs continue their sacrifices and it is implied the Spanish conquest will proceed as before. The Doctor tells Barbara, “You can’t rewrite history. Not one line.”
The Doctor nailed his colours to the mast way back in 1964, but it was never going to last. Regardless of the philosophical and scientific arguments about the immutability of history, from a writer’s point of view it is just too damned tempting. We want to play with history. And Doctor Who, as a series, has never shown much concern for continuity anyway.
Over the years, Doctor Who serials slowly began to introduce elements of the second sort of time travel story, where the way time works is important to the plot. The second series ends with a story called, bluntly enough, The Time Meddler. The Doctor travels back to Viking-era England and discovers a monk with a wristwatch who turns out to be planning to wreck the Viking fleet in order to prevent the Saxons losing the Battle of Hastings.
Slowly the time-meddling became a larger part of the Doctor Who narratives. We saw Doctors meet past versions of themselves (a scenario so successful that it was used several times, the script usually being written to reflect the number of past Doctor Who actors alive at the time), time-trapped aliens as Egyptian gods (decades before Stargate), and increasing causality concerns. At the same time, the stakes became ever higher. From stories about the Doctor dealing with small groups of people, he began to save whole cities, then civilisations, then planets. This escalation has brought us to the point where the Doctor must now save the universe at least three times per season. (Who knew the universe was so fragile?)
There is nothing wrong per se with the time-mechanics story, and one of the best ideas in the independent Doctor Who novels was Faction Paradox, a clan of time-travelling gangster-cultists who create paradoxes and causal absurdities just for the sheer hell of it (created by Lawrence Miles). But time-mechanics stories need to be handled carefully. It is extremely easy to paint oneself into a corner and then solve it with time travel. This can give a vicarious thrill at the time, but it is the science fiction equivalent of the old Western trope of the cavalry riding over the hill. If you can go back in time and undo anything, then nothing matters. If a character dies, they can be saved. If a disaster happens, it can be averted. A perfectly capable time machine is the enemy of suspense.
In recent Doctor Who stories, the best (or worst) case is The Girl in the Fireplace, a beautifully written story about the Doctor meeting the real Madame Pompadour, intertwined with a plot from the far future to capture her for reasons far too complex to describe here. The Doctor, as it turns out, harbours a fixation for Madame Pompadour, and meeting her only amplifies his old obsession. Madame Pompadour, for her part, comes to care deeply for the strange man who keeps appearing out of nowhere to save her from terrifying abduction attempts throughout her life. The story ends sadly when the Doctor promises to take her to see the stars, but materialises too late. Madame Pompadour has died and he has broken the promise he made to her. This was a stunning episode, and the script was extraordinary (it was one of Moffat’s solo efforts before taking over the series), but it suffers from the fact that the premise of Doctor Who is that the Doctor has a time machine that can take him anywhere in time and space. The TARDIS is not perfect and it often dumps him in awkward situations, but surely for Madame Pompadour, fire of the Doctor’s passion and exemplar of his obsessive love for the human species, he could have bloody well tried to land the TARDIS somewhere along her timeline.
The Girl in the Fireplace manages to work anyway, largely because of the brilliant script (I believe I may have already mentioned it already), but also because it was a single, standalone episode.
The other problem with time-mechanics stories is that they tend to become snagged as plot lines and causality get all twisted up together. Sometimes this knot of causality can be a deliberate component of the story (see the movie Primer), but for a TV show that is attempting to stretch a causality-twisting story arc across 2 series and 26 episodes, I am worried that the knot will become too thick and tangled to make for satisfying story-telling.
I’m willing to give Moffat the benefit of the doubt for now, and because he has already mapped out this series, but I do think that Moffat is going to have to take a different tack in the next series if he wants to avoid the story being sucked down its own plughole.
Some edits: (1) Added a CC notice. (2) Changed the last panel to read “without resorting to common anti-Semitic tropes” instead of “without resorting to anti-Semitic slanders”.
Sorry about the long delay between posts, but I have been roused out of my blogsleep by my utter disgust at Noam Chomsky’s latest piece of vomit, this one on the subject of the raid that killed bin Laden.
I should say in preface that there is plenty of reason to be skeptical about international raids on individual targets and that one of Chomsky’s regular villains, George W. Bush, is also in my pantheon of modern blackguards. So you’d think I’d be inclined to agree with Chomsky, and I might have if he had stuck to his own advice to think about the “most obvious and elementary facts.” The problem is that Chomsky invented a lot of his own so-called facts, and in one case, the invention is so palpably dishonest as to raise questions about his personal integrity.
Says Chomsky, “We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.”
Well, let’s spot the differences. Firstly, bin Laden was not a head of state, he was the founder and spiritual leader and continuing organiser of an international terrorist organisation. Secondly, whatever one thinks of Bush the Younger (and I doubt anyone’s opinion could be much lower than mine), he is no longer active as President whereas on the evidence available to me, bin Laden was actively involved in planning terrorist activities up to the day of the raid. Thirdly, the Iraqi occupation, rather than leading to the assassination of its head of state, led to the capture, trial, and legal (although botched and unnecessary in my opinion) execution of Saddam Hussein by the Iraqi judicial system.
Says Chomsky, “Uncontroversially, his [Bush's] crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s…”
Uncontroversially? Uncontroversially? Really? You can see right there the basic flaw in Chomsky’s public personality. If he believes something to be true, he believes that there can be no argument, no evidence, not even a controversy against it. If he thinks it, then it must be true, obviously true, even uncontroversially true; no opinion of his, no matter how far removed from reality, can be anything other than an obvious and elementary fact.
Says Chomsky, “There’s more to say about [Cuban airline bomber Orlando] Bosch, who just died peacefully in Florida, including reference to the ‘Bush doctrine’ that societies that harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves and should be treated accordingly.”
Now I agree fully that the Bush Doctrine (although that term means different things to different people) is fatally flawed on both the moral and the effectiveness axes. But I didn’t know much about Orlando Bosch. What I found was very interesting. If, indeed, one wants to point out US turpitude and the hypocrisy of the Bush Doctrine, then Bosch is an excellent example. But the distinctions between Bosch and bin Laden are so huge that it’s odious of Chomsky to make this equivalence.
Bosch was convicted of terrorist crimes in the US — for firing a recoil-less rifle at a ship. There were no deaths or injuries, but this hardly mitigates Bosch’s intentions. Had it not been for an FBI sting that caught him placing what he thought was a bomb on a British freighter, he would no doubt have killed many people in the following months.
Bosch was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, was paroled after four years of his sentence and skipped the US and spent the next decade moving from Venezuela to Costa Rica to Chile, all the while involving himself in (usually unsuccessful) attempts to damage Cuban interests, kill Cuban ambassadors, and so on. Eventually he was associated with a major terrorist effort that came off: the bombing of Cubana Flight 455, killing all 73 people on board.
Bosch was arrested for complicity in the bombing and spent four years in a Venezuelan prison awaiting trial…in which he was acquitted. He was convicted of the lesser crime of holding forged papers, but his four years already served meant that he walked out of court a free man.
Bosch eventually returned to the US, claiming that he wanted to return to his wife and children. At the time, he was still wanted for skipping out on his parole and so he was arrested and detained, but lobbying from Cuban-Americans eventually led (unforgivably, in my opinion) to a presidential pardon. Bosch was released after six months detention.
Now, as anyone can see, Bosch was a dangerous man who did little to atone for his terrorist activities and was allowed to live his last years in undeserved peace because it suited the political purposes of the Bush family. But unlike like bin Laden, Bosch had been convicted in the US for crimes targeting Cuba (then and now a political enemy of the US), had served four years in prison in the US, four years in Venezuela, and another six months detention back in the US, and appears to have ceased his terrorist activities by the time he was pardoned.
Says Chomsky, “There is much talk of bin Laden’s ‘confession,’ but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.”
So now we’re into cheap 9/11 conspiracy theories. bin Laden had motive, means, and opportunity (which already elevates it above Chomsky’s Boston Marathon) and was a demonstrable associate of many of the terrorists involved in 9/11. His confession means nothing to Chomsky other than a boastful attempt to take credit for someone else’s actions. bin Laden, in Chomsky’s jaundiced eyes, is still to be considered innocent because he was never tried in court — a definition of innocence that would exonerate Mengele, Amin, Pinochet, and indeed Chomsky’s favourite war criminal, Mr George W. Bush. Note, however, how easily he attributes guilt to Orlando Bosch for bombing Cubana Flight 455, despite the fact that Bosch himself denied any involvement (i.e. no confession), even to his death, and was acquitted of the crime in a Venezuelan court. Should we believe Bosch? Probably not. But there’s a double standard at work in Chomsky’s attempt to twist logic into pretzels by proclaiming bin Laden’s innocence while insisting on the guilt of Bosch and Bush.
Now for the pinnacle of Chomsky’s deceit. This is where there is nothing left to say other than that Chomsky is an outright liar…
Again, trying to intimate the innocence of bin Laden, Chomsky says, “In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it ‘believed’ that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany.”
Now, the problem for Chomsky is that this speech is in the public record. And what Mueller actually said was this: “Al-Qaeda, for example, is believed to have a presence in some 60 countries worldwide. The September 11th hijackers all came from nations outside the US, and their attacks were the culmination of years of effort that included training camps in Afghanistan, sophisticated financing arrangements in the Middle East, and a planning unit in Hamburg, Germany. Today, threats continue to pour in from around the world.”
Note the polar-opposite difference between Mueller’s speech and Chomsky’s manipulated quote, with the “believed” taken out of one sentence and applied to contents of a different sentence to which it most definitely did not belong. At no time did Mueller say that he or the FBI had any doubts about the training camps in Afghanistan, the financing in the Middle East, or the planning in Germany.
I’m not even going to touch Chomsky’s ridiculous equivocating about the Holocaust or his idea that naming a weapon Tomahawk demonstrates genocidal intent (irony perhaps, but not intent). But I do have one question that still irks me. Why does anyone take this old fraud seriously any more?