Punking steampunk

Paul Raven @ 28-10-2010

The inevitable high-profile backlash at steampunk’s oversaturation of the cultural Zeitgeist finally arrives (and about time, too). Take it away, Charlie Stross:

It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk […] It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We’ve been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it’s poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon.

If I was less busy today, I’d spin out a lengthy rant about the inevitability of this sort of cultural shift; it happens all the time in the world of music, for example (and it happens insanely fast nowadays, thanks to music being predominantly a digital domain populated by the young and computer-savvy). But for now, a brief summary:

Subcultural colonialism, in other words, works in very similar ways to the other, older sort of colonialism… though I don’t mean to imply its repercussions are anywhere near as serious. It’s a similarity of process rather than impact, you might say.

Stross goes on to point out that romanticising the Victorian era is a rather odd thing to do, given that it was extraordinarily grim for the vast majority of people. Personally I think that’s a large part of the impulse; I’m reading a rather excellent book on the era at the moment (Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt), and it makes the point that the early phases of the industrial revolution were marked by a wistful yearning for the pastoral/feudal England it had left behind… an England in many ways as mythological and idealised as steampunk’s glossy faux-Victoriana.

Because we know we can never go back, we feel free to reimagine the past as a haven from of the existential horrors of The Now; dreaming about a holiday you can never take is safe, because you can never be disappointed by the reality. Yesterday’s Now isn’t so scary, firstly because its bad sides are almost unimaginable from our current vantage point of Panglossian privilege, and secondly because our very existence implies it was survivable at a civilisational scale – two certainties that The Now doesn’t deliver.

The past is a poster on your bedroom wall. Hi-ho, atemporality.


Hawking advocates radio silence to avoid colonial alien incursions

Paul Raven @ 27-04-2010

Stephen Hawking is doing the promo rounds at the moment (hey, the guy has a new TV show to plug, you know how it goes), and his latest riff is that SETI is a risky business. After all, the arrival of Columbus didn’t work out to well for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, AMIRITE?

Hawking believes we would be well-advised to keep the volume down on our intergalactic chatter and do all we can to prevent any “nomadic” aliens moseying our way to take a look-see. Should they find us here tucked away in the inner reaches of the solar system, chances are they’d zap us all and pillage any resources they could get their hands on. Our own history, says Hawking, proves that first encounters very rarely begin: “Do take a seat. I’ll pop the kettle on. Milk? Sugar?”

“Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach,” says the theoretical physicist […] “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s pretty much what one Simon Conway Morris was telling the Royal Society back in January. I guess we’ve always seen The Other as a mirror for the worst aspects of ourselves… perhaps this is a sign that we’re really starting to come to terms with our nasty colonial pasts. Well, some of us, anyway.

That said – and as the chap at The Grauniad points out – it’s a bit late to tell us to keep the noise down now, after a century of gradually-increasing planet-wide broadcast output. If alien life exists, and if it really is anything like us on a cultural level, we’d better just hope we don’t have anything of use to them.


Colonialism redux

Paul Raven @ 10-03-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, The Guardian reports on Ethiopia, one of the world’s most food-short nations, and how it’s selling huge tracts of arable land to business interests from other countries:

The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.

But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.

An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies.

Again, the line between nation and corporation is becoming very fuzzy indeed. The map is not the territory, so on and so forth. Maybe a Greek island or two might make a good commercial farm plot?

Let’s just hope that this move by Ethiopa doesn’t have the same knock-on effects as the Daewoo land-grab in Madagascar


“We have a moral obligation to seed the universe with life”

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2010

Centaurus A galaxies eruptingThat’s the opinion of Michael Mautner, Research Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University:

As members of this planet’s menagerie, and a consequence of nearly 4 billion years of evolution, humans have a purpose to propagate life. After all, whatever else life is, it necessarily possesses an incessant drive for self-perpetuation. And the idea isn’t just fantasy: Mautner says that “directed panspermia” missions can be accomplished with present technology.

“We have a moral obligation to plan for the propagation of life, and even the transfer of human life to other solar systems which can be transformed via microbial activity, thereby preparing these worlds to develop and sustain complex life,” Mautner explained to PhysOrg.com. “Securing that future for life can give our human existence a cosmic purpose.”

Hasn’t the relentless drive of self-propagation been shown to be somewhat problematic over the long term? Do we need a cosmic purpose? More importantly, does the cosmos need us to have a cosmic purpose? When evangelical ideology and colonialism run out of planetary surface, I guess they have to start looking further afield for things to interfere with… [image via badastronomy]


Aliens might be just like us… greedy, violent and short on resources

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2010

If you’re waiting patiently for saintly extraterrestrials to come and rescue us from our civilisational follies, you might want to reassess your hopes.

Simon ­Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary ­paleobiology at Cambridge University, suggests that aliens (should they ever arrive on Planet Earth, the likelihood of which is another question entirely) may well turn out to be more like us than we’d have thought… warts and all. [image by Markusram]

[…] while aliens could come in peace they are quite as likely to be searching for somewhere to live, and to help themselves to water, minerals and fuel, Conway Morris will tell a conference at the Royal Society in London tomorrow.

His lecture is part of a two-day conference at which experts will discuss how we might detect life on distant planets and what that could mean for society. “Extra-terrestrials … won’t be splodges of glue … they could be disturbingly like us, and that might not be a good thing – we don’t have a great record.

And here’s some soundbite action from Albert Harrison of the University of California, appearing at the same conference:

I do think there’s a risk in active searches for extra-terrestrials. The attitude seems to be they’re friendly, they’re a long way away, and they can’t get here. But if you wake up one morning and an armada of extra-terrestrial spaceships are circling Earth, that prediction won’t necessarily hold,” Harrison said.

If life has evolved elsewhere in our cosmic neighbourhood, we should find out by detecting their waste gases in the atmosphere of their planet or by discovering remnants of extra-terrestrial microbes in meteorites or alien soil samples, he said.

Harrison dismisses fears of public panic if alien life is discovered, of the kind which reportedly followed Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

“The public reaction was overstated. Most people who thought the broadcast was real took sensible actions to protect themselves,” Harrison said. “Surveys suggest most people think they will be fine, but they worry about others freaking out.”

Yeah, that makes sense. Or it will do, right up until the point when the aliens deploy their HUGE FRICKIN’ LASERS.

Given that the SETI people are somewhat emboldened by the flood of newly-discovered exoplanets [via Mark Chadbourn], perhaps we should keep a contingency plan on the back burner? “Git ’em afore they git ye”, as the saying goes…


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