Sunday 31 March 2024

What I've Been Reading Recently

Less frequent blogging = more frequent reading, as intended. Here's what I've burned through these last three months:

Bourdieu and Literature by John RW Spellar
11.22.63 by Stephen King
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
A Poetics of Postmodernism by Linda Hutcheon
Serenade by James M Cain
The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
The English Teacher by RK Narayan
Lean On Me: A Politics of Radical Care by Lynne Segal
The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier
Salvation Lost by Peter F Hamilton
Empire and Imperialism by Atilio A Boron
Hello America by JG Ballard
At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl
Cross Channel by Julian Barnes
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Science Fiction by Adam Roberts
Gaston de Blondeville by Ann Radcliffe
Comrade by Jodi Dean
Dayworld by Philip Jose Farmer
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
Submission by Michel Houllebecq
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Taseusz Borowski
Ancient, My Enemy by Gordon R Dickson
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

That's quite a few books! Where to begin to talk about them? Apart from this already written up, I want to single two out. The first is Matthew Lewis's The Monk. There's been an 18th century gothic thing around these parts of late, and I'm happy to say this is one of the most ridiculous and absurd novels you'll ever read. Watch how a holy man comes undone bit by bit, and whose crimes cause him to commit even greater crimes - much to his detriment. Why this isn't a touchstone in the English literary canon beats me.

The other book, mentioned in passing elsewhere, is Lynne Segal's Lean on Me. Drawing on her experience of care and intimacy in this country's women's movement, she argues that this provides the basis of an alternative to the privatised individualism and its neuroses about ageing and infirmity. Read in conjunction with The Care Manifesto, Jodi Dean's Comrade, and the Lazzarato stuff I'm studying at the moment, Lynne not only asks the right questions but is pointing toward the answers. Highly recommended.

I have a ridiculously large to-be-read pile, and so it's reasonable to expect a relatively generous overview by the end of June. What have you been reading recently?

Saturday 30 March 2024

Quarter One By-Election Results 2024

This quarter 76,034 votes were cast in 48 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 19 council seats changed hands. For comparison you can view Quarter four 2023's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q1 2023
Lib Dem

* There were four by-elections in Scotland
** There were nine by-elections in Wales
*** There were seven Independent clashes
**** Others consisted of Democratic Liberation (49), Eco Federation (25), Gwlad (2), Independent Green Voice (133), Liberal (118), Putting Crewe First (128), Reform (54, 50, 237), Scottish Family Party (50), TUSC (53), UKIP (38, 27), Women's Equality Party (22)

Looking at the quarterly summary and ... it doesn't seem that bad for the Conservatives. They come away with the popular vote and only dropped three councillors. Labour came in behind the Liberal Democrats and come out the poorer. And the aforementioned Lib Dems are toasting five new councillors while the Greens can add a couple more to their tally. And, once again, there's no sign of voters' interests in Reform. Which is unlike UKIP of a decade ago, which did have a local authority following and was capable of winning the occasional by-election.

There is something that should cause the Conservatives some pause. Their vote may have held up, but for the first time ever Labour have fielded more candidates in all three months of a quarter. Set against the backdrop of the problems besetting the party, is their long term decline starting to finally hinder their ability to run in elections?

Friday 29 March 2024

Local Council By-Elections March 2024

This month saw 17,319 votes cast in 13 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Five council seats changed hands. For comparison with January's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb
+/- Mar 23
Lib Dem

* There were two by-elections in Scotland
** There were four by-elections in Wales
*** There were four Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Gwlad (2), Independent Green Voice (133), UKIP (27)

If one was tempted to read too much into local authority by-elections, it would be reasonable to conclude the Tories are in a bit of trouble. Because of the varying conditions in different localities a lot of unique factors come into play, so the piles of votes at the end of each monthly round don't mean much. That's why I'm sure no Conservative supporter will be disheartened to learn they couldn't find enough candidates to stand in four of the 13 by-elections, or that their vote tally came fourth for the first time ever.

Set in context, if this set of results suggest anything it's that the Tories' decrepitude is playing itself out at local level, there's little enthusiasm for Labour, the Liberal Democrats are the opposition of choice - but people will punt for Greens and Independents when they're locally rooted and have a campaigning profile behind them. Political science isn't rocket science.

As with March, April usually slows down before the by-election extravaganza of May. And 2024 is no exception with just 10 to look forward to.

6th March
Carmarthenshire, Elli, Ind hold

7th March
Bridgend, Aberkenfig, Lab gain from PC
Glasgow, Hillhead, Grn gain from Lab
Mid Devon, Upper Yeo Valley & Tawe, LDem gain from Con

14th March
Lancaster, Castle, Grn hold
Wiltshire, Cricklade & Latton, LDem hold

21st March
Cambridgeshire, Yaxley & Farcet, LDem gain from Con
Flintshire, Brynford & Halkyn, Lab gain from Con
Knowsley, Whitefield, Ind hold
North Kesteven, Heckington Rural, Con hold

28th March
Neath Port Talbot, Neath East, Lab hold
Orkney, Stromness & South Isles, Ind hold
Somerset, Somerton , LDem hold

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Thursday 28 March 2024

Becky Chambers Vs the Assholes

As one much-hyped science fiction series is doing well at the moment, it's time to look at another. Since the publication of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was published in 2014, her Wayfarer series has attracted its share of admirers and brickbats. There are those who praise the character-oriented focus of the novels over what the usual SF plot devices, and there are critics who criticise it for the lack of originality, the absence of big ideas, and its heavily emphasised good vibes. When the critical reception is divided like this, it's safe to say that the difference is less a case of quality and more one of taste.

Chambers's story is that of the starship Wayfarer. Its mission: to take whatever contracts are available and bore new wormholes in the fabric of spacetime. Its crew: a multi-species melange of misfittery. Ashby, the terminally broke owner of the operation, is offered a megabucks contract to sink a hole in dangerous space run by the war-like Toremi to Galactic Common territory, the Star Trek Federation-esque ... federation. Handily, he's just hired Rosemary, a clerk who can help him navigate the choppy anomalies of interstellar bureaucracy. Because we like cliches in SF, she's running away from a secret past. Also on the ship we have Sissix, a permanently randy Barney-the-friendly-dinosaur alien, Corbin the grumpy algae farmer, Kizzy the motormouth technician, the other technician Jenks (who's in love with Lovey, the Wayfarer's sentient AI), Dr Chef - the medic-cum-chef who is one of the few survivors of a dwindling species, and Ohan. He's a Sianat symbiont pair in which the humanoid(ish) species is deliberately infected by a virus that allows them - and them alone - to navigate the "sublayer" between two points in real space.

Spoilers below.

The adventures of this crew are nothing ground breaking and we're hardly skirting Dangerous Visions territory. Each character has their time in the narrative's sun, dealing with some aspect of their life, their culture, and/or identity-related problems. Apart from the one character who dies, this is low peril to the point of being cosy. And I suppose this was the point. A lot of contemporaneous space opera was about big wars or big reveals. There is none of that in Small Angry Planet, except on the micro level of building and nurturing crew solidarity. Even the isolated awkward character - Corbin - becomes fully part of the group's lovey-dovey culture after Sissix saves him from the unfair discrimination meted out by an officious race of alien lobsters. This makes for just about the most gentle read I've ever encountered in years of reading SF. Every character relationship is a side-story of its own, an opportunity to break down misconceptions, embrace diversity, and find delight in difference. If you want to get a bit Negrian about it, the free play of singularity allows for a more cohesive multitude. Or, to tone down the high falutin', Chambers offers a celebration of liberal identity politics. And ten years on from publication, that is controversial enough for some.

This might be garlic to certain readers of a conservative disposition, but they shouldn't worry too much. The identity politics are resolutely liberal and consistent with assumptions about the way of the world they are comfortable with. But it's not that the so-called Galactic Common is nothing of the sort, being a capitalist society based on markets, waged labour, contract, and state regulation. Nor how the Wayfarer is a small business in which Ashby is the owner and everyone else is an employee - despite its erasure by Chambers's detailed portraits of her creations as a super inclusive spacefaring family. The only compulsion that intrudes on their day-to-day comes from the requirement for paperwork.

What aligns the book firmly with liberalism comes from Chambers's treatment of character-defining adversity. What Rosemary is running from is a wealthy family, but not on account of anything she has done. Her father, despite being one of the wealthiest men on Mars chose to sell illegal weapons to two sides of an especially vicious civil war. What an asshole. The Wayfarer is boarded by Akarakian pirates, an avian-based set of aliens. Ashby is roughed up and they make off with a lot of kit after Rosemary negotiates their release. They confess they attacked because they're desperately poor, (on account of their world having previously been invaded and colonised by another species) but they could have just asked for help instead of robbing them. Assholes. Corbin falls foul of anti-clone laws, and is beaten up by his jailers in detention. Because they're assholes. And then there is the climax of the book. They reach the titular angry planet and we encounter the Toremi for the first time. This race, constantly at war with itself, charges around a circuit of the galactic core shooting up themselves and others because, culturally, they're incredibly dogmatic. Clans are arranged along lines of thought and dissent within is met with death, and from without it's permanent warfare. The GC hope that by allying with one of the clans it will gain access to the resources of the interior. However, at a meeting between the Toremi and GC officials, an individual dissenting Toum takes a dislike to the crew and just as they're about the begin their wormhole punching procedure his ship fires on The Wayfarer, effectively killing Lovey in the process. What an asshole.

This is the flip side to the kumbaya affinity of the crew. They get on because they're not assholes. The threat to their little piece of multi-species heaven is the assholery of others. There is always room for redemption, as we see with Corbin's gratitude to Sissix for saving him, and later when he forcibly cures Ohan of his navigator virus. Structural oppression wouldn't exist if we took a leaf out of Bill and Ted's book and we were all excellent to each other. But ultimately some people are just plain mean and that's it. Chambers is on the terrain of liberal identity politics because what matters above everything is individual character and the behaviours it engenders. A position conservative readers of her work could get on board with, if they can get beyond the play of alien and human difference.

When it comes down to it, Small Angry Planet is a saccharine read that's undemanding, engaging, and heart warming. If it wasn't for the swearing and the lashings of (implied, inter-species) sex it could easily pass as a YA novel suitable for young teens. Though chances are plenty enough of that age bracket have read it anyway. And why not? The book swims with the current of the ever-increasingly dominant social liberalism, but ultimately it's undemanding because it is entirely conformist.

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