In the footsteps of Marco Polo.

Zarg writes: I love travelling, don’t you? Last night I trawled William Coffin’s mind for all he knew about Marco Polo, which wasn’t much. It seems this guy walked a good half of the journey from Italy to China and back. Wow! I set William Coffin walking this morning in an experiment to see how far he could get. Not far, as it turned out. A multi-lane highway soon blocked his path and he couldn’t get over, under or around it without great risk to body and soul. On the way back I stopped him for a coffee and got him chatting to a lady. She told us there were places between Italy and China where it was unsafe to walk now. Things must have gone downhill since Marco’s time. We also spoke of those lines on the ground you call borders – lines only certain people can cross.

I will investigate more, but it strikes me that dominion over those lines may be key to control of the world. Some people own vast sums of money and businesses, which can move easily over the lines. Others own nothing but their brains and brawn, which are often trapped in small patches of the Earth’s surface. Imagine the power of these rich businesspeople! Isn’t freedom of movement what separates the jailers from the jailed, and the serial exploiters from the serially exploited?

Marco Polo highway

Photo sources: Connecticut State Library and Geograph.

The Age of Stupid – it certainly is that.

After watching The Age of Stupid (2009) I felt resolved to do a bit to benefit the environment, to help save our civilisation. So I turned off a few appliances and walked to the local recycling centre with a bagful of plastic, paper and tin. Of course, I shouldn’t kid myself that this is helping; it’s simply reducing my impact. Less bad does not equal good. But even this half-hearted effort didn’t last long.

And why should it? As the film’s narrator, Pete Postlethwaite, puts it, we’re all engrossed in our beach games as a tsunami approaches beyond our vision. We have been warned, but that warning is drowned out by the hundreds of advertisements we each see every day. And so we carry on as normal.

Americans have been advertised to for the longest, and thus they are consummate consumers. One Americans consumes enough for two Europeans, nine Chinese or fifty Kenyans. And all this consumption is already doing damage, with climate change clearly visible in the Alps and the Arctic, and the devastating effects of our thirst for oil plain to see in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and Iraq.

Still, we all want the lifestyle of the American – the big house, big car, big television and big travel budget. Yet unless the resources of the world increase fivefold, we won’t get it.

It is possible, however, for all of us to live happy and equal lives. It would need the neutering of capitalism, for capitalism demands infinite growth which cannot be provided in a finite world. The model would put a global cap on emissions, with countries allocated a share based on current emissions, adjusted yearly until their shares reflect population. This would allow Third World growth but enforce green reforms in the First World. Such a system might even mean we avoid the climatological feedbacks which could lead to uncontrollable changes.

According to Mark Lynas if we do not stabilise greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 and then reduce them to pre-industrial levels over the next half-century, temperatures will rise by 2ºC and keep rising until the world is nigh-on uninhabitable. Trouble is, the Copenhagen conference proved our politicians lack the courage to act. Popular pressure could change that, but if environmentalist cannot even defeat nimbys in the battle for more wind farms, what hope have we?

The documentary’s premise is that, looked at from forty years into the future, our current age could be labelled the age of stupid. As a fan of science fiction I would have liked to have seen more in the film about life in the 2050s, but with a shoestring budget that was always going to be little more than wishful thinking. Still, The Age of Stupid’s final message, beamed through a ring of space junk to the stars far above, was a powerful one worth waiting for.

William Coffin

Zarg writes: 2055? You’ll all be dead long before then. Human civilisation is prone to over-reacting. A 2% reduction in economic activity could easily be absorbed by a functioning society, but here on Earth it produces enormous strife – evident in today’s levels of unemployment and hunger, and in street protests from New York to Athens. If in a decade’s time the Ganges dries up and a 100 million Indians flee their country, a working world could find food and shelter for all of them. But unless a great deal changes between now and then, such a migration is more likely to trigger global nuclear war.

Zarg’s message to the World Police.

A little about me. My name’s not Zarg and I’m not from Planet X, but since your alphabet is insufficient for either my name or that of my home I may as well be. I arrived on Earth less than a month ago and am sitting comfortably in my spaceship, hidden beneath a glacier in one of your mountain ranges. I am not in Mexico with William Coffin, but one of my small devices (roughly analogous to a radio transmitter and mind controller) is in that country, implanted in his cranium. Be warned that if you go near, it will dissolve.

I am 120cm tall, have two eyes, a nose beneath my mouth and green skin covering most of my body. I am here on a peaceful study mission and, if I interfere at all in your affairs, it will be as a friend.

Is that enough to satisfy your curiosity? I thought not. I’ve seen the pictures and films of ‘Area 51’ and its like. Although I know all these encounters are fake, they will doubtless guide you in your reaction to my presence here on Earth. So you’ll demand answers to questions about science and technology. When you don’t get them you’ll cut me open. Charming.

It may well prove fruitless, but may I now point out that we share an interest in alien species? We have that much in common. Despite this I have not performed a single autopsy since my arrival, and I don’t plan to start. I hope I can count on you to reciprocate.

Oh, and please don’t harm William Coffin. He’s innocent in all this. He knows of my presence, though he remains powerless to act on it beyond the confines of this blog. And once my little device is gone from his head, he’ll not remember a useful thing about me.


William Coffin writes: hear, hear.

Zarg's arrival on Earth

Zarg’s arrival on Earth: how it might have looked, but didn’t. Thanks to Frank van de Velde.

UK looting: from the undeserving rich to the undeserving poor.

In 2008 a financial crisis, caused to a great extent by bankers’ greed, led to a bailout and billions were transferred from the taxpayer to the guilty bankers, with few strings attached. In 2009 a scandal erupted in the UK over politicians’ expenses, with dozens of MPs from all parties guilty of fiddling thousands more from the lumpen taxpayer. And in 2010, when the shameless bankers started threatening now highly-indebted governments, it came to light that large corporations were avoiding billions in taxes, the payment of which would have alleviated the need for austerity measures. Yet David Cameron’s Conservative-led government did nothing to claw back this money, instead concentrating on taking from society’s weakest: the disabled, the sick, the young, the old, the foreign and the unemployed.

With legitimate means of earning a living on the wane (there’s one vacancy for every fifty applicants in some areas) and immoral ways de rigueur, thanks to the example of the elite, why is it a surprise that young people should turn to crime to get the things they feel they need? Of course, many of those looting trainers, televisions and telephones already had all these things, but constant advertising has told them that without the latest and the best equipment they will never be fulfilled.

A double decker bus burns as riot police look on

Riots in north London. Photo via Beacon Radio on Flickr.

The looting only required a trigger, and it came with the apparent killing by police of a young black man, Mark Duggan, and the subsequent response by the IPCC (the Independent Police Complaints Commission, charged with investigating the death) to protests by Duggan’s family. News of the riots spread quickly through new technology, and so did images of people in Tottenham looting without fear.

Other people in other areas decided they fancied a bit of the action and some of the booty. These later riots had little to do with Mark Duggan or the IPCC and everything to do with copycat greed: young people copying the example of the bankers, the politicians and the owners of multinational corporations.

Is this too simplistic an explanation? Probably. In an excellent piece in the Guardian newspaper, north Londoner Aditya Chakrabortty describes the different causes inferred from the recent riots and looting in English cities and shows how differently locals, academics and politicians perceive the problem. According to Chakrabortty…

“If you’re a leftwinger, the causes of the violence and looting are straightforward: they’re the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.”

He goes on to mention the right-wing characterisation of a sickness in parts of society. This is more descriptive than analytical – the cause of the sickness is what matters, for armed with that we may be able to discern a cure. He brings in the economists, who show that a quick drop in living standards leads to an even quicker rise in instability, and vice versa. I’m sure this is true. And he quotes a local who points out that looting a newsagent or torching a BMW is criminal rather than revolutionary. Right again.

It seems to me that the causes of the rioting are complex but they must be seen in a wider context. Capitalism and consumerism have led to greed and pressure on parents to provide material goods rather than happy homes. As capitalism collapses every part of society is put under extra stress. Individuals need to change their mindsets if they are to adapt to changing times, a process made all the more difficult when they see the rich and powerful raking in obscene profits and bonuses.

The short term solution is for the world’s governments to meet and agree to close tax havens and set similar tax rates for corporations and the super-rich in every nation: with nowhere to run, these tax avoiders would be forced to ‘stand and deliver’ what is rightfully ours. Governments could then halt the painful and unfair austerity measures and instead invest in green jobs. They should also drastically limit advertising, for over-consumption is a problem and not a solution. These measures would go some way toward solving the financial crisis, the sovereign debt crisis and the instability blighting our world all in one, but real revolutionary change may be needed if the human race is to see this century out.

William Coffin

Zarg writes: With so few resources left to play with, the mindless destruction of human property by other humans is counter-productive in the extreme. It only hastens the demise of your species and my return to Planet X as a wiser but sadder alien. Quite sensibly, looting and rioting are frowned upon, but there are plenty of other vastly destructive practices that go on unmolested: boxing and motor racing; competition between manufacturers of sweet chemical drinks; industrial warfare and the production of destruction. While these continue, the writing is on the wall for you Earthlings. What surprises me is how many people seem to know this, yet carry on with their daily lives as if nothing at all were happening.

Rendezvous with Rama. A classic? Not in our book.

Dialogue. Dialogue brings a story to life. Dialogue makes characters real. Dialogue is critical to any story.

That’s the sort of truth new writers are invited to accept and, most likely, it’s good advice. I’ve given advice like this myself. But when reading Rendezvous with Rama, the multi-award winning novel which sits on many SF top 10s, you’ll have to wait until chapter four until you hear so much as a peep out of any character. (Lieutenant Joe Calvert says: “In three minutes we’ll know if it’s made of anti-matter.”)

So is dialogue really so important? Perhaps in science fiction, where the concepts and original ideas are more important than characters, dialogue can be ignored completely? And when it comes, it doesn’t matter if it sounds clunky, right?

Front cover of first UK edition

Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C Clarke, 1972)

Maybe that was true in 1972, but these days, I think, dialogue does matter. Less so in science fiction than in other genres, but it still matters. Times have changed and so have our standards. We do not have to write space-based soap-operas, but we do need a bit of believable dialogue for the characters who populate our stories.

Unfortunately Clarke’s main character, Commander Norton, comes across as less than rounded. I think the author knew this and tried to do something about it late in the day. So we get to hear about Norton’s complex personal life, millions of kilometres from the action, but never is this relevant to the story. It is bolted-on information.

Of course, the sense of wonder is the main driver of the work and a 50km alien space cylinder was certainly pioneering for the time. Without it we would never have had the incredible feats of the Culture in Iain M Banks’s series of novels. But now we’ve seen sun-spanning ring habitats, a 50km tin can seems puny in comparison. In other words, Rama is a victim of the sub-genre it spawned.

Still, I’m glad I read Rendezvous with Rama and would recommend it to those who haven’t. One of the cleverest aspects of the novel is that it asks as many questions as it answers, thereby leaving one thinking. But is it a classic on a par with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Clarke’s own Childhood’s End? No. Not for me.

William Coffin

Zarg writes: What a way to treat visitors from another planet! After taking the details of this story from William Coffin’s mind I am even more concerned to remain undercover on Earth. You, dear reader, may mean me no harm, but I can see what would happen if my presence were widely known – and it’s not pretty. Even when humans stand ready to do the right thing, their decision-making systems conspire to ensure wrong prevails. You’ve seen it just last week in your leaders’ ham-fisted attempts to avert a financial crisis they do not properly comprehend. And you’ve seen it countless times in your local wars and other destructive practices. It is so much easier to document your decline than to halt it, but I will try to do both if I have the time.