Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less Islamophobia, More Theophobia, Please

Public Enemy number one.
The first side effect of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has been an orgy of analysis and commentary by politicians and the press, many of whom are advancing agendas (more power to the police and secret services) or grinding axes (all Muslims are crazy mofos). After reading far too many opinion pieces and analyses over the last few days, I can no longer resist adding my two cents to the glittering mountain of coins that's already out there. So here goes.

A common theme voiced by many people is that Muslims need to be, well, less religious, or at least less fanatical. How this is to be done isn't usually defined, but one gets the sense that what people mean is that Muslims should do what most Christians do; pay nominal attention to the tenets and ceremonies of their religion but ignore all the barbaric and nonsensical stuff. Advising Muslims to dial down their religiosity is something I can get behind as long as it's part of broader theophobic movement. It seems monstrously hypocritical to ask Muslims to be chill about depictions of Mohammed when in the US creationism is being taught in schools; no US president can get elected unless they loudly proclaim that they are a practicing Christian; TV networks routinely bleep the use of "goddamn" or "Christ" when it's used as an expletive; women's reproductive rights are being eroded in the name of Christian religion; the military has become a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism; and a wide variety of pressure groups and politicians are constantly attempting to erode or end the constitutional separation of church and state. In sum, any attempts by non-Muslims to lecture Muslims on religious tolerance ring hollow unless it's matched by equal fervour in putting all religions in their place, which, in my view, is out on the street with their brethren operating the three-card monte games.

Are the Hebdo cartoons offensive? If you're looking and hoping to be offended, yes. Charlie Hebdo has a meage circulation of 60k in a nation of more than sixty million, and I doubt many French Muslims, or any one of a conservative bent, would be on their subscription list. Like the people who used to rail against Playboy magazine, Hebdo's detractors don't read the magazine themselves, but they're mortally offended that other people do. Those who argue that the cartoon images shouldn't be disseminated further because they might upset Muslims are falling into a dangerous logical trap. If a cartoon, an act of ephemeral humour, is too daunting for the sensitivities of some people, where do we draw the line in criticism and commentary? If a newspaper columnist does a piece in favour of atheism should there be a warning on the front of the paper about it lest a religious person come across the column? And why should religious sensitivities count for anything? Why should people of faith be protected from criticism or satire or a contrary opinion? We don't expect politicians, their parties, or their ideologies to be shielded from scorn or commentary (unless you're living in a totalitarian state), but somehow in the early 21st century it's not seemly to ridicule religion and its adherents.

The Paris killings have also produced the usual spate of right-wing chaff that attempts to disassociate Islamic terrorism from recent political and military history in the Middle East. The usual line taken in these arguments is that Islam is existentially committed to overthrowing the West (just read what it says in the Koran!) and what's gone on in Iraq and Israel has little or nothing to do with attacks on Western targets. Since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, the major Western powers, Israel, the USSR and, later, Russia, have terraformed, as it were, the Middle East, North Africa and AfPak into the hot messes that they are today. This does not make ISIL less of a horror show or excuse what happened in Paris, but to pretend that monsters won't arise from the toxic ecosystem that much of the Arab world has become seems ingenuous in the extreme. And if Islam is existentially obliged to attack unbelievers and spread the one faith by the sword, why wasn't the West facing Islamic terrorism in, say, the 1950s? Or the '20s? Why not the 1860s, for that matter? Nothing in the Koran has changed over the centuries, so it seems odd, unless you factor in politics and foreign policy, that the West hasn't been under siege from the Muslim world for the past thousand years.

And now for the big picture stuff. I'd argue that Islamic fundamentalism is merely one branch of a conservative counter-revolution that's been going on across the world since the late 1970s. Bear with me here. The post-war era (for argument's sake I'm going to say this extends to 1979) was marked by greater social welfare spending, the growth and influence of unions, a bigger role for government in social and industrial policies, and the political, economic and social emancipation of visible minorities and women. In simple terms, power and wealth was flowing from the top of society to the bottom. With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that flow began to reverse itself. The conservative counter-revolution had begun. This counter-revolution wasn't just about dollars and cents. The '60s and '70s had seen the growth of counter-cultural movements, alternative lifestyles, feminism, and gay rights. As these cultural changes gained momentum, the opposite and equal reaction was the rise of evangelical Christianity in the US and right-wing racist/nationalist parties in Europe. In broad cultural terms, what the counter-revolution was, and is, trying to do is re-establish a rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal  and mono-cultural society.

Although the West was where this struggle began, the rest of the world was not immune. The combined effects of globalization, immigration from the developing to the developed world, and the Internet have unsettled traditional societies all over world. Liberalism, in the cultural sense, has backwashed into countries and cultures that were anywhere from Victorian to medieval in their social outlook. Since the 1970s developing nations have been invaded by liberal Western values. These values have been carried there by Western businesses, immigrants returning to/communicating with their home countries, and the spread of the Internet. One sure sign of this cultural counter-revolution is the increase in misogyny just about everywhere. Women are always at the bottom of the pecking order in any kind of conservative culture, and because of this we've seen the spread of sharia law; gang sexual assaults on women in India; rampant cyber-bullying of women as seen in the Gamergate scandal; a mostly successful effort by rightists to turn the word "feminist" into a pejorative; and an epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the US military and colleges. Click here for a longer piece I did on women and religious oppression called Jim Crow is a Transvestite.

So even without the impetus of Western military incursions in the Muslim world, it's quite likely Islamic fundamentalism would have been on the rise as a reaction to liberal and progressive values arriving from the the West. But take this counter-revolution, combine with real and imagined political/religious grievances and young men who are desperate, alienated, mentally unbalanced, and you get killers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Charlie Hebdo assassins.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson needs to network more. I've read any number of mediocre and crap SF novels that are covered in enthusiastic blurbs from other authors, bloggers, and online fanzines. Europe in Autumn has one measly blurb from someone named Eric Brown, who may well be Dave's downstairs neighbour for all I know. This novel deserves a raft of accolades, so for his next novel (which will surely be a sequel to this one) Dave needs to start hitting the fan conventions and standing rounds for his fellow SF writers down at the pub.

One of the chief pleasures of this novel is its unpredictable ambition. The setting is Europe in the near future and the region has spawned dozens and dozens of new states, some as small as a few city blocks. All these polities, as they are called in the book, have thrown up new borders and travel restrictions to go with them. There are always people who want to move themselves or contraband across borders unnoticed, and a shadowy organization called Les Coureurs des Bois has sprung up to serve their needs. Rudi, a young Estonian working as a cook in Krakow, joins the Coureurs and begins a career that becomes more dangerous and mysterious with each mission he takes on. The novel ends with Rudi discovering that there is, quite literally, more to Europe than meets the eye.

Europe in Autumn is shelved in the SF section of the bookstore, but it mostly reads like a great espionage novel, perhaps a forgotten title by Len Deighton. All the tropes and flavour of the spy novels of the 1960s are here: tense encounters with border guards; middle of the night frontier crossings under the glare of searchlights; double and triple crosses; dead drops; passwords and false identities; and sudden, shocking violence. One sequence in particular, set on a snowy night in the state of Potsdam, stands out as a brilliant blend of SF and old school John Le Carre-style tension as Rudi tries to smuggle a man across the border. The first half of the novel is picaresque in structure as we follow Rudi around Europe in his job as a Coureur. His various adventures are entertaining in their own right, but Hutchinson's portrait of a divided and sub-divided Europe is rich and endlessly inventive. He smartly pays attention to the small details of life, which gives his imagined Europe greater verisimilitude than is usual in these kinds of alternate reality stories.

Rudi is an excellent guide to this new Europe. He's witty, cynical, clever, but motivated by a quiet idealism to see Europe once again become borderless. Rudi more or less stumbles into his job with the Coureurs, and in this regard he's very much like one of the heroes of Eric Ambler's spy novels, many of whom are men with ordinary lives and jobs who suddenly find themselves having to cope with terrors and realities that are far outside their experience.

Although Europe in Autumn starts out as an alternate reality spy novel, by the end it's begun a seamless transition to something far stranger and more in keeping with its SF designation. There's clever future tech on display throughout, but it's always kept in the background. What's most remarkable about this novel is that Hutchinson's prose is fully the equal of his imagination. All those SF writers with big, bombastic ideas (and blurbs) rarely have the writing skills to back up their glitzy concepts. Hutchinson's writing is so good it he'd be worth reading no matter what genre he tackled. And if he doesn't use some part of this review as a blurb then he's just being difficult.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film Review: Sorcerer (1977)

According to popular legend (or possibly revisionist history) the box office failure of William Friedkin's Sorcerer can be blamed on Star Wars, which opened at roughly the same time and sucked, as it were, all the commercial and critical air out of the room. I saw Sorcerer when it first came out and didn't think much of it, and now, nearly forty years later, I saw it again on DVD and had my original opinion confirmed: this is a poor film. I didn't like Star Wars very much, but it turns out that it was the better film.

The belated critical recognition that Sorcerer has received seems to be more about nostalgia for that brief period in the 1970s when American cinema, led by directors such as Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, seemed to be on the verge of a golden age of auteur filmmaking. Heavily marketed, big budget, populist films like Star Wars and Jaws ended up setting the template for Hollywood in the decades to come, and for a lot of film critics and fans that represents the death of artistic American cinema. Be that as it may, nostalgia shouldn't blind any one to the fact that Sorcerer is a bloated, incoherent, and unnecessary remake of the brilliant The Wages of Fear (1953) by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

In case you haven't seen either film: four men, all from different parts of the world, are on the run from the law (with one exception) and have ended up in a hellish Central American town where the only employment is with an oil company. In order to get enough money to escape from the town the four agree to drive a load of nitroglycerine in two trucks to an oil well site that's burning out of control.  Sorcerer stumbles right from the start by giving us four vignettes to introduce the four desperate men. The original film began in the town and we learned their back stories as the story progressed through their interactions with each other. Friedkin takes the more obvious approach by showing the various crimes that caused these men to flee their homelands. So we get sequences set in Jerusalem, New Jersey, Paris and Vera Cruz. This lengthy introductory portion of the film doesn't tell us anything we couldn't have learned from the men themselves in the town; it all feels like an excuse to mount action scenes in various international locations. A terrorist bombing in Jerusalem shows some visual flair, but the New Jersey intro involving Roy Scheider's character is clumsily choreographed. The Paris sequence is dull and overlong, and the Vera Cruz episode turns out to be confusing because the character it introduces, Nilo, is given no reason to go on the run. We have no idea why he turns up in the town or why he volunteers to drive one of the trucks.

Another problem with the introductory vignettes is that once the men get to the town, no character development takes place. Friedkin seems to think the vignettes did all that work, so that means the final two-thirds of the film is virtually dialogue-free, at least when it comes to our four leads. This kills almost all the tension in the film because we aren't invested in these characters in any way. They're ciphers. Scenes that might otherwise be nail-biting become inert because it's hard to care if these anonymous characters live or die.

Some of the Central American locations are visually arresting, and a sequence involving the trucks crossing a rope bridge is impressive, but on the whole Sorcerer doesn't hold a candle to the original. The Wages of Fear, despite its vastly lower budget, is far more inventive both visually and in terms of storytelling. Sorcerer puts its big budget up on the screen, but it feels like the work of a B-movie director who doesn't quite know what to do with all that money.