Kirk 1, Spock 0

Aliens, Culture, Fiction, Film, Gentleman thieves, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Television

Off to Star Trek on Saturday with H; hugely enjoyable, but – when I came back home and picked up my new Sexton Blake compilation (good fun and wide ranging, but not necessarily the best of Blake) to read myself to sleep – something quite interesting struck me.

The Star Trek TV series is one of the most potent products of 20th Century science fiction; but in form it also owes an awful lot to Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, where manly, usually imperial, heroes of various different stripes are threatened by exotic new dangers on a reliably regular basis.

As a rule, such heroes come in pairs. There’s Sexton Blake and Tinker; Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie; Raffles and Bunny; and so on. And, by definition, the sidekick is very clearly a junior presence, someone who lacks in some important way the authority of the lead.

That sense of a senior / junior relationship is fundamental to the new Star Trek movie; but it’s an inverted relationship. The plot is in large part driven by the fact that, because the time is out of joint, Spock becomes the Captain of the Enterprise, and Kirk is left as his subordinate.

However, it’s a temporary upset. By the end of the film, normality has been restored. Kirk has become Captain Kirk, and Spock is his first officer. Spock’s junior status has been acknowledged. But that’s peculiar; because, throughout the film, great play has been made of Spock’s seniority.

It’s made very clear that he’s older than Kirk – in fact, he’s one of Kirk’s tutors. In something of an under-remarked narrative manoeuvre, he’s also sexually more charismatic than the famously priapic Captain. Kirk’s rather adolescent attempted seduction of Uhuru fails; Spock builds a strong, adult, clearly sexual relationship with her.

He’s also a more effective combatant. Kirk spends much of the film nearly getting thrown off cliffs, walkways, etc, by various cosmic thugs. Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch is as swiftly efficient as ever. And Spock knows true loss; where Kirk never even met his dead father, the adult Spock witnesses the simultaneous death of his mother and his home planet.

So, what is it that makes Spock the sidekick, not the hero? It comes down to one thing; his (in the film’s terms) over-rationality, his consistent and near-absolute privileging of logic over emotion. Within the context of the movie – and of the Star Trek series in general – Kirk’s reliance on intuition and passion makes him the better person.

And that’s fascinating. In part, it’s a hangover from the deep suspicion of thoughtfulness, of academic learning, that drove so many of the action men of the 19th and 20th century pulp thriller. But that suspicion takes on a new meaning in Star Trek – because Star Trek is science fiction.

As a genre, science fiction prides itself on its roots in the deep, tested realities of science. It lays claim to a rational objectivity that sets it apart from other, more emotionally driven forms of writing. Given this, surely Spock is the rightful captain of the Enterprise?

Absolutely not. Spock – science fiction’s supreme logician, the most famous Science Officer in fiction – reveals the untruth of that claim, or at least the contradictions that stop it from being really convincing.

The Enterprise is helmed by Kirk’s wild, dangerous emotion – just as science fiction, like all fiction, is powered not by logic, but by human emotional relationships, and the wild, exciting dramatic fallout thereof.

Friedman, Capitalism and Fantasy

Culture, Fantasy, Genre, Gentleman thieves, Modernity, Philosophy

Fantasy’s often condemned for ignoring reality; but much supposedly rational, descriptive writing can have a tenuous relationship with reality, and with the fundamental structures of reality, too. Stories of the fantastic at least have the virtue of being honest about their fictive nature.

Take Milton Friedman, for example. I’ve just been reading ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ (University of Chicago Press, 2002), which according to Wikipedia ‘makes the case for economic freedom as a precondition for political freedom’, and has been a key text for a wide variety of neo-liberal thinkers – people, you’d think, who were very grounded in reality.

Certainly, Friedman views his work as one that’s rooted in the real. He’s very specific about why he wrote it; to provide material for ‘bull sessions’ and – more importantly – to provide a set of options for status-quo smashing change, that can be held in reserve until they’re ready to be implemented at moments of crisis:

‘That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

The crisis comes; and Milton’s there, ready to defuse it with his ‘alternative policies’. Designed (as he implies they are) to have maximum constructive impact at moments of maximum stress, one assumes that they’ll be as realistic – that is, as rigorously thought through and as practically effective – as possible. The very opposite of fantasy, in fact.

Well, you’d have thought so. And no doubt, you’d have hoped so, too. But in fact – if ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ is anything to go by – Milton’s a fantasy writer too, though there is one thing that sets him apart from the Tolkiens and the Dunsanys and the Moorcocks and the Lovecrafts – they don’t pretend that they’re writing fact.

The first clue to Milton’s duplicity comes in his deployment of apparent historical fact. Take this, for example, on Winston Churchill in the 30s – according to Friedman, a period when Churchill was desperately trying to warn the British against Nazism:

‘He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his views were “too controversial”.’ (p.19)

Friedman takes this as an example of ‘socialism’ stifling ‘dissent’. Or this, on exchange controls (of which he disapproves):

‘To the best of my knowledge they were invented by Hjalmar Schacht in the early years of the Nazi regime’ (p.57)

Their Nazi links of course being self-evident proof that such controls are implicitly linked to Facism in general.

Rooting around on the internet, I couldn’t find any reference to Churchill’s anti-Nazi views being censored; in fact, for most of the 30s he had a regular column in the EveningStandard, seemed to have given major speeches at the Royal Albert Hall and elsewhere every other week, and in fact appeared on BBC radio in (at the very least) 1934, 1935 and 1938, talking on ‘the causes of war’ and similar.

Admittedly, Churchill was prevented from discussing Indian constitutional changes over the airwaves in 1933, but he wasn’t the only person thus restricted; it was felt that the subject was so sensitive that only party leaders could talk about it.

What about Hjalmar Schacht? Well, positioning exchange controls as a fiendish Nazi innovation by linking them with Schacht becomes a little less convincing when you find out who he was. I’ll quote directly from Wikipedia:

‘To greater and lesser degrees, Schacht was involved in numerous attempted coups in the years between his dismissal from the Reichsbank and his imprisonment. Indeed, Schacht was one of the main driving forces behind the 1938 planned coup. At Schacht’s denazification trial (subsequent to his acquittal at Nuremberg) it was declared by a judge that “None of the civilians in the resistance did more or could have done more than Schacht actually did.”

As a result of the various putsch attempts between 1938 and 1941, Schacht was arrested on 23 July 1944, accused of having participated in the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler. He was sent to Ravensbrück and Flossenburg and finally to Dachau.’

Friedman plays fast and loose with history to score rhetorical points; this focus on rhetorical, rather than factual, support recurs throughout the book. Making dubious, counter-factual links between economic behaviour he disagrees with and the Nazis is actually one of his more restrained tics; more usually, he just points out that – if you don’t follow his policies – free society will collapse, pretty much instantly:

‘the issue of legislating rules for monetary policy has much in common with a topic that seems at first altogether different, namely the argument for the first amendment to the Constitution’ (p.51)

‘such a device seems to me the only feasible device for converting monetary policy into a pillar of free society, rather than a threat to its foundations’ (p.55)

‘the subject of international monetary arrangements is… the most serious short-run threat to economic freedom in the United States today – aside, of course, from the outbreak of World War III.’ (p.57)

Incidentally, these statements aren’t substantiated in any deep way; their function, like Milton’s historical references, is rhetorical, not factual. And, like those references, if you prod them a little – they collapse.

The above are only a few examples; there are many more within the book. And that’s just Friedman’s rhetoric – I haven’t even begun to take issue with his arguments, whether economic or more generally sociological.

If I wanted to be typing all night I would – for example – take issue with Friedman’s rather odd understanding of group dynamics (government or trade bodies can do no right; commercial bodies can do no wrong), have a go at his apparent proof that we don’t need any sort of professional licensing (registration is ‘an important first step in the direction of a system in which every individual has to carry an identity card, every individual has to inform the authorities what he plans to do before he does it’ – p.149), register my irritation at his constant straw man arguments, or take issue with his ongoing assumption everyone can have a perfect, rational understanding of the short and long term costs and benefits of any commercial arrangement that they enter into, at any time and apparently at the drop of a hat. Amongst other things.

But, I want to have a bath, so I think I’ll stop there. And in any case, the real aim of this article isn’t to prove Milton Friedman wrong (he does that himself, very ably), but rather to demonstrate how his apparently disinterested assembly of facts is – in fact – a very partial tract, that consistently relies on rhetoric over reason to drive its argument forward. It is, in fact, a fantasy, derived from how Milton would like the world to be, rather than how it actually is.

And that brings me back to the point I was making. Fantastic writing can trigger an aggressively negative reaction from certain kinds of reader; I wonder if part of their anger comes from the way that fantastic writing is so aggressively honest about its unreality, thus casting an unwelcome light on the dishonesty innate in some texts – like Milton’s – that pretend to be factual in their construction and conclusions.

The dark young of Arsene Lupin

Gentleman thieves, Narrative, Politics

A weekend of helping H move into her new place, previewing Zali’s new album (which is fantastic), and grooving to Maurice Leblanc’s ace crime novel ‘The Hollow Needle’. La! North London life, but as this is a blog about writing I’m going to focus on Leblanc (tho’ there’ll be more on Z’s new album when it’s out and about – back catalogue downloadable here).

As I’m sure you know, Maurice Leblanc was the creator of fictional French master criminal, Arsene Lupin. In his day, Lupin rivalled pulp heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake or Raffles (the notorious Gentleman Thief, and come to think of it his closest British equivalent) for popularity; but there’s a Gallic sophistication to Lupin’s adventures that’s absolutely lacking in those of his cross-Channel competitors.

Lupin’s at once profoundly urbane and wildly manipulative, a fascinating cross between an Oscar Wilde protagonist and modern uber-mythmaker Kayser Soze. Like Wilde’s heroes, his very real charm is offset by a sense of amoral recklessness; like Kayser Soze, he understands the value of enmeshing his opponents in a narrative over which he has complete control. Lupin achieves his ends through a kind of personalised propaganda, which Leblanc describes thus:

‘the very mechanism of his way of setting to work, his special tactics, his letters to the press, his threats, the announcement of his thefts, in short the whole bag of tricks which he employed to bamboozle his selected victim and throw him into such a state of mind that the victim almost offered himself to the plot contrived against him and that everything took place, as it were, with his own consent.’

In fact, the whole plot of the novel is one, gigantic con-trick, revealed at its climax to be nothing more than a series of convenient fictions created to support the book’s real hero – Lupin himself – as he moves towards the achievement of his final, and in fact rather admirable, goal. And it’s not giving anything away to say that; key to the joy of reading Leblanc’s stories is the way in which the reader, too, expects to be and is enmeshed in the partial, controlling narratives that Lupin creates.

Fundamental to the creation of those narratives is Lupin’s masterly management of the media of his day. Whether manipulating journalists, publishing in the letters pages, placing just the right adverts, or taking a controlling interest in useful publications, Lupin is always in control of the story. That control is part of what makes him such a fascinating figure for a modern audience; taken historically, it shows Leblanc as a remarkably astute social and even political thinker.

Writing in the opening decades of the century, Leblanc both demonstrated an in-depth understanding, and developed a fascinating critique, of the ways in which an ostensibly disinterested mass media (‘we don’t make the news, we only report it’) can be subverted to serve the interests of a particular controlling elite.

Lupin’s fundamental decency prevents him from excessive abuse of such media; those who came after him would have no such qualms. Twentieth century history is jam-packed with figures of various different kinds – dictators, deciders, chief executives, celebrities – who built power on highly sophisticated perception management.

Lupin was a criminal because he was a thief; these people are thieves too, stealing choice from those they rule and replacing it with a carefully managed, entirely manufactured consent for plots contrived against some or all of those that fall within their sphere of influence.

So Leblanc’s light hearted style, and Lupin’s urbane gaiety, hide a dark, prophetic secret. Theft is a crime against property; but, rather than an end in itself, it’s really only a satisfyingly profitable by-product of perception management, a crime against choice that will as the century progresses come to be one of its unique and defining characteristics.

Oh, and if you want to check out some Lupin, I’d recommend starting with the new Penguin Classics translation of some of Leblanc’s short stories, available here…