Friday 24 May 2024

The Age of Empire (Hugo Cinema 1981)

Star Wars was inescapable in fandom.
At the 1981 Worldcon, Paul Cullen
dressed up as Luke Skywalker.
(Image via
This blog post is the twenty fourth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

The sequel to Star Wars was a cultural juggernaut within fandom, anticipated with such intensity that whole issues of fanzines were dedicated to parsing out casting rumours and speculating about the plot. Most contemporaneous fan reviews hold up well today: “This movie moves so fast, is filled with so many delights for an SF fan, and is so well done that to tell about it is a disservice. See it!” wrote Richard E. Geiss in Science Fiction Review.

But as difficult as it is to believe today, many of the arbiters of ‘higher’ aka ‘mainstream’ culture were dismissive of the sequel. “The Star Wars series, now in unpromising infancy, basically asks us to imagine and believe nothing – its technological sophistication does away with the need for the former, and its camp melding of myths in storyline and characters acknowledges the impossibility of the latter,” Sight & Sound Magazine bemoaned in a scathing unsigned review. Ralph Novak was more succinct, writing for People Magazine “it’s not up to the original.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby opined that the movie was bland, and filled with hot air.

The Hugo best dramatic presentation win for Empire Strikes Back is another instance in which the prescience of science fiction fandom is revealed over time. Unfortunately, the rest of the shortlist in 1981 was remarkably uneven. While Cosmos, Lathe of Heaven, and Empire Strikes Back are excellent nominees, it’s difficult to see merit in either Flash Gordon or the Martian Chronicles.

Given the low quality of two of the finalists, it’s also difficult to explain the omission of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ken Russel’s Altered States, or the third-season premiere of Blake’s 7.

One of our group called The Martian Chronicles
“the last gasp of the Disco era of science fiction.”
(Image via IMDB) 
The most egregious inclusion of the year is The Martian Chronicles. Airing over three nights on NBC, the TV adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story collection is a meandering hot mess that should have had no place on a Hugo shortlist. Over the course of six hours, director Michael Anderson weaves together elements from the Bradbury stories “Silent Towns,” “Rocket Summer,” “I'll Not Ask for Wine,” “The Settlers,” and “The Watchers” (among others). His apparent need to create a cohesion between the stories not envisioned by the author ends in narrative disarray. Separately, it would be easier to forgive the shaky special effects if it weren’t for the fact that on the other side of the Atlantic Blake’s 7 weren’t doing significantly more interesting model work with fewer resources. The Martian Chronicles scripting is leaden, the acting campy, the plot unengaging. Bradbury himself summed it up best, describing the series as “simply boring.”

A big-budget flop based on a 1930s comic serial, Flash Gordon is somehow even campier and more difficult to sit through than The Martian Chronicles … but it does at least have the benefit of weirdly beautiful production value and a ludicrously great soundtrack by rock legends Queen. Although supporting actors such as Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton bring a lot to their roles, the nominal star Sam J. Jones is excruciating to watch as he lifelessly enunciates his lines as if sounding them out one-by-one off a teleprompter. It has to be noted that because Flash Gordon is relatively faithful to the source material, the movie is weighed down with painfully regressive attitudes towards gender and race. It has not aged well.
With a slightly campier script and a worse lead
actor, Flash Gordon compares poorly to the 
1974 movie Flesh Gordon.
(Image via IMDB)

The Lathe of Heaven
is the hidden gem of this shortlist. It’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, made on a shoestring PBS budget by avant garde video artist Fred Barzyk. Given that Barzyk had previously directed the somewhat substandard 1973 Hugo Finalist Between Time and Timbuktu, some of our cinema club had gone into the movie with a bit of trepidation. Happily, many of us found it engaging and interesting, thanks to a script that retains much of the philosophical musings of Le Guin’s original, a strong cast, and thoughtful use of locations and other setting elements. The movie can be read as a rebuttal to utopian intellectuals proposing simplistic top-down solutions to all of mankind’s problems, ignoring the experiences of everyday people. It’s a genuinely clever little movie that holds up remarkably well — and probably would have ended up at the top of the ballot for at least one of our cinema club members.

Cosmos was a cultural juggernaut, the significance of which is difficult to appreciate today. Planetary scientist Carl Sagan’s 13-part documentary series tackles the vastness of the universe, mankind’s place in that cosmos, and speculates about what else might be out there. Built in part around Sagan’s own research into the possibility of extrasolar life, the documentary lays out an argument that we might not be alone in the universe. Because Sagan had evident love for science fiction and legitimized fandom’s embracement of these ideas, the documentary was beloved in science fiction circles. Sagan’s book of the same name, released in conjunction with the series, won him a well-deserved Hugo for best related work. But there are a few aspects of the show that have dated oddly; a lot of time is spent with Sagan looking off into space with a quasi-fanatical, beatific smile on his face, which is a bit off-putting. And while some current viewers might find the soundtrack by Vangelis to be oddly outdated and weirdly religious, others will enjoy the synthesizer-driven evangelism of it. At the time, there were complaints that documentaries shouldn’t be in the dramatic presentation category, but to our minds this is a creditable inclusion on the shortlist … and might have been a worthy winner.

The biggest controversy of the Hugo Awards that year, however, was the exclusion of Superman 2 from the shortlist. At the time, Hugo administrators lacked clarity on which year the movie would be eligible in, as it had a small number of showings in 1980, before a wider release in 1981. One of the greatest superhero movies ever made never appeared on a Hugo shortlist, and consequently the awards improved their rules on eligibility.

But even if Superman 2 had been on the ballot, we suspect that the Star Wars sequel would have bested it. Replete with iconic dialogue, memorably great locations, and some snappily edited action sequences, Empire Strikes Back is a movie that has stood the test of time and remains beloved by generations of Star Wars fans. On a purely technical level, The Empire Strikes Back was an impressive feat of cinema, featuring what could arguably be described as the greatest stop-motion sequences ever put to film. However, it does not have the streamlined narrative of the original movie and the plot suffers from a lack of focus. The story has no through-line, and as much as it’s a movie filled with truly great moments, some of us were left feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Regardless of these slight quibbles, and regardless of what else might have appeared on the shortlist, it’s difficult to argue with The Empire Strikes Back as a winner. With the benefit of hindsight, fans were proven right and the mainstream critics were just … wrong.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Hugo Packet Translated (2024)

The editors of this fanzine are grateful for the Hugo nomination. Thanks to the Scots Language Centre, we were able to have our best blog posts of 2023 translated into Scots, which is an Indigenous language of Scotland, is recognized by the Scottish government, and which UNESCO has classed as a vulnerable language. According to the most recent census, 30 per cent of the Scottish population speak Scots (a total of 1,541,693 people).

Given that this Worldcon is taking place in Scotland, it is important to recognize that it is a country that has a rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and that its language and culture are distinct from those of the other nations found on the British Isles. As we have previously blogged, language is integral to culture, and the promotion and continuation of minority languages is valuable.

We would like to thank Dr. Dauvit Horsbroch of the Scots Language Centre, who conducted these translations, and who is a promoter of minority language rights.

Aw Warlds In Aw Leids Is Metaphors (Translated Blog Post)

Canadian media theorist an weel-kent cultural icon Marshall McLuhan aince descrived art as “a distant early warning system that can always be relied upon to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

Babel – the split new novel fae Astounding Award winner R.F.Kuang – seems tae fit this defineetion. It micht be the maist McLunan-like leewark ever wrutten an-aw.

(Eemage bi gait o Goodreads)

 Set in 1830s Ingland, Babel follaes a Cantonee orphant cryed Robin Swift that’s taen on tae wirk for Oxfuird’s depairtment for owersettins, in a warld whaur the owersettin o words fae ae leid intil anither can hae an uncannie affcome. The glamourie aroond owersettin is at the hert o Ingland’s can tae colonise an daunton muckle o the warld, as siller baurs inscrived wi words in sindry leids can shaw the meaning that’s “tint” throu owersettin. Awmaist alane the Unitit Kinrik hauds this technological glamourie, an Oxfuird is at the hert o the Impire’s maucht.

The'r a lang tradeetion in genre leetratur o the Breetish historical leebuik as a pyntit wark o escapism. Stories set throu the Napoleonic Weir, or the Victorian Days, can gie’s a couthie setting that affen evites ony speirings anent the stauning atween racial groups, social clesses, an sexes. This isna tae be aff-luif wi thir warks – as escapism haes its place – but this orra kind o auld fernyears can whiles edit or lea oot important maiters o social justice. Hooanever, Babel isna blate aboot the injustices o its day, but raither gets tore in aboot. It wad tak mair nor magic, the buik seems tae say, for tae mak a fairer, mair just warld.

Here a novel that traivels the Regency times setting o the historical leebuik for tae warsle wi maiters o social justice that’s at the fore o cultural screivings in lee-science an leewarks the day. In short, it uses the cultural customs o Ingland at the heicht o its colonial maucht for tae airt oot an question hoo thir systems affectit society.

It's warth takkin tent that tho mony American screivars haes attemptit tae follae the style o historical Breetish prose, the feck haes failt, affen soondin like the proverbial bool in the mou. But insteid o haunless pastiche, Babel comes ower like a leebuik William Makepeace Thackery micht’a wrutten. Kuang gies us baith a pree o the times, an prose fae the region we can lippen on, that’s that skeely we haed tae twyce check tae find oot that she wisna hersel born an reared in Hertfordshire or Dorset. (We wad strangly airt awbody tae the “Author’s Note on Her Representations of Historical England, and of the University of Oxford in Particular.”, that comes afore the text o the novel). It is awthegither braw that a buik that’s insnorlt wi langage as a concept uses it wi sic skeel.

At the hert o the themes in the buik is the three guid freens that Swift maks at Oxfuird. Victoire Desgraves, Letitia (Letty) Price, an Ramiz (Ramy) Mirza is – like Swift – three students in hauns wi makkin owersettins. Thay’v taen a scunner anent the wey that thair peers haunles race, cless, sex, or aw thae cheils thegither. Caulcuttay-born Ramy an Haitie-born Victoire feels the ill-will airtit agin them bi rich, racist an cless-reekit white students, tho Letty, that’s white hersel, never seems tae unnerstaun or tae see whit her freens is haein tae thole.
“All words, in all languages are metaphors,”
wrate Marshall McLuhan – a souch that
the leaders-aff in Babel micht haud wi
(Eemage bi gait o University of Toronto)

Aboot a decade syne, speirars o psychology in Texas vizzied the pattrens o gremmar that fowk used as a strang sign o hoo siccar thair romantic an relationship fancies micht be. The possible explanation thay offert wis that same like pattrens an order o functional words (prepositions, airticles, quantifiers, gey common verbs, an the lave) likely reflect the same pattrens o thocht…an sae can be a pynter for hoo meaningfae relationships micht be. Intressinly, this seems tae haud true athort leids. Rami an Robin - that’s life stories mirra ane an anither’s in sindry weys – speak the same langage o love an o freenship, an pit some o us in mind o thae speirings. That thay are drew til ane anither, but it’s never said fair oot, gies an emotional backbane tae the buik. As muckle as mony readers (oorsels comprehendit) wad love for thair romance tae haud-gauin cantie like, the’r mense in shawin the characters raither as presonars o the 19t century’s narra-nebbitness agin same-sex airtit fowk.

Langage can astrict an-aw, even amang thaim that speaks the same ane. For muckle o the novel, warking-cless fowk is ill-quotit. Labourers on strike is depictit as speakin raivelt an thair concerns is dealt aff-luif like bi Robin, Rami, Victoire an Letty. But syne the novel daes a rare bit o narrative clearance, shawin that even the leaders-aff can be unkennin anent maiters o social justice, an that allies can be fund in less-expectit places. Labour unions – the Oxfuird Owersettars Union comprehendit – become uphauders o solidarity an for makkin brigs atween cultures.

Efter three braw novels, R.F.Kuang haes awready estaiblisht hersel as ane o the best young screivars o the leewark genre. Wi Babel, she haes taen her wark til a new heicht.

Set ower in Scots bi Dr Dauvit Horsbroch, 2024

The Ill o Walin Amang Lessers (Translated Blog Post)

This blog post is a pairt o the Hugo Book Club Blog’s picture-hoose club, that’s been wirkin year bi year throu aw the Hugo-finalist big screen an televeesion follae-ups.

In the early 1970s, NBC executive Paul L. Klein set oot hoo the muckle netwarks makkit televeesion programming. The three American netwarks at the croun o the causay in thae days (ABC, CBS an NBC) held that fowk didna watch parteeclar programmes, but raither televeesion jist, an sae the successfae ettle wisna tae mak heich-quality shaws, but jist tae mak shaws that scunnert the least nummer o TV watchers intae chengin sides.

TV watchers isna walin the shaws thay like, Klein said. Thay’r watchin the televeesion jist, an walin the least-scunnersome choice. It wis a ploy that haed televeesion watchers walin fae amang the lessers, gin ye like.

He cawed this the “least-objectionable programming” (L.O.P.) theory, an it’s a souch anent the braid media that dauntont the televeesion landscape for sindry decades (fae aboot 1958 until 1992), an media executives haes grundit thair walings on it tae this day.

As oor picture-hoose club haes been wirkin its wey throu Hugo-finalist televeesion shaws fae the heicht o L.O.P., we’v affen haed sair parallels atween the trends that led til Holmes & Yo Yo, an the airt that oor streaming services is heidit the day. In actual fact, the affcome o L.O.P. can be seen nooadays an is important for unnerstaunin whit wey parteeclar shaws is cawed-aff the air, whit wey ithers is makkit yet, an whit tae thole in the decades aheid.

Mony in the media haes been clawin thair heids in the bygane week anent the deceesion bi Netflix tae caw-aff the air the German lee-science follae-up 1899 efter jist echt pairts, in spite o guid write-ups in general an reportit heich nummers o fowk watchin. The deceesion haes been taen as teepical o the wey that streamers caws shaws aff efter jist ae season, an descrived as pairt o thair growin bing o deid, unfeenisht stories an a ‘void an redd’ wey o makkin TV.

Acause it stertit oot afore the lave, an sae is the biggest player amang the streamers gauin bi nummers o subscreivars, Netflix haes been steert first an foremaist tae jist haud fowk’s intress eneuch sae thay’ll no stop watchin – an that’s a gey different task fae the darg o gettin fowk tae sign up tae stert wi.

This ettle kythes as a focus on feenishing rates. Whit Netflix daesna want is a front-page shaw that fowk turns on, but, syne, daesna want tae watch ony mair. The Midnight Club wis ane o the tap shaws on this streamer, seein mair nor 90 million houres watcht whan it stertit in October. The Mike Flanagan YA horror wis weel-quotit amang critics, but wis reportit haein a feenishing rate o jist abuin 34 per cent, meanin that 65 per cent o TV watchers decidit thay haed better cheils tae tak in haun nor see the end. The ettle is tae keep fowk fae chengin til anither side, an sae this maks couthie programming a heid o the maist importance tae Netflix.
The shaw 1899 steert fans tae passion,
but confoondit ithers. Conform tae the
feenishing rate-driven rule that Netflix gaes
wi, dowf an foushionless is preferred
 tae thon that cuid’a been rare.
(Eemage bi gait o Netflix).

At Netflix L.O.P. is in guid fettle yet. This can be seen in the wey that thay haunle colour grading an cinematography. The streamer hauds til a hoose style o editin that seems tae be made sae as TV watchers haesna tae think muckle; the’r a foushionless feel grundit on thair steive rules for kind an uiss o camera. If a body faws asleep watchin the Netflix picture Adam Project, an waukens watchin Red Notice, ye michtna tent at it’s a different picture. The langage o the filmin is aye easy tae brek doun: the estaiblishin shot, follaed wi ower-the-shouder back an forrit crack. It’s aw couthie an maks it easy tae lowp fae ae Netflix picture tae the neist athoot devalin in atween, acause thay’r aw ae oo. This is gey like a phenomenon seen in NBC’s TV shaws o the 1970’s, that reused the same action stoonds, the same framing, an even the selfsame typefaces. The L.O.P. model lippens on cheils o the ae oo. This maks muckle o whit’s seen throu Netflix ideal for a TV watchin populace that isna fasht whit it’s watchin.

This wisna aye the case wi Netflix; back whan it wis the gallus cheil up agin the auld kind o televeesion, the streamer took a puckle chancy shots, an makkit a wheen o guid material that’s lastit. But sometime aroond 2018 Netflix remakkit L.O.P. fae foonding principles. An it is mensefae tae them in the short term: thaim that’s weel-tochert winna steer whan the’r reward in naething chengin.

In the 1980s, the deid haun that L.O.P. haed on televeesion netwarks stertit tae weir doun throu new technologies like pey-as-ye-watch an narra-cast cable netwarks. It’s ironic that Paul L. Klein wis ahin the stert o baith. The undemous growth o televeesion that follaed gied rise tae new kinds forby: TV watchin biggit aroond an aesome shaw; the direct mercatin machine; the netwark wi a narra intress. Ilk ane o thaim cawed in question L.O.P., an the mercat places that cam oot o this can be seen tae this day.

Noo, afore we speak o hoo ilk streamer is different, we shuid tak tent o whit’s weel seen: Neither Netflix, or Paramount+, or Apple+, or Amazon Prime, or HBO Max is yer freen. Thay are pendicles o warld-national corporations that’s ettles is jist tae mak profit for the sharehauders. If ony o thir corporations cuid heize thair margins bi a bittie o a per cent throu peyin Hunter Moore an Andrew Tate tae mak ugsome scud pictures, thay wad dae it athoot thinkin twyst.

Gauin bi his cynical opeenion
anent TV watchers, it shuid
be nae ferlie that Paul L. Klein
wis, forby, a racist troker o
hard-richt scud pictures
(Eemage bi gait o Twitter)

The maist weel seen instance that gaes conter tae the L.O.P. model o televeesion is HBO, the pey netwark that’s service model fae 1992 onwards wis tae tairget a puckle o weel kent shaws that drew follaers. The material didna hae tae kittle awbody, an cuid scunner mony, as lang as it drew in eneuch peyin hauns. We jalouse haed thay gaed live on HBO Max in 2020, 1899 wad’a haen a second season, while Emily in Paris wad’a been forgot as quick. Until no lang syne, the model o TV watchin biggit aroond an aesome shaw governed HBO’s wey o streaming, tho wi the stoushie that’s owertaen Warner Media ower the bygane saxmonth the gait thay noo tak isna clear.

But the product differencing that rang ower narra-intress cable netwarks like SYFY, Legend, an Nick, is gey different fae baith the L.O.P. or TV watchin biggit aroond ae shaw wey o’t. Narra-intress netwarks maks products that’s ettle is tae tick boxes, an no necessar tae evite offendin, or tae caw the crack by watter coolers, but raither tae fulfil a mandate. It’s weel seen that Shudder an Crunchyroll is amang the mair kenspeckle instances o this pattren o corporate interteenment in the streaming landscape o 2023.

The’r twa mair models o streaming service tae speak aboot, baith o them gey kittlesome.

The first is video interteenment as a tool for howkin data; the kenspeckle instance o this is Amazon Prime that wirks in some weys as a loss-leader. The televeesion service daesna mak a profit in fact, but raither fleitches consumers sign up til Amazon’s free shipping programme an at the hinnerend (it is howpfae) order mair fae the online troker. But mair sleekitly, this big troker haes the can tae mak mair an mair pyntit profiles o its streaming service users bi recordin the parteeclars o whit thay watch, hoo muckle thay watch, an whan thay deval. We wad suggest that ane o the key reasons that Prime haes shaws that finds favour amang sindry political intresses as The Boys an The Handmaid’s Tale is as pairt o a slee prattick in psychological pruivin. The Venn Diagram o fowk that watches Reacher an Ms. Maisel haesna muckle owerlap, an noo thair algorithms kens whit data bucket ye faw intae.

The hinmaist model o data streaming micht seem the maist skaithless, but hit’s the ane that causes the maist suspeecion: Identity as a subscreiver service. This model is ordnar tae Disney+ an Paramount+ an wis weel seen fae the weys that thay’v biggit thair leebrars o material aroond parteeclar, organised media-franchise warlds o fans. The’r nae ‘anchor show’ for either o thir streamers but insteid an identity as a fan that a body is subscreivin tae. It’s a trauchle tae be a “true Star Wars fan” athoot peyin a $11.99 monthly fee tae Disney+ for tae be pairt o thair hoose o fans. Likewise, it’s a trauchle tae be a “true Star Trek fan” athoot peyin $9.99 tae Paramount+ ilk month.
Jeff Bezos kens whit scenes fae The Boys TV watchers
hovers ower a guid bit, sae daena ferlie if ye
get tairgetit adverts sellin caller ferm milk at ye
(Eemage screen capturt fae Amazon Prime)

While aesome shaws on thir services micht come an gae, thir services is amang the maist likely tae seem douce in thair choices til an ootside watcher, an thay are are unlikely ever tae forleit ony o thair cash-coo sindry-media properties. We can lippen on intellectual offerings that daesna fash, an daesna threiten the lang-term warth o the IP owners or sharehauders.

Self-identity as a key selling pynt o a subscreivar service michtna seem a problem, but it’s no hard tae picture a time whaur a muckle streaming service douks intae the conter sides in culture weirs in an ettle tae bigg an identity streamer that’s astrictit tae, an weel-quotit amang, aw thaim wi a growin richt wing identity. Gien the company’s lang history o uphaudin tradeetional sex roles an white maucht, a body micht jalouse that Disney+ is the streamer maist like tae follae the gait o zeelots as set oot bi Fox News. This micht cuid dae muckle skaith tae the braider culture.

Whan crackin anent trokers o video interteenment, TV watchers an critics shuid aye ask whit ilk company is sellin, hoo thay are sellin it, an whit anes thay’r sellin tae. The answers tae thir questions is important for unnerstaunin the media landscape the noo, streaming in time tae come, an sae whit like culture in forrit time.

Set ower in Scots bi Dr Dauvit Horsbroch, 2024

The Un-American wey that a Lee-Science Fan fae the Left wis haunelt (Translated Blog Post)

Chan Davis (1929-2022) wis weel kent tae fans o lee-science in the 1940s an 1950s. He wis a fanzine editor, an early filker, kent for his daffin at Worldcon, an a ongauin screivar wi Astounding Science Fiction.

But the publict in general is mair likely tae mind o him as a mathematician…an as a political presonar.

Gien his jotters fae the Versity o Michigan in 1954, an the jyle for a saxmonth in 1960, on chairges o contemption o the Congress brocht bi the Hoose Comatee anent Unamerican Haunling, Davis haes lang wantit for the kind o vizzie that screivar Dr Steve Batterson plenishes throu his new buik The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis.

“Almost all HUAC witnesses with Communist connections were avoiding the jeopardy of contempt prosecution either by naming the names of others or declining to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment.,” explains biographer Dr. Steve Batterson. “Finding both stay out of jail options to be intolerable, Chandler refused to cooperate asserting the Freedom of Speech protection of the First Amendment. He intended to use the standing gained by an expected conviction to obtain a hearing before the Supreme Court and hopefully end HUAC’s persecution of the left. During the height of McCarthyism, it was a course of enormous risk and courage.”

Awtho it sterts aff as a fairly evenforrit life story o Davis, The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis soon taks the lang swatch o jist hoo the American law system wirks…or daesna. The buik shaws us a douce American mathematician warslin wi a system that haed failt in hainin the ceevil richts o its ceetizens.

“Even though I’m a mathematician, I’m also sort of a Supreme Court groupie … so the legal aspects of this intrigued me,” Batterson says. “And 10 years earlier, the Hollywood 10 had gone to jail when they based their defense on the First Amendment. So why did Chandler try something that hadn’t worked. It took me a while to understand.”

The buik howks faur intae the law pleas o the Davis case – an in parteeclar the Barenblatt V United States case whaurby the Supreme Coort ruled that the Communist Pairty wis that kenspeckle a threit tae the beild o Americae that it owergaed the kintra’s commitment tae free speech. A raivelt hesp tae be shair, but Batterson expoonds thir maiters clear an pyntitly.

“It always surprised me that I would talk to mathematicians and they wouldn’t know about Chandler Davis’ story,” Batterson recawed. “It was a long time ago, and the story was just … getting lost.”

 An emeritus professor o mathematics at the Emory Versity in Georgia, Batterson haed been aquaint wi Davis for mair nor 20 year. He haed read Schrecker’s history o McCarthyism No Ivory Tower, that comprehendit a chepter on Chandler Davis, sae he kent muckle anent the case.

“Chandler and I happened to be at the same conference in Banff [Canada] in 2010, and were on a hike together in the mountains. When I asked Chandler about the case he was very forthright with me. He wasn’t reluctant to talk about it because he knew he’d done what was right,” Batterson recawed. “The story fascinated me. He was a mathematician who went to jail … I mean that's a pretty unusual thing to happen!” said Batterson.

Lee-science an the warld o fans haes jist a neuk in this buik, tho it shuid be unnerstood that thir cheils becam less important tae Davis the mair he wis in hauns wi his cawing ower the years. Awtho Chan Davis kythes in fanzines aw throu the 1940s, he fell awa fae the warld o fans aboot the time that he wis up agin the Hoose Comatee anent Unamerican Haunling. Awtho John W. Campbell haed been a freen o Davis, thay haed fell oot wi ane anither in the late 1940s over the heid o Campbell’s takkin agin Eebrew culture.

“After he had been fired in 1954, he wrote what he later called some of his best science fiction stories,” Batterson notit (The stories in question comprehendit The Star System an Adrift on the Policy Level). “He thought that possibly he could make a living as a science fiction writer under an assumed name. But that’s not what he wanted. He was a mathematician, and he didn’t want to be forced into a career change by the government.”

The buik sterts oot wi the fairly evenforrit story o Davis’s early life. His bairnheid as the son o academics fae the Left that wis memmers o the Communist Pairty, his education at Harvard an his haun in the warld o lee-science fans, his airmy service, an his mairrage tae Natalie Zemon-Davis. Aw o this serrs tae bring us tae the hert o the wark: Davis’s bittie time spent at the Versity o Michigan, gettin his jotters, an the sax-year lang lawplea that landit him in the jyle.

“It was incredibly courageous what Chandler did,” Batterson said. “He was 27 or 28 years old when this all started. He had a wife and one child at the time – with another on the way. His wife was a graduate student, and it wasn’t clear at the time that she would go on to become one of the greatest historians of her generation.” Batterson expoonds.

In the time efter he tint his job, the Davis faimly gaed haun tae mooth. Whan freens an colleagues got up siller for them, the FBI endit up wi a leet o aw thaim that haed gien; but dowily it seems that no mony in the lee-science community stood by thair sometime billie.

“There’s not a lot of mention of science fiction or fandom in the FBI documents,” Batterson notit. “The FBI didn’t consider that to be disreputable.” Batterson said.

Efter he wis lowsed o his saxmonth sentence in the jyle in 1960, the faimly flittit tae Canadae whaur Davis an his wife becam professors at the Versity o Toronto. Aince mair he wis in aboot the warld o fans, an set furth a puckle stories syne. In 1989, he wis ane o the guests at the 47th Worldcon held in Boston. Baith he an his wife wis weel-quotit in regaird o thair academic cawings.
Chan Davis an Natalie Zemon-Davis
wis kenspeckle academics steidit in Toronto
(Eemage bi gait o University of Toronto )

In the seeven decades fae Davis compeared afore the Hoose Comatee, his poseetion haes been for the maist pairt exonert.

“These kinds of stories are always relevant. At the time, there was the censorship of left-wing political views under McCarthyism. But you find even now (in Florida for example) an attempt at censorship of left-wing political views,” Batterson notit. “Most people think that they’d take a principled stand, but when push comes to shove ... they bend just a little. Chandler Davis didn’t bend, and I find that interesting.” Batterson said.

Awtho the three foregauin life stories that Batterson haed wrutten wis set furth bi academic presses that haed parteeclar intress in warks o mathematics, The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis wis set furth bi the forrit-thinking publisher Monthly Review Press, makkin hit faur mair easy tae get a haud o.

Over the bygane decade, the warld o lee-science fans haes stertit tae warsle wi the histories o its kittle icons. Braw life histories o Asimov, o Heinlein, o Campbell (amang ithers) haes shawn hoo muckle thay haed feet o cley. It maks a chenge tae be pit in mind o aw thaim athin the lee-science community that wis willin tae staun agin the blatters o the day, an rare tae hae this braw volume anent Dr Chandler Davis’s life.

Set ower in Scots bi Dr Dauvit Horsbroch, 2024

Saturday 11 May 2024

Put This Fish In Your Ear

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy makes light
of universal translation, providing the protagonist
with a fish that lives in his ear and translates.
(Image via BBC)
In the fourth season of the British science fiction comedy Red Dwarf, starship captain Arnold Rimmer orders that greetings be broadcast in all known languages — “including Welsh.”

The joke highlights the sometimes ambivalent relationship that science fiction has with the reality of linguistic diversity. More than 3,000 languages on the planet have fewer than 1,000 living speakers and are at risk of disappearing forever. It’s worth speculating about the future of minority languages, and science fiction seems like as good a place as any to do that.

Linguistic diversity is important for a variety of reasons. Language is central to culture, and both shape our worldviews and influence our decisions and experiences. Because language encodes culturally specific knowledge systems, it stands to reason that having people who can think in different languages provides humanity different intellectual toolsets, the better with which to solve societal problems. In short, the whole of humanity is strengthened and enriched by linguistic diversity.

In space opera, matters of intercultural communication are often hand waved away through universal translators, the existence of a galactic standard language, or somesuch. As convenient as these plot devices are, their widespread use in genre fiction reveals assumptions about culture and minority rights that have often been unchallenged in science fiction.

For example, universal translators rely on the premise that there is a common meaning between words; that translation is nothing more than identifying a corresponding word in another language. Well known franchises portray a platonic ideal of unambiguous meaning behind words, something that can be losslessly conveyed from one sapient being to another. It’s obvious that the multivalent and chaotic nature of language belies such attempts. In extremely simplistic terms, how could a universal translator handle all the connotations of a word like “pontificate” without indicating that it is a reference to both religious leaders and bridges? Required context can only be built, not assumed. Signifiers evolve alongside cultural practices and are endowed with the meanings intended by their users.

Despite being born in Aberdeen, Montgomery
Scott does not seem to speak Scots (though
he’s fluent enough in Welsh to sing
Yr Hufen Melyn). It’s unclear if the Scots
language has survived into the 24th Century. 
(Image via Memory Beta)
Famously, The Next Generation attempted to grapple with this criticism in its fifth-season episode Darmok. In the episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard struggles to communicate with the captain of an alien race — the Tamarians — who communicate only in metaphor and allegory. While it’s a superb hour of television about empathy and attempting to bridge communication gaps, it doesn’t tackle the loaded meanings of individual words. The universal translator is seamlessly able to translate metaphor in Tamarian sentences like “When his mind was fogged” or “Kimarnt, her head cloudy” despite the fact that weather patterns do not necessarily connote the addled perceptions or cognition for Tamarians that these sentences might imply for humans whose languages developed on Earth.

Within the universe of Star Trek, language and culture are mostly treated as separable concepts, and the latter seems to be predetermined by genetic destiny. Klingon society is shaped by inherent properties of the species biology rather than the weights of meaning embedded in their words. To be clear: language is continuously reshaped by evolving cultural practices and socially reproduced, bending most to those with cultural dominance.

While the goal of universal translators might be to bring people together, albeit with dubious technical premises, the idea of a ‘galactic standard’ implies an attempt at control that can be stifling at best (e.g., blind academic adherence to a style guide or your friendly neighbourhood “grammar cop”) and morally reprehensible at worst. The idea of a standard in its worst incarnation conveys that minority languages and consequently minority cultures have been — or are in the process of being — wiped out. Star Wars, which is one of the more famous examples of a fictional universe with a galactic standard language, depicts a setting where fascism has run rampant on several occasions (which may help explain the lack of linguistic diversity). The imposition of majoritarian language has often been used by an oppressor (the global dominance of English and Spanish is in large part the legacy of genocides).

Star Trek’s Vulcans provide another example. They are known for celebrating “Infinite Diversity In Infinite Combinations,” but the species seems to have only one language. Why is this? There are references to multiple ethnicities of Vulcan, which one must assume means that at one point there were disparate populations scattered across the desert planet’s surface, each of which likely had its own language. But by the time of first contact with humans, only the language Vuhlkansu remains as a common tongue (with Old High Vulcan used for some ceremonial purposes). By the textual evidence in Star Trek’s various incarnations, it seems clear that at some point in the past, many indigenous languages on Vulcan were eliminated. How many mass graves do the planet’s deserts hide?

Now, it should be noted that there have been sporadic attempts to broach the subject of language in SFF with a bit more nuance. In his Culture novels, Iain M. Banks describes a galactic standard language Marain, which he suggests is a “a means of expression which would be culturally inclusive and as encompassingly comprehensive in its technical and representational possibilities as practically achievable.” But even Banks’ descriptions of Marain betray a positivist approach to language based on ideas that some languages are ‘lesser’ than others. This is the sort of thinking (and expression) that leads to residential schools and the suppression of minority cultures.

Another interesting example of minority language representation in space opera is the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Deep Wheel Orcadia — a love story told in the form of an epic poem written in an Orkney dialect, with parallel text providing the English translation.
The horror movie Pontypool gets its name
from the Welsh town of Pont-y-pŵl. The movie
is more relevant today than it was
when it was first released.
(Image via IMDB)

And in 2009 Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool provided one of the genre’s most incisive critiques of linguistic monoculture. The movie depicts a world in which the English language in Southern Ontario has become the vector for an infectious set of ideas, and only those who speak a minority language can survive. This could be read as a metaphor for the type of destructive rhetoric that has spread like wildfire through much of the English-speaking world over the past few years.

As of early 2023, there were 7,164 spoken languages on Earth, according to Ethnologue. Of these, just over 3,000 had fewer than 1,000 people who spoke them — that’s about 42 per cent of world languages that are on the verge of disappearing. This is a rapid movement towards the monoculturalization of our lignuistic landscape, but it's one that has gotten short shrift in genre work.

Science fiction often concerns itself with the ways in which the world and society are changing; particularly when it is changing rapidly. The rise of car-oriented culture led to individualist space opera. The rapid expansion of computing power led to cyberpunk. The rapidly changing climate led to cli-fi. But to date, the rapid destruction of language diversity does not have a corresponding movement in SFF.