Literature

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

Veteran Poetics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/06/2019 - 7:35pm in

Book at Lunchtime: Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790–2015 In this first full-length study of the war veteran in literature, Kate McLoughlin draws new critical attention to a figure central to national life. Offering fresh readings of canonical and non-canonical works, she shows how authors from William Wordsworth to J. K. Rowling have deployed veterans to explore questions that are simultaneously personal, political, and philosophical: What does a community owe to those who serve it? What can be recovered from the past? Do people stay the same over time? Are there right times of life at which to do certain things? Is there value in experience? How can wisdom be shared? Veteran Poetics features veterans who travel in time, cause havoc with their reappearances, solve murders, refuse to stop talking about the wars they have been in, and refuse to say a word about them. Through this last trait, they also prompt consideration of possible critical responses to silence.

Green new deals and natural resources

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/06/2019 - 5:06pm in

I’m nearly through reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible at the moment, and very good it is too. For those who don’t know, the main part of Kingsolver’s novel is set in the Congo during the period comprising independence in 1960 and the murder of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, on 17 January 1961 at the hands of Katangan “rebels” backed by Belgium and the US. And DR Congo (sometime Zaire) has been pretty continuously violent and unstable ever since. With its origins in King Leopold’s extractive private state (rubber), Congo has been coveted and plundered for the sake of its natural resources ever since. At the time of the Katanga crisis copper was the thing. But now what was previously a little-wanted by-product of copper extraction, cobalt, is in heavy demand because of its use in batteries.

My attention was caught yesterday by a press release from the UK’s Natural History Museum, authored by a group of British geoscientists:

The letter explains that to meet UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.

A friend alerted me to a piece by Asad Rehman of War on Want, provocatively entitled The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism which makes the point:

The demand for renewable energy and storage technologies will far exceed the reserves for cobalt, lithium and nickel. In the case of cobalt, of which 58 per cent is currently mined in the DR of Congo, it has helped fuel a conflict that has blighted the lives of millions, led to the contamination of air, water and soil, and left the mining area as one of the top 10 most polluted places in the world.

People who are optimistic about the possibilities of decarbonizing without major disruption to Western ways of life and standards of living are often enthusiastic about new technologies, battery developments etc. I’ll include CT’s John Quiggin in that (see John’s piece from CT Can we get to 350ppm? Yes we can from 2017). John tells me he’s sceptical about claims that we are about to run out of some scare resource. Maybe he’s right about that and more exploration will reveal big reserves of copper and cobalt in other places. But even if he is, we still have to get that stuff out of the ground, and that’s predictably bad for local environments and their people, and in the short to medium term it may yet be further bad news for the people of DR Congo who have already endured seventy plus plus years as a “free” country (and 135 years since Leopold set up in business) in conditions of violence and exploitation, whilst already wealthy northerners get all the benefits.

Tony Greenstein on Zionist Opposition to the Commemoration of other Holocausts

This past week has been dominated by the ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces landed in Normandy in 1944 in an invasion that was to roll back the German forces. With the Soviet advance across eastern Europe, the invasion eventually led to the final defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe. The news coverage of the various displays, ceremonies and discussions of the events of D-Day and their historical significance have also included the Holocaust, and calls for its survivors each to be given proper honours by the Queen.

I’ve absolutely no objection to this. These men and women, now obviously thinned by time and old age, survived a true living hell at the hands of a regime that has come to symbolise tyranny and mass murder at its darkest, most extreme and malign. I also believe that the Holocaust needs to be taught, remembered and properly understood and placed in its historical, sociological and political context. The forces of the extreme Right, though severely beaten, are always at the political margins, seeking to gain a foothold back into power. Thanks to neoliberalism and its impoverishment of the masses in order to benefit the elite super-rich, Fascism and extreme right-wing populism is now on the rise again across Europe and America, from Donald Trump in the US to UKIP and the Brexit party here in the UK, Marine Le Pen and her crew in France, and the AfD in Germany. These last contain some unreconstructed, real Nazis, who have denounced their country’s Holocaust monument as ‘a badge of shame’ and have said that when they get into power, they will open up an underground railway to the infamous death camp. And then there’s the various bitterly racist and anti-Semitic regimes in eastern Europe, like Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, the Baltic states and their determination to honour as patriotic heroes Nazi collaborators during War, and the truly Nazi Azov battalion in the Ukraine.

Now more than ever we need to show how genocidal Fascism arises, and leads nations to commit the most horrific atrocities.

However, nearly a month ago, on the 13th May 2019, Tony Greenstein, a Jewish activist against all forms of racism and Fascism, and particularly its Jewish form, Zionism, put up a piece on his blog arguing that the Holocaust should not be commemorated. It’s a highly controversial piece, and obviously shocking to very many. But Greenstein is not alone, and his piece is backed up by very strong arguments. For example, it was only after the 1967 War that Israel began commemorating the Shoah. Before then they played it down and actively discouraged its commemoration. It was felt that the sufferings of the Jewish people would reflect badly on their ability to found a new state for themselves. The survivors themselves were vilified. Greenstein states that in Israel they were subject to the disgusting epithet ‘sapon’ – soap – from the myth that the Nazis turned the bodies of those murdered in the gas  chambers into the substance.

Greenstein also shows that, despite Holocaust Day being a regularly part of the Israeli calendar and the emphasis on the Holocaust and its commemoration in the Israeli education system, with young Israelis taken on trips to Auschwitz, there is no proper understanding of it or the reasons behind it. Instead, Israelis are simply taught that it was due to anti-Semitism. The result is that the Holocaust is used to foster the sense of national persecution and intense patriotism, especially against the indigenous Arabs. Forty-four per cent of young Israelis don’t believe that Arabs should be elected to the Knesset. And no Israeli, after visiting Auschwitz, has gone to the walls and fences around Gaza, and vowed ‘Never again’ for its citizens as well.

As for the Shoah’s survivors in Israel, many of them live in abject poverty, denied the compensation that Israel has claimed on their behalf. Which shows how hypocritical the Israeli state’s attitude to the welfare of these people, who endured so much, actually is. 

But the Zionists are determined that the Holocaust should be considered a unique event, a phenomenon that occurred only to the Jews. In fact Gypsies were also singled out for extermination because of their race in Nazi Germany, and the techniques of mass murder – gassing with Zyklon B cyanide gas – was developed first to destroy the congenitally disabled, who were also considered racially undesirable. The Holocaust also had a precedent in the Armenian Massacres, the attempt by the Young Turks regime to exterminate the entire Armenian people, when they rose up against their imperial masters during the First World War. Hitler was encouraged to move to the mass extermination of the Jews by his observation that the great powers – Britain, France and America – had done nothing to stop this genocide. ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’ he remarked.

And in order to preserve the idea that the Holocaust was a unique event, peculiar only to the Jews, some Zionists have also done their best to discourage comparable commemorations of the Nazi murder of the Romany and disabled, or the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians. Greenstein wrote

The elevation of the Jewish Holocaust above all other acts of genocide not only suggests that it is unique but that it has nothing to tell us beyond the fact that it occurred. If the purpose of remembering and commemorating acts of genocide is to prevent their reoccurrence and to act as a warning against their repetition, why single out one act of genocide? The genocide of the Gypsies and the Disabled are all but omitted from Holocaust museums such as Yad Vashem and the Washington US Holocaust Museum. The genocide of Africans in the slave trade or Armenians forms no part of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Indeed from the days of Herzl onwards there has been a determined refusal by Zionism to acknowledge the Armenian massacres and genocide. Lucy Dawidowicz, a prominent Zionist historian went so far as to say that unlike the Nazis, the Turks had a ‘rational’ reason for massacring Armenians. Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz and Arthur Hertzberg, all prominent Zionists, withdrew from an international  conference on genocide in Tel Aviv when the sponsors refused to remove sessions on the Armenians. (Novick pp. 192-193, Finkelstein pp. 69-70)  The Zionist lobby in the United States has repeatedly opposed any commemoration of the Armenian holocaust.

Yehuda Bauer, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, in a debate with Dr Sybil Milton, the Senior Resident Historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Council argued that

‘the tragedy of the Gypsies’ whilst being ‘ no less poignant, and no less horrible’ was nonetheless not part of the Holocaust. Whilst ‘it happened at the same time as the Holocaust, and there are of course many similarities. Yet it appears to me that the Holocaust is very much a unique case. If someone prefers to call it Judeocide, that is his her privilege. It is exactly the same thing: it is the mass murder of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.’

For Zionism the Holocaust is a Jewish only affair. Sybil Milton, who was herself Jewish, responded succinctly:

‘(The) Nazi genocide, popularly known as the Holocaust, can be defined as the mass murder of human beings because they belonged to a biologically defined group. Heredity determined the selection of the victims. The Nazi regime applied a consistent and inclusive policy of extermination- based on heredity- only against three groups of human beings: the handicapped, Jews, and Gypsies.’

This correspondence ‘Gypsies and the Holocaust’ can be found in The History Teacher, Vol. 25, No. 4. (Aug., 1992), pp. 513-521.

Wiesel’s, Dershowitz’s and Hertzberg’s decision to walk out of the international conference on genocide because its inclusion of the Armenian massacres, in my view, is no doubt a direct contradiction of the fellowship many Jews feel towards them because of both peoples’ shared experience of genocide. It can be seen, for example, in the play, Burning Issues, which Mike and I saw at the theatre in Quakers Friars here in Bristol way back in the ’90s. Set in the American publishing industry, it’s similar to King Lear in that the drama is about an elderly, failing patriarch being challenged by his children. In this case, the central character is an Jewish publisher, who is determined to bring out an exhaustive encyclopaedia of the Holocaust. His fixation with the Third Reich is damaging sales, however, and his children wish to rescue the firm from bankruptcy by ditching the project and publishing something far more popular instead. The old man is himself a survivor of the Shoah, and his closest relationship is with his Armenian cleaner through the shared bond of surviving the attempted extermination of their peoples. The behaviour of Dawidowicz, Wiesel, Hertzberg and Dershowitz in their refusal to allow the extermination of other groups into the memorialisation of the Holocaust, even when they are directly comparable and relevant, is disgusting and should rule them out utterly as any kind of moral authorities on this subject.

Greenstein goes on to consider how the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, has been used to whitewash many extreme right-wing political leaders from around the world. People like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has compared himself to Hitler, and the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, which was founded by two former members of the SS. These politicians sign agreements with Israel, duly visit Yad Vashem, at which they lay wreaths, and then are duly legitimised by Israel’s Zionist establishment as friends of the Jews.

He also describes how Yad Vashem doesn’t discuss the Nazis’ murder of other ethnic groups during the Holocaust, quoting one of the journalists for the Israeli paper Haaretz. He says

Blatman noted the absence of Yad Vashem from the 5thGlobal Conference on Genocide in Jerusalem in 2016. Why? It has nothing to say on anything bar the Jewish genocide. Blatman wrote of how  

None of the hundreds of scientific events organized by Yad Vashem has been dedicated to the Holocaust and genocide…. You have to look hard to find any reference to the destruction of other populations in the Holocaust, and its chief aim seems to be to silence criticism. Similar museums in Paris and Washington hold regular activities on these topics

Whilst Yad Vashem studies what happened to the Jews in Polish or Ukrainian cities ‘they rarely address Nazi atrocities against other ethnic groups’. They study the minute detail of what happened to the Jews without ever seeing the wider picture. Yad Vashem ‘helps keep the Holocaust in a narrow Jewish ghetto that serves the xenophobic manipulations Israel makes of it.’

That is why Yad Vashem has never given birth to a comprehensive book on the Holocaust such as Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution or Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews. Holocaust research in Israel has done nothing to combat racism.

In fact, Yehuda Elkana, an Israeli historian, believed instead that the commemoration of the Holocaust had been so appropriated and corrupted by the Zionists, including Yad Vashem, that it was actively fostering Israeli racism. The only lessons they had learned from it was that Jews were victims, and so they were morally empowered to do anything against those they considered enemies with force. Elkana therefore argued that the Holocaust needs to be forgotten. Greenstein also quotes another Jewish scholar, Gideon Levy, who made the same point.

Greenstein himself writes

The Holocaust cannot be forgotten. The question is how it is remembered, by whom and for what purpose. Zionism’s abuse of Holocaust memory has to be challenged. Under capitalism all memory serves a purpose.

And concludes

The Holocaust needs to be reclaimed by the Left and Anti-Fascism.  For too long the Zionist movement has got away with harnessing the Holocaust to the chariot of racism and ethnic cleansing.

http://azvsas.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2019-05-15T04:00:00%2B01:00&max-results=7&start=17&by-date=false

Absolutely. If Europe is to be saved from the new wave of racism and Fascism, it has to be by showing how similar the Holocaust is to the other prejudices and strains of racism now spreading across Europe. Like hatred of Blacks, Asians and Islamophobia. This needs to be done because vicious islamophobes like Tommy Robinson will declare their support for Israel and march with the extreme Right Jewish Defence League on the grounds that Israel is an outpost of western civilisation that needs to be defended from Islam.

It is absolutely disgusting that Zionism, or at least leading Zionists, are not allowing and indeed have actively blocked the commemoration of similar genocides against other ethnic groups in their memorialisation of the Holocaust. Just as it also shows that Jackie Walker had a point in her complaint that the plans by the Jewish Labour Movement to commemorate the Shoah also left out the genocidal persecution of other peoples and races, like the slave trade in Black Africans.

It is entirely right that survivors of the Holocaust should receive proper honours by her Maj at the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But we desperately need to remember also that they were and are not alone as the victims of attempted extermination. These horrors continue today, such as the Chinese state’s attempts to destroy the culture and ethnic identity of Uighurs of Sinkiang. The victims of these genocides are every bit as worthy as the generation, who passed through the Shoah, and their suffering every bit as deserving of commemoration and condemnation.

Two Books Showing Bristol Has Not Kept Secret Its Involvement in the Slave Trade

The week before last, Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns was in Bristol, examining its history in the Georgian period. The show’s presented by Dr. Alice Roberts, who I believe is the Professor for the Public Engagement with Science at Birmingham University. She’s had a long career in television presenting programmes on archaeology, history and human evolution, beginning in the 1980s with Time Team. She’s a medical doctor, who I believe also taught anatomy at Bristol University. She regularly appeared on Time Team to give her opinion on any human remains that were recovered during their escavations.

Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns’

Time Team was finally cancelled after a very successful run several years ago, but like its presenter Tony Robinson, Roberts has continued fronting history and archaeology programmes. Each week the show visits a different British town and explores a specific period of its history. Roberts tours the town, talking to experts on its history and architecture during the period, and very often tries on the ladies’ costume at the time. Last year among the various towns the series covered was Cheltenham during its heyday as a regency spa. This year’s series started off with Dover, concentrating on it history during World War II. Last week it was looking at Cardiff in the early part of the 20th century, when the city became the major centre of the global coal industry. And the week before that they were in Bristol, telling its history during the Georgian period. Roberts has a personal connection to the city, as it’s her home town and she went to school here. She also had a personal connection to Cardiff, as it was at its university that she studied medicine.

Georgian Bristol

During the Georgian period – the age of the four Georges, from the early 18th century to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 – Bristol was one of the leading cities in Britain. It’s a port, whose location on the Bristol Channel gave it an excellent position for trading with Africa and America. The programme covered other aspects of Bristol’s history during the period, like the emergence of gin, the 1827 massacre by the army in Queen’s Square in Redcliffe of a mob demanding electoral reform, and the development of the Clifton and Hotwells suburbs as genteel residential areas for the city’s new mercantile elite. But Bristol’s wealth at the time was largely produced from the immense profits from the slave trade. Ships from Bristol took trade goods down to west Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. These were then taken to the West Indies to be sold, and the ships returned to Bristol with West Indian goods like sugar and rum in what has become known as the triangular trade. And it was on this aspect of Bristol’s Georgian history that the programme concentrated.

The show is well done and the research is very thorough. Among those Roberts talked to was Dr. Steve Poole, a lecturer at the University of the West of England; a member of Bristol’s Radical History Group, who talked about the Queen’s Square Massacre; and a couple of distillers, who showed her how 18th century gin was made. She also talked to Dr. Edson Burnett about the slave trade, going through some of the ledgers left by the slavers itemising their ships’ human cargo in the city archives. Some of these are really shocking. They simply give the number of slaves shipped aboard, and the deaths during the voyage. Those taken were simply items of merchandise, with no names. The ledgers give brief descriptions of those who died and how the body was disposed of. They were simply thrown over the side. One of the most horrendous incidents was the scandal surrounding the Zong, a slave ship, which threw its entire cargo of slaves overboard during a storm, and then tried to sue the insurance company for compensation for them as lost cargo. It’s a horrific atrocity and injustice. She also mentioned how a number of plays were written during the 18th century attacking the slave trade, many of which were set in Bristol. She then spoke to the writer and artistic director of a modern play about the trade being staged by Bristol’s historic Old Vic theatre.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

The programme’s coverage of Bristol’s history during the period was fair, although there was much obviously left out because of the constraints of the programme’s length. It’s an hour long, and it could easily take that long to discuss the city’s involvement with the slave trade and some of the architecture that was built for the merchants involved in the trade. As it was, the programme showed only one of them, the house of George Pinney, a 19th century West India planter and merchant. This is now a museum, the Georgian House, open to the public in one of the streets just off Park Street. However, Roberts opened the discussion of the city’s complicity in the slave trade with a statement that was simply wrong. She said that it was a terrible secret.

Exhibitions

Well, if Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is a secret, then it’s a very badly kept one! Bristol’s M Shed museum, which takes visitors through the city’s history and some of its industries, including aircraft and motor vehicles built here, has a display on the slave trade. This shows not only slave manacles and the manillas, bracelet-like items used for barter, but also maps of homes and other properties owned and occupied by the slave merchants and plantation owners. This follows an earlier exhibit at the City Museum in Queen Street, ‘A Respectable Trade’, which was timed to coincide with the TV series of that name on BBC 1, based on the book by historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The book and TV series were about the slave trade, and much of it was set in the Bristol of the time. The exhibition was staged by local council and showed the historical reality on which the fiction was based. Gregory also appeared in a TV programme at the time, exploring the city’s connection to the slave trade, in which she spoke to several Black anti-racist activists.

Books and Pamphlets

Since then there have been a number of books published on Bristol and the slave trade. The city library has published a catalogue of books and other materials it holds on the subject.  There has also been a book published on the City in 1807, the year in which the slave trade was officially prohibited throughout the British Empire. Dr. Madge Dresser, a historian at the University of the West of England, has also published a book, Slavery Obscured, on the persistence of the slave trade after its formal abolition, in which merchants from Bristol were involved. And back in the 1990s the local branch of the Historical Association published a booklet on Bristol’s Black population in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Society of Merchant Venturers, the mercantile organisation that dominated Bristol’s trade in that period, has also published a catalogue of its holdings, which included it’s members’ plantations in the West Indies.

Origin of Belief Bristol Keeping Slave Trade Connection Secret

I’ve been told by members of the city’s Black cultural and anti-racist organisations that the idea that the city council is somehow covering up the city’s involvement in the slave trade dates from the 1970s. A member of the community rang the council up to inquire about what they knew about Bristol and the slave trade, only to be told that the city wasn’t involved in it. Which is wrong. I wonder if the person, who answered the call genuinely didn’t know about Bristol’s history of slaving. But whatever the reality, this planted the idea that the city council was deliberating hiding the truth. I think it was partly to dispel this idea that the City Museum staged the 1995 exhibition.

Two Books on Bristol from the 1950s and 1970s

But even before then, the city’s involvement in the slave trade was known and discussed. For example, the book Bristol and Its Adjoining Counties, edited by C.M. MacInnes and W.F. Whittard, and published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1955, has several pages on the slave trade in the chapter by MacInnes, ‘Bristol and Overseas Expansion’, pp. 219-230.

The 1975 textbook, Bristol: An Outline History for Schools, by H. Chasey, published by Georges, also covers the slave trade in its chapter on city’s 18th century trade, pp. 31-2. All the chapters are a page or so in length, with another page suggesting projects or containing questions for students on that period of the city’s history. The paragraph on the slave trade runs

Unfortunately, Bristol was better known at this time for its links with the slave trade. The “Blackbirds” sailed to Africa with various goods, exchanged them for slaves which were then shipped to the West Indies or North America. The ships then returned home iwth sugar and tobacco, the whole “Triangular Trade” bringing enormous profits to many Bristol merchants. Before 1760, Bristol carried about one-third of all the slaves, but this number died away by the end of the century as the anti-slavery movement made progress. (p. 31).

Few Obvious Monuments to Slave Trade in City

I also think that part of this misconception may come from the fact that there are few monuments from the time that obviously have direct connections to the slave trade. When I was studying archaeology at Bristol, one of the foreign students on the archaeology course complained to one of the lecturers that her housemate believed Bristol was racist, because there were no monuments for the slaves. The housemate was another foreign student, from Guiana, where I believe the buildings for landing and sale of slaves still exist. I think the student expected similar buildings to exist in Bristol. But they don’t, as the bulk of the city’s slave trade was with the West Indies. There were slaves in Bristol, but these were brought to the city as personal servants, rather than imported en masse as they were in the Caribbean.

Historic Buildings and Later Monuments Connected to Slaves and Slave Trade

However, there are architectural hints at the city’s connection to the slave trade all around. The city’s merchants decorated the exterior of their homes with carvings symbolising their connection to Africa or the Caribbean, such as pineapples. There are also coloured statues, representing the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas in St. Nicholas Market, one of which is a Black African. And several of the city’s pubs also claim a direct connection to the trade. The Ostrich, one of the pubs on the harbourside, had a cellar, in which, it was claimed, slaves were held ready for sale. When I used to drink there in the 1990s there was a poster up about it, along with reproductions of the advertisements of the time for runaway slaves. However, it may be the reality here was more prosaic. The 1995 exhibition said that many the connection of many of parts of Bristol to the slave trade may just be urban folklore. Blackboy Hill, for example, is probably not named after a slave boy, but possibly a racehorse owned by Charles II. The city has also made other gestures to commemorating the victims of the slave trade. There’s a slave walk along Bristol’s docks, and a plaque put up to those enslaved by city on one of the former warehouses by M Shed. A remarkable bridge built across the docks in the 1990s, which features two horn-like constructions, has been called ‘Pero’s Bridge’, after one of the slaves imported into Bristol. And there is a gravestone for Scipio, an African slave brought to the city by his master in one of the city’s churchyards.

Bristol has a very rich and fascinating history, of which the slave trade is one part. It’s a history that definitely needs to be told. And it has only been within the last quarter century or so that the slave trade has been memorialised in local museums, not just in Bristol, but also elsewhere. Bristol has joined Liverpool and Nantes in France in creating exhibitions and galleries on its involvement in the trade. Before then it’s fair to say that City Museum did not display anything on the slave trade. It was a period of the city’s history that most Bristolians probably would have preferred not to commemorate, but it was never forgotten nor kept hidden.

 

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.

 

Writing an Activist Life

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/06/2019 - 1:41am in

A panel discussion with Karin Amatmoekrim, Margaretta Jolly, and JC Niala, exploring the politics and poetics of writing an activist life. Karin is an award-winning novelist, and TORCH Global South Visiting Fellow. She will speak about her biography of Anil Ramdas. Margaretta is Professor of Cultural Studies and directs the Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research at Sussex. She will speak about her project Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement, 1968-present'. JC is an award-winning screen and stage writer, cultural producer and an activist. Her work has been featured on BBC2, BBC Radio 4, CBS in the US, ABC in Australia among other media outlets.

Answering the Mysterious Call of An Artist’s Spiritual Vocation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 02/06/2019 - 7:01pm in

Edward Curtin Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.” Kabir, To Be a Slave of Intensity Strange how a man Can enter your life Just like that: a knock Out of nowhere And you’ve slipped away To a rendezvous with destiny That always awaited you. EJC, The Birth and Death of Trauma Myths …

Black British Politico John Archer’s Address to African Progress Union

I think for most of us outside the Black anti-racist movements, this country’s Black history and its tradition of Black activism against racism, imperialism and exploitation is largely unknown. It’s overshadowed to a large extent by the inspirational American civil rights movements of the 1960s, and its heroes and heroines. Towering figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. A few Black British anti-slavery activists from the 18th and 19th century, like Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, are known to a certain extent, as well as the Crimean War nurse and heroine Mary Seacole. But that’s it. And I think for most mainstream Brits, Blacks and other non-Whites only entered politics and got elected to public office in the 1980s with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and others.

But Black and Asian activism goes right back to the 19th century, and Britain has had elected BAME politicians since the early 20th century. The BBC 2 series, Victorian Sensations, mentioned two in the second episode of the series broadcast Wednesday night, 29th May 2019. Victorian Sensations is about the massive scientific, social and political changes that shook Victorian society in the 1890s. Last week’s was on scientific advances in electricity and Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, which revolutionised medicine. The pioneers of X-ray examination, however, paid a terrible price for their research in skin cancer caused by their machines. One British pioneer ended up losing the fingers on one hand, and another arm was amputated completely.

This week’s edition was on ‘Degeneration’, and the late Victorians’ fears of racial, social and imperial decline. This covered the ideas of racial decline in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Francis Galton and the birth of the eugenics movement, aimed at preserving and improving British biological stock; the controversy over the New Woman, liberated Victorian ladies, who dared to move out of the traditional female domestic role and pursue masculine hobbies like cycling; Hans Nordau’s book, Degeneration, Lombroso’s Criminal Man, and the fears about mental illness, which resulted in entirely blameless people banged up in lunatic asylums for the most trivial reasons, like a pathetic young man, who was incarcerated for masturbation. It also covered Oscar Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents, including Arthur Symonds, Havelock Ellis and the first sympathetic scientific research in homosexuality. But one of the most interesting pieces in the programme was right at the end, when presenter Paul McGann spoke to a modern Black activists about two Black British activists, who came to Britain from the West Indies, and founded pioneering Black anti-racist movements. One of them was Celeste Matthews, who became a Methodist minister, and founded a Black rights magazine attacking imperialism, Lux.

Another pioneering Black rights activist, who gained public office later in the second decade of 20th century was John Archer. He was elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913, becoming the first person of African descent to hold public office in London. In 1918 he became the first president of the African Progress Union, a post he would hold for three years. This was formed to promote ‘the general welfare of Africans and Afro peoples’ and spread knowledge of Black history. There’s an extract from the speech he gave at the Union’s first meeting in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s great anthology of British radical writing and activism throughout history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013). This runs

The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire … That if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough receive the benefits of the country … One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your president. I am not asking for anything, I am demanding. (p. 189).

Unfortunately we really don’t know about the great history of Black activism in this country. Victorian Sensations gave a small glimpse of this on Wednesday, and I’d like to know more. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, as a piece of British history that’s been unfairly neglected, but we also need it to combat that growing racism that’s spreading across Europe and which has resulted in Farage’s Brexit party getting 36.7 per cent of the vote in the Euro elections last week.

Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.

 

 

 

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