Reviews


But it don’t make no difference
‘cos I ain’t gonna be, easy, easy
the only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m
Killed by death

I first encountered Motorhead when I was 14, at school in Australia. I had just moved to a new school (again!) and was getting bullied in my home room, so I was spending a lot of my time alone. In my home room was a sullen, muscly kid with a dark character, called Matthew, who was friends with a guy called Glenn – even more muscly, and rumoured to have been held back a year. Glenn had a scary reputation, but it was one of those high school reputations that has absolutely no backing – no one, when asked, could say why or what about him was scary.

One day Glenn came up to me in lunch and asked me in his rough and ready way that he had heard I was good at computers? Back when I was 14 being good at computers was a kind of novelty, and I had in fact done a one week long intensive course in BASIC a year earlier, so even though my family were too poor for a computer I was, for my time, pretty good at computers. Not too sure where this was going I said yeah I guess I am and he told me that Matthew was going to be held back a year just like Glenn had been if he didn’t pass computer class, and he didn’t get it all, and we were in the same class, so would I help? I was aware that Glenn had a reputation as the kind of boy to whom you can’t say no, but I also had a tendency not to do what other kids told me to do – a key skill when you’re being bullied at school.  However, I had noticed Matthew in class and was kind of sorry for him. I was just a year away from the abandonment of my brother by my family, who had left him in a children’s prison in the UK and moved to Australia, and I was sensitive to kids who couldn’t get it together at school. So I agreed to help.

Matthew passed computers, though I can’t say if it was my help or just because he tried. During the term that I was helping him, though, something remarkable happened – Glenn invited me to hang out with him and Matthew at lunch. It turned out that Glenn and Matthew were as outcast from school life as me, with no friends except each other, and they spent their lunchtimes in the school weights room, which no one else even seemed to know existed but which they had managed to score for themselves. We would eat our lunch in that hungry mechanical way boys do in about three minutes, spend a couple of minutes chatting while we let it settle, and then set to work on the weights. And while we lifted, we played Motorhead on the stereo. Sure, sometimes there was a bit of Anthrax or Suicidals, but mostly it was Motorhead because Glenn and Matthew were old school like that.

I have only a vague memory of that six months – my parents moved after six months of course, so my budding friendship with Glenn and Matt disappeared into the sludge of my childhood moves. But I do remember that Motorhead was the first music I took seriously in my teenage years, and those two boys were the first two boys who took me seriously. There we were, clustered around the bench press, Glenn pushing my body weight and then taking off all the weights so I could struggle with the bar, no judgments passed or scornful jokes made, just a group of young men making the best we could of our lunch hour. Compared to me their school days were harsh – I had been streamed into the top maths class and was enjoying my studies but for them school was an ongoing series of trials, trying to understand shit they just didn’t get, or understand why they had to get. Sometimes we would take our lunch hour out at the back of the playing fields, and they would get stoned and hang around with a couple of similarly outcast girls, with me tagging along sober.

Once I started hanging out with Glenn, the bullying stopped. Once I tried volleyball club, and some dickhead at volleyball club got in a fight with me in the car park, and Glenn wanted to know who? Where? And I had to ask him not to waste his time. For that rare six months, in that school, Glenn was my lucky charm, the first man who ever made me feel like I could be respected just for being alive and there, the first man who ever  understood the concept of mutual aid and just being good to each other.

And he was a stoner and a Motorhead.

After that I moved to another school, in the country on the edge of the desert, and when I arrived as usual I had nothing in common with anyone – except heavy metal. Motorhead opened doors for me, again mostly with the boys who were repeating the year because they didn’t take the first one seriously. Now we had Metallica, Megadeth and a whole new world of thrash that I would never even have known about if it hadn’t been for those six months in the weights room, with Glenn in his Motorhead singlet, thrash booming, the smell of sweat and iron …

Without those metal boys my high school would have been slightly less alive, largely a life of skulking around waiting to be hissed at by the popular kids. Through metal and role-playing (which of course those kids were doing) I found a group of people who took me seriously and cared about me. I can’t say that metal inspired those kids to be nice – after all, I’ve even heard that people who don’t listen to metal can sometimes be nice human beings – but it was definitely the soundtrack to my discovery of human kindness. And it was somehow appropriate, because that first breath of human spirit came from a pair of boys who were in their own way as cast out as I was, and we were all listening to music that was fundamentally about not compromising yourself, about rejecting people who reject you. Motorhead, especially, is about being yourself and not letting anyone drag you down.

This morning I learnt that Lemmy, lead singer of Motorhead, died suddenly of cancer. It’s hardly surprising given his claim to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, and his huge smoking habit. He was 70, and playing gigs right up until last year. His band released a statement on his death which includes this simple, beautiful admonition:

We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please…play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD.
Have a drink or few.

Share stories.

Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself.

HE WOULD WANT EXACTLY THAT.

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister

1945 -2015

Born to lose, lived to win.

That statement took me back to those teenage months with Glenn, when I was fumbling around learning to be a person for the first time. It’s probably hard for modern kids to get, but back then we were still wrestling with whether it was okay for girls to swallow, whether you should wait till your wedding day to do it, whether a single toke would get you addicted to heroin for life … there was a lot of fear of just living back then, and now that AIDS was stalking the earth there were new fears of transgression and sexuality. But metal was about living, it was about life, and it rejected all that old fussy stuff about what we should and shouldn’t do. Obviously it wasn’t just Motorhead, but Lemmy was ferociously present, he was living large and telling us all to be who we wanted to be. And we did just that, and our lives are better for it.

Lemmy’s death is obviously a big blow for metal. But on a deeper level, it’s a reminder to all of us of our mortality. If ever any man on this earth could keep living just by sheer force of will, it was Lemmy, but he was killed by death. If Lemmy can’t escape that caped doom with which he was so familiar, what hope do we have? Only one: to live our lives large and as we like them, regardless of the consequences, as he did, and dare Death to come and get us. Let death be the least of our experiences, and deservedly the last.

THIS! IS! SPARTA!

THIS! IS! YOKOSUKA!

For our final session of 2015 my group and I tried a short run through the Fantasy Flight Games zombie apocalypse role-playing game The End of the World, a rules-lite system intended to simulate zombie survival in a collapsing world. I’m going to give a very brief summary of the game we played, and then a short review of some aspects of this game, which had some good ideas but I felt fell a bit flat at the end.

The session

Our group were a university academic, game designer and computer programmer, based roughly on our own careers (see below). The adventure started with us playing an RPG in our friend’s apartment in downtown Tokyo, only to be interrupted by his housemate showing us a news report of a disaster at a nearby infectious disease research institute. A huge fire had broken out, and in running away from the fire a scientist tripped and spilled some kind of virus over himself. He promptly exploded in a shower of bloody vomit, and very quickly the area around the research institute was shutdown, with everyone warned to stay inside. That included us, gaming inside the zone where everyone was required to stay inside.

After an uncomfortable night in the tiny apartment we gave up on staying inside and went to the convenience store for supplies, only to find it full of scary sick people. We returned home, and decided to get out. Our friend Jimmy and his flatmate’s girlfriend Saito san came with us, in a car we borrowed from the landlord (this is Japan, this kind of thing happens). Our plan was to head to the US base at Yokosuka, because our game designer was a base boy originally and had American citizenship, and we had heard that America was evacuating, and we hoped to scam a lift with them. By now things were getting scary – the news was on a loop, the convenience stores deserted, and normally mild-mannered citizens turning murderous, and we had seen more than one person dying in an orgy of bloody vomit.

By the time we got on the roads chaos was starting to break out, with people in cars being attacked by other people who wanted to get out, and dead people visible in many places. But there were no zombies, it just seemed like some kind of outbreak and every scared of getting caught up in it. Escaping from one such group of no-good people we damaged the car, and pulled over at an overpass to steal two empty cars (a Prius and a Mustang!) sitting near the shadows of the overpass. As we approached the cars we heard sounds of growling and hissing from the shadows of the overpass, and suddenly a bicycle came flying out of the shadows and hit our car with such force that it shattered the window. Jimmy panicked and ran away down a side street, where something came out of the shadows at lightning speed, hit him and carried him away. We didn’t need any more encouraging – we jumped into the cars and hightailed it out of there, though nothing followed us out of that overpass. We crossed the Tama river and drove on, through streets that were alternately deserted or combat zones.

At the Yokosuka army base we were separated. They allowed the designer, Ishiba san, in, but we two and Saito san had to stay outside. As we sat there in our car wondering what to do the sun started to sink, and suddenly from all across Tokyo rose a howl of primal rage, as if monsters in the shadows were preparing to come out. We’d seen a few of these things slinking around in the shadows, and we decided it was best to hole up somewhere fast. Fortunately the programmer’s house was nearby so we drove to that in about 20 minutes, and got inside just as the sun fell below the horizon.

After that the trouble really started. Two beasts tried to get into our apartment but we prepared and ambushed them separately. Our programmer was training in sword fighting so between us we had a real steel sword, a wooden sword, and Saito san with a frying pan – she was a member of her university tennis club, and a dab hand with a heavy iron skillet. We took out two, but the second one broke my shoulder[1]. Meanwhile Ishiba san found the base attacked from within, and had to flee in a humvee, driving over a couple of the zombie creatures as he went. These zombies were not shambling weaklings, but some kind of undead werewolf-like creature, that shucked off human flesh after its transformation and turned into a howling beast of rage and hunger.

The game finished with us waiting out the night and then driving away to the edge of Tokyo. I suggested heading off to the radiation-affected area to hide, and another player suggested we should hide at the outskirts of Tokyo, going in during the day to steal supplies. That is where the adventure ended.

The game

The game was fun, but in some ways it didn’t work. I think part of the reason it didn’t work was simply narrative – we all knew it was going to be a zombie story and so there was no surprise or tension when they finally came out to play. There are three books in the series and a fourth planned, I think, so it might be better to run the session without any idea of how the apocalypse is going to happen, or even if it will, and then build a campaign that floats around that idea. In fact I have long thought of running such a campaign, starting in the 1950s or 1960s and being uncertain from the outset whether it will be a horror, alien invasion, nuclear apocalypse or something else. This system seems like it would be ideal for that, though our GM told us the online community has been saying it won’t work for campaigns.

The system also suggests that you play yourself, i.e. make a character that is based on your own traits. The system is really simple – three traits divided into offense/defense and one good and one bad point for each trait – so it would be easy to do this, but who wants to play yourself? I role-play to not be a loser, not to watch myself get eaten by zombies. So I vetoed that flat-out, and as a compromise between my preference (play people who can do stuff) and the book, we agreed to make characters similar in career and situation to ours. So I played a deeply arrogant medical doctor who was under investigation for unethical research practices, and secretly welcomed the apocalypse because it was going to derail the investigation.

That was more fun.

The system is interesting and brutal. You assemble a dice pool of positive dice based on your attribute, and negative dice based on the challenge of the task; all dice are d6s. Positive and negative dice cancel if they get the same numbers, and any positive dice left over that rolled below your attribute are successes; any negative dice left over are stresses. For example if you have an attribute of 4 and a difficulty of 1 you roll 4 positive and 1 negative die; one positive die may cancel the negative die if they roll the same; any remaining positive dice that roll under 4 are successes, and if the negative die doesn’t cancel you also suffer 1 stress. Stress accrues on the same stress track as damage, and there is a separate track for physical, mental and social damage. This is why my character died; he could have survived a single blow from the zombie (just) but he had previously accrued stress from skill checks. We realized very quickly that stress was going to be serious, and avoided skill checks after that, but even a couple are a problem. Combat was also brutal – you don’t get any defense skill, so if your enemy is some kind of insane rage zombie it rolls 5 dice to hit you with no negatives to cancel them. That’s a serious amount of damage, so anything with any ferocity or skill is a death trap.

I think the game is intended to be played this way – survival is unlikely and you need to be ready to roll up new characters regularly. But the system is so rough and fast that I suspect it might chew up interest along with characters. It does somehow manage to give a feeling of ordinary people in an ordinary world gone crazy though, so it seems like it is well suited to a zombie survival epic. The book is also very nicely laid out and stylish, so it’s worth getting if you’re interested in such an epic. I think, though, that you shouldn’t start playing yourself, and you might find yourself rapidly house-ruling it to make it bearable.

I’m not sure if zombie survival role-playing is possible now that the genre has been so completely and thoroughly dealt with by popular culture, but if you are interested in trying a gritty, dangerous role-playing game with lots of resources for different types and styles of zombie apocalypse, that is quick to pick up and easy to run, I recommend it. But be prepared to make a lot of rapid changes to the rules as they’re laid out if you want to enjoy it – and start by playing someone a little more interesting than yourself!

fn1: in the mechanic of the game, it killed me, but I made a check to survive but come back severely mauled.

[This review contains SPOILERS so please don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film].

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Sunday, and really enjoyed the spectacle and the homecoming feeling of it, but reflecting on some of the things that niggled at me during the movie, I have decided now that it wasn’t a very good or indeed necessary addition to the series. There were many things to like about it: the first battle of the TIE fighters with the millenium falcon, much of what Kylo Ren does and his velvety Sithlord style, the spectacle of the space battles and the pace were all great. I must confess to nearly shedding a tear when Han Solo and Chewbacca emerged, and I thought it nicely reproduced the riotous colour and fantastical nature of the original series without overdoing CGI or grotesqueness. I thought all the main characters were great, really enjoyed Han and Leia’s gentle brokenness, and appreciated BB-8. I also appreciated the modernization and diversification of the cast, with a lot more women in positions of power and influence and a wider range of non-human races in the Republican forces, and I thought a lot of the dialogue hewed closer to the original spirit, without the heavy doom-laden pretentiousness (and humourless weakness) of the prequels.

In short, on a superficial level it was a great Star Wars movie and it seems to have earned great reviews (and a metric crapton of money) from a wide range of sources on that basis. But on reflection, there were a couple of major flaws with the movie that left me disappointed. Here I will present my main three criticisms of the movie, summarize a few more minor complaints with the content, and give my final feelings about this new series of three movies.

There was no narrative purpose.

Why was I in the cinema watching this thing? The prequels had an obvious purpose, which was to tell the story of the rise of the Empire and overthrow of the Republic, track Vader’s fall from grace and the destruction of the Jedi, etc. In a narrative sense it was necessary, though obviously once we had watched these crawling abominations we all agreed that from an artistic perspective these movies were not only a disaster, but risked wrecking the legacy of the originals. So in this new set of movies, we need a reason to be watching. But what is that reason? At the end of Return of the Jedi we are led to believe the Empire is broken, peace has been won, and the order restored, but at the beginning of this movie there is some sinister new evil force afoot that isn’t just a remnant of the old Empire – it is much more powerful. Our escaping stormtrooper makes it out to be some kind of panopticon in its powers, and it seems to be able to build a death star that dwarfs even the supposedly unprecedented engineering feat of the last one. It appears that in a short space of time everything that happened in the original movies has been not just undone but seriously stomped all over, and yet still this time there is a Republic (not a Rebellion) and the war is ongoing. We are given no reason to understand how this happened, or why we should be throwing in our lot again with the same crew of people who somehow allowed this to happen. Implicit in this collapse of the Republican peace is a big question – will this galactic war ever end? When we joined the original crew in A New Hope we did so on the assumption that somehow they would prevail, as good always does in these kinds of movies, and there would be an ending. But now that victory is not just under threat, it has been comprehensively undone. So why should we suffer through all this stuff again – just to see it fail again? What are we doing here …?

It feels like a family story

I hate the way the prequels decided to keep everything in the family, and even though they preceded the original movies they still managed to find ways to include people connected to those original movies – C3PO, Boba Fett’s dad for Christ’s sake – rather than finding a new cast and drawing them together into the story of Vader’s downfall and the rise of the Empire. It’s even worse in this new movie – we get the entire original cast back, Kylo Ren is Han Solo and Leia’s son, and the entire movie is structured around the quest for Luke Skywalker (who I bet turns out to be Rey’s dad). Also, Kylo Ren is a Vader fanboy, even though he is not related to him, which undermines his character by making him into some kind of pimply evil boy wannabe rather than a serious threat, but also reminds us that nobody in this story can be independent of the originals. Couldn’t we have an evil guy who didn’t give a toss about Vader, and who was not related to the original cast, so that those cast members could just do a cameo to anchor us to the previous stories before we go off on our new journey? There are stars without number in this galaxy, and more humans than grains of sand on Dune, yet somehow the same four people really count for the entire future of the galaxy? This risks turning the whole thing into a sitcom or soap opera, rather than a galaxy-spanning epic.

It copied too much from the original

Sometimes it’s a good idea to copy the plot for a sequel from the previous movie. The best example of this is Terminator 2, which is an excellent movie that basically precisely follows the plot of the original movie, with The T-800 in the role of Kyle Rees. Even attacks on police stations and overturning trucks occur in the exact same sequence – you’re watching the same movie, but loving its freshness and brilliance anyway. But this doesn’t work in The Force Awakens, somehow. It has a lot of similar scenes and the key details are the same. For example: A droid lost on a desert planet brings a plea for help to a young dreamer desperate to escape; they escape from the desert world in the Millenium Falcon, chased past star destroyers by TIE fighters; everyone is looking for a lost, old Jedi who is hiding from responsibility in shame at his failed pupil; Han Solo and his young supplicants make their plans in a pan-galactic bar; there is an attack on a death star, including x-wings flying down a tunnel to put precision ordnance on a weak spot; a major planet is destroyed by that star destroyer simply to send a message; while the young idealist looks on, her elderly hero is killed in a sacrificial scene by an evil sith lord. The only thing JJ Abrams really did was change the faces, and move the elements around a bit. But while the power of the scenes copied for Terminator 2 was in their visual impact and style, the power of many of these scenes in A New Hope is in their emotional impact and freshness. We don’t get that same impact the second time round, because they aren’t fresh anymore. Sure Solo’s death is pretty shocking, and the lead up is visually cool, but the rest of these moments don’t hold the same power the second time.

How this is all going to go wrong…

None of these aspects of the movie would be a problem in isolation – they might even be good points – but in total they give the impression of a movie that has been made more so that we can wallow in the past glories of the original series, rather than that we can carry that series forward. It’s a homage to the joys of the original more than anything new, and worryingly it is in its newest elements that it is weakest. Of course I’m happy to see a well-constructed homage to the original series, but there were many aspects of this new movie that weren’t well done. For example, in the original Millenium Falcon traveling at light speed takes time – long enough for a game of chess and a bit of Jedi training – but in this movie people zip about the galaxy as if they were popping out to the shops; in the original Vader was an indestructible, intense and unstoppable force for evil who cut his own son’s hand off, but in this one Ren can be taken on by some random stormtrooper who picked up a sword. In the original the Empire can make a death star that is capable of destroying planets but is vulnerable to a carefully-placed proton torpedo; in this one the death star is the size of a planet and actually channels the raw power of suns, but is just as vulnerable as the original; in the original the Millenium Falcon is picked up by a Star Destroyer because it was on its way to Alderaan, but in this one it is nabbed by Han Solo’s freighter because even though it had been lost for 10 years he got an alarm as soon as the engine turned on and was able to instantly get to the right place at the right time to find it. We overlook these weak points because they’re being blasted at us at a million miles an hour by JJ Abrams’ tight-paced directing, but there are a whole series of major flaws in the story that bode ill for the future of this series. In combination with the nostalgic turn through memory lane and the dependence on scenes and tropes from the original, it makes me think that this movie is more a series of set-pieces tied together by a weak plot than a legendary adventure. If so, once Abrams’s homage shtick starts to wear thin, I fear things will unravel badly. Remember, this is the JJ Abrams who made the absolutely terrible Star Trek reboot with the flamingly bad time travel story; if you doubt that his directing is weak, you can check out the long list of problems with the new Star Wars movie here. This doesn’t bode well for the next two movies.

My hope is that for the next two movies we will follow a dark and bitter story in which Skywalker’s anger at Solo’s death leads him on a path of ruin into the dark side and out again, perhaps redeeming himself and uniting dark and light side at the end. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though: I think JJ Abrams is going to come unstuck once he runs out of nostalgia to back him up, and is going to make two increasingly woeful and hole-filled movies that betray the original three movies just as surely as the prequels did. Of course I’ll watch them anyway (or at least, the next one); but I wonder if perhaps it might have been better to take this series out the back and put it down long before now.

The New York Times has today published an editorial on the front page of the printed issue, demanding an end to the gun epidemic in America. This is apparently the first time since 1920 that the NY Times editorial has been on the front page, and this is apparently a sign that the editorial is Very Serious. The seriousness of the placement is slightly weakened by the fact that the last such decision – in 1920 – was to publish an editorial about the decision to select a presidential contender no one has ever heard of – a newspaper publisher who became a popular president but whose legacy has been undone by a scandal so puerile it is named the Teapot Dome scandal. On such stern foundations are NY Times front page editorial legacies built.

The editorial’s seriousness is much more seriously undermined, not by the history of liberal East coast blathering, but by the weakness of its content. This editorial purports to be a strong statement on gun crime, and is being sold as such by the NY Times itself and by various news agencies across the nation, but what it offers is nothing more than platitudes and grandstanding. Specifically, it doesn’t do any of the following things.

  • It doesn’t lay out a specific program: Although this editorial demands legislative action to end gun crime, it doesn’t specify anything. What should be done? It mentions the desire to end the sale of semi-automatic weapons but it doesn’t give any concrete plans about how to remove these weapons from circulation and use. A call for action on such an issue should either reference existing campaigns that have concrete plans, or lay out a set of plans of its own. At the very least the USA is going to need an assault weapons buyback scheme, but this isn’t mentioned.
  • It doesn’t attack the Republicans: In the third paragraph the editorial twice mentions how “America’s elected leaders” have rejected gun control legislation, but doesn’t single out the party primarily responsible for this problem and doesn’t make any effort shame them for their constant rejection of sanity. “Both sides do it” is a journalistic trope but it’s completely invalid in the US context where the majority of opponents of gun control are Republicans, and high profile Democrats have repeatedly and vociferously called for national lawmakers to grow up on this issue.
  • It doesn’t attack the NRA: Those three letters don’t appear anywhere in the editorial, even though everyone knows that the NRA’s power to hijack electoral processes is at the core of the legislative gridlock on this issue. How can an editorial on gun control in America be hard-hitting and serious if it doesn’t mention the pervasive and pernicious influence of this insurrectionist and racist movement? At the same time as this editorial was published Igor Volsky was running a high profile Twitter campaign to expose the influence of NRA money on Republican politicians, and the issue of “thoughts and prayers” was prominent in national media, but the NY Times couldn’t even look sideways at this aspect of the debate …
  • It doesn’t demand repeal of the second amendment: No one is going anywhere on gun control in the USA until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, but the only reference to the amendment in the editorial is the ridiculous claim that “It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment.” Quite the contrary: given the impossibility of debating the wording, the only choice is to abolish it. Given that this amendment suggests the existence of a “well-regulated” militia that in the modern American context is obviously incapable of even poor regulation, the only option is to abolish this amendment. Why is it hard for the NY Times to say this obvious fact? Because if they did so they wouldn’t be “serious”. “Serious” newspapers claim that both sides do it, and look for leadership to cross the partisan divide, and realistic solutions. But none of this applies to gun control: only one side is doing it, leadership won’t help, and realistic solutions are currently impossible. This means that media organizations who fancy themselves to be activists need to transcend the usual journalistic bullshit and say something serious about the real problems the country faces. Apparently the super-serious NY Times can’t rise to this simple journalistic challenge.
  • It doesn’t name and shame: The very first comment on the article is a demand for a list of legislators who have been bought off by the NRA, consistent with Igor Volsky’s Twitter campaign. The NY Times cannot name a single politician (even “machine gun bacon” Cruz) who should be singled out for opprobrium about the horrors that have been perpetrated in America in the past year. Why should politicians who stand opposed to simple, reasonable checks on mass murder get a pass from the newspaper of record? Because it is a weak rag that prefers grandstanding to solutions. Publish the names of those who oppose gun control measures, and publish the full details of their political donations and support from the NRA. Furthermore, suggest a legislative and activist agenda to solve this problem. The NY Times can’t do either.

Achieving gun control in America – or, alternatively and more realistically, reducing gun deaths significantly – is going to require detailed, serious work on legislation and public health initiatives. The NY Times has offered nothing in support of the actions that might change the situation in the USA. My personal opinion is that gun control alone is not going to be successful in the USA, because there are so many guns in circulation and so much opposition to giving them up. Solving this problem in the USA is going to require innovative solutions, which I think will include:

  • Gun buyback schemes that will be expensive and probably not very successful
  • Major changes to the way the criminal justice system and law enforcement personnel deal with criminals, especially black criminals, to reduce the risk of reoffending and improve reintegration
  • Special laws holding gun companies accountable for crimes committed with their weapons, even those sold years ago, so that they are held responsible for their recklessness
  • Campaign finance reform so that the NRA cannot dominate elections
  • Criminalization of the NRA as a hate group
  • Tax changes so that guns and ammunition become prohibitively expensive
  • Voluntary (or, if that fails, mandatory) guidelines for media organizations that stop them broadcasting any details of mass shootings, thus discouraging future mass shootings
  • Revocation of the Dickey Amendment that prevents federal funding of research into gun crime
  • In place of or in addition to that, private foundations such as the Clinton foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) need to commit serious funds to not just research into gun crime, but also supporting candidates who support gun control. BMGF should commit to funding election campaigns at a rate 10 times that of the NRA (this will probably require constitutional changes at the BMGF) and fund gun crime research to a level that precisely replaces what the government would have funded
  • Personal liability laws that make individuals responsible for the cost of injuries from their guns, including guns accidentally fired by children, and the requirement of all gun owners to have insurance
  • Strict laws holding insurance companies liable for failure to protect citizens injured by gun owners covered by insurance
  • Public information campaigns to shame gun owners and make them unmanly
  • Divestment campaigns forcing pension funds, investors and foundations to get rid of any investments they have in gun companies
  • If possible, stricter rules on investing that make it hard for gun companies to raise new funds

If you can’t ban guns, you can make them uncool, expensive and risky investments. You can embarrass individuals who like them, and make the cost of owning them financially and socially prohibitive, then offer financial remedies for people who want to turn in their guns. Even if you can’t ban them, you can make owning them difficult, expensive and embarrassing.

Or you can grandstand for effect, and achieve nothing. The New York Times obviously thinks the latter is easier and more rewarding than the former.

Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.

Very apt ...

Very apt …

On the plane back from Italy I watched Ant Man, which my friend told me was better than expected and because I saw Jurassic World on the way over to Italy. Ant Man was an okay movie – the action scenes were okay, the ant-dude got a few decent moments of humour, the ant-control stuff was alright, and by super-hero comic standards the bad guy’s evil scheme was relatively plausible (he developed a super weapon and sold it to some bastards). I absolutely hated the Falcon from the moment I saw him and just thought he was completely naff, and in this case the “good guy”‘s plan was just stupid and dumb and ridiculous and that made enjoying the movie a little difficult, but I was toughing it out okay until I discovered that the central emotional hook in the plot was going to revolve around Hope’s issues with her daddy. At this point I cringed and lost most of my interest in the movie.

Why do so many American action movies have daddy issues as their central human drama? Just off the top of my head I can think of Treasure Planet, the Lego Movie, that execrable Star Trek remake with the completely implausible time travel plot (if you could go back in time to attack the Federation why didn’t you use your time travel powers to stop the meteor you dipshit?) and now Ant Man. In many cases (Star Trek is an obvious exception, because it was unrescuable) these daddy issues just dragged the movie down. The Lego Movie even managed to combine the daddy issues with “it was just a dream” which is like combining the nadir of emotional manipulation with the nadir of story-telling. I was absolutely loving the Lego Movie until that horrible final 10 minutes, which even manages to creep up on you with this horrible, careful forewarning – you don’t just get the end spoiled for you, but you spend a couple of minutes having your perfect fantasy world slowly impinged on by this Sauron-esque level of daddy issues.

Daddy issues in action movies are always a bad emotional hook, for so many reasons. First of all, not all dads are dickheads but you would never get that impression if you turn on netflix. Secondly, the resolution of the daddy issues is always completely implausible: Hope is on the board of directors of a major international company, she’s a kick-arse fighter and a scientist and she’s hot, but her dad has treated her like shit for 30 years because – sorry to break it to you Hope – he’s a complete arsehole, and yet at the end of the movie something she does is going to convince him he should treat her better. Sure, 50 year old men change their opinions of their highly successful, beautiful and super functional daughters just like that … Thirdly, the movies usually reinforce the daddy’s arseholery through techniques the director seems to think are meant to presage this implausible turnaround, which is just dumb. There are several moments in Ant Man where we are led to believe Pops understand he’s being an arsehole – but he keeps it up anyway. We’re meant to take these moments as a sign he’s redeemable but they just really make him seem like an egregious arsehole. Fourthly, they turn one character into a useless waste of space. Hope could have saved the world but her dad won’t let her so she ends up being just a pretty waste of space who exists in the movie to give her dad a chance at redemption. Sorry, director dude, but I like my action movie chicks to be active. Finally, they reduce the density of explosions: every scene devoted to exploring the characters’ daddy issues is a period of time when shit is not being blown up, and I came to this movie to watch shit being blown up. Sure, it’s based on a marvel comic for teenagers but most of the audience are not teenagers – we’re adults, and we’ve come to terms with our own stupid family relationships, we don’t need to have our precious explosion time diluted with time-wasting emotional antics we aren’t engaged with. Sure, I understand that human drama is hard to do well and the best way to do it is to invest it with fighting and explosions: Star Wars, Terminator 1, The Last of the Mohicans and Titanic are examples of movies that improve otherwise ordinary human drama with explosions, fighting and spectacular damage. But it doesn’t work the other way, you can’t make shrinking a man to the size of an ant more interesting by giving his love interest daddy issues. So just drop it from the script, and either shorten your movie (I missed the end of the final battle because the plane landed, and I would have seen it if they hadn’t wasted time on Hope’s angst for a man who is obviously a worthless piece of shit who deserves to pay for all his past unethical behavior) or replace those minutes of worthless sentimental bloat with something worthwhile, like more explosions.

The way daddy issues are handled in modern action movies is also something of a sinister tale for impressionable viewers. To the extent that movies play a normative role – describing what is and how things should be done – these action movies with daddy issues present a universally terrible norm. Obviously we don’t take all our moral cues from movies but they do play a role in establishing and defining norms, just as all cultural products do, and the ubiquity of daddy issues in action movies, combined with the age and vulnerability of their audience (teenagers and young adults, more likely male than female) means we should pay some attention to the messages these movies are putting out. First of all they give viewers the impression that all relations between children and their parents are fraught – i.e that all dads are dickheads – which isn’t true, and furthermore by making these broken relationships central to the emotional tension of the movie they exaggerate the importance of these damaged relationships, or serve to reinforce the insecurities of young people about their relationships with their parents. But worse still, through all of these daddy issues movies there is an implication that the kid can do something to fix their dad’s dickheadness, as if the whole thing is their fault. They always come to a resolution where the kid manages to change the way their dad views them and treats them through either emotional appeal or action or both. Everyone with an actual parent (i.e., pretty much everyone) knows that this isn’t how parents work: most parents don’t accept that their kids have grown up, let alone change long-established patterns of behavior in which they are the boss and their kids are appellants. Unequal power relationships like this where the powerful person is a dickhead do not change through the action of the weaker person, because the powerful person’s behavior has nothing to do with the behavior of the weaker one and is not their responsibility. Dickhead dads are dickheads because they’re dickheads, not because the 8 year old child didn’t try hard enough. These daddy issues movies always send out the opposite message though: something you do can change how your dad treats you. i.e. how your dad treats you is somehow your fault. It’s not, but most people spend a large part of their life working towards this understanding. Perhaps if these movies made that clear it would be easier for young adults to get the hint and start being more realistic about their relationships with their parents.

I wonder why American action movies suffer so badly from this problem? Here I am going to suggest two possible reasons: a cohort effect, and an allegory for the relationship between the citizen and the state. You’ve come this far, gentle reader, so bear with me …

Cohort effects on crappy movies

As someone who grew up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, I can sympathize with the notion that dads are arseholes. All the dads I met when I was growing up were unreconstructed arseholes, the kind of men who hit their kids out of laziness or spite rather than any kind of theory of discipline[1]. Also, watching young adult movies of that time, like Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club, you get the impression that American dads were really cold and stand-offish (all the boys referred to their dad as “sir”!). My guess is that the majority of today’s script writers and storymakers are American men who grew up in that period, probably mostly middle class, and their experience of family life is a powerful, distant father who terrorized them and a weak mother who did nothing to protect them, and that is why they routinely give their female characters power then strip it away (e.g. Hope, Hermione, Captain Ahab in Treasure Planet) and make daddy issues central to the emotional content of the story. The world has changed since then, however, and modern fathers are given much more emotional leeway, and emotional involvement with their children is supported and respected in a way it never was when I grew up. Compared to an era when it was cool to say your kids were annoying and should be “seen not heard” it is now normal for a dad to say he loves his children, to want to spend time with them, and to be engaged in and proud of their personal lives. So while these script writers might be writing about their own experiences, they’re writing a story that is unfamiliar to the majority of both the men and the children watching their shows. So why do they keep doing it? They’re paid a lot of money to recycle this drek, and personally I really don’t care what happened between whatever dude “wrote” Ant Man and his dad. If this is the reason that they’re writing these cheap emotional stories, I think they should do better – try and look outside their own experience for five minutes of their lives, and write someone else’s story for once.

The father as allegory for the state

The problem with the cohort effect explanation, though, is that daddy issues seem to be uniquely a component of American action movies. The Kingsman, for example, involved the (dead) father as a story hook but it was by no means a central part of the story – like most British movies the relationship with the mother was just as important, and even though the mother was a feckless dickhead the kid was immune to her behavior, interested in rescuing her from her situation but not feeling himself to blame for it. Similarly Japanese teen movies don’t focus on broken father-son relationships, often backgrounding parental relationships entirely in favour of the angst of teenagers (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic example of this). So unless American dads are uniquely fucked – an unlikely prospect, given the universal fuckedness of parents – there must be some other uniquely American reason for this obsession. My suspicion is that it could be explained by growing uncertainty about the relationship between American citizens and their state (bear with me here). In its classical representation, the state plays a role very much like a distant but essentially loving father. It can be demanding and harsh but ultimately its love is unconditional – if you are a member of its family you will get its support, whether at home or abroad. But recently this relationship between citizen and state has started to unravel, with a whole rash of policies that undermine the unconditional nature of this relationship. The most obvious is the desire of certain states to strip citizenship from people who fight against them – the political equivalent of being disinherited. But there are others: three strikes laws and mandatory sentencing; the excesses of the war on drugs; permanent sex offender registries; targeted killings of citizens in foreign countries; recent revelations of unconstrained spying on the communications of citizens; attacks on social security; the horrible and US-specific practice of civil forfeiture; and some of the more dubious sting operations that American authorities have employed in recent years. To be clear, these extra-judicial extravagancies have always been deployed against black people and certain types of domestic dissident, but in the past the victims of such excesses have typically been those who the state has refused to accept as full citizens (black people and communists). The more recent civil rights violations have expanded their reach to include middle class whites, who have always believed themselves to be the core group that the state will love unconditionally. This slow degrading of the basic rights of ordinary Americans, and this subtle change in the relationship between individual and state, might not be something that these white middle-upper class American screenwriters are directly aware of, but the general change in climate might be affecting the way they feel, and not having directly identified their concerns, it’s possible that they’re being reflected in their cultural product through uncertainties in their depiction of core human relations. If this were the case though one would think that similar allegories could be seen in other types of relations (such as the treacherous lover in Total Recall) – I don’t get the impression that this is the case though. Nonetheless, in a climate of increasing economic, legal and cultural uncertainty, it’s not impossible to imagine that screenwriters would project these uncertainties onto one of the key relationships that defined their own development. It’s also noteworthy that in modern movies at the same time as these daddy issues are being played out we also see the hero or other major characters caught up in some other excess of state power – the Ant dude with his prison issues, for example, or the way that super heroes often find themselves facing off against a shadow government agency that is up to no good.

Of course it could just be that American screenwriters are often shit, and Ant Man was written by a terrible screenwriter, or that this daddy issues thing is just some shallow Hollywood fashion that will fade away. If so, I hope it fades away sooner rather than later. If there’s going to be an emotional involvement in my action movies I want it to be simple, plausible, and positive – like The Last of the Mohicans – not filled with faux depth and unbelievable angst, and I don’t want it to be loaded down with unpleasant moral messages about how your fucked up relationship with your parents is your own fault. Get that drek out of my explosions!

fn1: It’s hilarious now to hear law-makers from that era oppose laws against slapping children on the basis of disciplinary practice. I had a friend called Christian in the UK who threw a snowball at his dad, and his dad didn’t like it and was in a bad mood, so we stood there and watched as he carefully packed a snowball with a stone in the middle, taking his time to really pack that ice tight while he ordered Christian not to run away, preparing that snowball with an intense expression of deep hatred, and then finally when he had it nice and hard, he threw it right in his own son’s face as hard as he could, then slapped him when he started crying. This kind of shit was pretty normal when I grew up – now the men of that generation complain that their child abuse is being outlawed and try to pretend it was done out of a need to instill discipline. They were lying bullies then and they remain lying bullies now.

Date: 2nd November 2166

Weather: Sunny! I got laughed at for carrying an umbrella by all the old ladies in the square …

Outfit: Yoga pants and a jacket. I thought Venice was meant to be the centre of fashion so packed all my shortest skirts and my coolest tights, and I had such a selection of fake haut cauture blouses and one pieces, but then I discovered that not only is Venice entirely stairs and men looking up your miniskirt but every girl here is wearing just yoga pants and a jacket and I felt so out of place except for the old ladies going to church who are so stylish but who does that so I had to run out and buy a set of yoga pants and a jacket (because I couldn’t wear the jacket I took to Rome since it’s covered in blood and that was such a nice jacket but Dirty Rum says he’ll replace it, I get expenses for this mission!). So now I’m walking around Venice wearing these super thin yoga pants and I can see every other girls panties through the fading patches on her bum and I’m super paranoid everyone can see mine but if I wear anything better I feel like everyone’s looking at me which you don’t want just after you have killed a major religious figure and left him in the bath with his big old man’s stiff prong getting stiffer before the polizia find him. Better to be incognito but I don’t feel incognito running around this ancient, crumbling crowded city in what is basically underwear, but no one notices me now because that’s what everyone else is wearing. Maybe I should download a yoga chipset to match this dodgy culture chipset that keeps making me go into boring museums!

Mood: Betrayed! Not because of the job, which went perfectly although the old man begged at the end and I felt like I was killing my grandpa, but then I saw the videos on his phone and realized that his night of lechery wasn’t ever intended to end in a big fat payout which I probably should raise with Dirty Rum but I guess since I was only in the bathtub so I could kill the old man there’s no use getting overly anxious about the fact that he was only in the bathtub so he could kill me. How does a crusty old dude like that kill a young woman anyway? I guess I learnt the reason when I toured the art galleries which is also why I’m feeling so betrayed! Because Dirty Rum said to me “you’re going to Rome to kill a man, and after that you should take a couple of days’ holiday. Go to Venice, soak in some culture,” so I thought when he said “soak in some culture” he meant to download a chipset on the renaissance, which I did, but why would I go to Venice just to download a chipset? That’s what the husk is for, I could have walked all of Venice’s crowded, crumbling streets right here in my bedroom! But Dirty Rum and I really needed this job so I went, and I downloaded the chipset from a cheap roadside vendor by the Fondamente, and at first it was fine but then it kept making me want to go to museums I didn’t want to go to even after I’d been in one and realized how much I hate this “art” these Venetians are peddling but it kept pushing me to go to more which is when I realized someone had bugged my chipset to make me spend money on museums I don’t like, and squished it under my (not high!) heel. So now here I am sitting by the canal with a crodino, thinking it’s probably good that Italy fell apart, because this whole place is just living in the past, and feeling betrayed by that chip-seller at the Fondamente. I would go back and drown him, but it’s bad enough wearing dry yoga pants – wet yoga pants would be just the worst!!! There’s some old Italian prince-dude called Machiavelli who probably has something good to say on this now, but since I ripped out that chipset I can’t remember any of the details of this place. I don’t speak any Italian or English either, and the only New Mandarin speakers are leading tours by that god-awful church by the lake, so I guess I’ll be staying right here by the canal until I go home.

I went to Rome to kill a man. Some old dude who runs a cult, an old cult that’s been around since humans were riding around on horses and dying of smallpox and blaming it all on some old dude in the sky. Rome used to be in this place called Italy but the old dude lives in a kind of summer house to Rome that has these really big walls. Anyway after Italy got carved up by the corporations and broken up into different little bits, this old dude was raising hell about it and saying it should all be put back together, and his little cult have some kind of influence all around the world, kind of like Nestle but through preaching instead of baby powder, and nobody really cared but then this little sect of his cult, called Optical Day or something, decided to get all terrorist and start blowing corporate assets up (why would a contact lens company blow up another company? Contact lenses are like a contract to print money, you don’t need to start any corporate wars if you’re a contact lens company! But Italians seem to be a hot headed bunch, must be all the typhoons in the mediterranean that drive them crazy). So finally the corporations decided to kill this old dude but he drives around in like a bullet-proof, rocket-proof AV and has his own personal guard of bad-arsed swiss dudes, and he lives behind these big walls all the time, and they couldn’t afford to nuke him (cheap!) so they needed to find another way in. And it turns out – shock! – that this old dude has a thing for young girls, but he likes variety, and he’s never had an inuit, and so here is Dirty Rum trafficking me into those high walls to some special place in there with a big bath and a very fancy day room and wall-to-wall porn of like the scariest kind, and my job is simple: kill this old dude in the bath and then shoot my way out.

So I did that, and on my way out I happened to kick his phone where it was plugged into one of his porno screens – I slipped, there was a lot of blood – and it somehow flicked to a new channel and that’s when I spent half an hour watching videos of the previous girls he’d had in the bath, and it wasn’t pretty and I suddenly had this big urge to send Dirty Rum a message saying “this job’s on me” but then I remembered that I’m not stupid, so I used the old dude’s dead finger to bypass his security, and mailed the whole lot to a couple of TV stations. Then I left, and went to Venice.

I only went to Venice because Dirty Rum said I should soak up some culture. I’ve never really been on a holiday before unless you count an afternoon of girls talk in Mister Donut, and I don’t really get why people go all the way to another country to pry into its dirty past. I mean, every culture is built on a bunch of horrible things and bad old ideas, and it always seemed to me like a lot of unnecessary effort to go halfway across the world to go prying into someone else’s bad secrets, like a kind of cultural voyeurism. Not that that’s the reason I never went to Disneyland – I just can’t afford it. Also Disneyland got nuked, so probably isn’t the best place to visit and who wants to go to America anyway? I’ll never meet an American I trust, I’m sure! But Dirty Rum said this one was on him, and have you ever seen Venice in the Autumn? So I took a train from Rome to Venice, and Dirty Rum arranged a nice hotel for me that rises above these narrow cobbled streets like an angel of steel and glass, and I can look over the whole thing, its pools of pale light and deep canyons of shadow, and think – I killed your stupid cult leader. You owe me.

Of course the bells are ringing a lot now he’s dead, and the TV stations are kind of frantic with all this talk about his paedophilia and his necrophilia, but me, I’m taking in the airs. Strolling the canals in my yoga pants, listening to my chipset tell me about how such-and-such a rich dude from the same cult built this building, and so-and-so rich dude from the same cult built that building, and oh by the way did you know that this piece of crumbling mosaic was dedicated to some poor sappy guy who was killed by enemies of the cult? This whole town is built on this stuff.

So I was kind of interested to find out a bit more about this cult, so I went to the big church in the square by the lake, where they have this tour that you can see the old church that is still running, and it’s meant to be impressive but really it’s only impressive because a bunch of people from 500 years ago could make a small house and put some badly shaped gold crust on the ceiling. You walk around and think it’s kind of pokey and what would these people have thought if they’d been taken to a Fay Ling Moon concert 500 years ago, they’d probably have died. It was kind of nice when I stood near the edge of this group of people who were praying, they sang a little song of devotion in pure and beautiful voices, the candle light wavering on their yoga pants and jackets and the voice of the crusty old dude ringing clear and faithful through the church. But then I turned away to walk out and there was this series of three little weird curtained booths with names over them that my chipset told me were confessional booths, where you can go in and hide your face while you tell the old man whose name is over the booth about bad things you did or even thought and he collects your stories so that he can go home later and imagine you without your yoga pants on doing those bad things that really aren’t bad at all, and I thought that old man leading the prayer was actually a kind of sleazy old man wasn’t he, just like his boss. And I looked at those booths and the curtain hanging limp there waiting for a person to sit inside it feeling bad for being natural and I thought it’s kind of like the biohazard suits we had to wear in the Indo zone, only to keep the hazard in, not out. And suddenly I felt kind of tired and sad looking around at the weary old gold-crusted ceiling, thinking about all the thousands of women who’ve trooped through here, entering those little booths of biohazard shame feeling like what happened in their yoga pants was okay, and leaving ashamed of themselves because some slimy old man told them so. And then I walked out kind of fast because I was getting angry and I didn’t want to do anything stupid to blow my cover.

… and then I got this desire to go to the old art gallery, which is called the Academy or something but the locals have got surprisingly bad English so they mis-spelled it and it took me ages to find it in my dictionary (why did I download a culture chipset instead of a language one?! I think I should upgrade my neuralware next time I’m in Russia, it’s cheap there and reliable). It cost a small fortune for an Inuit girl to get into the Academy, but I kept a receipt because Dirty Rum is paying for all this, and so in I wandered to look at all the art, and the chipset was full of all this knowledge about how great it all was, but as the rooms passed me by I started to get this really bad feeling about it all, like … these people really have built their entire artistic heritage on a pretty rough foundation, haven’t they? And I trust Dirty Rum but I’m starting to give him a good bit of side-eye now because I’m wondering why he thinks it’s culture to be painting a bunch of poorly-rendered pictures about some chick who had a baby without having sex which is like impossible, and a dude whose dad killed him just so he could be famous, and everywhere these really nasty, scary-looking babies that sometimes have wings and sometimes look really skeezy. And every time that virgin mother is in the picture there’s a bunch of super old dudes staring at her in this really dirty way and it’s like for 400 years the artists of this entire country couldn’t work out how to paint a finger or an arm or let alone a baby but they were like pre-eminent masters at getting that sleazy look so perfectly captured that it beamed on down through the ages to where a young girl looking at it today is like “that is the universal embodiment of sleaze!” What a lucky virgin mother this Mary chick was … It’s really weird too how the only reason she’s special is that she had a baby whose dad killed it just to get onto some ancient talent show, but then everyone thinks that she couldn’t be special at all if she had actually done some sweaty tussling with a man to get that baby going – that’s some real dirty double standards shining through right there and you can see that double standard in every roughly drawn picture of her carrying her stupid baby that’s gonna die, looking so stupid and innocent while a bunch of old men are leering at her thinking they want her but they’re dirty for thinking they want her.

Which I think is why that old dude I killed had to kill the girls after he’d diddle them, because he hated himself for doing what everyone knows is really just natural, though kind of gross, and his stupid religion tells him he’s bad for doing all the things that his body needs to do, and somehow on this peninsula that bad way of thinking got to be a thing, until the guy who represented that thing was so special that he could fly a bullet-proof AV and get to strangle any Inuit girl he wants, because he feels bad about wanting to be inside her.

Of course all these crazy ideas came up before people invented guns and contraception and cyberware, and now the world is different and any girl with a dentata and a pair of rippers can do away with some sleazy old strangler who wants what he doesn’t deserve. And now the whole cult is in tumult, I guess, because girls can run around in yoga pants killing their idols or other people’s idols, or having sex with them if they want though why you’d want to has always been a mystery to me, and doing the things that girls naturally want to do like chatting with their friends freely in public and shooting people for money. And those old pictures now they’re just relics of a time when nobody knew any better and girls like me couldn’t be free to do what we wanted, but there’s still people in the world who think the bad things that we were are important to the good things we’ve become instead of something we should be ashamed of, and I was sitting there on one of the benches while all the pretentious arty fashion types were walking past me talking about colour and light (probably – they weren’t talking Mandarin or Inuit so who knows if they were but they seemed to be!) and thinking, no, this is just dross, it’s old paper with bad scrawlings on it, let’s take some photos sure so that the people who like history can study it but maybe we should just burn this stuff down now? Because this building would make a great shooting range, if we cleared a few walls away. Or a dance club!

What we could be

What we could be

And then I left. But that chipset still had me thinking I needed to go to another weird old museum of skeezy dudes, and it led me across this bridge and then there was this museum of modern design that I managed to get into even though the chipset was really making me feel uncomfortable about it. And the museum had a special display about glass sculptures which was mostly terrible but I found this little side door that led into a dark room that had these two pieces of glass hanging in air like shreds of angels, and they were pieces of glass moulded in the shape of the lower torso and legs of people. They glowed there in the air, suspended in silence and darkness and carrying their own luminous flesh so powerfully that I could feel my own cyberskin moved and moving to the same colour. And I just assumed they were male torsos because all the art I had seen was about men but then I saw the little secret slits and the smooth beauty of their parts and I realized that these were some kind of floating embodiment of femininity, and I stood there entranced and my thoughts briefly washed away from me except the chipset was nagging me to go, go, go and watch some real art about men and their needs so I ripped it out right then and crushed it on the floor and just stood there thinking yes, we are in a better place, this world we’re in now where girls can hang luminous in the darkness, their skin flawless and glowing and their power complete, just like mine was when I strangled that nasty little man in the bath, one hand around his neck as his eyes bulged and my rippers sliding in and out of his sagging, filthy belly, the blood mingling with the bubbles in the bath and the spilled champagne, his gasps like a kind of choir singing hosannas to the perfection of modern womanhood in gurgling, ragged sighs.

And I didn’t go to any more museums. I’m going to enjoy the sun by the canals and watch the tourists wander by, until my flight lifts me out of this crumbling kingdom of old ruins and ruined old men, and takes me back east, where the future is.

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