The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Planetary Survey No.3: Born to Serve

The Gindoolian Panobligoids, dominant species of the planet Thodd, are known as a modest race, but this is a considerable oversimplification. The fact is that, though the Panobligoids have a highly advanced technological civilisation, incorporating atomic energy, artificial intelligence, and the rudiments of a reliable postal service, they refuse categorically to take the least credit for these achievements – just as they refuse with equal vehemence to accept the slightest responsibility for any act whatever, be it good, bad or indifferent, which they as individuals may happen to commit.

The Panobligoids, according to their native philosophy, never act, but are always acted upon. Should, for example, a brick be thrown through a window, the Panobligoid who perpetrated the act of throwing would be looked upon as merely an involuntary agent of the brick’s desire to be brought into contact with the glass, or of the glass’s desire to be brought into contact with the brick, or of the mutual desire of brick and glass to be brought into contact with one another. One might think that, with only inanimate objects to blame for every instance of vandalism or destruction that occurs, the Panobligoids' strange phenomenology would at least confer upon them the blessing of being able to remain at peace with one another; this is, unfortunately, not the case. The burning question on Thodd at the moment, over which one ten-year holy war has just been completed, while another is fermenting busily on the horizon, is precisely the question of how one can tell, when more than one object is involved, which of the objects is exercising its will upon the passive Panobligoid who obligingly completes the transaction.

Most sentient life forms believe some kind of conscious volition to be the main force underlying their own actions; a similar sort of volition, in the shape of gods or spirits, is often thought to control the lower species, and sometimes also certain naturally occurring inanimate objects, like rocks and rainclouds, which may have some potential for affecting the life of the species. There are even recorded cases of belief in spirits which inhabit artificial objects such as roads, buildings and household appliances. It is not, therefore, their absolute faith in the conscious intelligence of their surroundings, including everything from the largest tree to the tiniest thimble, that makes the Panobligoids unique; rather, their true singularity resides in their absolute disbelief in, and total incomprehension of, the notion that they themselves, the dominant species of the planet, might possibly exercise similar powers of thought and volition.

The race’s single language, Mesomendoptic Gindoolian, offers some revealing insights into the mechanics of the Panobligoid mind. An English sentence like I threw the brick through the window cannot be translated literally into Gindoolian, since the latter language, naturally, lacks an active voice. The nearest one could get might be a paraphrase along the lines of The brick was precipitated through the window by an action of my arm; but this would in fact be a highly misleading and distorted rendering. As will be seen, a statement of that sort in Gindoolian would constitute a controversial and wholly unproveable affirmation of an extremely contentious philosophical position. In order to preserve the neutral connotations of the original, one would have to employ still greater circumlocution and say The brick and the window were brought into contact with consequent fragmentation of the window due to a propulsive action achieved by the brick in co-operation with a movement of my arm.

A simpler statement, such as The brick was precipitated through the window, would imply an unequivocal assertion that one object or the other – in this case the brick – was the true power behind the event. That sentence, consequently, would be in accordance with the Theory of Direct Contact, which maintains that will is exercised to greater effect the nearer the Panobligoid is to the object exercising the will, and that will is exercised to the greatest possible effect if the Panobligoid is actually touching the object. The utterance of such a sentence would be greeted with huge approbation by the natives of Blogistoc, the northernmost continent on Thodd; however, in the southerly continent of Loctibogs, where they subscribe to a different theory, the same sentence could, if uttered in the presence of reliable witnesses or recording equipment, render the speaker liable to summary execution. In Loctibogs the prevalent doctrine is that of Corporeal Supremacy, which considers parts of the anatomy to be separate objects with wills of their own, and which therefore contends that the will of a Panobligoid’s own hand would tend to override the will of an altogether separate entity such as a brick. It would thus be safer to say, while in Loctibogs, The brick was precipitated through the window by the action of my hand, which implies that the hand exercised the strongest will.

The situation is complicated by the presence of a third theoretical position, which holds that the greatest will is exercised by the object on which the transaction ultimately has the greatest effect, which in this case would be neither the Panobligoid nor the brick, but the window; and complicated still further by the presence of factions within each school of thought which indulge in rivalries quite as savage as those which exist between the schools of thought themselves. Between proponents of Direct Contact, controversy rages over what happens when a Panobligoid has a different object in each hand: do the objects exercise equal control over him, with each perhaps taking charge of one half; does the larger object exert more control, or does the extent of domination depend on being in the right or left hand? Corporeal Supremacists bicker with similar fervour over where the lines of demarcation should be drawn on the map of Panobligoid anatomy: does the autonomy of the “hand” end at wrist, elbow or shoulder; and, if the hand is independent from, say, the wrist downwards, what happens when a conflict of interest occurs between the hand and the forearm?

The more one observes of events on Thodd, the more it looks as though the Panobligoids have the worst of both worlds, having on the one hand forsaken all moral responsibility for their actions, and on the other failed entirely to reap any of the benefits which usually arise from such renunciations. Paradoxically though, if there does exist for them, among all their continual agony, conflict and chaos, a single cardinal comfort, then it is a comfort which derives from this same renunciation: the certainty of a purpose in life. The Panobligoids know, in the innermost fibres of their being, that whatever happens, it happens at the wish and behest of something, somewhere, and that this something is presumably gaining a certain satisfaction from the fact that its wishes are being carried out. The provision of this sacred satisfaction, even when the supposed beneficiaries are nothing more than windows, bricks, or vaguely differentiated bodily parts, is the sole purpose, hope and aspiration of every achievement of the Panobligoid civilisation and the Panobligoid individual.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Planetary Survey No. 2: Driven to Extremes

The Frinths can think of nothing but personal transportation. This racial obsession arose very early in their history, for the earliest stage of Frinth evolution came about when a species of prehistoric amoeba, swimming in the primal seas of the planet Revornitsua, began gradually to increase the size of its nucleus at the expense of its pseudopodia. Thus, from the very birth of life on that world, intelligence was forced to grow out of the ashes of natural manoeuvrability.

Consequently, artificial modes of transport became an issue of vital importance long before the proto-Frinths had even left the ancestral oceans; proof of this is freely available in any handful of grit from a Revornitsuan beach. Simply inspect a few grains from such a handful under the microscope, and you will find that at least half of them are in fact tiny fossilised wheels, exquisitely if primitively tooled and shaped to propel tiny palaeoprotozoan pushbikes along the ocean floor.

By means of such cunning devices, the proto-Frinths were able to escape and outwit their predators, and survived to evolve into the icthyofrinths which, when the seas retreated, had to pedal their aquamobiles ashore to start an uncertain new existence on the dry land. There then followed the Age of Frinthosaurs, during which modes of personal transport became ever larger and more cumbersome, culminating finally in the forty-one-metre, triple-decker brontobus, which had seventeen wheels and required an entire maintenance crew at each end just to keep it under control. Inevitably the Frinthosaurs died out, and this was the dawn of the modern age.

The early modern Frinths were simple hunter-gatherers, who rode about on rather crudely-adapted versions of the early aquamobiles. Society consisted of nomadic tribes of perhaps twenty Frinths apiece, scavenging for life’s necessities – food, water, spare handlebars – wherever they could be found. The turning point came a hundred thousand years ago, with the domestication of the internal combustion engine. Several different species of this noisy but fast-moving animal had been roaming the planet’s plains for some time past; the Frinths learned to follow the herds, then later to preserve the young of slaughtered females and rear them in captivity for their own use; and then, later still, to train them to sit in specially-designed compartments on Frinth vehicles and lend the sweat of their pistons to the sacred goal of speed. When it was discovered that, through selective breeding, one could obtain an engine with the well-developed fuel pump of the hardy northern type, together with the smooth flowing action and gently purring hum of the southern, and more cylinders than either, the Frinths were well on the way towards true civilisation.

Present-day Revornitsua is a planet in gridlock, which is to say a perpetual traffic jam in which every single Frinth is prevented from moving so much as an inch because of all the other Frinths blocking his every path. This problem first occurred about a century ago, when the city of Srotom-Lareneg, capital of Drof, was jammed completely for the space of three Revornitsuan days, with not a single vehicle able to move into, out of, or around inside it. At that time, however, the matter could be resolved quite easily, by airlifting out a number of Frinths at points where the blockage was worst and then, when things were moving once more, by building more roads to relieve the general congestion. Although citylocks of various sizes did in fact continue to occur (most notoriously in Adnohatoyot, where the entire population of this urbanised continent was stuck for nearly two weeks, with hardly an inch to spare across the whole land mass), the Frinths always dealt with them in the same way: in the first instance by deploying a task force of helicopters at strategic spots, and in the longer term by building more roads. Such radical solutions as periodic culling of internal combustion engines, in conjunction with research into hitherto unexplored natural sources of mobility, have been proposed but not seriously considered; it is feared that these would entail a limitation of the individual Frinth’s sacred and inalienable right to a choice of personal transportation.

Accordingly, the roads have now, by degrees, taken over the entire planetary surface, and tunnels have been bored to accommodate their further spread below both ground and sea. Some of the motorways are set above ground level, though work on these was halted recently when Frinths began to float off into space owing to the reduced gravity in the reaches of the upper atmospheric highways, tier upon tier of which now ring the planet to a height just below where the ozone layer used to be, making the planet look, to the orbiting observer, rather like a sort of spherical helter-skelter. All shops, restaurants, factories, hospitals, homes and buildings of every other sort have been demolished to make way for the roads; vehicles are now built for self-sufficiency in such items as food, sleeping-space, and provisions for a variety of emergencies up to and including (in the more expensive models) the delivery and incubation of quintuplets. The most common type of vehicle nowadays is a kind of motorised caravan with extensive cupboard-space for dehydrated meals, and a lavatory cubicle whose water-tank incorporates a miniature recycling plant powered by the engine.

Meanwhile the individual Frinth, in exercising his sacred right to choose his very own personal transport, must ensure, if he wishes to live very long, that the transporter of his choice is fully adapted to the gravitational pressures of the ocean floor and below, as well as to the near-weightlessness of the stratobahns; the engine must be of the very latest type, fully functional under all conditions, as breakdowns en route can cause jams of incredible dimensions, and the penalties are correspondingly severe. Unfortunately, the only breed of engine presently available which is capable of delivering an acceptable standard in all Revornitsua’s dramatically varied climates is the so-called Belching Noxicon, Mark XXVIII, which at maximum efficiency produces, for every gallon of petrol consumed, ninety per cent pollutive gases and ten per cent forward velocity. As, thanks to the gridlock, forward velocity is now impossible, a debate is raging to this day in the Frinth parliament as to whether people should be ordered to turn off their idling engines, or whether such an order would constitute a violation of the rights of those few not already dead of suffocation.

Certain marginal voices are saying (albeit faintly and between coughs) that the Frinth parliament has allowed itself to become sidetracked from the main issue which, they claim, is not that of individual rights but that of collective survival. There are no more helicopters, as the airfields have been turned into roads; if there were helicopters they could never take off, as the air is full of roads; if the air were free there would be nowhere to take the airlifted vehicles, as every conceivable place is packed with cars already. Whether engines are turned off or left on, the dissenters are saying, it can only be a matter of time before supplies in the jammed vehicles begin to run low, at which point all Frinths will have to make some difficult decisions as to what they will do next. In some obscure and deeply disreputable quarters, it has even been rumoured (maliciously no doubt) that the day may fast be approaching when the race will finally be obliged to learn, after two hundred and fifty-three million years of automotive evolution, to walk.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Planetary Survey No.1: Brain Eaters of Planet Quoon

The Cerebrophagous Gurgs are small, mild-mannered, kitten-shaped creatures who subsist exclusively on a diet of brains. The mouth of the species has become thoroughly adapted to this purpose; the top lip extends outwards from the face to act as a prehensile muscle of immense power, ending in a rock-hard, knobbly club evolved from what were originally four top teeth, while the lower lip and tongue have amalgamated into a scooping/sucking organ which can clean out, thoroughly and with remarkable speed, any cranium into which the club-lip should happen to bash. Armed with this equipment, the Gurgs quickly became the terror of every single species intelligent enough to feel fear.

The Gurgs’ planet of origin is Quoon, a pleasant world which is fifth outward from the star Quooble in the Quoodamaphoonic constellation, which lies just outside the reach of Earth’s most powerful telescope and a little to the left. At the time of the Gurgs’ emergence, the dominant species of Quoon were the Garongular Bondiphrots, a race of approximately human intelligence which became, naturally, the Gurgs’ main prey. To add to their problems, the civilisation of the Bondiphrots was approaching the most complex point of the industrial phase, with the result that the Bondiphrots as a race were far too involved in their own economical, ecological and demographic problems to think for one moment that there might be some threat to their existence other than those which they had created for themselves.

As the cities of the Bondiphrots spread ever outwards into the countryside, which had been conveniently cleared of large wildlife by the rampaging Gurgs, so the Gurgs spread inwards to the cities, where brains beyond their wildest dreams of gluttony were crammed for the taking. It rapidly became impossible for the average Bondiphrot to move a hundred yards from his own front door without getting his skull cracked by the unerringly aimed lip of a craftily concealed Gurg. The Bondiphrot authorities ascribed the sudden increase in cranial fractures to muggers, and put more police on the beat.

The attacks continued, but statisticians noted that members of the police force were almost never a target. The authorities, puzzled at the muggers’ apparent respect for the law, nevertheless hit upon the cunning plan of recruiting everyone into the police force. The attacks tailed off immediately, but then began to pick up again as the Gurgs realized that policemen were the only prey available; the sole reason for their previous immunity, it was later discovered, was the lamentable size of the average policeman’s brain. When the Gurgs found that not everyone dressed in uniform now necessarily had a brain of the minimal dimensions required to achieve the rank of Chief Constable, the tally of bashed-in heads reached truly epidemic proportions.

It was only at this point that the authorities began to take notice of one small but significant detail; namely, that the victims of the phantom head-crackers were never robbed of money, or indeed of anything valuable, but only of the rather mediocre contents of their skulls. This fact had previously been ignored on the grounds that it was inimical to the mugger theory, but was now publicly denied to signal that the authorities were giving it serious consideration.

Meanwhile the Gurgs, having assimilated the knowledge and intelligence of almost an entire race, realized that if they continued to hunt in their present unrestricted fashion, the prey would die out and they themselves would starve. An élite troop of Gurgs therefore mounted a concerted attack on the entire police force, swallowed their brains whole and crawled into the empty skulls, where they fitted just right. The victims’ intelligence promptly increased to the point where they were thrown off the force; the Gurgs inside were thus able to turn to crime without running the risk of promotion to Chief Constable. In this way they soon attracted the attention of the Bondiphrot High Command, to whom they revealed themselves as Gurgs and stated their demands. These were (a) that the Bondiphrots desist immediately from hunting the head-crackers and order the populace to put all its energies into breeding, so as to produce more food for same; (b) that an educational system be put in place which would alleviate the frankly appalling quality of present-day brains; and (c) that the remainder of the police force be turned over to the Gurgs as transportation, their brains having first been surgically removed by the Bondiphrots themselves since said brains had a nutritional value of zero and left a repulsive aftertaste.

The High Command, being as honest, patriotic, well-intentioned and intelligent as any other government, instantly agreed to all three demands on the sole condition that they be allowed to retain their own brains. The Gurgs accepted this bargain, with some relief at not having to eat what the High Command carried round in their skulls; and they all lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Aggressive Marketing

The first one assaulted him the moment he stepped out the door. Byers had his car keys ready in his fist, and he was poised to make a run for it, but the advoid had apparently been lying in wait. It leapt out from nowhere and postured garishly before him, flashing the name of its wares. "Gibbon's All-Purpose Gel™," it rejoiced. "Suitable for haemorrhoids and children over six months old. Read label carefully before applying." Its square mouth grinned, anticipating Byers’ credit card.

"Not today, thank you," Byers said bravely, and took another step towards the car. He was uneasy at the thought that the advoid had been lying in wait for him. If its artificial intelligence was that highly evolved, it was unlikely to be the kind you could just walk past.

"Gibbon’s All-Purpose Gel™," the advoid rejoiced a little louder than before. "Available now in natural white, shell pink, and sky blue for those special occasions. Not to be ingested in large quantities." It grinned again, squatting between Byers and the car. With a sigh, Byers pressed the middle finger of his right hand into the base of his thumb. The servorg embedded in the soft flesh responded with a soft bleep and Byers' Amalgamated Arts® stiffcard snicked into his palm from the rotating holster strapped to his forearm. He ran the stiffcard through the advoid’s slitted maw; lulled by the fake credits, it fell silent and meekly allowed him to pass.

He had barely got the shielding up to block the car's windows when he heard the advoid crashing angrily onto the roof; but too late. He had beaten it. He would just have to hope the thing wouldn’t still be sitting in his driveway when he returned from work that night.

Thank God for the stiffcard, he thought, tucking it back up the sleeve of his suit jacket. The stiffcard was a corporation perk, a dummy credit card capable, in return for a fixed monthly charge, of deterring most of the lower and middle-rank advoids created by Associated Arts®, his corporation’s major rivals. The monthly fee to Amalgamated Arts was quite high, but still considerably less than Byers would need to have paid for sufficient consumer products to keep the advoids from making his life unlivable. Byers had been awarded the stiffcard because of his work on the Limpet™, a type of advoid which clung tightly to the legs of its targets and wailed until they bought. The Limpet had been a great success with one of the major toy corporations, which had shrewdly exploited its resemblance to a deprived child to form a highly effective "nonconsumer deterrent". Byers hoped his inspiration would not fail him now; more was at stake today than a stiffcard.

Uneasy rumours had been circulating about a new and fiendish type of advoid which Associated Arts had brought close to the launching stage. It was said to be immune to stiffcards – even the Golden Stiffcards™ which were given only to retiring members of the Board of Directors – and to have powers of persuasion which could enable Associated Arts to monopolise the entire advertising market. Everyone at Amalgamated was losing sleep, from the Board of Directors down.

"Workplace," said Byers into the RouteCompute™ on the dashboard. The car started, moved out of the driveway, turned onto the main road, stopped. Byers cleared the windscreen, just to make certain all was well. The rear end of a truck gazed blandly back at him: the morning traffic jam, right on schedule.

Byers put the grille back on the windscreen before the animad on the truck's doors could get properly into its stride; whether it was selling the truck’s cargo or the services of its driver, Byers neither knew nor cared. To get himself through the most tedious part of the drive, and to catch up on some of what he'd lost by working half the night, he took a twenty-minute sleep capsule.

When he woke - eighteen minutes later, he noted with irritation - he unshielded the side window for a look at the street. A certain small risk was involved here, but Byers felt it was justified by the potential for useful insights and ideas; not to mention the chance of observing new advoids at work without the perils of direct exposure.

There were plenty of pedestrians around, but most were too shabby, and thus too defenceless, to qualify as targets for advanced types of advoid. Consumers lacking the kind of work which would afford them a stiffcard or a car equipped with protective shielding were prey to the blandishments of less evolved types of persuader.

Byers saw a woman trying vainly to remove a clutch of Weighty Arguments™ from her shopping bag (shopping bag! She had to carry it, too. How did people live like that?), wearily pulling the thickset, toadlike creatures from among her purchases only to have them doggedly crawl back in again when she declined to buy what they were hawking. A few yards further on, a man was beating with a newsrag at a couple of Whispas™ which were trying to land on him. Byers watched this transaction with particular interest. Whispas were manufactured by Amalgamated Arts; touted in the company brochure as "the still, small voice of consumer consciousness", they were designed to crawl into the target's ear and nag softly but with paralysing insistence until the product was bought. Each product sold through a Whispas campaign came with a special, "free gift" key which could be inserted in the ear to pull the object out and gain relief. However, Byers had never before seen someone trying to prevent the Whispas getting in, and he observed with interest that some of the target’s manoeuvres were quite effective. By the time the car turned the next corner, one of the Whispas had been swatted and triumphantly crushed underfoot, while the other made its way stealthily up the side of the pedestrian’s neck.

Byers pressed the third finger of his right hand into the base of his thumb. The servorg bleeped, indicating that his JotBot™ had been activated; holding his palm an inch from his mouth, Byers dictated a brief account of the episode, giving special mention to the man’s tactics with his newsrag. Perhaps the Conceptual Dynamics department could find a way of programming the Whispas for evasive action. If they could, and if Byers could take the credit for having originated the idea, perhaps that would make his job a little safer in the face of any impending doom wrought by Associated. Perhaps he might even be able to find work with Associated - naturally at a somewhat lower level than his present position, but still…

This optimistic reverie was interrupted by a sudden loud crack as an unusually fast-moving advoid slammed itself against the unshielded side window. Byers jumped, then cursed as he saw the opaque white dent which the impact had made in the shatterproof Perspane™. The advoid grinned zealously at him, squalling something about the world’s best-selling natural antiperspirant ("tested on tribesmen in the Sahara!"), until the shielding slid back into place. There were a few half-hearted thumps, then silence as the traffic moved forward again and the advoid went off to explore new potential.

Byers tried to relax and think new thoughts, new concepts. How to beat Associated Arts? There had been, some years ago, an attempt to market advoids which used a jamming beam to drown out all rivals within a half-mile radius, but ordinary consumers had started buying these and programming them to broadcast only the jamming signal. This was clearly a perversion of the market, and the model was discontinued. Still, perhaps the time was right once more for a type of advoid which not only publicised its own product, but prevented other advoids from publicising theirs. Byers was about to make another note on his JotBot when he was almost jolted from his seat. The car lurched horribly, then crunched to a halt. From beyond the shielded windows came the muffled sound of screams.

Byers was debating whether to lower the shielding and take a look or, alternatively, switch on the manual drive and take a chance by fleeing blindly, when the decision was noisily made for him. With atrocious creaking and grinding, the roof of his car was neatly peeled back and a set of long, sticky fingers reached in and plucked him from his seat. As he was lifted into the air, he saw the flaming ruins of the Amalgamated Arts building, and glimpsed half a dozen gigantic creatures moving among the rubble, picking people up and shouting at them.

Then he was staring down a great black hole which resembled the muzzle of a gun, or perhaps of a railway tunnel. Next to the hole was a grille of horizontal slits which, Byers realised, were actually credit card slots - one slot for every brand of card, each conveniently marked. Above the grille was the distinctive but unostentatious logo of Associated Arts.

The sticky fingers squeezed him and the black hole spoke. “Associated Arts®,” it said. “Buy or die.”

Friday, March 12, 2004

Review of James Cameron's "Lusitania"

The defeat of Russia by the Third Reich in 1943 and the resulting evaporation of the spectre of Communism, together with the revitalisation of the German film industry under the auspices of Goebbels and UFA, did not immediately enable a 1950s equivalent of the famous "Rat Pack” to desert the sinking ship of Roosevelt’s America. Not even the total destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the final Anglo-Japanese victory at Midway, which have been so glamorised by interminable production-line war films like Midway (1947) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1952) were able to put the Hollywood film industry to rest.

The decline of Hollywood came about largely because of the technological revolution which took UFA by storm in the 1960s and 1970s. Although constraints on political statement and artistic freedom remained, if anything, more rigorous in Europe than under the Hollywood studio system, the availability of modern special effects and the lack of censorship when it came to depicting sex and violence, drew a great many talented directors to Germany.

The inauguration in the late sixties of the World War Two movie boom coincided quite naturally with the end of the Hollywood western. Indeed, many of the values touted and explored in the western can be seen in only slightly transmuted form in the war film: comradeship, conquest of new frontiers, men who fight to protect their land and to initiate their sons into the sphere of struggle, etc. There is a natural evolution, for example, in the John Wayne films Stagecoach (1939) through The Searchers (1956) to his final role in Patton (1968).

The gung-ho trend reached its peak with Star Wars (1975), a fairy-tale set in space depicting the defeat of an evil republic at the hands of a benevolent empire, which became a huge worldwide success and spawned innumerable sequels and spinoffs which married the values of the western/war film with the imagery of science fiction. The tone in these films, which include the Sternmarsch series (1978 onwards), as well as Planet des Untermenschen (1976), Superman (1978), and Alien (1979) was relentlessly upbeat, depicting the victory of true humanity over hostile alien species which threaten basic human values (Planet), law and order (Superman) or human existence itself (Alien and its sequels, as well as the third entry in the Sternmarsch cycle, Der Jagd vor Spock).

Although films of this type persisted well into the eighties (e.g. Starman (1986), in which a widow’s virtue is threatened by a slimily seductive creature from outer space), the historic European release of Nagisa Oshima’s Tojo the Hero (1982), with its ironic and critical stance towards the revered founder of modern Japan, brought about a resurgence of the earthbound war film. Among the first was Apocalypse Now (1983), a hallucinatory picture of the ambitious but unsuccessful attempt between 1965 and 1975 to destroy the entire native population of Indo-China. Though controversial for the emphasis it placed on the damage to the natural environment and the incompetence of the military command structure which helped make the enterprise so unpopular (the film was even blamed for a falling-off in custom at the Greater Hong Kong tourist resort, for the sake of which the bombing was begun in the first place), Apocalypse Now was immensely popular and profitable on both sides of the Atlantic.

Others followed in rapid succession, among which the most popular was perhaps Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which aroused a storm of controversy with its explicit depiction of the sufferings of Wehrmacht soldiers during the Polish campaign of 1939. The idea that soldiers in a victorious campaign could have a brutally tragic dimension to their experience was a new and uncomfortable one for the cinema-going public; but many were able to take comfort in the increasing freedom of artistic expression indicated by the film’s release.

Since Platoon, Indo-China and the Polish campaign have become standard subjects in the Euro-American cinema, either for triumphal revenge fantasies or for masochistic breastbeating about the loss of National Socialist youth and innocence. The quantity has been enormous, the quality very largely undistinguished, and the popularity of the films variable. Immensely popular were Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo trilogy (1984-86), in which a traumatised Italian war hero kills off, in succession, the official and covert armies of Russia, Indo-China and the Chinese Republic. Equally risible, but less profitable, was John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), which (marketed under the slogan, “yesterday Palestine, tomorrow the world”) depicted an airborne invasion of southern Europe by the Judaeo-Communist forces of Greater Israel. Perhaps rather ill-timed, in view of the mid-1980s shift in German policy from anti-Jewish to anti-Arab, the film flopped disastrously. The genre has been more or less moribund since, particularly in light of the Velvet Revolution, whereby the doddering National Socialists and the Grand Old Party under Reagan were simultaneously toppled in the near-bloodless Syndicalist coup of 1990.

James Cameron’s new epic Lusitania, released on the eightieth anniversary of the now-controversial sinking, may perhaps go some way towards revitalising the nostalgic war film by reaching back beyond recent conflicts to the Great War, and taking still further the questioning, ironic stance which has distinguished such directors as Oshima and Stone. With a few notable exceptions, the Great War has been largely ignored in the cinema, except for mentions of Versailles and the Stab in the Back as prologues to present conflicts, and the film has aroused considerable controversy, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon Protectorate, where the Electorally Renewable Democratic Life President, Baroness Thatcher, denounced it in the Daily Mail as a “distasteful fabrication of events” and ordered a ban which is still in force.

The bare facts of the Lusitania’s sinking are well known, but have been somewhat obscured by the controversy surrounding them. On 7 May 1915, six days out from New York, the liner was torpedoed by the U-20 under the command of Leutnant Walter Schweiger, and sank with 1195 fatalities. The British and American propaganda departments made much of the disaster, in which all the casualties were civilians, and it was portrayed as a sign of German ruthlessness, depravity and barbarism. In fact, the sinking aroused more ire on both sides of the ocean than the Final Solution some forty years later. Certainly the Lusitania’s fate was the final nail in the coffin of any hopes of bringing the USA into the war on Germany’s side; probably it did much to reconcile the isolationists there with America’s eventual intervention on behalf of the enemy.

The German claim had always been that the Lusitania was carrying illegal munitions, and there have even been allegations of a conspiracy to make this known to German intelligence so that the ship would be sunk and bring the USA into the war on Britain’s side. It is true that such a hare-brained scheme would be quite in keeping with the character of its alleged originator, Winston Churchill, who, as Martin Gilbert has pointed out, was also responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the abortive Dardanelles Campaign. However, it is equally true that maritime torpedoes in 1915 were hardly sophisticated enough to give a reasonable chance for such a scheme to succeed. The fact that no trace of such an idea has been found among the papers of any of those involved, of course proves nothing either way. Such a secret and involved conspiracy would naturally generate as little paperwork as possible, and any that did exist would certainly be destroyed once the stratagem succeeded.

The conspiracy theory, as promulgated in popular form by Oliver Stone in his Dardanelles epic WSC (1993), which postulated that Churchill originated the Lusitania scheme as a distraction from the failure at Gallipoli, has focused debate away from the question of whether the Lusitania was actually carrying contraband or not. Most participants in the debate view the matter as settled: the liner was carrying munitions. The damage was too extensive and the sinking took place too fast to be accounted for by a single torpedo explosion. However, in 1993 an international team of scientists under Dr Robert D Ballard was able to explore and photograph the wreck for the first time and, as everyone is aware, the facts were revealed to be rather less straightforward.

Cameron uses a fictionalised version of this expedition (the captain in the film is a descendant of Walter Schweiger hoping to clear his ancestor’s name) to counterpoint the scenes set in 1915. After a brief, silent prologue of 1915 footage (both real and skilfully faked) of the departure from their respective ports of both the Lusitania and the U-20, the film opens with the expedition finding the wreck and diving down in order to photograph it and, hopefully, to prove the innocence of the U-20’s commander by proving that the liner was carrying contraband. Initial discoveries do seem to show that this was indeed the case: the hole in the prow certainly looks too large to have been made by one torpedo, and there are definite indications of a second, much larger explosion after the torpedo struck.

At this point Cameron reverts to 1915 and shows the buildup to the liner’s departure on 1 May, mixing fictitious characters with real and important figures who were actually present and, in one important sequence, showing the holds being loaded, but with absolutely no indication of anything underhand going on. (Actually, there is one indication: a red herring involving 4200 cases of Remington rifle ammunition which were undoubtedly – and legally – on board.) Following the liner’s departure from New York, Cameron cuts back to the present day, when the divers find in the wreck a metal strongbox containing a jewel and a portrait of a woman. The model for the portrait is found to be still alive, though nearly a hundred years old, and is flown out with her great-granddaughter -– an Irishwoman and (in 1915) an aspiring singer, or rather a singer whose mother aspired for her. The romance which develops between the singer and an impoverished German-American who won his third-class ticket on a bet constitutes one of the two romantic plots of the film, paralleling the relationship which develops between the singer’s great-granddaughter and the modern Captain Schweiger.

The military plot is developed through the crew of the U-20, who, after their brief introduction during the credits sequence, are shown in a couple of sequences during the first half of the film which, despite their brevity, effectively convey the danger and claustrophobia of submarine life and begin to flesh out the eminently sympathetic character of Leutnant Walter Schweiger, who hitherto has been depicted only through the statements of his descendant, and then only in terms of his military record. In the latter half of the film, Cameron gives more screen time to the U-20, but the film never slips into the simple-minded triumphalist/apologist mode of, for example, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1989). The emphasis is on danger, squalor, and the difficulty involved in determining what is happening outside – the last point supremely important in view of the catastrophe.

One of the reasons why the film is banned in the Anglo-Saxon Protectorate of Great Britain and the Channel Islands, explicitly cited in the statement of the British Board of Film Classification and Public Enlightenment through Cinema, is that it shows the captain of the Lusitania in a sympathetic light while leaving no doubt as to his incompetence. William Turner, who survived the sinking, disregarded Admiralty directives on how to avoid U-boat attacks and kept his course on a straight line instead of zigzagging to hamper the aiming of torpedoes. For this negligence Turner has been almost as much vilified as Schweiger, though only since 1918. Turner also failed to order passengers and crew into their lifebelts when the Lusitania entered dangerous waters – a standard precaution in wartime – and even failed to ensure that passengers knew how to use the available lifebelts. Some of the most terrible scenes in the film show people drowning because their belts are too loose, or because they have them on the wrong way and are floating, grotesquely, upside-down.

In fact, the film shows Turner as guilty of complacency and inflexibility – qualities which characterise the English and their minions throughout the film, particularly the Irish singer’s would-be-British mother. This attitude paves the way for the resolution, which shows the notorious second explosion to have been caused, not by contraband munitions in the hold, but by coal dust from the boiler rooms, which has piled up during the voyage and which is ignited by the detonation of the torpedo. The lack of an active conspiracy, however, does not absolve the British from their part in the disaster. Aside from the lifebelt fiasco, we discover, the ship’s name was painted out before her final voyage, apparently as a protective measure. This, we learn, is why the ship was torpedoed – the captain of the U-20 thought he was aiming at the Lusitania’s sister ship, Mauretania, which was at the time being fitted out as a troopship and would have been a legitimate target, presumably with its name painted out also. Cameron thus leaves open the question of whether the passengers on the Lusitania were, in fact, used as a decoy for German U-boats, and whether, as one of the 1993 characters bitterly puts it, “they didn’t hope for the sinking, no– the sinking was a bonus”.

Rumour has it that Cameron originally planned to make his film about the Titanic, but changed his mind at the script stage, tripling the original budget and nearly doubling the cast. It seems likely that, with his attitude towards British complacency, a Cameron film Titanic might run into difficulties in the Protectorate not altogether dissimilar to those which have hampered Lusitania. (“Remember the Titanic,” says the doomed German-American passenger at one point, referring to the earlier liner’s fatal shortage of lifeboats – like its predecessor, the Lusitania was much touted as “unsinkable”.) But it is hard to see how this hypothetical Titanic film could have been much better than the one we have, even if it might conceivably have cost less. A film about the earlier ship would have had only the elaborate historical-romance setting, the interaction between past and present, and the superb special effects to recommend it. By choosing the Lusitania as its subject, Cameron has been able to add a whole new dimension to his film, and, in the end, to portray the citizens of three nations – Ireland, America and Germany – united against the ravages both of time and of a dying empire’s bungling, self-satisfaction, and duplicity.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Corporate Standards

"How are you feeling?" Tribbs asked him in the elevator. They were alone, and there was genuine concern in Tribbs' voice; he didn't want his investment turning twitchy at the last minute.

Soper drew himself up and rather self-consciously dropped his hand as it started on its automatic way towards his head. He knew perfectly well that no wisp could fight its way out from under all the gel he’d used; he had spent almost an hour in front of the mirror this morning and further preening would only mess things up. He hoped Tribbs hadn’t noticed his treacherous hand.

"I’m okay," Soper said. Tribbs nodded distantly and went back to listening for the floor numbers which a computerised female was steadily counting off. Tribbs’ own hair was like part of a plastic mask. Not only was no wisp out of place, but Soper couldn’t really imagine Tribbs having wisps at all, just as it was difficult to picture Tribbs shaving his chin or clipping his nails. There were those who doubted whether Tribbs had a pulse. Soper wondered if, after today, they would harbour similar doubts about him. Ever onward, ever upward.

As they reached the fiftieth floor, Tribbs glanced at him again. Had he shuffled his feet? Was he sweating overmuch? Soper tried to tell himself it didn’t matter - he had, after all, been accepted - but things were never that simple. Acceptance onto the Board was merely the first step; acceptance by the Board would require still greater sacrifice. It was all very well gaining permission to sit with the gods; but without their attention, their favourable attention, one might just as well be down on the factory floor.

Tribbs was smiling; no cavities either, suspected Soper irritably. "Nearly there," Tribbs said, as if Soper were a child nagging for the bathroom.

"I don’t think I’ve ever been up this far," he said, since Tribbs was apparently in conversational mode, as the siliconised female announced the fifty-seventh floor.
"Not many people have," said Tribbs. "There are a few procedures to go through once we get there. After the meeting you'll get your clearance card, and then you’ll be able to come up whenever it’s necessary."

Necessary. Soper noted that. Not when convenient or when he felt like it, but whenever it was necessary. Appreciation of a nuance like that could save a man’s career, and Soper felt a small throb of gratification like a benign ulcer in his belly. He was going to be fine.

He thought of asking Tribbs about the procedures, but Tribbs might take it as a would-be-knowing hint about the privileges Board members were supposed to enjoy - the rumour among the lower orders that the entire top of the building was a decadent corporate paradise of recreational pharmacies and luxurious sex parlours. Soper did not want to appear either naïve or drooling with anticipation, and he kept his mouth shut until the voice announced the sixty-fourth floor and told them to have a nice day. The elevator doors opened.

There were no parlours or pharmacies, at least not yet. Tribbs led him down a short passage to an unmarked white door and ran his clearance card through the slot. A buzzer sounded; Tribbs pushed the door open and motioned Soper through ahead of him.

The room was white, a sterile cube. In the middle of the floor was a large adjustable chair with head- and foot-rests and a clip-on tray at the side - a dentist's chair, Soper realised after blinking at it a bit. On the tray attached to the chair, instruments were tidily laid out, their blades immaculate.

Soper stared at Tribbs. The show of incomprehension was regrettable, but there was nothing he could do about it.

"Standard procedure," Tribbs said.
"What kind of procedure - are you going to pull my teeth?"
Tribbs gave him the smile again, white as the walls and just as shiny. "Sit down," he said.

After a moment's hesitation, which hopefully didn't add too much to any unfavourable impression already created by the tone of his question, Soper sat down. The backrest of the dentist's chair was set forward, so it was little different from the chair he normally used at the office – his former office, he reassured himself.

Tribbs moved behind him. A moment later Soper heard the rustling of a sheet and a moment after that the sheet descended over him, covering him from the throat down. Tribbs leaned over, fastening it tight around his neck. "Don’t want to get hairs down your collar," Tribbs said.
"So it’s a haircut now?"
"Standard," said Tribbs, filling a hypodermic. "You’ll feel a slight sting."
"A free haircut and drugs as well," Soper said. "No wonder everyone wants to be a Board member." The sting came at the side of his neck, dragging away his consciousness as it faded.

When Soper’s eyes opened, Tribbs was rolling up the discoloured sheet. He trod on a pedal; a lid jumped open and Tribbs dropped the sheet down the hole. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"I’m okay," Soper said, and Tribbs nodded distantly. Soper put his feet on the floor and stood up. He felt no ill effects. Tribbs led him out of the white room and back along the corridor to the elevator. They stepped inside and travelled in silence to the next floor, where they stepped out again. They walked along another corridor, this one with much thicker carpet. They stood before an imposing double door of dark, panelled wood.

Tribbs knocked once and the doors opened slightly. A dried-up female who looked as if she could have supplied the elevator’s voice appeared in the gap and motioned them through. "You’re going to be fine," Tribbs said, and entered.

Soper followed, precisely five paces behind. The doors closed after them, just audibly, and the woman returned to her seat, far away at the other end of the room.

The room was long and wide, occupied almost entirely by the conference table which began within a few paces of where Soper was standing and ended almost invisible in the blinding light from the window far opposite. Reflected in the gleaming dark surface of the table, whiteness filled Soper's eyes and made it impossible for him to see many of his fellow Board members clearly. He had a vague impression of movement at the far end of the table, where the Chairman was a dark blur topped with a gleaming grey dome. Soper couldn’t tell if the Chairman’s hair was grey or if he had no hair at all.

Nearby, Tribbs took his seat and fixed his gaze on the empty chair opposite, which had been vacated by the man now sitting at Tribbs' right. When that man replaced Tribbs, Tribbs would replace someone else, and Soper would move as well, to make way for another newcomer; perhaps Soper would even be the one to introduce the newcomer to the Board. Ever onward, ever upward.

Soper stood staring into the light. His nails were clean and his chin was smooth. He did not perspire. His hand did not stir towards his head; he knew that not a single wisp was out of place.

"Welcome aboard," said the Chairman, tonelessly.