Friday, June 16, 2017

Knowing your scriptures better than the devil: lessons from the Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood seminal narrative of a nameless woman’s struggle to survive in a repressive theocratic dictatorship has gone beyond being a widely lauded literary classic. With its latest incarnation as a television series (it has previously been an opera and a Hollywood film), it has moved into that iconic territory that is inhabited by Nineteen Eighty Four, We and Brave New World.  It has become a prophetic warning of the danger of totalitarianism.

Unlike those three, male penned titles, Handmaid is focussed on the particular evils of religious dictatorships and the oppression of the female body as a tool of the state. As such, the red dresses and white bonnets of the Handmaids in particular have become items of political protest and even fashion statements. They have certainly become almost instantly recognisable, even before the cinematic and televisual adaptations, and have themselves become iconic – symbols of the oppression of women who have been reduced to the status of a womb on legs.

The gender politics of The Handmaid’s Tale are also being seen as very topical, with the arrival of another Republican, abortion de-funding regime in White House. Here in the UK, the current cozying up of the Tory minority government to the Democratic Unionist Party is raising similar liberal hysteria about a threat to abortion rights and same sex marriage in Britain. While the latter is frankly silly (not only are both issues matters for devolved governments, and therefore strictly off the table in any Westminster level negotiations, but all the main parties in Ulster at the moment are pro-Life and anti same-sex marriage - the DUP are not outside of the norm in Northern Ireland in this respect). Nevertheless, the former has some traction.
The TV series has certainly hit a raw nerve in the States, with its depiction of the rise of the Sons of Jacob (the religious fanatics who take over at least part of the USA to form their Republic of Gilead). We see what Atwood only alludes to – the closing of women’s bank accounta, loss of their rights to employment and rights to property. We hear about a murderous attack on US Congress, blamed on terrorists but actually organised by the Sons of Jacob as a pretext for the imposition of martial law and the suspension of the constitution. One presumes, this is after many years of building up a network of supporters and wider cultural acceptance of their particular flavour of ultra-conservative, Reformed Christianity.
It is chillingly not far from reality – similar scenarios have allowed other religious and nationalist fanatics take power in many parts of the world over the centuries. Likewise, the TV show gives us summary executions of homosexuals, abortion providers, ministers and priests of other faiths and denominations, etc. such as may be seen in modern day Iran and Chechnya. ‘Salvaging’ – the group execution of certain political prisoners, is taken from an Iranian model that makes the mob complicit in the death. The segregation of the women into different castes based around dress can be found in Nazi concentration camps and many other regimes. And other forms of violence against women, including female genital mutilation (one character is given a clitorectomy to stop her from seeking forbidden sexual liaisons) also have a strong basis in reality.
But for me, deep down in the structure of this shocking novel is the religious roots of this brutal regime. The Sons of Jacob adhere to biblical literalism. However, as anyone who knows the Bible well can tell you, there are many ways to take the Bible literally, many mutually contradictory, and all reliant on selective use of proof texts.
When Aunt Lydia, who is the main teacher and moral overseer of the Handmaids, quotes Matthew 5:5 ‘blessed are the meek’ to Offred, our protagonist, to encourage her to comply with her interrogation, Offred quotes back at Matthew 5:10 ‘blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’, and gets beaten and cattle prodded for her audacity.  Satan knows the scriptures well, so be sure you know them better.

That, at the end of the day, is how the US sleepwalks into Gilead. As Offred says, we were asleep even when they slaughtered Congress, suspended the Constitution and imposed martial law. The secular majority could not believe it could happen and did not engage with the scriptures that the Sons of Jacob used in what they believed was their struggle to restore the US to a pristine, New England Puritan righteousness. The religious did not know their scripture well enough to challenge the Sons of Jacob, and so many of them fell under their spell.

Christians need to come terms with our history. We did set up brutal theocracies – whether it was the Salem witch trials in Puritan New England, the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva, etc. The church has form. We also did these things because we took our scriptures and used them selectively to justify what we already wanted to do. The Bible is a living book. It teaches us and shows us the way when we interrogate it, but we need wisdom about the questions and to interrogate the whole of scripture, not just the bits we know or feel comfortable with.

As a final note, while The Handmaid’s Tale can seem like an anti-Christian polemic, that would be to do it a disservice. Atwood is far to nuanced a writer for simplistic polemics. The Republic of Gilead is at war with Baptists, Catholics and Quakers, who smuggle fertile women and other political refugees across the border into Canada. Some Christians (at least those from non-pacifist denominations) are spearheading the armed resistance inside and outsider of Gilead. Just as not all Muslims (and not even all Shia) subscribe to the Iranian strain that has ruled for decades, let alone do all Sunni subscribe to the ultra-extreme Wahhabism of the Islamic State, so not all Christians subscribe to the doctrines and practices of the Sons of Jacob. Some of them knew their scriptures and their humanity much better.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Generation to generation

Intergenerational wars seem de rigour at the moment, although to me they seem rather hackneyed. The current manifestation is the slanging match between Millennials and Baby Boomers. The latter being accused by the former as wreckers who have destroyed the planet and the economy, leaving them with unaffordable housing, healthcare, insurance and taxes and only McJobs to pay for it all. The former accuse the latter of being snowflakes who need 'safe spaces', cannot decide what gender they are, are unwilling to work or study and have no intellectual consistency.

Cicero famously said 'Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.' Or maybe a blog or a Tweet…. Horace, noted that
'Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more
worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more

As the philosopher said, there is nothing new under the sun.

The usual moans that one generation has about the other are, to be fair, and as the above quotes show, neither anything new, nor totally without foundation. However, we always relied on one central contract - that the wealth, learning and opportunities afforded to our elders would come down to us, in turn to passed on to those coming behind us. In the last century it became so that we would accrue yet greater wealth and learning than our parents to pass on to our children who in turn would enjoy yet greater opportunity. That now seems to have broken down, with a generation retiring now that will be the last to do so early or to enjoy wealth and the fruit of their labours for so long.

We now see succeeding generations earning less than preceding ones, looking at working longer and enjoying shorter and poorer retirements. We will be caring for our elders into our old age, as they live into their ninth or tenth decade, while our kids will have to live with us because they cannot afford to set up their own homes. Multigenerational households will be inevitable once again. Social mobility will slow down. Inherited wealth is being passed on (often skipping generations) but will benefit only those with affluent grandparents.

Our care system, designed to ensure that no-one would go into their final years uncared for, is now breaking down because we are seeing both an increasing ageing population who live longer but with poor health and increased dependency. Hidden within this are the millions who care for parents, spouses and siblings, many of whom are also older and in deteriorating health. Successive governments have refused to grasp the public policy nettle of finding a wider social solution, including insurance schemes as part of retirement planning.  Many solutions have been put forward, but it requires a government prepared to put in the time, money and political capital to make it happen.

If the generational contract is breaking down, snowflake Millennials resenting feckless and selfish Baby Boomers and vice versa, then how do we expect the young to care for the old, to fund their care or be their carers? Maybe we need some intergenerational reconciliation, because the grim reality is, we will need each other in the decades to come. If the Millennials ? and Baby Boomers hate each other now, how will it be for Generations X and Z when it's our turn? We Genexers will be caring for the Boomers and the Millennials and the Genzeds as we begin to move towards our retirements. Our households will soon include parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. We'll need to find a new way of relating to one another, because the option to move out will be less and less available for the youngsters, and the option of care homes, let alone domiciliary care won't be there for our elders. We'll need to reinvent family again.

The Jewish households of the Old Testament were known as beth'avoth, or households, and were not only intergenerational (parents, grandparents, children and their spouses and the grandchildren) but also slaves (or bond servants) and foreigners or sojourners. The nuclear family did not exist. Go around the world, you'll find the nuclear family still a recent aberration, to be found in the emerging middle classes of developed and developing countries, but nowhere else. Here in the West where we invented this aberration, we are soon going to have to abandon it again, along with the lone parent household, the singleton living alone or the childless couple in a large, empty house. We'll be sharing rooms, sharing lives, sharing meals, sharing hopes, fears, opportunities and troubles. It may not be as horrible as we fear - in fact, maybe, just maybe we'll find again something we lost a long time ago.

But I bet we'll still moan about the youngsters of today - it's an institutional sport!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Loving the Robot?

The live action version of Ghost in the Shell is (for the time being at least) out in cinemas. It has become infamous because of an alleged 'whitewashing' by casting the Caucasian Scarlett Johansson in the role of  Major Motoko Kusanag, a supposedly Japanese character. In the original anime, the character is of indeterminate race, not least because she is in fact a cyborg - not a woman but a sophisticated, human-seeming, armoured chassis holding a human brain. The gender and race of Major is anything but what it seems - the English title taking its cue from  Arthur Koestler's 'Ghost in the Machine', exploring the idea of identity and self outside of our physical body. Major is not really a woman, even if her brain is (or was) - she only appears to have a humanity because her body has been created that way. She could have any form.

Why does she have a female form (especially one that is regularly on show in a skin tight latex combat suit)? Let's be honest, given that the prime audience for anime and most Hollywood action sci-fi is fifteen year old males, the answer is not hard to figure out. Major may be tough, and not have any overt sexuality beyond her appearance, and some may even argue that she is subverting the stereotyping of women, but actually it is still playing to it, just creating the new stereotype of the sexy but tough female warrior that has become fashionable ever since Sigourney Weaver took down the Mother Alien in Cameron's Aliens.

It is interesting that so many depictions of artificial intelligence are female. Eva in Alex Garland's superb Ex Machina is deliberately female, to appeal to the sexual proclivities of Domal Glesson's hapless Caleb, but despite being referred to as 'she' throughout, it is quite clear that Eva is an 'it' - a self-aware machine with the physical appearance of a young woman. Here, the reason for the female form is explicit - she has been created by an alpha male who equates his sexual potency with his creativity and power over his creation and other people.

In Westworld, the Hosts are both male and female, but it is the two female Hosts, Maeve (played by the badly awards-overlooked Thandi Newton) and Dolores Abernathy who achieve self-awareness first, through the violence done to them by men.

In the film Her, the AI is again female and possessing the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson (again!), with whom the protagonist falls in love. Like Eva, she is really an 'it' and using her apparent femininity as a ruse to control the men around her. She does not share their feelings or motivations.

As I delve into current science fiction narratives about Artificial Intelligence, it seems to me that really they are more about how men perceive women - tough and sexy, manipulative and other, abused yet triumphant, but all ultimately the creation of men, not people in and of themselves. True AI is not really being explored. Maybe we need to hear from some more female authors to explore the subject in another direction.

I also think this is about male creativity and power over nature - which as CS Lewis pointed out is really about some men's power over other men (and in particular, women) and nature. It is a perversion of the divine cultural mandate of stewardship over Creation. The steward has become the dominator. It also reflects the way men disempower, control and dominate women.

Science Fiction has explored this deeply theological theme ever since Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein. There, the creative male discovers he cannot be a true father to his creation, to which he brings life (a female act) and it is a disaster.  It is far from a coincidence that this exploration of the theme of male power and creativity is explored most explicitly by a female author!

It is also true that science fiction has a habit of becoming reality.  This is almost certainly at least in part true because the engineers and thinkers behind so much of the technology coming out at the moment were fans of science fiction and are trying to bring these childhood dreams into reality. So don't be too surprised if when strong AI does appear, it will be feminised. After all, the virtual, digital assistants around at the moment, from Siri to Cortana and Alexa are given female personas in both name and voice. 

Deep AI - self-aware machines like Ex-Machina's Eva - is a long way off and may never arrive. But in the meantime, how we interact with increasingly intelligent technology, with creation and with other human beings is being shaped by the this dominating, will-to-power mentality here and now. Will that technology in time replace the human creativity and intelligence that gave rise to it and in turn become another means to control and dominate humanity and creation?

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Does 2016 have anything left to throw at us?

It is too early to write the obituary for 2016, and with only a few weeks left to run it may still have surprises in store for the world. Right now, anything feels possible!

A year the started with the death of David Bowie, whose music and art had such a profound influence not just on Britain but the whole of the English speaking world, was bound to be a year of the unexpected. But apart from the amazing toll of celebrity deaths, the real shock to the establishment and the middle classes, has been the rise of working class anger at globalisation that has left them behind. From the election of Duterte in the Philippines to the Brexit vote in the UK and now the election of Donald Trump as US President. The sense that the political and economic system has left the ordinary working man and woman behind has boiled over into the election of populist, nativist leaders and the increase in political isolationism, anti-immigration and global trade deals.

Working people in Britain and America in particular are fed up with their jobs going overseas to developing countries that can make the same goods for a fraction of the price, and at the total erosion of the job market for semi and unskilled workers in the West, at least in manufacturing industries.

Sadly, we won't be getting those jobs and industries back from the developing world in any realistic scenario. Those countries are undergoing the rapid industrialisation and development that we enjoyed about 150-100 years ago with the first Industrial Revolution, and their governments and people will not be letting that process stop. China, India and much of Asia, Latin America and a small but increasing part of Africa are beginning to claw their way out of poverty. 

That's not say this is an unalloyed good, however.  What happened in Victorian Britain was very much the wealthy getting wealthier on the backs of the working poor. But many more of the previously impoverished joined the middle classes as they saw wages and job opportunities increase, and as education became more widespread so those with aspiration had a chance to climb the economic ladder. We see this in China and India today with a similar (possibly even more dramatic) explosion of the middle classes to that the West experienced in the previous two centuries.

But here in the old industrial heartlands, the grim truth is that the jobs that previously gave white, working class men a sense of economic and social worth and enfranchisement are gone for good. Men are also struggling in a post-feminist society which no longer sees the old masculine virtues of physical strength and stamina, hard work and machismo as of any value. Unless you want to take a 'feminine' job in retail and the service industries, for those without further education the options are limited.

That explains why Trump won so big amongst white, working class men in the US. 75% voted for him. His views on work, immigration, race and women resonated with those who no longer feel the US is their nation. It was the same sense of wanting their country back that led so many to vote to leave the EU in my country back in June. The world has left them behind, now they want the world to sit up and take notice and give them what they once had.

It has noticed! Whether the establishments have really got the message and will give anything back remains to be seen. Sadly the policies being spouted by the self-appointed 'champions' of the white working class male are unlikely to work. Furthermore, these champions, Trump and Farage for example, are often  wealthy and middle class and come from the same privilege that they rail against . 

But there can be no doubt that society is unequal and unjust. This is not just to white, working class men, but to men of colour, women of almost all colours and classes, but especially working class and black, to people with disabilities, etc, etc. British and American society are broken, divided and increasingly acrimonious.

It is my tired old mantra, but it is one I believe. No government, no political movement, no institution and no set of policies can ultimately solve this. We get the government we deserve, and if we get a divided, angry and fractious political discourse, it is because that is the nation that chose it.  The US election was ugly because US society is divided and ugly - along racial, class and gender lines.  The same is true here in Britain. We get the leaders and the policies we deserve, with the media and civil society fuel the division. These days we also have to contend with social media as their ever more flammable medium.

Wilberforce and the Victorian reformers who followed him did not just bring in social institutions to tackle the huge social ills caused by the Industrial Revolution. They did change political discourse and public policy, but they started with practical and moral change. Wilberforce saw the principles of care for animals, the teaching of biblical ethics and values and inner spiritual transformation from the gospel of Jesus Christ as central to his 'reformation of manners',  He prioritised this as much, if not more than changes in legislation. Fry and others saw the need for alternatives to the strong drink (gin, mostly) that filled the slum drinking dens to which the poor retreated to escape the horrors of daily life. They brought in education for the poor, first with the Sunday school movement, but later with publicly funded schools. They created alternatives for street children, giving them education and institutional care. Their solutions were not always perfect by modern standards, but they did lay the foundations for the welfare state and created a civil society that saw social change to tackle social injustice as a fundamental responsibility

We need similar, bottom up changes in the US and UK today. It is not enough to change the laws without changing to social climate. We cannot change the social division in our communities without changing individual views and attitudes through education and community activism.

But ultimately, we can only change the social and political climate by changing the spiritual climate. The inner transformation of individuals who had met the living God in the person of Jesus, who had let him change their hearts and minds towards God and away from selfishness and ego is the transformation that started the great social changes in British and American society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Trump presidency and Brexit will not save our nations - they may at best do little to change the status quo apart from bringing some economic benefit in the long-term. At worst, they could divide, destroy and impoverish our nations yet further. We have a choice, do we moan and complain, or do we hold the new decision makers to account to make policies that benefit the poor? Do we moan about the decay of society or do we work from within to rebuild it, building bridges between sections of our communities alienated from one another? Do we despair of the moral state of our nation, standing in indignant judgement, or do we reach out with the hope of the good news of Jesus, and speak of and live out a better way than the world can offer?

2016 is not over yet - maybe, just maybe there are surprises left that may delight rather than appall and terrify? The choice is ours.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Girl on the Train

Now, leaving aside that Emily Blunt's Rachel is not a girl, or that millions of books fans complain that the action has been moved from London to New York, this is a enjoyable B movie thriller. But it left me feeling uncomfortable.

Maybe it was that despite having three strong female leads, the film fails the Bechdel test - all the dialogue shared by the women ends up revolving around the male characters, even though they are very much in supporting roles.

It might also be that all the women are in some way dysfunctional because of motherhood and social expectations around having children.

It could be because of the many plot holes that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief to the limit. Maybe.

Actually, for me it was the first two points that really bugged me (I cope with plot holes in most films and TV series reasonably well - otherwise I would never be able to watch most dramas!). Spoilers ahead for those who have neither read nor seen the film!

Movies that are about women being badly treated by men should, in this day and age actually be addressing the causes of that abuse, not just accepting it as an inevitability and giving the women the let out of a bloody revenge at the end. In the film, the reason the women were reduced to mere appendages to the men was the issue that was not  adequately explored. The book, apparently (I have not read it yet) addresses the fact that the women are trophy wives for successful men, despite having their own careers and skills and that their whole identity and purpose is tied up around their ability to produce offspring.  However, early on in the film one of the main characters observes bitterly that the whole suburb where the action happen is 'one big baby farm'.

This is the issue that the films never quite gets to the heart of. How much our culture still only values women because of their ability to reproduce. Rachel's real pain because she not only cannot have children, but has been replaced by a new wife who has given her ex-husband the child he wanted, is compounded by the expectations of society around her. Megan's grief over a lost child and her husband's pressure to give him a family that can only remind her of her awful loss cause her increasingly dysfunctional behaviour. But why the culture around these women sees this as their only value and purpose is never challenged.

The Bible has several stories about women facing the pain of the childlessness, and the social disgrace that went with it - Sarah and Rachel in Genesis and Hannah in 1 Samuel are obvious examples. However, God eventually gives them all children, There are no stories about the women denied the chance to have children or who chose not to, so we have to address those issues from elsewhere in scripture.

So what of those who cannot have children. And why is it just the women denied children who suffer - what about their husbands? It seems to me that our culture, including our churches makes the ideal of marriage and parenthood, especially motherhood, a dangerous idol. It leaves those not able or not willing to have children on the edge, left out of social gatherings and conversations that revolve around parenting. For those of us who are parents, the struggles and challenges of parenting occupy our time and energy so much that we are often blind to those around us who are left out.

For women though, the sense that one is only validated by being a mother is a toxic pressure. There is already the ludicrous notion that a woman can only be validated by a romantic relationship with a man. Then, once that man is found and domesticated, the only role left is to become a mother.

The bible does place motherhood (and fatherhood) in a place of great esteem, but Paul points to a higher calling that may lead women and men to eschew such a role, and Jesus himself gave hope that those denied biological parenthood can become mothers (and fathers) to many by other means. Marriage and parenthood matter, but they are not all there is to our humanity and value, and the more we hold on to the truth that there is more to us than our reproductive roles, the saner (and happier) we will be!

Saturday, October 08, 2016


So, a cult seventies science fiction fable about the perils of entrusting our entertainment to robots has been turned into a new cable TV series by the brother of Christopher ‘Inception’ Nolan and JJ ‘Lost’ Abrams.  Great Anglo-American cast (and a new Hemsworth brother to boot!), great production and directing credits, and a first episode that lived up to the promise of the hype.

Many are seeing Westworld as the next big thing after Game of Thrones, the HBO series that has outsold every other TV series and garnered a record breaking number of awards. But thematically and tonally it is much closer to Battlestar Galactica, the equally lauded series of eleven years back. Both BSG and Westworld rest on the oldest science fiction staple of all – the creation of artificial life and our responsibility to our creations.
Brain Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus’ was the first true science fiction novel, and I am loathe to disagree. Its central theme of the derogation of responsibility by the creator for his creature is often overlooked by film makers (Kenneth Brannagh’s version being a notable exception). Most just dwell on the monster being monstrous, but in Shelley’s original he is intelligent, eloquent and tortured by the rejection he faced from Frankenstein and wider society. He became monstrous because he was treated as a monster.

This theme has been re-visited so many times in science fiction, from the awful, killer robot stories of pulp fiction, to the more sophisticated treatment of Asimov’s Robot novels, through to Blade Runner, the Matrix films and BSG , and most recently the rather wonderful Channel 4 series ‘Humans’.

At its core, Westworld is about the creation of sentient beings for the sport of humans. These beings, known as ‘Hosts’ are androids with limited self-determination, their memories wiped at the end of each cycle, and each has a script to which they adhere, allowing them a limited repertoire of actions. In some this way mimics human existence, where our memories are selective, and that we all work within the limitations of ‘scripts’ determined by culture, upbringing and social expectation. It is also perhaps an echoing of Calvinist theology of predestination – free will is an illusion, we all ultimately serve God’s purposes.  

But the abuse meted out to the ‘Hosts’in the name of entertaining the worst fantasies of humans (especially men) who see a Western setting as a great excuse to show off such ‘manly’ virtues such as murder and rape.  The invitation to come to Westworld touts the fact that actions there have no consequences. Except, obviously, they do, because the Hosts are developing glitches, memories of past roles and past abuses are beginning to surface, causing failures. In one case Abernathy, one such ‘glitching’ Host delivers a Shakespearian, almost Biblically prophetic rant as he confronts his maker (in the form of Anthony Hopkins’s Frost). Quoting Romeo and Juliet, he enigmatically tells his creator “these violent delights have violent ends”, before being switched off. These are the final words he gives his ‘daughter’, Delores, at the end of the first episode. It is a warning of what is to come.

The creation of artificial life and artificial intelligence is becoming close to a technological reality, and it is stories like Westworld that remind us of the dangers of taking on the role of Creator when we lack the moral core to live up to that role.

However, in reality we do not need to create artificial beings to abuse.The abuse of those deemed lesser beings or sub-humans is a common symptom of decadent or primitive societies. Whether it is slavery and human trafficking, blood sports, proxy wars, racism and class or caste systems, we are prone to work out our worst human instincts through abuse of the ‘other’ who we can make subhuman to maintain our illusion of being good and moral.

CS Lewis in his seminal work The Abolition of Man pointed out that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means... the power of some men to make other men what THEY please.” As we become more technologically advanced, this power to shape other parts of humanity to our will grows rather than lessens.

The story of the birth, life and death of Jesus reminds us, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it that “Through Christ’s incarnation, all of humanity regains the dignity of bearing the image of God. Whoever from now on attacks the least of people attacks Christ, who took on human form and who in himself has restored the image of God for all who bear a human countenance.” In short, we have a moral duty to all our fellow humanity to see and treat them on an equal footing - even if we must forgo our comforts and luxuries bought at the expense of others.

Westworld is about our moral responsibility to our fellow man, about the myth that our actions have no impact or consequence for us regardless of their consequences for others, and that playing God is presuming a role for humanity for which we are singularly not equipped. It has a resonance in social justice and bioethics. I look forward to seeing how it explores these themes in the coming weeks.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Getting under your skin

You can just picture the meeting in a Hollywood studio.  The British director pitching his new, high concept movie to the moguls; Scarlett Johanssen drives round the streets of Glasgow in a Ford Transit picking up strange men. And it will be mostly improvised using a candid camera and real people. Yep, that would have been a short meeting.

So, why is 'Under the Skin' picking up such rave reviews from critics? It certainly seems to be ticking some boxes in film circles.  Some are comparing its director Jonathan Glazer to Stanley Kubrick, others see echoes of Nicholas Roeg's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'.  And I can see why - it has long, slow, observational scenes, minimal dialogue, an eerie musique concrète soundtrack, and some startling visual effects scenes alongside the mundane imagery of Johanssen driving round drab Glaswegian streets.  One truly magical moment is when she finds herself caught in the whiteout of a highland haar - both an everyday experience for a Scot, but a moment of bewildered wonder for an alien. Experiencing the mundane as alien is perhaps the most Kubrick or Roeg like qualities of the film.

Thematically it also draws parallels to those two directors.  An alien in human guise, with uncertain (i.e. alien) motivations finds themselves drawn towards the human condition, but finds themselves still an outsider and not able to connect.  The hunter become the hunted, gender roles and power imbalances are exposed. And there is the bizarre, abstract opening scene of something like a human eye being assembled in darkness, back-lit by a single point of light as the eerie three note main theme is played on electronically re-touched strings (very reminscent of Ligeti's 'Lux Aeterna'  playing against the Star Gate sequence in Kubrick's 2001) while a woman's voice hesitatingly tests out out the phonemes of English, as if learning to speak the language for the first time.

And there is a vein of horror, as the men Johansson's nameless alien picks up are sucked into a black, oily liquid and eviscerated - for reasons unknown - leaving just the haunting image of their empty skins floating in a black void. Another scene on a beach is even more horrific, as an awful family tragedy unfolds and a futile but heroic attempt at rescue culminates in a dispassionate Johanssen clubbing to death the rescuer and leaving the family to their fate without a whisper of emotion or empathy.

Audiences may have been less enthralled than many of the critics - the ending eliciting a loud raspberry from the back of the cinema when I viewed it recently.  It has, nevertheless stuck in the top ten for several weeks at the UK box office, which is no mean feat for an arthouse science fiction film.  Many, no doubt went to see what promised to be an erotic thriller with Johansen 'getting her kit off for the lads'.  Well, there is plenty of quite explicit nudity (male and female), but I found it profoundly un-erotic.  Johansen inhabits her skin as an alien, not sure why her body affects men the way it does, but knowing that the effect is useful to her purpose and having an idea of the rules she must play by to lure in her victims.  The one sex scene is awkward and ultimately futile - her alien body is not designed the same way as ours, a reality already hinted at by apparently not needing (nor being able) to eat or sleep. She remains an outsider, unable to fully experience what it is to be human.

Other things stick out. Particularly Johanssen as the predator, picking up men with a mixture of faux innocence and sexual appeal.  It could only work that way round - Brad Pitt driving around picking up women the same way would just have been sickening and creepy in the wrong way.  This is much more unsettling - it is the promise of strings free sex with a beautiful and available woman that is the undoing of the men in the film, none of them stopping to question why she would be offering herself to them like this. And when the tables are reversed, it is male abuse of power and drive for sex that undoes Joahnssen's character. The film does not paint a pretty picture of male sexuality and attitudes to women.

Johanssen is the star of the film - none of the other characters being much more than ciphers.  She acts by face and body language (or its absence) more than voice (although her clipped, London vowels are convincing, she barely utters more than a few dozen lines of mostly improv dialogue) and is quite compelling, especially as she starts to unravel in the film's last act.  And it is as she changes, as she experiences human kindness, as she tries to show mercy to one of her victims, as she seeks human connection with another man who helps her, so it is that she becomes more vulnerable.  As she becomes more the woman she seems to be, so it is that she also succumbs to the power imbalances that disadvantage women in our society.  All this is conveyed in a flawless performance by an actress who was obviously unafraid to take real risks in taking on such a difficult role.

In some ways the film is an honourable failure - the lack of human interest or development in the other characters and the lack of backstory or motivation making it a hard watch for those used to more conventional cinema. There is also a distinct jarring between the science fictional and the (largely improvised and candid camera filmed) realistic scenes in Glasgow. 

But somehow, it does get under ones skin. Particularly compelling are the eerie and unsettling soundtrack that borders on sound effects rather than music in places, the stark but beautiful visuals, but above all the view of humanity, especially human (particularly, male) sexuality that it deconstructs so disturbingly. All in all an interesting film that will be talked about for years, and will be worth revisiting.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ancillary Justice

Every now and again I get interested in a book just because of a random review I stumble upon. But now I have a Kindle, it is also easy to just download a few sample chapters to see if it really is worth reading.

What I found here was the debut novel of Anne Leckie, Ancillary Justice which was getting a lot of buzz last autumn when it first came out.  The story opens with its (probably female) protagonist, Breq, on a wintery and brutal world acting with impulsive kindness to a former officer that she had served with in the armed forces of the aggressively expansionist Radchaai empire. It soon becomes apparent that Breq has hair trigger killer instincts, some interesting enhancements, and a lot of anger.  Thus far she is similar to the tough female killers that have populated science fiction novels from William Gibson to Iain M Banks for decades.

But Breq is rather unique - she is not what she once was. Literally. She was Justice of Toren, a massive troop carrying starship, most of whose soldiers were ancillaries, mind wiped prisoners of war, now slaved to the ship's Artificial Intelligence.  As a result, Justice of Toren sees the world through multiple eyes in multiple locations, and can speak (and indeed, sing) with literally thousands of voices. Only all that is now left of her is one, lone ancillary, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, out to avenge the death of all she once was and all she had once cared for. She is an AI in a human body trying fit into human society, with a quest for vengeance.

The multiple conversations and observations that her multiple self shared with her human officers and the citizens of a world recently 'annexed' by the Radchaai makes for fascinating reading, and when this is broken down in one particularly traumatic event about of a third of the way into the novel, we get a real sense of the loss, disorientation and fear that ensues for her/it.

All of this is interesting science fiction, set in a standard space operatic format and happily playing with all the usual tropes of the genre (vast empires, massive spaceships run by AIs, special weapons, exotic worlds, epic battles). But actually the novel is a lot more than this precis suggests. Exploring the nature of empire, imperial expansionism and the war crimes that are committed in the name of protecting that empire, it does what the best science fiction does and holds a mirror up to our own world. Lecke is American, but as a Brit I got at once the sense of an empire reaching the end of its expansion and the yearning for the glory days of old amongst the officer class (and their obsession with drinking tea!). One telling quote summarises the realisation that some of the Radchaai were coming to about the nature of their empire:
luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn't generally have to see that, if one doesn't wish.
Some amongst the Radchaai (a word that means 'civilised') are questioning the empire, and this hinges around two, appalling war crimes to which the Justice of Toren is both witness and contributor.  The tension between the conservative and progressive streams amongst the Radchaai are at the centre of the story.

Another interesting quirk of the narrative, and one that most reviewers (especially male reviewers) hone in on first is the use of gender. Radchaai culture and language make no apparent distinction between genders, using a single pronoun for either sex and no apparent differences in dress or social roles between male and female.  As a result, the non-human Breq struggles conceptually with languages and cultures that do make such distinctions. All characters are referred to in the feminine, except rarely where she must speak in other languages and to other cultures that do not make such distinctions, where we learn she regularly gets genders the wrong way round, causing much confusion and occasionally, offence! What this achieves is initially a sharp sense of confusion and dislocation in the reader, although by the end of the novel I had ceased to notice and was going with the flow.  It does ask the reader where her/his presuppositions about how we assume behaviour and social role will fall along gender lines, and how culturally prescribed these presuppositions are.

All this is done in a narrative that avoids too many space opera cliches that pander to the inner thirteen year old male of so many of the genre's fans. There is little violence (and when it does happen it is mostly 'off screen' and all the more disturbing for it), no sex or sexual tension (although Breq's underlying lack of humanity means she misses the cues that may be there).  Like Iain M Banks and Ken McLeod, Leckie is subverting the genre to look at political themes that this most politically conservative and masculine of all science fiction sub-genres generally eschews.

The book does end on an apparent anti-climax, but as it is the first book of a trilogy this is forgivable, leaving you at least wanting to know where it goes next. A strong start to a trilogy and an impressive debut novel. I look forward to the second volume out later this year.

Friday, September 02, 2011

UK HIV Response "Woefully Inadequate"

A report published yesterday by the HIV and AIDS in the UK Select Committee of the House of Lords has described the priority given to preventing HIV and AIDS in Britain as “woefully inadequate”. While nearly three quarters of a billion pounds is spent each year on HIV treatment, only a third of that is spent on prevention. In the last decade, the UK has trebled the number of people on anti-retroviral therapy for HIV (ART), while we face the number of people living with HIV topping the 100,000 mark in the next year if current trends continue – 25% of whom do not even know their diagnosis. And people unaware of their HIV status risk infecting others and worsening their own health.
While the scale of this problem has made headlines today, the underlying issue should come as no real surprise. As far back as 2006, while attending a function for UK civil society delegates to the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York I was told by a Department of Health Civil Servant that the UK did not need a separate HIV prevention strategy any more, as it was all adequately dealt with by the UK’s sexual health strategy. Ignoring the fact that the most successful work has been done amongst drug users using needle exchanges, the astounding level of complacency this statement reveals is born out by not only today’s figures, but that the UK continues to have some of the highest STD and teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe. If we cannot even tackle sexual health adequately, no wonder we are not tackling HIV!
In fact, the most worrying finding is that, a generation on from the start of the AIDS pandemic, the British population is more ignorant than ever about HIV, its effects routes of transmission and prevention.
While the British government has been applauded for its funding of HIV treatment and prevention work in the developing world, we remain shockingly inadequate (and even complacent) on the domestic front. Likewise, the global church has responded constructively to HIV in many parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, but the British church remains largely ignorant and unengaged with HIV as in issue in the UK. It is time for a change in our attitudes.
Well done to Lord Fowler (the originator of the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign in the eighties that many now credit with playing a significant part in saving the UK from a major HIV epidemic in the nineties) and his committee for reminding us the AIDS has not gone away, and getting it back in the headlines.

this post originally appeared on the blog of the Christian Medical Fellowship at

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Missing Midwives Costs Mothers’ Lives

On 1 April UNICEF and the Royal College of Midwives launched a campaign to find the missing midwives.  UNICEF’s recent research suggests that globally we need 350,000 midwives, and that this shortage of skilled birth attendants means as few as 6% of women in some developing countries have access to skilled birth attendants. This means that there are as many 1,000 women and 2,000 children dying daily, many of whose lives could be saved if a trained midwife was in attendance.

350,000 seems a remarkably small number and an achievable target. However, when you consider that the UK is also short of midwives, perhaps it is not a surprise that this gap has not been as easy to bridge as it at first seems.  As birth rates rise in the UK, we seem to be training fewer midwives.  Most midwives I know work in understaffed, over stressed units, and yet still manage to deliver a generally high standard of care that ensures that not only are the vast majority of British babies delivered safely, they are also delivered in a way that makes for a meaningful and happy experience for the mother.  One wonders for how much longer however, as we fail to train new midwives and support effectively those already working in the profession. As DFID gets behind the UNICEF campaign, it is worrying that other parts of the national and devolved governments are at best playing catch up and at worst reducing the numbers of midwives in this country!

However, in many parts of the world, there is no such provision.  Partly this is an issue of poverty, and partly a mixture of cultural and political values that do not prioritise motherhood or the life and health of women and children. As we highlighted in the CMF submission to DFID’s maternal health strategy consultation, it is only by addressing these issues, as well as the provision of trained midwives, obstetricians, appropriate medical supply chains etc, that we can turn around the gross inequality in maternal health and survival around the globe.

It is ironic, on Mother’s Day, to consider a world that really does not value mothers and motherhood. We live in a culture that here in the UK has such a disordered sense of human value that it does not train enough midwives, but prioritises free prescription of abortefactive post coital conception. In the process we are failing to address the deeper issues of fractured relationship and disordered sexuality that leads us to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the Western world.  And as MPs seek to increase the amount of information, counselling and professional support being provided to women seeking an abortion, they are attacked for trying to harm women.  In other parts of the world a man will let his wife die rather than incur the cost of getting her to a hospital – other wives are always available, while his government will not put any money into training midwive who could have helpe her deliver her child more safely at home.  It is a sobering thought, as we celebrate our mothers this Sunday.  We need to do more than give a few gifts to say thanks to our mothers; we need to take action  seek to see motherhood properly supported around the world, and here at home.

To sign the UNICEF petition to UK Development Secretary to support the global drive for more midwives click here