Saturday, July 14, 2018

Bibbly-Bob returns

After its exclusive media launch at the South London Comic & Zine Fair this afternoon, here is the new Bibbly-Bob the Seal comic - in which (oh no!) there is litter on the beach. Story and art by Lord of Chaos, with inking and lettering by his humble servant.

(The original Bibbly-Bob comic, created for last year's event, can be found at www.tinyurl.com/BibblyBob.)





Thursday, July 12, 2018

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

I really enjoyed this 90-page science-fiction novella about a girl who runs away from home to go to space university, when her ship is attacked by murderous aliens...

The novella won both Hugo and Nebula awards, and if the word of mouth wasn't already good, the cover boasts a too-die-for endorsement:
"There's more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okoroafor's work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics." - Ursula K. Le Guin
A lot of science-fiction is about encounters between white Earth people and "the other" out in space. Binti, the narrator of this story, is the first of the Himba people of northern Namibia to be offered a place at Oomza University, and other humans (even darker skinned ones) treat her as exotic and strange.

The otjize paste with which she daubs her hair and skin is made from the clay back home, a physical link to her culture and history that plays a key part in the story. The texture and smell of it are part of what makes the telling so sensuous and rich.

A lot of science-fiction is also about war and conquest, the future all jostling colonial powers. Binti feels like it's going to be some typical invasion, but is more about what it takes to bridge the gap between different groups, whether human or otherwise. In doing so, Binti becomes someone, something, else. That willingness to reach out, to leave home and migrate, to embrace the strange, is a defiant, heroic act.

Her story continues in Binti: Home (2017) and Binti: The Night Masquerade (2018), which I hope to get to shortly.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Eleventh Doctor Chronicles cover

Our next month is Doctor Who - The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, with this tremendous cover by Tom Webster:


I've written one of the four stories: The Top of the Tree, starring Jacob Dudman and Danny Horn, and directed by Helen Goldwyn.
On one of their annual jaunts, young Kazran Sardick and the Doctor find themselves in trouble when the TARDIS is tangled in the branches of a very strange, very large tree.
They emerge into a habitat where myriad species fight for survival: an ecosystem of deadly flora and fauna, along with a tribe of primitive humans.
This is a mystery which can only be solved by climbing. But what will they find at the top of the tree?

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla

This book of 21 essays is, in the words of the editor's note, "a document of what it means to be a person of colour now."

While "the universal experence is white", we're presented with "21 universal experiences: feelings of anger, displacement, defensiveness, curiousity, absurdity - we look at death, class, microaggression, popular culture, free movement, stake in society, lingual fracas, masculinity and more." It's insightful, funny, surprising and harrowing, and has got me thinking about my own assumptions and behaviour, that of the industry in which I work and society around me.

It's an excellent, wide-ranging book and I recommend it to anyone.

Tediously, I read it on the recommendation that it included something about the 1977 Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. What follows is some thoughts about that, though I'm still mulling it all over. (And you might like to watch my 2011 documentary related to this subject: "Race Against Time", included on the DVD of the 1972 story, The Mutants.)

Daniel York Loh's essay, "Kendo Nagasaki and Me", is about his response as a child to a particular wrestler on ITV's World of Sport, and the rare sight on mainstream TV in the 1970s of a "fellow 'oriental'" - as he puts it on p. 46. It's a heartfelt account, and he admits at the end that he may have muddled some of the historical details, but the point is not about the accuracy of his memory so much as what the relationship meant and still means to him.

Doctor Who - "my favourite TV programme in the world" (p. 52) - gets four and a bit paragraphs, an extended aside. Compared to today's version, the Doctor Who he grew up with "was populated almost entirely by white people ... For a remit with the whole of time and space as a pallette this is a bit crap frankly." He describes The Talons of Weng-Chiang as a,
"handsomely mounted Victorian Sax Rohmer homage", but with "one of the very worst examples of yellowface as a gang of silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together) goons (the only appropriate description) appeared, led by an English actor called John Bennett sporting ridiculous false eyelids that looked like you could sit on them, skin made up yellow than a lump of cheese and speaking in a hopelessly mishmashed Chinese/Japanese hybrid accent that would had had Henry Higgins completely stumped. Not nearly so much as the fact that the BBC still carries a website page somewhere that heaps lavish praise on Mr Bennett's staggeringly silly turn, opining that, unless they knew, the viewer might be hard-pressed to tell that the English thesp wasn't in fact Chinese. Not unless they were under the impression that Chinese people had eyelids made from recycled skateboards and talked like Yoda in Star Wars when he's been on the ketamine, I think." (p. 53)
My immediate response to this is to want to defend the story - which I enjoy and admire in many respects - and Doctor Who more generally, and even the BBC. For one thing, that praise for Bennett, on an old part of the BBC website, is clearly labelled as a quotation from a book. And yet, on checking, it still says:
"John Bennett is faultless as the inscrutable Li H'sen Chang, and his performance and make-up are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that he is not actually Chinese."
Doctor Who - The Talons of Weng-Chiang: in detail
That it is quoted from a book is no excuse. The quotation is from Doctor Who - The Television Companion, first published in 1998 by BBC Books, the cover proclaiming in large letters that it was, "the official BBC guide to every TV story." That is pretty authoritative, and the website repeats the book's assessment of the story in full, without comment. The book was republished as recently as 2013, and though that wasn't by BBC Books and without the authority of being an "official" publication, it still shows that this isn't merely something from the distant past.

I don't mean to criticise the authors of the book or the editors of the website; I might well have written or quoted something similar without thought. That's the point: The Good Immigrant challenges bias and prejudice we might not even be aware of in ourselves, whatever our intentions and however much we want to believe that racism is something other, bad people do. It chimes with my recent reading of The Blunders of Our Governments. How do we address a white blindness we're not even aware of?

Criticism of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is not new, nor the defensive response. It's been argued that Doctor Who was better than other programmes made at the same time - but surely not all of them. And that doesn't negate the issues there anyway.

Or it is said the story itself critiques racist attitudes. Yes, this isn't simply Doctor Who trotting out the stereotypes of Sax Rohmer. For all Bennett's performance owes something to the version of Fu Manchu played by (the also white) Christopher Lee in the five films made in the 1960s, Chang is, ultimately, a rather sympathetic character, his motivation clear - the opposite of the "inscrutable". At the same time, the Doctor counters some of the prejudice shown by the Victorian Londoners in the story. But it's still bound up in racial and class-based assumptions, and the Doctor is visiting London anyway to educate his "savage" companion - an adjective with racist associations.

Or there's the argument that the BBC were required to only use actors who were members of Equity, which limited the number of Chinese or Chinese-descended actors who might have taken this particular role. That didn't mean there weren't any; I find myself imagining the story with Burt Kwuok playing Chang. But the casting of Bennett is also surely part of a - no doubt unconcious - tendency to have Chinese and East Asian characters played by actors of Jewish origin. Think also of Martin Miller as Kublai Khan in the 1964 Doctor Who story Marco Polo, or, more notably, Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No. Then recall the criticism above of villains who are,
"silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together)".
There's also the cumulative effect when actors of particular ethnic backgrounds do not get the same opportunties as their white counterparts. They don't develop their skills, so they're seen as less able than their white counterparts, so they miss out on further work, so they don't develop their skills...

It remains an issue, as described by young actor Paul Courtney Hyu, interviewed by Wei Ming Kam for "Beyond 'Good' Immigrants", another of the essays in the book. Hyu says that with so few opportunities for "East Asians" in film and TV in the UK, another actor, Elain Tan, has gone to America where she is "working her arse off."

But then Hyu addes "in a satisfied tone" an example of a UK show doing better than the rest:
"And she is the main person in our episode of Doctor Who [2015's Sleep No More]. So there are two Chinese in it, and she's got a Geordie accent, and pretty good too, I have to say. And I do my Yorkshire accent." (p.93)
As a Doctor Who fan, I take some pride in that - but also know it's a rare example.

Himesh Patel mentions, on p. 64, watching Doctor Who while a teenager - one of the things he followed closely with his (white) peers so as to fit in, while they showed no interest in Bollywood music or films.

Anyway, all this has got me thinking - informing my perspective on old episodes as I watch them on Twitch and research them for the various magazines I write for, and challenging some assumptions in the script I'm late on at the moment. An aspect of a character has just been revised because this book made me realise an aspect of my own blindess, and pointed the way to do better.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Revisiting Sunnydale: a Buffy podcast

I was the guest / breakfast of Kahmeela and Marcella on episode 77 of the Revisiting Sunnydale podcast, for a lively natter about my book Slayer Stats - The Complete Infographic Guide to All Things Buffy (co-written with Steve O'Brien and illustrated by Illaria Vescovo).

Among the topics covered are where I am wrong, the representation of minorities (ie British people) in the series and what I think about the new Doctor Who.

My bit starts at 34:32 - before then, Kahmeela and Marcella review season 4.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Apollo, by Fitch, Baker and Collins

This new graphic novel about the Apollo 11 Moon landing is illustrated by Mike Collins who a) shares his name with the Command Module pilot of that mission and b) I know through Doctor Who things, so I declare my interest in what follows.

The comic begins in the moments before launch, and concludes with the Command Module on its way back to Earth. It seems largely told from the freely available NASA transcripts of the flight, and a number of books - including those written by Aldrin and Collins (the astronaut) about their own experiences. We also hear from witnesses at various levels of remove - Armstrong's wife, Aldrin's dad, soldiers out in Vietnam - and skip back in time to formative moments in childhood and the catastrope of Apollo 1.

In addition, there are the astronauts' dreams and nightmares, and I wondered if these were based on things the astronauts themselves reported, or are the invention of the writers. Really, what I'd like are exhaustive endnotes detailing every source, in the manner of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in From Hell.

The halftone colour, provided by Kris Carter and Jason Candy, suggests the feel of comics from the period, too. Pulpier, less glossy paper and design might have better suggested an authentic artefact of the Apollo age. But this is a sumptuous physical object - which is hardly a criticism, is it?

The comic is good at underlining the dangers involved at each stage of the mission, and reveals plenty of telling detail as the story unfolds - Aldrin's efforts to be the first on the Moon's surface, Nixon's realisation that he'd be remembered as president if the mission failed, Kennedy if it succeeded. There are maybe some things that might have helped with that: Nixon actually recorded the speech mentioned here, to be broadcast in the event that a failure left Armstrong and Aldrin to die, stranded on the Moon's surface (it's included in the amazing documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon). That message may - I've not been able to find enough hard evidence - have been recorded just as Nixon was preparing to make a live phone call to the two astronauts as they bounced around in the moondust. No wonder Nixon was sweating during that call...

That's a minor quibble; this is an absorbing, detailed and arresting account that manages to bring something new to the so thoroughly picked over story. I shall be sure to pick over it again during the coming 12 months, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of that first Moon landing.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe

On 18 July 2017, Lord Horam gave a speech in the House of Lords during a debate on the EUC report Brexit: Trade in Goods. At one point (col. 1563), the noble Lord mentioned what sounded like a good read:
“If you look at that admirable book by King and Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, you will find endless episodes of Governments, for internal reasons, simply taking too long to make decisions. Of course, the private sector must pick up the pieces.”
Having (finally) read it, it strikes me that Lord Horam conceivably missed something of the point. One chapter is devoted to the importance of deliberation and not rushing ahead. In another chapter – returned to repeatedly afterwards – King and Crewe explain how at least £2.5 billion and perhaps as much as £20 billion to £30 billion was wasted on the public-private partnership meant to upgrade the London underground network. They refer to the “some would say prejudices” of those behind the scheme, not least the belief that the private sector “was almost always more efficient and effective than the public” (p. 202). After a lot of time and money had been given over to this assumption, the public sector stepped in to take over the mess – and the underground has been in pretty good shape ever since. I raise this not as a pop at Lord Horam, but to show how easily instinctive bias can creep in to decisions of policy, more of which below.

PPP is just one of the many examples of blunders made by Governments between 1979 and 2010, among them the poll tax, the mis-selling of pensions, child support payments, exiting the ERM (rather abruptly), the Millennium Dome, tax credits, IT projects… The authors lay out what counts on page 4:
“We define a blunder as an episode in which a government adopts a specific course  of action in order to achieve one or more achievements and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes, either fails completely to achieve those objectives, or does achieve some or all of them but at a totally disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of ‘collateral damage’ in the form of unintended and undesired consequences.”
Then, having spent half the book detailing many, many blunders, they attempt to identify linked causes and to suggest solutions. The result is an extraordinary history of recent times, perhaps even a psychology of the nation, by turns boggling, depressing and insightful.

Along the way, they puncture common myths:
“Many Scots were subsequently to claim that English ministers had wilfully chosen to inflict the poll tax on the downtrodden people of Scotland, that the Scottish people were being used as guinea-pigs in some nefarious English experiment. But that was not so. The Conservative party’s Scottish ministers had, of their own volition, inflicted the poll tax on their fellow countrymen and women.” (p. 51)
There are plenty of fun details:
“Macmillan, whose grandchildren often played at Number 10, also caused a notice to be posted reading ‘No roller-skating on Cabinet days’.” (p. 340)
And there are pithy, witty insights from the authors and the people they spoke to:
“Someone who watched [the consultants on PPP] working on the scheme described them as ‘very bright people who know nothing’.” (p. 209)
In all, it’s a brilliant, rich and revealing book, achingly timely in our current fudge over Brexit. I hope I don’t detract from that achievement by setting out some reservations.

First, on p. xiv of the introduction, the authors say that, “As feminists, albeit male ones, we would like to have used gender-neutral language consistently throughout” – and then sadly don’t leave it there. For all the reasons given for favouring “he” throughout, I’d argue it’s more than prejudice, it’s an example of the “cultural disconnect” the book later devotes a whole chapter to, where the male authors can only imagine other people – those pursuing or affected by policy, perhaps even those reading the book – as being just like themselves. It’s most jarring when they speak of non-specific Prime Ministers as “he”, given who is now in that seat.

I also suspect some prejudice in the way the book describes heroes and villains. They say witheringly, on p. 264, that “If a man as clever as (Nigel) Lawson thought the poll tax was a batty idea, it just possibly was”, and on p. 327 refer to William Waldegrave’s “formidable intellect”. I might have overlooked similar praise for the wisdom of those from other political parties. (In fact, I don’t know the politics of the authors; these compliments could perhaps be more of that withering wit.)

They certainly don’t argue that one party is more prone to blunders than others. The book is critical of Nicholas Ridley, from the same party as Lawson and Waldegrave, for pushing ahead with full implementation of the poll tax rather than running pilots or trials. It strikes me that Ridley is not named in the acknowledgements as one of the people the authors spoke to. Neither are Gordon Brown or Shriti Vadera, who also get a hard time. (We’re twice told, on p. 260 and p. 343, that Brown would, if he could, make those who said no to him suffer in their careers, and that this prompted a culture around him with “a certain lack of incentive to tell the truth”. Even the quote is repeated.)

But the late Patrick Jenkin did speak to the authors, and his involvement in the formation of the poll tax is much more gently picked over. It’s not overt, just a feeling, a suspicion of bias in favour of those the authors spoke to in person. But given all the authors warn about bias and prejudice in coming to conclusions, I found myself wondering what methods they used to guard against it themselves.

In the second half of the book, the authors quote Irving Janis on groupthink and the ways to prevent or mitigate against it. Among the solutions is a “second-chance meeting” in which critiques are invited once a policy has been agreed. They say that Irving’s “last and (probably) unserious suggestion is that any second-chance meeting should be lubricated by alcohol” (pp. 265-6). This isn’t a new idea – they cite precedents in Herodotus and Tacitus – but again there’s a prejudice showing. What happens when your team of policy-makers includes those who find boozy debriefings awkward or impossible? They might have religious beliefs, or alcoholism, or commitments as parent or carer, or whatever else… As a manager, you wouldn’t necessarily know which team members might find it difficult, and they wouldn’t necessarily tell you. You could – I’ve seen it – end up in splitting your team into two, and favouring the lively, gossipy boozing over the “quiet” ones. It’s worse if you don’t have (or realise you have) such people in your team: your group is too homogenous anyway, and more prone to the “cultural disconnect” that also gets its own chapter.

The point is that it’s all too easy to exhibit bias, and bias can badly skew your analysis and policy – at considerable cost in both money and effectiveness. A lot of the lessons learned are transferable to other walks of life, but the authors address the closing chapters of the book to Parliament in particular.

Chapter 24, “Accountability, lack of”, explodes the myth that Ministers no longer resign on principle after blunders made on their watch; with plenty of examples, King and Crewe show that they didn’t in the past, either. “Lord Carrington’s resignation as foreign secretary for his part in failing to forestall Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 is remembered only because it was so unusual, all but unique” (pp. 347-8).

Their point is that this lack of consequence, personally, for Ministers guilty of a blunder means there’s no incentive to consider options more carefully at an early stage. Instead, the incentives resulting from regular Cabinet reshuffling, the attentions of the media, and a host of other things listed, is for Ministers to be ambitious, hasty, ruthless, overly confident when facing questions.

They propose two linked solutions to this, a stick and a carrot. First, they suggest a review of legislation after five or ten years, assessing long-term effectiveness and value for money, naming names where blunders were made. A Minister might therefore think, when first working on a new policy, “How will this look in ten years?” They then suggest rewards and even cash prizes for those found to have down well.

It all sounds very sensible, until (on p. 359), they therefore suggest awarding £500,000 to Norman Tebbit for the changes made in the 1980s to the legislation relating to trades unions. It is just possible that such an award might meet with some negative response. Likewise, the authors nominate Margaret Beckett for her work in bringing in the minimum wage. Yet just six pages earlier, they name Beckett as one of very few examples where responsibility for a blunder can be put down to a sole individual, “in the case of the muddled payments and non-payments to English farmers”. Would the award and censure then cancel out? The authors admit they’re not being entirely serious about the proposal, but it would require a little more deliberation before being rolled out.

For all the personal failings, prejudice, and lack of accountability, and the authors’ real beef is with the structures of governance, the methods by which legislation is made. A system led on party political lines, with policy forced through by whoever has the majority of seats, with few amendments actually being made to a Bill as it passes through both Houses, “almost guarantees the passage of bad legislation” (p. 369). They encourage less partisan work, more sharing and discussion. (My feeling, after years of working in the House of Lords, is that it generally worked best when it worked on non-partisan lines, based on experience, compromise, consent.)

In the epilogue, dated July 2014, the authors address the then-current coalition Government and list what the future might look back on as blunders. What policies might have been founded on  prejudice, hurried through into law, with little deliberation or critique allowed? The reforms to the probation service, the new Personal Independence Payment, the cuts to the Armed Forces, Help to Buy, the bedroom tax, HS2, and Universal Credit have all been contentious, but it seems like a glittering golden age when that was all we had to worry about...