IN AN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND: CHARLES STROSS’S HALTING STATE

Charles Stross is an English SF writer, born in Leeds (1964). I have no doubts that he is amongst the most interesting authors in the genre working today, and I am personally developing quite a taste for his dense, clever fiction, of which I’ve gone through four books so far (just the tip of the iceberg… see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Stross).

The last one I’ve read, Halting State (2007, a Hugo and Locus nominee) came quite as a surprise, for it is set in an independent Scotland (supposedly separated from the UK in 2006). I didn’t know that Stross has been an Edinburgh resident for a while, and I’m at a loss to understand why the collective volume edited by Caroline McCracken-Flesher, Scotland As Science Fiction (2012) doesn’t devote some room to Halting State (four of Stross’s books, including this one, are just mentioned in the bibliography). Perhaps this has to do with Stross’s being born in England. Funnily, SF magazine Asimov called Stross, a “new Scottish writer.” As he explains in an interview, though, he’s rather, “a bit of an anomaly” as he’s quite rootless (“just happen to have settled in Edinburgh for a while”) and too experienced an author to be called ‘new’ (he started publishing in 1987; see the interview at: http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=1096).

Those of us who enjoy SF always tell each other that only SF writers truly understand the world we live in. I stand by this. Halting State is a political thriller based on the idea that the online World of Warcraft might be used as a gigantic online platform for espionage by devious agencies exploiting unsuspecting players. Guess what? NSA was doing exactly that (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/nsa-world-of-warcraft_n_4413914.html). This is why after Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations, Stross gave up plans for the third part in the intended trilogy (there’s a second novel, Rule 34 (2011)). “Sometimes,” Stross wrote in his blog, “I wish I’d stuck with the spaceships and bug-eyed monsters. Realism in fiction is over-rated.” (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/12/psa-why-there-wont-be-a-third-.html).

In the same post, Stross explains that another good reason to stop the trilogy on its track is the oncoming Scottish referendum on independence (18 September 2014). Also the still date-less referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union. Scotland might certainly change too much for a novelist to write about it consistently during the same period and so, Stross concludes, he’ll either have to wait (or set his futuristic thrillers elsewhere). Still, some lessons can be drawn for real politics in Scotland from the nation’s bolder version in Halting State, where the Scottish Republic is a member of the European Union enjoying the benefits of the euro. I worried that Stross had picked up on the new state to discuss its particular vulnerability to cyberwar but this is not the case. Rather, I got the impression that the point he was making is that any state, new or old, is absolutely vulnerable (and that the Scots end up managing the crisis quite well).

Stross is quite sceptical about the SNP’s view of Scottish independence but even so his own independent Scotland works. By this I mean than in Halting State the Scottish background feels quite ‘natural,’ as if the new Scotland were one more country, with the same problems as others. There’s been no major crisis with the rest of the UK, apparently, which is mentioned, rather, as previously overdoing the possible effects of the split. This lack of historical hysterics is quite refreshing for me, a Catalan reader tired and disgusted with the mismanagement by both sides of a similar situation back home. Imagine a Carlos Pérez, from Valladolid, living in Barcelona and writing a futuristic thriller set in a near-future Catalan Republic and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Stross’s prose is notoriously packed with cutting-edge technological information and he has been often criticised for writing just for the handful of nerds who can follow it. I don’t claim to be one of them but, then, what I like is that I have to struggle with Stross’s (post-)cyberpunk view of the world, as this is the only one that really makes sense today. There’s a very funny, very scary moment in which the Edinburgh police squad chasing the bad guys realise that their cell phones are compromised but they need to stay in touch anyway –they go crazy figuring out how to be invisible to Big Brother out there. This is something all of us can understand.

The lesson, ultimately, that Halting State offers is a very serious warning: you may live in independent Scotland or Catalonia, or be firmly attached to the UK or Spain, but what really matters is that you’ll be subject to thorough, intrusive, malignant surveillance all the same.

Brave new (2.0) world…

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THE LIMITS OF THE COSMOPOLITAN NOVEL: MISSPELLING BARÇA…

The cosmopolitan novel, according to Berthold Schoene’s eponymous volume (2009), opposes both the novel limited by the national territory (whether it is nationalist or not), and the post-colonial novel, which questions the very essence of the territorial from a critical position. The cosmopolitan writer has been freed by globalization to write about any theme located in any place s/he fancies, albeit it’s important not to confuse the cosmopolitan with the global. The novel of globalization is still imperialistic and colonialist whereas the true cosmopolitan novel supposes that cross-cultural representation is open to all. We should expect in the near future Russian novelists to deal with Spain, or Indian authors to write about Japan, if you get the drift. As citizens of the world truly interested in other cultures. Fair enough.

The actual examples I’ve come across, though, have a good share of problems. Perhaps the classic case by now is Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel La pell freda (2002), a peculiar tale which mixes Conrad and Lovecraft in a South Pole location, and with an Irish protagonist. The novel is written in Catalan but, as you can see, neither the setting nor the characters are connected at all with Catalonia. The impression the reader gets is that the book is a translation of a missing original in English, not because the Catalan language is misused (far from it) but because the plot is culturally alien to the language. I know this is an odd statement.

The cosmopolitan novel seems to be a growing trend in SF, or at least this is my impression after reading a while ago Paolo Bacigalupi’s thrilling biopunk novel The Windup Girl (2009, set in 23rd century Thailand), and more recently Ian McDonald’s ambitious nanotech novel The Dervish House (2010, set in 2027 Istanbul). McDonald might well be the cosmopolitan writer of the current SF wave, considering other works like River of Gods (set in India), or Brasyl. Bacigalupi, by the way, is American; McDonald, born in Manchester, lives in Belfast.

The Dervish House opens with a prologue in which McDonald explains how to pronounce the many Turkish names in his volume. I didn’t bother with this, as I would have needed, anyway, an audio file to understand the sounds. I braced myself for the necessary immersion in a doubly unfamiliar world for me: that of the city of Istanbul, and that of a near future saturated with nanotechnology. As I struggled with both the Turkish names and the SF neologisms, I wondered whether the author spends a few months on location before writing his novels or whether this was a Google kind of novel (the current equivalent of Bram Stoker writing about Transylvania in the British Library). I decided to trust McDonald on the accuracy of the Istanbul settings and the Turkish names, and let myself be impressed by his research. I was, however, thrown off this path by his mentioning, in the context of a remark on a football match to be played in Istanbul, my local football team, Barça, as Barca. Oh, oh, I thought…

As usual, I turned next to Amazon and, sure indeed, there was a reader, claiming to have been an Istanbul resident, bitterly protesting against McDonald’s bizarre handling of the local names and language particularities. He complained particularly about how a) mistakes could have been avoided with more careful editing, b) having Turkish characters speak English heavily distorted their cultural singularities. I understand what he means as, once more, I felt that the dialogues were translated (or ‘dubbed’). Another reader had started an angry discussion by arguing that since few local Istanbul readers or Turkish speakers would read McDonald’s book, the complaints were besides the point. So much for the didactic potential of cosmopolitanism.

There are, I think, diverse comments to be made here. One is that perhaps The Dervish House and similar novels are not really cosmopolitan but examples of globalization’s top heavy view of the world, still privileging English-speaking authors to ‘use’ the world as they please. Another is that the idea of the ‘exotic’ is not dying at all, despite the efforts of post-colonial scholars to show that it smacks too much of the colonial and the imperialist. Some would argue here that, simply, the cosmopolitan novel cannot really surface without globalization being completed, which would mean positioning all cultures at the same level regarding the ability to produce cross-cultural narratives. Either we’re all exotic to each other and say so, or we abandon exoticism for good on the basis that all human experience is, basically, the same all over the planet.

My conclusion, after reading The Dervish House, though, is that true cosmopolitanism should consist of making all local writing, in whatever language, available to all other cultures. It would be great to read a Turkish SF novel in Catalan. And invite McDonald to write an SF masterpiece set in his home town, Belfast. For, as Alasdair Gray claimed in Lanark, places are only made real, even for their own inhabitants, if imagined in books by those who live there.

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THE ANOMALY OF COPYRIGHT: THINKING OF FAN FICTION

I’m congratulating myself for having given my students the chance to teach me –about fan fiction. I know about this phenomenon academically, meaning that I’ve read academic work on it. I’m not, however, a reader or a writer and, so, I delegated the task of instructing my Harry Potter class on the subject to those who know: eight wonderful girls students who gave us an exciting collection of presentations.

They covered plenty of ground: defining fan fiction as legitimate literary practice; discussing the thorny matter of copyright infringement; exploring its sub-genres, main themes and canons in general and in relation to Harry Potter; going into the murky depths of slash fiction; presenting other forms of fan production (musicals, vids, songs…) and even teaching the basics of fan fiction criticism –for, yes, fan fiction contains the abysmally bad but also the properly literary. All genres, as I always maintain, tend to form their own canons, as they confirmed. I contributed the word ‘acafan’, Henry Jenkins’s label to name the academic who has a fandom background, whether in community or in a more isolated situation.

So many ideas came up that it’s hard to select a few. I’ll start with the notion that fan fiction goes back to the beginning of the commercialization of culture and ties in with the later idea of copyright. As a student argued, Shakespeare was a fan fiction writer since his sources were never original and he did what fan writers do today: take someone else’s material and elaborate on it. Also, the same student pointed out that, on the completely opposite side, Cervantes was motivated to write the second part of El Quijote by the publication of the anonymous sequel, known as El Quijote de Avellaneda, which he loathed. Recently I published a post here about Pratchett’s Dodger which, technically, is also fan fiction.

Charles Dickens cannot voice an opinion about Dodger but living authors have much to say about what others do with their characters and ideas. Their reactions to fan fiction are mixed: some tolerate it (Rowling), others hate it (Anne Rice). This is because of the Romantic worship of originality and the ensuing Victorian capitalist idea of copyright. In the oral tradition that the Industrial Revolution killed off, anonymity was the rule and, in a way, it’s tempting to argue that the current flood, for it is a flood, of fan fiction is a backlash against these three factors I’ve named.

The rule that legal authors impose is always that fan fiction must not generate any money. Those who eschew fan fiction usually argue that they are annoyed (and even disgusted) by the idea that someone else may freely manipulate what they have so painstakingly created and so painfully published. I wonder, though, whether what is really at stake is the fear that someone else does it better: think again of Shakespeare outdoing any of his sources, and imagine him reborn rewriting any of our current authors. Well, he would not be able to do that and make a living as he did in copyright-free Elizabethan theatre –though, I know, he never published his plays worrying others might make an illicit use.

I’m not against copyright (though I find the idea of copyright inherited by the author’s heirs monstrous). I do want to keep the copyright of my own texts and limit other persons’ use of them to legitimate quotations. Yet, I’m beginning to consider whether the very idea of copyright is not in itself an anomaly, particularly when, at the beginning of the 21st century the generalised impression is that few things are truly original, most culture is recycled. I even heard reputed Catalan designer Claret Serrahima recently declare on TV that art is spent and the avant-garde dead.

In this context, the author’s wrangle with his/her own fans for only authorship and ownership may even seem fantastically narcissistic and even mercenary. After all, if I infringe Rowling’s copyright, I would not even be sued by her but by omnipotent Warner Brothers to whom she has sold her rights (or part thereof).

The strangest anecdote that came up was the case of Marion Bradley Zimmer, who was sued by a fan for plagiarising the fan’s own Zimmer-inspired fiction for a novel. The fan wanted no money, just that Zimmer acknowledged the plagiarism (she never did, claiming it was a coincidence that both had thought of basically the same plot). He also wanted to be credited as co-author on the cover of the novel when it was eventually published. The author decided instead to leave the novel unpublished, in limbo. And this is just one of the stranger, and stranger struggles we’ll see between authors and fans.

Finally, I enjoyed very much the manifest energy that fans put into theorising their chosen field. It is simply what we, academics do, with the difference that they receive no reward and are even mocked for their efforts (by those who fear to be called fans of Jane Austen or James Joyce).

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A CALCULATING WOMAN: PLANNING NEXT YEAR’S SCHEDULE

One of the main tasks I must fulfil as BA Coordinator is planning the schedule for next year. Calculations used to be simple: 1 credit was the equivalent of 10 teaching hours and, so, a full time, tenured teacher was supposed to teach 24 credits, 240 hours. My contract specifies that I work 37,5 hours per week, so if I multiply by 48 weeks a year (minus a 4-week holiday) the total is 1,800 hours. Deduct the 240 hours and I was left with 1,560 hours to prepare classes, do research and contribute to the Department’s management.

Then several things happened a few years ago. The new ECTS system was introduced. This means that for 1 credit students work a total of 25 hours, of which one third (5) is classroom time. Teaching 6 ECTS no longer meant for us, teachers, 60 hours but, oddly enough 50. Suddenly, those of us teaching 24 credits were teaching 200 and not 240 hours. Odd. My university decided then to add an extra ratio for each taught hour that would account for preparation, correction, etc, and, don’t ask me how, we ended up with a strange figure: 560 hours of teaching. For the first time, the size of groups was taken into account, so that teaching a compulsory subject to 70 students would count for many more hours than teaching an elective subject to 15. Fair enough (though I’ve never understood the mathematical formula that was applied).

This year my university has finally approved a formal scale to calculate our teaching hours which takes into account the Wert Decree of two years ago. The decree famously decreed that tenured teachers with Ministry-certified research should teach less, those with no certificates (I mean ‘tramos’) should teach more. My university has dragged its feet about this as, I assume, there must have been much pressure from teachers who didn’t to want teach more than 24 ECTS. I don’t know.

The question is that if you have three ‘tramos’ you are entitled to teaching only 16 ECTS, if your last ‘tramo’ has not expired yet you teach 24, but if it did expire you teach 28 for the next three years, hoping you’ll get it back. If you do no research then it’s 32. Now consider that the 28ers and 32ers are not supposed to teach, anyway, more than 240 classroom hours, the same as the 24ers.

Still with me?

Our Vice-Rector for Faculty is a mathematician. He has determined that in order to know how many hours we should teach we need to multiply our ECTS by 17.5. So, if you teach 16 ECTS, that’s 280 hours; 24 ECTS, then 420; 28 ECTS, that’s 490 and, finally, 32 ECTS amount to 560 hours. That’s the total teaching time, remember, including the famous 240 maximum presential hours, plus supervising BA, MA and PhD dissertations. Now add to this a second mysterious ratio which calculates teaching hours according to the size of the group. Your group is less than 20, then multiply your teaching hours (6ECTS = 50) by 1.5. Between 20 and 29, then by 1.7. Etc, etc.

So far, I have spent two gruelling mornings, calculator in hand, trying to work out a) how many hours each member of our staff is supposed to teach (we’ve been given a figure for the reductions each person is entitled to, but not the actual hours); b) the sum total of the teaching hours per person taking into account the figure for each group/subject. We have a computer application which simply shows the results of someone else’s calculations for the groups but not an application we, poor Coordinators, can use to calculate variations on the official figures.

The results? Well, same as without all the formulas, for we need to teach what we need to teach and without more staff there’s nothing much we can change. I forgot to say that MA teaching time is treated as if were BA teaching time…

Actually, with all those numbers in our hands, we can prove that most faculty members will have to tutor BA and MA dissertations for free. PhD dissertations are always tutored for free, as although the hours are eventually added, this does alter our dedication in a particular year. Take my own case: I must teach 210 hours (I’m a 16er and get a reduction as Coordinator), but my two subjects next year amount to 220 hours. I need to supervise at least two BA dissertations and 1 MA dissertation since both degree programmes simply need my help. That’s 35 extra hours…

All this si quite confusing but at least at UAB we’re still lucky that we have no computer programme clocking in our research and management time (well, for management that might be good). In other Catalan universities some bureaucrat has quantified in hours activities as impossible to calculate as writing an article. Or, if you care to know, preparing a lecture: one day it may be three or four hours, the next one 1 minutes (if you just check what you did last year).

We’re civil servants and should be accountable to the public for the hours we work, I know that. I also know that, somehow, my frantic use of the calculator is preferable to the computer doing the calculations for me –at least, there’s a human touch there. In the end, though, I’m not sure who all these numbers benefit.

Nor whether they do reflect at all our real activity, whether we do more or less than we should. That’s my main concern.

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THE WAND CHOOSES THE WITCH: A STORY FOR POTTERHEADS

If you’re not a Potterhead and if you find the idea of buying movie-related merchandise absurd, you will find what I’m going to narrate here simply silly. If you are a Potterhead, I’m sure you will love it…

When I started teaching the Harry Potter elective and about two thirds of my class declared they owned each a personal wand, I realized I should have to get my own sooner or later. My students explained they had purchased (for 40 euros!) the ‘official’ wand ‘belonging’ to their favourite character. In my case, as they all know by now, this is Sirius Black. However, as I told them, I found it impossible to choose his wand as I don’t understand myself my strong emotional attachment to this very tragic figure (I’m working on it). I decided to buy instead Luna Lovegood’s, a character I like very much, or, perhaps even commission a tailor-made one from a sculptor that sells his wares on the internet. I never checked what each wand looked like, just how much they cost and who sells them (the Noble Collection, “the world’s premiere designer and manufacturer of high end movie prop replicas and collectibles”). And I insisted to everyone who asked me that I would never buy Sirius’ wand, that was totally out of the question.

On Saturday afternoon my husband and I went for a totally improvised walk in Barcelona’s ‘friki’ triangle (Passeig de Sant Joan/Bailén/Ali Bey). We first visited the new Gigamesh shop on Bailén street. Next we wandered into Norma Comics and the first thing we saw was this display, with fifty Harry Potter wands. About half had the name of character ‘owners’ on them, not the rest. I checked Luna’s but didn’t like it much, and I spent about 15 minutes going through the whole collection, not seeing ‘the one.’

My husband eventually pointed one to me, “that’s the one for you”, and I feel in love with it at once. I didn’t care whose it was –that was my wand. What a beauty. After procrastinating for as long as I could, for I sensed what was coming, we asked a shop assistant whose wand that was. He said either Snape’s or Hermione’s. Good, I said, either is fine for me. He asked a second shop assistant, though, and in the minutes that went by I knew it: “It’s Sirius Black’s wand,” he said. I promise I got what I can only describe as an electric shock. My husband blanched. The kind assistant smiled a smile which said “we get this here in this shop every day.” I purchased the wand, the assistant congratulated me when I explained it was not a present but for myself. Here it is now, in a place of honour among my books, below the Harry Potter set.

I felt weird for hours, enjoying very much this magical moment (and I must thank my husband for sharing it with me to the full). This really is, he said, a case of the wand choosing the witch –we laughed much. When we managed to rationalize a little this odd ocurrence, he theorised that perhaps I had seen the wand before and my subconcious recalled it (I don’t think so). Or that, I like this better, the wand designer had perfectly captured the nature of the character and I related to that again subconsciously, which was why I chose the wand (or the wand chose me…). I really don’t know what happened in that shop. Can an object represent a character this well?

You may call it a simple coincidence and dismiss the anecdote as a very silly accident that only shows how childish an adult (me) can be. Fair enough. After all, here I am, investing much emotional energy in possessing an outrageously overpriced piece of high-quality plastic, which is, in addition, mass manufactured. Yet if you go down that road, the world is a dreary place and I prefer going up the other road: the one suggesting that last Saturday afternoon I enjoyed the most magical moment in my forty years of reading. I’m sure all my Potterhead students understand me. Also, if you own a light-sabre you will understand me.

I don’t want to miss the little irrational moments –for this are the ones which, happening very often back in childhood or in our teenage years, finally led us to become adult literature teachers. That they were elicited by Don Quijote or Hamlet, and not by Sirius Black, is to me just a slight difference, though it may be immense to others. It’s all about the magic of reading (and seeing films, of course).

The wand I share with Sirius does have magical powers indeed: whenever I look at it in the future I’ll recall the happy time when I taught ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Series’… and the wand chose the witch.

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