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2001 December

I have long maintained an aloof disdain for anything to do with certain sports. It goes something like this: if, by some quirk of dimensional instability involving twisted merging of parallel realities, everything to do with both football and cricket were suddenly to cease to exist, (and to have ever existed), it would affect me not one jot. The lack of these two sports, and everything that goes with them, would make no difference to me at all.

This is, of course, a fallacy. Such sports are so much a part of our culture that their disappearance would have far-reaching effects that would no doubt touch me in many ways. The point I'm making here is that I have no personal interest in either football or cricket, and I view other people's enthusiasm for them with bemused puzzlement, and occasionally (when two of the four TV channels I can currently receive are showing football) with frustration.

Which brings me to ponder on the ultimate purpose of spectator sport in our lives: what is it for?

The key word here is, I believe, spectator. All sport is spectator sport -- that is part of its definition. The popular sports of today would be nothing at all without their spectators, either in the stadia, or more crucially, the wider, virtual stadia of the nation's living-rooms, where the ultimate audience sits and cheers.

Sport, some say, is a substitute for war. If people did not have sport on which to release their competitive instincts, they'd end up fighting. This is a crude analysis, to say the least, but there's probably something in it. We have evolved by natural selection -- the survival of the fittest -- individually and in groups, and sport is evolution's legacy in the modern world.

But what of those, like me, who have little interest in sport? Are we throwbacks to a doomed branch of the evolutionary tree, surviving only by being illegitimate hangers-on to the true inheritors -- those who are truly the fittest?

Perhaps not. When I say I have little interest in sport, that clearly leaves room for something. For a year or two I followed Formula 1 motor racing on TV. The combination of engineering excellence, team spirit and driver skill was fascinating and addictive. Another 'sport' I have watched avidly on TV recently is Robot Wars. Again we have engineering and driver skill in combination.

My take on this is that we are interested in activities that we think we could, given half a chance, suitable finance, and enough time, be passably good at ourselves.

I'll even watch tennis if it's on TV, and find it exciting, though I'm no good at it at all. I can, however, imagine being good at it, and enjoying playing. But when I was at school we had to play rugby football and cricket, and I hated them both.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 November

Relatively Speaking

In this multi-faceted world of ours, there are those who see everything in terms of black and white, right and wrong, and there are those who see everything in terms of a continuous gradation of shades of grey.

Of course, a statement like that above is itself an absolute -- there are these people, and there are those people. But there are also people in between, who see some things in absolute terms and others in relative terms.

Moral relativism is scorned by absolutists. Morality, for them, is not something that can be negotiated, it is handed down from on high, and dismissed at your peril. But absolutism leads to extremism, intolerance and, usually, holy wars.

Moral relativism, however, can be seen as just one manifestation of universal relativism. There are no truly perceivable absolutes in the universe at large. Even the speed of light is being questioned by the latest scientific speculations, as are the so-called fundamental laws of physics.

But for speculative fiction, absolutes are wonderful. Take a predefined set of rules, be they the laws of a nation, the science of an alien planet, or any other aspect of life that can be thought of as absolute, and you have a story: characters brought up in the milieu of those absolutes, whatever they are, have a framework already set out for them, within which they live their lives.

If scientific absolutism is impossible, there are still great dangers in scientific relativism. In the fields of consciousness, and life itself -- if these are just arbitrary markers on an ever-divisible scale, 'life' for instance, ceases to be 'sacred'. And if there's no specific, absolute marker to define what is alive and what isn't, who knows where such relativism might lead?

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 October

So, we're at war again. But for those of us in Britain who didn't live through World War II, the current conflict in Afghanistan could seem like just another in an ever-growing series of remote contretemps -- Kosovo, Bosnia, the Gulf, etc. The Falklands conflict was a little different for us Brits, as it was seen as a direct attack on our own people, albeit a long way from the mother country.

For Americans, however, the devastating attacks in Manhattan and Washington must strike home like nothing else since Pearl Harbor. And as the full horror of events developed before our incredulous eyes on the morning of September 11 our thoughts and sympathies were inevitably tinged with relief that it wasn't happening here, and at the same time realising that it so easily could be. We are all equally vulnerable -- as is even now being brought home by the current anthrax scares.

The war against terrorism is something in which we are morally obliged to participate. Obliged, that is, if we value our civilisation, and consider it worthwhile preserving against attacks on its vulnerability.

Civilisation is not a stable state -- it needs to be maintained, by force if necessary.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 September

Computer Literacy

I've been using computers ever since I made my very first one from a kit -- the Sinclair ZX81.

I learned very little about how it worked from following the kit's instructions, but I remember staying up till 2 in the morning to finish putting it together.

I had a basic knowledge of electronics and knew how to use a soldering iron. In 1981 that's all you needed (along with 50) to assemble your very own computer.

It was only after after using the completed machine, with its fiddly membrane keyboard, its minuscule 1k of memory and its upper-case monochrome display (in my case an ex-rental black-and-white TV) that I became curious about how it actually accomplished what it did.

What I was doing then could be described as anorakish -- reading computer magazines, buying neat little accessories, making add-on projects. Unlike many people (mostly older than me), I had no fear of computers -- I remember the clear instructions in the ZX81 manual: no matter what keys you pressed, you could not possibly cause harm to the computer. Such reassurance naturally encouraged me to experiment.

These days that reassurance no longer applies; you can indeed cause inadvertent damage to your data or your hard disk. People are justifiably afraid that they could destroy months of work by doing something stupid. This is why we make backups -- we do make backups, don't we?

It can be difficult to convince people of the necessity of backups, especially those who have never suffered catastrophic loss of data. But it only takes one irrecoverable hard disk crash, with consequent loss of everything on it, to bring home the importance of something that had till then seemed like an unwarranted obsession with safety.

Often, the refusal to believe that backups are a necessary routine chore in the day-to-day use of a computer goes hand-in-hand with a refusal to learn more about the computer and its software. There are some pretty basic things you need to know if you are to get even moderate benefit from the use of a computer, other than actually knowing how to switch the thing on and off. Assuming the computer is equipped with a graphical user interface (and these days nearly all are), these are the basic things you need to grasp:

It's simple stuff, and absolutely basic, compared to some of the more abstruse subtleties you tend to get involved in later. And in order to communicate with others regarding use of the computer (such as a telephone help-line) you need to understand and use standard computer jargon. This isn't something that should be feared -- this is, again, pretty simple stuff:

Currently there is no way round this necessity of learning new stuff. Personal computers are complex devices that require a considerable amount of skill to use effectively and efficiently. If you want to use a computer to do only one thing (email, for instance, or wordprocessing) and nothing else, it can be set up to do just that, and the user doesn't need to to know much about such bothersome things as the operating system. But for someone whose computer has been thus configured, as soon as they want to do something else (as they probably will eventually), such as keep a list of names and addresses in a way that will be useful, they are lost.

A modern computer is a powerful machine. You wouldn't be allowed to drive a car without some training, so it's reasonable to get some training (even teach-yourself) in the use of a computer.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 August


Who said speculative fiction is dying? Speculative drama is alive and well on the big screen -- and in the animators' computers.

Computer animation is growing up, and spec-fic is its ideal vehicle. Shrek, the latest computer-animated fantasy shows the state of the art. It's not perfect, of course, but there are some things that the animators have now mastered. The depiction of realistic water, whether running, splashing, or just calmly reflecting, is now pretty convincing. Fire, too, is realistic, with flames that you can almost feel the heat from.

Shrek is an enjoyable, funny movie, with a superficially traditional plot about the eponymous ogre reluctantly setting out on a quest to rescue a beautiful princess. The star voices (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow) deliver the sharp script with style and wit. The film, however, does have two incompatible sides to it. Though it subverts the cartoon genre -- mercilessly taking the mickey (mouse?) out of Disney -- it also plays to convention in its ultimate theme: if you're ugly, you won't get the beautiful girl/handsome man, only the ugly one.

Okay, so you're not meant to take it seriously, and I suppose that a movie this close to the leading edge of technology felt that there were only so many risks it could take.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 July

What makes a good short story?

As editor of THIS WAY UP : Speculative Fiction Online, I read and pass judgement on stories of many kinds. Among the questions I try to answer while reading a submitted story are: Why should I read this? and What's the purpose behind it?

For me, a good story has some kind of question set up in the initial paragraphs. If that question is not answered in the rest of the story, or at least addressed in some way, then for me the story fails.

The purpose behind a story doesn't need to be the same purpose the author had in writing it. What I'm talking about is the apparent purpose of the story. This could simply be something contrived by the author as, for instance, plot. Something that gives the story some direction, or structure, even if the author originally wrote the story as an experiment in a new style of narrative.

Authors are free to be creative here. Just because writing the story was a way of purging the frustrations of life (or whatever), the author isn't restricted to that particular purpose. He or she can invent some entirely different reason for telling the story.

As long as the story has integrity, and its apparent purpose is clear, the author's reason for telling it can be anything at all.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 June

Doors Closing...Closed

It had to happen, so I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise. After a series of restrictions, a pay-rate reduction and withdrawal of support services, Themestream has gone down, hitting the bit-bucket with a resounding clang.

I should have known -- and I suppose I did, really. The idea of a pay-per-click publishing model as a viable proposition was probably doomed from the start.

I'm not complaining. I had some articles on Themestream for few months, and I did get paid. Not much, it's true, but more than I'd expected from that particular mode of publishing.

When Themestream closed its doors I looked briefly at -- not with a view to getting paid for articles I posted there, as non-US members didn't get paid, no matter how much their articles earned. No, I looked at as an alternative forum, now that the Themestream community was no more.

The best thing about Themestream was the feedback. People were encouraged to comment on articles, to engage in discussions with the authors and other readers. appeared to be set up in a similar way, though I found its structure rather complex, with some arbitrary restrictions.

On balance, though, I decided I'd finished experimenting with pay-per-click publishing. Now it seems that is on its way out. Ho was fun while it lasted.

Douglas Adams, 1952 - 2001

Another, far more regrettable demise: Douglas Adams, creator of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, died last month. Hitch-Hiker is a comic masterpiece, the SF spoof to end all spoofs, but its author was one of the few to grasp the full potential of the internet and the World Wide Web. His series of documentaries broadcast recently on BBC Radio 4 (the station, incidentally, that first broadcast Hitch-Hiker) investigated the Net's impact on a whole range of endeavours, from politics and democracy, to music and publishing.

His untimely death, at a time when he was poised to become Britain's foremost internet guru, is particularly unnerving for me personally, as he was only a year older than I am.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 May

Soap, Again

Do the characters in The Archers listen to Farming Today? Of course they do. But what do they hear if they switch on BBC Radio 4 at 2pm or 7pm?

The scriptwriters of The Archers are very good at incorporating real events into their storylines, and just at the moment there's plenty that's highly relevant to "an every day story of country folk." Foot and Mouth disease, for one thing. And BSE, organic farming, genetically engineered crops -- enough to keep any Archers scriptwriter stocked with potential plots.

But there's also the potential for entanglement and surreality. Archers' characters have, on occasion, referred to another soap, BBC1's EastEnders. This is all very well; EastEnders is popular enough that we can assume at least some of the characters in The Archers would watch it. But what if a character in EastEnders listens to The Archers, and a character in The Archers sees this episode?

Naturally, the scriptwiters wouldn't go so far as to show this happening, but the mere mention of one soap opera in another can't help raising these questions.

Such circular references can make for fascinating narratives in speculative fiction. Brian Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound is one such. Aldiss's protagonist, Joseph Bodenland, time-travels into the past and meets Mary Shelley, the writer of that progenitor of science fiction, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

That, too, is all very well, but Bodenland also meets the monster's creator, Victor Frankenstein -- a fictional character. How can this be?

Well, isn't Bodenland himself a fictional character? He can meet whomsoever his author wishes. This is fine for speculative fiction, but when it comes to The Archers, such fictional juxtapositions can stretch one's suspension of disbelief to breaking point.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 April


Anyone who wants to know what the Rev-Master likes has only to peruse these Rev-Up Review Pages. The reviews herein give an accurate portrayal of his preferences in speculative (and other) fiction. These editorials also provide a glimpse into some of his views on other matters.

It has probably not escaped the notice of Rev-Up regulars that the Rev-Master also writes fiction. He therefore proudly presents this hyperlink:

Digital Catapult is an online speculative fiction web-zine, and for the next three months or so you can read the Rev-Master's latest published story, "Waiting for Your Call."

On the Digital Catapult home page, scroll down and click on "Current Issue" -- then click on "Waiting for Your Call."

Go on, you know you want to...

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 March

Favourite Books

Recently an editor who accepted one of my stories asked for the titles and authors of my two favourite books, for the magazine's recommended reading page. This set me thinking, because my favourite books tend to change over time.

As my all-time favourite SF book, I picked The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. For sheer sensawunda this is a classic.

For a non-genre book, I chose Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Set in the First World War, around the Battle of the Somme, it's beautifully written, superbly structured and deeply felt.

In case non-genre books were not admissible, I picked an alternative second choice: The Dumb House by John Burnside. This is superb psychological horror, from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 February

Rate This Story

The first issue of THIS WAY UP : Speculative Fiction Online has been available for four months, and will shortly be replaced by the second. It showcases five stories by authors from the UK and across the pond.

At the end of each story is a link to Rate this Story, which takes the reader to a mailform for comments to be passed on to the author. There's also a request that the reader include a number, from 1 (dreadful) to 5 (excellent). The server that hosts TWU does not provide the facility to add thumbwheels, drop-down boxes or radio buttons, so the reader is asked to type the number into the text box, along with his or her comments.

The rating and comments form has been hardly used. Whether this is a reflection of the number of page views that the stories receive as a whole, or the unwillingness of readers to comment, or any unfriendliness of the form, I don't know. I've no webstats installed in TWU.

What I do know is that most authors appreciate feedback, and this is what led to the rating form. The results so far, however, haven't produced sufficient data to give a meaningful overall rating to each story, so no ratings will appear with the stories when they are archived. All comments received will, however, be forwarded to the authors.

I'm considering removing the rating form after issue 2, unless I can find some way of increasing its usage.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

2001 January

Less, Not More

In Britain we're on the brink of a televisual revolution. Digital TV, the internet and communications in general are about to transform our lives.

For decades, we Brits have been justly proud of our TV. The choice has been limited, until recently, to only four terrestrial broadcast channels. (Channel 5, the latest addition, doesn't cover the whole country. I can't get it here in Portsmouth -- the middle of the South Coast of England -- not exactly the far-flung reaches of the British Isles.)

But our choice has been between a limited number of fairly high quality programmes, rather than sifting a plethora of dross. In recent years there's been satellite TV, and now cable.

We are about to be given -- we are told -- a great deal more choice. More channels, more programmes. More and more to watch.

Personally, I don't have time to watch everything I would like to on the four terrestrial channels I can currently receive. Some of those programmes I tape, rather than miss them. And then I don't have time to watch the recordings.

TV is a great time-waster. How many of you, after the end of, say, the one programme of the evening you've decided to watch, pick up the remote and flick through the other channels?

I have many things I want to do with my time, and 'watching TV' comes pretty low on my list of priorities. Sure, I'll watch a programme I want to watch, because I've made a conscious decision to do so. But I think some ground rules are in order:

It's a good try, but probably futile.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins

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