A truly awesome piece:
A shame it’s missing several other candidates:
My post last month on “privileged” fantasy vs “egalitarian” science-fiction has got me thinking. It is an common feature of literary criticism that Tolkienian fantasy embodies a conservative, agrarian view of the world (McGarry and Ravipinto). Certainly, it is widely accepted that The Lord of the Rings is the product of tweed jackets and pipe-smoke, whereas George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – or at least its TV adaptation – is considered a much closer fit with how twenty-first century western society perceives itself. Unlike Rings, Song has on-screen sex and swearing, and garners praise for its moral complexity (again, see McGarry and Ravipinto).
Yet, I would argue that Song contains social ideas far more “out of time” than anything in Rings, and more to the point, treats them decidedly uncritically. Glorification of blood lineage – supposedly a sin of Tolkien – is there in spades in Martin. Whereas Tolkien’s world is saved by the likes of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, middle-class and working-class respectively, Martin’s protagonists are almost entirely nobles (those who aren’t, like Davos, are in the story because they hang around nobles). Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly may have complaints about their stepmother and father respectively, but they were both born with silver spoons lodged firmly in their mouths. And Jon may or may not be a secret Targaryen Heir.
But it is deeper than that. The root cause of the War of the Ring is about tyranny vs opposition to tyranny – the main focus is not on a throne, but a ring. The root cause of the War of the Five Kings is about who is the rightful ruler of Westeros, a question that hinges on very non-progressive views of genetics.
Take, for instance, Eddard Stark. From the moment we see him executing a man with his own blade, the narrative clearly intends us to like Ned. He believes in honour and decency, in treating his peasants well, in opposing the murder of innocent children (a tragic flaw that proves his downfall). Ned, it seems, has ideals we can relate to. So when Ned finds out about Jaime and Cersei, our immediate thought is to go along with his notion that Joffrey is an illegitimate monarch, and that Stannis is the true heir. Yay for Ned! Joffrey is an arsehole anyway.
Until you realise that Ned’s reasons for opposing Joffrey’s rule aren’t ours. Ned doesn’t oppose Joffrey because he’s unfit to rule (though he is); Ned opposes Joffrey because Joffrey lacks the right DNA: Joffrey was the product of one man having sex with Cersei Lannister, rather than another. If Joffrey were Robert’s, Ned would be right behind him, so long as he didn’t pull an Aerys and started chopping off Stark heads. In other words, Ned is a believer that one’s right to rule hinges entirely on one’s birth – not their character or ability, and Martin’s narrative (by presenting Ned so sympathetically and his enemies so unsympathetically) tacitly encourages us to accept that particular ideological framework.
While a feudal nobility and birth-right are inherently intertwined, in this case I reject arguments based on “historical accuracy” (a term I hate when applied to fantasy fiction). The handling of the situation is Martin’s own narrative choice. After all, Ned’s “modern” notions are what encourage the reader to initially sympathise with him: it is the sugar-coated covering for reactionary ideas.
Furthermore, Martin chooses to dress up a conflict over birth-right as a war about morality. Suppose Joffrey were kind and competent, a less doormat-like version of Tommen. Would that change anything? Well, it might make the reader question whether Ned is doing the right thing. It might make us feel some sympathy for Joffrey and his mother – he has no choice in his paternity, and she was shoe-horned into marriage with a violent, alcoholic oaf. But Song does not want us to sympathise with Joffrey and Cersei; the text wants us hate them, because they are “wrong” in terms of Ned’s lineage-centred worldview. Even when Cersei does get her own viewpoint, it only serves to make her more repellent – as though Martin doesn’t trust us to come to our own conclusions about the character.
But wait, you say, The Lord of the Rings has Aragorn, Isildur’s Heir. He too is claiming the throne based on lineage. He too is supported by the ‘good guys’ (Gandalf), and opposed by someone (Denethor) whom we are supposed to consider wrong. How is this different from the situation of Ned and Joffrey/Cersei?
Leaving aside my perennial point that Rings is not really about the throne of Gondor, whereas Song is emphatically about the throne of Westeros, I would suggest two reasons. Firstly, the dispute between Aragorn and Denethor is a dynastic dispute with valid points on both sides – it is a modern rehash of an argument over a thousand years old, and, if anything, precedent is actually on Denethor’s side: Minas Tirith has explicitly rejected Isildur’s line in the past. This sort of legalistic dispute is thus actually more akin to Martin’s Dance of the Dragons conflict than Ned and Joffrey/Cersei, where one side is unquestionably right (within the blood-dependent system) and one is unquestionably wrong.
Secondly, Tolkien’s portrayal of the characters, in contrast to Martin, is not white vs black, but white vs grey (you have no idea how much I enjoyed writing that sentence). Tolkien’s Denethor is no Joffrey or Cersei – he’s highly intelligent and competent, and is ultimately a tragic figure who gives into despair. The text may encourage us to cheer for Aragorn over him, but it does not encourage us to hate him – Denethor is to be pitied, not scorned. As for Aragorn, while Tolkien’s text clearly favours his side, he has to base his claim on more than just blood. He has to earn the throne first via decades in the wilderness, followed by the War of the Ring, before explicitly running his claim past the people of Minas Tirith (imagine Ned asking the people of King’s Landing if they prefer Joffrey or Stannis!). If being the Heir of Isildur were enough in itself, any one of Aragorn’s ancestors could have claimed the throne beforehand – but they don’t.
In other words, for all that Tolkien gets bashed for his old-fashioned views, his handling of the dynastic situation is actually pretty nuanced. As with Martin, we are still being invited to buy into the notion of someone having the rightful claim to the throne, but we don’t have such a clear divide between right and wrong, and even then the “wrong” side certainly isn’t demonised. Aragorn also has an element of merit behind his claim, rather than justification on birth alone. If Miéville criticises Tolkien for being about “good Kings vs bad Kings, rather than about Kings,” then at least the underlying conflict in Rings isn’t about our protagonist heroically disputing a monarch’s genetics. Which one is the twenty-first century writer again?
With the current case of Stephen Fry and Ireland, attention here has turned to the fact that New Zealand also still has a blasphemy law on the books (unenforced since 1922). So our politicians, some of whom were not actually aware of the law’s existence, are considering abolishing it:
This is an issue close to my heart. Not because I actually think blasphemy laws serve any purpose, but because I did a research essay on the subject at University – it may be an obscure law, but it’s an interesting law.
For old time’s sake, here’s my research essay, in full:
Christ on a Crutch: Blasphemous Libel in England and New Zealand
On 22nd February, 1922, the Supreme Court1 in Wellington played host to a history-making spectacle, when, for the first and last time in this country, the Crown prosecuted a case of blasphemous libel: R. v. Glover.2 It was as much funeral as birth. Far from a well-spring of significant decisions, it became the fossilised memory of a dying crime. In the 120 years of New Zealand’s criminal code, the unsuccessful action in Glover stands alone.
What is blasphemous libel? In short, it is defamation of the sacred: the malicious attack on (Christian) faith and doctrine. More systematically, it is the ecclesiastical twin of sedition: another ancient shield for authority against the slings and arrows of the irreverent. Both sedition and blasphemous libel have deep roots in English common law, and while neither is valued in an age that prefers secular government and emphasises individual rights, the transplantation of blasphemy to colonial soil reveals much about New Zealanders as a people. Far from simply aping English procedure, it will be argued New Zealand authorities took the more enlightened developments in English law, and built on them in unique ways.
Yet whereas English blasphemy law met its proverbial maker in 2008,3 New Zealand’s is still preserved like an insect in amber. s123 of the Crimes Act 1961 has outlived both sedition and death penalty: obscure and dormant for ninety years, there is little pressure for repeal. Is there any chance of revival? Almost certainly not, but the enactment’s status, both as dead letter and as still-current legislation, does not exist in a social vacuum.
In considering this unique legal relic, this essay shall chart the evolution of blasphemous libel in English law, before returning to New Zealand for comparison and contrast. Only then can we appreciate the values beneath the surface, for blasphemous libel is entirely values.
II. England and Blasphemous Libel
English blasphemy was, in theory, a double-headed monster: whereas New Zealand’s provisions are entirely statutory4, in England the offence carried the weight of both Parliament5 and the Courts. These twin branches struck both cumulatively and independently: common law prosecution did not prevent prosecution under statute,6 and when an 1813 statute7 repealed provisions of 1697 legislation, the Courts held repeal did not alter common law.8 In practice, however, prosecutions were solely creatures of the common law; few statutory prosecutions took place,9 as the four day window for laying charges would likely have proved impractical.10
Lord Edmund-Davies’ dissent in R. v. Lemon11 traces the four forms of libel (sedition, blasphemy, obscenity, and defamation) back to ecclesiastical courts and the Star Chamber, which, in his Lordship’s view, was suspicious of written words in general, and challenges to authority in particular.12 Certainly, full governmental force was employed: Atwood’s Case (1617)13 held that blasphemy cases were for central authority, not local justices of the peace. The common law courts, specifically the Court of the King’s Bench, then inherited the role after 1641.
This merger of secular and religious reached full flower in England with R. v. Taylor (1676),14 when Hale CJ justified blasphemous libel prosecutions in borderline theocratic terms:
Christianity is parcel of the laws of England, and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.15
This is alien to our eyes: even individuals who see a symbiotic relationship between law and faith rarely consider reproach of one as subversion of the other. The reason is values dissonance. In New Zealand (and post-Enlightenment England) religion is largely a private matter and criminal law a public, whereas in Taylor, Church and State are irrevocably intertwined. Hale’s emphasis on Christian religion16 is similarly problematic: New Zealand today regards itself as not merely secular, but also multicultural. Yet, if s123 is not an echo of these forgotten ideas, what is it?
An answer may be found in the two centuries after Taylor. Blasphemous libel evolved, underlying justifications shifted, and the circumstances under which a person faced conviction were narrowed. By the early nineteenth century, it was no longer a truism that Church must be protected, lest State crumble.
If the first incarnation of blasphemous libel punished constitutional-level subversion of authority, an example of the second incarnation is R. v. Carlile (1819),17 where Best J writes:
Any writing which has a tendency to vilify the Christian religion or the books of the Old and New Testament is a blasphemous libel, and the question for the jury, when publication is proved, is, whether the alleged libel was a temperate discussion of the truth of the Christian religion or an attempt to vilify and degrade it, to excite prejudice, and not to convince.18
Permitting religious debate, albeit in temperate language only, is significant. Very Enlightenment-flavoured, though the change also suggests the state no longer regarded atheists, Jews, Catholics, and non-Conformists as existential threats.
Not that blasphemous libel yet approached anything resembling modern sensibilities. Carlile still resulted in conviction. R. v. Gathercole (1838)19 reasserted the role of blasphemous libel in serving state interests, holding that the law did not protect non-Anglicans, only the Established Church.20 Gathercole curiously resurfaced in the 1990s, when R. v. Chief Metropolitan Stipendary Magistrate, ex parte Choudhury21 considered an allegedly anti-Islamic book. Since one could not blaspheme against Islam in English law, no action could be taken.
An expansion of Carlile came with R. v. Hetherington (1841).22 Per Lord Denman CJ:
The question in prosecutions for blasphemy is not altogether a matter of opinion, but in a great degree of tone and style and spirit. A difference in opinion may subsist, not only as between different sets of Christians, but also with regard to the great doctrines of Christianity itself, and discussion upon that subject if they be conducted in a sober and temperate and decent style may be tolerated… but if the tone and spirit is that of offence and ridicule, which leaves the judgement really not free to act…23
Denman not only confirms the non-criminality of debate, but converts blasphemy from theological treason to disrespect for the marketplace of ideas. Blasphemous libel, in his view, perverts religious argument, so the authorities have moved from Taylor to more subtle regulation of language. Nevertheless, blasphemous libel still fulfilled its old role: contemporaneous with Hetherington, was R. v. Moxon (1841),24 where a publisher was successfully prosecuted for publishing Shelley’s utopian Queen Mab.
The last gasp of English blasphemous libel features two Lord Coleridge cases: R. Bradlaugh (1883)25 and R. v. Ramsay and Foote (1883).26 These are the final word in the common law in this area. Lemon, which revived the crime in 1979 after 57 years, is five House of Lords judges debating Coleridge’s words.27
Bradlaugh and Ramsay and Foote share a similar thread: denial of Christianity does not constitute blasphemous libel. Rather, it is
wilful intention to pervert, insult, and mislead others by means of licentious and contumacious abuse supplied to sacred subjects, or by wilful misrepresentation or artful sophistries calculated to mislead the ignorant and unwary.28
Coleridge moves blasphemous libel from a theological question to a social question. Rather than denial or disrespect of the Christian God, the focus is on real people, and whether the alleged libel was calculated to offend and shock. Like Denman, Coleridge also sees a role for the law in protecting those who might be influenced by dangerous tracts; whether this is paternalistic or patronising depends on one’s own values (and social class).
Four more cases followed between 1883 and 1922; the last, R. v. Gott,29 further emphasises social context and breaches of the peace. Afterwards, there is only Lemon, where Lord Scarman passionately defends blasphemous libel law as safeguarding social harmony.30 Scarman’s plea fell on deaf ears. In 1967, statutory blasphemy was abolished, followed in 2008 by its abolition in common law. Even shifting the crime from theological to social was insufficient in a secular and individualistic age.
III. New Zealand Blasphemy: Statute Law
By the time British sovereignty was established in New Zealand, English blasphemy law had long since abandoned Hale CJ’s theocratic underpinnings. The establishment of New Zealand’s Supreme Court coincided with Hetherington; blasphemy was now a matter of public order, and paternalistic regulation of language, rather than propping up state authority.
In 1893, New Zealand adopted its first Criminal Code. Common law offences were abolished, but blasphemous libel was incorporated under s133:
(1) Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year who publishes any blasphemous libel.
(2) Whether any particular published matter is or is not a blasphemous libel is a question of fact.
(3) It is not an offence against this section to express in good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, any opinion whatever on any religious subject.
(4) No-one shall be indicted under this section unless with the sanction in writing of the Attorney General for the time being first had and obtained.
With non-substantive changes, the section survived into the Crimes Act 1908, s150, and then to the Crimes Act 1961, s123. This, then, is the entire legal basis for blasphemous libel in New Zealand, yet nowhere is the crime actually defined: one is reliant on Glover (discussed below) and English authorities. Lacking common law blasphemous libel, New Zealand must import it to define it.
But Gathercole holds that one can only blaspheme the state religion. New Zealand, a colony full of Scottish and Irish as well as English settlers, had never imported an Established Church. How, then, does one blaspheme without a state religion?31
There are two possibilities. The first is that 1893 codification compressed existing law into statute; blasphemous libel existed in common law, so was incorporated despite New Zealand lacking the necessary institutional apparatus. However, it is inconceivable this could have subsequently passed unnoticed, so the provision should have been quietly removed well before Glover. The other, more likely, scenario is that New Zealand never intended Gathercole underpinnings, and so substituted broader community values, pre-empting Lord Sumner’s ‘strange dictum’ criticism by twenty years. This more ecumenical reading is strengthened by the third paragraph’s “any opinion whatever on any religious subject:” there is no specific faith nominated for protection.
Thus New Zealand omits the denominational baggage of previous centuries. What of Lord Coleridge’s ‘social’ view? A wider reading of the 1893 statute provides clues: blasphemous libel is listed alongside (now-repealed) provisions outlawing assaults on ministers of religion, and disturbing public worship. Neither are denomination-specific, and both focus on ensuring worship without harassment. This meshes perfectly with Coleridge: respectful criticism is fine, so long as it does not disrupt the deeply-held values of others.32 New Zealand blasphemy law seems more Scarman than Hale: blasphemy exists to protect the community, not the Christian religion in and of itself. One considering s123 of the 1961 Act in isolation may miss this nuance.
Other statutory innovations can be detected too: the second paragraph’s inference that criminal blasphemy must be written (confirmed in Glover), so verbal communication and (presumably) artwork33 are exempt. Similarly, arguing in good faith is exempt from prosecution, an extension of the defence dating back to Carlile. But most interesting is paragraph four: prosecution requires the explicit approval of the Attorney General. Since 1893, New Zealand has imposed a statutory roadblock unknown in England, shifting focus from routine law-enforcement towards the highest rung of the Executive, and ensuring prosecution for blasphemous libel could only ever be a calculated political decision. Paragraph four boils down the issue to a contest of values: is the wider polity (via the Attorney General) prepared to trump an individual’s freedom of expression in the name of (presumably) social cohesion?
Since at least 1990, the answer has been negative. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 embodies the social zeitgeist, and explicitly guarantees freedom of expression in s14. With courts using the provision to reinterpret existing legislation,34 it is near inconceivable that any s123 prosecution could succeed, even with Attorney General approval.35 Meanwhile, blasphemy cannot re-enter law via s15 (freedom of religion): Mendelssohn v. Attorney-General36 establishes that the state’s duties are merely passive.
IV. New Zealand Blasphemy: Case Law
Unlike Lemon, Glover was a tame affair. On October 21st, 1920, The Maoriland Worker printed two poems by Siegfried Sassoon. The second, ‘Stand-to: Good Friday Morning,’ concludes with the three lines:
O Jesus, send me a wound today
And I’ll believe in Your bread and wine
And get my bloody old sins washed white!37
Attorney-General Sir Francis Bell considered this blasphemous libel under s150 of the 1908 Act, and prosecuted the editor, John Glover.38
Hosking J’s approach is interesting. He laments the lack of legal guidance, having explicitly avoided English case law:
If we went to the common law of England for instruction upon the subject, we should find in the common law of England that the topics which are referred to in this poem are most decidedly within the law as to blasphemy. But, as I say, we are not governed by that…39
This is either an assertion of judicial independence, or a judge avoiding unwanted precedent.40
He then establishes the New Zealand standard for blasphemous libel, by creating a three-fold test. Firstly, it “must be against a religious and sacred subject, that within the community is well-known as treated with respect and reverence.”41 It must be written (unlike England), as permanence is important.42 Finally, the language in its everyday sense must be beyond the bounds of decency, being “contemptuous and reviling in its character.”43 Cherry-picking English law, Hosking J invokes Coleridge’s view of decency.44
He further lists non-defences: Glover’s status as editor, not writer;45 the prior publishing of the poem;46 and alleged realism (merely because the words were used in the trenches, does not render them fit for publication).47 Hosking J explicitly addresses freedom of thought, arguing blasphemous libel is a matter of manner, not substance, and that the entire case hinges on whether the last line is beyond social bounds.48 The jury decided it wasn’t, and acquitted.49
What to make of this solitary outing of New Zealand blasphemy law? Hosking builds on Coleridge by treating this as a crime against the community: if the poem’s words are blasphemous, it is because their indecency offends others. It is not a crime against God, but against men, and Christianity only enjoys its status through its widespread nature. Were it not for Hosking J’s specification of “religious subject”, one might imagine rugby-haters blaspheming the Ranfurly Shield. But is secularly-derived blasphemy an oxymoron? If blasphemy is essentially a means to ensure social harmony, there are other, less loaded, ways to achieve the same result: breaches of the peace through disorderly conduct charges, offensiveness through the offended learning to live and let live. The obsolescence of s123 may be as much society dispensing with hollow lip-service as promoting unbridled individualism.
This essay has now considered blasphemous libel in England and New Zealand: the former abolished, the latter comatose. Full-blooded blasphemy law, the flavour in Taylor, died when social elites ceased to find non-Anglicans threatening, through the crime lingered on in England as a means of protecting individuals from offence and patronising the excitable lower orders. New Zealand only experienced blasphemy in its tolerant dotage: something law-makers were clearly aware of, as they not only built on the secular shift of nineteenth century case law, but also took a far more ecumenical view than English courts ever did. Via the Attorney-General provision, New Zealand further ensures any prosecution must be a political consideration, with Government facing consequences at the ballot box if it strays from the values of voters. The Kiwi way, perhaps, and those who see fossilised theocracy in s123 are criticising a tiger toothless even in 1893. Our law-makers long ago moved on, finding new ways of promoting social cohesion and order that better, and more sincerely, reflect the zeitgeist of our age.
Case Law: England
Atwood’s Case (1617) 79 ER 359.
Bowman v. Secular Society Ltd  AC 406.
R. Bradlaugh (1883) 15 Cox CC 217.
R. v. Carlile (1819) 106 ER 621.
R. v. Chief Metropolitan Stipendary Magistrate, ex parte Choudhury  1 All ER 306.
R. v. Gathercole (1838) 168 ER 1140.
R. v. Gott  16 Cr App Rep 87
R. v. Hetherington (1841) 5 JP 496.
R. v. Lemon  1 All ER 898.
R. v. Moxon (1841) 4 State Tr NS 693.
R. v. Ramsay and Foote (1883) 15 Cox 231.
R. v. Taylor (1676) 1 Vent 293.
R. v. Waddington (1822) 107 ER 11.
Case Law: New Zealand
Hopkinson v. Police  3 NZLR 704.
Mendelssohn v. Attorney-General  2 NZLR 268.
R. v. Glover  GLR 185
Blasphemy Act 1697. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=46921
Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
Criminal Law Act 1967.
Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813.
Statute: New Zealand
Criminal Code Act 1893.
Crimes Act 1908.
Crimes Act 1961.
New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
The Law Commission [England]. ‘Offences Against Religion and Public Worship,’ working paper no. 79., 1981.
Maoriland Worker, 1st March, 1922: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=MW19220301.2.2&l=mi&e=——-10–1—-0–
New Zealand Herald, 4th March, 2006: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10371024
Sassoon, S., ‘Stand-to: Good Friday Morning,’ http://www.bartleby.com/135/21.html
1The High Court since 1980.
2  GLR 185
3Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, s79(1). The abolition is effective in England and Wales, not Scotland.
4New Zealand abolished common law offences: Criminal Code Act 1893, s6, Crimes Act 1908, s5, and Crimes Act 1961, s9.
5The Blasphemy Act 1697, repealed by the Criminal Law Act 1967, s13(2).
6R. v. Carlile (1819) 106 ER 621. Best J argues common law protects morals, and statute protects government.
7The Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813, removing penalties for Unitarians.
8R. v. Waddington (1822) 107 ER 11.
9 The Law Commission [England], ‘Offences Against Religion and Public Worship,’ working paper no. 79., 1981.
11  1 All ER 898
12Lemon, per Lord Edmund-Davies.
13 79 ER 359
14 1 Vent 293
16Hale means the Anglican Church. Other denominations were less welcome; it would be a further century and a half before Roman Catholics were permitted to sit in the British House of Commons.
17 106 ER 621
18 Ibid. Emphasis mine.
19 168 ER 1140
20Bowman v. Secular Society Ltd  AC 406, per Lord Sumner, calls Gathercole as a strange dictum. By 1917, constitutional protection of authority (the older justification for blasphemy laws) and keeping the peace (the newer) had separated: Sumner points out offending a Jew is likely to start a fight as offending an Anglican.
21  1 All ER 306
22 5 JP 496.
24 4 State Tr NS 693
25 15 Cox CC 217
26 15 Cox 231
27The decision hinged on whether blasphemous libel required intent to blaspheme, or merely intent to publish. The House of Lords decided 3-2 in favour of the latter.
29  16 Cr App Rep 87
30Lemon also held that a breach of the peace was not necessary for blasphemous libel.
31The same arguably applies to Wales after disestablishment in 1920. But no Welsh blasphemy cases were tried until abolition in 2008.
32None of the penalties were overly harsh. Assault on a minister of religion carried the same maximum penalty as aggravated assault.
33Had Te Papa’s ‘Virgin in a Condom’ exhibit been prosecuted in 1998, this might have been debated.
34See Hopkinson v. Police  3 NZLR 704.
35Hence Solicitor-General John McGrath not prosecuting Te Papa for “Virgin in a Condom”: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10371024
36  2 NZLR 268.
39 Glover, per Hosking J, at 185. Emphasis mine.
40Hosking’s tone is that of a man who wants a nuisance to go away. He opens by noting that blasphemous libel is not a severe crime.
41 Glover, per Hosking J, at 185.
42 Ibid., at 186.
43 Ibid., at 185.
44 Ibid. at 186.
46 Ibid., at 187.
49Attaching a rider that future publication of such language be discouraged.
A block or so from my new place: all that is left of what was once Dunedin’s premier sports ground.
Completed reads for April:
Yes, only the one book finished in April, making it the worst month I’ve had in either this year or last. I do have an excuse though: this month involved moving house, and rehearsing for/performing in the annual German Play.
Radio New Zealand has been doing a series of interviews with our former Prime Ministers. Some have been truly interesting – Jim Bolger’s repudiation of neoliberalism, for example. But today they got to our worst living Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley (1997-1999), and, well, Shipley is just as obnoxious as ever:
Having served on the Executive of a Students’ Association, access to tertiary education is a matter close to my heart. Above all, it is about opportunity: I was the first member of my family to go to University, and I would never have been able to attend without the loan and allowance system (free tertiary education having ended in New Zealand in 1989). As the son of a caretaker, I would certainly never have been able to pursue law. So to see Shipley going on about this makes me angry. Very angry.
You see, the thing about the New Zealand student allowance system is that it is terminally screwed-up already. Basically, it assumes that your parents support you until age 24 – which simply isn’t true in the vast majority of cases – and does not inflation-adjust when considering parental incomes. The upshot is that only a minority of students currently get student allowances, while because the very rich can manipulate their income (via trusts) there are students who receive an allowance while being the children of extremely wealthy parents. Shipley is attacking people whose parental income (via inflation creep) is now over the threshold, yet aren’t lucky enough to be the offspring of rich tax dodgers.
The best solution would be to have a universal student allowance – never mind the issue of student debt, the amount of money saved without having to impose this artificial means-testing would be immense. If Shipley is truly concerned about middle-class welfare (hint: she isn’t. She just has odd ideas about costs of living outside her personal bubble), the obvious counterpoint is that the people who use tertiary education to get well-paying jobs can then pay more tax via progressive taxation. It would also help those students who are currently forced to borrow $170-odd a week in living costs from the government, because, well, $170 does not go very far in the New Zealand of 2017.
So yes. Screw you, you nasty cow.
The annual University of Otago German Language Play is normally performed in August/September. This year, it’s in April. And, yes, I am in it again (this is my fifth time).
Rehearsing, together with moving house earlier this month, is why I haven’t done much in the reading and writing department.
I have made my first ever sale of a piece of short prose fiction – my 300-word chess story (yes, really) will be published by The Flash Fiction Press on 16th May. Stories of that length (or shorter) are known as flash fiction, and tend to run counter to my tendency to keep adding material to a story, so I am pleased I have pulled it off.
Now I just need some luck with the longer stories…
The Dunedin Public Library this afternoon.
Mark Lawrence on fantasy’s “born to magic” aspect:
The main difference between fantasy and science fiction is the nature of the fake science (magic) they present us with. Generally the technology resulting from science is available to anybody to buy or discover given sufficient reserves of money, intelligence, infrastructure etc. It’s an egalitarian form of “magic”. To use a warp drive or phaser gun doesn’t require you to be born special.
Magic, on the other hand, often requires you to be born “magic”. Fantasy is rife with chosen ones, singular heroes whose talents allow them to change the course of history, wielders of magic that is available to them alone or to some elite that were born special.
I think there are several aspects Lawrence is missing.
(1) If the dividing line between fantasy and science-fiction is “universal access to weird stuff” vs “genetically-determined access to weird stuff”, you run into difficulties. By Lawrence’s reasoning, X-Men (people being born with special powers) is fantasy, despite the fact that the underlying explanation is gene mutation (i.e. a science-fictional scenario). Alternatively, the necromancy in Wise Phuul (taught as a school subject in the Viiminian Empire) is science-fiction, despite the fact that it is, well, magic.
(2) Even in settings where magic is a limited resource, the Harry Potter-style wizards/muggles divide is hardly universal. Indeed, looking across the genre, you have all sorts of variations on how magic users obtain their abilities – from it being something that anyone can learn (Patrick Rothfuss’ sympathy), to something anyone can access from a source (the earthpower in Thomas Covenant), to something that is purely the domain of supernatural beings (Tolkien’s Istari are de facto minor angels), to something dependent on one’s god (George R.R. Martin’s R’hllor worshippers), to being a matter of folk wisdom and psychological manipulation (Terry Pratchett’s Witches). One even sees this distinction in Dungeons & Dragons, between wizards (magic from study), sorcerers (magic from innate ability), and warlocks (magic from pacts). Real-world magical traditions tend to be a combination of study, ritual, and interacting with the allegedly supernatural – there is very little emphasis on the practitioner’s ancestry. By Lawrence’s reasoning, such “real-world” magic would fall under science-fiction.
(3) Even in settings where there *is* a wizard/muggle divide, there is no need for the protagonist to be a wizard. Sam Vimes lives in a city where magic objectively exists – but he is strictly non-magical himself. Conan the Barbarian is also very much a muggle, but that doesn’t stop him chopping and slicing his way through evil sorcerers. Locke Lamora doesn’t do magic, but he deals with bondsmagi. Jon Snow and Bran Stark may have innate warging ability, but Tyrion Lannister doesn’t. Et cetera. Rather than focusing on the 1% in such a setting, why not focus on one of the 99%?
(4) It is perfectly possible for science-fictional works to be every bit as elitist as Lawrence alleges fantasy works to be. Indeed, the entire basis of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is that a particular caste have got their hands on a technological means of reincarnation – which they keep for themselves, and use to control others.
(5) Just because a magic system is (in theory) meritocratic doesn’t mean the end result is particularly utopian. Taking Wise Phuul as an example (it feels wrong citing my own work in this scenario, but let’s run with it anyway), necromancy is not only universally accessible, but one’s ability to do it is entirely independent of ancestry, gender or sexuality. That does not stop the development of a class system, or socio-economic factors playing a key role in determining how well one does at examination time.
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