The Stepford Historian

helm as robot

A review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: An Unearthly History of Science Fiction.  Part 3, “robots”.  First broadcast on BBC2 8th December 2014.

Watching and trying to make sense of the third part of Tomorrow’s Worlds it occurred to me that I might be trying to make more sense of it than I should.  This was, after all, mainly a series of clips from Hollywood blockbusters and a few TV shows peppered with the odd reference to a book where the programmes makers could slot it in.

Over this, a narrative has been created by Dominic Sandbrook, who does not take science fiction (and perhaps history in general) very seriously.  There is no sense that SF has its own development as a genre of literary fiction, and somewhat separately a genre in other media particularly film.  Rather, Dominic deals with SF as entirely a reflection of the world around it.  This is compounded by his adherence to popular history, a coupling in which the popular wins and reduces history to pandering to nostalgia and thus burying the past rather than uncovering it.  For sure we start with a work of literary fiction (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus( 1818)), moving swiftly through the silent film Metropolis (1927) and Forbidden Planet (1956), but the focus is on modern films made in a twenty-three year envelope, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972) Star Wars (1977 onwards), Blade Runner (1982),The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), The Matrix (1999) and AI (2001) along with a little TV (the Six Million Dollar Man (1973 to 1978) and bit of Dr. Who (episodes from 1967 and 2006 or thereabouts) and the second version of Battlestar Galatia (2003-2012).  A Clockwork Orange (a little isolated here, not being about robots and is not placed with a current of SF that looks at the control of people through technology) is dealt with as both book (1962) and film (1971), and there is an honourable mention of Brian Aldiss’s “Super-toys Last All Summer Long” (1969) and a cursory mention of other books that were the basis of films such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) which was, very loosely, the basis for Blade Runner.  Beyond Frankenstein, only William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is treated as a book in its own right and even that is dealt with as a teaser for The Matrix.

If I were asked to contribute to a series on SF the first thing that I would do is immerse myself in the historical writing.  The naiveté of Dominic’s comments suggest he has not.  Rather, he appears to have decided in advance on his conclusion (SF reflects the hopes, but more commonly, the anxieties of its time) and then structures and interprets (and shoehorns and edits) everything in that light.  What a decent historian would do is to look at the material and attempt to discern the patterns, development and dynamics in it (or at least borrow someone else’s).  So if one looks at the fantastic new Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, edited by Guy Haley, you would get a clear periodisation (forerunners; 1920-1950, ‘”The days of pulp”; 1950-1970, “The day of the atom: the marvels and peril of science”; 1970-1990, “dark futures”; 1990 onwards, “modern SF”).  One has to argue with any periodisation (that’s the fun of them), but it gives the book a clear framework.  Adam Roberts’ valuable histories too offer a periodisation, although he is mainly concerned with the written word.[1]  There is no hint of such a conceptual framework or idea that SF has developed over time, that it has a history, in Tomorrow’s Worlds.

The programme starts, as it probably has to, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Dominic’s comments on Frankenstein constitute the analytic heart of the programme, or rather portrays the shifting chaos as the programme lurches from one clip to the next without any clear notion of what holds them together.  As he says in the programme, he thinks that Shelley’s theme is “the awful responsibility of creation … the unending tension between man and machine” and  “the extraordinary potential of science and the moral dilemmas implicit in our desire to play God”.  He even thinks that Shelley has an “anti-scientific bias”.  It is easy to get Frankenstein wrong since the creature has become a horror staple (and indeed it is easy to see SF as a sub-genre of horror, particularly if too much emphasis is given to the science fiction horror films, most notably of John Carpenter).

Dominic is right to distance Shelley’s book from the James Whale horror film Frankenstein (1931), a fine film that helped define the horror genre.  It is reasonable to call this SF, the creature is the product of science.  But this is an early SF story, and after its creation there is no more science in the book.  As far as the overall story is concerned it could have been a golem made from clay.  There are other antecedents for robot fiction as this time.  Particularly, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann”(1814) which contains a mechanical women, who goes on to feature in Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman (1881).  The intellectual setting of Shelley’s book is not science, but is part of the radical wave of thought after the French Revolution (her mother who she never knew was Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminists, her father, William Godwin holds a similar seminal position in the history of anarchist thought).  As Ursula Le Guin points out on the programme, Shelley does not judge science, rather she judges Victor Frankenstein.  There is a strong theory that one element of Shelley’s thought was that her husband (the poet Percy Byshe Shelley) refusal to take any interest in their still born child.  More importantly, the theme of the creature as Adam/Satan expelled from Eden by God must be understood in term of Shelley’s probable atheism.  This is a humanist parable about us taking our lives from the gods, it is not simply about one man.  It is not, unfortunately for Dominic who  states that the story has an “anti-science bias”, strongly about the science.

Dominic suggests that there was a surge in interest in robots in the 1920s and that this was fuelled by the mechanisation of industry and the fear amongst workers that they would be displaced.  The problem with this claim is that the evidence that he uses to back it up with is riddled with errors, some inconsequential and some not.  There are two works in the 1920s that Dominic thinks show this fear of the machine becoming manifest in the fear of the robot, Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920), the Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.

There are careless errors in what Dominic says about Čapek.  He did not coin the word ‘robot’ but credited his brother and frequent co-writer, Joseph Čapek, who probably first use the word in 1917.  He did not coin it in 1921 (the year the play was first performed) but in 1920 (the year the play was written).[2]  These small errors demonstrate a carelessness with the facts which is not confined to such inconsequential matters.  Particularly, Dominic describes the robots of RUR as “mechanical”, they are in fact artificial organic life forms, which in modern parlance we would consider to be genetically engineered biological life forms.  These are not a response to the development of the production line.  Dominic is not wrong to point out that “robot” means “forced labour”, but there is more to it than that.  As Adam Roberts has pointed out, it comes from a form of Czech feudal servitude that was abolished in 1848.  The name of the company comes from the Czech word for “reason” (rozum).[3]  This is not a dystopian allegory about man being conquered.   The play’s resolution is exactly the robot becoming human and a new Adam and Eve walking out in the world.

Metropolis: (The film itself has a confused history, with the extant prints being a version rewritten and re-edited under the US screenwriter Channing Pollock from 1927, and a heavily censored version of the German release from 1936.  In 2008 a near complete copy of the original film was found in Argentina.  This along with other found archival material was the basis of a near complete restoration of the original film.  If anything, Dominic’s reading of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is even more confused, so much so that I suspect that he has not seen the film.  He talks about the robot being called ‘Maria’, which it is not (in the German film it is referred to the Maschinenmensch).  Maria is a central character in the film, the leader of the workers.  The robot is given the appearance of Maria to mislead the workers.  The false-Maria lead the workers to their destruction, as Dominic suggests, but leads them in to destroying the machinery of Metropolis and the flooding of the underground city where the workers live (the real Maria saves the children from the waters).

The symbolism of the robot in the film not about fear of technology. The robot is modelled on Freder’s mother (the wife of Joh Frederson), Hel.  The builder of the robot, Rotwang, was also infatuated with her.  Thus there is a decidedly Freudian element to Freder’s mother taking the form of the object of his desire.  The robot’s role in leading the workers to destroy the machines is not as an autonomous agent but as the instrument of the will of the owner/ruler/father Joh Federson.   When the workers burn the false-Maria at the end of the film as a witch, exposing its true metallic form, they do not seem particularly interested and see it as more evidence that she was a witch.  Dominic states that “[False] Maria is the embodiment of our fear of the machine”, it is rather the embodiment of this mother, which has be symbolically destroyed before he can consummate his desire for the real Maria.

It is certainly true that the film shows the dehumanising impact of modern production, but this is shown by the relationship between the workers and the machines, with the workers moving mechanically and becoming dominated by the machines.  At one point the hero Freder appears to be crucified on the machine he is operating, and at another point he hallucinates the machines as Moloch, a god that demands child sacrifice, and here consuming the workers.  But the film does not contextualise this as anti-technology, the city of Metropolis is presented as a marvel, but as a critique of class with the workers being banished from these marvels in a subterranean city (the idea had already been use in the Soviet SF film, Aleita: Queen of Mars (1924)).  HG Wells famously attacked the film not being what he considered proper SF but rather carefully researched futurology.  As Tom Gunning has argued, in a certain sense he was right.[4]  The film is present minded, it was a hyper-realistic view of contemporaneous Berlin art, architecture and above all class, as well as being past-minded with the city being built on the catacombs where the workers meet, the cathedral and the visions of death and Moloch that Freder has.  Indeed, Gunning suggests that the central conflict in the film is between modernism and the gothic, between science and magic.[5]

In many ways Metropolis is the opposite of Frankenstein.  In Shelley’s book man must take responsibility as his own creator in a godless world, in Metropolis (particularly in the novel that Thea von Harbou wrote at the same time as the script) Joh Fredersen is not only the father of Freder, and master of the city but he is an old-testament God who wishes to see his city destroyed so his Christ-son can rebuild it with new-testament harmony.  Neither, however, is about robots as symbols of a fear of the machine age.  Similarly, although neither RUR nor Metropolis is particularly left-wing in the views that they put across, both are about societies divided by class (although in the case of Metropolis, this is nothing to do with robots).

Thus, the idea that robots in the 1920s were used as symptoms of people’s mistrust of technology is not substantiated by the two examples that Dominic gives.  Just because he fails to prove the point, this does not mean that it is not true.  So what of other fictional robots of the period, what do they show?

The first twentieth century robot was in Gustav Le Rouge’s series La Conspiration des Milliardaires (1899-1900) which feature an innocent man whose brain is put into a robot after he is guillotined so he can hunt down his (evil) killers.  Then there is Tiktok (a.k.a Tik-Tok), the clockwork ‘machine man’ in L. Frank Baum’s third Oz book Ozma of Oz.[6]  Tiktok is mechanical and without emotion, but is also an absolutely benign servant.

There are less benign stories.  To be sure, in Ambrose Bierce’s short story ‘Moxon’s Master’[7] an automaton chess player strangles its inventor, but the story is very slight and without clear implications.  The author of The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux, wrote two works that featured robot-ish creatures.  La Poupée Sanglante (the Bloody Doll)[8] (1923) and its sequel La machine à assassiner (the murdering machine)[9] (1923) which feature the brain of a framed and executed man in a mechanical body seeking revenge on the guilty.

It was only with the arrival of the “pulp” SF magazines of the 1920s that the robot story began to take off,[10] firstly with Edmond Hamilton ‘The Metal Giants’ (1926).  I don’t know what this story involves, but Hamilton’s most famous robots are the good guys.  In Captain Future (1940-1951) the eponymous hero is aided by a brain-in-a-box, a robot and a synthetic android called Simon, Grag and Otho respectively.  They are the marvels of science used for good.

There are negative portrayals of robots that begin to emerge by 1930.  S. Fowler Wright was a British SF writer who is now little remembered, but was one of the few keeping the tradition going in the inter-war years although unusually for an SF writer he took a negative view of technological progress, and is one writer who fits Dominic’s thesis well.  Many of his stories are apocalyptic, and this is certainly the case with his 1929 short story ‘Automata’.[11]   Here mankind is not simply conquered by machines but ultimately accepts that artificial life is superior as they die out.

The story could go on.  The point is that there is no substance to Dominic’s claim that the dominant view of robots before Asimov was a ‘mistrust of the mechanical’.  Certainly, on the evidence I can muster, the reverse was true.  If there was a distrust, it was of what people would do with machines (Metropolis) but it was common to find the idea that these machines could be a force for good (Captain Future).  Where the machine did destroy man it was often because they were superior, something not confined to machines.  This superiority could also be invaders (War of the Worlds), artificial life-forms (RUR) or mechanical robots (Automata).  But humanity’s defeat at the hands of the robots was not the only story that SF told in this period, or even the main one.

At this point in the programme, Dominic does a flip.  He suggests that after the second world war under the dual influences of the robotophilic writings of Isaac Asimov and the automation of many tasks of household labour in the USA, a much more accepting attitude to robots developed.  Thus, the appearance of the avuncular Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956), the servant to the planet’s two occupants, Dr Morbius and his daughter, Altaira.  It is wrong, however, to treat Robby as a prototype for Rosie the robotic maid in The Jetsons (1962-1963).  Robby is armed, although programmed not to harm people in the style of Asimov, although he does disarm some of the characters in the film and is apparently willing to use force to stop them passing an entrance it is guarding.  Aside from a manner styled on a butler, it has no personality and plays no role in the development of the plot of the film.  It is one of Dr. Morbius’s technological wonders, but structurally in the film it is an ornament.

What Robby is, is a robot-servant in the mould of Tiktok in contrast with the self-aware autonomous robots of Asimov and Eando Binder’s Adam Link stories (1939-1942).  Tomorrow’s World does make the perceptive point that Robby was an attempt to make robots less humanoid, but it would have been interesting to have more material on the way that this developed, particularly through their representation in illustrations in the pulps.

The importance of Forbidden Planet for the development of SF in film lies not in its representation of robots but in how the technology interacts with the human character.  Broadly, Forbidden Planet can be considered to be an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Dr. Morbius and Altaira standing for Prospero and Miranda.  This casts some light on the way that science is used in the film as modern magic.  In The Tempest Prospero is a magician stranded on an island who uses his power to control both a good spirit (Ariel) and a corrupt create (Caliban) who are native to the island.  In Forbidden Planet the spirit Ariel is replaced by Robby.  Where the film departs from The Tempest is that there is no Caliban, rather the evil in the film is the projection of Dr. Morbius’s subconscious by the advanced technology of the planet’s long extinct inhabitants.  Forbidden Planet thus has the same odd mixture of science as magic and Freudian ideas (although these are much less developed in Forbidden Planet).  The robots are a product of this science/sorcery.

In some ways, this places Forbidden Plant in a tradition that stretches back to an early science fiction classic overlooked in this series, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).  This story of the unleashing of the repressed bestial wide of Jekyll’s personality has clear parallels to Forbidden Planet.  It is odd that this is not developed in the programme, since it does touch on concerns of altered human states in its discussion of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of it (1972) (these certainly belong in the discussion here, although there is little science in the story, they are dystopian views of a not-too-distant future).  This theme of the control of people in future/parallel society is not developed any further, although an interesting discussion could be had about Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World and, perhaps pushing the definition of SF beyond its limit, George Orwell’s 1984.  This is not, I suspect, simply a symptom of the anti-literary bias of this series, but of its anti-political bias.  However, it is a major theme in much SF that the powerful in society might use technology to control us (or already do) and although this is mentioned (Omni Corp in RoboCop), this theme is not developed at all.  But as Per Schelde has argued in his book Androids, Humanoids and Other Folklore Monsters (1993), various forms of corporate power have become the main villains in many modern SF works.

Instead of such a discussion, the programme becomes bogged down in what shape robots are.  It is a little obvious that 3-CPO is modelled on the Maschinenmensch of Metropolis.  What is not spelt out is that Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s designs for the Maschinenmensch drew not on any scientific source, but German art deco sculpture, particularly Rudolf Belling’s Skulptur 23 and Oskar Schlemmer’s Abstract Figur.[12]

We are also told that the drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie, in Silent Running (1972) had non-humanoid robots that inspired R2-D2.  All of this is true, but through this Dominic imposes an entirely fallacious narrative, arguing that because the film’s depiction of robot from 1956 to 1978 has been Robby, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and R2-D2 and 3-CPO, the depiction of robots in films by 1982 had become positively cuddly, and thus the arrival of The Terminator in 1984 presented a shift.  However, there were plenty of evil robots prior to The Terminator’s T-800, even if Dominic sees fit to ignore them.  Even if we look only at films in the 1970s we have robots turning on human’s in Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1975); The Stepford Wives (1975) in which the eponymous women are replaced by compliant robots; Demon Seed (1977) in which on A.I. computer imprisons and rapes a women to reproduce; Black Hole (1979) has a human commander and a robot commanding a ship manned by the lobotomised bodies of its previous crew; and Saturn 3 has a homicidal robot on the loose in a space station.[13]  This latter robot looks a lot like the fleshless T-800 seen at the end of The Terminator.

It is simply not the case that robots have ever been universally cuddly, and I think that Dominic is simply talking about one piece of SF he is familiar with, Star Wars, and over-generalising from it.  I would suggest (as a tentative hypothesis rather than a fully supported theory) that Star Wars was part of a movement away from the mechanical Robby the Robot to anthropomorphised beings.  Thus, Tomorrow’s Worlds makes the point that both Douglas Trumbull in Silent Running and George Lucas in Star Wars thought it important to have actors inside the robots.  The implications of this point are not developed, but what it leads to is that even the non-human non-speaking R2-D2 shows human traits.  This desire to make robots more like humans in films is best shown by the move from the cold killing of T-800 in The Terminator to the learning-to-be-human T-800 of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  The evil robot with its emotionless death ray eyes is now has a retro, comic book feel: two of the more recent not examples of robots in film that I can recall being the omnidroids in the Pixar superhero film, The Incredibles (2004) the eponymous robots in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).  I would suggest (still in tentative mode) that this is not part of a move away from dystopian, action or horror SF films, but because organic foe can be darker, slimier and more otherworldly than a shiny, inflexible, lumbering robot.  CGI makes organic beasties easier to represent on the screen.  It is thus one of the more reasonable points that Dominic makes that particularly the androids and cyborgs are now more frequently used to question what it is to be human (or perhaps, what it is to live), but again he over generalises

The narrative that Dominic places around The Terminator is unconvincing in other ways too.  He claims that the overarching intelligence in the future society, SkyNet, is a reflection of the Strategic Defence Initiative (a.k.a  “Star Wars”).  This is certainly possible, SDI was first announced during a speech made by the US President Ronald Reagan in March 1983, while Terminator was scripted in 1982 and 1983.  But the two systems have little in common.  SDI was a proposed early-warning counter missile defence system which many saw as making nuclear war  more likely since it would create the illusion that it was winnable and undermined the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.  The fictional SkyNet put the nukes in the hand of computers to strengthen the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (a similar idea can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1962)).  So Dominic’s linkage of SkyNet and SDI reflected a heightened anxiety about nuclear weapons as the Cold War ratcheted up in the early 1980s.  But again Dominic shows his poor knowledge of SF since the idea of the super-intelligent controlling computer system is an SF trope with a longer pedigree, most famously in Jean Luc Goddard’s Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965).  It is very notable, that Metropolis aside, the series entirely ignores such non-Anglophone SF.

In a rare excursion of looking at a book without a TV or film adaptation, the programme does (rightly) find time for William Gibbon’s Neuromancer.  Again, Dominic finds it necessary to attempt to make SF a reaction to technological change, particular the fear of its rise of digital technology (and confuses the idea of the internet in general, which has been outlined by Arthur C. Clarke in a non-fiction article in 1970) and the idea of cyberspace.  As Gibson himself has commented, the word cyberspace as he used it in the early 1980s was “evocative and essentially meaningless”, it was not a technological predication but a musing about forms of shared consciousness in other realities.[14]  Dominic suggests that Gibson’s great achievement is to write a book that is fundamentally about people, but for me that misses the point about what the best SF does.  It uses a fictional alternate reality (defined by its science, social institutions or even nature) to tell a story that would not be possible without it.  Thus, in Neuromancer, the possibility of consciousness existing in two planes, reality and cyberspace, is a story that could not be told in a naturalistic setting.

The writer who Gibson looks to most as an inspiration in this is William Burroughs, and it is no coincidence that both develop their ideas while taking bucket loads of drugs.  Philip K. Dick, another prolific drug-user,[15] shared some of these concerns with false realities in Time Out of Joint (1959) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).  Sadly, Dick’s body and mind were both ultimately damaged by the drugs, and he came to believe in the literal truth of this false reality, reflected in his difficult (and to my mind broken) late VALIS books (1981).  The work of Burroughs, Dick and Gibson all make the Matrix series seem pretty weak stuff.  But Tomorrow’s Worlds is fixation with the false-SF world of the Hollywood blockbuster, and the programme ends up with a long interview with someone who made the tea on the set of The Matrix (which is very unfair to Owen Paterson who I am sure is a fine artistic director, but really, is that the best they can do?).

Which brings us back to the conclusion of this instalment.  This sums up Dominic’s three themes that he has developed: that science fiction monsters started out as scary (Frankenstein’s creature, false-Maria), became cuddly in the middle (Robby, 3-CPO) before becoming scary again at the other end (The Terminator).  Secondly, this reflected fear of technology in industrialisation in the 1920s, the rise of the digital age in the 1980s but not the nuclear age of the post-war period (which quite contradicts the view that he has expressed elsewhere that people where most fearful of technology at the height of the Cold War).  And lastly, that it is this fear of technology that drives science fiction.  It is this last thought that perhaps we should end on.  Does anyone who has ever read any science fiction believe that its animus is fear of science?  No, rather it is a question of what people and society will do with it.  Again, Dominic’s ignorance of SF seems near complete.

[1] See Adam Roberts, A History of Science Fiction (New edition, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2006) and Science Fiction (The New Critical Introduction) (Rutledge: Abingdon, 2005).

[2] ‘Who did actually invent the word “robot” and what does it mean?’, http://Č [accessed 10/12/2014]

[3] Adam Roberts, “Introduction” in Karel Čapek, RUR and War with the Newts (London: Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2011).

[4] Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: BFI, 2000).

[5] Gunning, pp66=67

[6] The book can be read here: [accessed 10/12/2014]

[7] The story can be read at [Accessed 10/12/2014]

[8] Can be read in French) here: [accessed 10/12/2014]

[9] Can be read (in French) here:

[10] For a thorough listing, see Alan Roseanne’s list here:

[11] Can be read here: [accessed 10/12/2014]

[12] ref

[13] Can be seen at

[14] Scott Thill, ‘William Gibson, Father of Cyberspace, Wire,  17/03/2011, [Accessed 11/12/2014]

[15] Philip Purser-Halyard, The Drugs Did Work, The Guardian (online), 12/8/2006, [accessed 11/12/2014]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe (but only if you haven’t been to the cinema in the last thirty years)


Review of the latest installment of Dominic’s “history” of SF, “Robots”,  (it really not just a collection of clips from films and interviews with some interesting, and some not so interesting, people involved) will be posted here on Tuesday (OK, Wednesday).  You may hold any breath you have.

[Image from the Boston Lyric Opera production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman (1881) featuring Olympia, a “mechanical doll”.  This was in turn based on Hoffman’s story, “The Sandman” (1816).]

[This will be up on Saturday morning now, got a bit interested and decided I needed to read Rossum’s Universal Robots and watch the restored version of Metropolis.  This is rather ironic since I don’t believe that Dominic bothered to do either before standing up on TV and opining to millions, whereas my audience is in the hundreds (or thousands at best), but it is the principle of the thing.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Profane Invasion or: How I Stopped Caring and Learned to love Steven Spielberg.


Review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: the Unearthly History of Science Fiction.  2: Invasion.  First Broadcast on BBC, 29th November 2014.

I have to admit that I found the second programme in the Tomorrow’s Worlds series rather dull.  The selection of material was obvious, most explanations trite.  Or rather, the only explanation offered is that these invasion stories “reflected the anxieties of their day” which is sometimes true and often not true.  The structuring is a little better than the first instalment, working with a rough chronological narrative starting with HG Wells War of the Worlds (1898) weaving through a number of themes (invasion, alien infiltration, a diversion on British TV, invaders of human creation, a diversion on the X-files and aliens as a metaphor for racial and ethnic conflict).  Pointedly, the programme finds no room for humanity invading the planets of others (Dominic has already rudely dismissed the content of Avatar in the previous episode as visually stunning but otherwise “Dances with Wolves in space”).  Thus there is no room for Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) with its story of humanity’s colonisation of the already inhabited Mars with some strong parallels of colonialism on Earth.

That The Martian Chronicles are ignored is indicative not just of the strong apolitical current in the series, but this instalment’s near complete focus on film with a secondary concern for TV.  The only work of literature that was the primary focus of attention was War of the Worlds, although quickly moving onto the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin film.  Other than this the only literary works that are mentioned are as brief introductions to films that were based on them.  Other than this, there is no literary dimension at all (and no room for Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album, War of the Worlds, which was a huge relief).

Dominic’s discussion of Wells’ War of the Worlds is not convincing.  He places it in the context of the anti-German (and, of a degree, anti-French) jingoistic literature (although he is careful to say that the novel goes beyond this genre, but leaves out precisely how it goes so unsaid).  The first example of this genre was George Tomkyns The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (1871) wherein an unnamed but very Prussian country invades Britain.  Because of Britain’s lack of preparedness, it is defeated leading to its annexation and the break-up of the Empire.  The book, like others in the genre, is exactly as Dominic describes, fuelled by a belief in Britain’s military weakness and a call for rearmament.  In the years that followed this became an increasingly popular genre, particularly through the work of William Le Queux, most noted for the Franco-Russian invasion fantasy The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and the anti-German invasion fantasy The Invasion of 1910 (1906).

It is wrong to suggest, as Dominic appears to, that War of the Worlds is part of this genre.  Certainly, Wells borrows from Chesney: the alien invasion in Wells’ book starts in Woking, a few miles away from the Dorking of Chesney’s book.  This device (to which Dominic alludes several times) of placing war in a familiar suburban setting, predates its SF usage.  Wells was also to borrow from Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906) for his own War in the Air (1908),[1] thus proving that all science fiction writers steal their ideas, and only when this proves impossible do they resort to the sneaky practice of making their ideas up.[2]

Dominic states that Wells did not share the Jingoism of such authors, but leaves the idea hanging in the air that he too was concerned about the stability of the British Empire.  This is in line with Dominic’s refrain through the series, that SF reflects the anxieties and hopes of the age.  This is dull and reductionist view which at best is half-truth.  What Wells, Chesney and Le Queax have in common is that they are writing speculative history and it is likely that anyone writing this will have some kind of political agenda.  Why else show possible futures?  The difference between them is exactly their political intent, and Wells was the opposite of that of the jingos.  There are many strands in Wells’ War of the Worlds, but it is almost impossible not to read it as, at least in part, a critique of British and European colonialism with its destruction, disregard for life, enslavement and importation of alien crops (the Martian’s “red weed”).[3]  Unlike many late Victorian social democrats and progressive liberals, at the time of writing War of the Worlds Wells was no supporter of the Empire and thought it worthless unless it formed the basis of a world government.  Certainly, by the time of the First World War, Wells was clearly for the dissolution of Empire and the end of the subordination of colonial peoples[4]

The problem is that Wells’ political book is confused with the apolitical 1952 film adaptation.  Dominic states that the end of the film is true to the end of Wells’ book, in that the aliens are killed not by human endeavour but by earthly bacterial infections, and while the film does quote Wells’ line that the Martians were defeated “by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,” notably the element of the feeling of religious deliverance is common to the book and the film.  What is lacking in the film is the book’s political message, understated as it is, that in order to face an uncertain future earth most be united in its common humanity.

Just as Dominic attempts to put Wells’ book in the context of the tensions leading to the First World War (Wells did this much more in his War in the Air (1908)), he continues to see future alien invasion films as responses to the fear of real war.  He goes on to report that Orson Welles’ 1938 Radio production of War of the Worlds caused panic in the USA because of the existing tension in the USA about the build up to war in Europe.  This is taken as more evidence of SF reflecting the “anxieties of our times”.  There are only two things wrong with this.  Firstly, as Joseph Campbell has shown in his Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010) the impact of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast has been hugely inflated, and while some listeners were disturbed by it there was no mass panic.[5]

Secondly, the level of anxiety over the war in the USA, while often cited in connection with the Welles broadcast[6] is overstated.  While there was a degree of anxiety in the USA, not just over the situation in Europe but of Japan’s action in the Pacific, I can find little evidence that this had a decisive impact on US public opinion at that time other than accepting that the USA should build up its military resources as a preventative measure.[7]  Fear of the possibility of a return to depression was a much greater fear.[8]  (The USA in the 1930s is far from being my area of expertise, so if anyone can give me further guidance here it would be appreciated).

As with a broken clock being right twice a day, sometimes Dominic’s analysis hits home.  It is difficult not to read the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds as Cold War anxiety.  Indeed the film makes the point before the opening credits; it follows footage of the destruction of the two world wars not with the threat of the third world war, but a war of the worlds fought with the weapons of “super-science”.  But by taking the analysis up to Independence Day (1996) it is unclear what the present day anxiety might be.  The mid-nineties was the nadir of anxiety, the heyday of a post Soviet world, where the USA had flexed its military might in its first major post-Vietnam operation in a limited policing operation in Kuwait.  The USA was now a hyperpower basking in the new world order a fin de histoire legitimacy.  The film can be read as a reassertion of individual masculinity, and an unabashed call for the US to use its superpower status in a masculine way.  Dominic’s reading of the tone of the film as hubristic is fair enough, but this does not explain why the film was made as it was.  The film is filled with cinematic clichés and ones that ignore Wells’ key point that once a species can build space ships and cover huge distances to reach us, if they want a fight they are unlikely to lose.  The plot is riddled with holes and is so implauible to make it unworthy of serious consideration as SF.  Rather, it is Top Gun with aliens.

Dominic then moves on to an alien infiltration film.  Here, Dominic is right to be cautious about reading Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a straight reds-under-the-bed parable, since (as he suggests) the evidence is that (like all good story telling) this is far wider in its story of the fear of losing individuality which could be read as a Stepford Wives (1975) style criticism of US society.  He is much less sure-footed with his reading of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and the film adaptation of it, The Village of the Damned (1960).  Dominic sees these as a reaction to the youth rebellion and the growing feeling of a generation gap in Britain.  I am not sure what the evidence for this might be.  The limited disorder around the film Blackboard Jungle and “Teddy Boys” was in May 1955, and may have influenced the writing of the Midwich Cuckoos, published in October 1957.  But the children in the book are no teddy boys, they are demure, polite, over-worldly, self-controlled and anything but wild.  Their power is in their minds, not their fists.  If it was a metaphor it was one that no-one picked up on at the time, or since.  The themes that run through the book are altogether different.  As Dominic comments (quite rightly) elsewhere in the programme, it was the Notting Hill riots of 1958 that shook people up (and the first literary expression of this followed, most notably Colin McInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959)).  More generalised anxiety about youth rebellion and the generation gap is really a 1960s phenomenon.

The themes of the Midwich Cuckoos are those of morally ambiguous choice (humanity is saved only by a savage choice of the local intellectual who has won the children’s trust to kill them in a suicide bombing).  As Dan Rebellato points out in a notable essay on Wyndham, the book can also be read as a struggle between men and women.[9]  There is no evidence that the book is informed, either consciously or sub-consciously, by the fear of growing intergenerational conflict.  There is a some discussion of The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s remake, The Thing (1982) but these are more horror films with an SF slant.  But by this point the programme lapses into being little more than a series of clips of well known films.

The distinct impression is given that Stephen Spielberg is the most important SF auteur with time spent on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T (1982) and Jurassic Park(1993).  There are, amongst this, some important points where the material bears up to the explanations offered up.  So the discussion of Godzilla as reflecting Japan’s wartime experience of nuclear bombing is fair enough.  As John Landis puts it “All monster are metaphors.  Godzilla is the most obvious one”

Nowhere does the selection of material become worse than with the section on aliens to Earth as migrants, with its potential to act as a metaphor of racism and xenophobia.  Two of the films picked to look at this are poor choices, Alien Nation  (1988) attempts to look at racial politics in the USA though human-Alien encounters.  This is remarkable only in that it mimics the inter-racial police buddy film Lethal Weapon (1987) without being as good (or the cop-convict variant 48 Hours (1981)).  Alien Nation deals with race less well through its heavy handed and obvious metaphor than many other films already had through a naturalistic means (think of comedy’s record in Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Jerk(1979))  Worse, the programme then moves onto The Men in Black (1997), before only returning briefly to something of any quality in the South African film District 9.

This does not add up to a great deal, and I skim past this since here it is the structure of the programme that is at fault, leaving Dominic with very little to comment about.  But the problem is not fundamentally his.

The point is where there is substantial material to work with, nothing is made of it.  This series purports to be a history of science fiction, but it is not.  “Invasion” has its moments where it could have started to do this.  HG Wells took the conventions of the imperialistic anti-German and anti-French future-war novels of the late Victorian period and turned these right-wing speculative fictions on their head (as Dominic states at the last, but no analysis is built around this) with a political work that can be taken as a critique of colonialism.  (Or perhaps the aliens can be seen as our future selves.  Wells was influenced by eugenics, and this is a man grown heartless in a society that selects for callousness: without a rational global society this is what man might become).  A similar point is made about Daleks, they are fictional tin-pot dictators based only on our own inhumanity, a point that is stated but then not woven into a compelling narrative in any way.

The largest failing is that the series fails to take SF itself seriously.  Whereas in the first programme it did at least have the virtue of introducing the casual viewer to a side of SF that they may not have known.  Particularly it looked as the anthropological and sociological worksof Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson, but this instalment was a compendium of the predictable and well known.  That we have three Spielberg films is a give-away, this is a history of the blockbuster.  Missing was the concept of SF as a genre in fiction.  It was one that moved from the popularist comic books and quickly written pulp-fiction of the 1930s  (although much transcended its genre and their were outliers), to one that split in the late 1950s into the less science driven literary and social new wave (Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss and perhaps Philip K. Dick) and the more science driven hard core (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert A. Heinlein).  Explaining this would have set up some idea that there is an internal dynamics to SF as a literary form.  This could then be used in tandem with looking at it in relation to the existing social world it relates to (although to assume it reflects it is simplistic).  The way that both sides of this split have informed SF on film and TV since the 1960s could them give the series conceptually some underpinning, it could challenge the viewer rather than comfort them with clips of the familiar and often bland.

This is an opportunity not so much wasted, as one that has been abused, shot and dumped in a popularist ditch.

[1] See Simon James, “Introduction” in H.G Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (London: Penguin, 2005).

[2] Naturally, I have stolen this line from Brian Stableford Space, Time, and Infinity: Essays on Fantastic Literature (n.p: Borgo, 2007), pp9-10.

[3] See, for example, John Rieder Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008) p10.

[4] Partington, John, ‘H.G. Wells: A Political Life’ in Utopian Studies, 19.3 (2008)

[5] A view supported by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic”

[6] Ref

[7] ref

[8] ref

[9] “John Wyndham: The unread bestseller”, Guardian Books Blog, 20th December 2010 []

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tomorrow’s World: Invasion


I will be reviewing this week’s helping soon.  Hopefully up sometime on Monday.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gender, religion and estate agents in science fiction

religion and sci fi

Dominic Sandbrook speaks to the nation on science fiction.  Some reflections, BBC Radio 4, Start the Week 24th September 2014.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

(Ursual Le Guin, speaking at the National Book Awards, 2014)[1]

The latest edition of Start the Week[2] had an intriguing line up of guests: the seminal fiction novelist William Gibson and the less well known Michel Faber both of whose works includes science fiction; the academic Judy Wajcman who has previously written about feminism and technology and whose new book examines the way that capitalism makes technological change a force over people’s lives rather than a straight-forward libratory force; and Dominic.

Dominic struggled to get a word in, although he did initiate one of the more interesting discussions in the programme about the way that technology is sold now is pervasive in a way that it has not been in the past, he only did so by saying the opposite.  And typically, this was at the end of the programme and the idea was left hanging like an unfulfilled promise.  What is notable is that nearly everything that Dominic said specifically about science fiction was wrong.  I will highlight three points he made here.

Science fiction speculates in a way that other forms of fiction cannot.

Dominic’s first mistake was to suggest that it is science fiction’s ability to be speculative that defines it.  For example, he argued, it is hard to explore the “what ifs” of gender in a more naturalistic form of literature.  Sticking with the example of gender, there is clearly an element of truth in this.  Gender is so deeply embedded in our thinking and social practices that to portray alternatives to it is necessarily anti-naturalistic.  But it is by no means the case that this is done uniquely in SF.  Music hall and burlesque drag is a long-standing form of gender-bending practice, and was one of the more important underpinnings (rather than SF) of the best pop-cultural transgender expression in the early 1970s, The Rocky Horror Show (1973).  In English literature it is hard to escape the gender role comedy in Shakespeare, particularly Viola in Twelfth Night.  In more recent literature the most notable example of playing with gender is in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) where her hero changed gender in his/her long life through English history.  In part the book was based on Woolf’s (probable) lover Vita Sackville West’s journey around Europe dressed as a man.

Of course, any form of fiction that is realist in content can only show the disruption of gender identities (as Shakespeare does).  To show a different set of social relations requires some form of speculative fiction.  Some science fiction is speculative, but so is fantasy and any form of fiction that through shifting its setting away from here and now creates an alternative vision of the world.  As Judy Wajcman pointed out during this edition of Start the Week, often science fiction fails to create this shift presenting a vision of the future which is the present plus gadgets (I think it is William Gibson who makes the point that it is possible to put a mobile phone into science fiction, but to write about how they transform daily life never happened – Captain Kirk doesn’t text on his communicator while a visibly irritated Scotty is explaining that the dilithium crystals willnae stand it and I wull hae tae quickly prepare tae stairt the infinitive splitting reactor).  One only has to look at the stultifying fixed gender relations in the original series of Star Trek to see the unevenness of how alternative futures are imagined.  As Ursula Le Guin has pointed out, science fiction stands or falls in the completeness of the alternative worlds it creates.[3]

Science fiction is the new religion.

Tom Sutcliffe, the presenter, sprang a question on Dominic that he struggled with, asking whether the rise of SF was contingent on the decline of religion.  This clearly threw Dominic since his answer to most questions is (I paraphrase) “but it has always been like that”.  Thus Dominic reacted against Judy Wajcman’s idea that new technology has become dominant in forming self-identity, desire and in shaping our sense of what the future by arguing (wrongly) that this has always been the nature of advertising.  Similarly, he asserts that technological change always has unintended consequences, and at all points in history people always see their technology as the last word on modernity.  (This last point is highly debatable. Firstly, it is only relatively recently that people have lived through a number of major technological changes and this sense of constant revolution is bound up with modernity.  The condition of modernity is not just that more change will happen but that this change may not be altogether good .  This is the tension in modernity and modern science fiction).

Dominic struggled to find an answer to the religion and SF question.  Eventually, he did through asserting another unchanging truth, that there is always a need for moral guidance and as religion declines, SF has taken up at least some of the need.  He thus treats as static what is changing.  The decline in religion can be seen in number of ways.  For example,  it is a decline in the rigid moral orthodoxy that traditional imposes on people.  This is replaced with  a more flexible moral order with a sense of rationality, and here through refection  the individual was expected to reach their own moral conclusions (this being expressed in the rise of Protestantism in part of Europe).  The growth of fiction in general (and not SF in particularly) is part of this moral individualism.[4]

The belief that SF can fill the moral void in modern life had been held by some, particularly L. Ron Hubbard who moved from being a second-rate SF novelist to become a first-rate charlatan and new age religious guru of Scientology.  Not many SF writers would go with him.  Philip K. Dick satirised Hubbard in his short story “The Turning Wheel” wherein fragments of a book by a science fiction novelist, known as Elron Hu from its damaged cover, are taken for religious wonders.  The point is that SF (or fiction) are not the new Bible, society and the role of idea and the individual in it have changed (and, as Dick’s story point out, a society would have to be very damaged before it started taking its moral guidance from SF).  The point that Tom Sutcliffe was getting at, asking if the promised land shifted from one delivered by prayer to one delivered by the technology presaged in SF, seems to have gone over Dominic’s head.

Estate agents in space

Dominic interjects at one point that no-one’s vision of the future has estate agents in it.  This point is just slipped in to suggest that SF does not deal with the prosaic, but it is more evidence of Dominic’s near complete ignorance of the genre.  Famously, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the Golgafrincham B Ark is filled with all the people that the other Golgofrincham’s believe are useless, telephone sanitizers, hair dressers and estate agents.  “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth (1951) is a clumsy satire in which a cryogenically frozen estate agent uses his skills in the future to become a dictator.  A more wild imagining comes from James Tiptree, Jr (writing as Racoona Sheldon) in her novella The Screwfly Solution (1977) which has intergalactic attackers described as “real estate agents” clearing Earth of its human inhabitants by unleashing the implicit violence of male sexuality.  And the opening line of Rudy Ruccker’s 1994 novel The Hacker And The Ants, Version 2.0 is “Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets.”  I am sure the list could go on.

The Last Man at the End of History.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the programme came not when the historian was talking about science fiction, but when the science fiction writer commented on history.  William Gibson commented that “we constantly reknow the past …  History itself is an utterly speculative discipline … The history of our past one hundred years from now will scarcely resemble our idea of the history our past”.  In short, as Gibson has previously said “it is harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future”.  This is fairly standard postmodern, post-structuralist stuff, that past is unknowable and all we can do is create present-minded constructions of it that are little different to fictions.

These words are no surprise coming from a novelist, their path to understanding is exactly in the creative reimaging of the source material they find around in contemporary life and history.  What is more surprising is that Dominic wholeheartedly agreed (“absolutely”).  I have long seen Dominic’s history as a form of fiction, taking his current right-wing concerns and creating a narrative of the past around them that has the purpose of settling the reader in their feelings about both current society and its history – like a historicising Jeffery Archer.  The point is that the historian has sources (the marks that the past has left behind, on paper, film, in memories) and it is the historian’s job to develop methods to allow a critical dialogue with the past through an interrogation of the source material.  Without the concept that there are patterns, generalisations and insights to be gained – in other words there is historical truth to be worked towards – the pursuit of history becomes a highly problematic game that can only be understood as a power-play between different discourses.  If it were, I certainly would not choose Dominic’s Daily Mail view of the world.  The point would appear to be that this comment suggests that Dominic has chosen his past, and now seeks to construct it.  However, the past is not as pliable as some imagine it to be.

There are many other points thrown in by Dominic that could be countered if I had the time.  He suggests that HG Wells expressed a fear of science (no, he feared where it would lead in some forms of society, and Judy Wajcman began to pick up the point to the question about technology and how it is developed in the interests of those who are powerful in society, the military or the corporations).  Another is that Frankenstein is about robots (although I think that Dominic’s point is that like many more modern robot stories, Frankenstein asks the question about what it is to be human, this is not the point of Frankenstein, it is Frankenstein’s humanity, not his creature’s, that is in doubt).

The problem is not so much that Dominic seems to know very little about science fiction.  The problem is that it is damaging the pursuit of history with simplistic answers and one dimensional thinking.


[1] Can be seen at

[2] Start the Week. BBC Radio 4, 24/11/2014.  Can be heard at

[3] See Hari Kunzru, “Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’”, The Guardian Saturday 22nd November 2014 (

[4] See, for example, the work of Ian Watt, particularly his The Rise of the Novel (1957)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s history, Jim, but not as we know it.

Review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction.


Broadcast on BBC2 at 21:45, Saturday 22nd November 2014.  The series continues for a further three weeks.

[This is a review of a preview screening held at the National Film Theatre on 12th November.  It consisted of the first episode, “Space” along with some excerpts of the three other episodes, themed on “Invasion”, “Robots” and “Time”.  There was also a Q and A with Dominic Sandbrook and the programme’s producers.]

The first thing to note, at least for the purposes of this blog, is that Tomorrow’s Worlds is not entirely Dominic’s work.  The series was commissioned by BBC America and was originally made without a commentary.  It consisted of a series of clips from films and TV science fiction with snippets of interviews with the directors, writers, production staff and actors responsible for them.  For the BBC2 version, it was felt it needed another dimension.  Thus Dominic was bought in to create some context for the clips and references to written work.

The programme’s popularist leanings are there from the start, which are supplied by George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977).  Despite its undoubted popularity, this is a poor point from which to begin.  The original Star Wars film is part of a genre of science fiction, the space opera, once described as a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].”  Whether this is true of all space operas, it is certainly true of Star Wars (this view being supported by many of those associated with the film interviewed in the programme).  It is notable for being entirely without subtext or allegorical content, which I would argue is vital for successful science fiction, a point that I will return to.

Also notable is the near total lack of any science in Star Wars.  Indeed, many of the elements (empires, princesses, smugglers, Jedi knights, the mysticism of the force) are much more the elements of a medieval romance than science fiction.  All the trappings of space could be stripped out and the whole thing could be done on horseback and in armour with minimal changes to the script.

Through this, Dominic sets out on his own tired old nag, that the seventies were a miserable time of crisis.  Thus the world was ready for a little escapism in the form of Star Wars.  There was certainly a return to the family adventure film in the late 1970s, in which Star Wars was central.  Here Steven Spielberg is also a key player, who was moving away from adult shockers such as Jaws (1975), through the portentous but ultimately vacuous Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), before alighting on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), like Star Wars, a homage to 1930s Saturday morning boys adventure cinema.  It was also written by George Lucas.

It is certainly the case that Star Wars opened up the market of science fiction on film and particularly on US television which since the premature end of Star Trek (cancelled twice in the 1960s, with only three series being made), had been in the doldrums.  First came space opera/space cowboy series, Battlestar Galatica (mark 1, 1978-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), but neither was noted for its quality or lasting impact.  The most important opening that Star Wars created was the funding for the film versions of Star Trek, starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

None of this should distract from the main point that since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) most science fiction films had been either a sub-genre of horror film, or more high-brow dystopian vision of a world gone wrong.  It is notable that the Russian film Solaris (1972), viewed by many as a film as important as 2001, is not mentioned, but most of the 1970s dystopia is forgettable.  It was this dystopian vision that was to continue as the main current in science fiction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly through Ridley Scott’s two science fiction masterpieces Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1981).  Although both are given an adequate airing here, how dark dystopia fits with Dominic’s one-note the-seventies-were-miserable-so-we-needed-escapism refrain is altogether uncertain.

In British TV science fiction had retained its scheduling place on our screens, albeit mainly as a section of children’s television or at best family viewing.  Apart from Dr. Who (mark 1, 1963-1989), there was a variety of ITC series particularly the live action Space 1999 (1975-1977), and the Thames Television children’s series The Tomorrow People (1973-1979).  These kept the genre alive on TV screens in a way that it was not in the USA.

Starting with Star Wars might make sense in terms of creating a popular hook for viewers, but it does not help in creating, as the title promises, a history of SF and the viewer is given no underlying narrative about why the concept of space persists.  There are some fantastic hints at this, particularly that the original TV Star Trek theme tune lifts it opening fanfare from the theme of the sea-adventure film Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951).  As Tomorrow’s Worlds rightly points out, science fiction’s flights into space are analogues of stories about sea journeys into the unknown, but the question of why put a story in space (or similarly an unknown ocean) is never addressed.  With the lower quality space operas (such as Star Wars) the answer may well be that this is ornamentation.  But science fiction really works when it uses shifts in space (or for that matter, time) to create enough distance to be critical about our current earthly concerns.

To be fair, this is addressed to a limited degree in the programme’s discussion of the reboot of Battlestar Galatica (mark 2, 2003-2009) which dealt with both the impact of 9/11 (although on a civilisation destroying scale) and some of the issues of militarism and the war in Iraq, but too few of these strands are pulled together.  What is not developed in any way in Tomorrow’s Worlds is that by placing a story in space some critical distance is created, a sense of otherness and unreality.  It is through this that our reality can be recreated in microcosm, or criticised by comparing it with something better.

Now, no-one is going to make an Open University programme about science fiction for Saturday night viewing on BBC2 (that is, after all, what BBC4 is for), but somewhere pretty early in any history of SF some reference needs to be made to Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516).  Of course, Utopia is not science fiction since it has no element of science in it.  Science fiction remains a product of the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the literary importance of spatial distance in satire, social criticism and literary endeavour goes back at least another 2,300 years to Homer’s Odyssey.  The point about Utopia is the way that it puns (in Greek, naturally, this is 1516) on Οὐτοπία (not-place) and its homophone Εὐτοπία (good-place).  The trip to far-away Utopia was, in reality, vehicle criticism (or at least discussion) of the state of 1516 England and Europe.  Such fantasy journeys continued in other pre-cursors to science fiction, most notably in English through Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Here Dominic is again right to suggest that original TV Star Trek (1966-1969) both uses its distance in space and time from the 1960s reality to present a utopian future, at least some of the peoples of earth united, including a black women  (but note, although Uhura’s is derived form the Swahili word for freedom, she is still answering the phone in a short skirt).  Dominic’s reading of Star Trek is, however, rather odd.  He over-emphasises that this is a Western in the sky.  It is certainly true that the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, pitched his series to TV executive as a space bound version of Wagon Train (the long running US Western TV series, 1957-1962), but then he would do that since Westerns, unlike science fiction, were a well established TV genre.

Dominic is hopelessly one-sided to suggest that the Enterprise’s mission was analogous to the imperial civilising one of the nineteenth century Royal Navy, more to do with gunship diplomacy than interaction with new species as equals.  The politics of the original Star Trek series are complicated, and Dominic is right to point out that this is a military naval vessel (although his observations are not new, it is a ship of Starfleet, is flown from its bridge, it is armed with torpedoes and cannons etc.), and it clearly does draw on Horatio Hornblower.  Underlying attitudes to the Cold War are also less than Utopian.  There was no Russian or Chinese crew member in the first series.  Sulu was cast as a generic Asian, and he was only resolved as of Japanese descent later.  Only when George Takei, who played Sulu, was unavailable for much of the second season, was a Russian character, Chekov, introduced in his place.  Moreover, the series recreates the Cold War in space with Klingons (short, swarthy, knocking back their bloodwine, which looks rather like Vodka) playing the role of Russians with other bits of random orientalism thrown in.  Klingons  were considerably softened in Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) onwards.  Indeed, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) the end of the Cold War is played out in allegory with the Klingons clearly in the Soviet role.

Despite the Cold War tension that ran through the original TV series, the accusation of gun boat diplomacy is unfair.  For sure, the series often used violent conflict as the easiest way of resolving dramatic tension (in sharp contrast to a painfully diplomatic approach in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)).  However Gene Roddenberry, thought of the series as both a morality tale and a commentary on American society.  This was something that he thought that he could not have done in a more head-on approach, he sought to depict “a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.  Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network”[1]  Thus, at the heart of Star Trek is a need to create the no-place to talk about this-place.

This is not a minor theme in science fiction, beyond the trashy pop science fiction, such social commentary is the norm.  Thus many science fictions writers are, at least in part, interested in looking at our current world not just through the dual lenses of utopia (presenting a better place) and dystopia (presenting an exaggerated version of what is wrong with the current world).  This means that many science fiction writers are on the left.  Dominic will, one assumes, have more to say about HG Wells in the episodes on invasion and time.  The point here is that for Wells, science fiction was a way of dealing with political and moral questions, although he was also keenly interested in the possibility of scientific progress (not least in his eugenics ideas, which today sit uneasily with his socialism).  War of the Worlds can be read as a critique of colonialism (although some on the right might read it as an example of social Darwinism, this is contradicted by the way in which invaders are presented as morally inferior to humanity); The Sleeper Awakes has a society of 2100 where a form of state-capitalism has lead to a huge gulf opening up between rich and poor; and The Invisible Man an investigation of the removal of social restraint leading to a collapse of the individual’s moral integrity.  Such social and political thought runs through science fiction, particularly its more literary and serious side.[2]  In modern science fiction it might still be a little left-field to set your books in a socialist future, as  Iain M. Banks does with his future society, The Culture, still less to have jokes about Gramsci as Kim Stanley Robison does, but even some of the later Star Trek films suggested a different social system with a lack of familiarity with the concept of money and the view that killing animals to eat was barbarous.

Not all science fiction dresses to the left.  Doris Lessing, who believed “science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time” used her Canopus series to examine her move from communism to Sufism.  Right wing science fiction is less common since the new wave of the 1970s, although much US science fiction prior to this was on the right.  Thus EE “Doc” Smith’s trashy Lensman Series (originally published in book form between 1948-1953, although serialised from 1934) has the very dodgy premise that all species have their Übermensch who can be perfected by selective breeding.  It is no surprise that Robert Heinlein was a fan of Smith’s work, and his own science fiction is right-wing and individualist.  He wrote Starship Troopers (1959), which was loosely the basis for Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 fascistic film of the same name.  Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is the story of an Anarcho-capitalist revolution on the Moon, a kind of Lunar Tea Party.  Dominic implies that John Wyndham is part of this group (this in the episode on invasion, the work in question being The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)).  Dominic’s close reading is that the book, which features unearthly children born to human mothers after alien impregnation, is inspired by a fear of a generation gap and rebellious teenagers.  This is an unconvincing reading. These are polite if controlling young people, serene in their otherness.  The most obvious interpretation is that they are, as they are described, an alien invasion.  There is little overt politics in Wyndham’s books, although they are suffused with the necessary leadership role that educated middle-class men must lead weaker people (children, women, the working class) when society is threatened by a variety of exogenous forces (bio-engineered killer plants in Day of the Triffids (1952), aquatic invaders in The Kraken Wakes (1953) and radioactive spiders in Web (published posthumously in 1979)).  Although the horror that the reader is invited to share in The Day of the Triffids as the plants knock down the Victorian villas of Finchley may be in line with Wyndham’s reputation as “the Trollope of science fiction” some of his other work, particularly the post-apocalyptic The Chrysalids (1955) suggest that there was a little more to him than that.

What Tomorrow’s World is thus missing is an understanding of science fiction as a genre that, beyond space opera, Star Wars and comic books, has an affinity with the examination of society and politics.  It is genre that is explicitly chosen by a writer for its ability to study these themes.  Thus, the programme gets Kim Stanley Robinson entirely wrong in presenting his Mars series as being about the terraforming of Mars.  Now, of course this is central to the story, but this is not what the underlying theme of  his books are.  Rather, terraforming is a vehicle for exploring the politics of class and ecology – the themes are broadly Green and socialist.  As such it is typical of science fiction.

Worst of all, this sidelining of science fiction’s intent is in its presentation of Ursula Le Guin.  It is excellent that Ursula Le Guin receives some exposure, she is a deplorably under-rated science fiction writer although I would also highlight her book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1972).  Nonetheless, it is her Left Hand of Darkness (1969) that is highlighted here for its presentation of a species which only assumes a biological sex briefly for the purposes of breeding, and is otherwise neuter.  This, Dominic suggests, was a reaction to the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1960s (although he is a well known proponent of the idea that the 1960s did not really exist and in Britain the real icon of the period was not the Beatles but Dads Army,[3] although here he is clearly suggesting that there was a shift in attitudes at that time).  This strikes me as an over-simplification, science fiction is a genre that demands that people question the everyday, and the best science fiction writer ask questions about how society is organised not just what impact technology will have.  Indeed, even the parochial John Wyndham had asexual aliens in Chocky, published a year before The Left Hand of Darkness.  Here, Dominic seems to suggest that SF is vox populi, reacting to current social movement but not part of the more general literary, cultural and political struggle to shape them.  It is a patronising and condescending attitude to the genre.

Indeed, science fiction has been playing with ideas of sex and gender for a very long time,[4] perhaps for 1,800 years before Le Guin wrote her book.  Lucian of Samosata’s True History (written in the second century A.D.) tells of the people of the moon who “are not begotten of women, but of mankind: for they have no other marriage other than of males; the name of women is utterly unknown among them: until they accomplish the age of five and twenty years, they are given in marriage to others; from that time forwards they take others in marriage to themselves … as soon as an infant is conceived the leg begins to swell, and afterwards when the time of birth is come, they give it lance and take it out dead; then they lay it abroad with open mouth towards the wind, and it takes life.”[5]

Although such writing is not common, there are other examples.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (published as a serial from 1909) features a society of women who reproduce asexually; Theodore Sturgeon has given us Venus Plus X (1960) where a sleeper awakes in a future society of hermaphrodites; and Robert Heinlein’s intriguing story All you zombies… (1959) where a young man who turns out to be intersex is tricked into travelling back in time where he has sex with his previously female self, and is him/herself the product of the union thus being both his own mother and father.  While it is certainly true that The Left Hand of Darkness marked the beginning of a surge in science fiction’s exploration of gender that included feminist and gay themes, it was by no means the start.

This is part of a much bigger problem with the series, that the ideas of utopia and dystopia are absent from the series.  This came up in the discussion at the NFT screening, and the producer and Dominic explained that they did not wish to make a political history of science fiction.  It would appear that in this context utopia and dystopia had no role.  This is very strange, since if science fiction means anything more than space opera, the political nature of possible futures, other worlds, parallel realities and altered states is central.  Even the most mainstream of Hollywood science fiction has this.  The later films in the Alien, Terminator and even Star Wars series all develop the theme that the malignant force in the world is corporate power.  In RoboCop the cyborg police officer is the property of OmniCorp who are attempting to profit from the redevelopment and gentrification of Detroit by clearing out the poor and breaking the power of the unionised and striking police force.  RoboCop’s rediscovery of his humanity is also a rediscovery of working class solidarity.  (It is a reasonable criticism that RoboCop is “fascism for liberals”, combining a liberal message with A Clockwork Orange dose of ultraviolence.)

There is another issue brought up in this first episode, the historical contextualisation of the radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (1978-2005).  I think that Dominic struggles here, in the NFT discussion he admitted that he wanted to put in the BBC series Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) in the series rather that Hitchhiker’s.  While I have a soft spot for Blake’s 7 (there is something sexy in the androgynous amoral interplay of Servalan and Avon), the Crossroads wobbly sets and the litany of all-knowing deus ex machina supercomputers makes it, in Clive James’ words, “classically awful”.[6]  (This is, of course, unfair.  Blake’s 7 pursued a number of themes of political rebellion, moral ambiguity and its long term arc in story and character were ahead of the game.)

The point here is that the casual comment in the discussion that the original 1978 Radio 4 series of Hitchhikers went out at 10:30 in the evening, so it would have been possible to flick over at the end and have heard John Peel blowing the cobwebs out of music as Hitchhiker’s was out doing to science fiction.  I am not sure that this is true in anyway.  Dr. Who already was quite un-cobwebbed, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) had already shown that SF could be darkly humorous.  I guess that the meaning of this is that Hitchhiker’s had, in some sense, a punk mentality.  Just as with the 1960s, this is very odd coming from Dominic, who thinks that the whole punk thing is over-estimated in its cultural importance, rather that it had little social significance and its impact has been exaggerated and romanticised by subsequent generations, [7] a theory that holds very little water.

The parallel between Hitchhikers and punk does not stand up either.  As the programme points out, Adams was not a parvenu, he was already on the periphery of the comedy establishment.  He was one of only two people outside of the Monty Python team to have been given a writing credit on their show (the other was Neil Innes), and had co-written an episode of Doctor on the Go with Graham Chapman.  He did not bring the do it yourself punk aesthetic to science fiction, but his stated intention was to create a immersive science fiction experience as the Beatles and Pink Floyd had with music.  Even the theme music was by the Eagles.

Punk had very little of an analogue in science fiction at this stage (although Derek Jarman’s dystopian Jubilee (1977) might be one example), and on the whole science fiction was very much associated amongst most in punk culture as part of the progressive rock past (think of the covers of those Yes albums by Roger Dean, such as Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Be-Bop Deluxe’s reimaging for HG Well’s The Sleeper Awakes as “Life in the Air Age” (1976), Bowie’s surfeit of SF imaginary).  Disco too had its SF moments, from Funkadelic to the brief Space Disco craze of 1977.  Punk, unsurprisingly, rejected the technology and often optimistically lightweight science fiction imagery of prog and glam.  There are some exceptions, the very early Fall and XTC were briefly styled sci-fi rock in 1977, but it did not amount to much.  Only Gary Numan, who looked back to Bowie and thus was a bridge through punk and new wave to the new romantics, of that generation took science fiction themes in music seriously in the UK.  A few post-punk bands picked up on some of the literary science fiction, Joy Division songs borrowing from JG Ballard and William Boroughs, the Comsat Angels taking their name from Ballard short story and with more than one SF themed song.  If you wanted to find a band collaborating with a science fiction writer, that would be the old hippies of Hawkwind who worked with Michael Morcock over many years.

It took a while for science fiction to get its punk.  In some ways the dark dystopia visions of Ridley Scott’s films were a bridge, but it took quite some time for the punk generation to influence SF.  It is questionable whether science fiction ever had its punk moment.  Perhaps the (fairly) low budget Terminator (1982) could be considered to have something in commons with the Ramones.  Perhaps it was through comic books (notably all but absent from the first episode of Tomorrow’s Worlds) particularly  through the British 2000 A.D .that took at least some of the DIY fanzine punk aesthetic into science fiction grew into role after its first publication in 1977 (its most famous creation was Judge Dredd).  There is considerable overlap between superhero comics where by the mid-1980s British writers and artists reinvigorating some rather stale American characters (think Alan Moore related projects such as Watchmen (1986) and V for Vendetta (1989)).

Tomorrow’s Worlds is thus is a wasted opportunity.  It is slow to move beyond the shiny surface of popularist work like Star Wars and while it recognises that science fiction has been a vehicle for more serious consideration of social and political issues, fails to get to grips with how it does this.

[1] Jan Johnson Smith (2005), American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and Beyond (London: I B Taursus)

[2] For a summary of socialist science fiction, see China Melville’s summary on his Fantastic Metropolis blog, reposted here:

[3] Dominic Sandbrook (2006), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London: Little Brown), p791.

[4] This section has drawn heavily on a fantastic Wikipedia page, “Sex and Sexuality in Speculative Fiction” ( (accessed 20/11/2014)

[5] Lucian of Samosata, True History (translated by Francis Hickes) (London: AH Bullen, n.d.), p39  [Accessed via Google Books, (18/11/2014)]


[7] Dominic Sandbrook (2012), Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979 (London: Allen Lane), pp565-566.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Andrew Marr joins the campaign


Good to see the anti-Dominic bandwagon is gaining momentum. In his newly published novel, Head of State, Andrew Marr has a character who fears that his emails are being read.  So he chooses to pass important message by placing them in library books that are gathering dust.  He, ‘finally settled on the works of the journalist and sometime historian Dominic Sandbrook,’ putting the message into, ‘an eight-hundred-page history of Britain from 1982 to 1983.’

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why Dominic Sandbrook is the jihadists’ new best friend

saud war 2

Dominic Sandbrook’s column in The Daily Mail has been the subject of comment on this blog previously when he started the ball rolling with the ‘Ed Miliband’s dad hated Britain’ story.  Since The Daily Mail is not my newspaper of choice, much of Dominic’s musings in this paper pass me by.  But in a recent column, The Coming Apocalypse (23/8/2014) he has been sucked further down into the quicksand of right-wing yellow journalism.  Here a picture of Britain twenty years hence is painted, caught in a Eurabian clash of civilisations.  It is as unpleasant as it is unoriginal.  Anyone who knows the writings of the US ‘journalist’ Mark Steyn will be familiar with this kind of apocalyptic vision wherein a lack of political will on the part of the West leads to it be overrun by the Muslim hordes.[1]

Dominic is a fan of science fiction (indeed he has a forthcoming BBC TV series on the subject,[2] one can only hope that the quality control is better than in his series about the Cold War).  He should know that the basis of any dystopian vision is the extrapolation of some existing tendencies from the world as it now is.  As an historian, he should attempt to do that from a strong factual base.  Unfortunately, Dominic’s dystopia seems to be based on an ill-formed understanding of everything, from public transport systems, British Muslims and Middle Eastern politics.  It is difficult to find something that he has understood correctly, rather it is an outpouring of paranoid hysteria in a particularly Daily Mail form.

Getting the Middle East wrong

The premise of the article is that if the Western powers do not do more now to eradicate the Islamic State’s foothold in northern Iraq, everything that The Daily Mail’s readership holds dear will be destroyed.  Thus, in his dystopia there is a war in the Middle East but this picture is highly confused.  Dominic’s future-story is as follows:

First, this 2030 war is the result of what the West fails to do now: not going full out to defeat Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria.  As a result Islamic State consolidates its hold, turns back to Syria which it conquers, and then invades Lebanon (and possibly Jordan) into the  bargain.  This results in the breakup of Iraq into a Sunni part, a Kurdish part and a Shia part closely allied to Iran.  Certainly, the break-up of Iraq is plausible enough although the ability of Islamic state to push through Syria without any strong supply lines to the rear is questionable.

Second, this leads to conflict between Kurds and Turkey, and while this is plausible it underestimates the degree to which the USA could bang the heads of Kurds (reliant on the existence of their autonomy on US air cover since the first Gulf war in 1991) and the Turks (members of NATO and more than ever wanting the guarantees that that brings with it) together until they reach a compromise.  Both, sharing a common enemy in Islamic State on their borders would probably see the virtues of compromise.

Third this is added to by the collapse of the state in Libya and in Egypt.  The collapse of the state in Libya is certainly plausible based on what has been happening in recent weeks, but is no means inevitable.  The collapse of the Egyptian state is quite another matter.  The military have successfully reasserted their power against the Muslim Brotherhood with minimal resistance, with even the Saudi aligned Salifists supporting the return to authoritarian rule.  There is little violent jihad type resistance to this within Egypt.  There is no reason to think that this will become strong enough to destroy the existing Egyptian state in the near future.

Four, Dominic suggests Islamic State’s Caliphate ethnically cleanses the north of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon thus turning the region into one where 40 million live without law or currency and 70 per cent unemployment (although what this means in an economy of scavenging and barter is entirely unclear, presumably everyone does what they can to scrape a subsistence).  At the same time Dominic suggests that c.2017 Iran decides that it will have to deal with the Caliphate, and crosses the border into Iraq to deal with it.  This then leads the West to fund and arm Saudi Arabia and Qatar as its proxies against Iran, with the Saudis acting to stop Iran’s ambitions to unite the Shia population under its rule (which mainly means the south half of Iraq).  There is much wrong with this.  Saudi Arabia has historically been reliant on US military might in the region.  Thus in the first Gulf war of 1991 Saudi Arabia was only part of the US led coalition which expelled Iraq from Kuwait, and it is unlikely that it could have done it on its own.  It seems improbable that Saudi Arabia (population around 20 million when all the foreign workers are discounted and especially Qatar (population of 250,000 Qataris without the ex-pats) would pick a fight with its larger neighbour, Iran (population 77 million).  Being outnumbered four-to-one is not a good ratio.   Second, this means that the West is backing the Saudis, while the Saudis (Dominic tells us) tacitly support Islamic state and are thus attacking Iran.  This would appear to be seriously wrong.  There is certainly evidence that the Saudis, and even more Qatar, have given support to conservative Islamist forces and some Sunni fighters in the region (for example, in Syria) and that some of these resources may have ended up with Islamic State.   But this was not their intention.  It is not difficult to work out why, since the House of Saud and the Qatari royal family have the most to lose from extreme Sunni jihadists.  Obviously, there are parallels in Saudi Arabia supporting the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and this spawning the jihadist forces that led to al-Qaeda.  But al-Qaeda’s number one enemy is not the USA, but the corrupt House of Saud that controls the holy places in the Gulf and allowed the infidel armies of the USA onto that hallowed soil in the first Gulf War of 1991.  Islamic State, one can only assume, would share these views.  And anyway, all of the indications for the USA are that that they would, on balance, prefer Iran to prevail over Islamic State.

Five, Dominic suggests that in some unspecified way on the economic base of a collapsed economy, Islamic State continues to arm itself and raises fearsome armies to the degree that by 2022 it is able to launch a war against Israel, the outcome of which is not clear, but it appears that Israel holds out at a terrible cost.  How, precisely, does a state that has no allies in the world arm itself and then put up a fight against Israel (which, one must assume, would still have the support of the USA)?  Dominic’s dystopia has disintegrated into hysterical nonsense.

Six, to add to the confusion, Dominic states that by 2030 NATO is fighting the forces of Islamic State in Egypt.  This, it should be highlighted is despite the West having washed its hands of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the degree that they in effect aid it by backing the Saudis to fight Iran.  It is also unclear what the forces Islamic State in Egypt are, have they defeated Israel and come through?  One would assume a hugely weakened force?  Has the West now decided that Islamic Sate, not Iran, is its main enemy?  Who knows.

Seven, the degree to which Dominic is throwing the kitchen sink at this in a fact-free way so shown by his claim that Islamic State will be an area where female genital mutilation is rife.  But FGM is not the Sunni militants’ issue, rather it is mainly isolated to sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt, and is by no means solely a Muslim practice.  It is far less common across the Arabian Middle East.  Indeed its only concentration outside of Africa is in Kurdistan, home to the anti-Jihadists good guys in this narrative.[3]

Getting oil wrong

This is merely the background.  Dominic asks us to believe that this regional conflagration has a number of consequences.  One is that it has disrupted the world’s oil supplies through a series of oil shocks much like those orchestrated by OPEC in the 1970s.  How is this?  There is no suggestion that there is war in Saudi Arabia, nor is there much suggestion of war disrupting production in Iran.  Most of the trouble is projected in Iraq (although not so much the oil wells in the Kurdish north of Shia south).  The main problems are projected as being in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt but these are not major oil producers.  So where do Sandbrook’s three oil shocks come from?  It is not clear.  Rather, he is re-running the 1970s in his head with Arabs as the bogeymen who cut off ‘our’ oil supplies.

So Dominic wants us to believe that the West will encourage a major conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and, without the West seeing this coming, disrupt the oil supply form Iran and the Gulf.  For this to make this conflict must be a protracted one starting from 2020 that the neither the warring parties nor the West seek to bring to end quickly.   this is a long-term stretching over a period of more than ten years from c.2020.  Iran and Saudi Arabia supply 22 per cent of the world’s oil production, so say this capacity has been halved causing an 11 per cent drop in world oil supplies, then on this basis Dominic suggests that there is a long slump in the West.  So in order to create this oil slump necessary for his ‘apocalypse’ outcome Dominic has had to create a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran (one which, in his scenario, has been encouraged by the West) which has no basis on what is going on in Syria and Iraq now.

If this were to happen, would it have the serious consequences Dominic suggests, a prolonged fall in production and a commensurate increase in price that Dominic suggests? It is certainly possible that a severe oil shock of a fall of 11 per cent could cause a global recession, in Britain Dominic suggests a long depression starting in 2024 and still continuing in 2030.  I would not want to rule this out if it is combined with other factors, for example if it tipped the Chinese banking sector into crisis.  But in itself it is doubtful whether higher oil prices could have this impact, anymore than the long term increase in oil prices from less than $20 a barrel in 1999 to over $130 in 2008 limited economic growth in that period.  If there was serious disruption to Gulf oil supplies, lower levels of supply and higher prices would become the new normal, at some point recession would bottom out and economic growth would start albeit from a lower point than pre-recession.  There would be less of certain things, fewer petrol driven cars, international flights would decline, maybe sea cargo would reduce, certainly oil powered heating would be out and there would be some issues with plastics and other goods made from petrochemicals.  But in each case somewhere around 10, or perhaps 20, per cent less than would have been the case otherwise.  It is probably not the condition for a depression lasting many years.

I have no economic model that would suggest what a 10 per cent reduction on oil production would be, but one way of putting this into perspective is to look at the 1980s slump as the process in reverse.  This caused a drop in the demand for oil approaching 20 per cent and it took 15 years for demand to return to its 1980 level.  The lesson of this reverse case is not clear, but it does suggest that 10 to 20 per cent drop in oil production could be associated with a period of recession and low growth such as the early 1980s, but that growth returns without the demanding for oil increasing.  One could suggest that the scenario of $300 a barrel might come about by 2030 anyhow with a decline in oil production and demand for developing economies in China, the BRIC states, CIVETS and the next 11.  A major war impacting on oil production in the Gulf would not create new problems in terms of oil, but exacerbate existing ones.

Nor is the situation static.  Just because there is a reduction in oil from Iran and the Gulf, increased prices might encourage others such a Venezuela to increase production or the more careless exploitation of tar sands in Alberta.  Oil might be replaced by bio-fuel production or using coal as a source of oils.  Electric transport and a myriad of other technologies might be deployed relatively swiftly to mitigate the effects of less oil.  States might put controls on the use of petrol by, say, banning new cars with engines larger than 1400cc and encouraging the scrapping of existing gas-guzzlers  as well as imposing speed limits on motorways.

Dominic has none of this, but his bleak picture is simply a fantasy collage of images from the past.  So he has both a fuel rationing and long queues at petrol stations.  For an alleged historian he is very careless, it was not rationing that caused queues in the 1970s, but the threat of rationing.  Once rationing is in place there will be fewer people going to petrol stations, the queues will be shorter.

More likely, less fuel will lead to a necessarily rapid economic restructuring which while not comfortable probably would not cause a long term depression.  After the initial oil shock which could create a very serious recession, the economy would have to adapt to changed circumstances.  The car industry and aviation would be hit.  Moving goods long distances would become less attractive and it would become more efficient to produce goods locally.  The range of cheaper fruit and vegetables would be hit, the idea that some of them might be seasonal would return.  Even if the initial shocks before 2020 meant that living standards did not fully recover before 2030, there is no reason to suspect that growth would not start again after a painful (for some at least) economic restructuring.  People will get used to their life with fewer cars and bananas, and more cabbages and bicycles.  They might even be healthier, although the return of the British seaside holiday might mean that they may not be happier.

Getting refugees wrong

Dominic has more cards to play in his apocalypse now scenario.  There are refugees on the South Downs and they are rioting.  Again, this does not make sense.  Now we all know that for The Daily Mail asylum seekers are the very devil, huddled but dangerous masses.   But why have there been riots in refugee camps?  These would appear to be detention camps for asylum seekers, not refugee camps.  One can only assume that Dominic does not want to make the UK the bad guy by imagining the internment of those who have fled violence in the Middle East.  If these were really refugee camps why should the people in them not be relived to be safe?  In reality, most of the refugees would not be in northern Europe but in the states nearest the conflict, Turkey, Iran, Israel and southern Iraq.

Getting British Muslims wrong

Dominic’s real sucker punch is, of course, the impact this will have on British Muslims.  Here, again, we have a series of hints rather than a fully elaborated picture.  The first is that there will be an increase in domestic terrorism by British Muslims.  The second is that Muslims will take control of some local councils in Britain which will be under militant Islamist control.  This is, I would suggest, a particularly unpleasant eliding of two different issues.  The first is the idea that British jihadists who are fighting with Islamic State or other jihadist groups will be likely to return to the UK and continue their struggle.  The second is that British Muslims would grow in number enough to take over councils (and Dominic is clear that these would be in the North) with Islamist leadership which one might assume (Dominic is not clear on this) would be sympathetic to such jihadists.   Dominic is, I would argue, extrapolating from limited evidence which is supplemented by a racist fear of Muslims as an undifferentiated and dangerous brown mass.  Further, the complicated picture of British Jihadists is dealt with in a simpleminded way that moves us not one inch closer to understanding it but rather suggests our reaction should only be fear and reaction.

To start with the strongest evidence for his case (which he does not use): Islamists can take control of councils in Britain.  One has to careful with the evidence here, but it is difficult not to see the Tower Hamlets First group and Tower Hamlet’s mayor, Lutfur Rahman, as a partial fulfilment of this.  Rahman was previously the leader of the Labour group on Tower Hamlets Council.  However, he lost this position in 2010.  The same year he was selected as the Labour candidate to stand as the directed elected mayor of Tower Hamlets before being removed by the party’s NEC.  The reason for him losing both positions were accusations that the Islamic Foundation of Europe (IFE) had signed up some hundreds of members to the Labour Party to advance Rahman’s cause.  The IFE is part of a network of groups around the East London Mosque aligned to the Jamaat-e-Islami (aka Maududists), which has its origins in India but is now more significantly is a force in Pakistan and were chief amongst the anti-secessionist forces in the civil war that created Bangladesh.  They are Islamist in that they support an Islamic state based on Sharia law, but are (on the whole) social conservatives not jihadists.

Rahman won the 2010 mayoral election as an independent although Tower Hamlets is by no means a majority Muslim borough, less than 40% are Muslims but they do constitute the bulk of Labour’s electoral base and once Rahman was able to win this no-one could beat him.  Rahman’s position was strengthened by the party formed around him, Tower Hamlets First (THF), winning 18 of the 45 council seats in2014 and under the mayoral system Rahman can run the administration drawing on only these councillors.  THF is entirely drawn from Tower Hamlets Bangladeshis (and one would assume, Muslims), although six have previously been councillors of both the Labour Party and Respect.  One of these, Abjoi Miah, was a key member of Respect and appears to have been the key link person between Respect and IFE/Jamaat.  He is now the central organiser of THF and a power behind Rahman’s throne.  The turn to the Labour Party and Rahman appears to have been because IFE/Jamaat lost confidence in the Respect MP for Bow and Poplar (in Tower Hamlets), George Galloway, after he made a complete fool of himself on Celebrity Big Brother.


There are three important points to make about the Rahman/THF rule in Tower Hamlets and the possibility of other councils becoming Muslim run.

First Rahman and THF do not present as Islamists.  For example, the council maintains an LGBT policy.  It might be the case that Rahman and many of the THF councillors are not Islamists but communalists who wish to promote the interests of those of Bangladeshi origins, something that is not without precedent in local government politics in Britain.  The most notable feature of Rahman/THF rule is not the establishment of an Islamic state in the East End, but the creation of a version of the millet system that existed under the Ottoman Empire whereby everyone is related to as a religious group.  It is common for local councils to run a layer of social services through local voluntary groups and charities.  In Tower Hamlets these are becoming increasingly demarcated on religion lines, that strengthens the link between people of Bangladeshi origin.  Through its Community Faith Building Support Scheme the council gives direct support to faith based groups, the budget for 2014 being £1.3 million.  Of the 2013 funding, although funding went to a variety of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh groups, two-thirds went to Muslim groups.[4]  It is such communalism and setting of religious identity into policy structures that is most problematic here, not any overt militancy.

Second, what is notable about Tower Hamlets First is their relative youth and this is related is new political associations.  These are not bearded elders in traditional attire, but suits and beards that are either neatly clipped or absent.  In sharp distinction to older generations, there are women amongst THF’s councillors.  This group has coalesced around three factors: the shutting down of channels in the Labour Party to their advancement, the rise of Respect in Tower Hamlets showing the potential to mobilise Muslim voters in a new way, and the organisation hub of Jamaat-e-Islami based on the East London Mosque.   The last of these is probably the most important, but one that might not be readily replicated elsewhere.  As Innes Bowen has shown in her recent book, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, while most mosques in Britain are affiliated to the conservative quietism of the Deobandi and Barelwi strands of Sunni Islam, the East London Mosque is affiliated to the Islamist idea of Jamaat-e-Islami, with IFE being part of this stable too.[5]

Third, success for Tower Hamlets First was tied up with the mayoral systems.  Tower Hamlets First do not have the spread across the borough to win the majority of the council seats, and have only 40 per cent.  Their control is thus based on winning the direct elections for mayor that Rahman did comfortably in 2010 where he took much of Labour’s vote, and more tightly in 2014 against a strong Labour challenge.  In areas such as Bradford, without a directly elected mayor, it would be more difficult for a challenge in the style of Tower Hamlet First.  It would also be difficult for a majority Muslim council to emerge in Bradford because it includes suburban and semi-rural areas with low Muslim populations.

What lies behind Dominic’s assertion that by 2030 there will be Muslim run councils lies another item on the right-wing paranoia list, that (in Mark Steyn’s unpleasant phrase) ‘Muslims are breeding like mosquitoes’.  It has long been a staple of the sensationalist headlines that some towns and cities will become majority Muslim in coming years.  The only problem is that the evidence does not back it up.  These (and a range of other statistics) have been surveyed by Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson in their ’Sleepwalking to Segregation’?   Here they show that although some local authorities areas are already plural, with no one group constituting over 50% of the population,  white-British will remain the largest group.  Thus Brent and Newham in London are already ‘majority minority’.  Birmingham is predicted to become so in 2024, Bradford in 2031 and Leicester in 2019.[6]  But white-British will remain the largest group.  For example, in Bradford 46% of school aged children were classified as white-British compared with 34% Pakistani in 2011.[7]

It is by no means clear that Muslim populations will become more concentrated.  The standard population models suggest that these populations will disperse away from inner city areas in search of better (or more affordable) housing.  The evidence in Tower Hamlets does not entirely support this view where between the 2001 and 2011 censuses the number of people who identified themselves as Muslims grew in absolute number, but as a proportion of the total population, it fell slightly. [8]  Over the same period the proportion of people of Bangladeshi descent in Tower Hamlets fell from 33 per cent to 32 per cent.[9]  The area is becoming more diverse and not a Bangladeshi-Muslim monoculture.

In areas of West Yorkshire the picture is slightly different.  Looking at religion across all the local authorities in West Yorkshire, the picture of a moderate increase in the number of Muslims, particularly in Bradford, and a decrease in the number of people indentifying as Christian, is in large part due to these people reporting that they have no religion.  But even in the Bradford Metropolitan District Council area, the council in West Yorkshire with the biggest Muslim population, this has risen only to 25 per cent.  Even if this growth continues it is difficult to see how it would create the electoral base necessary for electing militant Muslim councils.

Getting British Muslim opinion wrong

It is not simply necessary for there to be high concentrations of Muslim voters to create militant Muslim councils, such voters have to vote for such political formation.  But is there evidence that British Muslims would vote in this way?  The first thing to say against Dominic’s crude caricature is that what he sees is an undifferentiated brown mass, but in reality there are divisions within British Muslims.

In Tower Hamlets, whatever the truth, Tower Hamlets First do not present themselves as militant, rather they pursue a faith-based multiculturalism, possibly with a communal bias towards Muslim groups.  Opinion poll data on the attitudes of Muslims in Britain does not suggest that there is much basis for anything more.  There is a close correspondence between the result of the glut of polls taken in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in 2005.  A number of polls are considered here: YouGov[10] and ICM[11] and Populus[12] polls from 2005, and an ICM poll from 2006.[13]   All have results that reflect differences and graduations of opinion within British Muslims.  The majority were moderate and accommodating in their views.  99 per cent thought the bombing wrong; somewhere between 77  and 91 per cent felt loyalty towards Britain; 88 per cent thought that Muslims should do more to root out extremism in their communities; 58 percent agreed with Tony Blair’s view that the bomber’s ideology was ‘perverted and dangerous’; 56 per cent, believed ‘Western society may not be perfect but Muslims should live with it and not seek to bring it to an end’ with the same percentage feeling optimistic about their family’s future in the UK; 41 per cent opposed the introduction of elements of Sharia law in Britain; and 40 per cent thought that Muslims needed to integrate more into British society.

Those with a more critical stance are not necessarily militant, but socially conservative.  Thus the 32 per cent who agreed with the statement ‘Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end’ would have opinions that overlap with many readers of the Daily Mail.  Muslim reactions to this are not, however, channelled through feelings of British nationalism, but a sense of ethnic belonging centred on religion.  Thus around 40 per cent believe that Sharia law should (in some unspecified way) be introduced to part of Britain.  18 per cent thought that Muslims had become too integrated into British society, and between 9 and 18 percent reported that they felt little or no loyalty to Britain, 6% thought the bus bombings were justified in some way, but only 1 per cent that they were ‘right’.

One notable result of these polls is the degree of dissatisfaction that Muslims feel with their political leadership.  The ICM poll shows that an even split with 46 per cent either very or quite confident and 46 per cent either not very confident or not at all confident in their political and religious leaders.  The Populus poll asked about the awareness of a variety of Muslim organisations, and only the Muslim Council of Britain had a strong awareness factor, with the Islamic Council of Britain showing a weak positive recognition factor (although given the organisation’s low profile, this result needs to be taken with a pinch of salt).  With the vast majority of organisations more Muslims were unaware or only vaguely aware than were quite/very aware.  There was no organisation that rated positively for Muslims believing that these organisation represented their views and most very negatively.  Since most of these political groups are dominated by  groups that are marginal to British Islam, both the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain are run by an alliance of members (or former members) of Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood.[14]  It is thus unsurprising that they inspire little confidence amongst British Muslims.  While the success of Tower Hamlets First shows that it might be possible for a more militant and political Islam to win political leadership, this evidence is far from conclusive.

Getting the jihadists wrong.

Dominic also argues that his predicted conflagration in the Middle East will lead to an increase in British jihadism, with young British men queuing up to join the jihad in the Middle East and them bringing it home to Britain.  But here his narrative is highly confused.  This dystopia is Dominic’s view on what will happen if Britain does not move against Islamic State, but here he argues that there is ‘furious response’ against military action against Islamic State.  One can only assume that it is against Britain’s related moves under the NATO banner against Islamic State in Egypt.  But in this scenario, if the British state washes its hands of the Middle East in the coming years, does that make it less of a target for jihadists?  And will the thing that Dominic is arguing for, military action against Islamic State now, not create a ‘furious response’ now?  There is simply no logic in his argument.

Of course, young British Muslims have already gone off to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq.  The evidence here is patchy and anecdotal, but a number of themes are coming through.  First, this does not appear to be part of a concerted Jihadist recruiting campaign within Britain such as the one that is alleged to have been co-ordinated by Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjem Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun in the 1990s.  Many appear to be self-recruited with help from internet sources.  According to prosecution evidence in their court case, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, looked at online material, took part in militant online chat-rooms and bought copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before joining Al-Qaeda affiliates to fight in Syria in May 2013.[15]  This is in line with a consensus within the security services and between academics that it is not the religious devout that are pulled to extremism but those who are disaffected, looking for esteem while feeling undervalued in the overlapping worlds in which they live.  Being devout is thought to be a protection against such radicalisation.[16]

The evidence that Kenan Malik marshals in his book From Fatwa to Jihad is that the route to radicalism of the leader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed Siddique Khan, was more related to an unreligious gang activity than religious enlightenment.[17]

There is also evidence emerging that the impact of the real jihad might sober up some would-be martyrs.  There have been reports that some British Muslims who have gone to fight in Syria have become disillusioned and are looking for a path to return to Britain and are willing to go through deradicalisation programmes but have found that it is easier to get into Syria and Iraq than out again.[18]

Getting the impact of terrorism wrong

Dominic argues that although Britain will not be involved in much of the campaign against Islamic State which will be carried out by Iran.  This intevention by Iran will be opposed by the West through its proxies Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Islamic State will continue its Muslim-on-Muslim slaughter, destroying of the economies and societies of Syria and Lebanon.  For some reason, this will cauase a wave of terrorism to be unleashed in Britain that would make the IRA’s  mainland campaigns between the 1970s and 1990s like a tea party.   Even so, he inflates the impact that such terrorism would have in an unrealistic and sensationalist way.

It is possible to see elements of what Dominic presents as Britain’s future around us.  Since 9/11 there have been stricter security measure such as metal detectors on some USA commuter services, particularly around New York and since the 2004 Madrid bombing people have had their bags screened on Spanish train services.  What Dominic paints is just silly.  He suggests a ring of check points around all city centres with queues of vehicles suggesting a sustained car bombing campaign and queues at underground stations equipped with full body scanners, suggesting a sustained bombing campaign on the underground.  The only possible response to a sustained car bomb campaign would be to ban all non-essential vehicles from city centres.  Full body scanners in airports are to detect weapons for hijacking and the relatively small amount of explosives necessary to bring down airplanes by causing structural damage.  To do damage on the underground would need relatively bulky bombs in bags or vests that would not need such elaborate checks.  Even in Israel at the height of the bus bombing campaign during the Second Intifada 2000-2005, which led to 1,084 deaths from 257 attacks, checks were random, not systematic.[19]  There is a recognition that even in a period of heightened danger that in Europe and the USA more than this cannot be realistically maintained.[20]  So what is lacking here is any sense of proportion or any form of realistic assessment.

Getting the anti-war movement wrong

In the context of a long and bloody war in the Middle East it is difficult to know how to place Dominic’s prediction of a huge peace camp in Hyde Park and associated violence other than this being the kind of lefty/smelly/mint-tea-drinking thing that really riles readers of the Daily Mail (and nice touch with the mint tea, these peaceniks can’t even drink a cup of tea in the morning without making it a bit too foreign or even, shiver, Arabic).  I am not sure what part of current reality is being extrapolated here.  A couple of tents in Westminster aside, there have been no peace camps as part of the current anti-war movement, nor have any anti-war demonstrations been accompanied by violence.  The model here appears to be anti-capitalist demonstrations combined with the Occupy movement.

The point which is completely undeveloped is how the leaders of the existing anti-war movement would react to sectarian civil war in the middle-east.  On current evidence they are not interested at all.  There have been demonstrations against ISIS/Islamic State in London over this summer of 2014, but the Stop the War Coalition has played no part in them.  Their politics is to only oppose what they style as western imperialism, to the point where they refuse to condemn Russian annexation of parts of the Crimea and its evident military involvement in Ukraine.  They instead suggest that this is a necessary move against Ukrainian fascism.[21]  In Syria they have opposed western intervention and largely ignore the real civil war and, implicitly at least, side with Assad.  Their forerunners marched with the Serbs against NATO’s intervention in the splintering Yugoslavia rather than with the Bosnians.  It is unlikely that this movement could adapt to a sectarian war in the Middle East.  Faced with a bloody conflict in which US/British imperialism could not be portrayed as the only enemy it is unlikely that such a left could build a mass movement.

Getting Anti-Semitism wrong.

Dominic also implies that there will be a rise in anti-Semitism as part of this conflict.  It is easy to understad what he is generalising here.  There are reports that the recent conflict in Gaza led to a spike in anti-Semitism in Britain and France.[22]  The jihadist mindset is one primed for extreme anti-Semitism, the man charged with the shooting dead of three people in the Brussels Jewish Museum last May having fought in Syria.[23]  I certainly would not wish to under-estimate the degree of anti-Semitism present in political Islam in general and its more radical fringes in particular, but is it the case that it would rise during a Middle Eastern conflict where Israel is not likely to be seen in the role of the aggressor?  The idea that there will only be a few synagogues left because of attacks has very little basis in terms in evidence.

Being part of the problem.

I don’t much care for the term Islamophobia.  It is tied to the assertion of an Islamic identity to opposition of racism against Muslim.  Nonetheless, there is something phobic about Dominic’s article. The dark other of Islam in London and Bradford is not simply loathed, it is also feared.  It lumps Muslims together into a militant pro-jihad mass.  The promulgation of such ideas is part of a racist backlash that has been stuttering on since 2001, if not earlier.

It runs the danger of being a self fulfilling prophesy.  Radical Islam calls on British Muslims  to put their identity as Muslims first, but it needs the bogie of Islamophobia to make their case.   Without stupid rants such as Dominic’s, radical Islam is the sound of one hand clapping.


[1] See, in particular, his America Alone: The End of World as we know it (Washington: Regency, 2006)


[3] UNICEF, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting:L A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change (2013),


[5] Innes Bowen, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent (London: Hurst, 2014). pp4-7, 88-89.

[6] Finney NIssa and Ludi Simpson, Sleepwalking to Segregation?: Challenging Myths About Race and Migration (Bristol: Policy Press, 2009), pp145-147.

[7] Tony Sinkinson, Demographic Changes in Bradford –The impact on Education Provision (Bradford MDC, 2012)/

[8] Tower Hamlets Council (2013) Religion in Tower Hamlets 2011 Census: Key Facts (Briefing 2013-03)

[9] Tower Hamlets Council (2013), Ethnicity in Tower Hamlets: Analysis of 2011 Census data.

[10] Anthony King, ‘One in four Muslims sympathises with motives of terrorists’, The Daily Telegraph, 23rd July 2005,

[11] Vikram Dodd, ‘Two-thirds of Muslims consider leaving UK’, The Guardian 26th July 2005,

[12] Populus, ‘Mulim poll’,

[13] Patrick Hennessy and Melissa Kite, ‘Poll reveals 40pc of Muslims want sharia law in UK’, Sunday Telegraph 19th February 2006,

[14] Bowen,  Medina in Birmingham,, pp89-94;   Brigitte Maréchal (ed),  The Muslim Brothers in Europe: Roots and Discourse, (Brill: 2008), p65.

[15] Nick McCarthy. ‘Birmingham terrorist’s mum handed his ‘goodbye’ martyr letter to anti-terror cops’, Birmingham Mail, 9th Jly 2014,

[16] Mehdi Hasan, ‘What the jihadists who bought “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon tell us about radicalisation’, The New Statesman, 21st August 2014,

[17] Kenan Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Aftermath (Brooklyn NY: Melville, 2014 (originally published 2009), p81-83. 98, 10. 108-109.

[18] ‘European Jiahdists: it aint’ half hot, mum’, The Economist 30th August 2014.

[19] Bruce R. Butterworth, Shalom Dolev, Brian Michael Jenkins, Security Awareness For Public Bus Transportation:  Case Studies Of Attacks Against  The Israeli Public Bus System (San José CAL Mineta Transportation Institute, March 2012),

[20] Charles Sahm, Hard Won Lessons: Transit Security (NEw York: Manhattan Institute, October 2006),


[22] James Fletcher, “Is there a ‘rising tide’ of anti-Semitism in the West?’, BBC News Magazine (online), 21 August 2014;

[23] Anne Penketh, ‘French jihadists arrested in wake of Jewish museum detentions’, 2nd  June 2014.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

All change at We Need To Talk About Dominic

ds214 2

This blog will be reorganised in the next couple of months.  Much of the material on his Seasons in the Sun will be going to my more general history blog  We Need to Talk About Dominic will continue for the occasional comment on his increasingly right-wing journalistic output and his general positioning as the poor man’s Niall Ferguson.

Details at

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Victors Writing Poor History


This is a review of the third part of Dominic Sandbrook’s Strange Days: Cold War Britain – Two Tribes (BBC2, 2013).  It is rough copy in that I have not backed up every assertion with, or checked the facts against, a reliable source.  Some of the arguments will certainly need to be developed and adjusted as I delve a little further into the secondaries.  So feel free to point out failings and errors (which is, of course, only fair).

It is a standard bit of advice (that we all ignore) to write the attention grabbing beginning and the memorable powerful ending first.  It is obvious that Dominic missed the memo, here he ends not on a bang but with a whimper.  No amount of hyperbolic language (which I have chosen to ignore, even though it is often highly politicised and biased, not least since it is so ubiquitous) can cover up the fundamental problem of the weakness of the narrative.

1.  The hypothesis continues: the Cold War was won with soft power.

This hypothesis is made clear in this last instalment.  The West’s main weapons in the Cold War were those of popular culture and mass consumerism.   The more common explanation, that the USSR was financially crippled by attempting to keep up with the arms race, is part of the explanation presented here as to why the USSR collapsed.  But this is reinvented as the people of the Eastern bloc being frustrated by the denial of the consumer goodies that were available in the West.

In order to support this hypothesis, that the late 1970s re-escalation of the Cold War was waged by the consumer, Dominic presents the opening of the Brent Cross shopping centre in 1976 as something revolutionary.  In reality it was part of a linear development.  To describe Brent Cross as the biggest and the best shopping centre of its time is true, but it was not the ‘first American-style shopping mall’ in Britain.  Even if the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly (1819) might be considered something a little different, it is usually considered that the Bull Ring in Birmingham, opened 12 years before Brent Cross in 1964, wins this prize.  This combined traditional market stalls with indoor shopping.  With its brutalist architecture, combination of traditional market stalls and indoor shopping, and image problem, this does not fit with Dominic’s narrative.  Perhaps the Elephant and Castle Centre (1965) might now be considered a little down market, but it was considered the leader in Europe in its day.  The Arndale Centre in Wandsworth (1971) and the Stratford Centre (1974) and others followed   But you cannot miss something out simply because it does not fit the narrative.  (It is true that that Brent Cross was a stage on from these examples, being the first designed to be accessed mainly by car).

2. Military competition had caused the USSR to fall behind on consumer manufacture.

Dominic tells us that the USSR spent ‘proportionally’ three times as much as the USA.  This is seen as indicating that the Soviet had ‘different priorities’,  the implication being that spending was skewed away from individual consumption towards military expansionism.

This is a simplistic picture.  The USSR spent less in absolute terms on its military than the USA for much of the Cold War.  In 1960 the USA spent US$ 168 billion (at 1986 prices) compared to the USSR’s US$ 95 billion.  In 1970 the figures were US$ 209 billion for the USA,  and US$ 170 billion for the USSR.  Only in 1980 did the balance tilt with the USA spending of US$196 billion being overshadowed by the USSR’s US$ 247 billion.  The difference is that the USA’s GNP was twice that of the USSR’s.  If the figures are considered as a proportion of GNP, then in the 1960/1970/1980 figures for the USA were 8.8%, 7.6% and 5.4%; the USSR proportions were 11.1%, 12.0% and 12.7%.  So the picture is actually one of slowly increasing USSR expenditure, but falling US expenditure.[1]

The different priorities that Dominic is implying it that the USSR were fixated on building up its military, but the USA was not.  The only evidence that Dominic selects is that which supports that view, the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.  The USA, however, was not shy of military power.  It is notable that virtually no mention is made of the Vietnam war in this series, even though this was a very hot area in the Cold War.  After their defeat in Vietnam, the USA were less willing (until after the end of the Cold War) to directly engage in any military conflicts, although in 1983 American force was used against Grenada in the Caribbean, which had recently had a Marxist government.  More commonly the USA preferred to work through proxies, such as from 1975 supporting the FNLA and UNITA in Angola’s long civil war against the pro-Soviet MPLA government.  The list of USA backing for ‘our bastards’ is an extremely long one, be that tacit support for the Apartheid government in South Africa through the 1970s against the alleged Marxists of the ANC, for the Contras against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from the early 1980s and so on.  None of this is mentioned, suggesting in a way that can only be considered the most dishonest and politicised selection of the facts.

While there was something of a shift of military power towards the USSR through the 1970s, it was not necessarily the USSR that ended the period of détente that had prevailed for most of the 1970s. (Dominic calls this an “illusion”, but does not explain why.  I can only guess that it was because those godless commies were pulling the wool over the peaceful West’s eyes.)  It was the US Congress that refused to ratify SALT II in 1979, and from which Reagan withdrew the USA in 1986.

Dominic presents the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan as the trigger that reignited the Cold War, but this is again simplistic.  There is no understanding here as to why previous invasions by the USSR within its sphere of influence (East Germany, 1953; Hungary, 1956, Czechoslovakia, 1968) did not bring similar responses, or indeed why the USSR’s long interference in Afghan affairs had been tacitly accepted by the West.  There is, particularly, no understanding of why President Carter’s administration boycotted the Moscow Olympics and why the Cold War escalated in the 1980s.[2]

3. Coe and Overt do not boycott the Moscow Olympics.

The focus on Coe and Overt is, in terms of the historical narrative, bizarre.  The relative virtue of the two runners has nothing to do with the Cold War.  This is just one example of the appeal to nostalgia being the raison d’être of the programme, and rather submerges the discussion of the Cold War.

Despite the reassuring presence of Seb and Steve, there are two notable absentees from this walk down memory lane.  First, there is no explanation given as to why the Thatcher government’s attempts at a boycott failed.  Second, there is no mention of other ways in which the Conservative administration reacted to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.

On the first of these, it has been suggested that this was an example of the early Thatcher government’s uncertainty on how to grab the news agenda and turn it to its advantage,[3] and certainly that Thatcher had not learnt how to use the office of Prime Minister or the limits of that power.  However, the only explanation that Dominic offers is that the athletes were unwilling to accept Thatcher’s leadership.  Indeed, Dominic whips out a 1980 memo from Douglas Hurd (then a junior minister in the FCO) about his failure to put pressure on Seb Coe through his father and coach, Peter Coe, as if it was his find in the archives.  In fact the story was broken by The Guardian in 2006 after a Freedom of Information request.[4]

Further, there is no discussion about what else the West did in response to the Afghan invasion particularly the funding of the Islamist resistance to Soviet occupation, the Mujahedeen.  This created the crucible in which modern Jihadist politics was forged.  Government papers show that this was being discussed already in the early months of 1980s at the same time the boycott was being discussed.[5]

There is much else that could be mentioned, not least the emergence of Solidarność in Poland in 1980.  Throughout the 1980s the West funded such civil society organisations, while working to depress oil prices so as to starve the USSR of oil revenues.  But all of this wider context is ignored, one can only assume to leave room for more pictures of Mrs. T.

4.  The Kensington Town Hall speech of 1976 changed Mrs. T’s image for ever.

Although Dominic admits that the speech made little impact in Britain, he suggests that it was vital since it led to the Soviet media labelling her ‘the iron lady’ .  Dominic argues this enabled Mrs. T to ‘find her mission’.  Thus, when she visited the Army of the Rhine in 1976 ‘this was Thatcherism at full strength leading the crusade against world communism.’  It is doubtful that there was any coherent doctrine of Thatcherism at the time, nor can speeches aimed at whipping at the Conservative Party faithful (as with the Kensington Town Hall speech) be seen as developed policy.  It is altogether unclear that there was in 1976 a crusade against Communism for her to lead.  This is history read backwards.

5.  Mrs. T needed a partner to stand beside on the front line.

Which would be Reagan, not inaugurated as US President until five years later, in 1981.  Reagan is introduced into this narrative in June 1982.  It is a six year jump cut.  (Nor was Reagan particularly a hero of ‘Hollywood’s old West’ as he is styled here.  His career as a lead man consisted of The Kings Row (1942), drama; Voice of the Turtle (1947), comedy; John Loves Mary (1949), World War II; A Hasty Heart (1949), WWII again; Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), a comedy; Cattle Queen of Montana  (1954), a Western; Tennessee’s Partner (1955), a Western; Hellcats of the Navy (1957), WWII again; and The Killers (1964), a crime thriller.  On TV he did present the western anthology Death Valley Days from 1964 to 1965, although this was a talking head role to top and tail free-standing episodes.  All the talk of ‘trusty sidekicks’ (he is Thatcher’s, the Queen is his) is somewhat misplaced.

On his 1982 visit, Reagan gave a speech about the USSR’s inevitable demise and was (Dominic tells us) Reagan’s ‘manifesto for winning the cold war’.  It is doubtful that any such detailed plan existed at this stage, and if it did then it was not contained in the generalised rhetoric of this speech.  That rhetoric, consigning the USSR to the ‘ash-bin’ of history was singularly ill-chosen, but luckily was not a manifesto.

On an aside, it is  not anachronistic to use the ‘Gone with the Wind’ poster, produced by the British SWP around the time of Reagan’s visit.[6] although the Spitting Image  “president’s brain is missing” sketch is later, from February 1984.[7]  However, this is building up to something which is more questionable.

6.  There was an anxious edge to the satirists mockery of Reagan, the deployment of cruise Missiles in the UK.

There are two issues here.  Firstly, Dominic subtly pushes nuclear rearmament into the Thatcher-Reagan era.  Secondly, he implies that opposition to nuclear weapons was opposition to American nuclear weapons and thus a form of anti-Americanism.

The agreement to base cruise (and Pershing II) missiles in Britain dates from Carter’s Presidency in June 1980, but had been agreed in principle under the previous Labour government.  At the same time Britain announced the renewal of its own nuclear deterrent with the Trident system, again in 1980 but with its roots in the previous Labour government.[8]  This led to the revival of CND as a mass organisation in 1980, in response to both the stationing of US missiles in Britain, and the renewal of Britain’s own submarine based bombs.  This was before Reagan was elected in November 1980 and inaugurated in January 1981.

Not for the first time, Dominic invokes George Orwell, here suggesting that he ‘imagined’ Britain as ‘Airstrip One’ in 1984 and this was realised by the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles in 1983.  It is always useful to remember that Orwell had intended to call the book 1948.  This was a book about his present.  In the years of WW2, seeing Britain as a US airbase did not have to be imagined.  In the build up to the Cold War USAF Strategic Airborne Command resources were based at RAF bases as early as 1946, and further built up in the early 1950s.

Furthermore, for Dominic to say ‘Britain had become Ronald Reagan’s nuclear launch pad’ hides more than it uncovers.  The agreements were President Carter’s, not Reagan’s; there had been US bases in Britain for four decades; there were also US nuclear forces based in Europe in Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy and West Germany.

There is of course a very real anti-Americanism mixed up with the anti-nuclear campaign, but Dominic (again by failing to mention Trident at all) emphasises this in a one-sided way.  Also, his use of BBC-TV drama with Edge of Darkness (1985) and Defence of the Realm (1985) as examples of an ‘anti-American’ stance is trite, rather both question the Britain’s alliance with the USA in nuclear power/weapons.  Both are more concerned (as with the current trend identified by Dominic in the 1960s) with the machinations of the secret state in Britain.

7.  Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes is important (for some unstated reason).

Released in 1984, written at least as early as 1982 (and not just by Holly Johnson, as Dominic claims, but co-written by FGTH drummer Peter Gill and bassist Mark O’Toole) when it was included in a John Peel session by the band.  Certainly it was a record that was important for the early months of 1984 in popular culture.

However, Dominic concludes from this that the irony of free speech in the West was that it was used to ‘rail against their own side rather than the Communist East’.  The whole point of Two Tribes was, surely, that it was against both sides.  This is not uncommon for pop songs about the Cold War.  Sting’s Russians (1985) (‘ There is no monopoly in common sense/On either side of the political fence’), or the Clash’s When Ivan Met G.I. Joe (has both ‘The Vostok Bomb – the Stalin strike’ and ‘G.I. Joe’s turn to blow’) show an evenhandness that some professional historians might be able to learn from.

8.  There was widespread fear of a nuclear war in the 1980s.

The government’s civil defence strategy, as contained in Protect and Survive only convinced people that there was nothing they could do.  Dominic points out that the pamphlet was published after public pressure, but does not point out that this was not a CND campaign, following reports in The Times continued in it letters column in 1979.  Protect and Survive was published in early 1980.

Although the evidence all points to increased anxiety over nuclear weapons, the narrative here is highly disjointed.  Following Protect and Survive we are offered an, extract of the 1986 film of When the Wind Blows taken from Raymond Briggs 1982 graphic novel; ‘Bomb’, an episode of The Young Ones from 1982; and ‘The Russians are Coming’, an episode of Only Fools and Horses from 1981.  Dominic is probably right that nothing else had the impact of Threads in 1984.  What he does not go into is the causes of that tension, particularly that Reagan was willing to talk about the use of nuclear weapons in a limited theatre (by which most understood Europe), and Reagan and Thatcher both ramping up the Cold War rhetoric.  It was not the USSR that scared most people, it was their own ‘side’.

One also has to take with a pinch of salt Dominic’s assertion that there was a ‘dark irony’ that this threat of destruction was at a time when people felt ‘better off than ever’.  The height of this period of the Cold War, 1980-1985 was at a time when Britain’s economy struggled (GDP fell throughout 1980, and only regained its 1979 peak in 1983[9], unemployment hit 3 million in 1982 and remained above 10% of the working population until 1987,[10] for millions of people the 1980s had no happy economic ending).  Thus for many, the anxiety of war was compounded by the anxiety of poverty and economic insecurity.

9.  The 1984-1985 miners’ strike was part of the Cold War too.

Stretching the point of what might be considered a Cold War conflict, Dominic shoe-horns in the 1984-1985 miners’ strike.  Here Dominic is careful with his words, that the leader of the NUM was a Marxist, not a Communist.  This is wise, since from 1962 Arthur Scargill had left the Communist Party and joined the Labour Party where he remained until 1996 when he formed the Socialist Labour Party.  Arguably, Scargill’s politics remained informed by the Stalinist militancy (but not revolutionary) politics of the CPGB.

The story that Dominic chooses to tell here is of Scargill, on behalf of the NUM, attempting to gain support from the USSR (or from the official miners’ unions there, which was much the same thing).  There is no evidence, however, that even in this context Thatcher saw this as a wider war against communism as Dominic suggests.  Again, Dominic sits around with the papers about the Conservative govt’s successful attempts to block the Soviet donations, not mentioning (again) that we only know about this because of (another) successful Freedom of Information battle by The Guardian.[11]  In the end the NUM received no money from the USSR.  Indeed, and Dominic fails to mention this, imports of coal from Eastern bloc states increased in the strike despite pleas from the NUM and their supporters to cut them off.

10.  Thatcher and Gorbachev had “chemistry”.

I will not give this a great deal of attention, it is not my area of expertise.  But there is much that is wrong in the material around this.  Dominic suggests that the Cold War had kept the capitalist West ‘responsible’ by demanding a welfare state and some form of social equality, but with Gorbachev reforming the Soviet Union in a market direction and the Cold War winding down, , the brakes were off.  Greed was now good.

There may well be some truth in this, but the details do not lend support to such a straight-forward cause and effect narrative.  The brakes came off (at least in Britain) in the early Thatcher years.  Thus, exchange controls were lifted in 1979, and there was further deregulation of the financial sector through to the ‘big bang’ of 1986.  The transformation of the City from a gentleman’s club into a hugely wealthy trading hub was well underway by the time Gorbachev became the USSR premier in 1985.  And anyway, the initial period of Perestroika (1985-1987) was about reforming planning, only in 1987 did free market reform become more important

Thus Mrs. T did not arrive in Moscow in 1987 as a ‘conqueror’. It is highly questionable that this represented a Russian surrender.  The impression given here is that Thatcher won the Cold War with this visit, not least by looking rich and showing what the West could deliver.  The role of the USA is entirely under-estimated here to privilege the role of Thatcher.

11.  British rock music won the Cold War.

Dominic tells us that the June 1987 West Berlin concert represented choice and freedom, and was the ‘best of British’, but his account here is a little unclear.  The concert was over three nights 6-8th June.  Bowie played on Saturday 6th, on Sunday the Eurythmics headlined, and this led to scuffles between people trying to hear the music and the police on the East side of the Brandenburg gate.[12]  When Genesis performed on Monday, it appears that the largest scale clashes occurred.  The crowds chanted both ‘Gorbachev! Gorbachev!’ and ‘die Mauer muss weg!’ (the wall must go).  The street protests that it led to were the first on any scale in East Germany since October 1977.  The concert clearly did have a serious impact.  There may well be a link between these events and Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg gate a few days later where he called Gorbachev to bring the Wall down.

However, to draw a direct line between the concerts of June 1987 and the coming down of the Wall 29 months later is not credible.  That path was a longer one, and the internal dynamics of East German society is something that I will not deal with here.

The concerts are the beginning of a longer story that is not told here.  A similar series of concerts were organised the following year, with Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd, and although these had less immediate effect they do appear to have been a factor in encouraging the East German authorities to allow western rock acts to perform in East Berlin, particularly Bruce Springsteen in June 1988, which probably had a far greater impact on East German society than the 1987 concerts.[13]

Nor does Dominic mention the funding of civil society groups in the Eastern bloc.  Indeed, the origins of the 1987 concert itself was not neutral.  It was sponsored by the West Berlin broadcaster, RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor [Broadcasting in the American Sector]), in large part funded by the US government and was aimed at East Germans, its ultimate management being under a board of (American) directors appointed by the US State Department.  More generally, the West funded, where it could, civil society movements in the Eastern bloc.

12.  But an ungrateful Britain turned their back on Mrs. T.

Well, that is a matter of opinion.  On a small matter of fact, Dominic seems to suggest that Thatcher was in Paris singing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, but this was in 1991.  She was actually at a Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe at the time of the first ballot on her leadership in November 1990.  The document she is shown singing was the Paris Treaty, which was largely ceremonial but can be considered to have marked the end of the Cold War and paved the way for the more substantial disarmament treaties that followed.  Notably, she also took the opportunity to discuss the forthcoming operation against Iraq with George H. Bush.[14]


So where does this lead us?  What is given is a picture of multi-faceted one-sidedness.  Thatcher’s role in the last stages of the Cold War is emphasised to the near exclusion of all others, the American role in particular is diminished to near vanishing point.  The acceptable face of the West’s Cold War (Olympic boycotts) is emphasised and no mention is made of the unacceptable (the funding of pro-Western forces who might otherwise be considered murderous terrorists).  The role of some forms of soft power (music) are considered to the exclusion of others (covert funding of dissidents).  Even the role of British music (Genesis) is considered to the exclusion of American (Bruce Springsteen).

Jonathan Dimbleby wrote at the height of this period of the re-awakened Cold War:

‘if the principles which sustain democracy are to be nurtured rather that violated, the media … must no longer be content to echo the response of the defence establishment to the anxieties – and arguments – of what is now known as the Peace Movement.  Of course, the media must report the speeches and decisions of those who have their fingers on or near the button.  However, it is an elementary but fundamental proposition that the role of the media in a free society is to question and analyse prevailing assumptions and attitudes and not merely to regurgitate the conclusions that flow from them for the edification of an uniformed populace.  Journalists, that is, should  not be town criers or toast masters.’[15]

If this is true of journalists, it is even more true of historians who have a critical distance from their subject.  But what Dominic offers us is the hand-rubbing glee of the victor, or rather the victor’s apologist.

Popular history is a fine discipline.  At its best it makes historical debates accessible to a wide audience, but in so doing has to have a strong grip on the academic debates in order to strip them to the essentials for a mass audience.  What popular history should not be is merely a representation of popular opinion, to remain on the surface of commonly held memories and reflecting them uncritically back to the audience.  It should not be the kind of infotainment comfort blanket that is woven here.

Even leaving aside the gushing reverence for Thatcher, the dog-whistle calls to nostalgia and the histrionic bias of the language and tone, this cannot be considered to be history.  It is gloating, shallow, propaganda.

[1] All figures in US$ at 1986 values.  Material adapted from Woolf, Charles et al, Long Term Economic and Military Trends 1950-2010 (Rand Note) (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 1989).

[2] Nicholas Sarantakes, Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War (2011)

[3] Paul Corthorn, ‘The Cold War and British debates over the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics’, Cold War History 13, 1 (2013), 43-66

[4] Rob Evans and Paul Kelso, ‘How Thatcher tried to stop Olympic hero Coe from winning gold in Moscow’, The Guardian, Friday 24 February 2006.  The Guardian’s website also has the govt papers.

[5]  Owen Bowcott, ‘UK discussed plans to help mujahedeen weeks after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan’, The Guardian, Thursday 30 December 2010

[8] Kristin Stoddart, ‘The Special Nuclear Relationship and the 1980 Trident Decision’ in Jenifer Mackby and Paul Cornish (eds), U.S.-UK Nuclear Cooperation After 50 Years (Washington D.C.: Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2008). p91-93.

[11] Rob Evans and David Hencke, ‘Margaret Thatcher blocked Soviet aid for striking miners, files reveal’, The Guardian, Sunday 29 August 2010 21.00

[12] ‘Rock Music at Berlin Wall Sparks Riot by E. Germans’, Los Angeles Times, June 08, 1987

[13] Erik Kirschbaum, Rocking The Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Untold Story of a Concert in East Berlin That Changed the World (New York: Berlinica, 2010) pp48-55.

[14] John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: Volume 2: The Iron Lady (London: Vintage, 2008), pp725-726, 730-731.

[15] Quoted in Glasgow University Media Group, War and Peace News (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985) [unnumbered, introduction p2]

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments