Saddam as Darth Vader: New Scientist and Tate Gallery Ponder Connections

Over at New Scientist, a fascinating article on a fascinating Tate Gallery, London, exhibition about the effect of pop culture–particularly Star Wars–on the late Saddam Hussein.  At first, you chuckle.  Then you hear some of the parallels–and you may still chuckle.

Saddam had an unpublished fantasy novel (which I’m dying to read now!  Can you imagine that hitting the market–a Fantasy novel by Saddam Hussein??) and a few more than coincidental leanings towards the dark figure.  However, from the article in New Scientist, the threads are thin.  I would have loved seeing more than a few stretches of metaphorical underpinnings to Saddam’s tactics and beliefs.  While the helmets are a nice touch; as they prove to be Vaderish, so are WW2 gasmasks….  and we aren’t making Hitler/Darth connections (though I would say that Darth was modeled after Hitler, obviously— Brown Shirts and Stormtroopers, no stretch there).  Since the Darth mask was most probably modeled on a gasmask, I think the Gallery is taking a bit of liberty to say that Saddam had a Darth-fetish.  

Consider this point the author, Jessica Griggs, makes:

Could this all be coincidence? Perhaps, but you’ll be convinced otherwise once you’ve read about Sadaam’s private militia’s uniform. Before his son, Uday, handed over control of the Fedayeen Sadaam (translation: “Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice”) to his younger brother he wanted to give his father something to remember his work by. So he presented Saddam with their new uniform: black shirt, black trousers and a ski-mask over which a strikingly Darth Vader-esque helmet was placed.

It seems more likely that Uday had a Star Wars ideal in mind for his father–since there are few other instances of Star Warsian artifacts.  The upraised swords is, at best, coincidental, made more science fiction-y by the artist who makes the swords into light sabers.  The “lurid” fantasy posters are from a different genre of literature.  The fact that the artist is a friend of the person who designed the poster for Star Wars is called a streeeeetch.  The paintings in Saddam’s “Safe House” were both by a fantasy artist.  The link here. 

It’s a stretch to see these fantasy paintings connected to Darth Vader of science fiction.  Yep, Saddam might have been a fan of fantasy/science fiction…but beyond that is the artist’s license. 

It is not unbelievable that science fiction pop culture might have an influence on dictators.  Certainly their heroes have a powerful pull on the Western World; couldn’t their powerful dictators be enamored by fellow dictators?   Since few of them survive in Science fiction past their novel series, I don’t think ANYONE would want to model an empire on them.  

Unless, of course, you can make sure that you have no plucky twins, rescued and hidden at birth, lurking somewhere in the galaxy, ready and waiting to upset your glorious domination.

Now, I want to see the article on Saddam Hussein’s fantasy novel.

Repair-adise: The Myth of the Self-Cleaning Earth

3224040683_22edd9a60cOkay, I’ve seen the trope enough.  Yes, it is a hopeful image, but it perpetuates a myth.  End of movie: three or four people after post-apocalyptic disaster come out to “healed” Earth.  200 years in City of Ember.  700 years in Wall-E.

Gaia is a nice idea–that the Earth is bigger than us and will heal itself even from our damage.  However, it lessens any personal responsibility, and gives us some odd idea that humans, in the form that we know them, will be back one day after the Earth has gone through a cycle similar to a self-cleaning oven.

Oddly enough, the base idea is shared by those who don’t believe in Global Warming, or who don’t believe that Man is causing global warming–the idea that the Earth shifts in cold and hot and finds a balance and everything is returned to a state of Eden.

Here’s two things I know: The last Ice Age was a documented shift in the planet’s balance of hot and cold.  Those ice sheets lasted for more than 100,000 years, ending about 10,000 years ago.  The animal and plant life that we know from then have changed quite a bit over that span of time.  No more giant ground sloths, mammoths or neanderthals.  Even the steppe grasses are gone.  So,  it took the Earth 10,000 years to right itself–after some massive glaciation.  In other words, Global Warming may well indeed have been a natural shift, but Humanity will not survive a massive shift like that–certainly not in the way we are now. And likely, the Earth will come up with some radically new life forms–if it recovers at all.

The second idea here is that the Earth can take a beating from us.  No problem.  A) if it disposes of us, what have we learned?  and B)  We are capable of damaging an atmosphere irreparably.

Those Ice Ages, devastating as they were, still counted on an atmosphere.  If we hurt our atmosphere, isn’t it possible that we not just trigger an Ice Age, but stop it from fixing itself?  James Lovelock, the man who created the idea of Gaia–the earth that is an organism–was interviewed in New Scientist.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.

It’s a depressing outlook.

Not necessarily. I don’t think 9 billion is better than 1 billion. I see humans as rather like the first photosynthesisers, which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oxygen – a nasty, poisonous gas. It took a long time, but it turned out in the end to be of enormous benefit. I look on humans in much the same light. For the first time in its 3.5 billion years of existence, the planet has an intelligent, communicating species that can consider the whole system and even do things about it. They are not yet bright enough, they have still to evolve quite a way, but they could become a very positive contributor to planetary welfare.

How much biodiversity will be left after this climatic apocalypse?

We have the example of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event 55 million years ago. About the same amount of CO2 was put into the atmosphere as we are putting in and temperatures rocketed by about 5 °C over about 20,000 years. The world became largely desert. The polar regions were tropical and most life on the planet had the time to move north and survive. When the planet cooled they moved back again. So there doesn’t have to be a massive extinction. It’s already moving: if you live in the countryside as I do you can see the changes, even in the UK.

He has a lot of optimism that despite all the damage we can do as a species, that the Earth will recover–even that perhaps these amazingly smart humans, in his opinion, the apex of creation, will figure out how to live in harmony with the Earth–eventually.

But it also might allow both a fatalism and a hedonism to develop–as if we can do nothing to hurt the Earth at all.  Lovelock was instrumental in getting the global CFC ban that led to saving the Ozone layer.   Perhaps there are still more things to do to stop the warming that’s happening–as he suggests in the article.   Certainly, we have to think short term.  Lovelock’s vision–is that after thousands and thousands of years–humanity will survive and learn.  Movies shorten that to a few hundred years, a slap on the hand for our negligent behavior instead of the mass extinction probably waiting for us.  They believe in Man rebooting after the Earth has rebooted itself.  Repair-adise.

All these movies have people waiting out the storm, walking into paradise, virtually unchanged.  Free of humanity for a mere 200 years, the planet heaves a rainbow sigh of relief, bushy gardens of plenty.  But with our weapons we can inflict planetary damage; Wall-E can never clean up all the trash and one plant can’t feed the multitudes–and there will be a long wait for the storm to be over.  And humans may not survive as humans.  There may be no humans to come back out after 55 million years….and if there are, will they remember what they did wrong?  We have to affect change.

Sure, we may not die, but we will all be changed.

Why You Should Subscribe to New Scientist, and why you have to put it down

phpthumbScience Fiction writers have a strange relationship to science. To write compelling science fiction, I think a writer has to do some research. Where would Crichton’s Jurassic Park have been without Chaos theory and real-life paleontologists? And you want your ideas to be ahead of the game, so get yourself some subscriptions.

I know, we are poor bastards and we can’t afford very much–certainly not expensive subscriptions.

I don’t think I could get more (Big) bang for my buck than through New Scientist. You can too.

1. It’s weekly. Meaning that when science is advancing, New Scientist doesn’t have to wait two months to come out with an issue. Discover is a monthly, and it’s a nice mag. But it can’t compete with 65-75 pages a week chock full of insightful articles.

2. It’s got short blurbs and longer indepth articles, and these can be read–some of them–online. Let me give you a sample of what’s out right now:

Why the Universe may be teeming with Aliens

Are Daughters-in-Law to blame for Menopause?

A healthy planet? Top 10 articles on the Environment in 2008

The glass universe: where astronomy meets art

Creationists Declare War on the Brain

These are the longer in-depth articles, yes, but the magazine is FULL of shorter articles. Shorter articles stimulate creativity in a way that is beneficial for a creative writer. You want a magazine that has plenty of short articles on broad topics–a whole mess of ’em.

3. It covers a lot of areas: space, environment, sex, health, physics and math, tech articles…. that’s good. Coming out once a week, it allows the magazine to be current on several areas. It allows you to cross-pollinate ideas.

4. It’s cheap. Yep, it’s from Britain, but it’s 36 bucks for 6 months or 24 issues. You can sign up online here for a subscription. Or you can browse the website first. With a subscription you get the magazine delivered to your door in uninterrupted service, and you get online access to back issues 24hrs a day. It’s cheap and it comes to you. If I had to have just one subscription to a science magazine, I would keep this one.

Writers of science fiction should certainly start with the stimulation that comes from reading science magazines–BUT, and this is where it gets interesting, I think they shouldn’t be bogged down in the details. If you are predicting the future, look how fast the present changes. I just did a radio piece talking about dark energy–which is about to be out of fashion, passé, even illusory–but in twenty years?? In fifty years?? It may be all the rage.

Science fiction writers need to be able to extrapolate from data, yes, but they also need to be able to make the Leap. Leaps are about prediction beyond what can be extrapolated. Go someplace wild with the information. Don’t be afraid to be wrong in twenty years, or in two weeks. Make it believable. But not predictable by any physics grad student. Combine fields, combine theories, and then move beyond them. Sure, it’s not real. But that’s the point of writing fiction–to be brave enough to make the leaps that science isn’t allowed to without hard fact.

If science fiction actually does lead the way in technology and science–then we’ve got to lead by going beyond what the best scientists can predict, and certainly past what the public can imagine. That’s our job–to help people imagine a believable, but still surprising and entertaining, future. That’s where your stimulated brain comes in handy……

You can start seeing that future by picking up a New Scientist issue, but you can’t create it till you’ve put the issue down.