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Log of Smallship One - Passionate and Confused
Not so much breaking the fourth wall as installing patio doors and a cat flap
In the Iliad, composed around 720-700 BCE, possibly by somebody called Homer, a bunch of legendary Greek heroes are engaged in the siege of the city-state of Troy. As the poem begins, the siege has been on for several years; other poems from the same oral tradition, now mostly lost, tell the story of how and why the war began, and we know it from fragments and summaries by later writers.

(No, this isn't the Homer piece I teased you with a couple of posts ago. This seemed more, shall we say, topical. I'll do that one another time, okay?)

As the Iliad opens, we meet Chryses, a priest of Apollo from a neighbouring city-state allied to Troy, whose daughter Chryseis has been taken by Agamemnon, the de facto leader of the Greek forces, as a war prize. Chryses goes to Agamemnon and begs for his daughter's return, offering rich gifts as compensation. Agamemnon angrily refuses and sends Chryses away with a flea in his ear, whereupon Chryses prays to Apollo, reminding the god of all the sacrifices and stuff he, Chryses, has done in Apollo's name, to strike the Greeks with pestilence. Apollo does so.

There follows a big argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, who leads the majority of the Greeks in thinking Agamemnon should give the girl back and stop their armies beingg slaughtered.

Agamemnon: "No! MINE! My preciousss!" (I paraphrase a little.)

Achilles calls Agamemnon a few names, whereupon Agamemnon says "Well, if I've got to give my trophy woman up I'll take yours instead, so ner to you." And does so. Achilles then in his turn flies into a passion, takes his ball and goes back to his ships saying "You'll be sorry," and calls on his mother, who is a sea-nymph, to talk to Zeus, the top god, to make him help the Trojans win from now on.

At which point we can imagine the reaction of the (Greek) audience listening to this.

"WTF, Homer? How dare you mess with our hero! Achilles is the very embodiment of what Greece can and should be, and you've made him be on the Trojans' side! This is a betrayal of everything the original poets intended when they started these stories! You've turned a celebration of Greek heroism and courage into a hollow mockery that spits on our very national identity! I'm shocked, shocked I say!" You get the idea.

Nothing changes.
What they all said (2) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Someone, as a stick figure didn't quite say, is trying to be funny on the internet.

pbristow quotes here the old canard about English mugging other languages, and links to the quote in its original form as coined by James Nicoll.

Now the quote is a joke. You know and I know that it is a joke. Even leaving aside the metaphorical personification of a language, at no time in its history has English harmed any other language, or taken words away from it so that they cannot be used in their original tongue. It's a fanciful jeu d'esprit, and on that level it works very well.

But when people start to treat a joke as if it is making a serious point about something, if one feels that point is invalid, one is allowed, if not by gods required, to say so.

Nicoll begins by erecting a classic straw man, claiming that what people are defending is the "purity" of the English language. This serves a double purpose; it enables him to point out what everyone already knows, that English, like many other languages spoken today, is a hybrid formed from other languages and therefore cannot be called in that sense "pure," and it also nicely slides people like me up next to the fascists, racists and religious maniacs, where we can be tarred with the same brush and thrown into outer darkness. Because obviously what we are doing is exterminating all variant forms of English so that only the "pure" Aryan form remains.

I am not going to try to put into words how it upsets and enrages me when I am (even by implication) called a fascist for no good reason by someone who has never met me.

What I defend, when I insist that English is a tool box and that tools have an optimum condition and method of use which should as far as possible be adhered to, is the effectiveness of the English language. I don't give a flying fuchsia fuck how many words come from other languages, or have come or will come, as long as they add to the effectiveness of the language. When a change occurs that decreases the effectiveness of the language--when a word is replaced in common usage by the wrong word, when punctuation becomes misleading, when even one person has to look twice at a word or a sentence before she can understand it because it's badly expressed and nobody cares enough to correct it--that is not the language evolving, not the language developing, not the language responding to the will of the people. It is the language being blunted by bashing it against a wall, the language being left out in the rain to rust, the language being basically thrown away. And the question of whether the language is pure or no is supremely, magnificently, mind-shatteringly irrelevant.

It's true. If English were a dog, and not a tool box, it would be a mongrel. A scruffy, misshapen mongrel, probably. But it would be my mongrel. And you would not mistreat it in front of me and expect to get away with it.

But it isn't. It's a tool box. It's a thing we made to help us get things done. And it kind of grew over the years in a seemingly haphazard way, and it definitely contains ingredients from more than one country, but we had worked hard on it and got it to the point, a while back, where no matter what we added to it it was working really well, and nearly everyone in the English-speaking world could understand, without having to work at it, one standardised form of the language as well as their own. And now we don't seem to care about that any more. We've decided it's wrong and bad to care about that, and people like James Nicoll imply that those who do are at best pathetically funny and at worst fascists, and my friends agree with them.

Excuse me if I don't laugh.

(Aren't you glad I'm back? No? No, I'm none too sure myself...)

(For a more ably expressed argument on this issue, see here: http://mrgoodwraith.livejournal.com/108547.html)
What they all said (8) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
So the other night, quite late, I was in a discussion on FB with pbristow on the possible genders of the various aspects of God. All right, he was under the affluence of incohol whereas my consciousness has been unaltered by anything save exhaustion for what feels like bloody centuries, so it was that kind of discussion, and the conclusion to which we both stumbled was this: that the hypothetical truth about whether that which we call God has gender or not and if so which, how many and what do they do on Sundays, being unknown, is less important than the fact that our ideas and beliefs about the gender of deity condition the way we treat our own differently gendered fellow human beings on this planet, so we should start believing something different in order to change our own behaviour.

Yes, I know. Walked straight into it. What can I say? I was tired.

This is completely bitupon-sackwards, of course. Our beliefs about the gender of god (for those of us who have them) derive from our feelings about the genders of humanity, not the other way around. Those who believe that maleness is both the original blueprint and the perfected form of humankind see god as male. Those who have thought about it a little more decide that god is probably gender-neutral, while those who are consciously trying to redress the imbalance that patriarchal religions have reinforced over the centuries construct images of deity that are female. As of course do those who don't believe in any deity but simply want to shock those who do.

As for the writers of scripture, we can only speculate. Perhaps they were trying to establish, or shore up, a politico-economic system in which women, and their scary and incomprehensible reproductive capabilities, could be owned and controlled by men, in order to keep the records of property ownership neat and tidy. I like to think that those who originated the stories of polytheistic deities and their antics knew the truth that we have lost, that in practice (and leaving politico-economics out of it) neither gender can or should own or control the other gender, because "men" and "women" are illusory concepts. In real life, individuals can and should be free to work out their own relationships for better or worse. Of course, it's also possible that they viewed female deities the same way they viewed female characters in the theatre, as gods in drag. We don't know.

The point is, though, that making what, in any established religion, can only be cosmetic changes to the perceived image of deity won't, for the majority of religious, make any difference. There will be those few who will uncritically accept whatever their church tells them (I've never denied that such people exist, merely that they form any kind of majority), who will presumably change their ideas about gender, and there will be those, rather more, whose ideas about gender are already nicely independent of their religious beliefs, who will carry on as before. Those, however, who use their religious beliefs to justify their ideas about gender, will simply decide, as some IRA groups did when the main body began participating in the peace process, that they have been betrayed, their leaders have been turned by the enemy, and it's up to them to carry on the struggle. Not, you understand, to defend any ideas they may have about the nature of god, but simply to defend their perceived right to hold on to their property and status, which they see as threatened.

And meanwhile, the actual truth about the gender of any actual deity will remain, not "unimportant" as I said to Paul (the truth is never unimportant), but irrelevant in this context. Gender has nothing to do with most of what I do, yet I still have one; not the one I'd prefer, but it's mine and I'm stuck with it. God may be male, female, neuter, futanari, fleep, snurgle, binnaum or none of the above, or perm any x of y. We won't know till we find them.

Coming up next, why I believe the Iliad and the Odyssey were satires on male behaviour composed by a group of women while doing the laundry. Or maybe something completely different. But now it's breakfast time, and I must go cook.
What they all said (4) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
This: Progress, as we generally understand it, is an illusion. Or, perhaps, a lie.

I've said before that in my view progress means "moving forward," that moving forward involves knowing which way "forward" is, and defining a direction as "forward" involves having a goal closer to which moving "forward" will take us. One can decide to put a person on the moon, and everything one does that works toward that goal is furthering progress toward that goal. That is real progress. One cannot have progress without a goal.

But sometimes things happen by accident. Or sometimes a goal we have attained brings unexpected fringe benefits with it. What we do then is this. We retroactively define everything that led up to the accident or the fringe benefit as "progress," much as people used to define the evolutionary process as the ordered, willed march up through the stages of development toward the triumphant culmination of god's divine plan in the form of, er, me. You can see the flaw in the logic right there.

And this leads to the really big mistake of assuming that we can have progress without a goal. As long as we are constantly learning to make things bigger, or smaller, or faster, or cheaper, or more expensive, we can call that progress. Never mind that the things are so big, or small, or expensive or whatever that they're no actual use to anybody. We'll just market them aggressively and people will buy them anyway. Because you can't stop progress, and anyone who wants to is, well, they're just a bunch of poopy-heads, so ner.

Another reason why once the hardware guys have come up with a faster chip the software guys have to come up with an OS which will slow it down again. A computer that works so fast it's impossible for a human to interact meaningfully with it is no use to anyone. But you have to keep making faster and faster chips, because that's progress. And if, purely by accident, something you make actually does somebody some good, that just proves that it is real progress.

Except it isn't. It's an illusion. It's a lie. And it's a distraction.

Real progress has goals. More. Real progress has goals which redound to the lasting good of people in the mass. Real progress is about saving the biosphere. Real progress is about devising a political system which works to everyone's benefit. Real progress is about abolishing the game we have made of life, the game that has winners and losers, and creating a new game in which everybody wins. Real progress is not about discovering accidentally that something you made to make a profit can be used to make somebody's life better. Real progress is about setting out to make that person's life better and doing it.

Most of what we call progress in our time is meaningless flailing and floundering. We have undoubtedly done some amazing things that way. How many more amazing things might we have done if we had actually meant to.

And on that note, goodnight.
What they all said (2) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Though it was really more of a "hang on, I knew that" moment.

I was watching a snippet of a tutorial video on doing something musical on the computer, and the guy was listing the absolute minimum system you needed for doing this thing, and it was pretty much just a bit whizzier than the system I've got. And I thought "funny...", because back when I started doing music on computers the absolute minimum system was just a bit whizzier than the one I had, and it always has been. I thought it was just my bad luck, or that I tended to jump too soon rather than waiting for something better to come along.

But no. That's how it's meant to be.

It's a well-known and popular factoid that what they call Big Pharma has absolutely no incentive to invest in curing diseases. Every disease they cure is a source of profit gone, every patient made well a patient who won't be coming back for more. And as my business-minded friends will enthusiastically tell me, a company that knowingly deprives itself of profit or reduces its customer base is...well, it just doesn't happen. It's completely counter-productive. So they palliate our symptoms, and they prevent death where possible (because dead people also tend to stop being customers) and they leave it at that. Doesn't matter how many cures for diabetes or whatever the scientists discover or the tabloids trumpet, you won't be seeing them while there's still a market for insulin. Not ever.

And (this is the epiphany part) it must, by the same remorseless economic logic, be the same with everything.

No computer shop wants to sell you "the last computer you'll ever need" because then you won't be coming in for another. And that is why the linked development of computer hardware and software has always been, to my dull-witted bemusement, like one company making ever bigger storage boxes, and another company making ever bulkier padding so that the actual capacity of the box remains the same, just not quite big enough for all your stuff. You could do without the padding, and then your stuff would rattle around and get damaged, or you could put up with the smaller box for the rest of your life...or you can buy into the game and get another new computer that won't quite do everything you want it to, and hope that when you can afford the next one it'll be whizzy enough to last your time.

Of course I'm oversimplifying. What I can do with the system I've got is streets ahead of what I could do back when I started doing music on computers. Raised expectations also play a part--you hear a fabulous new VST on a video demo and you save up for it, and by the time you can afford it (and your computer can almost handle it) mark 2 is already on the shelves and mark 1 sounds decidedly drab next to it. That's the part you can choose not to be seduced by. But the game remains the same, and the new sounds haunt your dreams, and there's always that lying hope that one day you'll find it, the last computer you'll ever need, the cure for your disease.

All this is a tangent to some thoughts about progress I've been having, some rehashed and some new. They may emerge in another post.

The Fifth Wall is still percolating, but it will happen. Honest.
What they all said (5) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
And I am habiting it. Well, not right now, but I have been and plan to continue.

Jan thoroughly put the wind up me about putting down the laminate boards (I think she has somewhere else in mind for them) so I'm making do with the underlay for the moment, but I have a working computer in there and I can reach to open the window. I wouldn't try sleeping anyone in there, but for me it's fine.

I still do want a decent floor covering in there, but I've waited long enough for my work space and now I can use it. So I will.

Sense of achievement, let me show you it.
What they all said (9) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
We have now reached the stage where I can't get into the room again thanks to the years of accumulated clutterbumph that I have dug out to be sorted, weeded and put back.

However, I have got access to the bookcase whose top gave way when I inadvisably tried to lever my bulk upright on it a long time ago. I have a cunning plan to deal with this, involving turning the entire concern upside down, so that the crunged top shelf is on the floor and held in place by weight of books. The new top shelf will then come with its own bookends in the form of the legs on which it stood.

This, however, will be a delicate operation involving moving a lot more stuff.

Plus, we are revising for an exam.

What they all said (9) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
"A rheum?"

"Yes, a rheum to do my work in."

"Oh, you mean a room?"

"Yes, that is what I said, a rheum."

I have cut out and thrown away three quarters of the horrible carpet (the other quarter has things standing on it which need to be moved before I can dispose of that). My single electric socket works. I have plugged stuff in and tested it, and everything has so far stayed on.

I need to put something down over the slashed underlay, but the bulk of the work of reclamation has been done. I feel proud. (And knackered. Let's not forget knackered.)

Yay. *waves hands feebly*

Goodnight all.
What they all said (9) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
And today is clearly Flyday.

The studio has been hit especially hard, for several possible reasons, and Jan has been very stressed by it. I've been flailing around with the electric tennis racket to not very much effect and have decided we need a blue-light zapper. The choices on Amazon aren't inspiring, ranging from for-the-trade arm-and-a-leg and where-the-hell-would-we-put-it to small, cheap and only-ever-get-three-stars (so obviously don't work very well if at all).

I have in desperation opted for the best-looking of the latter and will hope.

In other news, I have begun the assault on the horrible carpet in my alleged workroom. I can't cut the carpet without cutting the underlay as well (and Speedy Gonzales rushes briefly through my brain shouting "underlay, underlay!") so there's that. Also, there's no point in actually starting to remove bits till the wheelie bin (which is full of the stuff I chucked last week) is empty again, since I can't get to the dump in Trowbridge or Warminster until et cetera et cetera. Ah, life.

But we have proof of concept. I can actually cut the damn thing. And once that's gone I can test the electrics and maybe even do something in there.

Still percolating.

So that's where I am today.
What they all said (4) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
I saw this lady doing this song on television when I was very small and it has stuck with me all these years. I heard it for the second time just five minutes ago (and was pleasantly surprised at how many of the words I remembered) and now I'm sharing it with you. I hope you enjoy it.

Goodnight all.
What they all said (3) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
...but it seems to me that very few of us think about.

I see or hear it said of a person or a fictional character from time to time that they "don't suffer fools gladly." Whenever it's said, it's always in a tone of vast admiration, as if the inability to suffer fools gladly were a sign of some virtue or quality. Someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly must obviously be a very fine person to know.

Thinking about what the phrase means, and particularly about the subjective and elastic nature of any definition of the word "fool"...

...well, it's not something I would want said about me. And if there are times when I fail to suffer gladly people whom another person would define and dismiss as "fools," then it's because I'm having an off day and not behaving myself properly, and I'd like to be told so that I can make amends for my arrogance and rudeness.

In the immortal words of the poet Batt:

Imbeciles, we are dancing down a darkened road,
Though the stars are out not one of us knows the way.
Imbeciles up ahead of us and millions more behind,
And we're laughing and smiling, that's why I say
We're all of us imbeciles.

Whether it be true or not that we are all fools, it seems to me that suffering each other gladly is (in the ordinary way) the very least we can do to make this planet a little more habitable...

EDIT: and I suppose I should add, just for completeness' sake, that I don't equate "suffering fools gladly" with "agreeing with everything they say or do" or "allowing them to do things that would harm themselves or other people" or anything like that. I believe, in this context, in common sense and common courtesy, neither of which are as common as they ought to be, in this age or any other.

The next bit of what I shall probably be calling The Fifth Wall is percolating as I type.
What they all said (4) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Immanence, the second themed anthology from Story Spring Publishing, edited by J L Aldis, is very good, only has half a story by me in it, and it would be great if you all bought it. Only on Kindle at the moment, but I gather a paperback is in the offing, and the Kindle price is very reasonable if you can stand to read a screen.

I can say this because I have read it all the way through, and enjoyed it a lot.

So go and look, why don't you.


What they all said (2) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Prompted by yet another iteration of that irritating old truism about opinions not being the same as knowledge.

Suppose you could read the information in a person's brain, printed out directly as simple statements. "The Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815." "Sugar is bad for you." "It was a good day today." How would you differentiate--excluding judgments of content--between those statements which are fact and those which are opinion? Answer: you wouldn't. All our knowledge is opinion. All of it. No exceptions. All opinion, based on something we've seen or heard or read or whatever, which may or may not be a fact. Even what we know of our own experience is only what we think we know, what we have decided we know, what we believe we remember. In the brain, in the damp grey sponge keeping our ears apart, it's all the same.

I'm not saying we can't know anything, or any solipsistic drivel like that. There are facts, out there beyond the skull. Some opinions are more firmly founded on them than others, and not always the ones you're thinking of. What I am saying is that I am tired of people getting snotty and superior about other people's opinions, when they have little or nothing to go on themselves but their own. We all do the best we can with what we've got, and mostly what we've got, when you get right down to basics, is the same. One damp grey sponge per customer, full of opinions which we like to think are facts.

Worth keeping in mind.
What they all said (5) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Flennish bolted down the corridor, using his tentacles at full stretch to grab walls, floor and ceiling and pull himself along. The mob was close behind him.

A left turn, into another corridor, this one door-lined. He tried each door as he hurtled past. One opened. He jerked himself to a halt, barrelled in and slammed the door shut.

"What kept you?" Treugenth was sitting on a small round rug, smoking a hookah.

"How--how did you--" Words failed Flennish. He sagged against the door as the mob pounded past outside.

"This corridor is the most likely exit from the hall for a speaker running for his life. This room is the only unlocked one. Simple process of elimination." Treugenth looked at the stem of the hookah with distaste. "I have no idea why we do this."

"Those people--" Flennish fought for breath. "Those people--"

"Well, you did just question their reality. And yours, of course, but that probably got overlooked in the confusion. Calm down. Come and have a seat."

Flennish moved tentatively away from the door.

"I left the emergency exit door at the far end open. With any luck they'll all have a jolly time looking for you in town, and probably end up at a pub drowning their sorrows." Treugenth made to proffer the stem of the hookah, saw Flennish's expression and thought better of it. "Poor Flennish. It's hard when illusions are shattered."

"What illusions?"

"Well, for one, the illusion that other people are as intelligent as you are. Everyone has that one, except of course very stupid people."

"They wanted to destroy Earth!"

"And you pointed out that the Earth in this universe is just as much a fictional creation as the rest of us are, so destroying it would be completely pointless."

"And they said it would send a message!" Flennish mopped the area just above his eyes. "Send a message!"

"Yes, it will." Treugenth held up one hand to the side of her face, thumb and little finger splayed. "Hello?" she said. "We're really stupid and badly written, and you should go away and write something else. I hear paranormal romance is big this year."

Flennish was beginning to recover. He pointed an accusing tentacle. "Anyway," he said, "you did not believe me at all."

"Of course I didn't believe you," Treugenth said impatiently, around a mouthful of smoke. "I'm a scientist. Science isn't about whether you believe something, it's about whether something is true. The anomalous phenomena you pointed out are real enough, and they require explanation. At the moment the only explanation we have is yours, and while it's bizarre and implausible all right, it's something we can work with till something better comes along. Plus, I respect you. We don't always see eye to eye, which is hardly surprising given our relative heights, but you are neither a crank nor a fantasist, and if you put forward a bizarre and implausible theory, it's because you've thought about it and found nothing better that fits the facts." She paused. "So, what's our next move?"

Her unflinching calm was driving back Flennish's impulse to panic in spite of himself. He took a deep breath. "This must be investigated," he said, "and preferably before the governments of the Federation declare war on this universe's Earth. Unfortunately, I would estimate our chances of obtaining funding for such a project at--"

"Slim to none," Treugenth agreed. "So we'll have to do it ourselves."

"We?" Flennish parroted stupidly.

Treugenth looked impatient again. "You don't think I'm passing up the chance to investigate something like this, do you? If you're right, it could upturn all our ideas about the nature of reality itself. And if you're wrong--"


"Then," Treugenth said with a nasty smile, "I get to be the first one to laugh."
What they all said (16) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Not a rumble this time, not a murmur, but an excited babble. Flennish waited patiently till it had subsided a little, then held up his tentacles for silence.

"This planet's dominant species," he said, "is a primitive humanoid life form on the brink of space travel. It has been a primitive humanoid life form on the brink of space travel for as long as anyone has known about it. They have no unified government, they fight wars among themselves, they have not even recognised the futility of undirected 'progress.' They are, by any reasonable standard, millennia away from even being considered an emergent race.

"And yet. In each and every one of the last few interstellar wars that have afflicted us, this planet has turned out to be of critical strategic importance. Every would-be tyrant who has ever sprung up to threaten the galaxy, from Fraknab the Preposterous to the Great Grundlbunk, has felt it incumbent on him-, her- or itself, to invade Earth; every great hero our society has produced has been compelled, at one point or another, to defend it. When a master criminal is fleeing the forces of law and order with a vast treasure concealed in his cargo hold, where does he always crash his ship? Earth. When a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings visits our universe, where do they appear? Earth. One might be forgiven for thinking that Earth had been singled out by fate to endure a disastrous run of bad luck.

"And yet--again--once all the tumult and kerfuffle is over, the tyrant destroyed, the criminal caught, whatever...Earth simply settles back into its former obscurity. The most chaotic waves of change wash over it and leave it completely unaffected. How can this be? Why, moreover, has nobody ever questioned this state of affairs before?"

"Yes, why?" someone called out from the audience. Flennish peered out and identified the speaker.

"Professor Treugenth of the Revamba," he said. "Bear with me a little longer, Professor, there is more.

"I mentioned cultural diversity a little while ago. It is true, indeed, that our cultures are highly diverse. Each world has its own unique forms of art, of music, of literature, and very wonderful some of them are.

"Tell me, though..." He paused. "From which planet, from which species, do we derive this language which we are all speaking?"

The babble was confused now. Phrases such as "common galactic tongue," "lingua franca" and "how else are we supposed to communicate with each other?" rose momentarily above the noise. Flennish waited. It was Treugenth of the Revamba who, once again, took the initiative.

"You're going to tell us it's an Earth language, aren't you, Flennish?" she said, fluffing her tail aggressively.

"Indeed I am. This language was developed on Earth, over a period of several centuries. The form in which we use it is the form in which it has been spoken on Earth for--again--as long as anyone can tell. Not only the language itself, but even the idiomatic phrases, many of which make no sense at all in the cultures of our various planets. Treugenth, how would you colloquially describe something which performs to specifications? Quickly, without thinking?"

"It does exactly what it says on the tin," Treugenth said promptly.

"Do you have tins on your world?" Flennish asked in a gentle tone, and Treugenth looked confused. "Exactly. Ladies, gentlemen and others, your biologies are wildly at variance, your reproductive methods range from simple binary fission to a complex ritual involving up to fourteen participants, and yet I address you as though a bisexual, viviparous, mammalian system were somehow the norm. You find nothing strange in this. Need I mention that on Earth, for their dominant species, it is indeed the norm?"

Arguments had now broken out all over the hall as various beings hotly debated the concepts Flennish had just brought to their attention. He waited patiently, remembering his own confusion when the thought had first occurred to him, his frenzied search of the Fellowship's archives, the blinding simplicity and utter wrongness of it.

At length the various disputes ran out of steam (another Earth idiom, Flennish thought ruefully; on many of the Federation's worlds steam was physically impossible) and he held up his tentacles for silence once again.

"You will be wondering," he began, "how this situation arose, whether it is the result of deliberate manipulation from Earth itself or from some other agency. Some of you will no doubt feel angry, resentful. I did myself. The conclusion to which I have finally come, however, implicates no being or species in this universe. It is even stranger than that which it purports to explain.

"On my own world of Gyel, we have a flourishing industry producing works of fiction for the entertainment of the people. In the nature of things, the writers are Gyelri, and while the influence of the Federation has created a good deal of diversity, it is still true to say that the majority of the stories take place on Gyel, involve Gyelri protagonists in conflict with Gyelri antagonists, and end with the status quo on Gyel largely unchanged. While many of these fictions involve alien races, it is around Gyel and the Gyelri that they largely revolve. And yet in the fictional universe created by the writer, there must be many other planets with their own dominant species. How would they feel, I wonder, to discover that the most important world in their galaxy was a small and insignificant planet known to its inhabitants as Gyel?"

Treugenth stood up again, her tail at full extension, its tip nodding over her head. Flennish fancied he could see the gleaming sting concealed among the russet fur.

"Flennish, this nonsense has gone far enough. We can all see where you're going with this, and it isn't funny. You're not seriously going to tell us that we live in a fictional universe created by some writers on Earth?"

"Can you find another explanation that fits the available facts, Treugenth?" Flennish countered. "If you can, please believe me when I say that I shall be the first to rejoice. It is by no means a comfortable thought for me either. I would far rather it were rays, or a virus, or something explicable that we could combat. This--this, by its very nature, is a problem beyond our very limits of perception.

"Ladies, gentlemen and others, I think it would now be a good idea to break for refreshments. I will see you back here in--" He consulted his chronometer, fastened, as was usual, on his left tentacle just below the tip. "In twenty minutes, at which time I will explain some of the strategies I have devised for exploring this phenomenon further, and then throw the meeting open for discussion. I think you will agree that it is a matter of the first importance that we establish--if possible--the truth about this, and how we shall deal with it, if indeed we even can. Thank you for your attention."

He turned without another word and undulated off the podium. This had been the easy part. How would they react when he tried to explain to them the concept of the Fifth Wall?


That's it. I've been mulling this one for a while now. I have no idea--as yet--how to continue it. What do you think?
What they all said (13) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Slowly the great hall grew quiet as a myriad of muttered conversations died down. The various species that composed the audience waited expectantly as Flennish, the Chief Scientist of the Gyelri Science Fellowship, flowed to the podium and stood for a long moment, tentacles flexing slightly as he surveyed the multifarious variety of faces (or local equivalent) looking up at him. At last he sighed, consulted his notes and began to speak.

"Ladies, gentlemen, and others," he said. "Welcome to this extraordinary meeting. I expect you are wondering why I have called you all here tonight." There was a ripple of laughter, and the odd explosion from members of races whose reaction to humour was on the extreme side. "Between us, we represent the cream of the scientific community on a hundred worlds, so I hope you will forgive me if I spend some time going over what will doubtless seem to you the blindingly obvious.

"Our Galactic Federation has been in existence for roughly nine thousand years. By the miracle of transluministics we have forged a network of communications which spans the entire galaxy. We trade amicably with each other, we exchange knowledge, we manage--mostly--to live in peace with our neighbours. We help struggling emergent races to complete their maturation and join us as full members, as equal partners. We police the spacelanes and do our best to keep crime to a minimum, while recognising that if sentientkind is to enjoy any measure of freedom the possibility of crime is one that cannot be entirely expunged. Our philosophers have plumbed the mysteries of the universe and discovered, somewhat to our relief, that some of them remain forever unplumbable." Another murmur of laughter, but only one explosion this time. The being in question apologised, and Flennish nodded and went on.

"I see here among us Kuvalk, Osossen, Nordelli, Plath, Ugu, Mizzizzi, t'Trayzh, Gyelri like myself, and representatives of fifty-seven other species, all the principal partners in our great Federation. You all come from different worlds, from different cultures. Your histories have been long and frequently turbulent, but you have all, as species, attained enlightenment and civilisation unaided. Your cultures display great diversity--up to a point, but I'll come to that later--and you all deal with each other on a basis of mutual respect and fairness.

"Would you all agree with my summation of the position of affairs in our galaxy today?"

There was a mutter of general agreement.

"Good." Flennish sounded genuinely relieved. "Then, with the groundwork now out of the way, I would ask that you now regard the screen behind me."

On cue, the curtains parted and the huge screen flashed into life. On it, a smallish blue-green planet, veiled in wispy clouds, floated against the darkness of space, lit from one side by, presumably, its star.

A voice from the audience. "That's Earth." And again a rumble of agreement.

"You are sure?" Flennish said. "You positively identify this planet?"

The rumble was louder. More voices spoke up.

"Yes, that's it."


"Everyone knows what Earth looks like."

"Very good," Flennish said. "Then my question to you, ladies, gentlemen and others, is this:

You wanted to say something?
...Zero-G Software, who, when I whinged about the VSTs I bought from them nine years and three computers ago no longer being useable, very kindly sent me download links to the updated, Windows 10 compatible versions, at no charge. Excellent customer service. Sadly some other instruments (from other companies) have not been updated, but superseded by whizzier new ones that I can't justify. Ah well. This is what happens when you don't do music for too long.

Tomorrow it's back to the stables, with hopefully renewed spoons.
What they all said (2) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
So, yesterday, I embarked on the clearing of my alleged work room (where I should be doing my alleged work).

As some of you may know, this room was used as a refuge for a while by a heroically incontinent stray cat, and at some point he peed on something electrical such that whenever I tried to switch anything on in there, the main fuse went POP and everything in the house went off. At which point I rather gave up on it and shifted my base of operations downstairs, since with Jan needing her computer on basically All The Time there was no opportunity to do proper testing. I've got her to agree to a five-minute shutdown at some indefinite future point to enable me to see if the problem is in the single wall socket, which will entail an electrician (who may in that case be willing to double my socket availability, woo hoo). I'm treating the three multi-gang extensions that were on the floor as probably compromised beyond recall. I mean, you can't wash them out. Also ugh.

Anyway, the room has been lurking there like Dirk Gently's fridge ever since, and I have decided enough is enough. Since I can't emulate Dirk (call up a slightly dodgy friend and ask him to find me a new room) it's a case of getting in there and cleaning it up as best I can. So far I've found the floor, which is horrible, and picked up what seems salvageable and thrown out a bunch of stuff which was not. Next on the agenda (when I've recovered a bit) is getting rid of the poo itself; Jan thinks I need to take up the carpet, but even if I could afford to replace it there's too much furniture in there that I don't have anywhere else to put. I'm seriously wondering about cutting round the edges with a Stanley knife and doing without.

Heigh as they say ho. Whatever can be done shall be done. And then, once I know I have reliable electricity in there, I'll see if my main computer is still usable and start rebuilding my work setup. Maybe once I've done that I can get back to some serious writing/art/music/whatever.

Wish me luck.
What they all said (11) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
"People just don't think things through, do they?" Powers said, putting the book down on a packing crate.

"I thought you were going to throw it for a moment," Rob said, as a hedgehog swung down on a trapeze, picked the book up and swung away again.

"Thank you for your restraint," Zander added.

"I may be an unprincipled, all-powerful spirit of chaos and mayhem, but there are some things you don't do," Powers said primly.

"So what's got your chaotic knickers in a twist this time?" Rob inquired.

Powers glared. "People not knowing how to think about gods. They talk about fighting gods with logic and science. Surely it must be obvious that if gods exist, then they must be logical, and any scientific argument against their existence is founded on a false premise. Contrariwise, if they're not logical, then they don't exist, and any scientific argument against their existence is redundant."

"But," Rob began, and stopped. In the momentary silence a distant "whee!" resounded from overhead.

"What my colleague means to say," Zander interjected smoothly, "is that if gods are--as some people have theorised--sustained by the belief of their worshippers, then arguing logically against their existence would weaken that belief and therefore weaken the god."

Rob nodded gratefully.

"And you're seriously advancing that proposition?" Powers said incredulously. "'If you don't believe in it it will go away?' That's a total capitulation to the most egregious kind of magical thinking. What else is there in the multiverse, what real thing, that you could get rid of by simply saying 'you don't exist'? Nothing. Why should any such thing exist in the first place? Where could it have come from before there were people to believe in it? No. Either something is real or it is not. If it is real, no amount of denial will erase it from reality. If it isn't, no amount of affirmation will make it so."

"An idea," Rob said suddenly. "A meme. If god is an idea, then people create it and sustain it, and it becomes real."

"Does it? Does it really?" Powers was laughing now. "Then where are all these gods? Why don't we see them around? Ideas are not real, my silly young friend. Ideas are the epitome of unreal. What people do with them, do in their name, say and think and write, those are real, but the idea itself is airy nothing. Unless, of course, you maintain that an idea can become a real thing in itself--in which case it can't be argued away, and pretending that it isn't real is asinine. If the idea of a god is a real thing then it must be treated like all other real things. If it isn't, then you can't do anything about it."

"You're saying that whether gods are real or not, there's no way to fight them," Zander said soberly.

"I'm saying that whether gods are real or not, there's no point in trying to fight them by simply not believing in them. That's just childish, blankets over the head nonsense. If you think gods aren't real, you stop wasting time thinking about them altogether and deal with the real-world consequences of people's belief in them on a case-by-case basis, because there will always be people who believe in gods, for whatever reason seems good to them, and you'll never change that with logic or science or anything else. If you think gods are real, you either accept that they exist and you can't do anything about it, or you fight them in the same way, by dealing with their worshippers when they do things that you find wrong. One thing is certain. If gods are real, there's nothing anyone on any world can do to take them on directly. You just haven't got the technology yet."

"And when we do have the technology?"

"Then you'll be gods yourselves," Powers said seriously, "and you can do what you like. You might find, though, when you get to that point, that you feel rather...differently."

"'The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.'" Zander delivered the quote on cue, wearily.

"Old Lord Acton wasn't entirely wrong," Powers said.

"Well, I don't accept it." Rob leapt to his feet and strode up and down waving his arms. "You talk about it in the abstract--you talk about everything in the abstract, like it's a-a-a game or something, but I've seen people hurt, my friends hurt, by people who believed God was telling them to do it. Case by case isn't good enough. We have to root out the cause, destroy this ridiculous, infantile belief people have in some sort of being watching from on high, just waiting to swoop down and AAAAIGH!!"

"Hey!" Powers yelled. "Hey, bring him back at once! That's escalation! I'm the stooge in this act! He's audience! You don't mess with the audience!"

"Deus ex machina," Zander murmured, peering up into the shadows above. "Well, as religious experiences go, this seems relatively mild. He should be none the worse for it. And it stopped the argument."

"Doomed idealism's all very well," Powers agreed, "but there really is no arguing with it. Mind you, if I had a quid for every time someone said 'it's not good enough' when it, whatever it was, was all there ever was or could be--"

"You'd have an awful lot of chewing tobacco," Zander finished. "Ah, I can hear him laughing. I think he's got over the shock. Let him down gently," he called up into the heights. "And Powers is right, don't do it again. Otherwise I shall have to bring in the meerkats."

Powers winced.
What they all said (6) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
eintx, valydiarosada and the_magician were here this weekend for a Cosmic Trifle rehearsal. I had been viewing this with a certain amount of trepidation, because my voice has got very croaky of late, but it seemed no worse than usual once I got started, and my bandmates, while also a touch out of practice, were as brilliant as ever.

We seem to be working towards a possible set for the next filkcon, which will involve my getting mobile again (in hand) and registering the Countess and myself for said filkcon, not to mention convincing a justly sceptical concom that we will actually turn up this time. Assuming we do, and they grant us a set, we can promise you, in the immortal words of Semprini, "old ones*, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones." Some of the new ones I'm extremely keen on, and there are some of mine as well, including an Eagles song to which I'm anxious to give an airing.

In among the music, we watched the first episode of The Owl Service, which was strange in a way I hadn't remembered (twentysomethings playing fifteen-year-olds ever so slightly creepily), The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!, and to round off the entertainment, (G&S purists look away now) Joseph Papp's film of The Pirates of Penzance, which I love. Kevin Kline makes a superbly Nyrondish Pirate King (see icon) and at that age would have been my choice to play Zander. I'm still sure there must be some reason grounded in hoary G&S tradition why George Rose (as Major General Stanley) sings "I am an orphan boy" in that peculiar voice, but I will probably never know. Altogether a delight.

As was the whole weekend. And now we have a reason to have more rehearsals...

*(Probably not The Old Ones, at least not in the set.)
What they all said (5) . Unless... You wanted to say something?