Come in Spinner: Living on another planet

The modern science-fiction genre has moved on from bug-eyed monsters and space ships and is now more likely to explore alternative worlds and realities – often interacting or existing simultaneously.

Not that these alternatives were ignored in even the 1950s sci-fi pulp fiction but, as Rob Gerrand, the Australian Norma K. Hemmings science fiction prize judging panel chair (and a sci-fi author and editor himself) suggested to me last week this newer trend reflects many things including environmentalism, cosmologists’ theories of parallel universes, the continuing success of time travel stories, for instance the latest Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, and extends the pioneering visions of authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin. Moreover, rather than being a sub-set of pulp fiction, sci-fi in its broadest sense, is also reflected in much modern mainstream fiction.

His observations prompted the thought that for many Australians you don’t have to read sci-fi to get the sense of living on another planet, or in an alternative reality. It is a constantly unsettling thought promoted by our politicians and our media. The Croatian Government, Barack Obama, John Key and David Cameron announce support for gay marriage and their worlds continue on as before. In Australia Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott unite to say no and ours does too – on some other plane altogether.

The Financial Times editorialises (May 5-6 2012) about the need to give shareholders a binding vote on executive remuneration and the need for a growth pact in Europe. The AFR, in its ongoing bid to become the mouthpiece for the most banal and erroneous claims of the business community, editorialises against just about any attempt to tighten regulation on anyone but trade unions and environmental campaigners, and has made an art form out of predicting the dire impacts of the ‘unintended consequences’ of any proposed legislation which might affect business.

And then, if you really want to feel you are living on another planet there is the News Limited version of reality. Melbourne’s Herald Sun (12 May 2012) had a front page splash: Julia’s Bribes Backfire. No inverted commas around bribes, just a fair and balanced report on an opinion poll on the public’s reaction to the budget. One suspects Bob Hawke, if it had been him featured in the headline, might have been on the phone to Holding Redlich exploring the possibility of another swimming pool.

But in other worlds it is not always like this. While people choose the media which reflect their own views, it is still striking how different media directed to specific audiences, which one would assume have specific political and ideological bents, are often surprising in how they cover events. The Economist is unapologetically committed to free markets and Adam Smith but that commitment is combined with astute and balanced reporting on big issues. Its exposes of Berlusconi, and questions about the sources of his riches, were great investigative journalism. Its recent investigation of Guvnor, the Russian oil trader (5 May 2102) is both legally and intellectually courageous. The FT is sometimes as pink in its analysis as the best lefties and its own paper stock.

Then there is another of my favourite international publications. At Easter it published an edition which included: a long article about the lack of transparency in Vatican finances and the impact of its governance structure on scandals ranging from money laundering, child abuse and tax evasion; and, a hard-hitting article by A.N.Wilson on a very silly book by a former Bishop of Durham, and now St Andrews University Professor, on the historical Jesus. Wilson systematically looked at the sheer unhistorical dodginess of much Christian Biblical scholarship. There was also a nuanced analysis of the Emperor Caligula; and, a long article, accompanied by a large illustration, on an art work ( Johan Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi) so notorious for its blatant heterosexual and homosexuality  imagery that the person who commissioned it hid it away from view and never offered Zoffany another commission. To cap it all off there was a review of what seems a much-overdue discussion (Fear of Food by Harvey Levenstein) which punctures much of the nonsense on diet and health used to strike fear into the hearts of consumers.

One can only imagine how the media in Australia might have dealt with most of those issues – let alone a publication which contained them all in one Easter edition. Admittedly the Institute of Public Affairs might have leapt on the Levenstein book and used it as the basis for a few op eds in the AFR or Sunday Age but it’s not hard to see the tabloid media and the shock jocks fostering a re-run of the Bill Henson hysteria and demanding action which any of Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd might have fallen over to provide.

Ah you think – if only News Limited was to publish such stuff. Well actually it did – that Easter publication was the Murdoch-owned Times Literary Supplement (6 April 2012).