Send your name to the stars: The New Horizons Message Initiative

The New Horizons Message Initiative was set up by Jon Lomberg, the space artist who designed the famous golden plate on the Voyager I spacecraft.  Voyager I recently left the heliosphere and is now travelling into interstellar space.

Another craft, the New Horizons space probe, will reach Pluto within two years.  Lomberg’s new initiative aims at storing a cybernetic message on the New Horizons computer.  Apart from developing the message, a far more complex process than one would imagine, they need to get NASA on board.

Therefore, go and sign the petition that they will use to achieve this. As a reward your name could be sent along on the probe, to be discovered millennia later by your own descendants, or something far stranger….

Send Your Name to the Stars


Brian Eldiss, “Lord of the Flies” and imagined futures

There are some wonderful SF stories about human settlements on other planets running wild, changing, sometimes becoming unrecognisable in the process.

lord_flies_cover1Brian Aldiss’ “Enemies of the System,” for instance, left indelible tracks in my mind.  It merges a remote human future with evolutionary radiation through deliberate scientific intervention and classic Darwinian adaptation to new worlds, bringing home the ephemeral nature of our existence.

Another Aldiss novel, “Non-stop”, deals with the theme of a culture running wild, a kind of  “Lord of the Flies” in space if you wish.  It ends with the protagonist discovering that they find themselves in a multigenerational starship, necessitating an escape from barbarism.

My own short story, “Beyond the Wild Mountains” (Abyss & Apex, 2013), deals with a settlement on a new world that had similarly fallen back onto primordial cultural forms. Steeped in ignorance, the protagonist clashes up against technologically advanced “aliens” with devastating consequences.

Wherefore our interest in stories like these?  In essence they draw from our past to imagine possible futures and ponder on what it means to be human.  Often such stories reflect existential fears about our own civilisation; fears about how thin the veneer of sophistication between ourselves and primordial anarchism really is.

SONY DSCEver in the background of our minds lurks a collective memory of the decay and fall of Roman civilisation, the plundering of the eternal city by the barbarians.  It reminds us that what we have wrought and built up with so much effort over the centuries, can easily unravel and fall apart.  In fact, it seems inevitable that this would happen.

Thus, SF is not really about the future.  It is very much about the present, and about how we imagine our past.  SF often reflects our thinking about society, culture and civilisation, and our fears about what might happen to us; and it does so whether the author wills this or not. 


Femen: are these naked breasts Islamophobic?

Femen: are these naked breasts Islamophobic?“, an article published in the Weekly Mail & Guardian, focuses on the perception of some former members and other commentators that the supposedly “feminist” group Femen is Islamophobic.  It is a response to criticism (by Femen enthusiasts such as Men for Femen and others), of the previous article, Femen: from enthusiasm to disenchantment, according to which the allegation of Islamophobia has no substance.

The current article makes use of the widely-accepted definition of Islamophobia developed by the British-based Runnymede Trust.  Given the intensity of the discourse around Islam, this definition is likely to be challenged by some as would be any definition. However, those that do so should come up with an alternative definition that still enables one to make satisfactory distinctions between secular religion critique and ‘phobia’ or ‘prejudice’ .

Note: A non-English native reader told me that the phrase “one can argue about minor things here” created the impression that Femen’s Islamophobia is a minor matter. This phrase refers to the allocation of the Runnymede criteria to the different Islamophobic statements by Femen, and is the result of an unfortunate edit done by the newspaper. Femen’s Islamophobia is no minor matter and impacts directly on the well-being of Muslims living in the countries in which they operate.

Femen: From enthusiasm to disenchantment

Herewith a link to my newest Weekly Mail & Guardian Thoughtleader blog on the Ukrainian “feminist” organisation Femen, a shortened version of a much longer article.

Femen attracted my attention because of the novel that I am working on, “The Ordeal”, in which the main character becomes a member of a radical feminist separatist organisation (more about that some other time). Having worked in the Ukraine I had at least limited insight into the context from which these women came, and therefore empathy.

However, the rather wild rhetoric served to me as an indicator that something was amiss. Herewith a sample:

“We are Femen. You can feel how deep our anger is by looking into our eyes. We are feminism’s shock troops, a spearhead unit of militants, a modern incarnation of the word ‘fearless’(…) Make no mistake about it: we are at war. Every day we find new ways to destroy the patriarchy.”

Thus spake Inna Schevchenko of Femen France earlier this year. She also claimed that the Matriarchy would be in place by 2017. There will be blood in the streets, male blood.

The more I scratched the more questions there were. Their website and newspaper interviews revealed a surprising lack of depth in their thinking. They were into action, not theory and reflection. At the same time, their website, the posters and logos, their entire marketing effort is professional. That is clearly where their energies go.

And then there was the increasingly strident anti-Muslim rhetoric. They are supposedly “anti-religion” and have launched several actions against Christian churches, but Islam is clearly the target of choice. My main concern with Femen is that they will undermine the Feminist and Women’s Right organisations in the Arabic and Muslim world. Also that they are contributing to the alienation of the Muslims in Europe.

I eventually managed to get hold of a number of former Femen members for Skype discussions. Some of them felt strongly that they had a story to tell and were keen to talk. Have a look at the Weekly Mail & Guardian blog.


About one month after writing this article, the figurehead of Femen’s campaign in Tunisia, Amina ‘Tyler’/Sboui, announced that she is parting ways with the organisation as a result of their Islamophobia and issues such as funding. Some have argued that she is under pressure to do so as a result of her court case. This is of course possible, but I doubt that as her damaging comments go further than they would have to under those circumstances. Judge for yourself whether this is fear or disenchantment speaking.

A few weeks later, however, Sboui meets with Femen in Paris – and recants, on radio:

Journalist : “Amina, you said Femen is islamophobe, right ?”

Amina : “… No, no…”
Journalist : “You didn’t say it ?”
Amina : “No…”
Journalist : “So it was a wrong translation then ?”
Amina : “Yeah, yeah, that’s it.”

Some time later, also, this article appeared in the Independent, focusing on Svetlov’s role in Femen and the film on Femen being shown in Venice. Utterly bizarre…  Femen was indeed founded by a male who reigned supreme over the women, inspecting the volunteers’ breasts to determine whether they were fit for protest.  And then, Inna Schevchenko says, they kicked him out.  Really?  Just to mention him as their “ideologue” and “strategist” many months later?

With these revelations the last shred of Femen’s credibility evaporates like mist before the morning sun, leaving behind only the naked truth: a bearded man behind Femen, pulling the strings – exactly how they portrayed the Muslim women that did not accept their liberatory tactics.  Read Die Zeit for an excellent analysis of the Untergang of Femen.


Mars One: Reality bites

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy counts among the most exciting works of classic science-fiction in recent years. It reinvigorates the sense of adventure, underpinning science fiction, that had become lost in recent decades. Nonetheless, colonising Mars is not unproblematic. As much as I would like to support the Mars One initiative launched by the highly dynamic Bass Lansdorf, I find it difficult to do so.

I say this with the awareness that I’m a mere bystander, watching while they are actually breaking new ground and mobilising the imaginations of millions of people. I have great respect for what they have managed to achieve. However, I consider the Mars One model to be flawed. Should they, against the expectations of many, actually succeed in blasting off for the Red Planet, they will face a range of risks and uncertainties for which they would be ill-prepared.

Bottom line is: Going to Mars is too important for a failure right at the outset. My article in the Weekly Mail & Guardian, Mars One: Reality bites, covers some of the issues involved.