27 February 2006

More TV

I didn't realise it at the time, but when I last mentioned B.'s and my epic Buffy rewatch, we were precisely halfway through the 144 episodes of the series, poised equidistant between the early promise of Welcome to the Hellmouth and the touching climax of Chosen.

Since then we've finished watching Season Four, culminating in the wonderful triptych of The Yoko Factor, Primeval and Restless. I'm amazed by how much better the season is than I remembered it -- I recently argued at some length to a friend (sorry about that, Silk) that it was the show's worst year, but leaving aside the dodgy start (arising mainly from ditching the high-school format and two of the regular characters) and the limp "acting" of Marc Blucas as Riley, it pretty much rocks.

After starting off the season looking terribly depleted after Angel and Cordelia's departures, and despite the additional blow of losing Seth Green's magnificent Oz halfway through, by the end of the season the regular cast feels very strong again. Admittedly the addition of Riley has done little to help, but Anya is still wonderfully acerbic, Spike is uniquely Spike, and Amber Benson blends awkwardness, power and an entirely different kind of hot-chickery as Tara. Moreover, this is the season where Willow grows up, losing her most vulnerable edges and gaining social grace as a functional adult. Even Adam has a screen presence and a cool quotient which -- Spike being the only possible exception -- no other villain on the show can match.

Admittedly the arc story leaves something to be desired -- namely, anything much by way of plot complexity -- and the half-time removal of a key player in Maggie Walsh makes what there is seem less coherent than it ought to be. But the basic conception of the Initiative, and its culmination in Adam, manage to depart from the formula (so far as there is one) for Buffy villains whilst making fine intuitive sense. I also love the way in which -- although this is never flagged in the episode in question -- the vital information used to defeat Adam (the location of his uranium power core) comes to the heroes courtesy of Jonathan during his ego-trip in Superstar.

There are some outstandingly good episodes in there, among them the silent-comedy-horror Hush, the painfully character-driven diptych of This Year's Girl and Who Are You, the hilarious Superstar and finally what may be the single best story of the series (or its most self-indulgent embarrassment, depending on who you talk to), the episode-length dream-sequence Restless. Even the episodes I remembered as pretty feeble -- Fear Itself, for instance, or Where the Wild Things Are -- have a lot to recommend them by way of jokes and character moments. (I've always had a soft spot for Beer Bad, despite the fact that it's widely considered the worst Buffy episode of all, so I won't comment on that lest I come across as an indiscriminate Whedonist cheerleader.)

So... an unexpected amount of enjoyment, there, which I hope will continue into the remaining seasons -- all of which, like this one, are slightly dodgy in their disparate ways. Which means it's time for Buffy's most accomplished genre parody, Buffy Vs Dracula, and the arrival of Dawn. I'll keep you updated.

Oh, and in not entirely unrelated news -- so OK, yes, on reflection I probably am a Whedon groupie -- our Serenity DVD arrived today. Wahey!

The Mancunian Chronicles

O.K., so when I said "the weekend", I was obviously counting Monday, because I don't have to be at work on Mondays. Except that I did today, for reasons with which I shan't bore you.

Although it was, for this reason, foreshortened, my weekend was pleasingly productive: I sent off the proposal for my reference book, did some work on one of the short story ideas, and even managed to get to the pub on Sunday evening.

Anyway. Tonight the BBC are broadcasting the last episode of the first season of Life on Mars, and I wanted to get some thoughts down before it airs.

Personally, I'm a little ambivalent about the fact that the programme's running to a second season (the current thinking being, apparently, that there will be three overall, and that the background story of Sam's time-travelling and the reasons behind it will be wrapped up at the end of season three). It's obvious that everyone involved is having immense fun pastiching the '70s tough-cop show and doesn't want to stop, but many of the recent episodes have been marking time as far as the arc story is concerned.

Some of these episodes have been great -- last week's, with the crime under investigation being corruption in the police station itself, and with the unusually vivid images of Sam's 2006 life attempting to break through into his 1973 one, was fantastic. But I can't help feeling that a tighter story-arc operating within a single season would have been more satisfying.

Of course, as somebody astutely pointed out, three eight-episode seasons are around the same length as a single season of a US TV series, so it's not quite the grotesque inflation it would appear (though of course, a BBC TV hour is about half as long again as a US TV "hour").

All the same, I'm glad to see from last week's trailer that it looks as if some of the interesting stuff is finally going to be addressed:

[NB Look away now if you don't want to see SPOILERS:]

Sam's father is finally making his appearance, so we should learn how it was that Sam was "let down" by him, and there appears to be a conversation between Sam and Philip Glenister's very excellent Gene Hunt acknowledging that Hunt is to some extent in on whatever's happening to Sam.

The latter is something I've suspected for a while. The first time he meets Hunt, Sam asks him something along the lines of "So what part of my mind do you represent, then?". While I'm sure the situation is nothing like as Star Trek as that would imply, occasional scenes, as well as the DI's knowing references to "Hyde", have continued to foster the impression.

("Hyde", of course, is where the 1970s characters believe Sam came from prior to his "transfer", and has become a watchword for Sam's 2006 life. The name is surely significant. It immediately calls to mind "Jekyll and Hyde", suggesting that Sam may live some kind of secret life in the present -- Jim Smith at Shiny Shelf has an interesting theory along these lines. What's more, when taken alongside "Hunt" it suggests "Hide and Seek", which I'm fairly sure is what little-boy Sam and his red-coated friend are playing during the sporadic flashbacks to whatever happened in the woods.)

In Jungian terms, Hunt is functioning as Sam's "Shadow", the amalgamation of the elements of his personality (bigotry, sexism, brutality, boastfulness, and the instinct for policing which Sam has been prevented from exercising in the present) which Sam himself feels unable to acknowledge overtly. In this reading, the chalk-and-cheese buddy-cop aspect of the series rises above pastiche and becomes Sam's process of individuation, a confronting and uniting with his dark half.

And, while we're talking Jung, can it really be a coincidence that the show's only female regular, who persuades Sam to stay in 1973 and becomes his inspiration and guide during his stay there, is named Annie, as in Anima? It may even be that, with the second pair of polar opposites Chris and Ray factored in, the four male policemen form a quaternion, one of the Jungian models for the self.

Of course, this is unlikely to become explicit, and would almost certainly be horrible naff if it did: Jungian analysis is always more interesting than Jungian exposition. It would obviously be unwise anyway to expect much by way of resolution from an end-of-season episode, although I'm hoping for some significant developments. Lovely though the evocation of the seventies, both as a historical and a televisual era, has been, the show did draw me in by promising to be about a time-travelling policeman.

Given that there are going to be two more seasons, there are some places it will look increasingly odd if the narrative doesn't go. So far, Sam has made no effort whatsoever to contact himself or his friends in the future, whether by leaving himself messages or by making an alteration of any kind to history[*]. Surely, at some point, he's going to have to confront his own young self. The early promise of disturbing intimacy with his mother needs to be followed up. And, much though I enjoy the headfuckery of her occasional presence, some actual reason, even a dream-logic one, has to be given sooner or later for the the girl off the test card turning up in Sam's flat at nights.

Sadly they'll probably never do the plotline I most want to see, where Sam goes into a coma in 1973 and wakes up to find himself doing black-and-white Dixon of Dock Green style policing in the 1950s.

Evening, all.

[*] Certainly if I were a time-travelling policeman in Manchester in 1973, and people kept mentioning Hyde to me, I'd feel pretty much impelled to warn the local medical authorities not to appoint Dr Harold Shipman to any jobs in the area. Perhaps the programme-makers feel this might come across as tasteless.

23 February 2006


I know, my dears, I know -- I've been neglecting you shamefully. Please do stay, though -- I'd miss you all terribly, if you left. I hope that one day soon I shall be able to make it up to you.

(Hmm. Sufficient contrition there, I wonder, or was I over-emoting? Oh, thank you. You were too. Mwah.)

Right, then. Last week, half term, was very nearly busier than termtime generally is, except that -- as I've now discovered, having been back at work so far this week -- somehow it actually wasn't. Hey ho.

I did manage to get a fair bit of writing done -- most of a proposal for that New Idea for a Doctor Who reference book that I was talking about the other week, in fact -- but still have a great deal to do. Fortunately, some of it is stuff I'm being paid for (I'm currently on promises of commissions for two short stories) so I have plenty of motivation.

I also had what I thought at the time was the one good business idea of my entire life -- one that was brilliant and mind-surfing and zeitgeist-catching, and was absolutely definitely going to make me at least moderately rich. I spent at least a day flapping about what I should do with it before discovering from somebody in the know that it was completely impractical with present-day technology. Buggeration.

Half term was madly busy for many other reasons, though, most of them people-related. The Saturday before last my little-sister-in-law was in town visiting her boyfriend, who's in Bristol to work on Casualty in a frighteningly he's-something-in-the-media sort of way. B. and I spent some of Saturday with l.-s.-i.-l. in the astoundingly hedonistic Bar Chocolat in Clifton. (The website refers to it as a "shop", but is in fact very much a café, which exists to ply the weak and easily tempted with gloriously rich hot chocolate and a wide variety of stunning chocolate cakes). We ended up at her boyfriend's friend's flat, getting annoyed with Trivial Pursuit and experiencing the apocalyptic sugar rush which seems to be a prerequisite for brilliant-yet-unworkable once-in-a-lifetime ideas.

Monday brought a visit from our old university friend S., who's now a political activist in her native Malaysia, campaigning on thoroughly vital and worthy stuff like environmental issues, women's rights and freedom of the press. It was entirely lovely to see her -- the constraints of geography have meant that it's been five or six years now -- and we ended up staying up till 2:30 and finishing the Caol Isla.

Malaysia is traditionally one of the most liberal of Islamic countries, and remains the exemplar which the U.S. and the rest of the West hold up to Muslims to show them How To Do Democracy And Get It Right. S. had some disturbing stories about ways in which the reality fails to match up to this perception, including some attempts at introducing frankly Handmaid's Tale pieces of legislation applying Qur'anic principles to women's lives in ludicrously misconceived ways.

Though we obviously try not to worry, the idea of our good friend (who, if she didn't precisely matchmake B. and me, did at least help to catalyse the relevant decision) doing high-profile work in such a political environment is unsettling, to say the least. Fortunately, she feels that her visibility, and her Oxford connections, will probably afford her some degree of protection... and for all its faults Malaysia's hardly Afghanistan, at least for now.

(I was also pleased to learn that she's working closely with liberal Muslim groups as well as leaders of minority faiths, as she used to be rather dismissive of religious believers as well as the religions themselves. It's only sensible under the circumstances, of course -- nobody ever broke open a closed mindset by pointing at it and laughing.)

Unfortunately the staying-up-till-2:30 aspect of Monday evening meant that B.'s and my Valentine's Day meal on Tuesday was rather more beset by tiredness than it ideally ought to have been. The food at Demuth's was as fantastic as ever, although the details of precisely what I ate appear to have fallen out of my head. (Oh, I do remember the hazelnut and praline ice cream. And I think my main course was pasta. It was all gorgeous, anyway.) We did get pissed off, in a tired and half-hearted sort of way, when the restaurant insisted on throwing us out after two hours so that they could cram the next couple in. We'd been given no warning that this was their intention, and had been enjoying what we thought was a leisurely and unpressured meal. Grr.

On Friday we looked after our four-year-old goddaughter E., and spent much of the day acting out bizarre imaginary stories involving dolphins who aged backwards and cuddly toys which turned into chocolate brownies. It was lovely spending the time with her, although her idea of collaborative play is to tell an adult exactly what scenario she wants performed and to correct them if they deviate from this in any way. She'll make an excellent auteur director one day. We also took her to the soft play area at the local MonstroPlex, but their policy of throwing the play area open to "children" up to the age of twelve resulted in some bruising and tears. Grr again, although of course E. was fine again very shortly afterwards.

And then on Saturday and Sunday we went to visit another old university friend in Staffordshire, within easy driving distance of a very splendid pub-cum-microbrewery. R.'s boyfriend J. is a splendid cook, and furthermore they have excellent, and extensively applied, taste in wine, so we ended up eating and drinking very well. Afterwards, we played Risk (using a free download and a giant P.C. wall-projector, which felt very Bond-villainesque), and R. -- the only one of us who'd never actually played before -- ended up conquering the world, the minx.

So. An unusually sociable week, highly hectic and with far less time for writing than the actual volume of writing warranted, hence my busyness and the concomitant lack of updates to this blogatorium. So, sorry about that.

I've been reading books and watching T.V., too, but I'll leave talking about those until the weekend.

07 February 2006

My Life, and Other Fantasies

So... aside from pontificating about science fiction and Islam (which reminds me, Jon Courtenay Grimwood is another author I really must get round to reading sometime soon), what have I been up to recently?

Well, the same as ever, really. I've sent off the chapter breakdown and sample chapter for this arguable pseudonymous novel -- the chapter was speed-written really, 3000 + words in just a couple of days last weekend, but I'm still pretty pleased with how it came out. I need to wait and find out whether the range editors agree.

I've also had my proposal for a short story approved, and am also pleased with that. I think I can probably reveal without too much risk of shocking my readership that it's another Doctor Who one. I think I've found a strong central concept and worked out a moderately detailed background, with the potential for further elaboration as I write the actual prose. I've also inherited some strong central characters from the original TV series, which I obviously can't take the credit for but am happy about anyway.

I'm also faffing about with a handful of speculative projects, including an idea (currently very vague and nebulous) for that rarest of species, a Doctor Who reference guide that nobody else has written yet. I don't know whether I'll be able to persuade any of the likely publishers to take it on, though, or whether it'll turn out to be as precious as gold dust to a Cyberman.

The vagaries of Channel 4 scheduling meant that I've entirely missed recording or watching episode three of Desperate Housewives Season 2, which is deeply annoying. I'm looking forward to Teleporting last night's Life on Mars, though. I really must blog out my theories about this series sometime soon, before they all turn out to be moot. (The degree of my enthusiasm can be gauged by the fact that I currently have Test Card F as my desktop image, despite the fact that it's almost impossible to see my icons against it.)

The Buffy rewatch is going well -- we've just seen the superlative body-swap episode, Who Are You?, which sidelines Buffy in order to focus on the internal strife of Faith, which Sarah Michelle Gellar (playing Faith in Buffy's body, obviously) portrays with heartstring-twanging authenticity. And the next one's the Jonathan episode, so hurrah twice over.

Apart from The Time Ships, I've just finished reading The Extremes by Christopher Priest, which was as fine and thought-provoking as ever, but which I felt suffered somewhat from a mismatch of authorial voice and subject-matter. Priest's meditative, quietly shocking style doesn't really lend itself to a full-on virtual reality thriller full of gun-battles and FBI agents, even if one of the agents does spend most of the novel staying in a quiet Sussex seaside town.

Otherwise... life's been busy for various reasons, non-writing work continues to be much the same as usual, and next week is half-term, which will be very welcome indeed. Plans for the week include getting some writing done, having a romantic Valentine's meal out with B., looking after our god-daughter for a morning, and visits from and to some old university friends whom we don't see nearly often enough -- in one case because she lives in Kuala Lumpur, in the other just because we're crap. Looking forward very much to all of that.

And now I need to go and have a shower.

06 February 2006

A Good Head of Steam

I love Wikipedia for its sense of community, its democratic ethos and its eclecticness. I love the fact that I have my own entry, which has been edited by a Danish computer scientist and a magistrate in Singapore. I love the fact that there's a project specifically dedicated to making the entries relating to Doctor Who as exhaustive as possible, and that a featured article can surprise me by bringing to my attention a culture I would never otherwise have had a clue about the existence of.

I do, however, take issue with the ideas expressed in its article on steampunk, and not having the time to edit said article to an appropriately scholarly standard at present, I intend to sound off about the fact here instead.

Feel free -- as if you wouldn't anyway -- to skip this entry if jargonistic criticobollocks concerning obscure contemporary subgenres of speculative fiction fails to interest you.

The article's basic definition -- "Fiction in the steampunk genre is set in the past, or a world resembling the past, in which modern technological paradigms occurred earlier in history, but were accomplished via the science already present in that time period" -- is actually a pretty good one, especially when qualified by the observation that steampunk is "usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting".

Clute and Nicholls' generally admirable Encyclopedia of Science Fiction simplifies this considerably, reducing it to "the modern subgenre whose sf events take place against a 19th-century background" [p1161]. This omits several elements which the Wikipedia entry has picked up on, including the fact that steampunk lends itself to alternative histories and that it typically -- and I would say essentially -- involves historically primitive science (often steam-driven, hence the name) taking on the functionality of modern or futuristic technologies (computers, long-distance communications, spacecraft). To be fair, though, Nicholls wrote the entry in 1993, when works of steampunk were rarer, wheras the Wikipedia article was last updated today. Clute and Paul J McAuley do better in 1997's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where they classify the type as "technofantasy that is based, sometimes quite remotely, on technological anachronism" [p895].

The technological anachronism is, I'm convinced, the key to categorising works of S.F. as steampunk. As a genre, steampunk grew out of cyberpunk -- hence, obviously, the other half of the name -- and has the same interest in challenging authorities and creating countercultures by means including the technological. By showing these technologies arising before their time, and producing the resultant revolutions in thought against an anachronistic historical backdrop, steampunk questions the historical process by which heresies (scientific and otherwise) become orthodoxies, and countercultures enter the mainstream.

This is most obvious in one of the seminal works of steampunk, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, which portrays a nineteenth-century information revolution centring around Charles Babbage's mechanical computer. This is explicitly contrasted with the real revolution in Victorian thinking which arose from the discovery of evolution, while the rebellious-poets-turned-establishment-politicians Shelley and Byron lay the basis for a future totalitarian regime. In an Epilogue the information itself evolves to become artifically sentient, and finds itself the tool used by this regime for the oppression of its human subjects.

All of this is fairly subtle, sophisticated stuff, and is something which the Wikipedians, dazzled by style and paying rather less attention to substance, seem entirely to have missed. As often as not the difficulty with Wikipedia lies in its very comprehensiveness, with the fact that reader / editors add to the corpus an awful lot more often than they take away. Thus the steampunk article has become ludicrously inclusive, extending the historical period and the generic referents far beyond the scope implied by that opening paragraph, to the point that it is no longer of much use to anyone.

If I were to define steampunk, I would suggest the following as essential criteria:
1. The technological anachronism of modern functionalities in a Victorian(ish) setting.
2. A strong grounding in real-world history, and the historical process.
3. A countercultural aesthetic, whether achieved directly or ironically.

The Wikipedia article is nothing like so rigorous. The idea that "the genre has expanded into medieval settings", for instance, shows a chronic (as well as a chronologic) misunderstanding of the genre's basis. The Victorian setting is important both thematically (the Victorian era itself being a time of rapid and catastrophic intellectual revolution) and aesthetically (thanks to the distinctiveness of its technologies). Extending the range to cover the whole of the nineteenth-century and the Edwardian era is probably fair enough, but a work like McAuley's Pasquale's Angel (where Leonardo da Vinci ushers in an early Industrial Revolution in Renaissance Florence), though splendid, can't be considered steampunk. I've heard it referred to as "clockpunk" as in "clockwork", which makes some sense, but it -- like "sandalpunk", "bronzepunk" and "stonepunk" -- can't be said to belong in the article.

There is a case for including works set in strongly Victorian-influenced alternative presents or futures, which rule themselves in through a close awareness of their Victorian roots and of the historical process mentioned in point 2.... but the suggested category of "fantasy steampunk", which fails altogether to engage with real-world history, is entirely spurious. A work like China Miéville's Perdido Street Station may have steam-powered A.I. robots in it, but they exist in a made-up setting alongside magicians, demons and human-animal hybrids. Its use of tropes taken from steampunk adds enormously to its richness of texture, but it's in no way an examination of technological revolution or shifts in historical thought. Instead, it uses some of the trappings of steampunk for purposes quite different from those of the genre.

Equally not steampunk, and for surprisingly similar reasons, is Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships, the "authorised sequel" to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine which I was mentioning just the other week. Whereas true steampunk arises from a close examination of the understanding and imagination of the Victorian era, Baxter's novel is essentially a work of modern hard S.F., replete with Dyson spheres, quantum multiverses, Gödelian logical systems and a complex explanation of the working physics of what was, for Wells, purely a philosophical and literary device. Wells' Time Traveller is used essentially as an ingénue to tour the universe Baxter wants to write about: what Wellsian touches there are (the "land leviathans" of the war-ravaged alternative 1930s, for instance, or the utopian social planning which the denizens of this era have in mind for when their War is over) are mere window-dressing on Baxter's late-twentieth-century story.

[The sharp-eyed may notice that the Wikipedia article against which I am supposedly railing does not, in fact, claim The Time Ships as a steampunk work. Oops. It's just that I'm rereading Baxter's novel at the moment, and this aspect of it -- the fact that it claims to be a sequel to Wells whilst in fact being the kind of novel Baxter thinks it would be more interesting if Wells had written instead -- is annoying me. I imagine some readers of Peculiar Lives may sympathise.]

This point is more widely applicable, however, as steampunk is always keen to analyse and problematise the era it's examining, and by extension the era in which it was written, giving rise to the "countercultural aesthetic" I've mentioned in point 3. As the article suggests, it might do so by techniques including dystopias or ironic utopias based on the principles of the time: it won't, however, achieve anything much by just providing a pulp-fiction romp through the era, which is why I'm suspicious of many of the films, TV programmes and rôle-playing games which the Wikipedians claim for the genre. There's very little that's countercultural or subversive about Back to the Future Part III, for example.

On the other hand, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen almost certainly does qualify thanks to its gleefully ironic recreation of the imperial and racial attitudes of the era -- despite the fact that it's set in the continuum of Victorian pulp fiction rather than that of the historical era. This brings me to another point, which I'd add as a non-essential fourth criterion, that all of my points above are served by a metatextual relationship with the fiction of the period: works of steampunk are frequently direct sequels to, incorporate characters from, or at the very least allude heavily to, the speculative and other fiction of the era. This is as true of The Difference Engine, which features characters from Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil, as it is of LoEG.

So. What texts would be on an essential steampunk reading list? I'll be honest: I haven't read enough of the recognised classics (although some of them, like Anti-Ice and The Space Machine are on my "read soon" list) to be sure. The Difference Engine would be there, certainly, as would the two volumes of LoEG, and Brian Aldiss' Frankenstein Unbound. Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time trilogy would make it, as perhaps would his Oswald Bastable trilogy (published in one volume as Nomad of the Time-Streams). I'm not convinced about Tim Powers' often-cited The Anubis Gates because of its heavy fantasy content, although it has been a couple of decades since I last read it -- almost as long as Harry Harrison's A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, which I suspect should be on the list. It's obviously a work in progress.

As indeed are most of the opinions above. If anyone's managed to follow me so far, then I'd be intrigued to hear what you think.

I Slam a Phobia

(I Slam, You Slam, We All Slam for Islam)

It's hardly a new observation, but I find these days that I have altogether more in common with liberal atheists, agnostics and members of other faiths than I have with hardline members of what's nominally my own religion. Certainly the organisation known as "Christian Voice" -- spuriously, since it appears to be a platform solely for the unpalatable views of one Stephen Green -- made me furious with its denunciation of Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It wasn't that JS:TO was necessarily any good (I haven't seen it, but opinions I read ranged roughly from "brilliant and inspired" to "inane drivel"), or that it wasn't offensive (again, not having seen it I can't comment, although it sounds as if some of the material would have been difficult to stomach even for an heretical christian like me) -- it's the idea of someone having the arrogance and gall to object to its existence on the grounds that they personally found it made them uncomfortable.

It's a work of fiction! It can't hurt you! Even if the author has different beliefs from yours, even if it makes jokes about your faith, even if it personally insults you, your God, your mother and your dog, IT CAN'T POSSIBLY DO ANYONE ANY HARM!

...I wanted to say.

Jesus himself was mocked, bodily humiliated and tortured to death for speaking his beliefs. Christianity seems to have survived that incident, and indeed could arguably be seen to have done rather well out of it. Is it really incumbent upon us, two thousand years later, to protect Jesus from verbal insults, to the extent of attempting to silence the beliefs of others?

(That was a rhetorical question, the answer to which is: "Of course it bloody isn't. Jesus Christ!")

All of which (apart from the Jesus-specific stuff, obviously) pretty much sums up my response to what the media assures us has been the "Islamic world"'s reaction to the cartoons of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper. They're just funny drawings, people. They can't do you any harm, and unless you're actually Danish you would (originally) have had to go to considerable lengths just to find and be offended by them. The idea that the Danish government should override the right to free speech enshrined in its law and punish the cartoonists or the editors, in order to satisfy the calls for retribution emanating from people living for the most part thousands of miles away, is so wrong as to be grotesque.

There seems to be a conflation of two separate but linked issues. One is the fact of the newspaper printing images of Muhammad, which are forbidden in Islam; the other is the fact that some of the cartoons the newspaper chose are offensive, in a satirical sort of way, to Islam itself. To anyone other than a fairly fanatical Muslim, the first issue is pretty clearly a non-starter: non-Muslims in a non-Islamic country can hardly be expected to follow a moral code in which they have no interest whatosever. It's as absurd as the attempts of the religious right in the U.S. to impose christian values upon its secular population, except that there isn't even the justification that Denmark is historically an Islamic country.

The second point -- essentially, that freedom of speech brings with it a responsibility not to say gratuitously offensive things about other people's cherished beliefs -- is on the face of it a more reasonable proposition, and it's here that most of the more sympathetic Western commentators are focussing their attention.

As I've already suggested, I do understand what it's like to have one's beliefs insulted by other people for fun, although I haven't really felt it very strongly since I was about sixteen. (Watching The Life of Brian pretty much shook me out of it, to be honest.) Christians living in modern secular Britain have to develop a thick skin about the public representation of their faith, and rightly so. Our beliefs thrive through challenge: if they're worth anything at all, opposition will strengthen them, and that's no less true of opposition through mockery and satire, painful though it is to be on the receiving end of the same.

Some of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are offensive, puerile and petty. I would feel hurt by them, were I someone who held Muhammad as a figure of reverence[*]. However, the gulf between "feeling hurt by something" and "calling for retribution to be visited upon the perpetrators of something" is one which would, I think, bear some degree of exploration.

If I seem to be suggesting that the Muslims who feel offended by these cartoons need to grow up and get the hell over it, then I'm afraid that that seems to me to be not a million miles from the truth.

Holding onto a religion -- any religion -- in the modern world means accepting that the vast majority of the population will disagree with you in principle, and differ from you (often radically) in practice. In prior centuries, individual societies may have been able to get along -- not usually very admirably -- as monocultures, suppressing the dissidents within their boundaries and having as little as possible to do with the infidels outside. The history of the twentieth century has ruled out this kind of isolationism forever.

It's almost too obvious an observation to actually make, but any philosophical system -- be it Christianity, Islam, communism, capitalism, anarchy or Flying Spaghetti Monsterism -- could be a utopia, provided everybody freely assented to it. The moment it imposes itself upon someone who doesn't, it becomes a tyranny.

It's equally obvious that no system is ever going to win over the souls of every human being on the planet. Although certain belief-systems have a built-in assumption that they can, whether the mechanism be the Second Coming or the triumph of the proletariat, the real problem comes with the assumption that any dissenting voice can safely be dismissed as that of a damned heretic, a victim of false consciousness, or (in extreme cases) the Devil himself.

This means, unfortunately, that contemporary Islam can only do one of three things:

1. Take over the world, suppressing dissent wherever it finds it and becoming the first global theocracy (assuming the Americans don't get there first). [NB: This would not be a good idea.]
3. Reform itself, abandon many of its proscriptions and absolutes and become a strong, liberal voice speaking up for basic human and spiritual values. (I'm convinced that this will happen, but hardly in my lifetime.)
3. Adapt to the contemporary pluralist global environment in the way that other belief-systems have had to, and stop throwing tantrums because other cultures refuse to play their games the way it wants to play them.

That last one is, I'm afraid, the only realistic option in the medium term. The more Muslims worldwide who come to realise this, the more congenial the twenty-first century will be for everybody.

And just in case it isn't obvious, all this goes for bloody Stephen Green as well.

[*] I confess that I have certain difficulties with the figure of Muhammad himself, as perhaps the most problematic of the founders of major world religions. Heaven knows Jesus' celibacy (as far as his recorded life-story goes) has caused christianity some difficulties down the centuries, and his pacifism is generally brushed under the carpet -- but at least he never led an army of conquest, and nobody has ever claimed that he married a nine-year-old. Still, I'm willing to accept that my mental image of Muhammad is very likely no more accurate than those presented in the Jyllands-Posten.