Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Silly Season Stories – We Have A Winner!

We may be barely mid-way through August, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say we’ve already had the winner of this year’s “Silly Season” news stories. If you were listening to Radio 4 at about a quarter to eight yesterday morning, the Today Programme had a feature on the epidemiology of zombie movies, revealing that a zombie infestation would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless terminated with extreme prejudice. You can still hear it on iPlayer, but be careful – it’s followed by Anne Atkins on Thought For the Day, and she will eat your brains.

Zombies On The Today Programme: How Could They Tell?

Apparently, research carried out at two universities in Ottawa using mathematical models of epidemiology warned that the only language zombies understand is to cut their goolies off chop their heads off at once, rather than pussyfoot around looking for a cure or containing the infectees. Although one of the UK’s leading swine flu advisers purported to dismiss the findings as “a little over-pessimistic,” expect our panicking Labour Government to issue swine flu warnings shortly involving guillotines, though with the saving grace of too long a waiting list to give many people the chop.

Of course, there is an ultra-violent alternative to this nasty ultraviolence. As any fule kno, sending that wet liberal Judge Dredd off in an armoured killer-truck to deliver a vaccine to the infected will work just as well, provided he can avoid such deadly perils as US Army vampire robots – of which more later, in case you thought they weren’t real – and the even more terrifying copyright lawyers for McDonalds, Burger King and the Jolly Green Giant (I have those issues, though if you own any of the graphic novel reprints, you’ll find four episodes curiously missing).

You’ll no doubt be aware that news programmes are infamous for sexing up their reports and distorting perfectly sensible and serious scientific works, so here’s a link to the full report, the sober and respectable When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infestation. One of the authors is Professor Robert Smith? – question mark included – which may help explain the erratic punctuation of the otherwise dull and unobjectionable title.

This morning’s Today Programme was much less interesting; I switched on shortly after half-six to hear Evan Davis exclaim “-anker,” and cheerily assumed he’d finally taken his mission as Today’s sole interviewer who tells it as it is to its logical conclusion. But instead of telling a Labour minister what he thought of them, it turned out to be an item about tragedies in Sri Lanka, meaning I started my morning with the burden of guilt over inappropriate levity.

US Army Discovers Sustainability At Cyber’s Diner

Naturally, zombie research is far from the only “Silly Season” news story calling out for attention, but having precipitately offered the award, I should explain why I’ve ruled out two other obvious front-runners.

You might think that the clear favourite “Silly Season” story over the past few weeks is the thought that Peter Mandelson might become Prime Minster, but while in itself it’s absurd – OK, so he’s just about the only Labour minister who’s not a/ incompetent and b/ terrified right now, but he’s in the Lords until at the very least the General Election, probably for ever, he’s sufficiently hated in enough of the Labour Party that he could never win a Leadership election, and even Labour MPs aren’t stupid enough to inflict another unelected Leader on their party after how the current one’s turned out – many would object that the Government, while certainly stupid, are too dangerous to be labelled “Silly”. With the zombie infestation “New Labour” still pushing us very close to “the collapse of civilisation,” comparing so vile a condition to something as harmless as a world-threatening undead epidemic is in poor taste.

My favourite story of the “Silly Season” also has to be ruled out of contention for the “Silly” prize by virtue of being truly quite scary. In answer to the twin conundrums of soldiers’ body bags and climate change, the US Army has commissioned a battlefield robot. You know that episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa encourages a bankrupt Mr Burns to discover the effectiveness of recycling, with lucrative but horrific results? Well, imagine something probably less lucrative – except for the weapons manufacturers, natch – but far more horrific.

Yes, the US Army is looking to bring into service an “Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot,” or “EATR,” which can trundle around the battlefield killing people but, replacing soldiers, can’t be killed itself. And, to avoid wasteful fossil fuel use, it will run itself off organic matter that it finds lying about the battlefield.

Now, hands up at the back of the class anyone who can tell me a/ how likely it is to be able to distinguish civilians from combatants and b/ what the most prominent, juicily fuel-filled organic matter lying around any given battlefield will be? A clue to the latter: headlines like “Darpa’s Self-Feeding Sentry Robot Is Not A Man-Eater, Company Protests,” reminding me of nothing so much as Good King Yulfric the Wise the Third’s expostulation “The Evil Flesh-Eating Lord of Kraan is not a cannibal! I don’t know why everyone thinks he is!” from Hordes of the Things. The Guardian helpfully reported:
“‘We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,’ said Harry Schoell, the chief executive of Cyberdyne Power Technologies, one of the companies behind the machine.”
“That is not our mission”?! And, apparently, the EATR can be programmed not to recognise human flesh as a top source of nutrients. Well, I’m reassured.

If you want a break from all this real-world undead horror, tonight at 11pm BBC4 is broadcasting Gods and Monsters, a rather lovely and barbedly witty film about the last days of James Whale, one of Hollywood’s foremost filmmakers and homosexualists. Ian McKellen stars as Mr Whale, with the lovely Brendan Fraser as his incredibly buff gardener. Both actors are superb, in a film that covers 1950s mores, Hollywood hypocrisy, being out as gay fifty years before your time, the trenches of the First World War and the making of probably the finest film of the Twentieth Century, Bride of Frankenstein. While perhaps the key scene is the tragic revelation of the stroke-reduced limits of Mr Whale’s talents, and what they mean for the characters, I still fondly remember the way we hooted with laughter at the death scene, and how everyone else in the cinema looked round and glared at us. That’s the peril of going to an arthouse cinema to see what, despite the po-faced patrons, is – like Bride of Frankenstein – a comedy about death.

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