Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr.

[This piece contains many spoilers!]

James Tiptree, jr built a reputation in the 60s and 70s before revealing that ‘he’ was in fact a woman called Alice Bradley Sheldon.  I really don’t know why I’ve not explored ‘his’/her work before.

These are subtle stories that demand intelligence and attention on the reader’s part (I had to read the story ‘The last flight of Doctor Ain’ twice, for example, before I got it).  Many of the stories deal, in some way, with gender – a preoccupation of mine also – and quite a lot of them deal with male abuse of women.   Interestingly, this is often done from a male perspective.  Sexual desire, frequently and often quite graphically depicted (there are a surprisingly large number of erections in this book), is almost always shown  from a male view.

In ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ the main protagonist is a scientist, male but liberal-minded and not exactly hyper-masculine, who is sharing a spaceship with two macho astronauts.  The story captures beautifully captures his male insecurity in their presence, his (well-founded) anxiety that they feel contempt for men like him ‘who can manipulate only symbols, who have no mastery of matter’ –I know that feeling! – and his grudging admiration for them:

‘And for the thousandth time he is obscurely moved by the rightness of them.  The authentic ones, the alphas. Their bond. The awe he had felt first for the absurd jocks of his school ball team.’

And here – a woman, writing as a man, looking at her own gender from the viewpoint of a male character – is the male scientist’s take on how woman relate to one another:

‘Like ants, he thinks.  They twiddle their antennae together every time they meet.  Where did you go, what did you do?  Twiddle-twiddle.  How do you feel?’

It does look that sometimes.  It really does!  (But I remember, from way back when I was a little child, envying the closeness and intensity of it.)

These are feminist stories, I suppose, but it has to be said that Sheldon’s feminism is of a fairly dark and fatalistic kind.  When you learn that poor Alice was to end up killing both her husband and herself with a shotgun – they were found side by side in bed – it certainly fits.  Of the 18 stories in this collection, two depict worlds in which men have died out, one a world in which men are killing all the women, and two have female astronauts kill off the men on board their ships.  One – a wonderfully sensuous piece – has a female creature devouring her male mate.  Three, not counting the men-killing-women one, go the whole hog and wipe out the entire human race.

Part of the reason for the pessimism – part of the intellectual reason at any rate: there are surely much more personal ones – would seem to be a view that we can’t escape biology, and that male aggression and the male drive towards dominance are simply biologically determined.  In ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, the main female character observes:

‘Women have no rights… except what men allow us.  Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world.  When the next crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish…  We’ll be back where we always were: property.  And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was.  You’ll see.’

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’* (the only Alice Sheldon story I’d previously read) the close relationship between male sexuality and male aggression is subtly altered by biochemical means so that men begin to systematically kill every woman and girl they meet.  It ends up with the feel of a zombie movie, except that, instead of zombies, the apocalyptic killers are the male half of the human race.   In the world of this story, a religious ideology has emerged to justify the slaughter (woman are evil and must be destroyed to fulfill God’s will), but Sheldon is clear that this isn’t the real cause of the killing at all.  It is simply a cultural rationalisation of what has become, for biochemical reasons, a simple biological imperative.   Cultural beliefs are only the clothes we put on over drives and needs which we can’t choose or control.  Since it’s the biological aspect of gender which is the bit that can’t be changed, it’s not surprising the most positive worlds depicted in this book (or at least the most positive human ones) are the ones in which men have died out.

We are the puppets and playthings of biology: that seems to be a fairly constant theme.   ‘Love is the Plan the Plan is Death’ (a beautiful piece of writing, and one of the best stories in the collection) is told from the viewpoint of Moggadeet, a spider-like creature, attempting to break out of the biological program: the Plan.  But the Plan wins. Even the attempt to escape the Plan was part of the Plan itself.

In some of the stories, it is not so much the sexes that are pitted against one another by nature, as two principles: the gentle nurturing principle, the urge to care, versus the ruthless thrusting one, the drive to dominate.   The latter is necessary to survival, and is even sometimes seemingly admired, though it cruelly crushes the former again and again.   In ‘We who Stole the Dream’, a gentle race of aliens, the Joilani, are horribly and brutally oppressed by humans (in many ways, including sexually: this story includes some of the book’s many ugly scenes of sexual violation.)  But, in different circumstances, the Joilani too turn out to be more than capable of embodying the ruthless principle of domination.  (Would a world of only woman really be a gentler place?  Or would some of the women simply step into the roles vacated by men?)

One of the most ambitious accounts here of human beings as simply the puppets of biology is ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.  Seventy-five pages long, this is about first contact with extraterrestrial life, and is one of the stories in the book where gender relations are not the main theme. (Or not exactly: Dr Aaron Faye’s intense and incestuous relationship with his idealistic younger sister is fairly central, and the whole story is ultimately about sexual reproduction on an interstellar scale.)   A star ship on a ten year exploratory voyage to Alpha Centaurus has identified a planet with organic life some years travelling time ahead of it, and a scout ship has brought back a specimen of alien life.  ‘Here we are,’ thinks Aaron Faye, as the moment approaches to come face to face with it:

‘Here we are, he thinks, tiny blobs of life, millions and millions of miles from the speck that spawned us, hanging out here in the dark wastes, preparing with such complex pains to encounter a different mode of life.  All of us, peculiar, wretchedly imperfect – somehow we have done this thing.  Incredible, really, the ludicrous tangle of equipment, the awkward suited men, the precautions, the labor, the solemnity – Jan, Bruce, Yellaston, Tim Bron, Bustamente, Alice Berryman, Coby, Kabawata, my own saintly sister, poor Frank Foy, stupid Aaron Faye – a stream of faces pours through his mind, hostile or smiling, suffering each in his separate flawed reality: all of us.  Somehow we have brought ourselves to this amazement.  Perhaps we really are saving our race, perhaps there really is a new earth and heaven ahead…’

It’s that feelgood moment towards the end of a movie when something wonderful has been accomplished, and the camera pans round the faces of the motley crew of characters who have somehow, between them, made it happen against all the odds. But this movie doesn’t end here, for Faye couldn’t be more wrong.  What’s really brought them there is a biological system in which the whole of Earth’s evolutionary history is simply a necessary component.  Having come out into space and performed their function, human beings, like the threshing tails of sperms, cease to have a purpose at all.

(Biology does not always come out so badly here, though.  In several stories, the two principles locked in struggle are simply life and death, with death, however destructive, however frightening, the necessary and inevitable driver for life.  In two of these stories -‘On the Last Afternoon’ and ‘Slow Music’- characters have a choice between staying with the cycle of death, sex and suffering, or escaping to a sexless, disembodied, eternal life among the stars.  The former seems the braver choice.)

One of the most poignant stories for me – and also one of the most beautifully accomplished – was ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters!  Your Faces Filled of Light!’* It begins by presenting two overlapping but incompatible reality frames, whose relationship with one another is initially unclear.  In one frame, a wonderfully cheerful young woman makes her way on foot across an America that is entirely peaceful and safe.   ‘Heyo, sister!’ she greets everyone she meets, entirely confident that they will be benign and interesting and fun to be with, ‘Any mail, any messages?  Des Moines and going west!’  In the other frame, the inhabitants of ordinary 1970s America go about their own dull suspicious lives, puzzled, irritated or concerned by an odd young woman who talks to them in a funny way, and calls everyone ‘sister’ whether they are men or women.  The link between the two frames gradually becomes apparent, until eventually they violently collide in a sickening scene which I found really heartwrenching.

That said, a close rival for it, for sheer painfulness, was ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’.   This is a much less accomplished story in technical terms (one problem being that a large chunk of back story is dumped down into the middle of it which is very much ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ –  a fault that’s present in one or two other stories here – and there’s none of the clever scientific plausibility of ‘The Screwfly Solution’).  A woman astronaut, born with a repulsive pig-like nose, has been abused and rejected throughout her life: male astronauts routinely shove her underpants over her head while they rape her, so they don’t have to look at her face.  She became an astronaut because of a drive she has had since childhood to find her way to a ‘pig world’, somewhere in space, where she’ll belong.   And, after she’s murdered her male colleagues, she finally finds it.  It is a hidden sunless planet with lavender skies, inhabited by cute unthreatening aliens, but unfortunately deadly to humans due to high radiation levels.  Here she finds her true soulmate in a piglike alien who has loved her, and been calling telepathically to her, all her life.   They die in each other’s arms, she because of the radiation, it (or ‘he’ as she decides to say), because, in its love, it draws all her pain telepathically onto itself: Liebestod in My Little Pony land.

I found this clumsy, agonised story very uncomfortable.   It was the escapist fantasy of a horribly abused and lonely little girl, and reading it was like watching the author stripping naked, much as its protagonist, Carol, actually does strip naked, to satisfy their curiosity, in front of the aliens peering in through the windows of her ship.

It’s funny (both in the sense of a joke, and in the sense of ‘strange’) to think that when these stories first came out, they would have been read by a predominantly male audience, and that most of them would have been believed to have been written by a man.  Tiptree was like an undercover agent, operating behind enemy lines.

A strange, disturbing and brilliant collection.  The author is fascinating too.  I have already ordered her biography.

Her smoke rose up forever, on Amazon UK

* These two stories were actually published under Alice Sheldon’s other, female, pseudonym of Raccoona Sheldon.

The innocence of bad guys

I was thinking about this article by Howard Jacobson, in which he talks about the enduring appeal of bad guys in fiction.  And I was thinking about our dogs and cat.

*  *  *

People often describe other people as behaving like animals (i.e. like non-human animals) when they behave badly.  This has always struck me as a bit unfair to animals.  Animals don’t rape or commit genocide or engage in torture.

But living in a house with animals it strikes me that certain kinds of crime really are very animal indeed: crimes like shoplifting, burglary, picking pockets, mugging, looting, opportunistic, amoral crimes, crimes motivated by nothing more complicated than ‘I’ll have that.’   The hitmen in films like Looper or Pulp Fiction, who kill for a living, without malice or anger, and without regret, strike me as being quite animal.  When Amundsen was travelling to the South Pole, he killed dogs that were no longer needed and fed them to the others.  I’m sure they tucked in without worry or remorse.

Animals (or at least the ones I’m acquainted with) take things opportunistically and without compunction, and they defend what they’ve taken as long as they think they can win the fight.   They are capable of being delightfully and genuinely friendly, but incapable of being kind.  They are capable of being horribly aggressive, but incapable of being cruel.  If one of them picks up a thorny twig to play with, he’ll bash it against your legs without a thought as he runs by, not out of inconsiderateness, but because he simply doesn’t do that kind of consideration.

They’ve never eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

*  *  *

Sometimes morality is portrayed as being the opposite to the pleasure principle, but that’s just silly.  What point does life have without pleasure?  (To help others?  To help them to do what?)  Pleasure is simply the sum total of things that make life worthwhile, and it just doesn’t make any sense to say that life could have an additional purpose.

Genuine morality is the pleasure principle, but with the rest of the world factored in: other people, other creatures, our future selves.   It doesn’t tell us to forego pleasure per se, but it might tell us to forego pleasures that will lead to harm elsewhere, or later on.  It doesn’t tell us to pursue suffering, but it might tell us to be willing to suffer here and now for the sake of pleasure elsewhere, or later on.

It’s morally wrong to behave as if you were the centre of the universe, because it’s factually wrong.  As a matter of fact, you’re not.

Animals don’t know that, though.  They act as if they themselves at this moment were all that mattered.  And this works perfectly well for them, because evolution has provided them with appetites and drives that will allow the simple pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain to address longer term or wider needs without them having to even think about it.

But we do know it, and so we do have to think about it.  We can only not think about it by lying to ourselves.  And that does damage to us, because it requires us to build partitions across our minds.

*  *  *

And yet there’s a huge price to pay for this knowledge.  This awareness that we should think about things beyond our immediate selves and our present impulses, adds layers of calculation and anxiety to every choice we make.  It takes away spontaneity.

I think that’s why bad guys are fun to watch.  They appeal to us not because they are wicked and knowing per se, but, oddly enough, because of their innocence.    They remind us of a kind of innocence and simplicity that animals have and we have lost for good.  They remind us of what we had to give up when we ate that bloody fruit.

Words and worlds

I wrote my first novel when I was 19.  I’ve still got it somewhere.  It was called Henry.  The main character knew he was a character and that he was living in a world created by my words.

I was very taken at that time by the idea that I was creating a world.  I had the idea that my job was to define that world precisely, to provide a precise instruction manual.  But I’ve come to think that descriptive writing doesn’t really function in that way.   It doesn’t so much provide a precise instruction manual, as give the reader permission to pretend that what he or she is being presented with is not just words on the page, but a world.  (It’s a bit like hypnotism, a ritual which gives people permission to pretend things are other than they really are).   Having received that permission, the reader then constructs the world for him- or herself.

To give an example.  Dickens often provides meticulous descriptions of his characters: the length of their sideburns, the shape of their nose, the number of hairs on the mole on their right cheek etc etc.   But do we as readers meticulously visualise these characteristics, commit them to memory, and then continue to visualise them whenever the same character appears?   I certainly don’t, not least because my memory just isn’t that good.  No, I gain a general impression from the description, pick up from it a feeling, a gestalt, and construct from that my own rather vague mental image (which may well not fit exactly with Dickens’ instructions), and then work with it for the rest of the book.

Assuming my own way of reading is not that unusual, does this mean that Dickens’ meticulous details are pointless?  Not at all.  Their precision is what gives us permission to enter into the world.  They convince us that the writer really is seeing the world in his mind, not just providing a list of words, and that in turn frees us to see it too.   Our own perception of the visual world works in much the same way.  We think we are seeing a complete scene, but in fact, if you analyse what your eyes are seeing moment to moment, it is only glimpses, mostly a blur, with a tiny point of focus darting erratically this way and that.  (Can you describe precisely, without looking at it, the building four houses down from your home?)

Here is another example, the famous passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.

I love this.  It’s one of my favourite bits of descriptive writing.  It’s one of those bits that makes me wonder why I even try.  And yet I am not sure what wild thyme looks like, I have no idea what eglantine is, and  I only know that ‘woodbine’ is another name for honeysuckle because I have just this minute looked it up.  The words evoke a lovely place, and do it vividly, but only because, magically, they give me permission to imagine it myself.


I wrote previously about the music of Brian Wilson: that he’d chosen to make something gentle and peaceful, rather than something that simply reflected the pain and struggle of his own experience.   I like that choice.  It is quite a hard one to bring off without lapsing into sentimentality (though in my opinion Wilson’s music succeeds in this), but I think sometimes an anxiety to avoid sentimentality can lead to a kind of unremitting grimness which affects to being tough and gritty, but is really just sentimentality in reverse. (This is an age in which you can go to an art gallery and look at cans of shit, and pickled corpses, and children with penises instead of faces, as if the function of art was to rub our noses in horrible things).

Kurt Vonnegut wrote (I’m not sure where) that artists could help to prevent nuclear Armageddon, not by preaching, but by making life feel a little more worth living.  He thought that a lot of people secretly longed for their lives to end, and therefore had no real interest in trying not to have a nuclear war.   Art (pompous word, but I can’t for the moment think of another) in this conception of it, is not there just to reflect the world, or to comment on it, but to add something to it.

Brian Wilson is not an articulate man, but he often speaks about trying to put love into his music.  And come to think of it, my objection to those cans of shit (and their equivalents in writing) is not their grimness as such, but their lovelessness.


Narcissus by Caravaggio

Here I am, fiddling around with this blog.  It made me think uneasily of Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

I found this picture of him by Caravaggio.  I hadn’t seen it before.  In the story, as I remember it, Narcissus is a heartless man, who ignores the woman who loves him (her name is Echo) because he is enchanted by the beauty of his own reflection.  (Perhaps he was a cousin of Pygmalion, who couldn’t relate to real women of flesh and blood, only the idealised one he made for himself out of stone?)

But in the picture he looks to me as if he feels trapped, as if he wants to pull away.  Why doesn’t he do it?   Is he afraid that if he looks up and allows himself to see something other than his own reflection, he himself will disappear?

The legend of Eden

Dark Eden being selected as reading material for the Green Belt Festival (see previous post) has made me think about the legend of Eden.

I say legend.  There are still those, of course, who claim to believe the story is literally true.  This is a pretty preposterous claim to make in the modern world (at least by any half-way educated person), but, as I’ve observed before, it takes an almost equally preposterous kind of literal-mindedness to think that, because a thing isn’t literally true, it isn’t true in any sense at all. Clearly this legend has some resonance for me – is, in some way, true – or I wouldn’t want to use it as the starting point for a novel.  So what does it mean to me?

I think there are two aspects of the story in particular that have always seemed powerful for me.  One is the snake: the idea that even in the most idyllic scene there is always somewhere a flaw, a danger, a threat (like the ‘invisible worm’ in William Blake’s poem, ‘The Sick Rose’). The other is the idea of expulsion: the idea that, for some reason, human beings are cut off from their true home.  This is the idea I drew on for Dark Eden, in which a little band of people are cut off not only from the rest of humanity but even from light, and have to live out their lives in the knowledge of that loss.

The same sense of loss, it seems to me, is present in Plato’s notion of humanity huddled in a cave and seeing, not the real world, but shadows on the wall.  This rings true for me.  It feels like the way things are.  

Why it does, is another question.  Psychoanalytic psychology would, I think, explain this subjective sense of loss in terms of a child’s painful discovery that parental comfort and love is not always available, that things are not and never can be perfect.  That rings true for me as well.   In the world of Dark Eden, the particular focus of people’s sense of loss, was their Eve figure, Angela, the mother of them all.  Even John Redlantern, who was determined to break away from the past, was particularly devoted to Mother Angela (a police officer from Peckham on her way to goddess-hood), being himself in some ways motherless.


Anyway, these reflections prompted me to go back and look at the story as it appears in the Bible.  (I was going to say the ‘original’, but in truth, this is surely a story that evolved over many thousands of years before it was ever written down, and it shares obvious characteristics with other creation myths in other traditions, suggesting a remote common ancestor.  As I’ve observed before, stories have a life of their own.  They travel, they have adventures, they change their clothes, they make new friends…)

What struck me immediately about the version in Genesis is its mythological, child-like, fairytale-like quality.  God is pretty much human. (He walks in the garden in ‘the cool of the day’.  He appears surprised by events).  The snake is a talking animal.  (No suggestion that it is anything more.)  And, much as Norse mythology offers fanciful explanations for everyday things like the morning dew (it is the world weeping for the God Balder) or the tides (the result of a prodigious drinking feat by the God Thor), so the Eden story offers explanations for why snakes crawl on the ground, why women hate snakes, why childbirth is painful, and why farming is backbreaking work.

And, just as in fairytales and other mythologies, ludicrously obvious things are somehow overlooked for the sake of the story (I think of the Norse legend of Balder, in which the goddess Frigga secures a promise from everything in the earth and sky and in the sea not to harm her son, but doesn’t get round to securing it from mistletoe, which lives neither on the ground, or in the sky, or in water), so here God plants a fruit tree that he apparently doesn’t want people to touch, right in the middle of Eden.

But above all what struck me was God’s motive for expelling Adam and Eve from Eden.  It really isn’t because they have committed a terrible sin (how can you commit a sin before you have acquired the knowledge of good and evil?) but because, by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘the man is become as one of us’ and must be expelled  ‘lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’.  The expulsion is the act of a jealous God heading off a potential rival.

Above all, what strikes me about the story, on re-reading it, is that it isn’t just about loss.  It is also about gain, about people moving from a baby-like or animal-like state to become adult human beings.  Which is surely a good thing, and surely something that had to happen, and surely the reason why, if there was a God, he or she would plant a Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil in a place where, sooner or later, someone would surely decide to try the fruit, talking snake or not.

So the two elements that were most powerful to me – the loss, and the snake – seemed on re-reading to be far less central than I had remembered them.  The great thing about these kinds of story, with their ambiguities and their layers, is that we can different things in them, each time we look.  (The great thing, but also the dangerous thing.  You can mine misogyny from this story if you want to, it seems, though I can’t myself see that Eve is held much more to blame than Adam.   You can even apparently, though this really does require considerable ingenuity, derive the idea from it somehow that humankind is so wicked as to deserve eternal torment, after death as well as before it.)


Could there have been a real historical moment, which in some way corresponded to the Eden myth?  I suppose it would have been millions of years ago, somewhere in Africa, when some proto-human ape, for the very first time, had some dim glimmer of a insight: ‘This world isn’t just about me, my desires, my instincts.  Other creatures have feelings too.’  For such an insight, surely, is the real first step towards a knowledge of good and evil?

But of course that wouldn’t be a one-off event.  It would happen again and again.  It still happens now.



3,096 Days, by Natascha Kampusch

The tabloid-sounding quote on the cover is misleading.  This is a serious and thoughtful book, by a young woman who was kidnapped by a stranger at the age of 10, and remained his captive for the next eight years.

It is very disturbing to read.  At times I found the claustrophobia hard to bear, even at second hand. For the first six months Kampsuch was confined in a small hidden underground room, which could only be accessed through three doors, the last one made of concrete, which were so elaborately locked and concealed that it took her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, an hour to get through them all each time he came to visit her, and an hour again to seal it all up again when he left.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her fears was that he would have an accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him as a slave, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her with fists and with hard objects without warning.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  Yet he also kitted out her dungeon like a girl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, fetched her books and magazines at her request.

What is striking about the book (apart, of course, from the story itself) is the firm, clear, individual voice in which it is written.  Kampusch refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster, or herself as a helpless victim, whatever the pressure from the media and society to do so:

The perpetrator must be a beast so we can see ourselves as being on the side of good.  His crime must be embellished with S & M fantasies and wild orgies, until it is so extreme that it no longer has anything to do with our lives.

And the victim must have been broken and must remain so, so that the externalization of evil is possible.  The victim who refuses to assume this role contradicts society’s simplistic view.  Nobody wants to see it.  People would have to take a look at themselves.

She says that her refusal to reduce this story to thriller-like categories of black and white, but to insist on shades of grey, has led to her being criticised and subjected to abuse on the internet.  But she is absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her ability to see Priklopil as not all bad, is a symption of the Stockholm Syndrome.  She hates this label, which she says victimises her all over again, and she insists that her behaviour was essentially rational.  Priklopil was the only human being she had contact with for eight years, and she made of that the best that she could.

Her firmness in rejecting the stock narratives that others try to impose on her story, is matched by her small acts of resistance to Priklopil himself.   He demanded she call him ‘maestro’, or ‘my lord’, and tried to get her to kneel in front of him, but she steadfastly refused, knowing  that it was essential that she hold something back.  Somehow, this young woman (she is still only 24, a year younger than my own oldest daughter) managed to hold on to a sense of integrity in these appalling circumstances.

Naturally, when reading the book, one identifies with Kampusch.  The appalling claustrophobic loneliness, the miniscule scope for manouevre, the constant anxiety, the fear for the future: for many of us, it isn’t entirely alien territory, for unhappy times in any childhood feel a bit like this: helpless, trapped, alone, cut off from what you need or long for.  (The comparison of everyday unhappiness with this ordeal may seem grotesque, but it is one that Kampusch herself makes, reflecting on her own lonely and unhappy childhood before her captivity.)   These claustrophobic feelings are ones that most of us are familiar with, I imagine, to some extent, and it is uncomfortable to be reminded of them, or to have to imagine them in the unbelievably extreme form that Kampusch herself endured.

But even more disturbing is to consider Priklopil in the light that Kampusch shines on him.  Her insistence on not making him a horror-movie monster, is very powerful, forcing the reader to consider him not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a person on a continuum with the rest of us.  Priklopil, as she sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to seen other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Kampusch refers to the Greek legend of the sculptor Pygmalion, who didn’t like women, but fell in love with the idealised woman he’d carved in stone.   Attempting to meet needs for intimacy by trying to bully or manipulate others into playing roles that we have assigned to them: it’s hardly unique to Priklopil.

Images of the cellar room where Kampusch was confined, from BBC News.

Batter my heart

Random cultural treat!

I’m not by any means a connoisseur either of poetry or opera, but I first came across this exquisitely beautiful sonnet by John Donne in the setting of it by John Adams in the opera Dr Atomic, and loved both the setting and the poem.  There’s a clip of that setting here, sung by Gerald Finley.  The sonnet itself is as follows:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,

Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I do not share Donne’s faith, but I love, and find myself really deeply moved by, this vision of a human soul as a usurped town, begging to be broken into and liberated because it no longer has the strength or will to liberate itself.   Instead of a captured city, we might think of a computer riddled with viruses, or a mind so dominated by destructive addictions that it can no longer achieve the level of sustained self-awareness that would be necessary for it to be able to break free.

It seems to me that the vision of an invaded and subverted soul expressed by this poem, shares a great deal with the vision of Philip Dick, for example in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or The Man in the High Castle.  Dick was certainly interested in the ‘metaphysical poets’, of whom Donne was one.  And of course he was, if anyone ever was, a master of metaphysical SF.

PS Lovely as the poem is, I can’t entirely suppress from my mind the thought that ‘Batter my heart’ might also be the title of a ballad sung by a lovesick Glaswegian to the girl in his local chipshop.

Neither imaginary nor real

I suppose most people can remember plotting equations onto graph paper at school.  y = x produces a straight line.  y = 2x generates a steeper line.

And then you try y = x2 and find that it generates a beautiful smooth ever-steepening curve, a parabola, while  y = 1/x generates a hyperbola, a pair of curves that get closer and closer to the axes of the graph, but never quite reach them.

The following is a bit more complicated than y = x2 or y = 1/x, but it can still be explained in a few lines, and can still be understood by someone like me, whose maths ability hit a glass ceiling at about the sixth form level.

First, you let the y axis represent ‘imaginary numbers’ (that is: multiples of ‘i’, which is the notional square root of minus one), and you let the x axis represent real numbers (i.e. the ordinary kind: 1, 2, 1.5, -1, 101, 0.3: that kind of thing).  Your graph is now what is known as a ‘complex plane’, because any so-called ‘complex number’ (that is: a combination of a real and an imaginary number) can be represented on it by a point.

Set the complex plane on one side, like pastry, for use later.

Now, consider the following formula zn+1 = zn2 + c.   It took me a while to get the hang of this, but it is a formula for generating a sequence of numbers.  The members of the sequence are labelled z1, z2, z3, z4 ….. etc, and all the formula tells you is that you generate each member of the sequence (starting with z0 = 0) by multiplying the previous member of the sequence by itself (i.e. squaring it), and adding a number of your choice designated c, which remains constant for the whole sequence.

So, if we take c as 1, the sequence we get is:

z0 = 0

z1 = 02 + 1 = 1

z2= 12 + 1 = 2

z3 = 22 + 1 = 5

….and so on

What you find is that starting with some values of c, such as 1, the sequence generates higher and higher numbers, as just shown, but for other numbers, the sequence is ‘bounded’, which is to say it oscillates between fixed points.   For instance, if you set c as ‘i’ the sequence runs: 0, i, (-1 + i), −i, (−1 + i), −i… and then the same, on and on.  Or, if you set it as -1, the sequence just bounces back and forth between 0 and -1.

So now, returning to the complex plane you set aside earlier, you mark all the points on the plane that lead to a bounded sequence in black, and you leave the other points unmarked.   And what do you get?   Well, even at first sight it’s a lot more complicated than a parabola, but that’s only the beginning of it.

It is, of course, the Mandelbrot set, and, famously, its complication is without limits.  Look at it at higher and higher magnifications, and you never reach the end of its curls and wiggles.  Home in on what looks like a smooth line, and you see tiny shapes on the surface.  Zoom in still closer, and these shapes start to resemble shapes that you had already seen at lower levels of magnification.  Zoom in still more, and on the edges of these shapes too, new curls and wiggles start to appear.  (There’s a video of it here).  It is completely bottomless.

And now remember that this infinite complexity, this mad meaningless order, is generated by a comparatively simple rule which can be described in a few lines, as I have just done. This thing is not real.  It has no objective existence in the world.

And yet it is not human-made either.  These shapes are not the product of a human mind.  They have been discovered, not created.  This thing is neither real nor imaginary.

Think about it hard enough, and I reach a boundary beyond which my mind will no longer go, but across which I sense a strange awful place where mind and matter, real and imaginary, order and chaos, are not separate things at all.

Some people find the Mandelbrot set beautiful, and I suppose it is, but for me it is the beauty of a poisonous flower.

Easter Island

I was interested by a recent debate on Radio 4 between Friends of the Earth’s Tony Juniper, and the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson.   They were talking about shale gas, and Lawson’s position was simple: this stuff is cheaper than renewable energy, and therefore that’s what we should go for.   Tough, hardnosed, realistic.  Like the guy on Easter Island, who argued that wood was cheaper than other fuels, so it was just silly not to chop down the last tree.

‘But how are we going to make boats?’ someone wondered, as they were all toasting themselves round the fire.