The Emperor’s Last Laugh

• February 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

Because of my new-found interest in drawing, my wife gave me a book recently called A Short Book about Drawing, by Andrew Marr, the TV journalist, who turns out to be a pretty good drawer.  It’s a charming book, and much of it is simply about the pleasure to be obtained from the act of drawing itself, but at one point Marr speaks with some regret about the influence of Marcel Duchamp on our conception of art, and about all that has since emerged ‘like a vast glittery spout of magma from Duchamp’s urinal.’

He’s referring to the urinal which, in 1917, Duchamp signed with the name ‘R.Mutt’ and decreed to be a work of art called ‘Fountain’.   A work of art from then on wasn’t necessarily a painting or a sculpture.  It didn’t even have to be something that the artist had made.  It could be anything that an artist chose to designate as such.  Indeed, from what I’ve read, Duchamp deliberately chose objects for this purpose which had no meaning or significance to him at all.  What a strange, violent, mocking thing to do!  It’s as if I were to reprint a telephone directory, call it ‘Contact’ and declare it to be my next novel – and people accepted it as such, and actually made themselves read it as if it meant something!

If anything can be a work of art if an artist says it is (even an object that means nothing even to the artist!) this raises the question of who gets to be an artist.  Who gets this strange fetishistic power?  In the past artists would have been identifiable to most people, at least to some extent, by the skill evident in their work.   Some artists were doubtless much better than others at acquiring wealthy patrons, but some degree of skill in the creation of images would have been a necessary prerequisite also.  Now this was no longer the case.   An artist could be created by patronage alone.   With beauty and meaning set aside, the wealthy could create artists out of whomever they chose, and those artists could then return the favour by taking trivial objects and turning them, for the wealthy, into a kind of gold.

The emperor gets the last laugh, after all.  Who cares if the clothes are real or not, as long as they can be bought and sold?

Duchamp Fountain

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Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

• October 28th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Care of wooden floorsBuying books is very easy with a kindle, and I can’t even remember the impulse that made me choose this one out of all the possibilities out there.   However I’m glad I did.

The essence of this book is the old comedy routine where some mistake is made and the effort to fix it only results in more and bigger mistakes.  I remember an episode of the TV sitcom ‘Some mothers do ‘ave ‘em’ in which the disaster-prone Frank Spencer tears the floor lino of his hotel room by accident and proceeds to trash the whole place in his efforts to put things right.   That (and come to think of it, all the episodes had the same basic form) is essentially the plot of this book.  However the pace is slower, the psychology of the Frank Spencer equivalent is observed from a first person perspective with meticulous care and some emotional depth, and everything is described with a rich, concrete and multi-levelled prose which reminded me at times of Martin Amis, with its extravagant metaphors, enviable command of vocabulary and its ability to move between laugh-out-loud funny and real darkness.  (A bit like Martin Amis, but without that haughty patrician sneer.)  I really admired Wiles’ ability to explore very ordinary sensations in an interesting way.  Here he is for example on the smell of a utility room:

The little room smelled wholesome and comforting.  Nothing identifiable predominated in this subtle aroma, but it was so pleasing and homely that it enticed me to pause, testing the air to see if I could anatomise it.  Dry food certainly contributed a large share, and so did cleaning products; unlikely conspirators but here successful.  They shared ground on the spectrum of the nose: there was a certain note that was just right, natural and savoury, with a hint of purifying astringency.

In this case, it isn’t a hotel room but a beautiful flat which is under threat.  The flat is in some unspecified Eastern European city and the narrator has been invited to look after it for a week or two (along with two cats) on behalf of his obsessively tidy friend Oskar.  In particular he has been asked to look after the beautiful wooden floors, and I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the first small disaster is a spillage of wine which soaks into the wood and leaves a stain.

Things progress from there as the narrator blunders into yet more errors and increasingly catastrophic attempts to put them right, all the while encountering notes left for him by Oskar, who seems to have anticipated every move, including even the discovery of his stash of porn magazines.   For most of the book the events that happen are really quite minor and interaction with other human beings is minimal, but the author manages to extract a great deal from this limited field of view, including real tension out of the narrator’s agonised anticipation of his friend’s response.  It’s almost as if Oskar were some kind of diety who has placed the narrator on Earth and will return at last in a kind of Judgement Day.

Towards the end of the book, I felt that the author wrong-footed himself a couple of times.   The first is when the catalogue of disasters takes a very much darker turn than hitherto.   This in itself would have been okay with a different ending, but the ending we in fact get is the second and more serious piece of wrong-footedness, for the author suddenly decides to give us a Hollywood-style feel-good conclusion in which our protagonist spells out for us the important life lessons he has learned.  (I was reminded of the ending of the film The Beach, when a hitherto dark narrative about a descent into barbarism is suddenly disrupted in the same sort of way by an awful voiceover that suggests that the whole thing has really been rather life-enhancing and fun.)  I found this move too much at odds with the tone of the book as a whole and with the rather horrific events that had occurred less than 24 hours previously, even though the life lessons themselves were as thoughtful and well-expressed as ever.

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

• October 27th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Ancillary Justice‘Boy or girl?’ is the first question we ask when we hear about the birth of a baby and, when we hear the answer, we feel that we have begun the process of getting to know the baby as a person. Indeed we have to know the answer in order to be able to refer to the baby as a person at all and stop saying ‘it’, for in English we don’t have a pronoun that denotes personhood without also specifying gender.

Reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and finding that every new character seemed to be referred to as ‘she’, I began by assuming that all the characters were women or girls.  I fairly soon learnt that this wasn’t necessarily the case for the story’s narrator was using a language whose pronouns (as in modern Turkish) didn’t distinguish genders.  (We learn this because the narrator refers to her anxiety about speaking in other languages where pronouns do make gender, and other, distinctions.)  At this point I concluded that all would soon become clear and that I would learn the ‘true’ gender of the various characters who had so far all been referred to as ‘she’.

This assumption, though, was also confounded. We are never told. And this proves to be an interesting and powerful lesson, for it demonstrates that it is in fact possible to get to know a character, identify with a character, like or dislike a character without knowing whether that character has a vagina or a penis.  (Just as we can get to know characters without actually seeing their faces.)

* * *

The choice of narrator is another bold move. Justice of Toren is not a human being but a sentient spaceship. However, as Justice of Toren One Esk, it is also an ancillary, one of an army of captured enemies whose minds have been wiped clean so that their brains and bodies can become adjuncts of Justice of Toren itself. (They are also known as ‘corpse soldiers’).  We have a narrator therefore who is one person and many people all at once, and is capable of being in many different places at the same time.

This is pretty neat from a purely story-telling point of view because it allows the author to exploit the advantages of having a first-person narrator who is part of the action, while simultaneously having many of the benefits of a traditional omniscient narrator. To make this even more clever, Justice of Toren is able to monitor physiological data even from characters not directly under her control, and is therefore able to infer a great deal about what other people are thinking or feeling.

But the fragmented nature of the narrator is more than just a story-telling device, for one of the themes of this book is the split and divided nature of human experience. (Even a single human individual, it is noted at one point, is not much more really than a loose coalition of disparate elements, held together by a convenient narrative.) The narrator/main protagonist (herself reduced, in the most recent strand of the plot, to occupying a single body) finds herself up against a powerful antagonist who has countless bodies but who is radically divided against herself, simultaneously knowing things and denying herself knowledge of them. Civilisation itself, one character suggests, is built on this kind of splitting:

luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish.

* * *

Another kind of ‘not knowing’ that this book explores is not knowing the future, not ever really being able to know what the consequences of our actions may be. The Radch civilisation, with which this book principally deals, is one in which people are given to divination by throwing handfuls of special discs and studying the way they fall, and this becomes a recurring metaphor for human action: we have no choice but to make throws, but we cannot ultimately control the way our throws will fall. So where does this leave us when making choices? How do we decide what is right or wrong, when we don’t know what the consequences may be? Is it really possible to base a decision on the rightness or wrongness of an act on calculations as to the likely outcomes, or are some acts simply the right thing or wrong thing to do regardless of their subsequent costs and benefits? The questions are not expressed in the dry language I’ve just used, but they are very much alive throughout a book in which most of the main characters, including the narrator, are in some way complicit in atrocity. Indeed the narrator’s very existence as a corpse soldier is itself the result of atrocity.

There are no straightforward good guys and bad guys in this book and the twists in the story are not simply clever plot tricks, but again and again invite the reader to reconsider the moral categories they have been applying to events.

* * *

The society described in this book is an interstellar civilisation thousands of years in the future. It is not just its language that makes no gender distinctions. As far as I could tell, such distinctions are no more significant in Radch society than, say, hair colour is in ours. I think this is not only interesting but actually realistic. It seems to me that biological differences between men and women are pretty important in pre-modern and pre-technological societies (the empirical evidence for this being the sharp distinctions in gender roles that occur in all such societies) but become progressively less so as technological advance reduces the importance of the human body vis-à-vis the human mind.

In other respects, though, Radch society has made rather less progress in shaking off the past. Thousands of years into the future it may be, interstellar gateways and sentient starships it may have, but with its powerful ‘houses’, its ruthless absolute ruler, its polytheistic idols and its aggressive expansionism, it resembles ancient Rome. Indeed, preoccupied as it is with status and territory (high/low, us/them), Radch society is not so very different, in its essence, from a troop of chimpanzees. I fear this may be realistic too though I certainly hope not. The book itself includes reformers and rebels, but does not hold out very much hope of truly radical change in the structure of society. The impulse to modify and reform and the impulse to maintain, control and expand, the book seems to argue, are just two the opposite sides of one those discs that the citizens of Radch use for divination.

* * *

The nature of the plot makes it hard to say much about the story without immediately introducing spoilers. Suffice to say that this book isn’t just full of clever ideas, but also makes you want to keep turning the pages. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, the unexpected events frequent.  As a general rule, I’m not a great enthusiast for the space opera form of SF, but this is the best new SF book I’ve read in quite a long time.

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Rings and mead halls

• October 24th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

I enjoyed hearing the late Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf on the radio the other week.  There’s something wonderfully taut and muscular about the language of this epic poem.

One phrase stuck in my mind.  A good king is described as a ‘ring giver’.   As to where the rings come from the authors of Beowulf are completely unabashed.  A good king wrecks the mead halls of other kings and extracts tribute from their people.

Nothing very much has changed.  Political leaders are still judged by whether or not they have made us better off, and, though we’re a lot more squeamish  these days about where wealth comes from, it still has to come from somewhere.  As a character observes in Ann Leckie’s excellent novel Ancillary Justice, ‘luxury always comes at someone else’s expense.   One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish.’

Other people’s mead halls are still being wrecked to provide rings for the supporters of the powerful, but recent news items remind me that there are always additional options: stealing from the poor, stealing from previous generations (which is what is really happening when publicly owned resources are sold off at prices far below their real value) and of course stealing from our descendants, which is what is being done when efforts at mitigating climate change are dismissed as being too costly.

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Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

• October 10th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Climate, Other people's books

Dyer Climate Wars coverWhile the political class still appear to give a very low priority to the problems that will be caused by climate change, the military are already planning for them.  The following quotation, cited in this book, is from a federally funded study called National Security and Climate Change, published in 2007.  Retired generals and admirals from all four of America’s armed services were invited to comment on the the security aspects of climate change.   This observation is from a Marine Corps general:

We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.

Conflicts occur when different groups of people are competing for scarce resources.   As climate change plays out, areas of the world that can now feed themselves will no longer be able to do so, in some cases because of flooding (for example Bangladesh) in others  because of low rainfall (southern Europe and much of Africa, China and central America), in some cases because the loss of mountain glaciers mean that rivers will run dry in the summer (Pakistan and California are both dependant on glacial meltwater to irrigate their farms.)   This will lead to pressure on land (China, for instance, might resurrect land claims in Siberia), and disputes over water. (What would Egypt do if countries upstream were to divert the waters of the Nile?  What would happen if India diverted more water from the Indus, on which Pakistan depends?)  It will also lead to huge migrations across the world in which the still relatively viable countries will either have to seal off their borders, or face an influx of climate refugges.  (How will the people of Africa react when they are starving and the North won’t let them in, even though it caused the problem in the first place?)

One of the strengths of Dyer’s book (the second book with this same title that I’ve recently read) is that he offers scenarios set at various dates in the twentieth century that illustrate the kinds of conflicts that would occur.   Another is the clear, bold way it’s written, interspersed with interview material that is woven into the overall narrative.   It is a fairly grim read but a very engaging one nevertheless.

Dyer makes a number of arresting points.   One of these is that as conflict increases, the chances of collective global action to address the underlying cause  will dwindle to zero.  Another is that climate change is itself only one of a series of global challenges that lie ahead of us for the forseeable future: the size of the human population, and its expectations, are pushing the planet’s resources to their limits, and there’s no longer any slack.

Dyer’s concluding message, one that he knows is controversial, is that we aren’t going to be able to cut carbon emissions in time – we’ve simply left it too late – and that, in the short term at least, there are going to have to be some technical fixes which will either extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth.

There are two reasons why this is controversial.  One is that it involves tinkering with some very fundamental things that we don’t fully understand.   (Dyer’s answer is that it’s a bit late to start worrying about that now.  We’ve already tinkered massively, and we’ve long since passed the point where we can simply hand the controls of spaceship Earth back to Mother Nature.)  The other is that it presents a moral hazard: as soon as we get a whiff of a technical fix we’ll stop even trying to address the real underlying problem.  Dyer acknowledges this danger – he’s already argued earlier in the book that human beings always push things to their limits – but what he seems to be saying is that, if we want to avoid the tipping point where negative feedback loops will send global warming spiralling upwards, we really don’t have much choice.

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The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley

• September 29th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Climate, Other people's books

Bush

This is George Bush in Air Force One, flying back from Texas to Washington.  He’s requested that the plane divert over New Orleans, and he has invited the press to come through from their section of the plane to photograph him looking down concernedly at the city whose lower parts have now been flooded for two days, since Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.   If any single image captures the mediocrity of this man, this is surely it.   This was not a leader, but a dull little rich kid whose daddy’s friends had fixed him up with a job, and provided him with helpers to do the difficult parts.  In this case, even the helpers screwed up.

‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie!’ Bush told the Director of FEMA, the federal agency responsible, but of course as we all know the agency’s performance was very far from a great job.   In a curiously telling detail, Douglas Brinkley observes that Brownie was not in fact a nickname that anyone actually used.  The dull little rich kid was trying to suggest a level of engagement that did not in fact exist.

The Great Deluge is an account of what actually lies below him as he gazes down for the cameras: a devastated city, where bloated corpses are floating in the streets, sick and elderly people are dying alone in flooded houses, and thousands are crammed into a sports stadium without adequate food, water or medical attention, waiting for an evacuation which, for no obvious reason, has still not arrived.

There is lawlessness.  Some of the local police have simply abandoned their posts and run.  Women waiting for rescue have been raped.  Looters raid shops not only to steal but in some strange attavistic ritual (of revenge?  of triumph?) to defecate on cash registers and on goods that they can’t carry away.  But the lawlessness has been taken by many of those who should be helping the survivors as a reason for treating them all as criminals.  (Another telling moment: a new general arrives in New Orleans to get a grip on the military efforts, and one of his first acts is to instruct is to instruct National Guardsman not to point their guns at people when they’re talking to them.)

The very boundary between lawful and unlawful has in any case been blurred.  Is it really looting to break into a store for bottles of clean water, when the only other option is drinking polluted flood-water in which human and animal corpses are floating?  (Is it even exactly looting, I wonder, to steal a TV or some other valuable piece of hardware, when you’ve lost your home and have no savings to fall back on?)  In the Morial Convention Centre, some gangsters are taking it upon themselves to provide protection for the vulnerable in the absence of any formal forces of law.  Other are just terrorising the weak.

The fact that nearly all the people trapped in New Orleans are black and poor almost certainly doesn’t help.   Police officers and Guardsmen frequently treat them with undisguised contempt, and suggest that it is their own stupid fault that they stayed in the city after warnings were given that they should move.  But where would you go, if everyone you know lives in the streets around you, you have no money to pay for accomodation elsewhere and the government, though it can afford to pay for wars on the far side of the world, has provided nothing?  Some people who try to leave on foot are stopped at gunpoint by police from neighbouring areas which don’t want to take them in.

It’s outside the scope of this book but we know too that other communities which did initially respond generously were quickly to grow tired of the burden of caring for the incomers, and to begin to stigmatise them as lazy and undeserving of help.  In another book I read recently*, a woman relocated to Austin, Texas, describes her children being bullied and stigmatised at school because they are ‘people from the storm’.

I wasn’t completely enamoured of the way The Great Deluge was written – I could have done without some of the long, folksy biographies of various characters with which the account is punctuated, and the numerous quotations from songs and literature which never seemed quite as apt as the author seemed to think they were – but it provides a detailed and vivid overview nevertheless of what actually happened during that dreadful time, as well as of the things that one would expect to happen in the world’s wealthiest country but in fact did not.   I was left with a powerful sense of how quickly we human beings can shut down compassion when it asks too much of us, simply by relabelling our fellow humans as something other than ourselves.

Any one seriously interested in writing or thinking about the future should be reading this book, and books like it.   The way things are going, there are going many more flooded cities before this century is out, many more people who don’t have access to food or water, a lot more ‘people from the storm’.

*Community Lost: the State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina, by Ronald J Angel, Holly Bell, Julie Beausoleil and Laura Lein.

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New wells of violence

• September 1st, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Climate, Other people's books

When I was young I studied at Bristol University, and stayed there for a year afterwards.   I still have friends and relatives living there, and visit regularly.  It is the first city I came to know and love as a place.  I still love it, with its famous and dramatic gorge, its stone-faced houses, its hills, its green spaces, the way that any street corner can open up a whole new vista.

But the things that made the city what it is are not so beautiful: Bristol grew rich on the slave trade, the tobacco industry and, more recently, the arms trade.  And of course, as in any city, there is a dark side hidden away out of sight of the parks and the gorge and the gaily painted terraces winding up and down the hills.  Behind all this, as in any British city, are pockets of grimness and deprivation (something I tried to portray in my novel Marcher) which few people ever see if they don’t have occasion to see them out.   So, like Ursula le Guin’s fictional Omelas, Bristol’s charm and beauty stands on a base of hidden suffering.

Climate wars coverThe same could be said of much that we value in the developed world.   We all know of course that what counts as an average sort of life-style in our part of the planet – car and house ownership, TV, computers, smart phones, annual foreign holidays, meat every day, an office job, a hot shower every morning – is in fact, in global terms, exceptionally wealthy and privileged.  Most of us are probably also aware that part of the reason for our ability to access so much in the way of consumer goods, is that the producers of the raw materials, and very likely the producers of the goods themselves, are paid much much less than we are.   We may also be dimly aware – Harald Welzer makes this point rather well in his interesting book ‘Climate Wars’ – that our way of life is also underpinned by more or less constant violence and warfare.  Long chains of responsibility can make this less obvious – the violence typically takes place far away from us, and is rationalised in various ways – but it takes constant and large-scale application of brute force to secure our access to the resources required to maintain our lifestyle and to secure our frontiers so that not too many people come and share our bounty with us.

There are several strategies for dealing with the potential for discomfort arising from these facts.  One is simply to shrug them off, ask ‘Who ever said the world was fair?’, and indicate our intention to defend what we own and have worked for.  Another is to place responsibility for poverty on the poor: ‘It’s up to them to sort it out.  No one ever helped us.’  Another is to absolve ourselves by pointing to some abstraction – ‘It’s capitalism!’ is a common one, as if capitalism had some sort of autonomous existence, and was not simply a name for a nexus in which most of us are complicit – or to people even wealthier than we are: ‘SUV owners’, for instance, are great targets for ordinary car owners to point to.

Another again is to argue that, wealthy as we are by global standards, we are somehow helping to bring the rest of the world up to our level (there are various versions of this last one, including a capitalist narrative of world development, socialist narratives about building a new world order, and more personal narratives built around activity such as charitable work).

What is clear though is that the whole world never can come up to our level.  There is a finite and, in many cases, steadily diminishing supply of resources: agricultural land, water, copper, zinc, coltan, oil, phospates  There is a steadily increasing number of people.   Meat every day for everyone, for instance, may require more agricultural land than actually exists (because growing crops to feed cattle is a much less efficient use of land than growing crops for human consumption), even before one factors in the future lack of availability of phosphates for fertilizers.

So the comforting idea that, wealthy and privileged as we are, we are helping others to one day reach our level, is false, because we are rich not only in purely relative terms (that is: rich by comparison with the world average), but rich in absolute terms.  We are already using more of the world’s resources than could ever be available to the entire population of the planet.

No wonder all that violence is necessary!

Pressure on resources will become more acute as increased population, and increased competition from emerging economies, and as climate change (itself a side product of our consumption of resources) increasingly provides an additional stressor: large areas of the world may soon no longer be able to support the population that they once did.  In this context, violent conflict over resources and borders will proliferate – Welzer proposes that the Darfur conflict in Sudan is an early instance of a climate war: two ethnic groups, who were once able to coexist, have there been brought into conflict by a water shortage which means they both need access to the same land – and wealthier parts of the world will have increasingly to deploy force to protect their privileged position.

It is difficult to visualise a political way out of this.  Human reason, human political structures seem so weak when compared to the magnitude of the changes that are required.  There are even moments when I think what is really needed is something more akin to a prophet, a Moses, a Mohammed, a Joseph Smith, a Mary Baker Eddy, who will come down from a mountain with a new set of commandments: Thou shalt not have more than two kids, Thou shalt not eat meat more than once a week, Thou shalt not throw anything away that can be used again…

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Something that should be there is missing

• August 28th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Radio Free AI have probably read more novels by Philip K. Dick than by any other author (possible exception: Captain W.E. Johns, whose works I read voraciously when I was about 9 or 10), but I still haven’t read much more than a quarter of his total output.   I probably never will because, as well as some utterly brilliant books, his enormous output includes some pretty mediocre stuff.  Even his best books have what normally would be seen as flaws: careless world-building, wonky make-it-up-as-you-go-along plots, unevennesses in the quality of the prose.  I forgive these instantly in a book like Palmer Eldritch, Flow My Tears or Electric Sheep.  In fact they are part of the effect.  In a lesser book, like Martian Timeslip for instance, they start to jar.

I picked up this book because I read somewhere that it’s going to be made into a film – how many Dick novels and stories will that make it which have now been filmed since his death? – and I was curious to know why this book had been chosen.

The book is actually an early stab at what was to become VALIS.   The entity VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligent System) is in this book also.  And, as in the novel VALIS, the book deal in a fictionalised way with the experience which Dick had in real life, which he came to think of as a communication from a vastly intelligent non-human being.   Dick claimed that this experience imparted information about his son’s medical condition which allowed him to seek appropriate medical help and save his son’s life.   It seems an odd move to have  had such a strange and overwhelming experience in real life, and then embed an account of it within the made-up strangenesses of a science fiction novel, but this is what Dick did.

As in VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth uses the device of having two separate fictionalised versions of Dick himself.   In VALIS one of these was called Philip K. Dick, while the other was called Horselover Fat (the anglicisation of Dick’s Greek first name and German surname).  Here one of the two stand-ins for Dick is Nicholas Brady, who has the experience of the strange communication which enables him to save his son (and, like the real life Philip Dick, at the beginning of the book Nick works in a record store), the other is called Philip K. Dick, and is a science fiction novelist, author of The Man in the High Castle etc etc.

In this book, America is under the tyrannical, Stalinist rule of President Ferris F. Fremont (F being of course the 6th letter of the alphabet), and the novel proposes that we are living in the biblical end times, the world of the Book of Revelations.   An evil empire has the entire planet in its grip, cutting it off from any contact with the wider universe, and a tiny body of revolutionaries are attempting, quixotically, to overthrow it.  In spite of superficial appearances to the contrary, we are still essential in the first century, and persecuted Christians are still pitted against the Roman Empire.

This same notion of Earth as somehow lost and cut off from the rest of the universe, and in the control of malign power*, can also be found in Doris Lessing’s Shikasta and C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (the silent planet being Earth, as seen from the rest of the solar system).  It obviously has roots in the Christian notion of the ‘fall’, and medieval notions of the sublunary sphere, the part of the universe below the orbit of the moon, as a place of corruption.  But it also connects I think with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the idea that in our ignorance we are looking at shadows on the wall of a cave while the real world goes on outside in the sunlight.

Plato was thinking about ignorance, while the idea of the fall is about sin and disobedience, but for me the idea that something that should be there is missing has a powerful subjective plausibility.  That’s how te world feels to me a lot of the time: something that should be there is missing.   I suppose this is rooted, at least in part, in a basic and unavoidable fact of human existance.  Even though we ourselves are part of the world, we can only know the world through our senses, at one remove, so that the real unmediated universe always lies tantalisingly beyond our reach.

*See also a previous post about the sonnet ‘Batter my heart’ by John Donne.  It portrays a human soul as a town captured by a hostile power.

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Enchanted objects

• August 13th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

The great gatsbyI saw the recent movie of The Great Gatsby.  Visually I found it  a little lurid, but I was interested by the story and I went on to read the book, which was already sitting there on our shelves.

What had particularly struck me in the film – it is actually surprisingly faithful to the book – was the image of the little green light burning across the bay.  It is the light at the end of the landing stage of the mansion of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy.

There is a brilliant moment, after Gatsby has met up with Daisy again, where the narrator wonders if Gatsby has noticed that the green light will never again have the same meaning:

‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

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The Burning Question, by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

• July 28th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Climate, Other people's books

The-Burning-Question-book-coverIf you are looking for an introductory book on the climate crisis, this is as good as any I’ve read.  It sets out the issues in a clear and focussed way, and tours the science, politics, psychology and economics of the subject, as well as providing an overview of the options for the future.

Several things stand out for me after reading this book.   One is that doing something about climate change isn’t just a question of developing alternatives to fossil fuels.  Our appetite for energy is such that we are quite capable of developing renewables and still consuming more fossil fuels than ever.

So we don’t just need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we need to set a limit to the total amount of fossil fuels we use.  This means leaving a lot of the world’s known reserves of coal and oil permanently in the ground.  No wonder the people that own them are unhappy!

Another thing that stood out (and this of course is linked to my previous point) is the dishonesty and virulence of the multi-million-dollar climate change denial industry.   ‘They call it pollution.  We call it life,’ said one US TV ad, as if anyone had called carbon dioxide ‘pollution’, or denied its importance to life.  Another billboard campaign by the Heartland Institute

showed mug-shots of serial killers alongside the words: ‘I still believe in global warming.  Do You?’  Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, said on the accompanying press release, ‘The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists.  They are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynksi, the Unabomber.  Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden, and James L. Lee.’

The savagery and cynicism of this, not to mention its utter weirdness, is fairly scary (see also Tom Burke’s piece on this here), but perhaps there’s some hope to be found in its sheer desperation?  It suggests (doesn’t it?) that the deniers are pretty worried, don’t really believe they have a real argument, and don’t necessarily think they’re going to win.

Which of course they won’t.  Because ultimately we’ll either do something about the problem, or find out the hard way just how wrong they were.

I recommend this book.

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