Launch events for Beneath the World, a Sea

Beneath the World, a Sea comes as an ebook and in hardback on April 4th.

(1) April 6th, 1-2pm, I’ll be signing at Forbidden Planet, Burleigh St, Cambridge.

(2) April 9th, 7-9pm, at Waterstones, Norwich (follow link for ticket information), I’ll be talking about Beneath the World, a Sea, with the great Tony Ballantyne.

(3) April 11th, 6-7.30, at Waterstones, Cambridge, a launch celebration (please RSVP as per invite below).

The rivers swarm with fish

Sometimes a piece of writing that presumably wasn’t intended to be poetic at all has a poetry all of its own. The following is the section on flaura and fauna from the Wikipedia entry for the Russian island of Sakhalin. (Why was I looking at the entry for Sakhalin? Because, like Judith Schalansky, I love to go to islands in my imagination that I know I will never really visit. They too have a special poetry.)

The whole of the island is covered with dense forests, mostly coniferous. The Yezo (or Yeddo) spruce (Picea jezoensis), the Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis) and the Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) are the chief trees; on the upper parts of the mountains are the Siberian dwarf pine (Pinus pumila) and the Kurile bamboo (Sasa kurilensis). Birches, both Siberian silver birch (Betula platyphylla) and Erman’s birch (B. ermanii), poplar, elm, bird cherry (Prunus padus), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), and several willows are mixed with the conifers; while farther south the maple, rowan and oak, as also the Japanese Panax ricinifolium, the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), the Spindle (Euonymus macropterus) and the vine (Vitis thunbergii) make their appearance. The underwoods abound in berry-bearing plants (e.g. cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, red whortleberry), red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), wild raspberry, and Spiraea.

Bears, foxes, otters, and sables are numerous, as are reindeer in the north, and musk deer, hares, squirrels, rats, and mice everywhere. The bird population is mostly the common east Siberian, but there are some endemic or near-endemic breeding species, notably the endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Sakhalin leaf warbler (Phylloscopus borealoides). The rivers swarm with fish, especially species of salmon (Oncorhynchus). Numerous whales visit the sea coast, including the critically endangered Western Pacific gray whale, for which the coast of Sakhalin is the only known feeding ground. Other endangered whale species known to occur in this area are the North Pacific right whale, the bowhead whale, and the beluga whale.

Beautiful!

The Black Prince

I find it quite difficult to immerse myself in a novel these days and often have to make myself keep turning the pages. (I don’t know whether is this me getting more fussy as I grow older, or whether perhaps it’s the business of writing fiction that makes it harder: I imagine a puppeteer finds it hard to surrender to the illusion of a puppet show). But never mind all that because I did find this book immersive, and read the whole thing very quickly and greedily.

This is a novel written by Adam Roberts, drawing on a film script and some notes by the late Anthony Burgess. I have to say that, in my opinion, the least successful parts of the book were the various interludes in the main action in the form of ‘news flashes’ and ‘camera’s eye’ views. In incorporating these, Roberts was being faithful to Burgess’ plan to make use of story-telling tricks invented by John Dos Passos. However I found them an unwanted distraction, and not really in keeping with the rest of the book, so that each time they came up I was impatient to get back to the main narrative. This, by contrast, I found entirely gripping.

Edward the Black Prince was the son of King Edward III and would have have been Edward IV if he hadn’t died before his father. He is famous as a warrior, defeating French armies much larger than his own at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, and as a kind of epitome of the chivalrous knight in armour. In fact, as this book shows, the wars he fought to expand and defend his father’s realms in France were incredibly bloody and brutal. In an age when ordinary people had absolutely no say in the decisions being made by their leaders, it was nevertheless considered perfectly acceptable, and perfectly consistent with the theological doctrine of ‘just war’, to hack to death the entire population of a town, including children and babies, if the leading figures in that town had chosen not to surrender promptly enough. (Since carpet bombing of cities remains a pretty standard weapon of war in modern times, I suppose we haven’t really changed in this respect. We just do our indiscriminate slaughtering from a sanitised distance which allows us to call it ‘collateral damage’).

The savage and gleeful butchery involved, particularly at the sack of Limoges, is described by Roberts in remorseless detail. I was going to say harrowing detail, but that actually wouldn’t be entirely honest, because the truth is (and I’m not proud of this, but I’m guessing I’m not alone) that I actually find this stuff quite engrossing, and even exciting, to read about. The end result was that I emerged from the book disturbed not only by the events described, but by my own troublingly ambiguous response. Which is surely as it should be, because these things are not perpetrated by monsters but by human beings, drawing on the same instincts, desires and fears as the rest of us.

On this same theme, Roberts does a great job of conveying the humanity of the Black Prince and the other characters, as they move between ruthless slaughter and the ordinary emotions of everyday life. A professional mercenary for example, who fights and kills for plunder, grieves over his much-loved wife and regrets that he didn’t treat her better when she was alive. Occasionally characters feel some unease about what to us seem their most obvious sins, the industrial-scale killings in which they’ve been engaged, but they are human beings and have all kinds of defences and justifications that prevent them from worrying about these things for too long, much as we have defences, I suppose, that prevent us from worrying for any length of time about the exploitative sweat shops where people build the digital toys we play with, or the dangerous mines where the minerals for them are extracted.

One strand that was particularly fascinating was the Black Prince’s preoccupation with the Holy Spirit, and what that meant. As I gather from other writings of his, Roberts is not a believer in the Christian religion but nevertheless finds Christian theology imaginatively engaging (a description that could be applied to me too and, from what I understand, also to Anthony Burgess). And it is by exploring this idea of the Holy Spirit that he lifts this book from being merely a grim catalogue of human cruelty into something more profound and even a little bit hopeful.

Population

I saw this post some months ago and saved it because it jarred and I wanted to write about it.  It’s a review by Abigail Nussbaum of the movie Avengers: Infinity war, and I came across it on Twitter because someone posted it as an instance of a really good review.  I daresay it is a good review at that.  I’ve never seen the movie and almost certainly never will, so I can’t comment on that, but what troubled me was the following paragraph:

It should go without saying that Thanos’s overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is…

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t know who Thanos is, but with a name like that I can tell he must be VERY BAD, and if he’s proposing genocide that is clearly VERY VERY BAD INDEED.  No dispute there!  But, unless I’ve completely misunderstood her, what the reviewer seems to saying (and she’s not the only one I’ve heard say it) is that the very idea that overpopulation is a problem is ‘hideous claptrap’ .

Really? 

I’m 63.  I’m living on a planet whose population is over seven and a half billion, which is three times what it was when I was born.  It’s a planet in the middle of one of the great mass extinction events of its history, a planet where the biomass of human domestic animals is now greater than that of all other animals of similar size, a planet where human activity has destabilised the climate itself and is threatening to acidify the ocean to a point that marine animals with shells may not be able to survive.  And I personally am so far from seeing the idea of overpopulation as claptrap that I find it hard to imagine being inside a head that thinks it is.

It seems I’m with Hollywood on this one.

It’s true that population is not on its own a reliable indicator of the human impact on the rest of the planet, because the impact of any one human being is dependent on his or her behaviour.  If we eat meat and diary products, for instance, we have a much greater impact than if we are vegan, because meat and milk production are, in nutritional terms, far less efficient uses of land than growing edible plants, meaning that much more land is needed to feed a meat or cheese eater than to feed a vegan.  In the same way, if we drive a car and use aeroplanes, we will have a much greater impact than if we only walk or use a bicycle.  And if we have a centrally heated house with a TV, a fridge and a washing machine, our impact will be much greater than if we live in a hut and don’t use electric power at all (although it must be said that, even if we rely entirely on firewood for heat and light, that can still have a considerable impact.)  

The idea that being concerned about population is ‘racist’ originates, as I understand it, from a time when people in wealthy countries expressed concern about the rapidly growing populations in developing countries without acknowledging that their own extravagant patterns of consumption were at least as much of a problem.  I get that. But it would be pretty poor logic to take from that the idea that concern about overpopulation was necessarily racist per se

The fact is that all human behaviour impacts on the environment and the impact of any given human behaviour has to be multiplied by the number of people on the planet who behave in that way.   A billion people driving cars X number of miles per year generates a billion times the amount of carbon dioxide as one person driving a car X miles per year.  A billion people clearing forest to grow crops to eat will need a billion times as much forest as one person.  Etcetera, etcetera. So, yes, population is only part of the story, but it is an indispensable part nevertheless.  Say the human race were collectively to change its behaviour in such a way as to reduce the impact of every person on the planet by 50%.  The population only has to double for the benefit of that change to be lost. And since, however much the human population increases, the surface area of the planet remains unchanged, it must be the case that, for any given pattern of human behaviour, however frugal, there must be a physical limit to how many people the planet is able to support.

Which takes me to the second charge made (in this particular film review but also elsewhere) against the idea that overpopulation is a problem.  Not only is it racist, but it is Malthusian. 

The implied argument goes something like this:  We know that Malthus was concerned about human population, right?  We know that his predictions were wrong.  We also know that some of what he said was pretty obnoxious.  QED being concerned about overpopulation is ‘Malthusian’ and therefore both wrong and obnoxious.  Right?

Wrong!  That’s not a logical argument at all.  We are not living in the age of scholasticism, and arguments do not stand or fall on the authority of whatever famous name happens to have become associated with them.  Calling someone a ‘Malthusian’ for being concerned about overpopulation, like calling them racist, is not an argument, it’s more like an exercise in denial.

Haunted by the Future

I’ve just returned from Novacon 48 in Nottingham.  I’m very grateful to the organisers and members for making me so welcome.  The following is the text of my guest of honour speech.  (I am not a literary historian obviously, so this should be read as the impressionistic ramblings of a writer rather than as the authoritative statement of a specialist.) Continue reading “Haunted by the Future”

The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

If I were to describe this book as superficial (which I would) the author should perhaps be pleased, for he sets out specifically to show that the mind contains no hidden depths.

Nick Chater starts with visual perception and he shows that we actually see much less than we think we see.  This is something that’s struck me before.  For example, focus on an object in front of you, a mug for instance, and then, without moving your eyes, notice how little else you can see while you remain looking at the mug.  You’ll find that, even in the immediate vicinity of the mug, your visual field is a blur. Apparently if you get someone to read a page of text on a screen, and change all the words except the ones they’re looking at into rows of x’s, they won’t notice the difference!  And something I didn’t know until I read this book is that the blurred forms you see at the edge of your field of vision aren’t even in colour.  (I tested this myself and it’s true!).

This is all fascinating stuff (and I  enjoyed reading about it), but I take issue with the author when he asserts that our impression of seeing the whole world in front of us is an ‘illusion’ (the Grand Illusion as he calls it), and even more so when he calls it ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’.  Our perceptual apparatus isn’t just presenting us with the raw sensory data, that’s true, but that would be pointless, and its job is to assemble fragments into a stable and coherent sense of where we are.  But why on earth call the result a hoax?   A radar screen shows incoming planes in the vicinity as blips.  These are refreshed with each new sweep of the continuously revolving antenna and in fact the antenna is only detecting a few of those planes at any one moment.  But does this mean it’s just a hoax or an illusion that makes us think those blips show the positions of all the planes in the vicinity?  Of course not.  What the screen shows is an approximation perhaps, but that’s not the same thing as an illusion at all, and it’s an accurate enough approximation for air traffic controllers to safely manage incoming planes at busy airports, day in day out, for months and years on end.

Having discussed perception, Chater then goes on to talk about cognition.  Just as experiments on perception show that we see much less at any given moment than we might think, so too do experients show that our thoughts are much more circumscribed than we might imagine.  In fact, at any one time, we can only pay attention to a very limited number of mental tasks.  I can drive and sing.  On a clear straight road, I can drive and list prime numbers (I tried it out recently).  But I can’t drive, sing, and list prime numbers all at once.   In fact, Chater suggests, our sense of a rich mental life with many layers is a hoax, just like the illusion that we can see a rich detailed exterior world.  ‘Our thoughts are not shadows of an alternative inner reality to be charted and discovered; they are fictions of our own devising, created moment by moment.’  Even emotions, it seems, are ‘just fiction too.’

But hang on.  There is a rich external world out there, that’s not disputed.  So, insofar as there’s an illusion going on perceptually, it’s not the existence of that world, it’s the fact that we imagine ourselves to be taking in that world whole and all at once, whereas what we’re really doing is forming a (pretty serviceable) impression of it a little bit at a time.  And surely the same is true of our inner life?   The fact that I am not thinking lovingly of my children at every moment in time, doesn’t mean that it’s just an illusion that I love my children, any more than the fact that I’m concentrating on my computer screen just now doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a garden through the door to my right.

The funny thing about all this –and Chater does acknowledge it himself- is that, in order to dismiss depth, he has to introduce an incredibly powerful unconscious mechanism.  He argues that our sense of having a coherent self is an illusion that is being constructed for us in the moment by this powerful unconscious process, with the the result that, though we imagine that we are drawing on some inner self,  in fact ‘we are quite literally making up our minds, one thought at a time’.    So, in other words,  our sense that our thoughts come from something complicated inside us is an illusion being created for us by… well… something complicated inside us!

He doesn’t have very much to say about how this mechanism works -the book concludes with a slightly hand-wavy paeon to human imagination- but clearly it must draw on memories of previous experiences .  It follows, surely, that this very powerful and complex unconscious process is actually not just making up our minds for us out of the blue but is rather surveying the relevant parts of our vast existing store of knowledge and experience, much in the same way as when we are walking down a road, our perceptual apparatus surveys the relevant parts of the external world.

Et voilà!  Depth is back again with a different name.  (Chater himself speaks of ‘an ever-richer web of connections across our mental surface’.)  It is a vast and complex inner landscape, but one which (as few  of us will be surprised to learn), we cannot see in its entirety all at once.

*  *  *

One thing that strikes me about this book is that, while it describes as an ‘illusion’ or a ‘fake’, impressions of the world assembled by the sensory system from fragments, it is happy to present a version of the world that is also assembled from fragments, in this case controlled psychology experiments.  Not only do these experiments (fascinating as some of them are) constitute discrete and pretty miniscule glimpses into the operations of the human mind, but the interpretations placed on them seem extremely questionable.

For instance, he describes a series of experiments in which people make different choices depending on how the same options are presented to them, and suggests that this demonstrates that ‘preformed beliefs, desires, motives, attitudes to risk lurking in our hidden inner depths are a fiction’.  There’s ‘no point wondering,’ he says, ‘which way of asking the question…  will tell us what people really want… not because our mental motives, desires and preferences are impenetrable, but because they don’t exist.’    This is an extraordinary bold claim to make on the basis of a few experiments in which people are offered some rather artificial choices.  And it seems to me that a much simpler explanation of the findings of these experiments is that people have competing wants (for example, a desire to make money, versus a desire to avoid risk), and that, depending on how questions are put to them, different wants come to the fore.

I want to keep fit, I also want to eat ice cream.  In my experience this can lead to decisions which contradict one another.

*   *   *

So much of what we think we know about the world is shaped by the paradigm through which we choose to view it.  The Freudian approach (which, with some justice, Chater disapproves of) involved getting people to lie down on couches and ramble .  Not surprisingly, it generated an elaborate and convoluted model of the human mind.  The experimental approach which Chater favours involves highly controlled experiments in which a single variable is manipulated and some other very specific variable is then measured.   There are many advantages of this kind of methodology but, since it quite deliberately excludes almost all of the multidimensional complexity of the thing being studied, I don’t find it suprising that it results in the impression of flatness.  Or an illusion of flatness, we might call it.