Natascha Kampusch (continued)

(Following on from previous post about the book by Natascha Kampusch who was kidnapped and held in captivity by Wolfgang Priklopil for 8 years from the age of 10.)

I keep thinking about Natascha Kampusch’s experience.  She was beaten, punched and hit with objects, she was half-starved, but for whatever reason, the image that keeps coming into my mind, and the one which I find the most distressing to contemplate, is the idea of her all alone in her underground dungeon for hours and days on end, trying to occupy herself, trying to give herself some kind of life, with the magazines, books and videos that Priklopil allowed her.

I suspect Kampusch herself would disapprove of my dwelling on this: she is determined not to be an object of pity, just as she was determined not to be a mere object onto which Priklopil could project his fantasies.  There are video clips here and here of her being interviewed about 4 months after her escape.  I think you can see here the firmness of spirit which comes over in the book, and dismiss any doubts that you might have that the book (written with the help of two co-authors) is an authentic representation of her voice.

What is striking is the determination to hold onto her own identity, however little room for manoeuvre.   I suppose there hundreds of millions of people have coped in the same way with the experience of oppression that was quite specifically intended to break their spirits.  I think of  Africans sold into slavery, wrenched away from family, friends, culture and packed into slave ships for the horrors of the middle passage, and how they nevertheless preserved and evolved a unique culture of their own, which was to become global in its influence

How weak Priklopil seems by contrast: a man whose own identity was so fragile that he demanded absolute obedience, absolute submission to his own needs and fears.  How weak and baby-like tyrants are in general.  Think of Gaddafy, think of Hitler (who Priklopil apparently admired), demanding that others to act out a charade around them, a pretence of loyalty, a pretence of love, a pretence of admiration, presumably because they don’t have the courage to face what they would see if the pretence was torn away.

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.

The rotting forest

I read here that warmer temperatures in Canada are resulting in swathes of forest being killed by pine beetles.  This in turn makes the forest more vulnerable to fire.  Dead forest, rotting trees (makes me think of Gene Wolfe’s decaying world in the Book of the New Sun, though that was a colder, not a warmer world), resulting from climate change, and in turn contributing to it.  And all this in a country now busily engaged in an unprecedented new kind of exploitation of fossil fuels that may dwarf everything we’ve seen so far.

Still, one good thing: for future remakes of the Lord of the Rings, there’ll be no trouble recreating Mordor.   The Shire may become a little trickier.

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.

Six Degrees by Mark Lynas

I might as well admit it, I’ve been massively in denial about climate change.   I have worried about it in the past (I even wrote a couple of stories about the threat: ‘Greenland’ and ‘Rat Island’).  But latterly, I’ve been minimising the problem to myself, even persuading myself that there might be upsides as well as downsides. ( After all, I’ve foolishly been telling myself, there have been times in the past when the Earth was so warm that there was no polar ice at all.)

This book has certainly opened my eyes.   To deal with the ‘upsides as well as downsides’ point first: yes, there have been times in the past that were much warmer than now, but they came about as a result of gradual temperature changes over millions of years.  What we are facing now is a change so sudden that life will not have time to adapt.   It is comparable to the great extinction events we find in the geological record, which nearly ended  life on the planet.   And indeed this really could end up that way.   Lynas takes us through six scenarios, from one to six degrees (based on the average increase in the global temperature), and the six degree option is pretty grim reading.

Even the one degree option isn’t exactly pretty.

Of course, as Lynas repeatedly cautions, the science is inexact.  The global weather is an incredibly complex system in which countless different factors interact.  We know that meteorologists can’t precisely predict the weather day by day, and clearly they can’t hope to get it exactly right when looking decades into the future.  But there is no dispute that increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane will increase the global temperature, and there is no doubt that human activity has increased the presence of these gases.   The details may not all be right, but the overall story is indisputable.  And (really!) unless we do something about it, it will have a lot more implications than just things getting a bit hotter.

Nor will it just mean events like the loss of the beautiful coral reefs: sad but with little direct impact on our lives. It will mean the inundation of coastal cities, and of huge swathes of land, such as Bangladesh and the coast of China, where hundreds of millions live.  It will mean the desertification of much of southern Africa and southern Europe.  It will mean more and bigger hurricanes, wreaking destruction over a much wider part of the globe.  It will mean positive feedback loops kicking in – the release of methane from newly thawed permafrost, for instance, or the burning of the entire Amazon forest – that will accelerate these kinds of events until they are running away so fast that nothing can stop them.  And of course these things will have huge geopolitical consequences: mass migration, wars over land and water, countries defending themselves like fortresses against the desperate beating on their gates.

It struck me, reading this, and confronting my own denial (which is like the denial of alcoholics, the denial of rapists, the denial of child abusers, who simply cannot bear to face the harm they do), that if we don’t try and do something about this, it pretty much invalidates any other claim we might wish to make to be doing our bit to make the world a better place.  What is the point of working for human rights, if we let the world degenerate into the kind of dog-eat-dog place where human rights are as worthless as paper walls in a hurricane?   What is the point of thinking about the needs of developing countries, if we stand by while they become deserts or seas?

In fact, never mind these grand public issues, how can we even claim to really care about our own children and grandchildren, if we don’t do anything to stop their world being ruined?

The crazy part is that this is all the result of an almighty bonfire we’ve been having, burning up, in a matter of decades, fossil fuels that took millions of years of solar energy to form.   And, since the fuel isn’t infinite, it will run out anyway, and the bonfire will end whether we want it to or not.  So it’s not even a choice as to whether to stop or not stop the burning.  It’s a choice between stopping now, before it is too late, or in a few decades, when it will be.  We are gambling the future of our species for the sake of a decade or two of business as usual.

I’m going to write more about this.  I think there’s a task for science fiction here, a responsibility even.  Let’s get back to exploring worlds that could really happen, and move away from writing about starships and galactic empires that we know quite well will never ever come about.

Six Degrees on Amazon UK.

Six Degrees on Amazon US.


Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank

The Great Depression between the wars resulted in a grassroots backlash against capitalism, and moves towards greater state intervention in the economy, but, in the US today, the most significant political movement to have arisen out of the current economic crisis, is one that calls for still less state intervention.  Thomas Frank illustrates the difference between the two eras by contrasting the ways in which the 1773 Boston Tea Party was invoked in each one.  In 1932, a farmer who took illegal direct action to support his demand for government help for poverty-striken farmers, justified his action by saying ‘Seems to me there was a tea-party in Boston that was illegal too.  What about destroying property in Boston harbour when our country was started?’   But ‘what makes the rebel’s blood boil today,’ Frank writes, ‘is not the plight of the debtor but the possibility that such “losers” might escape their predicament – that government might step in and do the things that those Iowa farmers wanted it to do eighty years ago.’  At a Tea Party rally in 2009 one sign read ‘Your mortgage is not my problem.’  (Given the popularity of Christianity on the American Right, I’m intrigued to know how ‘Your mortgage is not my problem’ can be squared with ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ [Matthew 12:31], but let that pass.)

This excellent book, packed with pithy observations, is an exploration of a bizarre phenomenon: a crisis caused by unfettered capitalism, followed by populist demands for yet more unfettered capitalism.  The apparent contradiction is explained in part by the fact that this new political movement doesn’t identify the core problem as the collapse of the capitalist financial institutions, but rather as the government bail-out that followed, not only because it resulted in a debt which the taxpayer has to pay, but because it distorted the workings of the market.  Ironically enough, given their hatred of the term ‘liberal’, this lot are extreme economic liberals.  They view the free unfettered market as being the God-given natural order, and any intervention into it as unnatural, tyrannical and ‘socialist’.  (‘Clear-thinking Americans must begin to view Socialism as a prosecutable crime and recognize those who conspire to advance it as in fact criminals,’ chillingly writes one Tea Party pamphleteer cited by Frank.)

To some degree I agree that markets are ‘natural’, in the sense that I believe that people will, almost inevitably, do deals with one another, and try and get the best return they can for their work.  (It happened even in states such as the Soviet Union which tried to abolish the market.)   But politics are also ‘natural’ in this exact same sense of stuff that is bound to happen, bound to be part of the picture, as is expecting the community as a whole to help out in a crisis, collective action etc etc.   Capitalism, and the notion of the ‘free market’ are, after all, very recent historical developments,  and, as Frank points out, the ‘pure Capitalism’ that these people dream about has never existed, and could never exist.   It is a one-dimensional concept, an essentially Utopian idea which, like all Utopian ideas, only works if you exclude reality from your worldview.

Frank is interesting on the way in which this libertarian right wing mirrors, sometimes quite consciously, the left.   It uses the language of injustice and class war, for instance, to pit ‘ordinary decent Americans’ (including billionaires!) against a ‘liberal’ elite, which it sometimes characterises as fascist or Nazi.  And Frank sees its adherents as blinkered in much the same way as the leftists who visited Stalin’s Soviet Union in the years after the Depression, and managed to avoid noticing famine, terror and gulags, and see instead a socialist Utopia.  What is terrifying in all these cases is the capacity of human beings to persuade themselves that something is its exact opposite.  ‘Freedom is Slavery’, ‘War is Peace’, ‘Poverty is Plenty’, went the slogans in Orwell’s Oceania, and now we have billionaires as victims, liberals as Nazis, and poor people as the cause of the problem.

Of course, as Frank points out, the misty soft-focus dream of an America consisting of decent hard-working business people (regular guys like you and me) competing in the market place, is essentially a facade (rather in the same way, I suppose, that the rhetoric and iconography of socialism was used as a facade for tyranny under Stalin).   The folksy Tea Party rhetoric distances the movement from big business, depicting the latter as monopolistic, in cahoots with the state, on the scrounge for subsidies and lucrative government contracts, but it is nevertheless big business’s purposes that the Tea Party serves.

We have no exact equivalent of the Tea Party in the UK, but there are plenty of people here who have taken the opportunity presented by the crisis in capitalism, to roll back the state still further, and give unfettered capitalism still more freedom to act.   I strongly recommend this book.

Pity the Billionaire on Amazon UK.


Unfairness has consequences too

In a previous post, I expressed amazement at the bonus being paid to the CEO of the largely state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland.  It wasn’t, I must admit, a very original thought.   So many people said the same thing, in fact, that in the end Mr Hester bowed to the pressure and did without the bonus*.

I’ve heard a number of commentators since being quite critical of the pressure that was placed on him: (1) he wasn’t in charge of any bank at the time of the financial collapse, (2) you have to pay top money to get top people, and if we punish top businessmen like Mr Hester, they’ll just head off to more business-friendly places, and we’ll all end up worse off,  (3) the economic crisis is a systemic problem, and it is simplistic to pin it on a few individuals.

The ‘top money for top people’ argument has some force, even if we would like to deny it.  You only have to look at football.  We know that no serious football club would keep its position if it stopped paying players these enormous sums.  We know that players readily cross national frontiers to further their careers.  We want the clubs we support to win.  And we know that if we were in the same position as the footballers, we would think ouselves lucky, but be unlikely to volunteer for a pay cut.

And yes it is superficial to pin the blame for a systemic problem on a few individuals.    I worked for many years as a social worker, and, since members of my own profession are from time to time singled out for a media lynching (see my story Johnny’s New Job), I don’t find it hard to see the force of this argument.  We human beings are very quick to identify scapegoats as a way of distancing ourselves from  our own complicity, and (though I am fairly sure that CEOs of multi-national corporations are well able to look after themselves) demonising individuals and groups is neither an attractive trait, nor a good way of getting to the bottom of problems

But the fact remains that people across the country are losing their jobs, their incomes, their place in the community, because of debts incurred by the government when it bailed out the banking system.  It just does not feel fair in this context for people in the banking industry itself to continue to recieve the same immense financial rewards as ever.   Yes, it’s quite possible that some talented businessmen will choose to leave the country and find more lucrative work elsewhere, just like footballers do, and possible too that this could have negative consequences for the competitive edge of some of our country’s industries.  It really might be so.  But are we really going to accept this argument as being one that trumps all others?

Here’s the problem with that.  We are told we should think about what’s best for the economy, rather than make purely emotional arguments about fairness.  And we are asked to take very seriously the factors that might influence the choices of top businessmen.  (Since we have used the word ’emotional’, let’s be clear that these are factors to do with the businessmen’s feelings: there are only so many yachts and planes a person can actually use).   But this is not football, and we’re not spectators watching from the stands.  We’re all on the field together here, we all have feelings, and top businessmen are not the only people who make choices, or are influenced by the way they are treated.

Nor are they the only people whose choices  impact on us all.

(Picture from here, and borrowed with thanks: no copyright information given)

*Or so I thought.  Since I wrote this, it has emerged that Mr Hester has accepted £600,000 – worth of shares instead of his bonus!

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.