From Bodhisattva to St Josaphat: the adventures of a story

I visited some Buddhist temples during a recent brief visit to Thailand, and this led me to reflect on the differences between Buddhism and Christianity (see previous post) but also on the similarities.

I noticed that large statues of the Buddha tended to have a smaller Buddha sitting in front of them.  I assume (perhaps wrongly) that the smaller Buddha represents the historical Siddharta Gautama, while the larger figure represents the universal spiritual state which he is supposed to have attained. It struck me that this relationship was not entirely from different from the relationship in Christian theology between Jesus and God.  And there are other parallels.   Both religions have a tradition of celibate monasticism.  Each bears a similar relationship to a parent religion (Hinduism and Judaism respectively).

I wondered if it was possible that Buddhism, as the older of the two by several centuries, might have had a direct influence on the formation of Christianity.  It’s not implausible, given that both Palestine and Northern India were within the sphere of influence of Hellenistic culture.  (Idea for a historical novel: a bright young Jewish man in Nazareth in Roman-occupied Palestine, hears about Buddhism from an Indo-Greek soldier in the Roman army, and decides to try and do something similar).

Anyway, when I was looking up possible connections,  I came across (in wonderful Wikipedia) one particular connection which I had never heard of before: the story of Barlaam and Josaphat.  This story was originally about the early life of Gautama Buddha, but ended up as a popular story in Medieval Europe, when both characters were regarded as Christian saints by Catholics and Orthodox Christians alike .  The name Josaphat comes, apparently, from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva, successfully modified as the story was retold and retold first in Persian (Bodisav), Arabic (Budhasaf then Yudasaf), Georgian (Iodasaph), Greek (Ioasaph) and finally Latin.

I find it rather delightful that the founder of one religion can find himself a saint in another.  I find it delightful too that a story can itself have a story, making its way slowly from Asia to Europe, and from the Buddhist world, to the Islamic world, and on into the Christian one, passing from language to language, and changing all the while to meet the needs of its new hosts.

The one in the crown is Josaphat, formerly known as Buddha


A Buddhist temple

I don’t know if they call it an altar but, at one end of the room, there is a tall symmetrical gilded structure, very intricate and ornate in design.  On the floor in front of it, is a forest of objects, including statues and another ornate artefacts.   I guess they are presents from worshippers.

But here is what holds me.  In the middle of that gilded screen is a window, and inside that window, set back a little way, is a golden Buddha, illuminated by a light from behind the screen.  Its face is serene.  From certain angles it seems almost cruel.   It is at the very centre of the gilded intricate structure and at the same time behind and completely apart from it.  It looks out at the world, and is at the centre of a teeming and restless structure that resembles golden flames, yet it is itself untouched.

How unlike a Christian or Muslim god.  It is not a father demanding respect and obedience.  It is not a king or a judge who will dispense eternal reward or punishment.  It is not a shepherd looking out at its flock.   It does not dictate holy books.  Nor has it died for us and come alive again, or loved the world so much that it has gave us its only son.

Why doesn’t it care for us?  Why doesn’t it offer us help, out here on the far side of the screen, out in the world of grief and pain and dreariness and hate and wickedness?  Do our sufferings mean nothing to it at all?

But those are the wrong questions.  They are questions for a father or a son or a king, a creator apart from us and above us.  And this is not separate from us.  It is the thing that looks out from our own eyes.

Science fiction and religion

I took part in a panel discussion on this recently at the British Science Festival at Bradford (along with Steven French, Una McCormack,  Shana Worthen and Katy Price).   Coincidentally  (and very usefully), my friend Prof Rowlie Wymer had delivered an inaugural lecture on this very same theme the previous day at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. He plans to write a book on the subject.

On the face of it, it’s odd how often science fiction (which after all has ‘science’ rather than religion in its title) deals with religion.  But it’s a perennial theme (my own The Holy Machine being one example). Rowlie Wymer pointed out that even avowedly atheistic writers such as Stanislaw Lem or Arthur C. Clark can’t leave religious themes alone.

There are several connections.  Firstly, SF is a form of fiction that is interested in Big Questions.  It deals with people’s relationship with the universe, and not just people’s relationship with other people.   This is something it has in common with religion.   Secondly, SF is interested in how people and societies cope with new and unfamiliar environments.  It would be impossible to seriously deal with this question without considering religion, which up to and including this point in history, has provided one of the means by which people explain to themselves how they fit in.   (In Dark Eden, I show a society that is beginning to evolve its own religion).  Thirdly, SF traditionally deals in ‘sense of wonder’ which (as Rowlie Wymer pointed out) is not unlike some forms of religious experience.

We live in a world in which religious fundementalism frequently makes itself the enemy of science.  In that battle I’m definitely on the side of science.  A set of beliefs about the world that are based on accepting as literally true an old book written one or two millenia ago versus a set of beliefs based on systematically examining the evidence.  There’s no contest.  To dismiss the latter in favour of the former is just infantile intellectual vandalism.

But I don’t align myself with atheistic fundementalism either.  To reject religion in all its forms as worst than useless is, in its way, also intellectual vandalism.   It is to ignore the fact that science looks at the world from a particular perspective which is not the perspective from which we actually live our lives, and is least good at answering the messy complicated questions which most concern us as human beings (for most of us are not going around worrying about what happened in the Big Bang or the precise nature of the fundemental building blocks of matter).   There are a whole set of questions about life which cannot be answered in terms of cause and effect, cannot be answered at all, in fact, in the way that science answers questions, but which can be assuaged by stories.

Stories are pretty basic.  Every night in our sleep, our brains weave our experience into stories.  Stories are what we naturally do, not causal explanations, and religions have provided or inspired a pretty good batch of stories.

I am not defending literal-minded religion, or even religion at all, but I am saying that ultimately facts are not what our lives are about.   In order to engage with the world, and other people, we need imagination.



Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Book coverThis is a staggeringly original and intricate piece of work, the best and most ambitious book I’ve read for a very long time.   The author begins by denying that it’s a novel, but it reads like one, has diverse and well-drawn characters and is beautifully written.   It’s just that the characters are not all linked together into a single big story, and the fictional elements (or semi-fictional, blending real historic figures and real events, with made-up characters and events) are interspersed with factual information about the Kruschev era Soviet state, and in particular its centrally planned economy.  By denying it’s a novel, the author gives himself permission to provide this stuff undigested and thereby avoids having to load down his characters with ‘As you know Bob…’ – type dialogue.  (In short: this ‘not-a-novel’ strategy is a way of avoiding – or perhaps legitimising – what SF writers and readers call ‘info-dumps’).

As it happens the info-dumps are just as riveting as the rest of the book, and are incredibly well informed, not only about the Soviet system, but about all kinds of other stuff.   About computers for example.  There is even a virtuoso account of the way that smoking causes cancer inside a cell.

I think it is a novel, though.  The main character in it is the socialist dream, which Spufford convincingly argues survived all through the time of Stalin, right into the Kruschev era and even on to Gorbachev.   These people may have been tyrants, but they genuinely believed in the idea of a socialist economy, directed by reason rather than by blind market forces.    (Why otherwise, he points out, did they not go down the Chinese road and convert the economy to capitalism, while keeping political power in the hands of the Party?)

The book is very vivid on the actual workings of a planned economy: an economy in which, if a machine breaks down in a factory, the company can’t just buy a new one, but must apply for one, and this application must then somehow be accomodated in the entire Plan for the entire country.  It is an economy which only works by finding ways of getting round its own rules.

For a little time there, apparently, in the Kruschev era, clever economists, computer scientists and mathematicians thought they might be able to find ways of making this juggernaut not only work, but actually work better than the capitalist countries with their markets.    Having seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, we, in 2011, know this isn’t going to work out, living as we do in the age of Russian oligarchs, but they didn’t know it then, and thus (as the author observes in an interesting article here)  ‘An immense overhang of obvious consequences teeters above the events of Red Plenty, invisible to characters. And so the book became a kind of comedy, an unwitting comedy whose jokes don’t exist within the world of the story.’

He goes on: ‘I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it. But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past. I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences. Whatever it is.’

I suppose history is almost entirely made up of people busying away at projects which, in the end, don’t work out.

Incidentally, when I was trying to think of another book which was not-a-novel in anything like this kind of way, a Russian instance came to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace,  also claimed by its author not to be a novel.

Red Plenty on Amazon UK.




The empire stumbles

As the Murdoch media empire stumbles (at least in the UK) in the unexpected glare of negative publicity, it is fascinating to hear the palpable relief of politicians (of all hues, seemingly) to have come out from under its power.

It’s different in degree of course, but I’m reminded of the fall of Mubarak or Ceausescu: suddenly a power that seemed unassailable, is seen to be vulnerable, and those who were cowed into silence, or felt obliged to curry favour, find themselves able to express some of the dislike, resentment, even hate, that they’d been concealing all those years, perhaps even from themselves, as they attended the lunches and the weddings and ate the canapes.   Different in degree again, of course, but I’m reminded too of recovering victims of Stockholm Syndrome.

Fascinating, but also disturbing.   We knew Mubarak and Ceausescu were dictators, but Murdoch’s power was more subtle, and though we knew it was there, we perhaps can only get a really visceral sense of its full extent, when we feel the relief of its temporary absence.

But it is a temporary absence.  The empire is stumbling but has not fallen, and even if it does fall, there are plenty of other empires and would-be empires that would happily take its place.   We shouldn’t just sit back and enjoy the drama of the empire in difficulty, or allow the sole legacy of this moment to be a tinkering around with rules of privacy or with mechanisms for dealing with press complaints.  If this story is to be more than a redtop  melodrama of villainy exposed, then the opportunity needs to be seized not to rein in freedom of speech, but promote it by legislating to ensure plurality.

Surely it would not be unreasonable to say that no individual and no private company can own more than one daily paper, or more than one weekly?  And surely it would be reasonable to insist that if you own a newspaper, you can’t also own a TV station of any kind?    And surely genuine plurality requires too that a substantial portion of the media should not be under the control of private corporations and/or beholden to advertisers.

It is worth remembering that this whole spectacle is being unfolded for us by Murdoch’s rivals.  (The BBC for instance is positively crowing ).  Even this we are not watching unmediated.   How could we?   We have to rely on others.  The important thing is to ensure that we have a lot of different others to rely on, with a lot of different interests and points of view.

The News of the World

Once upon a time, far off in the future, there was a World in which there were several political parties, free speech, and fair elections.   However one fabulously wealthy man had managed over time to accumulate the largest part of the World’s holographic broadcasting system, such that just about everyone heard and saw the news of their World only as authorised by him.

His name was Palmer.  He had come across the depths of space from another planet entirely, and his power was such that all the major political parties were obliged to court his favour.  Before each election their leaders would discuss their platforms with him, seek his views, offer to modify their positions in exchange for the support of his many holo-channels.  For they knew that if they did not do so, their parties would be trashed by his vast army of story-weavers and could not hope to win the popular vote.  (Those story-weavers were masters at building and wrecking reputations, and they were utterly ruthless.)

So Palmer controlled the World, giving and witholding power as he pleased, and he didn’t do this by killing people, or locking them up, or using force, because he didn’t need to.   If you control the news of a world – if you can determine the way a world sees itself – then you control that world.

But then one day a strange thing happened.  Palmer’s organisation slipped up.  Right out in public view, his workers were caught behaving in a way that everyone could plainly see was despicable.   The curtain was pulled aside for a moment, and the people of the World could see that their news  – their entire understanding about what happened beyond their immediate ken – was being fed to them by a pack of ruthless and deceitful crooks, who cared about nothing but their own self-interest, and the interests of their master Palmer.

It was a rare rare opportunity.  Soon the curtain would close again.  Soon this very episode would itself have been worked over, repackaged and re-presented to the people of that World by Palmer’s master story-tellers.  So what happened then, was that….


Philip K. Dick

I came to Philip Dick’s work relatively late, but it has a big influence on me.  I would find it difficult to say  which is my favourite one of his books and stories, though at times I decide The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which many people seem to pick, and which I may write about some other time.  At other times I decide on Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, a wonderful book in which the most complex and sympathetic character is a police chief in a brutal police state, in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, whose death is a turning point in the story  (one of countless references in Dick to a dead female twin: his own twin sister died in infancy).

I also particularly admire his short story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’  (I once wrote a 20,000 word dissertation on this one story, and I may at some point write more about it here.)

Although I started reading science fiction as a teenager in the seventies, I didn’t come upon Dick until some time later, and I found his work a revelation: I could use science fiction not just for sociological and political speculation, not just for ‘sense of wonder’, but to write about everything!

The first Dick book I read was  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I was blown away by the reckless, even careless, daring with which Dick flung together ideas, bothering not at all with technological plausibility, and combining  deep darkness with playful absurdity.  Dick can be very funny. The opening pages of Androids are some of the funniest writing I have read anywhere, and  who but Philip Dick would have a character (as in Ubik) engaging in an argument with his own sentient front door (he threatens to kick the door down, at which point the door threatens to sue him.)

Some people say Dick has good ideas but does not write well. I find this hard to understand.  His writing can sometimes be sloppy – many of these books were churned out at great speed – but I envy the precision and clarity of  his best prose, and at times it is really beautiful.  The following is from Androids. Isidore stands in his decaying apartment in a nearly empty building, in a decaying and depopulated world:

Silence.  It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill.  It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting.  It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived there.  From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.  It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it – the silence – meant to supplant all things tangible.  Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.  Alive!  He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait.  The silence of the world could not rein back its greed.  Not any longer.  Not when it had virtually won.

But above all what stands out about Dick’s work is that, however bizarre and ludicrous the worlds he creates, the characters within them are entirely human.   The author has inhabited them and looked out of their eyes (not always the case in science fiction writing, where characters are often very much seen from the outside, their characteristics added-on, rather than integral to their nature).   Dick’s characters’ dramas are real, however strange (or even silly) the worlds in which they take place, just as the drama in a well-acted play is real, even if the actors’ costumes are absurd and the stage set is only bits of painted plywood.

And of course, famously, the great theme of Philip Dick, is that the so-called real world is like that too: painted plywood concealing something else.  We don’t know where we are, or even who we are, but yet somehow we still really do exist.

Grave of Philip Dick and his sister Jane


The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover imageWhat’s your favourite book?   It’s a meaningless question of course.  If you’ve read a lot of books, you can’t really have one favourite.  But if I’m asked the question I’ve been known to answer The Unconsoled. I first read this some 16 years ago when it first came out, having heard Ishiguro talking about it on the radio.   I have just re-read it to see if I still rated it as highly.  I did.  It’s a long book, but I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

I was drawn to the book in the first place when I heard Ishiguro say that he had decided to write the book using the narrative technique of human dreams.  In a dream, he explained, a person can go through a door in one town and emerge in a different town (saving the many pages of rationalisation and explanation you might need to get a person from one place to another in a realistic novel).   These jumps happen frequently in the novel, as do other dream-like devices, such as one  person doubling up as another, or of a person standing outside a building being able to see what is going on inside, or a person or thing from the past turning up in a completely different context without this causing anyone any surprise.  But the novel isn’t in any way ‘dreamy’.   The dream-technique is used for compression, not for random weirdness, the writing is in Ishiguro’s usual spare exact stiff-upper-lippy prose, the characters are precisely and poignantly drawn, and even though the situations are often bizarre, the human relationships are painfully real.

The story is about an eminent pianist, Ryder, arriving in an unnamed European town (the town is unnamed but the characters have German-sounding names: there is a definite debt to Kafka in this book, and in my opinion, if not a debt then a faint kinship with the work of another of my  favourite writers, Philip Dick).  The town expects great things of Ryder, and he is very taken with the idea of himself as a great and important man, but what unfolds (for I guess some 200,000 words) resembles  one of those anxiety dreams (I have them frequently) in which you are trying to get somewhere, but are constantly thwarted by endless complications and obstacles (for example by a brick wall built for no reason right across a street).  Or the ones in which you are never quite sure what part you are supposed to be playing.

In the course of this, a whole cast of characters appears, mostly rather lonely and tortured souls, many of them so driven by a need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their imagined superiors, or their parents, or their own eyes, that they neglect and forget about those they are supposed to love.  (Themes apparent also in his previous novel The Remains of the Day).   There are many truly heartrending moments, for example when parents simply fail to see how much their children need their approval, but the book is also often funny enough to make you laugh out loud.  The banality of everyday thoughts are wonderfully mocked by having the vain and self-centred Ryder expressing them in the same pompous language that he uses to talk about his big projects, and often the book is simultaneously funny and excruciatingly sad.  Here is Ryder, who has promised to spend an evening playing boardgames with his little boy, but is distracted by… the need to read every word in the local paper:

Returning to my sofa, I saw that, by putting my plate down on a cushion beside me,  I would be able to eat and continue to read my newspaper at the same time.  I had decided earlier to examine the newspaper very carefully, scrutinising even the adverts for local businesses, and I now continued with this project, reaching over occasionally to my plate without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

There’s no way of doing the book justice in a summary, and I’m sure that, even on two readings, I have only understood part of what is actually there, but it certainly remains one of my favourite books, unsurpassed I think by Ishiguro himself, and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous than it is.

I particularly love the idea of using the narrative devices of dreams because my own view is that dreams are the original archetypal stories.   When people say they don’t have the imagination to write stories, I often wonder how it is that people can say that, when every night they weave themselves complicated intricate stories without even trying, rich in layers and layers of meaning, and often full of truths which waking minds just don’t grasp.  Freud saw dreams as the disguised representations of desires, but that’s only a little part of what dreams do.  In my experience dreams tell me who I am, and often direct a sharp light onto my own self-deceptions, my own little acts of cowardice.  And it is exactly that kind of light that The Unconsoled enlists to shine into the lives of its characters.