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Archive for May, 2013

Sea HereSea Charts of the British Isles: A Voyage of Discovery around Britain & Ireland’s Coastline, John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005)

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

Clarke’s ArksImperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972), Arthur C. Clarke

The Joy of ’LeksThe Dalek Handbook, Steve Tribe and James Goss (BBC Books, 2011)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Sea Charts of the British Isles by John BlakeSea Charts of the British Isles: A Voyage of Discovery around Britain & Ireland’s Coastline, John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005)

This is a bonnet-book. Opening it is like lifting the sleek, stream-lined bonnet of a car to reveal the complicated and powerful engine beneath. Sea Charts of the British Isles reminds you of what goes on beneath the surface and of what you might have been taking for granted. In this case, it’s sea-faring: the apparently simple task of sailing from one place to another. But it’s not simple and it’s never been safe:

The first lighthouse [at the Eddystone Rock off Plymouth], built by Henry Winstanley in 1698, was of wood in an octagonal shape, and strengthened in 1699. Winstanley was captured by a French privateer during construction, but Louis XIV ordered his release, pronouncing that, “We are at war with England, and not humanity.” Winstanley rebuilt the lighthouse in 1703, testing providence – and losing – as he wanted to sit out a storm in the lighthouse. The storm that came was one of the worst ever recorded and when it abated both he and the lighthouse were gone. (ch. 1, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 17)

To avoid hazards at sea, you have to know not just where they are but where you are. Lighthouses are one way of marking hazards, but you can’t put a lighthouse on every rock. So you need charts and ways of finding yourself on them. This book is about the charts and the charts are guides to navigation: they often have mysterious, slanting and radiating lines that you don’t find on land-maps. You don’t usually drown or founder if you go astray on land and you can easily ask directions. Before satellite-positioning, you had to find directions at sea for yourself:

Portolani or books of sailing directions, known in England as rutters of the sea, existed in medieval times, before the chart as we have come to know it was conceived… The English navigator would rely heavily on the rutter, given the meagre navigation equipment of medieval times, which he used along with the compass, and lead and line for sounding depths… The portolan charts were based on a framework of 16 compass roses equally spaced and arranged in a circle, with radiating rhumb lines that navigators could use as a guide to lay off a course to steer. (ch. I, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 22-5)

Looking through this book, you can trace the evolution of both navigation and cartography from page to page, century to century. Charts once showed Scotland “as a separate island (as some may wish it now)” (ch. I, pg. 11) and the coastline of Britain only vaguely resembled reality. Paradoxically, as cartography became more scientific and the charts became more realistic and accurate, so they became more evocative too. A medieval chart tastes of paper, not of the sea. By the end of the eighteenth century, charts let you taste the sea and hear the sea-birds:

The first admiralty chart published of the Scilly Isles was drawn by Graeme Spence in 1792. … This is a stunning piece of hydrographic surveying with 23 views of the indented, complex coast of this island group battered by the Atlantic. Lying 32 miles off Land’s End, with balmy temperatures all year-round, it is an internationally important area with large numbers of sea-birds breeding on the islands, including the red-beaked puffin, and most notably the European storm-petrel … (ch. III, “The South Coast of England”, pg. 65)

Spence’s chart isn’t intended as art or evocation, but it is artistic and it does evoke. So does the “Chart of Caithnesshire and the Orkneys” published by Laurie and Whittle in 1794, with “pilot information and sailing directions” for the Merchant Navy (ch. VI, “Scotland”, pg. 106). This evocation-by-accuracy found in real charts and maps is borrowed by fantasy-writers like Ursula Le Guin, whose archipelago-world of Earthsea gains extra power from the fact that it has been given a realistic map. If Earthsea also had charts with sailing-directions, it would have even more power. Symbols, sightings, soundings would add verisimilitude to an invented world and offer more food to the reader’s imagination. But there’s plenty of food for the imagination in this book about charts for a real world.

It’s also interesting to ask why charts are more powerful than maps. I enjoy looking at both, but there’s something special in a static representation of a highly dynamic thing. The sea regularly rises and falls, irregularly rages and calms, so charts have to indicate tides and currents. And depths too: the land doesn’t hide its secrets the way the sea does. Charts can also go out of date very quickly and easily, because sandbanks can shift and rock-formations collapse overnight. This book doesn’t just tour space, it tours time too, whether it’s human or hydrographic. All coastlines are beautiful, but the British and Irish coastline has a special place in maritime history, because the British Isles have given so much to sea-faring. See the sea-faring, and the special place, right here.

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Front cover of Outsider II by Brian SewellOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

I’m slipping. When I said I hoped that the art-critic Brian Sewell would live to write the second volume of his autobiography and say more about Salvador Dalí, he had already written it and devoted an entire chapter to Dalí. Further, as a committed Guardian-reader, I’d already read a review of the book in Britain’s premier purveyor of progressive performativity. My memory must be suffering from all the drink, drugs and debauchery. I think the recycled title confused me too. I also think this is the better half of the autobiography. For one thing, it explains more clearly why Sewell matters and why so many people admire him, including me:

I am one of the brave brotherhood of those who have been publicly insulted by Norman Rosenthal. By a Bond Street dealer who thought his stock and reputation impugned I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a wet umbrella – clammily unpleasant but, unfurled, an ineffective weapon. I have been punched in the right eye by a young painter, the blow so heavy that it disrupted sight for several weeks and the bruise spread over my cheek and neck before it faded, pummelled by a lesbian clad from top to toe in black leather (for me an occasion of almost helpless laughter), and jostled from their exhibition by video artists who shut down their contraptions and turned off the lights as soon as I entered their room in the Camden Arts Centre. These small events, the screams of feminists and the low booing of billiards players in the Chelsea Arts Club, are expressions of rage easier to tolerate than the closing of ranks by those who run the art establishment, whose defensive refrain “He’s only an art critic” they believe excuses them from taking notice of anything I write or say. Even Nicholas Serota once felt it proper to terminate a discussion with “I’m a museum director and you’re only an art critic” when he thought he’d lost an argument. To compliant critics, however, serving their purposes, these panjandrums are quite prepared to drop to the low kowtow. (ch. 11, “The Venomous Critic”, pp. 205-6)

If Sewell had been compliant, he’d almost certainly have been knighted by now. But he’ll go to his grave as plain “Brian Sewell” and that is undoubtedly the way he wants it. At eighty-one and in poor health, he knows his grave isn’t far off: the sixteenth and final chapter is entitled simply “Death”. He describes the failure of his flesh – “My spine crumbles, my hips creak, and like most men of my age I have had the dreaded slippery finger of the urologist probing my prostate gland” (pg. 272) – but says he fears dementia even more than impotence and incontinence. He doesn’t fear being dissected after death, however, or the irreverence of medical students:

Ideally, what is left of me should be buried in the garden with the bones of the dozen dogs already there, nourishing the roots of yet another tree. (Loc. cit., pg. 274)

Dogs appear a lot in this book. So does buggery, both active and passive: “I give as good as I get and I don’t have to pay for it” he says he once said to an offer of sexual service (pg. 134). That’s in chapter eight, “The Blunt Affair”, which is devoted to the unmasking of Sewell’s friend and lover Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent. Not that Sewell admits to being Blunt’s lover: for all the candour elsewhere about bath-houses (ch. 5, pg. 74), bumming in barracks (ch. 3, pp. 46-7) and banging one out for Salvador Dalí (ch. 4, pp. 54-5), he’s discreet about his sex-life when he wants to be.

His refusal to abandon Blunt is another example of his failure to be compliant and earn himself a knighthood. I’m less sympathetic with it than I am with his disdain for modern art and female artists, but it’s another example of Sewell, as a homosexual, putting loyalty to another homosexual above his loyalty to humanity. I don’t think that’s putting it too highly: communism was an evil and ugly system and Sewell has to pretend that Blunt was naïve in his politics, “drifting”, “uncertain” and “trapped by affections and unwise personal loyalties” into becoming “a Communist spy of sorts” (loc. cit., pg. 147). And it is true that Blunt led a detached and unworldly life:

One episode particularly amused Michael [Kitson] – in search of a restaurant we passed a McDonald’s and Anthony murmured, “How strange to find a Scottish restaurant in Düsseldorf.” (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 127)

But Blunt spied on behalf of a system that did not allow people, scholars or otherwise, to lead detached, unworldly lives. Under Stalin, even poached eggs were subordinated to politics:

…for many years practically every work published in the Soviet Union or its dependencies was studded with references to Stalin and his glorious intellect. This applied even to manuals of physics, cookery books, and so on, though it was still possible to distinguish between ritual homage and genuinely Stalinist works: there was not really any such thing as “Stalinist physics”. (Main Currents of Marxism: Volume III, The Breakdown, Leszek Kołakowski, ch. vii, “György Lukács: Reason in the Service of Dogma”, pg. 254, Clarendon Press, 1978)

But there was definitely a Stalinist art-criticism and Blunt would have had to conform to it. And conformity might not have saved him from arrest, torture and execution: Stalinism destroyed countless innocent people, because terror was the fuel it ran on. Sewell notes that Blunt turned the Courtauld Institute “from a finishing school for witless girls into a seminary with a worldwide reputation”, then regrets his failure to do the same elsewhere:

The pity is that his political life was not subject to such a transformation … It is difficult to believe so intelligent a man … At heart he had no politics … he was touched by Britain’s evident poverty in the Thirties, touched by the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, touched by the inevitability of conflict with Germany, but it is to be doubted that he had any profound interest in the political reasons or remedies for them … How then could so scrupulously scholarly a man, so dry, precise and considered in everything he wrote of art and architecture, be such a fool as to put his scholarship at risk for a political philosophy in which he had virtually no belief? (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 147)

And Sewell’s answer? It was all down to “Guy Burgess, with whom he perhaps never went to bed but who won from him undying loyalty”. For “Burgess” read “Blunt”, for “Blunt” read “Sewell”. Sewell, of course, didn’t embrace Blunt’s politics, but if Sewell had been Blunt’s age, would he too have become “a Communist spy of sorts” and worked for Stalin? It seems entirely possible. There’s food for homophobic thought there, alas, as there is elsewhere in the book for Islamophobic and antisemitic thought. Sewell is no more an Islamophobe or antisemite that he is a homophobe, but he may supply material for bigots in his descriptions of homosexual gang-rape and cruelty to animals in Muslim countries (ch. 7, “Turkey”, passim) and in catty remarks about members of another much-oppressed group:

… Norman Lebrecht, [big-time Mahler-booster and] former music critic of the Daily Telegraph. … Never was a favourite so puffed-up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee. (ch., “The Evening Standard”, pg. 198) … [I] accepted [the] invitation knowing nothing of the programme but expecting it to be an evening of Schubert or Richard Strauss. It was not; it was an exquisite punishment knowingly inflicted – entirely of Sondheim unrelieved. I would rather have had a tooth drawn. (ch. , “Loose Ends”, pg. 255)

His remarks about Salvador Dalí’s halitosis and projectile-mastication, on the other hand, are candid, not catty. Sewell says “I wished he farted more and breathed less” (pg. 57), but Dalí himself “knew his breath was foul and claimed that [it] kept flies from perching on the wings of his moustache; when one once did it was made immortal in a photograph” (ibid.). That’s in chapter 2, “Salvador Dali in Cadaques”, which is perhaps the most interesting and entertaining part of the book. Dalí is one of my favourite artists, but I’d never seen him in quite the light cast by Sewell’s recollections:

He was one of only two men I have known capable of sputtering, not only on himself with a napkin tucked below his chin, but over every neighbour at a table for four with napkins on their laps. The other man was Bernard Crick, founder of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, who, on the occasion of giving it to me, ruined a favourite tie in plain green silk, bought because it it perfectly matched (or so I thought) the green of Dali’s velvet [suits]. (pg. 57)

Sewell met Dalí because, having adopted “two beach dogs, Scipio and Hannibal”, on holiday in Catalonia, he was cutting up “the windpipe and lungs of a sheep, complete, intact and very bloody” outside a café. Dalí and Gala “whispered to a stop” near him in a “great green pre-war Cadillac” (pg. 51). Dalí, “dressed top to toe in velvet of a dark green to match the car”, then approached Sewell, who he supposed had been waiting for him:

“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his attitude imperious. “Of course. You’re Dali,” I replied – and to this day I do not know whether he was flattered that I knew or disappointed that he had been denied another opportunity to announce to all in earshot, “I am Dali.” “And you’ve been waiting for me” – half question, half accusation. He seemed surprised when I said that I had not. To me, but not apparently to him, it was a preposterous notion that anyone would lie in wait for him with the dogs, the blood, the knife, the windpipe and the lungs as an elaborate ruse to draw him into conversation, but this is indeed what he supposed. (Loc. cit., pg. 51)

This chance encounter produced an invitation to Dalí’s house, with its giant egg and phallic swimming-pool, and a Debris Christ in whose “left armpit” Sewell was invited to “masturbate (again the excessive rolling of the r)”. He nonchalantly obliged while Dalí “clicked” a “camera” and “fumbled in his trousers” (his own, that is, not Sewell’s) (pp. 54-5). Sewell doubts that there was film in the camera, suspecting mere “camouflage for a voyeur who, though brazenly addicted to the habit, was still, at his age, both embarrassed by residual shame and unwilling to admit to homosexuality” (pg. 56).

He realizes then that “Dalí, for all the fawning interest of strangers, was alone and could not bear his loneliness – Gala, his anchor in Cadaques since 1930, was not enough” (ibid.). And so, undeterred by his axillary initiation, he accepted Dalí’s hospitality again: that was the first of “four long visits to Cadaques” (pg. 65), which allowed him to observe “a dirty Dali so to speak” and to see “hundreds of drawings that could never be published or exhibited, revealing the depths he had plumbed” (pg. 66). Almost everything in this chapter is quotable, as Sewell describes Dalí’s egomania, eccentricity, neurosis, absurdity, pretension, self-parody and self-mockery. But the chapter ends with the simple, sane judgment that Dalí was “the last of the great old masters” (ibid.).

Sewell has met many other old masters in paint, if not in person, but it isn’t just Dalí who mixes art with absurdity in Outsider II:

At the bottom of the tree were the dozens of dealers who dealt from the back of a van and, in the case of Raymond de Romare, from a caravan; this, badly parked in Duke Street, St James’s, narrowing an already narrow street, was ripped to shreds one day by a passing army lorry, leaving his stock of ghastly paintings lying in the road among the splintered timbers. One of them, on a large sheet of copper, was badly bent; unwilling to pay the cost of a restorer’s attempting to flatten it, he gave five shillings to the driver of a steamroller to drive slowly and ever so gently over it – of which the consequence was a much larger and much thinner sheet of copper with not a flake of paint adhering to it. (ch. 2, “Scratching a Living”, pp. 32-3)

There’s also this, at the end of a section devoted to the charismatic and larger-than-life forger Tom Keating:

On his death in 1984, a partial clearance of his studio gave rise to an outpouring of respect by the art market in the only way it knows – it paid absurd prices at an auction. Christie’s had already held one sale, presumably to settle taxes, the year before, and this second sale was thought to be the last chance to buy a Keating. It was not – sales continued until at last the penny dropped and the salesroom recognised that there must now be a forger of Keatings… (ch. 6, “The Seventies”, pg. 91)

Both halves of Sewell’s autobiography are long and detailed, but they must represent a bare fraction of the memories and experiences that crowd his brain, which “has so long thrilled in wonder at masterpieces of art and architecture” (ch. 16, “Death”, pg. 274). Masterpieces like the mosque converted from a church at Barhal in Turkey, “the masonry as crisp as the day it was cut, the arcaded outer walls as mathematically precise and proportional as any of Bach’s Goldberg Variations” (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 111). Sewell also “fell” into “traps of longing, lust and love” for cars in the days before “art … surrendered their design to the computer” (ch. 15, “Loose Ends”, pg. 269). He says that, at the end of the Second World War, cars returned to the streets of London and Kensington “became an exhibition site of wonders from the Twenties and Thirties, not only of the familiar grandees, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lagonda, but of such now long-forgotten marques as Autovias and Packards, Salmsons, Railtons and Broughs, Hudsons, Cords and Auburns” (ibid., pp. 268-9).

Yet despite his devotion to man’s art and artifice, Sewell says this of the same trip in Turkey on which he saw the church at Barhal:

There were no bears, but at one point I disturbed an eagle on a ledge — and perhaps have seen nothing more beautiful than the one lazy flap of its wings that set it on a seemingly effortless vertical flight up the sun-warmed cliff behind it. (Loc. cit., pg. 112)

I think that is an example of something many people might not associate with Sewell: his humility. He is a far more interesting and erudite man than most of his critics, but he can echo Landor: “Nature I loved, and next to Nature art.” Landor goes on to say that he “strove with none,/For none was worth my strife”. Sewell can’t say the same: he has thought many people worthy of strife, if not in themselves then for the absurdities and pretensions of the art they produce or promote. Sewell’s sharp tongue and sharp pen have won him many victories, because he is cleverer and wittier than his enemies are. That’s why they have resorted to physical attacks, despite controlling so much of the art-world. Sewell has ruled a small corner of it, but he knows that there is much more to the world than art. Important truths like this are not found in art, for example:

Two in the morning is no time to find that the contents of one’s knapsack are sticky with ginger marmalade. (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 104)

That is Sewell in a nutshell: alive to the absurdity of life and able to describe it memorably. If you’d like to learn more about him and the ginger marmalade, Outsider and its Outsider await.


Previously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Mum, Bum and Caravaggio — review of the first volume of Outsider

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Front cover of Imperial Earth by Arthur C. ClarkeImperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972), Arthur C. Clarke

I was a pretty little boy once, before all the drink, drugs and debauchery. Arthur C. Clarke would have been pleased by this, because he liked pretty little boys and in those days he was my favourite writer. Alas, I’m no longer pretty and he’s no longer my favourite writer. I see the flaws in his writing too clearly now and I don’t like his optimistic liberal politics or his piety about One Humanity. But I see the virtues of his writing too: its intelligence, clarity and scientific acumen, for example. If you put aside anthropology and genetics, Clarke knew what he was extrapolating about and his books have aged well. Nothing dates faster than the future, but Clarke’s various futures aren’t wholly ridiculous yet.

For example, Imperial Earth was published in 1976 and is set in the twenty-third century, but it’s still possible to suspend disbelief while you’re reading the book. It’s getting harder, however, and one thing must have been hard to accept even in 1976. The novel is about the Makenzie clan, who live in an underground city on Saturn’s moon Titan and are unique because of two allegedly uncorrectable errors. First, a computer has accidentally altered their surname and second, a photon has adventitiously ended their lineage:

The fault lay in Malcolm’s genes, not Ellen’s. Sometime during his shuttling back and forth between Earth and Mars, a stray photon that had been cruising through space since the cosmic dawn had blasted his hopes for the future. The damage was irreparable, as Malcolm discovered when he consulted the best genetic surgeons of four worlds. (ch. 1, “A Shriek in the Night”)

So Malcolm Makenzie has to clone himself to produce his son Colin, and Colin has to clone himself to produce Malcolm’s grandson Duncan. Rubbish! Men have colonized the solar system and can produce clones, but can’t repair simple damage to sex-cells? And the clones, produced from somatic cells, have the same defect? That Malcolm, Colin and Duncan are all black-skinned isn’t incredible, just irritating: like Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy, Clarke’s future is a Star-Trekkian, rainbow-of-races one and he likes being ironic about racism and prejudice. It’s also a disenchanted future: there’s nothing supernatural in it and man’s power over nature is increasing all the time.

But Clarke still wants to invoke old emotions. So where is sublimity – awe, mystery and wonder – to come from in a universe without God or gods? This problem has existed for a long time: the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) identified the phenomenon of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, at the beginning of the twentieth century, as science advanced and God retreated. Where do atheists find awe?

The poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) faced the same problem in the same era and Arthur C. Clarke was familiar with Housman’s solutions. Clarke even took the title of a novel, Against the Fall of Night (1948), from one of Housman’s poems:

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.

Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.

Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.

Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?

Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.

(XLV in More Poems, 1936)

Housman uses the sea as a metaphor for time, which conquers all things and all men. We are dwarfed by time just as we are dwarfed by the sea. Both can invoke awe even in atheists. Housman also sought awe in the ungovernable chances that rule our lives and in the thought of death being the final and irrevocable end. But Clarke, a much more optimistic and cheerful character than Housman, did not dwell so much on death. It appears in his work occasionally, not obsessively:

Grandma had met Captain Kleinman only a year after the final parting with Malcolm; she may have been on an emotional rebound, but he certainly was not. Yet thereafter the Captain had never looked at another woman, and it had become one of those love affairs famous on many worlds. It had lasted throughout the planning and preparations for the first expedition to Saturn and the fitting-out of the Challenger in orbit off Titan. And as far as Ellen Makenzie was concerned it had never died; it was frozen forever at the moment when the ship met its mysterious and still inexplicable doom, deep in the jet streams of the South Temperate Zone. (ch. 5, “The Politics of Space and Time”)

Mysterious and inexplicable dooms are very old themes, but Clarke still wanted to use one, despite his optimism and belief in science and reason. But he preferred Housman’s awe-by-dwarfing and awe-by-chance. In Imperial Earth, communication is by hyper-scientific, unenchanted “viddyphone”. But one day, by “pure chance”, Duncan Makenzie finds a “magic number”, accidentally misdialling when he is trying to call his step-grandmother. The circuit is “live immediately”, but there is “no ringing tone” and “no picture”:

Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. As he listened, Duncan felt a growing sense of awe. Here was something completely outside his normal, everyday experience, yet he recognized it almost at once. In his ten years of life, the impressions of many worlds had been imprinted on his mind, and no one who had heard this most evocative of sounds could ever forget it. He was listening to the voice of the wind as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head.

Duncan forgot all about Grandma, and turned the volume up to its highest level. He lay back on the couch, closed his eyes, and tried to project himself into the unknown, hostile world from which he was protected by all the safety devices that three hundred years of space technology could contrive. (ch. 1, “A Shriek in the Night”)

Safety devices disenchant; the wind’s randomness re-enchants. Wind combines both power and chance: it’s a chaotic and sometimes destructive phenomenon. But there’s more to come for Duncan on the “magic number”:

As luck would have it, the wind must have slackened at about the time he [began to record its sounds], because there was a long, frustrating silence. Then, out of that silence, came something new. It was faint and distant, yet conveyed the impression of overwhelming power. First there was a thin scream that mounted second by second in intensity, but somehow never came any closer. The scream rose swiftly to a demonic shriek, with undertones of thunder – then dwindled away as quickly as it had appeared. From beginning to end it lasted less than half a minute. Then there was only the sighing of the wind, even lonelier than before.

The shriek conveys “overwhelming power” and sounds “demonic”, but Duncan doesn’t believe in demons and the overwhelming power turns out to be wielded by man: the shriek was made by a “ram-tanker” scooping hydrogen from Titan’s atmosphere to use as fuel. Clarke’s future runs partly on Promethium, which would have pleased Marx:

I was standing on a beach in Siberia when this book [Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents Of Marxism, Vol I, II and III, (1978)] was recommended to me. The wavelets of a small artificial ocean made by damming the river Ob were splashing on the sand, and I was wondering out loud about the roots of the Soviet passion for making grand modifications to nature. “You need to read Kolakowski,” said the person I was with. “He’s got a great chapter about what he calls ‘the Promethean motif’ in Marxism – the idea that it’s the destiny of humanity to steal fire from the gods and make the world whatever we want it to be.” (“Book Of A Lifetime”, Francis Spufford)

The Promethean impulse in incompetent communism led to horrendous pollution and a world that people didn’t actually want. In capitalism, it hasn’t been as destructive so far, but the world it creates still leaves people wanting sublimity. Housman taught Clarke some ways of invoking that, but Clarke had his own way too: mathematics. In Imperial Earth, Duncan’s grandmother introduces Duncan to pentominoes, or shapes made by fitting five squares together edge-to-edge. Only twelve pentominoes are possible and they can arranged to make a ten-by-six rectangle. But it’s not as easy to make the rectangle as it looks:

For a long time, Duncan stared at the collection of twelve deceptively simple figures. As he slowly assimilated what Grandma had told him, he had the first genuine mathematical revelation of his life. What had at first seemed merely a childish game had opened endless vistas and horizons – though even the brightest of ten-year-olds could not begin to guess the full extent of the universe now opening up before him. This moment of dawning wonder and awe was purely passive; a far more intense explosion of intellectual delight occurred when he found his first very own solution to the problem. For weeks he carried around with him the set of twelve pentominoes in their plastic box, playing with them at every odd moment. […] And once in a sort of geometrical trance or ecstasy which he was never able to repeat, he discovered five solutions in less than an hour. Newton and Einstein and Chen-Tsu could have felt no greater kinship with the gods of mathematics in their own moments of truth… (ch. 7, “A Cross of Titanite”)

The gods are gone from Clarke’s universe, but he still uses them as a metaphor for the way mathematics dwarfs man. Note the final ellipsis too: it’s Clarke’s own, because he likes trailing dots and leaving things unsaid. In mathematics, trailing dots are used to represent indefiniteness or infinity: 1, 2, 3… Infinity is another source of the sublime and Clarke invokes it regularly in Imperial Earth. This is Duncan looking at the strange mineral Titanite under a microscope:

A hexagonal corridor of light, dwindling away to infinity, outlined by millions of sparkling points in a geometrically perfect array. By changing focus, Duncan could hurtle down that corridor, without ever coming to an end. How incredible that such a universe lay inside a piece of rock only a millimetre thick! (ch. 7, “A Cross of Titanite”)

This is Duncan hearing the engine that powers the space-ship taking him to Earth:

From an infinite distance came the thin wail of the [Asymptotic] Drive; Duncan told himself that he was listening to the death cry of matter as it left the known universe, bequeathing to the ship all the energy of its mass in the final moment of dissolution. Every minute, several kilograms of hydrogen were falling into that tiny but insatiable vortex – the hole that could never be filled. (ch. 15, “At the Node”)

And this is Duncan actually on Earth:

It was even worse when he looked up at the sky, so utterly different from the low, crimson overcast of Titan. He had flown halfway across the Solar System, yet never had he received such an impression of space and distance as he did now, when he stared at the solid-looking white clouds, sailing through a blue abyss that seemed to go on forever. It was useless to tell himself that they were only ten kilometres away – the distance a spaceship could travel in a fraction of a second. Not even the starfields of the Milky Way had yielded such glimpses of infinity. (ch. 19, “Mount Vernon”)

In the main hall of the Administration Building, Duncan paused for a moment before the giant, slowly rotating DNA helix which dominated the entrance. As his gaze roamed along the spokes of the twisted ladder, contemplating its all-but-infinite possibilities, he could not help thinking again of the pentominoes that Grandma Ellen had set out before him years ago. There were only twelve of those shapes – yet it would take the lifetime of the universe to exhaust their possibilities. And here was no mere dozen, but billions upon billions of locations to be filled by the letters of the genetic code. The total number of combinations was not one to stagger the mind because there was no way whatsoever in which the mind could grasp even the faintest conception of it. The number of electrons required to pack the entire cosmos solid from end to end was virtually zero in comparison. (ch. 42, “The Mirror of the Sea”)

So it’s too awesome to be awesome. Which is awesome. Duncan is dwelling on DNA because he’s at the cloning-centre, overseeing the fourth generation of Makenzies. Because a clone is a copy, the possibilities of recombination are over, but there will be a twist at the end of Imperial Earth whereby possibility is renewed and life comes out of death in a way it never did in Housman. There’s also a clever link in Imperial Earth between Clarke’s two great alien loves: the sea and the heavens. Something apparently small and earth-bound turns out to be gigantic and otherworldly. Clarke used marine and extra-terrestrial themes in all his books, but there’s another clever link in Rendezvous with Rama, where the sea is actually waiting in the heavens. Or a sea is waiting, at least.

And it’s a cylindrical sea, extending right around the interior of a gigantic alien space-craft whose ultimate purpose and destination are never discovered. Or not in this first novel of the Rama series, at least. I haven’t read any of the other books, which Clarke wrote in collaboration with Gentry Lee, and I don’t want to. I don’t want answers to the questions raised by Rendezvous with Rama, just as I don’t want answers to the questions raised in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931):

Some of the Old Ones, in the decadent days, had made strange prayers to those mountains — but none ever went near them or dared to guess what lay beyond. No human eye had ever seen them, and as I studied the emotions conveyed in the carvings, I prayed that none ever might. There are protecting hills along the coast beyond them — Queen Mary and Kaiser Wilhelm Lands — and I thank Heaven no one has been able to land and climb those hills. I am not as sceptical about old tales and fears as I used to be, and I do not laugh now at the prehuman sculptor’s notion that lightning paused meaningfully now and then at each of the brooding crests, and that an unexplained glow shone from one of those terrible pinnacles all through the long polar night. There may be a very real and very monstrous meaning in the old Pnakotic whispers about Kadath in the Cold Waste. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)

Lovecraft was another writer who faced a Godless universe and the dilemma of disenchantment. He invoked sublimity and dwarfed the puny ambitions of man by mixing astronomy with biology and inventing sky-spanning, dimension-demolishing monsters. Clarke was familiar with Lovecraft – he wrote a Lovecraftian pastiche called “At the Mountains of Murkiness” – but his optimism kept him from imitating Lovecraft’s monstrous, quasi-supernatural solutions. All the same, the giant alien artifact of Rama is reminiscent of the vast alien city discovered by Antarctic explorers in At the Mountains of Madness. That is perhaps Lovecraft’s best and most successful book, just as Rendezvous with Rama is perhaps Clarke’s best and most successful. There’s much less reference to infinity in Rendezvous than in Imperial Earth, probably because Clarke has enough on his hands as it is. When Rama originally appears in the solar system, it is so large that it is mistaken for an asteroid:

The object first catalogued as 31/439, according to the year and the order of its discovery, was detected while still outside the orbit of Jupiter. There was nothing unusual about its location; many asteroids went beyond Saturn before turning once more towards their distant master, the sun. And Thule II, most far-ranging of all, travelled so close to Uranus that it might well have been a lost moon of that planet.

But a first radar contact at such a distance was unprecedented; clearly, 31/439 must be of exceptional size. From the strength of the echo, the computers deduced a diameter of at least forty kilometres; such a giant had not been discovered for a hundred years. That it had been overlooked for so long seemed incredible.

Then the orbit was calculated, and the mystery was resolved – to be replaced by a greater one. 31/439 was not travelling on a normal asteroidal path, along an ellipse which it retraced with clockwork precision every few years. It was a lonely wanderer between the stars, making its first and last visit to the solar system – for it was moving so swiftly that the gravitational field of the sun could never capture it. It would flash inwards past the orbits of Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury, gaining speed – as it did so, until it rounded the sun and headed out once again into the unknown. (ch. 2, “Intruder”)

The year of discovery is 2131, so it’s easier to suspend disbelief in Rendezvous than in Imperial Earth, set in 2276. Rama keeps getting curiouser and curiouser: originally thought to be asteroidal, it’s soon discovered to be artificial on a scale far beyond man’s wildest ambitions. Furthermore, it’s hollow and when a spaceship called Endeavour is sent to investigate it, the crew discover an air-lock and can get inside. And “air-lock” is the word: Rama is full of air that men can breathe. Because it’s cylindrical and spinning on its long axis, it also has gravity and the crew of Endeavour are able to set up camp in the interior.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
What they see when the lighting comes on is well-captured by the cover-artist of the first edition. However, the clouds are artistic licence, inspired by the section in which Clarke describes how the frozen interior of Rama and the ice of the Cylindrical Sea begin to thaw. There’s a scientific team on Earth called the Rama Committee, which is overseeing the exploration of Rama, and one of its leading lights is an exobiologist called Carlisle Perera. He is able to predict something others have missed. The crew of Endeavour have to abandon Rama while his prediction works itself out. On their return, they make more unexpected discoveries, sail the Cylindrical Sea, and fly to the far end of Rama, which is otherwise inaccessible because of the cliff on the opposite side of the Sea. Or one of the crew flies to the South Pole, at least:

Lieutenant James Pak was the most junior officer on board Endeavour, and this was only his fourth mission into deep space. He was ambitious, and due for promotion; he had also committed a serious breach of regulations. No wonder, therefore, that he took a long time to make up his mind. (ch. 24, “Dragonfly”)

He’s breached regulations by smuggling a “sky-bike” on board as “Recreational Stores”. A sky-bike is a man-powered flyer and he intended to use it in the Lunar Olympics. Now, he suggests to Captain Norton that he fly along Rama instead to the mysterious horns at the South Pole. Gravity will be lower near the axis of Rama and he’ll easily be able to keep aloft. This is an example of how Clarke, having imagined Rama, is able to add scientific detail to his creation: he can see how things might really be. But part of how things might really be, inside a giant alien spacecraft, is a lot that human beings can’t understand, like the structures Jimmy Pak flies to on his sky-bike Dragonfly:

In almost every way the southern and northern ends of Rama differed completely. Here was no triad of stairways, no series of narrow, concentric plateaux, no sweeping curve from hub to plain. Instead, there was an immense central spike, more than five kilometres long, extending along the axis. Six smaller ones, half this size, were equally spaced around it; the whole assembly looked like a group of remarkably symmetrical stalactites, hanging from the roof of a cave. Or, inverting the point of view, the spires of some Cambodian temple, set at the bottom of a crater… (ch. 26, “The Voice of Rama”)

Again the ellipsis is in the original: Clarke is trailing off into mystery, because no-one can understand what the spikes are for. But they become charged with electricity and produce giant bolts of lightning, which cripple Dragonfly and force Jimmy into a crash-landing on the southern half of Rama. He encounters more mysteries here and makes a startling discovery:

Not until he was only a few metres away could he be completely sure that life as he knew it had intruded into the sterile, aseptic world of Rama. For blooming here in lonely splendour at the edge of the southern continent was a flower. (ch. 30, “The Flower”)

This is part of the revelation that Rama is a kind of space-ark and not as lifeless as it originally seemed. But the flower is inside “a trellis of wires and rods”, so when Jimmy decides to pick it, he has to travel light:

He stripped off all his clothes, grasped the smooth metal rods, and started to wriggle into the framework. It was a tight fit; he felt like a prisoner escaping through the bars of his cell. When he had inserted himself completely into the lattice he tried backing out again, just to see if there were any problems. It was considerably more difficult, since he now had to use his outstretched arms for pushing instead of pulling, but he saw no reason why he should get helplessly trapped. (Ibid.)

Jimmy is “the most junior officer” on Endeavour, remember, so I think Clarke’s Housmanesque, paederastic tastes were guiding his imagination there. But a Housman character wouldn’t be called “Jimmy” and wouldn’t survive his misadventure. Clarke raises the possibility of death, but doesn’t realize it: Jimmy is able to escape the southern half of Rama and return to his crewmates. Then there are more startling discoveries, more mysteries, and more touches of scientific verisimilitude, including “tidal waves” on the Cylindrical Sea, which is actually fitted with:

Anti-slosh plates, Norton told himself. Exactly the same as in Endeavour’s own propellant tanks – but on a thousand-fold greater scale. There must be a complex pattern of them all around the Sea, to damp out any waves as quickly as possible. (ch. 32, “The Wave”)

Rama has its own propulsion system, you see, and is starting to manoeuvre as it approaches the sun, so the Cylindrical Sea is starting to slosh about. As he describes Rama’s final hours in the solar system, Clarke comes up with some clever twists and misdirections and the last line of the novel is one of the best in science-fiction. You should have been expecting it, but you probably won’t have been, because it suddenly switches scale from the micro to the macro. Rendezvous with Rama is an admirable novel in a number of ways: easy and enjoyable to read, minutely imagined, cleverly plotted and plausibly detailed. I find its Star-Trekkian, rainbow-of-races, free-and-easy-sexuality society irritating nowadays, but that’s Clarke being Pollyanna or Pangloss.

It’s also Clarke being adolescent: if he’s your favourite author, you might be intelligent or an adult but you probably won’t be both. If the human race is still recognizably human in 2131 or 2276, I doubt it will take him seriously as a writer, but it might honour him as a prophet for his physics and astronautics, if not for his anthropology. There isn’t only one human race: there are lots and Clarke, like many other science-fiction writers, missed exploring a very interesting and complex world by being piously obtuse about humanity and its genetic variability.

But he explored other interesting and complex worlds, extrapolating and imagining and introducing millions of readers to the wonders of space, science and the sea. Rendezvous with Rama is about a giant and mysterious space-ark carrying a mysterious cargo to an unknown destination. It may also be an ark for Arthur C. Clarke’s reputation, carrying it down the decades until his hopes are realized or his creations confounded. He’s not my favourite writer any more but I still admire him and I’m grateful for the pleasure his books have given me.

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The Dalek HandbookThe Dalek Handbook, Steve Tribe and James Goss (BBC Books, 2011)

This book answers the what, why, where, how and who/Who of the best baddies in children’s TV: the Daleks. But it raises an interesting question of its own: “What if?”

Daleks! The Doctor’s deadliest enemies, but also his earliest champions. If it hadn’t been for the Daleks, there might be no Doctor Who today – the show would probably be just a footnote in television history, an ambitious but long-forgotten teatime drama. (“Introduction”, pg. 5)

The Daleks are such good characters, so frightening to children, so entertaining to adults, that it’s hard to remember that they might never have been invented. But history could easily taken a different course. There might have been no Doctor Who; there might have been a Doctor Who, but without Daleks. There might have been a Doctor Who with even better villains. If parallel universes exist, perhaps there is and are. But it’s hard to imagine better villains than the Daleks, just as it’s hard to imagine a better band than the Beatles, although the Beatles too might never have existed.

Both the Beatles and the Daleks are now central to British pop-culture, instantly recognized, easily parodied and mostly held in great affection. The actor Nicholas Briggs describes tapping the affection like this:

I watch the action on a monitor and then I just scream like mad, basically. The first time the cast heard me speaking as a Dalek was at the read-through. The first thing I had to do was a gut-wrenching scream. … A few lines later I had my very first “Exterminate”, and Chris[topher Eccleston] went, “Yes!” and everyone else gave a huge cheer. (“Voicing an Icon”, pg. 112)

I don’t like the word “icon” in its modern sense, but “icon” is what the Daleks are: once seen, never forgotten. And once heard, never forgotten too. The Daleks’ ruthless, ranting electronic voices are half of what makes them so powerful and pastiche-able. The actors Peter Hawkins and David Graham created those voices with the help of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and an electronic device called the “ring modulator”. Also powerful and pastiche-able, but more human and less iconic, is Davros, the insane scientific genius who created the Daleks on the war-poisoned planet of Skaro. Or is he insane? It would be interesting to analyse his megalomania, ruthlessness and ambition from the Nietzschean point of view, but the more immediate comparison is Hitler-as-Ena-Sharples. Which would make the Daleks SS-as-Salt-Shakers:

These links were made more obvious in Genesis of the Daleks (1975), which depicted the Kaleds [progenitors of the Daleks] as a fascist state of black-clad soldiers, obsessed with ethnic cleansing, who regularly clicked their heels as they denounced each other. Davros’s aide, Nyder, was creepily reminiscent of Himmler, founder of the SS, even down to the swept-over hair and wire-framed glasses. (“Fascism: We Must Keep the Kaled Race Pure”, pg. 14)

And perhaps the Daleks have been made into salt-shakers: they aren’t confined to TV series, films, comics, computer-games and toys. No, the BBC have also made a lot of money by selling them on T-shirts, tea-towels, bed-covers, pillow-cases and a lot more. But the man who designed them, Ray Cusick, “received only the standard BBC rate” for his work, though he also got “a gold Blue Peter badge” (“Designing an Icon”, pg. 21). Like Ena Sharples and Blue Peter, the Daleks will often mean nothing to people outside Britain and its Commonwealth, but that’s part of what inspires our affection for them: Doctor Who and its characters are a family heirloom, a private joke, in a way universally popular series like Star Trek and Star Wars can never be in their cultures-of-origin.

Me, I’ve not seen Doctor Who for years and don’t care if I never see it again. The PC is getting stronger all the time, I’m sure, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been a gay or black Doctor so far. If there has been, well, that just goes to show that I’m not a Doctor Who fan. But I still like the Daleks, I still enjoyed dipping into this book and I still admire the men who created such memorable and menacing megalomaniacs:

The Daleks have conquered space, travelled beyond the universe, threatened every reality and challenged the most powerful race in the cosmos for control of Time itself. They cannot be reasoned with, they do not form genuine alliances, they do not want surrender. They will not rest until the only form of life in the universe is Dalek life. One day, the last word the last free creature will hear is… (“The New Dalek Paradigm”, pg. 160)

If you enjoy completing the sentence, you may also enjoy the book.

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