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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Invention of Science by David WoottonThe Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton (Allen Lane 2015)

I picked up this book expecting to start reading, then get bored, start skimming for interesting bits, and sooner or later give up. I didn’t. I read steadily from beginning to end, feeling educated, enlightened and even enthralled. This is intellectual history at nearly its best, as David Wootton sets out to prove what is, for some, a controversial thesis: that “Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe saw a new star, and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks” (introduction, pg. 1).

He does this in a clever and compelling way: by looking at the language used in science across Europe. If there was indeed a scientific revolution and science was indeed a new phenomenon, we should expect to see this reflected in language. Were old words given new meanings? Did new words and phrases appear for previously inexpressible concepts? They were and they did. “Scientist” itself is a new word, replacing earlier and less suitable words like “naturalist”, “physiologist”, “physician” and “virtuoso”. The word “science” is an example of an old word given a new meaning. In Latin, scientia meant “knowledge” or “field of learning”, from the verb scire, “to know”.

But it didn’t mean a systematic collective attempt to investigate and understand natural phenomena using experiments, hypotheses and sense-enhancing, evidence-gathering instruments. Science in that sense was something new, Wootton claims. He assembles a formidable array of texts and references to back his thesis, which is part of why this book is so enjoyable to read. As Wootton points out, the “Scientific Revolution has become almost invisible simply because it has been so astonishingly successful.” Quotations like this, from the English writer Joseph Glanvill, make it visible again:

And I doubt not but posterity will find many things, that are now but Rumors, verified into practical Realities. It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661)

Glanvill’s prescience is remarkable and he’s clearly writing in an age of pre-science or proto-science. He wasn’t just a powerful thinker, but a powerful writer too. So was Galileo and Wootton, who has written a biography of the great Italian, conveys his genius very clearly in The Invention of Science. You can feel some of the exhilaration of the intellectual adventure Galileo and other early scientists embarked on. They were like buccaneers sailing out from Aristotle’s Mediterranean into the huge Atlantic, with a new world before them.

Wootton also emphasizes the importance of Galileo’s original speciality:

The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers. The philosophers controlled the university curriculum (as a university teacher, Galileo never taught anything but Ptolemaic astronomy), but the mathematicians had the patronage of princes and merchants, of soldiers and sailors. They won that patronage because they offered new applications of mathematics to the world. (Part 2, “Seeing is Believing”, ch. 5, “The Mathematization of the World”, pg. 209)

But there’s something unexpected in this part of the book: he describes “double-entry bookkeeping” as part of that mathematical revolt: “the process of abstraction it teaches is an essential precondition for the new science” (pg. 164).

He also has very interesting things to say about the influence of legal tradition on the development of science:

Just as facts moved out of the courtroom and into the laboratory, so evidence made the same move at around the same time; and, as part of the same process of constructing a new type of knowledge, morality moved from theology into the sciences. When it comes to evidence, the new science was not inventing new concepts, but re-cycling existing ones. (Part 3, “Making Knowledge”, ch. 11, “Evidence and Judgment”, pg. 412)

Science was something new, but it wasn’t an ideology ex nihilo. That isn’t possible for mere mortals and Wootton is very good at explaining what was adapted, what was overturned and what was lost. Chapter 13 is, appropriately enough, devoted to “The Disenchantment of the World”; the next chapter describes how “Knowledge is Power”. That’s in Part 3, “Birth of the Modern”, and Wootton wants this to be a modern book, rather than a post-modern one. He believes in objective reality and that science makes genuine discoveries about that reality.

But he fails to take account of some modern scientific discoveries. The Invention of Science is a work of history, sociology, philology, and philosophy. It doesn’t discuss human biology or the possibility that one of the essential preconditions of science was genetic. Modern science arose in a particular place, north-western Europe, at a particular time. Why? The Invention of Science doesn’t, in the deepest sense, address that question. It doesn’t talk about intelligence and psychology or the genetics that underlie them. It’s a work of history, not of bio-history or historical genetics.

In 2016, that isn’t a great failing. History of science hasn’t yet been revolutionized by science. But I would like to see the thesis of this book re-visited in the light of books like Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (2007), which argues that the Industrial Revolution in England had to be preceded by a eugenic revolution in which the intelligent and prudent outbred the stupid and feckless. The Invention of Science makes it clear that Galileo was both a genius and an intellectual adventurer. But why were there so many others like him in north-western Europe?

I hope that historians of science will soon be addressing that question using genetics and evolutionary theory. David Wootton can’t be criticized for not doing so here, because bio-history is very new and still controversial. And he may believe, like many of the post-modernists whom he criticizes, in the psychic unity of mankind. The Invention of Science has other and less excusable flaws, however. One of them is obvious even before you open its pages. Like Dame Edna Everage’s bridesmaid Madge Allsop, it is dressed in beige. The hardback I read does not have an inviting front cover and Wootton could surely have found something equally relevant, but more interesting and colourful.

After opening the book, you may find another flaw. Wootton’s prose is not painful, but it isn’t as graceful or pleasant to read as it could have been. This is both a pity and a puzzle, because he is very well-read in more languages than one: “We take facts so much for granted that it comes as a shock to learn that they are a modern invention. There is no word in classical Greek or Latin for a fact, and no way of translating the sentences above from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] into those languages.” (Part 3, “Facts”, pg. 254)

He certainly knows what good prose looks like, because he quotes a lot of it. But his own lacks the kind of vigour and wit you can see in the words of, say, Walter Charleton:

[I]t hath been affirmed by many of the Ancients, and questioned by very few of the Moderns, that a Drum bottomed with a Woolfs skin, and headed with a Sheeps, will yeeld scarce any sound at all; nay more, that a Wolfs skin will in short time prey upon and consume a Sheeps skin, if they be layed neer together. And against this we need no other Defense than a downright appeal to Experience, whether both those Traditions deserve not to be listed among Popular Errors; and as well the Promoters, as Authors of them to be exiled the society of Philosophers: these as Traitors to truth by the plotting of manifest falsehoods; those as Ideots, for beleiving and admiring such fopperies, as smell of nothing but the Fable; and lye open to the contradiction of an easy and cheap Experiment. (Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, 1654)

The Invention of Science is also too long: its message often rambles home rather than rams. If Wootton suffers from cacoethes scribendi, an insatiable itch to write, then I feel an itch to edit what he wrote. It’s good to pick up a solid book on a solid subject; it would be even better if everything in the book deserved to be there.

But if the book weren’t so good in some ways, I wouldn’t be complaining that it was less than good in others. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished it at all and I wouldn’t be heartily recommending it to anyone interested in science, history or linguistics. But I did and I am. The Invention of Science is an important book and an enjoyable read. I learned a lot from it and look forward to reading it again.

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The World of Visual Illusions by Sarcone and WaeberThe World of Visual Illusions: Optical Tricks That Defy Belief!, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Arcturus 2012)

A bigger, better and brain-bendy-er version of Eye Bogglers by the same authors, The World of Visual Illusions has nine chapters of old and new illusions. The illusions aren’t just entertaining: they raise some very profound philosophical and scientific questions and teach you some important lessons. For example, on page 97 there’s a simple arrangement of multi-coloured blocks and thick black lines. But Sarcone and Waeber ask this: “Do you perceive bright ‘ghost’ blobs or smudges at the intersection of the lines?”

I do and so will almost everyone else. But when I look directly at a blob or smudge, it disappears. Why? What’s going on? No-one knows for sure: “there are many explanations and counter-explanations regarding this illusion, which is related to the Hermann grid illusion.” So this illusion is multum in parvo: much in little. It’s very simple, but it baffles modern science. And, like many other illusions here, it teaches you that your senses aren’t reliable. They can be subverted and you aren’t in control of what your eyes tell you. Even when you know that the lines on page 109 are “perfectly straight and parallel”, it’s impossible to see them like that because of the background they’re set against.

That kind of trickery can also be applied to words and ideas, and although Sarcone and Waeber don’t talk about advertising or politics, the implications are obvious. Appearances can be deceptive and simple things may have hidden depths. So may complicated things: Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) would be a rich and detailed painting even without the anamorphic skull that hovers between the feet of its two subjects. Sarcone and Waeber give the painting a page and a handful of words, but there’s enough there for a long book (John Carroll analyses the painting in a chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture).

There’s enough in the other illusions here for a library, but you don’t have to puzzle over how they work if you don’t want to. We aren’t all equal in intellect or education, but vision is much more egalitarian and this book will entertain all ages and all levels of intelligence. What you experience in an instant can take decades or even centuries for scientists to understand:

It looks like this cat has green eyes. Actually, only one eye is green – the other one is shown in black and white but seems tinted because of the purple context. Thanks to a mechanism of colour adaptation, the brain desensitizes itself to the purple veil which covers the right side of the cat’s face and by doing that it subtracts a bit of purple from the gray eye, which then become yellowish-green. (pg. 120)

I’d like to see Sarcone and Waeber look at other senses. Sight is the most important and powerful sense for human beings, but the ears, nose, mouth and skin can also be illuded. And what about the role of illusions in biological competition and evolution? It’s a big field, often fun, always fascinating.

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The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger


But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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The Soul of the Marionette by John GrayThe Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, John Gray (Penguin 2015)

The philosopher John Gray is an interesting mixture of conservative and liberal, like a cross between Roger Scruton and a Guardian-reader. Like Scruton, he writes well, eschews pretension and offers some good critiques of liberalism. Unfortunately, he shares something else with Scruton: he seems to know very little about human biology and genetics. I’ve never seen him suggest that culture has biological roots, for example, or hint that human beings are more than superficially different. Does he really believe that Icelanders, Somalis and Japanese are part of a single, more or less identical human race?

If he doesn’t, he’s keeping very quiet. Perhaps he’s being prudent. It wouldn’t be good for him to deny the central dogma of modern liberalism: that we’re all the same under the skin. It would distress his many fans in the Guardian-reading community, lose him his reviewing gig at the New Statesman and make it much harder for him to get books published. But something else may stop him publishing books: the passage of time. Like the Oozalum bird, he seems to be moving in ever-decreasing circles and his books are getting shorter and shorter. If he goes on like this, by 2025 he’ll be issuing postcards.

Perhaps he should already be issuing them. If The Soul of the Marionette were a postcard, this is what might be on it:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.

That’s Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” I agree with Kant, but I would say that some human timber is crookeder than others. Gray doesn’t say this. He’s got the Guardian-reading community to think of. Instead, he illustrates the imperfectability and illusions of humanity by discussing writers like Heinrich von Kleist, Bruno Schulz, Giacomo Leopardi, Philip K. Dick, Stanislav Lem, Borges, Poe and so on. We think we’re free but we aren’t. Our behaviour has mysterious roots and takes place in an often unknowable world. This emphasis on literature helps explain his appeal to Guardianistas: lit crit is much more to their taste than genetics or neurology. Gray flatters his readers’ intellects without ever discussing the concept of intellect or intelligence.

How are they relevant, after all? We’re all the same under the skin and have been for many millennia. That’s the central dogma of liberalism. In fact, we aren’t the same and big differences between human groups can evolve very quickly. If Gray recognized this, he would have even stronger reason to attack the illusions of men like George Bush, Tony Blair and the neo-conservatives, who thought that democracy could be brought to the Middle East using violence. For example, he wrote a mordantly funny “Modest Proposal” in defence of torture, which was collected in Gray’s Anatomy (2010). There’s nothing as powerful as that here, but I think the writing is better here. The ideas are often vague but always interesting and you’ll want to try the authors he discusses, if you haven’t already. All the same, I would prefer more genetics and less lit crit.

His Guardianista fans wouldn’t like more genetics, but that’s precisely why I would. Prominent among the distressed Guardianistas would be Will Self. He’s one of those thanked at the end of this book for “conversations that stirred the thoughts” that went into it. Self’s friendship with Gray, like Self’s friendship with J.G. Ballard, is a worrying sign to me. It’s also puzzling. Gray thanks Nassim Taleb at the end of the book too. How is possible for him to take both those men seriously? Taleb is a highly intelligent and interesting writer. Self is a tedious charlatan. He’s also full of liberal illusions about the unity of humanity and the benefits of mass immigration. If Gray is still writing books in 2025, I hope Self is no longer a fan of his. I certainly think the illusions of Self will have been even more starkly exposed by then.

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Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip StokesPhilosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers: The Ideas That Have Shaped Our World, Philip Stokes (Arcturus Publishing 2012)

Caricatures are compelling because they simplify and exaggerate. A good artist can create one in a few strokes. In fact, a good artist has to caricature if he can use only a few strokes. The image won’t be recognizable otherwise.

This also applies to philosophical ideas. If you have to describe them in relatively few words, you’ll inevitably caricature, making them distinct but losing detail and complexity. So this book is a series of caricatures. With only 382 pages of standard print, what else could it be? In each case, Philip Stokes uses a few strokes to portray “100 Essential Thinkers” from Thales of Miletus, born c. 620 B.C., to William Quine (1908-2000), with all the big names in between: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Pascal, Hume, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein and so on. The philosophical portraits are recognizable but not detailed. But that’s why they’re fun, like a caricature.

It’s also fun to move so quickly through time. There are nearly three millennia of Western philosophy here, but the schools and the civilizations stream by, from the Pre-Socratics and Atomists to the Scholastics and Rationalists; from pagan Greece and Rome to Christianity and communism. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which inevitably comes to mind when you look at an over-view like this, moves much more slowly, but it’s a longer and more detailed book.

It’s also funnier and less inclusive. This book discusses men who are more usually seen as scientists or mathematicians, like Galileo and Gödel. But in a sense any historic figure could be included in an over-view of philosophy, because everyone has one. You can’t escape it. Rejecting philosophy is a philosophy too. Science and mathematics have philosophical foundations, but in some ways they’re much easier subjects. They’re much more straightforward, like scratching your right elbow with your left hand.

Philosophy can seem like trying to scratch your right elbow with your right hand. The fundamentals of existence are difficult to describe, let alone understand, and investigating language using language can tie the mind in knots. That’s why there’s a lot of room for charlatans and nonsense in philosophy. It’s easier to pretend profundity than to be profound. It’s also easy to mistake profundity for pseudery.

And, unlike great scientists or mathematicians, great philosophers should be read in the original. Reading Nietzsche in English is like looking at a sun-blasted jungle through tinted glass or listening to Wagner wearing earplugs. Or so I imagine: I can’t read him in German. But some philosophers suffer less by translation than others, because some philosophical ideas are universal. Logic, for example. But how important is logic? Is it really universal? And is mathematics just logic or is it something more?

You can ask, but you may get more answers than you can handle. Philosophy is a fascinating, infuriating subject that gets everywhere and questions everything. You can’t escape it and this book is a good place to learn why.

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Front cover of A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. HardyA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

The World Wide Web is also the Random Reading Reticulation – the biggest library that ever existed. Obscure texts and ancient manuscripts are now a mouse-click away. A Mathematician’s Apology is neither obscure nor ancient, but it wasn’t easy to get hold of before it became available online. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. And now I have.

Alas, I was disappointed. G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was a very good mathematician, but he’s not a very good writer about mathematics. And in fact, he didn’t want to be a writer at all, good, bad or indifferent:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. (Op. cit., Section 1)

But is philosophy of mathematics work for second-rate minds? At the highest level, I don’t think it is. The relation of mathematics to reality, and vice versa, is a profoundly interesting and important topic, but Hardy doesn’t have anything new or illuminating to say about it:

It may be that modern physics fits best into some framework of idealistic philosophy — I do not believe it, but there are eminent physicists who say so. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, seems to me a rock on which all idealism founders: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way. (Section 24)

He experienced and explored that mathematical reality, but he can’t communicate the excitement or importance of doing so very well. I wasn’t surprised by his confession that, as a boy: “I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (sec. 29). He says it wasn’t until he had begun his degree at Cambridge that he “learnt for the first time … what mathematics really meant” (ibid.).

In this, he was very different from someone he helped make much more famous than he now is: an unknown and struggling Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sparked Hardy’s interest by sending him theorems of startling originality and depth before the First World War. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England, but barely mentions his protégé here. All the same, his respect and even perhaps his affection are still apparent:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both [J.E.] Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’ (sec. 29)

Very few people could have done that: a mere handful of the many millions who lived at the time. So it would be wrong to expect that Hardy could both ascend to the highest peaks of mathematics and write well about what he experienced there. He couldn’t and A Mathematician’s Apology supplies the proof. That’s a shame, but the text is short and still worth reading. Hardy had no false modesty, but he had no delusions of grandeur either:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It was valuable: that is why Hardy is still remembered and celebrated, sixty-seven years after his death. He is also still famous as an atheist, but you could say that he spent his life in the service of Our Lady – Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World.

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Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.


Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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Cleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers, with contributions by Donna Haraway, bell hooks, Winnie Mandela, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Germaine Greer, Laurie Penny, Aung San Suu Kyi, Dame Onora O’Neill, Dr Mikita Brottman, Polly Toynbee, Glenys Kinnock, Joan Jay Jefferson and others (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

I find intelligence attractive in a woman, which is why I don’t dare open this book. I’m tempted (heavens, how I’m tempted!), but my system would never stand the strain…

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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 Devotee of Ennui #1: Hymn to Hermaphrodite, Alan Moore with Kegsey Keegan (Polypogonic Press, 2013)

He has arguably done more than any other living writer to prove to the world that comix are not just for adults. Now Northampton’s non-pareil neo-gnostic normativism-nihilating neuro-naut Alan Moore has a new project and a new passion: boredom. Yes, you read that right: boredom. The thing is, boredom is actually interesting, see? That is the paradox at the heart of Moore’s latest work, the first instalment of which has just been issued through his private publishing company, Polypogonic Press. But be warned: this is not going to be the most immediately accessible exemplar of his œuvre, because it’s based partly on a transcription of DNA from a follicle mite in Moore’s own beard. Nevertheless, my first of what doubtless will be many, many reads of Hymn to Hermaphrodite suggests to me that the completed serial will take its place among Moore’s best work. One day it may even be seen as better than Watchmen or 23-gNosis – yes, it really is that good.

How does it raise such high expectations? Well, thanks, inter alia, to that follicle-mite DNA, things aren’t as clear in the actual text as they might be, but Moore has written a comprehensive introduction in which he explains what he intends to do with the serial and where he intends to go. He begins by discussing a phrase commonly used to describe boring things: “as dull as ditch-water.” He points out that the simile doesn’t actually work:

Ditch-water is positively pullulating with wonder and weirdness, at a microscopic level: protozoa, algae, microbes, viruses, the works. I’m going to try – with no guarantee of success, I freely admit – to teach people to see boredom as they should see ditch-water: as something that is bloody interesting! When you look at it right, boredom is not boring at all. Among a lot else, it’s frightening. Hell as eternal torment is one thing, but what about hell as eternal boredom, boys and girls?

Moore then describes how, as a teenager, he first read about tiny sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, which are so small and so ghostly that they barely interact with ordinary matter. For example, they can breeze unaffected through light-years of lead. That image stayed with him – light-years of lead. He asks us to ignore the physics and imagine, per impossibile, being trapped in a small, cubical cell for all eternity in the middle of light-years of lead. You don’t suffer any pain or physical discomfort, but there’s nothing to do and no way to get out, either. “After a few hours of that,” he concludes, “you’d be begging for the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched!”

He then goes on to posit that an up-to-date Satan would be experimenting with sensory deprivation, because that seriously messes with your head. And he explains how his meditation on these themes led him to devise a new academic discipline: ennuology – the scientific study of boredom. Antonia Baccio, the protagonist of the serial that he has now begun, is a hermaphroditic physicist whose mother was the Canadian ambassador to Belgium and whose father was the Belgian ambassador to Canada. It’s a kind of seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son thing – s/he gains all the ennuo-potence of both parents and both nationalities. S/he’s also a self-proclaimed “Devotee of Ennui”, consciously dedicated to celebrating and exploring the world of boredom. Fans of Weird Fiction will recognize a tip-o’-the-hat to Clark Ashton Smith’s short-story “The Devotee of Evil” (1933) and Smith looks as though he’s going to play a central role in the serial. Anyway, in this first instalment, Antonia, who’s obviously as crazy as a box of frogs, is trying to create a critical mass of ennui with these particles (s/he thinks) s/he’s discovered called “ennuons”, which are responsible for creating boredom and for making people and things boring. Canada and Belgium have an unusually high b.e.c. (background ennuon count) and Antonia begins work on two machines to collect and concentrate these particles and their sinister psycho-activity, one machine based in Brussels, the other in Ottawa.

S/he’s calculated that, if s/he collects enough ennuons, s/he can achieve a critical mass and a giant ennuonic explosion will ensue, bathing the entire earth in hyper-powerful boredom radiation. Moore doesn’t say what effects this will have, but he hints that they’ll be pretty nasty! The full horror of what Antonia’s up to will no doubt be explored in later instalments. In a (possible) tip-o’-the-hat to himself, Moore also (maybe) hints at some kind of alien race lurking in the background, either overseeing Antonia as s/he conducts her experiments or assisting her with them. And he hints that Antonia may even be alien herself, or maybe a new species of human. Readers will be left lots of other conundra to contemplate and puzzles to ponder. One of those puzzles will be Kegsey Keegan, Moore’s new artistic collaborator. He – or she – is a new name both to me and to the internet, which makes me suspicious. Why? Quite simply, because the talent and maturity on display in the art are worthy of a veteran of the comix scene. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that the name may be a disguise for Moore himself, working with graphics software to distort and develop his own drawings.

Whatever turns out to be the truth, Keegan perfectly realizes Moore’s ennuological visions, working with a lot of gray and a lot of detail to capture both the dedication and the lunacy of Antonia Baccio, the Devotee of Ennui who isn’t ennuyeux/se at all. In fact, s/he is one of the most disturbing comix characters I’ve ever come across. I’ve already had nightmares – literally – about being trapped in her/his “Cell-o’-Hell”, where s/he focuses ennuonic rays on unsuspecting experimental subjects and bores them out of their skulls. As all members of his fan-community will recognize, Moore has always been sui generis. Other celebrities issue their own perfumes or aftershaves: he’s issued his own psychedelic drug (now banned in all E.U. countries and large parts of Asia). But I think he’s surpassed himself here. In my opinion, no other comix writer in the world, living or dead, could do what Moore is doing with the most (apparently) unpromising of subjects. And after episode one, I’m both dreading and drooling over what will appear in episode two. It’s about boredom, but it’s interesting, see? So be there AND be square, futility fans.

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