Archive for the ‘Communism’ Category

Forthcoming Fetidity / Future Ferality from TransVisceral Books…

Slo-Mo Psy-Ko: The Sinister Story of the Stockport Slayer…, Zac Zialli — fetid-but-fascinating investigation of a serial slayer who has flown under the police radar for decades…
Not Just for Necrophiles: A Toxic Tribute to Killing for Culture…, ed. Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Joshua N. Schlachter — 23 Titans of Trangression come together to pay tribute to the seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture
Opium of the Peephole: Spying, Slime-Sniffing and the Snowdenian Surveillance State, Norman Foreman (B.A.) — edgy interrogation of the unsettling parallels between state-sponsored surveillance and the Daily Meal

TransVisceral Books — for Readers who Relish the Rabid, Rancid and Reprehensibly Repulsive
TransVisceral BooksCore Counter-Culture… for Incendiary Individualists
TransVisceral BooksTotal Toxicity… (since 2005)…

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Puskás by György SzöllősiPuskás: Madrid, the Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of the World’s Greatest Goalscorer, György Szöllősi, foreword by Sir Alex Ferguson (Freight Books 2015)

When an earthquake or large meteor strikes the earth or moon, it can ring like a bell for a long time, as shock waves bounce to and fro, slowly dying out. That can happen in culture too: some events are like earthquakes that shake a formerly stable landscape. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is one of those cultural earthquakes. There was a riot at its début in Paris in 1913.

Ferenc Puskás (1927-2006) (pronounced roughly FEHR-ents PUSH-kaash) was the orchestrator of another Slavic earthquake, forty years later and about 150 miles north-west, in London. Except that Puskás wasn’t Slavic and didn’t speak a Slavic language. Hungarians and their language aren’t Eastern European in any conventional sense. Instead, they invaded Eastern Europe and overturned a Slavic tradition. Puskás and his Magyar team-mates invaded and overturned another tradition when they beat England 3-6 at Wembley Stadium in November 1953.

How could that happen? As György Szöllősi says viâ his translators Andrew Clark and Matthew Watson-Broughton, it was generally accepted at the time that “England were invincible on their own turf” (“The Magical Magyars”, pg. 60). At the return match in Budapest in May 1954 Hungary did it again. Only more so: this time the score was 7-1. Tom Finney, himself one of the all-time greats, said that it was like “cart horses playing race-horses” (pg. 61). Puskás scored twice in both games and one of those goals, created by a pull-back that sent Billy Wright sliding off the pitch at Wembley, is one of the most famous of all time.

If his career had ended after he came off the pitch in Budapest, Puskás would have sealed his place in footballing history. And it did soon look as though his career might be over. Stalin died in 1953 and increasing unrest in Hungary led to full rebellion in 1956. Bullet-holes in the parliament buildings in Budapest still show what happened next: the rebellion was brutally crushed. Puskás was one of more than 200,000 Hungarians who went into exile.

He wasn’t able to return for decades and his fellow countrymen could only whisper about the remarkable feats he performed when he managed to find a new club. It was called Real Madrid and Puskás joined Alfredo Di Stéfano to become one of its greatest ever players: he scored seven goals in two European Cup Finals for the club. His first batch was four, in the 7-3 crushing of Eintracht Frankfurt in Glasgow in 1960. Then he scored a hat-trick against Benfica in 1962.

Unfortunately, Benfica scored five goals and no-one else scored for Real. Even the greats don’t always win, but that hat-trick proves that Puskás could do remarkable things even in defeat. His statistics are astonishing, reminiscent of Don Bradman’s in cricket: 511 goals in 533 Hungarian and Spanish top-flight games and 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary. The former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is one of those who are still awed by Puskás: Ferguson writes the foreword to this book and says he “dodged school” in 1953 to watch Hungary play England at Wembley. FIFA now have a Puskás award for goal of the year and there’s a photo of Cristiano Ronaldo holding up a red number 10 shirt bearing the name Puskás.

Ronaldo is another great, but his challenges off the pitch are remembering where he left the keys for his Lamborghini and deciding which ear to put his diamond stud in. Puskás lived through the Second World War, then saw a team-mate, Sándor Szůcs, hanged for trying to leave Hungary, then came under sentence of death himself when he went into exile after the Hungarian Uprising. He didn’t wear diamonds, he was a diamond in the Aranycsapat, the Golden Team that was the pride of Hungary before Puskás and team-mates like Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis became unpersons as traitors to the communist state.

This biography is short and easy to read, but it would have been improved by an index and contents page. Puskás’s career would have been improved by a World Cup winner’s medal and György Szöllősi describes why he didn’t get one. He also describes what Puskás’s real ancestry was and why he censored his birthdate. Hungary is an interesting country in lots of ways and it’s still making more of a mark in Europe than its size and population might lead you to expect. Puskás put his mark on European history in ninety minutes at Wembley in 1953, but he did much more than that and this book tells you how.

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I Am A Kamera

Front cover of Mezzogiallo by David KerekesMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 1956. Teenage anti-communist Mirima Kerekes flees to the West as Soviet tanks rumble into Bucharest to crush a desperate popular uprising. A month later, Mirima is in the sea-side town of Bootle, north-west England, finding her feet in a new country and a new culture. Soon she will have a son, David, future editor of Headpress Journal and author of acclaimed counter-cultural texts Killing for Culture (1992), Sex Murder Art (1998) and Backstage Bootle (2011).

But Mirima left a brother behind in Bucharest, also called David. He remains a distant enigma, a mysterious, rarely mentioned figure throughout his nephew’s childhood and teens. It is not until thirty years later, following the fall of feral dictator Antonin Ceauşescu, that the British David Kerekes is able to travel to Eastern Europe and meet his uncle for the first time.

Mezzogiallo is the story of that momentous meeting and its continuing consequences, an extended meditation on fate and free will as the British David struggles to come to terms with the horrific family secret he uncovers behind the former Iron Curtain. As he writes in his introduction:

Once I gained my uncle’s confidence he began to open up to me, but it was not till near the end of my initial stay in the country that he finally revealed the truth about his life under communism. I was aghast to discover the reason for my mom’s silence about her brother all those years: my namesake, my uncle David, had worked for the secret police throughout the years of Ceauşescu, photographing and recording people without their knowledge for the files of the brutal regime that had crushed private life without remorse or conscience. He told me that he had once driven 150 kilometres to look inside someone’s bathroom and take some hairs from their comb. But there was worse to come – a confession that shook me to my core.

Despite himself, my uncle revealed, he had enjoyed the spying and the prying and the sense of power they gave him. In stumbling words, racked by a deep sense of shame and futility, he confessed to me that photographing people, recording their private conversations, keeping files on their quotidian activities, had given him serious thrills. He described how he had once quivered with excitement as he hid under the floorboards of a private home, listening to someone exercise on a rowing machine. In short: he had been a dedicated voyeur, filling the emptiness of his own life by spying on the lives of others.

Securitate archive

Securitate archive

My horror was unbounded. Anyone who knows Headpress, the Journal of Strangeness and Necrophilia, knows that I have devoted my life to offering a fiercely intelligint, passionately non-normative alternative to the ever-increasing voyeurism of the British mainstream – the spying-and-prying peddled by The Daily Mail, by the über-ennui’d teens who take secret photographs and videos of others, then exchange them online with their like-minded peers. And yet here was my mom’s brother doing the exact same thing as had horrified me for so long in Britain. But could I condemn him for it? What if I myself had been born under communism? Might I too not have worked for the secret police? Might I too not have become a dedicated voyeur, gloating over secretly obtained photographs and recordings, relishing the sense of power they gave me?

I could not deny the truth: perhaps I might. Shaken and disturbed, I constantly pondered the words of the great Romanian philosopher Eric Hoffer: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

Did this not help explain my uncle’s behaviour? Had not communism, by destroying his individuality and sense of purpose, rendered life meaningless to him and forced him, in compensation, to become the voyeur he confessed he was? Deep questions. Dark ones, also. I knew that it would be years, even decades, before I could process them to my own satisfaction and write the book that they deserved. (Introduction, pg. viii)

Mezzogiallo is the book in question. David goes on to describe how, on future trips to Eastern Europe, he was able to examine the thousands of files created by his uncle for the secret police using cameras and microphones hidden not only in private homes, but also in libraries, banks, courts, schools, hospitals and more. He will be shocked by both the detail and the futility of his uncle’s activities – the prolonged, obsessive recording of the most minor details of everyday life. Yet David points out that capitalist society has gone in the exact same direction, both at the level of the state and at the level of the ordinary voyeuristic citizen. All David Kerekes’s books are characterized by feral intelligence and fetid honesty. But Mezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. is arguably his ferallest, fetidest interrogation of the human condition to date…

Coming soon on Papyrocentric Performativity…

• A review of Nekro-Feral: The David Kerekes Story, David Slater (TransVisceral Books)

Press Release: Divided into three throbbingly thrilling thanato-themed sections – “Nekro-Kid”, “Nekro-Teen” and “Nekro-Dult” – Nekro-Feral is an intimate and revealing portrait of a transgressive icon by the man who was his simul-scribe on Killing for Culture, inarguably the most sizzlingly seminal survey of snuff-stuff ever set to cellulose…

Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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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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Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics, Gábor J. Székely (1986)

A fascinating book in a number of ways. First the obvious way: probability contains some of the strangest and most counter-intuitive mathematics that amateurs can easily understand. I could cope with a lot of this book, but it still stretched and even re-shaped my mind and my understanding of the world more deeply than almost any art has. There are very odd things to be found even in something as simple as the patterns of heads-and-tails in coin-tossing. For example, although HH and HT are equally likely to occur first when you start tossing a fair coin, “more tosses are necessary, on average, for HH than for HT to turn up”. That just doesn’t make sense at first glance. It’s a paradox, in other words, and if you can understand it you’ve taken a step even the most intelligent human beings were once unable to take.

Much less subtle, but probably much more important in life, is this:

Consider two random events with probabilities of 99% and 99.99%, respectively. One could say that the two probabilities are nearly the same, both events are almost sure to occur. Nevertheless the difference may become significant in certain cases. Consider, for instance, independent events which may occur on any day of the year with probability p = 99%; then the probability that it will occur every day of year is less than P = 3%, while if p = 99.99%, then P = 97%. (ch. 1, “Classical paradoxes of probability theory”, pp. 54-5)

Then there’s the question of why buses always seem to run “more frequently in the opposite direction”. The mathematics gets much trickier here, but that’s an example of how maths, unlike so much of the modern humanities, can extract deep meaning from apparently simple things because deep meaning is actually there. Mathematics is both the most fundamental and the purest of all subjects, and is something that can unite minds across barriers of language, culture, and politics.

This book is a good example of that, because it was first published not only in a communist country but in what is, to most Europeans, a very strange language: Hungarian. Hungarian isn’t part of the Indo-European family spoken almost everywhere else. If this book had been written in French or German or Spanish, its original title would look more or less familiar to an English-speaker. But its original title in Hungarian ― Paradoxonok a véletlen matematikában ― looks very odd. Even without being told, you could guess from some of the English that the book is a translation, but that adds to its charm and helps prove the universality of mathematics. A Hungarian can speak mathematics to anyone without an accent, and vice versa ― though I suspect that the mathematics here occasionally stutters because of typos. The English certainly does, but then the book was printed under communism, which did not encourage efficiency and attention to detail. Communism is gone now, Hungarian and maths both continue, but maths will outlast Hungarian, just as it will outlast all other languages spoken today.Vivat regina!

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Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Blaine Harden (2012)

Under Nazism, people got killed for belonging to the wrong race. Under communism, people get killed for belonging to the wrong species. That is, in North Korea you don’t have to do or be anything wrong to be killed by the state. The system there isn’t designed to be just: it’s designed to be terrifying. But it doesn’t just kill people deliberately, in slave-labour camps and torture-chambers, it also kills them through inefficiency and incompetence. Even people high in the favour of the communist party have starved to death there during famines. If the capitalist world hadn’t supplied aid, even more would have died. The promise of communism, according to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924), was this:

The shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

The reality of North Korea, according to Blaine Harden, is this:

Nearly all [young refugees from North Korea] struggle with basic reading and maths. Some are cognitively impaired, apparently from acute malnutrition as infants… As young children, they grew up eating bark off trees and thinking it was normal. (ch. 21, pg. 188)

Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of this book, grew up grubbing desperately for food in a slave-labour camp. He was born there and stayed there, guilty of being the child of two political prisoners, one of whom was guilty of having a brother who escaped to South Korea. The struggle to survive was so acute that he had little or no feeling for his family, according to Harden. His mother and elder brother were executed after he informed on them for attempting to escape. If he hadn’t done, he himself would have been in trouble, because any escape is blamed on the relatives. That includes suicide: in North Korea, the state owns everything, including its citizens’ lives. I’m not sure Marx himself was a psychopath, but he certainly helped create a lot of psychopathic governments. North Korea, which keeps Stalinism alive more than fifty years after Stalin’s death, is one of the worst. After Shin had informed on his mother, he was imprisoned underground and tortured anyway, because the guard to whom he reported the escape-attempt tried to claim all the credit for himself. Even when he convinced the camp authorities that he had been loyal to the state, rather than to his blood-relatives, he remained in that prison-within-a-prison until he was let out to see them executed.

How old was he then? He “had just turned fourteen” (ch. 8, pg. 75). And how did he feel about what had happened?

…he hated his mother and brother with the savage clarity of a wronged and wounded adolescent. As he saw it, he had been tortured and nearly died, and his father had been crippled, because of their foolish, self-centred scheming. (ibid., pg. 77)

Later, after he escaped, first to China, then to South Korea and America, he began to learn how to feel properly human, which meant he began to tortured by guilt. It was irrational for him to feel that way, but you can’t blame him. And who can you blame for what goes on in North Korea? The system has a life of its own, or rather a living death. North Korea is a zombie-state, lurching on down the highway of history even as it decomposes and disintegrates. There will be no happy ending there. Even if the regime collapses without launching attacks on Japan and South Korea, the costs of draining the cesspit of communism will be huge:

South Koreans have paid close attention to the price tag of German unification. The proportional burden on South Korea, some studies have found, would be two and a half times greater than on West Germany after it absorbed the former East Germany. Studies have found that it would cost more than two trillion dollars over thirty years, raise taxes for six decades and require that ten per cent of the South’s gross domestic product be spent in the North for the foreseeable future. (ch. 22, pg. 199)

The North Korean system has been as efficient at immiseration as the South Korean has been at enrichment: “South Korea’s economy is thirty-eight times larger than the North’s; its international trade volume is two hundred and twenty-four times larger” (ibid., pg. 197). The peninsula of Korea has been like a huge experiment in economics and sociology, and the results are visible from outer space. At night, South Korea blazes with light and North Korea is blacked out, because of electricity shortages. Something similar is true of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The Haitian side is stripped bare of vegetation and, like North Korea, Haiti is propped up by outside aid. But that Caribbean difference seems to have something to do with race: Haiti was the first black republic and showed the way for failed black Zimbabwe and failing black South Africa. The Korean peninsula is occupied by a single highly intelligent race: it’s the different systems that explain why one is a dazzling success and the other an abject failure.

The Korean peninsula viewed from outer space

North vs South Korea

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Haiti vs the Dominican Republic

But this book describes how success in the south comes with a price. South Korea’s “obession with achievement” has harmed its society: “Although the suicide rate in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, it continues to climb in South Korea, doubling since 2000” (ch. 22, pg. 201). Paradoxically, Shin coped better with life in a slave-labour camp than many of his contemporaries in the free and affluent South: he felt no inclination to kill himself because suffering was normal to him. Never having known a better life, he didn’t compare his present with his past: it had always been bad and seemed as though it always would be. He didn’t think about escape until he befriended a new arrival in the camp, Park Yong Chul, who “had lived abroad”, had a “well-connected life”, and “knew senior people in the North Korean government” (ch. 13, pg. 113). Park’s stories about the outside world gave Shin a point of comparison: “He suddenly understand where he was and what he was missing. Camp 14 was no longer home: it was an abhorrent cage” (ibid., pg. 122). The abhorrence of the cage is revealed by a vignette that isn’t in itself very horrific. It’s a small thing that symbolizes a lot:

In the middle of a night shift on the floor of the factory, Park alarmed Shin by bursting into song.

“Hey! What do you think you are doing?” Shin asked, fearing that a foreman might hear.

“Singing,” Park said.

“Stop at once,” Shin told him.

Shin had never sung a song. His only exposure to music had been on the farm, when trucks with loudspeakers played military marching music while prisoners picked weeds. To Shin, singing seemed unnatural and insanely risky. (ch. 13, pg. 119)

Park did not survive the escape attempt: he was killed trying to pass the camp’s electrified outer fence. The weight of his corpse “pulled down the bottom strand of wire” (ch. 15, pg. 134), creating a small gap, and Shin was able to crawl through, using the corpse “as a kind of insulating pad”. He still suffered severe electric burns and he knew that his father, still in the camp, would be punished for his escape. Readers familiar with World War Two escape stories will know that escapees found it difficult to pass undetected once they were out among civilians. Shin didn’t: North Korea is so poor and short of everyday materials that poorly dressed, half-starved slave-labourers don’t attract attention when they escape. He eventually found his way across the northern border to China, which is communist but not a slave-state, although it employs slave-labour in its Gulag, the Laogai. It still bears some responsibility for the horrors of North Korea, however, because it props the regime up as a “buffer” against South Korea. This means that it sometimes deports North Korean refugees and tries to stop them seeking asylum in foreign embassies. But Shin successfully found sanctuary in the South Korean consulate in Shanghai. He’s now in America, but still well aware that children in North Korea continue to live as he once did:

Eating rats not only filled empty stomachs, it was essential for survival. Their flesh could help prevent pellagra, a sometimes fatal disease that was rampant in the camps, especially in the winter. Prisoners with pellagra, the result of a lack of protein and niacin in their diets, suffered weakness, skin lesions, diarrhoea and dementia. It was a frequent cause of death. (ch. 1, pg. 27)

This book is short and easy to read, in one sense. In another sense, it isn’t. It has lots of unpleasant stories, but it isn’t atrocity porn and it seems trustworthy. North Korea is a sick state and a sick joke and Escape from Camp 14 is a good introduction to a bad place. For more history and more horror, I recommend one of the books Harden lists in his acknowledgments: Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010). It’s also useful to remember that there have always been lots of politicians, academics, and journalists in the West who hope that they’ll be able to try Marx’s recipes too. In fact, they’ve already cooked up some tasty totalitarianism and hope to cook up a lot more. I quoted Trotsky at the beginning. Here’s some Nietzsche to end with:

In the doctrine of socialism there is hidden, rather badly, a “will to negate life”; the human beings or races who think up such a doctrine must be bungled. Indeed, I should wish that a few great experiments might prove that in a socialist society life negates itself, cuts off its own roots. The earth is large enough and man still sufficiently unexhausted; hence such a practical instruction and demonstratio ad absurdum would not strike me as undesirable, even if it were gained and paid for with a tremendous expenditure of human lives. (The Will to Power, Book One: European Nihilism, #125, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

Nietzsche wrote that in 1885. In 2012, the demonstratio ad absurdum and the tremendous expenditure go on in the slave-state of North Korea.

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