Saturday, June 30, 2007

G is for Gould

Because there is nothing more infectious than the quirky particular intepreted in terms of a great, splendid, self-consistent unifying principle.

Because life is a story that we all make up as we go along, and not the unfolding of a plan, and there is nothing more exhilarating.

Because God, being inordinately-fond-of-beetles, is reflected in the mind of any man inordinately-fond-of-Bahamian-snails, be it ever so Marxist.

So what if the common crowd of evolutionary biologists considered him a pest?
The common crowd of theologians doubtless considered Chesterton a pest.
In the colour, the shape, and the fragrance of his writings, Stephen Jay Gould is even as Chesterton. How gloriously blue-and-gold and multiform is the world of Gould, reeking with all the spices of Asia!

2 + 2 = 4

Or, Further adventures in Spam.

The block of text at the top of the message which was there to get it past my spam filter had something intriguing about organising a Lermontov club, and the next message had an interesting block of text that was all about Pontius Pilate. I googled text strings and found that they were both extracts from a novel called ‘The Master and Margarita’, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I wasn’t interested enough to read it at the time, but the other day I saw it sitting there on the library shelves...

It was written in the 1930s, under the most appalling regime in human history, about which I will say no more. It would be a shame to live detesting the way you were forced to live and trying to transcend your horrible environment in the things you created, to have to look out of eternity and see people dragging that detestable environment into their discussion of your work.

Like Čapek, Bulgakov had some reputation as a humorist and died young a few months before the Nazis invaded his country.

‘The Master and Margarita’ does something I have often thought of, but never yet done. It is like the Matrix, where the imagined world within a world is more self-consistent and ‘real’ than the ‘real world’. In the Matrix this is accidental, because the unreal world draws on all the content of our world, while the ‘real world’ has been insufficiently imagined, but in Bulgakov’s book it done on purpose. The novel within the novel is entirely realistic and believable, with no supernatural aspects save one headache cure that could easily be psychosomatic. The novel itself is a riot of magical realism in which Satan careers through Moscow enacting quasi-poetic justice in a way reminiscent of the end of ‘That Hideous Strength’.

If the novel had come out when it was written, I think it would be more well-known than it is, as a type specimen of magic realism; but the manuscript could not be published until 1967, by which time the Latin Americans had staked out the magic realism landscape and it would no longer have appeared so original.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

with bleiblerville to ellenwood

Alas, the contents of the unsolicited email were nowhere near as enigmatic as its subject line!

It may be just the resemblance between 'bleibler' and 'blobel', but I think that it would make a good title for a Philip K. Dick story. 'Bleiblerville' also sounds like the kind of place Elmer Gantry or Berzelius Windrip or another evil Lewis character with a wacky name would drop by to do their creepy small-town America stuff.

G was going to be for 'Gerrold', but solely on the basis of one page in 'The World of Star Trek'. However, it appears he has written vast piles of other stuff that I haven't read. More disturbingly, I have discovered that 'The Trouble with Tribbles' is actually non-fiction. I shall spend a sleepless night dreading the arrival of the furry hordes.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer Cannibals

I’ve written here before about the refugee tragedy in the Middle East provoked by the attempt of a peripatetic mercantile people to restore their ancient homeland.

At the other end of the Caucasus, there is Abkhazia.

Which is a legally recognised part of one UN member state occupied illegally by a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

I was reading the Wikipedia article and it said something about ethnic cleansing, and I didn’t pay too much attention, since you know, there's a lot of that sort of thing going around, and then I saw the numbers. It appears the new Abkhazia has about one-third the population of the Soviet-Era Abkhazia.

The new Abkhazia snared the .org address; the folks kicked out of Abkhazia got the .com one.

You would think someone would think all this was interesting enough to put in the newspapers, just a little snippet of an article every couple of years.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pastiche? This ain’t no stinking pastiche…

You will unfortunately have to apply the faux-Mexican bandito intonation to the title yourself...

There is a folk etymology of the word ‘Hobbit’, appearing in several essays in that book of essays 'Tolkien and the Critics' I was reading a while back, which suggests it might be derived from ‘Hobb’ and ‘rabbit’: hence, echoes of Robin Goodfellow and Flopsy and Mopsy et al.

However, I am sure that I read somewhere that Tolkien himself said once that it may have been inspired by ‘hole’ and ‘Babbitt’. This suggests to me that Tolkien was not at first perhaps so fond of hobbits as he later became.

Here is Exhibit A, the first appearance of Babbitt in the book of the same name, for you to compare with Bilbo’s first appearance:

There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial Houses in that residential district of Zenith known as floral heights.
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.
His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Č is for Čapek

‘If you are prudent it is possible to say that you are overcautious; if you are clever, that you are facetious; if you are given to simple and objective arguments, a good point to make is that you are commonplace or trivial; if you are prone to give abstract reasons, one can say that you are a dry intellectual, and so on. For an able controversialist there are simply no qualities, convictions, or mental states which cannot be referred to by an expression which in itself discloses the appalling emptiness, obtuseness, and pettiness of the opponent.’

- Karel Čapek,
Twelve Figures in Fighting with Pens, or a Handbook of Literary Polemic.

Apocryphal Tales is not in the library. So I will have to buy it. You all ought to as well. You should also buy The War Against the Newts. Čapek is sane and cheerful against the terrifying backdrop of a World Gone Mad, which is just what we need nowadays.

Okay, okay, I admit it. I only went to that part of the library because I wanted to write a Lord of the Rings pastiche on The Good Soldier Švejk.

But I have thought better of it.

For the time being.

Monday, June 11, 2007

F is for Foster

As I was saying to Jenny, for a short while when I was about twelve ‘Nor Crystal Tears’ by Alan Dean Foster was my favourite book. I guess I liked the idea of the species out there that is naturally complementary to humanity, our missing half, that we would recognise as soulmates despite their alien appearance and pair up with. Or maybe I just made that up now. Anyways, I liked it a lot.

The first Alan Dean Foster book I read was ‘Icerigger’, and before I read it I had seen the Tran in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, as well as Foster’s name on the cover of any number of Star Trek adaptations. The Tran-ky-ky of my young imagination was a very real and vivid place. I could imagine so well the starting scene with the humans cooped up in the crashed spaceship, and the siege, and the pools of blood being chipped out of the ice. It is the book of my acquaintance that has the distinction of being lent out and not returned the most times: I think I have owned three copies, and I don’t have one now. Now I feel like re-reading it again, though I know it would disappoint me. I should like to read all the Humanx Commonwealth books again at age twelve. I remember being grievously disappointed in ‘Nor Crystal Tears’ when I read it again when Keating was Prime Minister. Maybe I have just grown too ready to find fault with things. Maybe my imagination has just atrophied, so I can no longer breathe the same life into the pages that I once did. Maybe the problem is not his writing, but my reading, and my impatience with so many things I once enjoyed is not me growing wiser, but just more cynical and impatient. I have just visited Alan Dean Foster’s web site, which is still full of boyish enthusiasm and has some neat maps, you see, so I feel guilty now...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Stuff to Nationalise

Marco has said that The Economist (pbuh) has said that it would be easier to provide a short list of things that shouldn't be privatised than a list of things that should. Here is my go at a list!

Insurance. The funds required to compensate unfortunates for losses due to fire, theft, etc., should be raised by taxation. Private companies make sure they extract this much from punters, and then as much extra as they can possibly manage, in an evil and invidious con game.

Banking. Charging interest is un-Islamic, un-Christian, and creates a welfare mentality among investors who think they can get something for nothing. Banks should be run by the state and invest their money in productive ways.

Transport Infrastructure, Communications Infratstructure and Utilities Infrastructure. Experimental evidence is that private individuals and corporations tear these to pieces in an orgy of pillage. While resources will be most efficiently allocated if vast sections of the country are abandoned and the underclass are allowed to rot, the overall decisions about the amount to be invested in these things, and where it should be invested, ought to be the decision of the elected representatives of the people, Holy Roman Emperor, or Great Council of Giant Robots.*

Health. See Arthur Koestler's book 'The Zero and the Infinite'. The value of the individual to themselves is infinite; their value to the community as a whole is close to zero. Thus health is the field where maximum discord can be expected between the interests of the individual and the community, and where the consumer can be expected to behave with maximum irrationality.

Higher and Technical Education. Here, again there is a large divergence between the interests of the individuals (who want to get rich doing nothing) and the community (which will fall to bits if everyone does this). Also, I have good anecdotal evidence that left to their own devices, students are irrational twits.

Oil Companies. Everyone seems to nationalise these, so it must be a good idea.

*: These are currently my three favourite forms of government.
In other news, I disturbingly seem to have slipped to only 92% Clam nature.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Scary Juxtaposition

The juxtaposition of ‘Hell’ and ‘Greg Egan’ in my last two posts has reminded me of a scary thought I had some time ago.

A recurring them in Greg Egan’s work is the idea of backing up consciousness: characters create simulacra of themselves that have their memories, their personality, as a way of achieving immortality. I don’t think this is likely to be within the future capacity of science,* but this sort of thing convinced me a long time ago that the notion of the ‘soul’ is unnecessary. God is omniscient. Therefore He knows the detailed history of each and every atom in our bodies better than we know our own telephone numbers. He can recreate us, exact in every detail, whenever He wants. This divine knowledge of us is many orders of magnitude more complete than our knowledge of us. Our experience of ourselves is like the spot where the pen meets the paper as the plans for a cathedral are drawn, God’s knowledge of us is like the cathedral itself. So which is more real? We are the transient shadows: God’s knowledge of us is the real us, eternal and solid.

I remember the exact instant that this vision became less than completely satisfactory to me. It was over dinner, on my 31st birthday, as I listened to a conversation between Androo and another friend with a similar name. I realized that a backup of me, a recreation of me, would still be a different person. He might have my memories, my personality, but I will still have ended. The ‘me’ looking backward was not as important to me as the ‘me’ looking forward. I needed a sense of continuity from this exact point onward into the future, a unique mapping from me now to a single individual then, without any discontinuity.

And yet- maybe we are already not continuous. Maybe this ending and recreating already happens to us. How do we know that the person who wakes up every morning with our memories is the same person as the one who went to sleep? Here is the scary thought: Maybe that person never woke up. Maybe that person has been spun off into eternity, like in Permutation City, to face judgment for their life lived so far. Maybe it is a brand new person who wakes up every morning.

It doesn’t make any difference looking backward, but it does looking forward. We ought to live each day as if it was our last, not just because one day we will be right, but maybe because every day we will be right. Maybe those six billion people who will be alive tomorrow are all other people. Why should we love the one who happens to share our memories any more than all the others? Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

I will go on thinking of God’s knowledge of me as the real me. I can’t think of a good way to reassure myself that I am continuous looking forward, and don’t just feel continuous looking backward. I have just pushed the problem to the back of my head as one of those things that is likely to drive me batty if I think about, and trust in God to solve it.

*: I can’t imagine a non-destructive way of gathering all the required information. I do think it will be possible for us to reproduce memories and personality to an arbitrary degree of accuracy in a new format, but it will be necessary to destroy the original person to get at the information.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

E is for Egan

I was thinking, here is an opportunity to demonstrate that I do not live entirely in the past. Look, here is an author who is still alive! He’s even got his own web page. See, I am reading the hip and happening authors of today. Then I realised that it has been about ten years since I started reading Greg Egan, and I can’t think of any significant writers that I started reading since then. So I am not hip or happening or up to the moment at all.

Who is Greg Egan? He is the culmination of a century of development of science fiction in english. I think of him as the Last of the Science Fiction Writers, since I can’t imagine anyone following in his footsteps. He is about the only person I can think of writing science fiction, defined narrowly as follows:

A. Postulate a scientific advance.

B. Examine the consequences of this advance on the way people (Defined broadly: automata and Uplifted gila monsters count, for instance.) think and behave and live their lives.

The problems with doing this today are twofold.

Firstly, the science has gotten more and more complicated. Just try to explain the plot of any Greg Egan story to someone who hasn’t read it. Luminous, for example. See how you get on. It is a lot of work getting on top of the science, and when you do, 90% of your readers won’t know what you are on about, anyways, so why not write fantasy instead.

Secondly, our technology has now reached the point where it is indistinguishable from magic, even for us. Any future technology is in the same boat. Much simpler just to make it magic, and write fantasy instead.

I guess reading Greg Egan more or less made me give up trying to write science fiction.

Let’s see, I think my favourite Greg Egan book is the one I first read while staying at Androo’s place back in 1998 (Thanks Androo!), Diaspora. I love the way it starts out with you thinking, ‘My God, this world is so very very very strange: where can we go from here?’ but soon the very very very strange world becomes familiar to you, and is then the safe and familiar world as the story flies onward and upward into a universe that is very very very much stranger than the world we started in.
I once went to a seminar entitled ‘Intelligent Polysaccharides’, but the speaker had another common Chinese name, not Wang, and the polysaccharides were rather less intelligent than the ones in Diaspora. I am fond of those intelligent polysaccharides.

Teranesia I read most of in the boot of a car on the way from Punchbowl to Cronulla. (Don’t worry, this was several years before the December 2005 riots: I wasn’t an unwilling passenger of any gang members of middle-eastern appearance. My sister and her kids were visiting, and we only had one rather small car for the lot of us on our trip to the beach.) I didn’t like it as much as Diaspora, because it has a fair bit of the two things that bug me about Greg Egan’s stuff.

1: An undue degree of credulity toward airy-fairy gee-whiz interpretations of quantum mechanics. All sorts of popular science books and articles champion the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’ of quantum mechanics as if it was as firm a piece of science as continental drift. It is not. The idea of the collapse of the wavefunction and the priviliged role of the observer in this collapse is just one way of looking at the problem. Einstein didn’t think there was anything in it. Feynman didn’t think there was anything in it. I got a bit muddled reading his book, but I think Bell (of Bell’s Theorem) had problems with it too. Needless to say, I don’t like it either. Though of course the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument, it is hard to do otherwise with a theory that no one really understands. While quantum mechanics is admittedly wacky and paradoxical, I think a lot of its paradoxical aspects will ultimately turn out to be due to us being muddled, not the universe being muddled. And when a story turns on a point of science that I believe is really just a muddle in our understanding of the science, I am dissatisfied.

2: A cluelessness about people who do not share his worldview. In Teranesia, and in a lot of the other Greg Egan stuff set in the near now, there is a struggle between the embattled forces of reason and the forces of unreason. But the forces of reason are too narrowly defined as a group of people who all think very much the same, and the forces of unreason are an undifferentiated mass that is completely off with the fairies. There is no real continuum of opinion, as you would expect in a real world. There are no reasonable religious opinions.* What’s more, the forces of unreason lump together people who would despise one another much more than they would despise Our Heroes: postmodernists and fundamentalist Christians, for example. An even more egregious example of this than Teranesia is Stephen Baxter’s novel Titan, which I bought on the basis of a glowing review in New Scientist. It was impossible to take seriously because of the implausible treatment of the ‘forces of unreason’. If you want to know how this looks like from the other side, I once read the first third of a book recommended to me by a friend attending a Pentecostal church which was about a struggle between the embattled forces of the godly and the forces of the ungodly. Unfortunately I can’t remember what it was called. The ungodly characters simultaneously argued staunchly for Darwinism, and sought guidance by channeling their spirit guides. That is of the same order of plausibility as the worldviews of the Other Side in Teranesia.

Greg Egan’s first book is out of print, but you should read it if you can, especially if you went to high school in Australia. It is not really science fiction: it is more like the work of Daniel Pinkwater than anything else.

And one of my very favourite bits of Egan’s work is this definition of an archetypal narrative, from The Planck Dive:

Prospero spread his arms in a conciliatory gesture. “An archetypal quest narrative must be kept simple. To burden it with technicalities—”

Sachio inclined his head briefly, fingertips to forehead, downloading information from the polis library. “Do you have any idea what archetypal narratives are?”

“Messages from the gods, or from the depths of the soul; who can say? But they encode the most profound and mysterious—”

Sachio cut him off impatiently. “They're the product of a few chance
attractors in flesher neurophysiology. Whenever a more complex or subtle story was disseminated through an oral culture, it would eventually degenerate into an archetypal narrative. Once writing was invented, they were only ever created deliberately by fleshers who failed to understand what they were. If all of antiquity's greatest statues had been dropped into a glacier, they would have been reduced to a predictable spectrum of spheroidal pebbles by now; that does not make the spheroidal pebble the pinnacle of the artform. What you've created is not only devoid of truth, it's devoid of aesthetic merit.”

*: If you want to say, Dawkins-like ‘That’s because there are no reasonable religious opinions’, then I guess I could say: ‘There are no religious opinions defended by rational argument.’

Hey Nato!

...I notice that winstoninabox just left a comment for you back on an October 2006 post- the 8th of October, I think it is. In short, he has moved- and I am seconding the motion- that you outline, and then defend, your concept of Hell. Are you willing to rise to the challenge?
And when are you going to update your blog already?