Archive for December, 2018

On contradictions

December 29, 2018

Warning: politics ahead

As I grow older – perhaps wiser, though I have yet to be convinced about this – I do find myself increasingly aware of a number of contradictions about our lives and they way we conduct them. Some of these I list below, in no particular order.

We live in the late capitalist era, under an economic system which depends for its existence on our continuing to buy more stuff. At the same time, in this country, houses are being built of ever smaller capacity; the number of “secure self-storage facilities” (lock-up sheds) is increasing rapidly.

In our country we have always wanted cheap food. Cheap food is cheap because it is full of fat and sugar (both of which are cheap). Fat and sugar are not healthy; they eventually make us ill, with ailments like diabetes and obesity.

Healthy food like fruit and vegetables can be relatively cheap if we use cheap immigrant labour to harvest them; many people do not want to let immigrants in to the country. Who will harvest our fruit and veg, those (relatively) cheap and healthier parts of our diet?

We claim to worry about pollution and the environment, and yet love the convenience of tonnes of plastic, fretting about relatively little things like straws and carrier bags. Poor air quality due to exhaust products from vehicles will shorten the lives of many, and affects the youngest most, yet the number of SUVs continues to increase and their use is particularly noticeable on school runs… because we have an education system which does not encourage people to use their local school.

We think electric cars will be the answer, while nobody takes account of the pollution involved in the production of the batteries or the extra electricity. We worry about global warming but we love the cheap flights and the cloud storage.

We want the police to keep us safe, schools to educate our children, hospitals to care for us when we are ill, social care when we are old, but we don’t want to have to pay for it all.

We fear terrorism yet sell weapons to everyone we can, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and start and fight wars in them, too, unable to see why people might want to flee from all that.

Two years ago the British people (well, some of them) made a decision which will have major effects on the employment and travel prospects for younger citizens and limit their citizenship rights. These younger citizens did not get a vote on their future while large numbers of retired and elderly citizens who will be far less affected did, and largely voted to remove the rights of the younger ones…

It was not a sudden urge to be more democratic that gave us that vote; a political party felt that the vote was the only way to prevent itself exploding under its internal contradictions…

Increasingly I find myself wondering whether we never really were that intelligent a species, or whether the system under which we live is infantilising us, or whether we are just wilfully blind.

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2018: My year of reading

December 27, 2018

A bit more reading than last year: I’ve managed to slow down the number of acquisitions slightly and have passed on quite a lot of books to Amnesty International this year. So far I’ve read 68, and can also report that unlike last year, I don’t seen to have given up on any. Out of the total, 21 were novels, half of those science fiction, and most were re-reads; I’ve read almost no new fiction this year. I’ve blogged about as often as previously, and still Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is one of my most popular hits, as is John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature for some reason.

A resolution for 2019 is to read more fiction, as is to continue with clearing out books I shall never read again, trying to buy fewer books, and trying to read more of those on the waiting pile, which I think has probably stopped growing(just as well) but hasn’t shrunk appreciably…

Awards for 2018: most disappointing read was Klaus Mann’s The Turning Point, his autobiography completed shortly before he killed himself. I struggled with Thomas Mann as a student and his son’s book sat on my shelf for over 30 years. His daughter Erika’s collection When The Lights Went Out, a collection of short stories about life in a small town under the Nazis, however, I did enjoy, and wrote about it here last year [?]

Again there is no award for weirdest book: I haven’t read anything weird this year.

Best new novel: an easy choice, this one, as there were so few to choose from, but it would have been my choice anyway – Stefan Brijs’ masterpiece set in the early days of the Great War, Post for Mrs Bromley. I do hope someone is out there working on a translation into Englsh.

Best novel (as in not one published recently) I think has to go to Ernst Weichert’s The Jeromin Children, although Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre Au Noir comes a very close second.

I have a difficult choice to make for the next two categories, Best non-fiction and Book of the Year, as they are both non-fiction. Since it’s my blog and I’m allowed, I’ll cheat. I award Best non-fiction title to Alberto Angela’s Empire, a really good example of the popularisation genre that actually works: the story of the Roman Empire told through the travels of a one sesterce coin. That allows me to give my Book of the Year title to Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, one of the most horrifying and depressing books I’ve ever read, but which absolutely needed to be written and published, as such things must never be forgotten.

I’ll finish by thanking all my readers for your interest in my thoughts, and for your comments if you’ve made any; I hope you’ll continue to visit and find worthwhile things to read here in 2019…

Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

5142oySDKtL._AC_US218_This is a lovely little book, and beautifully produced, too.

Years ago, I learned that the young Johann Sebastian Bach had taken leave of absence from his post as organist in Arnstadt to go to Lübeck in northern Germany to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, who worked at the Marienkirche in that city. Bach stayed way for longer than he had permission to do, and must have learned much from the old composer; I’m useless in terms of understanding music, but those who know recognise his influence on my hero’s work.

What astonished me then, and still does, was that Bach made the 230 mile journey on foot, in both directions. In a sense that’s obvious, as he was not wealthy enough to travel by horse, but it shows the devotion to his art, and the determination to pursue it to the limits.

A couple of years ago the writer of the book, accompanied by a BBC sound recordist and a producer, covered some sections of the walk, capturing the sounds and atmosphere for a series of broadcasts (which I have yet to listen to). To me, it seems weird that they only did selected bits of the journey, but if they had done it all, it would still have been edited for broadcasting, I suppose. And yet the book captured the essence of the journey: some of the key places, the terrain, landscape, sounds that Bach would have encountered, along with reflections on the man and the stage in his life when he made the journey, at the age of twenty or so; a relaxing and thoughtful hundred pages or so.

My personal love of Bach’s music took me to Arnstadt and other places five years or so ago, and then last year I also managed to spend a few days in Lübeck, so I can connect both ends of the journey at least; were I younger I might consider the entire walk.

Christmas books

December 26, 2018

It’s always lovely to receive presents at Christmas, and, as you might expect, a number of mine are usually books, and ones that I’m really looking forward to reading; no change this year!

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A slim but beautifully produced volume: Something of His Art, by Horatio Clare. This one was prompted by J S Bach’s epic journey on foot, of some 230 miles (each way) from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Luebeck in northern Germany to visit the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude; last year the writer covered various stages of this journey for the BBC, accompanied by a sound recordist and saved his impressions.

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Seasoned readers of my blog will be aware of my fascination (obsession?) with deserts. William Atkins’ book The Immeasurable World (Journeys in Desert Places) is therefore right up my street, and I can’t wait to get started, but the Bach will come first…

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Travel and photography are two of my interests and so I’m looking forward to serious browsing in a weighty tome Travelogues, by Burton Holmes: this American travelled worldwide in the latter years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century and took thousands of photographs of all the places he visited: here’s a chance to look at photos of places as they used to be in the days when travel meant travel and not tourism, and was a serious business.

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One novel, this year, which has had rave reviews wherever I’ve come across them – and I’ve read other books by this contemporary Polish writer – Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I’ll let you know…

Philip K Dick: We Can Build You

December 24, 2018

511UzZrk1BL._AC_US218_After the previous novel, this one comes as a complete contrast and quite a shock. Biographies of Philip Dick detail his various mental health issues and We Can Build You seems to reflect them, and his preoccupation with them. We are in a weird future world where mental illness is the norm and treatment mandated by the Federal Government; the various illnesses are vaguely linked to fallout from nuclear testing. This is another recurrent Dickian trope, the after-effects of all the atmospheric explosions in the fifties and sixties. At the same time, the first human simulacra are being perfected (we would nowadays call them androids).

So, utterly different territory from The Man in the High Castle. Here at one point the narrator decides he must be a simulacrum, and as he appears to collapse into mental illness himself as the story develops, it seems that the woman to whom he is attracted is also one.

We are in Frankenstein territory here, but with a twentieth century twist: is life being created when a simulacrum is built and then programmed with detailed memories of its actual human forbear? Does it have rights? Is it human? What sort of relationship can it have to our world, if it is out of its own time, and what responsibilities do its manufacturers or creators have? Once again, we are seeing what good literature and good science fiction can do: make us pause and reflect on our own world. We can also see the origins of a more famous Dick novel in which simulacra feature more dominantly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the film Blade Runner. Even the main female character has the same name…

Can one have sex with an android? Can a human be in love with an android? Here are questions which we may be considering in our own world in the not too distant future. And if a person suffers from a personality disorder which makes their behaviour and reactions resemble those of an android, where on earth are we then? Dick is most definitely on the level of ordinary people and their lives and feelings in this novel, which eventually seems to resolves itself into an unrequited love story, and a very sad one at that.

It is rather rambling and shapeless at times, as his narrator disintegrates mentally, and even so it does become quite a gripping story as we want his love to be returned. Dick presents psychosis quite clearly, along with other more common human emotions and feelings, and as I approached the end of the novel, I could see that the next one in the timeline, Martian Time-Slip, which also deals with a range of mentally disturbed states, flows out of this one, as does the treatment of such disorders with the use of hallucinogenic drugs – much explored in the nineteen-sixties – and this leads us on to the astonishing Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Because I experienced the novel working effectively on a human level, (and I think that this is part of the unrecognised brilliance of Dick), I found the ending of the novel very sad and very moving. I also have to recognise that there were rather too many loose ends left unsorted, though…

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.

Philip K Dick: Time Out of Joint

December 19, 2018

5184OtaA+aL._AC_US218_This novel represents quite a sea-change from what Dick was writing before. His scene is now small-town 1950s American life, a setting he will use frequently in both science fiction and non-SF novels, and one which allows him to use ordinary people as characters, and explore everyday life. However, in this small town, there is a clear and growing sense that something is not quite right…

The hero Ragle Gumm keeps winning a daily newspaper competition, solving clues which read like those from a cryptic crossword, and analysing data which he records, to spot where a little green man will appear next…

Gumm seems prone to occasional psychotic episodes and it gradually becomes clear that various people are minding him in what appears to be a solipsistic universe, an entire fake reality constructed around him and for him, which must be sustained and he cannot be allowed to leave, which, of course, he tries to do, as he gradually gets nearer to the truth about himself and what is going on, in a world that is actually in the 1990s and where a war is going on between Earth and the colonists on the Moon.

I can’t really say a lot more without spoiling a good story; suffice it to say it’s a very good yarn although the ending does lack some clarity and conviction, reinforcing my feeling that Dick isn’t yet a master at pulling all his strands together for an effective conclusion. But what we can see here is a writer who is seriously expanding the range and vision of the genre. And I think that main idea in this book was used in the film The Truman Show a couple of decades or so back.

Philip K Dick: The Variable Man

December 19, 2018

51+oGZq4bGL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_This next volume in the publication sequence of Dick’s work is a collection of five novellas, in which a range of different Dickian themes emerge and are developed. In The Variable Man, he has several balls juggling from the word go: war being planned and fought using the statistically calculated probability of winning it, and time travel just for starters; it’s a man brought back from another time that throws all the calculations of the warmongers awry because he is not part of the data… and it’s the sheer humanity of the man from the past, marooned in this horrific future world, which is particularly appealing: Dick in so many of his stories and novels, both SF and not, focuses on ordinary common decency and goodness as a contrast to the awfulness of so many of his futures.

The crazy science and insane weaponry, as well as a deus ex machina at the end, do not enhance the story’s credibility – if that’s the right word – but Dick’s ideas do demand our respect when human values win out against tyranny.

Second Variety is too close for comfort and quite simply chilling: autonomous, self-replicating weapons seek out and kill the last surviving humans, becoming ever more devious and complex, and ultimately developing the ability to go to war with each other, cutting out the human middle-man. A prophecy from sixty years ago.

Minority Report looks at another of Dick’s favourite ideas, mental deviants this time in the form of precogs who can foresee who will commit a crime in the future, enabling a tyrannical future state to take those people into preventive detention. Works wonders for the crime rate, but at what cost? Already Dick is out to make us think, but then he makes it more complicated: how accurate might precognition be, and if someone knew what was foreseen about them, might it affect their actions? In which case… you see where he’s leading you? This is a thing I’m realising about Dick as I work through his books: some writers will take one idea and work through it well and thoroughly, whereas Dick throws in the metaphorical kitchen sink. You’re in a whirlwind; you may be able to follow all the plot complexities; the story may work or it may not, but you have to admire the sheer verve.

Autofac: how can humans outwit the intelligent machines they once devised? In a post-war world society strives painfully and slowly to rebuild itself, constantly thwarted by vast underground factories programmed to provide their every need but obviously impeding self-sufficiency. When humans succeed in confusing and thwarting the automated factories, these end up going to war with each other for the scarce resources they need to kep functioning. Dick is years ahead of his time in exploring some of the questions that a few intelligent minds are currently starting to consider in the light of new technology: are we too late?

In the end, I decided that the final story, World of Talent, just had too much going on to be comprehensible: masterly maybe, but the all the different mental talents – psi, precog, telepathy and I don’t know what else, and time-travel too, was just a bit much. Bizarre.

David Ewing Duncan: The Calendar

December 18, 2018

51T5R64P3HL._AC_US218_I don’t know whether it’s a boy thing, but I’ve always been fascinated with clocks and calendars and time generally; apparently I learnt to tell the time before I was four, driving my mother nearly stoddy in the process. Laid up by a nasty cold I dug out and re-read this favourite of mine from twenty years ago.

Here is the history of all the different calendars, how time and the year was measured, and how all of this gradually became more accurate, as amendments and corrections were applied. I recall being astonished when I read – at the age of about nine – in The Guinness Book of Records about the longest year ever, with 445 days in it (46BC when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar). There is the complicated business of the difference between the year as measured by the stars and our ordinary year measured by the sun (and moon by some).

The key issue for the Christian Church was being able to accurately decide the date of Easter, which is not as easy as some would imagine: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox sounds clear enough until you realise that the day of the vernal equinox and the full moon can vary depending on whereabouts on the planet you happen to be… And, at the time when it was originally laid down (Council of Nicaea, 325CE, if you must know) no-one had the means of measuring or calculating anything that accurately. At some point even later, back calculations to work out when Christ was born were also inaccurate, which is why he was actually born in 4BC (or 5BC or 6BC perhaps).

Calculations were terribly limited until the Indians and Arabs came up with a numeral system that used a zero, allowing decimals to replace inaccurate fractions, which everyone just used to round away, with predictable results. And yet the Church was always suspicious or afraid of new knowledge because it represented a challenge to orthodoxy.

Things improved in the 14thcentury with the invention of the mechanical clock and the possibility of measuring hours accurately. The Gregorian calendar was devised and implemented in the Catholic world in 1582, but not in Protestant lands, which eventually and gradually fell into line, England not agreeing until 1752. So years got mismatched owing to an 11-day discrepancy and the fact that our new year began on March 25 while other countries were already using 1 January. So, in what year was Charles I beheaded? Was that 30 January 1648 or 1649? It’s all relative, of course…

The subject – as you’ll gather from above – fascinates me, and there’s a lot of information in this book, but I do have to bemoan the incredibly shoddy editing and proof-reading which produces some truly bizarre errors: travelling east from London to get to Oxford? And a mysterious city, capital of England’s greatest county, Zork? (Twice that one appears!). As for the Latin quotations – don’t get me started.

Donne: A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day

December 13, 2018

Today I would like to share one of my favourite poems…

Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness
,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin word for light (lux, lucis) and her feast day is on 13 December in the church calendar. In mediaeval times, before the reform of the calendar and when it was increasingly out of step with the seasons and the stars, her feast day would have coincided with the shortest day of the year, when one could at last begin to feel hopeful that the worst was over, and there would gradually be more light as the days began to lengthen. Donne obviously felt the same as I and many others do, that this is a really grim time of the year…

This is not an easy poem: in fact the sense is pretty impenetrable without notes and a glossary. I’m not going to provide those, as this post is not an exercise in literary criticism, merely some of my thoughts by way of appreciation of a poem I’ve liked for many years. It was probably written on the occasion of a serious illness or a parting, rather than a death; it may or may not be about his wife.

In the first stanza, images of short days, lack of light, shrinkage and death abound, moving into attempts to imagine emptiness, absence, a total vacuum in the second. Images form the science (?) of alchemy, hard enough for us to understand nowadays, extend the idea. I sense Donne retreating ever further into himself as the poem progresses, as he tries to picture an elixir – a distillation – from nothing. Others may look forward to eventual new life as spring approaches, he says, and this is a feeling many of us may share, the sense of relief after that shortest day has finally passed and we can look forward to the – however gradual – lengthening of the days again, but the poet feels he cannot: the final stanza allows that possibility to other, inferior lovers. The sun moves into the zodiacal sign of the goat – Capricorn – symbol also of lust and sexual pleasure.

The poem is an epitome of despondency, sadness, melancholy; self-indulgent, perhaps, but a feeling in which I find it perversely pleasurable to wallow for a while each December. It’s a wonderful example of Donne’s wit, not in the sense of humour but in the older sense of knowledge, as well as a marvellous example of the extended metaphor or conceit. Notice how cleverly the very last line echoes and mirrors the first…

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