Posts Tagged ‘Last and First Men’

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.


My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

July 23, 2016

51J6jDML6PL._AC_US160_It’s a strange novel in some ways: for starters, the two main sections are separated by a period of five thousand years. Shakespeare takes us past sixteen years with a little awkwardness in The Winter’s Tale, but five millennia? And, whilst the first part is a ripping yarn that carries you along, the second feels limp, self-indulgent.

For some reason, never explained, in the near future the moon explodes, and the further process of its disintegration into rocks and meteorites which bombard the earth, brings about the end of the humanity, but not before everyone’s efforts have been focused on trying to create a future for the human race in space, with a colony of about 1200 people centred on the International Space Station. There’s a little mild exploration of how the species might react faced with the prospect of annihilation, but we are mainly focused on politicking, which demonstrates the absurdity of our species, and hard science: there’s a great deal – far too much, to be honest – scientific explanation of how all the different machinery and robotics and spacecraft work in the two years between the calamity and the end of humanity. What this means is that a lot of the time I was skim-reading: not that I didn’t want to know about how everything worked, but I didn’t want so much information…I wanted to get on with the plot.

Human stupidity leads to further problems inside the space station and to factions and breakaway groups, fighting and cannibalism, meaning that in the end humanity is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are able to reproduce… and we also get the impression that if everything were left to the sensible scientists, things would have gone a great deal better (!)

So, there was a plot, some excitement and some tension in that part… then we arrive in the future, with humanity having re-established itself, but in seven slightly different races and colonised the ex-moon’s orbit space, and engaged in re-engineering the old earth for habitation. And here, things do seem to flag, initially. Eventually, we become aware that there were some survivors of the cataclysm on the surface: a sea-based race descended from people on a nuclear submarine that sheltered in the deepest oceans, and a land-based one that had secured itself in very deep mine-workings; the encounters between all the different groups and the potential for future problems are quite interesting. However, I feel Stephenson spoils his plot by replicating a Cold War Red/Blue split and stand-off between the space survivors – of all the hackneyed tropes to come up with!

Stephenson creates a future world, with some utopian elements, but it’s ultimately fantastical in the sense that he doesn’t have to/ choose to tell us how we get there: the five thousand year time-leap becomes a cop-out, and in some ways we are in the vague and mentally exhausting ages of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, where he takes us forward several billion years in a series of leaps, but fails to engage us emotionally in the future of the human race. And there is just too much scientific description of invented elements of future technology…..

I have enjoyed much of Stephenson’s earlier work: Cryptonomicon was gripping and credible, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy was a masterpiece. But here the ideas and the delivery feel rather laboured, and I felt up against science fiction’s oldest problem: can you create interesting and believable characters that really engage your reader (no) along with speculative ideas (yes) explained without too much technical detail (no). So, space opera then.

On time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

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