Collapse, by Jared Diamond

“The past”, writes Jared Diamond, “offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding”. This is powerful truth and it is one of the reasons why I keep a journal. R.A Heinlein writes of people uninterested in their historical background that “a generation without a past is a generation without a future“. George Orwell tells us, more bluntly, that “he who controls the past, controls the future“. All of this points to the fact that we can and should learn from the past, as individuals and collectively, as a society or a culture. Jared Diamond’s book bring us lessons on how societies and cultures collapsed, or survived, and draws some broad conclusions for our time.

Starting with a perhaps counter-intuitive look at the potential problems faced by modern Montana, he goes on to look at a number of cultures the collapses of which we may all be aware of, and examines in some detail why those societies failed. The Anazazi Indians of the American southwest; the Maya. The island settlements in the Pacific – Easter Island. The Norse settlements in Greenland and on the North American continent.

He then moves on from consideration of those collapsed ancient societies, to consider some modern cultures which may or may not be facing collapse: Why are some in great shape, why are some in crisis? Papua New Guinea. Modern Australia. Haiti and the Dominican Republic – two widely differing cultures on the same island. If there is any conclusion to be drawn here, it is that there is no sound-bite solution, no quick or straightforward answer, but instead, case-by-case complexity and nuance.

The Anazazi in Chaco Canyon grew crops in multiple locations and then distributed it, ostensibly (but probably not) equally. In describing this he artlessly demolishes command economics or the economics of state-sponsored redistribution of wealth. The risk of redistribution is that “it required a complex political and social system to integrate activities between different sites”, and “lots of people ended up starving to death when that complex system collapsed”. This is an inherent problem with command economics: when a planned economy goes wrong, thousands or even millions of people end up starving to death – as in Bengal in 1770 in the days of the East India Company, as under Stalin in the Ukraine in the 1930’s, and as in Ethiopia in the 1980’s. When a market economy goes wrong, there may be widespread malnutrition, but there won’t be mass starvation. It’d be interesting to see how many people actually starved during the Great Depression – but you may be sure it won’t be many.

Moving onto some success stories, he spends some time discussing an area he does know something about, the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Here we have a culture that has embraced innovation, a culture that has found it necessary to abandon conservatism or resistance to change. Conservatism though, he argues, comes from being on the edge, facing a survival situation. We dare not change things, if changing things pushes us over the edge to destruction. And yet, the adaptable highland tribal people of PNG have done just that – embraced change, done things differently, and not only survived but have prospered. In contrast he notes that the Norse settlements in Greenland ultimately failed (though climate change was also a causal factor) because of conservatism – what worked in Norway, should work in Greenland: but it didn’t. The differences were subtle and complex, and were difficult to understand or comprehend given the knowledge and technology of the time.

Is “progress” sustainable at all? He notes that Inuit hunter-gatherers lasted 500 years in Greenland. But aboriginal hunter-gatherers in Australia lasted 40,000 years. What’s the difference? Is “progress” itself a bad thing? Me personally, I don’t think it is. I don’t think a culture that doesn’t change or grow is healthy at all. That’s as true for hunter-gatherers as it was for the more advanced Roman state which remained at broadly the same technical level for a thousand years. Underlying all of this discussion is the importance of engaged, enthusiastic and committed citizens, insightful and courageous leaders, and a willingness to look at the bigger picture and think about the long term.

Diamond draws some thought-provoking conclusions, some of which are truism, to a degree; others, less obvious and more challenging to me. He suggests that we need to challenge our deeply held core beliefs – some of them are compatible with the survival of society; some of them, have to be given up in order to survive. As true for individuals as for cultures.

More challenging though, “in all politically complex human societies in which people encounter other individuals with whom they have no ties of family or clan relationship, government regulation has arisen precisely because it was found to be necessary for the enforcement of moral principles”. This is about what he calls the “tragedy of the commons” – people in general do not behave in a way that prospers the common good, but in a way that prospers them as individuals. But there is always a “commons”; we need the common good. Therefore – though it break my heart to write it – I have to acknowledge that it IS the job of the State to make men moral.

In the end, Diamond is hopeful. He argues that (in our market economy) it is the PUBLIC – the customers – and not the State, and not businesses or corporations, who have the ultimate power to change the behaviour of businesses and ensure we move forward in a sustainable way.

Lexicon, by Max Barry

I saw this title on a shelf in a second-hand bookshop in Aberdeen, and I was drawn to it on the instant. “Words are weapons” went the blurb. Never a truer word even if written by Marketing. “Sticks and stones can break my bones…words can kill“, it went on. Words can create; they can build people up and raise hope. Words can destroy; they can ruin people and remove all hope. This is true metaphorically; it is a fundamental fact and a powerful truth in the spiritual and emotional world. In this book “Lexicon” it is also literally and actually true.

I testify to the power of words. A teacher once said of me, “That Hough’s an oaf. A clever oaf, but an oaf nevertheless”. That was said between teachers in the staff room; some years later, when I was an adult, another teacher told me the story. It were fair to say I wish he hadn’t bothered. Those words, spoken about me nearly forty years ago, could define me to this day – almost like a curse. They could be my epitaph.

I have since met the Lord Jesus Christ, and He has spoken a better word over me. “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” – John 15:3. Jesus is, as the writer to the Hebrews notes, the minister of sprinkled blood that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). We know of spells, curses and blessings, and of strange unbreakable injunctions – the “geas”. In Dennis Wheatley’s stories we read that eleven words of eleven syllables, spoken with due preparation, will bring forth a dread demon. In C. S Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew” we read of the Deplorable Word, a word uttered by the witch Jadis on the planet Charn. A word so terrible, that merely speaking it, destroys all life. In Frank Herbert’s “Dune” we read of sound being used as a terrible weapon – the “weirding way”.

And the list of spells, words of power, curses and dark magic goes on through all literature. There are manifold examples of words used in power, dreadful negative power, destructive power. Max Barry has written such a tale here. The story is of pursuit of a “bareword”, a word so potentially destructive, that every time in history one has appeared, it has wrought catastrophic, end-of-days levels of destruction and chaos. In his story, a shadowy department in Washington DC is peopled by agents who are able to persuade people to their will by words alone. Sometimes through everyday persuasion, other times, though what are in effect, spells: the use of strange and sonorous words of power in lost and unknown languages, to compel people to obey.

The idea that words have power is fascinating and compelling. The pen IS mightier than the sword. The tongue, as St James writes, can set the whole course of our life on fire. The idea that words can create and destroy goes back to creation. The world itself, even light itself, was spoken into being by God. God said Fiat Lux let there be light. And this point is crucial: …and there was light.

Today, more than ever, we need to use words to bring light, to do good, to build up and encourage others. Today words are used to great destructive effect; social media acts as an echo chamber for empty words, and as a magnifier of whipped up hatred and divisiveness. It is vital that our words – for as we have seen, words can be uniquely powerful – are for good and not for ill. They should build up and not tear down. They should encourage and not discourage. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. It’s actually worse than that: we can actually cause immense damage through careless words, negative words, thoughtless words. We should write and speak in love. Let our words be powerful, let them be few, and let them be for good.

The Pigeon Tunnels, by John le Carre

I was at the same time inspired and daunted by “The Pigeon Tunnels”. It’s a kind of autobiographical work, consisting of a series of short essays, just a few thousand words each. The essays detail some of the people he has met, and the places he has been, as a world-famous writer, researching novels in trouble spots; hob-nobbing with the great and the good; burying old ghosts. Inspired – because a thousand-word essay, almost anyone can write. Daunted, because le Carre’s craft, and his connections and background, both seem miles from my own.

For someone like me who comes from dust, out of a comprehensive school/polytechnic background, he makes little of his own patrician roots. For this I am thankful. But it is clear that many of his heroes are in fact he, or possibly, more likely, his father. That said, le Carre does note (of the writer’s trade) that at some point, you have to get out and meet people – stories come from people, and the people are out in the world.

In an account (“In deep cover”) of burying an old Cold Warrior, some old spy, he speaks well of the Cold War infiltration of subversive groups. But he writes that he is ostensibly repelled by such infiltration today, arguing that it is not justified. I think this is disingenous. But then, later, in “Son of the author’s father”, le Carre writes about “the writer as conman“. He describes the similarity between himself (a successful writer) and his father (a successful conman) relating the two arts – that of conman and writer.

The writer and the conman:

  • Spin stories out of the air, from nothing
  • Sketch characters that do not exist
  • Paint golden opportunity where none exist
  • Blind you with bogus detail
  • Clarify knotty points
  • Withhold great secrets
  • Whisper those same secrets in your ear

This chapter on his father Ronnie is as moving and as revelatory a chapter as ever I have read, and was most enlightening. How far from my own experience. I have been a very different kind of father, and my own father, though perhaps not much more flawed than I, a very different kind of man again.

I always used to say of his writing, you could read a dozen early John Le Carre novels, and you would learn little or nothing about the writer’s own personal politics. You need read only a dozen or so pages of a Tom Clancy “Patrick Ryan” novel to know his. But that’s not true of his later, post-Cold War material – stuff like “Our kind of Traitor”, where his politics – and his anger – almost boils off the page.

Writing about documenting and reporting on the horror of the Eastern Congo, he says that “cameras don’t work for me. When I write a note, my memory stores the thought. When I take a picture, the camera steals my job”. This is important. The writer paints pictures with words: the camera exists; it cannot be un-invented. But just as pen and paper render memory less necessary, even as GPS erodes our innate sense of direction, and even as wristwatches mean we no longer need a sense of time or duration, so the rise of the universal camera is making the written story rarer and harder to create.

A fiery and furious people – a history of violence in England, by James Sharpe

Take that! Blam! And that!! Oww!!

I saw this title a good few years ago and I thought, that’s one for me, that’ll be interesting. Are we English violent? Are we more violent than other races? Is it our Anglo-Saxon or Norse heritage? The Duke of Wellington famously said of his own troops that they were the “scum of the earth”, and it is possible that propensity to violence does make for good soldiers. One feels that crossing the street to avoid soldiers need not be completely unnecessary. The purpose of soldiers, after all, is to visit physical violence on others, hopefully, but not always, other soldiers.

James Sharpe traces the social, cultural and legal history of violence from the Middle Ages to the present. It’s mostly readable, although there were a few sections I had to skip, particularly the section about serial killers. Not because I’m particularly squeamish, but because the work in those places was in danger of being about crime and legislation, rather than violence per se. That said, you can’t today discuss violence without discussing crime and punishment, and that, of itself, is an important finding of the book. What passes for violence has changed through the ages. The degree and type of violence that the common people, the law, and indeed the State, will accept or put up with, and where the line is to be drawn, has changed much over time.

Sharpe has chapters on various themes, as well as moving in a logical way from the past to the present. He covers violence in the middle ages, where he draws in the influence of the Norman French feudal aristocracy and the effect of the concept of “Chivalry”. He covers dueling, and domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, and also serial killers. Of families, he notes: “It was only as feudalism succumbed to capitalism, and a traditional, community-based kinship dominated society started to give way to one in which individuals began to come to the fore, that the family as we understand it today, emerged”

He does note that most (although not all) violence is visited by men, and mostly, to be fair, on other men. It is men who are violent. Aggression plays a part. I’m reminded of Sebastian Junger’s excellent book “War”, about the young men fighting in Afghanistan. Here, we read of the importance, particularly for young men, not of war as such, but of combat. Most men understand this instinctively, even if today, that combat is no longer always physical.

Alas, he does not mention the story quoted I think by Churchill, that the Venetian Ambasssador was so intimidated by the physical presence of Henry VIII that whenever he was in that king’s presence, he never stopped worrying that the king would actually lay hands on him and do him violence.

Several more important conclusions are drawn. We should be careful of the danger of reading too much into crime statistics (or any statistics). Reporting of violent crime is not the same as violent crime. An example of this is the suggestion (reasonable certainty, really) that some police forces today – as in the past – do not have the funding to prosecute as many violent criminals as they otherwise ought – which will affect crime figures. Prosecuting people is expensive. Another: our world and the people in it are very much more complicated than it would appear from social media or from the pages of the Daily Mail. The nature of violence is changing; I don’t think it is getting less, although our tolerance of casual violence is lower than it was – just as it should be.

We come into a world now where social violence – trolling, online bullying etc – may need much more tightly regulating: because who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

I do hope there’s hope: a review of The Rig, by Roger Levy

I cannot now recall who recommended this story by Roger Levy: possibly William Gibson, on Twitter, or possibly the recommendation came from having read Dave Eggers’ upsetting story “The Circle”.

Do we judge a book by it’s cover? Alas, we do, and the publishers are complicit in this, bringing us paperbacks for womenfolk that are broadly (but not always) in light, pastel colours, and paperbacks for men, that are either black or in dark hues. You won’t be reading an Iain M. Banks novel in a paperback copy that is anything other than dark in colour. “Dark have been my dreams of late”, said Theoden King, in the Lord of the Rings. And well they might have been if he’d read this book or indeed a lot of other modern science fiction.

I long for science fiction that is positive and hopeful. I started “The Rig” and after a struggle at the start, I got into it. So I tweeted to the author that I thought it was great. [That this is possible at all is a both a blessing and a curse of modern social media]. I wrote to him, “I do hope there is hope”

What we have in “The Rig” is a future where humankind has had to move to another “system” where there are a number of nominally habitable planets. Much is made of terraforming. Two planets are different – and one of them, Gehenna, a loosely Christian religious dictatorship, forms the background to the opening of the story. The story’s hero is, as some say, “on the spectrum“. Indeed, Alef is autistic to the point of being socially inadequate, but very, very clever. He – and his father before him – are the not exactly unwilling tools of an unpleasant gangster needing assistance with computers.

We’ve seen it all before. These gangsters and all their disgusting subordinate mercenaries, enforcers, mistresses and hangers-on all appear in the dark science fiction of such authors as Alistair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Iain. M Banks and most particularly Richard Morgan. I grow tired of them. It displeases me that writers, publishers and indeed the reading public, seem have a fascination for them, all the sordid violence and mutilation, all the vengeance and torture. I agree with R.A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, who said in “Time enough for love”: “I’ve never understood the gangster mentality. I simply know what to do with gangsters“.

Notwithstanding all that, I found I could hardly put this book down, and I found that the plot drew me on. It was simple enough not to confuse me and yet refined and complex enough not to be completely see-through. You’ve got implicit discussion of the internet and what it all means; you’ve got old Earth clearly destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by some unexplained environmental catastrophe. You’ve got a dig at organised religion and for that matter, at Christianity. So far, so normal for “dark” sci-fi – all the right boxes are ticked. But, much more unusually, you’ve got an autistic main character whose feelings and thoughts the author has worked hard to portray.

I’d make a plea, as a Christian, for positive, hopeful and uplifting stories. I’ll admit the publisher may say “it won’t sell”, but you know – I think it will. Something that defies the rather H.P Lovecraftian view taken by nearly all modern science-fiction. In all my life of reading I can think of only a handful of authors writing such material. I was impressed by Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – reviewed here, then we’re back to Stephen Lawhead, whose works The Search for Fierra/The Siege of Dome and Dream Thief I read thirty years ago. Or even C.S Lewis’ classics like “Out of the Silent Planet”, “Perelandraand “That Hideous Strength”.

From the Gulag to the Killing Fields – notes on Totalitarianism

A few musings on totalitarianism, brought on by a work-related visit to Vietnam. I have juxtaposed this with a recent re-reading of Orwell’s “1984”. I read a lot of books at once, mind, and I am also ploughing my way through a collection called “From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States”. It has been put together by an academic called Paul Hollander, himself a victim of the political violence of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. It makes uncomfortable reading for me, much less for anyone with remotely left-wing sensibilities. We tend to look at Russia and China as the worst offenders in terms of the sheer volume and quantity of communist political oppression and violence, and this book tends to support that view. But reading books these upsetting personal stories, other places take the record for sheer horror and human tragedy (Cambodia and Vietnam). For the ill-treatment of political prisoners, I’d look at Cuba, where there was a peculiar and toxic mixture of Latin machismo and the malevolent foolishness of Marxism.

It never fails to be a pleasant surprise to me that books like this collection are in print in the UK at all. It is not beyond the bounds of darkest fantasy that a time will come for the UK when having a copy of such a book could put someone at risk of being sent to prison.

It’s always good to pick up a few points from Orwell. His character “Bernstein” who ostensibly writes the “book within the book” plot device allowing Orwell to lecture us on totalitarianism, says that the rise of machines has, “by producing wealth which is sometimes impossible not to distribute”, led to an increase in average living standards. Our standard of living has indeed improved from the early 20th century (earlier really) until now, and should continue to improve all this century. This is not politics, nor economics, but technology – the rise of machines. Orwell notes that “an all-round increase in wealth threatens a hierarchical society” and “A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance”. Amen. This truth lies at the very heart of “1984”, and at the heart of opposition to technology for it’s own sake. Opposition to “machines taking over men’s jobs” is at heart a desire for order and hierarchy, a vote for the established order, an endorsement of the status quo. And I believe the status quo is almost invariably worth upsetting. Technology and machines, of themselves, create wealth and hence threaten the status quo in hierarchical societies.

Rocket Fighter, by Mano Ziegler

What a remarkable read! Mano Ziegler, a second world war fighter pilot with the Luftwaffe, published, in 1961, “Raketenjaeger 163“. This excellent little book was subsequently published in English as “Rocket Fighter”. It is the very readable story of the development of the Messerschmidt 163 rocket-powered interceptor during WWII. My copy came as a gift from a close friend of mine.

image: Wikipedia

It is wonderfully written. Lovely English – one may ask whether this is because it was well written in the original German (which I find more than likely) or is it an artifact of translation by someone who can write beautiful English? It comes across in waves of easy-to-read, rolling prose.

It’s worth mentioning, at a remove of seventy years since WWII, that the work is completely free of any political rancour or bitterness, and there is little mention of the war itself at all, except toward the end of the book when the onward juggernaut of the Soviets was making its way across eastern Germany. The war is seen always as an effect, a shadow, an influence.

The story here is about the airmen who worked to the best of their abilities to transform this innovative new rocket plane into an actual operational fighter. The heroes are the airmen. They are no different to American airmen, or British airmen. At one point, a pair of Mustangs fly over and strafe the airfield, causing the flyers and a number of their female colleagues (WAAFs of some kind) to fling themselves into a slit trench or ditch for shelter. Emerging from shelter after the raiders had gone, one of the airmen shakes his fist at the retreating Americans: “look at my bloody trousers – straight from the cleaners too!!” These men had an excellent custom of “birthdays”. if something happened to an airman where he ought by rights, to have died – but survives – that day, ever afterwards, becomes a new birthday, with cake and drinks and appropriate celebration.

The heroes are the men that lived and died working on the rocket planes, which were unreliable if amazing when they worked. And these brave men sometimes died hard, literally dissolved by the liquid rocket fuel, which was concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide.

The astonishing technology is the other hidden hero here. History is generally written by the victors: I was brought up in 1970’s Britain, and was taught in school that Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. German aviation technology seems almost like “alternative history” to me. Men like Alexander Lippisch, who pioneered the tail-less “delta” shaped aircraft (so iconic later in the Avro Vulcan) so nearly brought the Germans victory in WWII. To read or watch Philip K Dick’s nightmare vision of a 1960’s where the Nazis won (“The Man in the High Castle“) and see a world spanned by supersonic jets, and a manned mission to Mars, is to shiver. Terribly plausible, at one level, when you consider this frighteningly advanced technology, and the upright, honest and capable men, like Mano Ziegler and others, who were set by the Nazis to develop it and fly it.