Extraordinary complexity

We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.

The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for.  The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.

We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists.  We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking.  Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen. 

But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian.  Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.   

And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War.  The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage.  The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland.  The Russian revolution.  The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.  

All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today.  I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span.  My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board.  In the second war,  Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”.  As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol. 

How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it.  One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture.  A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia.  The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity.  Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper.  Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses.  Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

Great future inventions

I was minded to write about some of the great inventions we may yet see, and to look at the rich imaginations of some of our great sci-fi writers.

1. The diamond flechette gun in Alistair Reynold’s “Chasm City”.  A small and easily concealed hand weapon, made out of diamond and exotic forms of Carbon – because there is no metal in it, of course, it can be carried with impunity through airport scanners and other such devices.  It is clockwork and as well as being made of diamond, fires bits of diamond as projectiles. It might be clockwork but I don’t think the users wind it up. It is, as characters describe, a thing of ‘intense, evil beauty’.  “Chasm City” is set in the 27th century.

2. The Turing Gate in Paul MacAuley’s “Cowboy Angels”.  In an alternative reality, Alan Turing is not hounded to death by the state for being gay, but emigrates to America where he goes onto invent a strange gate or means to move between dimensions and alternate realities.  The Americans of that reality (not ours) take it upon themselves to visit their particular brand of democracy on all other Americas in existence. All well and good until they visit the reality where President Nixon was elected.

3. The cortical stack, allowing Digital Human Storage, in Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and it’s two sequels.  This memory device is about the size of a cigarette butt.  The device is implanted in the spinal column soon after birth and records everything – sensations, memories, feelings. All can be backed up, everything can be uploaded into a computer as digital data.  Humanity is reduced to big data – both freed from death and enslaved by eternal life.

4. Douglas-Martin sun-power screens in R.A Heinlein’s “Let there be light”. Two inventors in the 1960’s perfect bioluminescent screens that can be used to convert electricity into light, or, if stuck in the sunshine, act as an effective solar panel, generating electricity.

5. The Bobble, in Vernor Vinge’s “Across realtime“.  A spherical and perfectly reflective indestructable minature cosmos, which can be created in any size from tiny up to tens of kilometres across.  They can last for moments – or for tens of millions of years.  Anything trapped inside endures NO duration at all, no matter how long they or it are stuck inside. They are effective one-way time machines.  Vinge has his characters use them as perfect (if someone inconveniently shaped) fridges, as remarkable air bags to protect aircraftmen in crashes, as restraints for madmen, as time machines, and as a means to contain political prisoners. Oddly he misses using micrometre sized bobbles as a building material.

6. The piece of paper as a computer in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”. In the Diamond Age – late in this century – nanotech is all. An everyday piece of paper is many tens of thousands of molecules thick.  It’s a small matter to design the inside of it so that those many molecules can act as a kind of electro-mechanical microprocessor, churning through sums, doing calculations – doing computer stuff, in fact.

7. The genetically modified millipede used as sutures, in William Gibson’s “Count Zero“, set in the early 21st century but written in the 1980’s.  Our young hero is slashed across the back in a knife attack whilst on the run. The surgeon places a length of this millipede over the wound, ensures all the many legs are properly lined up on each side, and with a flourish, rips the spine from the brainless bio-artifact. It’s death spasm causes the legs to contract, neatly sewing a huge wound together in a split second.

8. Windows running on your clothes, and displaying in contact lenses, in Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”.  Vinge can’t call it Windows of course, but calls it “Symphony”. Your clothes are embedded with threads acting as powerful microprocessors, and they are able to send information to contact lenses. Augmented reality – you want the low-down on this neighbourhood? Just google it and the info scrolls across the top right of your field of vision.  Communicate with your computer by sub-vocalising or just thinking what want to say,

9. The means to broadcast sound direct to your aural nerve – the “friend” device as seen in Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”.  Developed before 2020, the device renders earphones obsolete. A small instrument in your pocket, or your mobile phone, broadcasts sound in perfect hi-fi direct to your brain.  It’s a side issue in Baxter’s story which is about rising waters flooding the whole earth.

10.  The monomolecular spray-on hosiery in Iain M Banks’ “Against a dark background”. Others have said there are more ideas on one page of an Iain M. Banks novel than in whole books by other others. Here, he proposes a monomolecular covering for the female leg that looks great and feels great – spray on tights, in effect.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.

Spring

Spring appears just like that
Almost like the turning of a card
Maybe there are such cards
Four suits – Winter, Spring, Summer and
Autumn.
Perhaps the gods themselves have such a pack.
Maybe they play for keeps
At certain times of year,
And perhaps the seasons turn
On whoever wins the game.
What would be your favourite card?
Perhaps the Jack of Spring, all mischief:
Loki, or the great god Pan.
There’d be a terrible Queen of Winter
Black Maria, or maybe
Just Tilda Swinton in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.
The Nine of Autumn,
Brown leaves and woodsmoke.
New England Fall would be the King of that suit.
Or the Two of Spring – the first snowdrops, daffodils.
The Queen of Spring,
Surely Bluebell woods.
The Ace of Summer,
The best is yet to come.
And maybe a Joker too…
Especially for the English. Musn’t grumble:
Snow on Buxton cricket ground in June, or
February sunshine, unlooked for.

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.

All the landscape was the mill

A crowd of ladies from a faraway land, each dressed in brightly coloured fabrics, would come chattering past the house each day. They would sweep along every morning and evening, their conversations bright, adult, and quite incomprehensible in some unknown language. The little boy asks, who are those ladies? His mother tells him that they all work in the mill at the bottom of the street.

The boy learned a lesson young: who you are and what you are can be seen from where you’re going – and when. The direction you’re walking, and the time of day, tells us something about who you are.

At the bottom of the street, a crossroads. Go left into a quiet lane past the allotments to the edge of town. Go right past a bowling green smooth like a billiard table, to a sweet shop. Straight on, to the park, to school, to Cubs. The crossroads of our lives – turn each way for different lives, different paths. People will know where you are going, when you walk through these streets. Here, brick and tarmac, there, woods and quiet shrubs and grasses. Straight on – for play, and for learning.

The sepia stains of history lie on these streets, or at least it seems so, to the boy and to the man he became. Here, a grandfather swam in an outdoor pool. There, a street where an unsmiling lady stood in a crowd of joy and cheers, struggling to see the good in VE Day. Over there, the flats, and the outlines of vanished streets. The streets are gone, but the memories remain, thick like dust, easy to discern if you’re the right sort. Listen carefully, even today, and you can hear the treble drone of bombers, or the wretched tears of poverty, the grinding life of the urban poor.

He came back to those streets in a kind of pilgrimage, thinking somehow to reconnect with the past, with the feeling of those early days. If he could represent his childhood. all the carefree years of boyhood, as an icon, that icon would be a little image of the mill at the bottom of the street. He walked past that mill every day for years uncounted, it seemed to him when he was young. Endless weeks, he went past that mill, morning, afternoon, evening. And he never went inside it, in all his life.

As a young man, he’d sat with this father watching old Laurel and Hardy movies. They were amusing; there were wry smiles. But even as he watched them, he found that they were just not as funny as they had been when he was a small boy. He’d mentioned this to his father, who’d shook his head with the greybeard wisdom of ages. “The boy who rolled around laughing on the floor at these movies, no longer exists”, he said. The boy became the man, the young man became the older man.

Could these streets ignite a kind of holy nostalgia? Could they form a harbour into which a pilgrim might sail, to sojourn briefly in the past – a visit only. Not to remain. The mill was still there; the streets were still there. The crossroads by the bowling green was unchanged. The municipal lines of alternating plane trees and lime trees in the park – still there, save for a few gaps caused by storms of old.

Walking in past the park, he’d noticed that no single youngster was out playing. It was 4.30pm on a spring weekday afternoon. The roundabouts were siezed and rusted, the swings abandoned, it seemed. Where was everybody? Where were they all? He knew, really. No Marie Celeste mystery here. Just the modern world, risk averse, focussed on itself, with smartphones, tablets and unwillingness to be out of doors.

The mill was the fixed point – all the landscape was the mill. But there was no river of bodies pouring down the street to find work there. That river had dried up long ago. Here had been a future for hands of skill. No longer. That much had changed even in his own youth. What remained now, was clearly foreseeable even back then – if you could read the writing on the wall. What had been a mill making clothes, was now a university department. It was a department covering such matters as textiles and art, so there remained a tenuous connection with what had been. On the river of time, you cannot paddle upstream. That river flows only in one direction.

He walked up the street, remembering the red and blue bricks in the pavement. He recalled cycling down the street on a baking hot day, trying to keep in the shade. The baleful sunlight of reality was upon him now, beating mercilessly on his head. No golden light of evening, nor delicate pink at dawn, but scorching tropical sunshine at noon. A sunshine, as Kipling wrote, that sometimes strikes men dead.

Yet, though saddened, he knew things had to change. There is no going back. There’s no returning to those places of golden childhood. Nostalgia is a hip-flask from which we can allow ourselves no more than a discreet sip, every now and then. If we look back, we must look in thankfulness, not in nostalgia.

Treading his way up what he thought was a dried up riverbed, he noticed that there was a new river of bodies making their way to the mill, young people, people learning. people looking to the future. And reassured somewhat, he left that harbour and sailed away back home.