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.

Mental health

Much is talked and written today about mental health; it’s all over the TV as high (and not so high) profile names tell us about their mental health problems. It’s on the agenda in corporate board rooms; it’s big in social media. Hardly a day goes by when I’m encouraged to “share” something on social media telling others how much I understand and empathise with their mental and emotional turmoil. It’s yet another ribbon or wristband to wear, virtue-signalling, telling you how much I care.

I have been through a long period of admittedly slight, but nevertheless significant, mental ill-health. But I never so much as took a day off work. It is possible to continue leading a normal life whilst ill. Every day, people continue to go to work suffering from heavy colds, or in chronic and severe pains, or with serious disabilities, and they get by. There are others who do not bother; they don’t even try. I have worked with able-bodied, fit and healthy people a good deal younger than I, who were in the habit of taking 15-20 days a year off “sick”. I confess I have no patience with such people.

I did consider seeing the doctor, and in fact I would have done so much earlier. What prevented me from doing so was the fact that in modern England it takes three weeks to get an appointment to see a GP, unless you face a life-threatening emergency. For some, mental ill-health is of course a life-threatening emergency, but for me, it was merely life-changing. Eventually I did see the GP for anxiety. More of that later.

I don’t really know where it all started. At one point during 2016 my wife turned to me and said “it’s been a couple of years now” meaning the length of time I had seemed “down in the dumps” and not myself. I guess that sometime in 2015, things started to take a dive. What was the cause? Who knows? As engineers, as safety professionals, we are taught to look for causation: What happened? Why did it happen? What went wrong? And most importantly, how do we stop it from happening again?

Sometimes, in the complexity of the real world, these questions are unanswerable. It is fair to say that changes at work may have causal factors. A man might catch pneumonia and become gravely ill: the immediate cause, of course, is infection by bacteria or virus. But working too hard, or giving a long speech outside on a rainy November day, could easily act as the starting point or “causal factor” as the safety professionals say. Of such work-related causal factors we will write no more, as these matters have still to run their full course.

Certainly though, looking back, I wonder how I kept my job. I know, of course, full well. I kept it by the grace of God. Both through my prayers and through the skills he has given me. The worst time was from November 2016 through to June 2018. Changes in the workplace in the early summer of last year heralded a time of recovery. At the present time I consider myself convalescent, and would guard carefully against the risk of relapse.

These years have been studded with bereavement. In November 2015, after years of decline, my wife’s mother passed away. We were not close – but this was my wife’s mother, not just anyone, and obviously my wife was deeply affected. In March 2016, one of my Scouters died of cancer after years of heroic struggle – just a young man of only 27. The following winter, my wife’s beloved Aunt Josie went into hospital in early January, and we buried her in early April 2017. Last summer, my son’s girlfriend took her own life in the days before his graduation. That summer, on the day of the funeral, I learnt of the suicide on her 18th birthday of the only daughter of one of my former Scouters.

These years have been a time of growth and spreading of wings for our kids, as they all have “flown the coop” and found their way in the wide world. At least their welfare has not been a grave concern to us; all three of them proving to be healthy, upright citizens well able and willing to earn a living.

In this very difficult time, I have found strength in three very different activities. One of them, has been running. I’d started running earlier, back in 2012, and running continues to be a source of strength and comfort to me. In the very worst times at work, I sought for activity that did not involve deep thinking, activity which some might refer to as “right-brain”. Like running, neither were innovation: I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve played guitar off and on (perhaps mostly off) since childhood. I found great refreshment and renewal in playing guitar, and my journal-keeping or writing has taken what I would very much consider a high priority in my life. I have beside me as I write, paper diaries back to the end of 2016 with upwards of 160,000 words written: I could have written a novel in a six-month if I chose to do that rather than to journal. But, that journalism, if not saving my life (that would be inappropriate hyperbole and crass exaggeration, both of which I find deplorable), has certainly contributed to recovery of my mental health, and in any case – writing is never wasted.

In those dark years I sought the face of God – most often in one or two places in London – and I have been found by Him. I sought the face of God through prayer and fasting , and enjoyed a period of tremendous personal renewal and spiritual growth, at perhaps the lowest point on my journey.

I have become a District Commissioner for Scouts and at the same time, have largely lost interest in Scouting. What took up 20-25 hours a week of my time before October 2016, I will not permit to take half that time now. I continue as DC out of a sense of duty, an awareness that there is no-one to replace me, and an unwillingness to be known as a quitter.

What were the symptoms?

  • A sense of feeling “What’s the point?
  • A lack of interest, ambition and motivation – as the other ranks say in the Navy – “NAAFI – no ambition and fuck-all interest”
  • A lack of concern for my long-term welfare in my work and home life;
  • Easily irritated and angered – irrascible at times;
  • At times tired to the point of tears – not metaphorically, but literally;
  • An inability to concentrate or focus;
  • An inability to see things through to completion;
  • Anxiety attacks at all times of day but especially in the small hours
  • Insomnia – lying awake transfixed by fear and worry, at random times
  • Panic attacks and dread at what should be undaunting and straightforward tasks or decisions e.g. what shall we have for supper, what shall I buy my wife for her birthday?
  • Weight loss: this symptom alone has been to my advantage. The reasons for it are complex and not just related to mental health. In 2015 I was 17st 11lb; today (May 2019) I am 16st.

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”.

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.