The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962)

‘This is our zone of transit, here we are assimilating our own biological pasts….’ (Dr Bodkin, page 91)

This was Ballard’s second novel and the one which really launched his career, because it is the first one to give readers a true flavour of the strange and eerie, dystopian psychodramas which Ballard was to become famous for.

Mise en scène

It’s a short novel (170 pages) set in the near future. About seventy years before it opens – i.e. in our ‘present’ – the sun began erupting in solar flares. These:

  • blasted away the layers of atmosphere which protect the world from radiation
  • massively raised the temperature, so that at the equator it’s now 150 degrees Fahrenheit or more
  • melted the icecaps and all the world’s glaciers, and so
  • raised the world’s sea levels by well over a hundred feet – six storeys of high-rise buildings are now under water

When it comes to the melting ice and rising sea this is something we’ve all become imaginatively familiar with thanks to the widespread publicity surrounding global warming – the one unexpected detail in this scenario is that Ballard says that the melting glaciers and calving ice caps have carried with them into the oceans and across the continents huge swathes of silt, mud and sludge (p.22).

All these factors explain why, 70 years later, the cities of Europe are entirely underwater, but swirled around their submerged cinemas and skyscrapers and town halls are sandbanks of silt out of which huge tropical foliage – rainforest trees and bushes and giant ferns – luxuriously sprout.

What is left of humanity has been forced to retreat to the very tops of the planet at the Arctic and Antarctic as the rest of the world not only heats beyond human habitability, but is swept by devastatingly violent typhoons and hurricanes.

And an even bigger problem than the heat is the radiation – the loss of the ozone layer has exposed the middle parts of the world to life-threatening levels of radiation. This has accelerated the rate of mutation in the natural world, quickly giving rise to modern-day copies of prehistoric fauna and flora, but it has also, of course, decimated the human population. The birth rate has plummeted. Barely one in ten couples are able to have children (p.23). There are maybe five million humans left alive.

The mapping mission

The novel’s first part describes the work of a UN mapping team which is on a three-year mission to map the abandoned and overgrown lagoons and creeks which is what most of Europe’s cities have been reduced to. The mission has been sent from the home base, Camp Byrd in Northern Greenland (population 10,000, p.23). We quickly meet the key personnel:

  • Dr Robert Kerans – 40, tanned, white-haired, the main protagonist
  • Dr Bodkin – much older, number 2 to Kerans
  • Colonel Riggs – brisk and businesslike head of the military team, which numbers about a dozen
  • Sergeant Macready – reliable
  • Lieutenant Hardman – tough and intelligent
  • Beatrice Dahl – beautiful, langorous rich girl’s daughter who the mission discover living in a luxury apartment in one of London’s drowned hotels – much given to sunbathing in the dawn and evening light beside a drained swimming pool on the roof, painting her toenails, and drinking too much. Kerans is having a sort of affair with her which doesn’t appear to involve any physical element.

To begin with we are introduced to the rather boring routine of the scientists as they go about their mapping work. They have a floating ‘testing station’ (a two-storey drum some 50 yards in diameter, p.40) which is towed along behind the bigger military ship, as well as a flotilla of scows, a catamaran and a helicopter.

This begged the question for me, right from the start, of where they got all the fuel and power this would require. Or food. Or fresh water. Although Ballard fills in loads of other military and logistical details, on the big practical questions he is oddly quiet. But this is because his interest is in setting the stage for a different kind of story.

The double meaning of the phrase ‘the drowned world’

Because about 50 pages into the novel we learn the title has a double meaning. We learn that some of the ostensibly sensible, military-type characters have begun to have bad dreams. And they’re not just dreams. Dr Bodkin explains to Kerans that what they’re experiencing is the revival of prehistoric memories.

The world has reverted to the climate, flora and fauna of the Triassic age. And now the humans’ unconscious and preconscious minds are reverting, too. Bodkin tells him that Camp Byrd has received radio messages that something similar is happening to the other scouting mission.

Kerans comes across Bodkin giving some basic anti-reversion treatment to one of the most stolid and phlegmatic of the team, Lieutenant Hardman, who, apparently, has the most advanced dreams. In fact they’re not really dreams. The protagonists are slipping away into a prehistoric dreamworld which makes this one seem less and less real or urgent. They are in the TRANSIT ZONE between modern consciousness and reverting to something ancient and strange.

‘The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm millions of years ago have been awakened, the expanding sun and the rising temperature are driving you back down the spinal levels into the drowned seas submerged beneath the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronal psyche.’ (Dr Bodkin explains what is happening to them, p.74)

What is rising up and taking over their minds is the drowned world of their ancient primeval memories.

Tracking Hardman

Next day Hardman has disappeared. Colonel Riggs can’t let this pass and so they go up in the helicopter to find him, tracking back and forth across the routes through the lagoons and creeks and covering tropical jungle which head north.

Until Kerans has a sudden and utterly plausible insight: Hardman is not heading north back to their base camp and ‘safety’; he is heading south, into the heart of the mystery, into the truth of their condition.

So the team change their area of search and eventually discover a set of fresh tracks in mud leading up to abandoned buildings south of their base camp. They land the helicopter and track Hardman, eventually finding the fugitive, who eerily and wordlessly runs from them, leading them a merry chase through abandoned apartment blocks and then into some kind of town square, higher than the waterlevel, across a ruined piazza and up the steps of a law court or some such institution – in scenes which seem very like a de Chirico surrealist painting come to life.

Hardian ultimately gets away, though not before their helicopter pilot has crashed the helicopter into the facade of one of the buildings – an accident I would have thought would be fatal to the mission’s survival, but which everyone takes in their stride.

Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice stay behind

Through the first 70 or 80 pages we have watched the prehistoric dreams take over Kerans’ mind as he slowly realises that he will, he must stay behind when the rest of the mission returns to base. In fact Colonel Riggs has been ordered to cancel the mission and head back north immediately, apparently in response to the outbreak of dreams among his crew.

The night before the scheduled departure Dr Kerans and Dr Bodkin reach a kind of wordless understanding. Both are far out, now, in the ‘archaeopsychic zone’, half their minds buried in Deep Time. In the depths of the night they scuttle the floating research station and make off in their own boats.

Next morning Kerans is with Beatrice in her luxury hideout as they watch the UN helicopter hovering overhead and Colonel Riggs shouting through a loudhailer at them to join him. The couple keep out of sight and have covered any possible landing site with old oil barrels. Eventually Riggs gives up, and Kerans and Beatrice watch the military team finish packing up and their little flotilla of ships head out of the lagoon, along a creek and out of sight beyond the drowned city’s ruined buildings, heading north back to Camp Byrd.

Now they are alone and, obviously facing a dread future. Bodkin has left them under no illusions. The world is still heating up, the temperature where they are will eventually become impossible for human life, not to mention the increased radiation exposure, or the storm belt which is on its way north.

But – and this is the point of a Ballard book, the special atmosphere he and only he can create – they don’t care. They don’t care that they don’t care. They are operating in a different type of mentality or consciousness altogether.

Strangman arrives

I expected them to continue dreaming and sleeping and watching the rooms they’ve rigged up in various abandoned hotels slowly fall to pieces around them in a trippy entropic kind of way.

But no – there is an abrupt change of mood when a massive hydroplane arrives in the lagoon with a trio of supply boats, accompanied by a surreal eruption of thousands and thousands of crocodiles. It is the arrival of Strangman, tall, white, ghostly leader of a crew of blacks under their foreman Big Caesar – who is systematically looting and stripping cities of all their treasure as he heads north.

I thought this might be a brief episode but it turns into the main subject of the last 100 or so pages of the book. Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice realise they have to admit their presence to Strangman and his marauding crew and from that point onwards get caught up in his surreal and bizarre psychodramas.

Strangman has brought luxuries on his refrigerated ship. He holds elaborate dinner parties with chilled champagne. He is a bit like Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, an entrepreneur and impresario, who loves showing off his treasures and his loyal pack of devoted Negroes, but whose mood changes in a second to anger and threat.

Strangman’s team have diving suits and Kerans is coerced into putting one on and going down down down to the depths of the sunken world. Strangman wants him to locate the buried treasures he is sure must be down there but Kerans goes completely off-mission, wandering into a sunken planetarium, looking up at the light glimmering through the cracks in the roof and having a typically trippy Ballard prehistoric vision of it as a new set of constellations:

He walked back down the steps and stopped half-way down the aisle, head held back, determined to engrave the image of the constellations on his retina. Already their patterns seemed more familiar than those of the classical constellations. In a vast, convulsive recession of the equinoxes, a billion sidereal days had reborn themselves, re-aligned the nebulae and island universes in their original perspective. (p.109)

Then Kerans passes out from lack of air being pumped to his suit and has to be rescued by some of Strangman’s skin divers.

There is a growing mood of eeriness and wariness and uncertainty and psychic nerviness all round. Then Strangman invites the three survivors to a grand dinner party at the high point of which he performs a magic trick – he drains the lagoon! He has discovered that most of it is blocked by accumulated junk, mud, silt and seaweed, with only a small ingress of water. This he has blocked and now uses powerful pumps to evacuate the trapped water.

In a scene which piles surrealism on surrealism, our protagonists watch the water level slowly drop drop drop, revealing the six or so storeys of long-sunken buildings all the way down to the dripping, seaweed infested pavements, with long-underwater cars and buses alive with expiring fish and jellyfish and starfish, swathed in seaweed and ooze.

And it isn’t just a party trick. For the next few weeks Strangman and his team systematically scour the huge area they have unearthed (or unoceaned) and which turns out to be centred on Leicester Square (the city is London!) by day, and by night get drunk, wandering the deserted stinky streets like medieval carousers carrying flaming torches drinking heavily from looted wine cellars.

In these scenes Strangman feels more like Colonel Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, a resemblance emphasised by the way his drunken, only barely restrained crews are entirely made up of blacks, blacks portrayed as jungle savages ready at a moment’s notice to revert to brutal beatings.

And this is indeed what happens. One evening, pressed into yet another tedious meal with his scary host, Kerans and Strangman notice a silhouette running along the top of one of the mud barrages which keeps the vast pressure of the ocean out of their island of dryness, and realise it is Bodkin carrying a bomb and evidently intending to blow up the barrage.

Strangman’s team start firing at the silhouette but it is Strangman himself who springs into action, runs to the nearest building and up a series of fire escapes, onto the mud barrage and along to the place where Bodkin had deposited his bomb, and gives it a hearty kick into the deep ocean the other side of the dam.

For a moment the reader had had a vivid imagining of what it would be like if the bomb had gone off, destroyed the dam and unleashed a flood of water six storeys high down onto the partying humans sitting at the bottom of the well. Strangman goes off in pursuit of Bodkin and Kerans barely registers or cares when he hears a number of shots out of sight, beyond the ruined buildings.

Kerans the god

But having killed Bodkin damages Kerans’ reputation with the only barely controlled blacks and with Strangman their master. Returning to the ‘party’ they set upon Kerans, beating him unconscious. When he comes to he discovers he has been tied to an elaborate chair and for the next few days he is left there to endure the blazing heat of the days, bleeding, semi-conscious.

At first he discovers he is the votive god at a Feast of Skulls. Piling surrealism on surrealism, Ballard says the marauding parties have discovered a cemetery where bodies long ago came adrift from their burials and, in a scene which must be deliberately echoing Heart of Darkness they set tied and bound Kerans up on a throne before a pile of bones and use other bones to beat out a primitive jungle rhythm which they dance around him to. Kerans has become their god, god of their weird cargo cult.

But this has unintended consequences. The men slowly become afraid of the dehydrated and increasingly delirious Kerans, and Strangman, who had obviously expected him to be beaten to death or die of exposure, also becomes superstitiously wary of him.

At the end of the second day they lash the throne Keran is tied to up onto a cart, force the hollowed out head of a dead crocodile onto his head to turn him into a real fetish god, then the drunk men get between the traces and pull the cart through the high and dry city streets, singing Haitian voodoo chants, until the cart goes out of control down a sloping alley and crashes into a sump of stinking mud, throwing Kerans and his throne head first into it. Still singing and chanting the drunken blacks gallivant off into the night leaving him there.

Slowly the semi-conscious and dazed Kerans realised one of the arm rests of the throne has broken and so he can slip his bound wrist over the broken end, releasing it to untie his other wrist and slowly free himself.

Not a moment too soon does he stagger off into the darkness, as he sees Strangman and Big Caesar return down the alley towards the mud. Big Caesar is carrying a gleaming machete. Obviously they intended to finish Kerans off.

Kerans rescues Beatrice

Kerans hides out in a fifteenth floor apartment, drinking trapped rainwater and cooking small lizards to get his strength back before making a cautious return to his penthouse apartment at the abandoned Ritz. He discovers Strangman’s men have comprehensively and vengefully trashed it. However, they did not find the hiding place where he had secreted his Colt .45 pistol.

Now, in a passage which suddenly drops into effective thriller prose not unlike one of the James Bond novels which were being published at this time (late 50s, early 60s), Kerans makes his way at midnight silently across the empty lagoon floor to where Strangman’s hydroplane rests on the dry flagstones, and slowly climbs up the propeller and rudder, hoists himself over the stern rail, and tiptoes into the superstructure looking for the stateroom. He is going to rescue Beatrice.

And he finds her sitting at a table alone, in a turquoise dress and covered with fake jewellery spilling out of chests at her feet and idling with a glass of wine. She starts as Kerans moves silently forward through the bead curtains then runs to him. She might almost say, ‘James! You came to rescue me! But it is dangerous, James – Dr No / Blofeld / Goldfinger is after you!’

Instead, there is a flicker of movement out the corner of his eye and Kerans just has time to duck as a machete goes whirling across the room, burying itself in the wooden cabin wall behind him, closely followed by the enormous mishapen Negro, Big Caesar, who hurls himself at Kerans who just has time to lift the revolver and fire. Big Caesar falls to the floor gurgling his last.

Strangman closes in

Kerans hustles Beatrice to the ship’s gangway, and they run down it as the alerted crew take pot shots at them from above, make it in one piece to the ground and are heading across the seaweedy flagstones when out of the darkness looms Strangman and a cohort of his black crew, fanning out to block their way. Turning, Kerans and Beatrice realise another group of crew members are coming up behind and fanning out. They are surrounded.

Stepping forward like the baddie in a James Bond movie, Strangman twirls his thin black moustachios (well OK, he doesn’t, but he might as well do) and tells Kerans to surrender or else he’ll kill the girl as well as him. For good measure he lightly, suavely comments on what a good mask her face would make once separated from her skull. Oooh, gruesome!

Kerans gives up, hands the gun to Beatrice and steps forward as the voodoo crew close in on him, raising their machetes and pangas to strike, when –

The return of Colonel Riggs

Someone catches his elbow and pulls him back and the amazed Kerans watches Colonel Riggs emerge from the darkness accompanied by soldiers with rifles set with bayonets, along with a squad of soldiers who quickly erect a machine gun on a tripod, and another one which turns a searchlight from up on the hydroplane onto Strangman and his crew, who freeze in astonishment.

Riggs has returned and forces Strangman and his crew to drop their weapons. Cut to a few hours later in the stateroom, after Kerans has been tidied up and the situation stabilised. Turns out Riggs got permission from his superiors at Camp Byrd to return to search for Hardman and also to reclaim the biology ship (the one Kerans and Bodkin sank).

Hooray, saved! But Riggs now explains to Kerans that Strangman will not, however, be prosecuted or charged. In fact by draining the lagoon he will more than likely win a reward from the government in Greenland, which has offered rewards for anyone who can reclaim any part of the earth’s surface.

There is more chatter and planning to leave the next day. But Kerans, now in an advanced state of schizophrenia or psychosis, has other plans. He goes searching and eventually finds the secret stash of dynamite he guesses Bodkin must have made all those weeks ago. Now he, too, rigs up a simple bomb with a 30-second fuse, clambers up to 6th floor of a building, over a balcony and onto the thick sludge dyke which holds back the water.

Like Bodkin he is spotted, this time by Sergeant Macready, who fires a burst of machine gun at him, one bullet winging him in the ankle, but Kerans still has time to place the bomb in the middle of the barrage and set the timer. Sergeant Macready makes his way out to the bomb just in time to be blown to smithereens when it explodes, while Kerans throws himself to the floor of the nearest hotel balcony he’s clambered onto.

The dyke is breached and Ballard gives a vivid description of a six-story-high tsunami of water and logs bursting down into the streets below, smashing Strangman’s hydroplane and drowning his crew. Riggs and some other troops are quicker to react, climb up fire escapes, then angrily pursue Kerans through ruined apartment blocks, firing every opportunity they have.

Kerans just manages to keep a few hundred yards ahead of them, limping along on his damaged ankle, before dropping off a balcony onto a raft which it had taken him all his strength to rig up overnight. Now Kerans kicks in the little outboard motor and is 200 yards away by the time Riggs and another soldier emerge into his docking space and fire at him across the water and through the tropical foliage, holing Kerans’ sail in several places, before he turns a corner of the jungle and is out of sight.

Towards the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun

The final ten pages describe Kerans’ weird compelled odyssey south, which finds him extracting the bullet from his leg, patching himself up with a stolen medical kit, and eating bars of chocolate filched from Riggs’s army supplies, as his boat chugs south through the steaming tropical mangrove swamps.

It is a prolonged purple passage-cum-psychodrama of extraordinary, visionary power, utterly persuasive and compelling in taking you into Ballard’s imagining of a sunken London turned into a Triassic swampscape.

Eventually the outboard motor runs out of fuel and Kerans chucks it into the sea, watching it disappear downwards in a wreath of bubbles. He sails on south through archipelagos of tropical islands and sandbanks, finally beaching the raft on a particularly extended bank which stretches off in both directions.

At first Kerans breaks up the raft into drums and planks and tries to lug them over the dunes but eventually gives up, watching an oil barrel disappear into some quicksand. Everything collapses. Everything falls apart.

He comes to a rise with a ruined church at the top and here, in the downpour of one of the approaching tropical storms, by the ruined altar, comes across the shrivelled, sun-blackened body of Hardman who is barely alive, who is all but blinded by cataract cancers, but is staring point blank at the big red sun, far gone in deep time, in ‘chrono-psychosis’.

Kerans builds a shelter and tries to nurture Hardman to health, feeding him with wild berries, but isn’t surprised when he wakes one day to find Hardman gone. With what remains of his strength he has obviously set off staggering south, always south, towards ‘the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun’.

Kerans waits a few days more and then resumes his own ‘neuronic odyssey’, after many days blundering though mangrove swamps and tropical jungle coming to a vast lagoon, dotted here and there with the top storeys of buried high-rises emerging like gleaming holiday chalets beside the calm black water.

Exhausted, Kerans breaks into one of the abandoned apartments and rests, pondering the strange series of events which have brought him to this pass. Tying a strip of bamboo as a splint for his leg, which is now black and seriously infected, Kerans scratches a last message on the wall, words no-one will ever read:

27th day. Have rested and am moving south. All is well. Kerans


The Ballard effect

Any reader of Ballard quickly realises that his interest is not in a ‘plot’ or storyline. In fact it’s barely even about the characters, who interact like zombies or robots.

Ballard’s interest is in the schizoid dissociation of characters from their surroundings, their descent into alternative modes of consciousness – what he at one point calls ‘torpor and self-immersion’ – even as they are fully aware of the changes coming over themselves and retain the capacity to analyse what is happening to them.

But I think another crucial ingredient in the Ballard style is the immensely straight-faced, stiff-upper-lip attitude of the punctilious and correct Brits who all this happens to, who watch it happen to themselves with highly educated bemusement.

It is no accident that so many of Ballard’s protagonists are doctors, who are trained to observe and interpret symptoms and have the correct psychological jargon to hand to describe their descent into the various psychoses and alternative mental states which his books describe.

Ballard’s protagonists don’t fall to pieces like a bunch of shouty American teenagers in a cheap sci-fi shocker. They retain their middle-class manners and politenesses. It is entirely fitting that Kerans has rigged up an air-conditioned room in the wreckage of the former Ritz hotel, that Beatrice has survived with generator-powered air conditioning in her apartments in a building across the lagoon, that Strangman isn’t a hoodlum but a well-mannered psychopath who hands round chilled champagne, that Colonel Riggs observes all the niceties, even when telling Strangman and his men to put down their weapons.

I.e. one of the unsettling aspects of Ballard’s fiction is not only a) the dystopian scenarios or b) the psychological reversals and dissociative states the characters enter but c) the way they do it all in such unnervingly prim and correct Englishness.

Ballard’s purple prose

Novels almost certainly need plots and characters, and maybe themes and symbols.

But at the end of the day, they are unavoidably made of words and sentences – and the easy thing to overlook if you focus solely on Ballard’s themes and weird psychology, is the more straightforward fact that he loves writing fantastically lush, hallucinatory, purple prose.

This novel made an impact back in 1962 not only for its weirdness, but for its luxurious and deeply persuasive descriptions of the strange new world Ballard had imagined so completely into existence:

The last sunlight was fading over the water as Kerans paddled his raft below the fronds of the fern trees dipping into the water around the lagoon, the blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon sun giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails. A slack oily swell disturbed the surface of the lagoon, the water clinging to the leaves of the ferns like translucent wax. A hundred yards away it slapped lazily against the shattered remains of the jetty below the Ritz… (p.144)

There are scores and scores of long descriptive passages like this which make the novel more than an experience of science fiction, or experimental psychology, but a prolonged and deeply sensual pleasure to read.


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Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels @ the British Library

Next to the big Buddhism exhibition at the British Library (admission £14 for adults) is a smaller FREE exhibition for children titled Marvellous and Mischievous. The exhibition has two elements:

1. A sequence of wall labels giving information about some 40 different heroes and heroines from children’s literature, from the Bash Street Kids to Angry Arthur via Oliver Twist, Matilda, Lizzie Dripping, Pippi Longstocking and so on. Each wall label is accompanied by one or two illustrations from the books the characters appear in, so the main experience of the show is strolling past a series of deeply evocative pictures of children’s book ‘rebels’ old and new, each with an interesting and diverting factual accompaniment.

2. And there are three Activity Areas:

  • a reading corner where some mums were reading to small children
  • a wall mirror and some clothes and props where kids can dress up as a ‘rebel’ character and take selfies in the modern style
  • and a table and chairs with loads of paper and pens, where slightly older children (8?) were ‘creating their own comics’ which can then be left on the string lines above for other visitors to read

A couple of Leo Baxendales of the future creating their own comics at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

What is a rebel?

Well, we’re not talking about Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s definition of a rebel – of Robin Hood, secret societies, revolutionary peasants, Mafiosi, Spanish Civil War anarchists or pre-industrial mobs and rioters.

Nope. We’re talking about naughty boys and girls who wouldn’t finish their tea, or go to bed on time, or disobeyed their wicked headteachers. As the introduction says:

Anyone can be a rebel, whether they are standing up for their beliefs, saving the planet or battling against the odds.

Or again:

Is a rebel someone who stands up for their beliefs or likes breaking the rules? Someone who is brave, trying to survive a difficult situation, or just enjoying a mischief?

Maybe I’m in danger of over-thinking this (in fact maybe this entire review is a textbook example of how to over-think something very simple) – but the curators seem to be mixing up different categories here. Someone who likes breaking rules for its own sake is closer to being an anarchist than a rebel. Whereas someone who stands up for their beliefs is almost the opposite, someone who respects rules and conventions but wants their beliefs to be accepted into the system, to gain a rightful place, to have a say, in an existing state of affairs.

In fact, once you start pondering it, the entire concept of ‘rebel’ is decidedly slippery. The dictionary definition is:

a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader

Well, not many of the characters in this exhibition are taking up arms against an oppressive government. Most of them are refusing to tidy their room or do their homework. It’s a very contained and safe idea of a rebel. And what’s most obvious about the so-called ‘rebels’ is that all of them represent values which the modern-day curators entirely endorse – standing up for yourself, being true to your beliefs, bucking convention, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

They are all re-imagined to be very conventional rebels.

I also looked long and hard at the exhibition’s sub-title, Literature’s Young Rebels. Hardly any of the characters are actually from literature in the traditional sense: there’s a few labels about Jane Eyre as a rebellious child, and another one about Oliver Twist, selecting the moment when hungry Oliver asked for more gruel in the poor house (there’s even an audio recording of this passage, you can put on headphones and listen to it).

But of course, Oliver Twist wasn’t a rebel at all. The Artful Dodger was the rebel. Oliver was the goody two-shoes who, in the book’s fairy tale ending, is revealed to be the grandson of a millionaire. No such luck for the Dodger and all the rest of Fagin’s gang. You could go further and argue that Bill Sykes is the truest rebel in the book, a devil-sized rebel against all of humanity’s conventions and norms.

But that is not the kind of rebel the curators have in mind. Nobody in these books goes that far. They may be ‘rebels’, but within safe, acceptable bounds. They may ‘rebel’ against a) their parents b) their schoolteachers c) ‘society’, but they are also caring and kind, stand up for their beliefs and protect the weak from bullies.

Anyway, back to this exhibition which is for children, mostly small children, with a handful of ‘young adult’ texts thrown in. It tells you a lot about its aims and target audience that the exhibition is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for school trips, and that the introductory text is obviously directed at the very young:

In our exhibition you’ll meet all kinds of storybook rebels from the last 300 years – in their homes, at school, or on a journey.

Who’s your favourite and what would you stand up for?

So Marvellous and Mischievous is aimed at schoolchildren and designed to get them thinking about what a ‘rebel’ is, what it means to stand up for your opinions, to stick out against the odds, and so on. In other words, it’s all very worthy. Precisely the opposite of the anarchic mindset promoted by all or most of the characters in the exhibition. Goody two-shoes Oliver would have approved – but Tracy Beaker or Pippi Longstocking or Lyra Belacqua? Wouldn’t they have written a rude message on the changing room mirror and skived off to go and look at gruesome pictures elsewhere in the library?

The reading area at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

As I read through the sequence of wall labels another issue suggested itself, which is the under-representation of rebel boys. Here’s a list of the items grouped by gender:

Rebel girls (21)

  • Tilly and the Bookwanderers – One day Tilly realises that the characters in her favourite books are encouraging her to enter the pages of the books and join with them to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
  • Zog by Julia Donaldson – a dragon with a sore throat is treated by Pearl, a princess who lives in a castle but wants to escape and become a doctor! – ‘Pearl is heroic because she defies expectations and dares to be herself’
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – ‘mischievous and disobedient Lyra’; ‘Lyra’s rebellious nature leads her to question her place in the world’
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki – In the land of Ingary, oldest children are destined to be least successful but Sophie rebels against her destiny, and sets off to have adventures
  • Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen – not only is Billy a girl, she is a ‘brown’ girl as The Bookseller put it, and she has t stand up to the Terrible Beast who is gathering ingredients for his Terrible Soup. ‘Have you ever confronted someone scary to stand up for what’s right?’
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol – ‘Alice isn’t daunted: she’s forthright, inquisitive, courageous and truthful’.
  • Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland – the daughter of refugees, Azzi is ‘resilient and imaginative’
  • Mulan – in ancient China girls rarely went out in public but Mulan challenged convention. ‘Mulan was a courageous young girl who concealed her gender for 12 years in order to serve in the army. ‘Have you ever dreamt of being a storybook hero?’
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of young Anna – ‘The story shows the importance of family’
  • The Rebel of the School by L.T. Meades – Kathleen finds the rules at Great Shirley School stifling and struggles to regain the freedom she had before starting school and refuses to conform
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – strong, independent schoolgirl who stands up against bullies, namely the headteacher, the Trunchbull
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – young Jane rebels against her strict schooling, refusing to be afraid and ‘her defiance is a lesson for her schoolmates, and the reader’
  • Jane, The Fox and me by Isabelle Arsenault – Hélène is bullied at school but finds inspiration in the character of Jane Eyre, which gives her hope and confidence
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet – Mary Lennox is a spoilt orphan who’s been raised in India and finds moving back to England difficult, but keeps her rebellious, rule-breaking nature
  • Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne – Rosemary doesn’t want to be a stupid fairy, she wants to be a witch so she goes and builds a new home in the forest, and makes friends with witches. ‘A story about growing up, accepting yourself and finding a place in the world.’
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. ‘Is Goldilocks the most outrageous rule-breaker in fairy tales?… Here the Jolly Postman delivers Goldilocks’ apologies to the three bears.’
  • Wild by Emily Hughes – A little girl grows up wild in the woods, but is then captured and taken to the city where she she can’t understand manners and politeness. ‘Three cheers for misfits and outsiders!’
  • Dare by Lorna Gutierrez (Author), Polly Noakes (Illustrator) – ‘Taking risks, spotting the things others don’t see, supporting those in need, expressing yourself, speaking up for what is right’ – makes her sound like a Young Communist Youth Pioneer.
  • I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan – Muzna dreams of becoming a writer but her controlling parents won’t let her. ‘This coming-of-age novel moves from everyday teenage rebellion to Muzna’s choice between protecting the person she cares about most, or betraying her beliefs.’
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren has a healthy disrespect for unreasonable adults. ‘A powerful character who uses her strength for good and is often found protecting children from bullies.’
  • Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson – Tracy is a ten-year-old girl living in a children’s residential care home nicknamed the ‘Dumping Ground’. but is ‘determined to change her life and isn’t going to compromise!’

Rebel boys (8)

  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love – young Julian wants to dress up as a mermaid. ‘An inspirational picture book that celebrates individuality, self-discovery, acceptance, gender identity, beauty and love.’
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – sent to bed without his supper, Max imagines a wild island full of fierce beasts – ‘a celebration of mischief, anarchy and imaginative play’
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – ran away from his parents to a land where children never grow up. There he lives with the mischievous Lost Boys and has thrilling adventures.
  • The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf – Ahmet is a refugee who’s become separated from his family. The children at his new school befriend him and ask the queen for her help – an adventure which shows ‘the power of friendship, standing up to bullies, and a little bit of bravery’
  • Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram – Arthur gets angry when his mum insists it’s time to turn the TV off and go to bed, so angry that he blows up the universe!
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – Oliver asks for more gruel in the poorhouse.
  • Wicked Walter by Catherine Storr – steals a cake from his mother only to discover it contains salt and pepper rather than sugar!
  • Dirty Bertie by David Roberts – Bertie is a likeable boy who tried very hard, generally without success!

Rebel groups (4)

  • The Bash Street Kids from The Beano drawn by Leo Baxendale – ‘Easily one of the naughtiest groups of children in comic book history’
  • Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman – young adult book about race, set in a society where dark-skinned people have power and the friendship-love between a boy and girl across the colour divide
  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier – a group of older children are thrown together by the Nazi invasion of Poland – ‘The characters are brave and resilient’
  • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams – patients living in an unusual hospital with a terrifying matron and a porter who helps them live out their dreams.

The exhibition contains nearly three times as many books for girls as for boys, and it became increasingly obvious that the curators (three women: Lucy Evans, Anna Lobbenberg, Nicola Pomery) are promoting a heavily feminist view of what a rebel is, namely a heroic girl who bucks society’s expectations and escapes from gender stereotypes, but is, deep down, kind and helpful to the weak and bullied.

It’s a narrative which is very on-trend and comfortably sits alongside the great tsunami of girl-supporting books and films and government initiatives which currently flood our culture. A quick search on Amazon suggests there is no shortage of books on the subject:

  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
  • I Am a Rebel Girl: A Journal to Start Revolutions
  • Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls
  • Rebel Girls
  • Rebel Colouring For Girls: Motivating Messages & Marvellous Mantras To Colour & Create
  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
  • Rebel Girls Say….: Positive Colouring For Girls age 7-10
  • Star Wars Feminist Princess Leia T-Shirt for Rebel Little Girls
  • Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades
  • I am a rebel girl: i am a rebel girl a journal to start revolutions,
  • Bad Girls of Fashion: Style Rebels from Cleopatra to Lady Gaga
  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 200 Tales of Extraordinary Women
  • Fairy Tales for Fearless Girls
  • I Love Who I See In The Mirror: An Empowering Coloring Book For Girls
  • The Daring Book for Girls
  • HerStory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook the World
  • Ladybird Tales of Adventurous Girls
  • I Can Be Anything I Want To Be (A Coloring Book For Girls): Inspirational Careers Coloring Book for Girls Ages 4-8
  • Favourite Stories of Courageous Girls: inspiring heroines from classic children’s books
  • Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks
  • Girls Who Rocked The World
  • Folk Tales for Bold Girls
  • Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures
  • This Girl Can

I suppose all schoolchildren need help and support and encouragement – that’s a core element of education, in fact almost a definition of education. Looking at the figures in this exhibition, though, I couldn’t help wondering why girls seem to need so much more encouragement than boys, especially in light of three well-known facts:

1. Boys read less than girls

2. Girls now outperform boys at almost every level of education:

Girls are outperforming boys at every stage of the educational system. They do better than boys in National curriculum SAT tests.

Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 the gap in attainment between girls and boys at grades 4/C and above was 13.3%, with 73.8% of girls getting these grades compared to 64.6% of boys.

This pattern was repeated among the top grades (grade 7/A and above), where the gap was 30.4% with 24.6% of entries by girls compared to 18.1% for boys.

Girls also outperformed boys at the top grade 9 – Ofqual figures show 732 pupils who sat seven or more reformed GCSEs have managed to get straight 9s across those subjects – 68% of this group were female and 32% male.

In 2017 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of 10 percentage points – was wider than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the downgrading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams.

A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college.

This year more women than men have been accepted for university than men.

Six out of 10 graduates today are women. 30 years ago, seven out 10 graduates were men.

And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

(Further Education news)

3. White working class boys are the worst performing group in the UK

Given these facts – that boys read substantially less than girls and read less well, and are outstripped at every level of education achievement by girls – it seemed odd to me that the curators concentrated so much on books for girls and books about girls.

In the list of books in the exhibition, which I’ve listed above, where is the role model for young boys? Peter Pan? Oliver Twist? Angry Arthur? Maybe boys don’t need role models. Maybe they can make it through education without acquiring a taste for reading.

It did seem to me that, in promoting reading for girls, the exhibition was pushing at an open door, and at the same time missing an opportunity to reach out to reluctant-to-read boys. If I was a mother of small boys, would I schlepp all the way to central London so that my sons could read empowering books for girls…?

A narrow message

Having read the forty or so wall labels in this exhibition, the visitor comes away with the very strong conclusion that the curator’s concept of a ‘rebel’ is a young girl who breaks out of ‘gender stereotypes’ and stands up for liberal values of self-expression against all attempts to make them conform, someone (a girl, usually) who demonstrates strong, positive values. As the curators summarise it:

Not all rebels are mischievous rogues, some are spirited survivors. Let the bravery of characters from Azzi in Between and Billy and the Beast inspire you. Or learn the importance of resilience from Oliver Twist, Tracy Beaker and the Midnight Gang.

As I’ve said, the exhibition isn’t targeted at me or at adults generally — but I did regret the way that all the truly rebellious streaks of this great diversity of characters have been cribbed, cabined and confined into what feels like the same uplifting, feelgood, woke message which the curators and their teacher audience can heartily approve of.

Can children’s fiction ever be value-free?

And finally, among various other thoughts, this exhibition made me wonder whether it’s possible to write a children’s story without filling it with positive, uplifting, socially approved messages.

Modern curators and academics tend to mock the Victorians and Edwardians for producing literature with ‘improving’ messages, or which crudely promoted the values needed to support the now-utterly-discredited British Empire – ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’ etc.

But is the children’s literature of our day so very different, with its barrage of socially aware, woke messaging – with its gentle but persistent insistence that we must help girls break free of their socially stereotyped roles, and we must understand and support boys like Julian who want to dress up as girls, and we must be helpful and supportive of refugees like Ahmet?

I’m not querying these values. I’m just wondering whether modern children’s fiction isn’t every bit as nakedly propagandist for our contemporary social values as Victorian children’s books were for theirs?

The merchandise

Lastly, all the books referenced in the exhibition are on sale in the bookshop by the exit. ‘Rebel as much as you like – so long as you keep on buying our products!’ The ultimate rebellion – to cease consuming, to opt out of the planet-destroying compulsion to buy buy buy – not on offer here.

Children’s books on sale at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library


Related links

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

Richard Dawkins and Christianity

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

Dawkins obviously has a psychological problem with Christian believers. He won’t stop or let up in his attacks on the ‘foolish’, ‘misguided’ Christians and creationists who persist in their religious faith – despite the theory of evolution having provided a comprehensive answer to how life on earth originated but, above all, on why it has proliferated, become so diverse, and is so intricately interlinked, giving such an appearance of wonderful ‘design’ that the badly-educated or wilfully ignorant persist in claiming there must be an Omnipotent designer of it all.

‘Wrong wrong wrong!’ as Dawkins puts it with typical subtlety puts it in River Out of Eden.

Dawkins has devoted most of his adult life to writing a series of books which effectively repeat the same arguments against this kind of Christian obscurantism over and over again:

  • The Blind Watchmaker
  • River Out of Eden
  • Climbing Mount Improbable
  • Unweaving the Rainbow
  • A Devil’s Chaplain
  • The God Delusion
  • The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
  • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
  • Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

All of which lead up to his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, published just last year as he entered his 78th year.

What motivates Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

What drives this unyielding commitment to attack, criticise, undermine and ridicule Christians and creationists at every available opportunity?

Well, consider this excerpt from Dawkins’s Wikipedia article:

From 1954 to 1959 Dawkins attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire, an English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour, where he was in Laundimer house… Dawkins describes his childhood as ‘a normal Anglican upbringing’. He embraced Christianity until halfway through his teenage years, at which point he concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life’s complexity, and ceased believing in a god…

‘An English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour’. Aha.

In a nutshell, I think Dawkins argues so fiercely and unrelentingly with Christians, and with all the Christian attempts to adapt the theory of evolution to Christian belief, because he is arguing with his own younger self.

This explains why the arguing is so ubiquitous – why he finds The Enemy everywhere he looks – because the Enemy is in his own mind.

And it explains why the war can never end – because the young Dawkins’s naive and earnest Christian belief will be with him, dogging his every thought, like an unwanted Mr Hyde, until he dies.

It explains why Dawkins never takes on anti-evolutionary believers from other faiths, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on, and entirely restricts his obsessive attacks to Christian anti-evolutionists.

And it explains why the cast of straw men he sets out to demolish consists almost exclusively of Church of England bishops and American fundamentalists – because these are Protestant Christians, Christians from his own Anglican tribe.

Richard Dawkins’s Christian turn of thought

It also explains something else about The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden, which is unexpected, counter-intuitive and easy to overlook.

This is that, amid the endless analogies, metaphors, comparisons and parallels that Dawkins is constantly drawing in order to make his polemical anti-creationist points, he still automatically invokes Christian examples, stories and texts – and here’s the most telling point – sometimes in a very positive light.

At these moments in the books, you can envision the bright-eyed schoolboy Dawkins, proudly taking part in each Sunday’s Morning Service at his Anglican public school, peeping through the text.

His fundamental attachment to Christian tropes pops up all over the place. Take the title of the book, River Out of Eden – why bring Eden into it at all? Why Christianise the story of DNA?

Same with ‘African Eve’ and ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, terms applied to the hypothetical female ancestor from which all currently living humans are supposedly descended… Why introduce the misleading word ‘Eve’ into it at all? Why piggy-back on Christian myth?

Casually he says a person’s DNA may be compared to their ‘family Bible’ (p.44) and that the mitochondrial DNA within our cells can be compared to the ‘Apocrypha’ of the family Bible (p.55). I wonder how many modern readers know, unprompted, what the Apocrypha are.

Later he casually mentions that the famous Big Bang which brought the universe into being ‘baptised time and the universe’ (p.168). Baptised?

Why reinforce the framework of Christian ideology like this, with a continual drizzle of Christian references – why not create entirely new metaphors and concepts?

Take the passage which purports to explain how the process of sex mixes up the parents’ DNA as it passes into their progeny. Within a sentence of explaining that this is his subject, Dawkins veers off to compare the mixing up of DNA to the textual history of the Song of Songs from the Bible.

Why? Does he really imagine his secular, multi-cultural audience will be sufficiently familiar with the text of The Song of Songs to take his point about changes and mutations in it? For the Song, he tells us:

contains errors – mutations – especially in translation: ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines’ is a mistranslation, even though a lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal of its own, which is unlikely to be matched by the more correct: ‘Catch for us the fruit bats, the little fruit bats…’ (p.45)

‘A lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal’? A lifetime’s repetition by who, exactly? Have you spent a lifetime repeating these words from The Song of Songs? I haven’t.

This is pure autobiography and gives us a window into Richard’s mind and – it is my contention – demonstrates that Dawkins is coming from a far more deeply rooted Christian worldview than any of his secular readers.

Take another, longer example – the extraordinary passage in The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins devotes a chapter of the book to arguing against the newish theory of evolution by punctuated equilibrium which had been proposed by paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s.

But here’s how he starts the chapter on this subject: he asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scholarly field of ancient history, and to imagine a new scholarly paper which has just been published and which takes a literal interpretation of the story of the 40 years the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt and before they reached the Promised Land.

Dawkins goes into loads of detail about what this hypothetical paper would contain: He explains that the paper takes the claim that the ancient Israelites took 40 years to travel from the borders of Egypt to what is modern-day Israel at literal face value and then works out that the travelling horde must have covered about 25 yards a day, in other words, one yard an hour.

This is so patently absurd that the hypothetical ancient historian in this hypothetical paper Dawkins has invented, dismisses the entire story of the Exodus as a ridiculous myth, and this is what has rattled the cages of the scholarly world of ancient historians and brought it to the attention of the world’s media – in Dawkins’s made-up analogy.

At the end of two pages devoted to elaborately working out all the details of this extended analogy, Dawkins finally announces that this literalistic ancient historian’s approach is precisely the approach Eldridge and Gould take towards evolution in their theory of punctuated equilibrium – taking the physical facts (of the patchy fossil record) literally, in order to ridicule the larger theory of neo-Darwinism (neo-Darwinism is the twentieth-century synthesis of Darwin’s original theory with the Mendelian genetics which provide the mechanism by which it works, later confirmed by the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953; it is, strictly speaking, this neo-Darwinism which Dawkins is at such pains to defend).

Anyway:

1. I couldn’t believe Dawkins wasted so much space on such a far-fetched, fantastical, long-winded and, in the end, completely useless analogy (Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated evolution is like a hypothetical scholar of Bible history coming up with a new interpretation of the Book of Exodus!)

2. But for my purposes in this review, what is really telling about the passage is the way that, when he’s not consciously attacking it, Dawkins’s religious education gave him such a deep familiarity with Christian stories and the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Prayer – that he cannot escape them, that his mind automatically reaches to them as his first analogy for anything.

And 3. that Dawkins expects his readers to be so equally imbued with a comprehensive knowledge of Christian stories and texts that he just assumes the best analogy for almost anything he wants to explain will be a Christian analogy.

Other examples of Dawkins’s Christian turn of mind

In the last third of River Out of Eden Dawkins introduces the rather abstruse idea of a ‘utility function’ which is, apparently, a concept from engineering which means ‘that which must be maximised’.

When it comes to life and evolution Dawkins says it is often useful to apply this concept to various attributes of living organisms such as the peacock’s tail, the extraordinary life-cycles of queen bees and so on, in order to understand the function they perform.

But then he staggered me by going on to say:

A good way to dramatise our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the engineer was trying to maximise: What was God’s Utility Function? (p.122)

And in fact this entire 44-page-long chapter is titled God’s Utility Function.

This flabbergasted me. The whole point of his long, exhausting book The Blind Watchmaker was to explain again and again, in countless variations, how the complex life forms we see around us were emphatically NOT designed by a creator God, but are the result of countless small mutations and variations naturally produced in each new generation of organism, which are selected out by the environment and other organisms, so that only the ones which help an organism adapt to its environment survive.

So why is he now asking the reader to imagine a God which is a Divine Engineer and Grand Designer?!!!!

Similarly, in Unweaving The Rainbow, which I’ve just read, he starts the rambling chapter about DNA finger-printing with a quote about lawyers from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Why?

And compares the lineage of DNA down the billennia to God making his promise to Abraham that his seed will inhabit the land, going on to give the complete quotation.

When he wants to cite a date from ancient history, it’s none of the acts of the ancient Greeks or Romans which spring to mind but but, of course, the birth of Christ, a handy two thousand years ago.

Continually, throughout all his books, the Christian framework, Christian dates, Christian stories, Christian quotations and Christian turns of phrase recur again and again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you could argue, a little cheekily, that although Dawkins’s conscious mind and intentions and numerous books and lectures and TV programmes are all directed (with monotonous obsessiveness) at countering and undermining Christian belief – his unconscious mind, his boyhood memories, his love of the rhythms and images of the Christian Bible – mean that the Christian mythos, its legends and stories and even particular phrases from its holy texts, continually recur to him as his first choice for comparisons and analogies, and that as a result – unwittingly – he is reinforcing and re-embedding the very thing he claims to want to overthrow.

You could argue that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentally Christian author.


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Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


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River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins (1995)

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. That is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.
(River out of Eden, page 112)

Three things become clear early in this book:

1. Dawkins is very argumentative He can barely state a fact or idea without immediately imagining a scientific illiterate misunderstanding it, or a creationist arguing against it, or the tradition of thinkers who’ve adopted a contrary position, and then – whooosh! – he’s off on one of his long-winded digressions devising metaphors and analogies and thought experiments (‘imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row…’) devoted to demolishing these opponents and their silly beliefs.

The neutral reader sits back, puzzled as to why Dawkins feels such a continual necessity to find enemies and argue against them, constantly and endlessly, instead of just stating the facts about the natural world in a lucid, calm way and letting them speak for themselves.

2. Dawkins is not a mathematician as he points out quite a few times in The Blind Watchmaker. As I read him saying this for the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that this means Dawkins rarely if ever makes his points with numbers – through data or statistics, tables and graphs and diagrams, as a true scientist might. Instead, deprived of numbers (of course he does use numbers, but very sparingly), Dawkins makes his case through persuasion and rhetoric. He is a rhetorician – the dictionary definition being someone who:

exploits figures of speech and other compositional techniques to have a persuasive or impressive effect

Consider the titles of the clutch of mid-career books which I’m rereading: The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving The Rainbow. They are all named for metaphors or analogies for the big Darwinian idea he is so anxious to explicate and defend, and they are themselves made up of chapters which are made up of sections and passages which rely far more on metaphor and analogy and stories and anecdotes than they do on hard data and scientific facts.

3. Dawkins is good at it The four book titles quoted above are all vivid and powerful metaphors for evolution and its implications. The master metaphor which dominates River Out of Eden – that all life on earth amounts to a river of DNA flowing from simple beginnings and then splitting over a billion years or more into thousands and then millions of tributaries, one for each of the species now alive – is a powerful explanatory tool, and leads you on into a series of other analogies and metaphors.

Wrong!

I was amused by the number of times Dawkins mentions or quotes other people – creationists, fellow academics or other biologists – solely to show how their approach or interpretation of Darwinism, biology or anything else is wrong wrong wrong!

He doesn’t hold back. He isn’t subtle or circumspect. He often puts exclamation marks at the end to emphasise just how wrong wrong wrong they are! before proceeding to demolish them one by one! It’s like watching a confident man at a coconut shy throwing the wooden balls and knocking each coconut off, one… by… one. Here’s a selection of his targets:

– Lamarckism or the belief that characteristics organisms acquire during their lives are passed on to their children – ‘Wrong, utterly wrong! (p.3)

– It’s tempting to think of the original branches between what would later turn out to be distinct families or orders of animals as consisting at the time of the first breach ‘mighty Mississippis rivers’ – ‘But this image is deeply wrong‘ (p.10)

– Zoologists are tempted to think of the divide between what later became major groups as a momentous event. But they are ‘misled’ (p.11)

– One zoologist has suggested that the entire process of evolution during the Cambrian period, when so many new species came into existence, must have been a different process from what it is now. ‘The fallacy is glaring!‘ (p.12)

– The digital revolution at the core of the new biology has dealt ‘a killer blow to vitalism, the incorrect belief that living matter is deeply distinct from nonliving material’ (p.20).

– ‘There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds… that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth’. It is, of course, wrong, which he goes on to prove with the fact that tribal myth can’t build the airplanes which fly you to conferences where you can present papers about cultural relativism.

– He once asked a student how far back you’d have to go to find ancestors that Dawkins and the student shared. She replied back to the apes. ‘An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong.’

– Some creationists insist on misinterpreting the scientific concept of Mitochondrial Eve and claim, from the sound of it, that she’s identical with the Biblical Eve! ‘This is a complete misunderstanding.’ (p.62)

And so on…

The trouble with Dawkins’s arguments

There are several practical problems with Dawkins’s relentless argufying.

One is that, because Dawkin is arguing all the time with someone or other, if you put down the book then pick it up later, it’s often difficult to remember the precise Wrong Interpretation of evolution he was in the middle of raging against i.e. to recall the context of whatever scientific information he happens to be presenting.

Making it worse is the way Dawkins often breaks down the argument he’s tackling into sub-arguments, and especially the way he breaks his own counter-arguments down into sub-counter-arguments. And then he’ll say, ‘I’ve just got to explain a few basic concepts…’ or ‘Before I reply to the main thrust of that argument, let me make a small digression…’ leading you steadily away from whatever point you think he was trying to make.

And if the digression takes the form of an analogy, yjrm quite quickly you can be three of four ‘levels’ removed from the initial proposition he’s arguing against. You find yourself needing to follow an analogy he’s using to explain a concept you need to understand in order to grasp the thrust of a part of an argument he’s making against a specific aspect of one particular misinterpretation of evolution.

In other words – it’s easy to get lost.

At several points he asks the reader to be patent, but I wonder how many of his readers really do have the patience to put up with the digressions and analogies.

It’s an oddity of Dawkins’s approach that moments after venting a vivid attack on creationists and Christians for their ignorance, for being ‘wrong, utterly wrong!’ – he will ask them to bear with him, and have a little patience because what follows is only a rough analogy or a hypothetical example or a computer program he’s made up, or some other rather remote and tangential point.

It’s as if someone punched you in the face and then asked you to hold their coat for them. it shows an astonishing naivety and innocence.

And more to the point, the upshot of all these aspects of his approach is that – he never really presents the knock-down, drop-dead, unanswerable counter-arguments against creationist literature which he continually promises.

In fact on several occasions in The Blind Watchmaker he made so many apologies about the absence of current scientific knowledge on a particular point (especially about a) the patchiness of the fossil record and b) the sharply conflicting hypotheses among scientists about how life on earth got started) – or he went on at such length about the arguments and divisions among the scientists themselves – that I emerged with my belief in evolution shaken, not confirmed.

I couldn’t help feeling that, if I was a born-again Christian, a fundamentalist and creationist, Dawkins’s books, with their combination of in-your-face insults with mealy-mouthed, round-the-houses argufying, might well confirm me in my anti-evolutionary beliefs.

The importance of geological time

To summarise Dawkins’s arguments for him, the central foundation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is TIME. Lots and lots and lots of time. Geological time. More time than we can possibly imagine. To quote Wikipedia (in order to have the latest, up-to-date info):

The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is at least 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years, or even 4.5 billion years; not long after the oceans formed 4.41 billion years ago, and after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago.

Around 4 billion years ago. No human being can understand that length of time.

The next element in Darwin’s theory is the advantage of small changes, minute changes, sometimes molecular changes, in organisms as they reproduce and create new generations. Even minuscule differences, which humans cannot detect, might be the vital determinants in whether an organism just about survives to reproduce, or just fails and is killed or eaten before it reproduces.

Dawkins’s core argument is that, if you set that process in train and let it run for four and a half billion years – then anything can happen, and we have the evidence in the fossil record that it has, that forms of life of surpassing weirdness and sizes and functions have been and gone, and their descendants live on all around us in a marvellous profusion.

It is:

  1. the enormous, impossible-to-conceive length of geological time
  2. and the big difference to its chances of survival which even tiny variants in an organism’s attributes can give it

which anti-evolutionists tend not to have grasped, or understood or have simply rejected. Which drives Dawkins crazy.

The evolution of ‘the eye’

The locus classicus (the classic example) where the two sides clash is THE EYE.

Anti-evolutionary writers of all stripes cite the human eye and assert that it is ridiculously unlikely that The Eye can have just popped into existence in complete perfection, with a fully functioning iris and lens and all the rods and cones which detect light and shade and colour, absurdly unlikely, only a caring Creator God could have made something so wonderful.

AND the related creationist argument, that what possible use would half an eye, or a tenth of an eye or a hundredth of an eye have been to any organism? It must have appeared fully functional or not all.

To which Dawkins and all the evolutionists reply that a) no-one is saying it came into being fully functional and b) you’d be surprised: half an eye is really useful. So is a hundredth of an eye, or a thousandth.

In fact, having a patch of skin which is merely light-sensitive can convey advantage on some organisms. Given enough generations this light-sensitive patch will become a confirmed part of all the members of a particular species, and will tend to form a dip or hollow in the skin to protect itself from damage. If the dip goes deep enough then sooner or later some chance mutation may code for another strand of skin to form across the opening of the dip, with a slight preference given to any variation which creates a membrane which is translucent i.e. lets at least some light through to the light-sensitive skin beneath.

And bingo! The eye!

The killer fact (for me, reading this well-trodden argument for the umpteenth time) is that not only is The Eye not an improbable device for evolution to create in the natural flow of endless variations created in each new generation and likely to be selected because its adds even a smidgeon of survival value to its owners..

But that the formation of The Eye turns out to be a highly probable result of evolution. We know this because we now know that The Eye has evolved at least forty separate times in widely separated orders and families and genera. over the past four and a half billion years. Conclusion:

Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says: ‘I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by natural selection.’ (p.81)

Dawkins dubs this position The Argument from Personal Incredulity, and this discussion of The Eye is one of the few places where Dawkins states an opponent’s argument clearly and then mounts a clearn and convincing counter-argument.

Analogies

Bored with a lot of the these tired old arguments, and of Dawkins’s combative yet strangely naive style, I took to noting the the analogies, reading them as a kind of buried or counter-narrative linking up the boring arguments.

– The river out of Eden is the river of DNA, a river of digital information, which makes up all living things. In fact the river has branched out over the aeons, with countless streams and tributaries running dry but there are, as of now, some thirty million separate rivers of DNA or species.

– Each generation is a sieve or filter: good genes get through, ‘bad’ genes don’t.

– The genetic code is like a dictionary of a language with 64 words.

– the DNA inside each of us is like a family Bible (p.44)

– Insofar as it is digital, the genetic code is like digital phones or computer codes.

– Every cell in your body contains the equivalent of 36 immense data tapes (i.e the chromosomes) (p.21).

– We humans – and all living things – are survival machines designed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.

– The membranes in a living cell are like the glassware in a laboratory.

– An enzyme is like a large machine tool, carefully jigged to turn out a production line of molecules of a particular shape (p.26)

– Cells’ ability to replicate is comparable to the process of ‘bootstrapping’ required in the early days of computing (p.27).

Reading River Out of Eden for the analogies was more fun that trying to follow many of Dawkins’s trains of thought which were often tortuous, long-winded and strangely forgettable.

Credit

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Phoenix paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. It’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really. it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed.

All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence may have been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, supposedly ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and is also the setting of almost daily mass shootings, quite apart from the fact that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 dead on D-Day. Gray’s point is homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive liberal nirvana.

More to Gray’s point, most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I may think that these leaders are not going to provide the meaning and security they promise, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives.

Our lives are demonstrably in the grip of umpteen impersonal suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that they’re fighting back at them, the nameless forces which seem to control us.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years give us a deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s main themes is a brief and allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the blare about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves. We don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seem so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, alongside trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. To foment small wars around the world in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were cyclical not progressive, based on the rhythm of the seasons plus astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. They have, in fact, been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and the past and so had ‘progressed’ and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war… and on and on it goes, the roll call of atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies, if you put your mind to it.

As a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Grays approach – it is easy-peasy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us a really entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all of it goes to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins (1986)

I hope that the reader is as awestruck as I am (p.37)

I first read this book 25 years ago and in the intervening years I had forgotten how naive, silly and embarrassingly earnest Dawkins can be.

The blind watchmaker

The basic premise is easily summarised. In a theological work published in 1802 – Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – the English theologian William Paley said that if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a stone, you wouldn’t think anything of it, it is so obviously part of the natural world and you unthinkingly accept it as a product of impersonal geological forces.

But if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a watch, particularly if it was an 18th-century, ornately fashioned pocketwatch, you would immediately deduce that something so wonderfully crafted, with so many carefully calibrated inner workings clearly designed for a purpose, presupposed a designer – a craftsman who consciously and deliberately designed and built it.

Well, says Paley, same for the natural world about us. When we look at the countless examples of marvellous design in the world about us, our own eyes, the interaction of insects pollinating flowers, the perfect design of fish for swimming and birds for flying, who can look at all these marvels and not be prompted to declare that there must, on the analogy of the watch, be a conscious designer, an all-powerful entity which created the entire world and all the creatures in it so that they would all perform their functions perfectly? In other words – God (and, since Paley was an Anglican clergyman) the Christian God.

In fact Paley’s book was just the latest in a very long line of works promoting, describing and explaining what is called Natural Theology, the view that the existence of an all-powerful loving God can be deduced merely from observation of the world around us, without the need of any holy books or revelations, which is recorded as far back as the Biblical psalms and is believed by many people right up to the present day.

Dawkins’s book is a refutation of this entire way of thinking as it relates to the natural world i.e. to living organisms.

As Dawkins points out, it was reasonable to hold Paley’s beliefs in his day and age, it was a reasonable hypothesis in the absence of any better explanation for the origin and diversity of life we see around us.

BUT since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, all forms of natural theology have been rendered redundant. We now have an infinite simpler, more satisfying and more believable explanation for the origin, spread and diversity of life forms on earth, which is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Thus Dawkins’s 340-page book amounts to a sustained argument against natural theology, and against the whole crew of Christians, Creationists, theists, bishops and poets and philosophers who still espouse it, because they are wrong and Richard and the other evolutionary biologists he cites are right.

The book combines a battery of supposedly ‘philosophical’ arguments with an overview of natural history, biology and – in particular – what was then, in 1986, the latest thinking about genetics and DNA – in order to ridicule, rubbish and refute every possible variation of natural theology and to promote Darwin Darwin Darwin.

One long argument

To describe The Blind Watchmaker as argumentative is an understatement. The book is expressly not a straightforward exposition of Darwin’s theory, it is more a series of arguments Dawkins has with proponents of the views he wishes to demolish, as well as with other biologists whose theories he disputes, and sometimes with himself. If it moves, he’ll argue with it.

And Dawkins is addicted to making elaborate and often far-fetched analogies and comparisons to help us understand evolution. In other words, you have to wade through a lot of often irrelevant argumentation and distracting analogies in order to get to the useful information.

A key part of Dawkins’ approach, something I found initially irritating about the book, then found ludicrous, and ended up finding laugh-out-loud funny, is the way he makes up people to argue with.

He will invent a naive believer of this or that aspect of natural theology, someone who can’t credit evolution with explaining everything about the natural world, put words into their mouths, and then gleefully demolish their made-up arguments.

I think it’s the purest example of an author using convenient straw men to set up and knock down that I’ve ever read. Thus in the first 40 pages he invents the following figures:

  • a distinguished modern philosopher who he once sat next to at dinner and revealed to a horrified Dawkins that he didn’t understand why the evolution and diversity of life required any special explanation (p.5)
  • a ‘hypothetical philosopher’ he invents and claims would, at this stage of Dawkins’s exposition, be ‘mumbling something about circular argument’ (p.8)
  • a hypothetical engineer who starts ‘boring on’ about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts (p.11)
  • he creates another engineer (‘our engineer’) as a foil for his explanation of how bat echolocation works in chapter 2
  • with similar condescension he refers at various moments to ‘our mathematicians’
  • the second half of the book is littered with references to ‘creationists’ and ‘creationist propaganda’ and ‘anti-evolution propaganda’ which he doesn’t actually quote, but whose views he briefly summarises before pulverising them

On page 13 he dismisses ‘readers of trendy intellectual magazines’ saying that, if you read them you might have noticed that:

reductionism, like sin, is one of those things that is only mentioned by people who are against it.

This thought then rapidly gets out of control as he goes on to say that calling yourself a reductionist is the equivalent, ‘in some circles’ of admitting that you eat babies. What is he on about? He then goes on to compare the hypothetical ‘reductionist’ he’s just invented with his own, more sophisticated, materialist reductionism, and then writes:

It goes without saying – though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this – that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels.

You can see that he’s making a serious (and fairly obvious) point, but that somehow it’s got tangled up with a straw man he’s felt compelled to invent, and then attribute the bizarre character of eating babies!

This is just one tiny snapshot of Dawkins’s technique, in which serious and often interesting points are surrounded and buried by relentless argufying and quarrelling, more often than not with entirely fictional, made-up figures, who are often given ridiculous and caricature views and qualities.

In among the vast army of people Dawkins picks fights with are some real Christian or anti-evolution figures who pop up for a brief moment before being subjected to withering criticism.

  • the ‘distinguished sceptic’ who refused to believe Donald Griffin when the latter first explained the secret of bat echolocation at a 1940 conference (p.35)
  • Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore (1920-2005) whose book The Probability of God he credits with being an honest attempt to prove God but which he quickly dismisses for its widespread use of what Dawkins calls The Argument From Personal Incredulity i.e. ‘I find it hard to understand…it is difficult to see how…’ etc (p.37)
  • Francis Hitching (b.1933) author of The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong (1983) which does appear to be a sustained attack on Darwinism
  • The Duke of Argyll who, apparently, supported Darwin but with the modest proviso that the loving Creator God did, of course, intervene in evolution to create new species and generally give the thing a helping hand (p.248)
  • the editor of Creationist magazine Biblical (p.251) who is quoted leaping onto the publicity surrounding the (then) new theory of punctuated equilibrium as showing the collapse of the entire Darwinian edifice

The remorseless battering of opponents, real or hypothetical, builds to a climax in the final chapter where he tackles head-on half a dozen or so alternative explanations for the existence of complex life form including the Big One, Christian Creationism.

Naivety

There’s a stunning moment before the book’s even properly begun which reveals Dawkins’ amazing simple-mindedness and naivety about the real world.

He describes taking part in a formal debate (organised, one suspects, at the Oxford Union). Afterwards he is seated at dinner (there are lots of anecdotes about conversations over dinner; Oxford is that kind of place) next to the young lady who argued against him in the debate, making the creationist case – and is horrified to discover that she doesn’t necessarily believe all the points she made!!

Indeed, Dawkins reveals to his shocked readers, this young lady was sometimes making arguments simply for the sake of having a debate! Richard is horrified!! He himself has never uttered a word he didn’t believe to be the complete truth!! Putting a case solely for the intellectual challenge of it!!! Or for money!!!!

I thought he was joking, but this anecdote, told on page two of the Preface, establishes the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand the nature of intellectual debate, and so by implication doesn’t understand the worlds of law or politics or philosophy or the humanities, where you are routinely asked to justify a cause you don’t particularly believe in, or to argue the toss between a number of conflicting views. When I told my son this he recalled being made to take part in school debates when he was 11. It’s a basic teaching, learning and cultural practice.

Reflecting on this anecdote makes you wonder: should someone so naive and innocent be allowed out on their own, without adult supervision?

Philosophical simple-mindedness

Dawkins likes to brandish the word ‘philosophy’ a lot but none of his arguments are truly philosophical, they are more rhetorical or technical. Anyway, philosophy isn’t necessarily about ‘arguing’ for the sake of it, as any fan of the Monty Python Argument sketch can vouch.

For example, early on he asks ‘What is an explanation?’ before giving this definition of how he intends to use the word:

If we wish to understand how a machine or living body works, we look to its component parts and ask how they interact with each other. If there is a complex thing that we do not yet understand, we can come to understand it in terms of simpler parts that we do already understand. (p.11)

Not exactly philosophical, is it? More a straightforward clarifying of terms. And yet in chapter 2 he refers back to the opening chapter in which this and much like it occurred, as mostly ‘philosophical’.

All we can conclude is that Dawkins’ idea of ‘philosophy’ is extremely simplistic. That it is, in fact, a biologist’s notion of philosophy i.e. lacking any subtlety or depth.

Same goes for his attitude to the English language. Dawkins is extremely proud of the care with which he writes, and takes plenty of opportunities to show off his own pedantic thoughts about English usage – for example, in the little paragraph discussing whether it is better to write computer programme or computer program. Towards the end of the book he mentions ‘the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura’

whose English prose style, incidentally, would shame many a native speaker’ (p.303)

There is no possible reason for this unnecessary aside except to let everyone know that he, Richard Dawkins, is a first class judge of what constitutes good English. It is pure swank (‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’). As with everything else he writes, Dawkins’s comments about the English language are entry-level and obvious, but presented with a great hoo-hah and self-satisfaction.

Dawkins’s sense of humour!!

Way before he has given any kind of account of Darwin’s actual theory, Dawkins is assailing us with his sense of humour, sometimes with short squibs, sometimes with extended ‘humorous’ passages.

You can tell when he’s made a joke, or said something he’s really proud of, because he rounds off the punchline with an exclamation mark!

It’s quite a while since I’ve seen quite so many exclamation marks in a text and it made me realise that their cumulative impact is to make you feel the author is poking you in the ribs so you will laugh and/or marvel at the wonderful anecdote they’ve just told!

Here’s an example of the way that genuinely fascinating natural history/science is buried in Dawkins’s rib-nudging approach. Chapter two is about echolocation in bats, and moves from:

  1. a detailed description of how bat echolocation works – which is riveting
  2. to pondering what it is like to be a bat and live in a bat’s body and live and perceive the world entirely by echolocation and sonar – which is sort of interesting, but speculative
  3. to an extended passage where Dawkins imagines a conference of bat scientists who have been studying human beings being presented with the flabbergasting discovery that humans use a previously unknown sense called ‘sight’, employing two bulbous receptors in their faces called ‘eyes’, to analyse light signals which appear to create in their brains 3-D models of the world which help them navigate around, almost as well as bats!!

Now this final passage is sort of helpful, maybe, if you’re in the mood, and sort of humorous. But it is at the same time more than a little ludicrous in what purports to be a serious scientific book. Above all, it gives you a powerful whiff of Dawkins’s world, a world of stuffy, pompous, self-important Oxbridge academics, in two ways:

  1. the choice of an academic conference as the setting for his imaginary fantasy tells much you about the milieu he inhabits, but
  2. the fact that he thinks he can spend an entire page of his book sharing this extended joke with his readers tells you a lot more about his supreme, undentable self-confidence

Unintentional autobiography

Dawkins likes to think he is making ‘difficult’ science more accessible by giving the poor benighted reader plenty of analogies and examples from everyday life to help us understand these damn tricky concepts. But it is one of the most (unintentionally) enjoyable aspects of the book that many of the examples he uses betray a comic out-of-touchness with the modern world.

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

The systematic putting together of parts to a purposeful design is something we know and understand, for we have experienced it at first hand, even if only with our childhood Meccano or erector set.

He explains the Doppler Effect by asking the reader to imagine riding a motorbike past a factory whose siren is wailing. Motorbike? Wailing factory siren? This sounds like a W.H. Auden poem from the 1930s. He goes on to explain that it is the same principle as the police use in their radar traps for speeding motorists.

Elsewhere he begins to explain the unlikeliness of organic molecules coming into existence by asking us to ponder the number of his bicycle lock (and later assures us that ‘I ride a bicycle to work every day’, p.84). Good chap.

He suggests that the advantage even a slight improvement in the ability to ‘see’ would give an evolving species can be considered while ‘turning the colour balance knob of a colour television set’ (p.84).

He explains that the poor Nautilus shellfish has developed the hollow orb of a primitive ‘eye’ but lacks the lens facility that we and all mammals have, making it rather ‘like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle (p.85).

Gramophone? Yes granddad. Later he refers to ‘hi-fidelity sound amplification equipment’ (p.217). It’s possible that Dawkins is the most fuddy-duddy author I’ve ever read.

When describing the transmission of DNA he suggests it might help if we imagine 20 million ‘typists’ sitting in a row. When I asked my daughter what a typist is she didn’t know.

The common brown bat Myotis emits sonic clicks at the rate of ten a second, about the same rate as a Bren machine gun. An analogy, presumably, he expects his readers to find useful because of our familiarity with the Bren machine gun from our National Service days.

Best of all, his comic-book enthusiasm bubbles over when he tells us that:

These bats are like miniature spy planes, bristling with sophisticated instrumentation. (p.24)

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

If you put to one side the science he’s trying to explain to us, and just focus on the various analogies and stories he uses so liberally, a kind of alternative world appears, the portrait of an incredibly earnest, other-worldly, high-minded Oxford don, a man whose secure upper-middle-class childhood gave him an enduring love of toys and gadgets, and who has the sublime self-confidence of thinking he can change the world by the sheer power of his boyish enthusiasm and the secrets of his bicycle lock.

At the end of chapter 8 (which has been about positive feedback loops in evolution) he digresses into a lengthy description of the new-fangled ‘pop music’, which is introduced by the ‘mid-Atlantic mouthings of disco jockeys’ on the radio, and reflected in something which is apparently called the ‘Top 20’.

The whole sub-culture is obsessed with a rank ordering of records, called the Top 20 or Top 40, which is based only upon record sales. (p.219)

His point is that records are often bought by young people based on their popularity alone, not on their intrinsic artistic merit and that this is a form of arbitrary positive feedback loop, such as may also be true of some characteristics exaggerated in the course of sexual selection, such as the peacock’s tail.

But the real impact of reading this page-long digression is to make you realise that Dawkins is a real-life version of the stereotypical out-of-touch judge who has spent so long in the bubble of the legal profession (as Dawkins has spent virtually his whole life in the bubble of an Oxford college) that one of the barristers has to patiently explain to him that ‘The Beatles’ are a popular rhythm-and-blues group.

Elsewhere he refers to this new thing called ‘the mass media’. He refers to bodybuilders as members of a ‘peculiar minority culture’ (p.289). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that being a don at an Oxford college is even more of a ‘peculiar minority culture’.

Hi-fidelity gramophones. Factory sirens. Mid-Atlantic mouthings. Who is this weirdo?

Then there are directly autobiographical snippets – the references to his idyllic childhood in Africa (where he played with his Erector Set or admired a huge swarm of soldier ants), to his High Anglican public school, and on to the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford, where he spent his academic career from 1970 to 2008, and has had so many stimulating conversations over High Table which he is not shy about telling us about.

Thus, in the middle of an explanation of different theories about the speed with which evolution works, he stops because he:

cannot help being reminded here of the humiliation of my first school report, written by the Matron about my performance as a seven-year-old in folding clothes, taking cold baths, and other daily routines of boarding-school life: “Dawkins has only three speeds: slow, very slow, and stop.” (p.245)

Similarly, he begins Chapter 8 with a reminiscence of a schoolmaster of his who became uncontrollably apoplectic with rage, as an example of ‘positive feedback’.

This is followed by the recent experience he had of attending Oxford’s Congregation, at which the hubbub of the large crowd slowly died away into silence – given as an example of negative feedback.

Pages of this self-indulgent autobiography go by before he gets round to writing anything relevant about evolution, while this reader, at any rate, was shouting ‘Get on with it!’

Dawkins is so mealy-mouthed and long-winded, so in love with the sound of his own analogies and whimsical digressions, and so keen to share with you his ripping boyhood memories and High Table anecdotes, that it becomes at times, almost physically painful to read him.

Distracting analogies

But the real problem with all these analogies and reminiscences is that too often they get in the way of actually understanding his scientific points.

For example, chapter seven has an extended explanation of what arms races are in the context of evolution i.e. when predators and prey develop characteristics designed to help them outdo each other. So far so good. But then he went off into an extended comparison with battleships and then to the actual arms race between the USA and USSR building larger and larger nuclear weapons, which became progressively less useful and increasingly distracting and misleading.

Same goes when he asks us to imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row copying out a message – as if that makes it at all easier to understand DNA.

Or when he spends a couple of pages calculating just how many monkeys it would take to type out the complete works of Shakespeare, as a demonstration of the power of cumulative selection i.e. if it was done at random it would take forever, but if each version typed out by the monkeys kept all the elements which were even slightly like Shakespeare, and then had another go, it is surprising how few generations of monkeys you’d need to begin to produce an inkling of a comprehensible version.

In a really egregious example, chapter 8 about punctuated equilibrium doesn’t start with an explanation of what punctuated equilibrium is – far too straightforward for the Professor – instead, it starts with a two-page-long extended analogy with the ancient Israelites spending forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.

The point of the analogy is to compare proponents of the theory of punctuated equilibrium with a hypothetical historian who took the Biblical exodus literally, calculating that the distance from Egypt to the Holy Land which the Israelites eventually settled in was only 200 miles and so, taken literally, this would mean the Israelites covered just 24 yards per day or 1 yard per hour. ‘Ridiculous?’ he asks. ‘Yes, well, that’s how ridiculous the theory of punctuated equilibrium is.’

You can see in this example how he is so in love with his own wit and ideas that he a) completely fails to clearly explain what punctuated equilibrium is b) really confuses the reader with his extended and utterly irrelevant analogy.

(The theory of punctuated equilibrium takes the extremely patchy fossil record of life on earth as evidence suggesting that evolution in fact consists of long periods of virtual stasis ‘punctuated’ by sudden bursts of relatively fast evolution and the creation of new species. Dawkins devotes a chapter and a host of ideas, sub-ideas and extended analogies to proving that this theory does not undermine the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy – as Creationists gleefully claim – but can be slotted easily into existing neo-Darwinian theory that evolution takes place at a slow steady pace: the core of Dawkins’s argument is that the fossil record appears to suggest long static periods interspersed with periods of manic change, solely because it is patchy.)

The whole tenor and shape and flavour  of the book is taken up with Dawkins’s analogies and similes and metaphors and witty ideas. It would have been so much better to have devoted the space to killer examples from the natural world. Too often Dawkins takes us off on one of his long digressions which take you away from the wonders of life on earth and push you into the broom cupboard of his flat, sterile and unimaginative analogies.

Example: It is fascinating to learn that many bat species have scrunched-up gargoyle faces (which have terrified generations of humans) because their faces have evolved to reflect and process their high-pitched echolocation signals. Whereas Dawkins saying that bats are ‘like high-tech spy planes’ is trite and uninformative.

Dawkins and computers

This nerdy, un-self-aware, naive enthusiasm comes over most strongly in chapter three of the book which is devoted to a wonderful computer program Dawkins has devised and titled The Blind Watchmaker (and which is advertised for sale at the back of the book, yours for just £28.85 including VAT, post and packaging).

At this early stage of the book I was still hoping that Dawkins would give the reader a knock-down, killer explanation of Darwin’s theory, but instead he chooses to tell us all about a computer program he’s written. This begins with a set of nine stick figures or ‘genes’, as he calls them, and then applies to them a set of instructions such as ‘double in length’ or ‘branch into two lines’ and so on. Here are the basic ‘genes’.

Basic ‘tree’ shapes developed by Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker programme

The idea is that, if you invent rules for transforming the basic ‘genes’ then run the program, you will be surprised how the mechanical application of mindless rules quite quickly produces all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, thus:

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

The point of all this is to show how quickly baroque ‘creatures’ can be created by a few simple rules and endless iterations, which Dawkins naively thinks, is a strong proof for Darwin’s theory. He calls the multi-dimensional space thronged with a potentially endless sequence of mutating variating life forms stretching out in all directions. Biomorph Land, and the metaphor is invoked and repeated at moments throughout the rest of the book.

He boyishly tells us that when he first ran it and saw all the shapes appearing he was so excited he stayed up all night!

It’s difficult to know where to start in critiquing this approach, but two things spring to mind.

  1. The book still hasn’t delivered a clear exposition of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. During this chapter I began to realise it never would, and that instead the book would be all about Richard’s wonderful ideas and inventions.
  2. Does Dawkins really think that a dyed-in-the-wool, Christian fundamentalist would be the slightest bit influenced or persuaded to change his or her lifelong beliefs by a lengthy explanation of a fabulous little toy computer program which Richard has developed at home on his Dell computer? If he does, he is fabulously self-deluded and, as I’ve said, above all, naive about the ways of the world and how human beings actually think and live.

Dawkins’s declared intention is to change the world, or the way people think and what they believe about the world and the diversity of life around us – and yet virtually every word he writes – certainly extended passages like the long chapter devoted to his fabulous self-written computer program – show you how completely inadequate, shallow and simple-minded his view of human nature is.

The book may well have explained and elucidated various concepts around evolution and genetics to an educated secular audience which had hitherto had few if any popular accounts to read. But it would be fascinating to learn if it converted anyone to abandon their Christian or theist beliefs and become an atheist.

Précis

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

Chapter 3 Cumulative changes can have massive consequences when subjected to non-random selection.

Chapter 4 Contrary to creationist propaganda 1% of an eye is better than no eye, and there are many animals with what you could call half or a quarter or less of a wing (i.e. bits of stretchable skin which help with gliding from tree to tree).

Chapter 5 ‘It is raining DNA outside’. Why Life is more like a computer programme (i.e. a transmissible digital code) than Victorian ideas about blobs of matter and life force’.

Chapter 6 The idea of ‘miracles’ considered in the context of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed, and a detailed summary of A.G. Cairns-Smiths theory of the origin of life (piggy-backing on replicating clay crystals.)

Chapter 7 Genes are selected by virtue of their interactions with their environment, which starts by being other genes, within the cell, and then in sister cells. Cells had to learn to co-operate in order to form multi-celled organisms. Cumulative selection produces arms races between rivals in ecosystems.

Chapter 8 Positive feedback and sexual selection, compared to steam engines, thermostats and pop music.

Chapter 9 Is devoted to taking down the theory of punctuated equilibrium put forward by the paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Chapter 10 There are countless ways to categorise living things, as objects, but there is only one true tree of life based on evolutionary descent. Although in this, as everything else, there are different schools and theories e.g. phyleticists, cladists, pheneticists et al.

Chapter 11 A summary of various alternatives to Darwin – Lamarckism, neutralism, creationism, mutationism – described and then demolished.

What is really striking about this final chapter is how cursory his dismissal of Christian creationism is – it only takes up a couple of pages whereas his analysis of Lamarckism took up ten. It’s as if, once he finally comes face to face with his long-cherished enemy, it turns out that he has… nothing to say.

Conclusion and recommendations

Back in the mid-1980s this book had a big impact, garnering prizes and making Dawkins a public intellectual. This suggests 1. the extent of the ignorance then prevailing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and 2. the low bar set in the Anglo-Saxon world for the definition of ‘public intellectual’.

Then again, not many people actually had computers in 1986. I think the impact of the book came less from his countless and tiresome anti-Christian arguments, and more from the crisp modern way he compared DNA to a computer program. That was a genuinely innovatory insight thirty-five years ago. He was there right at the beginning of the application of computer technology to genetics and biology, a technology which has, ironically, rendered almost everything he wrote out of date.

– If you want to really understand Darwin’s theory there is no replacement for reading On The Origin of Species because, although many of the details may have changed and Darwin’s account notoriously contained no explanation of how variation came about (because he lacked any knowledge of genetics), nonetheless, the central idea is conveyed with a multitude of examples and with a persuasive force which really bring home what the theory actually consists of, far better than any later summary or populist account.

– If you want to read an up-to-date book about genetics and its awesome possibilities, I’d recommend Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Craig Venter.

– If you want to read about the wonders of the natural world, you could do a lot worse than E.O. Wilson’s wonderful and inspiring book The Diversity of Life.

The Mr Bean of biology

Having ground my way through this preening, self-important book, I came to the conclusion that ‘Richard Dawkins’ is best seen as a brilliant comic creation, a kind of super-intellectual version of Mr Bean – filled with comic earnestness, bursting to share his boyish enthusiasm, innocently retailing memories of his first Meccano set or his knowledge of spy planes and motorbikes, inventing ‘distinguished philosophers’ and ‘sceptical scientists’ to demolish with his oh-so-clever arguments, convinced that his impassioned sincerity will change the world, and blissfully unaware of the ludicrous figure he cuts.

It’s a much more enjoyable book to read if you ignore Dawkins’s silly argufying and see it instead as a kind of Rabelaisian comedy, told by an essentially ludicrous narrator, with characters popping up at random moments to make a Creationist point before being hit over the head by Mr Punch’s truncheon – ‘That’s the way to do it!’ – interspersed with occasionally useful, albeit mostly out-dated, information about evolution and genetics.

Credit

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was published by the Harvard University Press in 1986. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

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Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

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The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson (1992)

It is a failing of our species that we ignore and even despise the creatures whose lives sustain our own. (p.294)

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in 1929 and pursued a long career in biology, specialising in myrmecology, the study of ants, about which he came to be considered the world’s leading expert, and about which he published a massive textbook as well as countless research papers.

As well as his specialist scientific writing, Wilson has also published a series of (sometimes controversial) books about human nature, on collaborative species of animal (which led him to conceive the controversial theory of sociobiology), and about ecology and the environment.

(They’re controversial because he considers humans as just another complex life form, whose behaviour is dictated almost entirely by genetics and environment, discounting our ability to learn or change: beliefs which are opposed by liberals and progressives who believe humans can be transformed by education and culture.)

The Diversity of Life was an attempt to give an encyclopedic overview of life on earth – the myriads of life forms which create the dazzlingly complicated webs of life at all levels and in all parts of our planet – and then to inform the reader about the doleful devastation mankind is wreaking everywhere – and ends with some positive suggestions about how to try & save the environment, and the staggering diversity of life forms, before it’s too late.

The book is almost 30 years old but still so packed with information that maybe giving a synopsis of each chapter would be useful.


Part one – Violent nature, resilient life

1. Storm over the Amazon An impressionistic memoir of Wilson camping in the rainforest amid a tropical storm, which leads to musings about the phenomenal diversity of life forms in such places, and beyond, in all parts of the earth, from the Antarctic Ocean to deep sea, thermal vents.

2. Krakatau A vivid description of the eruption of Krakatoa leads into an account of how the sterile smoking stump of island left after the explosion was swiftly repopulated with all kinds of life forms within weeks of the catastrophe and now, 130 years later, is a completely repopulated tropical rainforest. Life survives and endures.

3. The Great Extinctions If the biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history can’t eliminate life, what can? Wilson explains the five big extinction events which the fossil record tells us about, when vast numbers of species were exterminated:

  • Ordovician 440 million years ago
  • Devonian 365 million years ago
  • Permian 245 million years ago
  • Triassic 210 million years ago
  • Cretaceous 66 million years ago

The last of these being the one which – supposedly – wiped out the dinosaurs, although Wilson points out that current knowledge suggests that dinosaur numbers were actually dropping off for millions of years before the actual ‘event’, whatever that was (most scientists think a massive meteor hit earth, a theory originally proposed by Luis Alvarez in 1980).

Anyway, the key thing is that the fossil record suggests that it took between five and 20 million years after each of these catastrophic events for the diversity of life to return to something like its pre-disaster levels.


Part two – Biodiversity rising

4. The Fundamental Unit A journey into evolutionary theory which quickly shows that many of its core concepts are deeply problematic and debated. Wilson clings to the notion of the species as the fundamental unit, because it makes sense of all biology –

A species is a population whose members are able to interbreed freely under natural conditions (p.36)

but concedes that other biologists give precedence to other concepts or levels of evolution, for example the population, the deme, or focus on genetics.

Which one you pick depends on your focus and priorities. The ‘species’ is a tricky concept to define, with the result that many biologists reach for subspecies (pp.58-61).

And that’s before you examine the record chronologically i.e. consider lineages of animals which we know stretch back for millions of years: at what point did one species slip into another? It depends. It depends what aspects you choose to focus on – DNA, or mating rituals, or wing length or diet or location.

The message is that the concepts of biology are precise and well-defined, but the real world is far more messy and complicated than, maybe, any human concepts can really fully capture.

5. New Species Wilson details all the processes by which new species have come about, introducing the concept of ‘intrinsic isolating mechanisms’, but going on to explain that these are endless. Almost any element in an environment, an organisms’s design or DNA might be an ‘isolating mechanism’, in the right circumstances. In other words, life forms are proliferating, mutating and changing constantly, all around us.

The possibility for error has no limit, and so intrinsic isolating mechanisms are endless in their variety. (p.51)

6. The forces of evolution Introduces us to a range of processes, operating at levels from genetics to entire populations, which drive evolutionary change, including:

  • genetic mutation
  • haploidy and diploidy (with an explanation of the cause of sickle-cell anaemia)
  • dominant and recessive genes
  • genotype (an individual’s collection of genes) and phenotype (the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment)
  • allometry (rates of growth of different parts of an organism)
  • microevolution (at the genetic level) and macroevolution (at the level of environment and population)
  • the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (that evolution happens in burst followed by long periods of no-change)
  • species selection

7. Adaptive radiation An explanation of the concepts of adaptive radiation and evolutionary convergence, taking in Hawaiian honeycreepers, Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, the cichlid fish of Lake Victoria, the astonishing diversity of shark species, and the Great American Interchange which followed when the rise of the Panama Isthmus joined previously separated North and South America 2.5 million years ago.

Ecological release = population increase that occurs when a species is freed from limiting factors in its environment.

Ecological constraint = constriction in the presence of a competitor.

8. The unexplored biosphere Describes our astonishing ignorance of how many species there are in the world. Wilson gives the total number of named species as 1.4 million, 751,000 of them insects, but the chapter goes on to explain our complete ignorance of the life forms in the ocean depths, or in the rainforest canopies, and the vast black hole of our ignorance of bacteria.

There could be anything between 10 million and 100 million species on earth – nobody knows.

He explains the hierarchy of toxonomy of living things: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species.

Equitability = the distribution of diversity in a given location.

9. The creation of ecosystems Keystone species hold a system together e.g. sea otters on the California coast (which ate sea urchins thus preventing the sea urchins eating the kelp, so giving rise to forests of kelp which supported numerous life forms including whales who gave birth close to the forests of kelp) or elephants in the savannah (who, by pushing over trees, create diverse habitats).

Elasticity.

The predator paradox – in many systems it’s been shown that removing the top predator decreases diversity).

Character displacement. Symbiosis. The opposite of extinction is species packing.

The latitudinal diversity gradient i.e. there is more diversity in tropical rainforests – 30% of bird species, probably over half of all species, live in the rainforests – various theories why this should be (heat from the sun = energy + prolonged rain).

10. Biodiversity reaches the peak The reasons why biodiversity has steadily increased since the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago, including the four main steps in life on earth:

  1. the origin of life from prebiotic organic molecules 3.9 billion years ago
  2. eukaryotic organisms 1.8 billion years ago
  3. the Cambrian explosion 540 to 500 million years ago
  4. the evolution of the human mind from 1 million to 100,000 years ago.

Why there is more diversity, the smaller the creatures/scale – because, at their scale, there are so many more niches to make a living in.


Part three – The human impact

It’s simple. We are destroying the world’s ecosystems, exterminating untold numbers of species before we can even identify them and any practical benefits they may have.

11. The life and death of species ‘Almost all the species that have ever lived are extinct, and yet more are alive today than at any time in the past (p.204)

How long do species survive? From 1 to 10 million years, depending on size and type. Then again, it’s likely that orchids which make up 8% of all known flowering plants, might speciate, thrive and die out far faster in the innumerable microsites which suit them in mountainous tropics.

The area effect = the rise of biodiversity according to island size (ten times the size, double the number of species). Large body size means smaller population and greater risk of extinction. The metapopulation concept of species existence.

12. Biodiversity threatened Extinctions by their very nature are rarely observed. Wilson devotes some pages to the thesis that wherever prehistoric man spread – in North America 8,000 years ago, in Australia 30,000 years ago, in the Pacific islands between 2,000 and 500 years ago – they exterminated all the large animals.

Obviously, since then Western settlers and colonists have been finishing off the job, and he gives depressing figures about numbers of bird, frog, tree and other species which have been exterminated in the past few hundred years by Western man, by colonists.

And now we are in a new era when exponentially growing populations of Third World countries are ravaging their own landscapes. He gives a list of 18 ‘hotspots’ (New Caledonia, Borneo, Ecuador) where half or more of the original rainforests has been heart-breakingly destroyed.

13. Unmined riches The idea that mankind should place a cash value on rainforests and other areas of diversity (coral reefs) in order to pay locals not to destroy them. Wilson gives the standard list of useful medicines and drugs we have discovered in remote and unexpected plants, wondering how many other useful, maybe life-saving substances are being trashed and destroyed before we ever have the chance to discover them.

But why  should this be? He explains that the millions of existing species have evolved through uncountable trillions of chemical interactions at all levels, in uncountably vast types of locations and settings – and so have been in effect a vast biochemical laboratory of life, infinitely huger, more complex, and going on for billions of years longer than our own feeble human laboratory efforts.

He gives practical examples of natural diversity and human narrowness:

  • the crops we grow are a handful – 20 or so – of the tens of thousands known, many of which are more productive, but just culturally alien
  • same with animals – we still farm the ten of so animals which Bronze Age man domesticated 10,000 years ago when there is a world of more productive animals e.g. the giant Amazon river turtle, the green iguana, which both produce far more meat per hectare and cost than beef cattle
  • why do we still fish wild in the seas, devastating entire ecosystems, when we could produce more fish more efficiently in controlled farms?
  • the absolutely vital importance of maintaining wild stocks and varieties of species we grow for food:
    • when in the 1970s the grassy-stunt virus devastated rice crops it was only the lucky chance that a remote Indian rice species contained genes which granted immunity to the virus and so could be cross-bred with commercial varieties which saved the world’s rice
    • it was only because wild varieties of coffee still grew in Ethiopia that genes could be isolated from them and cross-bred into commercial coffee crops in Latin America which saved them from devastation by ‘coffee rust’
  • wipe out the rainforests and other hotspots of diversity, and there go your fallback species

14. Resolution As ‘the human juggernaut’ staggers on, destroying all in its path, what is to be done? Wilson suggests a list:

  1. Survey the world’s flora and fauna – an epic task, particularly as there are maybe only 1,500 scientists in the whole world qualified to do it
  2. Create biological wealth – via ‘chemical prospecting’ i.e. looking for chemicals produced by organisms which might have practical applications (he gives a list of such discoveries)
  3. Promote sustainable development – for example strip logging to replace slash and burn, with numerous examples
  4. Wilson critiques the arguments for
    • cryogenically freezing species
    • seed banks
    • zoos
  5. They can only save a tiny fraction of species, and then only a handful of samples – but the key factor is that all organisms can only exist in fantastically complicated ecosystems, which no freezing or zoosor seed banks can preserve. There is no alternative to complete preservation of existing wilderness

15. The environmental ethic A final summing up. We are living through the sixth great extinction. Between a tenth and a quarter of all the world’s species will be wiped out in the next 50 years.

Having dispensed with the ad hoc and limited attempts at salvage outlined above, Wilson concludes that the only viable way to maintain even a fraction of the world’s biodiversity is to identify the world’s biodiversity ‘hot spots’ and preserve the entire ecosystems.

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value (p.148)

In the last few pages he makes the ‘deepest’ plea for conservation based on what he calls biophilia – this is that there is all kinds of evidence that humans need nature: we were produced over 2 million years of evolution and are descended from animals which themselves have encoded in the genes for their brains and nervous systems all kinds of interactions with the environment, with sun and moon, and rain and heat, and water and food, with rustling grasses and sheltering trees.

The most basic reason for making heroic efforts to preserve biodiversity is that at a really fundamental level, we need it to carry on feeling human.

On planet, one experiment (p.170)


Conclusion

Obviously, I know human beings are destroying the planet and exterminating other species at an unprecedented rate. Everyone who can read a newspaper or watch TV should know that by now, so the message of his book was over-familiar and sad.

But it was lovely to read again several passages whose imaginative brio had haunted me ever since I first read this book back in 1994:

  • the opening rich and impressionistic description of the rainforest
  • a gripping couple of pages at the start of chapter five where he describes what it would be like to set off at walking pace from the centre of the earth outwards, across the burning core, then into the cooler mantle and so on, suddenly emerging through topsoil into the air and walking through the extraordinary concentration of billions of life forms in a few minutes – we are that thin a layer on the surface of this spinning, hurtling planet
  • the couple of pages about sharks, whose weird diversity still astonishes
  • the brisk, no-nonsense account of how ‘native’ peoples or First Peoples were no tender-hearted environmentalists but hunted to death all the large megafauna wherever they spread
  • the dazzling description of all the organisms which are found in just one pinch of topsoil

As to the message, that we must try and preserve the diversity of life and respect the delicate ecosystems on which our existence ultimately depends – well, that seems to have been soundly ignored more or less everywhere, over the past thirty years since the book was published.

Credit

The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson was published by the Harvard University Press in 1992. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Related review

Inverted World by Christopher Priest (1974)

Coming to Christopher Priest after reading Alfred Bester is like leaving an all-singing, all-dancing, high volume production of Guys and Dolls and walking into a vicar’s tea party.

Priest’s prose is flat and bland and colourless. Things are described at a steady even pace. There are hardly any metaphors or similes. There are no colours. People are described as either men or women and that’s your lot, that’s as much descriptive excitement as you’re likely to get. The two female leads are named Victoria and Elizabeth. There are no nicknames. There is no humour.

Reading Priest’s prose is like crawling across a drab and barren plain BUT – that turns out to be a weirdly appropriate style for this profoundly uncanny and disturbing novel.

Inverted World

For the majority of this 300-page novel we are transported to a world lightyears from earth, and into the mind of young Helward Mann, citizen of Earth City.

As I’ve discussed in various other reviews, one basic science fiction trope is the Stranger in a Strange Land, also known as The Sleeper Awakes or, if it’s an Ursula Le Guin novel, The Anthropologist Explores trope.

The author has conceived a science fiction future or alternative world in great detail and now faces the problem of how to explain it to us. Well, there are a number of tried-and-tested tropes or approaches:

  • someone has fallen asleep (or been put into cryogenic sleep) who now awakes and is now shown round this brave new world and has it all carefully explained to them (Looking Backward, News from Nowhere, The Sleeper Wakes)
  • a visitor arrives from a strange planet who is shown round the new world, or from a more primitive/unspoilt part of the world, and has it all carefully explained to them (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Brave New World)
  • a teenager comes of age, explaining to the reader what they know of the world they’ve grown up in, and now taking us though the process of being inaugurated into its adult secrets

Inverted World is the last of these. It is told in the first person (although later on there are sections told by a third-person narrator, and from then on the book alternates between Helward’s view [1st, 3rd and 5th sections] and the objective narrator [prologue, 2nd and 4th sections]) by young Helward Mann who, in a typically disorientating move, we are told is now 650 miles old and so has come of age.

Up to now Helward has been raised in The Creche of Earth City and the story opens with him choosing which to join of the half dozen or so ‘Guilds’ which run the City.

A city on rails

Slowly, slowly, very slowly, Helward is introduced to the mysteries of his world and so is the reader. He discovers that: the city is built on a massive steel plate which is attached to railway wheels. The entire life of the guilds is devoted to picking up railway track from behind the city, lugging it in carts round to the front, and laying it out again. When half a mile or so has been laid, the engineers attach winch cables to stanchions out ahead and then slowly and agonisingly winch the city, inches at a time, that half mile or so, and then it stops and is secured. Then the workteams go round the back and dig up the rails it has just come over and begins the process of laying them at the front, to extend the railway.

Why? He slowly gets introduced to the idea of ‘the optimum’. There is an optimum. Optimum what? Don’t ask. The optimum moves beneath the earth’s surface and the city must follow it. Why? Don’t ask. Just because. It is in the oath of the guilds and it is described in Destaine’s Directive, a document written by the city’s founder.

Later in the novel we discover this has been going on for over 200 years!

Thus the guilds include a guild of Futures, who ride out ahead on horses to scout the future path of the city, equipped with maps and surveying equipment; Track, who supervise the laying of the track; Navigators, who make the executive decisions; a Militia armed with crossbows to guard the workers from occasional attacks by stray natives, who the citydwellers refer to as ‘tooks’. Back inside the city, there are castes of food engineers, carers for the city’s children, teachers and so on.

Young Helward is slowly introduced to the hard manual labour all this requires, and discovers that the City co-opts the labour of nearby villagers, groups of surly men who reluctantly work as packs or teams under the supervision of Track guildsmen. A little later he discovers that the reason these tooks are often surly is because the City ‘buys’ some of their women. The process is known as transference and there is a Transfer centre where eligible men meet with these women and pair off.

Why? Because for a reason no-one understands, the birthrate of female City-dwellers is always low; female foetuses are aborted or stillborn. Therefore the tradition has grown up of buying local women from the villages the city passes, impregnating them, looking after them well: if they have female children the city keeps them; if they have male children, they can choose whether to take them back to their settlement. Now he thinks about it, Helward realises that his own mother left him when he was small and his father didn’t like talking about it. Obviously she was a ‘native’.

At the same time as Helward had to choose a Guild to join, he was ‘married’ to a young woman his own age, scion of a respectable City family, Victoria. Through the first half of the novel, we trace their uneasy relationship, in which she takes a feminist view that why should he have all the adventures outside the city while it is her role to be stuck in the City, never allowed outside, and just get pregnant and have babies, hopefully female ones?

Outside Helward begins to grasp why most of the inhabitants are never allowed outside: it is too weird and upsetting. In his first introduction to the outside by a slightly older colleague, Future Denton, Helward is shown dawn over their world and sees the sun appearing as a kind of spindle, a fiery ball with prongs at the top and bottom. He is told that the City is on a planet a long long way from the mother planet Earth referred to in Destaine’s document, and that the older guildsmen live in a long-held hope that rescuers from planet earth will one day find them, arrive on the planet, and save them from this endless toil.

Variations

Having conceived this extraordinary scenario, you can see how a novelist would then want to ring the changes or submit the situation to it logical consequences. And so:

– Helward gets caught up in a riot by the tooks which is only put down with some violence by the militia

– The city comes to a significant hurdle, a bridge over a ravine with a fastflowing river at the bottom. The process of a) building the bridge across the ravine, and then b) of winching the city across the scarily swaying bridge, and then one of the massive cables pulling it dramatically snapping when it is half-way across, is genuinely nailbiting.

By this stage, Priest’s slow, pedantic boring prose has utterly pulled you inside his conception. It is an imaginative triumph.

Down past

But then Priest takes the fantasy to a whole new level, and gave me – at any rate – a fictional experience of unparalleled weirdness and intensity. When the transferred women have delivered their babies, they are sent back to their villages, accompanied by a guildsman. It is Helward’s turn to do this and so he is given provisions and a map and told to head south, what the citydwellers call ‘Down Past’.

What he finds is that, as he travels south, the world around him, including the native women, becomes subject to an amazing distortion. The women become shorter and shorter and wider and wider. They come to the ravine he remembers crossing a few weeks earlier and it is now a much shallower, narrower canyon.

In an utterly convincing, extended passage Helward grasps why the city must keep moving: because the world behind the city becomes distorted in time and space. Eventually the women he’s accompanying become so flattened as to become invisible, and the landscape appears to drop off into darkness. What had been mountains in the distance become small bumps in the landscape as he finds himself hanging by the crampons and mountaineering rope he had been given for his expedition.

It is an astonishing imaginative feat, a really mind-boggling stroke of the imagination. I’ve never read anything so terrifying and so convincing. Slowly Helward pulls himself back up the cliff, using what were mountains as slight ledges under his feet, as the world slowly slowly spreads out again, becomes more level and comprehensible. Eventually he is merely walking up a steep slope. Finally the world reverts to something like flat again. Even so, when he finally makes it back to what had once been the ravine he finds is a shallow ditch with a stream at the bottom.

Terrified, he finally identifies the city’s tracks, though these are distorted, appearing very wide, very shallow and very close together. It would seem that the ‘optimum’ is the place where ‘normal’ conditions of time and space apply, but anywhere south of it rapidly distorted in the bizarre ways described. He meets another guildsman coming in the opposite direction – heading down past – with a couple of native women he is meant to be returning, and struggles to put into words what he is likely to encounter, as the guildmen in the city were all strangely coy and oblique about what he would meet.

Because Priest’s prose is so slow and steady and undramatic, the reader is utterly drawn into this paralysing, terrifying alternative reality, in a way few books I’ve ever read have managed to. I, too, became terrified at just the thought of a world like this, a world where one mistake could mean the city coming to a halt and rotating with the planet’s movement further and further from the optimum, into a zone where time and space become so utterly distorted that life would become impossible… but in a peculiarly upsetting and terrifying way…

It is one of the lesser consequences of the whole thing that when Helward gets back, he discovers that a year has passed and his uneasy relationship with his wife, Victoria, has collapsed. She had their child, who was stillborn, went through grieving for it and her missing husband, and now has married another man. Although this failed relationship is a big issue for Helward when he finally arrives back at the city, sunburned, haggard and aged, it is not for the reader, who is still reeling from the nightmare scenario Priest has so terrifyingly conjured…

Spoiler

And then, in the book’s final 30 pages or so, comes one of the most humongous twists in all science fiction, a revelation which turns everything you’ve read and experienced about this horrifying world on its head, upside down, inside out. It’s so awesome, that, for once, I won’t reveal the plot. You should read it for yourself. It is a genuinely mind-boggling novel.


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Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

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