The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard (1980)

Although published as late as 1980, most of the short stories in The Venus Hunters are from considerably earlier, in fact the first seven stories were published in the 1967 collection The Overloaded Man:

Now: Zero (1959)

Zero is Ballard’s favourite number, denoting the full stop of time and space and energy and human endeavour. Mind you, he was merely adopting a term already fraught with symbolism from his era’s key event:

The origins of the term “ground zero” began with the Trinity test in Jornada del Muerto desert near Socorro, New Mexico, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of the atomic attacks, released in June 1946, used the term liberally, defining it as: “For convenience, the term ‘ground zero’ will be used to designate the point on the ground directly beneath the point of detonation.”‘

This is a very early work, told in an arch Gothic style, which could almost be Edgar Allen Poe. The narrator is the overlooked and humiliated middle-manager at an insurance company who describes in prissy mannered prose how he kept a feverish, self-justifying diary recording every petty grievance he bore against his manager, Rankin, till one day in a fit of exasperation he wrote in his diary that the manager died, falling to his death from the seventh floor stairway. And next day he did.

Instead of stepping into his shoes as he hoped, the narrator is overlooked and a younger man, Carter, is promoted who quickly puts him in his place. After a few weeks of humiliation, the narrator writes in his diary that Carter dies, run over in the street the following day. And he is.

He reads about a man who’s been acquitted for a murder he obviously committed and writes in his diary that this man, Frank Taylor, will die next day in prison. And he does.

Getting to grips with his power he describes the deaths of four of the company’s directors, with the aim of being himself promoted to director and then using the same method to gain promotion to the parent company and on to world domination. The four directors die, sure enough, but the company goes into liquidation and, like everyone else, he is laid off. The predictable irony of this feels like a much older type of story, like Poe.

He experiments with the limits of the power, writing in his diary that the entire population of the miserable town where he grew up, Stretchford, will die. They don’t. Aha. The power obviously has limits, the limits of feasibility. Returning home the landlady confronts him with nagging demands for his back-rent and so she very satisfactorily dies the next day.

At this point he begins to notice that people are looking at him in the street. The landlady’s replacement is seen in conversation with the local copper, tapping her head. He thinks they are admiring his confidence and power. The reader is tipped off that people think he’s bonkers. His final plan has a garish, comedy-Gothic feel. He tells us he will publish a story in a magazine, which completely reveals his power, but that the person he has scheduled for death… is the reader!!! That means you!!! and the story counts down to the final sentences and words, at which you, the reader will expire!

Three… two… one… Now! Zero!

Is he mad? Just before the end he refers to ‘the victims of this extraordinary plague’; so is it working, have hundreds of readers of the story already dropped dead? Or is it all a delusion?

The Time-Tombs (1963)

Set some time in the future and on another planet, a group of four men are scraping a living as scavengers of the time tombs. These are buried in the dust of the planet but when they come to light, tomb robbers like themselves break in and steal the tapes on which the long-dead occupants have recorded images of themselves which are projected as 3-D holograms.

The story depicts the uneasy dynamic between a young-ish new recruit to the gang, Shepley, supported by the easy-going Old Man, and the leader of the robbers, Traxel, and his thuggish sidekick Bridges.

Shepley and the Old Man find a new set of tombs in a previously unexplored quadrant of the sea of dust, what’s more they’re priceless Tenth Dynasty tapes. But the second one they come to depicts a hauntingly beautiful princess with an extravagant hairdo and wings. Shepley can’t bring himself to take her tapes, and next day Traxel and Bridges find them at this tomb, Bridges thuggishly kicking his way through the door, ripping out the tapes, only to discover they are almost empty. She was dead when she was buried (the precise working of the technology is hinted at and not properly explained).

Traxel and Bridges make their escape as the Tomb Police come trundling up on a massive sand-rider and Shepley is so distraught at their vandalism of the princess’s tomb that he lets himself be arrested.

Track 12 (1958)

Ballard’s sixth story and a very short one (5 pages). Sheringham, professor of biochemistry ‘at the university’, has invited round for drinks Maxted ‘a run-down athlete with a bad degree… acting as torpedo  man for a company marketing electron microscopes’. Sheringham is ostensibly wanted to play him some of the LPs recording the microsonics experiments he’s been doing. He makes Maxted put on headphones and then listen to the weird sounds generated by recording in super high detail a variety of physical mechanisms. He’s listened to the sound of a plant cell dividing, and then an animal cell dividing and the story opens as he’s listening to the sound of iron filings going down a funnel which turns out to be the sound a pin dropping through a long tube lined with microphones makes.

(It may be worth remembering that experimenting with metal tape recordings was a new technology in the 1950s, prompting an explosion of experimental music recording by the likes of Pierre Boulez and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen.)

All the time Maxted is despising this prissy, fussy academic, lounging back on the chair he’s offered and guzzling down the whiskey and thinking about Sheringham’s wife, who he’s having an affair with.

Until, that is, he starts to feel shivery cold. Really cold. He reaches for his glass but knocks it out of reach. He feels his heart fibrillate. Sheringham is standing in front of him and calmly explains that he spiked his (Maxted’s) drink with chromium cyanate which is making all his cells lose control of their water content. He is going to drown inside.

But not before Sheringham has the time to play him one last recording. As his body collapses, his identity melts, the last thing Maxted hears is the enormously amplified and slowed-down grotesque rhythmic spasms of… a kiss, a kiss between him and Sheringham which the vengeful professor spent months rigging up secret microphones all over the patio to record. And which is now the last sound Maxted hears before he dies.

Passport to Eternity (1961)

Straightaway I notice that the bickering married couple, Margot and Clifford Gorrell, own some kind of sound device, a sound-sweeper, which projects the mood of their conversations as coloured tones across their walls, splashes of colours which leave residues which takes days to drain, and/or can drown out sound. This immediately reminded me of The Sound Sweep a story from a few years earlier. Obviously a very resonant idea.

Oh and they live on Mars. Not the real Mars but the Mars which is depicted as a kind of 1950s American suburb in The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury, or the American cartoon The Jetsons, a Mars which is full of bored wives who refuse to go on another love cruise of Venus or a a stag weekend to the moons of Saturn. A cartoon Mars.

The story is a comedy played for broad laughs as the overworked husband is henpecked into booking a real holiday for his wife, and they dispatch their personal assistant, Tony Harcourt, to make the rounds of inter-galactic travel agencies, which all come off as spoofs and parodies from a Douglas Adams novel.

Two days later Tony returns with a pile of outlandish brochures, but he has been followed by numerous of the travel agencies who begin to stage samples of their vacations in and around the Gorrells’ house, most notably the one which offers ringside seats at a galactic war

In the middle of it all reality shimmers and slides, and they wake up attached to tubes on beds in a room which looks like theirs but is revealed, with a swish of the curtains, to be some kind of spaceship setting off on a non-stop journey into deep space. A ten-page prime exhibit of why science fiction was not, in Ballard’s day, considered serious literature. This story is barely even serious science fiction.

Escapement (1956)

Ballard’s second published story and, tellingly, it’s about distortions in time. A boring suburban couple are having an evening in with the telly on, him doing a crossword, her darning a nightie when he realises the play on TV has slipped a reel and gone back to a scene fifteen minutes earlier. It happens again. He points it out to his wife. She doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It happens again. He phones a friend, who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Beginning to panic, the narrator realises he is caught in a loop of time fifteen minutes long which keeps jumping back fifteen minutes, trucking through the same period, then jumping back to 9pm. Then he realises the period of time between the leaps is diminishing – he is caught in a time trap! Steadily it decreases till the loops is only a few seconds long and then… he wakes up with a bad headache. His wife tells him he had some kind of convulsion. The time loop has stopped.

It’s very much like an episode of The Outer Limits (which was broadcast, incidentally, from 1963 to 1965). As he panics and switches channels, the narrator comes across a news programme where a scientist is explaining that these gas clouds released by the sun might not only distort light but time. Aha.

The notion of astronomical phenomenon affecting time here on earth will be recycled as the explanation for the crystallising process in The Crystal World.

Time of Passage (1961)

The story of a man, James Falkman, told in reverse, as the mourners leave the cemetery, the gravediggers dig up his coffin, put it into the hearse which drives back to his grand house, where he breathes his first breath and slowly improves in health, under the tender care of his sister.

His entire life experiences are lived in reverse, all the way through to his return to his mother’s womb and then, nine months earlier, his parents going to a hotel on their honeymoon.

It mirrors or prefigures the really haunting tale, Mr F is Mr F, where a married man shrinks back to a teenager, then a boy, then a baby, then returns through her vagina into his mother’s womb.

Again, it is well done but feels a bit cheap like a cheesy episode of The Outer Limits. The bit I liked was where, at the beginning, both he and his sister euphemistically refer to the place they came from, but how they’re ‘in the world now’ and how they’ll forget, how everyone forgets. Presumably they mean, forget heaven, where they came from.

The Venus Hunters (1963)

At 30 pages, by far the longest story in the collection and the most enjoyable. Dr Ward has just arrived at Mount Vernon Observatory. His new boss Cameron takes him for coffee at a cafe in the town at the bottom of the hill, and introduces him to the tall, bearded, muttering man, Charles Kandinski, a former psychology professor, who claims to have been at a picnic with friends in the desert, gone for a pee and bumped into a creature from Venus by its spaceship, who gave him a tablet and a warning that man must not intrude into outer space.

Kandinski was staggered, tried to contact everyone in authority to pass on the warning, writes a book about it and delivers hesitant lectures… but no-one cares, everyone thinks he’s mad. Cameron jokes that, of course, he believes him. Ward starts off by being utterly sceptical, but over repeated meetings now and then at the cafe, and at a lecture Kandinski delivers to the members of a local astronomy club, he slowly becomes impressed by Kandinski’s sincerity.

At the climax of the story we follow Kandinski cycling off into the desert at dusk, seeing a strange light, clambering up the side of a dune and seeing another circular space ship hovering in the desert. He stumbles back to the nearest farmhouse, begs to use the phone, rings Ward who is at a big conference being hosted by his employer, the 23rd Congress of the International Geophysical Association at Mount Vernon Observatory. Ward is just about to be called to make an opening speech when the call comes through and, despite his boss Cameron clinging on to his arm, he insists on driving off to help Kandinski.

He drives out to the desert, finds the farmhouse as Kandinski instructed him, goes on a bit, sees Kandinski’s bicylce, parks and clambers up the sand dune to the top of the low ridge, finds Kandinski feverishly over-excited, looks down into the shallow bowl between dunes and sees… nothing.

The story jumps to a few days later and we learn that Ward, nonetheless, took part in publishing a statement about the aliens to the New York Times, and has, as a result, been so thoroughly ridiculed that he has been asked to leave the Observatory and is leaving town to go back to university and teach freshman physics.

I didn’t understand. Was Kandinski just deluded? Like tens of thousands of other Americans who, in the decades since have come forward to claim they were abducted and experimented on by aliens? Is it that simple?

You could see the story as a fictional equivalent of the famous statement Ballard made in a 1962 interview that henceforward science fiction (by which he meant, his science fiction) would be concerned with inner space not with outer space. So this is a story in which the entire paraphernalia of outer space (flying saucers, aliens) turns out to be a product of the much-more interesting and fruitful area of inner space i.e. obsessions and delusions.

More tangibly, in structural or thematic terms, the image of driving out into the desert is interesting because it recurs in The Voices of Time; and when Ward sees the strange mandala-like shape Kandinski has marked out at the site of what he claims was the original landing, I was of course reminded of the mandala the dead biologist Whitby has carved into the bottom of the drained swimming pool in Voices and which Powers goes on to build in concrete on a much larger scale out in the desert.

And, of course, drifting sand-dunes haunt no end of Ballard short stories.

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So the first seven stories in this collection are right from the start of Ballard’s writing career. The remaining three were not published in The Overloaded Man collection and two are from nearly 20 years later.

The Killing Ground (1969)

A brutal satire on the Vietnam set thirty years in the future and which foresees the whole world invaded by America and rebel or nationalist forces, just like the Viet Cong, struggling with old weapons and living in holes, against the vastly superior technology of the Yanks whose attacks are computer-guides.

‘The globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Viet Nam’ and the story concerns a ragtag bunch of insurgents literally holed up in tunnels dug into a hillside overlooking a river over which fly American helicopters strafing the countryside in what, we are told, with a shock, and with blunt satirical irony, is the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede on the banks of the River Thames, near where I went to school, and which I’ve photographed and mapped on my walking blog.

We get to know Major Pearson, leader of the little troop of guerrillas just long enough to be fed all the lines about America’s war against the world, before they saddle up to make an attack across the flat meadow towards the river (I know it well), coldly killing the three American prisoners they’ve taken, before they in turn are mown down by American machinegun fire.

One Afternoon at Utah Beach (1978)

Nearly but not quite successful story about a married couple who are flown to a holiday cottage on Utah beach by a friendly private pilot. During the week they stay there the husband, Ogden, realises the pilot, Foster, and his wife Angela are having an affair.

One afternoon he visits the derelict concrete blockhouse built by the Germans on the beach and is astonished to discover a 19-year-old wounded Wehrmacht soldier nursing a machine gun on a tripod. Taking this in his stride, over the next few days Ogden brings the soldier food and medicine. His wife and boyfriend have taken to going to a wooden shack on the beach to make love in the afternoons. Ogden conceives the idea of getting the German to point his machine gun in that direction and shoot them as they emerge.

On the day in question Ogden takes his own shotgun and, as the adulterous couple emerge, inexplicably fires a warning flare, allowing the pilot to run forward into the long grass as the Wehrmacht soldier finally fires off his machine gun. Ogden stands up in clear sight at his moment of triumph and Foster rises from the dune grass and shoots him dead.

Exploring the blockhouse, Foster and Angela are puzzled why her husband had dressed in a Second World War Wehrmacht uniform.

The 60-Minute Zoom (1976)

The deranged soliloquy of a voyeuristic psychopath who knows his wife is serially unfaithful with strangers at all the resorts they visit, and has now set up a camera with an amazing Nikon long-distance zoom lens in a rented apartment across from the posh hotel he and she are staying in somewhere on the Spanish coast.

The idea is that the zoom of the camera starts off capturing the entire facade of the hotel and them moves in, very very slowly, allowing the narrator to describe the overall scene, comment on particular guests visible in the rooms above and below his, and then as the lens zooms in on their room, recording the entrance of her lover, they strip off and make love as the lens moves in closer, capturing their slow orgasms, ten minutes later he has gone and the camera doesn’t even cover her whole body but a portion of her chest, and, in the creepy final paragraph, who enters the frame, but the narrator and cameraman himself, only seen as a shadow and fragments of clothing above her body in tight close up and then… the shot goes vivid spurting red!

These last two stories have stopped being science fiction and are something else – tales of the macabre and the gruesome, heavily laced with pornography and perversion, which remind me of the grown-up stories of Roald Dahl which I read not so long ago – and somehow dated in the same nice-middle-class-man-goes-mad sort of way.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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.
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents.
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
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
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

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. Its brevity is indicated by the way 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 has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result 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 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

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.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various 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 we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

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 have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype 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? Scientists still 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 seemed 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 human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as 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 the 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. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) 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. You can’t.

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. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

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 not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring 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 and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

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 this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have 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 the opportunity to 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 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 or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending 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. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


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 very much 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) and 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.

And 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, back 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 Gray’s approach – it is easy 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 an 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 go 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

W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives @ the House of Illustration

W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a sociologist and historian. He helped co-found the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and was author of the seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk. He was one of the most important black activists and intellectuals of the 20th century.

The commission

His status was confirmed when, in 1900, Du Bois was invited to create an exhibition for the world fair in Paris – the Exposition Universelle – about the condition of black people in contemporary America.

Du Bois and his sociology students from the University of Alabama were well aware that black people were going to be overwhelmingly portrayed at the world fair as primitives and savages, living in mud huts in Africa and photographed wearing picturesque tribal costumes, with long descriptions of their customs and rites which were all written to underpin and justify continued colonial rule over all of Africa.

So Du Bois and the team set out to refute all the racist stereotypes and slurs of the day by emphasising the solid achievements of Afro-Americans in the forty years since Emancipation.

In less than four months he and his sociology students assembled a display of 63 hand-drawn charts designed to convey solid data and information about the role and position of blacks in 1900 America.

They developed highly inventive visual techniques for conveying a wide variety of information about the experience of black Americans, many of them anticipating the kind of infographics we use now by over a century.

Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes © WEB Du Bois

The aim of Du Bois and his team was to combat racist stereotypes about black poverty, laziness, lack of initiative, lack of ability in business, disinterest in education and so on, by supplying a wealth of solid statistical evidence to prove the exact contrary.

The charts show how turn-of-the-century Afro-Americans were flourishing in education, buying land, starting businesses and becoming economically independent, despite the full might of institutionalised racism and segregation designed to hold them back.

The charts were divided into two categories – a set about the USA in general, and another set about the situation in the state of Georgia.

Part 1. Black lives in Georgia

In 1900 the state with the largest black population was Georgia, 44% of whose population were African-Americans, making it a statistical test bed for Du Bois and his team. The 36 charts show Georgia’s black population growth, density and age distribution, compared with other states.

They show how wealth, literacy and land ownership had increased since Emancipation and compared how occupations compared with the white population.

Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta, Georgia, USA © WEB Du Bois

Part 2. Black lives in the USA

The second set of charts examined aspects of Afro-American life across the USA.

In 1900 there were around nine million blacks in America, 12% of the population. The charts show achievements by Africa-Americans, but also highlight the ways the community as a whole was being held back by the Jim Crow segregation laws which were to remain in place until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

City and Rural Population, 1890 © WEB Du Bois

Infographics

Cool, aren’t they? Part of their appeal is in their variety. As far as I could see, no two of the charts uses the same design and layout.

Each one is attached to a big board attached to the wall and hinged so you can work your way steadily through them. Each one is numbered and has a label which contains the background information about the chart and comments on the design, for example snippets such as the Georgia town of Darien had a large African American population due to its shipping or lumber trades, or the percentage of religious faiths among the black population.

Installation view of W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives: Pioneering infographics from turn-of-the-century America at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Mona Chalabi

There’s another thread to the exhibition: House of Illustration invited Mona Chalabi who is a New York-based journalist and producer and data editor at The Guardian USA to review Du Bois’s charts and update them.

The result was just four charts in which Chalabi reprises the original designs but with current data, thus showing what has changed in the past 120 years. It’s a mixed story. Her updating of Du Bois’ population chart reveals that the percentage of the US population which is African American has, surprisingly, stayed static – it was 12% in 1900, it is 12% now.

Her update of the literacy chart shows that black illiteracy has fallen to just 1.6%, but current research suggests there is still a gap between white and black literacy because of differences in quality of education.

Her update of the occupations chart shows the most evenness: grouping jobs into five categories shows that black and white Americans now work in similar sectors.

Occupations © W. E. B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

Less hopeful is her update of the chart showing the net worth of US households, which suggests that for every dollar in net assets which a black household has, a white household has $16.50 more.

Photos of black folks

So much for the information, then – but there’s yet another strand to the exhibition which, if I’m honest, I found by far the most attractive — and this was a set of contemporary photographs of African Americans from the year 1900.

The original exhibition in Paris contained no fewer than three bound volumes of photographs most of which were taken by photographer Thomas E. Askew, and including some 500 photos. The one public statement Du Bois made concerning these photographs was that visitors to the American Negro exhibit would find ‘several volumes of photographs of typical Negro faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas.’

The aim, once again, was to utterly refute the racist stereotypes about the poverty, broken homes, alcoholism and shiftlessness of African Americans, and to show them as smartly dressed, well educated, professional people – in other words, as good Edwardian bourgeois.

Intriguing and creative and innovative as the data charts are, it was the little display of nine contemporary photographs which really did it for me – which brought to life the families and communities and real people behind the graphs and spirals and pie charts and statistics. The face of the young woman sitting at the front centre, in particular, has haunted me for days.

Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tennessee, Normal class 1899


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

A short novella, 128 pages in the Gollancz paperback edition, this is a furious satire on the arrogance, ignorance and grotesque violence of colonialism, fired by Le Guin’s anger against American behaviour in the Vietnam War. It is cast in the shape of a science fiction story which slots into the ‘Hainish’ universe and so it set on a planet far away and in the future. But the despicable behaviour of the marauding human colonists clearly reflects media coverage of the American army in Vietnam.

Athshe

Le Guin invents a planet from her ever-expandable range of planets set in the so-called Hainish universe. This one is named Athshe and consists mostly of warm ocean, but has one archipelago of islands covered in rainforest. Hidden away in burrows and primitive villages in the forest live the metre-tall, furry Athsheans, who spend a lot of their lives in ‘dreamtime’.

[As with all the planets in the Hain cycle or universe, the idea is that the humanoid Hain achieved space travels hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years earlier – and colonised or populated a range of habitable planets across the galaxy. These varieties of human have evolved in sometimes striking different directions but are, genetically, all part of one genus. Thus, despite their physical differences, the Athsheans are, at bottom, human and, in their own language, refer to themselves as ‘men’ every bit as much as the humans who arrive on their planet.]

Men, yes, men, because, alas, four years before the story started, colonists from Earth arrived on Athshe (known to Terran explorers as Planet 41 and named by the settlers ‘New Tahiti’). They immediately set up logging camps in all the forests of all the main islands, and proceeded to chop down all the trees, strip & shape them and ship them back to Earth, which is a sterile world of concrete in this (characteristically) dystopian future.

The colonists call the natives ‘creechies’. The natives call the colonists ‘yumans’.

Le Guin makes these human invaders as blunt and gung-ho, Yankee, big-swinging-dick, macho shitheads as she can, led by one Captain Davidson, head of the ‘Smith’ logging camp.

We watch Donaldson beating and berating the little furry Athsheans, getting them to fetch and carry and slave for the white man. In case we don’t get that he’s a prime slab of toxic masculinity, Davidson is shown swaggering around the camp fnah-fnahing with his logger mates about the new consignment of womenfolk who’ve just arrived on a spaceship from earth, prime meat, get it while you can boys, yee hah! And all that’s before we learn that he raped and killed one of the Athshean females.

Attack on camp Smith

Captain Davidson flies to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, for a little R&R but, upon his return, is astonished to find Camp Smith a heap of smouldering ashes. The Athsheans have risen up and wiped out the 200 or so men there and burned everything to the ground.

A couple of them then jump Davidson, take his gun off him and let him loose to go and tell the other men that the Athsheans are having their revenge. Just to rub in what a toxic slab of male cowardice Davidson is, Le Guin has him whining and mewling that it’s not fair that he doesn’t have a gun anymore.

Sometime later he returns in a helicopter from the nearest surviving camp which is, characteristically, equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers, and ravages the entire area, in mad psychopathic anger – a sci-fi equivalent of the ship Marlow sees off the coast of Africa firing its canon into the forest out of blank, hopeless rage and frustration in Heart of Darkness.

Selver and Lyubov

Then the scene cuts to follow the Athshean who confronted Davidson, Selver, making his way through the vast tropical rainforests to the nearest native village. He jumped Davidson alright, but not before the big white man got off a shot on his blaster which badly burned his shoulder.

Selver comes to a native settlement which seems to be made of burrows in the ground. He is greeted by an old man of the dreamtime, who introduces himself as Coro Mena of the Whitethorn. Our guy replies that he is Selver of the Ash – for these people are organised into clans named after species of tree.

From that point we are taken deeper and deeper into Athshean society, culture and customs: the novel is, in other words, another of Le Guin’s anthropological exercises.

Something which is made unmistakable by the way that, as so often, the lead (human) character is an anthropologist – in this case described as a ‘hilfer’, a professional student of Highly Intelligent Life Forms, the only Terran who has made the effort to half-understand the Athsheans and their strange mystical relationship with a) the all-encompassing tropical rainforest and b) the dreamtime.

His name is Raj Lyubov. Before the narrative started he had befriended Selver and learned some of the natives’ language and beliefs from him.

But it’s very characteristic of Le Guin that this fragile understanding and cross-cultural friendship is doomed to be crushed under hard, not to say cruel, events. For now we learn that the trigger for all the events is that, before the story started, Davidson had plucked Selver’s furry little wife from the pen where the ‘yumans’ locked up the creechies every night, and he raped her, and she died during the experience.

At the first opportunity afterwards, Selver tried to kill Davidson by attacking him in the street of Camp Smith. Davidson, at twice Selver’s height, was defending himself, in the centre of a circle of cheering, jeering jock humans, when Lyubov pushed through and pulled Selver free, carrying him back to his house. Here Lyubov washed Selver’s wounds and tended him back to health, the other colonists too ashamed to intervene.

Selver and Lyubov form a friendship of sorts, Selver helping the hilfer understand native language and, above all, the central importance of dreaming, of being able to go off into dream states, to Athshean culture.

But Selver is still driven by bitter anger and it is this, compounded by other horrors which are casually mentioned (for example, we learn that one of the colonists, Benton, likes to castrate ‘uppity’ creechies in front of the others), which lies behind the creechies’ massacre of the settlers at Camp Smith.

The cycle of violence

Just when you thought Davidson couldn’t get any more loathsome, he leads a group of gung-ho soldiers on a retaliatory attack on a totally innocent Athshean village. They napalm the burrows and burn alive the furry little natives as they run out. They stamp on them to break their backs, they shoot them and burn them alive. In a bitterly satirical aside, Le Guin says they didn’t even reserve a few of them to gang rape, they were that consumed with blood lust.

There is a plot of sorts, but I found it hard to read because by this time I was feeling pretty sick. As I commented about City of Illusions, Le Guin can, when she wants, write extended descriptions of the natural world but…rarely a page goes by without it being ruined, spoilt, desecrated, by horror, terror, violence, beatings, killings, rapes and, as in this novel, castrations. The cumulative effect isn’t insightful or evocative, I just find it grim and depressing. Depressing because this is fiction. She could write about anything – but she chooses to write about burning people alive and raping and castrating.

The authorities intervene

Back in the plot, the spaceship from Terra which arrived with the women colonists also carried two humanoid aliens, a Cetian and a Hainish, and the unexpected massacre at Camp Smith compels them to jet down for a conference with the military leaders of the colony.

As it emerges out that the colonists are using the locals for slave labour and raping their women, the two officials are not impressed. The meeting/conference is described in some detail, and especially the role of Raj Lyubov who tries to respectfully disagree with his military masters and make the truth known to the ambassadors, painfully aware of how the soldiers look at him with growing hatred, Davidson in particular.

Now these ambassadors are carrying an example of a new invention, the ansible, which they had been tasked with taking on to another colonised planet. Now they decide to leave it here so that the colonists can be in instantaneous communication with the Administration back home. They point out that in the years since the colonists arrived, the Earth has joined the League of Worlds, and has moderated its rapacious demands on other planets. Now instructions start being conveyed from the home planet Administration via the ansible, live, in real time.

Of course the military, especially numb-nuts Captain Davidson, not only reject this but suspect it is a hoax, a con, the ansible is a fake and the strict new, native-friendly rules being sent through it and imposed on the military are some kind of alien coup cooked up by the pallid Hainish and the hairy little Cetian.

Davidson is painted as such a cowardly, murderous, psychopathic rapist – and the Athsheans such lovable tree-hugging, green furry dreamers – and Raj Lyubov so much the sensitive man-in-the-middle who ends up alienating both sides – that I couldn’t help have a sneaking liking for Davidson. In free indirect speech Le Guin lets us overhear his thoughts and share his worldview, and captures the big swinging dick, macho bullshit of testosterone-overdrive American culture so well. Monsters are often thrilling. That’s one of the most obvious findings or discoveries of literature.

That said, there is a running stream of feminist comments throughout the book, a counterblast to Davidson’s appalling macho mindset.

The Athshean communities are run by headwomen. Casually we are shown female Athsheans being messengers and doers. I was particularly struck by the idea attributed to the thoughtful Lyubov, that what the colonists really needed was not big-breasted dolly birds but more old women. Old women have a special wisdom. Old women speak their minds and (though it isn’t expressed) old women can shame full-grown men into half-decent behaviour.

Lyubov is spurned by the Athsheans

Once the ambassadors or administrators from Terra have moved on, leaving a chastened military leadership reluctantly following its new orders from the home Administration back on Earth via the ansible – Lyubov ventures out to the nearest Athshean village. Here he is shocked to find the headwoman and other elders no longer talk to him or even look at him. He is the most sympathetic and understanding of the yumans but the days of peace are gone. Lyubov encounters Selver, who is recovering from leading the attack on Camp Smith. The other Athsheans look on him now with awe, as a human who can wreak such devastation in the ‘real’ world.

From Lyubov’s memories of rescuing and helping Selver we gather a lot more information about a) the Athsheans’ culture and language and especially about their ability to dream with their eyes open and remember and in some sense live by their dreams, and also b) more of the backstory about how Lyubov rescued Selver from probably being beaten to death by Davidson, nursed him, and in doing so struck up an intense relationship in which they taught each other their languages. But the violence has severed that link. Now Selver can barely talk to him. Devastated, Lyubin returns to the main human settlement, which they call Centralville.

The cycle of violence continues

That night Lyubov wakes from ominous and fateful dreams to discover that Centralville is under ferocious attack from the Athsheans. Later we get the detail of how about 5,000 Athsheans, organised by Selver and others who had been slaves at Camp Smith, launched a carefully planned attack, cutting off the water supplies, surrounding the base, planting a huge pile of dynamite in the central HQ then waiting with flamethrowers (!), some guns and plenty of knives and laces for the terrified yumans to emerge into the night.

Later we learn that the Athsheans knew the human women had been sent for safety from all the remote colonists’ settlements to Centralville and took special care to target the women’s dormitories and – annihilate them – mostly by burning them to death inside their buildings, or as they tried to escape, or slitting their throats or stabbing them with knives or lances.

All this we discover later, but at the time the scene of carnage, explosions, burning and screaming is described through Lyubov’s terrified perceptions, right up to the moment he goes to the help of a screaming woman running out of a building, just as the building topples forward and crushes them both, smashing Lyubov into the mud.

Next day, amid the smouldering ruins, Selver wanders dazed at what they’ve done. All the women, some 500, were massacred, as planned, to prevent the colonists breeding like locusts. The surviving men have been rounded up and placed in a pen, a lager, a camp. Wandering the smouldering streets Selver is dismayed to come across Lyubov’s body, crushed under the beams of the fallen building. He cradles the hilfer’s head but Lyubov can’t move because his back is broken and after a few words he dies. Or, as Selver perceives it, passes into the dreamworld.

See what I mean by hard and unrelenting and callous and cruel? I found it a struggle to finish this short book, not because it reflects the brutality of Vietnam – it doesn’t particularly – for me it felt like a continuation of the callous, heartless violence I’ve experienced in all of Le Guin’s novels. Remember the helicopters hovering over the protest meeting in The Dispossessed and suddenly opening fire with machine guns and massacring hundreds. All seven of the novels I’ve read have been characterised by wilful, hard, unbending, unsentimental, bleak, cruel violence.

The colonists at bay

The surviving men colonists are rounded up and kept in a pen. I kept envisioning this as like the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai. Selver has by now established himself as leader of the Athsheans, who have no central organisation or government or leadership in our sense. We are shown younger creechies watching in awe as he passes by. He is regarded as a ‘god’ because he has brought something from the dreamworld into the real world – namely war and death.

Now he negotiates with the remaining leadership among the colonists.

Cut to Davidson who hadn’t been at Centralville when the big attack took place, he was at a different settlement called New Java. Now he gets radio messages from his superiors inside the camp, telling him they’ve made peace with the Athsheans and he must cease any engagement with them.

The novel really becomes about Davidson now: it emerges as the portrait of a military psychopath because Le Guin takes us inside his head, hearing all his rationalisations and justifications for disobeying military discipline, for ignoring direct instructions to ceasefire. He decides his superiors have gone soft, and leads the more gung-ho elements on a series of helicopter attacks on nearby villages, once again, carpeting them in napalm and bombs, watching entire settlements – of sweet organic burrows mostly buried in the ground amid the roots of the great rainforests – going up in flames and watching the little creechies run around on fire.

Another Athshean attack

As you might expect, after some days of this there is a massive Athshean attack on Davidson’s camp. Amid all the explosions and confusion, Davidson and a few others make it to a helicopter and take off. In the dark night Davidson orders the pilot to return and strafe their own camp.

What I haven’t really brought out is the extent to which Davidson has gone nuts. From a technical point of view, one obvious interest in the narrative is the way Le Guin plots Davidson’s progression from gung-ho soldier, to disobedient officer and then onto crazed killer.

Davidson argues with both the other colonists in the chopper, including the one flying it. He gun-punches one of them, knocking him out and then, in a mad moment, turns out the cabin lights in the chopper – the aim being to see the lights of the flames from the camp so they can return and strafe it.

It’s only for a moment but it’s long enough for the chopper to lose enough height to crash into tress and then topple down through the treecover crashing down to within a few feet of the ground, in a way we’ve all seen in umpteen action movies. Davidson comes round from concussion, falls the few feet to the ground, realises that he’s slithering around in the sticky remains of the pilot’s body (yuk), has all kinds of delusory thoughts about flying back and killing everyone but…

Instead he regains consciousness and is confronted with his nemesis, Selver. Selver says he is mad. (There is a lot of rhetoric about madness and sanity in the book.) And so they’re going to do what they do with natives who go insane – take him to a desert island, in this case, one of the ones the humans have utterly devastated. Dazed Davidson feels a rope noose being lowered over his neck and capitulates.

Coda

The spaceship which dropped off the women colonists at the start? It’s back from its mission to some other planet bringing with it the only two grown-ups in the story, the Hainish and the Cetian representatives of the League of All Worlds.

They apologise to Selver (who has emerged as the leader of the Athsheans) for the behaviour of the colonists, and explain that the entire colony is shutting down. All the humans and all the equipment will be removed. No more humans will arrive or disturb them. Athshe has been made subject of a League Ban, and will be protected.

The last thought is Selver explaining how his culture considers new inventions or discoveries to originate in the dream world and be brought from there into the real world, and how those who bring them about are considered ‘gods’ (in their local language; in fact different from what we consider gods).

Anyway, the last thought is that his people consider him a god because he has brought forth organised fighting on a scale his world has never known. Now, sadly, he thinks his discovery of killing will not go away…

In this excerpt of the novel’s last page, Lepennon is the name of the Hainishman, Lyubov – although dead – continues to haunt Selver’s consciousness and Davidson – as we’ve seen – is alive but isolated on an island for the mad (something Lepennon and all the other Terrans are [ironically] unaware of.)

‘Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’

Lepennon laid his long hand on Selver’s hand, so quickly and gently that Selver accepted the touch as if the hand were not a stranger’s. The green-gold shadows of the ash leaves flickered over them.

‘But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason,’ Lepennon said, his face as anxious and sad as Lyubov’s face. ‘We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever. Then the forests of Athshe will be as they were before.’

Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, ‘I shall be here.’

‘Lyubov will be here,’ Selver said. ‘And Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.’

Conclusion

This book should have thrilled me since a) I am interested in, and have read fairly extensively about, the Vietnam war:

and b) I like science fiction.

But, although it has some elements which showcase Le Guin’s characteristic Deep Thought (the sleep/dream culture which she invents and ascribes to the native species, as well as their cultural tradition of holding singing contests instead of fighting) – nonetheless, I was disgusted and repelled by the unrelenting, sickening violence of the story which simply, for me, had no redeeming feature.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

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
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 fastpaced 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 vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which 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 – 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
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 undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced 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 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
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
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

1980s
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
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 – 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 ganster 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 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

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

Coming to this novel was a shock after reading five of Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, science fantasy novels in a row. The Hainish stories are set in a remote future on remote planets and feature a range of humans, humanoids and aliens with Lord of the Rings-type names like Shevek, Ong Tot Oppong or Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe, who travel vast interstellar distances in spaceships or ride flying tigers, use telepathy and fire laser guns.

So it was a surprise to read this 1971 novel which is:

  1. set on earth
  2. in the very near future
  3. above all, features recognisably ‘normal people with names like George, William and Heather

George Orr the dreamer

The premise is disarmingly simple: George Orr is an ordinary, unassertive 30-year-old office worker living in Portland, Oregon, who has started to have particularly intense dreams which come true – his dreams alter reality and retrospectively change history!

The dreams started fairly modestly – as a shy teen he was irritated by an aunt living with his family who kept trying to hit on him. One night he dreamed the aunt had died in a car crash 18 months earlier and when he woke up – it was true! He was living in a new reality in which the aunt had died 18 months earlier, and his parents and all his relatives and the authorities all accepted the fact, had never known any other reality, lived entirely inside the alternative history he had dreamed into being. George’s dream had not only changed reality but he was the only one who knew it had changed.

The narrative opens a few years later with George on the verge of a nervous breakdown because he is dosing himself with high-powered drugs to try and stop himself doing any more dreaming. When he nearly overdoses and a local doctor is called in who refers him to a psychiatrist, a certain Dr William Haber. Haber is a specialist in dreams and the human brain and is working on an invention, the Augmentor, a device which detects and amplifies a person’s natural brainwaves, with a view to treating the people with mental problems who are referred to him by identifying and restoring their ‘normal’ brainwave patterns.

In their first interview, Haber slowly wheedles out of George his incredible story and, of course, as a scientist and psychiatrist, dismisses it as one more of the many florid hallucinations and delusions he’s dealt with over the years. He puts George to sleep with a combination of hypnosis and pinching his carotid artery which he has perfected over the years and, as he goes under, suggests he dream of a horse running free. When George awakes, the big picture of Mount Hood on Haber’s wall has changed into a big picture of the horse he saw running wild and free in his dream.

Did Haber notice the change or is he like everyone else who lives in whatever new reality George dreams into existence, as if it has always been that way?

Over subsequent sessions, George realises that Haber, being at the epicentre of The Change, right next to the Dreamer, does notice the change. At the next session Haber witnesses George’s dream turn the horse picture back into a view of Mount Hood. Haber insists they continue the ‘sessions’, but George starts to realise the doctor has plans to plant evermore ambitious suggestions into his head.

Thus soon Haber is transformed from a struggling researcher in the cramped room on the 64th floor of a rundown building, but the head of a prestigious dream research institute with a big office and a stunning picture window commanding a view over the surrounding landscape. And each successive phase of the story records Haber’s increasingly ambitious attempts to restructure the entire world to make it a better place.

Unfortunately the human mind, the unconscious dreaming mind, or George’s mind anyway, responds to Haber’s prompts in unnervingly indirect or unexpected ways. Thus, when Haber puts George to sleep, turns on the brainwave Augmentor and suggests to him that he overcome his fear of people, of being claustrophobically trapped in the overcrowded transport system and inadequate housing of modern Portland – George responds with a particularly vivid dream in which mankind has experienced a horrific plague a few years earlier, which devastated the earth’s population, reducing it from 7 billion to less than 1 billion. In this new reality everybody has experienced and refers to the Crash (p.79) a carcinomic plague caused by toxic chemicals in the air from car and industrial pollution.

And when he wakes up – it is true: George’s dream version of events has become human history, the overcrowded city of Portland with its gleaming skyscrapers has morphed into an underpopulated town of 100,000 whose outer suburbs were looted then burned down in the social chaos which followed the Great Plague. Both Orr and Haber manage to accommodate to this new reality – and to the fact that all their loved ones, parents and wives, have died in this vast global holocaust.

Even more drastic is Haber’s next attempt to make a better world. Throughout the narrative characters have been referring to a war bubbling away in Eurasia, which seems to involve Israel, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan and threatens to drag in other countries. So at their next session Haber puts Orr under and, as he goes into deep sleep, suggests that George creates World Peace.

Unfortunately, Orr’s imagination does this via the unexpected route of inventing an attack on humanity by aliens from outer space who capture the moon, murder the handful of earth colonists living on a moonbase and then threaten earth itself. George has certainly achieved peace on earth, and united the squabbling nations of the world – but at the cost of threatening all mankind with attack by ferocious aliens, methane-based forms of life from the planet Alderbaran (pp.132,142).

And so, bizarrely, on – each successive dream world session raising the stakes, and plunging George into deeper and deeper panics and bewilderment.

Even more dramatic than the Crash, the next sequence in which the aliens suddenly attack Portland, leading to the US launching nuclear weapons and bombing raids against them which go horribly wrong and end up doing far more damage to the city and its inhabitants than to the aliens. They even trigger the dormant volcano, Mount Hood, into having a full-blown volcanic eruption and raining lava bombs onto the terrorised city. Chaos!

In the midst of this pandemonium, Orr makes his way across the ruined city dodging bombs and flying lava and makes it up to Haber’s office, where, ignoring the pandemonium, Haber puts George into deep sleep just as an alien appears, hovering at Haber’s smashed-out window and threatens to blast them all, and….

George’s dream once again transforms reality. For now it turns out the aliens are peace-loving, the attack on the moon settlers was a misunderstanding, they don’t have any weapons, there are only a thousand or so of them and they came in peace. So much so that, in this new reality, aliens are integrated into human society, walking the streets (admittedly in their eight-foot-tall spacesuits which make them look like giant turtles), Portland is restored to pristine condition and Dr Haber has been promoted once again, becoming a leading light in the World Planning Centre, the chief agency of the new, global ‘Federation of Peoples’ (p.126).

The future

So far I haven’t mentioned an important element of the novel which is that it is set in the future – not the remote, far-distant future of the Hainish novels but what was then – for Le Guin writing in 1970 – a mere thirty years in the future: the novel is set in 2002.

Quite apart from the mayhem caused by George’s dreaming, this futureworld is quite a lot to take on board, for Le Guin sees it as a dystopia. In this future, the global population is over seven billion, with the result that there isn’t enough food: many foodstuffs we are familiar with have disappeared, such as meat and any interesting alcoholic drinks. The doctor who first treats George casually mentions the incidence of kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition, among the city’s children. An oppressive aspect of George’s life in the early parts of the story is the horrifying cramped and packed conditions of public transport (private cars have long since been banned) – an anxiety which eventually leads him, as we’ve seen, to dream of a global plague which kills off most of the human population.

(I smiled as I read the ‘horrifying’ descriptions of George being pressed up against the other commuters on Portland’s packed trains and trams – that’s what I and tens of thousands of Londoners experience every day, trying to fight our way onto tube and overground trains every morning and evening.)

But by far the most striking aspect of Le Guin’s mentions of Global Warming. 1971 and she is talking about Global Warming! As Le Guin envisions it, the huge increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from industrial output and unfettered internal combustion engine usage has set in train global warming, which, by the time the novel is set – 2002 – has become unstoppable. The polar ice caps are melting, New York is going to be drowned, the average temperature has gone up – with the result that Portland experiences a permanent warm drizzle:

the endless warm drizzle of spring—the ice of Antarctica, falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it.

It is like, George reflects, walking around in a thin warm soup.

It is quite a thing to be reading, in 2019, a novel which warns so accurately and prophetically about the catastrophic impact of manmade pollution and global warming. Shows you just how long anyone who cares about the environment, or understands environmental science, has known about the threat – fifty years! And yet what has been done to reduce carbon emissions, to limit car and plane and ship use, industrial emissions or ruinous agricultural practices in all that time?

Nothing.

Love interest

The other big thread I haven’t mentioned yet is the love interest. On page 40 George goes to visit a lawyer, Heather Lelache. Characteristically for the original version of the ruined dystopia, Heather works at a law firm whose offices are in a converted multi-storey car park – remember that, by 2002, private cars are a thing of the past and the huge concrete infrastructure built around them has had to be repurposed.

As with all Le Guin’s novels, it is nothing like a conventional love affair. Heather is described as being festooned with bangles, hard and clacking, a loud brass necklace, and is hugely unsympathetic to George when he comes to see her. He wants her to intervene with Haber somehow, maybe under privacy law. Heather listens with ill-concealed boredom as George tells his increasingly mad tale about how his dreams can change the world. She finally reluctantly agrees to arrange to visit Haber’s practice in the guide of a health and safety lawyer – but he persuades her to attend a session with Haber under the guide of a kind of health and safety inspector and arrange it so she sits in on a session with George.

This she duly does, and is present to witness the dream in which George dreams of the Great Plague, the Crash, which wiped out six-sevenths of the human population. She is staring out Dr Haber’s window over the skyscrapers of downtown Portland as the Change kicks in and she watches them shimmer, melt and disappear, to be replaced by the ruined low-rise town which Portland has become six years after the Crash (p.61).

Whereas Haber is a megalomaniac who quickly seizes upon the situation to implement his world reforms, Heather is more like you and me and responds to the change with terror and confusion. From that moment on she believes George but struggles to really accept the implications. A few days later she goes to see him at his rented apartment and discovers him in a terrible state, having tried to stay permanently awake. She persuades him to leave the city and drives him to the cabin in the countryside (which he has awarded himself as winner of a state lottery, in one of his many dreams) and here she cares for him, feeds and waters him, loads him onto the cot bed and falls asleep beside him.

They are both jerked out of their sleep by sirens and explosions. It is the invasion of the aliens I mentioned above, in which the US responds by firing nuclear missiles into space, some of which are deflected back to earth and explode setting off the vast volcanic eruption of Mount Howe, and so on. It is Heather who helps George drive back to the city and make it up to Dr Haber’s office, be wired up to the Augmentor and go into deep sleep just as a weird ovoid alien vehicle smashes through Haber’s office window…

In the new peaceful world which follows George sorting out this crisis, Heather and George become close. She is black, one of many black or non-white leading characters which populate Le Guin’s novels. She explains that her father was a radical black activist back in the 1970s (i.e. when the novel was written) and her mother a rich man’s daughter who rebelled against her privileged background (p.102).

Heather is, potentially, an interesting character and yet… Le Guin never really conveys her as a character apart from having lots of clacking bangles and clicking handbags and projecting a tough armature.

Humour

Le Guin is not a very funny writer. There is hardly any humour and certainly no warmth in her novels. I find them cold and heartless. But, unlike any of the Hainish novels, this one does have some attempts at humour.

There is some fairly crude satire in having the President of the United States named President Merdle (Albert B. Merdle, in fact):

  1. the association with the French word merde meaning shit and
  2. the other association, with the fictional character in Dickens, the millionaire financier Merdle in Little Dorrit who turns out to be a complete fraud

There is a flicker of humour in the start of the scene where Heather visits Haber’s office, and uses a pocket tape recorder to record their conversation which goes teep every few seconds and at one point Haber’s phone goes off, making a deep bong noise, the two sounds creating an antiphonal piece of minimalism.

And there’s humour of a sort in the unintended shape some of George’s dreams take: – I suppose it’s ‘funny’ that when Haber tries to get him to create World Peace, George does so at the cost of inventing an alien invasion!

Along the same lines, once the alien situation is dealt with and it turns out that they were friendly all along and are perfectly integrated into human society, Haber has a go at solving another social problem, the ‘race problem’ (like the references to global warming, it’s salutary and rather shocking to be reminded how long topics which are in the headlines as some kind of ‘news’ have in fact been around).

Anyway, when George comes round from this dream it is to find that he has indeed solved the ‘race problem’ – by turning everyone grey! There are no longer white or black or brown or yellow people. Everyone is the same uniform shade of battleship grey.

I suppose that’s sort of funny, but Le Guin has a way of draining the life out of everything. What could possibly have become a funny theme is made to feel tragic when George realises that Heather – who he has come to love who, indeed, in one of the worlds he creates, he has made into his loving wife! – as George realises that his beloved Heather is gone. Gone. Everything he loved about her, the tone of her jet black skin, the shape of her skull, her black physiognomy, and the feisty, no-nonsense attitude it gave her…. all these have disappeared in a world of same-colour but drab and rather sad humans.

Le Guin is making a sort of interesting point – that maybe the inequalities and frictions between races, genders and classes are precisely what make life interesting – but the reader – well, this reader – experienced it simply as a loss. The same kind of loss as when Falk leaves behind Parth or Strella is revealed to be a treacherous alien in The Lathe of Heaven or when the swashbuckling Lord Mogien, who we’d got to like in Rocannon’s Planet, is killed off, or – much more seismically – when Lord Estraven, one of the two central protagonists whose strange alien condition we had grown to understand and respect in The Left Hand of Darkness is simply machine-gunned to death, pointlessly, to no-one’s advantage, by overzealous border guards.

So many of the details are what old hippies called downers. In a tiny example, in the post-alien-war peaceful world where Dr Haber has become a senior official at the World Planning Centre, George is walking across of futuristic plaza when he witnesses a ‘citizen’s arrest’ i.e. a public-spirited citizen has tracked down a man who was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and gone on the run. But now he’s been tracked down and, once he’s rounded up the ten witnesses required by law, the public spirited one euthenases the cancer sufferer with a poison dart gun.

It’s a throwaway detail, a moment in a much larger narrative and I can see it’s making a point about a new and different type of dystopia which George has dreamed and yet…it’s harsh and cruel, and… unnecessary. Cruelty is thrown in; the extra detail will always be brutal.

Le Guin’s fiction seems to me to be full of these moments of loss or cruelty and, after a while, I find the cumulative effect to be emotionally draining and upsetting.

Pessimism

So the occasional flickers of possible humour cannot outweigh the relentless negative pessimism of her worldview. It is a bleak future indeed that she foresees for us, living in an over-populated planet characterised by food shortages and malnutrition, many familiar animal species wiped out, much of the forest chopped down, the thin permanent polluted drizzle falling on everyone, the sea levels rising and drowning coastal cities.

And, as if this wasn’t bad enough – there’s a horrifying moment in the middle of the novel where George revels his really big secret to Heather; not that his dreams change reality – but that the world has ended. The over-pollution and radioactive waste was so severe that by April 1998 most of humanity had died out, and he, George, was sick and ill and dying and staggering through the corpse-strewn streets of Portland and, as he collapsed on a cracked concrete step, with his last flickering moments of life, he dreamed, dreamed of a better world, dreamed that humanity survived.

In other words the badly polluted, overpopulated, malnourished world the novel opens in, is a saved version of the world. The real one came to an end in April 1998 (p.104). He explains to a horrified and disbelieving Heather that all the subsequent versions of reality they have lived through together are not only dreams, they are essentially lies, fictions, inventions. The real world ended ‘and we destroyed it.’

Eastern mysticism

A lot is made of Le Guin’s abiding interest in Eastern mysticism, which informs her whole approach to character and plot, and underlies her interest in alternative states of mind, of perception, of consciousness. Indeed the title of the book is a quote from the writings of Zhuang Zhou, specifically a passage from Book XXIII, paragraph 7, quoted as an epigraph to Chapter 3 of the novel:

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.
Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

And at moments, very characteristic Le Guin moments, the narrative steps back from what you could call its Western technocratic  mindset to create epiphanies of peace and detachment. In particular, at several points George – for most of the book a whining, stressed individual – is portrayed as momentarily monumental, the still point of a chaotic world, somehow the centre of something awesome.

George himself is aware of the value of silence and contemplation. In a central scene (pp.136-140) Haber tells George that all the tests he’s run on him indicate that he is dead centre, totally average, average height, weight, brain patterns, EEG; in a weird way he is kind of at the dead centre of the human condition.

‘If you put them all onto the same graph you sit smack in the middle at 50. Dominance, for example; I think you were 48.8 on that. Neither dominant nor submissive. Independence / dependence – same thing. Creative / destructive, on the Ramirez scale – same thing. Both, neither. Either, or. Where there’s an opposed pair, a polarity, you’re in the middle; where there’s a scale, you’re at the balance point. You cancel out so thoroughly that, in a sense, nothing is left.

(Either/or. Aha. Now we see the meaning of George’s name. George Orr, a kind of permanent doorway into alternatives…)

This scene evolves into a confrontation where the pair challenge each other with speeches outlining the aggressive, technocratic, always-busy, improving and building western mindset (Haber) – and George’s intuition that humans are also capable of just being, and of going with the flow of nature and the universe – the Le Guin worldview.

So her feel for apparently Taoist, Eastern values threads in and out of the narrative, with sometimes very powerful effects in some scenes, butwith fortune cookie glibness at others. The aliens from Aldabaran have a very detached pint of view, if you can call it that. After all, they are inventions of George’s passive, middle-of-the-road imagination. As one alien tells him,

To go is to return

And yet, for me, whatever associations Eastern mysticism is meant to have with detachment and serenity are utterly overshadowed by Le Guin’s very Western obsession with technology, cities, urban living, drugs, dystopias, end of the world, science fiction, spaceships and aliens and murders and death. There is nothing detached, serene or blissful about any of these subjects. The Taoist thread is there to light a scene and gild a few perceptions. But for me it is totally outweighed by a heavy, endless acid rain pours grim and unrelenting pessimism over all her books.

Heather returns

Distraught at losing Heather, George drops into an antiques shop run by one of the now-friendly aliens. The aliens have their own language and somehow seem to know that George possesses a skill which they have a word for, iahklu. After a weird Zen conversation which may, or may not, mean anything, the alien apparently on the spur of the moment gives George an ancient 45rpm single vinyl record. George takes it home to his modest apartment, pouts it on the turntable, and plays it over and over again. It is Help From My Friends by the Beatles. He falls asleep and dreams.

Suddenly we are in the mind of Heather, as she awakens in George’s apartment, watching him sleep, listening to the Beatles on a loop. She’s back! He’s dreamed her back! Although it becomes clear this version of her has not experienced the Change and so doesn’t know about George’s dreams.

At almost every turn of the story Le Guin wrings the maximum amount of confusion from her characters.

The end

The narrative had been heading for the moment when Dr Haber perfected his ‘dream augmentor’ and this is the trigger for the book’s climactic scenes.

Haber puts George under one last time and instructs him to dream that his dream skills have gone, disappeared, ended. George awakens, and they have.

Haber thanks George for all his co-operation and bids him and Heather goodbye and they set off across the now, finally at-peace city — but they have got only a mile or so away when the entire world begins to fall to pieces.

Haber has hooked himself up to the Augmentor and is copying and augmenting the brain rhythms he’s spent the book recording off George. Now he is having his own reality-changing dream and it is a nightmare. Because he has no personality, no inner life apart from his burning ambition, the dream is the first genuine nightmare we’ve experienced, in which everything disintegrates into a terrible swirling maelstrom of emptiness.

George makes his way through the mounting chaos as the city and landscape melts into a tornado of meaninglessness, by sheer effort of will maintaining just enough physical reality to allow him to walk up melting stairs, cross disappearing floors, and ride disintegrating escalators to the collapsing office where Haber is lying wired up to the Augmentor and with one, final, terrific effort of willpower… to turn it OFF.

Coda

The scene cuts to a few months later, and the world is still struggling to come to grips with what everyone refers to as The Event. The world was restored to a kind of reality after Haber’s nightmare, but seriously out of kilter, with buildings, roads and so on half-built or built in two zones or clashing styles, starting and ending abruptly. As do people’s personal lives, and human history, which is now full of all sorts of inexplicable and nonsensical non-sequiturs – a kind of world of solidified chaos which has given rise to an epidemic of mental illness. Among whose victims is Haber, who is now confined to a mental home, silent, withdrawn, catatonic.

In this topsy-turvy world George has got a job in an antiques store, working for a detached, courteous ten-foot-tall, turtle-suited alien named E’nememen Asfah (now there’s the Ursula Le Guin I’m used to, with her silly made-up names).

George mourns for his lost wife, beautiful black Heather. Then one day he bumps into her in the shop being sold kitchenware by her boss. But she is not the same Heather. She is back to black (the grey world has gone) and is much harsher and harder than the grey woman who became his wife. She tells him she is married and his heart quietly breaks. She tells him her husband died in that war in the Middle East and his heart quietly soars.

She vaguely remembers meeting him once or twice at some doctors’ office; wasn’t he the guy who thought his dreams changed everything. Is he cured now? Yes, quite cured he say. And he invites her for a cup of coffee, both of them with a whole new unknown future to pay for.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

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
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 fastpaced 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 vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which 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 – 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
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 undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced 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 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
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
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

1980s
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
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 – 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 ganster 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 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 un

City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin (1967)

This was Le Guin’s third novel and, at 170 pages, is nearly twice as long as her first two – something which often happen as writers find their feet, their voice, and understand better how to develop plots, characters and themes. (For no particular reason I’m reminded of John Le Carré, whose first two books are brisk murder mysteries of about 150 pages apiece, but whose third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, was 250 pages long and a significant step up in terms of complexity and depth. Something similar happens here with Le Guin’s third book.)

Anyway, after the hectic feel of her first two science fantasy novels, in which incident follows incident at a breathless pace – in a way which feels carefully tailored for a pulp science fiction audience which expects a new alien around every corner – City of Illusions introduces the still colourful but slower and more thoughtful pace which was to characterize her work from then on.

In fact you can almost see the process happening before your eyes, since the novel falls into roughly two parts, the event-packed Journey and the more puzzling and thoughtful Arrival. If the Journey features a string of encounters with weird and wonderful folk and sometimes very violent – as in the previous narratives – it is really only a preface to the Arrival, when the hero has to find The Truth and struggle towards Self Knowledge – the kind of semi-mystical and psychologically searching theme which was to become more prominent in the later books.

Le Guin had already used the Journey as the structure of her first novel, Rocannon’s World (hero journeys south with loyal companions, encountering a variety of baddies and aliens who shed light on the strange new universe Le Guin has created) — and was to use it in arguably her two most famous novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (hero undertakes epic journey across glaciers, snowstorms, blizzards, and gains greater self-knowledge)
  • The Dispossessed (hero journeys from his egalitarian communist society to a high-pressure, capitalist society and gains greater self-knowledge)

Zove’s House

A man struggles to regain consciousness in a dark forest. He staggers out into a clearing and is taken in by the hippy family living there, in the House of Zove the patriarch. He stays five years. They name him Falk. They teach him their language (a version of the common tongue, Galaktika) and their peaceful, farming ways. He falls in love with Parth, the pretty hippy who was fifteen when she first saw him emerge from the forest. She likes to sit and weave cloth at a solar-powered loom. The young men teach him to hunt, using a lasergun. Oh, and Falk isn’t human. He is marked out from other humans by virtue of his yellow eyes which have no whites to them, like a cat’s eyes, a lynx’s eyes.

The pupil was large; the iris, of a grayed amber color, was oval lengthwise so that the white of the eye did not show at all. ‘Like a cat,’ said Garra.

Slowly, from various cunningly scattered details, we realise that:

  1. We are on earth
  2. Two or three thousand years in the future.
  3. What we think of as civilization is dead and gone. From a few casual references later in the book it is confirmed that we are in America (Falk meets the Lord of Kansas and there are two references to California, most of which is now a lake, the Great Earthquake having, apparently, sunk most of it into the sea).

Zove’s House is in the great Eastern Forest and that’s about all its inhabitants know. There are no roads. There are no villages or towns. There is no trade. They live in isolation on their farm carved out of the vast endless forest and nobody ever comes to see them and nobody ever leaves.

Zove’s House was a rambling, towering, intermitted chalet-castle-farmhouse of stone and timber; some parts of it had stood a century or so, some longer. There was a primitiveness to its aspect: dark staircases, stone hearths and cellars, bare floors of tile or wood. But nothing in it was unfinished; it was perfectly fireproof and weatherproof; and certain elements of its fabric and function were highly sophisticated devices or machines—the pleasant, yellowish fusion-lights, the libraries of music, words and images, various automatic tools or devices used in house-cleaning, cooking, washing, and farmwork, and some subtler and more specialized instruments kept in workrooms in the East Wing. All these things were part of the House, built into it or along with it, made in it or in another of the Forest Houses. The machinery was heavy and simple, easy to repair; only the knowledge behind its power-source was delicate and irreplaceable

We learn that the thin population and absence of towns or even villages is supposed to have come about due to THE SHING. At some point in the past, after earth had joined the interplanetary League of all the Worlds (which was mentioned in the previous two novels) there was a great catastrophe: the SHING invaded and conquered. The Shing look like humans, identical to humans, but they overthrew human civilization, bred humans to become docile and quiescent, oversaw the collapse of human culture, reduced humanity to scattered communities, prevented them from meeting, uniting, becoming a force. Instead the survivors live among the wreck of the old civilization, using only the limited smart tech permitted to them (like small scale laser guns and sun-powered looms) only occasionally glimpsing on the Shing’s aircars passing overhead, far up in the sky.

At least – and here’s the distinctive thing about the book – at least that’s what the hero is told. These are the ancient legends the inhabitants of Zove’s House tell him, and the people he meets on his journey tell him lots of other legends and rumours, with the result that he and the reader become pretty confused, Le Guin trying to create in the reader’s mind the sense of confusion and uncertainty which characterises her characters.

The Journey

After five years learning the language and ways of the peaceable Zove household, Falk’s difference becomes unbearable to him:

‘While I was studying with Ranya this past summer, she showed me how I differ from the human genetic norm. It’s only a twist or two of a helix… a very small difference. Like the difference between wei and o.’ Zove looked up with a smile at the reference to the Canon which fascinated Falk, but the younger man was not smiling. “However, I am unmistakably not human. So I may be a freak; or a mutant, accidental or intentionally produced; or an alien. I suppose most likely I am an unsuccessful genetic experiment, discarded by the experimenters… There’s no telling. I’d prefer to think I’m an alien, from some other world. It would mean that at least I’m not the only creature of my kind in the universe.’

Maybe he is a Raze, a human whose mind has been erased. Plagued by these endless doubts, Falk decides it is time to find out who he is. He will set out to the fabled city of Es Toch, supposed capital of the Shing. He has a scene with Zove, the patriarch of the house, who wisely tells him ‘it is time to move on’.

His friends Metock and Thurro pack a bag of provisions and give him a copy of the Canons (these – as in so many dystopias – are texts of the half-understood remnants of ancient religions: some have an Eastern mystical feel but there is also a Canon of Yahweh, which is clearly meant to be a relic of the Bible, since it references Adam and, much later, ‘through a glass darkly’, St Paul).

When we get to read snippets of any the ‘Canons’, they appear to be standard Eastern-style mysticism, designed to capture absence, to move the mind beyond striving and agency, into the quiet place beyond. The same Taoist vibe, a feel for alternative ways of – not even thinking, that is too instrumental – alternative ways of being a consciousness:

The way that can be gone
is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Then off Falk sets, walking west, and proceeds to have two kinds of experience: one is a series of Nature experiences which give Le Guin the opportunity of writing vivid descriptions of the unspoiled natural landscape – camping out under the stars, wandering through the dense virgin forest, fording streams or river, which are often very beautiful. She’s a country girl at heart and her love of nature, virgin untamed nature, comes over very strongly in many passages.

His days were all the same. Gray winter light; a wind blowing; forest-clad hills and valleys, long slopes, brush-hidden streams, swampy lowlands. Though badly overgrown the Hirand Road was easy to follow, for it led in long straight shafts or long easy curves, avoiding the bogs and the heights. In the hills Falk realized it followed the course of some great ancient highway, for its way had been cut right through the hills, and two thousand years had not effaced it wholly. But the trees grew on it and beside it and all about it, pine and hemlock, vast holly-thickets on the slopes, endless stands of beech, oak, hickory, alder, ash, elm, all overtopped and crowned by the lordly chestnuts only now losing their last dark-yellow leaves, dropping their fat brown burrs along the path. At night he cooked the squirrel or rabbit or wild hen he had bagged from among the infinity of little game that scurried and flitted here in the kingdom of the trees; he gathered beechnuts and walnuts, roasted the chestnuts on his campfire coals.

The other type of experience is the steady stream of Encounters Falk has with representative examples of Fallen Humanity, of the weirdness and sometimes terrifying violence, the resentment and suspicion and paranoia of the isolated communities he stumbles across.

EVERYBODY is convinced The Shing are out there, the Shing are the Fathers of Lies, nobody can trust anyone else – ‘Are you Shing?’ ‘No, are you Shing?’ – because the Shing move among us in human form, are indistinguishable from us, How do we know you’re not Shing? At some moments Falk even wonders if he himself is one of the Shing, let loose in some experiment which has gone wrong. He discusses it with Zove:

Thus Falk discovers how the Shing, although supposedly few in number, have sown suspicion and discord among all mankind (well, here in America at any rate), and this explains the extremely paranoid and sometimes super-violent reception he gets at various settlements scattered through the great Forest.

Encounters

Ransifel Metok and Thurro accompany him a few days in the direction of Ransifel, supposedly another house-commune like their a few days west. But Falk decides to strike off directly west.

Hirand After eleven days travelling through wilderness he comes to the abandoned ruins of a great house. The Forest really is more abandoned, humanity more sparse and scattered than he or we had realised.

Argerd’s house / The house of Fear Days later he comes to a pretty house in a loop of the river with lights in the windows and is approaching when he is shot. He comes to tied to a chair in a basement where he is beaten and interrogated, having been injected by truth serum, by two violent paranoid men, Argerd and Drehnem. They throw him in  pitch-black cellar where he becomes aware of mice scuttling around, mice which appear to be able to speak little tiny mice words. After a rough night sleeping on the dirt, he’s hauled out of the cellar and pushed on his way at laser-point by men who are, quite clearly, beside themselves with fear and paranoia.

Animals can speak Why? How? We’re never told. But Falk encounters a boar which stutters human speech to him. The mice in the House of Fear whisper to him. And he shoots a chicken which squawks the Law to him, Thou shalt not take life. This is weird and extra. It’s one of the class of details which I find unsettling all through Le Guin’s fiction.

The Listener After more miserable days travelling through unspoilt nature in wind and sleet, Falk comes to another isolated cabin. Turns out to be the isolated cabin of an old-timer who is a Listener, a mindhearer, an empath i.e. he can hear other people’s thoughts but can’t actively send thoughts. Various characters have the ability of mindspeech. They ‘bespeak’ one another. This had occurred in the earlier books and is a recurring feature of the stories set in the Hainish universe.

The old-timer is wise in an Old West kind of way, takes Falk in, dries and feeds him and discusses his quest, in an oblique, worldly-wise kind of way.

The slider The old timer gives Falk his slider, a kind of hover-scooter.

Falk knelt on the slider, an elegant little machine, black paristolis inlaid with a three-dimensional arabesque of platinum wire. The ornamentation all but concealed the controls, but he had played with a slider at Zove’s House, and after studying the control-arcs a minute he touched the left arc, moved his finger along it till the slider had silently risen about two feet, and then with the right arc sent the little craft slipping over the yard and the river-bank till it hovered above the scummy ice of the backwater below the cabin. He looked back then to call goodbye, but the old man had already gone into the cabin and shut the door. And as Falk steered his noiseless craft down the broad dark avenue of the river, the enormous silence closed in around him again.

Falk flies for days along the great river which seems to be heading West to Es Toch. At one point he flies past a yacht, a surreal encounter, crewed by a handful of happy singing people, utterly incongruous with the previous people we’d met, rough and violent settlers. They sing at him as he whizzes past that they are ‘men’ which sends a shiver through him, a shiver of fear. The odd way they use the phrase ‘men’… did it mean they were Shing? Le Guin is capable of great descriptive passages…

He liked the vast openness of sky and prairie, and found loneliness a pleasure with so immense a domain to be alone in. The weather was mild, a calm sunlit spell of late winter. Thinking back to the Forest he felt as if he had come out of stifling, secret darkness into light and air, as if the prairies were one enormous Clearing. Wild red cattle in herds of tens of thousands darkened the far plains like cloud-shadows. The ground was everywhere dark, but in places misted faintly with green where the first tiny double-leaved shoots of the hardiest grasses were opening; and above and below the ground was a constant scurrying and burrowing of little beasts, rabbits, badgers, coneys, mice, feral cats, moles, stripe-eyed arcturies, antelope, yellow yappers, the pests and pets of fallen civilizations. The huge sky whirred with wings. At dusk along the rivers flocks of white cranes settled, the water between the reeds and leafless cotton-woods mirroring their long legs and long uplifted wings.

But, personally, I find them nearly always undermined by an atmosphere of unease, nameless dread, fear and anxiety. Her books make me anxious. Two weeks of reading Ursula Le Guin has made me considerably more anxious and worried than I was before.

And, sure enough, one sunny day Falk is scooting happily along the river when out of nowhere some kind of guided missile appears as a thin sliver, then is upon him and BANG!

The Basnasska Falk wakes up in a teepee belonging to the Mzurra Society of the Basnasska, a tribe who live much like the old native Americans, only rougher and harsher. Somehow they’ve got their hands on a handful of pieces of tech including guided missiles which attack other new tech, hence them blowing up his slider with what we are later told is a bombird. Apart from that they are Stone Age savages. They give him a blood-christening, tattoo him and, at first, I thought they’d blinded him, that’s what the text says – but it eventually becomes clear that his eyes are only bandaged.

Strella

Falk is tended by a submissive woman names Strella and they forge a bond, despite her routinely being taken off to be ‘used’ by a different tribesman each night. After several disappointments they seize an opportunity to escape, Falk shooting a Basnasska dead with his laser gun, and they make off through blizzards in the depths of winter.

Le Guin has an affinity for winter, for intense, life-threatening journeys through blizzards – it’s just such a long gruelling trek that forms the core of The Left Hand of Darkness.

After stumbling through snowdrifts and nearly dying fording a freezing cold river, Strella brings them to a place she knows on the other bank, scooping down through the snow to find the hidden entrance to a vast underground cavern. Here in its mysterious depths, they light a fire and survive, huddling together for warmth and, inevitably, having sex. Falk is perplexed by Strella’s coldness and absence. She is utterly passive, secret, remote, self contained. She explains that she was travelling with a man who the Basnasska murdered, which sort of explains it. But for my part, it’s just another example of Le Guin’s characters’ fundamental coldness towards each other. There is no loving-kindness in Le Guin’s novels. I find them emotionally barren places to be.

Eventually, having rested & recovered, they re-emerge and set off on a huge trek across the Great Plains

The Bee-keepers They comes across this tribe – ‘literate and laser-armed, all clothed alike, men and women, in long shifts of yellow wintercloth marked with a brown cross on the breast, they were hospitable and uncommunicative’. But most people in Le Guin are profoundly uncommunicative.

They move on. They come across five or six settlements in three hundred miles. Sounds like North America is less populated than it was by the native Americans. Five days, six days, out into vast open plains. They comes across the detritus of long buried cities, pottery and plastic. Crossing a river Strella loses the little jade amulet she wore round her neck, and used to mutter prayers to all the time. Must have been fording the last river. She is inconsolable. She becomes sick and ill. In the barren plains there is no water. They both become weak then exhausted. She mutters in a language he does not know, briefly refers to him as Ramarren then Falk… Finally, in the last phases of exhaustion, they see the lights of a building.

The Master of the Kansas Enclave A classic post-apocalypse type, the big strong leader – Prince he calls himself – ‘an old, jetblack man seven feet tall with a face like a swordblade’ – of an isolated community.

‘This is the Kansas Enclave. I am its master. I am its lord, its Prince and God. I am in charge of what happens here. Here we play one of the great games. King of the Castle it’s called. The rules are very old, and are the only laws that bind me. I make the rest.’

He handles a patterning-frame.

All the top of the table, Falk now saw, was sunk several inches into a frame, and contained a network of gold and silver wires upon which beads were strung, so pierced that they could slip from wire to wire and, at certain points, from level to level. There were hundreds of beads, from the size of a baby’s fist to the size of an apple seed, made of clay and rock and wood and metal and bone and plastic and glass and amethyst, agate, topaz, turquoise, opal, amber, beryl, crystal, garnet, emerald, diamond.

Which sort of predicts the future. But nothing is ever clear in Le Guin, just as nothing is ever really clearly communicated, and nobody is ever really close, even when they’re making love. The Prince of Kansas strongly advises Falk to go on alone, to ditch Strella. When Fallk tells the Prince Strella is a Wanderer he bursts out laughing, ‘Yes and I am a fish!’ – but Falk thinks this stems from the misogyny and sexism of his colony (which of these isolated settlements does not treat its women like chattels? only Zove’s, right at the start.)

Besdio Days of walking, trekking. They arrive at Besdio a settlement of four houses. The people are reserved, distant, let them sleep in a cowshed. One of them has a replacement jade amulet he gives Strella to her delight. They lend them mules. They are in the foothills now of what are presumably the Rocky Mountains.


Falk and Strella arrive at Es Toch

Finally they arrive at foothills where there are more than scattered settlements, where there are rows of cabins, huts, paths which turns into tracks between dwellings, numbers of people passing to and fro. It is the outskirts of Es Toch, the City of Lies.

The City of the Lords of Earth was built on the two rims of a canyon, a tremendous cleft through the mountains, narrow, fantastic, its black walls striped with green plunging terrifically down half a mile to the silver tinsel strip of a river in the shadowy depths. On the very edges of the facing cliffs the towers of the city jutted up, hardly based on earth at all, linked across the chasm by delicate bridgespans. Towers, roadways and bridges ceased and the wall closed the city off again just before a vertiginous bend of the canyon. Helicopters with diaphanous vanes skimmed the abyss, and sliders flickered along the half-glimpsed streets and slender bridges. The sun, still not far above the massive peaks to eastward, seemed scarcely to cast shadows here; the great green towers shone as if translucent to the light.

Bewildered by number of people and sizes of buildings he has never seen before, Falk lets himself be guided towards a tall building and through its doors into a vast hall and then men are approaching from all sides and when he reaches for his laser he realises Strella has taken it, as the men close in and start beating him, the last thing he hears is something unprecedented… her mocking laugh!

When he regains consciousness (Le Guin characters are frequently regaining consciousness, puzzled and disorientated) he is hallucinating that he is a room made entirely of diaphanous, see-through surfaces in which invisible zips open and close to let people in or out. A short lordly man dressed in unisex clothes apparently named Kradgy and another who is… Strella! He overhears them discussing him as if he was an animal. The man asks Strella why it took her so long to bring him in. She describes how difficult it was to track him, how ‘they’ only dropped her a manfinder when she was deep in the Forest, how ‘he’ was already too close to the land of the Bansasska, how she had to join that tribe and pretend to be one of them… Falk hears how the jade amulet she muttered into was in fact some kind of radio which she used to keep in touch with her masters here.

She is, in other words, one of them, one of the Shing, an agent dropped to lure him and bring him to them.

Falk realises how stupid he’s been, how everyone from Zove to the Prince told him to travel alone and yet he was lured by her cause then by lust then by what he thought of as concern or love or some such. All the time he was being played.

In fact the True Lords as they call themselves treat Falk fantastically well. He has a luxury room to himself, servants bring him food and drink, he is up on the umpteenth floor of some skyscraper, when he is rested they take him to a tailor to be fitted with their type of clothes.

Then they introduce him to a youth of sixteen who introduces himself as Har Orry, son of Har Weden, and tells Falk that Falk’s real name is Agad Ramarren.

Agad Ramarren from Werel

If it was a shock to the reader to realise that Strella was a Shing agent all along, it genuinely turns the world on its head to learn that Falk is a ‘Kelshy’, a member of the Kelshak Nation from the planet Werel – the same planet Werel which is the setting for this book’s predecessor, Planet of Exile. So this book is linked with its predecessors! Is one of the Hainish cycle, part of the Hainish universe! The knowledge comes as a massive jolt to the reader’s sense of who, where and what.

Falk learns that Werel was settled by Terran colonists thousands of years ago, their knowledge level sank slowly, surrounded by the savage local tribes – until the great siege of the Gaal (the subject of Planet of Exile). But the two species interbred, led by the hero Alterra Agat – central character of Planet of Exile – and that began a slow rise again to civilisation and eventually the building of spaceships. And finally a crew of 12 or so were chosen to undertake the long space journey back to the home world of which so many millennia-old legends and myths were told – back to Terra, the home planet, aboard the spaceship Alterra.

One of the True Lords, Lord Abundibot, fills in the gaps in Orry’s story – on exiting near lightspeed warp drive as it approached earth, the entire crew blacked out and was attacked by Raiders, Bandits, who somehow patrol outer space. They had abducted a few of the ship’s crew when the Shing arrived, there was a firefight, the Bandits blew up the Alterra and one ship flew Ramarren down to the planet’s surface where his mind was razed, while another Bandit ship bearing Orry was captured.

Now he is kept docile and quiescent (as so many characters in Le Guin are) by means of a vape tube he sucks on and which contains some kind of tranquiliser, a parütha-tube. Falk learns that, ironically, he was the Navigator of the ship. Instead his mind was razed and he was abandoned in the deep forest to die, since even the Bandits cleave to the One Law, not to kill.

Slowly Falk/Ramarren is introduced to more of the lords and masters of Es Toch – Strella whose full name is Strella Siobelbel, Ken Kenyek. They are – as so many Le Guin characters – distant, cold and aloof, with no emotions: ‘they are like gods, cold and kind and wise – they hold themselves apart.’ They are natural telepaths, though Falk prefers to keep things at the spoken level. There aren’t many of them. They live widely scattered and confer in telepathic conferences, one of which Falk takes part in.

The lords now embark on a long campaign to persuade Falk/Ramarren that there was no Enemy. There was no war and no invasion of the League; what happened was natural organic disaffection and civil war among the planets of the League. They are not the Shing. There are no Shing.

‘We whom you know as Shing are men. We are Terrans, born on Earth of human stock, as was your ancestor Jacob Agat of the First Colony on Werel. Men have taught you what they believe about the history of Earth in the twelve centuries since the Colony on Werel was founded. Now we—men also —will teach you what we know:

‘No Enemy ever came from distant stars to attack the League of All Worlds. The League was destroyed by revolution, civil war, by its own corruption, militarism, despotism. On all the worlds there were revolts, rebellions, usurpations; from the Prime World came reprisals that scorched planets to black sand. No more lightspeed ships went out into so risky a future: only the FTLs, the missile-ships, the world-busters. Earth was not destroyed, but half its people were, its cities, its ships and ansibles, its records, its culture—all in two terrible years of civil war between the Loyalists and the Rebels, both armed with the unspeakable weapons developed by the League to fight an alien enemy.’

Can this be true? Is everything he ever learned at Zove’s House and everything everyone has told him on his long trek, is it all a lie? All rumour and paranoid fable? We’ve seen the low standard of the people he’s encountered, many little better than savages. Maybe they have got it all wrong.

Basically for the rest of the book, in conversations with Lord Abundibot and Orry, Falk – and the reader – are kept in a state of heightened confusion and uncertainty. Are they lying to him? Is young Orry telling the truth or is he a drugged pawn of the Shing? Are the lords really Terran humans or cunning Shing? (It’s only during lengthy conversations with Orry that Falk learns that Strella is not actually a Shing but one of the many human children sent to learn the ways of the City who become one of their servants.)

Mind restoration

Then they make the final mind-boggling revelation – that, despite his razing by the Rebels, Falk’s true Werel identity as Ramarren still exists in the deep basement of his brain. But that to revive it, the lords will have to remove, erase and obliterate the personality of Falk and everything he has experienced.

God, what a dilemma: should he submit to the operation in order to have his ‘true’ identity restored? Or is the entire thing a tissue of lies to get him agree to be razed and obliterated? A long chapter is devoted to Falks’ fears and counter-fears, arguments and counter-arguments. Eventually, with a heavy heart, he accedes. They have explained the procedure cannot be carried out unless he consents. He does consent. Falk is taken into the Operation Room with a bank of computers next to an operating table. Ken Kenyek starts applying electrodes to his head…

Then – he wakes up as Ramarren the Navigator from the planet Werel. The dramatic effect is striking. The reader awakens with Ramarren from a confused place. He is much more forceful and decisive than hesitating Falk. We see things through his eyes as he has explained to him what’s happened. From his perspective he remembers all the details of the spaceflight, he remembers all the preparations, the briefings, the goals of the expedition. Now he is puzzled as he awakes dazed and confused (as so many Le Guin characters awake dazed and confused) looking down to find his arms and hands not smooth and pale but thin, wasted, scarred and sunburnt from his long arduous trek.

A confusion not helped when the woman we know as Strella comes running into his room and tries to tell him he is Falk and is explaining what they experienced together when a lord strides in and mind blocks her with such ferocity that it makes Ramarren wince. The woman runs out weeping and Ramarren is now and permanently put on his guard. This is not the peaceful civilised home planet he had expected.

In two minds

As in the later books, what had been an external journey in part one now turns into a very densely and deeply imagined inner journey, as Ramarren falls prey to all kinds of doubts, despite the smooth blandishments of the lord and, late that night, in the wee small hours, undergoes a unique experience… he realises he is two persons!! The supposedly destroyed persona of Falk comes in waves back into his consciousness and he undergoes the sheer mortal terror of being two people at once!

As in The Left Hand of Darkness the external events and adventures are really a kind of hors d’oeuvre, designed to manoeuvre your mind into position, into such a weird alien place, that you will accept this mind-bending possibility – the possibility that a man may be two people at the same time. We experience the terror and vertigo that Falk/Ramarren experiences as he struggles through the night to manage the presence of two people inside his head.

The next day Ramarren spend pondering on the truth or falseness of the Shing. Lord Abundibot and Ken Kenyek both tell him there was no Enemy and they are humans in mindspeech and in mindspeech no-one is supposed to be able to lie. And yet Ramarren draws on Falk’s memories and all the things all the people he met told him, including that the Shing came from far away, from a start system beyond the Hyades, not many of them travelled that far, it didn’t take many to totally dominate mankind, to sow dissension, to breed out the winners and create a new breed of docile and fearful peasants scattered across the former populous continents.

If they are Shing, why are they being so fantastically considerate to him? Slowly it dawns on Ramarren that they don’t know where Werel is and they want to find out. They want to send Shing to Werel and destroy and enslave its population in turn. Probably. He speculates. At all costs he must not tell them.

And here the narrative uses a little gimmick which is the notion that some Code of Werel means that Ramarren himself cannot consciously admit Werel’s coordinates in space to anyone. That’s why they didn’t find it out when they had him unconscious on the operating table – they tried and failed and had to let him regain consciousness and find some other way to make him tell.

Another day of polite fencing ensue, with lord Abundibot and Kradgy and Ken Kenyek gently probing Ramarren in polite conversation. They tell him a spaceship is awaiting him at the spaceport to take him and Orry back to Werel. All they need is the co-ordinates, if he would be so kind as too… But he surprises them by telling them he can’t; his own programming forbids him from revealing the co-ordinates.

The following day the lords graciously take Orry and Ramarren on a guided tour of the grand city, in a flying aircar. This gives Le Guin the opportunity to invent all kinds of space age aspects of this dream city, while also giving us prolonged sequences of Ramarren’s ongoing agonising: is he right? Are they Shing? Or is the whole Shing thing a stone-age myth? I think we are meant to agree with him that they are Shing and have reduced and controlled humanity, because on several occasions we catch them lying, their interest in Werel’s location seems to confirm his paranoia, the way they treated Strella when she tried to get through to him, the way they are obviously keeping young Orry doped to the eyeballs…

Falk makes his escape

The novel ends very suddenly and abruptly. The day’s sightseeing is coming to a charming end after a day spent in a flying car which took them to see inhabitants of some islands off the coast who live a life of luxury and ease, sun, sand and sex. On the way back Ramarren feels a sudden shift or dislocation and realises that his guide, Ken Kenyek, has, after much patient probing, achieved complete mindgrip and mindlock with him. Everything is sweet and polite – ‘Isn’t that nice and comfortable now?’ – and Ken is settling in to carry out more questioning about the location of Werel, in fact Ken has narrowed the probable location down correctly to the sun Eltanin, in the Dragon constellation, but…

The Shing – if he is a Shing – doesn’t realise there are two people in Ramarren’s head – and while his entire mind is in phase with Ramarren’s, Falk appears, a complete stunning surprise, and staggers Ken’s mind. For that brief moment of helplessness, Ramarren strikes and counter-seizes Ken. Now he is a puppet.

Quickly Ramarren interrogates the powerless Shing and establishes there is a spaceport a few miles north of the city, with ships fuelled and waiting including the one scheduled to take him to Werel. Ramarren gets Orry to fly them there. The port and spaceships are hidden by a kind of screening device which hides everything but their shimmering outlines. These, Ramarren thinks, are the interstellar spaceships of the Shing (is he right?)

Ramarren gets Kenyek to explain the layout of the port (the control rooms are underground) and to lead him and the confused, dopy, dazed Orry to the underground control room where Ramarren a) stuns Kenyek using his own stun gun, and b) sets the co-ordinates of Werel (destroying the computer record afterwards). Here he – and the reader – receive final confirmation that the lords are indeed the Shing, because as he struggles to program the computer he discovers that:

Some of the processes the Shing used and built into their computers were entirely alien to Cetian mathematical process and logic; and nothing else could have so firmly persuaded Ramarren that the Shing were, indeed, alien to Earth, alien to all the old League worlds, conquerors from some very distant world. He had never been quite sure that Earth’s old histories and tales were correct on that point, but now he was convinced, and then up and into the spaceship assigned to fly to Werel. It is of course, ready and full of fuel and provisions.

It takes hours to run the program during which Falk’s part of his mind has time to reflect on his adventures, his encounters, all the things people told him, to wonder where Strella is now, and what she really is. Above all to reflect on the strange fate of the Shing.

He thought about Estrel, wondering where she was now and what she was now. Had they retrained her, razed her mind, killed her? No, they did not kill. They were afraid to kill and afraid to die, and called their fear Reverence for Life. The Shing, the Enemy, the Liars… Did they in truth lie? Perhaps that was not quite the way of it; perhaps the essence of their lying was a profound, irremediable lack of understanding. They could not get into touch with men. They had used that and profited by it, making it into a great weapon, the mindlie; but had it been worth their while, after all? Twelve centuries of lying, ever since they had first come here, exiles or pirates or empire-builders from some distant star, determined to rule over these races whose minds made no sense to them and whose flesh was to them forever sterile. Alone, isolated, deafmutes ruling deafmutes in a world of delusions…

Finally the computer spits out a little sliver of iridium which contains the programming information. With that safely in his hand he wipes all record of what he’s done and carries the paralysed Ken Kenyek, pulling dopy Ory along with him and up into the spaceship, slips the iridium into the onboard computer, straps Ken and himself in, assures Orry they are going home and presses the controls.

In a few years of their time they will cover the 140 light years distance to Werel and then he, Orry and Ken Kenyek will get to tell their story to the Werelites, and the truth, one way or the other, will out.


Thoughts

1. Altered states

From start to finish it’s a novel about fragmented and lost identities, about psychological damage and the nature of reality – so it reminded me all the way through of the novels of Philip K Dick and his abiding fascination with reality and dreams and alternate states of mind. Maybe it was something in the air or the water or the Kool-Aid of the 1960s which, after all, saw widespread experimenting with consciousness altering drugs, which many enthusiasts thought would provide a panacea to all human ills.

I wonder whether Le Guin ever experimented with mind-altering drugs, or was it a purely imaginative interest in alternative psychological states – it’s certainly a mighty strong theme and recurring subject matter in her fiction. Subsequent novels like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) testify to her enduring interest in really weird alternative modes of thinking and perceiving.

Commentators dwell on her interest in Eastern mysticism and the kind of Zen, detached mindsets it encourages – but from one angle that entire subject is really a sub-set of her much bigger, all-encompassing interest in alternative states of mind – for example, the importance of dreams and dreaming which is the (spooky) central subject of The Lathe of Heaven.

2. Harshness

There’s something harsh and unforgiving about Le Guin’s fiction.

On the face of it her environmentalism and her mysticism and her sympathy with underdog species (which she’s invented) ought to create a warm and sympathetic vibe. But it doesn’t.

It’s not just the way this story has no real resolution which makes it dissatisfying – it’s the whole series of hard-faced, sometimes brutal, sometimes just cold characters and incidents which feature all through the novel which put my hackles up, which created a barrier between her and me.

Take the relationship between Ramarran and the orphaned Har Orry. In another author’s hands this might have become a warm, avuncular relationship. They might have helped each other or comforted each other. But there is generally little comfort in Le Guin and so right to the last pages Orry is just a burden, possibly a trap, a drugged puppet telling lies.

People are killed off very casually. There’s something upsetting about the way Ramarren knows he’ll never see again beautiful Parth, his partner at the House of Zove, or is so totally betrayed by Strella whose life he helped to save. And I am still reeling from the way Estraven, the character we had spent so much time and effort getting to know, is simply shot dead at the end of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Plenty of American fiction is cold and brutal, like the entire genre of the detective story. But at least those kinds of stories have a glamour and a mystique. There is no glamour here. Everyone betrays everyone else. Humanity is humiliated. I finish each of these Le Guin novels feeling progressively more battered and hurt. Something genuinely strange happens while reading her fiction. But it’s not a pleasant experience.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

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
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 fastpaced 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 vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which 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 – 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
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 undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced 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 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
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
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

1980s
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
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 – 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 ganster 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 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 under control

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen @ the Barbican

Listen up! Listen up! American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen has big news for everyone! He is here to tell us that artificial intelligence may not be a totally wonderful, life-enhancing, fair and just invention after all! Here he is to explain.

AI networks

Trev takes as his starting point the way Artificial Intelligence networks are taught how to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘perceive’ the world by engineers who feed them vast ‘training sets’.

Standard ‘training sets’ consist of images, video and sound libraries that depict objects, faces, facial expressions, gestures, actions, speech commands, eye movements and more. The point is that the way these objects are categorised, labelled and interpreted are not value-free; in other words, the human categorisers have to bring in all kinds of subjective and value judgements – and that this subjective element can lead to all kinds of wonky outcomes.

Thus Trev wants to point out that the ongoing development of artificial intelligence is rife with hidden prejudices, biases, stereotypes and just wrong assumptions. And that this process starts (in some iterations) with the scanning of vast reservoirs of images. Such as the one he’s created here.

Machine-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from facial-recognition systems conducting automated biometric surveillance at airports to department stores intercepting customers’ mobile phone pings to create intricate maps of movements through the aisles. But all this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us; they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.

From apple to anomaly

So where’s the work of art?

Well, the Curve is the long tall curving exhibition space at the Barbican which is so uniquely shaped that the curators commission works of art specifically for its shape and structure.

For his Curve work Trev has had the bright idea of plastering the long curving wall with 35,000 (!) individually printed photographs pinned in a complex mosaic of images along the immense length of the curve. It has an awesome impact. That’s a lot of photos.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

As the core of his research & preparation, Trev spent some time at ImageNet. This is one of the most widely shared, publicly available collection of images out there – and it is also used to train artificial intelligence networks. It’s available online, so you can have a go searching its huge image bank:

Apparently, ImageNet contains more than fourteen-million images organised into more than 21,000 categories or ‘classes’.

In most cases, the connotations of image categories and names are uncontroversial i.e. a ‘strawberry’ or ‘orange’ but many others are ambiguous and/or a question of judgement  – such as ‘debtors’, ‘alcoholics’ and ‘bad people’.

As the old computer programming cliché has it: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If artificial intelligence programs are being taught to teach themselves based on highly questionable and subjective premises, we shouldn’t be surprised if they start developing all kinds of errors, extrapolating and exaggerating all kinds of initial biases into wild stereotypes and misjudgements.

So the purpose of From Apple to Anomaly is to ‘questions the content of the images which are chosen for machine learning’. These are just some of the kinds of images which researchers are currently using to teach machines about ‘the world’.

Conceptually, it seemed to me that the work doesn’t really go much further than that.

It has a structure of sorts which is that, when you enter, the first images are of the uncontroversial ‘factual’ type – specifically, the first images you come to are of the simple concept ‘apple’.

Nothing can go wrong with images of an apple, right? Then as you walk along it, the mosaic of images widens like a funnel with a steady increase of other categories of all sorts, until the entire wall is covered and you are being bombarded by images arranged according to (what looks like) a fairly random collection of themes. (The themes are identified by black cards with clear white text, as in ‘apple’ below, which are placed at the centre of each cluster of images.)

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Having read the blurb about the way words, and AI interpretation of words, becomes increasingly problematic as the words become increasingly abstract, I expected that the concepts would start simple and become increasingly vague. But the work is not, in fact like that – it’s much more random, so that quite specific categories – like paleontologist’ – can be found at the end while quite vague ones crop up very early on.

There was a big cluster of images around the word pizza. These looked revolting, but it was getting close to lunchtime and I found myself mysteriously attracted to the 40 or 50 images which showed fifty or so depictions of ‘ham and eggs’. Mmmm. Ham and eggs, yummy.

Conclusions

Most people are aware that Facebook harvests their data, just like Google and all the other big computer giants, twitter, Instagram blah blah. The disappointing reality for deep thinkers like Trev is that most people, quite obviously, don’t care. As long as they can instant message their mates or post photos of their cats for the world to see, most people don’t appear to give a monkeys what these huge American corporations do with the incalculably vast tracts of date they harvest and hold about us.

I think the same is true of artificial intelligence. Most people don’t care because they don’t think it affects them now or is likely to affect them in the future. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. When I read articles about artificial intelligence, particularly articles about the possible stereotyping of women and blacks i.e. the usual victims

1. American bias The books are written by Americans and feature examples from America. And when you dig deep you tend to find that AI, insofar as it is applied in the real world, tends to exacerbate inequalities and prejudices which already exist. In America. The examples about America’s treatment of its black citizens, or the poor, or the potentially dreadful implications of computerised programmes on healthcare, specifically for the poor – all these examples tend to be taken from America, which is a deeply and distinctively screwed-up country. My point is a lot of the scarifying about AI turns out, on investigation, really to reflect the scary nature of American society, its gross injustices and inequalities.

2. Britain is not America Britain is a different country, with different values, run in different ways. I take the London Underground or sometimes the overground train service every day. Every day I see the chaos and confusion as large-scale systems fail at any number of pressure points. The idea that learning machines are going to make any difference to the basic mismanagement and bad running of most of our organisations seems to me laughable. From time to time I see headlines about self-driving or driverless cars, sometimes taken as an example of artificial intelligence. OK. At what date in the future would you say that the majority of London’s traffic will be driverless cars, lorries, taxis, buses and Deliveroo scooters? In ten years? Twenty years?

3. The triviality of much AI There’s also a problem with the triviality of much AI research. After visiting the exhibition I read a few articles about AI and quickly got bored of reading how supercomputers can now beat grand chessmasters or world champions at the complex game of Go. I can hardly think of anything more irrelevant to the real world. Last year the Barbican itself hosted an exhibition about AI – AI: More Than Human – but the net result of the scores of exhibits and interactive doo-dahs was how trivial and pointless most of them were.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

4. No machine will ever ‘think’ And this brings us to the core of the case against AI, which is that it’s impossible. Creating any kind of computer programme which ‘thinks’ like a human is, quite obviously impossible. This is because people don’t actually ‘think’ in any narrowly definable sense of the word. People reach decisions, or just do things, based on thousands of cumulated impulses and experiences, unique to each individual, and so complicated and, in general, so irrational, that no programs or models can ever capture it. The long detailed Wikipedia article about artificial intelligence includes this:

Moravec’s paradox generalizes that low-level sensorimotor skills that humans take for granted are, counterintuitively, difficult to program into a robot; the paradox is named after Hans Moravec, who stated in 1988 that ‘it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility’.

Intelligence tests, chess, Go – tasks with finite rules of the kinds computer programmers understand – relatively easy to programme. The infinitely complex billions of interactions which characterise human behaviour – impossible.

5. People are irrational I’ve been studying art and literature and history for 40 years or so and if there’s one thing that comes over it is how irrational, perverse, weird and unpredictable people can be, as individuals and in crowds (because the behaviour of people is the subject matter of novels, plays, poems and countless art works; the really profound, bottomless irrationality of human beings is – arguably – the subject matter of the arts).

People smoke and drink and get addicted to drugs (and computer games and smart phones), people follow charismatic leaders like Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic or Donald Trump. People, in other words, are semi-rational animals first and only a long long way afterwards, rational, thinking beings and even then, only rational in limited ways, around specific goals set by their life experiences or jobs or current situations.

Hardly any of this can be factored into any computer program. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation, and what I see every day, repeatedly, throughout the day, is what I’ve seen in all my other jobs in IT and websites and data, which is that the ‘users’, damn their eyes, keep coming up with queer and unpredicted ways of using the system which none of the program managers and project managers and designers and programmers had anticipated.

People keep outwitting and outflanking the computer systems because that’s what people do, not because any individual person is particularly clever but because, taken as a whole, people here, there and across the range, stumble across flaws, errors, glitches, bugs, unexpected combinations, don’t do what ultra-rational computer scientists and data analysts expect them to, Dammit!

6. It doesn’t work The most obvious thing about tech, is that it’s always breaking. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation. This means being on the receiving end of a never-ending tide of complaints and queries about why this, that or the other functionality has broken. Same was true of all the other website jobs I’ve had. The biggest eye-opener for me working in this sector was to learn that things are always broken; there are always bugs and glitches and sometimes quite large structural problems, all of which have to be ranked and prioritised and then we get round to fixing them when we have a) developer time b) budget.

As a tiny confirmation, I have been trying to access Imagenet, the online image bank at the core of this work of art, and guess what? For two days in a row it hasn’t been working, I’ve got the message: ImageNet is under maintenance. Only ILSVRC synsets are included in the search results. Exactly. QED.

7. Big government, dumb data I worked for UK government departments and big government agencies for eight years and my tkeaway from the experience is that it isn’t artificial intelligence we should be frightened of – it is human stupidity.

Working inside the civil service was a terrifying insight into how naturally people in groups fall into a kind of bureaucratic mindset, setting up meetings and committees with minutes and notes and spreadsheets and presentations and how, slowly but steadily, the ability to change anything or get anything is strangled to death. No amount of prejudicing or stereotyping in, to take the anti-AI campaigners’ biggest worries, image recognition, will ever compete with the straightforward bad, dumb, badly thought out, terribly implemented and often cack-handedly horrible decisions which governments and their bureaucracies take.

Take Theresa May’s campaign of sending vans round the UK telling unwanted migrants to go home. Or the vast IT catastrophe which is Universal Credit. For me, any remote and highly speculative threat about the possibility that some AI programs may or may not be compromised by partial judgements and bias is dwarfed by the bad judgements and stereotyping which characterise our society and, in particular our governments, in the present, in the here-and-now.

8. Destroying the world Following this line of thought to its conclusion, it isn’t artificial intelligence which is opening a new coal-fired power stations every two weeks, and building a 100 new airports and manufacturing 75 million new cars and burning down tracts of the rainforest the size of Belgium every year. The meaningful application of artificial intelligence is decades away, whereas good-old-fashioned human stupidity is destroying the world here and now in front of our eyes, and nobody cares very much.

Summary

So. I liked this piece not because of the supposed warning it makes about artificial intelligence – and the obvious criticism or comment about From apple to anomaly is that, apart from a few paragraphs on one wall label, it doesn’t really give you very much background information to get your teeth into or ponder — no, I liked it because:

  1. it is huge and awesome and an impressive thing to walk along – so American! so big!
  2. and because its stomach-churning glut of imagery is testimony to the vast, unstoppable, planet-wasting machine which is humanity

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award 2019

This is an exhibition of the 55 or so portrait photos which were shortlisted for this year’s Taylor Wessing photographic portrait exhibition.

The organisers received 3,700 photographic portraits from 1,611 photographers in seventy countries around the world, whittled it down to these 55, and then, a month ago, the first, second and third prize winners were announced.

As usual, there’s a large number of good, and some exceptional, photographic portraits. As usual, I have some familiar gripes, namely:

1. American cultural dominance

Why are so many – 25 of the show’s 55 photos, nearly half the total – from America? And not just from America, but specifically New York?

1. Take the series of young black women snapped on the streets of Brooklyn by Amy Touchette. Apparently Amy moved to the neighbourhood in 2015, and took to walking the same route every day in the same clothes to get to know the area, and slowly uncovering the relationships among the large Afro-American community. Fair enough. But there are other cities in the world beside New York.

Keilah and Snaquana by Amy Touchette, from the series Personal Ties: Portraits of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 2018 © Amy Touchette

2. Each year the exhibition includes In Focus display of works by a featured photographer, and this year this consists of seven photos by Ethan James Green. To paraphrase the blurb:

Green’s first monograph ‘Young New York’ was published by Aperture in March 2019. These striking black and white portraits were made between 2014-2018, focusing on the artist’s friends and community, many taken in Corlears Red Hook Park on the Lower East Side. His new series of portraits sees him continue to work with his own generation this time photographing couples. Green mixes personal projects with work as a high profile fashion photographer working for magazines including Arena Homme +, i-D, LOVE, Self Service, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Vogue Homme, Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, Wand WSJ. Magazine.

His work looks like this:

Nico and Dara by Ethan James Green, 2019 © Ethan James Green

And you can see a gallery of all eight of the features photos here:

I’m afraid I got a bit grumpy about this. I feel like I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of photos just like this, photos of fashionably thin, fashionably multiracial and fashionably street yoof. All these photos need is the GAP or FCUK logo at the bottom and they could be appearing on any hoarding anywhere in the Western world. I feel that, yet again, I am being sold an American product.

By contrast there were no photos at all from China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria – to list the half dozen most populous countries in the world. Presumably this is because photographers in those countries just haven’t heard of this competition, but it feels like a big gap for a prize which claims to be global in scope.

Imagine how interesting it would have been to have had an In Focus slot for a Chinese photographer who’d been snapping the protesters old and young in Hong Kong! Or faces from famine-stricken Zimbabwe, or from collapsing Venezuela, or from the riots in Iran, or…

But no. Instead – yet another fashionable New York photographer shooting New York’s fashionably diverse, fashionably thin, fashionable street people, in between doing spreads for oh-so-fashionable Vanity Fair and Vogue

2. Gender and sexuality

Second big beef was about the disproportionate attention paid to every modern gallery curator’s favourite subject – gender and sexuality. The aforementioned New Yorker Ethan James Green turns out, with staggering unoriginality, to be interested in ‘gender and sexuality’, but the exhibition also includes:

– Seamus Ryan’s portrait of Captain Hannah Graf, the highest-serving transgender woman serving in the British Army

– the Australian Tristan Still’s photo of a transgender person named Raynen who refers to themselves as ‘they’

– Reme Campos’s series Portraits of Transgender Teenagers

– Dominick Sheldon’s series dealing with gender and identity. British-born Sheldon (b.1984) took these portraits over several days as part of a series ‘dealing with gender and personal constructs of identity’ in the hijra communities of New Delhi. Hijra has particular cultural overtones and is used to describe gender identities – including transgender. Sheldon (big sigh) now lives in New York.

Nodi by Dominick Sheldon, from the series New Delhi, 2019 © Dominick Sheldon

Not a million miles away from the series made by Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) documenting ‘the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai’ which I saw at the Science Museum in February of last year.

I suppose this photo is from India. But why did it have to be taken by a Brit? Once upon a time we sent our imperial administrators to run India. Now we send our photographers to document their sexual outsiders.

3. Ethnic Minorities

Alongside gender, race and ethnicity is the other obvious, predictable and inevitable ‘issue’ much beloved of art curators – race and ethnicity. Thus the exhibition includes several series concerned with blacks – or People of Colour or Afro-Americans, such as the Amy Touchette series, above.

There’s also a rather touching series by American (of course) photographer Rory Doyle (b.1983) of African-American cowboys. Doyle moved to Mississippi in 2009 and came across the cowboys (and, presumably, cowgirls and cowpersons) who’d followed that lifestyle for generations. After all, up to a quarter of the people who worked in the Old West were black (person of colour, African-American), and his series depicting the community also won the Sony World Photography Awards. Good to see it go to an American.

Young Riders by Rory Doyle, from the series Delta Hill Riders, 2018 © Rory Doyle

Back in the sub-continent, there was a series by Jook Oosterhof (Dutch, based in Amsterdam) who was commissioned by a magazine to go and photograph child brides in Bangladesh, where a high proportion of girls are married before they’re 18, and a significant number before they’re 15. The series was made in co-operation with a Dutch charity called Girls Not Brides. There were five photos from the series. The idea is that the girls are veiled a) to hide their identities b) to symbolise the way they are muted and muzzled in a patriarchal society.

Jesmin, 16 years by Jouk Oosterhof, from the series Invisible, In Focus: Child Brides in Bangladesh, 2018 © Jouk Oosterhof

As with Dominick Sheldon going to New Delhi I wondered why rich white Europeans have to go and help people in developing countries.

Other themes

Stepping away from my grumpiness about American cultural domination and modern art’s obsession with gender and race, a number of other themes do emerge and are represented in the exhibition.

Poverty

Having been an old-style socialist, I tend to think that poverty, lack of work or money or food, the way so many people are on zero hours jobs, or work for minimum pay or need to have two or even three jobs to make ends meet, or the way visits to food banks have tripled in the last three years, for me, the spread of poverty is a much more pressing issue than gender fluidity.

Anyway, this explains why I heartily endorsed the fact that First Prize in the competition was awarded to Pat Martin for two works from his portrait series of his late mother, Goldie (Mother). These pictures capture the authentic look of the fat, ugly, uneducated, troubled, working class poor who you rarely see represented in any medium, but which I see all round me every day in the streets of inner-city Streatham or toxic Harlseden.

Gail and Beaux by Pat Martin, from the series Goldie (Mother), 2018 © Pat Martin

Martin is (inevitably) American (big sigh), from Los Angeles which makes a change, I suppose, from New York.

For him, the series represented a way of trying to engage with a mother who had many issues, not least substance abuse. It is, in other words, a deeply personal project. But for those of us who don’t know him or his mum, they are just more images bobbing along the vast tide of imagery we are bombarded with every day. But they stick out because a) the subject matter is so rarely seen b) they are genuinely well composed and shot portraits.

The Eccentric

Martin Parr has revived the appetite for the quirks and peculiarities of English life and this photo – standing by itself, maybe because it didn’t have enough gender or race in it – is very much in the Martin Parr tradition – very brightly coloured, hyper-real and BIG photos of rather nostalgic locations or activities. In this instance the Hubbock family snapped in their Ford Cortina, taken by Garrod Kirkwood at Whitley Bay in England (not America).

The Hubbucks by Garrod Kirkwood, from the series England, 2018 © Garrod Kirkwood

Outsiders

If you go to galleries as regularly as I do, you get used to gallery curators thinking about ‘outsiders’ in the very narrow and over-familiar terms of LGBT+ or transgender people, or ethnic minorities.

It was a refreshing change to see images of genuinely under-represented outsiders – in this case, people with Down’s Syndrome. One in every 1000 babies born in the UK will have Down’s syndrome and there are approximately 40,000 people in the UK with the condition. As far as I could tell there were not one but two series depicting Downs Syndrome people in the show, one titled Meeting Sofie by Snezhana von Büdingen, and another set of three photos from The Rite by Evelyn Natalia Bencicova. She looks happy. The pictures made me happy, reminded me of a very vivacious woman with Down’s Syndrome who I danced the night away with at my best friend’s wedding many years ago.

Ellie by Evelyn Natalia Bencicova, from the series The Rite, 2019 © Evelyn Natalia Bencicova

Striking

Head and shoulders the most striking image in the exhibition, and so no surprise that it’s been used for much of the publicity, is this luminous portrait of her mother, Eha, by Sirli Raitma (b.1975) in Estonia. She began the series, dressing her mother in different outfits, arranging striking poses, as a way of distracting her from her late-life depression.

Eha (04) by Sirli Raitma, from the series Eha: Portraits of my mother, 2019 © Sirli Raitma

Old age

And that brings me to the last theme I’d like to highlight, which was that – balancing the large number of teenagers on the streets of New York (or, in Los Angeles in Shaq by Aline Simpson, or the streets of Dakar by Jermaine Francis from Birmingham) – balancing the teenage cool of a lot of the images, was an equal number of images of old age.

Raitma’s are probably the most striking, composed and beautiful – but there were other studies, more troubled and pensive, by the likes of:

  • Enda Bowe – Ron, a knackered old man lying back in an armchair
  • the grey-haired couple Mordechai and Aryeh by Oded Wagenstein
  • a confused-looking white-haired old man on the street by Alex Llopis Cardona
  • a glimpse of an old, old lady through a half-open door by Piotr Karpinski
  • a very old, very sick old person lying in what looks like a hospital bed by Maria Konstanse Bruun
  • a photo of an old Australian geezer who broke his neck falling down the stairs by Chris Hoare

Or this lady, who looks a little out on the edge, Mara, as photographed by Kovi Konowiecki (b.1992) whose series, Driftwood was shot in and around Riverside County, California. America. Obvz.

Mara by Kovi Konowiecki from the series Driftwood, 2019 © Kovi Konowiecki

Most of the images seemed to me to be of teenagers or the elderly, which is odd as the average age in the UK is 40 and the USA 38. Maybe street kids are just very available and very photogenic – and the elderly often fall into the category of the artist’s own parents, or are accessible in care homes and hospitals.

Whereas the age groups in between, everyone from 30 to 60, young- and middle-aged parents, are just too busy holding down a job and looking after the kids, to find the time to be photographed. Maybe that explains their slightly uncanny absence from this selection of images, and the exhibition’s tendency to over-represent the poles of youth and age.

Making connections

Anyway, 55 excellent photographic portraits + the eight In Focus ones by Ethan James Green. A body of work picked almost at random, but which – as indicated – I, for one, immediately began to see themes and connections in.

I dare say other visitors might find themes and threads which I didn’t pick up on. One of the pleasures of any exhibition is dillying and dallying, making up your itinerary and having your own thoughts. Exhibitions are, after all, meant to be enjoyable as well as educational, fun as well as yet another channel for being bombarded by socially-approved messages about Diversity and Inclusion.

So other visitors might not notice the American domination or the gender and sexuality themes, and focus on something completely different. Or may just be struck by a few individual pieces here and there, since each photo is accompanied by thorough wall labels describing the photographer and their work and the issues or ideas they’re addressing.

So maybe others will respond to the project by Chris Hoare who, inspired by the old cliché describing Australia as ‘The Lucky Country’ set out to find and photograph people who had experienced extremes of either good or bad luck (such as the man who broke his neck falling downstairs).

Or the photos of  laughing or earnestly posing schoolboys taken by Vikram Kushwah in his native India. or the young Sumo wrestler training in the Terelj National Park shot by Catherine Hyland (another Brit journeying to far-off locations).

Go, and make your own mind up.


Related links

Just some recent exhibitions featuring transgender people

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. In Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chardwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their emotive titles (this one is titled Slavery! Slavery!) the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

Can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces etc incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see it during the 32nd Black October Month. Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed to me very patronising.

In fact gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence explaining that London was the capital of the British Empire… It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have a poor knowledge of British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder? If anything.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually unexpected and upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among

To reduce, in other words, an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new orthodoxy to which we would be wise to subscribe. My argument is, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms? In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For a hundred and fifty years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and which spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India or the Far East.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves to create the profits which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique qualities of European capitalism which had perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then to subjugate less advanced nations, which would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World, 1914 – 42
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Indians, and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was (after the British gave up in 1783), set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This remind me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209). America gave the Europeans an entirely new understanding of human Time. Because here they encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development. In fact, maybe societies evolve and change and develop.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting how societies progressed from the x age to the y age and then on to the z age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

And once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere definitely lower or backward on these paths or stages of development. And being at the top of the tree, why naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of then European empires, there is this huge difference between the 18th century and the 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to complete collapse in the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

After all the Scramble happened very quickly – unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as it’s always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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