Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


Related links

Other reviews of late antiquity

Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (2013)

The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology. (p.204)

Who is Craig Venter?

The quickest way of getting the measure of this hugely clever, ambitious and visionary man is to quote his Wikipedia entry:

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biTotechnologist, biochemist, geneticist, and businessman. He is known for leading the first draft sequence of the human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where he currently serves as CEO. He was the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc. and Synthetic Genomics. He was listed on Time magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 2010, the British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of ‘The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010’. He is a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board.

So he’s a heavy hitter, invited to Bill Clinton’s White House to announce his team’s successful sequencing of the first human genome on 2000, founder of a thriving biochem business, a number of charities, pioneer of genomics (‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes’) and mapper of an ambitious future for the new science of synthetic biology.

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

Life At The Speed of Light was published in 2013. It originated as a set of lectures. As he explains in the introduction, in 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had fled the Continent and settled in Ireland. He was invited by the Taoiseach of the time to give some public lectures and chose the topic of life, the biology and physics of life. These are the lectures which were then published in the little book What Is Life? (1944) which inspired generations of young people to take up science (in his memoir The Double Helix James Watson describes how the book inspired him; Addy Pross named his book about the origins of life What Is Life? as a direct tribute).

Well, 49 years later Venter was invited by the Taoiseach of the day to deliver a new set of lectures, addressing the same question as Schrödinger, but in doing so, making clear the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and genetics which had been made in that half-century.

Twelve chapters

The 12 chapters are titled:

  1. Dublin, 1943-2012
  2. Chemical synthesis as proof
  3. Dawn of the digital age of biology
  4. Digitizing life
  5. Synthetic Phi X 174
  6. First synthetic genome
  7. Converting one species into another
  8. Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome
  9. Inside a synthetic cell
  10. Life by design
  11. Biological transportation
  12. Life at the speed of light

Each chapter contains a formidable amount of state-of-the-art biochemical knowledge. The first few chapters recap relevant forebears who helped figure out that DNA was the vehicle of heredity, beginning right back at the start with Aristotle who made the primal division of living things into animal, vegetable or mineral, and namechecking other pioneers such as Robert Hook and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Biochemistry

But the real thrust of the book is to get up to date with contemporary achievements in sequencing genomes and creating transgenic entities i.e. organisms which have had the DNA of completely separate organisms stitched into them.

In order to do this Venter, of course, has to describe the molecular mechanisms of life in great detail. Successive chapters go way beyond the simplistic understanding of DNA described in Watson’s book, and open up for the reader the fantastical fairyland of how DNA actually works. He explains the central role of the ribosomes which are the factories where protein synthesis takes place (typical cells contain about a thousand ribosomes), and the role of messenger RNA in cutting off snippets of DNA and taking them to the ribosome. This is where transfer RNA (tRNA) then brings along amino acids which are intricately assembled according to the sequence of bases found on the original DNA. Combinations of the twenty amino acids are assembled into the proteins which all life forms are made of, from the proteins which make up the cell membrane, to collagen which accounts for a quarter of all the proteins found in vertebrate animals, or elastin, the basis of lung and artery walls, and so on.

I found all this mind-boggling, but the most striking single thing I learned is how fast it happens and that it needs to happen so unrelentingly.

Fast

Venter explains that protein synthesis requires only seconds to make chains of a hundred amino acids or more. Nowadays we understand the mechanism whereby the ribosome is able to ratchet RNAs laden with amino acids along its production lines at a rate of fifteen per second! Proteins need to ‘fold’ up into the correct shape – there are literally millions of possible shapes they can assume but they only function if folded correctly. This happens as soon as they’ve been manufactured inside the ribosome and takes place in a few thousandths of a second. The protein villin takes six millionths of a second to fold correctly.

I had no idea that some of the proteins required for life to function (i.e. for cells to maintain themselves) exist for as little as forty-five minutes before they decay and cease to work. Their components are then disassembled and returned to the hectic soup which is contained inside each cell membrane, before being picked up by passing tRNA and taken along to the ribosome to be packaged up into useful protein again.

Relentless

It is the absolutely relentless pressure to produce thousands of different proteins, on a continuous basis, never faltering, never resting, which makes the mechanisms of life so needy of resources, and explains why animals need to be constantly taking in nutrition from the environment, relentlessly eating, drinking, breaking food down into its elementary constituents and excreting waste products.

After a while the book began to make me feel scared by the awesome knowledge of what is required to keep ‘me’ going all day long. Just the sheer effort, the vast amount of biochemical activity going on in every one of the forty or so trillion cells which make up my body, gave me a sense of vertigo.

Every day, five hundred billion blood cells die in an individual human. it is also estimated that half our cells die during normal organ development. We all shed about five hundred million skin cells every day. As a result you shed your entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks. (p.57 – my italics)

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

In an hour or even less a bacterial cell has to remake all of its proteins or perish. (p.62)

Venter’s achievements

Having processed through the distinguished forebears and pioneers of biochemistry, Venter comes increasingly to the work which he’s been responsible for. First of all he explains the process behind the sequencing of the first human genome – explaining how he and his team devised a vastly faster method of sequencing than their rivals (and the controversy this aroused). Then he goes on to explain how he led teams which looked into splicing one organism’s DNA into another. And then explains the challenge of going to the next phase, and creating life forms from the DNA up.

In fact the core of the book is a series of chapters which describe in minute and, some might say, quite tedious detail, the precise strategies and methodologies Venter and his teams took in the decade or so from 2000 to 2010 to, as he summarises it:

  • synthesise DNA at a scale twenty times faster than previously possible
  • develop a methodology to transplant a genome from one species to another
  • solve the DNA-modification problems of restriction enzymes destroying transplanted DNA

Successive chapters take you into actual meetings where he and colleagues discuss how to tackle the whole series of technical problems they faced, and explain in exquisite detail precisely the techniques they developed at each step of the way. He even includes work emails describing key findings or turning points, and texts he exchanged with colleagues (pp.171-2).

After reading about a hundred of pages of this my mind began to glaze over and I skipped paragraphs and then pages which describe such minutiae as how he decided which members of the Institute to put in charge of which aspects of the project and why – in order to get to the actual outcomes. These have been dramatic:

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as ‘synthetic life’. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell … The single-celled organism contains four ‘watermarks’ written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

    • a code table for entire alphabet, with punctuations
    • the names of 46 contributing scientists
    • three quotations
    • the secret email address for the cell.

Venter gives a detailed description of the technical challenges, and the innovations his team devised to overcome then, in the quest to create the first ever synthesised life form in chapter 8, ‘Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome’. More recently, after the timescale of this book although the book describes this as one of his goals:

On March 25, 2016 Venter reported the creation of Syn 3.0, a synthetic genome having the fewest genes of any freely living organism (473 genes). Their aim was to strip away all nonessential genes, leaving only the minimal set necessary to support life. This stripped-down, fast reproducing cell is expected to be a valuable tool for researchers in the field. (Wikipedia)

The international nature of modern science

One notable aspect of the text is the amount of effort he puts into crediting other people’s work. When Watson wrote his book he could talk about individual contributors like Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, Oswald Avery, Erwin Chergaff or Rosalind Franklin.

One of the many things that has changed since Watson’s day is the way science is now done by large teams, and often collaborations not only between labs, but between labs around the world. Thus at every step of his explanations Venter is very careful indeed to give credit to each new insight and discovery which fed into his own team’s work, and to namecheck all the relevant scientists involved. It was to be expected that each page would be studded with the names of biochemical processes and substances, but just as significant, just as indicative of the science of our times, is the way each page is also freighted with lists of names – and also, reading them carefully, just how ethnically mixed the names are – Chinese, Indian, French, German, Spanish – names from all around the world. Without anyone having to explain it, just page after page of the names alone convey what a cosmopolitan and international concern modern science is.

A simplified timeline

Although Venter spends some time recapping the steady progress of biology and chemistry into the 20th century and up to Watson and Crick’s discovery, his book really makes clear that the elucidation of DNA was only the beginning of an explosion of research into genetics, such that genetics – and the handling of genetic information – are now at the centre of biology.

1944 Oswald Avery discovered that DNA, not protein, was the carrier of genetic information
1949 Fred Sanger determined the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin

1950 Erwin Chargaff made the discoveries about the four components of DNA which became known as Chargaff’s Rules, i.e. the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units, strongly suggesting they came in pairs
1952 the Miller-Urey experiments show that organic molecules could be created out of a ‘primal soup’ and electricity
1953 Watson and Crick publish structure of DNA
1953 Barbara McClintock publishes evidence of transposable elements in DNA, aka transposons or jumping genes
1955 Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and biophysicist Robley Williams showed that a functional virus could be created out of purified RNA and a protein coat.
1956 Arthur Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I

1961 Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei discover that DNA is used in sets of three called ‘codons’
1964 Robert Holley elucidates the structure of transfer RNA
1960s Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson isolate first restriction enzyme
1967 DNA ligase discovered, an enzyme capable of linking DNA into a ring such as is found in viruses
1967 Carl Woese suggests that RNA not only carries genetic information but has catalytic properties

1970 Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Wilcox isolate the first type II restriction enzyme
1970 discovery of reverse transcriptase which converts RNA into DNA
1971 start if gene-splicing revolution when Paul Berg spliced part of a bacterial virus into a monkey virus
1972 Herbert Boyer splices DNA from Staphylococcus into E. Coli
1974 first transgenic mammal created by Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz
1974 development of ‘reverse genetics’ where you interefere with an organism’s DNA and see what happens
1976 first biotech company, Genentech, set up
1977 Boyer, Itakura and Riggs use recombinant DNA to produce a human protein
1977 Carl Woese proposes an entire new kingdom of life, the Archaea

1980 Charles Weissmann engineers the protein interferon using recombinant-DNA technology
1981 Racaniello and Baltimore used recombinant DNA technology to generate the first infectious clone of an animal RNA virus, poliovirus
1982 genetically engineered insulin becomes commercially available
1980s discovery of the function of proteasomes which break up unneeded or damaged proteins
1980s Ada Yonath and Heinz-Günter Wittman grow crystals from bacterial chromosomes
1985 Martin Caruthers and his team developed an automated DNA synthesiser
1985 Aaron Klug develops ‘zinc fingers’, proteins which bind to specific three-letter sequences of DNA

1996 proposed life on Mars on the basis of microbial ‘fossils’ found in rocks blown form Mars to earth – later disproved
1996 publication of the yeast genome
1997 Venter’s team publish the entire genome of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
1997 Dolly the sheep is cloned (DNA from a mature sheep’s mammary gland was injected into an egg that had had its own nucleus removed; it was named Dolly in honour of Dolly Parton and her large mammary glands)
1998 Andrew Fire and Craig Cameron Mello showed that so-called ‘junk DNA’ codes for double stranded RNA which trigger or shut down other genes
1999 Harry F. Noller publishes the first images of a complete ribosome

2005 The structure and function of the bacterial chromosome by Thanbichler, Viollier and Shapiro
2007 publication of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Government
2008 Venter and team create a synthetic chromosome of a bacterium
2010 Venter’s team announce the creation of the first synthetic cell (described in detail in chapter 8)
2011 first structure of a eukaryotic ribosome published

Life at the speed of light

Anyway, this is a book with a thesis and a purpose. Or maybe two, two sides of the same coin. One is to eradicate all irrational, magical beliefs in ‘vitalism’, to insist that life is nothing but chemistry. The other is his bold visions of the future.

1. Anti-vitalism

The opening chapter had included a brief recap of the literature and fantasy of creating new life, Frankenstein etc. This builds up to the fact that Venter really has it in for all traditions and moralists who believe in a unique life force. He is at pains to define and then refute the theory of vitalism – ‘the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.’ Venter very powerfully believes the opposite: that ‘life’ consists of information about chemistry, nothing more.

This, I think, is a buried motive for describing the experiments carried out at his own institute in such mind-numbing detail. It is to drill home the reality that life is nothing more than chemistry and information. If you insert the genome of one species into the cells of another they become the new species. They obey the genomic or chemical instructions. All life does. There is no mystery, no vital spark, no élan vital etc etc.

A digression on the origins of life

This is reinforced in chapter 9 where Venter gives a summary of the work of Jack W. Szostak into the origin of life.

Briefly, Szostak starts with the fact that lipid or fat molecules are spontaneously produced in nature. He shows that these tend to link up together to form ‘vesicles’ which also, quite naturally, form together into water-containing membranes. If RNA – which has been shown to also assemble spontaneously – gets into these primitive ‘cells’, then they start working, quite automatically, to attract other RNA molecules into the cell. As a result the cell will swell and, with a little shaking from wind or tide, replicate. Voilà! You have replicating cells containing RNA.

Venter then describes work that has been done into the origin of multicellularity i.e. cells clumping together to co-operate, which appears to have happened numerous times in the history of life, to give rise to a variety of multicellular lineages.

Venter goes on to describe one other major event in the history of life – symbiogenesis – ‘The theory holds that mitochondria, plastids such as chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells represent formerly free-living prokaryotes taken one inside the other in endosymbiosis.’

In other words, at a number of seismic moments in the history of life, early eukaryotic cells engulfed microbial species that were living in symbiosis with them. Or to put it another way, early cells incorporated useful microbes which existed in their proximity, entirely into themselves.

The two big examples are:

  • some two billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell incorporated into itself a photosynthetic bacterial algae cell which ultimately became the ‘chloroplast‘ – the site where photosynthesis takes place – in all successive plant species
  • and the fact that the ‘power packs’ of human cells, known as mitochondria, carry their own genetic code and have their own way of reproducing, indicating that they were taken over whole, not melded or merged but swallowed (it is now believed that human mitochondria derived from a specific bacterium, Rickettsia, which survives down to this day)

This information is fascinating in itself, but it is clearly included to join up with the detailed description of the work in his own institute in order to make the overwhelming case that life is just information and that DNA is the bearer of that information.

It obviously really irritates Venter that, despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence, people at large – journalists, philosophers, armchair moralists and religious believers – refuse to accept it, refuse to face the facts.

2. Creating life

The corollary of there being nothing magical about ‘life’ is the confident way Venter interprets all the evidence he has so painstakingly described, and all the dazzling achievements he has been involved in, as having brought humanity to the brink of a New Age of Life, a New Epoch in the Evolution of Life on Earth.

We have now entered what I call ‘the digital age of biology’, in which once distinct domains of computer codes and those that program life are beginning to merge, where new synergies are emerging that will drive evolution in radical directions. (p.2)

The fusion of the digital world of the machine and that of biology would open up the remarkable possibilities for creating novel species and guiding future evolution. (p.109)

In the final chapters he waxes very lyrical about the fantastic opportunities opening up for designing DNA on computers, modeling the behaviour of this artificial DNA, fine-tuning the design, and then building new synthetic organisms in the real world.

The practical applications know no limits, and on page 221 he lists some:

  • man-made organisms which could absorb the global warming CO2 in the air, or eat oil pollution, turning it into harmless chemicals
  • computer designing designing cures for diseases
  • designing crops that are resistant to drought, that can tolerate disease or thrive in barren environments, provide rich new sources of protein and other nutrients, can be harnessed for water purification in arid regions
  • designing animals that become sources for pharmaceuticals or spare body parts
  • customising human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs and bodies

Biological transformations

The final two chapters move beyond even these goals to lay out some quite mind-boggling visions of the future. Venter builds on his institute’s achievements to date, and speculates about the kinds of technologies we can look forward to or which are emerging even as he writes.

The one that stuck in my mind is the scenario that, when the next variety of human influenza breaks out, doctors will only have to get a sample of the virus to a lab like Venter’s and a) they will now be able to work out its DNA sequence more or less the same day b) they will then be able to design a vaccine in a computer c) they will be able to create the DNA they have designed in the lab much faster than ever possible before but d) they will be able to email the design for this vaccine DNA anywhere in the world, at the speed of a telephone wire, at the speed of light. That is what the title of the book means. New designs for synthesised life forms can now be developed in computers (which are working faster and faster) and then emailed wherever they’re required i.e. to the centre of the outbreak of a new disease, where labs will be able to use the techniques pioneered by Venter’s teams to culture and mass produce vaccines at record speeds.


Scientific myopia

I hate to rain on his parade, but I might as well lay out as clearly as I can the reasons why I am not as excited about the future as Venter. Why I am more a J.G. Ballard and John Gray man than a Venter man.

1. Most people don’t know or care Venter takes the position of many of the scientists I’ve been reading – from the mathematicians Bellos and Stewart through the astrophysicists Hawking and Davies and Barrow, to the origin-of-life men Cairns-Smith and Addy Pross – that new discoveries in their fields are earth-shatteringly important and will make ordinary people stop in their tracks, and look at their neighbour on the bus or train and exclaim, ‘NOW I understand it! NOW I know the meaning of life! NOW I realise what it’s all about.’

A moment’s reflection tells you that this simply won’t happen. Einstein’s relativity, Schrödinger and Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, cloning, the discovery of black holes – what is striking is how little impact most of these ‘seismic’ discoveries have had on most people’s lives or thinking. Ask your friends and family which of the epic scientific discoveries of the 20th century I’ve listed above has made the most impact on their lives. Or they’ve even heard of. Or could explain.

2. Most people are not intellectuals This error (thinking people are very bothered about scientific ‘breakthroughs’) is based on a deeper false premise, one of the great category errors common to all these kind of books and magazine articles and documentaries – which is that the authors think that everyone else in society is a university-educated intellectual like themselves, whereas, very obviously, they are not. Trump. Brexit.

3. Public debate is often meaningless Worse, they believe that something called ‘education’ and ‘public debate’ will control the threat posed by these technologies:

Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage with the relevant issues. (p.215)

Famous last words. Look at the ‘debate’ surrounding Brexit. Have any of the thousands of articles, documentaries, speeches, books and tweets helped solve the situation? No. ‘Debate’ hardly ever solves anything. Clear-cut and affordable solutions which people can understand and get behind solve things.

4. A lot of people are nasty, some are evil Not only this but Venter, like all the other highly-educated, middle-class, liberal intellectuals I’ve mentioned, thinks that people are fundamentally nice – will welcome their discoveries, will only use them for the good of mankind, and so on.

Megalolz, as my kids would say. No. People are not nice. The Russians and the Chinese are using the internet to target other countries’ vital infrastructures, and sow misinformation. Islamist warriors are continually looking for ways to attack ‘the West’, the more spectacular the better. In 2010 Israel is alleged to have carried out the first cyberattack on another nation’s infrastructure when it (allegedly) attacked a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear site.

In other words, cyberspace is not at all a realm where high-minded intellectuals meet and debate worthy moral issues, and where synthetic biologists devise life-saving new vaccines and beam them to locations of epidemic outbreaks ‘at the speed of light’. Cyberspace is already a war zone.

And it is a warzone in a world which contains some nasty regimes, not just those which are in effect dictatorships (Iran, China) but even many of the so-called democracies.

Trump. Putin. Erdogan. Bolsonaro. Viktor Orban. These are all right-wing demagogues who were voted into power in democratic elections.

It may be that both the peoples, and the leaders, who Venter puts his faith in are simply not up to the job of understanding, using wisely or safeguarding the speed of light technology he is describing.

Venter goes out of his way, throughout the book, to emphasise how socially responsible he and his Institute and his research have been, how they have taken part in, sponsored and contributed to umpteen conferences and seminars, alongside government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, into the ‘ethics’ of conducting synthetic biology (i.e. designing and building new organisms) and into its risks (terrorists use it to create lethal biological weapons).

Indeed, most of chapter ten is devoted to the range of risks – basically, terrorist use or some kind of accident – which could lead to the release of harmful, synthesised organisms into the environment – accompanied by a lot of high-minded rhetoric about the need to ‘educate the public’ and ‘engage a lay audience’ and ‘exchange views’, and so on…

I believe that the issue of the responsible use of science is fundamental… (p.215)

Quite. But then the thousands of scientists and technicians who invented the atom bomb were highly educated, highly moral and highly responsible people, too. But it wasn’t them who funded it, deployed it and pushed the red button. Good intentions are not enough.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)

I will attempt to show that the chasm separating biology and chemistry is bridgeable, that Darwinian theory can be integrated into a more general chemical theory of matter, and that biology is just chemistry, or to be more precise, a sub-branch of chemistry – replicative chemistry. (p.122)

Repetitive and prolix

This book is 190 pages long. It is much harder to read than it need be because Pross is a bad writer with very bad habits, namely 1. irritating repetition and 2. harking back and forward. The initial point which he repeats again and again in the first 120 pages is that nobody knows the secret of the origins of life and all previous attempts to solve it have been dead ends.

So, what can we conclude regarding the emergence of life on our planet? The short answer: almost nothing. (p.109)

We don’t know how to go about making life because we don’t really know what life is, and we don’t know what life is, because we don’t understand the principles that led to its emergence. (p.111)

The efforts to uncover probiotic-type chemistry, while of considerable interest in their own right, were never likely to lead us to the ultimate goal – understanding how life on earth emerged. (p.99)

Well, at the time of writing, the so-called Holy Grail (the Human Genome sequence) and the language of life that it was supposed to have taught us have not delivered the promised goods. (p.114)

But the systems biology approach has not proved a nirvana… (p.116)

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has not proved to be the hoped-for breakthrough in seeking greater understanding of biological complexity. (p.119)

A physically based theory of life continues to elude us. (p.119)

While Conway’s Life game has opened up interesting insights into complex systems in general, direct insights into the nature of living systems do not appear to have been forthcoming. (p.120)

The book is so repetitive I though the author and his editor must have Alzheimer’s Disease. On page viii we are told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a pithy little book titled What Is Life? which concluded that present-day physics and chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of life. Then, on page xii, we’re told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’ found the issue highly troublesome’. Then on page 3 that the issue ‘certainly troubled the great physicists of the century, amongst them Bohr, Schrödinger and Wigner’. Then on page 36, we learn that:

Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, whose provocative little book What Is Life? we mentioned earlier, was particularly puzzled by life’s strange thermodynamic behaviour.

When it comes to Darwin we are told on page 8 that:

Darwin himself explicitly avoided the origin of life question, recognising that within the existing state of knowledge the question was premature.

and then, in case we have senile dementia or the memory of a goldfish, on page 35 he tells us that:

Darwin deliberately side-stepped the challenge, recognising that it could not be adequately addressed within the existing state of knowledge.

As to the harking back and forth, Pross is one of those writers who is continually telling you he’s going to tell you something, and then continually reminding you that he told you something back in chapter 2 or chapter 4 – but nowhere in the reading process do you actually get clearly stated the damn thing he claims to be telling.

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

We will consider a possible resolution of this sticky problem in chapter 7…

As discussed in chapter 5… as we will shortly see… As we have already pointed out… As we have discussed in some detail in chapter 5…  described in detail in chapter 4…

In this chapter I will describe… In this chapter I will attempt…

I will defer this aspect of the discussion until chapter 8…

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

It is a philosophy book written by a chemist. As such it comes over as extremely shallow and amateurish. Pross namechecks Wittgenstein, and (pointlessly) tells us that ‘tractatus’ is Latin for ‘treatise’ (p.48) – but fails to understand or engage with Wittgenstein’s thought.

My heart sank when I came to chapter 3, titled Understanding ‘understanding’ which boils down to a superficial consideration of the difference between a ‘reductionist’ and a ‘holistic’ approach to science, the general idea that science is based on reductionism i.e. reducing systems to their smallest parts and understanding their functioning before slowly building up in scale, whereas ‘holistic’ approach tries to look at the entire system in the round. Pross gives a brief superficial overview of the two approaches before concluding that neither one gets us any closer to an answer.

Instead of interesting examples from chemistry, shallow examples from ‘philosophy’

Even more irritating than the repetition is the nature of the examples. I thought this would be a book about chemistry but it isn’t. Pross thinks he is writing a philosophical examination of the meaning of life, and so the book is stuffed with the kind of fake everyday examples which philosophers use and which are a) deeply patronising b) deeply uninformative.

Thus on page x of the introduction Pross says imagine you’re walking through a field and you come across a refrigerator. He then gives two pages explaining how a refrigerator works and saying that you, coming across a fully functional refrigerator in the middle of a field, is about as probable as the purposeful and complex forms of life can have come about by accident.

Then he writes, Imagine that you get into a motor car. We only dare drive around among ‘an endless stream of vehicular metal’ on the assumption that the other drivers have purpose and intention and will stick to the laws of the highway code.

On page 20 he introduces us to the idea of a ‘clock’ and explains how a clock is an intricate mechanism made of numerous beautifully engineered parts but it will eventually break down. But a living organism on the other hand, can repair itself.

Then he says imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend named Bill. He looks like Bill, he talks like Bill and yet – did you know that virtually every cell in Bill’s body has renewed itself since last time you saw him, because life forms have this wonderful ability to repair and renew themselves!

Later, he explains how a Boeing 747 didn’t come into existence spontaneously, but was developed from earlier plane designs, all ultimately stemming from the Wright brothers’ first lighter than air flying machine.

You see how all these examples are a) trite b) patronising c) don’t tell you anything at all about the chemistry of life.

He tells us that if you drop a rock out the window, it falls to the ground. And yet a bird can hover in the air merely by flapping its wings! For some reason it is able to resist the Second law of Thermodynamics! How? Why? Nobody knows!

Deliberately superficial

And when he does get around to explaining anything, Pross himself admits that he is doing it in a trivial, hurried, quick, sketchy way and leaving out most of the details.

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

These ideas were discussed with some enthusiasm some 20-30 years ago and without going into further detail…

If that sounds too mathematical, let’s explain the difference by recounting the classical legend of the Chinese emperor who was saved in battle by a peasant farmer. (p.64)

Only in the latter pages – only when he gets to propound his own theory from about page 130 – do you realise that he is not so much making a logical point as trying to get you to see the problem from an entirely new perspective. A little like seeing the world from the Marxist or the Freudian point of view, Pross believes himself to be in possession of an utterly new way of thinking which realigns all previous study and research and thinking on the subject. It is so far-ranging and wide-sweeping that it cannot be told consecutively.

And it’s this which explains the irritating sense of repetition and circling and his constant harking forward to things he’s going to tell you, and then harking back to things he claims to have explained a few chapters earlier. The first 130 pages are like being lost in a maze.

The problem of the origin of life

People have been wondering about the special quality of live things as opposed to dead things for as long as there have been people. Darwin discovered the basis of all modern thinking about life forms, which is the theory of evolution by natural selection. But he shied away from speculating on how life first came about.

Pross – in a typically roundabout manner – lists the ‘problems’ facing anyone trying to answer the question, What is life and how did it begin?

  • life breaks the second law of thermodynamics i.e. appears to create order out of chaos, as opposed to the Law which says everything tends in the opposite direction i.e. tends towards entropy
  • life can be partly defined by its sends of purpose: quite clearly inanimate objects do not have this
  • life is complex
  • life is organised

Put another way, why is biology so different from chemistry? How are the inert reactions of chemistry different from the purposive reactions of life? He sums this up in a diagram which appears several times:

He divides the move from non-life into complex life into two phases. The chemical phase covers the move from non-life to simple life, the biological phase covers the move from simple life to complex life. Now, we know that the biological phase is covered by the iron rules of Darwinian evolution – but what triggered, and how can we account for, the move from non-life to simple life? Hence a big ?

Pross’s solution

Then, on page 127, Pross finally introduces his Big Idea and spends the final fifty or so pages of the book showing how his theory addresses all the problem in existing ‘origin of life’ literature.

His idea begins with the established knowledge that all chemical reactions seek out the most ‘stable’ format.

He introduces us to the notion that chemists actually have several working definitions of ‘stability’, and then introduces us to a new one: the notion of dynamic kinetic stability, or DKS.

He describes experiments by Sol Spiegelman in the 1980s into RNA. This showed how the RNA molecule replicated itself outside of a living cell. That was the most important conclusion of the experiment. But they also found that the RNA molecules replicated but also span off mutations, generally small strands of of RNA, some of which metabolised the nutrients far quicker than earlier varieties. These grew at an exponential rate to swiftly fill the petri dishes and push the longer, ‘correct’ RNA to extinction.

For Pross what Spiegelman’s experiments showed was that inorganic dead chemicals can a) replicate b) replicate at exponential speed until they have established a situation of dynamic kinetic stability. He then goes on to equate his concept of dynamic kinetic stability with the Darwinian one of ‘fitness’. Famously, it is the ‘fit’ which triumph in the never-ending battle for existence. Well, Pross says this concept can be rethought of as, the population which achieves greatest dynamic kinetic stability – which replicates fast enough and widely enough – will survive, will be the fittest.

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

Thus Darwin’s ideas about the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can be extended into non-organic chemistry, but in a particular and special way:

Just as in the ‘regular’ chemical world the drive of all physical and chemical systems is toward the most stable state, in the replicative world the drive is also toward the most stable state, but of the kind of stability applicable within that replicative world, DKS. (p.155)

Another way of looking at all this is via the Second Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has universally been interpreted as militating against life. Life is an affront to the Law, which says that all energy dissipates and seeks out the state of maximum diffusion. Entropy always triumphs. But not in life. How? Why?

But Pross says that, if molecules like his are capable of mutating and evolving – as the Sol Spiegelman experiments suggest – then they only appear to contradict the Second Law. In actual fact they are functioning in what Pross now declares is an entirely different realm of chemistry (and physics). The RNA replicating molecules are functioning in the realm of replicative chemistry. They are still inorganic, ‘dead’ molecules – but they replicate quickly, mutate to find the most efficient variants, and reproduce quickly towards a state of dynamic kinetic stability.

So what he’s trying to do is show how it is possible for long complex molecules which are utterly ‘dead’, nonetheless to behave in a manner which begins to see them displaying qualities more associated with the realm of biology:

  • ‘reproduction’ with errors
  • triumph of the fittest
  • apparent ‘purpose’
  • the ability to become more complex

None of this is caused by any magical ‘life force’ or divine intervention (the two bogeymen of life scientists), but purely as a result of the blind materialistic forces driving them to take most advantage of their environment i.e. use up all its nutrients.

Pross now takes us back to that two-step diagram of how life came about, shown above – Non-Life to Simple Life, Simple Life to Complex Life, labelled the Chemical Phase and the Biological Phase, respectively.

He recaps how the second phase – how simple life evolves greater complexity – can be explained using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: even the most primitive life forms will replicate until they reach the limits of the available food sources, at which point any mutation leading to even a fractional differentiation in the efficiency of processing food will give the more advanced variants an advantage. The rest is the three billion year history of life on earth.

It is phase one – the step from non-life to life – which Pross has (repeatedly) explained has given many of the cleverest biologists, physicists and chemists of the 20th century sleepless nights, and which – in chapters 3 and 4 – he runs through the various theories or approaches which have failed to deliver an answer to.

Well, Pross’s bombshell solution is simple. There are not two steps – there was only ever one step. The Darwinian mechanism by which the best adapted entity wins out in a given situation applies to inert chemicals as much as to life forms.

Let me now drop the bombshell… The so-called two-stage process is not two-stage at all. It is really just once, continuous process. (p.127) … what is termed natural selection within the biological world is also found to operate in the chemical world… (p.128)

Pross recaps the findings of that Spiegelman experiment, which was that the RNA molecules eventually made errors in their replication, and some of the erroneous molecules were more efficient at using up the nutrition in the test tube. After just a day, Spiegelman found the long RNA molecules – which took a long time to replicate – were being replaced by much shorter molecules which replicated much quicker.

There, in a nutshell, is Pross’s theory in action. Darwinian competition, previously thought to be restricted only to living organisms, can be shown to apply to inorganic molecules as well – because inorganic molecules themselves show replicating, ‘competitive’ behaviour.

For Pross this insight was confirmed in experiments conducted by Gerald Joyce in 2009, who showed that a variety of types of RNA, placed in a nutrient, replicated in such a way as to establish a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where each molecule established a chemical niche and thrived on some of the nutrients, while other RNA varieties evolved to thrive on other types. To summarise:

The processes of abiogenesis and evolution are actually one physicochemical process governed by one single mechanism, rather than two discrete processes governed by two different mechanisms. (p.136)

Or:

The study of simple replicating systems has revealed an extraordinary connection – that Darwinian theory, that quintessential biological principle, can be incorporated into a more general chemical theory of evolution, one that encompasses both living and non-living systems. it is that integration that forms the basis of the theory of life I propose. (p.162)

The remaining 50 or so pages work through the implications of this idea or perspective. For example he redefines the Darwinian notion of ‘fitness’ to be ‘dynamic kinetic stability’. In other words, the biological concept of ‘fitness’ turns out, in his theory, to be merely the biological expression of a ‘more general and fundamental chemical concept’ (p.141).

He works through a number of what are traditionally taken to be life’s attributes and reinterprets in the new terms he’s introduced, in terms of dynamic kinetic stability, replicative chemistry and so on. Thus he addresses life’s complexity, life’s instability, life’s dynamic nature, life’s diversity, life’s homochirality, life’s teleonomic character, the nature of consciousness, and speculating about what alien life would look like before summing up his theory. Again.

A solution to the primary question exists and is breathtakingly simple: life on earth emerged through the enormous kinetic power of the replication reaction acting on unidentified, but simple replicating systems, apparently composed of chain-like oligomeric substances, RNA or RNA-like, capable of mutation and complexification. That process of complexification took place because it resulted in the enhancement of their stability – not their thermodynamic stability, but rather the relevant stability in the world of replicating systems, their DKS. (p.183)

A thought about the second law

Pross has explained that the Second Law of Thermodynamics apparently militates against the spontaneous generation of life, in any form, because life is organised and the second law says everything tends towards chaos. But he comes up with an ingenious solution. If one of these hypothetical early replicating molecules acquired the ability to generate energy from light – it would effectively bypass the second law. It would acquire energy from outside the ‘system’ in which it is supposedly confined and in which entropy prevails.

The existence of an energy-gathering capacity within a replicating entity effectively ‘frees’ that entity from the constraints of the Second Law in much the same way that a car engine ‘free’s a car from gravitational constrains. (p.157)

This insight shed light on an old problem, and on a fragment of the overall issue – but it isn’t enough by itself to justify his theory.

Thoughts

Several times I nearly threw away the book in my frustration before finally arriving at the Eureka moment about page 130. From there onwards it does become a lot better. As you read Pross you have the sense of a whole new perspective opening up on this notorious issue.

However, as with all these theories, you can’t help thinking that if his theory had been at all accepted by the scientific community – then you’d have heard about it by now.

If his theory really does finally solve the Great Mystery of Life which all the greatest minds of humanity have laboured over for millennia… surely it would be a bit better known, or widely accepted by his peers?

The theory relies heavily on results from Sol Spiegelman’s experiments with RNA in the 1980s. Mightn’t Spiegelman himself, or other tens of thousands of other biologists, have noticed its implications in the thirty odd years between the experiments and Pross’s book?

And if Pross has solved the problem of the origin of life, how come so many other, presumably well-informed and highly educated scientists, are still researching the ‘problem’?

(By the way, the Harvard website optimistically declares that:

Thanks to advances in technologies in these areas, answers to some of the compelling questions surrounding the origins of life in the universe were now possibly within reach… Today a larger team of researchers have joined this exciting biochemical ‘journey through the Universe’ to unravel one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries – the origins of life in the Universe.

Possibly within reach’, lol. Good times are always just around the corner in the origins-of-life industry.)

So I admit to being interested by pages 130 onwards of his book, gripped by the urgency with which he tells his story, gripped by the vehemence of his presentation, in the same way you’d be gripped by a thriller while you read it. But then you put it down and forget about it, going back to your everyday life. Same here.

It’s hard because it is difficult to keep in mind Pross’s slender chain of argumentation. It rests on the two-stage diagram – on Pross’s own interpretation of the Spiegelman experiments – on his special idea of dynamic kinetic stability – and on the idea of replicative chemistry.

All of these require looking at the problem through is lens, from his perspective – for example agreeing with the idea that the complex problem of the origin of life can be boiled down to that two-stage diagram; this is done so that we can then watch him pull the rabbit out of the hat by saying it needn’t be in two stages after all! So he’s address the problem of the diagram. But it is, after all, just one simplistic diagram.

Same with his redefining Darwin’s notion of ‘fitness’ as being identical to his notion of dynamic kinetic stability. Well, if he says so. but in science you have to get other scientists to agree with you, preferably by offering tangible proof.

These are more like tricks of perspective than a substantial new theory. And this comes back to his rhetorical strategy of repetition, to the harping on the same ideas.

The book argues its case less with evidence (there is, in the end, very little scientific ‘evidence’ for his theory – precisely two experiments, as far as I can see), but more by presenting a raft of ideas in their current accepted form (for 130 boring pages), and then trying to persuade you to see them all anew, through his eyes, from his perspective (in the final 50 pages). As he summarises it (yet again) on page 162:

The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a single replicating system, because that seemingly inconsequentual event opened the door to a distinctly different kind of chemistry – replicative chemistry. Entering the world of replicative chemistry reveals the existence of that other kind of stability in nature, the dynamic kinetic stability of things that are good at making more of themselves.Exploring the world of replicative chemistry helps explain why a simple primordial replicating system would have been expected to complexify over time. The reason: to increase its stability – its dynamic kinetic stability (DKS).

Note the phrase’ entering the world of replicative chemistry…’ – It sounds a little like ‘entering the world of Narnia’. It is almost as if he’s describing a religious conversion. All the facts remain the same, but new acolytes now see them in a totally different light.

Life then is just the chemical consequences that derive from the power of exponential growth operating on certain replicating chemical systems. (p.164)

(I am quoting Pross at length because I don’t want to sell his ideas short; I want to convey them as accurately as possible, and in his own words.)

Or, as he puts it again a few pages later (you see how his argument proceeds by, or certainly involves a lot of, repetition):

Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler netowrks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapter, it is the drive toward greater DKS, itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. (p.185)

It’s all reasonably persuasive when you’re reading the last third of his book – but oddly forgettable once you put it down.

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

Along the way, the reader picks up a number of interesting ideas.

  • Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe and can be carried on meteors, comets etc, and one of these landed and seeded life on earth
  • every adult human is made up of some ten thousand billion cells; but we harbour in our guts and all over the surface of our bodies ten times as many – one hundred thousand bacteria. In an adult body hundreds of billions of new cells are created daily in order to replace the ones that die on a daily basis
  • in 2017 it was estimated there may be as many as two billion species of bacteria on earth
  • the Principle of Divergence – many different species are generated from a few sources
  • teleonomy – the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms
  • chiral – an adjective meaning a molecule’s mirror image is not superimposable upon the molecule itself: in fact molecules often come in mirror-image formations, known as left and right-handed
  • racemic – a racemic mixture, or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule.
  • reductionist – analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents
  • holistic – the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics – ‘in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.’ This is also commonly referred to as entropy
  • the thermodynamic consideration – chemical reactions will only take place if the reaction products are of lower free energy than the reactants
  • catalyst – a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • catalytic – requires an external catalyst to spark a chemical reaction
  • auocatalytic – a reaction which catalyses itself
  • cross-catalysis – two chemicals trigger reactions in each other
  • static stability – water, left to itself, is a stable chemical compound
  • dynamic stability – a river is always a river even though it is continually changing
  • prebiotic earth – earth before life
  • abiogenesis – the process whereby life was derived from non-living chemicals
  • systems chemistry – the chemical reactions of replicating molecules and the networks they create
  • the competitive exclusion principle – complete competitors cannot co-exist, or, Ecological differentiation is th enecessary condition for co-existence

Does anyone care?

Pross thinks the fact that biologists and biochemists can’t account for the difference between complex but inanimate molecules, and the simplest actual forms of life – bacteria – is a Very Important Problem. He thinks that:

Until the deep conceptual chasm that continues to separate living and non-living is bridged, until the two sciences – physics and biology – can merge naturally, the nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe, will continue to remain gnawingly uncertain. (p.42)

‘Gnawingly’. Do you feel the uncertainty about whetherbiology and physics can be naturally merged is gnawing away at you? Or, as he puts it in his opening sentences:

The subject of this book addresses basic questions that have transfixed and tormented humankind for millennia, ever since we sought to better understand our place in the universe – the nature of living things and their relationship to the non-living. The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated – it would reveal to us not just who and what we are, but would impact on our understanding of the universe as a whole. (p.viii)

I immediately disagreed. ‘The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated’? Yes it can. Maybe, just maybe – it is not very important at all.

What do we mean by ‘important’, anyway? Is it important to you, reading this review, to realise that the division between the initial, chemical phase of the origin of life and the secondary, biological phase, is in fact a delusion, and that both processes can be accounted for by applying Darwinian selection to supposedly inorganic chemicals?

If you tried to tell your friends and family 1. how easy would you find it to explain? 2. would you seriously expect anyone to care?

Isn’t it, in fact, more likely that the laws or rules or theories about how life arose from inanimate matter are likely to be so technical, so specialised and so hedged around with qualifications, that only highly trained experts can really understand them?

Maybe Pross has squared the circle and produced a feasible explanation of the origins of life on earth. Maybe this book really is – The Answer! But in which case – why hasn’t everything changed, why hasn’t the whole human race breathed a collective sigh of relief and said, NOW we understand how it all started, NOW we know what it all means, NOW I understand who I am and my place in the universe?

When I explained Pross’s theory, in some detail, to my long-suffering wife (who did a life sciences degree) she replied that, quite obviously chemistry and biology are related; anyone who’s studied biology knows it is based on chemistry. She hardly found it ‘an extraordinary connection’. When I raised it with my son, who is studying biology at university, he’d never heard of Pross or his theory.

So one’s final conclusion is that our understanding of ‘The nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe’ has remained remarkably unchanged by this little book and will, in all likelihood, remain so.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Alex’s Adventures In Numberland by Alex Bellos (2010)

Alexander Bellos (born in 1969) is a British writer and broadcaster. He is the author of books about Brazil and mathematics, as well as having a column in The Guardian newspaper. After adventures in Brazil (see his Wikipedia page) he returned to England in 2007 and wrote this, his first book. It spent four months in the Sunday Times bestseller list and led on to five more popular maths books.

It’s a hugely enjoyable read for three reasons:

  1. Bellos immediately establishes a candid, open, good bloke persona, sharing stories from his early job as a reporter on the Brighton Argus, telling some colourful anecdotes about his time in Brazil and then being surprisingly open about the way that, when he moved back to Britain, he had no idea what to do. The tone of the book is immediately modern, accessible and friendly.
  2. However this doesn’t mean he is verbose. The opposite. The book is packed with fascinating information. Every single paragraph, almost every sentence contains a fact or insight which makes you sit up and marvel. It is stufffed with good things.
  3. Lastly, although its central theme is mathematics, it approaches this through a wealth of information from the humanities. There is as much history and psychology and anthropology and cultural studies and philosophy as there is actual maths, and these are all subjects which the average humanities graduate can immediately relate to and assimilate.

Chapter Zero – A Head for Numbers

Alex meets Pierre Pica, a linguist who’s studied the Munduruku people of the Amazon and discovered they have little or no sense of numbers. They only have names for numbers up to five. Also, they cluster numbers together logarithmically i.e. the higher the number, the closer together they clustered them. Same thing is done by kindergarten children who only slowly learn that numbers are evenly spaced, in a linear way.

This may be because small children and the Munduruku don’t count so much as estimate using the ratios between numbers.

It may also be because above a certain number (five) Stone Age man needed to make quick estimates along the lines of, Are there more wild animals / members of the other gang, than us?

Another possibility is that distance appears to us to be logarithmic due to perspective: the first fifty yards we see in close detail, the next fifty yards not so detailed, beyond 100 yards looking smaller, and so on.

It appears that we have to be actively taught when young to overcome our logarithmic instincts, and to apply the rule that each successive whole number is an equal distance from its predecessor and successor i.e. the rational numbers lies along a straight line at regular intervals.

More proof that the logarithmic approach is the deep, hard-wired one is the way most of us revert to its perspective when considering big numbers. As John Allen Paulos laments, people make no end of fuss about discrepancies between 2 or 3 or 4 – but are often merrily oblivious to the difference between a million or a billion, let alone a trillion. For most of us these numbers are just ‘big’.

He goes on to describe experiments done on chimpanzees, monkeys and lions which appear to show that animals have the ability to estimate numbers. And then onto experiments with small babies which appear to show that as soon as they can focus on the outside world, babies can detect changes in number of objects.

And it appears that we also have a further number skill, that guesstimating things – the journey takes 30 or 40 minutes, there were twenty or thirty people at the party, you get a hundred, maybe hundred and fifty peas in a sack. When it comes to these figures almost all of us give rough estimates.

To summarise:

  • we are sensitive to small numbers, acutely so of 1, 2, 3, 4, less so of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • left to our own devices we think logarithmically about larger numbers i.e lose the sense of distinction between them, clump them together
  • we have a good ability to guesstimate medium size numbers – 30, 40, 100

But it was only with the invention of notation, a way of writing numbers down, that we were able to create the linear system of counting (where every number is 1 larger than its predecessor, laid out in a straight line, at regular intervals).

And that this cultural invention enabled human beings to transcend our vague guesstimating abilities, and laid the basis for the systematic manipulation of the world which followed

Chapter One – The Counter Culture

The probable origins of counting lie in stock taking in the early agricultural revolution some 8,000 years ago.

We nowadays count using a number base 10 i.e. the decimal system. But other bases have their virtues, especially base 12. It has more factors i.e. is easier to divide: 12 can be divided neatly by 2, 3, 4 and 6. A quarter of 10 is 2.5 but of 12 is 3. A third of 10 is 3.333 but of 12 is 4. Striking that a version of the duodecimal system (pounds, shillings and pence) hung on in Britain till we finally went metric in the 1970s. There is even a Duodecimal Society of America which still actively campaigns for the superiority of a base 12 counting scheme.

Bellos describes a bewildering variety of other counting systems and bases. In 1716 King Charles XII of Sweden asked Emmanuel Swedenborg to devise a new counting system with a base of 64. The Arara in the Amazon count in pairs, the Renaissance author Luca Paccioli was just one of hundreds who have devised finger-based systems of counting – indeed, the widespread use of base 10 probably stems from the fact that we have ten fingers and toes.

He describes a complicated Chinese system where every part of the hand and fingers has a value which allows you to count up to nearly a billion – on one hand!

The Yupno system which attributes a different value for parts of the body up to its highest number, 33, represented by the penis.

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

There’s another point to make about his whole approach which comes out if we compare him with the popular maths books by John Allen Paulos which I’ve just read.

Paulos clearly sees the need to leaven his explanations of comparative probability and Arrow’s Theorem and so on with lighter material and so his strategy is to chuck into his text things which interest him: corny jokes, anecdotes about baseball, casual random digressions which occur to him in mid-flow. But al his examples clearly 1. emanate from Paulos’s own interests and hobby horses (especially baseball) and 2. they are tacked onto the subjects being discussed.

Bellos, also, has grasped that the general reader needs to be spoonfed maths via generous helpings of other, more easily digestible material. But Bellos’s choice of material arises naturally from the topic under discussion. The humour emerges naturally and easily from the subject matter instead of being tacked on in the form of bad jokes.

You feel yourself in the hands of a master storyteller who has all sorts of wonderful things to explain to you.

In fourth millennium BC, an early counting system was created by pressing a reed into soft clay. By 2700 BC the Sumerians were using cuneiform. And they had number symbols for 1, 10, 60 and 3,600 – a mix of decimal and sexagesimal systems.

Why the Sumerians grouped their numbers in 60s has been described as one of the greatest unresolved mysteries in the history of arithmetic. (p.58)

Measuring in 60s was inherited by the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Greeks and is why we still measure hours in 60 minutes and the divisions of a circle by 360 degrees.

I didn’t know that after the French Revolution, when the National Convention introduced the decimal system of weights and measures, it also tried to decimalise time, introducing a new system whereby every day would be divided into ten hours, each of a hundred minutes, each divided into 100 seconds. Thus there were a very neat 10 x 100 x 100 = 100,000 seconds in a day. But it failed. An hour of 60 minutes turns out to be a deeply useful division of time, intuitively measurable, and a reasonable amount of time to spend on tasks. The reform was quietly dropped after six months, although revolutionary decimal clocks still exist.

Studies consistently show that Chinese children find it easier to count than European children. This may be because of our system of notation, or the structure of number names. Instead of eleven or twelve, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans say the equivalent of ten one, ten two. 21 and 22 become two ten one and two ten two. It has been shown that this makes it a lot simpler and more intuitive to do basic addition and subtraction.

Bellos goes on to describe the various systems of abacuses which have developed in different cultures, before explaining the phenomenal popularity of abacus counting, abacus clubs, and abacus championships in Japan which helps kids develop the ability to perform anzan, using the mental image of an abacus to help its practitioners to sums at phenomenal speed.

Chapter Two – Behold!

The mystical sense of the deep meaning of numbers, from Pythagoras with his vegetarian religious cult of numbers in 4th century BC Athens to Jerome Carter who advises leading rap stars about the numerological significance of their names.

Euclid and the elegant and pure way he deduced mathematical theorems from a handful of basic axioms.

A description of the basic Platonic shapes leads into the nature of tessalating tiles, and the Arab pioneering of abstract design. The complex designs of the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge. And then the complex and sophisticated world of origami, which has its traditionalists, its pioneers and surprising applications to various fields of advanced science, introducing us to the American guru of modern origami, Robert Lang, and the Japanese rebel, Kazuo Haga, father of Haga’s Theorem.

Chapter Three – Something About Nothing

A bombardment of information about the counting systems of ancient Hindus, Buddhists, about number symbols in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. How the concept of zero was slowly evolved in India and moved to the Muslim world with the result that the symbols we use nowadays are known as the Arabic numerals.

A digression into ‘a set of arithmetical tricks known as Vedic Mathematics ‘ devised by a young Indian swami at the start of the twentieth century, Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, based on a series of 16 aphorisms which he found in the ancient holy texts known as the Vedas.

Shankaracharya is a commonly used title of heads of monasteries called mathas in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Tirthaji was the Shankaracharya of the monastery at Puri. Bellos goes to visit the current Shankaracharya who explains the closeness, in fact the identity, of mathematics and Hindu spirituality.

Chapter Four – Life of Pi

An entire chapter about pi which turns out not only to be a fundamental aspect of calculating radiuses and diameters and volumes of circles and cubes, but also to have a long history of mathematicians vying with each other to work out its value to as many decimal places as possible (we currently know the value of pi to 2.7 trillion decimal places) and the surprising history of people who have set records reciting the value if pi.

Thus, in 2006, retired Japanese engineer Akira Haraguchi set a world record for reciting the value of pi to the first 100,000 decimal places from memory! It took 16 hours with five minute beaks every two hours to eat rice balls and drink some water.

There are several types or classes of numbers:

  • natural numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…
  • integers – all the natural numbers, but including the negative ones as well – …-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3…
  • fractions
  • which are also called rational numbers
  • numbers which cannot be written as fractions are called irrational numbers
  • transcendent numbers – ‘a transcendental number is an irrational number that cannot be described by an equation with a finite number of terms’

The qualities of the heptagonal 50p coin and the related qualities of the Reuleux triangle.

Chapter Five – The x-factor

The origin of algebra (in Arab mathematicians).

Bellos makes the big historical point that for the Greeks (Pythagoras, Plato, Euclid) maths was geometric. They thought of maths as being about shapes – circles, triangles, squares and so on. These shapes had hidden properties which maths revealed, thus giving – the Pythagoreans thought – insight into the secret deeper values of the world.

It is only with the introduction of algebra in the 17th century (Bellos attributes its widespread adoption to Descartes’s Method in the 1640s) that it is possible to fly free of shapes into whole new worlds of abstract numbers and formulae.

Logarithms turn the difficult operation of multiplication into the simpler operation of addition. If X x Y = Z, then log X + log Y = log Z. They were invented by a Scottish laird John Napier, and publicised in a huge book of logarithmic tables published in 1614. Englishman Henry Briggs established logarithms to base 10 in 1628. In 1620 Englishman Edmund Gunter marked logarithms on a ruler. Later in the 1620s Englishman William Oughtred placed two logarithmic rulers next to each other to create the slide rule.

Three hundred years of dominance by the slide rule was brought to a screeching halt by the launch of the first pocket calculator in 1972.

Quadratic equations are equations with an x and an x², e.g. 3x² + 2x – 4 = 0. ‘Quadratics have become so crucial to the understanding of the world, that it is no exaggeration to say that they underpin modern science’ (p.200).

Chapter Six – Playtime

Number games. The origin of Sudoku, which is Japanese for ‘the number must appear only once’. There are some 5 billion ways for numbers to be arranged in a table of nine cells so that the sum of any row or column is the same.

There have, apparently, only been four international puzzle crazes with a mathematical slant – the tangram, the Fifteen puzzle, Rubik’s cube and Sudoku – and Bellos describes the origin and nature and solutions to all four. More than 300 million cubes have seen sold since Ernö Rubik came up with the idea in 1974. Bellos gives us the latest records set in the hyper-competitive sport of speedcubing: the current record of restoring a copletely scrambled cube to order (i.e. all the faces of one colour) is 7.08 seconds, a record held by Erik Akkersdijk, a 19-year-old Dutch student.

A visit to the annual Gathering for Gardner, honouring Martin Gardner, one of the greatest popularisers of mathematical games and puzzles who Bellos visits. The origin of the ambigram, and the computer game Tetris.

Chapter Seven – Secrets of Succession

The joy of sequences. Prime numbers.

The fundamental theorem of arithmetic – In number theory, the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, also called the unique factorization theorem or the unique-prime-factorization theorem, states that every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers.

The Goldbach conjecture – one of the oldest and best-known unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics. It states that, Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes. The conjecture has been shown to hold for all integers less than 4 × 1018, but remains unproven despite considerable effort.

Neil Sloane’s idea of persistence – The number of steps it takes to get to a single digit by multiplying all the digits of the preceding number to obtain a second number, then multiplying all the digits of that number to get a third number, and so on until you get down to a single digit. 88 has a persistence of three.

88 → 8 x 8 = 64 → 6 x 4 = 24 → 2 x 4 = 8

John Horton Conway’s idea of the powertrain – For any number abcd its powertrain goes to abcd, in the case of numbers with an odd number of digits the final one has no power, abcde’s powertrain is abcde.

The Recamán sequence Subtract if you can, unless a) it would result in a negative number or b) the number is already in the sequence. The result is:

0, 1, 3, 6, 2, 7, 13, 20, 12, 21, 11….

Gijswijt’s sequence a self-describing sequence where each term counts the maximum number of repeated blocks of numbers in the sequence immediately preceding that term.

1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 1, …

Perfect number A perfect number is any number that is equal to the sum of its factors. Thus 6 – its factors (the numbers which divided into it) are 1, 2 and 3. Which also add up to (are the sum of) 6. The next perfect number is 28 because its factors – 1, 2, 4, 7, 14 – add up to 28. And so on.

Amicable numbers A number is amicable if the sum of the factors of the first number equals the second number, and if the sum of the factors of the second number equals the first. The factors of 220 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55 and 110. Added together these make 284. The factors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71 and 142. Added together they make 220!

Sociable numbers In 1918 Paul Poulet invented the term sociable numbers. ‘The members of aliquot cycles of length greater than 2 are often called sociable numbers. The smallest two such cycles have length 5 and 28’

Mersenne’s prime A prime number which can be written in the form 2n – 1 a prime number that is one less than a power of two. That is, it is a prime number of the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. The exponents n which give Mersenne primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 19, 31, … and the resulting Mersenne primes are 3, 7, 31, 127, 8191, 131071, 524287, 2147483647, …

These and every other sequence ever created by humankind are documented on The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS), also cited simply as Sloane’s. This is an online database of integer sequences, created and maintained by Neil Sloane while a researcher at AT&T Labs.

Chapter Eight – Gold Finger

The golden section a number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

Phi The number is often symbolized using phi, after the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet. In an equation form:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420 …

As with pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the digits go on and on, theoretically into infinity. Phi is usually rounded off to 1.618.

The Fibonnaci sequence Each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. So the sequence goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. The mathematical equation describing it is Xn+2= Xn+1 + Xn.

as the basis of seeds in flowerheads, arrangement of leaves round a stem, design of nautilus shell and much more.

Chapter Nine – Chance Is A Fine Thing

A chapter about probability and gambling.

Impossibility has a value 0, certainty a value 1, everything else is in between. Probabilities can be expressed as fractions e.g. 1/6 chance of rolling a 6 on a die, or as percentages, 16.6%, or as decimals, 0.16…

The probability is something not happening is 1 minus the probability of that thing happening.

Probability was defined and given mathematical form in 17th century. One contribution was the questions the Chevalier de Méré asked the mathematical prodigy Blaise Pascal. Pascal corresponded with his friend, Pierre de Fermat, and they worked out the bases of probability theory.

Expected value is what you can expect to get out of a bet. Bellos takes us on a tour of the usual suspects – rolling dice, tossing coins, and roulette (invented in France).

Payback percentage if you bet £10 at craps, you can expect – over time – to receive an average of about £9.86 back. In other words craps has a payback percentage of 98.6 percent. European roulette has a payback percentage of 97.3 percent. American roulette, 94.7 percent. On other words, gambling is a fancy way of giving your money away. A miserly slot machine has a payback percentage of 85%. The National Lottery has a payback percentage of 50%.

The law of large numbers The more you play a game of chance, the more likely the results will approach the statistical probability. Toss a coin three times, you might get three heads. Toss a coin a thousand times, the chances are you will get very close the statistical probability of 50% heads.

The law of very large numbers With a large enough sample, outrageous coincidences become likely.

The gambler’s fallacy The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future (or vice versa). In other words, that a random process becomes less random, and more predictable, the more it is repeated.

The birthday paradox The probability that, in a set of n randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday. By the pigeonhole principle, the probability reaches 100% when the number of people reaches 367 (since there are only 366 possible birthdays, including February 29). However, 99.9% probability is reached with just 70 people, and 50% probability with 23 people. (These conclusions are based on the assumption that each day of the year (excluding February 29) is equally probable for a birthday.) In other words you only need a group of 23 people to have an evens chance that two of them share a birthday.

The drunkard’s walk

The difficulty of attaining true randomness and the human addiction to finding meaning in anything.

The distinction between playing strategy (best strategy to win a game) and betting strategy (best strategy to maximise your winnings), not always the same.

Chapter Ten – Situation Normal

Carl Friedrich Gauss, the bell curve, normal distribution aka Gaussian distribution. Normal or Gaurrian distribution results in a bell curve. Bellos describes the invention and refinement of the bell curve (he explains that ‘the long tail’ results from a mathematician who envisioned a thin bell curve as looking like two kangaroos facing each other with their long tails heading off in opposite directions). And why

Regression to the mean – if the outcome of an event is determined at least in part by random factors, then an extreme event will probably be followed by one that is less extreme. And recent devastating analyses which show how startlingly random sports achievements are, from leading baseball hitters to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s analysis of the form of the England soccer team.

Chapter Eleven – The End of the Line

Two breakthroughs which paved the way for modern i.e. 20th century, maths: the invention of non-Euclidean geometry, specifically the concept of hyperbolic geometry. To picture this draw a triangle on a Pringle. it is recognisably a triangle but all its angles do not add up to 180°, therefore it defies, escapes, eludes all the rule of Euclidean geometry, which were designed for flat 2D surfaces.

Bellos introduces us to Daina Taimina, a maths prof at Cornell University, who invented a way of crocheting hyperbolic surfaces. The result looks curly, like curly kale or the surface of coral.

Anyway, the breakaway from flat 2-D Euclidean space led to theories about curved geometry, either convex like a sphere, or hyperbolic like the pringle. It was this notion of curved space, which paved the way for Einstein’s breakthrough ideas in the early 20th century.

The second big breakthrough was Georg Cantor’s discovery that you can have many different types of infinity. Until Cantor the mathematical tradition from the ancient Greeks to Galileo and Newton had fought shy of infinity which threatened to disrupt so many formulae.

Cantor’s breakthrough was to stop thinking about numbers, and instead think of sets. This is demonstrated through the paradoxes of Hilbert’s Hotel. You need to buckle your safety belt to understand it.

Thoughts

This is easily the best book about maths I’ve ever read. It gives you a panoramic history of the subject which starts with innumerate cavemen and takes us to the edge of Einstein’s great discoveries. But Bellos adds to it all kinds of levels and abilities.

He is engaging and candid and funny. He is fantastically authoritative, taking us gently into forests of daunting mathematical theory without placing a foot wrong. He’s a great explainer. He knows a good story when he sees one, and how to tell it engagingly. And in every chapter there is a ‘human angle’ as he describes his own personal meetings and interviews with many of the (living) key players in the world of contemporary maths, games and puzzles.

Like the Ian Stewart book but on a vastly bigger scale, Bellos makes you feel what it is like to be a mathematician, not just interested in nature’s patterns (the basis of Stewart’s book, Nature’s Numbers) but in the beauty of mathematical theories and discoveries for their own sakes. (This comes over very strongly in chapter seven with its description of some of the weirdest and wackiest number sequences dreamed up by the human mind.) I’ve often read scientists describing the beauty of mathematical theories, but Bellos’s book really helps you develop a feel for this kind of beauty.

For me, I think three broad conclusions emerged:

1. Most mathematicians are in it for the fun. Setting yourself, and solving, mathematical puzzles is obviously extremely rewarding. Maths includes the vast territory of puzzles and games, such as the Sudoku and so on he describes in chapter six. Obviously it has all sorts of real-world application in physics, engineering and so on, but Bellos’s book really brings over that a true understanding of maths begins in puzzles, games and patterns, and often remains there for a lifetime. Like everything else maths is no highly professionalised the property of tenured professors in universities; and yet even to this day – as throughout its history – contributions can be made by enthusiastic amateurs.

2. As he points out repeatedly, many insights which started out as the hobby horses of obsessives, or arcane breakthroughs on the borders of our understanding, and which have been airily dismissed by the professionals, often end up being useful, having applications no-one dreamed of. Either they help unravel aspects of the physical universe undreamed of when they were discovered, or have been useful to human artificers. Thus the development of random number sequences seemed utterly pointless in the 19th century, but now underlies much internet security.

On a profounder note, Bellos expresses the eerie, mystical sense many mathematicians have that it seems so strange, so pregnant with meaning, that so many of these arcane numbers end up explaining aspects of the world their inventors knew nothing of. Ian Stewart has an admirably pragmatic explanation for this: he speculates that nature uses everything it can find in order to build efficient life forms. Or, to be less teleological, over the past 3 and a half billion years, every combination of useful patterns has been tried out. Given this length of time, and the incalculable variety of life forms which have evolved on this planet, it would be strange if every number system conceivable by one of those life forms – humankind – had not been tried out at one time or another.

3. My third conclusion is that, despite John Allen Paulos’s and Bellos’s insistence, I do not live in a world ever-more bombarded by maths. I don’t gamble on anything, and I don’t follow sports – the two biggest popular areas where maths is important – and the third is the twin areas of surveys and opinion polls (55% of Americans believe in alien abductions etc etc) and the daily blizzard of reports (for example, I see in today’s paper that the ‘Number of primary school children at referral units soars’).

I register their existence but they don’t impact on me for the simple reason that I don’t believe any of them. In 1992 every opinion poll said John Major would lose the general election, but he won with a thumping majority. Since then I haven’t believed any poll about anything. For example almost all the opinion polls predicted a win for Remain in the Brexit vote. Why does any sane person believe opinion polls?

And ‘new and shocking’ reports come out at the rate of a dozen a day and, on closer examination, lots of them turn out to be recycled information, or much much more mundane releases of data sets from which journalists are paid to draw the most shocking and extreme conclusions. Some may be of fleeting interest but once you really grasp that the people reporting them to you are paid to exaggerate and horrify, you soon learn to ignore them.

If you reject or ignore these areas – sport, gambling and the news (made up of rehashed opinion polls, surveys and reports) – then unless you’re in a profession which actively requires the sophisticated manipulation of figures, I’d speculate that most of the rest of us barely come into contact with numbers from one day to the next.

I think that’s the answer to Paulos and Bellos when they are in ‘why aren’t more people mathematically numerate?’ mode – maths is difficult, and counter-intuitive, and hard to understand and follow, it is a lot of work, it does make your head ache. Even trying to solve a simple binomial equation hurt my brain. But I think the biggest reason that ‘we’ are so innumerate is simply that – beautiful, elegant, satisfying and thought-provoking though it may be to the professionals – maths is more or less irrelevant to most of our day to day lives, most of the time.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart (1995)

Stewart is a mathematician and prolific author, having written over 40 books on all aspects of maths, as well as publishing guides to the maths used in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, authoring half a dozen textbooks for students and co-authoring a couple of science fiction novels.

He writes in a marvellously clear style, but more importantly, he is interesting: he sees the world in an interesting way and manages to convey the wonder and strangeness and powerful insights which seeing the world in terms of patterns and shapes, numbers and maths, gives you.

He wants to help us see the world as a mathematician sees it, full of clues and information which can lead us to deeper and deeper appreciation of the patterns and harmonies all around us.

1. The Natural Order

Thus he begins the book by describing just some of nature’s patterns: the regular movements of the stars in the night sky; the sixfold symmetry of snowflakes; the stripes of tigers and zebras; the recurring patterns of sand dunes; rainbows; the spiral of a snail’s shell; why nearly all flowers have petals arranged in one of the following numbers 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89; the regular patterns or ‘rhythms’ made by animals scuttling, walking, flying and swimming.

2. What Mathematics is For

Mathematics is brilliant at helping us to solve puzzles. it is a more or less systematic way of digging out the rules and structures that lie behind some observed pattern or regularity, and then using those rules and structures to explain what’s going on. (p.16)

Kepler discovers the planets move in ellipses. The nature of acceleration, ‘not a fundamental quality, a rate of change’. Newton and Leibniz invent calculus to help us work out rates of change.

Two of the main things that maths are for are 1. providing the tools which let scientists understand what nature is doing 2. providing new theoretical questions for mathematicians to explore further. Applied and pure mathematics.

He mentions one of the oddities, paradoxes or thought-provoking things that comes up in many science books which is the eerie way that good mathematics, whatever its source, eventually turns out to be useful, to be applicable to the real world, to explain some aspect of nature. Many philosophers have wondered why. Is there a deep congruence between the human mind and the structure of the universe? Did God make the universe mathematically and implant an understanding of maths in us? Is the universe made of maths?

Stewart’s answer is simple and elegant: he thinks that nature exploits every pattern that there is, which is why we keep discovering patterns everywhere. We humans express these patterns in numbers, but it isn’t the numbers nature uses – it’s the patterns and shapes and possibilities which the numbers express, or define.

Mendel noticing the numerical relationships with which characteristics of peas are expressed when they are crossbred. The double helix structure of DNA. The computer simulation of the evolution of the eye from an initial mutation providing for skin cells sensitive to light, published by Daniel Nilsson and Susanne Pelger in 1994.

Resonance = the relationship between periodically moving bodies in which their cycles lock together so that they take up the same relative positions at regular intervals. The cycle time is the period of the system. The individual bodies have different periods. The moon’s rotational period is the same as its revolution around the earth, so there is a 1:1 resonance of its orbital and rotational period.

Mathematics doesn’t just analyse, it can predict, predict how all kinds of systems will work, from the aerodynamics which keep planes flying to the amount of fertiliser required to increase crop yield to the complicated calculations which keep communications satellites in orbit round the earth and therefore sustain the internet and mobile phone networks.

Time lags: the gap between a new mathematical idea being developed and its practical implementation can be a century or more: it was 17th century interest in the vibration of a violin string which led, three hundred years later, to the invention of radio, radar and TV.

3. What Mathematics is About

The word ‘number’ does not have any immutable, God-given meaning. (p.42)

Numbers are the most prominent part of mathematics and everyone is taught arithmetic at school, but numbers are just one type of object that mathematics is interested in.

The invention of numbers. Fractions. Some time in the Dark Ages the invention of 0. The invention of negative numbers, then of square roots. Irrational numbers. ‘Real’ numbers.

Whole numbers 1, 2, 3… are known as the natural numbers. If you include negative whole number, the series is known as integers. Positive and negative numbers are known as rational numbers. Then there are real numbers and complex numbers. Five systems in total.

But maths is also about operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And functions, also known as transformations, rules for transforming one mathematical object into another. Many of these processes can be thought of as things which help to create data structures.

Maths is like a landscape with similar proofs and theories clustered together to create peaks and troughs.

4. The Constants of Change

Newton’s basic insight was that changes in nature can be described by mathematical processes. Stewart explains how detailed consideration of what happens to a cannonball fired out of a cannon helps us towards Newton’s fundamental law, that force = mass x acceleration.

Newton invented calculus to help work out solutions to moving bodies. Its two basic operations – integration and differentiation – mean that, given one element – force, mass or acceleration – you can work out the other two. Differentiation is the technique for finding rates of change; integration is the technique for ‘undoing’ the effect of differentiation.

Calculating rates of change is a crucial aspect of maths, engineering, cosmology and many other areas.

5. From Violins to Videos

A fascinating historical recap of how initial investigations into the way a violin string vibrates gave rise to formulae and equations which turned out to be useful in mapping electricity and magnetism, which turned out to be aspects of the same fundamental force, understanding which underpinned the invention of radio, radar, TV etc, taking in contributions from Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz and Giulielmo Marconi.

Stewart makes the point that mathematical theory tends to start with the simple and immediate and grow ever-more complicated. This is because you have to start somewhere.

6. Broken Symmetry

A symmetry of an object or system is any transformation that leaves it invariant. (p.87)

There are many types of symmetry. The most important ones are reflections, rotations and translations.

7. The Rhythm of Life

The nature of oscillation and Hopf bifurcation (if a simplified system wobbles, then so must the complex system it is derived from) leads into a discussion of how animals, specifically animals with legs, move, which is by staggered or syncopated oscillations, oscillations of muscles triggered by neural circuits in the brain.

This is a subject Stewart has written about elsewhere and is something of an expert on. The seven types of quadrupedal gait are: the trot, pace, bound, walk, rotary gallop, transverse gallop, and canter.

8. Do Dice Play God?

Stewart’s take on chaos theory.

Chaotic behaviour obeys deterministic laws, but is so irregular that to the untrained eye it looks pretty much random. Chaos is not complicated, patternless behaviour; it is much more subtle. Chaos is apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that actually has a simple, deterministic explanation. (p.130)

19th century scientists thought that, if you knew the starting conditions, and then the rules governing any system, you could completely predict the outcomes. In the 1970s and 80s it became increasingly unclear that this was wrong. It is impossible because you can never define the starting conditions with complete certainty.

Thus all real world behaviours are subject to ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. From minuscule divergences at the start point, cataclysmic differences may eventually emerge.

He then explains the concept of phase space developed by Henri Poincaré: this is an imaginary mathematical space that represents all possible motions in a given dynamic system. The phase space is the 3-D place in which you plot the behaviour in order to create the phase portrait. Instead of having to define a formula and worrying about identifying every number of the behaviour, the general shape can be determined.

Much use of phase portraits has shown that dynamic systems tend to have set shapes which emerge and which systems move towards. These are called attractors.

9. Drops, Dynamics and Daisies

The book ends by drawing a kind of philosophical conclusion.

Chaos theory has all sorts of implications but the one he closes on is this: the world is not chaotic; if anything, it is boringly predictable. And at the level of basic physics and maths, the laws which seem to underpin it are also schematic and simple. And yet what we are only really beginning to appreciate is how complicated things are in the middle.

It is as if nature can only get from simple laws (like Newton’s incredibly simple law of thermodynamics) to fairly simple outcomes (the orbit of the planets) via almost incomprehensibly complex processes. To end, Stewart gives us three examples of the way apparently ‘simple’ phenomena in nature derive from stupefying complexity:

  • what exactly happens when a drop of water falls off a tap
  • computer modelling of the growth of fox and rabbit populations
  • why petals on flowers are arranged in numbers derived from the Fibonacci sequence

In all three cases the underlying principles seem to be resolvable into laws and functions – and we see water dropping off taps or flowerheads all the time – and yet the intermediate steps are bogglingly complex.

Coda: Morphomatics

He ends the book with an epilogue speculating, hoping and wishing for a new kind of mathematics which incorporates chaos theory and the other elements he’s discussed – a theory and study of form, which takes everything we already know about mathematics and seeks to work out how the almost incomprehensible complexity we are discovering in nature gives rise to all the ‘simple’ patterns which we see around us.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970)

One of the most dazzling, mind-boggling and genuinely gripping novels I’ve ever read.

The story is set in the future, after the customary nuclear war which happens in so many futurestories. The twist on this one is that, after the radiation died down, the world’s powers agreed under something referred to as ‘the Covenant’ to put Sweden in charge, handing over all nuclear devices to a country big enough to manage them and keep the peace, but small enough not to have any global ambitions of her own.

Thus liberated from war, humanity – again, as in so many of these optimistic futurestories from the 1950s and 60s – has focused its efforts on space exploration using the handy new ‘ion drive’ which has been discovered, along with something called ‘Bussard engines’, helped along by elaborate ‘scoopfield webs’ to create ‘magnetohydrodynamic fields’.

Reaction mass entered the fire chamber. Thermonuclear generators energised the furious electric arcs that stripped those atoms down to ions; the magnetic fields that separated positive and negative particles; the forces that focused them into beams; the pulses that lashed them to ever higher velocities as they sped down the rings of the thrust tubes, until they emerged scarcely less fast than light itself.

The idea is that the webs are extended ‘nets’ a kilometre or so wide, which drag in all the hydrogen atoms which exist in low density in space, charging and channeling them towards the ‘drive’ which strips them to ions and thrusts them fiercely out the back of the ship – hence driving it forward.

Several voyages of exploration have already been undertaken to the nearest star systems in space ships which use these drives to travel near the speed of light, and fast-moving ‘probes’ have been sent to all the nearest star systems.

One of these probes reached the star system Centauri and now, acting on its information, a large spaceship, the Leonora Christine, is taking off on a journey to see if the third planet orbiting round Centauri really is habitable, as the probe suggests, and could be settled by ‘man’.

Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that as any object approaches the speed of light, its experience of time slows down. The plan is for the Leonora Christine to accelerate for a couple of years towards near light speed, travel at that speed for a year, then slow down for a couple of years.

Five years there, whereupon they will either a) stay if the planet is habitable b) return, if it is not. Due to this time dilation effect those on the expedition will only age twelve years or so, while 43 or more years will pass back on earth (p.49).

(Time dilation is a key feature of Joe Haldeman’s novel, The Forever War, in which the protagonist keeps returning from tours of duty off-world to discover major changes in terrestrial society have taken place in his absence: it is, therefore, a form of one-way time travel.)

The Leonora Christine carries no fewer than fifty passengers, a cross-section of scientists, engineers, biologists and so on. Unlike any other spaceship I’ve read of it is large enough to house a gym, a theatre, a canteen and a swimming pool!

Two strands

Tau Zero is made up of two very different types of discourse. It is (apparently) a classic of ‘hard’ sci fi because not three pages go by without Anderson explaining in daunting technical detail the process workings of the ion drive, or the scoopnets, explaining the ratio of hydrogen atoms in space, or how the theory of relativity works, and so on. Not only are there sizeable chunks of uncompromising scientific information every few pages, but understanding them is key to the plot and narrative.

Starlike burned the hydrogen fusion, aft of the Bussard module that focused the electromagnetism which contained it. A titanic gas-laser effect aimed photons themselves in a beam whose reaction pushed the ship forward – and which would have vaporised any solid body it struck. The process was not 100 percent efficient. But most of the stray energy went to ionise the hydrogen which escaped nuclear combustion. These protons and electrons, together with the fusion products, were also hurled backward by the force fields, a gale of plasma adding its own increment of momentum. (p.40)

But at the same time, or regularly interspersed with the tech passages, are the passages describing the ‘human interest’ side of the journey, which is full of clichés and stereotypes, a kind of Peyton Place in space. To be more specific, the book was first published in instalments in 1967 and it has a very 1960s mindset. Anderson projects idealistic 1960s talk about ‘free love’ into a future in which adults have no moral qualms about ‘sleeping around’.

Before they leave, the novel opens with a pair of characters in a garden in Stockholm walking and having dinner and then the woman, Ingrid Lindgren, proposes to the man, Charles Reymont, that they become a couple. During all the adventures that follow, there is a continual exchanging of partners among the 25 men and 25 women on board, with little passages set aside for flirtations and guytalk about the girls or womentalk about the boys.

When a partnership ends one of the couple moves out, the other moves in with a room-mate of the same sex for a period, or immediately moves in with their new partner. It’s like wife-swapping in space. In a key moment of the plot, the ship’s resident astronomer, a short ugly anti-social and smelly man, becomes so depressed that he can no longer function. At which point Ingrid tactfully gets rid of the concerned captain and officers and… sleeps with him. So sex is deployed ‘tactically’ as a form of therapy.

Sex

He admired the sight of her. Unclad, she could never be called boyish. The curves of her breasts and flank were subtler than ordinary, but they were integral with the rest of her – not stuccoed on, as with too many women – and when she moved, they flowed. So did the light along her skin which had the hue of the hills around San Francisco Bay in their summer, and the light in her hair, which had the smell of every summer day that ever was on earth. (p.62)

Feminism

From a feminist perspective, it is striking how the 25 women aboard the ship are a) all scientists and experts in their fields b) are not passive sex objects, but very active in deciding who they want to partner with and why. One of the two strong characters in the narrative is a woman, Ingred Lindgren.

Characters

  • Captain Lars Telander
  • Ingrid Lindgren, steely disciplined first officer
  • Charles Reymont, takes over command when the ship hits crisis
  • Boris Fedoroff, Chief Engineer
  • Norbert Williams, American chemist
  • Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, Planetologist
  • Emma Glassgold, molecular biologist
  • Jane Sadler, Canadian bio-technician
  • Machinist Johann Freiwald
  • Astronomer Elof Nilsson
  • Navigation Officer, Auguste Boudreau
  • Biosystems Chief Pereira
  • Margarita Jimenes
  • Iwamoto Tetsuo
  • Hussein Sadek
  • Yeshu ben-Zvi
  • Mohandas Chidambaran
  • Phra Takh
  • Kato M’Botu

Thus the ship’s progress proceeds smoothly, while the crew discuss decorating the canteen and common rooms, paint murals and have numerous affairs. Five years is a long time to pass in a confined ship. And meanwhile the effects of travelling ever closer to light speed create unusual effects and, to be honest, I was wondering what all the fuss was about this book.

When Leonora Christine attained a substantial fraction of light speed, its optical effects became clear to the unaided sight. Her velocity and that of the rays from a star added vectorially; the result was aberration. Except for whatever lay dead aft or ahead, the apparent position changed. Constellations grew lopsided, grew grotesque, and melted, as their members crawled across the dark. More and more, the stars thinned out behind the ship and crowded before her. (p.45)

Tau

Anderson gives us a couple of pages introducing the tau equation. This defines the ‘interdependence of space, time, matter, and energy’, If v is the velocity of the spaceship, and c the velocity of light, then tau equals the square root of 1 minus v² divided by c². In other words the closer the ship’s velocity, v, gets to the speed of light, c (186,00 miles per second), then v² divided by c² gets closer and closer to 1; therefore 1 minus something which is getting closer to 1 gets closer and closer to 0; and the square root of that number similarly approaches closer and closer to zero.

Or to put it another way, the closer tau gets to zero the faster the ship is flying, the greater its mass, and the slower the people inside it experience time, relative to the rest of the ‘static’ universe.

The plot kicks in

So the narrative trundles amiably along for the first 60 or so pages, interspersing passages of dauntingly technical exposition with the petty jealousies, love affairs and squabbles of the human characters, until…

The ship passes through an unanticipated gas cloud, just solid enough to possibly destroy her, at the very least do damage – due to the enormous speed she’s now flying at which effects her mass.

Captain Telander listens to his experts feverishly calculating what impact will mean but ultimately they have to batten down the hatches, make themselves secure and hope for the best, impact happening on page 75 of this 190-page long book.

In the event the ship survives but the technicians quickly discover that impact has knocked out the decelerating engines. Now, much worse, the technicians explain to the captain and the lead officers, First Officer Lindgren and the man responsible for crew discipline, Reymont, the terrible catch-22 they’re stuck in.

In order to investigate what’s happened to the decellerator engines, the technicians would have to go to the rear of the ship and investigate manually. Unfortunately, they would be vaporised in nano-seconds by the super-powerful ion drive if they got anywhere near it. Therefore, no-one can investigate what’s wrong with the decelerator engine until the accelerator engine is turned off.

But here’s the catch: the ship is travelling so close to the speed of light that, if they turned the accelerator engines off, the crew would all be killed in moments. Why? Because the ship is constantly being bombarded by hydrogen atoms found in small amounts throughout space. At the moment the accelerator engines and scoopfield webs are directing these atoms away from the ship and down into the ion drive. The ion drive protects the ship. The moment it is turned off, these hydrogen atoms will suddenly be bombarding the ship’s hull and, because of the speed it is going at, the effect will be to split the hydrogen atoms releasing gamma rays. The gamma rays will penetrate the hull and fry all the humans inside in moments.

Thus they cannot stop. They are doomed to continue accelerating forever or until they all die.

It is at this point that the way Anderson has introduced us to quite a few named characters, and shown them bickering, explaining abstruse theory, getting drunk and getting laid begins to show its benefits. Because the rest of the novel consists of a series of revelations about the logical implications of their plight and, if these were just explained in tech speak they would be pretty flat and dull: the drama, the grip of the novel derives from the way the matrix of characters he’s developed respond to each new revelation: getting drunk, feeling suicidal, determined to tough it out, relationships fall apart, new relationships are formed. In and of themselves these human interest passages are hardly Tolstoy, but they are vital for the novel’s success because they dramatise each new twist in the story and, as the characters discuss the implications, the time spent reading their dialogue and thoughts helps the reader, also, to process and assimilate the story’s mind-blowing logic.

A series of unfortunate incidents

Basically what happens is there is a series of four or five further revelations which confirm the astronauts in their plight, but expand it beyond their, or our, wildest imaginings.

At first the captain and engineer come up with a plan of sorts. They know, or suspect, that between galaxies the density of hydrogen atoms in the ether falls off. If they can motor beyond our galaxy they can find a place where the hydrogen density of space is so minute that they can afford to turn off the ion drive and repair the decelerator.

This is discussed in detail, with dialogue working through both the technical aspects and also the emotional consequences. Many of the crew had anticipated returning to earth to be reunited with at least some members of their family. Now that has gone for good. As has the original plan of exploring an earth-style planet.

And so we are given some mind-blowing descriptions of the ship deliberately accelerating in order to pass right through the galaxy and beyond. But unfortunately, the scientists then discover that the space between galaxies is not thin enough to protect them. Also there is another catch-22. In order to travel out of the galaxy they have had to increase speed. But now they are flying everso close to the speed of light, the risk posed by turning off the ion drive and exposing themselves to the stray hydrogen atoms in space has become greater. The faster they go in order to find space thin enough to stop in, the thinner that space has to become.

The astronomers now come to the conclusion that space is still to full of hydrogen atoms in the sectors which contain clusters of galaxies. They decide to increase the ship’s velocity even more in order not just to leave our galaxy, but to get clear of our entire family of galaxies. This they calculate, will take another year or so at present velocities.

Thus it is that the book moves forward by presenting a new problem, the scientists suggest a solution which involves travelling faster and further, the crew is told and slowly gets used to the idea, as do we, via various conversations and attitudes and emotional responses. But when that goal is attained, it turns out there is another problem, and so the tension and the narrative drive of the book is relentlessly ratcheted up.

And of course, the further they travel and the closer to light speed, the more the tau effect predicts that time slows down for them, or, to put it another way, time speeds up for the rest of the universe. Early on in the post-disaster section, the crew assemble to celebrate the fact that a hundred years have passed back on earth: everyone they knew is dead. It is a sombre assembly with heavy drinking, casual sex, melancholy thoughts.

But by the time we get to the bit where they have flown clear of the galaxy only to be disappointed to find that inter-galactic space is too full of hydrogen for them to stop, by this stage they realise that thousands of years have passed back on earth.

By the time they fly free of the entire cluster of galaxies, they know that tens of thousands of years have passed. And eventually, as their tau approaches closer and closer to zero, they realise that millions of years have passed (one million is passed n page 136).

For when they do eventually fly beyond our entire family of galaxies they encounter another problem which is discovering that empty space is now too dispersed to allow them to decelerate. Even if they turn off the ion drive and fix the decelerating engine, there isn’t enough matter in truly empty space for the engine to latch on to and use as fuel to slow them (p.147).

Thus they decide to continue onwards, letting their acceleration, and mass, increase until they find a part of space with just the right conditions.

The accessible mass of the whole galactic clan that was her goal proved inadequate to brake her velocity. Therefore she did not try. Instead, she used what she swallowed to drive forward all the faster. She traversed the domain of this second clan – with no attempt at manual control, simply spearing through a number of its member galaxies – in two days. On the far side, again into hollow space, she fell free. The stretch to the next attainable clan was on the order of another hundred million light-years. She made the passage in about a week. (p.151)

On they fly at incomprehensible speed, while various human interest stories unfurl between the ship’s crew, until they (and the reader) reach the blasé condition of feeling the ship’s hull rattle and hum for a few moments and a character will say, ‘There goes another galaxy’.

Now if this was a J.G. Ballard novel, they’d all have gone mad and started eating each other by now. Anderson’s take on human psychology is much more bland and optimistic. Some of the crew get a bit depressed, but nothing some casual sex, or a project to redecorate the canteen can’t fix.

The main ‘human’ part of the narrative describes the way the ship’s ‘constable’, Charles Reymont who we met back on the opening pages, takes effective control from the captain. Initially this is basic psychology, Charles realising it will help discipline best if the captain becomes an aloof figure beyond criticism or reproach while he, Charles, imposes discipline, structure and purpose – allotting the crew tasks and missions to perform to maintain their morale, and letting them hate or resent him for it if they will. But over time the captain really does lose the ability to decide anything and Charles becomes the ship’s dictator. This is complicated by the fact that he discovers the woman who had suggested they become a couple, Ingrid, in someone else’s bed though she swears she was only doing it for therapeutic purposes. They split up and Charles pairs off with the Chinese planetologist, Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, leading to a number of sexy descriptions of her naked body. But Ingrid continues to hold a torch for him and he for her. That’s the spine of the ‘human interest’ part of the novel.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed and indeed, in the last 40 pages or so a character lets slips that it must be over a billion years since they left earth.

it’s at this stage that the book becomes truly visionary. For, after some delay and conferring with colleagues, the astronomer comes to the captain and Reymont and Lindgren to announce that… the universe itself is changing. The galaxies they are flying through no longer contain fit young stars. Increasingly what they’re seeing through their astronomical instruments (not the naked eye) is that the galaxies are made of low intensity red dwarfs.

The universe is running down.

So many billion years have passed – one character estimates one hundred billion years (p.170) that they have travelled far into ‘the future’ and are witnessing the end of the universe. The stars are going out and the actual space of the universe is contracting.

Anderson’s vision is based on the theory that the universe began in a big bang, has and will expand for billions of years but will eventually reach a stage where the initial blast of energy from the bang is so dispersed that it is countered by the cumulative gravity of all the matter in the universe – which will stop it expanding and make it slowly and then with ever-increasing speed, hurtle towards a ‘Big Crunch’ when all the matter in the universe returns to the primal singularity.

Face with this haunting, terrifying fact, the scientists again make calculations and act on a hunch. They guess that the singularity won’t actually become a minute particle but will be shrouded in ‘en enormous hydrogen envelope’ (p.175), the simplest chemical, and calculate that the ship will be flying so fast that it will survive the Big Crunch and live on to witness the creation of the next universe.

‘The outer part of that envelope may not be too hot or radiant or dense for us. Space will be small enough, though, that we can circle around and around the monobloc as a kind of satellite. When it blows up and space starts to expand again, we’ll spiral out ourselves.’ (Reymont, p.175)

And this is what happens. Anderson gives a mind bogging description of the ship reaching such an infinitesimal value of tau that it flies right through the Big Crunch and out into the new universe which explodes outwards (pp.181-3).

Indeed it is travelling so fast, and time outside is moving so fast, that they can chose how many billions of years into the history of the new universe they want to stop (p.184). A quick calculation suggests that it took about 10 billion years for a plenty like earth to come into being and establish the conditions for life to evolve, and so they calculate their deceleration to take place that far into the future of this new universe.

Epilogue

And this is what they do, and the last few pages cut to Reymont and Ingrid, the lovers we met in the opening pages falling dreamily in love, now lying under a tree on a planet which has an earth-like atmosphere but blue vegetation, three moons and all sorts of weird fauna and flora, as they plan their lives together (pp.188-190)

We left plausibility behind a long time ago. Instead the book turns into an absolutely gripping rollercoaster of a ride, one of the most genuinely mind-blowing and gripping stories I’ve ever read. What a trip!


Style

the foregoing summary may give the impression the story is told in language as clear as an instruction manual, but this would be wrong.

Putting the plot to one side, one of the most striking features of Tau Zero is its prose style – an odd and ungainly variant of standard English which makes you pause on every page.

Leonora Christine was nearing the third year of her journey, or the tenth year as the stars counted time, when grief came upon her. (p.63)

Anderson was born in America (in 1926) but his mother took him as a boy to live in Denmark where she’d originally come from, until the outbreak of war forced them to return. For this or the general fact of growing up in an immigrant Scandinavian family, Anderson’s English is oddly stilted and phrased. It often sounds like it’s been translated from a Norse saga.

She gave him cheerful greeting as he entered. (p.52)

They would live out their lives, and belike their children and grandchildren too (p.53)

He stood moveless (p.58)

Nor would he have stopped to dress, had he been abed. (p.64)

Telander must perforce smile a bit as he went out the door. (p.69)

Fedoroff spoke. His words fell contemptuous. (p.80)

He clapped the navigator’s back in friendly wise. (p.159)

She rested elbow on head, forehead on hand. (p.161)

Every pages has sentences containing odd kinks away from natural English. As a small example it’s typified by the way Anderson refers throughout the story not to the ship’s ‘crew’, but to its folk. Another consistent quirk is the way people don’t experience emotions or psychological states, these, in the form of abstract nouns, come over them.

Soberness had come upon her. (p.100)

Dismay sprang forth on Williams. (p.105)

Anger still upbore the biologist. (p.106)

Dismay shivered in her. (p.116)

Hardness fell from him. (p.125)

Weight grabbed at Reymont. (.167)

Sometimes he achieves a kind of incongruous poetry by accident.

Footsteps thudded in the mumble of energies. (p.70)

Ingrid Lindgren regarded him for a time that shivered. (p.71)

The ship jeered at him in her tone of distant lightnings. (p.84)

Sometimes it makes the already challenging technical explanations just that little bit more impenetrable.

Then again, maybe this slightly alien English helps to create a sense of mild dislocation which is not inappropriate for a science fiction story, especially one which takes us right to the edge of the universe and then beyond!


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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

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

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

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, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

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
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
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

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 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
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
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 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
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 a catastrophe on the moon

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 through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which 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 Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

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, namely 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
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

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

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

In the soothing reek of his tobacconist’s quiet stockroom, at the corner of Chancery Lane and Carey Street, Oliphant held the corner of the blue flimsy above the concise jet of a bronze cigar-lighter in the shape of a turbanned Turk. (p.338)

This is a really absorbing, intelligent and often mind-blowing book.

We are in 1855, though not the 1855 familiar from history books, for this is an alternative history. The ‘point of divergence’ from actual history appears to come around 1822 when Charles Babbage, not only theorises about the possibility of a computing machine (as he did in actual history) but builds one. This sets off a cascade of technological changes which result in a new political party, the Industrial Radical Party, seizing power, apparently by the assassination of then-Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, in 1831. This led to a period of widespread rioting and anarchy, during which Luddites smashed the new-fangled machinery, referred to by the characters as the Time of Troubles.

It was during, or as a result of this disorder, that the Industrial Radical Party came to power with a vision of a completely new type of society, governed by reason and science and calculation. The ‘Rads’ co-opted the more flexible of the Luddite and working class leaders into cushy jobs as leaders of tame trade unions (p.295). Once in power the ‘Rads’ inaugurate an era of dazzling new technological and industrial innovations, led by a great social movement of industrialists, radicals and savants.

Lord Byron emerges as the great orator of the Industrial Radical Party, but Charles Babbage is its grey eminence and foremost social theorist (p.93)

Examples of these innovations are that Charles Babbage’s Calculating Machine has found a wide variety of applications, including the creation of a Central Statistics Bureau which stores information about every person in the country via the medium of paper with holes punched in them (in reality, ‘punched card’ computers, which could only do very basic data storage, were not developed till the late 1890s, early 1900s).

Babbage’s very first Engine, now an honoured relic, was still less than thirty years old, but the swift progression of Enginery had swept a whole generation in its wake, like some mighty locomotive of the mind. (p.121)

British people are no longer ‘subjects’ in this technicalised society, they are ‘citizens’, each issued with a unique citizen number, against which numerous records are kept, including their credit rating.

Another example is the new-fangled kinetrope machines, sets of cellulose cards with images on them which are ‘clacked’ through a machine in front of a light source to produce moving images (about 40 years before the earliest moving picture machines were actually invented).

London’s underground train system is well advanced, with characters hopping off and on the noisy, smelly subterranean trains (in reality, the first tube line wasn’t opened until 1863). London’s streets are filled with steam engine-driven omnibuses or ‘gurneys’ as they seem to be called.

To summarise, in this alternative history, a wide range of new technologies have been developed about 50 years before they did so in the real world, and this produces a continual clash between the characters’ mid-Victorian speech, dress and behaviour, and the continual array of newfangled technology the authors keep creating for the to interact with.

Historical jokes

There are a number of knowing, nudge-nudge, boom-boom jokes in which the authors imagine alternative destinies for various Eminent Victorians. Thus I sat up with a jolt when one of the central characters is approached by a short, grey-haired man who says he started life as a doctor but then wasted his youth dallying with poetry, before finding his current métier – as a purveyor of kinetrope films. His name? John Keats.

Benjamin Disraeli, far from gouging his way up the ‘greasy pole’ of politics (it was Disraeli who coined that expression), is stuck as a super-fluent novelist and journalist.

A divergence from our history which is probably too large to be a ‘joke’ is that, in this alternative history, the American Civil war has already broken out and war is raging between the Union North and Confederate South. The most striking feature of the war has been a working class insurrection in New York which has led to the creation of a ‘Commune’ (just as was to happen in Paris in 1870) led by the German émigré journalist and agitator Karl Marx! Presumably he found an England ruled by the Industrial radical party not a safe place to settle and moved on to New York (where, after all, he had many sympathisers, the real Karl Marx writing numerous articles for the New York Daily Tribune as its Europe correspondent from 1852 to 1862).

Another joke for the literary-minded is the fact that, in this world Lord Byron did not die of malaria in Greece in 1824, but lived on to become a leader of the Radical Party and is, at the time of the novel, Prime Minister of England, although the social disturbances described in the middle of the story coincide with the ‘old Orator’s’ death.

In fact this is a central fact to the plot, because the mystery or secret at the heart of the book rotates around Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Byron who was, in our version of history, an advanced practitioner of Babbage’s theories, so much so that she is nowadays sometimes credited with being the very first computer programmer. In reality Ada died aged only 36 in 1852; in the novel she is still alive, but a very dubious figure, rumour has it she is addicted to gambling of all sorts and, when we first meet her, she appears to be high on drugs.

Style

The prose is stuffed and cluttered with two distinct elements, steampunk and Victoriana.

Steampunk

Continual reference to machines and technologies and the political party and scientific discoveries which dominate the age, never letting you forget its novel alternative industrial ambience. Wherever possible people use gadgets, machines which click and clunk together, cards which have hole punches, steam-gurneys in the street, offices with voice tubes, telegraphs not only between post offices but extending to people’s individual houses, and so on. Here’s a description of Oliphant’s telegraph machines.

Three Colt & Maxwell receiving-telegraphs, domed in glass, dominated the end of the table nearest the window, their tapes coiling into wire baskets arranged on the carpet. There was a spring-driven transmitter as well, and an encrypting tape-cutter of recent Whitehall issue. the various cables for these devices, in tightly-woven sleeves  of burgundy silk, snaked up to a floral eyebolt suspended from the central lavalier, where they then swung to a polished brass plate, beating the insignia of the Post Office, which was set into the wainscoting. (p.296)

Or the scene at the enormous Central Statistics Bureau, keeper of the most powerful Engines which keep tabs on all citizens:

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines – so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye – the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as railcars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewashed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. (p.136)

Victorian slang

I wonder how two authors born in South Carolina (Gibson) and Texas (Sterling) managed to create a prose style absolutely stuffed with Victorian slang and argot.

Rich style

But above and beyond these two identifiable components, the style is just very rich, the sentences seamed with inventive imagery and interesting vocabulary. Here are our heroes standing by the sewage-laden Thames.

Fraser looked up and down the mudflats at the foot of the embankment. Mallory followed his gaze. Small boats were embedded in the grey-black mud as if set in cement. Here and there along the bend of the Limehouse Reach, rivulets of viridian slime reached up through the gouged tracks of channel-dredgers. (p.253)

Or Oliphant looking at mugshots of Victorian criminals:

It was a collection of stipple-printed Engine portraits. Dark-haired Englishmen with hangdog looks. The little square picture-bits of the Engine prints were just big enough to distort their faces slightly, so that the men all seemed to have black drool in their mouths and dirt in the corner of their eyes. They all looked like brothers, some strange human sub-species of the devious and disenchanted. (p.128)

Or the lowering weather during the Stink of London:

Outside the Palace, the London sky was a canopy of yellow haze.
It hung above the city in gloomy grandeur, like some storm-fleshed, jellied man-o’war. Its tentacles, the uprising filth of the city’s smokestacks, twisted and fluted like candlesmoke in utter stillness, to splash against a lidded ceiling of glowering cloud. The invisible sun cast a drowned and watery light. (p.164)

Or the kind of zippy, mind-expanding phraseology which prose can do better than all TV or film:

It was hot, uncommon hot, beastly hot. There was not a ray of sun but the air was mortally still and the high cloudy sky had a leaden, glowering look, as if it wanted to rain but had forgotten the trick of it. (p.138)

The plot

The book is divided into five ‘iterations’.

First Iteration: The angel of Goliad (62 pages)

Cockney courtesan Sybil Gerrard, daughter of the Luddite agitator Walter Gerrard (who was hanged as the Radical Party took power) has been taken up by Michael Radley, Flash Mick, who promises to make her an apprentice adventuress and take her with him to Paris. Flash Mick is orchestrating the European speaking tour of Texas legend and American politician, Sam Houston. We witness one of his speeches about his life and times, which is accompanied by a kinetrope projection of moving pictures onto the backdrop behind him, managed by Mick. However, Houston double crosses Mick by stealing the projection cards. Mick sends Sybil up to Houston’s hotel room, while he keeps the Texan busy drinking in the hotel’s smoking room but Sybil is horrified to discover an assassin waiting in the room, who holds his knife to her throat to hush her. A few minutes later Mick opens the door into the darkened room, and finds himself pinned against the wall by the assassin and his throat brutally cut. Then Houston himself arrives to find himself confronted by the assassin. He’s one of the Texan fighters who consider that Houston betrayed them, particularly when Texan soldiers were massacred by the Mexicans who’d captured them after the battle of Goliad, and ran off with their money. Houston tries to sweet talk him round but the assassin pushes him to the floor and then shoots him in the chest, before smashing the hotel window and escaping down the fire escape.

Horrified, Sybil crawls to Houston’s body as he gurgles pleas for help, and realise she is crawling over diamonds which have spilled out from Houston’s cane. The man was a walking treasure trove. She stuffs as many as she can into her bodice, then stands and exits the hotel room. Standing for a moment quietly in the empty hotel corridor, before walking as casually as she can away.

Second Iteration: Derby Day (23 pages)

Introduces us Edward Mallory, tall, bearded hero of a scientific expedition to Wyoming where he discovered the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus, hence his nickname ‘Leviathan Mallory’.

He is at Epsom for the Derby, drinking in the sights and sounds of a mid-Victorian day out. He goes to see his younger brother, Tom, who’s got a good job working for the designer and builder of a new type of (steam-powered) racing machine, Michael Godwin (p.74). The machine looks like a big tadpole on wheels, named The Zephyr. Godwin suggests Mallory bets £10 on the Zephyr, but he doesn’t have that much. So Godwin says he’ll lend Mallory a tenner and if they win they’ll share the proceeds, or he can pay him back if it loses. So Mallory goes along to a betting booth, places the £10 and then, on impulse, decides to gamble all the money he has in the world, £40. In an exciting race, Zephyr wins at long odds. Mallory makes £500 – he is rich!

Mallory is making way for a steam-powered brougham or carriage pushing through the crowd, when he notices the young woman sitting in it punching the older woman by her side (p.85).

Mallory immediately intervenes to protest but a rough-looking man driving the carriage leaps out and asks him what business it is of his, lunges at him and – Mallory realises – stabs him in the thigh with a stiletto. Mallory is a big man, he was a boxing champion and has survived in the wilds of the American West. Now he smashes the little spiv in the face, breaking some of his teeth. The bloodied little man screams at Mallory that he will not only kill him, he will destroy him.

Mallory helps the woman who was hit out of the coach. She is wearing a veil and talks as if drugged and quite calmly hands a long wooden box, ‘something like an instrument case’ (p.85). When she removes the veil he realises it is Ada Byron, daughter of the Prime Minister and one of the most important theoreticians of the calculating machines which dominate modern life, ‘Lady Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines’ (p.89). Mallory accompanies her to the Royal Box where she is let in by the security guards, but not him, who they turn away. He wanders off puzzled, to collect his winnings, and realises he is still holding the long wooden case. What is in it? Why did she hand it to him?

When Mallory opens it he discovers it is full of Engine-produced cellulose cards i.e. designed to be ‘clacked’ or projected onto a screen via a light source. Mallory stashes it in his locker at the Museum of Practical Geology (p.103).

Third iteration: Dark Lanterns (102 pages)

The phrase dark lanterns appears to refer to people working undercover, for whatever reason.

Having recently returned from a scientific expedition to the American mid-West – where he cemented his reputation by discovering the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus – Mallory is staying in rooms at the vast Palace of Palaeontology. Here he is visited by Laurence Oliphant, supposedly a journalist, in fact some kind of official, and wounded in the ‘Tokyo Affair’, by a sabre slash across his wrist.

Oliphant knows Mallory’s secret – that on the scientific expedition he also undertook gun-running tasks for the Royal Society Commission on Free Trade. Unnervingly, he also knows that Professor Rudwick, who has recently been murdered in London, was also carrying out secret offices for the Commission on Free Trade. Rudwick had been arming the Comanche Indians in Texas. He was murdered the same night Sam Houston was wounded and his publicist, Mick Radley, was eviscerated, as we saw in the first iteration.

(It takes some teasing out from the hints scattered across the narrative, but I think the gun-running is somehow to undermine America by making Texas focus on is own troubles with Indians. We know America is racked by a civil war. Britain is happy for America to remain fragmented into separate countries – the Union, the Confederacy, an independent republic of Texas, and so on.)

Mallory walks through central London to the Museum of Practical Geology in Duke Street, where he meets and chats with Thomas Henry Huxley, in real history famous for publicising Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. For a long time after Darwin’s theory was published there were two schools of evolutionists: uniformitarians who believed the world was immensely old and evolution had taken place very slowly over vast periods; and catastrophists, who believed the whole world and its living systems were regularly shaken by cataclysms, volcanic activity, tsunamis, comets crashing into the planet, you name it and that these catastrophes ware the driving force of change in life forms. Until the start of the 20th century they actually had science on their side, because all educated opinion had it that the sun was only a few million years old. This was because astrophysicists knew nothing about radiation and dated the sun on the basis that it was a burning ball of hydrogen (p.178). Only with the discovery of sub-atomic particles and the splitting of the atom did science realise that the sun is driven by nuclear fusion, and that this process could have been going on for billions of years, which swung the pendulum in favour of the uniformitarians.

In the 1980s and 1990s Stephen Jay Gould and colleagues advanced the theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ i.e. the notion of very long periods of slow change interrupted by a number of cataclysmic events which rewrote ‘the book of life’. The debate continues to this day.

The conversation with Huxley makes it clear that Mallory was a catastrophist (which matches the sometimes melodramatic events of this book) (p.115). Huxley introduces the man who is going to erect the brontosaurus bones into a life sized model at the museum, and they have an argument since he has been told to build the animal squatting like a frog, since a rival palaeontologist thinks it lived in swamps. Mallory strongly disagrees and says it must be built with a tall neck stretching up like a giraffe, since it ate leaves off the canopies of trees.

Mallory goes to Horseferry Road, site of the Central Statistics Bureau, heart of this Engine-based society. He’s been advised to come here by Oliphant, in order to track down the ruffian who stabbed him at Epsom using the CBS’s vast ‘Engines’, primitive computers used to file and sort vast numbers of punched cards. Oliphant told him to contact Wakefield, Undersecretary for Quantitative Criminology.

Mallory bribes the assistant, Tobias, who Wakefield allots to help him look through the mugshots the Engines shoot out on the basis of his description. Doesn’t seem to be a record of the cad who stabbed him. But there is a mugshot of the vividly red-haired ‘tart’ who he saw punch Lady Ada. She is Florence Bartlett.

Back at the Palace of Palaeontology, sweating because of the hot summer weather, Mallory has lunch and picks up letters from his family back in Sussex (much is made of his Sussex heritage and a Sussex accent he can revert to, if provoked), and his little sister who’s getting married. it crosses his mind to buy her a wedding present.

So after lunch in the Palace’s dining room, Mallory walks along Piccadilly to Burlington Arcade where he buys a large clock for his younger sister and discovers he is being followed by a man who holds a handkerchief to his mouth a lot, who Mallory christens the Coughing Gent. Mallory lets himself be trailed into an alleyway where he suddenly springs on the man, driving him to the ground when he is himself struck hard on the back of the head by a cosh and collapses dazed, then wanders back down the alleyway to Piccadilly, leaning against a paling with blood coursing down his head and neck.

He realises he is near where Oliphant lives and blunders up to the door of his house in Half Moon Street. Oliphant lets Mallory in, tells his man to get water and a flannel and proceeds to clean and stitch up the wound. When Mallory suddenly remembers he left his sister’s precious clock in the alleyway, Oliphant dispatches Bligh who discovers it untouched and brings it safely back. Oliphant playfully speculates whether the attack was made on behalf of rival scientists (or ‘savants’ as they’re called throughout the book) or is some kind of payback for his gun-running activities in America.

Either way, he recommends the discreet services of Inspector Ebenezer Fraser of the Bow Street Special Branch.

In an eerie scene Oliphant then introduces Mallory to half a dozen Japanese businessmen and diplomats who have come to learn the ways of the West and raise their land out of backwardness and superstition. They are all kneeling Japanese style at a lacquer table in a back room of Oliphant’s apartment. Here they demonstrate to him a robot woman they have made which pours out drinks.

After passing a hot sweaty night in his rooms at the Palace, Mallory is woken by cleaners come to flush out the stinking toilet. There’s also a letter printed on celluloid, demanding that he return the box he took from lady Ada, via instructions given in the Daily Express, and threatening to ruin him otherwise, signed ‘Captain Swing’. Even as he reads it the card bursts into flames and he has to grab other papers to douse it. At that moment Ebenezer Fraser enters his office.

Fraser shows Mallory a photo of Professor Rudwick’s cut-up body and a note which implies it is only the first in a series. It seems someone is trying to frame Mallory and scare fellow savants into thinking he is instigating a series of murders.

Fraser and Mallory walk through London while they discuss a number of issues, recent history, the Time of Troubles, the triumph of the Industrial Radical Party, Lady Ada Byron’s real character (a savant, yes, but also a notorious gambler) for Mallory has an appointment to meet the noted romantic novelist and scribbler, Benjamin Disraeli, who he finds eating a breakfast of coffee and stinking mackerel fried in gin (!). Disraeli has been engaged to write an account of Mallory’s adventures in America, which went well beyond scientific investigation for fossils and included friendship with the Native Americans. Mallory censors his memories for Disraeli (leaving out the fact he had sex with Indian women) and ends up helping the author fix an early form of typewriter.

Back in the street, Mallory hooks up with Fraser who had been waiting. Something weird is happening to the sky. It has turned a yellow colour and the atmosphere is thick and pestilent. Smells of sewage. This is the book’s version of the real historical event of the Great Stink of London which took place in 1858, when hot weather made stinks from the Thames overrun central London forcing Parliament to move to Oxford.

In this novel it combines with dense fog to create an end-of-the-world atmosphere.

Fraser exposes the Coughing Gent and (presumably) the accomplice who coshed Mallory, as well-known private detectives Mr J.C. Tate and Mr George Velasco. Sullenly, like naughty schoolboys, they put up with Fraser’s description of them, then, when Mallory offers to pay guineas, confess the man who put them up to following Malory is a fellow savant and rival palaeontologist, Peter Foulke.

They have a gritty lunch at a roadside booth and then return to the Palace of Palaeontology to discover that someone has broken in and set fire to his room, burning a lot of his papers and clothes. It is this ‘Captain Swing’ again who is clearly carrying out a vendetta till he gets the box of cards back. Luckily Mallory has hidden them safely where no-one will ever know – inside the skull of the brontosaurus fossil which the assistants are even now erecting in the museum. the only person he tells is Ada Lovelace, who he writes a personal message to.

Mallory now decides he wants to do some ‘genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken drinking’ and Fraser suggests they go to the pleasure grounds at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. The shops are closing, The sky is dark yellow. it is difficult to breathe. Earlier they’d noticed the Underground railway workers had come out on strike claiming it was impossible to breathe underground. Now shops are putting up their shutters. Somewhere on the way to Chelsea Fraser and Mallory are best by a gang of boys, jeering in their faces, one of them riding an early type of roller skates. After yelling abuse at our chaps this boy spins out of control and shoots through a plate glass window. Instantly his mates start looting the shop. Fraser wades in and someone throws a shard of glass which embeds in his back, painfully though not fatally. Mallory pulls it out, staunches the bleeding and helps Fraser to the King’s Road police station.

Fourth iteration: Seven Curses (93 pages)

Mallory proceeds on to Cremorne Gardens where he gets drunk and chats up a woman with a fine figure if a blocky, lantern-jawed face. After a dance, they proceed to a snog, she takes him outside and lets him touch her breast. She persuades Mallory to pay their fare on a paddle streamer which will take them along the sluggish, effluent-filled Thames down to the East End. She’s called Hetty and we realise she is the flatmate of Sybil who we met in the first iteration. They are both courtesans.

Hetty takes Mallory back to her squalid little rooms where they have sex several times, in a manner constrained by Victorian convention and vocabulary, for example he has to pay a lot extra for her to strip naked. Mallory uses French letters he had earlier purchased in Haymarket, and the authors use the Victorian word ‘spend’ for orgasm which, along with numerous other details, give it an authentic historic feel.

Next morning Mallory emerges into a London which seems overcome by cataclysm. Overnight there has been widespread looting and shooting. Mallory himself is nearly shot down by a nervous shopkeeper. Firemen have been attacked. An omnibus pushed over and set on fire. London has collapsed into complete anarchy, with armed bands, drunk bands, rioters and looters roaming the streets and trashing street after street, as Mallory discovers as he makes his way through the foggy, dangerous streets. He gets set on by a mob and only frees himself by firing his revolver into the air.

Then, in a surreal scene, he comes along a trundling cart being used by three bill posters to stick up enormous posters along the base of London buildings. This all seems harmless until he reads one they’ve just put up which starts off publicising a speech to be given by him, Mallory, before turning nasty and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. Mallory threatens the bill posters who call for their boss, who describes himself as the Poster King and sits inside the jaunting, swaying carriage into which he invites Mallory for a civilised chat. He explains that they were engaged this morning by a man calling himself Captain Swing. This captain has based himself in the West India Docks. Mallory gives them cash in exchange for all the posters libelling him.

Mallory blunders through the fog dodging rioters to arrive back at the Palace of Palaeontology, with his clutch of posters. It is full of refugees from the heat and stink and fog and anarchy.

Here he is delighted to discover his brother Brian, back from service in India. And Tom, the youngest brother, has motored up in the famous Zephyr. What of the marriage of their younger sister? Mallory asks. Brian sadly informs him that some bounder wrote a letter to Madeline’s fiancé accusing the innocent girl of all kinds of scandal (pre-marital sex, basically).

Mallory explains the letter was written by the tout, the driver, the man who attacked him, the infamous Captain Swing. It is just part of a much larger campaign, for London is now plastered with posters exhorting the working classes to rise up against their oppressors and claim what is theirs. Fired by revenge, Brian and Tom vow to join Ned on a march to the west India Dock to find and punish this fiend. Fraser (who has joined them) agrees to come along, in the spirit of arresting this dangerous anarchist.

They trundle across London from Kensington to the Isle of Dogs on Tom’s Zephyr but when they get to the docks realise that its eight-foot-high walls are guarded and the gates locked and barred. The only way in is via the locks giving onto the Thames which is at low tide. So they strip and wade across the foul stinking mud, until they’re spotted by guards, a ragamuffin crew of anarchists, but pretend themselves to be anarchists and looters and so are helped up to ground level, washed off with water and cologne, and led along to a big meeting of the lads by a cocky young lad who calls himself the Marquess of Hastings.

Here, in a warehouse, Mallory is astonished to find an audience of looters and anarchists and communists being addressed by none other than Florence Russell Bartlett, the red-haired young woman who had been bullying Lady Ada at Epsom and is now haranguing an audience of lowlifes about ‘the revolutionary spirit of the working class’ (p.268)

Mallory has a coughing fit and is led away by the Marquess but, in his reactions to the speaker, pretty clearly gives himself away as a patriot and radical. Before he can react Mallory punches Hastings unconscious. Hasting’s black servant Jupiter stands watching, not lifting a finger. As he remarks:

‘There is nothing to history. No progress, no justice. There is nothing but random horror.’ (p.272)

Mallory returns to the lecture to find Bartlett now onto the death of the family and the triumph of free love in the communist society when he stands up and declares he has a message for Captain Swing. An uproar breaks out, chairs are thrown at him, Mallory brings out his pistol and shots are fired. Suddenly he, Brian, Tom and Fraser are on the run through the warren of Victorian warehouses. This turns into a prolonged fight, with our boys doing well but soon running out of ammunition while the enemy consolidate their position and begin sniping. our boys hide within an enormous pile of bales of cotton which they hurriedly erect into a makeshift fortress. The tide turns their way when Brian lets off an artillery piece he has, killing quite a few of the attackers, and making his way into the fortress with new rifles, but then they are again pinned down.

Captain Swing himself approaches waving a white flag, calling for a truce and asking for the return of the wooden box of cards. Then the entire situation is transformed with a tremendous explosion and collapse of part of the ceiling. One or more naval ships out in the Thames are firing at the docks, which have been identified as a centre of sedition. The roof collapses. Fire breaks out. Dead and injured anarchists lie about the floor. In a cinematic moment Mallory emerges to stand on the ‘parapet’ of the cotton fortress. Captain Swing, far away on the floor of the warehouse, takes aim and misses, while Mallory methodically swings a rifle into the correct grip, takes aim, and shoots Swing down. Fraser leaps to the parapet beside him then clambers down and across the body-littered warehouse floor to clap the wounded captain in handcuffs.

At just this moment the long sweltering heat stifling the capital finally breaks in a tremendous thunderstorm.

Catastrophe had knocked Swing’s fortress open in a geyser of shattered brick dominoes. Mallory, blissful, the nails of his broken shoe-heel grating, walked into a London reborn.
Into a tempest of cleansing rain. (p.287)

The last four pages of the chapter jump to Mallory as an old man of 83 in 1908. He lived to a ripe old age and rose to become President of the Royal Society. Now we find him in the study of his home and, in a manner entirely fitting the rather hallucinatory scenes we’ve just witnessed, the narrative gives two alternative scenarios for his death from heart failure.

On his desk are two folders, one to his left, one to his right. In one scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his left which describes the demise of the Japanese branch of the international Society of Light, which makes him sad and then so angry that he bursts an artery.

In the other scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his right which describes the amazing new fossil finds which have been made in the Burgess shale in western Canada, an explosion of weird and inexplicable animals shapes never seen before or since which creates such a rush of blood to his head that he suffers a stroke and dies.

Fifth iteration: The All-Seeing Eye (64 pages)

We appear to have left Mallory now. The new focus of the narrative is Laurence Oliphant, who poses as a dandyish journalist but quite obviously belongs to one of the security services with a special interest in tracking representatives of foreign powers.

It’s in this respect that he was hosting a dinner party for six Japanese men that Mallory interrupted. Now he goes about a day’s work accompanied by another fawning Japanese who is infatuated with British technology ad modern appliances, a Mr Mori Arinori.

We are told that it is November 1855, some six months after Mallory’s adventure in the cotton warehouse. Lord Byron has in fact died, and been replaced by Lord Brunel (presumably Isambard Kingdom) though not without civil disturbances through the summer and there now appears to be a purge of old Luddites whose cases are being reopened and re-prosecuted by the zealous Lord Charles Egremont who is conducting something of an anti-Luddite witch-hunt.

Oliphant’s leisurely drawling personage (‘his gaze, beneath the black brim of his top hat, is mild and ironical’) proceeds to:

– visit Dr McNeile, a physician who uses an articulated ‘manipulation table’ and electric currents applied to the body to try and cure ‘railway spine’, a spurious medical condition in which the ‘magnetic polarity of the spine’ is supposed to have been reversed by trauma. Oliphant had been recommended to McNeile by Lady Brunel, wife of the new Prime Minister (p.295).

– home to his house in Half Moon Street off Piccadilly, where his butler Bligh serves him a luncheon of cold mutton and pickle with a bottle of ale. Oliphant checks the three receiving-telegraphs on his desk and finds a request to meet from Fraser, the detective who accompanied Mallory through most of the previous two sections.

– take a cab to Brigsome Terrace in the East End where Fraser is waiting to show him the body of a huge man who died of poisoning while eating a tin of baked beans in a squalid little flat. Oliphant questions Fraser and his subordinate Betteridge. A complicated picture emerges whereby several Pinkerton agents arrived in London eighteen months earlier and had begun to extend a network of contacts and informants. Betteridge had been tasked with attending a performance by a troupe of women dancers come over from New York – The Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. New York is now a workers’ commune, run by Karl Marx (the authors describe the revolution growing out of anti-conscription riots, and there were indeed widespread and violent riots against the conscription imposed during the Civil War).

In the crowd at the panto performance Betteridge had spotted the well-known agitator, Florence Bartlett. It emerges that Bartlett is a well-known murderer and vitrioleuse i.e. acid thrower. She likely commissioned the Texian giant whose corpse they’re standing over to murder Professor Rudwick, when he refused to agree to some mission or task – and then poisoned the giant.

– next day proceeds to the Statistics Bureau and to see Wakefield to ask him to run information through to the Engines to tell him who sent a particular telegram to the Duke’s Hotel. Wakefield’s machine tells him it was Charles Egremont. Oliphant asks Wakefield to find the text of the telegram and leaves.

–  Oliphant is much possessed by memories of flash Mick Radley’s death. He was there in the smoking room getting drunk with Houston and Mick, when Mick was called out of the room by a scared-looking woman (who we know to be Sybil Gerrard). Later that night Oliphant was called back to the hotel and has vivid flashbacks of searching through the belongings of the eviscerated Radley and wounded Houston. The Texian connection links into the visit of the red Ballet, and the arrival 18 months earlier of the Pinkertons. No direct links, But a mood.

– to visit Mr Hermann Kriege, late of the New York Volks Tribüne, who had greeted Karl Marx to New York, and had been on the central committee of the commune Marx set up there, till they fell out and Kriege had to flee for his life, now living in poverty-stricken exile in a slum in Soho (like many other American exiles). Oliphant is paying him to be a spy and informer about goings-on in the émigré community.

– to a pub in nearby Compton Street, which hosts dogs fighting rats competitions. Much drinking and gambling and dead rats and, occasionally, dead dogs. Oliphant meets Fraser and together they go up to the rat arena where they meet the manager Sayers, and show him a daguerreotype of the giant found murdered in the East End. Sayers confirms that that’s the big man who murdered professor Rudwick. They bump into Tate and Velasco, the confidential agents we last saw assaulting Mallory, guns for hire. They are cocky and abusive so that Fraser nearly arrests them, but suave Oliphant is charm itself and tells him to desist. They swank themselves that they are hired by an eminent member of Parliament, Oliphant guesses Egremont.

– Oliphant breakfasts (presumably the next day) with Mori Arinori, the most zealous of the Japanese who have come to Britain to study its go-ahead culture. Oliphant takes him to the pantomime at the Garrick theatre, Whitechapel, to see the Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. The performance is full of inexplicable modernism and half naked women. They go backstage and are introduced to a ‘Helen America’ who insists they go round the corner to the latest thing in self-service cafeterias (Mr Arinori is entranced; in reality this kind of thing wouldn’t appear in America till 100 years later). Oliphant shows her an Engine-produced image of Flora Barnett which makes Helen America cross, saying Flora is no communist, is not even American. She realises Oliphant is some kind of policeman and storms out of the café.

– Arriving home, Oliphant discovers that the boy Tobias who he bribed at the Statistics Bureau has tracked down the punch code of the telegraphic message sent to Duke’s hotel and delivered it while he was out. After fiddling about with screwdrivers and such, he rigs up his own telegraph-receiving machine to read the card and translate it into text. It is an illiterate long message sent by Sybil Gerrard accusing Charles Egremont of ‘ruining’ her i.e. taking her virginity out of wedlock, which we saw her dictating and sending in the first chapter, when Sybil thought she was going to Paris with flash Mick.

– Oliphant, rather amazingly, pays a visit to Albert the Prince Consort, with whom he on intimate terms, having brought a present for the son and heir, Alfred. (It turns out the Japanese automaton we saw earlier in the story was also a gift designed for young ‘Affie although, like most children, he’s managed to break it). In the middle of reading Affie the new storybook he’s brought, an urgent message comes for Oliphant.

He races by cab to Fleet Street where he discovers there’s been an outrage. Florence Bartlett and two assistants broke into the Museum of Practical geology and stole the skull Mallory’s brontosaurus. They made their getaway in a horse and trap. Getting caught in a jam with another cab, the baddies pulled out a gun, passing police fired on them and there happened to be a soldier passing by and carrying one of the new ‘Russian shotguns’ which – I have only now realised – are a newfangled type of extremely destructive hand-held weapon, maybe like a bazooka (I realise Brian had used one of these to devastate the attackers in the Battle of the West India Docks). Anyway, Florence Bartlett and her two assistants are very dead, along with half a dozen passersby and police. Rival police agencies are at work on the bodies and Fraser takes Oliphant aside and slips him the case they found on the dead robbers, covered in plaster and obviously extracted from the skull. And a letter informing Bartlett that the case is inside the skull. They both recognise the hand-writing of Ada Lovelace, deary me she really is deep into this trouble.

Oliphant slips away with this booty, and examines it at leisure at the office of his tobacconists’, not far away in Chancery Lane. He destroys the letter from Ada then asks the man to lock the box containing the Engine-cards in his safe. What the devil is on them??

The climax

In pages 330 to 355 or so we find out what it’s all about. The set of Engine-cards which Mallory received from lady Ada and Captain Swing went to such trouble to reclaim and which Flora Bartlett died stealing, are French in origin. They contain a code designed to disable the Great Napoleon, the name given to the vast calculating machine prized by the French. Disabling it is a blow for the anarchists and those who oppose this surveillance society.

Oliphant confronts Wakefield in his club and learns that Egremont, via his department of Anthropometry, has taken over the Bureau of Statistics. Wakefield is scared to be seen with Oliphant. We learn from his muttered remarks that Oliphant and his people were the first to practice swiping people off the street, interrogating them and then making them disappear. They did it in a ‘good’ cause. But now Egremont and his people are going to do it in order to secure their grip on power. Egremont is close to Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who holds power in the Lords and is a strong proponent of genetics. Of helping evolution along by sterilising the poor and weak and forcing the breeding of the noble and fit. It isn’t stated in these terms, but this constellation of forces has the potential to institute a Fascist society.

Convinced he is being followed, Oliphant slips out into a back alley, and catches a night train to Paris where he meets a trusted colleague high up in the Imperial Police Force. He wants to the whereabouts of Sybil Gerrard. It is only when he meets Sybil in a bohemian Montmartre café that we learn that it isn’t simply a case of Egremont deflowering – or maybe ‘abusing’ Sybil, as we would say nowadays.

Much more dangerous to Egremont is that in his early days, he was a sympathiser with the Luddites, he was a colleague and friend of Sybil’s father. It was only later that he helped get him arrested and hanged. And the witchhunt he is organising under the new Prime Minister, Lord Brunel, reflects his paranoia about his old links with the Luddites resurfacing.

In the Montmartre café Oliphant appears to persuade a reluctant Sybil to help him, to dictate a testament about her own deflowering but also about Egremont’s early political heresy, which will ruin him and stop the totalitarian party.

Cut to a really brief, clipped scene: Mr Mori Arinori arrives outside the Belgravia home of Charles Egremont MP in a new-fangled Zephyr, parks, takes off his goggles, walks politely over to Egremont, ignoring the machine-gun-armed bodyguard, bows, hands Egremont ‘a stout manila envelope’ and returns to his car. Egremont watches him, puzzled.

The reader is left to deduce that the envelope must contain Sybil’s testimony and some kind of demand that Egremont resign.

Modus: The images tabled

This is a peculiar thing to have in a work of fiction: the last 27 pages form a sort of appendix made up of excerpts from various documents, diaries, letters, recordings, histories and so on which shed light on how the alternative history came about, tell us about the later destinies of many of the characters, and ‘explain’ the meaning of the Engine-cards.

1864 – A (fictional) extract from an essay by Charles Babbage explaining how insight into using a language of signs and symbols extended the theoretical workings of the Difference Engine into the practical form of an Analytical Engine.

1830 – Letter to a newspaper encouraging readers to go out and vote for Babbage in the 1830 General Election.

1912 – (Fictional) history describing how Wellington’s repression in 1830 featuring massacres of protesters led to the Times of Trouble and eventual triumph of Lord Byron’s Industrial radical Party.

1855 – (Fictional) letter from Disraeli describing Lord Byron’s state funeral.

1855 – three-page testimony from Byron’s wife describing how she had to put up with his – to her – disgusting sexual practices which she out up with while finding solace in the kindly educating of Charles Babbage, full of ‘the pure light of mathematical science’.

1855 – a couple of miners working with the huge underground digger boring tube tunnels witness a visit by the Grand Master Miner Emeritus

1855 – record of the words of the Reverend Alistair Roseberry who denounces Ada Byron as a debauched gambler, before he is grappled to the ground and actually shot.

1855 – Brunel’s address to his cabinet asking their help to deal with the murder of Roseberry.

1855 – testimony of Kenneth Reynolds, nightwatchman at the Museum of Practical Geology, on discovering the corpse of the Marquess of Hastings who a) we met cockily inviting Mallory and brothers up into the West India Docks, who then b) Mallory punched unconscious and c) took part in the robbery led by Florence Bartlett to steal the box of Engine-cards from their hiding place in the skull of the brontosaurus, being lowered by rope through the skylight, extracting the box and handing it up to his colleagues before slipping and falling onto the hard stone floor below, shattering his skull.

1870 – memo to the Foreign Office from Lord Liston, describing the drunk behaviour of the ex-President of the American Union Mr Clement L. Vallandigham – to which is added a note that Sam Houston, ex-President of Texas, recently passed away in exile in Mexico.

1875 – spoken reminiscences of Thomas Towler, grandfather of Edward Towler, inventor of the Towler Audiograph who remembers a) the extreme poverty before the Rad government revolutionised the economy and b) the way Lord Byron roused the English to send food to Ireland during the Potato Famine, thus securing the loyalty of the Irish for generations.

1857 – John Keats gives testimony about a meeting with Oliphant. Oliphant is a smooth operator but we have but we have been given access to his mind and his rather paranoid fears and waking nightmares about an ‘all-seeing Eye’, which knows all our numbers and identities, that the computational powers of the Engines will match and supersede God’s knowledge. Oliphant has Keats confirm that kinetropy is probably the most advanced branch of computing, and then gives him the French Engine-cards to analyse and find out what they mean.

Lyrics to the Great Panmelodium Polka, the panmelodium being the Victorian steampunk version of a juke box.

1860 – snippet of gossip from Tatler machine that Oliphant has set sail, leaving Britain to join the Susquehanna Phalanstery established by Professor Coleridge and the Reverend Wordsworth, which could be interpreted as a) the gloomy religious visions which we saw occasionally dogging his mind have tipped him over or b) Britain became too dangerous for him.

1866 – the full Victorian-style playbill of a major new Kinotropic Drama staged by J.J. Tobias, who we met as the junior clerk in the Quantitative Criminology section of the Central Statistics Bureau, and who Oliphant bribed to get him the text of the telegram which turns out to have been the accusation sent by Sybil to Charles Egremont.

1854 – poem written by Mori Yujo, samaurai and classical scholar on his son’s departure for England.

1854 – letter home to his father from Mori Arinori describing his first sighting of the shore of England.

Narrative A – a return to the third person narrator which gives a seven-page description of Lady Ada on a speaking tour of Paris in which she describes in rather mystical terms the potential for the so-called ‘Modus Programme’ to lead to an Engine whose method of self-referentiality might eventually lead it to self-awareness. There’s scattered applause from the half-filled auditorium and Fraser (for it is he; a much older, white-bearded Fraser, wounded from some incident in the line of duty, now retired and allotted a final task of being Lady Ada’s bodyguard) helps her to her changing room where he knows she’ll help herself liberally to the gin. He waits at the stage door where he finds a woman loitering. At first he (and the reader) think it might be part of some diabolical scheme: maybe someone’s going to kidnap lady Ada and replace her with an impersonator who will travel across Europe saying… saying what, exactly?

But it turns out to be Sybil Gerrard, only now using the surname Tournechon (as she told Oliphant when he tracked her down to the Montmartre café). When Ada emerges, at first Sibyl asks for an autograph – then changes her tone and asks what it feels like to be a little old lady, lecturing to empty halls, deliberately hurtful. Then changes her tune again, trying to push past Fraser (who is by now pushing her away) in order to give Ada a large and genuine diamond ring, presumably made with one of the diamonds she stole from Houston after he was stabbed.

Then she is gone. Fraser helps her into the gurney. It drives to their hotel. Fraser helps her up to her room. They discuss money. Maybe she will have to go and lecture in America, though whether Confederate South or Union North… Fraser recalls being given the job by ‘the Hierarch’ (the only time this word is used in the book: who does he mean? is it as simple as Lord Brunel?) His task is to keep her out of England and so out of scandal, away from gambling dens, try to keep her sober and out of trouble.

1991

And then, in a weird and disorientating final move, Ada is in her hotel room, looking into a mirror and… it reflects a city which is… the city of London in 1991.

These last four or so paragraphs are confusing. The Wikipedia synopsis says that the London described on this final page, the London of this alternative world, is a city built entirely of Engines in which the self-referential computer programme referred to by Lady Ada finally, at the very end of the book, in its last words, attains self-consciousness!

When I first read it I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand the final, impressionistic sentences where this is, apparently, described as happening.

What I very much did read into the final couple of paragraphs was the apparent fact that human beings have ceased to exist. That cities are futuristic artefacts in which human-like simulacra are created by the All-Seeing Eye solely for the purpose of analysing their actions, interactions, for analysing the nature of causation and chance themselves.

Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles frail as ash, bursting into a dry foam of data, its constituent bits and motes. But new fabrics of conjecture are knitted in the City’s shining cores, swift tireless spindles flinging off invisible loops in their millions, while in the hot unhuman dark, data melts and mingles, churned by gearwork in a skeletal bubbling pumice, dipped in a dreaming wax that forms a simulated flesh… (pp.382-3)

Comment

I am in two minds about this conclusion. On the one hand it is a familiar science fiction trope, that somehow humans have been eliminated by computers – as in the Terminator franchise of movies – or only the facade of human life is maintained to serve the computers’ purposes – very like the situation in The Matrix films.

And it’s fair to say that this abrupt, dystopian future does follow logically from the speculations of Ada Lovelace, which themselves grow out of the pioneering work of Babbage, so worryingly premature and advanced in this alternative history.

BUT, all that said, the appeal of the previous 282 pages all derived from the vivid language and extravagant delineation of a host of very human characters, especially tough Mallory, suave Oliphant, and unflappable Fraser. And a lot of the appeal is from the verbal energy of their dialogue and the Victorian vocabulary deployed in the narrative prose.

The final Terminator-style vision of a post-human world goes a long way to annulling all the affection and complex network of feelings for both the characters and the prose which the previous 380 pages had so carefully, and impressively, built up.

I wish they had found some other clever way of rounding off the story which kept it within the gorgeously humanistic tapestry of the alternative 19th century.

Or maybe left it with the rather inconsequential back alley confrontation between Ada and Sibyl. It’s often a feature of ‘literature’ that it does not end with a boom and a bang, it relies for its final impact on something more obtuse and implied, such as that vivid but ineffective confrontation between Ada and Sybil would have provided.

So I think I think that the ending of this wonderful, thoroughly researched and deeply entertaining book, lets it down.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Alternative histories

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) 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.
  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) Set in a 20th century England and Europe where the Reformation – and thus the Industrial revolution – never happened and so the Catholic Church still rules the entire continent.
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978) A detective thriller set in England soon after Nazi Germany won the war and occupied England.
  • Russian Hide-and-Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) Set in a near-future when the Soviet Union took advantage of the campaign for nuclear disarmament and invaded and conquered England.
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) A detective thriller set in the 1960s after Nazi Germany invaded Britain, made peace with America, and now rules the entire continent.

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963)

Extraordinary the impact this book had. First a series of five movies 1968-73, then a TV series (1974-5). In recent years the movie franchise rebooted, first with Tim Burton’s 2001 version and then again, with a new sequence of films (Rise of the Planet of the Apes 2011, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 2014, War for the Planet of the Apes in 2017). Just these three movies alone have grossed over $2 billion.

And ever since the original movie there’s been an impressive array of comic books and graphic novels, computer games, toys and theme park rides (!).

Why is the story so powerful? What is its hold?

Frame story – Jinn and Phyllis

It is thousands of years in the future. The planets have been colonised and interstellar travel is common. Many travel on business in fast rockets. Jinn and Phyllis are more like tourists in space, dallying in a sealed sphere whose sails can be set larger or smaller to catch the solar winds coming from the stars and drift around the universe. One day they see an object flying by, change course to collect it, and find it is a message in a bottle, a glass bottle. Inside it are sheafs of paper with a long narrative scrawled on them.

Jinn reads out this narrative which makes up the main body of the text.

The narrative of Ulysse Mérou

This text is written by the journalist Ulysse Mérou in the year 2500. He has been invited to join the space expedition led by Professor Antelle, and accompanied by his assistant Arthur Levain, which is travelling to the nearest star, the mega-star Betelgeuse.

(Although published in 1963 everything about the space trip reminds me of H.G. Wells. We are not told anything about the design of the ship or nature of the propulsion system (always the snag in space travel sci-fi). Antelle is travelling in a ship he designed and built himself, almost as if he’d done it in a shed at the bottom of the garden. And they choose Mérou to accompany them because he is good at chess. In other words the whole story has the charming amateurism of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories or Well’s earlier science fantasies, many light years remote from the reality of the vast army of technicians backed up by the state, which would be required just to take a man to the moon later the same decade.)

It takes two years to travel to Betelgeuse, one year to accelerate to nearly the speed of light, a few days travelling at phenomenal speed, then a year slowing back down. As any reader of science fiction should have picked up, the closer to the speed of light you travel, the more time slows down relative to objects and people travelling at normal speeds i.e. people on Earth. Thus, while the trip to Betelgeuse will only take the trio two years, something like 350 years will have passed on Earth. Everyone they know and everything they know will have died and changed utterly.

Arrival on Soror

When they get to Betelgeuse, they discover there are four planets circling the super-star, and one of them, surprise surprise, is the same distance from the big star as Earth from the sun, and appears to have the same gravity and atmosphere as our home planet.

Our trio takes to one of the space ‘launches’ built into the main spaceship (no description whatsoever of what it looks like or how it works) and shuttle down to the planet, skimming over what appear to be cities, with buildings laid out along streets, before landing in a clearing in a ‘jungle’.

Once again, it comes as no surprise that the air on the planet is breathable – made of oxygen and nitrogen pretty much the same ratio as on Earth.

(This is as wildly improbable as when Cavor and Bedford unscrew the door of their sphere in First Men In The Moon and discover that the moon has a breathable atmosphere, if rather thin. Monkey Planet is not hard science fiction of the heavily factual Arthur C. Clarke variety. We are more in the realm of science fable.)

They christen the planet Soror, sister to our Earth.

So the three Frenchmen get out, stretch, wander around, see birds flying overhead, are struck by how similar the trees and flower are and discover a waterfall, so they strip off and swim and wash. It feels like a film already. You can imagine the tropical sunlight dappling through exotic leaves onto the sun-kissed bodies of our three hunky heroes.

Nova

At which point there is a Robinson Crusoe moment, as they spot a human footprint in the sand. A woman’s footprint by the shape of it. And then she appears.

Being a man, Boulle casts this first alien human as a woman, and being a Frenchman he imagines her a naked woman – and the whole thing veers towards the crudest pulp sci-fi when he describes her as a golden-skinned, physically perfect woman, a goddess perfect in form and feature etc.

I shall never forget the impression her appearance made on me. I held my breath at the marvellous beauty of this creature from Soror, who revealed herself to us, dripping with spray, illuminated by the blood-red beams of Betelgeuse. it was a woman – a young girl, rather, unless was a goddess. She boldly asserted her femininity in the light of this monstrous sun, completely naked and without any ornament other than her hair which hung down to her shoulders…Standing upright, leaning forwards, her breasts thrust out towards us, her arms raised slightly backwards in the attitude of a diver…It was plain to see that the woman, who stood motionless on the ledge like a statue on a pedestal, possessed the most perfect body that could be conceived on earth. (p.23)

Mérou christens her Nova, and she strikes this reader as being the oldest pulp fiction trope in the world – the pure, innocent, scantily-dressed (in fact, naked) damsel, who will, later on in the book, be threatened by great big hairy apes – with only our gallant narrator to protect her.

But, puzzlingly, it quickly becomes clear that Nova cannot talk and is scared when they laugh or talk. She can only make quick grunting noises, almost like an ape. In fact the three Frenchmen’s smiles and laughter scare her off.

Next day they go frolic in the waterfall again, and the perfect woman returns, with a man, fine figured but also mute. More mute humans assemble. When our trio put on their clothes, the humans recoil in fear and disgust. Walking back to the spaceship our heroes are attacked from all sides by quite a crowd of humanoids, as many as a hundred, who rip and tear their clothes off. Then the mob of animal-humans proceeds to break into the space launch and destroy, rip and tear apart everything they can get their hands on. But not like human vandals working systematically. More like animals, tearing and worrying and biting at something they don’t understand.

Destruction of the ship

Having trashed the ship, the savage humans drag our heroes back to their village. Except it doesn’t even have huts, is more a random scattering of makeshift shelters, a few branches leaning against trees, just as the great apes make. Nova, as you might have guessed, has formed a bond with our gallant narrator and comes and snuggles up against him, again more like an animal seeking warmth than an intelligent partner.

The manhunt

The next morning they are all woken by alarming sounds, ululations and shouts, yes shouts, language, as of humans. The humanoids run round in a panic and set off in the opposite direction, Mérou fleeing with them.

He begins to realise the people coming behind are beaters and the humanoids are being driven – and then he hears shots, gunshots. They are being driven towards hunters out for some sport.

Mérou comes to a break in the tall grass and is flabbergasted to see an enormous gorilla wearing clothes and wielding a shot gun, taking shots at the terrified humans as they emerge from the long grass into this break.

Mérou watches a human burst out of the grass into the open area and the gorilla carefully take aim and shoot him. He hands his gun to a smaller chimpanzee, behind him, also dressed, who recharges it with cartridges and returns it to the gorilla. Mérou’s head is spinning at what this seems to say about the planet they’ve arrived on – the traditional roles of ape and man appear to have been completely reversed.

Mérou waits till the gorilla fires (hitting another human) and hands the gun over to be reloaded, and then takes his chance. He runs across the break of open ground and into the long grass on the other side. But it is only to stumble into a trap of mesh netting which scoops him and other humans up into a huge struggling bundle, waiting for the master apes to come.

Cover of an audiobook of Monkey Planet which captures the terror of the hunt, artwork by Harry Schaare

Cover of an audiobook of Monkey Planet which captures the terror of the hunt, artwork by Harry Schaare (1964)

The human laboratory

Mérou is thrown into a cage along with other naked humans. He watches in disbelief as the gorillas return from the hunt and lay out the killed humans neatly and artistically, smoothing down ruffled hair as a human hunter would smooth down an animal’s fur or feathers, arranging the corpses in aesthetic poses.

Mérou is still reeling from the way the gorillas are wearing clothes, normal clothes, hunting clothes. One sneezes and brings a handkerchief out of his breeches to blow his nose. The cages are on wheels and are pulled by a sort of tractor back to a sort of hunting lodge where the female gorillas are waiting, wearing dresses and hats. A photographer turns up and snaps the hunter gorillas posing by their kills, with their proud womenfolk on their arms. Mérou feels as if he’s going mad.

Finally the hunters clamber onto some of the tractors, and along with those pulling cages full of human captives, they set off some distance to arrive at a town. Mérou observes a grocer pulling down his blind as he opens up shop. They have motor cars, banks, shops. It all sounds like a French provincial town except… populated by apes!

Mérou is unloaded at a hospital-like building and ushered down a corridor into a cage, one of many containing single or pairs of humans bedded on straw. Over the weeks it becomes clear that they are lab animals, kept to be experimented on. The experiments are mostly behavioural i.e. the Pavlov experiment of ringing a bell and offering food to make the animals salivate, eventually just ringing the bell to produce the same reaction.

The warders – two gorillas named Zoram and Zanam – hang fruit from the roof of a cage, then put four cubes in the cage. Only Mérou has the intelligence to realise that if you stack the four boxes on top of each other you can simply step up them and reclaim the fruit. The other humans watch him with complete incomprehension. By now he has realised that the humans really are animals without the slightest flicker of intelligence, let alone intellectual ability.

Then there is observation of mating rituals. The apes place male and female subjects in the same cage and observe their mating ritual – which amounts to the male circling round the female with ornate steps… before eventually pouncing on his hypnotised prey.

Mérou swears he won’t sink to the same level when they place Nova in his cage (yes, Nova has miraculously survived the manhunt and was thrown into a tractor cage and was transported to the same ‘hospital’ and has, by happy coincidence, now been thrown into Mérou’s cage). But when he fails to perform and they take her away and replace her with an old crone, and he sees another hulking male preparing to mate with Nova, Mérou changes his mind, makes a fuss and Nova is restored to him, at which point… well… when on Soror, do as the Sororians do.

(The fact that Mérou mates with Nova fulfils the soft porn, pulpy sexual promise which has been latent in the story ever since the trio sighted her splendid naked body by the waterfall. It is as inevitable as falling off a log.)

(Incidentally, Mérou saw the body of the professor’s assistant, Arthur Levain, stretched out in the array of ‘kill’ at the hunting lodge. Of the professor, he has seen no sign.)

Befriending Zira

But it isn’t just the gorillas who conduct these experiments. A female chimpanzee attends with a pen and notebook. Over the course of her visits, Mérou manages to impress on her his intelligence, first of all parroting back to her some of the simian language, which he has begun to pick up. But then, in a decisive move, Mérou seizes her pen and notebook and draws a sequence of geometric shapes, hands it back to her and she draws some more, and gives it back to him who draws some more.

She is deeply shaken, but begins – when the gorillas’ attention is distracted by other prisoners – to talk to him. She is Zira. Her fiancé is Cornelius. She poo-poos the pompous orangutan, Dr Zaius, who has come to visit the lab several times, obviously the head of the institute who orders around the gorillas and ignores Zira’s comments.

Zira lends Mérou some books which he hides and reads at night. He is making progress in the simian language and is nearly fluent. He learns that Soror has only one world government, divided into three chambers, one each for the chimps, orangs and gorillas. The gorillas are still the most physical among the apes, a legacy from the days when they ruled, and they’re the ones who implement and carry out discoveries. The orangutans are the ’embodiment of science’ and wisdom except that, in Zira’s opinion, it is a hidebound, out-of-date science. According to Zira all the important discoveries have been made by the chimps.

(We know from our own planet that the human race is split into thousands of cultures and languages, with wildly different levels of technical achievement; and yet so many science fiction stories fly in the face of all this evidence and land on planets where this is just one World Government, or one Ruler, and one language, which the human arrivals quickly pick up. it’s one of the most flagrant ways in which science fiction is so disappointingly simple-minded and simplistic.)

Zira gets permission one day to take Mérou for a walk (obviously on the end of a leash and naked – he is a pet after all) to a park where she introduces him to her fiancé, Cornelius. by this stage Mérou has used drawings to persuade Zira that he is in fact from a different planet in a different solar system, and now his explanation in fluent simian persuades Cornelius as well.

But, the chimps explain, the orangutans are resistant to all change, they still teach that Soror is the centre of the universe and Zaius refuses to accept that Mérou is anything more than a performing pet. And Mérou is in danger. They have extensive labs in which they conduct experiments on the brains of humans, sometimes while they’re conscious – something to be avoided.

Mérou addresses the conference and wins his freedom

Cornelius and Zira come up with a plan: there is soon to be a scientific conference. Dr Zaius wants to present Mérou as an example of man’s mimetic abilities, as a kind of performing pet. There will be an immense convocation of scientists, and journalists, and members of the public. It will be a perfect opportunity for Mérou to step forward and address public opinion directly.

And this is exactly what he does. Mérou is brought onstage as a specimen for Zaius to put through his paces but astonishes everyone by taking the microphone, bowing, making polite reference to the chair of the meeting and proceeding to make a long, pompous and respectful speech to the members of the academy explaining that he is an astronaut from the planet Earth (drawing a map of Earth’s location). Now not even Zaius can deny the fact that Mérou is an intelligent, autonomous human being, something which defies all their science.

This understandably causes an uproar and, over the next few days, Mérou is released from his captivity, allowed to get dressed and meets other scientists to discuss his story.

Mérou can now be taken on a tour of simian society and discovers it to be in almost every respect identical to human: there are theatres, athletic games and sports contests. He is taken to the zoo and, unwisely, asks to see the human cages. There he is horrified to discover Professor Antelle, naked and dishevelled like the other human-animals, begging for food from the child apes who throw bits of cake through the bars.

Mérou begs for a personal meeting with the professor. Cornelius uses Mérou’s new-found celebrity to persuade the director of the zoo to allow Mérou a meeting with the professor, but we are horrified to see that Antelle really has descended to the level of the animals. There is nothing behind his eyes. There isn’t a flicker of recognition as Mérou talks to him. In fact this section ends, hauntingly, with Antelle lifting his head and letting out a prolonged animal howl.

The archaeological site on the other side of the world

Mérou now comes to learn more about Cornelius’s research and to share his investigation into the origins of ape society. The most salient fact about it is the way it appears to have stagnated at the same technological level for centuries, indeed millennia. Ape records stretch back some 10,000 years but then there is a complete blank. Mérou himself has spent hours speculating about how the situation came about – why are the apes in charge and humans voiceless, unintelligent animals? Is it fluke? Accident? At some point of evolution could it have gone either way and, on Earth went one way, and here went another?

Their speculations are brought to a climax by two incidents:

1. He is invited to an archaeological site on the other side of the world. (He flies there in a jet, a detail which is swiftly glossed over but gives you an indication of how different Boulle’s vision of ape society is from the ape society depicted in all the movies: in the movies it is a society reduced to medieval level, everyone rides on horses, the townships are little more than mud huts; in Boulle’s vision, ape society is exactly like human society, with cars driving along busy city streets lined with shops and, as here, jet planes taking off from airports.) Cornelius’s colleagues are excavating a settlement which appears to date from before the apes’ earliest records of 10,000 years ago. And they have found something seismic – a doll, a human doll, which is wearing not only the vestiges of clothes, but which, when pressed, says the word ‘Papa’. It is a fragment, but a fragment which confirms Cornelius and Mérou’s suspicions. The humans came first.

2. The second incident is when Cornelius takes Mérou to see the brain experiments the apes conduct on humans. The first set of these are genuinely horrifying, sticking electrodes in human brains to observe the flexing of various muscles or to bring on epileptic fits. This sequence is the clearest example of the way Boulle uses his fable to argue against cruelty to animals. Mérou is sickened and eventually cries out in anger at the torture he’s seeing his fellow humans subjected to.

The voices of history

But then there is an extraordinary scene where Cornelius takes us to nother room where electrodes have been applied to the brains of two humans. This operation makes the male patient talk, although only broken fragments of phrases he’s obviously overheard in the lab and cages. Still, it is empirical proof that humans can talk.

But it’s the woman specimen who is the real prize. Applying electrodes to her brain unlocks the collective memory of the race.

In a wildly unscientific and implausible manner which is, nonetheless, fantastically imaginatively powerful, through this woman as via a clairvoyant, we hear the voices of the humans from that long-ago era, before 10,000 years ago, who one by one record the fateful sequence of events which led to the downfall of mankind and the rise of the apes.

Various voices dramatise and comment on the way the human race became lazy and unmotivated, while the apes they had trained to be servants banded together, learned to communicate and speak simple phrases, were heard muttering together at nights. A woman tearfully admits she has handed over her house to the gorilla who used to be the maid and cleaner, and has come to the ‘camp’ of humans outside the city. Another laments the passivity and lassitude of humans. A final one describes in terror hearing the approach of a hunt of apes who don’t even bother to chase them with guns any more, but simply use whips! The woman’s story ends.

Cornelius and Mérou look at each other. So, it is as they thought. Ape culture has stayed more or less the same for millennia because it is a copy of the human culture which preceded it.

The moral of the story

If there is a moral to the story it is here, and it is about the peril to the human race of losing its drive and purpose and will to live. This kind of thing routinely crops up in mid-century science fiction although it is, I think, incomprehensible to us now. I think it was a warning frequently issued by ‘prophets’ in the West (America and Europe) against succumbing to materialism, consumerism and losing our souls, losing our thirst for the higher, intellectual life.

In fact Planet of the Apes taps into the anxiety about the Degeneration of the West which goes back at least as far Max Nordau’s bestseller, titled simply Degeneration, which was published in 1892 and which took French art and morality as demonstrating the degeneration and decline of the West. The notion that humanity got slaves (in this case, apes) to do their work for them, and became too lazy to maintain their place at the top of the tree, has a long lineage.

As far as I can see, the West has utterly succumbed to consumer capitalism, everyone in the West is addicted to their phone and its apps and gadgets and wastes hours on endless social mediatisation. And yet the apocalypse has not followed: art is still created, more books and poems and plays than ever before are produced.

The ‘collapse of civilisation’ which Boulle appears to be warning about never came.

Nova has a baby and they escape

Several scenes earlier Zira had told Mérou that Nova is pregnant with his child.

Other episodes intervene, such as the flight to the archaeological site, seeing the vivisection experiments on the humans, trying to get through to Professor Antelle whose purpose is to make the nine months fly past until Nova has her baby. Mérou christens the baby boy Sirius.

At this point things become really dangerous for Mérou, Nova and the baby. Zira and Cornelius tell him that Dr Zaius and the orangutans are winning the argument at a senior level. They are arguing that Mérou and Sirius represent an existential threat to ape rule. Already the humans in the cages where Mérou was first kept are noticeably respectful of him when he makes occasional visits back there, despite wearing clothes, something which made them shriek with horror when they first saw him. As if he is in the early stages of becoming their leader.

Similarly, Nova, after all this time in contact with Mérou, has learned to make a few sounds and the first tentative attempts to smile, to make facial expressions, something which was unthinkable when we first met her.

And, as the months go past, the infant Sirius begins to make articulate noise, not just animal cries. Cornelius warns Mérou that the orangs are persuading the gorillas to eliminate all three of them, carry out brain experiments on them, remove their frontal lobes, anything to eliminate the threat.

The pace of the narrative speeds up here, maybe because it’s becoming so wildly implausible, and Mérou writes increasingly in the present tense, drawing the reader directly into the fast-moving sequence of events.

Cornelius now tells Mérou that the apes are about to launch a manned probe into space, literally ‘manned’ with a man, a woman and a child, who will be trained to carry out basic tasks, so the apes can study the impact of them of space radiation, weightlessness etc.

Cornelius knows the chimpanzee running the programme. He’s persuaded him to do a switch.

And so it unfolds. In half a page Mérou describes how he, Nova and Sirius are smuggled aboard the ape probe, how it is launched into space, how he is able to navigate it to the master spaceship in which the three men originally travelled from Earth over a year earlier, manoeuvres it into the ‘bay’ from which the ‘launch’ had departed, the air doors closed, robots take over, and then he steers the spaceship out of orbit round Soror, and back to Earth at nearly light speed.

The punchline

And here comes the part of the book which, if you’re open and receptive and young enough, packs a killer punch.

Mérou steers the spaceship into earth orbit, round the earth towards Europe, then down through the clouds towards France, and finally brings it gently to land on the airfield at Orly airport.

Turns the engines off and sits in silence. Then all three clamber out and watch as a fire engine heads across the runway towards this unexpected arrival.

As explained at the start of the book, and reprised on the flight home, travelling at near light speeds means that while only two years pass for Mérou, Nova and Sirius, something like seven hundred years have passed back on Earth. Given this immense passage of time Mérou is surprised there seem to have been so few changes. As they flew over Paris he noticed the Eiffel Tower was still there. Now he notices that the airfield is in fact a bit rusty and dotted with patches of grass, as if rundown.

And he’s surprised that the fire engine that comes wailing towards them is a model familiar from his own time. Has nothing changed? Surprising.

As the engine draws up fifty yards from them the setting sun is reflected in its windscreen so Mérou can only dimly make out the two figures inside. They climb down with their backs towards him, also obscured by the long grass here at the edge of the airstrip. Finally one emerges from the long grass. Nova screams, picks up Sirius and sets off running back towards the ship.

The fireman is… a gorilla!

In a flash Mérou – and the reader – grasps the situation: here, as on Soror, humans cultivated the apes, made them servants, taught them the basics of language, then got lazier and more dependent on their servants who, at some stage, overthrew their human masters, reducing them to voiceless slaves, though themselves proving incapable of improving on human technology – this terrible fate has happened on Earth, too!

Frame story Jinn and Phyllis

Well. This is how the narrative in a bottle ends and Jinn stops reading to Phyllis. They are both silent for a long time. Then they both break out in agreement. Humans! Capable of speech and thought! It was a good yarn but, on this point, too far-fetched.

Humans talking! What a ridiculous idea. And Jinn uses his four hands to trim the sails of their cosy little space-sphere, and Phyllis applies some make-up to her cute little chimpanzee muzzle. We now realise that they, too, are apes. Mérou’s narrative was from the last intelligent human on either planet. The triumph of the apes is complete.

Reasons for success

I think it is the thoroughness of the fable which makes it so enduring. Boulle has really thought through the implications of his reversal, of the world turned upside down.

Details of the spaceship and its advanced rockets are trivia compared with the archetypal power of the story. What if… What if the entire human race is overthrown and reduced to a state, not even of savagery, but lower than that, dragged right back to brute animality?

I think the fable addresses a deep anxiety among thinking humans that the condition of reason and intellect and mentation are so fragile and provisional. And at the same time sparks the familiar thrill which apparently resonates with so many readers and cinema goers, at witnessing the overthrow and end of the human race. In my (Freudian) interpretation, reflecting a profound, mostly unconscious death wish, which many many people thrill to see depicted in gruesome detail on the screen and then, primitive urges sated, return to our humdrum workaday lives.

Style and worldview

It has gone down in pop culture lore that the first words the astronaut hero of the first Planet of the Apes movie (played by Charlton Heston) utters to an ape is, ‘Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!’

Whereas the first words Ulysse Mérou addresses to an ape, are spoken to one of the gorilla wardens feeding him and supervising him once he has arrived at the human laboratory-cages: ‘How do you do? I am a man from Earth. I’ve had a long journey.’

Obviously, one is a movie, an American movie, and the other is a novel, a French novel, but the two moments can be taken as symbolic of the differing worldviews of the two cultural artefacts. The French novel is full of high-flown sentiments about the nature of humanity and the human spirit. Like Olaf Stapledon back in the 1930s, Boulle considers human intelligence to be a kind of peak of creation, something of special importance and significance, hence his shock at finding the humans mute animals is all the greater. His sense of the unparalleled importance of humanity is tied to his sense of his own importance, self-love, a concept so French that we have imported their phrase for it – amour propre – ‘a sense of one’s own worth; self-respect’. This is wryly expressed in the scene where he finds himself having to copy the mating ritual of the animal-humans:

Yes, I, one of the kings of creation, started circling round my beauty; I, the ultimate product of millenary evolution, I, a man… I, Ulysse Mérou, embarked like a peacock round the gorgeous Nova. (p.76)

Nowadays, I take it there is a much more realistic and widespread feeling that humans are not particularly important, that plenty of other species turn out to be ‘intelligent’ and communicate among themselves, and many people share my view that humans are, in fact, a kind of pestilential plague on the planet, which we are quite obviously destroying.

But this book, from 55 years ago, although it is about man’s fall into a bestial condition, nevertheless is full of rhetoric about the special, privileged position of intelligence in the universe, and is full of a very old-fashioned kind of triumphalist rhetoric about the ongoing march of intelligence.

Here is Cornelius arguing with Mérou, arguing that the rise of the apes was inevitable because they have a loftier destiny:

‘Believe me, the day will come when we shall surpass men in every field. It is not by accident, as you might imagine, that we have come to succeed him. This eventuality was inscribed in the normal course of evolution. Rational man having had his time, a superior being was bound to succeed him, preserve the essential results of his conquests and assimilate them during a period of apparent stagnation before soaring up to greater heights.’ (p.148)

The idea of a Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of intelligence which you can imagine as a sort of ladder whose occupants become increasingly intelligent as you climb up it, is a basic element of the Renaissance worldview, going back through medieval texts, deriving from the systematising of late classical followers of Plato. In the Middle Ages it became the ladder which led up through the Natural World, to man, then the angels, then to God himself.

When science came along in the 19th century the idea of there being an up and a down to life on earth, of a forwards and upwards drive in evolution, was taken over by positivists and lingered long into twentieth century political, social and fictional rhetoric.

It’s gone now. It was associated with the notion of a hierarchy of races (wise whites at the top), of genders (wise men at the top), and class (the wise Oxbridge-educated at the top), all of which began to be questioned and undermined soon after Boulle’s book was published.

Also, in biology and evolution, there is now no sense at all that humans are somehow ‘superior’ to all other animals because (in the tired old trope) we produced a Shakespeare or a Mozart. Watch any David Attenborough nature documentary and you’ll see that biology, for some decades now, assumes that everything is highly evolved, where highly evolved means that the organism fits perfectly into the niche it occupies.

The notion that ‘evolution’ means some vague, half-religious drive ‘upwards’ towards greater and greater intelligence has been replaced by a notion of ‘evolution’ which is a computer-aided understanding of the myriad complexities of DNA and genetics, and how they act on organisms to ensure survival. There is no ‘onwards and upwards’. There is merely change and adaptation, and that change and adaptation has no innate moral or spiritual meaning whatsoever.

Thus reading Monkey Planet is, like reading most science fiction, not to be transported forwards into a plausible future, but the opposite – to travel backwards in time, to the completely outdated social and intellectual assumptions of the 1940s and 50s.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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

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

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

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, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

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
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
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

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 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
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 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
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 a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which 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 Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

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, namely 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
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

Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002)

It is Tokyo, December 1941, and Harry Niles is a fast-talking, streetwise American nightclub owner, one-time American movie importer, gambler and fixer with friends in low – and high – places. He was brought by his parents (Roger and Harriet Niles) to Japan soon after the First World War. They were Southern Baptist missionaries who came to convert the Japanese and left young 10- and 11-year-old Harry in charge of drunk Uncle Orin while they went off for long journeys around the country.

So while uncle was off drinking, Harry grew up speaking fluent Japanese and running wild in the red-light district of Asakusa. The book opens with a scene of the boy Harry being chased by his Japanese schoolboy friends as they re-enact an ancient Samurai legend (which requires an inordinate amount of fighting with bamboo sticks), running through the streets till they tumble through a building, and up against a closed door which, under pressure of their fighting bodies, springs open and lands Harry and the most aggressive of his native Japanese pursuers, Gen, suddenly into the dressing room of a small theatre, the Folies.

Harry and Gen become friends with the manager, with a camp artist Kato who hangs around the theatre and draws and sketches the clientele, and some of the showgirls at the theatre, and are quickly running errands for them and gaining all kinds of new insights into adult life. He develops a crush on the beautiful actress and sometime geisha Oharu, who is fond and kind to him in return.

This is all set in 1922 in the opening chapter of the book, and the narrative for the first half of the book alternates chapters between grown-up Harry, ‘now’, in 1941, and boy Harry, ‘then’, back in 1922, giving us more of Harry’s childhood memories, which explain his character, and also relationships with some of the central adult characters.

But the ‘now’ of 1941 is where most of the narrative takes place and which entirely takes over the second half of the story. It is December 1941, in December. Tension between Japan and America is becoming intense. America has long since imposed an oil ban on Japan, along with a ban on a wide range of modern textiles and produce, but it’s the oil ban that’s hit hardest, with the result that all cars are having to be propelled by charcoal-burning stoves set up in their rears.

All the talk is of conflict, and most of the Americans who can leave Tokyo have already done so. But Harry remains, a puzzle to his acquaintances, happy-go-lucky, blessed with an intimate knowledge of Tokyo, not so lucky in his mistress, Michiko, a fervent communist who he rescued from being beaten up by the ferocious Tokyo police after a protest march some two years earlier, and who latched onto him ever since. He has installed him as the Record Girl in his bar, standing by the jukebox, changing records and mouthing along to the words, dressed in a dinner jacket and sexy stockings. Give the place sex appeal. Encourages the male clientele to buy more drinks. Unfortunately, Michiko is fiercely almost insanely jealous, continually threatening either to shoot Harry or kill herself. Yes, she is quite a strain to be with.

The last plane to leave Tokyo is scheduled to take off on Monday December 8. Unfortunately, as we the readers know, the Japanese launch their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, so we know the plane will probably be cancelled and Harry trapped. Ooops.

So the book follows Harry through three or so days of feverish, against the backdrop of mounting war hysteria, as half a dozen or more complicated plotlines meet and clash to provide a complex plot and mounting tension. Among these are:

Eight months earlier Gen, now a lieutenant in the Japanese Navy, introduced Harry to a man in the back of the geisha house opposite Harry’s Bar who turns out to be Admiral Yamamoto. As a notorious con-man Harry is taken to see the experiments of a certain Dr Ito to turn water into oil. These are impressively staged with lots of electric arcs and sparking, but Harry immediately sees it is a confidence trick and helps Gen expose it.

Now, eight months later, Harry repeatedly makes it clear to anyone who will listen that any coming war will be entirely decided by access to oil. America has vast supplies of it, not least from its own Texas oil ranges. Japan has no oil in its territory but will have to invade and conquer the oil-producing islands of the Dutch East Indies. Hence the willingness of the desperate High Command to believe in the ridiculous Dr Ito and his experiments.

Now we discover that Harry has been involved in falsifying the shipment papers of American oil tankers coming to Japan, to the harbour of Yokahama. He makes it look as if they set off with ten thousand barrels of oil and arrive with only one thousand. Where do they stop off? Hawaii and the naval base of Pearl Harbour. So Harry’s fiddling with the accounts seems to imply that the Americans are building up stocks of oil in secret oil storage tanks somewhere at the harbour. But are they?

Why is Harry bothering to do this? We learn that nobody is paying him to. In fact, he is definitely persona no grata with the American authorities, a position he consolidates by making an outrageously anti-American speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, the club for Tokyo’s most important businessmen and politicians. Here Harry makes a big speech explaining why there is no need for a war. This is because he genuinely doesn’t want there to be a war, but it has the effect of setting both the American and powerful British community against him as a traitor.

As a sideline, there is the thread of Willie Stauber, a German emigre, fully paid-up Nazi, but who Harry worked with in Nanking four years earlier, and who returned from China with a Chinese bride in tow. He is desperate to get out of Tokyo but to make sure his Chinese bride can accompany him. At odd moments, in the midst of his other concerns, we see Harry purposefully working to try and help Willie, eventually by securing faked official documents, into which he, Harry, writes an official text declaring Iris a fit person to travel, sealed with an official seal which he himself makes and stamps, using one of his many underworld skills, this time as a forger.

Colonel Ishigama 1

But the central driving force of the narrative is definitely is the fact that, right from the start of the book, Harry is being hunted by a certain Colonel Ishigama, who has vowed to kill him. Why?

Their paths have crossed twice before. Once, back in 1922, the artist Kato had asked Harry to deliver a fine print to a client. Harry had already taken several to the tall severe figure inside an opulent-looking house. This time he wants to see a new movie so asks his friend Gen to take it. Bad mistake. Hours later, when Gen has not returned, Harry goes to the house and is invited in by the forbidding owner. He finds gen lying sideways on a large pillow with an odd look on his face, while the owner proceeds to show Harry his collection of antique swords, and then to demonstrate samurai moves with it. Eventually, he ushers both boys out of his house, giving Gen a white chrysanthemum as he leaves.

Back at Kato’s studio, the artist explains that this is because Colonel Ishigama (for this is the man’s name) has deflowered Gen, taken his homosexual virginity. This is why he had wanted Harry to take the print; Harry is too ugly for a connoisseur like Ishigama to be attracted to. Now he has spoilt everything.

Kato and Oharu

In fact Kato is so disappointed with Harry that he decides, on the spot, to sever friendship with him, to see him no more. Harry is devastated. the past few months have given him a wonderful insight into art and adult life, and wonders and mysteries. But Kato is unbending and Harry is kicked out to wander the streets in tears.

That night boy Harry tracks down Kato to a walled garden. Sneaking over the wall Harry is transfixed to discover that Kato is sketching Harry’s beloved actress Oharu being fucked in various positions by one of the comedians from the Folies theatre. Having become drenched in Japanese aesthetic values Harry is able to appreciate the subtlety of the positions, and the rapid way Kato sketches lines and form, writing scribbled notes in the margins indicating what colours later to use when he works them up to prints in his studio.

But a sudden flash of lightning reveals Harry standing in the garden watching the scene. Quick as a flash he turns and leaps back over the garden wall, scampering way through the alleyways of Asakusa in the pouring rain back to the house where he’s meant to be supervised by drunk Uncle Orin, but where he is, as usual, alone, and hunkers down into his bed cold and wet and miserable. Except that, a few minutes later, Oharu knocks meekly at the door, comes sits by the bed and apologises. ‘It was only sex, Harry,’ she says, voicing the very different attitude the Japanese take to copulation from us shame-filled Westerners. it was just poses and positioning for her friend the artists, Kato, nothing more. She strokes his head. He is cold and feverish. She insists on getting him out of his wet things. She climbs in behind him and Harry feels her nipples hardening. She takes his hand and guides it between her legs. In short, she guides him through the mysteries of sex, and takes his boyish virginity.

All novels are, at some level, wish fulfilment. The wish fulfilment and fantasy is nearer the surface in ‘genre’ fiction. What man reading this could not be transported and wish this was how he lost his virginity.

Unfortunately, Harry is just falling asleep in Oharu’s arms when the light is brutally turned on to reveal Harry’s parents standing over them, unexpectedly returned from a long missionary tour, accompanied by the bleary-eyed and mortally embarrassed Uncle Orin.

Harry’s father brutally yanks Oharu by the hair out of Harry’s bed and when Harry protests belts him so he reels across the room. He would have pushed Oharu naked out into the street, except that his wife points out the neighbours will see, the humiliation etc, so they let her hurriedly dress in her kimono before kicking her out then Roger Niles takes his belt to Harry and beats him till he bleeds.

Suffice it to say this experience crystallises Harry’s love for everything fine, refined and Japanese and his contempt for everything big, blundering and brutal about America. Within days they are on a boat sailing back to the States. A few months later Tokyo is devastated by the vast earthquake and firestorm known as the Great Kanto earthquake, an appalling disaster in which some 144,000 people lost their lives in the unimaginable holocaust of out of control firestorms. Harry later learns that Kato died trying to protect his prints, and nothing was heard of Oharu: like so many other she simply disappeared, burned without trace.

Colonel Ishigama 2

Anyway, it is only two-thirds of the way into the book that we discover the cause of Ishigama’s ire and why Harry has been trying to evade him for the first 300 pages, in a prolonged flashback. The story is actually told by the German Willie Staub. Four years earlier Willie had been in China when the Japanese invaded. He had been in the capital Nanking when the Japanese arrived and began their reign of fear. They gang raped all the women they could find. they rounded up men and shot them in squads of up to a hundred. NCOs arranged for the still raw recruits to use live Chinese as bayonet practice in order to perfect their technique.

In the midst of this holocaust Willie and the handful of other Europeans tries to set up a safe quarter of town to protect the Chinese fleeing there. From nowhere appears an American who can speak fluent Japanese and becomes Willie’s driver. He tells several stories about how Harry used his con-man confidence to interrupt executions and gang rapes.

Best technique was to muscle through the Japanese soldiers holding down the woman, take out a stethoscope and examine her groin (having first gotten the Japanese penis removed) and announce confidently that she had venereal disease, reminding the soldiers that they don’t want to infect themselves and bring this pollution back to their wives and sweethearts. The Japanese desisted. Harry and Willie took the traumatised woman to their lorry, to join all the others, and, once the lorry was full, be driven back to the (relative) safety of the European zone.

Anyway, one day on their tour of the atrocities, they come across a crowd of soldiers surrounding a line of ten Chinese civilians who have their hands tied behind their backs and have been made to kneel in a line. At the end of the line is Colonel Ishigama. Harry recognises him instantly. And recognises the beautifully crafted, infinitely sharp samurai sword he is holding. He is about to see if he can behead ten people in a row in under 60 seconds. As he flexes his wiry forearms, and as his aide de camp prepares the bucket of water and cloth with which he will wipe the sword between strikes, Harry grabs all the cash he and Willie have in the cash box in the lorry, jumps down and walks confidently into the ring of soldiers, yelling that he will give Ishigima 100 yen and every man in the watching soldiers ten yen each, if Ishigama can behead them all in under thirsty seconds, those left unbeheaded to walk free. The soldiers cheer for the money and Ishigama reluctantly agrees (refusing would lose face) and Smith then describes the grisly decapitation of the first five civilians, with Ishigama losing time because he’s flustered, because the aide de camp drops the wiping cloth, accidentally hitting his own aide de camp on one backswing: the upshot is that Ishigama only manages five before the thirty seconds is up.

The crowd of soldiers roar, Harry gives them the huge bundle of yen to distribute and hustles the surviving five civilians – including a 13-year-old boy who has pooed and peed himself – into the back of the lorry alongside the raped women, and they carefully reverse, through the cheering soldiers and drive off before Ishigama can do anything.

This is why, when Harry hears, right at the start of the story, that Ishigama is back from China in Tokyo, it fills his mind with anxiety and drives the narrative.

Ishigama’s revenge

There are a lot of other plot strands. Harry meets with his mistress (Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, the British ambassador), tries to hide the fact from Michiko, runs his bar, the Happy Paris, makes his speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, meets other friends Japanese and American, for drinks and gossip, is present at the small group for drinks where Willie tells the story about Ishigama, meets his schoolboy friend and nemesis Lieutenant Gen, now in the Japanese Navy, for conversations about oil or lack thereof for the Japanese war effort.

In a separate plotline he is being investigated and followed by Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police, also known as the Thought Police, and his goon assistant Corporal Go. They have been tipped off about his involvement in the Magic Oil experiments of Dr Ito, and turn up at the Yokohama dockside offices of one of the oil companies whose books Harry is fiddling to make it look like oil is being offloaded in Hawaii.

Also we run into several of Harry’s small gang of boyhood Japanese friends, and discover how they’ve turned out. One is a sumo wrestler, Taro, twin of Jiro, who had joined the navy and been killed and who, in a series of scenes, Harry promises to accompany to the office where they collect his ashes and official war box (containing the ashes, military citation and so on) to be given to the dead hero’s family.

Plus involvements with various local gamblers and a strand where Harry swaps all the cash he has for gold from a friendly pawnbroker.

Altogether, these intertwining plotlines and strands form a wonderful fabric, a tapestry of stories and adventures and scams, each of them shedding light on different aspects of Japanese culture, and tradition, building up a persuasive sense of life in Japan of the period.

But it is only in the last 100 pages or so that Ishigama finally catches up with Harry. It is in the willow house, a geisha house opposite his bar. Harry has returned from various meetings and adventures to discover his own bar dark and locked up. Unusual. He didn’t give instructions for this. And the willow house opposite is strangely quiet. It is unlocked. He takes his shoes off and tiptoes along the hall until he hears a voice calling his name.

In a genuinely bizarre scene, he discovers Colonel Ishigama quietly kneeling at a traditional Japanese table with his immense super-sharp samurai sword lying on it, attended by an immaculately painted geisha girl. Harry knows everything about Japanese culture and so this scene is stuffed with facts about geishas and the intricacy with which they are painted, their social and cultural role, as well as lots of information about Ishigama’s background.

Ishigama is infinitely polite and solicitous. He asks the geisha for hot sake. They drink each other’s health. Harry knows that if he makes one false move or says something wrong, Ishigama will whip up the sword and behead him faster than he can move.

It is the standout scene in a novel full of strikingly vivid, beautifully imagined scenes. Ishigama calmly and politely informs Harry that he (Harry) owes him (Ishigama) five heads, the five heads he never got to take off back in China. Of course Harry’s will be last, but he, Harry, will select the identities of the other four. Harry’s mind races…

At which point one of Harry’s acquaintances, Al DeGeorge, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, knocks on the door. He is drunk as a skunk. He stumbles inside shouting Harry’s name wanting to know why his bar isn’t open. He makes it right up to the entrance of the back room when Ishigama abruptly swoops to his feet, with one stride is at the doorway, and with one enormous sweep of the sword cleaves DeGeorge from shoulder blade to belly button. the dying man grunts a last syllable and falls in two halves.

Neither Harry nor the geisha has moved. As I say, powerful scene. In the event it slowly dawns on Harry, to his amazement, that the geisha is none other than his fierce lover, Michiko. All kinds of speculation goes through his mind. Was she always a geisha on the side. Who painted her so elaborately, every geisha needs an assistant? Was it Ishigama, a psychopath famed for his aesthetic abilities? In which case, did she service the brutal sadist?

Harry’s mind is swimming while he all the time makes no movement as Ishigama ritually cleans his sword and returns to the kneeling position opposite Harry at the low table. More sake! And the three toast each other as if nothing had happened. Then suddenly Michiko has a small dagger at Ishigama’s throat. She makes him put down the sword and Harry grabs both it and the smaller ceremonial sword from Ishigama’s sash.

Ishigama is neutralised. He smiles. Now he knows Michiko’s true relationship with Harry. Then he stands up and, of course, Michiko can’t bring herself to stab him. Before they can stop him he leaps through the paper wall of the room and is into the garden and beyond. Harry collects up the swords, grabs Michiko’s hand and they run back across the road towards his bar, letting themselves in, locking the door, Harry fumbling for the pistol he has hidden under the floorboards.

Then Harry is picked up by the Thought Police and taken to a prison where he sees the manager of one of the oil companies whose records he had faked, bound to a table and beaten senseless with bamboo rods. Sergeant Shozo is very polite, offers him a cigarette, says this will happen to him unless he tells them what he knows about the secret oil tanks at Pearl Harbour. They only beat Harry a little and eventually (and a bit inexplicably, to me) they let him go.

Harry makes his way back to central Tokyo and spends the remaining 100 or so pages of the book in increasingly desperate attempts to inform the American ambassador, and then his mistress, Lady Beechum, that he is now convinced a Japanese attack is coming very soon. The ambassador, cornered at a swish Japanese golf course, simply pretends to ignore him. Lady Beechum tells him noone will believe him; he is the most discredited man in Tokyo.

Then there is another encounter with Ishigama, in the street which is interrupted by news announcers blaring from every streetside loudspeaker – that Japan has launched a surprise attack on the American fleet and utterly destroyed it. People stream out of their houses, cheering. Ishigama is lost in the torrent of people. All the plotlines come together. Harry drives through the throng to the American embassy only to discover, amid scenes of panic as all the embassy staff gather and burn all their secret information, that Harry’s name is not on the list of Americans who will be repatriated. His old schoolboy friend Hooper explains it is partly because he is persona non grata with both the American and British ex-pat community. But more because the Japanese want him.

Finally Ishigama catches up with him, helped by his oldest schoolboy frenemy, Gen, giving rise to a prolonged chase through shops and back alleyways until Harry finds himself, unwittingly, tumbling once again through the door into the dressing room of the Theatre Folies, where he had tumbled all those years ago. Now it is dusty and abandoned and now, on its empty stage, the last gruesome scene of the novel takes place.

You will not be surprised to learn that heads roll. But I think you should read this immensely enjoyable to find out whose.

Dramatis personae

Whites

Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, British ambassador, Harry’s sexually athletic mistress, who has also worked in the British code room for two years, very well informed about international affairs

Sir Arnold Beechum – purple faced blimp who knows full well Harry is having an affair with his wife and, late on in the novel, ambushes Harry with a cricket bat, knocking him unconscious, as if Harry didn’t have enough to worry about already

Willie Staub – member of the Nazi Party, former managing director of China Deutsche-Fon – who was with Harry back in Nanking, China, then married Iris, a Chinese woman, who he is desperate to help get away with him back to Europe

Al DeGeorge – sceptical journalist for the Christian Science Monitor

Japanese

Agawa – keeper of a local pawnshop who exchanges Harry’s cash for small gold ingots

Corporal Go of the Thought Police, a grinning sadist

Goro – reformed pickpocket friend of Harry’s, gone straight and married the owner of a stationery shop he once tried to rob

Haruko – waitress at Harry’s bar, the Happy Paris

Ishigami – the young army officer who deflowers the boy Gen, and gives him and Harry a display of samurai swordsmanship, who Harry cheats out of his Chinese beheadings in Nanking, and then pursues Harry implacably through the second half of the novel like an avenging Fury

Kato – artist and printmaker, who teaches Harry (and the reader) the aesthetics of Japanese prints and design; after Harry lets Gen take a print to Lieutenant Ishigama – who seduces him – Kato drops Harry as unreliable

Kondo – bartender at the Happy Paris

Michiko Funabashi – young woman communist who Harry saves from a riot, sleeps with and thereupon becomes  his fiercely jealous mistress, she serves as the Record Girl in his bar, and pops up unexpectedly painted as a geisha girl in the central scene with Colonel Ishigama

Oharu – actress in the theatre who wipes the boy Harry’s face when he tumbles into the changing room, and becomes his muse, and who later takes his virginity: lost in the great earthquake of 1922

Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police – thoughtful and playful officer who unwaveringly pursues Harry to find out if he was lying about the oilfields at Hawaii

Taro – sumo wrestler, twin of Jiro, who joins the navy and is killed, whose ashes Taro receives on the main day

Tetsu – one of their boyhood gang who becomes a yakuza and is covered in tattoos

Gen – the leader of their gang when they were boys, now a lieutenant in the Japanese navy

Admiral Yamomoto – head of the Imperial Japanese Navy who Harry is introduced to by a nervous Lieutenant Gen eight months earlier, whose trust Harry wins by playing poker with him, and who then asks for Harry to come and watch the conman Dr Ito perform his fraud of supposedly turning spring water into oil

Cruz Smith’s prose

Cruz Smith’s writing has two obvious pleasures: one is that he really transports you to his locations, making you feel and smell and breathe them. The bustling, noisy cityscape of 1940s Tokyo is vividly conveyed, from the pomp of the British Embassy, via the top businessmen at the Chrysanthemum Club, to the umpteen bars and pawnshops and sumo training gyms and artists studios which Harry’s numerous interests take us to.

Second is the way he can make language jive and shimmy. I’ve just read a couple of thrillers by the Englishman Robert Harris, which are written in clear efficient journalistic prose, the text’s ‘grip’ deriving from the mounting tension implicit in the increasingly fraught situations he describes. the prose is meant to be transparent as a reporter’s and let the fraught scenarios snag the reader.

By contrast Cruz Smith is a poet. He can make the language jive and shimmy in totally unexpected ways. You know the old archive footage where an artist like Picasso draws a couple of lines onto paper and… it is a bull! Same with Cruz Smith. A couple of ordinary words are arranged in a novel combination which opens up an entirely new idea or sensation.

In this way, not only are the novels exciting and informative but they supply a steady stream of moments when the prose leaps up and performs tricks for you. I’m not saying he’s Shakespeare. Just that he can do in a phrase what other authors need a paragraph to do, and then injects something extra.

For example, here is Tokyo as the loudspeakers at every road corner blare the news that Japan has launched and won the Pacific war.

Each radio report began with the opening bars of the ‘Warship March’, and with every account, Tokyo seemed to rise farther above sea level. (p.407)

When Harry is planning to ditch Michiko in order to be on the last plane out of Tokyo sitting next to his mistress, Lady Beechum, he thinks:

He’d garb his betrayal with small decencies… (p.233)

Lady Beechum is all-too-aware of Harry’s crooked shortcomings, as she sums up in a Wildeish paradox:

‘Harry, it’s a fantasy. You and I were not meant to be with anyone. it’s sheer incompatibility that keeps us together.’ (p.172)

Sometimes it’s more in the zone of American street smarts, descended from a long line of pulp writers, and crafted to reflect Harry’s own rueful self-awareness.

A crow trudged up the road and shared a glance with Harry, one wiseguy to another. (p.330)

It was one of those moments, Harry thought, when your life was put on the scale and the needle didn’t budge. (p.342)

But at others, it’s poetry, moments when you see a new aspect of human behaviour.

The man spoke with such intensity that it took Harry a moment to find the air to answer. (p.191)

Sometimes it’s the poetry of description.

Every few minutes a fighter plane would pass overhead, towing its shadow across the baseball diamond and up over the slope to the airfield across the road. (p.130)

This immediately and vividly made me recall all the times an airplace shadow has passed over or near me. I was there.

Maybe my favourite is the moment when the boy Harry pops over the wall into the garden of the house where he is to discover Ohasu having sex and being sketched by Kato, in a heavy summer downpour of rain, and:

The house was larger than it had appeared from the street, with a side garden not of flowers but  of large stones set  among raked pebbles. In a brief illumination of lightning, Harry saw the garden as it was meant to be contemplated, as small islands in a sea of perfect waves. The pebbles chattered in the rain. (p.250)

‘The pebbles chattered in the rain.’ Not show-offy, witty or paradoxical. Only six common little words. But which convey the moment perfectly, the garden of Japanese pebbles glistening and minutely jostled by the heavy downpour. You are there. With Harry. At the heart of the story. And Cruz Smith does this again and again with acute details and snappy phrases. His books are not only gripping and thoroughly researched, but deliver a really verbal, literary pleasure.


Related links

Other Martin Cruz Smith reviews

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’

Also:

1986 Stallion Gate

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

%d bloggers like this: