Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The blight of cars

I hate cars.

Pollution Cars emit vast amounts of toxic fumes, poisoning passersby and making our cities hellholes of pollution.

Due to the increase in the use of private cars, road traffic pollution is considered a major threat to clean air in the UK and other industrialised countries. Traffic fumes contain harmful chemicals that pollute the atmosphere. Road traffic emissions produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. (Road Traffic and pollution)

Destruction The post-war obsession with cars led councils and developers to rip the historic hearts out of most English cities and towns, creating inhumane, alienating and polluted labyrinths of urban freeways with urine-drenched concrete subways as an afterthought for the humble pedestrian.

Death Cars kill people, lots of people.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes, and injuries from road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 29 years of age. (Road accident casualties in Britain and the world)

Cars killed childhood Lastly, the number one concern of most parents of small children isn’t paedophiles or internet porn, it’s that their kids might be run over by traffic. (Play England website) That explains why parents don’t let their kids play in the street as they did in the halcyon past, but prefer to keep them safely inside. Which contributes to lack of exercise and growth of obesity among children, as well as adversely affecting children’s mental health. Car culture, in other words, killed childhood.

Personally, I think cars should be banned, period.

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World at the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a dazzling exhibition celebrating the rise and rise of cars which shows how they are not just machines for getting from A to B but were, right from the start, spurs to all kinds of other industries, helping to create:

  • countless aspects of industrial and commercial design, from instrument panels to ergonomic chairs
  • innovations in industrial production, specifically the assembly line techniques pioneered at the Ford car plant in Detroit
  • entire new areas of engineering relating to roads and then to motorways, the construction of stronger road bridges, flyovers, ring roads etc using the new materials of concrete and tarmac
  • an explosion of consumer accessories from safety hats and goggles to driving coats and gloves all the way up to modern Satnavs
  • as well as providing a mainstay for the advertising industry for over a hundred years
  • and becoming a dominating feature of popular culture in films, novels and much more

The car is, when you stop to consider it, arguably the central product of the twentieth century, the defining artifact of our civilisation (and, in my jaundiced view, a perfect symbol of our society’s relentless drive to excess consumption, ruinous pollution and global destruction.)

They promised us the freedom of the road, instead we got day-long traffic jams on 12-lane highways, toxic air pollution, and over a million dead every year. This photo shows congestion blocking the G4 Beijing-Hong Kong-Macau Expressway

The car has transformed how we move around, how we design and lay out our cities and towns, it has transformed our psychologies and imaginations. As one of the curators explains:

“The V&A’s mission is to champion the power of design to change the world, and no other design object has impacted the world more than the automobile. This exhibition is about the power of design to effect change, and the unintended consequences that have contributed to our current environmental situation.

Structure of the show

This exhibition is brilliantly laid out. You progress through a labyrinthine serpentine curve of cases displaying over 250 artefacts large and small, and studded by no fewer than 15 actual cars, from one of the first ever built to a ‘popup’ car of the future.

Photo of the Benz patent motor car, model no. 3, 1888. Image courtesy of Daimler

The exhibition is immensely informative, with sections and sub-sections devoted to every aspect of cars, their design, manufacture, the subsidiary industries and crafts they support, the global oil industry, and car cultures around the world, it really is an impressively huge and all-embracing overview.

But the thing that made the impact on me was the films.

I counted no fewer than 35 films running, from little black-and-white documentaries showing on TV-sized monitors, through to clips of Blade Runner and Fifth Element on large screens.

There’s the iconic car chase from Bullitt on a very big screen hanging from the ceiling and then an enormous, long, narrow, gallery-wide screen which was showing three long, slow and beautifully shot  films of landscapes which have been impacted by the car – a complicated freeway junction in Japan, oil fields in central California, and the ‘lithium triangle’ in Chile, between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, where lithium is extracted for battery production a vast expanse of flat desert which is being mined to produce lithium and its landscape converted into a colourful patchwork of slag and beautiful blue purification reservoirs.

At both the start and the end of the show are totally immersive films which are projected on screens from floor to ceiling, the first one a speeded-up film of a car journey through London, projected onto three split screens; the final experience in the show is standing in front of a shiny round little Pop.Up Next car around which stretches a curved screen onto which is projected a montage of car disaster imagery, including car crashes, road rage incidents, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, Jimmy Carter telling us about the energy crisis, which gets louder and faster and more intense until it collapses into a high speed blur of colour. And looming over us, the viewers, I realised after a while, is an enormous drone hanging from the ceiling and looking down on us like one of H.G. Wells’s conquering Martians.

Cars Exhibition, 19th November 2019

All very trippy and intense and sense-bombarding. If you fancy a quiet exhibition, this is not it, sound from all the films is playing at once and, given the subject matter, they are almost all dynamic and fast-moving.

The exhibition is divided into three parts although the continuous serpentine journey past the display cases and films isn’t divided, as in a ‘normal’ gallery, into ‘rooms’.

1. ‘Going Fast’

The exhibition with records of all the gee-whizz visions of a perfect techno future which the car has been lined with throughout its history, with lots of illustrations from magazines and sci fi stories, clips from movies predicting flying cars such as Blade Runner or The Fifth Element. On a massive projector screen right at the start is playing Key To the Future, a film made by General Motors for their 1956 Motorama car show.

This was just one of a series of Firebird concept cars produced by General Motors. Interestingly, the design was inspired by the new jet fighter planes which had just started flying, and the cars copied the jets’ fluid silhouettes, cockpit seats and gas turbine engines designed to reach 200mph. they weren’t actually sold but were produced as experiments in function and design. And to thrill the public at motor shows with exciting visions of hands-free driving.

One feature of these designs for future cars was that a number of them were Russian, from Soviet-era drawings of an ideal communist future. It’s worth noting that the curators have made an effort to get outside the Anglosphere. Unavoidably most of the footage and technology is from America, with a healthy amount about the British car industry, and then sections about Fiat in Italy and Citroen in France.

But the V&A have gone out of their way to try and internationalise their coverage and they commissioned a series of films about car culture in five other parts of the world including one on South African ‘spinners’ (who compete to be able to spin cars very fast in as small a circle as possible), California low-riders, Emirati dune racers in the Middle East, and Japanese drivers of highly decorated trucks. As well as a section towards the end about the ‘Paykan’, a popular people’s car heavily promoted in Iran in the early 1970s which became a symbol of modernity and affluence.

Installation view of Cars at the Victoria and Albert Museum showing an Iranian Paykan on the left, a desert-crossing Auto-Chenille by Citroën in the centre, and a funky bubble car on the right. Note the massive projection screen at the back displaying a panoramic film of oil fields in central California

The section continues with the first-ever production car, the Benz Patent Motorwagen 3, introduced to the public in 1888, and the futuristic Tatra T77 from the Czech Republic, which was designed in the 1920s by Paul Jaray, the man who developed the aerodynamics of airships.

French advertisement for the Tatra 77 (1934)

There’s a whole section about the founding and development of car races, from the Daytona track in Florida, to Brooklands race track in Surrey, both accompanied, of course, by vintage film footage. They explain how the British Gordon Bennett Cup prompted the French to invent the Grand Prix in 1906. There’s racing against other cars, but also, of course, the successive attempts to break the land speed record which attracted great publicity from the 1920s, through the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Britain First Always – Buy British, UK (1930s) Artwork by R. Granger Barrett

And there’s a feminist section of the show which focuses solely on the great women car drivers who appeared at Brooklands such as Camille du Gast from France and Dorothy Levitt, and Jill Scott Thomas who became an important symbol of the women’s rights movement.

There’s a gruesome life-size sculpture of a man named ‘Graham’, which shows what shape a human being would have to be to withstand a car collision. Graham was commissioned last year by The Transport Accident Commission in Victoria, Australia to demonstrate human vulnerability in traffic accidents, and made by Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini in collaboration with leading trauma surgeon Christian Kenfield and crash investigation expert Dr David Logan.

Graham: what humans ought to look like to optimise their chances of surviving a car crash

2. ‘Making More’

The second section is devoted to the manufacturing of cars and focuses heavily on the range of innovations in manufacturing pioneered at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit as early as 1913. There are models of the factory, black and white film footage of conveyor belts, unexpected footage of meat processing plants where Ford worked as a young man and which the car plants were to some extent modelled on, photos and sketches of all aspects of the production line along with a list of the very tough rules and regulations Ford imposed on his workers.

Sure, they were paid double what they could earn at other factories (a whopping $5) but the stress of staying in one place performing the same function for 12 hours a day, with no smoking or talking and strictly regulated loo breaks took its tool: many workers developed psychological illnesses, many just quit.

Ford’s factories were designed by the architect Albert Kahn who pioneered an entirely new construction space that allowed for larger, more flexible workspaces, a design which quickly spread around the world, for example at Fiat’s Lingotto factory. There are floorplans, architects’ designs, models and photos of all this twentieth century innovation, plus the animated feature Symphony in F celebrating the complex supply chains Ford had established which was shown at the 1933 ‘Century of Progress’ Chicago World’s Fair.

By contrast one wall is filled with some immense film projections of a modern, almost totally-automated BMW car assembly plant in Munich, and there’s a Unimate Robotoc Arm, one of the first robot implements used on a production line as early as 1961 at the General Motors plant in New Jersey The principles are the same but human input, effort and endurance have been almost completely eliminated.

Murals were commissioned to celebrate the wonderful new productiveness of human labour, including the wonderful Detroit Murals by Mexican mural maker Diego Rivera

Production line methods were quickly adopted to a wide range of goods including everything from furniture to architecture, and the speed and rhythms of factory life spread into pop culture, influencing music, dance, fashion and the propaganda of the new totalitarian states.

Hitler, the show reminds us, was a big admirer of Henry Ford, who was himself a noted anti-Semite, and consulted Ford about mass production techniques to help improve German efficiency, which resulted in the remarkably enduring design of the Volkswagen and Hitler’s pioneering Autobahns, but also led the Germans to the efficient mass manufacture of other consumer goods like the Volsempfänger or People’s Radio.

At the other end of the cultural scale, the exhibition includes the ‘production line’ video made in 1965 for the Detroit girl group Martha and the Vandellas song Nowhere To Run To. The Motown Sound which they typified was, after all, named after Motor Town, the town that Henry Ford built up into the centre of the American car industry.

There were to (at least) reactions against production line culture. An obvious one was the creation of powerful unions formed to represent assembly line workers. Following the landmark sit-down strike from 1936 to 1937 in Flint, Michigan, membership of the Union of Automotive Workers grew from 30,000 to 500,000 in one year! Thirty years later, and the exhibition includes some of the posters produced by a Marxist art collective in Paris to support striking car workers during the 1968 mass strikes in France.

But another reaction was against mass production, and in favour of luxury. The Model T meant cars for the masses, but what about cars for the better off? In the 1920s luxury car manufacturers returned to creating bespoke, hand-crafted models, and this triggered a growing market for high-end car accessories. The exhibition includes examples of chic hats and lighters and motoring gloves, all associating the idea of motoring with glamour and luxury (‘To drive a Peugeot is to be in fashion’).

A custom-made Hispano-Suiza Type H6B car from 1922 provides a close-up look at the luxurious and meticulously crafted world of early automotive design.

Hispano-Suiza Type HB6 ‘Skiff Torpedo’. Hispano-Suiza (chassis) Henri Labourdette (body) 1922. Photo by Michael Furman © The Mullin Automotive Museum

Thus the development of mascots on car bonnets, a small symbol which allowed consumers to quietly flaunt their wealth and taste. Thus between 1920 and 1931 French designer René Lalique produced a series of car bonnet ornaments made of glass, which are on display here.

There’s a section devoted to the development of colours, shades and tones, and to the science of producing lacquers and paint which would be durable enough to protect cars in all weathers. Even mass market manufacturers took note and in 1927 General Motors was the first producer to set up an entire department devoted to styling, the ‘Art and Colour Section’. As far back as 1921, under chairman Alfred Sloan, General Motors implemented a policy known as ‘annual model renewal’. Taking its lead from the fashion industry, the cars would be restyled and relaunched annually, with a new look and new colours (although the engineering and motors mostly stayed the same).

And hence the development of extravagant car shows like ‘Motorama’ launched in 1949 by General Motors, an annual series which came to involve celebrity performers, original songs, choreography, models in clothes straight off catwalks, and promotional films.

The ever-growing commercialisation of cars and life in general sparked a backlash in the 1960s and the exhibition explains how the humble VolksWagen became a cheap and cheerful symbol of people who dropped out, adopted alternative lifestyles, and often decorated their VW with hippy images and symbols.

The exhibition features a striking example of a car customised by Tomas Vazquez, a member of the lowrider culture that emerged in Latino communities in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s.

3. ‘Shaping Space’

The final section of the exhibition explores the vast impact of the car on the world’s landscape, nations, and cities. It looks at how the petrol engine beat early electric and steam-powered competitors by promising the ability to travel the world, transforming drivers into individual explorers.

Displays include the first ever Michelin guide published in 1900, a little red book giving tips about where to drive in France – examples of the tremendous artwork Shell commissioned to encourage drivers to get out and explore Britain (the Shell guides), and a look at the special off-road cars called Auto-Chenille by Citroën and created to undertake a publicised treks across Africa and Asia.

This section looks at the vast ramifications and impact of the oil industry around the world, from the early days when it was celebrated as a miracle resource, through the evolution of oil-based products like Tupperware and nylon. There are fascinating maps of oil reserves, films about oil extraction

And then on to the 1970s oil crisis which helped inspire the new environmental movement. There’s footage of a grim-faced president Carter making a TV broadcast to the American people and telling them they have to be more careful how they use their limited resources, ha ha ha, and a poster for the first ever Earth Day, called by new environmental activists for 22 April 1970.

Poster for the first Earth Day, 22 April 1970, designed by Robert Leydenfrost, photography by Don Brewster

So it’ll be Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in a few months. And how well have we looked after the earth in the past 50 years?

Not too well, I think. Most of us have been too busy buying stuff, consuming stuff, competing to have shinier, newer stuff, and top of the list comes a shiny new car. I was amused to read the recent report that all the world’s efforts to get people to use electric cars have been completely eclipsed by the unstoppable rise of gas-guzzling Sports Utilities Vehicles. These throng the streets of Clapham where I live. In twenty minutes I’m going to have to dodge and weave among these huge, poisonous dinosaurs as I cycle to work.

As a tiny symbol of our ongoing addiction to the internal combustion engine, there’s an animated map showing the spread of motorways across Europe from 1920 to 2020, which contains the mind-boggling fact that plans are well advanced for a motorway which will stretch from Hamburg to Shanghai! More cars, more lorries, more coaches and buses and taxis and motorbikes and scooters, burn it up, baby!

This final room has the most diverse range of cars on display, including early cars from the 1950s that attempted to address fuel scarcity such as the Messerschmitt KR200 bubble car, alongside the Ford Nucleon, a nuclear-powered concept car, and the exhibition closes with the immersive film I mentioned above, streaming around the ‘Pop.Up Next autonomous flying car’ co-designed by Italdesign, Airbus and Audi.

Summary

I think this is a really brilliant exhibition, setting out to document a madly ambitious subject – one of the central subjects of the 20th century – with impressive range and seriousness.  It covers not only ‘the car’ itself but touches on loads of other fields and aspects of twentieth century history, with a confident touch and fascinating wall labels. The serpentine layout combines with the clever use of mirrors and gaps between the partition walls to make it seem much bigger than it is, as do the umpteen films showing on screens large, extra-large and ginormous.

It’s a feast for the mind and the senses.

And it’s not at all a hymn of praise: the curators are well aware of the baleful effects of car culture: there’s a digital clock recording the number of people who’ve died in traffic accidents so far in the world, and another one (in the 1970s oil crisis section) giving a countdown till the world’s oil resources are utterly exhausted (how do they know? how can anyone know?).

But there’s also another digital counter showing the number of cars manufactured in the world so far this year and it shows no sign of abating or slowing down. Car, lorry, bus, truck, coach, motorbike production continue to increase all around the world and is often [author puts his head in his hands and sighs with despair] taken as the primary indicator of a country’s economy.

We’re going to burn this planet down, aren’t we?

Promo video

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Brendan Cormier and Lizzie Bisley, with Esme Hawes as Assistant Curator.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

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

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

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

Mise en scène

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mapping mission

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

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

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

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

The double meaning of the phrase ‘the drowned world’

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking Hardman

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

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

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

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

Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice stay behind

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

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

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

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

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

Strangman arrives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerans the god

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerans rescues Beatrice

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

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

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

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

Strangman closes in

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

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

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

The return of Colonel Riggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ballard effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballard’s purple prose

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

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

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency @ the Royal Academy

This is an exhibition of art and architecture on the theme of climate change and environmental destruction. It begins with the usual alarming facts and figures, which any educated person who reads a newspaper or watches the news or listens to the radio, should already know almost off by heart:

  • the world is facing an ecological catastrophe
  • the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998
  • we must reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 (at the very latest) to avoid catastrophic global warming
  • which is already resulting in melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events
  • humans have accelerated the ‘normal’ background rate of species extinctions 1,000-fold with the result that we are living during the Sixth Great Extinction
  • the world’s population is predicted to grow by 20% over the next three decades to reach 9.7 billion
  • yadda yadda yadda

21 works

Rather than editorialise, I will list the exhibitions 21 works, giving links to their websites, where available, for you to follow up and read about yourself.

Texts in single quotations marks are from the wall labels or the artist’s own explanations. My own occasional comments are in italics.

Introduction

The curators introduce the exhibition thus:

‘Eco-Visionaries examines humankind’s impact on the planet and presents innovative approaches that reframe our relationship with nature. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, beyond mainstream notions of sustainability.’

In the corridor leading towards the show there’s a simple timeline of dates from the industrial revolution onwards, recording natural disasters, growing awareness of how human activity devastates the natural world, the first theorising about global warming, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 (1988!) and so on down to this year.

1. Domestic Catastrophe No.3  by HeHe (2018)

“An aquarium containing a domestic globe, a motor to turn the globe and electronic valve or drip feed which releases a fluoresceine tracing dye onto the sphere. As the sphere turns, the green dye wraps itself around the sphere, enveloping it in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the planet Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.”

This is like a big cubic aquarium with a school-globe of the world-sized model of the world slowly turning within a thick liquid. On the bottom of the aquarium is a thin layer of sand and the slowly turning globe spins this sand into little dust devils and typhoons which is rather entrancing.

2. A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (2015)

“The ecologic crisis is a political, economic and social crisis. It is also cinematographic, as cinema coincides historically and in a critical and descriptive way with the development of the Anthropocene.”

The bit of the film I saw included clips from Hollywood movies, including some end-of-the-world film with buildings exploding and, soon after that, a clip from Blade Runner, a pleasingly random selection which could come from any one of thousands of art films, documentaries or even loops of movie clips you see played in nightclubs. As in, it didn’t convey any meaning whatsoever to me.

3. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

A set of depictions of fish in black and white on paper, done to make them look like fossils. It’s based on human interference in the ecosystem of Lake Victoria which has led to the almost complete extermination of tilaplia fish. They were made by covering dead tilaplia specimens with inks and pressing them against the paper.

“A series of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish in the world but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.”

Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

4. Serpent River Book by Carolina Caycedo (2017)

“A 72-page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.”

5. Madrid in the air: 24 Hours by Nerea Calvillo (2019)

Madrid in the Air: 24 Hours monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period, uncovering the almost invisible veil of pollutants in the air.”

In the Air is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city. The visualization tool is a web-based dynamic model which builds up the space the components generate, where through data crossing behavior patterns emerge. The results of these data feed a physical prototype of what we have called a “diffuse façade”, a massive indicator of the air´s components through a changing cloud, blurring architecture with the atmosphere it has invaded and mediating the activity of the participants it envelops.”

“The project highlights the contamination of air in cities caused by vehicle engines, industry, factories and farming.”

It was a film of a camera fixed in a static position at roof level looking out over Madrid and a strange pink or green gauze-like veil hovering over the city, sometimes thickening or advancing – being a visualisation of the soup of pollution we all live in.

6. The ice melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

A series of 20 black and white photos showing very small pieces of glacial ice (four to 10 inches long) melting into the black stones and rubble of a terminal moraine in Iceland.

The Ice Melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

7. Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

“Originally designed as a wooden chair for IKEA, the Alaska Chair is a paradoxical commentary on the effects of our everyday lives and mass-consumption habits on the global rising sea levels and climate change. This work was inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice, caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partly submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstep wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change. Yet by casting the work in bronze, a material intended to last, the work reflects on how environmental catastrophe is a tough, long-term problem that is not easily fixed by simple solutions.”

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

I liked the ‘Do not touch’ sign. The environment is going up in flames but ‘Don’t you dare touch my lovely work of art with your grubby fingers!’

8. The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields (2017)

“Over half the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This film poignantly examines how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation. Accompanying the film is a lithium battery designed by the artists. It refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which the salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child.”

(If you’re wondering why this sad and plaintive video appears to have the half-stoned voice of Elon Musk presenting Tesla Energy over it, you’re not the only one but it’s the same with all the versions of the video scattered across the internet.)

9. The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (2019)

The Substitute draws upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, will enable visitors to come faceto-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018.”

“On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real?”

10. P-Plastoceptor: Organ for Sensing Plastic by Pinar Yoldas (2014)

“Polypropylene is the second most common plastic after polyethylene. P-Plasticeptor is a sense organ which can detect polypropylene polymers in the ocean. The organ takes its name from its sensing capabilities for polypropylene and its shape that almost resembles the letter P.”

An Ecosystem of Excess: P-Plastoceptor: Organ For Sensing Plastics by Pinar Yoldas (2019)

There are two works, the P-Plastoceptor, and another fictitious organ, Somaximums presented in vitrines as if in pickled alcohol specimen jars. I think they’ve both been invented, made up with rather arcane satirical intent.

11. Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

“Our Prehistoric Fate, 2011 was commissioned by the 1st Time Machine Biennale of Contemporary Art. D-O ARK Underground in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biennale took place inside a massive nuclear bunker in the mountains 60 km. away from Sarajevo. The bunker was commissioned by Josip Broz Tito as a last refuge for him, his family and top Yugoslavian generals in case of a nuclear attack. It took almost 30 years to finish the project. Tito died a year after its completion without ever setting foot in it. Needless to say, the nuclear attack never happened. Two large Duraclear prints hang on Yugoslavian military lightbox displays with clamps in the war strategy room of the bunker where decisions were meant to be made and maps of the situation on the ground were meant to be evaluated. The first claims ‘The Future Belongs To Us’ in large bold letters, the second is an encyclopedia illustration from the 60s that captures an Ankylosaurus, a prehistoric creature we know very little about, as it approaches a pond to drink.”

Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

12. Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009)

“Based on United Nations predictions that at the current rate of ecological transformations there will not be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, Foragers, from the series Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, are speculative full-scale models proposing how to radically change the human diet and digestive system to ensure survival. These devices would allow humans to extract nutritional value from synthetic biology and develop new digestive systems like those of other mammals, birds, fish and insects which are able to digest and process barely edible resources such as tough roots and plant matter.”

Installation view of Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009) Photograph by the author.

Two surreal ‘eating tubes’ along with a photo of how to use one out in the wild.

13. Pollutive Matter-s (three scenarios) by New Territories (S/he) (1997-2002)

14. The Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm (1974-78)

“The Dolphin Embassy was a research project that never was built and that attempted to study the communication between the human being and the dolphins. It would have been built with asbestos cement and it moved with a solar panel and a motor. Besides the quality of the drawings, the interest of this proposal was in the social relations that the Dolphin Embassy was proposing between humans and the dolphins”

15. 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise by WORKac and Ant Farm (2015)

“3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise is a speculative design for a floating city inspired by different architectural projects created by collective Ant Farm in the 1970s, including the drawings for The Dolphin Embassy. The city is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between humans and other species, blurring the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. Unbound by national allegiances, the design includes a vessel with housing, a research lab and an interspecies congress hall. The programme is completed with greenhouse and garden areas, an algae farm for biofuel production and a water-collection river, all covered by an inflatable wall and solar panel shingles.”

WORKac’s long section of Dolphin Embassy

“The idea is that it’s a floating city not bound by any national borders. People can come together to live in a different way and discuss important issues of the day.”

16. Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017)

“According to the London Assembly one year’s worth of the average urban borough’s food waste could generate enough electricity to power a local primary school for over ten years. Biogas Power Plant is a prototype for an individual biogas production unit which could use domestic waste to create and store energy to make houses self-sufficient. The unit is designed to be connected to the National Grid yet able to operate without relying on an external power supply or waste-management system.”

Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017) Photograph by the author.

17. Island House In Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andres Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, with Patrick Craine (2015-ongoing)

“The fifty-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, is one of the biggest wild island-barriers of the world. This archipelago contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms. The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water. Island House in Laguna Grande is not designed as an architecture for humans, but built instead to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.”

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine, Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing © Courtesy of the artists

18. Soil Procession by Futurefarmers (2015)

“On June 13, 2015 a procession of farmers carried soil from their farms through the city of Oslo to its new home at Losæter. Soil Procession was a GROUND BUILDING ceremony that used the soil collected from over 50 Norwegian farms from as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke, to build the foundation of the Flatbread Society Grain Field and Bakehouse. A procession of soil and people through Oslo drew attention to this historical, symbolic moment of the transition of a piece of land into a permanent stage for art and action related to food production. At high noon, farmers gathered at the Oslo Botanical Gardens joined by city dwellers. Tractors, horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, musical instruments, voices, sheep, boats, backpacks and bikes processed to Losæter where the farmers’ soil offerings were laid out upon the site and a Land Declaration was signed.”

Seed Procession 2016 by Futurefarmers. Part of Seed Journey (2016–ongoing). Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers

19. The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan, 2012– 2019 by Philippe Rahm architectes, in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes and Ricky Liu & Associates

“The ambition of our project is to give back the outdoors to the inhabitants and visitors by proposing to create exterior spaces where the excesses of the subtropical warm and humid climate of Taichung are lessened. The exterior climate of the park is thus modulated so to propose spaces less hot (more cold, in the shade), less humid (by lowering humid air, sheltered from the rain and flood) and less polluted (by adding filtered air from gases and particle matters pollution, less noisy, less mosquitoes presence).”

Installation view of photos and models of The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan (2011 – 2019) by Philippe Rahm architectes in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes, Ricky Liu & Associates. Photograph by the author.

20. The Green Machine by Studio Malka Architecture (2014)

“The Green Machine is a mobile structure intended to regenerate and fertilise the ground of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Resembling an oil platform that has been made redundant by dried-up seas, the project is a self-sufficient urban oasis able both to exploit the rich resources of the desert and to provide food, water, housing and energy for a local community. This concept resembles available technologies to generate a structure that could produce 20 million tonnes of crops each year in a hostile environment. Solar towers, wind turbines and balloons that capture water through condensation come together with the inventive use of modified caterpillar treads that plough, water and sow the soil as the autonomous structure slowly moves across the land.”

The Green Machine (2014) by Studio Malka Architecture. Courtesy of the artist

21. win >< win by Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel)

The last exhibit in the show requires you to wait in a queue to go through a sliding door. There’s a roped off queue stations, like in my local post office, and a big digital clock counting off the seconds till the next batch of visitors can go in. What are you queueing for?

Once through the sliding door, a small number of people (nine, I think) can sit on two low, shallow curved benches only a couple of yards away from a wall, and into that wall has been cut an enormous circle of glass. It is an aquarium! A massive aquarium in which are swimming quite a few, maybe as many as twenty beautiful jellyfish, about a foot in diameter, slowly wafting around what is clearly a large space behind the wall, lit by a gentle blue illumination.

There are headphones for each visitor and if you put them on you then listen to a 16-minute-long audiopiece about these jellyfish. You learn that they are Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and that they can be found in oceans around the world. And the audioguide goes on to give a dramatic description of the fight or survival which is coming, which has already started, among the world’s species as air and sea temperatures increase, CO2 levels increase, and ecosystems around the world are devastated.

And guess who many ecologists think are likely to win? As far as I can tell this video includes the entire audio track.

Exhibition participants

  • Virgil Abloh (Rockford, US)
  • Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier) (California, US)
  • Nerea Calvillo (Madrid, Spain)
  • Carolina Caycedo (London, UK)
  • Dunne & Raby (London, UK / New York City, US)
  • Olafur Eliasson Hon RA (Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Futurefarmers (San Francisco, US and Gent, Belgium)
  • Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (London, UK)
  • Tue Greenfort (Holbæk, Denmark)
  • HeHe (Le Havre, France)
  • Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation (Madrid, Spain / New York City, US)
  • Basim Magdy (Asyut, Egypt)
  • Malka Architecture (Paris, France)
  • Philippe Rahm architectes (Paris, France)
  • Rimini Protokoll (Berlin, Germany)
  • SKREI (Porto, Portugal)
  • Unknown Fields (London, UK)
  • Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (Brasília, Brazil / Paris, France)
  • WORKac (New York City, US)
  • Pinar Yoldas (Denizli, Turkey)

Thoughts

I laughed out loud when I read the wall label claiming that the exhibits are ‘provocative responses’ which amount to ‘a wake-up call – urging us to acknowledge and become conscious of our impact on our environment’.

A wake-up call to who? To the several thousand middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated types who visit the Royal Academy? They are already super-awake, over-awake. It’s not the behaviour of a few score thousand posh people in London you have to influence: it is the behaviour of billions and billions of poor people around the world.

As for us rich people, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010 to 2016, a few years ago gave a simple recipe:

  • become vegetarian
  • sell your car
  • never take another plane flight
  • review all your investments, pensions and savings and transfer them to carbon-free, environmentally friendly sectors

That’s the most basic, elementary steps which all of us should take. And will we? No.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

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

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

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

George Orr the dreamer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

Love interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pessimism

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

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

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

Eastern mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To go is to return

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

Heather returns

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

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

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

The end

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

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

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

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

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

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

Olafur Elliasson: In Real Life @ Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He specialises in dramatic art ‘experiences’ – and they really are dramatic and wonderful.

I got to Tate Modern as it opened at ten am and there was already a long queue outside the exhibition, mostly of parents with small children, toddlers and even babies, because of all the art displays on anywhere this is probably the most ooh and aah.

Curators categorise and sort and order and structure exhibitions. It’s open to any of us visitors to do the same. In which case, at the top level, Eliasson produces roughly three kinds of work, the traditional look-at-the-wall-label-then-look-at-the-exhibit sort; the clever circus attraction mirrors and kaleidoscopes — and then the totally immersive ‘experiences’ which require no explanation.

Wall label art

Into the wall label category fall:

Room one which contains a huge glass display case, inside which is a jungle – in fact some 450! – complex, fancy, inventive geometric shapes and designs and prototypes which Eliasson and architects and engineers he’s worked with for decades, notably the Icelandic artist, mathematician and architect Einar Thorsteinn, have produced: models of buildings, booths, shops, street plans, spaceships, all kinds of clever shapes generated from copper wire, cardboard, paper photocopies, Lego, wood, foam and rubber balls.

Model Room (2003) in collaboration with Einar Thorsteinn. Photo by Anders Sune Berg © Olafur Elliason

There’s a room of pin-prick clear digital photos. On one wall a grid of 42 photos of a river which Eliasson white-water rafted down (river raft, 2000). Opposite it an exactly matching grid of 42 photos of glaciers in Iceland.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson: In real life at Tate Modern, showing the grid of photos of the river to the left, of the glacier to the right. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

As you might expect, Eliasson is very aware of global warming (aren’t we all, darling) and so has spent considerable time and effort flying to and from Iceland, driving chunky Land Rovers and gas-guzzling four-by-fours up to the glaciers and recording the way they’re melting away as a result of human beings… er… flying all over the place and driving billions of petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles everywhere. Thus:

Ice Watch which was staged in front of Tate Modern in 2018, is an installation of ice blocks fished from the water off the coast of Greenland. It offered a direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting Arctic ice. Other works, like those in this room, are a more abstract reference to the changing environment. In Glacial currents 2018, chunks of glacial ice were placed on top of washes of coloured pigment. This created swells and fades of colour as they melted onto the paper beneath. In The presence of absence pavilion 2019, a bronze cast makes visible the empty space left by a block of glacial ice that melted away. Glacial spherical flare 2019 is constructed with glass made from small rock particles created by glacial erosion.

So this is the kind of art you have to a) read about and then b) respond to with the appropriate sentiments – ‘Global warming, isn’t it terrible, somebody ought to do something, that wonderful Greta Thunberg’ etc.

Optical illusion art

Eliasson likes kaleidoscopes, and prisms, and distorting lenses and mirror balls. Thus as you stand in the queue to enter the gallery space, outside in the foyer is hanging a huge geometric ball with light projected through it to cast a complex shadow on the wall.

Stardust particle by Olafur Eliasson (2014). Photo by the author

There is a room with one vast jagged mirror ball casting rainbow-prism colours all over the walls. Another with a big white silk screen onto which is projected a continually changing swirling white shape. There’s a sort of catwalk which lets you walk through a ‘tunnel’ made of thousands of jagged fragments of reflecting metal, which reflect your moving image into thousands of fragments. There’s a concave lens embedded in the wall of one of the galleries so you can see the visitors in the next room amusingly distorted.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson: In real life at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

There’s a wall of moss – ‘a vast plane 20 metres wide entirely covered with Scandinavian reindeer moss’. Why? Why not? This reminded me of Richard Long’s environmental art. But 1. the friend I went with was upset that this much sphagnum moss had been torn up and removed from its natural habitat i.e. she saw it as an act of destruction 2. as always with unusual sculptures, I wanted to touch it, to get up close and touch and stroke and smell it. But none of that is allowed and there’s now a security tape (not in this picture) preventing visitors from touching it, and a burly security guard strolling up and down to make sure nobody gets too close.

Moss wall by Olafur Eliasson (1994) Photo by Anders Sune Berg

Immersive art

But Eliasson’s really distinctive trademark is the immersive experiences. There are three or four real crackers here. In one you go into a pitch black room and then there is a sudden flicker of intense white light by which you just about make out a weird white blog in the centre of the room. Only as you carefully blunder your way in the pitch black towards it (trying not to trip over the numerous toddlers underfoot) do you realise the periodic flash of intense light is illuminating a continual small-scale fountain of water, whose shape – caught in mid-snap – is always different, always changing.

Big Bang Fountain by Olafur Eliasson

Along the same lines – well, involving water – is another darkened room in which a sheet of sine misty spray is continually falling. Not a pour or drench of water, a fine mist so that it’s comfortable to stand under and feel only a little damp – as indeed hundreds of visitors do in order to be snapchatted and instagrammed by their giggling friends. When there are no people under it, you can enjoy the rainbow prism effect of the hidden wall lights refracted through the mist.

Beauty by Olafur Eliasson (1993)

Last and most spectacular of all is Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) from 2010. You have to queue and are let in a few at a time into a airlock between the gallery and then the experience. And then you open the inner door and enter a 39-metre-long corridor full of dense fog, really dense fog, fog where you can’t see anything more than a couple of yards away, and which is lit by Eliasson’s trademark orange light. At first it’s wonderful and disorientating but the real power comes from it being so long. It really lasts. It takes an appreciable time to walk that distance and this is long enough for your entire system to begin to acknowledge and acclimatise to the new circumstances. 

Din blinde passager/Your blind passenger by Olafur Eliasson (2010)

Oh and I forgot the coloured shadow room. A bank of coloured lights are at the back at floor level projecting upwards onto the entire facing wall and anyone who walks in front of them projects multiple, multi-coloured shadows. So a number of people walking through create a complex interaction of shadows. It’s titled Your uncertain shadow (2010). This is a really interactive creation, with loads of people throwing shapes and silly poses and my favourite was a baby which has just reached the crawling stage and its parents let it crawl around the floor casting huge multi-coloured baby shapes on the wall behind it.

Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010 by Olafur Eliasson. Photo by Maria del Pilar Garcia Ayensa

There’s much more. There are long narrow trays full of sleepy liquid in which one wave is travelling up and down. There’s a room with a mirror for a ceiling where you can look up and see yourself looking down. There are more prisms and mirror balls.

The lifts are illuminated by the trademark Eliasson orange glow, as is the lobby outside the exhibition.

Downstairs the Tate Modern café has been given an Eliasson makeover by Studio Olafur Eliasson’s ‘kitchen team’, SOE Kitchen, so that you can munch on the same kind of tuck Eliasson enjoys at his Berlin studio.

The Expanded Studio

The show culminates with a space called The Expanded Studio, which ‘explores Eliasson’s deep engagement with social and environmental issues.’

You exit the main gallery rooms into a school-type space: down one side is a long wall covered with magazine and newspaper pages, and photos and articles. These are full of positive uplifting messages about how we can change the world and change ourselves and be more mindful and live in the present and co-operate and engage and energise our communities and save the planet, arranged into a casual A to Z order.

All this is alongside a big round table surrounded by kids making objects and shapes out of some kind of meccano-like set.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson: In real life at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

It reminded me of school. It was just like school, like the woodwork or design classes back at school, with the corridors lined with examples of uplifting art and inspiring slogans about diversity and equality and opportunity, and big posters across the dining hall saying SAVE OUR PLANET. Just like my children’s junior and secondary schools, with lots of concerned parents milling round on an open day or Parents’ Evening.

And made me reflect on the maybe, possibly, essentially juvenile nature of all art, at some level. Insofar as it is play and men and women’s lives are, for the most part, not spent in play, but in work, and if not in work, then in childcare and childrearing and childworrying, and worrying about their rent or their careers or their sick parents or their various ailments.

Because the drawback about school, and about art galleries generally, is that sooner or later you have to bid farewell to the high-minded sentiments about gender and diversity and the environment, and walk back out into the actual adult world, where no-one gives a toss about your fancy ideas or your idealistic slogans.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it. (Irrationality: The Enemy Within page 48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, and nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data from hundreds of experiments, which show just how vulnerable the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which supposedly ‘rational’ human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes.

By the end of the book, Sutherland claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read this book in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of of reading early Christians history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

Rereading Irrationality now, 20 years later, after having brought up two children, and worked in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children; and I have seen so many examples of corporate conformity, the avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise.

But to have all these errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic, was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty logical fallacies i.e. errors in thinking. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes.

Cognitive biases are, in most cases, far harder to acknowledge and often very difficult to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment, specifically, the acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

At a more disruptive level, people might be alcoholics, drug addicts, or prey to a range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data to begin with, and b) lack the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, and in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. Most people irrationally believe that they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions Sutherland tricks the reader on page one, by asking a series of questions and then pointing out that, if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since the questions didn’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in new patients, who don’t have it. Because the erroneous diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men. The prominence effect.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, making those products – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit. It is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the availability error is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds about a candidate for a job in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they’ve recently been presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although, of course, there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising, which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product being marketed.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence people. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. The samples with clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks, despite the identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes 1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions. 2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection People project onto neutral phenomena, patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. This is compounded by –

Obstinacy Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. And this is axacerbated by –

Group think People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one that you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience The Milgram experiment proved that people will carry out any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75% of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see and know is wrong – because everyone else did.

Sunk costs fallacy The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm to their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is:

  1. to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and
  2. to try to disprove your own position.

The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor-Observer Bias Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves: we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the profound cultural errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Elsewhere, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, “the liberal fallacy”: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true.

People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

A problem with Irrationality and with John Allen Paulos’s book about Innumeracy is that they mix up cognitive bias and statistics, Now, statistics is a completely separate and distinct area from errors of thought and cognitive biases. You can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make terrible mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics, there is a simple conclusion: most of us have little or no understanding of the principles and values which underpin modern society.

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on, are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they are so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume.

Briefly, common statistical mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

My suggestion that mistakes in handling statistics are not really the same as unconscious cognitive biases, applies even more to the world of gambling. Gambling is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games which has been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. A practical point that emerges from the examples is:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3 – 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on, is slowest of all. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us our brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility. Humans are just tremendously suggestible.

Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative. Suggestible.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave in an extrovert manner to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. Same people, but their thought patterns have been completely determined by the questions asked: the initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details, like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underlying many of them is this simple-or-garden observation: that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour Sutherland quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help wondering whether the digital age has solved, or merely added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking which Sutherland catalogues, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

On the other hand, out of date though the book in many ways is, it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar? He states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation against climate change was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Grumpy

The books also has passages where Sutherland gives his personal opinions about things and some of these sound more like the grousing of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging.

He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors as a profession, who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients, and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

Sutherland thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185).

He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle- and upper-middle-class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186).

Surprisingly, he criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215).

In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

Sutherland really has it in for psychoanalysis, which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half-way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own grumpy personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are, how shall we put it, of low educational achievement. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated by the whole educational experience, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

His book, like all books of this type, is targeted at a relatively small proportion of the population, the well-educated professional classes. Most people aren’t like that. You want proof? Trump. Brexit. Boris Johnson landslide.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


Related link

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

%d bloggers like this: