Chocky by John Wyndham (1968)

Chocky was first published as a ‘novelette’ in the March 1963 issue of Amazing Stories science fiction magazine and only later developed into a shortish novel which was published in 1968 by Michael Joseph. The book’s 1963 date makes it sit closer to the sequence of fictions which ran very tightly from Triffids in 1951 to Trouble With Lichen in 1960, rather than the outlier following a period of silence which the book publication date initially suggests. That said, it does feel simpler and shorter and somehow ‘different’ from the rest of Wyndham’s work.

Executive summary

The basic idea is very simple: young English Matthew is 11 when he starts having conversations with an invisible ‘friend’ which, understandably, trouble his parents. It takes the entire novel for Matthew, his dad and the reader to fully understand that the friend is a telepath from a distant planet using Matthew to find out more about earth and its inhabitants.

More detail

Matthew is 11 when he starts having conversations with an invisible ‘friend’. The only trouble is the conversations are complex and demanding, broaching subjects beyond the average 11-year-old. His school teachers complain that Matthew is asking unexpected questions about the binary system of counting, why most species have two sexes, whereabouts the solar system is in the wider galaxy, and so on. When his parents buy a new car they find him in tears of exasperation because when he explained how it worked to his invisible friend, it laughed at its primitive crudeness.

The father calls up an old friend from university days, Roy Landis, who is now a psychiatrist and who drives down to the family’s Surrey home one Sunday and spends a long afternoon discussing the invisible friend – who is named Chocky – with Matthew.

Landis emerges to tell the parents he thinks Chocky is a real thing, an objective being, one proof being that so much of what Matthew tries to report Chocky as saying is not only beyond his understanding but beyond his vocabulary. If it was merely ideas he’d picked up in his reading and was recycling – even subconsciously – he’d have the words to do so.

Around this simple idea Wyndham weaves all kinds of detail designed to embed it in everyday, run-of-the-mill middle-class life in the suburbs. We learn about the narrator’s boring job as an accountant. How he met his wife, Mary, namely quite a long cock-and-bull story about a coach tour to Italy in the middle of which the coach disappears when the travel company (GOPLACES TOURS) goes bankrupt, leaving the passengers marooned in an overbooked hotel where he meets the pretty young graduate, Mary, and they decide to pool their meagre resources and make their way back to England together.

They get married and the narrator tells us how he soon realises that Mary has an extended family, two sisters and two brothers, all of whom have gotten married and produced children at an alarming rate. This leads into an interesting pseudo-feminist passage about the tremendous pressure young women come under to have babies, especially if all their siblings have, and how this preys on Mary’s mind and leads to a series of visits to doctors and tests until they decide to adopt. And they adopt the baby they name Matthew.

All this is utterly unnecessary to the core of the plot but is what the book is really about. Obviously there’s the science fiction plot, but what the book is actually about is being married and having children. If you park the sci fi plot for a moment, what you have is the story of a young couple who meet, fall in love, get married, try for a baby but can’t have one, decide to adopt and everything goes fairly well until the boy turns 11 and starts to behave oddly.

From then on most readers are reading for clues about the true nature of this ‘Chocky’ (though I think anyone who’s ready any science fiction or, more probably, watched any sci fi movies or TV shows, will guess the story in the first ten pages) but to us older readers, it’s a novel about how a well-mannered middle-aged couple cope with their beautiful 11-year-old son going off the rails and the terror that something is dreadfully wrong with him. And that’s what all the best moments in the book are about, about a young married couple struggling to cope.

We sat and looked at one another.
Mary’s eyes slowly brimmed with tears.
‘Oh, David. He was such a lovely little boy…

One of the reasons his critics can’t stand Wyndham is for the extreme, middle-class cosiness of some of his key fictions. I would suggest something more specific, it’s the uxoriousness of his happily married couples, all darling this and darling that. The narrators of both Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos make mordant remarks about their dear wives who talk over them, correct them when they’re wrong, and whose moods and brooding silences they come to recognise. Same here:

After we had cleared the table and packed the children off upstairs there was an atmosphere that I recognised. Some kind of prepared statement, a little uncertain of its reception, was on its way. Mary sat down, a little more upright than usual, and addressed herself to the empty grate rather than to me.

Personally, I identify with these very recognisable traits of married life. You love each other but irritate each other as well, and also recognise each other’s moods and know, for example, when you are in trouble and when you’re about to get a lecture.

They hire a holiday cottage in the village of Bontgoch in North Wales with another couple with young children, Alan and Phyl Froome. There’s some entertaining old man complaining about how simple and unspoilt it all was back when he went there as a lad, but now holiday homes have cropped up and the sailing mob have arrived, mooring yachts and sailing in the unsuitable waters. God, if he though quiet seaside villages had been ruined by rich holiday home owners in 1963, what on earth would Wyndham have made of 2021?

Anyway, there’s a major ‘incident’ which is, the narrator and Mary have gone off for a jaunt leaving all four kids in charge of the other couple and the kids are playing on a jetty when the fast ebb tide rams a boat which has come loose from its moorings into it, it collapses plunging Matthew and his younger sister Polly into the water and sweeping them away. The point is Matthew manages not only to keep afloat but to support his sister, in the midst of the rushing torrent, till a local boatsman, Colonel Summers, who saw the incident is able to take his motorboat out to rescue them. And here’s the point: Matthew can’t swim! He is brought back to the holiday cottage in one piece, given a hot bath and put to bed and when his dad drops in on him, embarrassedly admits… it was Chocky who swam for him.

Back in London, Mary shows the narrator, just returned from a day in the office, a copy of the Welsh local newspaper which the Froomes mailed to them, It features the story of Matthew saving his sister and attributing it to voices. It names him and gives his town of residence, Hindmere. The couple hope it will blow over but the narrator is appalled the next morning to turn on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and hear the presenter Jack de Manio (a real person who did in fact present Today from 1958 to 1971) introduce a radio interview with a BBC reporter. When the narrator questions Matthew the latter cagily admits the BBC rang up while his mum and dad were out and asked if they could come round and do an interview.

It escalates. A few months earlier Mary had found half a dozen pictures down the back of Matthew’s chest of drawers. Not proficient but strikingly observed, in which all the figures are strangely thin and attenuated. The thing being, as we’re coming to expect, Matthew was not normally good at art. But, he tells his parents, he lets his mind go blank and Chocky draws what she sees. Now the art teacher has in all innocence sent one of Matthew’s paintings, along with others by his peers, into a national art college and journalists have linked his name to the miracle swimmer whose ‘guardian angel’ helped him rescue his sister. And so his artwork and name are now in all the papers. Christ what a mess!

Landis rings, he wants to discuss Chocky again. Over lunch at the club he gives the narrator the name of noted specialist Sir William Thorbe.

Meanwhile the press become more pressing, there start to be a steady stream of calls from journalists of newspapers, radio and TV, as well as vicars and various nutcases. The narrator takes the family for a weekend away, initially by the sea, but that is so filthy and polluted, they go to an inn on the South Downs. Here they relax, and when the parents go for a stroll, they come across Matthew doing a really good drawing of the view. Matthew explains that Chocky is getting better at seeing through his eyes. Mary, who has been so upset about it all, worrying that her beautiful son is going mad, has turned a kind of psychological corner, and accepts Chocky now. She asks if she can have the picture and look after it, and she means it.

On the first day of the new term back at school, Matthew is knocked to the ground by a school bully, but when he totters back to his feet, looks so fierce the bully and henchman run off. Did Chocky appear in his face? The headmaster phones up to apologise.

The narrator meets Matthew (who is now 12) off the train at Waterloo and takes him to Sir William Thorbe’s practice in Harley Street. Thorbe has him in for two and a half hours and appears to play Matthew spinning records like mandalas to hypnotise him, but the results are disappointing. A week later the narrator gets Thorbe’s report which dismisses both the swimming incident and the painting by saying these were skills the boy had in fact acquired but had repressed, i.e. Thorbe gives an entirely psychiatric analysis giving no credence to Chocky at all.

Couple of days later the dad comes across Matthew lying in his room, notices a crop of new paintings. One is of an arid plain unrelieved except for a few blobby shapes, with a pyramid shape on a hill. Matthew says it’s Chocky’s planet. By now the dad is prepared to believe it. Looks hot. Yes, that’s why Chocky says our planet is so beautiful.

But he sobs. Chocky is leaving. She’s saying goodbye. He starts to cry. The mum arrives at the bedroom door but the dad gets up off the bed, goes over to her, shuts the door and takes her downstairs to explain. Over the next few days Matthew’s mood seems to improve, he gets ‘better’.

Then one afternoon he doesn’t come home. He goes missing for twelve days. The family contact the police and then, reluctantly, the papers. The dad of a schoolfriend rings up to say his son saw Matthew get into a strange car. There’s a nationwide search, no results. Mary becomes distraught.

Then one day a call from the police. Matthew just wandered up to a policeman directing traffic in Birmingham. He tells the following story: He was kidnapped by men who kept him confined in a house and gave him a series of injections and interrogated him. After a while, with no explanation, he found himself on a busy street and approached the first policeman he saw.

So Matthew has returned in perfect health, unharmed and resumes going to school. One night he comes down after Mary has gone to bed. Chocky is back and she wants to tell his dad a few home truths. They go up to his room, Matthew lies down and Chocky takes over.

S/he explains she is an explorer. Her race is ancient and dying. They need to move out to colonise new planets. They have developed the technique of mind projection. At first they thought they were the only life in the universe but have subsequently discovered it on some planets. But intelligent life is very rare. It must be nurtured.

Now she goes on to explain that human development is at a very primitive stage.

‘It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can be only one end to that.’

Chocky says we must learn to abandon reliance on energy from the sun and exploit the background radiation of the universe which is infinite. Why is she helping us? Because all intelligent life forms have a duty to help all others.

Intelligent forms are rare. In each form they owe a duty to all other forms. Moreover, some forms are complementary. No one can assess the potentialities that are latent in any intelligent form. Today we can help you over some obstacles; it may be you will so develop that in some future time you will be able to help us, or others, over obstacles.

She is leaving because it was her first mission and she muffed it. She got too close to Matthew, too involved and told him too much. This came out when Sir William Thorbe analysed Matthew. Under hypnosis Matthew revealed the true meaning of Chockey’s mission, to teach mankind how to harness a completely new form of power. Thorbe realises he is onto something massive. According to Chockey it was he who tipped the men off who kidnapped Matthew and gave him a series of truth serums in a bid to extract this knowledge.

Matthew doesn’t understand anything about this cosmic power but Chocky now realises that she has handled everything wrong and put Matthew’s life in danger. Powerful interests – the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry, the atomic industry – might want to silence Matthew. He will be watched. In fact, maybe they have already bugged this house and this bedroom. That is why she must go. So has her mission been a failure, the narrator asks. No. She must fulfil her mission of guiding humanity to the source of a better sustainable source of energy, but she now realises it must be done by giving hints and scattered insights to numerous researchers in different places and times, rather than through one young mind which is not capable of handling the concepts.

And with that, she is gone.

Conclusion

In the end the finale, the denouement, the revelation, doesn’t quite live up to the buildup. Above all, it lacks the real menace and threat which made Triffids so terrifying and his other three big novels so powerful and eerie. Ultimately, the homely and domestic life of this little nuclear family overshadows the strange story at its heart. No surprise it was made into a children’s TV series because it is, at heart, kind and innocent and good.

Posh

Not only uxorious, but posh, the novel has a sustained tone of middle-class manners and rhetoric which have vanished forever.Here’s the family friend, Alan, on the way Matthew saved his sister:

‘There’s no doubt at all your Polly’d have been a goner, but for him. Damn good show.’

Colonel Summers on Matthew saving his sister:

‘Plucky youngster of yours. Good reason to be proud of him… Funny thing his pretending he couldn’t swim; unaccountable things, boys. Never mind. Damned good show! And good luck to him.’

The narrator commutes from his Surrey commuter town up to Waterloo and then on to his firm of accountants in Bedford Square. He listens to the Today programme while he shaves in the morning. He ‘takes’ The Times though it is damn fiddly folding the pages over on his crowded commuter train. When Landis suggests another meeting with Matthew’s father, they meet at his club and quaff sherry before moving through to the panelled dining room for luncheon.

The narrator and his friends call each other ‘old boy’ and ‘my dear fellow’. Most strikingly of all, the narrator calls his 12-year-old son, ‘old man’:

‘Feeling played out, old man?’ I asked him. ‘Why don’t you get right into bed? I’ll bring you something on a tray.’

As Brian Aldiss points out, is the story meant to be set in the 1960s… or the 1930s?

Grumpy stumps

Part of the generally ‘normal’ tone and content of the book is its grumpy old man complaints about various aspects of English life. The tone is set with his sardonic comments about package holidays and coach tours which are worthy of Monty Python’s Torremolinos sketch. Then there’s:

I have fallen into the bad habit of switching on the radio as a background to shaving – bad because untroubled shaving is itself a good background for thinking – however, that’s modern life…

Or:

I was in the act of transferring my attention from The Times personal column to the leader page, an almost antisocial exercise in a full railway compartment, when my eye was caught by a photograph in the copy of the Daily Telegraph held by the man in the opposite seat. Even at a glance it had a quality which triggered my curiosity. I leant forward to take a closer look. Habitual travellers’ develop an instinct which warns them of such liberties. My vis-à-vis immediately lowered his paper to glare at me as if I were committing trespass and probably worse, and ostentatiously refolded it to present a different page.

This is all a bit reminiscent of Reggie Perrin’s commuting hell from the mid-1970s. Here is the narrator lamenting the commercialisation of the quaint little Welsh village he used to go on holiday to when he was a boy:

The place was Bontgoch, a village on an estuary in North Wales, where I had enjoyed several holidays in my own childhood. In those days it was simply a small grey village with a few larger houses outside it. During summer it had a scatter of visitors who were for the most part the children and grandchildren of the owners of the larger houses; they affected it very little. Since then it has been discovered, and bungalows now dot the shoreline and the lower slopes about the village. Their occupants are mostly seasonal, transitory, or retired, and during the milder months the majority are addicted to messing about with boats. I had not expected that. Bontgoch is by no means ideally situated for it, for the tides run fast in the estuary and navigation can be tricky; but the crowded state of the small boat world with its five-year queues for moorings in many more favoured waters had overridden the disadvantages. Now it even had a painted-up shed with a bar at one end called the Yacht Club.

To avoid the attentions of the British press, dad decides to take his family for a day by the sea:

We arrived at a vast car park charging five shillings a time, collected our things and went in search of the sea. The pebbly beach near the park was crowded with groups clustering around contending transistor sets. So we made our way further along and down the pebbles, until all that separated us from the shining summer sea was a band of oil and ordure about six feet wide, and a fringe of scum along the water’s edge… ‘Oh, dear. It was a lovely beach only a few years ago,’ said Mary, ‘Now it’s…’ ‘Just the edge of the Cloaca Britannica?’ I suggested.

Sounds like Kingsley Amis on a particularly grumpy day, or any reader of the Daily Mail moaning about how the country, and the countryside’s gone to the dogs.

These grumpy ventings are quite funny in themselves, fairly interesting social history, but also do The Wyndham Thing of making a completely implausible science fiction concept seem utterly believable by embedding it such everyday, mundane comments.

It is notable that the grumpiness even extends to the narrator’s own children, who seem to irritate him and bore him a lot; well, his daughter Polly, anyway:

  • ‘Throughout the meal Polly chattered constantly and boringly of ponies. When we had got rid of her Mary asked…’
  • ‘At that moment Polly arrived babbling, and anxious not to be late for school…’

When Matthew goes missing, Polly helpfully remembers an incident from her pony book:

Silence closed down again. After a time Polly found it irksome. She fidgeted. Presently she felt impelled to make conversation. She observed: ‘When Twinklehooves was kidnapped they tried to turn him into a pit pony.’
‘Shut up,’ I told her. ‘Either shut up, or go away.’

He adopts quite a harsh tone throughout the book to the unfortunate daughter. Surprising, because Wyndham never had children of his own.

Adaptations

Radio

Chocky was adapted as a 60-minute drama for BBC Radio 2, broadcast on 27 November 1968.

BBC Radio 4 presented a reading by Andrew Burt of the novel in seven 15-minute episodes broadcast daily between 19 and 27 May 1975.

Another adaptation into a single 90-minute drama for BBC Radio 4 was broadcast on 18 March 1998. You can buy it on CD.

Television series

ITV adapted the novel as a children’s TV series in 1984, and it obviously got good enough ratings for them to create two sequels, Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. You can buy all three series on DVD.

Proposed film

Steven Spielberg acquired film rights to the novel in September 2008 and said he was interested in directing it. To put that in context, it would be interesting to know how many film rights Spielberg (or his companies and agents) acquired in just the calendar year 2008 alone, 10s? 100s? And to know what percentage of properties that he or his companies acquire in any given year are ever actually made into movies – 10%? 1%?

Part of the appeal of the novel is that it is a record of a gentle, English, white, middle-class way of life which has vanished forever. If Spielberg ever did make it into a movie, it would presumably be a portrait of a modern American family à la E.T. and therefore massacre the book’s main appeal. The story is quite compelling, but it’s the myriad details of English life from a certain period which give it its flavour.


Credit

Chocky by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1968. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition I bought in 1973, price 45p.

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

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 latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
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 and they rebel
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, an 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 unimaginable strangeness

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 vastest 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, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern 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 vanished 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
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian 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 fast-moving 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 one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
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 who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
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
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
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
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
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
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
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 and 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
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
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 pattern, 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 his 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…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
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 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
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 he 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 news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving 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 in the so-called ‘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 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’, revived an old nuclear power station 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 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
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’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
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 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
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 Angie 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 been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining 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
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

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Chemistry

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Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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