Sunday, 30 April 2017

What Is A Mystery?

Poul Anderson wrote mysteries.
Gratillonius was initiated into the Mystery of Mithras.
Catholic liturgy refers to "sacred mysteries" and the Trinity is a mystery.
When Mathilda asks Rudi about "'...the Sword of the Lady...,'" he replies, "'It's a Mystery.'"
-SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter Seven, p. 161.

Mathilda cannot reply because her religion, Catholicism, refers to mysteries.

OK. I am intrigued and do not know what is coming next. Are the Wiccan Gods real or is someone/something communicating through the Wiccans' idea of them?

Last post of the month.

Addendum: However, a relevant post has been published here.

They

SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter Seven, pp. 160-161.

Rudi Mackenzie reflects that the Gods are too real for it to be safe to meet Them except through dream, vision, prophecy or Their world. This reflection is based on what he has seen of his mother's experiences. Mathilda, a Christian, knows that, when Juniper Makenzie calls, They are likely to answer. The Changed world has returned to the days of Ys when a Christian questioned not the reality but the goodness of the Gods. Mathilda asks:

"'How can you think They're good, if They do things like that?'" (p. 161)

Rudi replies in part by quoting:

"'"Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me..."'" (ibid.)

Mathilda has learned that arguing doctrine with a witch is like trying to cut fog with an ax. This is because witches do not have the same attitude to "doctrine." Participation in a ceremony does not require belief. Pagans do not denounce Mars in favor of Tyr but identify the two war gods. Rudi's understanding seems to be as sophisticated as that of the Ysans.

SM Stirling suggested in the combox here that Classical pagans were embarrassed by Homeric myths when compared with Biblical texts but would have been able to evolve beyond them in the same way that Hindus evolved beyond the Vedas. I feel further that Buddhism, although several centuries older, is philosophically superior to Christianity because it is based on a critical analysis of received concepts and of universal experience, not on an interpretation of prophetic texts. But we must each find our own way through the "thicket of opinions," as the Buddha called it.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Dinner In A Hunting Lodge

SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter Seven, pp. 158-159:

roast venison killed two days earlier;
cake;
real coffee, rare and expensive;
oranges;
dates;
figs;
sweet dessert wine;
liqueur.

(Coffee and fruit shipped across stormy, pirate-infested seas.)

The meal is a preliminary to a cosy chat between two soul-friends by the fire.

I will say it first this time: a meal to tempt van Rijn!

Reading And Learning

We can learn a lot of history and vocabulary by reading the works of Poul Anderson and SM Stirling. For example, I read about Scipio rescuing his father at the Battle of Ticinus in Anderson's Guardians Of Time before reading about the same incident in a Latin class at school and have just learned the collective noun for a group of tigers in Stirling's The Sunrise Lands. (A comics writer living in Lancaster suggested "a sadness" as the collective noun for a group of nerds.)

However, I feel that I am being kept in the dark about some information internal to the Emberverse narrative. What news did the British bring about Nantucket and what was the significance of the passenger pigeon in Chapter Three, pp. 52-53? I do not think that I have missed any of the text but we seem to be waiting a long time. However, we have all the time in the world(s). We are reading the seventh volume since the whole show got on the road, having already read an entire Nantucket Trilogy and an entire Bearkiller Trilogy. At least six more volumes stretch ahead of us. Anderson did not write any such lengthy linear sequence of novels although his various series did expand and proliferate.

We knew that we did not know what was going down with Nantucket so we should not be surprised to be surprised.

"The Divine, In Whatever Form..."

(Looking at cover illustrations, Tigeries and kzinti are quite similar.)

"The Divine, in whatever form..." (see here)

This invocation of an impersonal "Divine" comes close to my suggestion here that society could recognize a single reality, variously conceived. We have to acknowledge that every conception is a conception, therefore an abstraction, not the reality. One obvious demonstration of this is the vast difference between the actual course of events and any attempt to predict or anticipate. We do not know what will happen next, let alone what is happening everywhere - or beyond.

What is happening in SM Stirling's The Sunrise Lands? Either the Wiccan Powers literally exist or some actual power, communicating through dreams, generates the same impression. In Poul Anderson's Genesis, an inorganic planetary intelligence not only re-creates extinct humanity but also guides them in the guise of the kind of deity in whom they would in any case believe during their early development. A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I still do not know what Stirling's characters are dealing with but am content to read on and find out when they do.

Church And State

The Investiture Contest is the basis of the culminating section of Poul Anderson's The Shield Of Time. Conflict with the Pope over the appointment of bishops and the usefulness of a tame inquisition are mentioned in SM Stirling's Changed world. Stirling's Lady Sandra, like Anderson's Gunnhild, comes to a pragmatic political conclusion about the advisability of an alliance with Rome - or, after the Change, Badia.

Stirling and Sandra refer to Stalin asking how many divisions the Pope had. I know that Anderson makes the same reference somewhere but I can't find it.

Signals And Significances

Alternative histories have become a familiar concept. There are different ways for an author to signal to his readers that his narrative is set in an alternative history.

(i) Simply present a narrative from a pov within the alternative history and let the reader deduce what is happening, e.g., Poul Anderson's "The House of Sorrows." Within this context, Philip Pullman's early reference to a Pope Martin Luther is a convenient shorthand message to the reader that here is an alternative history in which there was no Reformation.

(ii) Physically, someone opens a Gate to an environment untouched by civilization. This happens at the beginning and end of SM Stirling's Conquistador. Again, the sabretooth at the end is a convenient shorthand.

(iii) Mentally, a character accesses perceptions and memories from alternative lives. This happens to a psychic in Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers and to an explorer of Nantucket in Stirling's The Sunrise Lands.

Innsmouth is Lovecraftian fictional geography. "Nantucket" exists in our timeline but has acquired a Changed significance in the Emberverse. Place names can come to mean events: "Hiroshima" in our history; "London" in Alan Moore's Miracleman. Nantucket becomes both an event and a strange place.

The One

Regular blog readers will notice that characters in works of fiction written by Poul Anderson and SM Stirling are adherents of various religions, real or imagined. It follows that the analysis of these authors' texts generates discussions of theology and philosophy. This seems to me to be right and proper although other readers might instead prefer to focus only on the fictional narratives. The following is a summary of my views on these issues. Readers are welcome either to skip this post or to disagree with it.

The One is all things from the micro- to the macroscopic.
Although It is one, It appears to Itself as many, thus generating illusory separation.
The One becomes conscious of Itself through sentient organisms and can realize Its identity in human beings.
Realization is the ending of illusion which is appearance mistaken for reality.
Monotheists personify the One.
In Hindu impersonalist philosophy, the pronoun for the transcendent reality is "THAT."
"Thou art THAT." See here.
It is possible although not verified that there are beings at a higher level of consciousness and intelligence than humanity.
Gods are imaginative personifications of the One and Its aspects.
They are in us and we are in It.
Zazen is practice of awareness, thus of oneness with the One.
Any spiritual path sincerely practised will reveal its limitations, if any, and will thus point towards a more helpful practice.
However, this takes time and I do not believe in rebirth.
In practice, we must live amidst a bewildering multiplicity of beliefs and paths and find our own way.
Multiplicity of beliefs reflects the multiplicity of the appearances of the One.
Materialist philosophers rightly say that being has become conscious and that the contents of consciousness are determined by material conditions.
Thus, the One was not conscious "In the beginning..."
Unity without uniformity and diversity without division are the most appropriate social expressions of the One.
Society might recognize that there is one reality, variously conceived.

More Fictional Geography

There is a clear literary allusion here:

"...an unremarkable face that looked distorted, somehow, without being in any way abnormal if you considered it feature by feature.
"'We should push on to Innsmouth...'"
-SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter Five, p. 88.

The Emberverse Earth was not identical with ours even before the Change because its geography included a Lovecraftian town. This is comparable to Sherlock Holmes as a real person in the Time Patrol universe.

Both Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have written Lovecraftian stories but I am glad that Poul Anderson did not. Horror fiction can have a transcendent quality and can say something about life but the Lovecraftian sub-genre has its limits.

Post-Human Behavior

See previous post.

Humanity may devolve or evolve. Behavior becomes post-, whether ex- or super-, human.

(i) In SM Stirling's Emberverse, wild men attack outsiders, squealing a syllable that had once been the word, "Eat."

(ii) Morlocks eat Eloi.

(iii) In Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men, human beings adapted to live on Neptune become quadrupedal and revert to animality. Periodically, a pack gathers in a circle to hear one of its members howl.

(iv) Poul Anderson's Time Patrol is founded by the post-human Danellians. One appears as a blazing form, another as a kindly monk. What is the reality behind the appearances?

Friday, 28 April 2017

Human Behavior

Human beings display a very broad spectrum of behaviors. Just twenty generations ago, Europeans burned fellow Christians to death. Just three generations ago, Jews were industrially exterminated. The unthinkable becomes thinkable and vice versa, for good or ill, sometimes in our lifetimes. Tempora mutantur... Sf writers speculate not only about technological innovations but also about changed human behaviors.

(i) SM Stirling's Draka set out to enslave humanity. Young Draka men are encouraged to abuse women "serfs." This would be deplorable but is possible.

(ii) In Poul Anderson's Technic History, the human-Ythrian colony planet, Avalon, is in the Domain of Ythri, not the Terran Empire. Many human Avalonians join Ythrian choths, fly (with gravbelts, not wings), identify as "Ythrian" and fight Terra. Later, some human beings willingly work for Merseia.

(iii) In Stirling's Emberverse series, some people get the opportunity to base their life-style on Tolkien, even speaking Elvish.

(iv) Anderson's Time Patrol recruits some twentieth centurians who hunt prehistoric animals for sport whereas the succeeding generation photographs mammoths but would not dream of shooting them.

The Truth About Fiction

We would not exist without it.

There are some bizarre reality-fiction interactions. I see a photo of Prince William on the cover of a celebrity magazine in a supermarket, then read about King William V in SM Stirling's Emberverse: kind of like Paolo Roberto in a novel by Stieg Larsson or the sf writers at the beginning of another novel by Stirling. (See the same link.)

A hospital porter smiled at a newspaper headline displayed by his colleague, then asked, "Wha'? In real life or in t'soap?" (See here.) The story was appreciated before it was ascertained whether it was news or fiction.

Human society would be able to exist without any of its present members but not without any human beings. Similarly, fiction would exist even if Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas van Rijn, Dominic Flandry etc had not been created but not without any fictional characters. But there is something else that Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have articulated in works of graphic fiction. There would be no fictional characters if there were no human beings to imagine them. But also there would be no human beings if there were no fictional characters.

Try to imagine rational beings whose libraries contain only history and science but no fiction. Even if this is possible, such beings would certainly not be human beings. And we would not be the particular people that we are if we had not read about - guess who - Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas van Rijn, Dominic Flandry - and many others.

Five Twentieth Century Authors

The previous post summarized what I regard as a major process in twentieth century sf:

Wellsian-Stapledonian anthropocentrism;
CS Lewis' theological reply;
Poul Anderson's Wellsian-Stapledonian apotheoses!

James Blish:

parallels Anderson but with a much smaller output;
directly addresses Lewis, even incorporating CSL and his demon, Screwtape, into the text of The Day After Judgment.

As Lewis himself wrote of Stapledon, it is possible to admire Lewis' invention while disagreeing with his philosophy. Lewis imaginatively restates Christianity no less than three times:

Narnia;
Ransom;
The Great Divorce. 

In this last volume, Lewis assumes a hereafter, presents what looks like a completely new version of it, shows that this imaginative version does conform to orthodox theology, then disclaims it as a dream at the end but meanwhile makes telling moral observations as he does in the Ransom novels.

I advise anyone to read or reread:

HG Wells;
Olaf Stapledon;
CS Lewis;
James Blish;
Poul Anderson.

"Lions"

When we read a fictional account of a very remote future, e.g.:

The Time Machine by HG Wells;
Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon;
Genesis by Poul Anderson -

- we do not expect any modern religions to have survived into that future. Indeed, in each of these three cases, our human species no longer exists. In CS Lewis' uniquely theological science fictional reply to Wellsian-Stapledonian sf, divine rule still exists elsewhere in the Solar System and there will be a version of the Second Coming in a prophesied future.

Could a sufficiently large catastrophe wipe out a minority religion at an earlier date? After SM Stirling's Change, a woman called Kaur has a brother called Singh. This tells us that they are Sikhs, which the text immediately confirms, and they are the last Sikhs as far as they know.

They consider it funny every time they say that they will fight like lions and she adds "lioness." The reason for their humor has already been explained on the blog. See here.

A Hereafter?

I find attitudes to a presumed hereafter very strange. The fictional character with whom I identify on this issue is Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry. Visiting the Cathedral where his murdered fiancee lies in state awaiting burial, Flandry inwardly addresses her, recalls that she believed in survival and asks her for a sign but does not believe that he receives one. What he does hear is a priest's voice praying in the background and, for some, that would suffice.

SM Stirling's Wiccan characters take for granted that a murdered member of their Clan is now in the Summerlands with her husband who had gone there before her. This is not something to take for granted.

I have Spiritualist friends who accept that mediumship, like mobile phones, is a way to communicate with family members who are not here right now. I know lots of people who assume reincarnation because it "makes sense." Does it? Was the universe designed for our spiritual benefit?

A Mormon missionary advised me to ask God in the name of his Son for the truth on religious matters so I did. The result of that conversation is between me and "God," of course. But I still seek a better understanding of certain issues.

Absurd Religion

Father Ignatius thinks that Wicca is an "...absurd religion..." (SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands, Chapter Four, p. 58)

And Ignatius' belief isn't? What is the criterion of religious absurdity? We can meditate without supernaturalist beliefs.

Wicca is also "...conducive to sin..." Is it? I prefer the Wiccan attitude to sex.

Does Prayer Work And, If So, How?

Our texts are:

Morte D'Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson;
A Circus Of Hells by Poul Anderson;
The Sunrise Lands by SM Stirling.

Tennyson: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." See here.

Interesting but how does he know it?

When Anderson's Djana asks God to have mercy and to send back pursuing Merseians, the Merseian craft recedes because the prayer focused Djana's psychokinesis. What mattered was not intervention by a deity but belief in him. We know that gods can be powerful through their followers but also that Vikings sometimes spoke of "Odin the faithless" when they ran into battle full of confidence and came to grief.

Stirling's Father Ignatius thinks:

"...prayer is more powerful than armies, in the end..." (Chapter Four, p. 60)

Is it? Would you invest more effort in killing the enemy's clergy than their soldiers? "...in the end..." is an important qualification.

But he continues:

"The sword is useless without the heart and will."

And prayer focuses heart and will.

Enforced Uniformity Or Continued Diversity

Religious doctrinal disagreements can be settled neither by reason nor by evidence. Therefore, either an attempt is made to enforce uniformity or disparate denominations coexist indefinitely. We should see more Christian denominations in Poul Anderson's History of Technic Civilization and I think that it is unlikely that the Anglican Church would rejoin the Roman Church after SM Stirling's Change. If I were Anglican, then I would not accept reunion on that basis but my belief and practice lie elsewhere in any case.

1+1=3, i.e., if two churches or political parties merge, then some on both sides join the new organization whereas others on both sides refuse. Result: not one but three. Ninian Smart suggested that, when two traditions meet, 1+1=7! See here.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Ancient Tales

SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter Three, p. 39.

In Raven House, weavings show the ancient tales:

Niall of the Nine Hostages and the Lady of Tara;
Ishtar's descent into the Underworld;
Odin grasping runes beneath the World Tree.

Are Niall and the Lady one tale or two?

Relevance to Poul Anderson? Like total:

Niall destroys Ys which is named after Isis who was identified with Ishtar! (see here);
Odin hangs himself from the Tree to gain the runes in War Of The Gods.

My soul, drawn into the texts, wanders in a multi-dimensional wasteland between the Emberverse and the Technic History.

Birmingham And Archopolis

Next month, I will visit Birmingham again. This is relevant for two reasons.

(i) Tolkien had a place there, which I might see this time. Tolkien is relevant because he and Poul Anderson simultaneously and independently adapted Norse myths as modern fantasies.

(ii) Birmingham's multiculturalism is like an anticipation of Anderson's multi-species Terran Empire. We are entitled to wonder what contribution the former Birmingham might make to the urbanized Earth when the part of it that is called called Archopolis is the capital of the Empire.

Often, the human beings that we encounter in the Imperial period come not from Earth but from colony planets:

two men of Indian descent from Ramanujan where there is a Mount Gandhi;
a Jewish man from Dayan;
a Muslim from Huy Braseal;
a Sikh maybe from Terra but from which part? The Punjab? Birmingham? Somewhere else?

We always want to know more.

CUT

Readers of SM Stirling's The Sunrise Lands will understand the title of this post. The world does not need any more fanatical churches in reality. Did we need another even in fiction? No, not exactly "need." But it is all too plausible that such organizations would be reborn after a disaster like the Change. So far, we have met one Wiccan and two Christian groups and here is another Christian Church (Universal and Triumphant) with assassins who kill each other or commit suicide to prevent capture. Straight to Heaven, no doubt?

Some people are so attached to a single world-view that they are unable to consider any alternative to it. Alternatives are not only argued against but, more fundamentally, not understood. A former friend once asked me, "What does tolerance mean? Does it mean that you don't care what people think?" I told a political activist that my trade union branch secretary had given me advice ("You must not carry this problem around with you") that parallelled the advice that I would have received from a Buddhist monk. The activist replied, "No, Nigel bases his advice on his political philosophy, not on Buddhism!" Of course, I had said that Nigel's advice parallelled, not that it was based on, a Buddhist perspective but my argumentative activist was determined to deny any value in Buddhism and any parallel between it and a secularist philosophy. I once said that all states should be secular, therefore no state should be Jewish, and was taken to advocate a Muslim state!

These culpable misunderstandings are not as problematic as a Church Universal and Triumphant but they are not helpful either. The very first requirement of any dialogue is to understand the other person.

"Day Of Wrath And Doom Impending"

Some Christian apologists, including CS Lewis, have argued that morality is not subjective (agree), therefore that we are morally accountable to a transcendent person (non sequitur). We are certainly accountable to ourselves and to each other. I think that guilt is internalized shame and that this social origin gives morality all the authority over individuals that it needs.

There was no commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," before there was a community of self-conscious individuals, i.e., persons. Animals killed each other but with no moral significance. "Thou shalt not steal" is even more historically specific, requiring the existence of a property-owning society. There was a time before the production of possessable artifacts and there can be a time when artifacts are so abundant that property in them has become redundant.

If, as I believe, morality is a here-and-now affair, then how should we understand prophecies of a future transcendent Day of Judgment? Poul Anderson's Edh/Veleda presents a pagan and historically specific version. Preaching war against Rome, she prophesies that:

"...a day would yet dawn. Abide it, and be ready when that red sun rose." (see here)

Such prophecies combine moral force with future tense but present focus: "Abide...be ready..."

I think that they mean something like: "This is true; you will see it!"

The transcendent reality, which I think is either impersonal or transpersonal, is always present and will be seen by those with eyes to see it. We, both individually and collectively, can judge ourselves here and now. Who else can do it? These are our moral concepts and judgments, no one else's. Every day is the Day of Judgment if we can see it.

Veleda's prophecy of the fall of Rome expresses an aspiration that was realized with the fall of the Empire, followed by the emergence of different kinds of societies. Veleda is a prophet like her Biblical counterparts:

"David's words with Sybil's blending..."

Old Tricks And Something New

For reference, see here.

Old tricks work. When the taverner's daughter identifies VIPs and other visitors for a stranger, she simultaneously informs the stranger, informs new readers, reminds regular readers and summarizes some history. Thus, we see:

Rudi Mackenzie;
Rudi's half sisters;
Mathilda Arminger;
an Association knight;
two A-list Bearkillers;
a Mount Angel monk.

We are pleased to learn that Juniper Mackenzie and Sir Nigel are not yet in the Summerlands although unsurprised to learn that life expectancy has declined post-Change.

Is an element of fantasy creeping in? (See also here.) The stranger has had dreams and heard a Voice. But people claim such experiences in our timeline. I will continue to regard the Change as scientific or technological in origin unless and until we are informed to the contrary although I dislike the phrase, "Alien Space Bats."

There was an island of dinosaurs before the Change!

Dinner At The Sheaf And Sickle

SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter One, pp. 16, 18.

We already know the Mackenzie Clan but now we see them from the pov of a stranger from the east. The Sheaf and Sickle, a rambling two-storey tavern comprising several pre-Change buildings but with new stables, serves:

good cider;
fruity red wine;
herb-crusted roast pork;
gravy with dried cherries;
creamy potatoes with dill, sage and chives;
steamed carrots, cauliflower and broccoli;
applesauce;
brown bread;
butter;
sweet apple pie with buttery crust and whipped cream;
sharp, dry, crumbling, yellow cheddar;
applejack.

For other good food, see here.

Tree And Stars

Last night here, I linked wine in a novel, ale in a poem and soma in a Veda. But there are other conceptual links. Yeats' poem continues:

"I have been a hazel tree..."

Poul Anderson's The Avatar (London, 1985), Chapter I, begins:

"I was a birch tree..." (p. 1)

and ends:

"I was Tree." (ibid.)

The speaker in Yeats' poem becomes a rush and a man. The speaker in The Avatar becomes a moth, a salmon, a crow, a chimpanzee and a man. See here.

Stars hang in the hazel's leaves. The Pilot Star evokes navigation and Anderson's Hanno. The Starry Plough was an Irish flag. Anderson's readers remember Odin hanged and men hanged to him. "...times out of mind..." evokes the forgotten past and presents deeper meanings for readers of the Time Patrol. Yeats' man was "...a hater of the wind..."

Wine, Ale And Soma

"I have drunk wine..."
-SM Stirling, The Sunrise Lands (New York, 2008), Chapter One, p. 3.

"I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young..." (see here)

(I misremembered this line as referring to wine, not ale.)

"Have I not drunk Soma?" (see here)

Three drinks late at night because I cannot sleep. And what do Poul Anderson's Merseians drink? See here.

Manse Everard's Religious Experiences

In Cyrus' palace, Everard sees a painted roof where a youth kills a bull and the Man is the Bull and the Sun. Outside, peasants sacrifice to the Earth Mother who was old before the Aryans came in a dark predawn past. The mountains are haunted by wolf, lion, boar and demon.

Near the Rhine, Everard shudders when the wind in the trees speaks with the voices of the darkling gods.

The wind seems to blow keener when Heidhin tells Everard that Edh is the chosen of a goddess.

Everard does not believe in Mithras, the Earth Mother, demons, gods or goddesses but he feels what their believers feel. He shares their experiences.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Stories About The Eternal

Before human beings can respond to the world, it must be processed through their brains. Before a brain can process the world, it must receive words and concepts from society.

Edh tells stories about the goddess and sits by the sea. See here. Just as a Hebrew prophet sees God in nature and history, Edh sees her goddess in the sky and the sea. The eternal is always present now but sometimes is conceived as a transcendent future. Edh preaches:

"...a day would yet dawn. Abide it, and be ready when that red sun rose."
-Poul Anderson, "Star Of The Sea" IN Anderson, Time Patrol (New York, 2006), pp. 467-640 AT I. 10. A.D. 60, p. 556.

The day is always dawning but prophets and sibyls say that it will dawn...

Floris says that Edh has "'Total conviction...'" (p. 556) Everard replies that it is more:

a gift;
a power;
real leadership;
a touch of mystery;
something transhuman;
maybe "'...the timestream...bearing her along.'" (p. 557)

Powerful words from a Time Patrolman, taking everything that has been written about time travel and adding something more.

Anderson And Stirling

Science Fiction Weekly on SM Stirling's Dies The Fire
"The Willamette Valley of Oregon and the wilds of Idaho are depicted with loving care, each swale and tree rendered sharply. The smell of burning cities, the aftermath of carnage, the odor and sweat of horses - Stirling grounds his action in these realities with the skill of a Poul Anderson...."

Science Fiction Weekly on SM Stirling's A Meeting At Corvallis
"Stirling manages to fashion a narrative that acknowledges that humanity is a creature of both soul and body, heart and mind, lust and sacrifice, much in the manner of Poul Anderson."

Detailed, multi-sensory descriptions are indeed a feature of both Anderson's and Stirling's prose. Stirling shows the struggle for physical survival After the Event in the Nantucket Trilogy and After the Change in the Emberverse series. Both recognize that we also live by myths. See here and here. Where does Everard quote Stalin asking derisively how many divisions the Pope commands?

Starting The Sunrise Lands

Status quo:

stalled on The Golden Age;
still rereading Larsson;
some technical delay with accessing a Poul Anderson ebook;
starting to check out SM Stirling's The Sunrise Lands.

The deal on the blog is:

Poul Anderson addressed nearly every aspect of sf, including alternative histories;

Stirling succeeds and surpasses Anderson specifically in the sub-genre of alternative histories;

we find Andersonian allusions and parallels in Stirling's novels;

but we would not continue to read Stirling if all that he did was to echo Anderson!

A worthy successor is also an original.

The Sunrise Lands:

is 512 pages of gapless prose;
begins in CY22/2020 A.D., thus twelve years after the previous volume;
therefore, will feature the original hero's son now grown to adulthood;
begins with several laudatory quotations including comparisons with Anderson that warrant discussion.

Sensory Deprivation

Sensory deprivation has been a blog topic and is mentioned by Stieg Larsson who notes that:

it is inhumane according to the Geneva Convention;
dictatorships have used it for brainwashing;
it may have been inflicted on the prisoners in the Moscow show trials.

Thus, there is a parallel between an alien prisoner of Dominic Flandry and Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. However, Lisbeth is confined in a room free of stimuli, containing only a bed and a restraining belt. Inhumane though this is, I question whether she is right to equate it with sensory deprivation in the full sense.

Conceptual Confusion

I do not often stop reading a book at the mid-point but I have got bogged down and lost the plot with John C. Wright's The Golden Age. I have been reading it, of course, because it develops the idea of human-AI interaction, taking this idea further than Poul Anderson did in some of his later works. Maybe Wright's point is that this kind of confusion is what would happen if flawed human beings suddenly became "virtually omnipotent"? I think that a high technology civilization that retains social conflicts will destroy itself  - and this is happening on Earth right now.

In The Golden Age, two guys, for this purpose let's call them A and B, spend a pre-agreed period of time swapping memories, sharing experiences and living each other's lives. At the end of the agreed time, B refuses to believe that he is not A and takes measures, using mental technology, to drive himself further into this illusion and away from reality. But, given these premises, how can A be sure that he is A? He has evidence and testimony that he is who he thinks he is but how does he know that his experience of this evidence and testimony is not illusory? He may have elaborately deceived himself as (he thinks) B has done or someone else may be deceiving him. With a technology that could make every member of a global population healthy, wealthy and wise, powerful individuals and composite mentalities play spiteful tricks on each other and both the reader and the characters get confused. The novel could climax with the realization that none of it has happened.

I am rereading two thriller writers, will shortly start The Sunrise Lands by SM Stirling hope to get Poul Anderson's Murder In Black Letter as an ebook.

Addendum: OK. Technology alone can't make us "wise." I was just using that expression, "healthy, wealthy and wise." But human beings are social as well as individual. A transformed society will generate a different kind of individual.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Levels Of Fiction

A contemporary novel recounting the activities of a few fictional characters who stay out of the news is notionally set in the same timeline as the one occupied by the novel's readers whereas, in fact, it is set in an alternative timeline with differences too small for us to notice. In Poul Anderson's The Corridors Of Time, time travelling Wardens and Rangers move around in the twentieth century but avoid publicity. In Anderson's There Will Be Time, mutant time travellers pull the same stunt and, in the Time Patrol series, there are travellers from future periods policed by the Patrol. But there is a difference. In the Patrol timeline, Sherlock Holmes also exists along with, e.g., any routine newspaper reports of his activities. Our timeline has Watson's popular narratives but not also the newspaper accounts.

Stieg Larsson's Millennium timeline incorporates intensive media coverage of its central characters. Indeed, it even contains the Millennium magazine whose expose of a corrupt businessman is covered by the rest of the media. Thus, it is harder for the Millennium Trilogy to pretend that it is set in our world although, of course, it does have the same public figures.

It is probably possible to grade works of fiction with, at one end of the spectrum, those that could conceivably be set in our world and, at the other end, those that cannot possibly be. In this sense, leaving aside the Holmes connection for a moment, Millennium is less possible than the Time Patrol because Millennium makes a lot of media noise whereas the Patrol conceals its activities very effectively.

My Moral Disagreement With Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry And Stieg Larsson's Mikael Blomkvist

For my observation on Flandry's dealings with Leon Ammon, see here.

Blomkvist:

"...realized he was unscrupulous enough to do a deal with Bjorck, then double-cross him. He felt no guilt. Bjorck was a policeman who had committed crimes."
-Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played With Fire (London, 2009), Chapter 19, p. 319.

Ammon is a criminal but Flandry has accepted his hospitality. Bjork is a policeman who has used prostitutes but I would not double-cross him. It seems to me that we should deal fairly with those who do not deal fairly with others.

Have I said this here before? A Chilean general interviewed on British television seemed to think that anything goes in civil wars: shootings, torture etc. I would wish to assure the general that, in the unlikely event that he became my prisoner in a civil war, then he would not be summarily shot or tortured, at least not by me.

I thought that the parallel thinking between Flandry and Blomkvist warranted a post and also raised an important moral question.

Another Detail

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), Chapter 14, The Golden Doors, section 2.

"The palace they used had been grown overnight out of smart-crystal..." (p. 223)

It must be possible to program smart-crystal to grow to a design? A palace can be grown overnight yet there are people who are unable to pay housing bills and who are then "'...thrown into the street.'" (See here.) It seems to me that the author has imagined technological mastery of the physical environment but has not imagined a corresponding social structure.

If there is homelessness, then surely there are also crimes like theft and assault although, earlier in the novel, we had got the impression that life was utopian and that crime and coercion were outmoded concepts (see here) - although the word "crime" was then used. I might need to reread... To throw someone into homelessness is indeed to coerce. There is also mention of exiling someone.

The characters are involved in legal cases and disputes. Laws must be enforced if they are to exist. There are references to copyright. (It is time for me to eat.)

Addendum: (Food is in the oven.) I post as I read. This enables me to focus on details that I would miss if I read an entire novel before discussing it, unless I took a lot of notes. It also means that judgments made in earlier posts might have to be revised in later posts, especially when discussing a novel in which the characters' consciousnesses are artificially manipulated so that a viewpoint character's perceptions might turn out to have been illusions and his earlier understanding might turn out to have been an elaborate fiction within the fiction. But the author must meanwhile ensure that we care enough about the characters to want to know the outcome. At present, I am reading The Golden Age in sporadic bursts, alternating with works set in recognizably human environments. This technologized mentality is a direction that Poul Anderson's later future histories could have moved in but Wright has gone much further along this strange road.

A Few Details

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), Chapter 13, section 2.

"'...every part of reality is logically connected to every other part.'" (p. 215)

Not logically. Logic is consistency between propositions about reality whereas, e.g., the empirically discerned spatial and gravitational relationships between planets in the Solar System are not logically necessary.

On p. 216, two propositions -

(i) "'...logic is not paramount in human affairs.'"
(ii) "'Logic is paramount in all things.'"

- are presented as if contradictory. (i) means, I think, that human affairs are not primarily conducted with respect for consistency whereas (ii) means that it is an objective fact that any set of propositions is either consistent or inconsistent. Thus, (i) and (ii) are not contradictory.

We suddenly learn that, despite all the high tech, including even active nanotech:

"'This is a cruel and callous society in which we live. Those who cannot pay their housing bills are thrown into the street. Recorded minds of any type who cannot pay the rentals on their computer brain space are deleted.'" (p. 217)

But this is unnecessary. Surely there is the productive capacity to house everyone? Why is a landlord class or a bureaucracy allowed to control access to housing? And why does everyone not own their own computers?

Celebrities In Fiction

Poul Anderson's Time Patrollers meet several real historical persons but does any contemporary celebrity appear under his own name in any of Anderson's works? Maybe. Anderson himself is mentioned in There Will Be Time. I often ask a question here, then immediately find an unexpected answer! But Anderson the writer remains off-stage. And is there anyone else? I have certainly not read every word of fiction written by Anderson.

I ask this because I have just reread Stieg Larsson's second novel up to the passage where suddenly Paolo Roberto is the viewpoint character. An Airport Customs officer recognizes Roberto and addresses him by his first name as you or I could if we saw him on the street. Roberto recognizes Lisbeth Salander's face on the billboards. He knows this fictional character although the real world Roberto can't. Fictional characters converse with Roberto as an acquaintance in the novel and the actors playing those characters converse with the real Roberto playing himself in the film. Amazing.

SM Stirling presents real sf writers, including Poul Anderson, at the beginning of In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings. These fictional avatars of real people have a curious status, half in and half out of the real world. Any of these writers also appears, one step closer to reality, in a biographical or autobiographical text. Aldous Huxley wrote that he was wearing jeans during a drug experience but his wife, thinking that he ought to be better dressed for his readers, persuaded him to change the text to refer instead to gray flannel trousers. There are indeed some strange reality-fiction interfaces. 

Back To A Future

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), Chapter 13, section 2, p. 210.

Phaeton, expressing his ambition to win peerless renown, anticipates the following response from the entity with which he is conversing:

"...that the desire for a life of glory was nothing more than selfishness and self-aggrandizement; that all human accomplishment was the outcome of a collective effort."

Even in such a multifarious society, will responses be so predictable and also so mean-spirited? Many accomplishments are collective. Humanity has built civilization. Any civilization, especially a highly technologized one, enables many individuals to accomplish great things, including many talented and creative individuals who do not seek renown but who rightly receive it.

I do not feel that Wright's plotting protagonists measure up to the dynamism and creativity of their own civilization.

Back To The Present

I am finding John C. Wright's AI future difficult and am back in the Internet present with Lisbeth Salander hacking Mikael Blomkvist's computer in Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire. Instead of emailing, Lisbeth, wanted by the police, communicates with Mikael by untraceably creating documents using his own Word programme.

The Time Patrol, if they needed to, which they don't, would be able to trace Lisbeth by using future technology. We are told that the computer glimpsed by visitors to Manse Everard's New York apartment is a fake and that he changes the subject when they recommend their preferred brand of PCs to him. But he was not using computers when he joined the Patrol in 1955. Then he had to visit a public library to read back issues of the London Times from the late nineteenth century. The Patrol eases its members into advanced technology and carefully conceals from everyone else any evidence that it is using such technology.

Lisbeth is wanted for murders that she did not commit but it is not the job of the Patrol to solve such murders and might even be their job to ensure that the murderer is not apprehended if it is historically recorded that he was not apprehended. I would not be able to work for the Patrol.

Mass Minds II

"...icons grew larger as more and more members of the mass-mind turned their attention to the scene."
-John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), Chapter 13, The Mass Mind, section 2, p. 210.

But, in that case, the individual minds have not committed suicide by entering the mass-mind. See here. Instead, a, b, c etc can enter M and can thus share its enhanced experience and (I think) the memories of other members but can then return enriched to their original individuality.

On pp. 209-210, a false dichotomy is posited: "...comfort, rest, renunciation and peace..." (p. 209) as against "Deeds of renown without peer." (p. 210) There are other options like understanding and a peace that that is dynamic rather than passive.

We are told on p. 210 that mass-minds are the last refuge of those who in previous periods would have drowned their individuality in collectivism, mobs, mindless conformity and pious fads or frauds. Well, that is bad obviously but, until we were told that, mass-minds had not sounded like mindless mobs or pious frauds. Would such a negative mentality persist into a totally transformed sociotechnological milieu? Wright seems to ask us to imagine that everything has changed and yet that something deep inside us has not really changed. Some thoughts or motivations can occur only in certain contexts, e.g., we would probably, though not necessarily, fight over the last oxygen cylinder if we were trapped inside a space station with a diminishing air suppy but we do not fight for the air that surrounds us on the Terrestrial surface. We do not scapegoat a minority for causing social deprivation if there is no social deprivation. Imagine shared abundance and you simply eliminate material causes of conflict.

Loss Of Ego

See Mass Minds.

"Any effort or attempt to break out of the Zen Hedonist thought system would be defeated by loss of ego, which formed the core of the doctrines."

I think that "ego" means a sense of separate selfhood? In this sense, I also think that ego has to be transcended because nothing is separate. Everything is interconnected and interdependent. This self, or individual subject of consciousness, is a transient manifestation and expression of the cosmic totality, like a wave of the sea.

However, ego is transcended by realizing interconnectedness, not by being caught in a thought system or a set of doctrines. Realization is approached by the practice of awareness, not by acceptance of the idea of "interconnectedness." I used to read, think and talk about Buddhism. Now I sit for meditation. No credit to me. I have been incredibly slow to start to understand what all the words have been pointing towards. Books on Zen are legs on a snake.

Mass Minds

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), Chapter 13, The Mass Mind, section 2, pp. 203-204.

Whereas Poul Anderson imagines human minds interacting and merging with artificial intelligences, Wright extrapolates such imaginings to a seemingly infinite extent.

"To enter a mass-mind might be painless, and might satisfy all his wants and needs, and surround him with eternal, endless brotherhood and peace and love; but it was suicide nonetheless, an abolition of self-hood too horrible to imagine."

What does this mean? Let us imagine -

there are several individual human minds: a, b, c, d, e;
each of these minds can suffer pain, has wants and needs that are not always satisfied and does not experience endless brotherhood, peace or love;
there is also a single mass-mind, M;
M came into existence when a number of individual minds - f, g, h, i, j - ceased to exist;
this means that instead of f remembering f's past, g remembering g's past etc, a single new mind, M, now remembered f's, g's etc's pasts;
M suffers no pain, has wants and needs that are fully satisfied and experiences endless peace although maybe not also endless brotherhood and love because it is a single mind;
a enters M;
this means that the individual a ceases to exist while at the same time M acquires a's memories?

Is it advantageous or advisable for a to enter M? If a has committed suicide and no longer exists as an individual self (by which I mean a subject of consciousness), then a is not having his wants or needs satisfied or experiencing peace.

"...here was an icon leading to the Zen Hedonist thought virus, which promised to resculpt his brain to accept a self-consistent philosophy of total passivity, total pleasure, total renunciation."

Are pleasure and renunciation consistent? Yes, the optimum state might be the enjoyment of pleasure combined with nonattachment to/the ability to renounce pleasure. But we would want to approach this state through practice and understanding, not by allowing a virus to resculpt our brains. "Zen," in the present meaning of the term, is a middle way between hedonism and asceticism: enjoy and appreciate pleasures when they come your way but accept that, like all experiences, they pass.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Price Of Individuality?

"...the simplicity and peace of the middle-period Fourth Era, when all of Earth had been swept clear of war and hate and also of personal individuality."
-John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), p. 203.

Must we choose between peace and individuality? I think that this is a false dichotomy in some sf. We often experience both. This experience can be generalized.

More Yamamura

My IT assistant, Ketlan, says that Murder In Black Letter by Poul Anderson is becoming even more expensive as a second hand paperback but has also become available very cheap as an ebook so I might be reading and posting about it shortly.

I once looked in a mystery specialist bookshop, exactly like an f&sf specialist bookshop except for the obvious difference of subject matter. Isaac Asimov's detective novels and Black Widowers collections and Anderson's Trygve Yamaura novels and detective short stories would be in there but not their other works and probably not Asimov's Elijah Baley novels or Wendell Urth short stories, Larry Niven's Gil Hamilton stories, Anderson's "The Queen of Air and Darkness" or "The Martian Crown Jewels" or Anderson's and Gordon R. Dickson's "The Tale of the Misplaced Hound."

I think it is fair to say that sf mysteries are read by sf fans, not by mystery fans. Years ago, there was an sf sports comic which I venture to suggest was read by sf fans like me, not by sports fans like many of my contemporaries. But I am all for any genre-mixing that our creative types may devise.

Wellsian Reference

For a neat literary reference to HG Wells, apart from the silk top hat, check out pp. 199-200 of John C. Wright's The Golden Age (New York, 2003). I did not get it until I had reached the end of p. 199. A clue, if you want it, is in the image for this post. Sf writers should acknowledge Wells as Poul Anderson does at least twice.

I apologize for the brevity of this post but I really must get out of here and do something else. Three posts have been published over an extended breakfast. Self-indulgence on my part.

Transient Consciousness

A "sophotect" (Poul Anderson) or a "Sophotech" (John C. Wright) is an Artificial Intelligence.

"'We Sophotechs agree on certain core doctrines, including those conclusions to which any thinker not swayed by passion comes...'"

(Are there any such conclusions? Yes, in mathematics and logic, at least.)

"'...but it is the nature of living systems that differences in experience lead to differences in judgments of relative worth.'"
-John C. Wright, The Golden Age (New York, 2003), p. 195.

That is fair comment. Why are some analytic philosophers Christians and others atheists? Each of us is a unique combination of genes. Each adult organism is the present expression of a unique sequence of organism-environment interactions. Each brain has developed distinctive internal interconnections of which we are unaware. How do we manage to agree about anything? Because we are also social, cooperative, linguistic organisms.

"'Many Sophotechs only exist for a few fractions of a second, performing certain tasks, developing new arts and sciences, or exploring all the ramifications of certain chains of thought, before they merge again into the base conversation.'" (ibid.)

New arts and sciences in fractions of a second! Anderson's Didonian personalities exist only temporarily. The inorganic intelligences in Anderson's Genesis divide and re-merge.

All self-conscious organisms exist only temporarily. We emerge from a social/linguistic/cultural matrix and contribute to it before our bodies re-merge with their environment. Our condition is essentially that of the Sophotechs and the Didonians. The Sophotechs contribute more in less time.

Programmed Personalities?

I reproduce this quotation from Poul Anderson again in order to discuss its content. Let's try to clarify some terms as applied in our experience:

organisms respond sensitively to their environments and some organismic sensitivity is also conscious sensation;

mechanisms, like clocks, have internal parts that move in ways predetermined by their manufacturers;

a machine is a mechanism, not an organism;

a program is a set of rules applied unconsciously (mechanically or electronically) by a machine;

a human being is an organism and a human personality is self-conscious.

So can a personality be downloaded into a program?

However: can electronic interactions within a sensitive artifact duplicate the functions of electrochemical interactions within an organic brain?

I don't know. I am just trying to clarify what we are talking about.

Fictions about AIs: it is difficult to follow a narrative when viewpoint characters voluntarily undergo temporary partial amnesia. In John C. Wright's The Golden Age, Helion says that he must reexperience being burned to death while forgetting that this is a simulation but will remember on waking what the pain was for. What was it for? I have lost the thread but am not engaged enough with the characters to want to reread and find out.

A Computer And A Dog

Much sf used to be set in the twenty first century. Now novels written and set in the twenty first century read like what would have been sf fifty years ago:

gigabytes;
software;
downloaded articles;
P.D.F. files;
C.D.s;
a Zip drive;
disks -

- are mentioned in one paragraph on p. 251 of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire (London, 2010).

But another reference harks back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries and also forges a link with Poul Anderson. A detective examining a crime scene expects to find a second computer somewhere in the apartment but fails to do so. His way of expressing the significance of this is:

The strange thing about the dog is that it did not bark, my dear Watson. (ibid.)

Even if we do not remember the dog that did not bark, my dear Watson would be a giveaway, like "Horatio":

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..."

Holmes, like Hamlet, is culturally embedded and will continue to be quoted in fiction beyond the twenty first century.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Changing SF

We have just watched a science programme on TV:

liquid water, heat sources and organic matter and therefore possibly also life in the outer Solar System;

dark matter holding the galaxy together;

dark energy accelerating cosmic expansion;

possibly 95% of the universe composed of dark matter and dark energy;

what does the universe look like to beings who perceive that 95% and not the 5% visible to us?

Must an sf writer change his fictional premises every couple of decades? JRR Tolkien devoted his entire creative life to a single fictional history but was able to do this because his series was a prehistoric fantasy, not futuristic sf. By contrast, Poul Anderson's Psychotechnic History and Genesis could not be more dissimilar. Anderson became dissatisfied with his first future history because:

"That clutter of props and backdrops came nowhere near hinting at the variety, strangeness, and sheer wonder of the real universe..." (SFWA Bulletin, Fall 1979, p. 8)

I have reread that series recently and thought that it was a substantial future history but there is no way that Anderson's entire output could have been limited to that single fictional timeline. Probably some of his successors now describe interstellar explorers' encounters with dark matter and dark energy but I have not kept up with more recent sf.

More Yamamura?

If Poul Anderson had written more novels about Trygve Yamamura, then I hope that the series would have transcended the mystery genre. IMO, a dozen interchangeable murders ingeniously investigated and solved would not have been a great contribution to literature. Of course I have read the entire Holmes canon and also several Montalbano novels because I liked that character on TV and the paperbacks were in the bookshop but I never got into reading all of Poirot or all of Marple.

I have commented that each installment of the Yamamura series hints at the supernatural and that the novels also display the perspective of an sf writer but neither of these directions would have been the way to continue the series much though I like multi-genre experimentation. A novel set in the here and now can be about any aspect of the character's life or about other characters that he meets. Ian Fleming managed to do this with three James Bond short stories and with two thirds of one of the novels. I did not expect to reference Fleming when I began this post but he fits.