Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Still here

So, to the surprise of very few people, the rapture didn't occur this weekend. The world hasn't ended for most of us, although for many thousands it will have done, as it does every single day. In that respect Saturday 21st May was nothing special. Some of those deaths may be the direct cause of the rapture – or, rather, of the prediction of the End by one individual. I expect that around the world there were several emotionally vulnerable people who took their own lives in disappointment that the messiah did not show up.

Interestingly, as I write Mr Camping, the man whose predictions gained him international publicity, has not been sighted since the time allotted for the coming of the final days. I await with bated breath the announcement that he did indeed ascend bodily to heaven.

Yes, it is easy to mock someone who appears to be at best on the fringes of the Christian faith, or possibly just a crazy old man getting too much publicity. However, just because mocking him and his beliefs is easy, and indeed fun, doesn't make it wrong. The fact is that although very few people believed the world was going to end last Saturday, a significant number of people do seem to believe that it will indeed end, and probably soon, and this group of people are not a fringe but wield a disproportionate amount of power for what is easily, and I think rightly, characterised as a damaging belief system. Damaging because they believe that the coming end is total and inevitable,. Damaging because they invariably believe that they are amongst the chosen group that are going to be saved. Damaging because they believe that this ending is a good thing. Damaging because why should people who live by these beliefs do anything to make the world a better place? Obviously if heaven is coming for all (all, anyway, who accept god – or their version of the divine and the particular rules laid down in a much-bastardised bronze-age text) then why bother with caring for the environment or society around you? At the very worst this affects global political policy – the US Secretary of the Interior (responsible for environmental policy) under the first George Bush who said “When the last tree is felled that will be great day, as it means the coming of the Lord is at hand.” And there can be little doubt that George W. Bush's Middle East policy was at the very least influenced by the belief that the messiah would return to Israel in the very near future.

Most people don't act like this, you may say, even if they claim to believe that the rapture is just around the corner. They continue to put their wages into savings accounts and have children, book holidays and invest in pensions. If asked, many would claim they are doing this because that is how they are instructed to live, or perhaps that “no-one knows when the time will come”, but could it be that they don't really believe what they profess to believe? I'm not knocking them; it is a good thing that they don't. The man who spent his $140, 000 savings on billboards advertising 21st May as the end of the world must be having a few pangs of doubt right now, and I'm sure he wasn't alone. The world goes on, and it is surely our responsibility to not only make the most of every moment that we are in it – because for us it is true that we know not when the end will indeed come – but to extend that privilege to those with whom we share the planet and those who will continue to live on it for the years, decade, centuries and millennia to come.

It has been said before that we become adults when we are able to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and no longer rely on our parents to bail us out. Isn't it time that we took the same step into adulthood as a species? Once upon a time we may have needed our hand holding to make us feel better about the big scary world around us. Now we have stepped out from the confines of our garden and see that the world is far bigger, and perhaps scarier, than we could ever have imagined. But it is also more wonderful and inspiring and filled with awe. We can retreat from the universe into superstition, or we can act as responsible adults and recognise that we are part of it.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

On Being Human; review of 'Diaspora' by Greg Egan

My memories of when I used to subscribe to the science fiction magazine Interzone in the 80s and 90s are largely of two types of stories. The magazine had a penchant for a brand of rather gloomy anti-cyberpunk futurism (especially in the 80s, with Britain under Thatcher's iron heel when everything looked bleak, and era which also gave rise to such wonderfully dark comics as V for Vendetta and Crisis) of a sort that made Jeff Noon's books look positively utopian (I'm sure Noon must have had stories in IZ, come to think of it, but I can't remember any). The second sort were dazzlingly high-concept explorations of the interface between technology and society, and where ever hastening scientific and technological progress might be taking us as a species.

This is where I first came into contact with Australian author Greg Egan, an Interzone regular and prime purveyor of this latter type of story. Egan's 1997 novel Diaspora is a superb example of his work. It starts toward the end of the 30th century when humanity has split into different strains – as software entities living rapid yet immortal lives in virtual reality, or interacting with the physical world inhabiting robotic bodies, or a few 'fleshers', humans who doggedly remain attached to their biological reality. An unforeseen astrophysical disaster causes some of the digital personalities to send out copies of themselves to explore the universe in search of somewhere safe from potential annihilation from cosmic accidents.

This is not just an updating of Stapledon's Last and First Men or Wells' The Time Machine to the information age, where biological evolution continues seamlessly into electronic, but an exploration of what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be intelligent. Is the only way to be human to remain in direct contact with the physical world and live a life measured in decades, or can a piece of software that is at least as complex and possessed of its own drives and personality and autonomy, that wants to survive and learn and has morals and ethics be also considered human? As the environments in which humans live are artificial anyway, is living in an entirely virtual world any less valid?

Along with a story that presents these issues, Egan takes us into areas of multi-dimensional maths and wormhole physics that stretch the readers' minds just as much, all told with a clarity and skill that makes Egan one of the finest and most important writers working in SF today.

Read this if you like Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross. Other books on a similar theme include Stross' Saturn's Children and the wonderful Natural History by Justina Robson (both of whom are from Leeds, which is an interesting coincidence).

Friday, 6 May 2011

Welsh Noir; Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce

The first of Malcolm Pryce's Louie Knight Mysteries introduces us to a world where the language and mores of a Raymond Chandler novel are transported to the small Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. The local bars are replaced by an ice cream vendor and a 24 hour whelk stall, the girls at the strip club dress in flirtatious versions of Welsh national costume. As this suggests, the version of Wales Pryce presents is slightly surreal, with witchcraft and runes and a town council run by a mob of corrupt Druids. Wales is a former colonial power, a disastrous attempt to conquer Patagonia staining the national conscience (“the Welsh Vietnam”).

Louie Knight, the town's only private eye, is asked to look into the disappearance of a stripper's cousin, and becomes enmeshed in the murder of several schoolboys and, of course, a plot that threatens the town. He narrates the proceedings like Philip Marlowe, which nicely counterpoints the small town setting and the Welsh accents that come across in the dialogue.

Aberystwyth Mon Amour is an interesting, light read, but suffers from an unevenness of tone. While there are many witty, comic moments, Pryce doesn't quite seem to know how to tread the line between this and the darkness in the story – both the inherent darkness in the murders and the themes of loss and displacement that permeate the book. This uncertainty also seems to affect how distant from our reality this Aberystwyth is; for me he could have embraced the surreal aspects more, and indeed seems to do so toward the end of the book. It was somewhat reminiscent of the world of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next, a reality skewed from our own at a rakish angle, but I felt that Pryce's reality needs to be slightly better defined. I'm intrigued to see how his style develops; if the tone and setting can solidify then it may well a thoroughly enjoyable series.

The next book is Last Tango in Aberystwyth and the third The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, which I think may just be the best book title of all time.