Saturday, October 26, 2019

science fiction and the search for meaning

I’ve been a science fiction fan, intermittently, for many years. Recently I’ve been wondering why the genre attracts me, and others. I’ve been pondering the idea that it’s a substitute for religion.

Back in the days when religion was alive and thriving people would look up at the night sky and see it as evidence of God’s benevolence. God had put the stars up there, attached to some kind of celestial sphere, for a purpose. He had put the Moon and the Sun up there for a purpose. It was all good.

By the beginning of the 20th century we were starting to comprehend the vastness of the universe. It was not comforting. It was immense but essentially meaningless. When people looked at the night sky they were looking into the void. Science fiction provided a much more comforting answer. The universe was teeming with life. Those stars were suns, almost certainly with planetary systems, and they were home to countless fascinating and advanced civilisations. Some might be hostile but that was OK, we’d either overcome them or turn them into friends. After all, even the Klingons became our allies. And many of those alien civilisations would be wise and benevolent and they’d offer us exciting new technologies and knowledge.

And we would expand into the galaxy ourselves. We’d create interstellar empires (but good empires not wicked colonial empires) or interstellar federations. We would become almost god-like with our vast scientific knowledge and technological miracles. It was all good. The universe had meaning after all. The stars were our destiny.

Of course it was not just science fiction writers but also the more speculative scientists doing this, but those two groups overlap to some extent.

Then came the actual space age. When the Soviet Union put a man in space in 1961 it seemed like a real triumph for humanity. Then he Americans put men on the Moon, Another triumph, and more would surely follow. Mars would be next. And then the stars. Nothing could stop us. We would surpass God.

But the Moon turned out to be a dead rock and unmanned spacecraft sent to Mars indicated that Mars was a dead rock as well. And we didn’t go to Mars.

And lurking in the background was the grim reality of the speed of light as an absolute limit. Science fiction writers knew about this but they ignored it. Some way would be found to get around it.

But we probably won’t find a way to get around it. And so far we’ve found zero evidence that the universe is teeming with life. In fact we’ve found zero evidence that there is any intelligent life in the universe at all apart from ourselves. Of course it is possible that there are lots of advanced alien civilisations out there but once you start giving serious thought to the distances involved (distances in space and time) and the almost certain impossibility of faster-than-light travel, and once you really think through the ramifications of that, it becomes evident that even if alien civilisations exist it is very very unlikely we will ever be able to contact them.

We convinced ourselves that we could live without God, but can we live without aliens as well? Can we deal with being effectively all alone in the universe?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

trusting the intelligence community

Spies have been on my mind recently.

One of the most curious, and amusing, things about our modern world is the strange new respect being shown to the “intelligence community” with once widely despised organisations like the FBI, the CIA and MI6 suddenly being regarded (by mainstream opinion) as paragons of integrity and virtue.

Even people who claim to be on the Left have become admirers. In fact people claiming to be on the Left have become the most ardent admirers. From the 1950s until very recent times the one thing that united the New Left and the remnants of the Old Left was their belief that the intelligence community consisted of malevolent bunglers. And of course they were correct.

Obviously what has happened is that the self-described Left of today is in fact now the Establishment, and of course the intelligence community serves the Establishment.

The bigger question is, can anyone actually trust spies? I use the term spies in the broadest sense, to include both espionage and counter-espionage operatives. The fact is that spies are people whose lives are based on lies and deceit. If you’re no good at lies and deceit you’re no use as a spy. Spies are also people who are good at seeing patterns. Sometimes the patterns are really there and sometimes they’re imaginary but while spies are good at spotting patterns they’re not good at distinguishing the real from the imaginary.

But it’s worse than that. Espionage is a profession that attracts cranks and misfits. It attracts the mentally unstable. Some are brilliant misfits. Some are just misfits. It also attracts those with political axes to grind. Normal well-adjusted psychologically healthy people do not join the intelligence community.

All this is bad enough but there’s the additional problem that if you’re an agent for an intelligence organisation you have to demonstrate your continuing usefulness. If you don’t have any real intelligence of value to offer then there’s the temptation to concoct intelligence that is pure fantasy. And counter-spies are not above concocting imaginary conspiracies. If they happen to have political axes to grind then the temptation to make stuff up is even greater.

Both popular culture and official history have fostered the idea that espionage attracts the best and the brightest, and that the work of the intelligence community is absolutely vital. At least once per book a fictional spy will save Civilisation As We Know It. Sadly the reality is that more often than not spies are either dishonest or delusional, or both. Their achievements are usually minimal.

Defectors are even worse. A defector is, by definition, a traitor. Or at best, a defector is someone with loyalties that are flexible, often to the point of non-existence. They are loyal until they get a better offer.

To trust spies and counter-spies is mere foolishness. Even if some are trustworthy you can never know which ones are trustworthy and which ones are not. The wisest course is to trust none of them.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

more quotes

"The truth has never been of any real value to any human being - it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths." - Graham Greene

"Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm." - Graham Greene

“Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.” - Graham Greene

"A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction." - Graham Greene

"It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes." - Graham Greene

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (book review)

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, providing another example of Greene’s ability to set his stories in places that were just about to hit the headlines (in 1959 Castro came to power).

Our Man in Havana is a spy story. It is the cynical, humorous and absurd tale of Jim Wormold, not exactly one of the shining lights of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Mr Wormold lives in Havana. He sells vacuum cleaners. He is moderately successful but unfortunately he has a daughter. That’s not unfortunate in itself but the daughter, Milly, is at the age at which daughters become very very expensive. Even worse, Milly has now conceived a passion for horses. She must have one. There is simply no way Mr Wormold can afford the upkeep on a horse as well as a daughter.

So it seems like a stroke of good luck when Mr Wormold is approached by Hawthorne. Hawthorne works for MI6 and he’s in the process of setting up an espionage network in Cuba. Hawthorne believe that a vacuum cleaner salesman is the perfect cover for a spy. Mr Wormold knows nothing of the world of espionage and has no interest in politics but the $150 a month plus expenses that Hawthorne offers him interests him quite a bit. So Mr Wormold becomes MI6’s man in Havana.

Initially Wormold is a bit worried by the fact that he nothing about the world of spies and knows nothing about recruiting agents but then he realises that it doesn’t matter. The network of agents he’s supposed to recruit don’t have to actually exist. The information he sends back to London doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to sound convincing. Pretty soon he has a whole network of imaginary agents and he’s sending off detailed reports to London with lots of disturbing information, none of it rel. He’s even sent them drawings of high-tech weaponry at a new top-secret military installation. The fact that these sophisticated weapons look a bit like parts of a vacuum cleaner somehow gets overlooked in all the excitement.

The head of MI6, C, is convinced that Wormold is  the most valuable agent they’ve ever had. The more fanciful his intelligence reports become the more certain C is that they must be true.

Things are going very nicely for Mr Wormold. Until somebody starts trying to kill his agents. Which is very disturbing since those agents don’t actually exist. Fiction is becoming reality.

Graham Greene of course had been a real-life spy for the British. He knew the incompetence and stupidity of MI6 at first hand. He knew that much of the intelligence provided by spies was simply fantasies concocted by the spies. The more intelligence you provide the more likely it is that the intelligence agency for which you work will continue to pay you. The intelligence doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be the sort of thing that the intelligence agency wants to hear.

Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926. After the Second World War, and probably not coincidentally after his stint with MI6, Greene’s politics became steadily more leftist although it’s important to keep in mind that he was an old school leftist with nothing in common with the leftism of today. And while his Catholicisjm seems to recede into the background a little it’s also important to remember that he saw no conflict whatsoever between left-wing politics and Catholicism.

When he wrote this novel Greene seems to have been going through one of his upbeat phases (he was prone to frequent bouts of extreme depression). Wormold is more sympathetic than most Greene protagonists (you can’t really call any of Greene’s protagonists heroes). He’s a timid little man but he’s not a hopeless alcoholic and he hasn’t given in to despair or nihilism. He knows little about raising children but he’s managed to be a reasonably good father. He’s a nice guy. He isn’t very honest but he has no wish to do any harm to anybody. He thinks the espionage stuff is all very silly but if MI6 are foolish enough to pay him money he’ll take it. Even when he gets himself into deep trouble he doesn’t give in to despair. Whether he can extricate himself from the mess might be extremely doubtful but at least he’s going to try.

Despite the fact that Wormold never does any actual spying Our Man in Havana manages to be an enjoyable and exciting spy thriller. It’s also superb satire, and very funny. Greene’s contempt for spies is palpable and as in The Quiet American there’s an awareness of how much harm can be done by bungling intelligence agencies but it’s combined with genuine amusement.

A wonderful book. Very highly recommended.

quotes for the day

"It's always darkest before it becomes totally black." - Mao Zedong

"To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing." - Mao Zedong

"Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed." - Mao Zedong

"As for the imperialist countries, we should unite with their peoples and strive to coexist peacefully with those countries, do business with them and prevent any possible war, but under no circumstances should we harbour any unrealistic notions about them."  - Mao Zedong

"We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports." - Mao Zedong

"No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat." - Deng Xiaoping

"Democratic regimes may be defined as those in which, every now and then, the people are given the illusion of being sovereign, while the true sovereignty in actual fact resides in other forces which are sometimes irresponsible and secret." - Benito Mussolini

"It's good to trust others but not to do so is much better." - Benito Mussolini

"We deny your internationalism, because it is a luxury which only the upper classes can afford." - Benito Mussolini

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Newton’s Wake (book review)

Newton’s Wake is a standalone 2004 novel from Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod (born in 1954) is an interesting figure. He started out as an old school leftist with Trotskyist leanings. When the Old Left crashed and burned he started to use science fiction as a way of exploring political options. Some of the options he has explored are fascinating, like the communists in The Star Fraction who believe passionately in capitalism. Some of the options are daft (like anarcho-capitalism). His attempts to reconcile Trotskyism with libertarianism are somewhat bizarre. His sympathetic view of populism leads to some surprising results. Not many people see parallels between Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. His hopes for a leftist populism might be optimistic but might well be fruitful. MacLeod’s political speculations are always at the very least interesting.

Newton’s Wake begins in 2367 with a team of Carlyle combat archaeologists led by Lucinda Carlyle emerging from a wormhole gate to find a rather surprising planet. The first surprise is that the planet Eurydice is home to an advanced human civilisation. The second surprise is a gigantic structure apparently carved from diamond, but was it carved by nature or by human agency? To the Carlyles it looks suspiciously post-human. Which means it is likely to be both dangerous and profitable.

There are four main human cultures, scattered over various planets and co-existing uneasily. There are the Americans, subsistence farmers who (as we will learn) have good reason to fear post-human technology. There are the North Koreans, communists but happy to do business with the other cultures. There are the technologically sophisticated Knights of Enlightenment, a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Indians. And then there are the Scots, which means the Carlyles. The Carlyles started out as gangsters. Now they’re very rich and very powerful anarcho-capitalists, they control the wormhole network, and morally they’ve degenerated slightly from their gangster days.

These four cultures don’t just represent competing economic and political systems. They also differ markedly in their attitude to the two most pressing technological and philosophical problems of the day, how to deal with the legacy of the Singularity and how to deal with the problem of death.

The Singularity is what happened when the Americans launched their retaliatory nuclear strike against the Europeans. The computers co√∂rdinating the American strike suddenly upgraded themselves into full-blown artificial intelligences, they upgraded their new human servants into post-humans and they created the war machines that went on to ravage Earth. Three-and-a-half centuries earlier the galaxy is still littered with post-human tech. Some of this tech is very useful indeed. All of it is potentially extremely dangerous. The Americans avoid such tech. The North Koreans approach it with extreme caution, if at all. The Knights of Enlightenment believe that post-human tech can be studied and understood, and utilised, as long as you’re careful (and they’re very careful). The Carlyles believe post-human tech is there to be looted and sold.

The problem of death has been solved. Sort of. You just upload your personality and your memories and if you die your personality and your memories are downloaded to a new body. The Carlyles are quite happy with this. The Knights and the North Koreans think it’s nonsense. If you’re dead you’re dead. Having a copy of yourself walking around after you’re dead is no consolation at all.

The Eurydiceans have now complicated matters because nobody knew they existed. And Lucinda Carlyle has complicated matters much more comprehensively by awakening whatever it is that’s in that strange structure on Eurydice.

The two primary themes, post-humanism and the question of death, intersect more and more as the story unfolds.

On one level this is a delightful tongue-in-cheek satire. And it’s very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny at times (the excerpt from Shakespeare’s famous play The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy, is hilarious). MacLeod exercises his considerable wit at the expense of left-wing politics, right-wing politics, folk music, religions both secular and spiritual, art, the entertainment business and science fiction. It’s a glorious romp. But there’s a serious science fiction tale here as well. In fact as the book progresses it veers more and more in the direction of old-fashioned big-ideas science fiction speculating on the nature of mind, the nature and purpose of the universe and the rewards and pitfalls of pushing technology to the limit.

Newton’s Wake is a dazzling exercise in style and wit and adventure. It really is great stuff. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 4, 2019

food and the new morality

We live in a world which has abandoned the idea that there is such a thing as sexual morality. If you dare to suggest that maybe adultery is destructive to both individuals and to society, that maybe easy divorce has been disastrous for child-rearing, that slut culture might not be a healthy lifestyle choice, that unlimited porn might have social consequences or that the male homosexual lifestyle might be unhealthy you are dismissed as a fascist and you’re in danger of social ostracism.

But people like having moral rules, and they love enforcing moral rules on others. If there is no sexual morality people will find other things to be moralistic about.

One of those things is food. What you eat is no longer a matter of personal preference. It is no longer your own business. It is everybody’s business. Making the wrong food choices is a moral failing and it is society’s business to correct those failings. If people won’t eat properly the government should step in and force them to do so.

People are amazingly moralistic about food these days. Having promiscuous anonymous sex with hundreds of partners a year is good and moral and virtuous but eating pizza is a mortal sin.

And even thinking about eating foods like french fries is morally wrong. You have committed a sin in your heart.  And it can lead you down the slippery slide into even greater sins, just as fantasising about eating pizza.

It’s important to understand that whether a food item is healthy or unhealthy is not the point. It’s now fairly clear that most of the advice we’ve been given on diet over the past half century is unscientific nonsense. It doesn’t matter. Some food choices are simply immoral.

There are a couple of easy rules to keep you on the straight and narrow. Firstly, ask yourself if a particular food is delicious. If the answer is yes, then it's morally wrong even to think about it.

Secondly, ask yourself if a particular food is quick and easy to prepare or buy. If the answer to that question is yes, then it's wrong!

Thirdly, ask yourself if a particular food is popular among among bad people (such as working class or poor people). If the answer is yes then that food is automatically on the index of forbidden foods.

Fast food being delicious, convenient and popular with non-middle class people is of course as morally wrong as you can get.

You are what you eat. If you eat the wrong foods you’re a bad person.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

the coming economic implosion?

There’s a widely held belief in alt-right circles that it doesn’t matter much how bad things are because within the next couple of decades there’s going to be a complete economic implosion and the whole social and political structure will collapse anyway.

The economic implosion will come about largely as a result of out-of-control national debt. Because governments can’t just keep printing money and expanding credit forever, can they?

I’m a bit sceptical about all this. I suspect that the government can pretty much do whatever it wants to, including printing money and expanding credit forever. They’re the government. They have the power. They can back up that power with force. Military force if necessary.

Of course I might be wrong. I’m no economist. I don’t understand how the economy works. But then economists don’t seem to understand how the economy works either. When an economic crisis hits the people who are most surprised are usually economists.

I’m also not entirely convinced that an economic crisis on its own would bring down the entire social and political system. The economic crisis of the 1970s was extremely severe but it failed to bring about social or political collapse. The 2008 crisis didn’t even shake the foundations of the system.

Of course an economic crisis combined with some kind of political crisis might be a different story. Had the Oil Crisis happened in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War the foundations in the U.S. might well have been shaken quite a bit. If an economic crisis were to hit Britain right now, right slap bang in the middle of the political/constitutional crisis over Brexit, things could get quite hairy.

Whether a complete economic implosion would actually change things for the better is another story. Total social and political collapse is fascinating to read about, not so much fun to live through.