Friday 25 April 2008

Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake; the New Scientist on Evolution

Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

This novella (112 pages, c. 25,000 words) is set in the world of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, although they are not named, being referred to only as the Boy and the Castle. It is the Boy's 14th birthday and he wearies of the endless rounds of official celebrations to mark the event, so he takes an opportunity to escape into the wider world beyond. He encounters three strange beings known as the Goat, the Hyena and the Lamb, and faces a terrible danger. That's about as much as I can say about the plot without spoiling it for potential readers. My edition of the book (Hodder Signature, 1996) is illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

It is a very strange story, even by the standards of Gormenghast; the three beings are entirely fantastical and the plot very bizarre, being more in the nature of a fairy tale (of the original Grimm sort). What comes through most strongly is the poetic beauty of Peake's writing. Take this passage describing a peal of bells to celebrate the Boy's birthday; for me, this brought back memories of the strange, rich flavour of the Gormenghast books:

"A bell began to chime, and then another and then a swarm of bells. Harsh bells and mellow ones: bells of many metals and many ages: bells of fear and bells of anger: gay bells and mournful; thick bells and clear bells….the flat and the resonant, the exultant and the sad. For a few moments they filled the air together, a murmuration, with a clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal. Then one by one the tumult weakened and scores of bells fell away until there was nothing but an uneasy silence, until, infinitely far away, a slow and husky voice stumbled its way over the roof-tops and the Boy at the window heard the last of the thick notes die into silence."

Peake is not for everyone, but if you are a fan of the Gormenghast series (as I am) then this one should be added to your collection.
On Evolution

A valuable summary in the New Scientist magazine (19 April issue) correcting some common misconceptions about evolution. This article, plus more, is included on their website HERE and all SF writers should study it in order to avoid errors (possibly I was a bit ambitious with the marsupial saurians in Scales…)

A very brief summary of some examples of misconceptions:

Everything is an adaptation: it isn't true that everything has a purpose, some features of life are just accidental hold-overs from earlier developments, such as the appendix and the male nipple.

Evolution can't be disproved: in theory it could be, but all of the evidence collected so far supports it, and no evidence has been found to disprove it.

Evolution is limitlessly creative: there are limits (at least on Earth) to what has been, and probably can be, developed. Every intermediate stage needs to have had some survival benefit (e.g. primitive forms of eye are still better than nothing in detecting objects).

Natural selection leads to ever greater complexity: it can actually lead to greater simplicity since unnecessary features frequently disappear (e.g. eyeless cave fish).

Evolution produces perfection: "you don't have to be perfectly adapted to survive, you just have to be as well adapted as your competitors". Examples of inefficiencies in human beings are the eyes (birds have much superior vision), the lungs (much of their capacity is wasted because of the two-way air-flow; birds have a much more efficient one-way flow) and so on.

Natural selection is the only means of evolution: random genetic drift has a great influence, with chance often deciding which mutations survive and which don't.

It doesn't matter if people don't grasp evolution: our civilisation is facing many challenges which need some understanding of how science works to appreciate, and make sensible judgements about. "Any modern society which bases major decisions on superstition rather than reality is heading for disaster". Which makes it rather worrying that in a recent survey, when asked "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false?", only 40% of US citizens polled "true", 39% "false" and 21% "not sure". In contrast the "true" response from most western European countries and Japan was around 75%.

Among those not believing in evolution (according to their public statements) were several of the initial candidates for the nomination for the Presidency of the USA; a staggering admission of scientific illiteracy, in the same league as admitting that they couldn't read or write. Let's hope that the most powerful and influential nation on Earth ends up with a leader who has a much better grasp of scientific arguments than the present incumbent.

Friday 18 April 2008

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

This sequel to Hyperion (reviewed on this blog on 28 March 08) continues where the first volume left off. The pilgrims are still in the valley of the Time Tombs on Hyperion (where most of them remain, more or less, for the duration of the tale), and one of the two main plot threads follows their stories as they try to solve the mystery of the Tombs while constantly threatened by the deadly Shrike. Interleaved with this is the first-person viewpoint of a new character, a second reincarnation of the poet John Keats created by one of the Artificial Intelligences of the TechnoCore. He is attached to the staff of Meina Gladstone, CEO of the human Hegemony of the Web, whose worlds are linked by the Core-run farcaster system; effectively teleportation gates. Gladstone is trying to cope with the crisis of an unexpectedly strong Ouster attack on the Hyperion system, which deepens when simultaneous attacks are reported on other Web worlds.

The plot switches locations between various Web worlds, what appears to be a recreation of the long-destroyed Earth, and different futures on Hyperion as the Time Tombs, travelling back from the future, begin to open. All (or, at least, most) is eventually revealed in a series of dramatic conclusions in which much of what had previously been understood is turned on its head.

The Fall of Hyperion sustains the remarkable inventive energy of the first volume, the constant references to Keats and his poetry, and the very high quality of the writing. This last reminds me most of Iain M Banks, although without the wry sense of humour. It also sustains the same leisurely pacing of the plot, which robs it what should have been an increasing sense of urgency as the climaxes are approached; only in the final pages is there any real sense of drama.

The first two Hyperion books are an impressive achievement which deserve the praise lavished on them. For me, the plot was too drawn-out and the writing too dispassionate to generate the kind of excitement which would have made them a great read rather than an admirable one. I have the two Endymion novels, which are distant sequels to the Hyperion ones, on my "to be read" shelf, but I think I'll have a break from Simmons before I get stuck into those…

Saturday 12 April 2008

The end of civilisation?

The New Scientist magazine – recommended, by the way, to anyone who likes to keep up with developments across science – included a couple of linked articles by Deborah MacKenzie in its 5 April 2008 issue, concerning threats to our civilisation. Always an interesting topic to SF fans!

To summarise, the general thesis runs something like this: simple civilisations tend to be relatively unaffected by disasters, unless drastic environmental change (e.g. prolonged drought) makes their location uninhabitable. So although 14th century Europe suffered a one-third loss in population due to the Black Death, the civilisation continued. This was because it was essentially a rural, subsistence society, with urban populations being small. The survivors just carried on as usual, and all they needed could be grown or made locally.

Increasing the level of complexity of a civilisation increases its resilience, up to a point. Local disasters, which would previously have had major local effects, can be mitigated by rushing in aid. The threat of epidemics can be countered by the rapid development of medical countermeasures. However, as a civilisation becomes even more complex and tightly integrated, as ours is, its vulnerability increases. An economic shock affecting one major region affects everyone (as we are seeing now). Commercial economics drives efficiency, which leads to such changes as concentrating manufacture of a product in as few locations as possible; preferably only one, located in a part of the world where the labour is cheapest. Clearly such a system is more vulnerable to local disaster or transport interruptions than distributed production. This is exacerbated by the fashion for "just in time" deliveries, which means that only limited stocks are kept in warehouses; for instance, cities typically contain only a three-day supply of food.

This emphasises that we are highly dependent on the continuous functioning of our transport infrastructure. Not just to supply food, but just about everything we need, including medical supplies to hospitals and fuel to power stations and road transport filling stations. Power failures would cripple our ability to respond to crises, or even to find out what is going on. They would also lead to the rapid spoiling of refrigerated foods; in fact, the inability to buy anything (electronic shop tills wouldn't work). If transport breaks down, we will be plunged into deep trouble very quickly.

But what could have such a widespread effect on transport? MacKenzie suggests an international pandemic, such as the post-WW1 influenza outbreak which killed far more people than the war. She points out that this only had a 3% death rate, whereas in the cases so far of the H5N1 "bird flu" passing to humans, the death rate has been 63%. If bird flu (or some other virus) mutates to be highly infectious, our international air travel system could distribute it around the globe very quickly, perhaps more quickly than we could analyse the virus and devise, manufacture and distribute medical countermeasures.

The natural human response to a pandemic would be to stay at home; either due to sickness, or to look after sick relatives, or to keep from being infected. If enough transport workers are sick or stay at home, the transport system will fail. If enough refinery workers stay at home, no more fuel will be produced. If enough power station workers stay at home, the power will fail. If enough water supply workers stay at home, the water will fail. Very often nowadays, the continuous functioning of such essential services depends on a few key individuals. (A personal anecdote: I once attended a conference based in a college building. It started late, because the caretaker didn't turn up on time; and he was the only man with the keys.)

MacKenzie goes on to suggest that the increasing vulnerability and specialisation of complex civilisations may make their eventual collapse inevitable. This is not a new thesis; Jared Diamond covered such ground in his 2005 book 'Collapse', as did Joseph Tainter in his 1988 book 'The Collapse of Complex Societies', which examined the ways in which all previous civilisations have collapsed. We are not as immune from that as we might like to think (naturally, every civilisation has assumed it will last forever). Even without such a dramatic event as a pandemic, the increasing pressures on limited supplies of fresh water, fuel, food and other raw materials, are eventually likely to make our present way of life unsustainable. Climate change will exacerbate these problems, because our systems of agriculture are finely-tuned for our present patterns of rainfall, and much of our urban and transport infrastructure to existing sea levels. Any major international disruption, for whatever cause, will hit the confidence of the international financial markets on which the functioning of our civilisation depends.

What can be done? Those societies which would be least affected by major collapse would be rural ones with self-sufficient lifestyles (preferably located a long way away from densely populated urban areas) but it isn't feasible for most of us to live like that. Some measures will help stave off the risk of collapse, but they will not be easy to implement because they would be uneconomic if left to the market. More distributed production of essentials to spread the risk and minimise the importance of transport would certainly help. More use of distributed power and other supply systems would also add resilience. The local (even domestic) stockpiling of long-lasting foods and other essentials would be very prudent. So would disaster planning which takes into account the potential risks of a major pandemic and implements plans to minimise the effects (current planning tends to assume a death rate of no more than 3%).

MacKenzie points out that only one complex society has ever survived collapse, and that was by deliberate downsizing: the empire of Byzantium lost most of its territory to the Arabs, and responded by simplifying their society; moving out of most cities, switching to more of a barter economy, and changing their professional army to a peasant militia. Education levels declined.

A final thought: if the worst happens and our civilisation does collapse, it does not of course mean the end of humanity; although the world population would shrink drastically and revert to an earlier and much simpler form of existence. Recovery from such a disaster to anything like our present level of civilisation may not be easy. We have already mined out much of the easily-obtained fuel and other raw materials, so humanity could be caught in the Catch-22: before advanced technologies could be developed again, raw materials would be needed which could only be extracted by the use of advanced technologies, even if records of their locations had survived. What happens to our civilisation is therefore of critical importance to humanity's future.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Film 'V for Vendetta' and TV series 'The Last Enemy'

V for Vendetta (2006) is set in a future dystopian England in which security fears have led to the imposition of a police state, with tight controls on public behaviour and suppression of dissent. A girl (Natalie Portman) becomes caught up in the plans of a vengeful and resourceful man, known only as "V", who is planning the violent overthrow of the government. He always wears a mask and costume to represent Guy Fawkes, and it is suggested that he was badly disfigured by an official experiment which went wrong.

I'm not a fan of comics, and when I sat down to watch the film I didn't realise that it was based on a graphic novel. The comic-strip elements are clear enough: not only the man in a mask, but his improbable resources and apparently superhuman abilities with knives. What is slightly confusing is that the rest of the film appears to be a lot more serious in intent, using well-known actors and sending clear messages about the authoritarian direction in which the UK seems to be gradually but inexorably heading, and the dangers which lie down that path. I'm not sure that the serious and comic-strip elements work all that well together, but it was an interesting attempt and worth watching.

The theme of 'V for Vendetta' reminded me of the recent BBC TV series The Last Enemy (shown in five episodes, totalling 330 minutes, in February and March). This was much more realistic, concerning a near-future British government plan to introduce a national "total surveillance" system, linking CCTVs, ID cards and other databases so that anyone can be immediately located and tracked, and comprehensive information about them obtained. A famous but unworldly mathematician is roped in to help sell the idea to the public, and also becomes involved in a parallel plot line concerning a mysterious and lethal ailment apparently caused by secret genetic experiments. Together with a few resourceful friends he tries to expose what is going on but, unlike 'V', the story does not have a happy ending.

The plot of The Last Enemy is really getting close to the truth now, because our government does indeed want to introduce a comprehensive system linking everything about everyone that is recorded on official electronic databases, and providing access to such data via the planned ID cards. There's a lot of debate about the introduction of the ID cards (which is going to be voluntary for most people: at least, at first…). In my view, too much of the discussion misses the point. I see no harm in ID cards. I carry one now – a driving licence with my name and address, date of birth and photo on it – and occasionally find it useful in confirming my identity. The main issue is the vast database which the government wants to put behind it, way beyond anything attempted anywhere else, and that's a problem for various reasons. The loss of privacy, the certainty of error in inputting the data, and the horrifying prospect of a really comprehensive identity theft if it's ever hacked (or a civil servant with input access is bribed or coerced). The catastrophic record of government failures in introducing computer-based systems far less sophisticated and complex than this is another reason to regard this idea as misconceived. As is the fact that the excuse for introducing the system is international terrorism, but all such recent attacks in the UK have been by British citizens in good standing who would have been perfectly entitled to be issued ID cards, so where's the benefit there? Oh well, rant over - for now.