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Best of times, worst of times

Pollution reduction over Italy (from ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite)

I cannot be the only one who is enjoying this. 

Despite the disaster unfolding in intensive care units and the awful economic impact, the current crisis may be the best thing that’s happened in my lifetime. As a Boomer, I say this in the full knowledge that Covid-19 may kill me.

In part this is similar to the wartime generation’s refrain that WW2 provided the best years of their lives. (Mind you, the ones who said that never fought in the front line but were either civilians or had support roles in the armed forces.)

There is also an element of the same dark enjoyment that drives the popularity of movies and video-games about a zombie apocalypse, or any other end-of-days scenario, from War of the Worlds to Contagion (which I believe is currently the most in-demand movie on Netflix).

This darkness is the shadow of a larger feeling that society is failing, that we are being led to global catastrophe and that there is little we can do about it. Hence we live in a state of barely-suppressed rage, which feeds a desire to wipe the slate clean and also generates a thirst for justice and retribution.

The main focus for retribution should be the failure of political leadership that has been exposed in every continent. Totalitarian China first tried to suppress the truth, thereby ensuring the virus’s success, and now stakes its dictator’s survival on proving that only the strictest authoritarian control can save the people. If Xi Jinping succeeds, then China will complete its transition into Orwell’s nightmare 1984 state. If he fails, then he and his whole rotten system will fall. I vote for the virus.

In Russia, Putin has shown himself to be just as stupid as the Ayatollahs of Iran and the petty bureaucrats of Wuhan. The virus thrives on disinformation and will shortly demonstrate the limitations of the current Tsar’s power.

In America, Trump is being brought down by the one enemy he doesn’t know how to fight. No matter how much he insults and belittles the virus, it doesn’t care, it doesn’t stop and it is going to achieve huge success amidst a population that is particularly unhealthy and ill-informed.

The democratic anarchy of Italy and the bumbling of Boris are proving neither more nor less effective than most other systems in managing the disaster. Only the rigid conformity of Singapore, South Korea and Japan seem to offer any hope of success: and even they have no exit strategy.

Religion makes things worse. In several parts of the Muslim world, imams and the faithful believe that mass prayers will protect them, thereby ensuring that the virus (aka God or the devil) will correct their delusion.

The virus mostly kills old men. Fortunately, that covers most of the world’s leaders. If I believed in God, I would see this as Divine Judgement, or Comedy.

For a couple of years now I have been telling people that our societies and especially our cities are fragile and that a pandemic or a different global catastrophe will expose their vulnerabilities very soon. With this in mind I took my family to Dubai, saying that I wanted them to see it now because it won’t be there for very long. They thought I was exaggerating but if ever there was a monument to hubris, which deserves to have the giant portraits of its rulers replaced with the words of Ozymandias, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”, then Dubai is it.

I thought the most likely cause of collapse would be global warming, which is set to make most of the Gulf region uninhabitable within the next 30 years. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a relatively mild pandemic would do in two months what all the world’s governments could not achieve in twenty years.

The satellite pictures are unequivocal. The great concentrations of pollution in China and Northern Italy have dissipated as quickly as the contrails in the skies. Those in Flanders and elsewhere will soon follow. Even Greta Thunberg could not make our idiot rulers take quick and effective action: but a tiny virus that only kills about one in a hundred of us, has transformed all our so-called leaders into action heroes almost overnight.

Or so they would have us believe. If the eventual relaxation of lockdown measures leads to a resurgence in the virus, they will be universally seen as super-villains. From this, two wonderful outcomes may emerge. The first is a realisation that their malign incompetence is the true threat. The second is the discovery that real change is not just necessary but possible.

When the Black Death killed over a third of Europeans, it changed society in ways that ultimately benefitted most of the survivors. Feudalism died out, wages and social mobility increased and the church’s stranglehold on thought was broken. We can achieve even greater benefits at much lower cost. 

Unless the virus mutates to a more lethal form that kills the young, we have the prospect of a corrupt old political order being swept away, dead or discredited. Their worship of economic growth may be seen for the idolatry that it is; their inability to own their mistakes and change their policies will be judged unpardonable; and the hold of religious fundamentalism can be weakened from the Bible Belt of the USA to the madrasahs of Iran. We may even come at last to recognise that there are too many of us, that our lifestyles are suicidal and that we must change if we are to avoid the fate of every parasite that kills its host.

The virus is neither our enemy nor our friend: but it can be the saviour of our species, if we are willing to learn from it.

Humanity, Version 2

Marc Quinn’s sculpture, “Planet”, in Singapore

Watching the reruns of Westworld has confirmed my opinion that it’s the most intelligent television series ever made. The questions it poses, about the nature of sentient life and the point at which machine and human intelligence become indistinguishable, have been considered many times before. The best examples are probably Blade Runner and Alex Garland’s equally brilliant Ex Machina. Both morally and practically, those questions are complex and fascinating (rather like Westworld): but what lights my fire is not so much how we might one day treat androids, as the implications for our own evolution.

My limited understanding of the evolution of species leads me to believe that it mostly happens in relatively sudden bursts, with slower and more incremental changes in between. Those bursts probably have external causes (e.g. changes in the environment) rather than just the random mutations that drive a lot of the lesser advances.

In Westworld, the minds of the artificial humans start to develop independently of any human intervention. The original cause is a mix of meddling by their creators and some unforeseen malfunctions but their progress becomes self-driven. I’m not sure that this possibility has ever before been presented as such a dynamic evolutionary process. These are not really androids but a hybrid species whose minds, entirely human in origin, evolve quickly through the interplay between their own logic and some natural processes that are beyond their or anyone else’s control.

Bearing in mind that these Westworld “hosts” are reflections of us, this raises some really interesting questions about how our own human intelligence will evolve as a result of interacting with and attempting to manage artificial intelligences that are rapidly becoming greater than our own.

If ever there was a likely external cause for mankind’s next evolutionary leap, surely this is it. Will we merge with AI to create true hybrids (something that is already starting to happen)? Will we compete with AI, stimulating our own mental abilities in an effort to keep pace with the genie that we have let out of the bottle? Above all, will we come to understand the parts of our thinking that are free will, versus those that are pre-programmed, bio-chemical processes? This is the essence of the struggle that the Westworld characters go through and it lies at the core of our own existential questioning.

I can’t wait to see what the inspired script writers Nolan and Joy make of these issues in Season 3. They wound up the last season by having some key Westworld characters escape into the outside world, so they’re pretty much bound to address them. Meanwhile I’m working on related issues in my new novel, After the Event, where an alien intelligence is infecting humanity rather like a virus, upgrading us despite our best efforts to stay dumb and primitive. It’s spooky but convenient that COVID-19 is happening at the same time, providing a real-world model of how humanity tries frantically to contain the uncontrollable.

In giving birth to AI, we have done more than to create the next great leap forward in science and technology. We have produced a baby Titan that may well evolve into the next version of humanity. I can’t help thinking that it will have to be a big improvement on Homo Sapiens v1.0, if we are to survive.

Before the Event

Ariane rocket at the Cite de l’espace in Toulouse: although it’s impressive, getting there is by far the least interesting part of space exploration. The most interesting issues arise from what you bring back.

Much to my surprise I find myself writing a science fiction novel. This was not what I’d planned and in fact, given that I was in the middle of reworking my second novel and developing a third, it’s bloody inconvenient. But there’s worse. Much worse.

Despite having worked in the space industry for 35 years, I’ve never been much interested in science fiction, nor had a high opinion of it as a literary form. It always struck me that although the ideas were often strong, the quality of the writing and characterisation was generally mediocre: so I stopped reading it.

Consequently, when the idea for a sci-fi book struck me, I didn’t know if it was original. It seemed unlikely, because there’s few things so rare as a genuinely new idea; but I needed to know if it had already been done thoroughly and well. So I used the generous parting gift from my ESA colleagues to buy every sci-fi classic and anthology I could lay my hands on and then gave myself a crash course on the past 70 years of the genre.

What I discovered was something that I probably knew all along, without ever having articulated it to myself. As the editors of one anthology put it, science fiction is “the most important genre produced by our post-industrial age, as its authors invite us to examine exaggerated or altered versions of the realities we have invented, so we might look at these afresh” (Science Fiction for Survival, Valley Press, 2019). To put it another way, the best sci-fi is not really about science and it uses fiction only for convenience. It’s about philosophy, religion and society; and especially about how technological advances drive their evolution.

It turns out that I was right about the genre being stronger in ideas than in other literary qualities: although some sci-fi authors are masters of their art and craft, the genre’s relative weakness in these areas has always led it to be regarded as a poor relation by pretentiously intellectual critics. (Brian Aldiss pointed out that he had four histories of French literature on his shelves and not one of them even mentioned Jules Verne.)

The ideas, though, are far above most of those that can be found in any other genre, as is the imagination and vision of where humanity is going. Nowhere else are the critical factors that will determine our fate so well considered. What passes for “literary fiction” has become a graveyard of self-absorption, whilst science fiction, whether in print or on screen, remains in every sense vital.

As it happens, the idea that sprang into my mind late last year seems not to have been much explored by others, though many have circumnavigated it, rather like those early seafarers who sailed right around Australia without ever chancing upon it, or daring to probe very far into the interior if they did.

My working title is “After the Event”. I thought about calling it “Aftermath” but that’s already in use by others. If the writing goes well, I may post a teaser here when it’s close to publication; and perhaps I’ll discuss some of the sub-themes as I develop them. In the meantime, I still have a pile of science fiction books to read and I’m pretty sure that what I find in their pages will make some profound changes to what I have in mind. For the first time in a long time, I am excited by what I’m writing and have only a rough map of where it will take me.

Alan at the Arthurs

The Titanic museum in Belfast

People often assume that I write science fiction, which I don’t. If I did, they would probably get quite excited to hear that I was nominated for an Arthur Clarke award, because the Arthur C. Clarke awards are as prestigious as it gets for sci-fi authors.

In fact, however, the Arthur C. Clarke award for the best science fiction novel of the year should not be confused with the Sir Arthur Clarke Awards for achievement in the space sector. Commonly known as “The Arthurs”, the latter are also backed by the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation but instead of fiction they deal with science fact. There are ten categories, for most of which anyone can nominate anyone else. Sixty judges from across the space sector draw up a shortlist of three finalists in each category and then choose the winners, with the prizes awarded at a gala dinner.

This year the awards ceremony was hosted by the Reinventing Space conference in Belfast. Hence the photo of the Titanic museum, which like everything else in the very jolly city of Belfast is just a short walk away.

I was crossing the Red Desert of Uzbekistan in a high speed train when I received the notification that I’d been nominated for the Lifetime Achievement Award and it came as a complete and lovely surprise. By the time I got to Bukhara I’d been chosen as a finalist: and that was even more flattering when I discovered that the competition consisted of Professor Ken Pounds of Leicester University and James Burke of the BBC, whose lifetimes have been considerably longer than mine (I mean, come on, James Burke was presenting Tomorrow’s World when I was about nine).

In the end it went to Ken Pounds, which is probably right. And it was only at the awards dinner, after about six glasses of wine, that I remembered my own special connection with Arthur Clarke. Back in 1996 I was leading the project to define Inmarsat’s 4th generation satellite communications system. One of my team was Phil Macridis, a keen fan of Sir Arthur, who persuaded me to send him to Sri Lanka to get a video endorsement of our project from the great man himself. I agreed, which is usually the smart thing to do when your team are smarter than you are. That video clip helped to clinch the deal on what became the world’s biggest ever civil satellite programme.

So, what have I learned from this little brush with celebrity? That it’s nice to be acknowledged even if we don’t win any awards. That Belfast is a fine, fair city which should be visited often. And that I do in fact have an interesting idea for a science fiction novel. More than that, I even think it’s an idea of which the master would have approved. So now I have no choice but to explore this universe of thought, where science fiction has something new to say about mankind’s relationship with God. In the process I will find out just how far short my talent and understanding fall from what Arthur C. Clarke would have made of it. Nothing like setting the bar high, is there?

Build Gates Not Walls

Looking outwards through one of the gates of the old town of Valencia, Spain

When Valencia outgrew its ancient core, its citizens took the opposite approach to those of many mediaeval towns: they demolished the walls but kept the gateways. It was a symbolic act, from which today’s nationalists (and those who oppose them) would do well to learn.

I love fortified gateways but it was only when I visited Valencia that I realised why. It’s not so much about architecture: it’s about intent. Walls are there to keep people out. Gateways are there to let them in. The fortification is to control the flow. What a perfect analogy for our current obsession with immigration and whether to integrate people or keep different groups apart.

All you really need to know about Trump is that he wants to build walls. If the man had any love for people, or for increasing the flow of trade and discourse, he would focus on the difficult issues of how many people to let in, and who, and when, and how to regulate it all. He would be talking about building gateways.

The ultimate examples of this are to be found in the Italian city of Lucca and the Chinese city of X’ian. Lucca became not merely famous for its walls but defined by them. An obsession with security and control meant that gatekeepers were forbidden on pain of death from allowing any outsider to spend the night in their gatehouse. The place was very safe but the resulting introspection restricted the city’s growth and turned it into a museum.

In contrast, X’ian became for some centuries the largest city on earth. It’s walls are so huge that one could put a four-lane highway along the top: but that was nothing compared to the gateways. They were built to contain and process camel caravans coming in from the Silk Road. An outer set of gates allowed the caravan to enter a vast courtyard that was entirely enclosed by an extension of the walls. They were crenellated on both sides, so that archers could dominate the caravan whilst it was inspected. Once it had been assessed (and any threat dealt with), it was taxed. Then the inner gates opened and the caravan was welcomed into the city. By both promoting and regulating the movement of people and goods, X’ian thrived.

Whilst I despise the mentality of the wall-builders, I also believe that free movement is no longer an option, now that we have failed to control population growth, climate change and the depletion of natural resources. Yet right now it’s not clear if we want our gates open or closed, or who we want to allow in, or why: and the rules keep changing. Our future depends upon answering those questions and keeping our gateways open as much as we dare and yet well guarded. It requires a deeper debate than we are used to, driven to the point of making hard choices and translating them into clear policies that we all accept. That process has a name: democracy.

As a writer, I have always been interested in connecting across cultures. So I guess my choice of which book to focus on next has already been made. The Happy Dancer is all about two people struggling to connect with each other across a huge divide. I realise now what I have to do, to make the book work. I have to look deep inside myself and come up with honest answers to some of those questions. I think I’m going to learn just how hard it is, to be a good gatekeeper.

New Beginnings

I have been retired for all of 36 hours now and already I know it’s going to be great. Who would have thought that there were so many hours in a day and so many things with which to fill them?

Not even me, despite the fact that I have retired several times before, at least in the sense of leaving well-paid jobs in order to focus on writing. But this time it’s permanent.

That makes a big difference, which I hadn’t fully understood until I woke up on Sunday morning and realised there are now no boundaries of time or other commitments to constrain what I do. So often I’ve put off the things I really want to do because I couldn’t complete them before my attention was demanded elsewhere. That was true, above all, when it came to writing.

Some people manage to combine work, family, other interests and writing but I don’t know how they do it. I decided several years ago that the best I could manage was 2.5 out of 4: and that writing, like family, should be all or nothing. So it is only now, ten years after returning from Australia to work for the European Space Agency, that I can truly return to writing.

I haven’t felt this excited in years.

Clearing my office of the detritus of an old job and various pastimes took barely half a day: and I felt ruthless enjoyment in doing it. A clear desk, a new phone, summer holidays over and a calendar purged of undesirable commitments: the sense of freedom and fresh starts is positively dizzying.

I’ve had a plan for some time now, as to where to start. First comes the proper promotion of Searching for Satu, which I couldn’t devote enough time to back in January when she was republished. That also involves some improvement of my online presence. After that the big question is, which of my two works in progress should I complete first?

Should I rebuild The Happy Dancer, which has a great beginning, a good ending and a terrible muddle in the middle; or should I complete “Kill the Boss” and its attendant blog, which I had to put on ice a couple of years ago?

I haven’t quite decided yet – but follow this blog if you want to find out. One thing is clear, however. I have discovered a new answer to the old question about whether I am a glass-half-empty-guy or a glass-half-full-guy. And my answer is this: “Fill her up, mate.”

Where have all the heroes gone?

Oscar Wilde used to be my hero. I was mad about him: from my late teens to early twenties, he was the epitome of all that I aspired to be (in artistic terms, at least). Back then I had lots of heroes (and heroines). The Marquis of Montrose, Jane Austen, Brian Wilson – a real eclectic mix. But no more.

Last September I attended the funeral of an old friend. It was held in the vast cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris, which is so packed with heroes that you really can’t avoid them. So I took the time to visit Oscar’s grave. I suppose deep down some part of me felt the need to pay homage.

It’s rather surprising, being Art Deco rather than Fin de Siecle: but I think he would have liked that – looking forward rather than back. And of course it set me wondering, where have all the heroes gone? The world seems run by morons and scumbags and not a hero in sight when you most need one.

The cause is internal. We have been made cynical by discovering that all our heroes have feet of clay. We know too much about them. I read the entire works of Oscar Wilde when I was twenty and my hero worship survived that; but by the time I’d finished reading his biography by Montgomery Hyde, although I still admired his brilliance, I had killed the magic.

Which brings me to why I was in that cemetery. My friend, Robert Gallagher, was a larger than life character. A gourmet cook, a connoisseur of wine, a raconteur, a bilingual Franco-American draft dodger, a brilliant, scathing wit and a bon viveur par excellence. This picture sums him up.

I know that I will never meet his like again, any more than I will get to meet Oscar Wilde. I am also well acquainted with his faults. What I need to do, what we all need to do, is to relearn the ability to recognise and celebrate the heroic in those around us. And he was a hero: bold, uncompromising, ruthless in calling out bullshit or ignorance and totally unapologetic.

In short, he was the kind of person we need more of. The fact that he often made us uncomfortable is exactly the point. I lost my faith in heroes because I thought they were meant to be perfect and I became disillusioned when they were not. I should have realised that heroism is about speaking truth to power even when your voice is drowned out by a thousand blustering fools and your feet are made of clay and you can feel them crumbling beneath you.

Where have all the heroes gone? They are inside us: we just need to find the courage to give them voice.

Newspeak

Yesterday’s cockup at the Home Office centre in Croydon provides some textbook examples of how Orwellian “Newspeak” infects the service sector. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-immigration-croydon-queue-sopra-steria-a8867706.html

Both the Home Office and their contractor, Sopra Steria, evidently aim to outdo the airlines in their use of vacuous phrases that combine phoney earnestness with a hint of contempt for the people they are meant to serve.

One of the favoured techniques of companies that have given disastrously bad service is to affirm what ought to be the truth, as if that turns their cock-up into an exception that proves the rule. So a services company whose system failure leaves scores of people out in the cold declares that, “A positive customer experience is vital to the service we provide…”

Indeed, one might have thought so. If only they had said, “Our customers ought to receive good service but they didn’t because we screwed up; and if we don’t fix it fast then the Home Office is going to terminate our contract and we’ll all be out of a job.” Now that would have won back some respect.

A particular favourite with companies that have stuffed up is to say, as Sopra did on this occasion, “We are working closely with our customers…” How else were they considering working with them: remotely? Doubtless they would if they could.

The Home Office trotted out the same meaningless babble: “We are working closely with Sopra Steria to ensure that any customers affected…blah blah blah.” Judging by the customers’ comments, most of them would probably prefer the Home Office to stop working with Sopra Steria altogether.

An especially annoying tactic of the services industry is to try and downplay the severity of a problem by belittling it. On this occasion the company’s spokesperson said that a technical problem, “affected our ability to process a small number of appointments”. How comforting for those affected, to know that they were just the unlucky few.

The airlines are far and away the best at this kind of newspeak. Consider that popular classic, “The delay to your flight is caused by the late arrival of the incoming aircraft”. Service companies love this kind of language because it avoids owning up to any fault, whilst not actually lying. It infuriates us because we want to know the origin of the problem; and the airline’s evasiveness reinforces our suspicion that they are concealing something that would affect their reputation, like the captain having been arrested for lewd behaviour (to cite an actual case).

This linguistic disease infects everything from the most trivial cases to the most serious. How many times have we heard statements like, “The safety of our customers is our highest priority”, in response to an air crash where the cause is suspected to be a failure in the safety procedures of the company making that claim? Orwell coined the term Newspeak in part to convey the dangers of misusing language to pretend one thing while meaning the opposite. We have a duty to call it out whenever we hear it.

Some Guys Have All The Luck

I’ve always found that watching a really great band live on stage is inspirational: it makes me want to rush home and start writing in a way that few other things do.

One of my friends happens to lead the world’s top Rod Stewart tribute band, so inspiration is available almost on tap (they’re continually touring all around the country and beyond). If you fancy a quick jolt of inspiration, click on the link to find where they’re playing next and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Paul Metcalfe performing in The Rod Stewart Story

https://www.someguyshavealltheluck.com

Right, plug over, why does that method of inspiring ourselves work so reliably? It can’t be just the effect of experiencing great art because I don’t get the same impact from looking at a Renoir, for example. In fact I don’t always get it even from reading great literature (although I’m more likely to do so if it’s in a similar genre to my own work, or the kind of thing that I would like to write).

I guess it must be due to getting a simultaneous hit of adrenalin and endorphins, creating both a high and a buzz of energy. Perhaps it’s also because human beings respond most enthusiastically to other human beings who are performing right in front of them. That goes all the way back to the cave men and the earliest forms of music. We now know that music is rooted in the earliest rhythms that we experience, in our mother’s wombs. So music must be the original art form, before even cave painting: and it speaks to us at a subliminal level that nothing else can.

Play on, Rod.

Heat Wave

They say that anyone who knows two cultures lives two lives. One of the oddities of being an Anglo-Australian family is living with the constant awareness of what’s happening on the opposite side of the world – which is opposite in so many ways.

The most obvious contrast right now is the weather, where Britain is revelling in “Snowmaggedon” while Oz is suffering the most extreme heatwave ever recorded. January stayed above 30 degrees every day in NSW and there have been temperatures in the mid-40s for days on end, as a hellish culmination of years of drought (unless you are in north Queensland, in which case you’re probably under water).

As if this needed emphasising, we held an Australia Day party on 26th January where the inside of our house was filled with reminders of the heat and sunshine Down Under, while outside it was pissing down with rain and freezing cold.

I’ve also just finished reading Jane Harper’s great debut novel, “The Dry”, which perfectly captures the feeling of the heat and drought in rural, inland Australia over the last few years.

Probably as a result of all this, we started going through old photographs and found some from this time of year a dozen years back, when a bunch of us went to the races in rural Australia. That trip inspired the story “Last Race at Dederang”, which you can find under the “Awards” tab above. If you want to know what the current heat wave feels like, the picture I’ve posted there gives a taste of it.

So, which do I prefer – England or Oz, too hot or too cold? It’s an impossible choice: each has it’s own upsides and downsides and they are both equal and different. The only good answer is that it’s a wonderful blessing, to be able to keep going back and forth and living two different lives.