09 December 2012

A Devil’s Curate’s Egg

The Portable Atheist
by Christopher Hitchens

Notwithstanding the presence of Omar Khayyam, Boswell and Mark Twain, this anthology is not light reading. On the contrary, it is serious stuff, and at times very heavy going.

The tone is set in the Introduction, from which Hitchens’ admirably waspish humour is curiously absent. Serious, indeed grave, it takes thirteen pages to explain just why the anthologist believes religion is wicked and needs to be put down. There is little in it I did not agree with; but sadly, there is also little in it that Hitchens has not said before, and said better, in God is Not Great and some of his other writings. It was dull reading, I'm sorry to say, and entirely failed to whet my appetite for the selections to follow.

These selections seem to be arranged chronologically, or mostly so. Hitchens must have considered Epicurus’ famous summation of theodicy too well-known to warrant inclusion, so we begin with an excerpt from Lucretius, in plodding blank verse which this reader, at least, was unable to finish. Next we are treated – O blessed relief – to a few verses from the Rubaiyat; but immediately afterwards one is invited to plough through closely-argued excerpts from Hobbes, Spinoza, George Eliot and David Hume: all good stuff, but hardly what one would call plain sailing.

Boswell's account of the death of Hume (a sanguine unbeliever to the last) and a refutation of deism by Shelley leaven the transition from the Enlightenment to the modern era; but once arrived, we immediately stumble over a selection from Marx’s ‘Contributions to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right’ – mere word salad, effectively meaningless apart from that famous remark about the ‘opium of the people’. I suppose it was put in out of sentiment, because Hitchens was once a Marxist; there can be no other excuse for it in an otherwise intelligent book.

But at least things from then on get less intensely philosophical. There are reader-friendly contributions from the likes of Anatole France, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and H.L. Mencken. I liked especially the pieces by Freud, Bertrand Russell and Martin Gardner here included, as well as two poems by Philip Larkin: ‘Church Going’ and the familiar (though none the less blunt, brave and terrifying for that) ‘Aubade’.

Moving on to more contemporary writings, we have Carl Sagan’s famous ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, along with cogent and readable pieces by A.J. Ayer, Richard Dawkins, Elizabeth Anderson and Steven Weinberg. I particularly enjoyed the last, and was equally gratified to re-read a favourite piece of auctorial showing-off by John Updike, taken from his novel Roger's Version. However, the selections from Daniel Dennett (‘Thank Goodness’ and ‘A Working Definition of Religion’ from Breaking the Spell) are not the best examples of his writing that I have read; J.L. Mackie’s ‘Conclusions and Implications’ is impenetrable; Ian McEwan’s ‘End of the World Blues’ is rather affectless and dull; and Michael Shermer’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ is just plain silly.

Things really perk up, though, toward the end of the book. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Imagine There’s No Heaven’ is terrible – pontificatory and embarrassingly, dad-dancingly out of touch – but this is the only hurdle in the way of a brilliant gallop to the finish-line. Most of the horsepower is deployed in two essays by a Muslim ‘apostate’ going under the pen-name of Ibn Warraq: ‘The Koran’ and ‘The Totalitarian Nature of Islam’. The first makes mincemeat out of various arguments propounded in support of claims that the Koran is divinely inspired, ethical, or accurate either historically and scientifically; the second, which deals largely with Islamic law, its interpretation and enforcement, is chillingly described by its title. We then have a long piece by Sam Harris, a sardonic jewel by the heroically coiffeured Oxford don A.C. Grayling, and finally a short, affecting little autobiographical essay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

For this reader, the selections from Ibn Warraq were the freshest and thus the most interesting works in this anthology. The fact that the author courted death by publishing them makes them still more impressive.

Summing up: there is plenty of intellectual meat in The Portable Atheist, as well as some superb writing, but it could have been improved by choosing a different sequencing plan, one that allowed for the more frequent alternation of deep philosophical argument and angry polemic with writing that offered more literary and aesthetic pleasure. A topic-based scheme would probably have done the trick. I also wish Hitchens had cast his net a lot wider; these selections are mostly quite conventional. And how come all we get of Primo Levi is a paragraph quoted in the Introduction?

01 December 2012

Uncertain Pleasures

Waiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd

It is 1913. Lysander Rief, an actor on the London stage like his father before him, is in Vienna to seek psychiatric help for a sexual problem. In his doctor’s waiting room, he meets, separately, a captivating but evidently disturbed young woman and an odd, military-looking man, both of them English. He later has an affair with the woman, suffers an entrapment, escapes it with the help of the man and returns home to England.

Then the First World War breaks out. In repayment for the help he received in Vienna, Lysander has no choice but to allow himself to be recruited as a British spy – or rather, spycatcher. The rest of the story is about his adventures in that role and his ultimately successful efforts to identify the traitor within the establishment who is feeding military secrets to the Germans.

Among literary novelists currently writing, William Boyd is probably the most reliable performer, surpassing even Ian McEwan in this respect. I have never read a book of his that I genuinely disliked, while some of them – such as A Good Man in Africa, Stars & Bars, Brazzaville Beach and his last before this one, Ordinary Thunderstorms – have been absolute corkers. Waiting for Sunrise (the title occurs at least twice in the text) is not quite as good as those, but it’s still pretty good. The ending is interestingly ambiguous – my girlfriend and I actually disagreed on who the traitor was – but satisfying all the same.

If you like your whodunits properly explained at the end, with all the loose ends tied up, this book may not be for you. There are a lot of unresolved questions at the end, or perhaps I’ve just been dense and missed some important hints. Be that as it may, readers who can tolerate a little uncertainty in their literary lives can get a lot of pleasure out of Waiting for Sunrise.

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22 November 2012

Comfort Food for Imperial Nostalgists

Random Harvest
by James Hilton

Hilton was a mid-twentieth-century English writer of bestselling middlebrow tearjerkers, a bit like Nevil Shute. He is best known today for two books that became blockbuster movies: Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Lost Horizon, which gave the world Shangri-La. His works are now out of copyright, and you can download them as Kindle files from various sites (thank you, Sharmini Masilamani!)

Random Harvest is a typical example of Hilton’s work. The hero, a reluctant but successful between-the-wars business magnate and politician, is haunted by missing memories: he has lost three whole years. The lacuna commences with his being wounded in a failed decoy operation during the First World War and ends with him coming to himself on a park bench in Liverpool moments after having been knocked down by a car. The book is about those lost years, and the hero’s hunt for them. It is told by his (male) private secretary, a man who knows all his employer’s secrets save for those the latter cannot recall himself. All is finally revealed, of course, and there is a completely unexpected – to me, at least – twist at the ending, put there to ensure that the reader will close the book more or less satisfied, no matter what has gone before.

This is a well-plotted, well-written, gentle novel. Readers who wish to be intellectually or politically challenged will find nothing to engage them here; indeed, the anodyne prose and precision-tuned plotting contain little that will excite or challenge anybody. That is neither its function nor its virtue; Random Harvest is a book written to help middle-aged, middle-class, politically moderate readers pass the time on trains, or fall asleep at night. At this it succeeds wonderfully, if at the expense of a tendency to drag – a tendency that grows rather pronounced at times.

Writers like Hilton and Shute appealed mainly to the middle-class, more or less conservative English reader of their day. A large part of that appeal lay in their ability to evoke and champion a stable, well-ordered Anglocentric world that was crumbling even then; they offered (false) assurance that England would always endure, that the sons of the shires would ever, as in Housman’s poem, get them the sons their fathers got that God might save the Queen, and that there would be honey still for tea until the end of time. They chronicled the long afterglow of Victorian England, and their appeal was nostalgic even in their heyday; it is doubly so now, if only to the dwindling band for whom such things ever had an appeal in the first place.

This is not, for instance, a book that will appeal to Americans; the sort of comic, exaggerated P.G. Wodehouse caricature of Englishness they love so much is not in evidence here. Some elderly Canadians (fans of Robertson Davies in his lighter moments, perhaps) will enjoy it; and wherever nostalgia for the days when Britain ordered and set standards for the world still persist – for example, in former British colonies now reverting pell-mell to barbarism – a few ageing readers will rediscover a seduction here to which it does no harm, now and again, to yield.

08 October 2012

Quantum Lysergy

by Roger Zelazny

I devoured this book in an evening, relishing every last morsel. I think the correct adjective to describe it is ‘lysergic’. Hallucinogenic drugs are never mentioned, but every page is like acid-impregnated blotting paper. The flashbacks commence on page three and never let up.

The plot, which is mostly just an excuse for the settings and set pieces, is a road movie played out along a highway that runs between the Jurassic and the thirtieth century. Specially gifted people and machines can travel this highway in both directions. The protagonist is an especially gifted man who travels the road in a blue Dodge pickup, trying to change the past in order to find his way home. Other people, not unreasonably, are trying to prevent him from doing this. One of them wants – or seems to want – to kill him, sending various hirelings in pursuit. Other people (and machines) want to help him. The action climaxes at a place called Last Exit to Babylon, where all is revealed. Attentive readers will have foreseen the revelation some chapters earlier, but this does not matter. The dénouement loses nothing from having been telegraphed long distance.

It may read like an acid-inspired fantasy novel, but Roadmarks is science fiction, and pretty hard science fiction at that. Not much is explained in the book, but if you have some knowledge of  quantum mechanics you will see the road as a worldline connecting ‘histories’, or values of the wavefunction of the universe, that have the highest probability. It is possible to visit alternative histories as well as create them – this results in new bends, forks and feeder lanes along the road – but such changes are rarely permanent. The topography of the road is changing all the time in response to the actions of those who travel it. There is also a race of sentient beings, called dragons, who are able to view the landscape of probabilities as a whole and move freely from point to point in it without being confined to the road. The dragons’ actions can also affect history by altering the relative probability of events.

The more I think about this quantum underpinning, the more impressed and charmed I am by it. It is presented almost entirely through metaphor and imagery. There are no lectures or info-dumps in the text. If you don't know a little about the quantum mechanics, some of the features and conceits of the book will seem a little more arbitrary than they really are – but arbitrariness, as any seasoned head will happily explain, is among the salient features of any really good, properly mind-bending trip.

A final note, especially for lovers of Iain M. Banks: there is a lot in this book that you will like. In fact, I enjoyed it rather more than I did Banks's own excursion on the same theme.

23 July 2012

Shallow Deepness

A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge

An interesting variation on a science fiction theme I am especially fond of, the first-contact story. In this case, the monstrous alien invaders are the humans, conspiring to foment nuclear war among a race of unsuspecting intelligent arachnoids. To make things more interesting (and give us some anthropomorphs to cheer for), the humans are also divided up into good guys and bad guys.

Of course, the above variation has already been explored in SF. Frederik Pohl's Jem springs to mind; indeed, Pohl seems to be a strong influence on Vinge, and I was reminded of the former many times while reading this book. Pohl is, however, by far the better writer.

Vinge, a professor of mathematics by day, doesn't seem to be able to write convincing characters. Out of a cast of dozens, he manages to make us care about just one: an old soldier named Hrunker Unnerby – who happens to be one of the arachnoids. The real humans are all cardboard.

Of course, cardboard characters are pretty much to be expected in hard SF. The virtues of the genre lie elsewhere, and its aficionados (rightly) don't give a toss for the traditional literary ones. But Vinge has problems that go beyond the usual. For one thing, he aims higher. However, he reveals an amateur's clumsiness in deploying his characters, clearly finding it hard to move them around and make them interact convincingly. Nearly all the scenes involving human interaction are cartoonish and unconvincing. This includes scenes featuring the aliens, who are presented to us by the author as human in all respects but the physical.

This, incidentally, is one of many places in the text where the reader's willing suspension of disbelief falters, for the aliens are utterly different from us in terms of their physical structure, sensory perceptions, instinctive tropisms and reproductive behaviour. Even given the excuse that we see them, for most of the book, through the mediating lens of human perception, they shouldn't be quite so like us. Surely these physical differences must make for mental ones as well? But Vernor Vinge appears to be immune to the fascinations of speculative xenopsychology, and we are left with creatures that look like giant spiders but act just like people.

Other aspects of the plot also beggar belief. The regularly interrupted social evolution of the arachnoids nevertheless proceeds incredibly fast – they go from early experiments with internal-combustion engines to intercontinental ballistic missiles within a single generation. The turning of the human Ezr Vinh, a critical plot element, is based on an impossible chain of extrapolations from an obscure hint dropped by another character. A starship explicitly not designed for operating within a planetary atmosphere, last seen falling at one hundred metres per second, wreathed in flames and starting to break up, somehow manages to land without killing its crew. Civilizations rise and fall within the timeframe of a mere thousand years, yet humans undertake trading voyages between the stars that last for centuries. The whole thing is confused and rather nonsensical.

The author is so uninvolved with his characters that he casually dumps the two most sympathetic ones for good in a scene that takes place offstage. Indeed, many vital scenes are pushed offstage. Among them is the action climax of the novel, the aforementioned starship crash. Perhaps it's just as well; the only big action scene in the book, which takes place inside the chief bad guy's artificial water-garden, is a clumsy, sodden mess. The chief villain's comeuppance is also unsatisfyingly quick and merciful, while that of his sadistic lieutenant takes place – again, and frustratingly – offstage. This is a scene we are dying to see through his eyes, but he's long gone by the time we hear what's happened to him. Equally incompetent are the handling of an early, mandatory scene in which the bad guys are revealed to be sadistic perverts, and various other scenes of violence, cruelty or complex action – frankly, the author is too squeamish to write them properly, and he shouldn't even have tried.

So, with all these complaints, why am I giving this book three stars? Well, it kept me reading. Some of the technical ideas were interesting, though nothing was actually new or even very freshly rendered. And first-contact stories are my favourite kind of hard SF story.

Yes, there were times when I grew bored with the endless backstory expositions, the cartoon characters, the long, long gaps between important scenes – Vinge captures the tedium of deep-space exile only too well – but for all that, I kept reading. Of course, I'm a genre slut – I always have round heels for SF – so for me it was a three-star book despite its decidedly two-star qualities.

I shall now go and re-read one of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels to remind myself that hard SF doesn't always have to be lousy literature.

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10 June 2012

When the Music Didn't Matter

I attended the Music Matters Festival at Park Street Mews yesterday. It was atrocious: a musical disaster.

There’s no need to name and shame individual perpetrators. Everybody was bad – not just bad, but lousy, stinking – apart from two exceptions. The first was a young woman who played a DJ set prior to the live musicians, kicking the show off. She knew what she was doing, was completely into her act and produced some pretty impressive sounds. I don’t even like that kind of electronic assembly-line stuff usually, but she did it well enough to have me at least temporarily converted.

The second were a bunch of Northern Europeans playing American roots music, a combination of bluegrass and white gospel stylings. They weren’t exactly good – they sounded like the uptight Scandinavians they were – but at least they were playing good music, and playing it competently. If you suspended disbelief you could imagine they were from Minnesota or something. If you tried really hard, that is.

Nothing as good as that could be said of any of the other acts. I will not name names. I will simply point out that none of the following are marks of musicianship:
  1. Being able to play in unusual time signatures. In fact, if you use unusual time signatures when playing any kind of booty music, it shows you have no musical taste or understanding.
  2. Being able to coax police siren noises, constipated elephant farts, meaningless squalls of feedback and electronic glissandi from your electric guitar or your synthesizer.
  3. Performing complicated jazz percussion figures when you can’t even keep time properly.
  4. Losing your place in the solo in a three-piece band (!) so that your one-beat lands on the accompanist’s three-beat (mind you, if you have a percussionist who lacks a sense of rhythm and thinks of himself as a soloist rather than a drummer, this kind of thing does tend to happen).
  5. Drowning out the vocalist or other soloist whom you are featuring on stage with you in an attempt to show the crowd what a virtuoso instrumentalist you are. That’s not just bad music; that’s filthy bad manners.
And – above all – who was the howling vandal who put the mixing desk (and therefore the ears of the engineer who was mixing the show) indoors?! In a separate room?!?! How the devil did  you expect to get any kind of mix at all when the engineer couldn't hear what's being played? Why in the sacred name of Cardioid Neumann did the supposedly highly qualified musicians who organized this concert agree to such an arrangement? Did they all  temporarily take leave of their senses?

As Sri Lanka descends further and further into barbarism and savagery, we become apes of the culture we once possessed, going through the motions of civilized behaviour without really understanding them any more. We lose our higher intellectual and aesthetic faculties, and charades like this ‘festival’ become increasingly mistaken for the real thing. Seriously, there was precious little music to be heard at the Music Matters Festival; there was a lot of noise, but noise, however virtuosically produced, is not music. There were a few good moments here and there – in five hours of performance, there could hardly not have been – but apart from the two acts mentioned above, nobody else deserves so much as a word of praise. Every other performer on that stage let himself or herself down badly, and let the audience down completely, too.

Worse, it would only have needed the simplest, most basic of musical virtues – serving the music, not one’s own ego, and letting your ears rule your fingers instead of the other way round – to save the evening and give the audience something truly memorable to take home with it. The people performing were neither technically incompetent nor inexperienced. But sadly, the genuine spirit of the goddess Sarasvati was AWOL nearly all night, and what we got was not music, but a pile of auditory sick. There was plenty of talk, drink and pretty people going down, but music seemed to be about the last thing that mattered the Music Matters Festival.

20 March 2012

Woman of the World

The Bolter
by Frances Osborne 

My interest in the white colony that sprang up in the Kenyan highlands  between the world wars was first triggered by reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and grew stronger after I discovered, many years later, the photography of a later resident of the locale, Peter Beard. However, it wasn’t till I read about the hijinks of Happy Valley as recounted in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Millennium that I grew fascinated with the place. It was a purely literary fascination, but none the weaker for that.

Since then I've read James Fox’s White Mischief and quite a few other things written about the place. They all contained glancing references to the wicked Idina. Her exploits were only ever hinted at in these accounts, which suggested that they were too outrageous to recount in full. This, of course, only served to inflame my curiosity. As you may imagine, I snapped The Bolter up as soon as I saw it.

It kept me reading, certainly. But although I did stay up until the wee hours yesterday finishing it, the reading was sometimes an effort. Considering the story it has to tell, this is a book that should never be boring, yet parts of it are. The first half, which deals with Idina’s early life and her marriage to Euan Wallace, the first of her five husbands, is a farrago of parties and adulteries among the British aristocracy and plutocracy of the Edwardian era – booze and bed-hopping against a background of balls, race-meetings, country-house parties and neglected, almost forgotten children shunted about from one stately home to another while their parents cavorted in London and the fashionable capitals of Europe. The Bright Young Things seem utterly superficial and tedious, and the lives they led make one want to turn Socialist out of sheer revulsion. The second part of the book, which covers the Happy Valley portion of Idina’s story, is much better, with more depth to the narrative and more detail in the portrait of Idina herself.

Frances Osborne’s writing is adequate but frequently marred by personal sentiment, hackneyed pop psychology and cliché turns of phrase. However, the subject matter overcomes the author’s inadequacies, and some of the latter half of the book is genuinely affecting.

Osborne’s personal relationship to Idina (who was purportedly the model for the Bolter in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love) is both a strength and a weakness of this book; on the one hand, it has given the author access to much material that is unavailable to others, and created an emotional connexion that adds intimacy and immediacy to her portrait of her great-grandmother; yet it also places the book in a funny generic location, halfway between history and memoir. The balance between the two is repeatedly upset in the final chapters, not always with the most convincing of results.

As for my prurient curiosity regarding Idina's exploits, it was partly satisfied, though I have a feeling that the full story of the goings-on in Happy Valley will never now emerge.

06 March 2012

Man of the World

The Travels of Ibn Battutah
Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Most Ceylonese have heard of Ibn Battutah, a Moroccan Arab traveller of the fourteenth century who visited our island around the year 1344 and climbed Adam’s Peak under the protection of the Tamil ruler of Puttalam. Ibn Battutah made Marco Polo look like a stay-at home; he not only visited China and East Asia, as Marco did, but also took in the Levant, India, the Maldives, Indonesia, the Sahara, Mali and the Niger basin, the coast of East Africa and Arab-occupied Spain. Unlike Marco, he tended to travel first-class – more often than not as an honoured guest and counsellor to the various rulers, mostly Muslim, he met along the way.

Ibn Battutah had this advantage over Marco Polo: the world he travelled was a largely Muslim one, and he was more or less at home in it. Even on the few occasions when he went beyond the borders of Dar-ul-Islam (such as his visit to Serendib), it was to places where Muslim power was recognized, Muslims were treated with respect, and a speaker of Arabic or Farsi could nearly always be found to act as translator. As a specialist in Islamic jurisprudence, his abilities were everywhere in demand, and he was often given positions of high authority (as Marco also was, in China). Indeed, he often had trouble detaching himself from the retinues of the various sultans and amirs who befriended him.

He was not, by our standards, a nice man. A sexual hypocrite who condemned the ‘debaucheries’ of others but himself travelled with sex slaves whom he acquired and dispensed with at will, he also frequently contracted marriages with women whom he would ruthlessly divorce when it was time to move on. He was a staunch Islamic conservative who delighted in applying the strictures of religious sanction to others. He boasts of humiliating a respected Jewish doctor at the court of a minor Turkish potentate, calling the man a ‘god-damned son of a god-damned father’, and speaks of trying (without success) to force the women of the Maldives to cover up their bosoms; he observes disapprovingly that when he ordered the hand of a thief in that country to be cut off, ‘many of those present fainted.’ There is also a faint odour of cowardice arising from the text from time to time, particular with regard to sea voyages and shipwrecks, though our narrator always conducts himself worthily in the end.

In other words, he was a man of his time, that time being the late Islamic Middle Ages. This mediaeval world had little of the crudity, filth and squalor of contemporary Europe. The light and intelligence of a refined, world-spanning high civilization – Islamic civilization – illuminated daily life in places as far apart as Granada and Sumatra, and Ibn Battutah himself is one of its brightest flowers. Though not ill-read in these matters, I was repeatedly surprised by how ‘modern’ and civilized were the ways of this great, pan-Islamic culture – more so than its European contemporaries and most of the ‘infidel’ cultures the narrator encounters in Asia and Africa. Only China presents Ibn Battutah with a cultural challenge beyond his ability to surmount, and he recoils from it as from an alien environment in which life is not long sustainable.

Of course, not everything is enlightened and refined in Ibn Battutah’s world. He tells of much cruelty, to animals as well as people and particularly towards women. At one point he recounts, as a fact worthy of remark but not, apparently, of disapproval, that the punishment meted out to adulterous women among the Arrakanese is that ‘the sultan orders all his household attendants to copulate with her, one after another till she dies, in his presence. Then they throw her into the sea.’ There is also a great deal of superstitious nonsense in his account, and in this regard he shows himself an eagerly credulous witness, especially when it comes to the spurious or fortuitous ‘miracles’ of various shaikhs (Muslim holy men) he encounters on his journeys. Still, modern travellers (especially travellers of the internet) are often as gullible as he in such matters, with far less excuse.

Though certain chapters and specific details of chronology or place are questionable, Ibn Battutah’s account of his journeys appears largely accurate. Most of the places he visited can be identified, even though they no longer have the same names. In this he is again superior to Marco Polo, whose adventures contain a large admixture of fantasy.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s redaction, which condenses a very long and much worked-over original, has been widely praised; it is sensitive to nuance and very readable. The end-notes are not copious, but they are informative and add a valuable extra dimension of perspective to the text (although I disagree with his tentative identification of ‘the seat of the principal sultan’ of Serendib; this, at the time, was probably Kurunegala, though Battutah’s description fits Ratnapura better).

Best of all, Mackintosh-Smith lets Ibn Battutah’s attitudes and personality shine through. This is a brilliant book, a modern, readable version of one of the prime sources for the geography of the mediaeval world, and particularly of that great empire of Islam which was even then in decline, but whose greatness was still acknowledged wherever it was known. It is also a wonderful read, and I recommend it highly.

21 February 2012

Last and First Men

by Olaf Stapledon

This is famously one of the classics of science fiction. At the time of its emergence in 1930, its scope and audacity were without precedent. However, it has been thoroughly pillaged by other writers since then, and its themes and tropes are now the everyday stuff of SF. Stapledon was a prophet and perhaps a kind of genius, but Last & First Men is a victim of its own success.

Also, it is very much a product of its time. Its physics and cosmology appear naive to us today. This at times works against the suspension of disbelief, to the detriment of the reader's pleasure.

In social and political terms, too, the book is largely concerned with issues that were prominent in between the World Wars but which today seem of little import.

Most tellingly of all, we, whom Stapledon calls the First Men, the primitives of humanity, have already achieved nearly all the great feats of science, technology and exploration that in his book take eighteen successive species of humanity some hundreds of millions of years to accomplish. Apart, that is, from the colonization of Venus and Neptune, which we now know to be impossible.

I don't usually object to anachronisms. One should always keep in mind the historical and social context in which a work was written, accepting these in order to appreciate the work more fully. But you can't do that with Last & First Men; its plot and subtext depend far too heavily on the outdated science and political thought of its time. Even the obsession with flight (by means of aeroplanes, genetically engineered wings or the direct control of gravity) is one that was at its peak in the bomber-obsessed 1930s.

The novel is also repetitive in terms of the cycles of human civilization and achievement. This is, of course, part of the Hegelian lesson the author is trying to teach us, but it makes for a boring read.

On the positive side, the author's resonantly academic style of writing is often elegant and eloquent, and its ponderousness is actually well suited to the material.

A great book, certainly, but a deeply outdated one.


This edition contains an appreciative but chauvinistic introduction by the physicist and SF author Gregory Benford, which urges American readers of the book to skip perhaps the first third of it. This is the part which deals with what Stapledon calls the 'Americanized' future world of the First Men.

Stapledon was a socialist who despised capitalism, and he was suspicious of America and Americans. Benford seems to feel that American readers should be spared his criticisms and jibes. That would be a pity – because what Stapledon points to as the follies and faults of American culture are very much the same ones the rest of the world sees in America, now as then. Some of his comments are remarkably percipient and I think it would do many American readers good to learn how others tend to see them.

Stapledon's criticisms are not the fruit of bigotry and ignorance but the considered and reasoned comments of a brilliant and morally engaged mind. Any American who is offended by them probably doesn't have the moral and intellectual equipment to appreciate this book anyway.