26 February 2016

A Very Old-Fashioned Future

Imperial Earth
by Arthur C. Clarke

I just re-read this after an interval of roughly 35 years. Written to commemorate the US bicentennial in 1976, it’s basically propaganda for space travel and technological innovation, aimed at young Americans. It’s set in a future where space travel within the solar system is common, colonies have been established on (at least) Mercury, the Moon, Mars and Titan, and the American political model, tempered by a degree of enlightened authoritarianism, has been extended throughout the Solar System.

The central character is a man from Titan, locally rich and very powerful, who is travelling to Earth to clone himself an heir. He does not, however, behave as you might expect such a person to behave. Instead, he comes across as a cerebral, tentative, effete introvert – a bit like the author himself, then. The other characters are even less convincing – they’re just outlines, not even cardboard cutouts.

But the point of the book is not the characters. It’s the gee-whiz technology and the surprising science facts. As a young reader, I found these sufficiently diverting. Sadly, I no longer do. Part of the trouble is that here we have Clarke in ‘prophet of the Space Age’ mode, but his prophecies are trivial and cockeyed.

He himself once divided insufficiently radical predictions about the future into two kinds: failures of nerve and failures of imagination. In this book, he displays few failures of nerve, but several, unusually for him, of imagination. He foresees (at least implicitly) the personal computer, the mobile personal assistant, the mobile communicator and the internet, but he doesn’t put them together and completely fails (as, to be fair, everybody did) to realize the massive consequences that would result from their amalgamation.

Consequently, his vision of how information is distributed in his imagined future is very centralized, bureaucratic and in some ways almost authoritarian. And when he gets down to the details of user interfaces, menus and things like that, he visualizes a very clunky, library-catalogue-type presentation, not terribly user-friendly at all.

What seems to be missing is any appreciation of the effect of competitive consumer capitalism on the design and presentation of technologies. Its absence here may tell us something useful about the distinction between ‘constructive’ technologies (whose consequences may be foreseen) and ‘disruptive’ technologies (which change our lives in unpredictable ways). Having failed to imagine the disruption, Clarke ends up profiling a future that looks more old-fashioned than the reality of our present day. Actually, it looks a bit old-fashioned even from a 1976 perspective.

To sum up: this is an entirely disposable part of the Clarke canon, lacking any of the sense of wonder he deploys to such magnificent effect elsewhere. Avoid unless bored and seriously stuck for reading matter.

12 February 2016

The Horror of Being Human

A People’s Tragedy: 
The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
by Orlando Figes

This is probably the best single-volume work about the Russian Revolution ever printed in English. It was written after the Soviet archives were opened, making a vast mass of new material available to historians and significantly changing the story as it had been previously understood in the West. It is also the work of an author determined to depict what happened in Russia during those terrible years as fully and truly as possible, and to make his picture as free from bias and ideological distortion as possible.

Although the author has since covered himself with ignominy by committing certain unprofessional acts, the decline of his personal reputation should not affect critical appreciation of his work. This is a great book, and I do mean great.

Although it is well written and far from indigestible, I did not find it an easy book to read. The real difficulty was neither its awkward size nor the great mass of facts and statistics it contains, but the distressing and depressing nature of the story it tells. Every possible permutation of human injustice, callousness, venality, stupidity, viciousness, brutality and, to speak plainly, evil, occurs in it. Every atrocity you can think of was committed in Russia during those years, as well as every atrocity you could never think of. Every time we turn a page, thinking the depths of human depravity have been plumbed, another scene of the tragedy unfolds, and we find that we have not touched bottom yet. To reach the end of this book – and to know that the period it covers was merely the prelude to a longer and even bloodier tragedy, the reign of Stalin – is to find oneself despairing of human nature.

Yet, hard as it is, every adult who possibly can – it is no book for children – should read A People’s Tragedy. We need to know these facts, to remember this horror, to realize what we are capable of. Because the Russian Revolution was not made horrific only by its leaders, or only by the Bolsheviks, or, indeed, only by anybody: it was a collective effort, in which everyone from Lenin and the murdered Tsar to the humblest of the peasantry played their part. It was a plague of evil, of cruelty and oppression and despair and the thirst for blood, which infected almost everybody in Russia and even spread beyond the borders of that country.

It could have infected me, if I’d been there. It could have infected you.

And it could happen again.

Even as I write, citizens of the world’s richest and most comfortable countries, resentful at the expanding separation between – no longer the rich and the poor, for not many are really poor in those countries, certainly not as people in Tsarist or Revolutionary Russia were poor – but between the elite and the masses, are flirting again with ideologies and divisions some of us had thought discredited for ever by the horrors of the twentieth century. In less advanced countries, like this one, where the horror was never fully felt or comprehended, the danger is even greater. The Great Isms, those insatiable old ghouls, are rising once again, because people have begun to forget that, in Figes’s words,

The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings. All it can do is to treat its citizens equally, and strive to ensure that their free activities are directed towards the general good. After a century dominated by the twin totalitarianisms of Communism and Fascism, one can only hope that this lesson has been learned.

Read this book – it will not be easy, but read it anyway. You need to. We all need to.