Or what does this have to do with Promethea anyway?
Crossposted at Mindlessones.com, for reasons that will become apparent.
On March 7, 2007, I was at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre, which has been the scene of some of the most profound artistic experiences of my life — seeing Brian Wilson play his first two UK shows, seeing him premiere That Lucky Old Sun there and seeing Van Dyke Parks (and Wilson and Parks will both show up in these essays again, assuming we go the whole way with them) perform most of Orange Crate Art. It’s also the prison where the Doctor and Jo Grant were held in the 1973 Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, but that’s probably not so important.
But on that day I was there for something rather different. The writer Robert Anton Wilson had been one of the biggest influences in my life, the writer whose works finally showed me how to actually think, as opposed to glibly performing string manipulations and priding myself on my intelligence. I was sat there next to the woman I’d married a year earlier (and who is co-author of this series of essays), someone I would never have met without Wilson’s writing.
Wilson had died the previous January, and in his last months had, thanks to the American health-care system, become literally penniless. We were fairly close to penniless ourselves, but we’d still felt the need to Paypal him $23, a token amount, to help. Enough other people had done the same that he was able to die in his own home with money to spare.
The show in 2007 was a tribute to him, and to his work, and it was mostly for that reason that Holly and I had travelled down to see it. But it wasn’t just for that reason. There were three speakers there, all of whom I wanted to see. One was Ken Campbell, the great actor, writer and director, and one of my great heroes. The second was Alan Moore, of whom much, much more later. And the third was Bill Drummond.
Drummond was the one I was least interested in, because I was least familiar with his work. Oh, of course I loved Doctorin’ The TARDIS, had enjoyed 45, and The Manual is still one of my favourite books, but beyond that I knew nothing of his work.
Drummond’s first line was:
I’m a total fraud even being here. I don’t actually know much about Robert Anton Wilson, and I couldn’t be arsed to help him when he was dying.
So, you know, fair enough.
(And when I watch that video, I realise that I’m completely misremembering that, and probably remembering from this blog post rather than the event. Oh well. But it’s how I remember it.)
The reason I’m telling that story is so I can tell you this. A couple of months ago, the writer J.M.R. Higgs sent me a comp ebook copy of his new book, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, because he’d liked my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. I said I’d review it, but I ran into a problem when actually writing the review, because I am precisely the wrong person to review this book.
You see, Higgs’ book takes as its starting point the day when Drummond and his artistic partner Jimmy Cauty (known variously as The KLF, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The K Foundation) set fire to a million pounds, and tries to figure out exactly why they did this — something they admit themselves they are completely unsure of.
Starting from this, and in pursuit of an answer of sorts, Higgs explores a whole web of ideas and associations. He writes about Robert Anton Wilson, and sampling culture, describes the 1990s in a way eerily similar to the Ghost Point from the Faction Paradox books, discusses Doctor Who and the alchemical ideas that David Whitaker planted in it, the legitimacy of copyright, the Kennedy assassination, the work of Ken Campbell, Discordianism, the immorality of lending money at interest, Situationism, the Pookah and the wicker man in modern pop culture, Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, and questions whether the K Foundation’s burning a million pounds was a magical rite which eventually led to the economic problems we’re seeing today.
My kind of thing, in other words.
Except that the book’s climax is when Higgs talks about the Festival Hall event I discussed above. He talks about how the event actually inspired Drummond to read the whole of Illuminatus! for the first time, and how Drummond (who had used tons of ideas and images from the first 138 pages of the book, which is all he’d previously read, in his work) was shocked to find that most of his life seemed to be in there in some way. Higgs then goes on to say:
I had written 90% of this book before I finally got round to reading Illuminatus! myself, despite having a copy on my shelf for twenty years. Upon reading it, I was startled to discover that it contained a number of subjects which I had already been writing about, unaware of their inclusion in Illuminatus! and unsure if I could justify their inclusion in this book. I had written about usury unaware that the founding reason for The JAMs was to destroy usury, and I had written about Lucifer unaware that a Satanic mass was the initiation into The JAMs. I had noted the surprising number of paedophiles in this story whilst unaware of the character of Padre Pederastia. Such is the way with this particular novel. Reading it almost seems superfluous; it is possible to be swept along just by the idea of it. It is a novel that is perfectly content to sit on a shelf for decades waiting for you to be ready for it.
And this is the thing about the book. Its conclusion is, to me, the stuff that I’ve been thinking about and discussing and writing about for my whole adult life (I read Illuminatus! when I was 18, and have more than a passing interest in most of the subjects mentioned in the book). It’s a book that goes from a premise that I know little about to a conclusion that is familiar, solid ground to me. And the parts that I found most interesting were the parts where Higgs talks about the KLF themselves, precisely because that was the least familiar part of the net of ideas he was talking about. Higgs is mapping out an area in IdeaSpace, but it’s a map that takes this reader from Fairyland to his own front room.
I doubt it would have that effect, though, on anyone without my own precise set of obsessions. Unless you’ve basically read the exact same books and comics I read between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 26, and you’re also a big fan of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who work, the parts that seemed familiar to me will seem unfamiliar to you, while if you pay any attention to pop culture at all the parts that seemed unfamiliar to me will be old news to you.
So…I can recommend Higgs’ book unreservedly to anyone reading this, but I can’t say you’ll be reading the same book I am.
But what does this have to do with Promethea, again?
Well, Higgs’ book is basically a map of a mental landscape, but a rather odd one — he’s trying to give an impression of why Bill Drummond thinks the way he does, by writing enough about Higgs’ own obsessions. It is, if you like, a map of the border between Higgs’ area of Ideaspace and Drummond’s.
About six months ago, Plok, of the blog A Trout In The Milk, was visiting us and practically ordered Holistic Tendancies to write a book on Promethea, because he wanted to hear what she had to say about it. However, she was unsure about this, because she’s never written anything longer than a couple of thousand words before, and doesn’t believe me when I tell her that if you write the material, it structures itself and practically writes itself. I had to take a break from writing my previous book about comics, An Incomprehensible Condition, because I was seeing patterns relating to the subject everywhere, and had to get back into a more rational frame of mind — that’s the extent to which this kind of subject writes itself. But Holistic Tendancies is unsure, so she’s asked me to help her. She wants to write the book with me, and I’m in charge of structure.
So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to write ten more essays. Some of them will be on my blog, and some will be on Mindless Ones. You can follow either blog and not miss out, because we’re going to do this in a Choose Your Own Adventure style.
We’re going to look at Promethea as a comic, the way Alan Moore writes and the way J.H. Williams and the other artists put pictures on the page. But we’re also going to look at the ideas floating around it in Ideaspace — the Kaballah, Wonder Woman, America’s Best Comics, causality, Aleister Crowley, Platonism, topology and more. A lot of it will overlap with the ideas in Higgs’ book, but we’ll be travelling from different directions.
By making it a Choose Your Own Adventure, and having it run over two different blogs, we’ll let you wander round the parts of it that you find most interesting, and do a bit of sightseeing. But even IdeaSpace needs a map, so here’s the one we’ll be using:
Next stop: Yesod.
And just to reinforce how all this works, literally as I was typing the last sentence I received an email from Plok, who I mentioned before, about another collaborative project, one we’re working on with Illogical Volume and others. The email heading? “topological order”. And the first sentence proper of the email?
Topological order, so I’m told, being what they call a way of classifying substances with identical symmetries — by measuring their interactivity in an entangled system. Thus, the helpful analogy for the layman goes, the topological order of New York City would not describe the buildings and the streets, but would identify the city more finely, uniquely by a catalogue of the phone calls being made inside it.
Tiredblogging: The Anchoring Of The Thread (or, Towards A Grand Unified Theory Of Time-Travel In Doctor Who)
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a week now, and been putting it off until I’m less tired. But then I realised that if I hadn’t been less tired in a week, I probably wouldn’t be any time soon. So, here’s my Grand Unified Theory Of Time In Doctor Who, as written by someone who had to take four goes to type the word time because he’s so tired.
I’d been thinking about this for a while (and talked about bits of it with Plok while he was here), but this blog post by Eliezer Yudkowsky, about causality and time travel, gave me the final key. You might want to read that before we go ahead. I’ll wait.
OK, so one of the big things in Doctor Who since Moffat took over is the way that time can be changed, pretty much willy-nilly, when in the old series the rule was, more or less, “you can’t change history, not one line!”
Now, there are various explanations that can be used of this, not least the one I use, which is “they’re two different series with only the loosest possible connection.”
But suppose you want to reconcile them. The usual fanwank explanation is “the Time War” — and I’m going to use that, too. But that doesn’t actually *explain* anything. So I’m going to try.
And I think it can be done.
First, we assume that the uni/multiverse is — or started as — something like the timeless universe of Julian Barbour, or the ultimate ensemble of Max Tegmark. A timeless configuration space of every existing possibility, all equally existent. Every instant of time, existing simultaneously.
In one of these instants, exists an intelligent race. They’re known by various names, such as the Great Houses, but we can call them the Time Lords, because along with them comes the existence of time.
You see, time isn’t something that exists in itself. Time is just another word for the increase in entropy between different states in the configuration space. But since we can (as far as we know) draw a line between any two states, why should entropy increase?
Well, probabilistically, it’s simple. If you take any random point in a configuration space — whatever the point — and make a random perturbation to it, the result will, in the huge majority of cases, have more entropy than the original position. So a random walk among configurations will lead to an increase in entropy.
But we’re not talking about a random walk — we’re talking about a lawlike universe. And if you draw a line between the start and end points, why does it have to have that direction? Why not say that the end is the start and the start is the end?
Well, you can — but not in a universe containing intelligence. Intelligence is, fundamentally, the creation of an isomorphism between one structure (e.g. a brain) and another (e.g. a universe) such that the first can predict the second.
In order to do this, information has to pass from the universe to the brain — and by doing so, entropy in the universe has to increase proportionally.
So in any universe which contains intelligence, that intelligence, at any given point, will have knowledge of a universe which has slightly less entropy than the one in which it’s existing, and so perceive entropy as always increasing. Hence — arrow of time.
So with our Time Lords comes an arrow of time.
Now, what do we know of the Time Lords? Firstly, that they put all of history in place with the Anchoring Of The Thread (see the Book Of The War) and secondly that they could travel through time.
As Yudkowsky points out, if you’re looking at the standard formulation of causality, using Directed Acyclic Graphs, as formulated by Judea Pearl, then you can *either* have cause and effect, *or* you can have a consistent, single-history universe which contains time travel, but you can’t have both.
So, assuming for the moment that current understanding is more-or-less correct, and the universe can be understood or modelled as a computation, then we have a rough idea of what sort of process the Anchoring Of The Thread must have been — a brute-force sweep through all possible events, noting the ones that fit the consistent history the Time Lords wanted, which were then forced together — possibly just by the Time Lords’ perception — into one history. This allowed consistent time travel throughout their history, without the possibility of paradox (or of wiping themselves out of history) but with the disadvantage that there was actually no such thing as cause-and-effect — effects *appeared* to follow causes, but that’s only because they’d been put in that position by the Time Lords.
(It’s possible that Time Lords themselves (and their companions when in a TARDIS?) had the ability to alter the universe on the fly with their perceptions. If so this would mean that time-travellers were the only beings in the universe with true free will — and would explain the changes to time-travellers’ biodata (a concept often mistranslated as ‘DNA’ in the new series). It’s also possible that the computation that put history in place had something to do with the calculations of Logopolis.)
Then comes the Time War. The Time Lords are destroyed. They’re no longer there to perceive the universe, and without their computation to keep it in place, there can’t be a consistent timeline any longer.
However, there *are* still intelligences — humans, Daleks and so on — and at least some of them have time machines. This means that time must still exist. Without the influence of the Time Lords, that means that we have a universe where the past and future are both malleable — but where effects have causes, and thus actions have consequences.
So because the Time Lords have been destroyed, free will has been given to the inhabitants of the universe. They’re no longer just puppets acting out a script planned by superpowerful gods, but people whose actions *matter*. Given the Doctor’s known attitude toward free will, the question is possibly not so much why he destroyed the Time Lords (if, indeed, it was ‘really’ him who did so), as why he didn’t do it much earlier.
And as a side-note, the fact that the universe no longer runs to a fixed plan with an intelligence behind it might go some way to explaining the incoherence of many post-Time War stories…
I hope that makes some kind of sense, or at least the right kind of nonsense. I can’t actually see right now, I’m so tired, so it may not. There’ll be another Who post, on Kinda, on the Mindless Ones tomorrow or Friday, and a Beach Boys post this weekend.
(This essay is very, very rough, but I wanted to get it up today. I’ll no doubt have more to say on this over the next few days, especially in the post on Logopolis I’ll be putting up on Mindless Ones).
One thing that a few people have said about some of my Doctor Who posts is that it seems like I don’t even like Doctor Who. Now, from my point of view this is clearly ridiculous — I am currently looking up from my computer at a K1 robot, a Dalek, a TARDIS clock and a postcard of Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, while just behind me are two Doctor Who posters and a K9 toy — but it’s possibly interesting on this, the programme’s forty-ninth birthday, to see what it is that I actually do like about Doctor Who.
Firstly, there’s the visceral stuff – I grew up watching Doctor Who and as such I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to things like the sound of the TARDIS, the words “I am the Master, and you will obey me”, K9 saying “Master”, the Daleks, the Cybermen…just put any of these together and you hardly need to worry about a plot. So long as I don’t engage my higher faculties, these things are a direct line to the happiest moments of my childhood, and I can love them uncritically. It was this that kept me watching through the first series of David Tennant’s Doctor, before I came to the conclusion that this was not really enough on its own.
Secondly, there’s the genre. I don’t here mean science fiction — I like science fiction, but I’ll come to that a bit later — but children’s telefantasy and adventure. I had a conversation with my father after the death of Davy Jones where he was talking about growing up in the 60s and said “Of course, back then there was almost nothing on the TV worth watching if you were a kid. There was Doctor Who, The Monkees and Batman, Top Of The Pops if there was someone good on, and then a few years later there was The Prisoner and Monty Python, but that was really it.”
That pretty much sums up my entire…not my aesthetic, as such, but the central core of my tastes. The more like those things something is, the more likely it is I’ll enjoy it. It’ll have to do more than that in order to persuade me it’s actually good, but if you start out in that rough genre, you’re at a tremendous advantage. Doctor Who has often aspired to be more than that, but so long as it does a decent job of being “a bit like The Prisoner and a bit like The Monkees” then it’s at a tremendous advantage for me.
Then there’s the mode of 60s/70s TV. As Tilt Araiza has put it, “Doctor Who is not great TV, rather it is from the age of great TV”. The most notable difference between Doctor Who and the other shows mentioned above, if you watch them back-to-back, is that Doctor Who is a TV show while they are film shows.
This is a distinction that the Radio Times used to make, because it was a crucial distinction when watching TV. Doctor Who was made in a style that is now only used for sitcoms, game shows and soap operas — shot multi-camera, on video, with very few edits and in a theatrical style where the cameras are, to a large extent, taking the place of the theatre audience. That style was the default mode for British TV in the 1960s and 70s.
The other programmes listed above were shot on film, in the American style (apart from Monty Python and Top Of The Pops) and as such had a different look — more possible camera angles, faster and tighter edits, and a more pseudo-naturalistic acting style (because the cameras could accomodate the actors rather than vice versa).
Now, to my mind, these are two different media, with different stylistic conventions. When British TV was made on film for the American market (like The Prisoner) it was done in a curious style half-way between the two, because it was being made by people whose experience was mostly in the British TV style, but in general you can split the two pretty easily. And these days, only “film series” are made, and TV is essentially a dead medium.
And as someone who appreciates that old, dead medium, Doctor Who is a treasure. Like Hancock or I, Claudius or the Nigel Kneale version of 1984 it shows the possibility of TV as broadcast theatre, rather than as broadcast cinema — it’s a programme that is driven almost entirely by dialogue and performances, rather than by editing and visual style.
And speaking of dialogue and performances, there’s the character of the Doctor. This is the first unique aspect of the show — something that no other TV programme had. The Doctor is a strange mixture of different, apparently incompatible, genre archetypes — the wise old wizard and the trickster and the ultra-rational detective and the man of action — which end up meaning that he comes out as an actual character something like a real person, a real rarity in genre TV. I used to describe the character as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Groucho Marx”, but of course there’s at least as much of Harpo in there as Groucho. But the Holmes comparison is a valid one — the Doctor’s character changed over the years, emphasising different elements, but there’s a continuity of character there too. Paul McGann, Colin Baker, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell, say, are all playing something that is recognisably the same character in the way that Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett are. Pat Troughton, even given a horrible racist script like Tomb Of The Cybermen, or a piece of sexist, warmongering filth like The Dominators, could make it work because he played against the script, playing the character the writers didn’t bother to write.
(You can tell a lot more about my own character than I’m strictly happy about just by knowing that the Doctor when I was in my most formative years was Colin Baker).
In the post-2005 series, Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith have both clearly been trying to play this character, but have been hamstrung by scripts that bear no relation whatsoever to it. David Tennant just played a totally different, and far more annoying, one.
If you get the character of the Doctor right, you don’t really need to do anything else for the programme to work. That said, sometimes they did anyway, because the final reason is that sometimes…just sometimes…it had actual ideas. The default state for Doctor Who was always to be just an exciting adventure series for children of all ages, and that’s absolutely fine — plenty of enjoyable TV was made by people like Terrance Dicks, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Terry Nation and so on, people who were essentially hacks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hack. Someone has to make that stuff).
But there were also those who, while still wanting to make adventure TV, wanted to explore actual ideas. There’s a whole line of these — mostly writers, but some script editors, producers and directors too. David Whitaker, David Maloney, Bob Holmes, Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts, Douglas Adams, Christopher Bidmead, Christopher Bailey, Philip Martin are the most important names in this tradition (and when we get to the books and audios, we can add in Lance Parkin, Lawrence Miles, Robert Shearman and others).
The odd thing is that despite these men’s (for, unfortunately, Doctor Who was made in very sexist times, and other than Verity Lambert all its primary creative forces were male) differences, they all pointed in something like the same direction philosophically.
And this is the really big difference between the show today and the programme they were making, and the reason why the latter is superior. Because Doctor Who used to be a programme that had a distinct viewpoint, one that is now more or less absent from any of our media.
What we have to remember is that Doctor Who in its original incarnation was made during the Cold War, and that among other things the Cold War was a battle of ideologies — on the one side was America, standing for Freedom, Democracy, Militarism and Rich People Having Everything, while on the other was the Soviet Union, standing for Socialism, Progress, Dictatorship and Killing All The Dissidents. While Britain was definitely on the US’ side, neither side looked hugely appetising to British sensibilities.
And science fiction TV shows that. There’s a phrase I got somewhere that’s very true — while both countries were against totalitarianism, in the US the totalitarianism they were most against was Communism while in Britain it was Fascism. In the US there was Star Trek — a future where every problem has been sorted out and the US way of life has conclusively won. This is progress in the way it’s thought of by US SF fans — everyone realising that a sort of militaristic libertarianism is clearly right, and losing all other cultural differences apart from cute accents.
Doctor Who, on the other hand, takes its cues from the Enlightenment — but in a rather strange way, filtered through Platonism, Buddhism, and the kind of computer-programmer aesthetic that brought us things like Godel, Escher, Bach. While progress in Star Trek terms means “the final frontier”, and everything progressing to a predetermined end point which is just like America now but a bit nicer, in Doctor Who progress still happens, and is still A Good Thing, but it’s the process of progress that is important, not the end result. In fact there can’t be an end result — if you have one, you’ve stopped progressing, and that’s the same as death. The ultimate Doctor Who horror is mind control, because thinking and changing are the most important things.
But that’s a viewpoint that’s no longer really acceptable within our media. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a generation has grown up weaned on the stupidities of Fukuyama and his End Of History. We’re now living in a world in which the last sentence of 1066 And All That is considered actual truth — the future will not be different, it’ll just be an endless liberal democracy (small l, even smaller d) run on capitalist lines pretty much identical to today. While Star Trek looked to a better future, and Doctor Who looked to a different future, current culture only has a place for a future that is now. We live in the best of all possible worlds, and so why would we want to go off travelling through time and space?
I don’t have much time for blog posting at the moment, but I couldn’t let the release of the latest Faction Paradox short story collection go without at least a short review.
(Ob. disclaimer — I know several of the authors in this collection, as well as the publisher, in a friendly-on-Twitter-and-Facebook kind of way. However, I got to know these people, in most part, because of my admiration for their work, and so I don’t believe that me knowing them is biasing me towards liking their work more. But it’s better to say these things upfront.)
That this is a book geared to my tastes should be obvious from the very title. I love the Faction Paradox books anyway, but this is named after a song by XTC, one of my favourite bands. The table of contents confirms that the high expectations are justified — we have new stories by four of the authors of The Book Of The War, Philip Purser-Hallard, Simon Bucher-Jones, Jonathan Dennis and Kelly Hale, all of whom are writers whose other works I’ve enjoyed as well. There are also stories by Elizabeth Evershed and Helen Angove, two of the new writers from Purser-Hallard’s Tales Of The City whose stories I singled out for special praise when I reviewed that, and there’s actually a story by Aditya Bidikar, who first became interested in Faction Paradox after reading one of my blog posts about it.
Overall, the tone here is darker than previous Faction works. While the earlier Faction and Faction-related books are very much on the borderline between SF and Fantasy, with an admixture of historical adventure, here the stories are often little horror miniatures, of a type that would not seem too out of place in the old Pan Books Of Horror Stories — creepy little tales with a black sense of humour. Which, of course, fits the Faction milieu perfectly.
I won’t look at every story in the collection individually — there are some about which I have less to say than others — but all are worth reading. But I’ll talk a little about the ones that I actually have things to say about:
Raleigh Dreaming by Elizabeth Evershed is so different from the other story of hers I’ve read (The Socratic Problem) that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same writer. Some motifs reappear — famous people from wildly different historical time-periods coming together, for example — but the prose style here is very different, cleverly managing to suggest the 16th century patterns of speech of its narrator without ever slipping into archaism. And the method of time travel involved is a lovely little touch (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it — always a danger when talking about short stories much more than novels — but it’s funny, clever, and perfectly appropriate). A worthy opener.
Wing Finger by Helen Angove reminded me quite a bit of Lawrence Miles’ Grass in its central idea, but Angove takes the idea in a very different direction. The redemption of the narrator, who is a zealot, a coward and a fool until it counts, is beautifully done, and Angove does a wonderful job of pastiching Regency-era prose styles.
Squatter’s Rights by Juliet Kemp is one of the creepiest short horror stories I’ve read in a long time, especially because the trap in it sounds so seductive at first.
After The Velvet Eon by Simon Bucher-Jones is the story here that, more than any of the others, needed to be told as a Faction Paradox story. Probably the best-structured of the stories, this is time-travel, emotional storytelling and folk-tale combined in a way that Steven Moffat wishes he could. There’s a love of language here that’s characteristic of Bucher-Jones’ work, too — “St Vermis’ Star”, for example, is just a wonderful touch.
Remake/Remodel by Jonathan Dennis sees the welcome return of Faction Hollywood, one of my favourite things from The Book Of The War. A creepy/funny story about desperation for stardom, the film industry and changing tastes in superheroes, as well as about conceptual entities.
Dharmayuddha by Aditya Bidikar is the story I’d have written if I knew anything about Hindu philosophy. I mean that literally — I was scared by some of the ways this parallels something I’ve been writing, and it sparked off all sorts of ideas that had already been sort-of lurking in my brain. This story manages to meld the Hindu idea of the Yugas perfectly with something that’s been hinted at in various Faction books, and expands the mythology beautifully.
A Star’s View Of Caroline by Sarah Hadley is… problematic for me, in that the criteria I judge it by may not be the criteria other people do. As a Faction Paradox story it works very well, although there is an element in the character PJ of a sort of fetishising of learning disabilities that one sometimes finds and which I’m not entirely comfortable with. But it tells the kind of story one hopes for in a Faction Paradox story — one involving the way our thoughts affect the world, the way the media affect our thoughts, and how those things all affect what is possible — very well.
The problem is that it’s set in what seems to be a generic skiffy post-apocalyptic background, but it’s one which will be very familiar to viewers of a certain TV show. And the story’s conclusion, which is enormously powerful, draws much of its power from association with two scenes from old black-and-white episodes of that show, one from 1964 and one from 1965. And I have no idea how someone who hasn’t seen those nearly-fifty-year-old black-and-white episodes of an old science fiction programme will react.
Now in some ways, this is a good thing — there is nothing in the story that requires you to have seen, or even to have heard of, those old stories. It works as a self-contained story, as far as I can tell, and the resonances with those other stories only add to its power. But it does mean that I can’t judge how well this would read to someone who hadn’t seen them.
And De Umbris Idearum by Philip Purser-Hallard is the story I would have *liked* to have written out of all these. It’s the first time, I think, that Purser-Hallard has ventured out of his own section of the Faction ‘mythos’ — the City Of The Saved, which he created and has written several stories and a novel about — and written something based on some of the other ideas from the Faction books. Airbrushing can be done with Luminess Air. Here he takes on the Remote and Remakes, two ideas I’ve been wanting to see more exploration of, and uses them to tell a multiply-nested story of three priests, from three different time periods, which revolves around a theological conundrum about the nature of original sin. Whether intentionally or not, it ties together several themes from other stories in the collection very cleverly (the interference with the Earth’s scientific development in Wing-Finger is similar to some of the events here, the story is structured like the Russian dolls from Office Politics, and so on), while dealing with many of Purser-Hallard’s own usual themes.
Those eight stories only make up a little over half the book — the other six stories all have things to recommend them as well. This is a very, very impressive collection, and you should all buy it. It’s available from Obverse Books as a hardback or an ebook
This is less of an essay, more a stream of consciousness braindump that I’m going to type until I fall asleep on the keyboard. I’m too tired today to write my Mindless Ones piece, and certainly too tired to work on the other projects I’m working on, so I’m going to dump a lot of thoughts I’ve been having here, specifically about the vision of the Faction Paradox ‘universe’ presented in Dead Romance, This Town Will Never Let Us Go and (what I take to be) Lawrence Miles’ parts of The Book of the War. Faction Paradox is the work of multiple writers, all of them very good, but here I’m going to look at a thread in, specifically, Miles’ writing. I’m writing this now so I can come back to it later and sift it for the good stuff…
So anyway… the Singularity.
I first came across the argument used by Singulatarians (who despite the name are not Doctor Who villains, although Eliezer Yudkowsky seems to aspire to being one) in the preface to a Robert A Heinlein book, which I read when I was 14 or so but which was written in the 1950s. In this he plots a chart of the top speed attainable by human beings, and shows that up to about 1800 it was maybe 20 miles per hour, then after the railways it was 50mph, and then there were jet planes, and then rockets…
Heinlein goes on to say that most people would predict progress to flatten off or continue at the same rate, but that while he didn’t necessarily believe the result you’d obtain “the correct way to extend an exponential curve is exponentially” and that that prediction said that by the year 2000 we’d be travelling faster than the speed of light.
Of course, as we now know, humanity’s top speed essentially plateaud right at the moment Heinlein wrote those words, because when looking at physical events, rather than mathematical ones, the proper way to extend an exponential curve is as a sigmoid, because rather annoyingly the real world has far fewer infinities in it than mathematics does.
In the 1990s and 2000s, this argument was used by people who were actually in many ways Heinlein’s intellectual heirs — usually right-wing libertarian technofetishists — but with speed replaced by information processing. The argument, as laid out in such books as The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil, runs roughly thus — two hundred years ago, there were no computers. Sixty years ago, there was one computer. Now, there are loads of computers. Therefore, by
wishful thinking mathematical induction, soon there will be infinitely many computers, and we can all go and live in them as software ghosts and make the entire universe into a computer.
There’s more to the argument than that — well, to be accurate, there’s more to some versions of the argument than that, Kurzweil himself being the kind of cretin who seriously argues that in a post-scarcity economy where anyone can have all the material goods they need without expropriating others simply by pressing a button, some sort of mechanism to protect intellectual property would become necessary — but that’s the basis of it.
(What’s this got to do with Faction Paradox? I’ll get there, but I’ll take the long way round).
And speaking of right-wing libertarian idiots, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. Widely regarded as a masterpiece of political thinking by a great political theorist, it was in fact for the most part a restatement of the ideas of those great thinkers Sellar and Yeatman — “America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .”
(In fact, in 2002, Fukuyama came into conflict with the singularity people, because he wrote a book called Our Posthuman Future, which as far as I can tell from the summaries I’ve read (reading one book by that idiot is enough for me for this lifetime, I think) says “we’d better stop doing science, in case we accidentally have some more history).
The difference was that Sellar and Yeatman thought that America coming out on top was A Bad Thing, because obviously Britain is best, whereas Fukuyama’s book argued that it was, in fact, A Good Thing.
America taking on Britain’s old role and destiny in the world, leaving Britain purposeless, with British imperialism being revealed as a rather shabby thing — hold that thought for me, before it drifts away.
So anyway, the bit about speed (you remember the bit about speed?) is essentially the basis for all science fiction before about 1980ish. We can quibble about dates and how general that is and so on, but in pop-culture terms, certainly, it’s true to say that SF was the literature of fast travel. It’s practically a cliche now to point out that as well as being about Marxism and eugenics, The Time Machine was about bicycling (Wells clearly modelled his machine on the bicycle), but it’s no coincidence that the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of SF was also the period when the human race’s top speed was increasing. In a handful of generations, the horizons of normal people went from an area a few miles across to, potentially, the world. If that continued, why, we’d reach the stars in no time — and given how strange the people in those other countries were, what kind of people would we find out there? It’s a literature of exploration, whether in time or in space.
Post-1980 SF is, on the other hand, more concerned about the idea of the Singularity, in a very loose sense. Writers like Greg Egan, for example, will write whole novels about the implications of ‘uploading’ one’s consciousness into a computer, or about how faster-than-light travel becomes unnecessary when one can spawn multiple immortal copies and send them through space by radio wave, then merge the copies when they get together again. Post 1980, SF has been about information processing, far more than about travel.
Doctor Who was actually in a perfect position to go in this direction in 1980. While Christopher H Bidmead was script editor of the show, there was an extraordinary run of stories (roughly from State Of Decay through Logopolis) which dramatised perfectly ideas from mathematics, information theory and cybernetics, but in a BBC costume drama sense in which these abstract ideas were reified as places and environments.
It was utterly unlike anything else in SF that I’ve come across (though Neal Stephenson’s Anathem has some of the same flavour, or would have had he had an editor who could have cut three quarters of the book out). The closest piece of TV I’ve ever seen to this run of stories is Jonathan Miller’s The Drinking Party, which like the Bidmead stories basically sticks Plato on screen, though Miller’s film has fewer vampires and aliens in it. Bidmead’s version of the show also followed neatly from some elements of the show up to that point (basically, all those stories either written by David Whitaker or Robert Holmes or directed by David Maloney) (another way of phrasing that parenthetical would be ‘the good ones’).
But then Bidmead left the show, and after some of the usual musical chairs in the Doctor Who production office he was replaced by Eric Saward, whose style has been aptly described by Alex Wilcock as “guns with a capital GUNS!”
The show had lost its way, and from then on no matter how good the TV show or the books and audios based on it were (and sometimes they’ve been very, very, very good), they’ve not escaped from the 1960s paradigm of travel and expansion. The brief promise of a Platonist, intellectual, progressive show was recplaced by one that would always be stuck in the past, and one that would always be materialist in the crude sense.
And the Doctor Who notion of ‘future’ is likewise one that is stuck in the past, and has to be. It’s a future of spaceships and Galactic Empires, not a future of disembodied intelligences whose minds span galaxies.
So in the Faction Paradox universe, humanity’s destiny, which was always to transcend the material and become, essentially, gods, has been diverted by the
Time Lords Great Houses, at some time around the early 21st century. A few quotes here from The Book Of The War (which you should all own already), specifically the entry on humanity. I’m assuming these are by Miles, because they fit so well with his preoccupations, but of course many other authors contributed to that book, so they could be by any of them:
Thus, it became the prevalent belief among human societies that the body itself was a tool, an extension of the “real” inner self. The result were belief-systems centred on the idea of a soul or spirit, and as scheduled this became the cornerstone of most human progress for years to come.
Anthropologically speaking, it’s clear from this evidence what the ultimate fate of humanity should have been. With every society believing itself to be made up of spirits-trapped-in-flesh, from humankind’s earliest years there was a clear unconscious desire to leave its collective body behind and achieve a non-corporeal state…
By the early-to-mid twenty-first century, intelligence-form technology was certainly in existence. All humanity needed was the will. But somehow, after millions of years of effort, the will had unexpectedly vanished. On the brink of finding its own personal kind of enlightenment, it was as if the human species had backed down and decided to enter a period of stagnation instead.
The Great Houses take over humanity’s role, becoming the embodiments of time and history in the universe, and being more like concepts than people. But they, too, stagnate — the replacement paradigm is just as stale as the old one. By creating a settled history, they literally do end history, both for humanity and for themselves. Earth is reduced to merely having an empire, not being really important, but the Great Houses turn inward and don’t bother about the universe. Because the growth of information processing is just as much a sigmoid curve as the growth of speed (and in fact, it’s about to flatline right about now).
But then an enemy appears, and manages to find a weakness in the Great Houses, who were previously thought invincible. A new concept, a way of thinking that is totally alien to them.
But that new concept isn’t the real threat… the real threat is what the Houses do to themselves when confronted by it…
The War is not, of course, the War On Terror — the concept was created years before the September 11, 2001 attacks — but Faction Paradox is at least in part about the larger cultural problems of which they were a symptom.
And I’m too tired to continue this now, so the stuff about Islam, steampunk and identity will have to wait for another of these posts.