Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Grand Reset: Zero Degrees

The Problem of Longitude and the Prime Meridian

Distinguishing itself from books on the so-called 'problem of longitude' whose most popular exemplar is Dava Sobel's Longitude, Charles Withers' 2017 treatise Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian examines the problem of the starting, or zero, point for longitude and associated problems of the standardisation of global time.

It is a fascinating journey from ancient times to the 1884 International Meridian Conference, held in Washington DC, with special focus on the so-called 'afterlife' of 1884/Washington.  That afterlife led to the French adoption of standard (as opposed to universal, or 24-hour) time centred on Greenwich, and to the use of the metre in England to measure heights, a mutually beneficial arrangement for both the French and the English.

Precision and Accuracy

This book makes some original claims about what it means to be accurate.  This overused term is here demonstrated to have meaning in reference to human activity, error, and effort directed at correcting the latter.  This effort is exemplified in the recurring motif of paired observers conducting measurements to compare longitudinal positions of prime meridians in both London and Paris, with the inevitable resulting error due to changing 'personal equations' in reference to reference stars and instrumentation associated with the cities' observatories.

And so, while accuracy is concerned with two or more meridians' attempts to reconcile, precision is focused more on fixing a baseline in and of itself.  The location of the prime meridian as we now know it to be at Greenwich, has moved in recent years due to gravitational anomalies in the locale of zero degrees itself.  This fact diminishes the precision of Greenwich mean time, but for humanity it ends up making no difference, because we now agree to use Greenwich mean time itself as our baseline, and it is the agreement itself that matters (i.e. the accuracy), and the fact that we now all agree to use this line and not the other makes all the difference.  Epistemology (how we know) is trumped by the fact that we know.

Neutrality and Science

Withers' also takes up the question of neutrality, a political concept, over and against that of non-neutrality, which is associated with the scientific outlook.  The non-neutrality position is associated with the fact that observatories are more readily able to conduct the precise measurements associated with their station; science itself and its practitioners are therefore not agnostic with respect to the location of the prime meridian.  They believe the meridian must be placed at an observatory; against this view, the neutralists would have placed the prime meridian at the opposite side of the globe to Greenwich, with the meridian in question running through part of Kamchatka.

The neutral option was championed by those of an anti-political stance, in essence, those believing that partiality with respect to nation in the placement of the prime meridian would somehow compromise its ability to do its job.  In retrospect, this must look absurd.  The non-neutralists, champions of science, and associates of observatories were very much in the right to highlight that the proximity of scientific instrumentation and traditions of practice and use were the best guarantors of both the precision and sought after accuracy (though non-neutral and based in one nation).

Sandford Fleming and William Parker Snow

There were some very interesting characters hanging around meetings such as that held in Washington, DC in 1884 to deliberate the adoption of a single prime meridian, and very importantly, the use of standard or universal time systems for the globe.  Sandford Fleming, a Scots-born Canadian, wrote a couple of very influential pamphlets on time, and these showed their influence in Fleming's contribution to the Washington meeting, but for the most part Fleming's universalist and neutralist stance was fairly consistently rejected.  He is a case, however, where being wrong was the rightest thing ever, because his work highlighted and articulated the precise opposite of what was in fact ultimately adopted.  Fleming's work was the counter-example needed in order the main theme to emerge, that of standard time centred non-neutrally and very firmly within England.  Fleming's own statistics proved the rightness of this choice, with the tonnage and numbers of ships over time using the port at Greenwich demonstrating overwhelmingly the emphasis and influence of the global shipping trade at this location

Withers begins his book by introducing a very curious character, one who was believed to be a psychic traveller in both space and time: William Parker Snow.  Snow also believed that Franklin, of the lost Franklin expedition, was still alive, though he had not evidence of this.  Snow's relevance to Withers' story is that he was an early champion of the idea of a global single prime meridian, and his eccentricity serves as an interesting inducement for the reader to continue further.  It certainly worked for this reader.

Measurement and Territoriality

Related to the question of neutrality (or lack thereof), is that of the size of things, and by extension the size of those things we call states.  One of the problems with fixing the prime meridian, and to agreeing to a single one, was the fact that measurement itself was subject to considerable disagreement and fluctuation.  The shape and size of the earth, its geodesy, was contested in part because scientists and surveyors could not agree amongst themselves what the standard of measurement was, and where it was to be centred.  A fraction of a millimetre less than a hair's width, compounded over several million inches or centimetres, will add up to a considerable difference when extended from the equator to the poles.  In terms of the triangulations that form the baselines for the measurement of whole nations, this fact will result in, precisely, their mis-measurement, whether shrinkage, expansion, or combinations thereof.  Therefore, it was crucial first for nations to agree to their units, and to how these would be rationed, precisely, over the very uneven and uncertain surface of the earth.

Spatiality and Temporality

Withers' book is about space and time, and here they are treated separately before their synthesis, in a kind of classical treatment that harks at times back to Kant.  Withers (2017, page 123) states: "Space in vital respects is a human construct. Even if it exists as an objective 'thing in itself,' the meaning we give it is at once social, temporal, experiential, and relational." It is his belief in the 'thinginess' of space, and its simultaneous social construction, with no real critique of this seemingly unresolvable binary tension, that gives this book its somewhat old-school flavour. The archival work and scholarship are impeccable, but the Kantian slant has the hint of positivism about it. This does not detract.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Honourable mentions

Another three books that didn't make my top five for 2017 probably should have.  These are:

Clade, by James Bradley. Published by Titan Books (@cityoftongues)

Darwin's Unfinished Symphony, by Kevin N. Laland. Published by Princeton University Press. (@PrincetonUPress)

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly.  Published by Hodder & Stoughton.

My goal is to produce a review of each of these books (in addition to the actual top five) by 1 Jan 2018.

The Gate to BSF

Reading Nina Allan's The Rift represents the moment in time that I came to favour British Science Fiction over any other genre/place.  This was, of course, a gradual conversion, occurring between my reading of Adam Roberts' The Thing Itself, and the point in The Rift when I nailed down what its novum is.  The latter occurs not early on in the action of the novel, one that is psychological in the same sense that Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is.  We are not quite sure if the science fictional action is actually occurring, or if it just a figment of the protagonists' warped senses of reality.  Mind you, these warps themselves are very real, having origins in painful traumatic events in their personal histories.

So, the verisimilitude is very fine, and lends the reading an urgency that a non-psychological approach might find, in a different context, very difficult to do.  But the way the characters Allan creates interact, the richness and emotional complexities they possess, and ensuing irrational, unexplainable phenomena they create, lies at the heart of a novel like The Rift's success.  This, as much as the literal and main novum I am about to describe, is equally as new as any of the novel's other successes, and is, as far as I can tell, a novum unto itself.

A complex of objects, feelings, and reactions revolve around what I can only describe as a 4-dimensional geographical time-slip that takes the form of a remote lake in a forest.  The contents of the lake are actually catalogued in one of many sections that take the form of alternate representations of the world Allan describes: a sort of shopping list of detritus at the bottom of the lake that is dredged after Julie (Selena's sister, and we are never really sure if there are actually two of them) disappears.  Others include writings of a person of some standing in a world to which Julie has somehow teleported (either literally or schizophrenically as it were), in the form of a book into which the narrative dips periodically; and descriptions of a creature called a cleef, that seems to be the cause or source of some kind of inter-world infection that may also somehow 'lubricate' or activate the time-slip.

It is without a doubt a very complex novel, but I didn't find it difficult to read, and the fact that its psychology worked so well helped immensely.  My mother also read the novel this autumn, after I had returned from a summer interviewing tourists around the Culloden battlefield near Inverness Scotland (where I read the book in the evenings after watching Outlander some nights), and while she had some difficulty with the alternating alternative representations, told me she was deeply affected by this book.  We've been having a great time re-discovering science fiction together (see the photo above for some of our foundational texts).

What happens in The Rift is really very hard to follow, but the emotion is not.  The latter is mapped with such precision and clarity (despite the very muddiness of the subject matter itself), that I felt at times like I was inhabiting another life.  Despite all its angst and unhappiness, I didn't want it to end (like life itself), and this is a sign of an elevated (high, even) art, one that rises above all the rest, and exists on a plane of its own.  The Rift is a revelation, one that has infected my view of British Science Fiction as a whole, very much for the better.  There is before The Rift, and then there is after The Rift, and there is no going back after.   I kind of feel this way about BSF as a whole, actually, no small thanks to Nina Allan.

Antarctic End-of-the-World Blues, or, How to Train Your Husky

There's something very clever about how Paul McAuley puts his books together and, in Austral, McAuley makes it look almost easy, such is the skill with which its threads are woven.  As with The Real-Town Murders (see previous post on Adam Roberts' novel) we are projected into the not-so-distant future, into a de facto surveillance state.  In both novels, when a drone is not actually present in the action, one is not far off.  These may be controlled by friends or foes, by state or non-state actors, or by their own (artificial) intelligence.

The specific role, or problem, of the drone in Austral is one of agency.  Can this or that eye in the sky help or hinder the actions that will further the protagonist's progress through a landscape very much filled with danger and all sorts of blockages to the fulfilment of a goal.  The title of the book takes its name from a part-human protagonist, a genetic hybrid of human and something very much other.  This makes her a double outcast because she is also descended from a cultural group known as the ecopoets, responsible in large part for the transformation of the Antarctic peninsula, where most of the action takes place, into a forested ecosystem capable of sustaining large populations of humans and other mammals, as well as other species.  In the story, the ecopoets are outlawed because their vision is essentially anarchic, and thus anti-state.  In the future, we come to know (and as we know from a lot of dystopian fiction), dissidence will not be tolerated, especially of the kind that takes such an active and positive (independent) form.

We are in a post-climate-disaster dystopian world that has seen through various failed experiments in geoengineering, from the introduction of reflective diamond-crystals into the atmosphere to reflect light and heat away from earth, to attempts to insulate glaciers with blankets of material designed to impede their shrinkage.  This places Austral in the genre of climate fiction, alongside works like Clade (James Bradley) and New York 2140 (Kim Stanley Robinson).  These are books that get reviewed by the likes of Robert MacFarlane or The New Yorker because they tap into a set of societal fears about what the future holds, with specific reference to the idea of climate change and global warming, and consequences thereof.

Because of this (and for no other reason I can see) books of this genre coming to be known as climate fiction (or clifi) have a potentially popular appeal that more literary and specialised books like the ones Roberts writes don't necessarily have.  People want to think about what the future holds in environmental terms, in other words in broad and exotic landscapes and in terms of charismatic megafauna.  Like Austral herself, who in terms of the metonymic, action-oriented aspect of the book, drives it forward; but who also, in terms of the metaphoric dimension that gives this book its stratospheric sense of something really extraordinary, is the moral anti-hero and transgressive, anarchic, type many readers in this genre might readily identify with, but not-so-easily be.

Herein lies the drawback.  The Nietzschean uber-woman is so exotic and otherworldly, existing as she does in the action taking place in a future Antarctica so almost beyond imagining, that comes to represent the impossible (barred) access to the real, that of actual climate change in the here-and-now.  Because (I said this about Roberts too) Austral is about now!  Moreover, it is about here in the sense that McAuley has had the good sense not to place the action on another planet, but on the part of our planet that most resembles one.  Does this really make a difference?  I would argue not.  And because not, it means that we are inhabiting a sort of blurry no-mans-land that has dogged science fiction from its emergence in the decades before and contemporaneous with when Wells was writing The Time-Machine and War of the Worlds (Rieder, 2008)

Climate change scientists and theorists have a funny way of reifying not only the present but the future, of regarding that future as a thing, one that can be visited almost as easily as the past.  Because, for example, a quaternary scientist can visit the past to examine the sedimentary record, from which evidence and observations about past climate states can be mapped.  They then tend to extrapolate or predict into a future trajectory, but, crucially, without distinguishing between the past as fact and the future as speculation.  My contention here is that observations about the future, no matter how well grounded in empirical evidential foundations, are always speculative.  We have almost no way of knowing what the future holds.  The critique of enlightenment thinking is one about breaking apart reifications of the moment whether that is of a present or future shape.

I am no climate-change denier.  I think the problem is one of representation.  A book like Austral succeeds exceptionally well in offering a vision and thus a representation of the future that, like the work and thinking of the very forward looking (and even at times predicting) Wells, looks admirably accurate.  But let's not forget that we actually have very little idea what the shape of things to come actually will be.  The crucial struggle is one of imagination, of being able to think so boldy as to literally (by which I mean metaphorically) go where none have gone before.  McAuley does this.  He imagines that climate change has, for all intents and purposes, ended the world as we know it, and he maps out what the social implications of that realisation are (or might be).  There is, however, a very literal sense to the action that unfolds, in the sense that we are there, beside Austral and her little friend/enemy, a child whom the protagonist has kidnapped both opportunistically and with moral intent.

McAuley is no ideological fantasist.  A previous work of his, Fairyland, is one of my personal favourites because of the way it combines hard-scientific insight with speculative realism.  It is rooted in McAuley's own training as a biologist, with connections between biology and culture couched in terms I can relate to.  For example, the idea of a meme, or unit of culture, is a dominant trope in Fairyland, as is the sense that its characters and various hybrid/genetically-engineered creatures are following some kind of map with neural/real-world correlates that are threaded just beneath its surface.

This kind of high-level artistry is also at work in Austral, but I do think the latter represents a significant advance over the earlier work just in terms of straightforwardness of the action.  I know Fairyland won the Arthur C. Clarke award, but I think this newer work is equally worthy of similar accolades and/or praise.  At any rate I can personally recommend it very highly.

Rieder, John.  2008.  Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.  Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Real-Town Murders, or, Why I Joined the Church of Freedom

Some time around the middle of 2017 I experienced a conversion/'breakdown'.  It's related to a new word I learned in Adam Roberts's latest wonderful novel The Real-Town Murders (RTM).  That word is 'metanoia', and at first I thought it simply meant 'more than paranoid,' but after looking it up on a 'feed' I realised it means much more than that.  Metanoia, I think, is paranoia to the level of conversion, when it gets so bad that you have no choice but to give in.  Reading RTM made me metanoid.

I like to think of what happened to me in 2017 as something like my PK Dick moment.  Later, upon reflection, I realised I'd been living my life chaotically and that it was time to buckle down.  So I dove deep down into science fiction and fantasy to find the stabilising element.

It was there, believe me.  It helps that my mother is a huge SF fan, and she actually originally got me into this stuff.  We used to sit in my aunt's old room at my grandmother's house in Stigler Oklahoma reading the pulps that lined one whole wall.  My aunt had collected these (because she was a voracious and compulsive reader) along with a whole bunch of 'good' science fiction (Heinlein, Bradbury, LeGuin and the like) and some fantasy (Tolkien, etc).

But like many before me I, at some blurry point in the past, discarded my love of SF as being an adolescent fixation, unhealthy and unrelated to 'serious' literature.  Never mind that I had a very broad and open-minded concept of literature that included philosophy and works like Origin of Species (and now, I believe Kant's Critique of Pure Reason to be a work of literature (not just philosophy) as well).

Fast forward a couple of decades (as I say, it's blurry), and in mid-writing 'crisis' I discover a quirky little novel that turns out to be a genre-bending masterwork.  That book is The Thing Itself, the book Roberts wrote a couple of years before RTM.   TTI remains my favourite, but RTM is great in its own special way.

There are a lot of laughs and a lot of poetry in The Real-Town Murders.  But poetry and humour aside (and he is one of the funniest novelists I've read: I think BĂȘte is probably the funniest novel I've read), I really read these novels for the philosophy and for the sketches of societal implications of technology.

On the latter subject, I teach, at Royal Holloway, on subjects related to social implications of geospatial technologies, so RTM resonates for me.  Not quite as much as TTI did, but that's just me, really.   RTM hasn't been so much of a conversion experience (though I did learn that cool new word, metanoia), as it has been a reminder of how deeply imbricated (and implicated) surveillant and invasive technologies already are.

So, no big surprise, RTM is about now!  And that is what is so cool about SF: it's always about now.  There's no time-machine, no teleportation, those things are impossible (as Roberts reminds us).  At the same time, we get a flying car, we get Shine.  I became deeply immersed into RTM right away, and from that moment you couldn't pull me away.

But books are lovely that way.  Reading them doesn't kill you.  Your muscles don't atrophy.  I went for a couple of runs in between bouts of reading.  I was having a field day.  And that, ultimately, is just what this book is, so I urge anyone who might be reading this blog post to read it.

Roberts is one of many on my list of the patron saints of SF literature, and that list includes Nina Allan, Paul McAuley, and William Gibson (many echoes here of WG).

The elephant shaped hole in this review, of course, is my lack of knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock, around whom so much of RTM revolves.  There's a whole bevy of clever allusions to all things Hitchcock, especially The Birds, who here become drones.  This part I got, and it works brilliantly.

I hear they are about to outlaw the use of drones in conjunction with VR.  I've also read elsewhere that VR will never be as big as the smartphone.  These are no-brainers really.  The Shine (Roberts' word for a dystopian all-pervasive addictive form of societal VR, almost like an STD in a way), well we never really go in there thankfully.  Not like, maybe, William Gibson would have (or has, really, in his books Neuromancer and The Peripheral especially).

But this is the strength of RTM.  It is its own thing.  Find this thing and read it, in itself.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Top Five Books of 2017

Here the top five books I've read (or am reading) this year.  There's a lot of science fiction, kicked off by my discovery this year of The Thing Itself (see previous posts), and the fact of post-colonial SF, with application to some new research started this year:

Decolonizing the Map, edited by James Akerman, and published by the University of Chicago Press (@UChicagoPress)

Zero Degrees, by Charles Withers, published by Harvard University Press (@Harvard_Press)

Austral, by Paul McAuley, published by Gollancz (@UnlikelyWorlds, @Gollancz)

Real-Town Murders, by Adam Roberts, published by Gollancz (@arrroberts, @Gollancz) (the original title was R!-town murders)

The Rift, by Nina Allan, published by Titan Books

Just off the top of my head, the books listed above have made the most impact on my scholarly life and imagination.