The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Where I get my other ideas from

(A couple of weekends ago I was a Guest of Honor at Boskone. I had a great time, and I would like to thank all the good folks at NESFA who made it possible. I haven't yet had time to write a con report, though I may yet. Meanwhile, here is my GoH talk, more or less as delivered.)

According to the programme here I'm a Trotskyist libertarian cyberpunk. I'm getting as bored with talking about all three of these subjects as you no doubt are with hearing me talk about them. So what I'm going to talk about today is other stuff that has gone into my writing. I'm going to talk about places and landscapes, religions and philosophies, and a little bit about real science and technology, and it's all going to be mixed up together because that's how they are. If you've read my books you can make the cross-references yourself and if you haven't you needn't worry, the talk will make sense without them. And along the way it may become clear why I'm completely bored with talking about Trotskyism, libertarianism and cyberpunk.

When I was a little kid I lived on the island of Lewis, which is about fifty miles long and about thirty miles across. It's a lump of eroded metamorphic rock with a thin covering of soil here and there and long sandy beaches on its Atlantic coast. It's a sad, sad, cynical place that has been the graveyard of many schemes of improvement. Like in Louis MacNeice's poem 'Bagpipe Music': It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible, all we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle. (In British English 'fags' means cigarettes, by the way.) You can understand its being sad. Just a couple of generations back, hundreds of young men returning from the First World War drowned within sight of the harbour at Stornoway. That is the sort of luck it has. As you might expect Lewis is - or was - totally dominated by Presbyterianism and drink and because the Presbyterian ministers make sure most of it is 'dry' young lads drive drunk for miles and miles on bad roads at night and get killed or crippled in car crashes. The boys who survive go to sea and the girls go to Glasgow to become nurses and the only population growth is ageing hippie New Age settlers and entrepreneurs who become suspects in Satanic abuse witch-hunts.

(That is a very slight exaggeration.)

For the summer holidays we used to go to Lochcarron, on the west coast of Scotland, which is a very different place. There are trees and people burn coal instead of peat and the grocery is a shop and not a van that comes around once a week, that sort of thing. And the hills are Torridonian sandstone rather than Lewissian gneiss. Also it rains even more than on Lewis. It's a few miles north of an area that has the highest rainfall in western Europe and not surprisingly that area is almost uninhabited. As far as we know, that is. There could be entire civilizations growing rice on terraced hillsides over there between Strathcarron and Kintail.

Now you might expect that coming from a place like that I had a really grim childhood. Not a bit of it! I had a very happy childhood and I still have the scars to prove it. They're on my shins where I banged them on rocks while I was running about on the hills. Downhill, mostly. One of the other things I used to do both in Lewis and Lochcarron was go off on wee expeditions that would have had my mother absolutely frantic with worry had she ever known about them which I made very sure she didn't. Our house was just outside the end of Glen Valtos, which is basically a ravine. Black cliffs facing each other across a wee river and a road. The wee river was tidal in its lower reaches and it had a rock-dam - a fish-trap - which we were told had been built by the Vikings. I remember my dad, who was a minister, chatting with some quarry workers, one of whom speculated that Glen Valtos was formed at the Passion, when the rocks were torn apart. My father's opinion was that it was formed at the creation. That shows you the the sort of place that glen was, or at least that's how I remember it.

So from when I was about eight or nine years old I used to go off and wander up the glen and scramble up the sides of it to a sort of nook where I could sit behind a rock and aim an imaginary machine-gun at cars on the roads for miles around. And on a particularly hot, silent afternoon - well, silent except for the distant din of the crusher at the quarry - I remember stopping in my scramble up the cliff with an odd feeling of presence, like when you're in a room that seemed empty and you feel that someone else has come in, or has been there all the time. I later recognised the same feeling on a likewise hot, silent afternoon in the gully of a river in Lochcarron. I don't have any mystical interpretations of it, I can think of several testable hypotheses for it off the top of my head, but I can understand why our ancestors found a significance in lonely rocky places.

In Lewis our ancestors' ruins were all around us, from the half-buried walls of abandoned crofts to the cattle-droving roads in the hills to the brochs - the hill-forts - and standing stones. G. K. Chesterton remarks somewhere how in Europe Roman ruins are all around us like the bones of a buried giant - well, these are older than Rome. And every time I come across some Stone Age place like that I get this sense of a connection with our ancestors, with my ancestors, which is a very tenuous form of the feeling I had a few years ago when I visited my father's grave in the cemetery at Lochcarron between the loch and the hills, and being, you know, a materialist I found myself having this strange reflection that bones, built by the same genes that were right that second building mine, were under that grass.

Now that maybe illustrates the sort of connection that place and landscape have in my mind with religion and philosophy. Once again you might expect that - given that my father was one of these Presbyterian ministers - I grew up with strong religious feelings and convictions and once again I have to say, not a bit of it. I heard every word of the Bible and I believed every word of it but it had no spiritual effect whatsoever. I learned all the theology from the Westminster Confession and the Shorter Catechism and I believed it to be true but I couldn't see any reason why anyone would want it to be true. In my late teens I remember reading lots of bad apologetics put out by the Inter-Varsity Press and other evangelical publishers and they would argue that the only alternative to Christianity was some sort of brutal free-for-all - you know, the three bad N's, Nietzsche, Nihilism and Nazism - and it suddenly struck me that the Greeks and Romans and Chinese had managed perfectly well in that respect of values and morals and so on without Christianity. And the fever left me. Now I should say in courtesy to those of you who are Christians that I now well recognise the intellectual and emotional appeal of the Christian religion but I have to say the version of it that I was taught may be a little different from the one you believe in. I should also say that this rather uncompromising version of the religion produces some truly admirable people and I am not one of them.

The first book I ever read that really made me see the point and appeal of any religion was Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. By the time I read it I was already an atheist and the demolition of biblical literalism and the contradictions in the narratives and the moral atrocities of Joshua and all that were all stuff I had worked through already, mainly from a wonderful little book called The Bible Handbook by G. W. Foote and W. P. Ball which is a cut and paste job on King James. It's like shooting coelacanths in a barrel, really. So what struck me most forcibly about Paine was not his biblical criticism but his Deism. He said: I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. My country is the world, to do good is my religion. My own mind is my own church. The word of God is the creation we behold. You read this, well I read this, and you think wow! that's some powerful religion, and you look around for Deists and you don't find any or hardly any and you sort of wonder where it all went in terms of an effect on the world and then you look around and realise it's all around you, it's America. That's what the Deists gave us. It's their creation we behold. And yes, in a Deistic sense I am very happy to say, God bless America. There's a little problem there which I'll come back to.

So ever since then I've had some affection for the rationalistic religions, the Deists and pantheists and Unitarians, and you can see some of that in my books. The feeling I got as a child on the side of the glen made these kind of religions emotionally as well as intellectually understandable. The book where that comes out most strongly is The Sky Road, where in a far-future and largely rural society the people believe in what they call the natural and rational religion. This is not impossible. In Transylvania there are peasants who have been Unitarians since the Reformation. They have their own churches and clergy and colleges and everything. No amount of persecution by Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and communists has shaken them in their conviction that God is One. Anyway, in The Sky Road the narrator at one point is walking alone in the great glen of Lochcarron and looking at the ancient Torridonian hills, which he sees as older than life on earth, older than the light from the visible stars, and he feels isolated from everything except God's terrible love. That experience of presence in emptiness is also quite significant, not for the plot but for the character who has it, in The Star Fraction, where Moh Kohn finds it in a virtual reality. It isn't emphasised at all but it is part of the reason why he goes on to do what he does. Jon Wilde in The Stone Canal refers to an odd experience he had when long ago he stuffed his face with magic mushrooms. He has a vision where he sees three goddesses, Mother Nature, Lady Luck and Miss Liberty, and interprets them as necessity, chance and freedom. I'm not going to say who I saw when I did the same thing. I had a very odd moment when I saw the window of the room I was in as if it was stained glass, blue and white. And then, believe it or not I saw a radio telescope transmitting the codes for the molecules in the mushrooms. So I guess I had a materialist vision after all.

I became a big enthusiast for the Stoics and Epicureans. In my early twenties I read Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe and was blown away, and later I read bits and pieces of Epicurus and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and they confirmed my earlier notion that the Romans really didn't need revealed religion to tell them the difference between right and wrong. By the way there's a lively new translation by Gregory Hays of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. The British poet Blake Morrison reviewed it in the Guardian: 'The translation doesn't shrink from anachronism (there's talk of atoms)'. Just as well he wasn't reviewing Lucretius. When I got around to writing Cosmonaut Keep I had great fun inventing the rites and mores of a religion based on the ancient materialists. This was partly inspired by J. B. S. Haldane's essay on religious liberty, where he discusses the imaginary republic of Krassnia. In Krassnia the official religion is dialectical materialism, but there are still traces of the old religion, mechanical materialism. When the chief commissar is inaugurated he is anointed with oil by the chief materialist philosopher, and this is widely understood to be a relic of the belief that man is a machine, and needs oiling.

One of the things the Epicureans had was a sort of relaxed view of sex as such but they rather frowned upon falling in love. So in the book I had a society where erotica was sold openly above the counter, and furtively under the counter in plain covers you had romance novels. Contrary to what some people think I don't usually advocate the policies adopted in the societies I imagine but in that instance I might make an exception.

Another philosopher who is arguably in the materialist and rationalist tradition is Spinoza. Spinoza was I think the first person to publicly point out in print the sort of things that Thomas Paine did about the Bible. He rather cleverly said they must have been foisted on the sacred text by impious hands. This didn't fool the Dutch Calvinist ministers or his own community's Amsterdam rabbis for a minute. Spinoza's philosophy was a sort of rationalist monism that identified God with Nature, although not just the nature we see, a notion he indignantly repudiated but which for some reason the rabbis and the ministers yet again, well ... you know how it goes. I don't claim to understand Spinoza - he's a very lucid but very difficult philosopher - but I put a lot of whatever it was I took from him into Newton's Wake, and not just in the bit where Lucinda says: 'God, or Nature, aye.'

Spinoza made some interesting contributions to political philosophy, one of which was when he argued, in effect, that Thomas Hobbes was a bit of a woolly-minded idealist. Hobbes is usually credited with tough-minded realism. As one of Ted Hondereich's students wrote in an essay, 'Hobbes tells us that life in the state of nature is poor, solitary, nasty, British and short.' But what Hobbes came up with to get us out of the state of nature was the social contract. We secure ourselves by turning over our power to the sovereign, who can then do no wrong. Very hard-headed. Especially by comparison with that other great political philosopher of his day, Sir Robert Filmer, who explained in Patriarchia how monarchy was justified because all the kings of the world were the legitimate descendants in the male line, according to the rules of primogeniture, from Adam, who was given dominion over the world by God, and therefore ... I'm sure you can see some problems with that and John Locke did too and had great fun pulling it apart in his First Treatise on Government. Locke, like Hobbes, based legitimacy on the notion of an original or maybe implicit contract.

But what Spinoza saw was that making this contract, whether it was real or imaginary, the basis of legitimate authority was both destabilising and unnecessary, as well as untrue. You all know the words: to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Here in Boston you can hear them read out from the balcony of the Old State House every Fourth of July. They are inspiring words but unfortunately they are not true. Governments do not originate in any kind of contract or consent, but in conquest. David Hume got it precisely right when he wrote: Into how many shapes have political reasonings been turned, in order to avoid an obvious, but, it seems, too homely a truth? The patriarchal scheme is nonsense. The original contract is opposed by experience. Men are unwilling to confess, that all government is derived from violence, usurpation or injustice, sanctified by time, and sometimes by a seeming imperfect consent.

Now scholars have argued about what Hume's politics actually were but none have ever accused him of being an anarchist. For Hume the unjust and violent origins are not an argument against government. The powers of government can be just and can be exercised justly with or without the consent of the governed. They are justified because they keep the peace, and only if they keep the peace. The imagined rational beings who signed the imagined social contract wouldn't need a government in the first place, but we do. Spinoza has a very precise and realistic view of human psychology, and it is not one of rational calculation of advantage and disadvantage. One interesting consequence of this is that libertarianism is mistaken in so far as it is based on the idea of a social contract, as in Robert Nozick; or in the idea that there is no social contract and therefore all authority is illegitimate - which is the same idea from the other end - or that if there isn't a social contract there bloody well ought to be. Why should I do this, I never signed up for it, where is this social contract, etc. It all sounds very teenage. Spinoza moved political philosophy away from this sort of petulance and towards something a bit more realistic. I'm not claiming he would have thought it probable that the galaxy could be ruled not entirely unjustly by a Glasgow crime family.

Now we come to the science bit. One of the things you might expect from what I've said about my upbringing is that I had a lot of scientific creationist nonsense shoved down my throat in my early years and that discovering the truth about biology and geology and evolution would be a shocking revelation and that I would be very bitter and twisted about how I had been misled. You would be absolutely right. I think I got as far as first year at university still thinking that even if creationism wasn't true there might be something in its criticisms of biology. That lasted all the way into my reading of the first chapter of the standard textbook, Keeton's Biological Science. As usual in such matters it was something trivial that tipped the balance. In this case it was Keeton's pointing out an obviously vestigial organ, the dew-claws of pigs. 'Why,' Keeton asked, 'would the Creator have given pigs, which walk on only two toes per foot, two other toes that dangle uselessly well above the ground?' I had no answer to that but I'm sure the Institute for Creation Science has several. Some time later I went on to read The Origin of Species and found how badly it had been misrepresented, and also and more seriously how strong Darwin's argument was.

The reason by the way why I was studying biology in the first place is that reading SF had given me the ambition of being a scientist, and despite getting to the level of first year physics at university I was really bad at maths. I was good at arithmetic but didn't understand mathematical reasoning at all. At some level I thought of maths as something empirical, sort like the molecular equations in chemistry. I do in fact remember when I was a little kid thinking that the rule of carry one, take away one must have been discovered by some very clever person in ancient times, probably Socrates. It was literally when studying over the summer to resit my university first year physics exam - which I did pass eventually - that I grasped the fact that what was on one side of an equals sign was a re-arrangement of what was on the other. I had just read A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic and been much seized of his point that logic is tautology, and that is the sole reason I eventually figured out what was going on in equations. I went around for days telling people that the terms on both sides were the same but stated differently. I'd have got fewer funny looks if I'd had an albatross around my neck. I'm still making discoveries like that. Last year I started re-reading Mathematics for the Million by Lancelot Hogben, and I got to the proof that the sum of the angles in a triangle is equal to two right angles, and I followed it through and I understood it. Yes! This is one of those eternal truths in the mind of God that Spinoza was on about! I swear that up until then I must have vaguely imagined that this had been discovered empirically. 'O Pythagoras, do your measurements of this triangle's angles add up to 180 degrees?' 'Indeed they do, O Socrates, plus or minus oh point one percent.' 'We have now measured four hundred and eighty-six triangles with the same result. That is statistically significant, O Pythagoras.' 'Indeed it is, O Socrates, you are right again as usual.' Once again I went around for days telling people about it and drawing lines on the backs of envelopes and in beer-slops on pub tables.

As a student of biology I had a fantastic time, particularly with palaeontology and marine biology. I did a practical course in marine biology at Millport on the Clyde. My own project was an investigation of something that I'd noticed that summer, which was how exposed barnacles react to the slightest splash of salt water but ignore rain water. All I could do was study their behaviour, using beakers and pipettes, so I called it 'the psychology of barnacles'. We collected specimens on the shore and went out on a research vessel and collected more from the sea and sorted them all out. You can find specimens of almost every phylum between the high and the low tide marks. It's amazing how they got sorted into separate strata in the Flood. All of that went into the Engines of Light books like seafood into chowder. And so, in a different way, did the hot-blooded dinosaurs. I heard one of the first public presentations of the argument that dinosaurs were hot-blooded and I heard the intake of breath and the nervous laughter when Alan Charig or whoever it was put up a slide showing the new classification that followed from that. Instead of birds, mammals and reptiles you had mammals, reptiles, and dinosaurs, with the birds in class Dinosauria, subclass Aves. In 1975 saying that birds are dinosaurs was really going out on a limb. Since then we have found the limb and it has feathers.

I went on to research the biomechanics of bones and eventually got a research degree so much later that my wife and two kids are in the photo. By then I had found my own ecological niche as a computer programmer, having discovered that programming is not at all like mathematics and is much more like the sort of empirical practice that I had mistakenly imagined mathematics to be. At least it is the way I practiced it. A few months ago I was talking to my friend Tony who works in IT and who used to work with Charlie Stross. He asked me how my latest novel was coming along and I said that for me writing was a lot like programming. You start by spending days on end staring miserably at a blank screen and at a few pathetic scrawls on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. So Tony said, yeah, it's like that for me too, but I remember when Charlie worked with us he would just look at the spec then start coding like a man possessed. Well, for me writing is different, it sometimes feels like the Great Work in Cosmonaut Keep, a book that has a lot more of my experiences in IT strung through it. Come to think of it, it has Charlie and Tony in it. Tony is the character who says: 'Karl H. Marx on a bicycle, Charlie, aren't aliens enough?' I worked in the IT industry for ten years and I could still do that if I had to, but I hope I don't. I like being a science fiction writer and I like the fact that you can shove all your experiences into it. Thank you.


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