Saturday, 23 April 2011

Certainty and expertise

Once again, Dr McGrath hits the spot with this post.

It really is what draws me to the Quakers' self-reliance when it comes to questions of faith.

We cannot look to the professed certainties of others to compensate for our own lack of conviction.

It is in fact remarkable that Quakers agree about anything. My own faith derives from the existence of core values of "love in action" associated with whatever the individual derives from their own "light". Improbable agreement plucked from the jaws of diversity.

To be able to live with this level of uncertainty may be intolerable to some but, in Addition to what Dr McGrath says about the true expert who knows his/her limitations, versus the certainty conferred by ignorance, any level of vagueness is surely preferrable to a certainty which would have us going forth to reek havoc against Christians, Moslems, or Jews, or anyone else we might identify as a pariah.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

"Virtual Light"

This post is my thoughts on a book I just read, not a blind person's belated April Fool joke.

William Gibson's 1993 book uses a definition of "virtual light" meaning information conveyed to the brain via the eyes and optic nerves, without the use of photons. But like any good novel, the quality derives from the plot and characters rather than from their imaginary technological context. I have never studied literature academically, so my definition of the novel in terms of plot and fictional characters is a personal one. It's relevant here, because I think there can be good Science Fiction which doesn't seek to be judged by the criteria which might impress me when reading John Irving for example. Isac Azimov is an author whose main preoccupations seem to be philosophical, as in the relation between humans and the machines they create, like "Multibank".

William Gibson's main interest seems to be in his extrapolation of an imaginary future, but he does have a gift for plot and character and, although "Virtual light" is essentially a good cop/bad cop story, it's a good thriller, in which a human instinct for justice and kindness is allowed to show itself among the many other less admirable human instincts, and the very powerful and very greedy are shown not to be invulnerable, which is fortunately and manifestly true.

The setting for the book is pure Gibson, and certainly has a ring of truth about it too. In this version of a not too distant future, anything we might call a middle class has vanished, and society seems broadly divided between those with conspicuous wealth, derived from a toxic cocktail of finance and security, and the rest, typified by hustlers trying to make a buck, while the trappings of our service economy have fallen into decay. The euro has "imploded", and the individual states of the USA havebecome more and more separate, while the have nots can no longer afford consumerism, and the great malls stand derelict. Tokyo has been destroyed by a massive earthquake, while San Francisco has been hit by a smaller one, "The Little Grande". this latter quake has destroyed the access tunnels to the Golden Gate bridge, rendering it inaccessible to traffic. Immediately, its massive structure is occupied by those looking for somewhere to live, and a whole community of random individuals grows up in a completely unplanned way, with people making use of whatever comes to hand, plywood, steel, even a stained glass window from a church, all worked into the cables, or lashed to the towers. Something of its spirit reminded me of Christiania in Copenhagen. It's a community whose only unifying factor is the need to protect itself; and the best way of doing that is for people to look out for one another. The best way to insure that someone will watch your back is their need for you to watch theirs.

This De Facto community is born out of individual necessity, and one of its original members is Skinner, who takes in a fever stricken girl, Chevette Washington, and nurses her back to health. The symbiotic relationship of the old man and the young girl embodies the ethos of "the Bridge". Skinner's increasing physical infirmity means that he needs a messenger to take various items which he has scavenged over the years down to the swarms of buyers and sellers on the bridge who will provide them with money to buy food from other sellers. In the process, Chevette gains from Skinner's long and invaluable experience and, because of the respect in which the old man is held, she remains safe while learning. In this version of our future, humanity's talent for adapting and surviving makes the stuff which used to be completely disposable now reusable, collectable, and tradable; the currency of those who have nothing else.

Eventually, Chevette gets a job as a bike messenger "pulling tags", delivering high value packages to the rich. These rich, taking refuge from the dispossessed in their gated communities, need private security companies like Intensecure to guard them. The story's good cop, Berry Riddall, finds himself working for Intensecure, being one of those people to whom things just happen, whose best instincts often run counter to the official line.

The disparate elements in this tale all converge on a pair of "Virtual Light" glasses, which Chevette steals from an obnoxious drunk at a party into which she wanders, being totally ignorant of what it is she has stolen, and how important it is to those who have lost it, believing the theft to have been planned.

These glasses, the latest and greatest model, give the wearer access to any data associated with the object being viewed - the ultimate espionage tool. So, anyone who knows what they're looking at can tell, by looking at the Sunflower Corporation building, that there is a plan to redevelop San Francisco from the ground up, as has already been done with Tokyo, without any view to the wishes or welfare of the current inhabitants. The corporate alliances behind this plan will stop at nothing to stop such sensitive information becoming public; and the gradual realisation of the "little guy" protagonists in the novel of what they have inadvertently got themselves into, and their attempts to survive, and to thwart the unbridled power of concentrated wealth, form the substance of the "thriller" part of this narrative.

Inevitably, some suspension of disbelief is required, but it's a story, and there's probably no more of it involved than there is in thinking that coincidences can happen which make things go "right" as well as "wrong".

I think William Gibson is to be congratulated for managing to make a thought provoking, and excitingly entertaining story from the treatment of themes such as what happens when mass consumerism fails, and wealth becomes concentrated into increasingly few hands. Among those whose principal concern is survival, the way in which the potential "love interest" story between Chevette and Berry is handled is particularly well done. Sexual thoughts are fleeting and tangential. This world is brutal, but not without warmth.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Duty and vows; failure and success

For better or worse, this post feels like the spirit of Tangentville, whatever that is.

It started with Edward Sturton's excellent interview with Tom Hooper, director of "The King's Speech".

Hooper depicts George V as a man driven by a sense of duty to do a job which he did not want, and by which he was terrified. That legacy has been passed down, and lies at the heart of what our current queen regards as the discharging of her role as head of state. An overwhelming sense of duty can give human beings tunnel vision, and can lead people into dark places. We may succeed in doing what we see as our duty or we may fail. Thus Diana, late Princess Of Wales, found herself caught up in others' sense of duty, the politics of royal marriage and the need for clear succession to the throne, while her husband, having discharged his duty to his family and country, clearly fell short of his obligations to a woman who loved him - obligations he had freely taken on. This is to say nothing more than sometimes we succeed, with good results, and sometimes we fail, with tragic results. Our success or failure may result from conflicting personal priorities, or from some endemic personal weakness.

Being lately married myself, I'm bound to think of the vows I have recently made, and previous vows I had to break in order to make them. All the individual can do is to follow his/her conscience. Every set of circumstances is unique. Past failure doesn't guarantee future failure, as those fond of making blanket judgments might say. And we may find that tendency in ourselves in different areas. For instance, it strikes me that the Roman Catholic church's monumental mishandling of the sexual abuse of children by priests has tended to make me hostile to priests who have done absolutely nothing to deserve hostility. Celibacy may be too risky for the Church hierarchy to insist upon it, but that doesn't mean it can never work for some people. As I say, sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed, and only we can know the most likely outcome, based on previous experience and self-knowledge. It would seem that charles failed Diana because, God help them both, he did not love her enough. On an individual level, love certainly seems to be a better basis for human action than duty.