September 2004

Ephemeral Isle











1 September 2004

An Apology

I'd like to say sorry to everyone who's been trying to access Ephemeral Isle over the past couple of days without success.   There seems to have been some major bad coding going on that was screwing up the downloads so bad that I couldn't even access the HTML in my editor.  Sometimes drastic measures are called for, so I've jettisoned the entire file and rebuilt it from scratch.

If you still can't gain access to this page, I shan't apologise further, as you won't be able to read this anyway.

Dental Dispatch

Oh, the joys of dental surgery.   Yes, indeed.  Having someone jabbing me under the gums with steel probes and ultrasonic drills and THEN asking me if I want anaesthetic.  I think they do it just so they can hear my feeble whines of assent, which in my case are very feeble indeed.  I suspect similar motives in how they administer the anaesthetic.  I'm sure that the first shot they give is for the pain, but the second one is meant to spread merriment throughout the land by deadening half my tongue so I go around for the rest of the afternoon talking like I'm carrying a small turtle in my mouth.  I went to the chemist's to fill a prescription for medicated mouthwash and came away with a boot covered with cheese. 

This is nothing as compared with when the drugs wear off.  Then  I can seriously feel that a miniature rugby squad has been celebrating a three-nil victory in my cheek and I'm firmly convinced that the dentist has slipped at least fifteen more teeth into my jaw.  Naturally, I don't want anything solid to eat, so my diet last night consisted of aspirin, brandy, soup, and pudding.  Did you know that this is a combination guaranteed to give you a serious dose of the trots?  I didn't, but I do now. 

Needless to say, this has been more than somewhat distracting.  What's even more distracting is that I have to go through this sort of thing twice more.

Dental health is distinctly overrated. 

The Bicycle Thief

It may be minus five for good sense, but this bear definitely deserves ten out of ten for style.

How France Handles the War

Why am I not surprised?  The French could save a bomb by replacing their armed forces with an answering machine with the message, "Nous nous rendons."

War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
- John Stuart Mill


2 September 2004

The Grail

"Gentlemen, after months of painstaking research I can say with confidence that we have finally located John Kerry's charisma."


3 September 2004

A Triumph of Progress


The pen for people who are incredibly clumsy, are compulsive about writing in their diaries while flying in open cockpit stunt planes,  or have way too much time on their hands.  Whatever, people will stop returning your calls. 


6 September 2004

Happy Labour Day


Enjoying a bit of family time during the American Labour Day holiday.


Back tomorrow and if you have today off, enjoy!


7 September 2004

Family Day

Sunday is Family Day at the Szondy household, though we don't usually expect to spend it as we did yesterday with a three AM start because Emma had another asthma attack and we had to make another red-light running trip to hospital.

By now, it's become something of a routine for us.  We shoot for the casualty ward, Emma is looked at, Daddy makes a vending machine run while Mama pulls up a cartoon on the television that the Children's Hospital mercifully has in all the exam room, and we do the standard nail-biting as we wait for the news of whether we're going home of she's being admitted. 

This time we weren't so lucky and Emma was sent off to yet another stay for a course of albuterol and steroid treatments that made her feel better, but also made her as hyperactive as a lit Catherine wheel.  If you haven't tried controlling a two-year old on uppers in a room full of delicate medical equipment when you've had an hour's sleep in 36, then you haven't lived.

We've done this so often that after Emma was settled in her room I was on my way to the University Village shopping centre, which has a 24 hour supermarket and a very spooky Musak system that plays classical tunes in the car park at four AM.  I picked up the usual packet of crisps, magazines (Popular Mechanics, Popular Science for me; Entertainment Weekly, Premiere Magazine for Mama; and Time to split the difference), and then it was off to Jack in the Box for some breakfast and a cup of lukewarm coffee that had been sitting in the pot way too long.

Then it was the long day of treatments, trying to keep Emma entertained and out of trouble, finding an empty room for Mama to crash in when lack of sleep caught up with her, and an hour's sweet relief for Daddy when Emma finally dropped off for an hour.  I can get used to all of that, but what I cannot get used to is lunchtime when I'm stumbling around the shops with a two-day growth of beard, wearing a pair of dirty trousers over my pyjamas and no socks (not pleasant with leather shoes) while fighting a  mixture of sleep deprivation and caffeine jag and muttering notes into my digital pocket recorder.  I think if it weren't for my accent and the plastic ID card pinned to my cardigan identifying me as the father of a hospital patient I'd have ended up in a hospital myself; the sort of very large orderlies chosen for their deftness with straitjacket buckles.

We were lucky this time.  Emma responded quickly to her treatments and we were able to convince the doctor that she would get more rest at home instead of her trying to break out of her gaol cell of a bed every ten minutes. Now we are in the middle of the joys of the knock-on effect.  We are all suffering from sleep deprivation and stress, and Emma is still wired from her medicine, which doesn't make things any easier.  Not to mention that our schedules have taken a cannonball right in the keel, the dishes are both dirty and dried out, and the rubbish bin has developed a whole new world of new smells.  On top of it all, a day and a half of fast food has caused a rebellion in my bowels that will go before the UN tomorrow for crisis talks. 

All in all, I feel like I've just spent the weekend travelling on an airliner in coach.

Elektro in Ohio


Photo Courtesy Jack Weeks

Elektro the Westinghouse Motoman began his limited engagement public appearance in Mansfield, Ohio over the weekend to standing room only crowds.  According to his manager Jack Weeks, it was a bit touch and go, as the World's Fair mechanical veteran kept trying to sneak off down the pub for a couple of quick ones. 


8 September 2004

The John Kerry/Green Goblin Worst-Case Scenario


"No one says 'no' to me!"

John Kerry is taking such a thin-skinned approach to the US presidential campaign that, given his sense of entitlement, current interest in shotguns, and pronounced chin, his likely defeat in November might be a tad much for him to take.  In the event, we recommend that he be kept away from all experimental one-man gliders, strength-enhancing formulas, and disintegrator grenades until he has a little lie down somewhere. 

RIP Floppy Drive

3.5 Inch Grave

The humble floppy drive is going the way of the dodo, the passenger pigeon, and the 8-track.  It is no longer being offered by Dell in their computers and other manufacturers are offering it as an optional extra.

The family request no flowers

Ah, yes, I remember the dear old floppy well.   In my salad days, they were dirty great things in cardboard sleeves that you needed just to boot up the computer.  Naturally, these were always carefully stored and naturally you could never find the blasted things in the morning.  Then they became the little plastic tiles that seemed to Star Trekesque when I first saw them used as a prop on Max Headroom.  A little metal slidey door?  The future has arrived!  Then they became pains in the proverbial because they were so slow and held so little data that they eventually couldn't hold a single file, much less act as a back-up medium.  And, of course, let us not forget the Curse of the Fridge Magnet that could obliterate a week's work if you weren't careful where you put the things down.  Not much of a eulogy, but I once lost an entire manuscript when my little pile of floppies  and the duplicates were stowed on a ferry in Africa next to a cranky generator that did a pretty good job as a bulk eraser.

The floppy is survived by Zip drives, who are not at all well.

Now Pay Attention, 007

Is this the real M?


9 September 2004

Back to Normal

My daughter is feeling fit as a fiddle, which means that we were awoken bright and early by a little munchkin who wanted to crawl into bed with us and watch TV.  She's getting to that phase when she's starting to put two and two together, so it wasn't surprising when she opened the doors of the wardrobe where we keep the bedroom telly and then handed me the remotes to turn it on.  What was weird is that she first handed me my specs so that I could see what I was doing.  How did she connect that particular dot?

I can also tell that we're getting back to normal when Emma and Daddy had a contest of wills over a notebook that Mama uses to record Emma's medicine doses.  Emma wanted it for artistic purposes, Daddy stood athwart the path of her whims, we had an hour's worth of force five tantrums.

It was almost a deliverance when it was time to take her to school and I got to spend an hour replacing a faulty wireless router and reconfiguring a distinctly cranky network.  I'd been fighting with that thing for weeks as I played a game of elimination that would have made Sherlock Holmes proud.  In the end, I narrowed the problem down to the wireless router and after two hours on the line to their tech support hotline (very helpful chaps at Linksys), we concluded that the hardware was kaput and arranged a same day swap via UPS.  Seems so simple; just take the new component out of the box and plug it in.  Nope.  Lots running from computer to computer, poking around in arcane set up windows, hunting for driver disks, and sitting through half a dozen restarts on each machine on the network.  In the end, though, it was like landing a fish after a long, hard struggle, only without all the scales and flopping about.

NASA Prangs Probe


"I'm okay!"

Yesterday, the sample return module of the NASA Genesis probe did a Beagle 2 and ploughed into the Utah desert when its parachute failed.  The module, which contained samples of the solar wind, was released earlier by the Genesis probe on its return from a six-year mission.  Because of the fragile nature of the collecting array, the probe was supposed to be hooked by helicopters flown by Hollywood stunt men before it hit the ground, but the chute failure turned the probe into a meteor and is now in a condition that could be regarded as a warranty violation.  NASA scientists hope to recover some of the samples from the wreckage, but there's a whole lot of Utah mixed in there.

Star Trek RIP?  If Only!

There's talk in the New York Times that the Star Trek franchise is played out and that Paramount is going to let it die, or at least go into indefinite hiatus.   Gads, I hope so!  When I was a boy I loved the original series and I have looked forward to every new incarnation with hope, but with the exception of the second film, which felt like a Hornblower novel in places,  I have found every single one a bitter disappointment.   The rotten acting and the horrendously preachy scripts were bad enough (Liberals will inherit the universe!), but I'd have forgiven all of that if just one writer or director had shown even curiosity about what life aboard a space-faring warship would really be like or built a world that the people in it could take seriously.  Instead, we got a theme park where the first commandment was, "Thou shalt not have any plot development in the first three quarters of an hour."  Let's face it, Star Trek wasn't about space or the future; it was about Southern California with the Next Generation as a high school, DS9 as a shopping mall, Voyager as a school bus, and Enterprise as a field trip.  Pulling the plug would only be a mercy.

News from the Russian Front

I haven't said anything about that vile business in Beslan because the whole episode makes me angry beyond belief.  Anyway, Lileks did a better job than I could have managed.

New Section in Tales of Future Past

We have a new section in Tales of Future Past on Nikola Tesla, the remarkable inventor who went from being father of the AC power system to death-ray promoting pigeon fancier.  Enjoy!


10 September 2004

World's Dullest Channel

Gerald was beginning to regret the day that he subscribed to the Cue Ball Network.

World's Fair Revisionism

Lileks has a column with a jolly good rant about architecture and the 1939 World's Fair.  I'm acquainted with the canard that fair was a gigantic con game on the part of  wicked American corporations to get people to buy consumer goods (The fair was intended to drum up business  and bring money to New York in a depression, for heaven's sake!), but I didn't know that this line was being pushed by a children's site.

Oh, wait.  It's PBS.  That explains it.

Genesis Update

I love this assessment from CNN (8 September):

"Up to this point, the mission had been a success."

Just before it slammed into the ground.  Right.

(Tip 'o the hat to The Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web.)


13 September 2004

The War: Three Years On

Never forget.

My way of marking 9/11 wasn't to join a candlelight vigil or to tie ribbons on trees.  My way was to take Emma to the zoo.  It was a strange afternoon.  Normally, the Woodland zoo is packed; especially on a sunny late-summer's day, but on Saturday the crowds were very thin and a suspicious number of exhibits and the pony rides were closed for one excuse or another.  I found it unnerving for about five seconds, then I dismissed the feeling and put one in the eye of Bin Laden by hiring a wagon and pulling  Emma and her brace of baby dolls around to see the "monkeys," which in her taxonomy include all primates from lemurs up to gorillas. 

I didn't do a special posting on 11 September to commemorate the attacks on New York and Washington DC for two reasons:  First, I dislike making remembrance days out of the anniversaries of horrible defeats, which 9/11 was for the West.  I'm much more concerned about getting to celebrating VI (Victory against Islamism*) Day.  This is no longer the time of 1939 or 1941.  This isn't the time to be reflecting on the folly of Munich or the carnage of Pearl Harbour.  This is 1943 and we're planning the Normandy invasion.   Second, I believe that the best way to stick one in the eye of the terrorists is not to be afraid of them.  I've watched the horrors of Beslan, Jakarta, and Madrid, and I'll be damned if I'm going to live in fear of those barbarians.  Instead, I plan to live my life as normally as is possible in a time of war while doing what tiny bit I can to make sure that the swine who plot the slaughter of innocents never get a quiet night's sleep ever again. 

Living a normal life these days isn't just desirable it's necessary.  America is such an open society that fighting a defensive war against the terrorists is as close to a hopeless cause as I can imagine.  There are too many ways across the borders, people and goods move so freely, and the people have such a reluctance to look upon their fellows with suspicion that catching the madman before he rams a pickup full of explosives into a shopping mall on his way to collect his 72 virgins just isn't feasible.  The system here is intended to deal with crime and civil disorder, not acts of war like Beslan.

Beslan hit particularly close to home because my wife manages a preschool and since the Russian incident some of the teachers have been a bit worried about what they can do to protect their little charges.  My wife talks about the options that they discussed, such as lock-downs, emergency numbers, evacuations, etc., but both she and I know that it's all papering over the cracks.  Unless the school decides to literally issue handguns to the teachers, there's no practical way of protecting the children.

Or rather, there is and that is what the coalition is doing now.  By taking the war to the enemy, smashing his organisation, sowing dissent in his ranks, knocking out or cowing his sponsors, leaving him no safe haven, making it clear that he will never gain anything by his foul deeds, and giving hope to the people of the Islamic world rather than excuses for their condition, we come that much closer to keeping our children safe. 

In the meantime, my job is to heap scorn on the vile dreams of the Islamists by reminding myself that I have a daughter to take to school and then treat to an afternoon at the aquarium. 

Take that, you bastards.

*Note I said Islamism.  I have no quarrel with Islam per se, just with the .001% that wants to slaughter the Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and the other 99.999% of their co-religionists that they see as apostates in league with the Great Satan.


14 September 2004

Time to Let It Go, Mr. Rather

Um... Dan?

In a bid to keep the National Guard story alive, CBS News anchorman Dan Rather offered to release the PDF files that he claimed the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian made of the controversial memos in 1972.


15 September 2004

Turning Point

"Nothing to worry about; it's wearing pyjamas."


16 September 2004

Crew Set Fire to Yacht to Signal Help

The crew of a floundering yacht in the Irish sea set fire to their stricken vessel to signal for help before taking to the life raft. 

Personally, I'd have invested in a good box of flares.

Electrical Safety Reminder

Once again, Reggie forgot to unplug first.


17 September 2004

Well, I feel safer!

Kofi Annan demonstrates the classic UN response to the world situation

And Not Forgetting...

By the way, Mr. Annan, how is that oil for food scandal going? 

This will go down as a classic:

Memos were fake, but accurate

Right... then so is this.  

Do the Maths

Okay: One visit by Batman to Buck House,

+ One breach of the House of Commons by hunt supporters,

+ One fake bomb smuggled into the Palace of Westminster the very next day,

= One very good reason why we have to fight the terrorists on their own turf.

We sure as hell can't protect ours.

On a Lighter Note...

Footy Badgers!

Tip o' the hat to James Lileks


20 September 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

If you can’t get enough of Tales of Future Past, then I heartily recommend taking in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  If you’ve been reading the reviews, then you know that Hollywood has been jumping up and down over the film being made entirely on blue screen and what this means for the future of movies, but for really serious cinema aficionados the real question is, what about those giant robots? 

One of the side effects of the DVD revolution is that I’ve been able to build up such a large library of my favourite films that I don’t have to rely on new releases for my entertainment and I can afford to look upon every new movie out of Hollywood with the sort of gimlet-eyed distrust that I hitherto reserved for the Booker Prize short list.  I still get dragged to the cinema for one reason for another, but I rarely look forward to the event with little more than faint trepidation.  It’s for this reason that something like Sky Captain is like the first draught of Guinness after getting the two-year old to bed.  The moment the first chords of the score came up I suspected that I was in for a good time and when the Zeppelin docked on the mast of the Empire State Building I knew for sure. 

It’s clear that the Conran brothers, who are the creators of Sky Captain, are really in love with the source material and are quite able to put a pastiche up on the screen that is entertaining for a modern audience without descending into the dire slough of irony and camp.  This is a story set in the future as it should have been; a world projected by the 1939 World’s Fair and the covers of Amazing with Doc Savage, G8, and Biggles providing the storyline.  

The Sky Captain of the title is Joe Sullivan, a soldier of fortune with a high-tech island base outside of New York City.  When the world’s top scientists are kidnapped and giant robots right out of a Max Fleischer Superman cartoon raid the world’s cities for machines and raw materials, Sky Captain is called in to deal with the menace.  Flying his P-40E “Warhawk” fighter, which is customised in ways that the Curtis people would never have believed, and aided by a woman reporter with all the common sense of Lois Lane on a bad day, our hero follows the trail of the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (played by Lord Olivier!).  Along the way he battles tentacled androids, radio-controlled ornithopters, death-ray wielding assassins, and the End of the World when that gets too boring. 

This film looks fantastic.  The fact that it’s done entirely on blue screen isn’t evident, though the lighting and colour palette goes a long way to cover up any flaws, and the Kerry Conran's  leaning toward the darkly lit chrome and steel deco school of technology keeps things grounded even when things go completely over the top, which they do in ever increasing spirals.  Sometimes things get a bit too much, such as when Angelina Jolie shows up as a one-eyed female Royal Navy captain, but I had to admit that if I was going to swallow the camel of a flying aircraft carrier I could hardly strain at the gnat of Jolie’s commanding it. 

Some critics have faulted the film for its pulp story and two-dimensional characters, but they are overlooking the fact that Sky Captain is a pulp story brought to life.  That’s its whole point.  And as for the characters, they are like the characters in a Bond film.  They aren’t there to be explored; they’re there to be defined so they can get on with the plot.  Jude Law does a sterling job as Sky Captain, though Gwyneth Paltrow comes across a tad weak as the reporter Polly Perkins.  I also thought that the love/hate banter between them got a bit much, though it did set up the ending nicely. 

Oh, and keep an eye out for the best last line that I’ve heard in years. 

On a Lighter Note...

And now: Fishies!

Tip o' the hat to Samizdata


21 September 2004

Medical Moments


Doctor, yesterday it was no bigger than my thumb.

"Doctor, it was no bigger than my thumb yesterday."


22 September 2004

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Returns to Radio!

"I find this news very depressing."A new radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy began yesterday on BBC 4.  Based on the last three books of the five-part "trilogy,"  the new series reunites much of the original cast including Simon Jones, Geoffrey McGivern, Mark Wing-Davey, Stephen Moore, and Susan Sheridan.  And listen out for Agrajag.  He (it?) is being played by the (in the BBC's words) "immortal" Douglas Adams, who died in 2001, but in an incredible burst of foresight recorded his part beforehand. 

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy can be heard  on BBC 4 every Tuesday at 1830 BST.  Don't live in Britain?  No problem.  A live Internet feed is available on the web site linked above.

Okay, by the time you've read this, you've missed the first episode... or have you?  Don't wrap your towel 'round your head; each episode will be available from the web site for seven days after the broadcast date.



I'm listening to the first episode now and I'm just as confused and delighted as I was in 1979.  Simon Jones, Geoffrey McGivern and the rest are sounding their age, but that doesn't matter because it's as bizarre, anarchic, and downright silly as the original.  Let's hope the other episodes can keep up the pace.


23 September 2004

Election Update

John Kerry discovers that changing himself into a giant floating eyeball is not the way to improve his polling numbers.

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Extortionist

Is Reuters objective or just craven?


24 September 2004

Looking on the Bright Side

On the other hand, Arthur did save a fortune on disposable contact lenses.


27 September 2004

Childhood's End and Clarke's Utopia

I recently, I finished rereading Childhood’s End (1954) by Arthur C. Clarke.  This is one of those classics that every sci-fi fan has read, but usually at such a young age that the sort of literary comparison he brings to it is based on dog-eared copies of Eagle comics.  Now I’m at that age when I spend as much time rereading old books as I do reading new ones, probably because I’ve forgotten the details of so many and because I figure that thirty years is enough time to give me a new perspective on old works, so when a hardback copy reprint of Clarke’s novel fell into my hands, I figured what the heck. 

When I reread the giants of science fiction (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury), I am amazed at how simple their plots, ideas, and even grammars are.  These are the writings of fully-grown men rated among the genre’s best, yet they are fixed forever in the shallows of adolescence.  Compare them with Wells, or Orwell, or Chesterton and one is astonished at the difference— not just in terms of ideas, but in command of the English language.  They’re readable, but all of them suffer from an under-polished pulp style.  All save Bradbury, that is, who errs in being excessively purple in his prose of the sort that school librarians dote on, but let’s face it, when it comes to the well-honed sentence, P. G. Wodehouse leaves them all cold.

I have a great love of Clarke’s stories and regard him as quite a gentle, likable man, but I am astonished by his lack of understanding of human nature and his inability to grasp the other man’s argument, which manifests itself in doubting the other’s intelligence.  It’s not a malicious or wilful blindness, however.  It comes across more as a man who is so in love with his idea that he is hesitant to take a whack at it to test its strength.  It’s the failing that one expects more of a novice writer who cannot bear to give his hero too hard a time, so the plot comes across as one dirty big stacked deck.

Childhood’s End is the story of the end and rebirth of man.  Aliens come to our planet in gigantic spaceships that blot out the Sun over all the major cities.  If you’ve seen V or Independence Day you’ve seen this ripped off.  The Overlords, as the visitors are called, take over the world without a shot being fired and set about reforming Earth society into a utopia.  They keep themselves hidden for the first fifty years of their rule because of they just happen to have horns, bat wings, and barbed tails; but that’s no problem because humans have “progressed” so far under the Overlords’ rule that they quickly get used to their masters’ devilish appearance.  What man doesn’t realise is that the Overlords are not there to help Earth become a perfect world, but to act as midwives as the children of Earth spontaneously mutate into superbeings who will ultimately merge with an entity called the Overmind and destroy the planet in the process.  Now that is a Generation Gap. 

This was a sensational in its day, but if the ending sounds familiar it’s because Clarke and Stanley Kubrick recycled it, more successfully, in 2001: a Space Odyssey I found Childhood’s End readable in 1969, I was struck by how clumsy and pedestrian it reads today.  The book is an expansion of a short story, Guardian Angel that Clarke had published in 1946, and it shows.  The first section of the novel is the short story word for word, which is unfortunate, as a good deal of the action is taken up by a ridiculous subplot about a kidnapped UN secretary general.

The way in which the UN is viewed in this book is interesting and it shows how much things have changed in fifty years.  Back then, Clarke thought it only natural that the UN should be the body that would speak for all mankind, intercede with the Overlords, and form the nucleus of a one-world government.  This idea of all nations coming together and rising above the concerns of petty nationalism had a tremendous pull in those days, especially after the horrors of the Second World War.  If you look at the sci-fi films of the day from When Worlds Collide to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and everything in between it seemed perfectly natural to lay any great problem at the feet of the UN rather than that of, say, the United States, Great Britain, or NATO.  Planet about to crash into Earth?  Call the UN.  Polar ice cap melting in one afternoon?  Find the UN’s number.  Giant gorilla sighted on a remote island?  Despatch a UN ship.  Need to put a man on the Moon?  Get the UN on the job. 

In the 21st century, this reverence is almost charming.  Nowadays the big news isn’t what the UN does, but whether anyone takes its decisions seriously or even consults it in the first place.  In 1954, the UN was seen as a body of altruistic and strangely incorruptible discourse where, for some unfathomable reason, national governments abandoned their interests and ideologies in the name of Reason.  And Reason is what Childhood’s End is all about. 

Clarke’s basic premise regarding our world was that we faced the “inescapable” threat of nuclear war unless an Age of Reason is implemented.  And the Overlords are the exemplars of Reason.  For Clarke, Reason is sufficient to make people act morally, though the nature of that morality is neatly sidestepped.  Of course, Clarke never really understood that there is no relationship between civilisation and technology.  You would think that a man who had faced a Nazi Germany with state of the art missiles and a Communist Russia with H-bombs would notice that these were pretty nasty pieces of work for all their scientists.

The Overlords, however come from a world with a vastly superior science and therefore they must be vastly more civilised.  Mind you, that sits about as well as the argument of Soviet science fiction writers that we needn’t worry about any aliens we might encounter in space, because they’re all bound to be good Communists. 

In many respects, the whole man evolving into supermen bit is really more of a subplot.  The real star of the show is the utopia that the Overlords bring to Earth and it gives a marvelous insight into Clarke’s philosophy, which was indicative of much of sci-fi of that time.  In Clarke’s world, the root of human ills is lack of technology, and technology is the fruit of Reason.  Indeed, he worships Reason in a manner that would have done dear old Robespierre’s dry, blackened little heart good.  But Clarke goes one better.  He is a man who is very much in love with technology the way other men love poetry or religion.  Indeed, for Clarke technology is a religion of an all-encompassing dogma.  In his view, politics and economics are irrelevant compared to science.  They are mere epiphenomena that feed off of science and one suspects that the Overlords do not interfere in human economic or political structures so much out of a sense of decorum as the knowledge that they are meaningless vanities when faced with Science.  (Note the capital letter.)

Clarke has a remarkably benign view of the future and technology’s role, as shown by the contrast between his and Kubrick’s version of 2001 and Clarke’s evolving view of HAL and the Bowman entity.  I still cannot understand how those two ended up collaborating on that film.  For Kubrick, man was a clapped-out species whose technical achievements were the products of a civilisation at a sterile cul de sac.  If man was going to do anything other than descend into the Keir Dullea school of acting, he had to be lifted up by some transcendent cosmic race into a new level of being.  In this equation, HAL was both a shadow of man’s hubris and a competitor for his transcendence to be defeated.  For Clarke, HAL is just a misunderstood machine, man is merely fulfilling his proper destiny as a superman in training, and the aliens are an incredibly advanced species the nature of which it is really best not to dwell on in other than vagaries.  Indeed, if you read the later Odyssey books, you can see the transformed Bowman go from being The Next Step for Man to an annoying bit of software, and the aliens go from gods to terraformers to preschool teachers to just annoying beasts easily dealt with.  Clarke likes his godlike aliens either offstage or manageable.  For him, it is technology as the handmaiden of Reason that is important.  The end-goal of godhood is there, but it is in many ways an embarrassment best not dwelt on.

Interestingly, Childhood’s End falls into a common fault of ‘50s sci-fi in that soft sciences are treated as hard sciences and Clarke quickly ends up attributing social scientists with powers that even God has not exhibited. And that is not merely a cheap rhetorical phrase.  Clarke is an outspoken atheist of a type that is actually quite common in science fiction circles.  He has taken his gods and angels (Clarke doesn’t seem comfortable with dæmons.) and simply moved them down a notch.  Overmind is God, the Overlords are angels, with a devilish twist for a bit of irony.  But the true God has a love of free will and allows man full reign of it.  Like many sci-fi writers, Clarke is uncomfortable with free will and alternately brushes it aside or claims that it can be overcome.  In the novel, the Overlords are able to deliver speeches that are so carefully crafted along the lines of unbeatable psychology that they’re utterly persuasive to their human audiences.  Well, for dramatic licence I’ll buy that, but it introduces a paradox.  Childhood’s End is a worship of Reason; that is supposedly the fountainhead of all good.  But if the Overlords can deliver a speech that has been deliberately crafted in such a way as to conquer human psychology and be overwhelmingly convincing, then what price Reason?  You aren’t winning an intellectual argument; you’re gulling the gullible.

 To Clarke, this is not a problem, because humans, in his narrative, are remarkable passive and submit meekly to the Overlord yoke.  Why argue with so rational a master?  It’s technocracy, but people will easily submit to a technocracy because it is effective.  It eliminates war, poverty, disease, crime, uncivil behaviour, and all the other ills of humanity.  Granted, Clarke is staggeringly vague as to how this would work in comparison with his discussion of star drives and such, but from his point of view it is blindingly obvious.

Stripped of Clarke’s Overlords this technocratic utopia is a perfect embodiment of the temptation of having just a little tyranny until people see the light.  What we are seeing here has been around since the frustrations of Plato.  The Overlord is the Philosopher King, who reigns from age 35 to 50 and then departs for the Isles of the Blest.  In the meantime, he brings peace, but it is peace that comes about from enforcement.

Initially, there is some opposition to the Overlords’ benign despotism, but it is made crystal clear that all opposition is due to superstition and nothing more.

And religion is superstition.  Of one of the few opponents to Overlord rule it is said,

“You will find men like him in all of the world's religions.  They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs; they fear that we will overthrow their gods.  Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion.  Science can destroy a religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets.  No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” 

Actually, they had few then.  Clarke overrates the threat of science to religion.  I don’t think that Clarke is any more hostile to religion than he is to economics or nationalism.  He simply cannot tolerate any rival to science, which he seems to genuinely regard as the true faith.  But religion is a heresy and as such, it must die.  Indeed, it was dying even before the Overlords appear.  Clarke has no place for religion in his world.  In his view, "Religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses."  He tries to be dismissive of religion by having the Overlords give man a machine that allows him to view the past.  Being able to do so, all religion vanishes. 

One character states: “The statement that God created man in his own image is ticking like a time bomb in the foundations of Christianity.”  I wonder what assumptions lie behind that quote.  Clarke seems to believe that the relationship between man and God is based upon man’s overweening sense of self-importance rather than upon God’s love despite our corruption and insignificance.  Clarke holds to the idea that our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence must give the deathblow to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  That is based upon a number of very large hidden assumptions, not the least of which is that science is man’s true religion.

A lot of this stems from logical positivism: a philosophy that Clarke embraced at the age of ten.  He doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp of what positivism is or its inherent weaknesses, but is likely attracted by its apparent cut and dried path to truth and its licence to ignore pesky moral issues; particularly issues of faith.  Clarke once said,  "We must reserve judgment, and refuse to take seriously all dogmas and revelations whose acceptance demands faith.”  If this includes faith in science, then Clarke has inadvertently made the case for nihilism, as he leave no room for even his own system.

Clarke seems to assume that science can go on infinitely to answer all questions.  Again, he brushes aside embarrassing holes about the innate limitations of science and ends up making an argument for inevitability, which is illogical.  His argument is also self-contradictory, for if science goes on forever, then it must inevitably contradict all our current science, which means that our science is false and unreliable.  So why give it any weight in the first place?

Clarke once stated: ”I suggested that early in the next millennium the rise of ‘statistical theology’ would prove that there is no supernatural intervention in human affairs.”  Using statistics to disprove the intervention of an all-powerful being capable of controlling every aspect of Creation and privy to every corner of mind and soul?  An interesting thought from a man who had so much faith in the invincibility of his merely technologically astute Overlords!

Granted, Clarke’s utopia is not perfect, but it can’t be or there’d be no story.  The danger of boredom is raised, but largely as a necessary plot device, and he gives a solution anyway through education and the New Athens “colony,” where artists go to give free reign to their craft.  The notion of an enervating welfare state or of a wealthy society falling into hedonism and decadence simply does not occur to Clarke.  Like many science fiction writers of the time, he seems unwilling to notice ideas that might blow holes in his utopia like a ship’s commander covering his eyes least he see the oncoming torpedoes. 

Of course, this utopia does not last.  It is merely to prelude to the glorious ascension of man’s children to join the Overmind.  The trouble is, this comes across as less glory than horror.  There is nothing remotely desirable about the “supermen.”  They are devoid of any human qualities or even identity.  Their condition is subhuman and their collectivist destiny is as repellent as Lewis’s depiction of Satan as wishing to devour all creation in The Screwtape Letters.

What really put me off the novel is that the ending negates the surprise of the original short story, which posited a real failing in interfering in our history on the part of the Overlords, which is why men hate devils, and for which the Overlords felt guilt.  Instead, Clarke claims that man’s revulsion is merely a psychic echo of a prediction of future events, which the Overlords really couldn’t be held accountable for. 

At any rate, the novel ends with the supermen being absorbed into the Overmind like a drop into an ocean.  They have no name, no thoughts, no desires, and come across less like a new beginning than as terminal as sheep trotting into an abattoir.  I can see why Clarke regarded this as glorious.  In his book of essays Profiles of the Future he said of man’s destiny, “They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge.  They will be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command.”    Every time I read this sort of sentiment, it reminds me of something from Lewis’s Space Trilogy where the Earthmen Ransom and Weston are on the planet Mars and Weston makes a bombastic speech to the Martians about man going forth to conquer the cosmos and evolve into some incredible something that Weston can’t imagine.  Ransom tries to translate, but it comes across along the lines of “He hopes to become something, he doesn’t know what it is, but he wants it very much.” 

Oddly, Clarke and Lewis had a brief argument via post.  Clarke, apparently, was quite vehement in his views while Lewis was polite and not really interested in engaging Clarke, which was unusual for Lewis, who delighted in discourse.

Perhaps he didn’t care for shooting fish in a barrel.


28 September 2004


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29 September 2004

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