Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.


The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.


Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

On J.R. Carpenter’s Gorge, Part 2.5: HTML, web pages, and the DOM


It ain’t pretty, but it’s what the Web is made of.

This post is part of a series on digital literature. I’m dissecting the JavaScript code of “Gorge”, an infinite poem by J.R. Carpenter that riffs on Nick Montfort’s program “Taroko Gorge”.  The first post, which defines “variables”, “strings” and “arrays”, is here; the second, which explains “functions” and demonstrates how the program chooses randomly from a list of inputs (a.k.a. words), is here. This post is a brief primer on how web pages are written, how HTML works, and what a DOM is. It will help to know this stuff before we move on to Part Three: putting everything together.

As you probably know, web pages are written in a language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which consists of a bunch of elements. Elements are basically containers for bits of the page. (If you know anything about JavaScript, you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like an object.” You would not be wrong.) They can also be nested: like the branches of a tree, one element can have one or more “child nodes”, or elements that branch off from it.

As well as containing stuff, elements have attributes or characteristics. (If you know anything about JavaScript, you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a property.” Again, you would not be wrong.) One common attribute is called “id”; we use IDs to mark bits of the page that the program is interested in. Because attribute values have to be unique, you can drop an ID into a section of the page and be certain that, when you instruct the program to look for that ID, it’ll take you to the right place. For example, if I wanted a way of quickly referring to a paragraph about Henry Fielding—and let’s say that’s located the top of the second paragraph in the third div of my web page—I might drop the ID “fielding” in there. It saves me from having to tell the program “look out for the top of the second paragraph in the third div”, which is a pain in the arse to write and also less natural, since no one (almost no one) thinks like that. (Also, when you restructure your piece, so that the Fielding paragraph isn’t the second one anymore, the “id” attribute “fielding” will still take you to the right place. Isn’t that convenient.)

The DOM, or Document Object Model, is a mapping from HTML to JavaScript: elements (in HTML) are mapped onto objects (in JavaScript). This allows your JavaScript programs to fiddle with your web page. Now, this may not bother you, but when it was first explained to me, it bothered me because it seemed inefficient. Why do you have to do that? Why can’t you just do things to your web page using HTML? Well, because HTML isn’t a programming language; it’s a markup language, which is like a fancy form of annotating (make this bit bold, make this bit bigger, put a hyperlink here). In order to change the contents of the page, you have to change stuff in the DOM.

Hopefully, this will have given you the vocabulary/conceptual tools to better understand the next post. In that, I’ll talk about how the code for “Gorge” manipulates the DOM to change how the poem appears on its web page.

Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a writer, but I am a witness.


In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

What I know about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident: It happened in the Ukraine, which was, at the time of the accident in 1986, part of the USSR. Gorbachev was in power. Perestroika had already begun; glasnost, the process of making governance transparent, was directly hastened by the disaster. This occurred, in essence, because a test that was running during maintenance shutdown in the plant’s Reactor Four was allowed to occur in such a way as to make the reactor extremely unstable. A power spike led to overheating, which led to the control rods becoming jammed, which led to an explosion. A graphite fire shot plumes of radioactive material into the air above the plant. This later settled across the surrounding region as radioactive dust.

What I know about Svetlana Alexievich: Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She is a non-fiction writer, the first (I think?) to win that award. She is Belarusian. In a way she is less a writer than a composer: her books are composed of other peoples’ voices, revealed through interviews. Chernobyl Prayer has three parts, each subdivided into “monologues”. Her art is to arrange peoples’ testimonies, and, one presumes, to be trustworthy, and to ask the right questions in the first place, and to be capable of listening.

You may need to do some background reading if you wish to tackle Chernobyl Prayer; almost all of the information in the first paragraph, above, I gleaned from Wikipedia and the official IAEA report. Alexievich isn’t writing for Western grief tourists (although, of course, in a way, she absolutely is. But she wants you to work for it.) There are no tidy maps or chronologies. Just the voices of people living in a ruined world.

It’s a book you want to quote a lot. I found myself underlining huge chunks, not only because they are tragic or beautiful, but because the people she meets are insightful on things like the Soviet character, too, and the motivations of politicians, and the fact that the people who lived near the reactor were really still peasants, country people, who didn’t understand that just because you couldn’t see radiation didn’t make it unreal.

There are themes that recur. On the implacability of nature, which is beautiful but also, in a way, what makes nuclear disaster so fatally unstoppable:

One morning, I looked into the orchard and there were boars grubbing about. Wild boars. You can resettle people, but not the elk and the boars. And the water takes no notice of boundaries, it flows where it will, over the ground, under the ground.

On the hierarchy of threats (this from a woman who has settled with her husband and child in the ghost country near Chernobyl, fleeing political violence in Tajikistan):

I meet people, they’re amazed, can’t understand it. ‘What are you doing to your children, you’re killing them. You’re committing suicide.’ I’m not killing them, I’m saving them. …This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory.

It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.

Many people—probably two-thirds of the people Alexievich interviews—compare it to the war. They mean, I think, the Second World War, but it could be any war of the past century. The grannies of Eastern Europe are very used to war. Soldiers forcing them from their homes? Crucial information being kept from them? The destruction of their livelihoods? “It was just like the war”, they say, over and over again. Some of them leap from simile to metaphor: “It was war. We were at war.”

A government filmmaker is struck by the universal need for a role, the way that people cling to a cultural narrative:

I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were acting as if they were in everyone’s favourite movie… The tear in the eye, a few words of farewell. A wave of the hand. It turned out we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.

There is some discussion of “Slavic fatalism”, a kind of gloomy (it can be cheery, if there’s vodka around) passivity. There is also mention of the way that the government fell back, instantly, into old habits:

They revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’… Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology…

Clean-up workers are issued lead aprons and masks, sometimes, but the ones who are working on the roof have no protection from the radiation coming up from below. In any case, most people don’t wear their masks—they are heavy and cumbersome, and the work must be done quickly. One man tells of the thirty-six hundred roof workers, how they slept on the ground, on straw taken from hayricks right beside the reactor. “They’re dying now,” he says. “But for what they did… These are still people from a particular culture. A culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims.” I have read nothing more chilling about Soviet Communism than this, the recognition that thousands of lives were viewed as worthless. It is not the same thing as the “Blitz Spirit” of pulling together. It is not as if protective equipment didn’t exist; it was simply not considered worth spending on these men. And the men were offered money, a bump up the queue for an apartment or a car, maybe five to seven more years of life, and the promise of postmortem heroism. And that worked. This was only thirty years ago.

And the terrifying ignorance of Party leaders:

In the villages and factories, people from the district committees of the Communist Party traveled around, meeting people. Yet not one of them was capable of giving an answer if they were asked what decontamination was, how children could be protected, or what the coefficients were for radionuclides finding their way into the food chain. Neither could they if asked about alpha, beta and gamma particles, nor about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, let alone isotopes. For them, that was all something from another planet. They gave lectures about the heroism of Soviet people, symbols of military courage, and the wiles of Western intelligence services.

Thirty. Years. Ago.

There is an interview with a man who was on a district committee, and in it, he seems to understand how terribly he and his colleagues failed. But he can’t look at it too directly. He does not want to shoulder the blame. Who can; who could? “It was our duty,” he keeps saying. “We did what we were told to do.”

This, from an engineer, perhaps explains why:

We stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. …That was not because [we] were afraid of losing [our] Party cards, but because of [our] faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification.

No longer part of something, but complicit in it: it’s such an articulate phrase, such an exact assessment of how ideology works, and why its crumbling can be such a catastrophe.

And man was the measure of all things. I think for a considerable portion of the twentieth century, we believed this. Why not? We had harnessed the power of the atom. We were programming computers. We had sent men to the moon. We could conquer anything, anything we wanted. And then Chernobyl happened. It wasn’t like Hiroshima or Nagasaki; it wasn’t intentional. It was a terrible accident, and man failed as the measure, and no matter how many men in green uniforms shoveled rubble off the roof of the reactor, they could not pull the particles from the skies, or the rivers, or the grass.

There is absolute rage running through this book; it is a current of fury at the lies and deceit that were fed to the people of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and it is also fury at the helplessness of the people who suffered and continued to suffer. There is almost superhuman love: the testimonies of two women whose husbands were clean-up workers (one comes near the beginning of the book, one near the end) are sobering and painfully beautiful and so sad. And there is this, from one of the children Alexievich interviews:

I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard. ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.

Chernobyl Prayer is published by Penguin Modern Classics.

Meanwhile, At Litro: Victorians Decoded at Guildhall Art Gallery


Despite the radio silence over the summer, I do still write for Litro. Last week I went to a review a TOTALLY FREE exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, focusing on Victorian art and how it was affected by the advent of the telegraph. Here’s how it starts:

The curator in the pink dress is fielding my halting questions with aplomb. We have stopped in front of a medium-sized oil painting of a scene on board ship. It is a tangle of unnameable emotions and undefined relationships: a woman in a bath chair, perhaps an invalid, gazes into the middle distance as a sailor wearing a wedding ring addresses her from slightly behind and to the side, his arm curled around her chair in a manner that feels distinctly Mephistophelean. On a deckside bench nearby, another sailor—older and bearded—holds a newspaper, which he’s not reading, between his knees and looks disgruntled. His seat companion, an elderly gentleman with a top hat and watch chain, glances behind him with irritation at something out of view. Meanwhile, a little girl with a black velvet hair ribbon leans over the back of the bench: perhaps trying to read the newspaper that’s held out of her reach, perhaps importuning the elderly man (a grandfather? A guardian?). Behind them all, the riggings of this ship and a dozen others criss-cross the sky in whip-like lines of black paint. It is unspeakably claustrophobic. The curator is telling me that these lines are a direct allusion to the telegraph cables that had been placed under the Atlantic less than a decade before this painting was made, in 1873, by James Tissot. It is all about communication that cannot be decoded, glances that can’t be explained, eyelines that don’t line up. Everyone in this painting is trying to say something without saying it directly, and mostly, they are failing.

You can read the rest of the review here. I would be so chuffed if you did. (Plus, the exhibition is incredibly interesting – if you’re in London or the South of England, go!)

05. Darwin Among the Machines, by George Dyson


Where I read it: mostly on the Tube, and a little bit during lunch breaks

This was the first non-fiction book that I got to on my 20 Books of Summer list. As I think I mentioned in my June Superlatives round-up, I have almost no background in computer engineering, evolutionary biology, or mathematics, so it was, to say the least, harder going than any of the fiction I’d read so far. Fortunately, George Dyson is a solidly competent writer; confusion never arose because he was confusing, just because I often didn’t have the knowledge that would have clarified things for me. He also has a distinguished scientific pedigree: his mother was a famous mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson, and his father was Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and inventor of the Dyson sphere. (More in my wheelhouse was his grandfather, the Edwardian composer Sir George Dyson, responsible for the Evensong canticle settings Dyson in F [aka the Star Wars Service] and Dyson in G. And some other stuff, too.)

Dyson’s thing is machine intelligence. This book is all about how, if and when (and it’s mostly when) machine intelligence arises, it’s likely to do so through processes similar to those that created life as we know it. Computers, in other words, are going to experience evolution, or rather,a version of natural selection. Conditions that are advantageous to a computer network will allow pieces of that network to flourish, until it’s able to respond and adapt to its own environment without any input from the engineers that built its circuits or the programmers that set it in motion.

This is the sort of thing that people (especially fiction writers) refer to as Artificial Intelligence, and AI bots already exist – they’re just not the kind of bots you really want to be hanging out with. Dyson is a science historian, though, not a fortune teller, so he focuses less on the possibilities and more on the history of the belief that humans will someday create a global intelligence. It’s older than you think. It predates Turing by centuries; Dyson pinpoints the beginning of the idea with Hobbes and Leviathan. Hobbes sees the government, the state, as a kind of collective entity composed of a nation’s people:

 “Nature is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal.”

He sees the Internet as a perfect place for a global intelligence to develop: a network that spans the world, through which vast amounts of data travel in fractions of a second. Here, also, he suggests that evolution, which is generally painted as a thoughtless or “randomized” process, might be driven by considerations that could be referred to as intelligent ones. It sails close to the wind of intelligent design, but not in the way that Texan fundamentalists think of it; rather, Dyson suggests that “intelligence” may be a concept we are applying all wrong. Machine intelligence may be something that already exists but which we are simply failing to recognize because it is so far above, beyond, and/or different to, the ways in which we understand human intelligence to work. It’s an argument that allows for the existence of something like a God, in the same way that you can call “magic” a kind of science we don’t yet understand. It’s perhaps the scariest, and yet the most beautiful, idea in the book. For all that I could have done with a greater depth of knowledge while reading it, I’m very glad I did.

(I’ve now passed it on to the Chaos, who will probably have more nuanced things to say.)

Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson (London: Penguin, 2012 [1997])


June Superlatives

June. Man. To paraphrase Mean Girls, how can I even begin to explain June. It contained 30 days; I was busy—proper, event-in-my-calendar, several-hours-at-least busy—for 20 of them. (Some of those days involved two separate events, usually something like lunch and then the theatre.) I’m very grateful for a busy social life and friends whom I like enough to hang out with a lot, but that was way too much for one month. In July I need to pull right back. (The fact that my parents and brother were visiting from America this month, admittedly, added to the socializing somewhat, although it was fabulous to see them.)

I managed to finish ten books anyway, though. Which I’m proud of.


most heartbreaking: A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne, winner of the 1997 Orange Prize. Narrated by ten-year-old Marsha, it tells the story of a summer in which a little boy is killed in a Washington DC suburb, and in which Marsha becomes convinced that their next-door neighbor, Mr. Green—a shy, awkward bachelor—is the murderer. It’s one of those books that describes an outsider in terms so unflinching as to be painful. The scene where Mr. Green throws a barbecue for the neighborhood, to which no one turns up, is one I can hardly bear to think about even now.

most “important”: I suspect that lots of reviewers are going to use this word to describe Negroland, Margo Jefferson’s memoir of growing up black and middle-class in 20th-century  Chicago. It’s a favored word when the subject matter is vaguely political or controversial. That shouldn’t in any way diminish Jefferson’s achievement, though; the whole point of her memoir is to describe how oppressive it is to grow up feeling like you carry the reputation of an entire people on your shoulders. It’s a thoughtful and expansive book, for all that it’s not very long, and well worth a read.

most frustrated potential: Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory, which was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize and which I felt had a good deal of potential that got lost in the telling. The opacity of the characters, and the vagueness of Memory’s, well, memory, was probably a smart thematic move, but wasn’t executed with enough conviction (or, in a sense, time – I wondered if the book should have been longer, which is a rare thing to wonder.)


most swiftly gobbled: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, was definitely one of the longest books I read this month, but also one of the books I couldn’t bear to put down. Kingsolver’s prose has always lent itself to being galloped through, not because it’s simplistic but because it’s completely lucid. She’s also writing about such gorgeous, tactile things in this book: the sea, food, the sun, paintings, buildings, Mexico.

most thoughtful: Carol Shields’s novel Larry’s Party, which is one of the quietest and also one of the most illuminating books I’ve ever read. It was nice to read a book about a man, and about manhood, that wasn’t infuriating or upsetting. Maybe there’s something in that that modern discourse about gender could look to emulate. Or maybe not; I haven’t made up my mind.

sneakiest: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell, wrong-footed me more than any other book this month. It starts out masquerading as a fairly standard Victorian pastiche about some colonial prats in India, and it turns into something much deeper and darker, an exploration of what makes people “civilised” and what war does to your psyche.

most soothing: Trio, the new novel by the highly prolific but criminally under-recognised Sue Gee. Set in Northumberland between the World Wars, and skipping forward in time to contemporary London, it tells a story of music, grief, recovery, friendship, and love. I absolutely adored it for not buckling to sentimentality while still expressing so much emotion; if you liked the Cazalet Chronicles, you should read it.


hardest: I’m interested in science, technology, and engineering, but I have no formal academic background in it. I am so poor at arithmetic that I still don’t know how to do long division (without looking up the steps), which at school meant that I wasn’t allowed to progress past algebra, so there’s a huge void in my mathematical knowledge too. Reading Darwin Among the Machines, a study of how “artificial” (machine) intelligence might arise through biological/evolutionary mechanisms, meant I had to reach towards the meaning of what George Dyson was saying, instead of understanding it intuitively – which was a really good experience.

most novelistic non-fiction: John Demos’s The  Unredeemed Captive, a study of the Williams family of Massachusetts, and particularly Eunice Williams, who was kidnapped in 1703 from the village of Deerfield by Canadian Indians, along with the rest of her family. All of the Williamses were eventually ransomed or returned, “redeemed” spiritually in the eyes of their Puritan god and neighbours as well as literally brought back, except for Eunice, who married an Indian man and had children with him. She never returned to Massachusetts, though she met her brothers and nephews several times. It’s a fascinating story, a little-taught part of American history, and Demos really understands the drama as well as giving the historical context.


party I’m late to, again: Lucia Berlin. Specifically, the collection of her short stories entitled A Manual for Cleaning Women. Everyone freaked out about them last year in a non-specific way that didn’t make me interested enough to pick them up, but I got them for Christmas and I’ve got round to them now and they are worth it. She’s writing about herself or a thinly veiled version thereof a lot of the time, but they achieve a tone that’s simultaneously conversational – really intimate, you feel you know this woman and like her – and yet also beautifully constructed, measured, balanced. It’s all intentional but none of it is artificial. Her stories are set in laundromats and abortion clinics and emergency rooms, and they’re hilarious and painful. If you’ve also missed them up til now, don’t miss them for much longer.

what’s next: I’ve just started Alexander Chee’s debut novel The Queen of the Night – about a soprano in Paris in the 1870s (?) and the secrets of her past. I’m having an absolute ball with it; the world is lush, the writing is evocative, the plot is mysterious enough to stay interesting. It’s so my thing.