Rowling, Arthur C. Clarke and the demise of science fiction

By , 30 March 2007 3:29 pm

The literary high point this week, at least in terms of mention on the web, etc., has to be the publication of the covers of final Harry Potter book. Unless, dear reader, you are a writer yourself, you cannot appreciate how utterly depressing it is that a mere cover (which by general agreement has told us nothing) has attracted so much attention. (BTW an interesting experiment is to ask any ordinary writer about J K Rowling. You will see the lips move into a facsimile of a smile but there will be a strange coldness, if not malice, in the eyes.)

This thought brings me to magic and science. You will no doubt remember Arthur C. Clarke’s celebrated statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is, of course, one of the many barbs at religion that Clarke makes: a fact that is not however my concern here. A key part of the definition, which is not adequately expanded, is what constitutes ‘sufficiently advanced’. Perhaps a better expression would be any “insufficiently understood technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This highlights the fact that it is a relative effect: there are probably still some remote cultures where a working cuckoo clock would be seen as magic. In order to aid our understanding here I would suggest the creation of a new unit, the Clarke Value. Clarke values measure how little we understand any given piece of technology. The details need to be worked out, but I suggest that one Clarke is the gap where someone says “I’m not sure of the details, but I’m pretty sure I know how it works” and I suggest that 10 Clarkes expresses that point where someone says it “has to be supernatural”.

Now the interesting fact is that Clarke Values of technology are actually increasing. There are two factors: the first is that the technology itself is getting more and more inscrutable. So, for instance, you can go into your local mobile phone shop and find a tiny little pocketable object that will allow you to phone, used a GPS and listen to FM radio as well as play games. That that side of things is inevitable, unsurprising and probably to be approved. But, less happily, rising Clarke Values are also due to the fact that the understanding of science is declining. All the evidence suggests that kids, at least in Britain, find science tedious, and that most damnable of things, “hard work”. Science numbers, in schools are, in most places, declining. They are slightly boosted (hurrah!) because immigrant communities tend to encourage their sons and daughters to become engineers and doctors, both of which for the moment (thankfully) require science.

The impact of these effects is simple: high Clarke Values now abound. Who, for instance, among us can adequately explain how GPS works? Who can reliably inform us how broadband video works? Who can explain how I merely have to type in the words ‘Science’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Clarke’ into Google and, in barely a second, have the quote I need?

Now there is any writing corollary of this. It is that in a world of inadequately understood technology it is easier to write about magic than science. You may as well invoke magic, because most of your readers can’t tell the difference between that and science. And magic, as I have said, elsewhere, is much easier. So frankly, the attempts of Britain’s fantasy flagship ‘Doctor Who’ to make things scientific are now paper-thin. It might as well be a series about a magician and his apprentice.

It is a source of some irony – but very little satisfaction – that Clarke’s rule has worked very at prophesying the demise of the very science fiction that he loves so well. As I said at Wheaton chapel two years ago (there’s name dropping), as a Christian I find no grounds for burning Harry Potter books but as a scientist, well, it’s awfully tempting.

Images, books and a matter of theology

By , 23 March 2007 8:13 pm

I had a very gratifying e-mail this week from someone who runs an animation studio saying how he and his wife like the Lamb among the Stars books. The company’s web site is www.lostpencil.com and it’s well worth a browse of some of the animation samples. Rather jokingly, I replied that I would love to see them do animations of the Krallen and Allenix creatures that occur in the series and would be delighted to post them on my web page with due credit. And the answer I got back was the very kind one that if they had time they would try and create them. Many thanks! Now I hope they do manage to produce them because they have the talent to make some impressive renderings. But on reflection, I have realised that this has raised a number of issues, at least one of which has a very important theological consequence.

My main concern is this: whether in their heart of hearts, readers want writers to flesh out their creations with images, even author-approved ones. I wonder. Don’t we actually prefer to be given that degree of freedom that allows our minds to create pictures? In other words, wouldn’t we rather to be given hints and intimation, rather than specifics which must inevitably limit our imagination? Isn’t this why a good book is ultimately more enriching than even the best film? As a teenager my imagination was enormously nourished by Lord of the Rings and I was quite happy to draw pictures of how I felt Minas Tirith and Mordor looked. My imagination was much less nourished and prompted by the Star Wars films. The imagining was done for me. In films the universe is closed and limited. And although I count Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films as tolerable (they were certainly not the disaster that we feared) I still think the pictures in my mind are infinitely superior and closer to what Tolkien imagined.

In fact it’s quite hard to think of books that have had author-approved drawings in other than children’s books (for example, Pauline Baines drawings for C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books). The Dickens sketches by Phiz and Cruikshank and Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland are some of the few I can think of. In general, hinting seems to be more popular than describing. (As an aside, isn’t this the attraction of maps in such books? Instead of telling us what a place looks like, they encourage us to conjure up an infinite number of landscapes and scenes). Is it perhaps better to sow seeds in our imagination than give us cut flowers? So, if I did get my Lostpencil images, I would make sure they were not seen as definitive but as ‘valid interpretations’.

Now, I promised that I would segue this into theology. It is this: in the Old Testament God clearly prohibits images of himself. That is in the ruling at the start of the Ten Commandments. Isn’t this related? Making an image of a character is impoverishing because, in essence, it is limiting: it says ‘this is how he or she is’. And when our character is, as God is, unbounded in his nature, character and glory, it is vital there can be no such limits.

On bits and pieces.

By , 16 March 2007 6:49 pm

No major blog this week, I’m afraid; just various bits and pieces.

Perhaps one of the most significant things this week was that I had an interesting e-mail which I would like to think represents a very positive straw in the wind. A gentleman wrote saying ‘I haven’t read your books but I’ve read the reviews and heard they are quite good. When I have some money, I will be buying them. But I want to say that from what I’ve read about the books, I have real problems with your theology. How can you possibly believe that …..?’ Now I will try and reassure him as best I can. I may perhaps point out that if he thinks I’m heretical, he really ought to have a go at Jonathan Edwards (who held not dissimilar views) and is generally held to be the smartest mind America ever produced. (No snide comments please, Brits.) But this is most encouraging; if there’s one thing better than praise for a book it’s controversy, and nothing pleases an author more than the sound of a possible witchhunt. (As long, of course, as there is several thousand miles of ocean between you and the pitch forks.) I really don’t mind becoming a figure of controversy. Indeed, I am half inclined to fake an Amazon review that says, ‘This wicked book should be banned and the author severed into small pieces, for his disgusting and shameless attempt to undermine biblical orthodoxy. Having failed with the open evil of the Da Vinci code the Devil is now at work amongst the faithful with the more subtle wickedness of The Lamb Among the Stars.’ Oh please.


Another slightly encouraging sound sign this week was that I had two responses, to my website from people (or just possibly automated spammers), who really hadn’t quite got it all together. The first was from a man who claimed to be have been abused by the son of a long dead author whose name is frequently mentioned in fantasy circles. I am circumspect here because I have no wish to promote rumours. If it is true, it is all very sad, but I’m not quite sure of the cause and effect here. Does writing fantasy encourage paedophilia in one’s children? The second one, which could have been funny if it wasn’t blasphemous, was a man who sent me an advance copy of his ‘Inaugural Address from the Great White Throne’. I’m afraid I didn’t read very far.

No: the reason for not writing a major blog here is that I have posted a very substantial article on the Speculative Faith website with the slightly bizarre title of ‘Jesus, the Fox, and the niceness of Christian fiction.’ It actually deals with a matter whose importance goes beyond fiction, namely the character of Jesus and has received some interesting comments; most of which seem to be very positive. To take a look and feel free to complain, either there or here.

And the meantime, the manuscript of The Infinite Day grows slowly longer. But unfortunately at the end of a busy week at college, I have not yet succeeded in being suspended on full pay. Memo to self: must pray harder.

On simplicity as a virtue

By , 9 March 2007 7:51 pm

First of all, thanks to all who read this. Just because no-one posts comments doesn’t mean that it’s not read. This week, for instance, someone from California and a student in one of my classes, admitted to being regular readers.

Now, this week’s observation Often when authors go on about writing, they talk about the big stuff. You know, how to create some wonderful epic spanning centuries or galaxies; how to put meaning into the text or even how to make significance significant. What I want to do today is just go to the other end of the scale and make some points about rather trivial elements of writing. Actually, though, when you put them all together, something rather important emerges.


Hint one: avoid characters with names that resemble common verbs.
In this last book of the Lamb among the Stars series, a character called Luke has an important part to play. But it’s a problem name, because you can never say ‘Luke looked pale’ or ‘Luke looked away’. Avoid Luke! Equally, there is a fairly common Arabic name, Said (sometimes spelled Sayed) which is also unusable: you really don’t want to have to write ‘Said said’. Of course, you can work around this, but it often looks obvious. There are probably lots of other names with similar problems. I know it’s not just a problem with me because I remember reading a detective novelist, bitterly lamenting she had called her protagonist Parker, because she always kept having to avoid ‘Parker parked the car’.


Hint Two: keep names simple.
In the very first drafts of the first book of my series I decided that I wanted everybody to have either a patronym or matronym. If you are unfamiliar with this, it’s the sort of thing you get in Russian literature, where the character is, say, called Stephan Borisovitch Tallin or something like this. The Borisovitch means that he is ‘the son of Boris’. It allows the writer to refer to his protagonist as a) Stephan, b) Borisovitch or c) Tallin. It’s a nice and atmospheric system, but it doesn’t half make for confusing books. So, I dropped it fairly early on.


Rule Three: Avoid meetings with lots of people.
The English language (or possibly language generally) does not easily handle the sort of complex meeting where everybody says things. If you’re not careful, it can take several pages for even a relatively simple discussion to take place. X speaks, then Y, then Z and then X interrupts him. And each time you have to explain who is saying what. It’s much simpler to have meetings between one or two people. In that case, you can even go for a whole page without having to say who is actually speaking, because it is so obvious from the text.

Rule Four: Try to keep the exotic stuff under control.
In an alien world set far in the future it would be really quite logical to have twelve months, all with totally different names to those we know. And, while we’re at it, to have days of the week that are totally different. The effect, of course, would be to heighten the sense of alienness. It would also be to utterly bemuse and confuse the poor reader and have him or her constantly resorting to some voluminous appendix.

The fact is that any writer who persists with writing will soon find out that writing is a very artificial business. You start off by thinking that you are going to try and accurately depict something that is going on, and then you realise that it is far easier to keep things simple. One of the interesting things about fantasy or speculative fiction is that you can simplify worlds and that can help with plots. Sometimes the real world is appallingly complex. To talk of a subject of which I know a little because I was there, I suspect there are probably no more than one or two people in the whole world who could give anything like an accurate account of the shifting loyalties and treacheries of the forty or so militia groups that battled their way through the Lebanese civil war. Were I to try to accurately depict events there all but the most devoted reader would throw the manuscript in away in confusion and dismay.

Ironically, speculative fiction can allow us to simplify things. And sometimes, in order to tell a good tale or make a point, reality has to be simplified. Complexity is rarely a friend of communication.


Tolkien and a changing world

By , 2 March 2007 8:08 pm

At church on Sunday, someone gave me a copy of a biography of Tolkien (Michael White, Tolkien: a Biography, Abacus) on the grounds that I might be interested. So far I’m about the third of the way through. It’s a reasonable and readable stab at explaining the man and his background and several thoughts have emerged as I have read it.

What struck me most of all was perhaps the way in which White has to spend an awful lot of time explaining Tolkien and his world. So matters cultural and historical that I had assumed could be taken for granted are expanded upon. In fact White is right: speaking as a teacher, I now increasingly realise that we cannot take anything for granted. Indeed, let me state Walley’s Rule of Contemporary Education: ‘There is no piece of knowledge that we can safely assume that the modern British schoolchild actually knows.’ Two weeks ago, I had a an apparently well-educated student aged 18 for whom the concept of the water cycle (rain, rivers, sea and evaporation, and round again) was a total novelty. And then she wasn’t even ashamed. Another student, albeit at a somewhat lower academic level, displayed a similar lack of embarrassment when when given a blank map of Europe. ‘Which way is up?’ she asked.

Anyway, White does all the explaining you could wish. And I found it a reminder that the world of Tolkien (and C. S Lewis who so far is coming out very well in the biography) has now all but gone.

Not of course in a physical sense. Much of ‘collegiate’ Oxford is very much as it was then. But culturally, the world has shifted a long way. So for instance, it is very hard to imagine the Inklings; a happy little gathering of vaguely boozy literary men apparently existing without the slightest hint of homosexuality. Or a world in which it was remotely possible for a child at school to be allowed to study Middle English. This sense of distance is heightened because both Tolkien and Lewis were very backward looking people, shunning modern technology and self-consciously aware that they were the dinosaurs that had overstayed their allotted time.

It is undeniable that in the last 30 years there had been changes so fundamental in Britain that one struggles to find parallels. The Norman invasion of 1066? But then, that simply replaced one the language of rule from Anglo-Saxon to French. I doubt many people really noticed; the clergy presumably kept on speaking Latin and the general Christian tone of the culture probably stayed much the same. What has happened here strikes me as much more like the days of the Old Testament when Israel was taken into exile under the Babylonians. It is a wholesale cultural shift, and one of which we have only so far perhaps seen the beginning.

The most significant change is, without doubt, the loss of the Christian consensus. Tolkien and Lewis lived in the twilight of the Christian West. Lewis of course recognised it and ‘railed against the dying of the light’. That loss has led to other losses and with it has come the dissolution of much that was achieved in the 1500 years or so of Christianity’s dominance in Britain. Let me just list a few things that, although they may be subscribed to are now being trampled over: the sense of being accountable to God, the value of the individual, the objectivity of truth, the importance of doing right over pragmatism, the absolute nature of evil and the value of history. I could go on. Modernity or post modernity (or whatever we are to title post Post-Modernity) has ploughed under much that was vital.

It is easy to be pessimistic. Yet the curious thing is that the very popularity of Tolkien’s work actually gives the lie to much of what modernity proclaims. In reading Lord of the Rings we sense the terrible peril that hangs over Middle Earth, because we do believe that if Sauron were to rule things would be very much worse. We all value and rejoice in episodes of heroism and nobility, and we are all disgusted by cowardice and treachery. Although we may subscribe to cultural relativism, when it comes to Middle Earth we believe in evil and good. The popularity of the virtues and values proclaimed in Lord of the Rings are a reminder that the relativism of the present is likely to be a temporary – if terrible – thing.

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