Return From The Stars

Here’s my foreword to the new MIT edition of Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars.

For a while I lived on the penthouse level of a gherkin-shaped glass tower, five minutes from DIFC, Dubai’s international financial centre. I’d spend the day perched at my partner’s kitchen counter, or sprawled in her hammock, writing long-hand into a green notebook. In the evening I would stand at the glass wall, stir-crazy by then, fighting an ice-cream headache brought on by the air conditioning, counting lime-green Lamborghinis crawling nose-to-tail along the six lanes of Al Saada Street, far below.

Once the sun bled out into the mist, I would leave the tower and pick my way over broken and unfinished pavements to the DIFC. There are several ways into the complex; none of them resemble civic space. A narrow, wood-panelled atrium led to the foot of a single, slow escalator. It deposited me on a paved mezzanine from which several huge towers grew. There weren’t any pavements as such, just stretches of empty space between chairs and tables. There were art galleries and offices and a destination restaurant run by a car company, each unit folding into the next, giving me at one moment the feeling of exhilaration, as though this entire place was mine for the taking, the next a sense of tremendous awkwardness as though I’d stumbled uninvited into an important person’s private party.

I couldn’t tell from the outside which mirrored door led to a mall, which to a reception desk, which to a lobby. I would burst into every building with an aggressive confidence, penetrating as far as I could into these indeterminate spaces until I found an exit — though an exit into what, exactly? Another atrium. A bank. A water feature. A beauty salon. Eventually I would be stopped and politely redirected.

*

Of middling years, the space explorer Hal Bregg is having to contend with two kinds of ageing. The first is historical. The other, biological.

He has just returned to Earth after a gap of 127 years, and the place he once called home has turned incomprehensibly strange in the intervening time. Thanks to the dilation effect brought on by interstellar travel, only ten ship-board years have passed. But this interval has been hard on Bregg. The trauma and beauty of his harrowing missions aboard the Prometheus still haunt him, and power some of the Return’s most affecting passages.

Bregg’s arrival on Earth, fresh from acclimatisation sessions on the Moon, is about as exciting as a bus ride. At the terminal there are no parades, no gawkers, no journalists. He’s a curiosity at best, and not even a rare one (there have been other ships, other crews). Arriving at the terminus, he’s just another passenger. He misses the official sent to meet him, decides he’ll find his own way about, sets off for the city, and becomes quickly lost. He can’t find the edge of the terminus. He can’t find the floor he needs. Everything seems to be rising. Is this a giant elevator? “It was hard to rest the eye on anything that was not in motion, because the architecture on all sides appeared to consist in motion along, in change…” He decides to follow the crowd. Is this a hotel? Are these rooms? People are fetching objects from the walls. He does the same. In his hands is a coloured translucent tube, slightly warm. Is this a room key? A map? Food?

“And suddenly I felt like a monkey that has been given a fountain pen or a lighter; for an instant I was seized by a blind rage.”

Among Stanislaw Lem’s many gifts is his understanding of how the future works. The future is not a series of lucky predictions (though Lem was luckier than most at that particular craps table). The future is not wholly exotic; it is, by necessity, still chock full of the past. The future is not one place, governed by one idea. Suppose you get a handle on some major change (Return from the Stars boasts one of those — but we’ll get to “betrization” in a minute). This insight won’t give you some mysterious, magical insight into everything else. You’ll be armed, but you’ll still be lost. The future is bigger than you think.

The point about the future is that it’s unreadable. You recognise the language, but you can no longer speak it. The words fell out of order years ago. The vowels shifted.

“I was numb from the strain of trying not to do anything wrong. This, for four days now. From the very first moment I was invariably behind in everything that went on, and the constant effort to understand the simplest conversation or situation turned that tension into a feeling horribly like despair. ”

Bregg contemplates the horrid beauty of the terminal (yes, he’s still in the terminal. Settle in: he’s going to be wandering that terminal for a very long time) and admires (if that is quite the word) its “coloured galaxies of squares, clusters of spiral lights, glows shimmering above skyscrapers, the streets: a creeping peristalsis with necklaces of light, and over this, in the perpendicular, cauldrons of neon, feather crests and lightning bolts, circles. airplanes, and bottles of flame, red dandelions made of needle-signal lights, momentary suns and haemorrhages of advertising, mechanical and violent.”

But if you think Lem will stop there, in contemplation of an overdriven New York skyline, then you need to read more Lem. The window gutters out. “You have been watching clips from newsreels of the seventies,” the air announces, “in the series Views of the Ancient Capitals.”

*

Science fiction delights in expensive real-estate. Sky-high homes give its protagonists the geostationary perspective they require to scry large amounts of weird information very quickly. In cinema, Rick Deckard and his replicant protege K are both penthouse dwellers. And in J G Ballard’s High Rise (1975) Robert Laing eats roast dog on the balcony of, yes, a 25th-floor apartment.

The world of Return from the Stars is altogether more socially progressive. Its buildings are only partly real, Their continuation is an image, “so that the people living on each level do not feel deprived. Not in any way.” The politics of this future, which teaches its infant children “the principles of tolerance, coexistence, respect for other beliefs and attitudes,” are disconcertingly familiar, and mostly admirable.

But let’s stay with the media for a moment. This is a future adept at immersing its denizens in a thoroughly mediated environment — thus an enhanced movie becomes a “real” in Michael Kandel’s savvy, punning translation. For those who know the canon, there’s a delicious hint here of what’s to come: in Lem’s The Futurological Congress (1971) 29 billion people live out lives of unremitting squalor, yet each thinks they’re a tycoon, wrapt as they are in drug-induced hallucination.

The Return’s future, by contrast, handles the physical world perfectly well, thank you. Its population are not narcotised. Not at all: they’re full of good ideas, hold down rewarding jobs, maintain close friendships, enjoy working marriages, and nurture happy children. They have all manner of things to live for. This future — “a world of tranquility, of gentle manners and customs, easy transitions, undramatic situations” — is anything but a dystopia. Why, it’s not even dull!

*

An operation, “betrization”, conducted in early childhood, renders people incapable of serious violence. Murder becomes literally inconceivable, and as a side-effect, risk loses its allure. Betrization has been universally adopted across the Earth, and it’s mandatory.

Bregg and his ancient fellows cannot help but view betrization with horror. Consequently, no-one has the stomach to force it upon them. This leaves the returning astronauts as predators in fields full of friendly, intelligent, accommodating sheep.

But why would Hal Bregg want to predate? Why would any of them? What would it gain them, beyond a spoiled conscience? Everyone on this contented Earth assumes the returnees are savages, though most are far too polite (or risk-averse) to say so. For Bregg and his fellows, it’s enraging. It’s alienating. It’s a prompt to the sort of misbehaviour that they would otherwise never dream of indulging.

Lem himself considered Return from the Stars a failure, and blamed betrization for it. As an idea, it was too on-the-nose: a melodramatic conceit that he had to keep underplaying so the story — a quiet affair about friendship and love and misunderstanding — would stay on track. But times and customs change, and history has been kind to the Return. It has become, in 2020, a better book than it was in the 1960s. This is because we have grown into the very future it predicted. Indeed, we are embroiled in precisely the kind of cultural conflict Lem said would ensue, once betrization was invented.

“Young people, betrizated, became strangers to their own parents, whose interests they did not share. They abhorred their parents’ bloody tastes. For a quarter of a century is was necessary to have two types of periodicals, books, plays: one for the old generation, one for the new.”

Western readers with experience of university life and politics over the last thirty years will surely recognise themselves in these pages, where timid passions dabble with free love, where thin skins heal in safe spaces, and intellectual gadflies navigate a landscape of extreme emotional delicacy, under constant threat of cancellation.

Will they blush, to see themselves thus reflected? I doubt it. Emulsify them as you like, kindness and a sense of humour do not mix. Anyway, the Return is not a satire, any more than it is a dystopia. It is not, when push comes to shove, a book about a world at all (for which some may read: not science fiction).

It is a book about Hal Bregg. About his impulse towards solitude and his need for company. About his deep respect for old friends, and his earnest desire for new ones. It’s about a kind and thoughtful bull in an emotional china shop, trying desperately not to rape things. It’s about men.

*

We would meet at last and order a cab and within the hour we would be sitting overlooking the Gulf in a bar fashioned to resemble the hollowed interior of a golden nugget. I remember one evening my partner chose what to order and I was handed a glass of a colourless liquid topped with a film of crude oil. I thought: Do I drink this or do I light it? And suddenly I felt like a monkey that has been given a fountain pen or a lighter; for an instant I was seized by a blind rage.

That was the evening she told me why she didn’t want to see me any more. The next day I left for London. 19 March 2017: World Happiness Day. As we turned north for the airport I noticed that the sign at the junction had changed. In place of Al Saada: “Happiness Street.”

And a ten-storey-high yellow smiley icon had been draped across the face of a government building.

Oh, shut up

Watching Chaos Walking for New Scientist, 12 April 2021

Young Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is learning to be a man, and in Prentisstown (ostensibly the only settlement to survive humanity’s arrival on the planet New World) this means keeping your thoughts to yourself.

Something about the planet makes men’s thoughts both audible and visible to others. Men are constantly constantly having to hide their thoughts, by thinking of something else, by rehearsing daily chores, or even just by reciting their own names, again and again. Women were unaffected, apparently, but the native (and rarely glimpsed) Spackle killed them all years ago.

(If this account of things seems a little off, imagine it delivered by an especially troubled-looking Mads Mikkelsen, playing the settlement’s mysterious mayor. Watching his settlement’s secrets come to light, one by one, is one of this film’s chief delights.)

Viola, played by Daisy Ridley, has arrived from space, scouting for a second settlement wave when her landing craft all but burns up, leaving her at the mercy of the men of Prentisstown. You’d think they’d be glad of her arrival and her company — but you would be wrong.

Chaos Walking arrives under something of a cloud; to begin with, no one could fix on a script they liked. Charlie Kaufmann (of Being John Malkovich fame) got first bite of the cherry, before the project was passed from pillar to post and ended up being crafted by Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)) and Patrick Ness, author of the book on which this film is based, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Chaos Walking should, by all measures, have ended up a mess.

But if it’s not the blockbuster the studio expected or needed, Chaos Walking is nonetheless a real accomplishment: a disconcerting little masterpiece of sensitive acting and well-judged design.

In this film, men quite literally cannot shut up, and in her very first conversation with Mayor Prentiss, it dawns on Viola that this gives her huge advantages. She can lie, she can keep secrets, and she’s the only one here who can — crucial points made almost entirely in dialogue-less reaction shots. Daisy Ridley’s talents weren’t wildly well served in the last three Star Wars films, but she’s given her head here.

Tom Holland’s Todd is a naif who must save Viola and get her to a neighbouring settlement he never even realised existed — a place where women survive and (understandably) dominate.

Todd is the model of what a man must be in this New World: polite, honest, and circumspect. Holland’s bid to “be a man” in such circumstances is anything but straightforward — but Holland keeps our sympathy and our regard.

Indeed, the great strength of Chaos Walking is that it interrogates gender roles by creating genuine difficulties for its characters. Even Prentisstown’s lunatic and misogynist preacher Aaron — surely David Oyelowo’s most unrewarding role yet, all beetle brows and gnashing teeth — turns out to make a dreadful kind of sense.

No gender is well served by the strange telepathic gifts bestowed on half the human settlers of New World. Only good will and superhuman patience prevents human society going up like a powder keg.

This has happened once, in Prentisstown, and — given the weirdly stalled settlement of the planet — it has almost certainly happened elsewhere. The planet’s architecture and technology are an uneasy and creative mishmash of battered industrial machinery and Western-genre make-do-and-mend. The effect is oddly unsettling, particularly in the sequence where horse-riders pursue each other through a forest that had very obviously been planted in rows.

Chaos Walking is not a western. Neither is it, in any easy sense, a feminist fable. Chaos Walking is about people’s struggles in unreasonable circumstances, and for all the angst bound up in its premise, it becomes, by the end, a charming and uplifting film about love and reconciliation.

Tally of a lost world

Reading Delicious: The evolution of flavor and how it made us human by Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez for New Scientist, 31 March 2021

Dolphins need only hunger and a mental image of what food looks like. Their taste receptors broke long ago, and they no longer taste sweet, salty or even umami, thriving on hunger and satisfaction alone.

Omnivores and herbivores have a more various diet, and more chances of getting things badly wrong, so they are guided by much more highly developed senses (related, even intertwined, but not at all the same) of flavour (how something tastes) and aroma (how something smells).

Evolutionary biologist Robb Dunn and anthropologist Monica Sanchez weave together what chefs now know about the experience of food, what ecologists know about the needs of animals, and what evolutionary biologists know about how our senses evolved, to tell the story of how we have been led by our noses through evolutionary history, and turned from chimpanzee-like primate precursor to modern, dinner-obsessed Homo sapiens.

Much of the work described here dovetails neatly with work described in biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s 2009 book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human. Wrangham argued that releasing the calories bound up in raw food by cooking it led to a cognitive explosion in Homo sapiens, around 1.9 million years ago.

As Dunn and Sanchez rightly point out, Wrangham’s book was not short of a speculation or two: there is, after all, no evidence of fire-making this far back. Still, they incline very much to Wrangham’s hypothesis. There’s no firm evidence of hominins fermenting food at this time, either — indeed, it’s hard to imagine what such evidence would even look like. Nonetheless, the authors are convinced it took place.

Where Wrangham focused on fire, Dunn and Sanchez are more interested in other forms of basic food processing: cutting, pounding and especially fermenting. The authors make a convincing, closely argued case for their perhaps rather surprising contention that “fermenting a mastodon, mammoth, or a horse so that it remains edible and is not deadly appears to be less challenging than making fire.”

“Flavor is our new hammer,” the authors admit, “and so we are probably whacking some shiny things here that aren’t nails.” It would be all too easy, out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, for them distort their reader’s impressions of a new and exciting field, tracing the evolution of flavour. Happily, Dunn and Sanchez are thoroughly scrupulous in the way they present their evidence and their arguments.

As primates, our experience of aroma and flavour is unusual, in that we experience retronasal aromas — the aromas that rise up from our mouths into the backs of our noses. This is because we have lost a long bone, called the transverse lamina, that helps to separate the mouth from the nose. This loss had huge consequences for olfaction, enabling humans to search out convoluted tastes and aromas so complex, we have to associate them with memories in order to individually categorise them all.

The story of how Homo sapiens developed such a sophisticated palette is also, of course, the story of how it contributed to the extinction of hundreds of the largest, most unusual animals on the planet. (Delicious is a charming book, but it does have its melancholy side.)

To take one dizzying example, the Clovis peoples of North America — direct ancestors of roughly 80 per cent of all living native populations in North and South America — definitely ate mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, bison and giant horses; they may also have eaten Jefferson’s ground sloths, giant camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, flat-headed peccaries, long-headed peccaries, tapirs, giant llamas, giant bison, stag moose, shrub-ox, and Harlan’s Muskox.

“The Clovis menu,” the authors write, “if written on a chalkboard, would be a tally of a lost world.”

Perfect in a special way

Watching An Impossible Project for New Scientist, 24 March 2021

Jens Meurer is a hard figure to pin down. As a producer he’s seen major mainstream movies like Black Book (2006) and Rush (2013) to the big screen; the European Academy named him ‘documentary filmmaker of the year’ in 1995; he’s also quite prepared to spend months following in the wake of an eccentric Viennese entrepreneur who’s convinced that the future of technology is analogue, or at any rate post-digital — a strange and hard to monetize mash-up of the two, perhaps.

An Impossible Project is Meurer’s passion project about Florian Kapps (everyone calls him “Doc” on account of his working studying the eye muscles of spiders). Though he can never be too sure how to meet next month’s bills, Kapps nonetheless moves in interesting circles. We follow him around Berlin, New York and Menlo Park, and say goodbye to him as he’s hosting a dinner party for “analogue champions” including higher-ups in Moleskine, Polaroid and Facebook (yes, Facebook: it has an analog research lab) in a mothballed (hence wholly analogue) grand hotel just outside Vienna.

Kapps is a one-man cultural revolution. He bought the last surviving Polaroid factory in 2008, just before it was due to be demolished. He got it running again, only to discover that several chemicals needed to make Polaroid’s signature instant-developing film were no longer in production. That film was “the most chemically complicated man-made product ever,” claims Steve Herchen a former Polaroid product manager. Early attempts to replicate the original formula were, in Kapps’s memorable phrase, “perfect in a special way” (the colours were wildly unreliable; half the time the image would melt off the backing).

Still, Kapps persevered. He reckoned analogue technology has an irresistible mystique; that if he rebuilt the technology, new customers would appear. And he was right: Impossible, the company he founded, now bears the Polaroid name and sells a million instant films a year. Kapps, though, is a dreamer, not a manager, and Impossible’s board had long since kicked him out.

It is hard to feel too sorry for him. His subsequent ventures in analogue — including a museum-cum-bar-cum-store in Vienna called Supersense — address, in a much more direct and personally satisfying fashion, his scattergun delight in goods you can touch and smell, and machines you can hear working and can take apart and understand. Kapps curates analogue printing machinery, recording equipment, cameras and telephones. All the machines work, and those that are for sale, sell quickly. Every few weeks he traipses across Austria in search of just the right meats to serve in his cafe. After hours he uses his shop floor to stage concerts that are cut straight to vinyl, creating one-of-a-kind records of live events. David Bohnett, creator of Geocities and one of Silicon Valley’s first millionaires, reckons Kapps is inventing a whole new class of luxury item — unique records of unique experiences. Is he right?

People under 25 seem to think so. It’s this cohort, who grew up in a digital world, who are Kapps’s most eager customers. Kapps believes a monotonously digital diet has starved them of sensory pleasure, and that “after a long period of analogue companies trying hard to become digital, it’s now time for the digital companies to start thinking how to connect with people in analogue ways.”

An Impossible Project is a highly ingenious movie. Meurer has gone to extraordinary lengths to portray the man who saved Polaroid in a film that captures that casual, magical, slightly unreliable Polaroid feel. It’s informal. Practically every take looks like an outtake. People grin at the camera as if they’ve never seen a camera before. The shots don’t seem particularly well framed, and yet they add up to an extraordinarily beautiful film. And the colours are gorgeous.

Reality trumped

Reading You Are Here: A field guide for navigating polarized speech, conspiracy theories, and our polluted media landscape by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (MIT Press)
for New Scientist, 3 March 2021

This is a book about pollution, not of the physical environment, but of our civic discourse. It is about disinformation (false and misleading information deliberately spread), misinformation (false and misleading information inadvertently spread), and malinformation (information with a basis in reality spread pointedly and specifically to cause harm).

Communications experts Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner completed their book just prior to the US presidential election that replaced Donald Trump with Joe Biden. That election, and the seditious activities that prompted Trump’s second impeachment, have clarified many of the issues Phillips and Milner have gone to such pains to explore. Though events have stolen some their thunder, You Are Here remains an invaluable snapshot of our current social and technological problems around news, truth and fact.

The authors’ US-centric (but universally applicable) account of “fake news” begins with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Its deliberately silly name, cartoonish robes, and quaint routines (which accompanied all its activities, from rallies to lynchings) prefigured the “only-joking” subcultures (Pepe the Frog and the like) dominating so much of our contemporary social media. Next, an examination of the Satanic panics of the 1980s reveals much about the birth and growth of conspiracy theories. The authors’ last act is an unpicking of QAnon — a current far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a secret cabal of cannibalistic Satan-worshippers plotted against former U.S. president Donald Trump. This brings the threads of their argument together in a conclusion all the more apocalyptic for being so closely argued.

Polluted information is, they argue, our latest public health emergency. By treating the information sphere as an ecology under threat, the authors push past factionalism to reveal how, when we use media, “the everyday actions of everyone else feed into and are reinforced by the worst actions of the worst actors”

This is their most striking takeaway: that the media machine that enabled QAnon isn’t a machine out of alignment, or out of control, or somehow infected: it’s a system working exactly as designed — “a system that damages so much because it works so well”.

This media machine is founded on principles that, in and of themselves, seem only laudable. Top of the list is the idea that to counter harms, we have to call attention to them: “in other words, that light disinfects”.

This is a grand philosophy, for so long as light is hard to generate. But what happens when the light — the confluence of competing information sets, depicting competing realities — becomes blinding?

Take Google as an example. Google is an advertising platform, that makes money the more its users use the internet to “get to the bottom of things”. The deeper the rabbit-holes go, the more money Google makes. This sets up a powerful incentive for “conspiracy entrepreneurs” to produce content, creating “alternative media echo-systems”. When the facts run out, create alternative facts. “The algorithm” (if you’ll forgive this reviewer’s dicey shorthand) doesn’t care. “The algorithm” is, in fact, designed to serve up as much pollution as possible.

What’s to be done? Here the authors hit a quite sizeable snag. They claim they’re not asking “for people to ‘remain civil’”. They claim they’re not commanding us, “don’t feed the trolls.” But so far as I could see, this is exactly what they’re saying — and good for them.

With the machismo typical of the social sciences, the authors call for “foundational, systematic, top-to-bottom change,” whatever that is supposed to mean, when what they are actually advocating is a sense of personal decency, a contempt for anonymity, a willingness to stand by what one says come hell or high water, politeness and consideration, and a willingness to listen.

These are not political ideas. These are qualities of character. One might even call them virtues, of a sort that were once particularly prized by conservatives.

Phillips and Milner bemoan the way market capitalism has swallowed political discourse. They teeter on a much more important truth: that politics has swallowed our moral discourse. Social media has made whining cowards of us all. You Are Here comes dangerously close to saying so. If you listen carefully, there’s a still, small voice hidden in this book, telling us all to grow up.

Just dump your filth on somebody else

Watching Space Sweepers, directed by Jo Sung-hee, for New Scientist, 24 February 2021

Tae-Ho is a sweeper-up of other people’s orbital junk, a mudlark in space scavenging anything of value. In Jo Sung-hee’s new movie Space Sweepers, he is someone who is most alone in a crowd – that is to say, among his crewmates on the spaceship Victory. They are a predictable assortment: a feisty robot with detachable feet; a heavily armed yet disarmingly gamine captain; a gnarly but lovable engineer with a past.

Tae-ho is played by Song Joong-ki, who also starred in Jo’s romantic smash hit A Werewolf Boy (2012). Song is the latest in a long line of South Korean actors whose utter commitment and lack of ego can bring the sketchiest script to life (think Choi Min-sik in revenge tragedy Oldboy, or Gong Yoo in zombie masterpiece Train to Busan).

Tae-ho has a secret. As a child soldier, culling troublemakers in orbit, he once saved the life of a little girl, adopted her, was ostracised for it, hit the skids and lost his charge in a catastrophic orbital collision. Now he wants her back, at any cost.

The near-magical mega-corp UTS can resurrect her using her DNA signature. This is the same outfit that is making Mars ready for settlement, but only for an elite 5 per cent of Earth’s population. The rest are left to perish on the desertified planet. All that is needed to restore Tae-ho’s ward is more money than he will ever see in his life, no matter how much junk he and his mates clear.

Then, as they tear apart a crashed shuttle, the crew discovers 7-year-old Kang Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin), a girl with a secret. She may not even be a girl at all, but a robot; a robot who may not be a robot at all, but a bomb. Selling her to the highest bidder will get Tae-ho’s daughter back, but at what moral cost?

South Korea’s first space-set blockbuster is, in one aspect at least, a very traditional film. Like so much of South Korean cinema, it explores the ethical consequences of disparities of wealth – how easily poorer people can be corrupted, while the rich face no moral tests at all.

But what do all these high-minded, high-octane shenanigans have to do with space junk, like the 20,000 artificial objects with orbits around Earth that can be tracked? Or the 900,000 bits of junk between 1 and 10 centimetres long? Or the staggering 128 million pieces that are smaller still and yet could wreak all kinds of havoc, from scratching the lens of a space telescope to puncturing a space station’s solar array?

Nothing, and everything. Space Sweepers is a space opera, not Alfonso CuarÓn’s Gravity. The director’s interest in the physics of low orbit begins and ends with the mechanics of rapidly rotating bodies. And boy, do they rotate. On a surprisingly small budget, the movie ravishes the eye and overwhelms the ear as Victory hurtles through a cluttered, industrialised void, all right angles and vanishing perspectives. You can’t help but think that while space may never look like this, it could easily feel like it: frenetic, crowded, unreasonable, ungiving, a meat grinder for the soul.

Similarly, while the very real problem of space junk won’t be solved by marginalised refugees in clapped-out spaceships, this film has hit on some truth. Cleanliness isn’t a virtue because it is too easy to fake: just dump your filth on somebody else. It is just wealth, admiring itself in the mirror. Real virtue, says this silly but very likeable film, comes with dirt on its hands.

Dispersing the crowds

Considering the fate of museums and galleries under covid laockdown for New Scientist, 3 February 2021

In November 2020, the International Council of Museums estimated that 6.1 per cent of museums globally were resigned to permanent closure due to the pandemic. The figure was welcomed with enthusiasm: in May, it had reported nearly 13 per cent faced demise.

Something is changing for the better. This isn’t a story about how galleries and museums have used technology to save themselves during lockdowns (many didn’t try; many couldn’t afford to try; many tried and failed). But it is a story of how they weathered lockdowns and ongoing restrictions by using tech to future-proof themselves.

One key tool turned out to be virtual tours. Before 2020, they were under-resourced novelties; quickly, they became one of the few ways for galleries and museums to engage with the public. The best is arguably one through the Tomb of Pharaoh Ramses VI, by the Egyptian Tourism Authority and Cairo-based studio VRTEEK.

And while interfaces remain clunky, they improved throughout the year, as exhibition-goers can see in the 360-degree virtual tour created by the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent in Belgium to draw people through its otherwise-mothballed Van Eyck exhibition.

The past year has also forced the hands of curators, pushing them into uncharted territory where the distinctions between the real and the virtual become progressively more ambiguous.

With uncanny timing, the V&A in London had chosen Lewis Carroll’s Alice books for its 2020 summer show. Forced into the virtual realm by covid-19 restrictions, the V&A, working with HTC Vive Arts, created a VR game based in Wonderland, where people can follow their own White Rabbit, solve the caterpillar’s mind-bending riddles, visit the Queen of Hearts’ croquet garden and more. Curious Alice is available through Viveport; the real-world show is slated to open on 27 March.

Will museums grow their online experiences into commercial offerings? Almost all such tours are free at the moment, or are used to build community. If this format is really going to make an impact, it will probably have to develop a consolidated subscription service – a sort of arts Netflix or Spotify.

What the price point should be is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t help for institutions to muddy the waters by calling their video tours virtual tours.

But the advantages are obvious. The crowded conditions in galleries and museums have been miserable for years – witness the Mona Lisa, imprisoned behind bulletproof glass under low-level diffuse lighting and protected by barricades. Art isn’t “available” in any real sense when you can only spend 10 seconds with a piece. I can’t be alone in having staggered out of some exhibitions with no clear idea of what I had seen or why. Imagine if that was your first experience of fine art.

Why do we go to museums and galleries expecting to see originals? The Victorians didn’t. They knew the value of copies and reproductions. In the US in particular, museums lacked “real” antiquities, and plaster casts were highly valued. The casts aren’t indistinguishable from the original, but what if we produced copies that were exact in information as well as appearance? As British art critic Jonathan Jones says: “This is not a new age of fakery. It’s a new era of knowledge.”

With lidar, photogrammetry and new printing techniques, great statues, frescoes and chapels can be recreated anywhere. This promises to spread the crowds and give local museums and galleries a new lease of life. At last, they can become places where we think about art – not merely gawp at it.

A Faustian bargain, freely made

Reading The Rare Metals War by Guillaume Pitron for New Scientist, 27 January 2021

We reap seven times as much energy from the wind, and 44 times as much energy from the sun, as we did just a decade ago. Is this is good news? Guillaume Pitron, a journalist and documentary-maker for French television, is not sure.

He’s neither a climate sceptic, nor a fan of inaction. But as the world begins to adopt a common target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Pitron worries that we’re becoming selectively blind to the costs that effort will incur. His figures are stark. Changing our energy model means doubling rare metal production approximately every fifteen years, mostly to satisfy our demand for non-ferrous magnets and lithium-ion batteries. “At this rate,” says Pitron, “over the next thirty years we will need to mine more mineral ores than humans have extracted over the last 70,000 years.”

Before the Renaissance, humans had found a use for just seven metals. Over the course of the industrial revolution, this number increased to just a dozen. Today, we’ve found uses for all 86 of them, and some of them are very rare indeed. For instance, neodymium and gallium are found in iron ore, but there’s 1,200 times less neodymium and up to 2,650 times less gallium than there is iron.

Zipping from an abandoned Mountain Pass mine in the Mojave Desert to the toxic lakes and cancer villages of Baotou in China, Pitron weights the terrible price paid for refining such materials, ably blending his investigative journalism with insights from science, politics and business.

There are two sides to Pitron’s story, woven seamlessly together. First there’s the economic story, of how the Chinese government elected to dominate the global energy and digital transition, so that it now controls 95 per cent of the rare metals market, manufacturing between 80 to 90 per cent of the batteries for electric vehicles, and over half the magnets used in wind turbines and electric motors.

Then there’s the ecological story in which, to ensure success, China took on the West’s own ecological burden. Now 10 per cent of its arable land is contaminated by heavy metals, 80 per cent of its ground water is unfit for consumption and 1.6 million people die every year due to air pollution alone (a recent paper in The Lancet reckons only 1.24 million people die each year — but let’s not quibble.

China’s was a Faustian bargain, freely entered into, but it would not have been possible had Europe and the rest of the Western world not outsourced their own industrial activities, creating a world divided, as Pitron memorably describes it, “between the dirty and those who pretend to be clean”.

The West’s economic comeuppance is now at hand, as its manufacturers, starved of the rare metals they need, are coerced into taking their technologies to China. And we in the West really should have seen this coming: how our reliance on Chinese raw materials would quickly morph into a reliance on China for the very technologies of the energy and digital transition. (Piron tells us that without magnets produced by China’s ChengDu Magnetic Material Science & Technology Company, the United States’ F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter cannot fly.)

By 2040, in our pursuit of ever-greater connectivity and a cleaner atmosphere, we will need to mine three times more rare earths, five times more tellurium, twelve times more cobalt, and sixteen times more lithium than we do today. China’s ecological ruination and its global technological dominance advance in lockstep, unstoppably — unless we start mining for rare metals ourselves — in the United States, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and in the “dormant mining giant” of Pitron’s native France.

Better, says Pitron, that we attain some small shred of supply security, and start mining our own land. At least if mining takes place in the backyards of vocal First World consumers, they can agitate for (and pay for) cleaner processes. And nothing will change “so long as we do not experience, in our own backyards, the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness.”