Cutequake

Reading Irresistible by Joshua Paul Dale for New Scientist, 15 November 2023

The manhole covers outside Joshua Dale’s front door sport colourful portraits of manga characters. Hello Kitty, “now one of the most powerful licensed characters in the world”, appears on road-construction barriers at the end of his road, alongside various cute cartoon frogs, monkeys, ducks, rabbits and dolphins. Dale lives in Tokyo, epicentre of a “cutequake” that has conquered mass media (the Pokémon craze, begun in 1996, has become arguably the highest grossing media franchise of all time) and now encroaches, at pace, upon the wider civic realm. The evidence? Well for a start there are those four-foot-high cutified police-officer mannequins standing outside his local police station…

Do our ideas of and responses to cute have a behavioural or other biological basis? How culturally determined are our definitions of what is and is not cute? Why is the depiction of cute on the rise globally, and why, of all places, did cute originate (as Dale ably demonstrates) in Japan?

Dale makes no bones about his ambition: he wants to found a brand-new discipline: a field of “cute studies”. His efforts are charmingly recorded in this first-person account that tells us a lot (and plenty that is positive) about the workings of modern academia. Dale’s interdisciplinary field will combine studies of domestication and neoteny (the retention of juvenile features in adult animals), embryology, the history of art, the anthropology of advertising and any number of other disparate fields in an effort to explain why we cannot help grinning foolishly at hyper-simplified line drawings of kittens.

Cute appearances are merely heralds of cute behaviour, and it’s this behaviour — friendly, clumsy, open, plastic, inventive, and mischievous — that repays study the most. A species that plays together, adapts together. Play bestows a huge evolutionary advantage on animals that can afford never to grow up.

But there’s the sting: for as long as life is hard and dangerous, animals can’t afford to remain children. Adult bonobos are playful and friendly, but then, bonobos have no natural predators. Their evolutionary cousins the chimpanzees have much tougher lives. You might get a decent game of checkers out of a juvenile chimp, but with the adults it’s an altogether different story.

The first list of cute things (in The Pillow Book), and the first artistic depictions of gambolling puppies and kittens (in the “Scroll of Frolicking Animals”) come from Japan’s Heian period, running from 794 to 1185 – a four-century-long period of peace. So what’s true at an evolutionary scale seems to have a strong analogue in human history, too. In times of peace, cute encourages affiliation.

If I asked you to give me an example of something cut, you’d most likely mention a cub or kitten or other baby animal, but Dale shows that infant care is only the most emotive and powerful social engagement that cute can release. Cute is a social glue of much wider utility. “Cuteness offers another way of relating to the entities around us,” Dale writes; “its power is egalitarian, based on emotion rather than logic and on being friendly rather than authoritarian.”

Is this welcome? I’m not sure. There’s a clear implication here that cute can be readily weaponised — a big-eyed soft-play Trojan Horse, there to emotionally nudge us into heaven knows what groupthunk folly.

Nor, upon finishing the book, did I feel entirely comfortable with an aesthetic that, rather than getting us to take young people seriously, would rather reject the whole notion of maturity.

Dale, a cheerful and able raconteur, had written a cracking story here, straddling history, art, and some complex developmental science, and though he doesn’t say so, he’s more than adequately established that this is, after all, the way the world ends: not with a bang but a “D’awww!”

Is Wanda June? Is Catherine Jerrie? Is Jerrie June?

Reading A Woman I Know by Mary Haverstick for The Telegraph, 15 November 2023

This is an anxious, furious, forensic contribution to the study of the assassination of US president John F Kennedy. Forensic, because Haverstick has spent a dozen years learning how to read the US National Security Archives; furious, because the subject of this work, begun as a hymn to female empowerment, turned out to be a monstrous double-agent who maims cats and poisons drinking water; anxious because, as Haverstick is at pains to point out, these forays into espionage, assassination and casual violence have taken her about as far away from her creative comfort zone as it is possible to imagine.

Haverstick is an independent filmmaker. Home, her feature starring Marcia Gay Harden, came out in 2008. Her publisher’s web page says that Home came out in 2009. There is in fact a French documentary called Home released that year. Explaining to IMDB that the “Home” I was after was a “drama” from “2008” threw up a touching French comedy, also called Home, starring Isabelle Huppert. If looking up a movie generates this amount of fuss and bother, imagine what Haverstick’s been wading through for the last dozen years. Very early on in researching the life of female aeronaut and NASA hopeful Jerrie Cobb, Haverstick was taken aside by an unaccountably friendly woman from the Department of Defense and told that Jerrie’s government paper trail was largely “classified” and not worth the bother. It’s possible that she was genuinely trying to do Haverstick a favour.

Haverstick’s subject is Jerrie Cobb, one of the “Mercury 13” — female flyers who many observers assumed would participate at some point in NASA’s space programme. Their (never official) training programme was scrubbed in September 1962. In 2009 Jerrie agreed that Haverstick should tell her story, and strongly implied that this story was bigger — much bigger — than it first appeared. What she absolutely wouldn’t do was share her story: instead the elderly Jerrie spent years dropping expertly timed clues into Haverstick’s lap as the two travelled the world on cruise ships — trips that were “exotic, stressful, exhilarating, scary, and fascinating but never exactly enjoyable”. (Much the same could be said for this book. Haverstick has a sizeable and material axe to grind, and has little time for Dealey Plaza neophytes.)

The book draws together several figures who may or may not be real people, and are anyway rarely the people they say they are, even when there’s only one of them to contend with, which is almost never. (Welcome to spycraft.) There’s Jerrie Cobb, the disappointed astronaut. There’s June Cobb, the double agent who arranged for the delivery of poison pills to US enemy number one Fidel Castro. Jerrie and June aren’t related, though they’re of an age and came from the same town — and are you thinking what I am thinking? There’s Catherine Taaffe, who’s no relation at all to Jerrie and definitely a person in her own right — only how come Jerrie bears scars from a knife wound that are supposed to belong to Catherine? And — the cherry on this teetering cake — there Wanda Baran (savour that name), a Belgian con-artist whose company suckered in communist countries looking for nuclear materials. Is Wanda June? Is Catherine Jerrie? Is Jerrie June? Well, yes. Or sometimes. Or something.

I’m being flippant only because flippancy saves space. Haverstick has over five hundred pages to explain her case — that the privately funded astronaut project we’ve come call Mercury 13 was, among other perfectly legitimate things, a cover for the case officer driving the Kennedy assassination. She needs every single one of those pages and she does not waste a line.

Did I buy into every one of her speculations and inferences? No. No-one will. This genre has form. Arguably the most successful espionage book of all time, 1976’s A Man Called Intrepid, about the adventures of Sir William Stephenson, turned out to be the melancholy fabulations of a man suffering catastrophic memory loss.

At the same time, I’m certainly not going to throw the first stone. Haverstick is in earnest here and has a memory like a filing system and a filing system like a vice. The least this book could possibly be is a compelling real-life thriller, full of passion, free of writerly fuss, woven from the most intractable archival cat’s cradle imaginable.

That’s what you’ve got, even before you think to take it seriously — and I’ll bet the farm that you will.

How to catch an elephant

Reading The Deorhord: An Old English Bestiary by Hana Videen for the Spectator, 11 November 2023

How to catch an elephant.

Find a tree, and saw most of the way through it, without felling it. Sooner or later an unwary elephant is bound to lean up against it. Down comes the tree and down comes the elephant which, since it has no joints in its legs, will be unable to get up again. Dispatch your elephant with, um, dispatch, lest the herd arrives in answer to its plangent call. In that case the youngest of them, being lower to the ground, will be able to lift their fallen comrade back on its feet.

In her second foray into the Old English lexicon and mindset (The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English came out in 2021), Old English scholar Hana Videen is out to explore a world where animals hold sway. (A “deor”, by the way, is the Old English word for any animal, and opening this volume, you are as like to be confronted with a spider or a dragon, a dog-headed man or a tusked woman, as you are by anything so commonplace as a “deer”.) These living, breathing sources of knowledge, enchantment and instruction provided the feedstock for countless bestiaries, which flooded the Medieval book market for a good three hundred years. No earlier, Old English bestiary survives. Still, there’s lore enough in “tales, poems and medical texts, riddles and travel logs, sermons and saints’ lives” to justify Videen’s putting a synthetic one together from the available material.

Though it helps to know a bit of German, Old English is a captivating tongue. What’s not to love about a language that collides nouns in kennings like “gange-wæfre (walker-weaver) and wæfer-gange (weaver-walker), to name a spider? (At least we’ve retained the gærs-hoppa (grasshopper).)

Where Old English becomes arduous is in its religious texts, that cannot leave anything alone, but must constantly be making things act as metaphors for other things. That stiff-legged Elephant we started with is God’s Law, you see, that ultimately fails to keep us from committing sin. The other adult elephants (prophets of the Old Testament) try to help their fallen brother, but it’s only with the help of the little elephant (Christ) that the fallen can rise again.

There is, Videen explains, nothing particularly dogmatic or esoteric going on here — only people’s ongoing effort to explain their world in the most vivid and entertaining terms available. (We do the same today, and quite as unthinkingly: our plugged-in views over smooth-running power brunches of start-up meltdowns would surely addle the most visionary mediaeval mind: do these people imagine they are machines?)

Old English literature becomes a lot less arduous when we realise that its rhetorical fancies are fancies: they’re a poetic register, not a secret sign, and they aren’t designed to stand much scrutiny. In the Old English Life of St Margaret, for example, poor Margaret is swallowed by a dragon, splits it in two by making the sign of the cross, and steps out into the world again unharmed — making her the patron saint of women in childbirth. If you overthink this, you’ll tie yourself up in knots wondering at a metaphor that kills the mother-to-be while making her the instrument of the devil. The point is: stop being so needlessly scholastic. Focus on the first things the image brings to mind — the blood and the pain and the miracle of birth. Treat the language like a language, not a codex from the Beyond.

Much time has passed, of course, since “doves congregated in multicoloured flocks”. Videen is an excellent guide to lost lore (black doves were associated with obscure sermons, and “blac”, by anyway meant “glossy”) and sees us safely through some disconcerting shifts in meaning. Today we associate owls with wisdom, “yet mediaeval bestiaries compare the owl’s daytime blindness to the spiritual ‘blindness’ of the Jews,” Videen explains, “who refuse to accept the ‘light’ of Christianity.” When other, smaller birds flock around an owl in an Old English sermon, don’t assume they’re paying homage to the wise old bird.

Not every Old English text feels the need to find moral instruction in the birds and the beasts. There is also a sizeable quantity of what Videen charmingly terms “Alexander fan-fic”: imaginary first-person accounts of Alexander the Great’s adventures in Ind, or Ethiopia, or Lentibelsinea (home of the self-immolating chicken, the fabled “henn”), or wherever the heck else he was supposed to have got to (and sometimes, mark you, on the back of a griffin).
“Did people struggle to imagine creatures of Alexander’s campaigns like the teeth tyrant and moonhead?” Videen wonders. “Were the solutions to riddles more obvious than they are today?”

Though her charming, endlessly fascinating book is chock-full of archival detective stories (and not a few shaggy dog stories into the bargain), Videen would rather we entertained the possibility that the early English mind was quite as imaginative as the modern one, and just as intelligent, and had not yet lost the art of appreciating a tall tale or even, Heavens defend us, a joke.

Everything we think we know about migration is wrong

Reading How Migration Really Works by Hein de Haas for New Scientist, 8 November 2023

Three decades of research, conducted largely with teams at the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam, have gone into geographer Hein de Haas’s comprehensive, fascinating, often shocking survey of global migration. Everyone will arrive at this book nursing some opinion or other about migration. Few will finish with the preconceptions still intact. De Haas is out to show how everything we think we know about migration is wrong, not because migration is an especially complex matter, but because economic and political interests, on both the left and the right, have lost sight of the evidence, when they haven’t actively covered it up; both would rather shape public narratives out of just-so stories than resort to anything so dull and intransigent as fact.

The shibboleths surrounding migration are demolished in three waves. De Haas explores trends in global migration patterns, first, moves onto examine the impacts of migration on both destination and origin societies, and closes with a series of fairly devastating takedowns of popular ideas championed by politicians, interest groups and international organizations across the political spectrum.

How degraded has the evidential foundation around the migration debate become? Consider, for starters, frequently quoted figures released by UNHCR, the United Nations’ own refugee agency, which to show that the total number of displaced people in the world increased from 1.8 million in 1951 to 20 million in 2005, rose to 62 million in 2018, then leapt up to almost 89 million in 2021 and 100 million in 2022. What explains this shocking rise? Globalisation? War? Climate change? Or the inability to present statistics? “What appears to be an unprecedented increase in refugee numbers,” de Haas explains, with what weary patience one can only imagine, “is in reality a statistical artefact caused by the inclusion of populations and countries that were previously excluded from displacement statistics.” UNHCR’s current figures are truly global. Their 1951 figure, however, was drawn from a database covering just 21 countries.

Its the direction of migration in the post-war world that has proved so disconcerting. Former emigrant nations have become immigrant destinations. The numbers have fluctuated hardly at all. At any one time, three per cent of the world’s population are migrants. A tenth of those are refugees. The figure for unsolicited border crossings fluctuates wildly, depending on labour demand in destination countries (for illegal migration) and conflict in origin countries (for refugee migration), but the underlying figure remains consistent.

From where, then, comes all this Stürm und Drang around migration? De Haas pulls no punches. Both right and left have a vested interest in inflating migrant numbers, he says: “Although they may advocate very different solutions, politicians from left to right, climate activist and nativist groups, humanitarian NGOs and refugee organizations and media have all bought into the idea that the current era is one of a migration crisis.”

That this results in some staggeringly wrong-headed policy-making comes as no surprise — witness the massive US investment in border enforcement since the late 1980s that has turned a largely circular flow of Mexican workers into an 11-million-strong population of permanently settled families living all across the United States.

There’s also the cultural impact. In host nations including the UK, nightmare scenarios are regularly peddled to tickle every political palate. An international cabal controls people smuggling! (No evidence.) Across the world, the mafia are trafficking young women for sex! (No evidence.) Migration flows are predominantly from the impoverished South to the wealthy North! (Wrong.) Migration lifts all boats! (No: it overwhelmingly benefits the already affluent.) Few scenarios credit migrants themselves with foresight, agency, or even intelligence.

How Migration Really Works is a carefully evidenced diatribe against a political culture that would rather use migration as a domestic psychodrama than treat it as an ordinary and governable part of civics. To be pro-immigration, or anti-immigration, is to miss the point entirely. You wouldn’t ask an economist whether they’re for or against the economy, would you?

We’re constantly told we need “a big conversation” about immigration. I’m currently re-reading this book (something crabbed reviewers never normally do). And until I’m done, I’ll keep my big mouth firmly shut.

“Something very strange is happening here”

Watching Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory for New Scientist, 1 November 2023

Sometimes, to really understand a process, you have to follow it, without flinching, even if it upsets you, even if it breaks your heart.

Oscar-nominated director Maite Alberdi won the Sundance Grand Jury prize in 2023 for The Eternal Memory, a documentary made from original footage, home movies, newsreels and tapes smuggled out of Chile during the darkest years of General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year-long dictatorship. Its subject is the Chilean writer and journalist Augusto Góngora, who’s living — and by the last reel very obviously dying — with Alzheimer’s disease.

Góngora (who passed away earlier this year aged 71) spent the years between 1973 and 1990 editing an opposition newspaper and shooting and smuggling VHS recordings out of Chile, as part of a desperate attempt to document and share years of national turmoil and horror. It was dangerous work. In 1985 a fellow journalist on the project, Jose Manuel Parada, had his throat slit from ear to ear for his trouble. This violent episode haunts Góngora, whose sense of self comes to depend increasingly on the presence (real or imagined) of friends and family.

From 1990 Góngora’s films recording “17 years of death” were succeeded by 18 years of cultural programming, as he went about interviewing writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians — people he believed could help bring his newly democratised nation out of its forced (book-banned, movie-less) forgetfulness, and reawaken its once vibrant culture.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, Góngora readily embraced his wife’s plan to record his physical and cognitive decline. Such a record would, at very least, be a testament to their 25 years together. Assembled, edited and capstoned with much new footage, The Eternal Memory is that and more: a meditation on what we can and cannot expect from memory.

The spine of the film is an honest, frank but never voyeuristic account of how Augusto Gongora succumbs to his neurodegenerative disease. Early on we see his wife, the actress and politician Paulina Fernández, taking the couple’s portrait off the bedroom wall before they settle to sleep. If she doesn’t take it down, the sight of two strangers staring down at him from the wall in the middle of the night might send Augusto into a panic.

Gongora’s deterioration is relentless: soon he is talking to the strangers in mirrors and glass doors. “Something very strange is happening here,” he muses. Soon he will not even recognise Paulina’s face.

Paulina’s plight is given its proper weight. Tirelessly she recites the basic facts of her lover’s life to him, and for a while, this litany brings comfort. “They’re always with me,” Augusto mutters, over and over, “and they love me, every day.” But no respite lasts for long, and the toll all this takes on Paulina is shocking.

What’s extraordinary about this film is that, even as it records the disintegration of memory in a single individual, it celebrates the way memories — set down in books, recorded on videotapes, delivered as witness statements or transmuted into art or drama or music — work collectively to bring an all-but-broken nation back to life.

Because for all the sadness here, this, too, must be said: that Gongora, through his films and through the three volume collection of remembrances La Memoria Prohibida (published at last in 1989), kept the memory of his country alive, and by doing so, he preserved its identity.

One line from that three-volume work of national renaissance echoes through the film: ”Without memory, there is no identity”. “I’m not myself any more,” Gongora weeps, near the end of the film. Even as Gongora loses his identity, however, his people are seen regaining theirs.

At a time when the idea of national identity is little more than a political football, it is worth remembering that a people’s idea of itself is a living thing, worth defending against the amnesia of tyrants.

We’re building sandcastles

Visiting Fantasy: Realms of Imagination at the British Library, for the Telegraph, 27 October 2023

Trees shimmer behind black gothic arches, beckoning the visitor through the British Library’s latest exhibition, an exploration of fantastic books, maps, images and imagined worlds, mixing rare editions with boardgames, autograph manuscripts, graphic novels, sketchbooks and video interviews.

Though there’s much pleasure to be had among the manuscripts (Monty Python and the Holy Grail began as a shopping list of running gags), inevitably, the paper archive gutters out at around the advent of the word processor. This upset me, though the scrawled red biroid horror that is Alan Garner’s manuscript for The Owl Service (1967) largely reconciled me to the march of progress. Past the mid-eighties, board games, role-playing games and videogames fill the gap left by the missing materiality of literary production.

Nonetheless this show advances an idea of fantasy that is primarily literary. Writers being ornery creatures, it’s a genre robust enough to resist its own cosy commodification. Gandalf’s staff and Arya Stark’s smallsword and other props are here as evidence of worldbuilding exercises that, even at Hollywood scale, are supposed to be ephemeral, vulnerable to parody and the passage of time and taste, to borrowing and, especially, these days, to the corrosive practices of ”weird” writers like M. John Harrison, N. K. Jemisin or China Mieville. The point (which was surely lost on the Amazon executives who sanctioned that flopbusting “Rings of Power” series) is that we’re building sandcastles here; and the tide is always coming in.

I’m not convinced that modern fantasy in anyway deepens or realises the potential of ancient folktales. Writers are more venal than that, and steal what they need for their own purposes. Still, the whig history this show offers — in which folk tales evolved into fairy stories, which evolved into metaphysical yarns, which have at last evolved into epic fantasies of the Game of Thrones sort — at least makes for a crystal-clear narrative, and a good excuse to rub, say, Charlotte Bronte’s spider-thin penmanship up against Ursula Le Guin’s muddy yet evocative pencil sketches, or the antic spiritual unease of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) up against the fantastical politics of Ken Liu’s “Dandelion Dynasty” books, written over a century later.

Is fantasy “escapist”? The genre enthusiasts interviewed in the thankfully brief “fandom” room at the end of the show seem to think so. Through fantasy, you can be whatever you want to be — this seems to be the idea, though it wouldn’t last you five minutes in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, or in any tale by the brothers Grimm.

Are the faeries at the bottom of the garden kind? Are the gods listening? Is that letter at the bottom of the trunk to be trusted? Are you my Mother, or my button-eyed Other Mother? Fantasy may appear infantile, but visit this exhibition and you will discover that it’s protean, which is a very different proposition. It’s reality with the skein of habit torn away, in all its wonder and horror.

“These confounded dials…”

Reading The Seven Measures of the World by Piero Martin and Four Ways of Thinking by David Sumpter, for New Scientist, 23 October 2023

Blame the sundial. A dinner guest in a play by the Roman writer Plautus, his stomach rumbling, complains that

“The town’s so full of these confounded dials
The greatest part of the inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, crawl along the streets”

We’ve been slaves to number ever since. Not that we need complain, according to two recent books. Piero Martin’s spirited and fascinating The Seven Measures of the World traces our ever-more precise grasp of physical reality, while Four Ways of Thinking, by the Uppsala-based mathematician David Sumpter, shows number illuminating human complexities.

Martin’s stories about common units of measure (candelas and moles rub shoulders here with amperes and degrees Kelvin) tip their hats to the past. The Plautus quotation is Martin’s, as is the assertion (very welcome to this amateur pianist) that the unplayable tempo Beethoven set for his “Hammerklavier” sonata (138 beats per minute!) was caused by a broken metronome.

Martin’s greater purpose is to trace, in the way we measure our metres and minutes, kilogrammes and candelas, the outline of “a true Copernican revolution”.

In the past fundamental constants were determined with reference to material prototypes. In November 2018 it was decided to define international units of measure in reference to the constants themselves. The metre is now defined indirectly using the length of a second as measured by atomic clocks, while the definition of a kilogramme is defined as a function of two physical constants, the speed of light, c, and Planck’s constant, h. The dizzying “hows” of this revolution beg not a few “whys”, but Martin is here to explain why such eye-watering accuracy is vital to the running of our world.

Sumpter’s Four Ways of Thinking is more speculative, organising reality around the four classes of phenomena defined by mathematician Stephen Wolfram’s little-read 1,192-page opus from 2002, A New Kind of Science. Sumpter is quick to reassure us that that his homage to the eccentric and polymathic Wolfram is not so much “a new kind of science” as “a new way to convince your friends to go jogging with you” or perhaps “a new way of controlling chocolate cake addiction.”

The point is, all phenomena are mathematically speaking, either stable, periodic, chaotic, or complex. Learn the differences between these phenomena, and you are half way to better understanding your own life.

Much of Four Ways is assembled semi-novelistically around a summer school in complex systems that Sumpter attended at the Santa Fe Institute in 1997. His half-remembered, half-invented mathematical conversations with fellow attendees won me over, though I have a strong aversion to exposition through dialogue.

I incline to think Sumpter’s biographical sketches are stronger. The strengths and weaknesses of statistical thinking are explored through the life of Ronald Fisher, the unlovely genius who in the 1940s a almost single-handedly created the foundations for statistical science.

That the world does not stand still to be measured, and is often best considered a dynamical system, is an insight given to Alfred Lotka, the chemist who in the first half of the 20th century came tantalisingly close to formulating systems biology.

Chaotic phenomena are caught in a sort of negative image through the work of NASA software engineer Margaret Hamilton, whose determination never to make a mistake — indeed, to make mistakes in her code impossible — landed the crew of Apollo 11 on the Moon.

Soviet mathematician Andrej Kolmogorov personifies complex thinking, as he abandons the axiom-based approach to mathematics and starts to think in terms of information and computer code.

Can mathematics really elucidate life? Do we really need mathematical thinking to realise that “each of us follows our individual rules of interaction and out of that emerges the complexity of our society”? Maybe not. But the journey was gripping.

 

 

Bees (playful) Frogs (ardent) Bats (unbelievably loud)

Reading A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous by Caspar Henderson for the Spectator, 7 October 2023

Caspar Henderson writes beguiling commonplace books about the natural world, full of eye-catching detail and plangent commentary. His Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary came out in 2012. A Book of Noises is a worthy companion: a pursuit of auditory wonders, a paean to the act of listening, and a salute to silence.

Item: the music of the spheres. (The planets’ orbits, proving unideal and elliptical, suggested to the musically-minded astronomer Johannes Kepler an appropriately sad, minor-keyed Leitmotif for the Earth, “where, he felt, misery and famine held sway.”)

Item: the world’s loudest sound. (The asteroid Chicxulub, that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago; also an honourable mention to the Indonesian volcano Karakatoa, whose eruption in 1883 burst eardrums forty miles away).

Bees (playful). Frogs (ardent). Bats (unbelievably loud). The Magic Flute and the soundscapes of Hell. Sounds of the cosmos give way to sounds of the Earth. Life follows, bellowing, and humanity comes after, babbling and brandishing bells. The 48 forays into sound that make up A Book of Noises are arranged with the sort of guileless simplicity achievable only after the author-compiler has been beating their head against a wall for some years.

Everything trembles. The world sounds and resounds. Elephants flee the sound of helicopter blades turning eighty miles away. The root system of the common pea plant will move towards the sound of water in a pipe.

There’s something missing. If ever a book cried out for an accompanying Spotify playlist, it’s this one. Maybe I was looking too soon. Maybe a kind reader will put one together. What the heck, maybe I will. Ransacking this book affords hours of listening pleasure (or at any rate bemusement). Max Richter’s album Sleep to ease us in. Then Sam Perkins’s Alta for Two String Trios and Electronics, capturing the ephemeral crackles that sometimes accompany the Northern Lights. Dai Fujikura’s 2010 Glacier, which the composer describes as “a plume of cold air which is floating silently between the peaks of a very icy cold landscape, slowly but cutting like a knife.” Joseph Monkhouse’s soundscapes of the Somerset levels in the Iron Age. David Rothenberg’s quixotic saxophone duets with whales in 2008 stretched even Henderson’s famous generosity of spirit, and he writes: “it is hard to know how far, if at all, the whales are actually listening.” Such grounding moments are important, in a book chock-full of fancy.

The point is, the world makes sounds and we, at our best, make sounds of our own in response. For every natural wonder, there is probably an eccentric musical instrument gathering dust somewhere: for every frog, a flute; for every booming volcano, some variation on a horn. The sounds that humans make are rooted in a profoundly material soundworld. The extrapolated and bizarre soundworlds made possible by digital technology are still largely terra incognita, and there may be good reason for this. “One is humbly aware that [this digital soundworld] will only be conquered by penetration of the human spirit,” the British composer Jonathan Harvey is quoted as saying, “and that penetration will neither be rapid or easy.”

Music itself, as a technology and as an idea, sometimes imposes too narrow a filter over our experience of sound. In a striking (ha!) chapter on bells, Henderson explains that the bells in Russian churches are meant to be voices, not musical instruments. For that reason, they are quite deliberately untuned, so that they produce as many over- and undertones as possible.

Humanity at its worst, meanwhile, makes a din that deafens whales and stresses birds out of their minds and mating patterns. Henderson cites soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause’s twenty-year project to record the sounds at Sugarloaf Park in California — a dramatic and frankly depressing record of environmental diminution and fragmentation, speaking to “a catastrophic loss of sonic diversity and richness worldwide.” The story of our scraping of the planet is also part of Henderson’s story. This is not an altogether happy book.

Is it a wise one? This is Henderson’s clear and laudable ambition. One of the perils of writing a book like this is that, in order to make the contents readable in any order, you have to carefully top and tail every one of those forty-eight seemingly disconnected microchapters. The effort throws up gnomic and occasionally ponderous capstones that are a gift to the mean and cantankerous critic. In my notes here, the following closers: “Life calls to us even as we call to it.” / “If there is to be a future worth living in it will surely hold a place for re-enchantment.” / “While you live, shine.”

This sort of niggle only shows up on a fast read. Readers can and should take their time. It will be very well spent.

 

Apocalypse Now Lite

Watching Gareth Edwards’s The Creator for New Scientist, 4 October 2023

A man loses his wife in the war with the robots. The machines didn’t kill her; human military ineptitude did. She was pregnant with his child. The man (played by John David Washington, whose heart-on-sleeve performance can’t quite pull this film out of the fire) has nothing to live for, until it turns out that his wife is alive and working with the robots to build a weapon. The weapon turns out to be a robot child (an irresistible performance by 7-year-old Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who possesses the ability to control machines at a distance. Man and weapon go in search of the man’s wife; they’re a family in wartime, trying to reconnect, and their reconnection will end the war and change everything.

The Creator’s great strength is its futuristic south-east Asian setting. (You know a film has problems when the reviewer launches straight in with the set design.) Police drones like mosquitos rumble overhead. Mantis-headed robots in red robes ring temple bells to warn of American air attack.

The Creator is Apocalypse Now Lite: the Americans aggressors have been traumatised by the nuking of Los Angeles — an atrocity they blame on their own AI. They’ve hurled their own robots into the garbage compactor (literally — a chilling up-scaled retread of that Star Wars scene). But South East Asia has had the temerity to fall in love with AI technology. They’re happy to be out-evolved! The way a unified, Blade-Runner-esque “New Asia” sees it, LA was an accident a long way away; people replace people all the time; and a robot is a person.

Hence: war. Hence: rural villages annihilated under blue laser light. Hence: missiles launched from space against temple complexes in mountain fastnesses. Hence: river towns reduced to matchwood under withering small-arms fire.

If nothing else, it’s spectacular.

The Creator is not so much a stand-alone sf blockbuster as a game of science fiction cinema bingo. Enormous battle tanks, as large as the villages they crush? think Avatar. A very-low-orbit space station, large enough to be visible in the daytime? think Oblivion. Child with special powers? think Stranger Things. The Creator is a science fiction movie assembled from the tropes of other science fiction movies. If it is not as bankrupt as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels Prometheus and Covenant (now those were bad movies), it’s because we’ve not seen south-east Asia cyborgised before (though readers of sf have been inhabiting such futures for over thirty years) and also because director Gareth Edwards once again proves that he can pull warm human performances from actors lumbered with any amount of gear, sweating away on on the busiest, most cluttered and complex set.

This is not nothing. Nor, alas, is it enough.

As a film school graduate Gareth Edwards won a short sci-fi film contest in London, and got a once in a lifetime chance to make a low budget feature. Monsters (2010) managed to be both a character piece and a love story and a monster movie all in one. On the back of it he got a shot at a Star Wars spin-off in 2014, which hijacked the entire franchise (everyone loved Rogue One and its TV spin-off Andor is much admired; Disney’s own efforts at canon have mostly flopped).

The Creator should have been Edwards’s Star Wars. Instead, something horrible has happened in the editing. Vital lines are being delivered in scenes so truncated, it’s as though the actors are explaining the film directly to the audience. Every few minutes, tears run down Washington’s face, Voyles’s chin trembles, and we have no idea, none, what brought them to their latest crescendo — and ooh look, that goofy running bomb! That reminds me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow…

The Creator is a fine spectacle. What we needed was a film that had something to say.

“A failure by the British state”

Reading The Poison Line by Cara McGoogan for the Telegraph, 17 September 2023

Mayor Treloar College, founded in 1907 for the education and care of physically disabled children, was more than just a school for Ade Goodyear. The teaching and medical staff were more like an extended family. Dr Anthony Aronstam, director of the Treloar’s haemophilia centre, used to invite Ade and his schoolfriends over to his house where they drank lemonade and swam in the pool.

One afternoon in the summer of 1984 Ade found Aronstam bent over his desk, trembling. “‘We’ve fucked up,’ Aronstam said. ‘We’ve messed up, boys. I’ve messed up. It’s all gone wrong.’”

In the face of a gathering global calamity, Aronstam had been assessing Ade, without his knowledge, for signs of AIDS. Two of Ade’s schoolfriends were already diagnosed. One, Richard Campbell, had already died. By 1986 Aronstam had forty­-three patients who were HIV positive. He wrote in a report, “”There are gloomier predictions about, which suggest that up to 100 per cent of the infected haemo­philiac population will eventually succumb to the virus.”

The Poison Line is the first book by journalist Cara McGoogan. It began life as a couple of features written for this paper in the opening week of the Infected Blood Inquiry in 2019.
It may seem thin praise to single out the way McGoogan has arranged her material here, but truly the effort has been superhuman. This is the story of a global medical scandal, implicating health services, pharmaceutical companies and whole governments, and unfolding slowly enough, and meeting obstacles enough, that many of its victims died before they ever saw justice, never mind compensation. It is told, for the most part, through the recollections of the victims, their families, their doctors, their legal and political representatives. That so many individual stories here burn their way into the reader’s skull is testament to the strength of the source material, of course, but there were so many plates McGoogan could have dropped here and didn’t, so many stories to leave hanging and implications to leave unexplored, that there ought to be some sort of award for literary juggling established in her name.

Treloar College is just the most familiar domestic emblem of a crisis that played out across the US, UK, mainland Europe, and south-east Asia. It began when a new, much quicker, more convenient and more comfortable way was found of administering blood clotting factors to haemophiliacs. Factor VIII, a freeze-dried powder derived from blood, was infected with hepatitis B, but since this infection was common among haemophiliacs anyway, and went away in time, the issue was ignored. Consequently, other agents infecting Factor VIII went undetected, including HIV and hepatitis C.

Institution after institution doubled down on their original error in allowing and promoting a tainted product. In the UK, ministers themselves come out of this account surprisingly well, as McGoogan traces their appalled investigations into decades of deliberate cover-up. It was left to Jeremy Hunt, “the epitome of the establishment politician”, to sum up the disaster as “a failure by the British state. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it.

The second half of Poison Line, about the victims’ courtroom battles, reveals the economic drivers of the scandal. By the 1990s plasma was more valuable than gold and oil. Most Factor VIII was produced in the US, and American blood bankers, who are allowed to pay donors for plasma, were gathering blood from wherever they could: outside nightclubs, from inside prisons, and from a centre in Nicaragua nicknamed the ‘House of Vampires’, which collected plasma from up to a thousand people a day. The there was the way Factor VIII was made: any one injection could contain the blood of twenty-​­five thousand people.

As McGoogan’s account gathers pace and scale, the more existential the issues become. At what point does a corporation countenance the death of its customers? In what institutional setting will a doctor think it reasonable to tell an AIDS-infected mother that “Women like you should be sterilized”? What level of conformism does it take for the mother of a seventeen year old, infected with HIV from a haemophilia treatment, to tell him that he’s brought shame on her, and throw him out the house?

By the closing pages, we seem to have left the news pages behind entirely, and be wrestling with something that looks very like the tragedy of the human condition.