The past is like Baltimore: there is no there there

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Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and atomic nostalgia, Lindsey A. Freeman (University of North Carolina Press)
Seeing Green: The use and abuse of American environmental images, Finis Dunaway (Chicago University Press)
for New Scientist  (4 April 2015),

THE past can’t be re-experienced. It leaves only traces and artefacts, which we constantly shuffle, sort, discard and recover, in an obsessive effort to recall where we have come from. This is as true of societies as it is of individuals.

Lindsey Freeman, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is the grandchild of first-generation residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Once a “secret city”, where uranium was enriched for the US’s Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge opened its gates to the world in 1949 as America’s first “Atomic City”: a post-war utopia of universal healthcare, zero unemployment and state-owned housing.

In Longing for the Bomb, Freeman describes how residents of Oak Ridge dreamed up an identity for themselves as a new breed of American pioneer. He visits Oak Ridge’s Y-12 National Security Complex (an “American Uranium Center of Excellence”) during its Secret City Festival, boards its Scenic Excursion Train and cannot decide if converting a uranium processing site into a wildlife reserve is good or bad.

It would have been easy to turn the Oak Ridge story into something sinister, but Freeman is too generous a writer for that. Oak Ridge owes its existence to the geopolitical business of mass destruction, but its people have created stories that keep them a proud and happy community. Local trumps global, every time.

This is good for the founders of communities, but a problem for those who want to wake up those communities to the need for change. As historian Finis Dunaway puts it in Seeing Green, his history of environmental imagery, “even as media images have made the environmental crisis visible to a mass public, they often have masked systemic causes and ignored structural inequalities”.

Reading this, I was reminded of a talk by author Andrew Blackwell, where he told us just how hard it is to take authentic pictures of some of the world’s most polluted places. Systemic problems do not photograph well. Some manipulation is unavoidable.

Dunaway knows this. Three months after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979the worst radioactive spill in US history occurred near Church Rock, New Mexico, on lands held by the Navajo nation. It took a week for the event to be reported, once, on a single news channel.

The remoteness of the site and a lack of national interest in Native American affairs might explain the silence but, as Dunaway points out, the absence of an iconic and photogenic cooling tower can’t have helped.

The iconic environmental images Dunaway discusses are essentially advertisements, and adverts address individuals. They assume that radical social change will catch on like any other consumer good. For example, the film An Inconvenient Truth, chock full of eye-catching images, is the acme of the sincere advertiser’s art, and its maker, former US vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore, is a vocal proponent of carbon offset and other market initiatives.

Dunaway, though, argues that you cannot market radical social action. For him, the moral seems to be that sometimes, you just have to give the order – as Franklin Roosevelt did when he made Oak Ridge a city.

A comic novel about the death of God

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F by Daniel Kehlmann reviewed for the Guardian

It cannot be an easy thing to write a comic novel about the death of God. Still, the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann may just have pulled it off. “F” is the protagonist of a book within a book, the debut novel of Arthur Friedland, a rather disorganised buffoon who never had any success as a writer until an encounter with a hypnotist gave his life its chilly purpose: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want me to give the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs. Repeat!”

My Name Is No One is so exuberantly nihilistic, its readers are throwing themselves off TV transmission towers. As Kehlmann says: “The sentences are well constructed, the narrative has a powerful flow, the reader would be enjoying the text were it not for a persistent feeling of somehow being mocked.”

If Kehlmann played this intertextual game to the hilt – if F itself were as unforgiving as Arthur’s novel – then we would be looking at a less important book, as well as a less enjoyable one: some Johnny-come-lately contribution to the French nouvelle vague. The spirit of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the movement’s greatest exponent, illuminates the scene in which Arthur takes his granddaughter to an art museum to study a picture by her missing uncle: “She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more people any more, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch. There were just some tiny bright patches of colour above the main deck. The white of the naked canvas shone through in several places, and even the ship was a mere assemblage of lines and dots. Where had it all gone?”

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There are many such moments, they are all as beautifully judged as this one, and they are not the point. The point of F is not its humour (though Kehlmann, like Robbe-Grillet, can be very funny indeed), but its generosity. Arthur’s three sons, in their turn, make superhuman efforts to give their lives significance, and these efforts tangle and trip over each other to generate the comic business of the book. The eldest, Martin, a Rubik’s Cube expert, embraces the priesthood despite his lack of faith. Of Arthur’s two sons by his second marriage, Eric enters the glass-and-steel world of high finance to help control his fear of cramped spaces. His twin brother, Ivan, is a would-be painter turned art dealer, and author of Mediocrity As an Aesthetic Phenomenon.

“When I was young, vain, and lacking all experience,” he recalls, “I thought the art world was corrupt. Today I know that’s not true. The art world is full of lovable people, full of enthusiasts, full of longing and truth. It is art itself as a sacred principle that unfortunately doesn’t exist.”

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Ivan, like all the others, lives in a nihilistic universe, but he is not himself nihilistic. It worries him that the world cannot live up to his expectations and those of the people he admires. These people include his lover Heinrich Eulenboeck, an artist with a true calling but only mediocre ability. What kind of world is it that plays such a trick on a person? “How do you live with that, why do you keep on going?”

The answer seems to be love. In a godless world, love counts for a great deal. And failing love, ordinary human decency goes a long way. Since Kurt Vonnegut died, there has really been no one to tell us this; the reminder is welcome.

F is again translated by Carol Brown Janeway, but it is a better book than Kehlmann’s last, Fame, whose narrative gymnastics caused characters to lose or swap their identities, and even to topple into their own or other people’s fictions. Fame was knowing, driven by its own absurdity. F is about the world’s absurdity, and this makes a huge difference morally. The world is big, and ultimately unknowable, and life is short and memory pitifully limited.

In the absence of God, Kehlmann’s protagonists hold themselves to account, and they give themselves hell. Sometimes, they give each other hell. “Something terrible has happened and the people seem to be wanting to cover it up. If you were to look a little longer, hunt a little better for clues, you’d be able to figure it out, or at least you think so. But if you step back, the details disappear and all that remains is a colourful street scene: bright, cheerful, full of life.”

It is very hard to express how funny this all is. But laughter matters most in the dark.

Life signs

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the editors of Synthetic Aesthetics pulled no punches when they launched their new book at a “Friday late” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A couple of audience members interrupted to bemoan the sheer abstractness of the enterprise. Why couldn’t the panel explain what synthetic biologists actually did? A rather unfair criticism of an event that scattered living biological materials across every floor of the museum. The task of explaining where beauty sits in the world of synthetic biology fell to Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, California. Endy explained how, when synthetic biology began, its self-styled “engineers” treated living things as wayward and overcomplicated machines, in need of radical simplification. Now, researchers are learning to appreciate and harness biological complexity. “Ford’s original Model T motor car was simple, in engineering terms, but it was hell to operate. A Tesla is complicated but a pleasure to drive.” Standards of beauty are fuzzy, personal and intuitive. They inspire real conversations. So I imagine talking about beauty in design is useful for a discipline that’s constantly struggling with its own hype, never mind other people’s panic.

Unknown Quantity: a Real and Imagined History of Algebra by John Derbyshire

Unknown Quantity: a Real and Imagined History of Algebra by John Derbyshire
reviewed for the Telegraph,  17 May 2007

In 1572, the civil engineer Rafael Bombelli published a book of algebra, which, he said, would enable a novice to master the subject. It became a classic of mathematical literature. Four centuries later, John Derbyshire has written another complete account. It is not, and does not try to be, a classic. Derbyshire’s task is harder than Bombelli’s. A lot has happened to algebra in the intervening years, and so our expectations of the author – and his expectations of his readers – cannot be quite as demanding. Nothing will be mastered by a casual reading of Unknown Quantity, but much will be glimpsed of this alien, counter-intuitive, yet extremely versatile technique.

Derbyshire is a virtuoso at simplifying mathematics; he is best known for Prime Obsession (2003), an account of the Riemann hypothesis that very nearly avoided mentioning calculus. But if Prime Obsession was written in the genre of mathematical micro-histories established by Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem, Derbyshire’s new work is more ambitious, more rigorous and less cute.

It embraces a history as long as the written record and its stories stand or fall to the degree that they contribute to a picture of the discipline. Gone are Prime Obsession’s optional maths chapters; in Unknown Quantity, six “maths primers” preface key events in the narrative. The reader gains a sketchy understanding of an abstract territory, then reads about its discovery. This is ugly but effective, much like the book itself, whose overall tone is reminiscent of Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 programme In Our Time: rushed, likeable and impossibly ambitious.

A history of mathematicians as well as mathematics, Unknown Quantity, like all books of its kind, labours under the shadow of E T Bell, whose Men of Mathematics (1937) set a high bar for readability. How can one compete with a description of 19th-century expansions of Abel’s Theorem as “a Gothic cathedral smothered in Irish lace, Italian confetti and French pastry”?

If subsequent historians are not quite left to mopping-up operations, it often reads as though they are. In Unknown Quantity, you can almost feel the author’s frustration as he works counter to his writerly instinct (he is also a novelist), applying the latest thinking to his biography of the 19th-century algebraist Évariste Galois – and draining much colour from Bell’s original.

Derbyshire makes amends, however, with a few flourishes of his own. Also, he places himself in his own account – a cultured, sardonic, sometimes self-deprecating researcher. This is not a chatty book, thank goodness, but it does possess a winning personality.

Sometimes, personality is all there is. The history of algebra is one of stops and starts. Derbyshire declares that for 269 years (during the 13th, 14th and early 15th centuries) little happened. Algebra is the language of abstraction, an unnatural way of thinking: “The wonder, to borrow a trope from Dr Johnson, is not that it took us so long to learn how to do this stuff; the wonder is that we can do it at all.”

The reason for algebra’s complex notation is that, in Leibniz’s phrase, it “relieves the imagination”, allowing us to handle abstract concepts by manipulating symbols. The idea that it might be applicable to things other than numbers – such as sets, and propositions in logic – dawned with tantalising slowness. By far the greater part of Derbyshire’s book tells this tale: how mathematicians learned to let go of number, and trust the terrifying fecundity of their notation.

Then, as we enter the 20th century, and algebra’s union with geometry, something odd happens: the mathematics gets harder to do but easier to imagine. Maths, of the basic sort, is a lousy subject to learn. Advanced mathematics is rich enough to sustain metaphor, so it is in some ways simpler to grasp.

Derbyshire’s parting vision of contemporary algebra – conveyed through easy visual analogies, judged by its applicability to physics, realised in glib computer graphics – is almost a let-down. The epic is over. The branches of mathematics have so interpenetrated each other, it seems unlikely that algebra, as an independent discipline, will survive.

This is not a prospect Derbyshire savours, which lends his book a mordant note. This is more than an engaging history; it records an entire, perhaps endangered, way of thinking.

 

The Eye: a Natural History


This is a book about the nature of the eye. It is about all the eyes that are, and ever have been, and may yet be. It is about how we see the world, and how other eyes see it. It is about what happens to the world when it is looked at, and about what happens to us when we look at each other. It is about evolution, chemistry, optics, colour, psychology, anthropology, and consciousness. It is about what we know, and it is also about how we came to know it. So this is also a book about personal ambition, folly, failure, confusion, and language.

You can buy The Eye: A Natural History at Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com has the American edition, A Natural History of Seeing

Read more about this book.

UK: Bloomsbury. 1st hardback edition, March 2007
UK: Bloomsbury. Paperback, January 2008
Germany: Hoffman und Campe, April 2008
USA: Norton, October 2008
Italy: Einaudi, October 2008
Japan: Hayakawa, 2008
Portugal: Aletheia, 2008

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The Weight of Numbers


On July 21, 1969 two astronauts set foot on the moon; far below, in ravaged Mozambique, a young revolutionary is murdered by a package bomb.

Strung like webs between these two unconnected events are three lives: Anthony Burden, a mathematical genius destroyed by the beauty of numbers; Saul Cogan, transformed from prankster idealist to trafficker in the poor and dispossessed; and Stacey Chavez, ex-teenage celebrity and mediocre performance artist, hungry for fame and starved of love. All are haunted by Nick Jinks, a man who sows disaster wherever he goes. As a grid of connections emerges between a dusty philosophical society in London and an African revolution, between international container shipping and celebrity-hosted exposés on the problems of the Third World, The Weight of Numbers sends the spectres of the baby boom’s liberal revolutions floating into the unreal estate of globalization and media overload—

You can pick up a paperback of The Weight of Numbers at Amazon.co.uk. Anyone who wants the first edition can fill their boots here.  And there’ll be a Kindle version along in a little while.

Read more about this book

UK: Atlantic. 1st hardback edition, March 2006 
Canada: HarperCollins, July 2006 
UK: Atlantic.Paperback, September 2006
United States: Black Cat, January 2007 
Italy: Il Saggiatore, February 2007 
Germany: Manhattan, April 2007 
Greece: Malliaris, 2007 
France: Editions du Panama; Portugal: Leya, September 2008 
Russia: AST, 2008 
Spain: Bibliópolis, 2008
Czech Republic: Lidove Noviny 
Turkey: Everest Publishing 

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City of the Iron Fish

My less-than-widely-read second novel, written in a brothel in Oporto, on the run from my reputation as a cyberpunk writer.

The following review appears on Novel Reflections http://www.novelreflections.com/reviews/simon-ings/city-of-the-iron-fish

The City is isolated. There is some land around the city, but beyond that there is nothing. Every twenty years the city performs the ceremony of the iron fish and things are changed. Years ago, whole sections of the city moved and were rearranged, new animals, new places arrived through the magic of the ceremony. But over time people have lost interest in it, and lost the rites and rituals to make the magic work.

Thomas Kemp grows up in the shadow of the ceremony and his father’s obsession with it. By the time the ceremony comes around again, he is one of the few who remembers or cares enough about it to begin preparations. ‘Simon Ings has created a strange world here, and one that has no explanation. Some of the inhabitants search for meaning, debate whether there is an outside world that their myths of jungles and oceans derive from. One of these is Kemp’s friend Blythe, an artist. Together they travel to find the edge of their world, and discover nothingness. Their journey changes them both in different ways. Blythe reacts to her experience by creating bleak and frightening work, while Kemp becomes an artist himself.

In a closed environment, what would happen to the people who live there? Their hopes and dreams, their need for freedom and new experiences? This is a place where all forms of artistic expression feed on each other and the past, constantly repeating and vainly striving.

I found this to be a deeply strange book, and I was impressed that the author did not try to explain the existence of the city, and the magic of the fish. Somehow it all worked better to read of Kemp’s life as he lived it, without knowing these things, and stumbling along in this strange world without a map. His passions, confusion, pain and everyday life are laid out to see, and even an evening’s drunken debauch has a ring of truth to it that is very appealing.’

First published in 1994 by Collins. ISBN: 0006476538
(Rautakalan Kaupunki 2005, Loki Kirjat, Finland, 952-9646-05-4)

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