“We cannot save ourselves”

Interviewing Cixin Liu for The Telegraph, 29 February 2024

Chinese writer Cixin Liu steeps his science fiction in disaster and misfortune, even as he insists he’s just playing around with ideas. His seven novels and a clutch of short stories and articles (soon to be collected in a new English translation, A View from the Stars) have made him world-famous. His most well-known novel The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo, the nearest thing science fiction has to a heavy-hitting prize, in 2015. Closer to home, he’s won the Galaxy Award, China’s most prestigious literary science-fiction award, nine times. A 2019 film adaptation of his novella “The Wandering Earth” (in which we have to propel the planet clear of a swelling sun) earned nearly half a billion dollars in the first 10 days of its release. Meanwhile The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels have sold more than eight million copies worldwide. Now they’re being adapted for the screen, and not for the first time: the first two adaptations were domestic Chinese efforts. A 2015 film was suspended during production (“No-one here had experience of productions of this scale,” says Liu, speaking over a video link from a room piled with books.) The more recent TV effort is, from what I’ve seen of it, jolly good, though it only scratches the surface of the first book.

Now streaming service Netflix is bringing Liu’s whole trilogy to a global audience. Clean behind your sofa, because you’re going to need somewhere to hide from an alien visitation quite unlike any other.

For some of us, that invasion will come almost as a relief. So many English-speaking sf writers these days spend their time bending over backwards, offering “design solutions” to real-life planetary crises, and especially to climate change. They would have you believe that science fiction is good for you.

Liu, a bona fide computer engineer in his mid-fifties, is immune to such virtue signalling. “From a technical perspective, sf cannot really help the world,” he says. “Science fiction is ephemeral, because we build it on ideas in science and technology that are always changing and improving. I suppose we might inspire people a little.”

Western media outlets tend to cast Liu — a domestic celebrity with a global reputation and a fantastic US sales record — as a put-upon and presumably reluctant spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party. The Liu I’m speaking to is garrulous, well-read, iconoclastic, and eager. (It’s his idea that we end up speaking for nearly an hour more than scheduled.) He’s hard-headed about human frailty and global Realpolitik, and he likes shocking his audience. He believes in progress, in technology, and, yes — get ready to clutch your pearls — he believes in his country. But we’ll get to that.

We promised you disaster and misfortune. In The Three-Body Problem, the great Trisolaran Fleet has already set sail from its impossibly inhospitable homeworld orbiting three suns. (What does not kill you makes you stronger, and their madly unpredictable environment has made the Trisolarans very strong indeed.) They’ll arrive in 450 years or so — more than enough time, you would think, for us to develop technology advanced enough to repel them. That is why the Trisolarans have sent two super-intelligent proton-sized super-computers at near-light speed to Earth, to mess with our minds, muddle our reality, and drive us into self-hatred and despair. Only science can save us. Maybe.
The forthcoming Netflix adaptation is produced by Game of Thrones’s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and True Blood’s Alexander Woo. In covering all three books, it will need to wrap itself around a conflict that lasts millennia, and realistically its characters won’t be able to live long enough to witness more than fragments of the action. The parallel with the downright deathy Game of Thrones is clear: “I watched Game of Thrones before agreeing to the adaptation,” says Liu. “I found it overwhelming — quite shocking, but in a positive way.”

By the end of its run, Game of Thrones had become as solemn as an owl, and that approach won’t work for The Three-Body Problem, which leavens its cosmic pessimism (a universe full of silent, hostile aliens, stalking their prey among the stars) with long, delightful episodes of sheer goofiness — including one about a miles-wide Trisolaran computer chip made up entirely of people in uniform, marching about, galloping up and down, frantically waving flags…

A computer chip the size of a town! A nine-dimensional supercomputer the size of a proton! How on Earth does Liu build engaging stories from such baubles? Well, says Liu, you need a particular kind of audience — one for whom anything seems possible.
“China’s developing really fast, and people are confronting opportunities and challenges that make them think about the future in a wildly imaginative and speculative way,” he explains. “When China’s pace of development slows, its science fiction will change. It’ll become more about people and their everyday experiences. It’ll become more about economics and politics, less about physics and astronomy. The same has already happened to western sf.”

Of course, it’s a moot point whether anything at all will be written by then. Liu reckons that within a generation or two, artificial intelligence will take care of all our entertainment needs. “The writers in Hollywood didn’t strike over nothing,” he observes. “All machine-made entertainment requires, alongside a few likely breakthroughs, is ever more data about what people write and consume and enjoy.” Liu, who claims to have retired and to have no skin in this game any more, points to a recent Chinese effort, the AI-authored novel Land of Memories, which won second prize in a regional sf competition. “I think I’m the final generation of writers who will create novels based purely on their own thinking, without the aid of artificial intelligence,” he says. “The next generation will use AI as an always-on assistant. The generation after that won’t write.”

Perhaps he’s being mischievous (a strong and ever-present possibility). He may just be spinning some grand-sounding principle out of his own charmingly modest self-estimate. “I’m glad people like my work,” he says, “but I doubt I’ll be remembered even ten years from now. I’ve not written very much. And the imagination I’ve been able to bring to bear on my work is not exceptional.” His list of influences is long. His father bought him Wells and Verne in translation. Much else, including Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, required translating word for word with a dictionary. “As an sf writer, I’m optimistic about our future,” Liu says. “The resources in our solar system alone can feed about 100,000 planet Earths. Our future is potentially limitless — even within our current neighbourhood.”

Wrapping our heads around the scales involved is tricky, though. “The efforts countries are taking now to get off-world are definitely meaningful,” he says, “but they’re not very realistic. We have big ideas, and Elon Musk has some exciting propulsion technology, but the economic base for space exploration just isn’t there. And this matters, because visiting neighbouring planets is a huge endeavour, one that makes the Apollo missions of the Sixties and Seventies look like a fast train ride.”

Underneath such measured optimism lurks a pessimistic view of our future on Earth. “More and more people are getting to the point where they’re happy with what they’ve got,” he complains. “They’re comfortable. They don’t want to make any more progress. They don’t want to push any harder. And yet the Earth is pretty messed up. If we don’t get into space, soon we’re not going to have anywhere to live at all.”

The trouble with writing science fiction is that everyone expects you have an instant answer to everything. Back in June 2019, a New Yorker interviewer asked him what he thought of the Uighurs (he replied: a bunch of terrorists) and their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government (he replied: firm but fair). The following year some Republican senators in the US tried to shame Netflix into cancelling The Three-Body Problem. Netflix pointed out (with some force) that the show was Benioff and Weiss and Woo’s baby, not Liu’s. A more precious writer might have taken offence, but Liu thinks Netflix’s response was spot-on. ““Neither Netflix nor I wanted to think about these issues together,” he says.

And it doesn’t do much good to spin his expression of mainstream public opinion in China (however much we deplore it) into some specious “parroting [of] dangerous CCP propaganda”. The Chinese state is monolithic, but it’s not that monolithic — witness the popular success of Liu’s own The Three Body Problem, in which a girl sees her father beaten to death by a fourteen-year-old Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, grows embittered during what she expects will be a lifetime’s state imprisonment, and goes on to betray the entire human race, telling the alien invaders, “We cannot save ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Liu has learned to be ameliatory. In a nod to Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, he points out that while wars continue around the globe, the bloodshed generated by warfare has been declining for decades. He imagines a world of ever-growing moderation — even the eventual melting away of the nation state.

When needled, he goes so far as to be realistic: “No system suits all. Governments are shaped by history, culture, the economy — it’s pointless to argue that one system is better than another. The best you can hope for is that they each moderate whatever excesses they throw up. People are not and never have been free to do anything they want, and people’s idea of what constitutes freedom changes, depending on what emergency they’re having to handle.”

And our biggest emergency right now? Liu picks the rise of artificial intelligence, not because our prospects are so obviously dismal (though killer robots are a worry), but because mismanaging AI would be humanity’s biggest own goal ever: destroyed by the very technology that could have taken us to the stars!

Ungoverned AI could quite easily drive a generation to rebel against technology itself. “AI has been taking over lots of peoples’ jobs, and these aren’t simple jobs, these are what highly educated people expected to spend lifetimes getting good at. The employment rate in China isn’t so good right now. Couple that with badly managed roll-outs of AI, and you’ve got frustration and chaos and people wanting to destroy the machines, just as they did at the beginning of the industrial revolution.”

Once again we find ourselves in a dark place. But then, what did you expect from a science fiction writer? They sparkle best in the dark. And for those who don’t yet know his work, Liu is pleased, so far, with Netflix’s version of his signature tale of interstellar terror, even if its westernisation does baffle him at times.

“All these characters of mine that were scientists and engineers,” he sighs. “They’re all politicians now. What’s that about?”

Radiant with triumphant calamity

Reading Fear by Robert Peckham for the Telegraph, 25 August 2023 

Remember the UK intelligence claim that Saddam Hussein could strike the UK with a ballistic missile within 45 minutes? The story goes that this was spun out of a two-year-old conversation with a taxi driver on the Iraq-Jordan border. One thing’s for sure: fear breeds rumour breeds more fear.

Robert Peckham lives in fear, and claims we’re all of us entering “an era of insidious, mediatised fear”. This may be a case of misery seeking company. And you can see why: in 1988 this British historian of science (author of several well-received books about epidemics) narrowly missed getting blown up in a terrorist attack on the funeral of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in Jalalabad. More recently, in the summer of 2021, he quit his job at the University of Hong Kong where, he writes, ”fear was palpable… friends were being hounded by the authorities, news agencies shut down and opposition leaders jailed.”

With the spread of Covid-19, Peckham’s political and medical interests dovetailed in Hong Kong in grim fashion. “A pandemic turned out to be the ultimate anti-protest weapon,” he writes, “one that the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, deployed ruthlessly to stifle opposition.”

Fear is the story of how, over the last 700 years or so, power has managed and manipulated its subjects through dread: of natural disasters, pandemics, revolutions, technologies, financial crashes, wars and of course, through fear of the government itself.

We see how the Catholic Church tried and failed to canalise the horrors of the Black Death into sacral terror and obedience; how instead that fear powered the Reformation. There’s a revealing section about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play both steeped in fear and about it: and how fear is shown sometimes engendering, sometimes acting as a moral brake on violence. Through the bloody medium of the French revolution, we enter the modern era painfully aware that reason has proved more than capable of buttressing terror, and that the post-Enlightenment period is “radiant with triumphant calamity”.

Peckham’s history is as encyclopaedic as it is mirthless. After a striking and distressing chapter about the slave trade (every book should have one), Peckham even wonders whether “perhaps slavery has been so thoroughly embedded in free market capitalism that it can’t be dislodged, at least not without the collapse of the entire system”.

At this point, the reader is entitled tug on the reins and double check some figures on the United Nations website. And sure enough: in the 21st century alone global life expectancy has risen seven years, literacy has risen by nine per cent (to 91 per cent) and extreme poverty is about a third what it was at the beginning of this century.

Allow Peckham’s argument that the Machiavellian weaponisation of fear had a hand in all this: dare one suggest this was a price worth paying?

Of course this is far from the whole of Peckham’s argument. He says at the outset he wants to explore the role fear plays in promoting reform, as well as its use in repressing dissent. “What,” he asks, “would happen to all the public-spirited interventions that rely on the strategic use of fear to influence our behaviour? Don’t we need fear to take our problems seriously?”

It’s an interesting project. Too often, though, the focus on fear acts to dampen our responses, rather than enrich them. For instance, Peckham depicts Versailles as “a policed society” where “prescriptions on how to eat, talk, walk and dance kept courtiers in line, with the ever-present threat that they might be stripped of their privileges if rules of comportment were infringed”. This is at once self-evident and woefully incomplete, excluding as it does any talk of political aspiration, personal vanity, love of play, the temptations of gossip and the lure of luxe. This isn’t an insight into Versailles; it’s a gloomy version of Versailles.

There is a difference, it is true, between the trenches of Verdun, and the fear felt in those trenches, just as there is a difference between the NKVD knocking on your door, and your fear of the knock. But — and here’s the nub of the matter — is it a useful difference? Or is it merely a restatement of the obvious?

In the end, having failed to glean the riches he had hoped for, Peckham is left floundering: “Fear is always intersectional,” he writes, “an unnerving confluence of past, present and future, a convergence of the here and there.”

To which this reader replied, with some exasperation, “Oh, pull the other one!”

Saltbushed, rabbitbrushed and tumbleweeded

Reading Dust by Jay Owens for the Telegraph, 17 July 2023

Here’s a lesson from optics that historians of science seem to have taken in with their mother’s milk: the narrower the aperture, the more focused the image. Pick a narrow something, research its story till it squeaks, and you might just end up with a twisted-but-true vision of the world as a whole. To Jared Diamond’s Guns and Germs and Steel, to Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, and Laura Martin’s Tea, can we now add geographer Jay Owens’ Dust?

Owens’ pursuit of dust (defined very broadly as particles of a certain size, however generated) sends her tripping through many fascinating and rewarding realms, but this can sometimes be at the expense of her main subject. (For instance, an awful lot of this book is less about dust than about the absence of water.) “Dust,” Owens writes, “is matter at the very limit-point of formlessness, the closest ‘stuff’ gets to nothing.” This is nicely put, but what it boils down is: Dust is slippery stuff to hang a book upon.

Owens’ view of dust is minatory, Some dust is vital to natural ecological processes (rainfall being not the least of them). Approximately 140 million tonnes of dust fall every year across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, providing nutrients to marine ecosystems. Still, dust also brings disease: “In the Caribbean,” Owens tells us, “the Saharan winds carry spores of the fungus Aspergillus, making corals and sea fans sicken and die.”

Increasing the amount of dust in the atmosphere has led and still leads to sickness and death. In Ford County, Kansas, at the very bottom of the Dust Bowl, one-third of all deaths in 1935 were from pneumonia. Today, lead and arsenic hitchhike on soot particles formed by combustion, driving some into hay-feverish discomfort, others into acute respiratory failure.

The direct health effects of dust are arresting, but Owens’ abiding interest in dust developed when she began tracing its ubiquity and systemic pervasiveness: how, for instance, electric cars, being heavier, generate extra road dust, which is rich in microplastic particles, and how these transport other environmental contaminants including 6PPD-quinone, “an antioxidant added to tyre rubber that researchers have found is producing mass die-offs of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest.”

Set aside the temptation to run screaming into the hills, we have two ways to confront a world revealed to be this intagliated and insoluble. The first is to embrace ever vaguer suitcase language to contain its wicked problems. When Owens started talking about the “anthropocene”, — a putative new geological era triggered by [insert arbitrary technological advance here], my heart sank. Attempts to conciliate between the social sciences and geology are at best silly and at worst pompous.

The second tactic is to hold your nerve, get out of your chair and go look at stuff; observe the world as keenly as you can, and write as honestly as possible about what you see. And Owens’ success here is such as to nudge aside all earlier quibbles.

Owens is a superb travel writer, delivering with aplomb on her own idea of what geographers should be doing: “Paying attention to tangible, material realities to ground our theoretical models in the world.” (Owens, p. 326)

With Owens, we travel from saltbushed, rabbitbrushed and tumbleweeded Lake Owens in California to Aralka in Kazakhstan, and the toxic remains of what was once the fourth largest lake in the world. We visit ice core researchers in Greenland, and catch a glimpse of their “cold, arduous, multi-year detective work”. We discover through vicarious experience, and not just through rhetoric, why we can’t just admire the fruits of modernity, “the iPhones, the Teslas, the staggering abundance of consumer entertainment – but should follow that tree down to its roots.”

Dust’s journeys, interviews, and historical insights serve Owens’ purpose better than the terms of art she has brought across from social anthropology. I admit I was quite taken with the idea of “Discard Studies”, that interrogates the world through its trash; but a glimpse of Lake Owens’s current condition — a sort of cyborg woodland in place of the old lake, and a place more altered than restored — says more about our ever-more dust-choked world, than a thousand modish gestures ever could.

Ideas are like boomerangs

Reading In a Flight of Starlings: The Wonder of Complex Systems by Giorgio Parisi for The Telegraph, 1 July 2023

“Researchers,” writes Giorgio Parisi, recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics, “often pass by great discoveries without being able to grasp them.” A friend’s grandfather identified and then ignored a mould that killed bacteria, and so missed out on the discovery of penicillin. This story was told to Parisi in an attempt to comfort him for the morning in 1970 he’d spent with another hot-shot physicist, Gerard ‘t Hooft, dancing around what in hindsight was a perfectly obvious application of some particle accelerator findings. Having teetered on the edges of quantum chromodynamics, they walked on by; decades would pass before either man got another stab at the Nobel. “Ideas are often like boomerangs,” Parisi explains, and you can hear the sigh in his voice; “they start out moving in one direction but end up going in another.”

In a Flight of Starlings is the latest addition to an evergreen genre: the scientific confessional. Read this, and you will get at least a frisson of what a top-flight career in physics might feel like.

There’s much here that is charming and comfortable: an eminent man sharing tales of a bygone era. Parisi began his first year of undergraduate physics in November 1966 at Sapienza University in Rome, when computer analysis involved lugging about (and sometimes dropping) metre-long drawers of punched cards.

The book’s title refers to Parisi’s efforts to compute the murmurations of starlings. Recently he’s been trying to work out how many solid spheres of different sizes will fit into a box. There’s a goofiness to these pet projects that belies their significance. The techniques developed to follow thousands of starlings through three dimensions of space and one of time bear a close resemblance to those used to solve statistical physics problems. And fitting marbles in a box? That’s a classic problem in information theory.

The implications of Parisi’s work emerge slowly. The reader, who might, in all honesty, be touched now and again by boredom, sits up straighter once the threads begin to braid.

Physics for the longest time could not handle complexity. Galileo’s model of the physical world did not include friction, not because friction was any sort of mystery, but because the mathematics of his day couldn’t handle it.

Armed with better mathematics and computational tools physics can now study phenomena that Galileo could never have imagined would be part of physics. For instance, friction. For instance, the melting of ice, and the boiling of water: phenomena that, from the point of view of physics, are very strange indeed. Coming up with models that explain the phase transitions of more complex and disordered materials, such as glass and pitch, is something Parisi has been working on, on and off, since the middle of the 1990s.

Efforts to model more and more of the world are nothing new, but once rare successes now tumble in upon the field at a dizzying rate; almost as though physics has undergone its own phase transition. This, Parisi says, is because once two systems in different fields of physics can be described by the same mathematical structure, “a rapid advancement of knowledge takes place in which the two fields cross-fertilize.”

This has clearly happened in Parisi’s own specialism. The mathematics of disorder apply whether you’re describing why some particles try to spin in opposite directions, or why certain people sell shares that others are buying, or what happens when some dinner guests want to sit as far away from other guests as possible.

Phase transitions eloquently connect the visible and quantum worlds. Not that such connections are particularly hard to make. Once you know the physics, quantum phenomena are easy to spot. Ever wondered at a rainbow?

“Much becomes obvious in hindsight,” Parisi writes. “Yet it is striking how in both physics and mathematics there is a lack of proportion between the effort needed to understand something for the first time and the simplicity and naturalness of the solution once all the required stages have been completed.”

The striking “murmurations” of airborne starlings are created when each bird in the flock pays attention to the movements of its nearest neighbour. Obvious, no?

But as Parisi in his charming way makes clear, whenever something in this world seems obvious to us, it is likely because we are perched, knowingly or not, on the shoulders of giants.

A pile of dough

Reading Is Maths Real? by Eugenia Cheng, 17 May 2023

Let’s start with an obvious trick question: why does 1 plus 1 equal 2? Well, it often doesn’t. Add one pile of dough to one pile of dough and you get, well, one pile of dough.

This looks like a twisty and trivial point, but it isn’t. Mathematics describes the logical operations of logical worlds, but you can dream up any number of those, and you’re going to need many more than one of them to even come close to modelling the real world.

“Deep down,” writes mathematician Eugenia Cheng, “maths isn’t about clear answers, but about increasingly nuanced worlds in which we can explore different things being true.”

Cheng wants the reader to ask again all those “stupid” questions they asked about mathematics as kids, and so discover what it feels like to be a real mathematician. Sure enough, mathematicians turn out to be human beings, haunted by doubts, saddled with faulty memories, blessed with unsuspected resources of intuition, guided by imagination. Mathematics is a human pursuit, depicted here from the inside.

We begin in the one-dimensional world of real numbers, and learn in what kinds of worlds numbers can be added together in any order (“commutativity”) and operations grouped together any-old-how (“associativity”). Imaginary numbers (which can’t be expressed as digits; think pi) add a second dimension to our mathematical world, and sure enough there are now patterns we can see that we couldn’t see before, “when we were all squashed into one dimension”.

Keep adding dimensions. (The more we add to our mathematical universe, however, the less we can rely on our visual imagination, and the more we come to rely on algebra.) Complex numbers (which have a real part and an imaginary part) give us the field of complex analysis, on which modern physics depends.

And we don’t stop there. Cheng’s object is not to teach us maths, but to show us what we don’t know; we eventually arrive at a terrific description of mathematical braids in higher dimensions that at the very least we might find interesting, even if we don’t understand it. This is the generous impulse driving this book, and it’s splendidly realised.

Alas, Is Maths Real?, not content with being a book about what it is like to be a mathematician, also wants to be a book about what it is like to be Eugenia Cheng, and success, in this respect, leads to embarrassment.

We’ll start with the trivia and work up.

There’s Cheng’s inner policeman, reminding her, as she discusses the role of pictures in mathematics “to acknowledge that this is thus arguably ableist and excludes those who can’t see.”

There are narcissistic exclamations that defy parody, as when Cheng explains that “the only thing I want everyone to care about is reducing human suffering, violence, hunger, prejudice, exclusion and heartbreak.” (Good to know.)

There are the Soviet-style political analogies for everything. Imaginary and complex numbers took a while to be accepted as numbers because, well, you know people: “some people lag behind, perhaps accepting women and black people but not gay people, or maybe accepting gay, lesbian and bisexual people but not transgender people.”

A generous reader may simply write these irritations off, but then Cheng’s desire to smash patriarchal power structures with the righteous hammer of ethnomathematics (which looks for “other types of mathematics” overlooked, undervalued or suppressed by the colonialist mainstream) tips her into some depressingly hackneyed nonsense. “Contemporary culture,” she tells us, “is still baffled by how ancient cultures were able to do things like build Stonehenge or construct the pyramids.”

Really? The last time I looked, the answers were (a) barges and (b) organised labour.

Cheng tells us she is often asked how she comes up with explanations and diagrams that bring clarity “to various sensitive, delicate, nuanced and convoluted social arguments.” Her training in the discipline of abstract mathematics, she explains, “makes those things come to me very smoothly.”

How smoothly? Well, quite early in the book, “intolerance of intolerance” becomes “tolerance” through a simple mathematical operation — a pratfall in ethics that makes you wonder what kind of world Cheng lives in. Cheng’s abstract mathematics may well be able solve her real-world problems — but I suspect most other people’s worlds feel a deal less tractable.

The Value of Psychotic Experience

Reading The Best Minds: A story of friendship, madness and the tragedy of good intentions by Jonathan Rosen. For the Telegraph, 3 April 2023

This is the story of the author’s lifelong friendship with Michael Laudor: his neighbour growing up in in 1970s Westchester County; his rival at Yale; and his role-model as he abandoned a lucrative job for a life of literary struggle. Through what followed — debilitating schizophrenia; law school; and national celebrity as he publicised the plight of people living with mental illness — Laudor became something of a hero for Jonathan Rosen. And in June 1998, in the grip of yet another psychotic episode, he stabbed his pregnant girlfriend to death.

Her name was Caroline Costello and, says Rosen, she would not have been the first person to ascribe everything in Laudor’s disintegration, “from surface tremors to elliptical apocalyptic utterances, to the hidden depths of a complex soul.”

It will take Rosen over 500 pages to unpick Costello and Laudor’s tragedy, but he starts (and so, then, will we) with the Beats — that generation of writers who, he says, “released madness like a fox at a hunt, then rushed after — not to help or heal but to see where it led, and to feel more alive while the chase was on.”

As a young man, the poet Alan Ginsburg (whose Beat poem “Howl” gives this book its title) gave permission for his mother’s lobotomy. He spent the rest of his life atoning for this, “spinning the culture around him,” says Rosen, “into alignment with his mother’s psychosis”. By the summer of 1968 the Esalen Institute in Big Sur was sponsoring events under the heading “The Value of Psychotic Experience”.

To the amateur dramatics of the Beat generation (who declared mental illness a myth) add the hypocrisies of neo-Marxist critics like Paul de Mann (who proved texts mean whatever we want them to mean) and Franz Fanon (for whom violence was a cleansing force with a healing property) and the half-truths of anti-psychiatrists like Felix Guattari, who hid his clinic’s use of ECT to bolster his theory that schizophrenia was a disease of capitalist culture. Stir in the naiveties of the community health movement (that judged all asylums prisons), and policies ushered in by Jack Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act of 1963 (“predicated,” says Rosen, “on the promise of cures that did not exist, preventions that remained elusive, and treatments that only work for those who were able to comply”); and you will begin to understand the sheer enormity of the doom awaiting Laudor and those he loved, once the 1980s had “backed up an SUV” over the ruins of America’s mental health provision.

This is a tragedy that enters wearing the motley of farce: on leaving Yale, Laudor became a management consultant, hired by the multinational firm Bain & Co. Rosen reckons Laudor got the job by talking with authority even when he didn’t know what he was talking about; “That, in fact, was why they had hired him.”

By the time Laudor enters Yale Law School, however, his progressive disintegration is clear enough to the reader (if not to the Dean of the school, Guido Calabresi, besotted with the way an understanding of mental health could, in Rosen’s words, “undermine the authority of courts, laws, facts, and judges, by exposing the irrational nature of the human mind”).

Soon Michael is being offered a million dollars for his memoir and another million for the movie rights. He’s the poster child for every American living with mental illness, and at the same time, he’s an all-American success story: proof that the human spirit can win out over psychiatric neglect.

Only it didn’t.

No one knows what to do about schizophrenia. The treatments don’t work, except sometimes they do, and when they do, no-one can really say why.

Rosen’s book is a devastating attack on a generation that refused to look this hard truth in the eye, and turned it, instead into some sort of flattering sociopolitical metaphor, and in so doing, deprived desperate people of care.

Rosen’s book is the mea culpa of a man who now understands that “the revolution in consciousness I hoped would free my mind… came at the expense of people whose mental pain I could not begin to fathom.”

It’s the darkest of literary triumphs, and the most gripping of unbearable reads.

“The white race cannot survive without dairy products”

Visiting Milk at London’s Wellcome Collection. For the Telegraph, 29 March 2023

So — have you ever drunk a mother’s milk? As an adult, I mean. Maybe you’re a body-builder, following an alternative health fad; maybe you’re a fetishist; or you happened to stumble into the “milk bar” operated now and again by performance artist Jess Dobkin, whose specially commissioned installation For What It’s Worth — an “unruly archive” of milk as product, labour and value —
brings the latest exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection to a triumphant, chaotic and decidedly bling climax.

Why is breast milk such a source of anxiety, disgust, fascination and even horror? (In Sarah Pucill’s 1995 video Backcomb, on show here, masses of dark, animated hair slither across a white tablecloth, upturning containers of milk, cream and butter.)

Curators Marianne Templeton and Honor Beddard reckon our unease has largely to do with the way we have learned to associate milk almost entirely with cow’s milk, which we now consume on an industrial scale. It’s no accident that, as you enter their show, an obligatory Instagram moment is provided by Julia Bornefeld’s enormous hanging sculpture, suggestive at once of a cow’s udders and a human breast.

Milk is also about Whiteness. In “Butter. Vital for Growth and Health”, an otherwise unexceptionable pamphlet from the National Dairy Council in Chicago (one of the hundred or so objects rubbing shoulders here with artworks and new commissions), there’s a rather rather peculiar foreword by Herbert Hoover, the man who was to become the 31st U.S. President. “The white race,” Hoover writes, “cannot survive without dairy products.”

Say what?

Hoover (if you didn’t know) was put in charge of the American Relief Administration after the first World War, and saw to the food supply for roughly 300 million people in 21 countries in Europe and the Middle East. Even after government funding dried up, the ARA still managed to feed 25 to 35 million people during Russia’s famine of 1921-22 — which remains the largest famine relief operation in world history.

So when Hoover, who knows a lot about famine, says dairy is essential to the white race, he’s not being malign or sectarian; he believes this to be literally true — and this exhibition goes a very long way to explaining why.

Large portions of the world’s population react to milk the way my cat does, and for the same reason — they can’t digest the lactose. This hardly makes dairy a “White” food unless, like Hoover, your terms of reference were set by eugenics; or perhaps because, like some neo-Nazis in contemporary USA, you see your race in terminal decline, and whole milk as the only honest energy drink available in your 7-11. (Hewillnotdivide.us, Luke Turner’s 2017 video of drunk, out-of-condition MAGA fascists, chugging the white stuff and ranting on about purity, is the least assuming of this show’s artistic offerings, but easily the most compelling.)

Milk also asks how dairy became both an essential superfood and arguably the biggest source of hygiene anxiety in the western diet. Through industry promotional videos, health service leaflets, meal plans and a dizzying assortment of other ephemera, Milk explains how the choice to distribute milk at scale to a largely urban population led to the growth of an extraordinary industry, necessarily obsessed with disinfection and ineluctably driven toward narrow norms and centralised distribution; an industry that once had us convinced that milk is not just good for people, but is in fact essential (and hard cheese (sorry) to the hordes who can’t digest it).

The current kerfuffle around dairy and its vegan alternatives generates far more heat than light. If one show could pour oil on these troubled waters (which I doubt), it isn’t this one. No one will walk out of this show feeling comfortable. But they will have been royally entertained.

Rogues and heroes

Reading Sam Miller’s Migrants: The Story of Us All for the Telegraph, 23 January 2023

The cultural opprobrium attached to immigration has been building at least since Aristotle’s day, according to Sam Miller’s flawed, fascinating stab at a global history of migration.

Today, “having a permanent home and a lifelong nationality are considered normal, as if they were part of the human condition.” On the contrary, says Miller: humankind is the migratory species par excellence, settling every continent bar Antarctica, not once, but many times over.

Mixed feelings about this process have a deep anthropological foundation. Forget national and regional rivalries; those came later, and are largely explanations after the fact. What really upsets settled people is the reminder that, long ago, their kind chose to live an urban life and became less as a consequence: less wily, less tough, less resilient. The emergence of the first cities coincided with the first poems in uneasy praise of wild men: think of Mesopotamian Enkidu, or Greek Heracles. Aristotle, writing in 330 BC, declares that “he who is without a city-state by nature, and not by circumstance, is either a rogue or greater than a human being” — a wonderfully uneasy and double-edge observation that acknowledges a pre-urban past populated by formidable feral heroes.

Athenians suppressed this awareness; they were the first Western people to take pride in being, in Herodotus’s words, “the only Greeks who never migrated.” Ming Dynasty China performed the same flim-flam, a 15th-century administrator declaring: “There exists a paramount boundary within Heaven and Earth: Chinese on this side, foreigners on the other. The only way to set the world in order is to respect this boundary”.

“History books have, on the whole, been written by the sedentary for the sedentary,” says Miller, and naturally reflect a settled people’s chauvinism. The migration stories we learned at school are often wrong. The Vandals who “sacked” Rome in 455, did not, as a general rule, kill or rape or burn.

Alas, neither did they write; nor did the Roma, until the nineteenth century; nor did the (handsomely literate) Chinese of Victorian London. Migrants rarely find time to write, and where first-person accounts are missing, fantasy is bred. Some of it (Asterix) is charming, some of it (Fu Manchu) is anything but.

Miller thinks that humans naturally emigrate, and our unease about this is the result of pastoralism, cities, and other historical accidents.

The trouble with this line of argument is that there are umpteen “natural” reasons why people move about the earth. Humans naturally consume and lay waste to their immediate environment. Humans naturally overbreed. Humans naturally go to war. Why invoke some innate “outward urge”?

Different distances on the human story allow one to tell wildly different stories. If you follow humanity through deep time, our settlement of the almost the entire planet looks very much like manifest destiny and we’ll all surely end up on Mars tomorrow. If on the other hand you trace the movements of people over a few dozen generations, you’ll discover that, absent force majeure, people are homebodies, moving barely a few weeks’ walking distance from their birthplaces.

What is migration, anyway? Not much more than a hundred years ago, women regularly “migrated” (as Miller says, “it might take as long to cross a large English county as it would to fly halfway around the world today”) to marry or to work as governesses, domestic servants and shop workers. And yet they would never have called themselves “migrants”.

Miller, in a praiseworthy bid to tell a global story, adopts the broadest possible definition of migration: one that embraces “slaves and spouses, refugees and retirees, nomads and expats, conquerors and job-seekers.”

Alas, the broader one’s argument, the less one ends up saying. While they’re handsomely researched and stirringly written, I’m not sure our concepts of migration are much enriched by Miller’s brief tilts at historical behemoths like slavery and the maritime spice route.

What emerges from this onion of a book (fascinating digressions around no detectable centre), is, however, more than sufficent compensation. We have here the seed of much more enticing and potentially more influential project: a modern history that treats the modern nation state — pretending to self-reliance behind ever-more-futile barriers — as but a passing political arrangement, and not always a very useful one.

In view of the geopolitical crises being triggered by climate change, we may very soon need (or else be forced by circumstances) to come up with forms of government outside the rickety and brittle nation state. And in that case, peripatetic perspectives like Miller’s may be just what we need.


A sack of tech cats

Reading Long Shot by Kate Bingham and Tim Hames for the Telegraph, 15 October 2022

“Not only were we building the plane as we were flying it,” writes Kate Bingham, appointed by Boris Johnson in May 2020 to chair the UK Vaccine Task Force, “we were flying in the dark and simultaneously writing the instruction manual, and fielding endless petty questions from air traffic control asking about the strength of the orange juice we were serving to passengers.”

The tale of Britain’s vaccination effort against Covid-19 ends happily, of course: the task force arranges for clinical trials, secures 350 million doses of six vaccines, oversees any amount of novel infrastructure for their manufacture and distribution, and delivers Covid-19 as close to a knock-out blow as one could reasonably dream of.

At the time of Bingham’s first phone call, in January 2020, things looked rather different: it seemed to this British venture capitalist, who had no specialist knowledge of vaccine development, that she was being asked to take responsibility for a huge amount of government expenditure “that would, most likely, prove completely wasted.”

Vaccines normally take decades to develop, while viruses can mutate in a matter of weeks. There was, Bingham insists, very little chance of success.

Britain’s internationally celebrated vaccine development and production regime was set in motion, from something like a standing start, by a team, that included a bomb disposal expert, an Indian rowing star, an Italian consultant, a former ambassador, a football pundit, and the redoubtable Ruth Todd, whose day job was to see that submarines were delivered on time. This is a book about the skills and experiences necessary to build extraordinary ventures under pressure. Although the science is sketched ably enough here and there, this is not a science book.

Bingham’s background is in drug discovery — a notoriously unpredictable business where some of the brightest minds in biochemistry stake their future careers on one roll of the clinical-trial dice. VCs, if they’re wealthy enough, can spread their risks over a few dozen companies, but even they barely survived the dot-com crash of 2001. Bingham’s one of the new breed that emerged from the wreckage, an investor altogether more interested in managing the companies she helps create than in driving start-ups into premature IPOs. She still carries in her DNA an instinct for spreading risk, though: the VTF spent 4.6 billion on six vaccines in the hope that one might work, one day, maybe.

Coming up to speed with the science was no easy task, even for a major biotech player. There was no shortage of brilliant work to choose from, but little way of telling what innovations would pay off on time. Bingham salutes the work of Robin Shattock at Imperial College, London, graciously acknowledging that his “amplified mRNA” technology, which triggers large immune responses from very small amounts of vaccine, will surely be mature enough to help combat the next pandemic (and be in no doubt, there will be one). [Iona, “amplified mRNA” is a separate (though related) technology to the mRNA tech harnessed by Pfizer]

On the other hand, those teams who were fully ready were anxious to make an impact. Bingham only found out about Oxford University’s non-profit vaccine partnership with AstraZeneca over the radio, and Pfizer, partnering with BioNTech, much preferred to throw its own money at things than rely on any taskforce handholding.

Choreographing this sack of tech cats was not, says Bingham, her hardest task, and with the help of Tim Hames (a former chief leader writer for the Times) she patiently anatomises how she weathered the formless paranoia of politicians, the hampering good intentions of civil servants, and (most distressing of all, by some measure) the random mischief-making of government communications demons.

The ears of the National Audit Office may burn (she dubs their “help” a foolish and expensive joke); most everyone else emerges from this tale with due credit and generous thanks. Indeed, Bingham’s candid account will be uncomfortable reading for those who nurse a dogmatic hostility to “insiders”. Bingham’s husband is Jesse Norman MP, then the financial secretary to the Treasury. Bingham has no difficulty demonstrating that this has nothing to do with anything, but that didn’t stop the Guardian’s jibes, its “chumocracy” tables and the rest.

The trouble is, given a problem as complex and fluid as democratic government, expertise is only authoritative in relation to some particular subject. Without insiders — those with firsthand knowledge in a particular affair or circumstance (like, yes, the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings, who insisted the VTF should be handled as a business) — experts are merely preaching in the wilderness. On the other hand, without experts to inform them (people like Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser) insiders have nothing to offer but windbaggery.

Knowledge and power must meet. Bingham and Hames’s accessible, edge-of-the-seat account of how British innovators vaccinated the UK and much of the rest of the world is also a quiet, compelling, non partisan argument for dialogue between business and politics.

“The idea that life is absurd bothers him”

Reading Life As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal by Juan José Millás and Juan Luis Arsuaga for the Telegraph, 27 July 2022

In 2013 the oldest known human DNA was discovered, in a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain. It belongs to an early hominid, Homo heidelbergensis, who lived 400,000 years ago, and to whom we owe the invention of the fireplace.

Arsuaga has built an illustrious career around excavations in Atapuerca, a site humans have occupied continuously for a million years, from the dawn of Homo sapiens to the bronze age. He knows a lot about how humans evolved, and he is an eloquent communicator. “As he talked,” the novelist Juan José Millás recalls, “I realised what a great sense of the theatrical Arsuaga had. He was a master of oral storytelling. He knew when he had his audience, and when he was running the risk of losing them. He endeared himself by combining intellectual precision with a kind of helplessness.”

It’s Aruaga’s eloquence that first persuaded Millás that the two of them should collaborate on a book — a Boswellian confection in which Millás (humble, curious, a klutz, and frequently brow-beaten) follows Arsuaga around with a dictaphone capturing the great man’s observations. “In Spain,” he remarks, early on, “there are two principal periods: the first runs from the Neolithic to 1958, at which point the social planning by the Opus Dei technocrats comes in. Until then, the countryside was a place full of people, full of voices, life here was not a sad thing, there were children running around. It would be like walking down the street. By 1970, the countryside was empty, there was nobody left.”

Millás casts Arsuaga as the representative of Homo sapiens: articulate, eclectic, self-aware and tragical. Millás casts himself as Homo neanderthalis, not quite as quick on the uptake as his more successful cousin. Neanderthals are a species not exactly lost to history (Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, after all) but no longer active in it, either.

The idea is that Arsuaga the high-brow leads our beetle-browed narrator hither and thither across northern Spain, on foot or in his trusty Nissan Juke, up lost valleys (to understand the evolution of hunting) and through deserted playgrounds (to grasp the mechanics of bipedalism), past market stalls (to grasp the historical significance of diet) and into a sex shop (to discuss the relative size of primate testicles) and building, bit by bit, a dazzling picture of the continuities that exist between our ancient and contemporary selves.

For many, the devil will be in the detail. Take, for example, Millás’s Neanderthals. He is not exactly wrong in what he says about them, but he is writing, in the most general and allusive terms, into a field that is developing frighteningly fast. It‘s hard, then, for us to know how literally to take the author’s showier gestures. Millás says, about that famous interbreeding, that “The Sapiens, being the smart ones, did it out of vice, while the Neanderthals, who were more naïve, did it out of love.” With Neanderthal intelligence and sociality a topic of so much fierce debate, such statements as this may be met with more scepticism than appreciation.

This is as much a buddy story as it is a virtuosic work of popular science. In unpacking our evolutionary past, Millas also brings his human subject to light. Arsuaga holds to the tragic view of life espoused by the fin de siecle Spanish essayist Miguel de Unamuno. Millás, a more common-or-garden depressive, finds Arsuaga’s combination of high spirits and annoyance hard to read. Deposited on the outskirts of Madrid, and half suspecting he’s been actually thrown out of Arsuaga’s Nissan, Millás realises that the palaeontologist “experiences sudden bursts of sadness that he sometimes conceals beneath an ironic demeanour, and sometimes beneath passing bad moods. I think the idea that life is absurd bothers him.”

Aruaga’s tragic sense entends to the species. We are the self-domesticating species: “To the Neanderthal,” he says, “the Sapiens must have seemed like a teddy bear.” We have evolved social complexity by shedding the adult seriousness we observe in less social mammals. (“I’ve been to Rwanda, looking at old gorillas,” says Aruaga, “and I can assure you they don’t play at all, they don’t laugh at anything.”) Over evolutionary time, we have become more playful, more infantile, more docile, and we have done this by executing, imprisoning and marginalising those who exhibit an ever-expending list of what we consider anti-social traits. So inanity will one day conquer all.

I wish Millás was a less precious writer. Very early on the pair arrive at a waterfall. “What had we come here for?” Millás writes: “in principle, to see the waterfall, and perhaps so the waterfall could see us, too.” Such unredeemable LRBisms are, I suppose, a form of protective coloration, necessary for a novelist and poet of some reputation: an earnest of his devotion to propah lirtritchah.

It’s when Millás forgets himself, and erases the distance he meant to maintain between boffins and scribblers, that Life becomes a very special book indeed: a passionate, sympathetic portrait of one life scientist’s world view.