One of those noodly problems

Reading The Afterlife of Data by Carl Öhman for the Spectator

They didn’t call Diogenes “the Cynic” for nothing. He lived to shock the (ancient Greek) world. When I’m dead, he said, just toss my body over the city walls to feed the dogs. The bit of me that I call “I” won’t be around to care.

The revulsion we feel at this idea tells us something important: that the dead can be wronged. Diogenes may not care what happens to his corpse, but we do. And doing right by the dead is a job of work. Some corpses are reduced to ash, some are buried, and some are fed to vultures. In each case the survivors all feel, rightly, that they have treated their loved ones’ remains with respect.

What should we do with our digital remains?

This sounds like one of those noodly problems that keep digital ethicists like Öhman in grant money — but some of the stories in The Afterlife of Data are sure to make the most sceptical reader stop and think. There’s something compelling, and undeniably moving, in one teenager’s account of how, ten years after losing his father, he found they could still play together; at least, he could compete against his dad’s last outing on an old XBox racing game.

Öhman is not spinning ghost stories here. He’s not interested in digital afterlives. He’s interested in remains, and in emerging technologies that, from the digital data we inadvertently leave behind, fashion our artificially intelligent simulacra. (You may think this is science fiction, but Microsoft doesn’t, and has already taken out several patents.)

This rapidly approaching future, Öhman argues, seems uncanny only because death itself is uncanny. Why should a chatty AI simulacrum prove any more transgressive than, say, a photograph of your lost love, given pride of place on the mantelpiece? We got used to the one; in time we may well get used to the other.

What should exercise us is who owns the data. As Öhman argues, ‘if we leave the management of our collective digital past solely in the hands of industry, the question “What should we do with the data of the dead?” becomes solely a matter of “What parts of the past can we make money on?”’

The trouble with a career in digital ethics is that however imaginative and insightful you get, you inevitably end up playing second-fiddle to some early episode of Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror. The one entitled “Be Right Back”, in which a dead lover returns in robot form to market upgrades of itself to the grieving widow, stands waiting at the end of almost every road Öhman travels here.

Öhman reminds us that the digital is a human realm, and one over which we can and must and must exert our values. Unless we actively delete them (in a sort of digital cremation, I suppose) our digital dead are not going away, and we are going to have to accommodate them somehow.

A more modish, less humane writer would make the most of the fact that recording has become the norm, so that, as Öhman puts it, “society now takes place in a domain previously reserved for the dead, namely the archive.” (And, to be fair, Öhman does have a lot of fun with the idea that by 2070, Facebook’s dead will outnumber its living.)

Ultimately, though, Öhman draws readers through the digital uncanny to a place of responsibility. Digital remains are not just a representation of the dead, he says, “they are the dead, an informational corpse constitutive of a personal identity.”

Öhman’s lucid, closely argued foray into the world of posthumous data is underpinned by this sensible definition of what constitute a person: “A person,” he says, “is the narrative object that we refer to when speaking of someone (including ourselves) in the third person. Persons extend beyond the selves that generate them.” If I disparage you behind your back, I’m doing you a wrong, even though you don’t know about it. If I disparage you after you’re dead, I’m still doing you wrong, though you’re no longer around to be hurt.

Our job is to take ownership of each others’ digital remains and treat them with human dignity. The model Öhman holds up for us to emulate is the Bohemian author and composer Max Brod, who had the unenviable job of deciding what to do with manuscripts left behind by his friend Franz Kafka, who wanted him to burn them. In the end Brod decided that the interests of “Kafka”, the informational body constitutive of a person, overrode (barely) the interests of Franz his no-longer-living friend.

What to do with our digital remains? Öhman’s excellent reply treats this challenge with urgency, sanity and, best of all, compassion. Max Brod’s decision wasn’t and isn’t obvious, and really, the best you can do in these situations is to make the error you and others can best live with.

Geometry’s sweet spot

Reading Love Triangle by Matt Parker for the Telegraph

“These are small,” says Father Ted in the eponymous sitcom, and he holds up a pair of toy cows. “But the ones out there,” he explains to Father Dougal, pointing out the window, “are far away.”

It may not sound like much of a compliment to say that Matt Parker’s new popular mathematics book made me feel like Dougal, but fans of Graham Linehan’s masterpiece will understand. I mean that I felt very well looked after, and, in all my ignorance, handled with a saint-like patience.

Calculating the size of an object from its spatial position has tried finer minds than Dougal’s. A long virtuoso passage early on in Love Triangle enumerates the half-dozen stages of inductive reasoning required to establish the distance of the largest object in the universe — a feature within the cosmic web of galaxies called The Giant Ring. Over nine billion light years away, the Giant Ring still occupies 34.5 degrees of the sky: now that’s what I call big and far away.

Measuring it has been no easy task, and yet the first, foundational step in the calculation turns out to be something as simple as triangulating the length of a piece of road.

“Love Triangle”, as no one will be surprised to learn, is about triangles. Triangles were invented (just go along with me here) in ancient Egypt, where the regularly flooding river Nile obliterated boundary markers for miles around and made rural land disputes a tiresome inevitability. Geometry, says the historian Herodotus around 430 BC, was invented to calculate the exact size of a plot of land. We’ve no reason to disbelieve him.

Parker spends a good amount of time demonstrating the practical usefulness of basic geometry, that allows us to extract the shape and volume of triangular space from a single angle and the length of a single side. At one point, on a visit to Tokyo, he uses a transparent ruler and a tourist map to calculate the height of the city’s tallest tower, the SkyTree.

Having shown triangles performing everyday miracles, he then tucks into their secret: “Triangles,” he explains, “are in the sweet spot of having enough sides to be a physical shape, while still having enough limitations that we can say generalised and meaningful things about them.” Shapes with more sides get boring really quickly, not least because they become so unwieldy in higher dimensions, which is where so many of the joys of real mathematics reside.

Adding dimensions to triangles adds just one corner per dimension. A square, on the other hand, explodes, doubling its number of corners with each dimension. (A cube has eight.) This makes triangles the go-to shape for anyone who wants to assemble meshes in higher dimensions. All sorts of complicated paths are brought within computational reach, making possible all manner of civilisational triumphs, including (but not limited to) photorealistic animations.

So many problems can be cracked by reducing them to triangles, there is an entire mathematical discipline, trigonometry, concerned with the relationships between their angles and side lengths. Parker’s adventures on the spplied side of trigonometry become, of necessity, something of a blooming, buzzing confusion, but his anecdotes are well judged and lead the reader seamlessly into quite complex territory. Ever wanted to know how Kathleen Lonsdale applied Fourier transforms to X-ray waves, making possible Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA structure? Parker starts us off on that journey by wrapping a bit of paper around a cucumber and cutting it at a slant. Half a dozen pages later, we may not have the firmest grasp of what Parker calls the most incredible bit of maths most people have never heard of, but we do have a clear map of what we do not know.

Whether Parker’s garrulousness charms you or grates on you will be a matter of taste. I have a pious aversion to writers who feel the need to cheer their readers through complex material every five minutes. But it’s hard not to tap your foot to cheap music, and what could be cheaper than Parker’s assertion that introducing coordinates early on in a maths lesson “could be considered ‘putting Descartes before the course’”?

Parker has a fine old time with his material, and only a curmudgeon can fail to be charmed by his willingness to call Heron’s two-thousand-year-old formula for finding the area of a triangle “stupid” (he’s not wrong, neither) and the elongated pentagonal gyrocupolarotunda a “dumb shape”.

What’s not to like?

Watching Kiah Roache-Turner’s Sting for New Scientist

A bratty 12-year-old girl. A feckless stepfather who loses her trust and feels increasingly out of place in his own home. Oh, and a giant spider.

Kiah Roache-Turner, a relatively new director on the horror scene, understands that real originality has almost nothing to do with who and what you put in front of the screen. What matters how is you set those elements to dancing. Like 2023’s killer-doll hit M3gan, with which it shares a certain antic humour, Sting cares about its characters. Charlotte (Alyla Browne) hero-worships her absent father, and this is slowly driving her stepdad Ethan (Ryan Corr) up the wall, since he knows full well that Charlotte’s real dad lives only half an hour away “across the bridge”. (Sting is ostensibly set in Brooklyn, New York; actually it was shot in Sydney and aside from a couple of establishing shots its action takes place entirely within a brownstone apartment house, all drywall and ducts.)

Ethan’s a struggling comic book artist who finds himself borrowing (and spoiling) Charlotte’s own much livelier ideas. When Charlotte’s pet spider (it arrived in a meteor during an ice storm — never a good sign) grows to man-eating size and drags Ethan off through the air duct, Charlotte, plugged in to her earphones, her videogames and her anger, simply fails to notice. The scene tries to hit the sweet spot between horror and comedy that M3gan struck again and again, and if it doesn’t quite succeed, I think it may have less to do with the writing or direction as with the film’s basic premise, which is, when you come down to it, very thin.

Comparisons to the original Alien are inevitable, if only because of the spider’s break-neck growth rate and all those ducts. And as far as the special effects go, Sting the Spider stands up pretty well. Wisely, the film prefers glimpses, shadows and one or two very well-judged sight gags to full-on goo and muppeteering.

The house — a realistically over-stuffed gothic interior full of corners and cabinets — is the family in metaphor. The ducts connecting Charlotte’s bedroom to the sitting room of Helga, her senile grandmother (Noni Hazlehurst, having more fun than the rest of the cast put together), are the torturous lines of communication by which these good people struggle to maintain a sense of family. Sting favours suspense over surprise. We learn very early on that Charlotte’s fast-growing pet cannot bear the smell of mothballs and that Helga, wrapped in umpteen threadbare shawls, stinks of them. For a second we teeter on a fairytale in which an old woman and a young girl will save the “real” adult world.

True, nothing kills a good story faster than cleverness — but a few more touches of that sort wouldn’t have hurt. Instead we have an efficient, entertaining light-hearted script, very ably realised, and one and a half hours of light entertainment that, though not at all wasted, are not exactly filled to the brim, either.

Why, then, has Sting acquired global distribution and, even before its release, such glowing trade coverage?

Well, for one thing, it’s refreshing to see a movie that puts its characters through the wringer in psychologically believable ways. Charlotte saves Ethan from the spider. Ethan saves Charlotte. In the face of a Fate Worse Than Death (trust me on this), the pair learn to cooperate. A weak man gains strength, a lonely child learns there’s value in other people, a cowardly exterminator loses his head and a bitter landlady plummets down a lift shaft. What’s not to like? Storytelling this pure looks effortless, but if it was, films in general would be a lot better than they are.

“For survival reasons, I must spread globally”

Reading Trippy by Ernesto Londono for the Telegraph

Ernesto Londoño’s enviable reputation as a journalist was forged in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2017 he landed his dream job as the New York Times Brazil bureau chief, with a roving brief, talented and supportive colleagues, and a high-rise apartment in Rio de Janeiro.

When, not long after, he nearly-accidentally-on-purpose threw himself off his balcony, he knew he was in serious emotional trouble.

It was more than whimsy that led him to look for help at a psychedelic retreat in the Amazon hamlet of Mushu Inu, a place with no running water, where the shower facility consisted of a large tub guarded by a couple of tarantulas. He had seen what taking antidepressant medications had done for acquaintances in the US military (nothing good), and thought to write at first hand about what, in the the US, has become an increasingly popular alternative therapy: drinking ayahuasca tea.

Ayahuasca is prepared by boiling chunks of an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of a shrubby plant called Psychotria viridis. The leaves contain a psychoactive compound, and the vines stop the drinker from metabolising it too quickly. The experience that follows is, well, trippy.

By disrupting routine patterns of thought and memory processing, psychedelic trips offer depressed and traumatised people a reprieve from their obsessive thought patterns. They offer them a chance to recalibrate and reinterpret past experiences. How they do this is up to them, however, and this is why psychedelics are anything but a harmless recreational drug. It’s as possible to step out of a bad trip screaming psychotically at the trees as it is to emerge, Buddha-like, from a carefully guided psychedelic experience. The Yawanawá people of the Amazon, who have effectively become global ambassadors for the brew (which, incidentally, they’ve only been making for a few hundred years) make no bones about its harmful potential. The predominantly western organisers of ayahuasca-fuelled tourist retreats are rather less forthcoming.

Psychedelics promise revolutionary treatments for PTSD. In the US, pharmaceutical researchers funded by government are attempting to subtract all the whacky, enjoyable and humane elements of the ayahuasca experience, and thereby distil a kind of aspirin for war trauma. It’s a singularly dystopian project, out to erase the affect of atrocities in the minds of those who might, thanks to that very treatment, be increasingly inclined to perpetrate them.

On one ayahausca webforum, meanwhile, the brew speaks to her counter-cultural acolytes. “If I don’t spread globally I will face extinction, similar to Humans,” a feminised ayahuasca cuppa proclaims. “For survival reasons, I must spread globally, while Humans must accept my sacred medicine to heal their afflicted soul.”

Londono has drunk the brew, if not the Kool-Aid, and says his ayahuasca experiences saved, if not his life, then at very least his capacity for happiness. He maintains a great affection for the romantics and idealists who he depicts in pursuit, according to their different lights, of the good and the healthful in psychedelic experience.

His own survey leads him from psychedelic “bootcamps” in the rainforest to upscale clinics in Costa Rica tending to the global one per cent, to US “churches”, who couch therapy as religious experience so that they can import ayahuasca and get around the strictures of the DEA. The most startling sections, for me, dealt with Santo Daime, a syncretic Brazilian faith that contrives to combine ayahuasca with a proximal Catholic liturgy.

Trippy is told, as much as possible, in the first person, through anecdote and memoir. Seeing the perils and the promise of psychedelic experience play out in Londono’s own mind, as he comes to terms over years with his own quite considerable personal traumas, is a privilege, though it brings with it moments of tedium, as though we were being expected to sit through someone’s gushing account of their cheese dreams. This — let’s call it the stupidity of seriousness — is a besetting tonal problem with the introspective method. William James fell foul of it in The Principles of Psychology of 1890, so it would be a bit rich of me to twit Londono about it in 2024.

Still, it’s fair to point out, I think, that Londono, an accomplished print journalist, is writing, day on day, for a readership of predominantly US liberals — surely the most purse-lipped and conservative readership on Earth. So maybe, with Trippy as our foundation, we should now seek out a looser, more gonzo treatment: one wild enough to handle the wholesale spiritual regearing promised by the psychedelics coming to a clinic, church, and holiday brochure near you.

 

An entirely predictable square-dance

Watching Stefon Bristol’s Breathe for New Scientist

Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Maya (Jennifer Hudson) live behind the hard-to-open bulkhead doors of a homemade bunker in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. If you can call it living: their every breath has to be calibrated and analysed, as the oxygen-producing machinery constructed by their missing husband and father Darius (a short, sweet performance by the former rapper Common) starts to fail.

The Earth’s oxygen has vanished. So has all its plant life. The oceans are all dried up. Survivors are few, and trust between them is a thing of the past.

Had Maya simply listened to her daughter and let in the two mysterious visitors who want to study their oxygen plant (Tess, played by Milla Jovovich, and Lucas, played by Sam Worthington) Breathe’s plot, such as it is, would have barely filled a quarter-hour. (Zora has been monologuing to her presumably dead dad over the shortwave radio for months now. If Tess has overheard her, then her claim to be Darius’s colleague may simply be a lie.)

As it is, no one trusts anyone and everybody shouts a lot, while performing an entire predictable square-dance around door codes, pass keys, key-cards, dead and dying batteries, cable ties, unreachable switches — we’ve been here before, oh, so very many times. Breathe’s sole highlight is Sam Worthington’s manic, dead-eyed Lucas — incapable, after a lifetime of horrors, of thinking more than thirty seconds into the future.

Low-budget science fiction favours the global catastrophe. What better alibi could there be for squeezing your cast into small, affordable sets? Though hardly one-room dramas, two recent sci-fi thrillers have shown what can be done with relatively few resources: 2018’s Bird Box (in which Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie must shield her and her children’s eyes from entities that prompt people to suicide) and, in the same year, A Quiet Place (whose gargoyle-like aliens chomp down on anything and anyone that makes a sound). Whether the world beyond that armoured door is as uninhabitable as we think fuels the paranoia of both 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the rather more expansive Silo, a TV adaptation of Hugh Howey’s series of sf thrillers.

Still, it’s hard to think of a movie genre so resistant to innovation as this one. While it solves the problem of small budgets, the one-room scenario doesn’t at all play to genre’s manic strengths. The best one-room thrillers aren’t science fiction at all, but regular thrillers. In Geoffrey Household’s unforgettable 1939 novel Rogue Male, to take an extreme example, Hitler’s would-be assassin is foiled and has to go hide under a hedge.

The trick, when writing science fiction versions of such stories, is to treat seriously the macguffin that created your scenario in the first place. The psychocidal monsters of Bird Box, first invented by Josh Malerman for his 2014 novel, are a wonderfully insolent, high-concept proposition. The big-eared raptors of A Quiet Place are only marginally less convincing.

Come 2020’s The Midnight Sky however, and the scraping of the barrel has become almost deafening, as radiation (that’s it, that’s all you’re getting: “radiation”) comes to stand in for what we tuned in for: a display of malign and cackling inventiveness. 2021’s Tom Hanks vehicle Finch was a winningly goofy proposition on paper — a grumpy old man, dying in the End Times, invents a robot to look after his dog — but the entire enterprise had the charm sucked out of it by that cursory macguffin: a massive solar flare used merely to excuse a smorgasbord of unrelated bad-weather CGI.

In 2010 Breathe’s screenwriter Doug Simon co-wrote a low-budget film called Brotherhood. Tellingly enough, that was a far more successful one-room thriller, about a college fraternity initiation rite gone horribly wrong. Turning to science fiction, Simon seems to have made the frequent and fatal assumption that SF comes with all the necessary inventiveness somehow “built in”.

Why has the oxygen vanished, more or less overnight, from Breathe’s gasping Earth? Its not even as if we needed a rational explanation; we just needed a compelling one. In its place we get a story as sterile as the planet it’s set on.

“The most efficient conformity engines ever invented”

Reading The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt for The Spectator, 30 March 2024

What’s not to like about a world in which youths are involved in fewer car accidents, drink less, and wrestle with fewer unplanned pregnancies?

Well, think about it: those kids might not be wiser; they might simply be afraid of everything. And what has got them so afraid? A little glass rectangle, “a portal in their pockets” that entices them into a world that’s “exciting, addictive, unstable and… unsuitable for children”.

So far, so paranoid — and there’s a delicious tang of the documentary-maker Adam Curtis about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s extraordinarily outspoken, extraordinarily well-evidenced diatribe against the creators of smartphone culture, men once hailed, “as heroes, geniuses, and global benefactors who,” Haidt says, “like Prometheus, brought gifts from the gods to humanity.”

The technological geegaw Haidt holds responsible for the “great rewiring” of brains of people born after 1995 is not, interestingly enough, the iPhone itself (first released in 2007) but its front-facing camera, released with the iPhone 4 in June 2010. Samsung added one to its Galaxy the same month. Instagram launched in the same year. Now users could curate on-line versions of themselves on the fly — and they do, incessantly. Maintaining an on-line self is a 24/7 job. The other day on Crystal Palace Parade I had to catch a pram from rolling into the street while the young mother vogued and pouted into her smartphone.

Anecdotes are one thing; evidence is another. The point of The Anxious Generation is not to present phone-related pathology as though it were a new idea, but rather to provide robust scientific evidence for what we’ve all come to assume is true: that there is causal link (not just some modish dinner-party correlation) between phone culture and the ever more fragile mental state of our youth. “These companies,” Haidt says, “have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale.”

Haidt’s data are startling. Between 2010 and 2015, depression in teenage girls and boys became two and a half times more prevalent. From 2010 to 2020, the rate of self-harm among young adolescent girls nearly tripled. The book contains a great many bowel-loosening graphs, with titles like “High Psychological Distress, Nordic Nations” and “Alienation in School, Worldwide”. There’s one in particular I can’t get out of my head, showing the percentage of US students in 8th 10th and 12th grade who said they were happy in themselves. Between 2010 and 2015 this “self-satisfaction score” falls off a cliff.

The Anxious Generation revises conclusions Haidt drew in 2018, while collaborating with the lawyer Greg Lukianoff on The Coddling of the American Mind. Subtitled “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”, that book argued that universities and other institutes of higher education (particularly in the US) were teaching habits of thinking so distorted, they were triggering depression and anxiety among their students. Why else would students themselves be demanding that colleges protect them from books and speakers that made them feel “unsafe”? Ideas that had caused little or no controversy in 2010 “were, by 2015, said to be harmful, dangerous, or traumatising,” Haidt remembers.

Coddling’s anti-safe-space, “spare the rod and spoil the child” argument had merit, but Haidt soon came to realise it didn’t begin to address the scale of the problem: “by 2017 it had become clear that the rise of depression and anxiety was happening in many countries, to adolescents of all educational levels, social classes and races.”

Why are people born after 1996 so — well — different? So much more anxious, so much more judgemental, so much more miserable? Phone culture is half of Haidt’s answer; the other is a broader argument about “safetyism”, which Haidt defines as “the well-intentioned and disastrous shift toward overprotecting children and restricting their autonomy in the ‘real world’.”

Boys suffer more from being shut in and overprotected. Girls suffer more from the way digital technologies monetize and weaponise peer hierarchies. Although the gender differences are interesting, it’s the sheer scale of harms depicted here that should galvanise us. Haidt’s suggested solutions are common sense and commonplace: stop punishing parents for letting their children have some autonomy. Allow children plenty of unstructured free play. Ban phones in school.

For Gen-Z, this all comes too late. Over-protection in the real world, coupled with an almost complete lack of protections in the virtual world, has consigned a generation of young minds to what is in essence a play-free environment. In the distributed, unspontaneous non-space of the digital device, every action is performed in order to achieve a prescribed goal. Every move is strategic. “Likes” and “comments”, “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” provide immediate real time metrics on the efficacy or otherwise of thousands of micro-decisions an hour, and even trivial mistakes bring heavy costs.

In a book of devastating observations, this one hit home very hard: that these black mirrors of ours are “the most efficient conformity engines ever invented”.

Boo-hoo

Watching Johan Renck’s Spaceman for new Scientist, 27 March 2024

Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka (Adam Sandler) is dying of loneliness, six months into a solo space mission to visit a mysterious purple cloud. His wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant and, being already a lot lonelier than Jakub (who’s been a wholly unsupportive husband), she decides to leave him. The mission controllers keep the news from Jakub, but he knows what’s going on, and it’s his sense of despair that, quite early in the film, draws in help from beyond — a telepathic spider who can pass through walls but is otherwise as real and solid as anything on Jakub’s spaceship (a sort of inside-out junkyard full of believably outdated but serviceable machinery, ducts, keyboards, lights, and a toilet pump that won’t stop screaming).

Spaceman is directed by former singer-songwriter and video maker Johan Renck, better known these days for his Emmy-winning direction of the 2019 docudrama Chernobyl. It’s an assured, wholly deliberate experiment in pacing that will frustrate many. This is a film delivered at a single, unvarying, trancelike pace — and entirely right for a story that’s not at all about a man losing his grip on reality, but rather the very reverse: Adam Sandler’s astronaut Jakub must come to grips with what reality turns out to be, after all — extraterrestrial clouds, telepathic spiders and all. “The universe,” his strange companion assures him, even as they both face extinction, “is as it should be”. And here’s the kicker: the alien spider is right.

Spaceman is monotonous only in the sense that time itself is monotonous, and the film’s transcendental aspirations are very well served by Hans Zimmer’s shimmering, shuddering score; it’s more sound art than music, and easily as powerful as anything he wrote for Villeneuve’s Dune films — which is saying a lot.

Since his lead turn in the Safdi Brothers’ 2019 crime movie Uncut Gems, Sandler the serious actor has little left to prove. Here, he embodies and expresses Jakub’s terror, melancholy, anger and self-hatred with absolute commitment and truthfulness — five years ago, who would have bet money that the words “egoless” and “Adam Sandler” would ever appear in the same sentence? Paul Dano voices Jakub’s arachnid companion, with a poetic pathos that would be cloying in a more regular movie, but works superbly well here — almost as if his every word were a prayer.

In its effort to be a spiritual experience — more church mass than movie — Spaceman simplifies the already fairly simple plot of its source material, Jaroslav Kalfař’s novel The Spaceman of Bohemia. This was a mistake.

Jakub is lonely. So is his wife. She leaves him. Counselled by his extraterrestrial friend, Jakub makes up with her (a neat trick, involving a wonderfully goofy faster-than-light phone called CzechConnect and a glowing purple fragment from the universe’s beginning). They reconcile, and Jakub begins his long return.

At which point, I must report I woke from my aesthetic trance and thought to myself: hang on, why does the story of a man reconciling with his wife six-months into a work assignment require a space mission, a mysterious cloud, quantum telephony and a telepathic spider?

Spaceman has many virtues but it is, when you come down to it, a film about someone trying to fix their work-life balance, and doing so in the most expensive, baroque, and portentous manner imaginable. He’s lonely? Boo hoo. She’s leaving him half way through his solo flight? What a lousy, selfish thing for her to do. Bang their heads together, I say, and to hell with the limitations of spacetime!

And this, just to spoil it for you, is pretty much what happens.

The Penguins of Venus

Reading Our Accidental Universe by Chris Lintott for the Telegraph, 8 March 2024

Phosphine — a molecule formed by one phosphorous atom and three atoms of hydrogen — is produced in bulk only (and for reasons that are obscure) in the stomachs of penguins. And yet something is producing phosphine high in the clouds of Venus — and at just the height that conditions are most like those on the surface of the Earth. Unable to land (unless they wanted to be squished and fried under Venus’s considerable atmosphere), and armoured against a ferociously acidic atmosphere, the penguins of Venus haunt the dreams of every stargazer with an ounce of poetry in their soul.

Chris Lintott is definitely one of these. An astrophysicist at Oxford University and presenter of BBC’s The Sky at Night, Lintott also co-founded Galaxy Zoo, an online crowdsourcing project where we can volunteer our time, classifying previously unseen galaxies. The world might be bigger than we can comprehend and wilder than we can understand, but Lintott reckons our species’ efforts at understanding are not so shoddy, and can and should be wildly shared.

Our Accidental Universe is his bid to seize the baton carried by great popularisers like Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore: it’s an anecdotal tour of the universe, glimpsed through eccentric observations, tantalising mysteries, and discoveries stumbled upon by happenstance.

Lintott considers the possibilities for life outside the Earth, contemplates rocks visiting from outside the solar system, peers at the night sky with eyes tuned to radio and microwaves, and shakes a fist at the primordial particle fog that will forever obscure his view of the universe’s first 380,000 years.

Imagine if we lived in some globular star cluster: that spectacular night sky of ours would offer no visible hint of the universe beyond. We might very well imagine our neighbouring stars, so near and so bright, were the sum total of creation — and would get one hell of a shock once we got around to radio astronomy.

Even easier to imagine — given the sheer amount of liquid water that’s been detected already just within our own solar system brought above freezing by tidal effects on moons orbiting gas giant planets — we might have evolved in some lightless ocean, protected from space by a kilometres-thick icecap. What would we know of the universe then? Whatever goes on in the waters of moons like icy Enceladus, it’s unlikely to involve much astronomy.

As luck would have it, though, growing up on land, on Earth, has given us a relatively unobscured view of the entire universe. Once in 1995, so as to demonstrate a fix to its wonky optics, the operators of the Hubble Space Telescope pointed their pride and joy at (apparently) nothing, and got back a picture chock-full of infant galaxies.

Science is a push-me pull-you affair in which observation inspires theory, and theory directs further observation. Right now, the night sky is turning out to be much more various than we expected. The generalised “laws” we evolved in the last century to explain planet formation and the evolution of galaxies aren’t majorly wrong; but they are being superseded by the carnival of weird, wonderful, exceptional, and even, yes, accidental discoveries we’re making, using equipment unimaginable to an earlier generation. Several techniques are discussed here, but the upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) takes some beating. Sprouting across southern Africa and western Australia, this distributed radio telescope, its components strung together by supercomputers, will, says Lintott, “be sensitive to airport radar working on any planet within a few hundred light-years”.

Observing the night sky with such tools, Lintott says, will be “less like an exercise in cerebral theoretical physics and more like reading history.”

Charming fantasies of space penguins aside (and “never say never” is my motto), there’s terror and awe to be had in Lintott’s little book. We scan the night sky and can’t help but wonder if there is more life out there — and yet we have barely begun to understand what life actually is. Lintott’s descriptions of conditions on the Jovian moon Titan — where tennis ball-sized drops of methane fall from orange clouds — suggest a chemistry so complex that reactions may be able to reproduce and evolve. “Is this chemical complexity ‘life’? he asks. “I don’t know.”

Neither do I. And if they ever send me on some First Contact mission amid the stars, I’m taking a bucket of fish.

“Spectacular, ridiculous, experimental things”

Reading The Tomb of the Mili Mongga by Samuel Turvey for New Scientist, 6 March 2024

Pity the plight of evolutionary biologist Samuel Turvey, whose anecdotal accounts of fossil hunting in a cave near the village of Mahaniwa, on the Indonesian island of Sumba, include the close attentions of “huge tail-less whip scorpions with sickening flattened bodies, large spiny grabbing mouthparts, and grotesquely thin and elongated legs”.

Why was a conservation biologist hunting for fossils? Turvey’s answer has to do with the dual evolutionary nature of islands.

On the one hand, says Turvey, “life does spectacular, ridiculous, experimental things on islands, making them endlessly fascinating to students of evolution.”

New Caledonia, a fragment of ancient Gondwana, boasts bizarre aquatic conifers and even shrubby parasitic conifers without any roots. Madagascar hosts a lemur called the aye-aye; a near primate equivalent to the woodpecker. But my personal favourite, in a book full of wonders, pithily described, is the now extinct cave goat Myotragus from predator-free Majorca and Menorca. Relieved of the need to watch its back, it evolved front-facing eyes, giving it the disconcerting appearance of a person wearing a goat mask.

But there is a darker side to island life: it’s incredibly vulnerable. The biggest killers by far are visitations of fast-evolving diseases. European exploration and colonisation between the 16th and 19th centuries decimated the human populations of Pacific archipelagos, as a first wave of dysentery was followed by smallpox, measles and influenza. Animals brought on the trip proved almost as catastrophic to the environment. Contrary to cliche, westerners on the island of Mauritius did not hunt the dodo to extinction; rats did. And let’s not forget Tibbles, the cat that’s said to have single-handedly (pawedly?) wiped out the Stephens Island wren, a tiny flightless songbird, in 1894.

There are lessons to be learned here, of course, but Turvey’s at pains to point out that islands are accidents waiting to happen. Islands are by their very nature sites of extinction. They may be treasure-troves of evolutionary innovation, but most of their treasures are already extinct. As for conserving their wildlife, Turvey wonders how, without a good understanding of the local fossil record, “we even define what constitutes a ‘natural’ ecosystem, or an objective restoration target to aim for”.

A tale of islands and their ephemeral wonders would alone have made for an arresting book, but Turvey, a more-than-able raconteur, can’t resist spicing up his account with tales of Sumba’s resident mythical wild-men, the “Mili Mongga”, who, it is said, used to build walls and help out with the ploughing — until their habit of stealing food got them all killed by the infuriated human population.

Why should we pay attention to such tales? Well, Sumba is only about 50 kilometres south of Flores, where a previously unknown (and, at just over a metre tall, ridiculously small) hominin was unearthed by an Australian team in 2003.

If there were hobbits on Flores, might there have been giants on Sumba? And might surviving mili mongga still be lurking in the forests?

Turvey uses the local island legends to launch fascinating forays into the island’s history and anthropology, to explain why large animals, fetched up on islands, grow smaller, while small animals grow larger, and also to have an inordinate amount of fun, largely at his own expense.

When one villager describes a mili mongga skull as being two feet long, and its teeth “as long as a finger”, “I got the feeling,” says Turvey, ”that there might now be some exaggeration going on.” Never say never, though: soon Turvey and his long-suffering team are following gamely along on missions up crags and past crocodile-infested swamps and into holes in the ground — sometimes where other visitors, from other villages, habitually go to relieve themselves.

“There was the cave that some village kids told us contained a human skull, which turned out to be a rotten coconut under some bat dung,” Turvey recalls. “There was the cave that was sacred, which seemed to mean that no one could remember exactly where it was.”

Turvey’s more serious explorations unearthed two new mammal genera (both ancestral forms of rat). It goes without saying, I should think, that they did not bring back evidence of a new hominin. But what’s not to enjoy about a tall tale, especially when it’s used to paint such a vivid and insightful portrait of a land and its people?

“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?”