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Blog Archive October 2013

Discontinuity

One assumption most people share is the past and present are casually linked. Like Lego bricks we build the present out of the tiny blocks we’ve received from the past. Disruptions break that casual link and throw out the old building components and way of thinking. How we think about literature, technology, politics, history or culture is bounded by our knowledge, imagination, and processing ability. We draw meaning from this causal link. Break that link and we are cut adrift, scrambling to find alternatives to substitute for meaning. The technological disruption is so vast the cultural gravity can’t accompany it. Like a collapsed star, such a disruption creates a black hole in the culture. Nothing can escape from the forces of such a disruptive black hole. Cultural gravity becomes null and void.

Discontinuity happens at the personal level. If you’ve left your home culture and not returned for twenty years, you will discover a wide gap between what you remember about the cultural life and what presently forces have shaped the culture. It is hard to pick up the thread because so much of it has been woven into a new suit of clothes. Your family and friends wear those new clothes. They look different; they are different. They have discarded the clothes you remember. They have moved on; your memory has kept culture static and eternally the same. Their views and behavior are no longer predictable. You are missing too much relevant information.

This kind of small-scale discontinuity is one that would have existed for many generations. It isn’t new. What is new is the very real possibility of large-scale discontinuity that will follow by a major technological disruption. In the event of a great disruption, the rules of the game change. The disruption is an act of violence; it is mass murder of a whole industry, economic system or culture. The asymmetry separates the past and present. A bridge is destroyed in time, leaving the past irrelevant as a guide to the future. A disruption at the high level washes away the assumptions people relied on to create identity, their sense of self and institutions that serve and protect their collective selves. But until that time we won’t know the new game or rules.

I can’t see exactly what that disruption will be any more than someone in 1900 could foresee the technology in cars, planes, television or the disruptions to transportation and communications systems, to the growth of urban centers, and the resulting political and economic shifts that followed. It is, in other words, impossible to analyze what you don’t know. It is also impossible to predict outcomes based on projecting what technology might look like based on our current knowledge. But there are two places to start an inquiry into the source of discontinuity: Intelligence and Space.

 

Memory Storage and Information Processing capacity

Very intelligent people like very tall people are rare. In a way, they are freaks. Yet the qualifier ‘very’ is misleading. A man who is 2.52 meters in height is indeed very tall. But there is no man who is 4.3 meters tall. The same kind of limitation is found in human intelligence. If you have an IQ 30 points or more above average you have a life long built-in advantage at school, university, work, recognition, and status. Here are some famous names with much higher IQs such as World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, Sir Isaac Newton, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and Ludwig Wittengstein. Each one had an IQ of 190. American actor James Woods isn’t far behind with an IQ of 180. A high IQ is no guarantee of works of genius. An American Christopher Michael Langan, whose occupation is listed as a bouncer, has an IQ of 195.

To put this in perspective persons with the highest IQs are roughly twice as ‘intelligent’ as the average person. Twice as smart is as impressive as is twice as fast or strong. We admire and shower attention, prizes and glory on such individuals. Genius is an individual prize. That is a common cultural artifact though any scientist will tell you that the collective minds of many scientists are essential for most of our modern breakthroughs. The reality is we listen to and supply money through private and public sources to very smart people on the basis that such intelligence can be valuable to increasing competitive advantages.

We also have a sense of fear and intimidation in the knowledge that such very smart people can run circles around the rest of us. We admire what we fear. What defines these high IQ individuals is their memory storage and processing abilities. They remember far more than the rest of us and can process new information at a much faster rate. We also look to these people especially in the arts and sciences to provide a hint of what disruptions will next ripple through the cultural gravity that holds people together with their communal institutions.

So far no one who is twice as intelligent as the average person has used those abilities to cause a major discontinuity. While he or she is very smart and clever, they remain recognizably human with most of the same failings, flaws, and emotional limitations as the rest of us. The big ‘what if’ question is what happens if intelligence isn’t double the average, but ten times, a hundred times, a hundred thousand or million times the average. We can’t predict the meaning, use and intentions of such intelligence should it come about.

Intuitively, we can assume an intelligence a hundred thousands greater than human intelligence would likely cause a major discontinuity between the past, present and future. The potential of AI or artificial intelligence is seeking to find this pathway. World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated at chess by an IBM computer called Big Blue. While Big Blue couldn’t ‘think’ in metaphors, write poetry, or cook a pizza, it could calculate the implications of possible moves on the chess board (there are only so many fixed moves) and come up with a probability of outcome. Big Blue’s speed of calculation far exceeded that of Kasparov. It was a humiliation for our species when a machine could beat one of our most experienced and intelligent members. We can minimize the psychological blow from Big Blue by taking the position that the computer software was indeed ‘intelligent’ but only in a highly narrow way and resorted to ‘brute force’ (which works well in a limited context turned up at high speed rates of processing in the computer) rather than ‘reason’ to justify each move on its way to victory over Kasparov.

This may be a glimpse of the beginning of machine intelligence that cannot be beaten by the intelligence of any living human being. There are debates inside the AI community as to how and when an intelligence of a qualitative and quantitative magnitude will emerge, and there is no consensus. We don’t know enough about how to define ‘intelligence’ to have a good handle on the underlying issues needed to be understood before theory and engineering can advance. It might be ten years, or it might be one or two hundred years before such AI appears. Significant developments in our understanding of quantum physics, neuroscience, biology and chemistry must first be made before we have a workable definition of ‘intelligence.’

Once we reach that stage, the question will be: how will we know that an intelligence a million times faster than any human being comes into being? If it is a gradual process, a system progressively getting smarter, we can prepare ourselves. But there is the possibility that an AI system could through self-learning, and rewriting the rules of AI itself (recursive systems), could spring into existence in a week. In the latter case, there would be no warning and may be no evidence either. And an intelligence of that kind might be able to conceal itself or even if the raw information of its presence reached us, we would fail to comprehend its scope and scale. Its very nature may exist behind a veil that can’t be pierced much like a honey bee flying over an expressway between fields of flowers doesn’t comprehend the traffic below.

Recursive Artificial Intelligence, once it emerges, will be disruptive across the board and will likely cause a level of discontinuity that calls into question a host of existential questions about the place and role of our species. For example, human cognition, perception and behavior is largely shaped by culture, which defines how we perceive space, time, beauty, respect, fear, and how we learn to read the intentions of others, and create meaning of self. Culture and cognition, like space and time, are a knitted together. It is difficult to imagine what equivalent role, if any, our idea of ‘culture’ will play in a super-intelligent agent. Or the role of emotions which make us laugh, dance, cry and sing.

This AI is not using brute force; it is using something very much like the associative learning of a human being. From jobs, the finance, governance, warfare, secrecy, and consumption is flipped in a week. That’s maximal disruption; and it’s systemic discontinuity which is another way of saying evolution bring warp speed changes without any of the gradual changes that normally accompany change. All parts of the system, the interrelationships and interdependencies become unstable and no longer function. Such an event will change the stories we tell about ourselves. It will change how we perceive ourselves and others. It will change our views about coercion, incentives, morality and arguments.

 

Spatial Connections

Our relationships (historically i.e., pre-Internet) have been defined by three-dimensional space. Your immediate neighbors (if you live in a condo) are those who live people above you, below, and to your left and right. We have lived most of our existence inside this spatially limited box. When I arrived in Thailand twenty-five years ago, the Thais from upcountry came from villages and towns where they had never seen a farang. Many of them had never seen a Thai-Chinese from Bangkok either. Isolation and ignorance of other people and cultures has been the by-product of our limited physically defined spatial reality.

Like the cap on intelligence, the cap on how we experience space, despite other technological developments, has maintained our continuity with the perceptions of those who lived before us. Strangers lived in another physical space. They had to make a physical effort to move their bio-mass to our village. At most, people had a social relationship with a hundred or so people. The Dunbar Number (i.e., you can have a social relationship with up to 150 people; you individually know these people but after you exceed that number, you need bureaucracy to communicate or the relationship structure breaks down) arises from this spatial limitation.

In a low-dimensional space I can find anyone so long as I have two fixed points of reference: their latitude and longitude. Give me those numbers and I’ll deliver the person in that space.

We are mostly spatially illiterate. Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wrote that space is very big.

A recent article in the Economist  (which quotes Adams) gives an example of how big it really is.

“During the cold war America spent several years and much treasure (peaking in 1966 at 4.4% of government spending) to send two dozen astronauts to the Moon and back. But on astronomical scales, a trip to the Moon is nothing. If Earth—which is 12,742km, or 7,918 miles, across—were shrunk to the size of a sand grain and placed on the desk of The Economist’s science correspondent, the Moon would be a smaller sand grain about 3cm away. The sun would be a larger ball nearly 12 metres down the hall. And Alpha Centauri B would be around 3,200km distant, somewhere near Volgograd, in Russia.”

Our current technology would take us about 75,000 years to go 4.4 light years to Alpha Centauri B and that is in a universe that is 13.8 billion light years. Adams was right about the universe being big. We don’t occupy cosmological space except before dinner when we want a thought experiment to take us away from being hungry. We occupy a social relationship space. The people we are going to have dinner with have infinitely more pull on our choice, desires, and actions than Alpha Centauri B. However, should we ever overcome the energy requirements to travel through cosmological space, the discontinuity would be immense. We don’t need to leave the planet to find a significant change has occurred in our sense of space.

Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn discusses our ‘low-dimensional’ world before modern technology expanded the dimensions beyond anything anyone who time traveled from 1900 to our world of 2013. Who could have conceived that a villager in rural Thailand, Burma, India or China with a cell-phone had the possibility of more than two billion possible connections? Smolin notes that with the Internet we have created a higher-dimensional space and many people are migrating to and living their lives inside this new digital space. Physical space, where we heard, told and shared our stories has been restructured into digital space.

In the early 1990s I wrote a novel titled The Big Weird in which I explored how a Bangkok sex worker used an avatar online to expand the dimensions in which she could find customers from the physical bar. The space in which people meet is no longer the same as our grandparents’ generation.

Smolin writes, “In a high-dimensional world with unlimited potential for connection, you’re faced with many more choices than in the physical three dimensions.” The next progression in thinking is, space is an ‘illusion’ masking a deeper reality of networks. Our sense of space is our way of understanding our connections to one another. Connections can be open or closed. That suggests a world where people occupy different spatial frames.

Importing latitude and longitude from the low-dimensional world is no longer useful. One would have thought someone inside the US intelligence community would have made the point that tracking inside networks no longer fully corresponds with low-dimensional space tracking. When someone leave low-dimensional space and ‘disappear’ into a network, who are they sharing that space with, what information and resources are involved? What is the scope of privacy and secrecy inside networks in this new high-dimensional space? We are beginning to ask the questions and find some consensus that the broader community ought to be engaged in deciding how government and private enterprise patrol higher dimensional space.

Governments are having difficulty coming to grasp with the implications of a higher dimensional place to store and publish stories. When members of the British intelligence services arrived at the offices of the Guardian and demanded to produce a computer that could be destroyed even though they knew the ‘space’ where Snowden’s documents were stored made the act an empty gesture except as a kind of old-fashioned brute intimidation that carried a whiff of medieval times rather dealing with the issue of multiple copies strewn through digital space. It seems even governments can’t understand, adjust or control the spatial disruptions that in large part they are responsible for funding. They appear like the Keystone cops running around as if latitude and longitude still rule the spatial dimension that they have themselves have helped to destroy, leaving an interesting contradiction for us to contemplate. The expansion into higher dimensional space calls into question who and where is the journalist? Journalism is a good example of a casualty of disruption waiting in ER with no doctor able to determine the extent of the injury.

That separation of space sensibility creates discontinuity. Those who live in a pre-Internet world occupy a different ‘space’ than those who are connected digitally to billions of others. The old term for the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ was formulated to look at living standards and wealth disparity. The political, social and economic influences of the old distinction have been the stuff of literature throughout the ages. It has existed long enough to shape our thinking about social relationships, culture, history, and ideals such as social justice and fairness. When a high-dimensional space becomes accessible to the vast majority of people, what will happen to social, political and economic disparity?

We need a new literature that will examine this process of evolution into huge networks and what that means for individual opportunity, identity, and relationships—and what meaning is attributed to your position in physical space. Culture depends on low-dimensional space, a concept that is shared among all cultures. When that concept gradually comes to be seen as an illusion, the result will be to weaken the Cultural Gravity that has traditionally been the natural force holding together communities and people in them in the low-dimensional world. When space dissolves and networks become the login to reality, we can expect major discontinuity.

Think of the ‘space’ where you watch, listen to, or read news, or buy books or anything else. Then ask yourself how that space is different than the one you navigated ten years ago. Count all of those ‘new’ network connections you didn’t have back then. You have broken out of the low-dimension space in which you were born.

In many countries, one can find authorities passing laws to censor the new multi-dimensional space and to criminalize citizens in their interactions inside that space. That is gravity of the cultural type seeking to increase its force, seeking to reclaim the physical space inside digital space. It is the last gasp by authorities who fully understand that allowing people to roam inside the vast world of networks they run the risk of the old spatially bound narratives coming under attack and falling apart.

It is a real worry. People are anxious but so are institutions because we can’t look to the past as a guide how to react to this new idea about space. The result is repression to make people fearful about their interactions in digital space; they patrol the networks but the resources to monitor the higher dimensional space will never be sufficient.

There is no guarantee of safe passage into the future. But I suspect that books will evolve to examine our potential to live inside higher dimensional space with super-intelligent beings. That will take time. And by the time we have adjusted our visions, expectations, dreams and desires to accompany life inside a higher spatial dimension, we may discover it shared with an AI intelligence that, to our human sensibilities, performs cognition that appears like magic. How friendly will we find AI? How will a super-intelligent agent shape our experience of higher dimensional space? The bargain civilization has made is based on the idea that security will protect us against the worst aspects of ourselves—Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. There may be a new, more dangerous wolf to worry about and our idea of civilization may not cage that new animal. Who will bell that wolf?

Posted: 10/31/2013 8:51:46 PM 

 

Disruptions

Most people don’t like change and the faster the change the more discomfort and dislike they experience. The vast majority of people don’t stray far from their culture; to put in another way, the frame of their life, worldview and mindset is set in place by cultural gravity. Gravity is the force that attracts objects to earth. Scientists have discovered that gravitation pull is not uniform on the earth. There are variations so gravity on earth is relative to position. A similar idea applies to culture.

Cultural gravity is the force of ideas, concepts, values, and attitudes that shapes, forms and attracts those who share them into a community and keeps them in orbit around the community. Only a minority of people in any community make the decision of their own free will to leave and take up residence in another culture. There are many obstacles to breaking cultural gravity orbit. You start over by learning a new language, history, social customs, taboos, and that is no easy task. And as hard as you try, at some level, you will always remain an outsider to most.

Moving to another culture also comes at a high price: you cut your day-to-day link with people from the culture you once shared. You swim inside a different fishbowl where you can see the water. If after ten years you try to return to your ‘home’ culture; you find yourself an outsider in the place you once called home. You discover that you’ve acquired a different perspective, which allows you to detect the lies and deceptions you’d previously not seen. Also you’ve lost the basis of social conversation based on local personalities of the moment, sport, gossips, TV and movie celebrities, and the spills and chills of neighbors and friends who signal such events with short hand expressions that mean nothing to you.

Expat authors are an example of those who shed their cultural gravity boots, some for a time, others for a life time, to live in locales foreign to their native culture: from Joseph Conrad, Grahame Greene, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and a fair share of authors on the annual Man Booker long-list fall into this group.

I have a horse in this race as well. I’ve written twenty-four novels and most of them feature outliers treading in new cultural waters and trying to stay afloat. Taken as a whole, my novels are a long chronicle of stories and characters who, over a number of decades, have shaken loose from the gravity of their home culture. Sometimes the decision was accidental, other times involuntary, and often intentional. Inside my fictional worlds, the characters confront the consequences of leaving their native culture by stumbling through the social fabric leaving behind a trail of miscommunication, misunderstanding and disaster.

Only a few of the characters I’ve written about have undertaken a journey into another culture and emerge into a realm of greater insight and understanding. Changing cultures is a costly, risky business. There is one large upside that can also be a curse—once the cultural gravity is lessened, the first realization is the shared belief, attitudes and values were never more than social constructs and people have the freedom to choose among a number of different religions, languages, or history of events. That is a radical idea to many.

If you speak more than one language, have been educated in another culture or live in another culture from a young age, you have likely found the experience has equipped you to ride the differences with an open mind and you’ve evolved the ability to adapt. That said, there are a number of people who have lived in Thailand for more than twenty-five years who still wear their hometown gravity boots as a source of pride.

It is possible to coast to through life, ride the wave without thinking too much about the experience. Until there is a disruption and something in the culture comes under stress, breaks up, or falls apart. Disruptions are usually unexpected and come in a variety of forms. Internal cultural disruptions can be caused through large-scale immigration, increases in poverty, crime, inequality, or unemployment. Another source of disruption—and perhaps the most important—is technological change. When the methods, processes, raw materials, networked links abruptly threat the existing way of doing things, a fundamental source of change that ripples through a culture, destroying and leveling the old. From the invention of the printing press, steam engine, gunpowder, airplanes, telephones, radio, TV, and computers, cultures have changed as the underlying economic system has shifted.

Part of the role of fiction is to document the range of emotional reaction that occurs during periods of disruption. When a culture goes into a phase transition and there is a sense of excitement, uncertainty, and fear. My first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal was a story about how the invention of the submachine gun changed not just warfare but the military class system. The Vincent Calvino series will soon be 14 volumes, and most of them are about the cultural changes in Southeast Asia over the last twenty-five years.

In Comfort Zone, Vietnam and the lifting of the American embargo became the pivotal event that caused disruptions. And in Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, the appearance of UNTAC in Cambodia as part of the transition from civil war to peace was an opportunity to examine how people reacted during this period.

In Missing In Rangoonwith the opening of Burma after half a century of isolation was to peer into a culture that had been frozen and to see what changes were coming to transfer it. In almost every one of these books, there is an old elite defending wealth captured from the fruits of an earlier technology. When a new technology threats to make the old methods and ways obsolete, tensions inside the culture arise as those who stand to lose readjust the rules and beliefs to their benefit. Literature is a portal into that tug of war between the conservative forces against the creative, innovative forces working to replace them.

In my Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand novels I’ve explored what happens to the lives of people inside a culture once a big disruption lessens the force of the old cultural gravity. I spent time in Rangoon January 2012 researching for Missing in Rangoon. I’d been to Burma many times from 1993. This time was different. The country was opening up to the world. A political decision has been made to engage the world. In 2012, I was struck to see how many people were smiling and they looked happy as if they were already floating free from the old constraints.

Communication between cultures often in the pre-digital past was carried through the medium of books, magazines, radio and TV. Though in many cultures the availability of ‘other’ cultures was at best limited. Look at a bestseller list in the United States like the New York Times. The authors wear cultural gravity boots and this appears to the local readers who see shadows and reflections of themselves, fears, lives and dreams in the story and characters.

There are the ‘nativist’, the ‘racist’, and the ‘nationalist’ who share a common front against an open, tolerant, and diverse approach to the world of ideas and beliefs. Such people patrol the boundaries of their culture for intruders, defectors, and dissents. The old slogan: “Love it or Leave it” is stenciled on their cultural gravity boots.  The predominant goal is to prevent change and preserve the past. These are technological consumers who hate paying the price that new technology brings.

Sometimes a disruption may be isolated inside one culture. Immigration is a good example of disruptions in patterns of daily life that causes anxiety, distrust, and suspicion among those who fear the presence of the ‘other’ will change their way of life. Immigrants enter a space where the locals wear cultural gravity boots manufactured by immediate family and neighbors through teachers, preachers, friends, relatives, TV, movies, radio and books. The immigrant is the ‘other’; not one of us. The belief system is a shared social construct that is assumed to be ‘real’ and not a construct that someone can choose to accept or reject. It often takes an outsider to point out the network of lies, deception and illusions. You would think that would make the locals happy. Life doesn’t work that way. Locals become hostile, defensive and angry. A drug addiction is minor compared with ability to kick the easy slogans and half-truths embedded in a social construct.

The social construct can be so ‘real’ as to lead to demonstrations and violence for those who believe in them as ‘scared’. The anxiety surrounding the wait for the International Court of Justice’s decision on grounds adjacent Preah Vihear Temple along the Cambodian-Thai border is a classic example of nationalism. A small strip of land becomes inflated with identity, purpose and meaning. It is difficult to control the emotions once they go through a phase transition inside the nuclear reactor of nationalism.

What has changed in the lifetime of my writing is the rate or velocity of change that causes disruption. In the past, there was time for people to adjust their lives to the disruptions caused by technology. Political institutions had a way to incorporate the changes into the existing culture to preserve their own power and authority and to adjust the cultural landscape to keep the casualty rate caused by change low. Those days are gone. The current rate of disruptions in computer software and hardware are bringing fundamental global changes in medicine, health, marketing, security systems, information gathering, storage, and evaluation. No individual culture is doing well to understand, communicate or absorb the rapid changes being made.

You can witness the full force of cultural gravity on a population when a national sports team wins a gold medal at the Olympics, a local beauty is crown Miss Universe, local scientists and scholars take home a Nobel Prize. National air carriers, flags, colors and uniforms are part of the cultural gravity wardrobe. Then there are the annual indexes on corruption, governance, longevity, human rights, and education to name a few, which can show the dark sole of the cultural gravity boot. To prevent a break in the gravitational cultural force the negative reports are usually buried in the back pages of a newspaper.

This will make fiction and non-fiction all the more essential as people wish to understand the source, nature and dangers of the disruptive changes and prepare themselves for the future. No longer can we rely on existing cultural institutions from political or social to address the political and economic issues with clarity, precision, and absence of bias. We will become more aware that our cognitive biases have a cultural contour. Being guide by our biases, cognitive and cultural, is like wearing blinders on a dark road, driving at night without headlights.

The old order in most cultures is reactive and seeks to control the rate of the disruptions caused by the new technology and the fast-changing social structure. That approach is less effective than in the past as the old order no longer can monopoly over communications, the products and services demanded by its citizens. It’s not just the elites who have a large stake in wealth destruction who push back, but a significant minority of ordinary citizens who form an alliance with these elites. Check the footwear. Both groups are wearing the same gravity boots!

But for others, they discover the old cultural gravity boots no longer keeps them grounded to the neighborhood. They are free-floating in a larger world. Witness the fear, the doubts, along with the heightened emotions on the political and social front. Communities are splitting into smaller units. The old beliefs and systems lack the comfort and security of earlier times. People lose faith first in their political institutions, which can’t control the scale and rate of technological disruptions, blaming politicians for events they don’t fully understand and have limited ability to influence. The attraction for the soft totalitarian regimes is taking place as a substitute for the slow, messy and inefficient democratic institutions that are less able to manage disruption as sub-communities no longer accept electoral mandates.

The role of thinkers and writers in the whirlwind of disruption is to provide context and meaning to these forces and how they are shaping modern choices about life. But writers need, in other to thrive, a democratic culture to work in and they atrophy in totalitarian ones. The political class is skillful in using in sticking to the cultural gravity talking points that avoid dealing with the hard choices ahead. No one wants to hear the old set of boots no longer fit. We have less focus, and pay less attention to difficult issues. The void is filled with hundreds of daily streams of that promise fun and thrills, from YouTube cute cat and dog videos, twerking, plates of bacon and eggs and breaking news story about celebrities. The new technology is disrupting the thinking process, too. The short entertainment is read, shared and discussed more avidly than the thought-provoking essay. As we enter a new Dark Age, it won’t seem dark. The bright colors, the seductive graphics, the flash programs mask the emptiness of the message—buy something. Laugh and everything will be better. Don’t think too much, the old bar girl piece of advice has gone viral.

Writers need to be the ones to push back against these disruptions not by becoming Luddites but by laying out the implications of what choices we have, the implications of the choice, the cost we will pay, and what this means for our relationships. We are at the beginning of a global scale restructuring of culture project. It is a scary time for many because the direction isn’t clear. No culture will remain untouched by these changes. New, resilient global communities will kick off their gravity boots and find a way not only to survive but to thrive in the new environment. Others will join them. But they will also find there is a lot of kick left in the old gravity boot brigade who won’t go quietly into the long night.

In this essay Newtonian principles have been adapted to look at the effect of culture. Newton’s theory of gravity is flawless for most everyday purpose. On a larger cosmological scale, there are problems. Next week, in an essay titled Discontinuity, I ask whether Einstein’s theories of relativity might be adapted to reveal a deeper understanding of culture and lead to an idea of “cultural relativity.”

Posted: 10/24/2013 8:53:25 PM 

 

Plugged by Eoin Colfer

A Guide To Reviewing

Most authors who write crime fiction are also avid readers of the genre. Books come to me in the usual ways—review copies, manuscripts, handed on by someone, or bought in a bookstore. I don’t write a lot of book reviews. You write a bad one and you make an enemy for life. You write a good one and everyone assumes it is because I know the author or he has old photographs of you in a compromising position with a zoo animal. For the record, I don’t know Eoin Colfer, and I can be reasonably certain he’s never heard of me.

Inevitably any book review is as much about the reading taste of the reviewer as it is about the book under review. Reviewers, in my opinion, set out the kind of checklist of books in a genre they read, admire, dislike, and by the lack of inclusion, the books they ignore. Only then can a reader have some idea whether they agree with the checklist can they have any confidence in the review.

In this review, I will do three things: First, I will tell you a little about the author. Second, I will give a brief summary of the book. Lastly is my checklist that lets you inside my mindset about how I go about assessing crime fiction. You can also think of my checklist as a guide as to the categories of crime fiction that I read.

Plugged by Eoin Colfer (2011) was handed on to me with a recommendation to read. The author is a best selling author of a children’s book series, titled Artemis Fowl. He was also chosen to finish Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy series. Some authors are like natural born athletes. Michael Jordan, the sensational basketball player, quit basketball to play professional baseball. His decision to leave basketball was to honor the dream of his father who wanted him to play professional baseball. Jordan returned to basketball after one year.

In Jordan’s year in another highly demanding sport Wikipedia sums up his minor league career: “In 1994, Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, batting .202 with three home runs, 51 runs batted in, 30 stolen bases, and 11 errors.”

It would be fair to say that Eloin Colfer has proven himself a star in children’s books, science fiction and crime fiction. He’s a natural born storyteller and Plugged displays this gift on every page. He has talent for metaphor, scene setting, instilling a sense of suspense and danger. If Plugged were a seashell and you pressed against your ear, you’d hear echoes of the violence found in the films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and in the high octane novels Boombproof  by Michael Robotham and Drive by James Sallis.

The basic story revolves around ex-Irish peacekeeping soldier Sergeant Daniel McEvoy who has psychological issues following two tours of duty in the Middle East. McEvoy’s mother is an American, so he heads for New York and finds a job as a doorman in a downscale dive in New Jersey. After a sleazy New Jersey lawyer assaults one of the hot hostesses, McEvoy pulls the lawyer into the backroom. There is a confrontation. McEvoy has had a bunk-buddy relationship with the hostess. When the hostess ends up with a bullet in the forehead in the club’s parking lot, he is a suspect. The two black women detectives working the murder investigation find themselves inside mafia territory. One bent cop partners with the other one who is a tougher than a rogue water buffalo in a rice paddy teaming with crocodiles. A ghost named Zeb buzzes around inside McEvoy’s head like a firefly inside a Halloween pumpkin whispering one-liners and guiding him on what do once he is on the run.

The lead character in any series needs a psychological profile; one that makes sense in viewing his actions (or inactions). McEvoy suffers from an excess of ‘empathy’ and this leads him to wish to ‘protect’ a number of crazy, arrogant, doomed people who have no problem putting him in the cross-hairs of the evil ones.

There were a couple of clunkers that took me out of the story and reminded me that I was reading fiction. McEvoy has hidden away in the wall of his apartment fifty thousand dollars in cash. He’s plastered it into the wall. He breaks the wall, takes his stash and hides bundle of money on his person (no unsightly bulge apparently), and later stuffs fifty grand down the crack in the backseat of a police car while the woman detective is driving. Apparently she doesn’t notice his digging like a squirrel burying an acorn in the backseat. The chances of all of that cash were hundred-dollar-notes is remote (unless it’s explained that he kept the size and weight of the stash in mind). Fifty grand is a lot of volume to conceal. Besides, McEvoy is a small timer, a doorman at a rundown club. He’d have a fair number of tens and twenties and fifties in the stash. Also left unexplained as to why he’s working for peanuts on the door of a sleazy nightclub when he has enough stashed away to look for better alternatives.

The other example of this just doesn’t fit the world of reality is when McEvoy assembles a rifle and, at some distance, shoots one detective in the shoulder just before she’s about to execute her partner. That partner who has a renewed lease on life, fires six rounds at close range into the wounded detective’s midsection from a couple of feet away. The detective with seven bullets in her body is later able to climb out of the trunk of a car and go for help.

These aren’t the kind of questions you want a reader to be thinking about as they pull him/her out of the story, and raise some credibility issues. That is, if the book is meant to be ‘reality’ based as opposed to ‘Pulp Fiction’ based where ‘reality’ is an annoying artifact to be discarded when the book is opened. Eoin Colfer straddles these two crime worlds. Sooner a later, an author has to choose between them or run the risk of losing readers who want to buy into one or the other, but not the two conflicting approaches together.

I have a checklist when I buy and read crime fiction. I have a couple of points to consider before going to the categories. It is rare to have a crime novel stay solely within the boundaries of a single category. There is bound to be overlap. In reviewing Plugged, I’ve looked for evidence of a category and let you know what I’ve found as that might be useful to you as a reader especially if you like a particular category more than others. You can have literary/comic novels, or cross-cultural novels that take you down the rabbit hole and make you feel like you are inside the story. You will note that I stay away from ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ in the categories. These terms are more often used to describe the nature of moods or atmosphere that give a haunting edge of a crime novel. Plugged has some brush strokes that suggest hard-boiled, but the constant, non-sense humor, though black at times, eliminates the possibility of noir.

1.  Literary Crime Fiction. The use of the language, the development of characters, the detailed descriptions of place, person, events, emotions, and relationships which often expand like continent size in a perfectly created world. Literary crime fiction often appeals to and challenges the intellect. Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is a good example of a literary crime novel.  You must be in the mood for epic descriptions of the context in which police, criminals, tourists, corporations, killers, torturers, sadists, hookers catalog their memories, miseries, and mortality. Other literary crime writers are: Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, John Le Carrie’s A Murder of Quality, and Charles McCarry’s Tears of Autumn. Plugged isn’t literary crime fiction. If that is your novel of choice, move along, there’s nothing for you to see here, sir.

2.  Cross-Cultural Novels. The crime fiction novel over the past decade or so has been a vehicle to explore cultural identity, language, history, psychological and religious variations found in different regions around the world. The reader buys this type of novel to better understand the mindset of people living in places like Thailand (John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan), Laos (Colin Cotterill), Iceland (Quentin Bates), Turkey (Barbara Nadel), Norway (Jo Nesbø), The West Bank (Matt Rees), France (Fred Vargas, Pierre Lemaitre, Cara Black), or Finland (James Thompson). These crime fiction books offer cross-cultural insights into law enforcement and social and power arrangements, the story reveals an insider/outsider perspective as often a foreigner is caught up in a cultural no man’s land looking for a way out. These countries and authors represent the tip of a large cultural crime novel iceberg. The difference between Pulp Fiction or Drive and the crime fiction of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán  (who died in Bangkok ten years ago today: 18 October 2003) is the difference between an iceberg and iceberg lettuce. Plugged offers little cross-cultural insight other than some scenes where he has communication trouble leading to understandings with the wise guy class of New Yorkers. If you are looking for a cultural enlightenment, Plugged doesn’t take you diving down the base of the iceberg to explore what is there.

3.  The Rabbit hole. Occasionally there is a crime novel that pulls you down the Alice and Wonderland rabbit hole by the back of your neck and you forget that you are reading a novel. You become emotionally involved and part of the story. You see and hear the characters who are alive and you are moving among them. You identify with the characters (or some of them). Reading fiction is an exercise in emotional identification and empathy. This is an important reason for many readers to read a novel. Not every reader would agree what combination of elements in the story, writing, plot and characters reaches a critical mass and before you know you’ve slid down the rabbit hole and you are inside the world of the book. I liked Plugged. But I was always conscious that I was reading a cleverly written book. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is a journey down the rabbit hole into a world of sociopaths. Or Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is another example.

4.  Comic Crime Fiction. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a good example of comic crime fiction. Pynchon is another Michael Jordan player who switched from literary to crime fiction for this book. Plugged has a great deal of humor. Especially in the dialogue. The problem with humor is a bit like hot chili powder in the tom yum gung. At some point your eyes tear up and your mouth explodes into flames. An example of how humor worked in a crime novel was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This novel sticks in my mind. I’ve read it several times. And for a good reason. To see how Lethem’s mind created such live, rich and real characters rooted in their New York neighborhood. An essential part of the Motherless Brooklyn’s central character named Lionel and his mental condition. Lionel ‘suffers’ from Tourette syndrome (to coin a phrase from an aged gangster in the story). The consequences of that mental suffering were seamlessly woven into the character and the story. Halfway through Plugged I felt that I’d been to a marathon comedy club on the lower East Side. Every comic who came out had non-stop funny lines but at the end of the night, I didn’t feel I really knew that much about the characters. We reveal through humor; we also hide with humor. In a crime novel some hard choices are required to be made: is the story one, long send up or is comedy a relief among the slaughter and mayhem the central character finds himself in? Most of the dialogue are one-liners. The banter is clever, and it is fun. The question is whether banter as the central communication device between the characters is a bit like Henny Youngman on a perpetual loop. If you’ve been in a Bangkok bar, you hear this back and forth frequently. It is an easy way of distancing yourself emotionally. But the tom yum gung could have been served with some rice now and again to vary the experience. If I’d ordered Plugged off the comic menu, I’d have sent it back to the kitchen.

5.  Pyrotechnics/Adventure. In the Fight Club men test themselves. In Richard Stark’s iconic Parker novels, Parker tears through a life flanked with guns, knives, explosives, and does business with those who may betray him, hurt him, kill him. These type of novels are stories of how men establish their manhood, illustrate their tolerance for pain. In the dark horizon of such novels there is no remedy for angst, no cure for pain, but plenty of proof we occupy a bleak world without meaning or purpose. Or alternatively, we know that our collective history is a bone yard filled with individual and collective violence. Crime fiction in this category cover the grounds of greed, hatred, and revenge, rolling out an assortment of bad tempered knuckle draggers whose vocabulary substitutes bullets for full stops to end sentences in arguments they can’t otherwise win. This is the action stuff that frequently makes it on to the bestseller list. People apparently love to read about violence, violent men and women, the mechanics of violence, the aftermath of murder with the bodies and autopsy chambers. Many readers say they don’t read such books. But the weight of money spent on books shows either that is a lie or the wrong people are being interviewed.

In Plugged McEvoy’s life is in constant jeopardy like a man chased down the side of a mountain by a grizzly bear. He must be clever in order to survive in an underworld where a lot of people want him dead. There are many chances for him to die. Each time he finds a way to avoid his fate. Once you ride that rollercoaster, you feel your stomach at the back of your throat as if it is an exit door. This is where Plugged excels. It is fast-paced like a man running through a Cambodian minefield we can’t stop ourselves from watching whether he will make it to end. Once he makes it to end, your heart is pounding. And you know in your bones, he’s going to turn around, catch his breath and run back again.

I suspect this to be the case as Eoin Colfer has a new crime fiction novel called Screwed, featuring McEvoy. Plugged makes me very curious about Artemis Fowl, the children’s book series that is an international best seller. Children growing up on that popular series have McEvoy waiting for them upon graduation into adulthood. No question that McEvoy is a creative, talented writer who can move between genre categories. I suspect, over time, he will smooth and polish the rough edges that might cause some reader to bleed out interest about half way through the book. Back to Michael Jordan for a closing: Eoin Colfer has an incredible fastball pitch but he needs some work on his change up. I’d certainly buy a ticket any time he’s in the game. And it seems that Colfer’s McEvoy is back on the mound, winding up in a new novel titled Screwed.

Posted: 10/17/2013 8:42:52 PM 

 

The Twilight of Prophecy Cultures

News stories in Thailand frequently have a supernatural or superstition angle. Two recent examples illustrate the point. First, Pemmika Veerachatraksit received a 4 and half-year prison sentence following her fraud conviction for her role in deceiving a famous Applied Physics tutor named Prakitpao Tomtitchong to give her nine million Baht in cash and gifts. She had convinced him that they’d been a couple in a past life and he had abused her in that past life.

In the second case this week, in Songkhla, in the South of Thailand, a sixteen-year-old Thai died in an exorcist ceremony after drinking 18 litres of water.  The ritual was supposed to release a tiger ghost from the boy’s body.

In the same week, Physicists Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of a theory of the Higgs boson particle—or popularly known as the ‘God particle.’

We live in two different worlds—the duped physics tutor in Thailand the physics genius in Britain and Belgium. One world is occupied by people who believe an exorcist can banish the tiger ghost and another world where scientists believe a tiny particle causes the fundamental units of nature to stick together to form atoms, you and me, planets, stars and moon cakes.

Thailand is a good place to explore the psychological and cultural gap that separates these two ways of understanding reality

Part of the challenge of writing a crime fiction series set in Thailand is to understand the cultural mindset that comes into play. Solving a crime doesn’t take place in a cultural void. To understand how police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, private eyes, and others assess criminal behavior, search for a criminal, provide for victims, the cultural mindset needs to be addressed. What is a crime and who and how people are punished are artifacts from a much deeper cultural well.

An author from the West is more likely to have a probability or science-based, fact or evidence-based mindset. It isn’t that the Thai are oblivious to facts. They aren’t. But the role of facts and evidence is filtered through a different way of being in the world, understanding and reacting to the world around them. In places like the United States, there are millions of people who live inside a prophecy culture and butt heads with the scientific community at the political level, over education policy, medical care and other issues such as abortion and gun control.

I have lived the last 25 years in Thailand inside a culture where a large number of people of all classes and ranks believe that certain monks, ex-monks or astrologers (they are on TV, on charging-by-the-minute phone numbers, in the newspapers and magazines) can predict a future outcome. There are tensions inside Thai culture, but disagreement over the role of prophecy isn’t a hot button issue. Most Thais seem indifferent to the fact that these prophecies happen with likelihood equal to that of flipping a coin or random chance. The failure of predictions isn’t generally seen as a bug in the system. It’s like horse racing, there’s always the next race to bet on.

There is a large market in Bangkok for personal predictions. The usual thing people wish will happen in the future—you will find wealth, or a kind, loving partner, or rise to a high position in your company, or become famous. Prophecy comes in a package with other values like multi-colored feathers on a peacock’s tail. You need to believe that certain human beings not only have a deep insight about the world, but that they can accurately forecast what will occur next week, month or year.

From politicians to civil servants on to soldiers, sailors, police, schoolteachers, and students we don’t begin to touch the breadth of the share belief in the supernatural and superstition. Far more public attention is focused on prophecy makers and their predictions than on mathematicians who rely on complex algorithms that indicate a probability of an outcome happening. There is uncertainty built into the scientific system that analysis patterns and attempts to draw inference as to the meaning of the patterns and how likely the pattern will repeat. Will it rain tomorrow? 70% chance of rain mean there is a 30% chance it won’t. So do I take an umbrella or not?

My world in a large, modern city like Bangkok is also another world—one of omens, spirit houses, magical tattoos, amulets, astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers and various other gurus. The undercurrents that drive this magical world in Thailand are found in Hindu myths, animism, and a particular vision of Buddhism. No one is excluded from participation. Everyone has roughly an equal understanding and belief that invisible forces are at work in their lives.

What makes prophecy so seductive is that the prophet doesn’t need to hedge his or her bets. The prophet’s authority isn’t from the realm of science. It springs from an invisible spiritual connection with a higher celestial being. The prophet’s direct pipeline to the gods isn’t a fact. There is no evidence to support the claim. It has to be taken on pure faith. The Prophet is the messenger but until your FedEx delivery guy, this kind of messenger is conferred with a halo. The Prophet claims ‘God’ told him that so and so will happen.

Often what is predicted isn’t the usual garden variety that a red traffic light will in three-minutes at Asoke and Sukhumvit Road transition to yellow and then green. Prophets, like novelists, are lovers of high drama. Predictions spring from the same well of belief as the apocalypse with its messy, inky dark non-future. Prophets announce prophecies. Abrahamic religions were founded upon the writings of prophets. We have a long tradition of masses of people believing prophets were the output pipe fitted to an input pipe with a higher being who wrote a holy book without the aid of a computer. Once you are on that slippery slope all you can do is enjoy the ride into the waiting jaws of the apocalypse.

The worldview of Peter Higgs and his God particle and the exorcist in Songkhla have been on a collision course since the dawn of the Enlightenment. The core insight of the enlightenment was to view superstition and prophecy as bogus tools to work out an understand the fundamental nature of reality. That battle continues to be fought 500 years later. From our computer screens we are far removed from the reality as experienced by billions of people whose identity is tribal or through their clan.  Prophecy functions as a belief in a transcendent realm that protects a tribe or clan and its members from harm. It is also part of the ‘religious’ justification for the tribal leaders’ decision and legitimacy as rulers. In Peter Higg’s world there is no transcendent realm where prophecies are handed down to local prophets; there is only a material reality that is subject to investigation, testing, evaluation and analysis. No politician will use Higgs Boson as a justification for punishing an opponent or to support their authority to govern.

A prophecy culture doesn’t have a place for people like Peter Higgs, Francois Englert, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, or Jon Stewart. The writer of noir crime fiction wouldn’t be safe either.

Over an epic sale of time a large number of wars between people claiming their prophet’s predictions were the true word of god. Sooner or later that is bound to come to blows as these kinds of predictions are thought to be absolute and universal. There’s no room for doubt, evidence, irony or satire. Even when one of the vague predictions appears to be false, there is never any real fall out; there is rarely a dent in the credibility of those believing in the idea of predictions being a source of truth, revelation, and guidance.

The question is whether these two worlds incompatible worldviews can co-exist? A case can be made that they will remain in conflict and at war with one another. Modern technology is being used to dissemble the tribal world and reconfigure it as par of the global system. Essential to that task is to change the way tribal people around bound by their own Higgs-boson of prophecy and superstition. The process is to make prophecy a commodity, and prophets another system provider who is motivated by profit and expanding markets.

Tribal and clan leaders have long benefited from a prophecy culture that is outside of time, markets and dissent. The American drone program is an example of a high tech device to dismantle the tribal-warlord system. The idea is superstitious people will fear the drones that hover overhead for 24 hours a day. Drones will force the inflexible tribal leaders to leave their villages for the safety of caves and mountains. Drones and their power of destruction show that their local gods can’t protect them, and there is a new god on the block who can kill them in an instant so they’d be wise to abandon their old leaders, ways and beliefs and become absorbed into the modern high-tech world. The reality is the unintended consequences have been to increase loyalty to the prophecy culture, strength tribal ties, and allow extremists with strong traditional values to assume leadership roles.

I don’t have a problem with people who believe in prophecy. It is the way they process the reality of the world. That there is someone who is connected to a higher voice who communicates an event before it happens. What usually goes hand in hand with this view, is that there is nothing anyone can do but accept the prediction. If you have power, not brooking dissent is always a goal, and if you can shelter behind the veil of predictions from a divine source, you can crack a lot of heads, eat most of the buffet, and claim these outcomes are ordained. You don’t have to look far in the world to see a lot people are having second thoughts about the prophecy business and how it drives social, political and economic choices in ways that serve the prophets and their best clients.

When a modern, globally wired society tries to communicate with a culture of prophecy it becomes apparent that they don’t share a common vocabulary about the world. The modern, global wired society isn’t because fibre optics, computer chips, nanotechnology, and waste treatment plants are with us because science and mathematics banished prophecy from the way we understand the world. In its place came theories that could be tested and falsified through experiment. That’s how knowledge accumulated. That knowledge continues to accelerate in velocity.  As new evidence arises old theories are thrown out. I recently read that in 1920 most people, scientists included, thought that Earth was one, fixed, immoveable surface. The science of shifting plates in the geology of the planet created a new science of tectonics, which destroyed the old belief. Science doesn’t deal in absolutes; it deals in probability of outcomes.

The implications of this one vital difference drive the worldview and behavior of people. You won’t get the engineering required to put a space station in orbit from a prophecy-guided guru. They live in two different worlds. When a prophecy culture imports the engineering and technical know-how to build dams, bridges, road, trains and planes, they seem to have achieved the best of both worlds. You get to use the modern transport, appliances, weapons, and means of communication without giving up your belief that Wednesday is a bad day for a haircut, and the lucky lottery number came to you in a dream as often believed in Thailand.

A brand new, modern full-automated rail system appears to be like a young adult at his physical peak, but it is actually more like a newborn that needs constant attention. Not surprisingly in a prophecy culture the technical knowhow may be accessible but the attitude of many of those in the system is based on luck or chance and blessing ceremonies.

This year Thailand has had 114 train derailments. Every other day a train seems to fall off the track. There are many reasons given to explain why this has been happening, including the lack of funding for the national rail system. Not funding the system makes perfect sense if you believe in prophecy. The civil servants in charge of the rail system decided it was a damaged painting in the HQ that caused the spirits to become angry and have ordered the painting to be resorted. When the army bought lots of GT200, a fraudulent mine-detecting gadget, they insisted, once the scientific evidence showed the device was less reliable than pure chance in discovering a mine, announced that they had ‘faith’ in the device.

The twin of prophecy is the belief in the world of spirits, angels, demons, and forest fairies. No one needs wasting years to acquire a Ph.D. in mathematics, physics, chemistry, or engineering to join the club that makes a living from the prophecy business.

My horoscope for 8th October 2013:

“This is just the kind of day you like, intense and supercharged, just like you! It seems there’s a deadline coming up, or a time-sensitive project. You’ll have a lot to do and not a lot of time in which to do it. Just remember to drink plenty of water and eat. Lucky Color Dark Red Lucky No. 5.”

As a harmless form of entertainment, astrology has a place with The Daily Show, Not the Nation and The Onion. But as a mindset in charge of procurement of high-tech devices, and the maintenance and repair of water management systems, trains, airplanes and telecommunication systems demonstrates the limitations of a prophecy culture to operate highly complex systems developed in science cultures.

Scientific development progresses as scientists and mathematicians have new insights into fundamental reality. Those insights can be tested. The insights of a prophet are of a different order. You can’t build a safer nuclear reactor or cure cancer based on a guru’s prophecy. Scientists will explain to you that predicting future outcomes is extremely hard. There are too many variables that come into play, and their connection, lack of connection, or random shifts influence outcomes in ways that can’t be predicted in advance. Prophets don’t process reality with this humility as to their limitations. Or the limits of the law of physics.

It’s not uncommon to climb into a Bangkok taxi and find amulets hanging from the rearview mirror, or to find the driver touching the amulets as he races through a red light. Amulets in this way of think somehow neutralize the law of physics, allowing him to pass free through an intersection.

In a science culture the devil is in the details, in a prophecy culture the devil is the detail. Prophecy is an example of deception used by rulers in the past to keep themselves in power. With prophets on the payroll they could claim a pipeline to the divine themselves. The thing with prophecy is the lack of an audit trail where you can break down the reasoning into a series of steps and find out what sequence caused the mistake about a future outcome. That is one reason why accountability is difficult to graft onto a prophecy culture. No prophet can withstand an audit; no prophet is held accountable, as he’s just the input pipe, and the output pipe, being divine, is beyond accountability.

In the end, a culture decides how to explain what it knows and how it knows things as a collective intelligence. In the event the culture is based on prophecy, that way of knowing about the world will produce a certain kind of society. A culture where science is allowed to flourish, evolving insights lead to better and improved precision measurement instruments, and those lead, in turn, to more advanced technology.

In the West, the scientifically minded believe that the stories that science tells are more powerful as others can test and repeat the facts and evidence to support the stories. Thailand is in transition from a prophecy culture to a scientific one. This is a long process and during the transition, one is bound to see contradictions. The more connected Thailand becomes to the outside world, the more that prophecy culture will lose its force. In far less developed countries in the Middle East, the fog of conflict masks the rate of any such transition. Drones are the response of a science-based technology, and tribal cultures haven’t shown an inclination to give up their transcendental beliefs in the supernatural world to embrace a materialistic world. Meanwhile, we have at the front line of this conflict panic, irrational claims, terrorism and violence—as the world of the prophets’ lashes out against the world of science.

It is the struggle of our times as one culture is in the death throes and the new science culture requires a deep knowledge of difficult concepts. This level of understanding of Peter Higgs’ theory excludes the average person from participation except as a consumer. In the world of prophecy everyone is equally at the mercy of the gods and that creates a degree of solidarity.

Posted: 10/10/2013 8:49:12 PM 

 

The Graying of Word Weavers

One of the questions commonly asked of a novelist is: Who is the audience for your novel? The realistic answer is: I don’t know but I guess I’ll find out. But you’ll rarely see that answer. Every novelist believes there is a huge audience on the horizon and with some hand waiving they will notice the object called a book and wish to own, read, and share it. J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and Stephen King audiences are their windmills. Like Miguel de Cervantes in the Man of La Mancha we charge ahead.

Novelists are dreamers. We know the lyrics to The Impossible Dream by heart. Big audiences are part of the dream for word weavers. Big personal libraries are as important as the air we breathe. We dream and we read, merging two activities into one, and before long we are ready to set pen to paper (in a manner of speaking). Something has been in the wind. A Thomas Pynchon-like screaming through the sky and then a deadly silence.

The prospect of a direct hit and crawling out of the rubble with a professional career as a novelist is a low-odds bet.

Novelists are also old school creators. Like weavers, potters and scribes we have a talent to marshal creative forces to build, strand by strand, a finished work of art for readers to enjoy, learn from, discuss, and share with others. Novelists record and communicate the central preoccupations, ideas and emotions of their time and place.

This week I had lunch with an 82 year-old writer who wants to find a publisher for his novels. He’s written more than one. To have reached that age and still wish to enter the current publishing scene is a testament to true grit. At the same time his desire reinforces my theory that there are likely more 82 year-olds writing books than there are 32 year-olds who have moved on to means of expression that don’t include book writing.

I have been reading Facebook feeds from a recent mystery convention in the USA, as well as photos of audiences at author readings. One inconvenient truth stands out—fiction authors and readers are old. Like Miguel de Cervantes most of us are nearing our expiry dates. We might have a debate of what age marks one as ‘old’ as there is a large cultural component in that assessment. In Thailand, the retirement age is 60 years old. Upon reaching that age, Thai police and army generals, civil servants, university professors, school teachers and others are put out to pasture.


John le Carré The Guardian

In the world of novelists, that pasture is well stocked. In a recent New York Times Bestseller’s list for hardcover fiction, we find: Sue Grafton born 24 April 1940 age 73, Clive Cussler born 15 July 1931 age 82, Thomas Perry born 1947 age 66, J. A. Jance born 27 October 1944 age 69, Alice McDermott born 27 June 1953 age 60, James B. Patterson born 22 March 1947 age 66, Margaret Atwood born 18 November 1939 age 73. Other internationally famous authors such as John le Carré is 82, Martin Amis is 64, and Salman Rushie is 66.

The youngster on the New York Times Bestseller list is Gillian Flynn born 1971 age 42.


Alice Munro The Craft Project

Alice Munro and Philip Roth, both authors who are in their 80s, have announced they’ve retired from writing. In contrast, Robertson Davies, Graham Greene and Saul Bellows also in their 80s writing right up to the time of Grim Reaper snatched their pen and paper.

The take away is: Writers of fiction don’t have a mandatory retirement age. If they retire, it is voluntary withdrawal.


Philip Roth The Guardian

Are old writers being read mainly by people of their generation? Or does their audience include the younger generations? I don’t have an empirical answer to this question though I suspect publishers must have some idea of the demography distribution for their bestselling authors. When I look at photographs from readings and book signings by leading authors, I see an audience that in terms of age is a mirror image of the author. The same is true of photographs from mystery writers conventions.

It is likely that authors who are older than 60 can maintain a mass cross-generational audience has peaked and in the digital age such novelists will become increasingly rare. There are a couple of reasons for this trend. Younger people, as a group (of course there are always exceptions), aren’t willing to pay the time price to read a novel, or the undistracted attention requirement that is required to enter the world found inside the novel. I am not suggesting that the novel is dead or that novels won’t continue to be written and read. Just as artisans weave baskets by hand will have a market even though machine woven baskets are much cheaper to buy. The originality of the weave becomes less meaningful as machine weavers can mimic any pattern with fidelity.

The disruption of novel writing by the new technology will be another casualty as cheaper (read free), more efficient, with embedded video, images, music, interactive interfaces and games become the preferred way to tell and experience a story. This leaves novel writing and reading locked inside the enclave of senior citizens. A kind of extended bingo night for old intellectuals who haven’t shed their view that literature has intrinsic value.


Susan Grafton The Guardian

Novelists will become a novelty from another time and place. Fiction authors will become a curio like medieval scribes whose devotion to writing a text, line by line, word by word, seems strange, wasteful and limited. We will join the ranks of the painters of cave walls in France 30,000 years ago. Or a few may follow Banksy example and go into the street to find the metaphoric walls where provocative images become the medium to spread a message. The world as it is experienced and understood in terms of words is receding.

The next time you attend a reading or book signing, ask the person next to you why their children or grandchildren haven’t come along? And also ask what books their children and/or grandchildren read? I’d like to hear the answer to those questions.

Meanwhile if in the new digital age, competition for a publishing spot requires an author to meet the standards of beauty and youthfulness set by Gillian Flynn, 99% of writers are doomed.


Gillian Flynn The Daily Nebraskan

You will excuse me, as I’ve spotted what looks like a windmill…Sancho, prepare my lance for that four-armed giant over there…and there is that unreachable star.

Posted: 10/3/2013 8:46:39 PM 

 

 

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