Thursday, 24 December 2009

Book Review: The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is The Universe Just Right For Life by Paul Davies

A book that took me out of the everyday claustrophobic routines and worries of life and shoot me into the infinite realm of the multiverse. A book to help you contemplate eternity; a life changing, even spiritual book. Yes I'm not exaggerating-it's that good. Paul Davies, popular science writer and physicist tackles the biggest question of them all. As it says on the tin, why is the universe just right for life? It seems that the laws of physics are 'fixed' at a minute level to allow for the existence of biology. 'If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of the galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible.' From this underlining mystery of 'how come existence' or the Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies goes on to describe the scientific theories that have attempted to get a grip on it-he rejects religious explanations-God designed the universe-as a non-answer, but clearly explains why this is so and takes the more sophisticated theologians seriously. Along the way we also get a clearer picture of the latest ideas in cosmology and particle physics.

After we have had our heads caved in by some very complicated theories about the origins of the universe, it's structure and its future (quantum cosmology, string theory, eternal inflation, etc) we have some answers to the Goldilocks Enigma set out for us. The most disorientating is that we live in a pocket or bubble universe which is only one amongst an infinite collection of pocket universes-the multiverse. This is why although the odds are completely against it we find ourselves in a universe with all the right parameters for life. There are an infinite amount of universes' without these conditions but of course we self-evidently find ourselves in a universe that does support life-in other words we are winners of a cosmic lottery. The philosophical implications of a multiverse are also analysed by Paul Davies; do we live in a fake universe, a computer simulation for instance? Or 'could it be that everything exists!'

But the author supports another theory which is finally revealed at the end of the book. It's beautifully optimistic, a positive and life-enhancing idea closer to philosophy then strict science, but still based on a scientific world view-an observer, participatory universe involving an evolution of information processing (a scientific definition of mind, that does not exclude emotion, feeling and creativity) to a limitless extent in the far, far future and loops in time. Here Humanity, Mind and Consciousness are central, bringing the universe in which we live into existence.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Book Review: 1974 & 1977 by David Peace

Dark, violent and gritty, words to describe 1974 and 1977, the first two novels in David Peace's The Red Riding Quartet. In all of my years with 'my head in a book' I have never got round to reading anything strictly labeled as crime fiction. I've always gravitated to the fantastical in genre literature, (science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror) but I love tense and atmospheric Film Noir and related sub-genre's, so it was only a matter of time before I dabbled in this popular field. These two novels are a good starting point if your looking for fast moving but quality writing, with intensely bleak poetic and atmospheric seasoning.

From the first page of 1974, David Peace's debut novel, you're plunged head first into a sort of hell, Yorkshire in the 70's; narrated by a young and naive journalist, Eddie Dunford, who uncovers a labyrinth of corruption, (1974 is also a conspiracy thriller) while attempting to report on a series of grisly child killings. There are no good guys in this story; the police are the equivalent of a Central American death squad, torturing, ethnically cleansing gypsies and killing with impunity and Eddie's fellow journalists on the Yorkshire Post are alcohol drenched hacks with a penchant for misogyny. There is no hope for salvation either, only brutal vengeance. The writing is terse, dialogue driven (mostly obscenities) and moves at a frantic pace, but still manages to be darkly poetic. 1974 (and 1977) should be read as a master class on how to write using a minimum of words, but conveying a thick miasma of atmosphere, almost gothic in intensity.

1977 is more of the same. But David Peace is becoming more ambitious here, moving away slightly from genre conventions, sometimes using experimental syntax, almost 'stream of consciousness.' The gloomy religious references, drawing from the parable of Job from the Old Testament and religious themed horror movies from the 1970's (The Omen in 1974 and The Exorcist here) is more obvious. But the novel is as tightly paced as 1974, a page turning crime and conspiracy thriller based this time (although still fictional) on real events-The Yorkshire Ripper murders. Narrated by Detective Sergeant Bob Fraser and Jack Whitehead, crime correspondent of the Yorkshire Post, (both minor characters from 1974, both desperate and flawed men) there is no let up in the violence-most of it carried out by the police against West Indians and the prostitutes working in the Chapeltown area of Leeds. The novel finally ends in darkness and despair the only way it could, without even the savagely cathartic retribution of 1974.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Book Review: Screening Sex by Linda Williams

Linda Williams is a feminist writer and professor of film studies at the University of California, Berkeley, specialising mainly in the academic study of pornography! I first came across her writings in an anthology called 'Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate' in the early 90's, that opened my mind to another, more libertarian side of feminism, in opposition to the authoritarian anti-sex feminism, represented by the Dworkin/MacKinnon axis.

Screening Sex is not about pornography (although Deep Throat, the 70's gay porno Boys in the Sand and the present day porn film-Pirates are discussed) but the depiction of sex both straight and gay, soft and hard, in art and mainstream cinema; from kissing in early silents and post Production Code Hollywood, through the 60's and 70's with Sexploitation, Blaxploitation and explicit art films such as 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'In the Realm of the Senses,' up to a new wave of hardcore art films, for instance Romance and Shortbus. Linda Williams shows how the screening of sex has changed over the decades but also how the divide between hardcore (explicit expressions of sex as in pornography and European arthouse) and American movies has remained in place. She brings in lots of psychological and sexual theory, Freud, Bataille and Foucault, into her analysis but keeps it personal with her own anecdotes about watching sex on the screen. As a fan of the erotic in cinema and in moving images generally Screening Sex was fascinating, but as the book has many very intimate black and white stills I was unable to read it on my commute to work or in public spaces.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Book Review: The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee

Those curious about European ultra-left anti-politics might have stumbled across The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee. The text has been on the net for some time and is now published in English as a pamphlet by Semiotext(e), distributed by the academic MIT Press. Supposedly written by the Tarnac 9, a group of young commune dwellers in rural France, arrested by armed anti-terrorist police for allegedly sabotaging over-head electrical lines on the railways; (leading to serious delays of over two hours for train passengers!) The Coming Insurrection has been seen in France as a sign of a revival of far-left terrorism in the Baader Meinhof style. The pamphlet has also been taken up by the right wing commentator Glenn Beck on Fox News, as evidence of a potential violent communist take over of the US-see the hilarious clip on You Tube here. But does The Coming Insurrection live up to the hype? More importantly does it offer anything new to left wing and anarchist theory? It's certainly well-written, intelligent but without too much academic jargon, incredible forceful, painting an apocalyptic picture of both our alienated society and its collapse.

Right from the get-go I found myself sharing their sense of disengagement and anger at our political and economic culture as mapped out in the first seven chapters. (Dante's seven circles of hell) There are similarities with Guy Debord and the Situationist International of the 60's especially 'The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy' and 'On the Poverty of Student Life'-extreme but erudite attacks on our society like sneering punks with a PhD. The paragraph below is particular apt:

The sphere of political representation has come to a close. From left to right, it's the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or a savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys. Those who still vote seem to have no other intention than to desecrate the ballot box by voting as a pure act of protest. We're beginning to suspect that it's only against voting itself that people continue to vote. Nothing we're being shown is adequate to the situation, not by far. In its very silence, the populace seems infinitely more mature than all these puppets bickering among themselves about how to govern it. The ramblings of any Belleville Chibani (arabic for old man) contain more wisdom than all the declarations of our so-called leaders. The lid on the social kettle is shut triple-tight, and the pressure inside continues to build. From out of Argentina, the specter of Que Se Vayan Todos (They All Must Go!-the chant of the 2001 Argentine rebellion) is beginning to seriously haunt the ruling class.

It's only when the anonymous authors of 'The Coming Insurrection' start to contemplate this social upheaval that I find myself getting seriously irritated. They savage all forms of organisation, even local community or citizen groups, as mimicking "the form, mores and language of miniature states." They rely on pure spontaneity and outbursts of dis-organised violence as in urban rioting (they talk a lot about the banlieues riots in France, 2005) as a method of contestation. Like the anti-civilization anarcho-primitives they embrace catastrophe and disaster, a form of left-wing survivalism, failing to realise that the breakdown of society and the frightening chaos ensuing, can lead to the victims embracing the police and the authorities or fascism and Stalinism, to bring some form of stability. The largest experiment in libertarian socialism or workers self-management was carried out in Catalonia, Spain in 1936, where anarcho-syndicalism, a form of directly democratic but highly organised, working class based anarchism held sway. Although spontaneity played a role as it always does, without the long organising period of the CNT-AIT union, the Spanish Revolution would not have survived as long as it did. There is no alternative either in the community or in the work place to organisation.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Book Review: Endless Things: A Part of Aegypt by John Crowley

Endless Things is the fourth and final part of John Crowley's Aegypt sequence. I wrote in my review of Daemonomania (the third novel in the sequence) that a short review can never do justice to this breathtakingly complex series of novels. At one level it's a domestic drama set in the Faraway Hills, a rural area of north eastern America, at another a metaphysical interpretation of history, humanity and the universe, combining theological speculation and Gnostic philosophy, and at an even more subtle level an occultist fantasy-so subtle in fact it's difficult to label the sequence as fantasy. Endless Things is an epilogue (it's shorter then the previous novels) and a tying up of ends; we uncover the fate of the emotionally tormented main character-Pierce Moffett, taking the reader by surprise and the significance of Fellowes Kraft's unpublished and supposedly unfinished novel-the book within a book at the centre of the Aegypt sequence.

The first half of Endless Things is fiendishly complex as the dispirited historian Pierce Moffett travels to Europe following in the footsteps of Fellowes Kraft, who journeyed to the region in 1968. It's interspersed with the last section of Kraft's 'unfinished' historical novel concerning early 17th century philosopher and heretic Giordano Bruno and the origins of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, an influential occult society. Dense with magical symbolism and Gnostic metaphysics as well as humour, this first part of the novel merges into the more realistic second half as the unexpected future of our forlorn hero is revealed. Pierce experiences a spiritual epiphany outside a roadhouse strip-club.

He stopped, in the cold spring air of the parking lot, with his car keys in his hand, in the chartreuse light of the Paradise Lounge girl.

And yet there is a realm outside.

There is a realm outside.

It wasn't a thought or a notion arising in his heart or head, it was as though presented to or inserted within him, something that wasn't of or from himself at all. He had never felt even the possibility of it before, and yet he knew it now with absolute plain certainty. It wasn't even a surprise.

There is an enveloping realm, beyond everything that is and everything that might be or can be imagined to be. It was so.

Not Heaven, where the Logus lives, where everything is made of meaning, or better say, where meanings are the only things. That realm, of any, is deep deep within. But beyond the realms of meaning; beyond even any possible author of all this, if there was one, which there was not; outside or beyond even Bruno's infinities, outside of which there could be nothing; outside all possibility, lay the realm in which all is contained.

It was so. He knew it, without any wonderment. he knew it by its total usefulness.

It answered.

This is not the finale. The novel ends on the summit of a small mountain in the Faraway Hills over a decade after the events encountered in the previous books, with most of the main characters present. It's a wonderful ending, one of the best I've read. The Aegypt sequence as a whole is a masterpiece that you can read over and over again, enabling you to discover new resonances. All lovers of visionary literature should check out these novels as they celebrate the alchemy of the imagination itself; a sacred spring gushing between the covers of all great books.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Dystopia Now: The Only Hope is Resistance From Below

I began Underground Man last year when the banking system was in meltdown. Since then Neoliberalism and market orthodoxy have emerged unscathed from its most serious crisis since the Wall Street Crash, arguably strengthened. Because of the recession and a national debt that beggars believe, an excuse with a very rational seeming underpinning has now been found to launch more attacks on what remains of the ailing post WWII top down social democratic model-NHS, welfare state, worker and employer co-operation et al. All mainstream parties (and let's face it these are the only ones that matter) in this country are calling for massive spending cuts-it's clearly a choice between a quick death with the Tories or a slow one with NuLabour. The blame has shifted from the greedy bankers to the public sector, while the City and big business grows ever more hopeful of larger profits and a smaller but more disciplined work force, cowled into an acceptance of reduced pay, stressful working conditions and longer hours by fear of unemployment. Correspondingly over the decades local and municipal institutions from independent shops, through to trade union branches to community organisations, which people felt part of and contributed too, have mostly disappeared, replaced by a shopping mall culture constantly watched by the steely gaze of the CCTV camera. A sense of powerlessness in most people is almost palpable.

There is a very good case to be made that the dystopian visions of science fiction are not waiting to happen in the future but exist in the here and now. Our present is not the austere Stalinist/Fascist nightmare of Orwell's 1984 but close to the gaudy hyper-capitalism and corporation dominated LA of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Franz Kafka's surreal faceless bureaucracies. Never before in the developed world have we been so inundated with consumer choice. There is no real limit to freedom of speech either; on the net we can read the obscure writings of the anarchists and the ultra left and at the same time the rantings of the extreme right and the insane ramblings of religious fanatics. We can vote once every four or five years for a government of our choice (the party that wins is always the one that most closely obeys the logic of capitalism) and we can say, write and get anything that money can buy. But at the most basic level no one has power or control over their lives or the real world outside the TV or computer screen.

Any form of dissent that's not the virtual, both political and cultural, peaceful or not, is safely controlled or hindered and if that fails legislated out of existence-see what happened to something as innocuous as the Big Green Gathering. Working class power residing in wildcat strikes, mass picketing and secondary action was the first to go, then the anarchic free festival and rave scene in the 80's and 90's. A burst of innovative anti-capitalist direct action in the mid and late 90's has faded after the police caught on to their tactics and began kettling demonstrators. As shopping malls and private corporate run spaces spread even the once ubiquitous left wing and single-issue campaigning stalls and leaflet drops are thinning out. Add on new anti-terrorist laws and health and safety regulations, and any semblance of popular participation or people power that does not have the approval of the authorities is made impossible without breaking some kind of law.

Clearly the idea of 'western democracy' cherished by so many is in crisis. You don't have to be an anarchist to see that voting does not work-go back to the euphoria of Tony Blair's victory in 97' and look around at the political and economic ruins surrounding us now. These days it does not take too much of a leap into the radical imagination to see that the concept of 'liberal western democracy' and the almost ritualised fetish for voting in parliamentary elections is an ideological construct keeping us chained to capitalism and neo-liberalism, making sure the complex machine ticks over nicely. Social Democracy (Old Labour, New Deals, green or otherwise) is as unrealistically Utopian as the most outrageous leftism in the brave new world of hyper-capitalism.

Rather naively I have always voted in general elections-I believed I was contributing to keeping the Tories out and just maybe as a result we would get some mild reforms in return. I had never grasped the anarchist insistence on non-voting-after all it does not take too much time or energy to put a cross on a piece of paper and scrawling some anarcho slogan on your ballet paper was to me mere gesture politics, to be read only by some bored counter of votes. At the end of the day voting did not stop you engaging in the real meaningful struggle taking place at the grass roots. But now due to the financial crisis and its fall-out, complete disillusionment even with this limited criteria for voting has set in.

Is there an alternative? I think so-the more non-voters , the more apathy there is, the clearer the message of disengagement and alienation. Negative most certainly, but all social movements and revolts start from the bed rock of disenchantment, even despair at political and economic realities. More positively we must be thinking about the coming resistance after the election as building blocks for a new left libertarian politics, one based on horizontal networks of struggle. If the cuts in the public sector (meaning also attacks on the working class in general, the unemployed and the poor, who rely on the public sector in some form to make life even marginally decent) are as bad as everyone says there going to be, resistance is guaranteed. What form or direction it will take of course cannot come with a guarantee.

But what about voting for left wing parties, Respect or Socialist Labour Party, etc or The Green Party? My views on Respect, et al can be read here. There might be a case to be made for voting for the Green Party as a protest vote, (this is academic in my case, I doubt if a Green Party candidate will be standing in my area) but for complex reasons concerning Parliamentary power and the forces of day to day conventional politics, reasons I have no time to go into in this posting, the Green Party are not a real solution purely on its own. One occupied work place or community action group are worth a thousand Green Party votes.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Book Review: The User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard also wrote reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines and the User's Guide to the Millennium is a varied collection of these non-fiction works from the 60's up the mid 90's. They display J.G's wide interests, covering everything from Hollywood to Science Fiction, making manifest his completely original take on the world. Many of the reviews run at a tangent from the subject discussed, drawing from his own reflections and ideas and in no way pretending to be objective, but this does not matter in the slightest as J.G. Ballard is my definition of a genius-totally unique. The best writing for me is mostly from New Worlds magazine in the 1960's, when he was at his most 'cutting edge' and literary respectability (Empire of the Sun) a long way off. Here he defines his own unigue type of science fiction stories against the classic space fiction of conventional SF, looks at the surrealist painters and their influence on him, discusses the importance of William Burroughs for literature and how Hitler and the Nazi's would not be out of place in the garish media landscape of the swinging sixties.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Ballardian Ground Zero: J.G. Ballard's House in Shepperton

Above is J.G. Ballard's semi (on the right) in Shepperton, where he lived since 1960 nearly up to his death in April, 2009. Here he brought up his three children as a single parent (his wife died in 1964) and of course wrote most of his short stories and all of his novels. Here in the everyday suburbs, his middle class neighbours probably oblivious to his literary importance, lived an author who has been compared to such masters of visionary writing as Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and H.G. Wells. Ballard is like the 18th Century poet and artist William Blake, who lived an obscure domestic life in London but saw angels in the trees of Poplar.
I took these photographs in late July nearly four months after J.G's death, (I live nearby across the Thames in Walton-see my blog postings here and here) and except for the lawn being cut and the net curtains on the top floor drawn back, the house has not changed; his car is still in the drive, nor has the house been put up for sale. As far as I know it's still the same as I write this in September-my brother went past on one of his runs a couple of weeks ago. It was sad (even rather ghostly) standing here for a moment, gazing at this abode of the accumulated imagination, now a mere shell, albeit with its surface details still intact, with its guiding light flown forever.
At the end of J.G's road is the M3 motorway, constructed in the early 70's. At the same time in the house above he was writing Crash. J.G. Ballard mapped out (almost as if sprung from his own imagination) the disturbing and ambiguous terrain we were creating all around us, to the point where we now live in a Ballardian world.