Lewis Spence and the Problem of Lemuria

514g1sbvk8l-_sx315_bo1204203200_If, like me, you love myth and folklore, you may know Lewis Spence as the author of numerous books, in the early twentieth century, about the mythology of different parts of the world. I find his books more readable and useful than the rival series of similar books by Donald Mackenzie. Spence’s sphere of interest extended also to the fabled continents of Atlantis and its Indo-Pacific counterpart, Lemuria, and hence to the fascinating interface between mythology and geological science.

Being educated as a geologist but routinely working with mythology these days as a storyteller and writer, I can’t help getting turned on by this kind of thing, but the waters of scholarship in this area are treacherous. From today’s vantage point, Spence’s The Problem of Lemuria (1933) may be considered ancestral to the lurid speculations of Velikovsky and von Däniken and the whole genre of ‘mysteries of the unknown’, whose distinction from fantasy hinges more than anything else on the use of journalistic form. From the perspective of the 1930s, however, the distinctions between science and speculation were probably less clear. Spence is keen to dismiss the Lemurian theories of Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and James Churchward as fantasy, and yet his own conclusions about the sinking beneath the Pacific of civilisations and continents now look equally far-fetched.

What fascinates me in The Problem of Lemuria is seeing Spence struggling to make sense of geological and biological data in a way that might be logical without the discovery of plate tectonics. The distribution of various groups of animals and plants in places as far apart as Madagascar, India, Australasia, and South America plausibly points to the existence of a land mass that once connected these regions. Only, rather than being intervening land that has subsided to the bottom of the ocean, this land mass – we now know – was constituted by the regions themselves when they were joined together as the supercontinent Gondwana. Tantalisingly, Spence does briefly mention Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, but moves on without comprehending its crucial importance to his subject; this theory itself being regarded as wild speculation until conclusive proof of it was discovered in the 1950s.

There is perhaps less excuse for Spence’s confusion of the apparent ‘dispersal’ of fossil animals and plants from an ancestral land mass, which took place tens of million of years ago, and the apparent dispersal of human cultures from such a land mass, which can only have taken place a matter of thousands of years ago. He simply ignores the difference of timescale, which I believe was known to science in his day. What may have contributed to his conflation of these two ‘dispersals’ is that the human populations of the Pacific islands may well have originated from a land mass that has partly vanished beneath the waves: not Gondwana, but Sundaland – comprising Southeast Asia, the nearby islands of the East Indies, and the area of continental shelf linking them that was flooded by the rise in sea level after the last ice age (as discussed at length in Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East).

To prioritise evidence derived from mythology above rigorous use of science, as Spence does by his own admission, may seem foolhardy. His conclusions about Lemuria have been sunk by what we now know about the workings of the Earth’s crust. Yet I remain sympathetic to the idea that the legendaria of cultures around the world, in Europe and the Middle East as much as the Pacific, have preserved a folk memory of the flooding of large tracts of land after the last ice age. We know that it happened, so why shouldn’t the stories dimly remember it? Of the cultures that existed in those lost lands we know little. In that space of uncertainty the legends of Lemuria and Atlantis may continue to stir our imagination; as well they might, now that we face, in our own time, the prospect of further permanent flooding of the world’s coastal regions.

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A Critical Mass to Escape Dystopia

51sdqvpe3gl-_sx333_bo1204203200_Do you ever feel oppressed by the relentless coercion to spend ever more of your time online, staring at the screen, jumping through the hoops imposed by organisations of every kind? Do you detect the synergy between this and the interests of big business allied with government to control and exploit us as compliant worker-consumers, and at the same time to distract us with a barrage of images and words from the ongoing demolition of our economic security, our health, and the beauty of our physical surroundings?

Alexandra Claire’s Random Walk extrapolates all this into a future-primitive dystopia in which an all-powerful company, e-Tel, manages the population of a flood-ruined Welsh city by means of a tracking chip implanted under your skin at birth, a Receiver that floods your perception with virtual-reality Xperiences, a Box that runs your home, satellites able to detect the heat of living bodies from space, and ruthless Guards who’ll kill anyone who tries to steal from the polythene-tented Food Fields outside the city because they lack enough work credit to buy food.

Not everyone is compliant, however. Remi spends his nights running across rooftops on a mission to disable e-Tel’s information transmitters. Eight-year-old Osian has thrown his Receiver in the river because he couldn’t bear the noise in his head. Lisa has come from the wild countryside where people grow their own food outside e-Tel’s control. Only now she has the chance of a privileged position inside the company machine.

In this world, information technology has ceased to have any positive aspect. It serves only tyranny. Sites of resistance must be found elsewhere: in the physicality of bodies able to leap across rooftops and of minds able to pick a ‘random walk’ to dodge surveillance computers seeking predictable patterns; in the bonds of affection between people, expressed in the touching of bodies and the speaking of Welsh words – ‘bach’, ‘cwtch’, ‘calon’, ‘fy nghariad’ – redolent of endearment.

For me, the novel’s execution doesn’t quite match the cogency of its insights. I found the prose rather flat, and more imaginative work is needed to evoke a convincing future world, beyond the basic apparatus of e-Tel and the circumstances of the protagonists. The city is supposed to be burdened with teeming masses, but the presence of other people is referred to so rarely that in most scenes my mind’s eye pictured the characters moving through what seemed an empty city. Moreover, there’s no sense of how the situation in this city fits in with what’s going on in the rest of the world – and this can’t really be justified by regarding the story as what Le Guin calls a ‘psychomyth’, isolated in its own pocket universe, since it’s explicitly set in twenty-first-century Wales.

The part I enjoyed best was, in fact, the self-justifying speech by e-Tel director Oswald White, the equivalent of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a telling irony in his insistence the Random Walkers must not be allowed to become a critical mass that would cause the social order to change.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 271, 2012

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Archaeopteryx – by Lorna Smithers

Signposts in the Mist

Archaeopteryx, I call to you kindly through layers of stone.
Geological time is not the history of the victors. No!
It does not lie or exploit. I pass through time
as I pass through stone like a wave of radiation,
find you in your death pose, bare bones of your wings
raised like the arms of a skeletal dancer, legs bent, killing claw
bared. The feathers of your frond-tail lift you into resurrection
soaring to heights where sylphs play bone-flutes
on your bones. Beautiful bird black wings like a raven’s
against the illusion of a double rainbow you forget
you are extinct. For a moment I forget our extinction,
smile with sharp small teeth and join you in flight
with a sweep of my bony feathered tail.

800px-Archaeopteryx_lithographica_(Berlin_specimen) - Copy

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Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels

41fj1hz38sl-_sx283_bo1204203200_My first encounter with Greg Bear’s fiction was the superb Moving Mars, at a time when I was reading everything I could find about the planet Mars. Queen of Angels, though set mainly on Earth, is considered to be part of the same loose sequence, along with Slant and Heads.

Queen of Angels is quite a demanding read – thanks to the sheer complexity of plot, which alternates between several protagonists who have no direct contact with each other; and the cognitive dissonance induced by coolly presenting future technologies, mores, and language without explanation; and the intellectual ambition of Bear’s themes. It’s not only an intelligent novel but also artfully written and psychologically convincing.

What brings everything together is the theme of the ghost in the machine, the mind–body problem, the question of whether we have a soul. The kind of thing that the recent film Ex Machina tackled in a much simpler way. Bear comes at it from every direction. We have an out-of-favour poet whose stream of consciousness reads like a notebook app. Another poet who has gone mad and turned into a murderer. A pair of psychologists who, in a superbly dramatised sequence, use a controversial technology to enter the unconscious of said mad poet. A policewoman (in search of the same mad poet) who’s undergone ‘transform’ nano-surgery so that her body no longer matches her original racial identity. Two AIs struggling towards consciousness, one of them in orbit around a distant planet and, with a nod to Solaris, trying to work out whether or not it has sentient inhabitants. Infusing all of this are coercive norms of ‘therapying’ people to make them into compliant citizens, the prevalence of nano-technology that can make anything out of anything, and Hispaniolan beliefs in Voodoo gods who can ride people’s bodies.

All this adds up to an exploration, from science fiction’s usual materialist perspective, of the traditionally spiritual concept of the soul – and not merely the existence of a soul that’s something other than the body, but its association with the power to choose between good and evil. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But the novel goes further that that. Bear is raising questions about the implications of advances in IT for human consciousness and the relationship between mind and body. Much seems at stake in the quality of people’s lives, in how we are treated and what is demanded of us; and deeper than that, if you take a spiritual perspective, in the well-being – the survival? – of our souls. Big questions to reflect upon when you consider how the world has changed since 1990, when this novel was published and the digital revolution had barely begun.

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Forty Signs of Rain

sc1_forty20signs20of20rainHaving tackled the environmental politics of Mars and Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson took on the challenge of global warming. Forty Signs of Rain is the first instalment of a trilogy and should not be judged as a stand-alone novel. Most of it is devoted to establishing characters and the political and scientific background for a climatic drama that only begins towards the end of the book.

The central theme is the politics of science. Robinson takes us inside Washington’s corridors of power, following three main protagonists: Charlie, climate adviser of the ecofriendly senator Phil Chase (revived from Robinson’s earlier novel Antarctica); Frank, a sociobiologist employed in reviewing grant applications at the National Science Foundation; and Charlie’s wife and Frank’s colleague Anna, who befriends the Washington representatives of Khembalung, an island nation threatened by rising sea level.

The writing is leaner and faster-paced than in Robinson’s other big books, yet, as usual, includes dollops of scientific explanation, emplaced either in a protagonist’s consciousness or as chapter prologues; a practice Robinson has defended as enabling more thorough examination of subject matter than is possible in a straight-line narrative. A detailed subplot concerning a new pharmaceutical procedure appears only tenuously connected to the subject of climate change, but, in the light of Frank’s ruminations upon game theory, illustrates the dubious ethics underlying the funding of research. Much of the politics and psychology is spelt out to an extent that might seem unsubtle were it not justified by the analytical mindset of the protagonists, though Robinson allows us to note for ourselves the irony that the one person (Charlie) making a serious effort to modify US climate policy for the benefit of future generations is saddled with the daytime care of an unpredictable infant (who’s the source of much incidental humor).

The scarcity of external description through much of the book also seems calculated to convey the scientists’ inhabitation of a life world of abstract ideas, ICT, and indoor spaces. External nature is present mainly in pervasive repetition of how hot and humid it is outdoors – until meteorological events breach the cerebral space of science and politics with lucidly narrated drama.

The book ends with a whole raft of unresolved subplots as well as the big question – ‘What’s the climate going to do?’ – to catapult the reader into the next volume. On Robinson’s previous form, one would expect the sequels to this thoughtful and compelling first act to unfold a crisis of awesome scale and yet hold out a creative glimmer of hope.

This review was first published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2005

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The Light of Eden

Light of Eden - HarbinsonDo you remember, if you’re old enough, the beautiful painted illustrations on the covers of fantasy and science fantasy novels in the 1980s? Each would depict a scene capturing both a moment in the story and the essence of the whole setting. These pictures filled me with desire to imaginatively inhabit the worlds they evoked. Sometimes the text delivered on that; sometimes it didn’t. In a labyrinthine second-hand bookshop in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, the other day, I discovered W.A. Harbinson’s 1987 novel The Light of Eden. It has just such a cover. The prologue narrates the disappearance of Glastonbury in a pillar of darkness from the sky, to be replaced by a marshy wilderness where prehistoric animals are glimpsed. Chapter 1 shifts scene to southern Iraq and a similar phenomenon that sucks protagonist Frances Devereux into the distant past – into the original Eden, and then further back to the time of humankind’s evolution. The copy of the book was a bit battered, but, well, I had to have it.

It’s the sort of book that, if I’d read it before I wrote Deep Time, I would have regarded as one of my inspirations. I’d never heard of Harbinson before, but in The Light of Eden his imagination has travelled some parallel pathways to mine. Not merely the premise of a spacetime distortion that takes you into a prehistoric past with resonances of Eden; also the idea that travelling into that deep past can bring out one’s baser instincts – and a lust triangle of one woman and two men. There’s a lot of sex in Harbinson’s novel, even more than in Deep Time, but there’s also an extraordinary narrative stance which presents as sordid and depraved a range of activities that never stray, physically, beyond the wholesome scope of The Joy of Sex. One of the men is an (initially) virginal young Christian; and a survey of Harbinson’s oeuvre reveals a preoccupation with paranormal scenarios rooted in biblical mythology. At the same time, The Light of Eden is ultimately a redemptive story and hazards its own interpretation of the nature of God. My guess – the author is from Belfast – is that it gives expression to a wrestling with a conservative Christian heritage characterised by deep-seated shame about sex.

The book is written in a more ‘popular’, more lurid style than Deep Time, though it’s much better than the bland facile style of equivalent work today by the likes of Dan Brown. The quality of writing is variable, though, and there are passages where Harbinson should have been challenged by his editor. I found the first half of the novel quite gripping, but things become less involving after that, at times, when complex global developments are elided via infodumps of dialogue that have the tone of paranormal journalism. At the same time, I have tremendous admiration for the book’s imaginative ambition. Does the text deliver on the promise of that cover painting? To some degree, yes. But not quite enough to fully satisfy me. Those prehistoric animals glimpsed in the marshes – apart from a pterandon that repeatedly glides overhead, we’re never told what they are or what they look like.

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Utopia without Fascism

islandia2web

The 1000-page bulk of Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia had sat intimidatingly on the shelf since I acquired it. Only in the period of forced leisure after an operation did I get round to reading it. Long hours in bed gave me the chance to experience this leisurely utopian novel in one unbroken sweep. For a week, I inhabited the imaginary country of Islandia and, like the narrator, John Lang, I came to love it. I wanted to stay in this place where a life more authentic than seems feasible in my own society is imagined in persuasive detail. I surfaced from the novel desiring with all my heart to find in the real world a way of living more like that which is possible in Islandia.

But there’s a worm in the apple. Turn the frontispiece map of Islandia upside down and it looks rather like South Africa. Across the mountain frontier to the north dwell ‘blacks’, who are the bronzed Islandians’ implacable foes. Any blacks who cross the frontier will be hunted down remorselessly. Wright seems unaware how morally compromised is his utopia by the hints that, in centuries past, the Islandians exterminated the native people of the land they’ve made their own. White-supremacist South Africa extrapolated to a Final Solution. Lang, the US consul, falls in with Islandia’s conservative faction, who resist opening the country to modernising, mercantile influences from overseas. Exposed here is the linkage that can arise between authentic inhabitation of a land you love as your home and xenophobia towards others who may wish to share it.

Islandia’s utopia is not totalitarian, like some, but the means by which it has come into being and is defended are uncondonable. A more benign process of change is captured, in microcosm, in Holly Phillips’s ‘Summer Ice’ – for me the stand-out story in Jetse de Vries’s Shine anthology, and also published in her collection In the Palace of Repose. There are glimpses of dirty-hands transformation of the physical environment as it’s happening: ‘Pneumatic drills chatter the cement of Manon’s street … The art school is already surrounded by a knot-work of grassy rides and bicycle paths … buildings are crowned with gardens … She skirts piles of broken pavement, walks on oily dirt that will have to be cleaned and layered with compost before being reseeded.’ You’re aware of pressures on people in this future – from social norms, from regulation, subsidy, and scarcity – to serve society’s needs, but the engines of change are neither totalitarian nor fascist. The young artist Manon feels a tension between the impulses to be useful and to follow her calling; and achieves a synthesis.

I’d have been glad to tarry in this imagined world as well, but the story sent me back into my own world after only 30 pages instead of 1000. Unlike Islandia’s, its vision lies conceivably in the near future. Its challenge to me is to live the dream.

This piece was first published in Vector, No. 266, 2011 

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