It’s OK To Give Up The Dream Of Being A Publisher Writer. Really, it is.

 

Let me use a metaphor for how you become a published writer.

Twenty feet away is a bucket. If you get a ball into that bucket, you will be paid about three months’ minimum wage.

Which ball, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. The ball is in a locked box that you open by pressing a combination of about half a million buttons on a keypad in front of you. It will take between six months and a year to enter this combination.

At this point, you can probably see the problem with this as a career choice.

But you quite enjoy pressing combinations of buttons, and you enter that combination.

The box opens. You now get to lob that ball at the bucket.

There’s no prize if you nearly get the ball in the bucket. Oh yes, forgot to mention. If you don’t get it in the bucket, there’s no way of knowing, at all, how close you got.

If you don’t manage it, you can try again, as many times as you like.

How many times should you try?

There are many reasons to write. Everyone has a creative side, and most of us don’t develop it. If you enjoy writing … enjoy writing. Express yourself, have fun, crystallise your thoughts and feelings and memories in written words. I strongly encourage everyone to write creatively, particularly if you’re not painting, singing, dancing, sculpting. Make art. Everyone make art. It’s not frivolous, it’s not childish.

‘Being published’ is different. Not better or worse, but it’s about attaining a very specific goal: being paid to write. We pretend it’s not, but it’s basically just applying for a job.

If you spent two years trying to break into any form of work, and had absolutely nothing to show for it, then you’d be perfectly entitled to walk away. There’s no honour in relentlessly not achieving what you set out to do. You’re not following your dream doing that, you’re expending time that could be spent on some other dream that might be a better fit.

More to the point … most of us simply don’t have the luxury of the spare time to waste two years, or three, or four or eight not getting a job.

Here’s the current state of the market: a lot of people are pitching novels at agents and publishers.

The good news: a lot of novels are published. A quick Google, and it depends where you draw the line, but about 150 new novels are published a day in the US. That’s probably less than 1% of the novels pitched to agents and publishers (no one collects that number).

So, hi, you’re starting from a basis of having 15,000 people a day applying for this job. This includes every established writer. One editor is literally going to look at your proposal and go ‘I could work on this … or spend my time on that new one by my old friend Stephen King’. You’re not going to win that fight, dude. Sorry.

Hey … I’m not smug about this. I’m swimming in this sea. I’ve had novels, actual 100,000 word novels that I wrote and rewrote over the course of years, rejected. And I have a great agent, and thirty books on my CV. (And I’ve had great projects drop into my lap. I’ve been really lucky).

And a quick note: it might be comforting to think that the 99% that get rejected are all gibberingly incompetent. Every agent and publisher has anecdotes about terrible books they’ve received, or books where they’re a publisher who only publish technical manuals for industrial pumps and someone sent them a 900 page manuscript that’s a porno science fiction thriller with some ‘interesting’ theories about the Muslim religion.

But most people sending books to agents and publishers aren’t delusional. They are a self-selecting group of people who have diligently, to their best ability, put together a perfectly competent proposal for a book. Many don’t follow the basic guidelines, but even so, the 99% of people are … well, people like you, aspiring author.

The books get rejected because they are … OK. They’re … competent. But they don’t quite come together. They’re bland. That’s the main problem with most of them. You’re trying to get the agent or editor to go WOW, and instead, they’re a bit of a yawn.

If you read self published novels, even a lot of small press ones, you come across this a lot. It’s often hard to see what’s ‘wrong’, as such, but the engine doesn’t fire up. They’re just not … good enough.

What do you need to get published?

(1) A finished novel. An actual, 85,000-100,000 manuscript that’s of publishable standard. These days, publishers might ask for sample chapters first, but they want the whole book ready. And not just ‘I wrote lots of words for NaNoWriMo’, but a complete book that’s as ready as can be. One that feels edited and worked on, and crafted.

That’s stage one. That’s not the winning position, that’s what buys you entry to the game.

And here’s my point … oh god, that’s so unfair. With endless free time and natural aptitude as a writer, that will take you, minimum, a year. A year where you could be doing other things. Fun things. It’s not ‘quitting’ to go ‘no, I’m not doing that, that’s stupid‘.

(2) It has to hook from the first page. Agents and editors know that 99% of the stuff they get sent won’t work for them. So they’re expecting your thing to be a bit crap. Surprise them. Hit them with an amazing first line. While they’re reeling from that, smack them with the main character and what’s at stake in this story. And do that on the first page. For the love of all that is holy and unholy, do not under any circumstance start with a prologue where a character who dies at the end of the prologue muses about how boring this guard duty is. Or a flashback. What!? You started with a flashback? Oh god, no. Start with the actual story you’re telling, you idiot. Don’t ease into it, start at one of the dramatic highpoints of the book, and have at least one of your major characters on that first page, caught up in the world of your book. Oh, and get some jaw-dropping metaphor or surreal juxtaposition in there, a piece of wordplay that says ‘GREAT NEW WRITER JUST ARRIVED’. We’re still on the first page, by the way. Call it the first two hundred words.

(3) It has to be sellable now. Submitting it in April 2017? It’s got to be a thing that people will want to read this Christmas. Not a book for the ages, but a book where someone’s going ‘Gone Girl’s big, killer clowns are big, have you got something like that?’. Got a book that’s Hillbilly Elegy meets Game of Thrones? Get it finished now. (heh, you know who you are). Remember: You Started This A Year Ago. You have to have magically guessed that we’d be living in a post-Brexit era of Trump where Westworld was a big hit, and so was La La Land, and so people are in that mood. There’s an easier way to get to this: sheer unadulterated luck.

(4) A ‘platform’. Who the hell are you? Why the hell would anyone buy a book by you? You know what happens normally when someone goes ‘hey, I’ve written a novel, would you like to read it?’. You break eye contact with that person and run a mile. Instead, your plan is that you’ll ask that and someone will not only read it, they’ll pay you $25 for the privilege. So … ‘why you?’. What qualifies you, what makes you interesting? How many people read your blog? How many retweets do you get? What was the largest audience you gave a talk to? As you lay out your cards, the picture cards include ‘this is what my last book sold’, and ‘this is where my last book was reviewed’ … and first time authors don’t get any of the picture cards.

(5) A massive amount of luck. Sorry. Fact of life. Get 1-4 exactly right, then roll 2d6 and if you don’t score 12, you’ve just wasted a whole year.

And … wow. What did I miss out? ‘Persistence’. Because … persistence really doesn’t matter. It’s kind of a numbers game, but not really. It’s a ‘write a really good novel … and then some other stuff has to fall into place’ game. If, each time, you’re getting better and better at writing novels, than you’ll hit (1) eventually. After that … it’s not completely random or capricious, but there are so many things out of your control that you can’t rely on things ever panning out. They might. They might not. If you give up, obviously it won’t happen. If you don’t … there’s no ‘eventually, it must’. At some point, it will make sense to cut your losses. That point might be ‘second time’ or ‘eighth’. How much free time do you have?

I would never, ever discourage people from writing or wanting to be published. People who know me would say, I hope, that I have done everything I can to nurture and encourage people if I think they have talent. But … it can be entirely rational to not start down this path. You have to accept going in that it’s a lot of work, with very poor odds. It’s certainly rational to get off it after two attempts where you did everything right.

So … um … OK. Please try. But there’s no shame, at all, in giving up the dream if it’s not working out for you.

This One Weird Trick Will Make You See Blade Runner in A Whole New Way

Blade Runner looks nice, but it doesn’t make much sense. “I’m Lance Parkin. I’m a blogger. Stands for ‘Web Log’.” Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve accidentally put out the Theatrical Cut of this blog post. “I was typing words about Blade Runner when-” That’s quite enough of that.

Hang on. Before I start. OK, Blade Runner is set in 2019. Not long now. It’s the exact opposite of ‘weird’ that a movie made thirtysomething years ago, set thirtysomething years in the future is set soon. That’s how numbers work. But it is a little weird to think that the first time most people born after, say 2005, watch the movie, it’ll be set in the past.

So, OK. Blade Runner doesn’t make much sense. The entire point of this character:

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Is that someone else’s memories have been transferred into her, that they live on in android body. And the whole point of this character:

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Is that memories absolutely can’t live on, that when he dies, it’s all gone. See? Makes no sense. And the ending really is awful, overblown nonsense. But let’s look at that ending again. Perhaps something’s going on that we’ve never noticed before. In the last sequence, Roy Batty goes … well, batty. He does this:

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He sticks a nail in his hand because he doesn’t want to die. Because, as you know, sticking a nail in your hand increases your health.

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He also, for no obvious reason, takes all his clothes off.

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And suddenly, he’s holding a dove.

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And, out the blue, just randomly starts quoting Roy Batty’s monologue from the end of Blade Runner .

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None of this makes sense. Any sense. Unless. Let’s think this through. Why would Roy Batty do any of those distracting things? And the answer is ‘to distract’. So what’s he really up to, while you’re going ‘WTF? Why is he howling like a wolf?’.

Let’s start with the dove. Most of the real animals are dead in Blade Runner because reasons. The dove that Roy Batty suddenly has is an android dove. And you can transfer your memories into androids. Remember?

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Or do you really remember? Perhaps it’s not your memory, perhaps it’s Tyrrell’s niece who read the beginning of this blog and you had those memories implanted.  Anyway: so, Batty releases the dove, and suddenly dies, and the rain is symbolic of his tears, although the rain in the rest of the movie is probably just rain.

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And even Harrison Ford, in the voiceover, doesn’t get why he let Deckard live.

But it’s obvious, isn’t it? The dove isn’t symbolic of Batty’s soul departing his body. It’s his actual soul, copied over to the android dove, making his escape.

dove-1

It’s a shame the dove doesn’t go ‘Meep Meep!’ like Roadrunner, to get this point across better. But that’s it, isn’t it? All the howling and running around in his underpants is what he’s doing to hide the fact he needs a few minutes to cut and paste his soul into that android dove. And as Deckard and Rachel [do whatever they do at the end of the version you’re watching], somewhere in Los Angeles in the distant space year of 2019, there’s a dove flying around with Rutger Hauer’s soul.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? Or does it? Is it you thinking that? Aren’t we all replicants, deep down? Ooh, Blade Runner is so profound.

Your Coffee Isn’t As Nice As My Coffee, but I Have A Solution To Your Problem

Hello. You’re doing coffee wrong.

You’re drinking Arabica beans, probably. 80% of the coffee drunk around the world comes from the coffea arabica plant. Virtually all the rest come from the coffea robusta. Robusta has a little more caffeine, but a more bitter taste. It tends to be used as filler in coffee ‘blends’, but it’s the main coffee bean used in Vietnamese coffee. That’s (the main reason) why Vietnamese coffee tastes different.

Coffee originated in Ethiopia, all commercial coffee plants are descendants of ones from Ethiopia. But Ethiopia has far more than just two types of coffee plant. There are possibly hundreds of them, and very few of them are cultivated … abbayesii, benghalensis, congensis, dybowski, eugenoides, fadenii … there are whole alphabets of varieties. The reason not all of them are cultivated is that, well, not all of them taste very nice.

One that is very nice indeed is Liberica.

Less than 1% of coffee grown is from the liberica plant. The liberica tree is much taller than the others, its beans are larger.Here are what the various coffee beans look like:

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Source

It is grown commercially in very few places in the world – basically a handful of farms in a couple of provinces (Batangas and Cavite) in the Phillippines.

Some people don’t like the taste. There is a word for those people, and it’s very rude, so let’s substitute the word ‘wrong’. Those people are wrong.

What does it taste like? Coffee, but somehow more delicate than you’re used to, with a subtle taste that people have identified as ‘nutty’ or ‘blueberry’. In hot coffee, there’s a sort of cinnamon, spicy note to it. The taste changes as it cools.

It tastes of coffee, but nicer. It’s essentially the coffee they’d drink in Narnia.

As cold brew coffee, it tastes different again … there’s almost a whisky flavour to it.

(How to make cold brew coffee the extremely easy way: put an equal volume of coffee grind and water in a container, seal it, put it in the fridge for about 18 hours. Strain it. Put the liquid back in the fridge for at least twelve hours. You can probably make coffee from the sludge left in the sieve. The liquid is concentrated to about espresso level. When it’s ready, you can drink a shot neat, pour nearly-boiling water on it to make regular coffee, and it’s the only way to make actual iced coffee).

And here’s the time for the call to action: this coffee is so rare that the very few plantations where it’s grown aren’t sure it’s commercially viable. Unless you buy some of this coffee, now, the species may go extinct. And then, if you don’t buy this coffee, you will be as morally culpable for the extinction of a whole species as you would be if you went around strangling pandas.

So, don’t be a moral monster, do your bit for the planet, and give the ridiculously poncey coffee I drink a try. Heirloom Coffee sell it. I have not been paid by them to say that. Hmmmm … I should have asked about that beforehand, I bet they’d have thrown me a couple of bags in exchange for the plug. Damn.

Thank you.

 

AV Minus – A Proposal for Electoral Reform

The problems with the First Past the Post system are well-known and well-rehearsed. The main issue is that a candidate can win with a tiny overall share of the vote, if the opposition is split. The more competition, in fact, the fewer votes you need to win. One of the features of FPTP is that it magnifies slight advantages, leading to a point that, well, as we saw in this year’s election, the winning party can win more than half the seats on only around a third of the vote. For all the talk of hung parliaments and minority governments, the result in 2010 was a fluke, like a coin landing on its side, and the chance of it happening again was always remote. FPTP wasn’t ‘designed’ to create majority governments out of not very much, but it’s always tended to. John McCain was crushed and humiliated by Barack Obama in the US Presidential election of 2004, but got a higher share of the vote than Tony Blair’s Labour Party when it won its massive 1997 landslide in the UK.
The alternative system on offer, though, was soundly rejected in a referendum nearly five years ago. This was AV, and something like it is used in a number of places around the world. The basic principle is that you vote for someone, but you register a second preference. If all goes to plan, the ‘winner’ is someone acceptable to most people who voted.

Psephologists have spent a great deal of time talking through the pros and cons of AV. The arguments tended to be dry and technical. What I’ve not seen discussed very often is that a big problem with AV is that it’s based on the premise that the problem with current British politics is that there are just so many great parties and candidates that it’s really unfair to expect people to pick just one.

Is that how things feel to you? If you just voted in the UK elections, did you stand with your pen poised thinking it was so hard choosing between so many awesome, talented and inspirational candidates, and somehow deeply unjust that you only got to vote once? Did you think ‘gosh, I wish I had two votes, here, this is like trying to pick between Sgt Pepper and Revolver?’

I humbly suggest that the ballot paper did not resemble the dessert menu at the Ritz, and that instead you went: ‘Seriously? In a country of sixty four million people, this shower is the best we can do?’ That looking at the potential Prime Ministers – there were two – that your reaction wasn’t ‘my god, Ed and Dave are both titans among men’ and you probably didn’t watch the televised Leaders’ Debate, and conclude ‘I firmly believe every one of those people could lead the country to a new golden age’.

You don’t have to outrace the lion in a British general election, do you? To win, David Cameron had to look more Prime Ministerial than Ed Miliband. This is an almost proverbially easy task. In fact, I suggest that from now on we use the ‘miliband’ as a unit of measurement for whether a candidate has reached the absolute minimum level of viability. Think of it as a line on a graph, and if you’re above that line, you can be treated as a serious candidate because you are at least ‘not unelectable’. Use it in a sentence as you might use ‘rubicon’ or ‘jump the shark’. ‘Andy Burnham obviously crosses the miliband, but does he have what he takes to win in Scotland?’; ‘Jeb Bush’s statements on Iraq this week have left people wondering if he’s sinking below the miliband’; ‘the televised debate will include all the candidates above the miliband’.
So what’s the solution? Here’s my proposal, a system I call ‘AV Minus’.

  • 1. A voter gets two votes.
  • 2. As now, they place an X next to the candidate they want.
  • 3. As with AV, they also place a second vote. This, though, they mark ‘FO’, and this stands for ‘FOrgive me, sir or madam, I’m sure you are a lovely person, but I do not wish you to represent me in the House of Commons’.
  • 4. Candidates get one vote added for every X, and one vote taken off for every FO. The winner of the election is simply the candidate with the highest net total of votes.
  • 5. Here’s the best bit: when the returning officer declares the result, he turns to the candidate with the most FOs, raises two fingers at him and snarls ‘FUCK. OFF’. That person then has to walk out of the hall, like the losing contestant on The Weakest Link.

See? It’s brilliant, isn’t it?

Consider the following scenarios:

  • 1. You are a Labour supporter in a constituency where the Conservatives are ahead, but UKIP are nipping at their heels. Labour are a close third, but you really, really don’t want UKIP to win. Under FPTP, you have to vote Tory. Under AV-, you can vote Labour and go FO UKIP. The Tory may still win, but you wouldn’t have voted for them. And there may be scenarios, in fact, where the UKIP and the Tories FO each other to such an extent that Labour win.
  • 2. You’re a Tory in Wales. No, you actually live there, you’re not on holiday. It happens. You’re resigned to the fact your lot won’t win, but you don’t want Labour to win. But they’ve got a massive majority in your constituency … well, you can vote tactically: vote for whoever’s second and FO the Labour candidate. That’s basically two votes against Labour.
  • 3. You really, really hate Tories or the SNP. You’re indifferent about who wins, as long as it’s not them.
  • 4. George Galloway. I mean, seriously. Shouldn’t there be a constitutional mechanism that lets us tell him to fuck off?

It is possible, of course, to get the most FOs with this system but still win the election. This isn’t a problem – the MP knows that they won, but also that a great swathe of his constituents actively loathe him.
The only downside I see is that people might forget to put down the X, or that they might just endlessly find themselves scrawling FO next to all the candidates. Or that joke candidates might seek la lanterne rouge.
We are in an era of British politics where the electorate need a degree of damage control. We need to be able to say ‘no, not him’. Instead of the rather grubby spectacle we saw this time of parties saying ‘vote for us, that way you won’t be voting for them’, you can vote against someone without endorsing their rival.

Tony Benn always used to say that the mark of a good electoral system wasn’t that it allowed you to vote someone in, it was that it allowed you to vote them out. That has always been the problems with AV, AV+, PR and related proposed reforms – they’ve always been set up in a way that would create mushy coalitions, fosters a lukewarm centrism. There’s that old joke ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ – well, AV Minus squares that circle, allows you to go ‘for god’s sake, not him’. And, in the end, don’t we want an electoral system that creates stable governments and humiliates wankers?

Above Us Only Sky

I may be wrong about this, but I think there is a theological issue that, when we consider the whole sweep of human history, troubled a far higher proportion of the human population from far earlier and for far longer than any single other question. It’s not a question we ask today.

It’s not ‘does God exist?’ – there have always been people who haven’t believed in the gods, but until extremely recently, the vast majority of people have taken it completely for granted that there was at least one god around at some point. It’s not ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ – if you believe in more than one god, it’s because those gods are warring; if you believe in one god it’s because that god wills it; if you don’t believe in gods, it’s a foolish question.

I don’t know this for certain, because we have to look back a long way to see when it was first asked – we have to rely on interpretations of Neolithic art (at least twelve thousand years old), we have to depend on reconstructions of the Copper Age (seven thousand years ago), we have to look at paleolinguistics, the study of how ancient languages spread and developed. It was an idea that it seems was carved into stone seven thousand years before the Ten Commandments were. We know it was a question that was still being seriously considered by at least one major culture until about five hundred years ago. The symbolism survives today, in both Western and Eastern religious belief.

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun. It was understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism.

This idea spread with ancient man across the Middle East, India, into Europe. It was a belief – in some form – held simultaneously in Scandinavia, Indonesia and pre-Columbian America. From the late Stone Age, well into the Iron Age, surviving into late Roman, Aztec and, in vestigal form, modern Hindu and Christian belief there was consensus. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s a very exciting sequence where Gilgamesh finds the tunnel the Sun goes down into at night and races along it, with the setting Sun barrelling after him like that giant rock at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This was a religious outlook held for far longer and by a far higher proportion of the human race then living than has ever believed ‘there is only one god’, ‘the god I worship created the universe’ or ‘God’s a paragon of virtue’. It’s a religious belief that can rightfully be said to have been ‘universal’, in the parochial sense human beings use the word. For thousands of years, it appears that all human beings believed it.

The vestiges of this belief still pervade our language, our image of God and to some extent our thought. One of the ways we can see how pervasive the idea was is that it survives in our languages. There are many processes by which languages diverge, but we can see one in action when we ask why Americans call cars ‘automobiles’ and lifts ‘elevators’ … it’s because those are things invented after the split with Britain, so they came up with their own words. Paleolinguistics looks at the similarities and differences between languages and can be used (with due caution) to infer when things are invented – we can see by collating what different languages call them, for example, that ‘wheel’ far predates ‘spokes’, that ‘equine’ predates ‘saddle’ and far predates ‘stirrups’. Some scholars believe we can pinpoint when different types of sword and spear were invented by looking at what different peoples called them. There are some words that are truly ancient – the words for ‘I’, ‘two’ and so on. 

Seven thousand years ago, in what we now call the Proto-Indo-European culture of the Middle East, the God that pulled the Sun through the sky was called something like Dyeusphaeter. It’s a name older than the Sanskrit language, which later rendered it as Dyaus Pita. It’s the origin of the names Jupiter and Zeus, and many other Sun gods in many other cultures – Dyaus of early Indian mythology, Ahura Mazda in Persia (the first monotheistic God), Astwatz, Dispater. In German it was Deiwos, that became Tiwaz – which is where we get the word ‘Tuesday’. The Latin word ‘deus’ – which is the ancestor of the English word ‘deity’ – derives from it, but this isn’t some word English borrowed from Latin, it massively predates that, so that two almost completely unrelated languages, Welsh and Persian, have similar words for God: ‘Duw’ and ‘Deva’. The first half of the name became the English word ‘divine’ (and possibly ‘day’, although that’s disputed), and ‘Phaeter’ became ‘father’, so modern English would render the name as ‘day-father’, which is sometimes personified as ‘Father Sky’.

Many of the gods people worship today share memes with Dyeusphaeter. One of the trendiest religions in first century Rome was the cult of Sol Invictus, ‘the undefeated Sun’, and the main feast day was to celebrate the end of winter, which was also the birthday of the God – December 25th (he was born of a virgin). Sol Invictus had a golden crown, a halo, and it’s possible to track the early Christian iconography and writings as they starting those elements into their own beliefs. It’s not because of Sol Invictus that Christians go to church on Sunday – that was taken from another rival cult, that of Mithras (and the day of the sabbath was the source of much dispute among Christians until the Council of Laodicea in 364).

Traditional images of the Christian God and Jesus himself owe a lot to Father Sky. Day-father was the God of the day, clearly one of the most important and powerful (although by no means the only god or the most powerful), and was associated with all the benefits the Sun brings. But half the time, at night, he wasn’t there. And in many places in the world the days were much shorter in the winter and longer in the summer. This was profoundly troubling – how could the influence of such a self-evidently powerful God ebb and flow like that?

Instinctively, now, we know that it’s always day somewhere on Earth. We’re so used to seeing, say, live TV pictures from the other side of the planet and if it’s night where we are, it’s day there. I don’t think we need empirical evidence of that, as such, it’s almost instinctive. Just something we know. We must all have acquired the information, but at such an early age it essentially counts as innate. We also know that it’s not ‘the Sun on the other side of the world’, as such, that’s how it appears from Earth. We orbit the Sun, not vice versa. Were people really so stupid in the olden days that they couldn’t work any of that out? We all know that everyone used to think the world is flat. We’re all wrong, as it happens. We all know that the Catholic church were dumb and so blinded by ignorance that they refused to believe the Earth went round the Sun even when Galileo heroically confronted them with science and declared otherwise. Coming to understand why we’re wrong about that, too, why it’s almost exactly the opposite, is pretty exciting and I’m sure I’ll talk about that at some point.

So here’s an interesting question: when did the human race discover that the Sun was simply on the other side of the world at night? And more to the point, when was that discovery widely accepted? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I think, bottom line, the person who deduces it first is Hipparchus, in around 135BC. I can’t even begin to work out when it was generally known, or intuitive. Clearly, some remnants of Solar Chariot religions survived beyond that, and clearly earlier astronomical theories dispense with the idea of the Sun crashing into the sea or slotting into a tunnel every night. I can’t answer the question ‘when was the latest someone could suggest a god moves the Sun across the sky without everyone just laughing at them?’. In the West … well … here’s Bill O’Reilly, United States of America, 2011, and he’s not saying exactly the same thing … but he’s not saying something that’s all that different, either. Whether he knows it or not, he believes in Dyeusphaeter’s Solar Chariot, via Aristotle, via the Catholic Church. 

Before we get too smug, none of us have quite escaped the myth. There’s a famous science fiction story that has a character on the Moon, looking at the Earth wistfully noting ‘just to think, it’s Spring back on Earth right now’. It takes most people at least a few moments to see the problem with that sentence – it’s an astronaut literally viewing the whole world, but unable to escape the old, limited worldview.

We know where the Sun goes at night. It’s settled law, now. There will be people who say it doesn’t count as a theological question. But understanding that it was a theological question – for at least three, possibly five, times longer than we’ve had any Christian theology – is important to bear in mind. It’s easy to dismiss the Solar Chariot as primitive superstition borne from ignorance, and to say that it doesn’t need to be studied in any great depth … well, yes. But isn’t that what the Courtier’s Reply says about modern theology? I admire the people who came up with the story of the Sun Chariot. They were trying to explain the world, and their explanation made sense of the empirical evidence. They were extrapolating what they knew and saw. These were not stupid people, they were extremely smart people tackling huge, huge problem. It’s amazing they even worked out where they might begin to try answering. I don’t hesitate to call them wrong, I don’t take the view that they were right in their own way, but they were wrong for the right reasons. They were thinking in what we’d arrogantly call a ‘modern’ way – looking at the evidence. They were wrong.

I admire the people who dismantled the Sun Chariot more. They had the courage to continue asking the questions, and to ask new and reframed questions. It took many thousands of years, but we got to what we now see is inarguably ‘the right answer’. We know that the answer operates on a scale far larger and far smaller than the human, but which human beings could readily understand by observing and deducing a few common, simple processes. That, ultimately, the answer was actually rather straightforward.

And it’s an answer you can use. It leads to further discoveries, to practical inventions. Frankly, the heavens are much more enticing without divine traffic whizzing around like space debris. And we’ve been there now, sent up our own space chariots. We use them every day to see around the world, and to explore a universe that’s a far larger, richer, grander, older and stranger place than the old religions had us believe.

Both groups of thinkers shared the same impulse: they wanted an explanation. Modern theology often seems abstract to the point of distraction, about things completely beyond the human capacity to understand, not just beyond science, but beyond the limits of human thought. ‘Life’ and ‘the divine purpose’ and ‘the greater good’ are so big and seem so confusing and inherently paradoxical that it’s impossible even to expect we might ever understand them. But we have to understand right from the outset that theologians in the past told us the same things about disease, harvests and the weather – equally vast, immensely important parts of our experience (and also all things attributed, for most of human history, solely to the capricious nature of the gods).

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. I don’t see this changing – one of the vibrant issues across a number of academic disciplines, including theology, is the very broad area of ‘consciousness’. I very strongly suspect we’ll see key breakthroughs in my lifetime, a real shift of understanding about what constitutes awareness, consciousness, intelligence, how these things can originate, how to define them and so on – but these breakthroughs will almost certainly come from the computer science departments, from the evolutionary biologists. It’s hard to see how they might even come from a theology department.

As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’. Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer, I think it’s instructive to remind ourselves that we solved the biggest problem of them all: where the Sun’s hiding at night.

Easter: A Good Day To Bury Bad News

There’s a passage in Matthew’s account of the Resurrection (27:52-53) that hasn’t received much attention until relatively recently. At the moment Jesus is resurrected:

“the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

Christopher Hitchens was among the more prominent people to do a doubletake: ‘These rather conspicuous events, which among other things would seem to make resurrection something of a commonplace, were entirely missed by Saint John, or at any rate unreported by him, and appear not at all in the only written historical record, which was by Flavius Josephus.’.

All four canonical gospels spend a lot of their time discussing the events of the death and Resurrection of Christ (at least a third of their word count), but only Matthew thinks it worth mentioning that ‘many holy people’ emerged from their tombs and walked into Jerusalem, and the quote above is the sum total of Matthew’s description. It does beg a few questions: How many holy people? Who were they? Who did they appear to? What happened to them afterwards?

Matthew is describing one of the most impressive miracles anywhere in the Bible, and not just because it sounds spectacular, dramatic and above all else public, so difficult to dismiss. It’s significant because it’s a miracle that’s not just a conjuring trick, it’s something that should have been extraordinarily informative, with some direct theological implications. Did these holy men say anything interesting? Lazarus did, we’re told, when he returned from the dead. Did they just stand there? How did people recognise them, if they didn’t say anything?

Perhaps a more practical question is to ask where Matthew got his information. Well, the first thing to note is that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew refers to the apostle Matthew in the third person, and that the attribution of this Gospel to him is based on a fourth century source who said Matthew wrote a book of collected sayings in ‘the language of the Hebrews’, then ascribes a Gospel to him that isn’t a book of sayings and most scholars agree was originally written in Greek. There is, as ever, some debate, but no one really argues that the author of Matthew was an eyewitness. He was writing at least one, probably two generations after the event, and he was probably living in Syria. Even if he’d been living in Jerusalem at the time, he couldn’t have been an eyewitness to every event of those days. If he’d seen the ‘many holy people’ who’d risen himself, you might think he’d describe that in more detail.
He based what he wrote on ‘Mark’ (the earliest gospel, most scholars agree); the Q Document, which is not, as Chris Morris once suggested, the book where Christ was issued his Walther PPK and gadgets, but a now lost book of Jesus’ sayings that ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ seem to have read but ‘Mark’ apparently hadn’t; and some material unique to Matthew, which he’d possibly acquired by collecting oral accounts or referring to now-lost letters, lists or similar documents.

Where did the author learn about the ‘many holy people’? We don’t know. There are – as far as I’ve been able to find out – no other contemporary accounts, either from Christian or non-Christian sources, canonical or non-canonical, that even hint at it. It does seem odd that something so spectacular didn’t rate a mention anywhere. This may or may not mean something. The Romans loved stories about weird happenings, what we’d call Fortean events now. But not everything was widely reported and the surviving written record is fragmentary. It’s entirely possible (and completely impossible to prove) that it was the talk of the town for a hundred years, or survived for a long time as an urban myth.

There’s an obvious sceptical explanation: it didn’t happen. And we can qualify this further by saying Matthew clearly had a pragmatic reason for adding it – his is the Gospel most concerned with reconciling the life of Jesus to the Old Testament and Jewish tradition generally. The early church faced scepticism from Jews who didn’t think Jesus fit the description of the Messiah from prophecy. (Ezekiel 28:24, for example, says that ‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbours who are painful briers and sharp thorns’, and a pedant might feel Jesus missed his performance target on that). Matthew does include information that doesn’t appear in the other Gospels but which aligns Jesus with prophecy. There are cynical and non-cynical explanations for why he would do that, but the simplest explanation either way is ‘in order to fit prophecy, the author of Matthew added these couple of lines’. Off his own bat? Possibly, but you’d imagine and hope someone would say ‘er … not heard that before, where did you get this bit from?’. And while there are parts of the New Testament that scholars agree have been, for want of a better word, retconned so that the account of Jesus’ life and actions fits the expectation for a Messiah, it’s not clear which prophecy this ‘many holy people’ rising would be fulfilling.

But the cynical explanation fits the facts as we know them: the author of Matthew (who isn’t the apostle Matthew) essentially made it up, because it helped his case.

It should be noted that there are places in Matthew where he does seem to offer some awkward moments, that his account isn’t some neat whitewash, and that he seems to be engaged in an exercise of writing down what people already believe, rather than making stuff up.

I’ve found precisely one reference to it between Matthew and the present day. [Edited to clarify: by which I mean a reference that’s attempted to elaborate on the risen holy people walking into Jerusalem as historical event and fill in details. Thanks to Kate Orman (see comments), this article demonstrates that many Christian scholars have accepted it and referred to it. The main point of discussion appears to be the story logic of exactly when they were resurrected. Many elide it with some form of the Harrowing of Hell. There is some discussion about what happened to the risen saints – the consensus seems to be that they ascended with Jesus. Again, this begs a question – that would mean that a group of resurrected holy people spent forty days in Jerusalem. Where were they? Apparently they were not doing anything at all worth mentioning. You’d think if they were with Jesus, then they’d feature in some accounts of what Jesus did. When Jesus seeks to reassure Doubting Thomas, for example, he shows him his wounds. Presumably if he had a cohort of resurrected Jewish prophets and patriarchs with him, Jesus would have gone on to say ‘and there’s also these guys’.  Geisler cites Ignatius, writing in the very early second century. Ignatius is a key early figure in Christian history, and must have been a contemporary of ‘Matthew’. It’s interesting, I think, that Ignatius cites ‘Scripture’ to support the account of the holy people rising, given that the only scripture we know that mentions it is Matthew. Presumably appearing in scripture would have made the claim more plausible than if Ignatius said he knew a friend of a friend who’d seen it with his own eyes. Sticking to the evidence we know about, all we can infer from Ignatius is that he read Matthew and accepted it, ‘it’ explicitly including the story of the risen holy people.]

The only source to elaborate on the story as historical event  is The Mystical City of God. Not Augustine’s book, but a book a mid-seventeenth century nun, Mary of Jesus of Agreda, said was dictated to her by the Virgin Mary. This is from Book 6, Chapter 11:
‘In all this glory and heavenly adornment the Saviour now arose from the grave; and in the presence of the saints and Patriarchs He promised universal resurrection in their own flesh and body to all men, and that they moreover, as an effect of his own Resurrection, should be similarly glorified. As an earnest and as a pledge of the universal resurrection, the Lord commanded the souls of many saints there present to reunite with their bodies and rise up to immortal life. Immediately this divine command was executed, and their bodies arose, as is mentioned by saint Matthew, in anticipation of this mystery (Matthew 27, 52). Among them were saint Anne, saint Joseph and saint Joachim, and others of the ancient Fathers and Patriarchs, who had distinguished themselves in the faith and hope of the Incarnation, and had desired and prayed for it with greater earnestness to the Lord. As a reward for their zeal, the resurrection and glory of their bodies was now anticipated.’
This puts a little flesh on the bones, as it were. St Joseph is Mary’s husband, Anne and Joachim are Mary’s parents (their names are nyotas, in this case from the Gospel of James, a book not accepted as canon from the generation after Matthew). It’s a little strange that none of the other ‘holy people’ are named – they would, presumably, have to have been ones entombed just outside Jerusalem. Again, there’s no secular source for where Mary of Jesus of Agreda got this information. Is it a passed down oral tradition? If so, then it’s not left another mark, and it is not part of official Catholic teaching.

‘Immortal life’ here would seem to mean that the risen saints didn’t return to their tombs, that their resurrections weren’t temporary. It’s presumably, though, not meant to imply they’re still wandering the Earth. If they’d ascended bodily to Heaven, as some Christian traditions teach Mary did, that would be worth mentioning. This was the conclusion of the fifth century St Remigius, who said ‘We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord’s resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him’.

Bede thought Joseph was buried in the Valley of Josaphat, eleven miles from Jerusalem. There are various other traditions, and Bulgaria’s National History Museum has relics including body parts. The relics of St Anne have been venerated since the eighth century, and there was a church built over Anne and Joachim’s tombs in the fourth century which survived until the ninth. That would seem to contradict the account in The Mystical City of God, and it also suggests that there’s no prevailing tradition to suggest Joseph or Mary’s parents were resurrected.

Whether you think it happened as an historical event or not, it’s still odd, isn’t it? Why isn’t the story of ‘many holy people’ more prominent in Christian teaching? Why isn’t this a big deal? Have the bishops and theologians really just glossed over it in the hope no one ever invents Christopher Hitchens or blogging? If we take the post-theist approach, that religious narratives are stories, then I think the answer becomes obvious. Surely Hitchens is right that, in story terms, all these other resurrections cheapen the main one that day, or at the very least shift the focus away from the protagonist (note that The Mystical City of God does quite a neat job of fixing this problem by having Jesus actively initiating and guiding the process). I think another has to be that … well, it’s only a couple of lines in one of the Gospels, and they’re oddly offhand. The author of Matthew didn’t seem to think it worth dwelling on, it was 1600 years before anyone else seems to have mentioned it. Logically, we might feel it ought to be important, but that’s not the story being told.

Counting to Nothing

The exact definition of atheism is one that’s hotly-debated in philosophical circles. The everyday meaning, roughly: ‘an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God’ is simple enough, as is the slight clarification ‘or any of the gods’, and its corollary, ‘y’know or all of that stuff, like devils, angels, prayers, the afterlife, miracles and so on’.

But traditionally there’s been a problem which boils down to whether atheism is holding the belief ‘there is no God’ or not holding the belief ‘there is a God’. I think it’s easy to see there’s (a) little practical difference, and (b) quite an important one philosophically. It essentially comes down to who has the onus to justify their position, and the upshot is an endless cycle of ‘you need to prove God exists / no you need to prove God doesn’t exist’.

Part of the point of being an atheist is that you really don’t think this sort of thing is worth bothering with. But, if pressed, most atheists would say they hold the belief ‘there is no God’, rather than not holding the position there is one. Atheists who do talk about their atheism are fond of saying things like ‘Off is not a TV channel’ or ‘abstinence is not a sex position’, ‘people who don’t live in Manchester aren’t Amancunian’. It seems faintly ridiculous to suggest that someone who is not interested in Cricket ‘has not-interest’ in things like spin bowling, the West Indies, Wisden or the state of the pitch at Lords.

If atheism is framed as ‘not holding the belief “there is a God”’, that assumes the default state of the human race to be ‘religious’. It’s no coincidence that theists often accuse atheism of being a ‘religious belief’, or that ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist’, or say things like ‘the vast majority of the human race is religious’. If someone told a vegetarian that they were carnivorous, because No Meat is a type of animal, you would probably think that someone should be sectioned, but ‘atheism is a religious belief’ is a respectable argument in theistic circles.

It would be handy strategically for theist philosophers if atheism was ‘holding the position there is no God’, as it essentially makes the argument a Home game for them, not an Away one. Atheists, by that definition, have opted out of theism and they’re the ones who have to justify their position, and they’d have to do it starting out by explaining their notions of God and why they’re rejecting them.

The dark secret of theology is that it can’t do the job most people think it’s there for.

I’d always assumed a lot of theology was about looking for signs of God, like God was a Higgs-Boson or something like that. Modern theology actually has very little new to say or do concerning ‘proof God exists’ (or disproving it). And the reason is simple: within moments of starting a study of theology, it’s made clear it’s impossible to use logic to prove God exists.

We can demonstrate this in one sentence. Ahem. ‘There is, by definition, no way for us to distinguish God from a being capable of deceiving all other beings into believing it is God’. Whatever the miracle, demonstration of power, revelation, artefact or argument presented, however kind or wise ‘He’ was, we could never be sure that ‘God’ was the real deal. He wouldn’t need to be God, he would just need to be able to make us think he’s God. Even if ‘real God’ showed up with a host of angels, bellowed ‘IMPOSTER!’ and sent Jesus in to kick the false God in His nuts, then … well, what’s to say this new arrival isn’t just another imposter?

‘Fooling every human being’, presumably, would require a lot less power than ‘being God’. We’re easily fooled, after all. The overwhelming probability is that any given ‘God’ is not God. And, happily, that’s exactly what religions teach – the central proposition of most religions is that while every other one is the work of smooth conmen in it for the bling and pussy, this religion is the one, real deal. Not every human being holds the idea ‘gods exist’, but every single person holds the position ‘not all claims made about gods are true’. Indeed, if you’re looking for a ‘universal human religious belief’, then the only ones we know for certain have existed in every society are ‘sorry, not buying it’ and ‘I’m being dragged along under protest’. As the motto goes, every Christian’s an atheist when it comes to all the other gods. The early Christians in Rome were prosecuted for atheism, as they did not honour the city gods.

There have been lots of attempts at proofs, some better than others, but even the scholar responsible for the most extensive and influential attempts to come up with something compelling, Thomas Aquinas, concedes ‘to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It’s not that we haven’t found compelling logical proof God exists, Aquinas says, there simply can’t be a compelling logical proof independent of faith. And, of course, if you have faith, you’ve already answered the question you’re meant to be exploring. It explains why Aquinas’ proofs are seen as eloquent and persuasive to existing believers, but weirdly lacking to everyone else.

Theology hasn’t been able to budge from this position. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most renowned living theologians, concedes this when he says,

“I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”

So, with no evidence even possible for gods, atheism’s right?

Theist philosophers have this one covered. Plantinga adds:

“But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars … Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.”

Plantinga’s a renowned Christian theologian, he’s dedicated his life to this, he’s emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, not some internet commentator schmuck, so I’ll take him at face value, and assume that it’s a good analogy for atheism.

One problem for Plantinga is that we can answer his question about stars.

At one level, he’s right. We encounter practical problems, to put it mildly, if we try to work out if there are an odd or even number of stars. The concept of ‘the number of stars’ is problematic. It assumes that it’s clear what a star is (that there are no judgement calls to be made about whether, say, a neutron star is a star, or whether a star that’s forming counts). Critically, the speed of light limits the available information. Even if we had some pressing need to count all the stars to work out if there were an odd or even number of them, we simply can’t acquire the evidence. This limit to our information also throws up the familiar problem that what we look at in the night’s sky is not the state of the universe ‘now’. It’s scientifically illiterate to imagine we could just take a snapshot of the universe and count the dots.

However … we can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of stars, and the number of stars is a whole number. We can agree that any whole number is either odd or even. We can agree that the number of stars is, therefore, either an odd or even number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question.

We have, as far as I’m aware, no particular reason to think that there’s some law of physics governing whether there was an odd or even number of stars. There might be. Imagine the universe was and remained perfectly symmetrical. There would be, basically, two identical sets of stars. If one popped into existence on one side, another would on the opposite side. There would, by definition, be an even number of stars. As things stand, though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that is at work.

The universe is vast. Stars form and they die. So we can say with confidence that given the vastness of the universe, even in the time it takes to ask the question ‘are there an odd or even number of stars?’, the answer will alternate from ‘odd’ to ‘even’ many times – millions or billions of times, in fact. Plantinga doesn’t actually say ‘in the universe’, but even if he’s just talking about how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy, the answer will change by the time you get to the end of the question.

Let’s say what Plantinga meant to ask is ‘are there an odd or even number of observable stars in the night’s sky?’. The answer is, to Magnitude 10, with 99.9% confidence, there are 626,883 stars, so ‘odd’.

So far, so pedantic. Many theologians would just sneer at the over-literalistic answers there and say it was evidence of ‘scientism’ an arrogant belief that science can reach all the answers merely by counting and measuring. I hope so, as this would be really handy for my argument.

As a thought experiment, imagine we lived in a universe where everyone was utterly confident there were only five stars. Now try answering Plantinga’s question. ‘Do we have good evidence for the proposition that there are an odd number or even number of stars?’

Easy.

Plantinga’s argument boils down to ‘sometimes it’s difficult to count stuff’, that’s all. And if, as he says, it’s an analogy for the existence of God, all he’s saying is that it’s difficult to count the number of gods.

So, let’s use the same reasoning.

We can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of gods, and the number of gods is a whole number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question ‘how many gods are there?’, the issue is simply that they’re difficult to count.

Except, by Plantinga’s own logic, it’s not difficult at all. Even if we confine ourselves to the ludicrously narrow definition of science preferred by some philosophers as ‘the study of things that can be measured’, counting falls squarely in the remit of ‘science’. As noted, logically, we can never count above zero proven gods. The empirical measurement of proven gods concurs.

Inspired by Plantinga, we could ask whether the evidence points to there being an odd or even number of gods. Is doing so really more glib than asking any other question about gods? In fact, it’s more useful than most – if there are an even number of gods, that would at least rule out monotheism and the Trinity, which wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. As it happens, zero is an even number [two multiplied by zero = zero].

So, here’s the clever bit. Plantinga – if his analogy is a good one – believes this to be a counting game, he believes that there are a fixed number of gods, and he understands that there’s no way to demonstrate by counting that there are more than zero gods. Both Plantinga and the atheist have taken measurement and logic as far as it is possible to take them, and agree they’ve reached ‘zero’ using that method, the result that atheist expected. So it’s clearly only Plantinga who needs to appeal further than this. The atheist can stop there. An atheist may also have faith, but certainly doesn’t need it. The atheist may be wrong, of course, but it’s plainly Plantinga, and not the atheist, who needs to justify his position.

Is Les Miserables Science Fiction (No, Obviously not, but … )

What genre is the musical Les Miserables? It’s always reminded me of something, but it was only when I watched the DVD that I realised what that was.

The novel it’s based on is a great example of social realism, a heavy tome written by an old man who, thirty years before, had himself dodged the bullets during the June Rebellion. Victor Hugo painstakingly reconstructs the period, expands on the context. When our hero makes his escape through the Paris sewers towards the end, Hugo is sure to include an eleventy-billion page discussion of the layout and construction of those sewers. Les Miserables is a great novel, but the title does make it sound a lot more fun than it actually is.

You could not mistake the musical for social realism, of course. You could easily mistake it, in fact, for bombastic nonsense. Built into the fabric of the musical version, there’s a mismatch of the medium and the source (whether you count the source as the book or the events that inspired it), and also between where the play’s set and how it’s staged. This leads to some issues when we try to categorise it, or find something else even a bit like it.

Les Miserables is not like other musicals. You can, of course, sing catchy songs about misery, personal heartbreak and social injustice. You can even do it in musical theatre. West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that’s about teen gangs murdering each other, Chicago’s about a women’s prison full of murderers, Cabaret’s about the rise of the Nazis. I’m no expert, but I’m always surprised how darn dark the genre is.

Even something as apparently cheerful as The Music Man has a story where, in its own terms, the bad guy wins. A travelling salesman persuades a small Midwestern town to put on a wholesome marching band show. But Harold Hill, the salesman, is not wholesome. He scares the townsfolk into giving him their money to solve a problem he’s created. He gets the girl, but only after mistaking her for a fallen woman, like all the others he’s bagged over the years. (‘I smile / I grin / When the gal with a touch of sin walks in / I hope / and I pray / for a Hester to win just one more A’). It’s an astonishingly sly, cynical narrative in which a wolf devours an entire flock of lambs and gets the lambs to pay for the meal. I love The Music Man.

What musicals tend to do is create a bubble, and then follow a small group of people. This is surely, function dictating form – you want to keep the cast and number of sets as small and stagey as possible. Musicals like Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera take that so literally that they’re are set within theatres. The historical setting is backdrop, or catalyst, and the end result tends to be oddly unanchored in time. They’re not typically ‘timeless’, they’re set in an imagined period in the hinterland between when they’re set and when they’re first staged. The Music Man could almost take place at any point in the first half of the twentieth century. Cabaret exists at some checkpoint on the border between the mid 1930s and the early 1970s.

Les Miserables is different: it encourages us to extrapolate and expand out. It’s not merely spectacular, its unique selling point is that it crowds the stage, that it’s absurdly lavish and opulent, that the huge and overpopulated set also moves and transforms. The movie, of course, only scales this up, so that it’s Hollywood movie stars doing it all, with great panning shots and crowd scenes.

Thematically, Les Miserables is trying to make universal archetypes out of really rather specific characters. It takes one of  many popular uprisings Paris saw in the nineteenth century, a sequence of events that lasted a few days and which barely registers in the history books. Jean Valjean is a man with superhuman strength who spent nineteen years in prison for crimes he did commit, has a religious conversion and opens a Rosary bead factory. That is not a generally applicable stock musical type like ‘small town boy’, ‘lovesick teen’ or even ‘wannabe singer’. The story asks us to identify with, say, Fantine – Crib sheet: Anne Hathaway’s character – and her specific circumstances, and at first that’s relatively easy: she’s a single mother who earns slightly less than she needs to support her young daughter. But she zooms from there to the worst case scenario within a few verses, and has prostituted herself (in a coffin!), sold her teeth and died of TB before the end of the first act.

The structure of Les Miserables goes like this: someone sings about how awful their life is, no, really it’s even worse than it was until recently, seriously it’s no fun at all, wish it was different. At this point, the character might actually drop dead – all but four of them do before the end. Then reset, change cast member and repeat. It’s basically round after round of ‘can anything get any worse … oh, yes, turns out it can’, set in a world so wretched it makes a Dickensian workhouse look like a Culture Orbital.

Yet, somehow, they ramp up the aggrometer to the point where it kind of overwhelms your emotional barricades and you find yourself identifying with Fantine because, hell yeah, you spent an hour on the phone to Comcast this morning, so you know hardship, too. No bread? It’s true, they were out of poppy seed bagels this morning at Panera. Yeah, I’m drowning in the churning waters of modern life, too, because I really need to clear out my email inbox. The system’s broken, man, we should be out on the streets. Les Miserables is really rather stirring, does make you switch off the old thinky whatchermacallit and just sweep you away.

If you’re in the right frame of mind.

If you think about it for even a second, it’s ridiculous. When you watch it critically, there is much meat for a cynical person. The plotting relies entirely on coincidence. Javert’s ‘pursuit’ of Valjean involves bumping into him at random every eight years. The whole thing is a crass product of one of the most indulgent artistic sectors of the loadsamoney decade. The makers could achieve broadly the same effect, only with slightly more nuance, if they just tear gassed their audience.

Watching it, it’s not hard to work out when Les Miserables was written, and it’s a perfect test subject for a critique of the eighties mindset. American Psycho, a novel exploring that very topic, is soaked in references to the musical. At one point, a character literally stomps on a homeless man to get past him to buy a $200 limited edition T-shirt bearing the image of the homeless. American Psycho draws attention to the fact that the audience is complicit in the disconnect between what the story’s about and the form it takes. This is never more obvious than when you remember how much it’s cost you to watch the show. Every song is about life being about scraping together the coins you need to eat that day. The price of one ticket would feed a family for several weeks. And normally, y’know, that’s not a problem because you go to the West End or Broadway to watch escapist fantasy nonsense about things with no connection to the real world, like talking cats, Spider-Man or Mormons. Les Miserables is actually about poverty, that’s the theme.

It’s tempting to see this as the height of hypocrisy. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar acceptance speech saw a woman who is paid millions to be in movies, wearing a Prada dress declaring that poverty is bad.

While.

Clutching.

A.

Gold.

Statue.

But the thing is … that’s basically what the musical is like, from start to finish. It is an inescapable fact. Anne Hathaway, by all accounts one of the smarter actresses out there, clearly gets it.

But ‘it’ here is a huge disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we’re told.

Watching Les Miserables, the thing that strikes me is that it shares a characteristic of science fiction and fantasy: while all art demands a suspension of disbelief and acceptance of conventions and necessities of the form, SF tends to raise the price of buying in. The relationship between ‘science fiction’ and ‘reality’ is a surprisingly complex boundary. Most science fiction seeks to make a point about the real world by, essentially, a process of heightening and exaggerating. Frank Herbert was inspired to write Dune, a story set tens of thousands of years in the future on a giant desert planet that’s one of innumerable worlds of a theocratic galactic empire, because he was concerned about beach erosion. It’s not the only science fiction that, at heart, goes ‘yeah, imagine a planet where it’s all like that, all the time’.

Despite the presence of Wolverine, Catwoman and Jor-El, not even the movie version of Les Miserables is science fiction. But it’s clearly not attempting something literal, either. It’s not made by idiots, they understand exactly what they’re doing. And, at some level, yes, it gets relatively rich people to empathise with the poor, and blimey, there isn’t exactly much art even trying to do that, let alone that’s packed them in for thirty years.

Les Miserables has always reminded me of something, though, and it was only when I was watching the DVD that I worked out what:

Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C

Les Miserables is in the same genre as TV commercials for pet adoption charities.

It’s actively odd, in fact, that there aren’t songs in Les Miserables called Am I Going to Die Today? or We’ve Been Caged Together Too Long. You can hear the chorus chanting For Hundreds of Others Rescue Came Too Late or She Could Be Saved For A Few Coins A Day.

Stirring music, naked emotion, and above all they’re calculated and precisely formulated to get you to throw your money at them.

(As a final note, I think it’s only right that I note that I’m not making light of animal cruelty or equating Hugh Jackman playing a man with a sad face with the thousands of real dying kittens out there. I have a rescue dog, adopted from the Philadelphia SPCA, and if you feel moved to, please donate a little to them, here.)

Russian Sherlock Holmes

Last year, a Russian version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was released on DVD in the UK. It’s part of a series that’s probably – there’s stiff competition – my favourite screen version of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes had quite a following in the Soviet Union. As outlined in the book Sherlock Holmes in Russia, a collection of all the Conan Doyle stories appeared in Russian before there was an edition in English and there was a long tradition, as in the West, of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually the sixth and seventh episodes of an eleven-part series that ran from 1979 to 1986. There is an excellent summary of history of the show here, which fills in a lot of the background and impact it had. The British Government honoured the series’ Holmes, Vasily Livanov with an MBE. He met Mrs Thatcher in Moscow. A statue of him as Holmes (with his Watson, played by Vitaly Solomin) stands close to the British Embassy.

The history and background of the show, then, is fascinating and there are far more qualified people than me to tell you about it, and I’d encourage you to have a good Google around.

I’ll tell you why I love the series. Some of the appeal is definitely the Russianness. The posh men, like Henry Baskerville, are invariably portrayed as decadent capitalist pigs who dress like Mr Monopoly. Victorian London was recreated in Riga, and so occasionally doesn’t look like London at all:

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There are places where it looks like a nineteenth century Russian novel, rather than something set in the UK.

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There’s also some real quirkiness. Henchmen look like wolfmen. There are some extremely odd moments. Here’s Watson getting kicked in the nadgers, and if this photo doesn’t make you want to hunt down the show, then I’m not sure what will:

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But for all these slightly jarring exotic moments, this is a show that understands Sherlock Holmes, knows the original stories. This is a show that looks like Sherlock Holmes. Here’s Holmes and Watson.

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Here’s Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls:

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It’s not afraid to play around with the source material. It’s a series. The eleven episodes follow on from each other, and Holmes and Watson are noticeably older and changed by the last episode. The first episode is a pretty faithful adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, but one which plays up Watson’s suspicion of Holmes, who he comes to believe is some kind of master criminal. It’s a pilot episode for a TV show, one that takes pains to establish Watson first, then Holmes, with plenty of Mrs Hudson (who, in this version is a sweet old lady who’s utterly, and playfully complicit in Holmes’ activities, in places becoming almost Alfred to Holmes’ Batman).

The central performances, needless to say, are what makes the show a success. Livanov’s Holmes is instinctively secretive. It’s a Holmes who is very clearly a little mad, but can bottle everything up. We see a lot of things from Watson’s perspective, and Solomin’s portrayal is a very nice balance of a man who’s a little stiff, but extremely smart and utterly reliable.

Most modern versions of Watson are careful to show that he’s not a bumbling idiot, but the ‘strong’ Watsons tend to lapse into being an everyman who’s there just to deliver exasperated variations on ‘oh, what are you up to now?’. There’s always that element of subservience. It’s become typical to have Holmes and Watson as, basically, a relationship where Watson is the least butch soldier you’ve seen in your life and he’s happy to submit to a bullying dom uber-geek. There’s an essay to be had on gender politics, there, and I think instead of the low hanging fruit of queer readings of the relationship, it might be worth looking at how the Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jnr versions of Holmes appeal to women viewers, how Holmes is portrayed – in very interesting ways – as ‘sexy’. Watson has remained a viewpoint character, is still not sexually attracted to Holmes … but he has been feminised. Elementary just comes right out and makes their Watson a woman, but, y’know, the Robert Downey Jnr version kinda beat them to it by casting Jude Law. Watson is no longer an Everyman, he’s an Everywoman. Discuss.

Anyway, back in the Soviet Union, this Watson – uniquely, I think – isn’t Boswell to Holmes’ Johnson, he’s not looking up at him in the same way at all. It’s a relationship that’s an interesting portrayal of masculine friendship. Holmes actually seems to like Watson, not just see him as a way of explaining how clever he is.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect, though, and one that’s lost a little if you only get The Hound of the Baskervilles, is that a vast number of Conan Doyle stories have been woven into an interesting running story. The eleven episodes are a condensed version of the canon, but they’re happy to chop things up, move them around.

The most interesting example comes right at the end. The last episodes are set noticeably later than the others – suddenly there are cars and telephones. Again, this is perfectly consistent with the original stories. We tend, I think, to see Holmes as being ‘Victorian’ in the sense of Dickens, of him existing in that same chocolate box time of carol singers, gaslight and workhouses. Conan Doyle died fifty years, one month, one day after Dickens. Two generations separate them.

In the last episodes of the Russian series, Holmes comes out of retirement and the series ends with a mash up of pretty much every Conan Doyle story where foreign agents are stealing secret plans (The Second Stain, Bruce Partington, The Engineer’s Thumb and His Last Bow). In the original adventures, Doyle was usually very coy about which foreign power or powers were up to no good, it was a generic way of raising the stakes. Here, though, the enemy is specifically Germany, and it’s a co-ordinated effort. Joltingly, the story is not set in some High Victorian fantasyland, it’s 1914. The Greatest Detective has reached the  eve of the Great War.

It is, of course, the First World War that provided the catalyst for the Russian Revolution, and German aggression that would prove to be the Soviet Union’s greatest struggle. The series ends with footage of fleets of warships heading out to sea. It’s an extremely effective finale, one that shows Holmes at his most powerful, but also helpless in the face of an impending apocalypse. Holmes – like his audience – knows world war can’t be avoided, and that when it comes, it will consign his world of drawing room mysteries to history, render him quaint, quirky, something that sounds like it came from a storybook.

Track down the whole series, if you can. It’s available as a boxset in, I think, at least semi-legitimate form. It’s a beautifully-made, weird, faithful and fascinating version of Sherlock Holmes.

The Gray Tradition: Monomyth

I think it’s probably useful if I try to list the characteristics the books in what I’m calling the ‘Gray Tradition’ have. This is a working list, not a complete one. Not every book does all of these, and I’m not at the stage yet where I can say which of these are necessary or sufficient. As I say, I’m at the stage where I’m seeing what I think are patterns, where I’m starting to make links. I don’t have conclusions at this stage.

Note that the treatments of the subjects can be extremely varied. Also: some of these concepts are in ancient folklore and as old as storytelling, while, looking at them, some are clearly rooted far more locally: in the counterculture of the sixties. I would like to look at how these things originated, how they were popularised.

As you can probably tell from those caveats, I’m thinking aloud here, rather than carving into stone and I would welcome any help. I don’t give any examples here, I’m going to come up with a (similarly rough) list of books that I think fit soon. For some sense of who I’m talking about, I named some authors in the first post in this series.

So, the books of the Gray Tradition tend to:

Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.

Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.

Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.

Be written by men.

Have a protagonist who starts in the mundane world, even a hyper-mundane one. He either lives in some grimy, dark city or occasionally a faceless suburb. Their life is one of routine, although it’s often monotonous rather than actively dangerous.

The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.

People are conformist. Even a counterculture, if one is presented, is bound up in rules and hierarchies.

History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.

The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.

Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.

Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.

The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.

Characters play strategy games, often chess, and see the game board as a microcosm of real life.

They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.

There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).

There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.

The protagonist undergoes some profound and permanent physical transformation, often disfiguring or at least which leaves them unable to pass as a normal human. They often choose to do this, even though they don’t (can’t) understand all the implications until the transformation is complete.

The protagonist often develops some psychic ability: precognition, telepathy or some form of mind control. The implication is that the protagonist is the first homo superior – the next stage of human development. The characters with these gifts tend to have weird eyes – a straightforward concrete way of indicating ‘they see differently’.

The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.

Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.

Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.

The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.

If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.

The books often have utopian themes. We see a better society, or even a plan to enact utopia in our world.

They are violent. There are disasters and wars that kill millions, the protagonist often fights hand-to-hand battles. He, or at least his allies, often have no compunction about killing. (One of the things the hero must do, in fact, is lose his compunction to kill). Building a better world inevitably means destroying the old one – many will die.

Again, I don’t know if it’s significant or why it would be, but the weapon of choice is often a blade.

They tend not to explore identity issues like race or gender. At first glance, this is a very white, male genre. This is changing, I think.

Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.