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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

 Serious distancing!

Just Finished Reading: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris (FP: 2019) [414pp]

It is the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468 and young priest Christopher Fairfax is both late and lost. He has been tasked to officiate at a fellow priest’s funeral and wonders if the tasking from his bishop is a test of future progress in Mother Church. Arriving at his destination late at night he is forced to go through his deceased colleagues effects to learn something about him to make any eulogy more personal. It is then that he stumbles on Heresy. Not only has the dead man been collecting banned books but he has clearly been accumulating forbidden objects long since made anathema by the Church to prevent its flock wandering away from the path into older evil ways. Most shocking of all is an object, beautiful in its own inexplicable way, with the very mark of the beast clearly visible on its back – an apple with a single bite removed, the very manifestation of Eve’s act of defiance to God in the Garden of Eden. But where did these objects come from and why did a priest keep them? Forced to stay in the village longer than expected Fairfax becomes entangled in a local search for buried treasure, the allure of a local once rich widow and the machinations of the local business magnate. As revelation after revelation about the long dead past come to light can Fairfax keep his already shaky faith in tact or will his superiors keep such revelations buried for good?


I was already aware that this wasn’t a straight forward ‘Medieval’ tale before I started it. This became fairly obvious when a parakeet flew over the main character within a few pages of the start. Funnily a critic in (I think) the NYT proposed that any previous civilization collapse must have been from Climate change based on this slim evidence. What she didn’t realise was that parakeets are common in the South East of England today… Anyway, the ‘reveal’ that this was in fact the future rather than the past – complete with iPhone! - comes on page 28-29 so I’m not really giving much away here. Once that is accepted the story moves on at a good pace and is intriguingly full of speculation about what happened (about 800 years previously) to cause the collapse of ‘Elizabethan’ civilisation. One of the characters – an antiquarian – we meet later speculates on several theories but seems to zero in on one of them, a sudden and catastrophic collapse of all advanced technology. There is a hint (I think) about what is called a Carrington Event which is essentially a HUGE EMP surge from the Sun which, theoretically at least, could take out satellites and lots of stuff on the surface too. 

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBxjwzKwVl0] - For more details.

If a big one happened it could be pretty nasty – at least in the short term. What made it worse, according to the narrative, was humanities total obsession with and dependence on mobile electronic devices. No iPhone, no Civilisation. QED. So, yet again, within days of the ‘Event’ people left the cities, fled into the countryside and died in droves. It looked like an 80-90% die-off. Following around 100 years of Anarchy (and not in a good way) civilisation got its act back together by coalescing around churches which allowed the Church to take back its place as top dog and subsequently stay in control of just about everything. Sounds reasonable, right?

OK. First I have to say that I have a lot of time for this author. Not only had he produced some good work that I have enjoyed greatly he honestly writes really well – including throughout this equally well written novel. But I think this is another example of a non-SF writer trying his hand at SF (soft SF though it is). I can see what probably prompted it – one encounter too many with an iPhone zombie, someone lost using GPS or yet another Internet Troll. I get it. People like that exist and would be at a loss if the ‘Net went down for more than 10 minutes. BUT even if ALL advanced technology suddenly went offline it would NOT result in the collapse of human civilisation. Even if a super-Carrington Event took out all of our satellites and all of our phone networks and much else besides we could still get back up and running, at least making do at a minimal level, within a few weeks at worst (we’d fix the satellites later. We can do without them for now). Sure by then a lot of people would’ve probably died, maybe into the hundreds of thousands, but a minimal system for command and control would be back soon enough to prevent a TOTAL collapse. Within 6 months we’d have the backbone back online and the Internet would be back too. After that maybe we’d be back fully up and running within 12-18 months. The expertise is there and the will would be there. It’s just a matter of time, resources and knowhow.

So, the Church taking power again. The church in England (or indeed the Church of England) is presently holding onto its very existence by its fingernails. I’ve seen projections that at its present rate of decline it will cease to exist in less than 5 generations. Mainland Europe is in a similar situation with some countries practically religion free. So the idea that the Church could take and hold power, or that large swathes of the population would turn to Mother Church to explain what just happened or to organise a New Order is frankly farcical. The idea of the Church holding on to power for 800 years in any stable form is even more farcical. What really takes the biscuit (or cookie) is the idea that the Church can control or supress knowledge or technology for that (indeed any) length of time. First the author mentioned a King of England. If there is a secular as well as a church authority there will, inevitably, be conflict between them. My bet is on the secular side. Then there was mention of two wars – the recent war with France (rather inevitably!) and the war with the ‘Northern Caliphate’ which I found borderline racist to be honest. Now, in any kind of warfare – especially if it’s potentially existential – you’re going to be looking for any advantage in its prosecution. That usually means technological advantage. If France or the ‘Caliphate’ had a less controlling church or were willing (with God’s permission naturally) to use old tech then they’d have a distinct advantage and probably win – therefore the Churches grip on knowledge/technology would inevitably weaken over time and the secular powers would increase in power. So a long term domination by the Church in any kind of competitive power environment is, at least, unlikely if not impossible. Lastly there is the economic problem. Clearly in the book the technology, knowledge and economy is generally what we’d view as Medieval or at least pre-industrial. One of the characters, Captain Hancock, is an industrialist looking, as always, for any advantage over his rivals. He is quite willing to use old tech to do this even if it means deceiving the Church to do so. Again, over the long haul, economic competition between countries or regions with ANY difference in adherence to Church directives will ensure that old techniques, old knowledge and old ways will be used to maintain or increase wealth and power. Money talks even when it is against the teachings of the Church. So, Church power? Not a chance.

OK, rant almost over. By FAR the biggest problem I had with this otherwise pretty good book (despite everything I’ve said above) was the ending – that is the absolutely ABRUPT ending. A fair part of the book revolved around the discovery and literal unearthing or buried ‘treasure’ presumed to be a cache of ‘something’ designed by those aware that everything COULD fall apart to start the process of bringing it all back. The last part of the book sidles up to this cache and then….. STOPS. The only two reasons I can think of (apart from the idea that the author merely wanted his readers to ‘speculate’ on what was through the door) is that the author didn’t KNOW what was through the door – I did, it was a LIBRARY – or simply didn’t want to enter the room (into the library) because that would’ve started the rebuilding of a society I was getting the impression he wasn’t particularly impressed with. Needless to say I was DEEPLY unimpressed by the last page. So, despite this being a (generally) well written and (mostly) interesting work I honestly can’t recommend it unless you really want to see why the whole thing frustrated me SO much. Rant over, and I didn’t even get to criticising the pointless relationship bit!  

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

 I need this 'T' in my life!

"A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

James Madison.

 So ends 'Rebellion Month' here @ SaLT. Coming up next..... Winter is Coming!


Monday, November 30, 2020


Just Finished Reading: Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything) by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos (FP: 2017) [324pp]

I hadn’t read any pop-Philosophy for a while and as a Gamer this seemed to be an ideal way to get back into a sub-genre I’ve enjoyed in the past. The authors are both writers specialising in video games rather than philosophers with a gaming interest so the focus of the game is definitely from the gaming and gaming industry point of view. It was also less about the philosophy itself (which is what I was expecting it to be about given the title) and much more about the philosophical underpinnings used by various game developers in their games. Interesting but not a huge focus as far as I’m concerned. Although games can work well with a coherent underlying philosophy I never really gave it that much though as I hacked or shot my way through hordes of Orks or Zombies trying to kill me. Much like my interest in music – I like what I hear without knowing much or anything about the artist or group – my knowledge of individual developers or even gaming ‘houses/companies’ is minimal. I certainly recognise the names of companies [like Blizzard] that I’ve played games by before but I’ve never been one to seek out (or avoid) particular ‘brands’ unless they’re consistent stinkers or simply don’t produce the kinds of games I usually play (like sports games which I have zero interest in).

That’s actually just a long and somewhat involved explanation as to why this book really didn’t ‘do’ it for me. One thing was that the games they chose to illustrate various points I hadn’t, by and large played – BioShock, Ultima and Portal for example. Although it was passing interesting having their developers interviewed and explaining exactly what they were hoping to achieve it left me fairly cool about the whole thing. The philosophical discussions were generally reasonable although a few times I thought that the authors had either missed the point or misunderstood some of the underlying actual philosophy under the game version. It raised the odd eyebrow anyway! A few of the discussions – notably about the philosophy of Mind (which is of particular interest to me) were interesting but, overall, they didn’t really push the envelope much as far as I was concerned. Despite not being a bad book per se I couldn’t help but be disappointed in it for the simple reason that it wasn’t really what I was expecting or wanting going in to it. I had expected/hoped that it was going to be much like the previous pop-Philosophy books I’d read before. Unfortunately, from my own personal interest point of view, it wasn’t. A reasonable read – especially if you’re interested in particular games philosophy rather than the philosophy of games or Philosophy in general.