Fainter all the time, like ghosts

Apropos of nothing, as London and the 2012 Olympics hurtle towards each other like two unstoppable meteorites of clunking great chaotic rock, I feel I should share these two excerpts from George Orwell’s little-known novel, Coming Up for Air:

Because in this life we lead – I don’t mean human life in general, I mean life in this particular age and this particular country – we don’t do the things we want to do. It isn’t because we’re always working.

It’s because there’s some devil in us that drives us to and fro on everlasting idiocies. There’s time for everything except the things worth doing.

And:

It struck me that perhaps a lot of the people you see walking about are dead. We say that a man’s dead when his heart stops and not before. It seems a bit arbitrary.

Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste – but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.

Food for thought. Enjoy the games.

Orwell and the terra incognita

Came across this passage in George Orwell’s little-commented-on novel The Clergyman’s Daughter:

The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. The world outside is a terra incognita, inhabited, no doubt, by dragons and anthropophagi, but not particularly interesting.

The book was written in 1934, but even some eighty years later in the age of the Internet, it still commands a certain resonance. Geographical boundaries have been smashed; in theory, today, there is no reason why the country folk Orwell speaks of should be so disconnected from the grander proceedings of the world around them. For many all over the world, however, global events may as well be taking place in some distant and mostly-irrelevant other world. Philosophically, with the rise of individualism and our tendency to self-conceitedly focus on the minutiae of our own personal lives from day-to-day, one could certainly argue that humans are more atomised creatures than they have ever been.

Perhaps technology has allowed us to be “closer to the action” than in generations past – but somehow, through an unfortunate combination of enlightened self-interest and a “one in six billion” sense of powerlessness, we care less? I am sure the author would have appreciated the irony.

The death of a purveyor of magic

It is a shame that science fiction authors are so viciously discriminated against in literary circles, even in this modern era of fast-paced technological change. In the world of serious literature, they remain hermits. Only the most mainstream of such authors, such as your Michael Crichtons (using the descriptor “sci-fi author” loosely), seem to really acquire the widespread recognition and readership that they deserve for their works. I sincerely hope that this tradition is broken in remembering the life and times of Arthur C. Clarke, who has sadly passed away in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. He was a visionary, a genius, but perhaps first and foremost, a very good writer indeed.

Apart from creating fabulously imaginative, enticing worlds, probably the most important thing that science fiction authors offer that other fiction authors don’t is a glimpse of the future of humanity. Sometimes, as was the case with Arthur Clarke and geostationary satellite communications, science fiction authors even manage to conceive of an idea that advances humanity before dedicated scientists do.

There was a period during my time in high school that I devoured much of his work – even today I look back fondly on works like The Sentinel, upon which the 2001: Space Odyssey novel and film was originally based. His so-labelled “three laws” are worth re-iterating here, and exemplify the man’s intelligence and powers of observation:

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The first sums up much of humanity’s experience with theoretical physics over the course of the last couple of centuries. The third and perhaps most memorable dictum probably underpins a large proportion of all science fiction in the latter half of the last century, and is particularly revered by sceptics. It also (ironically) represents the seed feeding the pop scientific theory that is there are (or indeed were) gods, they not inconceivably could have been aliens with technology superceding anything that humans were comfortable with or understood at the time.

As is almost always the case with writers, one of the best things we can all do to honour the life of Arthur C. Clarke is to pick up one or two of his works and read, or re-read them. If science fiction ever does manage to drag itself out of the hermitage and into the mainstream of literature in the eyes of critics, Arthur C. Clarke will be remembered as the man whose captivating works notched up some early, decisive victories for his genre. It is a sad day, but we can all be consoled by the knowledge that groundbreaking writers like him live on in their works forever.