Book Review: Bernard Beckett’s “Genesis” – by Octavia

genesisTaking its cue from Plato’s Republic, and with more than a hint of George Orwell, Genesis outlines a world where society is split by genetic identity. I the future resulting from climate change, terrorism, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the onset of World War Three, New Zealand cuts itself off from the rest of the world. In the resulting closed society, a leader called Plato sets out the rules for the new community, rules that will prevent the chaos of the outside world from destroying NZ as it has destroyed the outside world – at least, that is what the reader is led to think. It’s never made quite plain as to the state of life outside NZ – initially, refugees try to enter NZ waters and are blown up by the army. (Anyone familiar with the state of the NZ military today knows that we are now solidly in the realm of science fiction.) After a while, there are less and less attempts. Does this mean that the need grows less, or that the refugees do? This is never made clear, and is a clever way of increasing the claustrophobic tone of the book.

In the early days of the Republic, gene testing divides the population into four groups: labourers, soldiers, technicians, and philosophers. As can be expected, however, the odd individual arises who doesn’t fit into their assigned class as well as he or she might.

One of the main characters, Adam Forde, is such an individual. Adam’s life is presented by a young student philosopher called Anaximander, who is preparing for entrance into the Academy: the highest echelon of academia, and the group with the responsibility of running the Republic – a Republic that has drastically changed since Adam’s day.

Genesis is structured around Anaximander’s oral presentation to her three examiners. The story of Adam’s life has reached legendary status in the centuries since his death, but Anaximander has a new interpretation of it, and him. Originally an extremely capable philosopher himself, Adam was demoted from the philosopher to the soldier class as a result of his inability to conform as expected to social and intellectual norms. It is not long before Adam disgraces himself in his new position as well, murdering fellow soldiers in order to avoid shooting a refugee girl.

Adam escapes the death penalty by being assigned to an experiment in identity: the philosopher William has created a new android, Art. Given that William’s previous efforts had ripped nearby children to shreds, it is decided that Art needs a more disposable test subject to interact with. In fact, by forced interaction with Art Adam is helping to programme the android, and to build its identity into a functioning individual. The science fiction staple of androids as living creatures is used effectively here, especially as Art avoids the by now too-common milquetoast innocence commonly given to androids in his situation. Art, in fact, is a nuisance brat with an annoyingly steep learning curve, and naturally this doesn’t help Adam, who is locked into his own mindset of seeing Art as a subhuman piece of machinery. Beckett manages the two perspectives (and their inherent chauvinisms, for Art is as pro-android as Adam is pro-human) well, although his sympathy initially seems to be with the android, who does tend to get the best lines:

‘Ugly’s still ugly, no matter how you see it.’
‘An interesting assertion. Justify it.’
‘You bring twenty people in here,’ Adam told him, ‘and they’ll all say the same thing. They’ll all say you’re ugly.’
‘Bring in twenty of me,’ Art spat back, ‘and we’d all say your arse is prettier than your face.’
‘There aren’t twenty of you.’
‘No, you’re right. I’m unique. So I can safely say that all androids find you ugly. Not all humans find me ugly. So technically, I’m better looking than you, using objective criteria.’

(Art isn’t your normal android. For one, he looks like an orang-utan. Why a roboticist should make an android in the shape of an orang-utan I’ve no earthly idea, unless it is to somehow reinforce its inferiority from a human-chauvinist point of view.)

But while Adam is fulfilling his role of extending Art’s programming, his input extends far beyond what anyone expects – especially Art. The secret of what happened in the final moments between the two, in their attempts to escape the testing facility, has, Anaximander believes, been lost. And when she finds that the Academy have not only still got the missing archive footage, but are actively keeping it from the public and philosophers both in a ruthless indoctrination programme of their own, her growing proximity to the secret, and how she eventually reacts to it, endangers far more than her standing in the academic community.

Examiner: You have become less careful in your answers.
Anaximander: I have.
Examiner: Are you sure that is wise?
Anaximander: I am sure it isn’t.

The realisation of the extent of the conspiracy within the Academy – a conspiracy that even involves Anaximander’s tutor Pericles, who has prepared her for the Academy examination for years – is pretty shocking. It was the twist I didn’t see coming (there’s another that most readers should get), and both involve identity: how it is formed, how it is kept… and how it is undermined. While it is true that the Republic of Anaximander’s day has reached almost utopian status, with the class divisions and civil unrest of Adam’s day long in the past, the price of maintaining that status has required the Academy to institute distinctly unsavoury measures. What price peace against the life and intellectual freedom of the individual? The totalitarian nature of the Republic has been based from the beginning on control over outside influences; firstly those from outside the borders of the country; and eventually those from within the minds of its citizens, influences in the form of ideas that spread throughout the population like a virus. Unsurprisingly, it is this viral, replicating influence that has the greatest effect. It’s also what dooms the main characters of Genesis – particularly Adam, Art, and Anaximander, but also the Academy in general – a fate that is arguably irrespective of who lives and dies.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the limits of story

The problem with stories is that the more you ingest them, the more bloated you get. And finally, when those stories have twisted your gut into an enormous, clingy rat tails nest of youngest sons, magic mirrors and riddle contests you realise that this scaly Gordian knot, this bleeding, wrenching source that’s hidden in your belly like a heart in a duck’s egg in a chest at the bottom of the ocean is just too boringly familiar. You know every twitching, greasy strand of it.

And that’s when stories themselves go past boring and into irritating.

Read enough, hear enough, watch enough, and you begin to know the ending before the story-tellers do. It’s why so many people put their faith in stories – especially old stories, that are known and loved and easy to repeat. But when you know the ending, the only thing left to focus on is the journey – the scattered, badly plotted, poorly characterised mess that typifies most of what is on offer these days… But after a while, even that journey loses interest. How many times can one eat the poisoned apple, cut off a heel, walk on water? How can it continue to be the story that defines you, if you can’t enter the story, can’t believe in it yourself? How can you trust it if you know that it’s wrong?

For the Auto-Pygmalion, the answer comes not from the mirror, but from the knowledge that they are looking into the wrong one. The magic glass that tells us what we want to hear – and what we don’t – doesn’t lie in the bedchamber of Snow White’s stepmother, and we all know that she had the real power in that story. At least ours doesn’t. It worked for the stepmother, if not her husband. Her mirror was enough to entrance Snow White’s dad, that’s for sure, to get him lost in a maze of what he was supposed to see, caught in another’s image, another’s story.

And that’s the real problem with stories. The ones out there, the ones you take in – they’re not really yours. They’re made by people like you; which is why it’s so easy to recognise what’s going to happen… the similarity of culture and history and psychology is enough to make sure that none but the very best story-teller is able to unshackle themselves from what is expected of them, what they expect from themselves. It’s also why there’s a disconnect, why that author thinks it’s a really good idea to make that character do something you know they would never do; why that director doesn’t seem to see that there’s no suspense in how the bad guy gets his due, because anyone watching who really knows stories knows how it’s going to happen within ten minutes of seeing him… And it’s why sometimes there are moments that are perfect.

These perfect moments make us want to believe in stories – they help us to make sense of the world around us, by explaining events within a believable structure. The best stories spread like viruses; they burrow so deep into the collective consciousness of a society that they become archetypal stories themselves, capable of influencing the stories that come after them. Sometimes these stories are so powerful that they become established truth, where one mirror is supposed to be enough for all. And for some, it works, because the face they see in the mirror is enough like theirs for them to squint and believe they see themselves, and the story that face tells is the one they really want to believe.

When the Auto-Pygmalion decides not to squint, they don’t stop feeling the perfect moments – but they start to realise that those moments don’t last – simply because they are not our own creations. We create in our own image, and like the king in the fairy story, we’re ineffectual in stories that aren’t our own, images that aren’t ours. When the king looks in his wife’s mirror, he doesn’t see himself, he sees her in his image. It’s a little fuzzy around the outlines, like there’s a flaw in the glass, but it’s nonetheless an image of the other. As much as the king believes that he controls the image in the mirror, he doesn’t – and when that image is of someone or something else, a reflection not of our own making, the story comes from another, belongs to another. In the king’s story, he’s probably a better father – but it doesn’t work out that way, because no matter how much he pours his beliefs into that mirror, they still slide right off. And no matter how much you try to be the person who owns the mirror, you can’t disentangle yourself from their reflection – as long as you keep using the mirror, they’re sneaking in there with you, nibbling at the edges of your story like rats, forcing it into the shape of their own mind… If you can’t distinguish yourself from the image, you’re stuck in someone else’s story, and that’s when you stop watching the rats and start being one of them, too lost in another’s story to ever disentangle yourself from the truth of their experiences.

Stories are a trap. Whether their purpose is to soothe or inflame, to explain the heavens or to assure you of your place there, or to offer you the poisoned apple, they’re the interpretations of another. Internalise that interpretation, and the face you see in the mirror will no longer be your own, and you will become the reflection and not the source, the created rather than the creator.

In the end, the only stories you can trust are your own.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

Ice-Cream Sandwiches – by Isolde


I recently saw a suggestion to use a Whoopie Pie cookie to make ice cream sandwiches. It worked out pretty well.  This one is adapted from Cooking Light.

1 cup sugar
5 tbs softened butter
1 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
5 tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 375F.  Beat sugar and butter together until well-blended (about 2 minutes).  Add vanilla and eggs and beat until combined.  In another bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder and soda together with a whisk.  With the mixer running, add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to the sugar mixture, starting and ending with the flour.

Drop dough by rounded tablespoons, 2 inches apart, on baking sheets lined with parchment or Silpat mats (or sprayed with cooking spray). Bake for 10 minutes or until set.  Cool on pan for 5 minutes, then let cool completely on a wire rack. Put the cookies in the fridge for a bit – chilling them will help the ice cream from melting and not sticking to the cookies.

Soften some ice cream.  If the brand you’re using isn’t as fluffy as you’d like for ice cream sandwich filling, you can fold in some whipping topping (about 1 carton of it for a 1/2 gallon of ice cream).

The quick and messy way to fill the sandwiches is to just scoop the ice cream on to the cookies.  If the ice cream has gotten too soft, put it in the freezer until it’s a consistency you can work with. The fussy way is to line a baking pan with plastic wrap, spread the ice cream to whatever thickness you prefer, and freeze it.  When it’s solid, use a cookie or biscuit cutter to cut rounds of ice cream to fill the sandwiches.

Book Review: Terry Pratchett’s “Nation” – by Writer@Large

nationTerry Pratchett’s Nation is his first non-Discworld novel in something like twenty years. Set in an alternate Victorian Era Earth, this quasi-fantasy novel takes place primarily on a South Seas island with no true name—it is just The Island, home of The Nation. The novel begins with a tragedy: a giant tidal wave sweeps the Island (shades of the 2004 tsunami disaster), killing everyone except Mau, a young native on the verge of becoming a man; and Ermintrude, who calls herself Daphne, a young Englishwoman who is the lone survivor of a ship wrecked against the Island by the wave. Alone together, Mau and Daphne set about trying to survive together, while struggling to make sense of the tragedy and trying to deal with other refugees of the tidal wave who begin arriving on the Island.

Because this is a Pratchett novel, the work is very familiar. It is not a Discworld novel, but it sure feels like one! There’s the sharp but naive hero in Mau; Daphne is a plucky, intelligent, but socially sheltered heroine; the villains are generally one-dimensional, wholly selfish, and destined to get their comeuppance; and the cast of quirky stock supporting characters are there primarily to help the protagonists when needed, and to act as sounding boards for the novels’ themes. The plot begins with some event that sets the snowball rolling and continuing down the hill until every element is somehow wrapped up into the improbable but inevitable conclusion, and the usual Pratchett plot coincidences remain. Also present is the sharp dialogue and wry humor that Pratchett does so well If the formula works, why change it?

Far more interesting to me, and I think to readers of Nexus, are the themes and ideas Pratchett explores. This is his most nontheistic, skeptical, rationalist book since Small Gods, and indeed—perhaps because it is NOT confined by the Discworld—succeeds at exploring themes of nontheism much better than SG did. Mau begins the novel as an “angry atheist.” The tidal wave kills his entire Nation, everyone he has ever met or known; and in the wake of that senseless tragedy he loses his faith in his anger at the gods. As the novel progresses Mau’s thoughts on the topic become more complex, until he begins to see the truth about belief.

The meatiest conversations in the book usually take place between Mau and Ataba, an old priest who clings to his religion even in the face of disaster. Ataba is the voice of the fervent believer in Nation, even if he might not really believe at all, as in this exchange:

[Mau said,] “I am talking about my father, my mother, my whole family, my whole nation! They all died! I had a sister who was seven years old. Just give me the reason. There must have been a reason? Why did the gods let them die? I found a little baby stuck in a tree. How had it offended the gods?”

“We are small. We cannot understand the nature of the gods,” said Ataba.

“No! You don’t believe that, I can hear it in your voice! I don’t understand the nature of a bird, but I can watch it and listen to it and learn about it. Don’t you do this with the gods? Where are the rules? What did we do wrong? Tell me!”

I don’t know! Don’t you think I haven’t asked them?” Tears started to roll down Ataba’s cheeks. “You think I am a man alone? I haven’t seen my daughter or her children since the wave. Do you hear what I say? It is not all about you! I envy your rage, demon boy! It fills you up! It feeds you, gives you strength! But the rest of us listen for the certainty, and there is nothing. Yet in our heads we know there must be … something, some reason, some pattern, some order, so we call upon the silent gods, because they are better than the darkness. That is it, boy. I have no answers for you.”

Mau’s angry atheism and Ataba’s desperate theism are complimented in the novel by Daphne’s rational Victorian mindset. Daphne was raised a Christian, but had also been taught by her father to think in scientific terms.  She approaches the mysteries of the island from an experimental angle. For example, when the question arises as to whether or not the islanders should continue praying to the God Anchors, large white stones that supposedly connect the nation to its gods, Daphne suggests that some of them continue while others pray to different stones, to measure whether or not their fortunes change. Mau’s atheism and Daphne’s rationalism begin to inform and reinforce each other as the novel progresses.

There’s more to the plot of Nation than discourses on religion and belief, of course. The Island has a secret, slowly revealed as Mau and Daphne dig for the truth. There’s also an important subplot involving Daphne’s father, who, in the wake of a different tragedy half a world away, has risen suddenly in social standing. All of these plotlines inevitably collide at the end, perhaps rather too neatly, but readers will forgive Pratchett for the last chapter, which pushes his overarching themes perhaps a little too forcefully.

All in all, Nation is a worthy read. Pratchett fans will find everything they love about his work, while new readers will find the book, divorced as it is from the Discworld, far more accessible. Highly recommended.

The Invisible Atheist – by Garnet

This month Nexus would like to welcome a new columnist. Garnet’s focus will be how she finds life as an atheist – an invisible member of society. Welcome, Garnet!

Some time ago, on a forum that shall not be named, I had a short-lived blog titled “The Invisible Atheist.” A friend asked me why I selected that title. Well, part of it comes from my experience in being actively shunned once in my life. When I left the last church I regularly attended, everyone, even people I had thought were my friends, shunned me. This is highly irregular behavior for a Southern Baptist church, by the way. What I didn’t know is that the church I attended wasn’t part of the Southern Baptist convention. I didn’t know this until a few years later. But, I digress. While I had not yet become an atheist, it certainly reinforced feelings I had experienced for most of my life of being on the outside looking in and of being an outcast.

All my life, from time to time, I’ve felt as if I was invisible. There are times when I can slip through rooms full of people and never rate a look, let alone have someone attempt to engage me in conversation. There are times when I can be in a store waiting for service and none of the staff will “see” me and they will go to help everyone else instead. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.” I think that I am a bit of a chameleon and that when I’m in certain moods, I just blend into the background.

It’s an oddity about me. Most times, I’m a highly visible outgoing person. I’m a business analyst, so I spend a lot of time conducting presentations and meetings and work sessions. I have no problems speaking to groups of people both small and large. Some of the work I’ve done in the past has required that I not only deal with groups of people, but also with fairly intense one-on-one conversations.

But then, the mood strikes and I begin to feel like the outsider, the leper, the one who is outcast and unclean. It’s as if I slip into a cloak that hides me and I move through places and right by people without being noticed at all. I often feel this way when I’m around my family these days. It’s as if we don’t have anything in common anymore and it’s my fault because I moved away, I’ve stayed away and I’m different.

It’s also a feeling I experience the most as a direct result of my atheism. It’s often manifested when I’ve interacted with certain believers and no matter what I say or how I say it, they keep returning to the falsehoods they’ve been taught about atheists. They joust with straw men instead of engaging in conversation with me. It’s as if my answers to questions are invisible and meaningless. There’s a feeling I get from some Christians that atheists should just shut up and slink away. We are bothersome, evil and the good folk would just rather not deal with us at all, thank you very much.

I think the main reason that I titled the blog the Invisible Atheist is that outside of bulletin boards I rarely discuss my beliefs. I tend to disengage from workplace and social conversations about religious beliefs. In real life, I only discuss beliefs with people whom I know and trust. That means that in essence, I’m an invisible atheist in a veritable sea of believers.