Genius authors, other people’s great ideas and a few thoughts

This week I thought I’d do something a little different. Since I quit my job I’ve had a bit more time on my hands, and I’ve been able to catch up on a little reading. I wanted to share some of the amazing ideas that I’ve come across by some incredible authors (without actually critiquing their work – I’ll leave that up to you once you’ve gone and read their books).

If you haven’t read Nick Harkaway’s “The Gone Away World” you’re missing out on something remarkable. I really like Nick’s other work (his later novels are also great), but there’s something awe-inspiring about this book. Not just his ability to create a remarkable story, but also the distilled wisdom he embeds.

The first stand out for me was the following:

“The problem isn’t who is in charge. It’s what is in charge. The problem is that people are encouraged to function as machines. Or, actually, as mechanisms. Human emotion and sympathy are unprofessional. They are inappropriate to the exercise of reason. Everything which makes people good—makes them human—is ruled out. The system doesn’t care about people, but we treat it as if it were one of us, as if it were the sum of our goods and not the product of our least admirable compromises. The only revolution which matters,” Sebastian concludes, “is the one where we stand up and do it for ourselves.”  The Gone Away World, p.105.

Given that, when I read this I had just quit my job at a large consultancy firm (see my post Consultancy Conshmultancy), this really struck a nerve. The idea that important human values are routinely subverted and suppressed by the machinery of the organisations we create disturbs me greatly. As I talked about in my post on the consultancy firm, I found it hard to stomach the culture of using people to achieve a not-so-subtle end of money at any cost. The most saddening thing was that the people I worked with were (for the most part) lovely. Smart, focused, interesting – but all slaves to a machine that didn’t value them as humans or encourage higher human functioning. Instead, their value came from what they could provide to the organisation, and the behaviours that were rewarded were as monkey as it gets: greed, avarice, competition…

Also from the Gone Away World (p.295):

“Girls—at least where I grew up—tend to be more emotionally balanced and sane, and therefore find the kind of all-excluding concentration you need to care about dinosaurs, taxonomy, philately and geopolitical schemes a bit worrying and sad. Girls can grasp the bigger picture (i.e., it might be better not to destroy the world over this), where boys have a perfect grip on the fine print (i.e., this insidious idea is antithetical to our existence and cannot be allowed to flourish alongside our peace-loving, free society). Note carefully how it is probably better to let the girls deal with weapons of mass destruction.”

I love this quote. It pretty much encompasses all the reasons why men should give up trying to rule the world (before they break it irreversibly) and let women get on with it. In the meantime, men should focus on what they’re really good at (not the male monkey stuff like being stupid and aggressive and wanting power and lots of shagging), like being mildly autistic in their obsession with discovering things, or cataloguing important stuff, or coming up with complex rules for describing the universe (so long as this doesn’t devolve into train spotting or, heaven forbid, stamp collecting)…

I also had the pleasure of discovering John Scalzi. Scalzi writes, on the face of it, space opera science fiction. But there’s a lot more to his writing than the surface level good stories. For example: “The brain, even a human one, is like a computer. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it works for what I’m going to tell you. Computers have three components for their operation: There’s the hardware, there’s the software, and there’s the data file. The software runs on the hardware, and the file runs on the software. The hardware can’t open the file without the software. If you place a file on a computer that lacks the necessary software, all it can do is sit there. Do you understand me?” The Ghost Brigades, p.121.

This quote got me thinking intensely, and inspired my posts on human operating systems (here and here). I love the notion that we require the appropriate software to interpret the world adequately (or more than adequately) – it makes me want to go out and get upgrades…

Charles Stross has long been my favourite author. His latest book “The Apocolypse Codex” is the fourth instalment in his “Laundry” series, in which a mild mannered public servant named Bob Howard, repeatedly saves the world from eldritch horrors. Stross writes with superb wit, and is the master of parody. He also has some great things to say:

“Leaving aside the idolatry implicit in taking a mere book as a more authoritative source of truth than divine revelation, there are damaging consequences when such a belief system collides with reality. If the world was created in six days six-thousand-odd years ago, then a whole bunch of evidence relating to geology, biology, paleontology, genetics, and evolution has to be ignored— or, much harder, refuted. Which is easy enough if you don’t hold with school-book larnin’, but it’s difficult to practice general medicine if your religion says bacteria can’t evolve antibiotic resistance, and hard to be a geologist if your cosmology is incompatible with continental drift. And then there’s the picking and choosing. Men who lie with men are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. But then, so is the eating of shellfish, if you go back to the original text. And the wearing of garments made from different types of fiber. And tattooing. And witchcraft— or is it poisoning? Different translations disagree. (And what on earth does the bit about what to do if your house contracts leprosy mean?) The early Church fathers cut through the Gordian knot by declaring the Old Testament obsolete: version 1.0, superseded by the new, improved version 2.0. But they couldn’t make it stick, hence the thousand-page prologue you have to wade through before you get to read the Gospel of Matthew. And even there, even in the prologue, even after weeding out the obvious Bible fanfic, there’s no rhyme nor reason: some churches can’t be arsed with the Book of Judith, while some of them cancelled the Maccabees after season two because of dwindling Nielsen ratings. So you end up with divergent sects reading from subtly different versions of the same book— which in turn is a third-generation translation of something which might have been the original codification of an oral tradition— and all convinced that their interpretation overrides such minor obstacles as observable reality.” The Apocalypse Codex, p. 246.

Bravo Mr. Stross. It’s really nice when someone can take the piss out of religious nutters in a way that’s both clever and funny (hmm, let’s kill other people because they don’t share the same bizarre obsession with a collection of public health warnings cobbled together by some smelly tribesmen over 2000 years ago – and because they believed in an all-powerful deity we have to as well, despite the fact that there’s an entire 2000 years of learning, science and cultural evolution that we can carefully ignore)…

Finally, I had the pleasure of reading the début novel by Ryan Boudinot “Blueprints of the Afterlife”. Ryan has managed to capture a large part of my philosophy on the way our minds and evolution are often incompatible (or at least poorly integrated), and that I’ve been writing about so far in this blog (see here, here, and here). For instance:

“My argument is that in the age of Fucked Up Shit, human beings became like those rats, whacking the bars that stimulated our pleasure centers even as those very bars were what triggered our doom. In the last few decades of the twentieth century, we started to understand the terms of our self-destruction. Our rational minds argued against using fossil fuels, against overeating and too much television, against accumulating too much wealth among too few, but a more powerful part of our brains kept pushing those bars. Push, push, push. The solutions, the ways we might avoid the FUS, were staring us right in the face. It was obvious and apparent: stop using oil, stop making plastic, control the growth of the population to a logical level so we could exist within the parameters of our ecology. If we didn’t do these things, most of us would die. But we were willing to die because a more powerful part of our minds, the old mammalian limbic system, was busy pushing those bars. The more recent, less developed part of our brains, the neocortex, was waving its arms and screaming for us to stop our destructive behavior. In this war between the limbic system and the neocortex, the limbic system won, hence the FUS.” Blueprints of the Afterlife.

If ever there was an age of Fucked Up Shit…

Back to my regular efforts on enhancing the human condition next time 😉

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