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One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.
And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town.
Ray Bradbury, “Rocket summer“
1. The bottom line of this post, in two words
It seems that there is enough textual and contextual evidence to suggest that the “Martian chronicles” can be read, among other things, as the chronicles of an abstract process – the development of science fiction as a genre, progressing from the realm of inventions like humanoid machines and rockets to the point of indistinguishability from magic.
For all you dedicated Bradbury fans, yes, “Rocket summer“ is the first short story in his “Martian chronicles“. When I was first reading the book, this opening vignette meant nothing to me besides the literal fact that a rocket is being launched, and I quickly forgot about it. But later, with the book finished, and the deadline for my next English paper looming ahead (that’s how inspiration works, apparently), impressions gave rise to ideas and ideas gave rise to a principle at work – behind “Rocket summer“ and behind the rest of the chronicles. Or a piece of rubbish that I managed to convince myself is enough evidence for a principle at work – I can’t really tell the difference; the paper on which this post is based can be found here.
3. Ambiguity in plot
Everyone who’s read the “Chronicles“ knows how confusing and ambiguous the whole thing is. In part, this is because most of the short stories are unrelated, having been published separately by Bradbury before the collection was assembled, and then joined together by short vignettes, such as “Rocket summer“, to the effect that the many Mars-es depicted seem quite different from each other. Moreover, both we, as readers, and the characters we read about, keep encountering the same problem: distinguishing Mars from Earth, past from future, travel through space from travel through time, human from Martian. In “Ylla“, Martians behave just like ordinary people; in “The Earth men“, Martians comically fail to recognize humans as a different species; in “The third expedition“, Mars in Bradbury’s future is indistinguishable from Earth from his past:
Lustig said, “But suppose, by accident, in space, in time, we got lost in the dimensions and landed on an Earth that is thirty or forty years ago.“
In “And the moon be still as bright“, the future is mixed with another past – the colonization of America, and it is extremely unclear whether Spender actually switched with a Martian: the Martian appeared before me and said, `Give me your boots’ […] And the Martian walked down into camp and he’s here now.
4. Ambiguity in genre
The ambiguity in the stories is paralleled by an ambiguity between science fiction and fantasy as genres. While the “Chronicles” are often called science fiction (often enough for Wikipedia to do it), Bradbury insisted that
First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time.” because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.
On the surface, the book employs many of the customary tropes of science fiction, such as space colonization, telepathy, humanoid machines; on the other hand, their rational explicability is either absent or neglected, and the stories are driven by open-ended, timeless philosophical questions set in poetic environments, rather than Campbell-era-style logical puzzles which always have a solution.
5. “Night meeting“
But when it comes to ambiguity, the best example by far is “Night meeting“, where the book seems to be aware of its unifying themes. I’d strongly suggest reading it if you haven’t, for it is a very beautiful piece on its own (the entire collection can be found here). Foreshadowed by the remark “Even time is crazy up here” made by the man at the gasoline station, a meeting takes place between the opposites mentioned above (these being Mars-Earth, past-future, space-time, human-Martian), embodied by Muhe Ca, the Martian, and Tomas, the human:
“You are so certain. How can you prove who is from the Past, who from the Future? What year is it?”
“Two thousand and one!”
“What does that mean to me?”
Tomas considered and shrugged. “Nothing.”[…]
How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know.
Most of all, this is saying that looking far enough into the future is indistinguishable from looking into the past – and here comes the principle at work (literally! : ) ).
6. The principle
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Clarke’s most famous quote has a fairly unpopular corollary: “Any sufficiently advanced science fiction is indistinguishable from fantasy”. In light of the previous sections, one is inclined to think that the Chronicles’ blend of fantasy and science fiction is working together with elements of the plot to tell a meta-narrative of the science fiction genre, rather than a particular science fiction or fantasy story.
One can further interpret Mars as a metaphor for science fiction itself, and more specifically for its ability to generate wonder. Carl Sagan succinctly captured the attitudes of people from Bradbury’s time towards the red planet:
Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.
The concept of a projection is key here, but perhaps in a more intentional context than what Sagan implied. A projection, in both the mathematical and psychological sense, is a transformation whose subject and outcome coincide from some perspectives, and are displaced from others. One of the great merits of science fiction is that it functions largely as such a projection: of current society and technology into future times and alien places, and indeed a projection of our existential hopes and fears. By displacing concepts from their everyday contexts to a genuinely new setting via its novum, it helps us separate the fundamental from the specific – and, consequently, prejudice from rationality. But when the displaced reality is overwhelmingly far from our point of view, the effect wraps around, back in time, to magic, fantasy – and wonder.
Mars, in Bradbury’s Chronicles, is the target of such displacement – the arena where past meets future, science fiction meets fantasy, and so on. In this line of thought, going back to the man at the gasoline station from “Night meeting”, we find the following little jewel:
“How do you like Mars, Pop?”
“Fine. Always something new. I made up my mind when I came here last year I wouldn’t expect nothing, nor ask nothing, nor be surprised at nothing. We’ve got to forget Earth and how things were. We’ve got to look at what we’re in here, and how different it is. I get a hell of a lot of fun out of just the weather here. It’s Martian weather. Hot as hell daytimes, cold as hell nights. I get a big kick out of the different flowers and different rain. I came to Mars to retire and I wanted to retire in a place where everything is different. An old man needs to have things different. Young people don’t want to talk to him, other old people bore hell out of him. So I thought the best thing for me is a place so different that all you got to do is open your eyes and you’re entertained. I got this gas station. If business picks up too much, I’ll move on back to some other old highway that’s not so busy, where I can earn just enough to live on and still have time to feel the different things here.”
“You got the right idea, Pop,” said Tomas, his brown hands idly on the wheel. He was feeling good. He had been working in one of the new colonies for ten days straight and now he had two days off and was on his way to a party.
“I’m not surprised at anything any more,” said the old man. “I’m just looking. I’m just experiencing. If you can’t take Mars for what she is, you might as well go back to Earth. Everything’s crazy up here, the soil, the air, the canals, the natives (I never saw any yet, but I hear they’re around), the clocks. Even my clock acts funny. Even time is crazy up here. Sometimes I feel I’m here all by myself, no one else on the whole damn planet. I’d take bets on it. Sometimes I feel about eight years old, my body squeezed up and everything else tall. Jesus, it’s just the place for an old man. Keeps me alert a nd keeps me happy. You know what Mars is? It’s like a thing I got for Christmas seventy years ago – don’t know if you ever had one – they called them kaleidoscopes, bits of crystal and cloth and beads and pretty junk. You held it up to the sun light and looked in through at it, and it took your breath away. All the patterns! Well, that’s Mars. Enjoy it. Don’t ask it to be nothing else but what it is. Jesus, you know that highway right there, built by the Martians, is over sixteen centuries old and still in good condition? That’s one dollar and fifty cents, thanks and good night.”
7. It all makes sense now
Or at least, some of it makes sense. Remember “Rocket summer”? The rocket, that science-fiction-y thing, is described more like a fire-breathing dragon from some fantasy book; by its technological power, it superposes past and future, showing “last summer’s ancient green lawns”; it also projects summer onto winter, rendering the “bear disguises” of the housewives obsolete. Remember “Usher II”? There literature came to life on Mars.
Finally, remember the ending?
The Martians were there–in the canal–reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water.
Did they really have to become the Martians, in the end? Was that the only possibility? Maybe “if you can’t take Mars for what she is, you might as well go back to Earth”, in the words of the old man at the gasoline station, so when the radiation on Earth dissipates they will return. Yet Mom and Dad burned the old way of life. And maybe they didn’t have a choice – for Mars is science fiction, and you can’t help but colonize, and become, science fiction one day.
This is something I wrote for a class on Russian literature that I took in the spring. SPOILERS AHEAD: If you haven’t read “The idiot” by Dostoevsky, or “The little prince” by Saint-Exupery, bear in mind that this essay discusses the plots of the two works in depth.
“The inevitable blow of the knife”: Inevitability as a common perspective on “The Idiot” and “The Little Prince”
There are two well-known works of literature that undertake, each in its own way, the challenge of depicting the encounter of a perfectly good and beautiful man with the rest of the not-so-perfect world. As much as we would expect both to treat similar universal ideas of human ethics and aesthetics, they share another striking thing in common: both “The Idiot” and “The Little Prince” tell the story of a childlike prince.
Yet this seeming superficiality is only the first of many co-occurrences that transcend the mere choice of words, and extend to the fundamental imagery and tone of both books. I will try to convince you that this similarity suggests not the whim of coincidence being at play here, but a perspective for understanding both works as being driven by the same all-powerful feeling: that of inevitability. Set against the heavy, recurrent premonition of an unavoidable final event that makes the present constantly fall towards it, they can be seen as a desperate attempt to capture and reflect on these last fleeting moments of life – which encompass, in their extreme vividness and clarity of perception, the entire spectrum of human existence. Indeed, an attempt, as Dostoyevsky himself articulated it, “…to paint the face of a condemned man a minute before the guillotine falls…” (Dostoyevsky 75)
To set the stage for this comparison and provide a foundation for my analysis, I first outline the primary ways in which “The Idiot” and “The Little Prince” are alike – as well as the ways in which they differ. Central is the notion of the morally and physically beautiful prince, “falling” in the real world as if from a fairy tale – and indeed, as both stories imply, perhaps such princes only belong in fairy tales. In a sense, both the little prince and Myshkin come from a different world – whether it the asteroid B-612 or the tranquil fields of Switzerland. And similarly, in the end, both depart, in grief, to where they came from – whether literally (going back to the clinic and to idiocy) or symbolically (the death of the body that sets the invisible essence free). In their interactions with people, both strike at first glance with an expression of childlike simplicity and beauty. Even the ways in which this impression is gradually built up mimic one another. Recall the “golden curls” (Exupery 22) of the Little Prince and Myshkin’s “fair hair” (Exupery 6) – defining characteristics of their physical beauty. Or the “lovely peal of laughter” (Exupery 9) of the Little Prince, and Myshkin’s habit of honestly laughing at his own misfortunes, which both have the power to instantaneously convey to other people their innocent nature. Whereas the Little Prince is indeed little in appearance – a child, the corresponding aspect of Myshkin is constructed in a symbolic, although no less frquently recurring, pattern. He is repeatedly called a “child” by pretty much every major character in the novel, and he talks at length about his strong love for children. Recall the touching story about Marie (Dostoyevsky Part I, Chapter 6), and the special connection Myshkin established with the children from the village, an idea dear to Dostoyevsky, and one he employs again in “The Brothers Karamazov” through Alyosha. Most notably, there the prince says: “… I am indeed not fond of being with adults, with people, with grown-ups […] my companions have always been children.” (Dostoyevsky 87-88). The quality of being childlike is combined, in both our heroes, with a lack of fixed ideology, a manner of taking the conversation straight to the point, and an ability to see through people. Just as Myshkin articulates matters like the death penalty simply, eloquently and convincingly, so does the little prince speak simply and concisely about the meaning of love. And just as the Little Prince can see “what is essential”, which is “invisible to the eye” (Exupery 60), so can Myshkin understand the thoughts and feelings of others through their “physiognomy” (a most recurring word in “The Idiot”), to the point of wielding an influence over the very roots of Nastasya Filippovna’s soul: “You’re not like that, not like the person you pretended to be just now, are you?” (Dostoyevsky 138). The princes share a thoughtful, reflective soul, and a corresponding oblivity to their surroundings. Preoccupied with the eternal war between sheep and flowers (Exupery 22), the Little Prince cares little about the constant death threat posed by the desert; and Myshkin’s body often wanders around while his mind is wondering around even further (cf. Dostoyevsky, before the fit in Part II), not believing in his heart that anyone could try to hurt him or deceive him. And finally, as if all of this is not enough, both princes share above all an insatiable capacity for finding and feeling beauty. Amazingly, it is precisely beauty that they first find in their two corresponding heroines: compare “‘So that’s Nastasya Filippovna?’ he said quietly, looking at the portrait attentively and inquisitively for a moment. ‘Astonishingly good looking!’ he added at once, with ardour.” (Dostoyevsky 36) and “But the little prince could not restrain his admiration: ‘Oh! How beautiful you are!’” (Exupery 24). And, similarly, beauty of nature is something of which both princes cannot get enough. For example, recall the wonderful passage (Dostoyevsky 69-70), especially “… and I kept thinking that if I were to walk straight, walk for a very long time and go beyond that line, the line where earth meets sky, there the whole riddle around me would be solved and instantly I would see a new life” and compare to the little prince’s love of sunsets: “’I am very fond of sunsets […] One day, […] I saw the sunset fourty-four times!” (Exupery 19). It is as if both heroes are personifications of the same – and to a great depth of detail – human type.
Yet, there is a crucial difference between the ways the stories of the princes are constructed. Whereas “The Little Prince” has the flavor of a passive, allegorical recollection on love and human nature in what could be the last moment before death, “The Idiot” draws us into a literal, painful, dynamic mixture of deception, passion, sickness, and murder. To see the distinction on the allegorical-literal axis, recall that in Saint-Exupéry’s story all the physicality of death is reduced to the tenderest, most aesthetic three lines: “There was nothing but a flash of yellow close to his ankle. […] There was not even any sound, because of the sand.” (Exupery 75) The rest is a dialogue, a recollection on the little prince’s love with the rose and the encounters during his journey. Because of the tale’s omnipresent allegorical nature, it is not clear if the little prince died or magically made it back to his planet, or if the drawing of the sheep ever ate the flower. And indeed, this uncertainty is in part even needed for Saint-Exupéry’s message. To the contrary, as much symbolism as there is in “The Idiot”, in his typical fashion Dostoyevsky nonetheless portraits the reality of death and sickness, in all their conclusiveness. Prime examples of this are the striking, somatic descriptions – of Myshkin’s epileptic fits, Ippolit’s final stage of consumption, and Nastasya Filippovna’s dead body, among others. The contrast on the passive-dynamic axis is produced not only by the difference in balance between reflection and action, as we discussed, but by the way the characters themselves are dispersed spatially and temporarily in the narrative. In “The Little Prince”, it is the prince who is travelling and entering into dialogue. Notice that he has only one interlocutor at any given moment – the king, the conceited man, the drunkard, etc. are all separated from one another, each in a different world (sometimes quite literally!); and by the time the narrative takes place, all but two of his encounters lie in the past (apart from the pilot and the snake). He is even the one who approaches the snake, and chooses to be bitten by him. Conversely, after his arrival in Russia, Myshkin is continuously subjected to the rapid fire of all the other characters that repeatedly come to him, share, challenge, deceive, mock, insult – and step back to give way for yet others to do the same. Recall (Dostoyevsky Part I, Chapter 8), where Kolya, Varya, Ganya, Ferdyshchenko, General Ivolgin and Nina Alexandrova – indeed, the entire Ardalionovni household, visit the prince’s room in the span of six pages and what must be no more than half an hour; or the visit of Antip Burdovsky, the false “Pavlishchev’s son” in (Dostoyevsky Part II, Chapters 7-8); or Ippolit’s recurring sharp intrusions, accompanied by his ideological antagonism and “unexpectedly shrill voice” (Dostoyevsky 303). And finally, Rogozhin’s attempt at Myshkin’s life (Dostoyevsky 274), the ultimate attack. Whereas the little prince is undertaking a journey and finds himself in the numb, inanimate personification of death that the desert is, Myshkin has to constantly defend himself from the ceaseless assaults of other characters. Thus, in “The Idiot”, all the antithetic social elements are mixed together in a vortex of actions and interactions that ultimately execute the speculations of death and sadness raised in “The Little Prince” for real.
Where is inevitability to be found in the above speculations and actualities, and how does it manifest itself in the two literary worlds we described? I shall recognize two “physiognomies” of it, and analyze the ways in which they interact. The first is rather obvious – one might say the human synonym for inevitability – death. The second is a more subtle one – yet, perhaps, the cause for the first – the constancy of human character. Let me first outline how they are depicted in “The Little Prince”, and then go through “The Idiot” in more depth.
The place of the novella’s present, the desert, is an unchanging, passive reminder of the proximity of death, and this is alluded to at the very beginning: “It was a question of life or death for me: I had scarcely enough water to last a week” (Exupery 5) Another personification of mortality is the snake, the first and last companion of the prince on Earth (Exupery, Chapters 17&26). The concrete premonition of the death of the prince gradually builds up from Chapter 24 (“And I felt him to be more fragile still. I felt the need of protecting him, as if he were a flame that might be extinguished by a little puff of wind…”) and permeates the narrative with anxiety. Among these clear manifestations of the inevitable are the more subtle ones. The baobab is one vivid metaphor for an unalterable force of annihilation: “A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces” (Exupery 16). The constancy of the “warfare between the sheep and the flowers” is another: it has lasted “for millions of years” (Exupery 22). And then come all the disturbing, grotesque descriptions of the people the little prince meets along his journey. The king, the conceited man, the tippler, the businessman, the lamplighter, the geographer,… – all stuck in an infinite loop (this idea is most strikingly executed in the story of the tippler (Exupery Chapter 12)), inhabiting their lonely, narrow worlds – just as narrow as their personalities have become. Preoccupied with a single ambition, a single destination, it is as if they are not people, but parts of people. In this context, inevitability means the impossibility of them ever escaping the gravitational pull of these worlds, of them ever changing. This combines with the reocurring lack of understanding and true dialogue between the little prince and these other people, the “grown-ups”, to impress on the reader a feeling of utter hopelessness. Thus we see how these two faces of inevitability reemerge throughout the novella and account for its persistent tone of grief. Yet: the end is open. Whether the sheep ever ate the rose is left as a “great mystery” (Exupery 77).
“The Idiot” is, then, its apocalypse. Because apocalypse – the object of the book of Revelations, so frequently alluded to in the novel – literally means the unveiling of a great mystery. We will see how the imagery and tone of each part gradually brings us closer to the final lifting of this veil.
The concept of inevitability enters the narrative in an unequivocal way through the discussion of death penalty. As tangential and unmotivated as it may seem at a first reading, it turns out to concisely represent the novel’s essence, and I shall identify allusions to its imagery in the parts to follow. The use of such revelations (pun intended) seems to be a favorite of Dostoyevsky, as I shall keep demonstrating. Most notably, recall the early appearance of “Well, he might marry her tomorrow; might marry her, and a week later, perhaps, cut her throat” (Dostoyevsky 43). Through the vivid, eloquent speech of Myshkin, capital punishment comes to life. The passages about it share a clear message: “…and you’ll no longer be a human being, and that this is certain; the main thing is that it’s certain.”, “… he lived in the unquestionable conviction that in a few minutes’ time he would face sudden death”, “… when your head lies on the block, waits, and knows, and suddenly hears above it the sliding of the iron!” (Dostoyevsky 27, 71, 77) After these quotes, there is no further need to prove that unavoidability is the driving force behind this imagery. More relevant to the novel’s immediate plot, in Part I we also have all the characters constantly reiterating the conclusiveness of the birthday soiree: “… she will deliver her final word”, “Today my fate will be decided…”, “and this evening it’s all to be decided between them”, “The matter is settled”, … (Dostoyevsky 35, 99, 115, 117) All eyes are turned towards that certain future. Another recurring construct of anxiety is the warning, communicated from the other characters to Myshkin: “Then beware of him, I warn you…”, “I’ve come to warn you:…”, “I warn you in advance:…” (Dostoyevsky 100, 110, 113) The apparent reason for uttering these words is always different, yet the synchrony and proximity in the text is so remarkable that we are inclined to feel they additionally serve the same higher purpose. Is the prince about to stage his own story about the condemned man?
In Part II, the stakes go up, with the premonitions of Myshkin’s fit and Rogozhin’s attempt at his live intertwining with painful clarity, ultimately converging to the same moment in time. In the span of fifty pages, the eyes, the headache, the “physiognomy” of the house, the storm, the “same eyes” weave a thrilling gradation of apprehension (Dostoyevsky 223, 227, 236, 239, 266, 270, 273). But most notably, it is the knife, constantly approaching the narrative and asserting itself, that is the principal manifestation of inevitability here. First from the past: “She was like a madwoman all that day, now weeping, now preparing to kill me with a knife,…”, then as a possibility: “…because to put it bluntly you may cut her throat”, as a physical presence, materializing on the mention of jealousy, playing back and forth between Myshkin and Rogozhin; and, finally, as the carrier of certainty: “the inevitable blow of the knife” (Dostoyevsky 246, 249, 253, 274). The language that was used in Part I for seemingly different matters is now employed again, almost verbatim: “… a total and overwhelming impression that led involuntarily to the most complete conviction?”(p.272); “’It will all be decided in a moment!’ he said to himself with strange conviction.” (Dostoyevsky 272, 273) The only difference is that the prince is stubbornly oblivious to this certainty: “Parfyon, I don’t believe it!” (Dostoyevsky 274)
Shortly after this temporary denouement, inevitability puts on the mask of consumption in Part II and Part III, leading up to Ippolit’s necessary explanation – even the word “necessary” itself is a clear allusion to the certainty of his death. In this explanation we find the most grotesque personification of that idea in “The Idiot” – Ippolit’s creature. Because who created it but him? With mathematical precision, he describes the unearthly monster’s body, its size, number of limbs, feelers, its motion around the room; a precision that closely mirrors his own inclination of measuring the minutes and seconds of life (Dostoyevsky Part III, Chapter 5). Ippolit is painfully aware of his position, to the point that he describes himself re-using the exact imagery of Part I: “take me for […] most probably of all, a man condemned to death” (Dostoyevsky 460) Parallel to that, there is a continuous allusion to the book of Revelations: “it had appeared in my room on purpose, and in this there was some kind of secret”, “…what was the secret behind it?”, “…mystical terror…” (Dostoyevsky 454, 455) And the apocalypse here, as well as in the novel itself – the apocalypse that Myshkin acknowledges but refuses to believe in, and the one that ultimately drives him to insanity – lies in the actuality: yes, it will certainly happen. Despite all the courage of Norma, there is no getting away from the sting: “With a yelp and a howl she opened her mouth in pain, and I saw that the chewed-up reptile was still moving across it, emitting from its half-crushed body a large quantity of white fluid…” (Dostoyevsky 456)
Dispersed among the above faces of death and certainty, in the first three parts we also discover the subtle presence of constancy in the human soul. Many characters are driven in a high degree by a collection of single ideas, bearing striking similarity to the ones encountered in Exupery’s novella (chapters 10 to 15): money and vanity (Ganya), alcohol and forgetfulness (Ivolgin), passion and violence (Rogozhin), measuring time and mortality (Ippolit). Myshkin remains generally misunderstood, just as the little prince, and instead all his companions attempt to assign him to some ideology or other. The impression that Myshkin is conclusively unable to change the world for the better is created; the most notable proof for this is his assessment of Rogozhin: “… if there was a certain awkwardness in his [Rogozhin’s] gestures and conversation, it was merely external; in his soul this man could never change” (Dostoyevsky 424).
The fears and premonitions raised in the first three parts are gradually executed by Dostoyevsky in Part IV, ending with Nastasya’s murder. A notable symbolic interlude to this is the breaking of the vase. It is, along with the portrait of the condemned man, the most vivid and concise allegory for the plot of the novel. Firstly, it signifies the onset of Myshkin’s own disintegration. The seed of the idea is innocently planted by Aglaya, but greatly distresses the prince: “’…You must at least break the Chinese vase in the drawing room!…’ […] ‘On the contrary, I shall try to sit as far from it as possible…[…]”; “I am sure I’ll start talking out of fear, and break the vase out of fear […] I shall have dreams about it all night; why did you have to mention it?’” (Dostoyevsky 612, 613) And, in accordance to the laws of the novel, this is exactly how it happens. In a strikingly similar way, the former harmony of Myshkin’s eloquence is perturbed, broken to pieces by all the ellipses, abrupt exclamations and questions that mark his speech on pages 629 through 637. “‘You saw me when I was a child?’, asked the prince with some surprise”, “Oh, but I didn’t say it because I … doubted it … and, anyway, how could one doubt it (heh-heh!) … in the slightest? … I mean, even in the slightest!”; “‘Pavlishchev … Pavlishchev went over to Catholicism? That cannot be!’, he exclaimed in horror”, … No collection of a few quotations is able to fully express the tension imprinted on these eight pages! Secondly, the breaking of the vase is the final confirmation that the apocalypse in “The Idiot” is about the meandering but certain to occur actuality: “The vase swayed slightly, as if at first uncertain whether to fall on the head of one of the elderly gentlemen, but suddenly inclined in the opposite direction, towards the little German, […] and crashed to the floor” (Dostoyevsky 638); “But we cannot fail to mention another strange sensation that struck him [Myshkin] at precisely that moment and suddenly manifested itself to him out of the throng of all the other strange and troubled sensations: […] the realized prophecy!”(Dostoyevsky 639). From this point on, the conclusion is no surprise. The scene with Myshkin and Rogozhin gradually approaching Nastasya’s body completes the portrait of the inevitable. The veil – for Dostoyevsky granted us a literal veil with his last stroke of the brush, the curtain in Chapter 11 – is lifted, and the secret – not much of a secret anymore – revealed. The description does not contain an actual statement along the lines of “Nastasya Filippovna was dead” – and indeed there is no need for Dostoyevsky to say what had already been said many times.
Was that the only mystery? Was the apocalypse all about the inevitable ruin of a good, beautiful man in an unchanging world? I think not, for I have two more amazing similarities between Dostoyevsky’s novel and Exupery’s novella which I’ve been keeping a secret. Compare Myshkin’s words “Beauty is a riddle” (Dostoyevsky 91) with “‘What makes the desert beautiful’, said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…’ […] When I was a little boy I lived in an old house, and legend told us that a treasure was buried there. […] But it cast an enchantment over that house. My home was hiding a secret in the depths of its heart” (Exupery 66). Death is certainly a ‘mystery’ in both books – but so is beauty. And compare the portrait of the condemned man (Dostoyevsky 75), the portrait of the “poor knight” (Dostoyevsky 289) with the narrator of “The Little Prince” continuously painting pictures of the little prince (and indeed Exupery’s illustrations are a major part of the narrative). The combination of these two ideas leads to the emergence of an aesthetic dimension of ‘mystery’: a portrait of the beauty and vividity of life in that single moment “exactly a minute before death” (Dostoyevsky 77), when only “the last stair [of the scaffold] can be seen clearly and closely” (Dostoyevsky 77). In its brevity and beauty, it is a desperate antithesis to the constancy and ugliness of the inevitability of death.
I feel there is much more to be said about these two books than what I tried to convey in these several pages, and many more impressions struck me while I was writing this essay. By comparing the high-level structure of Exupery’s novella and Dostoyevsky’s novel, I managed to abstract away some of the complexity in the latter, and through the simplicity of the former grasp and analyze more clearly the manifestations of inevitability and the way they are constructed in the two books. The two narratives form a synergistic bond in which each empowers the understanding of the other. As we saw, while Exupery chooses to discuss the issue of inevitability from a distance, and on the allegorical level, Dostoyevsky brings it to an unequivocal conclusion in reality. At the end of both works, the dominating impression is that of sadness, of something forever lost, irreparably broken. Yet, we can ask ourselves, just like Myshkin does before his fit in Part II, is this not justified by the momentary glimpse at the perfect beauty, at the “final cause” (Dostoyevsky 264)? Indeed it is. The vase sways for a second before it falls, but it sways beautifully.
Dostoyevsky, F. “The Idiot”, Penguin Classics
Exupery, A. “The Little Prince”
“…mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number or men.”
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, Jorge Luis Borges
You can tell that Borges was very fond of reflections, and now I intend to try to make him happy.
In short, the Cosmic Coincidence Control Center (and it seems that I’m included in that number?) was extremely busy last week. After finishing my first-ever short story, that feeble imitation of Borges, bearing the following arrogant dedication “While this story was being written, I thought I had stolen Borges’ style; but now I know – he stole my idea”, I was ruthlessly hunted down – so after all it was me who stole something, but hey, who is to say.
First, I decided to write my first paper for the science fiction class I’m taking (which is absolutely fun, thanks to this guy) on “The library of Babel”. OK, I can take that – after all, you might argue that I have free will and whatnot, so in fact it was not a coincidence.
After that, I was even more randomly reading the chapter on randomized algorithms from the book on computational complexity by Oded Goldreich, and guess what, the quote at the beginning was:
I owe this almost atrocious variety to an institution which other republics
do not know or which operates in them in an imperfect and secret manner:
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Lottery in Babylon”
I know, it’s not a library, it’s a lottery, but a lottery is just the closest equivalent of a library to people doing randomized algorithmis – after all, a bunch of monkeys randomly typing on a bunch of typewriters will produce the works of Shakespeare at some point. And a Babylon is like a baby Babel anyway.
Finally, it turned out that the book I blogged about last week, “Orphans of the sky”, is way too similar to “The library of Babel” – something I realized only after re-reading the library (or rather, “The library”. haha). It’s not just that both things came out in 1941 (yeah, I don’t know, it’s crazy), but they both construct extremely similar settings, visually and conceptually. Read them and you’ll know – don’t want to spoil anything!
All in all, it was pretty obvious that Borges was after me, and that he wouldn’t leave me alone unless I wrote something about the library and about computational complexity. So here we are now.
What is this library anyway? The premise of the story is simple enough: a library which contains all possible books 410 pages long, conveniently stacked in a seemingly infinite array of identical hexagonal galleries, which comprise all the world. It has the complete works of Shakespeare, the biographies of all people that have ever lived on Earth, the proofs of a bunch of conjectures in mathematics, these same proofs with the last line wrong, “The library of Babel”, etc. Sure, it’s a big place. It also has people randomly walking up and down and thinking they have it all figured, arguing that, you see, a pentagonal gallery would be fundamentally impossible, so that’s why galleries are hexagonal.
But I don’t really want to talk about the social metaphors of the library (a decent subject in its own right); rather, I like to think of it as a representative of a somewhat underrepresented part of SF, something you might reasonably call “math fiction”. Borges wrote several other stories with a strong flavor of mathematics – “The Aleph”, “The garden of forking paths”, “Blue tigers”, “The book of sand”, to name a few amazing ones.
Is MF SF? I would argue that it is, for:
1) math is as good a science as any of your usual ‘favorites’ in SF – physics, chemistry, biology – and in fact, it is the language underlying all of them, a language of even greater expressive power
2) yes, all the ‘falsifiable hypothesis blabla’ stuff does apply to mathematics, and in fact, modern mathematics seems to rely more and more on simulations and experiments
3) MF has already sneaked in SF: there are works that arguably classify as MF which have won a bunch of awards. I know for I’ve read one such – “Permutation city” by Greg Egan, which I strongly recommend to people interested in the computational aspects of consciousness.
YAY MATH FICTION! So, “The library of Babel” uses a very simple mathematical idea – “the set of all sequences of a given length, in a given set of symbols” – to achieve very interesting and complicated effects, and that makes it great math fiction. Suppose you wanted to write a book, and you had some reasonably good idea of what you want it to be about, and you knew it wouldn’t be longer than 410 pages. It then seems very plausible that, if someone hands you a book and you read it, it will be qualitatively easier for you to tell if that’s the book (or a book) you want to write. Then, if you just go to the library and read all books (for there is a very big, but finite number of such books), you will finally find one that suits you! So you’ll have achieved a qualitative improvement by increasing your efforts only quantitatively. Essentially, it might seem that you’ve written a book without writing it!
This has two consequences: one philosophical, one computational. First, is an author just a treasure-hunter? Does an author create a work, or has the work been there all the time, and the author is `merely’ the one who found it? What the hell?
But hey, that’s not a big deal. What if we try to write books in the way described above? What if we try to do math the way described above – if we want to prove a theorem, we just go through all possible proofs of a given length, for all lengths, until we find one that works? Then mathematical discovery will be more or less fully automated! Ideas of the sort motivated the computational revolution that was just starting at the time Borges wrote his story, and they shape much of modern computational complexity theory.
As for the point of the above example in this context – we might need some new, more practical definitions of quantitative and qualitative differences after all. Especially, when you’re searching for something, going through all possibilities should count as qualitatively more expensive than looking at a single one – and that’s some intuition for where the distinction between polynomial and exponential time in computer science came from. Here’s a nice paper on that topic that I don’t really understand (yeah, I don’t really understand either): Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity
While the book is still fresh in my mind (it’s about 1 hour, or 60 minutes, that is, 3600 seconds, behind me). You know a science fiction book is good (to you) when it constructs curious ideas and situations you haven’t ever imagined before (which are of course made possible by some kind of, well, technology; otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a SF work; or would it?). Another way you know a science fiction book was good to you is when you read it, and then (of course) go to wikipedia, see when the thing was written, and be like “What? I thought it was written in the 70s or something…”.
“Orphans of the sky” by Heinlein was good to me in both respects. If I had to summarize the insight I gained from it in a sentence, it would roughly say this. The concepts of ‘humanity’, ‘human nature’ and ‘common sense’ are highly dependent on, and extremely, short-time-scale flexible with respect to, the knowledge passed from parents to children.
And here’s a quote that is both representative of this idea and a sort of motivation for the study of general topological spaces as opposed to metric spaces (What? What did I just say?…):
Metrical time caused him as much mental confusion as astronomical distances, but no emotional upset The trouble was again the lack of the concept in the Ship. The Crew had the notion of topological time; they understood “now,” “before,” “after,” “has been,” “will be,” even such notions as long time and short time, but the notion of measured time had dropped out of the culture. The lowest of earthbound cultures has some idea of measured time, even if limited to days and seasons, but every earthly concept of measured time originates in astronomical phenomena; the Crew had been insulated from all astronomical phenomena for uncounted generations.
“[it’s] like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped ’round a large gold brick.”
Douglas Adams on …?
A SLICE OF LEMON?! Why not apple. A large gold brick? Why not a large golden… apple. OK, I admit it, he was apparently talking about the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. But he could have as easily been talking about (can you hear the drums?)
Hell yeah. That’s right. The Illuminatus! trilogy. This book is totally crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy in so many ways and on so many levels (and probably even more than that, actually). It contains a shamelessly huge number of references to art/history/whatnot, and the funniest uses of self-reference I’ve ever encountered. It holds a very special place in my library, and also it’s a lot of fun, that’s why I chose it as the first (and hopefully not last) book to be discussed in my blog.
This book is an easy read: right from its first line, “It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.”, it will push you forward (and maybe pull you back when you finish it? Another inside joke from Math55…) through its dynamic plot, and you’ll be flying over the words, the sometimes absurdly long and complex sentences, the sudden shifts in time and place (and mindset), the infinite loads of irony, the puns, the Goddess(es), the talking porpoises, the playful mood, the underwater… whatever, laughing all the way. And – yay! It’s another sunny and exciting day of your life. You look up at the clear blue sky (no matter if it is clear and blue), infinitely more curious and infinitely more confused than you were when you started reading it. And that is always good. ‘What the hell was that?’, you might be asking yourself. What is left is this subtle feeling of a joke, resting somewhere under the worries of your mind – a small joke? a huge joke? maybe the world is a joke? maybe it was on you? – and it makes you smile mysteriously at everything and everyone you see that day. It makes you feel – or, more accurately, makes you remember that you are – liberated. And indeed, having your brains smashed out by a slice of the Apple of Discord never felt so good.
“Is”, “is.” “is” — the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment”
― Robert Anton Wilson
This book is a hard read: you won’t know where you ARE, who the fnord characters ARE, whether what the two paranoid authors ARE scribbling about IS happening for real or not (whatever that means), what exactly IS happening, and all this IS making you mad, IS this some kind of crazy joke, why AM I even reading this?! Why all the weird conspiracy crap?! And fnord what IS the whole point of the story?!! It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I shouldn’t have bought fnord that! I’d better leave it back on the shelf…
“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you can’t always be sure of their authenticity.”
And as coincidence is a major theme of ‘Illuminatus!’, there was a curious coincidence involved in me ordering the book. I had known about it for several years, however I had some money to spend on books, so I ordered this together with one other book that had caught my eye more recenly: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. That’s a weird combination, I thought. Several months later, I found this about ‘Illuminatus!’:
here, and this about ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach‘:
This book reads like an intellectual Grand Tour of hacker preoccupations. Music, mathematical logic, programming, speculations on the nature of intelligence, biology, and Zen are woven into a brilliant tapestry themed on the concept of encoded self-reference. The perfect left-brain companion to “Illuminatus”.
Dr John Lilly refers to “the crew that never rests” as Cosmic Coincidence Control Center and warns that they pay special attention to those who pay attention to them.
About possible criticism: Yes, I’m aware of all the conspiracy theories mentioned (and developed) in ‘Illuminatus!’ and the ‘Cosmic Trigger’ series. To put it firmly: I don’t care if any of them are true or not. When I read a book, I just read a book and that’s it. I agree that in some parts of ‘Cosmic Trigger’, Wilson might appear a little assertive of such stuff, and I always hate it when someone’s like, ‘OK, see? That’s how it is, that’s the conspiracy, they’re not giving you the truth – but I am!’, but his overall approach is agnostic in nature. And in ‘Illuminatus!’ I didn’t feel any signs of someone being assertive about anything. As I said, it left me even more confused and curious. So if you fell that the book is bad because it’s trying to convince you in some weird New World Order thing, the problem might actually be in your television set.
As to the point of the book (I’ve been successfully procrastinating bringing this scary word up), as far as there is one, well, I can’t tell you what it is. It’s simply because I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t able (for good or for bad) to just finish the last page and say, “Hey, I finally see what all this was about. So cool.” And as author Robert A. Wilson used to read Joyce’s Ulysses each year and find something new in it, I might do the same with ‘Illuminatus!’ (and maybe blog about it? haha!). So, nice job, Mr. Wilson! You should be glad, wherever you are. However, what I feel the point is, right now in this day and in this state of mind, recollecting about the experience I had while reading it a year or so ago, can be roughly summarized as:
Exploring and venting about quantitative issues
Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.
Mathematics related discussions
Updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics. By Terence Tao
Most of the blog moved to blog.krastanov.org