Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans

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An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.

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Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.

 

Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).

 

THE GATE

 

Mordor

Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.

 

Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.

 

And then, in a different mood:

 

REEDBED

Reedbed

As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.

 

By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.

 

I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!

 

I hope most of you had a happy Christmas

Image

I’m not particularly joining in the Bah Humbug message (my search for Christmas Gloom images did not turn up a wide selection), though visiting the supermarket today to find tinny music blaring out a message of Christmas good cheer equates taking advantage of all those special offers did make me a bit humbuggish. I suppose the abstract noun is humbuggery.

What I wanted to point out, being rather honest and world-battered, is that a wish that everyone in a group of ten or more has a happy Christmas is unrealistic and I’ve always believed in making wishes and objectives practical if only just. So I recommend, to a group of ten people, “I hope nine of you have a happy Christmas.”

Now for a poem. This is a recent one of mine and I think I’ll leave it to you to see any common theme in the three parts.

THREE

ETERNAL CITY

He mentioned the eternal city, but the timetable is out of date,

Some of the stops have been washed away or closed;

The internet gives me pictures of it, but they’re disputed

Someone claims the mysterious hand is his

And has the ring to prove it. I have heard the music,

But perhaps it’s coming from next door’s TV;

The undeciphered symbols wrenched from the desert

May be accounts or a maker’s production numbers

Or simply random scribbles we’ve invested

With our own need for pattern. Going outside

I see the stars, step back and shut the door,

I read a pamphlet, get a cup of coffee

And grasp only in my sleep for a hidden city.

GOLDEN EGG

Up this tall, beautiful tree is a great bird’s nest

The bird is black, its talons crush skulls like paper

And in the nest, a single golden egg

Which you say contains all the wisdom ever thought

And I say would make me a lord if melted down.

We would both climb for it

But the trunk is too high, the branches insubstantial,

Buckling even under the weight of a squirrel

(So the old woman says) and we dare not do it and die

But you fear what the hatching from the egg would bring

That’s why you climbed and cried and fell and died.

SEA VOICES

Some say the drowned sailors are calling in the sea-wind,

And some, lost children, chattering in the foam;

Some hear the butchered whales’ song, but I

Just hear the wind, the beating of the waves,

Rasping of pebbles rounded over the years.

They say the lost creatures, whatever they are, will lead you out

Beckoning, alluring, to a death by drowning

But I see none of that, and so I follow.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it

Poems are full of ambiguity and mystery. Sometimes this is deliberately created, using words that could mean one thing or another, either to suggest both things or to seem clever by mystifying the reader. Sometimes the mystery, the uncertainty, the blur occurs because the poet isn’t sure of what (s)he’s saying. In an instruction manual for a machine this would be disastrous. But poets like religious visionaries are talking all the time about things they suspect they partly understand.

I’ve picked out here three of my poems where uncertainty is an important factor.

A SIGN

So when the distant soldiers came around midday

To the curious building in the foreign fields

Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign

And casually debated what the thing might mean.

But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,

Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness

Among many, and so in time they marched away

To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge

And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine

The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.

The poem is about missed opportunities, a sign that could have changed the world but didn’t. Unless we believe that everything is predetermined, the thought of how different the world might have been if the Buddha or Mohammed or Luther, or for that matter Lenin or Hitler, had died before making an impact, is disturbing and intriguing. For the soldiers, though, the crops in the fields, the building and the sign are all things outside their experience: they wonder a bit and move on, having a job to do, a job that will kill them. The soldiers don’t understand the sign, but we aren’t told what the sign is, or how to recognise a sign from noise.

RAINWASHED

I recognise them, the rainwashed places,

The shallow lakes across the demolition site

The passing vehicle’s short-lived water rising

Water-spots on the window, rainbright grass

On the playing-field fringed by uneven brickwork

That will be there another night

When the rain has not fallen, the dust rises and falls

On crumbling walls the fern and buddleia shrivel

And the window is smeared, and cannot be cleared by a fix

And the clouds in the distance, over the barren hills

Could be the coming of rain or could be the end of the trick.

This poem ends with uncertainty: are the rains coming to end the drought, or is it “the end of the trick”? And is the trick a false promise of rain or something more fundamental, an unreal world? The description of the environment during and after much rain seems to lead on to drought through an assumption that drought will follow rain, but is this a natural cycle of seasons or an irreversible change?

TIMER

In the dark tower at the top

A single light, dull glowing red

The tower is darker than the night

The lower buildings round the edge

Cluster in shadow from the red

The hunting waver of an owl

Behind the avenue of dead trees

Wakens a movement in the sedge

And slithering through the hidden ditch.

The moths have gathered round the light

And something old is not yet dead.

Time, our young friend and enemy

Writing we cannot erase

Though written on tablets that may crumble

And in a metre we find strange

The ship is down, we cling to you

The waves around, the water cold

And we were young, and we are old.

If I should meet what I have feared

Lit by the red light from the tower,

If opening the hidden case

I should not find another hour

But something strange I knew before

Recalling marks on that dull door

I shall be ready for time and space.

A golden clock stands on a marble shelf

The intricate workings move at even speed

If I should throw it far in a great arc

Into the waters of the silent lake

What would I think I was, what would I be?

Lianas interlink the blossoming trees

Inside the green confusion all birds sing

And shivering trills with low, slow warbles mix

And touch and mingle, wing to leaf to wing.

This one deals with themes of time and death, but it contains images and lines I don’t really understand myself. You tell me what the significance is of the dull light in the old tower, for I’m not sure myself. I might guess that the tower is a body – or the world. The light may be life and consciousness – or it may be a principle of life, a spiritual reality. So why is the tower darker than the night around? That time is friend and enemy is not a surprising thought, but why “young friend”? Maybe because time is the here and now as well as the distant? Or am I imagining myself outside time, so time itself might seem a blip?

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Right and Wrong

Keats criticised poetry that had a “palpable design” on us. Poets debate at length to what extent poetry today should carry a political or moral message and whether it changes anything anyway. For re-posting and discussion, I’ve selected three poems written roughly around the same time that all raise moral issues, that is, issues of right and wrong.

I’m not afraid to talk of right and wrong. I’m what philosophers call a “soft relativist”, which sounds like an insult, but actually means the position which I suspect most people in the Western world take if they think about such things – that there are very few if any absolute statements of right or wrong actions (that it is never right to lie, to kill, to eat pork, to accept blood transfusion and so on) but this does not mean that anything goes and different actions in different circumstances may be said to be right or wrong by a standard that is not purely related to my own benefit or comfort or the survival of my genes.

I think, though, that poetry ought commonly to confront moral issues by asking questions or drawing attention powerfully to consequences rather than by laying down right answers.

So here’s the first poem and the most politically and morally engaged:

THE HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.

 

In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.

 

The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

In looking back at this I see immediately that the gloss or introduction makes political points much more directly than the poem, but this is because poetic language uses images rather than syllogisms or platform bullet-points.

The poem is very political and moral, though. It charges the profit motive and unchecked capitalism with 193 deaths and with untold suffering and extinctions through global warming. As it happens I am not a socialist and believe attempts to do without private enterprise are pointless. I don’t see it as the role of a poem, though, to suggest and debate the political action that could be taken (some of it is pretty obvious in these two cases).

I use the name of the ship to develop an image of heraldry and hence bright colours and impressive ceremony – and then suddenly introduce reality and, in poetic form, the way powerful interests control information.

Here, by contrast, is the next poem.

THE LAST PROBLEM

The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hand and lies in mine.

The character of the Great Detective is a recurring one in my poems. He’s dedicated, determined, rational, intelligent and narrowly-focused – in deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes.  The poem starts by presenting such a detective locked in battle with a Moriarty figure, the lord of crime. No moral ambiguity here. But as it progresses we find the perception shifts. Now we’re seeing the organisation of the lord of crime as a beautiful city threatened by a destructive force, a wolf that is also the Great Detective.

The prowling nemesis breaks in and comes face to face with the lord. Now, says the poem, you choose who should win. This represents the fact that we can influence the outcome of social struggles, but which side we should take is often unclear and there are different perceptions. But the poem is unforgiving: the difficulty does not absolve us of responsibility for taking a decision and acting.

Here’s the third poem.

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again

The blood will still be on the old stone steps

The man at the corner will still be glancing after

The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I

We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard

Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising

Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,

Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night

There is the cancer that will grow and scatter

The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

You could say this poem lies between the other two. It suggests an attitude but leaves a lot unclear. The world is dirty, messy, often unpleasant and damaged. But to react with a wish to reject the world for something pure and perfect is dangerous: that way lie fanaticism and mass murder. Robespierre, the Inquisition, the Fascists and Al Qaida were all obsessed with purity. So accept that the world is imperfect – but don’t walk off indifferent.  Know the dark and love light.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Mission

Here’s another poem written in the style of a ballad, with a hint of mystery.

 

 

MISSION

 

So when will we come back, she said,

So when will we stray?

The oaks grow round the shack, she said,

And the night kills day.

 

There may be no return, I said,

But we’ll stray for sure:

Or else the tower will burn, I said,

And the moon will lure.

 

So will we find the stone, my friend?

Will it brightly burn?

Or will we waste to bone, my friend,

Lying in the fern?

 

The stone may not be found, my friend,

Not in shack or sea,

Or in broken ground, my friend.

It may never be.

 

So let us rise and go, she said,

Calling in the night,

For what we do not know, she said,

And a dream of light.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

Grey breaks the sea

GREY BREAKS THE SEA

 

Grey breaks the sea on the long land

Soft is the rain and cool

Blurred is the distant southern shore

And lost the sunken pool.

 

Harsh breaks the sea on the long land

My eyes turn to the west

They say there’s rocks and the wrong winds

So let us know the rest.

 

 

Evidently not written with my own location in mind because from here, West is the only direction that would take you inland without traversing any sea.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

A Sign

Another poem, a short one, about the significance of things that didn’t happen, missed signs.

A SIGN

So when the distant soldiers came around midday

To the curious building in the foreign fields

Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign

And casually debated what the thing might mean.

But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,

Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness

Among many, and so in time they marched away

To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge

And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine

The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

No-one took me up on the challenge about the poetic influence on my poem “Assembly”. It was Dylan Thomas – as I said, not for the language but for the subject and the choice of imagery. He was always writing about birth and childhood with an eye on death.

The Last Problem

Sherlock Holmes is a figure who has developed mythic force and a life outside the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When Conan Doyle, wanting to move on, killed him off, he came back. He appears in countless cartoons, stories, film and TV adaptations. The struggle of Holmes against arch-villain and intellect of equal power Professor Moriarty has something archetypal about it.

 

Some revisions of the story of that struggle have made Holmes the villain. What if Moriarty was framed? Consider also Holmes’ character – a brilliant intellect and athlete much more than a machine (emotionally close to his loyal friend Watson and a lover of music) but oddly incomplete emotionally, in relationships and spiritually. It’s easy to see Holmes, or a similar great detective, in a struggle with suppressed elements of himself or with aspects of humanity that may not be entirely negative.

 

The Last Problem

 

The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

 

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

 

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

 

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hands, and lies in mine.

 

“The Last Problem” title echoes the title “The Final Problem” in which Holmes outwitted Moriarty but both men died (apparently). In this poem the detective appears at first as a force for good facing the den of the well-resourced criminal mastermind, but before the end, the focus has shifted and the detective is seen as a destructive force while the lord of crime is simply a lord with a “city of light” to protect.

 

In the real world we often face choices where we must act, but are confused by similar ambiguity. Who really was at fault and whom can we trust? But inaction may not be an option.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

If

IF

 

With a light shrug she said:

 

If a long golden line

Woven as thin as thought

Stretches between the planets

Will you swing there?

 

If in a long-drowned mine

Red-black beast wakes and shifts

Tearing the surface calm

Will you fight it?

 

If opening your hands

Emerald bird alights

Throbbing with intense life

Will you stroke it?