The Evolution Man – Roy Lewis

Although my copy, published by Penguin in 1963 has the title ‘The Evolution Man’ this was not the original title; when the book was first published by Hutchinson in 1960 it was called ‘What We Did to Father’, it has also gone under the title of ‘Once Upon an Ice Age’. As far as I can tell it has been out of print since 1994 when it gained a further subtitle which because it rather gives away the ending I’m not going to repeat here.

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The book is written from the point of view of Ernest one of the sons of Edward, the Evolution Man of the title. The family are Pleistocene ape-men in Africa and recently down from the trees, which is where his Uncle Vanya thinks they should all still be but Edward is determined that they must evolve. Part of the conceit of the book is that he is aware of the time periods that we now assign to history and worries that they may still be in the early Pleistocene and so have a long way to go rather than the mid to late period so are well on their way. The other part is that father achieves all the steps needed to lift them from scavenging apes just venturing onto the plains to the cusp of becoming the dominant species dragging his protesting family behind him. His first discovery is fire for warmth and defence against predators.

Fire – ‘How did fire work?’ ‘what I wanted was a small portable volcano’ ‘my only hope of finding the sort of limited family sized fire I wanted was to go up a volcano and chip a bit off’

Whilst telling the tale of how he brought fire from the volcano he accidentally invents ‘the heavy duty hunting spear with the fire hardened point’ by not paying attention to where his spear was when engrossed in the story. The fact that he instantly names it correctly and understands what he has got is entirely typical of the character. He is determined that humanity will progress and he won’t tolerate any back-sliding

The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilisation of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realise that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.

All the family get caught up in this drive for progress, the youngest son Alexander uses burnt stick to draw uncle Vanya’s shadow one evening so inventing representative art. A little later on as Edward instantly understands what he has done they work together to draw a mammoth and soon after that the family kill a mammoth.  As this is perceived as cause and effect by the family, if not Edward, is this the start of religion? In another part of the book he demonstrates a basic grasp of genetics, or at least the need to widen as far as possible the genetic pool and get away from the natural trend for a small tribe to inbreed.

I should point out that the Roy Lewis who wrote this book is very different from the crime writer of the same name who has written over sixty books. Roy Lewis of The Evolution Man wrote only two works of fiction, he was a journalist and worked for The Economist and The Times in his long career, he also founded The Keepsake Press, a small private press.

To summarise the book I can do no better than to quote Sir Terry Pratchett from a article he wrote for the Washington Post published 7th April 2002

I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done.

I can only say I heartily agree.

Flatland – Edwin A. Abbott

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I asked my friend, Catalan booktuber Anna, best known under her nom de plume of Mixa, to choose this weeks read from a random group of titles I provided and she selected Flatland because she had never heard of it and was intrigued by the idea of a mathematical classic combined with social parody. Written in 1884 by an English headmaster who specialised in ‘classics’ i.e. Greek and Latin; this is as an unlikely cornerstone of multi-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry as can really be imagined. I first read it in my teens and although the copy on my shelves is from my mid twenties I probably haven’t read it in over two decades so it is well worth revisiting.

The book is split into two sections, the first describes Flatland and it’s inhabitants whilst the second deals with one of it’s inhabitants A. Square and his perspective of several other lands. Initially Lineland, then what is called Spaceland which is our own set of dimensions and finally Pointland before he finally returns to his own two dimensional world and the prison that we find him in at the start of the narrative.

But let us begin with a description of Flatland because it is with an understanding of this two dimensional land that we will start to see the effects of an extra dimension which is not apparent to the inhabitants. Our narrator A. Square is as you might expect a square and as such is a lawyer, the number of sides that each character has denotes his status in society as follows:

Our Middle Class consists of Equilateral or Equal-Sided Triangles. Our Professional Men and Gentlemen are Squares (to which class I myself belong) and Five-Sided
Figures or Pentagons. Next above these come the Nobility, of whom there are several degrees, beginning at Six-Sided Figures, or Hexagons, and from thence rising in the number of their sides till they receive the honourable title of Polygonal, or many-sided. Finally when the number of the sides becomes so numerous, and the sides themselves so small, that the figure cannot be distinguished from a circle, he is included in the Circular or Priestly order; and this is the highest class of all.

It is a Law of Nature with us that a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility. Thus the son of a Square is a Pentagon; the son of a Pentagon, a Hexagon; and so on.

Below the Equilateral triangles are the ranks of workers and soldiers who are Isosceles and as the size of the smallest angle contained within a figure is an indication of intelligence clearly the more ‘pointed’ such a triangle is the lower the intellect and (bearing in mind this is a Victorian book) the more violent and criminal the individual is assumed to be. Rather than increasing sides with each generation Isosceles triangles gain half a degree to their smallest angle each time until they are finally assessed to be Equilateral and the family can then start to rise through society.

Now it should be noted that as indicated in the quote above this only applies to sons, so what about the females, well they are all just straight lines and this is where Edwin Abbott Abbott (yes the A. in his name really was Abbott as well) hit accusations of misogyny even in the 1880’s. Something he attempted to address in a preface added to the second and revised edition but without much success, one of the more offending sections being below…

Not that it must be for a moment supposed that our Women are destitute of affection. But unfortunately the passion of the moment predominates, in the Frail Sex, over every other consideration. This is, of course, a necessity arising from their unfortunate conformation. For as they have no pretensions to an angle, being inferior in this respect to the very lowest of the Isosceles, they are consequently wholly devoid of brain-power, and have neither reflection, judgement nor forethought, and hardly any memory.

Still enough of the first half of the book, there are lots of details given as to how houses are constructed, how the people recognise each other and various social mores which whilst interesting in the way Abbott has tried to give life to his creation do not really impinge on the main object of the book which is contained in part two. The important section is in the remainder where A Square visits other lands and learns about dimensions other than the North/South, East/West directions he is currently familiar with. The first of these is described as a dream where he perceives Lineland a place of just one dimension with all the inhabitants travelling over a single line with him floating over it so that he can see along the line.

 

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As A. Square interacts with the King of Lineland at first he is simply a disembodied voice coming from nowhere along the line and therefore not perceptible as a figure to his majesty. He therefore lowers himself onto (and through the line) revealing himself as a line as that is all he can be in just one dimension, but a line that can appear and disappear at will. This understanding is vitally important for him to grasp the concept of Spaceland later on in the book when a sphere visits him in his home.

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As can be seen from the diagram to A. Square the sphere is merely a circle within Flatland and one that can change size and also appear and disappear just as he could in Lineland but even though he had his dream he still struggles to comprehend what it is that he is seeing until the sphere lifts him off the plane of Flatland and shows him his world from above. Suddenly he can see inside his house and not only that but everyone and everything in it simultaneously. He can even see inside his sons, grandsons and servants and also his wife panicking because he has suddenly vanished.

 

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This is revelatory to him and at this point he grasps a logical progression that had eluded the sphere himself

I. Nay, gracious Teacher, deny me not what I know it is in thy power to perform. Grant me but one glimpse of thine interior, and I am satisfied for ever, remaining henceforth thy docile pupil, thy unemancipable slave, ready to receive all thy teachings and to feed upon the words that fall from thy lips.

Sphere. Well, then, to content and silence you, let me say at once, I would shew you what you wish if I could; but I cannot. Would you have me turn my stomach inside out to oblige you?

I. But my Lord has shewn me the intestines of all my countrymen in the Land of Two Dimensions by taking me with him into the Land of Three. What therefore more easy than now to take his servant on a second journey into the blessed region of the Fourth Dimension, where I shall look down with him once more upon this land of Three Dimensions, and see the inside of every three-dimensioned house, the secrets of the solid earth, the treasures of the mines in Spaceland, and the intestines of every solid living creature, even of the noble and adorable Spheres.

Sphere. But where is this land of Four Dimensions?

I. I know not; but doubtless my Teacher knows.

Sphere. Not I. There is no such land. The very idea of it is utterly inconceivable.

I. Not inconceivable, my Lord, to me, and therefore still less inconceivable to my Master. Nay, I despair not that, even here, in this region of Three Dimensions, your Lordship’s art may make the Fourth Dimension visible to me; just as in the Land of Two Dimensions my Teacher’s skill would fain have opened the eyes of his blind servant to the invisible presence of a Third Dimension, though I saw it not. Let me recall the past. Was I not taught below that when I saw a Line and inferred a Plane, I in reality saw a Third unrecognised Dimension, not the same as brightness, called “height”? And does it not now follow that, in this region, when I see a Plane and infer a Solid, I really see a Fourth unrecognised Dimension, not the same as colour, but existent, though infinitesimal and incapable of measurement? And besides this, there is the Argument from Analogy of Figures.

Sphere. Analogy! Nonsense: what analogy?

I. Your Lordship tempts his servant to see whether he remembers the revelations imparted to him. Trifle not with me, my Lord; I crave, I thirst, for more knowledge. Doubtless we cannot see that other higher Spaceland now, because we have no eye in our stomachs. But, just as there was the realm of Flatland, though the poor puny Lineland Monarch could neither turn to left nor right to discern it, and just as there was close at hand, and touching my frame, the land of Three Dimensions, though I, blind senseless wretch, had no power to touch it, no eye in my interior to discern it, so of a surety there is a Fourth Dimension, which my Lord perceives with the inner eye of thought. And that it must exist my Lord himself has taught me. Or can he have forgotten what he himself imparted to his servant?
In One Dimension, did not a moving Point produce a Line with two terminal points?
In Two Dimensions, did not a moving Line produce a Square with four terminal points?
In Three Dimensions, did not a moving Square produce – did not this eye of mine behold it – that blessed Being, a Cube, with eight terminal points?
And in Four Dimensions shall not a moving Cube – alas, for Analogy, and alas for the Progress of Truth, if it be not so – shall not, I say, the motion of a divine Cube result in a still more divine Organization with sixteen terminal points?
Behold the infallible confirmation of the Series 2, 4, 8, 16; is not this a Geometrical Progression? Is not this – if I might quote my Lord’s own words – “strictly according to Analogy”?
Again, was I not taught by my Lord that as in a Line there are two bounding Points, and in a Square there are four bounding Lines, so in a Cube there must be six bounding Squares? Behold once more the confirming Series, 2, 4, 6; is not this an Arithmetical Progression? And consequently does it not of necessity follow that the more divine offspring of the divine Cube in the Land of Four Dimensions, must
have 8 bounding Cubes; and is not this also, as my Lord has taught me to believe, “strictly according to Analogy”?

Sorry for quoting such a large section but this really is the whole crux of the book as we see that logically there must be a fourth direction that is no more visible to us as up/down was to the square in Flatland and north/south was to the inhabitants of Lineland stuck as they are in their eternal east/west line.

We leave Flatland as we began with A Square in prison for having committed the heresy of declaring of what he calls ‘upward not northward’ and trying to spread these ‘lies’ in Flatland. He is being visited by a priest, as he has been for seven years to try to get him to recant from his madness but instead he determines to write this book.

Flatland has never been out of print since it’s original publication over 130 years ago and it remains one of the great primers in understanding multidimensional geometry so important after the work of Einstein, I heartily recommend it and have thoroughly enjoyed rereading it so thank you Anna.

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Never Let Me Go – Kazou Ishiguro

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Kazou Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved with his family to England when he was just five years old, as a result most of his novels and short stories are set in England and usually in the past. This allows him to reflect on his adopted homeland from the perspective of a outsider who is also an insider; his parents never expected to stay so long in England so he grew up in a Japanese speaking household even whilst attending English schools and colleges. The Remains of the Day which takes place in a English country house in the 1940’s is probably his best known work and this book is set in the 1980’s and 1990’s so initially it felt like familiar territory. Before starting to read Never Let Me Go I knew nothing about it and made a point (as I usually do) of not reading the introduction to this Folio Society edition so I was coming to the novel with no preconceptions.

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The stark illustrations by Kate Miller set the tone of the book straight away. I now know that this is Tommy and Kathy outside the sports pavilion at Hailsham school in a scene from the first chapter, later on we would be introduced to the other main character, Ruth. The novel is in three parts; the first, and longest section, is set at the school and initially it reads like any novel at a boarding school or it least it would do if it wasn’t for the haunting opening lines of the novel that hint at something that really isn’t right but clearly central to the work.

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years.

The second section is set at ‘the Cottages’ an old farm where a group of the students get sent after leaving Hailsham and then the final section deals with Kathy’s time as a carer. The book is written in the first person as Kathy and we follow her reminiscences through her school-days and afterwards, all the way up until we get back to this opening line.  But just what is the role of a carer? Well it will take half the novel before that truly becomes clear and it turns out that I accidentally bought three dystopian novels as part of a block purchase from the Folio Society when I though I only had two. (The Drowned World by J G Ballard, covered last month and The Last Man by Mary Shelley which will be the subject of a later blog).

I’m so glad that I hadn’t read the introduction to this edition before reading the book as it completely gives the plot away and even discusses the highly significant scene near the end of the novel. This unfortunately is a major failing of the Folio Society, their books are lovely but the introductions should really be postscripts.  This review won’t go into too much detail about the plot simply because I want any reader to come at the novel fresh as I did and discover slowly through the hints that get more specific as the book progresses just exactly what is going on and if you haven’t read the book I really do recommend it and you don’t need to get the Folio edition, it is readily available in paperback.

The school sounds like a typical English Public School (that is private for the rest of the world), although gradually you realise that year eight are actually only eight years old, so is it some sort of orphanage? Ishiguro’s master stroke in the novel is just how slowly he lets the reader into the reality of the situation, even the students don’t know what the place is really about but there are dark hints. A bit later on it becomes clear that they cannot leave the site and have virtually no contact with the outside world other than the mysterious Madame who visits occasionally and takes away their best artworks; all very odd.

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The picture above is from a scene at the Cottages, Tommy and Ruth are now a couple, with Kathy feeling like an outsider and it is by now obvious most of what is going on although why is still a significant question and this wouldn’t be fully answered until the penultimate chapter. My theory at this point was largely correct but I had anticipated the final twist as to why they are there however without doing exactly what I criticised Claire Messud for in her introduction and giving away too much this is about as far through the plot that I can go.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature in 2017 with a citation  “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” and this book certainly fits that description.

The Drowned World – J G Ballard

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This week I’ve been reading one of the classic dystopian novels; and a very early book to take the theme of climate change as it was written in 1962. The edition I have was printed by the Folio Society  in 2013, bound in full buckram and beautifully illustrated by James Boswell who also created the design blocked onto the cover in reflective metallic copper and gold ink. The copper coloured endpapers continue the bright design so appropriate for a book about the burning sun beating down on a flooded planet.

J G Ballard is best known for his apocalyptic stories where the world is viewed after a catastrophe, “The Drowned World” is his second novel and is preceded by “The Wind From Nowhere” where extreme winds are destroying the Earth and followed by “The Burning World” where pollution in the oceans eventually gets to such a level that it blocks the precipitation cycle leading to no more rain and deserts everywhere. “The Drowned World” is a novel about the aftermath of runaway global warming, the ice caps have melted flooding most of the rest of the world, and humanity has largely retreated to the Arctic zones. Dr Robert Kerans and his older colleague Dr Alan Bodkin are biologists attached to a military expedition tasked with exploring the drowned cities however it has become clear over time that the charts they have produced are going to be no use as the heat is just increasing so mankind will never recolonise the majority of the planet. The temperature in flooded London is well over 40 degrees centigrade by mid morning and the afternoon heat is unbearable. Kerans and Bodkin hatch a plan to stay behind when the expedition is due to leave; along with the enigmatic Beatrice Dahl who is still living in the penthouse that belonged to her parents.

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They are all having strange dreams about the sun and a desire to head south into the increasing heat without clearly understanding why this urgent need has overtaken them. The other members of the unit are also having the same dreams and this is one of the factors that leads the commander to decide to leave sooner than originally planned.

The London that the three characters are left in when they do elude the journey north is rapidly regressing to a revitalised Triassic period with giant iguanas, huge bats and insects recolonising the swamps and flooded lagoons of what was once the squares and thoroughfares of the city. Kerans has taken to living in the top floor suite of what was once The Ritz, Bodkin scuttled the science station over the top of The Planetarium, presumably the one in Greenwich, whilst Beatrice remains in her suite and here they are planning on lasting as long as they can until the fuel and food finally runs out after when they will abandon London and head south as their dreams are calling them.

The writing style is sparse almost lethargic and matches the slowness of the characters as the heat forces the them to do less and less and just reduce their lives to sleep and short expeditions to occasionally visit each other. The washed out illustrations by James Boswell also match this sense of oppressive heat as the reader gets drawn into this world. Mankind is losing, the planet is returning to a more primitive state and it is implied that so is man.

Of course it is all going to go wrong and halfway through the book it does and a heightened level of horror is injected into the book which carries us to the inevitable denouement as the characters mental states slowly collapse. It’s a brilliant book, Ballard wasn’t really appreciated in his own lifetime although since his death in 2009 his works are becoming more and more respected but as he himself said

For a writer, death is always a career move