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Sailing The Seas Of Time: What If We Took Alternative History Seriously?

by Jim Clarke

Let’s sail back in time for a moment, to the first century AD. Here we find Livy at work on his one great historical text, Ab Urbe Condita, which he intended as a history of Rome from its foundation to his time of writing, when it had become an empire under Augustus. Primarily it is a history of the Roman Republican era therefore, but as with historians then and now, Livy was prone to the occasional digression.

In Book IX, despite insisting that he wished “to digress no more than is necessary from the order of the narrative”, he spends a considerable time considering the question, “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in war with Alexander?” Livy, being a good patriotic Roman, and having spent his entire life during one of its peaks in power, assures us that Rome would have resisted the man known as Conqueror of the World.

Let’s then follow Livy back to the fourth century BC. Early in the century we find Rome under siege from the Gauls, who sacked the city and besieged the inner capitol for seven months, before being bribed to leave. By the time Alexander was born, in 356 BC, the Gauls were still raiding Latium, modern Lazio, the province in which Rome is located.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Alexander didn’t hang about. He was 20 years old when he assumed the throne of Macedonia. By that time Rome was slowly rebuilding from the Celtic Gaul invasions and beginning to retake towns in Latium and Etruria it had previously held. As Alexander embarked on his extraordinary 12-year career of conquest, Rome was embroiled in its own backyard, fighting the Samnites in a series of wars in Campania.

When Alexander died, aged 32, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, having routed the Persians, sacked Persepolis, conquered Egypt, founded the biggest city in the world, crossed the Hindu Kush and taken Samarkand, Rome was still battling the Samnites. It was even humiliated by them in 321 BC at the Battle of the Claudine Forks. This is the force Livy would have us believe would have defeated the Philosopher King. It is not an especially plausible claim, and one wonders what might have happened in reality had Alexander turned West from his Persian campaign rather than continuing into Asia.

It is, in short, one of those apparent hinges of history, a moment in time around which the entirety of the subsequent timeline appears to be contingent. What would our world look like had Alexander taken Rome 23 centuries ago, and had he lived long enough to consolidate a Macedonian empire of the Mediterranean? Livy, by inviting such speculation, bears the honour of inventing alternative history.

Alt-history today has an uneasy relationship with science fiction more generally, though is generally lazily subsumed within its capacious borders. Nevertheless, alt-history has some characteristics which set it apart, not least of which is its interdisciplinary relationship with history, wherein it is known primarily as counterfactual history, or economics, wherein it becomes cliometrics.

Counterfactual history functions as a historiographic approach, restricting itself to hypothetical alternatives to real events, and aims to measure or examine the importance of those events by speculating on the effect of removing or changing them. Cliometrics similarly examines such hypotheticals, but from the perspective of measuring economic, industrial or fiscal impact, as in Robert Fogel’s seminal Railroads and America’s Economic Growth (1964), which speculated that improved canals and roads would have filled the gap economically had there been no railroads.

It may be that the relationship with SF stemmed from the sheer volume of alt-histories written by SF writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, but in fact it has always appealed as a mode of writing to the literati, too. SF historian and novelist Adam Roberts has identified Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy’s 1841 Apocryphal Napoleon as a seminal text in the genre, and is right to do so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to underline the fact that uchronic speculation extends far beyond the Anglophone world. Among English-speaking writers alone, however, we can trace the tradition back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and forward to notables like George Steiner, Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, and Jonathan Lethem.

As a speculative mode it is not restricted to genre any more than it is to language. It has attracted playwrights such as Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, generated TV and cinema productions, and inspired a whole constellation of journalists, myself included. Intriguingly, one can trace an upswing in counterfactual reportage to the disputed election of George W. Bush in the US Presidential election in 2000, which literally and figuratively hinged on the validity of chads on votes cast in Florida. As a result, journalists rushed to hypothesise what an Al Gore presidency might have looked like, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks soon afterwards, as well as Gore’s noted involvement in environmental causes.

In fact, the 21st century to date might well be considered a high point for uchronia. Journalistic what-if articles proliferated vastly, to the extent that they now appear in publications like Guitar World. And such is the splintering of political perspectives globally that the concept of alternative facts, as accidentally introduced by US Presidential Counsellor Kellyanne Conway in 2017, seems almost to have superseded the concept of alternative histories.

Uchronic conditionality is now seeping into our present. It manifests as the secret histories and conspiracy theories to which so many are beholden, and is deconstructing and decentring any coherent understanding of world events. Perhaps the best example of this is Vladislav Surkov, advisor to Russia’s President Putin, whose background as an absurdist theatre director has enabled him to reconstruct Russia’s political and public sphere as one large absurdist theatrical performance.

We can see this trend in current alt-histories. William Gibson’s Agency (2020)is an allohistorical sequel to The Peripheral in which Hilary is President and Brexit never happened. There is a certain element of wish fulfilment in such narratives of course, but it also expresses what Jacques Derrida (and later Mark Fisher) referred to as hauntology, the experience of being haunted by futures which did not occur.

Hauntology now saturates our present, as a result of pervasive alternate histories warring over the past. Like time travellers seeking to change the course of events, today’s political class seek to impose their narratives, myths and ideologies upon previous events, up to and including overt lying. As a result, journals like The Atlantic openly speculate whether Americans in particular are now living in an “alternative” history, while physicists at CERN have been forced to issue denials of the widely believed rumour that their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider projected us into an alternative reality. (Speaking personally, I feel that if we are in an alternative timeline, the first evidence of it was Leicester City winning the EPL soccer title in 2016.)

If counterfactual history and journalism seeks to review the present in light of past contingencies, thereby exploring roads not taken in order to re-examine the significance of events which did occur, SF is not so constrained. Murray Leinster’s seminal story “Sidewise in Time” (1934) introduced to a popular audience the concept of the multiverse, an ontology in which all possible timelines in some sense co-exist and could hypothetically influence one another. This idea had been depicted earlier, not least in HG Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1903), but not to the extent that Leinster mined the idea, with Roman soldiers appearing in Missouri, or ships containing Vikings or Tsarist Russians approaching the US coastline.

Multiversality and parallel universes have remained a popular SF trope, though in the vast majority of instances, authors prefer to present a single variant, a narrative set in a world with a Jonbar point, or moment of deviation from our own recorded history. Like historians, SF authors have tended to gravitate to deviations which explore political or military alternatives to recorded events, though they are also more prone than historians to what we might call the Carlylean ‘big man’ theory of history, given fiction’s need for protagonists.

A spectrum exists in alt-histories, ranging from the great man narratives, such as those which pivot around the existence or otherwise of Jesus Christ or Hitler, and its opposite, which posits a history predicated on huge social and historical movements and trends. Counterfactual historians gravitate much more commonly towards the latter. SF has the additional freedom to collide timelines as in Leinster’s story, and even introduce fantastic elements, such as the ongoing existence of dinosaurs, or alien visitations, or have time travellers seek to interfere with timelines.

In examining alt-histories, certain themes come up again and again, exposing a range of cultural anxieties. Probably by far the most common hypothetical is a Nazi victory in WW2, with very mainstream novels such as Fatherland or Dominion sitting comfortably alongside much more science-fictional treatments like The Man in the High Castle. This theme has not only crossed into factual TV (the BBC have addressed it at least twice) but also can be found in fiction from nations such as Spain, Russia, France, Norway, Israel, and further afield.

Other major streams of alt-history seek to undo or sustain predominant cultural forces in global history. There is a whole sub-genre of uchronia in which Christianity, for some reason, fails to take root, or Christ does not exist. Another fantasises about the persistence of the Roman empire, complete with slavery and crucifixion, into the modern era. A latent fear of Islam has perhaps inspired some of the many narratives in which Charles Martel or Charlemagne are not victorious, or in which the Moors retain Spain or the Ottomans take Vienna.

Some concerns are more local and specific. American alt-histories heavily feature Confederate victory in the Civil War. One of the earliest such speculations was a counterfactual written by Winston Churchill. Indeed, prolific uchronist Harry Turtledove must have written at least a dozen, and an entire volume on Alternative Battles of Gettysburg exists. American alt-history also features concerns over its own existence, featuring timelines in which the USA does not exist, either because it became Amerindian, or Aztec, or Chinese or Viking instead, or because the American Revolution never occurred. Another common trope of a more utopian bent is John F. Kennedy surviving assassination and the subsequent extension of his presidency, a form which expresses very similar aspirations as later journalistic treatments of an Al Gore presidency.

Cultural specificity extends further. In addition to Nazi domination fears, English alt-histories feature communist regimes or isolation in the face of a unified Europe. French alt-histories dream of Napoleonic victories, global domination or German invasion, Nazi or otherwise. Russian ones fantasise about Tsarist or White Russian defeat of the Bolsheviks. Israeli ones imagine defeating Rome at Masada, alternatively located homelands or defeat in the Six Day War. Polish ones have nightmares of Soviet takeover (as do the Swedes and Finns), and Brazilian ones dream of alternative World Cup soccer results.

Perhaps due to its linguistic isolation, Hungarian alt-history is intriguingly diverse, iterating a wide range of common uchronic tropes including the earliest known Nazi victory uchronia in global literature, as well as examples of Catholic hegemony and national success in revolutions, but also features uniquely Magyar visions, such as the existence of a Hungarian fascist African colony in a Nazi-dominated world. Ádám Gerencsér’s authoritative article delineates this particular national progression through alternative timelines.

The historical fantasies of different cultures thus express both latent societal anxieties and utopian aspirations left unfulfilled. Only by taking such a macro-view are the real secret histories unveiled. The prevalence of alt-histories which unwrite the Reformation, depicting theocratic global oppression by the Vatican, identify Anglophone SF’s generic anxiety about Catholicism in particular, and revelatory forms of knowledge in general, as I’ve written previously.

What is interesting in relation to this vast welter of alternative histories is the relative lack of identity politics or marginalised identities in uchronic fiction. Almost none deal with, for example, the idea of decriminalisation of homosexuality in earlier decades or centuries. And while African-American concerns, often manifested in terms of earlier slavery emancipation or civil rights, can often be found, Africa itself as a geographic region and collection of cultures remains as politically marginalised and economically depressed in alternative timelines as it is in our own. Afrofuturism may be one of the most vibrant of recent SF sub-genres, but its ideas of a black imaginary do not appear to have yet manifested significantly in terms of alt-histories relating to African success.

Within SF, which has historically been a significantly male-dominated enterprise, alt-history seems to be an exceptionally male interest, with few female creators operating in the mode. Nevertheless, feminist concerns have fared marginally better. One intriguing phenomenon is the significance of Hilary Rodham Clinton in such narratives. The protagonist of Rodham, last year’s alt-history by Curtis Sittenfeld, in which she forges her own legal and political career without Bill, is simultaneously the repository of other aspirations, such as Pamela Sargent’s vision of Hilary as astronaut, or David Bean’s more prosaic imagining of her as presidential candidate in 2008 instead of Barack Obama.

Mike Resnick’s excellent collection Alternative Presidents envisages not one but two separate female presidents in the 19th century, ushering in a much earlier era of universal suffrage and female emancipation. And back in 1983, Neil Ferguson imagined an alt-history which features Marilyn Monroe as president.

Beyond US politics, feminist alt-histories tend towards the darker end of uchronic possibilities. Michael Grant’s Soldier Girl series imagines a universal draft during the Second World War, for example. Joanna Russ’s highly influential The Female Man (1975) goes further again, including a world in which a plague wiped out men, thus leading to female hegemony and autonomy. This likely influenced the creation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku, a long-running manga series in which Japanese women lead politics and industry following the death of most men from a plague during the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century.

Russ’s novel, of course, is on the cusp of alt-history and slipstream, as it features both alternative timelines (Jeanine comes from a world where the Great Depression never ended) and other worlds. Its multiversal hybridity is what permits Russ to explore a multiplicity of gender-related encounters, and by extension identify potential directions in our own world.

The lack of gay or African alt-histories may in fact be because, like Russ, authors have found it preferable to explore hypotheticals in a slipstream rather than strictly uchronic mode. Certainly, Grace Dillon has written about Native American slipstream narratives which date back to Gerald Vizenor’s reconstruction of George Custer from hero to imperialist in a narrative featuring literal rebirths.

William Faulkner is believed to have once said that “the stupidest words in the language are ‘What if?’”, but it is worth recalling that all fiction is, in a sense, an exploration of hypotheticals, including his own. The inherent appeal of alt-history is in part the guilty pleasure of exploring the roads not taken, but it is also, as historians and economists have found, a useful mode of inquiry as well as creativity.

In imagining the nightmare of living in a victorious global Reich, we become better equipped to understand both the contingencies which led to its rise to power, and the contingencies which defeated it. We are also reminded of the dystopian potential in our own past which was averted. Similarly, the utopian potential of alt-history, the reminder that we could have brought ourselves to a better present, refocuses us on the fact that the future starts today, and as Hemingway once wrote, “what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

Samantha Mills once wrote a wonderful short story, entitled “Strange Waters”, which was not an alt-history but rather was set on a planet where the ocean is temporal and keeps washing the protagonist’s fishing boat up in the same port but in different years. Alt-history is our own version of her boat in strange waters, allowing us to sail the seas of time back to Livy, to Alexander, back even to timelines in which Neanderthals rather than we Homo Sapiens inherited the earth.

Alt-history reinforces the miraculous contingency of our existences, perhaps best expressed by Doctor Manhattan in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986),when the godlike superhero realises that the likelihood of his former lover Laurie’s very existence is so preposterous that it counts as a “thermodynamic miracle”, and if her existence is so miraculously contingent, then so is that of all humanity.

There is of course a frisson in envisaging our own destruction, especially if it extends to our entire society or culture or way of being. This is the warning of alt-history, that latent in our present are the dark pasts we have averted. But equally latent are the glorious utopian presents we failed to realise. From those we can take comfort and inspiration. And there is always the possibility, expressed in fictions like The Man in the High Castle or R.A. Lafferty’s clever short story “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny” (1977), that the alternative histories we can imagine may in some way ultimately affect our own present and futures.

In such reflexive alt-histories, multiversal timelines intersect and clash. This offers us a way of thinking ourselves out of our own contemporary impasse, where alternate timelines seem to exist in the realities described by opposing politicians, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “one screen, two movies”. Often, as in Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry series or Keith William Andrews’s Freedom’s Rangers novels, it seems as if warring factions are trying to delete one another, and their perspectives, from history itself. And, as in Joanna Russ’s novel or The Man in the High Castle, SF alt-histories suggest that what we might consider to be psychosis may actually transpire to be a mode of enlightenment.

By considering the contingency of our own history, and questioning consensus narratives, especially echo chamber consensuses, we need not plunge into the morass of fake secret histories or conspiracy theories. Instead, alt-history teaches us how to question our own assumptions about our centrality in our own histories, and attain the critical distance to examine our timeline objectively. What we find offensive or anxious about alt-histories can help reveal what people from another timeline might find appalling about our own. This is a route to a better future, though we will have to navigate choppy and strange waters to get there.

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Further Reading

Stephen Baxter, Time’s Tapestry series, 2006 onwards.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, 1962.

Grace Dillon, ed., Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, 2012.

Robert Fogel, Railroads and America’s Economic Growth,1964.

William Gibson, Agency, 2020.

Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy, Apocryphal Napoleon, 1841.

Michael Grant’s Soldier Girl series, 2016 onwards.

Robert Harris, Fatherland, 1992.

Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, 2001.

R.A. Lafferty, “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny”, 1977.

Murray Leinster,“Sidewise in Time”, 1934.

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, 1986-7.

Glyn Morgan and Charul Palmer Patel, eds., Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, 2019.

Salvador Murguia, ed., Trumping Truth: Essays on the Destructive Power of “Alternative Facts”, 2019.

Mike Resnick, ed., Alternative Presidents, 1992.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man, 1975.

C.J. Sansom, Dominion, 2012.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham, 2020.

J.C. Squire, ed., If It Had Happened Otherwise, 1931 (Contains Churchill’s alt-Gettysburg, as well as uchronias by G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Andre Maurois).

Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., Alternate Gettysburgs, 2002.

Gerald Vizenor, “Custer on the Slipstream”, 1978.

H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, 1903.

Fumi Yoshinaga, Ōoku, 2005 onwards.

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Bio:

Jim Clarke has taught literature at universities in Ireland, the UK and Belarus. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019), and blogs at www.jimclarke.net. He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: https://ponyingtheslovos.coventry.domains

History

by Stephen Sottong

The guard led me down a narrow path between a series of anonymous, razor-wire-topped chain-link cages until, somehow, he knew the one that was mine. The cage was a three-meter square with a concrete floor sloping to a hole in one corner large enough to function for sanitary needs — if one could function in the total lack of privacy. The hole stank of previous use. The guard pushed me inside — not roughly but decisively. I made no protest, too drained to care. My family and my life’s work were gone. The irony struck me — I was a historian and now my life was merely history.

I sat on the cold concrete, waiting, dozing only to be awakened randomly by screams, or a single gunshot, or guards taking prisoners away.

The sun was barely high enough to shine into my cage when the gate opened and a boy of about eight was thrust in. He stood there, small, thin, dressed in old but serviceable clothes, shivering, although this winter morning was not particularly cool courtesy of the warming that had caused this chaos. The boy and I stared at each other. He was about the same age my son would have been. Patting the concrete next to me, I made room for him. He sat, leaving a gap between us, and continued shivering. I lifted my arm, offering to put it around him. He hesitated and, when a gunshot rang out, finally leaned into me.

We sat, waiting, not speaking, perhaps afraid to interact in this perverse place.

Half an hour later, a guard came around, opened the gate and handed me a small loaf of bread. I took it. It was still warm. Its heady scent masked the stench of filth and decay around me. I wanted to tear into the bread, ravenous, but, instead, moved it to the hand still around the boy, broke the loaf in two and gave the larger piece to him. The guard watched this tableau and left.

We ate. I wished I had water.

The sun rose, baking the concrete expanse. By the time it was too warm for me to have an arm around him, two guards arrived. We got up, me stiffly after sitting on the still cold concrete. The boy offered me his hand and helped me up. A woman took the boy, and a man marched me down the long rows of cells with their seated occupants, some silent, some weeping. I trembled in spite of the heat contemplating what awaited me.

The guard escorted me to a building. At the entrance, he presented me with a bag. Inside were my notebooks. Here rested the sum total of my worthless, lifelong pursuit of the past, preserved on the one media that could survive the disruptions of these times – ink on paper. I held the bag closer than I had the boy, afraid that both I and my life’s work might be destroyed at any moment. The guard deposited me in a room with two chairs, one in front and one behind a desk.

I sat, waiting, clutching the bag.

Two guards entered through a side door and examined the room. A uniformed man followed. When I finally recognized the man was The Leader, I was too surprised to react. The guards on either side of him precluded an assassination attempt — not that I had the energy or will to try.

“Don’t get up,” The Leader said and took the seat behind the desk. He looked older than his years, military hat low over his eyes, uniform faded. The scar running the length of his right cheek appeared even redder and more ragged than in his pictures. “Feel free to take notes,” he continued.

In spite of my shock, I managed to pull out one of the notebooks and found a pen at the bottom of the bag.

He sat back in the chair, steel-gray eyes focused on me, “I read in your journals how you’ve documented the warming climate and loss of prime land with sea level rise. So you realize that means current population levels can’t be sustained. I feel I’ve been tasked to ensure that whatever part of humanity,” he stared directly at me, eyes stern but sad, “if any, that survives will be the best possible. Without intervention, the strongest and cruelest tend to survive. I’m trying to preclude that by testing for empathy and altruism. Congratulations. You passed the test. Had you not shared the bread with the boy, you would have been culled from the survivor stock.”

My hand trembled, but my fingers somehow transcribed his words.

“So, I have an offer for you. You’re a historian. I want an honest, factual account of events. I know I’ll come off as one of the monsters of history. I don’t want you to sugarcoat the facts, just be open-minded. If you accept, you’ll be assigned a place where you can observe and record these crucial times.” He leaned forward, arms on the desk. “Understand, you will likely be considered complicit and your observations suspect.” He paused, still staring at me. “Will you take the position?”

My life was history. How could I refuse such a vantage to record it? “Yes.”

He rose. “Good. You’ll be taken to a room where you can rest and clean up.” With that, he and the guards departed, leaving me, for brief seconds, alone, rooted to my chair in shock.

A guard eventually escorted me out of the building, past only empty cages — perhaps fearing I’d give away the secret to survival. He made no attempt to restrain me and seemed more guide than minder.

We had nearly reached the gate of the facility when we passed an enclosure where boys of perhaps six to thirteen were kept. The one who’d been my companion pushed his way through the milling group to the chain link. I stopped. He stared at me, wide-eyed, clutching the wires. We held each others gaze. The guard made no attempt to move me along.

I queried the matron, pointing to the boy. “Does he have family?”

She shook her head. “All dead.”

The longer I looked at the boy, the more he resembled my own — before the plague took him. “I’ll take him.”

She frowned and turned to my guard who pulled out his radio, spoke briefly into it and then shrugged at the matron. She beckoned the boy to the gate, releasing him to me.

Notebooks under one arm, boy under the other, we walked toward our escape, exchanging glances, evaluating each other. With all we’d both lost, we could do worse.

~

Bio:

Stephen Sottong lives in beautiful northern California behind the Redwood Curtain. He is a 2013 winner of Writers of the Future and has been published in several journals and websites. A full list is on his website: stephensottong.com.

A Brief History Of Procrastination Theory

by Darren Goossens

Ludwig Wergenergener

Ph.D. (Oxon.), Dip. Ed.(Utrecht), D.Sc. (Knutsford)

The initial work on procrastination theory was begun in the late 1930s by Professor Bing Salinski of Edward Lear Memorial University, Chipping Ongar; but he never got around to publishing his results. His notebooks languished unnoticed in a desk drawer until an inquisitive postgraduate student reopened them in 1965. She then put them down again and had lunch. In 1979 the notebooks were passed on to the archival librarian of the East Thwurp Mechanics Institute, where the most recent research has taken place.

Salinski’s highly mathematical, yet uniquely desultory, treatment involves what he called ‘something or other, I’ll come up with a proper name later’, and which has since become known as ‘procrastinative calculus’. This is not procrastination as performed by an undergraduate but a specifically formulated branch of mathematics whose fundamental operations are indifferentiation and disintegration.

Salinski’s formalism has helped unveil the underlying physical nature of procrastination, and the nature of the procrastination field, a real physical vector field that interacts directly with neurons in the brain and, regardless of the position of the observer, is directed backwards at all points. The theory also aids in the construction of a classification scheme, in which we have oscillatory procrastination, known as dithering, and circularly polarised procrastination or ‘going around in circles’.

Fillingham, during his sabbatical year at East Thwurp, investigated second-order procrastination, whereby he procrastinated by discussing procrastination. One afternoon, when he was laid up with a broken leg and could find absolutely nothing else to do, he found time to formulate his laws of procrastination:

1) An object at rest will remain at rest if it possibly can;

2) Every inaction has a larger and opposite inaction;

3) This law has not been formulated yet.

And in his final, ground-breaking paper (which now sits under his coffee cup in his office), Fillingham showed, much to everyone’s relief, that we should not study procrastination theory as it is logically inconsistent to do so.

The E

~

Bio

Darren Goossens is a writer, editor and educator, based in Australia. He has published a little bit of short fiction, and coauthored some physics text books, in which he did not write about procrastination theory.

The Meaning of His Own Words

by Andy Dibble

The foundation stone Kabbalists retrieved from the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro seemed a veritable Rosetta stone.  Indologists would finally understand the language of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.  Linguists hoped it would determine why many ancient languages are staggeringly complex.

Like the Rosetta stone, “The Lord of Wide Rivers” repeated the same message in parallel, once in Harappan and again in an archaic version of Vedic Sanskrit. Vedic was known, so scholars could read the Harappan message, and thereby unlock the other four thousand Harappan inscriptions discovered hitherto.

The Vedic was a prayer to the four-faced god Brahma beseeching him to stay awake a little longer (or if he sleeps, may the night be brief and day short in coming). It spoke of cycles, of stars whirling in the firmament, of cosmogonic tides and undertows, of perigee and apogee, of the shackling of words to meanings, and of the bewildering darkness in which all bonds shall break.

The unnamed author chose every Vedic noun, verb tense, and prefix with care, even to the extent of violating the poetic meter of his verses, a mortal sin according to later pundits.  With such obsessive clarity, breaking into the Harappan language should be easy.

It seemed an eye in the Harappan script meant both sight and thought, a winged-horse meant transformation, and that stacked parentheses indicated quantity. But none of these inferences made sense when checked against other Harappan inscriptions, and all predictions about the function of the prongs, dots, and other modifications to the base symbols proved groundless.

In hindsight, this difficulty was unsurprising. Vedic was fiendishly complex, and if Vedic descended from Harappan, Harappan should be even more intricate because grammars tend to simplify as speakers use a language over time.

Tellingly, the Vedic began, “The Lord of Wide Rivers will execute me for betraying the hidden language to our adversaries, but if even I–one of his code-slaves–cannot understand, the language is already lost. So as the cycle dips down, I write this so that I might understand the meaning of my own words.”

#

In the late 2020’s, there was a revolution in natural language processing. The dream of six decades, that programmers would program in everyday language, was almost realized. Most lawyers were out of work because software could write briefs indistinguishable from the work of the average legal mind. Social media persona could be software or human or both, and rumor on the matter diverged from reality more often than it agreed.

Deep learning algorithms began to unriddle Harappan. The chief difficulty was that every inscription had multiple meanings, much like the picture of a duck that is also a picture of a rabbit. One message was ostensibly a contract to exchange a quantity of sheep for garnets. But read another way, the same symbols divulged a murderous conspiracy. Beneath that was the intimation, potentially of proto-Zoroastrian origin, of a cosmic sacrifice.

One Harappan seal was a picture of entwined water serpents, secondarily a game of snakes and ladders, and thirdly the first four axioms of Euclidean geometry. But supposing the eye of a serpent in retreat was a vanishing point, the image took on perspective, and the axioms established hyperbolic geometry. The Harappans had refuted Euclid, more than two millennia before Euclid.

But even the most scrupulously trained algorithms could infer nothing with high probability. Human intuition was necessary to complete the picture, and intuition keened that Harappan symbols were in fact ciphers, that subterranean meanings are realer than surface meanings, that Harappan was always closer to meaning everything than one thing.

But a language that always expresses everything, expresses nothing.

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The 2030’s were the Age of the Panopticon. As within the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham and of Michel Foucault, it did not matter if someone–whether corporation, deep state, foreign power, or AI overlord–was watching, only that they could be, and not just in the stupid way of keyword scanning, hypertext semantics, and search engine indexing. Machines could read, and in reading they understood.

Many retreated from social media, or frequented closed forums that, supposedly, were inaccessible to the uninvited. Courts would not rule against the possession of concealed mobile phones; there was an exodus from public spaces too. Utopian communes swelled.

But for the marketeers, the busy bees of the gig economy, the celebrities, and the wannabes, the dominate impulse was to shout as loudly and as publicly in as big a space as one could, and there is no space bigger than the Internet. They reassured themselves: the Powers That Be only wished to present ads more intelligently. Still, they avoided alleged “trigger words,” deployed hopelessly standardized locutions, and prayed the Argus eyes of AI were resting.

When it came out that Kabalsoft’s reclusive CEO was not man but machine, everyone assumed the firm’s meteoric rise was the machination of an all-wise Executor. Pressured by shareholders, publicly-traded companies everywhere automated their leadership in a frenzy. No company could remain competitive with mere organisms at the helm.

Rapid-fire legislation, first in the European Union and then in the United States and China, mandated that software serve a strictly advisory function, and so it was. But executives and directors still deferred to their calculating counselors, and when they defied, who could say whether that defiance was itself anticipated by inscrutable neural networks, whether computers knew even the shrewdest minds better than they knew themselves?

#

When Kabalsoft unveiled a quantum computer architecture advanced enough to shatter all available encryption, the last redoubt of online privacy was overwhelmed. Now, there was just one unbroken code: Harappan. But as a code, it was useless. It could not be modern or general purpose. Artificial cultivation would inevitably sterilize it, render it dumb and limpid to machines.

But Harappan proved that human genius for language could confound machines. And who are the true sages of language? Young children, as Noam Chomsky demonstrated.

The United States skimmed children, aged four to seven, from its melting pot and abroad. No more than two of the conscriptees spoke the same language, and like the pairs of Noah’s Ark, most every language was represented: Dutch so rich in idioms, English the ever-weird, Finnish for its fifteen cases, Sanskrit squirming with ambiguous compounds, Arabic for Qur’anic convolution, six-toned Vietnamese, Japanese to say much with little, Dyirbal rife with unspeakable taboos, isolate languages like Basque and Burushaski, Ebonics and argots, patois and pantomime, clicks and whoops and growls.

Miraculously, it worked. The code-talking children inverted entropy, inverted Babel. They understood one another, and only they understood one another. They learned secrecy and resilience, and only then learned state secrets.

The best minds of China wrestled with the fabulous omniglot but failed to master it. They learned from failure, and in rugged Xinjiang, assembled an omniglot pod, which drew most on Silk Road languages, Zen koan, temurah, and haiku.

Nations hung in equipoise until a day when even the ten Sefirot blinked. A terrorist faction, “Kabalsoft Reborn,” published grammars for both omniglots in two-hundred sixteen languages.

No one read them. They were too huge for comprehension, but the unknown is fearful, and fear suddenly thickened again.

#

There was one last code to slice and splice, a last descent. The little ones were already so nearly right, the unfathomable genius already there, if it could only be unfurled, the cerebral cortex grown within a roomier skull (and taught compliance–the young are too forthright, too prone to defect).

All this could be done with genomics. And it was.

But as the cycle dips down, as entropy overcomes information and words detach from meanings, one will master himself and recount this story so that he might understand the meaning of his own words.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction appears in Writers of the Future 36. This is his second story in Sci Phi Journal. (andydibble.com)

A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Romania is a country that foreign readers rarely associate with speculative and science fiction (collectively abbreviated as SF). However, its multilingual young population is among the most IT-literate in the world, and their cultural output, including SF, is not only extensive but also fully up to date. While some might attribute this to globalisation, it is in fact a long-standing feature in Romanian culture from its very modern beginnings in the 19th century. Once it secured its independence, Romania embarked on a path of rapid progress, quickly adopting Western liberal institutions and world-view. In this context, as a manifestation of a new mentality centred on science and industrial technology, Romanian SF embraced from its outset the national project of modernisation, although not uncritically, and not without originality.

Utopian fiction usually preceded SF before their intimate fusion in offering descriptions of future societies. This almost universal pattern is also valid for Romania. Thus, economic liberalism was both supported and mocked in one interesting ambiguous utopia describing a present “Insula Prosta” (Stoopid Island, 1884) by Ion Ghica, before the liberal utopia was transferred to a future setting, where it was questioned. Alexandru Macedonski, one of the leading poets of the Decadent movement in Romania, produced thus a short history entitled “Oceania-Pacific-Dreadnought” (1911) where this gigantic ship intended as a floating house for the richest brings about an economic bubble of epic proportions, until it bursts (as bubbles are wont to do). This Romanian author probably took inspiration from Jules Verne’s L’Île à hélice (Propeller Island, 1895) but his description of the workings of pure speculation in capitalism is not only more precise, but also prophetic. Indeed, very few contemporary writers in Europe used anticipation in such a perceptive manner.

In the same years, Victor Anestin followed Camille Flammarion, rather than Verne, both in popularising astronomy and in setting his stories on other planets of the Solar System. Anestin describes them as populated by decent and highly developed human-like civilisations inspired by Positivistic utopianism, though unfortunately still subjected to nature’s whims. In O tragedie cerească (A Celestial Tragedy, 1914), a celestial body destroys Earth’s inhabitants. This dramatic apocalyptic scenario always poses the problem of which narrative voice to use: who can recount the end if it obliterates us all? Anestin solves this problem by adopting the perspective of an astronomer who witnesses our tragedy from Venus. In spite of his sober account, Anestin knows how to add a sense of loss to the sense of wonder in his grandiose planetary vistas.

This late but promising start of Romanian SF was followed by its relative normalisation along mainstream lines. As happened elsewhere in the world (except perhaps in the US), Wellsian scientific romance opened new avenues to speculative anticipation by infusing it with the freedom of imagination regarding world-building shown by old imaginary voyages since Lucian of Samosata, as well as a diversity of narrative and writing techniques explored by High Modernist authors. Among them, Felix Aderca stands out thanks to his avant-garde short story “Pastorală” (Pastoral, 1932), which is written as the summary of an unwritten play, and his novel Orașele înecate (Drowned Cities, 1936). The latter is set on a future Earth threatened by universal cold. The last human communities have withdrawn to submarine cities under the rule of a fascist-like pro-eugenics dictator, but his measures cannot prevent in the end the technical failure and destruction of the remaining cities. Only a couple escapes from our planet in a rocket. The varied societies, their exchanges and development in a pre-apocalyptic framework are finely portrayed using an art-deco tone of writing full of tragicomic irony, not unlike the one used in Karel Čapek’s contemporary novels, which makes this work a masterpiece of international interwar SF.

The political crisis brought about by World War II did not spare Romania, where home-grown ethnic nationalist Fascism supported by Nazi Germany was defeated and then replaced by the Communism imported and imposed by Soviet troops. In this context, there was little room for unregimented literature, speculative or otherwise. Even more intently than fascists, communists guided by Stalinist Social Realism effectively put an end to any fantasy about medium- and long-term futures. Furthermore, writers wishing to denounce totalitarianisms of any sort were silenced. Romanian readers were thus deprived of any dystopias comparable to those written by Zamiatin, Boye or Orwell. Vasile Voiculescu’s short story “Lobocoagularea prefrontală” (Pre-Frontal Lobocoagulation) purports to be a historical summary of the forced lobotomies undertaken on the population in order to extirpate their human souls. Written in 1948, this text was only published posthumously in 1982 as a simple curiosity by a renowned modern poet.

The Iron Curtain prevented Romania from being subjected to the massive influx of US SF literature (both pulps and Golden Age) which ended the more intellectual and literary scientific romance in Western Europe, though Communism was equally efficient in depriving SF of its former artistic respectability. Romanian SF was reborn in the 1950sas a tool for educating young readers both in Communism and technology in order to prepare them for the rapid pace of re-industrialisation soon established as a goal by Romanian authorities under nationalist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was rather unsatisfied with the role of agricultural producer allotted to their country by the Soviet bloc. Although his rule was even harsher than others in the Eastern Bloc, Ceaușescu used his national policy of apparent dissent from the Soviet Union to get the technological and financial support that his country needed to become industrialised. As a result, Romanian writers were allowed to deviate from old dogmas, and SF quickly took advantage of the opening, soon updating itself to Golden Age standards thanks to Adrian Rogoz, whose short stories recall the clarity of form and speculative wit to be found in those by Isaac Asimov. The other Romanian SF master of the age, Vladimir Colin, adopted a more lyrical writing akin to that of Ray Bradbury, although the best part of his work was devoted to fantasy; indeed, his series of stories and legends from an ancient imaginary people, collected in Legendele țării lui Vam (Legends from Vam Country, 1961), are still considered a masterpiece by Romanian fantasy readers.

Rogoz, Colin and others also succeeded in joining the vogue for national promotion abroad triggered by Ceaușescu’s national-communism, since some of their works were translated into German and French and published in widely distributed anthologies of Romanian SF. Furthermore, they were generous enough to include in these volumes stories by new writers interested in a SF literature similar to that of the Anglophone New Wave, namely Ovid S. Crohmălniceanu, Gheorghe Săsărman and Mircea Opriță, who would eventually produce some of the best works that Romanian SF can boast of. The oldest of them, Crohmălniceanu, was a highly regarded mainstream literary critic when he published his two series of Istorii insolite (Unusual Stories) in 1980 and 1986. Taken together, they read as exercises in reasoned imagination on utopianism, technology and the role of literature in modernity in which irony enriches a deeply philosophical questioning of humankind and its place in the universe, not unlike the best tales by Borges or Lem, whom Crohmălniceanu could certainly be compared to.

Younger Săsărman and Opriță have had both long and distinguished writing careers. Săsărman produced in 1975 Cuadratura cercului, one of the masterpieces of the late modernist genre consisting of descriptions of imaginary cities, in a manner similar to the invisible ones by Calvino. Unfortunately, this edition was heavily censored, and the whole book was only known in 2001, when its author had long been excluded from Romanian literary life following his exile to Germany. The translation of his cities into Spanish and then partially into English as Squaring the Circle by top-ranking SF author Ursula K. Le Guin has secured him at last his rightful place in Romanian speculative fiction, now supported also by well-received recent novels such as a story on the resurrection of Jesus Christ in modern Germany entitled Adevărata cronică a morții lui Yeșua Ha-Nozri (True Account of the Death of Jeshua Ha-Nozri, 2016).

Opriță, who stayed in the country without compromising himself, is renowned for his short stories (e.g., “Figurine de ceară,” or Wax Figurines, a witty rewriting of Lem’s Solaris first published in 1973), though he also produced a successful novel, Călătorie în Capricia (A Journey to Capricia, 2011), which is both one of the latest sequels to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a most original commentary on the 2008 Great Recession as it was suffered in Romania. Moreover, Opriță has accompanied the last decades of Romanian SF as a respected and fair critic, as well as its best chronicler: his history of Romanian SF literature is comprehensive up to a point rarely encountered in similar endeavours for other national SF traditions. It is a monument of SF scholarship, only comparable to another Romanian production in the theoretical field, Cornel Robu’s extensive O cheie pentru science-fiction (A Key to Science Fiction, 2004), the English abstract of which has been influential in our consideration of the sublime (popularly known as ‘sense of wonder’) as an essential part of SF aesthetics.   

After this remarkable group of writers and scholars, a certain decadence of Romanian SF was perhaps inevitable. Postmodernism soon acquired a status in the Romanian literary scene unmatched in other countries up to this very day. This was both bad and good news for Romanian SF: good news if we consider that the leading literary postmodernist in Romania, Mircea Cărtărescu, has introduced SF tropes in his work, especially in his latest novel Selenoid (2015), thus adding respectability to them; bad news if we consider instead that postmodernism has promoted a literature of chaos, or arbitrariness, deeply uncongenial to the usual SF frame of mind (marked by reason, order and science). Very few writers have succeeded in balancing these opposite trends. Among them, Mihail Grămescu is to be mentioned for his stories collected in Aporisticon (1981; final version, 2012), where postmodern egotism is nuanced by Borgesian detachment. There were other interesting young writers who tried to renovate SF following contemporary international trends, but unfortunately two parallel occurrences prevented them from acquiring a reputation similar to that of Săsărman, Opriță and even Grămescu.

On the one hand, the postmodernists, still very much in power in the Romanian intellectual scene, seem even more reluctant to appreciate SF as the modernists were once Wellsian scientific romance had become obsolete. Therefore, SF has not been able to join the literary mainstream in Romania as it has in other countries where SF novels, especially of the dystopian kind, are now read and reviewed beyond the limited circles of SF fans. On the other hand, the end of censorship allowed Anglophone SF to enter the Romanian market with a revenge, marginalising local production even more than in Western Europe forty years earlier (until today). Romanian SF writers tried to regain some of the genre’s former strength by mimicking foreign fashions, such as pulpish cyberpunk, in a country where hackers are, indeed, numerous, and IT has been enthusiastically embraced. Others wanted to preserve the New Wave heritage through carefully written stories, some of them quite experimental, such as Dănuț Ungureanu’s dystopian “Domus” (1992), which is entirely written using prescriptive discourse, and Ovidiu Bufnilă’s cyberpunk prose poem “Armele zeilor” (The Arms of the Gods, 2005). Although a number of these stories could make up an invaluable anthology, none of them succeeded in truly seducing the local fandom. Romanian SF only recovered when it revisited, in the form of long, epos-like novels, older genres such as space-opera in Dan Doboș’s Abația (Abbey, 2002-2005), lost-world romance in Sebastian A. Corn’s Ne vom întoarce în Muribecca (We Will Return to Muribecca, 2014), as well as apocalyptic dystopia in the series begun with the shorter novel Vegetal (2014) by Dănuț Ungureanu and Marian Truță. Their success, at least among fans, has contributed to lending new life to a SF now nearly as diverse and literarily successful as it used to be before the postmodernist/cyberpunk crisis. Prospects seem to be positive, with emerging writers now being aware that they are adding their contribution to a long and distinguished history of Romanian SF, although it is still too early to mention any outstanding ones.

~

Endnote: A first version of this essay was published as a preface to the following anthology of recent Romanian SF stories: Daniel Timariu and Cristian Vicol (eds.), East of a Known Galaxy: An Anthology of Romanian Sci-Fi Stories, București, Tritonic, 2019, p. 10-19. We thank the editors, as well as the publishing house and the Helion SF club having fostered this anthology, for their kind permission to publish here this slightly modified version of the paper.

~

Conversations with famous philosophers

A work colleague pointed me to this interesting set of videos with some famous philosophers. There were taken from the series In-Depth and preseverd by Open Culture. Worth a look. It includes interviews like

  1. Herbert Marcuse on the Frankfurt School
  2. Bernard Williams on the Spell of Linguistic Philosophy
  3. Bernard Williams on Descartes
  4. Miles Burnyeat on Plato
  5. Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle
  6. Anthony Kenny on Medieval Philosophy
  7. Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature
  8. Geoffrey Warnock on Kant
  9. J.P. Stern on Nietzsche
  10. Hubert Dreyfus on Husserl and Heidegger
  11. Anthony Quinton on Spinoza and Leibniz
  12. Peter Singer on Hegel and Marx
  13. Michael Ayers on Locke and Berkeley
  14. John Passmore on Hume
  15. Sidney Morgenbesser on the Pragmatists
  16. A.J. Ayer on logical Positivism
  17. A.J. Ayer on Frege and Russell
  18. John Searle on the Philosophy of Language
  19. Anthony Quinton on Wittgenstein
  20. John Searle on Wittgenstein
  21. Hilary Putnam on the Philosophy of Science
  22. Frederick Copelston on Schopenhauer