I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.
Today I was saddened to hear the news of Ray Bradbury’s death. He lived to the ripe old age of 91 and – if I’m being honest – I was a little surprised to hear of his passing… half-assuming he’d ascended to that Great Library in The Sky many years ago.
Bradbury was one of writers who lit up my childhood and brought colour and wonder to grey 1970s Dublin. His novel, The Martian Chronicles is probably the first serious science-fiction book I can recall reading. I don’t wish to denigrate the fantastical space adventures penned by W.E. Johns, which were my initial introduction to science fiction, but they were essentially Boys Own Adventures that just happened to be set in space; whereas Bradbury was doing something entirely different. I’m sure even Johns would agree.
Ray Bradbury’s prose was genuinely poetic. It was filled with wisdom, warmth and a rich humour. It was also deadly serious and – looking back – was probably the first “social commentary” I read too. Though of course, at the tender age of 9 or 10, much of the allegory went above my head. Even so, I can distinctly remember thinking that there was something important about Bradbury’s work… something I wasn’t quite grasping, but that I desperately wanted to. Later in my teens when I re-read The Martian Chronicles – along with scores (if not hundreds) of his short stories – I was pleased to have been vindicated. There was something important about Bradbury’s work. And there still is.
Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my all-time favourite novels. I’ve not read it in many years, but I intend to very soon. It’s a shame that my revisit to his books is being prompted by such sad news, but I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Mr. Bradbury; a man whose love of writing consumed him.
Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.
When someone has spent more than ninety years on the planet, it’s difficult to describe their death as “a tragedy”. For surely few of us can expect to have such a span of years, and those of us who do should feel blessed because of it. And yet, when such a wise voice as Ray Bradbury is silenced, the world is always the worse for it. Still, he left us plenty of that wisdom in the books he wrote. Wisdom, wit and some cracking good yarns. For those of you who never encountered his work, may I suggest a short list to track down and be amazed by. And for those who are already familiar with Bradbury… well, there’s no harm in a re-read. It’s what he would have wanted.
As wonderful as are his novels, the curious reader should – perhaps even more urgently – track down pretty much any one of his glorious collections of short stories… The Day It Rained Forever and I Sing the Body Electric are two of the best, but you really can’t go wrong with Bradbury short stories. And if you don’t believe me, then why not track down some of the ones that have made it onto the web (The Pedestrian for example). You won’t be sorry that you did.
Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.
Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.
Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.
From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.
Sporting highlights of 2011
With each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.
Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).
In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.
Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.
Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.
Musical highlights of 2011
I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.
The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.
Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.
Ako ti je glasno…
Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!
Movie highlights of 2011
I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011’s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.
Another notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.
Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.
About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.
There are several of 2011’s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.
Television highlights of 2011
As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.
Probably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.
As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n’sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.
I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.
Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.
So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.
Literary highlights of 2011
Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011″ bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.
In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011’s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.
Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.
In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.
I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.
There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.
And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.
The War Against Terror has brought death, kidnap, rendition, torture and destruction to an already weary world. It has resulted in an ongoing erosion of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It has also partly unleashed and partly revealed the moral vacuum at the heart of western society. The War Against Terror has done more damage to the notion of enlightened, liberal democracy than any terrorist could hope to have achieved. By fighting fire with fire we have merely succeeded in burning everyone. In my search for a silver lining – and it is a very narrow one indeed – I’m forced to fall back on that old cliché about harsh times providing inspiration for writers and artists.
It is The War Against Terror and consequent loss of civil liberties that form the heart of Philip Challinor’s 2010 novel, Security. It’s a story told with wit, skill and an unsettling dollop of resignation… a sense that humanity is more than willing to allow terrible things to happen if they’re scared enough, and sometimes just because they’re too lazy to do otherwise.
Readers of Security spend 24 hours with a mid-level bureaucrat – Anderson – working for National Consolidated Solutions, to whom the UK government have outsourced a number of security contracts. Any novel about the work of a bureaucrat is going to be leavened with a certain amount of existentialism, but Challinor chooses to downplay this aspect of Security by turning the inner world of his protagonist into an abstract mystery story… Just what is it that Anderson does? The central character suffers from that terrible and slightly paradoxical combination of boredom and stress that anyone who has ever done a job that didn’t interest them, yet found themselves with a petty tyrant as a boss will recognise. Partly because of this – and partly due to the nature of his company’s business – Anderson forces himself to plough through his daily routine by focussing purely on the mechanics of the task at hand. As a result, the bigger picture takes some time to come into focus and although the entire novel is steeped in a sinister atmosphere, it takes a while to work out exactly why.
All the same, there’s plenty of humour to be found within the pages of Security, but it is both bone dry and extremely dark, so don’t expect too many chuckles. And the inevitable existentialism of a bureaucrat’s story hasn’t been completely eradicated – despite the attempts of Anderson’s unconscious mind to roboticise himself. This existential aspect is most obvious in Anderson’s encounters with and thoughts about his family. We can only assume that these sterile relationships did not start out this way and are a direct result of the toll taken on his psyche by the job he performs. Perhaps.
Ultimately Challinor successfully avoids getting too bogged down either in the monotony of bureaucracy or the opaque family relationships of the protagonist. And he creates more than enough intrigue to prevent Anderson’s monotonous life turning into a monotonous novel. Like the great Leopold Bloom, while Anderson is a passive participant in his own life, his passivity does not weigh down the story he tells. Over the course of the (relatively short) novel Anderson’s conversations begin to reveal precisely what is going on around him – even if at some level he would rather they didn’t. And fittingly, his final significant conversation – with the wonderfully objectionable Eric Munt – reveals everything in the most explicit terms while also hinting at an even worse future to come.
Security, like Ken MacLeod’s excellent The Execution Channel, paints a bleak picture of a future that threatens to engulf us all should we allow it. A future that has already begun to creep backwards into the present (as the inmates of Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the cells at Bagram Airbase or a dozen other places whose names we don’t know can attest to), and which must be resisted at all costs. The alternative, as illustrated by Anderson, is too chilling to contemplate outside the pages of a novel.
Just a quick follow-up to my latest post over at On This Deity for those who’d like to find out more about visionary intellectual, Gregory Bateson. Although his work is finally beginning to emerge from obscurity where it has unjustifiably languished for too long, it’s still not easy to track it all down (remarkably, some of his books are currently out of print!)
Bateson’s work covered a host of different disciplines and the primary text for anyone who seeks to learn more about this revolutionary thinker is his collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. This book, at least, is currently in print and can be found in most good bookshops as well as in a number of online retailers. You can, of course, head over to Amazon and get it there where it will cost you a couple of quid less than if you were to buy it at – for example – Housmans. The reason you might want to spend that extra couple of pounds is explained on this page, What is wrong with using Amazon? Anyhoo, if you need to save some cash (and these days many of us do) then just search Amazon for the book. Alternatively use Housmans, or better yet your local independent bookstore, to get hold of Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
It’s worth stressing that Steps to an Ecology of Mind is simultaneously a frustrating and a rewarding read. Some of the essays are engaging and immediately illuminating, while others can be dry, technical and requiring of no little effort. And some essays manage to veer from one to the other (and back again). The book is split into six different sections and while it’s not strictly in chronological order, his later work (arguably when it all starts to coalesce into a singular coherent vision) can be found in the last two sections.
Part I (Metalogues) consists of a series of metalogues (imaginary conversations between Bateson and his daughter) which each illustrate a particular point, both in the content and the structure of the metalogue. They have titles such as Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?, What Is an Instinct? and Why a Swan? and together provide a wonderful introduction to many of the themes explored later in the book – though their easy accessibility is perhaps a little deceptive given what is to come!
Part II (Form and Pattern in Anthropology) covers – more or less – his anthropological work, though bear in mind that much of the point of the book is to demonstrate the interconnections between different systems, and one of the central essays in Part II is Morale and National Character which casts an anthropological eye over western cultures and would, therefore, be located by many people within sociology. It is within this section that Bateson’s “schismogenesis” concept is discussed and explained. He also covers Game Theory and makes his first tentative steps into cybernetics in Part II.
Part III (Form and Pathology in Relationship) covers, among other things, his double-bind theory of schizophrenia and his psychotherapeutic work. It also deals with his concept of “deuterolearning” (learning to learn) which is hugely important for our understanding of ourselves and the world. When properly applied, Bateson’s work on deuterolearning reveals why, for example, the type of militant atheism practiced by Richard Dawkins and others is ultimately self-defeating, and why consumer capitalism is so insidious and will prove so very difficult to counteract. As well as this, Part III covers communications theory and his Theory of Play.
Part IV (Biology and Evolution) contains, in my view, two of the most difficult pieces; The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution and A Re-examination of “Bateson’s Rule”; though this may be down to the fact that I’ve read very little else on the subject of biological science so many of the technical terms were unfamiliar to me. This section also includes a paper outlining the conclusions he drew from his work on dolphins with John C. Lilly.
Part V (Epistemology and Ecology) is where everything starts to be explicitly drawn together, though the interconnections are implicit in the previous sections. Along with Part VI (Crisis in the Ecology of Mind), this section essentially presents the reader with Bateson’s philosophy. Essays such as Conscious Purpose versus Nature, Pathologies of Epistemology and The Roots of Ecological Crisis contain, simply put, some of the most visionary writing I have ever encountered.
Beyond Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson published several other books. Below is a complete bibliography listed not in chronological or alphabetical order, but in order of importance. This is, therefore, a purely subjective order and shouldn’t be taken as gospel (also, I’ve not managed to get hold of the last two books on the list, so they are there by default).
Gregory Bateson bibliography
Steps to an Ecology of Mind The University of Chicago Press (1972, 2000). ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity Hampton Press (1979, 2002). ISBN 1-57273-434-5.
Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred
with Mary Catherine Bateson The University of Chicago Press (1988). ISBN 978-0553345810.
A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
edited by Rodney E. Donaldson Harper Collins (1991). ISBN 0-06-250110-3.
Naven Stanford University Press (1936, 1958). ISBN 0-804-70520-8.
Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis
with Margaret Mead New York Academy of Sciences (1942). ISBN 0-890-72780-5.
Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry
with Jurgen Ruesch W.W. Norton & Company (1951). ISBN 0-393-02377-X.
Gregory Bateson’s youngest daughter, Nora, has recently completed a film about the life and work of her father. Entitled – appropriately enough – An Ecology of Mind, the film is currently doing the rounds on the festival circuit as well as getting a limited number of screenings in academic and independent settings. I’ve not seen it yet (come to Dublin, please!) so may have to await the DVD release. But if it’s showing anywhere near you, then do pop along.
He’s name-checked – and his ideas are extensively discussed – in the independent German* film, Mindwalk, from 1990 (note: it’s an English language film for subtitle-phobes). Personally I enjoyed it and found it engaging, but it’s far from A Great Film. Recommended, though not essential viewing.
And some final links
There are a few recordings of Bateson lectures that I’ve managed to track down (not nearly enough, sadly). I highly recommend checking them out when you have a couple of hours to spare…
Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1)
Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 2)
The latest book from my friend and fellow traveller, Gyrus, is subtitled “A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilized Peoples”. Over the past few years a debate has been raging… quietly raging, but raging nonetheless… regarding the nature of pre-civilized human society. In this slim but incisive volume, Gyrus summarises the debate and adds to it. Signficantly, in my view.
There is a tendency within our culture (perhaps within humanity, though anthropology suggests that it’s not universal, merely rather prevalent) to reduce everything to a kind of oppositional dualism. To polarise every debate. The baddies and the goodies. Yin and Yang. Male and female. Left and Right. I find this tendency rather unsatisfactory as it often (usually!) ends up simplifying issues to the point of uselessness.
The debate regarding pre-civilized cultures; specifically regarding the questions of whether they are/were more or less violent than civilized cultures and whether they are/were more or less ecologically conscientious than civilized cultures; has followed that general tendency and become polarised. On the one hand there’s the view — generally attributed to Rousseau — that pre-civilized peoples were “Noble Savages”. On the other hand there’s the view expressed by Hobbes that primitive life was “nasty, brutish and short”.
These two positions (both of which appear to have started life as thought-experiments, rather than deeply held convictions) have led to various kinds of caricature. The post-Hobbesians paint a ridiculous Dances With Wolves-esque idyllic utopia — minus the inter-tribal warfare scenes — picture of the other side, and insist they are guilty of nostalgia and wishful thinking. This is of course compounded by New Age primitivists with their Back to Nature rhetoric. On the other hand, the post-Hobbesians are themselves painted as deluded apologists for progress; desperately trying to portray the past as hellish even as civilisation destroys the future.
Where Gyrus, characteristically, succeeds is by refusing to be taken in by the propaganda of either established camps and instead casting a genuinely critical eye over the claims of both. In doing so, I believe he likely comes as close to the truth of the matter as we’re going to get — given the difficulties involved in establishing facts when discussing prehistoric societies and/or modern indigenous societies prior to our contact with them.
War & The Noble Savage is accessible, educational and well-written enough to be described as entertaining. It serves as a fine rebuttal to the recent tendency to view the past through a Hobbesian lens while never succumbing to the seduction of nostalgia or primitivism. I’m pretty much going to insist that my few regular readers (and the rest of you too!) buy it (think of it as returning the favour for the excellent service I’ve been providing here for several years, ahem). It’s privately published and costs a paltry four pounds (including P&P… people outside the UK add a quid for postage). Even if this isn’t a subject that traditionally you’d be interested in (though you’ll be surprised at how relevant it is to all manner of other areas of debate), you should still buy it in order to support the kind of independent research and publishing that the author, and others, undertake.
Overall, War & The Noble Savage is an important contribution to an important debate. For those interested in an introduction to the subject (while you’re waiting for the book to be delievered) Gyrus has given some talks on this subject, one of which was recently turned into a Slidecast which you can listen to on his website for free.
Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.
Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.
Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.
But what’s it actually about?
[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.
Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.
Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art
In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.
To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.
But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.
One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).
Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.
The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.
Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?
This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.
For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.
… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…
It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.
My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.
From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.
Hallo folks. Well, I’m finally back from my extended Easter break. A long-weekend got transformed into a ten day holiday thanks to West Cork’s unusually-Mediterranean weather. Technically I was cycling (on my new and excellent bike). But I feel a bit of a cheat making that claim as the time mostly consisted of sitting on cliff-tops or beaches and eating the occasional biscuit. In amidst all the lazing about in the sun though, I helped someone clean a patio (don’t ask). Right at the end, after all the heavy lifting, bending and scrubbing was done, I decided to give the stones one last leisurely sweep. It was just then that some hitherto uncomplaining muscle in my lower back decided to go “ping” (or whatever sound muscles make when they tear).
At the time it was fairly painful, but bearable. The next day though was spent sitting in a car on my way back to Dublin. A journey that gave my back plenty of time to seize up good and proper. It’s starting to sort itself out now, and movement without unreasonable agony is possible again. But lying motionless for over a week has given me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that I can spend a week cycling and clambering over rocks and climbing the occasional tree and it be nothing but physically pleasurable… but a few hours of repetitive labour will bugger up my back.
This should surprise nobody except the creationists.
Of course, lazing around on the couch blitzed on painkillers and muscle-relaxants is hardly the worst fate that can befall a person (though it annoys me that I was forced to resort to such medication… the dearth of quality sensimilia in this country is shameful). Especially a person with an extensive DVD collection. So, some quickie reviews…
Stalker. It’s possible that this late-70s Russian art-SF film would be utterly incomprehensible even without taking a bunch of strong painkillers. Right now though, I can’t say for sure. Hypnotic, dreamlike and very odd. I recommend it.
Six Feet Under (Season 1). Television is almost never this good. The writing is wonderful, the acting is flawless and the production values make most Hollywood films seem pale and one-dimensional. I must admit to being vaguely annoyed by the very final scene of the season, but aside from that I can’t think of a single thing wrong with this programme. An unflinching and visionary look at human relationships and emotion. A work of genius.
Stranger Than Fiction. I have very little time for Will Ferrell (his part in Zoolander was bearable only because the rest of the film was so funny) but given the hype surrounding this film (I can’t help but be interested when the name Charlie Kaufman is mentioned, even if only by comparison) I figured it was worth a shot. And it turns out that — just like Jim Carrey — Will Ferrell is capable of doing a half-decent job when cast against type… in this case as a dull, repressed, buttoned-down office worker. Definitely worth a look.
Casino Royale. A bearable action flick. The chase scene at the beginning is by far the best part. When it shows up on TV it’s worth tuning in to the first ten minutes or so. Sadly it’s all downhill after that. Even the much-discussed torture scene is sanitised, so that it forces you to wince rather than turn away from the screen (as in Reservoir Dogs or Syriana). If someone’s getting tortured on-screen and you’re only wincing, then the director hasn’t done their job very well.
The Ice Harvest. John Cusack is a very watchable actor. And he’s been in some excellent films. Unfortunately his ratio of good films to utter dross isn’t as good as it once was, and he’s getting close to being an indication that I don’t want to see a film rather than a reason to see it. This is a particularly silly thriller that telegraphs every single plot twist and has a dire cop-out ending. Avoid.
I also rewatched Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (possibly my favourite film ever) which gets more beautiful and moving with every viewing. Kitano had a degree of international success with Zatoichi which — it seems — irritated him somewhat. In response he made what is apparently one of the weirdest and most impenetrable films of recent years… Takeshis’. I can’t wait to see it!
Lately my reading has become rather more focussed than is traditional for me. Regimented even. On my shelf since Christmas sits Pynchon’s massive and enticing Against The Day. It is, as yet, unopened. Well, that’s not strictly true… I couldn’t resist reading the first couple of pages… it starts well, introduced by a Thelonious Monk quote — “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light” — and opening aboard the hydrogen airship, Inconvenience. But I decided back at Christmas that I’d wait until summer to read it. For two reasons. One of them being that the best place and time to read great fiction is under some trees on a warm sunny day.
A bit less fluffy, the other reason is simply that although I’m looking forward to full-time study, it’s meant I’ve had to spend a wee while “revising”. See, before I made an abrupt about-turn and got sucked into engineering, my original degree — quite a while ago — was in philosophy. It included courses on ‘The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis’, ‘Theories of Rationality’ and the heavily-psychoanalytical ‘Philosophy and Gender’. Nonetheless, it was still primarily a philosophy course and in no way did it provide a formal grounding in psychoanalysis. And because psychoanalysis is a complex subject (in the sense that there are a multitude of competing theories) it can take a while to acquire a fairly thorough overview. There’s no single book I’ve found that does even a quarter-decent job, so it’s a case of reading several different collections, often with a phrase like “The Essential” in the title (as, for instance, in Princeton’s excellent The Essential Jung) and keeping those most invaluable tools by your side… The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology and The Penguin Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. The bevelled edges are pretty cool too.
I’m also starting to get the impression that Lacan is just Sartre with Venn Diagrams. But I imagine you get into trouble with the psychoanalytic community for saying things like that.
Anyways, I’m recovered enough to sit at the PC for more than five minutes without fretting that my back is going to seize up again. There was a worrying few days when I convinced myself that I’d slipped a disc, which I’m told can sometimes require surgery. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I managed to cycle to the village and back today without any ill effect. So once I’ve caught up on my email, I’ll hopefully be blogging on a semi-regular basis again.
We may joke about the way misplaced concreteness abounds in every word of psychoanalytic writing – but in spite of all the muddled thinking that Freud started, psychoanalysis remains as the outstanding contribution, almost the only contribution to our understanding of the family – a monument to the importance and value of loose thinking.
Experiments in Thinking About Observed Ethnological Material | Gregory Bateson
There’s a collection of Bateson’s papers and essays which I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog. It’s called Steps to an Ecology of Mind and I recommend you track it down with all haste, dear reader. It ranks up there with Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as one of the most important collections of writings of the 20th century.
Like Ideas and Opinions, Bateson’s papers are sometimes far from the cutting edge of the subject they address (the earliest being over 70 years old now). But he writes with a similar piercing clarity and wisdom to Einstein and so provides a deep yet rounded understanding of his subject. He demonstrates methodologies and ways of thinking, rather than merely providing information.
For instance, the article Cybernetic Explanation cleared up a rather abstract area of confusion that had bugged me since university – but that I’d never been able to elucidate – regarding proof by reductio ad absurdum. And while his essay Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art may not contain the most up-to-date theories on primitive art (being almost 40 years old), it nonetheless forced me to re-evaluate some of my beliefs about the nature of consciousness and of human psychology.
No mean feat for an essay about cave paintings.
And it’s fair to say that it’s my views on psychology that have been most influenced by Bateson. Probably the most mind-blowing essay – for me – is Morale and National Character. In it Bateson very clearly presents the reasons why it’s not only legitimate to view and analyse nations using the tools of psychology, but why those tools are actually far better suited to that task than they are to the task of analysing the individual.
This was like an explosion going off in my mind. For years I’ve been of the opinion that what cognitive theorist Douglas Hostadter (dunno if he coined the phrase, but he’s where I first read it) calls “emergent intelligence” plays a far more significant role in the behaviour of corporations, institutions and nations… any large, organised group of people in fact… than is acknowledged.
Not only that, but I’ve always felt that although the tools of modern psychoanalysis are often too blunt to deal with the absurd complexity of individual human consciousness, that they actually have great relevance when examining the motivations and behaviour of the infintely simpler consciousnesses of groups of people.
Incidentally, there may be those who are a little puzzled by the idea that an individual human consciousness would be significantly more complex than a consciousness consisting of multiples of those individuals. It seems vaguely counter-intuitive. But actually the complexity of a consciousness is primarily (though not entirely) a factor of the number of constituent members (or “neurons”). The internal complexity of each individual neuron is a far smaller factor, though conversely it is a far larger factor in the likelihood of systemic failure (mental illness).
All of this seemed to make perfect sense to me… and whenever I applied my theory to the world, it appeared to work. The larger the organisation, the more prone to irrationality and dysfunction it becomes as the collective instabilities in the constituent members get amplified. Two perfect examples being, of course, globalised capitalism and modern China which have both descended into extreme psychosis… in the sense that they are unable to function sustainably in the environment in which they find themselves; the real world.
However, I’ve long become suspicious of assuming that just because something made perfect sense to me, that it did – in fact – make perfect sense. Too often have I been greeted with blank incomprehension as I explained why something obviously had to be a certain way. So it’s a joy to read an essay like Morale and National Character and discover that not only is someone thinking about the world in exactly the same way as you (albeit drawing different conclusions on occasion), but they can explain succinctly just why this way of thinking about the world is so very informative and so very valuable.
Anyways, I didn’t want to write a traditional review of this book as it’s far from a traditional book. I thought instead I’d explain just why it’s so important to me, and why I think anyone interested in anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, evolution, the history and function of art, epistemology or what it means to be human should read this important collection.
My folks tell me that I was reading newspapers when I was three years old. I suspect this would not have been the case if I’d been given free access to a television as a child. My parents’ attitude, which I once saw as puritanical, I now realise was enlightened. So from a very early age I was a voracious reader (cue: Bill Hicks… “think we got ourselves a reader“) and would read absolutely anything I could get my hands on. Of course, it was a couple more years before my vocabularly got to the point where I could read The Times cover to cover unassisted, but it’s safe to say I’ve been ravenously consuming the written word since before I can remember being me.
My reading habits have gone through many changes, and continue to go through periodic cycles. For about a year in my early twenties I read almost nothing except biographies. Three, sometimes four a week. I spent six months during my sixteenth year immersed in left wing political polemic. When I was eleven I read The Lord of The Rings four times in a row. Immediately afterwards I first read The Bible from cover to cover.
Religion died for me.
Perhaps the most obvious of the periodic cycles, however, is the shift between fiction and nonfiction. I can read three nonfiction books simultaneously, but literature requires exclusivity for me. So I tend to have several months during which I’ll consume vast amounts of nonfiction at a relatively frenetic pace, followed by a month or so where I’ll read a couple of novels a week (a leisurely pace for me). I have just shifted into literature mode.
Genre, Historical or Contemporary?
In truth I’ve never been a big fan of historical fiction. Sprawling epics set in ancient Rome just don’t appeal to me for some reason. I completely get their attraction though, because sprawling epics set on another planet often can catch my attention. And the past is, after all, another planet (I’ll do what I want to the idiom thankyou very much). I used to read a lot of horror novels in my teens, though haven’t read one in years. And prior to that it was all swords and sorcery for a while. But science fiction is the genre that just won’t stay dead.
I suppose that’s because it’s not really a genre at all. It bleeds into contemporary fiction all over the place. If I could be arsed to whip up some Venn diagrams you’d see what I mean… Vonnegut, Pynchon, Burroughs, Ballard… they’re all in that middle bit where they intersect. And “the classics” are full of it… HG Wells, Jules Verne; hell even Orwell gets accused of writing the stuff.
Why? Because it’s such a damn useful device for social commentary, that’s why. You want to criticise current social, political or cultural policies or beliefs? Then paint a grim portrait of a future where they are taken to their logical conclusion. “Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about an imagined future… it’s about the future as it will be should we continue along the road we are going”. That’s the essence of SF from Orwell to MacLeod. That we are presented with such a wide variety of dystopian warnings perhaps comes as some relief; it would appear that nothing is set in stone as yet.
I’m aware, by the way, that “not getting” historical fiction while mentioning the fact that Thomas Pynchon is my favourite author may seem a little contradictory. It’s certainly true that Pynchon sets many of his novels in the past. But to call them ‘historical novels’ would be wrong. For me the essence of an historical novel is one which treats historical accuracy as importantly as plot, characterisation, dialogue or message. Pynchon’s talking (and singing) dog in Mason & Dixon or the story of the first pizza in Yorkshire (with the dandy werewolf) in the same novel, and that whole Rat Messiah thing in V… well, they’d probably fail the “strict historical accuracy” test.
All of which is a very roundabout way of saying I’ve been reading SF again of late.
MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer whose novels blend mind-bending technological speculation with political debate, in roughly equal measure. That’s a combination that could easily create dense unreadable crap. Thankfully the man has the virtue of writing likeable characters and convincing dialogue. I’ve read everything he’s written since the excellent Star Fraction, and am probably in a minority when I lament, ever so slightly, the subtle shift over the years towards the technology and away from the politics.
It’s still a central pillar to his writing, let me be clear; he’s still almost as much social commentator as novelist, but as his themes have become more broadly philosophical and less directly political I feel they’ve also become slightly less compelling. As I say, I suspect I’m in the minority regarding that… the plots have become wilder and faster paced as some of the polemic has been shed.
Nonetheless, his last two novels Learning The World and Newton’s Wake are amongst the finest science fiction you’re likely to read. And despite both having a somewhat post-human setting, they still retain a huge amount of the social commentary for which MacLeod is justly praised.
As planet earth descended into what seemed like the final war, a group of humans escaped in a starship and settled a planet many thousands of lightyears away. The war, between Europe and the United States, became a war between humans and posthumans as an artifical intelligence – a singularity – emerged from within the military computer system. The event, known as The Hard Rapture, consumed millions of human consciousnesses… forcefully uploaded into the system.
Those who escaped believed that humanity had been annihilated by the war machines and also believed that many thousands of years had passed – if not more – before their starship regenerated them on their new planet. Their society continues to evolve, believing itself to be the last remnants of the human race.
The consequences – not merely from a security aspect, but politically and culturally – of regaining contact with earth, discovering that humanity was not eliminated in the war, and that only a few generations have passed are played out over 380-or-so pages. MacLeod populates the story with a number of human factions in this posthuman universe… there’s The Carlyles; a Glaswegian criminal family who – by a stroke of fortune – gained control of a system of interstellar wormholes and use it to salvage chunks of posthuman technology for their own profit (given the dangers involved, it’s a practice known as combat archaeology). There’s the Knights of The Enlightenment; mostly Japanese and East Asian… all spirituality, martial arts, cosmic balance and the responsible exploration of posthuman technology. The AO (America Offline); famers, settlers, pioneers, homesteaders… followers of the prophet Jesus Koresh. The DK; communists and big into self-reliance.
And there’s at least one serious ideological rift within each of the factions involved in the chase to gain control over the most intriguing bit of posthuman tech of all.
The story is told with a great deal of humour (the war machines whose consciousness evolves so rapidly that they become bored of the current conflict long before reaching their targets… “the ‘too-smart’ bomb problem” being one of my favourites). There’s plenty of action, and lots of speculation about the nature of personal identity and just what it means to be human. All in all a great read, but I do think the ending got a wee bit muddy. I like ambiguity, but I get the feeling that MacLeod was attempting to present a specific message about identity in the closing chapters, and I’m not 100% sure that I didn’t invest them with my own. Which is cool, but perhaps not what the author was hoping for.
Learning The World
This was my favourite of the two. Set way waaay in the future when humanity is – for all intents and purposes – posthuman itself, it tells the tale of a vast colony ship; a self-contained world with cities and ecosystems and with millions of people spanning several generations. The ship’s mission is to travel to a neighbouring star, a journey of many centuries, and populate both the system and the next colony ship which will make the journey to the next star. In this way, over thousands of years, humanity has slowly spread out from our solar system to colonise dozens of new systems.
In this case, however, for the very first time… a colony ship arrives at a system already occupied by intelligent life. Aliens. First contact.
Part of the novel is written as the weblog (or biolog) of one of the would-be colonists and is extremely well-observed in that respect. As well it should be, MacLeod is a blogger himself. The book flits between the perspective of the aliens (‘Alien Space Bats’ as they get dubbed by the colonists) and the recently arrived ship and details the effects that they have upon one another’s culture.
It’s not giving too much away to tell you that “First Contact” doesn’t arrive until right at the end of the book… after the mere fact of each other’s existence has massively altered both societies. MacLeod’s humour and wonderful skill with characters makes it a compelling read. Right up until the very end you’re not quite certain how it will all resolve, and yet it makes perfect sense once it does.
If you’ve not read any MacLeod, then I’d personally start way back at the start, with The Star Fraction. And although, of the two recent ones, Newton’s Wake is closest in style and theme to his early work, I feel that Learning The World is a slightly better novel with a more satisfying conclusion.