Book review: Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery

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Are cartoons too violent for children? Most people would say “No, of course not, what kind of stupid question is that?” but one woman says yes, and she’s here with us tonight…

— Kent Brockman, The Simpsons: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge

Did Shakespeare write Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version of the Bible, and did he signal this to future generations by concealing his name within the text? Most people would say “No, of course not…”, but it has proved to be a surprisingly persistent myth in some corners of evangelical Christianity.

Jem Bloomfield’s new book, Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery, takes a look at this myth. Jem is very clear that the myth is (almost certainly) Not True, but he argues that it provides an insight into how English-speaking people have engaged with both Shakespeare and the Bible over the past four centuries.

Jem begins by describing the myth itself. The story is told that, when you look at Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version (a.k.a. the King James Version), the 46th word from the beginning is “shake”, and 46th word from the end is “spear”. What’s more, Shakespeare was 46 in the year when the Authorised Version was being prepared (1610). Depending on which version of the myth you read, this was either the result of Shakespeare himself concealing his name in “his” translation of the psalm, or planted by admirers working on the text as part of the committee of scholars commissioned by King James to produce the new version.

Jem sets out a combination of historical and literary reasons why neither story is at likely to be true: for example, it is unthinkable that a conservative and scholarly project such as the Authorised Version would have involved a disreputable playwright in its activities, or had any members who desired to demonstrate their admiration for such a figure. What’s more, the words “shake” and “spear”, far from being novelties introduced in the new Bible, had already been used in the previous translations on which the Authorised Version was based.

As Jem observes towards the end of the book, it is quite difficult to refute the Psalm 46 myth, because there is literally no evidence for it and hence very little with which to engage in any refutation. Hence the myth itself is of less interest than the very fact of its existence, and it is this with which Jem’s book is mostly concerned. As he writes in his introduction:

The Psalm 46 rumour had always interested me, partly because it was so bizarre, and I enjoyed tracing the various ways in which it could have possibly been true, and marshalling the evidence to prove it was not. The story branched off into questions about the translation of the King James Bible, the theatre industry of Shakespeare’s time, the religious politics of England under James I, the way Early Modern books were printed, and attitudes to the Bible. Though I did not think the story was true, proving it untrue opened up much more interesting issues.

In the opening chapter, Jem contrasts the attitudes towards the theatre in early modern England and our own time. Today, the theatre – especially Shakespeare – is regarded as one of the pinnacles of high culture, to be mentioned in the same breath (and funded out of the same pot) as classical music, opera and art galleries. In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was a branch of popular entertainment, competing for people’s attention with bear-baiting and public executions. Today, the theatre is seen as “good for you”, a respectable activity to which schoolchildren are dragged in the name of educational improvement. Then, church ministers inveighed against the corrupting influence of plays and theatres: indeed, leading members of the Authorised Version’s translation committee had been especially vocal in their attacks on the theatre.

In short, “it is a very modern perspective to look back and see the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare towering over the early 17th century as the two books that mattered”: no one at the time would have seen it that way.

Moving on, Jem looks at how poets of the time did engage with the biblical texts, from Sternhold & Hopkins’ metrical psalter for congregational singing, to the rather more accomplished paraphrases by Lady Mary Sidney. (Having these texts quoted at length is one of the particular pleasures of this book.) Jem’s point is that, had Shakespeare wished to involve himself in translating the psalms, he had more attractive options available to him than tweaking a word here or there in the rather less obviously “poetic” translation of the King James Bible.

So how did such an unlikely myth emerge? Jem traces its origins to the growing cultural status of both Shakespeare and the Authorised Version during the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries. As Shakespeare came to be regarded as a giant of literature – often in terms so enthusiastic as to “sound satirical to modern ears” – and as the Authorised Version established itself as a foundational text of English-speaking culture, so it became increasingly difficult for people to believe that these two monuments could have developed at the same time without any connection between them.

The myth has most recently been repeated in a 2014 Bible commentary published by Eerdmans in the US, where it is described as a “wonderful legendary story.” Thus the commentary, while remaining agnostic as to the truth of the myth, employs it as a sort of “sermon anecdote” to corroborate the literary worth of the Bible: the very existence of this legend shows that the Bible is a serious work of literature, worthy of consideration alongside an undisputed giant such as Shakespeare. This emphasis on the literary value of the Bible has been one strategy employed by evangelicals over the past century in order to demonstrate the Bible’s continuing worth in the face of scholarly assaults upon its literal reliability.

Jem concludes his book as follows:

[T]he Psalm 46 legend fails to do justice both to the texts of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and to the astonishing histories of which they are a part. The political, social, religious and literary worlds which gather around these books are far more puzzling, dramatic and absorbing than this little conspiracy theory claims. It claims to tell a secret, but points us away from the heart of the mystery.

If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that the Psalm 46 myth is so slender a thing that to devote so much time to its refutation can seem almost cruel. However, this is more than outweighed by Jem’s unravelling of the “political, social, religious and literary” threads which surround the myth – and which are indeed “puzzling, dramatic and absorbing.”

The book is well worth the asking price of £8.99 paperback or £3.99 Kindle – and it’s a positive no-brainer if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Note: Jem provided me with a pre-publication PDF review copy of this book, but I ended up buying my own copy of the Kindle edition anyway. 

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Book review: A More Radical Gospel, by Gerhard O. Forde

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I’ve just finished reading A More Radical Gospel, a collection of essays and lectures by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005).

The essays set out elements of Forde’s vision of “radical Lutheranism”: that is, a Lutheranism that centres its ministry and identity on the proclamation of the gospel as unconditional promise, while sitting relatively lightly to historic Lutheran doctrinal formulations such as the Formula of Concord. Appropriately, the book ends with a set of sermons, allowing Forde to conclude with the direct proclamation of the gospel that is such a critical concept in his theology.

Forde is a stimulating thinker and writer, and I found these essays thought-provoking, often exciting, and (mostly) spiritually energising. What I find most helpful in Forde: his emphasis on the gospel as a first-to-second-person proclamation (“I absolve you”, “I baptise you”); what Forde calls “primary discourse” (“speaking for God”), as contrasted with the “secondary discourse” (“speaking about God”) of systematic theology, exegesis, and so on. This comes through particularly strongly in his sections on eschatology, authority and ecumenism.

Criticisms? The biggest is that I really can’t get my head round his theology of the atonement. As I understand it, Forde argues that it’s not that Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice, demonstrate God’s love or win a victory over evil. Rather, God wanted to forgive humanity unconditionally, we didn’t want it, and so we killed Jesus to keep intact our conditional, law-based approach; only for God then to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

I like Forde’s emphasis on the “brute facts” of the crucifixion, of reaching an understanding of what the cross means “from below” before we go on to ask what it means “from above”. However, I don’t think he even does justice to the event considered “from below” – do the Gospels really present Jesus’ death simply as a refusal by his hearers to accept unconditional forgiveness? – which makes Forde’s argument about its meaning “from above” feel unconvincing. In the end, one is left wondering how necessary or central the cross is to the gospel, if understood in Forde’s terms. It also seems to leave a lot of biblical data unaccounted for.

To end on a more positive (though still controversial note), I liked Forde’s approach to ecumenism: above all his emphasis on the church’s identity (and hence its true, albeit hidden unity) being found in the activity of the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as gospel; an activity which is not confined to any one denomination or tradition. This involves setting aside a confessional Lutheran insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for altar fellowship (which I know some reading this will disagree with strongly); but it also allows for a distinctly Lutheran approach to ecumenical dialogue, rather than seeking bland compromise formulas in which “every cat is grey”.

After the fold, I’ve posted the brief summary notes I wrote on each essay to aid my own recollection. They may not make much sense without the full text, but hopefully they will whet your appetite to check out more of what Forde is saying in these essays. You can also get a flavour from the quotations I’ve posted on my Tumblr.


Eschatology: The Last Word First 

  • Radical Lutheranism: Lutheranism should find its identity in the religious landscape by doubling down in proclaiming the gospel in all its radical unconditionality, a proclamation that takes seriously both justification by faith and the bondage of the will. Not that these will always be the content of our preaching, but that they inform and undergird the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The Apocalyptic No and the Eschatological Yes: grace as an eschatological breaking-in of the new, not an ontological infusing of power into an old being.
  • Lex semper accusat? The Reformation perspective – that the law always accuses, and that the gospel is the end of the law – paradoxically frees us up to have a positive view of the law in the civil/political/ethical sphere, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to assist us in taking care of this world.

Legal and Evangelical Authority

  • Authority in the Church: The Lutheran Reformation: “The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest exercise of authority in the church”; “scripture interprets itself” means that the Word acts upon us rather than sitting as a passive object of our subjective interpretation.
  • Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres: Reflections on the Question of Scripture and Tradition: Sola scriptura can only be understood properly in the light of the sui ipsius interpres, that the Word acts on the hearer rather than vice versa. Only this can resolve the dilemma between the supposed need for an infallible interpreter on the one hand, and individualistic subjectivism on the other.
  • The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Luther: Never mind what the modern world should make of Luther: what would Luther make of the modern world? He’d decry its lack of distinction between human judgment and divine judgment, reducing everything to the former and ignoring the latter; and its superficiality as regards sin, death and the devil.

Atonement and Justification: Christ Unbound

  • Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ: Why is the death of Jesus necessary? Understanding Jesus’ death “from below”: he was killed for proclaiming an unconditional forgiveness and mercy that we do not want (“…and you would not,” Matthew 23:37). Understanding it “from above”: God cannot have mercy on us “in the abstract”. Christ’s death satisfies God’s desire to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, because it creates believers, and thus “actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete.” [I found this Forde’s argument in this essay quite hard to follow, tbh]
  • Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ: We want to turn the story of Jesus and his cross into the story of a “winner”; but the story of Jesus is the story of someone determining to follow the path of being a loser in a world of winners. The resurrection is not God snatching victory from defeat, but his vindication of Jesus’ following the loser’s path.
  • In Our Place: Forde engages with a feminist critique which accuses all theories of atonement as valorising suffering (“divine child abuse paraded as salvific”); he agrees with some aspects of the critique, but emphasises that any understanding of the cross in terms of its moral purpose is mistaken, and leads to an “us vs them” mentality (“had we been there, it would all have come out differently”). Rather, Christ’s death is a “happy exchange”: he takes our place and gives us his.
  • Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?: We don’t progress morally in the Christian life, our lives approximating more and more closely to the righteousness imputed to us in Christ; rather, imputation is an eschatological breaking-in of the new world, and this attack on sin from without is then worked out more and more fully in our lives.
  • Luther’s “Ethics”: stop thinking ad modum Aristotelis (“in the manner of Aristotle,” in which the fundamental human story is one of ethical development aided by grace), start thinking ad modum scripturae (“in the manner of scripture,” in which grace alone determines our relationship with God): “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”

Unecclesiological Ecumenism 

  • The Meaning of Satis Est: Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is not a “counsel of despair”, an attempt to patch together a minimal definition of unity in a splintering church. It’s a redefinition of the church in a manner consonant with justification by faith. Hence the church is defined by its activities of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, not by any human rites, ceremonies, institutions or offices; and hence its unity is an invisible object of faith, not a visible institutional or ceremonial unity.
  • Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much? Ecumenism, for Lutherans, should not be a matter of “political correctness” or “ecclesial correctness”, but of confessional integrity: contributing our distinct understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, rather than either working to concoct bland compromise statements in which “every cat is grey” and for the sake of which legitimate theological questions and concerns get steamrollered in the name of “repressive tolerance”. Let’s recognise one another as Christians and as churches on the basis of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and then discuss our theological differences.
  • The Catholic Impasse: Reflections on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Today: Lutherans and Catholics need to stop papering over the cracks in ecumenical discussion and acknowledge that fundamental differences remain between them. Postliberal Lutheran theology rejects both ecclesiastical infallibilism and biblical infallibilism in place of the living, present-tense gospel declaration. This is what roots it in catholic tradition, since the paradigmatic expressions of that proclamation are the concrete, catholic practices of preaching, absolution and the sacraments; Lutherans are not (contrary to widespread Catholic belief) “subjectivists” preaching an unmediated gospel.

Shakespeare and the Bible: stimulating reading

wordsofpowerThe Bible and Shakespeare have each had quite the trajectory within our culture. There have been times when possession of an English Bible could get you burned at the stake, while Shakespeare spent his career working in a London theatrical scene which was reviled by the respectable as a danger to morality and social order; and yet “the Bible and Shakespeare” (especially when bracketed together in this way) have come to be regarded as the twin peaks of English literature.

It is this shared status, and what reading “the Bible and Shakespeare” can tell us about the relationships between texts and wider culture and society, that Jem Bloomfield discusses in his forthcoming book Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Jem’s book is due to be published by the Lutterworth Press on 26 May 2016, but I had the pleasure of getting to read a copy of the proofs.

It’s a short book – 156 pages including introduction but excluding bibliography and index – but packed with material that has made me think in new ways, not only about the Bible and Shakespeare, but also more widely about the nature of a “canon”, what makes a text “sacred”, different ways of reading familiar texts, the nature of performance and proclamation, how texts form communities and identities, and the complex ways in which texts are appropriated and quoted.

For example, in the introduction, Jem summarises the biblical critic John Barton’s discussion on what gives a text “scriptural status”, and how Shakespeare can function as “scripture”. Barton identifies four characteristics of “scripture”:

  • scripture is “a text that matters and which contains no trivialities, nothing ephemeral”;
  • scripture is assumed to have “contemporary relevance … to every generation, to all people at all times”;
  • scripture is assumed to be consistent, with great efforts made to smooth over any apparent inconsistencies within or between its component texts; and
  • scripture contains “an excess of meaning”, a “vision of the text as full of mysteries, with layers of meaning below the surface sense.”

Just reading that list can spark off multiple thoughts as to how much these criteria can be applied to Shakespeare. On the first, “it is not acceptable to think Shakespeare is deeply uninteresting,” observes Barton. As for the second, Jem discusses the National Theatre’s 2012 production of Timon of Athens, whose marketing materials pitched it as a parable for the financial crash; even though “the sight of an Athenian nobleman sitting in the wilderness railing about sexually transmitted diseases” is, on the face of it, less obviously relevant than other plays from the same period – plays which, however, lack the imprimatur of the Shakespeare brand.

In Jem’s chapter of the “canon”, he describes the complexities of establishing the canon of both the Bible and Shakespeare, each of which has been contested in various ways throughout history. One point that struck me is how familiarity makes canonicity self-reinforcing: “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The London Prodigal” just sound wrong – because they are so much less familiar than the “canonical” works – which predisposes us to accept their exclusion from the canon. Similarly, we are less practised at harmonising canonical and non-canonical works than we are at harmonising apparent inconsistencies within the canon.

As Jem goes on to observe, it has (for both the Bible and Shakespeare) to to find a definition of canonicity that doesn’t exclude some books accepted as canonical. And even if there are good reasons in each case for accepting the consensus on which books are and are not “in”, studying the books which have been excluded can help us appreciate “the contingent status of the texts we are used to thinking of as secure.”

In his chapter on “ways of reading”, Jem describes the multiplicity of ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare have been interpreted. In each case, there is a widespread assumption that the “most vital” meaning of the text can only be found by digging below the surface: hence the fourfold medieval exegesis of Scripture, in which “literal” interpretations are joined by “allegorical”, “moral” and “anagogical” – leading to the different layers of meaning which, even today, can attach to the name “Jerusalem”. In more modern times, biblical critics have sought to establish criteria for establishing which reported words and actions of Jesus are “authentic”: criteria of “embarrassment”, “discontinuity”, “coherence”, “multiple attestation” and “the criterion of Jesus’ rejection and execution” (that is, the idea that if a supposed reconstruction of Jesus doesn’t look like someone who’d get nailed to a cross, UR DOING IT WRONG).

Similarly, the interpretation of Shakespeare has also been through different phases and fashions. “Character criticism”, in which characters are treated as if they were living individuals with lives before and (if they’re lucky) after the text, is now somewhat out of fashion (helped along by a celebrated essay whose title asked, waspishly, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”). It was superseded first by the “New Criticism” which treated poetry as self-contained texts, and then by today’s dominant paradigm of “stage-centred criticism”, which holds that Shakespeare can only be properly interpreted by on-stage performance.

This leads on to Jem’s next chapter, in which he looks at the nature of performance. “Performance” often carried negative connotations: it is “not done” for the reading of a scriptural passage in church to come across as “a performance”, for example. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people saw performance of Shakespeare as diminishing the genius of his poetry. However, in earlier times, silent reading of the Bible was regarded with some suspicion, with St Augustine finding it necessary to explain to his readers why St Ambrose’s practice of silent reading could be justified. Augustine was living in a culture on the cusp of moving from being an “oral” culture (in which the word is something proclaimed) to a “literary” culture (in which the word is something read). (As an aside, it’s worth noting that, for Luther, “the Word of God” always primarily meant the proclaimed Word rather than the written Word.)

In his chapter on “the people of the books”, Jem describes how the Bible and Shakespeare are each used to define communities or identities. He is sharp in observing how evangelicals use biblical citations (and even the word “Bible” itself, as in “Bible-based churches”) as a marker of identity. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Globe are examples of “the complex system in which Shakespeare’s name and works produce cultural authority.”

In the final chapter, Jem analyses the ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare are appropriated for different purposes: from the use of the Bible as an (unread) prop in US presidential inaugurations, to MPs’ fondness for quoting Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, Doctor Who, as a means of “bolstering the speaker’s rhetorical self-presentation” and “discreetly presenting the credentials of a particular background, upbringing and social sphere.” 

I hope this summary has given a flavour of how thunderously successful Jem is in accomplishing his aim of stimulating his readers to engage in similar analyses in their own reading life – “recognising a quotation,looking sceptically at the mission statement of a college, asking themselves for what purpose a Bible verse is being used in a politician’s speech” – and helping us to appreciate how “the strangeness of the past” can aid “a recognition of the present’s own remarkable strangeness.”

Is Donald Trump a fascist?

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Photograph: Gage Skidmore.

It’s this question – being posed in various places – that prompted me to read Kevin Passmore’s superb book, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (2nd ed).

Of course, before we can decide whether The Donald is an actual fascist, we need to ask what exactly the definition of a “fascist” is. The question of defining fascism is probably the major theme of Passmore’s book. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the book is how this second edition interacts with the first edition, also by Passmore.

In the first edition, Passmore explains, he attempted to come up with a definition of fascism that reconciles the competing attempts that have been made by academics from different traditions. For example:

  • Marxist definitions, which see fascism as “the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of capitalism”.
  • Weberian definitions, which see fascism as a reaction against “modernisation” by bewildered traditionalists.
  • Totalitarian theory, which sees fascism as just one species, along with state communism, of a wider category of “totalitarianism”.

Passmore sees strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches, and his previous definition attempted to synthesise them. However, he concludes that even this attempt was fundamentally flawed, because in the end fascism was too contradictory a phenomenon to be reducible to a clear definition:

Fascism is a contradictory set of interrelated and contested ideologies and practices that cannot easily be categorized in terms of binary opposites such as tradition and modernity or radical and reactionary. (p.151)

Which isn’t to say that it’s a meaningless or useless term:

[O]ur inability to pin fascism down does not mean that we can’t say anything at all, or that it’s all just a matter of opinion. […] Thus, I cover movements and regimes that called themselves fascist or were called fascist by their enemies or by scholars. […] I use fascism as a convenient label, in the knowledge that it covers many meanings. (p.19, emphasis in original)

This leads on the question of whether modern far-right movements can be usefully described as “fascist”. On this, Passmore is sceptical:

There are genuine continuities between interwar fascism and the modern extreme right (extreme nationalism and discrimination against ethnic minorities, antifeminism, antisocialism, populism, hostility to established social and political elites, anticapitalism, and antiparliamentarianism). There are equally significant differences (lack of mass mobilization, paramilitary violence, and the ambition to create a one-party state). More often, the modern far right seeks to exploit the discriminatory potential of democracy rather than overthrow it. (p.107)

In other words, whatever the moral evils of the extreme right, it is not necessarily accurate or useful to describe it as “fascist” in the same sense that this term is used to describe interwar movements such as Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, or the Iron Guard in Romania. The differences – particularly the acceptance of democratic means by most far-right parties – are too great.

The obsession with deciding whether or not a given far-right movement is “fascist” can be counterproductive in more than one way. Take, for example, the Front National in France, which rejects the “fascist” label and has adopted instead the terminology first applied to it by pro-Fifth Republic political scientists, who:

depict the FN as a temporary ‘national-populist’ protest on the part of marginal ill-educated people, who seek simple answers for their difficulties in the age of globalization. Besides betraying a certain contempt for ordinary people, this interpretation plays into the hands of the highly educated professional politicians who actually lead the FN. It permits the FN to assert academic support for its difference from fascism and for its claim to represent the voiceless. It’s as if racism is acceptable as long as it isn’t fascist. It would be just as problematic though to label the FN as fascist. It’s potentially a way of discrediting the party, but since FN sympathizers don’t usually see themselves as fascist, one runs the risk of reinforcing their conviction that the movement represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite. (p.153)

This, I think, begins to help us answer the question posed by this post’s title. Describing Trump as a “fascist” may make his opponents on the left feel better, but it raises two problems, both of which have highly practical political consequences. First, does this mean that Trump’s racist policies as regards Mexicans and Muslims would be “acceptable as long as [he] isn’t fascist” (thus opening the way for a more “moderate” Republican candidate to pick them up)? And does this labelling of Trump as a “fascist” just reinforce his supporters’ conviction that he “represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite”?

In short: Donald Trump almost certainly isn’t a fascist, even if he is tapping into some of the same dissatisfactions, and some of the same unpleasant social and individual tendencies, that have been exploited by fascists. Indeed, Passmore himself has said as much, when asked the Trump question by Vox:

For me, the point about Trump’s proposals is not whether or not they are ‘fascist,’ but whether or not they are moral.

As Passmore puts it in his book:

[T]he question of whether or not the modern far right’s stance is ‘fascist’ has no bearing on the moral acceptability of its proposals. For instance, would the expulsion of non-whites from a country be more acceptable if it was the work of a non-fascist government? To reduce the far right to its similarities with fascism carries the risk of obscuring what is new about it and of diverting attention from the possibility that fascists may not be alone in advocating or practicing policies that others would regard as morally wrong. (p.152)

In the end, Passmore insists, we cannot abdicate responsibility for tackling the far right to academics, asking them to decree which movements are “fascist” (and therefore beyond the pale) and which are “non-fascist” (and therefore – well, what, precisely?). As he writes:

So are we letting the modern far right off the hook by avoiding the question of fascism? Ultimately, responses to fascism depend not upon scholarly assessments of what has happened in the past or on categorization. We cannot oppose the far right by defining it as fascist—however many similarities there undoubtedly are. We must focus rather on the dangers that it represents in the present, and indeed on the recognition that non-fascist movements, including groups that play by democratic rules, can also threaten decent values. (p.155)

In other words, the question we should ask is not “Is Trump a fascist?”, but rather: “Is Trump moral? Is he dangerous? Does he threaten decent values?” And I’m going to leave that as an exercise for the reader…

Earth is our home, not our cradle: the message of Aurora

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

auroraThe dream of humanity escaping its “cradle” to colonise the stars is the subject – or perhaps a better word would be “target” – of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel (the first of his that I’ve read), Aurora.

This book expands on the thesis advanced by Robinson in this recent essay for BoingBoing: that the dream of interstellar colonisation will never actually come true. Robinson does this by telling the story of a spaceship carrying 2,000 pioneer colonists to the Tau Ceti system, 11.9 light years from Earth. He depicts their attempts to overcome the insuperable difficulties – “ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological” – which their mission faces, despite the best efforts of both the mission’s original designers and subsequent generations of colonists on board.

For Robinson, the science fiction “eschatology” of humanity colonising the stars is not just a harmless dream, but can become a dangerous delusion to the extent that it makes us think that there is any long-term alternative to Earth for humanity’s survival. As a character puts it towards the end:

The idea […] that Earth is humanity’s cradle is part of what trashed the Earth in the first place. (p.439)

The positive lesson that Robinson wants to drum home is that:

life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. […] So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. (p.178)

Human beings have evolved to live in a complex symbiosis with our environment; indeed, we are each of us ourselves a complex ecosystem in which my health as an individual is dependent on maintaining a balance with the microbes that inhabit my body.

Towards the end, a character summarises Robinson’s argument in words that are worth quoting in full:

“No starship voyage will work,” [Aram] says abruptly. “This is an idea some of you have, which ignores the biological realities of the situation. We from Tau Ceti know this better than anyone. There are ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological problems that can never be solved to make this idea work. The physical problems of propulsion have captured your fancy, and perhaps these problems can be solved, but they are the easy ones. The biological problems cannot be solved. And no matter how much you want to ignore them, they will exist for the people you send out inside these vehicles.

“The bottom line is the biomes you can propel at the speeds needed to cross such great distances are too small to hold viable ecologies. The distances between here and any truly habitable planets are too great. And the differences between other planets and Earth are too great. Other planets are either alive or dead. Living planets are alive with their own indigenous life, and dead planets can’t be terraformed quickly enough for the colonizing population to survive the time in enclosure. Only a true Earth twin not yet occupied by life would allow this plan to work, and these may exist somewhere, the galaxy after all is big, but they are too far away from us. Viable planets, if they exist, are simply too—far—away.”

Aram pauses for a moment to collect himself. Then he waves a hand and says more calmly, “That’s why you aren’t hearing from anyone out there. That’s why the great silence persists. There are many other living intelligences out there, no doubt, but they can’t leave their home planets any more than we can, because life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its home planet.” (p.428)

Of course, many will continue to dispute Robinson’s assertion that interstellar colonisation is impossible. He foresees this in the debates he describes between his characters on the prospects of success:

This pessimism, or dark realism, whichever it might be, enraged Speller and Heloise, and everyone trying to make the best of things, trying to find a way forward. Why be so negative? they asked.

“It’s not me being negative,” Aram would reply. “It’s the universe obeying its laws. Science isn’t magic! We aren’t fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand.” (p.195)

Hence Robinson’s answer to Fermi’s paradox (the supposed mystery of why interstellar civilisations haven’t arrived at Earth yet):

“…by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. […]

“So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. […] But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.” (pp.178f.)

If all this makes the book sound rather dry and didactic, it’s not: Robinson is an effective storyteller, and I found myself gripped from start to (near) finish. During the first half of the book, this was heading towards being my favourite book of the year. It went off the boil a little in the second half, for reasons which are hard to describe without posting spoilers (see after the fold if you want to know more), but it’s still an important, enjoyable and persuasive work of science fiction. Highly recommended.


 

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS >>> 

Continue reading “Earth is our home, not our cradle: the message of Aurora”