The Shape of Further Things
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by Brian W. Aldiss
Category: Science Fiction
Description: "We are infinitely rich, yet we mess about with penny-in-the-slot machines" writes Brian W. Aldiss in this autobiographical work written over the course of one month. From his Oxfordshire home, he ruminates on dreams, education, the role of technology in our lives and the rise and function of science fiction and a variety of other topics. THE SHAPE OF FURTHER THINGS is a window into the life and mind of a Science Fiction Grand Master. "You must recognize the extensive cultivation, the polymath breadth of the mind that produced the whole." - Martin Hillman, Tribune
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1970
eBookwise Release Date: August 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [313 KB]
Reading time: 184-258 min.
A Fantastic Vision After Midnight
Fifteen minutes into Thursday, 9th January 1969. I've been walking up and down my drive by the light of a half-moon, low in the east, over Oxford, over East Anglia, over the North German plain, over Russia, over the slow-grinding globe. The drive, about a hundred yards of it, is fringed by lime and beech trees. Their shadows were long in the moonlight.
Long and entangled, like the terminator between Time Present and Time Future.
My location: a little village called Southmoor, in Berkshire, England. Time and place are important. Relatively important. Important in the ticking mechanism of my mind. Margaret, heavy with child, goes to bed; I come up here to my study to write--a decision I took in the drive while pacing up and down among the cool shadows.
As I did my walking, the ticking was as loud and clear as the moon. Thought. A separate thing, altogether removed from the ancestor-invoking silence of night. My body carried it effortlessly up and down, up and down. What that body of thought was, I will try to tell here. First, get the simple thing right--habitat, the old human thing: man married to his local acre. I'm married to my local acre, though in fact we have lived in this place for only half a year. We may stay here for the rest of our lives. It is intensely dear to me--I own Heath House in the way that the moon and tree shadows own me: by falling across me and influencing me intensely. As I swing restlessly northwards up the drive, I see the house. Some lights still burning. Otherwise a black outline, square, uncompromising. Built by a Baptist missionary in 1837, a righteous man who came to bring the light to this hamlet over a century ago. He left his mark on the territory if not the minds, building the local chapel as well as this house.
The house is black through the trees, against the deepest blue of the sky. Uncompromising, as I say. Only when you get close do you discern--dimly in the moonlight cast across the face of the house--that a later minister, more relaxed, more Victorian than the first incumbent, built on to the original slate-roofed pencil-box a gloriously pretentious porch, with four columns of the Corinthian order. And a fine bay window. And an ample conservatoire, which later collapsed and has now disappeared, though its ground plan remains in the form of black-and-red tiles outside the dining-room window. This is my house. Pro tem.
It became my house--half of it is Margaret's--through my will and our intention. We could not afford it, but we bought it. You have already met two of the most compelling reasons why we bought it. The drive, and the schizophrenic front of the house: whose severe and rigorous outline melts into a certain robust luxuria as you draw nearer. I recognized a physical analogue of my own character when I saw it.
But my pacing. My pacing after bedtime. After all, I am forty-three, and have at last taken to going to bed regularly and early, since our marriage three years ago. For the pleasure and profit of it.
Friends of ours have just left. Dr. Christopher Evans and his wife Nancy. They came down from Twickenham for drinks, dinner, and talk. And after we had waved goodbye to them from the Corinthian porch, my brain remained at high pitch, churning over what we had said and had not managed to say.
Haven't you ever thought to yourself after a pleasant evening--or even after a dull afternoon--that if you could but have it all again, preferably in slow motion, then you could trace in it all the varied strands of your life? Haven't you ever thought, on certain beautiful and privileged days of your life (and the dull days are privileged too), that they contain all those varied strands?--And that the fact that certain finite strands of time, like our evening tonight, could contain all those strands is an incredible wealth, rather than a poverty?
Isn't wealth in life to be accounted as much in its condensation as its dispersal? I see the answer to my rhetorical question is no, for I have phrased it wrongly. Put it this way. Life needs diversity; the more the better; but the diversity only acquires value if it can occasionally be glimpsed through the magnifying lens of an evening, or of the sort of brief span of time that a mind can hold conveniently in the metaphorical palm of its hand.
This feeling has often come over me. For once I will put it to the test. I will explore some of the strands of what, after all, is only a fairly representative evening. (I have often talked longer, and to closer friends, and drunk more!) Does this mean I am embarking--oh God, not that!--on a whole book? Time now: Zero zero forty-three. The time-terminator moving with elaborate ease.
That perfect silence. The sheer delight of being alive. The constant surprise of each day. I never seem to run out of astonishment. It would be tremendous to try and capture in a book the particular astonishment of living now: at the end of the sixties, the beginning of the seventies.
Every time has its particular flavour. In political Europe, a stalemate of manoeuvrability seems to have set in. On the one hand, the earlier promise of economic union has been denied; on the other, room for genuine statesmanly initiative is limited while the two super-powers maintain their deadly balance of power. Yet, for all that, one detects an undercurrent of excitement in Europe, an expectation, as if, given a day of sunshine, new green shoots would burst through the forest floor. This is nowhere more true than in Britain, where a mood of determined euphoria had persisted through all the economic crises of the last few years. It is as if people were deliberately dissociating themselves from their governments.
Looking more widely, we see another excitement is abroad: the excitement of the serial civilization, for ever promising more thrills tomorrow. To maintain our stands of living, we may not stand still. We live in Red Queen's country--'it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'
We are running twice as fast. The Anglo-French Concorde will soon be rupturing the air; jumbo jets will land us in tourist-saturated resorts; our streets will be chocked with double the number of automobiles. But of course we shall adapt--after a fashion. Even if some of the quality of life will be lost.
If I am writing a book, then that must be its overriding subject and its final topic: the precious quality of life. It was one of the assumptions behind our talk tonight, that life is rich and sweet and battle must be joined to keep it that way. What an irony it is that, just at a time when more people than ever are escaping from the serfdom of life to savour the good things, everything should be growing more organized, more automatic, the juices squeezed out between the millstones of runaway technology and runaway population!
If our conversation had a main theme, it was the research on which Chris is involved, about which I shall have more to say later. At the moment, it's sufficient to say that we were discussing his theory of dreaming which treats the brain as a functioning entity similar in effect to the computer; and that this theory is immensely of the present day, since it couples hard and soft science, since it couples man and machine. Our debate also roved round marginal points; for both of us, these marginal points were the gravy of the joint.
For we were asking, implicitly, What is the brain? And thus, What is man? And thus, Where is he going? And we discovered that we had been thinking about this question for a number of years. Since our childhood, in fact. And this is what this book will also have to be about. It was not just what Chris and Nancy said. It was also what we didn't say: for in my case, behind everything lay my reservations--not so much about science, but about the role that scientists and their base-wallahs and their salesmen are forcing science, or more particularly technology, to play in our lives.
Events do not move towards benevolent ends. We grow increasingly aware of the way in which our natural environment is becoming polluted, ruined, and destroyed: not only by monstrous larval flows of concrete over green land (such as threatens Heath House on its own tiny scale) but by the chemicals with complex artificial molecules--D.D.T. is the best-known example--which are not broken down easily by the forces of nature.
As our external environment is becoming polluted, so our minds may undergo a similar process. Human attitudes cannot remain the same in a changing world. As the globe becomes crammed with people, an ever-increasing proportion of whom will be under-nourished, under-privileged, and sub-normal in intelligence as a result of congenital malnutrition, will not even the image of motherhood, hitherto so sacred to us, become a symbol of destruction?
We have to learn to live with the advantages we have, to retain any advantages at all. And for most of us, that means we must be taught to live. Western man has achieved his staggering technological success by maiming himself; in our schools and universities, we are instructed in matters that will assist 'our' careers so that, in effect, we can further the imperialisms of 'our' society. We are not instructed in what we are, or in how we can become ourselves more fully, or in how we may best understand ourselves and, through ourselves, others.
As I see it, this extraordinary lacuna must be filled soon if humans are to retain their foothold in humanity.
Anything that contributes, therefore, to knowledge of ourselves is to the general good. At present, we have tantalizing new glimpses of how our brains work. Chris Evans and his colleagues provide one. The hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD provide us with others. Much more research is needed in these areas.
Manuals are available on the working and maintenance of almost any make of car. But try and find a straightforward manual that summarizes present knowledge of the working and maintenance of the brain! There isn't one, as far as I have been able to discover.
It is perhaps part of the western success/disaster story that many people are terrified of what they may find in their own brains. They imagine that countless old horror films lie somewhere inside the cerebral vaults, ready to launch on their discoverer a teeming quota of Draculas and Frankensteins. Certainly the territories of the mind are a domain of magic, as all art reports; awe awaits there but not terror; animality but not degradation; and we should not fear them. The same applies when the filters of sleep obscure those territories. Sir Thomas Browne had the right attitude on this as on many things when he began his famous essay On Dreams with that sonorous passage: 'Half our lives we pass in the shadow of Earth, and the brother of Death exacteth a third part of our lives.... A good part of our sleep is peered out with visions and fantastical objects, wherein we are confessedly deceived.'
Our educational systems should contain more fantastical visions and fewer sliderules.
Another passage from Browne is worth quoting here. It occurs in his Letter to a Friend, an account of the passing of a mutual friend, in which stands a beautiful paragraph beginning, 'He was now past the healthful Dreams of the Sun, Moon and Stars, in their Clarity and proper Courses. 'Twas too late to dream of Flying, of Limpid Fountains, smooth Waters, white Vestments, and fruitful green Trees, which are the Visions of healthful Sleeps, and at good Distance from the Grave.'
These passages I read to Chris. They have a beauty that supplements any argument. And Browne remains relevant today. A mid-seventeenth-century man, a general practitioner of Norwich--until the Black Death England's second city--he stood between the medieval and the modern, partly subscribing to Galen's and, though Galen, Hippocrates' received ideas--partly trying to think and observe for himself--but not entirely succeeding. The modern analogies are clear. We also only partly succeed. But what is the post-modern, the future, thinking towards which we work? This was also a subject of our talk this evening.
I mentioned to Chris the curious essay by the German Von Kleist on the way ideas are spontaneously generated in conversation. We generated ideas tonight. It's a common experience. And it's a common experience that I want to pin down here. To give to people who believe that the future is something more than a period in history, like, say, the Victorian Age.
Chris talked a great deal about the nature of words. He spoke of the reverence that primitive people have for words. Being averse to the idea of telepathy, he was talking of the way in which words have to be painfully formulated, and how, in our processes of selection of them, we have to slow down our thinking, and impoverish it, and dilute the whole business of mind-to-mind communication: so that speech can never have superseded telepathy, because even a primitive form of telepathy would have such great directness that the labour of speech could never provide a substitute for it.
But computers will so speed communications between each other that they will achieve the equivalent of telepathy.
He was saying how much and how fast computers have developed. How this speed goes almost unobserved--unobserved both by the general public and by the technicians working on computers; because both these classes are too near to or too far from the subject to have the proper perspective, just as the growth of a plant is more observable by the weekend gardener than by a real daily man or a casual visitor to the garden. He (and, he courteously implied, I) could see this speedy growth, being inter-disciplinary men. We began to indulge in conjecture on this theme, to build a simple partial diagram of the future.
Chris said, 'At the National Physical Laboratory where I work, I'm a subscriber to Telcomp, which links me to a computer a few miles away. You could get the G.P.O. to put you on the circuit too, if you wanted, although it's pretty costly as yet. You get a separate telephone and a switch-box, and can just dial yourself on to the computer. It comes through on a sort of telex machine not much bigger than an ordinary typewriter, and talks to you in almost ordinary English.
'This is the area where some of the major advances are now coming--the software is being radically simplified. Soon you'll be able to talk to computers practically man-to-man.
'You must come over and play with this computer some time.'
We talked about the increase of knowledge and information, together with the parallel increase in its availability. That availability has to increase immeasurably. In a few of my stories, I have written about wrist-computers, computers of perhaps limited abilities that--thanks to increasing micro-miniaturization processes--can be strapped to the wrist like watches. Talking to Chris Evans, I saw this was a mistaken idea. Link-ups between big computers are perhaps only a matter of time. Computer spinoff is piling up: fast-reading machines are coming on to the market, mass-production of cheap memories is on its way. Soon, soon, the contents of antiquated knowledge-repositories like the British Museum Reading Room can be transferred to computers. Imagine the jump in potential when that store of knowledge alone is available to a dialling subscriber. When that and similar information-system-nuclei are really available at the fingertips ... the possessors of those fingertips will be living virtually in a different kind of environment, an environment with a lushness which will make ours seem like a desert with a few antique temples standing crumbling here and there.
What one will then wear on the wrist will be, not a minicomputer, but a computerized dialling system to the big hook-up.
The implications of this are almost limitless. The nature of learning is going to have to change; in a world where all the facts of a culture are at one's fingertips, education must transform itself.
Curiously enough, what is perhaps the first inkling of newer educational systems is now coming through. Britain's first--and the world's most far-reaching--Open University goes on the air soon with TV courses with elaborate soft-ware backing. It will be turning out its first B.A.s in 1974. A freeing of knowledge by mass-communication, a move at last against the segregation of facts in monasteries, universities and colleges--even though a final screening-through-examination will be retained.
While Chris and I were talking about these transformations, we were not alone. You should have the scene. The exterior of Heath House by moonlight you have pictured; now come inside. Please be welcome.
From the pretentious porch, you enter the front hall. The dining-room is on your right, the living-room on your left. We have dined on the right; now we are sitting comfortably in the room on the left, round a log fire. Apart from my fine cat, Nickie, those present are Chris and I and our two wives and Margaret's mother. Mama is living with us until her bungalow becomes available. The ladies have been talking about children, their own particular bit of the future under their charge. When they hear what we are saying about education, the two conversations merge.
'But a formal education is surely very good for a child's mind,' says Mama, who was a teacher. 'It isn't merely a stuffing with facts but a structure that teaches a child to think.'
We are in agreement with this, but I add, 'Despite that, it is also a stuffing with facts; and to a child it often appears merely a stuffing with facts.'
'And much Victorian education was just a cram,' Margaret points out. 'Today's better education has only slightly grown out of its old ways.'
'Quite so. And hasn't been able to throw off its origins. You still need to fill the child's brain with details about the wheat production of Canada and the strange affair of the square on the hypotenuse. But in future that need won't exist. Facts won't be stored inefficiently in privileged heads; they'll be the inheritance of every man, like the franchise. On your wrist--or maybe round your knee if man is going to become a more sedentary animal and mini-trousers arrive!--you will have an instrument that can tee you in immediately to a central computer which will provide whatever facts you require.'
'Exactly,' said Chris, 'except that "immediately" may not be the right word, since the whole operation will probably come under the province of the G.P.O.'
We decided that what is required is a Communications Company, under which telephonic and radiophonic channels will be integrated. But Chris's small reservation--'immediately may not be the right word'--symbolizes something important when trying to visualize the future, something I generally attempt to represent in my own fiction: when new things arrive, they function without attaining perfection; and even their long continuance may not bring them nearer to perfection, since other factors in that continuance militate against it. One example, before we return to the conversation.
Let's take the G.P.O. already mentioned.
The ordinary telephone, although its design is backward compared with the beautiful handpieces used by Swedish subscribers, is a pleasant-looking and efficient instrument. It will be more efficient when a vision-screen is added, and that in turn will also be more efficient when developments in holography allow a 3-D image (though it could be that the G.P.O. might drag its feet long enough to come right out with a 3-D screen straight off). But the system behind the handset is not merely an object, a technological still-life, but an organization, and organizations are always subject to stresses and strains. So that, perfect though your phone may be, it may take you ten minutes and a couple of wrong numbers before you speak to a subscriber ten miles away.
Why haven't the G.P.O. engineers got the system to rights by now? Because the system will not hold still, items obsolesce, relays fail, the number of subscribers grows--the G.P.O. is a physical embodiment of T. S. Eliot's line about 'a raid on the inarticulate With shabby equipment always deteriorating'....
So it will be, I'd bet, with the CCDC (Computer Centre Dial Control). Perhaps I'm merely being guilty of an ingrained British suspicion of big organizations when I say that it is in the largest organizations the largest inefficiencies occur; chaos is a constant factor of systems. Suppose that, in the year 2002, a chap in Newcastle-upon-Tyne wants information about coproliths which he knows is held in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. He punches an eleven-digit number on his 'ward' (as the instrument on his wrist is commonly called by analogy with 'watch') and so is connected by radio and cable with the computer centre in London. He asks for the information. The computer keeps the line open while it communicates through its own ultra-rapid channels with the Smithsonian computer. The information comes back, and is given in English to the subscriber in Newcastle.
Alternatively, depending on how elaborate the in-coming information is, he may get it in visual form from over a TV-attachment in his home, or both, or in printed form over the same teletype that delivers his letters and his newspaper. Whatever the method, his wait is negligible.
Thus, things always work in science-fiction stories! Perfectly! But think of the discrepancies that might creep in on even such a simple operation in real life, the times the subscriber may be cut off in mid-sentence or mid-pause! Nor is it everyone who can dial an eleven-digit number with facility. Organization comes between people and things, just as it comes between people and people.
Despite the malfunctions of the system, however, the ward will be able to furnish you with just about any information you require.
Mama said, 'I still wonder what will happen if formal education disappears.'
'We can't tell,' I said, 'but at least you can be sure there will be no vacuum. What I imagine will happen is that education will be completely overhauled. You know that I'm generally accounted a pessimist, simply because I don't see that the basic human condition has radically improved over the centuries--though I'd grant you an exception as far as dentistry and allied fields are concerned--but on this issue I'm very optimistic.
'Can you imagine the radical changes in human thought and feeling that might come about if the educational system were allowed to take children between the ages of, say, five and fifteen--just ten years--and teach them patterns of thought and behaviour which would help them not to pass exams but to live happily and sanely?--Give them an education in living rather than job-grabbing?'