The Second Law (and the Seventh Seal)
The world is coming to an end. John Gribbin, British astrophysicist and popular science writer (and a neighbour of mine in Sussex, where I live in England) cites two striking pieces of evidence for this, in his study of the ultimate fate of the universe... The first is that if you drop an ice cube in a cup of hot coffee the coffee will grow cold, whereas we never see ice cubes forming spontaneously out of cold liquid, while the remaining liquid stays hot. Heat always tends to even out. The second is that at night the stars are bright in a dark sky. If the universe had existed for all eternity, with the same number of stars and galaxies distributed in the same way as we see now, the stars -pouring out their energy- would have filled up the spaces between themselves with light, and the whole sky would be ablaze. The stars haven't been there forever, and they aren't going to last forever either. By calculating how much fuel a typical star uses in its lifetime, we can tell that eventually all the energy in the known universe will be used up: all the lights will go out. The stars in the night sky prove that we are living in a place that changes. The darkness around them tells us the direction of that change. Though we inhabit a pocket of non-equilibrium, where the coffee and the ice cube have not reached lukewarm, motionless calm, our fate is inescapable. The universe as we know it was born; and it will die. The seventh seal will be broken, there will be silence in heaven.
Somehow that cup of cooling coffee, which always seems to turn up in descriptions of the second law of thermodynamics, fails to convince me. It's too culture bound. One has to be in the habit of drinking a hot liquid called coffee, one has to be in the habit of letting it grow cold. And the second clause is weak, or it sounds weak. 'We never see this effect'... meaning, strictly, we haven't seen it yet. How can I be absolutely sure a defiant ice cube will not fight its way back through the entropy barrier one day? Perhaps this childish resistance of mine is a reminder that cosmology itself is culturally bound. As John Gribbin also remarks, while introducing his readers to the Big Bang hypothesis version of the Last Things, wide acceptance of the idea that the universe has a beginning, a middle and an end is quite new to human thought. For most of our history, the majority of our cultures have favoured a cyclic universe, a continual creation, or an eternal stasis. We may see the success of this novelty as a sign of the powerful connection between our dominant scientific culture and Judaeo-Christian theology. Modern physicists may believe themselves to be secularists, but the founders of modern science were theologians, and the cultural tradition of their belief informs our concepts. Whatever way you look at it, it surely isn't a coincidence that The Big Bang itself bears a remarkable resemblance to the creation event of Genesis when suddenly, just on a whim (or a vacuum fluctuation) God said, let there be light... We had better accept it. Jews, Greeks, Christians, Muslims: we are all of us, here in the so-called Western World (including large swathes of Africa) still engaged in sailing from Byzantium. Even Ragnarok, the death of the northern gods, quite possibly dates only from the tenth century, and was inspired by the biblical Revelations.
We may also see the Big Bang hypothesis, and the cradle-to-grave cosmic myth that lurks within it, as both of them phenomena of population dynamics. When a critical threshold is passed in the growth and density of human population -in a fractal pattern, locally or globally- maybe we are always going to start believing that we are heading somewhere. Periodically, locally, a state of change arises. The onward, upward and outward experience of childhood, the progress that implies both a beginning and some unknown goal, no longer seems an illusion, bound to fall back into the immemorial, agricultural or hunter-gatherer cycle of the seasons; of adulthood, of real life. The universe is no longer seen as a vast wheel, repeating the circle of those seasons on a scale of aeons: the pressure of sheer numbers brings about a millennial certainty that something's got to give; that some envelope of containment will be broken. We begin to promise ourselves a day of doom and wonder, when we will escape from the body of this death, from the prison of this earth, and break through the crystal spheres into unlimited heaven.
This adolescent project of breaking through the envelope is sometimes supposed to be the chief business of science fiction. When I started out as a writer I believed that was true. My first two novels were devoutly eschatological. In the first book, Divine Endurance, I followed the classic pattern, leading my far future characters through trial and judgement to childhood's end; to the brink of a new heaven and a new earth. When I wrote the second book, Escape Plans, I had been reading about real world cosmology (specifically, a series of articles by Stephen Hawking that appeared in New Scientist in the early eighties). I was thinking about the striking points of similarity between modern cosmology, Judaeo-Christian theology and the project of science fiction. I wanted to discuss the way Outer Space had taken the place of Heaven, how 'our' culture, the international culture based on the riches of the USA, had developed almost a mediaeval idea that life on earth is just a preparation, and our real life is elsewhere, out there, where everything is clean and shiny, and nobody dies, nobody fights, nobody farts... So I wrote about this mysterious situation: where people are convinced that something inimical to human existence -like death, or life in a hard vacuum- is certain to be the gateway to perfect freedom and happiness. I described it in Space Age science fiction terms and set my story on an earth -not this earth, but like it- where the people had started to move out into space, and found that the way was blocked. Their solar system was sitting in the middle of a trapped region of spacetime, without any possibility of access to the big universe beyond. They were the only occupants of this region: prisoners of the cold equations. No one and nothing from outside could get in, no one inside could get out... Short of a miracle.
'In the childhood of humanity we all believed that the world was ruled by great unseen presences called Death and Love and Chance and Harvest -personified but not controlled by us. There was another theory, almost as universal. Human beings looked up at the deathless stars and decided that we could be immortal too, if we could get up there. In one form or another, this myth was everywhere. Its memory lingered on in the human psyche until people began to make accurate multidimensional models of space time. And whether our myths shaped our physics, or the other way round, the vision of eternal youth and unbounded freedom was buried somewhere deep in the drive to space travel. So when we discovered that we are alone, we are trapped and we can never get out, that was the end of a very ancient hope, and also the end of exploration... Not that we really believed that we were going to live forever 'out there'. But it has an insidious, enduring effect on morale, to know that you are living inside a Black Hole.' (Escape Plans, London Allen& Unwin 1986)
I gave my thwarted explorers a mediaeval universe, where the earth is at the centre of things, yes: but that means (as people who talk of the Copernican 'demotion' of Man often forget) at the lowest state of being. Then I presented them with the hope of rescue, a messenger from outside their event horizon. They couldn't beat the equations by building more powerful spaceships, or finding ways to mobilise ever more staggering amounts of energy. But if they would give up everything material, everything that bound them to human life; if they would strip themselves of everything physical they could achieve escape velocity. Few people believed the saviour's good news. The path to glory she offered was too difficult, too demanding. Needless to say, they executed her. Needless to say there were rumours, impossible to substantiate, difficult to disprove, that she survived the experience. I'm sure you know the story. This predicament of ours, with all its grief and evil, is only a temporary problem. Somebody knows the way out. You haven't met her and neither have I, but a friend of a friend of mine actually saw the evidence...
Well, in the real world space travel is a cramped, ramshackle and smelly business, and nobody seems to get very far. In spite of NASA's best efforts, space-age heaven has become a fairytale, the stuff of blatant make-believe. This rather spoils my point, because I wanted to re-present the great escape as a practical reality. I wanted to restore the intensity of this hope of redemption through discontinuity, by calling it a scientific extrapolation. But my story was not a fairytale. It was, it is, as close to the observations as to the New Testament. We know now, even better than we did in 1986, that we are, by all reasonable measures, alone around here. If there's a party going on it's a long way off, and to reach the rest of the gang, if there is a gang, we'll have to do something very strange, like break the lightspeed barrier: which seems to mean we leave everything material behind. The uncomfortable salvation, not a lot different from death itself, that I offered in Escape Plans (and which I and other science fiction writers have developed elsewhere into a more or less practical form of transport), is not only a classic of sf. It is something like what probably has to happen before we gain the freedom of the stars.
And that's the good news. I chose to make the space-time trap smaller and more tragic, but current cosmology puts us, essentially, in the same position. The earth is at the centre of a sphere, defined by the light that has reached us since the Big Bang. If we manage to search this whole sphere and find nothing but cold rocks, which is not all together unlikely, on the present evidence, it is logically, fundamentally impossible for us to know what lies beyond. In the end, it could be the simple truth. We're in prison, alone, and we can never get out.
In Praise of Limited Solutions
The walls of our prison are high, but they're an awesomely long way off, and in fact, as I noticed after a while, most science fiction is not apocalyptic. If science fiction is, as I have suggested, a symptom of a situation where economic and numerical growth are driving a population up against perceived or practical limits, the solutions proposed are usually less extreme than mine. Writers and storytellers through the ages have rejected the idea of escape, prefering disaster movies based on known natural events -like Gilgamesh's and Noah's flood- that clear away the crowds, leaving room for the immemorial cycles to reinstate themselves. In the modern era Global Thermonuclear War served the same purpose for a generation or two of science fiction writers. In the post-modern version the population-crashing Holocaust can be mediated by air pollutants, low-intensity warfare, crop failure; climate change. More cheerful storytellers see no need for the line on the graph to break or plunge at all. We will progress, with slight temporary hitches, by increment upon increment. We will make no leaps into the unknown. We will simply find more and more efficient ways to harness the energy of the sun, until the least hospitable of the planets bows to the power of human territorial expansion, and the whole solar system is converted into a Dyson Sphere, with the sun in the centre of a vast hive of entirely mundane (as it were) technological achievement.
The vintage model for this anti-apocalypse, where instead of reaching the moment of uncovering, we just go on spreading our own version of reality over the blank spaces on the map, is probably Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men. More recently Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars trilogy has envisaged the expansionist diaspora, and Greg Egan of Australia has done the same (with a different kind of rigour): both of them depicting the apotheosis of the Industrial Revolution and the American Dream: wave after wave of the brightest and the best of humanity, overcoming all obstacles. Building cities on the burning line between night and day on Mercury, swimming like dolphins (with genetically engineered improvements) in the methane seas of Titan.
Of course, in this narrative, the Second Law still gets us in the end. Heat will even out, everything will grow quiet. But there is no need to imagine that dying fall. It will not happen to us. We are among the blessed.
Most of science fiction is written for, and by, people dissatisfied with the idea of dying but otherwise content with things as they are, and happy to postpone consideration of the Last Things indefinitely. However spectacular, these romances are propaganda against limits, not limitations. The desire for absolute solutions to cosmic problems -or absolution, even, for the human condition- is something different: not a wish list, or a daydream. It is a reckless hunger for metamorphosis.
Before I go any further into my own apocalyptic progress, I should acknowledge the value of limited solutions. Notoriously, on every scale in human affairs, it's the misfits who make revolutions, and the misfits are often right, but (as I was to discover) they usually haven't calculated the cost of their rebellion. It is perilous to meddle with the fabric of the world. Better to ignore the rubs and inconsistencies, and tuck those loose ends discreetly out of sight. If you pull on them, just to see what happens, the whole web may begin to fall apart. At the least, your unwary questioning of the system (whether it's in religion, cosmology or politics) may open up a path for a new set of dogmatists, more doctrinaire and dishonest than the last.
But to return to my history...Though I wrote my first two books without making the connection, eventually I noticed that the end of this world, the chance for a completely new start, attracted me for personal reasons. And I was not alone. Whatever complex of familial, genetic and historical factors made me into a socialist and a feminist, I had plenty of company in my dis-ease with the state of things as they are. Social discomfort, and specifically sexual discomfort, even seemed to be the motive force behind a very different kind of apocalyptic discourse which had just attracted the attention of both feminists and science fiction writers. I had never been interested in literary theory before, but when I heard about the structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists I was instantly intrigued. I was especially impressed by Roland Barthes' landmark study S/Z, which anatomises (I first wrote, atomises, which is probably a more accurate term) a story by Balzac about a man who falls in love with an Italian singer, a castrato, a transvestite whom he believes to be a woman. In S/Z Barthes blows away the cobwebs of period romance and recovers the strangeness of this tale, which challenges first the fixed nature of human social relations, and then the fixed connection between words and things. Language itself, we learn, is a covering, an outer dress. It has hooks at the back: one can take it off. This was very interesting, because it was exactly what I was finding out -and by the same sexual route- in science fiction.
Now that it's all over, the project of feminist science fiction seems like some mad plan the CIA might have cooked up at the height of the Cold War. Our mission was to infiltrate and destroy the archetype of male sexual adventure. For science fiction is nothing else. James Tiptree Junior, famous double agent in the sf gender wars, blew the cover on that in her series of superbly virile stories. The whole fantasy empire built around that chaste technological diaspora (says Tiptree), is nothing other than an orgy of cosmic impregnation. The ebullient optimism of the expansionists is none too secretly based on the law of might is right, and the endemic abuse of power: justified by recourse to the natural, godlike, sexual drive of the human male. It was fashionable at that time (we made it fashionable, one of our covert disinformation campaigns) to complain bitterly about the inappropriately erotic and 'sexist' cover art that kept people from taking sf's sober, intelligent, futurist speculation seriously. But we knew very well, and so did the men, that the art -all those air-brushed spacegirls in the crotch-hugging suits, all those wispily clad or bronze-bra'd females ravished (as far as public decency permitted) by monsters or spacemen, told the honest truth. The real purpose of science fiction is to describe how Man gets out there to the edge of the known, grabs hold of a chunk of that alien dark, and pumps it full of his seed... But we had decided that we did not like being cast as the alien dark, schematically the role of every woman in every orthodox science fiction. We proved, by fictional experiment, than men could be the ones who stayed at home (treasured, and limited to sexual pleasure and procreation); and women could make the discoveries and have the adventures. We replaced the void-piercing phallic engineering with an enveloping matrix of life sciences, and proved that the adventure story would still function under these conditions. We claimed that we simply wanted a piece of the action, a few strong female characters on the bridge of the Enterprise, but yes, of course we wanted to take over. We wanted to change the despotism into a democracy. For a while, we even believed that by deconstructing this reactionary stronghold of the imagination we could have some effect on the real world.
If only we'd been satisfied with those strong female characters. But it wasn't enough. We didn't want to write about male impersonators, we wanted real women in space adventures. So what is a real woman? Now, that's where our problems began. We tried to turn the myth around, by reversing the polarity. Making that female darkness the subject of the story, banish the male principle of light to the sidelines... and came up against the veil of language itself, where male versus female is not a biological divide, but part of a system of differences. We tried to go further still, and there was nowhere left to go. The world is made of words, there is no beyond.
When we realised how we were trapped, the movement splintered. Women, and other feminists, who were willing to burn a little incense at the shrine of might is right, simply became orthodox science fiction writers. Others found a modest niche writing correctly female, virtually adventure free versions of the great adventure. The most rational and rigorous of the cadre gave up, laid the cards on the table and walked away.
In fact the impasse we reached had been predicted from an early stage. In an important story published in 1970 ( The Second Inquisition) Joanna Russ, the most assured polemicist of that feminist decade, describes a young woman living in America in the twenties, who fantasises her escape from a stifling social role in science fiction imagary ... and comes face to face with the impotence of her dreams. A girl who reads science fiction has to be a male impersonator in her imagination. But when she tries to remove that male dress from the adventurer she does not discover the unconditioned person, neither male nor female, the ideal self of her desire. Instead she finds that there is nothing left beneath the words: there is no beneath.
I say 'us' and 'we' in solidarity: I wasn't involved in the original struggle. It was before my time, most of it happened in the USA, and it might as well have been on Mars. News bulletins reached me occasionally, a long time after the fact. Meanwhile the post-war economic expansion that had been pumping through UK society in my childhood and adolescence had ground to a halt. My friends and I were the feckless children and grandchildren of European socialism, the dreaded second and third generations of the success story, in which achievement is dissipated. We made no attempt to build serious careers for ourselves. I remember telling people that I wanted to live. I was happy to turn my hand to any kind of needful work, but I wasn't going to get distracted by pointless scrabbling for money or position. Now we were looking on in amazement at a rising generation of accountants and media stars, workaholics with pension plans who had prepared for the cold hungry winter, while we thought the summer of love would never end. When the harsh conditions of capitalism under threat began to bite there was nothing we could do to save Utopia: the good state, that we'd thought was our native land. As I followed feminist science fiction through its encounter with deconstruction to the brink of the abyss, I was realising that my life's choices had made me doubly female: powerless by conviction, as well as by biology and tradition. My friends and I had seen Maoism and Stalinism. We had no faith in radical politics; there was no party we could join. It was only possible to hope for some kind of absolute change, some magic reversal of the poles of human society.
This was my situation when I began to write my third sf novel. Again, the subject is the end of the world and the characters are mainly female. This time a young woman is engaged as a knight-errant, a hired gun, by a little boy who needs a protector. She's in the male adventurer role, but inside she's full of darkness. Here's Sandy holding forth about the trouble with revolutions-
'It's lucky normal criminal human nature takes over so quickly. If revolutionaries ever followed things through, where would it end? First you unmask your enemies, then you unmask your friends, then you unmask yourself. You think you've got the world naked, free of bias, and then you see a little rough edge somewhere, and you start picking at it. That's what's happened to me. Scritch, scratch, another mask comes off: and another and another. It hurts worse than anything. But it is such fun to see the stuff coming away. You start off with politics, then you do it to sex and money. Before you know it, you're right through the skin of things. Unmask the street, unmask the trees...'
Kairos: London, Allen & Unwin 1988; London Gollancz 1995
This is an apocalypse indeed, making sense of the term but nonsense of the project. We remove the dress of the female impersonator, or the male, at the risk of finding nothingness underneath, nothing but a blank black cut-out where the ideal self in the mirror ought to be, and then there are no more stories. The metaphor of darkness is as effective as the metaphor of light, in its negative way. Biological femaleness is irrelevant, the futurist genre is irrelevant. What we see in the struggle to create a feminist adventure story is the revelation of something endemic, inevitable, embedded the human condition. How can we free ourselves from these bonds? When you start to take the world apart, where do you stop?
Angels and Aliens
At the risk of trespassing onto biblical territory, (which has been strictly forbidden to me), I'd like to examine, briefly, the technical differences between apocalyptic writing and prophecy, according to Biblical commentary. Prophets speak about their own times and in their own voices. Apocalyptic writing describes future events, not current affairs, and the writer as an individual is irrelevant. The Apocalypt speaks in character, typically using the name of some former visionary. Typically, while the prophet is ordered to speak, the apocalypt is told to write: write it in a book. Why is the apocalypse literary? To write something down is to make it secret, and to establish precedent. The apocalypt is going to be proved right by events, like a stage conjuror. While prophets comment on the human predicament from within, and are vindicated by public acknowledgment and repentance, the apocalypt recounts information from outside the human world, and this supernatural agency is their whole justification.
In our present millennial times the outside agents providing the information are called aliens. Formerly, they were known as angels. I have been shown compelling evidence in contemporary reports from at least as far back as the seventeenth century, in which events and phenomena described exactly in the terms of modern ufo sightings are accredited as angelic visitations, visions of the saints or appartitions of the Virgin Mary. (The spectacular celestial displays reported at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 would certainly seem to come into this category). Naturally, as a sceptic, I'm bemused by the way modern ufologists blithely embrace the ancient reports as confirmation of their own beliefs. See! The aliens have been visiting for hundreds of years! What stops them from dropping the other shoe, and accepting that these lights people see in the sky (the glowing shapes, the whirling wheels)have always been strange lights in the sky, and the supernatural scolding, which is as much a part of the ufo myth as of the mediaeval version, has always been added after the fact, dressed to the taste of current culture?
No one, as far as I know, has claimed the Aurora Borealis, regarded as a very spooky supernatural phenomenon in the past, as an alien visitation. I wonder why not. Perhaps, like the meteor showers and comets also ignored by our present millenarians, the Aurora is too resistant to the human scale. Perhaps signs and wonders are only exciting if they can be perceived (with a little squinting) as saints, or spaceships. The insistence on human interest is understandable. But it does seem strange that both modern and mediaeval millenarians are determined to insist that their sightings, and close encounters, are material phenomena. How does that confirm the validity of the vision? Material like what? Like thought? Like neutrinos? Like quarks?
I suppose if there have been strange lights in the sky from time to time throughout human history it may be because the angels, or the aliens, have always been warning us that the end is nigh. If a thousand ages in their sight is but a moment gone, they probably have a different idea of what 'soon' means. Or perhaps they're telling us that the end of the world is coming real soon now, meaning, in the entirely human sense, this project will remain incomplete for the indefinite future... But, joking apart, is it in any way possible to translate the age of signs and wonders into modern cosmological terms?
As long as we accept that there is no alternative to the drab fade-out predicted by the Second Law, obviously not. There will be no Day of Judgement, no matter how unimaginably distant. The association between spectacular theology and secular science is broken, and science fiction should party on in capitalist expansion mode until the whole machine runs down. Nothing's ever going to change. But happily, there are other choices on the menu. If there really is far more mass in the universe than can be accounted for by the bright stars (a possibility) and if there is enough of this invisible dark matter (most of which has yet to be identified), then instead of expanding to heat death the universe will reach a maximum size and start to contract. At that point of involution all the fundamental laws will collapse. The cosmos will start folding over on itself like an orange being unpeeled and time will run backwards (whatever that means) towards the Big Crunch. Or, to put it another way, creation will reach the end of its great journey, turn around and set off home to be reunited in God. It's a long way off, but I think we could safely envisage some very strange phenomena, a whole Book of Revelations of special effects, around that turning point. If anyone was there to see.
I feel bound to point out, by the way, that those spoilsport cosmologists have recently come up with evidence that the slow fade is the true belief, and the turn-around scenario will not happen. Well maybe, maybe not. Definitive, final, solutions in cosmology come and go, the big crunch could be back in favour this time next year. (That's why we science fiction writers look on these things as copy, rather than revealed truth -to the irritation of the scientists.) Even so, there are problems. Cosmological time scales are staggering. Where's the judgement and the glory? How can the end of the universe have a meaning for humans, other than as the ultimate cheesy disaster movie threat? But if it strains the imagination to discern something recognisable as human in those last days, why not consider that strange things will be happening to time itself at that horizon (which in some sense perhaps already exists) when all the rules are broken?
There are many scientists who claim to believe that the universe only exists in so far as we observe it. The slow attrition of heat-death is something we observe all the time. If this singular event of the turning point is also, or alternatively, a cosmic reality, does that mean we have to observe it, or it can't happen? If so, for us the Apocalypse could start tomorrow! What's a few hundred billion years, when time itself is getting rolled up like a scroll? And if cosmology describes the behaviour of fundamental particles, including the particles that make up human brain tissue and mediate thought,won't we experience this event, and interpret it, in our own terms? Here's Sandy again, a little further along the road:
'Oh, I see it... This is what it is, it's a mind flying apart. If someone tries to dismantle their mind, there comes a level of icredible resistance. And then the sun bursts open. Flying apart, flying apart! And I said, "I want what is not". I stepped out of the middle dimensions, into the other world, the other side of things. And I carried everything that I touched with me.' She held up her hands, grubby and grey, with the white skin showing blue veins through the grime. 'Look, look. These aren't hands anymore. They are words now. And soon, and soon...' The dead angel had vanished... Sandy went on covering the old factory floor with exploding universes: trees and dreams and chairs and memories -all breaking, all spinning, all returning through the channel of her mind to the unnameable, the undivided...'
Wings That Can't Be Broken
Apocalyptic writing is called 'gospel' -which means good news- 'for bad times'. The current millenial proliferation of ufo sightings, close encounters, alien abductions, seems, broadly speaking, to be the province of the fundamentalist right, Born Again Christians and other gas-guzzlers. If those folk are feeling hard pressed, this should be good news for me, and for this small planet. Alas no ... Apocalyptic warnings don't tend to alter people's behaviour, especially not in the direction of moderation and reason. And though it's an attractive idea, I don't think the aliens can be trusted to turn up, any more than the angels of the Lord. This coming millenium will undoubtedly be a damp squib,like the last one and the one before. In the real world, I have no faith in signs and wonders.
But once, I saw the Holy Spirit. It -or rather She, since I understand Santa Sophia may be regarded as female, in the same sense as the Father and Son are called male- appeared as a patch of glittery, scratchy golden light, hanging in the air in our bathroom, above the toilet cistern. I was three. I think my vision had something to do with sandpaper, a phenomenon I'd recently met for the first time... Once, when I was nine my mother reported telepathic contact. She had heard my voice saying in her mind 'Mummy', with such strange clarity of internal locution that she later cross-examined me, and we established that this could have happened at the moment when I, in Woolworths in Barrow-in-Furness that afternoon (a town in Cumbria, not far from the UK's most notorious Nuclear Power Plant; that probably had something to do with it) had spied a bin full of nougat chunks, her favourite candy, and decided to buy some for her... Luckily for me there are no further incidents to report. I was never in danger of getting caught up, like the three children of Fatima, in the tidal forces of adult need, transforming my strange moments into a huge, helpless edifice of lies. But I remember also, and better than either of these brushes with the paranormal, that once I dreamed, with unearthly sweetness, that my father was teaching me to walk on air. We were in the back yard of the house where I grew up. He was standing on the path, in his shirt-sleeves, encouraging me by lifting his hand in time. I was stepping easily, like climbing upstairs, about a metre above the damp patch of turf we called our 'lawn'... My father, the storyteller, taught me to tell stories. He taught me how to free myself from the prison of the middle dimensions; from the body of this death.
In the Middle of a Dark Wood
The greek word kairos means opportunity: the critical moment, right proportion or due measure. It was adopted in the first centuries after Christ by early millenarians, as a term to describe Christ's Second Coming, which they believed to be imminent. The kairos isn't death, judgement, heaven or hell. It's the moment of discontinuity: of change itself. In my third and last eschatological novel, 'kairos' is first described as 'a reality changing drug'. (Designer drugs were much talked about at the time, so it seemed a suitable disguise). As the concept gradually unpacks itself through the plot, this 'drug' turns out to be an event. In the world up to the kairos all normal rules apply. When the change comes there's political and social chaos, accompanied by the traditional range of wonders: angels, miracles, the dead rising from their graves. After the event everything seems normal again; except that in strange small ways it's clear that different fundamental laws apply. Things which were utterly impossible,like ghosts, magic, social justice, gender equality, are quietly on the increase. Kairos is a punning game, a cosmological play on words: and a version of the gospel for hard times, adapted for the consolation of those people -such as feminist science fiction writers- whose natural habitat is fixed, for as long as the laws of this world endure, between a rock and a hard place. But there is something else.
I have a lot of sympathy with the apoclayptic writers. I express myself differently. I don't feel obliged to convince my readers that an angel came and dictated the plot. Yet we clearly share a hunger for the extraordinary, and a drive to express outsize, bizarre ideas in gaudy images. Perhaps that's because they and I have both noticed that in the most everyday mental processes, impossible things happen. No kind of realist fiction, jeremiad, historical record, can contain the wild landscapes of colour, and charm and strangeness that thought weaves on the loom of the mind. Maybe all the stories we tell ourselves about the supernatural, all our gods and ghosts, aliens and demons, can be traced back to the gulf between the limited world we perceive and the unconstrained freedoms of that enchanted web through which we perceive the world. In Kairos, and in Escape Plans too, this intimate discontinuity is my real subject. Strip the special effects out of the narrative, and you will find my characters -who have either lost or never possessed the soothing distractions of material comfort and power- struggling to come to terms with mortality. Nothing more than that. Is there anywhere, in any state of being, a world that measures up to the magic of consciousness itself? Is there a native land for us, exiles stranded in this extraordinary separation from every other animal, vegetable, rock or gas? Well, yes there is. In modern physics and cosmology, as they stand now, ideas as crazy as any we've ever had about the supernatural are regarded as fact. The freedoms of the mind, where there is no fixed reality; where time can run backward and the dead can rise, are mysteriously reproduced in the world of the very small. Where did the quantum world come from? Did we invent it because we can't do without the supernatural? Or do our minds work the way they do because these strange conditions are indeed the truth about reality? Ancient theologies have shaped modern science, the design of an experiment defines the results. As quantum physicists are fond of saying when cornered, some events are inextricably entangled. But wherever it came from, the weirdness doesn't go away. It just gets folded down, (whatever that means) into the chinks, along with the other six or seven dimensions that share the cosmos with the four we know. Or,to put it another way, there's no need to search the skies for messages. The kingdom of heaven is within us.
Kairos: The Enchanted Loom
Science fiction takes us to the brink of a new creation: but no further, because it wouldn't be any fun. When I wrote Divine Endurance I described the death (after a long decline) of mechanist culture. I cautiously did not attempt to describe the new age of gentler, organic, female rule. The moment of change is portentous, the reality of change is going to be a world just like this one, except for some novel technology, or a new kind of income tax. When William Gibson conjured up cyberspace in Neuromancer, the global computer network gave birth to a divine intelligence. In this world we have the Internet. Even the aliens won't be supernatural anymore, the day they actually deign to touch down. As I've explained, Kairos and Escape Plans are obedient to this law. Though the special effects look dangerous, the brave new world is this one, with a bow to the strange conditions of quantum reality. But there is always that moment. Kairos means opportunity. Kairossen means close woven, and kairos are also the loops that hold a piece of weaving to the loom. I had this double meaning in mind when I was writing. The idea of weaving, the idea of that loom at once suggests consciousness to me: where no single thread tells you anything about the picture, where the pattern that we experience as selfhood only exists as a system of differences. I wanted to reach a point of reconciliation between the restless, magical human mind, and this stubborn world of ours that wears its magic only on the inside. But I also wanted to describe the state of someone willing to risk everything, willing to cut those threads that hold our existence in shape, no matter what should follow. When you were a child, sometimes, maybe, you wished there could really be witches on broomsticks, talking animals, spirits in the forests. Maybe, on one of those cold dusky evenings at the beginning of winter, with the stars coming out, you dreamed that you had the strangest powers... Now that you are grown and you know how much it would cost, do you really want to change the world: to reverse the vital polarity between light and darkness, male and female, real and unreal? Are you sure?
'It occured to her, last of all, that the ghost was real to her. "You wanted something different?" it said, in silent intolerable progress towards her and the child. "Well, here I am. How do you like me?" Sandy stood up. She forgot that she was afraid, though her body was still howling that this was worse than death. Since she had given up on normal life, she had penetrated a few layers of self-deceit, that was all. She was no better off now than she had been as a political activist, waving banners and marching. She only saw more clearly how she was trapped: up against the wall of the world. It was nothing circumstantial that was making her suffer, it was things as they are. What I want is what is not, she thought. And this, as I told myself a little while ago, is one of those. And here it comes.
She did not abandon the rational position she had outlined to Candide a few minutes ago. Let this be a dream or a delusion, that made no difference to its meaning in the world of Sandy. Or to the meaning of what Sandy chose to do, on being confronted with her heart's desire. "Welcome," she said. "Do what you like to me, I don't care. I am glad that you're here..."' Kairos, ibid
Welcome, to all the powers of darkness...
Does anybody feel any different?
No? Well, it was worth trying.
Maybe it takes a little time...
This paper was read at a seminar on the Apocalyse held at the University of Oulu, Finland in November 1997