‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday, 29 December 2017

McAuley's Hymn



[The germ for my novel Jack Glass (2012) was a piece of Kiplingiana I wrote, based on his dramatic monologue ‘The Mary Gloster’ (1896). I took Kipling's late Victorian seafaring tale, shifted it wholesale to outer space, added in various details and called the result ‘The Mary Anna’. It was published in the second collection of StarShip Sofa Stories (2010); and, if you're curious, it's available online here. But though this story took the form of a Kipling poem, its worldbuilding was an exercise in Golden Age SF nostalgia, and after its publication I found it wouldn't leave me alone. I kept returning, mentally, to the world I'd sketched. This lead, eventually, to the idea of combining a Golden Age SF setting with a Golden Age puzzle-whodunit plot, and so to Jack Glass.

Now: when Jack Glass had been written and was being edited and readied for publication by Gollancz, I wrote a few other things to flesh out the world, and to provide extra bonus material for the e-book edition. This is one of those pieces, previously available only as an Easter Egg on the JG e-book, and not otherwise reprinted.

The Solar System of Jack Glass is one that has been colonised by man according to a 1950s American SF logic: aggressive free trade, capitalist exploitation of resources, big disparities in wealth, all ruled in more-or-less-enlightened mafia style by a set of powerful, sometimes feuding, families. By decree of one of these families, the Ulanovs, some limitations are put on access and expropriation, and  a rudimentary police force mandated. But the ‘Lex Ulanova’ aside, it's a frontier-logic free-for-all. And it's a sub-lightspeed free-for-all: no FTL has (yet) been invented.

Now, one of the subordinate plotlines of Jack Glass concerns the rumour, busily repeated and aggressively investigated, that a working FTL has been invented, the technology having been suppressed by its inventor, the eccentric genius Allie McAuley. Stories as to why McAuley held his invention back circulate, but nobody knows the truth: some say it's still a work in progress, others that he was trying to ramp up the bidding by various interested parties and so make himself rich, and still others that he was just a front for somebody else—for McAuley, though achieving the best grades his tech university had ever seen, and reputedly brilliant, had dropped-out without taking a degree and had worked for decades in menial engineering jobs on a variety of space-freighters. What happened to McAuley was: one of the families kidnapped him and tortured him in hopes of forcing him to reveal his technology, but he died before he gave anything away. 

All that's in the background of Jack Glass, although McAuley himself doesn't appear as a character. But in this piece I give him a voice. You'll see it's based on another Kipling dramatic monologue, ‘McAndrew's Hymn’ (1894); but although I've taken the form, and the Calvanist religiosity, of Kipling's poem, pretty much everything else has been changed (and I don't just mean: transferred to outer space). With Paul McAuley's permission, I swapped the Scots surname of Kipling's original to something more appropriate to a Hard SF idiom, although Paul's personality is utterly different to the one represented here. At any rate, here it is. Happy New Year, everyone!]



Lord, I know the cosmos is but shadow thrown out by your light,
And I’ve learned the truth—man’s sphere is interplanetary flight.
There once was a conflict in my heart, I do confess it so,
But to reach the stars is further than the Lord permits us go.
Coupler-snaps to spindle-poles, in thrust I see Your Hand, O God—
Yours the grace and wrath that drives the spinning antimatter-rod.
The Bible’s a complex machine with many million parts intact,
And Man can barely ken the myriad ways they mesh and interact.
Every verse and word is placed within the working of the whole
To form a spiritual motor meant to launch and fire and guide the soul
Accelerate escape velocity beyond the pull of sin
And take us to the final coupling gate where God’s Love pulls us in!
And as an engineer can’t pick and choose components of his ship,
Maintain these few, but let those others rust or seize or slip,
Just so a soul can’t pick and choose amongst the Bible's just commands,
He takes the whole book up, or lets the whole fall deadweight from his hands.

***

I can’t get my sleep to-night; old bones and limbs are hard to settle;
So I'll stand the watch up here—alone with God and spaceship metal.
My engines whirr: a hundred days of thrust and delta-V and strain
Crossing intermundial space, around Thy Sun and home again.
It is too much—the driveshaft moans—and all the angle-jets are loose;
Twenty billion miles of thrust has given them a fair excuse.
The perfect dark of God outside: great black of blacks that baffles sight
The mystic void, infinity, the Ancient of all Days—at Night.
Here’s Ferguson relieving me. Three years gone by since his home pass:
His wife’s back there with both their kids; an outdome domicile on Mars.
He yearns towards his planetfall .... and who of us can blame the man?
It’s been a long and homesick time since his contracted work began.
There's none on any world for me, no-one to fly to, fast or slow,
Since dear Lucilla Chong went on to Thee, Lord, thirty years ago.
And since that time I’ve found Thy medium’s truly neither void nor ’cuum
But a flower of awe and grace, infinitude’s dark dazzling bloom.
I recall Mkoko most, whose habitation now is space
Whose corpse, if ever found, could reignite man's interstellar race.
But God will not permit mankind to find him: no, my work’s secure!
His frozen body circulates in darkness and for evermore.
Nor yet alone; the spaceways throng with bodies in grim circulation
Prizeless jetsam of our mortal-danger spaceflight occupation.
When the New Apollo burned! What then was our space-voyage worth?
Venus out to Neptune on a long ellipse, and back to earth—
What worth?—for as soon as docked at Orbital, waiting at bulkhead,
A flash fire burst straight through and left most of us carbonblack and dead?
Not but that they're not civil in the Merchants. I heard Ivan say:
‘Engineer, McAuley! How's the Tachyon Thrust machine to-day?"
True he gets the tech-talk wrong, but at least he leaves me clear
To coax the best from thrust and slew—I am the lead House Engineer,
So they phrase it: ‘still with engines? Weren’t you top of Phys at Cape?
Named ‘most promising’ and feted, sashed with ‘top of class blue tape’?
Planet-beating tech at school, and my Uni’s star at Thrust?
How did your bright prospects turn to engineering grime and rust?
True, I won the scholarships; I topped exams and glowed inside
Then I kenned the hook that Satan hoped to snag me with was—pride.
So I left the Cape Space School, walked straight from the lecture hall
Signed a fifty year full contract with a freightline for space haul.
There I started as a fuel-whelp—regulating engine feed,
In the old-style bucket spaceships, with the old-school pilot breed.
Ten-a-second was the fastest then—eh!—inefficient drive;
To think that now our haulers manage in excess of fifty-five!
Soon we’ll move yet faster: the advances made since I began!
No, I do not doubt machines—but what about the soul of man?
Faster’s good, but there’s a limit—set by God and space and time;
And only fools could miss it, only sinners hope to cross its line.
I’m a man that’s travelled far, at tiny fractionals of c,
Two light years in all I’ve ventured .... far, how far, O Lord, from Thee?
You were with me night and day. I still recall that first frag hit,
When the sensors missed the debris and the main compartment split—
All those shards came shooting through us faster than artillery rounds,
Twenty breaches in the hull and banshee decompression sounds;
Fire, alarm and panic; Anson lost her leg and lost her life
Amputated—half a gram of space ice was the surgeon’s knife.
All her lifeblood shot and clouded, filled the cabin with red fog
And I felt Satanic presence, the evil breath of Gog-Magog,
So I prayed, and prayed it double: spoke the words, but acted too:
For the nearest prayer to man is work—words stray, but deed is true.
Sealed the breaches, damped the yawing, set the engines to reboot
Lacking even time to wipe my comrade’s blood from off my ’suit
Never seen a ship take damage like it and come back again to O:
None of it were possible without that Your grace had willed it so.
And how did I repay your mercy? Entered on that Orbital
Showered, drank a tub of whisky, found a whore and paid her full.
I’ve still scorch marks from the flare-ups on my arms and on my back
But I’ve worse than burnmarks in me: deep inside—my soul is black.
All the sun’s atomic fire could never burn this sin from me
My one hope is: strive to lose myself in Thy Immensity.
Sins of five and fifty years: Apollo, Pug and Hesperus
Can even God’s forgiveness match the orbits of my trespasses?
Voyages I’d drug myself into a stupor every month along,
Years when every dock I stopped at turned my Right around to Wrong.
Nights when I'd observe my crewmates, ire and envy in my gaze,
Hating them for loving, filled with fury rather than Thy Praise.
Blot the wicked hours of mine, Lord! when I spent my time ashore.
Soma’d in Pataweyo's Moon-house, thinking less and sinning more.
Worse than all—my crowning sins—were foulest blasphemy and pride.
Stoker ten years, hardened to it: bad without and bad inside.
I saw Saturn’s cities built: green beneath the ring’s great arc
Dazzled by those Christmas baubles shining dim amongst the dark
Coming round the darkside there were miracles to fill my eyes:
All the cosmos’ stars were shining weldspot bright in oil-black skies.
I spent all my downtime porthole gazing, tracing constellations, each
And every star (I thought) should be within the fearless spaceman’s reach.
Pride, pure pride! I know it. The whole cosmos only hymns Thy Will
Thou set distances to put the voyage far beyond man’s skill!
Blasphemy and disobedience if I doubt the speed of light!
Thou could set it otherwise, and Wrong; Thou has set it thus, and Right!

***

The clearest scripture written there: that our lot’s Solar—and that’s all.
But in Saturn’s orbit I heard, silken-voiced, a devil’s call.
Warm as heated milk, beguiling: ‘See, McAuley! Pick a star!
‘Set your course now, engineer—make it near although it’s far!’
Firm and clear and low—no haste, no boast—the ghostly whisper went,
Laying out the evidential facts beyond man’s argument:
‘Though it takes you twice a generation, still you all must go!
Worship me, God Hyperspatial—leave your Deity of Slow.
Speed, now! Go still faster yet—learn new Elysian mysteries!
The FTL prize hanging low: McAuley—it is yours to seize!’

***

A spaceship is a million pieces, working all together true,
And the Bible’s a machine as complex, doing what God wants it to.
Starts off plain and clear: ‘let there be light’, is what the Good Book says.
When God set the universe in motion He speed-limited its ways.
Light, Light is the same as God: it’s holy, not to be denied;
And the voice that whispers different is but human’s sinful pride.
But I was just in my twenties, head all dazzled with my dreams
And I thrilled to think that c was not the limit that it seems.
It shone in my thoughts aurora-like; it racked me through and through:
Tempted far beyond the show of speech, unnamable and new—
Thou knowst all my heart and mind, Thou knowest, Lord, how far I fell—
Second Engineer upon the Hesperus, but first in Hell!
It came to me in a lightning strike, the way to make it yield:
Generate a cross-spun singularity inside a Bergson field—
And counterspin a second shell of strung-grav matter pitched outside
Using sub-quantum inertia to arc-tune that second wide,
With both Hawking thresholds moving spinwise close enough to c
Gravitational cross-shearing would work to break a bubble free!
And inside this free envelope—a ship! A heavy-shielded hull;
Balanced where the shearing forces cancelled each and each to null.
And in that ship a crew, made up of men’s and women’s souls,
Adams there, and Eves, new-tempted by my low trangsressive goals:
Truly they might reach the stars in weeks instead of centuries—or
It were closer to the truth to say: reach foul beyond God’s Law.
Ah, but young and wicked as I was I didn’t see behind the mask,
Instead I set myself a task to earn enough to fund the task.
The Merchant Houses had but lately finished all their battles off
The Lex Ulanova was a new thing: fair, said some; but harsh and rough.
Either way, I didn’t trust to patent office copyright,
Though I worked out all the specs, I kept my notion close and tight.
Dreamt of riches; had no thought to gift it to the human race.
At the time it felt like greed; but now I only see Thy Grace.
Now I feel Thy hand about me: and about my feet Thy care—
From cold Saturn to hot Venus, through the transit of despair,
Hesperus came to the fieldlands, hundred-thousand globes of green
All in solar orbit, basking in God’s Sunlight, bright and clean.
There we worked as mission tug, with ten million protein cargo tonne
Up the invisible slope to Earth-Moon docking at Lagrange A1.
Slow work in the old days, ships without the Tachyon Thrust
But it gave me time to ponder whether clever maps to just—.
And the opening verses of the Bible echoed once more in my head.
‘I made Cosmos out of Light, inviolate so,’ the great book said.
I was drowsing in my billet—sick with selfdoubt, drink and tire:
‘Better to rip out your eyeballs than watch stars with Sin’s desire!’
And the countervoice said: lo, the universal open road! 
Let man be a soaring eagle, and no more a pond-stuck toad!
God and devil battled for my conscience as I lay midship:
And my right hand clutched my whole life’s work—upon one data chip.
On that chip and nowhere else: the superluminal data was:
Heresy and sin, all written in the neutral tongue of maths.
Should I just destroy it—or disseminate it all instead?
Would my actions kill the living spirit, or restore the dead?
Then the alarm gonged, loud, incessant: everything was frantic rout
When a stopper-field explosion tore the main drive chamber out
And the guidance software flared and died, and all the ship was seared.
Every scrap of power plain vanished; every light flat disappeared.
The explosion killed Mkoko; Wei Hu Cho was blast-concussed
We were venting air and losing heat as fast as we lost thrust.
Everywhere on every side was blacker than a soul in sin;
Space was dark as death beyond us—darker still the soul within.
We were coming round about behind the moon’s unsunlit face
Not a single photon hit my eyes or pierced the dark’s embrace.
Not until we cleared the lunar arc, and sunrise gleamed again
And by Thy sweet grace I had the Light to see my duty plain.
One porthole, sun-lit—no more—bright as any welder’s flame.
Just in time to save the ship this illumination came,
Closed the bulkheads with my muscles (since the pisomotors failed)
Reset mainframes B and C and brace-rebooted core mainrail.
Saved the ship and all our lives—(except Mkoko, scorched and dead)—
And all because of God’s good Sun, and the spiritual light it shed!
Afterward I dressed Mkoko’s corpse, for burial in space,
And I slipped my data chip inside his Mortis Carapace.
I sprayed his body with the stuff, and I sealed my chip inside
Because I couldn’t quite destroy it—there, alas, you see my pride.
But at least I knew I couldn’t keep it, couldn’t follow through.
I had seen the light and seen my sin, and so I offer thanks to You.
Thus I wrestled with Apollyon—Ah!—I fretted like a bairn—
Threw away the working-plans at last, and all I hoped to earn.
Dropped my years of labour into space’s infinite wellhole
Lost the sweat and lost a fortune, but at least I saved my soul.

***

The human engine is entropic, ruled for sure by waste and slip,
And accordingly our humankind will never build the Perfect Ship.
I will never last to judge her lines or take her curve—not I!
But I’ve worked and flown in space and lived. All thanks to Thee, Most High!
And I’ve done what I have done—Thou’ll judge it soon if ill or well—
Not complacent of a place in heaven, thinking hard of Hell.
But when I’ve outflown my mortal grav-well and my soul is free
I may hope to ride the perfect starship, in excess of c.
It will fly by Grace—and God will pilot: light years by the million,
Flitting quickly by towards our home: the galaxy’s Avillion.

***

Still they pester, still they question: ‘Where, McAuley, are your notes?’
‘Your ideas—you’ll reconstruct them? Plan your interstellar boats!
‘Start afresh from first positions! Join your dots and sketch the line
Tell at least the core idea, your means for besting old Einstein!’
I was prideful, too much boasting, and I told the world my plans;
Would to God I’d cut my tongue instead, and severed both my hands!
‘Don’t deprive mankind of this new shortcut through spacetime
Do not swallow humankind’s future prospects in your crime!’
I could tell them; somewhere out there is the chip you crave
Locked inside a corpse’s shroud and buried in a vacuum grave;
You could seek it, but that’s not a quest you ever can fulfil:
For nothing happens in our solar-country contrary to His will.
Yes, the physics of it works: but that does not mean that it’s good!
And a jealous God must be served by a fiercer prelatehood,
Engineers—His truest priests! For whole else better knows his Law?
We know how it’s shaped, and how it tells man: thus far go—no more.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Some Chestertonian Apothegms



The danger with argument by paradox, proverb, apothegm and the like is that such rhetoric closes down, rather than opening up, further discussion. If you see the point being made and agree with it, you're likely to smile knowingly at the clever perversity with which it has been made and move on, your prejudices un-unsettled. And if you see the point and disagree with it, the form, deliberately lacking the lineaments of logical argument as it does, gives you little by way of purchase for articulating the specifics of your disagreement. Arguing with a witty Chestertonian apothegm is likely to seem like missing the point, like quarrelling with the premises of a joke.

But that's a shame. Witty or otherwise, these things are means of making a point, advancing an argument; and being witty isn't necessarily the same thing as being right. So for example:
If there were no God, there would be no atheists. [Where All Roads Lead (1922)]
OK, but this is an argument about nomenclature, rather than one about materialist-atheist belief. It was religious people who coined the term atheist, after all. This is as if we brought into general usage the term ‘ahippogriffists’ for people who don't believe that hippogriffs are real, and then twitted such people with the line: Ah, but without hippogriffs there would be no ahippogriffists! There's a sort of truth there, on the level of semantics: but it doesn't change the fact that there are no such things as hippogriffs.
Vers libre, or nine tenths of it, is not a new metre, any more than sleeping in a ditch is a new school of architecture. [Fancies versus Fads (1923)]
Because poetry is a house, and metre and rhyme are walls, windows and roof. Why is poetry a house? Why do rhyme and metre have these functions? Because I say so. Is poetry a house, though? Reading a bit of Tristan Corbière is like sleeping in a ditch because only those too poor to afford even the most basic of lodgings would do it, the experience lasts all night, chills you horribly and in the morning you emerge dirty and unrested. Not so funny now, is it!
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. [The Thing (1930)]
I really think this is Chesterton failing in his own Chestertonianism. Ignorance as the true goal of knowledge is a perfectly serviceable paradoxical maxim, after all. What was it Einstein said? ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, where imagination encircles the world.’
As for science and religion, the known and admitted facts are few and plain enough. All that the parsons say is unproved. All that the doctors say is disproved. That's the only difference between science and religion there's ever been, or will be. [Manalive (1912)]
I've honestly no idea in what sense he means ‘proved’, here, but presumably it is not in the sense that a mother whose child is born with a cleft palate had better take them to a doctor than pray for them to get better, and that there are ten thousand or similar physical circumstances.
A sober man may become a drunkard through being a coward. A brave man may become a coward through being a drunkard. [Charles Dickens (1906)]
And a coward may become brave with a stiff drink in him, as the British Army recognized when they carried the rum ration round the men who were about to go over the top on the Western Front. Your point?
It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged. [Cleveland Press, 1 March 1921]
I suppose this is aiming at jauntiness, but the whole ‘hate your elected officials’ line reeks of incipient fascism: it is, after all, what the fascist dictator cries as he rides in on his white horse. And when every politician not a lickspittle is hanging from a lamppost I'm not sure what good it does to say, but, but I was only joking! Talking of which:
Let a Jew be Lord Chief justice, if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post. Let a Jew be Archbishop of Canterbury ... But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other: that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul's Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. ... If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land. [The New Jerusalem, (1920)]
So a Jew can never be British. I see. I think the best retort here would be ‘fuck you, Gilbert’.