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Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Imagine future scholars attempting to reconstruct the history of the human race based only on the works of American writer T. Pynchon. OK, so we can travel in time, but only if we have enough electricity. And there really is spooky action at a distance, and it really is spooky. There are countless conspiracies, of course, otherwise nothing would ever get done, right? Moreover, in case you are wondering, the Earth is hollow, and if you live near Durham, England, you had better watch out for that big worm recently spotted in the neighbourhood. So I was very interested to read what Pynchon would have to say about the 11th of September, 2001, which is one of the subjects of his new book, Bleeding Edge.

Thomas Pynchon and the Lambton Worm

To go back: when I was at University in Manchester there was a tiny second-hand bookshop that I liked to go to. The owner was a friendly fellow, and I am sure I discovered Pynchon’s work browsing his shelves. After a while I asked him to look out for a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s most famous book, and indeed it eventually showed up. I was lucky enough to get the big first-edition UK paperback, with nice paper and pages sewn together. In the inside back cover there were handwritten addresses of two people in Quebec with the words “good luck” written in big block letters at the bottom. I never did write to them, but I did finish the book, so maybe it helped. A decade or so later, while I was living in Durham, Mason and Dixon came out and my friend Stephen B. and I were very excited— not only was the reclusive Mr. Pynchon still writing, but he was writing books about places we lived in, because Jeremiah Dixon was actually from Bishop Auckland, only a short distance from Durham. Perhaps, Stephen wondered, Pynchon had actually been to Durham to research his book? Maybe we had walked next to him in Durham’s narrow streets, but not actually recognised him because, well, nobody actually knows what Pynchon looks like. Reading the book in my little room at Hallgarth street I was astonished by the hyper-realistic obscure details he included, and how much it felt to me like Durham and the north-east of England. That kind of weird foggy unreal feeling provoked by a combination of not enough light and the presence of very large and very old buildings extremely nearby.

When I first read Pynchon he was writing about things that I had no personal experience of, except indirectly (I have never seen the Lambton Worm but I knew where it lives). But Bleeding Edge concerns events which occurred in my lifetime: the days and weeks before and after the 11th of September 2001. Of course if you are expecting drama and catastrophe that is not what is in the book: Pynchon’s characters experience the day’s terrible events from a distance, they see it for the most part on TV like the rest of us, downtown and uptown are are not so close after all. No, the drama of the thing is not what interests Pynchon, what interests him is of course the hidden connections, the conspiracies.

Bleeding edges and shaggy dog stories

The principal character in his book is a semi-retired fraud investigator who gets called in to investigate the accounts of a Silicon Alley start-up which are showing more than one or two in logical inconsistencies. The trail of numbers leads to … what exactly? It’s never completely clear. Perhaps that money is being directed into financing some flying lessons for budding middle-eastern pilots who only want to take off and fly but never to land? Or buy some surface-to-air missiles? The most fascinating aspect of the book is Pynchon’s depiction of turn-of-the-last-century computer culture. Mostly in New York, so yes, big switch for Pynchon who has set most of his previous books in California. Here, he is fascinated by the “deep web”, that layer of the internet which is invisible either to search engines or to anyone with a “normal” web browser. This “deep web” functions as a kind of quantum-mechanical set of hidden variables which explain how everything links up with everything else, long-standing Pynchonian concerns. What’s also kind of weird and fascinating about it is how he makes the past sound like the future, because after all a decade-and-a-half is a very long time in information technology. In the meantime there have been quite a few exponential doublings in transistor densities.

Like his previous book Inherent Vice it is all a bit of a shaggy dog story, and, even better this time there is a real shaggy and dog story — a story about Shaggy and Scooby Doo, which ends in a terrible pun. The book is full of gags and songs, a lot of them demanding a quite profound knowledge of the subculture he’s parodying, and at the same time there is a non-negligible undercurrent of paranoia and fear. Period artefacts (computers and programming culture) are rendered accurately and in detail.

What’s new?

So, long-time Pynchon fans might ask, what’s new here? Well, not fundamentally a whole lot. What is wonderful about the book is its crazy picture of America at the start of the 21st century. Pynchon leans lightly on his subject material but there no doubt how serious the undercurrents are. Small invisible perturbations provoke world-changing events, and, what’s worse, often without any causal relationship. Subcultures hiding from the mainstream world will be suppressed by “state actors”, unless they can completely vanish. And a lot of takeaway food will be consumed.

At the end of the book, there is no resolution of all matters brought up in the previous pages, because, hey, this the real world, right?


Returning to Bologna

Returning to Bologna

This week I flew to Bologna, Italy with two colleagues for a Euclid meeting. It was a meeting to plan Euclid instrument operations, so there was a lot of technical discussions, very close to the metal, but it was a lot more interesting that I had expected it to be. It is the first time I have visited Bologna for more than two years, a city I know very well as I was a postdoc there from 2001 to 2003. I realise too that this is the first time I have written anything in this blog about Bologna, which is surely a serious error, given how much I appreciate this city.

We arrived there in the middle of the afternoon last Wednesday. Our aeroplane banked low as we approached the city and there was a wonderful evening light shining on colli bolognesi. There, on a hill by itself I could see the San Luca church, together with the two towers one of the symbols of the city. From the airport we took a taxi, and in a few minutes we were at the hotel, the hotel “Universita” where I stayed during my very first visit to Bologna. A few minutes afterwards, we were in the streets of Bologna. We were very hungry, Air France these days practice starvation diets even on flights leaving around lunchtime. So, we ate some piadini in a cafe underneath the arcades on the via independezia before heading out to visit the city. Our meeting would not start until the next day, and we had a few hours of shopping before the evening meal. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

To me, at first glance, the city does not seem to have changed at all. There are still the same narrow streets, the same brick-red buildings. The same movement, even late at night. We visited a few sights of the city, and I went to all the shops that I liked when I lived there. I bought all the things that I like: coffee, chocolate, a good bottle of wine, grappa, some cheese and prosciutto. In almost all the shops, everyone remembered me, and I was treated with great courtesy (as I would say, Italian spoken with an Irish accent is unforgettable). Heavily laden down, I made my way back to the hotel at around 6pm. Only thanks to my colleague Olivier H. was I able to bring everything that I had bought back to Paris: he had some extra space in his bag.

At Bruno e Franco, via Oberdan.

Afterwards, we went to eat at Tony’s, the trattoria on the ground floor of the building I used to live in, on via Augusto Righi. This restaurant had great importance for me when I lived in Bologna. I waited there in Tony’s with my cordless telephone that evening in June 2003 for the call from Emmanuel B. to find out if I had been recruited or not for the post of “assistant astronomer” at the Obs. de Paris (it came; I had). The day that I left Bologna, towards mid-day I took down my very last possessions that I had in my apartment and put them in my white Ascona parked in front of Trattoria Tony. At that moment, the waiters came out from the restaurant (they were just preparing the tables for the Sunday mid-day meal) to bid farewell.

At Tony’s we were five at our table. The restaurant was full. Tony’s has that direct, unforgiving light so typical of Italian trattorias: you can see exactly what you are eating. I had the meal that I often ate many years ago, tagliatelle al ragu, followed by the the fileto con aceto balsamico. It’s been a while since I was hungry enough to eat all that, but during all that walking in the afternoon I had worked up a strong appetite. At the end of the meal, I talked to Stefano, the son of Tony. I found out that Tony was no longer alive: he had had an accident and died two years ago. I talked to them about my father and what happened this year: I can understand this kind of thing now. Leaving the restaurant I felt a bit weighed down by all these thoughts of mortality but hey, that could have also been the two bottles of Sangiovese that I had drunk. Later, after a nice ice-cream at Gelateria della Moline I met my friend Tommasso. It was great to see him again and we talked for a while in the cold metal chairs in front of the gelateria before I returned to the hotel Universita .

The next day, a full day of meetings, followed by a meal at a nice restaurant on the via san petronio vecchio. There was another friend I wanted to see, but she was not arriving in Bologna that night until after 11PM. I thought, we will never be that long at the restaurant…but we were. So we met, and I walked back to my hotel through the somewhat slightly more silent streets of Bologna around two in the morning, and the next day we left.

On that distant summer’s evening  while I was sitting in Tony’s and the phone rang to tell me that I had a permanent job in Paris,  I said to myself: well,  there are not so many places in the world that I would be happy to go to after living here in Bologna…but probably Paris is one of them. So I said to myself, do not be sad to leave Bologna. There is certainly however something special about this city. I am looking forward to returning there before too long.

Some nice portici in Bologna
On Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

On Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

This weekend I saw Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. If you know something about movies, then perhaps the best way to understand this film is to say that it is based on a script that Nolan’s brother had originally written for Spielberg. There is plenty of easy and unambiguous sentiment, more so than in any other film he has made until now. Like this: if you leave someone you love, then should try to come back. You had better, you hear! Having seen all of Nolan’s previous films I feel disappointed. I thought he would make a great modern science fiction story which would show us really what it was like to travel great distances and stand on alien worlds that no human has visited before. It does … but not quite.

Toto, I don’t think it’s 1930 any more

Rewind. Here’s the story: Cooper, a drawling midwesterner and ex-fighter-pilot-turned farmer receives some mysterious “instructions” from a restless ghost, telling him to visit a certain location near his farm. There he finds … NASA engineers secretly working to prepare manned missions to a wormhole that’s conveniently opened up near the orbit of Saturn (got all that?). This is good news, because Saturn is of course the most photogenic of all the planets. Bad news, because that’s even further away than the monolith in 2001 which was in orbit around Jupiter, and it will take them two years to get there. Luckily, we at least have that other SF standby, cryosleep, so no sitting around playing cards in space. Whew!The planet Earth of Interstellar is a dried-up dusty place. People live on farms and drive pickup trucks. I almost expected to hear Woody Guthrie singing his Dust Bowl Blues: instead, we have Hans Zimmer and his sepulchral full-on organ tones (and not a church in sight). At the start of the film, we are astonished to see a cast member flip open a laptop. They have computers here? So yeah, it looks like the kind of place you would want to get out of. Weirdly, later on, even in the scenes in outer space, everything looks retro, there is not a touchscreen or hologram in sight. Lots of knobs and buttons and dials and low-def video (quite different from how recent films like Prometheus and District 9 imagine modern space travel).

What can we do with some faster computers?

Anyway, arriving at Saturn we see the wormhole, which nicely distorts the stars behind it. This wormhole leads not only to another solar system, but to another galaxy, and so yes the film should be really called Intergalactic. It’s at this point the film’s big advance from The Black Hole and 2001 become clear: tons more computing power means that we can do a much better job ray-tracing the passage of light around black holes. This, incidentally, is something one of my colleagues at IAP, Alain Riazuelo knows a lot about, having made a series of short films showing how background stars are lensed by massive objects. My friend Mr. Seagull tells me that that Kip Thorne had suggested that he help out, but it turned out that a lot of special effects people are actually recovering from PhDs in astrophysics. So hey!

On the other side of the looking glass

On the other side of the wormhole, our intrepid heroes find themselves with some choices to make: there are three potentially habitable worlds nearby and visiting all of them isn’t going to be easy, not the least because this system contains a nasty large black hole, hence the need for all that ray-tracing. It goes without saying that things don’t work out as expected. One of the most memorable scenes of the film is our explorer Cooper duking it out in a snowy wasteland with the planet’s sole inhabitant, a supposedly idealistic scientist, Dr. Mann, played cooly by Matt Damon. But human beings will be human beings after all! It turns out that Dr. Mann, like everyone else (despite affirmations to the contrary), just wants to go home too. But, this being Hollywood, it all works out fine in the end for the rest of the cast (sorry for the spoilers), thanks to some black-hole strength bending of the rules of physics and causality.

How to get to the next planet in time for tea?

Here’s the astronomer’s polemic: without any additional physics, exploring the Universe is a drag. Voyaging even to nearby stars involves decades-long travel. Nothing says interstellar travel is impossible — it just takes a very, very long time. So, to be truthful, a lot of screen time would be devoted to gliding silently between the stars. For things to happen in a reasonable duration (under three hours, yes) a shortcut needs to be found. Bending space-time with massive objects is probably the least incredible of large number of largely fantastical options. For me, the most realistic description of what the Universe might be really can be found in David Brin’s Existence. Here, the Universe is vast and violent, and all of the travelling is done by machines, in some cases carrying fragments of their creators’ consciousness. That, however, is a lot less fun than boldly going. I sympathise with the movie-director’s predicament: how can you make a good movie about interstellar travel without breaking a few laws of physics?

Going backwards to go forwards

Nolan’s first big hit, Memento was famous for out-of-order story-telling, so you might think that throwing causality out of the window might work out okay. In fact that’s not what’s wrong with the film. The problem is that it is just too much like a big-budget blockbuster movie. Hey, you might say, it is a big-budget blockbuster movie! That’s just it: Nolan was our best hope to make intelligent movies with a wide appeal where things might not work out in the end. He leans too heavily on the films he admires from cinema history, and the plot in some ways is too comforting to be credible. Yes, the alien landscapes are beautiful. However, after going through the worm-hole and travelling to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, we will not be elevated to a higher level of consciousness and become new human beings, and neither will we meet creatures from another dimension. In fact, we will just find…ourselves. The Universe might indeed be empty of life, a terrifying idea, but one could at least hope that we would be changed the journey. So yes, let’s explore. But we need to go further next time.

Reading Victor Hugo’s "L’homme qui rit"

Reading Victor Hugo’s "L’homme qui rit"

Last night after almost three months I finally managed to finish Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit (The man who laughs) which I started during my holiday in Greece after I crashed out of Montaigne’s Essais. Montaigne, as ML warned me, is not ideal material for a sunny beach on Antipaxos, and it turned out she was right.

L’homme qui rit is the story of a boy, Gwynplaine, whose face is disfigured in childhood into a permanent rictus and who is abandoned to die on England’s inhospitable coastline in the depths of winter. The boat that leaves him there subsequently is shipwrecked, and all aboard her perish, but not before one of the passengers, taken by a turn of conscience, casts a message into the ocean concerning the true nature of the disfigured boy.

Miraculously, the child survives. He crosses miles of darkened coastline and even when at last he arrives in a town no-one will open the door to him: these are plague years. Finally, he and is taken in by a vagabond (Ursus) who is accompanied by a wolf (Homo), finding along the way a blind child (Dea). In the years to come, Gwynplaine falls in love with her, as she is the only person who can see his soul. Later on, just as they are starting to make a nice living from a traveling show (spoiler alert! as the Americans say) we discover that Gwynplaine is in fact of aristocratic stock (the message is found) and by rights he stands to inherit vast tracts of land and countless stately homes.

This being Hugo, of course, Gwynplaine learns the “good news” after forced under the threat of death to leave Ursus and Dea after which he is brought to subterranean prison where he witnesses the death of a man under torture, a man who confirms his true identity just before he dies. Ursus, Homo and Dea are forced to leave London on the next available boat (certain in the mistaken belief that Gwynplaine has been executed). Their traveling circus is disbanded and the innkeeper who put them up sent to prison. Meanwhile, Gwynplaine finds himself in the House of Lords where he makes a passionate speech in defence of the common man and against the aristocracy. However, no-one takes him seriously on account of his disfiguration. Slipping through the mobs of shocked Lords, Gwynplaine, against even more fantastic odds, manages to find the boat where Dea and Ursus are sheltering with the aid of Homo, who finds him, handily just before Gwynplaine is about to commit suicide, having lost everything that is important to him.

He sneaks onto the boat and finds Ursus comforting Dea, who is on the point of death. After listening to them for a few minutes, he slips from his hiding place and reveals himself to Dea and Ursus. They are together at last! But, alas, Dea is not a robust girl, and dies anyway, asking Gwynplaine in her final moments not to leave her waiting for him too long up there in the afterlife. Gwynplaine takes her advice to his heart and, a few minutes later, jumps from the side of the boat into the icy waters of the Thames.

Told like this the story actually sounds exciting! And parts of it are. However, there are the digressions. And digressions. The ones which I found the most difficult to wade through where the long disquisitions on the English aristocracy. All too often, the action is punctuated by such passages which stretch for dozens and dozens of pages, often just at a key moment in the plot. I don’t know, but in Les Miserables I found such digressions much more interesting than in L’homme qui rit. Or maybe it is just because I don’t have a great interest in this particular period in history.

Finally, like many of the books I have read from this period, the ending is tragic. At first this surprised me a lot, especially after reading stories that we already think we half-know from popular culture, like Notre Dame de Paris. The real ending is nothing like in the movies. It almost always finishes badly.