The Island of Anarchy, by Elizabeth Waterhouse

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Elizabeth Waterhouse’s 1887 novella The Island of Anarchy: A Fragment of History in the 20th Century depicts an increasingly intolerant Britain dealing with turbulent times as the end of the nineteenth century draws to a close.  With social disorder increasing it is realised that at the heart of the problem is the country’s gerontocratic rule which militates against the implementation of strong measures to rectify the situation.  So the young men of the country secure at a general election a House of Commons with no MP over 35, and no women; they had begun to be elected previously but only made things worse.

The new House is not divided by party, which may not be good for democracy but makes for concerted and strong, i.e. ruthless, administration (Elizabeth died in 1918, thereby missing the advent of fascist governments).  The rule of law is severely applied, both to criminals (law breakers) and anarchists (law deniers).  To deal with the former the number of capital crimes increases, including for recidivists committing petty offences, and the distinction between sane and insane is abolished, with all treated equally.

However, the barbarism is removed from the execution process, with the condemned given over to the care of the Church so that what remains of their lives can be dedicated to prayer and penitence before execution is painlessly administered in the form of an opiate drink.  For the law deniers, the treatment is different.  These are a threat to the civil order:

‘Anarchy, Socialism, free-land leagues, communistic democracy more or less indigenous, and every shade of Nihilism and Dynamitism introduced from the East and the West, had so long had free course that a large mass of the population had come to believe practically that might was right…’

Life has become easier for the majority.  Women eschew politics and focus on reforming the home.  Industrial villages have led to a mass migration to the country from the towns, while wind and tidal power obviate the requirement for coal-produced steam, making living conditions much more pleasant and reducing misery among working people.  These improvements make the dangers of radicalism all the more apparent as ‘they appeared under their true flag as the enemies of all law and duty, industry and religion.’

To meet this danger the government decides the best way to deal with political undesirables humanely is to exile them, refusing permission to return on pain of death.  They are branded with an indelible red circle on the right hand to mark them forever.  With them go various sympathisers and other anti-establishment groups, notably members of the (now disestablished) Church of England who protest the treatment of the radical elements.

Initially merely banished from Britain, other countries adopt similar measures, as the European states are bound in a confederation, with an international court to make unified rulings.  The outcasts are pushed from one place to another as no country is willing to take them, and a solution has to be found.

It is decided to consign them to Meliora, a volcanic island in the South Pacific, where they can be left to their own devices.  The island has everything necessary to supply all their wants: a mild climate, fertile soil, food, and plenty of space.  English socialists and their followers settle on the western side of the island, while other nationalities – German, Belgian, Irish and Russian – gravitate to the south.

They soon form separate communities on the island, the English better able to live in harmony with nature and husband its resources sustainably than the others.  Territorial disputes arise leading to conflict, at first verbal and then physical.  Eventually there is violence by the south against the west, including the mass murder of the Christian clergymen in the English party, who are burned alive in their church.

Only when the Burmese (now independent of the British) dump a load of bloodthirsty Dacoits on the island, who proceed to impose a state of barbarism on the settlers, do the various factions come together to face the common threat.  When a ship arrives with another group of Dacoit settlers there is an apparent Act of God and it runs onto the reef with great loss of life.  The remaining Dacoits are banished to another island without trees sufficiently large to build boats so the remaining inhabitants can now live in peace.

After having endured considerable misery the islanders finally achieve a kind of equilibrium by adopting the tenets of ‘Christian Anarchy’.  They realise that external laws are not needed as long as they have each internalised the fundamental Christian principles, shorn of accretions of dogma such as represented by the now defunct clergy, to guide their behaviour.  Only by discarding sectarian interests and working for the greater good, and holding all property in common, can they live in harmony with nature and each other.

There is much here that echoes Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers.  Unfortunately this utopian experiment is prematurely terminated by an earthquake and a tsunami which floods low-lying areas and kills the entire population save for one Russian ex-aristocrat who happens to be beyond the tsunami’s reach at the time of the catastrophe.  He is left alone to scrape a living on the higher ground, the sole part left habitable.  He is rescued in extreme old age by a ship on its way back from the newly-settled Antarctic, only to die shortly afterwards on the voyage.

Waterhouse’s story has been interpreted as a dystopia, indicating human nature is such that conflict will inevitably arise in an anarchistic society not subject to the rule of law.  For example, Deaglán Ó Donghaile, author of Blasted Literature: Victorian Political Fiction and the Shock of Modernism, has read The Island of Anarchy exceedingly carelessly.  Possibly confusing it with Lord of the Flies, he sees an ‘inevitable and brutal collapse as it is transformed from a liberal political dream into a nightmare of uncontrolled savagery’ (p. 231).

On the contrary, there is nothing inevitable about it, and after much savagery peace is established – albeit by those of European extraction, because the Dacoits remain beyond the pale.  Ó Donghaile assumes Waterhouse is indicating that, in his words, ‘Revolutionaries… cannot eradicate the inequalities that are inevitable in any society as governmental structures provide the only reins on such tendencies.’  But this is not what the example of Meliora’s settlers suggests.

They manage to establish a utopia precisely by discarding the external constraints of human-made rules and living by a higher law; Waterhouse specifically makes the point that such a form of ‘anarchy’ is really a theocracy, but not one imposed by a caste.  Living according to Christian principles is all that is necessary for society to flourish.  She hints that subsequent generations might have reverted to a state of disharmony, as the lessons binding the survivors together are forgotten, but she is let off the hook by the destruction of the community through a natural disaster, rather than a human-made one.

Meanwhile Britain, now part of a European union (there’s an idea), is presumably less conflicted without its dissidents.  We do not know though whether its inhabitants are more content as subjects of an authoritarian regime than were the Meliorians, while their society lasted, without governmental structures to maintain order.  Waterhouse certainly appears to be sympathetic towards the egalitarian Meliorian society as it is finally constituted and is, on this reading, subversive in a way Ó Donghaile entirely misses.


A Case of Spirits, by Peter Lovesey

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The sixth in Peter Lovesey’s series of stories featuring Detective Sergeant Cribb of the CID, A Case of Spirits was published in 1975.  An adaptation was included in the first series of the TV series Cribb, broadcast in 1980.  The title suggests the plot will revolve around alcohol, but in fact it deals with those who have a fascination with spirits of a different kind.

Set in 1885, Cribb is called in by his superior, Inspector Jowett, and ordered to investigate discreetly the theft of a somewhat risqué painting from an acquaintance, Dr Probert.  Curiously, the painting was not particularly valuable, and paintings worth much more had been left untouched.

The trail quickly leads to another burglary, this time a vase, again a cheap one compared to some on display with it.  The common denominator is that séances had been held at both houses with a young working-class medium, Peter Brand.  Brand is making a name for himself on the London Spiritualist circuit and had been the medium at the séances.

Relatively new on the scene, he is being scrutinised by the Life After Death Society, who think he may be a worthy successor to D D Home, the great physical medium.  Unfortunately he is killed at a séance, the electrical current used to ensure that he remained seated in his cabinet having electrocuted him.  How the murder was committed is a mystery as the transformer used to step down the current is in perfect working order.

Cribb suddenly finds his investigation has widened from the theft of objects at upper middle class homes.  Aided by his sidekick Detective Constable Thackeray he utilises his usual methods of painstaking detective work and shrewdness, in the face of considerable class consciousness – i.e. snobbery.  In particular he has to ensure he does not show Jowett up as the latter is particularly sensitive about his status.

There is a narrow range of suspects, and a variety of motives for killing Brand emerge among the séance participants.  Not exactly someone in tune with the higher spheres, it transpires he had rather a shady past; his ruse was to blackmail sitters into assisting him produce fake phenomena, hence giving impressive results.  The murderer turns out to be someone with a surprising, and not particularly convincing, motive.

A Case of Spirits is an entertaining quick read, and at times very amusing.  Lovesey pokes gentle fun at the credulity of spirit seekers, but does make points about how they were often in the hands of charlatans exploiting their sincerity; how those who took an interest in the subject split into fiercely opposed believers and sceptics; and mediums, far from being fraternal, could be backstabbers.

Lovesey has done his research into late Victorian Spiritualism and has incorporated some of the methods used by psychical researchers and by bogus mediums, both when giving platform demonstrations and participating in a domestic circle.  As well as mentioning Home, he namechecks the Society for Psychical Research (only three years old at this point) and  Frederick Hudson’s spirit photographs with Georgiana (misspelled Georgina) Houghton as subject.

There is no information about the extracts from the poem used as an epigraph, other than to note that the author was Robert Browning.  Lovesey actually styles the title of the poem incorrectly.  It is not Mr Sludge the Medium but Mr Sludge, ‘the Medium’, and the inverted commas say it all.  Nor does Lovesey state that the target was Home, and that Browning and his wife Elizabeth were divided in their opinion of Home’s manifestations

Cribb is at the Robert Browning end of the spectrum, explaining how Brand’s fakery worked, much to the discomfort of the more credulous Jowett who had found himself being convinced by what he had seen.  Cribb shows the power of critical thinking, an ability not to be underestimated when investigating the denizens of the Great Beyond.

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, by Christiane Kubrick

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Compiled by Stanley Kubrick’s widow and published in 2002, three years after his death, this large-format book is a chronological survey of the director’s professional and family life.  It is introduced by Steven Spielberg, Kubrick’s friend, who directed his project A.I. Artificial Intelligence after his death, and it complements the documentary film directed by Kubrick’s brother-in-law Jan Harlan, also called Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001).

The 233 photographs are attractively laid out, tracing his childhood and youth in New York, his start as a photographer and his move into cinema.  Some were taken by Kubrick himself, including early photographs from his period as a staffer on Look magazine.  The primary emphasis though is on the films, and it shows him engaged in all aspects of his craft, not least adopting various postures in order to capture the shot he wanted, including balancing precariously in the frame of a bedstead while held by an assistant as he lined up a shot.  It is evident following him as he moved from project to project that his dedication was complete.

It was not all work, however.  He was a devoted family man, and his children feature prominently, not to mention dogs and many cats.  His love of chess is also noted.  Christiane’s oil paintings, some of which made it into the films, occupy a colour section in the middle, including a lovely one of Kubrick painted after his death, showing him sitting by the pond in their back garden.

Seeing this selection from the extensive Kubrick archive gives the lie to the slur that he was a mad recluse.  On the contrary, he was gregarious and comfortable in company; as Christiane points out, how could a film director not be in this most collaborative of professions?  In a world where the public feels entitled to ‘own’ celebrities, Kubrick was refreshing in his refusal to play that game, instead preferring to maintain his privacy.  Christiane gives due credit to those collaborators, both in her captions and in a useful filmography which draws on a range of resources to be as complete as possible.  The filmography includes Vivian Kubrick’s documentary on the making of The Shining as well as Harlan’s A Life in Pictures, and there is a chronology of Kubrick’s life.

Much has appeared on Kubrick since this book’s publication, but it is still a valuable record of a fine filmmaker.  The captions are brief, and naturally slanted in her husband’s favour (he and Shelley Duvall ‘had a good working relationship’ on The Shining according to Christiane, a minority opinion) and are light on the stories of creative excess for which he was noted.  While a longer introduction would have been useful – Spielberg’s brief contribution is laudatory but predictable – the value is in the images.  Kubrick was not prolific, but every film is a beautifully-crafted gem repaying repeated viewings, and these photographs provide an insight into him and his methods.

Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, by Bernard Eisenschitz

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Written by Bernard Eisenschitz, a critic on Cahiers du Cinéma, and translated by Tom Milne, this 600-page biography of Nicholas Ray (born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr, 1911-79) was published in French in 1990 as Roman Américain : Les vies de Nicholas Ray, and in English in 1993 as Nicholas Ray: An American Journey.  Despite its vintage it is still a valuable portrait of this fascinating though flawed film director.

In addition to his directorial work, Ray had a varied career, starting in Depression-era left-wing theatre, collecting folk music (collaborating with Alan Lomax) and in radio broadcasting, so the ‘lives’ of the French title is apt.  His experiences during this period informed his subsequent career in his feel for the complexities of ordinary people’s lived experiences and the pessimism of his outlook.  He showed society’s outsiders in a sympathetic light, in a way that was a metaphor for his own strained relationship with Hollywood – despite which he still managed to produce an accomplished, body of work.

The book discusses the films’ productions chronologically in detail, using them to structure the narrative and showing how they and his character interacted to make them the singular works of art they are.  His individualism ran counter to the prevailing conformism of the 1950s and he was able to get under the skin of middle America to show it aspects of itself it would rather not have acknowledged, notably the developing youth culture.

There is much on Ray’s relationships with actors and operating within the studio system.  He was particularly good at handling actors, drawing out powerful performances, but could appear indecisive on set, not a good leadership attribute.  His strength was his vision, which was able to stretch genre boundaries and deliver pictures unlike those produced by safe mainstream directors, but it was a vision that caused friction with studios bosses and eventually marginalised him.

His life was blighted by depression and alcoholism and his career was one of slow, albeit erratic, decline, with failed projects and financial difficulties.  Eventually it petered out, and like Sandy Mackendrick and Thorold Dickinson he ended up teaching, though for someone famously inarticulate when discussing his own work he was successful in connecting with his students.

Ray was idolised too by French critics, particularly François Truffaut, so it is no surprise it fell to a writer on Cahiers du Cinéma to produce this mammoth biography.  It is fair to say that Ray has always been more honoured in Europe than in the United States.  Indeed, for a while he achieved something approaching cult status there, though in recent years his star seems to have waned.

This painstaking study is scholarly, with nearly 60 pages of endnotes, plus a filmography that includes details of cast and crew on each production.  It can at times be too detailed, and occasionally drops in tantalising titbits with no elaboration, frustrating the reader who wants to know more.  Generally, though, Eisenschitz balances the virtues and flaws of a complex man, and the result is a sympathetic depiction of someone who achieved great things but could have achieved more had it not been for his self-destructive tendencies.  It is not suitable for a casual reader, and it helps to have an acquaintance with the films beforehand, but for those with an interest in this iconic director it is indispensable.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

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Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran in 1969 and her childhood was spent in Tehran.  Her graphic novel Persepolis, published in French in two parts in 2000 and 2001, and in English in 2003, tracks her life from the ages of 6 to 14, living first under the Shah’s autocratic regime; under the even more brutal Islamic Republic which overthrew the Peacock Throne in 1979; then during the grinding war with Iraq, before concluding with her leaving to study in Vienna.

During all these times she pushes the boundaries, trying to live like a normal young girl, with a young girl’s preoccupations (fashion, music, boys).  Through watching what goes on around her and through conversations with her politically liberal parents, her grandmother, relatives and friends, she learns about Iran’s complex history, and sees the unjust nature of the society in which she lives.

She shows the false hope of the middle classes that the monarchy would be replaced by a secular republic, Satrapi’s parents assuming the ignorant clerics would be unable to govern and the country would pursue a moderate path modelled on western democracies.  For a moment Iran’s prospects must have looked bright, before it plunged into a mediaeval theocracy worse than what the people had endured before.

Satrapi highlights the intolerant nature of the Iranian Islamic Republic with its suppression of dissent and imposition of a rigid orthodoxy.  She experiences a transition from a mixed school where the girls can wear what they like to segregated education with the girls forced to wear ‘the veil’ in order not to inflame the passions of men, because of course to do so would be the woman’s fault.

There may have been injustices under the Shah, but women were able to wear short skirts and makeup if they chose, whereas the Islamic misogynists consider allowing a few hairs to escape the hijab to be the sign of a slut and an invitation to be mistreated.  It is terrible to learn that as it is forbidden to execute a virgin, such prisoners are first ‘married’ to (i.e. raped by) a revolutionary guard and then executed.  To show the family what has happened, a ‘dowry’ is sent to the family, a tiny amount of money, the message of which is clear.

To demonstrate the extremism of the Islamic regime, in one scene Satrapi stands up in class when the teacher says there are now no political prisoners and points out that her uncle was imprisoned under the Shah, but he was executed by the Islamic Republic, because he had lived in the Soviet Union and was considered a Russian spy; and that the number of political prisoners had increased ten-fold since the revolution.  For such acts she is labelled a troublemaker.  As Satrapi seems to have been unable to exercise discretion, her parents wisely decided to send her out of the country in her teens.

To reinforce the narrative’s anger, the use of black and white artwork is effective in projecting a Manichean sense of good versus evil.  Satrapi’s experiences as told here are moving, sometimes horrible, but occasionally extremely funny.   There are though one or two aspects that raise questions.  The main one relates to how the family managed to survive in such inauspicious circumstances.

It is surprising that Satrapi’s father, someone who was so opposed to the regime, could keep his job as a government employee, and therefore the family continue to live in relative comfort.  He and his wife even went on holiday to Turkey.  If opponents were being executed in large numbers, how did Mr Satrapi escape the purge?  People with no previous experience of government are shown to have been promoted to senior positions simply by wearing the right clothes and appearing to be devout – one official able to grant or withhold a passport was once a window cleaner.

To make Satrapi’s father’s position even more problematic, her great-grandfather was one of Iran’s last emperors, which one might think would make her father an object of suspicion to the new rulers.  Yet he refuses to flee to the United States like so many others because he says he doesn’t want to end up driving a cab.  If you thought your life was in imminent danger such a course would be preferable to imprisonment or execution, so he must have been sure of his safety.

Also, there is no reference to Ayatollah Khomeini.  Was this to avoid a Rushdie-style fatwa on the author?  While Islam is naturally mentioned, though often more by implication than explicitly, the regime’s excesses tend to be framed as individual pathology or imposed by the secular authorities, rather than directed by religious leaders with control over the temporal government.

There is a subsequent volume, Persepolis 2, continuing the autobiographical account.  Nothing though can, I suspect, compare with the power of this child’s-eye view of the Iranian revolution.  What comes across is that the human spirit can stand up to despotism, but only so far, and the preferable strategy may be to move to a more open society which espouses democratic values.  Satrapi lives in Paris.

The de Vere Papers, by Michael Langford

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The fictional De Vere College, University of Cambridge, is the setting for murky goings-on, including murder, in 1868.  The plot of Michael Langford’s 2008 novel hinges on the authorship of the works of William Shakespeare, with the search for papers hidden in the college that might reveal that the author was  Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, a relative of the college’s founder, and not that Stratford upstart.

Being a librarian becomes a hazardous occupation when De Vere College’s is murdered and papers he had in his possession suggesting Edward de Vere wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare are missing.  One of the college’s fellows, Dr Simon Weatherspoon, D.D., academic and clergyman, looks into the mystery.

Warwickshire resident Lord FitzSimmons pops up as someone who might be willing to make a sizeable donation for a new wing at De Vere College, but he also has an agenda in that he is keen to scotch the idea that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him as he wants to develop a Shakespeare centre in Stratford, and naturally evidence that de Vere wrote the plays would undermine the project.

Meanwhile Simon harbours a secret.  While known for his scholarly edition of the apocryphal First Maccabees (for which he was awarded his doctorate), he has written a series of less-than-respectable novels under the pen name of Amelia Buzzard, plus another as Emily Dove, pretending to be a riposte to Amelia Buzzard.  Extremely popular with a certain segment of the reading public, these have earned him rather more than First Maccabees has.

He is keen to keep his authorship quiet because writing racy novels as a woman is hardly compatible with his status as a Cambridge academic.  Attending a publisher’s lunch as the respectable author of First Maccabees he meets the feminist critic Theresa Brown, who rates Amelia Buzzard’s novels highly as conveying a female viewpoint.  This puts Simon in a quandary, as he is smitten by Theresa but is reluctant to confess his secret authorship in case it alienates her.

As he wrestles with what to do, he finds that forces are working to uncover both the de Vere papers and a treasure that may be hidden at the college.  This is the Lolworth treasure, hidden by monks at the dissolution of the Lolworth monastery.  The college master is an avid collector of chess pieces, and Simon learns that the treasure is said to include nine priceless mediaeval sets, perhaps a motive to kill to possess them.

In the course of sleuthing, Simon finds that his Buzzard/Dove persona has been uncovered both by the mysterious forces seeking the de Vere papers and the treasure and, even worse, by Theresa.  It is only a matter of time before he is outed by the popular press.  How will this affect his relationship with Theresa?  Will he win the race to find the papers and treasure against the competing factions, and get the girl to boot?

After some anxious moments and a few more deaths the affair works out splendidly, with the murderer unmasked, the treasure and manuscripts divided with Theresa and FitzSimmons, and Simon and Theresa, the latter obviously an early example of the New Woman, heading for a happy life together.  Fortunately Simon has accrued a huge amount of money by his literary endeavours, with the authorship controversy merely increasing sales, so he is able to contemplate leaving Cambridge for a comfortable existence in London.  While FitzSimmons thinks he has all the early drafts of the plays said to be by Shakespeare but in de Vere’s hand, Simon has secretly retained that of Hamlet, leaving to a future generation the bombshell that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare.

The plot is satisfyingly convoluted and the author, himself a theologian and Cambridge academic, is erudite and conveys the etiquette and rituals of college life well.  But he does not always capture the tone of Victorian writing.  This is fine for most of the novel as there is no reason why a novel set in 1868 should be a pastiche, though it loses the mid-Victorian ambience, but it jars when he is supposedly reporting extracts from the newspapers and magazines of the day, such as the lengthy review supposedly from the Lambeth Literary Gazette which discusses the sensation novels of Amelia Buzzard (who is presumably based on Mary Elizabeth Braddon).  Amusingly Theresa’s analysis of Simon’s point-of-view technique in his novels nicely sums up Langford’s as well.

Langford concludes the book with an epilogue in which he discusses the plausibility of the hypothesis that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare.  He says that, while himself remaining agnostic, it is a possibility worth discussing, but highlights the danger of (although not using the specific term) confirmation bias in arguing the case for the Earl’s authorship.

A curious sentence is that describing a meeting of the fellows:  ‘After another pause in which no-one seemed quite sure how to steer the discussion..’  In my experience of Cambridge academics, they are never unsure about what to say next.  The text is peppered with attractive illustrations, but the cover is amateurish and does the author no favours.  The novel is much better than the cover artwork suggests.

Galápagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel is narrated by the ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of the fictional novelist Kilgore Trout, looking back to the 1980s from a million years in the future.  Among other themes, the novel deals with whether humans are the pinnacle of evolution, and the existential issue of what is the point of existence.  It does not come up with particularly cheery answers.

In 1986 the luxury ship Bahía de Darwin is supposed to depart, with a stellar celebrity guest list, from the port city of Guayaquil in Ecuador for ‘The nature cruise of the century’ to the Galápagos Islands.  Unfortunately, a worldwide economic catastrophe leads to civil unrest and looting.  The situation is exacerbated when Peru declares war on Ecuador and begins bombing missions.

By this time the cruise had been cancelled but the ship is still in port, completely stripped by looters and deserted by its crew.  A small group of mostly women manages to escape on the vessel, steered incompetently by its captain whose intended function had been to foster passenger relations rather than display any ability in seamanship.

After sailing about randomly with no navigational aids, they end up on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos Islands where they and their descendants are forced to eke out a meagre existence based on the few natural resources available.  Meanwhile the human race everywhere else is dying out because women have become infertile thanks to a virus first contracted at the Frankfurt book fair and spread worldwide.  Eventually the group on Santa Rosalia is the sole representative of the species, enabled to survive initially by some nifty artificial insemination from a single donor (leading to a somewhat narrow gene pool).

Leon Trout had fought for the USA in Vietnam but had gone AWOL to Sweden after witnessing a massacre of peasants had led to psychological issues.  He had found employment in the shipyard at Malmö where he had unfortunately been accidentally decapitated while working on the Bahía de Darwin and become its resident ghost, settling on the island once the ship had been grounded.

Offered the chance to pass into the afterlife (there is life after death, access to which is down a blue tube) he had turned it down repeatedly despite his deceased father appearing in order to encourage him to enter it, and had been told he would have to spend a million years on earth before the offer was made again.  Leon is telling the story just before the time is up, and is privy to how humans have developed over that period.  He will not refuse to go into the blue tube again as evolution has settled down for the foreseeable future and he has seen everything worth seeing.

The million years of his residence have shown how humans adapted to their environment.  Restricted to the island, they have become semi-aquatic.  Vonnegut demonstrates that there is nothing fixed about human intellect and morphology, and given the appropriate circumstances our descendants in a million years’ time might well evolve prognathous jaws and smaller brains in streamlined skulls suited for underwater fishing; furry skin; flippers with nubs where fingers used to be, useful only for mating rituals; and a life expectancy of about 30, by which time they have slowed down enough to be prey for sharks and orcas (at least solving the problem of tooth decay – nobody lives long enough for it to occur).

Such development may not seem an attractive prospect from our point of view.  The crowning achievement of human intelligence is lost, but as Leon repeatedly emphasises, possession of a ‘big brain’ is not necessarily evolutionarily advantageous, and can even lead, and usually does, to decision-making which is disadvantageous and frequently catastrophic.  Given the current state of the world, can there be any doubt of the correctness of his view?

In that sense, having a brain that can do more than merely lead to the perpetuation of the species is unnecessary.  After all, what is the point – most of us aren’t going to write anything approaching Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and doubtless Gaia will breathe a sigh of relief when humans become incapable of wrecking the planet further, either through dying off or, as on Santa Rosalia, developing into a state in harmony with the rest of nature.

As the Santa Rosalia case demonstrates, the idea of ‘de-evolution’ makes no sense as evolution always works to favour those who take best advantage of their environment.  There is no ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, in the traditionally-viewed terms of a tree with humans at the top, only greater or lesser degrees of adaptation based on environment and chance events (the group only arrives on the island by accident and is marooned when the engines fail to start; an alteration in the chain would have led to a different outcome).

The narrative is larded with quotations from some of civilisation’s most creative minds, but a million years on they will be as pointless as the rest of human achievement, including this book, which Leon claims to have written with his finger in the air; how else would a disembodied entity have written it?  At some point we can say that these descendants of present-day humans are so different from us they no longer qualify as homo sapiens, at which point not-so-sapient humans will be extinct.

So is Vonnegut providing a cautionary tale or saying it doesn’t matter anyway as nature will sort things out and life, though not necessarily human life, will move on?  Perhaps both but with the emphasis on the caution, because after all, however dysfunctional the human’s big brain can be, it did create Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

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