Archive | June 17, 2007

A Vogt for Anarchy

I’ve recently reread A. E. van Vogt’s out-of-print 1977 novel The Anarchistic Colossus. (To the right are some of the covers that have graced the book; as was common for science-fiction novels in the 70s, none of the covers seems to have very much to do with the book’s contents. The bottom one is the most bizarrely off-target of the batch.) The title turns out to refer equally to the anarchistic society depicted in the story, to the human brain, and to the universe as a whole.

cover gallery The society – its rules the result of a kind of compromise between capitalist and socialist anarchists (called Caps and Co-ops in the book; the former are egoistic, the latter sentimental) – avoids all need for human retaliatory force by relying instead on a worldwide system of ubiquitous computerised monitors that are able to detect symptoms of aggressive emotions and instantly incapacitate anyone who behaves aggressively. The result is the closest thing to the Hobbesian-Randian dream of an automatic “final arbiter” independent of the human wills it constrains.

There are ways of gaming the system, of course. One is to modify the computers; the other is to modify oneself, training oneself to commit aggression while suppressing the emotional accompaniments. But pulling off either method successfully turns out to be tricky. (It’s never clearly explained why the Techs, the engineers in charge of maintaining the computer system, don’t reprogram it for their own purposes. Evidently they are committed to the status quo, whether from ideological conviction or from fear of one another.)

In an introduction, van Vogt suggests that this kind of mechanised system is the only way that anarchy could work: “what kind of technology would be required to maintain a system of anarchism among all those misbehaving human beings around us? No government. No police. Nobody minding the store. The entire operation would, of course, have to be automatic.” Yet on the other hand he does have one of his characters remark that “[a] segment of this society believes that the careful use of language all by itself, without any help from the [computers], is all that anarchism needs,” which seems like a nod to van Vogt’s own Null-A trilogy (which is worth a read, if you can get past the fact that van Vogt uses the term “Aristotelian logic” to mean a habit of thinking in terms of false dichotomies, apparently unaware that transcending false dichotomies is one of the central themes of Aristotle’s entire philosophy). The author talks a bit more about this here.

The economic system seems to allow private property and private enterprise (presumably a Cap contribution), but also a requirement that anyone willing to work must have access to sustenance or the means of obtaining it (presumably a Co-op contribution). We don’t see much detail as to how this all works, however – just a few enigmatic glimpses. Passengers on a bus can choose either to pay the fare or to take turns driving the bus. An automobile driver who fails to put money in a parking meter will find that his vehicle automatically deactivates itself. (But what would happen if someone started producing cars that didn’t do this?) Whenever someone invents a new, not-obviously-aggressive way of annoying other people, the Techs have to reprogram the computers to recognise and react to the new behaviour. (So is it really the Techs, not the computers, who constitute the “final arbiter”?) Parents can authorise their teenaged sons’ conscription into the military (which seems un-anarchistic?), but it’s unclear just how the military operates, since the soldiers seem free to wander off whenever they like – which rather defeats the point of conscription.

The plot is a complex tangle, but the central action concerns an attempted alien assault on the anarchist society. The book poses the question: how can the society as described here defend itself from bombardment by orbiting hostile spacecraft, when all use of violence has been delegated to machines that do not exist on those spacecraft? The answer is a SPOILER so I’ll hide it in the comments section.

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering whether the one-soldier-for-a-whole-society concept in John Wright’s Golden Age trilogy was inspired by a similar (not identical) notion in van Vogt’s book.


I’ve added the paragraph I accidentally left out.

Adventures in Cartography

For ancient and medieval Europeans the standard map of the world looked like this:

T and O map

Yes, they knew it wasn’t strictly accurate; it’s supposed to be stylised. Of course they didn’t know how inaccurate it was. Remember that the Greeks knew of nothing east of India, west of Gibraltar, northeast of the Black Sea, or south of the Sahara. (When Alexander was in India he was enraged at being forced by his troops to turn back, since he thought he was in a few miles of seeing the eastern coast of Asia.) The Phoenicians knew better, having circumnavigated Africa – Herodotus expresses skepticism about this, in light of the to him implausible Phoenician account of the northerly position of the sun in the subequatorial sky, but this detail is precisely what has convinced modern historians that the Phoenicians indeed went where they said they went. The Phoenicians tended to keep their charts secret for commercial reasons, however, which may be why the foreshortened European version of Africa (also called “Libya”) didn’t get corrected. (Some think the ancient tales of the impassability of the waters west of the Straits of Gibraltar (which Plato invokes the ruins of sunken Atlantis to explain) were invented by Phoenicians (specifically Carthaginians) to safeguard the route of their tin trade with Cornwall.)

Mediterranean world This is why Europe, Asia, and Africa are called “continents” – because these land-masses surround, “contain,” the inner waterways – the “Mediterranean,” or middle-of-the-earth sea – where known civilisation flourished. This is also the origin of Europe and Asia being regarded as separate continents – because they were mostly separated by water in that area with which Europeans were familiar.

For the ancients, Delphi was the “navel of the world.” (According to legend, Zeus identified the centerpoint by releasing twin eagles from opposite ends of the earth and marking the place where they passed each other – a nice example of the seeds of science germinating in the soil of myth.) The medievals shifted the center about a thousand miles southeast to a more Judeo-Christianly appropriate site. (To modern western Europeans the late shift of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople seems like a move from a central location to a periphery, but to the ancients it seemed like the other way around.)

This style of map also survived the transition from a flat to a round earth. For most of the ancients, this map represented Earth as a disk with “Ocean” – for them the name of a giant river – running around the edge like Paul Bunyan’s Round River; for most of the medievals, on the other hand, this map represented the habitable side of a spherical Earth.

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