Category Archives: books

The impossibility of silence

In Noise, distraction and caffeine? I mentioned the avant-garde composer John Cage’s assertion that silence is unattainable. The following quote comes from an article of his about “experimental music”.

In this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that hapen to be in the environment . . . There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of a special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. when I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

John Cage, “Experimental Music” in Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978, pp. 7-8 (originally delivered as part of a lecture in 1937)

Tangentially, just in case you’re bothered about the last sentence, here’s another quote from later in the book:

If one feels protective about the word “music”, protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises. What it is is theatre and we are in it and like it, making it.

John Cage, “45′ for a Speaker” in Silence, p. 190

Some time I’ll try to write a review of the whole book. For now, enjoy those two quotes. John Cage was interested in Zen Buddhism, and I think that for him so-called silence served the same kind of purpose as it does in contemplative prayer traditions: silence is a space in which you give attention. Right now, I’d like more silence in this library, in which to give attention to what I’m writing . . . And I’m not sure how he would have defined music, but I suspect that “sound to which one gives attention for its own sake” might have covered it. And he introduced impossible “silence” into his music for the purpose of focusing on the sound that is always around us.

An excellent find

Yesterday I exchanged a few messages on Twitter about the relationship between music and language (a relationship which I also mentioned recently in my post speculating about background noise).

What should I see in the library today, while waiting for a computer to be free, but a book by Steven Mithen called The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005)!

It’s substantial. And looks very interesting. I’ve taken it out of the library.

A review may follow . . .

Changing Planes

Ursula le Guin, Changing Planes, Gollancz, 2004

This book describes itself as “armchair travel for the mind”. It’s a kind of travel guide, written by people who have visited interesting places. Only in this case, what’s on offer isn’t different parts of the country, or different countries, but a whole variety of different worlds and places. Imagine, for example

  • a people whose experience of time is not sequential like ours
  • a society based entirely on anger and ill temper
  • a world in which people routinely overhear their neigbours’ dreams at night
  • a world where it is permanently the worst kind of commercialised Christmas
  • an island population created to live without sleep as a scientific experiment
  • a language too complex to be translated, based on words which individually have no meaning
  • a world where some people grow wings and can fly, but are ostracized by the rest of society.

In my previous post I talked about the value of alternative worlds for thinking about ours. Here we have a whole host of them, described in a gentle and witty style: sometimes reflective, sometimes loaded with deadly satire, always beautifully written and very readable.

People visit these worlds during tedious waits at airports, using “Sita Dulip’s method”, described in the first chapter. Sita Dulip discovered it while trapped “between planes” in the hell of waiting for an increasingly and horrendously delayed flight which was eventually

taken off the departures list. There was no one at the gate to answer questions. The lines at the desks were eight miles long, only slightly shorter than the lines at the toilets. Sita Dulip had eaten a nasty lunch standing up at a dirty plastic counter … She had long ago read the editorials in the local newspaper, which … applauded the recent tax break for citizens whose income surpassed that of Rumania. The airport bookstores did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction. She had been sitting for over an hour on a blue plastic chair with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor facing a row of people sitting in blue plastic chairs with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor, when (as she later said), ‘It came to me.’
She had discovered that, by a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe, she could go anywhere–be anywhere–because she was already between planes.
She found herself in Strupsirts…

We learn later that the method requires “a specific combination of tense misery, indigestion, and boredom” to work, making the airport an ideal place to use it. People relieve the agony by travelling to other “planes”, and the book recounts some of their experiences.

The stories are highly inventive, diverse, and wonderfully written. Some are reflective, some satirical, some challenging; all immensely readable. It’s tempting to quote the whole book. I’ll content myself with a few highlights.

“Seasons of the Ansarac” describes a world where the “humans” are a migratory species, travelling north every twenty-four years (in our terms) to breed; on their planet this means they breed each spring. In their terms, it takes someone one year to reach adulthood from birth, and their lifespan is about three years (72 of ours).

The story describes a typical cycle: people live in the cities during autumn and winter, getting on with their lives and feeling no sense of sexuality. Then comes the urge to migrate; everyone just feels like travelling north. There they form or renew partnerships, and have children; they then migrate back to the cities. By next spring, the children have grown up and it’s time for the new generation to migrate north and repeat the cycle… It’s hard to express the beauty and sensitivity of the way le Guin paints this unfolding picture.

The Ansarac encounter a medically advanced people, who don’t see the point of the lifestyle and want to “cure” them:

‘They said, “All that will change. You will see. You cannot reason correctly. It is merely an effect of your hormones, your genetic programming, which we will correct. Then you will be free of your irrational and useless behaviour patterns.

The reply is telling:

‘We answered, “But will we be free of your irrational and useless behaviour patterns?” ‘


The most challenging story, “The Island of the Immortals”, does not describe a place of eternal youth populated by people who live forever. The truth is far more disturbing. An extremely rare disease can be caught there, wjhich prevents the sufferer from dying, but doesn’t prevent ageing–for hundreds of years. A truly horrifying picture. Real, alarming questions in our own world inevitably come to mind: this is a world we have already glimpsed. Suppose medicine could keep someone alive indefinitely, regardless of their condition… Suppose you could be kept alive forever. Would you want to be? The story doesn’t explicitly mention these questions at all, yet we’re brought powerfully face to face with them.

In more humorous vein–but still with a serious point in the end–we hear “Woeful tales from Mahigul”, relating a variety of historical incidents. One is of a highly pointless war over a tiny piece of land. A river boundary is involved. One side discovers how to make explosives. This does not, however, lead to the result you’d expect, but to something much more creative. Why not move the river, and hence the boundary?

Given the highly infectious nature of technologies of destruction, it was inevitable that Meyun should discover explosives as powerful as those of their rival. What was perhaps unusual was that neither city chose to use them as a weapon. As soon as Meyun had the explosives, their army, led by a man in the newly created rank of Sapper General, marched out and blew up the dam across the old bed of the Alon. The river rushed into its former course, and the army marched back to Meyun.

Under their new Supreme Engineer, appointed by the disapointed and vindictive Councilwomen of Huy, the guards marched out and did some sophisticated dynamiting, which, by blocking the old course and deepening access to the new course of the river, led the Alon to flow happily back into the latter.

Henceforth the territorialism of the two city-states was expressed almost entirely in explosions…

and the story continues to its logical conclusion… which I will not describe here.

All of the stories are as inventive as these. Ursula le Guin’s skill is in painting a full and believable picture of each society, or at least as much of it as a tourist might experience. If you liked the quotes, and would like to read something entertaining and inventive, I hope you will give the whole book a try.

Science fiction is good for the brain

This post started life as a digression. I was trying to write a book review of Changing Planes by Ursula le Guin, but found myself thinking about this stuff and about a conversation I had a while ago. Hopefully the book review will follow soon, unless it spawns more digressions.

The conversation

A while ago, I was talking to an acquaintance about radio listening and about what kind of book we liked to read. She turned out to be a big fan of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, which considers the history of ideas and goes into each of its subjects in some depth. I like it too, but don’t often hear it as it clashes with rehearsals for one of my orchestras. It gets to grips properly with some very interesting subject matter. (If you want to hear for yourself, you can download the latest episode here.)

We both liked to read factual books–often science ones in my case. I said I don’t read very much fiction, and that when I do, it’s quite unusual for it to be set in the normal, everyday world. I tend to feel there’s quite enough reality happening to me already without inventing more of it. So I find myself reading books like Ella Minnow Pea (see my review), set in a world where letters of the alphabet have been banned, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where everything works (unreliably) by magic. The more inventive the better. (I generally hate crime fiction, since detective novels always seem to involve the same crime and story: murder committed, idiosyncratic detective solves puzzle, murderer caught, end of book. And there’s plenty of crime in the news already, which is quite depressing enough, thank you very much.)

Anyway my acquaintance said she couldn’t see the point of science fiction or fantasy and never read any. I think she saw it as merely escaping into a fantasy world disconnected from reality; it would be more interesting to get to grips with real issues about the real world. So she found it a bit silly, I think. Fairy tales for grown-ups, with no real content.

I was quite surprised, since that’s not how I see science fiction and fantasy at all. I pointed out that they’re all about exploring ideas, and that Terry Pratchett’s books are full of erudite references if you look for them…

What do science fiction and fantasy do?

There isn’t really a clear boundary between science fiction and fantasy. I suppose the best definition is to say that science fiction is generally set in a more technologically advanced version of this world, while fantasy lives in an entirely invented one. Or maybe, to suggest that if a science fiction book keeps annoying you because the science couldn’t work, you’d be better off thinking of it as fantasy… But the distinction doesn’t really matter here.

It seems to me that both genres use freedom of imagination to create freedom of thought. They do this by stretching or altering reality in some way. Yes, this can be done simply for purposes of entertainment and escapism, as in Doctor Who or Star Wars. But if you’re interested in ideas, creating an alternative reality can be an excellent way to explore them. This is particularly true for deeper ones about the nature of our existence, our humanity, or society and the world around us.

Albert Einstein’s thinking was a good example of this. He developed many of his ideas for the theory of relativity through what he called “thought experiments”. One of these involved imagining what it would be like to ride on a light wave. That’s impossible: nobody can ride a light ware, at the speed of light. But he explored it anyway, gaining deep insights into how the real world works. Einstein’s thought experiments were science fiction in miniature, and inventive science fiction at that.

An example in philosophy involves the use of a teleporting device. It works in the standard science fiction way: a person is disassembled into atoms at one end, and a perfect copy assembled at the other, complete with the same memories, personality etc. Is the person who comes out at the other end the one who went in? What if a copy is made but the original survives too–who is the real one? Why? We’re brought face to face with questions about consciousness and identity. What makes you you? What is a person?

Many things are so familiar to us that it’s hard to think clearly about them. We’re immersed in them. They’re the way they’ve always been. Our thoughts about them form a deeply-ingrained world-view: our society, our own nature, the world around us… It’s hard to notice the assumptions we make about these things and question them; we tend to think everything is the only way it can be.

What I think science fiction does is to create an alternative viewpoint from which we can stand back and see the world from outside in order to think about it more clearly. It does this in several ways:

  • Changing some important aspect of reality, in order to explore its nature or its significance to us.
  • Placing human beings in situations which can’t exist, to explore more deeply some aspect of human nature as they react to it.
  • Inventing a society or world-view very different from our own, in order to highlight our essential human values and why they matter to us.
  • Ditto, but in order to highlight and satirise our absurdities and stupidities and why we’d be better off without them.
  • Inventing a world in which some aspect of our behaviour or thinking is taken to the extreme, so as to explore the consequences and implications of that behaviour.

When we’ve got only our own reality, we’ve nothing to compare it with. When we’ve got an invented one too, the features of our own stand out and we can do some serious thinking about them and gain some real insights.

So good science fiction, far from being escapist, is actually a challenge: to explore freely with our minds, wherever the ideas lead, to be open to alternative ways of seeing the world, and to question and develop our own ideas about it. And that, I think, is well worthwhile.

Ella Minnow Pea

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea: A novel without letters, Methuen, 2003

This is quite an unusual novel, and one which must have been quite a challenge to write.

It is set in an independent island state called Nollop–named after Nevin Nollop, who according to the island’s religion was the originator of the sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. In the island’s culture, words and writing are very important. They believe (wrongly) that Nollop’s is the shortest possible English sentence containing all letters of the alphabet; Nevin Nollop is revered (or maybe worshipped) as its originator. There is a statue of him on the island, complete with lettered tiles bearing his famous sentence.

All is well until one day the letter Z falls from the statue. The island’s council, who turn out to have fundamentalist beliefs and totalitarian tendencies, decide that

  • the falling of the tile is a message from beyond the grave from Nollop
  • the message is that the letter Z should no longer be used
  • they should introduce harsh penalties for its use–in speech as well as in writing.

This of course has rather drastic consequences, such as the destruction of all books containing the letter Z, which is all of them. And as the novel is written entirely in the form of correspondence, the author too has to stop using the letter.

A short while later, the letter Q falls from the statue. A new decree is issued. As time goes on, more and more letters fall, and each in turn is banned. The situation on the island becomes more and more dire, the rules ever stricter, language ever more unusual and ingenious, and the story ever more engrossing.

Ella is the main character. If you read her name aloud, you will see why she’s called that: LMNOP. And the crisis does indeed reach the point where these are the only letters available for use. At which point… But if I told you that, you’d know the climax of the story. Suffice to say that sanity eventually prevails.

It might sound as though this book is nothing more than a literary trick–to write with most of the alphabet missing–but actually it’s much more than that. It’s an allegory about why irrationality, fundamentalism and totalitarianism are wrong. And I say that as someone who does have a religious faith; just not a fundamentalist one (in fact I think fundamentalism is incompatible with real religion, which should be liberating, not enslaving). Maybe it’s also about the human urge for communication: even with most of the alphabet missing, people still find ways to express themselves. And it is also very entertaining: satire at its best.

Here is the Council’s explanation of why extreme punishments are acceptable (at this point, only the letters Z and Q are forbidden):

Those of you who see undue cruelty in the punishments meted our for speaking or writing the forbidden letters should make note of the following three points:

  1. Adhering to the commandments of Nollop leaves no room for fear of punishment or forfeiture. (He who walks in the light has no reason to fear the darkness.)
  2. There is no such thing as accident or misspeak, only grossly under-applied discoursal perspicacity, with unguarded exposure to distractional digression. (A lighted path is clear. There is no reason, save mischief, to stray into the darkness.)
  3. The severity of the punishment is an irrelevant issue, given the opportunity to avoid punishment altogether. (Keep to the path to avoid what is promised to be a broken and jagged shoulder.)

A clear, but totally wrong, argument…

And here’s an example of the language later into the book, when B, C, D, F, J, K, Q, V and Z are all illegal and Ella leaves a note for one of her neighbours, who has been looking for food:

Woman in pretty orange hat:
My name is Ella. I saw you yesters, rummaging in the rear — that shut Itlian restaurant on Main. No got to rummage. There are plenty eats in Wally’s store at Eighth meets Elm. (Are you a shrimp eater?) Wally, I hear, is a humane man. He is rationing eats — they will last longer this way. No money? No got to worry. We who are still here will help one another. I want to meet you. See me tonight?
I use to possess relations — my mother, my papa, my Aunt Mittie, her she-heir Tassie. Gone now. All those near to me, gone.
I am alone. Perhaps you are alone too?
See me tonight? My home: 4 houses east. I got stew tomatoes!

As you’ll have gathered, I love language and I found this an engrossing read. I strongly recommend it to someone who wants to read something a bit different (and satirical, but also deadly serious).

Why did I choose today to write about this book? One of the keys of my phone dropped off, leaving me unable to use the letters W, X, Y and Z until I’d glued it back on…!

Update: another review

Viewing Google searches that brought people here is a very useful thing. On this occasion (Sept. 2nd) I had a look to see the other search results and I discovered another review of the book, by an equally enthusiastic reader whose blog can be found at and is well worth a look if you would like to browse lots of book reviews (mainly of fiction).