What do you say, when liberalism fails?

I have just attended my first University of Cape Town Convocation Annual General Meeting: the first, I will point out, since I was eligible to attend from during my first degree from here, in 1976.

It should have been exciting and joyous: instead, it was depressing, anxiety-inducing, infuriating – and an education in what happens when you let vicious, ignorant people loose to do what they want to, in an academic setting.

To set some background, Convocation meetings are usually (apparently) a fairly boring affair, attended by elderly folk who want to stay in touch with their alma mater.  There are also some 100 000 members of Convocation, given that ALL graduates and all staff are members – so you can see that any meeting would have only a very small fraction of members present.

However, on this specific occasion, attendance of the meeting was WAAAAAY up on the normal, and – according to one participant, who was moved to comment – was probably larger, and more diverse, than probably ever in its history.

This was possibly largely because my former long-time academic colleague, and now recently-retired alumnus Professor Tim Crowe, had taken it upon himself to propose a vote of no confidence in our Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price.

Knowing Tim – and I do, over more than 30 years – I know this was done on purely academic and principled grounds, because he was so anguished over the aparent failure of the UCT Executive to respond effectively to the provocations of the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and Shackville TRC and other protests at UCT from 2015 to 2016.

I did not support him in this, and told him and others so publicly of Anna-Lise’s and my opinions, via this blog – despite my not supporting Max Price and the Executive in some of their actions. This may appear somewhat contradictory, for I am sufficiently dismayed at what has been happening at my four-times alma mater (BSc, Hons, MSc and PhD) to express my anguish and possible desire to leave – but not supporting all of someone’s actions, and signing on to a motion of no confidence, are two different things.

So I went along to the Convocation AGM, and had my orange juice and snacks before the event – and met a considerable number of old friends and current colleagues – and went in a little early and secured my seat, for what I was sure was going to be an interesting, but possibly pretty turgid academic affair.

Oh, how wrong can you be? How very, very wrong.

Because it turned out that the student activists and their academic sympathisers had interpreted the  motion of no confidence in Max Price, as evidence of an elderly white right-wing attempt to torpedo what they saw as their hard-won agreement with the UCT Executive – which they were determined to defend at all costs.

So it was, with the President of Convocation giving his report back, that the hitherto fairly invisible silent protesters – I am told they were there, but unobtrusive – decided to storm to the front of the LT1 in the Kramer Building, and unfurl their placards, and demand to address Convocation.  Stentorian calls of “Cadres, come down cadres, come down!” were heard from one young activist, as the Chairperson, poor Professor Barney Pityana, wondered what to do. Said cadre also took a microphone, and demanded the right to address Convocation – and to his dismay, was shouted down by those present. Again, and again, and again. This HAS to to be be the first time this has happened in such a disruption, because he was quite disconcerted.

Not so disconcerted was the young cadre without her shirt on, who seemed to be revelling in her overexposure – prompting the person next to me to say “#BrasMustFall! –  but more of her later.

Now it turns out that most of what they were protesting on their placards was either way out of date – as in, outsourcing (solved) – or weirdly irrelevant (the sign being held up by topless person), or both out of date AND simply illiterate (“No student should be exculded as a result of historical debt”). However, they protested their chosen signs vigorously and vociferously, despite their apparently wanting the right to protest silently.

Seriously: the irony inherent in protesting loudly and vociferously in support of their rights to protest silently seems to have escaped them – but this was not the only irony.

Oh, we persisted with the meeting, once the cadres had finally agreed to be silent, with The Topless One taking delight in sitting on the desk in the front using her cell phone, while her fellow cadres loyally held their signs.  Professor Pityana managed to get through his report as Presdent of Convocation with only a few jeers from protesters – who, it turned out, had allies in the audience, including among staff – and then it was Max Price’s turn, as Vice-Chancellor, to report.

I think Max won some allies when he came up, because he firmly but respectfully asked to not be masked by the protesters, but to be visible to the audience. The Topless One decided this was impertinent, so she stood close beside him while he gave his report – which was mostly a paean to UCT’s excellence, research and otherwise. We really are an excellent University, if I say it myself as one involved in its research and teaching: best in Africa by a long way, highest number of rated researchers of any University in South Africa…but it did not matter to the young people.

Nothing, it seemed, mattered to the young people – except the disruption by any means of what they saw as the derailment of their agreement with the UCT Executive.

This became obvious when any discussion of the substantive first motion (of 3) in front of Convocation was disrupted by all means possible, right from when it was proposed.

Now I do not agree with Tim and Anna Crowe’s motion, and I made it clear to them and others both directly, and via this blog site: I think it was unnecessarily confrontational, and could have led to our University being unhelmed at a time when the ONLY member of the full-time Executive was Max Price. For the record: Acting DVC Anwar Mall just retired; DVC Research Danie Visser just retired; DVC Sandra Klopper’s contract was not renewed; DVC Francis Petersen will leave to be VC of University of the Free State. That leaves Kgethi Phakeng as brand-new DVC Research, and another brand-new DVC Transformation in Loretta Feris, who – with all due respect – have between them them less service at UCT than most junior people I know.

This does NOT mean I agreed with the policies our Executive followed from 2015 through 2016: I think they were far too lenient, and far too conciliatory, in dealing with amorphous fringe tendencies who took full advantage of their perceived immunity to sanction to become what we saw today.  It also means I condemn in the strongest terms the racist insults thrown the way of Tim and Anna Crowe  – including “Jim Crow!”, and “He’s a racist!” and “Someone who looks like they participated in apartheid” – by protesters and their supporters.

Who were a group of undisciplined, rude, confrontational and radicalised students and even staff, invading a hitherto august academic space, to dominate, marginalise and insult a community that they perceived as elderly, white, right wing and racist.

Truly: I was horrified at the overt, uncensored and gleeful way that these young people saw fit to use racist epithets, without any awareness of the irony or even oxymoronic way that they did so.

Consider: they were flinging racist insults at possibly the second most liberal assembly at UCT (after Senate), who were almost certainly not going to do what they thought we were going to, which was to censure Max Price.

I truly do not think this was going to happen, even after Tim and Anna Crowe managed – with considerable heckling – to propose their motion, and their single proper supporter and former SRC Chair Gwen Ngwenya supported them, despite VERY considerable interruptions from someone at the back who may or may not have been Chumani Maxwele of poo-flinging fame, as well as accusations of “not being black”, and “being a voice for white people”. Even Geoff Budlender, an old-time radical of note who opposed the motion, was heckled, by those too ignorant of history to know who might be on their side.

The fact is, we were not really given the chance to have either a proper debate, or even a vote on the issue. I think the following set of tweets I made capture succinctly what was happening at the time:

I note GroundUp has a very fair report on the meeting; this appears here, and Tim Crowe’s response to the whole affair here.

The protesters were almost unbelievably confrontational, even when faced with one poor person trying to tell her story of the earlier protests as part of the debate: mocking her openly, miming clown tears, cat-calling.  As it is, the whole thing was brought to an untidy end by a motion of closure proposed from the floor, to close the debate on a very clumsily-worded amendment to the motion, that appeared to be more of a personal attack on Max Price and Anwar Mall, and vote on the original motion. This was misunderstood by some VERY vociferous and highly disruptive folk – staff members as well as protesters – who seem not to have any idea of the rules of formal meetings, and attempted yet again to hijack proceedings to push their agenda. It succeeded nonetheless, by a margin of 100+ to 15 – and THEN the meeting dissolved into chaos. Shouting and pushing at the front, endless shouting from the aggrieved amender, students and supporters shouting objections to process – and brought to an end by Barney Pityana’s response of closing the meeting, to a student running down the desks in the theatre from far up behind who confronted him physically.

Altogether, it was a very sad and very unsatisfactory experience. The protesting students did not appear to perceive the contradiction inherent in their insisting on their right to silent protest, and then trying to force their interpretation of protocol on the meeting and its Chair; their apparent assumption that the Convocation was inherently racist and would torpedo their agreement with Max and the Executive was never allowed to be tested, despite the fact it would very probably have been proved wrong – because they disrupted the proceedings.

I have to say that Max impressed me deeply: he was calm, reasonable, conciliatory and facilitative – and firm with people who seemed bent on treating him with disrespect, to the point of insisting that they call him DOCTOR Price. The same cannot be said for Barney Pityana, who totally lost control of proceedings several times, and for the various other UCT functionaries present, who were just hapless.

The whole proceedings just affirmed for me the need to have decent security at such occasions – because I, and many others, sincerely do NOT want to feel threatened and intimidated at an occasion where we wanted to have a serious debate on the state of our University, and the conduct of its Executive. As it was, a considerable number of  people were vilified and insulted freely by racist youngsters, and I am sure left the meeting feeling as deeply disillusioned as I did.

I heard one youngster say, as I left, “There will be no UCT in 2017!”, to the great glee of her fellow cadres. I do hope that is not true – because it will affect her far worse than it will me.

And I leave you with this – because it sums up the evening for me:

Posted in Personal stories | 6 Comments

Why we should not vote against Max Price at Convocation

Next week (15th December 2016), UCT convocation will vote on a motion of no confidence in their Vice Chancellor (VC), Dr Max Price.  At UCT we have had a busy year of debate and student protests, with considerable disruption of academic life.  The situation that UCT found itself in was not in the control of UCT senior management, or even of any of the student groups. Many incidents of disruption and intimidation occurred that were unacceptable on many levels, and everyone became an armchair VC, all knowing what should have been done to change the university and to stop the protests.

However, the reality of the situation was that none of us knew which strategy would work, as we did not have a crystal ball to look into the future.  So the VC and his team negotiated with student groupings, signed a peace treaty, and got a court interdict to enable the exams to continue.  We can endlessly debate the merits of this strategy, but exams were written and the protests and disruptions largely stopped.  The negotiations worked – so to now have a vote of no confidence in Max Price serves no purpose, other than to second-guess him after the fact. The people proposing the vote in the Convocation should be careful what they wish for, and should be aware of what would happen if there is a vote of no confidence: Max Price is the only member of the present senior management team who will remain at UCT, next year.   In the year of Trump and Brexit, be aware that once this train is rolling there may be no stopping it, and UCT may well suffer.  We appeal to members of UCT convocation to give careful thought to their potential vote, and for members to participate in this process – and not censure Dr Max Price.

Professor Anna-Lise Williamson and Professor Ed Rybicki
University of Cape Town

Posted in Personal stories | 1 Comment

So how DO you decolonise science?

I have been involved in a number of discussions around this topic recently, since publicly expressing my dismay at the appalling naivety of the poor #sciencemustfall proponent who dislikes gravity in particular, and all western science in general.

I say appalling naivety deliberately, because what she said is more evidence of a lack of decent education in science, than of any personal deficiencies. Simply put, MOST children in South African schools – and I do NOT mean exclusively schools catering for lower-income groups – are not exposed to science education of a standard that remotely approaches what I and others were exposed to outside this country.

Seriously: as an educator of some 35 years standing at UCT, I can tell you that it’s easy to see the products of the top-end South African schools, and from the Zimbabwean and other African education systems, because THEY COME IN BETTER PREPARED. Their maths is better; they know more physics and understand it better; they have actually been educated, as opposed to having been schooled in how to answer exam questions.  Additionally, they know it’s not a sin to ask questions, or even to express a contrarian view.

Any effort to decolonise science education MUST start lower down than the Universities, therefore, if we are to seriously address the low quality of the offerings at most schools in SA.

And once the students have got to the universities, what then?

One of the first things that should happen is some penetration of basic science into the Humanities: we often hear about how science and engineering students need a dose of philosophy; however, the naivety I referred to above comes from a University student who has evidently not been exposed to the concepts of science as it is practiced worldwide.

Others have pointed out recently that science isn’t “Western” or “Eastern” or “African” – rather, it is is a system of investigation that is universal, built on facts obtained via discovery, and using theories arrived at by careful investigation of hypotheses, that is not Euro- or Amero- or Afrocentric.

Oh, but the history of science could be all those things – and possibly the ways in which history is used in the teaching of scientific subjects and disciplines could be changed – including my own history of virology, that I spent so much time getting together recently.  Yes, the History of Science as we know it is preponderantly about what Old White Men (and some women) did in Europe and later in the US; we need to work on expanding that world view.

However, the teaching of skills, and of the disciplines necessary to practice science, are universal, and must be appreciated as being absolutely required for our students to be taken seriously out in the world.  As a crass example, while it may be acceptable for a scientist anywhere to be devoutly religious (and many are), a belief that witches are real and that they can call down lightning, is almost certainly not – and African should not be a special case for this.

My spouse and partner in science said recently that all we should have to say in defence of what we do in science in this country, is “We use world-class science in Africa to solve African problems”. And we teach other Africans how to do it too.

So, what to do for teaching science in our decolonised universities? Here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head list:

  • De-emphasise some of the history, where it is not needed as object lessons in the methods of discovery
  • Use appropriate examples from Africa and some of the rest of the developing world to illustrate applications
  • Change the way we teach, from one-to-many to many-to-many: have more discussions based on set readings, rather than formally lecturing
  • Engage more enthusiastically with problem-based learning, with the problems derived from local publications or publications based on local research
  • Establish study groups with a balanced mix of people from all backgrounds, so stronger students develop an appreciation of the lack of exposure to the concepts necessary for understanding a discipline, of weaker students – and the latter get pulled along

But above all, try to inspire: let your enthusiasm for science and for your own work shine through, and try to bring people with you. That’s how I got to where I am, as did so many of my colleagues – good mentors, and a thorough exposure to the magic inherent in what we do.

Posted in Books, Personal stories, science controversy | 1 Comment

The SA University Blues

I often alter other people’s songs, seeing as I have no talent to write my own, generally for the purpose of some light-hearted parody.

This is less light-hearted. Piet Swart, you gave me the idea – so it’s your fault. Apologies to Don McLean.

The SA University Blues

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
That academia used to make me smile
And I knew my salary I’d earn
If I could make those students learn
And maybe they’d be educated in a while

But 2015 made me shiver
With every paper they’d deliver
Fallist news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

And while Fallists read a book on Marx
The toyi-toyiers practiced in the park
With student cars burning in the dark
The year the varsities died

We were singing,

Bye, bye, colonial varsities must die
Marched to parly for a party but the Treasury was dry
And sad old guys drank the wine farms dry
Singing, this’ll be the day that they die
This’ll be the day that they die

And as the flames climbed high into the night
As paintings burned, an awful sight
I saw Fallists laughing with delight
The day the varsities died
They were singin’,

Bye, bye colonial varsities…

I went down to the sacred space
Where I’d heard that gravity had no place
And the Fallists said that science held no sway

And all the academics screamed
Professors cried, and Fallists schemed
But not a word was spoken
The Executive was all broken

And all the folk I admire best
VC, Deans and all the rest
They caught the last plane for the west
The day the varsities died
And they were singing…

Bye, bye, colonial varsities must die
Marched to parly for a party but the Treasury was dry
And sad old guys drank the wine farms dry
Singing, this’ll be the day that they die
This’ll be the day that they die…

Posted in Books, Music, Personal stories, science controversy | Leave a comment

Agonising over the loss of liberal ideals 

I am conflicted. Seriously conflicted. I have been at the University of Cape Town since 1974, as a student, postgraduate and academic; I have been here through the unrest periods of 1976, the 1980s, the 1990s, and now the 20teens.

And never before have I felt as alienated or depressed about being here as I do now.

Seriously: even though I demonstrated in 1976, 1985 and in the 1990s, and agonised about leaving in 1990 (saved by Mandela being released), it was not my institution that was the target of protest – and now it is.

To describe why, I must describe the context: this is of an institution that is the oldest western-style university in Africa, one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere, and which leads Africa as a teaching and research facility. It is also run by well-meaning liberals, albeit largely white, and male, some of whom were revolutionaries in their time, and who remain committed to a non-racial, egalitarian University.

So what could go wrong? Well, factor in a disaffected student movement that doesn’t quite know what it wants, but wants it NOW, however unrealistic it is, and a liberal administration that would like to be protesting with them but isn’t allowed to – and you may begin to see the problem.

Back in the middle of 2015 a movement started seemingly out of nowhere, dedicated to getting rid of the seated statue of Cecil John Rhodes below Residence Road, between Smuts and Fuller Halls of residence. Now let it be said that very few actually opposed this: while Cecil had been central to Upper Campus since the 1930s, he was a gift of an eponymous Trust, and was rather wished on the University. His awkward sitting position also gave rise to the legends that either he was suffering from severe piles, or that he was obliged to rise when he saw a virgin – but that he was never quite sure if one had ever passed him by, so never quite stood up.

Be this as it may, the #RhodesMustFall movement gathered momentum very quickly, sparked by a very strange protest involving a half-naked longtime undergrad student, a drum, a protective helmet, and a container of human waste from a portable toilet. His protestations of pain and alienation – very conveniently covered by film and media crews – sparked a movement that spread across the country and even to Oxford, where a Rhodes scholar was moved to demand the removal of a bust of Rhodes at Oriel College, and to justify his having the scholarship as a defiant act involving taking back the money stolen from his ancestors. He subsequently thought it amusing to participate in the abuse of a poor waitron at a Cape Town restaurant, and is now apparently a junior UCT academic, but this is incidental.

So Rhodes fell – due to a decision by UCT Senate ratified by Council, that was remarkable for the fact that so few people opposed the motion. And which rather bemused the #RMF protesters, who had immediately assumed that we needed to be forced into doing it, and had in fact been involved in some very intimidatory demonstrations in support of their cause.

And there’s where we should have been warned. The children of Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, the “born free” generation of post-1994 South Africa, were increasingly becoming stridently confrontational and even racist in their dealings with what was in fact a fuzzy-mindedly liberal administration, sympathetic to their cause – and which seemed to have no idea what to do about them.

So things bumbled on until late 2015, when University of the Witwatersrand students – Wits to those of us too lazy to do the whole thing – started the #FeesMustFall movement, which was aimed at stopping any fee increases for the following year. One by one student groupings at the other major academic institutions jumped on the bandwagon, and this time managed to force most of these to close, for a month or more. Given that we in the south write exams at the end of calendar years, this was extremely disruptive to the academic process, and in addition, huge damage was done by rampaging mobs of “students” at a number of institutions.  UCT seemed to have adopted a policy of negotiating with anyone who stepped up with demands, and to go to endless lengths to appease a constantly changing spectrum of radicals with often ill-formed and intemperate opinions.

I asked our Senate at the end of 2015 why we did not simply gauge support of the amorphous groupings – who were determinedly anarchistic in having no discernible hierarchies – by means of our sophisticated online polling system, which has the capability of both requiring a validated institutional login, and then delivering an anonymised response. I got no decent response then, or early in 2016 when I asked again.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, when it started all over again – with a twist. This time, emboldened by the fact that they had apparently cowed the State President into announcing there would be no fee increases at universities in 2016, they had a new demand: no fees at all.

Inevitably, this again sparked demonstrations and intimidation of students who did not join the protests; again, it descended into racial abuse and profiling of white academics as automatically being reactionary and racist; then it spun into a movement to “decolonise” the universities and their teaching curricula. While this seemed a valid idea on the surface, the fuzziness of the concept of decolonisation especially as it pertained to the teaching of science, made it difficult to engage with – and the racism inherent in the concept that white people were responsible for the phenomenon made it even more so.

With the downward spiral of demonstration-reaction-counter-reaction has come universities that are either formally closed or effectively closed, where gangs of students roam seemingly unfettered, intimidating their colleagues and those staff still trying to teach. At UCT this has been less violent and less destructive than some other campuses; however, so too have our administration seemingly been more lenient and more accommodating of the endless transgressions and endless lists of constantly changing demands. I have asked since, by email, why we do not formally poll our students and staff, when the institution has been deluged with individual polls and Faculty surveys which have shown overwhelming support for an end to disruptions and a return to normality – with no reply. We still have had no formal institution-run survey of staff and student opinions on the matter.

We have been away, my academic and personal partner Anna-Lise and I, for much of the recent shenanigans, which has been good both for my blood pressure and levels of anguish. However, today I undid all this good work by going to an extraordinary UCT Senate meeting, called for the purpose of getting the UCT Senior Leadership Group to take control of our campuses, and end the violence and intimidation.

To attend was to immediately get sucked into a vortex of well-meaning but fuzzy ultraliberalism and in some cases semi-incomprehensible ultraleftism, which decried “militarisation” of our campus, while simultaneously crying out against the abuse of non-participating students and of academic and non-academic staff. We had staff who identified so closely with students that they tried to bring the demands of the nebulous grouping calling themselves the “Shackville TRC/SRC Candidates” or somesuch, to Senate – even to the point of relaying an implicit threat of disruption if Senate refused to hear them. We had impassioned flights of rhetoric decrying the brute intimidation by the protesters; we had endless comments that the proposed motion was unworkable / could never work – against a background of a motion solidly rooted in respect for the Rule of Law, which all of the apologists seemed to regard as being invalid.

I wanted to contribute, but didn’t trust myself to remain coherent while my heart was fluttering and my hands were shaking. In any case, my points were well made by other people – including that protesters should REALLY be kept out of certain buildings, because they were very well stocked with dangerous chemicals and machinery, and that the research enterprise at the University was at serious risk.

In the end, and despite much hand-wringing and apparent attempts to derail the vote, an abbreviated version of the motion was passed, asking the VC and team to attempt to regulate protest activity so that life could go on.  This, against a background of chanting and singing outside the venue, apparently by “Fallist” demonstrators who had demanded – and been refused – entry by the same security personnel that many of my colleagues saw as being unnecessary.

We exited the Senate meeting through a gauntlet of uniformed security, keeping us separated from a small band of dancing and chanting protesters. I thanked the security guard at the door, and was immediately abused by a man outside the door as “a white male professor who speaks to security like they are friends”. I went nose to nose with him, but he restrained himself to gesturing in my face, so I forced a laugh, and went on. He went on to abuse the Dean of the Health Sciences Faculty, who seemed to be used to  it, as a traitor and a white puppet as we all walked away.

That is the first time in all my years at UCT that I have ever suffered any racial abuse. It is also the first time that I have seriously questioned the wisdom of staying here, when I have had several opportunities to leave and have not. We stayed, Anna-Lise and I, because we thought things had changed so much for the better in 1990 with the release of Mandela, and that after 1994 that we could make a difference in the new nation. We thought we had done so, too – until the new ultraleft youth dismissed us contemptuously as “white privilege”, and in need of decolonisation.

It’s probably too late to leave now. But for the first time since 1990, I want to. And that makes me very depressed.

Posted in Personal stories, science controversy, Uncategorized | 58 Comments

“Handgate” fever grips the scientific community. Sigh…

I am rather amused by the Twitter storm that has erupted around the mention, in an otherwise inoffensive paper out of China in PLoS One on the function of the human hand, of the influence of a “Creator” in the design of said  body part.  This has lead to threats by PLoS editors to resign, of threats of boycotts extending even to citing papers in PLoS One – and eventually to the paper being withdrawn by the journal.

As a committed atheist myself, I find such comments as “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention” to be naive rather than horrifying, or a reason to withdraw the paper.

Seriously: was the data OK?  If it was – no problem; ask them to consider removing mention of a “Creator”.

Were the conclusions warped to include influence of a deity? If so – ask them to reword / rethink.

But to pull the paper?? That smacks of post hoc closing of stable doors, that should not have been open in the first place if a decent refereeing / editing job was done. And if THAT didn’t happen, then all the ordure belongs firmly within the vast and cavernous stable that PLoS One has become.

As an aside, my grandmother used to translate scientific papers from Russian and German for the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in what was then Northern Rhodesia, in the 1950s.  She had to patiently explain to irate scientists who accused her of being anti- Soviet, that it really did say “We acknowledge the contribution of Comrade Stalin” on every paper. I’ll bet you papers out of the PPRK still thank Kim Jong-Un, too – and that does not detract from the science.

A little more tolerance, people: I have seen Indian scientists in the ICGEB in Delhi make offerings to the highly impressive statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, in the Institute courtyard – and no-one thinks their science is shoddy.

Posted in Personal stories, science controversy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Baby Steps In a Spacesuit: The Long Earth Series

I was really rather excited to discover a couple of years ago, in my local Exclusive Books in Cape Town and just in time for my Xmas present to me, a new novel called “The Long Earth” – by one of my favourite SF authors Stephen Baxter, and possibly my all-time favourite all-genre author, Terry Pratchett (see here for my in memoriam).  I read and enjoyed it, and was subsequently delighted to see that the series had gone on – and on – and on.  I reviewed these first at the Worlds Without End site; I am repeating them here as a unit in case anyone is interested.

Because if you aren’t, I still am!

The Long Earth

As an experienced Pratchett reader (I have ALL of his books), I am used to surrendering all idea of science-based interpretation of the universe, for a joyous confusion of mythology, magic and outrageous invention.

With Stephen Baxter, however, one is generally given a hard, logical, physics-based universe, even if sometimes the way in which things work is incomprehensibly vague (think: the Manifold series, where very mysterious things happen, but then play out in a hard physics universe).

It was a little strange, therefore, that these two worlds should marry – and that the central premise of the story, the device that allows people to Step sideways across the infinite series of parallel Earths, should involve some electronics, and…a potato?  Really?

OK, once you get past that Pratchettism – and it is never explained properly – everything develops as it should in a Baxter universe, and a logical progression of events follows the inevitable sideways diffusion of humanity, along the line of Earths.

Assuming, of course, that you buy into an independent AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic, and that mysteriously, iron doesn’t seem to be able to travel sideways – which would seem to be paying homage to faery myths, in an otherwise very uncompromising physics-based universe.

But that’s part of the charm of this strange and wonderful juxtaposition of talents B-)

The Long War

The Long War was an interesting addition to the Long Earth series – because it made it into a series, given there had only been one – and it advanced the story in interesting ways.  The logical progression of events in a world that is infinitely long sideways, and in which the authority of The Centre is very far away, are explicated pretty well – unfortunately, some of the political developments and the characters responsible for them seem to be caricatures, and not as well thought as they could be. Mind you, if you consider that in early 2016 an extremist real estate developer with a comb-over seems to be leading one arm of the US presidential race, maybe it’s not as much of a caricature as it seems!

In any case, using a US Navy revamped with steampunky airships for the task of patrolling the Long Earth (though how their electronics keep working is a little mysterious) was a good touch; so too was more detail on trolls and other Long Earth hominids, although some potential plot developments seem to have been lost, like the exploration of parallel Australia, for example.

While I class this as a great book – and a pretty good sequel to The Long Earth as it develops the storyline of an infinite series of parallel Earths  – sadly, the ongoing deterioration of Terry Pratchett was constantly in my mind as I read it.

Because it’s not as good as the first one.

Because some of the writing is sketchy; some of the story development seems arbitrary, a bit deus-ex-machina type of thing.

But it still grips you, and leaves you wanting…more.  And fortunately, there IS more.  The Long Mars awaits!

The Long Mars

I got this book with some misgivings – but it was like the Dune series; you KNOW they’re going downhill, but you have this fatal fascination with the characters and the universe, and surely things can’t get too bad??

The good news is they didn’t: this breathed new life into the Long Earth series for me, as it explored the Long Mars.  Baxter and Pratchett managed to recapture my enthusiasm, and interesting new things happened, and other characters were explored – even though the deus ex machina gambit was pulled again, as the original Stepper inventor was pulled out of hiding to do his inscrutable thing.  However, it doesn’t detract (too much) from the storyline.

What does jar a bit is how they dealt with The Next – the smart kids who look on us as children.  They REALLY got to rescue them as easily as they did?  Really??  The episode where it happens looks a little too much like something that got rescued as the book needed to go to print, from an unresolved plot development.

You know, I though this had to be the last one: Terry Pratchett had died, there was evidence from the last book that things were possibly not as tight as one would have wanted from a writing team – and some of that showed through here.  THEN I found there was ANOTHER one…!

The Long Utopia

And there I did what I had done with the seemingly everlasting, deteriorating and increasingly implausible Dune series – to say nothing of the apallingly bad Thomas Covenant series – and bought the last one, once I had chanced upon it unexpectedly in my local high-end bookstore.

That is to say, I bought something while thinking that I shouldn’t; that I was setting myself up for disappointment, and that I should have let my memory of Terry Pratchett fondly remain stuck with the previous book, and with his last Diskworld novel.

But I didn’t. And I’m quite glad I didn’t, in fact, because this one too took me up in its grasp, and galloped off across worlds with now-familiar characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I also enjoyed the back story, wherein the origin of The Next and free-steppers is pretty thoroughly explored, as this was both a novel departure for the series, and useful background.

OK, there were some niggling bits, like “So if people could shift between planets, why wasn’t that explored better??”, and HOW exactly the powers-that-be determined that – suddenly, and out of nowhere – one person could shut off access to a whole universe?

But given that enjoyment of SF is hugely aided by the willing suspension of disbelief, I suspended some of mine, and let it take me where it went.

And I’m sorry it’s over.  At least, I THINK it’s over…?

Posted in Books | Leave a comment