August 1st, 2006


July Books 24) Mr Belloc Objects To "The Outline Of History"

24) Mr Belloc Objects To "The Outline Of History", by H.G. Wells

Reading this is a bit like reading someone's livejournal entry when you have only one person's side of the story. H.G. Wells published his Outline of History in 1920; Hilaire Belloc published a series of articleds castigating it as anti-Christian and immoral over the next few years; and Wells published this 54-page riposte to Belloc in 1926. (Belloc followed up that same year with Mr Belloc Still Objects, but I haven't seen that.)

Wells argues his case very well, pointing out Belloc's rhetorical excesses, and giving numerous examples where Belloc has misinterpreted or twisted his words. He also, admirably (and entirely unlike the tiresome Richard Dawkins) rests his case completely on what science has to say about nature and invites the religious reader first, to accept that Wells' views on science and natural history are entirely reasonable, and secondly that Belloc's are absurd.

It wouldn't surprise me at all. I would add, however, that I suspect Belloc's views were unrepresentative of Catholic scientists of his time. My PhD was on the history of science in Ireland, and one of the hypotheses I was examining was the idea (proposed in particular by Gordon Herries Davies and Roy Johnston) that Irish nationalism in general and the Catholic Church in particular had had an ideologically chilling effect on scientific research in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was surprised to discover how little evidence there was for this. There was precisely one example of a Catholic scholar writing on science who was told to shut up by Church authorities: he was a theologian rather than a physicist, and his ideas were pretty absurd (and irrelevant to the contemporary scientific debate). Otherwise, there were as many Catholic scientists as one might have expected, given the general level of discrimination and gate-keeping, and some of them (like maths professor Eamon de Valera) went into Nationalist politics.

There was, of course, some controversy over evolution. I was very fortunate in that my supervisor is probably the world's leading writer on the history of Darwinism, and thanks to him I realised that the articles about Darwinism and evolution in the Irish theological journals were more reflections of the wider debate in the English-speaking world than evidence of any particular local bias. (The real Irish story here was the Ulster Protestant reaction to John Tyndall's address to the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874.)

But the evolution question, for Irish Catholics at least, had been closed a few years before the Belloc/Wells controversy, with the convincing arguments of a geological theologian from the University of Louvain (as it then was) that there was no contradiction between Darwinism and Catholic teaching. Belloc, at least judging by Wells' account, had not got the message.

August Books 1) Lost Railways of Co. Down and Co. Armagh

1) Lost Railways of Co. Down and Co. Armagh, by Stephen Johnson

In Northern Ireland there's a big market for books on local history and nostalgia, part of the dinnsenchas phenomenon I've written about before. This is just a collection of photographs of old trains and old stations, almost all gone for half a century now. While most enthusiasts are interested in the physical manifestations of old railways - the specifics of the engines, the design of the paraphernalia - what gets me is the geographical impact - the extent to which the railways opened up the countryside before roads were really good.

But in Counties Down and Armagh, it really was far past the point of saturation. From a human point of view I sympathise with the nostalgia for the old days; but really, there were far too many railway lines and stations for the level of the population even then, never mind now. This map doesn't even show most of the lines in the north and east of County Down as they were run by a different company:

(Map from here, part of an excellent site on County Down history)

To pick but one example, the stops of Ashfield and Mullaghfernaghan, between Banbridge and Dromore, serviced communities which are otherwise unknown to the map-maker, then or now. These days it takes less than ten minutes to drive from Dromore to Banbridge (and I doubt that it took a lot longer a hundred years ago).

Still, I would like some day to spend some time finding the places where some of these photographs were taken and seeing if I can reproduce the scene from fifty years later.
doctor who

Great Moments in Classic Doctor Who

The First Doctor brings a very useful tool to the planet of the Savages.

More seriously, see Fiona Moore's essay on this story, though she misses what was for me the most obvious source - the future society of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. I rather enjoyed reading it, I think the first story I read/heard/watched with Dodo, and also the departure of Steven. Will look out for the soundtrack.

MeCon 9

This weekend. Will be there. Am looking forward to it.

In fact, it's an occasion of double nostalgia. MeCon V, in 2002, was the first sf con I had ever paid membership for (not quite the first I had ever attended - I was invited by nickbarnes to participate in a panel about politics at Uniconze in 1990, with Ian Watson and someone else who I've forgotten). It was a great weekend, at which I met many people who I now know via LJ for the first time; and I see both Ken MacLeod and Ian McDonald will be there again this year. I particularly remember early March 2002 because two days after I got back to Brussels from Belfast, I was offered my current job more or less out of the blue. No connection, of course, and I am not expecting a repeat this year. I have still not attended a lot of sf cons, but my list has now expanded to include P-Con I in 2003, PicoCon and the WorldCon last year, and P-Con III earlier this year. My participation in sf fandom has been largely on-line.

But the nostalgia is doubled because I spent a year living at the top of one of the student tower-blocks on the Queen's Elms complex, where MeCon is to be held this year. Very few people have dared tell the truth about what living in this pace is like in term-time (the only on-line source I can find is in German, but they have got the idea - "es ist manchmal unerträglich, dort zu wohnen"). I had the joyful task of being the sub-warden responsible for 120 students for the academic year 1992/93.

The management sucked. That's not quite fair - the bloke who I answered to, who was warden to my sub-warden, was great, and tolerant of my occasional lapses from full enthusiasm for the job; but there was an ongoing power struggle between the university administration and the wardens of the halls, exacerbated by each side blaming the other for a tragic accident the year before I lived there, when a student had fallen down a lift shaft and died. I had to patrol the corridors twice a night, once at half past midnight and again an hour later, and in addition there was the Thursday night vigil as students staggered back from the late disco. At least the weekends were quiet because the vast majority of the residents (and almost all the noisy ones) went home to their parents, in far-flung Lisburn or Larne (or, in fairness, Enniskillen or Derry).

The culmination in a way was the Boat Club dinner, as booze-fuelled as any of its Cambridge equivalents (I was one of the 10% minority in Cambridge who never set hand to an oar the whole time I was there). The dinner itself was in the hallowed precincts of the main university building, but several of its participants ended up in my tower block and decided to have a laugh by throwing the refrigerator in the communal kitchen on my floor out the window, without opening said window first. I did mention that I lived on the top floor, didn't I? We tracked down the perpetrators pretty rapidly, but I was disgusted with the lenient treatment they then got from the university, which seemed to be a particularly stupid by-product of the general management problems. (Don't ask for details.)

That was a contributing factor to my decision not to do it for another year. More important, however, was the fact that Anne and I decided to get married. (The fact that I had a visiting girlfriend was a source of fascination for horny and frustrated male students. One snowy evening I was happily watching TV and heard a subtle knock on the door accompanied by male giggles, receding rapidly. When I opened it I found a lovely snow sculpture of a phallus and matching testicles. As I was loosely attached to the anthropology department at the time I decided I should take it as a votive offering to my virility. If you have another theory, I don't want to hear about it! The story of how I got the nickname "Big Snaker" will have to wait for another time.)

Anyway, it seems peculiarly appropriate that the first event of MeCon will be a quiz; I organised one for the weekend students (mainly overseas) as my main contribution to communal life in the halls. I suspect I'll enjoy the one on Friday more...

More Hugo reviews, including Celebrity Deathmatch in French

Just for completeness - as I guess the voting deadline has now passed - but Aaron Hughes has notified me of his reviews of the novella, novelette and short story categories. See also Tim Walters on all the fiction categories.

Christian Sauvé has done much the same, with one post calmly and soberly discussing the merits or otherwise of the short fiction nominees, and a second the recasting this year's contest for Best Novel as if it were an episode of Celebrity Deathmatch whose climax may not satisfy everyone but would certainly be most gratifying to fluffcthulhu. Both of these are in French, but I particularly recommend working through the latter, certainly the most entertaining commentary I've seen on the Hugo novel nominees this year, or any year come to that.

Will add both of these to my master list but probably not until much later in the month.