The puzzle that is me

When I was about thirteen years old, I read a novel which changed me fundamentally and shaped my whole subsequent life.

Given a dramatically hyperbolic statement like that, you’d expect me to have strong and detailed memories of it, wouldn’t you? Yet until quite recently I remembered only four partial sentences (not even verbatim, at that; just as paraphrase) which accounted for its influence on me, and one visual image constructed from text of which not one word remained. Title and author lost without trace. There were insufficient details in accessible memory even to attempt a Google search. I mentioned all of this to Ray Girvan (last week’s Vie hebdomadaires incumbent), in passing, during a walk and talk. The conversation pulled out of my memory a few details which I hadn’t previously known were there, and a few days later Ray sent me not only title and author but the link to an online copy of the text so that I could reread it.

Bear with me; the link to this week, this day, will (I hope) emerge.

The book in question was Eight keys to Eden. It’s what is usually labelled “SF” … I really don’t much like such labels, but they do simplify discussion so I’ll grudgingly let this one in for now. And the reason it affected me so? It presented me, in a way which made sudden epiphanic sense to my thirteen year old mind, with the idea of critical thinking. The eight keys of the title refer to eight progressive steps in the development of thinking, of which only seven are given in the book – discovery of the eighth being, in a sense, the “next level” discovery of which the book is about. I won’t bore you with the full list (some of which are a bit dodgy anyway, I now see with adult eyes) but here are the first three which, in retrospect, were my launchpad:

1. Accept the statement of Eminent Authority without basis, without question.

2. Disagree with the statement without basis, out of general contrariness.

3. Perhaps the statement is true, but what if it isn’t? How then to account for the phenomenon?

It’s clear enough to see how this fits with the development of the early teen years.

I was emerging from my childhood, in which I automatically accepted what I was told by adults (the Eminent Authorities of my world at the time): Key 1. I was entering that phase where rebelliousness made me automatically reject anything an adult said, on general bolshie principle: Key 2. What the third stage, Key 3, offered me was a way to dignify my rejection (and also the all too frequent experience of discovering that I was wrong) with something more defensible, more philosophically grounded. I have no doubt that my parents and teachers found it even more exasperating to have me stroke my chin and say “hmmm … let’s examine that statement, shall we?” than the “who says?” which had gone before … and it was, to be honest, an egotistical act: but it also, nevertheless, triggered a real step forward in my development.

I’ll skip the others apart from this one, Key 6, which would sink down to sit as a slow burner in my subconscious and later emerge with particular relevance to my drift into statistics and, later still, research:

6. What if the statement were reversible, that which is considered effect is really cause?

So far, so good … but that conversation with Ray, and my rediscovery of Eight keys to Eden, was some time ago, now. I wouldn’t call on it as part of this, a “weekly life” series of posts, if it hadn’t a current relevance.

Though I’ve always been aware that I was a science fiction junkie in my teens, I’d not until recently connected that fact with either my own present state or my “laissez faire, laissez aller” belief, as an educator, in encouraging every student to embrace even the mistaken as part of a route to critical evaluation. Today, as it happens, has seen a stage completion in both processes (which turn out to have been the same process) in two parts.

The first part involved interweaving conversations with several people, including Ray again. Ray and I agree over much, but our occasional disagreements are what spur me to think. The second part was a serendipitous result of having been frenetically busy over the past month: my reading of fiction (vital to me as a way to unwind and maintain my balance) was mainly in very short fragments (sometimes as short as thirty seconds at a time) using an iPod hosted eReader app, supplemented (when at home) by parallel reading on paper of M K Joseph‘s  The time of Achamoth (lent to me by Ray; see his post on it) and China Miéville‘s eight hundred and something page tome Perdido Street Station.

Of the conversations, I’ll mention only two strands as examples. With Ray, I discussed our shared tendency at a point in our development to wallow in (using Ray’s words) “ Von Däniken style mysteries, ley lines, Lethbridge pendulums, dubious ‘unlocking your inner powers’ books, Colin Wilson’s more flaky output, etc.” I personally feel that I came to no harm from that phase; it opened my mind to possibilities, and then provided me with plenty of opportunities to hone my critical faculties. I think the same is probably true of Ray, too, though he looks upon it with more scepticism – a good balance and mirror for my own assumptions. The second strand involves discussion of critical constructivist process with my two brothers (both of them also involved in education, though in divergent fields), kicked off by discussion of a paper in Pedagogy about close reading (or lack of it) by students.

The advent of eReaders, which make books very cheap to reissue, has had a similar effect to CDs and downloads in music: stuff which I read long ago, long out of print and unobtainable, emerges again into daylight. These digital reissues are, admittedly, of variable quality; the best are perfect, but many, like Gateway’s Kindle edition of Clifford D Simak’s Time is the simplest thing, are littered with OCR errors; they are, nevertheless, a goldmine of renewed easy access to otherwise lost material. Time is the simplest thing is also SF, as is The time of Achamoth, and the two have a common thread: travel denied to the human body (interstellar and temporal, respectively) are achieved by projection of the mind. Transfer of minds (from embodied brain to digital backing store) is also central to Iain M Banks‘ latest “Culture” novel, Surface detail. All of these have been in my fractured reading across that crowded month

Perdido Street, by chance, I started reading just as the overstuffed month began. I would normally have read it in a couple of days, but in the circumstances it took the full month and I only finished it this morning – just as I have the comparative leisure to start synthesising all of this. Perdido Street is not science fiction in the same sense as the others; its steam punk physical science is not just speculative, it is impossible in this universe … but I would classify it as SF nevertheless. It shares with Time is the simplest thing and Surface detail a common theme (amongst the many intertwined strands in each): what it means to be human.

And that, in a funny sort of way, is what has gradually trickled into my mind today: what it means to be human, and more specifically the question of what it means to be me. Because what has today suddenly become clear to me, after reading several science fictions from my early teens and several new ones as well, is that it’s not exactly  what I read that decided what I am but the fact that I read it. Mark Clifton, Clifford D Simak, John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and all the rest, rattled around in my head along with, ground and winnowed by, the heavier and more abrasive likes of Durrell’s Alexandria quartet and C P Snow’s Strangers and brothers sequence, Joyce’s Ulysses (another tome of similar size to Perdido Street Station) … and the result of the whole chance mélange, on this August day, decades down the line, is me.

With which I will end. If you’ve followed me this far through the rambling and incoherent maze (the title of this post, by the way, comes from a Simon and Garfunkel song – S&G lyrics also having been an important part of the mix), thank you. Good night.

– Felix


  • Ian M Banks, Surface detail. 2010, London: Orbit. 9781841498959 (pbk). [Amazon link] Also Kindle edition, 2010, London: Hachette [Amazon link]
  • Mark Clifton, Eight Keys to Eden. 1962, London: Victor Gollancz. (originally a book club edition 1960, Garden City NY: Doubleday. Also 1982, Norfolk VA: Donning. 0898652588. Available as electronic text from The Gutenberg Project.)
  • Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria quartet. 1968, London: Faber. [Amazon link to 2005 paperback edition]  [Amazon link to Kindle edition]
  • M K Joseph, The time of Achamoth. 1977, Auckland NZ: Collins. 0002223023 (hbk.).
  • James Joyce, Ulysses. 1922,London: Egoist Press. [Amazon link to 2010 paperback edition]
  • Karen Manarin, Reading Value: Student Choice in Reading Strategies. Pedagogy, 2012. 12(2): p. 281-297. (Abstract available here.)
  • China Miéville Perdido Street Station. 2011, London: Pan. 9780330534239 (pbk.) [Amazon link] (original publication 2001, London: Macmillan). Kindle edition [Amazon link]
  • Clifford D Simak, Time is the simplest thing. 2011London : Gateway [Amazon link].  (Original publication 1961, Garden City NY: Doubleday)
  • C P Snow. I’ll not take up the space necessary to list the whole Strangers and brothers sequence of eleven novels, but here is an Amazon search link.
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