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Sunday, 19 February 2017

Homo Conscius

The potential to make yourself a better man... that is what it is to be Human... to make yourself more than you are. – Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek Nemesis)

As I was falling asleep last night I found myself thinking about Timothy Balding’s novel, specifically what I was going to say when I began writing this review. Typically for me I woke up after an hour and a half—one sleep cycle—and found myself still thinking about his book. Atypically for me I got up, made myself a coffee and then went back to bed where I lay working through my opening paragraph until I dozed off. An hour and a half later like clockwork I awoke still thinking about Homo Conscius. It’s not unreasonable to assume that while I was asleep—while I was unconscius (forgive me for being pedantic)—I was also thinking about the book, perhaps even dreaming about it. Hold that thought because I’ll come back to it. This is the opening paragraph that forced me to get out of bed at 3:30 in the morning:
A common trope in science fiction is wondering what the next stage of human evolution might look like. The obvious example that jumps to my mind is The Tomorrow People (I’m thinking of the original British TV series from the 1970s) where we watch the adventures of a group of Homo superiors. (In early episodes they used the term Homo novis.) Then my mind drifted back to 1963 when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a comic called Uncanny X-Men in which the five heroes (Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, and Marvel Girl) are mutants, “metahumans” being the preferred term these days. As Professor Xavier, the founder and leader of the X-Men, explains in the voiceover at the start of the 2000 film adaptation:
Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow and normally taking thousands and thousands of years, but every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.
And then going back even further there’s Theodore Sturgeon’s 1954 novel More Than Human which describes the birth of Homo gestalt, a hive mind; a similar scenario is also presented in the recent TV series Sense8.
Glad to get that all down on paper.

New evidence suggests that both Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans coexisted in Europe for thousands of years. So why did the Neanderthals die out? The most popular theory is that Homo sapiens played a critical role in their demise; we can only guess at the specifics. This, however, reminded me of the TV series Prey from 1998 which revolved around the rise of Homo dominant, a new species of aggressive humans who look set to wipe out Homo sapiens.

Timothy Balding’s novel is not science fiction, not in the same way as all of the above, but it is speculative fiction:
Victor had met so many happy and accomplished people who were bereft of any insight into themselves or others that he had often thought that this blindness might even be desirable. At other times, he became convinced that a high degree of, and perhaps even absolute, self-consciousness was a necessary and unstoppable development in the human species, another evolutionary threshold. That there was actually no return from this path, even though, in the case of both peoples and individuals, the human clock had been broken, smashed, and evolution thrown completely out of control, moving at a thousand different speeds and thus impossible to measure. Only one thing was sure: the tracks which led back to the caves had now been completely covered over and forever lost.
Someone, of course, has to be the first, like John in The Tomorrow People, the first to “break out” as they refer to it. And an obvious question raises its head:
Why me though? Victor repeatedly asked himself. What is it that compels me to take myself to pieces, word by word, thought by thought, emotion by emotion, belief by belief? I’m not especially intelligent; my education was poor; I have never been intellectually challenged by anyone I knew personally; there have been no shattering events, no great revelations in my life; nothing really ever happened to me, actually. Except this.
Couldn’t help but think of the “Why me? Why me?” scene from Damien: Omen II when I read that and I remember when I first saw the film I wondered if this was a demonic version of “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…” which is interesting because in an early e-mail Timothy said to me:
I have consumed so much literature about bad men, or men who have dark penchants and 'evil' in them, that I tried very hard to write about a man who, by pure chance, is actually good. I have not, obviously, written Dostoevsky's 'Idiot' (but then we must all start somewhere), but it's true that any interest I ever had about dubious people has waned to the point of virtual extinction. I warn you, Jim, my characters will only get more Christ-like as I continue…
IF Victor Andrews is the next stage of human evolution I kind of like the idea that he would be a decent bloke but that brings its own problems which makes me think of Star Trek: The Next Generation where everyone’s so damn civilised. “Roddenberry was very insistent … that these are evolved human beings, so they didn’t have conflict with each other, they have conflict outside,” so said Bryan Fuller in an issue of Star Trek Magazine. Which is all well and good until you want to construct a story with these characters:
Conflict is the essence of drama and all literary fiction requires drama to please the reader and to succeed as a story. At the story core, conflict is the momentum of happening and change and is crucial on all levels for delivering information and building characterization. Conflict is the source of change that engages a reader, and in a story, conflict and action does what description and telling of feelings and situations do not. – William H. Coles, Conflict in Literary Fiction
When we first meet Victor he’s in at a clinic about to undergo an angioplasty and he’s having his privates shaved. It’s a good way to cut a character down to size and if there’s one thing that’s clear about Victor from those first few pages is that he’s very human; he steels himself with whisky prior to his appointment and struggles to control an erection as the nurse is shaving him. We discover little else about him and that state continues throughout the book. We learn he’s fifty and his mother has recently passed away leaving him enough of an inheritance he can afford to take early retirement; we find out he used to work as a diplomat, used to be a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army (although he might've been joking about that), has a girlfriend, a best friend and—in the second chapter of the book—becomes the proud owner of a seven-month-old African Grey, a parrot. He has lunch and/or drinks with his girlfriend (who’s called Helen) or his best friend (who’s called Harry), reads the paper faithfully and wrestles with himself over what phrase to teach his parrot (who he calls Yorick) next; he beings with “God is dead.”
Victor had no idea why this name had instantly popped up in his mind, without the slightest thought on his part. But it was incontrovertible, just right. What else could you call a parrot?
Yes, good question. Where do these things come from? All my life I’ve been aware of the duality of human nature. I’m far from being alone. There have been many attempts to define these aspects—some see them as complementary, others as conflicted—and it used to trouble me that there was an aspect of me who threw out ideas at me every now and then and often at the most inopportune of times. Some talk about our unconscious, the subconscious and the conscious; some talk about the Id, the Ego and the Superego; some talk about the physical and the spiritual. Victor’s having none of it:
     Victor simply didn’t dare tell her his evolving theories about the demise of the unconscious mind; about the possibility of absolute consciousness and of objectivity. If she refused to accept even the blindingly obvious fact of the radical division in man between those who possessed consciousness and those who did not, he couldn’t possibly take her through the other steps in his argument.
     “It will make you laugh,” said Victor, deciding that he would simply skip his reasons and give her his wild conclusion. “My strong suspicion is that mankind is undergoing, in our age, before our very eyes, a new mutation; that we are seeing the emergence of a new species, or at least sub-species.”
     “Have you been smoking illegal substances?” Helen joked.
     “No, no. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s the only explanation, in my mind, and with due respect for your remarks about education and environment, for this extraordinary crevice that has opened up between those who are fully conscious, of themselves and of the ‘world’, for want of a better word, and those who continue to live within the confines of their single and undifferentiated perspectives, however broad they may be.”
And in a later conversation:
     “In his fully conscious state, our new man sees at any and all times, because of his savage lucidity and truthfulness with himself …”
     “Savage lucidity,” interrupted Helen, “I like that.”
     “Because of this lucidity and honesty, he is fully capable of making a distinction between those of his thoughts he knows to be the product of his past, his feelings, his tastes, his prejudices, his instincts, his personality, or what-have-you, and those of his thoughts which are free of any of these factors and emerge solely from pure—objective—reasoning, ‘untainted’, if you like, by his individual characteristics.
     “Thus, for me, this man is capable of making of himself an absolute abstraction as he forms his judgements on ideas, people and events. He is aware, on the one hand, of that which everything in his life and his personality has led him, leads him to feel, and that which is fully free from such ‘baggage’, for want of a better word.”
So who or what suggested ‘Yorick’ as a name for his parrot? At one point he says to Helen, “But I haven’t got an unconscious mind!”

Is Victor a Homo conscius? Hard to say. He aspires to be better than he was, to shrug off subjectivity which he has little time for. That’s commendable but it’s not evolution:
[E]verything about myself seems to have become transparent, where once I was more or less opaque. I do also feel that I am now incomparably freer than I was, than I have ever been. Why is this? he asked himself. From what exactly have I now been freed, completely unchained, let loose? I’ve got it! Myself, of course! Idiot. How could I have not seen it before? The struggle of my life has been to detach and emancipate myself from my subjective being, to leave him to lead his life as he will, but only to the extent that I allow it!  
I’m getting close to something, thought Victor. Something fundamental about myself and, thus, fundamental about human life, for what is true about me is necessarily also true about men in general, because I am no more and no less than absolutely every one of them.
The book consists almost entirely of dialogues and internal monologues. The more interesting ones are with Helen. The sections where we get to stroll with him through his brain can drag a little because the only foil is himself and for the most part he’s pretty sure of himself. Helen at least challenges him and on one occasion even walks out on him. The only real conflict in the book is Victor struggling to articulate his thoughts and it might be the man he becomes by the end of the book would never have thought twice about where the idea to call his bird ‘Yorick’ came from.

In 2004 Christopher Booker published a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning in a book entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It’s not definitive—others have suggested as few as two, three, twenty, others as many as thirty-six—but none of my own novels fit neatly into any one category and I find the same with Timothy’s book. I suppose Rebirth is the closest fit; it’s the closest to evolve. And yet I struggle with that. Going back to Coles’s essay:
In life everything seems to move toward inertia. Throw a rock into the air, it falls to the ground and lies motionless. Pour water into a glass, it flows and settles and becomes motionless. We are born, we are active, but we are always moving toward the solitude and inaction of motionless death. In fiction, writers succumb to this natural tendency to write stories that seek a state of inertia, a state where nothing happens
Nothing really happens in this book. There are plenty of books out there where little or nothing happens but not every reader’s going to jump at them. Remember Vivian Mercier’s memorable description of Waiting for Godot as “a play in which nothing happens, twice”? Well, yes, he did say that but you have to look at the quote in context:
Beckett... has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice. – The Irish Times, 18 February 1956
Waiting for Godot is a character-driven play. Homo Conscius is a character-driven book. There is a journey but it’s a cerebral one and although he might find fulfilment in that, watching and listening to him isn’t always as captivating as it could be. We all philosophise, we sit and think or just sit, but if you’ve ever tried to read Kierkegaard or Nietzsche you’ll realise it’s not for the faint-hearted and yet all you have to do is look at the works of Lars Iyer to see how philosophy can be fun—funny even—if not always accessible or intelligible. At least when Victor went off on one I could follow where he was going even if I didn’t necessarily agree with him.

The introduction of the parrot was inspired. My wife read the book after me and she said at one point she kept looking forward to the parrot reappearing. Having a cockatiel ourselves—basically a toy parrot—we both found Yorick a little too well-behaved. Carrie, for example, said to me when she was about halfway through, “Does he ever get out the cage?” He does but I can’t reveal how. Victor does give the bird amusing things to remember but more could’ve been done with him. The same goes for the Czech madwoman who paces outside his window; she was woefully underused. If Timothy ever writes a sequel we need her back.

In an interview published in La Isla de San Borondón Timothy was asked: What would you say is the main—or most important—thought or insight of Homo Conscius? to which he replies in part:
The driving force of Homo Conscius is the conviction that we lie to ourselves (and thus the others) with such frequency, ease and complacency that as a species we are condemned to eternal misery and violence if we do not seriously change our ways. That truth and honesty are possible, whatever the enormous confusion that reigns in these matters in our time, and that change in the human intellect is indeed, as it must be, already well underway. That this change is vitally necessary and our only hope for our species to survive and prosper in peace and happiness.
Evolution isn’t a right. Species die out all the time and it would be nice if we Homo sapiens manage to pull ourselves back from the brink we’re edging towards; it would be nice if one day everyone woke up, looked in the mirror and saw themselves clearly for the first time but that’s not going to happen. There will be the odd Victor and over time there might be enough Victors to attempt something—I’m sure Timothy didn’t pick the name ‘Victor’ out of a hat—or they may die out when the idiot uprising takes place, that is if the robots or the zombies don’t get them first.

The book isn’t out until April but other reviews have appeared in New London Writers and Kirkus Reviews.


Born in 1954 in London, Timothy Balding grew up on a British military base in Germany. He left school and his family at the age of sixteen to return alone to the United Kingdom, where he was hired as a reporter on local newspapers in Reading in the county of Berkshire. For the ensuing decade, he worked on local and regional titles and then at Press Association, the national news agency. He exiled himself to Paris, France, in 1980, and spent the next thirty years working for international, non-governmental organizations. For twenty-five of these, he was the CEO of the World Association of Newspapers. A Knight (First Class) in the Order of the White Rose of Finland, He currently lives between France and Spain and devotes himself to writing. Homo Conscius is his first novel.

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