Back from Europe – Part the Last!

remembrance_day_20121109And I’m back with the sixth and final installment in the 2014 Williams’ Family Eurotrip! And luckily, this one should prove to be the shortest, since our adventures during these last few days really don’t require any historical background. In reality, our last five days in Paris were spent seeing sight after sight, walking the city, drinking up the local culture and relaxing. So there’s plenty to describe and share, but most of it speaks for itself!

Monday, April 21st – Friday, April 25th – Paris and Nanaimo:

The Seine and the Pont de la Tournelle in the distance
The Seine and the Pont de Sully in the distance

As so often happens on a trip, Monday was a day set aside for doing laundry and making sure our wardrobe lasted to the end. So, after breakfast at the hotel, we ventured down to the laundromat and figured out how to work the archaic machines. My mother seemed to remember, as this was the exact same laundromat she had used when she came to France with my sister in 1990 (did I mention they stayed at the same hotel too?) Anyhoo, Carla and I decided we would go for a run while our clothes washed and dried. This took us from our hotel down to the Seine, where we then headed south along the water to get the bridge that would take us to the Bastille Square. This was something we did not get to see the day before on our bus tour, so we decided now would be a good opportunity.

Very quickly, we noticed that the air quality was different than what we were used to. Living in small town BC, our outdoor runs are always characterized by meadow air intermixed with ocean breezes. But Paris, with its many million vehicles and mass transit system, can be forgiven for not being so pure. But of course, the sights were much more plentiful. Along the Seine, between the Pont de la Tournelle and the Pont de Sully, we saw the Statues en Plein Air art exhibit that runs along the south side. I have to admit, I didn’t examine the artwork much, but what I did see seemed very “moderne”.

Bastille Square and the July Column
Bastille Square and the July Column

After crossing the Pont de Sully, we ran up Boulevard Henry IV and reached the Place de la Bastille. The July Monument stood in the center of a roundabout, which we ran around to get a good look of! At the base, the inscription of July 1830 appears in gold, commemorating the July Revolution – otherwise known as the Second French Revolution. The square is jam packed with stores, cafes, cobblestone walk ways, and straddles three separate arrondissements (districts), with half a dozen other landmarks located nearby.

After rounding the Square and running back the way we came, and saw something a little odd. On the Seine, right next to the Pont de Sully, a group of police divers were out in a zodiac, their truck parked on the walkway next to the water. The divers pulled what looked like a body out of the water, and once they got it aboard, one of them began doing chest compressions. I chose to interpret this as an training exercise where the rescue divers were pulling a mannequin out of the water and practicing CPR. But Carla remains convinced that they were pulling a jumper out of the water and trying to resuscitate him. We’re still divided on this…

Statue of Charlemagne
Statue of Charlemagne. Can you see any similarities?

Anyway, we arrived back at the laundromat a little while later and helped my folks escort our clothing home. It was nice to be able to get a second round out of our gear, we changed and showered, and walked to the Ile de la Cite. It was our hope to see Notre Dame’s interior; unfortunately, the lineup was prohibitively long! But it was Easter Monday, so that didn’t come as a huge surprise. So we decided we’d try again on the morrow and decided to carry on to our next destination.

Luckily enough, we were able to snap plenty of picks of the Cathedral, the Square of Jean XXIII, and the awesome statute of Charlemagne that sits out in front. For those who don’t know, he was the Carolingian (aka. Frankish) king who reigned during the late 8th and early 9th century, became Emperor of a western Europe and even led campaigns against the Moors in Spain. Naturally, I had to get a picture of him for our album. But I asked Carla to also take one of me standing in front of the statute because I really liked the look of his beard, and hoped people might see some similarities.

The Palais de Justice
The Palais de Justice

And so we decided to carry on to the Louvre. But first, we needed some lunch. This we found at a restaurant sitting next to the Palais de Justice nearby, which was temporarily closed to the public for renovations. After some sandwiches and coffee, we proceeded to check out the Marche aux Fleurs (Flower Market) next to us, which was jam packed with animals – including some livestock – and carried on. After crossing another bridge, we landed on the east side of town and walked up the Quai de la Megisserie.

As it turned out, was also packed with animals! And by that I mean, pet stores. I’m not sure how many hours we spent visiting each and every one of these, but it was a few. But I guess that’s what happens when you take cat owners and animals lovers away from their pets! After shaking off the guilt of not being able to take every puppy and kitten home with us, we continued on our way to the Louvre, which was just a few more blocks away.

Outside the Louvre
Outside the Louvre

Entering the museum was a bit of a task. First, we had to walk through the former Palace grounds, which is jam packed with vendors – people selling miniature Eiffel Towers and even one guy roasting chestnuts! – and then into the main grounds where the glass pyramid (as shown above) sits. Here, the lineups and crowds were to be found, and lots of signs out telling us to keep an eye on our handbags (thieves and purse cutters like to work there!)

But surprisingly, the wait time was only a half hour or so, and the lineup not as unbelievably long as we suspected. And before we knew it, we were inside and going down the escalator to the entrance foyer. To be fair, everyone in the family had been to the Louvre before, save me. So I was naturally quite impressed when we got inside and looked around. Many escalators ran from the ground to this area, and there were literally hundreds of people crowded in there. And from this spot, multiple staircases lead up to the adjoining floors where all the exhibits that cover the entirety of human civilization are kept.

The Ancient Near East Exhibit
The Ancient Near East Exhibit

We grabbed out tickets, some maps, and looked for our way out. After perusing the layout and debating what we’d like to see first, we decided to head over to the ancient world exhibits. We started with the Ancient Near East, which was filled with examples of ancient Mesopotamian sculptures, stone work, mosaics, and statues. As we walked through the many connected rooms, we were treated to pieces of the region’s later history, dating back as far as 7000 BCE and spanning the civilizations of Ancient Sumeria, Babylon, Iran and the Levant.

Now I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that everything we saw was pretty damn kickass and impressive! But of particular interest, at least to me, were the Stele’s and tablets that contained ancient Sumerian and Babylonian script. And when I finally found the Stele showing the Code of Hammurabi and the tablets with the sections of the code written on it, I was sure to snap some pictures of them! This, and other examples of ancient writings, are amongst the most important historical objects in existence, and it was kind of mind-blowing being in their presence for the first time.

Code of Hammurabi, front -
Code of Hammurabi Stele, front end

As you can see from the photo above, the front end of the Stele (which is sometimes referred to as a “fingernail” because of its shape) shows Hammurabi sitting on his throne where he is dispensing the law to what appears to be a Babylonian subject. Beneath that, the code is listed in its entity, setting out various rules of jurisprudence, religion, trade, slavery, the duties of workers, the distribution of food, and the punishment for infractions. Click on the pictures to get a better look.

We then doubled-back and went through the Greek antiquities, where my wife asked that we snap a photo of Aphrodite (aka. Venus de Milo) since this was the one major exhibit she missed on her previous trip. Like most of the main exhibits in the museum, get a close look at this one proved tricky. But I somehow managed to get a few shots using her iPod Touch camera, and some of them weren’t too blurry. Check it out below:

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo

After working our way through the 18th-19th century French Sculptures wing, we doubled back to the Pharaonic Egyptian wing to see the statue of Ramses II. This area also proved to be pretty crowded! And it was here, amidst several sphinx statues, Egyptian columns, and some tall walls designed to look like massive sandstone brickwork, that we got a look at the famous Pharaoh who is chronicled by Egyptian, Biblical, and Greek sources, and who was caricatured by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem “Ozymandias”.

And yet, I have to say, this statue was not that impressive. Seating in the corner next to many others and flanked by columns and big walls, he seemed like merely a part of the larger exhibit and not the focal point, as the map would seemed to suggest. But this came as no huge surprise, considering that his significance – while great in terms of Egyptian history – is a bit uncertain as far as Biblical and western sources are concerned. To this day, there is no actual proof that this is the man Noah said “let my people go” to, or that the Egyptian captivity actually happened. But what can you do?

The consecration of Emperor Napoleon I
The consecration of Emperor Napoleon I

After this, we began making the long trek to the 1st floor so we could see the piece de resistance, the Mona Lisa! Given the size of the palace and the layout, this was no easy task, and we had to weave our way about while someone stood in the front with the map open, calling out directions and making sure we all stayed together in the midst of the crowds. But we succeeded, and found ourselves just one room over from the Mona Lisa.

However, I insisted we pause for  second to witness some of the 19th century French Paintings, which this room was dedicated to. Mainly because it was here that the painting of The consecration of Emperor Napoleon I was to be found (seen above). As a historian, this painting was of great interest to me and the events it captured were nothing if not extremely relevant. So after getting a good shot of the rather massive painting, we proceeded into the densely-packed Mona Lisa exhibit.

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

As expected, it was very difficult to get a clear shot of this historic portrait, and the one seen below was about the best we could manage. So thick was the crowd that the only way to get a photo was to hold your camera up high and snap one from a few meters away. The painting was also significantly smaller than I expected, and was kept behind protective wall of glass. But after a few quick pics, we decided we’d done all we could and decided to call it a day! Our feet and knees were hurting, and we were all pretty tired.

After returning to the hotel, we decided to have a low key dinner consisting of food that was bought at a patisserie shop on the way back. Between some baked quiches, sandwiches, delectable deserts, and a few bottles of Leffe Brune, we were all sated and didn’t even need to go out for dinner that night. However, I was determined to check out some of the bars down the street, and the wife and I concluded the evening with a few pints at some of the local pubs.

Inside the Mayflower
Inside the Mayflower

This included the Mayflower, which was about a block away from us and had some wonderful Belgian beers that I know and love on tap. But being an English-themed pub, they served them in pint glasses! This is pretty impressive when you consider that Belgian ales – most of which are centuries-old operations run by Abbeys and Monasteries – range from 6-10% alcohol and accordingly come in 330 ml bottles or are served in chalice glasses. As such, a full pint (568 ml or 20 oz) of this kind of beer is likely to pack a serious wallop!

After a few of these, we proceeded to the next stop down the street, a place known as Teddy’s, where I drank a bit more. I was determined to try all of the taps I did not recognize and could not easily find back home. After we did this, we headed back to the hotel for some hard sleep. Unfortunately, we had a freak accident in our room which made the next few days a little bit difficult. Basically, I was reading from my iPad in bed, and when my wife – who was laying next to me – turned to look up at it, the corner of it got her in the eye. To make matters worse, I freaked out and dropped it, making a bad situation even worse!

Pantheon, front entrance
Pantheon, front entrance

We lay up in bed for awhile while she tried to nurse her throbbing eye. After finally getting to sleep, she woke up the next day with a terrible headache and throbbing eye pain. And that is how Carla got a black eye in Paris! As a result of it, we cancelled out plans with my folks for the day and took it easy. After a late morning and breakfast, we walked around the Latin Quarter, bought lunch from a local market, and walked down to the Pantheon, which was also just a few blocks away from the hotel. Situated next to the Law School of the Universite de Paris and the Lycee Henry IV, the place was packed with students eating lunch, and the smell of weed was in the air!

Originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the Pantheon has changed quite a bit over the centuries and now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of several distinguished French citizens – among them such greats as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, and Marie Curie. We never did get inside, but we enjoyed the lovely walk, and even managed to squeeze in a quick visit to a British-themed local pub called the Bombardier. Then, it was back to the hotel, dinner with my folks at the Petit Gaston (for the second time), and to promptly to bed. Because on Wednesday, we had another big day!

Notre Dame, exterior
Notre Dame, front exterior

It consisted of us visiting the place we saw on the bus tour on foot, or at least as we possible could in a single day. We had hoped to do much of this on Tuesday, but Carla’s eye injury – which I will forever carry a terrible shame for! – put a hold on that. But feeling so much better, we decided to give it a go and proceeded first to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Since it was no longer Easter Weekend, we figured we stood a better chance of getting in. And lo and behold, we did! Despite the long line ups, the crowd proceeded inside at a rapid pace and we found ourselves stepping into this ancient cathedral before long.

Once inside, we were treated to the musty smell, the sounds of chanting, light streaming in from countless stain glass windows, and plenty of amazing art and architecture. As usual, my father explained all features and told us exactly how it differed from the Cathedrals at Chartres and Bayeux. Not surprisingly, this one was the largest we visited to date, and I was sure to get one of the commemorative gold coins from the machine near the entrance. This upped my collection of these tourist keepsakes to four, with coins from the Juno Beach Museum, the Caen Memorial Museum, the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, and the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame, interior
Notre Dame, interior

And then, it was off to the Tour Eiffel, which we hoped to be able to ascend and catch sight of the city from on high. However, when we arrived, the lineups proved to be absolutely terrible, and one of the stairwells that connects to the first landing was closed. However, we did catch some lovely break dancers putting on a show at the foot of the tower. We also got to see several soldiers wandering with their FAMAS assault rifles hanging over their shoulders. Similar to what we saw at Charles de Gaulle, this is apparently what passes for normal in Paris. For this humble Canuck, this was a little frightening and but also freaking cool!

So we meandered around the tower for awhile, checked out the Field of Mars located nearby, and walked the entire length of it and rubbed shoulders with some interesting people along the way. We also snapped about half a dozen pics of the Tower itself, including the WIlliams’ family portrait shown below. Once we reached the far end of the field, we rounded the Academie Militaire and proceeded on foot to our next destination – the UNESCO Headquarters. As a heritage register officer, Carla was keen on seeing this place.

The folks and I in front of the Tour Eiffel
The folks and I in front of the Tour Eiffel

This took some time, and we once again stopped at a roadside restaurant to get some lunch. And I got to say, the building itself was pretty un-ostentatious compared to some of what we’d already seen. But our visit just happened to coincide with a series of displays for International Book and Copyright Day. Trust me, this is actually a lot more fun than it sounds! As we walked down the hallway, we passed dozens of exhibits celebrating different books, styles of writing, animation, and the like. Carla and I sat down at one of the Calligraphy boots, which taught Georgian style writing, and began to learn.

This included the proper way to apply ink to a traditional calligraphy pen and write letters and symbols in the Georgian style. This part was definitely fun, and Carla and I did pretty well for ourselves! She’s a quick study, and calligraphy is kind of my thing. The instructor noted this, and told Carla “Il est fort” (he’s strong) with a degree of wonder and pride in his voice. I didn’t tell him that I’ve actually been doing it for year, even though my preferred style is Black Letter Gothic and I have no formal training.

Musee Dorsay, top floor interior
Musee D’Orsay, top floor interior

And then, for our last stop, we went back along the Seine and stopped in at the Musée d’Orsay. Another line, another long wait, and we were inside, surrounded by Paris’ premier museum of sculpture and art. Carla and my mother sure enjoyed this part. Unfortunately, I had had too much sun that day and my feet were too tired for me to really getting into the spirit of things. Still, it was impressive to see so many impressionist paintings, sculptures, and in one place. Van Gogh was unfortunately not available, since his work was part of a special exhibit. Still, we spent some serious time in the converted train station, and took some rather magnificent pics before finally calling it a day.

We walked back to the hotel along Boulevard St. Germaine, the Seine-adjacent strip that is packed with stores, restaurants, and greenery. We stopped by the 2 Magots (pronounced maj-oats), a restaurant frequented by Hemmingway in his day. Across the street, we also caught a glimpse of the apartment where existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and philosopher and renowned feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir lived. It really is amazing sometimes how little you have to do in Paris to experience some serious history.

Boulevard St. Germaine
Boulevard St. Germaine

After another sleep, we prepared for our penultimate day Paris. This would consist of us taking in some final sights and sounds and then checking in at one of the airport hotels for the night. For my choice, I asked that we go to the Musee du Moyenne-Ages, the museum of Medieval History on Rive Droite (northern side) of the Seine, which was on the way towards the destination my mother and wife so wanted to see – Les Galleries Lafayette (the freakishly big department store near the Opera Nationale de Paris).

I have to say though that the former was a bit of a letdown. Having expected a large museum similar to the ones we had been seeing all throughout Europe, one containing tons of artifacts and displays recreating the period in question, what we got was basically a collection of medieval statues, architecture and sculpture. Only one room, at the tail end of the museum, contained any arms, armor, or artifacts that weren’t structural in nature (seen below). While this was still very interesting, I could not help but feel disappointed.

Musee du Moyenne-Ages
Musee du Moyenne-Ages

Where were all the swords, armor, livery, and seige engines? Where were the maps that showed the Battle of Hastings, Agincourt, the Crusades and the seige of Constantinople? Where were the recreated manuscripts of Aristotle and other classic texts that were being preserved by monasteries? Where were the displays of what everyday life was like for men, women and children of all walks of life? This is a museum dedicated to one of the most brutal, interesting, and pivotal periods in European history, last roughly 1000 years (5th to 15th century) and encompassing the fall of the Roman Empire to the “discovery” of the New World and the beginning of the Renaissance. Why it was jam-packed with the same stuff found at the Musee D’Orsay or the Louvre?

Ah well, you get the point. After leaving here, we pressed on to the 9th arrondisement and the Galeries Lafayette. This massive department store that encompasses several floors of a domed building, and is jam-packed with clothing outlets, cafes, shoe stores, and just about every other kind of apparel store imaginable. My mother and wife were quite happy wandering around and checking things out, while my father and I were just generally bored, tired, and grumbling. But we did our best, since this last visit in Paris was all about the women getting to explore a major landmark.

La Galleries Lafayette, interior
Galleries Lafayette, interior

Still, I can’t emphasize enough how much I hate shopping, at least when I’m not buying anything. But therein lies the problem, I guess. I believe shopping is about buying things and leaving. My wife believes its about trying things on, looking for deals, and endlessly perusing what’s available. When this is happening, I quickly run out of patience and enthusiasm, my feet get sore, my head begins to ache, and I desperately want to go “do something”. Yeah, I’m not good company on these sorts of things.

Still, as you can see from the pics (above and below), the place was very opulent and I would not deny that it was something we needed to see before we left. And then, it was a trip on Le Metro to the airport, where we were serenaded by a gentlemen and his accordion. I tell ya, these are the kind of things you really need to see while in Paris. The entire time he played, and he was pretty damn good too, it was like I could hear the soundtrack to an old Parisian movie, or any movie set in Paris that is trying to go for that romantic feel.

Galleries Lafayette, domed ceiling
Galleries Lafayette, domed ceiling

Once we reached Charles de Gaulle, again, we hopped the shuttle bus that took us to our hotel a few klicks away. Naturally, the international airport has several major chains set up a short ride away and shuttles countless people too and from the place on a daily basis. We checked in, ate at the hotel restaurant, and went to bed early. This was essential given that we had an early morning, and 20 hours of flight time and layovers to look forward to!

This time around, it was easier since we the eventual jet lag kind of worked in our favor. No overnights and by the time we landed, it would be late at night so we could get swiftly to sleep. And while the layovers SUUUUUCKED – three hours in Toronto and Vancouver respectively – the flights were easy enough to get through. Fourteen hours of flying time doesn’t seem so bad when you got plenty of movies and cable Tv shows to watch. And I managed to catch a few I’ve been meaning to see, like Anchorman 2, Pacific Rim, Catching Fire.

The view from the Mill Bay Ferry, taking us home to Brentwood Bay!
The view from the Mill Bay Ferry, taking us home to Brentwood Bay!

And when it ended, we found ourselves in Nanaimo and ready to hit the hay! A long and sound sleep, and we had breakfast with my parents, discussed our trip, and lamented how we would miss getting up every morning, having breakfast together, and then going out to see historic sites. But we all agreed, we were ready to get home and we missed out cats! So after packing up and saying goodbye for the last time, we hit the island highway and drove off in separate directions.

And I have to say, readjusting to life here at home has been quite difficult. After you see so much of history commemorated, honored, preserved and remembered, with battles that shook the world, wars that changed the course of history, and monuments, artifacts, buildings and entire cities that have stood for thousands of years, domestic life can seem pretty damn humdrum. Lucky for us, we have our photo collections, our keepsakes, our memories and our stories. And sharing them like this with the outside world has been a fun way for me to remember it all.

The Boy, SO happy to see us!
The Boy, SO happy to see us!

So thanks for reading and I hope that someday in the not-too-distant future, I get to share something equally engrossing and awesome with you all! Carla and I of course have our plans, and we’ve already been talking to my folks about our next trip together, where it will take us, and how we’re going to do it all up right this time! So expect to hear more at some point, and as always, I would like to remind people how important it is to remember all that has happened in the past century to make this world a safer and better place.

I guess there’s no way to end this other than to close with the very sentiments that started it all…

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscar

The First Science Fiction Novel Ever?

What do you think of when you hear the words Sci-Fi? Chances are, the words inspire images such as the one above, of nightmarish landscapes featuring clogged streets, flying cars, neon lights and massive skyscrapers. Or possibly you’re partial to the more utopian visions, with space travel, beautiful arcologies and happy shiny people who want for nothing and treat each other with peace and civility.

All good, but chances are, no one thinks of medieval literature from the Islamic world when they hear that term. Chances are no one thinks of anything other than the industrial age, of men like H.G Wells and Jules Verne. For most of us, these are the people who pioneered the field of science fiction, no doubt about it. But amongst scholarswho specialize in tracing literary genres to their roots, one book stands out as the possible progenitor of them all; a little known novel by the name of Theologus Autodidactus.

Outside of antiquarians and theologists, not many people have heard of this story, and up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t either. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned about it. To me, science fiction was not something that could have predated the scientific revolution, or the age of industry when steam locomotives, steam ships, and a revolutionary understanding of the world and man’s place in it inspired flights of fancy which went well beyond our world. And yet, as it turns out, a manuscript which was written sometime in the 13th century by an Islamic scholar living in Egypt.

His pen name was Ibn al-Nafis (nee Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi), and he was what westerners would later refer to as a “Renaissance Man”. Not only was he an expert physician he also studied jurisprudence, literature and theology and became an expert on the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence before he died. In addition to writing many treatises on medicine, one of which was made famous for being the first in which pulmonary circulation of the blood was mentioned, he also wrote extensively on law and the world’s first coming of age tale/science fiction novel Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Siera al-Nabawiyyah, which translated into Latin is known as Theologus Autodidactus.

Plot Summary:
Broken down succinctly, the story revolves around a protagonist named Kamil, an adolescent feral child who at the beginning of the story finds himself spontaneously transported to a cave on a deserted island. Almost immediately, it is clear that the boy is an autodidactic, a self-directed learner who has mastered several fields through independent learning.

Over time, he is met by several castaway who get shipwrecked on the island, learning and sharing from them. In time, the castaways band together to make a ship and agree to take Kamil with them back to civilization. As they return to the world of man, Kamil begins to see all the works of man, learns of philosophy, law and medicine remaining a self-directed learner all the while) and comes to several conclusions.

As he grows, he is taught the value of jurisprudence, religion, the necessity of the existence of God, and the value of the sciences, arts, and all other things that make man civilized. His own coming of age is reflected in explorations of the origin of man, the current state of the world, and predictions of the future. Towards the end, the plot develops from this coming-of-age scenario and begins to incorporate several new elements, such as the the end of the world, doomsday, resurrection and afterlife are predicted and scientifically explained using his own empirical knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology.

Summary:
Ultimately, Ibn al-Nafis described his own work as a defense of “the system of Islam and the Muslims’ doctrines on the missions of Prophets, the religious laws, the resurrection of the body, and the transitoriness of the world”. Essentially, this meant presenting rational arguments for religious ideas, such as bodily resurrection and the immortality of the human soul, using both demonstrative reasoning and literary examples to prove his case. In this respect, he was not unlike Thomas Aquinas and a host of other western scholars from the High Middle Ages, men who would similarly try to defend reason based on faith and use empirical knowledge to defend the existence of a spiritual, universal order.

However, what set Ibn al-Nafis’ work apart was the way in which he expressed his religious, scientific and philosophical views through a fictitious narrator who went on to experience what the world had to offer. Rather than writing things in treatise form, which was the style for most philosophers of the day, he chose to do what only a select few of his contemporaries did and tell the story through a narrator who’s own journey illustrated one’s own journey of discovery. In that respect, he was like Voltaire, who’s fictional Candide had to venture out into the world in order to realize the truth about life and the order of things, though their conclusions were vastly different.

And finally, fact that he chose to speculate about what the future held, up to and including the apocalypse itself, is what makes this work classifiable as science fiction. Here, he was most comparable to men like H.G. Wells and Verne, men who looked to the future in the hopes of illustrating the current state of humanity and where it was likely to take them. And though these, and later generations of individuals, often had a negative appraisal of such things, Iban al-Nafis’ was arguably positive. His exploration was designed to affirm belief in the existence of something greater than material nature, but provable using the same basic laws.

I can’t imagine being able to find a copy of this book any time soon. It’s not like Amazon has copies on hold for anyone looking to a little cross-cultural antiquities reading. I checked, they really don’t! Still, I’d consider it a boon to find a translation and read the whole story for myself. What I little I learned can’t possibly capture the historic and cultural importance of the novel. Something to add to the reading list, right next to The Peach Blossom Spring and Beowulf!

Dystopian Science Fiction

Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of dystopian! Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m working on an anthology of dark science fiction with some fellow writer’s over at Goodreads (called Writer’s Worth). Or it might just be that this seemed like the next logical step in the whole “conceptual science fiction” thing. Regardless, when it comes to the future, sci-fi writers love to speculate, and it usually takes one of two forms. Either humanity lives in a utopian society, where technology, time and evolution have ferreted out our various weaknesses. Or, we live in a dystopian world, where humanity has either brought itself to the brink of annihilation or is living in dark, polluted and overpopulated environments, the result of excess and environmental degradation.

As with all things science fiction, the aim here is to use speculative worlds of the future to offer commentary on today. As William Gibson, himself a dark future writer, once said: “Science fiction [is] always about the period in which it was written.” So today, I thought I would acknowledge some truly classic examples of dystopian literature and the books that started it all. Here they are:

Earliest Examples:
Dystopian literature, contrary to popular conception, did not begin in the 20th century with Brave New World. In fact, one can find examples going as far back as the Enlightenment, when philosophers and scholars used fictional contexts to illustrate the weaknesses of society and how they might be reformed. And, in many ways, this form of social critique borrowed from Utopian literature, a genre that takes its name from Thomas More’s seminal book that describes a perfect fictional society. But where More and earlier writers (such as Plato and St. Augustine) used perfect civilizations to parody contemporary society, this newer breed of authors used dark ones to do the same. In short, Utopian literature showed society how it could be, dystopian literature as it was.

Candide:
A true classic, though it is sometimes difficult to classify this work as a true dystopian work of fiction. For one, it is set in the contemporary world, not in a fictionalized society, and revolves around the life of a fictional character who travels from one region to the next, seeking to answer the fundamental question of whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. However, this book remains one of the principle sources of inspiration for science fiction writers when constructing fictional worlds for the sake of satirizing their own.

Published in 1755 by the critic and philosopher Voltaire, the story was inspired by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the church’s and Leibnizian’s attempts to rationalize it. At the beginning, Candide – the main character who’s name means “optimism” – lives a sheltered existence where he is busy studying and living with his friends and companions. However, this existence is quickly interrupted by the arrival of war, and Candide and his companions are forced to travel from place to place, witnessing all the problems of the world.

These include war, slavery, rape, imperialism, abuse of power and exploitation, and takes them from Europe to the Middle East to the Americas. Eventually, they return home and reflect on all they have seen and whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. They conclude that it is not, but offer a resolution by saying that “we must cultivate our garden”.

Gulliver’s Travels:
Another classic example, but which is often considered a combination between utopian and dystopian novels. This is because the plot involves the travels of one man – Gullliver, who’s name is a play on the world gullible – who’s journey takes him through many fictional worlds where life is either perfect or tragically flawed in various ways. However, since the purpose of these worlds is to parody English society of his day, it is often included as an early example of satiric literature that falls into the utopian, dystopian and science fiction camps.

The story involves four journeys where Gulliver travels to several fictional societies and records what he sees for posterity. The first voyage takes him to the land of the Lilliputians, a race of tiny people who’s morals match their physical size. After some rather brief descriptions of how these people select their leaders (limbo tournaments and other stupid games) we learn that they are a parody of the British system of parliament.

His second voyage takes him to a place which is the polar opposite of the first. Here, in the land of the Brobdingnagians, he is presented with giants who’s physical size mirrors their moral outlook. They consider Gulliver to be a curious specimen, who’s descriptions of his country disgust them. In the end, they consider him a cute sideshow attraction and refuse his offer for technological advances (like gunpowder). Gulliver then leaves, thinking the people are out of their minds, but ironically states that he witheld the worse about England out of a desire to save face.

His next voyage involves a little “island-hopping”, first to the flying city of Laputa, an island nation where technological pursuits are followed without a single regard for the consequences. He then detours to another island, Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures. Then onto Luggnagg, where he encounters the struldbrugs – an unfortunate race of people who are immortal but frozen in old age, with all the infirmities that come with it. Gulliver then reaches Japan, which is in the grips of the post-war Shogunate period, and is narrowly excused from taking part in an anti-Christian display which all foreigners were forced to perform at the time.

His final voyage before going home takes him country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horse-people who see themselves as “the perfection of nature” and who rule over the race of Yahoos – deformed humans who exist in their basest form. Gulliver joins them and comes to adopt their view of humanity – that of base creatures that use reason only to advance their own appetites. However, they soon come to see him as a Yahoo and expel him from their civilization. In the end, Gulliver returns home to regal his family of his adventures, but finds that he cannot relate to them anymore. His journeys have filled him with a sense of misanthropy which he cannot ignore.

Throughout the narrative, Swift’s point seems abundantly clear. Each voyage to a fictitious world serves as a means to parody a different element of British society and civilization in general. And ultimately, Gulliver serves as the perfect narrator, in that his ignorance and naivety allow him to absorb the lessons of the journey in a way that is both ironic and sufficiently detached. Can’t just hand the reader the moral, after all! Gotta make them work for it!

The Time Machine:
Published in 1895, this science fiction novella inspired countless adaptations and popularized the very idea of time travel. In addition to introducing readers to the concept of time as the fourth-dimension and temporal paradoxes, H.G. Wells also had some interesting social commentary to share. In this story, the narrator – known only as The Traveller – recounts to a bunch of dinner guests how he used a time machine to travel to the year 802, 701 A.D. where he witnessed a strange culture made up of two distinct people’s.

On the one hand, there were the Eloi,  a society of elegant, beautiful people who live in futuristic (but deteriorating) buildings and do no work. Attempts to communicate with them prove difficult since they seem to possess no innate curiosity or discipline. He assumes that they are a communistic society who have used technology to conquer nature and have therefore evolved (or devolved) to a point where strength and intellect are no longer necessary to survive.

However, this changes when he comes face to face with a separate race of ape-like troglodytes who live in underground enclaves and surface only at night. Within their dwellings he discovers the machinery and industry that makes the above-ground paradise possible. He then realizes that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured class of the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes that have devolved into the brutish Morlocks. In the course of searching the Morlock enclave, he learns that they also feed on the Eloi from time to time. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not a benign one, but one characterized by animosity and the occasional act of kidnapping and cannibalism.

Is there not a more perfect vision of industrial society or class conflict? Written within the context of turn of the century England, where discrepancies in wealth, class conflict and demands for reform were commonplace, this book was clearly intended to explore social models in addition to scientific ideas. And the commentary was quite effective, if you ask me…

The Iron Heel:
This dystopian work was written by Jack London, the same man who wrote the classic Call of the Wild, and was released in 1908. A clear expression of London’s own socialist beliefs, the novel is set in the distant future when a socialist utopia – known as the Brotherhood of Man – has finally been created. Overall, the plot revolves around the “Everhard Manuscript”, a testament which details the lives of the story’s two main protagonists and which takes place between 1912 to 1932 in the US. The work is known for its big “spoiler”, letting readers know outright that the protagonists die in the course of their pursuits, but that there efforts are rewarded by providing inspiration to later generations who succeed where they fail.

In the course of this speculative story, we learn that an oligarchy – the Oligarchs or “Iron Heel” – has seized power in the US by bankrupting the middle class and reducing farmers to a state of serfdom. Once in power, they maintained order through a combination of preferential treatment and control over the military. After a failed revolt (the First Revolt) takes place, preparations are underway for a second which is expected to succeed in restoring the Republic. Unfortunately, it too fails and the protagonists are killed. However, centuries later, when their Manuscript is discovered, the Oligarchy has been unseated and a debt is being acknowledged to these characters and their actions.

Thus, London speculates that a socialist society would someday emerge in the US, but only after centuries of dominance by oligarchs who would come to power by decimating the middle class, controlling trade unions, and transforming the military into a mercenary front. His main characters, though condemned to death in the present, will be vindicated in the distant future when humanity will at last overcome its greedy tendencies and usher in a state based on equality and fraternity. Apparently, this novel inspired such greats as George Orwell, but not in the way you think. Whereas London chose to offer his readers a sense of consolation by showing them everything turned out okay in the distant future, Orwell chose to take the hopeless rout to make his point!

We:
The story takes place in the distant future, roughly one thousand years after the One State conquered the entire world. After years of living in a perfectly synchronized, rational and orderly world, the people of the One State are busy constructing a ship (the Integral) that will export their way of life to extra-terrestrial worlds. Published in 1921, and written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the story was clearly inspired by life in post-revolutionary Russia, with its commitment to “scientific Marxism, but was also a commentary on the deification of reason at the expense of feeling and emotion.

The story is told from the point of view of D-503, chief engineer of the Integral who is keeping a journal which he intends to be taken on the voyage. As we learn in the course of the novel, everyone in the One State lives in glass apartments that are monitored by secret police known as the Bureau of Guardians. All sex is conducted strictly for reproductive purposes and cannot be done without state sanction. However, the main character soon comes into contact with a woman named I-330, a liberated woman who flirts with him, smokes, and drinks alcohol without regard for the law.

In time, he learns that I-330 is a member of a revolutionary order known as MEPHI which is committed to bringing down the One State. While accompanying her to the Ancient House, a building notable for being the only opaque structure in the One State where objects of historic and aesthetic importance are preserved, he is escorted through a series of tunnels to the world outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city-state. There, D-503 meets the inhabitants of the outside world – humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur. The aim of the MEPHI are to destroy the Green Wall and reunite the citizens of the One State with the outside world.

In his last entry, D-503 relates that he has undergone an operation that is mandated for all citizens of the One State. Similar to a lobotomy, this operation involved targeted x-rays that eliminate all emotion and imagination from the human brain. Afterwards, D-503 informs on I-330 and MEPHI, but is surprised how she refuses to inform on her compatriots once she is captured. People beyond the wall even succeed toward the story’s end in breaching a part of the Green Wall, thus ending the story on an uncertain note.

In addition to parodying the worst aspects of scientific rationalism, imperialism and the notion of progress, the story also went on to inspire some of the greatest satires ever known. In addition, many of its more esoteric elements have appeared in countless novels and films over the years, most notably the concepts of encapsulating walls, secret museums, government-sanctioned breeding, and machine-based programming.

The Classics:
And now we move onto the dystopian classics that are most widely known, that have inspired the most adaptations and sub-genres of noire fiction. Although updated many times over for the 20th century, these dystopian novels share many characteristics with their predecessors. In addition to timeless social commentary, they also asked the difficult question of what it would take to set humanity free. Whereas some chose to confront this question directly and offer resolutions, other authors chose to leave the question open or chose to offer nothing in the way of consolation. Perhaps they thought their stories more educational this way, or perhaps they could merely merely think of none. Who’s to say? All I know is their works were inspired!

Brave New World:
There’s scarcely a high school student who hasn’t read this famous work of dystopian fiction! And although Aldous Huxley denied ever reading We, his novel nevertheless shared several elements with it. For instance, his story was set in the World State where all reproduction is carried out through a system of eugenics. In addition, several “Savage Reservations” exist beyond the veil of civilization, where people live a dirty, natural existence. But ultimately, Huxley’s aim was to comment on American and Western civilization of the early 20th century, a civilization where leisure and enjoyment were becoming the dominant means of social control.

This last aspect was the overwhelming focus of the novel. In the World State, all people are bred for specific roles. Alphas are the intellectuals and leaders of society, Betas handle high-level bureaucratic tasks, Deltas handle skilled labor, Gammas unskilled labor, and Epsilons menial tasks. Therefore, all vestiges of class conflict and generational conflict have been eliminated from society. But to further ensure social control, all citizens are sleep-conditioned from a young age to obey the World State and follow its rules. These include the use of Soma, a perfectly legal and safe designer drug that cures all emotional ales, promiscuous sex habits, and “feelies” (movies that simulate sensation).

In the end, the story comes to a climax as two of the main characters, Bernard Marx and Lina Crowe, go to a savage reservation and find a lost child named John. His mother was apparently a citizen of the World State who became lost in the reservation and was forced to stay after she learned she was pregnant. Having experienced nothing but alienation and abuse as a “savage”, John agrees to go with Bernard and Lina back to “civilization. However, he quickly realizes he doesn’t fit into their world either and expresses disdain for its excesses and controls. Eventually, the people who sympathize with him are sent into exile and he is forced to flee himself. But in the end, he finds that he cannot escape the people of the World State and commits suicide, a tragic act which symbolizes the inability of the individual to find resolution between insanity and barbarity.

Overall, Huxley’s BNW was a commentary on a number of scientific developments which, under the right circumstances, could be used to deprive humanity of their freedom. In many ways, this was a commentary on how the expanding fields of psychology and the social sciences were being used to find ways to ensure the cooperation of citizens and ensure good work habits. Nowhere was this more apparent than in factories and in the creation of “assembly-line discipline”, which was exemplified by how the people of the World State revered Henry Ford. In addition to performing eugenics on an assembly-line apparatus, the people worship Ford and cross themselves with a T (a reference to his model T car).

But above all, Huxley seemed to be asking the larger question of what is to be done about the process we know as civilization. If it was inimical to freedom, with all its rational, sterile and domesticated luggage, and the alternative  – a dirty, superstitious and painful existence – was not preferable either, than what was the solution? In the end, he offered no solution, allowing the reader to ponder this themselves. In his follow-up essay, Brave New World Revisited, he expressed some remorse over this fact and claimed that he wished he had offered a third option in the form of the exile communities – people who had found their own way through enlightened moderation.

1984:
Ah yes, the book that did it all! It warned us of the future, taught us the terminology of tyranny, and educated us on the use of “newspeak”, “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime”. Where would dystopian literature be today were it not for George Orwell and his massively influential satire on totalitarianism? True, Orwell’s work was entirely original; in fact, he thoroughly acknowledged a debt to authors like H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. But it was how he synthesized the various elements of dystopia, combining them with his own original thoughts and observations, and crystallized it all so coherently that led to his popularity.

But I digress. Set in the not-too-distant future of 1984 (Orwell completed the book in 48 and supposedly just flipped the digits), the story takes place from the point of view of an Outer Party member named Winston Smith. Winston lives in London, in a time when England has been renamed Airstrip One and is part of a major-state known as Oceania. As the book opens, Oceania finds itself at war with the rival state of Eurasia, though not long ago it was at war with Eastasia and will be so again. As a member of the Ministry of Truth, Winston’s job is that of a censor. Whenever the enemy changes, whenever the Party alters its policies, whenever a person disappears, or the Party just feels the need to rewrite something about the past, men like Winston are charged with destroying and altering documentation to make it fit.

Ultimately, the story involves Winston’s own quest for truth. Living in the constant, shifting lie that is life in the totalitarian state of Oceania, he seeks knowledge of how life was before the revolution, before the Party took control, before objective reality become meaningless. He also meets a woman named Julia with whom he begins an affair and rediscovers love. However, in time the two are captured and taken to the Ministry of Love, where they are tortured, brainwashed, and made to turn on each other. In the end, Winston accepts the Party’s version of reality,simply because he discovers he has no choice. His tragic end is made all the more tragic by the implicit knowledge that he will soon be killed as well.

For discerning fans of science fiction and dystopian literature, the brilliance of 1984 was not so much in how the totalitarian state of the future is run but how it came to be. According to the Goldstein Manifesto, which is the centerpiece of the novel, World War III took place sometime in the 1950’s and ended in a stalemate, all sides having become convinced of the futility of nuclear war. Shortly thereafter, totalitarian revolutionaries with similar ideologies took power all over the planet. In time, they became the three major states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, whose boundaries were a natural extension of the post-war spheres of influence.

Also interesting is Orwell’s speculation on how these totalitarian ideologies came to be in the first place. In short, he speculates that dominance by a small group of elites has been an unbroken pattern in human history. In the past, this arrangement seemed natural, even somewhat desirable due to poverty, scarcity, and a general lack of education. However, it was within the context of the 20th century, at a time when industrial technology and availability of resources had virtually eliminated the need for social distinction, that the most vehement totalitarians had emerged. Unlike the elites of the past, these ones had no illusions about their aims or their methods. As the antagonist O’Brien says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

This message still resonates with us today. Even though western civilization did technically dodge the bullet of WWIII and does not resemble the world of 1984 in the strictest sense, the cautionary nature of Orwell’s critique remains. Even if the patriculars of how 1984 came to be did not happen, the message remains the same: human freedom – meaning the freedom to live, love and think freely – is the most precious thing we have. Beware those who would deprive you of it for your own safety or in exchange for some earthly utopia, for surely they will themselves to be your master! There is also an ongoing debate about which came true, 1984 or BNW, with the consensus being that it was Huxley’s dystopian vision that seemed more accurate. However, the jury is still out, and the debate ongoing…

Fahrenheit 451:
Here is yet another dystopian novel that has become somewhat of a staple in the industry. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, society is permeated by mindless leisure and decadence. Virtually all forms of literature have been banned, and local “firemen” are responsible for enforcing the ban. Wherever illegal literature is found, firemen are responsible for arriving on scene and putting them to the flame. Yes, in a world where all houses are fireproof, firemen are no longer responsible for putting fires out, but starting them!

In the course of the story, the main character – a fireman named Guy Montag – begins to become intrigued with literature and discovers a sort of magic within it that is missing from his world. In addition, Guy is told by his boss that society became this way willingly. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of sloth, they chose convenience, ease and gratuity over subtly, thought and reflection. In time, Guy’s choices make him a fugitive and he is forced to flee and seek refuge with other people who insist on keeping and reading books. It is also made clear that nuclear war is looming, which may provide some explanation as to how society came to be the way it is.

In this way, the book has a lot in common with both 1984 and Brave New World. On the one hand, their is active censorship and repression through the destruction of books and the criminalization of reading. On the other hand, it seems as though the people in Bradbury’s world surrendered these freedoms willingly. It is a fitting commentary on American society of the latter half of the 20th century, where entertainment and convenience seemed like the greatest threats to independent thought and learning. This, in turn, could easily form the basis of dictatorship. For as we all know, a docile, narcotized society is an easily controlled one!

The Handmaids Tale:
Here is another novel that few people get through high school without being forced to read, especially in Canada. But theres a reason for that. Much like 1984, BNW, and F451, The Handmaids Tale is a classical dystopian narrative that has remained relevant despite the passage of time. In this story, the US has been dissolved and replaced by a theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. In this state, women have been stripped of all rights in accordance with Old Testament and Christian theocracy. The head of this state is known as the Commander, the chief religious-military officer of the state.

The story is told from the point of view of a handmaid, a woman who’s sole purpose is to breed with the ruling class. Her name is Offred, which is a patronym of “Of Fred”, in honor of the man she serves. Like all handmaidens, her worth is a determined by her ability to procreate. And on this, her third assignment, she must get pregnant if she doesn’t want to be discarded. This time around, her assignment is to the Commander himself, a man who quickly becomes infatuated with her. Over time, the infatuation leads to sex that is done as much for pleasure as procreation, and he begins to expose her to aspects of culture that have long been outlawed (like fashion magazines, cosmetics, and reading). She even learns of a Mayday resistance that is concerned with overthrowing Gilead, and that the Commander’s driver is apparently a member.

In the end, Offred is denounced by the Commander’s wife when she learns of their “affair”. Nick orders men from “The Eyes” (i.e. secret police) to come and take her away. However, he privately intimates that these are actually men from the resistance who are going to take her to freedom. The story ends with her Offred stepping into the van, unsure of what her fate will be. In an epilogue, we learn that the story we have been told is a collection of tapes that were discovered many generations later after Gilead fell and a new, more equal society re-emerged. This collection is being presented by academics at a lecture, and is known as “The Handmaids Tale”.

In addition to touching on the key issues of reproductive rights, feminism, and totalitarianism, The Handmaids Tale presents readers with the age-old scenario for the rise of a dictatorship in the US. Apparently, the military-theological forces who run Gilead in the future seized power shortly after a staged terrorist attack which was blamed on Islamic terrorists. In the name of restoring order and ending the decline of their country, the “Sons of Jacob” seized power and disbanded the constitution. Under the twin guises of nationalism and religious orthodoxy, the new rulers rebuilt society along the lines of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy.

This angle is not only plausible, but historically relevant. For as Sinclair Lewis said back in 1936 “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This is paraphrased from his actual, more lengthy comments. But his essential point is the same. If a  tyranny were emerged in the US, he reasoned, it would do so by insisting that it was religiously right and that it was intent on protecting people’s freedoms, not revoking them. In addition, the angle where an Islamic terrorist attack spawned the takeover? Tell me that’s not relevant to Americans today! Though written in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian scenario received a shot of credibility thanks to eight years of the Bush administration, a government that claimed religious orthodoxy and used security as justification for questionable wars and many repressive policies.

Final Thoughts:
After years of reading dystopian literature, I have begun to notice certain things. For starters, it is clear why they are grouped with science fiction. In all cases, they are set in alternate universes or distant future scenarios, but the point is to offer commentary on the world of today. And in the end, utopian and dystopian satires are inextricably linked, even if the former predates the latter by several centuries.

Whereas Utopian literature was clearly meant to offer a better world as a foil for the world the writer’s were living, dystopian literature offers up a dark future as a warning. And in each case, these worlds very much resemble our own, the only real difference being a matter of degree or a catalyzing event. This is why there is a focus in dystopian literature on explanations, how things came to be the way they are. In many cases, this would involve a series of predictable events: WWIII, a terrorist attack, more overpopulation and pollution, an economic crisis, or a natural disaster.

And in the end, the message is clear: whether it is by fear, poverty, or the manipulation of critical circumstances, power is handed over to people who will deliberately abuse it. Their mandate is clear and their outlook is the exact same as any tyrant who has ever existed. But the important thing to to note is that it is given. Never in dystopian literature do tyrants simply take power. Much like in real life, true totalitarianism in these novels depends upon the willingness of people to exchange their freedom for food, safety, or stability. And in all cases, they inevitably experience buyers remorse!

Quicknote: Since getting “freshly pressed”, a lot of people have wrote in and asked me about my thoughts on “The Hunger Games”. Sorry to say, haven’t read it so I can’t offer any commentary. I will however be commenting on a number of more modern dystopian franchises, specifically examples found in film and other media, in my next post. Stay tuned, hopefully something you like will pop there!