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Blog Archive January 2012

Precognition by Crime Novelists Who Predict the Future

Sometimes a novel is ahead of its time, seeming to write about events that predict the future. In Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, the idea of precognition allows the police to know in advance about future criminal activity and to stop it before it happens.

The future is that strange, unknowable terrain over the horizon. In the mind’s eye, we speculate on what awaits us on the other side of the present. But speculation is not the same as what actually will transpire. Novelists also speculate about the future. Sometimes they predict the general pattern of what the future will bring; other times they strike gold by predicting an actual event.

From our vantage point in the present, we can read books that appear to predict what will happen.  A large number of speculative books about the future fall into the category of science fiction. Jules Verne predicted moon shots from Florida. That sounds impressive until you remember that Jules Verne’s launch vehicle was an astronaut shot from a cannon.

Arthur C. Clark foresaw satellite communication systems. George Orwell’s 1984 predicted a future of surveillance cameras, newspeak, perpetual hate campaigns. William Gibson’s Neuromancer anticipated cyberspace and virtual reality. H.G. Wells predicted the importance of planes in warfare, bombing raids by planes, and the atom bomb.

Morgan Robertson’s Futility was a book written fourteen years before the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, about a ship called Titan that hit an iceberg on the starboard side and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The sinking was in April. In other words, many of the details in Robertson’s novel tracked the actual details surrounding the sinking of the Titanic.

William Gibson’s take on predicting the future is clear: he can’t. No one can. If he possessed such precognition, Gibson says, he would have written about Facebook, incorporating it into one of his novels years before it came into being.

Science fiction and crime novels can overlap. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, where three mutants can predict future criminal activity, is an example. In Minority Report, precognition creates paradoxes. A cop receives precognition about murdering a person he’s never met. If precognition of crime is a possibility, then our notion of free will need to undergo a major transformation.

In Michel Houellebecq’s The Platform, there is a terrorist bombing in Phuket in which two hundred people are killed. After the novel was published to great acclaim, the Bali terrorist bombing killed over two hundred people.

In my recently released novel, The Wisdom of Beer, there is a warehouse heist. The warehouse is filled with weapons destined for terrorists groups. Last week, when The Wisdom of Beer appeared in bookstores in Thailand, the police uncovered a rental premise filled with materials for bombs and the theory of the police is that those materials were being readied for export to possible terrorists organizations outside of Thailand.

Does that mean Michel Houellebecq in The Platform and my The Wisdom of Beer predicted the future? In reality, neither novel predicts the actual place but does come close to predicting the nature of the occurrence of the criminal activity.

Novelists share with the police and others in the law enforcement system an ability to reason based on probability analysis. Predicting the dangerous is about assessing the probability of people, ideologies, politics and opportunities collating over time to create an incident. The future of dangerousness is less crystal ball-gazing than statistical analysis of vast amounts of data, cultural and historical trends, and personalities.

What novelists often do is employ pattern recognition to a vast amount of information, taking into account trends, prior cases, and probabilities. We take the temperature of the body politic and look at whether the patient has a fever and then make a case as to the possible outcome. Modern crime novelists are cultural profilers. We mine the source material and our own experiences in order to create narratives that are plausible outcomes for the reader. To the extent that the profiling works, it seems that we have predicted the future. But, in fact, we have gauged the probability of events correctly. No magic. No voodoo. No precognition. Just an ability to combine ingredients from the past and to present those elements and bake the cake we subsequently recognize as the future.

Posted: 1/26/2012 7:57:21 PM 

 

The Shadow of Freedom

Last light as night falls in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and regret.

From my balcony the Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a society undergoing important political changes.

The people of Burma are like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to enjoy a simple meal.

There is a Burmese folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch. The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables. Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.

As the traveler finished his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one fried fish.”

“But madam, I did not eat one of your fried fish.”

“You are a cheater,” she replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”

“But, madam, I’ve taken nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”

“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for yourself.”

The confrontation soon drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that privilege.

The matter was taken to a royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.

The judge found the basic facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver quarter.

As the gold rush of investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.

*Story adapted from Maung Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.

Posted: 1/19/2012 8:08:59 PM 

 

The Orwell Brigade

9 January 2012

Bangkok

I am editing a new anthology titled The Orwell Brigade. On a twist to the usual noir collection of short stories, this anthology will feature non-fiction essays by a number of leading international novelists. The response to the venture has been overwhelmingly positive and there is a reason: George Orwell.

Orwell, who is remembered for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, was also one of the great essayists of the twentieth century.

Orwell’s essays about colonial rule in Burma, the Spanish Civil War and World War II used plain language to discuss in everyday words a set of universal values that were under political attack. Orwell introduced into our daily conversation the ideas of “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and “newspeak” — terms that continue to be used today.

Timothy Garton-Ash in The New York Review of Books, 22 October 1998, wrote, “Orwell is the most influential political writer of the twentieth century.”

What is Orwell’s legacy? And why should we care more than sixty years after his death?

The simple answer is that Orwell’s worldview transcended his time. His essays remain relevant for us and those around us. Finding a way to revive the tradition of a novelist/essayist in the Orwell tradition is a way of keeping those in power honest, accountable, and actionable. Lying is a not just a way of political life; it is a way to control people’s interests, desires, motives and memories.

A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant are incredible firsthand essays. They are personal accounts of Orwell’s time as a petty colonial official during the British administration of Burma. Here was a writer who wrote about what he had experienced, shaped and honed, and refined the emotions of the day of both the hanging and shooting: the condemned man being led to the gallows and being mindful not to step in a puddle on the way to his death.

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell drew upon his six months of fighting in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. In that book, Orwell wrote: “It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies — unless one counts journalists.”

What troubled him most, having been at the front of the street battles in Barcelona, was how the British press had used falsehood, rumors, and distortions to describe the events in Barcelona in a fashion that pandered to the left wing in England. Anyone who has ever been a witness to violence at or near a frontline and later reads the press reports and statements from officials who were far removed from the action, will understand Orwell’s anger.

The lies and duplicity that once shocked Orwell may no longer shock us. With scandals like the phone hacking by reporters at the News of The World, we have become cynical about “facts,” “reality” and “truth telling.” We are less innocent about the way the media and others use images and words to “sell” a position and as a collateral obligation to describe what happened on the ground. We read or watch media that mirrors our prejudices rather than confronts them. Experience has been downgraded to below junk bond grade. This is our world. But every generation has to claim the world back for truth telling. It doesn’t happen on autopilot. And Orwell was a very experienced “pilot.”

In 1984, Orwell described the country of Oceania as founded on rewriting the past. It was the power to control what people were told had happened that was most disturbing to Orwell. Governments uploading memories and pretending they had a counterpart in reality was the nightmare, the horror of 1984.

Orwell found a voice that allowed him a way to turn politics into literature. His use of metaphor and cleverly invented new terms to describe oppressive power captured the plight of the powerless. He handed down a warning for our time, perhaps for all times: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Clive James in The New Yorker wrote, “It wasn’t just the amount of truth he told but the way he told it, in prose transmuted to poetry by the pressure of his dedication.”

Orwell’s personal history may also suggest why more writers have not followed his path. Timothy Garton-Ash tells us that Homage to Catalonia sold only around 50 copies a year during Orwell’s lifetime (it now sells more than 10,000 copies a year).

When Timothy Ash-Garton and Clive James were writing about Orwell’s legacy, we still hadn’t entered the age of the Internet, a full-blown 24/7 information machine where false information, lies and manipulation battle to secure territorial rights over our memory and thinking.

In The Orwell Brigade, I’ve gathered a group of modern truth tellers, writers who write fiction, but also share a vision that writers should reach with their words to contemporary political issues in the form of an essay. Their passion and experience will use plain words to shape politics into the words normally reserved for literature, drawing upon some of the great Orwellian themes of our times:

The economic collapse in America and Europe, a trend for capitalism and totalitarian elites to find common ground, anti-rational/science populists who use religion to push back the Enlightenment, the growing inequalities among people in the same country and the rise of technological means of control, surveillance and destruction.

Ministries of Truth roam the Internet on behalf of governments in a way that Orwell would never have guessed.

In 1984, Winston Smith is taken to the dreaded Room 101 for memory replacement: 2 + 2 = 5. Room 101 is a metaphor for the final destination for all of us who fail to speak plainly about the distortions in the relationship between those who cling to power and those who hunger to replace them, and the rest of us wedged in the war zone, caught in between.

Posted: 1/12/2012 8:17:11 PM 

 

JAILING FALSE PROPHETS

A prediction for 2012

It is claimed the Mayans left behind a prophecy that the world is doomed to end in 2012. But, like many prophecies, hundreds if not thousands of years separate the prophet from his prediction. When the prophet is long dead, we shrug it off when the event doesn’t come to pass.

Most of us are surrounded by prophets of one sort, predicting stock markets, the collapse of the euro, that you will meet that bright, attractive, hot counterpart if you show up at high noon at Little Harry’s Bar and sit on the third seat from the door. What prophets have in common is that they claim to have a direct mystical pipeline to the future. In other words, it ain’t science.

I had a look at my horoscope in the Bangkok Post for Wednesday, 4 January 2012, and was told, “Indulge in industriousness. Put the finishing touches on projects, but don’t initiate anything new. A small delay with a check or a contract could cause worry, but everything will turn out fine.”

A long-time journalist friend once told me that, when he worked for one of the wires, he was given the task of writing the horoscopes. He made them up. He gave his sign all kinds of positive, upbeat and uplifting predictions, while handing out dire predictions of life in the gutter, neck and shoulder pus-filled boils and inoperative hernias under the zodiac signs of his enemies.

Religious texts, including The Bible are riddled with stories of prophets who predicted all matter of things. Believers take those predictions to heart, particularly the ones about the afterlife. Prophets prove that you can’t have even a half-baked religion unless you have a good recipe that blends supernatural, superstition, and woo-woo in general.

The problem starts when a prophet starts spouting off predictions about specific events to specific public structures. He then has crossed an invisible line, at least, it seems, in Thailand where there is a high ratio of fortunetellers to population. A partial list of clients would include office workers, politicians, military, police, housewives, husbands, boyfriends, maids, CEOs, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, school teachers and street vendors. Some Thai fortunetellers have legendary followings.

Recently, in Tak province, a 73-year-old fortuneteller got himself in hot water over a failed prediction about a dam bursting. Thongbai Khamsi predicted that a large provincial dam in Tak would crumple on New Year’s Eve. After dawn arose on New Year’s Day in Tak, it didn’t take long for the locals to figure out that the dam, despite Thongbai’s prophecy, was still working just like a dam should, by holding back the water and generating electricity.

That apparently upset some of the local authorities. A number of people complained that they had sold their land at fire sale prices to get what they could before the dam burst. And even more damaging, tourism to Tak dropped by ninety percent. leaving a 400-million-baht hole in the local economy. If you made a bad real estate decision and your tourist numbers are down, all of this bad luck has to be laid off on someone. Why not Thongbai, the false prophet? The authorities, seeing which way the local wind was blowing, decided that Tongbai got the nomination as a false prophet, the man who had caused substantial public damage.

It would be unfair to say this kind of magical thinking followed by an angry populace howling for blood only happens in Thailand.  Deuteronomy 13:1–5 counsels: “Prophets and dreamers are to be executed if they say or dream the wrong things.” I’ve never heard of anything comparable said in Buddhism. In this case, it seems the Thai local authorities are acting quite Christian-like in their zeal.

Tongbai has his own explanation of how he came about this prophecy. It came from his son, Pla Bu, before his son died. That son had quite a track record in the prophecy game, having predicted his own death 15 days before he died, along with having predicted both 9.11 before it happened in 2001 and the tsunami prior to 26 December 2004. He was channeling a dead son and that could be part of the problem. It is better to stick with talking to God. Like Pat Robertson who says God has already told him who the next President of the United States will be. If it all goes wrong, the come back is: “God is testing our faith.”

There is a hint that the charges by the authorities resulted as much from a loss of face as anything. They held a big New Year Countdown Party at the dam.

There is no word on whether Tongbai has predicted whether he will be convicted, and, if convicted, sent to the big house to serve time with murderers, rapists, arsonist, and armed robbers. He might teach a course in astrology to inmates or tell the guards’ and warden’s fortunes in order to get time off for good behavior. Just a piece of advice: he should avoid predictions about the durability of prison walls and stay on the more vague, abstract side, following the example of the newspaper astrologers.

Alternatively. he might switch to doomsday predictions because there is far less risk as long as sufficiently projected in the future, and, as  predictions go, these ones are much more fun. No one ever thinks of charging a doomsday prophet with a crime. Perhaps what makes their false prophesies more acceptable to authorities is, unlike the dam, if the whole world is going to disappear, then there’s no possible buyer for all of that real estate anyway and what’s the point of going on holiday? No one really loses, and when the all-clear signal is given to celebrate and everyone who was terrified can turn around and laugh at what a fool the prophet was, he, if history is any guide, simply kicks the ball into the future again.

What worries authorities and has them reaching for the handcuffs are dire predictions of doom that cause large public panic. In 1669, a group of Russians, called “The Old Believersconvinced themselves the world would end that year. Rather than hanging around to see if that happened, about twenty thousand of these believers set themselves on fire to protect themselves against the Antichrist. I’ve not found a record of any prophet taking the rap for that failed prophesy. He might have gone up in smoke.

I have a few prophecies of my own to make in this first essay of the year. In the short term, the charges against Tongbai (who has yet to turn himself in to the police) will chill the prophecy business in Thailand well into February 2012; afterwards, it will be totally forgotten to ever have happened. If using criminal law is found effective against this false prophet, I predict it will be vastly expanded to round up many more of this ilk. In that case, I recommend you buy into companies that maintain a connection to the jail-building business in Thailand, as these companies will enter boom times. Look for promotion of government officials who meet their quotas in identifying and exposing gurus, prophets, seers, fortunetellers, and pundits. The era of hunting terrorists has run its course.

As we enter the new dawn of finding, charging, trying and punishing the false prophets, all of us can take pride is working together to weed them out before their false prediction overrun the garden of our common humanity (and makes us sell our houses at stupid prices).

Let this be the year of visiting Thailand, where no bad prophet goes unpunished. And to be on the safe side, leave your predictions about the future at home.

Posted: 1/5/2012 8:09:10 PM 

 

 

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