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Things I did not know before today: apparently Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize in Literature. ... okey-dokey then. Not the field I would have guessed. (How about, I don't know, math?)

Anyway, I read part of this excerpted yesterday in Clifton Fadiman's anthology The Mathematical Magpie, and such is the power of the internet that today I could sit down and read it in its entirety, for all things out of copyright come into the demesne of Google someday. How is it?

... fascinating. (Picture me saying this with a slightly quirked eyebrow and a tone of very mild sarcasm.)

So this is an almost entirely didactic book, a series of nightmares attributed to famous people or famous classes of people; it's not satirical, because it is not necessarily trying to satirize anyone involved, but it's also not quite allegorical. Parable, I guess. Most of it has become irrelevant, because the Cold War is over and this came out in 1952, though I did like the one where Stalin has a terrible nightmare about being very politely held prisoner by a group of Quakers who feed him toast and cocoa, allow him stimulating and healthful exercise, and attempt gently to explain to him that in order to be set free he must learn to love his fellow man. The ironic humor of that has held.

The best story was in fact the mathematician's nightmare I read yesterday, but I have to say, that one is very good. The master of ceremonies who introduces the mathematician to the numbers is Pi, for instance, who goes masked, and any who look on his whole face will die. Perfect numbers go crowned. It just all works, it's a real fantasy story.

And, oddly enough, several of the others are real science fiction; while Eisenhower's nightmare reads like a bad knockoff of 1984, there's a nightmare belonging to some senator or other which reads like a runup to The Man in the High Castle. A couple of non-nightmare stories included are dystopian extrapolations based on Russell's conviction that blind faith in anything except physically provable fact will lead inexorably to atrocities. I am not entirely certain what to think of his technique of setting all of these dystopias among South American and African peoples; his point seems to be that a) they are, of course, people and that therefore b) any system of religious government, no matter its culture of origin, will be just as stupid as any other, but his portrayals bear no relation at all to the actual cultures of, say, South America. While saying that any culture is as likely to make terrible mistakes as any other is an interesting and arguable point, I am not sure that portraying only cultures making the mistakes who were already not thought terribly well of by the white, mostly male audience I suspect he was anticipating would have done much to help that audience conclude that these mistakes were ones they, personally, were engaging in, which is clearly the conclusion the reader is meant to draw by analogy. There is a novel-length story here in which no white people appear. I suspect that this was radical. It does not read that way today.

Also, the unconscious sexism, and the didacticism as of a sledgehammer. It is sad, because if he'd stopped being so ideologically pointed the man could have been a brilliant fiction writer; his language is lucid, his concepts are interesting. As it is, it was like reading an incredibly odd fusion of Isak Dinesen (bright language, brilliant figures of speech, flashes of numinous) and Ayn Rand (characters as points of engagement with sections of ideology rather than as people, grinding of plot wheels clearly audible in background, mystifying sexual politics).

I am not sorry to have read the good parts-- there is a bit with a metaphysician in Hell which is also spectacular, in which he explains that in fact Hell is a selection of improbabilities, so that the deeper into Hell you go the more improbable things become without becoming impossible. The body of Satan consists entirely of nothingness, because, against all probability, every atom that approaches the area where his mind resides collides with another atom in such a way as to be deflected. And so the devil is a constantly moving gap in the substance of all real things, shaped like an anti-matter angel, outlined in the consistently exploding armor of light caused by the continuous bombardment of particles. I mean, that is pretty awesome. As cool as that Mark Twain story where the devil's made of radium and so can wither you by touching you and glows in the dark.

But I really cannot recommend this to those of you who are not willing to wade through a lot of annoyance. If you are ever in the mood to read a bad book, for its occasional moments of interest, this will reward you a great deal more than many of them, but it is still a bad book.


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