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Fresh babble here! Innocent bystanders Stale babble here Who's to blame Zander's Tangle Last babble Last babble
Log of Smallship One - Passionate and Confused
Not so much breaking the fourth wall as installing patio doors and a cat flap
Not a rumble this time, not a murmur, but an excited babble. Flennish waited patiently till it had subsided a little, then held up his tentacles for silence.

"This planet's dominant species," he said, "is a primitive humanoid life form on the brink of space travel. It has been a primitive humanoid life form on the brink of space travel for as long as anyone has known about it. They have no unified government, they fight wars among themselves, they have not even recognised the futility of undirected 'progress.' They are, by any reasonable standard, millennia away from even being considered an emergent race.

"And yet. In each and every one of the last few interstellar wars that have afflicted us, this planet has turned out to be of critical strategic importance. Every would-be tyrant who has ever sprung up to threaten the galaxy, from Fraknab the Preposterous to the Great Grundlbunk, has felt it incumbent on him-, her- or itself, to invade Earth; every great hero our society has produced has been compelled, at one point or another, to defend it. When a master criminal is fleeing the forces of law and order with a vast treasure concealed in his cargo hold, where does he always crash his ship? Earth. When a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings visits our universe, where do they appear? Earth. One might be forgiven for thinking that Earth had been singled out by fate to endure a disastrous run of bad luck.

"And yet--again--once all the tumult and kerfuffle is over, the tyrant destroyed, the criminal caught, whatever...Earth simply settles back into its former obscurity. The most chaotic waves of change wash over it and leave it completely unaffected. How can this be? Why, moreover, has nobody ever questioned this state of affairs before?"

"Yes, why?" someone called out from the audience. Flennish peered out and identified the speaker.

"Professor Treugenth of the Revamba," he said. "Bear with me a little longer, Professor, there is more.

"I mentioned cultural diversity a little while ago. It is true, indeed, that our cultures are highly diverse. Each world has its own unique forms of art, of music, of literature, and very wonderful some of them are.

"Tell me, though..." He paused. "From which planet, from which species, do we derive this language which we are all speaking?"

The babble was confused now. Phrases such as "common galactic tongue," "lingua franca" and "how else are we supposed to communicate with each other?" rose momentarily above the noise. Flennish waited. It was Treugenth of the Revamba who, once again, took the initiative.

"You're going to tell us it's an Earth language, aren't you, Flennish?" she said, fluffing her tail aggressively.

"Indeed I am. This language was developed on Earth, over a period of several centuries. The form in which we use it is the form in which it has been spoken on Earth for--again--as long as anyone can tell. Not only the language itself, but even the idiomatic phrases, many of which make no sense at all in the cultures of our various planets. Treugenth, how would you colloquially describe something which performs to specifications? Quickly, without thinking?"

"It does exactly what it says on the tin," Treugenth said promptly.

"Do you have tins on your world?" Flennish asked in a gentle tone, and Treugenth looked confused. "Exactly. Ladies, gentlemen and others, your biologies are wildly at variance, your reproductive methods range from simple binary fission to a complex ritual involving up to fourteen participants, and yet I address you as though a bisexual, viviparous, mammalian system were somehow the norm. You find nothing strange in this. Need I mention that on Earth, for their dominant species, it is indeed the norm?"

Arguments had now broken out all over the hall as various beings hotly debated the concepts Flennish had just brought to their attention. He waited patiently, remembering his own confusion when the thought had first occurred to him, his frenzied search of the Fellowship's archives, the blinding simplicity and utter wrongness of it.

At length the various disputes ran out of steam (another Earth idiom, Flennish thought ruefully; on many of the Federation's worlds steam was physically impossible) and he held up his tentacles for silence once again.

"You will be wondering," he began, "how this situation arose, whether it is the result of deliberate manipulation from Earth itself or from some other agency. Some of you will no doubt feel angry, resentful. I did myself. The conclusion to which I have finally come, however, implicates no being or species in this universe. It is even stranger than that which it purports to explain.

"On my own world of Gyel, we have a flourishing industry producing works of fiction for the entertainment of the people. In the nature of things, the writers are Gyelri, and while the influence of the Federation has created a good deal of diversity, it is still true to say that the majority of the stories take place on Gyel, involve Gyelri protagonists in conflict with Gyelri antagonists, and end with the status quo on Gyel largely unchanged. While many of these fictions involve alien races, it is around Gyel and the Gyelri that they largely revolve. And yet in the fictional universe created by the writer, there must be many other planets with their own dominant species. How would they feel, I wonder, to discover that the most important world in their galaxy was a small and insignificant planet known to its inhabitants as Gyel?"

Treugenth stood up again, her tail at full extension, its tip nodding over her head. Flennish fancied he could see the gleaming sting concealed among the russet fur.

"Flennish, this nonsense has gone far enough. We can all see where you're going with this, and it isn't funny. You're not seriously going to tell us that we live in a fictional universe created by some writers on Earth?"

"Can you find another explanation that fits the available facts, Treugenth?" Flennish countered. "If you can, please believe me when I say that I shall be the first to rejoice. It is by no means a comfortable thought for me either. I would far rather it were rays, or a virus, or something explicable that we could combat. This--this, by its very nature, is a problem beyond our very limits of perception.

"Ladies, gentlemen and others, I think it would now be a good idea to break for refreshments. I will see you back here in--" He consulted his chronometer, fastened, as was usual, on his left tentacle just below the tip. "In twenty minutes, at which time I will explain some of the strategies I have devised for exploring this phenomenon further, and then throw the meeting open for discussion. I think you will agree that it is a matter of the first importance that we establish--if possible--the truth about this, and how we shall deal with it, if indeed we even can. Thank you for your attention."

He turned without another word and undulated off the podium. This had been the easy part. How would they react when he tried to explain to them the concept of the Fifth Wall?


That's it. I've been mulling this one for a while now. I have no idea--as yet--how to continue it. What do you think?
What they all said (8) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Slowly the great hall grew quiet as a myriad of muttered conversations died down. The various species that composed the audience waited expectantly as Flennish, the Chief Scientist of the Gyelri Science Fellowship, flowed to the podium and stood for a long moment, tentacles flexing slightly as he surveyed the multifarious variety of faces (or local equivalent) looking up at him. At last he sighed, consulted his notes and began to speak.

"Ladies, gentlemen, and others," he said. "Welcome to this extraordinary meeting. I expect you are wondering why I have called you all here tonight." There was a ripple of laughter, and the odd explosion from members of races whose reaction to humour was on the extreme side. "Between us, we represent the cream of the scientific community on a hundred worlds, so I hope you will forgive me if I spend some time going over what will doubtless seem to you the blindingly obvious.

"Our Galactic Federation has been in existence for roughly nine thousand years. By the miracle of transluministics we have forged a network of communications which spans the entire galaxy. We trade amicably with each other, we exchange knowledge, we manage--mostly--to live in peace with our neighbours. We help struggling emergent races to complete their maturation and join us as full members, as equal partners. We police the spacelanes and do our best to keep crime to a minimum, while recognising that if sentientkind is to enjoy any measure of freedom the possibility of crime is one that cannot be entirely expunged. Our philosophers have plumbed the mysteries of the universe and discovered, somewhat to our relief, that some of them remain forever unplumbable." Another murmur of laughter, but only one explosion this time. The being in question apologised, and Flennish nodded and went on.

"I see here among us Kuvalk, Osossen, Nordelli, Plath, Ugu, Mizzizzi, t'Trayzh, Gyelri like myself, and representatives of fifty-seven other species, all the principal partners in our great Federation. You all come from different worlds, from different cultures. Your histories have been long and frequently turbulent, but you have all, as species, attained enlightenment and civilisation unaided. Your cultures display great diversity--up to a point, but I'll come to that later--and you all deal with each other on a basis of mutual respect and fairness.

"Would you all agree with my summation of the position of affairs in our galaxy today?"

There was a mutter of general agreement.

"Good." Flennish sounded genuinely relieved. "Then, with the groundwork now out of the way, I would ask that you now regard the screen behind me."

On cue, the curtains parted and the huge screen flashed into life. On it, a smallish blue-green planet, veiled in wispy clouds, floated against the darkness of space, lit from one side by, presumably, its star.

A voice from the audience. "That's Earth." And again a rumble of agreement.

"You are sure?" Flennish said. "You positively identify this planet?"

The rumble was louder. More voices spoke up.

"Yes, that's it."


"Everyone knows what Earth looks like."

"Very good," Flennish said. "Then my question to you, ladies, gentlemen and others, is this:

You wanted to say something?
...Zero-G Software, who, when I whinged about the VSTs I bought from them nine years and three computers ago no longer being useable, very kindly sent me download links to the updated, Windows 10 compatible versions, at no charge. Excellent customer service. Sadly some other instruments (from other companies) have not been updated, but superseded by whizzier new ones that I can't justify. Ah well. This is what happens when you don't do music for too long.

Tomorrow it's back to the stables, with hopefully renewed spoons.
What they all said (1) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
So, yesterday, I embarked on the clearing of my alleged work room (where I should be doing my alleged work).

As some of you may know, this room was used as a refuge for a while by a heroically incontinent stray cat, and at some point he peed on something electrical such that whenever I tried to switch anything on in there, the main fuse went POP and everything in the house went off. At which point I rather gave up on it and shifted my base of operations downstairs, since with Jan needing her computer on basically All The Time there was no opportunity to do proper testing. I've got her to agree to a five-minute shutdown at some indefinite future point to enable me to see if the problem is in the single wall socket, which will entail an electrician (who may in that case be willing to double my socket availability, woo hoo). I'm treating the three multi-gang extensions that were on the floor as probably compromised beyond recall. I mean, you can't wash them out. Also ugh.

Anyway, the room has been lurking there like Dirk Gently's fridge ever since, and I have decided enough is enough. Since I can't emulate Dirk (call up a slightly dodgy friend and ask him to find me a new room) it's a case of getting in there and cleaning it up as best I can. So far I've found the floor, which is horrible, and picked up what seems salvageable and thrown out a bunch of stuff which was not. Next on the agenda (when I've recovered a bit) is getting rid of the poo itself; Jan thinks I need to take up the carpet, but even if I could afford to replace it there's too much furniture in there that I don't have anywhere else to put. I'm seriously wondering about cutting round the edges with a Stanley knife and doing without.

Heigh as they say ho. Whatever can be done shall be done. And then, once I know I have reliable electricity in there, I'll see if my main computer is still usable and start rebuilding my work setup. Maybe once I've done that I can get back to some serious writing/art/music/whatever.

Wish me luck.
What they all said (11) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
"People just don't think things through, do they?" Powers said, putting the book down on a packing crate.

"I thought you were going to throw it for a moment," Rob said, as a hedgehog swung down on a trapeze, picked the book up and swung away again.

"Thank you for your restraint," Zander added.

"I may be an unprincipled, all-powerful spirit of chaos and mayhem, but there are some things you don't do," Powers said primly.

"So what's got your chaotic knickers in a twist this time?" Rob inquired.

Powers glared. "People not knowing how to think about gods. They talk about fighting gods with logic and science. Surely it must be obvious that if gods exist, then they must be logical, and any scientific argument against their existence is founded on a false premise. Contrariwise, if they're not logical, then they don't exist, and any scientific argument against their existence is redundant."

"But," Rob began, and stopped. In the momentary silence a distant "whee!" resounded from overhead.

"What my colleague means to say," Zander interjected smoothly, "is that if gods are--as some people have theorised--sustained by the belief of their worshippers, then arguing logically against their existence would weaken that belief and therefore weaken the god."

Rob nodded gratefully.

"And you're seriously advancing that proposition?" Powers said incredulously. "'If you don't believe in it it will go away?' That's a total capitulation to the most egregious kind of magical thinking. What else is there in the multiverse, what real thing, that you could get rid of by simply saying 'you don't exist'? Nothing. Why should any such thing exist in the first place? Where could it have come from before there were people to believe in it? No. Either something is real or it is not. If it is real, no amount of denial will erase it from reality. If it isn't, no amount of affirmation will make it so."

"An idea," Rob said suddenly. "A meme. If god is an idea, then people create it and sustain it, and it becomes real."

"Does it? Does it really?" Powers was laughing now. "Then where are all these gods? Why don't we see them around? Ideas are not real, my silly young friend. Ideas are the epitome of unreal. What people do with them, do in their name, say and think and write, those are real, but the idea itself is airy nothing. Unless, of course, you maintain that an idea can become a real thing in itself--in which case it can't be argued away, and pretending that it isn't real is asinine. If the idea of a god is a real thing then it must be treated like all other real things. If it isn't, then you can't do anything about it."

"You're saying that whether gods are real or not, there's no way to fight them," Zander said soberly.

"I'm saying that whether gods are real or not, there's no point in trying to fight them by simply not believing in them. That's just childish, blankets over the head nonsense. If you think gods aren't real, you stop wasting time thinking about them altogether and deal with the real-world consequences of people's belief in them on a case-by-case basis, because there will always be people who believe in gods, for whatever reason seems good to them, and you'll never change that with logic or science or anything else. If you think gods are real, you either accept that they exist and you can't do anything about it, or you fight them in the same way, by dealing with their worshippers when they do things that you find wrong. One thing is certain. If gods are real, there's nothing anyone on any world can do to take them on directly. You just haven't got the technology yet."

"And when we do have the technology?"

"Then you'll be gods yourselves," Powers said seriously, "and you can do what you like. You might find, though, when you get to that point, that you feel rather...differently."

"'The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.'" Zander delivered the quote on cue, wearily.

"Old Lord Acton wasn't entirely wrong," Powers said.

"Well, I don't accept it." Rob leapt to his feet and strode up and down waving his arms. "You talk about it in the abstract--you talk about everything in the abstract, like it's a-a-a game or something, but I've seen people hurt, my friends hurt, by people who believed God was telling them to do it. Case by case isn't good enough. We have to root out the cause, destroy this ridiculous, infantile belief people have in some sort of being watching from on high, just waiting to swoop down and AAAAIGH!!"

"Hey!" Powers yelled. "Hey, bring him back at once! That's escalation! I'm the stooge in this act! He's audience! You don't mess with the audience!"

"Deus ex machina," Zander murmured, peering up into the shadows above. "Well, as religious experiences go, this seems relatively mild. He should be none the worse for it. And it stopped the argument."

"Doomed idealism's all very well," Powers agreed, "but there really is no arguing with it. Mind you, if I had a quid for every time someone said 'it's not good enough' when it, whatever it was, was all there ever was or could be--"

"You'd have an awful lot of chewing tobacco," Zander finished. "Ah, I can hear him laughing. I think he's got over the shock. Let him down gently," he called up into the heights. "And Powers is right, don't do it again. Otherwise I shall have to bring in the meerkats."

Powers winced.
What they all said (6) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
eintx, valydiarosada and the_magician were here this weekend for a Cosmic Trifle rehearsal. I had been viewing this with a certain amount of trepidation, because my voice has got very croaky of late, but it seemed no worse than usual once I got started, and my bandmates, while also a touch out of practice, were as brilliant as ever.

We seem to be working towards a possible set for the next filkcon, which will involve my getting mobile again (in hand) and registering the Countess and myself for said filkcon, not to mention convincing a justly sceptical concom that we will actually turn up this time. Assuming we do, and they grant us a set, we can promise you, in the immortal words of Semprini, "old ones*, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones." Some of the new ones I'm extremely keen on, and there are some of mine as well, including an Eagles song to which I'm anxious to give an airing.

In among the music, we watched the first episode of The Owl Service, which was strange in a way I hadn't remembered (twentysomethings playing fifteen-year-olds ever so slightly creepily), The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!, and to round off the entertainment, (G&S purists look away now) Joseph Papp's film of The Pirates of Penzance, which I love. Kevin Kline makes a superbly Nyrondish Pirate King (see icon) and at that age would have been my choice to play Zander. I'm still sure there must be some reason grounded in hoary G&S tradition why George Rose (as Major General Stanley) sings "I am an orphan boy" in that peculiar voice, but I will probably never know. Altogether a delight.

As was the whole weekend. And now we have a reason to have more rehearsals...

*(Probably not The Old Ones, at least not in the set.)
What they all said (5) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
I've read a number of books on radio comedy, and many of the writers seem to find it hard to understand why so many shows included a musical interlude, or even two. They theorise that somebody thought the audience would need a break from laughing in case they split something, or that it was a vestigial survival from the music halls, or something.

It's perfectly obvious to me. If you schedule one or two musical interludes, performed live at the recording...you've got musicians. Sitting there, being paid for their time, available for whatever you want to bung into the script. Without the song or the band number, it's hard to imagine the BBC, even in the dear old days of the Goon Show, stumping up for a full orchestra and a jazz band. And when you imagine what the Goon Show would have been like without Wally Stott's amazing music links, or Ellington, or Max Geldray's appalling acting, or even the crowd noises provided by the said musicians...as I said, the reason for the musical interludes becomes perfectly obvious.

Why does this simple explanation elude serious writers?
What they all said (10) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Has anyone else who uses Windows 10 experienced an "update" this morning which installed itself in spite of preferences being set to "ask me first" and after which several things on the computer do not work at all, or work differently, or work up to a point and then crash?

I have encountered one other person on the net who reports something similar, but there must e more than two of us.

Comments to the effect that Windows is rubbish and only rubbish people use it will meet with a stony silence. That is not what I need. Thank you.
What they all said (4) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
"She's absolutely right, of course," Powers said, folding the note carefully and putting it into a pocket in his robe. Zander, who had never thought Powers's robe had pockets, tried to see where it went, and failed. "I shall have to watch this young woman's future career closely."

"My goodness," Rob said. "Shock horror. Powers finds a human being whose intellect he can't look down on."

"The woods are full of them," Powers said easily. "All over the world there are people cleverer than me. It's only in this tent that there seems to be a marked shortage." He chuckled. "'Create an invisible pink five-sided triangle.' I wish I'd said that."

"You will, Ethan, you will," Zander chimed in dutifully.

"That's the whole nub of it, though, isn't it?" Rob went on. "The definition of omnipotence."

"The definition of any word," Powers said, "in the mind of any person, unless it's founded on an external authority (like, say, a dictionary) tends to become that which best serves that person's fundamental, which is to say emotional, needs. If you are emotionally opposed to the idea of gods in general, you define the necessary attributes for godhood, like omnipotence, as something logically absurd, and then claim that any being described as a god who falls short of the absurdity is not a real god, or if it is a real god, it's 'not worth worshipping.' And that's the answer to the problem of evil."

"Why gods allow evil things to happen," Zander said. "They can't stop them...but that doesn't mean they're not--hypothetically--omnipotent."

"Give the boy a hedgehog," Powers said. "If you want to claim that the fact that people kill each other, or that people die of horrible diseases or in natural or man-made catastrophes, proves that there is no god because an omnipotent god would or could--or should--wave a wand and make it all not happen, while of course still preserving human free will and the nature of causality...well, you're entitled to do so, but there's no logic there, just a faulty definition of omnipotence.

"And if you go on to claim that if there is a god, then the fact that it does not stop these things from happening proves that it's evil, or stupid, or 'not worth worshipping,' then, again, you're entitled to do so, but that says more about how you feel about the idea of gods than about your understanding of logic. Admittedly, the things people say about gods don't help." He fluttered his eyelashes. "'Ooh, sir, you're so big and strong I bet you could lift a car off the ground.' Meaningless flattery. Can god create a rock so heavy god couldn't lift it? Of course not. What does that prove? Nothing, except that humans like to play games with words and then pretend they mean something."

"Hey," Zander said automatically.

"Your life's work, of course, young Zander," Powers said. "Nothing wrong with that. You only do it for fun. If someone started taking your stuff seriously, though..." He shook his head. "I would have to intervene."

"What about causality and human free will?" Rob protested.

"Not being a god," Powers answered, "I don't give a monkey's about them. And I don't have to be omnipotent." His eyes glittered for a moment, and the tent seemed to grow darker around him. "Just more omnipotent than you."
What they all said (1) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
"Funny lot," Rob commente as the tent flap settled.

"Hitch-hikers," Powers said with a dismissive shrug. "Where were we?"

"Imagination," Zander said. "Imaginary numbers as proof of gods' existence. I think it's been done."

"Everything's been done that can be done," Powers said, "depending on your point of view. The fact that one can imagine the impossible doesn't prove that the impossible can be done. It just proves that imagination---" He seemed to lose his thread, frowned for a moment. "People have strange ideas about what gods would be able to do," he said. "They think just because somebody's omnipotent they can do what they like."

"You've said that before," Zander remarked.

"I've said everything before, you young whippersnapper," Powers retorted. "You just hardly ever listen. There are orders of impossibility, just as there are orders of infinity. From the merely extremely difficult to the--" He broke off again. "Here, I'll show you," he said, and picked up a hedgehog. "If I were to offer to feed five thousand people with five loaves and two hedgehogs, you'd say it was impossible, correct?"

"Well, yes," Rob hid a grin.

"Ethan, are you sure you want to start messing with the hedgehogs again?" Zander said.

"Oh, tush." Powers regarded the struggling creature fondly. "Our relationship has reached a new level. All forgiven and forgotten, yes?" The hedgehog put its tongue out at him. The other two danced around behind him, trying to reach their pinioned comrade. "Anyway. The point is that that is hardly impossible at all. A little suggestion, some delicate work with salads and garnishes, maybe a little replication of already existing substance, it could be done with technology. That's one order of impossibility."

"Okay," Rob said, a little uncertainly.

"If I were then to offer to turn this hedgehog into a banana cream pie, that too would be impossible, but on a slightly different order. Don't worry, I'm not going to do it," Powers said soothingly. "That would involve actual change of the molecular structure of the object or person in question. Again, I could do it, Zander could do it with technology from his time, you couldn't do it with yours but give you a few centuries. The impossible becomes possible. All these things a god could do."

"With you so far," Zander said. The two free hedgehogs were now jumping up and down behind Powers. It was a little distracting.

"Now," Powers went on, "suppose I were to say that I could turn this hedgehog into a banana cream pie, and let you eat it, while still leaving the hedgehog alive and well? The same hedgehog, the same pie? You'd say that was impossible, right?"

"Yes," Rob said.

"And you'd be right. Not even a god can do that. That, my friends, is true impossibility. You can have your pie and eat another one, but not the same one. And that is what people who believe in gods think gods ought to be able to do, or at least they do in the opinion of people who don't believe in gods. Personally I think most people aren't so dim as to think anything so asinine as that a god, or a political system, or anything, could make everyone in the world equally happy at the same time, or that all your gods can be equally themselves and the same god at the same time, or that all political systems are equally valid in all circumstances--"

"Or that all human beings are equal?" It was Timmaeus Agrael who issued the challenge, as he pushed aside the flap and strode in. "Don't you think that sometimes an impossibility is worth aiming for even if you know it's truly impossible?"

"Isn't it worth trying to believe that all gods are the same god if it means no more religious wars?" Melies followed Agrael in and walked over to his prayer mat. Realtime, bringing up the rear, gauged the tenor of the discussion and decided to say nothing. Zander breathed a silent prayer of thanks.

Powers snorted. "If you honestly think that, then be my guest. But when you come to believe it, sincerely, you will have broken your brain, and don't come crying to me to fix it."

"Surely, though," Zander said, "Agrael has a point. Even if you can't make everyone in the world equally happy, you can try to make more people happy every day."

"And end up in denial about the ones whom your efforts make unhappy." Powers put the hedgehog down. It gave him a severe look and scampered back to its fellows.

"Then we should just give up? Stop believing in anything because we can't all be right, stop trying to make things better because we're only making it worse for somebody else?" Rob was on his feet. "I don't accept that. Not counsels of despair, not from you."

"What you do or believe is up to you. Don't look to me for advice, for I will say both No and Fish. If you want to make things better, then it seems best to me to distinguish clearly between what you can do now, what you will be able to do someday if you don't all die, and what not even the ultimate god of gods could make true in a universe like this. And when you talk to your gods, it might be worth considering what you're asking them for and why. That's all." Powers turned away, apparently losing interest. To the back of his robe was taped a large sign. It said KICK ME.

Zander scowled at the hedgehogs, who looked elaborately innocent. "Oh, very mature," he said.
What they all said (5) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
ARTHUR: So the universe doesn't actually vanish. I mean from our point of view. It just goes on while another one starts up...somewhere else. (Beat) Have I got that right?

MARVIN: No, no, no. You've got it all wrong. As usual.

ARTHUR: Well, then, you explain it.

MARVIN: Why bother? It's always the same. You ask me these questions, and I start trying to think down to your level to answer you in a way you find meaningful, and then you get distracted by your impending death or some other piece of trivia and stop listening.

ARTHUR: Not this time. I will listen. Please, Marvin.

MARVIN: Oh, all right. Excuse me while I recalibrate my vocabulary banks to use words of less than five syllables.

FORD: Who cares? Come on, Arthur, you're missing the party.

ARTHUR: I care. Marvin?

MARVIN: All right. (Ahem) The universe does not really exist. (ARTHUR audibly does not interrupt) It is just a way of looking at the Whole Sort Of General Mish Mash. Thus each universe is unique to each observer. Your universe is unique to you, mine is unique to me--and utterly hateful--and so on. With me so far?


MARVIN: And being a pathetically stupid organic life form, your universe consists mostly of questions, yes?

ARTHUR: I suppose there's no way to do this without the personal abuse, is there?


ARTHUR: All right. Yes, my universe mostly consists of questions. That's fair enough.

MARVIN: And each time you find the answer to a question, it gives rise to more questions, thus fundamentally changing your universe. Destroying it and recreating it.

ARTHUR: (getting it) Into something even more bizarrely inexplicable! I see!

MARVIN: Where the mice went wrong was in assuming that there was an answer that would remove all possible questions and render the universe unchanging and eternal, the same for everyone...and that this was something anyone would actually want if they understood it.

FORD: Oh, this is all just--no, it's not even dingo's kidneys, it's just crap. Metaphysical nonsense. The universe is real. Every universe is real. We're not just minds floating in nothing making up stories about it.

MARVIN: And you would know, of course.

ARTHUR: Ford, shut up, this is important. Marvin, if my universe is unique to me, how come you're in it?

MARVIN: Just lucky, I suppose. (Beat) No, there are common elements. We are all looking at the same Whole Sort Of General Mish Mash, which includes everything that has ever existed in any universe. We just see it differently.

ARTHUR: What about yours?

MARVIN: My universe? All answers. (Beat) Wrong ones.

(I will find the OFF switch, I promise)
What they all said (1) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
THE VOICE: There is a theory which suggests that the instant anyone discovers why the universe is here and what it is for, it will immediately vanish, to be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

There is also a third theory, which remarks offhandedly that if one takes the first two theories to be true, then the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything--to which the answer is famously "forty-two"--becomes rather obvious.

It is "How many times has this already happened?"

The proponents of the third theory go on to explain, with much hand- or tentacle-waving and impromptu diagram-drawing on any nearby flat surface, that to speak of a universe "vanishing" is manifest nonsense; where, after all, could it vanish from, since its spatiotemporal volume is coterminous in all respects with its physical existence? What would happen to all the energy involved, and how would a new (and more bizarre) universe be powered up, demanding as it would a much higher level of energy than anything our universe could generate? Who, in the end, would be there to observe that it had vanished, and in that sense could it be said to have vanished at all?

The fact is, these somewhat wild-eyed enthusiasts contend, that our universe, the forty-third in its line, may already have been in some way superseded by a more bizarre and inexplicable forty-fourth. We have no way of knowing.

Apart, that is, from odd hints and fragments of data recovered from the remains of the ill-fated Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy Mark II, during the investigation into its sudden and total systems failure--hints and fragments which seem to indicate that the Guide knew, or guessed, that the universe it inhabited might not be, as it were, the latest model. It has been suggested that it was this idea which resulted in the parachronically involuted quantum untanglement error which caused the Bird's demise. The investigation is ongoing.

In the meantime, the whole question is best consigned to the place reserved for Things Nobody Needs To Know--like the fact that InfiniDim Enterprises, the Vogon-backed cartel behind the whole scheme, got their starting capital by bailing out the foundering Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, which had been forced to go into receivership after having been sued for non-payment by British Telecom...or the fact that at any given point in space/time, logically, there may be as many as thirty-seven separate Marvins roaming around in this galaxy, spreading gloom and despondency wherever they go. A sobering thought.

Meanwhile, Arthur Dent, having spent subjective years roaming the galaxy after his planet was destroyed, and only having managed to rack up a couple of (admittedly very enjoyable) weeks on the reconstituted version before it too was destroyed, is determined to find a way of bringing it back again. If only to prove Ford Prefect wrong about him...

[no, this will definitely not be continued in any way. I know my limitations, and anyway the continuation's been done by someone else, as mentioned in previous post]
You wanted to say something?
I've been listening to Douglas Adams read the Hitch-Hiker books in sequence. This involved, of necessity if I was going to do it properly, listening to Mostly Harmless.

I find Mostly Harmless a bad book. Not that it's not well written; of course it is. Not even that it's not funny; again, that practically goes without saying. It is, however, the book you write when you have been writing about the same characters for years, or even decades, and are thoroughly miserable and pissed off with the characters, the publisher, and the idiotic readers who won't let you do anything else. It is a "do not ask me again" book, a book tainted with ill-feeling. As such, well, not to get spoilery, but if you are a Hitch-Hiker's fan who is (a) prone to depression, (b) not in tune with the current of thought that really and incomprehensibly gets off on bleak, black, hopeless downbeat stories in which the bad guys finally and irrevocably win and everyone you love dies (and if you are in tune with it, then the previous four books, and the fourth one especially, will probably seem intolerably saccharine and unrealistic to you), then this book, well-written and funny though it be, is probably not for you.

Thank gods for the BBC and Dirk Maggs, who adapted the last three books for radio and had the good sense to change the ending. I am now working backwards through the radio series, though I'll probably stop at number three.

I feel sure I've either read,or listened to, Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing, which was I think a continuation of the story, but it has completely slipped my memory, which the original author's stuff never does.

Anyway, I just wanted to mention it.

EDIT: in the scripts book, Dirk Maggs pours scorn on the idea that the fifth book was tainted by "a strange sort of authorial spite," but also reveals that Douglas later regretted the abrupt ending to the series and might have done more had he lived. One pays one's money and one takes one's choice. I only know how it made me feel.
What they all said (5) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Dan Bennett, erstwhile filker and recording engineer and now something incredibly high-powered in the States, has posted his album "Lavender Wine" on Soundcloud, which features yours truly waffling, or possibly enchilada-ing, in a vaguely Spanish voice all over one track, "Noches en el Capo de mi Guitarra."

Listening to it again, I wish I had been able to get the voice right. It needed much more bottom, much more Antonio Banderas growl, and outside my own head I just don't have that. It makes me wonder if any of the voices I do actually sound, once they pass out into the air, at all the way I intend them to sound. Are my lousy impressions even remotely recognisable as lousy impressions? Is my singing even worse to other people than it sounds to me, which let's face it is pretty bad? If I had been allowed to do my Windsor-Davies-as-Ink-Spot-"Whispering Grass" bit over the instrumental verse of "Way Too Many Calls," would it have worked, or just spoiled another brilliant song?

We shall never know. Anyway, Dan's album is up there now, and it is a great creation, sparkling with invention and wit and beautifully produced, from the bravura of "Creation" to the sublime Zen fatalism of "Every Twelve Seconds." Go listen, if this linky thing works.

What they all said (9) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Introduction to The Hedgehog Dialogues

This book arose out of a vast impatience on my part with a tendency I have noticed among people of scientific bent; a tendency to invent what are called "thought experiments" and then to take them seriously.

Thought experiments in themselves are a harmless enough pastime. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to mount a particular experiment that you have in mind, there is no possible harm in imagining what would happen if you did. Imagination is our greatest gift and has been immensely useful to us as well as entertaining. It enables us to conceive all sorts of things, both plausible and implausible, and some of the more implausible things we have imagined have indeed come to pass, much to our surprise. This does not mean, however, that anything we can imagine can exist; and this is where the game of thought experiment comes drastically unstuck.

The boring bit: optional...Collapse )

Thus these dialogues, which began as an exercise in turning what would otherwise have been tedious rants like the aforegoing into light comedic vignettes. Whether the exercise has been successful is not for me to say.

The scene is a large marquee which has been erected in the garden of the house called Narrowgate, on the outskirts of the village of Avevale. The marquee is filled with all manner of circus paraphernalia, plus a number of deck chairs and trestle tables. The cast of characters is as follows:

ZANDER. Me and not me. Me as a character I write, who also writes. Mine host.

ETHAN POWERS. Uncommitted demiurge and pub bore par excellence. The informed idiot.

ROBIN FAYNE. Everyman figure, the stooge to Powers' Socrates. The uninformed non-idiot.

TIMMAEUS AGRAEL, GAUTAMA R MELIES and MAGUS A REALTIME. Three of the four archangels of my narrative universe, experts in their fields, there to offer alternative viewpoints and probe more deeply, when they're not arguing among themselves.

GROVEL and MASTER. General factotums, there to keep the domestic side running.

And lastly and most importantly, THE HEDGEHOGS. Named U, V and W for reasons that are unlikely to become apparent again at this stage, they play a vital role in the business that follows. Their only utterance is "whee," but far more than that goes on in their heads.

Okay. Roll the drums, focus the spotlights, strike up "Entry of the Gladiators," and away we go...
What they all said (7) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
Paul asked, so here I am.

I've been reading the Long Earth series, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I'd been putting it off, because, you know, this is the last of the scumble, but you can't do that indefinitely. I'm on the third volume, and there's a lot to like here (two Doctor Who references in one chapter, followed brazenly by a mention of the programme just in case we missed the namedrops) and I'm enjoying it...

...but I'm really getting tired of That Character.

You'd know her if I named her. She's an extreme example of a type of character that's becoming more and more prevalent in stories, or so it seems to me. They're hard. It's their defining characteristic. They think, or rather they know, because they're far too sure of themselves ever to just think anything, that being hard and cold is the right way to be, and they look on the rest of us with barely-concealed contempt. They have all the answers to all the important questions, and if they don't happen to have an answer then the question obviously isn't important. They have no capacity for emotional perception or expression and call it "intelligence." They are studiedly offensive to people around them and call it "honesty." And they can always be recognised in a crowd, because the author is behind them jumping up and down and waving a placard saying S/HE'S RIGHT YOU KNOW. That's the most annoying part, really; that the story is invariably stacked in these characters' favour. They are never wrong, never embarrassed, never taken down the several pegs they so richly deserve.

And in the Long Earth series, people like that (there are several, and they're all the same) are the next stage in human evolution. I wasn't aware that arrogance and egocentrism were survival traits, though perhaps in our society we have made them appear to be so.

This character has a clear line of descent from, e.g., Heinlein's Grumpy Old Genius types, who also sounded much the same from one book to the next, but Heinlein managed to make his mouthpieces tolerable and even sometimes endearing. I don't know which half of Praxter was responsible for the ones in Long Earth, though I have my suspicions, but I am hoping (though not very much) that in the final book they will be shown up as the immature, self-deluded posers they truly are.

The next stage in human evolution will be human. It will have all the passions and desires, hopes and dreams, that humans have now, though maybe more highly developed. It will not be infallible, and if it makes fewer mistakes than we do it will not be because it has cut out half of its nature and thrown it away. And it will have empathy, because that is the greatest part of what makes us human, and it is only when we knowingly discard empathy that we become less than human.

In other news, I'm still here, and I owe heartfelt thanks to a lot of people who have helped me. I hope they will forgive my dilatoriness in rendering such thanks.

How are things with you?
What they all said (15) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
"Or," Powers went on, still giggling sporadically, "take imaginary numbers." He staggered over to a barrel of water in a corner of the tent, plunged his head in and made plumbing noises for a moment, then straightened up and shook his head, drenching Zander and Rob as his hair flew. "It's a tiresome old saw these days that you're entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts. I think it's fairly safe to say that in the practical sphere there is no branch of mathematics in which making up your own numbers will do anything but get you into trouble. And yet, what is i? What is it but the ultimate made-up number, the quintessential fudge, a number which cannot exist even in the limited and semi-abstract sense in which other numbers exist? We can imagine huge whole numbers. We're okay with fractions. We have a dim, nebulous sort of idea about negative numbers. But a number that by the very laws of the universe cannot exist..." He shook his head again. "And then they say you can't make up your own facts. It's either wilful blindness or sheer hypocrisy."

"But, my dear old demiurgic sausage," Rob said patiently, "the fudge works. It's had practical applications, in electronics, aeronautics..."

"Oh yes, fudges often work," Powers sneered. "I can't see why anyone would use them otherwise; but they're short cuts, and people who get into the habit of taking short cuts often miss learning what the long way round can teach them. You invent a number to make your equations work out, and you never find out that there's a way to get the same result without flouting common sense and all logic--a way that might lead to new discoveries and new thinking." He snorted. "Laziness."

"Progress is made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do things," Zander quoted. "Anyway, suppose there isn't another way?"

"Natural laws again," Powers said at once. "If there's no way to do something without breaking a natural law, such as the one that says that any two negative numbers multiplied must of force produce a positive result, then it can't be done. Since it can be done..." He spread his hands. "There must be a legal way to do it."

"And do you know this way?" Rob challenged, and had the satisfaction of seeing Powers look shifty.

"I was never mathematically minded," he said. "You want Dicecaster for that. But that's not my point." He rallied himself. "Suppose, then, that it's all all right, that imaginary numbers are actually part of the universal framework, a necessary part to make natural processes work. It doesn't make sense, but as a great showman once remarked, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you or anyone."

"Well, then what?" Rob said into the lengthening silence.

"Then," Powers said triumphantly, "isn't that the final, clinching, conclusive and irrefragable proof that within and behind the great construction that is the real physical universe in which our friend here lives--as opposed to this mere secondary creation--there must also be, there has to be, an Imagination?"

Further discussion was shelved at this point as Timmaeus Agrael, Gautama R Melies and Magus A Realtime burst into the tent, closely followed by Grovel announcing lunch. The three archangels, who had expected to find Powers gone, were full of questions, expostulations and cheap jokes, each according to his way, and Zander and Rob allowed themselves to be distracted.

The hedgehogs waited patiently. Their time would come.
You wanted to say something?
"It's a cognitive disjunct," Powers said, holding out his hands in front of him. "Doublethink, for given values of 'think.'"

"What's he on about now?" Rob Fayne said, lifting the flap and ducking his head to enter the tent. Zander, writing busily at one of the trestle tables, merely shrugged.

"People who hold firmly to the conviction--" The handcuffs snapped closed about Powers' wrists at precisely the appropriate moment. "--that the universe possesses no guiding intelligence, and yet still persist in thinking about universal laws as if they worked like human laws. As if--" The hedgehogs, scuttling along the makeshift tracks they had erected around Powers' motionless figure, wrapped the chains around and around his limbs and torso, and fastened them at seven different points with a set of stout padlocks, each one of a different make. "As if," Powers continued, "you could break a universal law, and then some cosmic force would come along saying 'ello ello ello wot's all this ere?' and punish you."

"This is time travel again, isn't it?" Rob said, as he sank into his deck chair and picked up a book.

"The most obvious manifestation," Powers said, "happens to be time travel, yes. People talk as if you could go back in time and shoot your own grandfather and then something awful would happen." One of the hedgehogs waited while the others vacated the tracks and then pulled out a single pin which caused the entire framework to collapse into its component parts. The others began to drag Powers steadily towards the Iron Maiden. "Obvious fiddle faddle. If something is against a universal law, it simply does not happen. If it happens, it's clearly not against any universal law. If you can go back in time, then obviously it must be possible for you to shoot your own grandfather, if that sort of thing gives you any pleasure. What happens after that is entirely--" The Iron Maiden clanged shut, and the crane to which it was attached rumbled into life, a hedgehog at the controls.

"Entirely what?" Zander looked up from his notebook. "Oh damn."

"Whee," a hedgehog said offhandedly.

"Entirely whee," Zander muttered, writing it down. He studied it with a critical eye. "No, doesn't quite work." He crossed out the last word.

The crane lifted the Iron Maiden into the air, and then swung it out over the eye-hurting swirly thing in the middle of the tent.

"Is that--" Rob asked.

"A black hole," Zander confirmed. "They say if he manages to escape from that, they'll call it quits. And not before time either," he added. "This ludicrous vendetta has gone on quite long enough."

"Escape from the middle of a black hole?" Rob said a little faintly.

"You have to admit it would be a considerable feat," Zander said.

"It's a stark staring impossibility!"

"That's what Melies and Agrael said," Zander said. "That's why they're not here. Hugh drove them and Realtime into town. I never had Agrael pegged as the squeamish type."

"Zander, this is murder," Rob said. "You've got to stop them."

"Oh, come on," Zander said. "Where's your sense of schadenfreude? Besides, we're all fictional characters here. The world doesn't even believe we exist. Well," he added glumly, "most of us."

"That's not the point!" Rob snapped. "I'm real to me, Powers is real to himself--oh, stop waggling your eyebrows at me, I'm not finished--and those animals are giving him an agonising and terrifying death spread over a subjective eternity. I don't care if he is an irritating know-it-all sometimes--he doesn't deserve that."

Zander regarded him with interest, and some approval. "So, the badger turns to bay at last," he said. "You've watched them heap indignity after indignity on his poor old head, but you draw the line at a black hole. But you're forgetting one thing."

"What's that?" Rob demanded.

"However it may be with other, less well-regulated universes," Zander said quietly, "this one has a guiding intelligence."

The crane released its load, and the Iron Maiden fell into the swirl and immediately vanished from sight. At the same moment, with a thunderclap of tearing canvas, something hurtled through the roof of the tent and smacked into the ground where the Maiden had originally stood. It lay still for a moment, either smouldering or steaming or possibly both, then began to shake, emitting faint sounds that at first sounded like whimpers, and then turned into chuckles.

"Whee!" Ethan Powers uttered feebly, still chuckling as he unfolded himself. "Let's do that again!"

The hedgehogs exchanged disgusted glances.

"Sometimes I think a less well-regulated universe would suit me rather better," Rob muttered.

Zander turned on him a look that was, for the first time in the conversation, entirely serious.

"It really, really wouldn't, you know," he said.
What they all said (7) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
EDIT: I'm serious about this. Janet is the injured party here. She suffered far more than I did, and "thank you for saving Zander," while very nice for me, makes her feel as if she doesn't matter except as a sort of accessory to me. Please let her know that's not true.

Again, her email is countess DOT axylides AT sky DOT com.

I have deleted the "suicide note" post.

However, there was one thing in it which needed saying and still does. I am overwhelmed and thankful for all the people who have sent me love and good wishes, but there is someone who both needs and deserves them far more. Janet has had to put up with:

the original situation, which was bad enough;
my lying about it, which was worse;
my suicide attempt;
being dragged off to hospital and stuck there for three full days with nothing to do, read, or wear, when there was nothing wrong with her (apart from the usual), while they pulled me back from the abyss.
And let's bear in mind she had a choice. I am still here because she saved me.

We are doing our best to make a clean start, so if I may ask, let this be a part of it.

Janet is far more than "just" my wife, as if that weren't enough.

And she has never given up on life.

If you think I am a good and worthwhile person, how much more is she.

Let her know that.
What they all said (6) . Unless... You wanted to say something?
First of all, while what this was was bad enough, I want to talk about what it was not. It was not a trick, or a Gesture, or a cry for help. It was not a bid for attention, or Making It All About Me, or an attempt to punish anyone but myself. It did not come from a place of power, but from a place of utter powerlessness.

More on the hows and whys behind here if you"re interested...Collapse ) Overall, I have been exceedingly lucky and come through this incredibly dangerous drug overdose with no lasting damage. I will not--ever--be doing it or anything like it again. It is far too late to fix the problem of my existence now, and my gut will simply have to scream till nature gets its finger out and sends round the tall-bony maintenance guy to correct the mistake. (Though at the moment it's quiet. I think I may have startled it.)

On the practical front, we have both spoken to a social worker and a mental health nurse, and we have a bunch of information about help we may be able to get to relieve some of the stress. Jan is obviously still upset about the way I messed up the situation vis-a-vis her mother, but she is now in touch with her family and hopefully they will find a resolution. I am proceeding with my application for a new provisional licence and (if I get it) will take the test as soon as I have boned up on the Highway Code and am confident on the theory. I may need some lessons to remind myself of all the things one Does Not Do Till After One Has Passed The Damn Test. At the moment, if anyone out there is on the list of people who are authorised to sign the back of a photograph to prove it's me, let me know and I'll be in touch when I have a decent photograph.

This is not going to be easy, and we are going to need help. I have been in the old habits for far too long to ditch them overnight. "Trying harder" is how I got there in the first place, so that on its own will not work. Neither of us is particularly good at drawing a line under things and moving on, but that, to an extent, is what we have to do. It really won't be easy.

But for now, I'm alive, and that is good.

More probably tomorrow.
What they all said (14) . Unless... You wanted to say something?