Lost technologies, Seveneves, and The Secret of Our Success

Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t read Seveneves by now they probably don’t matter.

Seveneves is an unusual and great novel, and it’s great as long as you attribute some of its less plausible elements to an author building a world. One plausible element is the way humanity comes together and keeps the social, political, and economic systems functional enough to launch large numbers of spacecraft in the face of imminent collective death. If we collectively had two years to live, I suspect total breakdown would follow, leaving us with no Cloud Ark (and no story—thus we go along with the premise).

But that’s not the main thing I want to write about. Instead, consider the loss of knowledge that inherently comes with population decline. In Seveneves humanity declines to seven women living in space on a massive iron remnant of the moon. They slowly repopulate, with their descendants living in space for five thousand years. But a population of seven would probably not be able to retain and transmit the specialized knowledge necessary for survival on most parts of Earth, let alone space.

That isn’t a speculative claim. We have pretty good evidence for the way small populations lose knowledge. Something drew me to re-reading Joseph Henrich’s excellent book The Secret of Our Success, and maybe the sections about technological loss are part of it. He writes about many examples of European explorers getting lost and dying in relatively fecund environments because they don’t have the local knowledge and customs necessary to survive. He writes about indigenous groups too, including the Polar Intuit, who “live in an isolated region of northwestern Greenland [. . . .] They are the northernmost human population that has ever existed” (211). But

Sometime in the 1820s an epidemic hit this population and selectively killed off many of its oldest and most knowledgable members. With the sudden disappearance of the know-how carried by these individuals, the group collectively lost its ability to make some of its most crucial and complex tools, including leisters, bows and arrows, the heat-trapping long entry ways for snow houses, and most important, kayaks.

As a result, “The population declined until 1862, when another group of Intuit from around Baffin Island ran across them while traveling along the Greenland coast. The subsequent cultural reconnection led the Polar Intuit to rapidly reacquire what they had lost.” Which is essential:

Though crucial to survival in the Arctic, the lost technologies were not things that the Polar Intuit could easily recreate Even having seen these technologies in operation as children, and with their population crashing, neither the older generation nor an entirely new generation responded to Mother Necessity by devising kayaks, leisters, compound bows, or long tunnel entrances.

Innovation is hard and relatively rare. We’re all part of a network that transmits knowledge horizontally, from peer to peer, and vertically, from older person to younger person. Today, people in first-world countries are used to innovation because we’re part of a vast network of billions of people who are constantly learning from each and transmitting the innovations that do arise. We’re used to seemingly automatic innovation, because so many people are working on so many problems. Unless we’re employed as researchers, we’re often not cognizant of how much effort goes into both discovery and then transmission.

Without that dense network of people, though, much of what we know would be lost. Maybe the best-known example of technology loss happened when the Roman Empire fell, followed by the way ancient Egyptians lost the know-how necessary to build pyramids and other epic engineering works.

In a Seveneves scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the novel’s protagonists would be able to sustain and transmit the knowledge necessary to live somewhere on earth, let alone somewhere as hostile as space. Quick: how helpful would you be in designing and manufacturing microchips, solar panels, nuclear reactors, plant biology, or oxygen systems? Yeah, me too. Those complex technologies have research, design, and manufacture facets that are embodied in the heads of thousands if not millions of individuals. The level of specialization our society has achieved is incredible, but we rarely think about how incredible it really is.

This is not so much a criticism of the novel—I consider the fact that they do survive part of granting the author his due—but it is a contextualization of the novel’s ideas. The evidence that knowledge is fragile is more pervasive and available than I’d thought when I was younger. We like stories of individual agency, but in actuality we’re better conceived of as parts in a massive system. We can see our susceptibility to conspiracy theories as beliefs in the excessive power of the individual. In an essay from Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes: “Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” The world itself is big, densely interconnected, and our ability to change it is real but often smaller than we imagine.

Henrich writes:

Once individuals evolve to learn from one another with sufficient accuracy (fidelity), social groups of individuals develop what might be called collective brains. The power of these collective brains to develop increasingly effective tools and technologies, as well as other forms of nonmaterial culture (e.g., know-how), depends in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social connectedness. (212)

The Secret of Our Success also cites laboratory recreations of similar principles; those experiments are too long to describe here, but they are clever. If there are good critiques of the chapter and idea, I haven’t found them (and if you know any, let’s use our collective brain by posting links in the comments). Henrich emphasizes:

If a population suddenly shrinks or gets socially disconnected, it can actually lose adaptive cultural information, resulting in a loss of technical skills and the disappearance of complex technologies. [. . . ] A population’s size and social interconnectedness sets a maximum on the size of a group’s collective brain. (218-9)

That size cap means that small populations in space, even if they are composed of highly skilled and competent individuals, are unlikely to survive over generations. They are unlikely to survive even if they have the rest of humanity’s explicit knowledge recorded on disk. There is too much tacit knowledge for explicit knowledge in and of itself to be useful, as anyone who has ever tried to learn from a book and then from a good teacher knows. Someday we may be able to survive indefinitely in space, but today we’re far from that stage.

Almost all post-apocalyptic novels face the small-population dilemma to some extent (I’d argue that Seveneves can be seen as a post-apocalyptic novel with a novel apocalypse). Think of the role played by the nuclear reactor in Steven King’s The Stand: the characters in the immediate aftermath must decide if they’re going to live in the dark and regress to hunter-gatherer times, at best, or if they’re going to save and use the reactor to live in the light (the metaphoric implications are not hard to perceive here). In one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, two generations after the disaster, descendants of technologically sophisticated people are reduced to using melted-down coins as tips for spears and arrows. In Threads, the movie (and my nominee for scariest movie ever made), the descendants of survivors of nuclear war lose most of their vocabulary and are reduced to what is by modern standards an impoverished language that is a sort of inadvertent 1984 newspeak.* Let’s hope we don’t find out what actually happens after nuclear war.

In short, kill enough neurons in the collective brain and the brain itself stops working. Which has happened before. And it could happen again.


* Check out the cars in Britain in Threads: that reminds us of the possibilities of technological progress and advancement.

Briefly noted: Camino Island — John Grisham

Somewhere I read an article, now lost to me, about Grisham that convinced me to try Camino Island. Unfortunately, it’s bad from the first page and even the second sentence:

The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged stationary, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald [. . .]

You don’t need the word “budding.” It’s a cliché and adds nothing to the description. Almost any “soon-to-be doctoral student” is a “budding scholar.” On the same page we learn that the letter “arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along [. . .]” How does one “duly” sort things? Are some things “unduly sorted?”

A little later, a sentence begins, “His was a gang of five [. . .]” Even something simple like “His gang had four other members” is less awkward.

Some dialogue is good:

“The manuscripts, all five of them, were insured by our client, a large private company that insures art and treasures and rare assets. I doubt you’ve heard of it either.”
“I don’t follow insurance companies.”

That comeback is nice, but even the first part is repetitive. If an insurance company is willing to insure manuscripts, then it’s obviously not, say, a car insurance company—we don’t need to know that it “insures art and treasures” because we already know it ensures this company’s.

I gave up after about a quarter of the book because it’s so consistently badly written. If you see any Grisham revisionism articles, don’t believe them. Read something else. The collected works* of Elmore Leonard are a fine place to start.


* This is no longer a figure of speech: the Library of America is in fact collecting his works and publishing them, as the link shows.

Briefly noted: Somebody with a Little Hammer — Mary Gaitskill

The essays are not interesting throughout, but the most interesting ones are very interesting; pay special attention to her piece on turning “Secretary” (the short story) into Secretary (the movie) and the piece about Gone Girl which is a brilliant reading that is also wrong and misses part of the point of the movie and, maybe, of art in general. Brilliant but wrong readings are underrated and still help us see art and the world in new ways, and Gaitskill articulates the dark side of Gone Girl, and its popularity, well. Who cares if she misses the point? I’d like more works that miss the point intelligently than get the point boringly (as I may sometimes do, though I prefer not to).

Some sections on topical gender issues are more interesting than the usual, and Gaitskill acknowledges some things that many of her peers don’t, like: “My parents and my teachers believed that social rules existed to protect me and adhering to these rules constituted social responsibility.”

Her reviews often feel more interesting than the books she’s reviewing. Some of those books and their topics haven’t aged well (does anyone care about someone named Joey Buttafuoco, whose name rings a distant semiotic bell and who was apparently a brief ’90s tabloid item?).

Then there are paragraphs that are just very good and make up for whatever isn’t:

Popular music is the most banal and most mysterious thing imaginable, and it’s almost impossible to write about. A good song carries in each phrase fragments of thought, feeling, and sensation, all going by in a flash. It refers to things everybody knows, but it’s rooted in the specific muck of whoever wrote it / sings it. If it’s live, it includes the quick, erotic language of the body, a language at once to subtle and fundamental to be understood by the mind. So, along comes the intellectual writer and—oops! He’s squeezing down on the poor thing so hard, you think he’ll kill it, except he can’t even get his hands on it.

(By the way, John Seabrook is very good on music and doesn’t squeeze down on the poor thing so hard.)

Or this, on the short story version of “Secretary,” which contrasts with the movie one for reasons primarily but not entirely commercial:

In any genuine piece of fiction, the plot is like the surface personality or external body of a human being; it serves to contain the subconscious and viscera of the story. The plot is something you “see” with your rational mind, but the unconscious and the viscera–what you can smell and feel without being able to define–are the deeper subjects of the story. This is particularly true of “Secretary,” the heroine of which is a knot of smothered passion expressed only obliquely and negatively in her outer self. I conceived her as someone of unformed strength and intelligence, qualities that have never been reflected back to her by her world and so have become thwarted, angry, and peculiar. The deeper subject of “Secretary,” then, is the tension between the force and complexity inside the heroine, and how it gets squeezed through the tiny conduit of a personality that she has learned to make small, so that she may live in a small and mute world.

I’m not sure I agree with the notion of plot being advanced here—I think the plot shows us much more, if the writer wants it to—but one sees how plot functions for Gaitskill. It also explains why her short stories are more interesting than her novels: you can evade plot easily for 30 pages but not so easily for 300, with the longer length becoming tedious if the characters don’t act and react to things around them.

Briefly noted: Lonesome Dove — Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove is one of the best novels I’ve read, ever, and as much as I like physical books it may be easier to read on a Kindle: at more than 800 large, physical pages, it takes space. But that may be appropriate to the content, ranging as it does from Texas to Montana in the age of horse. I couldn’t decide whether the novel is any good until about 400 pages in, when a sudden-seeming shift happened. Lonesome Dove seems mostly comic, tonally, at first, with characters sitting around and speculating to each other. But then one finds that unexpected, brutal, and shocking shift, like a standard romantic comedy morphing into science fiction when the aliens land.

Don’t quit two hundred pages in, though you’ll be tempted to. As with The Name of the Rose, another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner than I got hold of it, patience is rewarded.

I’m reminded of James Wood’s remark about how good novels deploy “different registers:” “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle.” Richer novels are supposed to be polyphonic. Lonesome Dove isn’t. The narrative viewpoint scans from character to character, but they share a linguistic world that reflects their time and place. To Wood that’s a problem but to me it’s a shared world reflected in ideas and language. The common world has its own strange beauty, reflected in metaphors tied to the land and to fighting on horseback.

In Lonesome Dove characters often bury stories within stories within stories, sometimes in dialogue and usually not, describing the way things came to be. If those stories weren’t so damn interesting they’d be a crisis. But if “be interesting” is the first command to any artist, Lonesome Dove follows it. The world it depicts is implacable and hard and full of rational and irrational people. Like these:

The shadow of Augustus McCrae had hung over their courtship; Bob had never known why she chose him over the famous Ranger, or over any of the other men she could have had. In her day she had been the most sought-after girl in Texas, and yet she had married him, and followed him to the Nebraska plains, and stayed and worked beside him. It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, “Can’t stand listening to this wind no more.”

Leaving out the “a” in “It was hard country” seems odd but, again, part of the linguistic universe. One feels very rich, reading Lonesome Dove as a contemporary person with immediate access to infinite information, much as one feels rich and also terribly sad reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Other worlds exist now and have existed before, and it’s useful to remember them—and to think of how the future world will be different from the present.

Much of Lonesome Dove, on its own, seems basic, yet as a whole it’s beautiful. Like this:

The other men were easy to talk to, but they didn’t know anything. If one stopped to think about it, it was depressing how little most men learned in their lifetimes. Pea eye was a prime example. Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.

If I were James Wood I wouldn’t like “prime example” (it’s a cliché), but here it’s fine. The eye passes over it, and it’s the sort of cliché Call (who speaks here) would use. We see Call’s mind on horses, and we can generalize from the sort of person who is always surprised by a horse’s obvious behavior to a person we know, who is equally puzzled when he misses the obvious. Horses are as ubiquitous to Lonesome Dove as computers are to modern Americans.

There is an odd fatalistic determinism in the novel that is again not easy to parse out in a sentence quote but that is easy to feel. In the quote above we see that Pea Eye is who he is; the next paragraph starts, “Deets was different. Deets observed, he remembered,” as if that too arises from nothing. Almost no one in the novel has formal schooling, yet some minds race ahead while others are as lame as overriden horses. One sees other examples of this that I won’t share, because they spoil vital plot points.

It’s hard to say what you might expect going in, or what I expected going in, but whatever I expected wasn’t what I got. Usually novels about the west feel silly, pointless, and remote to me; this one is sophisticated, especially about ways of being and about gender relations. It’s never dogmatic, either: Augustus and Call are opposites in many ways, but the narrative voice never seems to choose one over the other as the two debate and act throughout the novel (in this respect the narrative voice is polyphonic, even if the characters think and sound characteristically similar).

The novel’s last sentences are strange and haunting.

There is enough in this novel to spend many years unpacking and experiencing it.

I fear to read the second one, for fear that the sequel won’t match the original, yet I also feel I have to do it.

Briefly noted: The Idiot — Elif Batuman

The Idiot is absorbing for 50 pages, the next 50 pages drag, and the rest is a slog. I read it because Batuman wrote the hilarious The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which is an essay collection in which most of the essays are… 50 pages. Maybe not coincidentally. Read The Possessed or, even better, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instead. You will find that in The Idiot

I had never heard of any Ottoman invasion of Hungary. As a child, I had been told that the Turks and Hungarians were related, that the Huns were Turkic, that both peoples had migrated west from the Altai and spoke similar languages.

In some ways the novel is about all the things the narrator, Selin, has never heard of. The novel captures well the feeling of not knowing anything, surrounded by others who don’t, but is that desirable in a novel?

There are implied problems in industrial and human organization, too:

The Constructed Worlds syllabus was a list of Gary’s favorite books and movies, without any due dates or assignments. We were just supposed to read books, watch movies, and discuss them in class. The discussions were never that great, because everyone chose different books and movies.

That seems predictable. Learning thrives off the right balance between order and chaos. Lean too far in either direction and things fall apart.

Much of The Idiot is an extended, awkward flirtationship between Selin and a slightly older guy named Ivan. Watching shy college students flirt for short periods of time is painful; watching it for hundreds of pages may be worse. Sex makes an appearance here and there:

“Sometimes I wonder about the man I’ll eventually lose my virginity too,” Svetlana continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll happen in college.”

Yet for relatively well-off and fit college students, the characters seem to spend strangely little time wanting to get laid, maybe because Ivy Leaguers are too uptight or wrongly focused to do so. Ivy Leaguers have a reputation for being too neurotic, cerebral, and obedient to do it much, but I don’t know if that reputation is deserved or accurate.

Still, Selin is aware of some of her own position:

In the train station, people were drinking coffee and reading newspapers. I felt glad to see that life was going on—actual life, where people were working and staying awake and trying to accomplish things, which was the point of coffee.

About two-thirds through I skipped to the end and began to read backwards, wondering if maybe things would improve. No luck. It is very long for what it is. So much promise. In some ways the novel delivers what its title promises, however, and many of the individual sentences are well done. Still, if you want a college novel try Joe College instead, after you finish The Secret History. If you have recommendations for college novels, leave them in the comments.

Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

The Trespasser — Tana French

I don’t remember where I first learned about French, but “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” inspired me to read The Trespasser. The novel is not bad and if you like the genre you might dig it—it’s not offensively written—but halfway through one feels like nothing much has happened, the dead girl, Aislinn, remains a cipher, and maybe a bunch of stuff will add up to something but maybe it won’t. Comparisons to Gone Girl are not quite apt because in that novel something changes virtually every chapter, and around halfway through the big reveal occurs.

trespasserIn The Trespasser things meander to no particular end. From a marketing perspective the endless comparisons to Gone Girl makes sense, but from a narrative perspective they rarely do. Gone Girl does seem to break the narrative pattern in a way that’s difficult to repeat, and that may help explain why it is so read and still so good.

Still, reading a competently executed book is refreshing, and there are crisp descriptions like, “Breslin likes thinking he’s Mr. Indispensable; he’ll show up just as fast for a shitty domestic as he would for a skin-stripping serial killer, because he knows the poor victim is bollixed until he gets there to save the day.” Arguably the part of the sentence before the semicolon could be omitted, with the reader left to infer it, but one gets a sense of someone whose virtue is motivated by self-love more than caring for mankind. We also get a lot of standard detective-fiction patter, like “I didn’t use to be like this. I’ve always had a temper on me, but I’ve always kept it under control, no matter how hard I had to bite down.” Why are tempers always under control and not over control? What does control of a temper mean, versus a temper having control? The kinds of standardized language one finds in the novel never gets to those questions. It’s actually hard to find really characteristic quotes because The Trespasser doesn’t stray far enough from its genre:

The point is, this isn’t the telly, where cops are all blood brothers and anyone who gets on the wrong side of a cop ends up dead in a ditch while the rest of us lose the evidence. I don’t have any squad loyalty.

The writing is often good but not quite good enough to justify the plot. I still await “the next Gone Girl.”

A surprisingly large amount of the novel describes the bureaucracy of police departments (which is a surprisingly large amount of many contemporary detective novels and maybe novels set more generally in offices). Bureaucracy may be the characteristic fact of life. See also “Bartlebys All.”

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