Friday, 25 April 2008

Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake; the New Scientist on Evolution

Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

This novella (112 pages, c. 25,000 words) is set in the world of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, although they are not named, being referred to only as the Boy and the Castle. It is the Boy's 14th birthday and he wearies of the endless rounds of official celebrations to mark the event, so he takes an opportunity to escape into the wider world beyond. He encounters three strange beings known as the Goat, the Hyena and the Lamb, and faces a terrible danger. That's about as much as I can say about the plot without spoiling it for potential readers. My edition of the book (Hodder Signature, 1996) is illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

It is a very strange story, even by the standards of Gormenghast; the three beings are entirely fantastical and the plot very bizarre, being more in the nature of a fairy tale (of the original Grimm sort). What comes through most strongly is the poetic beauty of Peake's writing. Take this passage describing a peal of bells to celebrate the Boy's birthday; for me, this brought back memories of the strange, rich flavour of the Gormenghast books:

"A bell began to chime, and then another and then a swarm of bells. Harsh bells and mellow ones: bells of many metals and many ages: bells of fear and bells of anger: gay bells and mournful; thick bells and clear bells….the flat and the resonant, the exultant and the sad. For a few moments they filled the air together, a murmuration, with a clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal. Then one by one the tumult weakened and scores of bells fell away until there was nothing but an uneasy silence, until, infinitely far away, a slow and husky voice stumbled its way over the roof-tops and the Boy at the window heard the last of the thick notes die into silence."

Peake is not for everyone, but if you are a fan of the Gormenghast series (as I am) then this one should be added to your collection.
On Evolution

A valuable summary in the New Scientist magazine (19 April issue) correcting some common misconceptions about evolution. This article, plus more, is included on their website HERE and all SF writers should study it in order to avoid errors (possibly I was a bit ambitious with the marsupial saurians in Scales…)

A very brief summary of some examples of misconceptions:

Everything is an adaptation: it isn't true that everything has a purpose, some features of life are just accidental hold-overs from earlier developments, such as the appendix and the male nipple.

Evolution can't be disproved: in theory it could be, but all of the evidence collected so far supports it, and no evidence has been found to disprove it.

Evolution is limitlessly creative: there are limits (at least on Earth) to what has been, and probably can be, developed. Every intermediate stage needs to have had some survival benefit (e.g. primitive forms of eye are still better than nothing in detecting objects).

Natural selection leads to ever greater complexity: it can actually lead to greater simplicity since unnecessary features frequently disappear (e.g. eyeless cave fish).

Evolution produces perfection: "you don't have to be perfectly adapted to survive, you just have to be as well adapted as your competitors". Examples of inefficiencies in human beings are the eyes (birds have much superior vision), the lungs (much of their capacity is wasted because of the two-way air-flow; birds have a much more efficient one-way flow) and so on.

Natural selection is the only means of evolution: random genetic drift has a great influence, with chance often deciding which mutations survive and which don't.

It doesn't matter if people don't grasp evolution: our civilisation is facing many challenges which need some understanding of how science works to appreciate, and make sensible judgements about. "Any modern society which bases major decisions on superstition rather than reality is heading for disaster". Which makes it rather worrying that in a recent survey, when asked "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false?", only 40% of US citizens polled "true", 39% "false" and 21% "not sure". In contrast the "true" response from most western European countries and Japan was around 75%.

Among those not believing in evolution (according to their public statements) were several of the initial candidates for the nomination for the Presidency of the USA; a staggering admission of scientific illiteracy, in the same league as admitting that they couldn't read or write. Let's hope that the most powerful and influential nation on Earth ends up with a leader who has a much better grasp of scientific arguments than the present incumbent.


Fred said...

Thanks for the information regarding Peake's _Boy in Darkness_. I hadn't heard of this one.

Is there any connection between this one and _Titus Alone_?

Anthony G Williams said...

No direct plot connection, but it's set in the same place and features the same principal Character - Titus.

Fred said...

Then, chronologically, would it take place between _Gormenghast_ and _Titus Alone_?

Anthony G Williams said...

To be honest it's decades since I read the Gormenghast trilogy, but as I recall it starts with Titus as a baby, whereas in "Boy in Darkness" he's a teenager.