Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Darkness on Diamondia

A.E. van Vogt The Darkness on Diamondia (1972)
The planet of Diamondia has been colonised by humans. The native population are tentacled beings called Irsk who apparently maintain some sort of physical and sentient existence after death - although I could have misinterpreted that detail. Some Irsk are friendly and are identified as such by green and white striped clothing, whilst other Irsk are less well disposed towards humanity. Additionally there is this problem with the darkness, a poorly defined phenomenon which seems to cause people's minds to swap bodies, or even to inhabit those of the Irsk. A.E. van Vogt's novels tend to be weird and confusing at the best of times, but this one is peculiar even by his standards.

The narrative dances around in such away as to suggest that van Vogt could have been trying to say something here, and that The Darkness on Diamondia is more than just a sequence of arrestingly puzzling scenarios; but as to what he could have been trying to say...

It's tempting to see the colonisation of the Irsk planet as analogous to the colonisation of America, with the darkness presumably representing some aspect of the natural world, something to which the less technologically developed Irsk were connected in a spiritual sense, even something which the arrival of humans has thrown out of balance:

The adyl was sullen. 'It's well known,' she replied, 'that we live about five-hundred Diamondian years.'

Morton had heard the figure. But he was stubborn about where he got his facts.

And puzzled now. 'That's a long life span,' he said. 'How would you explain such longevity?'

'We Irsk,' she said, 'had a perfect affinity with each other through the darkness. All that is endangered now. And something has to be done quickly. Recently Irsk have died as young as a hundred and thirty. Everybody is alarmed!'

'It could be the war,' said Morton. 'Maybe rebellion isn't good for people.'

'It's better than slavery,' she said acridly.

'History says the Irsk welcomed the first settlers and helped them.'

'It didn't occur to those pure minds,' the girl replied raspingly, 'that their planet was going to be taken over.'

Morton was a pragmatist. 'It's happened—by whatever fashion. Now everyone has to learn to live with it.'

The Irsk as native Americans seems too obvious and simplistic a comparison to me, and isn't really supported elsewhere in the text, at least not that I noticed. I think the key to the above passage may be in the last line, presenting as it does the possibility of there being no  correct answer to a situation. This, I would suggest, at least applies to analogies of the arrival of Europeans in America in that the best one can really say is that it happened, because practically there is no apology big enough, and no recompense which will ever set such wrongs as were committed to right.

Elsewhere in the novel van Vogt wrestles with a dichotomy he defines as finite logic set against infinite logic, and at least some of this argument would seem to apply to the above.

It was an either-or idea. 'Where Edward is, Mary isn't.' Most useful in the great switching systems of computers and such, they said. Those were the days when if a switch or a relay or a transistor didn't work, the engineer would say irritably, 'For God's sake, get us another R2B unit.'

At some deep level of his being, he believed (with 'modern' logic) that all R2B units belonged to a 'set' and they should work, damn it.

And that system kept things in operation, because the human brain sort of understood that sometimes Mary did try to occupy the same space as Edward. And the gap between the set theory and the certainties of the Venn diagrams on the one hand and, on the other, the reality that as the machines grew more complicated, engineers learned from sad experience to furnish back up equipment that could take over in the event of a failure. People even worked out sophisticated MTBF (Mean Time Before Failure) theories for innumerable components.

But there was a day in the twenty-first century when (so the news reports later stated) every machine everywhere stopped. Obviously that was never literally true. But that was the way it looked.

For a day or more science confronted the nightmare product of a logic system that was based upon a mathematics which stated that there is such a thing as a dozen eggs or a dozen duplicate transmitters—in short, a 'set' of eggs or of anything.

Not true.

On that day of total (?) stoppage, every egg on Earth stood up and said, in effect, 'I too am an individual.'

He seems to be scrambling for quantum uncertainty, or fuzzy logic, or something else I don't quite understand most likely related to his interest in Alfred Korzybski's general semantics, but at times it unfortunately resembles the testimony of the nutter at the bus station talking about what has been done to the radiation since Strictly Come Dancing came back on the telly. The fun is, I suppose, to be found somewhere between the suggestion of ideas and the grammar of crazy; but unfortunately, it's not easy to keep one's eye on the ontological ball with all the thrusting and groaning:

The arriving troops had found vast numbers of prostitutes available in all the cities where they were stationed. 'And as you know, Charles, there are no fleshpots anywhere else. Elsewhere the women's unions have such a tight control that life has become a hell for men. We may surmise that Diamondian men never did allow civilisation to make as many inroads on the women situation. And when the Irsk ceased doing all the labor, it forced an economic condition which overnight sent girls out into the street to make a living.'

I think he means well, but he definitely has a weird attitude to women - or prostitutes as they are known in this novel.

'Why are the Diamondian prostitutes angry?' he asked.

'It's a one up thing,' said Kirk. 'Just imagine, they get all the sex and all the men a girl could ever dream of having. And get paid for it. But they can blame the men for being the kind of beasts they are. It's a perfect setup for a girl—you'll agree?'

Well, who could possibly argue with that?

Being a van Vogt novel there's also a superweapon to be found, and Colonel Morton eventually becomes at one with the darkness and hence Godlike by some definition, but I still couldn't say for sure what any of it adds up to, and it becomes increasingly difficult to follow at somewhere around the halfway mark. On the other hand, providing you can overlook all the weird stuff about prostitutes, The Darkness on Diamondia starts well with some of van Vogt's most vividly bizarre and descriptive prose, and remains oddly fascinating even beyond the point at which we lose all track of what the hell is supposed to be happening. So good, I think.

1 comment:

  1. There is an oddity in every machine asserting individuality by doing the same thing, ie not working. Unless its that they all stopped working in different way. (I have read this but its so long ago I retain no memory of it, except that it must have been when I was too young to pay any mind to the sexual aspects of the book which I have completely forgotten.)

    Simon BJ