Time for the Wind

time_for_windReaders of this blog, and its associated website www.advaita.org.uk, will (I hope!) associate my name with my books on Advaita, which have been published fairly regularly since 2003. What very few people know is that I have also written a novel! In fact, this was the first book I wrote. I actually began it around 1974, while I was working as a contract computer programmer and temporarily idle. Unfortunately (I was still being paid), I was not idle for very long and the book was not completed until 1982! Since then I have revised/rewritten it four times! I did attempt to get it published back in the nineteen eighties, but without success. Earlier this year (after completing ‘A-U-M’), I decided the time had come, even though I have had to subsidise the publication as I am not recognised as an author of fiction.

I usually describe the novel as an ‘ecological thriller’, since the action revolves around a landfill site and waste disposal. The science fact also develops quite quickly into science fiction. By the time of the third iteration, however, I had reworked the material to introduce aspects of philosophy, with emphasis (surprise, surprise!) on Advaita. Originally, there had been lots of quotations from T. S. Eliot, but I discovered when writing ‘Back to the Truth’ that copyright permission for lots of Eliot quotes would be both difficult and expensive to obtain. Then I had the brainwave of changing one of the main characters from someone calling himself ‘Elyot’ (T. S. Eliot’s grandfather) to someone calling himself ‘Krish’ (short for ‘Krishna’). And, of course, I used quotations from the Gita instead of from ‘The Four Quartets’.

‘Krish’ only communicates via computer and, in addition to helping the principal character with his investigations into the waste disposal activities, he also discusses matters of Self-inquiry. Blending these elements without artificiality was quite difficult but I think I have succeeded. I was asked to write a blog on these writing aspects for the publisher to tie in with publication in early December. I reproduce this below, together with an extract from the book. (I will post another extract in a few weeks.)

Blog for Publisher

We usually read a book either for entertainment or to glean information about some subject in which we are currently interested. Mostly, the two aims are mutually exclusive; we may well only associate ‘literature’ with the achievement of both objectives – think Charles Dickens and the plight of London’s poor, John Steinbeck and the Oklahoma farmers in the Great Depression, or Zola’s Germinal and the coal miners. And we do not always want to read ‘literature’, for example by the pool outside a tropical hotel.

But there are other ways of subtly influencing the way that we think. I recently finished Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam, for example. Here, the invention of a steam engine and its subsequent development into a railway system are depicted. All the usual inhabitants of Ankh-Morpork and its environs take part complete with dwarves, goblins, vampires etc, and we have the high adventure and cleverly amusing observations that we associate with these stories. But there is the constant, unspoken reminder in the background that the activities of the renegade dwarves bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the similarly disruptive and damaging acts of terrorists in our world. Pratchett takes the opportunity to ridicule them and show up the short-sightedness of their outlook, advocating cooperation and reconciliation, since the ultimate outcome is inevitable.

Another example of a serious issue covered by what is essentially a thriller novel would be John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. Here, the fictional, exploitative behaviour of a large drugs company flags danger signs for the sort of thing that might be going on the real world.

But all of these examples relate to concrete situations that we can see, hear or read about for ourselves. Examples of fictional books that also address more abstract topics such as religion or philosophy are more difficult to come by. The only ones that occur to me immediately are Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (religion), Crime and Punishment (morality and justice) or maybe Kafka’s novels (metaphysics?). Of course there must be many more but again probably most of these are classical, literary works. I cannot recall any examples of modern fiction, of the type we buy at the airport from W. H. Smith, which also touch on these topics, other than in passing or at most as an element of the story without actually discussing the subject. (I am thinking here of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Raising children specifically to provide body parts is intrinsic to the story but the morality of this is never discussed.)

The reason for this is obvious. Making some provocative alteration to the behaviour of humanity can make for a story which captures our attention but, if we were to start analysing implications and presenting arguments for and against, the reader would be likely to switch off very quickly. What is required from most modern fiction is the equivalent to watching a film at the cinema, namely a diverting and entertaining read, not academic instruction.

So how did I go about attempting to achieve the objective of writing a thrilling and entertaining story, whilst at the same time introducing the reader to the most important philosophical teaching, namely that which explains the nature of your Self and reality? Essentially by making one of the key characters an apparently all-knowing teacher/scientist who is also a complete enigma, because he only communicates with anyone via email, chatrooms or SMS texts. The reader, as well as the ‘hero’ of the novel, hangs on his every word as they provide not only insight into what is happening in the story but insight, too, into the meaning of our own lives.

The world of the book is also our world, with references to real events, real problems and up-to-date science. Yet the inexplicable intrudes into this world and, as we ask questions about what is going on there, we also take the philosophical aspects and ask questions about who we are.

The landfill site is perhaps a metaphor for our world, polluted by toxic chemicals and corrupted by selfish practices, respectively. The scientists search for ways of cleaning up the site; we try to find meaning in our lives and attain ‘happiness’. But there is no need to look for far-fetched rationalisations such as this; the inscrutable Krish, as well as investigating the cause of the contamination at the site, also examines the direction and motivation of our own lives, pointing towards the truth and resolution in both cases.

Finally, in both the context of the story and that of our own world, the book questions the status of what appears to be the case, and hints at the nature of reality itself. We are left with the feeling that things are not necessarily as we have always thought them to be.

Naturally, the philosophical elements of the book are intended to make the reader want to look further (and perhaps read one or more of my books on Advaita!). There is even specific reference, in the context of the story, to my website. But all can be treated entirely as fiction and the reader can simply be entertained. Whether or not I have succeeded in my intention may be measured by the subsequent rate of sales of my philosophy books!

Extract from Book

He was already half way through his second gin and tonic (having postponed preparation of his evening meal in order to continue his research) when his browsing was rudely interrupted. Several windows appeared in the middle of the screen in front of the material he was reading in the browser, the upper-most indicating the title of a program he had never seen before: ‘mIRC’.

He had completely forgotten about the possible virus scare he had had a few hours earlier. As before, in the short time that the program took to load, there flashed through his mind considerations as to whether he should try to close the new program before it completed initialization and started to do whatever was intended or if he should physically switch off the computer. Having already had some opportunity to consider the factors, he decided on balance that it would best to hold tight and see what happened next, difficult though this was to bear. Accordingly, he just sat back and watched, albeit with some amazement, as the computer appeared to proceed to do things with a mind of its own. Of course he was slightly familiar with the remote operation facilities. He seemed to recall that British Telecom had installed one to find out why his broadband wasn’t working at the advertized speed. But the key difference was that he had actively participated in the download and installation of the software. In this case, he knew nothing at all about it.

The introductory screen gave some information about the program, together with several buttons for such things as obtaining introductory information and for registering the software. This was all that Bradley managed to take in as briefly, once his initial astonishment had receded slightly but long before he could make anything more of it, this disappeared too, to be replaced by what seemed to be a ‘Joining Details’ form. There were boxes for his name and email address and several others. Again, however, even as he was struggling to read the data, the fields were filled in for him automatically. There was an entry for ‘Nickname’, which he watched being completed with something he could not instantly make sense of in the brief time before this window closed.

Another window opened briefly but, out of a long list of options, one was selected before he had time to read it and the window disappeared, to be replaced by another containing the heading of “#mIRC”, together with various meaningless acronyms, round and square brackets, and numbers.

There was text in two adjacent panes, together with scroll bars, but he was not going to be allowed to read this. A menu was clicked for him and an arrow selected a ‘Channels List’ option from a ‘Tools’ menu. Lots more information then appeared and, again, something was selected and a final blank window opened.

He was, at least, now able to catch up with his thoughts sufficiently to guess that this program must be an Internet Relay Chat client. As far as he knew, these were mostly used by those web addicts who liked to indulge in live meaningless discussions with similar sad people around the world.

He was still wondering what he should do but was increasingly tempted to re-boot the computer. He no longer feared that the system had been infected by a serious virus but now realized that he was in what was possibly a far worse scenario, namely that some external source had taken control of his computer. While still inwardly debating the consequences of such action, and weighing this against the intense curiosity that had been aroused by this display of technical wizardry, the text “/join #Kurukshetra” appeared at the top of the screen. This was quickly followed by the following: –

`

{Krish}   Good evening, Mr. Bradley! Thank you for your patience; you are well I trust?

{RJ}

Bradley was dumbfounded and, for the first time in his life, aware of exactly what that word meant. Not only had someone managed to take over control of his computer to the extent of stopping currently running programs and installing new software, but also this action had been targeted at him personally. How was it possible to do something so sophisticated? Why should someone want to? What was he supposed to do now?

His mind was still in turmoil when more text appeared.

{Krish}   I imagine you might be feeling surprise, possibly even anger. Please suppress this for the time being. We are connected by a private channel using IRC. Feel free to type anything you wish and I will then respond.

{RJ}

The cursor was flashing against the name ‘RJ’, clearly waiting for Bradley to enter some text. Several options occurred to him but he rejected each as either rude, childish or both. He wanted to be rude but mature, to respond appropriately to this clear invasion of his privacy, however impressively clever it might be. In the end, he gave up and simply typed ‘Why?’ He recalled with a flicker of amusement that this was the classic question that one asked (in old SF or James Bond films) of super-intelligent computers in order to cause them to crash and, more often than not, subsequently explode.

{Krish}   Let’s say that I just wanted the opportunity to answer some of your questions, whether about toxic waste disposal, T. S. Eliot or even philosophy.

{RJ}        Why should I wish to ask you any questions? I don’t even know who you are.

{Krish}   But you have just asked two in the space of only three short sentences. I’m sure you also wish to ask whether ‘Krish’ is my real name and why I have chosen to call you ‘RJ’.

{RJ}        Yes, who are you? How did you know my middle names were Ralph James? I never use them.

{Krish}   It amuses me to think of you as R. J. Una; ‘una’ standing for ‘one’, of course. There is only One, you know. My own name is just an abbreviation of Krishna – not my real name but it suits our purpose in this discussion as you will discover later.

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