Monday, 1 November 2010

Apocalypse Now!

There's good news, and there's bad news.

The good news is that my latest book, Armageddon Science is now for sale in the US. Whoo-hoo and much throwing into the air of hats!

The bad news is that it's not out in the UK until early December (though, of course you can pre-order it). And the even worse news is I haven't seen a copy yet. They are somewhere in the mystery that is translatantic shipment, hopefully due to arrive soon.

What's it all about? I've a sneak preview of the opening below. But, in case you feel the urge, you can also pop over to its page on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

ARMAGEDDON SCIENCE - Chapter 1

Mass destruction – killing on a vast scale – is a uniquely human concern. It’s not that other animal species aren’t threatened by it. Many have been driven to extinction, and many more now teeter on the brink. But unlike human beings, even the most intelligent animals don’t worry about the possibility of being wiped out in a terrible catastrophe. It is only thanks to the human ability to contemplate the future that fears of mass destruction have arisen. As the continued popularity of disaster movies at the box office demonstrates, we are all too aware how, as a race, we might be wiped out.

Mass destruction has, historically, been a natural phenomenon. The Earth has witnessed widespread devastation numerous times, most famously in the destruction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We could still see a similar act of mass destruction in the future that does not require a human hand behind it. But with the introduction of the weapon of mass destruction, the notion is most commonly associated with the work of the mad – or at best, amoral – scientist.

The term “weapons of mass destruction” first appeared in a Christmas sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1937. He encouraged his audience to promote peace. “Who can think without dismay of the fears, jealousies and suspicions which have compelled nations, our own among them, to pile up their armaments,” he said. “Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction.”

The archbishop was concentrating on the political will to use such weapons. His was a generation that had lived through the First World War, expecting it to be the “war to end all wars”, yet was seeing the rapid buildup of military might in Europe as the Second World War loomed. However responsible politics was for the warfare, though, it goes without saying that scientists would be the ones who made such weapons exist.
It’s a truth that can’t be avoided. Science itself – or at least, the appliance of science – has a dark side. Scientists present us with dangerous gifts.

This isn’t a new idea, though for a brief period – from Victorian times through to the mid-twentieth century – scientists were seen in quite a different light. New technologies and scientific developments transformed the unpleasant life suffered by the vast majority of the population into a new kind of existence. It was no longer necessary to spend every moment scratching a living. For the first time, it wasn’t just the rich and powerful who had time for leisure and enjoyment of life. Scientists were briefly considered saviors of our race.
These men (and back then they almost all were men), were bold bringers of wonderful new things. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny rolled into one real package that delivered all year around. All the marvels of electricity, of modern medicine, of new modes of transport and labor saving devices were their gift. And we still see echoes of this in TV ads for beauty products, where the person in the white coat is the bringer of magic ingredients that are guaranteed to make you look better and younger.

But the warning of Pandora’s box, the dangers inherent in bringing knowledge into the world, could not be held off for long. If you live in a physically dangerous environment, trying new things, finding things out, is a high risk strategy. If a cave person decided to experiment with a new approach to saber tooth tigers, patting them on the head instead of sticking them with a spear, she would soon be a one-armed cave person. For most of history, the scientist and his predecessor, the natural philosopher, has been a character of suspicion, closely allied with magicians, sorcerers and other dabblers in arcane arts. This was not a stereotype that even the wonders of nineteenth and twentieth century technology could hold off for long.

Scientists as dangers to the world would return in pulp fiction and cheap movies, where they are often portrayed as barely human. At best, these driven souls are over-idealistic and unworldly. They are what my grandmother would have called “all cleverness and no common sense.” They are innocents who don’t know – or don’t care – what the outcomes of their acts will be. At the nasty end of the spectrum, they are even worse, evil beings filled with a frenzied determination to achieve world domination or to pursue what they see as scientific truth at any cost.

Such two dimensional, caricature scientists don’t care who they trample over to reach their goal. They have a casual disregard for the impact of what they do on human life – or even the planet as a whole. They are scientific Nazis for whom the end always justifies the means. They are nothing short of monsters in human form.

Practically every scientist I have ever met was not like this. They have been warm, normal people. They have had the same concerns as everyone else about the world their children will inhabit. The same worries that preoccupy us all. Admittedly some are unashamed geeks – and if you include in the term “geek” anyone who has a sense of wonder about the universe they live in, it’s a group of which I’d happily proclaim my membership – but they aren’t inhuman thinking machines. So where did this idea come from?... You'll have to read the book to find out!

4 comments:

  1. How exciting! Another Brian Clegg book! Congratulations. Can't wait to read it.

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  2. Woo and indeed hoo. You have the most amazing work rate. You write at least five books in the time it takes me to compose a proposal for just one!

    BTW, we have two Kittens of Mass Destruction. Just saying.

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  3. I did seriously consider giving the Croxii their own chapter. Well, not very seriously.

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