Monday, 11 August 2014

Book Review | Irregularity, ed. Jared Shurin

During the Age of Reason, the world’s greatest minds named, measured and catalogued the world around them.

They brought order and discipline to the universe. Except where they didn’t.

Irregularity collects fourteen original stories from extraordinary literary voices, each featuring someone—or something—that refused to obey the dictates of reason: Darwin’s other voyage, the secret names of spiders, the assassination of Isaac Newton and an utterly impossible book.


Most books are dedicated to people near and dear: to friends or family members of the minds behind the literary leaps such documents detail. Sometimes other authors or artists—figures of miscellaneous inspiration without whom some key element of the texts in question may have foundered or failed—are acknowledged in the aforementioned fashion. It's a rare thing, though, to see a dedication made not to a someone, but a something.

Irregularity is exactly that. It's an anthology dedicated to an idea, to an abstract: "to failure," in fact—though the text itself is a tremendous success. As an enterprise it is "no less than wonderful, and it seemed to me that every man of scholarship, every man of imagination, regardless of his language or place of birth, should find in it something extraordinary." (p.156) Lo, like The Lowest Heaven before it, the latest collaboration between Jurassic London and the National Maritime Museum showcases an audacious assemblage of tales arranged around an inspired idea: that we as a people were in a way robbed by the Age of Reason. 

Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring explain:
For this volume authors were asked for stories by the history of science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. [...] It was an extraordinary period that saw important institutions created, amazing inventions, the harnessing of new power sources, countless discoveries and a tireless drive to classify almost everything. 
But there is a danger in hindsight. Science does not progress through a simple succession of ideas and inventions. False leads abound, and the theories and inventions that now look to have been the clear winners were not so obvious at the time, when alternative lines of attack showed equal promise. (p.284)
It is these false leads that Irregularity is interested in, in the main; these attempts "by the process-minded men of the Age of Reason to exert dominion over the mysteries of Creation." (p.128) To know is a noble goal, no doubt, but at what cost does understanding come?

Take William Dampier's determination to map the world's winds, as recounted by Rose Biggin in 'A Game Proposition,' with which tawdry tale the book begins. Though "the weight of what was happening here" (p.23) will escape readers initially, when it hits us, it hurts. What we have gained by way of Dampier's discovery is great, make no mistake, but when what we have lost because of it is made plain, it's not pride we feel, but pain.

Similarly, in E. J. Swift's 'The Spiders of Stockholm,' the arachnids "crouched in the space under the bed, occupying the emptiness" (p.39) gift Eva with dreams of the future... but she misunderstands what they want from her in return. By naming them in collaboration with her mother's science-minded suitor, she replaces life's limitless possibilities with just one, severing something precious in the process.

There are those characters in Irregularity aware of the aforementioned sacrifice. 'The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle' is a rhapsodic narrative by Adam Roberts in which a time traveller returns takes to the past to slay a certain scientist before he can advance humanity's understanding. Boyle does at least have the decency to explain his behaviour:
"The country into which I travelled was a place where the New Astronomy was king. They all believed it. Earth is found to move, and is no more the centre of the Universe. Stars are not fixed, but swim in the ethereal spaces. Comets are mounted above the planets! The sun is lost—for it is but a light made of the conjunction of many shining bodies together, no greater and in truth yea smaller than the other stars, yet only closer-by. The sun himself revealeth himself spotty, and subject to the mortality of all decayable things, to grow and eventually to die in a colour of blood and obesity of size. [...] Thus, I have seen the Sciences by the diverse motions of this globe of the brain of man become mere opinion, yet not error, but truth itself, that leave the imagination in a thousand labyrinths! What is all we know compared with what we know not?" (pp.85-86)
What indeed.

There are eleven other stories in Irregularity, and sadly, we don't have the time or the space to talk about them all. But before I bid you to buy this book, a few other favourites. 'A Woman out of Time' by Kim Curran explores the forces set against the success of the female of the species—represented here by the great Emilie du Chatelet, famous in her day for her relationship with Voltaire rather than her intellectual rigour—in Irregularity's extended era.

'Footprint' is a recursive story in a story in a story about the construction of St. Paul's which explains, in its way, why the famous building's footprint is "rotated by a few degrees to the south-east." (p.124) The answer Archie Black offers is honestly haunting. As is James Smythe's excruciatingly good contribution, in which an ailing clockmaker is inspired by the potential properties of the human humours.

'The Last Escapement' may be my favourite of the fourteen fictions gathered together in Irregularity, and I didn't discover a single dud in the bunch—which, by the by, takes in an array of names known and not, including Claire North, Robert Luckhurst, Richard de Nooy, Tiffani Angus, M. Suddain, Simon Guerrier and Henrietta Rose-Innes.

That said, the anthology starts stronger than it finishes, and it seems to me that Nick Harkaway's framing tale needs a second section at the end of the text. But besides these slight oversights, Irregularity is incredible; "a webwork of reference, inspiration, inference and opposition" (p.9) which investigates the place of the imagination in an era on the very edge of enlightenment—and with such wit and wisdom that you too will be championing failure before it's over, like the narrator of the soulful closing story:
Let us leave some Mystery. Let us understand what is possible to understand, but not fight to know all of it. Let us leave something of Chaos so that we may stay Men of the Earth and not become like God. To do so would be the true Folly. (p.280)
Heed his advice, readers. And mine. After all, it stands to reason that you should read Irregularity.


ed. Jared Shurin

UK Publication: July 2014, Orbit

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