Lessons from a personable robot


Simon Morden, Bright Morning Star, NewCon Press, 2019.

Kindle edition: $AU 8.75

Paperback: $24.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The cover image for Simon Morden’s Bright Morning Star rather spoils the mental picture I built up for the ‘Robot’ who is the main character of this speculative story.

An alien probe lands on earth and finds itself in the midst of humans fighting. The probe’s task is simply to investigate and report back to Mother (the spaceship in orbit). The probe is self-aware and begins to forensically examine the corpses of victims of a mass shooting.

It then realises that there is intelligent life on earth and decides to study this life-form more fully. It gradually becomes aware that the shooting is part of a proxy war between Russia and the USA. The name of the nation-state which first protects him is not given, but this reader gained the impression that it was a fictional version of Ukraine.

As the probe gains understanding of the ramifications of the war, it deduces that war is inefficient and should be replaced by peace and cooperation. The humans who fall under his influence begin to realise that without international cooperation, the human race will never succeed at space-faring and will tear itself apart.

Bright Morning Star is told entirely from the perspective of the ‘Robot’ and in its voice. Simon Morden has taken a risk in making a logic machine the main character in his novel, but ‘Robot’ learns to behave empathetically and forms attachments with different humans.

I gained the impression that ‘Robot’ was much less massive than the cover image: its emerging personality was writ large, not its physical attributes.

Bright Morning Star is a good read and its appeal to the best in humanity worth hearing again.

Translating Saint Francis


I am pleased to announce that two poems I have translated from medieval Italian and Umbrian into English have been published in the Adelaide Literary Journal.

Part of Jacopone da Todi’s Lauda (Praises) on the subject of poverty is published as Lauda XV

Francis Seal of Love, by Vittoria Colonna is a Petrarchan sonnet. Colonna was a great admirer of St Francis.

End of the World?


Many have noticed the flaws in democracy. These days, you have only to glance at Trump, or watch Britain unravel over Brexit, or notice the hung parliaments and unconvincing votes around the world. Is it time to find a new system?

Climate change has defeated democratic decision making. The main parties are beholden to the big end of town, especially coal and gas, and rather than choosing to oversee a rational transition to renewable sources, politicians have dug their heels in and promoted products and practices that add to harmful emissions. The science is indisputable – or should be.

Don’t imagine that politicians are happy with their alliances with coal and banks. Their overreactions to the #Extinction Rebellion sit-ins have revealed how sensitive they are to criticism. To suggest mandatory jail and cutting protestors’ welfare payments is despotic. Messrs Littleproud and Canavan should note: Blocking roads is not new. I can remember sitting on Riverside Drive at peak-hour in 1969 to protest the danger for pedestrians crossing to and from The University of WA.

 The argument in This is Not a Drill, a series of opinion pieces by supporters of Extinction Rebellion (Penguin 2019) is that the democratic process has failed us by not taking dramatic action to mitigate climate change. In Australia, emissions are increasing, and sales of coal are growing. Younger people fear for their future: coastal flooding, the melting of polar ice, wildfires year-round and cycles of severe drought should cause fear. The mass extinction of many species and the destruction of much of the world’s coral reefs, including the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, should be cause for alarm and grief.

#Extinction Rebellion aims, in part, to shut down capital cities until governments declare a climate emergency. No one likes the disruption to daily life this causes, but it is far less that the disruption that climate change unchecked will bring.

Writers in This is Not a Drill argue that not only must clean energy be generated and coal and gas phased out, but also the whole economy must be re-made. The ‘free market’ with its dependence on growth and consumer addiction to constant purchasing are the cause of climate change. These writers argue for a more distributive economy, local and equitable. As they say if fewer than 10% control more than 80% of the wealth, the system is loaded for reform.

The #Extinction Rebellion street actions have an element of fun. Some placards are humorous, playful floats function as centrepieces. Food shared generously creates a party atmosphere. Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, pleads for a place for delight: this is God’s world we are trying to preserve, and our Scriptures describe the act of creation as a form of divine play. If there is no joy, but only earnest protest, #Extinction Rebellion becomes a negative, maybe destructive force. With the element of delight, however, the movement is showing what a renewed world will be like.

The claims of #Extinction Rebellion disturb me deeply. Has democracy failed? Can a new and loving politics replace it? I fear the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act to preserve their world. Democracy will evolve – it must – but we must fight for the future.

RUOK? J.B. Phillips and depression


Vera Phillips & Edwin Robinson,
The Wounded Healer — J.B. Phillips,Triangle, 1983.

From $15 used online. In Public Library system. Reviewed by Ted Witham
110 pages – paper-back

Sometimes an old book comes into your hands at just the right time. I have surprised myself with a severe bout of anxiety and depression: maladies I believed I was exempt from. Apart from the symptoms of feelings of doom, breathlessness and general fatigue, my mental ill-health has stopped me in my tracks, and I have felt I’ve had to give up most of my activities. I’ve stopped (for the moment) teaching French, creative writing and much of my church activities.

I’ve felt a real tension: my therapists warn me of withdrawing from social contact (because being out among people is the best treatment for depression), and yet I simply have not had the energy to keep up with my usual activities.

One of the disappointing symptoms of this depression is that I have lost “the sense” of God. I had had a heightened awareness of the divine when I received communion and in my daily prayers. That has disappeared, just at the moment when it could help.

A friend of mine mentioned that J.B. Phillips, one of the pioneers of translating the Bible into modern English, and the author of Your God is Too Small, suffered from depression. It turns out that Phillips received mountains of correspondence in response to his sales of six million books, and that he answered every letter. Often these letters were to encourage people who opened up to him about their depression.

He also reached out to other notable Christians who had disclosed their depression publicly, seeking their advice, sometimes begging for their help.

Vera Phillips, Jack’s wife, and Edwin Robinson, a long-term friend, have compiled a selection of these letters resulting in a short book (110 pages) of practical help for Christians with depression.

In them, Phillips recounts some of his psychological challenges. He wanted to live up to the perfection he believed his father demanded of him, so was constantly disappointed that he wasn’t the best ever Vicar, or the greatest ever writer. He shows that while these psychological issues were related to his depression, they weren’t the sole or main cause of the illness.

J.B. Phillips was an English evangelical whose faith is attractive and accessible. His voice, the voice of his letters, is practical, compassionate and liberal. I found his advice helpful, and I am sure those who received the letters originally were even more encouraged by their gentle empathy.

Different ways of seeing


https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/P/1925360849.01._SY200_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg

Bruce Pascoe, Young Dark Emu: A truer history, Broome WA: Magabala Books 2019.

Hardcover 80 pages.

$18 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

As kids, my brother and I used to go through phases of collecting Aboriginal grindstones on our farm. These artefacts were ironstone. They weighed perhaps a kilogram and fitted into the palm of an adult hand. A smooth area had been sculpted out of the top. Our Dad told us to look for the other part of the machine, a smaller smooth stone. It was evident that seeds or berries were placed in the scooped-out area and the second stone used to grind.

Grinding stone – booma boyak

There were two inferences we didn’t make as kids. The first was that there is no ironstone near Tambellup. The nearest deposits are in the Mid-West 800 kilometres north. The existence of the grindstones proved there was an active system of trade around the State.

The second inference was that the people who used this device must then have gone on to mix the milled seeds with water and cook them. In Young Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe comments that, if this happened 65,000 years ago, this is the earliest known invention of bread, pre-dating Ancient Egypt by an astonishing 13,000 years. (p. 16)

The basic thesis of Young Dark Emu is twofold: one is that pre-contact Aboriginal culture included sophisticated farming and settled village life, and two that the early ‘explorers’ saw these facts – huge fields under yam cultivation, well-constructed huts that could accommodate 40 people easily – and wrote about them in their journals. By the 1880s the settlers had both deliberately and inadvertently destroyed all this evidence. For example, the hard cloven feet of sheep compacted the soil so that it became too hard to plant yams or seeds.

Once physical evidence had disappeared, Europeans failed to take notice of the eye-witness accounts of ‘explorers’, and soon came to forget the scale of the civilisation they had supplanted.

Young Dark Emu is a version of Bruce Pascoe’s book for older readers, Dark Emu. Young Dark Emu would be suitable for children upwards of 10 years old. Both books are a plea to learn from the land use and fire regimes that Indigenous people developed over 80,000 years (or more) of occupation of this continent. They adapted their crops aquaculture and food storage to the soils and climate of this place.

Text Box: Brewarrina Fish traps - the oldest surviving human construction in the world – Image courtesy ABC
Brewarrina Fish Traps – the oldest surviving human construction in the world

 The book takes its name from the Emu constellation. Traditional Aborigines named constellations not for the patterns made by bright stars, as Europeans did, but by the patterns in the dark spaces between them: a unique way of seeing.

Young Dark Emu invites readers to many levels of diverse ways of seeing. All Australians should read it or Dark Emu.