Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

16 December 2011: Re-posting this review in memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. You were always an inspiration. An atheist in a foxhole. RIP

Christopher Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana … No, I’m kidding. This recycled introduction to one of our age’s most courageous and accomplished writers is put forth in the preface to his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The habit of writing reviews from clippings of other reviews is, Hitchens says, the “surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death.” And so, on that note, I’d encourage readers to get their hands on Love, Poetry and War – a compilation of Hitchens’ essays covering some of his more controversial (yet always well-reasoned and argued) views.

I read Letters to a Young Contrarian while living in Århus, Denmark and studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, at a time when I found myself among a disconcertingly small minority of students who didn’t think the publishers of those notorious cartoons depicting Mohammed deserved in some way the backlash they (and a lot of other unconnected and innocent Danes) received. Similarly, I was excited to meet the several Dutch students in my rather cosmopolitan class and discuss one of their politicians whose book, Infidel, I had recently read. When I mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they looked at me as though I’d just raised my hand in the Nazi salute and cried Heil Hitler! She’s a racist, they said. An islamaphobe! But surely, I thought, if anyone has the right to fear the ideas inherent in Islamic dogma, it’s a woman who has endured abuse and oppression of the worse kind at its hands? If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s her?

Finding myself far less equipped to defend my bourgeoning opinions than someone like Christopher Hitchens, I was delighted when his book turned up as a gift from a faraway loved one in the post.

Living a long way from home, the epistolary style was perfectly timed – I was writing more letters and emails to old friends and family than I ever had before. These letters from Hitchens, addressed to the reader in the second person, seemed like an extension of that and felt thrillingly intimate, as if he was writing directly to me.

Not that I would necessarily call myself a Young Contrarian. One of Hitchens’ traits that I admire and wish I could emulate more is his courage of conviction – and willingness, where necessary, to be disliked; to have enemies. I sometimes find myself far too eager to please – or, more realistically, avoid confrontation – which means I resort to softening my views or holding back in order to keep the peace. It’s something I hope to work on, and am inspired to do so by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and many of his colleagues and peers.

I was genuinely saddened when I heard of Hitchens’ oesophageal cancer, from which it seems his long-term survival is unlikely. I recently heard him say that he envies the young generation today – for the changes they will see in the world, the developments in science and technology and, I imagine, the opportunities they have ahead of them to express their mind, challenge hypocrisy and, importantly, to tell the truth.

Winston Churchill is quoted as having once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

I may just pick up my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian again soon to reignite the flame. Because, if there’s one way I can show my respects to a dying writer I admire, it’s to retain the courage of conviction he espouses, even when contrary to the mainstream, and even if I make a few enemies along the way.

 

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I had no idea what to expect from the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s renowned science fiction series when I picked it off the ‘staff recommended’ shelf in a Sydney CBD Dymocks bookstore. The little note underneath it said the book ‘defined a generation of science fiction’. I had been shopping for a copy of Asimov’s The End of Eternity (as recommended by a friend) but it wasn’t in stock. And, besides, the Foundation series sounded enticing.

I’m admittedly a little cautious of reviewing an award-winning series with a well-established cult following, particularly as a reader relatively new to the genre. But then, I enjoyed this novel and would like to read the rest of the series – and don’t need to know the characterisation or storyline of Star Trek inside and out for that to be the case. And that’s the perspective from which I’ll be writing about Foundation. Just like a review of Harry Potter might only be useful for a lingering sceptic of that series’ worth, so too would I like to present Foundation to readers new to, or even wary of, science fiction.

Foundation is set in the distant future – when the study of the planetary origins of humanity, the Origin Question, is a mere intellectual curiosity (“…it is thought that originally the human race occupied only one planetary system … Of course, no one knows exactly what system it is – lost in the mists of antiquity…”). In this future, a seemingly omnipotent Galactic Empire has formed – but ‘psychohistorian‘ Hari Seldon has predicted (using an invented mathematics discipline of sociology, probability and statistics) that the demise of the Empire is inevitable. He therefore sets up two Foundations solely to reduce the impact of the millennia of barbarism and chaos that will follow. The first volume of the series is set in the first Foundation, established under the guise of developing an encyclopaedia of all knowledge to ensure its survival during the futuristic dark ages. The role of the second remains a mystery.

The book then skips through the centuries and to the several crises Seldon predicted to occur (called Seldon Crises) in the lead up to the establishment of a Second Empire. Each section of the book hones in on the individuals and the plots involved with solving these crises. And if there was one thing I struggled with reading this book it was keeping up with the new characters and centuries that carried the plot forward.

Reading a futuristic novel written before the digital revolution saw the curve of our technological development take an exponential leap is interesting to say the least. Asimov is applauded for his daringly imagined future, but from where I stood, its late-1940s/ early-1950s origins were obvious.

While intergalactic travel is taken for granted, and the Foundation has managed to build atomic reactors “the size of a walnut”, I found most other developments were simply those domestic appliances that so excited the 50s with the word atomic latched on (atomic washing machine, atomic air conditioning, even an ‘atomic’ carving knife). The themes of nuclear tension are also clearly placed in Asimov’s Cold War context – which planets ‘still’ have nuclear power, which have nuclear weapons and nuclear warships? “Atomic blasters point both ways,” becomes a favourite quote of Master Trader Hober Mallow.

Stepping aside from the sci-fi futuristic conceptions, the political content of the story is also fascinating. According to Wikipedia, the premise was based on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Part of the Foundation’s course is to develop a religion of technology – training ‘priests’ in its use as dogma, rather than teaching them how it works. “[Religion] is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds.” The populations of the Four Kingdoms that the Foundation comes to rule therefore worship the technology they need, but never really understand it, leaving them reliant on the Foundation (which develops a standing of something like the Vatican – specifically, an historical Vatican that keeps its ‘flock’ illiterate). Towards the end of the book, however, it appears that ‘trade’ (mostly of ‘atomic’ knick knacks of the aforementioned kind) will usurp religion as a controlling force – i.e. the move from ‘spiritualism’ to materialism. It’s difficult to assess Asimov’s own standing on all of this, although there seemed to be an overriding idea that religion is false but useful.

The next book in the series, Foundation and Empire, introduces a new villain and the second Foundation – on the other side of the Galaxy, where psychohistory still thrives. Asimov also published prequels to the original trilogy, but I am going to save them for later, and read the series in the order it was originally published, rather than chronologically. And I am still on the look out for The End of Eternity.

And who knows, maybe there is still room for Mr Spock in my life?