Category Archives: Reading

William Hope Hodgson & Algernon Blackwood: Edwardian Occult Detectives

Covers of Carnacki The Ghost-Finder and Complete John Silence Stories

Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connexion with regions or buildings.

H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror In Literature” (1927)

Two authors, admired (albeit slightly ambivalently in Hodgson’s case) by no less an authority than H.P. Lovecraft, who each wrote a series of short stories featuring what can best be described as “occult detectives”—exploiting the Edwardian enthusiasm for both detective stories and spiritualism.

William Hope Hodgson is probably best remembered for his novel of supernatural terror, The House On The Borderland (1908). Algernon Blackwood was a marvellously prolific author of weird short stories, collected in multiple volumes from The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (1906) to Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches (1924). Blackwood lived into his eighties, but Hodgson was taken from us early—during the Fourth Battle of Ypres in 1918.

Five of Blackwood’s stories about his psychic doctor, John Silence, appeared together in 1908, in a collection entitled John Silence: Physician Extraordinary, which is now available in a Project Gutenberg edition. A sixth (shorter and strikingly out of character with its predecessors) then appeared in his collection Day And Night Stories (1917). As far as I’m aware, they were not then collected into a single volume until The Complete John Silence Stories was issued in 1997 by Dover.

Hodgson’s occult detective, Thomas Carnacki*, first appeared in a series of five stories published serially in The Idler magazine during 1910. These were collected, together with a sixth story, in Carnacki The Ghost-Finder (1913), which is also available in a Project Gutenberg edition. In 1947, August Derleth gathered together three more Carnacki stories (two previously unpublished) for an expanded edition issued under the Arkham House imprint.

Hodgson’s Carnacki stories have a formula. Like Sherlock Holmes, Thomas Carnacki lives at an imaginary address in a real street: 427 Cheyne Walk, which faces on to the Thames Embankment. He is, like Holmes, consulted by those who wish to retain his services in order to resolve an intractable problem—but for Carnacki, the problems are supernatural rather than criminal.

Then, in the aftermath of such cases:

Carnacki was genially secretive and curt, and spoke only when he was ready to speak. When this stage arrived, I and his three other friends, Jessop, Arkright, and Taylor would receive a card or a wire, asking us to call. Not one of us ever willingly missed, for after a thoroughly sensible little dinner, Carnacki would snuggle down into his big armchair, light his pipe, and wait whilst we arranged ourselves comfortably in our accustomed seats and nooks. Then he would begin to talk.

Carnacki then tells the story of his latest adventure to his four friends, reported as direct speech throughout. When the story concludes, they ask a few questions, and then are cheerfully dismissed by Carnacki with the phrase “Out you go!”

This strategy of reporting a first-person narrative as if addressed to a real audience is an immersively effective one, with Carnacki occasionally breaking off at moments of high peril to make quick asides to his friends.

Carnacki is a high-tech ghost-finder. There’s much use made of cameras and flash apparatus, and his Electric Pentacle comes into play frequently—the traditional star-shaped protective boundary, but composed of electrical discharge tubes rather than the customary chalk lines. But he is also, we are given to understand, steeped in occult lore. He offers frequent quotations from the fourteenth-century “Sigsand Manuscript”:

“In blood there is the Voice which calleth through all space. Ye Monsters in ye Deep hear, and hearing, they lust. Likewise hath it a greater power to reclaim backward ye soul that doth wander foolish adrift from ye body in which it doth have natural abiding. But woe unto him that doth spill ye blood in ye deadly hour; for there will be surely Monsters that shall hear ye blood cry.”

And, again like Sherlock Holmes, Carnacki offers frequent references to other cases, either his own or those of other (usually doomed) occult practitioners:

… what I term the ‘personal-sounds’ of the manifestation were so extraordinarily material, that I was inclined to parallel the case with that of Hartford’s, where the hand of the child kept materialising within the pentacle, and patting the floor. As you will remember, that was a hideous business.

Hodgson is expert at conjuring up weird and disturbing scenes:

… the darkness which filled the passage seemed to become suddenly of a dull violet colour; not, as if a light had been shone; but as if the natural blackness of the night had changed colour. And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked Child, running. In an extraordinary way, the Child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night, came from the Child. It seems impossible to make clear to you; but try to understand it.

And Carnacki is seldom composed and rational during all this—he suffers from intermittent “funks”, sometimes flees the scene entirely, and vividly describes how fear makes his scalp feel tight, and his blood thunder in his ears so much that he worries he may be unable to hear some vitally important sound.

Another feature of Carnacki’s narratives is that things are seldom entirely resolved—he establishes that some malevolent entity, restless spirit, or (on occasion) mundane human agency is responsible for the manifestations he has investigated, but there’s almost always something he confesses he can’t explain fully. Some may find this frustrating, but for me Carnacki’s frank admissions of fear and uncertainty make his tales more convincing.

Blackwood introduces his hero Dr John Silence thus:

By his friends John Silence was regarded as an eccentric, because he was rich by accident, and by choice—a doctor. That a man of independent means should devote his time to doctoring, chiefly doctoring folk who could not pay, passed their comprehension entirely. The native nobility of soul whose first desire was to help those who could not help themselves, puzzled them. After that, it irritated them, and, greatly to his own satisfaction, they left him to his own devices.

John Silence’s practice is seldom entirely medical, however. Like Carnacki, he sorts out problems of a supernatural nature.

In order to grapple with cases of this peculiar kind, he had submitted himself to a long and severe training, at once physical, mental and spiritual. What precisely this training had been, or where undergone, no one seemed to know,—for he never spoke of it, as, indeed, he betrayed no single other characteristic of the charlatan,—but the fact that it had involved a total disappearance from the world for five years, and that after he returned and began his singular practice no one ever dreamed of applying to him the so easily acquired epithet of quack, spoke much for the seriousness of his strange quest and also for the genuineness of his attainments.

(Yes, that quotation contains only two sentences, the second of which is a jaw-dropping ninety words long. Even by the standards of his contemporaries, Blackwood was a wordy writer.)

The stories are sometimes narrated by Silence’s equivalent of Doctor Watson, a companion named Hubbard, who seems to have some knowledge of the occult himself. But in some stories Blackwood uses the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. Blackwood’s original idea had been to assemble a set of stories dealing with various occult themes—hauntings, witchcraft, satanism, werewolves, and so on. But he was subsequently persuaded that the addition of a protagonist, common to all the stories, would produce a more coherent result. So Silence was a late addition to the concept, and this shows in Blackwood’s plots—Silence occupies a central role in only three of the six stories. In the others, someone else has the adventure (on one occasion, Hubbard), and Silence appears only to explain or resolve the problem.

This, combined with the reserved nature of John Silence, the adulation with which he is uniformly greeted, the third person narration, and Blackwood’s endless wordiness, makes John Silence a character that’s harder to engage with than Thomas Carnacki. While my copy of Carnacki’s adventures fairly bristled with bookmarks placed in anticipation of this review, John Silence afforded me sparser pickings.

Of all the stories, I found the first, “A Psychical Invasion”, with Silence very much centre-stage, the most interesting, and the only one that generated any sort of unease. Silence stakes out a haunted house, with the aid of a dog and a cat.

He has brought his pets along because:

He believed (and had already made curious experiments to prove it) that animals were more often, and more truly, clairvoyant than human beings.

And so it proves to be:

[The cat] had jumped down from the back of the armchair and now occupied the middle of the carpet, where, with tail erect and legs stiff as ramrods, it was steadily pacing backwards and forwards in a narrow space, uttering, as it did so, those curious little guttural sounds of pleasure that only an animal of the feline species knows how to make expressive of supreme happiness. […]
At the end of every few paces it turned sharply and stalked back again along the same line, padding softly, and purring like a roll of little muffled drums. It behaved precisely as though it were rubbing against the ankles of some one who remained invisible. A thrill ran down the doctor’s spine as he stood and stared. His experiment was growing interesting at last.

And so Silence finds himself sharing a room with an invisible, malevolent entity that his cat loves, and (it transpires) his dog hates and fears. (That’s cats for you.)

The slow working out of this plot is, for me, the high point of the entire collection.

Hodgson’s writing works better for a modern reader than does Blackwood’s, I think. There are sequences in Carnacki’s adventures that are almost cinematic, and full of urgency. Blackwood builds tension so slowly, and telegraphs his purpose so obviously, that it’s a bit difficult to get excited. For example, the scene involving the cat’s strange behaviour, above, is preceded by endless pages in which Silence and his companion animals sit around calmly waiting for something to happen. And before that, we’re treated to a well-observed, but hugely prolonged, dissertation on the relationship between this particular cat and dog. (They’re quite cute together, admittedly.) Hodgson is often criticized for his lack of characterization, and it’s certainly true that Carnacki’s companions are mere ciphers, present only to give Carnacki someone to talk to. But that’s the whole point—Carnacki needs to be chatting to trusted companions to make the narratives come alive in the way they do.

You can read or download the original six Carnacki stories at Project Gutenberg. Marcus Rowland hosts all nine stories on his excellent webpages devoted to Carnacki. (American readers should note his comment about copyright still applying to the later three stories in the USA, if they plan to download a copy.) And you can borrow a more recent edition of the full Carnacki collection from the Internet Archive.

You can find John Silence, Physician Extraordinary, containing all but the last story, at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Both collections are also currently available in paperback and e-book editions, though the quality of layout and punctuation isn’t brilliant, from what I’ve seen.

* We don’t actually learn Carnacki’s first name until the fifth story, “The Searcher Of The End House”, when he is addressed as “Thomas” by his mother. Interestingly, however, The Idler gave his full name in the introduction to the first story printed. Presumably they were already in receipt of the fifth story, or perhaps Hodgson has provide some sort of outline of proposed plots in which he gave Carnacki’s full name.

Angus Graham: The Golden Grindstone

Cover of The Golden Grindstone, by Angus Graham

“It was a most extraordinary thing, Graham, to see how the different men reacted to the gold. It took them all different ways, just like too much liquor. One would be cold and calculating, and as wicked as Hell; another would be delirious with pleasure; some showed themselves up as the lowest type of killer; and many became open-handedly generous.”

This one is subtitled “The Adventures of George M. Mitchell”.

Mitchell was an insurance-broker in Toronto, in his early thirties, when the Klondike gold-rush began in 1897. He and two friends immediately drew up a plan to reach the Klondike gold-fields by the “All-Canadian Route” from Edmonton. While most prospectors tried to reach the Klondike River by crossing through Alaska into Canada, the Edmontonians, recently connected to the outside world by the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, were keen to promote their town as a “Gateway to the Yukon”.

Cover of The Klondike Gold Rush Through Edmonton, by J.G. MacGregor

There were, in fact, a plethora of “All-Canadian” routes, exhaustively detailed by J.G. MacGregor in his book The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton (1970). They can be divided into Overland Routes and Water Routes. The Overland Routes involved a long, gruelling trek which wrought a huge death toll among pack-animals along the way. The Water Routes involved building a boat and drifting northwards down the Mackenzie River, before choosing a tributary and striking south-westwards and upstream, towards the watershed between the Mackenzie and the Yukon. Once across the watershed, it was just a matter of finding a suitable Yukon tributary, building another boat, navigating downstream, and eventually connecting with one of the Yukon paddle-wheel steamers for transport to Dawson City and the Klondike field, as lovingly described in Robert Turner’s The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers (2019).

Cover of Klondike Gold Rush Steamers by Robert Turner

Mitchell favoured one of the Water Routes, and after consultation with the surveyor William Ogilvie, established that he could cross between the Mackenzie and Yukon drainage basins across a pass that separated the headwaters of the Peel River (draining into the Mackenzie) from those of the Stewart River (draining into the Yukon).

Mitchell never made it to the Yukon, for reasons we’ll come to in due course, but in his sixties he dictated his gold-rush memoir to Angus Graham, about whom I regrettably know nothing. He was clearly something of a raconteur, and Graham wisely copies down many of his stories verbatim, though Graham was no slouch at telling a story himself. Here he is, in his introductory chapter, setting the tone for what will follow:

But the picture which the reader of this book should chiefly try to form is of Mr. Mitchell in his den. It was his hospitable habit to receive his friends of an evening in a tiny sanctum withdrawn at the back of the hall—its walls hung with guns and rifles, pictures of dogs, Indians’ knives and embroidered leatherwork, and the piece of a mammoth’s tusk that he had found in the Valley of the Noises. Here, if his hearers were interested, he would sometimes warm up to reminiscence, and it was in such evening conversations that he gave me the stories out of which this book is made.

The journey on which Mitchell and his companions embarked, at the end of December 1897, would involve more than two thousand miles of travel from Edmonton to Dawson City. After reaching Edmonton by rail, they passed the first months of 1898 in assembling three years’ worth of stores—ten tons, in all. Before the March thaw, they had this transported to the Athabasca River along the 90-mile sleigh-road connecting Edmonton and Athabasca Landing.* There, they commissioned the building of a thirty-three-foot scow for onward river transport.

By May, the Athabasca River was free of ice, and they set off downstream, along with a flotilla of other prospectors. First they followed the Athabasca into Lake Athabasca, and then the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, notorious for its storms. From the Great Slave into the Mackenzie proper, and then all the way downriver to the Mackenzie Delta, where they entered the mouth of the Peel River and headed upstream a short distance to the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost of Fort McPherson.

None of the journey so far was into anything like unknown territory—the Hudson’s Bay Company had been trading here for many years (the joke along the Mackenzie was that “HBC” actually stood for “Here Before Christ”). They had established fortified trading posts all along the river route, as well as infrastructure here and there to assist boats in negotiating the various rapids. At Grand Rapids on the Athabasca, for instance, there was a narrow-gauge tramway at which prospectors unloaded their boats above the rapids, and then transported their goods to a point beneath the rapids. Meanwhile, the empty boat was allowed to descend the rapids, controlled from shore by ropes attached at bow and stern, and then reloaded.

Graham offers a description of one of the HBC’s strongholds—Fort Simpson:

The wall was built of stout spruce logs fifteen feet high and a foot in diameter, with their tops sharpened to points; all round the inside ran a firing platform, with loopholes for musketry defence, while at the corners there were bastions, mounting guns, with magazines on ground level beneath.

Inside, the HBC “officers” enjoyed a well-stocked wine cellar, an extensive library, and a billiard-room.

Fort McPherson was something of an entrepôt for Arctic Canada, visited by both the Gwichʼin First Nations people from the surrounding territory and the Inuvialuit Inuit from the Mackenzie Delta. In the summer of 1898 it also received a visitation of about two hundred prospectors in fifty assorted boats, all keen to resupply, hire local guides, and then get moving farther up towards the Peel River headwaters before the first snows in the high passes prevented further progress. Mitchell found a Gwich’in guide, Bonnet Plume, who undertook to lead him and his party to the watershed pass above the Stewart River; he also turned up an invaluable map of the Peel River prepared by Comte Edouard de Sainville in 1893.

Hauling boats upriver through the canyons and rapids of the Peel (a process called “tracking”) was exhausting work. Boats suited to the broad reaches of the Mackenzie were too long, and were cut in half at the riverside, with a new bow and stern for the half-boats being fashioned from local timber. By mid-September, just after the party of prospectors, by now much strung out, had turned south to follow the Wind River, the first snow-storm intimated that they were not going to reach the Yukon watershed until the following year. They stopped and built a temporary cabin village in which to overwinter, which they grandly named “Wind City”. Here, the group occupied their time with hunting, prospecting widely around the camp, getting into fights, and tending those among them who developed scurvy. Mitchell and Bonnet Plume also trekked the hundred and forty miles up Wind River to establish that there was indeed a viable pass connecting to the headwaters of the Stewart.

George R. Mitchell's route, 1898
Click to enlarge
Prepared from Natural Earth data

But that, as my map above shows, was as far as Mitchell got. By his own account, while out on a midwinter hunting trip with a party of Gwich’in, he sustained a broken kneecap when a tree he was felling toppled in the wrong direction. He was then nursed through the winter at the Gwich’in camp, and was taken back to Fort McPherson (now a Gwich’in “blood brother”) the following spring. The latter third of the book is taken up with Mitchell’s experiences, good and bad, but mainly good, of First Nations medicine and hospitality.

Graham tells all this in fine style, occasionally intruding with explanatory or additional notes, but mainly letting Mitchell tell his own story his own way. Indeed, some of the verbatim text includes Mitchell’s instructions on exactly what he wants to have included in the book. The story is full of detail about river navigation, prospecting tricks, encounters with bears and wolves, life in the Canadian Arctic, and the skills, beliefs and customs of the Gwich’in people. And we’re reminded fairly frequently that this was still a wild frontier, in some respects:

“Wasn’t there a good deal of shooting, Mr. Mitchell, one way or another?” I ventured to enquire.
“Well, yes, there was some shooting. We all had guns. I always carried three guns myself: one long-barrelled thing, mainly for show, strapped to my leg like you see in the Wild West movies; a forty-five in my belt, in case a heavy bullet was wanted; an automatic in my armpit—that was what I depended on for real quick business. But it never came to anything very much […] There was no fellow really killed at Athabasca Landing.”

Mitchell’s tone here is typical. There’s always a fair amount of swagger, and Mitchell would have us believe that he was constantly resolving disputes with his fists or a blow from an axe-handle, being deputized by the North-West Mounted Police, and generally being smarter and better prepared than the rather poor specimens around him. (He had a particularly poor view of men from Chicago, for some reason.) He does however stress his particular admiration and respect for the Gwich’in, but undermine this somewhat by referring to them as “my Indians”. And then there’s this:

“As regards punishing women,” said Mitchell, “it was customary to beat women when they needed it, and they often did need it.”

As time goes by, one begins to feel that Mitchell might be to some extent an unreliable narrator. There are some improbable medical interventions, including the complex surgery supposedly performed on his broken kneecap by a Gwich’in woman, and a piece of gun-play that seems little short of miraculous. Then there’s his claim that it was “pitch black all through December and January” at Wind City, so that men could only hunt by the light of the aurora. Wind City, however, even by Mitchell’s own estimate, was a good way south of the Arctic Circle, and would have enjoyed three hours of daylight on even the shortest day of the year. (Though perhaps not a glimpse of the low sun itself, because of high ground to the south.)

Cover of From Duck Lake to Dawson City, by Eben McAdam

And the whole story of Mitchell’s time with the Gwich’in sits uneasily with the diaries of prospectors Ebenezer McAdam and R.H.S. Cresswell, published in From Duck Lake To Dawson City (1977). Mitchell’s chronology is hazy, but he gives the impression of spending most of the winter with the Gwich’in. But McAdam puts Mitchell in Wind City, nursing an injured knee, from January to March—if this was a separate injury, Mitchell doesn’t mention it. Mitchell then describes how the Gwich’in take him down to Fort McPherson during the months of June and July. Cresswell reports meeting this party in June—but in the company of five other prospectors who had become unable or unwilling to proceed to Dawson City. None of these men is mentioned in Mitchell’s narrative, despite the fact that one of them was Ed Harris—a man whose life Mitchell had previously reported saving, by amputating his gangrenous heel with a hacksaw, “after I got Harris’ permission in writing—signed and witnessed”.

So this one is a rollickingly good read, but one is left feeling uneasy—how much of the fascinating detail can we actually believe? Probably a great deal of it, but which bits exactly?

You can borrow the book from the Internet Archive. Second-hand copies of the original UK, US, Canadian and Australian (1947) publications seem to be readily available, though prices are a bit variable. There’s also a paperback edition from Lyons Press (2006).

* MacGregor tells us the going rate for this was $0.75-$1.00 per hundred pounds of cargo. For a Canadian 2000-pound short ton, that makes something like 200 Canadian dollars for Mitchell’s load—equivalent to over $5000 today.
Mitchell refers to the Gwich’in by the French name Loucheux, and to the Inuit as Eskimos, both now deprecated exonyms.
From Duck Lake To Dawson City is an annotated edition of McAdam’s Klondike diary. The editor, R.G. Moyles, quotes from Cresswell’s unpublished diary in the notes.

Banks et al.: Why Do Animal Eyes Have Pupils Of Different Shapes?

Comparison of cat and goat eyes
(Details from cat and goat images at

Human eyes have round pupils, but there is considerable variation in the animal kingdom, from the vertical slit pupil of a cat, to the horizontal slot of a goat, as pictured above.

So Martin S. Banks and his colleagues asked the question “Why?” in an article published in Science Advances in August 2015.

They started by collecting data on 214 terrestrial species, classifying them on their foraging mode (herbivorous, active predator, ambush predator), their time of activity (diurnal, nocturnal or polyphasic) and pupil shape (vertical slit, sub-circular, circular or horizontal slot). Then they plotted the data on a chart, and observed something interesting:

Ambush predators were more likely to have vertical slit pupils than were herbivores, whereas herbivores were more likely to have horizontal slots. And nocturnal animals were more likely to have vertical slits or subcircular pupils (vertically orientated ellipses) than animals that operate in the daytime. When they did the statistics on this, they came up with a p-value that is the most statistically significant result I’ve ever seen in my life: p<10-15. So there’s obviously something going on. And Banks et al. had a potential explanation to offer.

First, we need to think about depth of field, a concept familiar to anyone who has more than a passing interest in photography. When we focus our camera lens (or our eyes) on an object, objects in the foreground and background of that object appear blurred, because they’re out of focus. The range of distances over which this blurring is so slight as to be invisible is called the depth of field. This depth-of-field blurring is more pronounce if the camera aperture (or eye pupil) is wide—so narrow pupils will give a deep depth of field, while dilated pupils have a shallow depth of field. And depth of field also gets shallower as we focus on objects closer to us.

The blurring happens because each ray of light coming from an out-of-focus object is projected on to the camera sensor (or the retina of the eye) as a little image of the pupil. (Whereas light from an in-focus object is brought to a sharp point focus at the surface of the sensor/retina.) So eyes with circular pupils produce out-of-focus images that are, in effect, composed of lots and lots of little circular overlapping spots of light.

But a vertical slit pupil will project an out-of-focus version of itself on to the retina, producing an image that is much more blurred vertically than horizontally. Which means that vertical slit pupils have a greater depth of field for vertically orientated edges than for horizontal edges. Here’s a simulation of what an out-of-focus cross would appear like, to an animal with a vertical slit pupil:

A cross blurred by a vertical slit pupil
Slit and circular pupils of equal area

For a given level of light, the pupil must dilate or constrict to control the amount of light reaching the retina. If we compare a slit pupil with a circular pupil of equal area (which therefore would admit an equal amount of light), we can see that the vertical slit pupil is much narrower in the horizontal direction, and longer in the vertical direction. So an animal with a vertical slit pupil trades off good depth of field for vertical structures with poor depth of field for horizontal structures.

Why would evolution come up with such a trade-off? Banks et al. think it helps with depth perception. One way in which we judge distance is by triangulating our gaze—the amount by which our eyes converge on a target tells us how far away it is. And because our eyes are set horizontally, we triangulate best on narrow vertical structures, for which we can confidently bring together and superimpose the images from each eye. A horizontal line is correspondingly harder to triangulate, because there’s ambiguity about the “correct” superposition.

And the increased depth-of-field blur for horizontal structures is also a potential aid to depth-perception, say Banks et al. It produces a shallow depth of field which allows the predator to focus its eyes very precisely on its target. So we have to imagine the predator converging its gaze rapidly on its target, using its deep vertical depth of field, and then fine-tuning its distance estimate using its shallow horizontal depth of field.

But is there any evidence that predators actually use these visual cues? Banks et al. point out that small predators have their eyes nearer the ground and focus on more nearby prey, which will give them a reduced depth-of-field compared to larger predators. The two hypothesized advantages for vertical slit pupils should therefore be more advantageous for smaller predators, driving evolution more strongly towards equipping smaller predators with slit pupils. And so it proves to be:

We evaluated this prediction by examining the relationship between eye height in these animals and the probability that they have a vertically elongated pupil. There is indeed a striking correlation among frontal-eyed, ambush predators between eye height and the probability of having such a pupil. Among the 65 frontal-eyed, ambush predators in our database, 44 have vertical pupils and 19 have circular. Of those with vertical pupils, 82% have shoulder heights less than 42 cm. Of those with circular pupils, only 17% are shorter than 42 cm.

But the most striking support evidence they advance is the fact that birds almost all have circular pupils, which might reflect the large heights from which they usually observe. The only birds known to have vertical slit pupils are the skimmers. These birds catch fish by flying fast and low just a few inches above a lake surface, with their lower jaws dipped into the water, ready to snap shut on any unsuspecting fish. An ability to precisely judge the distance of obstacles ahead might well be an advantage.

What about the horizontal pupils of herbivores? These will have the reverse properties of the vertical slits—good depth of field for horizontal structures, at the expense of poor depth of field for vertical structures.

How could that help a prey animal? Banks et al. point out that light rays entering our eyes from the peripheries tend to be poorly focussed—something called astigmatism of oblique incidence. We tend not to notice that, because our peripheral vision is more involved in detecting movement than in trying to resolve images. But prey animals generally have their eyes placed on the sides of their heads, so that they can observe a wide field of view. This means that they have a very limited field of binocular vision in front of their noses, and that’s all mediated by peripheral vision. By prioritizing deep depth of field for horizontal structures, their pupils reduce the effect of astigmatism of oblique incidence in important parts of the visual field—straight ahead, when galloping full-tilt to escape predators, and also at the “corner of the eye” looking backwards, so a slight shift of the head can assess where a pursuing predator is. Or, as the authors put it:

We conclude that the optimal pupil shape for terrestrial prey is horizontally elongated. Such a pupil improves image quality for horizontal contours in front of and behind the animal and thereby helps solve the fundamental problem of guiding rapid locomotion in a forward direction despite lateral eye placement.

And they have a test for this hypothesis, too. If horizontal slot pupils are to be advantageous in this way, they should stay horizontal, despite the animal’s head position, rotating to maintain their orientation as the animal bows and raises its head—something called cyclovergence. So Banks and his colleagues went off to farms and zoos and shot video footage of some prey animals raising and lowering their heads—sheep, goats, white-tailed deer, horses and moose—and they all exhibited strong cyclovergence. How cool is that? Rest assured that I will be closely observing the next sheep I encounter.

There’s a lot more to the paper, including analysis of other pupil shapes, like those of geckos and dolphins, which constrict to multiple small apertures in bright light, and an investigation of how often different pupil shapes have emerged during the evolution of cats and dogs. If I’ve whetted your appetite, head off to look at the original paper, accessible in full here.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison: North to the Rime-Ringed Sun

Cover of North to the Rime-Ringed Sun by Isobel Wylie Hutchison

We were northward bound for Alaska and her blue midnights! Her golden blossoms! Her trackless forests! Her naked tundras!

I’ve written about the redoubtable Isobel Wylie Hutchison before—a Scottish lady of independent means who spent her life travelling and botanizing, often while walking prodigious distances alone. She recorded her travels in articles for National Geographic magazine, and also in a series of books. North to the Rime-Ringed Sun (1934) is subtitled, in its British edition by Blackie & Son, Being the record of an Alaskan-Canadian journey made in 1933-34. Which, together with the cover art, just about sums it up. (The US edition, published by Hillman-Curl in 1937, went for the less wordy An Alaskan Journey, choosing to ignore Hutchison’s time in Arctic Canada.)

Hutchison’s title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Long Trail”, which has more than a hint of Robert Service about it:

It’s North you may run to the rime-ringed sun
Or South to the blind Horn’s hate;
Or East all the way into Mississippi Bay,
Or West to the Golden Gate –
Where the blindest bluffs hold good, dear lass,
And the wildest tales are true,
And the men bulk big on the old trail, our own trail, the out trail,
And life runs large on the Long Trail – the trail that is always new.

Her plan for this trip was to get to Herschel Island, on the north coast of Yukon Territory. Along the way, she was going to collect plants for the Royal Herbarium at Kew, and purchase artefacts for the Museum of Ethnology in Cambridge.

Her itinerary involved leaving Britain as a passenger aboard a cargo ship, which was carrying, among other things, beer to the newly post-Prohibition United States. Disembarking in Vancouver, she would board a Canadian Pacific Railway steamer, bound to the old gold-rush port of Skagway. Then via narrow-gauge railway over White Pass to Whitehorse in Canada, and thence by stern-wheeler riverboat down the Yukon to Dawson City, the boom-town of the Klondike gold-rush of 1897. From Dawson, she aimed to take a succession of boats all the way down the Yukon to the tiny settlement of Mitchell, where she hoped to board a ship taking her to Nome, on the Barents Sea. After that, she planned on “trusting in Providence (for on this section of the journey American Express Companies and tourist itineraries no longer functioned)”. But the hope was to obtain a berth on a vessel heading north through the Bering Strait to the town of Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, and then another boat to get to Herschel Island before the winter pack ice shut down sea travel. (Barrow, it transpires, was something of a hub for Arctic trading and supply vessels—boats from farther east would make their way to Barrow to pick up supplies coming in from the west, and would then scamper homewards before the ice closed in.) The following spring, she would push farther east to the Mackenzie Delta, and follow that river south until she could connect with the Canadian railway system.

She made this trip alone, with 300 pounds of luggage, which had grown to 500 pounds by the time she had completed her collection of artefacts and purchased Arctic clothing. Things went swimmingly until she reached the town of Tanana, on the Yukon, where it became evident that the boat that would take her farther down the Yukon was delayed, and that the ship she planned to meet for her journey to Nome might well not be available. This was a problem, because she needed to reach Nome before the last ship of the season headed north. So, undaunted, she took the train to Fairbanks, and arranged to fly to Nome aboard a scheduled Pacific-Alaska Airways floatplane. (Most of here extensive baggage came on in a second aeroplane, a few days later.) Then, after a period of ecstatic botanizing in Nome, she found a berth aboard the tiny M.S. Trader (pictured in the cover art at the head of this post) which, after multiple tribulations in the ice, got her to Barrow. There, with winter closing in, she hooked up with Gus Masik of the M.S. Topaz, who promised to take her east as far as the encroaching ice allowed:

She was a boat of much the same size as Trader, though the cabin was larger and had the advantage that one was able to stand upright. As it was also the engine-room, however, the smell of petrol and the constant noise somewhat counter-balanced this advantage. […] From the rigging hung the stiffened carcass of a frozen caribou, which became a sadder and sadder wreck as the journey proceeded, supplying most of the breakfasts, dinners and suppers of our six days’ voyage.

Gus got them as far as Barter Island (a place where the Inuit of Canada and Iñupiat of Alaska traditionally meet to trade) before the sea became impassable, 120 miles short of Herschel Island. At which point, Isobel was invited to stay at Gus’s place:

… the quaint “round-house” of wood, turf and canvas (built by himself) which was Gus’s trading-post.

She stayed for several weeks with Gus in his single-room dwelling, listening to his stories and taking walks along the length of the little shingle island he called home. They seem to have got along well enough, since Gus came to visit her in Scotland, during a trip to Europe a few years later, as recounted in the recent compilation of her writings, Peak Beyond Peak.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison at demarcation pillar on Alaska/Canada border
Click to enlarge

Then, with the sea-ice thick enough for dog-sledding, Gus ferried her to the RCMP station on Herschel Island—stopping off on the way for a photo opportunity at the little obelisk that marks the border between Alaska and Canada.

From Herschel, onwards by a series of dog-sled journeys into the Mackenzie Delta, sometimes having to run behind the sled in deep snow at forty degrees below zero*, before reaching the settlement of Aklavik. (Aklavik was prone to frequent flooding from the Mackenzie River, and in the sixties the main population centre moved to the new town of Inuvik.) Hutchison tells us a bit about the economics of travelling as a passenger on a dog-sled:

Ten dollars a day is the customary charge in Alaska and Canada at this season, full price being charged as a rule for the return journey (without the passenger). Travel by dog-sled in the Arctic is thus, for a long distance, still considerably dearer than an aeroplane…

Finally, another flight, this time on a ski-equipped plane, down the length of the Mackenzie River, stopping off at a series of outposts with the word “Fort” in their names before reaching the railhead at Fort McMurray:

Next morning a taxi conveyed me to the station at Waterways, where I caught the weekly train to Edmonton.
But I had heard the call of the wild on star-lit nights under the Northern Lights; I had slept in a snow-hut; I had broken a new trail at the foot of the splintered Endicotts, and my heart beat for the wilderness.

My first edition of this book has a nice map of Hutchison’s journey, in the old useful style—at the back of the book, and designed to fold out sideways so that it can be consulted while reading, without flipping back and forth. Here’s my own map, prepared for your delectation (you might need to click for an enlarged view):

Isobel Wylie Hutchison travels in Alaska and Canada, 1933-34
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Natural Earth data

Through all this, Hutchison is an amiable, observant and apparently unflappable companion, and her narrative paints a detailed picture of life along the north coast of North America in this era. I was fascinated by the sheer number of people she encountered, going about their business in a landscape that, while desolate, is dotted with trapper’s huts, mission stations, RCMP posts, trading posts, and the shelters of indigenous hunters.

I particularly enjoyed her visit to two eccentric and reclusive Polish woodcarvers in the little settlement of Purgatory (“a hell of a place to live in”), on the banks of the Yukon—you can read more about them here. Hutchison reports:

Some years ago, when the steamer called at Purgatory, the passengers noticed on the beach a fresh pile of gravel about the size of a newly-made grave, above which was a cross reading:

‘He robbed my cache and here he lies’

When the local Marshal and two deputies arrived to investigate this murder, they found that the grave contained only the corpse of a Canada Jay, a bird so clever at robbing food caches that it’s known locally as the “camp robber”.

And then there’s an episode reminiscent of a Clive Cussler novel—the encounter between the Trader and the derelict S.S. Baychimo, embedded in the ice fifteen miles from the settlement of Wainwright. The ship had been abandoned by her crew in 1931, after becoming locked in the ice, but continued to drift around the Beaufort Sea for another 38 years. A little later, as Trader threaded its way between the ice floes close inshore, it was actually overtaken by the Baychimo, which was moving eastwards with the pack ice farther out to sea.

Second-hand copies of the original volume seem to be relatively rare and correspondingly expensive. You can borrow a scanned version of the book online from the Internet Archive, and it has been reissued recently, in paperback and hardback editions, by Hassell Street Press.

* Forty degrees below zero is the same temperature in Celsius and Fahrenheit. I’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to write “forty degrees below zero” without specifying the units.

Alexei Panshin: The “Rite Of Passage” Stories

Covers of Alexei Panshin "Rite of Passage" publications
Click to enlarge

The Ships were launched just over two hundred years ago to carry survival colonies away from an overpopulated and depleted Earth on the hysterical edge of self-destruction. Seven Ships founded some one hundred colonies. And now, all these many years later, the only movement between the stars is the seven Great Ships on eternal motherly rounds to disapprove of their children. They are good mothers.

Alexei Panshin “Arpad” (1971)

Alexei Panshin, a science-fiction writer and critic who died in 2022, will be remembered for several things, according to the interests of the rememberer. For those interested in the history and philosophy of SF, he will be recalled for the magisterial history and analysis of science fiction he wrote with his wife, Cory Panshin: The World Beyond The Hill (1978). For those who thrill to the spats and intrigues of the SF world, he’ll always be remembered as the iconic persona non grata of Robert Heinlein, in part* for expressing some lukewarm views about Heinlein’s writing in a commissioned volume of criticism, Heinlein In Dimension (1968). While Heinlein and his wife Virginia collected personae non gratae as others accumulate a drawer full of mystery keys and flash drives, Panshin was the type specimen of People Hated By The Heinleins—William Patterson, the author of Heinlein’s approved hagiography biography, tells us that Virginia once “made Voodoo dolls of Panshin to stick pins in—to no apparent effect”. So not weird at all, really.

But for many science fiction readers of a Certain Age, he’ll be remembered for his first novel, Rite Of Passage (1968).

The background to the novel is summarized in the quotation at the head of this post. Earth self-destructs from the twin bugaboos of the 1960s—overpopulation and nuclear war. Before the End, a small number of huge faster-than-light spacecraft, fashioned from asteroids, are sent out to plant colonies on multiple planets in other star systems. After the colonies are in place, the crews of the Ships decide not to join the colonists, but instead to turn their (now very roomy) spacecraft into generation ships, living on in limited technocratic splendour while the colonists grub out a mean existence. And so the Ships ply between the colony worlds, exchanging technology for raw materials, while deliberately withholding scientific knowledge from the colonies to keep them in a state of dependency. We know that all is not well in the relationship between Ships and colonies when we read this, early in the narrative:

[The] Ships planted 112 colonies on planets in as many star systems. (There were 112 at the beginning, but a fair number simply failed and at least seven acted badly and had to be morally disciplined, so around ninety still exist.)

That phrase “morally disciplined” lurks in the back of the reader’s mind until the final scenes of the novel, when its meaning becomes very clear.

The Ships must limit their populations. Every conception is approved by the Ship’s “Eugenist”, and every teenager, shortly after their fourteenth birthday, must undergo a rite of passage called Trial—they are set down on a colony world for a month, and left to survive by their own resources. If they live, they are officially adults; if they die, someone else gets to have a baby.

The story is a bildungsroman, narrated by Mia Havero, a teenager approaching Trial, and it covers the two-year period in her life before Trial, and the Trial itself. Panshin uses Mia’s burgeoning independence and youthful naïvety as a way to introduce the reader slowly to the complexities of his imagined society, as Mia has a succession of adventures (and misadventures) that test her resilience. Eventually, in the final third of the book, Mia embarks on her Trial, during which things go catastrophically wrong for her and her peer group.

Some reviewers (all male, as far as I can see) made much of how Panshin had managed to channel the thoughts and attitudes of a peri-pubertal girl. With hindsight, I suspect their enthusiasm arose more from what an unusual thing this was in the 1960s, rather than any particular insight on Panshin’s part. Apart from chucking in a few references to bras and menstruation, Panshin does little to distinguish Mia from the composed and resourceful young male protagonists popular at the time. And all these reviewers seem to have missed the fact that Panshin wasn’t channelling the twelve-to-fourteen-year-old Mia at all, but was writing in the persona of nineteen-year-old Mia, now a happily married woman, offering a sort of artist’s impression of the formative events in her life so far:

To be honest, I haven’t been able to remember clearly everything that happened to me before and during Trial, so where necessary I’ve filled in with possibilities—lies, if you want.
There is no doubt that I never said things half as smoothly as I set them down here, and probably no-one else did either. Some of the incidents are wholly made up. It doesn’t matter, though. Everything here is near enough to what happened, and the important part of this story is not the events so much as the changes that started taking place in me seven years ago. The changes are the things to keep your eye on.

Another odd blind spot with regard to this novel is a recurring problem with the cover art. Mia repeatedly reminds us that she is short in stature, and keeps her black hair tightly trimmed. She is of Spanish-Indian descent, and at one point, when she is reprimanded by her tutor, Mr Mbele, for dismissing all colonists as “Mudeaters”, we read the following:

“I thought you’d gotten over that, Mia,” he said. “This is a point that’s important to me. I don’t like this oversimple categorizing. Some of my ancestors were persecuted during one period and held to be inferior simply because their skins were dark.”
That was plain silly, because my skin happens to be darker than Mr. Mbele’s and I don’t feel inferior to anybody.

Whence, then, the long-haired, blonde, Nordic type that appeared on the cover of my Methuen paperback in 1987? (You can see her in the middle of the top row at the head of this post. She also seems to be not very bright, given the inappropriate pointy boots she’s wearing, and that precarious overhang she’s standing on.) In fact, looking through the covers of various editions of this book, I can’t find one that offers us a little, short-haired, dark-skinned girl. Isn’t that a shame and an embarrassment?

If you know Heinlein’s juvenile novels, you may be thinking that this plot looks like a classic Heinlein juvenile. Well, yes and no. For starters, Part 3 involves a sex scene between Mia and the young man who will become her husband, which I’m pretty sure would have prevented any publisher in 1968 from aiming this one at teenagers. Secondly (and perhaps predictably, given Panshin’s relationship with Heinlein’s writing), there’s a noticeable subversion of Heinlein’s usual “preaching omniscient father figure” who guides the young protagonist towards Right Thinking. Mia’s father deliberately exposes her to points of view other than his own, and she eventually finds reasons to disagree with him strongly.

There are, admittedly, problems with pacing and plot holes, but the novel very much deserved its Nebula Award—for its engaging narrator, for its presentation of both sides of a moral argument (not common in science fiction of that era), and for the careful building of narrative detail as the story progresses. So it’s fondly remembered by many who have read it, including your Humble Reviewer. But few people are aware of the fact that Panshin also wrote five short stories set in the “Rite of Passage” universe. Even the ever-alert Internet Speculative Fiction Database seems not to have noticed. So I thought I’d draw them to your attention. Almost all can be read on-line, in copies of the original magazines held by the Luminist Archives and the Internet Archive—my links will take you to them.

The earliest of Panshin’s short stories set in this universe was “Down to the Worlds of Men”, published in the July 1963 issue of Worlds of If, predating Rite of Passage by five years. It is a bare-bones version of what would become Part 3 of the novel, describing Mia’s adventures during Trial.

Next came “What Size are Giants?” in Worlds of Tomorrow, May 1965. The story begins with a young woman sitting in the countryside reading a book. A young man arrives in a cart pulled by a very large animal (a “titanoth”), and brusquely commands her to get aboard.

Judith said, “But I don’t know you.”
“My name is Michael ap-Davis,” the young man said. “There’s a herd of charging titanoths just behind me. If you listen, you can hear them. If you want to be alive five minutes from now, you’re going to have to climb, swim, or get aboard.”

So she gets aboard, and the story never loses pace thereafter—escapes, betrayals, conflicts and revelations come in rapid succession. Michael, it transpires, is an anthropologist from Ship No. 6, who is doing rather more than mere anthropology on Judith’s native planet. He has already incurred the wrath of the Ship’s administrators, and will soon enrage the colonists too.

Then came “The Sons of Prometheus” in Analog, October 1966. (In contrast to my other links, this one doesn’t take you straight to the story on-line—it downloads a pdf copy of the entire magazine from the Luminist Archives.)This one elaborates on the tension between Ships and colonists, and introduces a clandestine faction among the Ship population who want to be more interventive in helping the colonists develop their own technology. They call themselves the Sons of Prometheus, from the myth of the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. The protagonist, an out-of-his-depth Ship scientist reluctantly pressed into helping the Promethean cause on the planet Zebulon, finds himself having to deal with an outbreak of plague and a religious Inquisition. Things go badly wrong for him, in a particularly gruelling series of events.

The first post-novel short story was “A Sense of Direction”, in Amazing Stories, November 1969, which further expanded upon the relationship between Ships and colonies. It introduces Arpad Margolin, a boy fathered by one of the Ship’s personnel who had “gone native” on the colony world of New Albion. Arpad is reared by his parents in colonial society until the death of his father—at which point he is “rescued” by the Ship from which his father had defected. He doesn’t fit in with Shipboard life, and is treated as a second-class citizen, so as soon as he and his peers are set down on the planet Aurora for Survival Class, in preparation for their Trial, he flees the group and sets off to join the Auroran colonists—and finds himself being adopted by a very strange society indeed.

Finally, we meet Arpad again, forty years on, in the succinctly titled “Arpad”. This appeared in QUARK/2 (1971) the second of a short-lived anthology series edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker, and is the only one of the “Rite of Passage” short stories you can’t read on-line. The QUARK/ series was part of the science fiction New Wave, and by this time Panshin was leaning towards more New Wave narratives. There were hints of this in the surreal society Arpad encountered in “A Sense of Direction”, and in “Arpad” there’s no real narrative beyond Arpad’s scheming to achieve something involving a civil insurrection which will force a grand rendezvous of all seven Ships. I confess to being astonished when I turned the page to discover the story had finished, just as it seemed to be getting going. It’s most notable for featuring a brief cameo from Mia Havero and her husband.

Of the short stories, I enjoyed “What Size are Giants?” and “The Sons of Prometheus” most. “Down to the Worlds of Men” is of limited interest to anyone who has read Rite of Passage. “A Sense of Direction” was fine, but I found the Auroran society encountered by Arpad implausible. And “Arpad” seems like the worst kind of American New Wave—a story that goes nowhere and doesn’t do much along the way.

You can find “The Sons of Prometheus”, “A Sense of Direction” and “Arpad” in Panshin’s Farewell to Yesterday’s Tomorrow collection (1975), recently reissued by Phoenix Pick. (Caution: their Kindle edition is very poorly formatted.) Rite of Passage can be found in multiple second-hand editions; an e-book by seems now to be unavailable. “Down to the Worlds of Men” was incongruously anthologized in Intergalactic Empires (1983), despite involving neither intergalactic travel nor an empire. “What Size are Giants?” has never appeared in any other format apart from its original magazine publication, which is a bit of a shame because it’s great fun.

* The Heinleins’ antipathy to Panshin seems to have started when he was an over-enthusiastic and opinionated writer of fan letters at the age of fifteen; to have burgeoned when Panshin wrote a piece entitled “Heinlein by his Jockstrap” in the typewritten and mimeographed fanzine Shangri-L’Affaires in 1963, critiquing Heinlein’s attitude to sex; and to have reached the “voodoo doll” stage when Panshin started canvassing Heinlein’s friends for information while working on his Heinlein in Dimension critical appraisal. You can find Heinlein’s side of the story in the second volume of William Patterson’s authorized Heinlein biography, The Man Who Learned Better (2014); Panshin’s side is given on his website: The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.

Alan S.C. Ross: Linguistic Class Indicators In The Present Day (1954)

Alan S.C. Ross's "Linguistic Class Indicators In Present Day English", 2007 reprint

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

George Bernard Shaw, introduction to Pygmalion (1913)

Alan Ross was Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University when he published this paper in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, the journal of the Modern Language Society of Helsinki, although The Dictionary of National Biography tells us he started writing it as “an undergraduate amusement at Oxford”. So it had simmered on his back-burner for a quarter-century or so before it finally saw the light of day. (One can imagine Ross, now academically senior and secure, deciding it would be a bit of a lark, and could now do him no harm, to place his “undergraduate amusement” in a learned journal.)

This is the paper that gave the world (or at least a select English-speaking part of it) the idea of “U” and “non-U” usage—patterns in speech and writing which (Ross suggested) distinguish the language of the English upper class from that of the aspiring middle class.

In this article I use the terms upper class (abbreviated : U), correct, proper, legitimate, appropriate (sometimes also possible) and similar expressions (including some containing the word should) to designate usages of the upper class; their antonyms (non-U, incorrect, not proper, not legitimate, etc.) to designate usages which are not upper class.

The paper would probably have fallen into obscurity had it not been read by Nancy Mitford, who referred to it in an article entitled “The English Aristocracy”, published in Encounter magazine (1955). This was sufficiently well-received that Mitford went on to edit Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (1956), which contained her original essay and a condensed version of Ross’s paper, together with contributions from Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, Christopher Sykes and a poem (“How To Get On In Society”) by John Betjeman.

And so Ross’s distinction between “U” and “non-U” became the 1950s version of an internet meme—it was a topic for excited and amusing conversation, to which people could make their own contributions, and which gave those in the know a sense of “in-crowd” satisfaction. This led to Ross’s original paper becoming “famous by repute but paradoxically little-known”, to quote from Clive Upton’s introductory comments, written when the paper was reprinted by Neuphilologische Mitteilungen in 2007.

So I thought I’d take a look at it.

Ross gives his reason for studying the difference between U and non-U usage as follows:

It is solely by its language that the [English] upper class is clearly marked off from the others. In times past (e. g. in the Victorian and Edwardian periods) this was not the case. But, to-day, a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of this class.

He then admits that there are some minor differences in manners and interests between the upper class and the others—his list includes “an aversion to high tea” and “not playing tennis in braces”. It’s at this point one begins to suspect that Ross may not be entirely serious. This is confirmed when he goes on:

Again, when drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.

Truculence, I deduce, would be the mark of a cad. Or perhaps a bounder.

Ross presents his linguistic analysis in two sections. The first is “The Written Language”, which deals with how people address envelopes and postcards, and the forms of salutations and letter-endings. This really does little to contrast U and non-U usages—it’s merely a list of ways of doing things that are considered “correct”, easy mastery of which Ross identifies as a U domain. So, for instance:

Modes of address, particularly those used for the nobility, have always been a bugbear to the non-U. It is, for instance, non-U to speak of an earl as The Earl of P—; he should be spoken of and to as Lord P— and also so addressed at the beginning of a letter if an introduction between him and speaker/writer has been effected.

Many of these rules of etiquette in writing are still around; some are now gone, but familiar to me from my schooldays, like:

Letter-endings. The U rules for ending letters are very strict; failure to observe them usually implies non-U-ness, sometimes only youth. In general, the endings of letters are conditioned by their beginnings. Thus a beginning (Dear) Sir requires the ending Yours faithfully […]

Well, duh. Miss Macpherson, my fearsome primary-school teacher, got that one well drummed into this (very non-U) youth before I turned twelve.

The section ends with a dissection of the advice given by R.W. Chapman in Names, Designations and Appellations (1936*), published by the Society for Pure English, no less. In general, Ross thinks that Chapman’s reflections were dated, even for their time of writing. To Chapman’s discussion of the use of surnames, Ross adds an observation about U schoolchildren addressing each other by their surnames only (as in the “Jennings and Darbishire” books by Anthony Buckeridge):

It is not until a boy gets older (c. 16?) that he realises that he must deliberately ascertain his friends’ Christian names in order to be able to refer to them correctly to their parents. At Oxford in the late twenties the use of the surname in these circumstances was a known gaucherie and must therefore have been fairly usual.

I also rather relish Ross’s personal anecdote on the use of the suffix “Esq.” (“Esquire”), which in Ross’s day was a standard way of addressing a letter to a gentleman.

Knowledge of at least one initial of the recipient’s name is, of course, a prerequisite for addressing him with Esq. If the writer has not this minimum knowledge (and cannot, or is too lazy to obtain it) he will be in a quandary. In these circumstances I myself use the Greek letter θ (as θ. Smith, Esq.) but this is probably idiosyncratic.

I think it may well be, Professor Ross.

Section Two, “The Spoken Language”, begins with pronunciation. This section is a bit difficult to follow for a modern reader, because Ross’s phonetic notation predates the standard International Phonetic Alphabet. But, among other things, we learn that U-speakers say “temprilly” rather than “temporarily”; drop the letter l from “golf” and “Ralph” (“goff” and “Rafe”); and pronounce “tyre” and “tar” the same way (“taa”). “Either” pronounced with the first syllable sounding like “eye” is U; first syllable “ee” is non-U.

Ross then asks, rhetorically, if it is possible for a non-U speaker to become a U-speaker. He concludes that there is only one way:

This is to send him first to a preparatory school, then to a good boarding school. This is a method that has been approved for more than a century and, at the moment, it is almost completely effective.

Good to know.

It’s not until we get to Part 6 of Section 2 that we reach the bit for which Ross is now remembered, and around which most of the U/non-U excitement took place in the 1950s—U and non-U vocabulary and phrasing, arranged in an itemized list. So we’re told that “They’ve a lovely home” is non-U; “They’ve a very nice house” is U. Non-U people call the lowest-ranking face-card the “jack”; the U equivalent is “knave”. “Serviette” is non-U; “table-napkin” is U. And then there’s this:

Coach. ‘char-a-banc’ is non-U, doubtless because the thing itself is. Those U-speakers who are forced, by penury, to use them call them buses, thereby causing great confusion (a coach runs into the country, a bus within the town).

Finally, and to me unexpectedly, Ross addresses the issue of ephemerality—the fact that what’s U for speakers in the 1950s was not so in the 1850s or 1750s. To make his point, he quotes extensively from relevant sections of John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791). His conclusion is:

The ephemeral nature of our present system of linguistic class-indicators is very clear from the above citations from Walker. Nearly all the points mentioned by him—only one hundred and sixty years ago—are now “dead” and without class-significance, in that one of the pronunciations given is to-day no longer known in any kind of English save dialect. […] In three cases of double pronunciations, to-day’s U alternative is chosen by Walker as the non-U one.

Which is refreshing—Ross is too much of a linguist to believe “that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (to quote George Bernard Shaw again).

So this is, in essence, a glimpse of the language spoken by the English aristocracy in the mid-twentieth century, and the shibboleths they used to identify an out-group by which they undoubtedly felt somewhat threatened. And Ross is certainly an entertaining guide.

I haven’t been able to find a version of Ross’s original paper that doesn’t require either an academic institution log-in, or signing up to some document server service. You can, however, read the condensed version that appeared in Noblesse Oblige here. He went on to write a series of popular books on English usage and pronunciation: What Are U? (1969), How To Pronounce It (1970) and Don’t Say It! (1973). I haven’t read any of these, but if I get around to it, I’ll report back.

* Ross’s article misprints this date as “1946”

Two Science Fiction Histories

Covers of two SF histories from Gollancz Gateway

What does seem clear is that there was something in the early lives of nearly all the published writers in the group that isolated them from their contemporaries. Blish, Pohl, Michel, Merril, and I were only children. Pohl, Blish, Wilson, Lowndes, Merril and Michel lost one parent each in childhood, by death or divorce. Wilson skipped three grades in grammar school. Asimov’s time was so taken up by his work in the candy store, his education and his writing that there was not much left over for normal relationships with other young people.

Damon Knight, The Futurians (1977)

I’ve recently been reading a little about the history of science fiction, and for this post have chosen a couple of older volumes reissued by Gollancz’s SF Gateway as e-books in 2013.

My first choice is Damon Knight’s* history of a tiny and short-lived science-fiction society, The Futurians—it lasted for seven years (1938-1945) and never exceeded twenty members, but it produced a disproportionate number of significant authors and editors, some of whose names you’ll see listed in my quotation at the head of this post. The Futurians were, in a way, a counterculture movement, staying outside the influential orbit of editor John W. Campbell at Astounding magazine—only Isaac Asimov, who drifted away from the Futurians early, crossed that divide and became a “Campbell author”.

Knight was a Futurian for a few months, which he remembers as a long, golden summer—his first time away from home, at liberty in New York and under the Bohemian influence of a crowd of impoverished writers given to communal living and endless bickering. In the 1970s, he tracked down and interviewed the surviving Futurians, and pieced together this history of science-fiction fandom in New York during the ’30s and ’40s, and the story of “what happened next” when the Futurians disbanded.

There are a number of fascinating themes. Firstly, they were an intensely political crowd, with the exception of Asimov. Most seem to have been communists, or at least sympathetic to communist ideals, apart from James Blish, who described himself as a “book fascist”—he claimed to admire the principles of fascism, while deploring the way in which they were being applied in the world. (This, during the 1930s, in a roomful of communists, was perhaps a deliberately contrary stance by Blish.)

Second, they were horribly poor. Blish’s wife, Virginia Kidd, recalled a time in the late ’40s when they survived on thirty-three cents for three months, eating mainly from sacks of rice “liberated” by a friend who was an army nurse. Frederik Pohl worked as a writers’ agent for a few years, but had to give up in 1953:

“… I had just run out of steam. I owed a lot of money, and it was hard for me to see how to get out of debt while I was doing that. It took me ten years to pay everybody off. I paid writers off in less time than that, but there were things like the Internal Revenue. They finally caught up with me in 1965. The IRS agent said, ‘How could you not file a return for seventeen years?’
“I said, ‘I didn’t have any money.’
“He said, ‘But didn’t you know you would be in trouble?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I knew I’d be in trouble, but I was already in trouble.’”

Third, they argued all the time. About almost everything. Disagreements over the True Purpose of science fiction caused several rifts, some very long-lasting. Money was another problem, since everyone was poor, and their various communal living arrangements would often come up short of rent at the end of the month. And sometimes those Futurians who were editors would find themselves unable to pay for stories they’d published, which had been written by other Futurians. The culmination of their constant argumentation came when the eternally combative Donald Wollheim sued the other Futurians for $25,000 for “injury to his professional reputation”.

Fourth, they drank to a ludicrous and positively life-threatening extent. Here’s Frederik Pohl again:

“And next morning I woke up with the worst hangover I have ever had in my whole life—oh, God—and Cyril [Kornbluth] was in bed with me. And the room was covered with what few bits of our clothing we had taken off, a shirt here and a shoe there, and about half of it was soaked with blood. And Cyril woke up, very pale, and we looked at each other, and I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and stood under the hot water for about an hour, trying to wake up and put the world back together. When I got out Cyril was dressed, and he said, Well, I think I’d better go, Fred. So long, have a nice war.’ And I gathered up the bloodiest things and put them in the hamper or something so the chambermaid wouldn’t faint, and went off to work at Popular, feeling very fragile. I’d been there about fifteen minutes when the phone rang, and it was Johnny Michel, saying, ‘Fred. We will never forgive you for last night.’”

The previous evening, it transpires, Kornbluth and Pohl had sworn a blood oath to murder another Futurian, Robert Lowndes. (See “they argued all the time”, above.) Michel went on to develop a serious alcohol problem in later life; Kornbluth was shaping up to do the same, but died as a result of uncontrolled hypertension at the age of just 34.

Fifth, although they were all pretty young, they seem to have been disproportionately immature and socially dysfunctional:

“The Futurians were a very motley crew,” [Judith Merril] said, and Virginia Kidd, who was sitting beside her in my living room, put in, “Almost everybody was callow, one way or another.”
“Callow, or extremely unattractive, or both,” said Merril. “I felt I belonged very much in such a group, and I think this was characteristic of everyone there, that each of us regarded ourselves as grotesque, and felt comfortable in a gathering of grotesques.”

If all this makes them seem like a bit of an unlikeable crew … well, yes. I found it a slightly difficult read, because of that. And also because of the quite hellish snatches of sub-poetry Knight salvages from the Futurians’ newsletters and correspondence. But it’s nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into the advent of “science-fiction fandom”, and the early struggles of people who were eventually to become part of the science-fiction establishment.

Michael Moorcock and the writers he gathered about him were conscious, even self-conscious, about science fiction, its symbolism. its immediacy, its responsibilities, and above all its possibilities. They were the first generation in science fiction to consider and discuss their work principally as art, not as cult, didactic tradition, intellectual pastime, or anything else.

Colin Greenland, The Entropy Exhibition (1983)

From the emerging science-fiction establishment of the 1950s and ’60s, to the counterculture that responded to it. This is a revised version of Colin Greenland’s PhD thesis, and it’s a fairly dense volume, concentrating on literary criticism rather than jolly anecdotes. It discusses the evolution of the British “New Wave” in science fiction, under the tutelage of Michael Moorcock and in the pages of the magazine New Worlds, which he edited between 1964 and 1971.

As my quotation at the head of this section suggests, Moorcock and his allies had ambitions to turn science fiction into literature—to overcome the stigma of “genre fiction” that SF had created for itself with its emphasis on science and problem-solving, at the expense of characterization and writing style.

Attracted by the imaginative potential of sf and inspired by its best, they felt strongly that it was encumbered by its worst and struck out accordingly. They saw no reason why sf should be segregated from the rest of fiction, and resented editors, writers and readers who seemed to be in conspiracy to keep it insulated, governed only by low standards hardly changed for forty years.

Under Moorcock’s editorship, and strongly influenced by J.G. Ballard, New Worlds began to concentrate on stories that explored the “inner space” of the human mind, and which used non-standard narrative techniques influenced by the Surrealists, by the psychedelic movement, and by Structuralism. At the time, there was in the air a strong sense that the world of the 1960s was falling apart and being rebuilt, and that reality was a more fluid concept than anyone had previously believed.

Greenland seems very much on board with all this, as you might guess, though he later went on to achieve commercial success with his Tabitha Jute novels, which are good old-fashioned space operas.

One of the many deficiencies in “traditional SF” that New Worlds sought to address was its very odd relationship with sex. Magazine cover art of the time overflowed with images of young women clad either in rags or in skin-tight garments, whereas the stories more commonly featured male characters falling into peril or frustration as a result of the fatuous behaviour of their female companions. (Greenland’s chapter devoted to this induces hilarity and depression in equal measure.)

But New Worlds‘ experiments with writing about sex brought almost immediate charges of “obscenity”, and major newsagents, like W.H. Smith and John Menzies, decline to stock it. Despite Moorcock’s efforts to finance the magazine using his own massive output of popular fantasy novels, combined with income from a modest Arts Council grant, New Worlds was ultimately unable to reach enough interested readers to keep it financially viable.

Greenland deals in depth with the writings of three authors strongly associated with New Worlds. First comes Brian Aldiss, who was instrumental in securing that Arts Council grant that helped keep the magazine afloat for a while. Ironically, Aldiss wanted nothing to do with the New Wave, and had serious doubts about its urge to deny reality and abandon conventional narrative techniques:

In 1966 Brian W. Aldiss wrote to Judith Merril, anthologist and ‘priestess’ of the New Wave:
“It’s great to be even a splash in a new wave. But even the newest wave gets cast upon the shore. One feature of this particular wave (which I suspect to be a journalistic invention of yours and Mike Moorcock’s, ultimately of no service to any writers willy-nilly involved …) is a strong tendency to abolish plot. Plot, I mean, in the grander sense of structure.… But I’m strongly against the abolition of structure in fiction: or at least in long fiction; for you will find most fiction to be a history of a process…. I’m for structure in fiction because I believe fiction must mirror and/ or shape reality and because I believe the external world has structure […]

Then there’s Ballard. Here he is in 1973, expressing an idea that seems very salient now:

I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.

Whereas Aldiss sought always to keep an anchor in reality, Ballard, true to his surrealist principles, disdained it, and dropped his characters into hallucinatory worlds and situations.

And then Moorcock, dashing off commercially successful fantasy novels that subtly subverted the genre conventions. He has written about these in his introduction to a recent Gollancz collection of his work:

Though I did them quickly, I didn’t write them cynically. I have always believed, somewhat puritanically, in giving the audience good value for money. I enjoyed writing them, tried to avoid repetition, and through each new one was able to develop a few more ideas.

Meanwhile, as Greenland reports, he was lambasting the Old Guard of science fiction:

His call for revolution in the science fiction ghetto included derogatory remarks on the state of ‘the field’ at the time, deploring the lack of ‘passion, subtlety, irony, original characterisation, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs, colour, density, depth, and, on the whole, real feeling from the writer’. He affirmed that ‘the day of the boy-author writing boys’ stories got up to look like grown-ups’ stories will soon be over.’

(Apart from that, Mr Moorcock, how are you enjoying genre SF?)

Moorcock’s own response to the deficiencies he perceived in the “science fiction ghetto” was to write his Jerry Cornelius stories, “discarding all the traditional fixities of narrative (time, place, causation, character development)”. Instead, Cornelius and his associates drift through a hallucinatory kaleidoscope of narratives, dying and being reborn in subtly different personae, under anagrammatically shifted new names. The texts are heavy with external allusions; chapter titles seem to be irrelevant or misplaced; conversations seem to go nowhere, while apparently freighted with meaning for the collocutors. But:

Moorcock has given repeated instructions that Corneliana are not meant to be studied. ‘It was never my intention to write “difficult” books…. They don’t have to be “understood” to be enjoyed. If they give you a good feeling, that’s enough.’

The New Wave ultimately faltered and died, as Aldiss had predicted. Either the necessary audience just wasn’t there, or New Worlds failed to reach it. One problem was that, for every Aldiss, Ballard and Moorcock, there were a hundred imitators who felt that all they had to do was construct a non-story with a bizarre narrative structure, and they were doing New Wave writing. And, for lack of alternatives, some of this poor quality stuff found its way into New Worlds, and made the entire enterprise easy to dismiss as, to use Isaac Asimov’s word, “froth”.

But without the New Wave, we’d never have seen Aldiss’s Barefoot In The Head, Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, or Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet.

Both of these volumes turned out to be harder work than I’d anticipated—The Futurians because of how annoying all these people were in their youth; The Entropy Exhibition because of the sheer depth of Greenland’s delvings into literary criticism. But I found both worthwhile reads, which helped me better understand a critical period in the evolution of science fiction, the three decades between 1940 and 1970.

* I’ve previously known Damon Knight for his editorship of the ground-breaking Orbit series of anthologies; his delightfully corrosive science fiction criticism, some of which you can find collected in In Search Of Wonder (1956); and his oft-anthologized short story, “To Serve Man” (1950). If you don’t know the punchline to this last item, I suggest you go and read it now—it’s just seven pages and is available in the copy of Galaxy magazine archived here.
For more about John Campbell and his stable of authors, see Alec Navala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018).
I have lamentable history with the difference between what Moorcock wrote to support his magazine and his family, and what Moorcock wrote out of dedication to his art. In 1975, at the tender age of eighteen, I found myself sitting on the floor in a student flat somewhere, attempting to impress a female art student who was four years my senior and impossibly self-assured. Between puffs on her slim black cheroot, she mentioned her regard for the works of Michael Moorcock, and I immediately burbled my enthusiasm for The Ice Schooner and the Corum series. She favoured me with a look that was compounded of equal parts disdain and pity. “Ah yes,” she said. “The commercial stuff.”

Helen Czerski: Blue Machine

Cover of "Blue Machine" by Helen Czerski

For the past thousand years, the human history of the North Sea has been played out on a stage constructed largely of herring.

I’ve written about Helen Czerski before, when I reviewed her first book, Storm In A Teacup (2017). At that time I mentioned that she is a physicist with a speciality in oceanography. So this one, subtitled How The Ocean Shapes Our World, is about a topic dear to her heart—the world ocean. It’s about physics, certainly, but also biology, chemistry, geology and human history. As with her previous books, there’s a leavening of personal anecdote—from sailing with Hawaiian navigators to carrying out research on the polar drift ice.

I chose my illustrative quotation at the head of this post not because it summarizes what the book’s about, but because it exemplifies how the book works—making connections between disparate areas of knowledge in a way that’s often quirky but always informative. (In this case, the connection between a tiny copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, the herring shoals of the North Sea, the fishing boats that pursued them, and the migratory “herring lassies” who prepared the catch for market once it was landed.)

Czerski organizes the book into several large chapters. “The Nature Of The Sea” introduces the idea of the world-ocean as a machine—it’s driven by the exchange of heat (warming in the tropics, cooling at the poles), and it moves in response. Czerski breaks down this “blue machine” into four components—temperature and salinity create density gradients; liquidity allows the oceans to move in response to those gradients; and the spin of the planet deflects those movements into the huge, slow gyres of the ocean currents.

“The Shape Of Seawater” introduces the different functional parts of the blue machine—the surface of the ocean and its margins, where the bulk of human activity takes place, and its bottom, with its mid-ocean spreading zones, responsible for the movement of continents, and its broad abyssal plains.

“The Anatomy Of The Ocean” describes the layers within the water column, and how life requires both light (abundant in the upper layers, absent at depth), and nutrients (which settle into the depths, leaving the upper layers relatively nutrient-depleted). For life to thrive, then, there must be a source of vertical motion in the water column, like the one created by the Trade Winds in the Pacific, which push surface water away from the west coast of South America, causing deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to rise to the surface along the coastline.

A section entitled “Messengers” discusses the two ways by which information travels through the ocean—light (very limited range) and sound (very long range). “Passengers” deals with stuff that drifts in the ocean—not just the obvious topic of plankton, but dissolved minerals and gases, too. And “Voyagers” is about creatures (like penguins and people) that move through the ocean, and why they do it.

A final chapter, “Future”, gives the usual warning cry about what a mess we’re making of the natural world, and how we need to fix it. These chapters seem to be obligatory, nowadays, but I often wonder if they’re not just preaching to the choir—the readership for this sort of book is probably already on board with everything Czerski has to say.

You might think that’s a pretty dull list of topics, but Czerski makes it all sparkle. Her style is clear, and her wry footnotes are something of a treat in themselves. But it’s the fresh and memorable nature of her anecdotes and descriptions that really stand out for me. Here she is on the topic of warm water:

Water can store a surprising amount of energy as heat. Imagine two grapefruit-sized globes of water side by side, one full of North Pole ocean at about -1.8°C, and one full of Persian Gulf water at about 30°C. The warmer water has more heat energy, and if you could channel all that extra energy into doing something mechanical, you could lift an SUV (weighing nearly two tons) up by about 7 metres, high enough to be level with the top of a two-storey house.

Isn’t that rather marvellous?

And she illustrates the sheer variety of species concealed within the catch-all term “plankton” by asking us to imagine them all enlarged by a factor of 20,000. A medium-sized foraminiferan would now be the size of a Range Rover. A dinoflagellate would come in at Mini Cooper size, diatoms would be the size of watermelons … and so on down to marine viruses the size of grains of dried couscous.

And she tells us about how the oceans contain dissolved chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), originally released into the atmosphere from refrigerators and aerosols, and now heavily regulated because of the damage they caused to the ozone layer. These gases entered the surface layers of the ocean during their peak usage in the mid-twentieth century, and that pulse of dissolved and unreactive gases has now been carried downwards by the natural turnover of ocean water—which means oceanographers can sample the water, measure the CFC content, and chart the movement of long, slow, deep currents that travel around the world for centuries before resurfacing.

And then there are the Continuous Plankton Recorders, which have been towed behind cargo ships and ocean liners for decades now, sampling seven million nautical miles of ocean water, with all the samples analysed and archived in Plymouth. Who knew?

At times she rivals Carl Sagan or James Burke in making truly striking connections. My favourite is her discussion of coccolithophores, the tiny marine organisms responsible for forming the White Cliffs of Dover. For a series of Royal Institution brief lectures entitled “My Favourite Element”, she used a piece of chalk from the White Cliffs to draw a diagram of a coccolithophore on a blackboard. The coccolithophore was drawn using coccolithophores! She tells that story in more detail in the book, but I’ll leave you with the presentation itself. The video is less than three minutes long, but if you imagine a whole book presented in the same way, you’ll more or less have the idea of Blue Machine.

Keuschnigg et al.: The Plateauing of Cognitive Ability Among Top Earners

Tom Cruise as Cole Trickle, Elon Musk

How long before you find out if you’re really good, or you’re really lucky?

Cole Trickle, Days of Thunder (1990)

Is Elon Musk a genius or an idiot?

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, 7 November 2022

These two quotations, one from a movie character played by Tom Cruise, the other from a newspaper business columnist, are a good introduction to my topic for this post—a paper by Keuschnigg, van de Rijt and Bol, published in the European Sociological Review in January 2023.

What concerns Keuschnigg and colleagues is whether people who command high wages and social prestige are necessarily smarter than the mere mortals around them. Are they actually really good at their jobs, or are they just really lucky, in other words.

Both quotations come with a false dichotomy, though—Cole Trickle might be quite good and quite lucky, for example; and Elon Musk might be less bright than some imagine, without being an actual idiot. What Keuschnigg et al. have done is come up with some evidence that helps us think about the interaction between intelligence and good fortune in the real world.

They build on some theoretical work by Denrell and Liu in a paper opaquely entitled “Top performers are not the most impressive when extreme performance indicates unreliability” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. What they were doing makes more sense when you read their abstract:

The relationship between performance and ability is a central concern in the social sciences: Are the most successful much more able than others, and are failures unskilled? Prior research has shown that noise and self-reinforcing dynamics make performance unpredictable and lead to a weak association between ability and performance. Here we show that the same mechanisms that generate unpredictability imply that extreme performances can be relatively uninformative about ability. As a result, the highest performers may not have the highest expected ability and should not be imitated or praised. We show that whether higher performance indicates higher ability depends on whether extreme performance could be achieved by skill or requires luck.

To explore this relationship between performance, skill and luck, Denrell and Liu came up with a couple of simple mathematical models, one focussing on “self-reinforcing dynamics” and one on “noise”. In each model, a bunch of abstract agents are assigned a particular level of “skill” which, in the absence of extraneous influences would result in a corresponding level of “success” or “performance”. These quantities in quotes are all represented by abstract numerical values. “Skill” is not uniformly distributed—any given agent is more likely to have near-average skill than particularly high or particularly low skill. Other things being equal, that would make outstanding or abysmal performance correspondingly rare.

First, Denrell and Liu explore the effect on this toy model of “self-reinforcing dynamics”. What if an initial success makes an agent more likely to succeed again in a subsequent trial? And likewise for failure. This sort of thing happens in real life when, for instance, consumers perceive a particular product from a particular company as being desirable, or when luck in landing a particular job means that an individual gets on to a “career ladder” denied to others. This is sometimes called the Matthew Effect, from the Biblical verse Matthew 13:12:

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.

So Denrell and Liu take their mathematical agents and put them through repeated trials which will resulting in success or failure according to the agent’s skill, but with a bias added according to the agent’s successes or failures in previous trails. Without the Matthew Effect, the relationship between skill and number of successes is linear, and success is therefore a good proxy for skill. But if we wind up the weighting associated with previous successes and failures, things start to look a bit different. Extreme success is associated with a lower level of skill (on average) than more moderate success; and likewise, in reverse, for extreme failures.

Modelling success versus skill in the presence of the Matthew Effect
Click to enlarge

So what’s going on? Well, extremely skilled agents are still scoring a lot of successes, but the Matthew Effect can’t improve their already excellent performance by much. And these extremely skilled agents are rare (as they are in real life). So they find themselves competing with moderately skilled agents who have benefited from the Matthew Effect to reach higher scores than they would otherwise achieve. And since moderately skilled agents are much more common than extremely skilled agents (as is the case in real life), they come to dominate at the high-success end of the scale. When we look at very successful agents, then, we are more likely to find one that’s moderately skilled but lucky, rather than one that is extremely skilled. (And you can of course reverse the whole argument at the low-success end of the scale.)

The authors go through the process again with “noise” (which is just a random variation superimposed on the performance of agents) and find similar results. When noise is high, we find that agents with excellent skills still have good performance, but are again swamped by moderately skilled agents who’ve simply had a lot of a luck. And these extremely skilled agents are particularly penalized by noise, because the noise has minimal scope to improve their performance, and so will preferentially degrade the average performance of highly skilled agents. The result is again an erosion of the correlation between performance and skill—the greater the noise, the less we can judge skill by looking at performance.

Correlation between performance and skill at two different levels of noise
Click to enlarge

(In graph B, noise is small, and performance is a good indicator of skill; in graph A, with higher noise, it becomes difficult to pick out skilled agents on the basis of performance alone.)

As the authors summarize:

Noise and [the Matthew Effect] not only introduce unpredictability but also change how much one can learn from extreme performances and whether higher performance indicates higher skill. In particular, we show that when noise and [the Matthew Effect] can strongly influence performance, extreme performances can be relatively uninformative about skill. As a result, higher performance may not indicate higher skill. The highest performers may not be the most skilled and the lowest performers may not be the least skilled. The implication is that one should not imitate the highest performers nor dismiss the worst performers. More generally, we show that whether higher performance indicates higher skill depends on whether extreme performance could be achieved by skill or requires luck.

So that’s all well and good—an entertaining little model that looks like it might have some connection to the real world. But is it actually relevant? Are skilled agents in the real world significantly affected by noise and the Matthew Effect, to the extent that the connection between performance and skill becomes unreliable?

Enter Keuschnigg et al.:

Are the best-paying jobs with the highest prestige done by individuals of great intelligence? Past studies find job success to increase with cognitive ability, but do not examine how, conversely, ability varies with job success. Stratification theories suggest that social background and cumulative advantage dominate cognitive ability as determinants of high occupational success.

And later:

Elite jobs are of special interest, for two reasons. First, income distributions have strong right skew. In all Western countries, top income shares have been steadily rising since the 1980s, with the 1 per cent highest earners receiving 9 per cent of national income in Sweden and even 20 per cent in the United States—excluding capital gains. This extremity of top incomes as well as their public salience render it crucial that they be earned by very capable individuals. Second, those with the most prestigious jobs wield the greatest economic and political power, and the intelligence of their decisions is consequential.


Our argument draws on the role of two key non-meritorious determinants of occupational success: Family resources
and luck. The class- and network-advantages of those with elite family backgrounds are assumed instrumental for gaining access to the most privileged and best-paying jobs. Second, rich-get-richer processes are assumed to allow inequalities in job success to grow between those who got a lucky break early in the career and those who did not.

Don’t you just love the phrase “non-meritorious determinants of occupational success”?

There then follows a review of the literature concerning these non-meritorious determinants, confirming that, yup, if you come from a rich and/or influential family, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that you gain advantages in education and job opportunities.

So it seems that Denrell and Liu’s mathematical model of luck and the Matthew Effect might be applicable in the real world to the relationship between one’s cognitive ability and one’s job. Perhaps extremely well-rewarded and socially prestigious jobs are occupied by rare individuals with exceptional cognitive abilities, plus a whole bunch of moderately able but lucky people.

But how could we find out? Well, we could go to Sweden, where mandatory military service for men persisted until 2010, and all those men underwent a standardized test of cognitive ability. And Sweden being a country with proper joined-up data about its citizens, those cognitive tests can be tied to later average earnings during an 11-year window centred on the age of forty, as well as to a registered job description. The job description can in turn be tied to a standard measure of a job’s social prestige, called the International Socio-Economic Index scale. Who knew such a thing existed? Not I. But you can find the original paper describing the scale here (download the pdf using the button at top right).

So the researchers ended up with three data points for each of 49,000 Swedish men: a cognitive test score (from something similar to the Armed Forces Qualification Test used by the US military), an average wage in later life (inflation adjusted), and the ISEI rating of their registered occupation.

Plotting earnings against cognitive score produced this:

Wage versus cognitive ability in Swedish men
Click to enlarge

It looks remarkably similar to the output of Denrell and Liu’s models, particularly if we break down the earnings data into centiles (right), rather than using the raw numbers (left). We can see that cognitive ability plateaus above earnings of about 600,000 Swedish kronor (about €60,000), and in fact takes a slight downturn at the extreme. Likewise, those with the lowest earnings turn out not to have the lowest cognitive abilities, on average. But in the broad middle range of earnings, financial reward is responsive to cognitive ability.

The results for job prestige show a lot of scatter in cognitive ability at the top and bottom ends of the scale, producing something of a blurry plateau for prestige less than 30 or over 70.

Prestige versus cognitive ability in Swedish men
Click to enlarge

Checking the tables in the ISEI paper I link to above, this suggests there’s not much to cognitively pick and choose between life scientists, medical doctors, dentists, mathematicians, lawyers, judges, teachers in higher education, heads of government … and so on. Likewise, a bunch of varied low-prestige jobs show no corresponding variation in cognitive ability.

There are, of course, limitations to this study—it deals only with men (mandatory military service for women was introduced only in 2010, the year in which military conscription ended up being mothballed, to be reintroduced in a more limited manner in 2017); it deals only with Sweden, where extreme earnings are rarer than in some other countries; and it addresses only cognitive ability assessed by a particular test, while neglecting other potentially important variables like motivation, social skills and creativity. The authors acknowledge these limitations and (as is customary) tell us that more research is needed. But their conclusion seems important:

Recent years have seen much academic and public discussion of rising inequality. In debates about interventions against large wage discrepancies, a common defence of top earners is the superior merit inferred from their job-market success using human capital arguments. However, along an important dimension of merit—cognitive ability—we find no evidence that those with top jobs that pay extraordinary wages are more deserving than those who earn only half those wages. The main takeaway of our analysis is thus the identification, both theoretically and empirically, of two regimes of stratification in the labour market. The bulk of citizens earn normal salaries that are clearly responsive to individual cognitive capabilities. Above a threshold level of wage, cognitive-ability levels are above average but play no role in differentiating wages.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison: Peak Beyond Peak

Cover of Peak Beyond Peak by Isobel Wylie Hutchison

I am quite clear in my own mind that I’d set my face in the right direction, though I don’t pretend to know why I should be destined to visit Greenland any more than Timbuctoo. Maybe I’m not, and I shall be able to visit Timbuctoo another day, for one journey leads naturally to another. One thing I am sure of, I have never regretted any journey I have ever made, and I do not imagine any other traveller ever regrets having travelled. I wish every person in the world, as part of his or her education, could have at least one year of world travel.

Isobel Wyle Hutchison was born in 1889, at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, back in the day when that was a private family home rather than a wedding venue—so that wing of the Hutchison family were clearly not short of a bob or two. The fact that she had a trust-fund income allowed her to dodge the conventional domestic fate of young women in those days—she built a career on independent travel. Inspired by a trip to Iceland in 1927, she spent a decade botanizing her way around the Arctic, and documenting her journeys in a succession of books: On Greenland’s Closed Shore (1930), North To The Rime-Ringed Sun (1934) and Stepping Stones From Alaska To Asia (1937)*. She also published a semi-autobiographical novel (Original Companions, 1923) and several volumes of poetry. One of her earliest poetic works, How Joy Was Found (1917) is still available in several knock-off reproduction editions—you can find a scanned version freely available on the Internet Archive.

From an early age she was an enthusiastic walker, and quite soon seems to have decided that she preferred her own company. A lot of her travel-writing involved long-distance walks that she self-deprecatingly described as “strolls”—for her “Stroll To Venice” (which she narrated in a National Geographic article in 1951) she started in Innsbruck and walked across the Dolomites, for example.

Much of her botanizing ended up in Kew Gardens; many of her manuscripts ended up stacked in a box at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, or on file with the National Library of Scotland. They were rediscovered in 2014 by Hazel Buchan Cameron, who set about transcribing and editing them for publication in Peak Beyond Peak (2022).

Twelve essays are assembled in this collection. Although it is subtitled The Unpublished Scottish Journeys Of Isobel Wylie Hutchison, three of the pieces collected have been previously published in National Geographic. Cameron explains in her preface that in these cases she amalgamated Hutchison’s original text with the edited and revised published version, while “trying to be as true to Isobel’s writing intentions as possible.” The earliest essay is dated 1909; the latest, 1956—so we have glimpses of Hutchison across four-and-a-half decades of her life, from an enthusiastic twenty-year-old clambering over the Corrieyairack Pass, to a knowledgeable woman in her late sixties, taking a National Geographic photographer on a motor tour of Scotland’s “literary shrines”.

Having descended the Corrieyairack fairly recently, I was interested to read Hutchison’s account of the old Wade Road zigzags, “disused since 1830” and “nearly washed away by the mountain torrents”. The thing is now a Scheduled Monument, and has been restored to its former glory. And her tour of literary shrines is a positive blizzard of information about Scotland’s writers. I was particularly struck by her story of Scott’s View over the Eildon Hills.

Driving out from his beloved home of Abbotsford, Sir Walter was wont to halt his carriage on the high road at Bemersyde and feast his eyes upon the hills he loved. On the day of his funeral one of the horses drawing the hearse stopped here of its own accord, bringing the mile-long cortege to a momentary halt.

The time between these two essays spans two world wars, and Hutchison gives us glimpses of life on the islands of Scotland during those times. During the First World War she is in the Outer Hebrides, and describes how the Atlantic beaches received a constant burden of the wreckage of ships and the bodies of seamen—and the occasional drifting mine, striking the rocks and exploding with “deep thundering reverberations” over the quiet landscape. She visits Orkney and Shetland at the end of the Second World War, and recounts the story of the German bomber pilot who made a low pass over Lerwick, waving the citizens back from the harbour area before returning to drop his bombs on the ships, and of the Norwegians who arrived on the islands in small boats, having escaped German-occupied Norway. And her later “Stroll to London” (from Edinburgh!), in 1948, is along roads largely untroubled by motor traffic, because petrol is still strictly rationed.

It’s also interesting to see Hutchison experimenting with different narrative styles. Her later works are often pell-mell data dumps, because a lifetime of reading has filled her head with so much information about the places she visits. But in her early work “A Pilgrimage to Ardchattan” (1926), she plays with a narrative style evocative of traditional Gaelic storytelling.

The day was hot and very glorious, fragrant with the honeysuckle that lay in great swathes upon the hedges, and the first thing I came to was a Gaelic well called Tober Donachadh. There was an iron cup hanging from a chain with a worn inscription in the Gaelic which I could not read, but I made no doubt that it told the tale of the finding of the well, and it is this: Thirty-five years ago there was a water-famine in the country and a man of Clan Donachadh found a spring that never ran dry and he sold the water to the people, and it’s the rich man I’m thinking he would be, for the spring never ran dry in all the time of drouth, and all the time he sold its water. But I can’t help thinking it’s the greedy man he was all the same.

And then there’s her tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully evocative account of “meeting a fairy” while sitting in the “haunted peace” of a sunny evening on the Isle of Skye in 1925:

Suddenly I heard a pattering noise. Two rams came running from behind the cliff at my back chased by a barelegged little girl of four or five in a faded blue-green frock. She had a celandine in her hand and came running straight towards me holding it out without the least fear or shyness. Climbing up on the seat beside me she handed it to me.
“Is this for me?” I asked. But she only smiled and nodded without speaking. It was then that I began to suspect that I had to do with a fairy. I put several questions to her, to all of which she smiled and nodded and whispered “Ay.”
“Are you a fairy?” I asked at last.
“Ay,” with a radiant smile.

I could go on quoting Hutchison at you for some time yet, but now is probably the time to stop. Better just to leave you with that image of the unselfconscious little girl and the serenely enchanted Isobel, sharing a bench in the cool sunlight of a long-ago Hebridean evening.

* This last volume was republished as The Aleutian Islands: America’s Back Door in 1942—presumably in response to the Japanese invasion of these islands at the start of the War in the Pacific.