The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett was a must-read for me since I have read most of Follett’s books. The Kingsbridge series covered the ages when the great cathedrals were built. The books paint pictures of life in the days of guilds and the builders who were forerunners of Christopher Wren. This particular Follett offering is a prequel to the other Kingsbridge works. It is very early in the history of towns and we are in an England that is still rough, still being attacked by Viking raiders. There is a King but his attention is focused on stamping out the Viking raids that leave towns burned to the ground, that kill many English people, and that rob English subjects of any treasure that can be found from simple tools to expensive textiles and jewelry. If you live along the coast or on a river that can be reached from the coast an attack could come without warning in almost any season.
While the King is busy, some of his officials and priests and bishops are robbing everyone blind. Between corrupt and greedy leaders and Viking raids life is tenuous and depressing. From the bottom up citizens copy their leaders and are mean and brutal. Slavery is accepted if the slaves are conquered in a foreign war. Cathedral building is further advanced in Normandy than in Britain. Where there is a cathedral there is most likely a city. And, where there is a great builder, there is likely to be a great cathedral.
Edgar Builder is our handsome hero. He is the most talented of three brother who learned from their father how to build ships. Ship building skills can be useful in all kinds of building and Edgar is a creative person who understands innovation. His world is turned upside down when the coastal village where his family builds their ships is burned out by Vikings, his father is killed, and all his father’s tools are stolen. Edgar was just getting ready to run away with a married lady who was abused by her first husband. He was in love. That doesn’t go well and it affects Edgar deeply. Edgar’s mother is not a retiring woman, She negotiates some farmland in another village for her and her three sons.
The new village is a mean place and this is not a farm family, but they do manage to thrive because of the talents of the mother and of Edgar. The nearest town is Shiring ruled by three entitled brothers, Wifwulf, Wynstan, and Wigelm. Each one is a piece of work. Wifwulf finds a bride from an aristocratic family in Normandy. Ragna is young and lovely and not in the least submissive or stupid and yet these three brothers make her new life hard, hard enough to make a normal woman quit. But not Ragna.
It’s a love story and a story of corruption. Shiring already has a cathedral, but the Kings Bridge cathedral finally gets a start after many trials and enough abuse of power to ignite any readers sense of injustice. Life offers only the most minor and easily squashed victories. The novel was both a piece of historical fiction and a bodice ripper and not at all my favorite of the Ken Follett books in this series, but I could not stop reading it and if has left vivid scenes to play out in my mind.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari begins by lifting us up as humans and ends with our obsolescence as a species. Harari argues that we humans have almost conquered poverty and disease and that our newest goals will no longer be humanistic ones such as individuality and progress and success. He says, “In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum.” (pg. 43) He talks about the ‘new peace’ brought about by the existence of nuclear warfare which threatened man’s actual existence. The implications are so dire that powerful nations have backed off from all-out war. Humanism has replaced the Industrial Age and now even humanism is being replaced by a quest for immortality and happiness.
Harari believes that humans were once just one more animal living as hunter-gatherers like all of the other animals. He bemoans how far we have wandered from our natural state and he does this by making it clear that the way we treat the animals who provide our food is unacceptable. He talks about the cages pigs are placed in where they can barely turn around, and he describes how they are impregnated again and again but not allowed to raise their babies. His descriptions of our food industries’ inhumane way of treating animals, such as chickens, pigs and cows, ignores the science which tells us that animals experience psychological and physical agonies from our treatment of them. It sets the reader to imagining ways that we could change this dynamic, treat our animals as biological entities, or perhaps even become vegetarians. Harari is, of course, right that treating living entities like parts on an assembly line belies what science has taught us about our biological similarities.
Then Harari predicts that we are entering a new religious era. Mr. Harari believes that all of our religions are myths; myths that allowed humans to live together in ever larger groups (caves, villages, towns, cities, nations). He believes we now worship data and he names this new religion “Dataism.” According to Harari we are trying to create the Internet-of-all-Things (the Singularity). But, he warns, if we are able to do that we may create artificial intelligence that will make humans obsolete, unnecessary. His predictions about what our love of data could do to us reminds me of that old saying, “don’t ask for what you want because you might get it.”
Harari’s Dataism also reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s last book “The Fall” in which the world actually does end up empty of all humans when they choose to be stored as data after they die. Eventually there is no one left alive to reproduce and humans no longer have a biological presence, although there is an afterlife of sorts. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be a trending topic of discussion for some time. Can we look far enough ahead as we see the ramifications of our passion for information and data to understand if what we are doing will threaten our very existence? Human pride in accomplishing our objectives makes it difficult to step back despite apprehending the outcomes. Will the Internet-of-all -Things become like the nuclear bomb. Once we go there we will suddenly understand David Foster Wallace’s dedication of being a Luddite. Back away and live; succeed and become extinct. Is Homo Deus too far out? Perhaps not.