Friday, March 28, 2008

New ways of looking at the world

Carrying on from the short post about Arthur C Clarke...some of us were watching Superman II on TV a few weeks ago, and during the scene where General Zod and his villainous associates make their way towards Earth (a glowing blue-green orb suspended in space), we joked about how cool it would be if spatial relationships altered when a person went into outer space – so that the earth turned out to be only, say, three or four times bigger than a basketball while we retained our original dimensions. Then we would be giants, effectively Gods: we could reach out and touch the globe, maybe spin it around, stick a finger into one of the oceans and imagine a cluster of tiny whales nibbling ineffectually at it; or poke about the land mass that represents the US of A (it wouldn't be labeled of course, so one would have to be careful not to mess up Canada or Mexico) and enjoy the feel of a superpower trembling beneath our hands.

I thought about these fancies again when I heard about the passing of Clarke. Some people who haven't experienced science-fiction think it must be solemn and academic, full of complicated jargon; equally, some people I know think it’s flippant and irrelevant. This is a pity, because the best work in the genre mixes playfulness of form with some very weighty ideas - ideas that are very relevant indeed if you believe that it's important to keep questioning conventional wisdom. Much like good fiction can help us step outside of ourselves and see through the eyes of people who are very different from us, good sci-fi can depict the world itself in a new light, exposing the triviality of some of the "grand" ideas that govern our lives (more than one astronaut has pointed out that once you've seen the blue-green orb from a spaceship, it becomes difficult to take artificial borders between countries seriously). There's a nicely symbolic quality to the movie image where an astronaut in space appears to be nearly the same size as the planet he is reaching out to.

Thinking of the mind-expanding qualities of sci-fi reminds me about the other unquestioning assumptions we make about our planet. I remember first realising (on a conscious level at least)
that the manmade concepts of "north" and "south" are arbitrary and irrelevant only when I read about it in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. On this link, there are "upside down" maps that have Australia and New Zealand on top and Scandinavia in the southern hemisphere. According to this model, Kanyakumari is at the head of India while Kashmir lies in the extreme south (what would this do to the north Indian condescension towards "southies"!). These maps seem bizarre and wrong at first glance, and even when you accept that they are just as valid as the ones we have grown up with, they aren’t as aesthetically appealing (this probably has to do with our conditioning) - but they provide a fascinating new way to look at the world, and a much-needed mental shakeup for all of us. I want to order one of them now.

(Click to enlarge)


  1. Hi Jai. The reversal of North and South is an excellent idea. Nothing like shaking up convention. Have you seen this? It shows countries arranged in proportion to metrics other than area.

    There was a funny map in the Economist a while ago which depicted the world from an American perspective. It labelled Canada as "huntin', fishin'", a smaller Europe as "culture", the Middle-East as "killin'" and so on. Haven't been able to trace the issue of the mag, though. Perhaps you've seen it?

  2. You should google Kanak Mani Dixit and Himal. The upside down map of South Asia is his favourite talking point, and he uses it to explain the difficulties in the state-centric, nationalist perspective that pervades Asia. The reason why SAARC hasn't worked, for instance, is because we are thinking too much about the State and not enough about the neighbourhood.

  3. Feanor: thanks for the link. And yes, I did see a map like the one you mention, but the labels were different. In that one, the Americas took up around 95 per cent of the earth's land mass and the other countries were represented by tiny, indistinct dots across the oceans, all clustered together.

    RTP: I met KMD a long time ago, and have written for Himal a few times, but didn't know about the connection.

  4. Jai, you seem to have mixed up reversal of up/down for that of north/south.

    Even in the other kind of map shown here, north/south will remain as it is but north will be below south.

  5. Jai -

    Your comment on the "reverse map' is very valid. We have one on our fridge - it takes some getting used to! The reverse map does show us how vast the southern oceans are.
    The "conventional" map reveals the 'Anglo/Euro-centric' influence in all our lives :-)

    - Ajay

  6. I think that science fiction is not flippant . There is a good enough reason why many people love it and that could be due to certain imaginary inventions which we all dreamt about when we were children. A nicely written work of fiction would surely find its readers. I have not been much into science fiction though I love Superman and its whole concept in general.

    I think that this selective bias against different genres stems from one's own prejudices rather than any intellectual propensity. I have always loved espionage and spy thrillers and find Fredrick forsyth worth reading even if a lot of his work lately has been pedestrian. The 'Day of the Jackal' still remains my favourite espionage or spy book and similarly some of his later works like 'Icon' were decent enough . Part of my fascination with forsyth could be that in my growing years I was more into Forsyth than any mills or boon or Sheldon stuff. Somehow never loved that kind of reading even for cheap thrills. Similarly I appreciate well written science fiction and its purely a matter of taste . Not something to be laughed at by certain individuals. Today I still love John le Carre or Forsyth and I believe a well written work of fiction should be appreciated for what it is.

  7. I think questioning ideas and beliefs, others' and your own, help you keep an open mind. Something essential in our increasingly dogmatic world.

  8. As an American, I think it's wrong to make fun of the U.S. Anyway, that map making fun of US is a rip-off of a famous cartoon by the late Saul Steinberg, showing a Manhattanite's view of the world, which you can see here