Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Einstein's MonstersEinstein's Monsters by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Just as I was thinking that no century could possibly be dumber than the nineteenth, along comes the twentieth. I swear, the entire planet seemed to be staging some kind of stupidity contest. I could tell then how the human story would end. Anybody could. Just the one outcome."

When Martin Amis was writing Einstein's Monsters in 1987 he could not know that the twentieth century might eventually be regarded as relatively mild in terms of human stupidity. The twenty-first century is on track to break the record. Already in 2001 terrorists managed to kill several thousands people in the name of religion or politics or whatever "cause" or "pressing social issue" needed to be urgently brought to the world's attention through random mass murder.

Mr. Amis' book consists of a non-fiction essay and five short stories. It presents a powerful and passionate condemnation of nuclear weapons, and a warning to the human race that we are standing on the brink of annihilation. While killing other people has always been human favorite pastime, the weapons have never been as powerful as they are now and the potential to wipe out all human life on our planet has never existed before. It does now.

The thoughtful, eloquent, and convincing essay Thinkability is to me the best part of the book. I have a personal relationship with the topic: exactly thirty years ago at my university I co-taught, with my colleague from the philosophy department, a course called Games, Weapons, Morals, focused on the nuclear arms race, the strategy of deterrence, and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (being a mathematician I covered the game theory aspect, and my colleague talked about the immorality of it all). Anthony Kenny's The Logic of Deterrence, the work frequently referred to in the essay, was one of our required readings. Mr. Amis's essay would have been a great reading, had we taught the course one year later.

Things have changed a little during the thirty years, and obviously for worse. At least in the 1980s the nuclear weapons were under tight control of just two superpowers, who were led by somewhat reasonable people. Neither Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Gorbachev seemed to believe that the actual use of nuclear weapons is any kind of a solution. Now we face the growing risk of activists of whatever flavor - religious, political, social - getting nuclear weapons (or chemical or biological for that matter). Once these activists get their goodies they will be so proud and happy to kill millions or billions of people for the good of their cause. So we may be up for a global apocalypse any time soon.

I am less enthusiastic about the fiction component of Einstein's Monsters. The first two stories only obliquely deal with the potential nuclear annihilation; I much prefer the first one, Bujak and the Strong Force with its clever twist on the issues of deterrence and retaliation. Of the three stories that are situated in a post-apocalyptic world, the last one, The Immortals, in which the all-out nuclear catastrophe happens in 2045 (I doubt that we really have so much time left), is the best - perhaps because it is the most straightforward. The story The Time Disease is also notable: Mr. Amis returns to the same concept of "time reversal" in his famous 1991 work Time's Arrow .

There are days I think that maybe mankind - home to all these activists ready to die and kill to further whatever cause - deserves to be wiped out.

Three and a half stars.

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