Sons of winter and stars

An account of Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, 2017

So here’s some background for non-metalheads: Tuska is one of the two biggest metal festivals in Finland, the other being Nummirock, which translates roughly to ‘rock on the heath’. (Finland, incidentally, is the country with the largest number of metal bands per capita in the world.) Tuska is held in Helsinki, and its name translates, delightfully enough, to ‘excruciating pain’… which, needless to say, told me this was a festival I couldn’t miss!

So as one would expect, the density of black t-shirt wearers grows exponentially as one approaches Suvilahti, the festival venue, and explodes at the field itself. It would perhaps be harder to explain to a non-metalhead the warm, cosy feeling that permeates the festival grounds. In general, Finns are known for respecting other people’s personal space, and metal audiences are particularly polite and kind and committed to the music they love; so this was a crowd of thirty thousand people without the slightest chaos or crush, right up to the front rows. It is hard to say which was nicer, headbanging to Wintersun in a whirl of long-haired people and snowy music, or lying on the grass in the sun outside the Inferno Stage listening to The Raven Age.

One of the greatest pleasures of Tuska is the company of fellow metalheads, particularly those from around the world. I was fortunate enough to be sharing a hostel with a wonderful group of lively and diverse international metalheads, united by their love of Finland and good music.

Tuska is also a very family-friendly event; I saw lots of metalhead parents with small children, always wearing suitable hearing protectors. These young metalheads were appreciative connoisseurs, raising their fists and expressing informed opinions to their parents.

Tuska happens on the same weekend as Helsinki Pride every year, so lots of people, including me, visit both. This means that the Pride is full of metalheads upholding the rainbow spirit in their black t-shirts, since they genuinely support equality but own no clothes that are not black. It isn’t really surprising that metal and pride are so compatible, since pride is about embracing diversity and the warmth of love, while metal is about space, symphony and silence and the depth of feeling, respecting diversity by its very monochrome anonymity.

And of course, Tuska is about some of the best music in the world… Some of the bands I got to hear:

 

Brother Firetribe, sunlit, textured and vibrant in the breadth, warmth and balance of their music.

Wintersun blazing like a field of snow, catching you up in the whirl of a blizzard.

Insomnium, crimson, intimate and magnificently tender.

Mayhem, drawing you into great abysses of ice and filling the arena with all the ecstasy of cold. (The band members were a magnificent sight, emerging from the smoke in their black hooded cloaks.)

Sabaton, in all their epic richness of colour and sound.

Vorna, deep and warm and blazing, like a winter fireplace.

Barren Earth, wandering on desolate moors in the gathering dusk.

Mokoma, realising all the glorious potential and vitality of sheer noise.

Lost Society, in all their urban neon vigour.

Soilwork, pounding in the veins like a fever.

Amorphis, playing the timeless and clear music of this land and its waters. (They played in pouring rain, but this did not appear to affect either the performance or the enjoyment of it.)

HIM, the cosiest possible ending to a long day: thousands of people standing together under the almost midnight sun, singing along to songs they all knew and loved.

Battle Beast, a gleaming and vital cascade, epic and gloriously young. (Noora Louhimo and her spear… oops, mic… in ‘Lost in Wars’ formed one of the most visually compelling spectacles of the festival.)

The Raven Age, pure, clean and good metal.

Baroness, burning and passionate.

Apocalyptica, distilling magnificently the essence of metal and the majesty of classical harmony. (The sheer delight of watching thousands of people headbang to four men on cellos is without parallel.)

Sonata Arctica, crystal and soaring.

 

To quote Wintersun, we are sons of winter and stars. Or perhaps Battle Beast’s ‘bastard son of Odin’ would be a compliment esteemed equally by most metalheads. I look forward to joining my fellow bastard sons of Odin again next year!

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Star Wars and the Legacy of the Legends

As a Star Wars fan, I loved the fact that The Force Awakens recalls the original Star Wars trilogy in so many ways, from the cinematography and art direction to the plot and dialogue. But George Lucas, who created the series, was disappointed because he saw the new film as re-treading old ground and playing to the fans.

But perhaps the many echoes of the earlier films aren’t just about paying homage or appealing to the original fans of the series. They could also be seen as a narrative device, facilitating interpretation of The Force Awakens.

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The audience that pushed The Force Awakens to the top of the box office isn’t entirely the same audience that fell in love with the original films when they first came out. Some of us have been fans ever since the first film hit theatres; but some of us were born later and heard of them first from our parents, seeing them first through the eyes of our parents’ enthusiasm and finding our own reasons to love them as well.

A new Star Wars film would always be embedded in a different cultural and cinematic context. We live in a different world with different problems. Star Wars is no longer a new screen adventure: it is now a cinematic legend with a huge presence in popular culture.

And now a new director seeks to make a film that will make the legend live again.
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Through the references to the original, the makers of the new film are actually acknowledging their distance from it. This is a film about growing up in the shadow of legends. It continues the narrative of the original films, but it also lets us into it, not just as a good work of art always does—by showing us characters we can relate to—but also through the positioning of its narrative. The echoes of past films do not constitute a secret joke between the director and the original audience, with the characters at a distance. The characters mirror us: they are aware of and rooted in their past while au fond separate from it. To Kylo, Rey and Finn as to us, the Force and the Jedi are legends of a different time they heard about growing up. Their different stories play out complex relationships with the past.

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Far from contending ambitions and ideologies, a young person leads a lonely life of habit on a sandy planet. But this life is shattered when she finds a forsaken droid carrying an important message from the heart of the conflict. Though Rey’s old life is ended, it has fitted her, technically, intellectually and morally, for the new; and instead of living for the day, she is now an important part of the central conflict of history and legend.

Perhaps the textual and visual parallels between the stories of Rey and Luke are meant to highlight the sense of moving back, and the ineluctable past that shapes both their lives. Rey has a destiny written for her in the sand, a lightsabre that calls to her; she is attracted to it even as she is afraid to sever all links with the old life and let the currents of time bear her where they will. But as Maz Kanata tells her, the belonging she seeks is not behind her: it lies ahead, in being part of the ageless humanitarian quest. Stepping into her heritage of legend and destiny is actually about moving ahead, embracing her individuality, doing what she was meant to do and only she can do. Relinquishing control over her life in one sense will give her much greater control over her world in another. The past is both ineluctable and liberating.
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To Kylo Ren, on the other hand, his heritage of legend is also his personal heritage. He is the son of legends, and they loom large on his mental horizon. His past has made him what he is, even as he struggles to free himself from it.

Kylo’s struggle is personal, against his genetic and psychological inheritance. He is actually crying to be freed from his inheritance of conflict: both from the relentless pull to the light and the unforgiving ambitions of the dark side, the twin aspects of his heritage from his family. As the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, this conflict is an essential part of him, but he believes that the solution lies in the dominance of one side over the other. His struggle to free himself from his Solo-Skywalker destiny leads to him re-treading, in heart-wrenching antiparallel, the paths of the Luke-Darth Vader struggle: from “You killed my father!” “No, I am your father!” we have moved to “You are my son!” “No, I killed your son!” The destiny that he struggles against is fulfilled in his very struggle against it.
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Finn seeks to get away from the past and its wars, but he realises that there are higher claims on him: his affection for Rey, though grounded in the present, brings him to a realisation of the ideals that inspire her, the ideals that older generations have fought to pass down to them; and he gradually embraces the world of legend, declaring that he will ‘use the Force’ (even if that isn’t quite how the Force works) and using a lightsabre with considerable skill.
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Poe Dameron is at home in the fight against the dark side from the very beginning, flying an X-wing fighter for the Resistance with courage and joyous élan. When he trusts Finn at the beginning and later welcomes him to the Resistance base, he is letting him be part of the conflict, making the past accessible.

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The film explores how the past defines us in ways beyond our control, but sets us free in other ways to do what we are meant to do. And like its characters, the new series will probably move forward the narrative and conflict of the original films, but in its own way.

Kullervo: the tragedy of a hero and his quest for identity

(Since Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo is out now, I thought I’d take a look back at the original story from Kalevala before I read Tolkien’s version.)

Kullervo’s grandfather Kalervo has had a series of disputes with his brother Untamo, and one day Untamo rides down on Kalervo’s village and lays waste to it. It is thought that everyone except Kullervo’s mother is killed. Kullervo is as yet unborn, and his mother welcomes the victors politely to her hall.

When Kullervo is born, his heritage and identity make him dangerous to Untamo’s tribe, and Untamo seeks to have him done away with. Failing this, Untamo tries to forestall his pursuit of revenge by offering him a home and employment with the victorious tribe. Kullervo, however, cannot lead an ordinary life. His impetuous temper and lonely recklessness disqualify him from most professions. So he gets sold to Ilmarinen, the blacksmith.

However, Ilmarinen’s wife bakes a stone into the bread she gives him, and when Kullervo tries to cut it his knife breaks. Kullervo is grief-stricken, for the knife is his only relic of his mother’s people, and he kills Ilmarinen’s wife in revenge. Then he wanders alone over the plains and woodlands, lamenting his ill-fated life, bereft of purpose or parental affection. He decides to journey to Untamo’s village to avenge the slaughter that left him an orphan.

And then he discovers that his father and mother are living, and makes his way to them, dreaming of finding a home and being welcomed by his family. But things aren’t quite as he expected. Though his family, especially his mother, welcome him kindly, he feels an outsider, who can’t do the things the others can do. His father points out to him frequently that he is no use to them, since he doesn’t know how to perform the tasks that are necessary to their welfare. Eventually, he sends him to pay a tribute for him in a distant land.

On his way home, Kullervo meets three beautiful maidens. The first two have no time for him, but he seduces the third. Then he discovers that she is actually his lost sister, who wandered away from home. When she finds this out, his sister flings herself into the falls nearby.

A devastated Kullervo makes his way home again, to tell the terrible tale. His mother is grief-stricken, but does not blame him; she asks him to forget it and live normally. Kullervo, however, is intent on flinging away the life that has become bitter to him—he will go to war on Untamo’s tribe, in revenge for the war of long ago. His mother tries to recall him to a sense of his duty to the family, but he cries wildly that it doesn’t matter what happens to them, and is determined to end his life in the fight.

There is more to this than a sense of guilt. Kullervo is in search of an identity and a purpose, something to belong to and die for. His life has been meaningless, a series of misfortunes and ill-judged actions—he wants his death to have the meaning his life lacked. He wants to belong to his family, but the life he’s lived has not fitted him to live with them and lead an ordinary life contributing to the family and carrying out his duty. It is simpler to make war on others on their behalf, easier to die for them than to live with them—if he dies, he has done something for them, and is therefore a part of the tribe. If he lives, he’s a stranger who has never belonged, who failed everything he attempted and brought shame and ruin on their daughter.

And so he seeks to die avenging a wrong of long ago, one that has ceased to matter to everyone else—to die for his tribe when they care little for him or his sacrifice. He would like to go out in a blaze of splendour, and wipe out the memory of his ill-fated life, unintended wrongs and failures and unfulfilled longings.

Before he leaves, he bids them farewell with respect and affection and asks each, just once, if they will mourn him when he’s dead. His father, brother and sister vow they will not, and he accepts this, resolving to think no more of them. His mother, however, says that she will.

Kullervo rides away to war. On his way, messengers catch up with him, and he learns that his father, brother, sister and finally his mother are dead. But he will not ride back, or turn aside from his design of war.

Against the odds, Kullervo is victorious, and lays waste to Untamo’s village. But when he comes home, there is no pleasure in the victory, for the family he fought to avenge is gone. And he is quite alone.

Then his mother’s voice speaks to him, telling him to seek out the company of the wood-nymphs, for she would not have him abandoned and lonely. Kullervo sets out to obey her, but then he passes the falls where his sister leaped to her death, and suddenly everything is too much for him. He unsheathes his sword, and asks it if it wishes to drink his life-blood. And his sword replies that it sees no reason why not. Kullervo leaps on his sword.

Kullervo suffered for wrongs that were not his own and for wrongs that he had not intended. He cast away what was dear to him, even as his own cast him away, heedless alike of what he offered them and what he yearned for.

Väinämöinen speaks, at the end, of the need to nurture your children and teach them discretion and wisdom. Kullervo’s life owed much of its tragedy to his loneliness and his feeling of abandonment, but also a great deal to the fact that he was ill-equipped to deal with the obligations society imposed on him.

Kullervo had learned of the passionate and the lofty, of honour and revenge, but he never learned to live an ordinary life with other people. This is a common theme in Kalevala, the fact that heroism can go only so far in daily life. Heroic deeds of valour are one thing, but the demands life makes on you are different—we notice this in the instances of Väinämöinen and Aino, Lemminkäinen and Kyllikki. Being brave and skilled in combat, while worthy of great respect, isn’t always enough to make you or other people happy—this capricious world requires you to understand and learn to live with other people, a far harder task. The life of a hero can be both magnificent and tragic.

(You can read Kalevala in English here, and the original Finnish here. A big thank you to Project Gutenberg!)

Of Monsters, Inventions and Northern Lights

One may see in Jonas Lie’s wonderful story Jo i Sjøholmene, translated as Jack of Sjöholm and the Gan-Finn, an allegory of human nature and modern science. Lie examines the wonder that is the scientific method and its profound connection with nature, even as humans possessed of the scientific method seek futilely to fight natural law and isolate themselves from it.

In the days before men learned to built good, strong boats, fishermen were at the mercy of an irascible, capricious old man called the Gan-Finn, and had to buy good winds from him. Jack (Jo in the original) is a young fisherman who laughs at the fears of experienced men, and tries his strength recklessly against the winds and the open sea. After great trials, he is rewarded with a gift to his people. But things don’t end there.

Scientists are often reckless with their own interests and those of others, willing to gamble and risk all for an idea. Sometimes they cannot find what they’re looking for in the place and time they live in, and they need to sail beyond restricting contemporary thought to find or create for themselves another environment. Sometimes they must struggle against an establishment that resists upheaval and change. They may also have to brave incredulity and ridicule. To make his discoveries, Jack must make sacrifices, leave his home behind and explore the rushing waves of the open sea and the wild lights of the north. He must also fight the power that rules the fearful winds, that dreads being unseated by the modern method. When he manages this, he returns home with a gift to his kind. He lets people laugh at him and works steadfastly until his idea becomes a reality. People realise the value of his invention and he is able to fulfil his project of humanitarian aid.

A great deal of the power of the idea lies in Jack’s careful observation of and closeness to nature. Symbolically, after his long and difficult struggle, it was a natural current that led him ashore to his discovery. He seeks to use the secret of a wild natural power (the Draug) and build a boat that moves like a bird, that shakes the sea aside like the slippery fin of a fish.

But scientists who start out working for the public weal, caught by the fire of an idea, can lose sight of their original purpose or be blind to the ill consequences of their work. This happens when science is generally accepted and becomes part of the establishment, part of materialistic human society. Jack finds himself earning a great deal of money, and he starts to be proud and careless with the lives of the people who buy his boats. But scientific hubris is unsustainable, and his oversight pursues him. Helplessly, he cries out that things would have been much worse without his discoveries. Nature and destiny are inexorable.

In the end, Jack abandons the establishment and sets out on a voyage into the open sea. He has abandoned his attempt to subdue nature beneath the tyranny of the human establishment, and instead floats peacefully into wild nature, personified as Seimke, his wild bride. Seimke shrieks and laughs and shakes and throws herself upon his neck, takes her turn at the oars, and plays familiarly with the northern lights. Nature is not an adversary, but a fascinating and affectionate equal. The ultimate purpose of science is familiarity with nature, beautiful and untameable as it is.

(You can read the story in English here, and download the original text here. A big thank you to Project Gutenberg, the University of Oslo’s Documentation Project and MobileReads!)

Mrs. Long, and the Invisible Spectre of Society

Sometimes the characters who impress themselves on the memory are the ones we never see. Achilles in Ajax, Lord Byron in Arcadia, and Mrs. Long in Pride and Prejudice linger in the memory far longer than many characters who actually appear and play a part in the story, perhaps because they stimulate the imagination—because they become not people, but figures. They are not characters with particular qualities, but epitomes of characteristics.

No-one who has read Pride and Prejudice can forget the name of Mrs. Long, and yet we never see her. She is mentioned six times in the text, on each occasion described very differently by Mrs. Bennet—

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

“I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.”

“Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips…. I do not believe a word of it, my dear. If he had been so very agreeable, he would have talked to Mrs. Long. But I can guess how it was; every body says that he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise.”

“I will go to Meryton,” said she, “as soon as I am dressed, and tell the good, good news to my sister Philips. And as I come back, I can call on Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long….”

“…We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon. That will make thirteen with ourselves, so there will be just room at table for him….”

“…Mrs. Long said so too, for I asked her whether you did not. And what do you think she said besides? ‘Ah! Mrs. Bennet, we shall have her at Netherfield at last.’ She did indeed. I do think Mrs. Long is as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are very pretty behaved girls, and not at all handsome: I like them prodigiously.”

We see that Mrs. Long is an indispensable part of Mrs. Bennet’s social life—a source of invaluable information; a recipient of raptures, gossip and complaints; someone at a slight disadvantage, to be alternately sympathised with and dazzled with another’s splendour; a soothing source of congratulations when necessary; a social necessity and a social obligation.

We envision a typical figure of the English country society of the time: an ambivalent spectator, quick to sympathy and indignation; a voice in universal agreement, that expresses exactly what everyone else is thinking. But most of all, Mrs. Long epitomises the inexorable pressure of society, bringing the ridiculous affair from its sudden and riotous beginning to its inevitable denouement. She brings Mrs. Bennet the first news of Mr. Bingley’s arrival, and is the first to openly acknowledge the approach of the end.

She is also a mirror of Mrs. Bennet’s mood: when Mrs. Bennet is furious with her husband, she is a ‘selfish, hypocritical woman’; when Mrs. Bennet is delighted by Mr. Bingley’s open admiration of her daughter, she is ‘as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are … not at all handsome’ (with Mrs. Bennet, the force of commendation can no further go); when her pride is hurt, Mrs. Long, as someone in worse circumstances, corroborates her opinion and gives her someone to sympathise with; when she wants to invite Mr. Bingley to dinner, inviting Mrs. Long is a convenient necessity; when she has good news to relate, she must go and call on Mrs. Long. Mrs. Long fulfills Mrs. Bennet’s need for a confidante who cannot retaliate with her own triumphs—she has no carriage of her own, and her nieces are not at all handsome; but in return, Mrs. Bennet sympathises indignantly with her when she considers herself slighted. They are alternately in competition for the glories of a small town and solidarity against supercilious outsiders.

Who is Mrs. Long? Probably another Mrs. Bennet or Lady Lucas—another well-meaning, rather foolish woman, vocal, parochial and suspicious. She obviously has a penchant for gossip, but she also seems—despite Mrs. Bennet’s assertions to the contrary—a willing enough sympathiser in other people’s joys. But in the absence of a physical Mrs. Long, our imagination multiplies her into a hundred Mrs. Longs. We see a hundred women peering suspiciously through the windows of the Bennets’ house, jostling each other and whispering in excitement and sympathy. We see an invisible crowd of spectres sitting at table with the Bennets, listening critically to every word that is said. The name that creeps into every conversation, the eye under whose gaze every step is taken: the name and the eye of invisible, ubiquitous society. Mrs. Long may be an insignificant woman, but every action is taken under her gaze.

“…For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

(All quotations are from the edition of Pride and Prejudice on Project Gutenberg—ebook no. 1342. A big thank you to the volunteers who produced this ebook!)

The Hobbit and the Pale, Enchanted Gold

A middle-aged Hobbit is startled one day by a band of Dwarves who come to tea. They bring to his warm and comfortable home a breath of air from the Lonely Mountain, a whiff of adventure, and to his alarm, he finds that he is expected to join them on a quest that promises to be dangerous and uncomfortable.

He is suspicious of them, and they are rather sceptical of his ability. However, something makes him join them.

As they journey toward the mountain, they have several adventures, and the Hobbit discovers qualities he didn’t know he had. He is a brave little creature, loyal and clever, and possessed of a great deal of quiet ingenuity, with a matter-of-fact dauntlessness that keeps the spirits of the company up and gets them out of several messes. He eventually becomes the true leader of the quest, and his grumpy companions come to regard him with increasing respect and genuine fondness.

His companions are grumpy and rather calculating, but fundamentally kindly and honourable, with a great deal of stubborn courage. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a kingly figure, stately and imposing.

They reach the mountain, and accomplish their quest. But their greatest triumph proves their greatest undoing, as alliances break and friends fall apart, with everyone succumbing to the fatal lure of the gold. The Hobbit is the only person untouched by its spell, and he looks on in wonder and sorrow as his friends shed their nobility and honour. In the end, he gives up his reward to avert a war for the gold.

Finally, a greater threat reminds the armies that they must stand together. Bilbo’s companions prove as dauntless and resourceful in the final battle as they did in pursuit of the treasure, and fight heroically and honourably. Thorin Oakenshield is mortally wounded; before the end, he parts from Bilbo in friendship.

Bilbo refuses the promised fourteenth share of the treasure – he will take only two little chests of silver and gold, for treasure is merely a lot of bother to him. He will treasure the memory of the quest, but he doesn’t think the gold was worth the struggle for it.

The Hobbit has survived the battle of five armies. He has treated with the King of the Woodland Elves, and witnessed the heroic end of the King under the Mountain. He has been ‘over grass and over stone,/And under mountains in the moon.’ Now he journeys back, a Hobbit richer in gold and experience than he was, but very much the same Hobbit in his kindly domestic predilections. He values food and cheer and song above hoarded gold. He will miss the world of song and legend, but he looks forward to getting back to his own arm-chair.

And he gets back, and finds home most uncomfortable. He has been away so long that people think he’s dead, and his relations have plotted to appropriate his belongings. After the passion and heroism of the Battle of the Five Armies, he has to deal with the petty scheming and rivalries of a small town. And yet perhaps it isn’t so different. It’s still the lure of gold, though at a very different level.

Bilbo is only quite a little fellow in a wide world – but a fine fellow at that.

The symmetries of Arcadia

Arcadia is an intensely scientific play. On re-reading it, I’ve realised that one could look at it from the point of view of what physicists call ‘symmetries’.

Science suggests that at very high energies, all the fundamental forces are identical. Different particles are fundamentally identical too. A ‘symmetry’ exists between different particles and different forces. But in the observable universe, the symmetry is broken because other factors come into play. Different forces act differently, and a particle called the Higgs boson interacts with other particles, slowing some of them down more than others, giving them what we perceive as ‘mass’. (This is why some particles are heavier than others.) One of science’s puzzles is how to incorporate gravity, the fourth force, into the theory – it plays a very important role, but acts differently from the others.

We can’t test this, because the unification happens at energy scales much beyond our reach.

In Arcadia, at the higher intellectual levels, there exists a symmetry between science, literature and sex. They work the same way and are equally powerful (more on this here). Septimus explains carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem together, expressing equal interest in both. Hannah and Valentine, literary scholar and scientist, make a series of discoveries that lead them successively closer to the theory of the universe. In the end, they both arrive at the doom of the universe independently.

What breaks the symmetry in the everyday universe? Individuality. Personal perception. Social and technological evolution. These construct the world around us; they’re also the tools we use to understand it. The same forces influence the world around us, but they work differently. At each point, some forces are more powerful than others. One force, though extremely powerful in the observable world, doesn’t quite fit into the theory. (Sex dominates in the nineteenth century; science dominates the modern world. No-one is sure how fundamental sex is to intellectual inquiry.)

There is also a symmetry in time. Valentine and Septimus both have tortoises. Valentine and Thomasina explore the same mathematical questions with their different tools. Both Hannah and Lady Croom don’t know when they’ve received a more unusual compliment (though the compliments they respond to are very different.)

As science, literature, history and sex advance closer to the ultimate revalation, they grow more symmetrical. But there is no ultimate revelation that’s practically accessible. Our best hope lies in extrapolating the graphs and studying the unification of forces.