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Arsen Lupin // Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease // Kara and the Sun.
Items discussed: False information, Missionaries in Nigeria, A better sense of humanity.
Some books are work, some books are fun. Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Thief is definitely fun. Every interesting tv show or movie that has a criminal bank robber or con man as the main character stole something from Leblanc.
Lupin's main trick is that he infects a person's brain with false information as a way to get them to take predictable actions.
In one story he is on a cruise with celebrities and financiers. He sends a message over wireless telegraph claiming to be from the French police, saying that the famous robber Arsene Lupin is on board. The telegraph lists his description... a description that matches a passenger exactly.
Everybody of course hid their jewels. But was it the rubies and gold he was after?
The theme of false information and how it affects our brains is used in nearly every story. In another, Lupin wants to steal some priceless furniture and art from a recluse in a castle. His method? A brute would use force. Lupin instead sends a telegram telling the man the date and time the robbery will take place.
Lupin's reputation is well known, so of course the castle owner gets scared. Luckily for him he saw in the local newspaper that Lupin's arch enemy, a detective similar to Sherlock Homes, was vacationing in a nearby town. The famous detective says he'll get two of his best guys as guards.
Seems like an impossible robbery. But consider what would happen if the news story was fake, if the famous detective was not actually vacationing nearby, and if instead a clever gentleman thief implanted a news story and took a disguise as the detective, and then hired his own "two best men" to "help guard" the priceless goods....
The parallels of Lupin's tricks and today's internet news feed are striking. It is undoubtedly the case that many people today take action from false news and social media. We also form beliefs from false premises spread online, and make assumptions about people from pictures planted to generate clicks.
Perhaps we are being conned and a few individuals are stealing something of immense value from us. Who knows.
Consider this background... In the late 1800s some Christian missionaries travel to eastern Nigeria. One is a missionary of love. The other is a missionary of religion, which has rules and a budget that must be obeyed.
One takes time to learn the various Nigerian religions and customs, to make friends with village elders, to join in worship to their gods. The other sets up courts and confiscates guns.
A similar scenario happened, and it's the background world of Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God and No Longer At Ease.
The first missionary is loved by people and earns genuine converts, as Christianity answered questions and solved problems that local religions caused, such as a belief that twins are evil and should be left to die. Local traditions are not forced out. Christian churches and schools get built.
The second missionary, meanwhile, was paid for collecting converts, and for expediency forced everybody to abandon their traditions. He built a road from his office to the main market, and instead of getting town support or paying wages, as was custom, he decided to save time and money by using free labor.
The second man also created something he called laws, but didn't bother telling anybody what the laws were or why they were there.
It goes without saying that somebody would put up a challenge to the new systems. Yet the individual who accepted the responsibility didn't quite grasp the battle he was in. He thought the battle was spiritual, as he was a village religious leader. But the enemy was not spiritual. He was a bounty-bureaucrat who used Christianity out of convenience.
No Longer at Ease presents another battle, and another failure.
The main character reflects on the failures and "sins" of his father and grandfather, but he does so to his detriment, as his grandfather was a great man. He would have been much better off remembering the accomplishments of his grandfather, and conducting his life with such a spirit in mind.
Although one could make the case that the endings of these novels are inevitable, as Achebe appears to have believed, there is a sense that his belief comes from depression and fatigue. In context of the stories it is clear that the characters could have won their battles. Whether that would matter in the greater historical context is up for discussion.
Classical tragedies have five parts. The heroes typically have a flaw, and it is that flaw that causes the tragedy.
It would be a misreading of Klara and the Sun to come away thinking all is well, that we are headed for an age of human super-intelligence and AI servants. It is very common for people to say all we need to do is better manage our future robotic technology and our gene-editing power, that smart regulation can guide us.
We know this is a misreading because the novel is ultimately a tragedy.
Klara is a classical hero--she is focused, determined, capable of great love, and has a mission. You can call it the hero's quest. We can learn a lot from her, just as one can from reading any great literature. A human being has immense power, but it gets diffused. With focus, grit, and a contagious positive attitude, we can do anything.
But is Klara a human? Ishiguro does a good job critiquing our tech use, over-parenting, vanity, and a number of social issues and the resulting psychological adaptations we makes for various reasons. Yet to a student of classics the most interesting part is the psychology of Klara, the robot.
The technologist villain in the book makes a strong case that humans aren't special and that technology will eventually mimic every aspect of our brain. We hear the same arguments today, made by our technologists such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk, and all the rest who will profit from such a future.
It is clear that Klara is not a human because she has no biology, but allow me to point out something from the text. In her quest she discovers hope, which comes from the human heart, and then seems to develop a belief system similar to humanity's earliest religion.
Klara might not be a human being, but she has a hero's sense of humanity. That is the important part. This is a structured, classical novel. The objective is not to solve an AI debate, but rather, like Shakespeare and Homer, to present a hero to learn from, to admire, to emulate.
But then what is her tragic flaw?, you might ask. Well, I won't point it out, but allow me to ask whether she has a flaw, or is it the humans who do? Stop in any time to discuss.