I just finished re-reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles. It came out in 1996, and I read and liked it then.  I’m surprised I’ve never written about it; I think it’s my favorite book about God.

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Illo by Robert Leighton

We often hear about “the Bible as literature”, but we rarely treat it as literature. This is what Miles does; more precisely, he aims to analyze God as a literary character.

This probably wouldn’t work without one further constraint: Miles goes through the Tanakh in order, analyzing what the text says about God without reading ahead, and without reference to later theology, whether Jewish or Christian.  That turns the book from a humdrum Bible-reading plan into a series of shocks and surprises.

Now, eventually this process will result in a portrait of the God most people remember. But it takes surprisingly long to add in all the pieces.  God, at first, makes few demands on humans.  Even when he finds some humans he commits to— Noah, Abram, Joseph— he does not ask for worship or prayer, does not talk about love or law or justice. He has a strange obsession with human fertility.  He does not refer to himself as a father till the story of David; does not present himself as a king until we reach the Prophets.

If you’re a believer, the book is likely to be challenging, yet fascinating. Miles doesn’t assume orthodox theology, so he is constantly asking: what do we know about God so far; what does God think he’s doing? God is always supremely confident, but Miles makes a good case from the text that he is constantly improvising, constantly surprised at the things humans do, surprised too at what he himself does in response. From being the creator of mankind he moves to being a fiery destroyer… seems to repent of that, and concentrates on a single human family, becoming its patron… loses track of them, then rediscovers them as a large population oppressed in Egypt… turns himself into a mighty warrior on behalf of his adopted people, yet becomes murderous when they don’t do what he wants, which is often.

Though he doesn’t use later theology to elucidate any of this, he does use historical criticism— showing how strands of God’s character come from different traditions, related to various Semitic gods. Genesis, for instance, has been knit together from two accounts, one of which calls God ʾElohim (‘god’), the other Yahweh. The patron god of Abraham acts much like other friendly family gods; the warrior god of Exodus has much in common with Baʿal. (The goddesses are largely present as an absence: the compilers made sure God was both extremely male, and devoid of sexuality. Yet feminine points of view do appear later in the book.)

This is given as essential background information, but isn’t allowed to undermine the unity of the text.  The Tanakh was put together as one text, after all, and we read it, not the original sources or myths.  But the seams where it was knit together show, and help explain exactly why God, as a character, is both compelling and unpredictable. He seems conflicted because he was put together out of conflicting elements. We don’t read the text as a story of multiple gods, but of one personality whose conflicts, like ours, are internal.

Miles chooses to read the book in the Jewish order.  Tanakh is an abbreviation: Torah + Nebiʾim (Prophets) + Ketubim (writings). You can compare the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic orders here. But in short, the Tanakh follows the Christian order through Kings (with the exception of Ruth).  Then it includes all the prophets, major and minor. Then, everything else: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.

The order doesn’t make a difference for the main narrative of the Exodus, the lawgiving, the conquest of Israel, the apogee under Solomon, the centuries of decadence, and the final catastrophe— the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon.

But it does make a huge difference toward the end: in the last of the Writings, God is increasingly eclipsed. His last words are spoken in Job; after that, for nine books, he is silent. He is frequently discussed and invoked and referred to, of course, but he never speaks, much less acts in the world as he did in the first books.  He’s barely present in Song of Songs and Esther; and in Ezra and Nehemiah the roles of the Jews and God have almost reversed: where once God acted and the Israelites reacted (or disobeyed), now the Jews act, and God is simply their passive inspiration.

It’s often said that God answered and silenced Job, and Job repented.  From the text as written, however, it would be more accurate to say that Job has silenced God. Job is truly a strange book: first, a new character named Satan is introduced; he makes a wager— which God accepts— that Job will renounce God if his worldly goods and his health are removed. Job does not renounce God, but he bitterly complains about his treatment: why should an innocent man be punished?  God appears to reprimand him, but tries to change the subject: his entire discourse is an eloquent poem on his own sovereign power. Job concedes, of course, that God is all-powerful. God does not attribute sin to Job, neither does he explain the very ungodly wager he made.

In most translations Job repents, but Miles makes a good case that this is a pious mistranslation. Rather than “I repent in ashes”, Job says “I feel loathing and sorrow for man’s state.”

God never apologizes in words, but occasionally he changes his course of action, and in this case he quickly restores Job’s fortunes. We hear no more of Satan. And perhaps he goes off to think about what sort of being he’s become, because he offers no more prophesy and no more miraculous interventions in history.

And yet it’s not a defeat— more of a retirement in honor. If anything, the Jews do better— taking the Law and their God more seriously than they ever did when he was constantly and directly involved with them.

Miles is by no mean a hostile observer. Sometimes you need to shake things up to make a text come alive. He is always erudite and charming.  And if you’re not a believer, there’s no better or safer guide to the Tanakh.  He’ll show you what’s there, and introduce you to the striking characters inside it, without prodding you to believe or disbelieve in anything.

In 2002 he came out with a sequel, Christ: a crisis in the life of God. It attempts to apply the same treatment to the New Testament, but I found it far less interesting, because it takes far fewer liberties. It basically goes over the standard idea of the incarnation, but doesn’t bring much that’s new to the story. If you want new ways to think about the NT, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which reconstructs the dizzying array of theological options in the first centuries of Christianity, without assuming the correctness of what became the orthodox faction.

 

 

 

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As you know from Kingdom of Loathing— what, you haven’t heard of it?  It’s apparently a browser game, I haven’t played it either.  Anyway, West of Loathing is a standalone game and apparently a sequel to it.

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I think there was something horrible here.  It’s gone now.

Stuff to get across right away, if you haven’t figured it out:

  • It’s a Western.
  • It’s a comedy.
  • It’s really really low-res.

It’s also a pretty expansive RPG.  I’m about ten hours in, and I’ve discovered about 43 of 72 locations, so I suppose, or should I say I reckon, I’m about halfway through.

You play as a cowgirl, or I suppose as a cowboy, seeking adventure in a goofy, magic-infused West, inhabited by stick figure humans, round goblins, evil cows, and more.  You can be a Cow Puncher (melee), Beanslinger (bean magic– that’s me!), or Snake Oiler (snakes). In the opening town, you can find a pardner.  I chose Crazy Pete.

It’s a little like Jazzpunk, in that you’re missing out, and messing up, if you don’t talk to everyone, look at all the item descriptions, and scrub the current location to find all the jokes. The humor tends to wordplay and the absurd, and if one joke doesn’t land, another will come by in moments.

Unlike Jazzpunk, there’s a surprising amount of game in there. You have stats (starting with Muscle, Mysticality, and Moxie), there are clothes and hats and potions and edibles that change them, plus a wide array of weapons and spells.  And dozens of locations.  You can spend a lot of time in the game, and you’ll probably want to, because a) it’s amusing, and b) it’s not that hard, so it’s always painless to check out one more location or cross off one more quest. On the other hand, tedious things like inventory management are left out– so far as I can see, there’s no inventory limit at all.

(Edit: there’s a clever bit that other RPGs might well imitate. You don’t level up. Rather, you get XP, and you can spend XP buffing stats or skills; increments to one thing cost more XP each time.  So, they get rid of a concept (‘levels’) and let you control the process more.)

Combat is turn-based, a sort of simplified version of King’s Bounty. You and your enemies take turns using your abilities and weapons until one side is all dead.

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Wearing my Cultist Mask for extra Mysticality, wasting devil clowns.

It’s not deep.  In fact, I went through several nights of never losing a fight, and wondering what happens if you do.  Then I ran into nastier enemies and lost several fights in a row.  The actual mechanism is clever: losing a fight makes you Angry.  Anger increases your stats slightly, and you can stack it up, but there’s a limit, and when you reach it you faint from rage and wake up the next day back in town, losing the effect of any potions you’d consumed.  So it’s a setback, but pretty minimal. (I don’t think there’s a Save option, or a need for one.)

The stick figures are of course pretty minimal, but they’re animated with charm, and in general the game plays with its limited graphics in nice ways.  E.g. most things are black & white, but ghosts are gray, as are doorways ‘behind’ you (ones leading outward). The above screenshot shows a sepia effect you get at one point. (You can turn it off, but I like it.)

I’ve read a couple of reviews of the game that are near rapturous.  I think it’s a lot of fun, but I also think it’s best to play in shortish sessions. I probably would have been rapturous too when I was younger, because it’s exactly my kind of humor. But zany humor isn’t quite as satisfying as it once was. There’s not much in the game to care about, nor is there a lot of roleplaying choice or combat challenge. So the emotional temperature is fairly low.

Probably for this reason, when something frustrating comes up, it’s more of a turnoff than it should be.  That string of lost fights, for instance: all of a sudden I was facing enemies who could kill me (and my pardner) in two or three turns. Or the circus, which requires an extremely circuitous set of actions.  The sudden roadblock is jarring.

(If you run into the same problems: if you’re underpowered, spend some time wandering in the first region, near Dirtwater– it’s an option on the map– to clean up the easier locations. Keep accumulating stuff and explore the potions and such: you can build up your stats nicely.  And there are some good wikis and walkthroughs if you lose patience with a puzzle.)

I should also mention: I think it gets better a few hours in.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the initial encounters, but just tonight I ran into the funniest place yet (Fort Memoriam) and the creepiest (the Circus).

Edit: Farther along, I have a big complaint: there’s no journal. This makes it really hard to figure out what to do next if you haven’t played for a few days. You can ask your partner for suggestions, but this doesn’t give you an exhaustive list. I feel stuck right now: one location has a fight I can’t win; another requires a two-day wait which is tedious (and erases some of my current perks). I don’t have any locations on the map I haven’t been to. You shouldn’t have to look in a wiki to find things to do in a game.

 

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of a graphics snob in video games. I just don’t like the look of Half-Life, Fallout 1/2, or Morrowind. So, I was surprised that Robert Yang managed to convince me that, in at least one case, lo-res is better.

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This is a comparison of the original (2006) and a remastered (2017) version of a video game, Final Fantasy XII. And yes, Yang’s contention is that the fuzzy original is better.

(Why the girl is leaning to one side in the remastered version, I don’t know.  It’s distracting, but not the point here.)

His analysis of the “remastering” is helpful:

If I had to guess, the artists probably did this: (1) scale up texture by 200%, (2) increase contrast, (3) desaturated a little for that grayish next-gen feel, (4) apply a sharpen filter, (5) overlay a noisy detail texture on top to try to make the surface look more detailed.

He notes that you can automate this process, so you can handle a whole folder of images in a few minutes.

Now, my first reaction was that I liked the sharper image better. (I’ve never played the game, so I have no nostalgia here to invoke.)  In general, our eyes like sharpness! We can really see the intended patterns; the banner looks ten times better; the leaves are more recognizable.  It’s like putting glasses on!

And none of that is wrong. But look at the things Yang is pointing to: desaturation; the sharpen feature; a noise filter. The way I’d put it: the new image is

  • way too loud– it draws attention to itself, though it’s just a background
  • way too contrasty– if you looked at an actual wall, you wouldn’t be conscious of such a wide tonal range, it would mostly look one color
  • much less warm– look especially at the pavement, which has gone from a warm orange to almost black-and-white
  • too flat; because everything is in focus, it looks like a picture, not a world

You can certainly do realism well, but this realism done badly.

Yang points to another example, a fan remake of Half-Life 2.  I won’t name it, because I’m not going to say anything nice about it and there’s no need to embarrass a hard-working modder. Here’s a comparison.  (The top image is apparently another mod, but much closer to Valve.)

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Oh dear. Let’s go over the problems.

  • What the hell is going on in the screenshot? It’s wicked dark.
  • You can barely see what is supposed to be the focus of the scene: Breen and Eli Vance.
  • Contrariwise, the modder has inserted extremely bright lights where they do no good at all. “Here, I really want you to pay attention to this: the floor.”
  • In general, the physical modeling and the lighting effects are far better– e.g. the round hole in the ceiling isn’t an obvious polygon; the lights, like real lights, don’t just light up the air. But all this realism just hides the narrative.  We don’t get an idea of the shape of the area; we can’t see what’s going on; we don’t know where to go next.
  • Why did he blur the red highlights from the windows?  Why did he lose the overhead light? Come to think of it, why don’t those very bright lights actually illuminate anything?
  • Yes, you’ve learned how to do a shiny floor; but what’s the point? All it does is reflect some lights and thus confuse the scene further.  Does the Combine care that much about waxing their floors?
  • What the hell kind an outfit did he put on Mossman?

Not all the images from the mod are this dark, but when they’re not, they’re generally too busy, too desaturated, and less coherent. They look like someone Googled for hi-res versions of every texture in the scene, without any care to making them work together.

Realism is nice, but isn’t an end in itself. You also have to think about consistency of style, and focusing the player’s attention on what is important, and giving them the information they need to follow the story and navigate the world.  The old Valve was very good at this.

As an example of a game that properly shows off the increased realism that’s now possible, I’d name The Witcher 3. I haven’t finished it, but good lord is it gorgeous. And without losing the readability, consistency, and focus that’s needed for a game to work as a game.

I’ve been playing with Markov text generators.  There was a little too much for a blog entry, so see my results here. Also includes links to web pages where you can run the generators yourself, or even download my C code to run against your own texts.

It’s beginning to look like we’re moving:

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We now have a condo!  This makes me happy, because though we have a great landlord, having a place we own will be better in the long run. Our income is what the auditors call “no mucho”, but we will actually be paying substantially less in our new place.

There’s less room for bookshelves, so I’m getting rid of a bunch of books. Choosing books to toss turned out to be a less painful process than I imagined. The basic question is “Will I ever read this again?” and the answer is usually pretty clear. In some cases the answer might be ‘maybe once’, but it’s readily available at the library and I’d rather not lug a copy around forever.

Oh, if you’re in the Chicago area and want some books, contact me within the next week or so.  (No linguistics books, sorry, but a miscellanea of history, classics, comics, and science.)

The condo was offered at a much higher price, which steadily declined over something like 9 months. It ended up at a really good price for a 2-bedroom in its location.  My best guess is that the owner made a bad move by turning the large front room into two smaller rooms by adding a wall. I imagine a lot of people looked at it and said “This is weird, let’s move on to the next listing.” You could take out the wall pretty easily, but people would rather not have the hassle. (We’re keeping it, because it makes for a nice office.)

While I’m at it, I got the latest reports from the goblins chained up in the  Accountancy Dungeon.  Total books sold have just gone over 25,000.  Over 11,000 of that is the LCK. All the language books (and the PCK) sell pretty well.  About 60% of sales are paperbacks, the rest Kindle. The China book is doing adequately— way better than the novels.

You should, of course, be buying the India Construction Kit. But yes, here at the Zompist Fortressplex new plans are already afoot. Here’s a clue.

syntax books

Your first guess will undoubtedly be a Quechua grammar. And that’s still in the running!

But as the pile of syntax books next to my desk suggests, I’ve actually started on another language book, most probably called The Syntax Construction Kit.

Didn’t I cover syntax in the LCK?  Oh yes, more or less, but never to the satisfaction of my internal syntactician. I would really like to draw a bunch of syntactic trees, and explain why syntactic trees were so exciting in around 1980, and how to argue about syntax, and why Noam Chomsky is both brilliant and infuriating.

Syntax was my introduction to academic linguistics, and though it’s useful for conlanging, like knowing bones is useful for designing animals, what I want to get across is how much fun syntax was at that time. Generative syntax was a new field, so new things were being discovered— hell, your syntax class, or you yourself writing a paper, could discover a new fact about English syntax pretty much any time you wanted to. You could watch the big names in the field arguing with each other and not infrequently pausing to teach each other philosophy of science.

Now, only one of the books in the picture was published past 1990, and it’s possible that everything I learned is now completely outdated. I will take the opportunity to update my knowledge, but I’m guessing that I won’t have to change that much. The idea isn’t to teach a particular formalism so much as to teach the methods and findings of modern syntax.

You may be wondering, will there be another regional Construction Kit, after China and India? I certainly hope so! A Middle East Construction Kit is an attractive possibility. But the research load for these things is immense, and I need a little break.

Even less likely: you may be clamoring for more fiction, bless your heart. People who’ve bought my novels seem to like them, but unfortunately there’s just not enough of them. One encouraging sign, though: on my Kindle reports, I noticed that some lovely soul bought about fifty copies of Against Peace and Freedom in December, presumably to give to all their friends. That’s more than it usually sells all year. So I will probably dig out the sequel and keep working at it.

 

I’ve always included Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker on my personal list of best sf books, though I hadn’t re-read it in years. I just re-read it, and it’s still up there, with quibbles. If you have a certain kind of mind, it’ll blow it.

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Stapledon for some reason seems little talked about these days, and yet he’s held up very well. His first major sf work was Last and First Men (1930), which is about nothing less than the two billion years of humanity, starting from now.  “Oh, he’s an optimist,” you’ll jest.  Not at all.  A lot of that two billion years is taken up with devastation and destruction, and the last of eighteen human species peter outs in a sad twilight on Neptune. (I read it, but long ago, so I don’t recall if he really thinks Neptune has a surface.)  His keen sense of the possible destruction of civilization made him a strange outlier in the gung-ho stage of classic sf, but seems more relevant than ever today.

That two-billion chunk of human history is briefly retold in Star Maker (1937), in about a page and a half: by the standards of Star Maker, that timespan and that story are a trifle. I can’t think of any other book with the scope of this one. Its structure is reminiscent of that amazing film Powers of Ten, in that each chapter takes a wider viewpoint than the last.

A man runs out of his house and up the hill, apparently after a quarrel with his wife, and lies down on a hill looking up at the stars. He starts imagining the Earth in space, and then his imagination becomes real— he finds himself a disembodied viewpoint in space, with the ability to move around at vast speeds, but unable to return to Earth.  He is a little alarmed at this— the quarrel wasn’t that serious— but decides he’d better keep going and see what there is to see.

The best scientific opinion of the 1930s was that planets were created when two stars approached each other, a rare event; thus it takes him a long time to find a star with planets. Fortunately he finds one that’s inhabited.  Later he realizes that this is no coincidence: he was led psychically to a world much like his own.  (I borrowed this idea in my meta-thinking about Almea.)

He sees an alien peasant working in a field, and eventually realizes that he can see through another mind’s senses, and even communicate telepathically.  He explores the planet this way, but the aliens are troubled by his communications.  One of them complains to a philosopher, whose name is Bvalltu.  Bvalltu “cures” the man by inviting the alien visitor to come with him instead, and the narrator gratefully accepts.  They get to know each other, become friends, and then learn to travel telepathically together.

But the characters of the book are not individual people; they’re species. Bvalltu’s planet gets a fairly thorough treatment, but the next planets they discover are covered more briefly.  Stapledon has some fun imagining more and more unusual forms of sapients.  There are avians, intelligent ships, a symbiosis between ichthyoids and arachnids, plant-men, and others. On each planet the group stays for awhile, studies and interacts, and then moves on, often joined by one of the locals.

At this point, they are attracted to planets at a certain stage of crisis. In Stapledon’s terms, the crisis is always whether the species will be destroyed by individualism, or push through to a new form of community. When and where he was writing, in 1937 Britain, the choices were stark and unappetizing: uncompromising communism, reactionary fascism, or a weak and muddled liberal democracy. After WWII, this seemed outdated for awhile; sf futures were almost all a benign future ’50s America.  Today Stapledon (like Orwell) is looking better than ever. There’s no future in reactionary hatred and ecological destruction, and yet it seems to be terribly hard for our species to tear itself away from those paths.

Again, Stapledon is no optimist.  His view is that most species don’t make it; they collapse back into barbarity or destroy themselves. But some figure it out, and create utopias.  He posits that telepathy is used, or created, so that individuals can remain themselves, and yet contribute to a species-wide mind.

Ah, but we’re only halfway through; these are merely the players for later drama.  A species that reaches this stage will spend some happy centuries reorganizing itself, rearranging its genome and its stellar system to its liking, and developing in culture. Eventually it turns to the larger galaxy, and here conflict reappears.  Can it encounter other species as equals, or does it insist on absorbing them into its own system?

This leads to interstellar wars, and eventually the fighting empires merge into a galactic empire— still a utopia for its citizens, but intent on gobbling up every other entity in the galaxy. However, one of the Magellanic clouds has developed another way, advancing further on the way to community.  They are dominated, as it happens, by that symbiotic culture of ichthyoids and arachnids.  The symbionts intervene, telepathically undermining the imperials.  This leads to the emergence of a galactic society and an incipient galactic mind.

A mere side point in Stapledon: this is the first book to mention what were later called Dyson spheres, structures which capture all the output of a star for sapients’ use. (They do not have to be solid spheres.)

The galaxy now begins exploring the rest of the universe, but runs into a serious problem: the stars themselves are alive, and start roasting planets.  The world-minds, you see, had the idea of sending entire star-systems to other galaxies.  Being moved about by their own planets seems baffling and wrong to the sentient stars, who react with confused violence.  By the time this is sorted out, time is running out— the cosmos is growing old, and there is limited time left.  Still, it’s possible to proceed to the next stage, a cosmic soul.

There have been references throughout to the Star Maker, the ultimate creator; the narrator and his companions half expect that once the cosmic soul awakens, it will be able to perceive and respond to the creator, and be accepted as its companion.  That would be a little too dreamy: the cosmic soul does reach out to the Star Maker— but is rebuffed.  The Star Maker, in effect, perceives the soul of the cosmos, analyzes it and appreciates it… then puts it aside.  The cosmic soul persists as long as it can (the suns are going out, but fusion is prolonged in artificial stars; the typical surviving species are now intelligent swarms of worms or bugs living on the surface of these structures).

Finally Stapledon considers the Star Maker itself, from an extra-cosmic perspective, creating one universe after another, moving from simple to more complex creations. Our cosmos is neither early nor late, but is considered the first work of the creator’s mature period.

After all that, the narrator’s vision breaks off, and he finds himself back on the hill looking at the stars.

Whew.  You can probably see why this book has influenced most of the classic sf writers, but not been imitated. It’s not a book you could turn into a blockbuster movie, with a part for Harrison Ford and quips by Joss Whedon. Stapledon by no means forgets about individuals; he is always emphasizing that his world-minds are composed of individuals going about their daily lives, and concerned with their maximum happiness. But his focus is on entire worlds, and on ascending the dizzying scale of astronomical time and space.

On a re-reading, I think that Stapledon’s prose works, but is sometimes too academic. He can write passionately, and insert vivid details, but he doesn’t have the precision of Borges or the wit of Stanisław Lem (perhaps his closest peers). He spends a little too much time talking about how he can hardly describe the concerns of lofty super-intelligences or the cosmic soul… well, sure, who could? Fortunately he goes ahead and does it anyway, and it’s fine. You have to be bold with this sort of thing.

From Wikipedia, I learn that C.S. Lewis didn’t like Stapledon’s philosophy (though he admired his inventiveness), and partly wrote his Space Trilogy in response. More than half a century on, their quarrel seems slim. Lewis of course preferred the personal god of Christianity, who may be awe-inspiring but is still fuzzy and loving. If Lewis was here, however, I’d remind him that he’d written A Grief Observed and wondered if God was “a cosmic sadist”. Stapledon wonders the same thing.  They would disagree on whether “God is Love”, but Stapledon sees the attractiveness of the idea, and Lewis well understood why someone would be troubled by the suffering God permits in the world.

(If you can’t stand the idea of a god at all… well, just take it as a possible advanced cosmology. The cosmic soul has to have something to think about.)

Stapledon tries to stay true to astronomy (e.g., he does not posit faster-than-light travel, though he does allow telepathy); but of course astronomy has changed since he wrote. His account of the stellar life cycle is wrong, for instance— he thinks that our star started as a “red giant” and cooled into a dwarf, whereas today’s prediction is that the sun will become a red giant in about 8 billion years.

He also places the formation of the universe 200 billion years ago, though he acknowledges that this might be an overestimate. It is; the current estimate is that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old. On the other side, modern science allows far grander expanses of future time than Stapledon: he expects the stars to last for about 75 billion more years, while we now expect star formation to continue for between 1 and 100 trillion years. It’s interesting to speculate what Stapledon would have made of black holes, dark matter, and the possibility that our universe could generate new universes via quantum tunneling.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.  It’s sf for geeks who like their sense of wonder expertly, scientifically frobbed. And these days it’s refreshing to find a classic sf work which veers purposefully away from Imperialism or Capitalism In Space.