Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Hole in the Zero

Over the Christmas holiday I had more than the usual free time to read (having had my appendix out in the small hours of Christmas morning), and I had a chance to re-read MK Joseph's 1967 novel The Hole in the Zero. Joseph is little-remembered these days, but in the 1950s-1970s he was a significant and versatile academic, poet, novelist and critic. Born in Chingford, he spent most of his life and career in New Zealand. His mainstream novels, such as A Soldier's Tale and A Pound of Saffron, focused on human, even implicitly pacifist, themes of wartime experience. However, he also wrote two science fiction novels, The Hole in the Zero and The Time of Achamoth.

The Hole in the Zero (I'll call it THITZ for brevity) starts as what appears to be a stereotypical "space opera"). A tough intergalactic tycoon, Kraag, visits a space station along with his mentally fragile daughter Helena and cynical playboy son-in-law Merganser. There a conscientious warden, Paradine, watches for incursions of the "Nothing" - a region where all time and space breaks down - at the edge of the known universe. Kraag and his group have arranged an excursion into the Nothing in a heavily-shielded ship, but following an argument, Merganser sabotages the ship during the tour. As it drifts, systems failing, they have time to briefly swap life stories - all revealing painful secrets - before being pitched into the Nothing.

At this point, THITZ pitches similarly into entirely different territory, a series of varied but thematically-connected vignettes as the characters come into conflict shaping their own realities according to their personalities. A particular emphasis is the struggle between the ordered Paradine and chaotic Merganser.

Paradine, for instance, appears successively as a gloomy storeman living in a supply shed on the sidelines of an eternal WWII-style war, as an aesthete art thief with a mastery of gadgets, and as a Frankenstein-like magus. Helena appears as a sentient tree in a hostile world populated by wood-burning steam automata, as a mermaid, and as a bored princess. Merganser appears as a a warrior of a clan living on the backs of giant birds (Julie Heyward just corrected me - for some reason I misrecalled this as being Paradine) and a succession of cynical tricksters; and Kraag as a force of nature in various forms: a rock-creature, an undersea statue, the unseen Stalinesque leader of a Soviet-style state, a heroic-but-flawed artificial man (somewhere between Samuel Johnson and Frankenstein's creature), and ultimately as God. Paradine repeatedly encounters various guises of an unreliable helper character, the Gespenster, who may be the similarly helpful but unstable identity-shifting robot from his space station.

These character interactions, furthermore, take place in a variety of realities. Some obey normal causality. In one, the bifurcating "many worlds" model from quantum theory is literally true. In another, reality is shaped by the strongest will. Yet another follows cyclic time, repeating the Campbell Cycle hero myth of Joseph Campbell.

THITZ is a tour de force of literary SF, with a strong experimental edge and more than a few literary asides. (For inside, Paradine's garden has honeybees and "nine bean rows" - a quote from WB Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree - and his bookshelves a Holmes's Practical Handbook of Bee-Culture). There are political and philosophical elements too: one episode, where two societies interpret the same physical laws in radically different ways, both as stifling, can be read as allusion to the Cold War; and in another, equally unconstructive ideas arise from a Hegel-style synthesis of Paradine and Merganser's diametrically opposed views.

If you like the sound of all this, THITZ isn't radically rare: the 1969 Avon paperback is easy to find in the USA, as is the 1968 Science Fiction Book Club hardback edition in the UK.

For background on MK Joseph, see this New Zealand Book Council biography, Michael Kennedy Joseph, and the New Zealand Literature File bibliography. The Time of Achamoth is, incidentally, a time-travel story. It looks less easy to find, as it was only ever published in New Zealand. But I see a fair number of copies exist there.

Addendum, March 9, 2009. I just managed to hack out of Google Books an interesting 1969 review by JP Downey in Landfall magazine, the long-running New Zealand quarterly literary journal. Enjoy.


Although I have read some of the work of such recognized masters of science fiction writing as Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham and Isaac Asimov, I am not a devotee of the form. My approach to the exercise in science fiction, The Hole in the Zero by MK Joseph, was if not one of trepidation then at least one of unenthusiastic wariness. I was wrong to be so cautious. The Hole in the Zero is a most extraordinary and intriguing work. The book does not quite succeed. Its structure is too episodic. The lack of a direct connection between the chapters and events is an essential element in the book, but the attempt in the last few pages to relate the eipsodes to one another is not adequate. The disintegrating effect of the clash of styles and themes in the preceding chapters cannot be so easily overcome. But if the book cannot be hailed as a complete success neither can it be dismissed as a failure. The Hole in the Zero, as a contribution to New Zealand literature, and as an imaginative work in its own right, possesses two major qualities: depth and maturity. It has depth in apprehension of life in its manifold forms, and it has maturity in imaginative expression. This is not surprising as MK Joseph's poetry, and to some extent his two earlier novels, I'll Soldier No More and A Pound of Saffron have shown these qualities. The Hole in the Zero, however, represents an entirely different literary approach and breaks away from the traditions of New Zealand fiction.

There is an extraordinary episode in which the main character, Paradine, comes to visit New Zealand. This is as casually savage a picture of our New Zealand life way of life as Swift himself could have drawn.

"It's not bad," said Vince. "A bit slow."
"That's why I like it. It's like the rest of the world fifty years ago. You've got a different kind of time here."
"We've got a utopia here," said Vince, "and in utopia, time stops, inevitably. The end of an evolutionary chain, perfect adaptation, perfect stability."
"Doesn't follow. Listen— there's a bird we've got— there might be one out there in the bush, but they're pretty rare. It's a little dumpy bird'— he made a '— he made a shape with his hands— 'and it's forgotten how to fly, but it's sort of dull-coloured and minds its own business and doesn't flap around or make a noise.It just stays that way. There's no reason it should ever die out — '

Vince did not finish that ironical sentence because he was shot.

It is not possible to try to explain the plot for, in any ordinary sense, there is no plot. In the first two chapters a group of people go out from the universe to a place that, as one character says, "is unspace, untime, unlaw, unpossibility". To which another character replies, "It sounds like falling through the hole in a zero". Or as it is explained elsewhere: "Take away what you think of— it's not there—no probability, no possibility. So anything is probable, anything is possible. No time— all time. No space— any space. Nothing -everything.' When the four characters do go out into this never-never place they have an accident, fall through the hole in the zero and then proceed in the following chapters to live a variety of lives. There is first the life of randomness, the life where there is no explanation of causality. The next chapter tells of a world where time bifurcates. One life becomes many lives as each individual when faced with personal decisions of an either/or nature, takes both; and then proceeds to lead two lives, as must all those to whom whom his decisions relate. And so the book goes on with the same set of characters living in a series of worlds that are not worlds, but are nevertheless recognizable reflections of aspects of our world. The book raises a series of basic philosophical issues which are concerned in some way with the reality of human existence. The chapters select some particular aspect and treat of it as if it were the basic principle of the universe, as with the character who declares "there is no principle but the will. What I believe is true".

MK Joseph attempts to sum up and tie together these disparate aspects of human life with three quotations in the last chapter. The first is from Christ: "The Kingdom of God is within you". The second is from Plotinus: "The eye could not behold the sun if its essence were not formed like the sun". The third is from Blake: "Eternity is in love with the productions of time". Theology, philosophy and art are thus cited, in effect to show that man uniquely lives within a series of interconnected universes. These are the spiritual and the temporal; the universe of nature contained within the realm of thought (the microcosm containing the macrocosm which itself contains the microcosm); and finally the limitations of time and the freedom of eternity. It would be a mistake to take from this that The Hole in the Zero is, like Plato's dialogues, merely a series of philosophical lessons, presented in dramatic or ficitonal form for easy assimilation. The book is a novel within the conventions of science fiction. It is primarily a literary work and not a didactic piece of philosophizing or theologizing. While it is concerned seriously with serious issues of human existence, it is no less a literary work because of that. Considered simply in stylistic terms it is beautifully, and in some parts brilliantly, written.

Through the book there are literary references, cross-references, hints and suggestions. The key to the book, or at least the literary key to the book, is to be found in the first paragraph which ends with a reference to beehives and nine bean rows. Here stands the shade of Yeats, and throughout the book he is to be found, as in the continuous symbolism of the tower. Clearly to be recognized too are references to James Joyce and Ulysses. There is a carnival scene that echoes Lawrence Durrell, as does the extraordinary episode of the homunculus. The central character is named Paradine, and this I am sure is a reference to Hitchcock's film The Paradine Case. The character of the Gespenster owes much to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, something to Melville, and something to Malory's Merlin. There is an obvious indebtedness to Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibovitz. Alice in Wonderland has been drawn on. No doubt there are many more such such possible references. The Hole in the Zero must be the most cerebral novel yet written by a New Zealander both on the philosophical and on the literary level. It would be to misjudge the It would be to misjudge the book, however, to interpret it as a literary puzzle-picture designed for the amusement of candidates for a PhD thesis. MK Joseph is no Vladimir Nabokov or Jorge Luis Borges offering answers which are themselves still questions.

Basically this novel is concerned with the nature of spiritual reality, with personal identity, with those the author calls "christbearers". The homunculus that is constructed, John Samuelson, when asked the purpose of life, replies: "The whole ... is ... but keeping away the thoughts ... of death." Here is the theme - that the creation of life necessarily involves the question of death. The Hole in the Zero is a beautiful, subtle, and oblique disquisition on death.

JP Downey, Landfall magazine, v. 23, 1969

See also The Hole in the Zero: update for a note on the literary allusions in the John Samuelson episode. Downey has it wrong on one factual detail: although Paradine does have a set of homunculi, Samuelson isn't one, but a full-sized Dr Johnson. Presumably he's thinking of Durrell's Nunquam as inspiration for this scene, though I'm not clear why when it more resembles Frankenstein itself than Durrell's retelling.

Addendum: see also The Time of Achamoth.

- Ray


  1. Thanks for the reviews. A very fine book. Slightly beyond categories, eh?

  2. Yes; someone ought to reprint it. There's another review I haven't been able to find yet - "M. K. Joseph's Roman The Hole in the Zero" - by Stanislaw Lem.