Authors: Robert Edeson
âWhoever he is, this author likes conic sections.'
âWhoever he is, this author likes syllogisms.'
âSets a new standard for historical accuracy.'
âMedical themes well explored and up-to-date.'
âA work of deep piety ... liturgical seriousness ... [deserving of] the gratitude of clergy for its exposure of cant.'
God created Man, I say. For why would Man, who is rational, create the God who has power over him, demanding obeisance as I do?
Man is more deceiving than rational, I say. Man created God not to have power over him, but to have power over others.
When it was suggested by Dr Darian that I provide some prefatory remarks for his latest work, I confess to having reservations. For a start, I knew very little of the culture and contemporary geopolitics of the Ferendes, and even less about its evidently unique ecology and natural history. Indeed, my abiding qualification regarding the South China Sea is that once I fell into it, fully frocked.
Another difficulty was a shameful, life-long reading indolence, especially around fiction. For weeks I plotted how to introduce this volume persuasively without actually opening it.
Then, last Sunday, in one of those freakish accidents that are surely sent to repair the incorrigible in our souls, I dropped the manuscript and it fell open on my study floor. I saw endnotes. There was an index. There were citations. There were names: Newton, Shannon, Markov, Machiavelli, Darwinâall real people. And real places: Cambridge, Perth, Madregalo. This wasn't fiction at all! I was enticed. I began to read.
Now, the perfectly understandable expectation was that my contribution should draw the reader in. (I must here give assurance that neither author nor publisher exerted undue pressure. I was tasked only to inform the reader, as seductively as I am able, that throughout the work all angles are in radians.) Even so, I am bound to be honest. I will say that here, partly, is a text of philosophical preoccupations, foremost perhaps being the issue of truth; especially truth constructed and relativized within what I can only suppose is simulated fiction.
There are also informative expositions, drawing on multiple sources and levelled at the non-specialist, on belief, evidence, dreams, conscience, the individual in a causal world, the social ratification of personal identity, and practical perpetracide. The last comes with helpful advice on the Prussica gunsight, hydrogen cyanide, incapacitating bewilderment, and the universal law of gravitation.
My personal favourite is Dr Darian's exploration of modern linguistic themes, including generalized translation theoryâI promise you no better explanation of Thortelmann equivalence exists in all of English than can be found in these pages. And if you are affected by what you learn of the mute man, or the industry of silence explained by Barbara Bokardo, then you will find the nexus of language and destiny at work in the story of the Syllabines heart-wrenching.
Though serious and scholarly, I can assure the reader there is no academic sterility here; on the contrary, the text is light and accessible. So quite apart from those with a professional interest in conjecture, language, and authenticity, and students of civilization more generally, here is a work that would suit reflective readers of all ages.
As if this were not enough, there is also much to engender, and satisfy, our curiosity on matters ranging from advanced balloon craft engineering to the metaphysics of glass to the haematology of the swint. And to all those who engage in commercial air travel, I urge that you commit to memory the Reckles principles of survival science; they might well save your life one day.
But the greatest audience for this book may prove to be those who would inform themselves of developments in South-East Asia, and the criminal organizations connecting that region with Australia. Were it not for the intelligence and retiring heroism of people like Edvard TÃ¸ssentern, Richard Worse and Emily Misgivingston, and the professionalism of law officers like Victor Spoiling, the ruthless activities of those secret societies would impact more obviously on our lives. This book is, beyond all else, a graphic documentary of the odiousness of one such enterprise, Feng Tong, and the fitting dispatch of its principals.
Finally, and very much to my liking, Dr Darian has provided a compelling history and travelogue that is factual and entertaining, ideal for those who would immerse themselves in the romance of the South China Sea without the ignominy of near-drowning.
Within the opaquely threaded dialects of the Ferendes, and in all the languages of all the coasts that share their latitude, there must be ten thousand distinct words for weaver fish. More words than reported sightings. More words than actual fish by now, possibly. And more words than the number of fishermen who have use of them.
The latter is logically, if speculatively, explained by Thomas MacAkerman's observation that each person uniquely owns a private, talismanic name, as well as sharing the communal vocabulary, itself vast. Since MacAkerman's time, the accumulated effort of a distinguished rollcall of anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists has generated no more plausible a theory.
More surprisingly, modern oceanography and marine biology, for all their sophistication, seem to have advanced our knowledge of the fish itself not at all. Except, of course, to amplify its mystique and elusiveness. No specimen having been caught and dissected, there is yet no scientific nomenclature, no genus, no species.
might serve, when the need arises.
MacAkerman was a physician and amateur naturalist, of catholic interests and impressive breadth of scholarship, who accompanied Captain Joseph on HMS
King of Kent
for two voyages, in 1816 and 1819. An enthusiast of the new sciences, he was apparently a brilliant popularist and quite famous for his public lectures. These, unfortunately, were never edited for publication, though their quality can be inferred from the comments of contemporary diarists. He did author several papers and monographs on varied subjects, but in respect of the weaver fish only two primary sources survive. One is a short entry, bearing
his initials, in the first (and only) edition of the
New Scottish Encyclopaedia.
The second is a letter in the
Transactions of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh,
of April 1823. MacAkerman there describes how, shortly after sunrise on Greater Ferende, he was exploring the littoral for crab species when he âoccasioned' on a large sea-pool, sequestered from the receding tide by a sandbar, and
MacAkerman goes on to describe further unsuccessful attempts to ensnare a specimen, but his efforts were eventually frustrated by the returning tide. It is difficult now to judge how this account was received. It was a time of a growing culture of wonder at the natural world, with a proliferation of gentleman scholarship that was rarely challenged. The last vigorous debate was on infinitesimals, and the next would be evolution. The modern critical discourse of science was in its infancy. Thus there was no subsequent correspondence on the topic in the
or any other journal. None of this, of course, should be taken to impugn the accuracy of MacAkerman's report. He was, from all the evidence, a man of unimpeachable integrity and intellectual rigour whose contribution to the sciences has few parallels in his era. Only many years later, and then only in the practice of medicine, was his judgement disordered by the cruel and tormenting decline of his final illness.
There is no doubt that MacAkerman's discovery had a profound influence on him. In a public lecture series of 1824 (abstracted by the canal engineer James Lypton in his
of that year), he explained his motivation for the second voyage in 1819 as âto further my researches in the natural history of the weaver fish' (the exact wording may be Lypton's). As it turned out, he never did acquire the specimen for which the Old World museums would have bid dearly; indeed he reported no further observations with any confidence.
But that is not to say the voyage was a failure, and at least two major achievements can be ascribed to 1819. First, he completed the collection that would form the basis of his definitive work on tidal crab speciation (long before Darwin's ideas were published), and secondly, he conducted what we would now call field ethnography among indigenous fishing communities, centred on language and folklore pertaining to
the weaver fish. The latter is a fragmented opus surviving only in notebooks, journals, and many secondary sources, and greatly deserves the attention of modern scholarship. From these studies, we learn that the majority of names for the weaver fish have roots in native words for death, water (that is, a fish made of water), invisibility, the colour purple and, of course, a woven cloth or matting. These meanings were so concordant with MacAkerman's own observation that he was persuaded that similar sightings must not have been infrequent, though obtaining witness testimony proved more problematic. In any event, MacAkerman first employed the term âweaver' in 1816, apparently quite independently of any native tradition, and never varied from its use. Paradoxically then, whilst no synonyms exist in English, he has left us with a monumental foreign lexicology far exceeding that of any other single referent.
In 1916, exactly one hundred years after MacAkerman's seminal observation, a fisherman named Josef Ta'Salmoud, from the village of Madregalo on Greater Ferende, saw weaver fish. Ta'Salmoud himself gave only a brief description of his experience, and was never persuaded to repeat or enlarge upon it. But there are many eyewitness accounts, from villagers on the shore, which are fully corroborative of what he described. Some of those present were still alive in 1996, and were interviewed by this author during a Language Diversity Initiative field trip. It should be said in this regard that more research is needed using newer validation tools applied to both linguistic and thematic elements. Authentication studies also require a good understanding of cultural specifics in oral tradition, which can be very localized and idiosyncratic. This work is continuing as part of a wider LDI programme.
On days following severe night storms the fishing grounds of the Ferendes could be deceptively treacherous. It was customary for the chieftain of fishermen to enter the water first and, having ascertained conditions in the bay, signal to those on shore that they should remain there or join him. One morning, Ta'Salmoud set forth on this task. As was normal, his progress was observed closely by those on the beach. When he was
about fifty yards from shore he stopped paddling and stood in his canoe, facing the villagers. To this point, nothing seemed unusual, and they next expected his signal. None came.
From the village beach, these events must have appeared truly astonishing.
Not even the sight of a man running on the surface of the sea prepared the villagers for what they next saw.
The last word translates (somewhat inadequately) as skeleton, which is surely exaggerated. Presumably, the digestive secretions of the weaver fish had destroyed the skin and much of the soft tissues of his feet. There is no doubt that the foot bones below the ankle joint were exposed, but we must suppose that sufficient blood supply and other attachments were preserved to maintain rudimentary function. Sensory innervation was clearly
compromised, for he was not in constant agony as we would otherwise expect. Only when his feet became dry did he suffer pain, and this was quickly assuaged by immersion in seawater. Almost certainly, the cleansing action of the latter practice minimized the bacterial contamination that in these circumstances would ordinarily lead to suppuration, fasciitis and fatal septicaemia.