HIGH AND DRY
Thomas Russell Wingate
In Prolegomena (1377) we find Ibn Khaldun’s¹ corrective to the common sense of ordinary folk.
To their ignorance of human affairs, the storytellers here add ignorance of astronomical matters. They believe the sun is hot and that the heat of the sun is greatest closest to it. They do not know the heat of the sun is its light and that its light is stronger near the earth when it is hit by the light. Therefore, the heat here is many times greater (than near the sun). When the zone in which the reflected rays are effective is passed, there will be no heat there, and it will be cold. That is where the clouds are. The sun itself is neither hot nor cold, but a simple uncomposed substance that gives light. (III:16)
It cannot be reasonable to suppose that parallels might arise in the organized sciences of our educated twenty-first century.
Large islands far from England and from each other have provided us with provocative antonyms.
Let us now contemplate Ceylon, “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” and Novaya Zemlya (Nova Zembla) in Arctic Russia.
The former has long been a desirable destination. The latter…
Serendip is an archaic and poetic name for Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). Wikipedia defines serendipity as “the property of making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated, or the occurrence of such a discovery during a search.” In one of his novels, Robert A. Heinlein put it more simply: “Serendipity is when you dig for worms and strike gold.”
In 1998, ten years after Heinlein died, William Boyd asked:
What is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth?
Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound… Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky, and expected discoveries by design.
William Safire took up Boyd’s word, defining zemblanity as “the inexorable discovery of what we don’t want to know.”
I take the liberty of paraphrasing Heinlein: “Zemblanity is when you don’t dare dig for worms lest you become wormfood.”
I hazard the opinion that much of our intellectual discourse is infected with zemblanity (as distinguished from caution).
As we celebrate or neglect the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version, I cannot refrain from presenting the ultimate testimonial to its power.
Isaac Asimov, a Jewish atheist, wrote some four hundred books. Their scope is unrivalled.²
“When it comes to English,” he exulted, “I am a linguistic chauvinist pig.”
As you can well imagine, Asimov wrote at breakneck speed. (He satirized himself for this.) At least once, he did a hyperspatial jump out of context.
His Foundation trilogy is set so far into the future that mankind’s origins on Earth have been forgotten. No one in the decomposing Galactic Empire has ever heard of the Bible or Jesus Christ.
One of his characters uses the expression “thirty pieces of silver.”³
You have just read an original contribution (so far as I know) to Asimov studies.
I have kept mum about this anomaly for fifty years. It now seems important enough to mention on a website advising writers to be aware of the air they breathe.
1 See Wikipedia. See also Freedom and Ability 5 on website.
2 One is not surprised that his most famous novels involve
a never-to-be finished encyclopedia. Wikipedia was launched
in 2001, nine years after Asimov’s death.
3 Zechariah 11:12,13; Matthew 26:15, 27:3, 27:9.