Monday, 23 January 2017

Dr Christopher Evans

Christopher Evans (1931-1979) was a British computer scientist who worked, in the latter part of his career, at the National Physical Laboratory in London. His name often crops up in association with J.G. Ballard, a close friend of the writer, and an acknowledged influence on him. For example, in his autobiography, Miracles of Life, Ballard writes:

Chris Evans drove into my life at the wheel of a Ford Galaxy, a huge American convertible that he soon swapped for a Mini-Cooper, a high-performance car not much bigger than a bullet that travelled at about the same speed. Chris was the first ‘hoodlum scientist’ I had met, and he became the closest friend I have made in my life. In appearance he resembled Vaughan, the auto-destructive hero of my novel Crash, though he himself was nothing like that deranged figure. Most scientists in the 1960s, especially at a government laboratory, wore white lab coats over a collar and tie, squinted at the world over the rims of their glasses and were rather stooped and conventional. Glamour played no part in their job description. Chris, by contrast, raced around his laboratory in American sneakers, jeans and a denim shirt open to reveal an Iron Cross on a gold chain, his long black hair and craggy profile giving him a handsomely Byronic air.

Important too was Evans' access to scientific ephemera - technical advertisements and pharmaceutical brochures - that were regularly delivered to Ballard in a brown envelope: 'Every week a huge envelope arrived, packed with handouts, brochures, research papers and annual reports from university labs and psychiatric institutions, a cornucopia of fascinating material'. Ballard found inspiration in such material, and referred to it as 'invisible literature', a subject I've written about before on the blog.

However, Evans was also an author in his own right, as well as a successful popular science TV presenter. His book, Micro: The Impact of the Computer Revolution, was turned into the TV series The Mighty Micro, and screened in 1979 shortly after Evans' death.

Here I'd like to briefly re-visit his two fictional anthologies Mind at Bay (1969) and the sequel Mind in Chains (1970), which included short stories by Ballard, M.R. James, John Sladek, Alex Hamilton, May Sinclair and Brian Aldiss. The blurb of the former reads:

In those dim and twisting corridors of the mind, unknown terrors sleep uneasily, needing only the scent of fear to bring them to howling wakefulness. How sure can you be, after all, of your foothold on the perilous tightrope over the dizzying abyss of madness?

Evans was fascinated by the idea of interaction between human mental processes and those of computers and artificial intelligence systems. He was also interested in the ways in which human experiences and expectations could be confounded by SF and horror stories. In the foreword to Mind at Bay, he wrote, 'presumably the world of the interior - and not just the sparking of neurones, or the microbiology of memory - is for all practical purposes limitless, and I think there is little doubt that it is to date poorly mapped'. In a similar vein, in Mind in Chains, he observed, 'adventures of this kind [horror stories] are basically "pleasurable" in an outrĂ© and slightly anomalous way - the more so when they are entered into willingly and with the implicit assumption that they can be controlled or terminated at any stage of the game'.

Evans was attentive to the relationship between art and science and the extent to which these realms might productively unsettle one another to generate new insights. Just as Ballard was fascinated by the scientific fictions of medical catalogues and technical manuals, so Evans recognised the importance of literature as a window into 'the phantoms that inhabit our minds'.

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