Mark Blacklock’s (P 86-91) new novel, Hinton, which is based on the life of British mathematician Charles Howard Hinton, is now available for purchase. Mark’s second novel follows the success of his debut I’m Jack in 2015 and The Emergence of the Fourth Dimension in 2018. Hinton is a nineteenth century tale of dangerous and pioneering mathematical ideas, based on an incredible true story.
Please click here to see a brief introduction from the author himself.
Mark also discussed the book on BBC Sounds which can be heard here.
The book can also be ordered here.
Please see a great review of the book by The Guardian below.
Hinton by Mark Blacklock review – tricksy tale of a disgraced scientist
The writer follows up his debut about the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer with this ingenious fictionalised Victorian life story
Mark Blacklock’s audacious 2015 debut, I’m Jack, drew on the troubled life of John Humble, the Wearside ex-convict who tricked police into believing that he was the Yorkshire Ripper, fatally diverting their investigation 100 miles away from the true crime scene. Splicing fictitious testimony from Humble with an array of real-life documents and creepy interludes inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and Psycho author Robert Bloch, the novel was a strange, slippery mashup of grinding social realism and grinning postmodernism, in which the author rendered himself all but invisible in the proceedings.
His equally tricksy new book centres on the Victorian theoretical physicist, Charles Howard Hinton (known here as Howard), an Oxford contemporary of Oscar Wilde who devoted his research on space and time to the fourth dimension, believing that “there is accessible to us all a higher form of thought and… we may truly be extended in dimensions beyond the three we physically occupy”.
Although we might share the fear of Howard’s publisher that he is “too much of an ordinary-minded individual to fully enter into your thoughts”, the novel draws us into this scientific quest by portraying Howard’s hunger for transcendence as a symptom of, and reaction to, personal strife. Disgraced by a conviction for bigamy, he left the UK (and two children by his first wife) to settle in Japan with his second family before moving to the US for a series of academic posts, which is where Blacklock picks up the story.
The third-person narration unfolds in the cool, clean present tense we’ve come to associate with modern historical fiction. The perspective floats around smoothly to trace the fortunes of each of his four children by his second wife, Mary, whose thoughts on her sidelined counterpart stay under wraps until a late series of diary entries, which are among an array of nested documents introduced by a Blacklock-like researcher in the novel’s second half. Letters exchanged by Howard’s circle of fin de siècle luminaries, including the sexologist Havelock Ellis and writer Olive Schreiner, give the title new significance when we see that Howard’s disgrace is connected in the public imagination with that of his father, James Hinton, a surgeon and philosopher whose advocacy of polygamy shaded into a series of unwelcome “approaches”, to use the novel’s contemporaneously circumspect term.
Ultimately, Hinton serves as an ingenious variant on the traditional buried secret narrative, in which the requisite playing for time is primarily an effect of structure, not to mention any number of diverting typographical tricks – when Hinton tries looking through a stereoscope for the first time, there’s a ghostly doubling of the text; when he invents a machine for throwing baseballs, the sound appears in supersize fonts. Yet, perhaps aptly for a novel concerned with the psychic repercussions of denial, it’s hard not to feel that the relentless game-playing might also work to ward off hard questions about the value Blacklock is adding by telling Hinton’s story this way, rather than as orthodox biography.
Please see below for an overview from the author himself, Mark Blacklock (P 86-91).
Like a character from an H. G. Wells story, Charles Howard Hinton was a Victorian gentleman scientist, inventor and novelist, and an explorer of unmapped realms of the mind. As a young man in the 1880s, Hinton had seized hold of an idea that had escaped from speculative geometry and been taken up by excitable spiritualists: what if space were actually four-dimensional, and not limited to length, breadth and height? What if there were another extension, inaccessible to our senses but open to our minds, if only we could train them?
Hinton invented the means of so training the mind: a set of colour-coded cubes that could be assembled into a block and used as a kind of solid paper for thinking the shadow-passage of 4d objects through our space. And just as his work was gaining readers, scandal struck: he was discovered to have committed bigamy. Hinton was convicted, jailed and, unable to find work on his release, fled England for Japan and eventually America.
Fifteen years ago, I discovered Hinton’s work and lost myself in unearthing his story. My novel recreates his life and invites its readers to become historical detectives solving long-forgotten mysteries and re-discovering archival crimes.
CHARLES HOWARD HINTON: A LIFE
The late-Victorian writer, inventor and theorist Charles Howard Hinton has largely been forgotten by intellectual history. Where his legacy has survived, it is as a curious cultural footnote: he is discussed by two characters in Iain Sinclair’s first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, and his theories are considered in Alan Moore’s cult graphic novel From Hell. In each of these, he is depicted as a visionary whose ideas invite madness.
His mathematical and physical theories were briefly revived in the 1980s by the cyberpunk novelist Rudy Rucker and the legendary Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges included Hinton’s ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ in his anthological ‘Library of Babel.’ Perhaps most weirdly of all, Hinton is referenced in an obscure ‘Teleportation Feasibility Study’ commissioned by the US Air Force in 2005. It’s an unusual bibliography, to say the least.
There is good reason for this odd legacy. Hinton’s life’s work was the invention and description of a system he described as “thought mechanics,” enabling his readers to think in four dimensions of space. In the early 1880s the idea that space might have more dimensions than human beings could see was enjoying some vogue in intellectual circles. Borrowed from geometry by the physicist W. K. Clifford, and given impetus by the English-language writing of the polymath Hermann von Helmholtz, these extra dimensions of space were seized upon by Spiritualists as a scientifically-validated source for the “intelligences” apparently communicating in seances. Because n-dimensional geometers had demonstrated that three-dimensional objects might be inverted, and perfect knots unloosed, in a putative space of four dimensions, so could conjurors ground claims for illusions that appeared to replicate these effects.
Hinton approached the idea of the fourth dimension in several directions at once. In 1884 he republished as a pamphlet an essay describing for his readers how to imagine the fourth dimension using the argument by analogy: as from two dimensions to three dimensions, so from three dimensions to four. His publisher cannily gave it the subtitle “Ghosts Explained.” In subsequent pamphlets, Hinton explained his reasons for thinking that the fourth dimension was a reality, and the benefits of learning to access it with the mind, arguing that higher -dimensional thought would allow interconnection between consciousnesses. He also essayed demonstrations of life in two dimensions to better understand the translation between lower and higher dimensioned spaces. There were also a batch of proto-science fiction stories: a thermodynamic allegory of altruism, ‘The Persian King’; ‘Stella,’ an invisible woman narrative; and An Unfinished Communication, a woozy and distorted first-person tale of a vision of a life replaying in the moment of a death. Hinton’s career as a public intellectual of the more speculative kind showed every sign of taking off.
And then, in October 1886, disaster struck. In the space of a handful of days, accompanied by his wife, Hinton presented himself first to the headmaster at his school, Uppingham College, and then to police at Bow Street, to confess to bigamy. He was arrested and held on remand. Within the week he was tried and his second wife Maud, married under the false name of Weldon, was forced to take the stand as a witness. The fact of their false marriage and twin sons became public knowledge. Intellectual London was scandalised and the members of the influential Men and Women’s Club hinted at yet more dark and criminal behaviour on the part of Hinton’s father James, an unconventional philosopher and advocate of polygamy. Charles Howard Hinton was convicted and, on his release, struggled to find work. Unable to support his young family, he elected to take his chances in the cultural frontier of Japan, newly opened to foreigners.
While Hinton was in exile, his sister-in-law, Alicia Boole Stott, and an old university friend from Oxford saw through to publication his master-work, A New Era of Thought. This book detailed not only his philosophy of higher-dimensional altruism, but the invention at the heart of his project: a set of one-inch cubes which could be arranged into a cubic foot and used as a kind of “solid paper” for picturing the passage of the shadows of four-dimensional objects through three-dimensional space. Alicia, the daughter of the mathematician George Boole, whose system of logic underpins our search engine inquiries, was well-placed to work on the manuscript: she had followed Charles’s system to the letter. In the early-twentieth century she published two papers detailing her descriptions of the four-dimensional analogues of the cube, the tetrahedron, octahedron and the dodecahedron. With no other formal geometric training, Alicia had built models of the four-dimensional equivalents of the Platonic solids. The student had out-stripped the teacher.
Howard, meanwhile, summoned his first family out to Japan when he secured a post as the headmaster of a school founded in Yokohama to educate the children of expatriate Brits on the Victorian public-school model. In Japan he befriended the most famous Japanologist of his generation, Lafcadio Hearn. Having rebuilt their life abroad, in 1893 the Hinton family shipped to the USA for Howard to take up a post as instructor in mathematics at the College of New Jersey, the institution that within a couple of years would become Princeton.
In America, Hinton turned his mind towards less cerebral past-times. In 1895 he patented his designs for a gunpowder-fuelled canon which fired baseballs at batters. Over the next few years, he trialled and honed his invention, becoming a minor celebrity across the States and striking out the entire Princeton team. His academic career, meanwhile, did not fare so well. Following a brief appointment at the University of Minnesota he worked as a computer at the US Naval Observatory’s Nautical Almanac, calculating the future positions of heavenly bodies in the sphere of the sky for marine navigation. After several years at the Almanac, he took the examinations for the US Patent Office: legend had it that he crammed his revision into one night and passed with flying colours, working at the Office for the next few years.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Hinton continued to write for popular magazines, describing his four-dimensional theories, publishing a collection of essays, and addressing learned and philosophical societies. He essayed more grounded speculations that fourth-dimensional extension might exist only within the brain at the sub-microscopic scale, and that electricity might be a function of fourth-dimensional rotations in the aether. His final book imagined a sequel to the original higher-dimensional novel, Edwin Abbott’s 1884 book Flatland.
On 30th April 1907, Hinton addressed the Society of Philological Inquiry in Washington DC. According to reports, having offered a toast to female philosophers, he dropped dead in the lobby leaving the dinner. He was 54.
Hinton’s astonishing life continues to contain mysteries. My fictional response to it, titled simply Hinton, gives these facts a frame, and invites the reader to become entangled in a higher-dimensional life.
HINTON – Published 2nd April 2020
Order Hinton from Hive.co.uk
The Emergence of the Fourth Dimension (Oxford University Press, 2018)
I’m Jack (Granta, 2015)
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