Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Salvation through science

While researching some daftness for Horrible Histories Magazine, I read up on Franciscan monk and philosopher Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294). That led me to James Blish's 1964 novel about Bacon's life, Doctor Mirabilis  - which was hard to resist at 64p on Abebooks.

Blish conjures a muddy, murky thirteenth century, full of injustice and cruelty. In the first chapter, young Roger is robbed of his inheritance and in the next he is set upon by robbers. There are plenty of dangers, too, in the politics of the age: the shadow cast by Magna Carta on Henry III, his negotiations with Simon de Montfort, and the power of the Catholic Church in England - waxing and waning through a series of popes.

Power is precarious - Roger and those around him fall in and out of favour, and at one point Roger's life seems ruined when a particular mentor dies. Blish is good at showing how even those in authority are constantly under threat. That's sometimes economics, such as this aside on castles:
"a work of Norman design cannot simply be maintained, it must be constantly under construction, otherwise it falls down almost at once."
James Blish,  Doctor Mirabilis, p. 166.
Along the way, there are plenty of fun historical references. For example, hearing of some "vanished" money, Roger sees that story-tellers are already embroidering the legend of a dead man:
"It's said this was more of Robin of Sherwood's doings; the harpers will not let that poor highwayman rest at his crossroads."
Ibid., p. 64.
Still, the historical setting is quite hard work to begin with. That's largely down to Blish's decision, discussed in his foreword, over how to depict the languages of the time:
"As for the English, I have followed two rules. (1) Where the characters are speaking Middle English, I have used a synthetic speech which roughly preserves Middle English syntax, one of its central glories, but makes little attempt to follow its metrics or its vocabulary (and certainly not its spelling, which was catch-as-catch-can). (2) Where they are speaking French or Latin, which is most of the time, I have used modern English, except to indicate whether the familiar or the polite form of 'you' is being employed, a system which cause no trouble."
Ibid., p. 16.
I'm not sure what suddenly made the going seem easier: that Roger starts to converse more in modern English or I just got used to the archaic bits. Worse, though, is Blish's decision to quote at length from the primary sources.
"The reader may wonder why I have resorted here and there to direct quotations in Latin ... The reason is that these exceptions, these ideas and opinions written down seven centuries ago, might otherwise have been suspected of being a twentieth-century author's interpolations."
Ibid., p. 15.
It's all very laudable to cite the sources faithfully, but it excluded me from what was being said. Ironically, in the novel one character notes the limits of Latin for sharing knowledge:
"That precisely is why Latin is only spuriously a universal language, friar Bacon. It is never spoken to women any more. Women are confined to the vernacular, whatever that may be. On this account alone, Latin is dying."
Ibid., p. 199.
Bacon - always a bit behind when it comes to women - fails to understand the point. I think Blish may miss it, too, as surely his readers are also confined to the vernacular.

The Latin is especially taxing in Chapters V and X, where Roger must defend his theories against rivals. For pages they bicker in bits of quoted Latin before Roger wins,  but without footnotes or translation, I couldn't follow the argument. That's fundamental, because the book is all about the importance of the argument reasoned from evidence, regardless of who "wins".

Blish says he based his account of Roger on Stewart C Easton's Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science (Columbia, 1952), which he describes as,
"a guide to everything about Roger which pretends to be factual, even encyclopedia articles and the scrappiest of pamphlets."
Ibid., p. 318.
He also addresses the legend surrounding Bacon - which, he says, Easton ignores.
"Roger Bacon ... was a scientist in the primary sense of that word - he thought like one, and indeed defined this kind of thinking as we now understand it. It is of no importance that the long list of 'inventions' attributed to him by the legend - spectacles, the telescope, the diving bell, and half a hundred others - cannot be supported; this part of the legend, which is quite recent, evolves out of the notion that Roger could be made to seem more wonderful if he could be shown to be a thirteenth-century Edison or Luther Burbank, holding a flask up to the light and crying, 'Eureka!' This is precisely what he was not. Though he performed thousands of experiments, most of which he describes in detail, hardly any of them were original, and so far as we know he never invented a single gadget; his experiments were tests of principles, and as such were almost maddeningly repetitious, as significant experiments remain to this day - a fact always glossed over by popularizations of scientific method, in which the experiments, miraculously, always work the first time, and the importance of negative results is never even mentioned. There is, alas, nothing dramatic about patience, but it was Roger, not Sir Francis [Bacon] who erected it into a principle: 'Neither the voice of authority, nor the weight of reason and argument are as significant as experiment, for thence comes quiet to the mind.' (De erroribus medicorum.)"
Ibid., p. 315.
The old system that Roger was part of as a Franciscan monk and which he broke away from was neatly explained by James Burke in his 1985 series The Day the Universe Changed. He discussed how monks copied ancient texts - copying even the errors in typography rather than challenging the handed-down word. The works of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, and the study of nature itself, were either proofs of a Christian order of being or strictly forbidden as heresy.
"The whole monastic experience was a bit like jumping into bed and pulling the blankets over your head. It was a mystic experience - unreal. And it all still, hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, looked back to an age of greatness that was gone for ever. Everything these people knew - and this is extraordinary for us to grasp in our world - everything they knew was old".
James Burke, "In the Light of Reason", The Day the Universe Changed, 20 October 1985.
A key moment in Blish's book is when Roger decides not to write an introduction or commentary on a pre-existing text, but a whole new book based on his own experiments. Later, he develops a theory of what is so often wrong with inherited knowledge:
"Since the days of revelation, in fact, the same four corrupting errors had been made over and over again: submission to faulty and unworthy authority; submission to what it was customary to believe; submission to the prejudices of the mob; and worst of all, concealment of ignorance by a false show of unheld knowledge, for no better reason than pride."
Blish, p. 246.
Doctor Mirabilis is, then, a novel about the struggle to make sound scientific progress. Amid the grumbles, there are complaints that seem familiar today. There's the battle over knowledge being used as a commodity to be bought and traded. One Italian laments the shortage of ancient texts available to buy because they're being bought up for private collections. He blames this on the Romans.
"Our imperial ancestors invented few new vices, but private art collecting seems to have been their own authentic discovery. It would hardly have been possible to the Greeks ... Why, it was the old Romans who wrote into law the principle that the man who owned a painting, for example, was the man who owned the board it was painted on, not the artist; and the same with manuscripts. Private collecting really began with that, because it made it possible for a man to become wealthy without having done any of the work involved, simply by saving the board until the painting on it became valuable."
Ibid., p. 196.
But while we might recognise much of Roger's struggles to produce good work under difficult circumstances, his is a very different world to ours. His adventures are bound in the struggles to find appropriate patrons and mentors, or with the difficulties of developing his ideas when he doesn't have enough parchment. So much of his work depends on permissions from people who can't understand his work, or the Catch-22 of needing his work copied but knowing the copyists will pirate it.

Four pages before the end, there's a revealing line about what the aged and exhausted Roger thinks his life's work has been about:
"the final statement of the case for salvation through science".
Ibid. p. 308.
Despite his revolution in thought, he's still a product of the theocracy of his time. In fact, the book often uses the fact that we're ahead of Roger in our scientific understanding.

For example, on page 86 Roger is in London staying in a foul-smelling room that makes him sick over the bedclothes. The candles burn with slightly blue flames - which he attributes to a demon, and wonders how a demon can appear without escaping from Hell. Having plugged the window with his dirty bedclothes so as to be rid of the smell, he goes off to court. When he comes back, he enters the sealed room with a lit torch - and there's an explosion. We understand what's happened: there's gas, in a contained environment. But Bacon struggles to make the cognitive leap as he thinks about repeating what happened:
"Perhaps, if he sealed the room... and thrust a torch in it after... Clearly there was some connection, but Roger could not grasp it."
Ibid., p. 92.
The court then tries to use the "earthquake" to suggest God is unhappy with what King Henry's up to. The embryonic science is quickly lost to the politics and the threat of revolt.

But this juxtaposition - the familiarity of the science, the strangeness of the world - is what makes the book work so well. Part of what makes Roger's efforts so compelling is the constant threat of torture or incarceration, and how much depends on the whims of those in power - and how long they remain there. But it's also more personal than that: Roger must wrestle with his own conscience, and with an inner voice that sometimes suggests he is a man possessed.

That Roger's is a true story means we don't expect it to end happily, but also makes what he did achieve all the more amazing. Blish says in his note at the end of the book that it,
"would be hard to find any branch of modern science which was not influenced by Roger's theoretical scheme",
but that its slow-working nature meant much it didn't fit the needs of a novel. He then cites some examples of things he couldn't include, such as that,
"the whole tissue of the space-time continuum of general relativity is a direct descendant of Roger's assumption, in De multiplicatione specierum and elsewhere, that the universe has a metrical frame, and that mathematics thus is in some important sense real, and not just a useful exercise."
A footnote explains this extraordinary claim at greater length:
"I have quoted part of Roger's reasoning on this point in Chapter XII, but there is really no way short of another book to convey the flamboyancy of this logical jump, which spans seven centuries without the faintest sign of effort. The most astonishing thing about it, perhaps, is its casualness; what Roger begins to talk about is the continuum of action, an Aristotle commonplace in his own time, but within a few sentences he has invented - purely for the sake of argument - the luminiferous ether which so embroiled the physics of the nineteenth century, and only a moment later throws the notion out in favour of the Einsteinean metrical frame, having in the process completely skipped over Galilean relativity and the inertial frames of Newton. Nothing in the tone of the discussion entitles the reader to imagine that Roger was here aware that he was making a revolution - or in fact creating a series of them; the whole performance is even-handed and sober, just one more logical outcome of the way he customarily thought. It was that way of thinking, not any specific theory, that he invented; the theory of theories as tools."
Ibid., p. 316.
One last point: Doctor Mirabilis is all set in the 13th century. There are no robots or spaceships, aliens or technology, and it's all based on historical sources. And yet on the back cover, just above the price, the book is marked "Science Fiction".

That seems odd - especially given that the back cover also quotes praise from the Sunday Telegraph for this "historical novel". So why the label of sci-fi?

The back cover also says that Doctor Mirabilis is part of a "thematic trilogy", with two books that seem more explicitly sci-fi (A Case of Conscience is about a priest visiting an alien world) or fantasy (in Black Easter, in which black magic summons Satan into the world. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides more information:
"After Such Knowledge poses a question once expressed by Blish as: 'Is the desire for secular knowledge, let alone the acquisition and use of it, a misuse of the mind, and perhaps even actively evil?' This is one of the fundamental themes of sf, and is painstakingly explored in Doctor Mirabilis, an historical novel which treats the life of the thirteenth-century scientist and theologian Roger Bacon. It deals with the archetypal sf theme of Conceptual Breakthrough from one intellectual model of the Universe to another, more sophisticated model."
Peter Nicholls, "Blish, James", The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 15 January 2014.
I think that's stretching definitions a bit far: surely a conceptual breakthrough is not exclusive to science-fiction. I don't think Doctor Mirabilis does count as sci-fi. I can see why its publishers thought it would appeal to fans of Blish's other, more sf books and fans of science-fiction more generally, but I suspect that a publisher wouldn't do that now. I can think of too many people who'd be intrigued by this novel but would never venture into dark corner of a bookshop where the fat books about robots are found.

Don't popular science and the history of scientific ideas have a much broader appeal today than they did in the 80s (when this edition was published)? And isn't that a sign of our own recent revolution of thought?

Friday, January 24, 2014

New Who and Blake things by me

The splendid fellows at Big Finish have put some new stuff on their website. You can listen to Simon Robinson's striking trailer for my forthcoming Doctor Who story, The War to End All Wars (out in April), and here's the cover for next month's Blake's 7 box-set which features a story by me, Spy.

As well as Jan Chappell and Cally and Michael Keating as Vila, Spy stars Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones - though I've not got to her episodes yet due to being caught in a sticky patch of time. Honestly, I've only just got an iPhone and am three episodes into Breaking Bad.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nominate me for a Hugo Award, please and thank you

It seems thoroughly unBritish to nominate myself for an award, or to impose myself upon you by asking for your help. But, if you happen to be eligible, it would be very splendid if you nominated my short, daft film Wizard for a Hugo Award, in the category Best Dramatic Presentation "Short Form".

It stars David Warner as Merlin, and the cast includes Lisa Bowerman, Lisa Greenwood, Adrian Mackinder and Matthew Sweet.

Here are instructions on how to nominate stuff for a 2014 Hugo Award. You can watch Wizard here:

We shot it in February 2013, put it on the internet in March and it's already been shortlisted in Hat Trick's "Short and Funnies" competition and is playing at BFI Southbank this Saturday as part of the LOCO festival. I've also written a pilot for a TV sitcom version, so an award would help get some momentum behind that.

Oh, and if you're nominating stuff, I also recommend my chum Eddie Robson's radio sitcom Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, while Paul Cornell explains why you should vote for him and who else deserves a nod.

Thank you.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Meeting Lord Peter Wimsey

I adored Clouds of Witness, my first meeting with Lord Peter Wimsey, the noble detective created by Dorothy L Sayers. It's brimming with rich and funny characters, outlandish plotting and sudden, witty asides.

I complained of Poirot that we know next to nothing about him except that he's a Belgian detective. Here, Wimsey's client is his own brother, in the frame for murder. We also meet Wimsey's sister and mother, and Gerald's wife and friends. The comic archetypes - all posh knobs in country houses and amusing, coarse yokels - are the same as in Christie (and Wodehouse), but there's more emotional effect when they're direct relations to our hero. As so often in a murder mystery, everyone has a secret - but since the suspects are his own flesh and blood, does Wimsey really want to find out?

For all the jolly adventure and jokes, Wimsey is also a damaged individual - the result of both being jilted and some awful experience in the war. Again, this helps ground him and the fun of solving the murder in reality, so that it matters more.

But largely, it's all lots of fun. There's a magnificent sequence of tracking footprints through a wood and slowly deducing who left them (at one point, he must be both a midget and a giant). There's a brilliant last act with the trial taking place amid the pomp and finery of the House of Lords. I loved the detail about a "tedious series of witnesses" on financial affairs:
"the noble lords began to yawn, with the exception of a few of the soap and pickles lords, who suddenly started to make computations in their note-books, and exchanged looks of intelligence".
Dorothy L Sayers, Clouds of Witness (1926, revised 1935), p. 173.
At the end, Wimsey makes a desperate dash across the Atlantic to extract the last, telling clue to untangle the whole mess. It's well handled, though there's a sense at the same time that we're meant to celebrate the fact that a sexual affair is kept secret. More than that, the ultimate solution all hinges on a dreadful contrivance, as the defence has to admit.
"I have used the word 'incredible' - not because any coincidence is incredible, for we see more remarkable examples every day of our lives than any writer of fiction would dare to invent - but merely to take it out of the mouth of the learned Attorney-General, who is preparing to make it return, boomerang-fashion, against  me. (Laughter.)"
Ibid., p. 191.
Despite these slight misgivings, this is a joy of a book. I can't wait to read more Wimsey. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Doctor Who on Florana

The splendid new issue of Doctor Who Adventures (#337, 15 January 2014) features a history of the Cybermen, an Ice Warrior poster and a comic strip by me in which the Doctor finally gets to Florana.

The artwork is by John Ross, with colour by Alan Craddock. Thanks to editor Moray Laing for kind permission to post it here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Some items of interest pertaining to Sherlock Holmes

First a review of The House of Silk, and then some other items of Sherlockian interest...

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is a thrilling, richly drawn new Sherlock Holmes adventure, that gets Holmes, Watson and their world pretty much perfectly right. It's a gripping read, and even though I was ahead of Holmes with several of the clues, it kept me guessing till the end. Yet, it left me disappointed. Why?

The edition I read included a bonus feature: "Anthony Horowitz on Writing The House of Silk: Conception, Inspiration and The Ten Rules". It's fascinating to read the rules Horowitz set himself when writing the book - such as "no over-the-top action", "no women", and "no gay references either overt or implied in the relationship between Holmes and Watson". But including those rules is also surely a challenge to the reader: how would you write Holmes?

Horowitz's rules seem largely to do with not repeating the mistakes or attempting to emulate over iterations of Holmes, and to stick closely to the canon of stories written by Conan Doyle. But they didn't explain my misgivings with the book.

Horowitz is keen to slot his book seamlessly into the canon. I found the constant references to other, canonical cases a bit wearing. One rule - "include all the best known characters - but try and do so in a way that will surprise" - struck me as odd. Yes, he's got Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, Mycroft, Wiggins, and even an appearance by someone Holmes hasn't yet heard of - a fact that, to fit with the canonical stories, requires some awkward contriving:
"You must swear on everything that is scared to you that you will never tell Holmes, or anyone else, of this meeting. You must never write about it. You must never mention it. Should you ever learn my name, you must pretend that you are hearing it for the first time and that it means nothing to you."
Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk (2011), p. 260.
But are these characters' roles surprising? As Horowitz admits,
"In each case, I added very little to what was known about them simply because it seemed to be taking liberties."
Ibid., p. 404.
Where he does develop the world of Sherlock Holmes. As Horowitz says, in Doyle's stories,
"Victorian London is economically sketched in".
Ibid., p. 397.
Horowitz digs a little deeper: there's an insight into the kind of awful existence lived by the Baker Street irregulars when not engaged in cases for Holmes; there's a visit to one of the prisons to which villains are dispatched when Holmes has caught them. In both cases, Watson seems surprised by the oppressive conditions, as if a practising doctor in London would not already know. But I liked the attempt to explore the world Holmes lives in and furnish extra depth.

That depth is partly the result of the length of the book.
"My publishers, Orion Books, had requested a novel of between 90,000 and 100,000 words (the final length was around 94,000) - big enough to seem like value for money on an airport stand. But actually, this goes quite against the spirit of Doyle's originals which barely run to half that length".
Horowitz's solution is to have Watson recount two cases, not one - a trick also used in the later episodes of the TV series starring Jeremy Brett, where they blended Doyle's stories.

All of which, again, I cannot fault. And yet, these two aims - to fit The House of Silk perfectly within the canon, and to explore the world of Holmes - also also what left me dissatisfied. In the latter, the world we explore is murky and cruel, with corruption reaching so high into the establishment that even Myrcroft is powerless to act.

One of the mysteries that Holmes exposes is particularly vicious - and of a kind Doyle himself could not have published in his own time. It's not the crime but the way it fits Horowitz's general character of Victorian London that makes it so affecting: Holmes might stop what's happening, but only in this one instance.

On top of this, in fitting this adventure into the canon, Horowitz also seeks to reconcile a continuity error in Doyle about when exactly Watson married. Some Sherlockians have conjectured that Watson was married twice; Mary Morstan - who Watson married at the end of The Sign of Four - must have died at some point and Watson remarried. Horowitz confirms this hypothesis, with Mary mortally ill.

That the whole book is narrated from after Holmes has died only adds to the bleak feeling. For all his rules, Horowitz has missed a key ingredient of the canon: the element of joy. Holmes might walk through the mire of crime, but the stories celebrate his brilliance. The Final Problem, in which Holmes meets his match, is affecting and extraordinary precisely because it's so unlike the norm - and, in The Empty House, even the great detective's death turns out to have a solution.

That's what The House of Silk sadly misses: Sherlock Holmes is not about awful problems but the ingenious answer.

I think the current run of Sherlock on BBC One has got the mad, thrilling flavour of Doyle just right. I adored The Sign of Three last week, but my chum Niall Boyce was bothered by the central wheeze: that a victim would not know they'd been stabbed because of the tightness of their clothing. Niall's an editor of the medical journal, the Lancet, so tends to spot these things.

In fact, just such a killing has a precedent - and from Doyle's own time. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, was murdered in September 1898:

The assassination of Empress Elisabeth of Austria,
via Wikipedia.
"After Lucheni struck her, the empress collapsed ... Three men carried Elisabeth to the top deck and laid her on a bench. Sztaray opened her gown, cut Elisabeth's corset laces so she could breathe. Elisabeth revived somewhat and Sztaray asked her if she was in pain, and she replied, "No". She then asked, "What has happened?" and lost consciousness again...

The autopsy was performed the next day by Golay, who discovered that the weapon, which had not yet been found, had penetrated 3.33 inches (85 mm) into Elisabeth's thorax, fractured the fourth rib, pierced the lung and pericardium, and penetrated the heart from the top before coming out the base of the left ventricle. Because of the sharpness and thinness of the file the wound was very narrow and, due to pressure from Elisabeth's extremely tight corseting, the hemorrhage of blood into the pericardial sac around the heart was slowed to mere drops. Until this sac filled, the beating of her heart was not impeded, which is why Elisabeth had been able to walk from the site of the assault and up the boat’s boarding ramp. Had the weapon not been removed, she would have lived a while longer, as it would have acted like a plug to stop the bleeding."
Niall also provided me with two snippets of Sherlockian interest from the Lancet archives, which he's kindly allowed me to share. First, here's Conan Doyle weighing in on the case of George Edalji - the case that's the subject of the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, which I blogged about in 2007.

Niall also tweeted this later contribution from Doyle's son, "Was Sherlock Holmes a Drug Addict?", in 1937:

You may also care to note that I passed Doyle's house in South Norwood a couple of months ago. And, if you've not already discovered it, John Watson's blog - written with some assistance by m'colleague Joseph Lidster - has been especially good this series.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On time travellers not using Twitter

Yesterday's Inside Science on Radio 4 interviewed Professor Robert Nemiroff from Michigan Tech University about his much reported search of the internet for evidence of time travellers in our midst.

Nemiroff and his students searched Twitter for references to the discovery of Comet ISON (21 September 2012) and the naming of Pope Francis (13 March 2013) - but references to them tweeted before either event took place. The abstract for Nemiroff's paper concludes:
"No time travelers were discovered. Although these negative results do not disprove time travel, given the great reach of the Internet, this search is perhaps the most comprehensive to date."
Hmm, I thought. And again, hmm.

Twitter is relatively big news now, but how long will that last? If Nemiroff had conducted his research a few years ago, he might have studied the contents of MySpace or eGroups or newsgroups - the social media of a bygone age that our children will speak of as myth. Recently, the Global Social Media Impact Study suggested that older teenagers see Facebook as "dead and buried". In 10 years time - let alone in some more distant future from which time travellers might come - will we need reminding what Twitter even was?

Even if time travellers knew about Twitter, why would they use it? If the tweets are not archived in their future, they might wish to read them in our time - but why would they themselves tweet? Nemiroff is rather supposing that any such time travellers would want us to notice they'd been here.

In fact, time travellers are a bit sniffy about Twitter:
Within three hours, the cubes had a thousand separate Twitter accounts.


Doctor Who: The Power of Three by Chris Chibnall.
That might well be a direct response to Nemiroff's study. And, just to rub it in, The Power of Three was first broadcast on Saturday 22 September 2012 - the day after Comet ISON was first spotted, and so months before Nemiroff even started his research.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

"Wizard" plays BFI as part of LOCO London Comedy Film Festival

Wizard, the short film I wrote, will be screened at the BFI on Saturday 25 January, as part of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival 2014. The film stars David Warner as Merlin working in a Croydon call centre and was shortlisted in Hat Trick's "Short and Funnies" competition last year.

It's one of 13 films showing in a 90-minute extravaganza, Laughing Stock: Short Comedy Film Showcase. You can buy tickets here. Me, director Tom and some of the cast and crew will be there to cheer the film along. Why not join us?

Wizard is also available to view online for free:

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Anachronauts for £2.99

For the next 48 hours, you can buy the download version of my Doctor Who story The Anachronauts for £2.99, thanks to those nice people at Big Finish.

It stars Jean Marsh and Peter Purves in a four-part adventure which I borrowed from the TV series Lost and the film Funeral in Berlin. Jean does a magnificent impression of Greta Garbo. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Machiavelli on shunning flattery

Happy new year. A few people have been dolling out advice and life tips (my favourite so far: Caitlin Moran's drunken advice to women from last night), which reminded me of the following. It doesn't just apply to princes. I reckon it's rather good for writers.
“… there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offense in hearing the truth: but when every one is free to tell you the truth respect falls short. Wherefore a prudent Prince should follow a middle course, by choosing certain discreet men from among his subjects, and allowing them alone free leave to speak their minds on any matter on which he asks their opinion, and on none other. But he ought to ask their opinion on everything, and after hearing what they have to say, should reflect and judge for himself. And with these counsellors collectively, and with each of them separately, his bearing should be such, that each and all of them may know that the more freely they declare their thoughts the better they will be liked. Besides these, the Prince should hearken to no others, but should follow the course determined on, and afterwards adhere firmly to his resolves. Whoever acts otherwise is either undone by flatterers, or from continually vacillating as opinions vary, comes to be held in light esteem …

Hence it follows that good counsels, whencesoever they come, have their origin in the prudence of the Prince, and not the prudence of the Prince in wise counsels.”
Machiavelli, The Prince (1514), XXIII. That Flatterers Should Be Shunned.