2020 and Reading for Purpose

In a year that felt more like some surreal historical melodrama that ought to be safely turned into a documentary rather than something to cling to the future like a belly-full of bad booze, what we read may have been one of the most important choices we were able to make. Our lives constrained by a pandemic, we may have lived more vicariously than ever before, but we also dealt with the world as a landscape of impending doom in ways that perhaps our parents and grandparents may have in different ways, but was unique in the manner of it collision with reality and ignorance.

I think it fair to say that never before has so much information, understanding, and intellectual resource been so available to so many and yet rejected in turn to such a degree as to challenge one’s sanity. It seemed like the more we knew, the more concrete things we could say about so many things, the more too many people flat-out denied those very things that might have made the world a better place. Watching and listening to the news day to day was an agony of frustration.

So we—some of us—turned to reading for answers as well as escape. Answers to try to make sense of things, escape to give us the spiritual resources to cope with what we learned and what we saw.

I read, cover to cover, 63 books in 2020.

What science fiction I read was related mainly to the reading group I host. I read a lot of history, political philosophy, mysteries. I did not quite finish a rather excellent biography of John Maynard Keynes, which has proven to be a timely work that throws light on the history that brought us to where we are now. Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace should, I suggest, be read with Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour. Between them they illuminate the 20th century struggle with finding our way through the morass of slogans, competing theories, political opportunists, and national identities that seem to rely on the 19th Century concepts of poverty, property, and progress to justify a kind of fearful reluctance to simply adapt.

Along with these, Shawn Otto’s The War On Science is history of the anti-intellectualism in America that has dogged us since the beginning and has resulted now in a precarious moment in which the knowledge we derive from sound scientific practice has never been more necessary to our survival while living in a time when more people refuse to acknowledge anything outside their own concepts and prejudices. Along with this, a somewhat more theoretical but complimentary work is Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oseskes.

It would seem that our greatest enemy remains ignorance. Demagogues and con artists have become far more adept at manipulating and defrauding us in greater numbers than ever before and the only defense is our ability to reason, to sort through and measure and recognize nonsense, especially when it seems enriching, empowering, and edifying. Everything has taken on an urgency that strips us of time and room to judge, to assess, to think through. Decisions must be made now, while the offer lasts, don’t be late, get yours now.

In this struggle, the only thing that we can personally do is equip ourselves with the wide gaze of grounded perspective. History, economics, philosophy. They can appear daunting. But you only have to pick a book and start. It accrues. In time, something seemingly so removed from our present experience as Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about King Phillip’s War, which set the pattern for the European conquest of America, takes on currency in the here and now. Speaking of Jill Lepore, her newest, If Then, about the forgotten Simulmatics Incorporated and its effect on American (and global) politics is an eye-opening expose of how we managed to corrupt our political systems with introduction of demographic analysis, ad-agency thinking, and datamining.

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

Outside specialized texts, I believe one cannot do better than good science fiction. Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest in her Lady Astronaut series, Relentless Moon, offers some surprising relevancy to the present as well as a terrific yarn set in an alternate history. Annalee Newitz’s Future of Another Timeline is a rumination on choice as well as a good time-travel story. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller examines near-future global changes and the consequences of corporate capitalism disguised cleverly as a quest/revenge/rescue narrative.

I’ve been reading aloud to my partner for a while now. We did John Scalzi’s most recent trilogy, starting with The Collapsing Empire. His approach is in some ways perhaps “irreverent” but once you get past that surface facility, it’s a first-class trilogy.

Possibly the most beautiful writing I encountered this year was Robert MacFarlane’s Underland. He’s a naturalist/explorer whose previous work has been concerned with climbing mountains and related landscapes. In this he went down. In a magnificent rumination on ecologies and the underground, both natural and artificial, he has written beautifully about a world we ignore to our peril.

Alex Ross, music critic for the New York Times, whose previous book The Rest Is Noise, about music and 20th Century history, is wonderful, has published his intricate study of Wager and the impact he had on, well, everything. Wagnerism in some senses is an expression of the often-unacknowledged influence of art on politics and identity. Ross examines how Wagner became the focal point for movements and countermovements up till the present with his outsized presence in film scores. An aspect of history that deserves a bit more attention.

I have my to-be-read pile already building for 2021. It includes several books that I hope will help me ride the unpredictable currents of our ongoing struggle with the world. But never more strongly do I feel that the encounter with other minds through the agency of the written word is one of our best tools for managing and emerging from darkness. We have such a wealth of resource. I look around at the world and cannot help but feel that if more people simply read more and more widely, things would begin to resolve. Never before have we had it thrown in our faces with such force the costs of ignorance.

Here is wishing you all a safe and aspirational year. Read on, read well.

Cities, Colonies, Past, Present

We dream of colonizing the stars. Or being colonized. Or simply contacting other sentient beings. We look up on a clear night and reject the ancient notion that we are all alone. We understand too much to accept that.

But some of us still insist on it and that insistence could constrain our ability to recognize realities.

Charlie Jane Anders has chosen to pursue that particular human blindness as the basis for the situation in her new novel, The City In The Middle Of The Night. Humans live on a world arrived at after long journey from Earth in a ship that is fast becoming the substance of myth. The Mothership is gone, or at least no longer responding to the humans on the surface, and generations have passed as the colony has bifurcated into two urban concentrations of strikingly different organizational style, with a lot of unaffiliated people strewn across the narrow landscape between them.

Xiosphant is a cloistered, suffocating city with rigid customs and a strict curfew. It is a walled, ceilinged city within which citizens are directed according timetables and a class structure that reminds one of the fever dreams of old East Bloc nightmares.  The other city, Argelo, is more like an open-air bazaar, a libertarian paradise only with the real consequences such a free-for-all would create.

Both cities are gradually heading for collapse. Resources are running out, the ability to repair old machinery is disappearing, and the environment itself is becoming more antagonistic.

That environment…

I mentioned both cities exist on a narrow landscape. That is because the planet, January, is tidally-locked, and only a thin band between dayside and nightside is habitable.  A brutal environment dominates on either side of this band. In the Night, the cold is lethal, and the Day will burn.

Anders gives us the landscape, the implications, and the inevitable social details layered together with an enviable seamlessness that sinks the  reader into the world. The attention to detail never competes with the story and especially not with the characters of the two viewpoint voices.

Sophie and Mouth could not appear more different. Sophie is painfully shy, a country girl come to the city of Xiosphant to attend school. Smart but almost pathologically afraid of the world, she falls in love with her roommate, Bianca, who is everything Sophie is not—bright, glamorous, daring, ambitious. And politically daring, bringing Sophie into a world of rebelliousness which turns out to be more talk than action.  Mouth, on the other hand, is a nomad, attached to a group of smugglers running between Argelo and Xiosphant, trafficking in unlicensed oddities and sought-after luxuries, anything that can be slipped by the over-regulated barriers of the encased city. Mouth is violent, taciturn, seemingly weary of the world in ways that make her appear an old, cynical survivor.

Neither of them are what they appear to be and, more, neither of them are that different. Both outsiders, both needing others to create places for them in which to feel relevant, neither of them really able to fit into their respective societies. In the end, “fitting in” is just a way of saying “self desertion.” As the story proceeds, they eventually reverse roles, Mouth becoming fearful and withdrawn, Sophie turning outward.

But outward in an unexpected way.

Sophie is arrested for a crime she did not commit but claims responsibility for in order to protect Bianca. Instead of incarceration, though, the police choose to expel her from the city, where by all rights she should die. Instead she meets one of the Crocodiles and learns that the world, January, is not at all what she and everyone else believes it to be.

When the colonists arrived, they found life forms.  But instead of recognizing them as coequal sapients, the humans decided they were animals, to be hunted and feared and in some cases eradicated. The humans could not go into the Night to discover the cities.  There was no shared language, nothing to suggest the possibility of coexistence. Sophie and Mouth had both come of age believing humans to be the only self-aware, tool-making creatures on the planet, and Sophie discovers suddenly that this is all a lie.,

Or an undiscovered truth.

Sophie and Bianca end up having to flee Xiosphant. Mouth is part of the group that helps them do so, because Mouth uses Bianca for something her companions know nothing about and feels obligated. Because revolution is coming to Xiosphant.

On the journey, Sophie and Mouth form an unexpected bond which becomes crucial as the reality of January reveals itself.

What Anders uses here is the historical reality of human beings assuming. Imperialists assume they are superior, people assume other species are theirs to use, civilizations assume they are always and everywhere the best. Humans arrive at January—named for Janus, the two-faced god—assuming they will dominate. Like Roanoke, like Providence Island, like Easter Island, like numberless other places humans arrived to conquer and dominate and instead had their insignificance proven to them by time, resource, terrain, disease, and their own politics, the ambitions of those first settlers have become a desperate hanging-on, fingernails shredding.

But the addition of an ecological disaster, one created inadvertently by these interlopers, has imperiled the indigenes, and some way must be found to communicate.

This is exceptional world-building and great storytelling. Anders portrays how the same characteristics that can make people exceptional are the same ones that can undo us. She seems to be warning us throughout that the danger going forward is in the assumptions we decide to bring with us and leave unquestioned.

 

 

2018 and Reading Lists

I saw a great many lists in social media this past year. “One Hundred Books to Read Before You Die,” “Only a Genius Has Read 10 of These,” “The Best SF Books Ever.” Clickbait, certainly, but some of them were amusing and even added some titles to my Must Find list.

By and large, such things are amusing at best, rarely instructional, and often mind-numbingly dumb. Especially those derived from on-line polls, where instead  A Book, whole series end up included, and no one is vetting for obvious errors.  (Shakespeare did not write novels.) Not to say lists aren’t useful. One was published—as a real paper book—this year that I find really interesting.  1000 Books To Read Before You Die, by James Mustich. Part of a series of books with the same general idea. What sets this apart is that the books included really are remarkable and the list comes with excellent precis and commentary about why you should read them, plus ancillary articles on the authors and their other work. In other words, this would be a good text to use to create course work for literature. (Before you ask, I’ve read around 250 of them.  There are many I’ve never even heard of. Anyone working their way through this would be very well read by the end.)

All this prompted me to wonder—again—why we read in the first place. Harold Bloom has probably addressed this question as much if not more than anyone else and he warned that we should never presume to read for Self Improvement (at least not in a moral sense) mainly because, I assume, we can point to some rather well-versed monsters who clearly benefited not at all from extensive reading. But then he will argue that self-improvement is one of the chief by-products of deep reading. He sees it as a side-effect, though, because—again, I assume—you have to develop to a certain degree before you can decode what books offer. To me, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question because the two go along in lockstep so often.

But self-improvement comes to people who rarely read and others who read widely and extensively and find no lessons or edification in it and in the end I suppose it’s what you read as much as how well you read it.

As a practical note, since this has come to my attention as a Real Thing, no one—no one—should presume to be a writer unless they love reading and do a lot of it. I’ve encountered several people with pretensions to write novels who never read anything. Firstly, what motivates them if they don’t like books? Fame? Money? Secondly, they have no grasp of the mechanics, much less the purpose, of writing a novel. I have seen the attempts. They do not get it. At all. But arrogantly assume it’s no big deal. This wouldn’t be a problem but for the ease of self-publishing. Before you think to commit something to paper (or electrons) find out what it is you’re attempting. Read, lest you inflict on others your vacuous incapacity for empathy, art, meaning….or, I assume, the hard work.

Mr. Bloom aside, I do believe deep, regular, and diverse reading improves. The exposure to ideas alone has an effect. Reading requires that we open parts of ourselves to new understandings. There have been numerous studies to indicate that the capacity for empathy alone is enlarged through engagement with characters not of our own group and being vulnerable to change is certainly an aspect of engagement.

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember.  Books have simply always been there. I can’t imagine a world without them could possibly be worth living in. If that’s a species of chauvinism, so be it.

2018 was a good year for self-improvement, if any was to be had.

I became acquainted for the first time with MFK Fisher. I’ve known of her for decades, but I don’t read food writing. She was more than that and in the course of researching a novel, I read her Map of Another Town, which is about her time in Provençe in the mid-20th Century. Loving portraits of two towns, one of them Aix-en-Provençe, which was the town I wanted to research. Other than a sense of atmosphere and smidgen of history, it did not give me what I wanted, but perhaps what I needed. She was a fine, fine writer, and I recommend it.

As well, in the same vein, I read Maria Fairweather’s biography of Madame De Staël, which, along with the much older Herrold biography, gave me pretty much all I needed in terms of when and where and with whom.

Memoir is another genre I do not read often, but I found a delightful one.  Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey. It recounts the author’s year when his father audited his course on Homer’s work. Moving, thorough, with some surprise revelations about Homer as well as the frustrations of paths not chosen.

This was also a year for reading things I should have read decades ago. In this case, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis. Ostensibly the third volume of his so-called Space Trilogy, which began with Out of the Silent Planet (recommended unreservedly) and continued with Perelandra (cannot recommend). I kept bouncing off this third volume, probably because I’d had such a disappointing experience with the second, but I sat myself down this year and plowed through. I’m glad I did. The book is about the struggle between genuine progress and sham progress and how, because the latter can look so appealing, we hand over our moral capacity to people who have no comprehension of what it means to be humanly caring. There are some marvelous scenes in it, and although I didn’t find the underlying True King stuff to my taste (as with much of Lewis, he tried to make everything about the Return of some pure King ala Christ) it was a fine examination of how we lose things without knowing why.

Others in the vein were all rereads. I reread Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, and Pat Cadigan’a Dirty Work. I do not reread, mainly because I read slowly and I have so much to yet read that taking the time to reread seems…

Well, I’m wrong about that.  I don’t know if it’s going to change, but I read Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugo Awards, which is wonderful, a great trip through a history of science fiction that I recall a good part of as a series of encounters with new books. This really is worth a read, because she not only goes over the books that made the ballot (including the Nebula ballot, when that began) but discusses what else was published at the time that might have made the lists instead. It’s surprising and informative and a pleasure, but the talk about how many times she and others reread a given book made me squirm rather self-consciously.

But this reading out loud thing we’ve embarked on has been a joy. We have indulged primarily in Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries series and have dramatized our way through all but two of them now. They are fun, a bit daring, well-researched, and easy to read aloud—unless you’re trying to do the accents properly, which is impossible but I try. Set in Australia in the 1920s, Miss Phryne Fisher is a very modern woman with a knack for solving crimes. We saw the tv series first, which is a delight of adaptation.

One set of books I wish we had done this way is Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, published in four brief volumes by Tor.com. They are told from the viewpoint of a security robot/cyborg who/that has hacked its own governor module. It is independent, can make its own decisions. What does it do? Downloads entertainment media to watch. Of course, it gets drawn into protecting a group of humans which leads into investigating corporate malfeasance which leads into more nasty stuff, which is all an annoying distraction from its programs. These are terrific and I was sorry to put the last one down.

In my humble opinion we are possibly in the midst of a new vitality in science fiction. I’m seeing fantasy writers suddenly turning out SF—and very good SF—a reverse of the situation for the last few decades.  Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky are excellent. Good SF, a great central character, an alternate history scenario that makes perfect sense, and done with rigor and humor to leaven the grim main storyline.

My friend Daryl Gregory published Spoonbenders last year and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone looking for the indefinable. I’ve been telling people that it’s a combination of the X-Files and The Sting. Daryl writes humor with the best of them, which can be especially effective nestled within a serious plot.

Other speculative fiction delights:  Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (one of the better locked-room mysteries, nested within a fascinating SFnal conceit); The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin’s tour-de-force which kicked off a few years of drama within the SF/F community; The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer; Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor; and the short but affecting Time Was by Ian McDonald.

One of the best SF novels I had the immense pleasure of reading was John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other, which is an examination of utopic constructs. Set on the moon, it follows the vicissitudes of a feminist enclave vying for independence on a believably fraught luna colonized by a number of competing systems. The social and personal dynamics are complex and delicately portrayed. I thought it one of the finest novels of its kind I’ve ever read.

Not science fiction per se but inescapably SFnal was Alec Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography of John W. Campbell Jr. Astounding. For anyone wishing to understand the formative years of this thing called science fiction (and here I mean what we mean when we point at something—say, Star Trek or Arrival—and say the words, not the academically problematic ur texts that might establish prior examples and possible launch points), this is a must-read. Many myths and legends surround this man, this magazine, these writers, and Nevala-Lee does a surpassing fine job of revealing the facts and placing all these people in context.

I also read, for the first time, Malka Older’s Infomocracy.  I will read the rest of the trilogy based on this novel, which is a page-turning political exegesis on alternative democratic systems and their possible pitfalls.

Finally, Charlie Jane Ander’s forthcoming The City In The Middle of the Night. Excellent. It releases in February.  This is a major novel by a major talent. I’ll do a fuller review later.

A smattering of other SF works:

Netherspace by Lane & Foster; The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith; Tomorrow by Damian Dibben; The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp; The Million by Karl Schroeder; Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele; Noumenon by Marina Lostetter.  All recommended.

I read Charles C. Mann’s Wizard and Prophet, which is a science biography of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, the two men who pretty much defined the conflict between two schools of thought about environment and sustainability in the 20th Century. Borlaug was the developer of super grains, applying technological approaches to increased yields to feed more people, while Vogt was an ardent believer in austerity and cutting back and reducing populations. What might have been achieved had these two men somehow found it possible to work together we will never know. Vogt identified Borlaug as an enemy almost from the minute they met and history has been as it is.

Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a weighty argument on behalf of the Enlightenment as a foundation for going forward. It is a hopeful book, anodyne for the fraught political times in which we live, if a bit more optimistic than might be creditable. Set it against Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and realities balance the optimism.

I’m finding a forceful new set of voices in support of scientific rationalism and a concern over facts muscling its way back onto the main stage of public discourse. We have labored in a soup of vacuous postmodern hand-waving for the last four decades so that now the very moral relativism decried by the Right as liberal softheadedness is now used by the Right to claim victory against Reason and Progress. Perhaps this move from fantasy back to science fiction is an indicator that people are growing tired of mystical pabulum and want something concrete to hold onto.

Maybe.

In any case,  these are some of the books that caught my attention this year. We’ll see what 2019 brings.

 

 

 

 

Reaching For Stars

Let me get straight to the point:  Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, is one of the best alternate histories I have read since…

It is 1952. Dewey is president. Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, are on vacation in the Poconos. They both work for the newly-formed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Nathaniel is the chief engineer and has a reputation for putting up America’s first satellites. Elma is a mathematician, a superb one. She is also a former WASP pilot, which fact figures prominently in all that follows.

In the midst of their idyllic vacation, a meteor slams into the Atlantic just off the east coast. It destroys Washington D.C. and wreaks havoc up and down the seaboard. Elma and Nathaniel manage to get out and to her plane and west until a fighter squardon challenges them, learns who they are, and escorts them to Wright-Patterson Air Base, the only fully operational military base within range. There they learn the extent of the immediate losses.

CalculatingStars_comp_v7_final-220x338

Quickly, the government scrambles to get up and running. The only surviving member of the Cabinet is the Secretary of Agriculture, who becomes Acting President until an election can be held. This, too, is very important.

While the pieces are being picked up and some kind of order restored, Elma is asked to calculate the size of the meteor so her husband can go into the meetings with the paranoid military and convince them this was nothing to do with the Soviets. She crunches the numbers and discovers to her shock and dismay that this was an extinction-level event. In 50 or 60 years, the Earth will be too hot for survival.

Kowal lays all this out meticulously. The science has the resonance of reality.  So do the politics, the culture, the economics. In fact, this is a very well thought-out scenario. For Elma, Nathaniel, the Acting President it means one thing:  humanity has got to get off the planet.

Which kicks the space program into high gear in the early 1950s.

The novel is soaked in telling details. And while it offers plenty of science and rocket-geek delight, it is also a story of challenging culture and social norms and overcoming personal difficulties in the face of all that the 1950s—our 1950s—was about to be. Kowal brings the culture into play with a seamless grace that produces a “well, of course that had to change” which occasionally leaves a residue of embarrassment.  Embarrassment at how we know things were and even how they still are.

We talk about Wake Up Calls when faced with growing or entrenched social problems, matters of injustice, the unexamined givens of the world. Kowal delivers the ultimate Wake Up Call.

And then shows us just how resistant people can be to making absolutely necessary changes if they challenge how we believe the world ought to be.  She puts ought to be on trial in a compelling narrative that seems to be all about building the future writers like Heinlein and Clarke expected. They neglected a few of the underlying pitfalls of trying to do so.

As well, we are treated to a protagonist completely human, flawed and excellent in her abilities and craft and sensibilities. Elma York is composed of the stuff we want to cheer and she carries us along with a convincing humanity that includes a heart as large and full one could wish for.  Her relationship with Nathaniel is wonderfully portrayed.

But it is Elma’s constant checking of privilege as she works to bring women into the astronaut corps and has to face the fact that she had often been blind to things sometimes right in front of her. Living up to her own values becomes a process well worth following.

This the first book in a new series. If it continues with the same verve and attention to detail and sheer passion, we may be looking at a landmark work.

2017

Looking at my list, I read, cover-to-cover, 51 books in 2017. That doesn’t seem like much to me, but knowing there are people, even people I know, who haven’t read one book in that time, it’s probably in the top something-or-other of national averages. At 63, I’m not sure I care anymore. It never was about quantity, as I’ve told myself time and again, but there are so many good books and I want to read them all!

We have engaged another study group this year. Rousseau. When we agreed to join, we thought we were doing just one of his works, his Second Discourse on Inequality. Come to find out, our guiding light wants to cover all the major Rousseau. Next up is Emile. I haven’t read Emile since high school. I remember little about it, other than it served to enrich a later reading of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. Very well. Rousseau it is.

But in 2017, I felt torn between two kinds of reading. Reading to escape—because, really, look at the world—and reading to understand how to deal with reality.

A third category was the books for my science fiction group at Left Bank Books. Twelve titles, mostly selected by me, but voted on now by the whole group. My intention in this group is to read a mix of new(wish) and classic. This year we’ll be doing our first nonfiction title.

It’s given me a chance to reread some of my favorites. In almost every instance, I’ve found a practically new novel. For instance, Delany’s Trouble On Triton. I no longer recall clearly how I felt about it when I read it back in the Seventies, but this time through it was fascinating in that Delany opted to tell the story through the eyes of a person incapable of any kind of satisfaction in what in many ways is practically a paradise (never mind the little war going on). He wrote it as a kind of response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and it works quite well as that, flipping the relationship on its head at almost every point. Bron Helstrom is not a misunderstood everyman in a society unwilling to accommodate his uniqueness. Rather, he is a perpetually ill-fitting square peg that refuses, constitutionally, to be accommodated, even by a society that has no qualms trying to help him “fit.”

We also read Joan Vinge’s magisterial Snow Queen. I confess this was the first time I managed to get all the way through. While some of it is a bit dated, I found it a magnificent piece of world-building.

Then there was Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee.  On the surface, this is an intense military SF novel, but it works with religious motifs, time and calendars, and the whole notion of long games and ghosts. The details of the world-building are impressive and the motivations for the conflicts are unusual to say the least. There is an element of Mayan cosmology buried beneath the surface, transformed into the kind of Otherness that gives the best science fiction its appeal.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer is an odd novel. Compared to some of his work, which I find utterly unclassifiable (in the best sense), Borne is much more accessible, even though it presents as bizarre a world as any Vandermeer has ever offered. I came to the conclusion that this is a take on Alice Through The Looking Glass, done with an utterly different set of cultural expectations.

We read Keith Roberts’ Pavane, Chabon’s  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, Use Of Weapons b y Iain M. Banks, Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, all of which generated excellent discussion.

Along with the other newer SF I read this past year, I conclude that the genre has never been healthier, more fascinating and inventive. The quality of imagination and craft have combined to produce some of the best work ever done.

Likewise in science writing, as exemplified by Carlo Rovelli, whose Reality Is Not What It Seems impressed me with its clarity and concision. (I’d been wondering what happened to string theory the last few years and this book told me.)

The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller is more history than science. It details the initial encounter with Darwin in America and examines its impact. Both its initial welcome by people who saw in it a sound argument against slavery and then its later rejection as the assault on biblical fealty it became.

Sidharta Mukerjee’s The Gene is likewise marvelously accessible, a history and examination of the Thing That Makes Us Us.

In the same vein, but much more exhaustive in its historicity, was David Wooton’s The Invention of Science, a chronicle of how science came into being. He demonstrates that it was not the revelation popular myth suggests, but a long accumulation of understandings that depended utterly on the social context in which they emerged. (For instance, we have no science as practice without the printing press.) Reviewing first appearances of words and concepts, the book shows how culture had to change before the possibility of the modern concept of science could even begin to take hold. Just realizing that prior to Columbus there was no common understanding of the concept of “discovery.”

Just as enlightening were Charles C. Mann’s pair of New World histories, 1491 and  1493, which combined tear away most of the preconceptions about the world Europe destroyed when it crossed the Atlantic.

I read some excellent novels outside genre—Jacqueline Winspear’s well done Maisy Dobbs series (three of them), The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler, Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first Miss Fisher mystery, and travel writer William Least Heat-Moon’s first foray into fiction, Celestial Mechanics. But primarily, I read nonfiction and SF.  It was that kind of a year.

As a bookseller, I noticed a sharp rise in the purchase of science books. Overall book sales were generally higher than in past years.  People are reading things which seem to offer a more solid grasp of reality. Perhaps this is in reaction to the state of the world or just the state of the country.  People seem to want To Know, in very concrete ways, if their selections are indicative. I see less escapism, and when I do see it, it is not the sort that would leave the psyché unchanged.

I already have half a dozen titles read for this year. It will be interesting to see how all this evolves by December.

Good reading to you all.

Profits, Patents, and Pirates

Annalee Newitz,  cofounder and editor-in-chief of io9, has written a novel that has all the signs of being a major touchpoint in science fiction. Where in previous generations, physics or information technology have been at the heart of seminal works, speculations on nanotech or colonization tools, ecology or libertarian excursions in ruminations about personal power, Autonomous bases its meditations on questions of ownership and resource allocation in a future where both are matters of patent law.

If this seems like improbable grounds in which to grow a gripping, nail-biting action plot, reconsider. Wars are fought over exactly these two issues all the time. In fact, it would be difficult to name a war that wasn’t unleashed over both factors. Even those which might be described by other metrics, their prosecution still depended on these things.

We live in an age wherein most of the time we hear about such conflicts as courtroom exercises, involving lawyers and academics.  Even so, to assume this is dull matter for exciting drama is to admit to a paucity of both imagination and understanding of the world around us.

Captain Jack Chen is a pirate with a personal submarine and a working knowledge of pharmacology. She “liberates” drugs and see them distributed through networks that get them to people who ordinarily can’t afford them, who need them, and who are denied the benefits of longer life, healthier bodies and minds, and opportunities contingent on just those things simply because of where they live, the class in which they’re stuck, and the politics in which they’re trapped. Captain Jack is an idealist who has learned the hard way to behave pragmatically and extra-legally in order to live with herself.  As a young graduate student, she became politically active and established a group of radicals to challenge Big Pharma.  When they tried to put their ideas into action, Jack was caught, tried, sent to prison.  Her career was effectively over.

Many decades later, she plies a trade as pirate, reverse-engineering expensive drugs and seeing them made available through a variety of outlets.  For the most part, she’s a well-known nuisance.

But then she makes available a work-enhancement drug called Zacuity that quickly turns into a nightmare.  Not only is it addictive, it supplants the will to regulate concentration and application, leaving its victims remorselessly pursuing single tasks to the point of starvation and death. Taking a closer look at the drug, she finds the problem: it’s not that she made a mistake in the reverse engineering, but that she did not—the drug is designed this way.  Which means the company, one of the massively huge pharmaceuticals, unleashed this intentionally.

Which also means that she has become a target.

A human-robot team are set on her trail, orders to kill her as a patent terrorist.  The chase is on.  Jack wants to undo the damage she inadvertently caused, but she has to do it before they find her, or no one will know about the potential catastrophe about to be unleashed.

Beyond all this, which Newitz handles with smooth assurance and uncommon good sense, the novel is about what is or is not justifiable in a society where property has taken on new levels of sophistry in its applications via indenturing, robotics, AI, debt obligations, and the prerogatives of patent-holders in matters of life and death.

This is the 22nd Century.  Robotics and AI have developed to the point of self-awareness, or at least the kind of apparent consciousness that is definitionally indistinguishable from organic, “natural” consciousness.  There are degrees, of course, but functionally, in society, there always have been when it comes to role allocation.  Does an artificially constructed intelligence possess any rights to self-determination? And how do you distinguish between one emergent form of intelligence and another in pursuit of a justifiable legal framework of slavery?

Newitz clearly has her own opinion, but it doesn’t hi-jack the given world of the novel to grind axes.  She simply presents a perfectly plausible set of social and technological conditions and show us the interactions—some of them inevitably outré, but logical—and lets the reader react.  While the surface story is concerned with patent law and the abuses of big business and future pharmaceuticals, underneath, humming along like a finely-tuned Socratic dialogue, are these questions of personal ownership and the ethics of recognition.  Of course, in the end, it’s all the same argument, but so much is slipped in as subtext, virally delivered in the form of a first-rate story, that we might not realize it till well after the final, recognizably polymorphic scene.

Autonomous is the kind of novel science fiction is most adept at producing—the thoughtful, philosophically-attuned thriller that leaves you with plenty to mull over once your adrenalin stops pumping.

2016

Tardiness comes in direct proportion to chaos. The year ended and all was in flux.

However, reading goes on.

I did not finish nearly as many books in 2016 as I tried to. At least, not other people’s books.  I did finish drafts of two of my own.  My desk, at the moment, is clear, and maybe I can do a better job in 2017 of keeping abreast here.

A good deal of my science fiction reading was pretty much for the reading group I host at Left Bank Books. That group affords me opportunity and motivation to read novels I might not otherwise get to.  So I reread Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination for the first time in three decades, but I also read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time ever. I do not regret the delay. It is a mature novel, with a great deal my younger self may well have missed.  As to the former, it came very close to not holding up.  I had forgotten (if I ever realized it this way) just how brutal a novel it is, and not just in the character of Gully Foyle. Bester’s achievement way back in the Fifties remains remarkable for its unyielding insistence on a fragmented, painful, chaotic, and historically consistent future.

I also reacquainted myself with Tiptree, in the form of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. It seems fitting in this period of reassessment and revolution, when the face of science fiction is—has—changed and brought forth a volatile reaction to that change.  Tiptree was doing much of what is being so rancorously challenged within the field today, but as she was a singular voice and not a “trend” she provoked different challenges then while becoming accepted generally as a brilliant writer and a jewel in the crown of SF stars.

I also reread (for the first time since it came out) Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I reviewed in the previous post.  I was much too inexperienced a reader the first time to appreciate everything Silverberg was doing, so I probably forgot the book as soon as I finished it.

It is true that some books must be “grown into”—I am currently rereading Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble On Triton for the book group and realizing that, while I read it eagerly the first time, I probably missed almost everything important about. Likewise with another reread, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is ostensibly a novel about colonialism.  I say “ostensibly” but that does not mean it isn’t.  It very much is about colonialism, all three of the novellas which comprise the whole.  But it is as much about how we colonize ourselves, sometimes to our loss, as it is about colonizing foreign soil, in this case another world with a native population that strives to adapt but may have found in the end their only options were extinction or counter-colonization.  As always, Wolfe’s subtlety is rigorously slippery, his points less direct,  corrosive of expectation.

Titan Books has rereleased Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles, a story cycle that is the very definition of indirect.  Moorcock took as his template the Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, et al—and displaced them into a near future chaos in the form of his “hero” Jerry Cornelius, who wants to save the world only to resurrect his dead sister so they can be together.  The prose are rife with Sixties hip, but not so overwhelmingly anachronistic that the novels aren’t just as readable now as they were then.  The response to them is perhaps necessarily altered and certainly the themes play out differently. Moorcock may have been the grown-up in the room at the advent of New Wave.  He did go on to write some marvelously rich books after these.

I finished Ann Leckie’s delightfully subversive Ancillary trilogy.  I need to do a full review soon.  Treat yourself.

A smattering of other SF titles I can recommend whole-heartedly:  Lavi Tidhar’s Central Station; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants; Carter Sholz’s Gypsy; Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

And Nisi Shawl’s wonderful Everfair.  An alternate history steampunk done the way steampunk ought to be done.  I owe it a full review, but let me say here that this is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time.

I read two China Mieville books this year, one very good.  This Census Taker I have to count as a failure.  It has good writing fascinating bits, but failed to come together the way I’ve come to expect from Mieville.  The other, newer one, is The Last Days of New Paris, which is excellent.  This pair allowed me to understand that one of the primary passions Mieville indulges in his work is cities.  His best work portrays a city as a complete character.  This Census Taker lacked that.

Of the non science fiction read this year, I did Moby-Dick with my other reading group.  I resisted doing this book.  I’ve never liked it.  I find it turgid, convoluted, often opaque.  There is also a darkness to it that can be suffocating. Over several months we tackled it, dissected it, ran through various analyses.  I conclude that it is a superb work, fully deserving of its reputation.  It is A great American novel if not The American Novel, because America is its subject, though it takes place on a whaling ship far at sea.  It is not a flattering picture, though, displaying throughout the contradictions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings of the then young nation which continue to plague us.  It does this brilliantly.

I still don’t like it.  I find little pleasure in the actual reading.  That, as they say, is my problem.

A colleague and coworker, Kea Wilson, published her first novel, We Eat Our Own. I commend it.  I reviewed it here.

A novel that straddles the genre boundaries somewhat that caused some controversy upon its initial publication is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  This is a post-Arthurian quest story with much to say about memory and community and the price of vengeance.

This was a big year for nonfiction.

Robert Gleick’s new tome, Time Travel: A History is an exceptional soliloquy on the concept, science, and cultural use of time travel, beginning with Wells and covering both the scientific realm and the popular fiction realm, showing how they have played off each other and how the idea has evolved and worked through our modern view of the universe and our own lives.  Previously in the year I’d read his magnificent biography of Richard Feynman, Genius.  Gleick is a great explainer and a fine craftsman.

As well, Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons About Physics.  They are brief, they are accessible, they are to be enjoyed.  And, along the same lines, Void by James Owen Weatherall, about the physics of empty space.  It’s far more fascinating than it might sound.

I can recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is a history of the world from the viewpoint of the Orient.  The shift in perspective is enlightening.  Along the same lines I read Charles Mann’s 1491, which was eye-opening and thought-provoking—and in some ways quite humbling.

I also read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, especially in the wake of what I think I can safely call the most surprising election result in recent history. This book is a study of the right-wing culture that has developed in many startlingly contradictory ways.  I believe this would be worth reading for anyone trying to make sense of the people who continually vote in ways that seem to make no sense—and also for those who do vote that way just so they might understand what it is about their movement that seems so incomprehensible to many of their fellow citizens.

I read a few short of 50 books in 2016 cover to cover.  I will be reviewing some of them in the future.

Here’s hoping for a good year of reading to come.

 

 

 

Smartness

James Gleick’s biography of physicist Richard Feynman ought to be part of all high school science classes. Not only does he chronicle the life of one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th Century, not only does he portray the chief puzzle of physics in that century clearly, he manages to convey the substance of the work in enviably accessible prose without once “dumbing down” any of it. All this while using remarkably few equations and those usually only in description of what they do, not in the numbers and symbols themselves. One comes away from the book—Genius: The Life And Science of Richard Feynman—feeling that this would not be such a difficult subject, or at least feeling that it would be as much a human endeavor as art or music or engineering or accounting.

Science is encased in an opaque mythography that seems designed to make people feel inferior. In the main, this is a consequence of language.  At one time, the language of science was abstruse in the extreme. Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story poking fun at the tortured convolutions of scientific jargon.

I say at one time. An effort has been made in recent decades to make it clearer. It occurred to some that the density and deliberate complexifying of scientific papers itself had done unintended damage to the field by making it inaccessible to the very people it is ultimately intended to benefit.  We might not have such frustrating debates going on today in the social and political realms over climate or vaccination had scientists themselves, as part of in-group cultural arcana, kept the lay public at such a distance by making what they do appear simultaneously elitist and impenetrable.

Feynman himself rejected such practices throughout his career.  He never assumed people—average people—couldn’t understand.  Just say it plain.  If you could not explain it clearly, he believed, then you yourself did not understand it. He was constantly railing against “stupid questions.”  Questions either too vague, too big, or too beside the point for any kind of reasonable answer.

But he wanted the questions. He wanted to see that spark of interest, and if he saw a glimmering he would try to fan it into flame. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Richard Feynman became one of the most important questioners in 20th Century science. Partly this was due to his idiosyncratic approach to problem-solving. For example, he rarely ever finished reading a paper by someone else.  He would read just enough to understand the problem and then work it out for himself. He didn’t want the solutions handed to him, he wanted the challenge and, evidently, deep pleasure of doing it himself. Of course, in that way he also found errors, logical inconsistencies, even fraud on occasion.  He was a prodigious calculator, often able to do complex  equations in his head. He intimidated and fascinated in equal measure.

What some mistook for slapdash, undisciplined thinking was rather underpinned by a vigorously compulsive commitment to fact and, ultimately, truth. The rigor of his work ultimately proved the equal or superior to many if not most of his contemporaries. He insisted that the universe make sense and, crucially, he was unafraid of admitting he did not know something.

He lost the love of his life while working on the atomic bomb, a perhaps unfortunate pairing of profound experiences which, while he seldom talked about either, perhaps informed his seemingly random path through post WWII physics.  He was late in receiving a Nobel Prize, partly by his inability to find the “right problem” to work on.But in the course of his search, the work he did informed and solidified work done by many others.

Feynman may have been a genius.  In a scintillating chapter, Gleick examines the subject of genius itself, partly to address the peculiar circumstance that we seem no longer to have any geniuses. This, he suggests, is a byproduct of the fact that we have so many and in a wide range of fields.  What we seem to lack is the singular personality to which the label readily appends. We have no public space anymore for an Einstein.

Or a Feynman.  But that does not mean we do not have them…or that we do not need them. Now perhaps more than ever.

Gleick has humanized Feynman in this, although in Feynman’s case that may never have been needed.  He was known for playing bongos, he was a raconteur, he spoke in a thick New York accent, and he came across often as a kind of rural wit, plainspoken and commonsensical to the core.  Yet his major work was in one of the most difficult and demanding aspects of modern science and he was a major presence. Appearances too often supplant substance.

Knowing this, Gleick also humanized the subject Feynman devoted his life to, making the science accessible and, to a surprisingly large extent, comprehensible to the nonspecialist.

In an era in which “hero” is too often applied to the physical—athletes, models, soldiers, actors—and may itself be a term corrupted by overuse and inconsistent application, it might serve us well to draw back and consider how little attention is paid to thinking and the solving of problems.  The process alone is contributory and ought not be beholden to budget committees or P&L charts or mere application review. That there are people who spend their time unraveling the mysteries of the universe, not in some mystical sense of gurus on mountaintops but in the sense of an Einstein figuring out why the universe is the way it is, should be a source of inspiration.  In the final analysis, it is likely that people like Richard Feynman give us more as a culture and a civilization than all the pseudo-philosophical mouthings of all the gurus that have ever lived.  That one can pull a device out of one’s pocket, almost anywhere on the planet, and look up any or all of those gurus is a consequence of people like Feynman figuring out the nature of the real unseen, the quantum level of reality, which, as Feynman would have insisted, is Reality.

 

In Review

2015 is done and I have read what I read.  It was a year fraught with turmoil in science fiction, a year prompting reassessments, a year when required reading competed with reading for pleasure, and the time constraints of working on a new novel (two, in fact) impeded chipping away at my to-be-read pile, which mounds higher.

As in the past, I count only books I have read cover to cover here.  If I added in total pages of unfinished reading, I’m probably up with my usual volume (somewhere around 90 books), but that would be a cheat.  That said, I read 50 books in 2015.

One thing I concluded, both from what I read and the upheaval in the background about what is or is not worthy science fiction, is that the decades long pseudowar between mainstream and genre is over.  Skirmishes will continue to be fought here and there, certain elements will refuse to yield or concede, but by and large the evidence suggests that, on the part of the literary writers at least SF has made its point. A couple of examples:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is science fiction.  In fact, after talking it over for nearly a year since I read it, it seems to me to be Heinleinesque.  Better written, the characters less exemplars than real people, but in basic conceit and plot, this is a Heinlein novel. It has all the elements—survivors, a plucky heroine, a global catastrophe forcing those who remain to learn quickly a whole suite of new skills, and an ongoing discussion throughout about what is of value and ought to be preserved.  It is a superbly written work and that alone made the identification difficult.  Heinlein, at his best, could be as good as anyone in any genre, but to see the form raised to this level shows both his virtues and his weaknesses.  The population of the Earth is reduced buy a superflu.  The novel flashes back and forth around the life of a kind of patriarch whose biological and artistic progeny struggle in a post-technological world to both survive and preserve the best of that former world.  The novel prompts questions, challenges preconceptions, and draws us in.  It was not marketed as science fiction and it has continued to sell very well.  It is science fiction and no one has batted an eye.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.  An ecological thriller, an examination of a different kind of breakdown, a different kind of survival, peopled by characters as real as can be.  In a decade this will be historical fiction, probably, but it is SF and also mainstream and also uncategorizable.  Exceptional.

Straddling the boundary is Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, which is a curiosity.  It proceeds like a straightforward “survey mission” novel—specialists set down upon an alien world and struggling to unravel its mysteries before said world kills them.  Only in this case the “alien” world in a patch of reclaimed wilderness somewhere along the eastern seaboard, probably north Florida, that is undergoing some strange transformations due to an experiment gone wrong.  There are touches of zombie fiction, government conspiracy, and even Lovecraftian uber-malignancy evoked, but the story, as told by The Biologist, feels more meta than any of those suggest.  the landscape works to inform the soul-wrenching recognitions and evolutions within the Biologist as she works to understand what is going on in the aptly named Area X.  Vandermeer has created a work bordering on genius here by virtue of externalizing and foregrounding mystical revelation as ecological transmutation, but as you read you can’t tease the meta passages from the plot in any clear way, so the experience, when you give yourself over to it, is wholly immersive.

So what I’m seeing—in many more titles still on my TBR pile—is the embrace of science fiction by what was formerly an ambivalent cadre of artists who are using it to ends traditionally ignored by main-body SF.

In the other direction, the infusion of literary concerns, which necessarily drag real-world issues in with them, into genre writing has prompted a squeal of protest from those who wish to keep their starships pure, their aliens obvious, and their weapons decisive.  “Good writing” is still a poorly understood quality by too many in the genres (by no means a problem exclusive to SF, but because of the nature of SF a problem which yields far more obvious failures) and the clinging to an aesthetic attributed to the so-called Golden Age and exemplified by writers probably more often revered than actually read (and therefore misperceived in intent) has exacerbated the old antagonisms and a final flaring up of fires dying to ash.  The clunky sentence is a hallmark of much of this, more likely as consequence rather than intent, and the cliched scenario becomes more obviously so as the whole point of what we mean by “literary” in its most useful mode is overlooked or, perhaps, willfully ignored in a fit of defensive refusal to pay attention to what matters, namely the truth of human experience and the profitable examination of, for want of a better word, the Soul.

Where the cross-fertilization of mainstream and genre has been successfully accomplished, we’ve been seeing novels and stories of marvelous effect.  We have been seeing them all along and in the past such examples were readily offered as proof that SF wass “just as good” as anything published as mainstream.  I’ve always felt that being “just ad good” was selling our potential short, but the work has to rise to the challenge, and there always have been such works.

Among such that I read this past year were a few from that rich past, mainly for the reading group I host at work.  The Two of Them by Joanna Russ; Extra(Ordinary) People, also by Russ; The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis; Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell; and Engine Summer by John Crowley.  In retrospect, there have always been writers writing in the full embrace of science fiction but without any of the stylistic constraints of its pulp origins, and such works remain trenchant and readable and offer surprising commentary still on current questions.

The Sparrow was a highlight. I have known since its publicatin that it was sort of a riff on James Blish’s classic, A Case Of Conscience, but it so much more. Russell’s elegant reversal of the moral question elevates this novel to the top tiers of useful literary works. I have not yet read its sequel, but I am looking forward to it after this treat.

I also reread Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday for the reading group. It’s been a good long while since I did so and I was not disappopinted, although I read many of the stories through a more cynical eye. The opening tale, Jeffty Is Five, remains, for me, one of the most gutwrenching short stories of all time.

Another highpoint this past year was James Morrow’s new novel, Galapagos Regained, a neatly unclassifiable work of speculative history.  I gave it a lengthy review here and recommend a look. This is a superbly done work that deserves more attention than it has received.

I also read Morrow’s amusing novella, The Madonna and the Starship, which runs a delightful gamne via Fifties television and alien visitors who come to bestow an award and offer assistance in exterminating the irrational on Earth.  Morrow is acerbic even as he is funny.

Among the most interesting new works of science fiction I red this year is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translation by Ken Liu.  This is the first part of a trilogy about alien invasion and resistance as written from a Chinese perspective.  It is an exceptional translation.  It won the Hugo Award, the first, I believe, translation to do so, and certainly the first Asian novel to win.  There is high-end physics, nasty politics, murder, and the conundrums of committed action. The cultural quirks made it even more interesting.

Like almost everyone, it seems, I read The Martian by Andrew Weir. This was great fun and well executed.  My quibble, along with many others, was with the opening gambit to explain the marooning of the astronaut, but I’m content to see it as a mere dramatic choice.  It didn’t preent me from enjoying the rest of the book, which, in the words of the screen adaptation, “scienced the shit out all this” and did so in an accessible and entertaining manner which I applaud.  I couldn’t help seeing it as a newer version of an older film, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and naturally this one works a bit better.  Hell, we know more, there’s no excuse for bad science, and Mr. Weir that.  He wrote a realistic piece of speculation and followed through admirably.

Another novel that gave a far more “realistic” view of an old, favorite SF trope, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.  There is much to love about this book, but it is not lovable.  It’s a clear-eyed look at what an interstellar generation ship would actually be like.  And it is bleak, in terms of the traditions of SF.  Suffice it to say without giving away too much that Robinson fully incorporates entropy into his formula with predictably gloomy results, but for all that it is a thoroughly engaging work.

At the other end of the “hard” SF spectrum is Charles Gannon’s Fire With Fire.  Future interstellar expansion brings humanity into contact with our neighbors.  The resulting tensions drive the novel.  I reviewed it here.

Science fiction is a broad, broad field and has room for a magnificently wide range even on the same subjects.  It even has room, as I noted above, for exceptional style.  One of the most enjoyable reads for me, on that note, was Ian McDonald’s new novel, Luna.  There will be comparisons made to Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  Look for an upcoming review where I will argue that the comparison, while in some ways valid, is superficial.  Anyone who has not read McDonald, treat yourself.  This would be a good one with which to begin.

In a completely different area of the playground, there is Daryl Gregory’s AfterParty, which I found excellent.  It’s about drug abuse and the workings of delusion and murder.  Anything I might say here would spoil it.  Go.  Find it.  Imbibe.

The bulk of my reading, after that and a few other titles, has been scattered.  I found a brand new history of the Group f64, which was the first dedicated group of photographers to push the pure art of the straight photograph.  Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, several others, in the 20s and 30s established the ground upon which all photography came to be viewed for the rest of the 20th century and even, arguably, into today. Mary Street Alinder, who has previously written a biography of Ansel Adams, did a superb job chronicling this group of prickly independent artist.

I read a history of a superhero, Wonder Woman, and discovered that the story of her creation was even stranger than the character herself.

A new work by journalist Johann Hari, Chasing The Scream, opened my eyes to the thorny issue of the Drug War.

In the wake of seeing the film Interstellar and beginning work on my own novel about (partly) interstellar travel, I dove into Kip Thorne’s Black Holes & Time Warps and had my mind bent in some ways I didn’t think it could be bent.  This has prompted a reengagement with science on this level which is proving difficult, tedious, and yet rewarding.  My mind no longer has the plasticity it once enjoyed.  On the other hand, experience has proven a benefit in that I seem to be absorbing and comprehending at a much deeper level.  We shall see.

Quite a bit of history, much of it unfinished.  In a separate reading group, I’m going through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and reading in the history of the French Revolution, the Republic, its fall, all partly to complete the third novel of my trilogy, but also because the literature available is so rich and surprising that it has become its own pleasure.  It would seem now I’m about to embark on early American history again, anchored by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

There was a new Mary Russell novel this past year, Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King.  I discovered a Dan Simmons novel about Holmes which I’d overlooked when it came out, The Fifth Heart, in which he is paired with Henry James, one more in a long line of novels and stories concerning Holmes’ unlikely interaction with historical figures.  Simmons is a terrific writer, but even he tended toward the tedious in this one.  He needs to learn to leave his research in his files.  But it was a unique take on Holmes and he even managed to elicit my sympathy toward James, a writer I find problematic at best, insufferable at worst, and annoying the rest of the time.

So much for the highlights.  Let me end by noting that the Best American series has finally realized that science fiction and fantasy are a real thing and launched one of their annual collections to cover it.  This after both Best Of infographics and comics.  Better late than never, I suppose.  The series editor is John Joseph Adams—difficult to imagine better hands—and this first volume was edited by Joe Hill, which I found interesting to say the least.  Mr. Hill is a horror writer.  Certainly many of the stories have a strong horror element, but over all this is a collection full of marvels, from the writing to the ideas.  I’ll try to keep track of this one in future.

So while not numerically great, 2015 was filled with many very excellent books.  I’m looking forward to 2016.  My stack awaits.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Easy Habits and the Consequences of Belief

At first glance, the two books could not be more different. Subject, tone, everything seems different. Not at odds so much as…nonoverlapping.

Which is ironic, since both deal, in their separate ways, with that very idea, the separation of areas of knowing.

Probably because I read them so close together I recognized their shared concerns as clearly as I did. Whatever the reason, it struck me as obvious in so many ways that I began to recall all the other books over the last few years that could be likewise gathered within this same subset, all on distinct topics and yet all based on, to some degree, an analysis of the same human propensity to disregard evidence when it contradicts belief.

Let me begin with the more general of the two.

Jerry A. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist.  Compared to others with public profiles, he has published few books.  Three, to be precise.  His latest, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is a direct challenge to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.”  Gould’s premise is that science and religion should not conflict with each other because they are concerned with entirely separate realms of knowing—hence the nonoverlapping part—and except for certain agenda-driven partisans, there is no reason for them to be in conflict.  Coyne sees this as accommodationism, which he thoroughly discredits in his book.

My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.  “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions.  In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.

Coyne identifies Accommodationism as an attempt not to stir the hornet’s nest, because scientists are often dependent on politically sensitive funding.  Science, especially Big Science dealing with questions of origins, is expensive and the days of the independently wealthy scientist are largely gone.  Rocking the boat by annoying those who hold the purse strings would seem ill-advised.

The conclusions, he goes on to argue, of scientific inquiry continually poke holes in those claims by religion that still assert authority over secular matters.

But more than that, such deferral to authority erodes our critical capacity and can lead to false conclusions and bad judgments, all because we accept the hegemony of “faith.”

…a word defined in the New Testament as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann characterized it as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

The sticking point for many would be that “reasonable person” proviso, for surely, as Coyne concedes—often—there are many reasonable people who nevertheless espouse a religious faith.  What are we to make of that?  Is the basis for the assessment of “reasonable” perhaps too ill-defined or is the scope of “belief” too broad?

Coyne takes us through the process, giving a thorough explication of why science and religion are incompatible if not a convincing argument for the down-side of belief for belief’s sake.  He tells an anecdote early in the book about how he yearly teaches undergraduates a course in evolution, which the majority do very well at, but admit, after earning their A, to not believing a word of what he taught.  Because it contradicts their religious belief.

It is this that Coyne sees as the dangerous aspect of faith as promulgated through religion, the a priori rejection of evidence in favor of a set of usually unexamined beliefs.  He takes us through a catalogue of negative manifestations, from the rejection of medicines to the acts of terrorists to the rejection of solid science (like climate change), that have their underlying justifications in religion.

Coyne, an admitted atheist, puts all this forward while taking pains to admit the personal comfort to be found in religion by many people.  From a certain point of view he tends to go the extra kilometer to be fair.  Of course, going through the comments on various review sites, those predisposed to reject such arguments accuse him of profound bias if not outright malicious intent.  One cannot help but wonder if they bothered to read the book, all or even in part.

The book makes its case clearly and concisely.  It avoids the polemic outrage to be found in other tomes by big name atheists by sticking largely to evidentiary concerns and philosophical arguments.

But, one may ask, so what?  Religion and science are two realms in which most people would assume they have no stake. Castles in the air, esoteric arguments about things that have no impact on our daily lives.  Most people seem to keep a religion much the same way they have a pet and certainly in the West the majority live secular lives and only rarely feel compelled to apply their religious convictions to anything.  As for science, as long as the technology we depend on works, all the rest is so much theoretical handwaving.  It makes no difference if we have almost no understanding of quantum mechanics and certainly evolution is just tenure-building nonsense having to do with million-year-old bones and what kind of textbooks the school district might use next year.  Nothing to do with us in our daily lives. So what if people rely more on faith and belief in making their daily judgments than on evidence-based science?  We operate more on heuristics defended by aphorism than by reason and applied understanding, or so Daniel Kahneman tells us in his excellent study, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and we by and large get along perfectly well that way.

How does this argument concern me?

Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing The Scream, has an answer to that.  Of sorts, if we but make the epistemological leap.

Hari is writing about the drug war. It is, for him, as much a personal examination as a journalistic one, as he admits to having family and friends who are addicts.  He begins with a simple question.

I scribble down some questions that had puzzled me for years.  Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue?  Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t?  What really causes addiction?  What happens if you choose a radically different policy?

Okay, three questions.  Still, simple, basic questions, to which any reasonable person might reasonably expect a reasonable answer.

Yet we spend billions, bully small countries, destroy thousands if not millions of lives, all in pursuit of policies which rest on an appalling lack of informed justification.  By the end of the book you come to see that there are no answers to those simjple questions which in any way validate our continuing on with things as they are.  As they have been for a hundred years.

Hari goes back to beginning of the war, before drugs were illegal, and takes use through the history.  Back to Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who fueled the drug war for the twin purposes of maintaining his agency and exorcizing demons that had possessed him since childhood, even in the face of substantive research and sound arguments denying his approach to the problem had any merit and more than ample evidence—Prohibition—that it would lead to catastrophe, not only on a national but on a global level.  Hari details Anslingers battle to destroy Billie Holiday and his use of intimidation and police tactics and, subsequently, U.S. foreign policy to assure the continued crusade to eradicate drugs and destroy addicts.

Not because of any evidence Anslinger understood that led him to think this was the only if not the best way, but because he believed it in spite of growing mountains of evidence that this was a wrongheaded approach.  He suppressed evidence, hounded physicians who dared present alternative models to the drug problem, intimidated politicians—except those who could secure him funding—and strenuously denied the validity of any evidence that  contradicted his belief.

He believed.

As many did and still do.  It is this that trumps hard evidence.

Even as a young adolescent I thought the argument for our drug policies was lacking.  I thought at the time that I just didn’t understand.  Never having been in the least interested in drugs and knowing few if any who were involved with anything more serious than marijuana, it seemed not to concern me.  Later, I did a short stint as a volunteer drug counselor, but the work was far more than I could handle at the time.  I trusted the people in charge knew what they were doing and certainly the gang violence associated with drugs seemed to make a persuasive case that this was a worthwhile and often desperate fight.

But as the years went by and the war continued, I began to notice bits of research here and there and how certain politicians contradicted themselves and how the prison population, especially in the wake of Nixon’s near militarization of the police community and the drug war ethos, was growing and in very worrisome ways.  I began to seriously rethink my position with Reagan’s zero tolerance policies and the mandatory sentencing guidelines he established through Ed Meese, one of the notable Puritans of the modern age.  Even so, I had the nagging suspicion that maybe I was just missing something.  Certainly I didn’t approve of drug addiction, but I more and more came to believe that these people needed help, not punishment.  We understand that process very well with alcohol, why is it different with narcotics?

And besides, there are plenty of people who receive perfectly legal prescription narcotics and never become addicts.

The number of holes in the picture kept growing.  I no longer trusted stated drug policy, but I didn’t understand the instransigence of people over reform.

Hari’s book lays it out very clearly.  Money is high on the list.  We fund too many of the wrong people at too high a level for them to be easily weaned from the teat.  Foreign policy is also tied to this, especially in these days of international terrorism which has a strong drug component.  But the factor that ties this in to Jerry A. Coyne’s book is the one Hari covers only glancingly.

Belief.

It is easier to rely on what we have always believed than to look at evidence that requires us to change our mind.

Many aspects of our lives are covered by this observation, but where problems arise are those with political and social ramifications.  The persistent beliefs about the poor, about minorities, about people with different beliefs, even when evidence is provided which significantly challenges such beliefs and suggests strongly that not only are they wrong but that we would be better off discarding them, we cling to them.

Hence my conflation of these two books and the suggestion that they share a common idea.

Not that I argue that all beliefs are wrong.  What is wrong is the intractable nature of unquestioned belief.  The only reason the drug war continues is that it has considerable popular support and the only reason it has that is that many people cannot bring themselves to change their minds about it in the face of not only evidence but what we euphemistically call common sense.

But that can be said of so many things which directly and indirectly impact our lives.

Perhaps it is a stretch and perhaps I argue out of my own biases, but it seems to me the most valuable tool we can have in our intellectual toolbox is the ability to say “well, I believe that but I might be wrong.”  Faith cannot maintain, however, among people who are able to say that and apply it to anything and everything.  Science is built on exactly that principle—all knowledge is conditional—but belief, as exemplified by religion, thrives by the absence of that principle.  It says some knowledge is absolute, not to be questioned.

In the contemplation of matters of theological concern, this perhaps offers consolation, comfort, a certain utility, to be sure.  But it is easy for unquestioning acceptance of arguments from authority to become habit and then apply it to anything that our prejudices suggest we may wish to avoid examining.  Drug addiction is an unfortunate affliction and it may be uncomfortable for people to see it for what it is—a disease, like alcoholism.  That discomfort makes room for assertions from authority offered by people who claim to be working on our behalf.  Our unwillingness to ask evidentiary questions is a cozy environment for demagogues and despots.

When you ask “What does this have to do with me?” you might be surprised at the consequences of avoidance and the price of unquestioning trust.  Why should we learn science and how to apply the discipline of examining evidence?  So we don’t hurt ourselves out of the easy habit of belief.