Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Post-Humanity on the edge

kw: book reviews, science fiction, sociological fiction, propriety

Over the past century and more, the central trend I have noticed in Science Fiction has been a shift from a technical to a social emphasis. Early sci-fi and speculative fiction (spec-fi), such as that by Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle (Challenger series in particular), and H. G. Wells, were largely about the science, known or imagined. The human aspect of the story was secondary, even though Verne and Wells in particular used their stories to protest or parody their social environments. While Doc Smith's Lensman series' good-vs-evil conflict limned the recent (to Smith) World War, much of the focus was on the solution to the problem of secure identification, and securing persons of character worthy of that responsibility.

Most of the stories I read in Analog, Amazing, and Azimov's sci-fi magazine in the 1970s and 1980s were, by contrast, about human relations, regardless that most of the beings were aliens: they usually were foils for very human foibles, and the problem-solving in these stories was aimed at accommodating variant cultures or opinions. The grand ballet of good-vs-evil was seldom seen, and the "let's build this gizmo to fix that problem" type of story, even less so.

It was with a story called "My Brother's Keeper," by an author whose name I forget, that I first took note of the circa-1980 emphasis on transcendence without need of high technology: the author imagined a future, a rather near one, in which Social Security falls under its own weight, and explored the result. The protagonist, with the help of a few geriatric, but new, friends, finds a good way to make lemonade with the lemons that drop in their laps. Personal transcendence was the common theme of the stories written by those who, a decade or so earlier, became hippies and drop-outs trying to "find themselves." These are sci-fi only in the sense that they are placed in a future.

The latter 20th and early 21st Century has seen the grand, galaxy-spanning epic move from fringe to mainstream: Star Trek and Star Wars films and books embody the trend. The former is a discovery epic, the latter a conquest epic.

Throughout, sci-fi and spec-fi writers have shown increased sophistication in their portrayal of geopolitics and geopoliticians. While Star Wars spreads a model of very Earthly (5th-to-8th-Century Byzantine, in fact) geopolitics into a galaxy-spanning epic, J. D. Townsend, in The Assassin's Dream, fits his drama onto the few continents of this very Earth. The novel is not just post-Apocalyptic: two Apocalypses have passed, and another is being ushered in as the story closes. Here, personal transcendence is a background issue; group transcendence comes to the fore as two groups of a new kind of human—engineered rather than mutated—struggle to survive among a human race that emphatically not ready to be replaced.

The story posits, both in the Tressalines and in unmodified humans, an advancement in the development and use of ESP. Townsend wisely refrains from speculating on a mechanism. Rather, taking it as a fact, he explores the implications. So, I place this in the spec-fi category. The ending leaves room for a series of sequelae.

I have one major scruple. There are two chapters, largely composed of explicit sex, that could be wholly excised without harm to the story. References elsewhere, to "Sexual Services" as a public function, could easily be toned down to the subdued level practiced by most writers of the 1950s. As it is, the sexual writing is of a sort that I call "writer's wet dreams." I have yet to find a man who can write about women's sexuality without making them into men with vaginas. In thirty years of diligent search, I have yet to find one natural (XX chromosome) woman who thinks like the women in male-written fiction.

A note to authors everywhere: if you want to write about explicit sex, write about it, sell it in the appropriate marketplace, and be done with it. Don't try to make it an "integral" part of a story about something else. The attempt is usually laughable and always distracting. Artists, particularly writers, have the opportunity to ennoble or to debase their audience. In which way would you prefer to be remembered?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Meat vs Metal (as usual)

kw: book reviews, science fiction, imaginative fiction

In a story I read long ago, perhaps by Asimov, but maybe not; perhaps titled "The Perfect Robot," the president of the robot company is on a compulsive quest to produce a robot that cannot be distinguished from a person. Several models of ever-greater perfection are produced, until a robot is presented to that executive, that is so perfect, he cannot determine whether it is a robot or a young man. That day, aliens arrive: first contact! Wouldn't you know it, the robot company is one place they are taken to visit. The company president proudly shows off the robot, emphasizing that it cannot be distinguished from a man without disassembly. The alien responds, "So, what's the point?"

I grew up to stories of robots. In the 1950s and '60s, I read everything by Asimov, of course, but also by every other science fiction writer, especially about robots. It was the other stories by Asimov, primarily his "Habitats" stories, that clued me in to the secret. In both "Robot" and "Habitat" stories, Asimov was really exploring neurosis. Even later, as I read his frequent columns in various publications, including his own monthly SF&F rag, I realized that he was America's most successful neurotic. Until very late in life, for example, he never took an airplane flight.

There is a comparative dearth of good robot stories filling the time between his last new story (late 1980s) and about 2002. The current underlying theme of robot stories in this decade is exploring subjective reality and solipsism. Who am I, really? If you had an infallible test to distinguish human from android, would you dare to use it on yourself?

The robots in Robota, by Doug Chiang (ideator and illustrator) and Orson Scott Card (wordsmith), can in no way be confused for people. They don't want to be. They are extreme extrapolations of semi-anthropoid "mechanicals" that partake more the nature of industrial robots—generalized to insecto-humanic form—than of the Honda Asimo.

The story line is rather silly. It is the illustrations by Chiang and the lyrical writing by Card that bring the story and the reader/viewer's mind together in a willing suspension of disbelief. As with all great art, Robota brings you willingly into a created world different from your own. The visual art—more page space is given to images than to words—is worth perusal on its own merits.

So what does the book explore? It is deeply post-apocalyptic. Indeed, two apocalypses are in its past, and the story ushers in a third. The "who am I" twist in the denouement closes the knot.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Little Things Beneath our Feet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biogeography

After circling the globe on Beagle, Darwin spent about twenty years fussily preparing a huge tome on his findings. Upon receiving a write-up of Wallace's independent work, he rushed into print with Origin of Species, an "outline" of the larger work he never completed. During that twenty year period, and for ten years thereafter, he studied earthworms. He once stated that all the soil of England passed through her earthworms about each decade.

In Under Ground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World, Yvonne Baskin presents a glimpse into the world beneath our feet. The background cover photo is labeled in the credits "200 species of mites". I suppose they were extracted from one soil sample in Canada, based on the photo credit. Doesn't surprise me. I've read that there is at least one ant colony for each living human, and at least a ton of termites to each of us. I read that there are probably ten times as many nematodes as termites in the world. The author quotes Nathan Cobb's 1914 statement: "If all the matter in the universe except nematodes were swept away, our world would still be recognizable,...its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes." Now it appears that more than half of all animal species are nematodes...I'd thought that was beetles! But every beetle species has at least two parasitic nematodes...

It wasn't what I expected when I began. I was hoping for a natural-historic survey of the field. That is accomplished, very briskly, in one chapter. Case histories of a number of locales make up the rest, and the focus is on what happens to the subsoil critters when people do something to it. In other words, this is an ecological manifesto. The warning is clear, if unwelcome: There are already a number of clear examples for which a large area of soil has been changed beyond recovery, even "managed recovery." Formerly forested places where trees cannot be induced to grow, for example. It is found that the subsurface fungi and microbes that could support trees have been replaced by an ecology that can't. Just one example.

A thought-provoking book. Personally, I like getting a pinch of some stuff, whether yard dirt, pond mud, or birdbath scum, and looking at it under a microscope to see what's there. Now, when I peer at tiny worms, mites, rotifers, and fungi, I'll recall that what we do to our yards can effect huge changes in which of these will flourish, which die away, and what new creatures may replace them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

New Orleans Bay

kw: disasters, city planning, politics

Two days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I wrote an Email to Louisiana Governor Blanco, suggesting that the city be relocated to higher ground, such as that just to the north of Lake Pontchartrain. A couple days later, there was a newspaper article about the way she lambasted Speaker Hastert for making a similar suggestion on the House floor. Oh, well. I didn't really think she'd like the idea.

But I really think the existence of New Orleans as the world's largest below-sea-level city has been the result of the most egregious string of stupid city planning decisions in human history (yes, I do think it is even worse than Venice...by far. We knew more in the early 1900s than the Italians did in the 1400s, about sediment subsidence on deltas. It was just ignored).

In my opinion, that portion of the French Quarter, the Old City, that is above mean high tide, ought to be protected as a historic enclave. The rest ought to be allowed to return to lagoon status, which is what "nature" wants in any case, and sooner or later it shall be so. But the later it happens, the more it will cost the US Taxpayers.

Omnibus Review No.2

kw: book reviews, grammar, etymology, nonfiction, ecology, science fiction, humor

Another week had to pass, and I've read four books. Seems using a computer all day, when it gets intense, to do so at home also is like a busman's holiday. Well, that's another story.
  • Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, also subtitled The seamy and quirky stories behind favorite nursery rhumes: a collection of "the real stories," or as real as can be known, by Chris Roberts.
  • Word Origins...and how we know them, also subtitled Etymology for Everyone: a modest collection of the conceptual tools used to discern words' histories, by Anatoly Leiberman.
  • Tree: a Life Story, a natural history of one conceptual Douglas Fir by David Susuki and Wayne Grady.
  • Only You Can Save Mankind, science fiction, firmly tongue-in-cheek, by Terry Pratchett.

The two "words" books are much different from one another. The first presents entertaining histories that are known, conjectured, or speculated to have led to about forty familiar nursery rhymes, and some that led to groups of similar rhymes, such as lullabies. I've long wondered why "Rock-a-bye Baby" ends with the baby falling out of a tree. You won't quite learn exactly why, here, but you'll get food for thought about it.

I've long realized that stories of dragons, elves, sprites, and the knights in shining armor that overcome them, or become subject to their tricks, are about inner battles: one day I realized that the dragon is me, the knight is me, and the captive damsel is also me; I cried a long time. Other stories, about ogres, trolls, and giants, recall the terror of learning to get along with larger kids, older siblings, and parents, who were not always exactly pleased with us.

But nursery rhymes, most often, seem to be kids' ways of coping with unconquerable forces, or of making fun of the grown-up hypocrites around them. Author Roberts has dug up quite a set of interesting history for our enjoyment.

Dr. Liberman's book is a much more difficult read. I find linguists' tools fascinating, but it is easy for me to see that it would take a number of the precious few years I have left to gain any facility with them. In the end, I find etymology a bit like playing 'Tetris'. With a handful of exceptions, we don't know the 'original origin' of a word. Rather, we determine, say, that STAND and quite a number of ST- words (STAY, STEAD, STABLE...) come from a Greek root meaning "fixed" or "held steady". We may even find an older word that the Greek came from, but we know we'll probably never find out if ST- goes back to the origins of speech in the 1000th Century BCE. In the end, a Tetris block will get you. But it's pretty cool to see how linguists dig out the relationships. Cool and strenous.

Suzuki and Grady have produced a lyric proem to a Douglas Fir (they use the term Douglas-fir, because the tree is not a real fir, but a false cypress), tracing its history from the fall of seeds centuries ago, through maturity, ending in its inability to overcome the depredations of predatory beetles, becoming first a snag, then a fallen giant, finally a nurse log for a row of hemlocks. Along the way they open little windows into many facets of Earth history and ecological studies. As close as I've come to a kind of empathy with a forest giant. This is the second time I've read the book.

Terry Pratchett writes well enough to entertain me in six or seven subgenres of Science Fiction. This book plays off the 1992 Gulf War and its obsessive TV coverage against video games, as the latter get more real, until the young gamester Johnny finds the line between game and world getting rather blurry. From one angle, it is a solipsist permabulation. But mainly it is a humorous romp through the half-real world of "virtual reality," which we find is getting more real-seeming daily. My favorite series of Pratchett's is the Discworld saga.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Omnibus Review

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, nonfiction, dogs, grammar, humor

I note I haven't posted since August 24th. That's when I began physical therapy for tendonitis caused by excessive use of the computer mouse. I wear a brace along the top of my arm, anchored to my thumb. A foot-long contrivance, all to protect a bit of tendon a half-inch long while it heals. I've recovered enough to make one post, which I'll use as a mega-review of the eight books I've read in the past twelve days. These are not in the order I read them.

First, the dog books:
  • The Light-years Beneath My Feet, science fiction by Alan Dean Foster.
  • The Dogfather, a mystery by Susan Conant.
  • Dog World and the Humans who Live There, nonfiction by Alfred Gingold.

To over-generalize, the world (in the West, at least) is composed of dog people, cat people, a smattering of bird-, snake-, and other ex0tic pet-fanciers, and those who wonder how a "dumb animal" can inspire such devotion. Of course, we pet people know animals aren't dumb; they speak languages that humans seldom care to learn. Yet many, perhaps most, house pets learn quite a lot of the human language used around them. So who is the dumb one?

In Foster's tale, which continues the alien abduction story told in Lost and Found, the dog has been equipped to speak, and given sufficient brain boost to do so rather eloquently. The dog and his man, plus two alien creatures allied with them, continue their quest to return home after being captured by "evil alien zookeepers". It puts an interesting spin on the experience of many animals captured in the wild for our zoological parks.

The Conant mystery, about a dog trainer "invited" to train the new puppy of a Mafia figure, is touted as "The dog lovers' answer to Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who series." Ms Braun's protagonists are two Siamese who keep a retired, rich journalist and provide him with clues to solve murder mysteries. Both cats and journalist are urbane, witty, and noble, though the gentleman in question can be a bit of a bumbler. Ms Conant's canines are definitely the kept ones, here, and the trainer is anything but urbane or noble. There is really no solving of a mystery in this book, unless it is the detection done by the Mafioso in figuring out who offed his favorite hit man. Inside job, of course. However, the story is enlivened by a view inside the world of high-stakes dog shows. A fun read, but Braun's cat stories are in no danger.

The Gingold narrative traces a "why" person's conversion to dog lover. Anyone who has seen a Norfolk terrier will understand that Gingold had no choice: "resistance is futile; prepare to be assimilated." Being a writer by trade, however, he goes a bit farther than you might expect, becoming conversant with dog breeders, trainers, and the show circuit. So the title is apt. George the terrier is a foil for a world of dogs that Mr. Gingold observes, records, and finds amusing or admirable by turn.

Now, a couple SF&F collections:

  • Wild Galaxy, an anthology of Sci Fi stories by William F. Nolan.
  • Bedlam's Edge, an anthology of Urban Fantasy stories, edited by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, written by fifteen writers including the editors. All concern Urban Elves or Mall Elves, the Sidhe set in Ms Lackey's bailiwick.

Here, the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy could not be more pronounced. Nolan's stories are near-hard Sci Fi, shorter on explanation than "really hard" Sci Fi, but set in a universe that, we understand in reading, could be explained if he wished to take the extra space. I found it interesting that nearly all his stories derive their tension from solipsism: as "mechanicals" (androids) replace humans, how do you know which you are? I find his obsessive attention to this boundary reminiscent of Asimov's "I Robot" stories and their successors. For Asimov, robots were sane—or they could by—, humans weren't, nor could they be. His non-robot stories primarily explore various neuroses. Nolan digs deeper. Once you have machines that mimic humans so precisely, how to distinguish? I most of the stories, mayhem is required, to see the gears inside. In only a few does the human protagonist come to terms with the thought that every other "person" may be mechanical.

Finally, a diversity of nonfiction:

  • Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes, a brief autobiogiggle, with brief notes by Bob Hope held together by material collected by daugher Linda Hope.
  • The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution, by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard.
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, a grammatical guide for the true sticklers among us, by Lynne Truss.

Ms Hope has done us all a service by collecting hundreds of her father's best jokes, and ordered them by decades (nine of them, at the time of writing). I remember seeing a live TV special in which Bob Hope appeared, when he was about 95. I don't know if the cameramen were being cruel or just unfeeling, but they broadcast him from the time he stepped from a limousine, helped by a nurse to reach the stage. It was, inadvertantly, quite touching. We saw a bent-over, tentative, shuffling old man led to the steps and helped up to the stage. At its verge, he was handed a microphone, the nurse backed away, and he seemed to bloom. The ancient vanished, and there was Bob Hope! He could'a been forty. His piece wasn't long, time enough for thirty or forty jokes, and he said goodbye to the host, handed over the microphone, vanished, and the nurse returned to help an old, old man leave. With Bob Hope, at any stage of his life (I was a fan for fifty years, and watched a couple of his movies made when my parents were young), what you saw was what he was.

Messrs. Kusek and Leonhard present a more serious issue. With about half the online American public, and many millions more worldwide, downloading music freely using peer-to-peer and similar networks, are we all criminals, or the vanguard in a sea change in the music industry? Really, the answer is "both". However, downloaders are criminals in the sense that the flow of traffic on I-95 between NYC and DC is composed of criminals, because they are all going 70 mph or faster in 55- or 65-mph zones. They are not "nefarious pirates," as the recording tycoons would have us believe. Pirates attempt to profit financially. Downloaders don't; they just want music at prices below rip-off. There is a principle of jurisprudence, that if more than 15% of a population refuse to abide by a law, it becomes impossible to enforce, and will eventually be replaced or eliminated. The authors expect the music industry to change much as other industries have changed, when disruptive technologies drive some segments of an industry out of business while setting the stage for new ones to arise and thrive (buggy-whips, any one?). Fact is, the recording industry is going away, but the music industry as a whole will grow mightily. The authors' preferred method of music distribution is "music like water," where part of our subscription to online services is divvied up according to the services provided. It is quite doable now to record the number of times a particular entertainer's track is copied, and to pay accordingly. This will eventually work for videos and still images also.

Ms Truss has a visceral reaction to solecism. That means, these days she must feel pretty sick all the time. Unlike the vast majority in the "grammar advice" genre, her book is readable, entertaining, and educational. Having a sense of proportion, she knows where to stop. So, while she briskly explains a half dozen uses of the comma, for example, when she mentions as an aside one writer who lists seventeen (calling them an insufficient collection), she doesn't give us the seventeen. Considering that very few people could enumerate two or more uses of the comma, what's the use?!? While some writers decry punctuation almost in its entirety—in manifestoes that make copious use of punctuation—and the spread of phone texting and "emailese" (e.g. "CU B4 8" and "wrking on pres. - hav it dun by noon - boss wants rt aftr lnch") bid fair to replace almost every symbol with the dash, the author makes a good case that punctuation will survive, as writers find the need to ensure their readers will understand their writing. Had Matthew had the use of a comma in 55 AD, theologians wouldn't be fighting over the passage rendered "I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise" by Protestants, and by Catholics, "I say to you today, you shall be with me in paradise."

OK, that's the lot. Tendon a bit sore, time to ice it then put my brace back on.