Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Three for a reason

kw: omnibus review, book reviews, nonfiction, science fiction, space fiction, naturalists, apes, politics, polemics

Even reviewing three books I'll have to keep it short. The injury in my fingertip is slow to fully recover. In order to type I put a pressure bandage over it; that reduces edema.

These are three quite disparate books! First, interstellar fiction at its best:

A lovely bit of space opera: Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. Niven has made his name with epic stories of immense space mysteries, in settings where starships are a bit like clipper ships: costly but in frequent use; and alien constructions of incredible size are discovered and explored.

Several years ago in Bowl of Heaven these authors introduced something even more huge than the Ringworld of Niven's "Known Space" books. The Bowl is somewhat wider than Earth's orbit, and its technology uses a captive K-class star for illumination and propulsion. Having a surface area a few million times that of a typical planet, all in perpetual daylight, such a world can support trillions or quadrillions of beings.

The story is a drama of interactions between the humans who have arrived at the Bowl and the various species they encounter there, particularly the elephantine, birdlike "Astronomers" who are nominally in charge. As the story reached its climax I remembered a 1967 episode of Star Trek, "The Squire of Gothos", in which an all-powerful being turns out to be a misbehaving child once his parents intervene at the end. As always in work by both Niven and Benford (and collaborations), we find a bracing panoply of alien minds and cultures.

The Bowl itself is of more interest to me. Several times the characters discuss its dynamic equilibrium. Rather tricky that, holding a star with the Bowl's gravity while inducing it to form a jet—similar in principle to the nucleus of an active galaxy, just star-sized—to propel both Bowl and star across the galaxy. The jet's forces counteract the gravity that would draw star and Bowl together. What I didn't see discussed is how they make it turn around to slow down. The stability of the system turns out to depend on plasma-beings called the Diaphanous. One one hand, I first thought this a copout, but it also emphasizes Niven's determination to imagine some kind of intelligent life for every possible environment. The centers of stars and the surfaces of neutron stars await…but not the interiors of black holes; that's been done.

Second, encounters of a quite different sort underlie Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection by Sheri Speede. This remarkable woman first became a veterinarian, but yearned for something more worthwhile than spaying pets and treating heartworm. An opportunity to visit Cameroon opened up a new world to her, and at the age of forty, she jumped in with both feet.

There are several threads in the book, including lots of autobiography. I'll leave it to her to describe the twists and turns of her own life. She had been blessed with an upbringing and early experiences that helped her cope with the very difficult lifestyle in rural Cameroon. Her passion has been to set up and maintain a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued chimps. Now you can learn of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center here.

The book opens with, and later develops the background story leading to, the death of Dorothy, among the first of the rescued apes. Dorothy became a kind of tribal matriarch to the sanctuary chimpanzees. When she died, Dr. Speede had to perform an autopsy, but afterward, wheeled her covered body by the compound for the other apes to view her. The clear grief on their faces was captured in a photograph that has done more to crack open the anthropological community, and the world at large, to the understanding that chimpanzees have emotions very much like ours. No longer can anyone get away with claiming that "they don't feel in ways we can relate to" or "they don't really feel pain" and so forth.

Creating and running a nonprofit of any kind, particularly an ape rescue enterprise in Africa, takes an incredible amount of fundraising and much time-consuming political effort. The author was favored with a network of support that built up quickly, and the time was ripe for a logging company and numerous regional and tribal chiefs to encourage and support the work. Still, there was a level of effort and commitment that would have deterred her had she had any idea what she was getting into. Those who do great things are often blessed by this kind of holy ignorance. They do the impossible simply because they don't yet know it is impossible.

I wept often while reading, sometimes in joy, sometimes in pain. I suspect, so will you.  I would hope better of my fellow humans, some of whom are degraded to the extent we see in rampant animal cruelty. I am also encouraged by those who express the best of humanity by, in any way, helping what they can help. I recall telling someone of a similar, small effort, and he responded, "That is just a drop in the bucket." I replied, "Yes, so where is your drop?"

Third, something to rile the blood, whether your political slant is left or right or neither: a set of Lou Dobbs chalk talks in book form, Upheaval. Lou Dobbs is unabashedly conservative. We need more like him. These days, the public face of conservatism is, at best, shamefaced. Conservative "leaders" are embarrassed to be conservative, except for a few who claim they are conservative but are actually somewhat left-leaning moderates…they are conservative only by comparison to the rampant collectivists who run this administration and the Senate.

Lou Dobbs wants to do something about that. His weapon is facts, well-researched and well-presented facts. In that, he is more effective than Ross Perot was around 20 years ago, with his flip chart campaign ads. The trouble is, most Americans either don't care enough to realize that the scandal of the month really will affect them, or they are all, "Don't confuse me with facts. My mind is made up." American politics is "American Idol" set on a larger stage. The one who can sing best and get the audience whooping gets the most votes. Nobody even listens to the words of the song.

For me, an unabashed science nerd, I find the following a most telling symptom of our malaise (my bullet points, not his):

  • American astronauts have to rely on getting a ride with Russian cosmonauts to get to and from the International Space Station. I'll bet that ends if we do more than weakly, squeakily protest the current Russian "adventure" in Ukraine.
  • The next visit to the Moon will be by the Chinese. They have said so. They began orbital flights in April of 1970 and intend to send Chinese astronauts to the Moon by about 2020. The next six years ought to be interesting. I wonder if they will bring back the American flag from Tranquility Basin as a souvenir.
  • The latest three countries to launch orbital rockets were Iran, North Korea and South Korea, all since 2009.
Hell, if North Korea, "the dark spot on the map of the Earth at night" can afford a space program, anybody can! We spend more on dog food than on NASA.

Quite frankly, the most fundamental of fundamental problems in this country is risk aversion. America was not started by the risk averse, but now it has been taken over by them.

Do you know why I do not get more politically involved? Too imaginative, too emotional, and I don't want to die of apoplexy. I had to read the book in spurts and starts. A steady diet of polemic, even polemic I agree with and as well presented as this, makes me too upset to sleep well. Lou Dobbs is right much more than he's wrong. I hope someone is listening.

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