Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

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Links and Comments: Why I am Not a Conservative

Every once in a while an op-ed in the New York Times, or a book review in NYT or PW (Publishers Weekly), will be on the subject of defending conservative values. I have a very basic intellectual grasp of what conservatism means — nothing at all having to do with the current presidential administration, of course — yet as always I check these new pieces out and consider or reconsider them in the broader context of human and human social evolution (as Steven Pinker has done in his past couple books; I come in to this on Pinker’s side, the side of the Enlightenment).

Here is the latest, a review in last Sunday’s NYTBR of a book by Roger Scruton, called Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, the review by Michael S. Roth. (The title of the review in print is “Against Progress: Roger Scruton calls on liberals to examine their assumption.” The title online is “Defending Conservatism, and Seeking Converts.”)

According to the review, the book addresses familiar themes.

At the core of “Conservatism” is the idea that human beings live naturally together in communities and that we “desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity.” We may be rational beings capable of planning our future, but we also need customs and institutions to ground and sustain us over time. Good things, Scruton wisely notes, “are more easily destroyed than created.”

Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, yes yes. And yet:

Scruton knows that conservatism is a reaction against the Enlightenment confidence in improving the world through the use of reason, but he is at pains to distinguish the thinkers he admires from mere reactionaries. His philosophers don’t want to return to the past, he insists. Yet he provides no clue as to how they decide which traditions are worth preserving. Burke may have protested against the cruelties of slavery and imperial domination, but there have been plenty of conservatives who defended these practices. Scruton’s account of the conservative defense of freedom includes not a word about colonialism or racism. To paraphrase what he says of the American conservative Russell Kirk, Scruton just picks the conservative flowers that appeal to him.

And so Scruton needs a common enemy, and picks… the Muslims.

Scruton can no longer find worthy Communist adversaries, so at the end of the book he turns against Muslims, hoping for a “rediscovery of ourselves” by stoking fear and loathing against those who he says do not share “our” religious or political inheritance. He knows how this will sound to many of his readers, so he warns them against thinking he’s just being racist. But one doesn’t have to be politically correct or to participate in what Scruton calls the “culture of repudiation” to find it unfortunate that a philosopher should stoop so low. The “great tradition” Scruton describes can attract study and respect without stimulating nasty chauvinism. His “well-meaning liberal” readers will find Scruton’s deft handling of a variety of conservative thinkers enlightening (if I may use that word), but they will be appalled at the grand old tradition of scapegoating he employs to rally the troops.

Sigh. My understanding of conservatism is that it values tradition, and human institutions, and at root is based on a core understanding of human nature that finds it unreliable, that individual humans are inevitably flawed (given to sin in Christian parlance), and must be protected from themselves by the institutions of culture, which must not be destroyed. The Enlightenment project of science and reason to improve the human condition — which seems to have worked remarkably well, c.f. Steven Pinker’s books — cannot be trusted, in the conservative view.

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I heard a similar theme recently (August 1st) on Michael Krasney’s Forum radio show — produced here in the Bay Area by KQED but syndicated and broadcast nationally — with Conservative Columnist Mona Charen on the Failings of Feminism. Her book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense [beware appeals to common sense!!]. The summary on the KQED website captures the theme:

In her new book, “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense,” conservative columnist Mona Charen explains why she thinks feminism has made women more vulnerable and less happy. Although she believes the sexes should be treated equally, Charen says pretending men and women are the same is naive and dangerous. Charen joins us to discuss where she believes feminism has gone wrong.

There are several items to respond to here: no one thinks men and women are the same; this was a leftist fantasy in the ’60s and ’70s, long since discredit by science (E.O. Wilson, and more recently Pinker — one of the first examples, via Wilson, of how I changed my mind about something). Second, the show featured numerous callers who challenged her characterization of feminism, which most of us think is an expansion of options, the willingness to grant women the same options as men — not to in any way to force women, any particular women, to do anything they don’t want to do. And third: growing up means becoming more vulnerable and less happy, than in innocent childhood.

The theme of her talk, I detected again and again, was the conservative idea that these issues of how best to live have been solved, and need to be imposed on those too irresponsible to know what’s best for them. There’s a paternalism, so to speak, in how conservatives presume to tell other people how to live their lives. (Which is ironic, considering how they criticize, in other contexts, the ‘nanny state’.)

This is a key reason I am not a conservative even in the broadest intellectual sense. I don’t believe humanity is inherently flawed; I do think progress is possible (the evidence is all around us); I think the perception of flawed humanity is the conflict between, in E.O. Wilson’s take, individual and group selection, the constant tug between short-term and long-term strategies to survive. (And as George R.R. Martin put it last night in his on-stage interview: there are no good guys and bad guys. In every person is the potential for goodness and the potential for greed, sometimes on alternate days.)

Another key reason I am not inclined at all toward conservatism is that modern conservatism, never mind the authoritarian outlier of the current president, allies itself, in order to desperately preserve its valued institutions, with things that simply aren’t true. Thus conservatism’s hostility to science, and its identification of the reality of the world, from its evolutionary and cosmic history to the long term threats that might destroy our civilization, and even our species.

Posted in Changing One's Mind, Conservative Resistance, Culture | Leave a comment

Daily Matters: New Books; Flash Drive; The Piano, and the Discomfort of Art

Tuesday August 7th:

My main contributions now, to Locus Online, are the weekly Bestsellers page (I spend an hour or so compiling rankings of SF, fantasy, and horror books listed on mainstream bestsellers lists, from New York Times, LA Times, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon sites in US, UK, and Canada) and especially my weekly ‘New Books’ page, where I have compiled information from various sources about books to be published each week. While new movies invariably come out on Fridays, new books are with rare exceptions released on Tuesdays. Another general rule: publishers release most books early in any given month, so the first Tuesday of every month always has more titles to list than following Tuesdays. Further: certain months, especially in the Spring and Autumn, see more books released than in, say, December or January. Today it’s August, yet despite that trend rule that would exclude mid-Summer, there were 25+ titles to research and write-up for today’s New Books post. So it took about 3 ½ actual hours, though interrupted by going out for lunch and running errands, and a nap, spanning about 6 hours, from 10:30 this morning to the post at 4:30pm. (We get up at 5:45 am, but I sit down to read for a couple hours from roughly 6:15 to 8:30, with a break to catch the headlines on the Today Show at 7am. And then check daily websites, email, and so on, until beginning the day’s work.)

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Wednesday, August 8th:

I’ve gotten into the habit of copying my active files, from my laptop (or sometimes my PC), to my current flash drive, every day, and every time I leave the house. I always take my flash drive with me when I leave the house. I’m protecting my file integrity against break-ins to my house, and to the constant peril of wildfires breaking out in areas of California, that, with little notice, could burn my house to the ground. (I remember TV video of people trying to return to their Oakland Hills homes in the 1992 fire, when they’d heard news about it during the day, and being unable to.)

Yes, I have cloud backups; I use iCloud, but I don’t do that every day. I should, and I will plan on updating that frequency.

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Thursday, August 9th

Last week we watched Amadeus; this week we watched The Piano, both older movies my partner had never seen before and which I had not seen since first release, and thought well worth re-watching.

My partner got really really angry by the end of The Piano. Holly Hunter’s character — a mute woman who has been *sold* as a wife to a 19th-century New Zealand frontiersman, whose antipathy to her precious piano leaves her cold, and susceptible, in return for her piano, to relations with her husband’s associate — was a *cheater*, in his view, so she should have died at the end, and not survived.

He tends to have these extremely moralistic reactions to TV and films, to what are arguably works of art; we barely got through the first season of Mad Men because he was so disgusted by the character of Don Draper… who was cheating on his wife. And last night, after finishing The Piano, he threatened to *kill me* if he ever thought I was cheating on him. And he threw the remote across the room.

(He is oblivious to the motives of my life — about my websites and books and projects — and obsessed by fantasies of how I might cheat on him. I do everything, do my work and watch some movies and listen to certain music, on the side, while he’s at work, and once he gets home, we have dinner and sit down to watch Wheel of Fortune and Big Bang Theory reruns. I feel safe posting this, because he never reads my blog…

In his defense, he occasionally has these temper-tantrums, but they blow over quickly, and are usually forgotten by next morning. Still, they reveal subterranean churning. And they are forgotten whenever we spent the weekend with either of his kids, and their partners, which we will do beginning this Friday, with Michael and Honey.)

I wonder if artists in general, writers in particular, are aware of how many people are not only indifferent, but actually hostile, to books and films and plays and even music, that challenge their assumptions of how the world ought to be. Theirs is a relationship to art, whether literature or film especially, that looks only for entertainment and confirmation, never for challenges; that takes everything personally, that does not understood it an anthropological manner, understood in terms of its time, and why characters might react in ways different than people would today.

It’s not that these people are busy; it’s just that they reject such challenges. They regard those other people writing those books and making those films as just troublemakers.

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Links and Comments: Trump and His Supporters; Versions of Leviticus; Ancient Aliens, Skepticism, and What Science Fiction Is Not

I’ve been preoccupied with other matters in recent months, and need to resume regular posting of Links and Comments from things I see in the papers and magazines that I think are pertinent, in one way or another. If I rail about Trump, it’s not about him precisely, it’s because he represents a shift in the United States’ position in the world, not for the better, and thus a stage of human history some thinkers thought we had moved beyond; and because he exhibits so many traits of authoritarian autocrats before him, demonstrating that some people can be fooled all of the time, and as a society we are still unable to learn from history.

New York Times, 20 July: Timothy Egan: Blame the 400-Pound Guy

Wishing for supporters of Donald Trump to find their hearts, their brains or their patriotism is a fool’s errand. We are, as the president has said many times, “a stupid country,” and every day of this presidency proves his point.

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New York Times, 20 July: Frank Bruni: Disgusted With Donald Trump? Do This

By which he means vote. Key thought:

That’s because they read polls, including an astonishing one that SurveyMonkey just did for Axios. It revealed that 79 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s sycophantic performance at the news conference with Vladimir Putin, while 85 percent deem the investigation of Russian intrusion into our elections a distraction. They bear less and less resemblance to the followers of a coherent ideology and more and more to the members of a cult. That word is gaining currency in our political discourse for excellent reason.

Cult.

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New York Times, 21 July: The Secret History of Leviticus, by Biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz.

As I argue in an article published in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.

Of course what any version of Leviticus said or did not say should be irrelevant in today’s world. Except that for some people, for whom the ancients were wiser than any people living today could ever be, and who don’t actually believe that our government is based on a constitution and not a holy book, apparently it matters.

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New York Times: 21 July: Suspicious Minds: Mingling with wariness and wonder at a conference devoted to “Ancient Aliens.”

It should not need to be said, yet probably does, that this kind of thing — belief in ancient astronauts, conspiracy theories about Area 51, and the like — is antithetical to science fiction, which is more aligned with science and its inherent skepticism, than with the gullibility and wish-fulfillment of the crowds at events like this.

Carl Sagan, the popular scientist who captivated television audiences of the 1970s and ’80s, once said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

But Mr. Sagan has been dead for years, and many Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas. There has been a resurgence of the flat-earth theory. More than a few believe that global warming is a hoax, that survivors of mass shootings are crisis actors.

Yet for many at the conference, and elsewhere, this is not simply a political divide. We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor). What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low.

And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.

To be clear: skepticism is not cynicism. Skepticism is being savvy about what is known and established, and to avoid being gullible, given the understanding of human motivations toward in wishing false things to be so.

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David Brooks on Myths vs. Parables

New York Times columnist David Brooks runs hot and cold with me; ostensibly a conservative, he’s too inclined to dismiss new ideas in favor of sanctified values, for my taste, yet he does read widely and responds to many new ideas.

Here’s his take on the notion of myth vs. parable, and how it’s reflected in our current culture.

NYT: The Fourth Great Awakening.

There are certain melodies that waft through history. One is the cultural contrast between Athens and Jerusalem. This contrast has many meanings, but the most germane one for our day is the contrast between the competitive virtues and the compassionate virtues.

These two sets of virtues get communicated in different literary forms. The competitive virtues of Athens are usually narrated in myth while the compassionate virtues of Jerusalem often get narrated in parable.

Myths tend to celebrate grandeur and heroic superiority; parables tend to puncture the pretensions of superiority and celebrate humility and service to others.

All of a sudden, we are surrounded by myth. As parable-based religion has receded from the public square, heroic myth, and the competitive virtues it celebrates, has rushed in to fill the space.

I’ll just mention three forms that are immensely popular today. The first is mythic movies: “Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Star Wars,” “Transformers,” “Justice League” and the rest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe franchises alone have grossed about $20 billion at the box office worldwide.

I regularly run into people (men, mostly) who are deeply immersed in these mythic worlds, who can entertain you with long disquisitions on the merits of different characters, the moral lessons of each film, whether “Black Panther,” say, is an accurate rendition of injustice today.

And he goes on about video games, and sporting events like the World Cup. The essay ends:

There are many virtues to the mythic worldview — to stand heroically for justice, to be loyal to friends and fierce against foes. But history does offer some sobering lessons about societies that relied too heavily on the competitive virtues.

They tend to give short shrift to relationships, which depend on the fragile, intimate bonds of vulnerability, trust, compassion and selfless love. They tend to see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes. They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.

We’re spiritual creatures; our lives are shaped by the moral landscapes and ideals we inherit and absorb. I’d say our politics and our society are coming to resemble the competitive mythic ethos that is suddenly all around.

For what it’s worth, Steven Pinker’s recent pair of books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, identify the abandonment of what Brooks calls the mythic worldview with the advance into a modern world of enlightenment, peace, and the decline of violence.

And this theme echoes the post recently about superhero movies.

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My First Web Page

The subject of old websites came up on a Facebook thread yesterday, particularly pages created on various platforms that are now extinct, like sff.net or compuserve.com. Long before I created this blog, first in Blogger and then in WordPress, I created a homepage on Compuserve.com, then along with AOL.com the hotbed of online interaction. It’s nowhere on the web itself that I can find — not via Wayback Machine or any such place — but I found my local copy, on my harddrive, and uploaded it here. Let’s see if the link works…

Yup. Note that I was learning html at the time and playing around with table tags and table cell coloring. Thus the entire page has no links to graphics or anything; the coloring is all done via table cell color tags. Moreover, the colors are mixes of three basic settings, for each of R,G,B: either 00, FF, or 69.

This page links to several samples of the short fiction review column I was writing for Locus Magazine at the time. I did the column from 1988 to 2001. Looking back at them….they’re not bad.

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Link and Comments: About Superhero Movies

From Sunday’s NYT.

Mark Bowden, Why Are We Obsessed With Superhero Movies?

The issue for me is why these types of stories are so popular, recently – and how these are primitive fantasies, the very opposite type of story as the exploratory, outward looking visions of science fiction.

If heroes are idealized humans, then today’s reflect an exaggerated Cult of Self. They are unique, supremely talented beings who transcend laws, even those of nature. Hollywood has always cherished mavericks, but these are, literally, cartoons — computer-generated.

They celebrate exceptionalism and vigilantism. The old American ideal of succeeding through cleverness, virtue and grit is absent, as is the notion of ordinary folk banding together to overcome a threat — think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the original “The Magnificent Seven” or any of a dozen World War II-era films. Gone is respect for the rule of law and the importance of tradition and community. Institutions and human knowledge are useless. Religion is irrelevant. Governments are corrupt and/or inept, when not downright evil. The empowered individual is all.

The superhero is an alien or outcast who possesses unique powers acquired either at birth or through some accident or gift. You can imagine the avid consumers of such films electing a president who boasts “I alone” can solve the nation’s problems, and who delights in tagging his domestic and foreign opponents with villainous, comic book monikers — “Crooked Hillary,” “Rocket Man.”

Normal humans are mere bystanders, when they are not being crushed or vaporized. The average person is powerless and depends for survival on the good will of the gods. (It may be worth noting that in real life, the only way for a human to acquire anything like a superpower is to buy a gun, which may shed new light on America’s firearms fetish.)

There’s a connection here between the left/right divide, and a couple recent David Brooks columns, that I will explore further.

Posted in Culture, Movies | Leave a comment

Added Lines in Angels in America

I posted this on Facebook, June 9th, but need to capture it here:

We saw Angels in America part 1, Millennium Approaches, on Friday June 1st, and part 2, Perestroika, on Friday June 8th, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In between those dates I reread both plays, copies I’d bought in 1993 and 1994 when they were first published, after seeing the Broadway production in 1993. Watching Perestroika this past Friday, I thought I heard several lines that seemed unfamiliar; did I glaze through them when reading the play two days before? One passage that I thought especially striking was at the end of the key scene late in the play as Prior leaves Heaven, renouncing his role as a prophet, as he accuses the angels of not seeing what’s to come, but only seeing what they fear. A striking line. I got home and checked my copy of the play. Lines not there. A bit of research: Kushner revised the plays a bit, and his final 2010 revisions were published in a 2013 combined edition. Which has those lines:

“PRIOR:
You haven’t seen what’s to come. You’ve only seen what you’re afraid is coming. Until it arrives — please don’t be offended but… all you can see is fear.

I’m leaving Heaven to you now. I’ll take my illness with me, and. And I’ll take my death with me, too.

The earth’s my home, and I want to go home.”

Fun facts: among actors who played roles in earlier productions: Daniel Craig, Zachary Quinto, Cynthia Nixon, F. Murray Abraham, and Cherry Jones — not to mention Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, et al, in the 2003 HBO TV production — as detailed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_in_America:_Perestroika

https://www.facebook.com/berkeleyrep/

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Asimov: THE WINDS OF CHANGE

THE WINDS OF CHANGE AND OTHER STORIES, published in 1983, is the 11th of 14 collections of SF and fantasy stories from the ‘main sequence’ of Asimov’s collections: the set of his collections that don’t overlap, that don’t consists of remixes of stories from earlier books, that don’t consist of mystery or other non-fantastic stories, and aren’t small press or limited-edition volumes (which overlap the main sequence in most cases anyway).

To clarify and stipulate: I’m missing one of the 14, the 1988 volume AZAZEL, fantasy stories about a pocket demon, which is why it’s not shown in the photo here. I’m missing at least one large remix, a 1985 Tor volume called THE EDGE OF TOMORROW. Other remixes are the ones shown flat in the photo. I’m not including the three early FOUNDATION books, since they are commonly thought of as novels (even though their contents were originally published as magazine stories); yet I’m including I, ROBOT, as a story-cycle that’s always been published as a collection.

As with the collections of Ray Bradbury, the early volumes contain the author’s strongest work, peaking in Asimov’s case with NIGHTFALL AND OTHER STORIES in 1969. The later books, especially THE BICENTENNIAL MAN, have the occasional stand-out story, but for the most part consist of lesser works written on request, often to address a given theme, while Asimov was preoccupied with writing novels or nonfiction books. The final two collections, GOLD and MAGIC, published after Asimov’s death in 1992, are SF and fantasy respectfully, all the stories not already collected; but there were so few of them in the last decade of his life that each book is filled out with a generous allotment of essays.

The last collection before Asimov’s death in 1992 was this one, THE WINDS OF CHANGE, consisting mostly of stories first published from 1976 to 1982, with two others from the 1950s that for whatever reason were missed in earlier collections. Those two, and a couple three of the later stories, are especially interesting.

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A few of the lesser ones first, interesting mostly because Asimov provides short introductions to the stories that reveal why they were written, and you can see how Asimov responded to an assigned task. Asked for a story about dependence on computers, he wrote “A Perfect Fit” (1981), about an attempted computer fraudster punished with a psychologically instilled inhibition against using computers, rendering him unable to function in his modern world. It’s essentially a rewrite of Knight’s “The Country of the Kind” or Silverberg’s “To See the Invisible Man.” Inspired by his membership in a Gilbert & Sullivan society, Asimov wrote “Fair Exchange?” (1978), a time travel paradox story about retrieving the lost music from the early operetta “Thespis.” Asked for a story by a fashion magazine (!), Asimov produced “For the Birds” (1980), in which a fashion designer visits a space station and realizes that exercise in zero-G shouldn’t involve wings, but rather fins like dolphins. Asked for a four-part story for newspaper syndication, Asimov wrote, in 1979, “It Is Coming,” in which Multivac – Asimov’s cavern-sized mainframe that runs the world, from his early robot stories – is summoned to decipher the message from an approaching alien object, with a payoff about contact not between alien races, but between computers.

Given the title “The Last Shuttle,” we have a story (1981) about a much-advanced space shuttle, 170 years in the future and operating with anti-grav, ferrying away the last of the entire population of humanity, in order to leave Earth to return to wilderness. Hmm, would that really happen? Asimov can be glib at times and carry you along with persuasive arguments and counterarguments that hide the implausibility of the key premise. In “Nothing for Nothing” (1979, inspired by the idea of cave paintings) alien explorers to Earth 15,000 years ago find cave paintings of the era so remarkable they carry out an ‘exchange,’ in a curious variation of Trek’s prime directive; but really, why is idea of representational art so novel to them? And in “To Tell at a Glance” (full version original to this book) a tour guide on one of a dozen worlds in Lunar Orbit must detect which of five visitors from other worlds is possibly a saboteur from Earth. The key slip-up depends on the architecture of the worlds – toroidal space stations – and what the phrase “the other side of the world” means in that context. But would someone from Earth, hearing that phrase, automatically look *down*? Really?

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On to the better, or at least more interesting for one reason or another, stories.

“Belief” is a 30-page story from 1953 Astounding, and concerns Roger Toomey, a physicist who discovers he can literally levitate, as he demonstrates to his wife. He hesitates to reveal his talent to others, because as a physicist he can’t conceive how such a thing could be possible. So what does he do? He writes letters to prominent physicists at other universities, asking for their speculation on how levitation might theoretically work. His own department head learns of these letters and admonishes him. He meets with a psychiatrist for an interesting discussion of what Toomey’s *real* problem is: getting scientists to study something they don’t want to.

The story ends as Toomey attends a seminar by a fellow physicist who didn’t respond to his letter, and demonstrates levitating before his eyes, forcing him to accept the phenomenon rather that admit he might be insane.

Now, the story is contrived in that Toomey could have avoided all his troubles by demonstrating his talent to his department head and other associates in the first place. But key to this story is that Asimov mentions, in his intro to the story, that Astounding editor John Campbell – notorious for his interest in the 1950s and ‘60s in various pseudo-scientific phenomena, beginning with Dianetics (later Scientology) – forced some changes to the story that Asimov didn’t entirely approve of. Hmm. How to get scientists to study something they don’t want to. (Asimov mentions he didn’t have the original ms. of the story to use for this book.) One can see Campbell skewing the story to make that point. Trouble is, as with the Dean Drive and Campbell’s other hobbyhorses, all it takes to interest the scientist is a presentation of unambiguous evidence of a new phenomenon, and that never happens with perpetual motion machines or the like, just as this story is prolonged by the needless withholding of such evidence. There’s not really a problem here.

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A newer story, from 1976, is “Good Taste” (1976), set on the same orbiting Worlds used in the later story “To Tell at a Glance,” though with much more flare. Set on Gammer (a corruption of Gamma), the family of Chawker Minor welcomes him back from a year-long ‘Grand Tour’ of other worlds, a youthful practice tolerated if not approved of. The parents are Elder Chawker and Lady Chawker, the older brother is Chawker Major, and everyone in Gammer lives off ‘Prime,’ a culture of fungus, which is flavored through elaborate artificial flavors with names like Frisking Lamb, Sour-Mind, and Mountain-Tang. Minor’s older brother Major is quite skilled at this, and intends winning an annual taste competition, but Minor has some ideas of his own as a result of his tour, and enters the Finals against his brother.

The payoff recalls an Arthur C. Clarke story about artificial foods vs. their real counterparts, but what’s notable here is the amount of inventiveness in the depiction of this in-grown world and how outside worlds are held in disapproval. “Elder thinks that all rights and wrongs were written down by the makers of Gammer and that it’s all in a book of which there is only one copy and we have it, so that all the Other Worlds are wrong forever.” There’s more imaginative social speculation in this story than in the entire rest of the book.

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“Ideas Die Hard” is a 1957 story from Galaxy magazine, edited by Horace L. Gold, whom Asimov notes was an “acerbic individual” notorious for cruel rejections; Asimov eventually stopped submitting to him. The set up of the story is that three earlier unmanned probes sent to see the Moon’s far side have failed before reaching it, so now two astronauts are being sent on the latest probe. As they travel Davis, a contrarian, challenges Oldbury for proof that the Earth is really round, that it’s really billions of years old, and so on, or whether any evidence one might cite could have been fabricated somehow. (It recalls the Bradbury story about the astronaut who begins to doubt the existence of reality outside the ship.) Which makes it astonishing that when the probe rounds the Moon the two astronauts see – scaffolding. The Moon is a fake, a construct. There’s a surprise ending beyond that, that recalls the famous debut episode of Twilight Zone. Thus the story never truly addresses the epistemological issue: how do we know what we know, accept or challenge convention truth. The unintentional irony of the story is that it never answers its initial question.

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“The Last Answer” was written for the 50th anniversary issue of Analog (formerly Astounding) in 1980, in honor of editor John Campbell and Asimov’s early career there. The title sounds like a cheeky riposte to Asimov’s famous story “The Last Question,” and both deal with god issues. In this story atheistic physicist Murray Templeton dies of a heart attack and is amazed to find himself still conscious, apparently drawn into ‘heaven’ and speaking with an entity who might as well be God. This entity describes what it wants from Templeton, and how Templeton will have all eternity to fulfill that purpose. Templeton argues and draws the entity into an admission of what all eternal entities must want. As with so many Asimovian dialogues, it’s persuasive from point to point, but at the end you might suspect you’ve merely been argued into a corner.

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“The Winds of Change” (1982) is something of stunt, even a tour-de-force, in that except for a few paragraphs at the beginning and a few at the end, it consists of a long monologue by one Jonas Dinsmore, a mediocre college professor, directed at his department chairman and a rival, more talented, professor. Dinsmore knows he’s not liked, but while the three of them sit in a lounge awaiting some forthcoming message, he indulges himself by imagining how he might change things to his own advantage. Not by changing himself, or by changing them, or by changing the science they are all devoted to – but by changing the world around them. To turn the tables.

Furthermore, he claims, he’s concocted a means of time travel to make a change in the past to effect such a change in society. He’s researched their pasts and knows their early involvements in free thought movements.

The story’s not about how he managed time travel; it’s about what possible change he could have made to disadvantage the talent and expertise of his colleagues, their interest in science and free thought.

(Spoiler!) The message arrives, via agents of the Legion of Decency (!), who first arrest the chairman and rival professor “in the name of God and the Congregation for the crime of deviltry and witchcraft.” And then acknowledges Dinsmore as the new president of the university.

Dinsmore has his victory. Except that — final line — “In the grip of the Moral Majority, he must remember, no one was ever truly safe.”

And so scientists become victims of a theocracy. The story reflects Asimov’s concern about movements like the Moral Majority (what the Christian evangelical movement was called at the time), expressed in many of his essays of the time, along with his concern about the various forms of science-denial that plague us today, but have always been present throughout American history.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov | Leave a comment

Skiffy Flix: Forbidden Planet

This 1956 film is still regarded as an important early science fiction films, and one of the best of the 1950s, even if it shows its age 60 years on. It influenced both Star Trek and Lost in Space, and in turn our notions of what adventures in outer space might consist of.

(“Skiffy flix” is my derisively affectionate term for bad science fiction movies, which is most science fiction movies, and certainly by most standards all science fiction movies before 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Yet the older ones, especially those from the 1950s, retain a fascination for me, for reasons discussed in thes posts — they are not to be taken as serious science fiction, but they reveal things about what was *thought* to be science fiction, or what filmmakers *thought* the universe was like, or how filmmakers deliberate misrepresented that universe in order to appeal to what general audiences *wanted* the universe to be like.

“Skiffy” is a deliberately derisive pronunciation of “sci-fi,” which is a much-loathed abbreviation for “science fiction”; it was coined in the 1950s in analogy with “hi-fi” (that is, high fidelity record players) and its association with the crude science fiction movies of the time made it anathema to writers (and readers) of the usually far more sophisticated SF novels and stories. And “flix” of course is Hollywood headline abbreviation for “flicks,” that is, movies.)

In these movie review posts beginning in 2018, I’m adopting the format of my Star Trek episode reviews: rather than a narrative review or analysis, this is a set of bullet points, annotations as it were, as I step my way through the film, with just enough plot synopsis to put the comments in context. And as with those Trek posts, my comments align along several themes: how the story and premise make sense on their own terms; how they reflect accurate or inaccurate conceptions of the universe; and how they reflect cultural values at the time, which we may or may not sympathize with today. And how film and TV SF differs, in scope and ambition, from the literary variety.

  • This film predates the original Star Trek series by a decade – or a bit less considering when Trek’s first pilot was being drafted and sold. The basic conception is very similar. In the film, we follow an interstellar spaceship, here mundanely named the C57D, on a mission to Altair IV to check on the status of a scientific expedition sent there 20 years before. (Sounds a lot like certain Trek episodes!)
  • The spacecraft C57D, appropriate for its time (the 1950s saw the peak of UFO/flying saucer sightings) is shaped like a flying saucer – round, with a thin wide center disk, and round bubble top and bottom.
  • Typical of most science fiction in any medium, the film under-estimates the rate of future technological progress. At the very beginning, a narrator intones, “In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 A.D., they had reached the other planets of our solar system.” As it turned out, men (no women) landed on the moon in 1969, and it’s only lack of will – not technological know-how – that prevents anyone in 2018 from designing ships to reach other planets in much less than another 200 years.
  • The narrator goes on to say that, “almost at once” after 2200 A.D. “hyperdrive” was discovered by which the speed of light was “greatly surpassed,” and thus “mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” The film does not indicate how soon after this event in 2200 A.D. our story is set.
  • (The best set of quotes from the film I’ve found is here: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Forbidden_Planet )
  • Still, we are told that this “United Planets Cruiser C57D” is “now more than a year out from Earth Base” on a mission to Altair.
    • As occasionally in Trek, one spots the unexamined assumption that, despite however long hyperdrive has been available, and planets of other stars have been settled upon, this year-long mission to Altair is setting off *from Earth.* Aren’t there other places it might have set off from, in an interstellar neighborhood made accessible by decades or more of hyperdrive?
    • For that matter, is it plausible that this ship full of several dozen men should be sent on a *year-long* mission just to check out what happened to an earlier expedition? (Does this have precedence in the sea voyages and colonization efforts of the Europeans over several centuries?)
    • And we are told that the earlier expedition was sent out 20 years ago! Why has it taken 19 years to send the follow-up?
  • The opening scenes reveal several design and plot points stolen by both Star Trek and Lost in Space.
    • Trek of course adopted the idea of a starship running various missions.
    • Lost in Space adopted, or stole, several very specific design points: the navigation sphere in the middle of the control room of the ship, with a model of the ship in the center; the “D.C. Station” pads that the crewmen stand on as the ship decelerates out of hyperdrive (LIS had tubes in which the crew, in the very first episode, were suspended to be shielded from the shock of the launch); and of course the flying saucer structure of the craft, complete with three legs with steps; and the ‘tractor’ (in LIS called the Chariot). As well as the idea of a robot, and the plot point in which an invisible creature leaves heavy footprints.
    • In a minor Trek, or Trek TNG, allusion, there’s even a line here about having to “reverse polarity.”
  • The plot gets underway as the ship from Earth, captained by Leslie Nielsen (familiar as a comedic actor in later decades in Airplane and many others) as Commander Adams, with Warren Stevens (familiar from Trek) as Doc Ostrow, lands on the planet, despite a voice message from Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius warning them away, because not only do they need no help, but because Morbius cannot guarantee their safety if they land. (Sounds familiar.)
    • The special effects are good, but not great; you can see the model of the spaceship wobble as it descends the surface of the planet.
    • This is the place to mention the story’s debt to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which I will not further explore.
  • A landcar approaches – seen via a plume of dust coming in from a distance – and arrives, piloted by what the crewmen realize is a robot. This is the famous Robby the Robot, who had a later life in other movies and TV shows. Robby speaks and invites the captain and his men to visit Dr. Morbius.
  • Who lives in a palatial structure of 1950s Moderne design, complete with fountains and abstract art objects.
  • Morbius explains that he lives here all alone, that the rest of the crew of his ship died of some “planetary force,” which vaporized their ship, the Bellerophon, as they lifted off to return to Earth (leaving Morbius behind).
  • But after lunch we see Morbius is not all alone – he has a daughter, a young woman named Altaira (how unimaginatively cliché) (played by Anne Francis), who without explanation is wearing a very skimpy dress. Apparently Morbius didn’t think to count her as another person, as he’d said he was on the planet all alone.
  • Here is where the film goes off the rails, by any standards I would think; perhaps these scenes merely reflect how sexual innuendo was handled in the 1950s. We are told that Altaira has been raised in isolation, and has never seen other people aside from her father.
    • And yet, she has no trouble complimenting the three men from the Earth ship as prime specimens. How does she know? And she’s not in the least bit shy, despite apparently not having seen any other human beings than her father in her entire life.
    • (Perhaps Altaira has been exposed to videos of Earth people, perhaps in movies? If so it’s not mentioned.)
    • And then follows several scenes of excruciatingly embarrassing dialogue as one crewman and later the commander tries to make small talk with her and get to know her. She is innocent and misunderstanding, or pretending to be so, even as she keeps showing up in one after another skimpy dress, in later scenes; or the scripters are playing the situation for laughs.
    • Several of these scenes are just badly directed. When the first crewman to chat her up corners her by the coffee machine, what are Morbius and the others doing? We don’t know. Morbius seems to be unconcerned about the culture shock of his daughter meeting new people; Adams unconcerned about one of his crewmen’s obvious intentions at attracting her attention.
      • As an aside, Walter Pidgeon’s acting has all the warmth of a documentary film narrator. He has a sonorous voice, but otherwise is leaden.
    • And for no particular reason we see that Altaira has several ‘friends’ outside in the garden: a couple tame deer and even a tame tiger. These are cited later as evidence the local aliens once reached Earth, but why should Altaira have some magic charm over them? A later implication is that she possesses some essential innocence, that becomes lost when her sexual feelings for one of the men wakens; but do young innocent women normally have magical charming effects on large animals?
    • For that matter, it’s easy to wonder if there isn’t some subconscious motivation on Morbius’ part, that he should let his daughter dress so.
    • Later Commander Adams intervenes when his crewman is ‘teaching’ Altaira how to kiss, and incredibly Adams gets angry at *her* for leading the crewman on, never mind how they’ve been told how isolated she’s been and have heard how naïve her responses are.
  • The next scene involves Adams’ need to get instructions from Earth about what to do, given that Morbius has no interest in being rescued or leaving the planet. Yet contacting Earth seems to require a huge construction project to build a “klystron transmitter” that involves cannibalizing parts of the ship. Perhaps Adams should have been given authority to make decisions on his own, if the technology to phone home is that difficult to deploy.
  • A running comic relief character is Cookie, the ship’s chef, who’s always wiping his hands on his apron. At one point he corners Robby (how is it he has the authority to tell this alien robot where to go and what to do?) and asks for some “real stuff,” you know. No Robby doesn’t know. Cookie produces a bottle of booze. Robby can reproduce any substance, it seems (how handy; but then, robots and aliens routinely have supernatural powers in movie and TV sf) – by pouring a sample into his ingestion port! — and promises 60 gallons of the stuff.
  • And then the plot begins. One night something unseen breaks into the ship and sabotages some components. Adams and Ostrow confront Morbius the next morning about what that might have been. Morbius, without answering their question, tells them about the Krell, the ancient race that inhabited this planet, who reached vast heights of intellect and ethics – before vanishing in a single night.
  • And Morbius takes them on a tour: first of his lab, a large room full of modernesque screens and gauges, and a “plastic educator” or teaching machine that Morbius says he used though it almost killed him, but still doubled his IQ. [Despite which he uses the phrase “almost literally to the power of infinity” which is problematic on three grounds.]
  • Morbius then leads them onto a shuttle car that shoots down an endless tube. We then see them, from high overhead, walk across a bridgeway over a vast vertical shaft – a vision copied by Irwin Allen in another of his 1960s series, Time Tunnel, in its initial episode – and tells them there are 7800 levels and dozens of similar shafts, all atomic reactors.
    • These apparently vast sets and enormous machines are the sense-of-wonder highlight of the film, a reasonably sophisticated vision of alien technology and knowledge that suggests how far advanced it might be over anything human.
  • Adams argues with Morbius about who should control access to this vast store of knowledge left by Krell. Morbius insists only he is capable of deciding what knowledge to release, presumably because of his now vast IQ.
  • Back at the ship, the crewmen construct a force field around the ship – another gizmo stolen by Lost in Space. Yet that night something invisible breaks through it, leaving large deep footprints in the soft soil as it walks, enters the ship (bending the steps, though they are unbent later), and we hear a scream as a crewman is murdered.
    • A crewman constructs a model of the foot that made the footprints, a shape that defies evolution. But what has this to do with – as we find out — the monster from the Id?
  • The crewmen arm themselves as radar detects the creature returning – and they realize now that it’s invisible. They fire their blasters (common SF gizmos of the pulp era, later adapted into LIS lasers and Trek’s phasers), and the splash of the blasters makes the creature visible, a fiery outline of a monster with a gaping, screaming mouth. It grabs men who get too close and tosses them aside. (The invisible monster that becomes visible is seen again in Jonny Quest, in a quite similar depiction.)
  • The monster abruptly vanishes – because, we see, Alta was having a nightmare and wakes Morbius from his sleep. Hmm.
  • Adams tells the crew to prepare to depart; he and Ostrow head to Morbius’, planning to use that machine for a brain boost. As Adams comforts Alta (as in Trek, the Captain has gotten the girl), Ostrow sneaks off to use the brain booster, and returns, shaken. He reveals that the great underground machines enabled the Krell the materialize anything they could imagine – even, he says as he dies, the “monsters from the Id.”
  • Adams confronts Morbius, having figured out what’s really going on. (In these final scenes, Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon do some genuine acting, or at least have a chance to raise their voices.) The machines respond not only to conscious commands, but also motivations by the subconscious – the Id! (An old-fashioned term, Morbius says, trying to brush the theory aside.) And the monster is him, Morbius — he was the one who destroyed the Bellerophon, in anger at being abandoned, and he’s the one attacking the Adams’ now, as his daughter threatens to leave him for Adams.
  • The monster now approaches Morbius’ residence, tearing it apart; the humans flee into the Krell chambers below, as the monster approaches, melting a door. Morbius, collapsing in grief, instructs Adams to set a self-destruct device, and dies.
  • And at the end we see the ship fleeing the planet, with both Robby and Altaira safely aboard. They see the planet explode behind them. Adams comforts Altaira: “About a million years from now the human race would have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in galaxy. It’s true. It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.” The end.
  • One can quibble about the revelation of this surprise ending. How is it Ostrow, with a quick, unskilled brain boost, perceives what the great Morbius hadn’t? Why did the monster vanish when Morbius woke up, then reappear? Because he was arguing with Adams? And so on.
  • On the other hand, what gives this film most of its points is that it’s not *just* a monster movie in which the great white captain saves the nubile young woman; there’s a reason for the monster to exist, one that indicts human (and Krell) ambition and scientific hubris. And in that, the story is pop sci-fi that submits to homespun verities about how “there are some things man was not meant to know” and the dangers of scientists “playing god.” There’s an underlay of significance here, but not one to be respected; in this, it’s a flavor of what’s been called anti-science fiction, like all the thrillers in which the scientific discovery gets out of control and must be vanquished; the story ends with restoring order, not in any discovery or advance.
  • Thus also the offhand piety. Early in the film, a crewman notes that “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds.” And the final lines underscore the lesson that scientists must refrain from godlike ambition. Thus the audience is assured that their supernatural order is safe and secure; nothing has changed.
  • And this is why – that this, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, represent the best SF films could offer in the 1950s – SF films and TV have always been far more inhibited than the best SF literature, which truly does seek to overturn verities, make discoveries, change the world, and discover new ones.
Posted in Movies, Skiffy Flix | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Formal and Intuitive Religion

Two items. First, the latest survey showing the rise of the “nones,” the younger generation for whom formal religion is losing its attraction. In Nearly Every Country, Young People Are Way Less Religious Than Adults.

The pattern holds throughout most of the world, and especially in countries with the highest GDPs and standards of living. (The post linked above has links to larger versions of these graphs.)

Though the US is the big outlier here, as shown in the second graph:

The second item, from this blog, concerns what the “nones” are doing instead.

These nones tend to believe in the soul, divine energy, mystical realities, ghosts, fate and myriad other superstitions that traditionally fell under the umbrella of religion. They also tend to eschew formal social gatherings and regular group activities. Young nones, in other words, are adopting one of the least helpful aspects of organized religion (magical thinking) while abandoning one of the most beneficial (social bonding).

Of course this is consistent with the understanding in recent decades of mental biases that predispose humans to perceive agency in non-living things; to imagine that objects have essences; to generalize from anecdotes; to think in terms of black and white; to underestimate the prevalence of coincidence. These biases will never go away, because they work well enough for purposes of human survival rather than accurate understanding of the real world. They can only be overcome by education about how the real, physical world actually works, as discovered by broad exposure to that world (rather than confinement to a particular ideology) and to the conclusions found through systematic, challenged and confirmed, investigation of that world (i.e. science). Without such education, the default of humanity is magical thinking.

Posted in Culture, Religion | Leave a comment