This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became 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.

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Steven Pinker on Knowledge and Education

From Steven Pinker’s ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, chapter 16, Knowledge, p233:

The supernova of knowledge continuously redefines what it means to be human. Our understanding of who we are, where we came from, how the world works, and what matters in life depends on partaking of the vast and ever-expanding store of knowledge. Though unlettered hunters, herders, and peasants are fully human, anthropologists often comment on their orientation to the present, the local, the physical. To be aware of one’s country and its history, of the diversity of customs and beliefs across the globe and through the ages, of the blunders and triumphs of past civilizations, of the microcosms of cells and atoms and the macrocosmsm of planets and galaxies, of the ethereal reality of number and logic and pattern — such awareness truly lift us to a higher plane of consciousness. It is a gift of belonging to a brainy species with a long history.

p235, on the vindication of the Enlightenment:

So much changes when you get an education! You unlearn dangerous superstitions, such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human. You learn that there are other cultures that are as tied to their ways of life as you are to yours, and for now better or worse reason. You learn that charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster. You learn that your convictions, no matter how heartfelt or popular, may be mistaken. You learn that there are better and worse ways to live, and that other people and other cultures may know things that you don’t. No least, you learn that there are ways of resolving conflicts without violence. All these epiphanies militate against knuckling under the rule of an autocrat or joining a crusade to subdue and kill your neighbors. Of course, none of this wisdom is guaranteed, particularly when authorities promulgate their own dogmas, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories — and, in a backhanded compliment to the power of knowledge, stifle the people and ideas that might discredit them.

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Kingsley Amis, NEW MAPS OF HELL

Next in my series of reading nonfiction books about science fiction, proceeding in roughly chronological order, is this short book of six essays, originally presented as lectures at Princeton in 1959 and collected into book form in 1960. It’s by an author who was at the time well known outside SF for a couple three satirical novels (e.g. LUCKY JIM), but had not written any SF himself. (Later, he would, an acclaimed alternate history novel called THE ALTERATION, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1977,, over Frederik Pohl and Kate Wilhelm.) Because of his appearance as an outsider passing judgment on SF, as numerous notorious magazine essayists had done in the 1950s, Amis is quick to advise, in his very first sentence, that he’d been a devotee of the field since the age of 12. So he wasn’t a novice, or an unsympathetic outsider prepared to express snobbery about SF.

On the other hand, his discussions show such marked attention for certain authors, especially Frederik Pohl and Robert Sheckley, with barely passing mentions of others, like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, that you have to wonder whether his reading of the field was really thorough, or whether his tastes were so specific that he misrepresented the field as it has become to be known. Not necessarily relevant, but SFE advises that Amis was assisted by one Mark Rose (, a UC Santa Barbara academic who later wrote his own book, ALIEN ENCOUNTERS, published in 1981. I have that book too; it has more references in its index to Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, than to Pohl or Sheckley.

(I do not have a first edition of this book; I have the 1961 Ballantine paperback edition, shown in the pic, with its Richard Powers cover. I bought it used in 1978 and have read it twice now, so it’s about to fall apart.)

So then. Amis’ six lectures/chapters run thusly:

1, Starting Points. He compares SF to jazz, in that each form is somewhat disreputable, yet has a devoted audience. He defines SF as “that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin.” Then he discusses some of the very early examples of SF, as cited in L. Sprague de Camp’s SF HANDBOOK (read just previously and discussed here), but dismisses most for their “accidental similarities” to the modern genre; he might include Gulliver, but the first real SF writers were Verne, even with his bad writing and implausible themes, and Wells, who established several basic categories of SF, and wrote it for its own sake, not as allegory or satire.

2, The Situation Today. Gernsback, 1926, and how SF grew along with two adjacent fields: fantasy, and space opera. He describes the latter with reference to BEMs, van Vogt, Haggard, and Burroughs. Early SF was barely literate (he provides examples) and hidden behind lurid magazine covers. Now, in 1959, there are some 20 magazines, and 150-200 books each year. He describes the contents of a typical magazine, and then in detail the contents of the October 1958 Astounding, noting that all the stories involve some kind of moral concern and commit no grave offenses of style. Astounding has 100,000 subscribers, and the readers are attentive, in its letter columns. He discusses clubs, conventions, types of readers, types of writers; mentions SF in movies and TV briefly. And concludes that SF’s importance is that it is “a means of dramatizing social inquiry, as providing a fictional mode in which cultural tendencies can be isolated and judged.”

3, New Light on the Unconscious. He begins to examine SF (and fantasy) for how it reveals the wishes, hopes, and fears of its writers and audience – not the ideas of SF themselves, but the emotions behind them. First subject is sex: not much in SF, though in fantasy he discusses Charles Finney’s “The Circus of Dr. Lao” and two stories by Bradbury, “The Man Upstairs” and “Skeleton”. (Readers familiar with these works will note they are not about sex at all, per se, but about various horrors of the flesh which were perhaps the only ways writers could allude to sexual matters in the ‘40s and ‘50s; stories actually about sex would become frequent in SF within the next decade following Amis’ book.) Then, issues of doom, the end of the human race: stories by Clarke, Sheckley, Brown, Pohl, Bradbury, Heinlein. The dangers of technology: PKD, Sturgeon. And that theme’s counterpart, the nostalgia for a simpler past, as even in Anderson’s BRAIN WAVE but especially in the works of Simak, Wyndham, and Brown. He spends two or three pages on a story, “Of Missing Persons,” whose author he doesn’t even mention (it’s by Jack Finney). [This story evokes several Twilight Zone episodes on similarly nostalgic themes.]

He notes that in SF going into space isn’t about escape (alluding to the common charge that SF is escape fiction); it’s about being part of a larger positive goal of mankind to explore the universe. He discusses how SF has confidence, almost complacency, about the future; scientists are never at fault, but are always saving the day despite the politicians. There aren’t many artists in SF, and not much religion, but discusses those few (and famous) religious stories by Blish, Boucher, Asimov, and del Rey (and in a footnote, Miller’s CANTICLE). SF’s religious impulse seems more present in stories about super-intelligence or super-moral aliens; again Simak, with a long example.

4, Utopias 1. Sf as an instrument of social diagnosis and warning. Sex again: Wylie’s DISAPPEARANCE; works by Charles Eric Maine and John Wyndham. Colonization: works by Katherine MacLean and Poul Anderson. And politics: Simak, Heinlein, Pohl, Knight, Tenn. Van Vogt’s Null A, and Tenn’s Null P. Another Sheckley example, at length. And then a discussion of Bradbury, from one unnamed, to “Usher II”, to FAHRENHEIT 451, which Amis says is in ways superior to Orwell’s novel.

5, Utopias 2. Economic and technological issues. FAHRENHEIT 451 again; Mrs. Montag’s indulgences and neuroses. And then he gets to Frederik Pohl, whom Amis (notoriously, in the many reviews and discussions of this book following its publication) calls “the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced” (p102.3 in the Ballantine pb). He discusses “The Midas Plague” at length, for its inventiveness, and uses the term “comic inferno” to describe this and similar tales: “The Wizard of Pung’s Corners”; “The Tunnel Beneath the World”. He mentions that most SF writers don’t have much range; they keep plowing the same themes over and over, and then claims Pohl & Kornbluth’s THE SPACE MERCHANTS as having “many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far.” (This was 1959.)

He cites Edmund Crispin to generalize that characters in SF are usually unexceptional, so as not to detract from the story, which is usually about human beings and other things, not about how human beings interact among themselves. And how SF is not so concerned with thematic resolution, as about identifying problems.

6, Prospects. Cosmic disasters are less popular than before, though he discusses John Christopher’s THE DEATH OF GRASS. He discusses Philip Latham’s “The Xi Effect” as an example of a story in which the idea is hero, and how SF is better at short length, while too many novels are padded. Among the few truly successful novels are Ward Moore’s BRING THE JUBILEE and Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY. He discusses stories by Katherine MacLean, Poul Anderson, Chad Oliver.

He draws to conclusions. SF needs to consolidate what it already has. Bring sex into focus — but not with love stories. Avoid the horrible humor (citing Bretnor’s Feghoots). The field needs writers who are less rushed by deadlines, in order to write and revise more carefully. And it needs new authors who are not unfamiliar with general literature. (As with stories about sex, these would arrive in spades within the following decade.) And it needs fewer cranks, citing Campbell, Bretnor, van Vogt, and Hubbard. Some of this is happening, and he notes Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES and a story by George P. Elliott as being SF stories by outsiders not identified as SF.

Finally, on the value of science fiction:

• “a medium in which our society can criticize itself, and sharply.” (e.g. how only in SF is the advertising industry so criticized)
• “a form of writing which is interested in the future, which is ready, as I put it earlier, to treat as variables what are usually taken to be constants, which is set on tackling those large, general, speculative questions that ordinary fiction so often avoids.”
• And in the final lines, how we “could do with more, not less, of that habit of mind which will look beyond the attempted solution of problems already evident to the attempted formulation of problems not yet distinguishable. That is the path which science fiction, in its faltering way, is just beginning to tread, and if it can contrive to go on moving in that direction, it will not only have secured its future, but may make some contribution to the security of our own.”


Given the book’s slightly disreputable reputation, I liked it better reading it again than I thought I would. I like the way Amis identifies the themes and motivations that underlie much SF (while being aware that much has changed since he wrote). He’s aware of previous commentators and is willing to disagree with them.

My biggest issue with the book, though, is its random selection of works cited. Amis clearly sees SF as most interesting for its satirical and dystopian values, thus his valuation of Frederik Pohl, and so cites his work and Robert Sheckley’s to a degree unwarranted by the judgement of history, or even common assessment of the time. Both were significant writers – indeed, Pohl took a break with editing during most of the 1960s, then came back as a more mature writer in the 1970s with GATEWAY and many others that followed, almost a book a year for some 20 years – but not as popular or as highly regarded as were Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, at the time. Furthermore, Amis often cites obscure stories to make some point, sometimes without bothering to mention their titles, or authors. This is cherry-picking, not a fair assessment of the field as it existed at the time.

There is also the occasional issue of Amis’ prose style, which is at times rotund; his background is literary, perhaps academic. He often avoids making some plain statement in preference to wrapping it in several layers of qualification. Here’s a sample from the last page, embedding one of the conclusions cited above:

…one is grateful that we have a form of writing which is interested in the future, which is ready, as I put it earlier, to treat as variables what are usually taken to be constants, which is set on tackling those large, general, speculative questions that ordinary fiction so often avoids. This is no less true when all allowance has been made for the shock and pain felt by some when they find these questions answered in a way that does much less than justice to their complexity. Most answers to anything are overwhelmingly likely to be crude, and I cannot bring myself to believe that the most saturating barrage of crude answers really menaces the viability of the sensitive and intelligent answer; if that were the way the world worked, it would long since have stopped working altogether. But perhaps this is just an instance of my own sentimental, science-fictional optimism, so I will go on to observe as coldly as possible that I must not be taken as implying that every writer of science fiction is hopelessly limed in crudity.

The main value of this book is that it was the first example of how science fiction was taken seriously by a literary figure who was respected outside SF.

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Recent Links Saved from Facebook

Steven Pinker’s favorite books
include title by Gamow, Dawkins, Deutsch, and his wife

Sean Carroll’s correctives to Jordan Peterson’s fandom

Cleaning your room is good; using pseudo-intellectual babble about archetypes to identify culture with masculinity is…

Posted by Sean M. Carroll on Monday, March 19, 2018

(with links to three essays about Peterson)

Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous: The strange, cosmic reason our evolutionary path will look ever luckier the longer we survive

Paul Giamatti and Stephen Colbert talk obscure science fiction

At Yale, we conducted an experiment to turn conservatives into liberals. The results say a lot about our political divisions.

For example, over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.

David Brin on the Basic Human Dilemma

Harper’s: Crowley reviews Le Guin

The Whole Household of Man

Video showing the full rotation of the moon, on Brian Cox’s page

None of this really happened – some perspective on historical and religious myths

None of This Really Happened

Why even intelligence doesn’t necessarily protect you from delusional beliefs

WSJ: Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment (a gloss on his new book)

LA Times: the rationales of flat earthers

Why are conservatives more susceptible to believing lies?

The answer is 63

Baptist News: the death of Christianity in the US

The death of Christianity in the U.S.

Aeon: The good guy/bad guy myth: Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?

David McRaney on fake news (via Geoffrey A. Landis Fb post)


Posted by Geoffrey A. Landis on Friday, January 26, 2018

Science fiction for economists
novels by Vinge, Doctorow, Le Guin, Stross, Niven/Pournelle, Bacigalupi, Heinlein, Sterling, Egan, Stephenson, Martin, Atwood, Effinger, Brunner

Richard Feynman quote

The immensity of the universe

How the religious right wins converts, to atheism

Here are 8 ways the religious right wins converts – to atheism

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Links from NYT recently, with Comments

Op-ed by Amy Sullivan in the New York Times, April 1 (posted March 31): Trump’s Christian Soldiers

The recurring, amazing fact that the self-righteous evangelicals support someone like Trump.

You could open a publishing press devoted to the theological and sociological explanations for this phenomenon — from the unlikely belief that Mr. Trump found Jesus on the campaign trail to the idea that his presidency is all part of God’s plan to the role persecution narratives and Christian nationalism play in the evangelical worldview. But the ultimate answer may be the simplest. Mr. Trump owes his continued high standing among white evangelicals to the fact that nearly 40 years after the Moral Majority’s founding, the partisan meld is complete. Decades of fearmongering about Democrats and religious liberals have worked. Eighty percent of white evangelicals would vote against Jesus Christ himself if he ran as a Democrat.

She mentions this curious fact in passing:

But no one is pro-abortion. The crucial difference is not between those who view abortion as good and those who don’t, but between vastly different approaches to reducing abortion rates. One party maintains the fiction that overturning Roe v. Wade will end abortion; the other promotes policies that have actually reduced the abortion rate to its lowest level since 1972. (That more Americans don’t know about this accomplishment has much to do with the fact that national Democrats don’t recognize “pro-abortion” as a slur and have steadfastly refused to take credit for plummeting abortion rates.)


And from an editorial the same day, At Pruitt’s E.P.A.: No Studies, No Data, No Rules:

There’s another word: Fear. From the top down, the people who run this government seem absolutely terrified of scientific inquiry and the ways in which it could threaten Mr. Trump’s promise to ease regulations on fossil fuel companies and increase their profits, no matter the cost to public health and the planet. Think of it from Mr. Trump’s point of view. Why would he want a science adviser telling him that the link between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels is incontrovertible, that he should stick with the Paris agreement on climate change, that it’s a grave mistake to repudiate every one of President Obama’s efforts to slow the dangerous warming of the earth’s atmosphere?

Yet another example of how conservatives deny or ignore science (among many other fact-based professions) that would threaten their myths or, in this case, their business interests. (And more generally, an illustrated of the cognitive bias against taking long-term threats seriously.)


Noted: The Evolution of One of Fiction’s Gay Liberators, about Alan Hollinghurst. I’ve read two of his previous novels; he is, as commentators say, one of the most beautiful stylists writing in English today.


Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, with an op-ed in NYT on March 18: Stop Apologizing for Being Elite:

Our current political discourse is corrupted by two equally flawed narratives about the relationship between social class and politics. The first is a fable accepted by many intellectuals, who have found themselves guilty because just enough white working-class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin handed Mr. Trump his Electoral College win in 2016. Many fear that this year’s midterm elections will once again result in a rejection of “elitism” by the same voters.

In a second, equally flawed narrative — adopted by a segment of both blue-collar workers and intellectuals — the American working class is so victimized that almost none of its members are capable of accepting the responsibility of civic self-education.


While some studies have indicated that people cling even more strongly to their deepest beliefs when challenged by contradictory evidence, it is also true that human beings frequently do change their minds — about everything from sexual behavior to marijuana to gun laws — if they are treated respectfully by those presenting the evidence.

And among her recommendations,

Second, educators must help turn students into educated voters. Too many schools fail to provide students with tools of logic that would enable them to assess the quality of information they absorb from every screen. All schools, for example, should have a curriculum that teaches children how to evaluate online information. …


Science corner: Carl Zimmer on how ancient DNA helps us refine the history of humanity spread across the globe: David Reich Unearths Human History Etched in Bone, subtitled “The geneticist at Harvard Medical School has retrieved DNA from more than 900 ancient people. His findings trace the prehistoric migrations of our species.” With a cool map.


New York Times Magazine, Jan 30th, Michelle Dean: It’s Getting Harder to Sort the ‘Credible’ from the Incredible

This piece struck me as capturing something essential about our age–something happening slowly enough we don’t realize how utterly different things are becoming. It’s the transition from a shared, consensual reality…

When I was at university, some 20 years ago, learning about the world was a tactile, toilsome sort of experience. I got up in the morning, put on my boots and, yes, trudged through snow to the library. I went through the stacks and pulled down texts older than I was. I don’t remember ever wondering how authoritative those texts might have been. After all, here they were, in a library — and a library, we were taught, was the High Church of “credible” authority. People who published books were assumed to be correct. They had proved themselves worthy of it, had cleared hurdles to put their words and ideas into wide circulation.

… to an era in which the internet makes the ‘credibility’ of anything problematic. There is no there there; no way of assessing any given propostion in a way that most people will agree upon. All Trump has to do is cry “fake news” and his followers (the millions of American who can be fooled all the time) will disbelieve it. Back to the essay:

The business of the country is now conducted like an argument on an unmoderated internet message board — an unceasing thread of squabbles, reversals and revisions.

It is easier than ever to address the world and say something true. But it is equally easy to tell the world something false. I remember what it was like before — being in a brightly lit library, feet on the floor, books in front of me, the High Church of authority very much intact. There seemed to be such clear limits on what was worth believing and what wasn’t. This is precisely the opposite of how it feels now, scrolling through the news each morning, the incredibleness of things screaming at you before you’ve even had coffee.

I need to write about re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four recently. In Orwell’s world, the government manipulated the official version of history, and current affairs, by constantly reprinting old newspapers and current books to reflect the new official reality. (Often at random, to distract people’s attentions from day-to-day problems.) People would change their understandings automatically; to do not so would be a “thought-crime.” Indeed, some autocrats do work this way in the real world: blatantly denying that this or that genocide or extramarital affair ever took place, for example, and expecting their followers to believe them. This is what Trump does. But something even more insidious is going on, in the modern world. There is no single reality, even if a fictitious one: there are innumerable versions of reality, depending on which political or religious tribe one belongs to. The old ways of being savvy, of understanding how the world works, how things happen in the world and which claims were more or less likely to be true, seem to no longer apply.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Evolution, Politics, Psychology | Leave a comment


Subtitled: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View

This is a small volume that appeared in 2017 and was well-reviewed in the New York Times. The author is a philosopher, and as the subtitle indicates an atheist (he denies the existence of a transcendental realm, and therefore God and an afterlife), and not a humanist (on Peter Singer’s grounds that other beings than humans might deserve moral consideration).

His thesis is that the conceptions of the “new atheist” authors – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and later A.C. Grayling, who published books beginning in 2003 challenging religious beliefs and practices, on various grounds – of religion as being defined by cosmological, supernatural beliefs – God, an afterlife – as too limiting. What makes religion endure is more than that, which is why arguments to counter the supposed proofs of God make no difference to the vast majority of humanity who are believers.

Religion, Crane says, has four elements: it’s systematic, it’s practical, it’s an attempt to find meaning, and it appeals to the transcendent. The very idea of religion, or the supernatural, is a relatively recent concept – earlier cultures made no distinction between these ideas and their absence. [An effect of science, and the Enlightenment.]

The most interesting section of the book for me is chapter 3, discussing how religion is as much about identification as about supernatural claims. It’s about belonging to a group of shared believers, it’s accumulated culture wisdom about how to live, it’s part of one’s identity, like being part of a family or a nation, something one can’t necessarily renounce. He discusses the idea of sacrament, of the sacred vs. the profane, and how people attribute to objects access to things that don’t have to exist.

Now all this strikes me as perfectly obvious, but Crane many times claims that the various atheistic authors mentioned above ignore these points. Which might be true; I’d need to check. He goes on to challenge their identification of religion with much of the violence in the world – conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, Pakistanis and Indians – claiming instead that such violence has many other causes, with religion being only an obvious distinction between opposing groups. Perhaps so.

And so I acknowledge many of Crane’s points. I’ve said many times that I’m sure people are not religious because they find the claims of a (micromanaging) God or an (eternally boring) afterlife the least bit plausible; they identify with a religion because their family or friends do, and their shared religion forms a social bond, a way of defining a community, or more cynically defining their in-group against all the out-groups. No one ever sits down to study all the religions and comes to a conclusion about which one is true on the basis of any kind of rational analysis, or evidence from the real world – because there is none. Religions represent social and tribal history; they are arbitrary cultural traits, like languages or cuisines, which don’t have any basis in empirical reality. (Unlike the accumulated discoveries of science…) They represent human psychological needs.

Yet Crane equivocates. He addresses the idea that religion derives from human psychology’s willingness to accept “counter-intuitive beliefs” but dismisses the idea on abstruse grounds (p47-48); he hasn’t read Jesse Bering. For me that is still the key. Crane’s style is too often that of the lawyerly philosopher more concerned with parsing the meanings of words than in reaching a conclusion.

And at the end he discusses how the decline of religious belief is wishful thinking, that atheists need to accept the reality of religion, even if such tolerance does not entail approval, or respect. Fine, but he has no recommendations for this tolerance should be implemented, beyond following the rule of law, and not making fusses at social faux pas (he reads at times like an advice columnist).

And what he doesn’t do is address the evidence that many prosperous, well-educated countries – especially in Northern Europe – do in fact have far lower rates of religious faith than less prosperous and educated countries. (On this point the US is an outlier.) Or that scientists are far less likely to be religious than the general population – a point he mentions and denies, despite the much evidence I’ve seen.

It may be true that human nature is inescapable, as long as we remain the humans we are (pending taking control of our genetic identity and making modifications), and that human nature entails a propensity for some kind of belief in the supernatural, and with its attendant tribalism, the idea of religion.

But the evidence is not all in one direction. And here’s where this topic dovetails with the speculations of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke, in particular, liked to imagine futures in which religion was obsolete and humanity had attained a peaceful maturity that understood that religion was an artifact of its primitive past. And indeed, the vast majority of science fiction – that imagines future civilizations, galactic empires – takes no account of religion. The few works that do, by Miller and Blish and a few others, are so few they are easily counted. Even fantasy, in a way the opposite of science fiction, more often assumes the supernatural perceptions about ghosts and elves, about simplistic worlds of good vs. evil, than they assume the reality of any particular religion. (Some early works by Zelazny are curious exceptions, but they explored various religions in Sfnal ways.)

Posted in Atheism, Book Notes, Religion | Leave a comment


Subtitled: “How to Write and Sell Imaginative Stories”

This is more of a curiosity now, than an essential book of criticism or history, though it does reveal some attitudes of its time. I have a 1975 revision, show here, of the original 1953 edition, so while it wasn’t a book of SF history or criticism, it was certainly one of the earliest nonfiction books published about science fiction.

The first two chapters spend 1/4 of the book summarizing the history of SF, all the way from Homer and the Greek playwrights, to Gernsback and Campbell, to Tolkien and the New Wave, and making a casual attempt to define what he calls “imaginative fiction” – “stories that could not have happened.” He concludes this section by noting that “imaginative fiction is escape fiction. It is primarily designed for the entertainment of the reader.” And he repeatedly throughout the book invokes “the reader” as the ultimate customer and judge for a writer’s work.

Then follows some basic information about editors and publishers, readers and writers, a writer’s talent vs. technique, where writers get their ideas, how to plot a story, how to write it in terms of action vs. description, dialogue, how to depict old or alien languages, and so on. Some of this expands on Sprague de Camp’s essay in Modern Science Fiction (notes here), such as remarks that it takes de Camp a week or two to conceive and plot a story, a month or two to outline a novel. (Which seems extraordinary, compared to writers like Asimov – and Hubbard! – who apparently could write clean copy as fast as they could type, with no lengthy mulling beforehand; I suspect they were the exceptions.) And how to sell it, and how to keep records of sales and of resales of subsidiary rights. (This last chapter is by Catherine Crook de Camp, we’re advised, who became Sprague’s business partner, and kept track of these matters. A situation Sprague recommends.)

Some of this is dated, though much is still valid, especially basic considerations of how to write fiction, and certainly business habits of keeping records. Here’s a passage that is a tad dated, his description of a magazine editor’s office:

Most editors work in small, glass-partitioned offices amid mountains of manuscripts, letters, galley proofs, proofs of covers and illustrations, back files of magazines, advance copies of next month’s issue, a couple of typewriters, stationery, a pot of paste, scissors, ash trays, and the other clutter of the trade.

Pot of paste? Later he describes how to make corrections to a (typewritten) manuscript, e.g. retyping a paragraph and gluing it over the old one, rather than retyping the whole page! Even in 1975, it was an era of typewriters. (And, ash trays? I suppose, even in 1975, but not in 2018.)

Two more curious passages, which strike me as dated as well — characterizations of when reading and writing science fiction wasn’t an element of popular, and even literary, culture as it is today. His characterization of “who reads this stuff?”, readers, p73:

Because many science-fiction fans are adolescents, and because some adolescents are given to exhibitionism and gaucherie, fans as a group have sometimes been scorned as eccentric. Actually, the average fan displays high intelligence, a voracious appetite for reading, and a personality type that often finds it hard to get along with other people.

And about writers, p75:

If they have any common characteristic besides their intelligence and word-mindedness, they probably tend toward the introverted type called the schizoid personality. Many started out as precociously intellectual but under-muscled children, bullied by their peers. Contrary to a common impression, writers are not necessarily fascinating companions, or staunch and helpful friends, or promising matrimonial material. They have a rather high suicide rate.

He mentions, near the end, that there are only 150 – 250 writers of imaginative fiction, and only a minority of those make a living at it. (These numbers strike me as high for 1953, low for 1975, so I’m not sure how to understand these statistics.)

The book ends with a substantial bibliography of recommended SF works (updated for the 1975 edition) and of general reference works, for the author who aspires to write anything about science, engineering, history, and mythology. He mentions in the text that his personal recommendation is to read 1/3 imaginative fiction, 1/3 realistic fiction, and 1/3 nonfiction, mainly science, history, and biography. And to take notes, and keep clippings. (Which I do! Though these days clippings are links.)

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This slender volume of magazine essays came out nearly a year ago, and I read it then, and thought it pleasant but nowhere near foundational. But since it still shows up on bestseller lists, nearly a year later, and has a 4 1/2 star rating on Amazon, I skimmed it again today to document here on my blog. The main problem, I thought when I first read it, was that its scope begins the grandest way possible, with a description of the earliest moments of the universe, and the creation of the elements over subsequent billions of years; but that subsequent essays gradually diminish in scope. We read about Newton’s discovery of physical laws, the discovery of the expansion of the universe, the recent discovery of the ‘dwarf’ galaxies that outnumber the 100 billion larger galaxies, and then about dark matter and dark energy — fascinating, unresolved, topics. And then the book trails off with essays about the periodic table, how spheres are more common in the universe than jagged edges, about the discovery of the full electromagnetic spectrum, and of asteroids, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, planetary moons, and via the Kepler telescope, some 3000 exoplanets. All fascinating topics, yet.

The final essay, “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective,” is a nice finish, though, ahem, Tyson is no Carl Sagan, or Ann Druyan (who wrote the recent “Cosmos” TV series that Tyson narrated, and who rivals Sagan as a writer herself). Tyson says it’s a luxury to think cosmically, acknowledging real-world problems, poverty, people being killed in the name of political or religious dogmas. The universe is bigger than the traumas of life, he says. “Dare we admit that our thoughts and behaviors spring from a belief that the world revolves around us?” p196. If we all had an expanded view of our place in the universe, our problems would shrink.

And then he lays out eleven points of ‘cosmic perspective’, p205-207. They begin with “The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist. It belongs to everyone.” And ending with, “The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.”

And he concludes, we owe it to ourselves to explore, p208. “The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally resolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on the ‘low contracted prejudices.’ And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment—until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace, rather than fear, the cosmic perspective.”

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James Blish’s ISSUES AT HAND

James Blish, a science fiction author who emerged in roughly the same era as Damon Knight (they were born a year apart in 1920 and 1921 and both began publishing notable fiction in the early 1950s), wrote critical essays about SF in the 1950s and 1960s that eventually were collected in two slim volumes, THE ISSUE AT HAND and MORE ISSUES AT HAND, both published by Advent:Publishers as Damon Knight’s IN SEARCH OF WONDER was, the books long regarded as counterparts or companions to Knight’s influential volume. Blish was not as prolific a commentator as was Knight, but his approach was similar in many ways: he insisted on scientific veracity and on literary standards. If anything, Blish was more persnickety than was Knight. In these books Blish frequently opines how certain habits of storytelling had by his time become established as most effective, and any variation from those habits were errors that needed to be fixed. Thus, for example, he has trouble with Frank Herbert’s DUNE because of its switching from one character viewpoint to another, a technique he understood to be not as effective a storytelling technique and single point of view. And he hoped Herbert would figure this out and become a better writer.

Blish’s first book, THE ISSUE AT HAND (first edition 1964; I have the second 1973 edition) focuses on magazine short fiction, in contrast to Knight’s focus on books. The essays range from 1952 to 1962. He begins with an essay of ‘propositions’ – that SF needs more criticism, in order to grow; writers need to know there are certain standards of competence. He doesn’t spell these out, so much as criticize stories on various grounds that he assumes everyone understands are those standards of competence.

  • He quotes Sturgeon’s definition of science fiction – “a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content” – and notes that Sturgeon later explained he meant that as a definition of a *good* science-fiction story.
  • He dispels the apparently then-common rumor that Jack Vance was a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner. (Kuttner did, in fact, use many pseudonyms in the 1940s and ’50s, but Jack Vance wasn’t one of them.)
  • He faults a story in Astounding for its phony realism — e.g. extended descriptions of lighting cigarettes – and ‘deep purple’, by which he apparently means overwriting and writing outside one’s experience, e.g. trying to describe alien music.
  • (A general issue in the book is that Blish states a problem, but doesn’t provide examples, so at this remove we can’t be certain what he’s talking about.)

In the second essay, he begins by recommending the essays of Damon Knight.

  • Blish alludes that Fantastic magazine, at that time, was supposedly the ‘adult’ counterpart of Amazing, whatever that might have meant at the time. (They were a pair of magazines co-edited and co-published for another couple decades, lastly by Ted White in the 1970s.)
  • Blish curiously uses, at least twice in this book, the term “space-opera” to mean a science fiction story that might as well be translated to the present, i.e. faux-science fiction. (Whereas by now “space opera” means a story actually set in space, generally an action or military story set in interstellar space and employing SF conventions like warp drives, rather than adhering to the hard-SF constraints of actual physics.)

In later chapters,

  • Blish mentions ‘deus ex machina’ endings, and ‘funny-hat’ characterizations, as obsolete writerly techniques.
  • He complains about the frequency, at the time, of ‘one-punch’ or surprise ending stories, with a list of authors who committed this abuse, especially Robert Sheckley.
  • Or how writers merely pile one idea on top of another (van Vogt!) rather than developing any one; an exception being Damon Knight’s “Four In One.” (He compares these to Russian music on the former point, German symphonic tradition on the latter.)
  • He disdains what he calls ‘naturalism’ in a story by Erik van Lhin, again without providing examples or sample passages; apparently, he meant how events were told in very plain, everyday terms, with a result he calls dreadful.
  • A long essay concerns “A Case of Conscience,” the original novelette by James Blish. (Here is an essay, presumably originally bylined “William Atheling, Jr.”, that gave Blish a means of critiquing himself in secret.) He begins by discussing the general issue of whether religion would arise on other planets, and references HPL, Heinlein, and Chesterton; then discusses “Case” with mentions of precedent stories about religion, by Lewis and Bradbury (“The Man”), Boucher and Miller. In the second 1973 edition that I have, Blish provides three afterwords, commenting about the extended book version of his story once it won a Hugo Award (, discussing a novel by Lowndes and then, at some length, discussing Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which he decides is ultimately about religion (though its metaphysics are shambles).
  • In one essay he misses the letter columns in the magazine (of the time), and doesn’t trust the reviews of popular nonfiction by the reviewers in SF magazines.
  • Has high praise for Theodore L. Thomas’ “The Weather Man” in Analog – despite its breaking Blish’s rule about not moving the POV among several characters!
  • Mentions Dean McLaughlin as one of the current ‘hard SF’ writers – along with Budrys, Dickson, and Garrett. Not authors we we now think of as exemplifying hard SF.
  • Criticizes “said-bookisms”.
  • Wonders why British reviewers, in newspapers, are better than American reviewers. Here’s a revelation to me: according to Blish, some American papers *really did* just reprint the book jacket blurb, and call it a review, sometimes even signed by the ‘reviewer’! This must explain one of Damon Knight’s key points, that a review is not a jacket blurb.

In the final essay of this first book, he wonders about the central appeal of SF. How while SF readers are often more widely read than readers of other genres, writers of SF almost always confine their energy to SF. He cites Poul Anderson’s speech at the 1959 Worldcon, “an appeal for a unitary approach to science fiction, in which philosophy, love, technology, poetry, and the elements of daily life would all play important and roughly equal roles.”

And then Blish wonders why the popular novels of Orwell, Vonnegut, Bernard Wolfe, Aldous Huxley, and Franz Werfel have not attracted more readers to genre SF. His conclusion: because most genre SF is about technical things; those books were about things that mattered–the relationship of the individual to the state; about power for its own sake; about what people do when technology replaces their jobs.

He cites Childhood’s End and More Than Human as SF that has such conviction. And is dismayed by recent Hugo nominations. Good SF is not about comfort and safety. “It is precisely the science-fiction story that rattles people’s teeth and shakes their convictions that finds its way into the mainstream” And so, he urges (in 1960!), that his reader vote in the Hugos, and think about each title, and ask, is it about anything??

The second book, MORE ISSUES AT HAND, consists of material first published mostly in the mid-1960s, with a couple essays going back to 1957 and one from as late as 1970. These focus more on novels than on the short fiction of the first volume. Highlights:

  • The intro discusses various types of critics: the evaluative critic, the impressionist critic (which is all about how a work makes the critic feel), and the technical critic, who attempts to identify what makes a work go wrong. Citing Frank Herbert’s multiple viewpoints.
  • Describes how SF, in 1965, has become a literary movement, not just a category of commercial fiction: the movement defined by the existence of histories and bibliographies, of critics and critical journals, of professional organizations, of awards, of specialized publishing houses. [ It strikes me that there has been more of this institutionalization of the science fiction than there has been in any other literary genre, including the “mainstream” – in fact, in this way SF is more like science itself. ]
  • He reviews, in 1965, the extant critical literature of SF, just five books: Damon Knight’s; his own first book; Sam Moskowitz’s EXPLORERS OF THE INFINITE, despite its numerous errors; THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (discussion here; and Kingsley Amis’ NEW MAPS OF HELL. (He mentions OF WORLDS BEYOND (discussion here and L. Sprague de Camp’s SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK in passing [its revised edition will be the next book I cover here].)
  • On Moskowitz, he describes how Moskowitz attributes ‘influence’ between authors based solely on the literal publication date of stories, even as close as a month apart, without understanding the lead-time of publications, or without knowing if later authors had ever read the earlier ones, which he might have tried to find out.
  • A long essay on Heinlein from 1957 admires his use of either a single POV or a 1st person POV, with a 1967 afterword considering subsequent novels, and noting how Heinlein’s apparent political conservatism clashed with the liberal trend of most SF.
  • Blish greatly admires Algis Budrys and ROGUE MOON, a masterpiece.
  • An essay about Sturgeon, adapted from the special F&SF issue on Sturgeon; how Sturgeon does not write about wheeler-dealers, as do so many other SF authors, how rather he writes about love, with a love of language. Calls Sturgeon “the finest conscious artist science fiction has yet had.”
  • Wonders why A. Merritt’s awful novels are so popular, with a sample passage supplied by an admirer. Blish: “The prosecution rests.”
  • Discusses John W. Campbell’s current obsession – in 1957 – with psi, and notes that how psi, if it existed, would undercut the entire purpose of fiction. An aside notes that some authors, like Lester del Rey, made a point of concocting a new ‘explanation’ for space drives, or psi, each time they wrote a new story.
  • And in this same essay he admires Carol Emshwiller’s “The Hunting Machine,” despite his distaste for “lady authors.” He even says “Mrs. Emshwiller is not a lady author. She is an author, period.” [ Dangerous distinction! ]
  • A chapter on ‘translations’ by which he means stories that might as well be set in the present. And about ‘science-fantasy’ with its lack of respect for facts, considering Brian Aldiss’ “Hothouse” stories. Discussion of how many SF writers perceive only woe in the consequences of new technology – and so how they don’t mind being wrong about known facts. Bradbury’s Mars. Aldiss.

The final chapter, from 1970, is about the term “speculative fiction,” how SF is often judged by its worst examples, and how the Hugos are not reliable judges of the best SF (because e.g. that Vonnegut’s THE SIRENS OF TITAN didn’t win).

And then he discusses the “New Wave” of science fiction’s late 1960s, which he characterizes thusly: emphasis on problems of the present; emphasis on manner of telling; claims that this is the direction SF must go. And a few worthy stories among it all.

He discusses the various advocates and examples of New Wave writers, with special attention to Judith Merril, who wrote a few stories and novels but was best known by the mid-60s as the editor of a series of “Best of the Year” anthologies, beginning in 1956 and ending in 1968. Blish/Atheling’s take is that Merril began (like Moskowitz) as a reader exclusively of SF, with no knowledge of general literature, or of science. As she went on, she discovered literature – and so her anthologies became more and more idiosyncratic, including pieces by mainstream authors, ordinary satire, comic strips and cartoons. She embraced the term “speculative fiction” (over “science fiction”) and later the “New Wave” because they exonerated her from any implication of an obligation to understand science. Also: how she submitted, in the early years with Simon & Schuster, many more stories than could be used, and how the publisher at S&S made the final selections.

Finally, Blish discusses the prominent New Wave authors. Ballard, whose stories seemed to be forming a mosaic on some topic that even he may not be aware of. Aldiss, Brunner, Moorcock, Ellison. Zelazny and Delany and their “mytholotry” – Blish finding Delany nearly unreadable, more sympathetic to Zelazny. And he concludes by discussing Aldiss’s BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD at length, with its allegiance to James Joyce [an interest of Blish’s]. Among its themes: “the biological hypothesis that modern man is stuck with equipment (particularly mental equipment) which served well enough in the Neolithic Age but is of increasingly less use as man’s world multiplies in complexity.” (Which is a very contemporary observation.)

And Blish ends by noting that the New Wave is pulling itself apart, with all these writers going off in their own directions. (As they did.)

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From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: My Own Journey to 2001

Yesterday, April 2, 2018, was the 50th anniversary of the release of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, still regarded as the best (or at least one of the best) science fiction films of all time, and as among the best films of all time, according to any number of polls of cinema fans over the decades. I had the good fortune to experience it at that so-called “golden age of science fiction” — i.e., when I was age 12, the age at which, traditionally, many SF fans first experience the “sense of wonder” of science fiction and become devotees of the genre for life. It’s also the age when one’s tastes begin to form, and some people stay fixed with those tastes, defending their interest in what they first experienced at that age, against all following change. I think I’m fortunate enough not to have to defend 2001 on those grounds, as the verdict of history has vindicated its status.

(When the film was released, there were, for example, middle-aged and senior science fiction writers, whose tastes had been formed by pulp magazine stories of the 1930s and the “golden age” of magazine science fiction in the 1940s, who dismissed 2001 as New Wave nonsense. These were some of the folks who rejoiced when Star Wars was released just nine years later; a film I felt regressive and was embarrassed by.)

In retrospect, I went through a fairly quick maturity in my experience and understanding of science fiction, both dramatic and literary, in just a few years of my young life. 2001 was the culmination, at age 12 1/2. My exposure to SF began with the TV series Lost in Space, which debuted in the Fall of 1965, when I had just turned 10. I discovered the show via a neighbor kid — it wasn’t the kind of show my parents would have watched — and so I missed the first few episodes (which I saw only 6 years later, when the show was in syndication), but thereafter watched it whenever I could, a fan of Will Robinson and the Robot and mysterious aliens like the Keeper. By the time LIS went camp — became utterly ridiculous — in its second season, Star Trek debuted, in the Fall of 1966. It was a much more serious show, with a cohesive premise and serious themes, and which I’ve recently rewatched, with posts here on this blog.

In parallel with those TV shows, I’d discovered science fiction books, beginning, ironically, with film and TV adaptations by Isaac Asimov and James Blish (Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek respectively). Via book sales at school and bookshops, I discovered Bradbury, and Clarke.

And then came the sublime: when 2001 debuted in April 1968, my family had moved to suburban Illinois, and I was just old enough to be aware of it and want to go see it. I’d already read the book! I knew what it was about. My parents took me to see the film in a movie theater in downtown Glen Ellyn, Illinois. I had no problem understanding it; I’d read the book. I remember my mother complaining that much of the music was just noise, and she had expected the movie would be something like a grandiose Star Trek; she didn’t understand it. My parents didn’t read anything, much less science fiction.

I got my father to take me to the film again, a few weeks later, but he got home late from work that night, and we got to theater late, walking in after the opening Dawn of Man scenes. The theater was full and I was stuck behind a tall man in front of me, partly blocking my view. (Funny how you remember such things, 50 years later.) To compensate for our late arrival, my father and I stayed until the next showing began. And then… we left after the Dawn of Man scenes. In retrospect, I am mortified, to have left a movie — THE movie — part way through, like some simpleton who leaves a movie they don’t understand or approve of.

(I probably didn’t see the movie again until 1980 or so, at a campus screening at Cal State Northridge, a showing in their steeply slanted auditorium. Videotapes and DVDs came out in subsequent decades, of course.)

And at about the time I saw this film, I was beginning to discover the more sophisticated and mature science fiction writers, past Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke — beginning with Robert Silverberg.

And I bought the 2001 LP soundtrack, which not only introduced me to the music of Richard and Johann Strauss, but also to that deeply introspective, mournful music of Aram Khachaturian, and especially to the strange soundscapes of György Ligeti, giving me a taste for unusual music that has lasted my entire life.

The movie itself is unconventional, even paradoxical, as has been explored in many books (perhaps in the new one by Michael Benson). First of all, it’s a visual splendor, but it has little story and no likeable characters. (One take: the movie is merely an *illustration* of a story you’re expected to deduce, or might know from reading the book.) Especially: almost all the dialogue is superfluous. When characters do talk — beginning some 20 minutes into the film — they are not saying anything that’s necessary to understanding the overall story. (Only one speech, which David Bowman hears by transmission after he has decommissioned HAL, that explains the point of the mission to Jupiter, is key.) But this is part of the film’s strategy: to depict the evolutionary advance of the human race as one about the discovery and use of tools. The bone at the end of the Dawn of Man is the first tool — which is used to kill. The flash-forward to the orbiting device, is to a device that is an orbiting nuclear weapon — not clear in the film, but clear in the book — another weapon intended to kill. HAL, the computer on Discovery, is another tool, programmed to hide the Jupiter mission’s true objective from the two astronauts who remain awake, and so, given conflicted programming, tries to kill those astronauts to assure the success of the mission. And language is another tool, with little value, that we see. The finale, a trip through a ‘star-gate’ (in Clarke’s novel version), is a closing advance in human evolution, triggered by the outsiders who deployed the monolith, that parallels the advance in the Dawn of Man scenes. And so on. (The story recalls the theme of Clarke’s famous 1953 novel Childhood’s End, about a similar advance of humans into another kind of race, due to alien intervention.)

No other science fiction film since has measured up to 2001, in my opinion; not in grandeur, not in special effects, not in seriousness of its theme.

Yet there are a couple small scientific errors. (I rewatched it a year ago, and noticed them.) For one, as we see the Discovery slide through space, we see stars that *do move*, albeit slowly — nothing like the firefly cloud of stars passing the Enterprise, in Star Trek. They do move. They wouldn’t move, from any reasonable vantage point; the Discovery is moving from Earth to Jupiter, and compared to that distance, the stars are so far away that their relative motion would be extremely slight. And then there is the famous one about Heywood Floyd, sipping his meal through straws, where we see the liquid food sliding back down the straws, despite his being in freefall, on his trip to the moon. And: Kubrick did a better job than most, for his time, showing his astronauts walking in parts of the Discovery that are in freefall, but these scenes aren’t perfect. (Why aren’t Bowman and Poole *floating* inside the pod, as they discuss the problem of HAL and are being lip-read, rather than obviously sitting?) For that matter — the idea that HAL can read their lips… is a stretch. Clarke avoided that in his novel version.

For now, here are a few good links from a quick Google search of the many, many articles about the film’s 50th anniversary in the past few days.

NY Times op-ed, in today’s paper, by Michael Benson, author of the just published Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece: What ‘2001’ Got Right [comments and quotes below]

NY Times: Happy 50th, HAL: Our Favorite Pop-Culture References to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Guardian: 50 years of 2001: A Space Odyssey – how Kubrick’s sci-fi ‘changed the very form of cinema’

Metro UK: Six reasons why you should rewatch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on its 50th anniversary

Michael Benson’s op-ed ties the film to current interest in A.I., and to recent controversies in social media and their effect on American politics.

Traditional media — “one transmitter, millions of receivers” — contain an inherently totalitarian structure. Add machine learning, and a feedback loop of toxic audiovisual content can reverberate in the echo chamber of social media as well, linking friends with an ersatz intimacy that leaves them particularly susceptible to manipulation. Further amplified and retransmitted by Fox News and right-wing radio, it’s ready to beam into the mind of the spectator in chief during his “executive time.”

Democracy depends on a shared consensual reality — something that’s being willfully undermined. Seemingly just yesterday, peer-to-peer social networks were heralded as a revolutionary liberation from centralized information controls, and thus tools of individual human free will. We still have it in our power to purge malicious abuse of these systems, but Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others would need to plow much more money into policing their networks — perhaps by themselves deploying countermeasures based on A.I. algorithms. Meanwhile, we should demand that a new, tech-savvy generation of leaders recognizes this danger and devises regulatory solutions that don’t hurt our First Amendment rights. A neat trick, of course — but the problem cannot be ignored.

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