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 that I link to. Movie reviews 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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Stephen King, THE INSTITUTE (2019)


This is a solid contemporary thriller with SF (or perhaps fantasy) elements. As I’ve said before I like Stephen King but read only about his every third or fourth book, just the ones that seem to have some, to me, provocative theme (e.g., the others in the photo).

The book is expertly plotted and structured. It breaks down cleanly into half a dozen blocks of varying sizes. The whole book is about 560 pages.

  • 40 pages: Tim Jamieson, an ex-Sarasota police officer, forced out of his job due to a bizarre incident of circumstances, gives up his seat on a plane to New York and instead hitchhikes north. He ends up in a small South Carolina town, DuPray, where he gets a job as a “night walker,” that is, someone who walks up and down main street all night checking that doors are locked and everything is OK. His quick action when a local night mart is robbed leads to a better job with the local sheriff.
    • Right away in this section the central theme is emphasized: the results of chance circumstances, how the future is a result of chance encounters and unpredictable events. Tim gives up his plane seat on impulse; one of his rides gets stuck and in traffic and so he walks to the next town; the night mart robbery.
  • 40 pages: Luke Ellis is a gifted teenager in Minneapolis whose high school guidance counselor recommends he attend not one but two universities simultaneously, MIT and Emerson. Unremarked by his parents, he seems to have incidental telekinetic abilities: he can knock an empty pizza box onto the floor. One night a black SUV pulls up to his house; people enter, casually shoot Luke’s parents, and kidnap him. Luke wakes in a replica of his bedroom, inside some institute with other kids who exhibit TP and TK (telepathy and telekinesis).
  • 120 pages: We learn about the institute, which we gather is in Maine, run by the stern Mrs. Sigsby and a security staff. A dozen or so other kids are there, periodically taken to lower levels for various kinds of tests. After a time each kid is removed to the institute’s “back half” from which there is no return. The tests involve Stasi lights, symbols on playing cards, and the torture of being dunked into tank of water for minutes at time, supposedly to release latent psychic talents.
  • Mrs. Sigsby assures them that they are here to serve their country: the world is an arms race, a mind race. When their service is over, their memories will be wiped and they will be returned to their families. But new kids arrive regularly, and one of them, a talented TP named Avery, perceives that everything she says is a lie. (Luke already suspects his parents are dead.) Avery can also perceive that kids in the “back half” are shown movies, and apparently are being trained to execute targeted attacks on various victims, as psychic drones.
  • — spoilers from here on —
  • 75 pages: Luke escapes the institute, with help from one of the housekeepers, by digging under a chain link fence late one night. He makes his way through the woods to a river and rides a rowboat to a train yard and hops on a freight train heading south, all the way to… DuPray SC.
    • The last line of this section: “Great events turn on small hinges.”
  • 250 pages: Then follows plot, playing out the consequences of everything set up so far.
    • Luke meets Tim Jamieson and tells his story. That housekeeper gave him a flash drive, which has videos of the inside of the institute, including the “back half.”
    • Meanwhile the staff in Maine discovers that he’s gone and frantically searches for him. They are absolutely convinced that the survival of the world depends on continuing their mission – since the 1950s! – of testing, and torturing, kids, in order to selectively assassinate targets whose survival might trigger the end of the world. That the world hasn’t ended since the 1950s is proof their work is successful.
    • Agents from the institute arrive in DuPray; there’s a big shoot-out; Luke and Tim try to negotiate a deal with the security team at the institute…
    • Meanwhile, in an over-the-top special-effects sequence, the kids at the Institute join psychic forces with all the other kids at some 20 institutes around the world, and revolt: they escape their quarters, literally lift one portion of the facility into the air and drop it on top of the other. By the time Luke and Tim arrive from South Carolina, the staff is dead and only a few kids survive.
  • Last 30 pages: Three months later, Tim and his girlfriend live on a farm with Luke and the other surviving kids. A man, the “lisping man” who was Mrs. Sigsby’s unseen boss by phone, drives up, to explain himself, how the 20 institutes around the world have kept the world from destroying itself – and without them, now, the world is now on suicide watch. Isn’t it worth torturing a few kids to keep the world from destroying itself? Tim says, no.
  • Lisping man further explains that they selected their targets (an open question through the second half of the book) via a small handful of very rare Precogs, i.e. people with precognition, who can see the future.
    • And here the book’s theme coalesces: Luke, hearing this, objects. He says that analysis is flawed; they can’t predict consequences that far out; too many random factors intervene. Lisping man seems to realize this, but insists they were doing good. (There’s the suggestion that the Precogs are taking advantage of the situation, to live the high life they enjoy.)
  • And, in an almost wistful conclusion, the surviving kids, one by one, are sent back to where they came from, with stories to tell of how they’d been kidnapped for unknown reasons, and keys to a lockbox with that flash drive in case the news gets out.

Key points:

  • Again, the theme that echoes through the book is the effect of chance encounters, of unpredictable events, and without being explicit about it, King contrasts that with the claim, at the end, that history is being manipulated on the basis who can see the future—because the future is predetermined? Obviously not, or they couldn’t make changes. There’s a rich history of speculation in science fiction of the past century about whether history is alterable, via changes in the past or, as here, changes in the present to affect the future. Without dwelling on the theoretical, King’s conclusion seems to be: can’t be done. Too many random factors make prediction, or interference, impossible.
  • More generally, King is a popular writer who uses off-the-shelf SF and fantasy themes when he uses them at all. You don’t read Stephen King for original speculation. This book combines a couple familiar SF themes, and one philosophical moral theme familiar from a famous SF story. The latter is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: if a perfect society could be maintained only through the suffering of a single child in a basement, is it worth it? The SF ideas are the try-to-change-the-future time travel notions, and a helping of the central theme of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel MORE THAN HUMAN, in the psychic unification of a group of variously talented people – here, when kids in the institutes around the world join forces to bring the Institute down.
  • I mentioned fantasy in the first sentence of this post because, really, there hasn’t turned out to be any scientific basis for telepathy, or for telekinesis, let alone precognition. (A funny point in the book is in the final scenes, when Tim accepts Lisping Man’s explanation until precognition is brought up: “I can buy telepathy, and I can buy telekinesis, but precognition? That’s not science, that’s carnival bullshit!” Alas, while all three premises are fun for use in fantasy and SF stories, they are passing (in public consciousness) or have already passed (among the scientifically savvy) into the dustbin of ideas that humans might wish were true, but are not.

Couple off-hand points:

  • In a clever bit of irony and character sketching, there’s a homeless woman in DuPray who listens to a conspiracy theory radio show, and all her fears about government conspiracies, down to hit men in black SUVs, seem to come true.
  • There also a moment late in the book in which one of the children complains, bitterly, “It’s not fair!” A common cry among children – humans have a deep sense of fairness, especially among siblings, and some never grow out of the feeling that life just has to be fair, even though it obviously isn’t. That’s the just-world fallacy in a nutshell.
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Isaac Asimov: THE EARLY ASIMOV (1972)

This is a book I’d never read before, and debated recently about whether to ever read it. On the one hand, life is too short to read every book one might have accumulated, and this book consists, frankly, of all the stories from Asimov’s early career that had not already been included in 10 earlier collections — all the leftovers. Thus I had passed over it several times before. On the other hand, I kept noticing early stories by Asimov in various anthologies, and realized that I’d never read those stories, or only a couple of them via those anthologies. So why not catch up on the others and just read through this 1972 book? An attraction is the substantial, autobiographical notes Asimov provides, detailing how each story was written and submitted. Such notes proved so popular here that he provided similar notes in future anthologies (like BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE) and then in two lengthy volumes of autobiography over the next eight years.

So before considering individual stories, here are the broad takeaways from reading this book.

  • Some of these stories are really bad, in awkward, embarrassing ways; while a few of them are quite good, making one wonder why they hadn’t been included in earlier books.
  • Considering why the bad ones are bad, and why the good ones are good, you can see that what Asimov did in his early career was gradually figure out what *kind* of stories he was good at telling, and avoiding those he wasn’t. Thus, his eventual characteristics of stories that are largely conversation and/or about explaining things; thus his penchant for mysteries.
  • Many of these stories involve themes he also dealt with in his more famous stories, but worked out differently. I noticed this when I read THE REST OF THE ROBOTS a while back, which included stories about robots which weren’t consistent with the premises or conclusions of the canonical set of robot stories gathered in I, ROBOT. So in EARLY ASIMOV we have stories about galactic empires that aren’t consistent with the Foundation stories; stories about futures with alien races; stories about galactic colonies with positronic robots. Taken together, Asimov was writing variations on a small handful of themes, and his variations gradually became reduced to one set of canonical robot stories, and another set of canonical foundation stories, with the inconsistent variants forgotten in old magazines with no expectation of ever being read again. Until Asimov’s popularity made books like THE EARLY ASIMOV feasible. (Asimov makes the point several times that through the decade of the 1940s, his only ambition was to write stories for the magazines, which were ephemeral; the notion of publishing books, or that these stories would ever be seen again, was unthinkable.)
  • There’s also recurring thoughts about “mob psychology” in how to understand humans, or aliens. These thoughts would later crystallize into the “psychohistory” of the Foundation stories.

These stories were all published from 1939 to 1950, the same span of years in which Asimov published of the Foundation and robot stories that went into I, ROBOT. The appendix has a numbered, chronological list of the 60 stories from this era, including several stories that went unsold and were lost, and the 27 stories included in this book.

Examples of the cringe-worthy ones:

  • In early story “The Callistan Menace” (2nd story written, published 1940) the menace which has caused previous expeditions to the Jovian moon to never return, is giant caterpillars that emerge from a lake. This time the mission succeeds because, as was off-handedly mentioned, the spaceship’s hull is made of beryl-tungsten, not steel. Comic book stuff.
  • “Ring Around the Sun” (#5, 1940) concerns a pair of wiseacre spaceship pilots testing out a new deflection shield that allows a course from Earth to Venus to go tightly past the sun. Things go wrong because, it turns out, the pilots didn’t bother to read the instructions for adjusting the field strength.
  • Similarly, “The Magnificent Possession” #9, 1940) concerns a pair of inventors who don’t bother to test their new device before announcing it to the press, even as various con men and politicians try to get control of it. This story and the previous were attempts at comedy; they’re just dumb.
  • Perhaps most peculiarly, “Half-Breed” (#15, 1940) concerns a lone inventor, Jefferson Scanlon, attempting to perfect atomic power, and a race of Earth/Mars half-breeds that look like humans except for having spiky white hair. These half-breeds are normally kept in asylums. The inventor rescues a runaway Tweenie boy, Max, from torment by street kids and takes him into his house, despite the outrage of his housekeeper—“How dare you bring such a thing into this house! Have you lost your sense of morals?” Max, having some natural inborn genius, subsequently takes apart and fixes the atomic power device, and Scanlon becomes world-famous. Later Scanlon decides the boy is lonely, and sets off on a tour of Tweenie asylums to find Max a girlfriend.
    • The story is creepy on a couple levels. First, there’s absolutely no background about where the Tweenies came from. Why are they in asylums? Who were their parents and where are they now? Worse, the supposedly enlightened Jefferson Scanlon treats Max like a pet, going to a kennel to find him a mate. Doesn’t Max have any say? Max’s reaction when he meets the girl, actually, is like that of a nervous pet.
    • While at the same time, Max’s genius in fixing the atomic energy device is taken as evidence that the half-breed race is superior to both humans and Martians.
    • And Asimov wrote a sequel, about the “half-breeds” setting up a new civilization on Venus. (#20, 1940)

Examples of the absurd:

  • “Black Friar of the Flame” (#13, 1942) is Asimov’s earliest story of interstellar intrigue. It involves lizardlike creatures from Vega who once captured Earth, and who are now planning a final drive to human extermination. Rebels on Earth learn of this plot by the happen-chance encounter of two offworlders serving duty as “guardians of the flame” at a memorial to human courage in New York City, while two of the alien Lhasinu happen to have snuck into that memorial, on a bet, and then just happen to discuss the plot against humanity – in English, apparently – for our humans to overhear.
    • Riots and space battles ensue, with the climax featuring human “needle-ships” that literally have needle-like spires at their fronts which then literally skewer the alien ships.
    • This is comic book space opera, yet notable because it prefigures the Foundation stories in some ways – the shifting scenes among groups of characters, the far future characters with odd names, the competition among factions unwilling to cooperate. The name Trantor is mentioned two or three times! Also Asimov notes the story went through several drafts, and earlier drafts had a religious angle that editor John W. Campbell asked him to take out… and then rejected the story anyway.
  • Only slightly better is “Homo Sol,” (#19, 1940) another Galactic Federation story. This begins as 288 delegates of the Galactic Congress meet to discuss the admission to the Federation of humans in the system Sol, now that they have developed interstellar travel. An expedition of psychologists is sent to Sol and returns with the news that the humans have refused, and that their behavior contradicts Federation theories of psychology. One of the psychologists develops a new idea about mob psychology, and sets about testing it on the humans. The result is the unsettling realization that humans will catch up with the rest of the Federation real soon now.
    • Campbell loved the implication that humans were somehow superior to the lordly galactic aliens—that was a prejudice throughout his career—and Asimov’s discomfort with the idea inspired the human-only galaxy of the Foundation stories. Otherwise, it’s a hodgepodge of a story, with an odd and irrelevant side-plot about why a Draconian squid, given a specific sequence of colors and sounds, should fall asleep.
  • “Heredity” (#23, 1941) concerns twin brothers raised apart, one in cosmopolitan New York, the other on the frontier world of Ganymede, who are brought together on Mars at age 25 and obliged to cooperate. Their attitudes conflict; a series of accidents and catastrophes (a huge sandstorm *and* a huge earthquake on the same day) tests their respective skills; and they earn grudging respect for each other. This is action-adventure that Asimov wasn’t good at writing; the incidents are arbitrary and implausible. The kind of story Asimov eventually stopped trying to write.
  • “The Hazing” (#30, 1942) is another action-adventure about a pack of humans dropped off by fellow students at Arcturus University on a primitive planet. The ship breaks down; the humans become tribal gods to the natives (in eight days), and so on. More thoughts about “mob psychology” but otherwise crude and cartoonish.

Two odd-ball pieces are fantasies co-written with Frederik Pohl (for a time Asimov’s agent) under the pseudonym James MacCreigh.

  • “The Little Man on the Subway” (#27, 1950) is about a subway car that magically enters the realm of a god-in-training, whose disciples bicker about the extent of his powers. Here we get some Asimovian takes on religion. P302m, how the subway conductor Cullen is “an intelligent Irishman. That is to say, he admitted the existence of banshees, leprechauns, and the Little Folk, and kept an open mind on poltergeists, werewolves, vampires and such-like foreign trash. At mere supernaturalties, he was too well-educated to sneer.” And discussing a potential heresy, p306t: “Imagine trying to create a god that would be under the thumbs of the creators. It was anthropomorphic heresy (where had he heard that word, now?) and struck at the roots of all religion.”
  • “Legal Rites,” (#34, 1950) oddly set in a cabin and small town near the Sierra Nevada, concerns a man arriving to claim the house his late uncle left him, only to find it inhabited by a ghost. The centerpiece is a trial where, with typical Asimovian detailed argument, points and counterpoints, results in the legal right of ghosts to haunt houses.

Other curious stories:

  • “Death Sentence” (#44, 1943) reads like a Foundation sidebar, about a rumored world full of psychotronic robots created with a simplified psychology allowing them to be manipulated, unlike humans. But it’s a twist story, and so completely non-canonical. —- spoiler —- When the planet’s discoverer returns there (where the robot natives don’t know they’re not flesh and blood creatures) he lands in their main city: New York.
  • “Super-Neutron” (#31, 1941) is Asimov’s first “club” story, that is, a story consisting of conversation among a group of men at a club, a form Asimov used endlessly for his “Black Widowers” non-SF mystery stories, and in many of the stories that went into ASIMOV’S MYSTERIES. It’s about a man who begins by claiming that the world will end in an hour or so, and then backfills with his discovery of a nearly transparent star that, analogous to how a neutron triggers a nuclear reaction, is about to hit the sun and trigger it to nova.

And then there are several pretty good stories, worth reading on their own terms, or at least significant in the context of Asimov’s development.

  • The early story “Trends” (#10, 1939) concerns a visionary and inventor, John Harman, obsessed by building a rocket to go the moon. He’s opposed by public opinion, and a “tub-thumping revivalist” evangelist Otis Eldredge distributing pamphlets that accuse him of profaning the heavens and risking damnation. Even Harman’s supporters wonder if he might suspend his project until things settle down. History exhibits trends, it swings back and forth, and the present 1973 is a new Victorian Age, where science may soon be regulated. But Harman is determined, and prepares for launch. His ship is sabotaged and explodes.
    • Harman survives and goes into hiding for five years, building a new ship in secrecy, taking off unannounced and returning to be greeted a hero. The pendulum has swung back.
    • This is a significant story in its consideration of social trends visible in our own day, and far less corny than the other early stories. Asimov admits he was inspired by work he did, one summer at college, for a sociologist studying social resistance across history to technological innovation. The theme is apt regarding space travel, though the depiction here is extreme. It’s a theme that would recur in Asimov’s fiction and essays, the opposition to discovery and progress by the religious. Another point entirely is that Asimov, here an in other stories, like other sf writers of the day, blithely assumes a project like going to the moon will be the work of a single genius.
  • “Not-Final!” (#33, 1941) concerns humans on Ganymede worried that an intelligent civilization discovered on Jupiter, where pressure and gravity are high, have vowed to destroy human “vermin.” But is that even possible? That is, even though the Jovians have atomic power and thus can generate force fields, can they ever escape their planet? Human experiments on powerful force fields indicate a limit on stability; the field buckles. And so they conclude fields powerful enough to enable the Jovians to escape their planet simply aren’t possible. And that’s final!
    • The ironic final scene shows a new transparent spaceship approaching Ganymede…a ship using powerful force fields.
    • Asimov underplays the contrast between the theoretical conclusions of the first group and the practical trial-and-error methodology of the spaceship designers. The more general point anticipates one of the Clarke’s Laws—when a scientist declares something impossible, he’s more likely wrong that right; technology often prevails theoretical objections.
  • “The Red Queen’s Race” (#58, 1949) is an excellent example of how Asimov can present a mystery – in this case a scientist found dead inside an atomic power plant that has been completely drained, and parchments among his effects on which modern chemistry has been translated into ancient Greek – and proceed, step by step, laying out pieces of the puzzle (not always in the systematic order one would marshal in a formal argument) to justify a remarkable conclusion. He even seems to undermine that conclusion at one point, only to then demonstrate that something subtler has occurred. It involves time travel, and also ideas about historical development that echo the historical speculation he had been doing, for six or seven years already, in the Foundation stories. He even uses the word “psychohistory,” figuratively, here.
  • Finally “Mother Earth,” (#59, 1949) the last story here, published in 1949, is a big, substantial galactic empire story very similar in its themes to the Foundation stories. We have a human-only terrestrial empire consisting of Earth and some 50 Outer Worlds, once colonies and now independent nations. These Outer Worlds are paradises compared to the overcrowded Earth, and have set up strict, racist immigration policies to keep Earth contained. Now rumors of something called the Pacific Project suggest that Earth is about to wage war against the Outer Worlds. One theme here is how Earth forbids robot labor, artificial foods, and abortion (“the slaughter of unborn children”), without which it cannot control its population; a counter-theme is that the racially pure Outer Worlds consider Earth to be populated by “disease-ridden, ignorant and subhuman remnants” of humanity. As tensions rise trade restrictions are put into place; war breaks out and Earth quickly surrenders; and then, in a move familiar from the Foundation stories, it all turns out to have been planned that way for the sake of longer-termed goals.
    • The eugenics theme recalls the contempt with which Earth is regarded by colony worlds in PEBBLE IN THE SKY, which, as it happens, Asimov had just drafted a couple months before.
    • Quarreling colonies, events that occur across light-years as if space travel is instantaneous, restrictions on free trade, the use of robots—a remix of familiar Asimov themes and devices.
    • Asimov mentions that Campbell accepted it but wanted more Foundation stories from Asimov instead—and so Asimov wrote the second part of what became SECOND FOUNDATION.
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Links and Comments: Sustainability and Rural Living

Problem? Or solution?

Sarah Smarsh: Something Special Is Happening in Rural America. Subtitle: There is a “brain gain” afoot that suggests a national homecoming to less bustling spaces.

Writing from Wichita

The nation’s most populous cities, the bicoastal pillars of aspiration — New York City and Los Angeles — are experiencing population declines, most likely driven by unaffordability. Other metros are experiencing growth, to be sure, especially in the South and West. But there is an exodus afoot that suggests a national homecoming, across generations, to less bustling spaces. Last year, Gallup found that while roughly 80 percent of us live in urban areas, rural life was the most wished for.

If happiness is what they seek, those folks are onto something. A 2018 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported that in spite of economic and health concerns, most rural Americans are pretty dang happy and hopeful. Forty percent of rural adults said their lives came out better than they expected. A majority said they were better off financially than their parents at the same age and thought their kids would likewise ascend. As for cultural woes, those among them under age 50, as well as people of color, showed notably higher acknowledgment of discrimination and commitment to social progress. All in all, it was a picture not of a dying place but one that is progressing.

Problems for which that’s not a solution:

NYT, Farhad Manjoo: It’s the End of California as We Know It, subtitled “The fires and the blackouts are connected to a larger problem in this state: a failure to live sustainably.”

It’s not that California is worse; it’s the leading edge.

The long-term solutions to many of our problems are obvious: To stave off fire and housing costs and so much else, the people of California should live together more densely. We should rely less on cars. And we should be more inclusive in the way we design infrastructure — transportation, the power grid, housing stock — aiming to design for the many rather than for the wealthy few.

If we redesigned our cities for the modern world, they’d be taller and less stretched out into the fire-prone far reaches — what scientists call the wildland-urban interface. Housing would be affordable because there’d be more of it. You’d be able to get around more cheaply because we’d ditch cars and turn to buses and trains and other ways we know how to move around a lot of people at high speeds, for low prices. It wouldn’t be the end of the California dream, but a reconceptualization — not as many endless blocks of backyards and swimming pools, but perhaps a new kind of more livable, more accessible life for all.

But who wants to do all this? Not the people of this state. Sure, we’ll ban plastic bags and try to increase gas-mileage standards (until the federal government tries to stops po96us, which of course it can, because our 40 million people get the same voting power in the Senate as Wyoming’s 600,000).

But the big things still seem impossible here. In a state where 40 years ago, homeowners passed a constitutional amendment enshrining their demands for low property taxes forever, where every initiative at increasing density still seems to fail, where vital resources like electricity are managed by unscrupulous corporations and where cars are still far and away the most beloved way to get around, it’s hard to imagine systemic change happening anytime soon.

And so we muddle on toward the end. All the leaves are burned and the sky is gray. California, as it’s currently designed, will not survive the coming climate. Either we alter how we live here, or many of us won’t live here anymore.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Social Progress | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Sustainability and Rural Living

Robert A. Heinlein: SIXTH COLUMN (1941/1949)

This was the earliest novel-length work by Heinlein, though it was serialized in Astounding magazine (Jan, Feb, and March 1941) and not published in book form until 1949, by which time two or three other Heinlein novels had been published as books. First published in hardcover under the magazine title, it was reprinted for many years in paperback by Signet under the blander title “The Day After Tomorrow,” a 7th printing of which I bought on 19 Sept 1971 at a discount big-box store in Northridge called Disco, with a Gene Szafran cover, shown above.

Also, it wasn’t Heinlein’s first fiction long enough to be serialized in multiple issues of a magazine; the novella “If This Goes On—” appeared a year before, in Feb and March 1940, and later included as the anchor story in the collection REVOLT IN 2100 in 1953. (I posted about that four years ago.) In both cases there are suggestions that the works were expanded for book publication, and some sources call “If This Goes On—” a novel; but it was never published as a separate work.

Gist: The United States has been conquered and occupied by PanAsians. At a secret research center in the Rocky Mountains, an internal experiment has killed all but six men. Those six refine the experiment to create a device with various miraculous effects: vortex beams, tractor beams, and the ability to kill people selectively by race. They set up a phony religion to fly under the radar of the occupiers, spread to numerous cities, and use various strategies to humiliate and defeat them.

Take: Despite its deus ex machina plot (relying on the amazing effects of their invention) and an unavoidably racist depiction of Asian invaders, this is fairly riveting story that fulfills its improbable premise: to show how six Americans (with virtually magic powers) can defeat an invading occupation force.

Summary:

  • The opening lines establish that radio reports confirm the destruction of Washington DC and Manhattan. The six men who gather at the Citadel, a secret research center, include a Major, who accepts the command to proceed on their own and prosecute the war, a mathematician, a biologist, a radiation specialist, and three others, a machinist, a cook, and a cook’s helper. Major Whitey Ardmore [Whitey was a not-uncommon nickname of the era, but still] has them repeat their oaths to the US Constitution.
  • The scientists investigate the experiment that mysteriously killed humans but not lab animals, and refine the ‘Ledbetter effect’ (after the lead scientist) to a controllable device.
  • The cook’s helper, Thomas, turns out to have been a former lawyer, and hobo. To get ‘intelligence’ about what’s going on outside, Thomas is sent out to contact other hobos, and scout nearby cities. He learns that more PanAsians are arriving every day, and American culture is being systematically wiped out. In the city, the whites are required to watch TV every night at 8 for orders. The churches are among the only institutions left alone; it’s common for invading forces to leave local religion alone.
  • They debate strategy and decide to extend the idea of European ‘fifth columns’ – traitors – to its antithesis, an internal ‘sixth column’ of patriots devoted to bringing the invaders unease. They can’t engage in crude attacks; the occupiers respond by retaliating against Americans at random in their homes.
  • Ardmore realizes they can start a new religion! They use the Ledbetter effect, with its tractors and repressors, to carve a temple out of the mountain right above them. Their Ledbetter force has whatever magical power the plot requires, it seems, e.g. making PanAsians, but no white person, overcome with unease should they attempt to enter the temple
  • Soon they establish a temple in the nearest city, Denver, in an abandoned warehouse, and deliver sermons about Lord Mota, and attract followers with free food bought with gold coins transmuted via the Ledbetter effect, which also allows them to heal the sick.
  • A spy breaks into their quarters; they execute him by slitting his throat in the bathtub. It’s war.
  • Temples spread to other cities; members of traditional religions join the secret army.
  • Eventually the PanAsians become concerned about this new religion, and Ardmore is summoned to a meeting with the Prince Royal. Ardmore takes his time and manages to twist the Prince’s words around to leave him on the defensive, while staying in touch with home base via a communicator in his headgear, using slang and doubletalk to confuse any spy microphones.
  • Then whole congregations are rounded up. The Citadel has manufactured cheap Ledbetter effect weapons to enable attacks directed at PanAsians. Ardmore and company invade the palace, issue a warning to the Prince Royal, and kill every other PanAsian in the building. Others kidnap PanAsian officials, strip them and stencil offensive terms on their bodies, and dump them naked in the streets – to humiliate them. As reports pass among the PanAsians, the whites jam all radio transmissions.
  • The white resistance use weapons that trigger ‘colloidal explosions’ against the PanAsians (their bodies explode into clouds of oily matter), and finally, project a 1000-foot high figure of Lord Mota to call forth Americans and warn the Asians to return to where they came.
  • In an aside, Calhoun, back at the Citadel, wonders if the government they set up after this is all over might be a scientific elite..? Led by..? Ardmore reminds him that military officers don’t meddle in politics. Calhoun subsequently goes mad, apparently, claiming the power of Lord Mota, but is quickly taken out.
  • Finally the Prince is captured, and confronted by Ardmore, who tells the Prince that his people were beaten by “science that your culture can’t match.” The prince will be tried for murder. But in the morning, he’s found dead in his cell.

Notes

  • Heinlein’s work was based on an earlier story by editor John W. Campbell, “All,” which was a standard yellow-peril story common in the era (in comic books and pulp stories) in which Asian were depicted as vile hordes eager to subjugate everything noble and true in white, Western society. Heinlein tried to tone it down. He introduced a native Asian-American whose family had been killed by the occupiers; he introduced a white man who’d infiltrated the PanAsian forces. Still—throughout the book the white heroes repeatedly use various epithets to describe and invaders, e.g.
    • Heathens
    • Monkeys
    • Flatfaces
    • Slant-eyes
    • Monkey men
    • Stinkyface
    • As well as Oriental and Asiatic
  • In the 2012 Baen Books edition I just read, the afterword by Tom Kratman (a writer of military SF for Baen) defends this language as the kind of things men at war would say about the enemy. Maybe so. But Heinlein’s depiction of the invading PanAsians isn’t the least bit nuanced; the PanAsians are indeed hierarchical hordes for whom the slightest infraction leads to the ‘joining to one’s ancestors’ (i.e. summary execution), and their overriding motivation is ‘face,’ i.e. honor, so that any dishonor swiftly leads to suicide.
  • The only way this story works is—
    • The deus ex machine Ledbetter device, which is basically magic; and
    • The idea that the masses can be manipulated through the benefits of a phony religion.
  • The latter idea is the interesting point of this book. Invading forces ignore local religions; ordinary people can be attracted to any religion, no matter how ridiculous, given enough free food.
  • (I seem to recall a similar sentiment in Heinlein’s relatively late 1973 novel TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, which I haven’t read since it was published; but I seem to recall a sentiment, by Lazarus Long, that it always pays to act respectfully toward the local religion in any town, no matter how ridiculous it seems.)
  • Even in this very early Heinlein story, his voice is authoritative and persuasive; you believe every word he writes (until you put the book down a thinks for a few minutes, perhaps). He seems to know everything; or, his characters do.

Quotes

  • At the very beginning, p11.9ff: “What would it be like, this crazy new world—a world in which the superiority of western culture was not a casually accepted ‘Of course,’ a world in which the Stars and Stripes did not fly, along with the pigeons, over every public building.”
    • Indeed, one of the key virtues of science fiction is to undermine the casually accepted verities of one’s parochial culture.
  • P81.9: “All religions look equally silly from the outside. –Sorry! I don’t mean to tread on anybody’s toes. But it’s a fact just the same and one that we will make military use of. Take any religious mystery, any theological proposition: expressed in ordinary terms it will read like sheer nonsense to the outsider, from the ritualistic, symbolic eating of human flesh and blood practiced by all the Christian sects to the outright cannibalism practiced by some savages.”
  • P79m: “Psychology is not a science because it is too difficult. The scientific mind is usually orderly, with a natural love for order. It resents and tends to ignore fields in which order is not readily apparent. It gravitates to fields in which order is easily found such as the physical sciences, and leaves the more complex fields to those who play by ear, as it were. Thus we have a rigorous scient of thermodynamics but are not likely to have a science of psychodynamics for many years yet to come.”
  • P95: “An honest politician is one that stays bought.”
  • P108: The former lawyer explains the purpose of a trial. “The whole purpose of the complicated structure of western jurisprudence in criminal matters, as built up over the centuries, has been to keep the innocent from being convicted and punished through error. It sometimes lets the guilty go free in the process, but that’s not the purpose.”
  • P162b: Even if they defeat the PanAsians, “Don’t ever think we can settle things ‘once and for always.’” With examples from history. “Life is a dynamic process and can’t be made static. ‘—and they all lived happily ever after’ is fairy-tale stu—” (and then he’s cut off)
  • P147: They anticipate what will happen when the priests of their invented religion reveal to their flocks “that the whole thing is really a hoax for military purposes. Nine people out of ten will be overjoyed to hear the truth and strongly cooperative. The tenth one may cause trouble, get hysterical… Be ready to turn the sleepy ray on anybody that looks like a source of trouble. Then lock ‘em up until the fun is over—we haven’t time to try to reorient the soft-minded.”
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Link and Comments: Scientists Underestimating Climate Change

NYT, Eugene Linden: How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong, subtitled, “Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.”

Because, despite the cynicism of the anti-science crowd, scientists as a group are pretty cautious. They’re also human, and have trouble recognizing how dramatic change can be within an ordinary lifetime.

(Meanwhile, anti-science religious loonies point to rainbows as ‘proof’ God would not allow the world to be destroyed (again). Such people may lead us all to doom, and if we let them, we deserve it.)

For decades, most scientists saw climate change as a distant prospect. We now know that thinking was wrong. This summer, for instance, a heat wave in Europe penetrated the Arctic, pushing temperatures into the 80s across much of the Far North and, according to the Belgian climate scientist Xavier Fettweis, melting some 40 billion tons of Greenland’s ice sheet.

Had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels, at an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic and produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin, the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist. But many worst-case scenarios from that time are now realities.

Science is a process of discovery. It can move slowly as the pieces of a puzzle fall together and scientists refine their investigative tools. But in the case of climate, this deliberation has been accompanied by inertia born of bureaucratic caution and politics. A recent essay in Scientific American argued that scientists “tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold” and said one of the reasons was “the perceived need for consensus.” This has had severe consequences, diluting what should have been a sense of urgency and vastly understating the looming costs of adaptation and dislocation as the planet continues to warm.


The realization that the global climate can swing between warm and cold periods in a matter of decades or even less came as a profound shock to scientists who thought those shifts took hundreds if not thousands of years.

The Trump administration, of course, is making everything worse. It will go down as an evil force of history. If there is a history.

If the Trump administration has its way, even the revised worst-case scenarios may turn out to be too rosy. In late August, the administration announced a plan to roll back regulations intended to limit methane emissions resulting from oil and gas exploration, despite opposition from some of the largest companies subject to those regulations. More recently, its actions approached the surreal as the Justice Department opened an antitrust investigation into those auto companies that have agreed in principle to abide by higher gas mileage standards required by California. The administration also formally revoked a waiver allowing California to set stricter limits on tailpipe emissions than the federal government.

Even if scientists end up having lowballed their latest assessments of the consequences of the greenhouse gases we continue to emit into the atmosphere, their predictions are dire enough. But the Trump administration has made its posture toward climate change abundantly clear: Bring it on!

It’s already here. And it is going to get worse. A lot worse.

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Link and Comments: Why Trust Science?

Naomi Oreskes, a professor at Harvard, just published a book, Why Trust Science?, which has gotten a fair amount of coverage in various review and interview venues. Her main point, I gather, is that science isn’t so much about the perhaps simplistic idea of the ‘scientific method,’ as about the process by which results and conclusions are rigorously vetted.

Time Magazine just published a short essay in which she expands on this premise: Science Isn’t Always Perfect—But We Should Still Trust It.

(The headline in the print magazine is “Put Your Faith in Science” which is terrible — the point is, it’s not about ‘faith’; it’s about confidence, or trust, based on past results. Also, the print version is trimmed slightly from this online version.)

The answer is not the methods by which scientists generate claims, but the methods by which those claims are evaluated. The common element in modern science, regardless of the specific field or the particular methods being used, is the critical scrutiny of claims. It’s this process—of tough, sustained scrutiny—that works to ensure that faulty claims are rejected and that accepted claims are likely to be right.

She describes the process from initial claim to casual discussion with colleagues to submission to a scientific journal which then engages in rigorous peer review before publication; and even then, “if serious errors are detected after publication, journals may issue errata or even retractions.”

A key aspect of scientific judgment is that it is not done individually; it is done collectively. It’s a cliché that two heads are better than one: in modern science, no claim gets accepted until it has been vetted by dozens, if not hundreds of heads. In areas that have been contested, like climate science and vaccine safety, it’s thousands. This is why we are generally justified in not worrying too much if a single individual scientist, even a very famous one, dissents from the consensus. There are many reasons why an individual might dissent: he might be disappointed that his own theory didn’t work out, bear a personal grudge, or have an ideological ax to grind. She might be stuck on a detail that just doesn’t change the big picture, or enjoy the attention she gets for promoting a contrarian view. Or he might be an industry shill. The odds that the lone dissenter is right, and everyone else is wrong, are not zero, but so long as there has been adequate opportunity for the full vetting of his and everyone else’s claims they are probably in most cases close to zero. This is why diversity in science is important: the more people looking at a claim from different angles, the more likely they are to identify errors and blind-spots. It’s also why we should have a healthy skepticism towards brand-new claims: it takes years or sometimes decades for this process to unfold.

Final paragraph, cut from the print article:

Modern society relies on trust in experts, be they dentists, plumbers, car mechanics, or professors. If trust were to come to a halt, society would come to a halt, too. Like all people, scientists make mistakes, but they have knowledge and skills that make them useful to the rest of us. They can do things that we can’t. And just as we wouldn’t go to a plumber to fix our teeth or a dentist to fix our car, we shouldn’t go to actresses or politicians, much less industries with a vested interest or ideologically-driven think-tanks, for answers to scientific questions. If we need scientific information, we should go to the scientists who have dedicated their lives to learning about the matters at stake. On scientific matters, we should trust science.

This idea of how modern civilization relies on experts — because no one person can know everything, unless he’s a primitive pioneer living off the land, where that ‘everything’ is limited to basic survival skills — has been recognized for decades; I’ve observed it in commentaries about science and science fiction, as documented here in many posts.

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Link and Comments: School Debates and Motivated Reasoning

From last month: NYT, Are School Debate Competitions Bad for Our Political Discourse? subtitled, They can be a good credential for aspiring leaders, but they favor a closed-minded and partisan style of argument.

By Jonathan Ellis and Francesca Hovagimian, at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley respectively.

Why? Because school debate ultimately strengthens and rewards biased reasoning.

That means teams start with a conclusion, whether they endorse it or not, and work backward from there, marshaling the best arguments they can devise to make that conclusion come out on top.

The goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs. This is an exercise not in deliberation but in reasoning with an agenda.

This also happens to be the kind of argumentation we find so corrosive in today’s politics. Politicians and pundits have their favored view and then emphasize the information that fortifies it. Evidence that threatens their position is rationalized away. Problems for the opposing view are hunted for and magnified.

Maybe this is why I was never interested in debate club. Debates are about winning, not honing in on truth or reality. Debates train lawyers and politicians and theologians, not scientists. I’ve always been more interested on what is actually real, not what my tribe or community thinks is real.

The article goes on to discuss an alternative, something called an Ethics Bowl.

Disagreeing constructively is a skill — one of the most difficult and important there is. In encouraging students to practice this skill, the Ethics Bowl fosters what may be the most important intellectual virtue of all: openness to changing your mind.

There is something of a stigma in our culture about changing your mind, especially in politics. If you do, you are often seen as weak or branded a “flip-flopper.” The problem is, holding steadfast to a belief in the face of sound objections or contrary evidence stops conversation. It’s dogmatic and stubborn. Having the courage to admit when you might be wrong, on the other hand, helps move conversations toward meaningful resolutions.

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Robert Silverberg: REVOLT ON ALPHA C (1955)

Robert Silverberg’s first novel was published in hardcover by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1955 and then went through many printings as a thin paperback edition from Scholastic Books; see http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?2796 for a list of all editions, and cover images. I have the 7th, 1969 printing, that I bought from A Change of Hobbit bookstore on 31 March 1976. It’s a young-adult novel, by contemporary standards, in that it involves a young man finding his place in the world. It’s also remarkably ordinary, considering the heights that Silverberg’s literary career would later reach.

Gist: A new space patrol cadet takes his first interstellar trip to a planet of Alpha Centauri, where he learns that several of the Earth colonies there want freedom from Earth. When two of his friends defect to the rebels, and make appeals to the history of the American revolution, the cadet decides the right thing to do is to stay and help build a new planet, even though that means leaving the service, his father, and Earth all behind.

Take: An oddly political theme for a slender YA novel, though the book also has the standard adventure scene in an alien jungle, peril scene of being trapped out in space, and so on.

Summary:

  • Larry Stark, new cadet for the Space Patrol, is on the ship Carden bound for Alpha Centauri, now stopping off at Pluto. Also on board is Harl Ellison, a cadet from Mars. Larry enjoys hanging out with the ‘tubemonkeys’ in the engine room; O’Hare sings ballads, and is derisive of the captain’s authority, which makes Larry uncomfortable, having his own military father.
  • A problem with the jets drops the ship out of overdrive; O’Hare, and Larry, exit in spacesuits to do the repair, and get separated from the ship, using jetpacks to get back.
  • Arriving at Alpha C, the ship is refused clearance from the “Free World of Alpha Centauri IV”; but one of the other colonies, Chicago, allows them to land.
  • The planet is in its Mesozoic Era, populated by dinosaurs; the colonies are surrounded by high walls.
  • They meet a rebel leader, Jon Browne (!), who wants a united planet so they can negotiate with Earth—familiar complaints about taxes vs. representation.
  • O’Hare gives Larry his guitar—as he leaves to change sides to support the rebels. Harl soon follows. Larry is shocked and angry.
  • Larry and another cadet are sent to follow Harl and return with intelligence. But they are imprisoned as spies. Larry persuades O’Hare let him escape.
  • Back at Chicago, the ship’s captain asks Larry to send a message to Earth, to bring reinforcements. Larry realizes he can’t do – and disables the radio instead.
  • And so he flees with Jon Browne to the rebel colony of London, realizing he’s leaving it all behind – Earth, his father, his chance to visit other stars. Finally, satisfied that his father would approve of his following the maxim that a Space Patrolman must make decisions, and keep them, — he smashes the tube to render the ship’s radio impossible to repair.

Points:

  • Silverberg seems to have named a character after Harlan Ellison, a close friend in NYC from early in both their careers.
  • We get a standard explanation for why an ‘overdrive’ is needed to travel in interstellar space, with the familiar rationale of folds in space, like pleats, to allow movement across vast distances.
  • The local landscape is jungle and dinosaurs, but the description as in the Mesozoic Era is inapt; no two planets would go through the same sequence of geological ages.
  • Again, it’s unusual that such a political theme should dominate a young adult novel, especially considering that much of Silverberg’s other early work was pure pulp adventure. Presumably he was trying for something a little more substantial in this, his first novel.

 

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Arthur C. Clarke, PROFILES OF THE FUTURE (1962..1999)

This is a book first published in 1962, a nonfiction book speculating on potential technological developments and human achievements. The subtitle is “An Inquiry in the Limits of the Possible.” Clarke revised it three times, the last in 1999 (he died in 2008). I first read the book around 1970, in a paperback of what must have been the original edition. Later I bought a copy of the revised edition and (unwisely in retrospect) sold off the earlier copy. Then recently I discovered the book had two more revisions, the fourth published only in the UK. I tracked a copy down on Abebooks and have now read that, checking it against the earlier, 2nd, edition I have to see how substantial the revisions were. (In some cases, from chapter to chapter, very minor; in others quite substantial. Serious updates are noted with chapter prefaces or postscripts.)

The fun of a book like this, even one just 20 years old, is to see where the author correctly anticipated the future, and where he went awry.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the introduction advises that it was written as a series of essays for Playboy magazine. This is interesting because Playboy is and was a high-end market (i.e. despite its reputation as a skin magazine, it makes, or made, enough in advertising to attract top-drawer writers), and I hadn’t realized Clarke had that kind of mainstream success so early (in contrast to his celebrity years following 2001 in 1968). And it’s significant because the book isn’t a sustained or organized argument about various aspects of the future; it’s a collection of individual topics, without the focus or progression one might expect of a nonfiction book written from scratch. Yet I realize as I glance through my shelf of other Clarke nonfiction titles, virtually all of Clarke’s nonfiction books (except perhaps personal narratives like The Treasure of the Great Reef) are similar collections of essays.

This fourth ‘Millennium Edition’ begins by recalling Clarke’s so-called Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished by elderly scientist says that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he says it is impossible, s(he) is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The third is the most famous, of course. He further advises that this book isn’t about what’s probable, or desirable, but what’s possible.

The first two chapters (which perhaps were written especially for the book) discuss two “Hazards of Prophecy.” The first is “The Failure of Nerve.” Examples of are usually cases that fit the first law above: some authority claims such and such is impossible, without thinking through the evidence or presenting a case. Thus, fears of how locomotives would suffocate people by reaching 20 mph. How heavier-than-air flight was thought to be impossible. And how the idea of space flight was dismissed, citing one example in detail, where the math was right but the assumptions incorrect. As late as 1956 came that famous remark, “Space travel is utter bilge” – from Britain’s Astronomer Royal. As a result only Germany and Russia pursued rocketry, and Russia won the race into space.  Lesson: “Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough.”

“Failures of Imagination” account for known facts but don’t anticipate things that might yet be discovered. In 1835 it was thought the composition of the stars could never be known. How the idea of harnessing the energy of the atom was dismissed, 5 years before it happened. Consider how much of today’s technology would have seemed incomprehensible in 1900; some of our machines would have seemed sensible to past minds, e.g. cars and trains, but not computers, radar or VCRs [Blu-Ray players, we might say now].

The remaining chapters jump from topic to topic.

Ch3 is on transport, noting how throughout most of human history the speed of transportation has been no more than 10mph, while the ranges of mph in the next three orders of magnitude have been achieved in the past century. Clarke concludes that in the short range (10-100 miles) it’s hard to imagine anything fundamentally different replacing cars. But—they will become more efficient, electric, and will drive themselves, and you can dismiss them. [[ Thus he’s anticipating self-driving electric cars, and the sharing economy. ]] Railroads will fade as industry decentralizes; planes for intercontinental, getting bigger; sea travel shifting to comfort and leisure. (Most on the mark here.)

Ch4 discusses Clarke’s biggest miss from 1962, as he admits in 1999. It’s about GEMs, Ground Effect Machines (what we now call hovercraft). How they can cross rough terrain without any kind of highway, travel at sea, and can transition from sea to land anywhere, rendering coastal ports obsolete. His 1999 postscript admits this hasn’t worked out: because they turned out to be gas guzzlers, were noisy, messy, and hard to control. They do have certain limited uses, like channel crossings. But they didn’t revolutionize the world.

Ch5 is about overcoming gravity, an ancient dream. Notes how small animals are unaware of it. Advises that weightlessness in orbit is not about being “beyond the pull of gravity”; that’s nonsense. If some negative-gravity matter were found, gravity control would be propulsion, to move freight, to visit Jupiter in person. Gravity belts might make elevators obsolete; our homes could take to the air and we’d be nomads, with the end of cities and national boundaries. [[ So here we have an admittedly far-fetched premise, but we see how Clarke extrapolates its consequences in unexpected ways, which is what futurists and science fiction writers do. ]]

Ch6 is more about speed. The rate increase discussed in Ch3 cannot continue. Talk of nuclear propulsion, or ramjets. But with great speed comes high acceleration. Gravity control might give rise to an ‘inertialess’ drive.

Ch7 is about a world without distance. Suppose we could teleport ourselves, like in that Alfred Bester novel [[ The Stars My Destination ]] ? Issues include how long it would take to scan a human body, and the fact that a transmitter would actually be a multiplier. [[ The issue with Star Trek‘s transporter, as James Blish explored in his one original Trek novel, Spock Must Die. ]]  The real answer may be in the nature of space; the bending of space, as on a Mobius strip.

Ch8 outlines the near future of space, from 1960. Space travel will provide a sense of wonder, but in no way a solution to the problem of overpopulation. Culture is shifting (he said back in 1962), with toys and TV shows on space themes. Space exploration might affect art: writers respond to the existence of frontiers. Space flight is less like aviation than like ocean voyaging. Aesthetics will be affected by alien environments. Alien life is unlikely in our solar system; contact with races on planets of other suns, likely via radio, would have profound impacts on our cultures, and on our religions — “if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.”

Ch9: Is there any place that will forever be inaccessible to us? Considers the center of the earth, Jupiter, Mercury, the sun, dwarf stars; pulsars. We can approach all of these, at least.

Ch10: We’ll never ‘conquer’ space – it’s unimaginably vast. Even if we settle the solar system, conversation won’t be possible, because of the time lag. And stellar space is millions of times vaster that solar space. That’s not to say stars will never be reached; there are various ways of achieving such travel. But interstellar empires are fantasy. Any settled planets would be independent. Even if we could surpass the speed of light, we would still have the enormity of space, considering the number of stars, of planets. Again: space will never be conquered.

Ch11, About Time. Will we ever be able to visit the past, change it, travel to it, or to the future? What would it be like to actually know the complete past? Perhaps people in the future are looking back at us. Altering the past involves too many paradoxes and contradictions. Some writers have tried to circumvent these. Many worlds; or history has inertia. [[ all common science fiction premises ]] Why have we seen there no time travelers, if such travel is possible? Clarke doesn’t take these ideas very seriously. Drugs can alter the apparent passage of time. Relativity predicts the time paradox of space travelers returning to earth. Travel to the future? Easy. Suspended animation is one way. Cryonics. Seeing the future? It was once thought that if given the position and velocities of all atoms in the universe, the future was predetermined. But not anymore. Still, we can’t rule anything out…

Ch12, Are we running out of resources? Previous worries haven’t happened yet. But fossil fuels can’t last forever. Fission is an unpleasant method. Fusion is the best solution, though likely only as very large plants. Batteries will be needed to transport that energy to cars and planes. Broadcast energy has its problems p131. Other sources? Solar. Hydro-electric. Perhaps sources we can’t imagine yet. As for raw materials, we’ve used up in a few centuries the easily mined ores that took hundreds of millions of years to form. We can get some minerals from ordinary rocks, from sea water, or from deep mining with machines. Or other planets in the solar system, transported via a ‘funicular’ to lift payload into orbit, a cable or sky-hook; space elevators [ the theme of Clarke’s 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise ]. Ultimately, nuclear transmutation will create any elements we want. Starting with fusion; then using nuclear catalysts. With that capability, we should never run out of raw material.

Ch13, about manufacturing and the the struggle for food, shelter, and other materials. Some objects can be specified in a few words, but most can’t. still, we have techniques for analyzing objects in ways that would have amazed chemists of a generation ago. We can manufacture solid circuits, layer by layer. So consider how a three-d replicator would work. Mentions of books by Drexler and Broderick (The Spike). And why not food? Perhaps then we’d see the end of factories, farms, and transportation of raw materials. The first replicator would then create another of itself. What would remain valuable? Values would change; services might prevail. It’s a matter of being civilized.

Ch14, is invisibility possible? The notion in Wells’ Invisible Man wouldn’t work; the eye wouldn’t be able to see. Other notions involve cameras, mirrors and prisms, vibrations. But subjective invisibility is quite possible. Hypnosis. And what about matter penetration? Walking through walls. Polarization. Or the fourth dimension – as in direction. Flatland, and the analogy to the third dimensional world.

Ch15, the idea of exploring the very tiny; the invention of the microscope led to Gulliver’s Travels and the idea of levels of smaller sizes. A world in a drop of water. Alice used a drug. Cummings: the atom as miniature solar system. Incredible Shrinking Man. Are any of these possible? No, for reasons of scale. Ants. A tiny man’s bodily mechanisms would fail. In reality, humans may now be larger than they need to be. Smaller intelligent beings might exist along different lines. But all cells are about the same size. Thus very small animals are less complex; intelligent ones are larger. The downward limit for life is the size of a protein.

Ch16, Voices from the Sky – another 1962 essay here reprinted without change. The president’s Christmas message in 1958 heralded a new age—via an Atlas satellite. But great improvements are in store. The world is round… it was the ionosphere that made long-distance radio possible. That doesn’t work for TV. What’s needed instead is a single relay a few thousand miles up; three satellites to surround the world. This was Clarke’s idea in 1945. What will be the consequences of global TV? We will all become neighbors, able to see each other’s lives. There’s hope and also danger: consider a scenario of how to conquer the world without anyone noticing, p173t. Suppose Russian spread tiny receivers to undeveloped nations and quickly used propaganda for their ends. Also, we’ll see the end of hideous TV antennae. The variety of shows will increase. Shows without commercials. And relief from the “intellectual vacuum” of small towns, especially in the Deep South, p174. The end of small-town mentality. Affects on languages. What else? Perhaps personal transceivers. Be able to call anyone on earth. A positioning system. Need for transportation will decrease. Workers can live wherever they please. Wide-screen full-colour TVs, 176b. Correspondence making airmail obsolete… by writing something and having it scanned at the office. Orbital newspapers, printing out only the sections you want to read. Copies of any book anywhere. Or will the availability of all this TV destroy civilization? (Clarke’s 1999 postscript: all this happened more quickly than he imagined. But we still don’t have paperless offices.) [[ He still didn’t anticipate e-mail or the web; he imagined correspondence would be printed out. ]]

Ch17, Brain and Body. Can they be improved? The brain perhaps never completely forgets anything. But false memories can be implanted too, by fundamentalist preachers… Might we gain conscious control of our memories? A form of time travel, to bring up any recollection. Or how about the creation of new memories, i.e. education machines? Artificial memories would amount to dream factories. Our senses are easily tricked. We could manufacture new sensations. We could wire in the senses of other animals. We’re deaf and blind to a whole range that of our senses. [[ A favorite theme of E.O. Wilson. ]] Senses can be trained to make up for the absence of others. Perhaps we can control pain? Is sleep really necessary? Is dreaming? Sleep might be useful in some circumstances, leading to suspended animation. Is there a normal lifespan? But a world of immortals would stagnate. But perhaps we can improve the aging process. Might our minds move into machines? Or disembodied heads?

18, The Obsolescence of Man. Pre-humans first used tools, triggering the trend of human evolution. In a sense, tools invented modern men, who replaced the earlier ones who invented tools. This may be happening again. Biological evolution may give way to technology evolution: the machine is going to take over. This will be a turning point in history. But what is meant by a machine thinking? Turing’s device. Yet aren’t computers programmed? A fallacious argument; their sheer speed will enable them to escape our control. The argument is like the early chemists who felt something inorganic must animate life. Already machines are making progress to M. sapiens. They may be grown. Sizes shrink. Capacity grows. Comparisons with radios and hi-fi equipment. Recall the brain, life, cells, eyes. Eyes are poor compared to the cheapest camera. Some senses are unavailable to us. The greatest stimulus to the evolution of mechanical intelligence is the challenge of Space. Perhaps only in space will intelligence flourish; the dullards will stay home. Like the fish that stayed in the sea. So what happens to man? There may be an alliance for a while. Machines may take up menial tasks. Would they combine with us? Humans with machine parts. Cyborgs. The idea that intelligent machines would be hostile to man is absurd, 205b.

19, The Long Twilight. Acknowledges inconsistencies and omissions. The M87 jet. Quote from Bertrand Russell. The fate of the universe.

Finally, the book has a “Chart of the Future”, showing categories of achievement against a timeline of past and future, with significant accomplishments shown, or predicted.  (Click for larger image.) Obviously Clarke updated this chart from with each revision of the book. Note that even in 1999 he thought fusion power and weather control were imminent, while other ideas, like colonizing planets, might have happened but have not, humanity’s taste for such pursuits having waned. Furthermore, despite Clarke’s optimism, there are good reasons to think that gravity control, ‘space drives,’ and matter transmission will never be possible. But of course the point of Clarke’s book is to never rule anything out, no matter how improbable.

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Richard Dawkins: OUTGROWING GOD: A Beginner’s Guide (2019)

This book, clearly aimed at younger readers, repeats many of themes from his earlier 2006 book THE GOD DELUSION, boiled down and made even more pointed. The first part of the book is structured as a series of “but what about?” questions; the author challenges belief in God, and then answers objections along the lines of, but if there’s no God, what about this? What about that? The second part is a multi-part answer to the final “what about” question.

I’ll try to boil down the books to a simple sequence of questions and answers. [[ Some asides of mine in brackets. ]]

Part I

Q1: Do you believe in God?

A1: Which one? There’s a long list of gods of past cultures that no one believes in anymore. Yahweh, the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, started out as the tribal god of ancient Israelites who, they believed, looked after them as his ‘chosen people’. Yet Christians and Muslims seem to believe in other assorted gods: the devil; the holy trinity; mother Mary; and all those Catholic saints, quite analogous to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. [[ It’s as if humans have never escaped the animist mindset that ascribes agency to every natural phenomenon. ]]

Q2: But what about the Bible? Isn’t it true?

A2: How do we know any book is true? We do know that the books of the Bible were written in ancient languages, from word-of-mouth storytelling, and then translated many times. The game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ [telephone, in the US] shows how stories change each time they’re told. Most likely the stories in the Old Testament are legends, like the stories of Homer. In the New Testament, the gospels were written decades after the events they portray, and after all those letters of St. Paul, who didn’t seem to know much about Jesus’ life. The Biblical canon wasn’t established until 325 AD. Other gospels were left out on the numerological grounds that there could be only four. And the four we have are inconsistent, and prone to mistranslation. (e.g that Mary was a ‘virgin’). The idea of miracles has to be carefully considered given how frequently people are mistaken, or fooled by conjurers or con-men.

Q3: What about the non-miraculous stories in the Old Testament?

A3: Consider how myths start. There’s no independent evidence that Abraham actually existed, or that the Jews escaped Egypt led by Moses; you’d think the latter would have been noted in Egyptian history. Yet there is evidence of the Jewish captivity in Babylon…about the time the books of the OT were first written down. Thus those stories are influenced by legends of other peoples, e.g. Gilgamesh and Greek mythology. No modern theologian thinks that Adam and Eve, or Noah’s Ark, are history.

Myths can begin as stories based in fact, and grow in the telling. We’ve seen this in recent history: how isolated Pacific Islands during World War II came worship American cargo planes (cargo cults) and on one island a cult formed around a visit by John Frum – “John from America.” It’s easy to see Mormonism as another modern cult, given the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s claims. People indoctrinated into religion as a child have a hard time shaking it off. Every tribe has its origin myth. Myths have poetic beauty, but they’re not history.

Q4: But isn’t it necessary to follow the Bible, the ‘Good Book,’ for its moral wisdom?

A4: Whether or not God is real or a fictional character, we can judge whether he is good or bad. The stories of Job, of Abraham and Isaac (a story involving a different son in the Qu’ran). God seems not only cruel, but insecure – he even calls himself a ‘jealous’ god. The early Hebrews were polytheistic in a sense: they didn’t doubt the existence of rival gods, they just believed their own Yahweh was more powerful. The commandment about not killing only meant, don’t kill members of your own tribe. God of the OT kills other tribes right and left, and loves the smell of burning meat. All those stories of Hebrews killing tribes in places they were told to settle would today be called ethnic cleansing.

What about the NT? Jesus said some nice things, but St. Paul dwelled on the idea of babies being born in sin. The doctrine of atonement, of God needing to sacrifice his own ‘son’ Jesus, born just so he could be tortured and die in agony, is macabre and nasty and deserves to be ridiculed. (Why not just grant humans forgiveness and be done with it? [[ Because blood sacrifices were common in primitive tribal religions of the time, and so the idea was worked into the legend of Jesus. ]] ) And how does the condemnation of Judas make sense, if his betrayal of Jesus was God’s plan?

So the character of God does not seem especially nice.

Q5: But don’t we need God in order to be good?

A5: Most people think someone of a different faith is preferable to an atheist, as if belief in a higher power is necessary to know right from wrong. Why would this be so? Because a holy book is a book of rules, without which we’d have no idea what is right or wrong? Or perhaps because people act good if they believe some policeman in the sky is watching them. Thus ‘god-fearing.’ Yet there’s little evidence that belief in God or Hell makes people nicer. Prisons are full of believers, and very few atheists. Of course, some people think *other* people need such beliefs to be good; this is the idea of belief in belief.

The traditional 10 rules (there are two versions) aren’t valuable as a guide to being good or bad; the first two are only about God being jealous. No one observes the fourth. The sixth applies only to one’s own tribe. The tenth considers the wife to be the property of the man. In the NT Jesus endorsed the OT ‘Law’, repudiated his own family, and took petty revenge on a fig tree. His ‘golden rule’ is familiar from many cultures. Anyway, if we can pick and choose which rules to follow, then we must have some sense of good and bad outside those rules.

Q6: So how do we decide what is good?

A6: Our brains have evolved to include certain tastes and desires, including the desire to be nice to other people [[ more about this later ]]. Our sense of right and wrong has changed – about slavery, the inferiority of different races, of allowing women to vote – because society has evolved, from interaction with people different than ourselves, through social debates, and so on. There are two broad classes of moral philosophy: absolutionists, who think some things just are right or just are wrong, and consequentialists, who considers the consequences of an action, who suffers or does not. –Here author imagines a long debate about abortion between two women, one on each side. Deontologists propose ideas like Kant’s categorical imperative, or the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ is setting social standards [[ this is the idea that you design a society so that whatever role you might play in it you would not be unhappy ]].

So even if God does exist, we don’t need him to be good.

This leads to the ultimate ‘what about’ question – doesn’t the world look obviously designed? So we move the second part of the book, about evolution.

Part II

Q7, Surely there must be a designer?

A7: Author imagines a cheetah and a gazelle and observes how each seems designed for its role. Also how a chameleon’s tongue works. Considers the complexities of the eye. These are all problems that need to be explained. The solution is evolution by natural selection. The fact that there are often flaws in these supposed ‘designs’ is evidence of that evolution: the human eye’s blind spot; the nerve that connects to the voicebox; goosebumps. History is written all over us.

Ch8: Steps towards improbability.

All of these designs seem high improbable; don’t they need a designer? No, that’s no solution at all, despite William Paley’s hypothetical example of finding a watch found on the beach. The solution is to imagine, e.g., the cheetah being change a little bit, in some random direction. The change might help, or not. The change is random, but the result is not, it’s determined by how well the animal survives in its environment. Darwin used the example of how the domestication of horses and dogs have led to vastly different breeds. Humans did that selection; in the natural world, nature itself does the selection. Thus an excellent eye can result from a change to a slightly less excellent eye, and so on, all the way to a very poor eye that’s better than no eye at all. [[ And our eyes may be excellent but they’re not perfect, which is why so many of us where eyeglasses; so much for intelligent design. ]] The problem with imagining a designer is that God himself is even more improbable than Paley’s watch; complex things take time to evolve. [[ I.e, where did God come from? If eternal, why not just allow the universe to be eternal? This is another example of human nature’s propensity to attribute agency to the natural universe. ]]

Ch9, Crystal and Jigsaw Puzzles

An ordinary rock may not require a designer; what about a cubical crystal? But crystals form spontaneously, due to the arrangement of their molecules. We can understand snowflakes similarly, and viruses, and proteins.

Ch10, Bottom up or top down?

Of course creatures don’t appear from scratch; they arise from previous generations of creatures. DNA isn’t a ‘blueprint,’ it’s more like a recipe. [[ Or like origami steps, fold here then fold here, without having any idea what the result will be. ]] Houses are build top-down, from a blueprint; organisms arise bottom-up by following relatively simple rules. An example is how birds flock. Computer programs illustrate this. DNA provides instructions for how cells divide and grow. And when those instructions change a bit – through mutation of individual genes – the child animal will be slightly different than the parent animals. And some will enable the child to live longer, or have more babies. That’s natural selection. Everything about us thus evolved, including the tendency to like music and sex, and including religion.

Ch11, Did we evolve to be religious? Did we evolve to be nice?

Since almost everyone believes in some sort of god, should this have a Darwinin explanation? Probably so. It starts with the human tendency to believe in agency – that an effect must have a conscious cause. Thus animism; how the Greeks imagined a different for thunder, for rivers, for fire, for the sun, etc. Yahweh was originally the storm god of the Canaanite people from whom the Jews descended. Sacrifices might have grown out of coincidences repeated. We notice false positives; they become superstitions. We often don’t notice false negatives, e.g. not realizing mosquitoes spread disease. Sorting these out is what experiments, and science, is all about. Skinner instilled superstitions into pigeons. Similarly, gamblers develop lucky shirts and habits. Superstitions evolved to rituals that were instructed to children – pray five times a day! Some intelligent children grow up and realize the evidence of the real world doesn’t support such advice. Religion is a byproduct of how child brains are shaped by natural selection to believe parents, teachers, and other elders.

Another explanation might be how beliefs of one tribe might prevail over beliefs of another tribe, e.g. by encouraging the sacrifice of warriors through belief in an afterlife or martyrs’ heaven. Indeed, the spread of Islam, and Christianity, came through military conquest. Also, shared beliefs and rituals bond societies together, promoting solidarity, or perhaps promoting the dominance of kings and priests.

Recall the idea that natural selection promotes niceness. But there’s a basis for nastiness too. The result is a balance, and it’s this balance that has shifted in recent centuries. So why would niceness evolve? Because natural selection favors individuals who take risks to help close relatives; even at risk to oneself, because doing so still passes on the individual’s genes. In small tribes or villages, this would tend toward everyone, since everyone could be in the same extended family. The flip side is: be hostile to everyone not in your tribe. Another behavior is reciprocal altruism: be nice to someone if they are nice back to you. This exchange of favors is the basis for all trade, and thus our global civilization, with its complexity in which each person performs only a specific role, and goods are exchanged among all of them.

12, Taking courage from science

Darwin’s explanation of natural selection was a prime example of how when we didn’t understand something, we assumed God must have done it, until someone figured out a natural explanation. Some discoveries seem to controvert common sense. But this has happened over and over. There are some examples…

  • Every time you drink a glass of water, it’s likely it contains a molecule that passed through the bladder of Julius Caesar.
  • A cannonball and a feather drop at the same rate (ignoring the friction of the air).
  • The moon is weightless and continuously falling around the Earth.
  • Earth orbits the sun, not vice versa.
  • South America and Africa were once joined.
  • Supposedly solid matter is mostly empty space.
  • Setting off on a spaceship moving close to the speed of light, you would return hundreds of years after you left.

[[ This chapter echoes Dawkins’ earlier book THE MAGIC OF REALITY: HOW WE KNOW WHAT’S REALLY TRUE. ]]

All of these are examples of how science has upset common sense. The most alarming might be quantum theory, which sounds bizarre but which has been confirmed over and over. The courage to accept these results is the courage to give up belief in God.

The insight of evolution doesn’t require high math; why didn’t Aristotle get it? Or Newton? Because, like the examples above, it meant entertaining a notion that seemed contrary to common sense. Lots of ideas seem crazy; those survive for which the evidence is there. Thus we now understand the age and size of the universe. Those clinging to God don’t need him to explain life, so they move on to other ‘gaps,’ e.g. what caused the big bang? Why are the fundamental constants what they are? This leads to ideas of an anthropic universe—because if they were different, we wouldn’t be here. Or the multiverse in which only a few are anthropic. There might be billions of unfriendly parallel universes. Is this true? We don’t quite know yet. But following the evidence where it leads has worked over and over in the history of science. So why cling to gods?

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As in his earlier book, he doesn’t attempt to explore the reasons religious persist, aside from the bit about how shared beliefs and rituals bond societies together, which admittedly is most of it, but for complex reasons not explored here. The current rise of the “Nones,” people in the US who claim no affiliation with any particular religion, is I suspect mostly the effect of the relaxing of social structures, with fewer and fewer people living in tightly-knit communities where the beliefs and traditions are taken for granted and never questioned. The ones who do question them – the “some intelligent children” in the description above – move away to the big cities, where other social bonds, other than those based on shared religious faith, exist. Though some of them, surely, remain with their communities and families, following traditions and playing along with belief, because it’s easy enough to do so. (Someone once wrote a whole book about priests, never mind laymen, who’d lost their faith in God and all those Biblical miracles, but stayed on in their positions, filling their social roles, because of the great difficulty that renouncing their faith publicly and losing their social connections.)

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