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 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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Intuitive Theories about Intuitive Theories

I’m about to read a book (by Andrew Shutlman) about “intuitive theories” and before I do I’m going to write down my take on intuitive theories, since the idea of them has been an occasional theme in these posts, and I don’t think I’ve ever written directly on the subject. And I want to record my thoughts so far before they are overlaid by the new book.

As usual I’ll use bullets to mark distinct points.

  • Intuitive theories are notions people have about how the world works that are seemingly correct, but are upon examination wrong.
  • An example is that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. They don’t (disregarding the effects of atmospheric friction).
  • Another example is if the starship Enterprise is flying past, it must making a swooshing sound.
  • Another example is that spaceships (in Star Wars) maneuver in space as jet fights do in the atmosphere.
  • Another example is that any moving object will eventually come to a rest.
  • Another example is the earth seems obviously flat.
  • Closely related are misconceptions taught us by movies and TV, where effects are enhanced for the sake of drama or spectacle. In ’70s TV action shows especially, whenever a car crashes, it explodes. In TV and films for decades, fist fights are amazingly loud (in contrast to fist fights in films of the ’30s, say, that seem remarkably wimpy by comparison).
  • Intuitive theories arise because our experience of the world is limited to a small slice of time and space, compared to the planet or the entire universe. We see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum; we experience moving objects only at certain scales and in certain environments.
  • To some extent intuitive theories are heuristics, in that they are valid in many of these ordinary circumstances.
  • But the point of understanding them is that they are demonstrably not true in general, in all circumstances, and scientific experiment, for example, can demonstrate so.
  • Nevertheless these notions are so powerful they can trump logical demonstration of their invalidity, just as for flat-earthers their intuitive sense that the earth goes on forever in all directions is so powerful that trumps any evidence that the earth is in fact a sphere.
  • Science is the methodology for determining which theories are true and which are not.
  • And by extension (is my own thesis) science fiction serves an analogous function in suggesting that culture, or even reality, is not necessarily what you think it is.
  • Most intuitive theories are benign, I suspect, at least to the extent that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as it doesn’t interfere with their making a living in the broadest sense–living their lives, having families, participating in their cultures. Whether spaceships make noise as they fly by doesn’t pertain to any of that.
  • On the other hand intuitive theories can be dangerous or malicious if they lead to behavior dangerous to the individual or to others. People who don’t “believe” in germs, for example, because they can’t be seen, might seek “alternative” medicine that appeals to their sense of essence or symbol.
  • And from there the topic leads to the cognitive biases and perceptual illusions that affect us all, but that can be overcome with conscious awareness.

Also: The idea that certain attitudes about how the world works arose because they were evolutionary successful. They *work* even though they’re not actually true.

Also ideas from Kahneman and Haidt about instinctive thinking, our quick take on what we experience, before the more deliberate, slow thinking takes over to draw valid conclusions. Haidt, recall, said that humans aren’t instinctive rationalists; we’re instinctive lawyers, making up our minds quickly based on intuitive notions, then using rationality to justify those conclusions. (The methodologies of science are the correctives to supporting invalid conclusions, when wants to understand the truth and not just win an argument.)

The book by Matthew Hutson cheekily admits the existence of various “irrational beliefs” (which may or may not be precisely what Shtulman considers as “intuitive theories”) but then suggests we live with them and let them make us happy. (E.g. you can understand that a lucky charm doesn’t *really* improve your luck, but if carrying it around with you assuages some insecure corner of you mind, then go for it.)

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But What’s at Stake? Hal Clement’s NEEDLE

Needle (Astounding Science Fiction, May-June 1959; expanded to book form: Doubleday, 222 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

by Hal Clement

Hal Clement (legal name Harry Stubbs) was one of the stable of science fiction writers developed by John W. Campbell in the pages of Astounding magazine in the 1940s. His first story was “Proof” in the June 1942 issue and his next 10 stories appeared in the magazine throughout the ‘40s. He’s most famous for the 1954 novel MISSION OF GRAVITY and his reputation rests on its sort of hard science fiction: alien environments rigorously extrapolated from known physical principles. (Others in this vein were ICEWORLD, 1953, and CYCLE OF FIRE, 1957.)

His first novel is a little different. This is NEEDLE, serialized in Astounding and expanded to book form the following year for Doubleday. And published, incidentally, as a juvenile, in the “Doubleday Young Moderns” series, despite, as SFE notes, certain themes. (The edition I’m reading, and using pagination from, is a 1974 trade paperback reprint in Avon/Equinox’s SF Rediscovery series, with an odd cover illustration depicting two Greek-like gods fighting in the clouds.)


The premise is that a good guy alien, Hunter, is pursuing across space a bad guy alien, Killer, and they both emerge from FTL in their separate ships near Earth and crash into the ocean just offshore of an island near Tahiti. The aliens are symbionts and must inhabit other bodies to survive. Hunter occupies a 15-year-old boy lying on the beach, makes himself aware to the boy, and together they engage on a detective hunt to identify what other person, on this small island, is harboring the fugitive Killer. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack—except that the needle is disguised as a piece of hay.


This is a decent mystery/detective story, in that a quarry must be found, various likely candidate hosts are identified, and circumstances eliminate some or suggest others, until the resolution uses clues we likely haven’t noticed to identify a previously unsuspected suspect. The greatest flaw is that the stakes are arbitrary—the bad guy is bad because we’re told so—while apparently the symbionts are if anything beneficial to their hosts, not harmful. What would have happened if the quarry hadn’t been found? Nothing at all, apparently. It’s a matter of alien justice, only.

Summary and Comments

  • The opening pages describe Hunter and his ship, emerging from FTL, crashing into a planet, into shallow water. The ship is just 20 inches by 2 ft (our omniscient author informs us), and Hunter weights just 4 pounds. He has a companion animal called a “perit” which has not survived. (And nothing much is made of what this companion did; perhaps serve as a surrogate host during space travel.) We’re told how Hunter is a metazoan but with extremely small cells; it can reshape itself, e.g. exuding pseudopods, and insinuate itself into other creatures, like a passing shark, which Hunter then kills by depriving it of oxygen.
  • The dead shark washes up on the beach. Hunter observes bipeds approach and play in the water. Hunter disguises himself as a jellyfish to approach them…
    • Up to this point the narrative does a decent job in describing things from an alien point of view, including some things we recognize as ordinary parts of our world that the alien doesn’t quite understand. (There’s a subgenre of such stories – Asimov’s “Green Patches” comes to mind—of SF writers doing this for better or worse.) But at this point the author gives up and tells us…
  • One of the boys is Robert Kinnaird, 15-years-old, and his friends are having a farewell picnic; summer is ending and Robert is heading back to school on the mainland. As the boys sleep on the beach, Hunter creeps across the sand and enters the boy’s foot, moving through his muscles and organs, settling in the abdomen. He reminds himself of his kind’s ancient law: Do nothing that can harm your host!
    • The prose is rather clinical, e.g. page 22 as the boys part: “They were rather silent now, with the awkwardness natural to their ages when faced by a situation which adults would treat either emotionally or with studied casualness.” And throughout, Clement is fond of semicolons. And it’s third-person omniscient; note how the author informs us of the thoughts of the doctor, and the father, on pp56-57.
  • We get some background on Hunter’s race, a race of symbionts that typically live on good, open terms with their hosts. A minority who occupy hosts covertly are regarded as evil and must be terminated—like Hunter’s quarry.
  • Robert returns to school in Massachusetts, and Hunter is inadvertently carried along, panicked that his quarry is now far behind him. Months pass. Hunter learns the boy’s language by observing his physics class.
    • Typically of SF stories of this era, aliens are given the task of learning the humans’ language, rather than vice versa, and do so with remarkable speed (necessary to plot); Clement at least allows this to happen over a period of months.
  • Hunter decides to reveal himself to Robert, which he does by taking control of the boy’s hands, then eyes, eventually projecting words across Robert’s field of vision
    • Robert is initially freaked out by feeling his fingers twitch, and so on, but once communication begins, accepts with remarkable equanimity that an alien creature has secreted itself inside his body. SFE ( notes that “This internal symbiosis is a highly loaded theme” but that the story is “told without any of the necessary queasy resonance.” My thought in particular was how an adolescent, especially, might feel angst about some alien, or anyone, witnessing all his bodily functions.
    • Robert also discovers a useful function of his symbiont: in his initial panic he races down the stairs and cuts open his arm, and sees that Hunter as the ability to seal the cut by extruding some glistening substance. This puzzles the school nurse. A couple of times later in the book Hunter similarly rescues Bob from serious injury.
  • Robert (Bob) learns to speak out loud to communicate with Hunter. He quickly understands Hunter’s situation, and the problem of how to get back to the island, without any excuse to leave school to do so. In a convenient yet plausible bit of plotting, Bob’s distraction from his schoolwork on this matter leads to his dismissal from school for a rest leave back home.
  • And so Bob (and Hunter) return to his island. At this point we’re at page 61 of a 207 page novel. The bulk of the book consists of…
    • Hunter trying to identify just where offshore the alien ships crashed, and therefore which humans might have been occupied by the quarry.
    • Bob meeting up with friends Kenny, Norman, Hugh, and Kenneth. They spend much time swimming, and exploring the southern edge of the island behind the reef. Bob can’t help but think these friends, on the beach with him that day, are the most likely hosts for Killer.
    • Meanwhile, Bob’s father is busy with a large construction project; the island’s economy rests on creating petroleum products from local plants.
    • Bob confides to the local doctor—who, as was Bob, is remarkably unperturbed by the idea of an alien symbiont. (It’s as if he was officer on some Trek starship, told of an incredible circumstance, accepting it immediately, and dealing with it, because that’s his job. To be fair, Hunter has Bob and the doctor hold hands to 20 minutes to establish contact between the doctor and the alien.)
  • And all of this happens over the space of two or three days, because one of the prime suspects of hosting Killer is about to leave the island, and because Bob, who’s arrived on a Friday, is due to attend the local school on Monday.
    • One by one Bob’s friends seem to be ruled out; they’ve acted in ways a symbiont would not let them. Who is left?
    • Bob doesn’t figure it out; his symbiont Hunter does. It’s…. SPOILER … Bob’s father. Hunter verifies this by emerging from Bob’s body in the middle of the night and oozes into Mr. Kinnaird’s room, and makes contact with Killer, in a stand-off.
    • Hunter explains his reasoning to Bob the next morning: he’s observed Mr K. becoming more and more careless over the past few days, with several examples cited from scenes we’ve witnessed on the dock and at the construction site and perhaps not paid close enough attention to.
    • The rationale is that Killer, inside Mr. K’s body, has been protecting him from casual injuries just as Hunter has Bob, and this has made Mr. K less careful as he moves about the docks and the work site.
      • I don’t think this is plausible – if I cut myself and it healed amazing fast, would I become more careless around knives assuming I would heal quickly again? And did Hunter really notice this trend over the space of two or three days?
  • Stalemate? The climax comes as Bob arranges an elaborate stunt, which involves setting a fire that threatens an explosion, to apparently threaten both himself and his father. The reasoning is that the Killer will flee Mr. K’s body if there’s risk to itself.
  • The scheme works and Bob douses the Killer’s bloblike body to kill it.
  • The Asimovian chapter titles (including “Signal,” “Answer,” “Stage…”, “Setting…” and “Players”, and especially “Slip!” and “And Fall!”) helpfully mark key points of plot. “Problem One” was identifying Killer’s host. “Problem Two” was ridding the host of Killer. The final chapter is called “Problem Three”. What would this problem be? Why, fairly obviously, it’s what does Hunter do now? He has no way of leaving Earth to return to his own world. That’s obvious, so perhaps the actual problem is whether Bob is willing to continue hosting him. And without a moment’s hesitation, Bob agrees, and he needs Hunter to concoct an explanation for why he started that fire. The end.


I was reminded somewhere recently that one way of thinking about a story is to consider, what are the stakes? Why should we care? And so my problem with this story is why there is such urgency to find Killer and remove it from its host. We gather that Mr. Kinnaird was never aware of hosting an alien; it’s not as if the alien Killer were manipulating the human to carry off some evil plan. Nor have we been given evidence that Killer at any time killed anyone; his name begs his evil status. (Or did I miss something?) What was the problem with both Hunter and Killer remaining in their hosts? If anything, these symbionts are beneficial to their hosts, in that they can protect their hosts from bodily injury.

Credit given for Bob’s having the presence of mind to wonder if Hunter is telling him the truth about who he and his quarry are. Mightn’t Killer tell Mr. K an identical story, or some cover story to justify his presence? Yet, though we suspect once or twice that Mr K is aware of, or being manipulated by, his symbiont, we gather by the end of the book that he was entirely unaware of his invader. (I noted a line on page 127, which I thought might be foreshadowing, as Mr. K observes his son Bob napping: “Mr. Kinnaird approached silently and looked down at the boy for some time with an expression that defied interpretation.” Perhaps this is just haphazard omniscient narrative from Clement.)

Much is made of Bob’s not having opportunities to speak with Hunter, since doing so requires talking out loud—but all he has to do is go to the bathroom. Except characters in fiction of this era didn’t go to the bathroom.

The endless details about the geography of the island, how the boys move back and forth across it, get wearying. You have the impression the author lived on such an island and is using it exactly as the model for the nameless island in this book. (Though the bios at SFE and Wikipedia indicate no such connection; Clement spent WWII in Europe.) And the author also seems to know a lot about industrial construction!

I should note that Clement wrote a sequel years later, Through the Eye of a Needle (1978), which I’ve not read. So perhaps he addressed some of these lingering issues there.


Despite a couple gaps in plausibility, this is a good example of Campbellian era problem-solving science fiction. Situations are set up, and problems are introduced that must be solved within the constraints of the situations. How does Hunter establish contact with the human he is occupying? How do they find who’s hosting Hunter’s quarry, with no way to tell externally, only by circumstance? This is the kind of story that invites the reader to solve these problems before the characters do, as in any good mystery novel.

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Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES

Here is one of the best science fiction novels of all time. It’s about the entire world, and implicitly the entire human race, and it’s as timely as ever as, for one reason or another, humanity faces the realization that its indefinite survival on planet Earth is not guaranteed.

The novel is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart. It was published in 1949 and was Stewart’s only SF novel (though he wrote a couple earlier novels about natural catastrophes, including one about a storm that inspired the US National Weather Service to give storms names). It won the first International Fantasy Award ( in a year preceding the advent of the Hugos. (Stewart never wrote any other science fiction, and this novel wasn’t published as science fiction, but was later embraced by genre critics, much as the famous novels by Huxley and Orwell were.)

It’s about the aftermath of a worldwide plague that kills off virtually all of humanity, all but a tiny number of people who are naturally immune. We gather this number might be a dozen or two in any large city. It follows one particularly character, Isherman Williams, Ish, as he returns to his city, which happens to be Berkeley, California, from a stay in the mountains, and discovers that the world seems deserted.

That is, the story begins after the initial catastrophe is mostly over, the part of it presumably involving mass panic and people dying in horrible ways. In this way it resembles similar stories, like Wyndham’s THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or the debut episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” (and numerous others I’m sure; there was a Martian Chronicle like this too), which invites the personal fantasy of having the entire world to one self, and the temptation of imagining what to do with it, despite the growing panic of not knowing how the world got this way.

The book then follows the rest of Ish’s life. And it does so in varying manners of scope and pace in a way that gives the novel a multi-dimensional impact.

Here’s a bulleted summary with comments indented one tab.

World Without End

In a 345-page book (I’m using the pagination of the 2006 Del Rey trade paperback edition), the first part, “World Without End,” is 127 pages. It follows Ish from day to day as he realizes what has happened and starts to make a new life for himself.

  • He is living in the mountains, is struck by a rattlesnake, and lies in bed in his cabin recovering for the several days. (Perhaps that is what gives him immunity from the plague.)
  • Recovered, he drives to town, finds no one; finds a week-old newspaper that tells of a disease sweeping the US, leaving 25-35% of the population already dead.
  • He drives down the highway to the city, in the Bay Area, and to his parents’ home on San Lupo Drive.
    • A Stewart website,, says the author’s actual house was on San Luis Road, in Berkeley; San Lupo is fictional, but the novel seems to base its house on the actual one. There’s a photo in the scroll at the bottom of the page, linked here:
    • A lot of the older homes in the Oakland and Berkley hills are on narrow lots and so are tall, and/or deep. The location is about a mile north of the UC Berkeley campus.
  • He walks the neighborhood, drives through town, finds only a handful of people, crazy or half-dead. He starts across the deserted Bay Bridge before deciding it’s pointless, and returns home.
  • Ish is remarkably calm about all this, ready to be a spectator to observe what happens to the world in the absence of man. He considers his own qualifications: he has will to live; has always been solitary; did not experience the disaster firsthand. And is not superstitious.
    • During these wanderings has passes through a park with tall rocks, that will become significant later.
  • He packs his station wagon, befriends a dog, and drives cross country, over the Tehachapi Pass, across the Mojave Desert, into Arizona. He encounters an isolated family of timid Negroes. He eventually reaches New York.
  • The city is empty. He meets a couple who hear his car approaching: Milt Abrams and Ann, two random survivors now living together, drinking warm martinis. Ish stays a night but finds them vacant, and departs.
  • Soon he’s back home, gathering food from stores. The water still flows; a public library is nearby; the lights stay on…for a while, then fade.
  • Weeks pass. He reads the Bible—Ecclesiastes, Solomon—pondering the meaning of life. And then he sees smoke from a chimney down the hill. And finds the house, and meets a woman there, Emma. After only a few minutes inside, they embrace.
  • She moves in with him. They talk of having a child. Rat populations explode, and they worry about plague. Emma knows the time will come for her child…and reveals to him, very indirectly, her secret – that she’s half black. It doesn’t matter to him.
  • Ish visits the university library, overwhelmed by its preservation of civilization. He decides to better keep track of time, and uses a surveyor’s transit to follow sunsets to the west across the bay. When sunset reaches furthest south and begins moving back north, that’s the solstice. He resolves to wait for the following solstice and then mark the end of Year One, somehow. Things aren’t finished; the world is without end.


Throughout the book are italicized passages that reveal what has happened outside of Ish’s experience—mostly about what is happening, or will happen, to the world at large, without humanity’s maintenance or interference.

The opening lines of the book are one of these passages, page 3: “…and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. […] The West Oakland Hospitalization Center has been abandoned. Its functions, including burials at sea, are now concentrated at the Berkeley Center.” And so on.

Page 8: An encyclopedic passage about how populations of animals fluctuate, expanding until being struck by plague. Page 10: How a rodent on Christmas Island went extinct.

Then numerous passages about how the world as maintained by humans will deteriorate. About how pet dogs will die in their houses or merge with their wild counterparts. About how cats will die in their houses or not survive contact with wildcats. About grasses and flowers, gardens withering untended. What will happen to various livestock. Later, how the city decays, how cars will decay. In these we see how the Earth itself is as much a character in this novel as is Ish, as Connie Willis points out in her introduction to this edition. And these passages anticipate Alan Weisman’s striking 2007 book THE WORLD WITHOUT US (, which remorselessly describes how the artifacts of humanity will decay in days, years, and thousands of years after humanity’s hypothetical disappearance.

The farthest perspective is this from page 17:

High overhead, moon and planets and stars swung in their long smooth curves. They had no eyes, and they saw not; yet from the time when man’s fancy first formed within him, he has imagined that they looked down upon the earth.

And if so we may still imagine, and if they looked down upon the earth that night, what did they see?

Then we must say that they saw no change. Thought smoke from stacks and chimneys and campfire no longer rose to dim the atmosphere, yet still smoke rose from volcanoes and from forest fires. Seen even from the moon, the planet that night must have shown only with its accustomed splendor—no bright, no dimmer.

Quick Years

Stewart then shifts into fast forward mode to show what happens to Ish and Emma and others they meet, over the next 20 years, in 19 pages.

  • At the end of the first year, at a small park near their house where tall rocks lean against each other, Ish chisels out the number 1, to mark the first year: the Year of the Baby.
    • Personal aside: as I read this I had a frisson: could he be talking about Indian Rock Park? It was a place I had just visited, with my family, about six months before I reread this novel (which was about a year ago now). It’s a small park of enormous boulders now surrounded by homes in the Berkeley Hills; there are several similar parks in the area, presumably outcrops of rocks the home developers didn’t figure worth clearing. (Various websites devoted to George R. Stewart confirm this as the park described in the book.)
    • Here’s my blogpost about the visit: (Which I’ve made public.) And my photo; the San Francisco skyline is in the distance.
    • And here’s the official website:
  • Back to the book: The years pass, each one chiseled into the rock and given a name. The year of the garden; the year of the fires. Wildfires in northern California were as common then as now (it’s just that now they’re so much more destructive, since humans have been building further into fire-prone areas).
  • A man, Ezra, visits them a while, departs, and returns two years later with two wives, a situation presented matter-of-factly. [[ This was an issue in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS too. ]] Another couple appears, and stays. They become a small tribe of seven adults, four children, and a half-wit, Evie.
  • They deal with cattle, mountain lions. Ish tries conducting church, for the children’s’ sake; but Ish is a skeptic, and thinks of it as a sham, and ends it.
  • An old man passing through brings them an epidemic, and three children die.
  • Wood carving becomes a fad. In Year 16, the first children get married.
  • In Year 17, a nearby house collapses. (Recall Alan Weisman. As a homeowner myself, I completely sympathize with the idea that, without regular, unending maintenance, a house might simply decay in a decade or two and fall down.)
  • Year 20: a big earthquake, and more houses fall down.
  • Year 21: One boy, Joey, who’s bright but no good at play, learns to read.

The Year 22

This middle section is the longest in the book, running from page 147 to page 304. Having employed three different narrative strategies, from the Stapledonian to the single point-of-view, Stewart now focuses on a single dramatic year in the lives of Ish and his kin.

The epigraph to this section, on page 147, concerns those Europeans who (in the early settlements of America) defected from their settlements to become Indians, while no Indians left their villages to settle with the Europeans. Exactly the same point was made in Sebastian Junger’s 2016 book TRIBE ( to try to understand why “primitive” society is, to many, so much more attractive than “modern” society.

The events of this year:

  • Ish ponders the future and thinks about who might someday lead their tribe. He focuses on Joey, the smart one.
  • The water runs slow; they discover the reservoir is running low.
  • Two boys fix up a jeep and leave on an expedition east.
  • The tribe grows. Ish resumes teaching. He realizes the power of holding a hammer, which is regarded as a holy relic [[ recall LORD OF THE FLIES, the conch! ]]
  • The two boys return, bringing an older but dirty man, Charlie. They’d reached Chicago. The tribe become suspicious of Charlie, a threat to their order, for various reasons, and vote to execute him. And they do.
  • Another disease strikes, perhaps typhoid fever. Ish succumbs, but survives, and learns that – SPOILER, since this is the most emotional scene in the book – among others, Joey, his hope, has died.
  • Ish spends weeks convalescing. He goes for a walk, considers disposing of the hammer, but does not. He walks to the campus, and in the library finds a book he once read about climate: “Climatic change was not a practical problem,” he thinks, and puts the book back.
  • Ish becomes disconsolate. Perhaps Joey may not have been able to change anything. The Tribe won’t rebuild civilization. They will run out of supplies, or ammunition, or matches.
  • He decides: no more school. Instead, he teaches them how to make bows and arrows. The children are fascinated and competitive. Ish takes solace in that they have an invention to fall back on when there are no more rifles.
  • The year ends, and they simply name it, Year 22.


There are several in this section too, some of them thoughts about human society that might well be Ish’s:

  • Page 190, how long the bridges will last.
  • Page 210, how old boundaries, like fences, give way to landmarks.
  • Page 219, education, from a child’s point of view: Civ-vil-eye-za-shun! That is what Uncle Ish talked about. There are lots of quail by the stream today. Two-and-six? I know that! Why should I say it to him? Two-and-nine? That is hard. It is more than my fingers. It is the same as “a lot.”
  • Page 231, what happens to a culture when its promised one is gone. Between the plan and the fulfillment stands always the frail barrier of a human life.
  • Page 233, Ish muses about being treated like a god, receiving sacrifices.
  • Page 293, How people yearn to escape from daily life to go fishing, or camping, or sit in a cabin or on a beach. What a strange thing then is this great civilization, that no sooner have men attained it than they seek to flee from it! […] Why do the legends look back toward some golden day of simplicity? Must we not think then that this great civilization grew up, not by men’s desires, but rather by Forces and Pressures. Step by step, as villages grew larger, men must give up the free wandering life of berry picking and seed gathering and tie themselves to the security (and drudgery) of agriculture… Yes—this is the key.

Quick Years 2

A shorter, 10 page fast forward, taking Ish into old age.

  • Adult members of the tribe die.
  • In Year 34 they meet another group north of the bay and agree to merge, for the sake of wives.
  • Em dies; Ish marries a young woman from the other tribe and has more children.
  • In Year 43 Ish is too tired to carve the rock and given the year a name, and the tradition dies.
  • A fire ravages the city for a week.
  • Then Ezra dies, the last of the original tribe’s adults, and Ish realizes he is the last American.

The Last American

This final section is just 30 pages long.

  • One day a young man, Jack, comes to Ish, showing off his bow and arrow. Rifles can’t be trusted. The boy shows his red and white arrows, with points made from different “corns” (i.e. coins) with pictures on them of the Old Ones, who perhaps made the hills and the Americans. Red arrows are for one kind of hunting, white for another. Why?, Ish asks. The boy replies that there is no why, things just are; “It is like the sun that keeps on going round the earth, but naturally no one knows why, or asks why. Why should there be a why?” Ish is tempted to respond, but stops himself. It doesn’t matter; superstitions will arise.
  • Ish asks the boy, are you happy? Jack responds, “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them.”
  • Then one morning there’s a fire and the entire group flees, Jack bringing the hammer. They huddle by the rocks as fire sweeps through the neighborhood. Now the second world is gone too, Ish thinks. They hike to the campus and camp there.
  • In the morning they head west. Ish is weak, but clear-headed enough to realize he is dying. They go along the East Shore Highway, US 40 [now Interstate 80/580] and head out onto the bridge. Ish has a seizure, wakes to the boys appealing to him for some decision—about who should get the hammer. He indicates Jack. He sees the hills across the bay, and remembers the passage, “Men go and come, but earth abides.”


  • Page 326: The cuts in the hills and the long embankments for the roads—they will still show as narrow valleys and ridges even after ten thousand years have passed. The great masses of concrete that were the dams—they will remain like the dikes of the granite itself. It goes on: three fires will destroy the rest: of rust, of decay, of flame.
  • Page 331, sounding Biblical: Again, in that day each little tribe will live by itself and to itself and go its own way, and their differences will soon be more than they were even in the first days of Man, according to the accidents of survival and of place…

Notes and other quotes

  • The main character, commentators note, is almost certainly named after Ishi, a Yahi Indian who emerged from the California mountains and into the modern world in 1911. His story was documented by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, father of Ursula K. Le Guin (who grew up in Berkeley).
  • If a primary theme of the book is the almost welcoming of a return to a simple way of the life, the counterpart to that is the idea that knowledge, rationalism, escape from superstition (e.g. culminating in Ish’s atheism) are luxuries available only to individuals in a large civilization that can support them. Whereas in a tribalistic way of life, they are unneeded and perhaps counter-productive.
  • P284.4: “Perhaps rationalism—like so much else—had only been one of the luxuries which men could afford under civilization.”
  • P311.8: “Perhaps the brilliant ones were not suited to survive.”
  • On the primary theme: commentaries like Wikipedia point out the reflection of Biblical themes in this novel – the recovery from the global catastrophe, etc. But I see both this novel, and the parables of Genesis, as reflecting the larger issue of the evolution of human culture, in particular the fallout of the transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life through the invention of agriculture to the sedentary way of life, some 10-12,000 years ago. Anthropologists and historians have increasingly recognized the inherent dilemma; Jared Diamond, in GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL (, called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” I wonder if perhaps the yearning for the simplicity of life before agriculture is what motivates not only the parables of Genesis, but the eternal notion that things were better in the “good old days” (an idea cited in “Death Sentence,” one of the EARLY ASIMOV stories!) all the way up to MAGA.
  • And so this dilemma is surely as profound as any issue in literature: has the expansion of our species and our knowledge of ourselves and the universe through science and rationalism been worth it? Or is it better to be happy as part of a tribe and know nothing of the world? “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them.”

One quibble

The quibble is about Del Rey’s cover blub: “The Award-Winning Futuristic Classic.” There’s nothing futuristic about this novel; it’s set in the author’s present and was published in 1949, and the events in it could easily happen now as then.

Of course, this novel is science fiction because science fiction isn’t merely about speculative futures; science fiction is about the humanity’s place in and understanding of a presumably comprehensible universe that objectively exists independent of human desires and motivations. And in the balancing of its portrait of human nature as expressed in its characters and emerging new culture, with the depiction of a planet that is bound to endure whether humanity survives or not, EARTH ABIDES addresses this broadest project of science fiction as well as any novel I know.

Posted in Book Notes, science fiction | Comments Off on Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES

Links and Comments: Secrets of Success, the 2010s, Gibson’s future, History v. Narratives

Here are a few items from recent papers.

1) Nicholas Kristof: The Four Secrets of Success.

Which are:

1. Take a class in economics and in statistics
2. Connect to a cause larger than yourself.
3. Make out.
4. Escape your comfort zone.

By #3 he means to meet lots of people before making any life decisions. Numbers 4 and 2 are familiar and self-explanatory. I endorse #1 but with an even broader scope: take a class, or read a book, about logical fallacies, about cognitive biases, to understand how advertising and politics works, to understand how people make arguments, to understand how every one of us is susceptible to confirmation bias and other motivated thinking. (For that matter, in addition to economics, learn elementary civics, a subject apparently no longer taught in elementary school.)

2) Michio Kakutani, The 2010s Were the End of Normal

Nice summary, including this now-familiar history of similar episodes in US history:

Although the United States was founded on the Enlightenment values of reason, liberty and progress, there has long been another strain of thinking at work beneath the surface — what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” and the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style.”

It’s an outlook characterized by a sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 essay, and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Its language is apocalyptic (Mr. Trump’s “American carnage” is a perfect example); its point of view, extremist. It regards its opponents as evil and ubiquitous, while portraying itself, in Hofstadter’s words, as “manning the barricades of civilization.”

The “paranoid style,” Hofstadter observed, tends to occur in “episodic waves.” The modern right wing, he wrote, feels dispossessed: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.” In their view, “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” and national independence has been “destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”

One well-known eruption of the “paranoid style” occurred in the 1950s with the anti-Communist hysteria led by Joseph McCarthy. It would surface again in the 1960s with the emergence on the national stage of George C. Wallace, who ran a presidential campaign fueled by racism and white working-class rage.

And then the religious right, having lost on civil rights, took on abortion, until then a non-issue. It worked.

3) This profile of William Gibson includes this famous remark:

“The future is already here,” he has said. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

4) History vs. narratives. Women Have Always Had Abortions, by Lauren MacIvor Thompson.

Concluding with:

The mortality rate dropped significantly, from about 70 patient deaths per 100,000 cases before the ruling to 1.3 after the [Roe v. Wade] decision. It has now become statistically safer to obtain an abortion in the United States than it is to undergo pregnancy or give birth.

Scholars have worked tirelessly to uncover this long history and make sense of it. Nevertheless, false histories of abortion dominate contemporary politics, selling Americans on a past that never existed and creating the possibility of a future that has no precedent. It is a world where somehow no one will ever try to end her pregnancy. But it’s worth taking a close look at the historical record because it tells us one thing over and over and over. Regardless of whether abortion was legal, or how many people believed fetuses had rights or what physicians thought or anything else really, women have always had abortions.

This issue will go away, I predict, as technology perfects ‘abortion pills’ that can be ordered by mail. And then the religious right, no matter how much they might like to interfere in other peoples’ private affairs, will be unable to do so.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Economics, Narrative | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Secrets of Success, the 2010s, Gibson’s future, History v. Narratives

Peter Watts essay: “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles”: Summary and Comments

From the book Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays (Tachyon, November 2019), a selection of posts from the blog of Peter Watts, which has been running since 2007. Watts is the noted author of high concept, hard SF novels like STARFISH and BLINDSIGHT. His blog ranges over many topics, from movie reviews to political commentary. I skimmed the book on a rainy afternoon a couple days ago, reading some chapters completely and getting at least an idea of the others. (I needed to decide if I would recommend it for Locus’ Recommended Reading List, and I will.) Two or three chapters struck me as particularly interesting given my themes here (being summarized on my new “Principles” page recently), and the most interesting one is worth summarizing and commenting on. And since the book chapters are all from the blog, they’re all online — you can easily read the entire original post if you like.

Here’s the one I’m looking at, from October 2008. My comments, this time, are in [[ double brackets ]]

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

He starts with:

Here’s a question for you. Why hasn’t natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?

You should forgive me for asking. After all, here is a group of people who base their lives on patently absurd superstitions that fly in the face of empirical evidence. It’s as if I suddenly chose to believe that I could walk off the edges of cliffs with impunity; you would not expect me to live very long. You would expect me to leave few if any offspring. You would expect me to get weeded out.

[[ Right away, I’m eager to see what he has to say. My tentative conclusion has been that survival is not about accurately perceiving the real world; it’s about social cohesion, and shared beliefs, no matter how absurd, build that cohesion. In fact the ‘cost’ of holding especially absurd beliefs works especially to prove dedication to the group. ]]

The post/chapter goes on with recourse to psychology, including the now-famous Dunning-Kruger effect (in which dumb people are too dumb to realize how dumb they are, and actually think themselves pretty smart; world-famous example is an exercise for the reader). Watts even anticipates my comment just made:

You might suggest that my analogy is a bit loopy: young-earth creationism may fly in the face of reason, but it hardly has as much immediate survival relevance as my own delusory immunity to gravity. I would disagree.

…with examples of the Church denying scientific findings, and noting that fundamentalists tend to be climate change deniers.

Evoking group selection, Watts wonders why there aren’t more societies driven by empiricism; “why are god-grovellers so powerful across the globe?”

The great thing about science is, it can even answer ugly questions like this. And a lot of pieces have been falling into place lately. Many of them have to do with the brain’s fundamental role as a pattern-matcher.

[[ To cite the three-nature model of human nature from the Van Schaik & Michel (VS&M) book The Good Book of Human Nature: A Evolutionary Reading of the Bible in my previous post: Here we are back to first nature tendency to see agency everywhere, and the propensity to detect patterns – bunnies in clouds, the Virgin Mary in a tortilla – even when none exist. The cost of false positives (superstitions) is less than the cost of false negatives (death). That does not mean that the false positive patterns are real, or meaningful. ]]

So Watts starts citing recent scientific studies. I’ll bullet-summarize the points he makes.

  • “It turns out that the less control people feel they have over their lives, the more likely they are to perceive images in random visual static.”
  • “Right-wingers are significantly more scared of [spiders] than left-wingers tend to be: at least, conservatives show stronger stress responses than liberals to ‘threatening’ pictures of large spiders perched on human faces.” The strongest responses were from those who “favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War”.
  • Dunning-Kruger, quoting his bullets:
    • “People tend to overestimate their own smarts.
    • “Stupid people tend to overestimate their smarts more than the truly smart do.
    • “Smart people tend to assume that everyone else is as smart as they are; they honestly can’t understand why dumber people just don’t ‘get it’, because it doesn’t occur to them that those people actually are dumb.
    • “Stupid people, in contrast, tend to not only regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid. This holds true even when these people are shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.”

[[ I did not know this last point! I knew about the dumb people not realizing how dumb they were part, and how they overestimate their own intelligence. But dumb people think smart people are dumb? But after a moment, I understood completely. The idea recalls something conservative firebrand Ann Coulter once said: why can’t liberals just make up their minds? [paraphrasing from memory]. The idea dovetails with the oft-repeated sentiment (see my Quotes page) that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” That is, some people, driven I would think by [to use VS&M’s terminology] first nature thinking, with second nature justification, think all problems are simple matters of good or evil, black or white, and that the answer to any question is simple and obvious. Never mind that third nature thinking (like science) might show that cognitive biases and perceptual illusions are misleading them, because those first two natures are suitable for survival but not for perception of reality. These people wonder why the third nature folks see uncertainty in everything, and thus think them the dumb ones. ]]

Watts summarizes, and then concludes:

Therefore (I would argue) the so-called “right wing” is especially predisposed to believe in moralizing, authoritarian Invisible Friends. And the dumber individuals (of any stripe) are, the more immune they are to reason. Note that, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I am not saying that conservatives are stupid (I myself know some very smart conservatives), but that stupid people tend to be conservative. Whole other thing.

[[ I’ve made this last stipulation myself, e.g. along the lines of noting that racists are usually conservatives, but that doesn’t mean all conservatives are racist. ]]

Next, Watts cites studies about the origins of religion. People are less likely to cheat if they think someone is watching them. Even a poster of eyes above a donation jar; even an imaginary god. Thus religious communes last longer than secular ones. Acts of charity are matters of social optics: who sees that I’m being charitable? How religion is more common in areas with water and resource shortages. [[ This dovetails with VS&M’s notion that the reason the formidable legal codes of the Torah evolved where it did, and not anywhere else. ]]

The surveillance issue solves the problem of freeloading [[ this is an idea I’ve noted from other books; solving the problem of freeloading enables larger and larger communities ]]. Thus, religion, and the idea that god is watching over you, enabled groups far larger than those traditional among hunter-gatherer tribes, where freeloading would be easily detected.

And therefore the idea that the cost of religious commitment, even to crazy ideas, validates membership in the group. And here we get to chicken wattles: they may seem purposeless, but in fact they are signs of health, as are peacock tails. Religious communes impose many more costly requirements than others. Watts emphasizes this point:

It’s not the ideology per sé that confers the advantage; it’s the cost of the signal that matters. Once again, we strip away the curtain and God stands revealed as ecological energetics, writ in a fancy font.

And so the power of Palin and her followers, to quote Watts’ bullets:

  • “Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;
  • “Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns ([from a study earlier cited]: ‘The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents’);
  • “Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;
  • “Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.”

Watts ends by wondering, now that we understand all this, what are we going to do about it?


In the original post, but not in the book chapter, is a coda from a couple days after the initial post:

And as the tide turns, and the newsfeeds and Youtube videos pile up on my screen, the feature that distinguishes right from left seems ever-clearer: fear. See the angry mobs at Republican rallies. Listen to the shouts of terrorist and socialist and kill him! whenever Obama’s name is mentioned. And just tonight, when even John McCain seemed to realise that things had gone too far, and tried to describe the hated enemy as “a decent man”— he was roundly booed by his own supporters.

…These people are fucking terrified.

Indeed, that’s been my impression for some time. Look at the anger, and fear, evident in the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts; and just recently, look at how the Republicans in the impeachments hearings last week engaged in non-stop yelling. (In contrast to the cool, reasoned attitudes of Schiff and Pelosi; or on TV of Rachel Maddow, who’s usually just amused and bemused by the antics of the conservatives, but not angry.) While it’s dangerous to generalize, again: the people who are primarily motivated by first nature thinking and feel threatened in any way, are conservatives.

Posted in Book Notes, Conservative Resistance, Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on Peter Watts essay: “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles”: Summary and Comments

Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2016): Introduction

This is a fascinating book because it describes how there really is some rationale (if not reason or logic) to the stories in the Bible. It’s a set of answers to the general question, a sort of meta-question that one can ask about any kind of story—why is *this* story being told, and not some other? And why does the story end *this* way, and not some other way? Remember, they’re stories! The answer is not that they’re literally true, let alone the dictation from some omnipotent being. Even if remotely based on real events, the reality is that the early books of the Bible were transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down – and then the versions that were written down were, ahem, edited by the folks in 300 AD or so who decided which parts went into their anthology, and which others were deemed apocryphal or blasphemous. And stories grow in the telling.

This is a detailed book that I’ll likely not finish until I finish reading and rereading the Bible itself, over the next year, so for this post, just a summary of the 25 page introduction. I’ll alternate my comments with summary.


The Bible documents humanity’s cultural evolution. We can understand this with awareness of recent finding in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Its odd stories began making sense with this perspective.

In the Bible we find answers to humanity’s greatest questions. We do not mean this in a religious sense. Rather, it teaches us why we fear death, how we deal with misfortunes, and where our deep-seated desire for justice originated. The Bible shows us how we learned to survive in large, anonymous societies, why our modern lives sometimes seem so pointless, and why we are so often nagged by what we would describe as a longing for Paradise.


The gist of their theme is this: We understand that some 10-12,000 years ago, as the last great ice age ended, humanity ‘invented’ agriculture. The agricultural revolution. This led to the formation of fixed villages, towns, and eventually cities. But humanity had spent hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, in small tribes with no fixed locations. In these tribes everyone knew everyone else. Based on evidence of the few remaining hunter-gatherers that still exist around the world, these tribes were remarkably egalitarian; everyone shared tribal chores. But being stuck in one place, to grow crops, changed everything. Among the effects: close contact with animals brought about new diseases, whose causes were unknown (and so of course ascribed first to spirits and then to gods). Investment in land required the stability of a family line, leading the primogeniture, with the eldest male inheriting everything, instead of the equal distribution of the estate you read about in some of the early Bible stories. With the men at home, women became commodities, traded like any other property, and thus the subjugation of women.

And so on. The early Bible stories reflect these issues and describe how they were solved, and even if these issues had been around for thousands of years, they were still the most important stories to be told, long enough until they were finally written down.

The grand achievement of this primeval history was the creation of law—Leviticus—all the rules to follow to avoid conflict, to prevent diseases, and so on.

(Of course those rules were created for desert tribes with no electricity or plumbing, with no knowledge of the outside world. To follow those rules now would be, mostly, silly. Yet some people still find the simplicity of an ancient list attractive, so they don’t have to think about the realities of modern life.)

(I’m wondering if in this book there is any acknowledgment that this is only one strand of primeval history. Other cultures, especially in Asia, must have gone through analogous phases. Perhaps we simply don’t know that history? Or people in the West ignores those histories?)

Back to summary:

Why should the current authors be the first to take this approach to the Bible? Because Biblical studies have been carried out in isolation, and with little knowledge by the public; because the study of religion as an aspect of human nature is relatively recent; because of the tensions between religion and science, especially in the US. (Mentions of Steven Pinker, Marvin Harris, Robert Wright, John Teehan.)

We understand now that the evolutionary history of humanity left us with emotions and behaviors adapted to a world that has since disappeared. The single greatest change in the behavior of any species on the planet has been humanity’s adoption of a sedentary way of life. This event, the Neolithic Revolution, has been called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” (in Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL). It was certainly a decisive turning point in human evolution: the species has since exploded across the planet. The initial costs were shorter lifespans, more violence, more disease. Scourges that required explanations. And strategies for avoiding them.


I should mention that Isaac Asimov, in his two volume GUIDE TO THE BIBLE in the late 1960s, frequently invokes the perspective of pre-history following the ice ages, the tensions between early farmers and herders, and the effect natural catastrophes might have had on the development of Biblical stories. But the authors here go much further, given recent developments in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, etc.

Back to summary:

Brief history of the Bible. Beginning in the 17th century it became understood that the first five books, traditionally ascribed to Moses, could not have been written by him – too many references to things past his time. The observation that some passages refer to Elohim and others Yahweh (“God” vs. “LORD God” in KJV) enabled the reconstruction of separate original sources, at least four, that were stitched together (likely during the Babylonian exile) to form Genesis. The Hebrew Bible (the OT) was composed from roughly 900-100 BCE, from multiple sources and under varying influences.

Cultural evolution and our three natures: The transition to sedentariazation was too quick for it to be survived via biological evolution; rather, cultural evolution handled the problems it created. And so our ancient human nature has been overlaid, twice, and can now be described as three natures.

The first nature is our innate feelings, reactions, and preferences that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. These include love between parent and child, a sense of fairness and outrage at injustice, a fear of strangers, a concern for reputation, feelings of obligation and jealousy—and the tendency to see supernatural actors at work everywhere.

Cultural evolution created a second nature that is learned; it varies from culture to culture. These are traditions and customs, religion as a cultural product, and rules of decency, politeness, and good manners.

Our third nature reflects our rational side. These are conscious practices and institutions that enable analysis of a given situation. These are generally taught in schools, and result in all the practices we know are good for us but balk at doing: eating healthily, exercising, not drinking and driving, etc. This third nature comes into play when we face new challenges and old mechanisms to solve problems no longer work.

Our third nature now keeps the world running. But our first nature reactions often conflict, resulting in ‘mismatch problems’ in modern life. Third nature self-discipline is a limited resource. Example: a married woman falls in love with another man. First nature: “love!” Second nature: “fidelity!” Third nature: “think of the mortgage, the lawyers’ fees!” p24. (Monogamy is absent from many parts of the Bible; even that was a second nature development to solve problems brought about by the sedentary life.) Our second and third natures help us survive, but don’t necessarily make us happy. And anytime our gut nature is unhappy, we are detecting another of those mismatches between our evolutionary heritage, and modern life.

Posted in Bible, Book Notes, Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2016): Introduction

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.
Posted in Book Notes | Comments Off on Stephen King, THE INSTITUTE (2019)

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. (Those 10 include I, Robot as well as the three Foundation “novels,” since those were largely comprised of earlier magazine stories.) 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; the book is subtitled “Or, Eleven Years of Trying.” Such notes proved so popular here that he provided similar notes in subsequent books (like the anthology 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 characteristic 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 differently worked out. 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 left to mold away in old magazines with no expectation of ever being read again. Until Asimov’s popularity in subsequent decades 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 in several of these stories 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.

Some examples of cringe-worthy stories:

  • 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 is offhandedly mentioned early in the story, 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, that’s all action-adventure and still no explanations. (#20, 1940)

Examples of absurd stories:

  • “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 exterminate humanity. 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 from one group of characters to another, the far future characters with odd names, the competition among factions unwilling to cooperate. The name Trantor is mentioned two or three times! 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 supernaturalities, 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 outtake, 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 (to the planet 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 his 1968 collection 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 “tub-thumping revivalist” evangelist Otis Eldredge, who distributes pamphlets that accuse him of profaning the heavens and risking damnation. Even Harman’s supporters wonder if he might suspend his project until public sentiment settles 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, then 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 threat 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 then 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 the story but wanted more Foundation stories from Asimov instead—and so Asimov wrote the second part of what became SECOND FOUNDATION.

There are a few other stories in the book that I haven’t mentioned, but any points I might make about them have already been made.

Finally, here’s a broad take-away. Reading the lesser works by an author helps you to better appreciate their best works. This is a scalable conclusion. The “classics” of any author or era are often the exceptions — that’s why they’re exceptional — and reading only those misses the standards against which they’ve been compared. That’s why in my retrospective reading and reviews, while I generally focus on “classic” novels and short fiction, from a perspective of 50+ years, I occasionally visit more ordinary works. They provide insight into the standard themes and assumptions of an era, or an author, that are just as fascinating, in a different way, as the exceptional classics.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Comments Off on Isaac Asimov: THE EARLY ASIMOV (1972)

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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.”
Posted in Book Notes, Heinlein, science fiction | Comments Off on Robert A. Heinlein: SIXTH COLUMN (1941/1949)