Ray Bradbury: THE OCTOBER COUNTRY

Ray Bradbury’s THE OCTOBER COUNTRY (TOC) was published in 1955, part way through the publication of what I think are Bradbury’s three essential, classic books: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (abbreviated in future as TMC; first published 1950), FAHRENHEIT 451 (F451; 1953), and DANDELION WINE (DW; 1957). Many of the stories in TOC were published in Bradbury’s first book, DARK CARNIVAL, published in 1947 by Arkham House and never reprinted; after the successes of TMC and F451, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY revived many of the stories in the earlier book, revising them, while dropping some and adding others.

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, in the absence of reprint editions of DARK CARNIVAL, remains the essential earliest Bradbury collection. It’s greatly enhanced by graphic illustrations for each story by Joseph Mugnaini, many of which can be found on the interwebs…see here.

The stories in this book include many of Bradbury’s earliest magazine publications. As I finish up this post, more than half-way through February, having begun to re/read Bradbury since the 2nd of January, I’ve read all of Bradbury collections (and story-cycle semi-novels) through THE TOYNBEE CONVECTOR (1988), more or less in chronological order. It’s worthwhile to have done this before writing these posts, because as you read your way through Bradbury’s career, you see how his focus and themes changed. In his earliest years, getting stories into print in the early 1940s, he was emulating the macabre, ‘weird’ tales that were published in the magazine Weird Tales — stories like “The Wind”, “The Crowd”, and “The Scythe” (all 1943) and “The Jar” (1944), while occasionally attempting the more action-focused, violent stories in a pulp magazine called Planet Stories, these including the very pulpish “Frost and Fire” (published there originally as “The Creatures That Time Forgot”), though not included in a Bradbury book until much later.

Yet as Bradbury’s career blossomed and flourished in the late ’40s and the 1950s, he abandoned simply emulating what other writers were doing, and increasingly based stories on his own experiences and background, through the 1950s and 1960s. Thus: the Green Town stories, based on his childhood in a rural Illinois town; the Mars stories, perhaps based on his family’s stays in Tucson while his father looked for work there, and perhaps by his stay in the LA suburb of Venice, with its actual canals, and by his reading of pulp SF stories in his youth; the urban, suburban, and Hollywood stories, based on his life when he settled in Los Angeles. There were other recurring settings: stories in Dublin (he spent 6 months in Ireland writing a screenplay for John Huston); stories in Mexico (where presumably he vacationed, while living in LA)…..

I have deliberately not investigated various nonfiction surveys of Bradbury’s work, preferring to record my own impressions first. But I do have Sam Weller’s THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES, Jerry Weist’s BRADBURY: AN ILLUSTRATED LIFE, and David Seed’s RAY BRADBURY (one of the University of Illinois’ series of author-themed studies), that I will peruse closely once I’ve finished my own reads of RB books, which will be shortly. (Since the focus of my grand re-reading project is on science fiction, I am disregarding for now SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, THE HALLOWEEN TREE, and the later detective novels.)

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So to commence with THE OCTOBER COUNTRY. For these and many following posts about RB’s books, I’m greatly indebted to William Contento’s “Locus Index to Science Fiction” (http://www.locusmag.com/index/), which, alas, has not been updated online in a decade. I have a 2012 CD-ROM edition of the complete index, which is invaluable for compiling listings of book editions, and their contents, cross-indexed by book title and story title. (The Internet Science Fiction Database, http://www.isfdb.org/, has much the same data, as well as a multitude of references to translations, but I prefer the tighter layouts of Bill’s db, and the source credits in TOCs like the one below.) Thus, for this book THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, Bill’s index shows this table of contents, with citations for original publications of each story:

The October Country Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1955, $3.50, 306pp, hc)

The Dwarf · ss Fantastic Jan/Feb 1954
The Next in Line · nv Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse · ss Beyond Fantasy Fiction Mar 1954
Skeleton · ss Weird Tales Sep 1945
The Jar · ss Weird Tales Nov 1944
The Lake · ss Weird Tales May 1944
The Emissary · ss Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
Touched with Fire · ss Maclean’s Jun 1 1954, as “Shopping for Death”
The Small Assassin · ss Dime Mystery Magazine Nov 1946
The Crowd · ss Weird Tales May 1943
Jack-in-the-Box · ss Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
The Scythe · ss Weird Tales Jul 1943
Uncle Einar · ss Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
The Wind · ss Weird Tales Mar 1943
The Man Upstairs · ss Harper’s Mar 1947
There Was an Old Woman · ss Weird Tales Jul 1944
The Cistern · ss Mademoiselle May 1947
Homecoming · ss Mademoiselle Oct 1946
The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone · ss Charm Jul 1954

The value of these listings is that they reveal when the stories were originally published, and especially in RB’s later books, these TOCs show how the contents of those books mixed recently published stories with older stories, a trend and mix that would become more and more extreme as Bradbury’s career progressed. ISFDB (and Contento) both generate chronological lists of publications; ISFDB’s is here, through you have to scroll down a way to get to the short fiction.

I reread this book first, in my Bradbury reread plan in January 2018, and state first of all that while I read this book at age 15 or so, in about 1970, I had never reread it since, until now. So part of my interest in rereading it now was, how many of these stories would I remember, if any..?

The answer is: I remember quite a few, though not all, and ironically that the two stories that struck me especially on this rereading were stories I had *not* remembered.

The memorable stories included those one- or two-word-titled stories “The Crowd”, “The Wind”, “The Lake”, “The Dwarf”, and especially “The Scythe” (1943), a story about a destitute man and his family who realize the crop of wheat he is obliged to keep trimmed is keyed to the actual deaths of people around the world, including, eventually, the man’s own family, with a final gloss that alludes to the wars and atomic bombs of the mid-20th century. “The Crowd” (1943) is about the victim of an auto accident (such as were apparently very common, and deadly, in the 1940s) who realizes that in every accident, the same crowd of recognizable people gathers, with a coda about himself as a victim and becoming one of the watchers. “The Wind” (also 1943) is about an explorer of a Himalayan Valley of Wind who feels pursued all his life by howling winds, and succumbs to them. These stories are essentialist fantasy: the idea that human perceptions and protocols, fears and terrors, represent basic properties of the materialist universe.

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The two stories that especially struck me were two I didn’t remember.

“The Jar” is a about a small town Louisiana man who visits a carnival and buys a weird thing in a jar, something like a jellyfish, and buys it to take home, with ulterior motives: “And I been reckoning how looked-up-to I’d be back down at Wilder’s Hollow if I brung home something like this to set on my shelf over the table. The folks would sure look up to me then, I bet.”

Indeed, the folks at home are impressed. But each of them sees something different in the contents of the jar. One remembers having to drown a kitten. Another sees the source of all life. Another recalls the swamp. One women recalls her child, lost in the swamp — could this thing be him??

The man’s itinerant wife reveals what it really is: junk, paper-mache, rubber. He doesn’t care, nor do his friends. Published in 1944, this story illustrates what we understand in 2018 as a mental bias: people see in things what they want to see: a baby; a brain; what they want to see, depending on their fears and desires.

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And then there’s “Jack-in-the-Box,” a story first published back in that first collection DARK CARNIVAL in 1947. This is a fascinating closed-world tale, about a boy who lives in a house with his mother, and a Teacher on an upper floor, but with no experience of the outside world. Edwin has been told stories about Father, who built the house, aka ‘World’, and who was killed by beasts beyond the trees; Mother often calls him God. There is nothing beyond the trees but death, she tells him.

On his birthdays Edwin gets to explore previously forbidden doors in this vast house, and on one of these he ascends to an upper room and window and sees the outside world, beyond the trees that surround his house.

And then his mother dies, and his upstairs Teacher disappears, and he sort of figures things out. And then he runs outside, through the iron gate the surrounds his property, and discovers the real world, of streets and buildings and lampposts. The final scene is from the POV of a policeman, who sees this boy running around, laughing and crying, touching everything, and yelling, gloriously, “I’m dead! I’m dead!”.

My only quibble with this story is the recurrent metaphor of the “jack-in-the-box”, where Edwin has one that doesn’t work and throws it out the window. The story didn’t need it.

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The most famous story here, I suppose, is “The Small Assassin,” about a woman who fears she is being murdered by her just-born child. The husband consults her doctor; she’s taken home; and one night he trips down the stairs, over a doll. And then Alice trips over the same doll — and dies. The father speculates with the doctor about whether some babies, perhaps one in a million, are born fully formed and intelligent, resentful of being thrust into the world? The father is the next victim, and the story ends with the doctor visiting the house, concluding this must be true, walking up to the baby’s nursery, and wielding… a scalpel.

I can’t help but think of the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll,” that well-known episode with Telly Sevalas, in which a doll, not a baby, maneuvers the death of the insubordinate father. TZ’s Rod Serling had a reputation for adapting stories from previous sources, sometimes without credit, and I wonder, without any evidence, if that episode might have been inspired by this RB story.

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Other notable stories:

“The Man Upstairs” (1947) is in retrospect a Green Town story that didn’t make into DW. As in the DW stories, the story is about 11-year-old Douglas, living a large with grandparents and boarders, and how one mysterious boarder, whom we realize is a vampire, is dispatched by Douglas using the same methods his grandmother uses to cut up and eviscerate chickens.

— A key observation from reading some 20 RB books in a row is this: that while RB published THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and DANDELION WINE, in 1950 and 1957, about Mars and Green Town respectively, neither book contained all the relevant stories he’d written up to those dates, and RB continued to write both Mars and Green Town stories throughout his life. More about this in later posts.

“The Next in Line” (1947, an original in DARK CARNIVAL) is one of the earliest of RB’s Mexico stories, about an American couple visiting a Mexican town where the local graveyard is rented, and when families don’t pay the rent, the bodies are dug up and put into an underground chamber, upright leaning against the walls, as mummies. The story arc is about the tremulous wife, afraid of that chamber, worried about dying, and the story ends with the husband driving out of town, alone. The notion of Mexican towns and graveyards appears in a couple later RB stories.

“Skeleton” (1945) is another famous RB tale, about a hypochondriac man obsessed by the notion that that inside of him is… a skeleton! He’s freaked out by the notion. Some of it is visible — teeth! He repeatedly visits his doctor, then seeks out a ‘bone specialist,’ who comes to his apartment for a private treatment with gruesome results. (Also, there’s another casually mentioned car crash here, as he drives to Phoenix; in this case the protag survives.)

“The Dwarf” (1954) — the first story in the book, and non-fantastic, though a bit macabre, in that it concerns a ‘dwarf’ who attends a carnival every night specifically to look at himself in the distorting mirrors. And it’s about the carnival owner’s sadistic trick, and the reaction to that of his girlfriend. The unchallenged presumption is that dwarfs are horrible little people. Published in 1954.

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is another 1954 story, about an American living in Paris whom the locals find fascinating just because he’s so… dull and ordinary. When he attempts to become more sophisticated, they lose interest in him. There are lots of now dated cultural references; one that’s still cute is “Does Existentialism Still Exist, or Is Kraft-Ebbing?”.

“Touched with Fire” (1954) recalls Shirley Jackson. It’s about two old men who follow people whom they perceive have a death wish, and try to intervene in their lives. A recurring note here is that the day is hot, nearing 92F, the time when murders happen, and the story ends with the implication their efforts, in this case, have been in vain.

“The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone” (1954) is about the great writer who retired at age 30 never to write again, and the effort years later by one of his fans (a Mr. Douglas, a recurring name in RB stories) to find out why. The revelation involves a rival writer to Stone, and Stone’s willingness to give up writing forever lest he be murdered — though he had an ulterior motive as well. This is the first of a number of stories that invite comparison to Bradbury’s own life, as a writer or as a family man, which I suspect don’t reveal so much truth as they do the willingness of RB to entertain suppressed demons.

This book also has two of the earliest ‘Family’ stories, those about the weird collection of vampires and others who live in a huge House north of Chicago — “Uncle Einar” (1947) and “Homecoming” (1946), the first story about a gigantic man with wings, the latter about a family gathering that focuses on the one family member with no special talents, Timothy. RB later wove half a dozen of these stories into a semi-novel, in the same sense as DW, called FROM THE DUST RETURNED, published way out in 2001, and which I’ll consider in a future post. I suspect these earliest stories were RB’s attempts to mimic Weird Tales fiction, but since RB sort of merged them with a Green Town setting, and developed the theme of FRDR into his own one grand theme — which I’ll spell out later — he kept writing the occasional one, and eventually completed that book.

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Desert Trip: Stars and Planes

This Sunday evening I am concluding a weekend trip to the high desert of southern California, to an area where I grew up as a small child and subsequently spent many family weekends and subsequent summer weeks and weekends throughout my college and young adult years. I have a deep affinity for this place.

One goal of this weekend trip to the desert was to get outside at night and see the stars, in a way not possible from any urban area, not the LA area where I lived until three years ago, not the SF Bay Area where I live now. And so despite a few wispy lingering clouds over the desert today, and a chilling, building wind this evening, I drove out to the far north end of the valley, that valley, away from the town lights to the south (and city lights to the far southwest), and pulled off the road, turned off the car, turned off the lights, and stood outside, and despite the chill wind, at 49F, stood outside waiting for my eyes to adjust.

I saw Orion, mighty in the southern sky. Sirius below left; Gemini above left. Turn around: there’s the Big Dipper, its handle downward at the northern horizon, the north horizon where black land meets dark sky and merges. Above left, the W constellation of Cassiopeia. And sure enough, the band of the Milky Way, running through Cassiopeia, along through Auriga and across the sky to where the lingering cloudy fuzziness meets the inescapable glow of southern light.

I got out my binoculars. Yes, the Orion Nebula. Yes, the Pleiades, the Hyades. Turn around, there’s Mizar and Alcor, easily split.

I recalled a familiar paradox about viewing the sky in clear, dark conditions. It is that the more stars are visible, the less obvious are the traditional constellations, because their prominent stars are drowned out by the surrounding sea of only slightly less brighter stars, that are increasingly visible in a very clear, very dark sky. This is especially true in binoculars (not in telescopes, where you tend to focus very closely on specific stars or objects); the field of view in binoculars shows even more stars than you see with the naked eye, more stars than you knew were there, and implying even more if your light-gathering power were even greater. It’s seemingly never-ending; and it is.

And tonight I confirmed a memory from my high school and college years, when I spent several weeks every summer in this desert place, for seven summers in a row, reading science fiction books by day and and stargazing by night, sometimes sleeping outside on a chaise lounge, to be awake before dawn to see the early morning stars, with a telescope I no longer have. That is, that in this place, this valley, I saw planes flying overhead, northwest from LA (southwest of this valley) to points northeast. As I adjusted my telescope to find nebulae or double stars, always overhead were these moving points of light, these tiny constellations of lights from those planes, sometimes flashing, sometimes not, but all moving from southwest to the northeast. And this: on a quiet dark night — not like tonight, too noisy with wind — you could hear the *sound* of those planes, but always from a position in the sky some degrees behind where you saw the lights. By the time the sound traveled to the ground from their height, the visible planes had moved on.

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Ray Bradbury Reread, Introduction

In January 2018 I began a grand, systematic, plan to revisit the books by the core authors of science fiction. I’ve explored some of the books by these authors in recent years, and have posted reviews and comments about them on this blog – by Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke. Now I’m trying to be more systematic, and thorough, as if to visit them one more time, in the mildish golden age of my years, and document my mature thoughts on works that – by these authors at least – I first read as a teenager.

And so in January I sat down and revisited my shelves of books by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was likely the earliest sf/f author I discovered, as a teenager, when I was age 13 or 14. It’s possible that what attracted me to his books was merely that a couple of them were available as Bantam Pathfinder editions, and as I described in this post, http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2016/06/30/15-ways-of-buying-a-book-part-1/, under Way #4; I had a predilection at that time for publisher brands, and bought many Bantam Pathfinder editions just because I liked that format. The Bradbury books in that format were DANDELION WINE and R IS FOR ROCKET.

In any event – I don’t remember the details after all these years – I liked those books by Bradbury sufficiently that I went out to find all other available Bradbury books at the local Pickwick, the mall chain store common at the time. Most of his books were available in Bantam paperbacks, and I bought all I could find, and read them in short order.

Over the decades, as I’ve moved through the fields of science fiction and fantasy, reading widely, I have not reread much Bradbury, except for THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, every decade or so.

Now, in 2018, I’m rereading Bradbury in more or less order of book publication. I never had a copy of the 1947 DARK CARNIVAL, his first collection from Arkham House, but I’ve understood that his later collection THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, from Ballantine in 1955, retained many of those early stories, some of them revised, and even though that book postdates THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1950) and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1951) and even FAHRENHEIT 451 (1953), it’s the book I began my 2018 reread with.

The photo here is of my vintage paperback collection of Bradbury books I acquired in the 1960s and ‘70s, which were not always the editions I’ve read this past month.

Next post: THE OCTOBER COUNTRY.

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Trek Season 1 Rewatch, Introduction

In April 2017 I sat down, having planned for many years to do so, to systematically rewatch Star Trek, the original series, that ran from 1966 to 1969. I was 10 years old when the series debuted, and I saw most of the episodes when they were first broadcast (albeit in black and white), and the show had a great and lasting influence on me. When the show went into syndication (that is, reruns shown by local TV stations typically five nights a week) in 1969, I became obsessed with the show, catching up on episodes I’d missed, and compiling notes on each episode, e.g. the stardate(s), names of any guest crew members, names of planets, and so on, as my own personal concordance. I read James Blish’s adaptations and Stephen Whitfield’s THE MAKING OF STAR TREK over and over.

This obsession lasted only a few years; by the time I was in college, at UCLA, I’d discovered literary SF, both in magazines and books. While my fondness for Trek never wavered, it was no longer the focus of my attention. (For a more detailed account of my personal history… see this post: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2017/04/03/about-to-re-watch-star-trek/)

And so decades later I decided to revisit the show, with an eye both nostalgic and critical. So I acquired the recent Blu-Ray set of 2009 remastered episodes put out by CBS. And I discovered the set of three books by Marc Cushman, THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, just published beginning in 2013, that document, in exhaustive detail, the history of the production of all three seasons of Trek. Furthermore, as a fan of musical scores, I was pleased to discover the exhaustive CD boxed set of the complete Trek music, from La La Lands, just released in 2013, as well as an earlier 1999 book by Jeff Bond, THE MUSIC OF STAR TREK. The Cushman books especially, and the CD set of Trek music, made this revisit of Trek’s episode far more rewarding than a revisit only five years ago would have been.

So in this revisit of Trek TOS, I’m writing detailed comments about each and every episode – so far, just of the first season. My comments run along several general themes:

  • Considering the episodes at face value, to what extent do they make sense, or not?
  • Considering my slightly dicey history of seeing the original series, mostly in syndication when I was a teenager, would there be scenes in the complete episodes that I would not recognize, because they had always been cut from the syndicated reruns that were the only versions I ever saw?
  • Considering Cushman’s books, what insights into the production process, especially how early drafts of the stories changed, or how the results were affected by post-production, might influence my understanding of the final episodes?
  • Considering James Blish’s ‘novelizations’ (or ‘episode short story adaptations’ to be more accurate), how do they reveal changes in stories from earlier scripts, or did Blish in some cases make improvements on the original scripts?
  • Considering what I call ‘intuitive physics’ (or ‘Trek physics’ and ‘Trek astronomy’), how did Trek’s portrayal of the physical and astronomical universe reveal the protocols of storytelling, or simply sloppiness by the producers and writers, in ways that betrayed actual scientific understanding? (The prime if almost trivial example being why the Enterprise makes a swooshing noise as it flies by, in the opening credits.)
  • Considering the era in which Trek was made, how did cultural values of the time, especially the roles of the sexes, and also the presence of physical violence, justify what we see in those episodes that would not be considered appropriate today?
  • Considering Trek’s music, with so many themes that became familiar without always identifying themselves to any particular episodes, how would study of the ultimate CD soundtrack set, and Jeff Bond’s book, inform understanding of how those themes were created and developed?
  • Considering the remastered episodes – in which the special effects of the 1960s were updated to the special effects of 2009 or so – would they truly be improvements, in the sense of correcting the astronomical and physics errors of the original productions?

Above is a photo showing my legacy Trek books by Blish, Whitfield, and Gerrold, with the new resources used for these posts. Here are links for the new resources:

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Link and Comments: Hollywood and Liberals

NYT: Neil Gross, Why Is Hollywood So Liberal?

Best guess:

There is, however, a third explanation worth pondering: that the emotional requirements of acting are conducive to progressive politics. “The overwhelmingly liberal orientation of actors,” Professor Ross has written, “can be partially understood as a byproduct of the demands of their craft. Playing a variety of characters, many of whom they did not necessarily like, fostered a sense of empathy and ability to understand issues and people outside their personal experience.”

Professor Ross suggests that empathy develops as actors gain experience on the job, but we can also speculate that empathetic people are more likely to become actors. Either way, is there any evidence that empathy correlates with liberal ideology?

Surveys show that liberals see themselves, anyway, as more empathetic and kindhearted than conservatives, a self-conception reinforced by political rhetoric. But in a recent paper, the psychologist Adam Waytz and his colleagues report a more nuanced finding: The main thing distinguishing liberals and conservatives in this regard isn’t how empathetic they are overall; rather, the key difference is how much empathy they feel for specific groups. Where conservatives empathize foremost with family members and country, liberals extend the bounds of empathy to include friends, the socially disadvantaged and citizens of the world, to whom they’d like government to lend a hand.

The circle of empathy is larger for liberals than for conservatives. Or rather, those for whom the circle of empathy expands beyond local family and tribe become characterized as liberals. Those for whom life is a zero-sum game between us and the world become characterized as conservatives.

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Links and Comments: Sports and Trump; Pinker and Gates; Tribal Allegiance and Actual Progress

NYT, 3Feb18: Trump’s Blood Sport Politics.

The writer recalls “”The Sporting Spirit,” an essay written by George Orwell in 1945 that sought to reckon with the rise of our modern athletic-industrial complex.”

For Orwell, the rise of sports was bound up with the rise of nationalism, both of them examples of “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

But the current occupant of the Oval Office has given voice to a more primal, and frankly powerful, vision of sports, the same one Orwell identified seven decades ago: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” Orwell wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in violence.”

Mr. Trump is ruled by a lust for competitive prestige, which he achieves by bragging and stoking feuds. Like no other president before him, he has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of compromise in favor of the zero-sum game. For him to win, the other side must lose.

The president, naturally, continues to exploit this tendency. He uses the news media to sow discord, to inflame warring cultural and racial factions in a manner designed to steadily erode the common good.

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NYT, Jan. 11th: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A.

In which a clip of a speech by Steven Pinker is misrepresented (by the right) to make it look like he endorses alt-right beliefs. The incident

highlights a disturbing, worsening tendency in social media in which tribal allegiances are replacing shared empirical understandings of the world. Or maybe “subtribal” is the more precise, fitting term to use here. It’s one thing to say that left and right disagree on simple facts about the world — this sort of informational Balkanization has been going on for a while and long predates Twitter. What social media is doing is slicing the salami thinner and thinner, as it were, making it harder even for people who are otherwise in general ideological agreement to agree on basic facts about news events.

Whereas,

It would be impossible for a reasonable person to watch the eight-minute video and come away thinking Mr. Pinker’s point is to praise the alt-right rather than to make a psychological argument about political correctness, alt-right recruitment and how to better fight that movement’s bigoted ideas.

Conclusion:

It’s getting harder and harder to talk about anything controversial online without every single utterance of an opinion immediately being caricatured by opportunistic outrage-mongers, at which point everyone, afraid to be caught exposed in the skirmish that’s about to break out, rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements, where they can safely scream out their righteousness in unison. In this case: “Steven Pinker said the alt-right is good! But the alt-right is bad! We must defend this principle!”

This is making us dumber.

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And then on Jan. 27th, The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker.

Gates, who runs a blog mostly about books he’s read, made Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature a bestseller when he tweeted about it last May. Here Gates and Pinker talk about the latter’s new book, Enlightenment Now. Here’s Gates’ blog post about the book: My new favorite book of all time.

I’m all for more reason, science, and humanism, but what I found most interesting were the 15 chapters exploring each measure of progress. Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.

Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress—something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones? He does a good job explaining why we’re drawn to pessimism and how that instinct influences our approach to the world, although I wish he went more in depth about the psychology (especially since he’s a psychologist by training). The late Hans Rosling explains this more fully in his excellent new book Factfulness, which I plan to review soon.

The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.

I’ll catch up here with my summary of Better Angels in the next week or so.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Social Progress, Steven Pinker | Leave a comment

SFNF: Bretnor, Modern Science Fiction

Reginald Bretnor’s 1953 Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Future is one of the earliest critical volumes about SF. If follows Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s 1947 OF WORLDS BEYOND (summarized here) and precedes the anonymously-edited 1959 volume THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (here), but is substantially longer than either of those.

The book consists of 11 essays written (with one partial-exception) especially for it, and the contributors range from Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, to relative unknowns like Don Fabun and Rosalie Moore.

The first section of three essays is about “Science Fiction Today”.

John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “The Place of Science Fiction” is a quick survey of human history that identifies SF as a response to the current state, since 1910 or so, of permanent ongoing change. He notes that interest in SF increased significantly following the atomic bomb in 1945 (i.e., as one of early science fiction’s wild-eyed ‘predictions’ that actually came true). SF, Campbell says, is a kind of practice zone, a place to try out new ideas before implementing them in a world where they might be too dangerous. And he makes a case that, while the circulation of SF magazines is tiny as a part of the overall population, his own Astounding is reaching “about one third of the men in the most creative age levels who are interested in technical developments.”

Also worth noting is that Bretnor in his introduction, Campbell in this piece, and Boucher in the following, all claim that SF “as a self-aware system of literature” in Campbell’s words, is just a quarter century old.

The Publishing of Science Fiction” is by Anthony Boucher, co-founder and at the time still co-editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as well as being a mystery reviewer and author of seven novels. (And like Bretnor, and Fabun, and Moore, lived at the time in Berkeley or nearby the Bay Area, according to Bretnor’s bio notes.) Boucher sketches out how the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ fiction was a recent one, using mystery novels as a first example. Such genre books had a guaranteed minimum audience, so publishers learned they couldn’t lose money on such books; yet neither could they make big money. (Aside: Boucher refers a couple times to ‘rental’ libraries that many readers would use rather than buy books outright, which in that day cost typically $2.50 for a hardcover. This is a concept outside of my personal experience.)

Boucher goes on: The history of SF began with Hugo Gernsback and his magazines. Amazing, 1926; Astounding, 1930; Campbell taking over Astounding, 1937, with the field expanding to some 30 magazine titles (!) at the time of writing. Book publishing became feasible as interest in SF was triggered by the atomic bomb. The first anthologies were the two big ones in 1946 [Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas, eds. • Adventures in Time and Space and Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fictin]. SF books are different than mysteries in that far more of them are anthologies, and SF readers keep buying hardcovers for years, even after paperback editions are available. (Whereas, apparently, mysteries were more like commodities, one book ceasing to sell as soon as the next came along.) And are willing to spend money to buy books from specialty houses like Arkham House, et al.

Still in recent years, most SF books are reprinted from magazine serials: in 1949, 15 sf novels published from magazines, 5 without previous publication; in 1950, 29 and 13; in ’51, 17 and 14; etc.

Writerly pay? In this era, typical rates were $100 for a short story, $1200 for a novel, for an annual salary [for a full-time writer] of perhaps $3600. (Note reference to the “newly organized Science Fiction Writers of America” – p40, in 1953! Obviously this never came about; the SFWA we know was formed by Damon Knight in 1964 or so…)

*

Science Fiction in Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television” is by Don Fabun, at the time a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He explains the disappointing examples of SF in the mass media as being an effect of how the mass media needs to reduce complex prose to simple pictures. SF is built on the myth that “the mind of man is capable of solving all problems directed to it by the exercise of rational thinking and through the logical disciplines of orthodox science.” P47.0. But mass audiences need emotional appeal, or character symbols — the heroine, the villain, and so on. So when SF was adapted for mass entertainment the obvious model was the western; thus, ‘space opera’ like current TV shows of the time. These shows aren’t just for juveniles — p49m “Any theatre manager who stands in the lobby of his theater and listens to the remarks of this departing patrons will agree that, no matter how juvenile his fare for the evening, many of the people going out apparently have failed to understand it.”

Fabun goes on to examine SF films. The first successful SF film was Rocket Ship X-M in 1951. Soon after that, George Pal’s Destination Moon, successful, very accurate, but rather documentary-like. The Thing was next, also very successful – but a prime example of good prose story made “a complete and inexcusable mess” p53m. Also in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which writer here calls “a wan mish-mash of several science-fiction themes, carried out in a weary manner which made one think that the producers must have had a captive audience in mind.”

He then moves on to TV, with very detailed descriptions of the popular shows, and their radio antecedents — Buck Rogers in 1932, superseded by Superman, then Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

On TV, Captain Video came on in June 1949, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet in October 1950; then Space Patrol. Writer describes their doubletalk gadgets and weapons (cosmic ray vibrator; atomic rifle; thermoid ejector; nucleamatic pistol, etc., p63b) and how they all had prohibitions against bloodshed, violence, and death. These were serials, shown up to five days a week in 15 minute or half hour segments, both live and filmed.

Tales of Tomorrow was an anthology show adapting short stories, e.g. Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.” The problem was with needing writers – the assumption here is that writers for TV had to establish a track record in print first, then be able to write dramatically; still, most TV productions are written by TV writers, who often adapt stories from print. Example from a 1952 magazine article, of outlining a story, getting technical advice from Willy Ley, turning out a script in a week, and to the director just one week before telecast.

(I won’t bother to comment on how these assumptions have changed radically, again and again, over the decades since.)

In time, Fabun predicts, most SF might be written primarily for TV or motion picture screens (rather than adapted from published stories).

*

The next section, “SF as Literature“, begins with Fletcher Pratt’s “A Critique of Science Fiction.” His issues are familiar even today as criticisms of bad science fiction; many of these still apply, only a few have been overcome by SF’s merging with popular culture. I’ll bullet-point them.

  • SF has too many unscientific elements, e.g. the fiction of A.E. van Vogt. Writers owe us at least plausible explanations for how something should work; else we have pseudo-science, the “label we all hate so much” p75.7. (But see my point on this issue, about a similar comment by Heinlein, here)
  • It’s bad when authors produce new gadgets at the end of a story to solve all the problems. [Some episodes of various Trek incarnations, anyone?]
  • Characters who all sound the same; no details of everyday life. George O. smith, EE Smith.
  • Stories with a brilliant concept but no story– “The Absolute at Large”; “E for Effort”; “The Xi Effect”.
  • Gigantism, in which the stakes grow to whole galaxies at war, and so on; Foundation; de Camp’s Johnny Black, often in response to editorial urging of more and more sequels. [ Of course this is a common feature of modern SF superhero and space opera series. ]
  • Writers who imagine English spoken by aliens, or the same English in the far future. [ too many examples…]
  • Using terms of disintegrator and space-warp, perhaps only understood by cultists. [ not any more! ]
  • Mystification via mumbo-jumbo. Van Vogt.
  • The cult of the superman story. Stories in which we wonder why characters who have some unusual ability that makes us wonder why they don’t use it to take over. Sixth Column.
  • The overuse of surprise ending, especially currently in Galaxy magazine.
  • And how SF dates, both in the language of the writing of the time, and in obsolete predictions. When the Sleeper Wakes.

*

I’ll not summarize all of the following essays in quite such detail.

Rosalie Moore’s “Science Fiction and the Main Stream” says a lot of obvious things about how we read a fantastic story differently from a realistic or mainstream story, a theme developed greatly in decades since, notably by Samuel R. Delany. She does make some familiar points about the difference between a mainstream story and an SF one. 115.4: How “all too often the effect of the mainstream story—over and over—was one of dejections and defeat.” Mainstream stories conclude, “Isn’t it terribly sad?” while sf asks, “Precisely what are we going to do next?” And how “the typical New Yorker” story, p116b, is about frustration and taking no action. As if the idea of plot is vulgar. 117.4

L. Sprague de Camp’s “Imaginative Fiction and Creative Imagination” is about how de Camp writes stories. Creative imagination is about free association. A handicap for any writer is simply not knowing enough. A writer’s sources are his experiences, personal or vicarious. Killdozer. These can include legends and myths, the author’s contemporaries, paying attention to the progress of science. A writer is trying to do three things: entertain the reader; express himself and his feelings; and convey some idea or opinion. He goes on to explore why SF depends on the glamor of the exotic, to explain why stories about the future should exploit “such archaisms as pre-gunpowder weapons, hereditary monarchy, and all-powerful hierarchical religious cults”. Not all progress is uniform. And most cultures have a “myth of a heroic age, when mankind was young and all men were virile, all women beautiful, and all problems simple.” 135.4, followed by “the modern Western belief that ancient times were mostly hard, cruel, dreary, and unsanitary, while probably closer to the facts that the heroic-age concept, is a relatively new one.”

*

The final section, “Science Fiction, Science, and Modern Man“, begins with the longest essay in the book, by Isaac Asimov, about “Social Science Fiction.” This strikes me as an essential, classic essay, but perhaps I think that only because I read this essay in Damon Knight’s volume TURNING POINTS back in 1977, and it struck me at the time, especially because I didn’t think I agreed with it. In this essay Asimov makes a distinction between proper science fiction and mere ‘social’ science fiction — like Gulliver’s Travels, or More’s Utopia.

I think at the time I thought Asimov was being persnickety, trying to distance himself, and his own brand of proper science fiction, from the claimed antecedents who didn’t really do it the way he thought it should be done.

(As an aside, I had a well-read friend once, not an SF fan, who was flabbergasted that anyone would try to claim NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR as science fiction. I think his literary intuitions aligned with what Asimov was trying to get to in this essay.)

Asimov claims it’s a question of intent. He describes literature’s response to increased change over recent centuries in phases: social fiction, then gothic horror fiction, then science fiction. And he declares his new definition of science fiction, p167.4: “Science fiction is that branch of literature which deals with a fictitious society, differing from our own chiefly in the nature or extent of its technological development.”

Asimov goes on to describe four eras in the history of science fiction: 1815-1926; 1926-1938; 1948-1945; 1945-present. The earliest was ‘primitive’; the second defined by Gernsback founding Amazing Stories; the third by Campbell taking over Astounding; the final by the atomic bomb.

He then goes on to distinguish between ‘chess game stories’ and ‘chess puzzle stories.’ The rules by which pieces move are the impulses of humanity [human nature] – p178m. The chess game story has a fixed starting position, our own socio-economic society: the city, an agricultural economy, etc. p179.3.

The purest chess-game story takes advantage of the idea that “history repeats itself.” Asimov has used this idea repeatedly – in his Foundation stories, in other novels, 180t. [Asimov knows his history! More than most casual readers, I’d guess.]

Noting that author and critic Damon Knight has taken issue with this idea [in a review reprinted in Knight’s IN SEARCH OF WONDER], Asimov counters with a detailed outline of an historical episode, with blanks for key names, p181-183, and then provides a table of three columns, each a set of names to fill in the blanks: 17th century England; 18th century France; 20th century Russia. There are a few mismatches, but the number of matches is impressive.

Then he provides some examples of ‘chess puzzle’ stories by Leiber, Wyman Guin, Tenn, Russell, de Camp.

Finally he considers the effect of SF on society, and dismisses the idea that SF is only escape literature. The future has to be thought about, and SF can accustom the reader to the idea of change. He cites FDR’s willingness to experiment; that’s what SF does. And the effect of SF is to expand the scope, to break down hostility between tribes and states, to consider anything less that “Earthman” doesn’t make sense.

Summary 195-6:
“1. For the first time in history mankind is faced with a rapidly changing society, due to the advent of modern technology.
2. Science fiction is a form of literature that has grown out of this fact.
3. The contribution science fiction can make to society is that of accustoming its readers to the thought of the inevitability of continuing change and the necessity of directing and shaping that change rather than opposing it blindly or blindly permitting it to overwhelm us.”

….So after all these years I’m more sympathetic to his distinction between “social science fiction” and other forms of SF than I was when I read this essay 40 years ago. Though not quite on basis Asimov makes it, but from another perspective, analogous to my distinction between SF and fantasy, where the former is about recognition of an objectively knowable universe, distinct from human values, and the latter is a literature in which human values, and wishes and dreams, are projected into various imaginary settings. What Asimov calls social SF is, in a sense, an extrapolation of human nature, rather than a consideration of how human nature reacts to discoveries of science or changes in technology. So that might indeed dismiss Plato et al from SF; but not Orwell, and surely not Huxley, whose imagined dystopias do indeed depict social changes in reaction to technological changes.

*

In contrast, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Science Fiction: Preparation for the Age of Space” is a rather dry survey of the various ways writers over the centuries have imagined voyages into space. Clarke doesn’t mention the book, but he might well have read J.O. Bailey’s PILGRIMS THROUGH SPACE AND TIME, a 1947 survey of the many precursors of utopian thinking before modern SF, all the names that most of the writers here dismiss as not belonging to the modern genre. (I have a copy of this book too, but am not motivated to read it.) Thus, Clarke describes voyages into space via the supernatural (Kepler, Stapledon, Lewis); by natural agencies (Lucian of Samons, Bishop Godwin; de Berjerac); via ‘subtle engines’ such as wings, firecrackers, or magnets; space guns in McDermont, of course Verne, and the 1936 Wells film; antigravity; rockets; miscellaneous; and space stations.

*

Philip Wylie’s “Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis” is fascinating in its revelations of what worried people in the 1950s. Democracy requires an educated citizenry, but we live in an increasingly complex society in which it’s impossible to keep up, in which everyday people are necessarily specialists, and Congress is ignorant about the atom. In fact Congress took the action to assign such knowledge (of the atomic bomb) to the military, making it ‘secret’ — a subversion of democracy, Wylie claims. That’s what he’s worried about — an unprecedented development, he seems to think, about an issue (secrecy) that we take for granted today.

So is SF educational, he wonders? Does it help people to reason, or merely muddle their thinking? Does SF have any obligation to the standards of science?

His answer: it can help, but it seldom does. SF isn’t mythology; it’s religious in form, but must be honest toward outer objects. On page 232 he says this: “This is, essentially, a mere transposition of the subjective teaching of Jesus to the outer world. Many authors have said, rightly, in the opinion of this one, that true science was impossible before the teachings and ideals of Jesus had been disseminated.” I have no idea what he means; it doesn’t correspond to anything I understand from reading the NT or about the history of science.

He goes on to worry primarily that SF doesn’t take into account what is known about “man’s nature” — that is psychology. “Without a science of such matters, what they write is irresponsible, in the sense that it pretends to be ‘modern’ whereas it is contemporary in detail only—and inevitably, in meaning, archaic.” The result is that SF has made audiences credulous about matters like flying saucers. The amorality of SF/F is a symptom of a general mental disorder. He mentions Freud, Adler, and Jung, about the importance of myth, and implies this understanding is what is lacking in SF.

This piece suffers because Wylie alludes to good and bad examples of SF, without naming any of them. Presumably he assumed his readers know what’s talking about; but 60 years on we can only guess.

What I find extraordinary about the essay, though, is that he was on to something — psychology was indeed primitive 60 years ago, but it has advanced greatly since — cf. Kahneman, Haidt, Pinker, McRaney — and in fact understanding of this psychology can deeply inform our understanding of human interactions, of politics, of science fiction and fantasy. If mainstream fiction has done better at portraying human nature, it’s done so intuitively, unconsciously. Whereas scientific understanding of psychological issues — mental biases and the persistence of logical fallacies in everyday life — has in fact begun to filter down into the fiction of SF authors. The first example that comes to mind is KSR’s AURORA…

*

The next essay is “Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion,” by Gerald Heard (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/heard_gerald), an author and journalist mostly forgotten by now, I think. For me this was the most intriguing essay in the book, for its topic; what were the issues about morals and religion in the 1950s that science fiction had anything to do with? Heard quickly identifies several issues: artificial insemination; the understanding that hormones affect human personality; the general issue of what is ‘natural’ and whether science can enforce the “simplicities which uninformed moralists thought was all that was natural.” More broadly, how will atom bombs affect how power is fought? And what will future societies be like, as individuals become increasingly specialized?

SF can address not just the “pursuit of truth” but the idea of “future alternate universes” and identify what the potentials for humanity might be. SF can build up a ‘tolerance’ to new ideas (unlike, he claims, science, with its failure to take reports of ESP or flying saucers seriously -!! p260).

Heard’s style is roundabout and pompous, as if he assumes the reader knows and agrees with his conclusions so that he need barely mention them, let alone spell them out. He finally gets around to discussing religion in the middle of a long paragraph on p261 and, typically, claims no conflict between science and religion: science is empiric research, religion is the frame of meaning, and how those meanings are applied is morality. This makes religion alive in a way it was not when all it did was defend the past and its “outgrown cosmogonies, inaccurate history and inapposite codes.” And he goes on about Julian Huxley and how the pessimism of evolution and materialism has been overcome. (It has?) And so a task of SF is to “construct an ethic deduced from a modern cosmology and producing rules of demonstrable psychiatric, hygienic and social value.” OK. But he loses me when he claims that meaning is not just anthropomorphic or mechanomorphic. …rather “an extension of conscious thought which indicates and will tend to explicate a vast directive, a concept that is more inspiring to the modern mind than any forecast of a concrete goal.” (p264.)

*

Finally, editor Bretnor’s “The Future of Science Fiction” spends time defining SF, and then defending it from ‘mainstream’ detractors.

Like a couple others he’s concerned with the problem of modern-day specialization, and claims the misunderstanding of science, and the scientific method, is a driver for the emergence of SF. p272: “Today, science fiction appears as a genre because the main currents of our literature still adhere to sets of principles which are pre-scientific – principles whose validity can only be maintained by rigidly excluding the knowledge which would prove them false.”

His definition of SF again stresses awareness of the scientific method. He identifies three categories, in descending order:

1, works which reveal the author’s awareness of the scientific method not just in circumstance and plot but in the thoughts of its characters;
2, works with such an awareness, but only in circumstance and plot;
3, works that reveal the author is aware only of the products of the scientific method.

While ‘serious’ fiction emphasizes feeling rather than thought. And with this he challenges critics in the popular press who disparage SF on one ground or another. One of his examples is the paragraph from Saturday Review that Heinlein further attacked in his essay in THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL. Another is a mischaracterization by Look magazine of Donald Menzel dismissing a particular UFO incident — Look implied the entire field of UFO studies was thereby discredited. Bretnor then makes this extraordinary statement:

This statement is in the same general category as—to use the most familiar of absurd examples—those which flatly deny the existence of a God or gods, the possibility of survival after death, the actuality of ESP phenomena, the prevalence of witches, or life on other worlds, or poltergeists, or the meteorological effectiveness of the Hopi snake dance.

Is he serious? Three sentences later: “Nevertheless, much evidence has been accumulated—evidence of varying reliability, true—which indicates either that they exist or that some corresponding areas do.” Is that so.

Bretnor does distinguish between the “verified” “new maps” of Heinlein and Clarke, and the topics mentioned above for which no “new maps” have been drawn, but that this does not mean the latter are automatically fantasy.

(Is he coining the term “new maps” or quoting someone else? Can’t tell. Kingsley Amis uses the term a few years later in his book NEW MAPS OF HELL.)

And then Bretnor sketches the future of SF: the adoption of the attitudes of SF by non-SF; increased academic interest; mediocre SF by non-SF writers; and the growth of the field, including one ‘slick’ magazine within two years. (On this last point, I don’t think it ever happened, with the exception of Analog‘s switch to slick format in the early ’60s, only for a couple years.)

*

To summarize key, repeated points:

    • SF as a distinct genre was, in 1953, only a quarter century old
    • Much of it is poorly written and conceptually shallow
    • Media (movie and TV) SF is even worse
    • SF became ‘respectable’ following the atomic bomb
    • Opinions about UFOs, parapsychology, and the like, varied widely, but the subjects were taken quite seriously by some
    • Proper science fiction is about the impact of technology on society and especially relies on conscious application of the scientific method, and is a benefit to society by helping readers cope with continuing change.
Posted in Book Notes, Science Fiction Nonfiction | Leave a comment

Link and Comments: Paul Krugman on Know-Nothings

Today’s NYT: Know-Nothings for the 21st Century

Krugman has a few themes he repeats over and over again in his twice-weekly columns, not because he has nothing else to say, but because there is so much new evidence to support those favorite themes. In the Trump administration, and in Republican/conservative behavior generally.

Here, he evokes the “Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors”, with the reminder that the targets then were the Irish and Germans. (My own Kelly family ancestors immigrated to the US from, not Ireland directly, but from the Isle of Man, in the 1860s; Genealogical Post: My Family Trees.)

After all, Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.

Conservatives, racists, and xenophobes exhibit similar behaviors in all eras.

Krugman goes on about lower-case “know-nothings”, and why there are not many conservatives in leading universities.

The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening.

One result of this embrace of ignorance is a remarkable estrangement between modern conservatives and highly educated Americans, especially but not only college faculty. The right insists that the scarcity of self-identified conservatives in the academy is evidence of discrimination against their views, of political correctness run wild.

Yet conservative professors are rare even in hard sciences like physics and biology, and it’s not difficult to see why. When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.

And

But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.

This rejection of education and knowledge is reflected in the Christian home-schooling movement, and, at an extreme, the West African Boko Haram movement, whose name means, the NYT reminds us this morning, “Western education is forbidden.”

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Links and Comments: Optimists; Bible; Children

Time Magazine’s current issue is called “The Optimists,” and is edited by Bill Gates. Steven Pinker has a piece:

Why We Refuse to See the Bright Side, Even Though We Should

According to the latest data, people are living longer and becoming healthier, better fed, richer, smarter, safer, more connected–and, at the same time, ever gloomier about the state of the world. As the political scientist John Mueller once summed up the history of the West, “People seem simply to have taken the remarkable economic improvement in stride and have deftly found new concerns to get upset about.” How can we explain pessimism in a world of progress?

One answer is an issue I’ve noted repeatedly: the news media, by their nature, focus on the bad, no matter how rare bad incidents may occur. (This doesn’t make the news media bad or dishonest; that’s just the nature of the medium. It has to be understood, the same way advertising must be understood.)

News is about what happens, not what doesn’t happen, so it features sudden and upsetting events like fires, plant closings, rampage shootings and shark attacks. Most positive developments are not camera-friendly, and they aren’t built in a day. You never see a headline about a country that is not at war, or a city that has not been attacked by terrorists–or the fact that since yesterday, 180,000 people have escaped extreme poverty.

NYT writer Nicholas Kristof occasionally echoes the same theme. Today, Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History

As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.

And he cites Pinker (who has a new book coming out in February). Both address psychological issues, how human biases betray clear thinking. Thus there will always be an audience for the likes of Trump.

President Trump rode this gloom to the White House. The idea “Make America Great Again” professes a nostalgia for a lost Eden. But really? If that was, say, the 1950s, the U.S. also had segregation, polio and bans on interracial marriage, gay sex and birth control. Most of the world lived under dictatorships, two-thirds of parents had a child die before age 5, and it was a time of nuclear standoffs, of pea soup smog, of frequent wars, of stifling limits on women and of the worst famine in history.

And one more, at Vox.com: 9 ways the world got a lot better in 2017, by Charles Kenny.

Less famine, fewer deaths from wars and natural disasters, progress against pestilence (via vaccinations), greater life expectancy, more democracy, expanding human rights, fewer very poor people, greener energy.

\\

Also in NYT, an essay about the new Museum of the Bible, which apparently is more a shrine to uncritical veneration than a true museum exploring origins and influences.

The Museum of the Bible Is a Safe Space for Christian Nationalists.

If you walk in thinking that the Bible has a single meaning, that the evidence of archaeology and history has served to confirm its truth, that it is the greatest force for good humanity has ever known and that it is the founding text of the American republic — well, then, you will leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Also, a fascinating piece about what it means if your child is lying to you.

Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good.

On the one hand,

Why do some children start lying at an earlier age than others? What separates them from their more honest peers? The short answer is that they are smarter.

On the other, concerning an experiment in which a child is told not to look for a toy,

(Children who don’t peek at the toy in the first place are actually the smartest of all, but they are a rarity.)

Posted in Children, Culture, Human Progress, Religion | Leave a comment

Link and Comments: UFOs and Other Fairy Tales

No I don’t “believe” in UFOs, in the sense of believing them to be evidence of extraterrestrial visitors, because I’ve long been too familiar with the many ways human perception can go awry and of the many ways reports of supernatural phenomena have turned out to have mundane explanations.

It’s probably worth making this key point: science fiction writers, and readers, are generally far less credulous about such matters than the general population is. That is, just because we read SF doesn’t mean we believe in UFOs or psychics who predict the future or any other supernatural phenomena; that these are recurring themes in mass media SF — movies and TV shows — is because these must appeal to audiences far wider than the relatively hard-minded crowd of SF readers, and it’s partly for this reason that SF movies and TV shows are disrespected by the more knowledgeable and rigorously thinking readers.

Ross Douthat, of all people, makes this in a recent NYT op-ed, Flying Saucers and Other Fairy Tales.

Rather, it’s that our alien encounters, whether real or imaginary, are the same kind of thing as the fairy encounters of the human past — part of an enduring phenomenon whose interpretations shift but whose essentials are consistent, featuring the same abductions and flying crafts and lights and tricks with crops and animals and time and space, the same shape-shifting humanoids and sexual experiments and dangerous gifts and mysterious intentions.

He recalls the Victorian zeal for beliefs in fairies (you know, tiny little winged creatures found amongst the garden flowers), and Erich von Däniken’s of evidence for ancient alien astronauts in the 1960s.

Certainly for most sensible secular scientific-minded people, to say that our era’s close encounters are of the same type as encounters with the unseelie court of faerie is to say that they are all equally imaginary, proceeding from internalized fancies and hallucinatory substances and late-night wrong turns, plus some common evolved subconscious that fears shape-shifting tricksters in modern Nevada no less than in the mists around Ben Bulben.

But then Douthat takes refuge in the (to me equally imaginary) contingencies of his Christian faith.

So the glamour of U.F.O.s, like the glamour of faerie, is an understandable object of curiosity but a dangerous object for any kind of faith. The only kind of God worth trusting is the kind who does not play tricks.

It is trivially easy, of course, to imagine ways in which God’s presence might be made less evasive and dubious than the experience of the real world, and the fragmentary inconsistency of the Gospels, actually provides; and dismiss that fairy tale too.

Posted in Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment