Frederik Pohl: GATEWAY (1977)

[expanded 24jun20 5pm]

I need to catch up on book notes. I’m not a fast reader, and am busy with other things throughout the week, reading perhaps 3 hours a day at best, but still get through about 2 books a week. I think I’ll try to condense my comments to just the essential points, rather than post lengthy annotated plot summaries. (Taking notes on books is easy; condensing them into useful précis is more difficult, but much more useful.)

I still have to put each book in context. Moreso than you might think, context is everything. Frederik Pohl was a magazine and anthology editor, and a writer of novels and short fiction, in the 1950s and 1960s, with works like The Space Merchants (a 1950s satire of the advertising industry, written with C.M. Kornbluth) and “Day Million” (a dazzling 1966 short story about the future social mores of a couple in love that Pohl anticipates his contemporary readers will find shocking). Good, occasionally great, yet intermittent work. In the early 1970s though he rebooted himself into a steady, major writer, of both novels — about one a year, for the next two decades — and short fiction. (I think I read that Pohl had had a near-death experience in the early 1970s that led him to re-evaluate his life, and shift his priorities back to writing fiction.) His first novel of this period was Man Plus, in 1976, which won a Nebula; the second was Gateway, in 1977, and it won the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Locus awards — the four major awards of that time. It remains a popular, well-regarded novel; I believe it’s Canadian SF author Robert J. Sawyer’s favorite SF novel of all time.

(My Facebook comment after Pohl’s death in 2013 is posted on this blog here:

This book is easier to summarize than to describe chapter by chapter.

  • The broad story is about the discovery of an asteroid full of spacecraft built by aliens called the Heechee, perhaps millions of years ago, and abandoned, with no trace of the Heechee or where they went. Humans find the asteroid, called Gateway, via the discovery of one of the individual spacecraft on Venus. The individual spacecrafts pilot themselves, and travel faster than light to various points in the galaxy, in entirely unpredictable ways. So, volunteers go out on prospecting expeditions hoping to find Heechee artifacts, or anything else interesting (such as artifacts that can be exploited for wealth on Earth), on the planets they come to, which would result in lifetime riches. But there’s a risk: some 15% never come back, and others come back with their crews dead.
  • The main character is Robinette Broadhead, who grew up with his parents mining shale oil in Wyoming; in this future Earth, such shale is turned into food for a hungry, overcrowded world.
  • The frame story is some 16 years after RB left Gateway. RB got rich, somehow, and now lives in a domed New York City, and is in therapy with a cybernetic psychiatrist called Sigfrid von Shrink, and seems concerned about some incident with a woman on Gateway named Klara.
  • The recounted main story (in flashbacks) is how RB won a lottery to get passage to Gateway, how he hemmed and hawed about signing on to these dangerous expeditions, about his first couple expeditions, and about the payoff expedition that rewarded him and made him wealthy but involved tragedy—which is why later he went into therapy.
  • And there are sidebar diagrams or infodumps, interspersed in the narrative, e.g. with rules about living in Gateway, with classified ads placed by prospectors on Gateway, and so on. These each fill a page, in the nontraditional style of some ‘60s mainstream writers. In the second half of the book these include excerpts from lectures to prospectors about various phenomena: neutron stars, black holes, etc. On p245, a conspiracy theory about the number 13.

So, the book is a bit New Wavish, even resembling Silverberg’s DYING INSIDE, in its nonlinear structure, in its attention to the psychology of its protagonist, and in its collage of narrative with sidebar artefacts.

I should at least summarize the plot arc, and (spoiler) its conclusion which, as the best conclusions do, explains everything that we’ve read before and provides an emotional payoff.

  • Chapters alternate sessions with Sigfrid von Shrink, with the back story of Robinette Broadhead’s coming to Gateway, his hesitation about signing up for the available missions, in the various Heechee ships that hold 1 person, 3 people, or 5 people. (This is a brilliant suspense strategy; we know something profound and troubling happened to RB, but we don’t get to know what, until the very end.)
  • RB’s payoff mission involves sending two Heechee ships, with five people each, to the same destination, a few minutes apart, to see what happens.
  • But as it happens, the two ships arrive near a black hole, too near; they risk getting sucked in to its event horizon. The six people on the two ships stage an escape strategy, by spinning the two ships around a common link so that one can escape by being flung outside the event horizon.
  • It doesn’t go as planned; RB is left in the one ship that escapes, the other five — including his lover Klara — are stuck in the other.
  • RB returns to Gateway. He’s distraught, but is given a huge bonus for the information gleaned from this mission. Thus his later residency in NYC.
  • And so back in the present frame story, Sigfrid von Shrink helps him to understand what’s happened. The five in the other ship sunk into the black hole, but because of time dilation as they approached the speed of light… they are, in a sense, still alive right now, in RB’s experience.
  • RB’s problem is that he can’t live like this, knowing that Klara is still alive in some sense, but doomed to die, but that he is still living.
  • And in some poignant final lines, the cybernetic Sigfrid von Shrink reminds RB that he *is* still living, in a way SvS can only envy.

The principal science-fictional appeal of the novel is the mystery of the aliens, where they went, why they left ships behind and why they “cleaned up” a lot of them, and what they were like in any way. This book was so well-received that Pohl wrote several sequels, albeit with diminishing returns, that explored these mysteries.

Here’s a passage, page 224, describing some of the Heechee tools:

There were about ten little prayer fans, proving, I guess, that the Heechee liked to include a few art objects even with a tire-repair kit. Or whatever the rest of it was: things like triangle-bladed screwdrivers with flexible shafts, things like socket wrenches, but made of some soft material; things like electrical test probes, and things like nothing you ever saw before. Spread out item by item they seemed pretty random, but the way they fit into each other, and into the flat nested boxes that made up the set, was a marvel of packing economy.

(I’m reminded of that passage in Clarke’s Childhood’s End, quoted here,, about a human, in alien custody, shown human artifacts that he cannot identify.)

And on page 230, how Heechee metal glows.

Other comments:

  • The book depicts very casual attitudes, in this future era, about sex and drug use (marijuana). The book written in 1977. Gays are matter of fact. And bisexuals. One of the large-crew expeditions includes a permanent three-way gay relationship. Yet a bit weirdly, toward the end we learn some of RB’s fantasies (about a male passenger) are related to his mother having taken his temperature, as a child, up his butt. This strikes me as way off the mark about the nature of sexuality.
  • Page 253.4: Discussion of boys’ stories, Tom Sawyer and Lost Race of Mars. The latter was an early (and very incidental) juvenile novel by Robert Silverberg; was this mention a tip of the hat to Pohl’s fellow writer and editor?
  • P297 is a sidebar about Heechee nutrition: there’s a reference to possible food factories in the outer cometary belts. As I recall, this was one of the ideas Pohl followed up upon in the sequels: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), The Annals of the Heechee (1987), The Gateway Trip (1990), and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004).

A significant prologue to this novel was Pohl’s 1972 novella “The Merchants of Venus.” It was collected, later in 1972, in the Ballantine collection The Gold at the Starbow’s End (its title story another major Pohl work of the era), and I will summarize the stories in that book in my next post.

Posted in Book Notes, science fiction | Comments Off on Frederik Pohl: GATEWAY (1977)

Links and Comments: Visual Illusions and Perception of Reality; Trumpian Gnostic Madness

Vox: Brian Resnick: “Reality” is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters. Subtitled, What the science of visual illusions can teach us about our polarized world.

A long, thorough survey of various topics on one of my favorite themes (along with logical fallacies and cognitive biases): perceptual illusions. How we can’t trust what we see, how we see things that aren’t there, how we’re wired to perceive patterns even when none exist. (And by extension, why people are drawn to conspiracy theories to explain things that they think must have explanations.)

With several graphic examples. And a passage about “the dress.”

Some of these examples may seem frivolous. Why does it matter that one person sees a dress as black and blue and another sees it as white and gold?

It matters because scientists believe the same basic processes underlie many of our more complicated perceptions and thoughts. Neuroscience, then, can help explain stubborn polarization in our culture and politics, and why we’re so prone to motivated reasoning.

Sometimes, especially when the information we’re receiving is unclear, we see what we want to see.

One scientist comments:

Illusions are “the basis of superstition, the basis of magical thinking,” Martinez-Conde says. “It’s the basis for a lot of erroneous beliefs. We’re very uncomfortable with uncertainty. The ambiguity is going to be resolved one way or another, and sometimes in a way that does not match reality.”

Moving toward a summation:

Instead, the illusions and the science behind them raise a question: How do we go about our lives knowing our experiences might be a bit wrong?

There’s no one answer. And it’s a problem we’re unlikely to solve individually. I’d suggest that it should nudge us to be more intellectually humble and to cultivate a habit of seeking out perspectives that are not our own. We should be curious about our imperfections, as that curiosity may lead us closer to the truth. We can build cultures and institutions that celebrate humility and reduce the social cost for saying, “I was wrong.”

The two links in the above paragraph are also worth reading.


Navigating this is the challenge of being a living, thinking person.


Next, a couple aggregate sites have linked to a long article in Vanity Fair (only a portion of which is available to non-subscribers) about how the followers of Trump aren’t’ just a cult, but a gnostic religion. I’ll quote a section quoted by the blog Friendly Atheist. Gnosticism, it seems, sounds a lot like a standard-issue conspiracy theory:

Gnosticism, which dates at least to the second century A.D., is the path Christianity did not take, its texts destroyed as heretical, its ideas mostly forgotten until the 1945 discovery in Egypt of 13 ancient books in a sealed clay jar. Or maybe not so much forgotten as woven over the centuries into countless conspiracy theories, the deep-seated belief that there exist truths they — there is always a they in gnosticism, from the bishops and bureaucrats of the early church, coastal elites of the ancient world, to the modern media peddling fake news — do not want us, the people, to perceive.

Quite a few more quotes at this link, including how the religious crazies see him as a divine leader. The poster asks, “But what does it take to see the president like that, when those of us not initiated in the Church of Trump observe only the pitiful sight of a classless buffoon whose narcissism is inversely proportional to his competence? Diane G., another adherent, doesn’t think there’s much hope for us.”

“My faith helped me see him.” The Holy Ghost gave her what some Christians call the gift of discernment, an idea rooted in the Book of Acts that just as some are gifted the ability to speak in tongues, languages not their own, others are gifted the ability to discern spirits, to perceive wickedness within what might seem righteous and holiness within what might, to the undiscerning, be mistaken for profane. …

“Trump is not my God,” says Diane. “But God put him there.” God put him in power and planted a seed of faith in his heart. If you knew how to look, you could watch it grow. “It’s amazing,” Diane shouts. She takes hold of my arm, squeezing. “It gets bigger and bigger!”

Posted in Lunacy, Politics, Psychology | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Visual Illusions and Perception of Reality; Trumpian Gnostic Madness

Comments and Quotes: Good People vs. Mob-Hysteria

Here’s a curious convergence of ideas — a coincidence. A few days ago I made the comment that individuals don’t think clearly in crowds; crowds can be become mobs, and even peaceful gatherings can lead to group-think in which individuals are inhibited from voicing, or even thinking, contrary opinions.

And before that I discussed the thesis of the new Rutger Bregman book, namely that people are good most of the time and not, as many religions presume, inherently flawed.

So this morning I began reading one of the earliest published novels by Robert A. Heinlein, METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN; it ran as a magazine serial in 1941 though it wasn’t published in book form until 1958. It’s about a secret group of long-lived families who hide their longevity from public knowledge for fear of jealousy or reprisal from ordinary humans. Early in the book is a discussion about whether they risk “coming out” and revealing themselves. Here are two passages from page 11 and 12 (of the Baen/Book Club edition from 1993). A woman speaking:

“…I have known a lot of people. Human beings are inherently good and gentle and kind. Oh, they have their weaknesses but most of them are decent enough if you give them half a chance.”

A man replies:

Eve is right…as far as she went. Individuals are kind and decent…as individuals to other individuals. Eve is in no danger from her neighbors and friends, and I am in no danger from mine. But she is in danger from my neighbors and friends–and I from hers. Mass psychology is not simply a summation of individual psychologies; that is the prime theorem of social dynamics–not just my opinion; no exception has ever been found to their theorem. It is the social mass-action rule, the mob-hysteria law, known and used by military, political, and religious leaders, by advertising men and prophets and propagandists, by rabble rousers and actors and gang leaders, for generations…

Attendant thoughts: at its nub this was the idea behind Isaac Asimov’s “psychohistory,” the premise of his Foundation stories: that history could be predicted at the group, though not individual, level, because of the principles of what he called “mob psychology.”

And this is why it’s easy to demonized, even as sub-human, people and cultures you don’t know, whereas once you “get to know” someone foreign to your community, you usually discover they’re not so bad after all, and have the same human motivations and emotions as you do. While politicians can stir a population into murderous frenzy capable of genocide.

Posted in Psychology | Comments Off on Comments and Quotes: Good People vs. Mob-Hysteria

Links and Comments: Nature and Human Brains; Science Fiction and Mental Resiliency

Scientific American, Caleb A. Scharf: A Failure of Imagination, subtitled, “Nature does not have to play fair with our puny human brains.”

A favorite theme of mine: how there’s more to the universe than humans are aware of; how there may be more to the universe that humans can be aware of, or be aware of but not comprehend. Scharf, author of The Zoomable Universe and The Copernicus Complex, begins by recall H.G. Wells and his dictum that each [science fiction] should include only one extraordinary assumption, which would then be rigorously extrapolated.

The fascinating thing is that Wells’s ‘law’ for storytelling is very much associated with our modern scientific method: We look to strip away all but the central leap of imagination and construct a common-sense narrative around that. It’s clear that we’ve done this with Newtonian mechanics, with electromagnetism, with relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and more. And, of course this has been enormously, demonstrably successful. Our present planetary civilization (good and bad) is in large part a consequence of our capacity to assess the world around us and to make accurate predictions about the properties and behavior of matter and energy; all flowing from our focused scientific stories.

And yet,

Yet at the very heart of all of this – in Wells’s law and our need to create a streamlined narrative – is an imposition on the nature of reality. An imposition that we’ve variously justified as ‘beautiful’ or ‘natural’, or ‘elegant’, when a particular narrative seems to help unlock our understanding. The catch is that we really don’t know if this streamlining is truly justified, or indeed if it ever truly applies to reality in anything but special cases or in approximation. It could even be that this instinct of ours, sculpted in service of biological survival and keeping us from being cognitively overwhelmed, is far from optimal for decoding more than the superficial functioning of the world.

Precisely. Science has been spectacularly successful in humanity’s understanding and manipulation of the world, but perhaps that’s because we’re only asking the questions that make sense from our limited pespective. The author discusses some example areas of inquiry. (This reminds me of philosophical questions about why mathematics works so well, and if some cosmological theories based on math are necessarily true, just because the math works. Sean Carroll, somewhere, points out that there have been occasions in past decades of math thought merely abstruse that did in fact turn out to describe new physics.) Narrative bias:

But that is part of our narrative bias; our inability to imagine that our imagination may not be so good after all.


The Conversation: Science fiction builds mental resiliency in young readers.

While many people may not consider science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction to be “literary,” research shows that all fiction can generate critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence for young readers. Science fiction may have a power all its own.

Science fiction and fantasy do not need to provide a mirror image of reality in order to offer compelling stories about serious social and political issues. The fact that the setting or characters are extraordinary may be precisely why they are powerful and where their value lies.

From the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series to novels like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” and Nancy Kress’ “Beggars in Spain,” youths see examples of young people grappling with serious social, economic, and political issues that are timely and relevant, but in settings or times that offer critical distance.

…the critical thinking and agile habits of mind prompted by this type of literature may actually produce resilience and creativity that everyday life and reality typically do not.

Posted in Cosmology, MInd, Narrative, science fiction | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Nature and Human Brains; Science Fiction and Mental Resiliency

Links and Comments: Jonathan Haidt; Religious presumption; Hanlon’s razor; H.L. Mencken; Mark Lilla on prophecy

The Atlantic: Jonathan Haidt Is Trying to Heal America’s Divisions: The psychologist shares his thoughts on the pandemic, polarization, and politics.

Great profile, though long, of Jonathan Haidt, author of one of the best books I’ve ever read, The Righteous Mind, subtitled “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

Again, different people’s reactions to events may be differently appropriate depending on circumstances. Everyone isn’t the same; and circumstances change.


Friendly Atheist: Believers Who Overestimate Their Religious Knowledge Like Violence the Most.

About a curious survey given to believers: a list of topics from the Bible, with some fake ones thrown in, to see how many survey-takers claim familiarity with the fake ones. This isn’t so much about the Biblical familiarity of believers (let alone their taste for violence), as it is another example of how many people feel the need to claim knowledge, or have opinions, about things they really know nothing about. Like those man-on-the-street interviews that do the same (e.g. as done by Jimmy Kimmel, 10 Times Jimmy Kimmel Found Out Interviewing People on the Street Can Be Disappointing). The corrective to this is: it’s OK not to have opinions about things you know nothing about. Just say, “I don’t know.”

The list of 73 Bible items, with 13 of them made up, is at the bottom of the post.


Famous quote that I may have mentioned before: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair. This applies to politicians who take certain positions (e.g. about climate change) because their wealthy donors require them to; it’s not a matter of considering the evidence and understanding the issues.


Attendant thought of mine from a few days ago: Avoid crowds. You cannot think clearly in a crowd; you will not recognize truth, as opposed to consensus fantasies, when you’re in a crowd, whether a political rally or a church congregation. (This touches why, I think, in the current pandemic situation, it’s so important for so many people to go to church. For social reinforcement, presumably, never mind the Gospels’ admonitions to pray in private). In crowds, group thinking takes over, and the individual’s ability to reason is overwhelmed. That’s why many scientists, and artists, are loners.


Another pertinent thought: Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Or, to cite variations, to incompetence. Or, I’d suggest, simple human error. Yet some people are attuned to perceive conspiracy theories everywhere.


And yet one more, floating around for years, precisely pertinent now. H.L. Mencken:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.


Somewhat related to this: Vox: Is America too libertarian to deal with the coronavirus?

Americans, who feel even more exceptional about themselves than how all peoples around the world feel themselves special and exceptional in some way, have a contrarian streak that resents expertise and authority. Thus the second wave of Covid 19.


New York Times: Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal (which I reviewed here): No One Knows What’s Going to Happen: Stop asking pundits to predict the future after the coronavirus. It doesn’t exist.

The best prophet, Thomas Hobbes once wrote, is the best guesser. That would seem to be the last word on our capacity to predict the future: We can’t.

But it is a truth humans have never been able to accept. People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well. We are not well designed, it seems, to live in uncertainty. Rousseau exaggerated only slightly when he said that when things are truly important, we prefer to be wrong than to believe nothing at all.

Trump! Coronavirus conspiracy theories! The essay considers historical methods of predicting the future (all of them of course phony):

In religions where the divine was thought to inscribe its messages in the natural world, specialists were taught to take auspices from the disposition of stars in the sky, from decks of cards, dice, a pile of sticks, a candle flame, a bowl of oily water, or the liver of some poor sheep. With these materials, battles could be planned, plagues predicted and bad marriages avoided.

And ends by advising a sense of perspective.

A dose of humility would do us good in the present moment. It might also help reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living. Let us retire our prophets and augurs. And let us stop asking health specialists and public officials for confident projections they are in no position to make — and stop being disappointed when the ones we force out of them turn out to be wrong. (A shift from daily to weekly news conferences and reports would be a small step toward sobriety.)

Which echoes a point in my previous post — don’t be obsessive about consuming news. (And my corollary: and never get your news from social media.)

Posted in Culture, Religion | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Jonathan Haidt; Religious presumption; Hanlon’s razor; H.L. Mencken; Mark Lilla on prophecy

Rutger Bregman’s Ten Rules to Live By

I do love lists, especially of principles, and a new one comes with a book called HUMANKIND: A HOPEFUL HISTORY, by Rutger Bregman, whose previous book was the provocative UTOPIA FOR REALISTS (which discussed, among other things, the idea of universal basic income). I haven’t read this new book yet, just done the preliminary inspection—glanced at the table of contents, glanced through the index for particular names and subjects, noted how substantiated it appears to be in some 50 pages of notes. Read the prologue. And of course read his epilogue, “Ten Rules to Live By.”

First, his thesis is that the common assumption is that people are bad and must be corralled and subjugated lest they run wild and civilization crumbles, is wrong. Rather, humans are good most of the time and should be given credit for being so. With that perspective, much about society could change.

OK, we’ll see. The premise does immediately evoke two ideas. First, the thinking in recent decades that the key skill that enabled humans to evolve and dominate the world isn’t, as was long thought, tool-making (as depicted, e.g., in 2001: A Space Odyssey), but sociability, the way humans (unlike other primates) cooperate with each other in groups and accomplish more than any individual could. (See E.O. Wilson’s books, especially The Social Conquest of Earth.) Such cooperative groups would be difficult if every person was “bad” and constantly looking for ways to cheat on others; the idea that most people are not like this is therefore plausible.

Second, religions invariably presume that humans are bad and must be repaired (a convenient thesis for maintenance of the clergy). The problem is “sin” – everyone is bad from birth! – and the solution is salvation (the need to be “saved”); or the problem is pride; the cure is submission (Islam); or the problem is chaos, and the cure is social order (Confucianism). And so on. These religious ideas are millennia old, and perhaps merely reflect issues that faced humanity as it abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of fixed villages, for the support of agriculture and herding, and the consequent competition between such villages and thus instinctive suspicious of outsiders. Yet the growth over centuries of our species into a global culture has required cooperation, not knee-jerk demonization of others. Another reason religion is obsolete (but won’t go away). But I’m speculating; we’ll see where Bregman’s argument goes.

Anyway, I wanted to capture his “Ten Rules to Live By” and make some initial comments. These are in the epilogue beginning on page 381.

  1. When in doubt, assume the best
  2. Think in win-win scenarios
  3. Ask more questions
  4. Temper your empathy, train your compassion
  5. Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from
  6. Love your own as others love their own
  7. Avoid the news
  8. Don’t punch Nazis
  9. Come out of the closet: don’t be ashamed to do good
  10. Be realistic

Bregman calls out Trump on #2; Trump thinks in order to win, the other side must lose. In fact, as Robert Wright described in NON-ZERO, and to parallel the idea of sociability and cooperation, the arc of history has been driven by non-zero-sum games, not Trump’s zero-sum games. Michael Shermer’s THE MORAL ARC describes a parallel path in the evolution of morality; granting oppressed groups equal rights doesn’t deprive anyone else of their rights (except where some, in the name of “religious liberty,” perversely insist on the right to deny rights to others).

The one that jumps out at me is #7, because I’ve been sounding this idea for a while. One reason many people think other people are bad, is because they’re always seeing people being bad on the news, especially on TV news. (Granted it’s ironic this book is being published just as “Black Lives Matter” protests have devolved into riots in so many places.) That’s because news shows what’s exceptional! I’ve said before something like, no matter how perfect society becomes, there will always be incidents that prove to some people that society is falling apart and needs a strong leader to make it great “again”… while all the evidence (Pinker, Rosling) is that, by any measure you can name, the world is a better place than it was 50, or 100, or 2000 years ago. And as I’ve also said before, it’s not that journalism is mendacious (well, some of it is); it’s a business, and you just have to understand its business goals and take them into account when consuming its product.

And my corollary to #7 is: Don’t get your news from social media!

I’ll expand on these ideas as I read through the book.


Posted in Book Notes, Culture | Comments Off on Rutger Bregman’s Ten Rules to Live By

Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Attitudes about Gender and Sex

I’m rethinking a lot of matters, about epistemology, about culture and politics, as ranges of attitudes, from the intuitive and simplistic, to the informed and complex. Are some of these spectra, rather than hierarchies? A hierarchy implies that the top level is the superior one, and I would defend that take on the subjects outlined so far. Including this one, for now.

Here’s a hierarchy about sex and gender.

1. The simplest take is that sex, between male and female humans, is for the purpose of reproduction, period. It’s not about anything else, and therefore all occasions of such relations must be open to the possibility of reproduction. (Since obviously *every* instance of human sex doesn’t result in pregnancy. If this take was true, why wouldn’t it? Why didn’t God arrange for human pairs to have sex only a few times in their lives, each time resulting in a child?) This is the Catholic Church’s position, as I understand it; thus its opposition to birth control, and to sexual relationships other than heterosexual ones (as “evil”).

2. The next level is recognizing that sexual relations between men and women have another –not purpose, that’s teleological– but function. Which is to bond two people together, simply to continue to enjoy the pleasures of sex (and daily living) together; the unconscious function is that they therefore stay together long enough to raise the children some of those encounters result in. (Very primitive human tribes, some of them in existence today in isolated parts of the world, do not actually understand the relationship between sex and children.) Still, this understanding can entail the stricture that sex should only be between one male and one female. Because that’s what’s “natural.”

3. The next level is recognizing what’s actually “natural.” Homosexuality isn’t some weird perversion of human beings; in fact, many animal species other than humans exhibit homosexual behavior. Here’s a list on Wikipedia: Years ago on Locus Online, back when I posted pages of “Aether Vibrations” (i.e. links and quotes about nonfiction articles and books of presumed interest to science fiction readers) I listed a a book about homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom. (Can’t find it just now, but will pursue.) Now, the question of *why* humans and other animals exhibit homosexual behavior is still open, I think; part of it is due the pair-bonding effect noted above. Sexual behavior has different functions among many species. See: bonobo, a pygmy chimpanzee closely related to humans.

4. And the next level is to recognize that human sexual behavior is about what’s possible. Humans are the most inventive animals on Earth. We are not constricted by pure biological functions. The identification of sex and gender is extremely fluid. (Imagine the opposite: if reality were like take 1, above, every male would be equally attracted and responsive to every female, and vice versa. But that obviously isn’t the case. Why does any one person, seeing the range of potential mates, click on *that* one, or *this* one, as opposed to all the others? I think to some extent it’s about childhood upbringing and experience, to contingency, and to an inherent exogamous instinct that drives attraction to the *other*, to people from other towns, to people from other cultures — because this instinct is built into the human race — no, again, that’s teleological — has evolved in the human race to increase diversity in the species, which works for long-term survival. …This fluidity of gender identification and sexual attraction is real, there’s further evidence of this every year, every decade. And this freaks out the fundamentalist adherents of level 1.

Of course it’s worth understanding context. The Biblical strictures of level 1 were set down thousands of years ago by desert tribes in an age before refrigeration or sanitation, in a violent age when tribes fought for resources, and arguably the survival of the tribe trumped any issues of personal choice or autonomy. Also, infant mortality has been high across history until the past century. Thus, all those barbaric rules from Leviticus might have made some kind of sense, even the ones about the handling of food, given the circumstances. But that was then, this is now. The Catholic church still behaves as if it’s humanity’s mission to fill up the planet as quickly as possible. That, of course, has led to the Sixth Extinction and the ongoing climate crisis that could well bring humanity to extinction. Circumstances have changed. But flexibility of thought is not a fundamentalist hallmark.

Year’s ago, back in 2014, I posted, as a footnote, some comments about the Christian opposition to homosexuality. It’s at the bottom of this post. I’ll reproduce those comments here.

You wouldn’t necessarily think there’s a connection between antipathy toward homosexuality and with being Christian (*footnote below), and I have no particular animosity against Christianity any more than other religions (all of which I find unpersuasive and obsolete, if not oppressive), yet again and again the hostility toward gays, especially in recent weeks and months, turns out to be religiously inspired –- by Christianity. It is hard for me to find much respect for a religion whose most outspoken representatives devote their lives (they have nothing better to do?) to marginalizing if not criminalizing people like me.


*There are two or three other general reasons people seem to object to homosexuality. One, a (rather childish) squeamishness about people who do things one finds personally distasteful. Many people get past this reflexive attitude that people who are different from them are therefore inferior by the time they become adults, but not everyone.

Two, an existential panic on the part of parents that their kids being gay would preclude them having grandchildren. This is an attitude honed by the elementary logic of natural selection, of course; members of a population indifferent to having offspring, and their offspring having offspring, would not, to the extent this attitude is genetic, last long in the population.

A third would be the deep-seated biological protocols of species survival, which homosexuality would seem to (but in practice does not always) violate. This too, ironically, is an instinct built by evolution, a concept those who express this objection most strongly no doubt don’t “believe” in.

(So evolutionary speaking, why does homosexuality exist? An unsolved question, though with several potential explanations. Humans are not simple reproductive machines, optimized to generate offspring above all else, would be the general answer.)

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Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Science Fiction

(updated 8jul20, with additional para’s at the end)

What is science fiction? Many things, and what interests me about science fiction is not reflected in all its forms, any more than any particular music fan, interesting in dance, say, or complex harmonization, embraces all styles of music. (Just as some people aren’t science fiction fans in any sense; some people aren’t interested in music in any more than an incidental sense–for example Isaac Asimov famously liked Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, but only for their librettos). And so a fan of “classical music” or “rock music” does not respond equally to the many examples even within those genres. There is insipid classical music, and elevator rock music, and there are also the highest forms and the classics in these genres, and there is always (this is perhaps the most important point) how any individual responds to varieties of music depending what they are exposed to as a child or teenager, or what they actively pursue as adults, which forms their particular tastes. I can certainly trace mine–how my tastes in various kinds of music formed mostly by chance exposures as I grew up, and only belatedly through any systematic exploration.

Similarly, I struggle to define my scope of what science fiction is all about, in this blog and in my imagined book, without seeming judgemental. Of course I am being judgmental, but only to the degree that there are forms of pop sci-fi (an abbreviation I would never use about literary SF) that simply don’t interest me, that I find… degraded? I’ll keep struggling to express this more respectfully.

In any social context, when I say that I read science fiction, or that I’m a science fiction reviewer, or that I run/contribute to a website about science fiction, there is usually the presumption that… I’m a Star Wars fan, or a Star Trek fan*, or an X-Files fan. Because these are the pop culture versions of science fiction. I try to be polite and clarify, but I cringe a little. (There’s also the occasional presumption that science fiction writers and readers are susceptible to the various forms of pseudoscience, especially about “belief” that UFOs are alien spacecraft. This is not true. Science fiction writers, and readers, are more savvy about science and pseudo-science than the average person, as I written about elsewhere.)

Thus my attempt at another hierarchy.

I’ve considered definitions and descriptions of science fiction before — some gathered on this page — but more work needs to be done. In particular, I’m attracted to the hierarchies of ideas I’ve posted recently, about awareness, about understanding, about knowledge and human affairs. Each of these proceeds in phases, or perhaps dimensions, from the most simple or intuitive, to the more complex or intellectual. In this light, let me draft a hierarchy of science fiction, from its most superficial, to its most complex.

  • The most superficial science fiction is simple-minded space opera: stories about battles between good vs. evil, about heroes vs. villains, translated into interplanetary and galactic settings, with no regard to scientific plausibility. (These used to be called “space opera,” as the counterpart to “horse opera,” when Western movies and TV shows about cowboys and Indians were popular, in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s.) This includes the worst of Star Trek and perhaps all of Star Wars.
  • A step up are those stories about the consequences of fictional technology, even if not rigorously scientific (e.g. about space warps and time travel), and that avoid simplistic good-guy/bad-guy plots. I would guess the vast majority of classic science fiction novels and stories lie here. Much of science fiction, over the eight past decades, has presumed the existence of ESP and telepathy, of FTL drives, of time travel, all of which seem to have been invalidated by the best understanding of modern science.
  • And so the next step up is to be rigorous about avoiding those technologies that our best current understanding of the universe would say is impossible. Thus, stories about travel to planets around other stars without FTL, stories that take into account the relativistic effects of near-light travel. Recent examples are by Gregory Benford, Alastair Reynolds, and Kim Stanley Robinson.
  • And the highest form of science fiction, analogous to the idea that the nature of reality perhaps cannot be conceived by humans, would be how science fiction peaks around the corner of human existence to suggest the existence of a higher reality. At its rare best, Star Trek did this, in its early series; films like 2001 and Arrival did this; and offhand, writers who do this are Ted Chiang and Greg Egan.

And a key point is that, any one of these levels can be written across any range of literary techniques.

There’s another dimension to the relationship between science fiction, “realistic” mainstream fiction, and SF’s associated genres of fantasy and horror. As on the linked page above, my take, roughly, is that fantasy indulges in stories about the world that reflect human desires and emotions, in specific disregard to what logic and science indicates is actually true about the world. There are, for example, so so many fantasy novels set in worlds where magic has disappeared, and the plot is about restoring that magic to the world. (For two decades I’ve compiled short descriptions of newly-published  SF, fantasy, and horror books, posted every Tuesday on Locus Online, and so I have an acute sense of how many such books are published on these different themes.) Many people would prefer that magic existed in the world — just as they cling to supernatural religious beliefs about angels and saviors. This is human nature, and these presumptions about how the world works have promoted human survival over the millennia, even if they’re not actually…true.

Fantasy is easy; science fiction is hard. (Religion is easy; science is hard.)

And so there might be another dimension, or hierarchy, about the range from science fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy, in their assumptions about not only what is true, but what is important.

* Of course I am a Star Trek fan, but only in the limited sense that I grew up with Star Trek and see it in a nostalgic sense, much the way I do Lost in Space. Though I do admire Trek‘s vision of an egalitarian future that has overcome issues of politics and religion that plague our own age.

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Silverberg, DYING INSIDE (1972)

This is Silverberg’s most highly-regarded novel, and one of his most unusual. It was published in 1972, near the end of a period during which Silverberg wrote one or two critically acclaimed novels a year, from roughly 1967 to 1976. This one was followed by just two others (THE STOCHASTIC MAN and SHADRACH IN THE FURNACE) before he retired for several years. When he returned to writing he had different ambitions, shifting to a more crowd-pleasing mode with the sf/fantasy of LORD VALENTINE’S CASTLE.

DYING INSIDE is often likened to contemporaneous mainstream novels that focused on character and that didn’t have simple, linear plots. In particular, this one drew comparisons to the work of Philip Roth: urban, Jewish, full of angst.

The 1960s were a transitional period in science fiction, with the “New Wave” writers trying out literary techniques on traditional SF themes, others, like Silverberg, becoming increasingly sophisticated and getting books like this one published that would have been unthinkable in SF a decade earlier.

(The photo shows the 1972 Scribner’s first edition, a 1976 Ballantine paperback edition, and the 2009 Orb trade paperback edition, referenced here. In the introduction to the 2009 edition, he lamented that the book had always had dour covers, which discouraged bookstore sales. Apparently this has always been true.)


It’s a non-linear novel with very little plot; it’s about a 40-something year old man, David Selig, pretty much a loser, who makes a living ghost-writing college papers for Columbia students. The key fact about Selig is that he’s been able to read minds for all his life, and is now losing this power.

The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person and third (and second in one section). We learn about his sister and the two women he had brief relationships with. And about how he meets another man with his power, and learns that a tiny handful of people like them exist across the country. The plot, such as it is, involves a dissatisfied customer of a term paper who, with his friends, beats Selig up; Selig wakes in the hospital, is discharged and brought before the college dean. He has an intense telepathic insight into this man—and then his power goes out, forever.

The closing sections indicate that people, whether they knew of his power or not, have always felt slightly uncomfortable around him, and now they don’t. Is this the root cause for Selig’s shiftlessness his whole life? You’d think a smart man like Selig (he easily learns how to be a stockbroker at one point), with the added insights provided by reading minds, could go far in life. Yet when he gets that stock-trading job, he gets bored and quits.

Occasional chapters feature the essays Selig writes for those college students. These surely reflect essays Silverberg himself wrote as a student at Columbia, though in the intro to 2008 editions he mentions that he researched and wrote an essay on entropy specifically for this book.

The scenes of most science-fictional interest are those when Selig gains insight into how other minds work, even those of insects. Here’s a passage about a bee. He’s wandering around a farm one summer. (Page 111 of the Orb edition.)

A sense of contact. His questing mind has snared another mind, a buzzing one, small, dim, intense. It is a bee’s mind, in fact: David is not limited only to contact with humans. Of course there are no verbal outputs from the bee, nor any conceptual ones. If the bee thinks at all, David is incapable of detecting those thoughts. But he does get into the bee’s head. He experiences a strong sense of what it is like to be tiny and compact and winged and fuzzy. How dry the universe of a bee is: bloodless, desiccated, arid. He soars. He swoops. He evades a passing bird, as monstrous as winged elephant. He burrows deep into a steamy, pollen-laden blossom. He goes aloft again. He sees the world through the bee’s faceted eyes. Everything breaks into a thousand fragments, as though seen through a cracked glass; the essential color of everything is gray, but odd hues lurk at the corners of things, peripheral blues and scarlets that do not correspond in any way to the colors he knows. The effect, he might have said twenty years later, is an extremely trippy one, But the mind of a bee is a limited one. David bores easily. He abandons the insect abruptly…

And just a few pages later he perceives the mind of a dour farmer who in fact has a rich internal life. And earlier, reflecting the racial tensions of the time, he peers into the mind of a black dude named Yahya Lumumba and is overwhelmed by a blast of hatred for whites and Jews—and him in particular.

Summary outline

Here’s a brief chapter by chapter summary of the whole book.

1, Set in the present, 1st person. David Selig, thinking of his telepathic inner self as a separate person, heads to Columbia to get work from students there ghost-writing term papers. He was born in 1935 and he’s 41 years old, so the book is set in the slight future as Silverberg writes. Selig watches the Puerto Rican women in his building. Once on campus he makes a contact and a job: $3.50 a typed page, guarantee B+ or higher.

2, Set in the past, 3rd person; at 7 years old he’s taken to see Dr. Hittner to test his psychic abilities. Why doesn’t he have any friends? David is smart enough to tell the doctor what he wants to hear.

3, Present, 1st. He can’t transmit. He’s learned that the deep inner thoughts of all people are the same universal language.

4, A paper on the novels of Kafka.

5, Mixed POV: about Huxley and his notion of a cerebral reducing valve that drugs could lift. Or perhaps flagellation.

6, Why not let it fade? Because it’s what make him special, different.

7, Present 1st. His sister Judith calls, inviting him over for dinner. He’s borrowed money from her before but has resisted lately.

8, About Toni, one of his relationships. He was doing research for an author, and she was his assistant. They lived together a few weeks. He only peeped her 3 times. She moves in with him.

9, Dr. Hittner convinced his parents a sibling would do David good. They tried, had a miscarriage, finally adopted a girl—Judith. David hated her. He tried to wish her dead, but it didn’t work.

10, He recalls his one acid trip, in 1968. He recalls the events of that year. Toni brings home two tabs. Do they do it at the same time? He’s cautious, convinces her to go first, he’ll do it tomorrow. She goes first… and he can’t help but feel it, and can’t escape it. Desperately he tries to explain that he’s reading her mind, but maybe she misunderstands, that he’s making some excuse. He goes to stay with friends, and when he returns, she’s moved out.

11, Campus again, gets orders for five more papers, one from a black dude, Yahya Lumumba. Thinking to peak into his mind to get an idea of the language he would use, DS is overwhelmed by a blast of hatred to whites and Jews and him in particular. He’s thrown out of the contact.

12, The power brought ecstasy. The best years were ages 14-25. He recalls summer 1950, in the country; eavesdropping on a girl Barbara having sex with a neighbor; viewing the world as a bee, then the farmer, a dour man who has a rich internal life.

13, DS visits sister Judith for dinner; she has a 4-year-old, Paul, who seems to hate him. Judith is one of only three he’s ever told. She’s seeing a guy, Karl Silvestri, a PhD.

14, He starts the paper for the black guy but can’t find the voice; it’s terrible.

15, He recalls 1961, visiting his parents when Judith was 16, and perceives she had sex for the first time the night before, and can’t help blurt it out. She’s furious, and never wants to see him again.

16, He visits Nyqvist on a night the city is snowed in. Nyqvist can read minds too. They discovered each other in 1958, living in the same building. Nyqvist perceives that DS feels sorry for himself; why? They become friends. Now, snowed in, Nyqvist locates two single ladies and they get together for sex.

17, He recalls how it started to fade. He free associates. He writes, or imagines writing, a letter to Kitty. Can they get back in touch? She was seeing Nyqvist too. He imagines a short sermon based on lines of Eliot, about beginnings and ends.

18, Toni didn’t come back, but tracks her down, staying with a gay guy, David Larkin. He goes over there, pleads; she can’t come back, she’s too scared. (He perceives she didn’t quite understand his admission, but doesn’t explain.) He leaves.

19, An imaginary guided tour of his room, on Broadway and 228th. His books, letters, some to famous people, letters never sent, until he imagines one from Kitty and becomes upset.

20, How he was worried about being found out. A frumpy biology teacher with an interest in parapsychology. One day she tested the class with Zener cards. David is careful not to guess correctly—and so gets them all wrong, which is just as odd. She tests him again the next day, and this time he randomizes his answers more plausibly.

21, A string of days. He doesn’t vote. He works on the paper. He goes to a party, probes the host, thinks he overhears familiar names. Has a hangover. A girl comes over for sex, he almost doesn’t make it. He delivers the papers, and Lumumba is upset, feeling insulted, and assaults Selig, his friends joining in.

22, He met Kitty in 1963. He’d become a stockbroker, memorizing all the terms, passing the tests easily. Most of his clients were old ladies, and he gets quickly bored with it, but one was a young girl, Kitty, who he finds to his amazement he can’t read at all. He invites her out, and later tells Nyqvist, perhaps to understand how someone can’t be read.

23, Essay on entropy, how humans fight against the chaos, how evil is entropy, about isolation, about the monogamous fallacy.

24, Second person to Kitty recalling their relationship. Perhaps she has a power? She moves in. She does computer work. He tries to expand her literary education. She doesn’t believe in ESP. He suggests trying various experiments, and persists. They attend a party at Nyqvist’s. DS sees her via Nyqvist, and is astounded by how she sees him: as a stern taskmaster. Then JFK is shot, and he finds a letter from her, she’s left. He writes a letter and confesses everything, but he never hears from her again.

25, He wakes in the hospital. He’s not badly hurt; an intern tells him to leave, they need the bed. A security guard takes him to see Dean Cushing—an old fellow classmate! Cushing implies there may be charges—again Selig, for ghost-writing papers. But no; Cushing merely finds DS sad, pitiful. He offers DS help reforming his life. DS probes Cushing, has another deep experience, then comes out of it—and his power is completely gone.

26, Winter. He visits Judith, imagines meeting Toni in the street for a pleasant reunion. He recalls attending camp in the Catskills, using his power to deftly avoid an aggressive boy boxer. Judith reports she’s no longer seeing Karl. He reflects about everything: what is God’s justice? He doesn’t want pity, just for things to make sense. He must accept. Both Toni and Judith notice how he’s changed somehow. Outside a storm rages, and Judith startles him coming up behind him—something she could never do before.

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Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Knowledge and Human Affairs

[updated 8 Jul 2020]
[updated 26 Jun 2020]

  • Everything you need to understand the reality of the world, as discovered over centuries, and especially in the past century and past few decades, is out there, available to you. All the mysteries of the ancient world have been explored, and many solved, if not always to the satisfaction of the primitive mindset. This knowledge is not hidden. It’s more easily available to the average person than it has ever been in all of history. It’s there–perhaps haphazardly, on Wikipedia; it’s there more authoritatively (if not in as much detail on many topics) online at Encyclopedia Britannica; it’s there in tens of thousands of books available from Amazon and in libraries, books written by sincere people who have dedicated their lives studying history, biology, cosmology, and dozens and hundreds of specialty topics, examining the world as it is and not how primitive people thought it was. It’s there in online courses, in the great museums, in TED talks. You don’t have to attend university (though that helps, to channel your studies). To ignore this vast collective knowledge and discoveries of the human race, or renounce it in favor of the religious myths of ancient tribes who thought the world was flat, is to be at best intellectually dishonest, at worst to renounce the heritage of the species.
  • As writers like Sean Carroll and Alex Rosenberg have pointed out, we know virtually everything there is to know about how the world works, at least at local levels, in terms of physics and biology and chemistry. Any new discoveries will be at the fringes of our perceptions, and won’t overthrow what is known to be true at local levels, e.g. how physics can predict eclipses thousands of years in the future, or allow us to fly and navigate spacecraft among the planets, to pinpoint accuracy. And in turn, how physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, and so on. No undiscovered magical forces are needed to explain these things. And conversely, our knowledge of physics rules out undiscovered magical forces that would be required for telepathy, or astrology, or whatever to be true; for them to work (or for an incorporeal “soul” to exist), the physics we’ve established thus far would have to not be true. It’s like knowing where all the states are in the US, and knowing therefore you’re not about to stumble upon a previously unknown state on your cross-country drive. The science-deniers and conspiracy theorists would tell you there’s some unknown state, that’s being denied by the authorities, that “they” don’t want you to know about. (Or that some place you’ve never been to actually doesn’t exist. This has happened! About Finland:
  • The irony—perhaps—is that most people don’t care, and don’t need to. Living a life as a functional human being, raising a family to propagate the next generation, being a citizen in the society you live in, has nothing to do with understanding the reality of the world outside your immediate experience. And in fact, most people are woefully uninformed about basic science, history, civics, even current events; see the man-on-the-street interviews by late night talk show hosts (for example, by Jimmy Kimmel: People claim knowledge of things they don’t actually know; some of these quizzes ask about fictitious terms, and a certain proportion of people will claim familiarity with things that don’t actually exist. The average person is unclear on the difference between a planet and a star, a moon or a planet, a comet or an asteroid, a galaxy or a nebula—despite the prevalence in recent decades of science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars. What do the flat-earthers think about those adventures in the stars? And yet, all these people, even the flat-earthers, manage to get along with their daily lives, do their jobs, raise their children.
  • To the extent that some people do knowingly reject the accumulated human understanding of the world in recent decades and centuries in favor of the naive cosmologies of ancient holy books, and analogously reject the growing world’s evolving moral standards in favor of the strictures of those ancient holy books, it’s because doing so makes life so much simpler.  No need to think, or learn; no need to adjust to a changing world as you advance through life; just put your faith in your favorite holy book with the calm assurance that it provides all the answers to life’s questions (pretty much any answer you wish, given the many contradictory passages of these books.) “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  • It’s now well understood, increasingly so over the past three decades, why people perceive supernatural things and why they prefer supernatural explanations to scientific ones. And, as Rosenberg points out, it’s ironically due the very same evolutionary processes that the supernatural partisans don’t “believe” in. (This is all about perception of agency, the tendency to detect cause and effect where none actually exists, and how we live our lives as stories, all of which evolved as shorthand heuristics to support the survival of our species.)
  • The understanding of the world the average person has is derived from social and religious conventions. The numerous religions have a vast, centuries or millennia long, momentum, of parents inculcating their children, generation after generation, into the beliefs or superstitions of ancient tribes, that cannot easily be overcome, and may never be, by education. This religious “knowledge” serves to bind families, communities and tribes, but has little to do with the actual reality as revealed by the systematic investigation of centuries. Further, virtually no one examines the evidence for every fact about the world independently; rather, each person learns whom to trust, whose expertise or authority to accept. Perhaps a problem of the modern age is that the internet (especially YouTube and Facebook) make fringe theories, many of them mendacious, others just dimwitted, easier to circulate. Thus adherents to such fringe ideas (formerly isolated in their towns as the local loonies) can now easily find compatriots on the internet to reinforce their views.
  • The discoveries of the modern age that are most resisted by those who defer to ancient teachings are those that impinge upon psychological biases. People more concerned about purity and contamination are more inclined to resist vaccines, and then use motivated reasoning to lawyerly justify their instinctive bias. These are matters where the evidence and conclusions can seem counter intuitive. People more concerned with hierarchical relationships and authority resist the idea the humans are related, over evolutionary eons, to all life on the planet, and then use motivated reasoning to lawyerly justify their instinctive bias. There is no conservative resistance to the idea of teaching cosmology; there are no right-wing institutes devoted to undermining geology. Because these studies don’t impinge on human vanity, in the way that evolution does.
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