More San Jose Worldcon Panels

(Long post — from Facebook, 23 August)

Finishing my report on this year’s Worldcon, about the several interesting panels I attended — long post, about panels on SF and philosophy, definitions of SF, evolutionary theory and 19th Century SF, and SF and Futures Studies.

Of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of panels at this year’s Worldcon, I got in to and sat through only a few, considering how crowded events were by the weekend, with many of the event rooms SRO, all the seats full and people sitting on the floor or standing against the walls.

Sunday afternoon was a panel on “Philosophy Meets Science Fiction,” a subject one might think abstruse, but the room was full, perhaps since David Brin – always an entertaining, provocative speaker – was on the panel. (Despite the program listing, R. Scott Bakker did not show; one substitute was Eric Kaplan, a producer of Big Bang Theory, who said funny things while never cracking a smile; see his Imdb page for pics.) The panel discussed how science fiction works to literalize an idea, any idea, even abstruse philosophical ones, and spent much of the hour around two examples: the “Trolley Problem,” depicted in an episode of “The Good Place” that won a Hugo Award that evening, and the “uplift” concept of Brin’s early novels and in other works by Huxley, Cordwainer Smith, et al. Also on the panel was Susan Schneider, editor of the 2016 book “Science Fiction and Philosophy,” and author of a story that responds to Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (they kept getting the title wrong, though). Brin – I saw him on three panels – tends to let others speak and then respond, or react. Here Brin chimed in early, stating that his philosophy was pragmatic: what does the world tell us about our problems? It’s told us that Hobbes on the one hand and Rousseau on the other were wrong; the way to escape the fundamental human condition is to realize that we’re delusional. Novels are honest delusions; bad people (politicians) use delusions to control others; and the way out of this trap is through methods of reciprocal accountability and criticism. Later he responded to the Omelas variations: don’t assume what society tells you, do the experiments and see what actual results are.

Later Sunday afternoon was a lecture by one Paul Saka, of the University of Texas (where he has a webpage), on “The Meaning of Science Fiction and the Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. This one *was* abstruse, and attracted only about 15 of us, maybe 20 as the hour passed. Being systematic, Saka, whose initial impression is of a twerpy academic with an odd haircut, spoke fluently if softly from PowerPoint slides, working his way through different kinds of definitions, each with SF examples. Definition by example (Gernsback and his magazine as being about Wells, Verne, and Poe). Taxonomic (as in genus and species, examples from dictionaries, Pohl in ’92, Hartwell in ’97). Classical definitions, as in a bachelor is an unmarried man, with SF examples including Darko Suvin’s famous definition about cognitive estrangement – a definition Saka has issue with, since it might include any kind of fiction as SF. And so on: ostensive (SF is what I point to…), circular, recursive, causal definitions; those that are stipulations (Pluto is not a planet); those that rely on family resemblances (Wittgenstein, Lakoff, Bleiler in SF THE EARLY YEARS). And finally: definitions as prototypes, as exemplars, describing averages or best examples, with references to Lakoff ’87, the American Heritage Dictionary with its use of the word ‘typically’, Heinlein’s definition in OF WORLDS BEYOND 1947, and especially a couple definitions/descriptions by Frederik Pohl, one in Galaxy magazine in Dec. 1968, another – a long paragraph Saka displayed from the 1978 nonfiction book Science Fiction: Contemporary Mythology, The SFWA-SFRA Anthology – that runs on about the various effects a good SF story should have: “Does the story tell me…?” (Alas, I don’t have the book, so I can’t find that para to quote any farther. But I ordered it.) That was his bottom line. Questions from the audience addressed marginal cases (Heinlein’s JOB and GLORY ROAD) and how definitions might change over time.

And even later Sunday afternoon, at 5pm, was a panel with David Brin, G. David Nordley, Bradley Lyau, Tom Lombardo, and others, on “The Impact of Evolutionary Theory on Nineteenth Century Science Fiction.” The moderator, Lombardo, who’s about to publish a massive volume called Science Fiction – The Evolutionary Mythology of the Future: Prometheus to the Martians (Volume 1) (https://www.amazon.com/Science-Fiction-Evolutionary-Myth…/…/), began by claiming 1861 as the true beginning of science fiction, given novelists’ reactions to scientific events of that era, with results from Wells (who ranks among writers concerned with evolution along with Stapledon and Baxter). Nordley and Lyau talked about Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, and Herbert Spencer, his popular 10-volume work. Brin chimed in, reacting, with warnings about teleology, both from the leftists, and the libertarians, how the right is a sucker for cycles of destiny and rebirth, citing an Outer Limits episode (I didn’t catch which), and going on to discuss Lee Smolin’s idea of the evolution of universes, and how laws of nature might be inherited from one to the next, including the likeliness to have black holes that would give birth to new universes…

Finally on Monday morning I caught “Science Fiction and Futures Studies,” which ran like a sequel to the previously mentioned panel, again with Brin, Nordley, Lyau, and Lombardo, though not quite so crowded, because Monday. They discussed the differences between the purposes of SF as fiction, and futures studies, which Brin makes half his living by, advising corporations around the world how the world might change and what to expect. Wells did both, in his numerous novels. Again Brin reacted, about how the right has blind faith in markets, and doesn’t believe in foresight; that markets, like sports, need regulations in order to eliminate cheating, and prosper. Lyau recalled futurist bestsellers like FUTURE SHOCK and MEGATRENDS [I have old paperback copies of both] and Brin advised Googling “David Brin idiot plot” to find his essay on the common clichés of most Hollywood films: “I will ruin all movies for you!” he claimed. (Heh; Gary Westfahl has just done something similar about YA dystopian films, and novels, in his review here, https://locusmag.com/2018/08/an-awful-warning-in-more-ways-than-one-gary-westfahl-reviews-the-darkest-minds/, and gotten the usual internet flack.)

I mentioned before that the SF pro’s don’t show up to panels; presumably they’re secure in their careers or too busy making deals. For me, not really an SF professional, just an accomplished fan, I am always looking to learn. That’s why I still keep going to panels, and why, after a six-year break, I think I need to resume going to conventions, at least a couple a year.

https://www.worldcon76.org/

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San Jose Worldcon Panels

(From Facebook post, 20 August)

Among the highlights of this year’s Worldcon, sadly, were tributes to Gardner Dozois and Harlan Ellison. I posted comments about the Dozois tribute on Friday. Back home now, I’m catching up on notes about the convention, and for now will post this about the Ellison tribute. I’ll have more notes about the convention, and other interesting panels, tomorrow.

I didn’t take notes on the Ellison memorial panel, so I’m writing completely from memory. By Saturday the convention became characterized by overcrowded rooms. I got into this event by going early, by some 20 minutes, and sitting through the end of the previous panel (about Philip K. Dick-ian metaphors, a not uninteresting subject itself). The Ellison panel consisted of Tom Whitmore, moderating, Robert Silverberg, David Gerrold, Chris M. Barkley, photographer and lawyer Christine Valada (whose black & white gallery of photographs of SF authors, though some 30 years old by now I think, is displayed annually at the Worldcon), and Nat Segaloff (author of the Hugo-nominated book A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison).

The panel was a perfect, balanced, blend of tributes on various levels. Whitmore, understanding that any one of the panelists could fill hours with stories about Harlan, advised them to limit their stories to events they personally were involved in or witnessed. So Silverberg talked about how he and Harlan met in New York City in the early ‘50s and roomed nearby; Gerrold about his personal crisis in the early ‘70s and how Harlan saved his life; and so on. Later Whitmore shifted the theme to Harlan’s work, his stories. Silverberg told of his and Harlan’s very different ideas about fiction, how he dismissed the manuscript of “The Deathbird” – written at Silverberg’s house (but did not throw it into his pool, as rumor has it), yet later wrote a letter to Harlan about how he admired several of his stories as great works of science fiction, including 1974’s “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans…” Christine told stories about how Harlan had to be held down in his chair to finish a story by deadline.

There was much more. David Gerrold posted on Facebook “The Harlan Ellison Memorial Panel was the best panel I have ever been on at any convention.” And he provided an audio-only link:

http://www.worldcon76.org/audio/HarlanMemorialPanel.mp3

Edit: I have to add Silverberg’s perfect final line, as Whitmore said that we would not see anyone like Ellison again in our time. Silverberg said: “One was enough, Tom.” And the audience cracked up.

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Gardner Dozois memorial, San Jose 2018

(from 17 August Facebook post)

Nice, typical day at a Worldcon. I attended a Locus Foundation meeting as a member of the board, with discussions about various aspects of keeping the magazine, and its attendant projects, going. The GRRM event to benefit Locus, a few days ago in Redwood City, was a big success (to the tune of $40,000+, I can mention because it’s been publicized elsewhere).

Wandering around the convention, through the dealers’ room and the art show (I don’t think I will be bidding on anything there), I of course ran in to many old friends — James Patrick Kelly, F. Brett Cox (whose new book I bought), et al — and a couple virtual friends, such as Henry Lein, whom I somehow connected on Facebook without ever having met him; now I have. We’re LA guys, with arguments about what is really LA. (The Nebulas in 2019 are at the Marriott hotel in Woodland Hills, where I lived for many years before moving up to the the Bay Area 3 1/2 years ago.)

The highlight of the day, though sadly, was the Gardner Dozois memorial, led by GRRM, with John Kessel and Pat Cadigan assisting. The audience overflowed the room. George was deeply affected, as a friend and collaborator of Gardner’s, as was Pat (“who will I call?”, she asked, after describing how she would call Gardner and Susan whenever she had major life events); but George managed to keep the tone upbeat, emphasizing Gardner’s humor and presence at conventions, in contrast to his existentially bleak short stories in the early ’70s when he first came on the stage, and in later stories like “A Special Kind of Morning,” “A Kingdom by the Sea,” “Chains of the Sea,” and “Strangers,” a novella which GRRM made the point that the later novel version was even better, and a brilliant work.

They all told stories about his antics at conventions, about his stuffing peanuts and other things up his nose…. and about his serious, professional personality, for which he won many Hugo awards over his tenure at Asimov’s magazine. Pat Cadigan described Gardner’s expertise at editing by how he rearranged — without changing a word, just rearranging — the last few sentences of her story “Pretty Boy Crossover,” to achieve a much greater effect. They told stories about Gardner’s early job in the Army (when he was thin and wore a long blond ponytail), where he would write up incidents about how soldiers died accidentally — by sleeping along side a tank, or by pissing on the third rail of a train; Gardner wrote up these incidents as advice that would always end with “don’t do this.. or YOU WILL DIE!” This became an audience refrain.

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George R.R. Martin’s Redwood City event

(Facebook post, Wednesday 15 August, following the event on Tuesday the 14th.)

The onstage interview last night with George R.R. Martin and John Picacio was very good. Both George and John have stage presence; they speak fluently and engagingly and have immediate rapport with the audience. Picacio began with the history of how they met, doing a Song of Ice and Fire calendar a decade ago, and about Martin’s admiration and support of fantasy artists.

The principle interview included discussion of the HBO TV series, how it’s passed the story lines of the books, and how HBO is developing not one, not two, … but *five* potential spin-off series from Game of Thrones, all set in the past and based on the sidebar books George has been writing and publishing. George described the ups-and-downs of his career: his early success as a science fiction writer, in the ’70s, until his unusual book THE ARMAGEDDON RAG didn’t sell and his career crashed; his dalliance in Hollywood, with the 1980s version of Twilight Zone, Max Headroom, and Beauty and the Beast, with his frustration that his elaborate scripts and grandiose visions could not be produced and had to be cut back, and so his career crashed again; and then his channeling those energies to his visions of a world with dragons, beginning with a novella, then a novel and a planned trilogy that grew into an ongoing series of books, which were great successes long before HBO came along. Don’t take on debt, he told aspiring writers.

Martin was especially good taking questions from the audience. He gave every question, no matter how off-hand or frivolous, serious consideration and an often lengthy reply. What was it like working in Belfast? He made a defense of politicians and their decision, for $1 million credit, to bring in a production that’s brought $40 million to the city every year. What’s the most difficult character to write? Bran, because of the difficulty of writing from the point of view of an 8-year-old. There was much more, and I suspect it will be recorded or transcribed and put online.

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Late Night Notes from the Final Night of This Year’s World Science Fiction Convention

(This post drafted on Sunday 19 August, late night in my hotel room; cleaned up and posted today, Tuesday 28 August.)

I’m in San Jose, late on a Sunday night after this year’s Hugo Awards have been presented, and after I’ve sat in my room for an hour updating my Science Fiction Awards Database, sfadb.com, my one creative endeavour still under my control, with tonight’s results, and thinking to write down, while still fresh in my mind, some impressions from this weekend, before posting reconsidered selections on Facebook, if I do.

I’m at the Hilton adjacent to the Convention Center, the same convention center where the 2002 Worldcon was held, where I won my Hugo. In 2002 though I think I had a room at the Fairmont Hotel, the grand hotel in this area of downtown, whereas the Hilton is a perfectly nice but also perfectly ordinary hotel. The Hilton also happens to be almost directly underneath the flight path of incoming jets to the San Jose International Airport. My room looks out to the west, and so as the jets come in, they’re only a couple hundred feet above and to the west of my hotel window. There’s a Southwest, there’s an Alaska; they’re all smaller jets, likely 737s. I’m so fascinating by watching them fly over, that I think if I lived in such a place, I would be perpetually preoccupied by watching the planes and trying to identify them, that I would not get anything else done.

In fact, only a week ago Saturday, Yeong and I and the boys visited one of the boys’ cousins, Angela, at her new place in Foster City, an area along the SF Bay just south of the San Mateo bridge, where, on the flats, a series of canals and small lakes have been excavated, and lined with townhomes. That’s where we rowed a canoe (as I mentioned on Facebook). The location looks up, to the east, at the flight path of incoming planes to SFO, not just 737s, but the big 747s from all around the world. Again, I think if I lived there, I would become preoccupied by learning how to identify the various planes, checking the landing schedules at SFO, and trying to identify specific flights as they arrived…

(Actually, I could do the same from where I live looking out at the Oakland Airport, but I would have to use binoculars.)

I am out of the convention party loop, in part because I’m not staying at the party hotel, the Fairmont, and because as a non-SFWA member and a non-Hugo nominee I am not eligible to get into the really good parties, or even know about them. On the other hand, Locus held a 50th anniversary party last night in the south tower of the Fairmont, but they publicized it so heavily that so many many people showed up and the large suite they’d rented quickly filled to capacity… and they closed the doors, at a point we happened to step out.

The dynamics of conventions have changed for me over the many years since, 30 years ago, I attended the Worldcon in New Orleans in 1988. I’d attended the 1984 Worldcon in Anaheim, not long after abandoning grad school and getting my first industry job, but at that con I was just a spectator. (I have some pics of that con, with 1984 versions of Greg Bear, Connie Willis, and others, that I will try to post here eventually.) In early 1988 I started writing a monthly column for Locus Magazine and by the time of the Worldcon in New Orleans that Fall, I realized these great professional writers whom I admired knew who I was, and had some respect for me (not entirely just because I had liked their stories, but because I wasn’t the kind of reviewer who reflexively liked everything, or only reviewed stories I liked.. I think). The key event that I recall from that entire convention was when I chatted with Connie Willis, I think it was, and she invited me to have lunch with, as it turned out, Kim Stanley Robinson and his wife, Greg Bear (who offered some sage advice about contracts as we ate), James Patrick Kelly, and John Kessel. (I have a journal from that year with a long description of the entire convention.)

Perhaps I was spoiled by that extraordinary lunch in New Orleans; it never got any better. I’m not by nature a party-goer, or a schmoozer, and this year’s Worldcon proved again I’m a terrible meet-up person, the kind of person who’s able to make spontaneous plans for lunch or dinner with someone encountered in the hall after a panel, or in the hotel lobby early evening. After all these decades, my typical convention experience is to have many small passing conversations with professionals (or a very few fannish friends) I know, before they are busy running off to some other engagement. In the early years of my association with Locus Magazine, Charles Brown took me under his arm, inviting me along for meals with various New York editors or big name authors, but only for a time, before he encouraged me to go off on my own, and then in subsequent years would barely speak to me during conventions. Independently of that, for many years there was an annual Locus dinner party at one convention or another, with everyone from Locus, editors and reviewers, attending; but those passed; when Liza came into power she didn’t care. And so in recent years I’ve found myself adrift at conventions, knowing no fans (I’m not a joiner of clubs), having only passing familiarity with many professionals, who always have their own plans to run off to for lunch or dinner. And so the past few conventions I’ve been to, especially in Reno for the Worldcon in 2011, I’ve eaten all my meals, over four or five days, alone, with perhaps only one or two exceptions. In Chicago in 2012, and this weekend, it’s been slightly better because my partner has been there part of the time, someone to have dinner with at least, even thought his interest in science fiction conventions is no more than polite; his being there is a mixed blessing.

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I did a Fb post on the Dozois memorial, two days ago, on Friday. Especially on Saturday, perhaps because of single-day memberships, many of the panels were heavily overcrowded. Again and again, I went to a panel I thought interesting, and found the room overcrowded to the point of SRO, Standing Room Only, with people standing along the walls of the room or sitting on the floors. (Supposedly forbidden by fire marshals, but not enforced.)

There was a Harlan Ellison memorial panel on Saturday, the day after the Dozois panel, and the Ellison memorial was so overcrowded that I got a seat only because I sneaked in to the previous panel in that room and sat there for 20 minutes until the Ellison panel began.

The Ellison Memorial was the quintessential convention panel: the audience gathered before a panel consisting of Tom Whitmore (moderator), Robert Silverberg, Chris Barkley (standing in for Adam-Troy Castro, who couldn’t be there), David Gerrold, Christine Valada [widow of the late Len Wein, and project artist of the gallery of b&w photographs of famous SF authors that has been displayed again and again over the decades at the Worldcons], and Nat Segaloff, author of the recent Ellison biography that’s nominated for a Hugo this year [it didn’t win].

And I saw PNH and TNH in the elevator this evening. In 2011, at World Fantasy Con in San Diego, PNH entered an elevator with me, alone, and stared silently at the opposite wall as if I didn’t exist. This time I think he might have made the barest of nods in my direction, without speaking. Progress, perhaps.

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I might amend this post as I think of other items.

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Links and Comments: Why I am Not a Conservative

Every once in a while an op-ed in the New York Times, or a book review in NYT or PW (Publishers Weekly), will be on the subject of defending conservative values. I have a very basic intellectual grasp of what conservatism means — nothing at all having to do with the current presidential administration, of course — yet as always I check these new pieces out and consider or reconsider them in the broader context of human and human social evolution (as Steven Pinker has done in his past couple books; I come in to this on Pinker’s side, the side of the Enlightenment).

Here is the latest, a review in last Sunday’s NYTBR of a book by Roger Scruton, called Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, the review by Michael S. Roth. (The title of the review in print is “Against Progress: Roger Scruton calls on liberals to examine their assumption.” The title online is “Defending Conservatism, and Seeking Converts.”)

According to the review, the book addresses familiar themes.

At the core of “Conservatism” is the idea that human beings live naturally together in communities and that we “desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity.” We may be rational beings capable of planning our future, but we also need customs and institutions to ground and sustain us over time. Good things, Scruton wisely notes, “are more easily destroyed than created.”

Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, yes yes. And yet:

Scruton knows that conservatism is a reaction against the Enlightenment confidence in improving the world through the use of reason, but he is at pains to distinguish the thinkers he admires from mere reactionaries. His philosophers don’t want to return to the past, he insists. Yet he provides no clue as to how they decide which traditions are worth preserving. Burke may have protested against the cruelties of slavery and imperial domination, but there have been plenty of conservatives who defended these practices. Scruton’s account of the conservative defense of freedom includes not a word about colonialism or racism. To paraphrase what he says of the American conservative Russell Kirk, Scruton just picks the conservative flowers that appeal to him.

And so Scruton needs a common enemy, and picks… the Muslims.

Scruton can no longer find worthy Communist adversaries, so at the end of the book he turns against Muslims, hoping for a “rediscovery of ourselves” by stoking fear and loathing against those who he says do not share “our” religious or political inheritance. He knows how this will sound to many of his readers, so he warns them against thinking he’s just being racist. But one doesn’t have to be politically correct or to participate in what Scruton calls the “culture of repudiation” to find it unfortunate that a philosopher should stoop so low. The “great tradition” Scruton describes can attract study and respect without stimulating nasty chauvinism. His “well-meaning liberal” readers will find Scruton’s deft handling of a variety of conservative thinkers enlightening (if I may use that word), but they will be appalled at the grand old tradition of scapegoating he employs to rally the troops.

Sigh. My understanding of conservatism is that it values tradition, and human institutions, and at root is based on a core understanding of human nature that finds it unreliable, that individual humans are inevitably flawed (given to sin in Christian parlance), and must be protected from themselves by the institutions of culture, which must not be destroyed. The Enlightenment project of science and reason to improve the human condition — which seems to have worked remarkably well, c.f. Steven Pinker’s books — cannot be trusted, in the conservative view.

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I heard a similar theme recently (August 1st) on Michael Krasney’s Forum radio show — produced here in the Bay Area by KQED but syndicated and broadcast nationally — with Conservative Columnist Mona Charen on the Failings of Feminism. Her book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense [beware appeals to common sense!!]. The summary on the KQED website captures the theme:

In her new book, “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense,” conservative columnist Mona Charen explains why she thinks feminism has made women more vulnerable and less happy. Although she believes the sexes should be treated equally, Charen says pretending men and women are the same is naive and dangerous. Charen joins us to discuss where she believes feminism has gone wrong.

There are several items to respond to here: no one thinks men and women are the same; this was a leftist fantasy in the ’60s and ’70s, long since discredit by science (E.O. Wilson, and more recently Pinker — one of the first examples, via Wilson, of how I changed my mind about something). Second, the show featured numerous callers who challenged her characterization of feminism, which most of us think is an expansion of options, the willingness to grant women the same options as men — not to in any way to force women, any particular women, to do anything they don’t want to do. And third: growing up means becoming more vulnerable and less happy, than in innocent childhood.

The theme of her talk, I detected again and again, was the conservative idea that these issues of how best to live have been solved, and need to be imposed on those too irresponsible to know what’s best for them. There’s a paternalism, so to speak, in how conservatives presume to tell other people how to live their lives. (Which is ironic, considering how they criticize, in other contexts, the ‘nanny state’.)

This is a key reason I am not a conservative even in the broadest intellectual sense. I don’t believe humanity is inherently flawed; I do think progress is possible (the evidence is all around us); I think the perception of flawed humanity is the conflict between, in E.O. Wilson’s take, individual and group selection, the constant tug between short-term and long-term strategies to survive. (And as George R.R. Martin put it last night in his on-stage interview: there are no good guys and bad guys. In every person is the potential for goodness and the potential for greed, sometimes on alternate days.)

Another key reason I am not inclined at all toward conservatism is that modern conservatism, never mind the authoritarian outlier of the current president, allies itself, in order to desperately preserve its valued institutions, with things that simply aren’t true. Thus conservatism’s hostility to science, and its identification of the reality of the world, from its evolutionary and cosmic history to the long term threats that might destroy our civilization, and even our species.

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Daily Matters: New Books; Flash Drive; The Piano, and the Discomfort of Art

Tuesday August 7th:

My main contributions now, to Locus Online, are the weekly Bestsellers page (I spend an hour or so compiling rankings of SF, fantasy, and horror books listed on mainstream bestsellers lists, from New York Times, LA Times, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon sites in US, UK, and Canada) and especially my weekly ‘New Books’ page, where I have compiled information from various sources about books to be published each week. While new movies invariably come out on Fridays, new books are with rare exceptions released on Tuesdays. Another general rule: publishers release most books early in any given month, so the first Tuesday of every month always has more titles to list than following Tuesdays. Further: certain months, especially in the Spring and Autumn, see more books released than in, say, December or January. Today it’s August, yet despite that trend rule that would exclude mid-Summer, there were 25+ titles to research and write-up for today’s New Books post. So it took about 3 ½ actual hours, though interrupted by going out for lunch and running errands, and a nap, spanning about 6 hours, from 10:30 this morning to the post at 4:30pm. (We get up at 5:45 am, but I sit down to read for a couple hours from roughly 6:15 to 8:30, with a break to catch the headlines on the Today Show at 7am. And then check daily websites, email, and so on, until beginning the day’s work.)

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Wednesday, August 8th:

I’ve gotten into the habit of copying my active files, from my laptop (or sometimes my PC), to my current flash drive, every day, and every time I leave the house. I always take my flash drive with me when I leave the house. I’m protecting my file integrity against break-ins to my house, and to the constant peril of wildfires breaking out in areas of California, that, with little notice, could burn my house to the ground. (I remember TV video of people trying to return to their Oakland Hills homes in the 1992 fire, when they’d heard news about it during the day, and being unable to.)

Yes, I have cloud backups; I use iCloud, but I don’t do that every day. I should, and I will plan on updating that frequency.

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Thursday, August 9th

Last week we watched Amadeus; this week we watched The Piano, both older movies my partner had never seen before and which I had not seen since first release, and thought well worth re-watching.

My partner got really really angry by the end of The Piano. Holly Hunter’s character — a mute woman who has been *sold* as a wife to a 19th-century New Zealand frontiersman, whose antipathy to her precious piano leaves her cold, and susceptible, in return for her piano, to relations with her husband’s associate — was a *cheater*, in his view, so she should have died at the end, and not survived.

He tends to have these extremely moralistic reactions to TV and films, to what are arguably works of art; we barely got through the first season of Mad Men because he was so disgusted by the character of Don Draper… who was cheating on his wife. And last night, after finishing The Piano, he threatened to *kill me* if he ever thought I was cheating on him. And he threw the remote across the room.

(He is oblivious to the motives of my life — about my websites and books and projects — and obsessed by fantasies of how I might cheat on him. I do everything, do my work and watch some movies and listen to certain music, on the side, while he’s at work, and once he gets home, we have dinner and sit down to watch Wheel of Fortune and Big Bang Theory reruns. I feel safe posting this, because he never reads my blog…

In his defense, he occasionally has these temper-tantrums, but they blow over quickly, and are usually forgotten by next morning. Still, they reveal subterranean churning. And they are forgotten whenever we spent the weekend with either of his kids, and their partners, which we will do beginning this Friday, with Michael and Honey.)

I wonder if artists in general, writers in particular, are aware of how many people are not only indifferent, but actually hostile, to books and films and plays and even music, that challenge their assumptions of how the world ought to be. Theirs is a relationship to art, whether literature or film especially, that looks only for entertainment and confirmation, never for challenges; that takes everything personally, that does not understood it an anthropological manner, understood in terms of its time, and why characters might react in ways different than people would today.

It’s not that these people are busy; it’s just that they reject such challenges. They regard those other people writing those books and making those films as just troublemakers.

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Links and Comments: Trump and His Supporters; Versions of Leviticus; Ancient Aliens, Skepticism, and What Science Fiction Is Not

I’ve been preoccupied with other matters in recent months, and need to resume regular posting of Links and Comments from things I see in the papers and magazines that I think are pertinent, in one way or another. If I rail about Trump, it’s not about him precisely, it’s because he represents a shift in the United States’ position in the world, not for the better, and thus a stage of human history some thinkers thought we had moved beyond; and because he exhibits so many traits of authoritarian autocrats before him, demonstrating that some people can be fooled all of the time, and as a society we are still unable to learn from history.

New York Times, 20 July: Timothy Egan: Blame the 400-Pound Guy

Wishing for supporters of Donald Trump to find their hearts, their brains or their patriotism is a fool’s errand. We are, as the president has said many times, “a stupid country,” and every day of this presidency proves his point.

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New York Times, 20 July: Frank Bruni: Disgusted With Donald Trump? Do This

By which he means vote. Key thought:

That’s because they read polls, including an astonishing one that SurveyMonkey just did for Axios. It revealed that 79 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s sycophantic performance at the news conference with Vladimir Putin, while 85 percent deem the investigation of Russian intrusion into our elections a distraction. They bear less and less resemblance to the followers of a coherent ideology and more and more to the members of a cult. That word is gaining currency in our political discourse for excellent reason.

Cult.

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New York Times, 21 July: The Secret History of Leviticus, by Biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz.

As I argue in an article published in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.

Of course what any version of Leviticus said or did not say should be irrelevant in today’s world. Except that for some people, for whom the ancients were wiser than any people living today could ever be, and who don’t actually believe that our government is based on a constitution and not a holy book, apparently it matters.

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New York Times: 21 July: Suspicious Minds: Mingling with wariness and wonder at a conference devoted to “Ancient Aliens.”

It should not need to be said, yet probably does, that this kind of thing — belief in ancient astronauts, conspiracy theories about Area 51, and the like — is antithetical to science fiction, which is more aligned with science and its inherent skepticism, than with the gullibility and wish-fulfillment of the crowds at events like this.

Carl Sagan, the popular scientist who captivated television audiences of the 1970s and ’80s, once said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

But Mr. Sagan has been dead for years, and many Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas. There has been a resurgence of the flat-earth theory. More than a few believe that global warming is a hoax, that survivors of mass shootings are crisis actors.

Yet for many at the conference, and elsewhere, this is not simply a political divide. We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor). What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low.

And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.

To be clear: skepticism is not cynicism. Skepticism is being savvy about what is known and established, and to avoid being gullible, given the understanding of human motivations toward in wishing false things to be so.

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David Brooks on Myths vs. Parables

New York Times columnist David Brooks runs hot and cold with me; ostensibly a conservative, he’s too inclined to dismiss new ideas in favor of sanctified values, for my taste, yet he does read widely and responds to many new ideas.

Here’s his take on the notion of myth vs. parable, and how it’s reflected in our current culture.

NYT: The Fourth Great Awakening.

There are certain melodies that waft through history. One is the cultural contrast between Athens and Jerusalem. This contrast has many meanings, but the most germane one for our day is the contrast between the competitive virtues and the compassionate virtues.

These two sets of virtues get communicated in different literary forms. The competitive virtues of Athens are usually narrated in myth while the compassionate virtues of Jerusalem often get narrated in parable.

Myths tend to celebrate grandeur and heroic superiority; parables tend to puncture the pretensions of superiority and celebrate humility and service to others.

All of a sudden, we are surrounded by myth. As parable-based religion has receded from the public square, heroic myth, and the competitive virtues it celebrates, has rushed in to fill the space.

I’ll just mention three forms that are immensely popular today. The first is mythic movies: “Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Star Wars,” “Transformers,” “Justice League” and the rest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe franchises alone have grossed about $20 billion at the box office worldwide.

I regularly run into people (men, mostly) who are deeply immersed in these mythic worlds, who can entertain you with long disquisitions on the merits of different characters, the moral lessons of each film, whether “Black Panther,” say, is an accurate rendition of injustice today.

And he goes on about video games, and sporting events like the World Cup. The essay ends:

There are many virtues to the mythic worldview — to stand heroically for justice, to be loyal to friends and fierce against foes. But history does offer some sobering lessons about societies that relied too heavily on the competitive virtues.

They tend to give short shrift to relationships, which depend on the fragile, intimate bonds of vulnerability, trust, compassion and selfless love. They tend to see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes. They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.

We’re spiritual creatures; our lives are shaped by the moral landscapes and ideals we inherit and absorb. I’d say our politics and our society are coming to resemble the competitive mythic ethos that is suddenly all around.

For what it’s worth, Steven Pinker’s recent pair of books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, identify the abandonment of what Brooks calls the mythic worldview with the advance into a modern world of enlightenment, peace, and the decline of violence.

And this theme echoes the post recently about superhero movies.

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My First Web Page

The subject of old websites came up on a Facebook thread yesterday, particularly pages created on various platforms that are now extinct, like sff.net or compuserve.com. Long before I created this blog, first in Blogger and then in WordPress, I created a homepage on Compuserve.com, then along with AOL.com the hotbed of online interaction. It’s nowhere on the web itself that I can find — not via Wayback Machine or any such place — but I found my local copy, on my harddrive, and uploaded it here. Let’s see if the link works…

Yup. Note that I was learning html at the time and playing around with table tags and table cell coloring. Thus the entire page has no links to graphics or anything; the coloring is all done via table cell color tags. Moreover, the colors are mixes of three basic settings, for each of R,G,B: either 00, FF, or 69.

This page links to several samples of the short fiction review column I was writing for Locus Magazine at the time. I did the column from 1988 to 2001. Looking back at them….they’re not bad.

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