How Science Fiction’s Futures Changes For Every Generation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 23, 2014

If you are old, has the future you imagined in childhood unfolded during your life? If you’re young, what do you hope to see happen in your lifetime?

I grew up in the 1960s with my visions of the future inspired by 1950s science fiction. Flying cars were not what I hoped for, but evidently many people from my generation expected them and are disappointed we aren’t living in a Buck Rogers future. No, what I expected to see as I grew old was the colonization of the Moon and Mars, and the manned exploration of the solar system. I wasn’t optimistic enough to expect Star Trek like interstellar travel in my lifetime, but I assumed it would arrive after I died. It’s so disappointing to spend a lifetime watching humans never leave orbit. What are we waiting for?

I did expect large flat screen televisions, and they did come to pass. Didn’t see the internet coming even though I was majoring in computer programming in 1971, nor did I imagine smartphones. I guess I lacked the imagination, but so did everyone else it seems. I’m also disappointed we don’t have intelligent robots, or sentient AI machines. After space travel, robots were the biggest tech breakthrough that 1950s SF promised.

Although I hoped we’d have visitors from other star systems I never really thought it would actually happen. I did think we’d make SETI contact by now.

Contemporary science fiction often feels obsessed with apocalyptic visions of the future, and we had those too when I was growing up. But kids today seemed enchanted by future teens fighting oppressive dystopian governments. I can dig that, back in the sixties challenging authority was very popular. I guess blows against the empire never go out of vogue.

Which brings me to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, a science fiction anthology of positive science fiction. It was inspired by the essay “Innovation Starvation” by Neal Stephenson, at the World Policy Institute, in which Stephenson proposes, The Hieroglyph Theory,

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Hieroglyph

The list of stories can be found here, with links to discussion and research.

The Hieroglyph anthology offers strangely different visions of the future than the ones I grew up with, and sadly, I don’t find these new futurist vistas all that appealing. Many of these futures seem to come out of Wired Magazine. In the introduction we’re told that young people today are all too often embracing a dystopian science fiction view of tomorrow, and that science fiction writers should offer a positive alternative. I think that’s missing the point of those YA stories, which are exciting adventure stories symbolizing growing up, and not visions of tomorrow.

Actually, the opposite of dystopian is utopian, and none of these tales in Hieroglyph are about perfect societies. I think everyone has gotten over the naive notion that the future will bring us peace and happiness. The real question is can the future always offer us more sense of wonder? This might reveal my jadedness, but this anthology doesn’t show me it will.

Although I’m embarrassed to admit this, I’m nostalgic for my old futures. Hieroglyph seems more inspired by 3D printers, the internet, giant towers that climb into space, mining the asteroids, social media possibilities, smartphone apps that make us empathetic, etc. Many of the stories are quite engaging as stories, but they aren’t inspiring like the science fiction I grew up with. Now that will be an unfair criticism if young readers do find a sense of wonder in them.

It might be because I’m 62, and these stories lack a sense of wonder to someone with so little future.  Yet, even if I don’t have much of a future, I’m not sure I’d want to live to see these futures come to be? I’d love to know if kids 12 or 22 reading these tales do find them wondrous?

There are millions of people around the world still hoping to build interplanetary colonies and conquer the final frontier, but there are billions of people on Earth that don’t see that future anymore, or maybe never did. Anyone who has embraced science more than science fiction knows faster-than-light travel is about as realistic as time travel, and that living on the Moon or Mars will be closer to cruel and unusual punishment than finding greener pastures to homestead.

Many of the stories in Hieroglyph did capture the struggle of humans surviving. They are  more grown-up than the fictional adventures I took in my teens. I did love Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement.” It was about technology being used to increase empathy. So does “Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper.  “By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby seems far more savvy about the grit of the future, and the misuse of technology. And Karl Schroeder’s story, “Degrees of Freedom” suggests that there are new frontiers of democracy for us to explore. The stories of billionaires conquering outer space didn’t impress me. And although I loved the character development of Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon” a great deal, 3D printing leaves me limp. Bruce Sterling’s story about a man and his horse got me until it became science fiction.

All to often the best science fiction is about being human, and not spacemen, even when the characters live in outer space.

Overall, I’m left with the impression that the women writers in Hieroglyph have thought more about how technology could be good for us than the men. Now that I’m living in my childhood future, I imagine a much different future that might come to be after I ceased to be. It’s not about space adventures but solving our problems, both as individuals and as a species. It’s like an old man I saw in a documentary when he said, “If you’re the problem, and you go somewhere else, you’re still the problem.”

JWH

Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?

memory-loss

Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Match.com? Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  

JWH

Sitting is the New Smoking

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The new catch phrase I’m hearing is “Sitting is the New Smoking.”  This statement conveys so much.  It triggers memories about my dad, who died when I was 18, and he was 49.  He was a smoker, and survived two heart attacks and a stroke before he died on his third heart attack.  I always wondered how long he would have lived if he had never smoked.  It’s a shame he didn’t learn that smoking was bad when he was growing up, but that knowledge just wasn’t common back then.  What future common knowledge are we missing out on now?  Is sitting really the new smoking?

I have to wonder if my life would have been different if I had known sitting was so bad.  I’ve had back problems for years, and at the moment I’m having neck problems, with a pinched nerve.  Writing this essay is causing increasing pain in my arm.  And the pain is more than physical.  I am reminded of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone about a bookworm named Henry Beamis.  All he wanted to do was read put people wouldn’t let him.  Finally he’s the last man on Earth and has all the time in the world to read, and he breaks his glasses.  I retired thinking I’d have all the time in the world to write and read, and at this moment I can’t do either without aggravating my pains.  I’ve become Henry Beamis.

Pack Matthews gives me hope though in his TED Talk, “Sitting is the New Smoking but you’ve got Options.”

Matthews says pains are like canaries in a coal mine, warning us that we need to do something different immediately.  But he also promises that we’re never too old to improve.  Our body’s ability to readapt is impressive.  This video is well worth watching.  Even if you’re not suffering, knowing that sitting is the new smoking when you’re young and healthy is very important too.

When I was a kid I was very active, but as the decades progressed I’ve become more and more sedentary.  Even when I was a programmer and sat at my chair all day long I got up a lot, helping people out all over a four story building, and often in other buildings.  Now that I’m retired I spend almost all my time sitting, and its caught up to me.  I’ve got to develop routines of more activity.  In the video above, Matthews shows people a simple test to measure potential longevity as it relates to physical mobility.  Currently, I’d score very low.  But he promises that it’s possible to increase my score.

Watch the video and try the test yourself.  You might be surprised.

Just how bad is the sedentary lifestyle?  Is it truly equal to the life-shortening effects of cigarettes consumption?  The studies aren’t saying skipping exercise is bad for you, but the actual act of prolonged sitting is bad, and even causes cancer.  The trouble is we all do a lot of sitting.  Most of us work at a desk all day long at work or school, then we come home and watch TV for hours, or sit at the computer or play video games.  Even the educational pastime of reading which is good for your mind is bad for your body.

Just read some of the many articles on Google about this topic.

The conundrum we face is how to integrate more activity into our ass-in-the-chair lives.  I’ve been laid up where the only comfortable position I can find is reclined in a La-Z-Boy has made me think of alternatives for not being able to sit at my desk.  One thing I’ve considered is dictating my writing and converting it with Dragon Dictate to Word files.  That same solution would work with walking and standing.  However, my spinal stenosis and degenerative disc problems limit my walking, but I am trying to walk more.

Matthews wasn’t the only TED Talker to attack sitting.  Nilofer Merchant presented “Got a meeting?  Take a walk.”

Of course, my problem is writing at the computer.  How can I take a walk and write?  Well, people have come up with a solution, the treadmill desk.  I’ve seen stories about them on TV, and there’s lots about them on the Internet.  Here Jordan Keyes talks about this treadmill desk after using it for almost two years.

The above video didn’t say much about the health value of using a treadmill desk to me until I saw this older video, when we see Keyes in a much larger body.  Of course, he’s doing more than walking and typing to lose weight, but the two videos do effectively show how his efforts have made a change in his life.

But not everyone likes treadmill desks.  I’m not quite ready to spend $1200-1500 yet, but I’m thinking hard about this.  If anyone reading this blog uses a treadmill desk, please leave a comment below.

There are many things to consider in such a setup.  Unless you’re always working at the treadmill desk you’ll have to have a sit down desk also, meaning two computer setups, or using a laptop you move around a lot.  Many people are using standing desks that can adjust to sitting and standing.  These come in a huge variety.  And it’s possible to get just a flat treadmill to move under such an adjustable desk.

But if we stand around all the time, won’t standing become the new sitting?  I would imagine the key is to keep moving in lots of positions.  It’s really not practical to avoid sitting all day long.  I often see advice suggesting we get up and move around more, maybe once an hour.  I was recently told to think of my posture every time I go through a doorway, and was even given some exercises to try using with the doorway.  My chiropractor told me my ears should be above my shoulder, and that I had bad posture.  This fit right in with this graphic about ergonomics at the computer workstation.

office-ergonomics-by-physiotherapists 

Note how they want ears, shoulders and hip to line up.  I’ve developed sort of an old man slump, with my head tilted forward like a turtle’s head coming out of its shell.

I’ve always learned a lot physical therapy.  I think what I need to do, or even what we all need to do, if spend a few moments each hour doing yoga and physical therapy stretches.  I’ve already begun to ride my exercise bike more while watching television, but dang, even that involves sitting.

Sitting might be the new smoking, but giving up sitting is going to be impossible, at least for me, so the most I can hope for is keeping my ass out of the chair as much as possible.

JWH

Very Late Bloomers–Finding New Successes After Sixty

This essay is written for my friend Linda, who told me last night a previous essay of mine depressed her for a whole week, and to my friend Janis, who recently told me my I had a morbid streak.  It’s true, I find inspiration where many find depression.  I dwell on subjects, sometimes in tedious detail, that others would rather not think about at all.  For instance, aging is a fascinating topic for me, but I’m discovering it’s a downer with many of my friends, especially my lady friends.  Now I feel challenged to write something uplifting about the last third of life.

pugs-00266

Part of the problem I face making our years before dying appealing is our generation has always protested growing up.  As children we dragged our feet about becoming teens because we loved the wild abandon of childhood and resisted discipline and work.  We were passionate teens who rebelled against those on the other side of the generation gap, claiming never trust anyone over thirty.  Hitting thirty was particularly hard for us.  Psychologically we felt we had lost our youth.  We tried so hard to pretend otherwise.  When our forties came we refashioned thirty into something good, and pretended that forty was the new thirty.  Then in our fifties we lied to ourselves again, desperately clinging to the belief we were just as good as we were in our forties.  Then boomer marketers tried to sell our sixties as the new forties.  It’s not.

Okay, I don’t think this is working.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to be depressing Linda and Janis again.  Where’s the positive spin?  The trouble is I don’t want to be peddling snake oil words about getting old.  To be true to myself I have to be realistic.  My point in the previous paragraph is to show that we’ve always gone kicking and screening into any new phase of life.  The other day a woman of forty asked me if she could pass for twenty-eight.  I immediately said, “No way.”  I don’t think she loves my honesty either. 

See my point, how can I sell the virtue of living in our sixties when no one wants to be that old?  Even though I’m being Pollyanna here and trying to make the new sixties as exciting as the old sixties, it’s a damn hard sell.  It’s like I’m living in the Twilight Zone, and everyone is telling me this isn’t planet Earth when I know for sure it is.

Yes, I’m willing to admit that being old is bumming out many of my close friend boomers, but I’m asking what choice do we have?  Linda said to the others last night that I was being existential.  That’s true, I am.  I’m also saying, suck it up and face the challenge.  But that doesn’t sell either.  How can I make a salable feature out of wrinkles, sagging folds and titanium hips?

The trouble is we judge ourselves by our bodies, and not by our souls.  We worry about how others see us – not by how we see ourselves.

It’s not about what are bodies are like when we get old, it’s about what we do with them.  It’s about pushing our limitations and finding success.  But what is success?  We can cheat and define success as being young, but that’s like wishing for extra wishes when a genie gives you only three.  Everyone has to define their own success.  We’re all completely different.  I am reminded of Gail Sheehy’s Sex and the Seasoned Women, a book about post-menopausal life.  She interviewed countless women who said that the first half of life was about their husband and children, but they wanted the second half of life to be about themselves.  Often this meant radically reinventing themselves, and many started careers and businesses late in life and succeeded.

Getting old is a time to start over and reinvent ourselves.  In past eras people mainly died before they got old.  Now we live an extra thirty years, years that in history, were never defined with a set purpose.  We are among the first generations to give the last third of life a purpose.  Sure we all wish we were young again, but unless a rejuvenation technique is invented like in a science fiction novel, we have to remain old.  Even if you get a facelift and look younger, your not.

My positive spin that I’m trying to sell is we can find all kinds of successes if we try, even successes never imagined before.  We’ll have some very late bloomers, and maybe even some black swan new flowers.

Many successful people continue their successful lives well past sixty and on into old age.  That’s not news.  What I want to know is how many people who start on a new path after sixty find success?  Studying the 2010 census tables shows 50 million people who are older than 62, and over 82 million older than 45.  The last third of life is a new frontier, with two thirds of all people who have ever lived past sixty-five alive today.  And many of those people wanting to do more with their golden years than just sit and wait to die.  They want to reinvent themselves.  They want to do all the things they couldn’t do when they didn’t have the time. 

For most people who love their jobs, staying at work as long as they can is probably the best option.  Fulfilling work is the basis for well being.  But if you have decided to retire, or been forced to retire, then the final third of life offers the tremendous potential of time.  What can we make with all this time?  Most retirees, after a long hard working life, look forward to leisure time, hoping to have a quiet relaxing life with family and friends, pursuing their hobbies and traveling. 

But what if you wanted to be more ambitious?  What if you wanted to start a business, get a PhD, invent something new, program an app or write a novel?  What are the odds for your success?  Well, I got on Google to find out, and here’s what I learned.

Travel

Travel seems to be the dream ambition of most retired people.  I must assume most people secretly wish they had the time to roam the Earth.  Luckily, becoming a successful world traveler isn’t age dependent.  If your dream is to become a NFL quarterback after 60 the odds are zero in your favor.  That’s just how the cookie crumbles for some dreams – they are age related.  However, if you’re dream is to fly, sail, drive or even walk around the world, it’s still possible after you retire.  Recently the New York Times ran “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road,” about seniors who have given up the comforts of a home to become international gypsies.  They report that between 1993 and 2012 the percentage of traveling retirees went from 9.7 to 13 percent, many of which finance their travels on a social security budget, with 360,000 Americans receiving their SS checks at overseas addresses.

These wandering oldsters use everything from CouchSurfing.org, VRBOAirBnB,  to HomeAway.com to find places to live.  Many Americans choose to live abroad and find support on the net like GringoTree.com for living in Ecuador.

This is a huge topic, and common one on the internet, like these at Forbes, Wall Street Journal, RetirementCafe, Huffington Post, Home Free Adventures, New York Times, and many more.  Just start looking.

Travel is an ambition common associated with older folk, so what’s a little more ambitious?

Starting a New Business

Most new businesses fail.  And it helps to start a new business that’s based on years of personal experience.  So it’s hard to judge if late blooming entrepreneurship is age related.  Starting a new business after sixty that’s totally unrelated to your life’s experience is going to be hard, but not impossible.  Most people think of retirement as leaving work, but many people want to leave a job and work for themselves as a creative endeavor.  Sometimes this endeavor is based on work experience, but other times it’s doing something completely new.

I worked with computers, but I’ve often daydreamed of having a bookstore.  I love shopping for books, and now that selling books on the internet is a big business, I realize I could make extra money by hunting down rarer books and selling them online.  ABE Books and Amazon allows anyone to start a virtual bookstore.  I think many people have similar dreams.  Other people are far more ambitious.  Maybe they’ve always loved cooking and want to open a restaurants, or they loved animals and thought running a doggy daycare would be great.  The Guardian wrote about people like this with “How to change your life at 60.”

Searching Google for late bloomer entrepreneurs often comes up with the same old suspects, like Colonel Sanders, who started Kentucky Fried Chicken at 65, although he had previous business experience along those lines.  Most famous businessmen started early, but if you search hard you can find stories of smaller big successes, like Antia Crook who invented the Pouchee, and turned it into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

Yahoo’s Small Business Advisor profiled several “Older Entrepreneurs.”  Colonel Sanders again shows up.  Obviously, he’s the poster child of late blooming business starters.  I found many journalists and bloggers who have written about the idea I’m working on here, and often come up with the same people.  So I went looking for demographics.  I found “Demographic Characteristics of Business Owners.”  It doesn’t report and people starting a business after 60, but it does say that 50.9% of all small business are owned by people 50-88, with a 4.9% growth since 2007.  In other words, over half of small business owners are old, and get older.  It also implies that running a business isn’t impacted by aging.

According to Forbes, 65% of new jobs have been created by small businesses since 1995.  543,000 new businesses get started each year, and 52% of them are home based, which seems to imply that working for oneself is a popular goal.  Intuit offers “Intuit Future of Small Business Report” that does suggest that Baby Boomers will be a major factor in new small business creation in the coming decades.

Famous tech started wizards might be young Turks, but they’re not the norm.

I’m satisfied that we’re never too old to start a business.  But what about something more creative.

Writing

My dreams has always been to write a science fiction novel.  While I worked I rationalized I didn’t have the time.  That was bullshit.  Now that I have all my time free, I’ll have to face the fact this was just a pipedream, or go to work.

There are some careers that if you don’t start early, you don’t start at all.  Of course, child prodigy is the obvious one.  But being a chess champion, musical virtuoso, or math genius requires making your mark when young.  Other creative endeavors like writing and painting are often taken up by people late in life.  For example, Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes, didn’t start writing until 65, yet won a Pulitzer Prize.  Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish her first book until 65.

Yet, to be honest, coming up with hordes of examples is hard.  Most people who are successful at writing start out as natural born storytellers, yet there are enough examples that suggest that it’s never too late to start writing.

Summing Up

For this essay I’m satisfied I’ve come up with enough examples to be inspirational.  However, if you prowl the web there’s a whole world out there devoted to exciting 55 Plus living.  Millions have been doing it for decades.  The idea of retiring is just new to me and my friends, especially the ones who haven’t retired.  And it’s especially scary for those people who haven’t financially planned for retirement, or spent much time thinking about it.  On the net when I make friends with older people, most tell me they are having the time of their lives.  Maybe they are lying to me so I won’t be scared to go where they have gone, or just maybe, they are telling me the truth.

JWH – 9/7/14 – Happy Birthday Charisse 

What To Read Before I Die

Most folks think growing up is the time to learn, and that the rest of life is for coasting on that education.  But as you age, you realize that every phase of life has its required coursework.  At sixty-two I’ve already forgotten most of what I learned in my K-12 years, and now that I’m retired, I’m quickly forgetting all the things I learned during my work years.  The knowledge I acquired in the first third of life prepared me for the second third, and what I learned in the second third, got me ready for the final third, but now that I’m living in the final third of life, I feel like I need to study hard for a next phase.  If I was a religious man, that would be a spiritual quest, but I’m not.  I’m studying for nonexistence, and that is changing my reading habits.

book tombstone

Most people talk about having a bucket list of activities they want to accomplish before leaving this planet, but I don’t think along those lines.  As a lifelong bookworm, all I want to do is read more books before I die.  I find reading in the final third of life has affected what books I want to read.  Strangely, I want read more nonfiction, as if facts are more comforting to dying, like fantasy was more inspiring to growing.  It appears that leaving reality makes you want to take more notice of what you’re leaving.  Most of us grow up hoping our childhood ambitions will come true as adults, but then settle for something more realistic.  Instead of becoming an astronaut I became a database programmer, and even then I continued to read science fiction all during my adult life.  Now that it’s pretty obvious that I’m never going to travel in space, Earth has become far more fascinating.

Even when I read novels now, I admire the details I can connect to reality.  This morning I started listening to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, and his prose dazzles me with details, fictional facts that feel so authenticate, I’m sure Truman was acting as a recorder of reality.  Before that, I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a literary fantasy based on 19th century life in the Caribbean, long before Rhys was born, yet it felt real.  Rhys was born on Dominica, in 1890, and lived there for her first 16 years.  My hope is knowledge Rhys gained growing up in the West Indies distilled into her 1966 novel.  Before that was Factory Man by Beth Macy, a nonfiction book that was jam-packed with juicy realistic details, but told in a narrative form that was as exciting as any novel.

I crave details about reality, but I can’t just read Wikipedia all day long, even though that is very tempting.  And in the coming years, as I get closer to winking out of reality, it might come to that.   I still crave fiction, but it has to have a tight connection to reality.  Last night I watched The Crusades, an old Cecil B. DeMille epic, that made me hunger to read a nonfiction book on the subject the whole time I was watching.  At one time, all that mattered for a novel or movie to enchant me, was a great story and characters.  Now,  my critical and entertainment reaction needs to know how close the story, setting and characters models reality.  This age related transformation is changing my love of science fiction, making me crave more realistic science fiction, and that has philosophical implications too.  Driving into this world the future seemed full of fantastic possibilities, and now that I’m on the road leading out of town, the future seems far more restricted than the sense of wonder probabilities of youth.

And that’s another thing about how age is changing my reading habits.  In the 20th century I read mostly about the 21st century and beyond, but now that I’m living in the 21st century I mostly read about the 19th century and earlier.   I wonder if that’s true of other aging bookworms who grew up reading science fiction?

JWH – 8/27/14

Finding Sense of Wonder Science Fiction in My Social Security Years

Back in 1964, when I was twelve, the future was so bright we really had to wear shades to read science fiction.

Fifty years ago,  when I was twelve, I discovered sense of wonder in science fiction books from the 1950s.  Those books were more exciting than getting high—and I knew, because, by a few years later I was smoking dope to jet assist my science fiction take-offs.  My teen years in the 1960s was a combination of rock and roll, counter-culture and science fiction.  My mind flew interplanetary high with great expectations for the future.  In the 1970s I jettisoned the drugs, and coasted though the decades, living off the hope of 1950s futures.  Music and science fiction stoked the fires of the future, and kept the old dreams simmering.  Music stimulated my emotions and books energized my mind, but after fifty years we never reached the futures I once saw so clearly.

Between 1964 and 1969, I read book after book, that wowed my evolving mind with far out ideas.  Now my brain isn’t so young anymore, and I need some science fictional Viagra.  My future vision has been darkened by cataracts cause by living through years of reality.  Is it just me, or do kids growing up today see  different futures?  They look all cyborg cool in their Google Glass specs, but they don’t seem to see as far as we used to.  I’m not sure what they see, or what drugs they are on, but I’m not sure I like their dreams of the future.  Where’s the dazzle?  Where’s the vision?  Where’s the great expectations?  Or was science fiction no better than psychedelics at getting us Baby Boomers off Earth?

wake-us-cover

I still depend on music every day to boost my emotional self, but I’ve developed a tolerance to science fiction.  It just doesn’t give me that old sense of wonder high that thrilled by twelve-year old self.  Maybe the future I see from my retirement years doesn’t work with modern science fiction.  Maybe I need to be young to love today’s science fiction.  But I can’t help but believe there’s new science fiction out there for us old Baby Boomers that will help us keep the old 1950s dreams alive, but where is it?

Oh, I can find plenty of books to escape into, books that make me want to turn the page to find out what will happen, but I rarely read a science fiction story that gets me sensawonder high anymore.  No offense or criticism to modern science fiction writers, but they seem more into story than ideas, especially ones that can turn into a series of books.  Many of my SF reading friends love finding a character to stick with book after book, but that doesn’t appeal to me.

Back in 2009 I wrote “My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone.”  In the almost half decade since then I’ve found a handful of really good science fiction novels that I liked:

  • Wake/Watch/Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

Actually, averaging one great science fiction book a year isn’t bad.  Looking back over the history of science fiction, most years only produced one or two books I really loved.  But in the past I had a lot more near misses to keep me going through the slow times.

I’ve read many fun books I’m not listing, but they aren’t the kind of SF I’m talking about.   Nor am I talking about non-SF books that impressed me with other kinds of sense of wonders.  I sometimes stumble on older science fiction books I missed from earlier times, like Dawn by Octavia Butler and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, as well as rereading many of the classics of SF I’ve encountered over my last half-century.

Yet, what I really crave is great new mind-blowing sense of wonder science fiction.  The kind I have to wear shades to read.

I can go for long stretches without any science fiction sense of wonder boosts in my life.  I miss that.  Such withdrawals are depressing.  Are all the great far out ideas used up?  I know many of my favorites concepts from my Golden Age of Science Fiction years have been done time and again.  Just how many aliens invading Earth or time travel stories can one consume in a lifetime without becoming bored with them?  How many stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before the thrill of being on Mars becomes dull?  Is there a new way to present societies developing colonies on the Moon and Mars?  And don’t get me going on how jaded I am about military SF and galactic empires.

When I look at the science fiction selection at Audible books sorted by relevance, giving the most popular and highly rated books, giant fantasy epics fill the top of the list.  A few science fiction books show up, like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, both of which I’ve read.  However, fantasy dominates the list, for page after page.  The few new science fiction books that I haven’t read are books that I consider retreads of old ideas.  Sure, they might be great stories, but I just don’t want get involved with trilogies and longer multipart series just because of action and heroic characters.  I guess military SF give many science fiction fans something to read that feels like the old days, but I’m just too worn out on action to care anymore.  I don’t even like action SF at the movies anymore.  I was thrilled by Her.  Action packed, military based SF, including those set into galactic empires, feel like fantasy worlds to me, like reading Tolkien.

I hate to be an old fart bitching about how today’s science fiction ain’t as good as the stuff I read growing up, but well, shit I am.  I sped through The Martian by Andy Weir and it felt like I was twelve again, reading science fiction back in the 1960s, but we should be reading realistic literary fiction about life on Mars by now.  What the fuck went wrong?  Are the futures of 1950s all played out?  How can being a grunt in an interstellar fleet be such a popular future today?  And why did kids switch from space explorers to endless wars with the undead?  Really, is that what you want to grow up and do?  Is the only kind of alien you can imagine is the one you want to kill on your PS4 gun sight?  It’s no wonder that military SF is so popular, kids today grow up game-trigger happy, and they can only imagine futures where cardboard enemies pop up endlessly.

I want science fiction where I explore.  I want futures where fantastically far out ideas are possible.  In a way the failure of science fiction vision can be seen in the history of the various Star Trek series.  Over time stories became routine, usually about conflict with standard enemies.  Science fiction was better when it was like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where they had to invent a new concept every week.

Did all the concepts get imagined?  Have they all been used up?  Have the bright futures become boring?  Or am I just a foolish old fart?  When I was young, I remember old farts claiming their youth was better than ours, so I’m assuming I’m going through the same stupid phase they were, but still, why does things in the past now look so bright I have to wear shades?

JWH – 7/29/14

Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?

In 1947 MGM released High Barbaree, a film based on the 1945 novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  The book is long out of print,  mostly forgotten, and memorable because its authors wrote Mutiny on the Bounty.  For decades the movie rarely showed up on TV.  TCM eventually started showing it now and then.  And finally, after 67 years I can own a copy on DVD.  It’s also playing on Warner Archive, the great streaming alternative to TCM.   One reviewer at Amazon.com said they had been looking for this movie for thirty years – well, I’ve been searching for it for over fifty years, ever since I saw it as a very young kid, the first movie I ever remember seeing.

high-barbaree-movie

Most movie buffs will not know about this film, and would probably only consider it a slight piece of nostalgic fluff.  For me, it’s burned into my deepest memories, one of the few important remembrances  I have of my father, but it also has heavy psychological history for me, and I would eventually learn for James Normal Hall  as well, who did all the writing for the novel.  High Barbaree is important to me because when and how I saw it, and not because of the film itself, although there were events in the film that resonate with my own life.   The film featured Van Johnson and June Allyson, and was one of six pictures they acted in together the 1940s and 1950s, all of them slight and mostly forgotten, except for folks like me, where the film got stuck in our memories of growing up.  High Barbaree the book is about dying and aging memories of youth, especially last memories.

High Barbaree is a recursive art form for me, because it’s a story about memories that I use to think about remembering.

High Barbaree

Can you remember the very first movie you ever seen?  I think I can, but I’m not sure.  Memory is a funny thing, especially when you remember something on the edge of that time between when you were too young to remember anything, and the time when you first start becoming a person.  I have some vague memories when I think I was three, and quite a few more memories when I was four and five.  When I first saw High Barbaree I must have been around four, but I can’t pinpoint my age for sure.  We were living in South Carolina for the first time, out in the country.  One night I got up in the middle of the night and walked out into the living room.  My dad was up watching the all-night movies.  He let me stay up with him, and I caught High Barbaree for the first time.  That’s the earliest movie I remember ever seeing.  I’m pretty sure as an even younger kid I must have sat with my parents watching movies on TV, but I don’t remember any of them.

I don’t remember much from when I saw High Barbaree the first time.  I believe I remember four vivid scenes or images, but I can’t be sure because I confuse my first memories of seeing the movie with my second time seeing it, about 7-8 years later, when I was around 12.  The four scenes that stuck in my mind were two small kids climbing an old wooden water tower, of the boy saying good-bye to the girl who is in the back of a truck driving away, a PBY amphibian plane floating on the water, and the old South Sea islander welcoming the grown up boy to the island.   From seeing it the first time in 1955, I certainly didn’t learn the actors names, or even that it was about WWII.  The story was about life-long friends, Alec and Nancy, who grew up as kids in Iowa, but were separated when Nancy’s parents moved the family to Montana.  I’m sure I didn’t understand that at age four.  Even at that young age I had moved enough to know the loss of friends, so that movie touched me emotionally even though my mind was extremely immature.  

Around the summer of 1963 I caught the film again, also in the middle of the night.  My sister and I loved old movies and in the summer time my mother would let us stay up all night watching them.  It meant we slept during the day and didn’t drive her crazy.  This is where I first memorized the actors and plot of the show.  I probably don’t have any real film memories from 1955 other than the deep psychological impressions.  In fact, I didn’t know I had seen the film before until we got to the scenes of the kids climbing the water tower.  I also remember the scenes of the kids departing, the PB-Y floating on the ocean and the sequence with the island. 

At my second viewing of High Barbaree I knew I had seen this film before and that it was from a powerful memory.  It stuck with me and over the years as I grew up I ached to see the film again.  My father died when I was 18, and I have very few memories of him, especially ones of us doing something together.  He usually worked two or three jobs and was seldom home.  Often he was stationed away from home.  This memory of him letting me sit up with him and watch High Barbaree in the middle of the night is a special memory.

I didn’t catch High Barbaree again until I was in my late twenties or early thirties, after I had gotten married, and Susan and I caught it on cable TV, sometime before TCM.  I was working at library then, and it was then that it first occurred to me that the movie might be based on a book.  Indeed it was.  This was back in the early 1980s, before we had a VCR.  I would have loved to have owned a copy of the film, but couldn’t.  So I went searching for the book.  No luck.  Years later, in the 1990s, I caught High Barbaree again on TV, on TCM this time, and I thought about finding the book again.  This time I had the internet, and I was able to buy a copy through ABE Books.

Reading the book gave me a completely different spin on the story.  James Norman Hall was nearing the end of his life – he would die in 1951, the year I was born.  Even though High Barbaree was about a young Navy flier, it was autobiographical, about Hall’s own life growing up in Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, remembering his mother and father, and his home town.  I learned that after I discovered In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr., a biography of Nordhoff and Hall.

You might not want to read the next sentence because it contains a spoiler for both the movie and the book.  In the movie Alec is rescued and lives, and his story is only a dream, but in the book, Alec dies, and his story is his dying thoughts.  Hall had lived through two world worlds and was old enough to be thinking about death himself.  He had a daughter named Nancy he knew he’d loose when he passed on, and I assumed that fear was the basis for his novel.  High Barbaree is his fantasy of a mystical island where he might meet her again.  The movie makers took his somber little tale with thoughts of dying and made it into a romantic war adventure with a happy ending.

As a four-year-old kid I picked up on the story of separation and dying, and the mysticism and hope of fantasies.  I don’t know if High Barbaree caused this, but for my whole life I’ve been fascinated by stories of people stranded on islands or lost at sea.  Years later when I caught Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable on the all-night movies I loved it.  I also loved the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson versions too.

In 1971 I started studying computer programming and I’ve often thought about how our brains are programmed by pop culture influences.  I’ve seen High Barbaree six times over almost six decades.  Each time I saw it, I saw something else because I was a different age and person, but the impact of seeing it at age four made some kind of life-long impression, some kind of deep programming sub-routine in my brain.  I’ve seen thousands of movies, most of which I’ve completely forgotten.  If anyone reading this finds a copy of High Barbaree to watch they will probably not find much in it.  When I saw it again the other night it seemed very slight.  However, it did trigger emotional waves deep within my own memories, and from my knowledge of James Norman Hall and why he wrote in the book, that I can see that the filmmakers meant it to be much more than what it became.  I think the filmmakers also had an emotional response to the book and hoped to convey that in the movie. 

I’m not sure the emotions are there unless you can bring your own deep experiences to the film.  I wish I could see High Barbaree without all my psychological baggage that comes with me to know if there’s a deserved reason why the film has been forgotten.  I wonder how many young kids happens to catch High Barbaree back in the 1950s and now feel nostalgic for it after all these years.

This makes me wonder if any film can truly stand alone, or requires the fertile minds of the audience to make them succeed?

JWH – 7/15/14