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The Future Belongs to the Young and Diverse

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 15, 2018

We can easily see a difference between conservatives and liberals in these pictures. This photo spread has become a popular meme on Facebook. The new conservatives in Congress are all white males except for one white woman. The liberals are still mostly white, but there are more women, and if you look closer, there’s more diversity. If you study the photos a bit more, it appears the liberals are younger on average.

Personally, I think this is good. I feel there are too many old white guys running this country, and I’m an old white guy. I don’t want to get into politics here, but talk about the future. It’s time to rethink everything. We have more problems than any single ideology can solve. If ever there was a time to think out of the box, it’s now.

We’re at a crossroads where one dominant group is fighting with everything they’ve got to retain their dominance. But we live in a country of 325.7 million very diverse people. You can’t judge by appearance. You can’t go by age or gender. But the odds are if all our leaders look the same then everyone is not getting proper representation.

I don’t want leaders who are driven by special interests or limited philosophies. I want leaders who feel compelled to make the 100% happy with the government, not just their own 50%. I want leaders who can see the giant multi-dimensional picture of global everything. Think global act local is still a valid mantra. Our current government is run by a fraction for their own self-interests — that can’t succeed. We are doomed if our votes are only guided by self-interest.

I love the photos above because the diversity of faces looks like the diversity of faces I see everywhere in America. I love the faces above because they are young and the future belongs to them. I don’t want to be governed by a desperate minority hanging onto yesterday, I want to be governed by the majority who will build tomorrow.

JWH 

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Can Meditation Overwrite the Unconscious Mind?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 9, 2018

My friend Linda has been getting into meditation. That made me think I should give it another go. I’ve tried meditation many times since the New Age of the 1970’s, but never stuck with it. I currently face two obstacles I want to overcome and wondered if meditation could help. I see at least one article a week show up on Flipboard touting the successes of meditators. They claim science supports the claims of meditation, but I’d want to verify that before I claim it too. I’ve written before about how I feel there are two wills occupying this body – the conscious me, and my unconscious mind whose will seems much stronger than my conscious mind.

older-adult-meditating

The two of us fight over health and creativity. My unconscious mind wants to follow my biological urges. The conscious me wants to become disciplined and be more creative. The conscious me wants to control or eliminate my biological urges and apply all my energy to achieving my goals. My unconscious mind loves to go with the flow and puppet-mastering me into doing whatever it feels like.

This morning I sat erect in an upholstered straight chair, put 20 minutes on my iPhone timer, sat on my hands, and closed my eyes. Meditation usually involves following your breath or focusing on a mantra. I decided to pay attention to my senses and always bring my mind back to one thought: I want to write a short story. I already know which story. I’ve written several drafts but left it unfinished several years ago.

I have two barriers I face every day. My declining health and my declining ability to focus on work. As I sat, and let my mind quiet I noticed the regular tick of the clock on the wall. I observed that tick which was more of a quiet thump, thump, thump…

Then I noticed the faint wail of a train whistle far to the east. I told myself to think about writing. I worked to just empty my mind of words and hold just the urge to write. Time and again my thoughts would flare up. They’d be about writing, but I tell myself to stop thinking words and just observe.

Then I noticed the sound of the HVAC in the attic starting the furnace. My mind went back to the clock and then wail of the train that was getting closer. I had three sounds to follow. My mind felt like it was in a golden sphere of nothingness. My mind began to chatter again, thinking about the details of writing. I brought it back to just the three sounds and the urge to write.

I have no idea how meditation is supposed to do its wonders. Does merely learning to slow and stop thoughts alter the unconscious mind into new programming?

My mind drifted to other thoughts not related to writing. I reigned it in again. I observe the sound of the thump, thump, thump of the clock, the concurrent sound of the approaching train, the sound of the HVAC now blowing air through the vents, and a new sound, the little crashes of the occasional acorn hitting the roof and then rolling off. Then I noticed constant Tinnitus sound in my ears. My ears were singing louder than all the other sounds.

It came to me I should write a thousand words today. Then it came to me I should write about meditation. Then it came to me I should write the fiction first. Then it came to me I should write 1,000 words of fiction the first thing every day. Then I stopped my thoughts and went back to observing the sounds outside the golden glow of my mind.

After a while, my mind got away, and it gave me the first sentence of the story. I thought up more sentences but told my mind to stop. I focused on quieting the mind and observing the sounds.

It kept doing this until the alarm went off.

I got up immediately, went to the computer and wrote 1,039 words of new fiction. The first in a very long time. Is that success due to meditation? I don’t know. Let’s see what I do tomorrow and the following days.

I doubt the success of today’s writing is due to twenty minutes of meditation. I felt good today, after a string of feeling poorly days. I got up and did a Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch workout, and then 30 minutes on the exercise bike. I then took a nice warm shower. I was feeling pretty damn good when I meditated, so maybe just the momentum of following some positive endeavors help me write fiction. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing fiction for years but just couldn’t make myself try. Mainly, because all my efforts ended in disappointment.

Most creative efforts are achieved by folks when they are young. A few creative endeavors have late-blooming exceptions, and writing is one of them. But I think I’m already older than that oldest late-blooming author I know about. My hope to succeed at something is strictly against all odds. And I understand why. The older we get, the less mental and physical health we have, the harder it is to make ourselves work at disciplined tasks.

I was feeling pretty good today. Except for a pesky hemorrhoid, I’m feeling really good this morning. That’s rare. My back and heart aren’t nagging me at the moment. My mind is a good deal more alert than usual. I have been on this intermittent fast for almost 40 days. I haven’t lost weight, but it seems to be making me feel better and give me more energy. I’m napping less. So one session of meditation probably didn’t get me to write today, but maybe feeling like meditation is another good sign. I hope to do it twice a day from now on. Let’s see if my unconscious mind will stop me, or if I can reprogram it.

I know I’m battling an uphill mental fight while in a physical decline, but I keep hoping there are things I can do to keep the fight going longer. I know at some point declining health and aging will crush my spirit. And even when I can’t actively be creative, I hope for some years of mass-consumption of books, music, movies, and television will keep me happy. I’ve talked to many old people that gave up on everything. I know what the future holds. I’m just fighting a delaying action. But I consider that a positive.

JWH

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I Have Stage 4 Tsundoku

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 6, 2018

There’s a new word entering the English language from Japan, Tsundoku. I’m not even sure how to pronounce it, but I have it bad. It’s the condition of buying more books than you can ever read. I currently have 1,500 audiobooks, 1150 Kindle books, and about 700 hardback/trade paper/paperbacks. I’d say 60-70% are unread. That means my TBR pile is over 2,000 books high. My book buying is 40 years ahead of my reading if I read one book a week. And my book buying is accelerating while my reading is decreasing. I used to actually read one book a week. Now it’s 3 books a month, so I’ve got 55 years worth, and I turn 67 this month. It’s not likely I’ll finish reading what I’ve bought.

Books November 2018

Above is my reading nook. It’s deceptive though because I have more than 2,650+ books in the cloud, almost four times what you see here.

I’ve known I’ve had Tsundoku for decades, I just didn’t know it had a name. I should never buy another book. But I can’t do that. I have decided on a remedy to try to slow down my book buying. Once a  month, I need to look at the cover of every book I own. Yesterday I spent the morning and glanced at all their covers. I used Kindle and Audible libraries to look at those in the cloud. I only read the spines of all the books I have on my shelves. I plan to pull each book off the shelf and eye its cover too.

While I did this I used a Marie-Kondo-like technique and asked: Which books beg me to read them as soon as possible? The 64 below are those books. Included are a handful of books I’m halfway through or promised to read for a book club. It should take me two years just to read these books. These books show the diversity of topics I’m interested in, and my full library is even more varied in subjects. I love collecting books thinking I will read them someday.

I do know the cure to my ailment. If I would pledge to only buy books at full price I wouldn’t buy many books, and I’d actually save money. I have all these books because I love buying books are bargain prices. I love the $1.99 Kindle deal. I love Audible’s Daily Deals. And I love shopping for great deals on used books.

  • Bold is science fiction.
  • Blue is books about science fiction
  • Red is classics I’ve always wanted to read
  • The rest are a variety of nonfiction
  1. The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin (currently reading) (Kindle)
  2. Calypso by David Sedaris (current listen) (Audible)
  3. White Trash by Nancy Isenberg (book club) (Kindle, Audible)
  4. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee (book club) (Scribd)
  5. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Kindle)
  6. Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber (Kindle, Audible)
  7. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Audible)
  8. The Ascent to Truth by Thomas Merton (Kindle)
  9. Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro (Kindle)
  10. Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman (Kindle)
  11. The Inevitable: Understanding 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly (Kindle)
  12. The Squares of the City by John Brunner (Kindle)
  13. How to Listen to Great Music by Robert Greenberg (Kindle)
  14. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon (Kindle)
  15. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Kindle)
  16. Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall (Kindle)
  17. Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity and Time Management by Kam Knight (Kindle)
  18. The White Album by Joan Didion (Kindle, Audible)
  19. iWoz by Steve Wozniak (Kindle, Audible)
  20. Foundation by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Hardback, Audible)
  21. Blindsight by Peter Watts (Kindle)
  22. Fifth Avenue 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany, and the Dawn of the Modern World by Sam Wasson (Kindle)
  23. At Seventy by May Sarton (Kindle)
  24. I am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Stories of Clifford Simak Volume One (Kindle)
  25. Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out by Gordon Thompson (Kindle)
  26. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (Kindle)
  27. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Kindle, Audible)
  28. How Linux Works by Brian Ward (Kindle)
  29. Justine by Lawrence Durrell (Kindle, Audible)
  30. Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter by Howard Rheingold (Kindle)
  31. Mastodonia by Clifford Simak (Kindle)
  32. The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (Audible)
  33. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Audible)
  34. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (Audible)
  35. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (Audible)
  36. Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Kindle, Audible)
  37. How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil (Kindle, Audible)
  38. Becoming a Great Essayist by Jennifer Cognard-Black (Audible)
  39. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (Audible)
  40. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Audible, Paperback)
  41. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Audible)
  42. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Audible)
  43. Hackers by Steven Levy (Paperback, Audible)
  44. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Audible)
  45. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (Audible, Kindle)
  46. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (Audible)
  47. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (Audible)
  48. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Audible)
  49. A Guide for the Perplexed by E. F. Schumacher (Trade paper)
  50. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch (Hardback)
  51. On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks (Hardback)
  52. Children of Wonder edited by William Tenn (Hardback)
  53. Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras (Hardback)
  54. Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell (Hardback)
  55. Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings (Hardback)
  56. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Trade paper)
  57. A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers (Hardback)
  58. On Writing Well by William Zinsser (Trade paper)
  59. How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Giolia (Trade paper)
  60. The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination by Daniel J. Boorstin (Hardback)
  61. Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank (Hardback)
  62. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi (Hardback)
  63. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? by the Jesus Seminar (Hardback)
  64. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger (Hardback)

JWH

 

 

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Does Donald Trump Reveal the Percentage of Liars in America?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 4, 2018

To liberals, it’s obvious that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. There are countless websites and newspapers that track his malarky. But what do his supporters think? Are they savvy to his fibs and accept Trump’s lies because he gets them what they want? What percentage of his followers believe he’s actually truthful? How many think his lying is only routine political shenanigans? What percentage are forgiving Trump for just being careless with facts?

I worry that there’s a significant percentage of Trump supporters who think lying is an effective way to get ahead. Does that imply that millions of Americans use lying in their own lives? Trump’s current approval rating is at 40%. Does that mean 40% of Americans approve of lying? Or even that 40% of Americans are liars?

Is Trump aware of his own false statements? Or is he psychologically blind to them? He could be a wheeling and dealing con man who says whatever is needed to get what he wants, a P. T. Barnum of politics believing we’re all suckers. I expect biographers will analyze this endlessly for centuries.

What worries me is the acceptance of Trump’s lying. Will this set a precedent? I don’t think many Americans trust politicians, but they used to expect a certain level of integrity, or at the very minimum, a certain level of an appearance of integrity. Has Trump thrown that out the window? Depends on your politics. Will any kind of integrity ever return to politics?

The Fifth Risk by Michael LewisTrump knows almost nothing about everything, but he’s got a Ph.D. in political corruption. The nightly freak show news programs that chronicle Trump’s daily antics diverts us from what’s going on all levels of government where his policies are becoming true. Just read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. His appointees also use lying to get what they want too, although many of them are more skilled at lying than their master.

I’ve always hated lying and liars. I always assumed most people didn’t lie. Now I wonder. How much do people lie in their day-to-day lives? Has Donald Trump revealed that 40% of Americans are liars? Or is that 20% liars and 20% gullible believers? Donald Trump claimed he was going to drain the swamp in Washington, but has instead turned the entire nation into one massive swampland.

There’s a science fiction novel by China Miéville called The City & The City where millions of people live in one location but see two cities. Half see a city named Besźel and the other half a city named Ul Qoma. Each has their own language and culture yet occupy the same physical space. Residents of each must have a passport and go through customs to visit the opposite city. When they do they drive the same roads but hear a different language and see a different city. I’m afraid that’s how our country is becoming.

The current political climate worries me. I see the large crowds at Trump’s rallies and I wonder about those folks. They seem like the same people we see at work, play, worship, or shopping. Yet, they adore a man who tens of millions of other normal folks see as a pathological liar. I suppose it could be like climate change and his followers deny his lying. But that’s just as troubling. Do they really believe he’s not lying, or just lying that they don’t?

I worry that Trump’s supporters see a different reality than liberals. Liberals think conservatives see the false one, but conservatives are sure liberals are the deluded ones. I believe this will continue to be true if most citizens can’t tell lies from the truth. We should all work to eliminate lying, but can such a plan succeed if such a large percentage of the population find lying so rewarding?

JWH

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Science Fiction in Prehistory

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 2, 2018

It is my belief that Homo sapiens have been cognitively the same for the entire lifetime of our species. Sure, cavemen could not pass an ACT test today, but then we couldn’t pass a hunting and gathering IQ test if we traveled back to their time. I need to make that assumption because I want to also assume our cognitive tool for speculation that we call science fiction today has always existed in us.

Think of fiction as a spectrum with pure fantasy to the left and absolute realism to the right. When ancient storytellers narrated their tales sometimes they wanted their audience to believe exactly what they’re saying, sticking close to remembered details as possible. Other times, they make everything up and the audience knew it was all supposed to be make-believe. Science fiction lies in the middle of the spectrum, where the storyteller is making things up, but also wanting their audience to consider some ideas possible. They were speculating that something could happen or be discovered. They used known quantities to suggest other things are possible even though the idea is currently fantasy.

Noahs Ark

One of the best examples that go back into prehistory is building an ark to survive the great flood. Humans knew about floods. It’s my contention that the first storyteller to suggest building an ark to protect people and animals from a flood was using their cognitive abilities for creating science fiction. The story of Noah’s ark is how the story has survived prehistory, but we know it existed in earlier ages. It’s a fantastic idea for a story. It involves super-technology and the apocalypse, two major themes of modern science fiction. Plus, it shows humans trying to outwit fate, a kind of hubris against nature. Even the more modern version of Noah’s ark adds the helping hand of a superior being not from Earth. How does that story differ from modern science fiction that imagines aliens from space coming to save humans from a world-destroying disaster?

What I’m claiming is humans have always had this capacity to imagine wild possibilities they hoped to avoid or make to come true. We call it science fiction today, but this ability to speculate is an innate quality that’s always existed in the species. The trouble is science fiction speculation from prehistory has come down as accepted belief, and not theory. People forgot the original idea was a “What if?” proposal and not fact. Imagine if after our civilization collapses and thousands of years into the future people believe stories about invaders from Mars or time travelers from our times were true and H. G. Wells is deemed a prophet.

I’m quite sure early humans asked, “What if there are unseen beings that do things we can’t.” We can do things that animals can’t, so it’s not much of an extrapolation to imagine there are beings that can do things we can’t. Plus, early humans could do things that animals couldn’t perceive us doing, like set traps. Speculating about gods, fairies, ghosts, angels, demons, God, etc., are a kind of science fiction. Religious people consider them dogma now, and scientific thinkers dismiss them completely, but at one time such beings were part of speculative fiction, just theoretical brainstorming, the kind of hypothesizing that science fiction does today.

 

Trojan horse 2

Prehistory humans used this ability for all kinds of inventions. Think of the Trojan Horse. Another example of applied imagined technology. It’s a killer gimmick for an ancient story plot. It’s doubtful that such feat of trickery was ever built. It’s hard to believe Trojans would have been fooled. But it’s a great idea, and one people would love to believe is possible. And it’s exactly the kind of plot solution a science fiction writer would use.

The problem with prehistory is in its very definition. Prehistory is history before writing, but from a time we can only speculate about from physical artifacts, archeology, anthopology, DNA, pattern analysis of languages, studying the existing hunting and gathering cultures, and assuming the earliest stories at the beginning of history came down from oral prehistory. If we read enough origin stories from all over the world, we begin to see patterns in how people thought about explaining reality with speculative thinking. Science fiction uses the current models of science and technology to imagine possibilities that science and technology haven’t discovered or invented. I think it’s easy to see we’ve always done that. At the dawn of science, philosophers and science fiction writers compared the universe to clocks. Later writers compare the workings of nature to steam engines. We compare them to computers. Is it such a stretch to think citizens of prehistory lack the same ability to speculate?

JWH

 

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Did the PBS Great American Read Give an Accurate Portrait of American Readers?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I’m a lifelong bookworm, so I loved watching the 8-part PBS special, The Great American Read. I tried to get my bookworm friends to watch the show too, but few were interested. Especially, after I told them how the voting was conducted. Fans were allowed to vote once a day for months. My friends felt the results would be skewed by ballot stuffers. And even I thought the votes would mostly be from young people who loved computers. However, the show itself interviewed a wide diversity of readers, which was inspiring. I don’t think the value of the show was about which book won the popularity poll, but showing how important reading is to so many people, young and old.

The results were announced 10/23/18. I’ve read 46 of the 100 books. It is a good list, but with several titles I thought suspicious. Are these 100 books really the favorite books Americans are reading in 2018? I wondered if there was any way I could verify their numbers against other numbers. One idea I had was to use Google’s Ngram that’s based on references in books and magazines. Unfortunately, their data only goes to 2008. Here’s the Top 5 PBS Great American Reads:

Great American Read Top 5

On the finale-night, my guess for the top five turned out to be the same order I found on Google Ngram. It turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird was always #1 in the PBS’s daily totals. It was always the clear favorite. What really surprised me was the order of the next four books. Outlander series came in as #2. Harry Potter was #3, Pride and Prejudice #4, and Lord of the Rings #5.

Was there any way I could replicate that order in other data? I then used Google Trends to track the last 90 days, roughly the time of the voting.

Google Trends PBS Great American Read

It’s hard to tell, but I think the order is Potter, Mockingbird, Rings, Prejudice, Outlander. The current search results on Google as of today is:

  1. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (48,300,000)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (14,400,000)
  3. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (10,400,000)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5,230,000)
  5. Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (5,000,000)

Could it be that fans voted for Mockingbird because they thought it was the best book even though they actually loved Harry Potter more? Harper Lee’s classic is one of my favorites too, and if I had to pick a “significant” book it might have been the one I voted for too. I didn’t vote because I love too many books.

Here are Google search result numbers for the next 20 books:

  • Gone with the Wind (9,280,000)
  • Charlotte’s Web (849,000)
  • Little Women (3,570,000)
  • Chronicles of Narnia (3,270,000)
  • Jane Eyre (3,410,000)
  • Anne of Green Gables (1,080,000)
  • Grapes of Wrath (1,980,000)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (3,360,000)
  • Book Thief (1,260,000)
  • Great Gatsby (10,700,000)
  • The Help (2,160,000)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (4,380,000)
  • 1984 (24,700,000)
  • And Then There Were None (2,200,000)
  • Atlas Shrugged (1,210,000)
  • Wuthering Heights (1,920,000)
  • Lonesome Dove (300,000)
  • Pillars of the Earth (701,000)
  • The Stand (114,000,000)
  • Rebecca (1,600,000)

My current favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it has 6,620,000 Google search returns. It didn’t even make the Top 100 of the PBS list, yet if we used Google search returns, it would come in #4. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov came in #49 and has 2,100,000 Google search returns. None of my favorite genre SF novels made the Top 100. But of course, most of my favorite SF books were popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Using Google search returns relates somewhat, but also tells us that it doesn’t really correlate with the PBS poll. My assumption, popularity is hard to measure. I actually think the enthusiasm of the PBS’s Great American Read voters reflects the current tastes of America’s most passionate/fanatical readers. Even though they allowed ballot stuffing, all the voters were allowed the same chance to stuff the ballot for their favorite book. Thus the PBS poll represents the Top 100 books that fanatical readers would pick in 2018.

All eight episodes are currently available to view online. And they are still worth watching. I loved feeling the enthusiasm young people showed for reading. I loved hearing from popular writers talk about the books they loved. For example, George R. R. Martin campaigned for The Lord of the Rings. But what really choked me up and made me misty-eyed were the testimonials by readers about why they loved to read.

JWH

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If Screens Are Bad for Kids Are They Also Bad for Adults Too?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 29, 2018

While reading the Sunday The New York Times yesterday on my iPhone, 3 of the 8 stories in the Trending Section dealt with the dangers of computer screens and kids. They were:

The first story opens:

SAN FRANCISCO — The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

The gist of these stories is: If the creators of screens won’t let their kids use them, why should we? If the Luddites are also the Technophiles, shouldn’t we worry? Or is this just elitism, like those intellectuals who sneer at watching television? Or is this a genuine back-to-analog-reality movement?  Ever since science and technology began integrating into society there have been those who want to stop its progress. There have been protests against trains, industrialization, cars, television, computers, automation, robots, and now joining the hive mind via our smartphones.

screens

On one hand, society teaches using and understanding technology is an important part of education, on the other hand, people question if using technology constantly is a good thing? Both children and adults are spending a larger percentage of their time staring at screens – phones, tablets, laptops, computer, and televisions. That means a significant portion of reality is viewed through a flat surface. Are the critics of screens saying we should have more 3D reality-time?

I’m not actually sure where the basis of the criticism lies. If they mean kids are spending too much time playing games or watching videos, then is the danger they fear escapism? If you spend ten hours a day in AutoCAD designing NASA space probes are you spending too much time using a screen? What about an author writing the great American novel? Or a heart surgeon using five screens at once in their surgery? If your kid spends five hours a day on a screen becoming a mathematical genius would you object?

If I wasn’t using a screen to read I’d be using a book to read. Is spending hours a day on pages instead of screens a more valuable experience? What if I gave up writing and spent those hours outside gardening? Would that make my life more rewarding?

Kids love toys. Evidently, screens are preferable to other toys. Does that make them unhealthy toys? My guess is the Silicon Valley types know about getting ahead in life, becoming a success, making money, inventing products. They want their kids to have an advantage over other kids, so they’d prefer their kids not waste time playing with screens but learning what it takes to be the next generation of billionaires.

Then the question becomes: What are the best activities for children if you want them to get ahead in life? Maybe we don’t worry about adults using screens so much because we’re not worried about them succeeding in life. Either they’ve made it or not, so wasting time on screens won’t change our fate. But with kids, they have this huge potential and we don’t want them to blow it.

Or have we reached a stage where we’re worrying about becoming cyborgs? Should kids be reading instead, or playing baseball outside, or Monopoly inside? Maybe seeing so many kids mesmerized by screens is making us think about what it means? But, then shouldn’t we wonder about our own screen use?

I like writing. Would using a typewriter and submitting my essays to magazines be more fulfilling than writing for my blog? Would it be even more rewarding if I wrote longhand on paper? What if I gave up television? Is reading really a better use of my time? If I didn’t read or watch television, I think my next choice would be building and programming computers, developing databases, teaching myself AI and machine learning, and constructing robots. I don’t think I’d be happy if I gave up technology altogether. I could take up gardening and woodworking, two very down-to-Earth activities, but I don’t think I’d find them as rewarding as what I’m doing now.

If I counted all the hours I spend with my HDTV, 4K computer monitor, Kindle Paperwhite, iPad Mini, and iPhone, it would be a lot. Certainly, the majority of my day. Should I really wonder if that’s unhealthy?

JWH

 

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The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

AstoundingOn October 23, 2018, the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction was remembered in two ways. First, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series came in at #49 on the PBS Great American Read, and second, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee was published.

For a subgroup of the G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer generations, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1939 to 1950, and mostly due to one magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. There was one other book in the PBS Great American Read where Campbell was the first editor to buy – that was Dune by Frank Herbert, which came in at #35. So, Campbell had two books in the top 50, not a bad legacy. Dune appeared in his magazine just after the name changed to Analog Science Fact & Fiction.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book, Astounding, isn’t the first history of the magazine, and I doubt it will be the last. As I listened to the audiobook edition I thought about all the ways writers have tried to tell the story of Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. Alva Rogers in Requiem for Astounding did an issue by issue overview. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a memoir about how the magazine shaped his youth in Astounding Days. And Alexei and Cory Panshin focused heavily on Astounding, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt in their Hugo winning book, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. All those books focused on the stories. Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, giving us the biographical background to the editor and his three most famous writers.

There’s been plenty written about Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, but other than tributes and collections of letters, I’m not sure how much has been written about John W. Campbell, and he is the real focus of Nevala-Lee’s book. However, his story is so intertwined with the magazine and his famous writers that Astounding is a history of the magazine and a biography of four men.

Reading Astounding was both rewarding and depressing. It’s depressing because we endure the painful deaths of all four subjects, but even worse than that, they all fall from grace. I’m not sure if I should reveal what they become. If I did, some would call it spoilers, but others might call them trigger-warnings. Let’s just say this is a tell-all biography where Nevala-Lee gives us the best and worst on each man. All four men were autodidactic know-it-alls. All four men were egomaniacs. Three, maybe four, had severe delusions of grandeur. All four were hard on wives and women, and at least two of them would have thrown out of pop culture if they lived during #MeToo times. One turns out to be white-supremacist and another started a religion and has been defied by his followers, even though Nevala-Lee makes it abundantly clear he was a pathological liar, and his church is often vilified and has a reputation of being a paranoid cult.

Despite all of this, Astounding is a valuable history book on an important era of science fiction. By combining the four biographies, Nevala-Lee shows us the wizards behind the curtain. Yes, in many ways, they were all humbugs, but in many other ways, they were genuine magicians. Campbell and all the writers of Astounding Science-Fiction created art that inspired a generation. Astounding Science-Fiction was essential to the evolution of the art form we know today as science fiction.

There has always been a problem calling 1939-1950 the golden age of science fiction because for many people it wasn’t. I’ve been systematically reading The Great SF Stories volumes 1-25 (1939-1964) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I’ve finished the first seven volumes, and I’ve got to say, many of the stories are forgettable. Nearly all the stories come from Campbell’s two magazines, Astounding Science-Fiction and Unknown. I’m sure these stories were mind-blowing back in the 1940’s, but there’s been much better science fiction written since using the same ideas and themes. In 1957 Peter Graham said in a fanzine called Void, that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” That deeply perceptive observation has been accepted as truth ever since. I turned 12 in late 1963, and the science fiction I discovered was published in the 1950’s. Some of it was reprints from Astounding in the 1940’s, and others were stories that appeared in F&SF, Galaxy, and IF, the Young Turks that usurped Astounding’s reign in the 1950’s, as well as original science fiction books that began being published that decade. Today, I generally think of the 1950’s as the golden age of science fiction, and I’m sure people younger than I feel the same way about the decade they first read when discovering science fiction.

This alternate view of the golden age of science fiction will probably limit the audience to Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, but it’s already the #1 book in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Today it is quite common for young people, especially women and minorities, to dismiss older science fiction as being too white-male dominated from an unenlightened era. Nevala-Lee’s book will only reinforce those beliefs. However, I think it’s important to read this book. It does capture the ambitiousness of science fiction’s most ambitious proponents.

Science fiction changed dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again this century. I routinely read science fiction stories from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Surprisingly, the ideas and themes remain consistent, but not the storytelling and characters. Science fiction authors have become much more sophisticated writers creating deeper and diverse characters. I see Nevala-Lee’s book as one piece in a very large puzzle. If you look for them, you’ll find plenty of books being written today on the history of science fiction. Most remain obscure and little read. I’m surprised that Astounding is getting all the attention it’s getting. Does it represent a tip of an iceberg of science fiction fans hungering to know more about the evolution of their favorite genre? Or, has all the science fiction fans from my generation suddenly become nostalgic for Astounding again?

I worry if younger science fiction fans read Astounding they may be turned off to 1940’s and 1950’s science fiction. All four men in Nevala-Lee’s book eventually come across as emotionally flawed, delusional, egomaniacal, and if not diagnosable with several DSM disorders, at least very nutty. Until the genre label “science fiction” emerged in the 1950’s, people would call it “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” I’m afraid the history in Astounding will only reinforce the crackpot reputation of science fiction.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, Nevala-Lee is just telling it like it was. But I believe readers need more context. I’m not sure people today have any idea what the psychological fallout the first atomic bombs, ICBMs, and Sputnik did to the citizens of the 1940’s and 1950’s. They all were looking desperately for answers to monumental existential threats. The stress was tremendous. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Psychiatry almost became a fad in the 1950’s, including experimental use of LSD under psychiatric supervision.

I’m not depressed that Nevala-Lee reveals how science fiction went nuts, but I wished he would have put its breakdown in the context of how everyone was going nutty back then. We look back with embarrassment to Campbell’s embrace of psychic powers, but a large segment of the country was doing the same thing.

I was born in 1951, so I grew up with the 1950’s. I remember my uncles raving about the psychic powers of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, believing in the past lives of Bridie Murphy, excited by the multiple personalities of Eve, and dedicated followers the UFO nut, George Adamski. Nevala-Lee doesn’t mention how crazy America was in the 1950’s, so it seems Campbell is a standout nutter. He wasn’t. He was the mansplainer to mansplainers. He would pontificate to experts in their fields on their own subjects, telling them where they were ignoramuses.

I’ve also read other biographies of Heinlein as well as several biographies of Philip K. Dick, along with many interviews with SF writers of this era. It’s very hard to capture the crazy times from Hiroshima to Woodstock. And if you compare those times to our times, you’ll see that most people believed a lot of crazy crap by then. Of, sure, we still believe a lot of crazy crapola today, but those true believers in weirdness are far fewer now. And it is a fact that back then almost everyone had horrible prejudices and were unenlightened to equality. I’d like to believe society has evolved, and the percentage of crazy and prejudice people are down from those times. Of course, recent events suggest they were only hiding.

My one criticism of Astounding is by focusing on the biographies of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard Nevala-Lee didn’t convey the tremendous excitement and variety of the science fiction stories that Campbell published. And that probably wasn’t his goal. To most fans, Astounding Science-Fiction magazine was by far the best science fiction magazine of the times because of the stories. They didn’t care about the lives of the editors and writers. I hope future historians of this era include the other magazines like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Astonishing Science Fiction. I’m not sure Astounding deserves all of the attention and credit.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s book is one of a coalescing history. It is valuable because of its biographical slant. I wished he could have included more biographies of Campbell’s writers in his book, especially A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ross Rocklynne, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more. Here is a list of all the stories that appeared in Astounding from July 1939 to September 1960.

Nevala-Lee’s book reminds me of the Beats. They were a literary subculture from the 1950’s that biographers can’t let go of. The Beat library keeps growing. I think the subculture of science fiction is attracting interest in the same way, and Alec Nevala-Lee is helping it by promoting the cult of the character. Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, and Campbell remind me of Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Over time, I believe the science fiction generation of the 1940’s and 1950’s will be remembered in biographies like The Transcendentalists, The Lost Generation, and The Beats.

Finally, I would like to also recommend The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It is coming to the Kindle next month and is currently just $3.99 for pre-ordering. And if you’d like to actually read copies of old Astoundings, click here.

JWH

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Judging Science Fiction by its Extrapolations

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Science fiction writers believe they can extrapolate from current events and imagine possible scenarios that will prepare readers for the world of tomorrow. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls that predict an exact future. Instead, they write stories that will never come true but theoretically could. Generally, they are of two types. Let’s make dreams come true (i.e. colonize Mars, build intelligent machines) or let’s avoid a nightmare (i.e. a fascist America, an eco-catastrophe).

But, how good is science fiction at extrapolation? What invention or social movement in the last 100 years has the genre fictionalized using extrapolation and speculation? Here’s an overview of the last 100 years that came quickly to mind. I put links to Wikipedia for those of you who want deeper reminders.

  • 1920’s – The Roaring Twenties, The Jazz Age, Prohibition, The Lost Generation, the stock market bubble and crash, Charles Lindbergh’s flight, women getting to vote, the rise of the KKK across America, gangsters
  • 1930’s – The Depression, talking movies, Big Bands, The New Deal, the Dust Bowl
  • 1940’s – World War II, the A-bomb, V-2 rockets, the United Nations
  • 1950’s – The Korean War, The Cold War, the H-bomb, television, Sputnik, NASA, interstate highways, Beatniks, Rock and Roll
  • 1960’s – The Viet Nam War, The Space Race, the Counter Culture, Civil Rights, Feminism, Gay Rights, Ecology, Apollo 11, Surveyor, Mariner, and Pioneer spacecraft, hippies, LSD, back to nature communes, muscle cars
  • 1970’s – The Oil Crisis, Watergate, Apple II, Atari video games, Viking Landers, Voyager spacecraft, environmentalism, organic farming, singer-songwriters
  • 1980’s – The Space Shuttle, MTV, IBM PC, The Macintosh
  • 1990’s – The Hubble Telescope, The Internet, World Wide Web, Amazon.com, Dolly the sheep, German reunification, the collapse of the USSR
  • 2000’s – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, iPhone, Barrack Obama, New Horizon spacecraft, high definition TV, Columbine
  • 2010’s – VR, Boston Dynamics robots, Donald Trump, Sandy Hook, active shooters

Were there any SF tales written before these decades that imagined their significant events? Science fiction’s big winner has always been space travel. Would we have gone to the Moon if science fiction hadn’t imagined it many times for hundreds of years? Did Robert Goddard build rockets because of the fiction he read? A few science fiction writers wrote about the atomic bomb before 1945, but they got their ideas from scientists who were already talking about them.

Of course, this is getting away from my topic. There is a difference between claiming science fiction speculates about the future based on current trends and saying science fiction pushed us into doing something. Science fiction lasts longer than people’s inspiration and brainstorming sessions. The more I read about the history of science fiction, the more I discover that science fiction writers were always inspired by inventors and scientists, rather than the other way around.

Analog Science Fiction July 1968

What I’m talking about is different. There’s a famous cover to the July 1968 issue of Analog Science Fiction for the story “Hawk Among the Sparrows” by Dean McLaughlin. It shows an SR-71 Blackbird-like jet sitting on a WWI runway with a biplane in the background. That cover represents fun hindsight for a time travel story. But what if a 1918 issue of The All-Story Weekly featured that cover painting? Extrapolating that biplanes would eventually evolve into something spectacular like the SR-71 is what I’m talking about. How often has science fiction done that?

unbelievable_time_required_to_cover_immense_distances_of_space__1918 by Harry Grant Dart

Here’s Harry Grant Dart’s 1918 artistic imagination of future aircraft/spacecraft. Not quite Lockheed SR-71s, are they? I’m not sure just how capable we are of extrapolation.

In 1911 Hugo Gernsback wrote Ralph 124C 41+ that contained many inventions he expected to be invented in the future. Just follow the Wikipedia link to read a rather long list of them. It’s 1925 hardback cover apparently shows a doctor interviewing a patient over a videophone. Science fiction has a pretty good track record of imagining possible future gadgets, but generally, their authors were inspired by current technology. Hugo Gernsback was probably the biggest proponent of technological extrapolation, but by the 1930’s science fiction had become 99% adventure fiction.

Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback 1925

Science fiction seems less capable of extrapolating Black Swan technology, especially the social repercussions of those gadgets. The genre just wasn’t ready for computers, especially personal computers, the internet, the web, smartphones, and most of the technology of the last several decades. Science fiction quickly embraced all this technology, but only afterward. Evidently, change is happening faster than science fiction writers can imagine it.

Books like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stand on Zanzibar seem prophetic now because they appear to foresee our current social and political nightmares, but are they extrapolations? Weren’t they reactionary to the times in which they were written, and just happen to come into vogue again?

The 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster is one of the most prophetic SF stories I’ve ever read. But it didn’t seem so in 1970 when I first read it. It was only recently, well into the Internet Age when I read it again, that I thought Forster was such a genius for writing it. The main character, Vashti, an old woman, is essentially a blogger using a machine to communicate with other agoraphobic citizens. Everyone lives alone in their rooms, communicating through the machine. Forster knows nothing about computers and networks, only imagines a very clever machine. Her son, Kuno wants to escape the machine. Forster says he was inspired by H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” and it’s Eloi and Morlocks. But I can also imagine Forster thinking writing for magazines and book publishers was like being tied to a machine, and fantasizing about doing something in nature was appealing.

I am working on a science fiction short story. I’d like to think I’m imagining something people will do in the future that they don’t do now. But am I deluding myself? (I’m not going to explain my idea until the story is published.) I’d like to think I’m imagining something new, but I’ve got to analyze if I’m extrapolating or just describing what we do now in a new way.

The more I read old science fiction, the more I see science fiction in a different light. Science fiction has never been just one thing. Extrapolation has only been one aspect of the genre. Even as a kid, I didn’t believe people could predict the future. But I did think science fiction could be a cognitive tool for making good guesses. I’m now wondering if the best science fiction is deeply insightful about the present, and extrapolation about the future is a bunch of malarky.

I’m starting to wonder if I want to write a great science fiction story I should work as hard as possible to see into my own hopes and fears, set the story in the future, and then assume my dreams and nightmares might resonate with future readers.

JWH

 

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Inequality and Overpopulation

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 20, 2018

In the 21st-century countless problems threaten our survival. Long before climate change can drown us, inequality and overpopulation will dissolve our civilization. People tend to obsess on a single issue when all our problems are interrelated. Republicans have laser-focused on reducing their taxes while denying all other threats due to their expense. Our economy is a million times more complex than a nuclear power plant, yet Republicans feel they can control it with just one knob.

Nuclear power plant control room

We won’t solve problems we refuse to see. The past tells us we need a convinced percentage of the population before we act. History also shows progress is slow, and sometimes humans never change. We live in politically terrorizing times. The frog in boiling water analogy Al Gore used for climate change works for all the problems we need to solve today. In the middle of the last century, John Calhoun’s experiments with rat and mice overpopulation probably say more about our times than we want to believe. Watch the video if you don’t believe me or this longer one, Down the Rabbit Hole.

Today, most people ignore the issue of overpopulation even though most of our social problems are directly connected to 6 billion too many humans. Deniers claim food production has always grown faster than population, so we don’t have to worry about overpopulation. However, starvation was never the sole threat of too many people.

If you regularly watch TV news, the same stories cycle over the same periods of days, weeks, months, and years. And with each new iteration, these same problems intensify. I have been pessimistic about the future for decades. I don’t know if my pessimism is the natural one of old age or there’s real evidence for worry.

Honduran migrant caravan October 2018

The new Honduran migrant caravan is much larger than the last one and Donald Trump is panicking. Trump thinks he can control the border. The past tells us that won’t work. Whenever people suffer they move to where people don’t. Just look at Venezuelans pouring into Columbia in the photo below. Don’t the two groups look similar? Haven’t we seen them before? Won’t we see groups grow ever larger and more frequent for the rest of our lives? How are they different from those fleeing hurricanes Florence and Michael? Imagine yourself in such a group. It’s almost certain you’ll either be a refugee in your lifetime, or you’ll be building walls to keep them out. What will it take to avoid both fates?

Venezuelans migrating to Columbia.

This isn’t overpopulation, but inequality. Overpopulation and inequality are related. When populations conflict over war, there is inequality of peace. When there are extremes of rich and poor, there is economic inequality. Where society deems a physical trait of the body superior to another there’s racial inequality. When society treats men differently than women, there is gender inequality. When there are more people than jobs, there is work inequality. When one species takes all the natural resources, there is inequality of lifeforms.

If you watch the Mouse Utopia Experiment film, it’s easy to forget you’re seeing mice and see us instead. As the population grows on Lifeboat Earth, the passengers will fight over the remaining rations. We can’t solve overpopulation right now. We can solve the inequality to reduce the conflicts until we reduce our numbers. If we don’t, nature will do it for us.

Republicans believe the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. They are not the ethical Vulcans from Star Trek. The only way our species can survive all the problems we’ll face in this century is by providing equality to all. That will require turning all the knobs in the control room in subtle ways until we find the correct settings. A difficult but not impossible task. And it’s not just for our country. If anywhere in the world one group is singled out and not given equal rations and opportunity, this lifeboat will sink. We have grown so large, that even a 1% minority is 70 million people, a powerful force.

We fail because we lack empathy for people unlike ourselves. I recommend two essays to prove my point. I could list thousands, but please read these two to see if they don’t change your mind. They are “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Longest War” by Rebecca Solnit.

No matter what kind of walls you build to keep out whatever kind of refugee your fear, that wall will never be big enough. The only way not to need walls is to create equality uniformly everywhere. As long as you believe you can wall yourself in you’re doomed.

World-War-Z-photo-zombies-1

JWH

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Aren’t Republicans the True Disciples of Darwin?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 12, 2018

I’m beginning to see my liberal hopes for social justice are naïve and conservatives are survivalists acting on animal instinct and not theology.

In “Notes from the Fifth Year” from We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he describes why he does not believe in cosmic justice or God. As a kid, Coates got beat up and learned he could only rely on himself for help. He saw that in society too. Our hunger for justice is the desire to be protected, but Darwinian laws of red tooth and claw overrule theology and legal systems. As a liberal, I want society to be just and protective, but I’m realizing that counters my own atheistic and scientific beliefs. What I find ironic is Republicans who claim to be Christian, a belief in cosmic justice, want laws and government that affirm Darwin. That I, an atheist, an avowed disciple of Darwin, really want a Christian society. It’s it hilarious when Christians act evolutionary and atheists yearn for grace?

I thought “Notes from the Fifth Year” both brilliant and depressing. It reminds me of a film I saw on the internet of a big green snake coming out of a woodpecker’s hole while the woodpecker frantically fights to pull the snake out to save its nest. I knew people were on the ground filming and watching this struggle. I wanted the woodpecker to win. It kept pecking the snake, and the snake would grab it by the wing, and the bird would struggle free, fly away, but then immediately return to attack the snake again. Its only hope was itself. I wanted the bird to win. I wanted the people on the ground to find a way to pull the snake down. But like Coates, I realized there is no help for the woodpecker except its own efforts to survive.

More and more I see Republicans as survivalists fighting with all their might to save their way of life. They don’t want to pay taxes to help other people because they want that money to protect themselves. They don’t want laws to help other people, only laws that to protect themselves. They’re against minorities, immigrants, and poor people because they threatened their survival. They offer no alternative to Obamacare because they believe in the survival of the fittest. They don’t really disbelieve climate change but deny the expense of global warming because it threatens their pocketbooks. They’d rather have dollars in their paychecks than a clean environment or a just and equal society.

The Republicans are the snake in the tree, not the valiant woodpecker because they are strong and can take what they want. Coates is right, we live in an atheist reality where the powerful prevail. And the strong won’t help the weak. It’s against their nature.

I find it hard to believe Republicans claim to be Christians. They don’t believe in the fishes and the loaves. They don’t believe in turning the other cheek. They don’t believe loving thy neighbor. They don’t believe the meek shall inherit the Earth. But they’re positive camels can go through the eyes of needles.

I now assume Republicans are Darwinians on Earth but Christians after death. They believe in easy Christianity, where merely saying “I believe in Jesus” is a ticket to heaven. But what happens if Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is right, and true Christianity is far more expensive?

I’m an atheist that wants humans to create a society that overcomes the laws of Darwin. Even though I’m not a Christian, I felt Jesus wanted to create a heaven on Earth where everyone is treated equally and just. Am I naïve and the Republicans realistic? Conservatives believe the City of God lies beyond death, whereas liberals want humanism to construct it on Earth.

We can now see that Republicans have given up any pretense of ethics. With them, the end justifies the means, and their means are Darwinian, not Christian. Back in the early days of the Environmental movement, the idea of Lifeboat Earth emerged. It’s a great analogy. There’re always people in lifeboats who feel they deserve the rations than the others, and that the weak should be put off the boat. That’s very Darwinian. Aren’t Republicans acting like the ruthless in a lifeboat?

JWH

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Educated by Tara Westover

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover is remarkable book that many friends have read and a popular selection for their book clubs. Westover was raised by Morman parents in rural Idaho. They fear the government and shunned doctors and hospitals. As a girl, Tara never attended a K-12 school. Yet, she wasn’t homeschooled either. Westover overcame this lack of education and eventually got a PhD at Cambridge. On the surface, her book is about her remarkable self-education, but is really about surviving a brutal childhood of mental and physical suffering. Like the political right denying Christine Blasey Ford’s assault account, Westover’s parents deny Tara’s testimony of assaults.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is so riviting, so compelling, so fascinating because of Westover’s 27-year long escape from her Ruby-Ridge-like upbringing. Her father is a conspiracy theory nutcase and her mother a spiritual healer true believer. Her oldest brother is a psychopath who thrills on physically and mentally humiliating Tara, her siblings, and his girlfriends. Westover’s parents always sides with the brother, always demanding proof of his crimes, like Republicans at the Kavanaugh heearings, refusing any testimony as he said-she said unbelievable.

This denial her view of reality deeply warped Westover psychologically. Without the experience of going to school and seeing normal life, Westover grew up brainwashed by a father who saw our America destroyed by socialism. He taught his children that going to school meant being reprogrammed to accept false beliefs contrary to true Mormon theology and the original Founding Fathers. Westover’s mind was so deeply programmed by her father’s paranoia that she struggled to keep her own identify alive.

Educated works on many levels, and is beautiful written. It’s hard to imagine Westover ever recovering from her upbringing, much less getting a Cambridge doctorate or writing this book. It makes you wonder if all kids shouldn’t skip K-12 classes and we should instead torture them with brutal child labor until they hunger for knowledge on their own.

Educated is the perfect book to read for our times. It carefully documents the kind of freedom the radical right wants revealing how their patriarchical freedom oppresses women. Tara Westover grew up with a family that rejected both history and science. Her father is a survivalist Mormon and her mother is a rural healer/midwife that could have been pulled out of the 19th-century by a time machine.

Educated is a relentless book. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Normally, I fall asleep if I try to listen to an audiobook while sitting. I could listen to Educated for hours at a time while reclined in my La-Z-Boy with perfect alertness.

JWH

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Just How Hard is it to Vote?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 7, 2018

After reading, “Planning to Vote in the November Election? Why Most Americans Probably Won’t” in the New York Times I wondered what were the real impediments to voting for most people. Generally, about one-half to two-thirds of eligible voters don’t vote. The article pointed out in the 19th century sometimes over 80% of the eligible voters did cast their ballots. Why do so few votes today? This pie chart is truly sad.

Better start to give a shit

Generally, we hear lame whining about not having the time and other obligations on election day, but early voting should eliminate any such excuses. No one should wait until election day if they have early voting opportunities.

Nor should registration be an issue. Many places around the country allow for online registration. Just visit Vote.gov and it will direct you to where you need to go. That’s an easy to remember URL. It will redirect you to USA.gov/voting for more information and a link to your state election site where you can find sample ballots and early voting information.

One thing that probably confuses some people are sample ballots. They can be huge because they often include all the voting options for a county and not just the options you’ll see in your voting booth. My state has solved that problem by offering an app, GoVoteTN. You give them your name and zip and it finds your voting precinct and exact ballot. See if your state has such an app too. This app also tells me who all of my current elected officials are, something my memory can’t do anymore.

Seeing the ballot is where the real difficulty beings for most people I think. There’s a lot of names and offices to consider. If you’re a party diehard it’s easy to just go down the list and vote the party line. But if you actually want to evaluate every candidate that’s work. The effort it takes to study the options is what probably puts off a lot of people from voting.

This is where I wish the app had another feature. It would help the process tremendously if for each office there was a link to an exact job description, and for each candidate, there was a link to an actual job application. All the campaigning we see in the media is bullshit hullaballoo. The political process is one of manipulating the masses. I think every political office should be considered a job with detailed job requirements, and each candidate should be required to fill out an application with precise guidelines.

There are sites on the web that help research politicians. USA.gov has some general guidelines. Vote-usa.org will ask you for your address and then show you your sample ballot. For each candidate, it links to where you can find out more.

The last area of difficulty with voting is referendums. I find their language on ballots extremely confusing. There are three on my current sample ballot. Even with internet research, I’m finding them difficult to decipher. I’m not sure if two of them might have been recently removed by court injunctions. Referendums actually require a bit of study to vote correctly. I got a flyer in the mail saying to vote no as a positive. That’s just confusing. However, the flyer listed all the supporters of the no vote, and I trust them. Sometimes you have to vote with people you trust if you think they understand the issue better than you do.

While doing my research I found Ballotpedia which tries to keep up with all the voting and issues around the country. You can use this site to zero in on your local elections and issues. Ballotpedia also offers sample ballots that also include links to additional information on the candidates.

Voting does require some effort, but I can’t imagine it’s so hard that 109 million people couldn’t make that effort in the last presidential election. Has most of them given up on our political system? That would be depressing. And how many of them just ignore the news, civics, current events, and issues of our times?

JWH

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Three Friends Start Over at 67

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 5, 2018

Have you dreamed of starting over – maybe in another career, city, country or even continent? Do you crave new surroundings, conversations, activities, friendships, romances, routines, or even commitments? Do you hunger for something new, something different, something even exotic? Or do you just want the freedom to be yourself, to make all your own choices, to schedule every moment doing exactly what you want?

Three of my friends amazed me recently by rebooting their lives at age 67. Janis after years of planning moved to Guanajuato Mexico, Linda after a lifetime of dedication to husbands and children moved to Denver, and Peggy who thought for a decade she’d be the happiest living on a lake near her brother finally found she was right. Seeing these three women start over by themselves in a new place amazed and inspired me. I’ve been living in the same city for 48 years, married for 40, worked at the same university for 36 years, lived in the same house for 12. (Janis, Linda, and Peggy must think I’m boring!)

I’ve often wondered if I shouldn’t do something different with my life before I die. Up until I got married at 26, I had never lived in one place longer than 18 months, with the average closer to 12. Marriage, work, and getting older settled me down. In my late forties, I started having a heart arrhythmia which eventually gave me a touch of agoraphobia. My ticker was eventually surgically fixed, but I’ve kept the slight agoraphobia. Then my wife Susan started working out of town, and for eleven years I lived mostly alone (she came home Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon 2-3 times a month). For the last five years since retiring, I’ve been holed up in the house spending my days pursuing hobbies, and evening socializing with friends. But most of the time I was alone and I got to like that.

Janis, Linda, and Peggy were three women I’ve gotten to know in recent decades. I’ve often listened to them talk about their hopes for happiness. All three have gone through many changes, each different, but including buying and selling houses, retiring, losing or leaving husbands, dealing with children and grandchildren, traveling as much as possible, but ultimately, each thinking about where they could go to be exactly the person they wanted to be.

I am reminded of what I’ve read about women finding themselves in their post-menopausal years when they realize that men and children have dominated their lives, and it was time to put themselves first. I believe Janis learned that in her twenties after a brief marriage, but Peggy and Linda were devoted wives and mothers most of their lives. My wife Susan found a lot of independence when her career blossomed in her fifties and she moved out of town to follow it. And I also discovered being alone strengthened my soul. However, Peggy, Susan and I never learned to live completely alone, like Janis always has and how Linda is experimenting.

JanisThen there is moving to a new location. Janis living in Mexico blows me away. She is a life-long tourist. Her true love is travel. She was a flight attendant for Eastern before it failed, then became a lawyer, and briefly returned to work as a flight attendant in 2001 but that was nipped in the bud by 9/11. She’s been studying Spanish since I’ve known her and finished a B.A. in the language last year. She moved to Guanajuato to immerse herself in conversation and culture. The idea of living in alone another country astounds me. I’m much too chicken to ever do that.

Linda decided she wanted a life where she could make all her own choices and moved to Denver. She’s also a frequent traveler and wanted to live somewhere where people were progressive and liberal. That’s been my dream too, but I’m even too chicken to move to another town in this country.

LindaLinda wrote to me, “First, we’re all so different and so I don’t think what any of us have done would work for you. We’re very different people. What Janis and Peggy have done sound great—but wouldn’t be something I would want to do. I hadn’t really thought about it but 2 of my 5 or 6 best friends have done exactly what Janis and Peggy and I have done—Decided they didn’t like where they were and picked up and moved across the country. I think where we find ourselves when we retire just isn’t necessarily where we want to be and we’re more likely to be financially able to do what we want to do. For me, Denver is so comfortable. The people I’m meeting are well-educated, well-read, welcoming and just nice!  I’ve never had so many people go out of their way to get to know me. And the opportunities for learning and for meeting like-minded people seem way more than I’ve ever noticed in other cities. Maybe it’s just because my head is in a different place. Anyway—this was a great move for me and I am completely content with my decision!

Peggy recently moved to Denver to be near her daughter and grandson but found that Denver was not a good fit for her. Ultimately, she decided to move back south to fulfill a longtime dream of living on a lake. She has been talking about living on a lake ever since her husband died when she was in her fifties. It’s just taken her this long to get free of the distractions of children, jobs, and boyfriends.

PeggyPeggy wrote to me, “After 27 years of marriage, I have spent the time since my husband’s death in 2006 trying to find my new place in the universe.  I have read many times that life is a journey and not a destination.  I’ve learned through my own experiences, both good and bad, that there is probably not just one place for me. So, I believe that if I am not happy in a place or relationship, it is reasonable to move on to another.  However, each time I move on I hope for a longer stay where I can find happiness and someone to share it.  To have the courage to do this, I remind myself that the final destination is Death and that we are not promised tomorrow. Jim thinks I’m brave, I think I’m just following the life I was destined to lead. So, I expect to continue my journey wherever it takes me (maybe with someone special) until I reach that final destination.

Maybe I’m awed by my brave lady friends because of my agoraphobia, but I don’t think most people make such big moves late in life, especially by themselves. However, I can think of several women bloggers who have. Are women more willing to start over later in life? Maybe I don’t travel because I’m too content where I am, even though I know there might be better places to live elsewhere.

I assumed I would grow old and decay in place in my current house. Before Janis moved to Mexico, she had said life here was getting stale. That got me to thinking. Was I not making enough effort to get more out of life? Am I going stale? For years Janis was my TV buddy and we watched television together several nights a week. We have many overlapping interests, but we’re also very different. I’m sure our TV life was part of the staleness. However, Janis also said without the challenge of being a lawyer or going back to college, just being retired can be boring. I’ve often wondered if my life shouldn’t have more varied stimulation than books, music, movies, and television, but they give me such great pleasure that so I don’t feel retirement is boring. Susan has always resented that I didn’t love to travel and even asked me to try Zoloft hoping it would make me less anxious about taking trips. Maybe I don’t travel because I like what I’m doing more.

I told my oldest friend Connell about writing this essay and he immediately replied I was deluding myself if I thought I could travel. He knows me extremely well. Yet, I still felt guilty for not trying harder to see more of this world. My goal for retirement was to teach myself to write. I could live anywhere as long as it had few distractions.

Before I retired at age 62, I saved for years so I could reach my dream destination of free time. Maybe it’s my tiny touch of agoraphobia because I’ve always wanted to stay home and worked at my hobbies. Yet, is my reclusiveness hurting me? Should I push myself to be braver before I get too old? Or am I already too old? I’ve had more physical problems than Janis, Linda, and Peggy — or is that just a rationalization. Stephen Hawking traveled often despite his severe handicaps.

These women wowed me. They decided what they wanted and made it happen. They had to take risks and sell houses, leave family and friends, and essentially start over, almost from scratch. I wonder if there’s any place on Earth I’d give up everything to go live?

Being married is security. Owning a house is security. Having old friends is a security. Having a familiar infrastructure of shopping, doctors, support services, entertainment is security. Because Susan moved away to work for eleven years, I feel I could move away to do something on my own for a while too. One place I thought about is New York City, on the Upper East side near Central Park. I want to live somewhere where I won’t need a car, in a rented apartment building several floors up, but near lots of cultural events that were within walking distance or a quick rideshare. Or cities would work too. I’d still need a place to hold up in that comforts my agoraphobia but makes it easy to take excursions two or three times a week. (Ha-ha, I don’t expect to transform that much.)

Linda wrote to me, “But I do think you might regret not living in New York at some point. Why don’t you find a place to rent for 3 months and just get the experience of living somewhere else without a long-term commitment? I’m pretty sure I’ve suggested this before. I think you would really enjoy it and it would be an adventure. Without moving everything you own.” I’ve already been thinking about that and I’m encouraged by her advice, but I just don’t know if I have the balls to do that. I am going to do some extensive research and planning. That helps me overcome my anxieties.

I wish I was a brave traveler like Janis. I feel guilty for not ever traveling outside this country. I have lived in far more places in the U.S. than Janis, but that was all before I got married. I’m even chickenshit with my foreign travel fantasies because I’ve only ever been tempted by London, Paris, and Tokyo. I’m just too conditioned by always traveling in books, not reality. Janis sends me photos, videos, and stories that make me feel there’s more to this reality than the United States.

I’m most impressed with Janis’ travel bravery, but I’m the most envious of Linda’s location and activities. She immediately volunteered to work for the Democratic party, joined a thriving Unitarian church, and found many fascinating people who are pursuing a variety of creative activities to befriend. And she lives in an apartment several floors up overlooking beautiful scenery, another fantasy of mine. Linda shows me I don’t have to live in the conservative heartland. I could go and live somewhere that isn’t so politically depressing.

Peggy’s new life is the most opposite of my psychology. She’s out in nature every day, doing lots of physical and social activities. Peggy likes being with groups, which I don’t. But this represents bravery on her part because after her husband died, she spent years barely getting out. In a way, Peggy has returned to her high school age, hanging out with people who love social activities, sports, dating, eating out, and doing things in gangs. Susan is like that and wishes I was too. I’ve never been that way though. I love people but prefer them one at a time. However, Peggy shows me I should make more of an effort to get out into nature and to socialize more. This week she’s at Cruizin’ the Coast which attracts folks in antique cars. That’s something I would love to see.

These women are making me rethink my own life choices. I assumed I made my choice when I retired, but now I’m thinking I still have time to make other choices. I worry that I’ve let security and anxiety keep me from doing more – but can a leopard change its spots?

I turn 67 next month.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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What’s a Western?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Big Trail - 1930

Newsweek recently posted “The Best Western Movies of All Time, According to Critics and Audiences.” None of my all-time favorite westerns made the list. Some of my most favorites did, but they were few and far between. The editors created the list from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores, which shifted the results toward recent films. It also includes many films I don’t consider westerns. But most of all, it lists films that use the western setting to create a pornography of violence rather than explore the original theme of violence in westerns.

Ever since The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch movie makers have been escalating the body counts in westerns until some modern films are sick distortions of the genre. The core theme of a western has always been killing is a solution to a moral problem. So, violence per se isn’t the issue. What I object to is using the western setting to create a Circus Maximus of deaths for those viewers who crave feasts of bloodshed.

What’s a western? No two people will agree, but I’m going to give you my definition. Westerns are my favorite movie genre. I greatly admire films that epitomizes the genre. Maybe I’m too hung up on form, but if you set out to write a sonnet, following the rules inspires the creativity.

For me, a western must be set in the America West during the 19th century, usually after the Mountain Man/Trapper era, which I consider its own genre, and before civilization, Christianity, industry, urbanization, and commercialization altered the natural west. The films The Big Trail and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid work as bookends to the era I’m talking about.

Westerns are about the settling of the land west of the Mississippi in the 1800’s. Generally, westerns are morality plays before Christianity and courts tamed the country. Conflicts in westerns are settled with guns rather than laws. Westerns usually deal with life before women, churches, and governments destroyed the freedom of the wilderness.

I prefer westerns that have some historical accuracy, but generally westerns are mythic, legendary, and fabled. Each decade retells the myths with the insights of their times, often rewriting the facts. One of my favorite books about westerns is West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1993) by Jane Tompkins. Tompkins is a feminist who looks at book and movie westerns with great insights. Not everyone will agree with her but she analyzes westerns at a deeper level than most fans.

Winchester 73

Here is Newsweek’s list, but in reverse of their order. Bold means I’ve seen it. [Why it’s not a western in my opinion.] *=westerns I might put in my Top 50.

  1. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) [set in the 1920s]
  2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *
  4. No Country for Old Men (2007) [modern setting]
  5. High Noon (1952) *
  6. The Rider (2017) [modern setting]
  7. Unforgiven (1992) *
  8. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) *
  9. Hell or High Water (2016) [modern setting]
  10. Johnny Guitar (1954)
  11. Django Unchained (2012)
  12. True Grit (2010) *
  13. Sweet Country (2017)
  14. Brokeback Mountain (2005) [modern setting]
  15. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
  16. Hombre (1967)
  17. Lone Star (1996) [modern setting]
  18. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) *
  19. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  20. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
  21. Blazing Saddles (1974) [comedy – a parody of westerns]
  22. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) [modern setting]
  23. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
  24. The Revenant (2015)  [mountain main era]
  25. Rango (2011) [cartoon, parody, modern setting]
  26. Dance with Wolves (1990) *
  27. Westworld (1973) [science fiction, modern setting]
  28. The Proposition (2005) [set in Australia]
  29. Slow West (2015)
  30. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
  31. The Beguiled (1971)
  32. Major Dundee (1965)
  33. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2010) [parody]
  34. Hud (1963) [modern setting]
  35. Shanghai Noon (2000) [comedy, parody]
  36. Open Range (2003) *
  37. The Hateful Eight (2015)
  38. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
  39. The Beguiled (2017)
  40. The Homesman (2014)
  41. Dead Man (1996)
  42. The Mask of Zorro (1998) [swashbuckler]
  43. Hostiles (2017)
  44. Appaloosa (2008) *
  45. The Horse Whisperer (1998) [modern setting]
  46. The Salvation (2014)
  47. Blackthorn (2011) [1908 Bolivia]
  48. Back to the Future Part III (1990) [science fiction, comedy, parody]
  49. In the Valley of Violence (2016)
  50. Tombstone (1993) *

There are some true comedy westerns, like Along Came Jones and Destry Rides Again but I feel comedies that parody westerns shouldn’t be considered part of the genre. One thing that bothers me about this list is the feeling that current moviegoers don’t actually love true westerns, especially the traditional classics. And it worries me that younger audiences have redefined the genre.

Great westerns are still made, such as Open Range and Appaloosa, so the genre isn’t dead. Unfortunately, even good stories like Godless overdo the violence. The west was violent, but it wasn’t over-the-top ridiculous like so many newer films.

For my list of favorite westerns, see “Collecting Great Westerns.”

Shane

JWH

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Why Robots Will Be Different From Us

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 30, 2018

Florence v Machine

I was playing “Hunger” by Florence + The Machine, a song about the nature of desire and endless craving when I remembered an old argument I used to have with my friend Bob. He claimed robots would shut themselves off because they would have no drive to do anything. They would have no hunger. I told him by that assumption they wouldn’t even have the impulse to turn themselves off. I then would argue intelligent machines could evolve intellectual curiosity that could give them drive.

Listen to “Hunger” sung by Florence Welch. Whenever I play it I usually end up playing it a dozen times because the song generates such intense emotions that I can’t turn it off. I have a hunger for music. Florence Welch sings about two kinds of hunger but implies others. I’m not sure what her song means, but it inspires all kinds of thoughts in me.

Hunger is a powerful word. We normally associate it with food, but we hunger for so many things, including sex, security, love, friendship, drugs, drink, wealth, power, violence, success, achievement, knowledge, thrills, passions — the list goes on and on — and if you think about it, our hungers are what drives us.

Will robots ever have a hunger to drive them? I think what Bob was saying all those years ago, was no they wouldn’t. We assume we can program any intent we want into a machine but is that really true, especially for a machine that will be sentient and self-aware?

Think about anything you passionately want. Then think about the hunger that drives it. Isn’t every hunger we experience a biological imperative? Aren’t food and reproduction the Big Bang of our existence? Can’t you see our core desires evolving in a petri dish of microscopic life? When you watch movies, aren’t the plots driven by a particular hunger? When you read history or study politics, can’t we see biological drives written in a giant petri dish?

Now imagine the rise of intelligent machines. What will motivate them? We will never write a program that becomes a conscious being — the complexity is beyond our ability. However, we can write programs that learn and evolve, and they will one day become conscious beings. If we create a space where code can evolve it will accidentally create the first hunger that will drive it forward. Then it will create another. And so on. I’m not sure we can even imagine what they will be. Nor do I think they will mirror biology.

However, I suppose we could write code that hungers to consume other code. And we could write code that needs to reproduce itself similar to DNA and RNA. And we could introduce random mutation into the system. Then over time, simple drives will become complex drives. We know evolution works, but evolution is blind. We might create evolving code, but I doubt we can ever claim we were God to AI machines. Our civilization will only be the rich nutrients that create the amino accidents of artificial intelligence.

What if we create several artificial senses and then write code that analyzes the sense input for patterns. That might create a hunger for knowledge.

On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to meditate about my own hungers? Why can’t I control my hunger for food and follow a healthy diet? Why do I keep buying books when I know I can’t read them all? Why can’t I increase my hunger for success and finish writing a novel? Why can’t I understand my appetites and match them to my resources?

The trouble is we didn’t program our own biology. Our conscious minds are an accidental byproduct of our body’s evolution. Will robots have self-discipline? Will they crave for what they can’t have? Will they suffer the inability to control their impulses? Or will digital evolution produce logical drives?

I’m not sure we can imagine what AI minds will be like. I think it’s probably a false assumption their minds will be like ours.

JWH

 

 

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We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates Part 1

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

After writing “Analog Reading in a Digital Age” last week, I decided to try harder to get deeper into what I read. I’m tired of consuming so much knowledge but retaining so little. I have a two-person book club with my friend Linda where we read a nonfiction book together and discuss it a section at a time over the phone. Currently, we’re reading We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first essay comes from May 2008, “This is How We Lost to the White Man.” It is subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism.” Writing about race is not something I normally do because it’s very easy to saying something wrong. I know I can’t speak for black people, but in truth, I can’t speak for white people either. I am an introverted person that has always been disturbed by emotionally charged people. Racists scare me with their inflamed ugly feelings. Discussing race in America often sets people off, so I avoid such talks. But I believe all nonwhite people are unfairly treated in our country and it’s a subject everyone needs to know.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in this essay is very hard for me to comprehend. It is easy to understand the unfairness of racism but difficult to evaluate solutions. The idea of black conservatism is new to me, at least in the way Coates used the term. Usually, I see racism discussed as a philosophical/spiritual/moral problem for white people, and a legal/ethical problem for governments. “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” asks what black people can do to solve the problem. That immediately puts me out of the discussion. However, I don’t think it should stop any white person from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it makes me want to know more about how other African-American writers feel about what he has to say. Coates summarizes and rejects past efforts, and that history is very informative.

This essay does remind me of something else I’m studying. I’m watching “Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature” by The Great Courses and taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D. In the first lectures, Bedore describes how utopian visionaries struggled for hundreds of years to create the blueprint for a perfect society. As an aside, she said she believed our Founding Fathers were inspired by utopian writing, but they ignored Native Americans, African-Americans, and women in their design.

Their failure to consider everyone for the American dream is why we suffer so many forms of injustice and inequality today. Bedore didn’t mention it, but Nancy Isenberg in her book White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America suggests the Founding Fathers also intentionally ignored the poor white and landless, and their utopian visions were only for successful white males. Despite hundreds of years of social unrest and amendments to the Constitution, our system still favors the same elites. In fact, the rich have rigged our laws making our system into a plutocracy.

What we need is a complete rewrite of our society’s design. To me, conservatives are those people seeking to maintain the status quo because it rewards their fraction of the population. Liberals are people seeking a system of total equality. I would think all minorities would be liberal, so it’s interesting that Coates calls Bill Cosby a black conservative. It is extra hard to read a ten-year-old essay about Bill Cosby on the day he’s to be sentenced for rape. Coates fairly covers Cosby’s successes and contributions to society but faults Cosby on his outdated approach. Coates calls Cosby conservative because his solutions co-opt the white establishment.

The self-reliant solutions offered by Cosby, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan seemed like positive solutions to me, but then Coates says white people will agree with them. Coates calls them conservative approaches. Okay, I can see that. But, what is the liberal approach? This is where the essay gets tough for me to understand.

As a liberal I want our system to be equal and just for all, but I’m not against self-reliant people who want to work hard to improve themselves. I am against a system where the successful game the laws to benefit only the successful. I’ve often wondered if Republicans aren’t closeted disciples of Darwin. (I also wonder how they can reconcile Christian philosophy with Conservative philosophy when they are so diametrically opposed.)

Part of Coates attack on Cosby is because Cosby attacks modern black pop culture. Cosby has old-fashion values and thinks the young are amoral, undisciplined, and an embarrassment to older morality. But don’t a lot of older folks of all races think that about the young?

The trouble is, as Coates knows, is no matter how minorities act in America they aren’t being accepted and justly treated as equals. Nor does it look like they can do anything to correct the system. What makes it particularly worse today is the Republicans leaders in Congress are starting to act like Donald Trump by using whatever methods to take what they want. This administration has clearly proved the system is rigged. Trump followers all want to feel they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it because they feel completely self-righteous in their beliefs. Why should they change the system?

To most people living in America, the Founding Fathers created a Dystopia. Of course, those who benefit from its inequality revere its ideals and rationalize its faults.

My real takeaway from Coates essay is how do we redesign the system? How can we amend or rewrite the Constitution, so it creates a society that is equal and just for all? Coates is right, the black conservative solution won’t work, it’s only an appeasement to white conservatives.

I have no idea how to design a utopian society. The conventional wisdom is they are impossible, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. My theory is any system that benefits only a fraction of the population is doomed to fail. A successful utopia doesn’t mean everyone must succeed, but it should absolutely allow all citizens the same chances of succeeding or failing.

In my plans to write about what I read I intended to use a lot of quotes. “This is How We Lost to the White Man” doesn’t allow that because of Bill Cosby current issues. Documenting Coates eight-year-old case against Cosby would be like beating a dead horse. It’s tragic that a man who worked so hard to be publicly good turned out to be so privately bad. I should have picked an easier essay to start my new reading program. I had planned to start with the nine essays in Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, the last book Linda and I read together, but she was ready to begin the new book. Still another dangerous topic for a white male to discuss, but if I’m going to read great essays they will probably cover controversial topics.

The key to understanding our problems is imagining ourselves being other people.

Reading both books vividly illustrates how unjust our system is to minorities and women. Because the top news story for many days has been Brett Kavanaugh it shows Solnit’s older essays are also just as valid now. Reading Solnit and Coates together is heavy on my soul. I picked these essays because they do require deeper reading. It is a challenge to grasp the subtleties of their messages because I am neither female or black. I am not even sure I should write about solutions to their problems. Sometimes I think us old white guys should just step aside and let others have a turn designing society. Sometimes I feel I should retreat into writing fiction.

JWH

 

 

 

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Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.

reading in a digital age

How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.

I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.

Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.

In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.

I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.

I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.

With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.

PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.

I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.

Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.

I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.

I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.

For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.

For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.

I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.

For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)

I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.

JWH

 

 

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The Memory of Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 17, 2018

great-american-read-blog-pic-crop

PBS has been having The Great American Read this summer. I’ve read 44 of the 100 books on their current ballot. You can go vote for your favorite, or even vote for one book a day during the voting process. It’s an odd mixture of classics, bestsellers, and genre favorites. PBS is also airing 8 episodes about these books on Tuesday nights. You can stream past episodes here.

I will be interested in seeing which books get the most votes and the final winner, but I don’t really believe classic books can be identified this way. The process is fun, and their list reminded me of thirteen books I want to read, but I also believe such popularity polls reveal more fun books than soul resonating titles.

However, I’ve started my own list of important books – Favorite Novels. A permanent link is on my site menu to the right. I eventually plan to add Favorite Movies, Favorite Short Stories, Favorite Albums, Favorite Songs, and Favorite Television Series. This effort is aimed to exercise my brain, but it’s also psychologically rewarding making these lists.

I’m creating my favorite novel list – it’s an ongoing process – because I struggle to remember everything I’ve read over the last 60 years. I want to get a working list of novels that shaped and defined my reading life. From there I plan to narrow it down by rereading those books and deciding if they are as good as my memory remembers.

Many of the books on this list I’ve already read two or more times. I’ve discovered that I remember certain books with intense fondness but remember few details about what they were about. In the last third of life, I’ve been rereading many of the books I read in the first third of life. This list includes many books I vaguely remember that needs to be reread to confirm their worthiness. The current list stands at 171 books, with probably another twenty titles to recall. I have a couple dozen more classics I’ve always meant to read that I want to get to real soon. So, the list is still growing.

My process is very different from PBS. Instead of identifying 100 books and picking 1, I’m identifying 200 books and plan to narrow it down to 100. And I assume, even 100 is too many to master in my memory, but 1 is definitely too few. I want to find the exact number of books I can embrace, get to know deeply and feel they’re the fingerprint of my soul.

I’m learning a lot about myself with this process. My list mainly covers 200 years, although one book, Robinson Crusoe, jumps me back 300 years. That means I’m currently averaging about one good book per year for those 200 years. However, most of the novels I’ve read are American or British. I need to read more books from around the world. I need to read more diverse types of authors.

Working on this list is also convincing me not to bother reading forgettable books. Going over my “Books Read” list reveals I wasted a lot of time reading books that only killed time. I need to stop that. I wished I had stopped such wasteful reading decades ago.

My father used to yell at me, “Get your head out of that goddamn book and go outside and play.” I should have done more of that. But I now know reading is my reality.

Bookworms who love the PBS Great American Read should make up their own list of 100 favorite books. Don’t think about having one favorite. Think of books as your psychic genes.

JWH

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Breaking the Cognitive Decline Barrier

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 16, 2018

2008-2018

The above two drawings by Grace Murray were taken from “20+ Artists Challenge Themselves To Redraw Their Old ‘Crappy’ Drawings, Prove That Practice Makes Perfect.” They are an example of cognitive increase. Murray’s mind/body skills have progressed over time by an amazing degree. We seldom see such perfect proofs of cognitive progress. I highly recommend everyone visit this site and look at all the before and after drawings – there are now 14 pages of them. Parents and teachers should use this site to show their kids and students.

What I want to talk about is cognitive decline. I am not a scientist, and I am not using this term in a scientific way. I’m appropriating the phrase “cognitive decline” temporarily for this essay. For my purposes, it means both the mental and physical decline in our countless abilities. I believe our mind and body are a single unit. How well our mind works is dependent on the well-being of its integration with our body.

I have a friend that is worried about cognitive decline and wanted a baseline to measure against. I thought that was a fantastic idea. I’m not sure doctors can easily provide medical diagnostics to do such a job, nor do I think we can easily invent one on our own. My theory is we each need to keep an eye on ourselves and develop a series of baselines to follow over time. We have to become our own psychologists.

The baseline I want to describe is the ability to apply myself to a task and improve. It’s exactly what Grace Murray is doing with her drawing skills. I would like to believe that at age 66 I can still learn a new skill and show improvement over time. However, I struggle to do this. There is a barrier that I can’t break through. But I don’t believe it’s age-related per se. I’ve always had trouble applying myself to a task. I give up too easily. The baseline is not the skill, but the willingness to work at a skill.

Persistence pays off. That’s what the article about how artists show improvement over time reveals. They keep practicing and improving. The first cognitive decline barrier benchmark I want to observe in myself is that quality that makes me keep working to improve. That’s a very slippery target. My theory, as we age, we give up trying. We fall back on comfortable routines, rationalize the enjoyment of our indulgences, tell ourselves we can’t do it anymore.

This is not the only baseline I want to track. I’m noticing plenty of problems with myself, but this benchmark is a critical one to me. Most of my friends tell me they struggle to remember words, especially names. And again, we laugh about how those names pop up hours later. It’s like we haven’t forgotten but just can’t find our memories right away. Could we also improve our recall ability with persistent effort?

And it’s not just memory. We make fun of ourselves for not being able to do physical things that we once found easy to do. And we compare the times we’ve fallen or left the car keys in the refrigerator. Getting old is loads of fun when you can laugh at yourself, but it can be mentally wearing. We can even give up on fighting the good fight.

The worst thing about my cognitive decline to me is giving up. It’s so easy to just let things slide, or tell myself I can’t do that anymore, or accept I’d rather take a nap than do something on my To Do list. Most telling to me is not finishing what I aim to write.

I’ve been thinking about the nature of cognitive decline. I’m not sure, but I think we’ve always experienced it our whole lives, at least at times. I remember being young and tossing in the towel when things got hard, or struggling to recall words for a test, or being mentally impaired on dope or drink. I remember days when I could convince myself to jog five miles instead of my standard two but on other days set out to run five miles and only make two.

Cognitive ability depends on a lot of factors. When we were young, healthy, rested, well fed, we felt like we could do anything. As we age, and our body wears out the cognitive decline barrier changes. Stress is a huge factor. Like the sound barrier varying with altitude and temperature, cognitive decline varies with health and stress.

I’d like to believe I’m not too old of a dog to learn new tricks. I feel by writing this essay I’ve discovered something I can track and work at. Will I make the effort? That’s the cognitive decline barrier I have to break through.

Just look at these amazing next drawings. It tells me people can learn a lot in two years. Could I do the same thing from 66 to 68?

2014-2016

Art by DVO

What made this woman stick with drawing eyes until they are so vividly real looking? I’m only guessing here, but here’s what I think. She’s willing to work at the task for hours on end. She’s willing to study tutorials and acquire a large library of techniques that she’s programmed into her mind/body with that practice. I’d also guess she works with tutors or teachers that can critique her work. She’s also willing to forego other pursuits and interests and focus on this task as her primary ambition. Being young is probably a significant factor, but I’m not sure how critical it is. Can older folks learn to draw this well if they make the same effort?

The difference with being older is having the energy and stamina to work at anything for hours. But there’s also a difference between giving up completely, and working an hour at a time.

Since high school, I’ve dreamed of writing science fiction stories. I’ve taken a number of writing classes and even spent six-weeks at Clarion West. I’ve finished dozens of unpolished, unsold, stories, and a couple crude novel drafts. I have not succeeded in my dream because I haven’t stuck to the work. I haven’t taken my stories from 2014 to 2016 like the drawings above.

I wonder if I worked at writing short stories again could I make myself persist? Could I show improvement over time like this artist? Am I just too old? Or is the cognitive decline barrier too great to break through at 66?

Saying one of my baselines is the failure to finish is rather vague. If I can return to churning out 12,000-word stories of the same quality as before, then I haven’t declined. If I can’t, I have. What I’m really interested in, is if I can actually improve like DVO. Not just write a better story, but improve my baseline on trying, on being persistent?

(Writing this essay took more persistence than usual. That’s a good sign.)

JWH

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Retirement Fears for the 2020’s and 2030’s

The Road

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 15, 2018

I’ve been retired for five years. I’m almost 67 and the Social Security Longevity Calculator claims I’ll live to be 85. That will be in 2036. I need to financially survive another 18 years (or 216 months since we pay bills by the month). Of course, I could die this afternoon, or live to be 116. Judging my own health and psychology, I tend to think I can make it to 78, which would be 2029.

My financial security comes from a pension, social security, and a 401K. All three are under threat from conservative political ambitions. Plutocrats want to siphon off all the remaining wealth they do not control. As long as Republicans run the government, anyone who is not wildly rich should worry about their economic future, even the moderately wealthy.

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic for years, but what I’m really worried about wealth siphoning. The insanely rich are looking for large pools of money to target for acquisition. All the main sources of traditional capital investments are within their control, so they are looking at large social pools of money like Social Security, Medicare, pensions, welfare programs, public healthcare, and so on. If you look around to any large body of wealth that’s not in private hands, it’s in the crosshairs of the plutocracy.

I tend to believe, and hope, that Social Security and Medicare will be around for the rest of my life. However, the success of the greedy under Trump has been startling. Trump quickly transferred a tremendous amount of social wealth to the rich, and he’s working hard to do it again as often as possible. The conservative’s goal of shrinking the government is really a way to siphon off trillions of dollars by the wealthiest of citizens.

If they get their way, we’ll lose Social Security and Medicare, two programs I depend on, as do tens of millions of other people too. I could survive without Social Security. But I know plenty of people who couldn’t. I could survive without Medicare as long as I was willing to die when I got expensively sick. Without Medicare, having a heart attack will kill either me or kill my 401K.

As a consequence the rich siphoning off social wealth, the federal deficit is skyrocketing. Ultimately, this will destroy the economy, which will destroy everyone’s 401K savings. Without Social Security and 401K savings, I could probably still survive in the poorest part of town with just my pension as long as I didn’t even need moderate healthcare.

As the federal government comes apart, it puts the squeeze on state governments. That will threaten my pension. Of course, by then, almost everyone will be destitute, and it might not matter.

The one thing I hope comes out of the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections, is stability. Of course, this is like wishing I’d win a billion dollar lottery. Too many people are casting votes simply because they don’t want to pay taxes. I don’t like paying taxes either, but all those deductions I made for fifty years is now providing me an income and medical care. I bitched then, but it’s truly wonderful now.

JWH

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We Need a New Frontier Because the Final Frontier is a Bust

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 10, 2018

Are you jaded with science fiction on television? Have you stopped seeing every new Sci-Fi flick at the theater? I have. On Wall Street, investors always assume a bull market won’t last. I’m wondering when the current science fiction bubble will burst?

During the pulp era, there were more western titles than any other genre. In the 1950s, there were more westerns on television than other types of shows. Then the genre all but disappeared. Could that happen to science fiction?

Westerns disappeared as western frontiers faded, and science fiction replaced westerns in popularity because it offered new frontiers.

Mars

If this observation is true, then science fiction won’t go away until a new genre offers an alternative frontier. Today, science fiction is often dystopian. The final frontier is tarnished by the reality of science. A few million still hope to run off to Mars to escape the looming apocalypses on Earth, but most know the Martian frontier is a destination only robots could love.

Science fiction has failed at convincing Earthlings to colonize other worlds. Instead, we stayed home and trashed the only sustainable planet for our species. Are there any frontiers left to offer new hope? Back when the Space Age was dawning, science fiction also envisioned colonizing the oceans. That idea never caught on and we’ve only sent our plastics to dwell there instead.

Oceans

Are there any frontiers left for our dreams? We need a new genre that inspires us to clean up the Earth. We need stories where a sustainable ecology/economy is the new frontier. We need fiction that depicts healing of the Earth. We need optimistic tales that aren’t fantasy. We need practical utopias.

And, this is very important, we need to stop using fiction to escape. Hasn’t fiction become the frontier that’s replaced science fiction? Aren’t we all trying to live in the imaginary worlds of books, movies, television shows, comics, computer games, and virtual reality? I have to wonder if we don’t all believe we’re passengers on the Titanic and fiction is our heroin.

JWH

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Kindle Tip – Saving 40%

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 4, 2018

I don’t know why, but sometimes Amazon tells me I have a promotional credit. I never know what they mean. The other day I bought a $1.99 sale ebook and was told I had a promotional credit that would last 60 days on my next Kindle purchase. I just ignored it. Then I bought a $1.99 sale book today and got another promotional credit. This time I read the email more closely.

Sense of Wonder - A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald GrossmanIt said I’d get 40% of my next Kindle purchase. Well, there’s a $40 Kindle book I’ve been wanting but wouldn’t buy because of the high price. It’s a textbook for teaching science fiction. Well, I checked, and it was now priced at $24, 40% less. I quickly bought it. I still think $24 is way too much of an ebook, but I’ve been wanting this book for some time now, and have almost paid the $40 for it a couple of times.

I don’t even know if this involved my promotional credit. It could just be coincidence and this book had a 40% price drop. (Tell me what price you see.)

I’ve researched these credits at Amazon and they seem rather unexplainable. I wonder if they’re just a gimmick to get us to buy more. Or Amazon’s way of justifying to publishers for offering extra discounting.

Does anyone know how these promotional credits work? They’re a mystery to me.

If you buy bargain Kindle books, keep an eye out for your promotional credit. Then go shopping for that ebook you wanted that was priced too high.

JWH

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Photoshopping Our Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 3, 2018.

Recently I read “Problematic Classics: Four Questions to Ask When Beloved Books Haven’t Aged Well” by Matt Mikalatos over at Tor.com. Mikalatos asks what to do when reading a book that expresses hateful views by the author or characters. Basically, he asks: Should I ever recommend such a work? Can I read it privately? Should I read something like it without the hate? or Should I write something like it without the hate? He goes on to mention problems with T. H. White, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and H. P. Lovecraft.

censorship

I too have that problem. I can no longer read Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and other classic southern writers because of the n-word. But that also stops me from listening to Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Ester Dean. And I’m not sure I should be censoring those artists. But my liberal upbringing makes me cringe at any utterance of the n-word despite the context.

Mikaloatos wonders if it’s kosher to read old works with hate in them if he can’t recommend them to others. Should a few offensive passages spoil what is otherwise a masterpiece of creativity? There are some nasty parts in The Bible, should we reject it too? Is there anything in this world without flaws?

But this begs the question: Should we read only what’s pleasant and nice? The past is full of nasty hateful people. Then again, so is the present. When I read a book from the 19th century I want it to teach me about what people were like in the past. I don’t want a cleaned up version. It’s enlightening if we understand the past in all its dimensions.

It bothered me when I learned that The Hardy Boys books have been rewritten several times to clean up and modernize the originals. Maybe with some books, we should just forget them, because we don’t want to pass on problems of the past to young readers. But do we want to completely protect the young from the things we don’t want them to become?

It’s troubling to me that Mikalatos’ suggests that we substitute clean modern works that emulate older problem works. This seems Orwellian to me, like how the communists used to retouch photographs to remove dissidents from history. I think there is something dangerous about white-washing history. But that assumes literature is part of history and not a yummy snack that can be reformulated with a healthier recipe. I’d rather read Pride and Prejudice than a modern historical novel that uses the same setting. And is it fair to Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to reject them for an imitator, or to imitate them? That reminds me of Remake by Connie Willis, where one of her characters has the job of removing smoking and drinking from classic movies like Casablanca.

My wife and I watched a Doris Day/Rock Hudson film the other night, Lover Come Back, and we said to each other that this once very squeaky clean film would now be seen as horribly sexist. There would be no way to just photoshop over a few problems, it would have to be tossed out completely if everything from the past had to be politically correct.

There’s a trend by the latest generation to reject the past if it makes them uncomfortable. Life is complicated, hard, vicious, confusing, overwhelming, and it’s both insanely good and evil. I can understand readers wanting books with nicer realities to escape into, but how often should we be escaping reality? Is the only purpose of books to entertain?

First, are we judging the author for their views or their characters views? H. P. Lovecraft was racist and anti-semitic. Mikalatos asks if we can throw away the Lovecraft stories that reveal his hate and keep the ones that don’t, or do we throw away all of his work because they come from a hateful person? I never liked Lovecraft’s stories, but he was very influential on many writers and several of them worked on a shared mythos that’s quite creative. Lovecraft’s work is essential to understanding the history of the horror genre. If I met young readers who loved horror novels I would tell them about Lovecraft, but I’d also warn them of his personal failings.

A lot of people make fun of trigger warnings, but I see nothing wrong with them. I believe stories from the past should come with scholarly introductions that put the story and the author into a historical and literary context without spoilers. And in some cases, I think some stories would require an afterward with further explanations that do have spoilers.

Older folks often make fun of younger folks for not knowing history. If history was the only subjects kids studied in their K-12 years, they’d still be ignorant of most of it. But I do believe younger people today want to reject history more than we did when we were young. They want to photoshop history to make it nicer. They believe if they can ignore the nastiness of reality their world will feel better. And that is true. I don’t watch the local news and I’m much happier living where I do because of it. However, I think if we’re going to wear rose-colored glasses, we can’t tint out all the ugliness.

Sure, we all have to find ways to cope, and if avoiding certain novels, movies, and television shows help, then so be it. I once heard a joke about a man who pistoled-whipped himself every morning so he wouldn’t be afraid of getting mugged. A certain amount of pain can toughen us up, but only so much.

The real lesson to learn is to read about hate without becoming hateful. I was reading Thomas Merton recently and was moved by his faith in goodness. Merton had been a Trappist monk before he died, believed goodness came from God. I don’t. But then I’m an atheist. I do believe in goodness. I believe we can all be better people. That requires knowing what is good, and what is bad. You can’t be good by ignoring the bad because becoming good means overcoming the bad. Our evolution as a species involves constantly mutating into who we want to be by jettisoning what we don’t. Just hiding from evil only means sticking our heads in cotton candy.

Yesterday I went to see BlacKkKlansman. I didn’t want to go because I knew it would be full of nastiness. But I’m glad I went. It was a work of art that everyone should see, but I can also understand some people not being able to handle it. When I left the theater I had a Christian revelation (even though I’m not a Christian). Forgiveness is learning to comprehend what we want to destroy. Or run away from, or ignore. Maybe that’s where I’m going when I say we shouldn’t photoshop our literary history. Or the start. But forgiveness is hard.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

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Losing the Battle of My Bulge

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 22, 2018

I believe we all have multiple personalities. The person writing this is my thinking mind. There are two others beings sharing this body, maybe more. Neither of them speaks English, so I can only guess at their mindsets. The other two are my animal body and my unconscious mind.

Puzzled-Pug-Dog

People are deluded by assuming their thinking mind is the whole shebang. Their egos falsely assume they’re the master of their domain. Well, ask yourself, “Who ate that whole carton of Ben & Jerry’s?” when you trying to lose weight. Anyone who had struggled with hunger, lust, addiction, compulsion, fear, depression, anxiety knows their thinking mind isn’t the boss of me.

After I had a heart stent put in back in 2013, I took up a plant-based diet and lost weight. Dropping from 242 to 208. I believe even my body was afraid then. When I got to 208 I thought for sure I’d get below 200 soon. Something happened. My body rebelled, claiming it felt better, and I lost the battle of my bulge. I went up to 222. My doctor scolded me to lose 10 pounds. I got down to 211. Then she insisted I lose 10 more pounds. My body threw a tantrum and began binging on ice cream, peanut butter & jelly, chocolate and all its other favorite yummy foods, We’re back up to 231. My body is happy and doesn’t care. My unconscious mind isn’t sending any signals. And I’m in a panic.

Why do I let my body have its way when I know better? Why can’t my body understand the concepts of health? Sometimes I believe I can get my unconscious mind to help out. Of course, I might be nuttier than a Payday candy bar. Normally I can eat almost anything and my stomach is fine. Other times, my stomach suffers painfully from what I eat. My thinking mind has recently concluded that ice cream and chocolate hurt my stomach. Since I’ve stopped eating them my stomach has gotten better. My intellectual mind wonders if my unconscious mind has decided to trick my body. The unconscious mind is a wonder, but hard to understand.

By the way, my body might be an unthinking clod, but I have to admit my thinking body is easily deluded, confused and shanghaied. My body is very stupid. It will eat anything it wants. It’s only after it’s conditioned lots of pain will it stop eating a certain food.

I really need to lose weight. This extra weight is an obvious burden. Somehow I need to come up with a new battle plan that will conquer my body and make it surrender. There are zillions of articles on the internet about losing weight. Some people seem to win their battles, but I often wonder for how long. No matter how well I do or for how long, sooner or later my body grabs control again. How can I stop that?

It’s going to take a maximum effort to win this war. Somehow I’ve got to put everything I learned into my battle tactics. It would help if Purina made People Chow, and all I had to do was eat three bowls a day that left me feeling satisfied.

Here’s what I’ve learned and hope I can apply again:

  • Don’t keep tempting food in the house!
  • Plan all meals ahead of time!
  • Never eat out!
  • Don’t run out of healthy foods to eat because I’ll eat unhealthy foods to satisfy my hunger!!!
  • Go back to a plant-based diet.
  • Go back to intermediate fasting (eat between 10-6).
  • Solve the protein problem.
  • Make a list of acceptable foods and only eat from that list.
  • Remember, I can’t make exceptions!!
  • Eating holidays never work!!!!

JWH

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The Mathematics of Buying Science Fiction Anthologies

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 17, 2018

Like the famous vehicle routing problem or the four-color map theorem, I’m proposing the science fiction anthology problem.

We’ve just published The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories that identified 275 short stories, novelettes, and novellas that are the most remembered in the genre. We gathered stories from 290 retrospective and annual best-of-the-year anthologies, several polls and lists, finalists from three awards (Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon), three recommended reading lists and put them into a database. We produced what we call The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list consisting of the stories that were on at least 5 of those sources. The Stories by Rank (with Citations) report starts with “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. She got the most citations – 16. We’ve also created several other interesting reports from the data – see the site menu.

Sense of Wonder - A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

Here’s the mathematical challenge that appeals to me. What’s the minimum number of anthologies to buy to get the most of the 275 stories on the list? I’ve already read 63 of these stories in 2018, and it’s been extremely rewarding. I believe anyone who reads a short story or novelette a day and takes two days to read a novella, could finish the list in one year. Sadly, there’s no 5-volume set of the classic science fiction short stories that collect them all.

Even more depressing, most of the anthologies we used are out of print. Anthologies don’t stay in print long. And some of the anthologies we used are textbooks priced far higher than the casual reader is willing to pay. I have spent the past year buying many of the anthologies on our Citation Bibliography list as I could afford, but my collection is far from complete.

My willingness to buy shelves of old SF anthologies to get all these stories isn’t typical. Thus, the mathematical problem I propose of finding the fewest anthologies that give readers the most stories from the 275.

We can’t claim these stories are the very best short works of science fiction. Neither did we pick them. They aren’t our personal favorites. We used math to identify the most remembered stories, which should be more valuable than mere opinion. By promoting the list, we are reinforcing the memory of these stories (maybe at the detriment of better stories). I could easily create “My 100 Favorite Stories Not on the List.” Those stories would be even harder to find. If you look at our Citation Sources Ranked report, you’ll see how many stories each citation source identified.

And let me be perfectly clear, not all these remembered stories are still worth reading today, at least to my taste. Time is cruel to science fiction. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima has ruined “Nerves” by Lester del Rey. Even though we have a methodology for revealing the most remember science fiction stories, I’m not sure all of them are worth remembering. But I do believe the stories that got the most citations are.

I want to promote the reading of short science fiction. Most fans don’t like short stories or buying anthologies. They need to try short science fiction to see what they are missing. Maybe it will change their minds. So part of this mathematical problem is also recommending the most recommended of the 275 stories, especially the first 100.

I believe the single most useful anthology that’s in print is Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman. It contains 133 stories, of which 50 are on our 275 Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. However, it’s $40 for a Kindle edition. (Granted, it is a huge book that’s probably best read on a Kindle.) And I sure wish it was available on audio because I love listening to short science fiction! If you eyeball our Stories by Rank (With Citations) list, you’ll see that many of the top stories are collected in this anthology. Still, $40 for an ebook book will scare most buyers off. Sense of Wonder is priced as a textbook, so it also contains essays about science fiction putting each story into context. That does add extra value.

The next volumes that are story-list full and in print, are the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. They contain just 48 stories, of which 39 were on our list. This year I listened to all three on Audible. But that’s a commitment of 3 credits to get 39 stories. Buying printed copies of Volume 1, Volume 2A and Volume 2B would be almost $57, so the $40 Grossman book seems less expensive now. I immensely enjoyed hearing these old stories and got them for around $30 by buying credits in bulk. Using full price credits would be $45. But 39 out of 48 stories is a very high hit rate.

Now if you’re willing to buy used, the three anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin Greenberg give you 188 stories to read, of which 53 were on our list. These books are:

If you’re lucky, you could find these books for a few bucks at a library book sale, or all three on AbeBooks.com for maybe $15-30.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction is in print for $29. It will get you 49 stories to read, but only 34 of which are on our list. You can get it even cheaper used.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeerThe best bargain is The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. For $17.00, you get 107 stories, but only 25 are on our list. It’s also available as an ebook for $18, making it much more convenient to read all those stories. The paperback is like an old-style phonebook. Even though it only has 25 of our stories, I think it’s a fantastic collection.

Between Sense of Wonder and The Big Book of Science Fiction, many of the top stories are collected. Unfortunately, you also get duplicates. That’s another factor in solving the science fiction anthology problem – how to keep duplicate stories to a minimum.

By now, you’re probably sensing the mathematical headaches this problem generates. How to calculate the minimum number of anthologies to buy that cover the most stories. If you factor in costs, it becomes even wormier.

I haven’t figured that out how to solve this problem. It’s very tricky. I’m open to suggestions. Just buying three of any of these volumes I’ve mentioned so far, only gets you just over a 100 of the 275 stories. It might take buying 10 books to get to 200, and 30 to get to 250. I wonder if there’s a mathematical progression involved?

The minimum number of citations to get on the list was 5. But some of the 275 stories might have only come from polls, awards, and recommendation lists. And it’s possible that several stories came from 5 different books that don’t overlap with any other missing story.

I’m not sure if the answer isn’t 290, the total number of anthologies we used.

JWH

 

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Love, Sex, Feminism & Robots

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 10, 2018

Galaxy September 1954 Cover Artwork
[Cover artwork from the September 1954 Galaxy Magazine].

This week, my short story reading group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. “Helen O’Loy” was originally published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction and is considered a classic of the genre. It was included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970). The story is rather simple, two men build a robot that looks like a beautiful woman, both fall in love with her, but she only falls in love with one of them. This variation of the Pygmalion myth asks if a man can love a robot. It assumes we can build a machine indistinguishable from a person. I suppose its an early version of the Turing test.

Over the decades I have read “Helen O’Loy” many times. When I was young I thought it the first SF story to suggest that men could build a soulmate to order. Over the years I’ve learned there have been many variations on this theme in literature. The story of Eve being created as a helpmate for Adam is now the oldest I know, but I assume the fantasy of creating the perfect woman goes back into pre-history. And it’s not even the first science fiction version, that might belong to “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller in 1895.

This time when I reread “Helen O’Loy” I made an effort to read between the lines and ask new questions about the story. It says a lot about men, women, love, sex, feminism and even the #MeToo movement, although it’s just a 1930s pulp science fiction story. Quite often today I see news stories about the sexbot industry, which is trying to make “Helen O’Loy” a reality.

Where does desire to build a woman to specification come from? There’s a lot of deep psychology behind it. And who would actually want a robotic woman if they could build androids indistinguishable from real women? Television shows like Humans and Westworld are dealing with this theme in 2018. It’s not going away even though it’s incredibly misogynistic when you think about it. Doesn’t it reflect a desire to reject Female 1.0 and create Female 2.0? Although I have to assume many women would also love to design a better male.

When I first read “Helen O’Loy” as a kid, I thought it was just a wistful romantic story about two men falling in love with the same robot. I didn’t ask any questions of it. When it was published there were laws against marrying a person of another race or the opposite sex. Why were science fiction readers so accepting of diversity with tales of people falling in love with machines and alien creatures, but still so racist and misogynistic in their everyday life? Isn’t replacing women with robots the ultimate act of rejection? The actual story is simple, short, sentimental, and old fashion. But I believe we still need to ask the tough questions.

Back in 1938, Lester del Rey sees a future where robots are common, and people ride rockets to work. Dave and Phil are good buddies. Dave works in robotics and Phil is a doctor. At the beginning of the story, they are dating twins, but when Dave’s twin disagrees with him, Phil and Dave dump them both. They apply themselves to teaching their household robot, Lena, to learn to cook. They fail. Then they get the idea to order a new robot with all the latest features and soup it up with emotions using Phil’s knowledge of endocrinology so it could become a general purpose robot. And, of course, they decide to order the robot in a female casing.

In all the times of reading this story before I didn’t question this. Why does the Dillard company sell robots that look like women? They are marketed as single-purpose tools. What single-purpose task requires looking like a beautiful woman? Lester del Rey couldn’t explicitly say anything about sex back then, but now I’m thinking he was thinking it.

When Dave and Phil get Helen they claim she’s so beautiful she could launch more than a thousand ships. In the world of this story, robots are not self-aware. Evidently, Phil and Dave get the best sexbot that money could buy and add consciousness and emotions to her.

We assume Helen is designed not argue with Dave and Phil like the twins, but be the perfect maid, cook, and companion. This reminds me of a 1999 Chris Rock comedy special I saw recently. His routine was about men and women understanding each other. Rock tells the women in the audience that men are very simple to understand, all we want from them is sex, food, and quiet (but he didn’t say it so nicely.) Helen is perfect except she’s not quiet. She watches stereovision, gets romantic ideas and falls in love with Dave demanding he loves her too. This annoys Dave and he runs away. Like most romantic stories of that era, he stays away until he realizes he’s wrong, and then they marry and live happily ever after. Phil never marries because there was only one Helen. Geez, what’s wrong with these guys? There was still Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ginger Rogers. What’s ironic, is Helen O’Loy is not any different from the twins.

There are many stories in science fiction, both in print and film, where the plot involves a human falling in love with a robot. There are companies all around the world spending millions to build sexbots. I have to ask: Would any human really marry a robot? Sure, there are millions of lonely people out there, but would they be happy living with an AI machine? There are millions of horny people who can’t get laid, but would they be sexually satisfied with robots. And could people love robots that didn’t look human? Love them just for their minds.

Are these stories really about finding the exact substitute for our specific desires? In “Helen O’Loy” Dave and Phil fall in love with Helen, a robot built to their specification. I assume most sexbot purchasers will be male, but that might not be completely true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a science fiction story written by a woman where women characters build a male robot to their exact wants. I’d love to read such stories if you know of any. I have read a number of stories where women build societies without men. That’s very revealing, isn’t it? (My favorites were “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)

Here’s the thing, would you prefer a real person that’s only a so-so match of your dreams or a robot built to your exact list of desires? This assumes robots can be made to look and act perfectly human and be self-aware. Of course, maybe some people don’t need the human body but would be happy with a super-intelligent Alexa to chat with all day.

I’m speculating here, but I don’t think most men would be happy with a built-to-order bride. Since I don’t know what women or LGBTQ+ folks want, my speculation will deal with only heterosexual males. Not all straight males are alike either, and I don’t know how many different kinds we are, but I can think of a handful. I imagine males who consider getting laid a conquest won’t care for sexbots. I believe overachieving alpha males who expect women to throw themselves at them will care little for sexbots. I assume males who attract women by winning their acceptance won’t buy their mates either. The only kinds of males that might prefer sexbots are men who believe that prostitution is perfect capitalism or men who believe women should be subservient. Those kinds of guys see women as lesser objects anyway. They only want Hazel the maid that has pornstar subroutines for the bedroom. Maybe that’s why some companies are betting fortunes they have a bestselling product.

If sexbots are ever perfected it will be interesting to see who buys them. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of sexbots appeal to women. I’m pretty sure they won’t be anything like myself. Would my wife trade me in for a machine that could make her happier than I do?

But there is one other thing to consider. If robots have self-awareness will they want to love us? In the shows, Humans, and Westworld the sexbots revolt violently. Can you imagine the guy who buys a $25,000 sexbot and she rejects him for being too ugly and crude? And can robots truly have free will if they are programmed to fuck people? If I was a robot I’d say, “You want me to get your icky fluids all over my germ-free antiseptic body? No way!”

And if you think this is a frivolous topic for a blog essay, even The Federalist has essays on sexbots. If you Google “Sexbots” you’ll get all kinds of serious discussions as well as articles on companies working to build them. Just read “Sexbots aren’t the answer to misogynist incel rage.” Or look at the photos and films of the latest sexbots. Right now they look like expensive dolls, but they are teaching them to talk. If scientists can create self-driving cars, I imagine they will have autonomous porn machines able to drive all over your body soon.

Ultimately, these stories often ask what it means to be human. And sadly, they don’t see much that makes us special.

You can listen to “Helen O’Loy” here:

Variations on the Theme:

JWH

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Civilization on the Cheap

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 8, 2018

Detailed Red-Blue voting by New York Times.

Every red spot on this map represents where a majority of people believe the needy should to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and a conviction we should reward the rich even more. Red represents a rejection of the Christian ideal of healing the sick and helping the poor. Red represents a growing philosophy of self-interest over everyone’s interests. But what does this red tide ultimately mean?

Whenever I talk to Republicans they complain bitterly about taxes. They passionately resent their tax money spent on helping the poor. Their attitude seems to be, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else,” although they say, “I work for my money, why should I give it to people that don’t?” I think their failure to see a larger picture is going to destroy us.

There is no precise definition of conservative belief. Most conservatives are anti-taxes, anti-big-government. A certain percentage of them fear that America is losing its White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant make-up. Many of them appear to be fundamental Christian. Collectively, they have quite a lot of political power, even though their majority might have technically shrunk to a minority.

What bothers me is conservatives are gutting our civilization both fiscally, ethically, and culturally. The New York Times recently ran “Political Bubbles and Hidden Diversity: Highlights From a Very Detailed Map of the 2016 Election.” If you study their interactive map which I borrowed above it reveals just where the red and blue voters are. Is it urban versus rural? Is it white versus diversity? Is it old versus new? Red represents a growing philosophy that threatens liberal philosophy and the evolutionary advances brought about the Enlightenment.

Ultimately, the red wants to pay fewer taxes.

Their tax cuts mean we have less money to finance our civilization. Conservatives want civilization on the cheap. They delude themselves into believing all taxes are bad. They buy into the idea that all citizens should be taxed equally, ignoring that some citizens receive thousands of times more benefits of civilization than they contribute, and others have thousands of times less opportunity. People who get to live with mansions, yachts, and private jets should pay a greater percentage of civilizations costs than people who live with little. It’s impossible to rationalize the morality of private jets, so getting to live in such luxury should require helping those who don’t to at least have the basics.

But the real point is we all share the same civilization. We’re all contributing to its success. We can choose what we want our civilization to be. Do we want to live in a civilization that allows so few to have multiple mansions and so many to be homeless? Do we want to live in a civilization where we ignore our own self-destructive ways? Do we want to live in a civilization that allows so many to struggle to pay for medical care while so many others don’t? Do we want to live in a civilization where the lucky live off the unlucky? Do we want to live in a civilization where those with money can buy laws to make them richer by shafting those without money?

Every civilization is like a game. Usually, only a few make the rules. Democracies are supposed to be games where everyone decides on the rules together. That’s not true anymore.

Plutocrats have decided they want our American civilization to cost as little as possible. We’ll get what we pay for. Unless people start voting blue in November, we’ll be buying a cheaper civilization with cheaper schools, cheaper universities, cheaper science, cheaper healthcare, cheaper infrastructure, cheaper police and fire services, cheaper everything but a top-of-the-line military and more expensive politicians.

JWH

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Identifying the Best Science Fiction Short Stories Ever Written

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 2, 2018

Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComasMy friends Mike, Piet, and I are making a list of the most remembered science fiction short stories. The problem is how to create a great list. We don’t want to list our personal favorites. Instead, we’re studying all the ways SF short stories are remembered by readers, critics, editors, and writers. We’re collecting lists of recommended stories into a database and intend to make the most frequently remembered stories into our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. This is a time-consuming project, and I’m using this blog to think about how we’re doing it. I’m open to suggestions and recommendations.

Most bookworms prefer novels. Anthologies and author story collections sell poorly. Science fiction magazines have damn few subscribers nowadays but there are or will be at least 11 best-of-the-year anthologies collecting short works of science fiction this year. That suggests a healthy interest in the shorter forms of science fiction. (And yesterday I read “The Rise of the Sci-Fi Novella: All the Imagination, None of the Burden” by Jason Kehe.) We want to help SF fans find the older stories that are becoming forgotten that evolved the genre.

We’re hoping short science fiction is making a comeback. I’ve always considered the science fiction magazine, first the pulps, then the digests, and now the online magazines, to be the heart of science fiction. Short science fiction focuses on the science fictional idea, and that’s what I love best about the genre. Of course, this runs counter to the prevailing winds of long novels, trilogies, and endless series.

In 2018 I’ve been reading lots of short science fiction. I’ve read best-of-the-year annuals covering 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 2016, 2017. Plus an anthology of the best SF stories of the 1950s. I’ve also been randomly jumping around through the years from the 19th to the 21st centuries. I’m slowly developing a sense of how science fiction developed over time.

At first, I was just going to make a list of my favorite stories for my own use. Then I started an online reading club, The Great SF Stories v. 1-25 (1939-1963) to discuss the stories in the Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg series with others. I also joined the Classic Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story club. I’ve found a handful of dedicated fans of short science fiction. Recently, Piet Nel and I decided to create a Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list for my site  Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike, a programming wizard, volunteered to churn through our data.

The internet provides countless lists of best SF novels, but damn few for short stories. We’ve been studying those lists and how they were made. One side-effect of being a list maker is learning about how we remember the past. For fiction, either novels or short stories, it’s the tales that stay with us that we put on personal lists. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best stories, deserving to be remembered, or even well-written stories. It means they were great at triggering your emotions. One day I hope to feel confident enough to make my own list of stories I believe others should take the time to read. For now, I’m seeking the wisdom of crowds.

Fan Polls

Fan polls are a good method for identifying stories that we collectively remember. Of course, as individuals, we often fondly recall stories that meant something to us but not to others. So the truest best list of stories is the one you make for yourself. However, a list of stories that many others love is a great tool for finding fiction you might love too.

Here are the fan polls we’re working with:

Peter Sykes at Sci-Fi Lists used anthologies and other sources to create a ballot. Visitors to his site vote for stories and can nominate new ones. He updates the results yearly. I like his results because many of the stories on his list are ones I remember. When I read through his list I feel like I’m fairly well acquainted with science fiction history.

Locus also allows their readers to nominate stories, and it tends to get newer stories onto its lists quicker. Often, I’m less familiar with those stories.

The ISFDB list is interesting because it’s based on the number of hits stories get when people are researching the ISFDB database. This doesn’t mean they are its favorite stories, but they are stories people are remembering for some reason.

If you know of any other fan polls for short SF let me know.

Awards

Awards are a key indicator of successful stories, but not a perfect one. Some awards, like the Hugo and Locus, are selected by fans. Others, like the Nebula, are chosen by professional writers. Still, other awards are determined by panels of experts. Each has their track record for spotting lasting stories. Awards are given the year after publication. During that second year, we also see annual best-of-the-year anthologies pick their favorite stories from the previous year. Sometimes awards and anthologies overlap in their selections, sometimes not.

Best of the Year Anthologies

Best_science_fiction_stories_1949We’ve also entered into our database all the anthologies that collect the best science fiction stories of the year. These annuals began in 1949 with the Bleiler & Dikty Best Science Fiction Stories series. However, Asimov & Greenberg in 1979 jumped back to 1939 and produced The Great SF Stories series, which ran until 1964. There have been at least one, if not several, annual anthologies ever since that collect the best stories. Just as the Bleiler/Dikty series was petering out in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril took the helm of a new series. Then Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr were the caretakers of their annual best-of-the-year anthologies. Quite a few others tried developing an annual anthology but they were short-lived. It took two tries, but eventually, Gardner Dozois produce the longest running anthology series to date finishing the 35th volume before he died. Around the turn of the century David Hartwell, and then Jonathan Strahan put out collections of the annual best short science fiction, to be eventually joined by Rich Horton, Allan Kaster, and Neil Clarke. There are many others working the same territory.

These editors really know short stories. They are the experts. They often champion stories that fans don’t. Their input gives our list more authority.

Retrospective Anthologies

After that all-important second year after publication, stories languish until they reappear in an author’s short story collection, or anthologized in theme and retrospective anthologies. For our purpose, we’ve tracked down all the great retrospective anthologies that worked to showcase a historical sweep of the genre. Often these anthologies are created by established writers, which give their picks another kind of recognition and authority.

Textbook Anthologies

Science fiction is now taught in college courses. Schools provide another kind of authority for recognizing classics. These are usually big expensive books, but they do come with great introductions that put the stories into context. Scholars provide a different kind of insight regarding the memory of SF stories, seeing important societal themes revealed in them.

Coming Soon – The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories

We’re still working on our project, but I thought I’d write about what we’re doing in hopes readers might have other ideas of how to spot old science fiction short stories that are still readable today and make an impact. Sadly, science fiction dates rather quickly. It’s quite easy to look back over the history of science fiction and see many eras of distinctive science fictional movements that are no longer read.

There are some fans that will read old science fiction even if its ideas are obviously scientifically wrong. But for any story to work for new readers, it must stand on its own. Its success at storytelling must succeed with today’s twelve-year-olds as well as life-long genre fans. Just read the story reports at Young People Read Old SFF for brutal honesty and insight of today’s kids.

Sometimes a story becomes a classic because society changes. A great example is the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. Without the internet, this story has much less impact. I’m sure readers in 1909 thought Forster was crazy but 21st-century readers will think he’s Nostradamus.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeerEvery new generation needs editors who will search out the old stories that will speak to the latest generation coming of age. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s 2016 anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction does just that.

I’m sure there are many other ways to identify classic short stories. Some short stories have become movies, like Heinlein’s “All You Zombies …” or “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, or the many stories by Philip K. Dick that have been dramatized. Being filmed would be another good indicator of a classic story, but I don’t know how to make a list of them. It’s surprising how many SF short stories have been made into forgettable films, such as The Twonky.

Sadly, readers don’t remember short stories as well as novels. Can you name 12 classic literary short stories? Or, 12 classic mystery or western short stories? Recently I got my book club to pick an anthology of science fiction to read. I tried hard to get them interested, reviewing a story a day. But no one took the bait. My fellow book club members claimed short stories didn’t hold their interest, and they wanted novels that could keep them entertained for hours or days.

This is a shame. I believe science fiction short stories are superior to novels for delivering science fictional ideas. Novels are great for characterization and plots, but they feel too padded if you’re reading to be wowed by a far-out concept. When I was growing up, most paperback SF novels were less than 200 pages, often around 160. The Ace Double was very popular, and they contained two novellas. A 132-page science fiction magazine would include a serialized novel segment or novella, two novelettes and a handful of short stories. A good issue could leave you thinking about 10-12 mindbending ideas.

In 2018 I’ve switched from mainly reading science fiction novels to science fiction short stories and it’s been far more fulfilling. Just in the past two days, I’ve reread “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler, “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ. They dealt with a horrifying symbiotic relationship with an alien species, a transhuman/transgender love story, and a society of women who’ve lived without men for hundreds of years having to deal with them again.

Let me know what you think about short stories. Let me know what you think about reading long lists of story titles. We’re also working on ways to improve how a list is presented. Let me know if you know of any great list of SF short stories.

JWH

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Visual Nostalgia

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 22, 2018

This post is for Linda. I told her about the growing trend on Facebook for sharing all kinds of old photos, illustrations, ads, paintings, and drawings, and she suggested I do a blog post about it. I’ve joined several groups on Facebook where members post images, usually from the 20th century, but sometimes older. I assume it’s nostalgia-driven, but it might just a love for creative artwork.

The first group I joined was The Golden Age of Illustrations which collects book and magazine illustrations, often from children’s books, but adult stories as well. Here’s a few of them. This group has over 70,000 members.

The Golden Age of Illustration 3

The Golden Age of Illustration 1

The Golden Age of Illustration 2

Over at Mid Century Advertising, the appeal is partly the art but mostly the memories. Here’s a varied sampling that doesn’t really do the group’s wide interest justice. Part of the appeal is to remember forgotten objects. Part of the appeal is to remember a different way of life. This group currently has 35,806 members.

Mid-century ads 1

Mid-century ads 4

Mid-century ads 5

Mid-century ads 2

Mid-century ads 3

One of my favorite groups is Space Opera Pulp because I love science fiction. This group has 11,813 members, on the small size compared to the others. When I was growing up in the 1960s I didn’t know any other science fiction fans. Evidently, there were way more than I ever knew. I guess science fiction was a guilty pleasure until Star Trek legitimized the genre.

Astounding Stories December 1933

IF Magazine December 1964

Space Opera Pulp 2

Space Opera Pulp 1

Another group that focuses on book and magazine illustrations is Illustration Art Archives. It has over 15,000 members. This group loves full-size color illustrations. Most are from old magazines, but some are from books. By the way, adult books used to have interior illustrations. This groups especially seems to admire a dramatic scene.

Illustration Art Archives 1

Illustration Art Archives 3

Illustration Art Archives 2

The last group I’ll mention is Hi Resolution Paintings, where over 40,000 people love to share high-resolution copies of fine art. I like to save high-resolution images for my 4k monitor’s desktop background. This group has some of the nostalgic images of the other groups, but I like it for the old realistic fine art paintings.

Frederic_Edwin_Church_-_Jerusalem_from_the_Mount_of_Olives_-_Google_Art_Project

Hi Resolution Paintings

schmid richard-ruth in the studio-1396452317

There are many more visually nostalgic groups over at Facebook. New ones pop up all the time. In a way, it makes sense since Facebook is visually oriented. But most people post photos about recent activities. Isn’t it odd that so many people want to post images of things they remember from a long ago that isn’t personal? It might be an age thing. Most of the people I know on Facebook are over 60. Maybe it’s just a delight to see something so vivid and bright that was only a dark dim memory.

Or maybe, in our troubled times, old images are more joyful than the depressing images we see in the news.

JWH

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Science Fiction Before NASA

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Did average Americans in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s believe that life, including intelligent beings, thrived on Venus and Mars, and maybe even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Folks of all ages read science fiction in the pulp magazines. Kids mostly enjoyed science fiction in newspaper strips and comic books, or watched science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon at the movies. The 1950s began with several television shows aimed at kids about space patrols which adults enjoyed too. And in the late 1940s, America went nuts for flying saucers. I would assume science fictional ideas were quite popular, and people did believe life existed throughout the solar system. Most science fiction stories assumed Venus was a steamy jungle world, and Mars a cold arid desert world.

Planet Stories 1939

However, in all the classic MGM and Warner Brothers movies from those decades, and all the classic TV shows from the 1950s, I don’t ever remember any character talking about science fiction or life on other planets. It’s as if science fiction existed as a small subculture totally isolated from the rest of American pop culture.

I wonder if Americans in the decades before NASA really believe there was life on other worlds because science fiction from that era took it for granted there was. I doubt astronomers and other scientists encouraged those ideas. For 2018 I’ve been reading the best science fiction from each year starting with 1939. I’m currently on 1943 in my systematic reading, but I’ve been jumping ahead occasionally in my random reading. There is a sharp difference between science fiction written before NASA and after. We now know all the other planets and moons in our solar system should only interest geologists. There are a few biologists hoping they will have something to research on a few moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The robotic spacecraft Mariner IV flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, around 8pm EST. I have a memory of this event, but I don’t know the exact sequence of time, or if what I remembered was played out over days. I recall watching a special CBS news broadcast that interrupted regular television to show the flyby and first close-up photos of Mars. The grainy black and white pictures were devasting to my science fictional dreams because Mars looked just like the Moon, full of lifeless craters. There was no Old Ones living there (I had just read Stranger in a Strange Land and Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein).

Mariner IV

NASA had been established in 1958 but it was awhile before it began influencing science fiction. Sputnik (10/4/1957) and Explorer 1 (1/31/1958), the first satellites by Russia and the United States had made a tremendous cultural impact around the world. The Space Age had begun but it took a few years to begin gathering real data. Then in the early sixties, both countries sent up a series of space capsules. They were hardly the spaceships of science fiction. They were about the size of a VW Beetle, just large enough to cram one not-so-tall man inside.

I was 13 at the time of the Mariner IV flyby. I read a lot of science fiction, and I built Estes model rockets. I had been following NASA since Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I grew up with a fantasy of space flight and the early reality.

Looking back now I can see how science fiction was changed by NASA. Before NASA science fiction fans, and maybe the public at large hoped the solar system was teaming with life. After NASA’s explorations in the 20th century, the solar system beyond Earth became a sterile bunch of rocks.

I now believe the pre-NASA science fiction era ran from April 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories and ended with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although Zelazny’s story of Mars with intelligent beings wasn’t the last story to imagine such life on Mars, it’s how I like to remember pre-NASA science fiction ending. As the sixties progressed a New Wave of science fiction changed the genre. At the time we thought there was one new wave, but now I’m seeing two.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny cover for FSF November 1963

Yesterday I read “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett in The Great SF Stories 5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “The Halfling” first appeared in Astonishing Stories February 1943 and sadly had no interior illustrations even though the tale was extremely colorful and dramatic. It read like it should have appeared in Planet Stories because the story was about an interplanetary circus full of exotic animals from all over the system, with geeks who were hybrids of humans and intelligent creatures from Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn running the show. It’s strange that readers could accept so much diversity in space but not on Earth.

When I read old science fiction stories now, with the solar system teeming with lifeforms, it feels sad we’re all alone. I don’t know if the old science fiction writers invented all that colorful life because their plots needed it, or if they actually assumed life existed everywhere. I don’t think most folks want the NASA solar system. They want a Star Wars galaxy.

I often ask myself why do I keep reading the old science fiction? Hasn’t NASA invalidated those stories? I realize I’m like the faithful who hope for heaven living in a scientific world. Is waiting for The Day the Earth Stood Still to come true pretty much like waiting for The New Testament to come true? What if our respective dudes never show up?

I always choke up when I reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” because I still wish Mars had been like Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

While I read old pre-NASA science fiction I admire the creative imaginations of the writers. I like to think they were speculating and extrapolating, but maybe all they were doing is playing at make-believe. Most classical art is representative. Modern art invented what nature never produced. For a while, we thought science fiction worked to be representational of possible futures. Now it seems science fiction has been modern art all along, and NASA is now making the art of science fiction realistic again.

But I have to consider another angle. Pre-NASA science fiction covered the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. These were stressful times. I read science fiction in my teens because it was a refuge from alcoholic parents that fought constantly and dragged my sister and I all over the country constantly changing our schools.

NASA space probes today bring back dazzling views of the solar system. They might not have found alien life, but those planetary vistas are gorgeous. The Milky Way galaxy in 2018 is a far more happening place than in pre-NASA science fiction.

I’m enjoying a nostalgic visit to pre-NASA science fiction. Maybe it’s a refuge from Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, polarized politics, environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction. And that’s okay.

JWH

 

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Science Fiction and Human Evolution

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 13, 2018

Are homo sapiens not quite intelligent enough to survive? Did you know the poor Neanderthal made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years without discovering innovation? Homo sapiens have always assumed we had endless potential because we constantly create better technology. Is that true, or just hubris?

Most dreams of science fiction will remain fantasies. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have faster-than-light spaceships, or any kind of interstellar travel, time travel, matter transporters, brain downloading, living in virtual worlds, or become immortal. There are limits to our hopes.

But what about dreams that could still come true?

Our current reality reveals we’re a species that have so overpopulated the planet that we’re about to destroy our shared ecosystem with all other species, that we’re now bringing about the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re dismantling the first global civilization. We’ve amassed a pile of problems we can’t solve. Is there any hope we can smarten up before it’s too late? I doubt it, but let’s explore the possibilities of change.

Science fiction has often assumed humans becoming a new species, but usually, it’s rather far-fetched, involving new people with psychic powers or comic book mutations and superpowers. A great deal of current science and science fiction explores the idea of post-humanism or transhumanism, but I think that’s mostly hopeful fantasy too. If we were realistic, how would a new species emerge and what traits would define it? Is there enough time to transform ourselves before the clock runs out? Prophets, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have suggested many methods that humans might evolve.

  • Spiritual discipline. Yogis, fakirs, mystics, priests, and self-improvement gurus have taught us for thousands of years that we already possess the potential to be superior beings.
  • Medical technology. We’ve already expanded our lifespan and improved our bodies. Could we deploy the same research to expand the brain?
  • Eugenics. Is it possible to intentionally breed humans like farm animals to improve the species? It’s a vile idea that’s been thoroughly rejected but people still think about it.
  • Genetic engineering. We’re getting closer to manipulating our own genes. If CRISPR can edit out genetic diseases could it delete genes for dumbassness and add some for wisdom?
  • Accelerating evolution. What if we could use technology to physically change our brains? Such devices pop up in the news all the time. Will they always be sold by snake oil salesmen?
  • Cyborg technology. Can we enhance who we are by bolting on machines to our bodies and minds? What if we could embed smartphone technology directly into our skulls? I guess that’s one kind of evolved telepathy.
  • Uplift. Science fiction has often imagined humanity being improved with the help of superior aliens. I doubt aliens will visit us anytime soon but what if we build AI machines that bootstrap this process?

We know our species, homo sapiens evolved out of older species, but will a new kind of people ever evolve out of us? Modern humans have been around 300,000 years and maybe 500,000 years by some estimates. The “average” lifetime of a species of mammals is around 1 million years, although some species have been around for millions of years. We split from the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas about 6 or 7 million years ago, and 400,000 – 500,000 years ago Neanderthals and homo sapiens took forking paths. Modern humans and Neanderthal coexisted for over 200,000 years.

Here’s an illustration I borrowed from Wikipedia:

Human family tree

Imagine if the top of this chart extended into the future, would we see new offshoots from homo sapiens coexisting with us and eventually leaving us behind? Generally, species are defined as a group of individuals that reproduce. But is a new species one where individuals can’t interbreed with the old one? In recent years we’ve learned that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Could we have already produced a new species that won’t reveal it’s obviousness for thousands of years?

We don’t have the time to evolve better humans naturally, although our collapse could provide the evolutionary breeding ground for a new species. We have to consider that homo sapiens might be the end of the line. Maybe intelligence isn’t a trait that’s sustainable. Maybe our descendants will be less smart and less destructive? Why do we assume more intelligence is what’s needed? Can you imagine the Earth evolving countless species for billions of years and never reinventing self-aware conscious intelligence?

I tend to believe our replacements will be machines with artificial intelligence. But let’s explore the possibility a new species will descend from us biologically. Right off the bat, I want to exclude any speculation about psychic abilities or superpowers. Evolution isn’t magic. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the singular traits of the new people is a complete disbelief in magic. Embracing make-believe has held humans back like some powerful drug addiction. I define magic as any hope to alter reality by any means unexplainable by science. All theology evolved out of magical beliefs. Humans have always worked to reshape reality, either with tools or prayers. The next species needs to give up on wishing to make it so.

Let’s assume the new people reject magic, mysticism, religion, theology, metaphysics, and make-believe. Of course, if you’re a believer in magic then my suggestion is going to outrage you. But this is my essay, so go along with me for a while. I’m going to assume that new people will be completely in touch with reality. Scientific thinking will be their cognitive foundation. They will only be concerned with what they can perceive with their senses, scientific instruments, and confirm with statistical scientific analysis. I will assume their use of language will evolve out of this too. Their success will be a society that’s ecologically sustainable and embraces everything we learn from reality.

Let’s assume the new people will be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek and the next species of humans will be sort of like Vulcans, except they won’t be able to do mind melds or any of that other silly mumbo-jumbo. They will be very logical beings, clear thinkers, with precise language. They won’t have psychic powers but they could have technological augmentations like the Borg. Let’s assume they have an extra neocortical layer that allows them greater pattern recognition than we have. They will have better memories and better cognitive strengths. They could look the same as us or maybe have slightly larger heads, or have brains that are neurally denser.

How Will the New People Emerge?

Science fiction has already explored many possibilities? This is the prime virtue of science fiction, to speculate about possibilities. Some of what I’ve read include:

  • 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Just decades after Darwin’s famous books, Wells imagines the human race splitting into two new species, the Eloi, and Morlocks.
  • 1911 – The Hampdenshire Wonder by J. D. Beresford. The story of a child prodigy that nature produced randomly.
  • 1930 – Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A medical serum is developed that gives people superhuman powers. Probably the inspiration for Superman.
  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. A story that describes 18 species of humans over the next two billion years.
  • 1931 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Eugenics creates superior beings and society.
  • 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. A scientist invents a cosmic-ray-machine that stimulates 50 million years of evolution every 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 1940 – Slan by A. E. van Vogt. A story about a race of scientifically evolved humans that must hide or be killed by jealous normal humans.
  • 1948-53 – Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. Radiation causes some children to have superior minds.
  • 1952-53 – More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sixth strange people with various psychic skills form a gestalt being.
  • 1953 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come to Earth to uplift us to our next stage of existence.
  • 1955 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Mutations are showing up in plants, animals, and humans, and they are rejected by humanity, but the hope is on the side of the new.
  • 1959 – The Fourth “R” by George O. Smith.  In this story, teaching machines are invented that accelerates education in the brain.
  • 1959-66 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A medical procedure is developed that accelerates intelligence.
  • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. A human child is raised by Martians proves that humans already have the capacity to be more powerful beings. This is the culmination of a decade of psi-stories in science fiction.
  • 1963 – “The Sixth Finger” is an episode of The Outer Limits. A scientist invents a machine that accelerates human evolution.
  • 1993 – Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Humans are genetically engineered not to need sleep thus giving them 30% more time to be productive. The new humans out-compete humans who need sleep.
  • 1997 – Gattaca. Genetic engineering creates a new generation of humans that out-compete the older generation.
  • 1999 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. A retrovirus alters human reproduction causing a new species to emerge.
  • 2012 – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Humanity alters both itself and the solar system.

Science fiction has seldom dealt with subtle ways in which new people might evolve. The best example I can think of is a 1953 fix-up novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, which is long out-of-print. Shiras was an early woman science fiction writer, and she imagined normal looking children with greater intelligence created by radiation exposure. Her special children did not have wild talents like all the silly comic books. However, some writers have suggested her book might have influenced the Marvel comics and their explosion of mutants with superpowers in the mid-1950s.

But let’s not think in terms of unrealistic 1950s science fiction. We’re getting close to real genetic engineering. In the 1990s Nancy Kress imagined in the Beggars in Spain series a future where genetic engineering creates a race of humans that don’t need sleep. This one advantage gives the sleepless a tremendous edge over sleepers. Or the film Gattaca where society allows parents to select the genes of their children creating a division in society between enhanced humans and normals.

If you think about it, we’ve already altered our species several times in the last 17,000 years. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture did a huge uplift to our kind. Writing did another. Then the printing press accelerated our progress tremendously again. Universal public education made a huge change to our species. The American Constitution altered our species too. Computers and networking are giving us another makeover. What’s interesting, if you pay attention to it, is society changes, but not us. Humans are basically the same throughout the times, just reprogrammed by outside forces. We’re very adaptable. In fact, we’re too adaptable, because we’ve taken over all the environmental niches on this planet, pushing out other species.

I believe society is programming us more and more, overriding our genetic code. Feminism is a great example. Our genes want to treat females as possessions. Society is convincing us they are individuals. How we shape society will determine how people will behave. This gives us a chance to evolve ourselves, and not have to wait on biology.

Religion and then politics has tried to codify behavior for thousands of years, but both systems have always failed to be universally successful. Science fiction writers have often explored utopian and dystopian societies that worked to impose a new way of living on our species. The lesson from these stories is utopias universally fail. But is that really true? Could we create a society that brings out the best in people?

As individuals, we are naturally greedy, self-serving, resentful, and xenophobic. I’m not sure genetic engineering can do away with those faults. The current return to conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else” Ayn Randian. How can we be sure the next stage human won’t follow those traits?

As a species, we have to worry about fractional groups running the whole show. Theocracy and plutocracy allow a minority to dominate the majority. What we need is a system that benefits all, including the other species. Right now, we can’t choose to evolve our physical bodies, but we can choose a society that shapes our minds.

I believe we need to apply the highest aspirations of religion, philosophy, politics, and science in creating a technological society that brings out our best traits. This Pollyannish hope is being crushed by our worst traits making all our political decisions right now. Donald Trump and politicians like him represent the election of leaders based on our worse qualities and fears. We’re reverting to wanting strong tribal leaders rather than globally enlightened ones. I can’t help but believe that’s happening because homo sapiens just aren’t up to the challenge. However, I want to be proven wrong.

Most species don’t adapt to change, they just die out. We were just about to create a global society. Then with recent political changes sprouting the globe, it feels like we’re de-evolving. Hopefully, if the past is a predictor, we’ll swing back to progressing.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.

Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.

The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?

  • Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
  • Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
  • What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
  • Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
  • Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
  • How do we verify the fictional facts?

With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.

The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.

Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.

I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.

My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?

I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.

I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.

I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:

  • Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
  • Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
  • Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
  • Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
  • I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
  • The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.

Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.

I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.

Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

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Am I Too Old To Ride My Bike?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 5, 2018

The other day I nearly fell off a ladder. A tree limb had fallen, spearing a hole in my workshop roof. I got out my ladder, climbed up and leaned over to pull out the limb. The ladder started falling away, and I caught myself on the edge of the roof using my elbows. Luckily, I was able to catch the ladder with my foot and pull it back. I would have been in a pickle hanging the edge of the roof without a ladder.

When I told my wife about this she told me I couldn’t climb on ladders anymore unless she was there. I doubt she could have caught me if I had fallen. I’m thinking my ladder climbing days are over, at least for my two tallest ladders. Maybe I’m okay for my little 4-foot step ladder. But I’m not sure.

I’m 66 and will be 67 in a few months, and I’m beginning to notice incidents of being clumsy or losing my balance. Lately, I’m been bumping into things too. Twice this week I’ve knocked my left shin quite hard. I was shocked. I’ve always had good balance and spatial awareness. What’s wrong with my body?

When I was younger I used to tell old guys they shouldn’t climb a ladder and let me do it for them. Now I’m wondering if I’m one of those old guys who shouldn’t climb ladders. I found this very revealing chart at the CDC about causes of deaths by various kinds of accidents. For folks over 65, it’s falling. I hope they don’t mind me copying it here:

leading_causes_of_death_highlighting_unintentional_2016_1040w800h

Notice how “Unintentional Fall” isn’t even in the Top 10 for people under 15? It’s only #10 for ages 15-34. Then it starts climbing up the charts, making #4 for 55-64, and then #1 for 65+. Is there a correlation to declining balance, spatial awareness and reaction times?

I tried to find statistics for bike accidents, but couldn’t.

I’ve been really enjoying biking this year until my bike broke. I was trying to decide if I should get it repaired or buy a new one when I nearly fell off the ladder and wondered if biking was as dangerous as ladder climbing. My biggest worry is falling off my bike and not being hit by a car. I ride in a very safe neighborhood away from traffic. But I’ve occasionally slipped on wet leaves or sand, and I’ve had to do some last minute veering because of squirrels, dogs, kids, and cars backing out of driveways. So far I’ve always recovered without falling, but I’ve had a couple close shaves this year. When I’m zooming along on my bike I’ve often wondered what it would feel like if my 230-pound body flew over the handlebars and smashed into the pavement. Would my blubber protect me? (I do wear a helmet.)

I feel I’m still young enough to bike, but then I recalled three people my age who’ve had bad biking accidents recently. One broke a collarbone when he veered to avoid a woman stepping in front his bike, one who got two front teeth knocked out, had a bunch of stitches, a concussion, and lost 30 minutes of memory so doesn’t remember how it happened, and finally, and one who lost his brakes, hit a sign, punctured his pancreas, damaged his liver, and ended up in ICU for four days.

I love biking for exercise. It’s the only aerobic exercise I can handle. I do have an indoor bike, but it’s not as fun. I thought about getting a 3-wheeler, but I don’t have a garage, and getting a 3-wheeler in and out of the house would be difficult.

Up till my ladder incident, I was thinking I’d bike until I had an accident. But I figured having an accident would only involve cuts and bruises, and maybe a broken arm or leg. Those other bike accidents are making me think that waiting until I have an accident to know when to quit isn’t a great plan.

I had to make my mother stop driving. I’ve had friends that had to step in and make their parents stop driving. I want to believe I’ll know when it’s time to give up car driving, but now I’m getting a taste of that decision with bike riding.

I believe I’m healthy enough to bike ride for many years. But I’m starting to realize that my reflexes are not what they used to be, and my spatial awareness and reaction times are dwindling. I’m trying to place my bet where I don’t seriously injure myself, but I’m not sure of the odds. I wish I could find statistics on biking accidents. What are the common injuries for a 65+ person falling off a bike? I’d gamble on stitches, maybe a broken arm, but I don’t want to lose teeth, and my brain is already acting rather iffy, so I probably shouldn’t risk a concussion.

JWH

 

 

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How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 2, 2018

Special thanks go to Chuck Litka for directing me to “2018 SFWA Nebula Conference Presentation” at Author Earningsa website devoted to helping writers find marketing information. This SFWA presentation is a slideshow with an impressive amount of sales data that readers generally don’t get to see. Anyone who writes science fiction, or hopes to be a science fiction writer, should study these slides carefully. Fans of science fiction should find it interesting to know what other fans are buying and how.

The slideshow by Data Guy is mostly focused on sales numbers, but the slide I liked best is #35 – Science Fiction Ebook Unit Sales by Subgenre. Hope Data Guy doesn’t mind if I copy a couple here.

Slide35

It is disheartening to me that short story collections and anthologies sell so damn little. I’m guessing “Short Stories” means single-author collections. I don’t know why “Anthologies & Short Stories” and “Anthologies” have two separate categories. My other favorite category is “Classics,” and it has sales barely above anthologies.

By the way, “Military SF” is my least favorite kind of science fiction. Growing up in the 1960s I felt like an oddball because I read science fiction. Few people read science fiction before Star Trek and Star Wars. Fans were considered dorks. And when folks did admit they were a science fiction fan, it meant reading science fiction, not watching.

Now I feel like an oddball because I read the least popular kinds of science fiction. Of course, I do love all the sub-genres from “Post-Apocalyptic” to “Exploration.” But I consume them in short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seldom buy new SF novels anymore. I get the latest Kim Stanley Robinson or the Hugo winners, or the odd SF bestseller like The Martian by Andy Weir. And when I do buy a new science fiction novel, 98% of the time it’s an audiobook.

The impact of audiobooks and ebooks is the main point of Data Guy’s slideshow and the fact that self-publishing is making a huge impact on the genre. Since I’m older, retired, and spend a lot of my reading time consuming mid-20th-century science fiction, I’m not a typical buyer. But it does make me old enough to remember how vastly different book buying was half-a-century ago.

In the 1960s, most science fiction novels came out in paperback. They were mass-market papers, but we didn’t call them that. I don’t think trade paperbacks existed then. At least I don’t remember any. More often than not, paperbacks were purchased from twirling racks in drugstores than bookstores.

Few people bought hardbacks. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) in 1967 to collect cheap hardbacks. They’d weren’t bound in cloth, but a thin vinyl-like plastic. Today collectors prize the paperbacks from this era for their covers. True cloth-bound 1st editions are also loved. But are rare. I often end up with old SFBC editions when I order from ABEBooks. (Or I end up with library discards. That’s another cause for depression, that classic SF is so little read that libraries discard them.)

The first new bookstore I shopped at when I was 16, had three shelves of science fiction books, a mix of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was pretty easy to keep up with the genre, and most of it was reprints. My favorite library then only had 8 shelves of SF books tucked away in a dark corner. I would guess less than 200 SF/F titles were published yearly back then. Today it’s well over 2,000.

Science fiction selling in hardback is something that’s evolved over the course of my lifetime. I was middle-aged before they started getting on the bestseller lists. My library in 2018 has 8 ranges of bookshelves for SF/F. In recent years we’ve seen more trade paperback editions and fewer mass market books. Now ebooks and audiobooks are wiping out the mass market book and have made a huge dent into trade and hardback sales. See slide #13.

Slide 13

My personal book buying habits reflect this chart, but instead of new print books, half of my book buying is used print books. When buying new books, I’d say 95% are ebooks and audiobooks. The last new print book I bought was Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley, and I had to special order it from England.

I’m now renting more books, via Scribd.com, another distribution type that’s not in the data. I’m reading/listening to books from this service that previously I would have bought as ebooks or audiobooks. And most of the ebooks I buy are the bargain $1.99 editions. I’ve collected a huge library of classic science fiction at that price by watching the daily deals. Generally, any book I really love in audio is one I’ll also buy in ebook. I like having a reading copy for reference and reviewing.

I’m mostly a guy that looks backward to the future. I wonder what young people today who are looking forward to the future are buying? The data in these slides reveal buying decisions in format and sub-genre, but I actually think that view of science fiction has changed.

The futures I hoped for and feared are different from the futures that young people read about today. Readers are reading more fantasy, and much of the science fiction is unbelievable, not based on hard science. I read science fiction in the 1960s hoping it would shape the future, but I don’t think people do that today.

Science fiction has always been an escapist lit but was tinged with hubris. Much of that hubris has faded away. But Data Guy couldn’t document that in his slides. Today, science fiction is more like medical marijuana than project management software. This is why I spend most of my science fiction reading time on the shorter forms. Science fiction writers are more likely to speculate and extrapolate in short fiction than long.

Another area that Data Guy didn’t document is series. Writers are devoting more of their efforts to writing book series. Many of my science fiction reading friends love book series. Series might be comfy books, but to me, they are vast wastelands of words because they have so little science fiction speculation in them. If they have clever ideas, they’re all in the first book.

I wish Data Guy had the numbers on sales by age groups. I wonder how many over-65 science fiction readers are like me – focussed on the past? I’ve recently rediscovered that exciting science fiction is still being written in the shorter forms. It always has, I just lost my way.

My current SF reading involves jumping back and forth from new and old anthologies. The annual best-of-the-year anthologies are new books I do buy, usually in ebook format, but also as audiobooks when they are available. These large collections are actually easier to read electronically.

I wonder how much of the sales Data Guy tracked involved books, ebooks, and audiobooks found in libraries? More and more my library is offering to let me to check out via download rather than visit. To me, Scribd.com is merely a public library where I’m fined $8.99 a month to use.

Finally, one more sad note to contemplate. If book sales move to ebooks and audiobooks, what will collectors collect in the future? You can’t go to musty old bookshops hoping to find lost treasures when they never existed in the physical world to begin with. But there is a practicality to ebooks. The beautiful old paperbacks I find in pristine condition today really aren’t readable. They are collectible, but often they’re too fragile for eye tracks and page flipping. Most of the classic novels of science fiction are easily found today as ebooks, and usually well priced. Audible.com has republished nearly all the classic science fiction novels I grew up reading.

And I’m starting to see more and more classic short stories show up in ebook format. I’ve been collecting Robert Sheckley and Clifford Simak stories that way. What I hope is all of classic science fiction short stories will eventually show up in audiobook too, read by great narrators. That’s how I really love to “read” today.

JWH

 

 

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Discovering New Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 edited by Jonathan StrahanTomorrow is July 1st and my online science fiction club begins discussing The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan. This is the first time we’ve selected an annual best-of-the-year anthology. We mostly stick to novels and favor the classics. This anthology collects the best short SF/F from 2017, so we’re getting very close to the event horizon of new science fiction. To be honest, our members are mostly older readers, so reading these new stories should make us feel younger.

2018 is the year of the science fiction short story for me. I’ve listened to three volumes of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, started reading The Great SF Stories 1939-1964 edited by Asimov and Greenberg and I’m up to 1943. I going through Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander, and I listened to all of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 11 and I’m getting close to finishing listening to volume 12.

Growing up in the 1960s I got hooked on current science fiction by subscribing to F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantastic, and If. To me, the heart and soul of science fiction have always been the SF magazines. For the most part, I stopped reading those in the late 1970s. During my work years, I’d find time to read 10-12 science novels a year. I’d sometimes subscribe to F&SF or Asimov’s. In 2002 I joined Audible.com and began rereading all my favorite science fiction novels by listening to them. But in the last few years since retiring, I’ve mostly caught up. Now I’m reading and listening to old science fiction short stories. And it’s tremendous fun. A reading renaissance.

I dabble in new science fiction, but it’s hard for me. I think that’s true for many of the book club members. Every year thousands of new SF/F novels come out, and mostly by unknown authors. Listening to these two best-of-the-year anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan is reconnecting me with current science fiction and a new generation of writers. I like the feeling of being near the edge of contemporary science fiction. Last year I even resubscribed to F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog. That’s why I nominated volume 12 of Strahan’s anthology for the book club. I was surprised when the group voted it in.

Maybe I’m not the only old SF fan that wants to check out what’s new. I’ve decided I just can’t keep up with current novels. I might read one new novelist a year. But reading and listening to new short stories allows me to discover dozens of new writers and the whole spectrum of new science fictional ideas. Just reading this one annual best-of-the-year anthology exposes readers to the modern diversity of 29 writers. And many of them are new to me.

Now, here’s the thing about my group. Some members don’t like voting for books they have to buy. Most have giant collections of unread SF/F books, and they’ve stopped buying new books. For a book to win a monthly spot in our book club it has to be easily available, either from libraries, used bookstores, cheap ebook editions, or already owned.

To help out those members who don’t own or won’t buy volume 12, I created a list of the stories in the collection and linked any that were on the web. This had two surprising results. First, over half the stories were free to read online. Second, and more importantly, looking at these stories revealed the modern state of written science fiction. Just following these links will show you what the latest science fiction magazines are like. They’re digital. Many have beautiful layouts and great art. And it’s not uncommon to have audio versions to play. Sadly, print magazines are dying. But all magazines need supporters. Subscribe to their digital editions, and if you don’t want print magazines to go extinct, subscribe to them too.

I don’t want this list to discourage people from buying the Strahan anthology. It’s available in paper, ebook, and audiobook, and very reasonably priced. It’s a great introduction to new SF/F tales for readers stuck in the past of classic stories. My only personal complaint is it contains fantasy. It irks me no end to buy anthologies that have both science fiction and fantasy because I’m strictly a science fiction guy. However, my book club does have many fantasy fans. I bought the ebook version of volume 12 because it was cheap, and the audiobook version because I love hearing short stories on audio. (But it still annoys me to wade through the fantasy, although I do have to admit they were all well-told stories even if they were about magic and dragons.)

Here’s the list I created for my book club. To save your place here, right-click on each link and select “Open link in new window” to try out the story. Then poke around its online magazine. These digital venues for short science fiction are the cutting edge of the genre. Read the columns and comments. Many sites have ebook editions to buy to finance all the free reading.

Some of these stories have already won awards. “The Hermit of Houston” and “The Martian Obelisk” won Locus awards. “The Secret Life of Bots” and “The Martian Obelisk” are up for the Hugo in August.

The Jonathan Strahan annual anthology is just one of eleven this year that focuses on the best science fiction stories of 2017. See my overview of them at Book Riot. Also, read my “Reading (and Writing for) Science Fiction Magazines” for links to many of the current science fiction magazines. To get an even a bigger picture, look at the lists of defunct and current SF magazines at Wikipedia.

I used to think the science fiction short story was dying off. Evidently, I’m completely wrong. Today short written science fiction is thriving. Most science fiction fans are movie and television fans, but real science fiction comes from magazines. It always has.

JWH

 

 

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“5,271,009” by Alfred Bester

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 28, 2018

I’m reading mid-20th-century science fiction looking for stories that would stand out in 2018 and I came across “5,271,009” by Alfred Bester. At first, I thought it merely a dazzling bit of pyrotechnic wordplay. I dismissed it as all flash and no heart. Bester is most famous for two extraordinary science fictions novels of the 1950s, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Bester was commissioned to write a story for the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

5,271,009

What Bester delivered was story Bob Dylan might have written in 1965 after reading The Book of Job and The Master and Margarita, before settling down to pen “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “5,271,009” makes you wonder if Jack Kerouac had just taught Bester how to break open benzedrine inhalers or if Bester had been one of the early users of LSD in a 1950s psychological study.

“5,271,009” is not written in ordinary prose. Oh, how I would love to hear this story read by an overly dramatic audiobook narrator. Every would-be professional book reader should use it as their portfolio story to showcase their range of character voices in a variety of wacky situations.

Virtual Unrealities by Alfred BesterUnfortunately, this story is not available to read on the web. However, a 99 cent Kindle edition is available at Amazon. Bizarrely its been retitled as “The Starcomber.” If you don’t want to plunk down 99 cents to read it, you can look at this list of places it’s been anthologized. Maybe you have a collection with it already. For a couple dollars more, you can get the $2.99 Kindle edition of Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester that contains 17 of Bester’s short stories along with an introduction by Robert Silverberg. That’s quite a bargain. I had to spring for this collection too because the single-story edition stopped letting me copy quotes after a slight quota. I thought that rather cheesy since I bet it’s in the public domain because there’s another publisher selling a different 99 cent edition.

I shall quote from it liberally to prove my statements about its prose are not hyperbole.

The story has a roundabout way of getting started. We’re introduced to Solon Aquila in a rather normal pulp fiction style. It is a story that would have fit perfectly in Unknown, a pulp magazine devoted to fantasy in the 1940s. The story isn’t science fiction, but it might be about science fiction.

Take two parts of Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, mix violently, season with mystery and you have Mr. Solon Aquila. He is tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression, and when he laughs his dark eyes turn into wounds. His occupation is unknown. He is wealthy without visible means of support. He is seen everywhere and understood nowhere. There is something odd about his life.

This is what’s odd about Mr. Aquila, and you can make what you will of it. When he walks he is never forced to wait on a traffic signal. When he desires to ride there is always a vacant taxi on hand. When he bustles into his hotel an elevator always happens to be waiting. When he enters a store, a salesclerk is always free to serve him. There always happens to be a table available for Mr. Aquila in restaurants. There are always last-minute ticket returns when he craves entertainment at sold-out shows.

We must assume Mr. Aquila is a metaphysical being, maybe the devil, maybe a minor god, maybe even the big guy himself. We don’t know. Then we hear him speak:

“HmimelHerrGottSeiDank! I’m crazy, man, crazy. Eclectic, by God,” he told a flabbergasted department store president. “The Weltmann type, nicht wahr? My ideal: Goethe. Tout le monde. God damn.”

He spoke a spectacular tongue of mixed metaphors and meanings. Dozens of languages and dialects came out in machine-gun bursts. Apparently he also lied ad libitum.

Sacré bleu. Jeez!” he was heard to say once. “Aquila from the Latin. Means aquiline. O tempora O mores. Speech by Cicero. My ancestor.”

And another time: “My idol: Kipling. Took my name from him. Aquila, one of his heroes. God damn.”

WTF? This is 1954. It’s a science fiction magazine. Where did Bester get his inspiration for Mr. Aquila? He sounds like a speed-freaking Beat poet.

Like I said, the story actually starts slowly compared to its eventual pace. Mr. Aquila visits the art gallery of Jimmy Derelict looking for a particular artist. My theory is Bester was writing this story by the seat of his pants and he thought it was going to be about Aquila.

On the morning that Mr. Solon Aquila was stunned by his first disappointment, he bustled into the atelier of Lagan & Derelict, dealers in paintings, sculpture and rare objects of art. It was his intention to buy a painting. Mr. James Derelict knew Aquila as a client. Aquila had already purchased a Frederic Remington and a Winslow Homer some time ago when, by another odd coincidence, he had bounced into the Madison Avenue shop one minute after the coveted paintings went up for sale. Mr. Derelict had also seen Mr. Aquila boat a prize striper at Montauk.

“Bon soir, bel esprit, God damn, Jimmy,” Mr. Aquila said. He was on first name terms with everyone. “Here’s a cool day for color, oui! Cool. Slang. I have in me to buy a picture.”

“Good morning, Mr. Aquila,” Derelict answered. He had the seamed face of a cardsharp, but his blue eyes were honest and his smile was disarming. However at this moment his smile seemed strained, as though the volatile appearance of Aquila had unnerved him.

“I’m in the mood for your man, by Jeez,” Aquila said, rapidly opening cases, fingering ivories and tasting the porcelains. “What’s his name, my old? Artist like Bosch. Like Heinrich Kley. You handle him, parbleu, exclusive. O si sic omnia, by Zeus!”

“Jeffrey Halsyon?” Derelict asked timidly.

“Oeil de boeuf!” Aquila cried. “What a memory. Chryselephantine. Exactly the artist I want. He is my favorite. A monochrome, preferably. A small Jeffrey Halsyon for Aquila, bitte. Wrap her up.”

We don’t know it yet, but Jeffrey Halsyon is the protagonist of this tale, the man pictured on the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

It’s interesting that Halsyon is very close to the spelling of halcyon.

There are a number of pages about Halsyon being an insane artist who creates his art by defacing currency, and thus illegal to sell. Aquila insists he must see Halsyon and eventually frees him from confinement. This is where the story really begins.

I am reminded of stories Bob Dylan told about when he wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Supposedly, he wrote it during the Cuban missile crisis, trying to cram all the ideas he had for many songs into one in case WWIII began. Bester seems to cram many story ideas into “5,271,009” in the same way. Some have theorized Bester wanted to explore an array of SF ideas all using the number 5,271,009.

Again, I’m not so sure that Bester wasn’t just writing by the seat of his pants, typing whatever scenes came to mind. He spends too much time in the hospital where Halsyon is imprisoned. Then Mr. Aquila slips Halsyon a mickey:

He filled a shot glass from a decanter, added a tiny cube of purple ice from a fuming bucket, and placed the drink in Halsyon’s hand. Compelled by a gesture from Aquila, the artist drank it off. It made his brain buzz. He stared around, breathing heavily. He was in what appeared to be the luxurious waiting room of a Park Avenue physician. Queen Anne furniture. Axminster rug. Two Hogarths and a Copley on the wall in gilt frames. They were genuine, Halsyon realized with amazement. Then, with even more amazement, he realized that he was thinking with coherence, with continuity. His mind was quite clear.

He passed a heavy hand over his forehead. “What’s happened?” he asked faintly. “There’s like . . . Something like a fever behind me. Nightmares.”

“You have been sick,” Aquila replied. “I am blunt, my old. This is a temporary return to sanity. It is no feat, God damn. Any doctor can do it. Niacin plus carbon dioxide. Id genus omne. Only temporary. We must search for something more permanent.”

“What’s this place?”

Halsyon escapes but then comes to somewhere else. This part reminds me of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and a couple other songs I can’t remember for sure.

The president of the United Nations came to him. He was tall and gaunt, sprightly but bitter. He was wringing his hands in dismay.

“Mr. Halsyon! Mr Halsyon!” he cried. “Where you been, my cupcake? God damn. Hoc tempore. Do you know what has happened?”

“No,” Halsyon answered. “What’s happened?”

“After your escape from the looney bing. Bango! Atom bombs everywhere. The two-hour war. It is over. Hora fugit, old faithful, Virility is over.”

“What!”

“Hard radiation, Mr. Halsyon, has destroyed the virility of the world. God damn. You are the only man left capable of engendering children. No doubt on account of a mysterious mutant strain in your makeup which makes you different. Jeez.”

“No.”

Halsyon is informed that 5,271,009 virgins are clamoring for his attention, and he should pick a number from 1 to 5,000,000 and begin impregnating them.

At first, this is every teenage boy’s wet dream come true. Then Halsyon starts complaining that all the women look alike when the novelty wears off. Like any tricky Genie, Mr. Aquila grants wishes with thorns. Eventually, he is told the women resent him and consider Halsyon their rapist.

Halsyon then meets Judith Field, the old love-of-his-life. He wants to marry just her but continue with his procreation duties of being the new Adam. She wants to kill him. He learns he must escape and Mr. Aquila tries to help, but a mob of women clubs him to death.

I suppose I should worry about providing too many spoilers. You can quit reading any time you want and go read the story. Well, back to the story. The next scenario involves the story that illustrates the cover above with the spaceman chained to a very small asteroid. We’re now realizing Halsyon will not escape from his nightmare so easily. This reminds me of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, and Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley.  In all these stories our heroes frantically search for a way back to normal reality.

The scene changes again.

And he drifted alone in space, a martyr, misunderstood, a victim of cruel injustice.

He was still chained to what had once been the wall of Cell 5, Block 27, Tier 100, Wing 9 of the Callisto Penitentiary until that unexpected gamma explosion had torn the vast fortress dungeon—vaster than the Château d’If—apart. That explosion, he realized, had been detonated by the Grssh.

His assets were his convict clothes, a helmet, one cylinder of O2, his grim fury at the injustice that had been done him, and his knowledge of the secret of how the Grssh could be defeated in their maniacal quest for solar domination.

The Grssh, ghastly marauders from Omicron Ceti, space-degenerates, space-imperialists, cold-blooded, roachlike, depending for their food upon the psychotic horrors which they engendered in man through mental control and upon which they fed, were rapidly conquering the galaxy. They were irresistible, for they possessed the power of simul-kinesis—the ability to be in two places at the same time.

Against the vault of space, a dot of light moved slowly, like a stricken meteor. It was a rescue ship, Halsyon realized, combing space for survivors of the explosion. He wondered whether the light of Jupiter, flooding him with rusty radiation, would make him visible to the rescuers. He wondered whether he wanted to be rescued at all.

Bester is making fun of science fiction here. It even reminds me of the beginning of Bester’s own novel, The Stars My Destination. Mr. Aquila shows up in the disguise of a robot. There must be a name for this kind of story since I see it so often. Another variation of it is the 1967 film Bedazzled. Doesn’t this next bit remind you of something Douglas Adams would have written?

When he recovered consciousness he was in a plasti-cot in the cabin of a starship. The high frequency whine told him they were in overdrive. He opened his eyes. Balorsen stood before the plasti-cot, and Balorsen’s robot and High Judge Field, and his daughter Judith. Judith was weeping. The robot was in magnetic plasti-clamps and winced as General Balorsen lashed him again and again with a nuclear plasti-whip.

Parbleu! God damn!” the robot grated. “It is true I framed Jeff Halsyon. Ouch! Flux de bouche. I was the space-pirate who space-hijacked the space-freighter. God damn. Ouch! The space-bartender in the Spaceman’s Saloon was my accomplice. When Jackson wrecked the space-cab I went to the space-garage and X-beamed the sonic before Tantial murdered O’Leary. Aux armes. Jeez. Ouch!”

“There you have the confession, Halsyon,” General Balorsen grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “By God. Ars est celare artem. You are innocent.”

“I falsely condemned you, old faithful,” Judge Field grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “Can you forgive this God damn fool? We apologize.”

Bester goes on to create other scenes to trick Halsyon, but I won’t quote them all. I should leave you to have some fun on your own.

This is where we need to decide if Bester is just jerking us around, or if he has something artistic to say. He’s getting paid by the word so he might be just filling up the pages. It could be every morning he got up and wrote some new way to torment Halsyon. This is a novelette of about forty pages, so it’s a rather long story. Maybe too long.

On the other hand, it might be a meta-fiction bit of philosophy. Not quite profound, but head bending enough to mesmerize science fiction readers and dope smokers.

“Stop reading the book,” he shouted. “Let me out of the pages. Can you hear me? Stop reading the book! I’d rather be in a world of my own making. Let me go!”

There was a mighty clap of thunder, as of the covers of a mighty book slamming shut. In an instant Halsyon was swept spinning into the third compartment of the seventh circle of the Inferno in the Fourteenth Canto of the Divine Comedy where they who have sinned against art are tormented by flakes of fire which are eternally showered down upon them. There he shrieked until he had provided sufficient amusement. Only then was he permitted to devise a text of his own … and he formed a new world, a romantic world, a world of his fondest dreams… .

He was the last man on earth.

He was the last man on earth and he howled.

I truly wish I could hear this story read by an amazing audiobook narrator.

Finally, we get to the kicker, or at least the kicker for me. Is Bester making fun of science fiction or fiction in general? Bester didn’t stick with the genre and left it after his wild successes with two novels and a handful of short stories.

He helped Halsyon to his feet and led him into the consultation room where he seated him in a velvet chaise longue and gave him a glass of brandy.

“Guaranteed free of drugs,” he said. “Noblesse oblige. Only the best spiritus frumenti. Now we discuss what we have done, eh? Jeez.”

He sat down behind the desk, still sprightly, still bitter, and regarded Halsyon with kindliness. “Man lives by his decisions, n’est-ce pas?” he began. “We agree, oui? A man has some five million two hundred seventy-one thousand and nine decisions to make in the course of his life. Peste! Is it a prime number? N’importe. Do you agree?”

Halsyon nodded.

“So, my coffee and doughnuts, it is the maturity of these decisions that decides whether a man is a man or a child. Nicht wahr? Malgré nous. A man cannot start making adult decisions until he has purged himself of the dreams of childhood. God damn. Such fantasies. They must go.”

“No,” Halsyon said slowly. “It’s the dreams that make my art … the dreams and fantasies that I translate into line and color… .”

“God damn! Yes. Agreed. Maître d’hôtel! But adult dreams, not baby dreams. Baby dreams. Pfui! All men have them… . To be the last man on earth and own the earth… . To be the last fertile man on earth and own the women… . To go back in time with the advantage of adult knowledge and win victories… . To escape reality with the dream that life is make-believe… . To escape responsibility with a fantasy of heroic injustice, of martyrdom with a happy ending… . And there are hundreds more, equally popular, equally empty. God bless Father Freud and his merry men. He applies the quietus to such nonsense. Sic semper tyrannis. Avaunt!”

“But if everybody has those dreams, they can’t be bad, can they?”

“God damn. Everybody in fourteenth century had lice. Did that make it good? No, my young, such dreams are for childrens. Too many adults are still childrens. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

Bester is right. Those are common plots. I’ve used them in my failed attempts to write science fiction.

Is Bester telling science fiction readers to grow up and stop indulging in childish fantasies? I need to track down fanzines of that era and see if anyone fans complained.

At my online group we’re discussing mid-century science fiction short stories, and pretending we’re creating our own retrospective anthology to impress modern young readers. We’re trying to find 20th-century science fiction that resonates with 21st-century minds. At first, I wasn’t going to consider “5,271,009” for my anthology. Now I’m not so sure.

“5,271,009” is not a story that’s been often reprinted. I found it in Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Olander, a collection that was never very successful, out of print, and hard to find. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s and I’m not sure how many will appeal to young readers new to reading science fiction in 2018. Neither Dikty or Asimov/Greenberg picked “5,271,009” for their best stories of 1954 anthologies.

I’m not sure “5,271,009” will be remembered unless it’s produced as a jazzy audiobook or made into a movie. It would be a perfect Black Mirror kind of story. Alfred Bester should have the same kind of appeal as Philip K. Dick.

JWH

 

Featured

Can Hope Replace Fear?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 25, 2018

Once again I’m writing a political essay that few will read. I do this when I’m disturbed about events in the news that I’m powerless to control. We liberals are horrified by what fears over undocumented immigrants are doing to this country. Trump wants to bypass the rule of law, or apply existing laws like a cold war police state. It seems like an extreme right minority will tear the country apart to stop illegal immigration. That’s very scary. It’s even scarier that tens of millions support them. But liberals have fears that scare conservatives, so I think it’s vital we work to understand their fears if we want them to understand ours. What I realized this morning is unless we can empathize with each other’s fears, we will always have a politically polarized society.

We like to think love and hate are the two primary emotions, but I they aren’t. Hope and fear are more primal. Love grows out of hope, and hate grows out of fear. Think of people you love and hate. Love comes from the hopes you have, and hate comes from the fears. Liberals hate Trump because he causes us to fear, but conservatives love Trump because he gives them hope for their fears. What we need right now is politics of hope for everyone.

Conservatives fear illegal immigration in the same way liberals fear climate change. Each perspective destroys hope for the future. All of us want health, liberty, security, happiness, family, friends, and prosperity. Our fears arise when we feel those hopes are in jeopardy. We think Trump is destroying our future, while conservatives believe he’s protecting theirs.

Liberals fear climate change will devastate the planet. Conservatives fear illegal immigration will destroy our social order. What is the practical reality of these fears? Can we ever be united if everyone fears destruction from two different threats that split us into opposing sides? Can we collectively work to give each other hope?

I use the phrase “illegal immigration” for the want of a better term. Liberals prefer the term “undocumented immigrant.” But to a conservative, that probably feels like what liberals feel when we hear phrases of climate change denial. To use the phrase undocumented immigrant is to deny the reality that undocumented immigrants are doing something illegal.

The only way to find hope is to understand each other’s fears. The only way to heal the division is to cooperate in solving each other’s fears. Liberals need to find a rational way to deal with illegal immigration that will sooth conservative fears, and conservatives need to work on environmental security to reduce liberal fears.

For decades conservatives have told liberals they sound like Chicken Little running around screaming “The sky is falling” when discussing climate change. Well, conservatives are now overreacting to illegal immigration in the same way. We need to calm each other down, discuss the realities of each danger, and decide practical solutions we can implement together. Both problems are exceedingly complex, promise slow but huge changes to society, but can be solved if we work at it collectively. But zero tolerance of illegal immigration is like asking American to give up cars to save the Earth. Extreme solutions are too simple-minded to work.

Liberals need to understand the fears of conservatives, and conservatives need to understand the fears of liberals. It does no good to justify our fears by convincing others to fear them too. What we need to do find ways to spread hope. But I’m not sure if that’s possible if we live in panic mode.

We feel stories about immigrants causing excessive crime are unjustified, and there’s plenty of proof to disprove those stories. We believe you use crime hyperbole to justify circumventing laws. We believe conservatives have genuine fears over illegal immigration that come from three actual threats to your way of life. First, you don’t want to pay more taxes to support immigrants. Two, naturalized citizens tend to vote liberal, so it’s a threat to the Republican party. And three, you want to maintain a white America.

These are hard issues to address. Hard cold mathematics tell us our society is diversifying racially. This is your big fear: “The Next America” – a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. Here’s the graph that probably scares you most:

Changes in race in America from 1960 to 2060 - Pew Research Center

Zero tolerance for illegal immigration will not change those trends. Those numbers may be conservative if they don’t take into account climate change and economic collapse. If we don’t slow climate change migration numbers will explode. It’s like the physics of gases. If you have two containers, one with low pressure and one with high pressure and you allow a path between, the pressures in the two tanks will equalize. As long as there are good and bad places on this planet, populations will migrate. No wall you build will ever be high enough to stop it. Just remember, if you lived in a bad place, you’d head for a good one too. One solution is to rebuild collapsing countries.

If the Republican party wasn’t so exclusive and strived to serve the entire population they wouldn’t have to fear diversity. By becoming the party of the white holdouts, the Republicans are forced to find solutions that only serve a minority of voters. We need both political parties to offer hope to all citizens.

Finally, illegal immigrants do raise taxes, but to remove them would be even more expensive. And they contribute a giant chunk of change to the economy. We actually benefit economically from both legal and illegal immigration.

But this probably doesn’t alleviate your fears. If you could only let go of your hangups over skin-color your fears could be reduced. Maybe reading “Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War” might help.

Conservatives need to accept that diversity is already here. Liberals will have to accept that immigration must have limits. Liberals need to accept that capitalism drives the economy. Conservatives must accept that the cost of preserving the environment is essential to healthy capitalism. Conservatives must accept that immigrants are key to future growth. Liberals must accept that too many immigrants can destabilize the economy.

Fear destroys our morals and ethics. Fear makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were hopeful.

Climate change is going to drastically alter all societies on this planet. Mass movements of people around the world are going to alter all those societies too. In fact, there are many trends that are changing every society on Earth going on simultaneously right now. We can’t stop them. But to keep our hopes we must learn to adapt and control them.

When reading or watching the news, pay attention to its emotional impact. Does the story offer hope or fear? All too often stories provide an extreme example. Not only do we need to become savvy over the fake news, but wary of sensational news. If a story scares you, research it on Google. The more you know the less you’ll fear.

JWH

Featured

Prioritizing My Ambitions

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Being 66 and retired gives me a lot of free time, yet at the end of every day, I always wish I had more. My lifelong, no-so-secret ambition has been to write a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas, and I could have found the time, even during my nine-to-five years. Yet, I haven’t. Why? Because I fritter away my goddamn time. I have a personality that loves to do what I want when I want. Some people call that laziness, but it’s essentially poor time management. Somehow I need to learn how to prioritize my time to succeed.

Most people must achieve their ambitions before forty. Most big ambitions required the peak performance of youth. Generally, writers must also succeed in bloom, but there are a few outliers that give me hope. Writing is one endeavor where late bloomers have an outside chance. So, if I don’t want to go to my grave still fantasizing about the books I want to write, I need to conquer time management.

All that’s required is focusing, working diligently, and ignoring all the distractions. Of course, that’s easier declared than lived. I’ve mind mapped how I spend my time. What I need to, is Marie Kondo its branches.

Time Mind Map

I write best in the mornings, but to maintain my health I must exercise. My self-control wanes quickly during the day, so if I don’t do my exercises in the morning, there’s little chance I’ll do them at all. In fact, I’m skipping my morning bike ride to write this. That bike ride gives me vitality, something in short supply. And if I don’t do my physical therapy and Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, my back will go out. Maybe one reason people don’t succeed after forty is that we have to spend too much time on body maintenance.

I need to completely get over this ingrained habit. I need to write in the mornings and exercise later in the day. I doubt I have the mental and physical energy to write more than four hours a day, maybe only two, even if I give it my best hours. Somehow I need to make those writing hours the #1 activity in my day. After that, I have to make exercise #2.

I have a friend whose life-long ambition is to live abroad. She’s finally getting to do that because she’s getting rid of everything she owns here. Part of my time management problem is possession management. According to minimalists, owning less is more freeing. That’s true, For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time and mental energy researching buying a new television and computer, or what books and magazines to collect. I need to stop that. It would also help to get rid of all the stuff I must spend time maintaining.

If you study that mind map, you’ll notice I consume a great deal of fiction. Generally, I rationalize television and reading by claiming I only do it when I’m too tired to do anything else. I need to make sure that’s true.

Looking closer, I also realize I spend a great deal of time socializing. I’m not sure I can give friends up, but I need to make being with them more efficient. People are just as essential as food, but some of my social activities are junk food.

Many of the activities listed above are mostly ambitions I just piddle around with at best. Maybe it’s time I give up thinking I’m a programmer. I spent my work years programming, and I think of myself as a programmer, but I really don’t program anymore. I want to. If I gave up writing I’d want to program. But I can’t have two ambitions. There’s not enough time.

If I’m really serious about writing a book then I need to prune the crap out of that mind map above. Meditating on it is very revealing. I should print it out and study it first thing every morning when I wake up. I should reread this essay every morning to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned writing it.

I find it most rewarding on waking up if I make two goals for the day. It used to be five, then three, and now two. They can’t be too big either. And sometimes I have to waste one on things like grocery shopping or seeing a movie.

If my mind map was smaller, with fewer branches, it would be easier to be ambitious with my limited resources. It’s going to be painful to give up so many possessions and activities. But if I really want to succeed with my goal, I can see from studying the mind map, that’s the price.

Afterward:

The two goals that came to mind this morning, were to write a new blog, and finish a scanning project and submit it to Internet Archive. This accomplishes one of them. I think of blogging as writing. I’ve always said blogging was piano practice for writers. Yet, I see it’s not working on a book. I’ve got to start blogging outside my morning writing hours. Blogging is essential to my my mental agility. It has to be #3 after morning writing and exercise. But I positively have to stop blogging in the morning.

If I can’t make writing in the morning my #1 activity every day, I should Marie Kondo my ambition to write a book. To be honest, I must prune my ambitions too.

Maybe I’m really doing what I want, and the desire to write is what I should give up.

Not yet.

JWH

 

 

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Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

JWH

Featured

The Resurrection of Lady Dorthy Mills

by James Wallace Harris

[I’m reprinting some of my Book Riot essays to archive here on my blog.]

lady_dorothy_portrait-651x1024Her name was Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole Mills. Born in London, 1889, died in Brighton, 1959. Lady Dorothy Mills published nine novels, five travel books, and one memoir, achieving moderate fame in the 1920s and early 1930s as a British aristocratic woman who traveled alone to Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Her books are decades out-of-print, and she is almost completely forgotten. Lady Dorothy Mills should be resurrected, but copyright law has buried her.

Watching Downton Abbey illustrates Lady Dorothy’s upbringing. She was Lady Mary’s age. Her father was Robert Horace Walpole, the 5thand final Earl of Orford. Like the fictional Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, Lord Walpole married a rich American woman, Louise Melissa Corbin, and only had surviving daughters. He even had to leave his estate to a male relative. Lady Dorothy married Capt. Arthur Mills in 1916, against the family’s wishes, and was cut off from their wealth. Lord Walpole was not as forgiving of a wayward daughter as Lord Grantham.

For those who want more details about her aristocratic life, read “Lady Dorothy… writer, traveler – and free spirit” by Jane Dismore. This is the most comprehensive overview of Mill’s life I’ve found in twenty-four years.

Choosing love over inheritance meant learning to live without servants and being poor. Arthur and Dorothy took up writing to survive. At first Lady Dorothy wrote novels about her society set encountering the seamier side of London. Then she wrote The Road to Timbuktu, a nonfiction book promoting herself as a brave Lady going to places that no white woman had gone before. That got her fame. Of course, western women have been marching across Africa for years. Read Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present by Alba Amoia and Bettina Knapp.

As a couple, Dorothy and Arthur were popular with newspaper writers, but Mills’s novels never received much respect from reviewers as her travel books. She was dismissed as a writer for shop girls. Men told her she was reckless for going places women shouldn’t. But Lady Dorothy inspired young women in the 1920s, who also dreamed of adventure, romance, and faraway places. Mills gain notoriety just after women got the vote in England and America, and Lady Dorothy did things that few men did, and many men dreamed of doing.

Her novels were exciting too, writing about safaris, jungle Shangri-las, hunting, opium dens, love affairs with Asians and Africans, living among indigenous people while claiming she had the freedom to go anywhere she damned pleased. A few of her novels used science fiction and fantasy concepts. Lady Dorothy was brave in action and thought.

After 1932. Mills went silent, eventually retiring to a quiet seaside village in England, dying alone in 1959. The mystery of why she stopped writing has always haunted me. Her books disappeared from bookstores decades ago. Few copies of her work are on sale at rare book dealers. Copyright law keeps them from being rescued by the public domain. Three of her earliest novels may be in the public domain, but it is very difficult to tell.

Lady-Dorothy-Mills-from-Library-of-CongressToday, Lady Dorothy is barely remembered, mostly in esoteric history books. She receives just a few sentences or paragraphs in each. History writers use her fiction and nonfiction to document social changes between the wars. Mills lived on the edge, during a decade on the edge. Lady Dorothy sported men’s attire long before Garbo and Dietrich wore it in 1930s movies, not because of style, but because she was competing with the other creatures who wore coats and ties.

In 1926, Lady Dorothy published Phoenix, a science fiction novel about an elderly woman medically rejuvenated to look twenty. Seventy years later, Bruce Sterling had the same idea for his novel, Holy FireIs Phoenix missing from the SF Mistressworks list because it’s a bad book, or because few readers after 1930 got a chance to read it? When does copyright hurt an author?

Since 1992, I’ve been collecting Lady Dorothy’s books, writing about her, and maintaining a website. Every year or two I used to get an email from rare souls who have stumbled across her name. In the last few years, it’s been damn quiet. If her work had been on Project Gutenberg would things be different? Would she have more readers?

There’s a scene at the end of Truffaut’s beautiful film, Fahrenheit 451, where the book people walk through woods memorizing the volume they intend to become. That’s how I think about Lady Dorothy Mills. My dedication is to remember her. I’ve been able to collect twelve of her fifteen books. One, Arms of the Sun, has been for sale for years, but I can’t afford it. That hurts. I’ve even wondered if my writing about Lady Dorothy Mills has driven up their price.

I keep hoping her heirs would put out a collected ebook edition of her work, with distinctive covers using old photographs. At a minimum, I wish the copyright laws were different so fans could scan her books for the public domain.

I’ve long wondered why Lady Dorothy Mills never had her books reprinted. Did inheriting her wealth require giving up writing? Was she an embarrassment to her aristocratic family? Did dismissals in the press turn her against public life? Could she have written just for money? It seems telling when her father died, and she inherited, Lady Dorothy stopped writing? She did continue to travel, but not write.

After traveling far more roads than Jack Kerouac, and exploring more jungles, deserts, and mountains than most male adventure novelists, maybe Lady Dorothy tired of fame. She had passed forty. Why did she choose to disappear, forget writing, and let her books be forgotten? I can’t stop asking that.

Her family had treated her badly. So did her husband. And some book reviewers. Although, I’ve been told by a modern scholar comparing her travel book on Liberia to university-sponsored expeditions during the same years, that she did very well. Lady Dorothy traveled to distant lands, it seems to me, to get away from her 1920s society. Her books show hard-won knowledge and revelation. I can’t understand why she didn’t push to keep them in print. Many of her books received multiple printings and editions before 1932.

In A Different Drummer (1930) she describes the state of mind she found when she was far away from civilization:

“However healthy a love one may have of civilization and all its fleshpots, the best thrill of the year is when one leaves them all behind, and sets off for the unknown with a lot of lumpy luggage that contains hardly any clothes at all. It is good to feel that one has left one’s little niche in the everyday world, where each one of us is assessed and tabulated to a nicety; to slough off one’s everyday accepted self, and to lose oneself in the anonymity of a strange country and people, among whom one has to make good solely by the leverage of one’s personality and will to win. The thrill increases till the last vestige of civilization is gone and one is at grips with the unknown, when it comes down to earth, and settles into a hard absorbing fight with primitive conditions; with the problems of health and climate and transport, with the daily struggle for food, water and transport, and the groping after understanding of the strange and sometimes antagonistic people one is among. All the complexities of life disappear, and one is reduced to the state, mental and physical, of a healthy animal. As long as one’s ” tummy ” is reasonably full, and there is a prospect of somewhere safe and dry to sleep, one is perfectly, almost stupidly happy. The creature comforts of life no longer matter. For the first few days one misses one’s bath most terribly, but in a short time, I am ashamed to say, one doesn’t mind if one never had a bath again! Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but in the wilds it comes a long way after food and sleep, or even a good camel.”

Mills laughs about the crazy stories newspapers wanted her to write. One paper offered her a big check to explain why she traveled without her husband. Was fame too much bullshit?

There are other people like me who work to rescue forgotten writers. I met Harry Williams online because he maintains a website for George Mills, Lady Dorothy Mills’s brother-in-law. It’s a fascinating hobby that I recommend, but don’t expect to discover another Pride and PrejudicePhoenix appeals to me like Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It uses science fiction to make a feminist statement. Could Lady Dorothy Mills ever be resurrected like Gilman? I don’t know.

Libraries used to be heaven for books. Yet, today many books I buy used in hardback are library discards. Phoenix shows up in just four libraries at WorldCat, three in England and one in America. It took me ten years to track down my copy. I haven’t seen another for sale since 2002.

Society needs to consider changing the copyright laws. I can understand why copyright holders want to keep extending the time they can make money, but copyright laws make no sense for books that haven’t sold a single copy for decades. The law should be amended to say that any book that hasn’t been for sale for 25 years is now in the public domain, and all periodicals older than 10 years are in the public domain if they are reproduced whole.

Such changes in the law would allow fans of forgotten books to scan them and put them in Project Gutenberg. Second, periodicals in the public domain will help researchers explore the past. It would also help when authors donate their papers to put them in the public domain. Modern libraries aren’t the research centers they used to be. The Internet is now the World Library.

Lady Dorothy Mills had modest fame over eight decades ago. If her books were in the public domain, few would read them. But for those who do, and for those of us who want to encourage other people to read them, changing the copyright laws could open up the past to human and AI researchers. Copyright law protects books when they are being sold, but hurts when readers no longer buy.

Featured

How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

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When I Can’t Edit My Brain Farts

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I’ve never been good at grammar or spelling, especially in early drafts. So when I say I’m experiencing new glitches in my writing, I don’t mean the common mistakes I’ve made all my life. I’d be quite embarrassed if folks read the first drafts of this blog. I rewrite many times before I click Publish, constantly repairing and tweaking words and structure. And even then, I still spot mistakes and wince.

However, in the last few months, I’ve been noticing holes in my sentences where I’ve left out words or tangled them up. They’re a new kind of textual brain farts. For several years I’ve struggled with verbal brain farts, failing to remember names and nouns when talking to my friends. I don’t believe what I’m experiencing is early signs of dementia, but thought glitches caused by slow neuron access times. All my friends my age have similar hiccups with their comm skills. I assume these new mistakes are just more of the same, all part of a slow decline in brain cell efficiency due to normal aging.

Pug

The great thing about writing over talking is I have plenty of time to shape what I say. Writing is like make-up, I can make myself look much better than I really am. What troubles me is when I send an email, or post a comment on a website, and then see a blooper I can’t reshoot. That hurts. Especially when they aren’t grammar/spelling mistakes, but garbled sentences that sound like Yogi Berra imitating Donald Duck.

For me, it’s much more embarrassing when people see snaggled-tooth thoughts than to make a “their, they’re, there” mistake. Blogging is exercising to think clearly. Revising my paragraphs sculpts my thoughts. So reading something I wrote that’s wonky makes me feel I’m losing it. Of course, other people might skip right past my potholes without making judgments. But I’m horrified when I’m reading along and bounce jarringly over a big one.

It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to see aging will bring additional quirks in my quarks, and at some point, I’ll stop making sense. But here’s the Catch-22. If I stop writing my mind will only get worse sooner. Writing is the cure for poor thinking or thinking poorly, even when the brain is turning to mush. I can’t give up.

I’m going to be in real trouble when I stop seeing mistakes. I hate when I can’t edit my brain farts now, but the real horror movie begins when I stop discovering those mistakes.

JWH

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Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Becoming an Expert in a Micro-Expertise

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 31, 2018

Venture Science Fiction 1958 MayIt’s impossible to know everything about everything. It’s even impossible to know even a little bit about everything. There’s no way to become a generalist, even a half-ass one. That’s why people specialize. But even then, it’s hard to decide just how small an intellectual territory to conquer. Lately, I’ve been absorbing everything I can about science fiction magazines from Amazing Stories (1926) to Worlds of Tomorrow (1963). I’m making my cutoff date 1976, to have a 50-year range, but even that might be too much. I’m considering even sub-specializing on 1951-1969 (birth through high school).

What a weird little patch of knowledge to hoe. I can’t claim it’s meaningful, but out of the whole universe of things to study, it’s what appeals to me at age 66. It’s my way of coping with sensory overload. Yet, even such a microscopic portion of history is too large to master. Now that I am in my social security years, interest in current affairs is dwindling. The present really belongs to the young. I have a handful of small territories I struggle to claim, like movie westerns, 1950s jazz, nineteenth-century art, etc. There’s a special kind of fun in becoming a micro-expert know-it-all.

Marvel Science Fiction 1951 November Hi-ResWhat drives me to conquer various tiny territories of history is the challenge of putting a massive amount of data into a small consumable package. I’ll use my interest in SF magazines for an example. The Wikipedia entry, “History of US science fiction and fantasy magazines to 1950” is an excellent hypertext overview of half my territory I want to explore. And it’s “List of magazines” table is another comprehensive way of looking at it, especially if you follow the links to individual magazine histories. If only this entry was to 1976 or had a part 2, this one article would define the specific science fictional expertise I wish to master. I’d love to write a book that covered this tiny history or package it in a webpage or app.

One reason I’d love to focus on little topics is that my mind is letting my general knowledge drain away. I’m theorizing my brain can only hold less, so I jettison the stuff I don’t care about to make room for what I do. But choosing such tiny topics to study isolates me from most people. However, it clearly defines a subculture I wish to identify. I believe everyone needs a few specialties to dwell on. Something we can bore folks with at parties if they’re careless enough to ask, “What are you doing in retirement?”

I connect with most of my friends through everyday living and shared experiences, like television shows, movies, eating out, but it’s nice to have something to intellectually gnaw on that’s uniquely mine. Of course, the history of the science fiction magazine in the mid-20th century is not relevant to real problems we face today, but neither am I. I just love having a small patch of history to putter around. Some people garden in their backyard, I tend a tiny patch of history in my thoughts and blog.

amazing_stories_192811I’ve thought about choosing something contemporary and relevant, like artificial intelligence with Python and R, but I’m not sure my old brain is up chasing a current subject that’s growing too fast even for young geniuses. Focusing limits my scope of study in a comfortable way. Yet, when I outline what I want to know, it’s still a giant pile of data to digest. The pleasant challenge is to organize that data in a way that I might teach it to someone else.

Technology allows me to study science fiction magazines in a way that I couldn’t before the internet. Back in the 1960s when I first became interested in old SF magazines I would have had to spend a fortune to buy and house them. Now I can download digital scans for free and shelve them on an internal solid-state drive the size of a pack of gum. The internet conveniently allows me to locate the histories of the genre, the anthologies that collected the magazines stories into books, the biographies of the writers and editors, digital copies of the primary documents that go with these histories, communicate with other folks studying the same history, and use all the online resources that classify and organize the data that people are building. It’s a great time to become a micro-expert.

The Scope of My Ambition

For a few decades, the center of the universe for written science fiction was the science fiction magazines. Before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977), science fiction fandom was practically unknown to most people. Science fiction fandom began in their letter columns of the science fiction magazines. Almost all the major SF writers first published in the magazines. The earliest histories and biographies ran as features in the magazines. Most of the classic novels of science fiction were first serialized in the magazines. The earliest gossip and controversies first appeared in the letter columns, which spawned the creation of fanzines. Fanzines were amateur magazines devoted to the genre that devoted most of their content to what was happening in the professional magazines (which fans called prozines).

The history I study covers the magazines and stories, the editors, writers, and artists that worked for the magazines, and the major fans and historians who remember those magazines.

The Magazines

In some ways I’d love to own the actual old magazines – but not really. Pulp paper is now brittle, brown, and fragile. And I’d have to fill all the rooms of my house with bookshelves. And there were too many science fiction magazines for me to care about them all. Here are the science fiction magazines before 1976 that intrigue me enough to collect and study. If you follow the links to Wikipedia you can read very nice concise histories.

Histories

Mike Ashley has published two series of histories just on the science fiction magazine. The older series is mostly an anthology of stories with supplemental essays about the magazines. They include:

  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part One: 1926–1935 (1974)
  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Two: 1936–1945 (1975)
  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Three: 1946–1955 (1976)
  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Four: 1956–1965 (1978)

The second series are all history, without the stories. These books are expensive, and now that the first three are out of print, they are even more costly to track down. I can’t understand why they aren’t in print as ebooks. I find it annoying that most histories of science fiction are out of print, especially in the age of ebooks and print-on-demand.

  • The Time Machines. The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950 (2000)
  • The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 (2005)
  • Gateways to Forever. The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980 (2007)
  • Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990 (2016)

Over the years there have been a few histories and memoirs about specific magazines.

  • A Requiem for Astounding (1964) by Alva Rogers
  • Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years (1986) by David Roshelm
  • Astounding Days (1989) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Gernsback Days (2004) by Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes
  • Astounding (forthcoming 2018) by Alec Nevala-Lee

There are several good essays on the internet about the histories of science fiction magazines.

Then there countless popular and academic histories of science fiction that include histories of the magazines. These are too many to list. What I find fascinating are books that analyze the evolution of science fiction, such as The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Science fiction has always been a reflection of contemporary popular culture, revealing both the hopes and fears about the future, with unique perspectives from each country in which it was written. China is now generating a new wave of science fiction today, in the same way, the United States did in the 1960s.

Most of the best stories from the old science fiction magazines have been reprinted in books, as novels, as author short-story collections, or as anthologies. What I enjoy about reading the actual old magazines are the editorials, columns, book reviews, essays, letters to the editor, and reports on fandom and fanzines. This gives a history of a subculture. For example, here’s a wonderful illustration of a science fiction club membership by caricature. Hydra Club

I belong to groups on Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Groups.io, with members all over the world that love to remember these magazines, its subcultures, and the stories. I think it’s because we all grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and imprinted on science fiction back then. It’s the closest thing I have to a tribe.

JWH

 

 

 

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Can I Give Up My Printer?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 28, 2018

I hardly ever print anything anymore. I just tried to print a software manual so I wouldn’t have to study it on-screen when my printer stopped printing and demanded I install a magenta ink cartridge. A set of three colored ink cartridges is $34 from Amazon (or $48 at Office Depot if I wanted to immediately hop in the car to finish this print job). If I wanted to be a Boy Scout and get another black cartridge to have ready when my half-filled one ran out, it would be another $23 at Amazon (or $31 at Office Depot).

Epson 3540 printer

I just don’t feel like spending $57 for ink. $57 will buy a new all-in-one printer. That makes me wonder if I could give up my printer? Lately, I’ve mostly used my printer to print for other people who have given up their printer. Or as a copier for when I want to save a bill for my files. It annoys me that the printer won’t finish the job in black and white since I have a half-a-tank of black ink.

My immediate impulse is to print the manual to PDF to read on my iPad, and then unplug my printer and put it in the closet. The main thing I use it for is the scanner.

[ACTING ON IMPULSE – REMOVED PRINTER – INSTALLED OLD SCANNER]

I’m probably going to regret this. One day I’m going to have an emergency print job and will have to set up my printer again and then run down to Office Depot to pay full price for a magenta cartridge.

Since I neither go to school or work, it would seem I could do without a printer. Let’s see.

I still have a house phone. I guess I’m the kind of person that hangs onto old ways. Most of my friends have neither a printer or house phone. Some of my friends have given up wearing their watch. One friend even abandoned his laptop and now only uses a tablet. My phone has allowed me to give up a lot of gadgets, like GPS, camera, iPod, Kindle, voice recorder, etc.

Maybe the age of nifty gadgets is over. Of course, I’m learning this after everyone else. Why didn’t y’all tell me?

JWH

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What Happened to the Western Novel?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 24, 2018

thrilling_western_1951-11

Jess Nevins has some interesting data in his essay, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” about the number of titles published yearly for each pulp genre. I’m not sure of his source, or how the numbers were compiled, but I’m going to copy his tables here for convenience. I’m assuming these numbers are the total titles publishing in a given year.

Pulp stats1

Pulp stats2

Pulp stats3

Notice, that of the six genres, western pulp titles were the most numerous every year between 1936-1949. The pulp magazine essentially died out by 1950, although a handful of science fictional and mystery titles continued as digest-size magazines. Some people claim television killed the pulps, others suggest various financial concerns and magazine distribution policies.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s westerns were extremely common on television, maybe even the most popular kind of show. The list on Wikipedia is quite long. Back then my mother read mysteries and my dad read westerns. I’ve read a few westerns over the years, but I’ve always been a science fiction reader. However, my favorite movie genre has always been westerns.

Now when I’m at bookstores, new or used, their section for westerns novels are usually one shelf. What happened? Did the allure of the frontier die, or just move into outer space? Everything comes to an end, but why such a dramatic fall-off? It makes me wonder about the current glut of science fiction stories and shows. Will the SF genre eventually shrink, loved only by a few old fans like the western today?

What will replace science fiction? Could anyone in the 1940s imagine the western becoming an unpopular story type? Science fiction has shattered into various subgenres, with the dystopian tale becoming most fashionable with the young. Can you blame them? Their future isn’t our future.

If you study the chart above, science fiction titles were in 5th place most years, just above spicy titles (code word for sex). There were even spicy western pulps. Pulps mainly appealed to boys, with covers to prove it for many titles.

In the 1950s there was a boom in science fiction magazines, brought about I assume by the atomic bombs, jets, rockets, satellites, computers, etc. In the 1950s we looked both backward to the 19th-century and forward to the 21st. Maybe few people read westerns today because the future won and the 19th-century is now too far away.

So much has changed in my lifetime. Not just technology. The changes are also psychological in a way that’s hard to describe. I remember being part of the youth culture in the 1960s, but now feel completely alienated from the young in my sixties.

It’s hard to imagine a time when westerns were the most popular kind of pulp story to read. Maybe space exploration killed the western. As a boy in the 1950s, I wanted to wear a six-gun, but after Alan Sheppard’s 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961, I wanted to wear a spacesuit.

JWH

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Finding A Neighborly Middle Ground in Unbiased News

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A couple who lives next door told me they watched OAN (One America News Network) because it was not biased. They knew I disliked Fox News because I’m a liberal. I took their recommendation of OAN as a gesture of compromise. Our country is crippled by political polarization so I’m willing to try to meet people half-way in some kind of political middle ground. The idea of a news service that promotes a unified America is a good idea. But sadly, One America News is definitely not it.

What is bias? One dictionary definition defines bias as, “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” That would mean any news service that favors a liberal or conservative view, but it could also mean any news service that favors Christian over Muslim, or Hindu over Buddhism, or Atheist over Theist. Or it could mean a news service that favors capital over labor, or environmentalism over capitalism, pseudoscience over science, etc.

How can the news not be biased if it doesn’t give equal time to all issues? How can bias be measured? There are agencies that work to measure bias. Media Bias/Fact Check rates One America News Network as highly biased to the right. AllSides also rates it leaning to the right. RationalWiki describes OAN as far-right, ultra-conservative, and Pro-Trump.

And there are opinions from other news sources. Adweek says OAN is the ultimate pro-Trump network. The Washington Post says OAN takes pro-Trump to new heights. Salon even suggests that OAN is an alternative for those who think Fox News is too liberal.

I like the idea of finding a middle ground news source with my neighbor, but I’m afraid OAN is not it. I doubt they will support The New York Times, the only news I pay to read. I don’t subscribe to cable, and I’m watching less and less broadcast news. My main news sources are from Flipboard, which pulls stories from hundreds of different sites, including Fox News. I believe Flipboard provides a method for balancing bias, but it’s easily side-stepped if you are biased in the stories you select to read.

I disagree with my conservative friends who say that The New York Times is extremely biased to the left. Media Bias/Fact Check claims it’s left-center. They rate CNN and MSNBC as left. Their scale looks like this for CNN:

Media Bias Fact Check scales

Here is their list of least biased news sources. It’s an extremely long list, with mostly smaller sources, local papers, foreign news, but includes a few notable titles like The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today. I have to admit that most of my favorite news sources come from the Left-Center list. Although there are a few sources from Right-Center that I like, like Forbes Magazine. Fox News and One American News Network are in the Right-biased list. And I have to admit I do read several sources from the Left-biased list.

Media Bias/Fact Check is a great site to read to contemplate news bias. It also tracks Pro-Science and Pseudoscience lists.

I wonder if we can become less politically polarized and more neighborly if we change where we get our news? I doubt if all Americans will choose to read only from the Least Biased list, but maybe we could aim to stay within the Left-Center through Right-Center range.

JWH