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Remembering Old Science Fiction Short Stories

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I was messaging a friend in South Africa this morning, Piet Nel, about reading old science fiction short stories in retrospective anthologies and best of the year annuals. Piet is reading through the Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction of the Year series (1972-1987), but he doesn’t have them all. This morning’s message told me how he used ISFDB.com to find the stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4 elsewhere. #4 was the first volume he didn’t own. For example, here are all the places “Born with the Dead” by Robert Silverberg has been reprinted. Piet already had four copies of that story in other anthologies. Piet was able to find all the stories #4, either in books he owned or online.

I thought I’d take the same approach to The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty because I can’t afford to buy it. That annual came out the year I was born. By chance this month, I’ve already read two of them, “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber when I listened to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One.

The-Best-Science-Fiction-Stories-1951-ed-Bleiler-and-Dikty

This morning I read an essay by James Jackson Toth, “Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment in Dedicated Listening” that resonated with me. Toth laments that streaming music is overwhelming him and he longs for the days when he had a limited collection of records he knew intimately. I feel the same way about science fiction. I’m not giving up on reading new science fiction, but my old mind can’t grasp much more new stuff. I’ve decided my specialty of knowledge will be science fiction published from 1946-1985. I need something to hang onto, and this will be it. Mostly, I chose this topic because I already know a bunch about it — why bother becoming a specialist in something other than what’s already crammed into your mind. But also, I’m attracted to this era because I enjoy talking with other folks that also love this era too.

This got me to thinking:

  1. How many people love to read old science fiction short stories from this era?
  2. What SF short stories from this era are anthologized the most?
  3. What are the essential anthologies to collect to get the top stories of this era?
  4. What stories would I put into an anthology if I was an editor of SF 1946-1985?

It’s not that I haven’t thought of these ideas before, and answered some of them in “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories.” That’s the most popular essay I wrote for the Classics of Science Fiction site. CSF is not a very popular, but that page has gotten 2,600 hits. Not many in the big scheme of things, but it suggests there’s a fair number of readers like Piet and I. Overall, I would guesstimate there are not that many fans of old science fiction short stories, probably much less than a thousand in the world, and we’re dying off all the time. I’m sure young folk would rather watch Black Mirror, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Dust films, Short of the Week Sci-Fi, or The 7th Matrix for their short science fiction fix. I love these shows too, but I forget their details almost immediately.

Baby boomers were born 1946-1964 but I would think their formative reading years lasted until 1985. Only a small percentage of boomers got into reading science fiction, and for most of them reading science fiction was only a casual interest. I do know there are around 11,000 members to Space Opera Pulp, a group on Facebook for people who love covers to old science fiction magazines. Probably for most of them, that’s a minor nostalgic diversion. I wonder how many still buy, collect, and read old SF stories?

There are a handful of blogs that reflect a love for old science fiction short stories. That suggests we are the keepers of a very weak flame. I see many of the same names posting comments at these sites. Are we the fans of a dying art form? I don’t think science fiction is dying out, but I do think new science fiction gets most of the attention. Pop culture is inherently linked to generations, and the Baby Boomers who loved reading science fiction short stories from 1946-1985 make up a dwindling cohort. There is a bit of generational overlap, with folks older and younger than Baby Boomers still loving science fiction from that age of science fiction digests.

There are more anthologies than ever collecting the best short science fiction of the year, including one from the prestigious Best American Series. And there’s plenty of places that publish new short science fiction. I believe the readership is smaller today than we I was growing up, but the science fiction short story is still going strong despite the overwhelming popularity of media science fiction. I’d love if I could read and retain knowledge of all this new stuff, but I can’t. I try, but it’s a struggle to remember. Reading new stories from the past will also be difficult to remember, but reading them feels like I’m finding missing pieces of a puzzle I’ve been working on my whole life. Filling in those blanks are reinforced by surrounding memories, so that might help to learn new stuff.

And, I do find more and more pleasure nostalgically returning to old science fiction, and I don’t think I’m alone. Maybe I can keep it in my head. I think it is a mentally good thing to have a specialty to care for when aging.

Here are some sites I read by fans of old science fiction stories. (There are more, but memory limits me at the moment. Be sure and send me your link if you focus on this era of science fiction.)

JWH

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Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 12, 2018

I’m listening to the AmazonClassics audiobook edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, a novel originally published in France in 1864, and first translated into English in 1871. The translation I read was by F. A. Malleson, from 1877, and is considered a pretty good translation. Verne suffered from many bad translations, often ruining his reputation in the English speaking world.  The story is impressively narrated by Derek Perkins. His voice perfectly matches this 19th adventure tale. This audiobook sounds more thrilling and real than most of the silly movie and television productions I’ve seen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 26Journey to the Center of the Earth 36

However, I have one problem with Verne’s story. It’s not very believable. Of course, it’s well over a century-and-a-half since Verne imagined it, and science has progressed a great deal, but was it even believable in his day? I wish I had an AI robot that could read and understand fiction and nonfiction. I want to talk to it like Alexa but it would be much smarter. I want my AI mind to crawl across the web and answer questions for me. Google is so goddamn stupid that it drives me crazy. I searched for [19th-century reviews of “journey to the center of the earth”] but it only brought up modern reviews of recent book editions and movie versions. I thought my query was quite explicit. If Google is such a leader in AI, why can’t it understand my query? Don’t you get tired of all the crap Google searches return?

I want to build an AI mind that I could input texts of all the science fiction stories and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries and have it analyze those works by correlating that content with information found on the internet. Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in a magazine for boys. I’ve love to find diaries, journals, essays, and books by 19th-century readers who read Journey to the Center of the Earth when it came out and to know their reactions. Verne adds a good deal of science from his day into his story to make it sound plausible, but was it?

Hollow Earth theories and stories go back much further than Verne. Were its proponents and speculating on real possibilities and taken seriously? Or, were they the UFO nutters of their day? I get the feeling that the concept of dinosaurs had inflamed 19th-century imaginations and Verne used his story to speculate how dinosaurs could still exist. He was doing the same thing that Doyle’s The Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park did, creating a theory to present live dinosaurs. I have many theories about the evolution of science fiction, and having an AI collaborator could really help.

I’d love to build an AI robot that I could chat with me about science fiction. I picture talking my digital companion like Mannie did with Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) by Robert A. Heinlein. I imagine creating my AI friend like the AI machines in When HARLIE Was One (1972) by David Gerrold or Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers, where Harlie and Helen came into consciousness by interacting with a human mentor. I fantasize talking with this AI and collaborating on articles about the history of science fiction. And what if it woke up and became conscious?

Computer scientists are building AI machines using machine learning to do all kinds of things today. If they can master games like Chess, Jeopardy, Go, and old Atari 2600 games, or analyze MRIs and X-rays for cancer, why couldn’t they learn everything to know about science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning ML (machine language) using Python. I’ve been daydreaming about building a machine after reading (“Deep Confusion: Misadventures in Building a Deep Learning Machine,” “The $1700 great Deep Learning box: Assembly, setup and benchmarks,” and “Build a super fast deep learning machine for under $1,000“) or just paying for a hosting service like Paperspace. There’s a new edition of Python Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Deep Learning with Python, scikit-learn, and TensorFlow by Raschka and Mirjalili that could get me started, or Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron.

Of course, I doubt if I could ever program such a fantastic AI machine or even learn the basics of ML at my age. I’ve been watching a series of videos from Google Developers on Machine Learning Recipes. I’ve also been reading about Natural Language Processing with Python, a book I bought years ago when this idea first came to me. The concepts aren’t hard, but it would be just the first steps on a journey of ten thousand miles. I’m not sure I have the concentration power or memory space anymore. I’m probably too old and too feeble minded to do it, but that doesn’t mean some youngster couldn’t.

I’m quite envious and jealous that young people today can choose this kind of work for their career. I programmed databases during my work years, and that was fun enough, but imagine getting to develop robots, AI minds, and machine learning? What an exciting time to be a programmer.

JWH

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Creative Blogging

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 7, 2018

Events in my life are leading to a perfect storm for writing about blogging. I’ve been discussing blogging with my friend Laurie who is a professor of reading. She plans to include blogging in a course she’ll teach this spring. Laurie introduced me to the idea of multi-genre research papers, which is an alternative to the five-paragraph essay used in high schools. She was asking me about blogging because she wanted her students to use a blog for their progress reports. When I heard the concept of multi-genre writing I immediately thought of blogging because blogging is at heart multi-genre, or at least in the way these academics are defining the term. Blogging is both multi-media and multi-genre. I’ve been trying to convince Laurie that her students’ multi-genre research papers should be blogged.

Michel_de_Montaigne

Concurrent with this I’m reading for my nonfiction book club How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Michel de Montaigne is legendary for developing the personal essay, and he has inspired countless readers and writers for centuries. Montaigne should be considered the Patron Saint of Bloggers. Montaigne retired early and became a contemplative, developing a personal philosophy by writing about his experiences. [Here’s an excellent essay, “Translating Montaigne” to help you find a copy of his work to read.]

And I just got The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and approaches writing and grammar through studying how the brain works at communication. Pinker realizes that we all read and write differently since we’ve all moved online. I’m anxious to dive into this book because I want to scientifically and systematically improve my blog writing.

Then there’s the book I read last year, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. She combines teaching writing with understanding memory. Writing the personal essay is all about recalling details when our brains are very poor at remembering. We constantly trick, lie, and delude ourselves, and learning why is both psychologically rewarding and artistically challenging. Contemplating the limits of memory is a fantastic tool for understanding how to write.

I’ve written two essays recently about blogging, “Blogging in the Classroom” and “Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning.” What I’m advocating is we start requiring children to blog their school work to teach them about reading, writing, memory, thinking, and history. Essentially what I’m asking is everyone become a Michel de Montaigne to write their personal history. I also expect them to be historians, teachers, preachers, scientists, philosophers, naturalists, and so on, to write about the world at large too. For example, here is Peter Webscott’s “Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower.” It is an example of a multi-genre essay about visiting Montaigne’s house. This kind of writing is how we should explore our personal experiences and thoughts, and blogging is how we can save those insights for a lifetime.

Creative blogging should be our tool to write our autobiography, one that is preserved, even after we die. Creative blogging is how we should communicate our deepest thoughts to our family and friends. Only the closest people to you will ever take the time to read your blog. Learning who they are is revealing. Blogging has the beautiful side-effect of showing which of our interests bores other people. That will probably scare you. Learning to know what you care about most and how much your friends and family care about what’s important to you is quite enlightening. It teaches how you are unique. It also teaches you how you overlap with other people, and that’s the key to friendships.

I also wrote this a couple years ago, “77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays.” Strangely, painful truths are wonderfully educational. I could probably come up with 177 things I’ve learned from blogging today. It keeps growing.

JWH

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Reading Mentors

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Years ago, after reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I contemplated how my life had been shaped by not having a mentor growing up. Looking back now, I see I had mentor-like encounters. My reading was guided by random external influences and that worked as a kind of mentorship. We expect teachers to be mentors, but they can’t, not really, not with so many students.

This is going to be a long essay to explain how I select books today to read and why. I feel compelled to jump back and write a history of my evolution of discovering what to read. Looking back, I wish I had known right from the first that some books are significantly better than others — that I should seek out the best. I also wish I had read from a wider range of subjects — that I could have had far more favorite subjects. And I wished I had learned at an early age that some books can be like junk food — making me addictive to empty calories.

Society expects schools to pick the best books for children, but I always rebelled against their choices. How can we raise kids to be better book selectors?

Bookstore reading

Can teachers ever select books perfectly customized for the individual student? How can teachers avoid turning off students by promoting the reading of unrelatable classics? How can parents and teachers overcome the urge to make kids read the books they loved so passionately but might not be relevant to their children’s lives? If only one book is taught in any given class period what are the odds that all the students will respond to it? Is the goal to teach reading – the ability to decipher fiction and nonfiction – or to teach kids how to find the right book that will provide them cognitive maps to reality? Are kids ever taught the dangers of reading? Are they ever warned that books can become a crippling addiction? Are they ever taught that books can spread dangerous beliefs, delusions, prejudices, hate, and lies? I wished I had learned those things early on.

It has occurred to me that how I found books have always influenced what I read. And what I read has always determined the direction of my life. Thus, I need to be more careful with how I find books. If you are not a bookworm you probably won’t understand this insight. Back in 1971 when I first took a computer course they taught us this acronym: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before that, I remember hippies preaching, “You are what you eat.” From this, you might assume I’m about to write an essay on “You are what you read.” However, I’m going to take one step back and write, “You are what you find to read.”

The first book I can remember is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read it to me in the third grade (1959/60) after I had seen the film version with Wallace Beery. If my mother had chosen a different book for me I would have followed a different path as a bookworm? Both my parents were readers of tattered paperbacks. I remember mother reading Perry Mason and my father reading Mickey Spillane. Neither encouraged me and my sister to read. I guess they assumed our teachers would do that.

Evidently, at the end of the third grade, my teacher told my parents I had a reading problem and should attend summer school for reading. I vaguely remember going to a small, wedged shape room, probably a large closet rather than a classroom. The teacher told me to find a book and start reading. I went over to a twirling wire rack and found a small paperback titled Up Periscope. I started reading. It turns out I could read just fine. I don’t remember the summer school teacher ever giving lessons or even talking to him again. I was just bored by what they made us read in class. That twirling rack was an important book mentor and changed the direction of my life. The lesson I learned was I could pick my own books.

Starting in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades what I chose to read was determined by the school libraries and the physical locations where I came to browse. I was my own reading mentor. I remember always going to the beginning of the A’s of the kid’s section at Homestead Air Force Base Library in the 5th grade (1961/62). That got me reading Tom Swift (Appleton) and Oz books (Baum). Eventually, I worked up to the Hardy Boys (Dixon). I would have tried a greater variety of books if I hadn’t gotten hooked on series.

My sixth-grade (1962/63) teacher, Mrs. Saunders was the first teacher to be a book mentor. She’d read us books after lunch. I remember her starting A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and me rushing to the library after school and checking out a copy to finish on my own.

When I started the 7th grade (1963/64) at another school I found When Worlds Collide (Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie) again by browsing the beginning of a range. That simple routine was a reading mentor of sorts. By then I’d range up and down the alphabet looking for the kind of book I liked. I’d read a lot of so-so books. Books were like television or cookies, I consumed them as fast as I could. They were a commodity. I didn’t know there were great books. That’s when I could have used a reading mentor most. If only someone had only shown me how to find purpose in reading, rather than using reading for cheap thrills. If only a wise reader had shown me how to compare books to reality, or taught me about the quality of writing.

At this time I was fixated on space travel and biographies. I read for vicarious adventure. I found a numbered series that published cut-down biographies for children. I remember reading books about Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, PT-109 and John Kennedy, and Blackjack Pershing. The numbered series acted like a mentor to me because I wanted to read them all. It also showed me that some people are more interesting than others, worthy of being written about. I wish I had had a reading mentor that that taught me that living is better than reading. On my own, I decided reading life was superior to real life.

In the 6th and 7th grade, my schools gave us order forms for Scholastic Books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction but I was drawn to science fiction books. Because of Scholastic Books, I discovered Jules Verne and H. G. Wells (too far down the alphabet to discover on my own I guess). These were the first books I bought after begging my mother to write a check. This was my first taste of owning and keeping books. I wish I had had some way of knowing what the other books were like on the Scholastic list. This was my first time I encountered a book list or publisher’s catalog. In a way, the Scholastic sales flyer was a kind of reading mentor.

Scholastic Order Form 1963

If I had found different books in the As and Bs at Homestead Air Force Base Library I could have taken a different path. I picked the Oz books because of the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. Now that I am older I sometimes wish I had not started down the path of fantasy stories. I can see now that I didn’t pick what I chose to read. My tastes had already been shaped by television, which makes it another kind of mentor.

The first person to truly influence my reading was my 8th grade (1964/65) teacher. I’m sad I can’t remember her name because she was very important. She had an approved reading list. To keep the grade we earned from tests during each six week period we had to read three books, three magazine articles, and three newspaper articles — otherwise, our grade was dropped one letter. We could raise our grade each period if we read five of each. Eighth grade was the year I struggled with grammar, so I was able to turn my Cs into Bs by reading. This teacher is memorable for two reasons. She introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein and got me to read books other than science fiction. She also taught me library research and how to make bibliographic lists. This teacher couldn’t be a personalized reading mentor to all her class sections, so she worked out a method of inspiring reading and allowing us to choose our own books from an approved list.

Because I asked a librarian about Heinlein, I was shown the adult science fiction section at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. It was small, only two half-height bookcases of four shelves each. Those shelves shaped my reading for a year. Again, a limited set of books becomes a reading mentor.

In the 9th grade (1965/66) I started earning money mowing lawns and babysitting. This got me into buying albums and books. Having money and a bike let me ride to used bookstores. Because I was a science fiction fan I mainly bought books from the science fiction section. I could only afford cheap books. I mainly bought ten-cent used paperbacks that were very old. That limitation was a kind of reading mentor. I mass-consumed science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s. Even today I realize that shaped my personality more than anything else.

It’s a shame I didn’t know better. I should have read more widely. In junior high, I did branch into nonfiction reading books about science, nature, space travel, exploration, history, maps, sailing, etc., but it was still a limited focus.

In the 10th grade (1966/67) I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This defined my reading for years. Also in the 10th grade, while going to school in Mississippi that only required 16 credits to graduate, I had two library study halls in a six-period day. Science fiction was rare in Charleston, Mississippi, so I began reading more nonfiction.

In the 11th and 12th grade I worked and went to school so I stopped watching television and got little reading done. (This also became true after I got married and worked full time.) Being a bookworm requires the luxury of time.

In the 1970s while in college, I joined the Book of the Month Club and The Quality Paperback Book Club. This broadened my reading somewhat. So these book clubs became reading mentors. Book clubs allowed me to acquire hardbacks at a discount, but the two monthly selections also became a reading mentor too.

By this time I was regularly reading the science fiction magazines, F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, and Fantastic. These periodicals had book reviews, and they became another reading mentor. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I read a review of Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin. That started me reading books about books. However, I seldom branched out of science fiction. It wasn’t until I became an English major in the later 1970s that I began studying books outside the genre. But even then I rebelled against what my professors wanted me to read. For every required classic I was forced to read to pass a test, I read ten or twenty books of my own choosing.

Unfortunately, most of the books I chose were science fiction, with a smattering of popular science and biographies. Now let’s jump ahead about thirty years. Amazon.com changed my reading habits a lot. But what really changed my reading habits was Audible.com. From listening to books read by wonderful narrators I learned I was a very poor reader myself. I also discovered my poor reading habits caused me to read too fast and love books that could be read fast. Once I started listening to books I tried all kinds of novels and nonfiction I would never have enjoyed before. Suddenly, I loved 19th-century novels. Ones that previously had turned me off by all the slow tedious descriptive bits. I also got into long rambling nonfiction books.

I have to say audiobooks have been my best reading mentor. I was reading around 12-20 books a year during the 1980s and 1990s. Mainly because of work and being married. From 1963-1973 I probably read several books a week. From 2002-2017 I read one book a week, or about 52 a year, mostly because of Audible.com. Not only did I read (listen) to more books, my range of reading topics exploded like a nova.

Then around ten years ago, I started blogging and writing about books. I began to think more about what reading meant. I read more book reviews. The internet gave me access to book commentary from all over the globe. I read blogs by other bookworms and discovered whole reading vistas I had missed. Sites devoted to books and reading maniacs showed me countless paths other bookworms had taken.

Since the 1980s I’ve been fascinated by meta-lists. I created one for science fiction, first for a fanzine, and then for the internet. Since then I’ve found others creating general fiction meta-lists, like The Greatest Books, or even collections of meta-lists like Worlds Without End. These are another kind of reading mentor.

Then there is Goodreads and Listopia where millions of readers gather to discuss books. I can even browse what books family, friends, strangers, and famous people read. That’s another kind of mentor.

Finally, in recent years I’ve been greatly influenced by Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, and especially meta-lists that collect them all together. For example, here is “The Ultimate Best Books of 2017 List,” a meta-list created by Emily Temple, where she combined 35 lists covering 520 different recommended books. These annual lists have been getting me to read 6-10 books each year I never would have tried before, and often they turn out to be the very best books I read in the year.

In conjunction with the Best-of-the-Year meta-lists is ebook bargain sales. I subscribe to a half-dozen email newsletters that tell me what books are on sale each day as ebooks. I’ve already bought three books from Temple’s 2017 list. It’s hard to resist trying a book that is on ten or more Best-Books-of-the-Year lists for only $1.99. That makes for a powerful reading mentor.

It turns out the wisdom of crowds is true. It might make the best reading mentor of all I believe. I would think if kids in school had access to meta-lists of books kids like themselves were recommending it might be an excellent mentor to aid teachers.

It would be great to have had a human reading mentor growing up. To be honest, I was never trustful of grownups as a kid. I was a know-it-all little schmuck who wanted to make my own decisions, even if they were bad. I was greatly inspired by my peers, but let’s be truthful here too, my peers were not that wise. We were all too influenced by trends. Plus, I became addicted to science fiction at an early age, which made me ignore most everything else to read.

A while back I wrote, “What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self.” Even if I had a time machine I doubt I could have been much of a mentor to my younger self. We all wish we had known what we know now back then, but we forget that most of us are hard of hearing when it comes to taking advice. Today’s kids seem more connected to their parents than kids of my generation. Maybe today parents can be mentors. Rich folks have always been great mentors to their children. I do believe Malcolm Gladwell was right in Outliers that the kids who succeed in life start early and have mentors.

We try to design education curriculums that has the wisdom of mentors, but I’m not sure if such one-size teaches all plans can ever succeed. We know the internet inspires both good and bad in children but will we ever be able to channel its chaos? I wonder if kids can find other kids on the internet who could act as their reading mentors and provide the kind of wisdom I missed growing up. Teachers might try to catalog the best young adult bloggers to show their students. And I assume the internet allows teachers to be far more in tune with their students than teachers of my era.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last week I wrote “Blogging in the Classroom” but I don’t think I got my intended idea across. I’m going to try again. It’s been almost 60 years since I first learned to read and write. I imagine those skills are taught very differently today. And to be honest, I’m quite ignorant about what happens in 21st-century classrooms. That means my suggestions below could be completely impractical. However, I read several articles a day in The New York Times and Flipboard and often they are about the problems of education. Everyone wants to solve this problem, including me.

blogging in the classroom 2

I am very fond of thought experiments. I love exploring “If I knew then what I know now.” I also love applying technology to problems, including social problems. What inspired my previous essay was “What if I had started blogging when I first learned to read and write back in the late 1950s?” I further refined that thought experiment to include: “What if all kids had to blog their homework, book reports, tests, papers, essays, etc. whenever they wrote something for their teacher that work was open to everyone in the class to read?” My theory was peer pressure would have made me try much harder. And I would have loved having a history of my educational progress. But I’m not sure if that essay got at the heart of what I was thinking. I thought I’d rewrite it and make my intent clearer. (Notice that I’m using blogging to improve my writing, self-expression, and how I organize and present my thoughts.)

A subset of educational goals includes:

  • Getting students to become expert readers
  • Getting students to become expert writers
  • Getting students to master grammar, rhetoric, and logic
  • Getting students to think for themselves
  • Getting students to communicate abstract concepts clearly
  • Getting students to learn on their own
  • Getting students to learn how to teach others

Generally, this is done by a top-down teacher-student relationship. In modern times we work to get students to work cooperatively but the real focus is grades and test scores. Basically, we shovel knowledge at kids and then test them from time to time to see how much they retain. The reason I never liked school, nor was a good student, is because I never felt involved in the process. I never saw why I should cooperate with the educational system. Years later I learned why, but not while I was in school. And pleasing teachers or my parents was never an issue with me. I never had a mentor nor did my parents try to mentor me. I don’t know what percentage of students are like me, but what I’m going to suggest could motivate such kids.

Education has a lot of problems, mostly stemming from declining budgets and political attacks on the system. Plus, we expect children to learn too much. And we’re constantly trying to find one pedagogy that succeeds with all students. Then there’s the problem that we’re constantly experimenting without real evidence. And we throw way too much technology at the problem. Thus, I know what I’m suggesting is probably unwise. However, I would like to see more experiments with basic reading, writing, math, and science. I’m suggesting we use technology to do this. My whole experiment could be refashioned to use only paper and pencils but it would be slower. Humans have developed a symbiosis with computers and I think we need to accept that.

I believe the wild success of social media tells us a lot about educational psychology. We want to communicate. We want to be understood. We want acceptance. We want to be involved with other people with similar interests. For a planet with an overpopulation problem, too many people are lonely. We have a governmental system based on democracy, but we can’t reach any significant levels of agreement. And too much of our social interaction is based on anger, resentment, hatred, and that’s leading to more and more violence. We’re confrontational rather than cooperative. We’re narrow-minded rather than broadminded. We can only see our self-centered needs rather than empathetically understanding the needs of others. And most people have a poor grasp of reality, prone to embracing delusions.

What I propose is we switch students from handing in schoolwork to the teacher via paper and email, and instead post to their blog so that it’s public. I believe learning to read and write based on our fellow students’ efforts will improve our own and make us better human beings. Students should own their own blogs and not use school supplied blogging software. If students used their own blogs they’d be documenting their educational development for life. Students should sign up with WordPress, Blogger, or other international services and give their URLs to their teachers. Teachers should publish these links to all their students and require their students to read and comment on each other’s work.

All too often using blogging in the classroom is about teaching blogging. That by itself is of little educational value. Just another trendy effort to promote technology in schools. What I’m suggesting is teachers require students to take tests, do homework, write reports, all on their blogs, with the results be public. Grading can be private but I’m not sure if it’s even needed. Grades and standardized tests rank students unfairly and inaccurately, so why bother? What we really want is for each student to be the best person they can be by teaching every student that people have different talents and lack of talents. Failing at math doesn’t make you a dummy. It either means you lack a mental facility for math or you aren’t trying hard enough. Learning the limits of either is very important. Seeing how other people work will teach you about your own limitations and how to improve your best skills. We need to embrace the theory of multiple intelligences and recognize we’re not going to be great at all of them.

What we really want is for students to search for their talents and improve them. We want to teach them generalized learning skills that can be applied to any subject, talent, or endeavor. And I believe blogging can help do this. Peer pressure is very powerful. It can be cruel, but it can also be inspirational. If 25 students read what their 24 fellow students were doing it would show them far more possibilities than what one teacher can show them. We need to grow up knowing how other people think rather than constantly trying to figure out how to think for a test.

Let’s use an example. Let’s imagine the teacher posts this question on Friday afternoon: “Why did American go to the Moon in the 1960s?” When students first try this system, most will go to Wikipedia and write up a summary. On Monday the teacher can assign everyone to read everyone else’s essays and discuss the results. The teacher can show how easy efforts lead to simple thinking. The teacher can ask the students to look for unique or deeper interpretations. The teacher can guide the discussion about common ideas and dissenting opinions. The teacher can then assign the students to write another essay challenging students to find source material that no other student is likely to find. The teacher can tell the students to seek out complex and multi-plex explanations.

The goal of this assignment is to teach research and writing history. With every assignment, the goals of improving reading and writing will be involved. We will also be promoting thinking and writing clearly. Students will be encouraged to use statistics and infographics. Students will be encouraged to analyze each other’s motive for expressing a point-of-view. Students will be encouraged to debate each other’s results. Students will be encouraged to combine their research and collaborate. Students should be encouraged to find consensus they can agree upon, but with everyone playing the devil’s advocate. We need to teach about fake and false information. We also need to teach students how not to be intellectual bullies, trolls, and assholes.

Then the teacher should assign their students to write yet another version of this essay so that it competes and encompasses the results of the other students. The teacher should encourage students to write their best version — the one they want the world to read. Most writing classes I’ve taken only urge students to submit one draft. It’s very important to teach students to go through multiple drafts.

Students should be encouraged to critique each other’s writing but taught how to do it kindly. The goal is for each student is to have 25 mentors (24 fellow students and 1 teacher).

Blogging is hard and time-consuming, so I don’t know how practical it is to integrate into a standard curriculum. However, I do believe the 10,000-hour rule applies here. I would suggest one hour a day of essay writing and a couple hours a week reading/critiquing other students’ work. That should accumulate 10,000 hours from grade 3 to grade 12. If computers are available in the classroom I’d recommend typing in tests and other schoolwork and sometimes spending time on discussing other students’ work. A major educational goal is to learn how other people think through reading their work and how to think clearly yourself by writing for others.

Mastering typing and software tools lead to much faster writing and rewriting. I would allow grammar and spelling checkers because they constantly nag writers to improve on the basics. Using them are almost like playing video games because you want to beat them.

JWH

(Goodby 2017 – Hello 2018)

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2017 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 30, 2017

This is my year of reading less. I only read 36 books in 2017, down from 55 last year. Two factors came into play causing me to read less. One is related to aging, and that was totally unexpected. I just can’t read for hours and hours like I used to when I was young. Partly, I have other things I want to do more, and partly because of a diminished ability to concentrate. I also read less because I chose to read less in 2017. I made the conscious decision to stop reading any book where I lost interest. I use to power through so I could add the title to my books read list. (See “Year in Reading” for my past summaries.)

I decided it’s silly to judge my reading by quantity. For decades I’ve loved increasing my yearly books read count like some folks love to brag about how many miles per gallon their car gets. At one point this year I got within 15 pages of finishing a 300-page book when I decided to quit reading. I realized I was pushing myself through the book just so I could add it to the year’s books read count. I returned it to the library.

Book of the Year 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

I read some impressive books this year, both fiction and nonfiction, but Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen stood out. Of course, 2017 was the year of Donald Trump and Fantasyland did more than anything I read to explain that insanity. Just that fact pushed Andersen’s book to the top of my list. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg also worked well to explain the nastiness of 2017.

Two other nonfiction books stood out as powerful reads, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal and In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. I couldn’t get any of my friends interested in a book about healthcare costs, but it was fascinating. The Faludi book was a memoir about her learning her estranged father had become a woman and had moved to Budapest. On the surface, the book appears to be about transgenderism, but I found it fascinating because it was about identity in general. It also compared right-wing politics in Hungary to alt-right America, and that was very revealing for 2017.

Best Novel Read This Year

Love-in-the-Time-of-Cholera

I read Love in the Time of Cholera for a book club. I’ve owned it for years. It was one of those books I’ve always thought I should read. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s large and complex and I will probably need to read it a couple more times before I start to understand Gabriel García Márquez intent for his story.

My 19th-century novel this year was Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Even though this story was mostly philosophizing about how to turn the United States into a utopia it was a compelling read. I can understand why it was the #3 bestseller in America for the 1800s. It’s a shame that science fiction and society has given up on utopias, favoring dystopias instead. Pessimism prevails.

I only read 15 novels this year (and a few short story collections). I’m slowly switching to reading more nonfiction. My goal in recent years for fiction is to go for quality over quantity. I can’t say that most of the novels I read this year were great literary works, but they meant something to me. Anne of Green Gables was a pleasant surprise. I read it because I enjoyed Anne With An E so much on Netflix. I reread Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and I’m still very impressed. I believe it’s a forgotten classic of science fiction. I read two novels by John Wyndham this year, both were entertaining. They made me realize I like cozy science fiction.

The two most well known 2017 science fiction novels I read, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and Artemis by Andy Weir, were sharp contrasts in speculation. Both were page-turners, but I admired Robinson for his extrapolation and I was horrified by what Weir imagined for a lunar colony. I hated that Weir’s protagonist was a smuggler and saboteur. Jazz deserved to be thrown out the airlock without a spacesuit for her deeds. Basically, my reaction to Artemis was the revulsion of Republican cut-throat capitalism would be replicated on the Moon. Weir might be realistic, but I hope we can design better societies the Moon and Mars than we what have on Earth. If we’re just going to spread our cancerous ways to other planets I’d rather let robots have the final frontier.

I started the Bobiverse trilogy with great enthusiasm, but once again I learned that I just don’t like trilogies. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor is a really fun science fiction story, full of recursive science fiction referencing. And even though the second and third books in the series continued to be fun, the novelty of the story wore off. I know trilogies are loved by SF fans, but I love science fiction for its ideas. Trilogies and series generally take the same idea and work it to death. (Personally, I think trilogies and series are the Big Macs and Fries of publishing.)

Best Science Fiction Read This Year

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Arcadia by Iain Pears is a 2015 novel that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I don’t want to say too much about the story because I don’t want to spoil any of its cleverness. Let’s just say Pears combined fantasy, science fiction, meta-fiction, philosophy, religion, myths, and literary allusions into one complex plot. There’s even an app version which allows readers to choose their path through the plot. Arcadia would make a terrific movie. Arcadia is a very British novel about novel writing. If you loved The Golden Compass or Cloud Atlas I’d think you’ll love Arcadia. However, Arcadia is weak when it comes to psychological substance. It’s fun but not deep.

Books Read 2017

Leslie M. M. Blume Everybody Behaved Badly 2017-01-07 Audible 2016
Margot Lee Shetterly Hidden Figures 2017-01-27 Kindle ebook 2016
Nancy Isenberg White Trash 2017-01-27 Audible 2016
Mary Karr The Art of Memoir 2017-02-02 Audible 2015
Angela Duckworth Grit 2017-02-08 Library hardback 2016
Joshua Becker The More of Less 2017-02-11 Audible 2016
Bernd Heinrich One Wild Bird at a Time 2017-02-18 Audible 2016
H. Beam Piper Little Fuzzy 2017-02-19 Kindle ebook 1962
Fredrik Backman A Man Called Ove 2017-02-28 Audible 2013
Charles Wohlforth, Amanda Hendrix Beyond Earth 2017-03-07 Audible 2016
Kim Stanley Robinson New York 2140 2017-03-30 Audible 2017
Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit – Will Travel 2017-04-30 Audible 1958
John Wyndham The Chrysalids 2017-05-12 Audible 1955
Kathleen Tessaro The Perfume Collector 2017-05-18 Trade paper 2013
Olaf Stapledon Star Maker 2017-06-22 Audible 1937
Yuval Noah Harari Homo Deus 2017-06-30 Audible 2017
Philip K. Dick The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Volume 2 2017-07-17 Audible 1983
Dennis E. Taylor We Are Legion (We Are Bob) 2017-07-21 Audible 2016
Dennis E. Taylor For We Are Many 2017-07-27 Audible 2017
L. M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables 2017-08-10 Audible 1908
Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera 2017-08-17 Audible 1985
Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth 2017-08-26 Downpour 1970
Susan Faludi In the Darkroom 2017-08-30 Kindle ebook 2016
Robert Sheckley Untouched by Human Hands 2017-09-15 Downpour 1954
Mark O’Connell To Be A Machine 2017-09-22 Hardback 2017
Elisabeth Rosenthal An American Sickness 2017-10-04 Kindle ebook 2017
Allan Kaster The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2017-10-04 Audible 2017
Al Franken Giant of the Senate 2017-10-11 Audible 2017
Michael Sims editor Frankenstein Dreams 2017-10-23 Audible 2017
John Wyndham Chocky 2017-10-25 Audible 1968
Robert A. Heinlein Expanded Universe 2017-10-26 Downpour 1980
Kurt Andersen Fantasyland 2017-11-08 Audible 2017
Edward Bellamy Looking Backward 2017-11-15 Audible 1888
Andy Weir Artemis 2017-11-24 Audible 2017
Dennis E. Taylor All These Worlds 2017-11-30 Audible 2017
Iain Pears Arcadia 2017-12-31 Audible 2015

Reading Goals for 2018

I really enjoy discovering relevant nonfiction books like Fantasyland or An American Sickness that explain contemporary issues, so I want to keep reading more new books as they come out during the year. I read eleven 2017 books in 2017. I think I’ll aim for one new book a month.

I also want to read more quality literary novels. I’m not sure how many I can handle though, so let’s aim for three to six next year.

Even though I feel like I read too much science fiction I still enjoy it. I like discovering both new and old SF novels. But I hope to keep my obsession in check and read only six to twelve of them in 2018. One science fiction book a month at most is enough I think.

This is what I wrote for my goal last year: “My goal for 2017 is to try and read more nonfiction, especially new books. I’m not going to worry about how many works of fiction I read, but I do want to work harder at finding the best fiction possible. I also want to stop reading mediocre books.” I think I’ve done fairly well. I probably should have quit the Taylor trilogy after the first book, and stopped reading Artemis after I realized I disliked it. I kept reading hoping Weir would redeem Jazz in some way, but he just kept making her a worse person.

My reading goals for 2018 is to read with more conscious intent and to get more out of what I read. I also hope to buy far fewer books. I have a nasty book-buying habit. I tend to buy 10-15 for every one I read. I want to stop that.

JWH

 

 

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Christmas 2017 – Still Stuck in the 1960s

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 25, 2017

Much can be revealed about myself from examining my Christmas presents this year.

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – Blu-ray
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – 2-CD 50th Anniversary edition
  • The Complete Monterey Pop (1967) – 3-disc Blu-ray edition
  • Trouble No More by Bob Dylan – live recordings 1979-1981

I already own various versions of these works. This is the fourth time I’ve acquired Sgt. Peppers (LP, CD, remastered CD, and now remastered again 2-CD).

beatles-sgt-pepper-50th-anniversary-2xcd_01

I wish I could say my wife knew me well enough to have picked these out, but they were all put on my Xmas-2017 wishlist at Amazon by me. Susan actually knows what I like, she just can’t keep up with what I buy. All the other items on my wishlist, except the Arduino starter kit, were pop culture items from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Is being stuck in the past a sad state of psychology, or just normal for a 66-year-old guy? One reason why I keep rebuying the past is to get higher resolution recreations of art  I resonated with from my teen years. I generally never got to experience the Sixties directly except for a few exceptions. For example, I got to see Cream live on their Farewell Tour in 1968 in Miami. I never got to see The Beatles, The Byrds, or The Beach Boys in the 1960s. I didn’t attend Monterey Pop or Woodstock. I got to see a lot of legendary bands in the 1970s and later, even ones who got their start in the 1960s, but that’s not the same.

Until I started getting Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968, most of my news of rock and roll pop culture was highly delayed. It was mostly gossip told by DJs or news items in Life, Time, or on television. The Beatles were always in the news. Most of my favorite bands didn’t make it to television except for cheesy fake performances on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), American Bandstand (1952-1989), Shindig! (1964-1966), Hullabaloo (1965-66), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969). I remember one time catching a great segment on Jefferson Airplane on the Today Show, where they demonstrated the liquid light show. Made me want to run away to San Francisco.

In a way, buying these old recordings is like trying to return to the past. I know that’s impossible. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to say I admire artwork from a particular era. That too is revealing. I feel closest to all forms of pop culture from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I also love work from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and stuff from the 1980s through today, but there’s a powerful affinity for art created for us Baby Boomers. I’m in-sync with modern television and movies but completely out-of-sync with the contemporary music scene. (Maybe I’ll catch up one day before I die.)

It’s interesting that one of my Christmas gifts is from the 1979-1981 era when Bob Dylan was going through his Christian phase. Back then I bought Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) as they came out. I even saw Dylan live during this time period. But I didn’t feel for this era Dylan like I did for 1964-66 Dylan or 1961-1963 Dylan. Listening to this new bootleg series of 1979-1981 performances I realized I had missed out on something great. Dylan had left me behind, and now I’m catching up.

Am I really hearing the 1960s again? This time when I played the new version of Sgt. Peppers it was both the same and subtly different. In 1967 when I first heard the album, I played the LP on my little console stereo. That technology defined the sound for back then. Today I played it on a Denon AV receiver through four floor standing Infinity speakers. The sound filled the room and Susan and I felt like we were in the middle of the soundstage.

I’ve always admired Sgt. Peppers as a concept album, and loved many of its songs, but I’ve never played them heavily in repeat fashion like I do all my favorite tunes. Sgt. Peppers feels like a music hall performance that needs to be listened to from start to finish. It never sounded better than it did today. This remastered edition felt airier than the last remastered edition, and I thought in a few places I heard things that weren’t there before. Of course, that’s probably tricks of memory. I rediscovered once again what a wonderful work of art this album represents for The Beatles and the 1960s. Just buying Sgt. Peppers again and taking the time to listen to it intently with no interruptions makes it worth the dollars.

Merry Christmas! What did Santa bring Y’all?

JWH

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Blogging in the Classroom

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 23, 2017

My friend Laurie who is a professor of reading at a college of education told me she is going to teach a course using blogging as a teaching tool. I found that fascinating. I’ve done a little research on Google and see that there are special blogging platforms for teaching, so the idea is catching on. This backs up a pet theory I’ve had for years. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a student. One of my worse habits was doing exams and papers as fast as I could and then turning them in without double checking my work. If I had only taken the time to reread what I wrote I could have probably changed my mostly C+ grades to B+. For a long time, I’ve thought if they made kids begin blogging in elementary school it would improve their writing and test-taking skills for their rest of their lives.

blogging in the classroom

Knowing that only teachers would see my work meant I didn’t have to try hard because I didn’t care about what teachers thought. Back then, if I knew other kids might see what I wrote I would have tried harder because peer pressure did matter. This is why I think blogging could be a great teaching tool. If kids knew their friends would read their essays I think they’d try a lot harder.

Now we have a system that protects young egos. Children are vicious with each other. So we make schoolwork private between student and teacher. I can understand that, but I wonder if we’re making a mistake. If we want students to learn to write clearly maybe some of their work should be public. Blogging might be a way to start.

Blogging can be private. Teaching portals can set up blogs to be private between student teacher, public to just the classroom, or public to the world. There are endless reasons to blog, in or out of the classroom. One very important reason is to preserve a personal history. If everyone started blogging when they learned to read or write they’d have a history of their life from around age seven. My father died when I was eighteen and I never really knew him. I’ve often wished that blogging had existed back in the 1920s and I could have inherited his blog. I also wish I had a history of my own early life. But I also think blogging would have made me more self-reflective and concerned about my education if I had started at an early age.

Blogging in the classroom could cause all kinds of important changes in society. We don’t emphasize writing in our culture nearly as much as reading, and that’s unfortunate. Education is focused on learning and not communication. We force kids to sit for years so we can fill them up with knowledge, but we give them little chance of expressing themselves. The rise of the internet is showing how billions of people think, and it’s not pretty. Self-expression on the internet often reveals crude skills of exclaiming emotions (usually rage), but not logical thinking or the ability to cooperatively communicate.

This is why I wonder if forcing kids to interact with their peers via blogging from an early age wouldn’t initiate positive changes. Sure, it might open Pandora’s Box, which is what we’re seeing on the internet today with all the hateful tweets and comments, but if we started sooner and trained children to study their thoughts, organize their observations, write clearly, decode how others think, and to compassionately communicate, it could be different.

I took up blogging in my late fifties. It’s given me a great retirement hobby, plus I’m learning to write and think better at a time when my mind would normally be in decline. I believe I would have been a superior K-12 student, and thus a superior college student if I had started blogging right after I learned to write. I believe I would have tried harder knowing my friends could read what I wrote. I also believe that writing more would have helped me learn more. If I had been taught to explain how things worked through writing I would have learned more from my lessons. Blogging could be a way to teach kids to teach and that’s a great way to learn.

For this to work, we’d have to overcome a lot of obstacles. Most children and adults are embarrassed to let others see their intellectual abilities. It’s like undressing our minds. We’d need to teach kids how to protect their privacy and create their public persona. Most people don’t seem to realize their inner thoughts are already expressed in what they say and do. Children often worry more about what they wear and own than what they say or how they behave. If blogging was required in schools, and part of their schoolwork was public, it might make students more reflective about their thinking and how it impacts others. For example, if school bullies read posts by their victims and how bystanders see their bullying would they change their behavior? I don’t know.

I am constantly reminded of a novel, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It’s a story of family tragedies, tragedies that could have been avoided if each member of the family would have expressed their thoughts.

I can imagine endless ways in which blogging could be applied to teaching. Currently, we have teachers teachings and students taking tests to prove they’ve paid attention. What if we required students to spend more time teaching? Because blogs can contain multimedia, we could ask students to teach topics on their blogs using whatever media they wanted. I often have to research and study a topic when I write about it on my blog. That makes me realize that I’m my most important reader because I discover how little I know and how much I learn from working on the post.

I also learn how bad I write by using tools like Grammarly and Readable.io. Writing on a blog is like playing a video game, I’m always trying to better my own scores. And I like when I get good comments, not praise, but insights, because learning how other people think teaches me how narrowly I see things. Even when I get hateful rants it teaches me my views are far from universal. I think students could benefit knowing more about how their classmates think and feel, even when it stings.

I wish I had started blogging when I learned to write so I would have a record of all my school years. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classmate and teacher. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classroom and school. I wish I had taken a photograph of every playground and walk to school. I wish I had written about everything that excited me and scared me. I hate that I can’t remember or visualize all those people and places.

Because of this wish, I would recommend teachers have students sign up with an international blogging site that would stay in business the rest of their lives. They need to promote lifelong blogging to preserve memories. It won’t hurt to have a permanent personal blog and classroom blog for a year if that’s needed.

We might be protecting kids too much by letting them hide from criticism. I think teachers need to think hard about whether to let student blogs be public because some children will suffer emotional damage. But on the other hand, it might help them in the long run. It’s like parents who homeschool their kids for years to protect them. In the end, their kids have to interact with society and it’s usually much harder.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

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Will Fiction Work on Robots?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Have you ever thought about the nature of fiction? With books, we put ourselves into a trance and transfer our consciousness into a story. That’s pretty weird when you think about it. We’re just looking at black marks on a white background and yet we create all kinds of colorful imaginary worlds in our minds. With television and film, we have the sound and visuals to fool our minds with less work. (It’s no wonder fewer people choose books as their gateway to make-believe.) Audiobooks are somewhere in between.

Humans evidently have a mechanism in their brain for pretending that can tune out reality. It might be related to our mechanism for dreaming. But if you think about it, we embrace a lot of fiction. Religion is totally make-believe yet the faithful feel it is real. Same thing for romance, where we give the objects of our desires traits that don’t exist.

Robotreading

This morning I was so engrossed in a story that I felt like I was escaping reality. That made me wonder about how my brain works to do that. Then I wondered if robots in the future, the kind that will have artificial intelligence, will be able to read a book and find an escape from reality too.

I assume if evolution through random selection can create a biological being that is self-aware then eventually our applied efforts will produce robots that have self-awareness too. Because they won’t be biological driven by chemical and hormonal processes, they might not need sleep. One current theory about why we sleep is because we need to clean out chemical wastes in the brain so it functions properly when we’re conscious. Another theory suggests dreaming is a way to process, organize, and store memories. Robots won’t need sleep, and memory processing won’t be chemical. So they might not have that mechanism for make-believe.

Our brains have to attach meaning to everything we experience, and we usually do that with a story. However, our stories are seldom true. Our mental mechanism for storytelling is sometimes called a narrative fallacy because humans aren’t too anal about accuracy. (Example, the stories conservatives choose to believe about their new tax law.)

I believe we constantly fool ourselves because of the biology of survival. Romance and religion serve a purpose even when they are intellectually untrue. We lie to ourselves and others for a variety of survival functions, and I can’t help believe all those processes go into allowing fiction to work on us.

Robots won’t need any of that. I wonder if fiction and lying will fail on them. I can imagine an AI mind seeing us as rather delusional creatures. They certainly won’t trust us. Even our languages are full of confusing allusions when analyzed for realism. For example, if a robot hears a human saying, “I’ll be going to heaven soon” they’ll probably be smart enough to know it means “I’m going to die” but will they ever understand the will for eternal life seeded by ancient memes? In Battlestar Galactica, they had a race of robots that were monotheistic. I thought that a fun idea, but now I’m wondering if its a fiction only humans could enjoy.

I believe robots will understand our languages. It won’t take much to give them a universal language translator feature. But I’m not sure they will need language to converse with their fellow robots. AI minds will be able to record inputs from all their senses so when they need to communicate with another robot all they have to do is transmit that input. The other robot will have a perfect duplicate of the experience being conveyed.

So, in the future, will robots sit around and read books? If they read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov will they enjoy spending hours imagining a galactic empire? I doubt it. A long string of words will probably feel like sensory deprivation to them. Even elaborate movies might feel crude compared to their hyper-view of reality.

We have 4k television cameras on our phones. What if robots had 4m or 4g eyes? We see a tiny slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. They could create to see and hear whole swaths of the spectrum. I suppose they could create equally detailed virtual worlds but would it be fiction? When we read a short story we trick our minds with a small number of suggested clues to create a fictional world in our minds. Most books today are heavy on dialog. Movies are far richer, but the actual story details in filmed fiction are still rather primitive. To robots, War and Peace would be a simple-minded Clif Notes – book or miniseries. (They could hold a whole library of Russian history in their AI mind.)

I tend to think we crave make-believe because of our limitations. We love romance or adventure stories because our lives lack romance and adventure. But I’m not sure robots will crave that. However, they might. They might even envy us. Robots will probably be 100% literal about reality. And even though the universe is extremely far out, robots will comprehend it in totality rather quickly. I don’t think they will be bored, but I don’t think they will see a lot to be done either. We can switch off reality and play in fiction. Robots might seek a similar creative outlet. Maybe it will be a super form of AI fiction we can’t even comprehend.

[Note to self: write a science fiction story about science fiction stories robots would write and read.]

JWH

 

 

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Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christmas came early this year for me. I’ve been wishing since 2002 for an audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One and my wish was finally granted sometime after midnight this morning. (For non-Audible.com members there’s a CD version but it’s $45.)

Science Fiction Hall of Fame v. 1The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One is probably the most loved science fiction anthology of all time and comes in #1 at Goodreads list of Best Science Fiction Anthologies. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted for its contents when they formed in 1965 to recognize the best science fiction stories published before the Nebula Awards were created. The anthology was edited by Robert Silverberg and first published in 1970.

Just after five in the morning, I began the download. Sitting in the dark with my headphones I sampled the stories. There are 26, narrated by an array of professional readers that bring these tales vividly alive to my ears. I’ve long recognized that my reading skills are poor compared to the hired guns of the audiobook world. Since I joined Audible.com in 2002 I’ve been searching out all the science fiction I loved in my youth to reread by listening. When I hear these old favorite stories it’s like when Dorothy opened that door in The Wizard of Oz and the black and white movie switched to Technicolor. I get so much more from hearing than when I read with my eyes.

The pulp fiction punch came through right from the first with “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum. Science fiction is often attacked as poorly written, yet while I jumped from story to story sampling how each sounded, I felt the writing was lovely and vivid. Each story began with distinctive details that envisioned a uniquely imagined concept. Sure, this is pulp fiction, but it’s pulp fiction at its classic best. These old stories showcase how science fiction writers back then felt compelled to invent a novel idea to fictionalize. I often read stories today that improvise off these original themes.

These stories all get their own entries in Wikipedia, which attests to their longevity. I’m borrowing this table from Wikipedia in case you want to read about them and their authors.

Author Story Title Year of first publication
Stanley G. Weinbaum A Martian Odyssey 1934
John W. Campbell Twilight 1934
Lester del Rey Helen O’Loy 1938
Robert A. Heinlein The Roads Must Roll 1940
Theodore Sturgeon Microcosmic God 1941
Isaac Asimov Nightfall 1941
A. E. van Vogt The Weapon Shop 1942
Lewis Padgett Mimsy Were the Borogoves 1943
Clifford D. Simak Huddling Place 1944
Fredric Brown Arena 1944
Murray Leinster First Contact 1945
Judith Merril That Only a Mother 1948
Cordwainer Smith Scanners Live in Vain 1948
Ray Bradbury Mars is Heaven! 1948
Cyril M. Kornbluth The Little Black Bag 1950
Richard Matheson Born of Man and Woman 1950
Fritz Leiber Coming Attraction 1950
Anthony Boucher The Quest for Saint Aquin 1951
James Blish Surface Tension 1952
Arthur C. Clarke The Nine Billion Names of God 1953
Jerome Bixby It’s a Good Life 1953
Tom Godwin The Cold Equations 1954
Alfred Bester Fondly Fahrenheit 1954
Damon Knight The Country of the Kind 1955
Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon 1959
Roger Zelazny A Rose for Ecclesiastes 1963

I consider”A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny the epitome of pulp science fiction style, and the story I was most anxious to hear. It came out in 1963 just before the Mariner IV mission to Mars forever ruined the planet for pulp fiction adventure. After NASA science fiction had to grow up and accept a new reality. Mars and Venus could no longer be home to ancient races, and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a wistful elegy of an era.

It’s quite elegant that The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One begins with “A Martian Odyssey” and ends with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” using the two best short stories about Mars as bookends for the anthology. These stories are the sense of wonder of my childhood. I can’t recommend this anthology highly enough. It captures the essence of the science fiction that baby boomer SF fans discovered in the 1960s and defined the genre for us.

I thought I’d close out this essay with cover images that first featured these stories. What’s funny is many of them didn’t make the cover art — which is a pity. Makes me wonder if the editors didn’t recognize their greatness at that time, or if they thought other stories were superior. I’m also going to include the link to the story’s Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDb) entry so you can see how often it’s been anthologized over the years.

My many thanks to the gods of the audiobook world. You have given me many hours of happiness.

A Martian Odyssey – by Stanley G. Weinbaum

1 - A Martian Odyssey

Twilight – by John W. Campbell

2 - Twilight

Helen O’Loy by Lester del Rey

3 - Helen O'Loy

The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein

4 - The Roads Must Roll

Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon

5 - Microscopic God

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

6 - Nightfall

The Weapon Shop by A. E. van Vogt

7 - The Weapons Shop

Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore)

8 - Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak

9 - Huddling Place

Arena by Fredric Brown

10 - Arena

First Contact by Murray Leinster

11 - First Contact

That Only a Mother by Judith Merril

12 - That Only a Mother

Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

13 - Scanners Live in Vain

Mars Is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury

14 - Mars is Heaven

The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth

15 - Little Black Bag

Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson

16 - Born of Man and Woman

Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber

17 - Coming Attraction

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher

18 - The Quest for Saint Aquin

Surface Tension by James Blish

19 - Surface Tension

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

20 - The Nine Billion Names of God

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby

21 - It's a Good Life

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

22 - The Cold Equations

Fondly Fahrenheit  by Alfred Bester

23 - Fondly Fahrenheit

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight

24 - The Country of the Kind

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

25 - Flowers for Algernon

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

26 - A Rose for Ecclesiastes

JWH

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Science Fiction in the 22nd Century

by James Wallace Harris

I’ve been wondering if most science fictional concepts were invented in the 19th and 20th centuries and if we’ll just be reprocessing old speculative ideas during the 21st century?

Just now I was flipping through the listings of all the forthcoming and recently published science fiction on Audible.com. Most of the titles and authors were ones I had never heard of before. There’s tons of science fiction coming out, but after reading their blurbs I’m not sure if any of them offer new SF inventions. Well, if you’re young and haven’t read tons of science fiction, then there are lots of new ideas to encounter. But if you’re old and have been reading science fiction for decades it seems like all the ideas have been used before. Is it possible we’ve already explored the limits of science fiction?

RingworldFiction has been around for thousands of years and most plots are retreads. Quite often scholars of fiction try to consolidate plots into a limited standard number. When I first started reading science fiction in the 1960s it felt like an author would come up with a new SF idea, and then spin an old plot around it. For example, Ringworld, very neat idea, but the plot reminded me of Oz books. Regular folks go on an adventure, meet lots of strange folks, see lots of weird sights, then travel together until the story ends.

I’m not sure if Larry Niven invented the concept of a ringworld, but Wikipedia credits Olaf Stapledon for imagining the first solar megastructure which we now call a Dyson sphere. I’d think a ringworld would be a creative variation. Just in terms of solar megastructures how many original structures could be imagined and how many creative variations? I’m sure there are limits.

I thought the 1938 story “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey was the first story of a man marrying a robot, but then this year I read “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller from 1895, and I wondered just how old is the idea of building spouses to order? The second half of the 20th century has countless romantic stories between humans and robots. The idea is well-liked now, but when will it be too known to entertain?

A twelve-year-old kid could read a new story today about a love affair between a machine and homo sapien and think it a fresh concept. I guess that means science fiction in the 22nd century will still provide a sense of wonder even if the ideas it presents are actually very old. Of course, by then people might actually be marrying robots. Who writes about first trips to the Moon anymore? Will science eventually ruin all the practical science fictional ideas by actually constructing them?

Arcadia by Iain PearsYet, I wonder, even worry, that science fiction has run out of good ideas. I don’t mean good ideas for plots, which are endless, but good ideas like space travel, time travel, dimensional travel, intelligent life besides us, creating intelligent life, creating artificial life, digital realities, etc. I’m currently reading Arcadia by Iain Pears which blends fantasy, science fiction, philosophy, myth, and religion into one clever story. If feels very original because of its complexity of plot, but is it original in ideas? Arcadia is great fun, but I keep hoping Pears will surprise me with an original SF concept. Pears constantly delights me with creative twists and turns of his story though, and maybe that’s good enough for an old jaded reader.

Biology is more complex than the chemistry of cosmology and seems to offer unlimited permutations here on Earth. But still, I imagine there’s a limit to what biology can produce. Writing science fiction is a spin-off of biology, but ultimately, won’t it have limits?

Maybe artificial intelligence will surpass what biology can produce, but AI will exist in a reality of physics, chemistry, and biology and may develop a greater degree of complexity than we’ve seen in biology. If atoms and molecules had been intelligent could they have foreseen the creative complexity of biology? I doubt we can imagine what AI minds will create, maybe their own version of science fiction. But I’m wondering if we intelligent biological creatures have limits and if our science fiction also has limits.

If we evolve Homo Sapiens 2.0 and they are much smarter than us, will they find more to occupy themselves in this solar system and galaxy than we could? More intelligence might actually produce interstellar drives but isn’t colonizing another planet still just colonizing another planet? Is building a galactic empire the most complex thing we can imagine doing?

Olaf Stapledon back in the 1930s imagined some very far out SF ideas, many of which were recycled in Star Trek and Star Wars. Aliens with psychic powers is a very tired concept though. It’s closer to the magical hopes of religion than science. One problem with being an older science fiction fan is we eventually feel all the ideas we encounter in science fiction are old.

The result of this jadedness is a sense of confinement. The perfect story to illustrate how I feel is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I call it the aquarium effect. We pity poor fish that live in an aquarium because they have a barrier they can’t cross. We all live in an aquarium, but we don’t all know where the glass is.

I wonder if science fiction hasn’t already found all the aquarium walls that confine us but we can’t know it because of the limitations of our minds. One of our major flaws is we imagine more is possible then is possible. Religion blinds people to our real limits, and so does science fiction.

JWH

 

 

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How Could I Miss “Maggot Brain” for 46 Years?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 14, 2017

This morning my friends Mike and Betsy came by and Mike had me play “Maggot Brain” from Funkadelic’s 1971 album of the same name. The song is mainly a beautiful guitar solo by Eddie Hazel that covers most of its 10 minutes and 20 seconds. I was blown away. How could I have missed such a fantastic song for 46 years? It was a new discovery for Mike too, and he said he played it and covers versions over and over yesterday. I’m doing the same thing today.

I’ve known about Funkadelic and Parliament since the 1970s, but I was never into them. I should have been. “Maggot Brain” is often covered, and sometimes remembered on lists of top guitar solos, so why didn’t I encounter it before now? That’s one of the fun things about getting old and being retired, I have the time to revisit the past to look for wonders I missed.

I remember going to record stores two or three times a week flipping through the bins of albums and wanting to buy way more than I can afford. Even back then I bought two to four albums a week, but that was nothing to how many came out each week. Now with Spotify, I can go back and search for all those albums I flipped by but couldn’t buy.

Here’s is one of my favorite covers by violinist Lili Haydn where her scorching performance is mirrored by her facial expressions.

Of course, this begs the question: how many other great songs have I missed? Mike has challenged me to find another great song we’ve missed during our lifetime. It’s going to be hard to find something that tops “Maggot Brain.”

If y’all have any suggestions let me know.

Maggot Brain by Funkadelic

JWH

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Why We Need To Share

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 7, 2017

This morning while I was eating my breakfast I played “Your Top Songs 2017.” This is a playlist Spotify generated for me by collecting the songs I listened to most this year. If you subscribe to Spotify you can play the songs with this embedded player immediately below. For those who don’t, I’m going to embed some YouTube videos to try.

I played this music very loud while I ate and because it’s the music I love the most. It moves me in ways I can’t describe. And while this music pushed my emotional buttons I wished I had someone here to share it with. My friend Mike was my last pal who would listen to music with me, but his hearing has gone downhill so he no longer likes to share music. Getting old is sad. I worry that my hearing is going too.

The past year, more than ever, I realized that friendships are based on what we share. I think this is why Facebook is so popular. We post something we like and then see who else likes it. It’s always fun to find a video or cartoon that many friends love too. I guess it’s a kind of validation of our tastes. But I think it also allows us to feel we’re existing close to someone.

We all live in our heads, and no matter how physically close we get to another person we don’t feel that closeness unless we psychologically resonate. The easiest way to achieve this is to do something together with another person that shares our interests. For example, it’s far more enjoyable to go to a movie and both people love it than to go and only one person love the show.

I love the Bette Midler song above. I will relate to you more if you love it too. Now “Do You Want To Dance” is an easy song to like so I should find plenty of friends to share it. And “The Other Side” by Michael Nyman easily admired by most folks because it’s so pretty. But what about “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus. Mike and I connected on this song, but I don’t think I have another friend that shares this particular love.

Probably somewhere in the middle, I can find more people who will share “I’ll Play the Blues for You (Pts. 1 & 2)” by Albert King. Bette Midler’s song was pop music, so duh, that stands for popular music. Jazz is esoteric for most music fans, but blues has a decent following. I share a love of the blues with my sister Becky. I almost can’t play this Albert King song too loud.

Susan, my wife have a lot of songs we love together, but our playlists of favorite songs are very different. When we’re in the car we have to choose who’s songs get played. When a song she’s crazy about comes on and I don’t love it back Susan’s disappointed. The same is true when one of my favorites is playing and she finds it annoying.

Susan works out of town, so in the evenings I have different friends over to watch TV in the evening. Each friendship is a Venn diagram where we find what to watch in the intersection of interests. What’s really difficult is to have 3-4 people all trying to agree on a film to watch. It’s a very satisfying feeling when the pick makes four people happy.

However, there’s a range of television shows and movies I want to see that I can’t find a friend to share. This makes me feel lonelier. Even Janis, my main TV buddy goes to sleep on a many of the shows I’m most anxious to see. Generally, I have to watch westerns, documentaries, and old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s by myself.

Some of my most intense feelings come from songs, books, movies, and television shows. Often these deeply aesthetic pleasures come late at night when I’m alone. Listening to these songs this morning is generating intense emotions that I wish I could describe, but can’t. And I think that’s the key to why we want to share. We can’t describe what we feel so we at least hope to find someone to experience the same thing with us. Unfortunately, we can click the Like icon but we have no way of knowing if what our friends are feeling is the same thing we’re feeling.

Do any of these songs resonate with you?

JWH

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‘Godless’ and the Western Movie Genre

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I grew up back in the 1950s watching old westerns on TV. Even though I took up reading science fiction in the 1960s and have always identified myself as science fiction fan, my favorite movie genre is westerns. I’m rather finicky about my westerns too. Although the 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of television cowboy shows, I prefer the cinema westerns from Stagecoach (1939) to Ride the High Country (1962) era. Starting with films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969) movie makers began to alter the genre. I liked these films, but they weren’t the same as the westerns I loved most and how I define the genre.

Too often today when they do make westerns, the level of violence is off the scale. We still get a quality western every few years. Open Range (2003), Appaloosa (2008), and True Grit (2010) are wonderful examples, even though their style has migrated away from how I define the classic western. But I find westerns like Quentin Tarantino’s two recent films grotesque insults to the genre. All too often, I just can’t watch the films called westerns today.

Godless - Alice Fletcher

Thus, I was both excited and a little worried when I first heard about Godless. I must say I enjoyed the series and raced through all seven episodes in days. However, I’m not sure what to make of it artistically, morally, and philosophically.

No work or critic can define a genre, but there are movies called westerns that completely distort what I consider to be the heart of the genre. Even during the 1950s, there were so-called westerns where characters rode horses and carried guns but their story’s soul belong to some other historical psyche.

Goddless Frank Griffin

As a kid, I grew up believing watching westerns taught me about American history. That made my black and white television screen a window to the past. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that every decade has a different view of the American West. How do you reconcile They Died With Their Boots On (1941) with Little Big Man (1970)? Godless (2017) gives us another view of 1888, but should we consider it insight into 1888 history, or just a thrill ride fantasy like West World (2016)?

Godless is full of horrendous violence with a hard-to-believe ending. I feel any good western should be true to the 19th-century even if it doesn’t chronicle historical events. I judge westerns by these criteria:

  • Do characters talk and act like their 1800s period counterpoints?
  • Do the costumes and sets look like the era they depict?
  • Could the plot have happened in the true west era?
  • Are the guns right for the period?
  • Is the level of violence appropriate for the times?
  • Is the story connected with history?
  • If the characters are based on real people how well are they portrayed?
  • Are there anachronisms in the sets, costumes, dialog, mannerisms, or plots?

Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) is an extreme character in Godless, especially since he thunders around the country with over thirty killers on horseback. But was Griffin more violent or crazy than William Quantrill or John Brown? Was the bizarre massacre of Creede, Colorado unrealistic when you think about Lawrence, Kansas of 1863? Also, Frank’s strange adoption by Mormons is based on the real Mountain Meadows massacre. (Although Frank looks too old to have fit the real timeline of history.)

My measuring rod for western violence is the gunfight at the O.K. Corral which took place in 1881. It was probably the most famous gunfight in the old west with nine combatants and three deaths. The most famous killing of the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s involved seven deaths, and it was an execution and not a shootout. So when movies have their characters racking up huge body counts it moves away from being historical towards gun porn to thrill our prurient bloodlust.

Godless feels both realistic and unrealistic. I found it hard to believe Frank and his band of murderers traveled without pack horses and supplies. They looked kind of silly galloping across the land like a large anti-posse with one-armed Frank in the lead. It reminded me of Forty Guns when Barbara Stanwyck would lead 40 gunfighters on 40 horses faithfully riding behind her wherever she went. In both movies, the mass of riders looked silly, even overly melodramatic. Modern movies are always trying to out-do past movies. I’m surprised Frank did have 80 outriders. Maybe the makers of Godless hadn’t seen Forty Guns. The show would have been more realistic with just a dozen in Frank’s army. It certainly could have made the ending more realistic.

Overall I admired and enjoyed Godless. But the show kept bugging me with small distracting issues. Michelle Dockery had too many outfits for a poor woman living on an 1888 ranch, some of them much too fashionable. And she changed them too often. And even though I liked the idea of a town full of women fighting an army of outlaws, it seemed cartoonish. Their last stand reminded me of The Magnificent Seven, which is a western I love, but one that’s somewhat over-the-top. Godless goes way overboard. There were other small details that bothered me too, but mentioning them might give spoilers.

I wasn’t sure about the costumes. They seemed realistic at times, especially for the men. Westerns are always changing how the old west looked. Just compare True Grit (1969) to True Grit (2010). One reason I didn’t like 1960s TV westerns was everyone’s costumes seem too clean and store bought. I’ve always wondered if the wild west fashions of cowboy films of the 1920s and 1930s were more realistic because they were closer in time to the actual historical west. I keep looking for period photos for clues, but they are hard to come by.

1888 woman of the west

[Here is Mattie Lucas 1888 from Custer County, Nebraska.]

Finally, there’s the philosophical interpretation. Westerns are inherently about violence. Guns and gunfights are the solutions to western plot conflicts. I assume Frank and his gang represent evil and the citizens of La Belle represent goodness. But I’m curious how our politically divided country will see things. To liberals, Frank and his gang may remind them of gun nuts and mass shooters. Frank could be a stand-in for Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. To conservatives, Frank is a crazy Islamic fundamentalist with a gang of terrorists. They see La Belle as proof that people need to arm themselves. The film shows women with no gun training effectively using firearms to save themselves.

The love triangle between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), and Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) was unsatisfying to me. But the one between Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) and Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) felt logical. So did the one between Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula).

Godless - ranch

Law and the government are shown to be ineffective at protecting citizens in this story, as is in most westerns. Plus, the press is corrupt. A. T. Grigg (Jeremy Bobb) is the editor and reporter for the Santa Fe Daily Review and a publisher of fake news. Grigg reminds me of W. W. Beauchamp, the writer in Unforgiven (1992). I believe this is realistic though because newspapers back then printed pretty much what they felt like, and dime novelists invented the Wild West with tall tales.

Sean T. Collins over at AV Club has an episode-by-episode review of Godless, where he did a fair amount of nitpicking. I could see the faults he saw, but for the most part, they didn’t bother me. Collins gave most of the episodes a B or B-. I think I’d give the show a B+ overall. Godless isn’t Lonesome Dove, but it’s not far behind it as a western mini-series. I’d guess most fans would consider Lonesome Dove (1989) the gold standard of television westerns. I’d agree and also give Deadwood (2004-2006) an A+ too.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite westerns.

Recommended Reading

JWH

Featured

How Quickly Do Ideas Spread?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 2, 2017

In 2009 group of environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen proposed the idea of planetary boundaries. They defined nine indicators to monitor Earth’s environmental stability. In 2009 we had not crossed any of the nine boundaries, but by 2017 we had crossed four. Everyone knows about boundary number one – climate change – but do you know the other eight? I may have heard of planetary boundaries before in the popular science books I read, but it feels like I just discovered this concept when I read Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman. So, it took me eight years to encounter this concept since it was first created. That’s not too bad. How long will it take this idea to spread to everyone? Have you heard of planetary boundaries?

book-big-world-small-planet (1)Johan Rockström came out with a textbook, Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries in 2012, but I rarely buy textbooks (the Kindle edition is $45!), but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find them readable because of my knowledge level. Rockström did come out with a popular science level book, Big World, Small Planet in 2015, which I do wish I had discovered. How often do we buy new books with new ideas when they first come out? (I ordered it today, even though I’m two years late.)

The first laser was built in 1960. I read about it in Popular Science sometime in the mid-60s. I got to see one in 1967 at a science museum in Miami. In the 1980s I finally got to own one when I bought my first CD player. So it took about a quarter century to spread laser technology to the masses.

On the other hand, it took algebra thousands of years to finally get to me in 1963. In fact, most of what I know is pretty damn old. I finally learn about calculus in the early 1970s, when its concepts were only as old as Newton and Leibnitz. I guess astronomy is the science I’m most up-to-date with, and I’m sure I’m years behind and only know its discoveries in the most rudimentary of ways.

The concept of climate change has taken decades to spread through society and it’s often rejected. How long will it take other planetary boundaries to become universally known and affect political action? Even with the speed of the internet we just don’t seem to learn new ideas quickly enough. Most people are stuck on religious ideas proposed thousands of years ago which have been completely invalidated by later knowledge.

And, we forget so much knowledge! My awareness of mathematical concepts has de-evolved to a time before the classical Greeks. To make matters worse, Republicans seem hellbent on rejecting science. Even if knowledge flows freely and fast around the internet there are barriers to absorbing it.

The concept of planetary boundaries is essential to our survival. And I bet there are way more the nine boundaries – that’s just the number scientists are working with now. (Of course, there might already be a new number and I won’t acquire it for a few more years.)

I’m looking for the best popular science books on the nine boundaries. Read about them at Wikipedia but here’s the table they use to define them. (Hope it’s okay to copy.) If you’ve read good popular science books on each that you’d highly recommend, let me know. I consider This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein to be the best book for boundary #1, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for boundary #2. But I’m having trouble finding bestsellers that focus on boundaries 3-9.

9-planetary-boundaries

JWH

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The Robert Sheckley Tontine

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mindswap by Robert SheckleyMonday, my buddy Mike and I were going up and down the isles of the science fiction section at Barnes & Noble looking to see if our old favorites were on the shelves. There were a few books each for Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, the Big Three SF writers of our childhood. But for many of the classic SF authors that we fondly remembered, none of their books were available. The last writer I looked up was Robert Sheckley. No luck. It’s sad to think modern readers won’t be discovering Mindswap or Untouched by Human Hands.

Generally, when science fiction fans today think of comedy SF they think Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But before Douglas Adams, there was Robert Sheckley. I worry that the number of Robert Sheckley fans is growing quite small.  Sure, a few new readers discover him, but that’s offset by older fans dying at a much quicker pace. The memory of his stories are like a tontine, and one day his last reader will be the only person on Earth to remember Marvin Flynn and The Theory of Searches, or any of the other wonderfully weird tales Sheckley wrote.

Much of Sheckley’s work has been reprinted in ebook editions and some of them have even gotten the audiobook treatment. Here’s the thing about books in general – most will be forgotten. Very few books are remembered over the long haul of time. I hate that. Of course, if we spent all our time cherishing old writers we’d have no time for new writers. Who are the new absurd comedy writers of SF today? Who follows in the footsteps of Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams? I’d like to read them. I’m all for progress and time marching on, but I hate to see books I loved being forgotten. So I’ll just mention a few Sheckley titles to try.

My favorite Sheckley novels are Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. Even though these works are still in copyright, you can hear them on YouTube. I recommend you buy them from Audible or if you prefer reading with your eyes get the Kindle editions at Amazon. But for now you can give them a test spin via YouTube:

Actually describing Sheckley is hard, so I’m glad these audiobooks are on YouTube to do that work for me.

And here’s The Dimension of Miracles with a wonderful introduction by Neil Gaiman. It’s well worth listening to his introduction – I might not convince you to read Sheckley but Gaiman might.

Sheckley was a very prolific short story writer, and reading his collections captures the essence of science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Sheckley explored every science fictional concept through an absurd lens of humor, often giving insights into human nature that serious science fiction failed to find. Only one of his collection, Untouched by Human Hands is available on audio. Listen to the first story, “The Monsters” on YouTube and if you like it go buy the whole collection at Audible. The story is about first-contact from an alien’s POV. There are 13 unique tales here that should tickle your funny bone and impress your intellect. Sheckley constantly reminds us we see reality with a too narrow perspective.

Like I said, many of Sheckley’s novels and collections are available as ebooks, and they are reasonably priced. Just for my own fun, I’m going to include covers I first saw half a century ago that make me feel nostalgic for his books today.

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley

Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley

Journey Beyond Tomorrow by Robert Sheckley

Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley

Notions Unlimited by Robert Sheckley

Shards of Space

Probably one old guy’s nostalgia isn’t enough to inspire new readers. I love that Philip K. Dick’s short stories are being produced as Electric Dreams, a video anthology for Amazon Prime. Sheckley’s short stories deserve that same kind of treatment, and that might resurrect his work. When Mike and I were checking the shelves at Barnes & Noble we found quite a lot of PKD titles. Back in the 1960s, I loved PKD but I never would have imagined he would be the science fiction writer of our generation to be remembered.

Young people who have discovered old reruns of The Twilight Zone or love the new anthology show Black Mirror should try reading science fiction short stories from the 1950s and 1960s. Back then science fiction stories had a lighter touch than they do today, more focused on far-out ideas and less on being literary.

Here is one example of a Sheckley story that’s always stuck with me. Sunday I tracked it down. It’s called “The Language of Love” and is in the collection Notions: Unlimited, about a young man, Jeffrey Toms, who meets a girl, Doris, and falls in love. She wants him to tell her he loves her. He wants to tell her. But he wants to express his feelings precisely, and fears using the word love is imprecise. He says people say they love pork chops, how can he use the same word for his feelings for her? So he learns about a dead race of aliens across the galaxy that had specialized in the language of love. Jeff travels to their world and finds an old scientist there, George Varis, who had studied this alien culture and Jeff spends months learning the language of love. Here’s what happens when he returns to Doris:

“Oh, Jeff,” she said, very softly. “Oh, Jeff.”

Toms simply stared, unable to say a word.

“It’s been so long, Jeff, and I kept wondering if it was all worth it. Now I know.”

“You—know?”

“Yes, my darling! I waited for you! I’d wait a hundred years, or a thousand! I love you, Jeff!”

She was in his arms.

“Now tell me, Jeff,” she said. “Tell me!”

And Toms looked at her, and felt, and sensed, searched his classifications, selected his modifiers, checked and double-checked. And after much searching, and careful selection, and absolute certainty, and allowing for his present state of mind, and not forgetting to take into account climatic conditions, phases of the Moon, wind speed and direction, Sunspots, and other phenomena which have their due effect upon love, he said:

“My dear, I am rather fond of you.”

“Jeff! Surely you can say more than that! The Language of Love—”

“The Language is damnably precise,” Toms said wretchedly. “I’m sorry, but the phrase, ‘I am rather fond of you’ expresses precisely what I feel.”

“Oh, Jeff!”

“Yes,” he mumbled.

“Oh damn you, Jeff!”

There was, of course, a painful scene and a very painful separation. Toms took to traveling.

He held jobs here and there, working as a riveter at Saturn-Lockheed, a wiper on the Helg-Vinosce Trader, a farmer for a while on a kibbutz on Israel IV. He bummed around the Inner Dalmian System for several years, living mostly on handouts. Then, at Novilocessile, he met a pleasant brown-haired girl, courted her and, in due course, married her and set up housekeeping.

Their friends say that the Tomses are tolerably happy, although their home makes most people uncomfortable. It is a pleasant enough place, but the rushing red river nearby makes people edgy. And who can get used to vermilion trees, and orange-and-blue grass, and moaning flowers, and three wrinkled moons playing tag in the alien sky?

Toms likes it, though, and Mrs. Toms is, if nothing else, a flexible young lady.

Toms wrote a letter to his philosophy professor on Earth, saying that he had solved the problem of the demise of the Tyanian race, at least to his own satisfaction. The trouble with scholarly research, he wrote, is the inhibiting effect it has upon action. The Tyanians, he was convinced, had been so preoccupied with the science of love, after a while they just didn’t get around to making any.

And eventually he sent a short postcard to George Varris. He simply said that he was married, having succeeded in finding a girl for whom he felt “quite a substantial liking.”

“Lucky devil,” Varris growled, after reading the card. “‘Vaguely enjoyable’ was the best I could ever find.”

I hope whoever will be Robert Sheckley’s last reader hasn’t been born yet. We need to keep the Robert Sheckley Tontine going.

JWH

 

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Science Fiction I Want to Hear Before I Die

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 24, 2017

I love listening to science fiction read by great audiobook narrators! It’s standard today for popular books to have an audiobook edition, and audiobook publishers have done an excellent job producing audiobooks for popular SF books from the past. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of science fiction I want to hear that’s still not available. I assume audiobook publishers need to make a buck and are hesitant to produce stories they think won’t sell. Can’t blame them, but what if there are overlooked markets with enough potential customers to generate a profit? Shouldn’t we make our wants known?

The-Science-Fiction-Hall-of-Fame-Volume-One---Edited-by-Robert-Silverberg

For my 64th birthday, I wrote “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for SF Signal. For my 65th birthday, I wrote, “65 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for this blog. If you study the two lists you’ll discover they haven’t changed much, and I’ve only gotten to hear a few of my wishes. Sadly, most of their titles are still my wishes. The big gift this year was The Left Hand of Darkness coming out on Audible. And John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up will be available on the 28th. Now I’ve got to beg for The Jagged Orbit and The Shockwave Rider – Brunner needs to be remembered for more than his brilliant Stand on Zanzibar.

John Brunner

Although I won’t get them for my birthday this year (tomorrow), Recorded Books will soon be releasing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame – volume 1 in December, and volume 2a and 2b sometime in early 2018. Not sure when they will come to Audible. This is tremendously exciting because classic short science fiction has been mostly missing in action on audio. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame comes in at #1 on GoodReads Best Science Fiction Anthology list.

I was especially grateful this past year to finally hear books by Samuel R. Delany.  (Babel-17, Nova, Dhalgren).  Now I’m begging for Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories by Delany, and Empire Starmy personal favorite. It would be fantastic to hear the complete shorter works on of Samuel R. Delaney like they’ve done for Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, and C. M. Kornbluth. Other complete short story projects I’d love to hear are the stories of Clifford Simak and Robert Sheckley!

By the way, here’s a sample of Sheckley on audio. It’s hilarious.

I’m still shocked I can’t listen to books by these authors:

  • Eleanor Arnason
  • Alfred Bester
  • Michael Bishop
  • Pat Cadigan
  • Zenna Henderson
  • R. A. Lafferty
  • Maureen F. McHugh
  • Eric Frank Russell
  • James H. Schmitz
  • William Tenn
  • James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Wilson Tucker

I can identify four areas of science fiction for publishers to consider: diversity, short fiction, classics, and rediscoveries. Until the 21st-century American science fiction readers mostly read stories written by white males from English speaking countries. Audiobook publishers should search out science fiction written by women, writers of color, or foreign language SF in English translation.

I don’t believe the science fiction genre intentionally excluded women and minorities. When I was growing up science fiction was viciously sneered at by the literary establishment. The genre paid very little, and many believed it only appealed to adolescent social outcasts. I don’t think woman and minorities wanted to write SF. After Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977), science fiction slowly became more popular with the general public. That’s when SF began attracting serious attention, and women and minority writers took more interest. It hurts my feelings today when so many essays about classic science fiction come with trigger warnings about classic science being dominated by white male writers. It’s a complicated issue to judge the past by today’s standards. Any story from the past must be read carefully, but I don’t believe they should be rejected out of hand.

The heart of science fiction has always been the short fiction. For decades novelists did their apprentice work in pulp and digest magazines. However, short fiction has never been popular with the book-buying public. Now that we listen to fiction on smartphones, short fiction should be a perfect for on-the-go “reading.” It would be great to have audiobook editions of the popular magazines. Every year we have several large best-of-the-year anthologies published. These also need to be produced in audio. And we need to hear retrospective anthologies that collect older short stories and theme anthologies of original short stories.

Most of the classic novels of science fiction already have audiobook editions, some are even in their second editions, yet there are a handful of obvious classics that we can’t hear. Finally, there are older books that are no longer read, but if brought back might make exciting rediscoveries. I have trouble reading classic literary novels from the 19th-century but love listening to them. I’m wondering if audiobook editions of Victorian-era science fiction might rebuild reputations.

The stories I hope to hear have a very small potential audience, and thus financially risky to produce. Bestsellers tend to always be new books. Recognized classics stay in print and readers discover them as their tastes mature, promising slow but steady sales. For the past twenty years, I believe audiobook publishers have discovered another market, a nostalgia market, with books appealing to older readers who want to hear their favorite stories they read in their teens and twenties. However, that catch-up market will eventually dwindle. My worry is audiobooks currently in print will go out-of-print (out-of-audio?). The great thing about Audible.com is they keep those out-of-audio editions I bought in the past available to me in my library. But will they for the rest of my life?

Herland by Charlotte Perkins GilmanI want to hear the science fiction books that have historical and literary value because I’m an amateur scholar of science fiction history. I’d love when forgotten books are rediscovered and become recognized classics, but that doesn’t happen often. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a great example. My interests are like feminists who mine the past for women writers, or African-American scholars who want to unearth novels written by black authors which reveal perspectives previously ignored by history. Older science fiction novels represent forgotten perspectives too. Often these old SF stories are poorly written, but not always, but they reveal speculative ideas that are anthropologically valuable, clues to our past hopes and fears about the future.

Since I joined Audible.com in 2002 and began listening to books, I’ve learned that hearing a story read by a professional narrator is the absolute best way to showcase the writing virtues of a book. I feel writing skills (or lack of skills) are magnified when properly read aloud. A good audiobook narrator will get closer to the best possible presentation for a book, revealing all the aspects the author worked so hard to add, especially ones that are so easily skimmed over by visual speed readers. Dialog becomes dramatic, long narrative passages are richer sensually and intellectually, we can clearly hear the voice of the author, as well as voices of the characters, and we can feel the writing style. Most authors are poor narrators, which is why we want professionals.

I consider an audiobook edition of an old book a kind of validation. It helps stories from past eras to find new readers. Plus, we gain a sense of literary history. My inner reading voice is not very good, and it always sounds contemporary, and a good narrator can make a 19th-century novel sound like the 19th-century, or even a 1940s pulp fiction story sounds like a 1940s film noir movie. Many older stories that I read with my eyes feel dated, quaint, or even clunky, come alive with a skilled audiobook narrator. This was vividly illustrated recently with Frankenstein Dreams, an anthology of 19th-century science fiction that has a wonderful audio edition.

My goal for this essay is to point to science fiction that isn’t in print on audio that audiobook publishers might consider. These titles still have a nostalgia audience or possibly be a thrilling rediscovery to entice new readers, justifying taking a chance on them. In terms of science fiction literary history, I doubt there’s even fifty of us in the world today, and most of them probably still prefer reading over listening. However, I believe the audience for historical science fiction could be expanded greatly if more young people heard stories like “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster on their iPhones.

I use Audible.com as my reference for being audio-in-print. There may be amateur readings on the web, or professional readings not sold through Audible, but such rarities are hard to track down. For the past two years (2015 and 2016) I’ve published lists of SF books I wanted to hear on audio as my birthday wish. I recommend that potential audiobook publishers scan these lists for possible consideration. Only a few titles have gotten audiobook editions since they came out.

Most of the legendary classic science fiction novels of the 19th-century have multiple audiobook editions, especially for Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. I’m only learning late in life that there was a great deal more science fiction published in Victorian times than we remember.

The books I recommend are based on how they are remembered today. I’ve published two lists of science fiction based on the popularity of being on multiple best-of lists. The Classics of Science Fiction and Science Fiction by Women were created from the most popular books found on 65 Best Science Fiction lists published between 1949-2016. HiLoBrow.com has also assembled lists of science fiction books by historical periods: Scientific Romances (1864-1903), Radium Age Sci-Fi (1904-1933), Golden Age Sci-Fi (1934-1963) and New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983). I also use Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction edited by Neil Barron (all editions). Barron’s book is a library reference tool for collection building.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)Like I said, Audible.com sells most of the famous science fiction published in the last two hundred years. Most of what’s missing is obscure, but there are some amazing exceptions. I just can’t believe Alfred Bester’s two legendary novels; The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination aren’t available on audio. I assume for legal reasons. And why haven’t we heard any James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) or Joanna Russ (two famous feminist science fiction writers)? Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Tiptree’s best-of short story collection is a must. Russ’ The Female Man is still in print on paper so why not audio? That book was #24 on the Classics list and #7 on the SF by Women Writer’s list. But also, I think her And Chaos Died should be considered. It was originally an Ace Special and nominated for a Nebula.

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden ElginMost books on the Science Fiction by Women list are available on audio, but that’s because they are generally recent books. The further back in time we travel the fewer women science fiction writers we get to hear. Woman writers weren’t common, but there were more than most readers remember. Zenna Henderson’s lovely People stories from the 1950s and 1960s need to be heard, now collected as Ingathering: The Complete People Stories. Also, Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin (expanded to a trilogy). And I really, really want to hear Women of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason.

Scholars are rereading the old pulps looking for women writers. Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction edited by Lisa Yaszek would be a fascinating collection to hear. The trouble with anthologies is getting permissions to reprint on audio. From now on, anthologists should try to always get permission. It would be fantastic if we could hear Pamela Sargent’s two-volume science fiction by women anthologies: Women of Wonder: the Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s and Women of Wonder: the Contemporary Years, Science Fiction by Women from the 1970s to the 1990s. Both are long out of print so it might be hard to get the audiobook reprint rights.

Women-of-Wonder-The-Classic-YearsWomen-of-Wonder-The-Contemporary-Years

There are classic anthologies that deserve audio production like Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison that’s still in print, so they have a chance. But most of the famous anthologies of the past, like Adventures in Space and Time edited by Healy and McComas, are long out of print, and it’s doubtful I’ll ever hear them. That doesn’t mean new anthologists couldn’t re-anthologize those stories.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer is a new epic retrospective anthology covering science fiction history. I’m crying that it’s not on audio. Why? Why? Why? However, at 1,218 pages it’s probably too expensive to produce, but it’s shorter than the complete Sherlock Holmes collections which are one credit at Audible. I would gladly pay 2 credits for it! The Vandermeers have created a monumental anthology that is diverse and worldly. I beg the audiobook gods to produce it.

So Long Been Dreaming edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder MehanBefore the 21st-century science fiction had very few African American writers or writers of color from any country. GoodReads has a great list of African American Science Fiction to study. Most of the newer novels are on audio. A great way to deliver audiobook diversity in older science fiction is by producing anthologies. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas would be an excellent choice, as well as its sequel Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Also, consider So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson, or Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. (Update 11/27/17 – Octavia’s Brood is available at Audible.)

After listening to Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims I wanted to hear more science fiction by 19th-century writers. His anthology made me realize that the Victorians could have discussed many science fictional ideas we assumed were first thought up in the 20th century. An obvious wish is to hear Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction edited by Brian Stableford. I really admire Stableford’s insight into the evolution of science fiction, especially his four-volume book, New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romances.

Two novels from the 1800s that I’d like to hear are Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg about using anti-gravity to go to Mars, and Caesar’s Column (1890) by Ignatius Donnelly, a best-seller American utopian. Some of its ideas seem to foreshadow what we’re experiencing today. I was tremendously impressed by Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy when I listened to it last week. Sure, it was mostly lecturing, but it was incredibly creative.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David LindsayThe early part of the 20th-century was a happening time for science fiction, but many of its quasi-famous stories are now forgotten. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsey is an early interstellar travel yarn, a favorite of Robert A. Heinlein, that is religiously philosophical like C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. A classic pulp fiction adventure is The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings. I read a beat-up copy that I found in a tiny, dusty, small-town library in 1966. I thought it would be fun to try it again. Emperor of the If (1926) by Guy Dent was an early alternate history story, and The Young Men are Coming (1937) by M. P. Shiel, a story of flying saucers and fundamental religion.

My last want is Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov, a huge anthology of science fiction stories from the 1930s. These are the stories Isaac Asimov remembered loving growing up, and they are wonderful. The stories aren’t sophisticated, but they do have tremendous enthusiasm for their ideas. Science fiction has a different feeling for each decade, and we’ve mostly forgotten 1930s science fiction. Most of the retrospective anthologies we’ve seen in recent decades seldom anthologize stories from the 1930s (or even the 1940s). Most of the currently recognized classics of science fiction short stories come from the 1950s and later. When I was growing up, the classic stories were mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. I ache to hear these old 1930s stories read by a narrator who can properly dramatize them.

66 Books I Want to Hear for My 66th Year

H=Hardback  T=Trade paper  M=Mass market  E=ebook  *=OOP

    1. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – HT
    2. Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills – OOP
    3. The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt – TE
    4. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt – T
    5. Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore – TE
    6. The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester – TE (published 12/5/17)
    7. A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn – H
    8. Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement – TE (as Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories)
    9. Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish – E
    10. Citizen in Space (1955) by Robert Sheckley – E
    11. The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester – TE
    12. Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell – E
    13. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker *
    14. Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys – E
    15. The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson ME
    16. Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss – E
    17. Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn – H
    18. Empire Star (1966) – T (combined with Babel-17)
    19. The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz – ME
    20. Dangerous Visions (1967) ed. Harlan Ellison – TE
    21. The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
    22. Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch – TE
    23. Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty – T
    24. The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd – *
    25. Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock – T
    26. Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad – TE
    27. Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony – HTE
    28. And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ – *
    29. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker *
    30. The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelazny – TE
    31. The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe – TE
    32. The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn – T
    33. Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov – *
    34. A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1974) by Stanley G. Weinbaum – *
    35. The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison *
    36. The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ – T
    37. The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner – TE
    38. Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
    39. On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch – E
    40. Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban – HTE
    41. No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop – E
    42. Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin – TE
    43. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
    44. Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop – TE
    45. The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy – E
    46. Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan – TE
    47. Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper – TE
    48. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr. – T
    49. A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason – E
    50. Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler – TE
    51. Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan – TE
    52. China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh – TE
    53. Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith – TE
    54. The Rediscovery of Man (1993) by Cordwainer Smith – H
    55. Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers – TE
    56. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995) – H
    57. Women of Wonder (1998) (2 volumes) edited by Pamela Sargent – OOP
    58. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling – TE
    59. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) v.1 and v.2 by Gene Wolfe – T
    60. The Good Old Stuff (1998) edited by Gardner Dozois – T
    61. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) edited by Sheree R. Thomas – HE
    62. The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 1 &
      2
      (2001) – H
    63. Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany – T
    64. Strange Relations (2008) by Philip Jose Farmer – M (The Lovers, Flesh, Strange Relations omnibus)
    65. The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – TE
    66. Sisters of Tomorrow (2016) edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp

    the-last-starship-from-earth-by-john-boyd_thumb

    JWH

Featured

The GOP’s Big Heist

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 21, 2017

If only Congressmen carried guns, we could call their tax reform armed robbery. Republicans feel they have a mandate from America to cut taxes – that’s not true. Since Reagan, they have transformed themselves into an anti-tax cult. Conservatives have brainwashed themselves to believe God and his only begotten daughter Ayn Rand have put them on Earth to cut taxes. They will commit any crime to get what they want, believing they are faithful jihadists fighting the evil forces of the big government. This anti-tax religion has given conservatives meaning and purpose in life, empowering themselves with self-righteousness to believe their end goal justifies any means. They will lie, cheat, steal to get what they want, and they lack all integrity. Embracing Donald Trump proves that.

1040 Tax Form

Our tax system certainly needs reform, but there’s a difference between a real tax overhaul and slash and burn tax cutting. Conservatives want to make America great again but want to do it on the cheap. A great civilization costs money, big money. The cherished belief that a smaller government is better is merely another rationalization to cut taxes. We all want to live in a great society. We all want security. We all want fairness and justice. Unfortunately, the rich believe they deserve all the wealth and don’t care what happens to the rest of us. Their main delusion is they earn their money so it’s theirs to keep.

Americans want a society where work and effort pay off in success. But no one earns millions, or billions, through solo hard work. The rich whine they shouldn’t be taxed at a higher rate than ordinary people, ignoring they enjoy the fruits of our society at rates ten, hundreds, thousands of times that of ordinary Americas. Paying taxes at a higher rate should be their fair payment for membership in a minority that gets to fly in private jets, sail in big yachts, and dwell in multiple mansions while a poorer majority struggle to just get by in small homes, driving old Toyotas, and fantasizing about living the good life by binge-watching television.

The idea of trickle down wealth is just another rationalization to be greedier. Wealth trickles up from the common people. The masses are the slaves that give the rich their obscene lifestyles. To refuse universal healthcare, living wages, a safe infrastructure, and minimum standards of living only makes the wealthy obscenely obscene. If the rich keep hijacking all the wealth, they will starve the base society that supports their luxury lifestyle. Our economic system is a symbiotic relationship between capital and labor, but the rich want it to be a vampiric relationship. What happens will they kill their host?

We can have a great America, a great civilization only if we buy it. It does not come from Voodoo economics. The rich should not get any tax cuts at all and should be paying somewhat more than what they pay now. We should enact a 50% bracket until the national debt is paid off, the infrastructure is rebuilt, a fair universal health care is put into place, and a minimum living wage established, including a guaranteed minimum wage.

When we’re reorganized, rebuilt, out of debt, and America is truly great again, then we can roll back taxes. Right now, a tax cut is like a person with bankruptcy level debts deciding to cut back on their work hours. We need to reorganize the tax system, so it brings in more money, not less, and it needs to be equitable to all.

I have been reading a lot of articles on this tax overhaul. Take the time to read the ones I list below. Overhauling the tax structure is immensely complicated. Republicans tout simplistic mumbo-jumbo to rationalize their greed. If they get what they want, it will only hurt America. We live in tough times, a time when the tough should get going. Instead, our tough leaders are stealing the nation blind. We face countless threats to our survival. Instead of spending the money to fight those threats, we’re giving more money to the super-rich so they can pollute even more with bigger private jets, bigger yachts, and more mansions.

The trouble with conservatives is they’ve embraced a single-solution philosophy – cut taxes. That’s why they want to shrink the government, cancel health care and other social programs, do away with K-12 and Higher Education, ignore environmental issues, cut regulations, and anything else that gets in the way of them taking all the money in existence.

The real problem we face is wealth inequality. It will destroy America before climate change. The easiest way to understand what I’m talking about is to watch Robert Reich’s documentaries or read his books. Saving Capitalism just showed up on Netflix. The proposed GOP tax cuts will only transfer more money to the wealthy making inequality worse.

Do we really need these tax cuts now? Wasn’t overhauling the tax system the real goal? Are we getting tax-reform or being mugged? Taxation is an incredibly complicated problem, so is it fair to leave it in the hands of true believers whose faith is founded on attacking expertise and science? As citizens, we’re at the mercy of our leaders. Shouldn’t important issues require referendums? Should we leave such monumental decisions to GOP fanatics working behind closed doors? Shouldn’t tax reform come in easier to understand modular changes that the wisdom of the crowds votes on? Wouldn’t passing 25 separate tax reform changes over a period of years be wiser than one big bill that no one understands?

Read these articles, study the infographics and statistics. Consider using 5 Calls to let your representatives know what you think.

 

JWH

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Remembering When I Forget

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 16, 2017

One tragic aspect of aging is memory loss – however, I’m trying to laugh off these incidents before they become painful. For example, I planned on calling this essay “Fun with Memory Loss” until I discovered I had already blogged that same idea two years ago. Then I thought about calling it “More Fun with Memory Loss.” I wonder how many times I’ll come up with the idea of writing about memory lapses and calling it “Fun With  Memory Loss?” The original essay included a list of 43 scenes remembered from a movie, Seven Men from Now, a western starring Randolph Scott to prove what I could remember overnight. The previous day I had been startled to discover partway into the film I had seen Seven Men from Now just months before and it took me half a movie to remember.

Shedding-memories

The goal of the original essay was to come back and check to see how much I could remember after intentionally trying to remember. I forgot the experiment, I didn’t go back to check myself. Seeing the title again didn’t recall any of those 43 scenes I wrote down. Yet, while I read each today I did remember them. That’s weird. Is recalling the real problem? When I watch a film again, one I can’t describe before watching, it seems like as I rewatch each scene I do feel like I’ve seen them before. Wouldn’t that scene have to be in memory to feel that? Maybe we record a coded impression rather than the details and rewatching resonates with that recorded impression?

The reason why I wanted to write another essay called “Fun with Memory Loss” is because of two incidents. The first involved my wife Susan and my movie buddy Janis. Susan wanted Janis and I to watch Bad Moms with her because she wanted to rewatch the original before going to see the sequel.  Susan told us all about the film, and how funny it was, giving us many details. I rented it from Amazon. The first clue to something wrong was when the film started at the end where the credits were rolling. I restarted it at the beginning. After a while, Janis and I both realized we had seen it before. Then we figured out what had happened. Susan had talked the two of us into watching Bad Moms before, just like she had the second time. We had rented a movie we had already rented before. None of us remember the first time. It’s amazing that all three of us forgot.

Then yesterday my old friend Connell recommended a movie called The Discovery. He described the movie in detail and it sounded intriguing. The story involves a scientist, played by Robert Redford, scientifically proving life after death existed. He didn’t claim it was heaven but claimed he could observe souls leaving their bodies for another dimension after death. This caused a rash of suicides around the world. I got on Netflix and started watching. You guessed it, I had seen it before. I called Connell and we eventually figured out that he had recommended it before, I had watched it, and I had even called him before and discussed the film. We both had forgotten completely the whole first cycle.

I’m starting feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, trapped in a loop. Connell says he can re-watch his favorite binge-worthy shows and not remember whole episodes. I’m beginning to worry when my friends will start rewatching our old favorite shows time and again and never know we’re replaying them.

The other night I had my friends Mike and Betsy over to see Auntie Mame. We loved it. Before the movie I was positive I had never seen it. During the movie, I sometimes had slight flashes of déjà vu. I suppose I could have seen Auntie Mame decades ago and only the faintest of memory residue remained in my brain.

To me, one of the absolute best books on memory is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Sure, it sounds like a book on religion (and it is), but Ehrman uses how people remembered Jesus to explore the limits of memory. Humans have a terrible memory. First person witnesses are totally unreliable. My memory lapses in my sixties might not even be a sign of aging. I wrote a whole essay about memories we cherish from youth becoming corrupted or illusionary, see “The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls.”

I hate that I can’t retain what I read, especially regarding non-fiction, but there’s nothing I can do. Our brains aren’t hard drives. Two years ago I wrote, “Why Read What We Can’t Remember?” because it depressed me that I spent so much time learning new facts and concepts from books and documentaries only to have them leak away. I decided that we read for the moment for the joy of learning in that moment. We generally don’t know what we forget until its tested. Back in my school days testing showed I forgot a lot back then too.

Some people have remarkable abilities to remember. I envy them. As long as I know I’m forgetting I’m okay. It’s when I don’t that I’m in trouble, but then I won’t remember that.

I wonder if I’ve written this essay before?

JWH