2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

by James Wallace Harris, 1/16/21

I often wonder how young people today feel about the future. The only way to have hope is through massive acts of denial. Susan and I never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to answer their questions as they grow up. Do you lie? Do you hide the news? What do you tell them about the metal detectors in the schools? How do you explain our handling of pandemics or climate change? What do you teach your kids about race relations and the politics of hate? What do you tell your kids about the thousands of failures we are facing as a society?

This is the core of the new novel by Richard Powers. Bewilderment is about raising a nine-year-old kid with emotional problems. He’s probably on the autism spectrum but is very high functioning. He probably has other learning disorders, but nothing is definite. He has trouble in school and his teachers want to medicate him with powerful psychoactive drugs. He has hair-trigger tantrums. His mother has died. How would you cope with such a kid? To make matters worse, the setting is the near future where things have gotten even worse than today. Imagine what the U.S. would be like if Trump was on his third term.

Bewilderment is not marketed as science fiction, but it’s set slightly into the future and talks about technology that might be possible soon. The story often references science fiction and uses its techniques, so I do consider it a science fiction novel. It’s the most gut-wrenching science fiction novel since Flowers for Algernon. If that novel wrecked you emotionally, you might not want to read this one. I found this one even more emotionally devastating.

Theo Byrne is the widower father of Robin (Robbie), a nine-year-old boy who is smart enough to know that humanity is on an insane self-destructive path and he can’t stop asking why. Robbie relentlessly wonders why his father, his teachers, or any of the adults he meets don’t act rationally. Robbie acts out, sometimes violently, sometimes in tantrums, demanding truth and honesty. Robbie is the one sighted person in the land of the blind. Robbie is the person we should all be. And Theo is constantly at his wit’s end trying to help his son.

Teachers want to control Robbie with psychoactive meds, and Theo is looking for any solution but that. Theo is a great dad. He constantly tries to engage Robin in insightful learning. Theo has two tools for calming Robbie. One, he calls on his memory of reading 2,000 paperback science fiction novels for engaging stories to divert Robbie from his meltdowns. Second, Theo is a scientist developing simulations of exoplanets for the day a new space telescope will be launched. He gets Robbie involved in these possible worlds that could be discovered soon. The basis of Theo’s work is to develop as many simulations as he can, so when the telescope detects certain conditions with an exoplanet they can match it to the simulations and quickly understand what we might be seeing.

Theo uses his simulations to visualize being on other planets to engage Robbie’s attention. This works at times, but often it only fuels Robbie’s awareness of what we’re doing to the planet Earth. For a nine-year-old, Robin can extrapolate brilliantly. His bullshit detector never fails.

Bewilderment progresses through one year of Theo’s and Robin’s life. Robbie is obsessed with memories of his dead mother, who was a lawyer for all the save-the-world causes. It’s through learning about his mother that Robbie finds some hope of controlling his emotions.

Like I said, most people will not consider Bewilderment a real science fiction novel. Bewilderment doesn’t have spaceships, galactic empires, time travel, robots, or dystopias — well, other than our own. The reason I like to think of Bewilderment as a science fiction novel is it uses all the sense of wonder I grew up with to give us hope for the real future we’re about to enter.

Unfortunately, Bewilderment shows our science fiction dreams are going to fail us. Or more exactly, we are going to fail them. The rap sheet for our species is long. The list of what we’re destroying grows every day. One of the things Richard Powers believes we’re destroying is our positive science fiction dreams. That like me, he worries about what hopes young people can still find in science fiction.

Science fiction has always been about hopes and fears regarding the future. What happens when science fiction only has fears to work with?

JWH

2022 Book #1 – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

by James Wallace Harris

My old buddy Connell and I often talk about the unexpected scientific discoveries made in our lifetime. Back in the 1960s, we both grew up reading science fiction and we had certain expectations about the 21st-century. Now that we’re in our seventies living in that century we realized that science fiction missed so much, and so did our imaginations.

Because we grew up thinking the black and white astronomical photos made by the Mt. Palomar 200″ telescope were the pinnacle of astronomical awareness, we never imagined what the Hubble Space Telescope would show us in color. We never dreamed that astronomers would discover exoplanets or robots would roam the solar system. We thought people had to go to all those places.

Nor did we imagine society being transformed by computers and networks. I never pictured the computer I’m typing on now, or what I could do with my iPhone or iPad.

But one of the biggest discoveries we missed was about animal consciousness. We expected that we’d have to wait for interstellar spaceships to be developed before we’d meet another form of intelligent life. We never realized it was all around us on Earth and in the oceans.

Intelligence and sentience are on a spectrum. We grew up in a time when people believed they were the crown of creation, and all life below us was unconscious and stupid. We’re finally realizing just how stupid we were. See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

There are so many books to read to illustrate what I mean. The Soul of an Octopus is just one, but a beautiful work by a woman that has learned so much about animals by spending time with them. Sy Montgomery writes in a way that we follow her around as she makes her discoveries. You will fall in love with four beautiful creatures, Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. You will cry when some of them die, but you will also get to meet intelligent alien lifeforms.

I still read a lot of science fiction, I can’t help myself, it’s a lifelong addiction that I no longer try to escape from. But I’ve learned if I really want to experience the far-out I need to read science books, books like The Soul of an Octopus.

My reading goal for 2022 is to read as many intensely great books as I can find. The Soul of an Octopus starts the year with a bang.

JWH

Why It’s So Important to Remember What I Read in 2021

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/21

Reading is my sixth sense, how I explore the larger reality I can’t observe with my classic five senses. Every year I can only read so many books, making it important to wisely select the novels, nonfiction books, short stories, and articles I do read. Reading changes me. I shape myself by what I read. Each year I work to become more conscious by what I select to read. However, this self-improvement effort is very much like my efforts to eat healthily and avoid junk food. I’m never a saint.

At seventy, my mind is becoming like an old suit with moth holes. Words and thoughts leak out of my consciousness through little missing places eaten away by the moths of time. Remembering is something that’s become very important to me, as much as sex was on my adolescent mind.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is the 52nd and last book I read in 2021. It’s an accomplishment to read so many books in one year. And 52 is a good number. It means I averaged one book a week, and that’s a nice reading pace.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those superbookworms who could read 100 or 200 books a year, but my mind and memory can’t handle that much new content. I like to think one book a week is what my mind can handle, but I’m probably fooling myself.

52 is probably too many but I’d hate to read less. I feel I did a pretty good job of picking worthwhile reads, ones I still remember reading at the end of the year, but I have to admit, some of them were not necessarily the best books I could have picked. I will try harder next year. The problem is the conflict between reading books that expand my awareness, and books that soothe my soul.

One way to remember the books I read in 2021 is to remember my favorites, the ones I’d recommend. Links are to essays I wrote during the year.

New Fiction

New Nonfiction

  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause – Ty Seidule
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert

Old Fiction

Old Nonfiction

  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Evil Geniuses – Kurt Andersen
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Hackers – Steven Levy
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer

Another way to remember is to recall why I read certain books. I’m in a two-person book club with my friend Linda, I’m also a member of an online nonfiction book club, I’m in a Facebook group that reads science fiction anthologies, I have a personal reading goal to read all 25 volumes of The Great SF Stories edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, I like to read science fiction novels, I love to read popular science books, and I enjoy reading some contemporary and classic fiction.

Two-Person Book Club With Linda

  • Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America – Kurt Andersen
  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Elderhood – Louise Aronson
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis

Linda went on to read several more Larry McMurtry books, but I just couldn’t keep up with her.

Online Nonfiction Book Club

  • Underland: A Deep Time Journey – Robert MacFarlane
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Noise (didn’t finish) –
  • Uncanny Valley (read in 2020) – Anna Weiner
  • Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World –  Fareed Zakariia (didn’t finish)
  • Fermat’s Enigma – Simon Singh (didn’t finish)

I had read The Sisters, Uncanny Valley, and The Invention of Nature on my own and nominated those books. I skipped four books this year: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Forgetting by Scott A. Small, Kindred by Rebecca Waggs Sykes, A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

Nonfiction I Picked

  • Hackers – Steven Levy (reread)
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media – P. W. Singer
  • A People’s History of Computing in the United States – Joy Lis Rankin
  • Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. – Sam Wasson

I love reading about the history of computers, and the history of science fiction. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I also love reading about pop culture history.

Facebook Group – Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction

  • Year’s Best SF 1 – ed. David Hartwell
  • Orbit 1 – ed. Damon Knight
  • The Very Best of the Best ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best S-F, 5th Annual Edition – Judith Merril
  • The Dark Side – ed. Damon Knight
  • World’s Best Science Fiction 1968 – ed. Donald Wollheim
  • The New Space Opera ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction 3rd Annual – ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Big Book of Science Fiction – ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (58% finished)

This group gets me to read a great deal of science fiction short stories. We discuss one short story a day, but I don’t read every day’s story. Still, probably over 200 stories. I really enjoy this group, and I’m learning a tremendous lot about the history of short science fiction. I’ve probably read over 400 short stories this year because of other SF anthologies and magazines I read on my own.

The Great SF Stories

  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 18 (1965) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg

I’ve been working through this 25-volume series since 2018. I’ve become immensely fond of this series. It’s a shame they are out of print. I own all twenty-five in paperback, but I read them on my iPad from pdf copies found on the internet. I keep hoping the Facebook group to vote to read the entire run. We do start volume 25 on the 29th of this month. I’d love to finish off the series in 2022, but that would be reading 7 more volumes in 2022 and that probably won’t happen.

Science Fiction

  • The Ministry of the Future – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth – Walter Tevis
  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • The Clockwork Man – E. V. Odle
  • Past Master – R. A. Lafferty
  • Of Men and Monsters – William Tenn
  • Lords of the Psychon – Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Dying Earth – Jack Vance
  • The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  • Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint – Abrashkin & Williams
  • A Gift of Time – Jerry Merritt
  • The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis

That’s a total of 26 science fiction books. Far more science fiction than I believe I should be reading. Each year I tell myself I should read less science fiction and more other kinds of books, but I can’t seem to break my life-long science fiction addiction.

General Fiction

  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Girl on the Boat – P. G. Wodehouse
  • The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
  • Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
  • Don’t Tell Alfred – Nancy Mitford
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

I’m disappointed that I didn’t read a new 19th-century classic. Last year I read War and Peace. I did read The War of the Worlds, but I’ve read it a couple of times before. I had planned to read Madame Bovery.

2021 Books

  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Last Best Hope – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

Each year I aim to read a certain number of books that come out during the year. Nine is pretty good for 2021, but I’m going to aim for 12 in 2022.

JWH

The Pursuit of Love Leads Me Down a Rabbit Hole

by James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21

My friends Mike and Betsy recommended a new TV series on Amazon Prime, The Pursuit of Love, so I gave it a try. This essay chronicles where their casual recommendation has led me.

As I watched the show on Amazon Prime I was reasonably entertained but disturbed by certain details. For a period piece set the 1920s – 1940s it felt over the top. I doubted people really looked and acted like they did in the show. The sense of a revisionist history was further enhanced by the soundtrack that used contemporary music. I called Mike to chat about my impressions, and he agreed. I knew nothing about the novel the show was based on. We both thought the past couldn’t have been much like that, but didn’t know for sure. Of course, we knew it was a rom-com drama and wasn’t meant to be a history lesson, but it kept sideswiping bits of real history, and that was intriguing.

I decided to research its historical accuracy and discovered that the TV show was based on a trilogy of novels written by Nancy Mitford. They were based on her family, and it was then I discovered she was part of a famous group of six sisters. I remembered reading a review of a book called The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell years ago. I read the review because I liked the book’s cover but details within the review put me off. Two of the sisters had been friends with Adolph Hitler, and several family members had supported Hitler, and one daughter married the hated Oswald Mosley, leader of the English fascists. They just didn’t seem to be nice people to read about. The sisters had become notorious, an embarrassment to their parents, hounded by press, which made them sound like depression era Kardashians. Not something for me.

Still, the television show intrigued me. Was it an accurate portrayal of people in England at the time? Or was it a modern interpretation of how 21st-century screenwriters wanted to glamourize that history. I ordered a copy of The Sisters to find out. I figured the biography would tell me. I also discovered there had been two previous television productions of the story, based on: The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949). There was a third book in the series, Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). By the way, I think all three TV productions focus on the first book despite two of them using the title from the second book, but the 1980 series goes into the second book.

My assumption that I’d hate The Sisters from reading the review was completely wrong. The family’s biography turned out to be immensely readable and fascinating. All I can say if if you love Downton Abby, there’s a good chance you’ll love this book. I’ve always been partial to biographies, and this one is a good one. A good biography makes you feel like you’re getting to know someone, and in this book, you get close to nine people (mother, father, son, and six daughters).

I learned that Nancy Mitford had lived a real life version of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s she fictionalized in The Pursuit of Love. I then wondered if the 1980 miniseries, Love in the Cold Climate, that had been on Masterpiece Theater was a more realistic portrayal to the times? I went looking for it but found it’s not available to stream or buy. I did find a used DVD copy to order, but when it arrived it was a Region 2 disc. Luckily, I remembered had an extra DVD player that was region free. (This version is available on YouTube.)

About this time my friend Anne dropped by and saw the biography. She got excited and said she remembered seeing a show on Masterpiece Theater a long time ago based on the Mitford sisters. I pulled out the DVD, “This one?” “Yes, that’s it!” She got even more excited and we decided to watch it together. This version gives Judi Dench star billing as the mother but she doesn’t get much air time. The only other actor I knew was Anthony Head, and his wasn’t a major part either. I did like this version, and I think I’ll rewatch the 2021 version. The main thing about the 1980 version, was the actors, costumes, and sets looked more realistic to how I picture the 1920s – 1940s. The performances were much more subtle, and being eight parts rather than three, included a lot more of the details and dialog from the novels.

By then I was reading the novel, and had encountered some of the family anecdotes four different ways. This was rather revealing about basing fiction on real life events. For example, Nancy tells in her novel how her father liked to hunt his children on horseback with fox hounds. The novel version is a gussy-up memory, but the two television versions sensationalizes the story. When I read the biography Lovell suggests it was probably one old hound one time with a couple of the daughters. And Jessica Mitford also wrote a book about the same family stories of growing up with her sisters, Hons and Rebels, and gives a different view, but I haven’t read it yet. Nancy later on felt Jessica’s memory had been distorted by her book, and that led to squabbles between them. However, all six girls were always squabbling, and all six became very successful in their own ways.

There is another adaptation of Love in the Cold Climate from 2001 what I want to watch, but I’ll have to subscribe to BritBox to watch it. It’s another 3-part version. I’m curious how they present the time period too.

The Sisters was full of history. The Mitford girls were related to Churchill and connected by marriage to the Kennedys, two of them were pals with Hitler, one connected to de Gaulle, and one had connections with the Roosevelts. They all knew many famous writers and became bestselling authors themselves. They were part of the Bright Young Things set. And if you’re into that kind of thing, they hobnobbed with fellow aristocrats, royalty, while growing up in manor houses, hunting foxes, attending coming out balls, following the season, and doing all those things we saw in Downton Abby. Various sisters lived in London during the Blitz and V-2 bombings, Spain during the revolution, Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and France before and after the war. One sister had to go before the House of Un-American Activities, while another was jailed during the WWII for being married to Oswald Mosley.

Here is a nice animated video that quickly covers the history of the Mitford sisters:

Because of all this history, and wanting to know more about the writers they knew, I ordered two more books to read.

This history fills in a time period after the Bloomsbury group that I learned about as an English major and before The Beatles who made England interesting back in the 1960s when I was growing up.

I fell into this black hole of literary history in the same way I fell into reading a zillion books about The Beats and Jack Kerouac, or all the books I’ve read about the Transcendentalists, or the Lost Generation, or the Impressionists, or certain crowds of science fiction writers. I love how an art movement brings people together.

JWH

Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

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