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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

22 Dumb Fantasies I’ve Tried to Believe

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt AndersenHave you been depressed since last November? Does the institutionalization of anti-science horrify you? Do you feel irrational politicians have hijacked our country? Does your soul ache because liberal compassions are under siege from conservative prejudices? Do you wonder if our collective mind has blown a gasket? Then you need to read Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen. This book will not solve our problems, but it does explain how our nation has been crap-believing crazy for five centuries. Fantasyland is the most entertaining, informative, and comforting nonfiction book I’ve read in years. Fantasyland soothes my America-is-collapsing anxiety by reporting on all the dumbass fantasies Americans have embraced since Jamestown.

Because I can’t cast any first stones, reading this book makes me want to list all the stupid concepts I’ve tried to embrace in the last sixty years. We’re all suckers for fantasylands. We all hope to find saviors that will rescue us from our mundane lives. The desire to better ourselves, to create, to build an ideal world is one of the admirable qualities of our species. However, to live a life of delusion is sad.

Fantasyland proves hope for a better future depends on getting clean with reality. Recognizing we have a fantasy addiction is the first step. We need to simplify 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” to “I seek wisdom to know the difference between reality and fantasy.”

As I read Fantasyland I constantly used it to condemn the conservatives for ruining our society with their delusions. However, I have my own delusions, we all do. I thought it might be fun to confess the history of my personal fantasylands. This inspired many questions as I wrote this essay we should consider.

  1. Should we lie to children, especially during their formative years, even if it’s in fun?
  2. At what age, if any, is make-believe safe?
  3. Should schools teach how to discern fantasy from reality?
  4. Does the Constitution protect us from other people’s delusions and fantasies?
  5. Do people have a right to believe anything they want?
  6. How do we teach history to convey the lessons of failed fantasies?
  7. Is fantasy in books, television, and movies a cause of our personal delusions?
  8. Aren’t most fantasies promoted by people trying to make money or at least validate their own delusions or egos?

An Abbreviated History of My Fantasies

Looking backward, I realize books often sold me on a new fantasyland. We seldom originate our own fantasies. As Kurt Andersen reports in Fantasyland, America was created by people with either a fantasy for finding gold or a fantasy for establishing a religious utopia. Evidently today, we have a greater abundance of fantasies to choose from, especially with mass media and the internet inspiring us. I wonder, without all our fantasies would this country be quiet and dull – or would it?

The Age of Magic (My Early Years)

#1 – Easter Bunny

I doubt the Easter Bunny is my first fantasy belief, but I’m listing it first because it’s the most embarrassing, even for a little kid. I can’t believe I ever believed a large rabbit went around hiding chocolate bunnies and colored hens’ eggs. Damn, I must have been a gullible toddler.

#2 – The Tooth Fairy

Okay, I was old enough to lose teeth, I should have been skeptical that any creature would pay a quarter for a rotten tooth. I can barely remember when this happened. I hope I actually didn’t believe what my parents were telling me, and that all I wanted was that change under my pillow.

#3 – Santa Claus

I was a total dumbass for the guy in the red suit. I remember being red face hot when a little girl put me down for being so stupid as to believe in Santa Claus. In my defense, I started first grade a year earlier than I should, so all the other kids were a year older than me. But still, I should have thought this through logically, there were plenty of clues.

#4 – Oz and Magic

I discovered the Oz books by L. Frank Baum when I was ten. I had been watching the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz since I was four. Oz was a fantasy world with magic that I wanted to exist. I have read there was a period when American librarians banned Oz books because they felt Oz books gave children unrealistic expectations about life. In my case, they were dead on.

#4 – Jesus/God

If parents really want kids to accept Jesus and God as the literal truth, they shouldn’t tell us about #1-3 first. It only sets us up to be skeptical about all invisible beings. My road to atheism began at age 11 when I got Baptized and I didn’t see the light. It totally confused me when Christians said one thing in church but did the opposite Monday through Saturday. I became a complete atheist by the 8th grade.

This ends my period of wanting to believe in magic. Maybe it’s something all kids want. I find it strange that the most fundamentalist of Christian believers reject the concept of magic when Bible stories are full of magic. God created the Earth with words. My rejection of magic was so strong I rejected all fantasy stories in favor of science fiction. It wasn’t until my fifties that I was able to enjoy fantasy novels like Harry Potter just for fun.

The Age of Science (Junior High)

#5 – Science Fiction

Science fiction was supposed to be the opposite of fantasy. When I was young I believe all the classics themes of science fiction were theoretically possible. Over the years I’ve slowly become a disbeliever to many of them, like faster-than-light travel, time travel, galactic empires, brain downloading, scientific immortality, etc. I still cling to intelligent robots or AI machines with conscious minds will be built someday.

#6 – Becoming an Astronaut

By the 8th grade I had exchanged religion for science fiction. This led me to an array of beliefs that would take me the rest of my life to realize were irrational. The first, the belief I would grow up and work in space took a long time to get over. Back in the 1960s, I was totally in awe of NASA and faithfully followed Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik went up just before I started Kindergarten and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just after I graduated the 12th grade. I had even gone to watch Apollo 8 launch Christmastime 1968, during my senior year. Sometime in my high school years, I learned astronauts had to have 20-20 vision, and I was a four-eyed geek with thick lenses. I still fantasized that science could fix my eyes, or NASA would eventually hire people with glasses. After reading Tom Wolfe’s famous book, I realized I never had the right stuff, and never would. It galled me when rich people started buying their way to space, but if I’m honest with myself, even if I was a billionaire I would never leave Earth. Space travel is just too inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.

#7 Becoming a Scientist

Probably the greatest regret of my life is not becoming a scientist. This was not an impossible dream – theoretically. However, even though I took biology, chemistry, and physics in high school, I just couldn’t devote myself to those subjects and work hard. Nor could I apply myself to math. I eventually got through calculus, but only with a half-ass effort. I even went to a tech school majoring in computer science in 1971, but I never could commit to studying hard. I wanted to have fun. I hated the classroom. One of the dumbest fantasies I had about myself involved being a disciplined scholar of science. I was always more science fiction fan than a scientist. Being successful at any pursuit requires hard work, concentration, and grit. My biggest fantasy in my life has been believing I could make myself acquire those qualities.

#8 – The Final Frontier

Instead of believing in heaven like most folks growing up in the south, I believed mankind’s was destined to travel across the solar system and out into the galaxy. That was my teenage religion. For most of my life, I believed colonizing space was our species purpose in existence. I’m now an atheist to that idea. We might travel to Mars or a few other places in the solar system, and even build colonies on the Moon and Mars, but I doubt much will come of it. Going to the stars is a fantasy for humans. I currently believe robots are destined to be interstellar travelers, but that too might be a fantasy.

The Counter Culture (High School and Early College Years)

#9 – Hippies and the Counter Culture

I remember in 1967 after reading about the march on the Pentagon standing at my school bus stop arguing with my longhair buddies about how the counter-culture was going to revolutionize America. In 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and The Rolling Stone magazine started defining a new fantasyland future for me. It also introduced me to Jack Kerouac, who drew me backwards into an older fantasyland.

#10 – Expanding My Mind with Drugs

The 1960s had another impact on me. Besides science fiction and NASA, I loved rock music and drugs. So did many in my age cohort. I was influenced by Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and believed psychedelic drugs were the doors of perception. I sought transcendence with chemicals. I wanted them to take me as far as John Lilly claimed they took him, out into the galaxy to meet other beings – see The Programming and Metaprogramming of the Human Biocomputer. Yeah, if you mix belief in science fiction with acid it produces some far out fantasies, but really no different from mixing religion and faith.

#11 – The Beats and On the Road

I was completely romanced by Jack Kerouac and his on-the-road philosophy. I started hitchhiking around Miami when I was in high school, and continued when I went to college in Memphis. I did two short trips across states, one with my friend Connell. I learned I preferred the comforts of home. However, to this day, I still enjoy reading Kerouac. I see him as a tragic figure who followed many paths I wanted to follow but didn’t because I was either too scared or too smart. Kerouac was my father-figure substitute. My dad and Jack were horrible alcoholics that died within months of each other, both still in their forties. If I had gotten only my father’s genes that would have been my fate. I have a huge psychic connection with Kerouac.

#12 – Becoming Bob Dylan

Another absurd fantasy involved buying a guitar and harmonica and teaching myself to play and write music. This is an absurd fantasy because I can’t carry a tune, or even remember the words to favorite songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. I’m sure most kids have rockstar/sportstar/moviestar/writer/artist type fantasies. Probably every kid dreams of being famous for something. Fame is possible, certainly more possible than dying and going to heaven. Sadly, fame comes to about as many people as those winning big jackpots in Lotto.

#13 – Communes

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s the idea of intentional communities began spreading through the counter culture. I loved the idea, and had brief stints in two communal groups. I quickly learned I loved privacy, personal possessions, and having my own way. This was a very short-lived fantasy, but it still affects me. I now dream of living in a high-rise retirement community where all my friends each have an apartment.

#14 – Back to Nature

After realizing I wasn’t suited for group living I dreamed of buying my own land and escaping the rat race. I just didn’t want to join the 9-to-5 world. My bibles were Mother Earth News, Five Acres and Independence, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Several of my buddies had this dream too, but after several failures at handy crafts, gardening, and fixing machinery, reality taught me something different. I loved Henry David Thoreau, but I only read Walden and not his biography. I should have. The back to nature fantasy hadn’t worked for him either. This fantasy still returns to me occasionally, like the other night when I watched the beautiful documentary, Off the Grid.

#15 – Carlos Castaneda

I loved these books that were supposed to be anthropological. Even though I gave up Christianity, I was still gullible to other religious ideas. I figured there might be some truth in old spiritual studies. Castaneda mixed sacred drugs and the wisdom of indigenous people, and that had the appeal of promising ancient wisdom. I learned a lot, but mostly the wisdom of what to avoid.

#16 – Hinduism and Ram Das

Be Here Now really hooked me. Ram Das (aka Richard Albert) convinced me to open my mind to Hinduism. I even read The Bhagavad Gita, took up yoga, joined some New Age groups with Hindu teachers, and read a bunch of books about the sacred literature of India. I just never could believe. I tried.

#17 – Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts

I had been reading Alan Watts since I started reading Jack Kerouac. Ram Das further encouraged me to accept Buddhism. I liked Zen Buddhism because it seemed the least magical/metaphysical of all religions. I still admire Zen and meditation for their anti-bullshit methods of perceiving reality, but Buddhism has its fundamental side too, that can be just as dogmatic, and miracle driven as Christianity. Theoretically, I believe a reality-based religion is possible, but so far I haven’t found one.

#18 – Spiritualism, Channeling Seth

For a brief period, I read books about communicating with other beings by mediums like Jane Roberts. My science fictional fantasies were susceptible to alien beings communicating with us through other dimensions. John Lilly promoted this idea, and he was a scientist (although zonked out on drugs) and the great science fiction philosopher of the 1930s, Olaf Stapledon, also promoted these ideas. I soon rejected astral worlds because they were too inconsistent.

#19 – New Age Psychologies

Back in the 1970s there was almost a new psychology of the month coming out of California. I wanted to go and try things like EST, Rolfing, primal screaming, etc. I might have been converted if I could have gotten to Los Angles, but I didn’t. I just read the books, joined a local New Age community and subscribed to New Age Magazine. Like spiritualism, I gave up hope on these therapies because there were too many of them that offered conflicting truths.

My Work Years

By the end of the 1970s I got into microcomputers, and spent all my time thinking about computers. For the next 36 years I was preoccupied with being married, hanging out with friends, working, computers, science fiction, music, movies, television, and other down-to-earth pursuits. I read lots of nonfiction books, and slowly began developing more mature philosophies about life. However, I eventually learned of other fantasylands I had tried to find.

#20 – Romance/Sex/Love

Over the years I realized our society is gaga over romantic love. Love stories program us for romantic fantasylands. Gender stereotypes and sexual desires cause us to see each other in very unreal ways. It’s very hard not to objectify the people we want sexual. All these desires lead us to countless fantasylands.

#21 – Political Solutions

We all have fantasyland beliefs on how to solve our political problems. I used to believe we could come to a rational agreement on how to govern society. That’s a huge fantasy. I keep hoping it’s not, but all the evidence says it is.

#22 – We Can Solve Our Big Problems

We have all the knowledge and technology we need to save the planet, but the reality is human nature won’t let us use that knowledge and technology. We all fantasize that humans have always survived so we always will. I think that’s our most dangerous fantasy. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us are deluded by childlike belief in a heavenly father. It keeps us from growing up and taking responsibility. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us believe lying to preserve personal beliefs is wiser than accepting the wisdom of science and giving up those beliefs.

Finding Reality

If we study our fantasylands, we’ll see we’re all looking for place to exist that rejects reality. We’re an adaptable species that can live in a variety of environments. We’re also clever beings that can adapt to any environment for our physical needs. Our failure comes from trying to pretend reality is something that matches our mental needs. Our superpower is the ability to delude ourselves. Our brains have countless cognitive skills to paint over reality, deny evidence, and to allow us to see our beliefs as real. It’s probably a survival mechanism, a way to cope as individuals. But it means we fail to cooperate in our shared reality by agreeing on its actual details.

JWH

 

 

Blade Runner 2049 – The Evil of Heartless Sequels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Normally I don’t write “reviews” of works I dislike. Why waste time on bad art, huh? I prefer to promote creative work I admire. However, in trying to understand why I disliked Blade Runner 2049 I asked myself, “What did I love about the original?” It came to me instantly – the voiceover. In that moment I realized Harrison’s Ford narration in the original film was the heart of the story. That insight also explained why Ridley Scott detested the voiceover. The narration must come from a human, and Scott wanted Deckard to be a replicant.

Blade Runner 2049-2

Before seeing Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner (final cut) with a friend. I explained the history of all the versions to her and offered to show her whichever one she wanted. She picked the final cut. Normally, I always rewatch the theatrical version, which is how I first saw the film back in 1982. Whenever I see one of the director’s cuts the viewing is always a letdown. They have the same sterile quality Blade Runner 2049 has.

Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with the story by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. However, it feels like a Ridley Scott baby. Scott has always argued that Rick Deckard was a replicant and Blade Runner 2049 vindicates that idea to the point that I think of this film as an expression of his ideas.

Back in 2008, I wrote “Is It Time To Remake Blade Runner?” which was really a plea to film Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the story was written by Philip K. Dick. I believe the book deserves a truer conversion to film than Blade Runner. I can’t document this, but I believe Ridley Scott bragged that he hadn’t even read the novel when making the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the original theatrical version of Blade Runner, but I don’t consider it very PKD.

When the screenwriters changed androids to replicants something else got changed. In the book, androids are soulless creatures who look like humans but completely lack empathy. They are self-aware but are also psychopathic sociopaths. I believe PKD intended them to be symbolic of inhuman humans. Blade Runner is about artificial creatures that were meant to be soulless slaves that have accidentally evolved empathy. We’re supposed to feel for them. And I did with the Harrison Ford voiceover.

Without the voiceover, both films are just action flicks of heartless machines killing heartless machines. Why has Riddley Scott never understood the Romeo and Juliet beauty of having a love story between lovers from two opposing houses? In Blade Runner 2049 we are taken on a meaningless thrill ride where it’s impossible to tell human from replicant – and I really didn’t give a shit either. There are a few touching scenes in Blade Runner 2049, but they are so artificial as to cause existential angst. At times we feel for K, our replicant protagonist, but the scenes are so obviously manipulating us that it’s hard to genuinely care.

In Blade Runner 2049 it becomes obvious the real problem is our lack of understanding of replicants. They are called skin jobs. That implies they are machines covered in skin. But that’s not true. In both movies, they bleed. In Blade Runner 2049 they seem to be artificially produced biological creatures that can’t reproduce on their own, and the goal of the mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is to create a Nexus model that is self-replicating. But what’s the fucking point of that? Humans are self-replicating, and we have plenty of them.

Wallace wants a new process to produce less costly slaves. The government obviously backs him as long as replicants don’t act like real humans. However, we also learn replicants have secretly organized into a slave rebellion. But why secret? What good is a secret mass-movement? Isn’t it obvious that replicants aren’t soulless machines?  Do any moviegoers feel the replicants aren’t equal to people? That makes the whole point of the film a straw man argument. Truly pointless. It’s funny, but Jared Leto’s character is the most inhuman character in the film and he’s supposed to be human. Or will Ridley Scott pull another juvenile joke and claim everyone in this film was a replicant.

Our world is full of robotic slaves now. They don’t have consciousness. They don’t look human. They lack any kind of consciousness. A major theme of science fiction has always been about when robots become conscious. Generally, these science fictional robots are shown as looking human. I guess SF writers assume we can’t empathize with them if they don’t look like us. By the way, the film Her did a fantastic job of overcoming this problem.

We’ve always wanted to build robots that look like us, and that’s a problem. We want them to do our work, but we worry about robots becoming self-aware as us. If they do, we can’t keep them as slaves, and we fear they may become better than us. The TV show Humans is exploring this same topic. The trouble is Blade Runner 2049 adds absolutely nothing to this topic. The film only confuses the issues in its razzle-dazzle. It lacks both a heart and a brain. Almost every character is violent and action-oriented.

Blade Runner 2049

PKD’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t about action. His androids are conscious, self-aware beings that lack empathy. Rachel is alluring and beautiful, but a cold-blooded killer. Dick’s theme wasn’t robot suffrage. PKD believed the androids in his story deserved to be destroyed because without empathy they are evil, and in doing so infers that humans without empathy are evil too. PKD’s story wasn’t about killing androids but identifying inhuman humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is vastly more complicated than Blade Runner. If I could film it I would give it the look of 1959 films, because I believe PKD formative decades were the 1940s and 1950s. Its future setting would be very retro-future. It would have the Penfield mood organs and Mercerism. And the story would focus on philosophy and psychology rather than fights and shooting. The film must keep Iran, Deckard’s wife. And it needs the fake police station, having Deckard doubt himself, and eventually proving he’s human. And it needs the artificial religion of Mercerism.

Blade Runner leaves so many fascinating concepts out from the original novel. First off, Rick Deckard isn’t a tough-guy like Harrison Ford, but a married man trying to save his marriage. Their livelihood depended on the bounty from killing androids. The novel opens with their marital squabbling, and the use of mood organs. Mood organs are personal devices for controlling psychological states. People in this future use them to subtly control how they interact with other people, cope at home and work, and explore hundreds of emotional states. PKD uses this imaginary device to dissect human nature. The book is stuffed with observations about what it means to be human. Blade Runner uses none of that. PKD was obsessed with psychiatry, psychology and philosophy and his stories constantly explore those subjects. The Blade Runner movies only faintly hint at the issues PKD brought up in endless ways.

Blade Runner 2049 does not define humans or replicants. We can’t tell them apart. In fact, the evil scientist who creates the replicants acts like a heartless AI, and K, the Ryan Gossling character, who we know is a replicant, when left alone is humanly hung up on an AI girlfriend (who may be a future descendant of Alexa).

Blade Runner 2049 fails horribly if you need a human story. For moviegoers who love eye candy, violence, and a rollercoaster plot, you’ll probably be happy enough.

What’s evil is trying to make millions by making a movie that lacks heart, based on a novel that struggles to define our hearts. Seems kind of heartless, don’t you think?

Blade Runner 2049 is chock full of touchstone analogs from the original Blade Runner. That felt manipulative like Ridley Scott wanted to push our emotional buttons as if we were replicants. Did he expect us to emotionally resonate with air hoses being pulled out, yucky eyeballs, pianos, giant billboards animated with Japanese women, microscopic photo scanning machines, bicyclists riding in parallel formation, machines that measure artificial minds, old abandoned apartment buildings, drinking whiskey from squarish glasses, women dressed like 1970s hookers, giant pyramid-shaped buildings, flying cars, sentimental photographs, umbrellas and rain, and so on.

Everything in Blade Runner 2049 seems set-up for additional sequels, but like his Alien franchise, they will probably continue to abuse the original. I’ve gotten so I hate sequels to books and films. There are few exceptions, but for the most part, sequels feel like they are conning me for my money.

JWH