Just Who Slept With the Pods?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/14/22

In the 1956 film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr. Miles Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) realizes his friends and neighbors are changing. One by one they all start thinking alike and that worries him. If you haven’t seen this famous film about the pod people you should. It’s based on a 1954 Collier’s serial by Jack Finney called The Body Snatchers, which was then published as a book in 1955.

The story is about an invasion of pods from outer space that transform people if they sleep in the same room with one. Back in the 1950s, the story was seen as an allegory about communism. Finney has said he didn’t target communism specifically when he wrote the book, but most readers and moviegoers did back then.

In 1951, Robert Heinlein had published a similarly themed novel called The Puppet Masters. In that story, flying saucers land with creatures that attach to our backs, and take over our bodies and minds. Heinlein was an arch anti-communist, and his story was intended to imply the evils of a commie takeover.

In 1953 Robert Sheckley’s story, “Keep Your Shape” reflected a liberal’s paranoia. It appeared in the November issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Sheckley rewrote the story for his collection Untouched by Human Hands and gave the story a much more elegant ending and a different title, “Shape.” It’s a humorous story told from the aliens’ point of view, about how they invaded the Earth twenty-something times and always failed. The aliens come from a rigid society of shape-shifting creatures whose God dictates that everyone has to maintain a certain shape. On Earth, the aliens are corrupted by our freedom when they see that we take so many different shapes. Sheckley’s story was anti-establishment and anti-conforming.

My point in mentioning all these stories is I feel like the conservatives have been sleeping with pods or have an alien riding on their backs. I feel this because they all seem to speak the same way. It’s kind of creepy to see political ads for Republicans because they all claim to toe the party line better than any other Republican. They all claim to hold the same beliefs. And their followers all repeat the same soundbites. I’m sure conservatives feel the same way about us liberals.

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a book review called “Where Have All the Liberals Gone?” The conservatives have made the term liberal such a dirty word that liberals are now calling themselves progressives. Conservatives have aligned themselves so tightly with Donald Trump that it reminds me of the fanatics who follow Putin and everything he says.

It makes me feel like the Kevin McCarthy character wondering when I will fall asleep and wake up a pod person. I no longer think of communism when I watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think of everyone following one leader, one strong man’s view. If you look at history, the dangerous horrors of the past didn’t come from ideologies, but from single men pushing their view of reality onto everyone else.

I no longer understand what conservative or liberal philosophies means, even if they ever had a consistent description of their goals. I’m now thinking it’s always been individual men pushing their own philosophy onto other people. (I use the word men because I can’t think of any women dictators in history. I hope women won’t mind me being sexist in this instance.) That’s why Trump is so popular – people resonate and relate to him. He is their political philosophy, no matter how you label it.

I want a true democracy. But I don’t think it will ever work when winning is defined as a 50% majority. I think it needs to be at least 60%, and better yet, a winning majority should be defined at 75%. I want to live in a society where we work to compromise and create laws that attempt to make 100% of the population happy. It will always fail to reach 100% agreement, but if we could work out compromises where 60-75% of the population come to some kind of agreement, then I think we could escape our never-ending political polarization.

Right now we vote for our self-interests. And we vote for candidates that come closest to those self-interests. I have to accept that Trump is a beacon shining on what a lot of people want. But as long as half the country wants something different we’re going to have a miserable society.

When 50% is the finish line for any political agenda, we’re going to be ruled by pod people. I think real democracy begins when 75% of the population hammers out good compromises. I don’t think one politician with one point of view could ever find that many followers. Maybe we should move away from politicians and have referendums on everything. If we can’t find ways to get three-fourths of us to agree, then we should do anything.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you live on, if we have minority rule, or even 50% majority rule, half the country will always feel they are living with pod people.

JWH

2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

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

The Post-Doom Reading List

by James Wallace Harris, 12/23/21

I’m listening to a wonderful book right now, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams which came out in August. It’s set in London. Someone is going around leaving little notes that say:

Just in case you need it:

- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Rebecca
- The Kite Runner
- The Life of Pi
- Pride and Prejudice
- Little Women
- Beloved
- A Suitable Boy

The novel is about the people who find those lists, read the books, and how reading changed their lives. Any bookworm should love this book, and most Goodreads reviewers do. I highly recommend the audiobook version because the narrators do the ethnic accents which make the book extra charming.

This inspires me to create my own list of favorite feel-good novels. If I went around leaving a list of books for people to read in these trying times, my eight would be:

We’re living through some hard times and I appreciate books with characters who overcome big difficulties. I’m moving into what I call my Post-Doom Philosophy. I’ve concluded that humanity will not solve its existential problems. Just not in our nature. And it will be better to concentrate on uplifting outselves.

I’m reminded of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Our present situation is beyond absurd, one I can’t change. I accept that we’re already in a collapsing civilization, we just don’t know how long it will take before a new paradigm shift emerges. Some civilizations collapse in decades, Rome took centuries. Everyone eventually dies, and all civilizations eventually collapse. We can’t wish either away. We’ve always had the problem of what to do in our last years of life, and just by coincidence this century, we’ll also have to consider what to do in the last decades of our civilization. It’s an interesting philosophical and spiritual challenge.

Just because the future looks bleak we shouldn’t feel all gloom and doom.

My friend Linda and I have a two-person book club where we read mostly nonfiction books together and discuss them on the phone each Sunday afternoon. We’ve read many books about the problems of the world. Linda just texted me asking if we could avoid such books in 2022 and pick books like The Soul of the Octopus by Sy Montgomery. She wants more delightful books. I couldn’t agree more.

If you were making a list of eight nonfiction books to leave around to inspire people, what would they be? What would your list of favorite inspiring novels be?

JWH

Sometimes We Really Do Want More Government Regulations

by James Wallace Harris, 4/27/21

Please watch this fifteen minute video from NBC News. It is the most insightful news story I’ve encountered this year because it encapsulates many of the essential issues about the future.

This video illustrates why lack of regulations and resource management leads to ordinary citizens and the environment losing to big business. Corporations and people with money wanting to make more money are searching the globe for places where they can get any kind of competitive edge with their investments. Basically, big business and rich individuals will gentrify every last acre on the planet, pricing ordinary people off their land.

Southeast Arizona has very little surface water and rainfall. For decades homeowners, family owned farms and ranches, and towns have been sipping off the top of their aquifer. As long as rains replenish that aquifer, life in the desert is sustainable. However, global corporations have discovered this Arizona land is essentially unregulated and the water is there for the the price of sinking deeper wells. This makes it profitable for corporations from around the world to exploit this area. Raising hamburgers and cattle feed in the desert seems insane until you realize the real value of water.

Water is the new gold rush, and some locales are trading their water for jobs and investments. However, once that water is gone, that locale, that environment will die. Keep an eye on this trend. You’ll see it everywhere once you start looking.

As the corporations put millions into exploiting this land, drilling ever deeper into the aquifer, they have gained control of the land because ordinary people can’t afford to extend their wells deeper, and are thus force to sell out and move. Local control over land is going to disappear.

A kind of corruption is taking place. Politicians back the corporations because they follow the money. Notice how toady the politician is in this video. People who don’t own land and just want jobs align themselves with the corporations. And even though the corporations claim they are there for the long haul, the reality is they are there as long as they can make a profit. Once they suck the aquifer dry or it becomes too costly to pump that water out of the ground, they will leave.

This is happening all over the world. The long term results is the total land area that is sustainable for life on Earth is shrinking. The dynamics of what’s happening here also reveals various kinds of inequality in action. Ordinary people can’t compete. Neither can nature. Basically, outsiders with money have all the power. If the local government had regulations about land and water use they could preserve their old way of life. They could build a sustainable society. Corporations have played the democratic system to get what they want. Read Dark Money by Jane Meyer or Evil Geniuses by Kurt Anderson for fuller explanations.

Right now we have an exploitation society. The rules are simple. Anything you can do that others can’t stop you from doing, you can do. Individuals can’t compete against corporations. And since corporations are rigging the laws, there’s little people can do – unless people take back their democracy. But it might be too late. There is little demand for sustainability. Corporations want to make money, and individuals want jobs. Unless people can create jobs that coexist with sustainable economies, things won’t change.

When you watch this video think about the two opposing groups. On one hand, you have the global demand for meat and dairy, which includes all of us, and a few individuals who have been living in southeast Arizona for decades. Corporations just fulfill the global demand. But what if the global demand becomes greater for sustainability and the environment? We all have to want it, or it won’t happen.

JWH

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