Science Fiction in Prehistory

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 2, 2018

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

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

Noahs Ark

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

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

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

 

Trojan horse 2

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

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

JWH

 

The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Educated by Tara Westover

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 10, 2018

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

Educated by Tara Westover

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

 

Photoshopping Our Reading

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

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

censorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

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

The Man Who Invented Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH