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

The End of Civilization – Again

by James Wallace Harris, 11/29/21

When I was growing up in the 1950s annihilation by atomic war was a common worry. Kids were taught duck and cover drills, people built fallout shelters, we routinely heard Conalrad tests on the radio, and popular culture was full of stories about WWIII. The famous Doomsday Clock stayed set just minutes from doomsday.

Over the decades there has always been the world is ending forecasts. Some chicken little is always yelling the sky is falling. The new vogue is to claim civilization is collapsing. Routinely following the news makes it hard to ignore such fears.

What if civilization is collapsing? What should we do? The science is quite solid on climate change, and we’ve been warned for decades, but for decades we’ve done nothing significant. A fair number of folks are buying rural plots of land and AR15s but that hardly seems to be a practical solution for everyone.

My guess is most people are ignoring all the gloom and doom, or else going crazy in their own quiet squirrely way. I don’t think there is much we can do. The reason why many analyzed trends lead to possible apocalypses is that the natural thing for everyone to do is to keep doing what we’re always been doing. Humans aren’t big on intentionally making drastic changes to their lives.

If we’re not going to do anything to avert the forecasted catastrophes, then what are we going to do instead? Anxiety and depression are so self-destructive. It’s much too early to panic. We could party like it’s 1999, but the end isn’t that close yet. Enduring resignation will probably be a common plan, but that’s emotionally draining. Taking up Zen Buddhism or meditation might be useful. Enjoying the simple pleasures of life has always been an excellent choice. Ditto for pursuing creative hobbies.

Developing a positive perspective should be helpful. Civilizations always collapse, but often over decades or centuries. There will be a rush to hoard or consume everything left. The well-to-do will grab what they want, which is always more than they need. The practical will learn to live with less without agonizing over what they no longer have. For most citizens the collapse of civilization will be in such slow motion they will hardly notice it. It’s only the unfortunate who become refugees from random catastrophes that will feel the harshest impacts. So knowing how to relocate will be a valuable skill. There are certain preparedness precautions to take, but since nothing is certain, it’s not practical to go overboard with such measures.

Probably most useful is the ability for understanding the true reality of things. Don’t get caught up in delusions, fears, panics, but also avoid over-optimism and Pollyanish thinking.

I bring all this up because of some videos I’ve been watching. I have no idea how valid they are, but I consider the increase of such thinking as a kind of pulse-taking. What do you think of these videos? These three accept doom but try to find a positive perspective with dealing with such doom. They offer wisdom.

If you are a routine YouTube watcher and are signed in, watching these three videos will cause YouTube to offer you more of the same. There are quite a lot of these videos, so be careful. Don’t get overwhelmed.

JWH

On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

Once Upon a Time the Future was So Bright We Had to Wear Shades

by James Wallace Harris

Between Camelot and Reaganomics existed the counterculture. For a very short while we thought we were entering the Age of Aquarius. Of course, it was a childish utopian dream, but a very positive hope. What happened to that dream? Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin reminded me of those hopes and dreams. Lattin explains what happened to four of the people who sold us some of that hope. Of course, those four weren’t the only ones. Back then, there was an entire army of John the Baptists promising heaven on Earth if we only believed.

In the sixties many of us thought by the 21st-century we’d have conquered war, disease, poverty, injustice, prejudice, inequality, and be living in a society where everyone had equal opportunity to achieve both spiritual and material wealth. We expected to create a world civilization that would make Jesus, Buddha, and all the past prophets and philosophers proud. We expected science to answer all our questions, and for technology to build ecological sustainable lifeboat Earth before we launched our spiritually-wise selves across the galaxy. Some of us called this anticipated transformation the Age of Aquarius, then The New Age, while hoping for the age of The Final Frontier.

Space travel never went beyond low Earth orbit after 1972. After three days of love, peace, and happiness it’s been Altamont every day since. And the doors of perception only led to tragedy and heartache. All our planned communities failed.

Just look at us now. You’d think the second coming had happened and no one was chosen, and we’re begun a thousand year streak of doom. There are damn few Pollyannas left on Earth that can see rays of hope for the future. Unlike Christians who have waited two thousand years without giving up their faith, the counterculture gave up theirs rather quickly. I read where psychedelic drugs are trying to make a comeback. And there are embers of spirituality still trying to rekindle the world but never do. What made us dream such big dreams in the sixties?

Before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius I was a straight-lace kid. I was gullible and believed what I was told. The U.S. Air Force guided my father and the Southern Baptist Church guided my mother. They had expectations for what I should believe, and I had no objections to those expectations. Well, not until 1963 or 1964. During my 12th and 13th year I changed. Looking back I could say it was merely puberty, but the whole country began changing at the same time.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club got me to thinking about those years and changes. Changes that had began much sooner than 1969 or 1970 when I first tried psilocybin and LSD. The making of my counterculture had begun before the drugs, with rock and roll and science fiction. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club referenced many books I had read back then that shaped my thoughts. I began wondering about all the influences that had reprogrammed me during the sixties and seventies that gave me utopian ideals.

I remember in 11th grade sometime after the 1967 protest at the Pentagon, when a group of us kids waiting for the school bus discussed the coming revolution as if it was a certainty. Even as a dumbass high school kid I thought it weird that we expected such a huge social transformation. But those hopes kept building. Then in 1968 and 1969 Hair and its music was all the rage and people began talking about The Age of Aquarius. The hope became more than a political transformation, the counterculture began to expect a whole new age, which became the focus of the 1970s. I think all our foolish fantasies ended when Reagan was elected in 1980. By then I was married and working at the job I’d stay at until I retired.

My transformation was really an intersection of countless ideas that came from books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, songs. We think everything comes from the internet today, but before the world wide web we had plenty of informational input. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club reminded me of those books and other information sources, and all the prophets behind those words. For example, I don’t know if people today have any idea of the impact The Beatles and Bob Dylan had on their fans. Rock music was our gospel.

In 1962, when I was eleven, I got hooked rock and roll and science fiction. In 1963 I began rejecting religion when I started noticing that the people at church did not follow what was preached. A Joycean year of doubt ended in 1964 when I realized I was an atheist. I was just 13. My mother still tried to make me go to church but I felt like I was a spy, a pretender, a fraud. I didn’t have a new philosophy yet, but I was open, and about to try many.

Then in 1965 I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein and got into Bob Dylan because of “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was still very straight-laced. I remember watching anti-drug and anti-smoking films at school and I was positive I’d never be stupid enough to do drugs or smoke cigarettes.

But only two years later, in early 1967, I read an article in Popular Science about LSD. Instead of sensationalizing the drug with fear and loathing like the news did on TV, the article described LSD as a tool for medical research and exploring the mind. That sounded science fiction. That sounded like something for me.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Timothy Leary. I’m pretty sure I heard about LSD well before I heard about Leary and his famous “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out” saying. In late 1968, or maybe early 1969, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. That book didn’t turn me onto Timothy Leary either, but The Beats. I knew about Leary in the sixties, but he always seemed like some kind of media clown. Around this same time I began reading The Rolling Stone magazine. It became my main source of counterculture propaganda.

But remember, I was also mass consuming science fiction, which was changing too with its own New Wave revolution. I remember Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner had a huge impact on me, as did Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions.

I wish I knew when I first bought Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. It was probably the early 1970s, but it might have been sooner. The 1970s brought a flood of influential books and magazines. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had made me aware of overpopulation in the mid-1960s, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environmental movement was giving us plenty of reasons to change our ways.

By the mid-1970s I became open to trying religion again, but mainly Eastern religions. Be Here Now by Ram Das (Richard Albert), books by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Herman Hesse, and New Age Magazine made me think that spiritualism and mysticism had some answers.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew the dreams were doomed. Books like The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth, and Future Shock, among many others like them, kept me grounded. Plus, the science fiction books I was reading became more realistic and pessimistic about the future.

Still, we had a great deal of hope about the future. We thought we could solve all our problems. We had the knowledge, we had the technology, we knew the solutions, it was only a matter of getting everyone to work together. That’s when the dream ended. We never could work together. We all separated into our own personal trips. No matter how much visionaries preached, we never could agree.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club also covered the decades of falling apart. Alpert, Weil, and Smith were able to rebuild their lives and become constructive, but not Leary. Their lives parallelled my life and I’m sure all other counterculture true believers. We found ways to be here now. To make do with reality. To give up on our utopian fantasies.

Looking back I also remember what life was like when we were chasing those dreams in the 1960s and 1970s. Things were bleak. The war, the riots, the prejudices, the inequalities, the crime, the bombings, the protests, the generation gap, the oil crisis, the burning rivers, the pollution, the urban decay.

Drug taking and believing in utopian futures were symptoms of the disease, not cures. Much like similar symptoms today. The right-wing countercultures of today have their parallels with the left-wing countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s. But there’s one big difference. We no longer need to wear shades when looking towards the future. That’s rather sad. No, that’s depressingly tragic.

JWH

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