Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/22

I’m listening to and reading Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Maryazak. It’s a quick overview of 40 civilizations of early history beginning with the Akkadians and ending with the Hephthalites. To be honest, I had only heard of less than half of these civilizations, mostly because of references in the Bible or from Greek and Roman history.

I’ve never studied ancient history much but I’ve recently gotten hooked on it, especially after reading The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick. The first two were a slog to get through but I still admired them. The Writing of the Gods was sheer fun and would probably appeal to many readers. Forgotten People of the Ancient World is a breezy summary, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, but it doesn’t go too deep. Perfect for me right now, but I’ll want to know more later. Actually, the entries on Wikipedia cover more for each civilization than Matyszak’s chapters, but his book integrates a digestible narrative with inspiring photos and maps making it easier to read.

When you read/listen to one summary of a civilization after another, it’s pretty damn obvious that humankind is on repeat mode. Humanity is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but we never learn how to break the cycle. You’d think with all this history we’d figure it out the secret.

Some cycles are obvious, like the rise of powerful leaders. Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon the Great? Sure, he conquered a lot of territories but he also killed, destroyed, and plundered. We hate Putin today for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but how was Alexander III of Macedon any different? We really should call Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, and every other empire builder the monsters of history.

That’s the number one cycle we keep doing over and over, which is to allow egomaniacs to become rulers. We’ve tried to avoid that by creating democracy, but as you can see from recent times that doesn’t always succeed at controlling men who want more. And even then democracies sometimes go around and destroy other countries too, just like would-be emperors. Humans have this thing about destroying their enemies and expanding their territory. Like Rodney King, I must ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A less obvious cycle we repeat is the reverberation between big government and small government. All the successful civilizations grew, needing central control to keep things organized. The central government of the Akkadians had to build vast irrigation systems which required taxes and governmental infrastructure. There are always people who resent that. They rebel and undermine the central government and civilization erodes and eventually collapses. Why can’t we find a balance between secure political structures and personal freedoms?

We fail to be good stewards of the Earth and overtax Mother Nature with our endless growth and consumption. Nor do we save for the future to withstand random destructive acts of nature. Humanity is no Boy Scout, it’s never prepared.

Another hit on the Top Repeat list is ignoring reality. We feed our hatreds and greed with crazy ideas and justifications. We’re always our own worst enemy.

I feel like we’re living in end-of-civilization times. Reading about history is somewhat soothing but for a strange reason. It promotes stoical thinking.

Here’s a neat video on YouTube about how chaos theory predictions patterns of disorder in ordered systems. We live with entropy, and civilization is anti-entropic. It helps to understand both chaos and complexity theory. It won’t help the world to know this, but at least it explains some things.

JWH

We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick

by James Wallace Harris, 2/9/22

My intended fifth book to read for 2022 was Humankind, a hopeful reappraisal of humanity by Rutger Bregman. However, during the ice storm, I didn’t feel like reading serious nonfiction while the power was out. For some strange reason I was in the mood for Philip K. Dick (PKD) and I randomly picked We Can Build You. I listened to it on audio, and it was wonderfully narrated by Dan Jon Miller.

PKD wrote We Can Build You in 1962 calling it The First in Our Family while it was a working manuscript. It was rejected by his publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, who had just put out The Man in the High Castle, and by several other publishers until Ted White bought it for Amazing Stories in 1969. White claimed the novel needed an ending, which White wrote with Dick’s permission. It was retitled A. Lincoln, Simulacrum and ran in the November 1969 and January 1970 issues. This is when I first read this novel. After that Donald Wollheim, who had rejected it for Ace Paperbacks, reconsidered the novel and published it for his new company DAW in 1972, but without the Ted White final chapter.

Before I digress, and I will digress all over the place, just let me say that Philip K. Dick is one of a handful of writers I obsess over. I’ve written about these writers before in my essay “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” I’ve read many biographies about PKD, and even reviewed them as a group. And I’ve recently started reading his collected letters (I have 5 of the 6 volumes). I’m not the only one obsessed with PKD. Dick is known for writing science fiction, and he’s probably one of the most filmed of all science fiction authors. However, PKD was a troubled soul, and he often used his books and stories to explore his own psychological problems. We Can Build You is one such book.

Readers will find many stories to follow within We Can Build You. One is about Louis Rosen, a partner in a firm that sells organs and spinet pianos. Louis falls in love with his partner’s daughter, Pris Frauenzimmer, who is schizophrenic, and only 18. Louis is 33. Over the course of the novel, Louis also becomes schizophrenic. In 1962, PKD was around 33. At the time PKD wrote this novel he was married to his third wife, Anne. There is evidence that We Can Build You is somewhat biographical to PKD’s life in 1962 and is a reaction to a troubled marriage with Anne and his own psychological problems. Was there another woman? Or is Pris modeled on Anne?

Anne was an atypical PDK wife (he had five in all). Anne was a year older than Phil, and she was blonde. Dick had a neurotic obsession with dark-haired young women, and Pris Frauenzimmer, the love interest in We Can Build You is eighteen and dark-haired. Makes you wonder.

I’m giving all this information as a kind of warning. We Can Build You can be read without knowing anything about Philip K. Dick’s life. For some, especially readers who enjoy outre science fiction but don’t know PKD’s work, it will be a reasonably entertaining story, although one that will strike them as quite odd even for the outre. For fans of PKD who only read his fiction, it will even be one of the better novels, but far from his best. But, if you happen to be a Dickhead, this book offers all kinds of delicious mysteries about the bizarre and tragic life of Philip K. Dick.

Some Dickheads consider We Can Build You as a trial run for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It certainly focuses on two of PKD’s favorite themes: What is human? and What is Real? It’s also about insanity, a theme that runs throughout many of his stories. But it’s mainly about Dick’s obsession with young dark-haired girls, one that’s gotten its own nonfiction book. Dick was born with a twin sister who didn’t live long, and he claimed that affected him for the rest of his life.

The first edition of We Can Build You in 1972 has a dedication that reads: “For Kathy Demuelle, my best friend, Mea voluptas, meae deliciae, mea vita, mea amoenitas …” Google translated that Latin for me as: “my pleasure, my darling, my life, my attractions.” This was written at the end of his marriage to his fourth wife Nancy and before he married Tessa, his fifth and final wife. These wives were barely legal for a man in his forties to marry. Dick’s published collected letters do contain letters to Kathy, and she is described in a letter to another young woman in this 1974 letter:

Kathy sounds just like Pris. But I don’t think Pris is based on Kathy. I don’t know when he met her. I need the first volume of the collected letters which I don’t have, and they are now sky high to buy used. The above letter does give us many clues as why PKD wrote We Can Build You.

However, after We Can Build You was published, Kathy evidently ghosted Phil, and he wrote Donald Wollheim asking for the dedication to be changed to Robert and Ginny Heinlein, which it is in later editions. Heinlein had out of the blue sent PKD money for medical expenses, and PKD was very moved. The early 1970s were a particularly bad time for Dick, who had suicide attempts, an escape to Canada, and had spent time in rehabs. PKD was agoraphobic but hated living alone, and often invited anyone who would, to live with him. And sometimes these were not very nice people, and sometimes they were very young dark-haired girls.

Knowing all of this should help us understand the protagonist of We Can Build You, Louis Rosen. But it’s also important to understand the major theme of mental illness and psychiatry in We Can Build You comes from a 1962 PKD, and not the 1972 PKD. Knowing the difference helps us to realize that the novel is about PKD then, but it prophesied the PKD to come.

Here’s the thing. Most readers think stories by Philip K. Dick are science fiction, but if you’re a Dickhead you realize they’re about PKD. Phil started out writing science fiction, but after he married Anne he wrote almost a dozen mainstream novels he couldn’t sell. Dick wanted to become an important writer and to support a wife that wanted that kind of success. At the beginning of the 1960s, PKD understood that wasn’t going to happen and returned his focus to writing science fiction. That’s when he published his masterpiece The Man in the High Castle in 1962. It was then PKD got the idea to blend mainstream fiction and science fiction and wrote We Can Build You.

The science-fictional elements of We Can Build You deal with building androids. The two main ones are Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. Each android is programmed with all the biographical knowledge we have for each man. They look completely human and act like they have been reincarnated. Although they become fascinating characters integral to the story, they aren’t the important part of the story.

The novel is really a bizarre love story. Louis loves Pris, but she doesn’t love him. She is cold, cruel, and indifferent. Pris is ambitious and convives to get Sam Burrows a tech billionaire that reminded me of Elon Musk. Pris doesn’t love anyone but knows Burrows can get her what she wants. This drives Louis insane and he goes to extreme measures to take Pris from Burrows. The last third of the book is Louis undergoing therapy after having a psychotic breakdown. PKD was not the kind of man women would want, and it’s surprising he found five wives. I believe this novel conveys PKD’s frustration with his search for a woman that could make him sane and whole.

The published novel has a mainstream novel ending. Ted White wrote a science fictional ending for the magazine serialization. You can read it here, starting with the heading “nineteen.” I actually like White’s ending, but not as an ending for We Can Build You. I like it because it encapsulates how many science fiction fans think of PKD’s stories. I think they are wrong. Of course, I think I’m right in seeing PKD differently, but then I could be wrong. Reading PKD always makes you doubt everything.

Ted White’s final chapter is written knowing all of Dick’s novels from the 1960s, and White completely misses the mainstream aspects of the We Can Build You and writes a bogus PKD ending. It’s an ending that science fiction fans expect, one that falsely assumes what they think PKD is saying in the book. The ending is as different as the theatrical release of Blade Runner and Riddley’s Scott’s ending in the director’s cut. I hate Scott’s interpretation, and it’s funny that Ted White wants to use the same twist. It only goes to show you how wrong both were about Philip K. Dick.

The funny thing is I remembered White’s ending from reading it in 1970, so all the while I was listening to We Can Build You I was expecting that ending. However, I never once found any support for it.

In an April 18, 1974 letter to Claudia K. Bush, PKD tells her his favorite of his own novels are:

  • Martian Time Slip
  • We Can Build You
  • Flow My Tears
  • Doctor Bloodmoney
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • The Simulcra
  • The Penultimate Truth

I don’t know if he intended that list to be in order, but We Can Build You came second to mind. He even mentions in the same letter that he wasn’t sure he liked Ubik. Nor does he mention any of his unpublished mainstream novels.

Additional Reading and References

Within We Can Build You Pris works on bathroom mosaic. It turns out Anne, Dick’s third wife, created such a mosaic, while he was writing the novel.

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 #3 – The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) ed. by Asimov & Greenberg

by James Wallace Harris, 1/22/22

Normally, I write about science fiction over at my blog that’s devoted to science fiction, but I’m reviewing every book I read in 2022 for this blog. To make it more interesting for my friends who don’t care about science fiction, I thought I’d explain why I’m still reading science fiction in old age even though I believe science fiction is really meant for young people. (For an actual discussion of the stories, I reviewed them here.)

There are thirteen short stories in The Great SF Stories 25 (1963). If I had read those stories at 11 or 12 in 1963, they would have meant something entirely different than how I perceived them at age 70 in 2022. Now that I’m seventy and examining my life with a more critical eye, I realize that my sixty years of reading science fiction is a kind of delusion. I’ve been thinking about delusional thinking since the Trump years. I don’t believe Q-Anon followers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, etc., are the only folks who see the world through their delusions. I think we all do.

Generally, we think of science fiction as a specific subject of entertainment, but I also believe science fiction fans believe in certain concepts because of their love of the genre. Science fiction works best when we’re young, giving us a sense of wonder. Like religion, it introduces certain beliefs that most fans keep their whole life.

Science fiction is immensely popular, at least at the movies and on television, but also as a reading category too. There are certain beliefs about the future that science fiction fans embrace. Some of those beliefs are even shared by people who don’t like science fiction, but they’ve come to accept them because science fiction is so pervasive in pop culture. If you examine your own beliefs carefully, you might spot some that come from science fiction.

What’s interesting about these beliefs, and I’ll get to the specifics soon, is they’ve been around a long time, some are even older than science fiction. I’ve been reading science fiction for six decades, and the genre has undergone many changes over those decades. A few ago I started a reading project to read all the science fiction anthologies that collected the best-of-the-year short stories. I started with The Great SF Stories 1 (1939). I’m up to volume 18 (1958) but a year ago I joined a Facebook group that reads SF anthologies, and it voted to group read volume 25 (1963). 1963 is an interesting year, it was the year after I started reading science fiction.

This anthology is a blast from the past in several ways. I have read some of these 1963 stories before, but not when they came out. When I started reading science fiction, I was discovering books from the 1950s and earlier. I didn’t discover “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” until years later. It’s the most important story to me in the anthology and the best science fiction story of 1963. I first read it in Judith Merril’s 10th Annual which I owned in paperback in the late 1960s or The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume one which I got from the Science Fiction Book Club in 1970. I’ve read it many times over the years, and I still love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” It’s a fantasy about science fiction that I wish was my reality.

I mention these details partly out of nostalgia, partly to stress-test my memory, but mainly because “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a significant story. Roger Zelazny paid homage to the kind of science fiction I grew up loving as a kid. Back then I wanted Martians to exist. I wanted to believe intelligent life was everywhere in the solar system and beyond. As a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I was a believer in a lot of crappy ideas. Philip K. Dick wrote a wonderful novel about such believers called Confessions of a Crap Artist. See my review.

Over the decades, in mainstream magazines, science fiction would be criticized by modern literary writers as fiction for adolescents. This always made science fiction fans furious, but I believe it’s true. Most of us just don’t want to grow up. I know I never did. Such criticism was like telling one of the faithful their beliefs were programmed into them as children but aren’t real. Most religious folks cling to their beliefs no matter how convincing the arguments are against them. I’ve gotten some older science fiction fans mad at me for saying atheistic things about our faith, science fiction.

Now that I’m looking back I see how science fiction is something I wanted to believe in, even though it’s mostly just fun make-believe stories. I could say it’s a cognitive perspective that I use to view reality. Unfortunately, I’ve reached an age where I have doubts about any realistic uses of science fiction.

I am like a preacher who has a good job as a paster who has lost his faith but is too old to get work at anything else. I’ve got to keep working, to still be good at my job, but without having faith. I still love science fiction, and I’ve come to admire it in new ways. Instead of a religion or philosophy, I think of it as an art form. I might not believe humanity will ever have interstellar travel, but stories about it can be quite creative.

Each of the stories in The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) worked in a new way for me in 2022. For example, as I read the Jewish science fiction humor of “Bernie the Faust” by William Tenn, originally published in the November 1963 Playboy. I wondered if Tenn was making fun of science fiction fans. In the story, a tough New Yorker businessman thinks he’s taking a rube to the cleaners by selling him the planet Earth, but then fears he’s sold out the human race to an alien. As a kid, I would have wanted to believe aliens were visiting us. Now, I wonder if Bernie was just delusional in thinking the rube was from outer space, and he’s a stand-in for science fiction fans, and Tenn was making fun of us.

In “Turn Off the Sky” originally appearing in the August 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Ray Nelson fears a future utopian liberal America. The main character is a Beatnik anarchist who finds purpose in preaching anarchy but falls in love with a prostitute who still believes in capitalism and making money. In 1963, the only Beatnik I knew was Maynard G. Krebs. I didn’t discover the Beats until 1968, and now in 2022, I admire the story for its grittily realistic aspects, but as a kid in 1963, I would have been all caught up in the utopian counter-culture. “Turn Off the Sky” was probably written in 1959, and Nelson predicts many things that didn’t happen until the later 1960s, and explored ideas still relevant today. Many SF writers were very conservative, and even though Nelson was a childhood friend of the hippies’ favorite science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, I could sense his conservative’s fear of socialism way back in 1959.

Regarding conservative philosophy, I could also see that in “No Truce With Kings” by Poul Anderson, first published in the June 1963 F&SF. As a kid, I wouldn’t have liked this story. As an old man, and lifelong liberal, I still didn’t like this story, but it’s actually interesting in 2022. Anderson imagines a Post-America that’s trying to rebuild. One group wants to recreate the U.S. federal government, but others want to maintain feudal states. Anderson proposes that people are only capable of managing small-scale governments, and the feudal system was the best size for human communities. You see this belief today, especially out in Idaho right now. This story won a Hugo award back then.

The value of reading these old science fiction stories isn’t that they were about the future, but they were about 1963, and reading them today shows how things don’t change.

Philip K. Dick’s story in this anthology, “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” also imagines a Post-America after WWIII, but further in the future. As a kid, I would never imagine a Post-America. I figured the United States would exist into the far future and dominate interplanetary and interstellar exploration. But reading these old science fiction stories I realize that many writers weren’t as confident. In 2022 I’m not confident about our future anymore too. In the story, humans who had colonized Mars return to Earth and the U.S. to rebuild, but they are soon in conflict with humans who had colonized the Proxima Centaurus system and have also returned to Earth to rebuild it too. PKD imagined quite a neat invention in this story. The New York Times was preserved by moving underground, and when it was liberated, turned out to be an AI that presented very accurate news, even becoming an oracle. Again, I see a political savviness that I wouldn’t have perceived as a kid but recognize now. The story isn’t about the future, but 1963. And like the other stories, things haven’t changed.

A more personally relevant story was by Clifford Simak, “New Folks’ Home,” about a seventy-year-old man retiring. Since I recently turned 70, this meant more to me now than it would have back at age 12. Lawyer Frederick Gray takes one last fishing trip into an isolated wilderness before moving into his retirement home. He injures himself and breaks into a remote cabin to save his life. There he finds a completely automated home that takes care of him. The home is an alien outpost on Earth, and it offers him meaningful work and longevity. The work is done by remote access like we do in our current pandemic, but with aliens in other star systems. I’ve always loved Simak stories for their gentle hopeful view of life. Simak wrote a huge number of stories and novels, many of which were about aliens among us, and intelligent robots. Like I’ve mentioned above, as a kid, I wanted to believe aliens could visit Earth, and we’d eventually visit them someday. I no longer believe interstellar travel will be possible. But I do think intelligent machines will emerge eventually – but that might be a delusion too.

One last story I want to mention is “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” by Alfred Bester. (F&SF October 1963). Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. As a kid, I wanted to be the last person on Earth, sometimes I still do. Isn’t that a weird desire? But it’s a popular theme in science fiction.

However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is The Quiet Earth (1985).

Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me. However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne.

This story combines several themes I loved as a kid. Being the last person on Earth. Rebuilding society the way I think it should be built. Aliens visiting Earth. Aliens discovering the last people on Earth. I have to admit in 2022 I don’t see civilization surviving for many more decades. But then, evidently neither did many science fiction writers back in the 1950s and 1960s. Most people feel we’ll muddle along, like always.

However, in 1963 I really didn’t believe civilization would collapse, or WWIII would happen. As a young person, I had faith in the future. I had faith in a lot of things that science fiction promised. I no longer believe in many of those promises. And for some reason, I think civilization will collapse sometimes this century. (I’m also reading a lot of archeology, and civilization collapse is the norm.)

Reading old science fiction is no longer about believing in the future. Reading old science fiction is about how much we got right and how much we got wrong. It’s probably because I’m old and turning cynical, but I feel the worse thing we got wrong was optimism about human potential. I think technology, society, culture, knowledge, etc. progresses, but not humans. We don’t change.

Science fiction also progresses and evolves. One concept that has emerged since 1963 is the idea of downloading human minds/personalities and uploading them into robots, clones, or virtual worlds. Essentially, the is a new version of immortality, and even heaven. I’ve never believed in this concept, and I have argued with many science fiction fans that do. Some passionately believe it, maybe as strong as the faithful believe they will be reborn in heaven.

We should be careful of the ideas we embrace. It’s so hard to tell if they are delusions.

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

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