Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

Subjective Time

by James Wallace Harris, 5/11/22

I’m in a short story club where today’s discussion story is “Common Time” by James Blish from 1953. This blog will be my comment to the group, but I feel my insight is personal enough for this blog.

“Common Time” is about an astronaut in an experimental spaceship traveling at twenty-two times the speed of light. When the astronaut regains consciousness after launch he can’t move and it takes forever to open his eyes. He discovers that time is moving very slowly. He is able to count to 7,200 between each tick of the second hand on his clock. Eventually, his perspective speeds up until the hour hand is flashing around. The story is about how this astronaut reacts to the different perspectives of time.

I think time is a fascinating topic. I use the picture of a hummingbird above to illustrate subjective time. To a hummingbird, a human appears like a statue, frozen in time. I’ve often wondered how an intelligent robot will perceive time. The clock speed of computer chips is currently in the gigahertz range – that’s billions of cycles per second. Will AI minds even notice us? Of course, their bodies won’t be able to move a billion times faster than ours.

I also like to think about the concept of now. Is there a universal now everywhere? Now exists without clocks. Now can exist without even the concept of time. If we had a smartphone connection to a planet 1,000 light-years away that had an instant speed of communication we could talk to our alien friends in the now. Is that true for the whole universe? Or do different locations experience different nows? What about the multiverse? Is there one moment of now everywhere? Or many?

How long is the moment of now to a hummingbird or future robot?

Yesterday I woke up feeling better than I have in years. I noticed this when I was planning my day. I felt good enough to plan to work on a long-term project. Lately, I haven’t been feeling good, and the only things I wanted to do were those activities that focus on the moment. I was disappointed yesterday when less than two hours later after my aches and pains returned I only felt like reading, watching TV, or listening to music. I loved that feeling I had more time.

I can remember being young and feeling like I had all the time in the world to do everything I ever wanted to do. I’m writing this essay early in the morning because I feel like I have enough time to finish it. I won’t feel like that in a little while.

Jim Harris

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

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

Playing All The Albums I Never Bought

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 27, 2020

A subscription to Spotify allows me to play all the albums I never purchased. For example, I called up “The 100 Best Albums of the 1970s” from Pitchfork and saw that back in the day I had bought 37 albums on their list — meaning I missed 63 great LPs.

That includes their #1 pick, Low by David Bowie from 1977. Over the years I have bought several David Bowie albums but somehow I completely missed that one. Not only did Pitchfork think Low the best David Bowie album of the era, but the best album by anybody for the decade. So I played it this afternoon, and their #4 pick There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone.

I liked both of those albums. I’ll probably play them again, but I bet I would have liked them more if I had bought them when they came out. Music is a product of the times, so my first listening of these old albums is more like time traveling than listening to new music, especially when I read about them now. It’s like studying art history.

Paste Magazine had a whole different take on “The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s.” Low by David Bowie came in at #34. Their #1 pick was Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, which I did buy back then (and later on CD, and finally on SACD). Blood on the Tracks was and is a fantastic album for any decade.

I had owned 42 of the 70 albums on the Paste Magazine list. Probably, that’s due to buying popular albums. I’m sure hundreds of albums, if not thousands came out during the 1970s. I wonder how many I could play now that I’ve never heard and they would be as good or better than those I bought and loved back in the 1970s? In fact, could I have hated albums back then that I would love now?

If you look at the Best Ever Albums site for the 1970s, which appears to rank albums by sales and weeks on charts, you see a whole different view of the decade. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd comes in at #1, and of course, it’s one of the best selling albums of all time. Like Blood on the Tracks I bought it on first on LP, then CD, and finally SACD. Now I just stream it when I think about hearing it.

Low came in at #16 on this list. Pitchfork and Paste Magazine lists have a lot of overlap, but each found favorites the other didn’t. I wonder if I took the time to listen to a few hundred albums from the 1970s, what would my Top 100 be?

My actual favorite albums of the 1970s was, and still is, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. It came in at #20 on the Best Ever Albums list.

Looking at all three lists shows many popular albums I missed discovering back then, and never stumbled upon in the following decades. Oh, there were many albums, such as those by Genesis or The Clash that I missed when they first came out but I eventually bought in later decades. Overall, I missed stacks and stacks of supposedly great albums.

We never absorb all of pop culture. Narrow tastes and limited opportunity keep us from experiencing the complete spectrum of art in its time. Streaming music lets us rectify those limitations if we want. I shunned Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday as a teen for being too the 1960s, but now that I’m old, they are wonderfully timeless.

With Spotify I can now play almost everything from these three lists. Yet, I wonder if my current reaction would be anything like my 1970s response? Every week I’d spend hours in record stores flipping through bins of albums looking for just the right ones to buy. My financial situation limited me to one or two a week, although if I was without a girlfriend or dope I’d sometimes buy three or four. I frequently joined and quit record clubs to game their system and periodically acquire shipments of a dozen new albums. And I often bought or traded albums with friends. So for some peak months, I might hear 30-40 albums.

I used to have this fantasy about burglarizing a big record store and taking one of every albums. Try imagining the logistics of such a heist. With Spotify I don’t have to daydream about stealing albums, although it looks like the system of streaming music is now doing the thieving.

It’s a shame recording artists aren’t paid properly for us to legally listening to those millions of albums. I feel guilty I get so much pleasure for my $10 a month, and all the artists don’t get to become rich stars like they hope and dream. I’m not going to quit Spotify, but I do wish the system could be changed so music creators could their fair share.

Artists now get a tiny sliver of a penny for each time we play one of their songs. I can’t believe they don’t even get a whole goddamn cent. I believe the streaming services should charge us $2.99 a month for accessing their service, and then charge us a penny a song that would completely go to the artists, musicians, and publishers. I believe the split should be one-third to the composers, one-third to the performers, and one-third to the publishers. And the new deal should supercede any previous contracts. I hate that all those great session musicians of the past aren’t earning income from the music I play every day.

JWH

Engaging With Aging

As long as we're green, we're growing

A Deep Look by Dave Hook

Thoughts, ramblings and ruminations

Reißwolf

A story a day keeps the boredom away: SF and Fantasy story reviews

AGENT SWARM

Pluralism and Individuation in a World of Becoming

the sinister science

sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present

Short Story Magic Tricks

breaking down why great fiction is great

Xeno Swarm

Multiple Estrangements in Philosophy and Science Fiction

fiction review

(mostly) short reviews of (mostly) short fiction

A Just Recompense

I'm Writing and I Can't Shut Up

Universes of the Mind

A celebration of stories that, while they may have been invented, are still true

Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Make Lists, Not War

The Meta-Lists Website

From Earth to the Stars

The Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine Author & Editor Blog

SFF Reviews

Short Reviews of Short SFF

Featured Futures

classic science fiction and more

Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch

Witchcraft, Magick, Paganism & Metaphysical Matters

Pulp and old Magazines

Pulp and old Magazines

Matthew Wright

Science, writing, reason and stuff

My Colourful Life

Because Life is Colourful

The Astounding Analog Companion

The official Analog Science Fiction and Fact blog.

What's Nonfiction?

Where is your nonfiction section please.

A Commonplace for the Uncommon

Books I want to Remember

a rambling collective

Short Fiction by Nicola Humphreys

The Real SciBlog

Articles about riveting topics in science

West Hunter

Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat

The Subway Test

Joe Pitkin's stories, queries, and quibbles regarding the human, the inhuman, the humanesque.

SuchFriends Blog

'...and say my glory was I had such friends.' --- WB Yeats

Neither Kings nor Americans

Reading the American tradition from an anarchist perspective

TO THE BRINK

Speculations on the Future: Science, Technology and Society

I can't believe it!

Problems of today, Ideas for tomorrow

wordscene

Peter Webscott's travel and photography blog

The Wonderful World of Cinema

Where classic films are very much alive! It's Wonderful!

The Case for Global Film

'in the picture': Films from everywhere and every era

A Sky of Books and Movies

Books & movies, art and thoughts.

Emily Munro

Spinning Tales in the Big Apple

slicethelife

hold a mirror up to life.....are there layers you can see?

Being 2 different people.

Be yourself, but don't let them know.