Science fiction in its time and place

A sience fiction magazine

A sience fiction magazine

Like any literary genre, science fiction is a product of its time and place. As author Frank Herbert (as reported in the book The Road to Dune) quipped, “[A]liens don’t buy books. Humans buy books.” Moreover those books are sold in the here and now, not some fantastic time in future. Thus, science fiction must connect to its readers. Good literature does not preach a theme that the author wishes to get across as a message, but its themes will resonate with each reader– some sees one theme and others perceiving even the opposite theme. Literature like any art form is highly individual while at the same time universal, wherein lies much of the fascination of literature.

Jules Verne

Jules Verne (Photo credit: paukrus)

For now, I am going to skip the obvious but often futile topic of trying to define what science fiction actually is and discuss in broad sweeps where and when it comes from. At this point, science fiction– both original and translations– stories, novellas and novels have appeared in virtually every modern language with a significant literary output. Historically, the dominant languages in which science fiction works originally appear have been English and Russian. Even though the genre started in French with some works of Jules Verne and has some other later notable contributions from authors such as Pierre Boulle, nevertheless science fiction simply had not achieved any

degree of literary respect in French until recent decades. (Even so for example my personal copy of Boulle’s La Planète des singes is packages as children’s literature even though few children or adolescents would understand most of the themes in the book.) At the same time, author Stanislaw Lem has produced classic works of the genre in Polish, and the prolific Perry Rhodan series from German remains a landmark.

While the bulk of Russian science fiction was produced in the Soviet Union and later in Russia, most English (language) science fiction derives from the United States and Great Britain. The Cold War simply cannot be ignored in any meaningful discussion of science fiction as literature. For English science fiction, a couple of good resources are these timelines, first and second. One also has a good timeline for author Jules Verne specifically. Information in English on Russian written science fiction is harder to find, although this Wikipedia entry gives some info.

Yet no discussion of science fiction could be complete without a mention of the fact that science fiction developed from pulp magazines, the “pulps”. The Golden Age of science fiction (in English) is defined by the stewardship of the editor John W. Campbell of the magazine Astounding, who is considered to have demanded a literary standard. His principal competitor, who demanded similar standards, was editor Horace L. Gold of the magazine Galaxy. The plan is to go into more detail in future posts.

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The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Part 1: The Book Review Proper

Book cover of the edition I read
Book cover of the edition I read

I’ve been away from blogging for a while and that will likely continue for a bit more for the most part. Other things for the time being take priority. Yet I do have plans for this blog. Since so many book-review blogs already exist, I envision coming back to this blog and talking about the development of science fiction as literature and in the context of its time.

In the meantime, I’m making an exception so I can talk about the novel The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. In spite of what I am going to say, I would still recommend the book, but to me the ending abandons all the character development of the bulk of the book and in this sense short-changes the reader.

The novel tells the story of an autistic man named Lou Arrandale in a near-future setting. He is one of a few highly functional autistic people who received treatments as a child to help them interact with the world independently but whose birth predates the invention of a therapy that eliminates the condition entirely either in utero or in babies. Thus, he is one of the last people to be autistic.

Like good science fiction usually does, this novel reflects the concerns of its time. When I was a boy, I heard of autism as a debilitating condition which was not fully understood and which afflicted a rare few individuals. As the condition has become better understood in recent years, the term has become more broadly applied and pseudo-scientific anti-vaccine campaigns have received enough unwarranted attention to bring the condition into the popular consciousness. Unfortunately, stereotypes of the idiot savant such as portrayed in the movie Rain-Man still dominate the common perception.

The portrayal of autism in the book, which coincides with my own understanding of the condition, can be thought of primarily in terms of information overload. In other words, the brain takes in more sensory input data than it can handle. Difficulty picking up social cues and recognizing faces are associated with this due to an autistic brain not filtering or prioritizing information in the same way that a non-autistic brain does.  Therefore what the hypothesized treatment that the main character, Lou Arrandale, receives appears to do is to train the person to handle the glut of sensory data by processing it more slowly.

The primary narrator of the story is Arrandale himself, albeit occasionally this is supplemented by short presentations of perspectives from other characters. From the beginning, we see Arrandale holding down a good job, socializing and appreciating music. Moreover, we see him grow in self-confidence and abilities as he becomes an expert fencer. We see him use his awareness of patterns to succeed in fencing, his job and other situations. We even see him, slightly socially awkward but no more than many a geek or nerd, as he realizes that he loves a woman named Marjory from his fencing group and indeed that she loves him. They simply have not yet pursued or formalized the budding relationship, but their mutual friends are highly encouraging. In other words, we see the main character as a well adjusted normal individual who is socially labeled as disabled because he autistic, but who in reality is a highly well adjusted individual with a good life and foibles no more severe than anyone else.

The conflict of the book manifests itself primarily in thee ways. First, and most incidentally, a woman at the support center that Arrandale goes to on a weekly basis more out of habit than anything else appears to be jealous of his budding relationship and tries to convince Arrandale that he should only have relationships with other disabled people, presumably meaning especially herself. She is not a very nice person, and Arrandale politely but unequivocally gets his lack of interest across as at the same time he realizes that he really does not need the support center except perhaps once in a great while for things such as legal services.

Line art drawing depicting two people fencing

Line art drawing depicting two people fencing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second form of conflict comes from a member of his fencing group named Don whom Arrandale thinks of as a friend who is jealous of Arrandale’s relationship with Marjory and of his accomplishments as a fencer. Indeed, Don whose career is not successful, sees the main character as having a better life all-round than he does and, due to his own prejudices against the autistic in particular and disabled people generally (among whom he classes the autistic people in the world of the book), he cannot handle the situation. So, Don gets increasingly hostile and rude to Arrandale. At first, the other members of the fencing group interfere and shield Arrandale but when Arrandale performs brilliantly at his first fencing tournament and learns how badly Don did at his own first tournament, Don feels hmiliated and blames Arrandale for all his problems. He becomes a stalker and gets violent. As readers, we see Arrandale handle contacting the police, the disruption of his normal life and dealing with betrayal in a perfectly normal fashion. Although logically he realizes the person sabotaging his car increasingly violently must be Don, emotionally he does not want to accept that a friend could do something like that to him, and in his mind Don is a friend. Yet when Don attacks him in the end, Arrandale disarms him in an expert fashion and faces the painful truth. We as readers see him going through the normal stages of denial, anger, etc., under finally he reaches acceptance.

Speed of Dark

Speed of Dark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The primary conflict of the book comes through Arrandale’s work though. He does some sort of math-heavy data analysis which involves looking at things on a computer and discerning useful patterns for a large pharmaceutical company. As part of the work environment, he and his fellow workers in the department, all of whom are autistic, are provided a gym and other facilities to help them cope with the stress. Frankly, that kind of facility sounds to me like an excellent idea whether a person is autistic or not, but it is not offered to other employees. The supervisor of Arrandale’s immediate supervisor, respectively named Crenshaw and Aldrin, decides to illegally pressure the autistic employees into volunteering for an experimental treatment supposedly designed to make them no longer autistic. While Aldrin, the immediate supervisor, objects, he at first feels that he cannot do anything to help. Therefore, we see the main character coping with the issue for himself, and he does remarkably well. Although he considers using the support center to help find legal counsel, he decides that he wants to know more about the situation before doing so. While that seems an odd decision, his reasons are perfectly understandable; he wants to feel in control of the situation instead of being simply a disabled person who immediately has to call blindly for help. He also researches the treatment to find out if it is something he might actually want anyway. Beginning with the information about the research on-line, he then finds the research paper describing the treatment. When he does not understand it all, he uses his autistic abilities to teach himself the biology of the brain in an amazingly short amount of time. He comes to understand the research, its potential dangers and the slimness of the hope it will work as desired. Moreover, he realizes both that taking the treatment would destroy parts of his brain which make him who and what he is and that he likes the person he is. In order words, he comes to rightly view the treatment that Crenshaw would force on him as effectively suicide and decides until the end he is not suicidal. Arrandale and his fellow autistic employees plan to use a lawyer provided by their support center who specializes in relevant law, and the main character has every reason to refuse the treatment, as he seems throughout the book strongly inclined to do until the end. He even uncovers why the company is pursuing the research given how few autistic people remain, although I would have like to have seen this sub-plot more developed.

As the book comes to its climax, Aldrin sabotages what Crenshaw is doing and brings it and its potential legal and PR consequences to the attention of higher management by doing what Crenshaw tells him to do in ways that will expose the whole mess. So, in the end, the company does offer the treatment to its autistic employees but without the pressure of coercion. Once he is no longer pressured into undergoing the treatment, for reasons which come across entirely as a whim, Arrandale agrees to the treatment. Of course it works at least on him but he never pursues the relationship with Marjory, he abandons fencing and his promising tournament career, and he turns his back on all his friends who love and admire him for the person he is. In other words, he takes his great life and flushes it down the proverbial toilet for no apparent reason beyond, “Meh, I want to be normal,” when he has thoroughly debunked that notion for himself already. The ending was not tragic but rather a betrayal of the reader as all character development established throughout the bulk of the novel is abandoned in the end to try to make a point about “embracing the future“, whatever that means exactly. The character we have seen up until that point would never make such a decision, and having him do so simply makes no sense.

Part 2: Society and the “disabled”

In a sense, the above is my review of the book. All that needs to be said for that purpose has been. Until the end which I hated I loved the book and I wanted the natural ending of the story I was reading instead of the tacked on ending I got in reality. Yet I want to make a deeper point that requires going into far more personal detail than I usually would on the internet.

Although I am not autistic, Lou Arandale is a character with whom personally I can much identify. He is a person who is “disabled” only in the minds of some other people, especially those who do not really know him, and he has built a good life for himself. Speaking of myself, I have had from infancy a fairly severe eye condition called nystagmus with associated conditions. In practice, I am effectively severely near-sighted, and while on some days my vision is better than on others, I am always what was termed when I lived in the United States as legally blind. In other words, I cannot safely drive a car. Yet I grew up sailing boats perfectly well. I read avidly and use a computer for much of my day, but my vision gets worse when I’m tired, stressed or need sleep.

This ability to identify with the character is greatly strengthened by his strengths and talents. He uses pattern recognition and manipulation well beyond what would occur to most people to be possible. Since I was a small child, I was labeled as a mathematical genius. I would define math as the study and application of patterns. I have used my ability to perceive patterns to learn physics and math, and I have published research applying mathematical physics to cosmology. Yet I have also used that ability to learn Classical philology and to then develop the skills learned to be able to learn lots of other languages so that I comfortably read novels in numerous languages. As Arandale the character realizes, patterns are everywhere and an ability to recognize patterns can be used as a basis for dealing with virtually everything.

The character also has difficulty picking up social cues, especially those related to faces. Since so often I cannot see  people’s faces in detail, I also tend to miss these kinds of social cues. Yet I am more aware therefore of what I can see such as how a person moves and stands. Liars tend to broadcast to me through their body language what they are unless they are pathological enough to convince themselves they are really telling the truth at least while they’re saying it. Even then, the pattern emerges after a while.

What I am talking about here are the related concepts of compensation and adaptation. Throughout my life, I have avoided being officially labeled as “disabled” and I certainly do not think of myself in those terms. Yet, all my life many people who think of themselves as well-intentioned have treated me that way, and some do even now. For example, I do not know how many times I had people pressuring when I was a child to pray for a cure or making remarks to the effect that I would be handsome if my looks were not ruined by how my eyes look. For me, nystagmus involves not just constant movement of the eyes but an inability to entirely open my eyes and a need to hold my head at an angle so that I can see properly. That way of holding my head and people’s reactions to it probably hurt me socially growing up far more than missing some social cues did. Yet I adapted and found a way to interact with people that works for me. Yes, I married late and during dates did many things I was advised were precisely the wrong thing to do on a date, but in the end I ended up happily married to a woman who makes me as happy as I can imagine anyone doing. In other words, I also have like the character built what is for me a good life.

Like autism, nystagmus while manifested in the eyes is fundamentally neurological. To “cure” me of the condition, one would have to do things to the brain which would inevitably make me no longer who and what I am.

So if hypothetically I could be “cured” of nystagmus and the related conditions, I could not imagine wanting such a thing at such a price. So why does the character in the book who seems in an analogous situation want such a thing? The only explanation I can see is that he has an exaggerated compulsion to be “normal”. Putting aside that literarily this attitude makes no sense for the character, to me it reflects the unconscious bigotry of so many people toward what they call the “disabled”, the “pity” anyone whose abilities are deemed not quite normal is shown. The author is the mother of an autistic person according to the book cover, so she presumably should know better. Yet if she does, it did not come across in the novel; no such point is made as far as I can see. Rather its point seems to be that “disabled” people naturally want to be “normal” so long as they do not lose autonomy over their own bodies. As someone who is not “normal”, I am sick of dealing with people who refuse to see past my nystagmus and I do not need to be “cured”. Hence the end of the book to me is just a slap in the face; the rest of the book deserves better.

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Link to a course

My beloved wife saw an announcement of an on-line course about Greek heroes and thought it might be of interest to readers here. I agree.

As for what’s happening with the blog, I’m hoping to get back to it soon. Both work and family issues are overwhelming my time still.

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Notice to readers

As many will have noted, I have not contributed to this blog in some while. By intention, I have not abandoned this blog but my personal life leaves little time for blogging at the moment. I do hope to return to the blog when I can in future though.

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The Odyssey Book 2: lines 85-95

An impromptu shura, or town meeting, takes pla...

Image via Wikipedia

Since Telemachus has just given his speech swaying the people, now Antinous chooses to address his fellow suitors instead.

Before getting to the speech itself, one should realize just how this tactic wold appear to the ancient Greek audience. Especially right after the episode of Telemachus acting like an adult and indeed a hero (literally and figuratively) the marked contrast between the behavior of Telemachus and Antinous suggests that the former was a boy acting like a man and the latter is a man acting like a child. Antinous makes no attempt to address the people, which even if he failed would be respectable conduct. Instead he ironically speaks of Telemachus’ words dishonoring the suitors– rather than their own behavior.

The speech also contains a good bit of humorous elements. For example, the root meaning of the verb αἰσχύνω which is used within a genitive absolute here to mean dishonor is to disfigure or make ugly. The usage is reminiscent of the idiomatic use of words καλός for good and κακός for bad in ancient Greek which literally mean beautiful and ugly, although those meanings are lost in modern Greek. Yet the scene does also connote Antinous complaining that he and his fellow suitors have been made to look ugly in front of Penelope; thus the ancient Greek audience would react to this speech much as the modern audience might view the scene if Antinous were talking about having a bad hair day.

The rest of the speech spells out the greed and selfishness (not to mention sheer gluttony) which motivates the suitors. Here again we have the contrast of Telemachus’ noble motives. If Telemachus has been set up as the hero, Antinous has been set up as the villain.

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The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke (the novel, not the short story)

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

While I had initially intended this blog to be discussing primarily classics of the genre of literary science fiction, especially ones I have read previously, what I am finding is that I am mostly addressing books which I happen to be reading at the moment. Thus now I am reading the title novel of this novel, namely The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, a novel expanded from the short story of the same name.

The edition I have is that of Voyager Classics, a series purporting to include only classics of the genre. From my scanning of the list of books offered, I would agree that all are classics, but not all by any means are books i would necessarily recommend– even though I don’t see any works by Robert Heinlein on the list. Sadly, while Clarke has a long list of solid classics well worth reading and re-reading, this particular book does not appear to be one of them.

My experience with Clarke is that his early works are outstanding, but his later works can be hit or miss. Like Heinlein, he suffers from the unwillingness of editors to deal with him as they would an unknown author, to the detriment of the quality of works he puts out. Thus, the novel includes an introduction in which Clarke lambasts the lack of realism in TV and movies, naming Star Trek explicitly, noting as supposedly the sole possible quibble with his realism the use of a quantum drive. Yet in reality, this hypothetical technology (while problematic itself) appears to me the least of the problems from the point of view of realism in this novel, a point which I would not have thought about so much had Clarke had the wisdom to remain silent on the matter.

Clarke however did raise the issue of realism. I am willing to overlook the quantum drive which in spite of the papers Clarke references is little better than a modern day perpetual motion machine in that it supposedly it taps the vacuum energy for motive force. Likewise, I can handle his postulation that the solar neutrino problem was a precursor to our sun going nova, because the solution in final form to the problem came only after the first publication of this novel. No, what fantastically departs from any attempt at realism in only the first few chapters are most glaringly:

1. The fact that people from Earth visiting the planet Thalassa speak the same language in the same form such that no translator is needed. Clarke tries to explain this by supposing nonsensically that the advent of broadcasting has caused pronunciation to no longer change. Moreover he does this while at the same time explicitly stating that the planet Thalassa has been out of communication with any other planet– let alone communication regular and pervasive enough to influence language– for a few hundred years. All of which ignores the changes that would be happening on Earth even if somehow it had become entirely monolingual which is unlikely.

2. Thalassa is an atheistic utopia in which Clarke describes virtually all of human strife magically vanishing because the society and its culture and language have no trace (even residual) of religion of any kind. (Of course, they nevertheless speak the same language as the people from Earth.) The tripe of John Lennon’s song Imagine notwithstanding, when religion becomes associated with violence, in the overwhelming number of cases, religion is just being used as an excuse for violence and power-wielding, nothing more; eliminate religions and the violence and power dynamics remain, they just use a different excuse. If religion were the root cause of violence, secularization would have led to reduction of violence. Historically that is by no means the case. By the same token, if one removes the association with violence that sometimes occurs, one does not intrinsically change the nature of religion.

3. Supposedly the planet Thalassa was colonized via robotic seed-ships which chemically built the planet’s entire biological system (including humans) from raw materials found locally. While Clarke passingly acknowledges an association of trauma with the first generations, he then blithely dismisses them even though children built by robots without humans of any kind could not learn everything for which we know human touch is needed, let alone how to take care of the next generation, e.g., breast-feeding young. The trauma would not vanish in the course of seven hundred years; it would be unlikely to entirely vanish in seven thousand years. Yet Thalassa is a utopia where Earthly strife and even disease are unknown until the coming of the Earthmen. When the Earthmen pass a cold onto the president of the planet, doing so is no big deal. A person who has never encountered a cold virus ever would not have an immune system that could so easily deal with one.

4. Finally, on Thalassa, true democracy is practiced and so offices are filled by lot. Yet while emulating the ancient Athenians, Clarke states that the system had never previously been implemented. Of course in ancient Athens, an exception was made for offices requiring special skills, e.g. strategos or military commander of the armed forces. No need apparently exists for such exceptions on Thalassa because a randomly chosen businessman who did not want the job of planetary president does a superb job. Of course within this democratic utopia, the real power rests in the hands of the mayor who is elected and whose unflagging ambition makes it clear she very much wants the job. So the previously ceremonial figure of planetary president is determined by this truly democratic system but the person with actual power is not– while still being the pinnacle of practical democracy.

I just put the novel down and didn’t pick it up again at that point.

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The Odyssey: Book 2 lines 80-84

GR Ithaca.PNG (Greek island)

Image via Wikipedia

We see now the reaction of the people to Telemachus‘ speech. If one views the story of Telemachus within the Odyssey as a narrative, it is very much a coming of age story. Namely, Telemachus in Book 1 is a boy. In Book 2, he begins to think and act (according to Greek cultural notions) as a man, i.e., as an adult member of his society and specifically as an adult of his social status as a member of the royal family. Yet Telemachus cannot be just any ordinary adult male Greek; he must be a hero– a man who shapes events in a nearly godlike manner, given the Greek conception of a god (as discussed in the introduction to this blog).

A modern reader might miss the significance in this narrative of Telemachus swaying the people of Ithaca through his oratory. Yet in ancient Greek society, the means of power is ultimately persuasion of the people λαός. A hero was fundamentally a ruler. These short few lines show for the first time Telemachus acting as a hero, a leader of men. He’ll need od more to cement that status, but what we see here is the beginning.

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