Wednesday, 21 December 2011

2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY and CHILDHOOD'S END, both by Arthur C. Clarke

            These two books were old friends—I owned them 30 years ago and eventually purged them from my collection when faced with a household move and far too many books.  It has been a long time since I read them and the first time I had read them close in time to Lonely Planets: the Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon, a book about the chances of extraterrestrial life existing and impinging on Earth. 
            The continual question in the search for extraterrestrial life is where are the aliens?  We’ve been broadcasting (intentionally and unintentionally) since the beginnings of radio and on into the television age.  May the Goddess help us if the ETs are judging us by our sit-coms.  I’d rather that they didn’t think that “I Love Lucy” and “Two and a Half Men” are representative of earth!  Ever since we realized that we were advertising our presence through our telecommunications, we’ve been listening to see if anyone else out there is trying to get in touch (the SETI project).  So far, there has been absolutely no evidence to suggest that there is anyone out there.  Are we alone?  Are the other civilizations long gone or still in their infancies?  Did we just miss them or will we be history by the time they are ready to talk?
            Arthur C. Clarke has that question covered: in both of these novels, the ETs are so advanced that they have abandoned their physical bodies and are energy beings.  They have either left behind technology to guide us (2001) or have recruited another race to do the finishing work for them (Childhood’s End).  Interestingly, in both novels he finds it necessary for us to be adjusted a bit, before we can become a suitable species.  In 2001 they intervene in the lives of Australopithecines on the African savannah three million years ago, setting them on the path to become us.  In Childhood’s End, the Overmind sends the Overlords to iron out the last wrinkles and prepare humanity for absorption into the cosmic collective.  (We are Borg.  You will be assimilated).
            Interesting that authors have looked at the collective from both sides:  Childhood’s End shows it essentially as a positive and necessary part of the development of humanity.  The Overlords, it turns out, are envious, studying each race that is assimilated into the Overmind, trying to find out what their own flaw is that prevents them from taking the same step.  Star Trek sees being engulfed by a collective (the Borg) and the death of individuality as a fate worse than death.  Perhaps these views are products of the cultures that produced them.  Star Trek is an American production and the United States is the land of the individual.  Clarke is a Brit and was a radar officer in the Royal Air Force at a time when being part of a collective (the Allies in WWII) was a very good thing indeed. 
            Having studied a bit of brain physiology, I have to wonder—if we leave the physical brain behind, including structures like the limbic system, will we still be able to feel emotion?  It seems to me that emotion is what links us to other people and those linkages are actually what makes life worth living.  Without emotion, we would be just drifting through life, bored stiff.  (That seems to be what’s wrong with psychopaths, they can really only feel anger and an occasional stab of vindictive pleasure when they think that they have “won” something.  They are drawn to risk-taking behaviour in order to feel any arousal at all, just to combat dreadful boredom.  They have no ties to humanity, which leads to inhuman behaviour*).  I have come to realize how much our emotions depend on brain wiring and on brain hormones—if I’m ever offered the chance to download my brain into a computer of some kind, I think I’ll be declining for that very reason. 
            Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spending so much time with friends lately, as Christmas approaches, but I’m appreciating those bonds of friendship especially strongly right now.  The thought of leaving emotion, friendship and conscience behind doesn’t appeal.  Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that it is a choice that I will be forced to make in the near future.

*See The Sociopath Next Door : the ruthless versus the rest of us by Martha Stout (New York : Broadway Books, 2005).

Monday, 19 December 2011

By the Pricking of my Thumbs...

Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Ray Bradbury had me with this title, a quote from one of my favourite plays by the Bard.  I’ve always been fond of MacBeth and quote from it far more often than I probably should.
            How did I miss Mr. Bradbury during my youthful pursuit of science fiction?  I guess it’s a function of growing up on a farm, outside a rather small town.  My sources of reading material were sparse.  There was the school library (which actually contained a lot of lovely surprises), there were the book racks in the local stores and on occasional trips to larger centres, and there was the Edmonton Extension Library, a wonderfully haphazard source of ideas.  As a farm family, we were deemed eligible for the loan of boxes of reading material from the University of Alberta Library in their extension program.  My mother, as an adult, had the right to ask for certain titles, authors or subjects.  As a child, I was expected to take what entertainment the librarians were willing to send me, although I did make a few research petitions which they kindly granted.  It was a very exciting day when I was deemed old enough to choose my own reading material and I scrutinized the printed sheets of titles like a compulsive gambler studying the list of horses at the track.  I was finally able to move on from the diet of fairy tales, Greek mythology and children’s literature that someone else considered to appropriate for my age group.  I often wonder, actually, who the librarian was who considered some of these blood thirsty fairy tales (I didn’t get the politically correct nonsense published today) and gory Greek mythology (once again, not the sanitized versions) perfect reading material for a young farm girl.  I would love to be able to thank her.
            But, even with those lists to choose from, I was limited by what I already knew and what librarians thought to put on the lists.  I certainly got a liberal education but there were paths that I didn’t even know were there to be followed.  I remember being gobsmacked in my twenties when I discovered bird field guides—there were ways of learning which bird you had seen and they all had names!  The power of the book!
            Add to that the randomness of the book sellers of the sixties.  When you live in a conservative environment, science fiction is not likely to be valued and therefore is not well stocked in the stores.  It was so unlike our current world of online sales where a few keystrokes can find all kinds of enticing possibilities and the ones that are chosen can be mailed virtually anywhere.  Not to mention what’s available online.  This availability of information and ideas must be the next big thing to transform our society.
            I think this is something that Ray Bradbury and I could agree on if we were to meet for a coffee someday.  Ideas and the art forms that spread them are important.  One of the reasons that science fiction has been so successful is precisely because it has not been taken too seriously.  It’s been a way for one intelligent sector of society to communicate serious ideas to one another in the midst of a rather anti-intellectual society.  Look at Gene Roddenberry, hiding racial equality ideas in plain sight in Star Trek, where it could be claimed “it’s just fiction” if necessary.  And the bigots of the world can be convinced that art is unimportant and unthreatening, although we all know that it is great ideas, not hatred, that transform the world.
            I also think fondly of another of Bradbury’s novels, Fahrenheit 451, which celebrates the written word (and which I read just recently).  This book blew me away, acknowledging as it does the place of literature, art, music and the appreciation of nature as things to be pursued, cherished, remembered and protected.  Bradbury became a prophet to me, having created a society in which people surrounded themselves with giant television screens and watched incomprehensible reality shows which were programmed to insert their names at points in the script.  “The Family.”  Everyone was working to afford four such screens in order to surround themselves with unreality.  Don’t tell Hollywood—I think they’ve got us halfway there already!  But surely they can’t program us to prefer empty crap to real ideas?  Can they?
            Actually, if you judge the importance of a book by its impact on your life, Fahrenheit 451 came at just the right moment to influence one of my own choices, that to do without television.  When read in succession with George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, these three books can cause a person to stare suspiciously at her television!  However, I am comforted that since disconnecting my cable, no helpful comrade has shown up at my house to assist me to get reconnected!  It’s been four months now and I think I have escaped from the cultural brainwashing!
            SWTWC reiterates some of the key ideas in Fahrenheit—and adds humour and the ability to laugh to the arsenal of the good people of the world.  Laughter is the silver bullet that finally defeats the evil of the tale, although it is assisted along with way by literature and friendship.  The weapons of the intelligent, reasoning few against the torrent of intolerance, misinformation and mind-numbing tripe produced and marketed as entertainment, or worse, as news. 
            As long as people keep on reading, writing, producing and appreciating art, going to plays, hiking, studying nature and being interested in the sciences and most importantly, laughing, we are okay as a species.  We are demonstrating our humanness and the warmth of human connectedness to each other and to our wonderful world.  It gives me hope for the future.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Sirens of Titan

I was introduced to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut when I was in my twenties by one of my closest friends.  I’m not sure why his writing spoke to me so clearly at that time.  Possibly because he dealt with so many issues that I thought were my problems exclusively:  what the heck are we here for?  Is feeling this lonely normal?  How do you manoeuvre your way through life successfully?
            I do remember reading his collection of essays called Palm Sunday and having a minor revelation—everybody feels lonely from time to time and one of the tasks of an adult is to learn to cope with it.  For years, I re-read that book for that same nugget of comfort.  I was not alone in my aloneness and I felt better able to deal with it as a result.
            Many people object to Vonnegut on the basis of his language and general lack of decency.  In this day and age, when you’re like to hear the f-bomb wherever you go, I would think that the objections to his vocabulary are on the decline.  And I always felt that he was pointing out the hypocrisy of “decent people” who were willing to overlook the needy, the lonely and others less fortunate while busy congratulating themselves on what decent human beings they were.    Because these people never swore they somehow thought that this made them more worthy than the rest of us.  To me, his writings convey the need for all of us to be more thoughtful and kind to everyone we encounter, not for religious reasons, but because of our shared humanity.  We are all in this together, as Red Green would say.  It’s something we still need to learn—just ask the folks who go to the homeless shelters in your community.
            The Sirens of Titan is another iteration of these ideas.  What are we here for?  Apparently to provide a spare part for a spaceship from Tralfamadore for the alien robot Salo.  Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China are both messages to him from the planet of Tralfamadore, assuring him that he is not forgotten.  To me, this was a reminder that perhaps we shouldn’t be too serious in our pursuit of meaning.  We are all just guessing about life’s purpose and with that realization, we should forbear shoving our guess down everybody else’s throats.  Their guesses are as good as ours. 
            In these days of turmoil, when strong religious opinions are causing wars and long-lasting conflicts (that no one is willing to call war), it’s worth questioning our purposes for being involved.  I’ve also been reading Getting it Done: the art of stress free productivity by David Allen.    I’ve appreciated his clarity on how to keep a project from bogging down: 1) know the purpose of the project (why are you doing it?) and 2) know where you want to end up (what end product will make everyone happy?).  I think that today’s governments tend to get involved in a reactive way rather than a proactive way—they may have a hazy sense of purpose and after they’re involved, they suddenly realize that they’re not sure how to declare a success.  What constitutes success in these missions?  When neither purpose nor successful outcome is clear, the project/armed conflict is doomed from the beginning.
            On the plus side, it does seem like the Arab Spring that took place this year has made Western democracies re-examine their foreign policies and more carefully consider which leaders they consider allies.  Will we continue to support stable governments run by despotic murderers just because stability is more comfortable than instability?  Or will we support democratic movements, even when they may elect people that we don’t like?  (For instance, Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). 
            When it comes right down to it, we are all human and all citizens of the same planet.  A striking number of astronauts have returned from space with the conviction that if everyone could see the earth from space, that human society would change.  They are struck by the smallness of our planet in the vastness of space and the lack of boundary lines which we artificially impose on maps.  They return to earth feeling much more like citizens of Earth than citizens of a particular country.  I think this “Human Club” is what Vonnegut is trying to initiate the reader into through his writing.  We aren’t just from Calgary, Alberta or from Indianapolis, Indiana—we are planetary citizens and we should all stick together.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve just finished a re-read of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel—it’s been about 30 years since I last picked it up.  I had remembered it fondly and it did not disappoint me in the least.  It was just as gripping as I remembered it and I stayed up much too last night reading as fast as I could.  This time, I read the unedited volume, longer than the original version that I enjoyed so long ago.  I would be interested to compare the two eventually and see which parts got excised to conform to the sensitivities of the times.  Now it doesn’t seem as racy as it must have in 1961.
            It’s a compelling examination of the nature and purpose of religion, philosophy and the relationship of sexuality to both of them.  Trust me, when you’ve grown up in the Bible-belt of southern Alberta, you can appreciate a fresh eye, especially on the religion and sexuality questions!  Heinlein doesn’t withhold and gives a extraterrestrial’s eye view of all these issues.  The final words seem to me to be: 1) all religions have a little goodness in them and 2) sex is very, very good.  Not a bad message really and it has spawned its own religious movement, The Church of All Worlds, which existed for at least a while in the United States.  Complete with lots of study, nudity and communal living apparently.
            Would Heinlein have been pleased or horrified?  I suspect he may have been a little of both.  There are reports that he briefly corresponded with the founder of the Church of All Worlds, but there is no indication of the content or tone of the communication.  (He’s not alone, either—Frank Herbert’s Dune series has inspired some readers to become “Bene Gesserit” also).  It must be rather flattering to have people connect so deeply with your writing—but also rather worrisome that people are so hungry for some kind of spirituality that they will even adopt science fiction novels as the basis for faith.  Mind you, followers of Star Trek have been using it as a model for life for decades now.  (A female friend and I have a theory that Star Trek is/was an educational tool for nerds, modeling  normal social behaviour and maybe even how to get lucky—just a theory).  And since Heinlein, like many science fiction authors, seems to have had a love-hate relationship with religion in general, I would be interested to know how he felt about this appropriation of his work.
            What truly surprises me, during my foray through the sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, is the complete assumption of the male authors that women are really just a side branch of humanity.  C.S. Lewis, in the third book of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, pretty much directly tells women that they should be raising babies and not worrying about cosmic issues.  (He went way down in my estimation after reading that novel).  Others like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, don’t expressly state this thesis, but it is definitely implied.  The movers and the shakers of their novels are men.  Women feature as a way to move the plot along and as motivators for the central male characters.  They are important because they have babies and the men in these novels haven’t figured out a way to just clone themselves yet (and like Heinlein are willing to see sex as a very good thing).  In other words, we women are a pleasant accoutrement to life, much like the alcohol and tobacco that is ubiquitously consumed in these tales.  (I am particularly fond of the works of H. Beam Piper, in which “happy hour” is considered to be a Terran religious observance by denizens of other planets—but in his fiction women are also just “helpmates” to the men that populate his universe). 
            It reminds me a great deal of the state of the field of Anthropology before many women were involved in it--all the studies of “Man the Hunter” and talk of weaponry & hunting being the primer motivators in evolution.  See Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book The Woman That Never Evolved for a much better discussion of the issue that I could possibly give it.  That is being redressed, as women have doing research (see Meredith Small’s lovely book Female Choice about the female primate’s role in sexuality, for instance).  Finally, issues like friendship and cooperation among primates are being properly addressed.
            It makes me realize just how far we as women have come in the last forty years and the positive effects of feminism.  That rather condescending attitude to femininity is on the decrease, although I think all women of a certain age have experienced it.  (You know the guys—the ones who call you “Little Lady” and assume that you have no intellectual capacity—and then get angry if you actually make good points and receive acknowledgement from others). 
            The other assumption that annoyed me in Stranger was that male sexuality was the model to follow, that it was evolved somehow to be willing to have sex with everyone (of the opposite sex, that is, there was still a taboo against homosexuality).  It was also the basis of sexuality in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which good citizens are required to sleep around and “everybody belongs to everybody.”  In that universe, it was frowned on to become too attached to only one other human.   Goddess knows, this arrangement was tried during the 60s—communes often set up with the intent to live by the “everybody belongs to everybody” credo.  One friend of mine who lived through that stage told me of her experiences—and it seems that it was mostly the men choosing whom to sleep with each night and the women waiting to be chosen--not really a state of equality.   The problem with this assumption is that the human being is naturally programmed to pair up, at least long enough to raise a child to a semi-independent state, about 4 years.  As much as men like to imagine that this tendency will disappear, it has an evolutionary basis—men who stick around their mates for that long will raise disproportionally more children than the ones that gallivant, and evolution notices these details! 
            I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see such wishful thinking in the works of male authors.  I will be interested to read the works of female authors like Ursula K. LeGuin and compare their views on these matters.  I have rather hazy memories of LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which I think postulates an androgynous population that can become either male or female, depending on the circumstances.  (It makes me think of the meeting of hermaphroditic snails, during which each one struggles to be the male and make the smallest contribution, rather than be burdened with the energy outlay required of egg-laying). 
There’s no doubt that men and women are different psychologically and have differing evolutionary goals—otherwise referred to as the battle of the sexes.  At least female roles are given more air time these days.  Just as anthropology was shaken up by women’s contributions, so I hope science fiction has morphed into something more female sensitive that it used to be and that we have escaped from the male-dominated paradigm.  I hope to see evidence of a shift as I read my way forward in time.