sf


This got a little too long for the blog, so it’s on my main page: a review of Tim Powers, one of my favorite sf writers.

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David Lindsay published this in 1920, and Ballantine re-issued it in the ’60s when they and everyone were waiting for Tolkien to finish the Silmarillion. I just re-read it; where Eddison is hit-or-miss, Lindsay is remarkable. Better than the Silmarillion, in fact.

I made the map below for my own use when I read it as a teenager. I wish I had a ball-point pen that fine today.

tormance

Lindsay has had many admirers, of many types: Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, Harold Bloom, C.S. Lewis. Lewis notes that a reader may appreciate the weirdness shown in the first chapter, but will expect that it can’t be sustained:

Tormance, when we reach it, he forbodes, will be  less interesting than Tormance seen from the Earth. But never will he have been more mistaken. Unaided by any special skill or even any sound taste in language, the author leads us up a stair of unpredictables. In each chapter we think we have found his final position; each time we are utterly mistaken. He builds whole worlds of imagery and passion, any one of which would have served another writer for a whole book, only to pull each of them to pieces and pour scorn on it. The physical dangers, which are plentiful, here count for nothing: it is we ourselves and the author who walk through a world of spiritual dangers which makes them seem trivial.

Lewis is quite right. But let me step back a moment and set up the plot. Some posh Londoners are having a séance— the psychic, Mr. Backhouse, is a dour, uncharismatic man who promises a spectacle and duly produces one: a man materializes in the room. But an uninvited guest, Krag, mocks the apparition and snaps its neck. He then goes up to one of the other guests, Maskull, and asks him, “Wouldn’t you like to see the land where this sort of fruit grows wild?”

Maskull is interested enough to follow the man outside, along with his friend Nightspore. (Yes, Lindsay’s names are rather gothic.) Krag explains that he and Nightspore are traveling to Arcturus— specifically to its planet Tormance.

Well, it wouldn’t be much of a story if Maskull declined. He and Nightspore travel to a Scottish observatory where the trip is to start. Putting aside some atmospheric intrigue (the place seems long deserted): Krag appears with bullet-shaped vessel. They will use “Arcturan back-rays” to travel. These are light rays that strain to return to their source; they are used to propel the vessel.  Maskull falls asleep on the journey.

He wakes up naked and alone in a red desert, with scattered purple plants. Tormance is larger than Earth, so the gravity is overwhelming. Fortunately a native rescues him— a woman named Joiwind. By sharing blood, he is enabled to stand up and walk.

Tormance is one of the strangest planets in sf. Lindsay is no scientist, but he has plenty of striking ideas. The inhabitants are humanoid, but they— and Maskull— develop special organs: extra eyes, tentacles. One belongs to a third sex, the phaens, and gets new pronouns (ae, aer). There’s water you can walk on, terrain subject to brutal rearrangements, horse-sized insects, wheeling three-legged animals, trees that trap large animals. There are two new colors: jale and ulfire. You see, there are two suns; one has red, yellow, and blue as its primary colors, and the other has blue, jale, and ulfire. (As it happens, “primary colors” happen in our eyes, not in light, but it’s actually correct that if you had the receptors to see extra colors, you’d get them in pairs.)

(If you’ve read Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis’s sensoriness owes something to Lindsay. Most sf authors want to get down to colonizing or shooting or whatever, and neglect to tell us what it’s like to be on a completely alien planet.)

The structure of the book is episodic: Maskull meets one or two natives, talks with them, often develops whatever local organs they have. (Some of these special organs account for everyone’s ability to speak to each other.)  More importantly, each of the natives expounds an entire way of life, generally completely contradicting whatever the last one believed.

Joiwind, for instance, is a loving and benevolent soul— she has sensed Maskull’s arrival and walked many miles to rescue him. She lives on nothing but water, believing that even to strip a leaf off a plant is criminal. On the other hand, he soon meets Oceaxe, who comes from a land where the ego is king, and people do only what will benefit them.

If this is beginning to sound like a morality story— no, it’s much deeper and more surprising than that. Lindsay is very unusual in being able to portray characters of wildly differing moralities and let them explain themselves as well as they can. The reader can judge them, but none of them is the sort of cardboard figure that most authors produce when depicting someone of an ideology they dislike. Generally Maskull learns to act in accordance with the local mores; as he is a new element, this often leads to change and tragedy. He keeps moving, looking for answers. Here there’s a society of men only that despises all pleasure; here’s an musician whose art is so powerful that it kills anyone who listens to it; here’s a phaen who is driven to find a spiritual underground world though it is sure to kill aer…

All of this works surprisingly well: Lindsay doesn’t run out of novel philosophies, nor odd characters to explain them, and Maskull is a perfect foil— each encounter changes him, not always for the better, and compels him to act.

The show has to end somewhere, and one might presume that the final chapter contains Lindsay’s final point of view. What’s presented is a sort of Gnosticism— the universe is described as created by one god, but corrupted by another. And maybe that’s exactly what Lindsay believed— but I doubt it; books meant to end with a particular ideology of any kind usually get there much faster, and treat the alternatives far less graciously. Though Lewis talks about him “pouring scorn” on each viewpoint as he leaves it, that’s not the feeling I get. I don’t think Lindsay is writing a Gnostic tract with instructive moral tales about the failures of non-Gnostic approaches. It’s more like a catalog: look, here’s how the self-sacrificing and compassionate Joiwind speaks and acts; here’s how the entirely self-serving Oceaxe thinks and lives.

I didn’t find the last chapter satisfying, but I’m not sure what would have worked instead.  Tales of spiritual journeys are interesting only until the point when the protagonist has all the answers: even if you accept the final destination, the genre is about the doubts and slips along the way.

As well, up to that point the book succeeds despite almost entirely ignoring the normal notions of plot and character. Maskull wants to find out all he can about Tormance and its God or gods. That sets up the catalog, but it’s not a plot, and a childish part of me rebels at the end because, as a plot, the end makes no sense. Oh well… I usually find the endings of video games unsatisfying too.

Edit: There’s one near-constant in the ideologies Lindsay catalogs: suffering and sacrifice. That’s the one bedrock value that he seems to have, and it’s why so many of the stories end in death: the only worldviews worth having, to him, are the ones you’d die for. Almost the only exception is the land of egotists (including Oceaxe), and it’s hardly necessary to add any moral condemnation there; he simply shows the natural consequences of their views.

I should warn modern readers of one thing— Lindsay likes to play with gender essentialism. This doesn’t mean that he’s misogynistic (though some of his characters are). If anything, he does well with his female characters— and this is a rare classic sf novel which has plenty of them. And it’s worth remembering that feminism, circa the seventies, used to dip heavily into gender essentialism itself. But it’s in disrepute today, for good reasons— no one should be limited by what someone else thinks their sex should be like.

Since I quoted Lewis’s disparaging remarks on Lindsay’s style, I should also add that I don’t agree. I find Eddison’s style disagreeable; Lindsay is straightforward and quite readable. The wonder is in the ideas; there’s no need for him to dress up the style as well.

It’d be interesting to make the book into a video game. Faithfully, I mean— at least, as faithfully as it could be done without a monitor that can properly render jale and ulfire. It’d mostly be a walking (and talking) simulator. Imagine having to walk across the desert with Joiwind, for maybe an hour, and if you stop too many time to talk to her you both weaken and die.  I think it’d be a big big hit.

 

I just finished this, the 2010 novel by N.K. Jemisin.  It’s great. I wonder if in India it’s known as One Lakh of Kingdoms.

jemisin

The story: one Yeine, is chieftain of Darr, an insignificant barbarian nation somewhere in the north. But the entire world is subject to a single clan, the Arameri. She is summoned to the capital, where the aged patriarch of the Arameri informs her that she is now his heir. She knows a bit about world politics: she asks, doesn’t he already have an heir?  Oh, yes, two of them; they will fight out who will succeed him.

It’s a nice setup: as an outsider, Yeine is placed to discover how this strange and cruel clan operates (and explain it to us), and it looks like it’s going to be involve a lot of power struggles. And it does, though the story has a way of shaking itself and twisting into new forms, each time raising the stakes for Yeine and everyone else.

For one thing, Yeine is not quite so much a nobody as it seems at first. Her mother was Arameri, and was once the heir to the empire. But she renounced this position and went off to live with the man she’d fallen in love with, in Darr. (Yeine takes after her father, so she is brown-skinned where the Arameri are white.)

For another, there are gods involved, and not remote ones. Much of the story involves coming to understand the theology and history of the gods, so I won’t explain in detail. But the power of the Arameri over the world is because several of the gods are enslaved to them.

I think the thing I like the most about the book is how thoroughly it’s suffused with gods and magic. The Arameri believe they rule the world justly, but they’re ancient and corrupt and nasty. But they would be, with the power of gods at their fingertips. There are human plots for Yeine to worry about, but there are also divine plots.  She spends most of the book as a detective, uncovering each of them.

At one point she asks a counselor if there’s any important politician or family member yet to meet. He says no, not really, she’s met them all. Which isn’t very naturalistic, but it makes excellent narrative sense. There’s about half a dozen humans and about the same number of gods to worry about, and that’s quite enough. We don’t learn about very many of the hundred thousand kingdoms, but that’s just as well; it lets Jemisin close out the story in just over four hundred pages.

It turns out to be the first book in a trilogy, but I suspect Jemisin herself didn’t know that when she wrote the final words.  It doesn’t read like 1/3 of a story; it’s complete in itself and would be hard to continue in a conventional way.  (I haven’t read the next book, but I know that it has a different protagonist.)

If you haven’t read her, she doesn’t write anything like Neil Gaiman, but her material is similar: the mixture of mortals and gods, the deeply human motivations and imperfections of the gods.

There’s also something deeply subversive about the book— which is refreshing in a work of fantasy, which too often is enamored of old stone keeps and the old stony-faced tyrants within. All power is suspect here, including the gods’. At the same time, it’s not just that everything is weird and corrupt, as in China Miéville. The Arameri are presented as complex characters; only one is truly villainous. And Yeine is driven by the hope that at least some of the world’s ills can be put right.

When Against Peace and Freedom came out, I promised to create a conlang if I sold 200 copies.  That goal was reached awhile back; in fact the total now stands at 346. (Which is still, well, suboptimal. The LCK, by contrast, has sold over 10,000 copies.)

mars-month

But no matter, I decided to create Hanying, the language of Areopolis, and it’s finally done!  In fact, you really get three languages for the price of one:

  • Old Hanying, the English-Chinese pidgin that develops later in this century
  • Hanying Creole, the creole of a hundred years later, largely relexified from Brazilian Portuguese
  • Modern Hanying, the descendant of those languages 2700 years later, in Morgan’s time

Here’s a quick comparison. First, Old Hanying, where you can see the English and Chinese roots directly:

Xuputi xwo Fat “Xirtsun, bai kamyen, yo ženmin ma, dei meibi tiŋ dis xik, dei zhende xinren?”
Subhūti say Buddha / (World-lord), in future / have people Q / they maybe hear this teach / they true believe
Xirtsun represents Mandarin shìzūn and did not catch on in general.
Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Lord, will there be people who, hearing these teachings, have real faith in them?”

Next, Hanying Creole, which introduces many Portuguese words:

Xuputi xo ButaDonu, vo ta žẽči ke, tiŋ dis xik da ae sĩ krer da?”
Subhūti say Buddha / lord / future have people Q / hear this teaching sub and yes believe sub

And finally Modern Hanying, where sound change has ruined everything, and a mass of agglutinated verb particles have fused to form an intimidating verbal complex:

Subuti ləzešó soʔ Boz, “Orad, ləyoméžai uyeʔ lesəd šeso ləyozíŋar jerə ləyokəyér kæš?
Subhūti 3-past-say to Buddha / honored / 3-fut-irr-exist pl-person this teaching 3-fut-hear-sub true 3-fut-believe-sub and

Still to come: the 50th century alphabet.

They are still making Star Wars movies, did you know?  This one is called The Last Jedi. I talked about the previous film here.

EP8-135323_R

Giving Luke a piece of her mind, and boy does he need it

Overall: this was great. It’s the first movie since the first that shakes things up and tries new things. Plus, I think it has the lowest cheese ratio of all the movies.  If you think the original movies weren’t cheesy, you’ve just forgotten.  Joel and the bots would have a field day with all of them. Last Jedi is still an adventure movie, of course, not Truffaut. But it takes itself seriously, tells multiple stories comprehensibly, never relies on people being idiots, and has some great action sequences.

Let me make it clear right away that I love the fact that Star Wars is finally foregrounding women, black folks, and Asians. It is, after all, a saga about fighting space Nazis. It ought to offend alt-righters.

The movie actually has a couple of themes, which is two more than an action movie generally needs or gets. One them is failure. Like The Empire Strikes Back, this is the middle picture of a trilogy, and has to get Our Heroes into deeper trouble. Which means it has to have heroic acts but ultimately end in failure. But all the failures are part of character arcs, and none are quite as Chaotic Stupid as trusting Lando in ESB.

The other is how to handle legends. This is kind of metatextual, but that doesn’t make it any less a valid lesson. The biggest mistake of all, it turns out, is treating Luke as a savior figure.

It’s disconcerting, of course, that Luke doesn’t want to be a hero any more. But, well, this is a far more mature and interesting approach than having him be the new Yoda and happily teaching Rey. Plus, you know, the movie explains its point pretty well: Luke feels he fucked up with Kylo Ren.  And he did. Once again, Mr. #2 Sith Lord is a failed Jedi. It may be extreme to decide to can the whole Jedi/Sith thing, but you can see why he thinks that way.  And he does get to have his time of redemption at the end.

Edit: Someone on Mefi had a great observation: if you think Luke is insufficiently heroic in Last Jedi, your real problem is with The Force Awakens, which sets it up: already Luke was absent from the fight, in exile. But people didn’t think through at the time what that meant.

The Rey/Kylo scenes are where the film takes its biggest risk. There’s a moment in ESB where Vader tempts Luke, but we don’t believe it for a second. Lucas could not think of anything Vader could offer that was worth listening to; the Dark Side was just Eeevil. Kylo is sometimes… well, often… a stereotypical out-of-control teenager with anger issues. But it’s a stereotype that exists for a reason, and it makes him more human and more interesting than Lord Eeevil.

In some ways Rey falls a little too easily for Kylo. But again, it is absolutely a thing that well-meaning girls fall for edgy boys; it’s far more understandable than Lucas’s attempt to explain Vader. Plus, the idea that the near-personifications of the Dark Side and Light Side of the Force are fascinated with each other is smart. It’s not so much that opposites attract, but that certain opponents care about the same things, and they share experiences that mundane people don’t. (At least one comic, Jay Stephens’s Atomic City Tales, makes use of this: the superhero protagonist starts dating one of the supervillains. You can see that they’d have a lot in common, if they avoid a few topics.)

Plus, all this leads to perhaps the best scene in the movie– the confrontation in Snoke’s throne room. The plot tension is high: we absolutely saw Kylo’s murderousness in the first movie. His turning on Snoke is both surprising and satisfying. It addresses a problem ESB set up but didn’t answer: why didn’t Vader do the same thing? It seems Sith Lords are uniformly terrible managers, and #2 murdering #1 comes with the territory.

Kylo’s little speech about getting past the whole Jedi/Sith thing echoes Luke. It’s not so clear what he thinks he’s doing, but at least that feels like a question we can ask. Vader’s goals (“get another gold star on this year’s annual review”?) were unfathomable.

Plus, of course, that fight scene is fantastic.  Who knew that what Star Wars needed was more red?

The whole Finn + Rose story is fun, not least because what the series is best at is building new heroes, and Finn needs a lot of building. Rose is certainly the most adorable Resistance hero, but she has a core of steel, which turns out to be just the role model Finn needs. It’s odd, but fun, that we get a little heist story in the middle of the galactic epic, and it has another fantastic set piece– the escape on the huge, um, animals.  Not going to Wookiepedia to see what they’re called; I might never get out.

This sequence contains a single line– Rose explaining that the rich people at the casino mostly got their money selling arms to the First Order– that does more work on worldbuilding and analyzing power structures than the entirely of Eps 1-3. And this is later deepened by DJ’s casual demonstration that they sold arms to the Resistance as well. All this is again more sophisticated and nuanced than Star Wars usually gets.

The one thing that the new trilogy has failed to explain is where Snoke came from. Probably some movie will be made to explain that, but maybe it’s just as well if we don’t ever know. We can fill in the details from current events, after all.

Action movies often suffer from “fridge logic”… things you don’t question while watching, but which don’t make sense when it’s over and you head to the fridge. The biggest bits here would be:

  • Why didn’t they pull that lightspeed maneuver earlier, when they could have saved hundreds of people?
  • Why didn’t Holdo have any answer for Poe?  Even “it’s secret” would probably have shot him down.

Some things seem like they might fall under this category, but I’d argue that they’re just bad luck, or the characters’ mistakes. E.g. the whole heist sequence ends up failing. That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea (though the complexity of the plan was certainly a strike against it). It was far better planned than, say, the assault on the New Death Star in #6.

Similarly, Poe’s attack on the dreadnoughts at the beginning was risky, but it wasn’t simply idiotic.  They had to show what a Pyrrhic victory was.   Besides, the real idiot was whoever designed the bombers to be that slow.

The biggest surprise is that the Resistance comes so low in this movie. It didn’t seem like the First Order was that close to total victory in the previous film. But, everyone’s character arcs have clicked into place, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

I’ve seen complaints that the movie is too long. I don’t think so, but the timing does get wonky toward the end. There’s a moment of catharsis with Holdo’s maneuver and the big fight scenes on the ship, and then it seems we have another half an hour to go. My notes at this point say “We need a denouement.” But things pick up again, and there’s another nice bit with Luke’s final fight.

One more thought– read Tom & Lorenzo’s piece on Rey’s outfits. Quite interesting, and a demonstration that a lot of thought and thematic savvy goes into things that most watchers won’t even notice.

I’ve always included Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker on my personal list of best sf books, though I hadn’t re-read it in years. I just re-read it, and it’s still up there, with quibbles. If you have a certain kind of mind, it’ll blow it.

andromeda

Stapledon for some reason seems little talked about these days, and yet he’s held up very well. His first major sf work was Last and First Men (1930), which is about nothing less than the two billion years of humanity, starting from now.  “Oh, he’s an optimist,” you’ll jest.  Not at all.  A lot of that two billion years is taken up with devastation and destruction, and the last of eighteen human species peter outs in a sad twilight on Neptune. (I read it, but long ago, so I don’t recall if he really thinks Neptune has a surface.)  His keen sense of the possible destruction of civilization made him a strange outlier in the gung-ho stage of classic sf, but seems more relevant than ever today.

That two-billion chunk of human history is briefly retold in Star Maker (1937), in about a page and a half: by the standards of Star Maker, that timespan and that story are a trifle. I can’t think of any other book with the scope of this one. Its structure is reminiscent of that amazing film Powers of Ten, in that each chapter takes a wider viewpoint than the last.

A man runs out of his house and up the hill, apparently after a quarrel with his wife, and lies down on a hill looking up at the stars. He starts imagining the Earth in space, and then his imagination becomes real— he finds himself a disembodied viewpoint in space, with the ability to move around at vast speeds, but unable to return to Earth.  He is a little alarmed at this— the quarrel wasn’t that serious— but decides he’d better keep going and see what there is to see.

The best scientific opinion of the 1930s was that planets were created when two stars approached each other, a rare event; thus it takes him a long time to find a star with planets. Fortunately he finds one that’s inhabited.  Later he realizes that this is no coincidence: he was led psychically to a world much like his own.  (I borrowed this idea in my meta-thinking about Almea.)

He sees an alien peasant working in a field, and eventually realizes that he can see through another mind’s senses, and even communicate telepathically.  He explores the planet this way, but the aliens are troubled by his communications.  One of them complains to a philosopher, whose name is Bvalltu.  Bvalltu “cures” the man by inviting the alien visitor to come with him instead, and the narrator gratefully accepts.  They get to know each other, become friends, and then learn to travel telepathically together.

But the characters of the book are not individual people; they’re species. Bvalltu’s planet gets a fairly thorough treatment, but the next planets they discover are covered more briefly.  Stapledon has some fun imagining more and more unusual forms of sapients.  There are avians, intelligent ships, a symbiosis between ichthyoids and arachnids, plant-men, and others. On each planet the group stays for awhile, studies and interacts, and then moves on, often joined by one of the locals.

At this point, they are attracted to planets at a certain stage of crisis. In Stapledon’s terms, the crisis is always whether the species will be destroyed by individualism, or push through to a new form of community. When and where he was writing, in 1937 Britain, the choices were stark and unappetizing: uncompromising communism, reactionary fascism, or a weak and muddled liberal democracy. After WWII, this seemed outdated for awhile; sf futures were almost all a benign future ’50s America.  Today Stapledon (like Orwell) is looking better than ever. There’s no future in reactionary hatred and ecological destruction, and yet it seems to be terribly hard for our species to tear itself away from those paths.

Again, Stapledon is no optimist.  His view is that most species don’t make it; they collapse back into barbarity or destroy themselves. But some figure it out, and create utopias.  He posits that telepathy is used, or created, so that individuals can remain themselves, and yet contribute to a species-wide mind.

Ah, but we’re only halfway through; these are merely the players for later drama.  A species that reaches this stage will spend some happy centuries reorganizing itself, rearranging its genome and its stellar system to its liking, and developing in culture. Eventually it turns to the larger galaxy, and here conflict reappears.  Can it encounter other species as equals, or does it insist on absorbing them into its own system?

This leads to interstellar wars, and eventually the fighting empires merge into a galactic empire— still a utopia for its citizens, but intent on gobbling up every other entity in the galaxy. However, one of the Magellanic clouds has developed another way, advancing further on the way to community.  They are dominated, as it happens, by that symbiotic culture of ichthyoids and arachnids.  The symbionts intervene, telepathically undermining the imperials.  This leads to the emergence of a galactic society and an incipient galactic mind.

A mere side point in Stapledon: this is the first book to mention what were later called Dyson spheres, structures which capture all the output of a star for sapients’ use. (They do not have to be solid spheres.)

The galaxy now begins exploring the rest of the universe, but runs into a serious problem: the stars themselves are alive, and start roasting planets.  The world-minds, you see, had the idea of sending entire star-systems to other galaxies.  Being moved about by their own planets seems baffling and wrong to the sentient stars, who react with confused violence.  By the time this is sorted out, time is running out— the cosmos is growing old, and there is limited time left.  Still, it’s possible to proceed to the next stage, a cosmic soul.

There have been references throughout to the Star Maker, the ultimate creator; the narrator and his companions half expect that once the cosmic soul awakens, it will be able to perceive and respond to the creator, and be accepted as its companion.  That would be a little too dreamy: the cosmic soul does reach out to the Star Maker— but is rebuffed.  The Star Maker, in effect, perceives the soul of the cosmos, analyzes it and appreciates it… then puts it aside.  The cosmic soul persists as long as it can (the suns are going out, but fusion is prolonged in artificial stars; the typical surviving species are now intelligent swarms of worms or bugs living on the surface of these structures).

Finally Stapledon considers the Star Maker itself, from an extra-cosmic perspective, creating one universe after another, moving from simple to more complex creations. Our cosmos is neither early nor late, but is considered the first work of the creator’s mature period.

After all that, the narrator’s vision breaks off, and he finds himself back on the hill looking at the stars.

Whew.  You can probably see why this book has influenced most of the classic sf writers, but not been imitated. It’s not a book you could turn into a blockbuster movie, with a part for Harrison Ford and quips by Joss Whedon. Stapledon by no means forgets about individuals; he is always emphasizing that his world-minds are composed of individuals going about their daily lives, and concerned with their maximum happiness. But his focus is on entire worlds, and on ascending the dizzying scale of astronomical time and space.

On a re-reading, I think that Stapledon’s prose works, but is sometimes too academic. He can write passionately, and insert vivid details, but he doesn’t have the precision of Borges or the wit of Stanisław Lem (perhaps his closest peers). He spends a little too much time talking about how he can hardly describe the concerns of lofty super-intelligences or the cosmic soul… well, sure, who could? Fortunately he goes ahead and does it anyway, and it’s fine. You have to be bold with this sort of thing.

From Wikipedia, I learn that C.S. Lewis didn’t like Stapledon’s philosophy (though he admired his inventiveness), and partly wrote his Space Trilogy in response. More than half a century on, their quarrel seems slim. Lewis of course preferred the personal god of Christianity, who may be awe-inspiring but is still fuzzy and loving. If Lewis was here, however, I’d remind him that he’d written A Grief Observed and wondered if God was “a cosmic sadist”. Stapledon wonders the same thing.  They would disagree on whether “God is Love”, but Stapledon sees the attractiveness of the idea, and Lewis well understood why someone would be troubled by the suffering God permits in the world.

(If you can’t stand the idea of a god at all… well, just take it as a possible advanced cosmology. The cosmic soul has to have something to think about.)

Stapledon tries to stay true to astronomy (e.g., he does not posit faster-than-light travel, though he does allow telepathy); but of course astronomy has changed since he wrote. His account of the stellar life cycle is wrong, for instance— he thinks that our star started as a “red giant” and cooled into a dwarf, whereas today’s prediction is that the sun will become a red giant in about 8 billion years.

He also places the formation of the universe 200 billion years ago, though he acknowledges that this might be an overestimate. It is; the current estimate is that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old. On the other side, modern science allows far grander expanses of future time than Stapledon: he expects the stars to last for about 75 billion more years, while we now expect star formation to continue for between 1 and 100 trillion years. It’s interesting to speculate what Stapledon would have made of black holes, dark matter, and the possibility that our universe could generate new universes via quantum tunneling.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.  It’s sf for geeks who like their sense of wonder expertly, scientifically frobbed. And these days it’s refreshing to find a classic sf work which veers purposefully away from Imperialism or Capitalism In Space.

 

I came across this interview with Eric Weinstein, and it got me thinking. Weinstein is an advisor to Peter Thiel, and– wait, come back!  I know Thiel is the embodiment of everything wrong with late capitalism, but the article is only half that. It’s deeply weird and doesn’t quite know what it wants, but it does have some interesting things to say about the frivolity economy.

Candy_LargeWide

His thesis, more or less, is that capitalism should be more disruptive, and also combined with socialism. But let’s start out with the strong bit: his critique of American education.

The problem is that we have an educational system that’s based on taking our natural penchant for exploration and fashioning it into a willingness to take on mind-numbing routine. This is because our educational system was designed to produce employable products suitable for jobs, but it is jobs that are precisely going to give way to an economy increasingly based on one-off opportunities.

Now, this isn’t entirely right. It’s not that routine is the goal of education; it’s that mass education in any form involves teaching things the kids don’t care to learn at that moment. Kids actually learn quite readily if they happen to love the subject.  Plus, sometimes you can’t get to the good parts without mastering the boring bits. You can’t learn quantum mechanics without learning calculus; you can’t read Sanskrit literature without mastering Sanskrit morphology.

But Weinstein has a point.  Traditional societies didn’t educate the majority at all.  Industrial society educates everyone because manufacturing and service jobs require a high level of literacy, and jobs will resemble school in many respects… often, the unattractive respects: lots of routine and rules; mindless obedience; doing things you are not personally interested in because it’s Your Job.

You can see how this sort of education and a certain sort of society fit together nicely in the career of … my Dad.  He was bright and did well in school, though he never went to college.  He started as an assistant pressman at a major printing company, rose through the ranks to management, and ended up as an executive, an expert on technical printing problems.  He not only stayed in one industry, he stayed in one company. It was a pretty good life for him, and a definite step up from his father, who was a carpenter.

Now, late capitalism has nearly destroyed that sort of career– especially for those who never make it to management.  Weinstein takes the view that predictable, medium-affluent working class jobs are over, presumably because those are ripe to be automated.

At this point many give up and conclude that humans are worthless, or at best should just be given a stipend while the robots do all the work.  Weinstein says instead that humans should do what they’re best at: handling one-time events. Or with less jargon: doing things that aren’t easily automated, because they require adaptability and creativity.  For him this means technologists and finance people, but also inventors, artists, and writers.

I’d actually make this category far broader– see my list of professions unlikely to be taken over by AIs. It’s interesting to speculate what sort of education would focus on these skills, rather than those required to be an accountant or an assistant pressman.

This is also about the point where Weinstein dissolves into a messy set of contradictions. He’s obviously been talking to too many venture capitalists: he tells us “certain fields will need to undergo a process of radical deregulation to give the minority of minds that are capable of our greatest feats of creation the leeway to experiment and to play.”  Unreflective Thiel-worship, in other words.  Haven’t those people done enough damage?  But!  He also thinks we need to recognize the “dignity, well-being, and health” of the 90%.  He mentions a universal basic income, but so far as I can see, his bright idea is that this is tied to having jobs that aren’t necessarily marketable.  So, you can be a playwright or something, and still get paid enough to live on, and this is somehow valuable dignified recompense but it’s not, y’know, welfare.

The interview ends with Weinstein’s assurances that the Very Powerful are thinking very hard about inequality these days. And this of course is complete nonsense.  His boss, Thiel, supports the GOP, whose first order of business right now is not subsidizing playwrights, but handing the super-rich another five trillion dollars.  Whatever the super-rich say to Weinstein at cocktail parties is not the truth of their secret benevolent hearts; it’s the bullshit they tell the 10% to hide what they are really doing to the rest of us.

(As a side point, I’m not saying that the super-rich are all evil plutocrats.  Only half of them are!  Once they have all the money, quite a few rich men develop other interests, including improving the world. The class to be terrified of is the moderately rich: the mere millionaire.  They’re the ones who need more money and can’t understand any value but money and vote consistently Republican.)

What’s interesting is that there’s a bright future we could have— if we chose to pursue it. Thinkers of the early 20th century couldn’t see past the mass of uneducated peasants in their societies.  Aldous Huxley couldn’t see any alternative to keeping around a class of “Epsilon Semi-Morons”; Orwell couldn’t imagine anything nicer than spreading around the wealth such that everyone could eat but no one could go to a restaurant.  But postwar America and Europe turned out very differently from either vision.  It turned out that everyone could have a way better job than peasant, and everyone could go to restaurants.

And similarly, lots of people can’t see a future right now that doesn’t include masses of factory jobs.  They fixate on what ex-factory workers could do, and all that comes to mind is, well, factory work.  But the world is actually quite rich, and AI could make it far richer.  You really could put everyone to work doing things that are today only open to the 10%.

The thing is, you don’t do this by deregulation, disruption, and giving the super-rich more money.  Weinstein’s bosses won’t give us that bright future: no ruling class voluntarily disinherits itself.  They won’t even give us a UBI, because it would cost money.

The tricky bit is, of course, how do we get there from here? Well, it’s not going to be a quick process.  But we can’t even start on it till we 1) shut down the current wave of downright reactionaries; and 2) get rid of plutocracy.

(If you want an idea to rally around, though: UBI isn’t a bad idea, but combine it with Piketty’s 0.5% tax on wealth. You can’t get to the bright future and also keep increasing inequality.)

 

 

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