Saturday, August 6, 2016

Read It, Early August 2016

We're in the "unpleasantly hot" phase of summer here in Michigan, those few days (in most years, just a handful of days; this year, a few more days than usual) in which I avoid spending any unnecessary time outside at all. It's been a long work week and the rest of my family is out of town today. In fact I will only see them Sunday evening, and then Monday morning I will head back down to Ann Arbor for another work week. So I have some quiet time to work on writing, and I'd like to take full advantage of it.

In reality I'm not always able to turn my concentration from one thing to another on a dime, and I find myself spending some of this valuable time in "decompression." I don't always sleep well when I'm away from home, and do my best to eat well but rarely can eat as well as I'd like to. My software development work can be a grind at time, when a supposedly simple development task turns into a minefield of bugs and tool problems. I don't always realize that I've been stressed out and sleep-deprived until the stress goes away and suddenly all I want to do is nap. And while it is nice to get a break from the noise of a whole gaggle of kids once in a while, I've been spending far too little time with my family, and that is stressful in its own way.

I was feeling exhausted and like a cold or allergy attack was coming on. I got back onto my regular diet -- bulletproof coffee for breakfast, and low-carb meals. I got some extra sleep in my own bed. I'm de-stressing just a bit -- just in time to handle the transition as everyone comes home tomorrow!

The Book of the New Sun

I came across audiobook versions of Gene Wolfe's masterpiece. They are odd recordings -- originally made as recordings from the blind, they seem to have been transcribed from 4-track mono cassette at low speed 15/16 inches-per-second. There are instructions to "set the side selector switch" and "turn the cassette over." There is tape hiss and there are moments when the audio drops out, or fades, as old cassette audio sometimes drops out and fades. But in addition to these audible problems, periodically the audio skips and repeats, as if a needle had reached the "locked groove" at the end of a vinyl record. This suggests that the cassette audio, complete with instructions on when to turn the cassette over, may have been transferred to vinyl records.

At this point I simply have to stop and scratch my head in confusion. Were there really unabridged audiobooks of Gene Wolfe's novels, recorded for the vision-impaired, and made available on vinyl records, not just cassette? Each book would have required dozens of records. And if an organization went to all the trouble of pressing records, would they really have produced these LPs from a low-quality cassette, complete with instructions to "set the side selector switch" and "turn the cassette over," rather than from a master tape, without the cassette-specific instructions? The mind boggles, but I suppose stranger things have happened. (If you know, please leave a comment).

Anyway, someone has apparently digitized these audiobooks, and put them on YouTube. The audio quality is, as you'd expect after all these format changes and transfers, including conversion to a low-bit-rate compressed digital audio track, pretty poor. There are a few moments when the audio becomes muffled or even, briefly, drops out completely. Putting these up on YouTube is almost certainly not a legal use of the original recordings made for the blind. But I have enjoyed them a lot anyway, because Roy Avers does a very good job reading them.

His pronunciation of certain unusual words of Wolfe's seems sometimes off to me, and sometimes inconsistent from book to book (for example, he pronounces the word "fuligin" in The Urth of the New Sun as "full-eye-jin," stressing the second syllable, but as "full-ih-jin," stressing the first syllable, in The Shadow of the Torturer. He occasionally picks out a particular voice for a character, then forgets how he voiced that character later and gives that character a different voice.

But these are minor nitpicks. Avers really shines in Citadel, when he takes on the challenging task of portraying the wounded Ascian prisoner, called Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, who speaks only in stock phrases, as he tells a story that is translated from these stock phrases by the character Foila. These passages are a treat to listen to. He even does a good job keeping his energy up when reading some of Severian's long, philosophical digressions, those times when despite claiming that he is a stupid man, he tries to fit all the strange things and events around him into his eclectic world-view.

I have read the whole four-volume novel and the fifth companion book at least three or four times on paper, and so I know it pretty well. It has been a treat to hear it read, and it has helped me to feel less isolated and more alive and engaged these past few weeks. I found that some of the parts of the books I had long considered to be less important, and even boring at times, come alive this way, even Severian's interior monologues -- no, especially Severian's interior monologues, which reveal more clues and connections; it really is a mistake, in terms of understanding the books, to skim these.

There are, I think, a few small flaws and inconsistencies in voice and detail here and there, but for the most part, listening to them has really hammered home to me what an amazingly unified structure work this has. My impression of the books just go up each time I read them. I think there are three true masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy world-building to come out of the last century. There are lots of other significant, interesting, and excellent novels, but in terms of works that really build a complete, convincing world, or universe, there are these three. They are The Lord of the Rings, Dune, and The Book of the New Sun. There are many, many other world-building books that might reach, or almost reach, this level, and that are certainly worth reading -- for example, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, or E. R. Eddison's Zimiamvian Trilogy, or William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, but they will most likely always come in second place, in my estimation.

I'd like to be able to tell you where you can buy a legitimate, legal copy of these audiobooks, but I can't, because you can't. You'll have to go to YouTube and see if you can find them; search for "gene wolfe audiobook." I can't guarantee you'll find them. It's a shame, because it would be great if the Avers reading could be out there for you to legally obtain, transcribed from the original recording in as high-quality a presentation as possible. They should be the standard by which other readings of this work are compared. But I doubt that the licensing arrangements made for his original recordings will ever allow that.

Which reminds me that I really need to dust off my long essay on The Book of the New Sun and try to get it into a state I'm finally happy with; my intention is to include it in one of the book-length essay collections that I'm working on.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

I read Authority, the second book of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. While the first book follows an expedition into "Area X," this book takes place almost entirely in and around the Southern Reach offices. The book follows one character, "Control," John Rodriguez, a man appointed as director of the Southern Reach. We learn about his back-story, his history as a secret operative, and his family history (he comes from a line of secret operatives). We read about his difficult interactions with members of his staff, and his attempts to nail down facts about the expeditions. I wanted to enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed the first one, but unfortunately could not. It has the "middle episode problem" present in many trilogies, in that the plot really can't do very much except take us from the end of the first part to the beginning of the third part. It is evocative here and there, but it really feels like very little happens until the final dozen pages or so.

I have started reading the third part with low expectations. I haven't finished it yet. Already, it is more engaging than the second one. But I think my final verdict will likely be that readers should read the first book, which I reviewed highly in May, and stop there. If that's the case, I'll probably keep Annihilation in my permanent collection and send the other two off to the Goodwill. It isn't actually the case that Authority is a bad book per se, but it certainly suffers in comparison to Annihilation.

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

I have been picking at this book for a while. The author's personal story of domestic violence is compelling. He is "our Nation’s best-known expert on the prediction and management of violence," according to his web site. His book seems dated, in that he talks about stalking and assassination incidents from the nineties, but the basic messages are not dated. It contains a lot of recommendations that seem, after reading them, like common sense -- but a lot of good work is like that, because "common sense" isn't.

It is reassuring, in the sense that the author tells us that our human instincts and intuition are actually very good at warning us about actual threats from other people. So part of the book's message is "trust your instincts." He describes many incidents in which otherwise smart people literally talked themselves out of listening to their intuition, which in many cases is just another name for our ability to pay attention to clues in voice, body language, and behavior. So he makes it seem that much of what he does, when consulting with clients about potential threats, is just to repeat back to them the clues that they have convinced themselves aren't significant.

He also describes many incidents in which institutions were unable to correctly assess threats, which is also troubling. He comes up with some checklists and guidelines for this sort of thing, and I felt that these were less valuable, perhaps, than the anecdotes.

I strongly agree with his recommendation to trust our intuition about threats, and I think his advice about assessing threats in the workplace is excellent, especially when he talks about not knocking down a troubled person's "dignity domino." I also really appreciate his attitude towards guns in the homes, which is fact-based, not propaganda-based.

There's another recommendation he makes, and I've followed it often. He points out the ways in which the television news cycle confuse and mislead us about threats because "if it bleeds, it leads." I find that this is very true, and I feel like I've developed for more insight about news, and politics, and all sorts of current events, by no longer obtaining any information from television coverage, and little from radio. You can get a taste of his writing on the subject here:

I recommend this book, but not strongly. I think some people probably don't need to read it, as they already trust their instincts about threats and they don't indulge in television news. It didn't "change my life," as they say. It's a little disjointed, with chapters that jump around in time and style and which don't do a great job forming a single coherent book.

However, despite these flaws, I think there are a lot of people out there whose life it could change. Many of them are women, who, I think, are generally taught to fear more than men are, and who may have been taught bad strategies -- that is, not fact-based -- for assessing risks and deciding what to fear. If you are living in fear of domestic violence, stalking, street crime, or incidents like that, you should read it. It may help you rearrange your priorities, in a positive, helpful way. I think his stories about what we should actually fear might, as he hopes, help many people live with considerably less fear.

A Few Non-Books

The Dark Knight Trilogy

I've seen a few movies. I watched Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, made up of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. Now, I've got a long-standing beef about watching big movies on a small screen; the small screen (and small speakers) can rob them of all their potency. In particular it has a tendency, at least in me, of turning very exciting action sequences into boring sequences in which toy vehicles chase each other or blow up and produce toy explosions. So my preference is always to see movies like this in theaters if I can.

But I can't often do that these days, and so we watched them at home on a completely unremarkable, very beat-up LG Flatron E2350V computer monitor, and a pair of Roland MA-8BK powered "micro-monitors" that have also seen better days. In fact, one of them has been dropped so many times, by our kids, that the 10cm "woofer" (a speaker hardly worthy of that name) is rattling around loose inside the enclosure (and they are only twenty years old!) We have been taught repeatedly that we can't really have better audio-visual gear until the kids get older, so that situation isn't likely to change, at least for a few years.

Anyway, the movies. I felt that the first was overly long, and I didn't really appreciate the "League of Shadows" back-story, Ra's al Ghul in Bhutan and all that "mysterious wisdom of the ancients" orientalist nonsense. And so while it had its moments, the first film bored me, and not just because I saw it on a small screen.

The second one was more promising; I finally saw Heath Ledger as the Joker, a portrayal that may very well give you nightmares. But it also felt as it if ran too long, and in fact I couldn't bring myself to stay up the last fifteen minutes or so. (I really should go back and watch it again just to watch all of Ledger's work as the Joker. It's amazing).

The third one, surprisingly, I liked much better, and my wife Grace liked it better too. Although it reprises some of the orientalist back-story, and it is also too long, and the whole fusion reactor core thing is more than a little risible, I appreciated Bane and the story twists a lot more than I thought I would. So in fact the whole trilogy ends in a satisfying way.

The Star Trek Fan Collective DVD Collections

I'm going to write about Star Trek a bit now, so wander off and read something else if that topic bores you.

I should explain that I watched Star Trek (the original series) a lot in re-runs as a kid. I saw all the original cast movies in the theater. I watched the premiere of The Next Generation, which launched while I was in college, but as a busy student without a television of my own, I saw episodes of the show only sporadically over the years. I saw the premiere of Voyager, at a premiere party, but missed large chunks of Voyager. I saw the premiere of Deep Space Nine, but again, missed large chunks of the show. In fact there are probably whole seasons of Voyager and Deep Space Nine that I missed in their entirety. Of __Enterprise_, I've seen only a handful of episodes on DVD.

So I think it would be fair to say that I'm not truly a hard-core Star Trek fan.

Of the shows I've seen, I thought (at least at one time) that Deep Space Nine was the most consistent in presentation and screenwriting quality. Specifically, it seemed to have the most well-developed story arc, across multiple seasons, which I appreciated (and still appreciate) in any TV show.

I picked up some of the "Star Trek Fan Collective" boxed sets, for just a few dollars per set. These are sets of episodes taken from the whole history of the series, organized by theme. The collections I brought home are called Borg, Klingon, Q, and Captain's Log.

I've learned a few things, watching these old Star Trek episodes (or, in a few cases, re-watching them).

The first thing should be obvious, but it is this: most Star Trek is not very good, and does not hold up very well as the viewer gets older and (at least hopefully) develops more refined tastes. Sturgeon's law applies:

90% of everything is crud.


The second is that about ten percent of Star Trek is good. Sometimes, quite good. A few episodes hold up very well. Often, they are stand-alone episodes that are not part of a larger story arc. See for example "Darmok" (The Next Generation, season 2).

The third is that it really is not that much fun to watch "story arc" episodes out of order, unless perhaps you are such a hardcore fan that you've repeatedly watched all of the episodes of all of the shows, and so you can jump back in and remember what is going on. I'm not one of those fans.

Anyway, we watched part of the Q collection, which starts out with "Encounter at Farpoint" from Star Trek: The Next Generation.


...tastes can refine or limit as one ages; what may have seemed brilliant to a child or teen would seem crude or laughable to most adults, but the memories of how great something from one's youth seemed linger long afterward, making the familiar examples seem better than more or less equivalent modern ones in comparison.

Wow, was that first episode ever bad. Bad lighting, weird set-dressing, badly edited, dragging dialogue, poor pacing, dumb sets, and too many info-dumps.

I remember watching it when it came out, and thinking even back then that it wasn't as good as I hoped -- but I don't remember it as this bad.

We watched a few Q episodes from The Next Generation and those were a little better, but we decided to skip ahead and watch some of the Q episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.

Wow, was Voyager ever bad.

So we decided to watch some of the Borg collection's episodes. That started out with an episode from Enterprise called "Regeneration."

Wow, Enterprise was... pretty bad. Maybe a little less bad, in terms of acting and production and set dressing and techno-babble and info-dumps and other bugaboos of screenwriting but still pretty bad.

But we pressed on, and watched some of the Borg episodes from The Next Generation and... well... some of them were, maybe, still bad, but had moments that were a little less bad. They have at least some good things to offer. In particular "I Borg" is, if you squint, even slightly moving at times. This is often true in episodes that have guest stars, who can bring in fresh acting chops.

We also watched a few episodes from the Captain's Log collective, including a few episodes of Deep Space Nine. That was a bit of a mistake for reason three. "Far Beyond the Stars" (see is one of those 10%-or-better good episodes, a standalone story that is quite moving. But the next two "fan picks" on the Captain's Log collection are the two parts of the show finale, "What You Leave Behind." Because I have not recently watched (or indeed ever watched) the whole story arc, the finale was pretty incoherent to me. I don't remember very much about the plot lines they were wrapping up. So don't watch them like I did.

Can I recommend these? Not strongly. I think they have a built-in problem, which is that it isn't at all clear exactly what audience they are intended for. The people who might enjoy these "story arc" the most have probably seen everything on them, and those who have not seen everything on them may not be able to enjoy them all that much, because of Sturgeon's Law.

If you are a hardcore Star Trek fan, you probably have these episodes already, in the form of per-season or complete show DVD collections (Deep Space Nine and Voyager seem to be out of print, but you can find used boxed sets for sale).

If you aren't a hard-core fan, you probably want to watch the best standalone episodes of each show, that aren't part of an important story arc and which don't require a lot of context to understand.

The Fan Collective sets are not quite this, because a set like the Borg set is not "the best of the Borg" episodes, but all of them. Those episodes aren't inherently better than other episodes.

But some of the themed sets do contain mostly standalone episodes, I think. There are a couple of the Fan Collective DVD sets that I didn't find for sale. These are the Alternate Realities collection and the Time Travel collection. Maybe these two sets are more fun for a casual fan, because they represent "best-of" collections of standalone episodes.

Or not; I can't really rate them since I haven't seen them. To a casual fan some of those episodes may not be truly standalone; they might present the same "I have no idea what's going on!" problem as some of the episodes on the Captain's Log collection. But I suspect they are better than these sets for a casual viewer.

Which may explain, now that I think about it, why these collections were heavily discounted at my local FYE store, and those two collections weren't there...

And finally,

Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead

In my hopeless quest to re-live my childhood, or at least destroy my own illusions about my childhood, I have long wanted to watch some of the earliest few seasons of Saturday Night Live and Fridays. I've been able to satisfy some of that longing by watching clips on YouTube, but there is a lot of material that is not on YouTube.

I was eight years old when the first season of Saturday Night Live started, in 1975. I don't remember seeing much of it live on the original air dates; I may have seen some bits and pieces, but probably was in bed for most of those shows. But I know that by 1978 (when I was eleven to twelve), I was watching some of it live. There are clips and short films I remember very vividly and I haven't been able to track them down. So I have decided I'm going to try to watch the first three seasons or so, to find some of those moments I so vividly remember, including The Mr. Bill Show.

I came across seasons 1 and 3 for sale at my local music store, for not a lot of money; I think they were $8.00 each or so. I have ordered season 2 from an eBay seller.

In fact I've been watching the first season this weekend. I've found that it isn't really necessary to watch, as such; I can put it on and listen, while I do other things. Most of the humor, to me, is in the dialogue, rather than the visuals. There are a few exceptions. In the December 20, 1975 episode, with Candice Bergen as guest host, there's a very funny and touching wordless sketch featuring Gilda Radner and John Belushi. It's set in a laundromat, where the two of them share a washer, since all the others are in use. It's absolutely hilarious, and even romantic, but not a word is spoken.

Sadly, Gilda Radner and John Belushi... are both... still dead. When I was just a young kid, watching the show, I don't think I ever appreciated Radner, but watching her work now, I think her work on the show is wonderful.

Good Night, and Have a Pleasant Tomorrow

So, as best as I can remember, here are the books I've completed since I last wrote:

  • Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Authority
  • Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear

I'll soon be finishing these:

  • Gene Wolfe, The Urth of the New Sun (Unabridged Audiobook)
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance


Saginaw, Michigan
August 6, 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Read It, Mid-July 2016

The Nightmare Stacks (with Spoilers)

OK, so it's not quite mid-July anymore, but at least it's still July. This one has been waiting for me to finish it. I held off on posting it until I finished reading Eifelheim, the novella, and didn't get that done because I had to put in some long work days... but here I am.

The inimitable Charles Stross interfered with my reading plans by releasing his latest Laundry Files novel, The Nightmare Stacks. When a new Laundry Files novel comes out, I am pretty much helpless to do anything else until I have finished reading it. The series is a little uneven, with deliberate changes in style as Stross experiments with different kinds of pastiche. I think the second book, The Jennifer Morgue, is still my favorite, but not by a wide margin. Anyway, this one is a little slow to get going, but once all the chess pieces are on the board, a lot starts happening very quickly, and it becomes a page-turner.

In this one, the narrator (of some chapters) and point-of-view character (of others) is Alex Schwartz, one of the group of PHANGs from the two-books-ago novel The Rhesus Chart. Alex is a fun character, nerdy and terrified of women, but unexpectedly resourceful. Then there's Cassie. Cassie's an elf. Her people are invading Earth and plan to slaughter or enslave all of humanity. Wait, what?

Stross's version of elves is, I think, at least partly an homage to the late Terry Pratchett's elves, from the Discworld novel Lords and Ladies. They're not cute, although they are attractive, the way a cobra is attractive. Yeah, this book is pretty dark -- they've been getting darker. But it's also quite funny. There is a terrific "bringing the significant other home to meet the parents" scene. There are quite a few callbacks to people and things introduced earlier in the series.

Interestingly, the whole world of the Laundry Files series, unlike the worlds in a lot of other urban fantasy, and soap-opera-ish TV fantasy and science fiction, is going somewhere. Although the Laundry works in secret and is charged with keeping the truth and the general public far apart, enough shit is hitting enough fans that a few cover stories and Men in Black-style memory wipes aren't going to cut it anymore.

We already have an outbreak of superhero powers among the populace. And with this book, we've got the aftermath of a foiled invasion. There was some significant collateral damage. So I am really looking forward to seeing how the Laundry lives up to its name and attempts to clean up this mess. I hear that Bob will feature in the next novel. I have enjoyed the other characters while Bob is on hiatus, but I am looking forward to hearing from Bob again, although because he is now a Very Scary Sorcerer, he can't ever be the same old Bob again!

Eifelheim, the Novella (with Spoilers)

In the last couple of posts, I wrote at some length last time about the novel Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. I mentioned that Eifelheim started out as a novella of the same name, originally published in Analog magazine, in the November 1986 issue.

Back issues of Asimov's and Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the eighties, when a lot of people like me subscribed to them, are not scarce and not very expensive -- you can readily find copies on eBay. So I bought a copy and it arrived in just a few days, and I've now read the original novella. It's pretty short -- about 35 printed pages in the magazine. I didn't count words, but I don't think it could be more than about 20-25,000 words. That puts it pretty squarely into "novella-length," although the exact limits are vague. Wikipedia cites a definition of novella by Warren Cariou:

The novella is generally not as formally experimental as the long story and the novel can be, and it usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view, and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.

That pretty accurately describes the way in which Eifelheim, the novella, differs from Eifelheim, the novel. In the novella, the somewhat mysterious narrator character from the "framework" story of the novel has the stage, and he introduces himself earlier, and we are aware of him as a character. The two main "present-day" characters are there, and the third librarian character, but the point of view never actually shifts to medieval times. We learn about Dietrich and the past events only in scenes that take place in the present.

Flynn is good at writing dialogue that gets across a lot of information while only occasionally seeming like a contrived storytelling info-dump, and that's nice. He does not insult the reader's intelligence and the details fly by relatively quickly, but all the critical plot points are there. There are a few minor differences that I noticed:

  • In addition to the "copper wire" MacGuffin, the novella mentions some metal brackets that the aliens needed humans to make for them. I don't think these are mentioned in the novel at all.
  • In the novel, the alien ship manages to depart, leaving a few aliens behind. We don't learn whether they make it back to their own world (and it is strongly suggested that they likely won't). In the novella, either the ship never manages to leave, or the characters in the present day don't know that it managed to leave, and so they anticipate finding the remains of the ship.

But overall I find it impressive how the novel mostly just deepened and expanded the original, without making any annoying or somehow "incompatible" changes to the overall story.

It is clear that Flynn's ability to write dialogue evolved a bit since 1986, so there are some slightly clunky, slightly cheesy bits of monologue by our narrator character -- although these are less annoying and distracting, to me, than the way in which the narrator character is not fully integrated into the later novel.

Overall this is a well-written science fiction novella, and the ideas are good. I think it's great that Flynn was able to expand the novella into a good, if not quite great, novel as well. If I were teaching a seminar class in how to write science fiction and fantasy, I think it would be a very interesting exercise to take apart these two works, and learn from them. I recommend both of them to anyone who would like to study just how this sort of thing is properly done.


Since last time I finished:

  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Still in Progress

  • Viriconium by M. John Harrison
  • The Story of Earth and Sky by Carleton Washburne, Heluiz Washburne, and Frederick Reed, illustrated by Margery Stocking
  • Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White

Just Started

  • Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 2) by Jeff VanderMeer

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
July 18 and 23, 2016

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Read It, Late June 2016

I’m a little late getting this one posted — I wound up updating it a few times, and then it sat for a while, and I’m posing it on July 6. I’m trying to post at least twice a month, but I’ve fallen short of that recently because most of my spare time has gone into my book project. I’ll try to do better in July.

I’ve finished Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. The comments that follow contain spoilers.

Eifelheim, Continued (Comments Written on June 20, 2016)

In my last post, I described what I saw as an annoying flaw in the narration of Eifelheim, in which the narrator would drop in direct commentary on the events of the story. It turns out that a little later on in the text, the narrator actually outs himself as a character, in the book’s present, around page 195 in the mass-market paperback edition:

And so I came into the affair, although at first only in a peripheral way. I was teaching still at the Albert-Louis, and Tom sent me an e-mail asking me to find the manorial records for Oberhochwald.

So things are getting curiouser and curiouser. With this, existence of the narrative intrusions that occasionally peppered the narrative make a little bit more sense. And now the question “who is this narrator?” is something left hanging for the reader to ponder. I’m reminded more than ever of Wolfe, and hoping that this puzzle actually has a satisfying answer.

Eifelheim, Concluded (Comments Written on June 24, 2016)

Having finished Eifelheim I can put my previous comments in perspective. I must regretfully rate it only a good book, but not a great book.

To review: Eifelheim is a first-contact story, but an odd one; the contact takes place in the years 1348–1349. The alien vessel crashed in Medieval times. But the book is partly set in our own time, or a time near to it, as two scientists uncover clues about the deep past and cosmology, both of which help to explain those past events.

In my previous comments I mentioned the intrusive, overly “knowing” narrator. Flynn does eventually bring the narrator into the story, but only in the last few pages. The narrator’s identity is not actually very important, except that he is sympathetic to Tom, the character researching the lost town of Eifelheim and uncovering the weird mystery of what happened, and ready and willing to assist him.

Because he has such a brief role in the story, I don’t feel that the narrator character’s earlier intrusive comments, where he offers judgments, opinions, and predictions about the main characters, are justified in any sort of storytelling sense. They distract the reader from the “now” of the story, without offering any kind of interesting or surprising reason for the interruption.

If I could edit the book freely, I might remove this narrator character completely, or expand him so that he has more of a presence in the “now” storyline throughout the text, or merge him with Tom. The handful of characters in the “now” storyline of the book are quite thin. In fact, the “now” storyline itself is quite thin, and so fine-tuning it would not even touch the bulk of the book.

Come to think of it, the fact that the “now” interacts so weakly with the main storyline, set in the medieval past, is a weakness of the book.

Eifelheim started out as a novella published in 1986. I have not read that novella, although I am going to track down the magazines it was published in and read it. My impression is that it consisted entirely, or almost entirely, of the “present” storyline. In adapting it into a novel, Flynn wrote a second, much bigger and deeper narrative, and created a narrator to tell it, but that “weak interaction” between the “now” storyline and “then” storyline makes it feel like they don’t really need each other all that much. In fact, I think Flynn could have left the “now” narrative in 1986 and written a very good book about Eifelheim set entirely in 1348–1349.

And while I really like much of the Name of the Rose-like details about medieval life, and the way the author uses languages, there are definitely parts of the text that drag. We come across passages like this:

“So.” Einhardt counted off on his fingers. “Karl holds the Bohemian vote himself, and his brother Baldwin is also bishop of Trier. That’s two. And when House Luxemburg says, ‘frog,’ Archbishop Waldrich asks how high he should jump. Except he thinks he is King of Frogs. Ha-hah! So Köln’s vote makes three. As for the Wittelsbachs… Well, little Ludwig holds Brandenburg, as I’ve said; and his brother Rudolf is Count Palatine, which makes two votes. With Mainz uncertain, both families play court to the other Rudolf, the Duke of Saxe-Wittenberg. Hah! House Welfen holds the balance!”

All I can think of when reading this sort of passage is that, aside from the author, and perhaps one or two readers who happen to be academics specializing in the history of the Middle Ages, no one cares about any of this—not even the character listening to Einhardt.

Nor should they. Some context is necessary to understand the basic events of the story. That required context does not include all the political intrigues of the time and place. This isn’t Game of Thrones. If it were, we might care more, because the Game of Thrones saga is about the various kings, queens, heirs, and bastards. Our story is not about those sorts of characters, and so this kind of digression is superfluous.

Don’t get me wrong—I do like this book quite a bit. I’ve mentioned Wolfe and Eco; it is also reminiscent of The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I’m a big fan of complex novels, and I don’t mind a good digression. Moby-Dick consists almost entirely of digressions. I really enjoyed the philosophical aspects of the novel. The premise is intriguing, and the way the author works out the implications of that premise is top-notch. The book is in large part about not just the events, but the class of cultures and philosophies. I don’t even consider that material to be digression. The dialogue is really at the heart of the novel. I learned some new words from this book: enfoeffed and ferial. I gained a deeper understanding of the medieval mind. That is not a small gift, and so I don’t regret spending my time reading Eifelheim. But it also reminds me that it is high time I re-read The Name of the Rose.

Eifelheim, the Novella

I bought a copy of the November 1986 issue of Analog magazine that contains the original Eifelheim novella. (Some sources online claim that it appeared in the December 1986 issue, but the copy I’ve got in my hand says otherwise). I will read this novella and have some notes on it next time.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

I have re-read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the deeply strange Philip K. Dick novel that inspired the film Blade Runner. In fact, I actually re-read it completely through twice, making notes, and then went back through it a third time typing out additional notes and quotations comprising a chapter-by-chapter summary of the novel, about ten thousand words in length. I’m going to try to turn that into a more condensed summary, and add some analysis, and then that’s going to become part of a longish essay on Blade Runner.

The idea is that this long essay will finish out my collection of film reviews. It will serve as a sort of bridge between the collection of film-only reviews and later collections of book reviews.

Still Pending

I’m just about done reading the second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to my children.

I’ve been reading the first few chapters of Viriconium by M. John Harrison, since the Reddit printSF community is reading it as part of their SF Book Club series. I read Light earlier and found it incoherent and distasteful.

The book is actually a collection of novels and stories; the first one is called The Pastel City. If it matters to anyone, I’m reading the 2005 Spectrum Books trade paperback omnibus edition, the one with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, and cover artwork showing gears and a metallic bird hatching from an egg. I haven’t gotten very far, as the prose is dense and worth slowing down for, but so far I can say that I am enjoying the first novel more than I enjoyed Light.

Harrison says that Viriconium is a “metafictional critique of” and “a deconstruction of” of “epic” fantasy and it is hard for me to tell yet how seriously to take that. I jumped around a bit, and read the final story “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium.” That story reminded me a bit of the Hav by Jan Morris, which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog.

So far, I do appreciate the “Dying Earth” setting, as in the work of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. I also appreciate the anti-heroic hero. Harrison also says it is “a conscious disruption of the American ideological/narcissistic overmyth ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’” and again, it is hard to tell yet how seriously to take that, but I like what I’ve read so far.

I’m still reading several other books to the children, including The Story of Earth and Sky. I’ll write about that book at more length another time. I want to mention some other old books I’ve read from, including One Two Three… Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamow, and some other science books that were significant to me as a child and which may simply not have good modern counterparts.

I also started reading to my kids an old young adult novel that was also significant to me as a child. This is Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White. The main character is a teenage boy named Paul; the fictional Paul was born about the same year I was. The book itself has a very workmanlike style, with young characters that are a bit unconvincing, as they are too “knowing” for their age to be realistic, but I was startled to discover that the book’s writing style looks an awful lot like my writing style. I think that book may have heavily influenced the way I write, including the way I use hyphens and the specific rhythm and meter I tend to fall into when writing prose. It’s startling. Like Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet, this book also predicts climate change, so here is another book I read as a child which accurate predicted the straits we would be in, decades later.

Amazon reviewer R. Christenson describes it as “a reasonably successful attempt at emulating a Heinlein juvenile,” and I think that’s accurate, except that White’s teenage protagonist doesn’t seem to have quite a convincing voice as, say, Max Jones of Starman Jones, or Podkayne Fries of Podkayne of Mars. Although, to be honest, it has been decades since I have read a Heinlein juvenile, and it is possible those protagonists might not seem convincing to me now. I remember really enjoying Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I will finish Secret of the Marauder Satellite and if it still seems as good to me as it did when I was a kid, I’ll see if I can track down some of White’s other work.

Meanwhile, keep reading!

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 13-July 6, 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Read It, Early June 2016

Groundhog Year

June 15th was the one-year anniversary of my current work arrangement. Each Monday morning I drive from Saginaw south to Ann Arbor, work in Ann Arbor four days, then drive back to Saginaw Thursday evening. The plan has been that as soon as possible, I will relocate my family closer to work. That is still the plan, but "as soon as possible" has been pushed back a while as we figure out how to cope with the vast difference between the Saginaw and Washtenaw County real estate markets.

Fortunately, I have friends in Ann Arbor who have been kind enough to put me up in a spare bedroom all those nights, and on many nights feed me as well. This has made it much more bearable -- the cost of renting even a small one-bedroom apartment in Washtenaw County would have made this arrangement nearly unworkable without their help; we would have made far less progress on paying down debts and putting money into savings.

This has been a godsend in many ways, because it has allowed me to stay at employed at a good job that I enjoy a lot. I also like quiet time -- it's often scarce at home, what with five children at home -- and there is no doubt that I've had plenty of quiet evenings alone. I've been able to do a considerable amount of reading and a fair amount of writing too.

But in other ways it has been very hard, and has gotten harder the longer it goes on. I don't have an exact figure, but I haven't taken very much vacation time or sick time, and so I think that I've actually been away from my family for about 200 days out of the last calendar year.

That's nothing compared to the situations of, say, soldiers who deploy continuously for a year or more at a time. I do see my family every week, and my wife isn't actually afraid for my safety.

But on the other hand it isn't entirely unlike their situations. One weekend my daughter wouldn't talk to me. I asked her if we could spend some time catching up. She said "why should I bother? You're just going to go away again." That was a bit of a gut punch.

Each week the adjustment to the solitude and peace is a bit of a shock to my system, and then the adjustment to a noisy, chaotic gaggle of children is another shock to my system. So I'm constantly getting used to having left home, or having returned home, and I spend very little time feeling at home.

So, we need to do something about this. There is a plan in development that would allow me to work more days from home. We're considering a plan that would allow me to work just two days a week in the Ann Arbor office, and stay overnight one evening. I think that is much more sustainable and bearable for everyone. If we can do that for another year, I think we can be much better prepared to relocate, details to be determined, even if we have not sold our old house yet.

I don't know exactly when I'll be able to switch to that reduced schedule, but I am doing my best to make it happen soon. And so I might actually have less free time soon. So I might have less time to devote to this blog. But maybe I can be a much happier and better father and husband for a while.

The Book Project

I have made quite a bit of progress on the project of collecting up and editing my old articles. In fact, I have just about completed a manuscript. The tentative title is The Films that Formed Me, Book 1: Reviews 1992-2016.

The collection will be about 40,000 words. As a printed book, it would be about 100 pages, depending on the exact format. As an e-book, well, that varies depending on how many words your particular e-book reader can show on the page. Using the default layout of CoolReader for Windows, it comes to about 400 pages. Using the default layout for iBooks on my Mac, it's more like 250. So I don't think "pages" is a very valuable way to measure the book's length when talking about .epub.

The individual essays range greatly in style. Some are shorter than one page. Some go into considerable depth. Some are serious. Some are actually parodies. To whet your appetite, here are the names of the essays:

  • The Thief of Bagdad
  • Jurassic Park: The Marketing Extravaganza
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Oscar and Lucinda
  • The Sweet Hereafter
  • Strange Days Indeed
  • What is The Matrix?
  • Magnolia
  • Where’s Tom Bombadil?
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Internal Spotlight of the Shiny Camcorder: a Review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • To Be and To Have (&Eactue;tre et Avoir)
  • Grosser By the Dozen: a Review of Cheaper By the Dozen
  • The Triplets of Belleville
  • God, Nitrogen Sulfide, and Sweaty Vulcan Butt: Notes on Enterprise and Joan of Arcadia
  • Three Films for Grown-ups: Nine Songs, Y Tu Mamá Tambien, and The Dreamers
  • Star Wars: Through the Binoculars
  • Deleted Magic
  • Restoration versus Cartoonization: Thoughts on Star Wars Revisionism
  • “The Negatives of the Movie Were Permanently Altered”
  • House of Flying Daggers, Memento, and a Few More Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings
  • A New Unicorn
  • Two Noir Films: T-Men and He Walked by Night
  • Doctor Who, Old and New
  • "The Girl in the Fireplace"
  • Blood Tea and Red String
  • WALL·E
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • An Unexpected Journey in Fifty Words
  • Lexx is Wretched
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • If You’re Not Cop, You’re Little People: Blade Runner in Perspective

They are all pretty-much complete, except for the last one; I'm still working on that essay. Everything else, I've proofread and tweaked, both on screen and on paper, but they probably need another pass.

I have a usable workflow now. I start with Markdown-formatted, 7-bit ASCII text files. These are the source files. They are marked up with headers and underscores for indicating italic and bold sections. I have HTML entities in place for special accented characters: for example, the title of Y Tu Mama Támbien reads, in the raw source file, _Y Tu Mamá Tambien_. But anyway, the point is that in my source files, written in Pandoc's dialect of Markdown, the source code remains quite readable, because I only occasionally have to use HTML entities for accented characters. I don't use HTML entities for typographer's quotes, dashes, apostrophes, ellipses, or other special characters.

So the next step in my workflow is to use a script called SmartyPants to transform the source into source with HTML entities for those special characters. It does a great job, and I haven't yet found a case where it makes a mistake. The derived file is all marked up with HTML entities, and so is harder to edit and proofread, so I don't modify those files by hand.

I also have a step that does the SmartyPants conversion, and then converts all those HTML entities into characters. This is then no longer a 7-bit ASCII file, so I save it as UTF-8 with no BOM. This file is useful for proofreading, because all the accented characters and typographically correct quotation marks show up, but it is still basically a Markdown file. I use these to visually verify that the accented characters and SmartyPants conversion all looks correct.

The Markdown file with HTML entities then gets fed to Pandoc. Pandoc can spit out all kinds of formats. Really it's quite an amazing program. The primary formats I'm interested in are:

  • Simple HTML with headings, bold, and italics, with special characters encoded as HTML entities (usable for blogging)
  • .epub (e-book)
  • .docx (Microsoft Word)
  • .pdf

Right now the .epub looks pretty good; I think it is about as good as I can get it, except that at the moment it lacks a cover. There are some places where URLs look funny, or lines break funny, but in an .epub I don't think I have total control over that kind of thing; for example, the reader decides whether to fully justify the text, or hyphenate it:

Maybe I could supply a stylesheet that helps clean that up? I'm not really sure. In any case, I don't think I want to put hard breaks in the source file. If I put hard breaks in URLs or long titles or subheadings they might look OK in one derived format, but then they will be broken oddly for the other downstream formats. So my basic philosophy has to be, I think, to ignore the handful of spots where the limitations of the format cause some ugly formatting.

The .docx looks good, except it are not formatted exactly as I need it for publishing a paper book. For example, it isn't set up with page breaks at the start of each chapter, or left/right pages. This is something that I could set up to match the style sheet for a particular publisher, but I am hesitant to put time into it unless I need to -- for example, if I decide to offer paper copies through some publisher.

The .pdf format, which is generated using Latex, looks mostly very nice. But there are places where lines are too long and overflow their boxes. For example, in this case, at the top of a page, a chapter with a long title is rendered with the title running right off the edge of the page:

I don't actually want to change my titles to fit the LaTeX template, and I wouldn't even know where to begin to fix the template to better handle my file. I suppose I might be able to just reduce the text size, but it looks file everywhere else. LaTeX is a very deep rabbit hole. People put in years to gain deep expertise in TeX and LaTeX, and, honestly, I'd rather spend my time writing than typesetting.

I haven't decided exactly when and how I'm going to offer this book for sale. I've read a little bit about the services offered by Smashwords and Hulu and they both seem reasonable. I've also been operating under the assumption that a traditional publisher would have no interest in this material, but perhaps I shouldn't assume that.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I completed this book in June 2016, having read the last of it to my children. It is is perhaps the best of the Hitchhiker's Guide five-book trilogy (no, that isn't a typo). It gets very dark, but it forms a fairly continuous story arc. It's also the first one in the series that I read, back when I was in high school. I selected it as one of my choices from the Science Fiction Book Club, not realizing that I was supposed to read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Even coming into the story already in progress, I found parts of it laugh-out-loud hilarious, and still do.

When I was sixteen, I don't think I realized just how dark and existentialist a world view this book really expresses. It's actually quite thought-provoking. My recollection is that the third book is pretty readable, but the fourth and fifth become very uneven and episodic. I am not quite sure if I will be reading the rest to the kids, re-reading them on my own, or just putting the set back on the shelf for another day.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

This is a fascinating book, a mash-up of medieval life as described in Umberto Eco's masterpiece The Name of the Rose, and a crashed-spaceship first-contact story. I'm about 150 pages in and it opens a bit slowly, but it is speeding up. This is a philosophical work of science fiction and the clash of cultures between a medieval priest and a group of aliens, whose ideas of "the heavens" are very different, is very thought-provoking. We learn a great deal about the medieval world-view of a highly educated character. Here's a passage in which our priest protagonist, Dietrich, interacts with one of the insectoid aliens:

Krenkish heads were smaller and so the harness fit poorly. Nor ere the creature's ears properly positioned, so that when Dietrich had inserted the "hearing-mussel" in his ear -- as he saw the Krenk had done -- the other piece, the mikrofoneh, did not hang by his mouth. The Krenk vaulted the table and seized Dietrich.

Dietrich tried to pull away, but the Krenk's grip was too strong. It made rapid passes at Dietrich's head, but they were not blows and, when the creature stepped away, Dietrich discovered that the straps now fit more comfortably.

"Does now the harness sit well -- question," asked a voice in his ear.

Quite involuntarily, Dietrich turned his head. Then he realized that the earpiece must contain an even smaller Heinzelmännchen than the box in the Krenkish apartments. He turned to stare at his visitor. "You speak in your mikrofoneh, and I hear you through this mussel."

"Doch," said the creature.

Since there could be no action at a distance, there must be a medium through which the impetus flowed. But had the voice flowed through the air, he would have heard the sound directly, rather than through this engine. Hence, an aether must exist.

I love these characters' attempts to reconcile their world views. The author is clearly very well-versed in medieval history. The cast and locale is somewhat complex, and I'm happy to have a list of characters and a map. A glossary would be welcome, though, and even an introduction going over the terms and rituals and routines of both priestly and peasant life. I think some of this is mentioned in an afterword, but I shouldn't have to turn to an afterword first.

The Krenken are big bugs. I am not a big fan of the human-sized insectoid alien trope. I am immediately put off because the square-cube law tells us that true insects that large can't exist. We know these can't be just scaled-up Earth insects. I think it is a strength of the book, rather than a weakness, that the Krenken are not described clearly; this allows the reader to fill in some of those troublesome details. Flynn elevates the portrayal of insectoid aliens, in my eyes by making the real questions about the Krenken's culture, even pertaining to issues of class, and how it proceeds from their physiology and genetics. That's fascinating because when we start thinking along these lines, we can't help but consider what our mammalian physiology and genetics affect our culture and thought.

While the author is clearly very knowing, I have a gripe with his writing. At times the narrator becomes very knowing, too, in a way that takes me out of the story (the narrator is telling rather than showing, and in a way that, honestly, is more like showing off). For example:

Abruptly, she cleared the machine. Don't be silly, she told herself. But that made her think of something Tom had said. And that made her wonder, What if... ? And nothing was ever the same again.

Here the narrator is injecting a judgment which I think is best left to the reader. Elsewhere, we read:

"I have a smart phone," she told him, tugging on the string that bound the folder she held. "My phone is smarter than some people."

Tom laughed, not yet getting the joke.

Here the narrator is having a laugh of his own at the expense of his characters, and again, I'd rather come to my own conclusions about the characters.

Fortunately the dialogue is generally very good, even conversations which serve as info-dumps, and it really is an excellent book in most respects. I mentioned The Name of the Rose, which I think is a clear influence here, but I also think that Flynn may have been influenced by Gene Wolfe, with his general respectfulness of the reader's intelligence, presenting serious ideas without a lot of hand-holding. There is a lot to think about in the ideas the author has literally pitted against each other. I don't have a final verdict but I expect it to continue, as it begins, quite well.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

I have only completed the first chapter of this book, but I really enjoyed the first chapter. I have long been interested in the existentialists, but my attempts to read the actual works of existentialism, such as Being and Nothingness, have repeatedly left me baffled. Bakewell, author of How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, really starts well here, putting Sartre in context, where "in context" means in a café, with Simone de Beauvoir, and friends, and admirers, and also in context, at his funeral; Bakewell's description of that funeral is amazing.

I have read some Montaigne in translation, and read some of Bakewell's book about approaching Montaigne as a reader, but it is another book that I have not finished. It's time to finish it. It's also time to finish reading the essays in Shakespeare's Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection by Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio -- challenging, often obscure, but fascinating.

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

This is technically a re-reading, since I've read both Cosmicomics and t-zero before, but it has been some time, and these incredibly creative and beautiful short stories are worth re-reading many times; it is one of the few books that one might read at different life stages, and get different things out of it each time.

In Cosmicomics, Calvino tells stories inspired by contemporary cosmology, particularly our ideas about how the universe began, how dust clouds formed, how planets and stars condensed, and how life formed. The narrator is a character called Qfwfq (part of the fun of reading these out loud to my wife and children is figuring out how to pronounce the names). Qfwfq is ancient; he existed before the big bang, and has existed in different forms throughout the history of the cosmos, but he and his friends and relations also seem to share most of personality characteristics of middle-aged Italians.

Calvino cheerfully does not attempt to explain this; Qfwfq just is, because the stories need a narrator. The stories are almost always about much more than they are about. In one of my favorites, "A Sign in Space," Qfwfq has marked a point in space as he rides around the galactic disc, so that he can note when he has gotten back to his starting point. Calvino takes the modern idea that there is no privileged frame of reference and turns it into something about signs -- in semiotics -- in which our narrator no longer has the privilege of understanding what signs are intentional or whether it even matters:

...signs kept growing thicker in space; from all the worlds anybody who had an opportunity invariably left his mark in space somehow; and our world, too, every time I turned, I found more crowded, so that world and space seemed the mirror of each other, both minutely adorned with hieroglyphics and ideograms, each of which might be a sign and might not be: a calcereous concretion on basalt, a crest raised by the wind on the clotted sand of the desert, the arrangement of the eyes in a peacock's tail...

It's the English major's nightmare; if everything is a sign, or symbol, than nothing is. But I've done you a disservice if I've made these tales sound dry or abstract or academic. Although the settings are sometimes baffling, and the characters may barely exist in any sense that we understand, these stories are really about relationships, and love, and loss. That's Calvino's triumph, turning the dry equations of cosmology into stories set in a universe that is both stranger than we can imagine, but as familiar as the faces of our loved ones.

I started out reading my old Penguin paperback, but realized I had on the shelf the new 2015 Mariner edition of The Complete Cosmicomics, so I'm switching over to that book. The Mariner edition has all the stories from Cosmicomics and t-zero and I'll re-read those. it also has a number of other stories I haven't read, some never before published in English.

Just to be clear, since the dates on the title page are confusing, I'm talking about ISBN 978-0-544-57787-9, a white paperback with a simple gray and black line drawing of planets in their orbits. This book contains the text of both the original Cosmicomics collection and the t-zero collection, along with additional stories. I haven't read these new stories yet but I will be reading them soon and then I'll have a verdict on the rest of the Cosmicomics material.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I've been reading this one out loud to my kids. I do a pretty hilarious Dobby impression, or so I'm told. But really I'm just channeling the voice of Dobby in the films, Toby Jones. Because that performance is so very memorable, it's hard to imagine Dobby sounding any other way.

In this, the second book, things get a little darker and more perilous for our cast of characters. We have scary stuff going on like the petrification of animals and people.

Of particular interest, I think, is the way in which the students are starting to be able to come to their own judgments about characters who are authority figures. They learn to recognize that while they are expected to obey the forms, some adult authority figures really are frauds and not worthy of admiration or emulation, but at the same time are deserving of compassion. So we have the ridiculous celebrity fraud Gilderoy Lockhart, but also the miserable Argus Filch, surrounded by faculty and students who can practice magic, while he, as a "squib," cannot.

And so, back to work.

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 13-19, 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Escalation and Eschatology in Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco

I wrote this essay as the final paper for my junior independent study course, English 401, at the College of Wooster. The class was a sort of methods class for literary criticism, practice for the senior independent study I was to undertake the following year. I considered writing about some other science fiction authors, including Marion Zimmer Bradley, but ultimately settled on Lem because his ideas seemed to interlock with so many of my interests, including computing, nuclear weapons, and nanotechnology. You can detect in my writing the preoccupation with nuclear annihilation and the "Star Wars" missile defense shield that was prominent in the early lives of many of Generation X, especially those exposed to "The Day After" and the Reagan administration.

When I began to re-read this piece, I felt a little trepidation -- it was, after all, written by a 20-year-old. It could be embarrassing. But reading it now, I still feel pretty good about it. It has, perhaps, too much by way of plot summary, but I wanted to be able to explain my argument to someone who hadn't read the books referenced. I feel pretty good about putting it out into the world, for anyone reading Fiasco to stumble across. Hopefully, verbatim passages won't wind up in someone else's college essay, but that is a contingency over which I have no control. I have cleaned up garbled typography here and there, but made very few actual edits to the text. For the most part it stands just as it did almost thirty years ago.

My instructor in the course was Professor Henry Herring. I remain grateful to Dr. Herring for his excellent teaching, and for allowing me to go "full cyberpunk" in this paper, bringing in speculative ideas from Drexler. If my language is occasionally opaque, it my own fault.

I was recently able to extract the text from the original Microsoft Word file. The file has had a long, strange trip. It may have started out on a Macintosh floppy disc. It must have made it to the hard drive of my Macintosh SE at some point. From there it may have lived on a Bernoulli drive, two or three other hard drives, a Magneto-optical disc, a CD-ROM disc containing a disc image of the Magneto-optical disc, and finally to my Macintosh Pro, 28 years later. It has fled from burning house after burning house as media and devices failed and technologies changed. One small but notable way that things have changed: I typed my original paragraphs with double spaces between sentences. I haven't done that in decades, after breaking the typewriter habit to work with desktop publishing applications such as PageMaker. In these programs, typing two spaces between sentences is not only unnecessary, but interferes with the application's algorithms for word wrap and character spacing.

Neither Microsoft Word 2013 nor OpenOffice would properly open the file, but the text seems to be intact. I will see if I might be able to do something better with other old Microsoft Word files using SheepShaver, an emulator capable of running old versions of MacOS. When I next get a chance, I will double-check this text against my old hardcopy. My dead tree version of the final paper has not required any particular technical support or maintenance to survive those 28 years in readable form...

Escalation and Eschatology in Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco

Note: this essay contains spoilers for anyone who has not yet read the novel!

Stanislaw Lem in his latest novel Fiasco tells the story of the interaction of a space vessel full of emisaries from Earth with an incomprehensibly alien planet, Quinta. As the story progresses, a nightmarish "Star Wars" escalation emerges and eventually results in tragedy. Lem illustrates the forces guiding the crew of the Hermes with two strange and symbolic embedded stories-within-stories. As Quintan technology responds to Earth's incursions, the escalation reflects not rational motives for contact and communication but instead mirrored paranoia between Quinta and the human visitors. In our own era where technological development is eliminating human contact between the war machines of the superpowers, Lem shows that mutual trust and communication is the only antidote to paranoid military escalation.

The story of the interaction of the Hermes and Quinta illustrates the importance of avoiding what K. Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology calls dangerous "memes" (Engines of Creation, p. 35). A meme, says Drexler, is a self-generating and self-replicating way of thinking. He pictures these memes as acting like aggressive and resistive microorganisms; some memes contribute to immunity from others. He writes "Memes that seal the mind against new ideas protect themselves in a suspiciously self-serving way... In times of swift change they can make minds dangerously rigid" (Engines of Creation, p. 38). The decisions on board the Hermes that ultimately result in the destruction of Quinta are made under duress, and have to be made quickly: the anthropocentric paradigm of attack and defense, bred from a "Star Wars" mentality, leads to the exclusion of any other, more useful, pictures of the state of affairs on Quinta.

Memes don't affect only expeditions to alien planets: they also must be avoided much closer to home. These memes are dangerous now, as we move rapidly into the technological future. Drexler warns that

We look ahead with minds and cultures rooted in the ideas of more sluggish times, when both science and technological competition lacked their present strength and speed. We have only recently begun to evolve a tradition of technological foresight (Engines of Creation, p. 41).

This foresight is necessary as our technology progresses, says Drexler, to direct technology in humanistic directions. The "assembler revolution," says Drexler, will result in a technology based upon microscopic devices capable of replication and autonomy. Where Drexler's scientific speculation leaves off, Stanislaw Lem's science fiction begins, and in Fiasco Lem explores some of the consequences of inflexible thinking about a future technology surpassing today's conceptions. Lem's technology intersects with Drexler's predictions tangentially: some elements of the future technology he proposes are nanotechnological, and some are not.

When the members of the expedition from Earth approach Quinta, they find a vast number of artificial satellites and a partially completed ring of ice orbiting the planet. They concur that "Beyond all doubt Quinta was inhabited by a civilization so advanced technologically that it had entered the Cosmos not merely in small craft but with a power able to lift oceans into space" (Fiasco, p. 129). A communique from the mother ship Eurydice has arrived, and describes changes on Quinta that occurred during the voyage of the Hermes: flashes, explosions of nuclear type, a drastic increase in cloud cover, and radio-jamming white noise on all bands. The meanings of these phenomena are unknown. Assumptions are made that Quinta is experiencing planetary war which has spread into the space around the planet. The conflict is supposedly between two superpowers on Quinta, because the Hermes notes two main continents on Quinta.

Taking the hulk of a drifting satellite on board, they find that the confusingly alien technology has been corroded by a metal-attacking, virus-like agent. It is assumed that this was as a result of an attack by the rival of the satellite's launchers below on Quinta. Another satellite is taken on board, and has undergone a similar "infection":

Certain components of both satellites had acquired a kind of resistance to the catalytic corrosion, and in a way so narrowly defined, so specific, that one could speak of an immunological reaction by analogy to living organisms and microbes. In [the crew's] imagination formed the image of a micromilitary struggle, a war conducted without soldiers, cannons, [or] bombs... (Fiasco, p. 155).

This notion of artificial micro-warfare is not new to Lem. In his essay "The Upside-Down Evolution," collected in One Human Minute, Lem discusses nanotechnology on the battlefield of a war in Earth's future: "The greatest problem in the unhuman stage of military history is that of distinguishing friend from foe... The nonliving weapon might imitate (extremely well) floating dust specks or pollen, or gnats, or drops of water. But under that mask lay a corrosive or lethal agent" (One Human Minute, p. 57). He also describes the actions of tiny attackers against conventional weapons of war: "Just as germs invisibly invade an organism... so the nonliving, artificial microbes, following the tropisms built into them, penetrated the gun barrels, cartridge chambers, tank and plane engines. They corroded the metal catalytically, or, reaching the powder charges or fuel tanks, blew them up" (One Human Minute, p. 58). These would operate by methods similar to those by which existing bacteria follow their design to attack certain cells in humans.

The most important characteristic of this technology in Lem's novel is its ambiguity, for it results in escalation by misinterpretation. It is not possible to attribute, with any surety, the attack of a nanotechnological virus to the deliberate and aggressive activity of an enemy. In the case of Earth's interaction with Quinta more ordinary technologies also bring about this ambiguity of intent which results in a misinterpretation of Quinta's moves as aggressive. The information-gathering and technology-capturing satellites and landers that the humans use are interpreted as dangerous aggressors when sent by Quinta. The notion that a careful examination of the products of a technology can lead to understanding of motivation is discounted, as we shall see, by fear.

As the humans on the Hermes explore the Quintan moon, three Quintan orbiters attack lunar probes, apparently without guidance from Quinta. The lunar probes destroy themselves rather than risk capture. The "no prisoners" theme is important: the so-called "sidereal" technology of the Hermes is so advanced that it can destroy whole planets. To let any artifacts of this technology fall into the hands of the Quintans is a horrifying prospect, but the humans feel no qualms about capturing artifacts of Quintan technology. Thus, due to the fear of the humans, the decision-gathering methods of the Quintans and the humans must remain asymmetrical.

Even if the responses of the defensive sphere to the invading scout craft of the humans are not automatic, but guided by the Quintans, this should probably not be considered as activities of aggression. It may be that the Quintans simply wish to capture an artifact, as the Hermes did. Father Arago, the representative from the Vatican, suggests that "we do not consider that we acted as aggressors. We desired to examine products of their technology; they desired to examine our products. It's simple symmetry" (Fiasco, p. 189). He does not consider the actions of the Quintans to be aggressive: once again, they can be seen in more than one light, and it is the perspective of the observer that decides the proper response. Caution on the part of the Quintans would suggest that they find out as much about the technology of the visitors as the visitors as possible while minimizing risk through open contact. The captain does agree that the Quintans have the right to caution, and thus projects human fears onto alien beings:

Our very arrival may have alarmed them, particularly if they are technologically incapable of galactic flight but know what orders of power are required for it... if they became aware of the Hermes [earlier] -- and we have been in orbit here three months -- then our silence, our camouflage, could seem ominous to them... (Fiasco, p. 190).

Further attempts at communication with the Quintans fail. Another craft is sent: the Gabriel, equipped to land, its purpose explained by radio. Quintan crafts converge on it at surprising speed, and to prevent capture the intelligent, autonomous Gabriel also self-destructs by imploding and thus destroying its pursuers. One mangled craft is discovered, and from an examination of the wreckage the physicist Nakamura concludes that it was designed to capture the Gabriel for examination and not to destroy it. His opinion, however, is drowned out in the rest of the crew's demand for retaliatory gestures.

As the Hermes retreats into hiding from Quinta, the humans abruptly have an excuse for further action. The ship is, apparently, attacked directly. Only the extreme power of the ship's technology and the speed of the its responses prevents the Hermes from being destroyed by a tremendous impact. But once again the interpretations differ. Was it an automatic response of a cloud of virus-sized microweapons that the ship entered? Nakamura holds this view.

Three of the other physicists develop a paper describing Quinta as ready for cosmic warfare, with micromilitary weaponry, in a state that has developed through escalation. In this form of development, the physicists theorize, "each side worked to produce weapons that would possess tactical, and then strategic, autonomy. The implements of battle acquired independence..." (Fiasco, p. 214). All of Quinta's "attacks" could have taken place automatically, guided by the planet's fantastically complex defenses. A model of Quinta's defenses, then, could be a system "to which the Hermes was of 'foreign body'... the Hermes would have been... an infection confronted by defending lymphocytes within an organism" (Fiasco, p. 217).

Remarkable parallels exist between K. Eric Drexler's description of a "Star Wars" active defense and the system deployed around Quinta. To respond to any attack the system as described by Drexler could be made incapable of discriminating between attacking sides. Though serving the strategic interests of its builders, it would not be subject to the day-to-day command of anyone's generals. It would just make space a hazardous environment for an attacker's missiles (Engines of Creation, p. 198).

While Drexler sees this as a way of hopefully limiting the arms race, Lem points out in the story of the Quintans and the Hermes the consequences of such a system which the builders no longer control. Such a system seems to exist around Quinta in the form of a vast network of defensive satellites: it is not even possible for the Hermes to determine which satellites have been deployed by which of the two postulated Quintan superpowers. To prevent such ambiguous situations which are open to dangerous misinterpretation, Drexler wisely acknowledges that the notion of such an "active shield" defense would require intense cooperation and mutual understanding -- something not possible with current memes. He states that

Making them work will require a creative, interdisciplinary synthesis of ideas in engineering, strategy, and international affairs. They offer fresh choices that may enable us to avoid old impasses. They apparently offer an answer to the ancient problem of protecting without threatening -- but not an easy answer (Engines of Creation, p. 199).

Clearly, communication is a faculty that Quinta has lost. Thus, it is not possible to avoid the misunderstandings that the actions of such a defensive shield engender. Actions are too easily misinterpreted: in the interaction of the Hermes and Quinta "There were no material devices... no dispatches or declarations easy to decipher, that could not be interpreted as a mask concealing aggression" (Fiasco, p. 199). The crew of the Hermes allow their fear to guide them to make such interpretations of the actions of Quintan technology. A meme of trust and willingness to let communication take place (i.e., willing exchange of technologies and the open inspection of each other's arsenals) is necessary to avoid these interpretations. This idea certainly has applicability to our own terrestrial war-sphere.

A close examination of the novel's two embedded stories illustrates that despite the most intellectual and ethically correct intentions, in the ambiguous situations that develop it is the biases of the humans that ultimately result in the character of the mission changing from contact to demolition. The first embedded story can easily be related to the embassage of the Gabriel: it and the previous ambassadors were sent into a communications silence, as explorers. This fictional passage is presented via holography as Dr. Gerbert watches.

According to legend two Spanish explorers, Don Guillermo and Don Esteban, seek gold in a mysterious location, the Valley of the Seven Red Lakes. They cross into a natural echo chamber, the Valley of Silence. Just as loud sounds are avoided on certain mountain faces to avoid causing avalanches, here the slightest disturbance brings down a shower of broken rock upon intruders.

The Hermes enters its own Valley of Silence: disturbance brings retaliatory attack. The "attack" of falling rock in the Valley of Silence is a natural phenomenon, and acts automatically. The defensive shield of the Quintans can be viewed in the same way, although the anthropocentrism of the crew of the Hermes does not allow them to do so. This illustrates again the importance of objective memes for accurate understanding.

Back to the embedded story: escaping without serious injury, Don Guillermo and Don Esteban reach a cavern where, by the action of a natural prism, the face of a distant observer comes into view for a brief moment: an old Indian who sees their passage into sacred ground. They press on to another cavern, and "Then from the darkness came a giant spectral face suspended in the air, its eyes directed downward. Don Esteban cried out... as the scream resounded, Don Guillermo covered his face with his hands. Then there was thunder, fire engulfed him, and he lost consciousness" (Fiasco, p. 56). The frightening visage in the reflecting prism is not a projection of supernatural or alien forces. It is, like the frightening spectral head in The Wizard of Oz, a projection driven by ordinary human motivation, magnified by unknown technology, that destroys Guillermo.

The situation makes human anthropocentric fears and motivations write themselves large and turn the unknown into the terrifying. The fear on the Hermes is that the Quintans will gain the knowledge of the sidereal technologies of the humans, and thus gain the upper hand; this taints the character of their interactions with the Quintan's unwilling emmisaries in the form of captured satellites. The symbolic connection is made between the foreign landscape of Don Guillermo and Don Esteban's travels when the narrator of their story says "The Valley of Silence is the same valley that our windows overlook" (Fiasco, p. 57).

The crew decides that contact is necessary at all costs. They use their technologies to destroy Quinta's moon. Unfortunately, Quintan missiles interfere; instead of maintaining an orbit, trillions of tons debris fall to the planet, causing great destruction. Meanwhile, new techniques allow close examinations of Quinta in cross-section: huge caverns are found, filled with calcium, which may be the remains of millions of corpses that had been irradiated. No conclusions can be reached, though: "They had no way of knowing yet whether the population of Quinta was made up of living creatures or, possibly, nonbiological automata: the heirs of an extinct civilization" (Fiasco, p. 230). One nightmarish vision of the state of Quintan civilizations is expressed, that of the dead piled in underground caverns, hidden from the technology that they developed and were eventually destroyed by. In the novel, the Quintans become an important non-presence: because they cannot be seen, and do not communicate, speculation on the Hermes increases exponentially. This speculation, however, still follows the old memes of warfare between two terran superpowers.

After the Quintans do not respond to the destruction of their moon, Steergard intends to use a huge laser: the solaser, which, mirror-like, absorbs light from Quinta's sun and later directs it in a beam of intense energy. This suggestion was given by the ship's computer, called DEUS (yes, a deus ex machina), as the next move in the game. Father Arago warns Steergard away from this alternative: "I am suggesting that the machine has also become a mirror. A mirror that enlarges, from you, an aggression born of frustration" (Fiasco, p. 249). Steergard's dedication to the ideal of contact is so intense that he desires to save the civilization on Quinta from what he perceives to be its deadlocked cosmic war and paranoid silence, even if it is necessary to destroy it to do so. As we shall see when the true state of the Quintans become clear, had Steergard's impression of the Quintans been an objective one he would have realized that the expedition's goal of contact at all costs was one that had virtually no meaning. What exactly is the state of the Quintans, and why is contact such an untenable notion?

The second embedded story provides a set of symbols for understanding both the Quintans and the humans. As the first fictional sequence ends and the setting surrounding the becomes clearer, there is a brief reference to the next embedded story. Shuffling through holographic images in Gilbert's cabin, Victor Davis summons an image "of a sandy waste with high termite mounds" (p. 59). This image, presented later, will serve as a metaphor for the true state of the Quintans. In the story another explorer is given the arcane knowledge of a kingdom of unusually large termites. Termite mounds, says the narrator "reach eight meters in height... they're harder than Portland cement... [filled with] eyeless, white, soft insects that have lived for some twenty million years away from the light" (Fiasco, p. 96). Separation from the outside world is described in hivelike, fallout-shelter terms. The professor goes on to describe how, after days of travel and many hardships, his expedition reached a stumpy, black mound, the center of the termite nation. He broke it open, and found that

I had never seen termites like these. Enormous... [Their] antennae were all touching a gray object no bigger than my fist. The insects were extremely old. Motionless, as if made of wood... when I swept them from the central object -- that round, strange thing -- they perished instantly. Came apart beneath my fingers like rotten rags... (Fiasco, p. 101).

The mother ship of the Hermes, the Eurydice, originally observed the surface of the land masses of Quinta to be dotted with regular white noise transmitters, like the regularity of the termite mound in the framework story. The Quintans are, by association with the characteristics of the termite mound of the story, not autonomous, independent beings. Without their technology they are inert. The structure of their existence is incomprehensibly alien. Despite this, the crew wishes to make contact. The Quintans only accept contact under the ultimatum of planetary destruction.

Mark Tempe alone has the privilege of descending to Quinta to explore. A one-man rocket, called the Earth, will take him down to the surface. He finds a deserted spaceport. A false Hermes that the real one sent as a cautionary decoy is there: an explosion of unknown cause has blown open the side of the vessel, but none of the inner doors has been forced open. If this was an attack, it was a strange one: it could just as easily been motivated by fear of the humans supposedly on board the false Hermes. A motive of aggression was assumed by the humans, however. His equipment finds that the false Hermes has been strewn with millions of microviruses, "in the guise of dirt" (Fiasco, p. 315), quiescent and with an unknown latency period. They could be completely inactive: once more, the situation is unclear. Is this a deliberate infestation to be carried back to the Hermes by Tempe, or a natural phenomenon of the Quintan environment?

So much on Quinta is ambiguous to human eyes. It was not only the Vatican representative, Father Arago, therefore, that held fast to his faith on board the Hermes. In the face of the pictures of Quinta's incomprehensible surface, the crew maintains the belief that the design of every aspect of it followed logical form, with human-like, rational motivation behind it. In Fiasco it is an act of faith, and not of objectivity, that places human-like motivations behind the activities that take place on Quinta. Still hoping to gain the elusive goal of contact with the Quintans, Tempe explores the spaceport area in which he has landed, and finds a grotesque building: a huge, inside-out mock-up of the false ship, with silent, automatic, flashing messages inside: "This is greeting... We are fulfilling your wish... Greeting concluded" (Fiasco, p. 317). Lem again emphasizes the alien and frightening silence of Quinta, like that in the Valley of Silence:

There were no signposts, no terminals, no devices for the exchange of information, nothing -- less than nothing... the corpse of their ship, contaminated with a hidden plague; or its swollen copy, like a frog inflated to death by a lunatic, made to serve as a shrine of hospitality, or the crystal flower bed welcoming him by turning to ashes: [as if to say] Your envoy can do what he likes. Everywhere he will be met by the same stony silence, until, forced to part from his expectations, bewildered and defeated, he flies into a muddled rage, begins blasting at whatever is at hand, and buries himself beneath tumbling ruins -- or crawls out and departs... fleeing (Fiasco, p. 318).

Pressing on, beyond the time limit between radio contacts and six-mile radius of freedom imposed by the agreement with the Quintans, Tempe is determined to see them. The original agreement stipulated that at any suspicion of harm to Tempe, Quinta would be destroyed. Even after he realized he has foolishly forgotten to contact the ship, he pushes on, following a sensor which indicates massive concentrations of life. Tempe has realized how temporary his time left on Quinta is, and now has nothing to lose, but his curiosity to see the Quintans still drives him. He finds them, in rough crusted lumps clustered on the hillside of the spaceport, with narrow openings. In the wet muck beneath are warm, rootlike tubes. He smashes through this outer shell: inside, the inside of the mound is "like a loaf of bread cut in two by an ax, with ropy, raw dough at the center" (Fiasco, p. 322). As he realizes the truth, that these are indeed the Quintans, the Hermes initiates the destruction of Quinta.

The state of the Quintans can be seen as a kind of ultimate de-evolution at the hands of technology: it is apparently the self-developing and guiding devices on the surface of the planet which have interacted with the Hermes, and not the Quintans. One way of viewing the Quintans is to presume that, as they put more and more decision-making power into the autonomic technology, it simply "took over" in a way that Drexler gives dire warnings against: with advanced technology, states need not control people -- they could instead simply discard people. Most people in most states, after all, function either as workers, larval workers, or worker-rearers, and most of these workers make, move, or grow things. A state with [the nanotechnological development of] replicating assemblers would not need such work. (Engines of Creation)

Drexler has used terms to describe the role of humans in a technological state that are equally applicable to the termites in the symbolic framework story. The Quintans would have been "discarded," as no longer needed by the Quintan technosphere: after all, if war existed on Quinta, how could mushrooms fight it? This is a particularly grim warning when considering how little of a place the human soldier really has in the role of nuclear attack and counterattack run by underground command centers and aided by machines operating faster and more efficiently than humans.

Thus, Lem's purpose in portraying the Quintans as "devolved" seems to be warning us. He warns us through the story of the interactions of Earth and Quinta that technology will never supplant our biases, and that it is our basic nature to be driven by the forces that have developed us: despite our intellects, we can never be rid of them, for we are ultimately biological at the core. His hopeful counterexample, representing much a much more useful meme, is Father Arago.

The feeding and development of the disastrous meme on board the Quinta is also presented symbolically: back in the second embedded story, the professor found later that the object under the dirt in the central, black termite mound was a perfectly round, shiny sphere, which attracted insects by the hordes wherever it went -- it keeps them alive, and removed from it they perish. This could stand as a metaphor for the human interaction with DEUS, the ship's computer, also described as a small sphere. DEUS supposedly acts as advisor and interpreter for the humans, and constantly monitors them to warn when instability and irrationality may set in. But the computer is itself hopelessly anthropocentric, having been designed by humans and instructed by humans, thus, its advice for interacting with the Quintans is as biased as the humans'. Locked inside their vessel, the humans feed on nothing but their own fears, receiving and amplifying information from DEUS which, even though they accept it on faith, simply reflects their subjective "truth."

Lem uses yet another mirror metaphor as DEUS, the ship's computer, realizes the true reason behind the human's fears of Quintan theft of their technology when it notes that "a mirror does not lie. You cannot incline it to reflect only postures that are free and relaxed without giving an image of everything else" (Fiasco, p. 240). The information the humans had given the Quintans in previous communications contained everything but that which would portray them in a negative light or give the secrets of their planet-destroying powers. The computer is referring to a situation of mutual armaments: both reflect the paranoia of both sides. Thus the humans are fearfully and anthropocentrically unwilling to accept contact with Quintans as equals (reflecting everything about them) because they know that their own unilateral use of this powerful technology risks being less than ideally fair and ethical. Does the situation of unilateral fear of sharing technology sound familiar?

The metaphor of the termites in the black mound is an unpleasant picture of our own feeding to and from our technology, without which, exposed, we are as brittle as ash. We have overcome the frailty of our limits with technology just as any species could: "They went out into space -- only to find out how alien it was to them, and how the mark of their animal origin had been stamped inexorably on their bodies" (Fiasco, p. 90). Locked in the shells of technology, they are hopelessly unable to truly understand and face the alien without the animal emotions of fear and aggression controlling. Lem expresses the etiology of our anthropocentrism in a brief history of a species' technological development into space that Mark Tempe reads: In the account, technology allows some species to overcome the inevitably provincial memes that come from having developed from a particular, peculiar set of natural processes. Lem asks, through the story of the interaction of Earth and Quinta, "will humankind be so fortunate?"

While the captain of the ship, Steergard, was willing to destroy the Quintans to save them and gain his hopeless goal of contact, Father Arago represents a different meme. This is illustrated through Lem's use of the "lifeboat" metaphor, when Arago says "Suppose you stand on a packed lifeboat, and those drowning, for whom there is no room, grab at the sides, putting the boat in danger of capsizing and sinking. You would cut away the hands, true?" (Fiasco, p. 253). Arago would not. He says that "In my eschatology there is no such thing as a lesser evil... with each slain being an entire world dies" (Fiasco, p. 254). He does not believe that the absolute goals of contact is worth the damage that the Hermes, despite good faith, has caused on Quinta (and, before they knew the truth, presumably to the Quintans). Just as the goal of contact is meaningless when the truth about the Quintans is known, our human goals of mutual defense and assumption of antagonism will become meaningless if the communication and trust that are necessary for survival are established. They will, of course, also become meaningless if escalation occurs and Earth reaches a fate like Quinta, destroyed in our case not by outside invaders but by our own war-sphere.

Lem has voiced a warning, and anyone familiar with Lem's work would never accuse him of optimism (indeed, some feel he is a misanthrope). He often mixes humor with his cynicism, but Fiasco is somewhat of an uncharacteristically humorless work for Lem. It is not the role of Lem as a writer of science fiction to create hopefulness or hopelessness and thus sedate us into a false sense of security or despair. Either of these states is dangerous in that it could produce inaction while technology speeds ahead; as Drexler notes "a wait-and-see policy would be very expensive... it [could] cost billions of lives, and perhaps the end of life on Earth" (Engines of Creation, p. 17). We must develop what Drexler calls "technological foresight" to guide the way we develop such technologies. It is even more important, however, to develop the meme of trust and human contact, or soon our increasingly autonomous technologies may be operating in our own technosphere without our guidance.

Annotated Bibliography

Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. New York: Anchor Books, 1987. Drexler outlines speculation about the ways in which nanotechnological developments have the potential for bringing us into a utopia, but also for destroying us. His work is highly speculative, but based on rational extrapolations from the physical sciences: it is not a question of if, but when nanotechnology will come about (and if it will be guided by humanistic and foresighted memes).

Lem, Stanislaw. Fiasco. Trans. Michael Kandel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. The technologies in Lem's latest novel are an interesting patchwork of science-based speculation and mystifying handwaving. Lem is characteristically not strong on characterization, but his presentation of the problems of technological ambiguity is fascinating. Since they have real applicability to our own technological war-sphere, his example of Quinta's escalating interaction with the Hermes is also frightening.

Lem, Stanislaw. "The Upside-Down Evolution." One Human Minute. Trans. Catherine Leach. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, p. 59. This short book contains three essays, written again in Lem's often-used form of reviews of books not yet written. These essays present mankind in the cold light of an existential and meaningless world-view. They are cynical and pessimistic, but funny and thought-provoking as well.

Wooster, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Michigan
April-May, 1988 and May 31, 2016