Monday, August 27, 2012

Some Fun Trash, He Said, Smiling as He Did So

They Can't All Be Bleak House (for which I thank G-d)

I have a slightly uneasy, never-quite-resolved relationship with certain books. Call it some kind of a learned elitism if you will, or classist sensibility, or overdeveloped Protestant-work-ethic aversion to fun. I like reading them, at the same time that I feel slightly guilty for doing so -- you've heard them called "guilty pleasures." As I read them I'm aware of their flaws and aware of just how cynically they were written -- but then that leads to all kinds of wandering thoughts about whether any book, any story, or any essay is ever written entirely un-cynically, and how is it great books get written, anyway? Bleak House was written so that Dickens could get paid by the word, and published in 20 installments. Bleak House is fascinating but it is standing unloved on a shelf with my bookmark stuck firmly somewhere prior to page 100, and it's been sitting there for so long it might as well be welded shut and the bookmark glued in place, while I've plowed through dozens of lesser books in the meanwhile.

Simon R. Green's Nightside Books

On Steve Eley's Escape Pod podcast, a few years ago -- oops, I guess that was almost seven years ago -- I heard a review of Simon R. Green's first few Nightside books, and they sounded fun. These are fundamentally fantasy novels, although you could also call them "horror," or "gothic," or "dark fantasy," or "urban fantasy," or even "magical realism." I'm not going to jump into a big controversy over the boundaries of genres, but let's just say that the world portrayed is modern -- there are computers, cars, and phones -- but the location is fantastic.

The books are mostly set in the Nightside, a sort of London underworld, a bit like the "London Below" in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The Nightside is a real place where magic works, a small city in perpetual night, and it is somehow more real than reality -- a sort of dimensional crossroads that underlies and intertwines ours. Our hero is John Taylor, a private eye (what else?) with magical ancestry -- he is the son of Lilith -- and magical powers with unclear boundaries. These unclear boundaries are precisely what makes the series fun and imaginative, and also frustrating.

The novels are short, and fun -- Green really lets his imagination off the leash. Things get very crazy very fast. Green mines the cultural tropes of gods, demons, Arthurian legend, and popular culture, and owes more than a little to Gaiman's books like American Gods as he does so. Merlin himself shows up, and he's not the cuddly, bumbling, befuddled wizard of the Disney Sword in the Stone. It gets dark fast. And so I was a bit hooked; I've read the first eleven, and the twelfth, allegedly the last, is out in hardcover now, and as usual I'm waiting for the paperback.

So the books are fun, grotesque, dark, and very, very entertaining. What's not to like? Well, there are a few things. The rules of the game we're playing are unclear. It's pretty standard for Green to bring in a character that hasn't been mentioned in book after book, but suddenly gets mentioned, and all of a sudden everyone seems to have always known about this character and how dangerous he or she is. I should mention that this problem isn't limited to this particular series of Green's, and of course it's not limited to Green.

So John Taylor always wins, and wins through the use of his Gift, with a capital G -- his second sight, his third eye, his ability to see reality at a deeper level. But he can't just see underlying cause and effect -- he can cause effects. So he removes the bullets from guns, either literally or metaphorically. Taylor turns on his magical powers and then it is "the easiest thing in the world" to defeat his enemy. Green uses that phrase over and over, and so it is best not to read the books back-to-back, because if you do, the formula and outline will stand out pretty clearly. And so in this regard a series that feels very imaginative and seems defiant and edgy is, writing-wise, about as conservative and conventional as you can possibly imagine.

So, I don't want to bash Green too hard -- these novels are really fun and imaginative. But at the same time I'll breathe a little sigh of relief when he finishes this series, and I doubt I'll be re-reading it.

It's Not So Easy Reading Green

So partway through Green's Nightside books he started another series -- the Secret History series. These are crossover spy novels rather than crossover private investigator novels, although as the series goes on the spy aspect is increasingly irrelevant. The "Secret History" part comes into play because it's the conspiracy theory view of history, particularly the history of the powerful Drood family, and the protagonist Eddie Drood hides his secret identity behind another secret identity, that of super-spy Shaman Bond. And so the books have puntastic titles like Daemons are Forever and Live and Let Drood. These novels are much longer and more complex than the Nightside books, and there are six of them to date. I've read five. Again, I'm waiting for the most recent, Live and Let Drood, to come out in paperback.

The longer format suits Green -- the plots can get more convoluted and more fantastic, and he can devote more pages to high-tech weaponry and mayhem and magic, including the Drood family's amazing magical armor. But of course the books tend to have the same sort of deus-ex-machina plotting that will get our hero into any crisis. So the stakes have to be raised to keep the reader's interest in the characters -- raised higher, and higher, and the effect can be a little mind-numbing. But again, these books are a lot of fun, but again, pace yourself and don't expect really convincing plotting. As you might expect of an author juggling several series at once, there is crossover between the series -- I believe these are all basically set in the same universe as his Deathstalker series, which I have not read. But the crossover with the Nightside is not as deep or interesting as one might have hoped.

There's another series I've tried -- Green's Ghostfinders series. I was very excited to see this series start because I am a big fan of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki stories, and I've collected some Carnacki stories, pastiches, and parodies by other authors. Unfortunately Green seems to set the wrong tone right out of the gate -- the stories seem much too violent and much too dark, turning the dial up to eleven on page one, and not managing dramatic tension properly at all. I found the characters unlikable. The first book was a disaster, but I decided to soldier on and try the second one, and was also disappointed, so I probably won't be trying to read or re-read this series any more.

Green is prolific. He's clearly subscribed to the hard-working, cranking-them-out-on-a-schedule school of writing, along the lines of Piers Anthony. As I've never published a novel, I feel a bit uncomfortable criticizing that school of writing, and I've seen some authors crank out volumes of work that are almost uniformly very successful -- I put Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks in this category. Still, I'm not convinced that quantity is the guarantee of quality. I'd like to read some of Green's other standalone work -- I'm curious about Shadows Fall, for example -- but I'm not eager to jump into another one of his series, because given my obsessive tendencies, if it is any good at all, I'll probably feel compelled to read it until the end. Which brings me to another writer in the "urban fantasy" genre and another series...

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files

I picked up Jim Butcher's Storm Front off the bookshelf after noticing that Subterranean Press was releasing a special volume of stories about Harry Dresden, Butcher's wizard protagonist. Dresden is an urban private investigator who is also a wizard, in contemporary Chicago. Most of the interesting conflict in the stories concerns trying to reconcile his actual magical abilities and training and history with the very mundane existence that he's not very good at. Magic and reality coexist uneasily in Dresden's world -- for example, even his magical aura has a tendency to burn out anything high-technology in his presence, from light bulbs to electric fans to car engines, so he lives in a boarding-house basement, lit by oil lamps and candles and heated with a fireplace, and he can barely keep his ancient Volkswagen beetle running.

It is this sort of limitation that makes the stories themselves more human and engaging. Butcher's world of magic has some distinct limits -- for example, Dresden is answerable to a White Council of wizards, who look strongly askance at killing anyone with magic, while the bad guys often don't labor under such constraints. Dresden also is himself the source of the energy behind his magic, and so he can pretty easily over-tax himself. And physically, he's quite human and breakable, although Butcher has Harry Dresden's enemies chew him up and spit him out so viciously that it's a miracle he can walk in time to star in the next book.

Butcher doesn't seem to have the knobs controlling ominous threat, violence, and punishment set quite right for maximally effective storytelling, but he's definitely getting somewhere. I found the first book, about the local mafia and a magical murder, to be a little rough -- the writing not so fluid, the plot twists a little predictable. But still, there was something imaginative enough about his protagonist to keep me going, and I'm now reading the fourth. Butcher's writing is becoming more fluid and free, and to my delight he feels more free to sprinkle in wordplay and bad puns. In the third book he manages to introduce another character who is very compelling, Michael, an actual knight of God. There are fourteen (wow!) novels so far, and so this series is no small commitment, but I can stop whenever I want. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

I can't really recommend blowing through a whole series like this in order, without allowing for some palate-cleansers in between. Reading this sort of series back-to-back is, it seems to me, kind of like watching a TV show on DVD by watching all the episodes back-to-back -- when you do so, their similarity becomes blatant, and the seams become much more visible. It's better to take time off to forget the faults of the last one, and doing so will let you better enjoy the next one.

That said, if Butcher's writing continues to improve as it has been improving in the first three, I might not be able to help myself. The most recent few might be very good if the trend holds true. Just by way of comparison, I'm not sure I can detect any upward trend in the quality of Green's books, at least those that I've read, and as I mentioned, his Ghost Finders books to date provide a lot of evidence to the contrary and scream "hack!"

Butcher has written a book of short stories about Harry Dresden, Side Jobs, and I'm planning to read it when I can buy the special edition from Subterranean Press. I suspect very strongly that what I'll find is that Butcher is better at writing short stories than he is novels, and that I will then come to see his Dresden files novels as short stories inflated to novel length for commercial reasons. I'm not sure how true that is, but I've been reading J. G. Ballard's short stories, and in his introduction he says that he finds it interesting that there are no perfect novels, but many perfect short stories, and I can't really disagree.

In between the last couple of Secret History and Dresden Files I've become increasingly aware of another phenomenon exciting geeks world-wide, and threatening to bust the boundaries of several different genres -- George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels.

A Game of Thrones

High Fantasy and Epic and Did I Mention Epic?

So for various reasons, likely having to do with four young children, I am probably the last fantasy fan to read A Game of Thrones. I'm embarrassed to admit that I did not even know who George R. R. Martin really was until recently, when I connected up the bushy-bearded Martin of Game of Thrones fame with the author of the short stories "Sandkings" and "The Way of Cross and Dragon" that I read in Omni magazine, back in the day.

Anyway, I haven't finished A Game of Thrones despite the fact that I purchased it first as a 28-disc audiobook. I rarely buy audiobooks, but decided that this might give me a better taste of his language, and I was right -- it's terrific this way, although I don't often get to focus on listening -- add in those four young children, a constantly ringing phone, and constant knocks on our door, to the point where the only time I've heard any of it uninterrupted is while driving, and since I work from home, I don't drive regularly. Anyway. The audiobook narrator is Roy Dotrice, and he does a great job with the characters, even the female characters, and that's a huge help, because if there is one thing this story has no shortage of, it's characters.

But of course I had to pick up a print copy too, so I can go back and re-read particular bits in print, and see how the names are spelled, and then we don't have cable, and so I've never seen the HBO adaptation, but I bought the season one DVDs and now I've watched the first episode, with my wife, after both listening to and reading the first part of the book, and so I'm ready to share Impressions and Pontificate.

Not What I Meant by Trash

So Martin's prose is excellent -- very engaging, beautiful, profane, dark, sardonic, and brutal. The genre is, more-or-less, "high" fantasy. But except for superficial similarities, don't think Tolkien; Tolkien's characters are wise and witty, noble and regal, often aloof and magical. Martin has pretty much turned that upside-down and his characters are Shakespearean -- Falstaffian, Calibanesque, or tragic. The setting is medieval, roughly along the lines of the War of the Roses, and there is clearly some magic at play, although so far it is mostly veiled. But so far to me it is Martin's sentences are just delicious. I rarely get this excited about genre writing, but the dark humor and wit and sadness and even love on display in just about every bit of dialogue is really rewarding. It is a reminder that writers in their later career can still be really formidable and in fact may be doing their best work.


The HBO adaptation makes very interesting choices, and I want to talk a little bit about those choices because this is, I believe, where the "fun trash" label again applies. First, having seen only episode one, there's a lot to be said about how well they've done it. The title sequence itself is a small masterpiece -- clockwork castles and villages rise from a map, giving new meaning to the idea of political machinations, and overseen by an ominous sun, like a burning eye inside a knife-bladed armillary sphere, suggesting that the clockwork is driven by the unstoppable march of the seasons.

Beyond that, there's just no getting around the fact that the visual adaptation of the story must be brutal; there are beheadings almost immediately out of the gate. The sets and costumes are gorgeous. But it's the precise use of nudity that is a little puzzling, and twists the storytelling towards the more prurient. In an early scene, Catelyn Tully and Lord Eddard Stark are in bed together -- having graphically just finished a vigorous coupling. She is naked, not nude in this scene, and remains naked even as she lets in an adviser to bring her a secret message from her sister. He covers his eyes, and she tells him that he needn't bother, as he's delivered all her children and so she has no more secrets left from him. It's an establishing scene, and helps portray her character as fierce and extremely pragmatic, and in the movie scene she remains entirely covered. I imagine that maybe the older actress wasn't willing to do the scene nude, but there are downstream storytelling consequences that must be accounted for. And in the book, Eddard Stark is just as naked as Catelyn, and I can't believe female fans wouldn't have enjoyed a good look at Sean Bean, but he remains firmly covered as well.

Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen gets a thorough inspection by her cruel older brother Viserys, in the text she is not naked -- he pinches her nipple "through the rough fabric of her tunic" as he examines her "budding breasts," wondering whether they are large enough to please Khal Drogo. Later he will order her to "let him see that you have breasts -- Gods know you have little enough as it is." But in the adaptation, she is stark naked, and clearly older (the actress was about 23), her body luxurious, a very nicely upholstered sport-utility body with large breasts and buttocks -- neither an ass-man or tit-man would have the slightest reason for complaint. Lord knows, I would be lying if I said that I minded looking at her myself -- but I could't help but wonder why I was looking at her.

In the book, Daenerys is thirteen years old -- her brother argues that she is old enough to marry, since she has "had her blood." Of course I'm not suggesting that an underage actress needed to display her breasts -- that wouldn't be legal, or even necessary for fidelity to the book; the sequence, even the bathing sequence, could easily have been shot without displaying anyone's breasts or buttocks, while also giving it both a cruel and erotic edge, as it was written. But that would have required the producers to show a little more courage.

No, it seems like the character was older, because the producers were not willing to claim that the character was thirteen. A thirteen-year-old in an arranged marriage is not acceptable to our modern standards. But that makes no damned sense. It's convenient that aging her allows an older actress to play the part, which coincidentally allows her to appear nude. This is puzzling, and can't be accounted for except by cowardice and prurience -- perhaps the younger actress, Emilia Clarke, could more easily be talked into doing a nude scene that isn't even in the book.

Some of the changes are more subtle. Violence is OK; rape can be shown, but not explicitly -- but apparently an uncomfortable combination of rape and seduction is beyond the pale. When Daenerys is taken off by Khal Drogo for her wedding night, in the text we read that although she was terrified and uncomfortable, Drogo was actually extremely gentle with her, and despite her misgivings she found herself aroused, and responding, at least physically, if not emotionally and so she ultimately accepts his advances, actually stating her consent out loud, saying "yes" and placing his finger in her vagina.

In the adaptation, Dhal Drogo pushes her down to take her unceremoniously from behind, like the violent rapes we saw in the wedding feast scenes (which, incidentally, seemed to me to be portrayed exactly as written) -- and the scene ends. So you can show a rape, but apparently you can't imply that perhaps a wedding night after an arranged marriage might turn out to be something more consensual after all. And in this and many other ways the adaptation flees from realistic complexity towards trashy simplicity.

So I'll keep reading and listening and watching, and see where it goes, but from what I've been told, the adaptation of the second book has embraced trashiness even more enthusiastically, and so I'm not sure that I'll want to bother. It seems to me that HBO went very far towards trusting their audience with an extremely complex and subtle story -- but only so far, and then no farther. And so the brilliant gold of Martin's story has been twisted into something both less intense, less disturbing, more conventional -- and trashier.

Friday, August 10, 2012

2. John Varley's Gaea Trilogy

While Reagan Mauled America

That Awkward Age

I was sixteen in 1984. My mother had gotten remarried, to an older gentleman in the next trailer over, and our two-income family was able to move into a real house in semi-rural Harborcreek, Pennsylvania. I had survived Junior High School, in a daze of larval awkwardness, carrying clipboards, mechanical pencils, Trapper Keepers, and textbooks covered in homemade book covers made from brown paper grocery bags.

I was plodding through that strange admixture of testosterone, body odor, ennui, and bullying that makes most geeks shudder when they recall high school. Mullet with a bizarre center part and feathered sides -- check. Red bandana in the back pocket of my jeans -- check. Sleeveless Combat Rock t-shirt -- check. Muscles to actually show off -- well, not so much. I had (and still have) a slightly odd body, with long, orangutan arms and toothpick wrists, a barrel chest, and strong legs. As a punk rocker, my bifocal glasses and lack of shoulders made me about as intimidating as a myopic, blow-dried hamster.

To try to keep my mind living and breathing and growing in this alien, inhospitable environment I carried books, to be read at every opportunity, especially in study halls and on bus rides. Despite the fact that we were in a school, the reading of these books was viewed with suspicion by students and teachers alike, and they were occasionally confiscated, more often by students than by teachers.

The Things They Carried

One of the books was the sheet music book for Rush's album Hemispheres. The cover featured a nude man, his backside visible, standing in a dramatically shadowed pose on the surface of a giant brain, gesturing at another man in a bowler hat, dapper suit with tie, and cane. This was just altogether too gay for my manly fellow male students to tolerate, and so they knocked it out of my hands during a crowded inter-class rush, it was kicked down the hall, and I never saw it again. I don't even know whose hands grabbed it -- was it a Mike whose name and face I can barely remember? But it was many feet that kicked it down the hall.

I'd try to claw that book back from thirty years of entropy, but it's not in print; it was scarce even then, and I was not able to find another copy. If you have a copy, I'd love to have it again. I look for it once in a while, but it is hard to search on a sheet music book that has the same name as an album. I eventually found the sheet music for the songs on Hemispheres again, years and decades later, in the various Rush Complete anthologies, but having the book torn from me was a moment that sticks in my mind.

Was I carrying it around to be provocative, knowing the likely reaction? I remember mostly wanting to keep my head down, while still wanting to be able to follow my own interests, but I guess it's possible. I probably should have covered the cover. But I always was an idealist and hoped that, well, my fellow students would just be cooler than that about an artistically naked rear end. The cover was high-concept, about the two halves of the brain, and the two halves of human nature, as described by Rush -- the Apollonian, and Dionysian, one buttoned-down, the other unfettered, but you try explaining that to 16-year-old high school boys.

Allegorically Speaking

In the lyrics, which might be more accurately called the libretto of the so-very-definitely-mid-1970s rock-operetta that comprises side one of Hemispheres in vinyl album form, human society veers wildly between the failure of an intellect-driven society, that has lost track of the passion that gave life meaning:

But one day the streets fell silent
Yet they knew not what was wrong
The urge to build these fine things
Seemed not to be so strong

and the collapse of the carefree spontaneous life of the vine, without a care for planning:

But the winter fell upon them
And it caught them unprepared
Bringing wolves and cold starvation
And the hearts of men despaired...

They are finally rescued by a new God, the disembodied spirit of the explorer who took the ultimate swan dive through the black hole in Cygnus X-1, at the end of the previous album, A Farewell to Kings. Apollo and Dionysus decide to call him Cygnus, the God of balance, and the story ends with the hope of a new world

With the heart and mind united
In a single perfect sphere

Pretty words, but not a sentiment you'd expect to gain a lot of sympathy among the jocks and burnouts of a rural high school in Pennsylvania. Yet I continued to try to circle my square and unite my yin and yang, believing that both my mind and spirit were perfectible, in the science-fictional universe where I lived.

Ten Thousand Hours

I was an aspiring guitarist, and from my step-brother, had acquired a 1969 Fender Mustang in Competition Red with racing stripes and matching headstock. That guitar is sadly gone as well. It was a guitar made for plugging into gentle tweed-covered amplifiers and playing twangy surf music with reverb, not for playing squealing heavy metal in front of a wall of Marshall Stacks, and so I hated it for what it was not and did not give it enough credit for what it was, which was a beautifully made American guitar with a short scale that fit my small hands perfectly.

In the evenings, while my family watched reruns of Mash and Diff'rent Strokes and Webster and Gimme a Break and later Hill Street Blues and Saint Elsehwere, I sat on the floor in our living room and played my scales and chords, the guitar unplugged, over and over, driving my brother mad with the quiet, un-amplified twanging, my fingers doing the work while my mind wandered. And so my fingers got some of the thousand hours that Malcolm Gladwell claims are required to make one a master of any field, but my mind lagged. My progress was very uneven, with irregular years off, although a few years ago I resolved to finish putting in those hours. My concentration is better, my hemispheres more unified, and I made rapid progress, and so can play quite passably well today.

Anyway, I was carrying Hemispheres to school because I was studying Alex Lifeson's interesing guitar chord voicings. In the memorable opening section, the band comes in on a big chord, in an irregular rhythmic figure in one of their extremely nerdy "math rock" time signatures, 12/8.

Guitar Hero

The chord is F#7(add B), which would be called by jazz players an add 11 chord. The song is in the key of E major, a very common key for hard rock, but this is not made very clear with the opening chord. The scale notes in the key of E major run E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, and the basic chords in E major use notes drawn from that scale. The notes in the key of F# major are F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E#. Don't get me started on why E# is not called F in this context -- it just isn't. In modern music, they have the same pitch, but it is a matter of nomenclature. Anyway, the voiced notes of the "Hemispheres chord," from low string to high, are F#, C#, F#, A#, B, and E. Playing guitar chords is not like playing piano chords -- on a piano, you can play any combination of notes that you can reach with your fingers. On a guitar, you can only play one note per string, which means that to find a fingering you can actually play with your hands, you are almost always playing the chords in rearranged form, often inversions, often stretched across an extra octave or two, and often dropping a note or two that is not critical in producing the chord's audible character.

In this chord there's a major triad of a first, a third, and a fifth, the F#, A#, and C#, although they appear out of order and spread across a second octave. This triad might suggest the key is F#. There is the flattened seventh (E) on top, making it a dominant seventh chord, which made it sound jazzy. But despite that E, it isn't a chord that would normally be used in the key of E major -- you'd expect F#m7 instead, since the A# note isn't one of the notes of the regular E major scale in E major, A# is an augmented fourth or diminished fifth, also known as the tritone, the diabolus in musica.

But the chord is not just implying a tritone against the root note of the key of the song; dominant seventh chords contain a tritone interval. In this case, it's the interval between the third, A#, and the minor seventh, E -- six half-steps.

And stuck in there is also the B, a perfect fifth of the key of E major, or a perfect fourth in the immediate context of the chord at hand -- really an octave and a fourth, known as an "extended voicing," an eleventh -- giving this chord both the nervous tritone and the fourth, which gives the chord a "floating," suspended character (major chords altered to use a fourth instead of a third are known as "suspended 4th" chords). So when we hear this chord, we are suspended nervously in space, and one chord can contain the seeds of both a piece of music and a lesson on the entire history of harmony in Western music.

The Uncertainty Principle

You may not understand this, but your ear does. It's an hesitant chord -- it hasn't defined the key very solidly, yet, or whether we are major or minor, jubilant or depressed, and it doesn't obviously point out whether it wants to go forwards or backwards, up or down. Is it Apollonian, or Dionysian? Or rather, balanced in between, but not balanced securely, but anxiously looking one way or the other?

On the recording, the music swirls in like a spigot has been opened and the chord kicks in, on that irregular beat, again and again, indecisive -- then shifts upward to a more definitively upbeat A(add b) and some more conventional, but still jazzy, major sevenths and mannered, precise jamming. This section is called a prelude but actually functions as an overture, introducing most of the musical ideas that will be used in the whole concept album side.

These chords made Hemispheres initially baffling, but intriguing, to my untrained musical ear. I was trying to train my ear to pick out the notes of chords so that I could listen to a piece and play it myself, without written music, as so many guitarists do. I was making progress on that, and in understanding the mysterious ways of chords, when the book was taken. I had other books, and I did not stop playing guitar altogether, but at least for a time, this particular line of inquiry was lost to me and I grieved to lose it.

Sometimes it seems to me that my memories are almost all about loss, and never about gain. In fact one could make a convincing argument that this series is all about me coming to terms with a long series of losses. I have to remind myself that there have been gains, in fact lots of gains, gains without number, gifts and findings and happy accidents, but as the child of a depressive and grandchild of a depressive and great-grandchild of a depressive, it is the losses that I mostly remember and that I feel moved to somehow restore. All I knew then was that listening to music and playing music soothed me, brought me out of my loops of anxious, persecuted thoughts and into my fingers and into the sounds, which I preferred as loud as possible.

The Other Hemisphere

Duelling Microprocessors

One of the other books I remember carrying to school was Rodnay Zaks' tome How to Program the Z-80. If music represented my Dionysian side, however nerdy and analytical my approach to it, the Apollonian side was computer programming. I still had my Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1, and had mastered BASIC, and a little Pascal, and was learning the low-level programming that these programming languages were built on, assembly language, and the machine instructions they translated to, where the abstract layers of the computer met the transistors. In school we had Apple IIs, and I learned a bit from them, but since the computer teacher had nothing to teach me the school computers were mostly reserved for play, and my own at home for serious study.

With me was another geek boy named Paul Betts, a sort of frenemy of mine, who was not headed down the academic track, but the vocational, despite his obvious brains. We duelled on Rubik's Cubes (my best time to solve a scrambled cube was, I think, fifty-two seconds), and we duelled on sign-up sheets. I don't remember what we were signing up for, but I remember signing up, a number of times. I'd sign up first, and he'd come to sign up and instead of writing his name he'd carefully adjust my name, adding a loop to the P in Potts and a line to the o and transform me into him, and I'd have to remember to come back later to see if he'd done that, and if so add my name to the end of the list, if the slots weren't all filled.

Other Paul was, if I recall correctly, an Intel 8080 guy. We argued about register size and instruction length and orthogonality of instruction sets and mnemonics, as all sixteen-year-old boys do. As everyone knows, the 8088 was the chip selected for the original IBM PC. I moved on to college, where I came to realize that the Z-80, despite being the processor in Pac-Man and countless other video games, was now considered a bit sad and ugly. I fell in love with the much prettier and more symmetrical Motorola 68000 instruction set architecture, in the original Macintosh, and especially its interrupt architecture and TRAP instructions, as did so many other teenage boys.

And of course this led, years later, to an infatuation with the PowerPC. But in the end we were both fooled, as the world is now x86-64, whatever the underlying micro-architecture and process size, and these loves of our youth are mostly in landfills and piled in the backs of thrift shops. Although, occasionally, on Mars -- the Curiosity rover that just landed on Mars sports a radiation-hardened PowerPC G3 chip, running several million lines of C code, and it is a beautiful piece of living history, for those who indulge in nostalgia for transistors, dies, and instruction set architectures.

Somewhere in Time

Some time around the same year, around the time that Other Paul was reading Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, a sort of low-budget version of Michael Crighton's The Andromeda Strain, and around the time I was reading Thomas J. Ryan's The Adolescence of P-1, about an artificial intelligence, I came across a copy of John Varley's novel _Titan, and the geometry and topography of my inner world changed forever.

The Siren of Titan

I was enthralled. Titan eventually led me to the next book, Wizard, and eventually to the next book, Demon, and unlike so many modern series that never end, continued even by the descendants and authorized ghostwriters of the author, Varley wisely wrapped things up while the Gaea trilogy was still great, and wisely hasn't ruined it with any sequels or prequels.

I've read one or two more Varley novels since and they are imaginative, but I have not found his other work nearly as fascinating as the Gaea trilogy. Except, of course for a novella that appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine called "Press Enter," where a guy loses control of his computers and gets his head stuck in a microwave oven. That was cool. Microwave ovens were still relatively new and exotic and I had been thinking along those lines myself, so I felt a sense of relief that someone else had conducted that particular experiment, and in print rather than real life.

A Titanic Undertaking

So. Titan, the first book, is about the spaceship Ringmaster's mission to Saturn. Varley doesn't waste a lot of pages in trying to prove that this is "hard" science fiction or try to impress you with his detailed knowledge of electronics or astrogation and extrapolation of this technology -- the kind of thing doesn't date well. He gives us just enough detail to make it more-or-less plausible, and does so efficiently, and then moves on. Mostly, he spends the first few pages introducing the cast. We learn that the captain is Cirocco Jones, a somewhat severe, multi-racial woman, and among the crew are Gaby Plauget, a female astronomer, two disturbing female clones in an incestuous relationship, and a couple of male crew members who generally don't feature as prominently in the story as the women. There is a no-nonsense presentation of their sexual relationships, erotic without slipping into bodice-ripping prurience.

This might sound pedestrian, but I assure you it was fairly radical at the time. A female heroine -- incredibly competent, but not just written as a man with breasts. She's got issues, but they don't cripple her. And the men aren't parodies, but mostly they're just not that important. It's likely that Ripley, the heroine played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien, was inspired at least in part by Cirocco Jones. She's a serious bad-ass. And she, and Varley, never feel the need to apologize for this. She is knocked down, she's hurt, she's traumatized -- but she never goes all squishy. She gets it done. It was, I think, one of the first novels I had ever read that bothered to take female characters seriously, in their own right, and not just make them eye candy or foils or conquest material for the men.

Plotting Along

Anyway, the crew discovers a new satellite of Saturn, and realize as they image it up-close that it is so regular in shape that it must be artificial. They are kinda right. In fact, it is a torus, a sort of space station, but as to whether it is an artifact or not -- that's complicated.

The story moves along quickly and the spaceship is seized by cables-like tentacles, or tentacle-like cables, and torn open, which is a bad state for a spaceship to be in. The crew members are able to don their pressure suits, but several are injured, and Jones is knocked unconscious. They awaken inside the torus, ejected from the earth itself in a weird reverse burial and rebirth, naked except for the broken metal remnants of their spacesuits. The story then becomes a quest for Jones, who meets up with Gaby, as they try to find their remaining crew members. A couple of them have working suit radios, but most do not, and it's a big, big place to explore.

That's the basic story of volume 1. Along the way the semi-bisexual Jones has a half-hearted lesbian affair with Plauget, they discover one crew member living inside a giant, intelligent blimp, and they meet the Titanides.

The Titanides are intelligent centaurs. Their language is musical; their family names contain references to musical scales; a prominent Titanide character is called Valiha (Aeolian Solo) Madrigal. The middle names refer to the particular circumstances of their birth, which I'll describe in more detail later. Jones discovers that she can speak their language; apparently she was programmed with this knowledge, while unconscious.

Oh, and Titanides have three sex organs each: a front penis or vagina, scaled to human size, and a middle penis and rear vagina scaled like horse parts. And they know how to use them all. Do they ever.

Naturally, I was utterly enthralled.

Winning Hearts and Minds

So, there's a war going on, and one of the crew members has gone mad, and there's a disturbing rape scene. We learn that one of the two clones has been turned into an "Angel," a member of the bird-like race that is at war with the Titanides. And we learn that the whole ring, 1300 kilometers across, is not actually an artifact per se, but an organism, that grew from a seed, from a long line of similar organisms, and it is an intelligent being.

The being is called Gaea, and Gaea is also its mind, centered in some sense in the hub, which is a 600-kilometer climb straight up, and Gaea is also in some sense a human avatar that represents this imposing being to the humans. Gaea can sculpt DNA and create and alter living thing, the way that humans can make electricity do their bidding, but directly, the way we grow children without the need to understand ontogeny and phylogeny. There is no "technology" per se in Gaea; she meets needs -- for things like radios, transportation, AIs, industrial machinery -- by creating organisms that are, or grow, or do, the things that need making or doing.

Wanting some answers, especially about the brutal Angel/Titanide war, Jones and Plauget decide to climb up there to the hub. They learn that Gaea, both the space station and the mind inhabiting it, is falling into old age and disrepair; she's a little senile, and a lot insane.

And about that Angel/Titanide war. They hate each other -- viscerally. They aren't competing for resources; they aren't tribes of the same species fighting each other; there's no rational reason for it. When Jones gets to grill Gaea, the avatar, about it, we learn that there is no grand reason for this animosity; Gaea is not a God whose ways are mysterious but whose motives are above reproach. Gaea just thought it would be entertaining to reprogram the Angels and Titanides to hate each other, viscerally. She got the idea when she started receiving television signals from Earth, because she enjoyed war movies and thought it might be fun to stage her own. She didn't ask the combatants how they might feel about this arrangement.

And so Jones solves the problem. Gaea removes the compulsion to fight; the Titanides are swallowed up and reprogrammed, and emerge with no memory of their former lives. This is a mixed blessing to Jones -- they do not remember her. It also raises some Interesting Questions about life and death and identity and consciousness, but Varley's great genius in this series is that he never, ever bashes you over the head with all the Interesting Questions; he's telling you a story.

Anyway, Titan is a brilliant book -- clean and tight, with a fast-moving plot, and amazing, beautiful, scene after scene. It holds up very, very well; I re-read the series this year, for the first time since I was a teenager. Varley's inventiveness and steadfast faith in his audience makes this an absolute classic, a piece of "golden age" science fiction re-imagined, decades after the golden age ended, and dropped like an improvised explosive into the middle of the churning, gutless moralizing and culture wars of the Reagan years. And so there were more books in the series, so let's move on and get the next burning question about human/Titanide relations out of the way.

They Fuck Horses, Don't They?

Actually, not until the second book, and technically they're not horses, even though they poop on the floor. But there is no doubt that Varley designed the Titanides -- or rather, borrowed the design of the Titanides and enhanced them a bit -- to make this possible, assuming a certain bravery and maybe some furniture to assist.

The second book picks up a few years later. OK, a lot of years later -- seventy-five, I think it is. Did I mention that Gaea grants the humans rejuvenation? Gaea grants the humans rejuvenation, or at least some humans she favors; she has created a fountain of youth, which Jones takes advantage of periodically, and Jones is not just youthful, but she's been optimized. Gaea is not a goddess, but she can grant immortality, at least of a sort, although she is not truly immortal herself, and knows that her life cycle is coming to an end. And as to the question of whether there is an underlying meaning or plan to the universe -- well, she's as clueless as the rest of us. (Did anyone ever attempt to ban this book from school libraries? Not that I've seen, but if certain Respectable People ever noticed it, I can't imagine they wouldn't try).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes -- our hero character, Cirocco Jones, is not so mighty; she's still revered by the Titanides, but she's a now a pathetic alcoholic, and her alcohol abuse is not rendered romantic or comic; it's a disaster. It's only her "enhancements" that have, apparently, kept her from drinking herself straight to death. While Jones is barely functioning, Plauget has spent much of the last decades working on big engineering projects, such as a massive highway project.

Pay No Attention to the Drunk Behind the Curtain

So what happened to Cirocco? She has been given the role of "wizard," hence the title of the volume. After the angel war, something needed to be put in place to keep the Titanide population in check. Gaea's solution was to make Jones herself necessary for Titanide reproduction. It's a big responsibility -- she has to essentially review the plan for each Titanide baby, and sign off on them. She can't grant every Titanide who wants to have a child permission to do so. And she knows that if she dies, the Titanide race will go extinct. Hence, she has to keep living, while she's lived so long with this burden that she wants to die.

What "plan" for each baby? Titanide reproduction is complicated. An individual can have up to four parents. Male/female intercourse with the frontal, human-sized organs, considered a special, private activity, produces an egg -- except in one special case. These eggs aren't considered embryos yet. They have a long shelf-life, and are inscribed and kept as mementos of special relationships. By comparison, the Titanides fuck with their horse-sized organs very casually. Decorated with piercings, and androgynous, and often adorned in flowers, they are a kind of xeno-hippie, the Flower Children of the universe.

As a result of their physical layout as centaurs, there is one taboo that Varley didn't bring up. Titanides of either gender have only the rear anus, and so there there is no human-scale, front, "special" version of Titanide/Titanide or Titanide/human anal sex, either hetero- or homosexual. When Varley dreamed up the Titanides, I'm not sure if he just didn't want to go there. Granted, two anuses seem redundant and physically unnecessary -- but so do extra penises and vaginas, except that they are needed for the complicated business of making Titanide babies. For a story that is impressively free in its taboo-smashing, that seems a little hetero-normative. Of course, Varley hints but doesn't dwell much on all kinds of other possibilities involving lips, tongues, fingers, and the human- and horse-scale parts of all kinds, so your perverted imagination has an awful lot to work with if you'd like to set a slash fiction piece in Varley's world.

Where was I? Oh, the egg resulting from frontal intercourse. An egg must be activated by the wizard -- as wizard, Jones actually has to put it in her mouth, since her saliva alone has a compound that activates the egg -- then implanted in a rear vagina -- but not necessarily the rear vagina of the Titanide that produced the egg. The activated egg must then be fertilized a second time with one of the horse-sized middle penises, before it really starts to develop as a Titanide child.

There are a lot of combinations, involving up to four Titanides. They are enumerated as quartets, trios, duos, and a single type of solo -- the "Aeolian Solo" which is Valiha's middle name. In a solo, semen from the central penis can be placed in the front vagina of a female Titanide to produce an egg, and then semen from the same source can be used for the second fertilization in the rear horse-sized vagina. And so the phrase "go fuck yourself" is not necessarily an insult in Titanide.

How Long Have You Been Waiting to Make That Joke?

If your mind is spinning a bit trying to think through the possibilities, don't worry. Varley has conveniently provided a chart for our perusal. There's really no need to memorize it to understand the story, though. One can imagine him, laying out the possibilities, perhaps on a piece of graph paper, perhaps with a mechanical pencil and an engineering template, perhaps chortling to himself as he combines two things he clearly enjoys, or at least enjoys thinking about -- music theory and sexual intercourse. I won't explain all the nomenclature, but addition to the Aeolian, there are Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian; combinations can be "flatted" or "sharped." And a Titanide family? It's called a "chord."

Humans and Titanides can fool around in various ways, but the burning question is "can they produce offspring?" Science would say "no," but the Titanides are a created race, and Gaea has a sense of humor. So the answer is "yes," although Titanide/human offspring are never featured in the books.

Strength and Helplessness

The second book features a couple of new characters -- Chris and Robin. Robin is an epileptic young woman from a radical separatist coven of lesbian witches, who knows virtually nothing about relationships between the sexes in the outside world. Chris, a pilgrim from earth, suffers from psychotic fugues.

Tourism from Earth is booming. Gaea, whose technological powers border on the godlike, grants the occasional pilgrim special favors. There's another quest. Oh, and the regional brains that make up part of Gaea's intelligence are becoming crazed and rebellious. Hijinks ensue! And the stakes, as they say, are raised -- raised a lot. Gaea plays for keeps.

Both Chris and Robin will face, in their respective quests, not the need for strength, but the need for weakness -- the need to accept help; the realization that their human bodies and minds will occasionally betray them and they must rely both on the kindness and forbearance of other humans and Titanides for their very survival; Robin becomes helplessly incapacitated by seizures, and Chris goes out of his mind, becoming a different person -- raging and violent, or sexually adventurous and aggressive -- and doesn't remember, afterwards, who he's been or what he's done. They represent two additional twists on the anti-heroes of the trilogy -- and find redemption in acceptance of their weakness.

Demon Seed

Wizard ends in a victory, but with the shattering losses Jones endures, it's not a happy ending. As the third book opens, Jones is plotting her revenge. She's kicked the bottle -- and finds that Gaea has been spying on her. It's an inside job. And she's got a mission: to bring down Gaea. Demon sprawls a bit, and Varley really goes all-out with the crazy creatures, but it all fits, and the plotting is reasonably fast-paced, as Jones and the Titanides get their war on with a powerful entity who has slipped quite thoroughly into madness. And in a being who can create living organisms at a whim, this madness is highly entertaining.

In Which Your Author Awkwardly Attempts to Wrap Things Up

So, I feel that I have to talk about why these myths, these stories, these theories, were so valuable to me; why I reveled in them, recall them so fondly, and re-read them now. The short answer is that "I don't know." But what I do know is this: for whatever reason, I decided at a very young age, as I read everything I could get my hands on, that I would be the type of person who would explore just about any possibility, and would not immediately judge. I knew the instance I read one of my mother's medical encyclopedia's entry about hallucinogenic drugs, at a very young age, that I would one day try them, and did. I read about the varieties of human sexual experience and knew that I would one day explore all I felt I could of them. I read about exotic foods and exotic places and although I am not suited by temperament to be a world traveler, and I am not going to be a rock climber, or jump out of an airplane, I have always been of a mind to taste just about any food or philosophy and experience and I have found many, many of them good.

Perhaps uncritically so, but I've always thought that becoming conservative and curmudgeonly in my old age, and unwilling to try new things, was something that would likely take care of itself. There was no reason to cut off the possibilities prematurely -- but more importantly, there was no reason to take the religion of my mother, or grandmother as my unquestioned beliefs; there was no reason to take my grandmother's tastes in food as my own, and stop there; there was no reason to take the moral view that my parents and grandparents had of the world and make it my own -- no reason to share their judgments. There was plenty of judging going on all around me, growing up; "that's different" and "you're different" were both grave insults. I vowed at such an early age not to fall into this trap that I have no memory of thinking otherwise. Perhaps it was baked-in.

Novelty-seeking has been studied; it's associated with dopamine receptors, with Attention Deficit Disorder, and compulsive spending. I could plead guilty to both of those, I suppose, although they are better than the deep depression which I was unable to pull myself completely out of for many years, and which still hovers over my shoulder waiting. I could be a little bipolar; I know I'm a depressive. But I'm a novelty seeker, and always have been -- seeking the new, and accepting it. I am hard-wired to be a liberal. My quick mind becomes and always has become painfully bored very easily, and I do remember that -- and that is why one develops a life of the mind; it's self-defense. When the world cannot provide much stimulation, your inner life can -- and that's where the Big Ideas come in.

The psychiatrist C. Robert Cloninger has studied this and says that while it can yield problems -- employers don't really like employees that are constantly getting bored in their work -- it is adaptive; a certain portion of the early human population must have possessed a "migration gene." The research suggests it is a good predictor of success in later life, and ties it to continual personality and intellectual growth. And, I believe, it is just as good a predictor of a difficult childhood, where the new is viewed with suspicion and young people double-down on conformity out of fear of being the one that is singled out, ostracized, and left behind.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

1. Introduction and Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet


In Which I Introduce Myself

So here it is, a day like most of my other days recently -- so much like them that they tend to flow together, to become unremarkable, and unremembered, and then a year passes, and I can't remember most of it, but I know I'm older. I'll be forty-five this year, and my beard is every day a little whiter, in uneven tufts and patches. My mustache is showing white hairs as well, under my nose. The hair on my head, which I'm fortunately losing only slowly, is intermixed with gray; it's becoming almost impossible to tell the difference between the blond and silver hairs intermixed there, but when I get it cut, the gray and white piling up on my black barbershop cape.

The most basic actuarial tables say I've got 33 years. Maybe I will live longer, and maybe shorter -- my grandmother made it to 102, but my mother died at 70. And of course it could all fall apart much more quickly and surprisingly than that. My wife keeps asking me to get my funeral plan in order.

I'm at my desk, which is a door (and that's not a metaphor -- I mean it's a door from a building supply store, which I stained dark brown -- they're light and stiff, and so make excellent, easily movable work surfaces), balanced on plastic sawhorses (not so excellent, since I can't adjust the height). Things have been a little better for me, mood-wise, since I arranged it to I can look out my office window at a slice of sky and our neighbor's unremarkable house and garage.

The office is a perpetual mess, although I periodically make half-hearted attempts to organize the tides of books and papers and photographs and junk that flow and recede over the pretty pine wood floor that I had refinished when we bought this house. In fact I'm in a wooden box, with pine-paneled walls; it's my man-cave, the highest point in the house save the attic; the captain's cabin, and it reflects my tastes, which evidently tend towards hoarded art supplies, cables, USB memory sticks, bubble wrap, rolled-up posters, compact discs, guitar amplifiers, receipts, notebooks, index cards, pens, and the computers to actually do my work, but mostly books. Make a note -- I'll circle back to the books.

I'm getting to what could optimistically be called middle age. If this winds up actually being the middle, I'll have done well, to live to ninety, to be around for my family for another forty-five years. But let's not make any predictions, to tempt the universe into making this ironic.

It's impossible to understand the present without understanding the past, and understanding the stories we used to tell ourselves about the future. My life has been shaped by books -- by which I mean mostly books, although I'll allow some short stories, films, and perhaps albums into the discussion now and then. I read early, so early that I can't remember learning to read or being unable to read, and voraciously. And the story of what I've read, and what I took from it, is probably the single most coherent way to understand the arc of my life and my life's interests and work, my aesthetic, my judgments, my opinions. I read about technology and science, fantasy and history, and most importantly the literature of the twentieth century, science fiction. These books will be my subject. And I'll be their subject as well.

Under the Influence

Under the influence of these books, I learned to live in fictional worlds -- to stretch out and set up camp, and inhabit and explore them, to love their inhabitants and scenic vistas and smells and sounds. But that has a dark side -- the early critics of novel-reading weren't entirely wrong to consider it a vice, and living in worlds can have its downsides, both in one's resulting absence from this world, and the eventual disappointment one feels at returning to the everyday world, even if one is able to bring home a magical ring from Middle Earth, or a bit of spice from Arrakis.

Under the influence of these books, I developed an interest in, and faith in technology, that led me eventually into computer programming, and my career. It's been pretty good to me. But it has a dark side -- technophilia, and the delusions of technology.

Under the influence of these books, I developed a belief in progress. The history of human beings here on this planet is amazing. Neal Stephenson has likened it to finding ourselves at dawn paddling in the sea, surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of a massive shipwreck. While fending off sharks and pirates, we managed to build the ship and we're now sailing in it. But the dark side, of course, is that civilizations founder, and we can't get cocky. We can still drown.

Under the influence of these books, I developed a love of mathematics, and pure abstraction of thought, and systems thinking, of architecture and form. But that has a dark side -- impracticality, an inability to smell a rose, a failure to see the trees in the forest.

Under the influence of these books, I developed a love for writing, my second great vocation after reading, which I've also occasionally been paid to do; it's been good to me in other ways. Writing has been my hobby, my way of shaping my thoughts, my way of testing hypotheses, my way of learning, and my way of thinking since I was quite young. I have yet to see its dark side.

The Impulse to Autobiography and the Nature of Self

Under the influence of these books, I grew up thinking that death might actually be something that would eventually be cured, or at least postponed so long that it wouldn't be troubling. I considered that I might be able to stop aging, or get a shot and become younger. I considered that if death came along I might be put into storage, or made virtual, to continue in the distant future, or on a chip.

Any of those options would significantly complicate those funeral plans I'm supposed to be making, not to mention my life insurance arrangements. But when my wife isn't talking about cremating or perhaps composting me, she sometimes mentions memoirs. I've thought about it before; I've thought of different forms, of anecdotes, of short stories, of episodes, chronological or reversed; in fact, I've written some short stories about my life, but most of them are now over twenty years old, and I've done a little more living since then.

As I realize that I'm getting older and deader, and I haven't ever finished a novel, or written any more stories for some time, or finished any long essays in a while, or completed an album, and the blogs and podcasts aren't going to make a very coherent autobiography, I've come to think that maybe this project, writing about the stories that shaped me, the books that wrote me, might actually create something that could stand in for an autobiography, if you squint.

If Samuel R. Delaney can consider time as a helix of semi-precious stones, perhaps I can consider time as a series of books that molded my thought, my actions, my world view, and my identity. And maybe that would be interesting, and you'd even come to look forward to reading or listening to the next one.

As I've aged, I've come to agree with David McCullough's commencement speech, telling his students that they aren't special. I've even come to doubt the special nature of human consciousness, and individual identity. It seems to me more and more than the only things unique about me in all of historic time and universal space -- which I'm beginning to believe may not exist, as such, either, are my DNA, and my point of view, this precise perspective from which I see the world.

I once complained to my father that I knew almost nothing about who he was as a person. To this he responded that who he was, wasn't that interesting -- what we are is a particular bundle of "tendencies, and excrement," but he allowed that the things he had learned from others might be worth conveying.

I'd say that on a bad day, especially B. C. (before coffee), I do in fact mainly comprise a bundle of reactions, nervous tics, and trivia. Increasingly, I think self-consciousness itself is just a sort of party trick the brain does, and is often a liability that we just might evolve out of, as it often just gets in the way of propagating our selfish genes. Christian by upbringing, I am nevertheless not able to put much stock in supernatural outcomes. Entropy will win, but there might be some comfort to be had in passing on my memes. It's what I've got to say. And when you've thought about these things along with me, maybe we'll have something in common.

So this is the end of my introduction. What's next? The first book I want to talk about. The books are in no particular order, although this one seems particularly relevant in the summer of 2012.

Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet

Your Humble Author Circa 1973

In 1973 I turned six years old and entered the first grade. I was a nervous, weedy little boy. Raised by a single mother, I lived in a trailer, I had platinum blond hair, and my pants were too short. Hyper-sensitive to noise, the chaos of the public school bus triggered blinding headaches. Now I understand that I had symptoms of what is known as mild autism. Then I was clumsy, and painfully intraverted, a target. I don't remember much about those years, in the same way that abuse survivors often block out whole swaths of their lives, but I had poor vision, I was labeled as gifted, and always on the defensive -- over-stimulated. I remember the headaches and the nausea and the allergies.

My brother was a more typical boy and wanted to play with me, but I was extremely conscious of my desire for personal space, and for quiet, and so our fighting was not sibling rivalry so much as panicked self-defense. Personal space was scarce. I had gone to a Montessori kindergarten, and learned to understand powers of ten and volumes and areas and, as I recall, the metric system of measurement, with their colorful space-filling blocks, although that might be a confused memory.

At some point, perhaps in first grade, I was taught the I.T.A., or "Initial Teaching Alphabet." This was a simplified writing system in which English sounds could be rendered into characters in a way that avoided some of the confusion of English spelling. All common sounds in spoken English were represented with characters. For example, the "i-n-g" in the word "sing" had a special character, an "n" with an extra curlicue. The doubled "o" in "book" had a special character, that was distinct from the doubled "o" in "ooze." They both looked like altered "w" characters.

I recall reading storybooks written in I.T.A., although I cannot now remember all the characters, but at the same time I could already read well above grade level, and so in some sense I was bi-textual. My mother told me that she believed I.T.A. mostly just slowed down my reading, and she didn't recall it fondly. The idea was that children would learn to read I.T.A. and so be able to say all of the different types of sounds of English speech, following consistent rules, and then somehow transition into reading the inconsistent standard written English, although I can't imagine how that would yield anything but a sense of dismay and cynicism, like renting an apartment based on the model, only to find that the one you had to live in had a leaking roof, no hot water, and a stove that wouldn't work.

The Scholastic Book Club

Although I might have been slowed down temporarily by the detour into I.T.A., it certainly failed to destroy my love of reading, and so one of the things I remember most about second and third grade was the Scholastic Book Club. We got Cricket magazine at home -- and I still have most of them -- but at school we got newsprint flyers, with boxes to check, and then we could bring in cash or checks, and could order our own copies of discounted books. I remember that I had to be selective, because I did not get much money allocated to this, although I can't remember the details. I recall the flyers, and the "total number of items" and "total amount due" boxes. I recall that my choices were invariably unique in the classroom of perhaps 25 students, with the exception of Dynamite magazine. I chose science fiction and fantasy -- A.E. Van Vogt, Ray Bradbury, and other writers -- and awaited the books so eagerly I would make myself quite sick with anxiety, sometimes literally. One of them was Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet, by James R. Berry, illustrated by Ken Longtemps.

I have a copy in my hand now. It isn't my original copy. I bought this copy last year from a used bookstore online. When it arrived, I was suddenly seven or eight years old again.

The illustrations show a young white boy with clear, intent eyes and wavy hair. The cover features they boy, and above and behind his head is a whorl of watercolor shades of blue and green and purple, with a pinched, odd face in the center, like a face you might find in the center of a cabbage. The interior is black and white, with spot color in two shades of a faded, queasy green. It is the first printing of the Scholastic edition, from February 1974. It seems unlikely that there was a second one. The first sentence reads "They've called me a dreamer ever since I can remember."

I may have read the book only once back then, and not read it again until 2011. They've called me a dreamer ever since I can remember. Some things are burned in my memory. But the mundane -- the faces, the locations, the days -- they drift from view. I have memories of memories, or memories reinforced by looking at photographs, of scenes that might be partially imagined, or reconstructed later from things my mother told me.

The Child and the Alien

The story follow a common storytelling trope of an invisible friend that adults can't perceive, and won't believe in. In the end the narrator is no longer certain that the events he's recounting really happened. He says "I can't tell grown-ups about him. I tried, but all I got was funny looks. Once my mother felt my forehead. So I know they wouldn't believe the whole story. That's why I'm writing this down for other kids to read." So immediately I was a confidant, someone who would understand. Like Mulder, I wanted to believe.

Our narrator, Ralph Winston, is daydreaming in a spelling class -- I was exceptionally good, and quite bored, in spelling -- when he receives a "tug" at his mind, like "getting poked," inside his head, and a voice, and a faint vision. It fades, but returns later. He hears and sees it best in his sleep. He says, "I saw a kind of hazy shape, like something through a window covered with mist from your breath. I tried to get closer to what it was. I sort of thought myself closer." The shape becomes clearer and the voice becomes louder.

His visitor is Dar Tellum, and Dar Tellum is just as confused as our narrator as to just how the two of them are communicating. To each other, they look vague and out-of-focus, like lights in the fog. Dar Tellum tells Ralph about telekinesis. With Dar Tellum's coaching and assistance, Ralph is able to move a baseball in his room, but this only works when he is in contact with Dar Tellum.

The Crisis

In the second chapter of this short book, we learn that what might have been a dream was real -- the baseball is in the place that Dar Tellum and Ralph put it. In math class, the two of them distract his teacher by levitating a notebook and flinging it at his teacher, before she can examine his work and realize that he has been distracted. The other students witness it.

That night, Ralph gets up to have a snack before going to sleep, and finds his parents talking in the kitchen: "... I found out what my Dad really does. I always knew that he was some sort of an engineer." He eavesdrops, and discovers that Earth is in crisis; dozens of cities are in danger of flooding. The ocean levels are rising. "From what I understood, and I'm sure there are gaps here and there, the smoke from cars and factories goes into the air. A part of this smoke called carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere of Earth. It lets the sun's heat in, but it won't let much heat out. This carbon dioxide makes a kind of one-way lid on Earth. Heat in, but not much out. And this extra heat was warming up the north and south poles. So the ice was melting and the oceans were getting higher."

Ralph's father is working on a secret project to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and failing.

This may sound vaguely familiar.

The Truth

The truth is, the global warming concept is not new. Scholarship on the subject goes back for some time. By 1961, Charles David Keeling had documented a steady annual rise in carbon dioxide levels. His projections have been entirely confirmed. The National Science Foundation issued a warning in 1963 and President Johnson's Science Advisory Committee raised the alarm in 1965. By 1971, the SMIC (that's Study of Man's Impact on Climate) conference reported on the possible danger of rapid and serious anthropogenic climate change. Al Gore didn't invent the concept in the nineties; there have been over fifty years of steadily convincing warning signs and confirmed predictions. You can look it up -- but since a lot of these documents are pre-Internet, you might have to sign off Google and go to a library.

This has been, it seems, a minority report, but I don't think it will be so for much longer. Sometimes in my darker moments I begin to think that one of the reasons I'm here -- and perhaps the only reason -- is to bear witness to the end of the world I grew up in.

Having children changes one's perspective. This is now their world; they are my replacements in it. And they will not know a world in which they don't know -- not just fear, but know -- that the climate is changing rapidly, and becoming a climate that is not hospitable to our human world. The ship of civilization has been listing, and now it's visibly taking on water. There is a bright side -- we've reached a tipping point in public opinion, and deniers will soon be the lunatic fringe. But the dark side is that we've reached a tipping point, and we're tipping. The best we can hope for is to reduce the worst-case scenario. It isn't the Earth that is in trouble; it's us.

Back to the Book

Dar Tellum is from Sidra, a planet with five moons, circling a double sun. Strain as hard as he might, Ralph cannot see Dar Tellum clearly; at best, he remains a vague shape surrounded by "waving things" -- flat paddle shapes -- that move up and down. Dar Tellum may be an aquatic creature. He may understand algae as someone who has an up-close-and-personal relationship with it. He mentions learning by "sharing from the fact colonies" and his species does not seem to have written language, or technology like ours (he does not understand what a "rocket" is). His species could be in a post-technological state, whose technology is now biological. He may understand climate change and sea level rise so well because his perspective is that of a member of a race that has survived it.

The rest of the plot is somewhat predictable; Dar Tellum suggests a solution, to launch algae into the upper atmosphere, where it could stay, and absorb carbon dioxide. While Ralph examines an encyclopedia, Dar Tellum identifies a promising species. Ralph decides to write Dar Tellum's idea onto a piece of paper, and puts it in his father's briefcase, into a file folder marked "New Proposals." His father discovers the paper. Ralph confesses to placing it in his father's briefcase, and claims to have come up with the idea in a dream. The idea is vetted. Ralph is invited to the launching of the rocket. But there is a crisis -- a different type of algae has been tested, and chosen, and it isn't the one that Dar Tellum selected.

Ralph knows that it won't work, and Dar Tellum confirms this. At the last second, the two of them are able to use telekinesis to switch the containers and put the correct type of algae into the spaceship.

The plan works, and more rockets are launched with the correct algae. And Earth is saved. But Ralph can't tell anyone. And in the last sentence of the book he asks us to also keep it a secret.

Stand Back -- I'm Going to Try Science!

So there's a lot going on here. If I've done my job here, you can see why this book made such a strong impression. An alienated child, I found an awful lot to like about a story of a child and an alien. I knew that I was gifted; I believed that I had secret knowledge. I didn't have much success with the telepathy, telekinesis, or remote viewing, but I continued to hope that I might eventually work that out. And implicit in the story was faith in science -- specifically, the idea that progress in our ability to fix things would stay ahead of our tendency to break things. My adult understanding of the history of civilization and technology does not, to me now, seem to bear that out. But do we have too much faith in science -- or not enough?

We remember the winters of our childhood -- the tremendous snow drifts, the snow days, the sun. But we were a lot shorter then, the lenses of our eyes were clearer, and the world was a lot newer to us. But as humans, with our short human lives and fallible memories, we are very poor at understanding changes to the world that take longer than a human childhood to play out. This is where science must come in. It's the very tool that we've devised to overcome the limitations of our senses and memories.

And so we are where we are. There isn't a lot of value in wringing hands and assigning blame -- but we should remember who, and what kind of person, was on the wrong side of history. For years, anthropogenic global warming mostly has had a public relations problem -- the advocates of the theory were consistently outspent, as if we could vote the problem out of existence. There's a quotation by Richard Feynman that is relevant: "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." And so the scientists were good at the science, but a hypothetical average American watching the teevee machine over the course of the last decade might come away from it convinced that the data wasn't in, or that the hypothesis itself existed due to a conspiracy to take away his sport-utility vehicle.

We have thermometers, and other measuring devices. We have the properties of matter, of solids and gasses. We can make predictions and test them. We have Occam's razor. But what we don't have is a populace that is sufficiently educated to discern the signal from the noise, and to realize that arguments based on one's preferred sports team or one's religious beliefs are not likely to be convincing to reality. When Richard Feynman presented the results of the investigation into the causes of the Challenger disaster, he wrote "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Mother Nature cannot be fooled." Another quotation, attributed to Lincoln, is relevant here -- I'm sure you've heard it -- something about fooling people, not mother nature. But not all of them, and not forever.