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

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Read It (and Watched It), Late May 2016

Read It, Late May 2016

Attempting Normal

On my way home from Ann Arbor this week I stopped at the Book Warehouse in Birch Run, at the outlet mall. I used to get books there pretty frequently, but lately their prices have been increasing and their selection going downhill. While a few years ago they would sell books “10 for $10” or “3 for $10” or similar deals, now they tend to be marked down from publisher's list. The markdown from list price may be 60% off, but for a hardcover that's still a lot more expensive than they used to be.

I've also gotten some good audiobooks there — for example, I bought Christopher Hitchens Arguably as an unabridged audiobook there. it was 24 CDs for, I think, $20. I had found an unabridged audiobook of David Foster Wallace's book of essays Both Flesh and Not there, too. But when I looked around on Thursday for some other audiobooks that I might be interested in reading, I found nothing at all.

The outlet mall seems to be going downhill in other ways. It looks like a couple of other stores I liked are closed. There was a place that stocked a lot of discount DVDs, including boxed sets of TV shows. It seems to be gone.

Anyway, I did find a slim book by Marc Maron called Attempting Normal. I have been a fan of Marc Maron for many years. I got to meet him in person when he performed a show in Pontiac, Michigan a few years ago. I've been curious about his books but never curious enough to order one.

Marc is a literate guy and was an English major, like me. He's a storyteller and observational comic. His book contains some of his longer-form storytelling; not jokes, but short anecdotes of a few to a dozen pages.

If you've listened to hundreds of episodes of his podcast, some of this material will be familiar. I know I've heard him tell some versions of these stories on his podcast. I heard versions of a few of them in his live show. But they are a little more detailed in the book, and they interlock with each other to form an arc over time.

This is a funny book. He waxes philosophical but always brings things very much down to an earthy, unpretentious level. I very, very rarely laugh out loud when reading funny books but I got a few laughs out of this book. Maron writes honestly about the ways we delude and distract and comfort ourselves. He had a metting with Lorne Michaels, to be considered for Saturday Night Live, in 1994, and it didn't work out. He wound up in a strip club afterwards:

I was sitting in the back of the strip club looking vulnerable with the book I was reading at the time, The Poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, when one of the girls asked me if I wanted a table dance.

I agreed. She started dancing for me. I tried to focus. I made small talk. I said “What do you do during the day?”

She put her tits in my face and said, “I'm a student.”

“What do you study?” I said, face full of boobs.

“English literature” she said as she stood up, turned around, and bent over and shook her ass at me and spanked it. She looked back over her shoulder and said, “I'm minoring in political science.”

His style is deadpan and unassuming, but it is his relentless honesty that makes the whole thing cathartic and worth reading. I'm reminded in small ways, actually, of the multi-volume novel My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I'm also reminded just a little of Charles Bukowski and Lenny Bruce. I'm not claiming Maron is really a literary guy or that this is an autobiography or novel for the ages. But it's a fun and quick read that might provoke laughs, winces, and a little self-examination.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2016

I still occasionally pick up issues of the venerable Asimov's and F&SF, although not very often. This issue features three stories about Mars. The best of these is a very short story by Mary Robinette Kowal, called “Rockets Red.” Her style reminds me a bit of Kage Baker — she wastes few words. It makes me want to read more of her stories.

“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” is an unnerving little story by Bennett North. “The White Piano” by David Gerrold is pretty but marred by a schmaltzy, conventional view of the afterlife. Terry Bisson's “Robot from the Future” is a fun, weird piece. “Touch Me All Over” by Betsy James creates an intriguing world of the Native American past. I didn't quite click with “Squidtown” by Leo Vladimirsky — the world he was building just didn't feel quite like a place, to me.

Most of the stories in this issue are, in short, quite good, competently executed, but only a few really shine. I have a few more to finish but in general, it reaffirms my belief that I don't need to keep up with everything published in Asimov's and F&SF. It's enough to pick up an issue once a year or so and see what is happening in genre short stories.

Solaris

I am finishing up the new translation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, in audiobook form; see my last post for details.

This was quite a rewarding listen. Solaris can be a challenging book. In some chapters, Lem does a deep dive into the back-story, not of the planet Solaris itself but of the history of the scientific investigations into Solaris. Much of this is laid out in chapter 8 where we learn about the mysterious structures that emerge from the planet-wrapping ocean, evolve, and then crumble and collapse. This gets into some pretty deep waters, so to speak — Lem is asking us to consider the nature and limits of science and scientific consensus as a human. As a work of philosophy this actually puts Solaris on the shelf with Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

It might sound silly to equate a science fiction novel with a respected book on the philosophy of science, but I'm dead serious. Lem really was that deep a thinker — one of our (“our,” in the sense of humankind's) deepest. And so the real movement and action and story arc of this book is largely an arc of thought — Kelvin's developing understanding of Solaris, the manifestations produced by the ocean, and his dwindling hopes of being able to really communicate with this alien intelligence.

Alien intelligence was a big topic for Lem. He didn't believe in a comforting, anthropically-oriented universe that was going to fit into our preconceived notions of what comprises life, and what comprises intelligence. Lem's aliens also weren't going to conform to our desires to find buddies in space — people who were like us, but maybe with green skin or antenna or different kinds of latex appliances on their noses or brows. Lem's aliens are really alien. We're not sure they are conscious; we're not sure they are intelligent; we're not sure they are alive. They are not necessarily interested in communicating with us. To them, we are probably just as bizarre. For the right reader this is really heady stuff.

From a young age, when I was first exposed to Lem's stories collected in The Cyberiad, I found Lem both wonderfully funny and fantastically deep. As I read more of his novels, the depths got deeper. I read an excerpt from his novel Return from the Stars in Omni magazine. That was my introduction to a type of science fiction that I think is still hard to classify, but I might call it post-optimistic science fiction. It is characterized by the view that our naive view of the future, expressed nowhere as clearly as the original Star Trek television series, was not an accurate view of humanity's future.

In modern genre fiction, this view of Lem's has many adherents. One of the best contemporary examples is found in the Peter Watts novel Blindsight, but there are plenty of others. Some weird fiction and even “new weird” fiction, such as Peter Vandermeer's novel annihilation, uses the notion of the incomprehensible alien.

The science fiction trope in which people we have lost — parents, lovers, etc. — appear to us as simulacra, to facilitate communication with aliens, is now commonplace and cliched, and might seem that way to contemporary readers of Solaris. For example, it appears in the Carl Sagan's novel Contact, and it is one of the reasons that the climax of the book (and movie) feels a bit disappointing. But I believe one of the reasons this trope has become cliched is simply that so many later screenwriters have borrowed the idea from Lem. Lem didn't originate the notion of the doppelgänger, but perhaps this particular version of it.

Several of Lem's novels explore the contact-with-incomprehensible-aliens theme. I wrote my junior thesis paper on his novel Fiasco. Another Lem novel, The Invincible, expresses similar ideas. So does Eden. At some point I really should dust off that thesis paper and put it online…

But anyway, I have wandered far away from the original point of this review. The point is that a better translation of Solaris is most welcome. Any excuse to re-read, or listen to, Solaris, is also most welcome. It is a book where the science is dated in some significant ways, but the ideas are not. It is challenging and fascinating and I think there is no better place to start than this translation in audiobook form. I just hope that it will be available in paper form soon.

Lovecraft Country

Years ago I read Matt Ruff's novel Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, on the recommendation of an intern in the University of Michigan department where I was working at the time. I found it to be amusing, but chaotic and lacking in character and plot, and so I haven't thought of Ruff in years. Recently on Boing Boing, I came across Cory Doctorow's review of Ruff's new book, Lovecraft Country, and it sounded fascinating.

Doctorow writes:

The novel involves a large, extended, accomplished African-American family living in Jim Crow Chicago. These characters — a young soldier, a radical printer, a grifter's daughter turned landlady, a travel agent, a budding comics creator, and many others — don't need Elder Gods to experience horror. They live it in their daily lives, through harassment, violence, expropriation, and the legacy of slavery that is anything but ancient history for them.

I can't really improve on that basic description. I will add that this is a very accomplished book, in several ways.

First, while it isn't structured as a single novel — it is written as a series of inter-linked episodes, centered around the different family members. This makes it easy for a busy person to read — someone like me, who might only have limited bits time to read — a half-hour here, an hour there.

Second, as Doctorow says, the book really moves along. There's not a wasted word. This is, I assume, the product of very careful editing and rewriting as much as the original writing. A book doesn't get honed to a single point like this without some very careful and considered revision. For some reason 2016 is an era of big, big sprawling novels. It's very nice to see a book that goes against this trend.

The book is in part an homage to different kinds of classic pulp literature — not just Lovecraft, but Burroughs, Bradbury, and others. And right off the bat, we are introduced to the ways that this genre fiction is problematic for black readers:

Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, offered a wealth of critical fodder with his Tarzan stories (was it even necessary to list all the problems Montrose had with Tarzan, starting with the very idea of him?), or his Barsoom series, whose protagonist John Carter had been a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia before becoming a Martian warlord. “A Confederate officer?” Atticus's father had said, appalled. “That's the hero?” When Atticus tried to suggest it wasn't that bad since technically John Carter was an ex-Confederate, his father scoffed. “Ex-Confederate? What's that, like an ex-Nazi? The man fought for slavery! You don't get to put an ‘ex-’ in front of that!”

That risks making it sound as if the book is polemical. That particular character is polemical, but the book isn't really structured that way. The story is instructive, about the history of American white supremacy and structural racism, but it has the feel of historical accuracy and personal narrative. But the really impressive thing about Ruff's text, here, is that his thesis is pretty much all in the text, not the subtext.

This is America — it's a racist place. No educated person can doubt that, and no honest person can deny that. But some people might find any sort of recounting of the lived experience of black folks in racist America in the 1950s to be unbearably accusing. In fact, there's a review on Amazon that starts out:

I should start by saying that I have not read a single word of this book, but from glancing over the lead and a few customer reviews, I gather that this is a progressive treatise dressed up as a work of fiction. This disengenuous rubbish has no place in the library of a discerning, cultured gentleman and should be consigned to the flames along with Mein Kampf, and other similarly racist rants. Lovecraft country is not a story, it is a manifesto. Instead of trying to divide people and agitate minorities, why not write an honest story without a hidden agenda?

This reviewer must be one of those “sad puppies” trying to make science fiction great again, by trying to turn it from truth back into propaganda, suppressing the stories that make him uncomfortable. But one of the interesting things about Ruff's book is that, contrary to this review, there is, literally, no “hidden agenda.” The book does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a story about the lived experience of black Americans, which is structured and defined by their race. The fact that some modern revisionist doesn't want to believe this truth doesn't change it. He probably believes racism, structural and otherwise, isn't real in 2016. Indeed, his hidden agenda — of fear — comes out in the phrase “instead of trying to… agitate minorities.” God forbid this book should rile up the blacks by bringing up a lot of inconvenient truths — why, no white person would be safe!

Of course, this brings up the real problem with this book, which is a problem that has nothing to do with Ruff's impressive piece of storytelling. It's the same problem that plagues non-fiction works like The New Jim Crow and Dog Whistle Politics. The people that are likely to read it are those who are already amenable to the truths expressed in the text. They aren't going to change a lot of unchangeable minds. I used to have hope that racism would die out as older Americans die off. But the sad, or rabid, puppy who wrote that Amazon review is probably young. In Trump's America, decades of dog whistling have led to overt racism becoming acceptable again, and so we're in for an awful lot of white whines and ridiculous claims about how privileged white people are the real victims of racism.

Indeed, the only “hidden” part is the particulars of the ways in which it references, plays with, satirizes, and puns on Lovecraft and other pulp fiction sources, and that's not deeply hidden to anyone who has read Lovecraft. It also isn't really necessary to enjoyment of the book, although it deepens the reading experience a little bit, and brings a smile to my face. The overt story, about racism, is the story. The blurb right on the back cover says “A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of two black families, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism — the terrifying specter that still haunts us today.”

Here's a taste:

I heard a big bang like a bomb going off. My father stopped shaking me and he hugged me to him and he started running. And you know, it's funny, but once we got away from the smoke and the flames, it was almost nice, him carrying me like that… I dream about it sometimes, and in the dreams there's no gunfire, it's just an ordinary spring night and my dad's carrying me home, like from a movie or a ball game. Like he should have been.

We must have been about halfway home when a car came up behind us, moving fast. As it got close I saw it was all shot up, bullet holes in the hood, glass all knocked out, and I opened my mouth to say something, but there was no time. A white man leaned out of the back with a pistol and fired two shots. Then the car was past us and gone into the night — I never knew what happened to it, or who that man was.

I thought the shots had missed us. I knew I wasn't hit, and my father didn't break stride. He ran on for another block or so and then he just stopped. He put me down, careful, put a hand on my shoulder like to steady himself. Then he fell over.”

Reading the sad puppy gripe about SJWs (“social justice warriors”), there's a phrase about sexism that comes to mind. I've heard my wife, a black feminist, use the phrase. The precise origin seems unclear, but it may be due to Margaret Atwood. It goes something like this:

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.

The sad puppies know that the world has passed them by, and that they no longer represent either the majority or the majority's world view. But as they are privileged white people, the worst that the rest of the world can do to them is point this out, and try to educate them about the lived experience of people outside their experience, although this is usually pointless. But black people in Trump's America have far more to fear; Jim Crow racism is far from dead and gone, and indeed seems to be enjoying a resurgence. And so, I would make the claim that this book actually is “an honest story without a hidden agenda.” The agenda is not hidden in the least — nor should it be.


Completed in May 2016:

  • Marc Maron, Attempting Normal
  • Stanislaw Lem, Bill Johnston (translator), Alessandro Juliani (narrator), Solaris: The Definitive Edition (unabridged Audible audiobook)
  • Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country

Possibly completed in a few more days:

  • Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (unabridged audiobook)
  • Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect us from Violence

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
May 28, 2016

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Read It, Mid-May 2016

I've finished a couple of books, so I'm going to write some final notes on them. And, of course, I've started a couple more books. But first, an update on my writing project.

First, I've begun a big consolidation and cleanup of folders of files that I've saved for decades.

Folders... Folders Everywhere

There is some bad news. While I found most of what I was looking for, including files dating back to the late 1980s, some material that I hoped to find seems to be lost.

I suspect that at least a few folders of documents, old MacOS documents, are just gone. They may have been lost to file system corruption. I've preserved them from floppies, from old hard drives, from magneto-optical drives, from Bernoulli drives, and across a Mac SE, a PowerBook Duo 230, a Titanium PowerBook G4, and a Mac Pro. There might be some other machines in there that I've forgotten. The oldest files would be almost thirty years old.

I keep regular backups of my current system, currently in Time Machine format for my system volume, and plain old data copies, made with Carbon Copy Cloner, for my data drives. I back these files up onto two different sets of backup drives, and rotate one set off-site.

The files in question would have been on my system drive. But I don't have endless Time Machine backups. Every few years, I've had to delete older Time Machine backups and start over. In retrospect, I probably should have sprung for new drives and archived the old ones, although there is never any guarantee that old hard drives will spin up.

It is possible the files might exist on some separate media. I have some old magneto-optical discs and flash drives. I'll see if there might be a copy on one of those. I know that some of my oldest flash drives have gone bad over the years, and my attempts at file system recovery have been unsuccessful. I'm not sure whether I can access the magneto-optical discs. The problem I've had in the past with them has not been the discs, which are supposed to be very reliable over time; it has been with the drives. I've had several drives fail, and with disc manufacturers ceasing production, the technology itself seems to be going the way of Betamax.

Getting Stuffed

There are also some .sit (Stuffit) archives that seem to be corrupted, or missing part of their data. It's possible that some of the missing content was in Stuffit archives.

Being Resourceful

One possible problem is that some older files may have lost their resource forks in the transition to MacOS X. Per Wikipedia:

Until the advent of OS X v10.4, the standard UNIX command line utilities in OS X (such as cp and mv) did not respect resource forks. To copy files with resource forks, one had to use ditto or CpMac and MvMac.

I think this might have been true of tar and zip, too. I'm hazy on the details, but it seems that under some circumstances, creator, file type, and other parts of the original MacOS file metadata could be damaged. Since a lot of old MacOS files never used filename extensions, losing creator and file type metadata might mean the only readily available clue as to what application created a file.

Paper to the Rescue

There is some good news. I think the oldest stuff exists in paper form. At least, most of it does. I have saved almost everything that I every felt was worth saving, at least since college. So, I can scan it, or retype it, if I really get motivated. A few things have been lost to other people. I had a seminar class on James Joyce's Ulysses and the students exchanged journal assignments to write comments on them. The student who took home my hand-written journal entry manage to lose it, and I still miss that particular bit of writing. Of course, it is probably not as good as I recall, but I'd like to be able to be the judge of that.

Digital Decay

I knew back in the 1980s that file formats and data storage technologies were a problem. Every bit of text I wrote on my first computer is long gone. The programs, too. The programs I wrote for the Apple II and Commodore 64 are long gone. Almost every old word-processed file, except for a few things I printed out.

Even if they had survived, it was likely that some of the oldest files would be hard to use. Extracting the raw text is probably the best I could have hoped for. Working with Microsoft Word 5.1 and earlier files can be tricky. I had a few old Word for Windows 1.1 files that had screen shot images in them. I was able to get the text out, but it looks like the images are hopelessly lost. Were they PICT resources? Who knows? And who can open up files that I originally created with Illustrator 1.0, FreeHand, MacDraw, MacDraft, Canvas, PageMaker, Ready, Set, Go!, Claris Resolve, Wingz, Nisus Writer, MacWrite, Write Now, and CricketGraph?

Fortunately, most of my writing since 1990 or so was stored in plain text formats, including mailbox files. My earliest web sites, written by hand in HTML, I have archived. I kept a blog using Blosxom, adding posts to it as inspiration struck, from about 1998 to about 2006. I was also an early adopter of Wikis, so for part of that time from the late 1990s through early 2000s, I did some "blogging" using Wikis. Those files still exist. In some cases I theoretically have every version the text files went through, since I kept CVS repositories. They don't seem worth the effort to explore, though.

Escape from Blogger

Starting in January 1996, I began doing most of my blogging in Blogger. So I've been blogging with Blogger for twenty years now. (Wow, can that really be true? Apparently it can!)

Getting stuff out of Blogger is a bit tricky. Of course, one can copy and paste a blog post, or open up the post editor and copy out the text that is in there, which is some form of HTML. That's not the problem. The problem is if, like me, you edited the text with Blogger's visual editor, it will be heavily tagged with "span" elements, break tags, and other stuff you probably don't want. And of course if you have over 1,000 blog posts to extract, like I do, that starts to sound awfully tedious. Really I'm kind of surprised that 20 years of blog posts are all still there waiting to retrieve.

You can get the posts out from Blogger itself using some administrative pages on Google. You'll get a file for each blog, not blog post but blog, in the form of an .atom file (which is XML). But it will put all the posts in one big file, along with all the comments.

That file is difficult to work with. When I open up a file and see it packed with XML, I feel kind of like I just opened up my box lunch and found it full of maggots. There may be some yummy food in there, but my first reaction is to kill it with fire. I know things can be done with XSLT and various tools that will parse the XML and extract the data I want, and I've worked with Java, C++, and Python code that handles XML before, so this was not entirely unfamiliar. But I wasted half a day trying to get different versions of Python and various libraries working correctly on Windows 7.

Anyway, it was more complicated than it should have been, but I've managed to safely extract every bit of my original text from my Blogger blogs. The comments can wait. I now have these posts in .xml, .html, and .md (Markdown).

The process that finally worked started out with a tool called Blogger Backup, which got me part of the way there, and a Python script I hacked up, together with Pandoc. I'm not sure I could replicate exactly what I did even if I tried, so this is not a how-to-guide.

There is a lot of formatting inconsistency from file to file. Some files I wrote using Blogger's visual editor. Most were written by hand in HTML on the blogger page. Some I wrote using the Blogger app on the iPad (which does not seem to support writing in plain HTML). Some I wrote in Markdown, and then translated that into HTML, which I then pasted into the Blogger editor.

Markdown to HTML to Blogger

That's actually the workflow I want to use, going forward, because the Markdown source files are so easy to read and work with. It's adequate formatting for blogging, but to really build a book, with the exact typography I want, page breaks where I want them, a table of contents and footnotes and and index, all that stuff, will require some extensions and tooling.

I know it can be done; the book Pro Git was done this way. I just need to figure out a workflow that will work for me, and hopefully will work in a cross-platform way, and won't rely on code or configuration files in languages and formats that are going to be hard to use in the future.

Of course, what I really want is semantic markup, with style sheets applicable to different destinations. For example, I'd like to be able to tag book titles, as distinct from movie titles, as distinct from album titles. I'd like to be able to write footnotes right after the paragraph where they are referenced, and have them show up at the bottom of the "page," whatever the page is. I'd like to be able to mark things for indexing.

If I can't manage those things, I'd at least like to have my hyphens turn into hyphens, and my quotation marks look right, and my accented characters look right, in all the different output formats. I'd like my pages to break where I want them.

None of that is happening yet, but I'm working on it. It seems like in 2016 it shouldn't still be necessary for a Jedi to build his or her own lightsaber. I'd like to be able to do all the markup and editing on the original files, and little to no hand-tweaking of intermediate file formats. And, really, I would like to pick a toolchain that will require the least awkwardness and incompatibility should I want to do something, or should my descendants want to do something, with these files, thirty years from today.

Maybe I'll have to build my own lightsaber, but the problem is that there are an awful lot of lightsabers out there, and they are all different colors. Some have buttons, some have sliders, some knobs. Some don't work. Some explode when you turn them on. Some might result in sending the beam right through your chest.

I'm the Proud Owner of a Pile of Text Files

Most of them would need some hand-cleanup before they could be republished in any form. But, frankly, most of them are not worth republishing. A lot of the technical blog posts are very dated. They describe the process by which I got some particular obsolete version of some particular piece of software running on some particular obsolete version of MacOS or Windows or Linux to do some particular thing with some particular obsolete piece of hardware.

That stuff is not, I think, of general enough interest, although I leave them up on the web because every once in a while, someone has a similar problem, comes across one of my posts via a Google search, and it proves useful.

I've started browsing through my old posts, picking ones that I think are of general interest, and cleaning them up to use as source files for generating future e-book and print formats. I'm not quite satisfied with the results yet, but I'm getting there. I've only finished a first editing pass on a portion of the files I want to work with, and this already generates at least fifty pages. So there is more than enough material to generate a book. Really, assuming I can work out the technical aspects, it is a matter of figuring out what to leave out.

I have a new workflow for blogging. I'm now writing these posts directly in Markdown, using MarkdownPad for Windows, or BBEdit on MacOS. Then I'm using pandoc to generate the HTML, and pasting that into Blogger. That last part is still manual, but maybe it won't have to be indefinitely.

I'm generally happy with this process of writing. I can preview the file without using Blogger. If I want to edit a complete post, that is more work than just editing the HTML on Blogger, but hopefully with visual previewing outside Blogger, I won't be doing it as often.

Images remain an issue. I have not made a coherent attempt to extract images directly from Blogger, at least not yet. Most of the images probably exist in original form on my hard drive. But a lot of them were probably cropped or otherwise edited for use in blog posts. I might be able to get the images out of Google in the same form I uploaded them. That would be nice. I haven't necessarily saved every image file as uploaded.

At some point I should figure out what I'm going to do about establishing some kind of persistent links to images for the blog posts that need them.

Anyway, enough of that for now. I'm starting to bore myself, so I can only imagine how you must feel. Back to the books.

The Dark Forest

I finished The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen. The ending is satisfying. The loose ends are tied up. It is intellectually quite satisfying, if not artistically. It has a big, big story arc and big, big ideas. But it is still a hard book to love.

There is an odd romantic subplot, in which Luo Ji develops an imaginary romantic interest and, apparently, gives up his real-world relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman, Bai Rong, in favor of his fantasy. He speaks to a doctor about his illusory relationship:

"Don't you get it? I've given my most profound love to an illusion!"

Later after Juo Ji has become a Wallfacer, he makes it his mission to find the woman of his dreams. He mobilizes resources in this direction, but there is some debate over whether this is an appropriate use of these resources:

"But we can't use society's resources to allow a person like him to live the life of an emperor!"

Eventually Luo Ji is brought the woman of his dreams:

Luo Ji gripped tightly to the match with two fingers as it burnt down. He needed the pain to tell him this wasn't a dream. It was like he had ignited the sun, which now shone on a dreamwork-turned-reality. Outside, the sun could remain forever hidden by clouds and night, so long as his world had her and the firelight in it.

He takes her to the Louvre, and gazes into her eyes:

The dam in Luo Ji's soul had sprung a tiny leak, and this trickle eroded it, expanding the tiny fissure into a turbulent stream. He grew afraid and strove to patch the crack in the dam, but was unable to. A collapse was inevitable.

I won't quote any more of this section of the book, but the prose gets a lot more purple than that. It's one of those passages, I think, that will be "make or break" for some readers; either you grit your teeth and plow through it, to figure out what happens next, or you throw the book across the room.

This is all part of one subplot which becomes largely irrelevant to the overall story arc. This is how a space opera that was fairly taught and fast-paced in book one, The Three-Body Problem, turns into 512 pages. I still think it's a really impressive piece of storytelling, and the twists in the storyline are, for the most part, quite entertaining and occasionally mind-blowing. But I just can't call that good writing. The plot keeps grinding to a halt to bring us more infodumps or dialogue that is of questionable quality. Yes, I know that it is translated. I suspect the translation is more literal than it needs to be.

I'm reminded of some other translated work. In the original dubbed American theatrical release of Akira, there are some passages that are laughably awkward:

Humans do all kinds of things during their lifetime, right? Discovering things, building things... things like houses, motorcycles, bridges, cities, and rockets. All that knowledge and energy... where do you suppose it comes from? Humans were like monkeys once, right? And before that, like reptiles and fish. And before that, plankton and amoebas. Even creatures like those have incredible energy inside them. Because of genes, I guess. And even before that, maybe there were genes in the water and air. What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong, and something like an amoeba were given power like a human's?

Anyway. I'm not sure how to sum up my, err, "issues" with The Dark Forest, except that I suspect Ken Liu was a better translator. It makes me wonder just how thoroughly he worked over the first book. Did he condense or trim some of the digressions and subplots, and is that why the first book moves faster?

According to Wikipedia, Ken Liu will be translating the third book. It is due this fall and I'm looking forward to it.

Light

I've completed Light by M. John Harrison.

This is an imaginative work, and the plot lines do eventually come together, sort of, and it all kind of makes sense, for some vague, new-agey, hand-waving value of "makes sense."

I have some problems with this book, morally.

Michael Kearney is a serial killer:

Kearney let go of him and began kicking his head. Sprake pushed his way between them and held Kearney off until he had calmed down. They got Meadows to the edge of the water, into which they dropped him, facedown, while they held his legs. He tried to keep his head above the surface by arching his back, then gave up with a groan. Bubbles came up. His bowels let go.

At the end of the book, Kearney is asked:

As a matter of interest, why did you murder all those women?"

Then the Shrander tells him, moments later,

"You can forgive yourself now."

That's it. That's his penance and absolution.

At one point, another character, Seria Mau is transporting a group of humans in her ship. She found one day that they were getting on her nerves, so she

dumped their equipment from the hold and then opened the human quarters to the vacuum. The air made a thick whistling noise as it blew out. Soon the K-ship had a little cloud of its own, comprised of frozen gasses, luggage, and bits of clothing. Among this floated five bodies, blue, decompressed. Two of them had been fucking and were still joined together. The clone was the hardest to get rid of. She clung on to the furniture, screaming, then clamped her mouth shut. The air roared past her, but she wouldn't give up and be evacuated. After a minute, Seria Mau felt sorry for her. She closed the hatches. She brought the human quarters back up to pressure.

Seria Mau has just killed five people, but faces no consequences or guilt to speak of for this action. Later she abandons the clone, Mona, with another character, to die on the surface of a planet, infected by some kind of fractal entity. Again, there are no consequences, and she eventually receives absolution and is transformed into an angelic figure.

As you might have guessed, I have a bit of a problem with this. Even in the context of the novel, where it isn't entirely clear that any particular scene is entirely real -- because reality is bubbling and morphing all over the place -- this is troubling. There's a general thread of misanthropy, and Harrison's male characters behave in appallingly misogynistic ways. And I'm not sure what any of this behavior really has to do with the "art" of this book; is there any justification or rationale at work here?

The back of the book features encomiums to this novel by some of my favorite writers: China Miéville, Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds. I feel like perhaps I have to re-think my generally positive impression of all three of these writers, because they apparently are fine with this book; not just fine with it, but they were bubbling over with praise.

Were they high?

Maybe I'm just getting old, but I don't get it. I feel like I'm missing something. Should I try to read it again to make sense out of it? I don't think so. It would be like re-watching a pornographic film to study the plot. Despite Harrison's linguistic sleights-of-hand, there's really no "there" there. I can't recommend this book. I'm wondering if the second one is better.

Annihilation

I just finished reading Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. I picked up this book because it was recommended by fellow Reddit users. In fact, it was April's book of the month in the "SFBookClub" subreddit, although I did not know it at the time. I started reading it just a few days ago, but since it is a slim book, under 200 pages, it only took a few hours of actual reading time to complete.

It is the story of an expedition into a "zone" where strange things are happening. We don't know exactly what. It's all about changing ecosystems, and "borders," and cover stories.

This book is provocative enough that I think it may be worth re-reading, and I don't feel that way about many books. I've seen this book described as Lovecraftian horror, but to me it seems more like the work of an earlier writer, William Hope Hodgson. It reminds me of Hodgson's story The Voice in the Night, and also his novel The Boats of the Glenn Carrig.

There's some body horror, some spooky nihilism, and some gamesmanship with the reader, making one wonder what is really going on. That's fairly standard in the "weird fiction" genre. But something else I like about the book is the narrator character. She's a very introverted female who is not passive or weak. She does not have a lot of empathy for your problems, but she is also not an over-the-top badass with a machine gun. Her actual goals and pleasures are often obscure; in a sense, she is a bounded ecosystem herself, and her borders are, for the most part, closed, like those of "Area X."

At some point during our relationship, my husband began to call me the ghost bird, which was his way of teasing me for not being present enough in his life. It would be said with a kind of creasing at the corner of his lips that almost formed a thin smile, but in his eyes I could see the reproach. If we went to bars with his friends, one of this favorite things to do, I would volunteer only what a prisoner might during an interrogation.

Annihilation might be inspired at least in part by Roadside Attraction, the wonderful and troubling novel by the Strugatsky brothers. There's a hint of John Campbell's novella Who Goes There, which became the movie The Thing. There is a strong suggestion that the author has read the books of Peter Watts. It seems like a couple of scenes pay homage to his books Starfish and Blindsight, with starfish imagery:

What I found when I finally stood there, hands on bent knees, peering down into that tidal pool, was a rare species of colossal starfish, six-armed, larger than a saucepan, that bled a dark gold color into the still water as if it were on fire. Most of us professionals eschewed its scientific name for the more apt "destroyer of worlds." It was covered in thick spines, and along the edges I could just see, fringed with emerald green, the most delicate of transparent cilia, thousands of them, propelling it along upon its appointed route as it searched for its prey: other, lesser starfish.

The protagonist is fascinated by small, bounded, but complete ecosystems; she's been observing them since childhood. Bits of her back-story echo back and forth through time. In this passage she is describing a rare, though real, documented creature, not something "uncanny" or "unnatural." But it is one of the special features of this book that the biologist's memories of ordinary observations of nature, recalled from her current surroundings in "Area X," are transformed.

We're left thinking that any of our encounters with what we think of as the "natural world" might be capable of bringing out in us a sense of the uncanny and eerie, if only we opened ourselves to the possibility of perceiving them as they are. I remember years ago seeing luminescent foxfire in an ordinary birch woods in Michigan. It reminded me of Gurdjieff's teaching, that most of us, most of the time, are not truly awake, and those that are awake live in a state of constant wonder.

Later, our protagonist encounters an unnerving thing, something so strange and challenging that her mind recoils from it and she can barely perceive it. She recalls the "destroyer of worlds" starfish:

What can you do when your five senses are not enough? Because I still couldn't truly see it here, any more than I had seen it under the microscope, and that's what scared me the most. Why couldn't I see it? In my mind, I stood over the starfish at Rock Bay, and the starfish grew and grew until it was not just the tidal pool but the world, and I was teetering on its rough, luminous surface, staring up at the night sky again, while the light of it flowed up and through me.

In Blindsight, Peter Watts postulates an alien organism, a "scrambler," that can camouflage itself, and can time its movements so that it only moves when the human eye is moving, in one of the quick "twitch" movements known as saccades, and can't focus on it. In Annihilation, the biologist encounters an organism that:

...might be inexplicable. It might be beyond the limits of my senses to capture -- or my science or my intellect -- but I still believed I was in the presence of some kind of living creature, one that practiced mimicry using my own thoughts. For even then, I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.

With her biologist part frustrated, our protagonist has to come to approach her life completely differently -- via unmediated, unnamed, impulsive experience. Vandermeer isn't exploring the utility of consciousness in quite the same way that Watts does, but he does ask us to explore the boundary between us and nature, and the idea that our normal, everyday mode of consciousness gets in our way, when we try to experience the world.

In general this book is very nicely written and edited, and it moves along well. Digressions that might seem irrelevant, at first glance, are referenced again later, and these effectively build the sense of disquiet.

Vandermeer seems to like complex sentences, and I don't mind that, and he seems to like to chain together a lot of prepositional phrases, and I don't mind that, much, but he seems to occasionally forget a comma right where one is needed the most. For example, in this sentence:

The myth that only a few early expeditions, the start date artificially suggested by the Southern Reach, had come to grief reinforced the idea of cycles existing within the overall framework of an advance.

One can get up a good head of steam and lose oneself in the text, only to be brought up short when one trips over a sentence that was not properly planed and sanded. Fortunately, I noticed only a few of these.

Superficially, the story may seem to have an unsatisfactory ending, because we don't actually learn exactly what is going on. But I am not disappointed. This is a philosophical book, that lingers in the mind. There is something going on in the storytelling itself that I have not quite discerned, as if reading the book implanted in me a post-hypnotic suggestion that has not yet been triggered.

This is the first book of a trilogy. I've been warned that the others are not as good, but I think maybe I'll have to judge that for myself.

So, I have completed three books so far this month:

  • The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen
  • Light by M. John Harrison
  • Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

And the month still has a couple of weeks to go, so I might squeeze in another book or two. Meanwhile...

Solaris

Yes, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, inspiration for two movie versions -- but with a twist.

The original English translation of Solaris is actually a translation of a translation. The Polish text was translated into French, and then the French text was translated into English, by a different translator.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster. The result isn't actually as bad as all that, but the prose is pretty leaden. It's a serviceable story that has none of the lilt and verve of Michael Kandel's wonderful translations of Lem's other works such as The Cyberiad.

In 2011, Audible commissioned a new translation. I'm curious what Kandel would have done with it, but he was not the translator. It was translated by Bill Johnston, and released as an audiobook, and then an e-book.

When I learned in 2011 that this was happening, I had hopes that I would soon be able to purchase a print edition. Five years later, a print edition is still nowhere to be found. My credit card gives me reward points in the form of periodic iTunes gift cards. When my latest gift card arrived in the mail, I decided to use it to purchase the audiobook.

It has been some time since I last read the old translation, but I can confidently say that the new one is a big improvement. The relationship between Kris Kelvin and the re-embodiment of his dead wife, Harey, is much more affecting in this new telling. The audiobook is read quite well, too, by Alessandro Juliani.

I have not finished listening to the audiobook, but I can recommend it, if you like audiobooks. Meanwhile, I continue to hope and wait, impatiently, for a print edition of this new translation. Audiobooks always seem like a secondary format to me; I enjoy listening to them, but only as an adjunct to reading a work in print.

Like Annihilation, Solaris is a philosophical work, and if bits of the story seem dated and clichéd in 2016, it is largely because the original story was, itself, so influential, and so many of the tropes it features have shown up in the work of other writers.

Be warned that Amazon is incredibly stupid in its presentation of different translations of the same original work. The new audiobook page has buttons that link to different "formats and editions" -- supposedly the Kindle, hardcover, and paperback editions. The Kindle button links to the new translation, but the buttons for the hardcover and paperback editions will take you straight to print editions of the old translation.

There is a similar, long-standing problem with reviews. The same reviews appear on the pages for all the different versions: different formats, different print editions, and even different translations. Unless the reviewer explicitly mentions that he or she is reviewing the 2011 translation or the the 1971 Polish-to-French-to-English translation, there is no way of knowing. Stupid!

The Story of Earth and Sky

I'm reading a book to my kids that I read, years ago. It was a very significant book to me as a child -- a book that introduced me to this history of planet Earth, in terms of its cosmology, astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology. The book is The Story of Earth and Sky by Carleton Washburne, Heluiz Washburne, and Frederick Reed, illustrated by Margery Stocking.

This is an old book -- the copy I have was published by the Children's Literary Guild in 1933. The introduction mentions the recent discovery of Pluto, which is a bit comical in 2016.

It describes the origin of the earth and the moon, and the processes that led to the origin of life. It's often out of date with current thinking -- for example, the authors describe the formation of a "sun-cloud" containing molten rock and metal, torn from the sun by a "rogue star." The moon is described as spinning off from the molten earth as it spins, separated due to irregularities the shape of the original spinning mass. These are not congruent with the most popular current theories. However, the book is surprisingly humble and very up-front in acknowledging that the theories it presents are quite speculative and are likely to be refined in the future.

In retrospect, it was not the details of the thinking about the origins of the earth that I found fascinating, but the simple fact that there was thinking about these subjects, and it was based on observation and hypotheses. In other words, this book may have given me some of my earliest exposure to the scientific method.

The book is written in quite beautiful and poetic language; I will cite some of the language.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when I first encountered this book. It was probably via a copy in the McCord Memorial Library in North East, PA. I must have been quite young.

I have my own copy now. It is wrapped in mylar and the dust jacket is very, very faded. But the binding still works and the pages are clean and readable, and I am very glad to have it.

I believe the book's approach to visualizing travel through space and time, using an imaginary "space-plane," very reminiscent of NASA's space shuttle, may have been an inspiration to Carl Sagan as he developed his "spaceship of the imagination."

Gene Wolfe describes a child's "book of gold," the book that first engaged a child of an age ripe for learning. It is a different book for every child. It is gold only in memory. It holds an outsized place in that memory. It is one of the books that wrote the child. This book is, if not the singular book of gold, at least one of the books of gold, the books that wrote me. It is a treat to read it again.

Saginaw and Ann Arbor, Michigan
May 15 and 18, 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

Read It, Early May 2016

I am working on a book project. Some of the content from this blog will be in it, as well as pieces of my writing dating back to the early 1990s. If this goes well, there may be other book projects.

The project has occupied a significant amount of my time, but I am still progressing through a couple of books.

The Dark Forest

I am almost done with The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen. This is a pretty big book, at 512 pages. I've got about 100 pages to go and it is picking up speed on the way to the conclusion.

The writing in translation seems a bit indifferent. For the most part it just lacks literary quality, but there are also some figures of speech and phrasing that must be highly idiomatic, and don't translate well. They "clunk" a bit -- kind of like listening to the dialogue in a dubbed Godzilla movie. In other places, conversations drag. I think Martinsen's translation of this second volume is more literal than Ken Liu's translation of the first, which makes it more straightforward but in some ways less enjoyable to read, as some of the strangeness of the original is muted. Per Wikipedia, it looks like Ken Liu will be translating the third book, Death's End, due later this year. I might need to re-read the earlier book to firm up my impressions on the different approaches taken by these two translators. And of course I'm hampered by knowing absolutely nothing about the original Chinese.

But even if the language can be a little clunky, the reason to bother with this book is that it is a very imaginative work, crossing hundreds of years of human history. And it is full of interesting ideas. Let me describe just one of them, while trying not to spoil the book too much.

The earth is awaiting the invasion of an attack fleet from Trisolaris. Meanwhile, tiny "sophons," proton-sized particles that can communicate with humans as well as monitor and limit some technological activities on earth. The aliens have thus established a "lockdown," literally causing experiments that depend on quantum effects to fail, preventing scientific breakthroughs on Earth. This is to prevent Earth-based science from catching up with the Trisolarans, during their long trip to earth -- because faster-than-light travel is not part of the universe of these books, which makes this science fiction lean towards the "hard" side of the genre.

Thus there are hard limits on what Earth science can achieve. Earthlings can't achieve quantum computing, or certain other breakthroughs. But the Trisolarans seem to have a limit; while they themselves share thoughts with each other openly, they are unable to read human minds. This has, apparently, to do with the idea that human thought already involves quantum effects -- in the scientific community today, a controversial idea.

And so a project is initiated, the Wallfacer project, in which a small group of humans are given access to nearly unlimited resources and tasked with designing secret strategies to defeat the anticipated invaders. Earth must put unshakable trust in the Wallfacers, without being able to learn their actual strategy.

Three of the Wallfacers go off to start on various projects involving armaments, human cognition, and space flight. One retreats to a beautiful villa, smokes cigars, and drinks top-shelf liquor.

There's an odd subplot involving an imaginary woman, a fantasy creation of the fourth Wallfacer, who is, it turns out, real. This bit of wish-fulfillment seems strange in the context of the story, but must have additional meaning in Chinese culture.

So there is a very clever, story-based reason for the somewhat convoluted plotting that follows, and nicely explains why the reader does not learn the motivations and plans of the Wallfacers up front. This is literally a meta-plot device -- a plot device that devises the need for plots. This makes the unfolding of The Dark Forest resemble, faintly, a spy novel, where the reader may be unclear on just which side a character is working for.

The story starts to get interesting when we start to follow the lives of the Wallfacers, and the antagonists who, directed by the sophons, become their "Wallbreakers," dedicating their lives to uncovering the true plans. So it is a "spy versus spy" story, to some extent. But don't imagine that this is just a Le Carré novel set in space. It's too big to be put into a single genre box; it's science fiction, but like the first book, uses other genres as touchstones.

Portions of the book move too slowly, making for a frustrating read at times. But then, at times, the story makes big jumps in time and space, and things start to kick into high gear. That pacing is a bit frustrating but if you can tolerate it, and the occasional bit of leaden or clunky dialogue, Cixin Liu's extremely imaginative world-building makes the story itself rank up there with some of my favorite writers of Big Ideas science fiction, such as Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan.

I'm assuming the book will end reasonably well, so that I'll have no reason to change my assessment. But, of course, I'll come back to complete my assessment when I've completed the book.

Not all promising works end well. It's time for me to get back to...

The Magicians, Season One

A season of a television show can only really be as good as the ending of the season. I came to this series with some trepidation and I was right to be concerned. The pilot was very impressive, but the pace was hugely accelerated, compared to the pace of events in the books, raising a lot of questions as to what the writers were going to do with the plot over the course of the season.

Well, now we know.

I continued to be impressed by the acting work in this series. Jason Ralph (Quentin), Stella Maeve (Julia), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice), Arjun Gupta (Penny), and Hale Appleman (Eliot) are all really impressive. Some of the minor characters are also worth noting. Rick Worthy plays Dean Fogg as a character very much unlike the Dean Fogg of the book, but very intriguing.

No, my gripes don't have much to do with the casting. I'm also willing to overlook, for the most part, the low budget, although it occasionally limits what the show can do. My gripes are with the screenwriters. They have worked too hard to make this show a soap opera, rushing and blowing up elements from the original series, turning everything up to eleven, while at the same time padding a number of episodes with material not based on the books -- material which is often weak by comparison.

Before we go on -- there are spoilers in the paragraphs to come.

Episode 4, "The World in the Walls," is a good example. The storyline, involving Julia, is loosely adapted from the book, but it is told in parallel with Quentin, portrayed in a mental hospital -- or at least he thinks he is. The "gaslighting" is a pretty overworked trope by now.

In episode 10, "Homecoming," Penny is trapped in the Neitherlands, which apparently are occupied by zombies, for no apparent reason.

I've already described some of the unevenness of episodes such as 7, "The Mayakovsky Circumstance," and the occasionally ridiculous effects the show's low budget generates. But there are some episodes that are quite strong, too -- episode 9, "The Writing Room," is powerful, and there is little or nothing I would change.

In the last few episodes, we learn that a story element revealed quite late in the trilogy -- the idea that Jane Chatwin can use a magical watch to try repeatedly to defeat the Beast -- has been adapted to include Quentin and friends. They have attempted this before, many times, and failed each time. And not only that, but this is the last time they can try. This attempt to "raise the stakes" feels a little gratuitous, as does the magical investigation of alternatives, which leads the gang to determine that every possible course of action in which they don't travel to Fillory will result in disastrous failure. And so, they go, because it is literally the last chance and least bad thing they can do.

In the final episode of the season, number 13, "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes," there's a lot of story business to take care of. Too much, in fact. I've been wondering all season if we're going to meet a talking sheep, and just how stupid that might look. We don't, exactly; we meet Ember in the form of a humanoid sheep-man, who reminds me of a character from Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase. Fortunately the costume looks pretty convincing, especially when he is shot in dim light.

Ember has seen better days, as has Fillory. He's living in a degraded state, but he still has godlike power, which our heroes desperately need to tap. There's a funny and nauseating gag about drinking -- well, I'll let you watch that for yourself. It is one of the moments that makes you really scratch your head and wonder why you are watching this, and what the hell the writers were thinking. In fact this constant jumping between humor and horror is what makes the finale so hard to watch.

We learn that Julia didn't actually have a wonderful experience contacting Our Lady Underground and in fact the Reynard the Fox storyline from the book is close to what really happened. This involves a scene of murder and rape that is really hard to watch.

I get that the show is dark at times, and the book is dark at times. But with all the changes to the plot, couldn't we have allowed Julia even a moment of light and hope for the time being, and possibly play out the Reynard the Fox storyline in season two? Can't this magical world contain both darkness and light? Apparently not. Anyway, it's pretty grim.

The low budget becomes ridiculous when our heroes need to encounter a castle. Quentin gamely explains that in the early days of Fillory, the creators ran out of budget, and so they left the castle invisible. So, we're given an invisible castle, because the budget wouldn't cover a visible one. This was mildly comic, as a form of "lampshading," but it just emphasized that there really have been a lot of things over the course of the season that should have looked better, and that the audience deserved better than this gag.

Between the shock, horror, and humor, I was thrown out of the storyline again and again, to the point where I had a bit of whiplash.

In fact, I watched the finale three times, trying to decide if it was really as ineptly done, and hard to watch, as it seemed on my first viewing.

I'm afraid it is.

We've also got ourselves a major cliffhanger situation -- more of a cliffhanger than the book ever had. So again, we're amping up the elements of the story to make everything darker and stronger, and not only is it unnecessary, but it is frustrating. I expect that quite a few people who watched all of season 1 won't bother to return next year.

Personally, I'm hoping that the producers can get it together and kick off season two, due next year, with a bigger budget and some cleaned-up writing. I'd like to see more of Lev Grossman's story elements used. So I'm willing to give season 2 a try, for an episode or two, but I'm not planning to blindly purchase a season pass. And if the first couple of episodes of season two are as distressing as the season one finale, I'm done with SyFy's The Magicians. And it will be a shame, because Grossman's tale really deserved a better treatment.

Childhood's End, the SyFy Miniseries

Incidentally, I tried to watch the third and final part of SyFy's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. After the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I found that I just couldn't go on. I may wind up deleting it unfinished. Stuffing the production with cheesy horror-movie tropes -- the menacing glowing eyes, the feel of Rosemary's Baby and Damien: Omen II -- just really destroys the thought-provoking, spiritual storyline of the original book. It's an embarrassment to the whole genre of classic "golden age" science fiction. This is why the miniseries has only a 69% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Actually, that seems generous.

I wonder if any of the same folks at SyFy worked on The Magicians?

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I'm continuing to read my kids bits of the funniest of Hitchhiker's Guide books. I get to do the voices of Ford Prefect and Marvin. I can't quite do justice to the original radio show, but we can have some fun. I'm also going to put the radio show on the kids' iPad, because they asked me to.

The Turnip Princess

We're also close to finishing up The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. This is a fun book. The tales are wildly uneven, and sometimes disturbing -- "everyone dies" is not necessarily a good ending for a fairy tale -- but the better ones are very entertaining. One of my favorites is a short, simple tale about the anthropomorphic moon, who comes down to earth to speak to a tailor and order a suit of clothes, which, when he comes back to pick it up, does not fit him well. It's funny and a great puzzle to discuss with the kids.

Light

There's one more book I've been reading this week. This is a slim volume, a quick read. It's Light by M. John Harrison. I picked this up after reading numerous recommendations. This is the first book of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy.

As described, it seems like the kind of imaginative, arty science fiction that I would enjoy.

As written, though, it seems very reminiscent of the work of Jeff Noon's Vurt and the cut-up novels of William S. Burroughs, but tainted with the amorality of works like Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, a "hard-boiled" cyberpunk novel stuffed with gratuitous murder. While I enjoy the prose, and the chaotic imagination, so far this book isn't really doing it for me.

Really, really soft science fiction that allows magic and synchronicity and hallucinatory goings-on can sometimes remind me of Robert Frost's famous quotation about free verse: "writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." Not all books like this are necessarily bad; I enjoyed Vurt, and I enjoyed Noir by M. K. Jeter, and I enjoyed Signal to Noise by Eric S. Nylund. All are sort of in that highly imaginative mode. But I'm not enjoying Light as much as those other works. Maybe one reason is that I'm simply getting old and curmudgeonly, wanting my stories to actually make sense.

It has some very beautiful moments, and three strange story-lines woven together, but there is a constant undercurrent of misogyny and violence that I find really distasteful. One of our point-of-view characters is apparently actually a serial killer, for no good reason that I can discern. Another character, Seria Mau, murders a whole group of passengers aboard her spacecraft. Only one of the three point-of-view characters doesn't seem to be actively homicidal.

I'll probably finish it, but unless it comes together and there is some reasonable explanation for the way the book portrays its characters, particularly the women, I think I'm done with the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. I'm scratching my head as it is, wondering how this work possibly received the Tiptree award. Maybe it will become clearer. Maybe Harrison will bring it together in a way that makes the "free verse" seem like a poem after all. But maybe not.

I am still interested in reading Harrison's earlier Viriconium stories, collected in an omnibus edition, that is waiting for me on the shelf.

So, again, a poor showing -- since my last post, I can't say that I've finished a single book! That's not very satisfying. But there are several that are nearly finished. And I hope to soon have some news to report on my book project.

Until next time -- keep reading!

Saginaw, Michigan
May 6, 2016