Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Great Explosion

The Great Explosion
© 1962 Eric Frank Russell
187 pages



Following the discovery of faster-than-light travel, Earth's population fell by half as her children fled to the stars.  After decades of benign neglect, the powers that be on Earth -- the military and politicians -- have decided to reassert their authority.  A grand ship is built, and ordered to fulfill an even greater commission:  arranging a meet between the imperial ambassador and the local leaders, so that his lordship can declare to them that it's time to rejoin hands with Earth and march together into the future.  But as the Dude would say -- yeah, well...that's just, like, your opinion, man.

The Great Explosion is a SF comedy, an expansion of the author's amusing "And Then There Were None" (1951).  The plot is straightforward: a ship with hundreds of crewmen, soldiers, and government flunkies visit a series of planets and attempt to reunite them to the lovingkindness  (a compound word  translating to "rules and taxes") of Earth.  Shockingly, however, no one who left the Man behind on Earth is eager to see him come back -- whether they're criminals, nudist health freaks, or libertarians. Anyone who has had an ill experience with government functionaries -- from IRS auditors to DMV clerks -- will find vicarious amusement here,  as a series of rebellious characters annoy, exasperate, obfuscate, and harass humorless G-men and their pompous, pot-bellied prince.

The third story is the heart of the book, as the ship lands on the planet 'Gand'.  The imperials  are utterly tactless in their approach to the locals, regardless of the planet, but Gand is a particularly bad place to be grabbing people and pressuring them for information. Gand is composed entirely of some tribe of libertarian anarchists, who don't cotton to authority.  So deeply do they loath the idea of uniformity or regimentation that there isn't even a common style of clothing.  Every  intrusive question is answered "Myob*!", and attempts to physically coerce the Gands is met with civil disobedience. One exploring sailor on his bicycle, out of uniform, manages to discover what makes the Gands  tick. Close to the Gandian heart is cooperation; they don't even use money, instead using a barter system of favors, or "obs". The Gands live in small communities in constant contact with one another, meaning that free riders ('scratchers') don't get away with it for too long. Those who break rules are shunned. The Mahatama would be intrigued.

As a novel there are faults; the health-nudists of Hygeia, for instance, insist that Earth deal only with them, and ignore a smaller community on their planet. Why?  Who knows, because  the Earthers leave without this other community ever being mentioned again. There the ship goes directly to another planet where there were settlers, but now...there aren't. Every sign of civilization also points to the planet's population being long gone, their structures surrendered back to Nature. What happened there -- again, who knows, because the Earthers enter orbit, decide not to risk a pandemic, and break orbit.  As a rule, creators of fiction avoid introducing elements have have no functional element in the story, so to see two instances of it back to back was rather odd.

Still, I enjoyed the original short story, and this expansion of it.  It's a short bit of comedy with some food for thought sprinkled in.

*Mind your own business!

Related:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein. Another libertarian society where culture is more important than force.
The Martian Chronicles, with another chapter of free-spirited settlers being chased down by  humorless drones working for the government.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead
© 1943 Ayn Rand
753 pages



"Howard Roark laughed."   This epic novel opens with the roar of its main character, leading the reader to wonder what is to come. Is he laughing in triumph? In fatalistic glee, like a Spartan before the Persian hordes?   The Fountainhead is his story, his triumph over those who would crush or control him. It is an eight hundred page tale, featuring only five principle characters, all of whom grapple with one another.  Written consciously as a heroic epic for a world in need of  a fire lit under its bottom,  it is an confrontational story, targeting the reader,  that deserves its reputation. In the end it is not a book about economics, or politics; at its heart, this is a novel that forces each character and the reader to answer the question: What are you living for?   Is it for your own convictions, or for the approval and at the whim of others?

First and foremost, The Fountainhead is a novel about integrity. The main character, Howard Roark, wants to be an architect -- but for him, designing buildings isn't just an occupation. It is an expression of his soul, something he pours his everything into.  Roark designs and builds according to his belief that form follows function, that the site and materials of a building should spur its design. Not for him are the fake Greek pillars of Beaux-Arts, standing pretty but adding no functional support. (He would not be a fan of McMansions, brimming over with random and functionless elements, from fake shutters to mismatched windows).  If Roark can't design according to his guiding principles, he simply won't;  he's content to work in a quarry if no one wants his kind of building.    He encounters occasional interest, however, and develops a practice in New York -- and through that practice, establishes a certain reputation for obstinacy.  He won't design a building that he doesn't believe in, and those who are accustomed to wheedling, manipulating, etc, gaze at him with disdain and indignation. Who does this man think he is, refusing work and scorning compromise? Maybe he should be taken down a peg or two...

The book remains controversial because its main character lives out a creed that the author, Ayn Rand, championed as 'the virtue of selfishness'.   On the face of it, this is a slap in the face to every belief system -- religious, political, moral-philosophic -- on the planet.  Even the beasts of the field, to use language Rand would despise,  engage in mutual aid. As I progressed through the novel, it seems to me that Rand/Roark had something altogether different in mind than the usual understanding of selfish. The main character is self-possessed, self-driven -- but he does not use others for his own private gain.  Roark does not dismiss self-sacrifice; he tells one character he would die for her, and at one point when waxing on the beauty of the New York City skyline -- the will of man made visible,  creativity rendered corporeal --  he declares he would fling himself bodily on these buildings to protect them from war.  But it is the act of will that is important;  Roark cannot be satisfied if he is not the master of his fate, the captain of his soul.  His convictions are such that he cannot allow anyone to think for him, to manipulate him into doing anything he does not believe in doing, to force him to sacrifice his time and creativity against his will.  He is like the woman in Fahrenheit 451 who sets the match to her own house and to her own person rather than surrender them; like  Henry David Thoreau, who chose to be thrown into prison rather than give money to pay for an unjust war.  Even like Gandhi, who maintained* if he were imprisoned the British would have his body -- but not his obedience.

We see why Roark lives as he does, through  other characters who act as foils.  Most prominent among these are his sometimes-colleague, Peter Keating. Unlike Roark, Keating doesn't have the courage of his convictions; he constantly seeks the approval of others, even when designing products of his own. He sinks hours and hours of his life in socializing with people he doesn't actually like,  diligently making connections so he can get bigger jobs, better commissions, and more influence. By novel's end, none of this has made him happier. He is old before his time, and he isn't even proud of his work, because so little of it is actually his.  Hank Williams said it best:  wealth won't save your poor wicked soul.  Another minor character of note is Peter's jilted finance, a relationship he let lapse because another woman offered better connections, even though he loved the jiltee genuinely.     All of the principle characters seemed strange to me, save Peter Keating,  but as the novel reached its height -- the second trial of Howard Roark,  accused of blowing up his own building rather than allow other designers to mar it --  I found him admirable in his constancy. The rest are either deceitful manipulators who keep their actions and motives in the dark, or pliable creatures whose actions move with the wind, like Keating and another. Howard, for all his strangeness, is constant.

While I still regard a worldview centered around individualism as problematically simplistic, in the limited context of The Fountainhead there is no difficulty at all in appreciating Roark's stand. This novel champions integrity and creativity, and while it calls its champion selfish, the men who act in in the way we truly understand as selfish are the bad guys. They are the would-be dictator who uses a political platform of equality-first to manipulate unions,  or people who marry others not to love them  but to seek advancement.  But ironically, by Roark's understanding, their selfishness is Other-driven: they are obsessed with power over Others, with reputation in the eyes of Others,  with things that Others will admire. Their actual selves are shallow, empty creatures, like the  pathetic, shriveled thing that was Voldemort in the aftermath of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Early on Roark meets a woman who wants him to design a house with a historical look. When he asks her why -- why she came to him for this kind of work, which he did not do, and why she wanted that kind of house in the first place --   Roark receives nothing but vague answers and references to her friends.

"He tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words sounded if they were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends. the picture post cards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him or answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.”

Whatever the limitations of Rand's philosophy as a whole, The Fountainhead is a call to life.  One can -- without knowing anything of Objectivism, let alone embracing it --  appreciate Roark's stand. Without being a Stoic, a person can monitor their thoughts from time to time and ask: why am I dwelling on this? What good is it doing?  Likewise, without adopting Rand's philosophy in full, a person can monitor their thoughts and actions and ask: why am I doing this? Am I doing it because I want to, or am I merely following the path of least resistance?   We needn't be self-obsessed, but we can at least maintain a level of self-possession, to be present and active in our lives. These are the questions that have made hippies, that have sent people to Quaker communities and on other journeys -- questions that sent Thoreau to Walden Pond.  Having climbed Mount  Roark with this novel,  I think Rand deserves more thoughtful consideration than outright dismissal.

Architectural Addendum: 
Architecture is important to the Fountainhead, being Roark's reason for living. His attempt to maintain his own integrity and the buildings are linked. as I'd expected to dislike Roark's architecture on principle, because very little of the 20th century's building designs appeal to me. They are all bizarre forms that are  building-size art projects, or dismal inhuman hulks, like the cattle pens for proletarians the Soviets called apartments.  Roark's architecture is not bizaare; it follows a certain logic. And it is not inhuman: Roark's designs are explicitly humanistic, designed for perfect and comfortable use rather than public approval. (Unlike the works of the starchitects!)  He builds to the human scale, with grace and proportion-- his designs are nothing like those featured on something like Jim Kunstler's 'Eyesore of the Month"  series.

*Well, sort of. It's a line given to him in the Ben Kingsley performance of Gandhi.  It's a belief completely consistent with his character, so far as I know it from reading books like The Story of My Experiments With  Truth.

Related:
A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe. Another epic novel about two men sloughing off banal expectations and learning to stand and live with steel in their soul.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Infinity's Prism

Star Trek Myriad Universes, Vol 1: Infinity's Prism
© 2008 William Leisner, Christopher L. Bennett, and James Swallow
527 pages


What if....Khan won the Eugenics Wars? What if....Earth had succumbed to fear after the Xindi attack, and withdrawn from the Coalition of Planets and exploring the final frontier? And what if -- and this is a big one -- what if Harry Kim was promoted to lieutenant?   Such are the stories, the three novellas, comprising ST: Myriad Universes, volume one.   Three Treklit veterans have produced here a collection of stories that have old heroes and villains -- Kirk, Dukat, KHAAAAAAAAN! --  playing very different roles. An unexpected discovery for me, I couldn't stop reading it.

William Leisner's "A Less Perfect Union" starts us off with an alternate Babel conference,  featuring a xenophobic James Kirk who serves the United Earth ship Enterprise, under the command of an aging Christopher Pike. Although  Earth succumbed to xenophobic politics following the conclusion of the Xindi war, withdrawing from the proto-Federation,  after a century of isolation some on Earth are interested in restoring relations with the Vulcans and Andorians. Unfortunately, their spokesperson -- T'Pol, who remembers the hopeful days of Archer's Enterprise -- is   kidnapped by a Romulan impersonating Ambassador Sarek, with the unwitting help of Jim Kirk.  Leiser almost rivals Greg Cox for subtle allusions to parts of the Trek verse, including Trek literature.  This was a strong start to the book, with the hilarious sight of  Doctor McCoy urging Jim not to be so defensively racist about Vulcans.

In Christopher Bennett's "Places of Exile", we see a Voyager too shattered by its first encounter with Species 8472 to continue pressing on towards the Alpha Quadrant, choosing instead to temporarily settle among the residents and officers of a space station-based civilization.  Bennett brings his customary science strengths to the table here,  and they serve him and the reader well when he begins exploring fluidic space.  Janeway and Chakotay's enthuaism for making a home in the Delta Quadrant vary widely: Janeway's intention of returning to the Federation never wavers, and she is concerned that her crew might lose its identity.  But it is Federation ideals that move Janeway and the other to work with refugees of the Borg-8472 war, creating a nascent coalition that works to find a way, martial or scientific, to end the brewing catastrophe.  Another interesting aspect of this story is the expansion of the Doctor, who becomes a dispersed intelligence controlling medical droids throughout the Coalition's stations and ships.  Although Bennett kills off Tuvok and Paris, Harry Kim finally gets a love life and a promotion.  (Was it worth it, Harry?)

"Seeds of Dissent", authored by James Swallow, visits a very different 24th century,  one in which Khan Noonien Singh won the Eugenics Wars and created a human empire nearly engulfing the Alpha Quadrant.  The discovery of an ancient human freighter -- the Botany Bay -- sparks problems for the Children of Khan, however. The freighter contains the last survivors of unmodified humanity, and their memory banks contain records of the atrocities committed during Khan's rise to power --  and challenging a history of Khan that sees him personally doing everything from being the first to step foot on Mars to breaking the lightspeed barrier.  Although this story features an amusingly perverse pairing of Kira and Dukat (rebel lovers), it's mostly a generic rebels vs the Empire story.  The augmented humans aren't even interesting: they're big and can survive in space for a few moments, but nothing of their society is revealed beyond a lot of Roman-derived titles.  The ending was a little different than expected, however.

Of the three,  I regard Bennett's as the strongest. Swallow's had the most interesting premise, but its development wasn't nearly as imaginative as it could have been.  This book is first in a trilogy of alt-tales, but the others don't seem particularly interesting -- with one exception, of Soong-type androids becoming pervasive in the Federation. As usual, Bennett posts annotations for his story.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
©
2004 David Kushner,
Audible presentation read by Wil Wheaton, runtime 12 hours & 43 minutes
334 pages


I wasn’t playing PC games  in the early nineties when Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, and Quake revolutionized both the industry and the hobby, but  they were legends I never stopped hearing about after I subscribed to PC Gamer in 2000.  I was conscious of playing in their shadow:  one of my favorite games,  Star Trek Elite Force, used the Quake III engine.  When I learned that Wil Wheaton, a geek gamer’s gaming geek,  narrated an audiobook about  the formation of id software, I couldn’t pass it by.  Masters of Doom chronicles the coming-together of two programming geniuses – John Carmack and John Romero, their overnight transformation from pizza cooks into millionaires, and the pressures that broke their team apart.

This book’s main lure for me was the voice of Wil Wheaton, and I’m happy to say he delivered. Wheaton’s acting experience  serves him well here; his reading is flawless and even,   giving slightly difference voices to different people.   On several occasions he uses an accent, or gives a ‘dramatic reading’, as he does when he imitates one game developer announcing his game in the imitative style of Walter Winchell. The effect is utterly hilarious --  and ditto when he does a reading of Bill Clinton’s accusations against Doom in the wake of the Columbine bombing attempt.

I’d previously heard id described as innovative, but never appreciated how far back their innovations went. John Carmack, for instance, introduced side-scrolling to the PC at a time when it  was regarded as impossible given the hardware limitations of computers themselves. His test project inserted an id character, Commander Keene, into the first level of Mario.  Several other major breakthroughs are mentioned here; dynamic lighting, for instance, and tweaks that forced the Apple II to create colors  beyond its original pallet.   At this time, id was creating relatively innocent games like Commander Keene, which set a young boy against an alien invasion.  Elements that would become id hallmarks (the retention of slain enemies), were already present.  More importantly,  multiplayer itself was an id creation, at least as far as LAN connections went. The software that allowed multiple computers to dial a remote server – creating gamerooms to meet other gamers and play matches against them in – was created by a fan, but quickly purchased and integrated into the core gaming experience. From Doom and Quake came  gaming clans, still a staple of gaming competitions.

Throughout the book, id grows from two guys doing all of the work – designing, programming, art-crafting – into a team of men with different ideas and different directions. Although their success  -- and their garages of Ferraris – had been made by working together, their wealth also enabled the two senior owners the resources to go their own way once their personal differences had become too much to bear. Carmack, for instance, is seen here as deeply serious coder who likes the challenge of it more than anything else.  Romero,  initially no less dedicated a programmer (and initially the engineering strength of the two-man team), later grew to relish the attention and moolah id’s success had given him.    The last quarter of the book details Romero’s departure from id,  the creation of his Ion Storm design firm, and the projects both men pursued throughout the 2000s. As of the book's publication, and the audiobook's presentation, both were still involved in gaming -- Romero was then branching out into the un-exploited terrain of pocket pc/smartphone games, and  Carmack was still finishing Doom 3 despite nursing another hobby in rocketry.  (According to Wikipedia, he's now involved in some VR project that Facebook bought out.)

Masters of Doom proved a fun bit of computer and gaming history, and my first look inside the gaming industry. My favorite designers are guys like Sid Meier (Civilization)  and Will Wright (SimCity /The Sims), both Carmack and Romero were fun guys to get to 'know' through these thirteen hours spent listening to Wil Wheaton.  There's more than a little nostalgic appeal here,  too.

Related:
Doom 2 Easter Egg:  John Romero's Head hidden inside final boss
IGN Plays Doom with John Romero



Saturday, June 17, 2017

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
© 1953 Ray Bradbury
158 pages


Like 1984, I suspect Fahrenheit 451 is famous enough that its basic details have seeped into the cultural consciousness of people who have never read it. Here we have a fireman whose job is to burn books, because so few people read them and the few that do are rendered unhappy by their contents. He’s fighting a losing battle, however, for despite the veneer of prosperity and the abundance of entertainment, the world the Fireman inhabits is a deeply unhappy one. Work is light, goods are cheap, travel is fast, and televisions can encompass entire rooms – but there is something wrong with a world where so many people try to commit suicide that stomach-pumping technicians are as routine as garbage collectors.

Our fireman, Guy Montag, is not like all the rest. While his wife buries her malaise by ensconcing herself inside her television stories, he finds the meaningless noise a distraction. The slight imperfection in his character that makes it impossible for him to simply sink into the soporific covers and ignore the sense of alienation widens into an outright fracture after he encounters two women with upraised heads. The first is a teenager reared without television, whose childhood curiosity has never been squelched, who looks to the heavens in wonder and asks the Fireman questions he has never heard before, or thought to ask. The second is an old woman who, threatened with the destruction of her house and books, takes the match from the firemen and sets the house and herself ablaze, staring in defiance all the while.

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing."

So the fireman  takes home a book, wondering -- is there really something he's missing?  But this isn’t the first time. It’s just the first time he’s admitted what he’s done to himself, the first time he’s dwelt on it enough to take out the other books he accidentally didn’t burn and then hid away – the first time he’s dared to read them, to confront what they have to say. His wife and coworkers can’t help but notice he’s not the same – and apparently unpracticed at guile, he’s terrible at it, sinking into bed with depression and quoting lines of poetry he could have only encountered through the forbidden fruit of books.

It’s when his boss arrives to put him back on the wide and winding that the book really reveals its substance. This is a book about the decline of literacy, yes. Books declined not because of a conspiracy but because people tended to gravitate toward easy entertainment, shorter synopses, that sort of thing. They failed to challenge themselves and became vapid creatures living for soma. But the book-burnings themselves were deliberate, created by a government that sought to minimize disruption and the loss of a happy-clappy world. Anything that could be offensive to anyone was purged. Anything that might start a mind to thinking about the world, to doubting, to unsettle everything was likewise burned. The chief’s case covers a couple of pages and is mesmerizing in its condemnation – not of his world, but of ours.  Our lives are saturated in sensation -- news, politics, action-and-sex movies, dissent is filtered out through  our will and the design of search engines, and language and history are the stuff of clay, to be molded to fit the conceits of the day.

"Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean."

Bradbury!  thou shouldst be living at this hour:
  America hath need of thee.

Related:
1984,  for the widespread anomie and the total loss of history and language.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Friday, June 16, 2017

I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did

I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy
© 2013 Lori Andrews
272 pages



Think about what you put on facebook. If you're like most people,  there is something in your photos, comments, likes, etc. that could get you into trouble.  I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did  explores the many ways that social networking websites expose individuals to physical and legal abuse. Written by an attorney,  the book has a legal emphasis, with many chapters on how publicly-visible facebook posts can prejudice judges against one claimant over another, or function as evidence not admitted in court when jurors begin googling people.   In many of the instances recorded here, the exposure comes not from people being careless, but from sites' privacy settings being adjusted without their knowing -- or because technology was being used to switch on their webcams without their awareness. Because of this, the author argues for a 'constitution' that would govern 'facebook nation', in essence a digital bill of rights protecting people.  Having read Future Crimes and Data and Goliath,  this was old hat for me, but a distilled reminder is always a good thing.  The catchy title and comparative slimness might draw in readers who ignore those other works, as well.    Very few congressional officials seem to know anything about cybersecurity, so I doubt we'll have a cyber bill of rights any time soon -- especially when easy violations of privacy serve the national security state so well.   In the meantime all we can do is stay paranoid.

Revolutionary Summer - Independence Kickoff


288 pages
© 2014 Joseph J. Ellis



Earlier in the week I read Joseph Ellis’ Revolutionary Summer to kick off my yearly tribute to American Independence.   Ellis should be familiar to readers here, as I enjoy his narrative histories of the revolutionary and early republican period of America enormously. Revolutionary Summer follows two interlapped threads of the revolution, political and military, as they flowed together.   That summer was the summer in which a tax rebellion sharpened into a bid for complete independence, and it started before the Declaration of Independence. In May, for instance, the colonies began working on their own constitutions,  superseding the earlier ones granted through the king’s authority.   British commitment to reversing the rebellion – two diplomat-generals  and a task force of 50,000 men, carried on the largest fleet ever seen off the waters of North America – also made it clear that a threshold had been passed: both sides were committed, root, hog, or die.

I’m using Ellis’ book to kick off my annual tribute to American independence, or rather the early Republic since I tend to read little about the war itself. I am no less fatigued with politics than I was last year, however, largely because the political atmosphere here is  still charged and turbulent, and so will be cutting the politics with literature and one travel memoir.   Expect a biography of a forgotten founder, at least one book on the Constitution, and a bit of literature. I’ll most likely use my Classics Club list to provide the spot of American lit.