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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction

“History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”*…

 

The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836 (oil on canvas)

Thomas Cole: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)

 

Your correspondent is headed to the steamy Southeast for his annual communion with surf, sand, and delicacies of the deep-fried variety.  Regular service will resume on or around August 26.  By way of hopping into hiatus on a high note…

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been.  At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion…

Tom Holland compares and contrasts (very engagingly) the late history of the Roman Empire with that of the U.S., and (very amusingly) second-century Emperor Commodus with Donald Trump; he concludes:

History serves as only the blindest and most stumbling guide to the future. America is not Rome. Donald Trump is not Commodus. There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall. This is not an argument for complacency; it is an argument against despair. Americans have been worrying about the future of their republic for centuries now. There is every prospect that they will be worrying about it for centuries more.

Enjoy the essay in full: “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is.

* Max Beerbohm

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As we recognize that this doesn’t actually mean that we can breathe any easier, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses

source

 

Written by LW

August 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Let It Bleed”*…

 

bloodletting

Science sometimes goes down an incorrect path. Though the path is wrong, a detailed superstructure of learning gets built on top of the incorrect premise. Such was the case with the medical practice of bloodletting in the early 1800s, where detailed procedures were developed regarding which veins to open for a given set of symptoms. One leader in this practice was America’s Dr. Benjamin Rush:

Early in the [1800s], … physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by what rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, because people, even when they are thoroughly enmeshed in descriptions of reality which are at variance with reality, are still seldom devoid of the powers of observation and independent thought, the science of bloodletting, over most of its long sway, appears usually to have been tempered with a certain amount of common sense. Or it was tempered until it reached its highest peaks of technique in, of all places, the young United States. Bloodletting went wild here. It had an enormously influential proponent in Dr. Benjamin Rush, still revered as the greatest statesman-physician of our revolutionary and federal periods, and a genius of medical administration. Dr. Rush Got Things Done. Among the things he got done, some of them good and useful, were to develop, practice, teach and spread the custom of bloodletting in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use. He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence.

His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians. And yet as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling ‘the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.’ Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched…

As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense…

Via DelanceyPlace.com, an excerpt from Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Bloodletting.”

* The Rolling Stones

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As we drip, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that the first science fiction series debuted on American television, the DuMont Network’s Captain Video and His Video Rangers.  Written by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, and Jack Vance, it was– even in its time, when early television productions often were thrown-together affairs– considered crude, owing much to the fact that the daily show was done live on a meager budget.  Indeed, the actors were paid so little they actually made more money from appearing in character at supermarket openings, county fairs, and the like than they did from their salaries.

Still, it ran for a total of 1,537 episodes, and quickly spawned competitive sci-fi offerings like Tom Corbet, Space Cadet and Space Patrol.

Captain_Video_title_card source

 

Written by LW

June 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: ‘At the time, no one knew what was coming’.”*…

 

PKD

 

Well, maybe someone had an inkling…

Philip K. Dick‘s Radio Free Albemuth (1985).

Unlike Dick’s many stories set in a dystopian future, this one is set in a dystopian present — one in which an opportunistic incompetent, the mouthpiece for a crackpot conspiracy theory and front-man of a right-wing populist movement, becomes president of the United States with the secret support of the KGB and the FBI. (“Why should disparate groups such as the Soviet Union and the U.S. intelligence community back the same man? … They both like figureheads who are corrupt. So they can govern from behind.”) As he wages war against “Aramchek,” an imaginary subversive organization, President Fremont abrogates American civil liberties; this leads to the emergence of a resistance movement… organized through transmissions from a superintelligent, extraterrestrial being or network known as VALIS. (See Dick’s 1981 novel VALIS.) Nicholas Brady, a record store employee, is the recipient of these transmissions, and a kind of subliminal organizer of the resistance; his experiences are a lightly fictionalized version of Dick’s own infamous “2–3–74” gnostic freak-out. As Brady becomes a successful record producer (encoding anti-Fremont messages into folk songs), his best friend, science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, struggles in vain to stay out of the clutches of the right-wing populists. Brady’s ultimate song-message is written by a woman named Aramchek; it is recorded by a band called, yes, Alexander Hamilton.

Fun facts: Drafted in 1976, published posthumously despite not being finalized. The novel was adapted by John Alan Simon in 2010; the film stars Jonathan Scarfe as Brady, Shea Whigham as Dick, and Alanis Morissette as Sylvia Aramchek…

Via the ever-educational HiloBrow

* Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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As we ponder prescience, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that The Twilight Zone aired its 31st episode in its inaugural season, “The Chaser.”  As IMDb recounts, “a young man obsessed with winning over an uninterested beauty gets more than he bargained for when he buys a love potion to gain her affection.”

twilight zone source

 

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know”*…

 

world history

Map of the globe with a focus on trade and expansion, c. 1565, based on an earlier map by Giacomo Gastaldi. Image credit: Library of Congress

 

As we look forward to 2019 and beyond, we might do well to pause and take a look back…

This animation shows how humans have spread and organized themselves across the Earth over the past 200,000 years. The time lapse starts with the migration of homo sapiens out of sub-Saharan Africa 200,000 years ago, with a few thousand years passing every second. As the agricultural revolution gets underway and the pace of civilization quickens, the animation slows down to hundreds of years per second and eventually, as it nears modern times, 1-2 years per second…

Via Kottke.org.  See also time lapse animations of the history of Europe from the fall of Rome to modern times and human population through time. (via open culture)

* Harry S. Truman

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As we listen for the rhymes, we might wish the happiest of birthdays to Isaak Yudovich Ozimov– aka Isaac Asimov– who was born on this date in 1920.  A biochemistry professor, he is better remembered as an author– more specifically, as one one of the greatest science fiction authors of his time (imaginer of “The Foundation,” coiner of the term “robotics,” and author of “The Three Laws of Robotics”).  But Asimov was extraordinarily prolific; he published over 500 books– including (in addition to sci fi) 14 books of history, several mysteries, a great deal of popular science, even a worthy volume on Shakespeare– and wrote an estimated 9,000 letters and postcards.

Isaac.Asimov01 source

 

Written by LW

January 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity”*…

 

Somewhere in your life, a door opens, you enter, and you suddenly find yourself in another dimension—a place beyond that which is known to man. A dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. Or, as we prefer to call it, the Internet—where everything is available and time disappears as you spend hours upon hours drifting in the hell of an Internet K-hole.

Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you avoid the endless loops of cat and baby videos and dodge the fake news and outraged memes about nothing very much in particular only to land safely in a strange repository of mystery and imagination.

One such idyllic location can be found at the Internet Archive where the Pulp Magazine Archive has nearly every back issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine. This is the place to spend hours, days even, happily reading, learning, and being thrilled by the very best genre writers of our age like Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Bashevis Singer [!], Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison.

Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine started in April 1981 under the editorship of writer T. E. D. Klein and lasted until 1989. It was filled with first-class stories (see above), interviews with writers and directors, film reviews (including Stephen King’s take on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead), long illustrated features on films like Blade RunnerGremlins, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and David Lynch’s Dune, plus book reviews by Thomas M. Disch and Theodore Sturgeon. There were also incredible treats like John Carpenters “lost” short fiction and the story behind H. P. Lovecraft’s “banned book.”…

Get a taste at “A Treasure Trove of the Twilight Zone Magazine“– then dive in.

* “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”  – Rod Serling’s opening narration for The Twilight Zone.

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As we feel the frisson, we might send speculative birthday greetings to novelist, short story writer, and essayist James Graham (J. G.) Ballard; he was born on this date in 1930.  While he is probably most widely known for his conventional (and semi-autobiographical) novel Empire of the Sun, he is probably more meaningfully remembered for his New Wave science fiction novels (e.g., The Wind from Nowhere and The Drowned World) and for later dystopian works like Crash and High Rise.

Indeed, The literary distinctiveness of Ballard’s fiction has given rise to the adjective “Ballardian“, defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”  In the introduction to the seminal Mirrorshades anthology, Bruce Sterling cited Ballard cited as an important forebear of the cyberpunk movement; and in Simulacra and SimulationJean Baudrillard hailed Crash as the “first great novel of the universe of simulation.”

 source

 

Written by LW

November 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The soul never thinks without a mental picture”*…

 

While popularised by Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful Calligrammes from 1918, the art of making images through the novel arrangement of words upon the page can be traced back many centuries. Some of the earliest examples of these “calligrams” are to be found in a marvellous 9th-century manuscript known as the Aratea.

Each page of the Aratea has a poem on the bottom half — written by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus and translated into Latin by a young Cicero — describing an astronomical constellation. This constellation is then beautifully drawn above the poetry; the drawings however are themselves made up of words taken from HyginusAstronomica. The passages used to form the images describe the constellation which they create on the page, and in this way they become tied to one another: neither the words or images would make full sense without the other there to complete the scene. Also, note the red dots on each picture: these show where the stars appear in the sky.

This remarkable object brings together nearly 2000 years of cultural history. Making use of two Roman texts on astronomy written in the 1st century BC, the manuscript was created in Northern France in about 820. It then found its way into the library of the Harley family in England, before being sold to the nation in 1752 under the same Act of Parliament which created the British Museum.

More– and larger– examples of this extraordinary art at “Aratea: Making Pictures with Words in the 9th Century.”

* Aristotle

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As we “just doodle it,” we might send speculative birthday greetings to Roger Joseph Zelazny; he was born on this date in 1937.  While (justly) remembered as an important science fiction author— he won the Hugo Award six times; the Nebula, three– he was also an accomplished poet.

 source

 

Written by LW

May 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I try to conjure, to raise my own spirits, from wherever they are. I need to remember what they look like.”*…

 

In Margaret Atwood’s The ­Handmaid’s Tale, a Christian sect call the Sons of Jacob creates a male-dominated theocratic state

Margaret Atwood’s evergreen dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about to become a television drama. Published in 1985, it couldn’t feel more fresh or more timely, dealing as it does with reproductive rights, with the sudden accession to power of a theocracy in the United States, with the demonisation of imagined, pantomime villain “Islamic fanatics”. But then, feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.

Where does the story of feminist science fiction begin? There are so many possible starting points: Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing World, about an empress of a utopian kingdom; one could point convincingly to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of how men could “give birth” and what might happen if they did; one could recall the 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” by Begum Rokeya, about a gender-reversed India in which it’s the men who are kept in purdah.

And perhaps one of the starting points was here: on 29 August 1911, a 50-year-old man, a member of the Yahi group of the Native American Yana people, walked out of the forest near Oroville, California, and was captured by the local sheriff. He was known at the time and popularised in the press as “the last wild Indian”.

He called himself “Ishi” – a word in the Yahi language that means simply “man”. He was the very last of his people, and had been living in the wilderness alone, travelling to places he remembered from the time when his tribe had flourished, in the hope of finding some remnant of those he’d grown up with. When he realised they were truly all gone, when a series of forest fires meant he was close to starvation, he allowed himself to be found and taken in…

And the link with feminist science fiction? Theodora and Alfred Kroeber’s daughter was Ursula Le Guin, the science fiction author. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, at the start of the revolutionary women’s movement, and was one of the earliest pieces of feminist SF. It is about a man from Earth who travels to the planet Gethen, where the people have no fixed gender. He is by turns fascinated, appalled and deeply, sickeningly lonely. Everyone’s “normality” is someone else’s wilderness…

From Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood, feminist science fiction writers have imagined other ways of living that prompt us to ask, could we do things differently?  More of their history at “Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future.”

* Margaret Atwood, The Handmaiden’s Tale

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As we listen and learn, we might send hauntingly-beautiful birthday greetings to Eleanora Fagan; she was born on this date in 1915.  Better known by her stage name, Billie Holiday (and her nickname, Lady Day), she was a jazz musician and singer-songwriter– a legendary performer who enjoyed both huge popular success and great acclaim from her fellow artists.

 

Written by LW

April 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

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