Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A Plague on Both Houses!

Or at least on my house.  The hideous office plague finally caught me and I’ve ended up at home, nursing a cold for six days.  It turns out that Mercutio’s curse on the Montagues and Capulets [my title] could only be possible in a society practicing agriculture and sporting permanent settlements.
            Just before I fell ill, I had scooped up some reading material which had arrived at the public library.  Included in the pile: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.  I put a hold on it after attending a National Geographic Live presentation.  That evening featured Spencer Wells and NatGeo’s Genographic Project.   Although I enjoyed his presentation, I had the nagging feeling that I had heard it all before.  Tracing the human journey out of Africa and the use of linguistic data to track that migration—weren’t they were explored in Guns, Germs and Steel?  I decided to re-read the book, just to make sure that I wasn’t crazy.  But it’s all there—and GGS (published in 1997) is actually referenced in two of Wells’ books. 
            Back to plagues, however.  I read the section of GGS about disease with a little more interest this time.  Funny how being sick myself gave a sharper focus to that chapter.  And it turns out that my cold, caught from a co-worker, is a result of the development of agriculture ten thousand years ago.   The concentration of people in permanent settlements has given the advantage to the germs.  There are plenty of warm bodies close by, just waiting to be infected.  Hunter-gatherers don’t have the same concentration of numbers.  The resources of the land just won’t support large groups.  No doubt they still experience illness, but for them injury, especially if it inhibits movement, is a much more serious issue.  And of course, they can be exposed to disease while butchering and eating the animals which they hunt.  By and large, they are extremely healthy folk.
            At first blush, it looks like we should have it much better in our permanent homes and with our domestic plants and animals, but it turns out that all the germs that our domestic animals carry have evolved to try their luck at infecting us too.  Measles is closely related to rinderpest (a cattle disease) and influenza is a result of living closely with pigs and ducks.   Small pox is another cattle-derived disease—remember the stories that we were told in school about Edward Jenner’s discovery of the principle of vaccination?  That milk maids who caught cow pox during the course of milking their cows didn’t suffer from small pox, hence their legendarily lovely complexions.  They stood out in a society where everyone else was pock marked. 
            I must confess I like the society which I live in—every time I travel, I come home convinced that I live in the best place in the world.  And my co-travellers concur.  We regularly celebrate our lives in a place that has no volcanoes, no tsunamis, no hurricanes or typhoons, and only teeny tiny earthquakes.  I can live with a bit of snow and cold, the odd bit of flooding and the occasional blizzard.  And while civilization may have given us all of these “crowd diseases” that make life miserable from time to time, it has also given us the written word and the ability to express ourselves.  That, dear reader, is what a blog is all about and that I can celebrate any day of the week!

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Survey of Early Science Fiction : What's Going on Here?

I’ve been working my way more-or-less chronologically through the NPR Books list of “Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalists” which they posted in early August of 2011 (  It has been an enjoyable endeavour and six months into my self-appointed project, I have read about 60 books, or about 10% of the total.  I’m certainly no expert, but I have noticed several themes in the literature so far that interest me.
            The authors have a sense of impending disaster of tremendous proportion.  They anticipate global pandemics or nuclear wars that will almost (but not quite) wipe out the human race.  I am Legend by Richard Matheson postulates a virus that turns humanity into vampires.  The Earth Abides by George Rippey Stewart simply expects a global pandemic with few survivors and a gradual return to the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham features large, predatory plants which severely restrict human movements.  And then there is always nuclear apocalypse, as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The survivors, stuck on Earth, are already so genetically damaged that they aren’t allowed to leave the planet with the healthy folk.  [BTW, I loved his pejorative for these folk: chickenheads. Doesn’t that really say it all?]  The feeling I got:  we’re not smart enough to prevent big disasters, but a few will always survive and will have to be resourceful enough to start over.
            It seems that the only enemies imaginable in the 60s and 70s were the Soviets.  A notable exception (proving the rule) was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle—an alternate history in which Nazi Germany and Japan had won WWII.  But the implication was that only in alternate histories could you rule out the Russians.  There are strong references to the Soviets in George Orwell’s novels (both 1984 and Animal Farm) and in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Looking back, you can discern the level of paranoia about the Iron Curtain in the late 20th century, especially in conjunction with the prospect of nuclear war.  Personally, I remember emphasis on Russia and China as “the other” in social studies classes in junior high and can’t help but be amazed at how different things are in the 21st century: Russia is almost side-lined and China is becoming a major trading partner and is seen as the economic engine of the world economy.
            There is a strong distrust of computers and other technologies prevalent in the fiction of this time period.  An ironic concern in this genre!  A recurrent situation is a computer developing a mind and an agenda of its own (see Arthur Clarke’s 2001 or Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).  A CBC radio program that I listened to recently linked today’s tendency to use female voices for GPS devices, airport announcements, etc. to the voice of the computer HAL in the movie version of 2001, announcing in a menacingly neutral masculine voice that “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.”  HAL has to be unplugged by a human, but Mike, the computer on the Moon that gains consciousness in Heinlein’s work, has the decency to disengage himself.  This is fortunate, as Mike was starting to enjoy the thrill of lobbing missiles at the Earth.  In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, some of the androids in question return to earth to prey remorselessly on the remaining dregs of humanity.  It is their complete lack of remorse and empathy that reveals them to the android-hunters who seek them.
            Distrust of technology starts right at the beginning of the genre, in Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.  The monster is loosed on society without thought to the consequences by Frankenstein, who creates the creature and is then repulsed by it.  The implications are clear:  just because a creature can be created, that doesn’t mean it should be.  At least Frankenstein comes to his senses before animating a monstrous mate for his creation.  I found this attitude strange at first, as most science fiction authors are personally proponents of scientific progress.  Clarke, for example, is credited with the idea of using geo-stationary satellites for telecommunications.  I came to realize that the authors were very aware that technology could be used for evil as well as for good, and as a result, they felt the need to explore the moral and ethical aspects of such progress.
            Another question of morality in these tales was the role of telepathy and other psi abilities.  I was surprised by the number of novels which included phenomena which are considered fringe subjects today.  Alfred Bester’s works The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are marvellous examples, featuring teleportation and telepathy as everyday occurrences.  Philip K. Dick also explores the topic in Ubik, where contact with the dead is a given and companies are built around psi-abilities.  Even Isaac Asimov has a telepathic shadow society in his Foundation series, derived from a vigorous branch of mathematical psychology and called the Second Foundation.  Arguably, even the mental link between dragon and rider in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books could be included in this category.  I’ll be interested to see if this interest in the paranormal continues in modern science fiction, or whether it gets banished to the junk heap.
            Apparently the future is not going to be a pleasant place to live.  We will have to be tough, smart and determined and we won’t have much fun.  We’ll have to worry about nuclear fall out, mutant viruses, totalitarian governments (see Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell), controlling telepaths, predatory plants, out-of-control crime (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess) and many other hazards.  I would expect current science fiction to have different undercurrents—perhaps environmental catastrophe and terrorism substituting for nuclear disaster and totalitarian government.  It will be fascinating to continue to read forward in time, seeing when certain fears subside and which come to prominence.
            Not really a theme, but a general observation:  early science fiction and fantasy is very much a white male endeavour.  Women are given insignificant or token roles and racism is blatant.  I expect to see that shifting as I continue forward on the timeline and as more women and minorities become authors in the genre.  Additionally, cigarettes and smoking are ubiquitous:  the authors manage to portray big technological changes quite well, but miss on the small details, like cell phones, online newspapers and changes in health-consciousness.   I wonder what features of our current fiction will seem anachronistic to future readers?
            As Mr. Spok would say, “Fascinating.”

Friday, 3 February 2012

Reading A Clockwork Orange

            I’m being constantly amazed these days by the number of “classic” books that I have somehow never got around to reading.  A Clockwork Orange was definitely among these—I’m sure I owned it way back when, but the slang language deterred me from reading it.  Eventually, when something sits on my shelf unread for long enough, it gets weeded during a purge.  Thank goodness for the public library’s very extensive collection of speculative literature.
            It does require a little perseverance to figure out the slang used by the young offender who is “Your Humble Narrator” during the tale—but after a bit of practice, my speed of reading increased substantially and I started to get the gist of the lingo without having to stop, back track and analyze.  Anthony Burgess was a linguist and that knowledge certainly shows—I’m not sure a non-linguist could have created such a complete and intelligible slang language.  (I actually had fun trying to figure out what sources Burgess had used to create the vocabulary).
            Some novels written in the 60s show their age quite plainly.  That’s not a bad thing; I think it helps us keep track of how much our society has changed over the last 50 years and to assess where we are now.  What distressed me was the amount of recognition that I felt for the whole “juvenile crime” issue explored in Clockwork.  Our society is still agonizing over this problem, what causes it and how it should be dealt with.
            In one sense, I think Alex (the main character) had it right—we never ask why someone chooses to behave in a law-abiding fashion and that question is just as relevant as the opposite, why someone would choose to live outside the societal contract.  It’s like the field of psychology, which since its formation has focused on alleviating suffering, but has paid little attention to the achievement of happiness.  (That bias is beginning to be redressed by the field of Positive Psychology). 
            Criminality is a complex issue—I think we could probably all agree that there is a certain genetic component. Psychopathy, for instance, seems to stem from faulty brain wiring, quite possibly transmitted from parent to child.  Even children that don’t have this defect can be raised in environments that either train them in criminality or drive them to it (to escape an abusive home for instance).  I have heard it described as genetics loading the gun and environment pulling the trigger.  The combination can be deadly—but it needn’t be.  A good role model at the right time, the attention and approval of a respected adult, can make all the difference in a child’s life.  For example, Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear became a threat assessment adviser.  When interviewing criminals for insight into their behaviour, he came to realize that he shared the same violent upbringing as the incarcerated, but had a grade school teacher whose interest and encouragement had changed the trajectory of his life.  I think this speaks to the importance of our teachers, youth leaders, coaches, relatives and even neighbours in the lives of young people.
            Realizing the importance of positive adult attention, it is ironic that we hear so much lately of people in these positions taking advantage of children in their care.  The already at-risk are more likely to be targeted by these predators.  Just like animal hunters, the predatory adult is looking for a weak and vulnerable child that can be easily silenced and controlled. 
            Criminal children get disproportionate media coverage—it’s an emotionally charged issue.  In actual fact, teenagers are far from being the vicious and violent terrors that we read about in the tabloids.  Statistics indicate that the vast majority of crime, including violent crime, is committed by adults and that the incidence of crime is actually decreasing.  This is not to say that horrible crimes haven’t been perpetrated by adolescents (I’m thinking of the young Medicine Hat girl who helped her boyfriend murder her family and the young predator who raped an inebriated young woman in a C-train station).  But the vast majority of our young people do well in school, have part-time jobs and behave like civilized people. 
            However, just as in A Clockwork Orange, politicians still like to prey on our fears and convince us that “something must be done.”  Tougher laws and punishments seem to me to be tackling the problem from the wrong end—more intervention at the beginning of a child’s life seems like a much more useful exercise.  Incarceration seems to be a wonderful training ground to make better criminals as they learn technique from one another.  Childhood intervention would mean a lot of investment and will take time to show results.  Neither of these prospects attracts politicians—they want to spend less money and want to be able to claim instant results.  If positive results will take a decade to appear, the politician will likely to long gone and unable to benefit from them, actually creating a disincentive to taking on such projects. (Why do something that may help your successors instead of yourself?)  It is this focus on one’s own political benefit instead of society’s improvement that seems to have us caught in a unresolvable situation.
            So far, we are still counting on the same scenario as the last chapter of Clockwork, where Alex grows up and loses interest in his criminal endeavours and starts to long for a wife and child of his own.  I’m sure that some young offenders do eventually grow up and adopt more normal life styles, but it seems to be a waste of many years of their lives, which might have been intercepted and directed into more positive pursuits earlier.  Of Alex’s gang, one has a normal life (Peter), one is dead (George) and one has become a brutal police officer (Dim).  It’s a bit disheartening to realize how little progress we have made on these issues since Anthony Burgess first wrote this tale.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Revisiting Pern

It’s appropriate that, as the Year of the Dragon approached, I was re-reading Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey.  I have many fond memories of the dragons and the Planet of Pern and I know that I bought several of McCaffrey’s books through a science fiction book club that I belonged to back in the 80s.  The books are long gone at this point, turned loose to join other households during one of my periodic purges.  [BTW, my bookshelves have become overcrowded and another purge seems to be in the offing].
            McCaffrey is an engaging storyteller and I was magically returned to one of my favourite planets.  I still enjoy the series and I had forgotten enough of the details to make it fresh for me once again.  It was my “airplane reading” on my way out to Victoria to see my sister. 
            But, as with so many things in life, returning to Pern at age 50 has changed my viewpoint considerably.  I was struck by the youth of the protagonists:  twenty to twenty five years old.  I was probably in the same age bracket when I first picked up The White Dragon, which I believe was my introduction to McCaffrey’s writing.  No wonder I identified with it so strongly!  There has been 25 years of water under the bridge, and I now find it strange that McCaffrey would choose to make her star characters so young.  I’ve done a little bit of checking, and I believe that she was in her early 40s when she was writing these adventures.  Was this some longing for youth on her part?  [Personally, I would never willingly choose to be younger than 40 again.  Life is just so much more enjoyable and sane now than it ever was in my twenties].  To her credit, the characters do behave like twenty-somethings—plenty of drama, not great interpersonal communication and a certain contempt for older people [that is people of the age that McCaffrey was when she wrote the books!] 
            I know she had no access to contemporary research, but its interesting to me that neuroscience is revealing the plasticity and the major changes which happen in the adolescent and young adult brain.  During that phase of development, the brain is quite literally being remodelled, many neurons being pruned and many others being reinforced.  It’s a confusing time of life and not surprising that young people are confused about their role in the world, their romantic relationships and their political and social views.
            Perhaps McCaffrey believed the adage of the 60s, to not trust anyone over 30.  Perhaps she was trying to attract a younger audience [although that seems like a more contemporary worry—was that a concern in the 70s?]  Perhaps the characters’ shallowness is a reflection on her writing and not on the age bracket that she chose to assign to them.  This time around, I did find myself impatient with Lessa and F’lar’s communication or lack thereof.  The structure of the novel demands that they be a couple, but they pout, make assumptions and generally refuse to tell each other what they expect or need.  I guess I have reached the stage that Andy Rooney talked about—a woman over forty, who is “forthright and honest.  They tell you right off if you are a jerk or if you are acting like one.  You don’t ever have wonder where you stand with her.”  Now that I have reached this age and stage its frustrating to read about less-than-adult behaviour as if it was the norm.
            I do realize that their miscommunication does add to the suspense of the plot, that if they acted like reasonable adults, the romantic tension wouldn’t be nearly so effective.  So many television programs have discovered, to the writers’ chagrin, that bringing to two leads together romantically ends the show.  Sexual tension was what kept the show alive and a quick death follows the consummation of the relationship [think Who’s the Boss?, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Remington Steele, Cheers, etc.—sorry, I’m not watcher of current TV].   
            I also find it a bit offensive now to see people younger than me, i.e. R’gul the former Weyrleader, pushed out of the way and characterized as rigid and hidebound in McCaffrey’s plot.  I know that some of us do get that way, but aren’t more of us willing to think and to change?  Maybe this is my blind spot, but I think of how much I have changed in the last 15 years and I can’t help but wonder what led McCaffrey to make her older characters, the ones her own age, so unbending and oblivious.
            While researching McCaffrey, I found that she was trying to provide strong female characters, to combat what she saw as weak women in the science fiction of the day.  And I guess Lessa is strong, in her own way, but to me it looks more like intractable stubbornness and refusal to communicate.  I know I lived through the seventies, but I was in junior high and high school—I don’t remember a great deal about the relationship between the sexes or the nature of what was considered strength at the time.  Those issues really didn’t impinge on me much as a teenager.  Its been my observation as I’ve read the science fiction of the 60s and 70s, that women were more likely to be absent, rather than weak.  Or they were given roles that had potential to be authoritative, but those roles remained unexplored.  Token women mostly.  Were stubbornness and silence were considered strong, male traits?  Was it the era of The Strong Silent Type?  Trust me, I know a thing or two about being stubborn—I’m a professional at it.  And I hate to accept assistance and will persevere without requesting help for a long time.  Hmm….maybe Lessa and I are more alike than I care to admit! 
            Having criticized a fair bit, I think its important to explore why I really do still enjoy these books—and I think that is the bond between dragon and rider.  I haven’t owned a horse for decades, but I always wished for a telepathic bond with my animals like McCaffrey describes with dragons.  Even with average cats and dogs, life could be so much easier if we actually knew what went on in their heads.  [Mind you, the downside would be that they know what’s going on in ours too and vet visits might become much more difficult].  Being able to talk with the animals has been a secret desire of many people and it is an alluring prospect.  Perhaps this is why the Pernese men and women have such a hard time communicating—they are used to the telepathic union with their dragon partners!
            The other wonderful aspect of the dragon-human relationship is the sense of being “chosen.”  The candidates waited on the hatching grounds and the young dragons staggered out of the egg shells towards their destined rider.  Do we ever lose this desire to be the chosen one?  To have an extra-special relationship and to only be parted by death?  In many ways, the human-dragon dynamic is like an ideal marriage, to which regular life and relationships just can’t measure up.
            To a young farm girl like me, enamoured with her horses and in that early “scared to death” phase of dealing with relationships, no wonder the world of Pern felt like home.  I’m sure it’s why many young women choose horses over boys during the teenage years—horses are much less threatening and much easier to understand.  But I do have to admit that I’m grateful at 50 to look back and realize how much I’ve grown up and how happy that makes me!