Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scott Lynch's Exposition Epic

Scott Lynch, The Republic of Thieves

Career swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have made many enemies in the city-state of Camorr. But a junta of wizards offers them sanctuary if they help throw an election. Ancient Kashain’s rulers maintain power by keeping secrets and buying massive conspiracies, so Locke and Jean shouldn’t act surprised when the city proves to be a dagger pointed at their hearts. What kind of dagger, though, is an ever-shifting mystery.

If I had to describe Scott Lynch’s third Gentlemen Bastards novel in one word, I’d pick “long.” It’s physically imposing, at over 650 pages, but that’s fine. As James A. Michener observed beaucoups years ago, books’ ability to tell epic stories with generational scope remains their chief advantage over cinema. But while it starts strong, it eventually resembles an uphill slog through a molasses swamp, in Wellingtons full of superglue.

Locke and Jean are resilient losers, the Captain Mal and Zoe of heroic fantasy. Their sheer refusal to surrender to normality makes them staunchly heroic, especially when the law proves arbitrary and oppressive. Locke, always shrewd and quick with a sarcastic rejoinder, thinks he’s grown scars over his heart, but remains capable of humane insight. Jean restrains Locke’s often fatalistic tendencies; between them, he’s the one who wants to live.

Lynch’s writing has drawn comparisons to, and praises from, George RR Martin, in both its sweeping scope and foreboding tone. But Lynch’s actual prose more closely resembles British author M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, and he also includes occasional nods to other renowned fantasists, both point-blank and obliquely. I counted Fritz Leiber, CS Lewis, and Joss Whedon, among others. He’s a portmanteau of historic and contemporary sword-n-sorcery fantasy.

Unfortunately, Lynch’s storytelling style visibly mimics daytime television and X-Men comics, stumbling forward episodically, propelled by successions of cliffhangers and shocks. He intersperses the characters’ present, which unfolds with remarkable lack of haste, with scenes from his heroes’ history, contextualizing the suffering they now endure. Which would be fine, but he lampshades his big reveals so blatantly that, by the time they arrive, we’ve grown bored waiting.

When Lynch appropriates narrative cues from existing stories, he takes necessary gambles. Seasoned genre readers may recognize hints of Leiber’s Grey Mouser or Harrison’s Lord tegeus-Cromis, and cheer the knowledge that we can join a story contiguous with existing fantasy. But we pay for that familiarity when his narrative divulgences don’t differ sufficiently from his archetypes. This book openly courts readers who don’t like surprises.

Which is a shame, because for all his predictable plotting, Lynch’s prose is remarkably good. Locke Lamora uses impudent charm and gallows wit to extract other characters’ deeper secrets, while Jean translates suppressed rage into compelling action. Lynch’s incisive, dynamic writing propels action with such understated drive, and surprising humor, that even this jaded reader didn’t notice how many pages had passed without anything actually happening. At first.

Until I did. Somewhere around this massive, brick-like book’s one-third mark, I noticed Lynch was still setting the scene. Really. Well past page 200, Lynch kept spooning out exposition so slow and erratic, we practically hear the soap opera organ music. Yet his actual story remained in future tense, while the flashback scenes portended revelations in Locke and Jean’s present. Free semi-spoiler: love which goes unrequited long enough becomes hate.

Remember, in episodic drama, if characters mention some dead companion often enough, events will prove that character still alive. Or, since this is fantasy, undead. If characters hate some villain with sufficient passion, the person our heroes absolutely need to turn the tide will have some unacknowledged connection to that villain. And every question the MacGuffin character answers will omit some information our protagonists desperately need.

Lynch, sadly, exploits all these tropes. Amid his funny, grim, energetic flourishes, Lynch and his characters do little we haven’t seen before. Which perhaps isn’t bad; some people like the package tour, where everything’s pre-screened to guarantee customers find nothing shocking or unnerving on their trip. If that’s you, Lynch wraps a relatively familiar fantasy in eloquent prose and delivers it, like the stork, ready-made to your doorstep.

But that’s not me, and maybe not you. To paraphrase Doctor Who, I want to get lost on foreign streets, use wrong verbs, kiss the wrong people. Lynch keeps promising such jarring exhilaration imminently, but always shifts it into the future. His actual product cloyingly resembles every paperback fantasy from the last half-century, never really shedding its prototypes. And we never end up feeling we’ve really gone anywhere.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Prayer For Jerry Falwell

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 25
Michael Sean Winters, God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right


Perhaps nobody in 20th Century politics polarizes responses more completely than Jerry Falwell. Five years after his death, nobody who came of age during the 1980s or 1990s can hear Falwell’s name without strong reactions, pro or con. Yet because he cultivated such strong reactions, he remains essentially enigmatic, more a pioneer or scoundrel than a human with comprehensible motivations. Perhaps it’s time to evaluate Jerry Falwell’s complicated legacy.

Michael Sean Winters combines biography with political history to contextualize Falwell firmly within his time. An adult Christian convert, Falwell initially avoided fame, and apparently never wanted any life other than a moderately ambitious country preacher. But while he quietly constructed a remarkably forward-thinking, innovative ministry, outside forces increasingly encroached on evangelical Christian turf. In forming the Moral Majority in 1979, Falwell merely recognized the signs of the times.

Following the PR nightmare of the Scopes “monkey trial,” evangelicals thought they’d struck a new bargain. They’d abstain from politics, and society would leave them alone. But postwar America didn’t honor its bargain. By 1979, cultural trends that remain conservative rhetorical staples—liberal media bias, secular vulgarity, government intrusion into church ethics—occurred, in ways they hadn’t before or since. Evangelicals felt compelled to act, and Falwell took point.

Before Falwell, public Christianity honored progressives like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dr. King. Falwell’s Moral Majority movement changed that dynamic. By spotlighting sexual ethics, especially abortion and homosexuality, Falwell broadened the scope of possibility in political ethics, a broadening made especially complex by his open alliance with one political party. He recast ethical issues as moral crises, urging his delicate alliance of evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews to the battlements often.

Falwell read American culture with remarkably savvy aplomb. He used changing media to motivate supporters, register voters, and attract money. Though his business management skills often fumbled, Falwell’s ideological leadership kept his constituents’ issues in the public debate. Before him, American Christians voted with both parties impartially. But Falwell so skillfully packaged private ethical issues alongside economic and policy concerns that he essentially realigned political parties along religious lines.

But, contra his critics, Falwell didn’t try to silence critics or enforce state-based religion on America. As Winters deftly demonstrates, Falwell relished electoral challenges, and wanted to win debates, not squelch them. Media moguls loved his affable folksy charm. And he remained visible in part behind his pathological inability to hold a grudge; some of his strongest ideological opponents, including Ted Kennedy and Larry Flynt, became close personal friends.

By his own admission, Falwell faced even sterner charges from the extreme right than the left. He disavowed extremists who wanted theocracy, opposed demagogues who advocated death for homosexuals and abortionists, and condemned Reverend Fred Phelps. Falwell’s liberal opponents may be surprised to learn how much criticism Falwell endured for not being conservative enough. But Falwell had real human goals, and couldn’t stomach unthinking doctrine, even from nominal allies.

Winters’ biography, though, is hardly a hagiography; a Christian himself, he spotlights many costs Falwell inflicted on American Christianity. In fighting secularism in political debates, Falwell needed allies, which required him to soften doctrine. Essentially, he reduced Christian beliefs to mere public ethics, diluting Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. This became especially pointed during the Reagan Administration, when Falwell enjoyed intimate access, and molded spiritual concerns to match party orthodoxy.

Essentially, Falwell wanted to pastor a church, and his political involvement stemmed from his ministerial goals. But he also wanted human recognition, and other people often look more concrete than God. In his desire to be liked, Falwell compromised important religious positions, often scoring short-term gains, but by by weakening his Scriptural foundation. He eventually found himself less defensible, less popular, less equipped for vital public debates.

Worse, by making Christianity look rich, white, and polarizing, he made his faith unappealing to anybody who didn’t share his Eisenhower-era heritage. By 2000, atheists and religiously unaffiliated persons became a significant bloc for the first time in American history, and they mostly voted against Falwell’s positions. Though he admits such developments generally arise from multiple causes, Winters lays part of the blame squarely on Jerry Falwell.

Two generations after hitting the national stage, and five years after his death, Jerry Falwell’s legacy remains distinctly mixed, a jumble of sweeping accomplishments and missed opportunities, electoral triumph and theological debacle. Winters provides the clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis Falwell’s legacy deserves. If religious and non-religious Americans want rapprochement, it’ll come only through Falwell’s shadow. And that means we must understand this complex, powerful man.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dear Sebastian Thrun

An open letter to Sebastian Thrun, former Stanford professor, CEO of Udacity, and pioneer in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Thrun announced last week that his company would de-emphasize providing online course content for universities, which has worked poorly to date, and turn its focus to specialized corporate training. Thrun's announcement has met cheers and mockery from predictable circles.
I blush to admit, I was one among the cackling chorus of educators dancing circles around the mouldering carcass of your high-minded promises. Your utopian vision of digital education is expensive, resists meaningful measurement, and suffers ebola-like attrition rates. It encourages an essentially private, passive relationship to education, with bleak implications for life and career. We who teach for love of students dreaded the failure of empathy your model betokens.

But once the giddy exhilaration of vindication wore off, I paused to ask myself why I felt so strongly. As a fan of Neil Postman, I initially attributed my doubts to the medium. Like TV, the online environment rewards entertainment, short attention spans, and spectacle. It doesn’t reward independent thought or context. But that doesn’t hold water, or I couldn’t write this blog. Online education’s well-documented limitations must run deeper.

Professor Thrun, you come from an industrial research background. Your contributions to exciting new programs like Google Glass and Google’s newly announced self-driving car approach legendary. I applaud your accomplishments, because they transform our relationship to information and knowledge. But your public statements reflect your industrial background, openly treating school like a machine shop, and students like interchangeable parts.

Not that you’re alone in such opinions. Many writers utilize industrial metaphors to describe schooling in the coming era. I’ve reviewed some of these books here. But consider what this metaphor implies. You’ve redefined humans to have worth only instrumentally; that is, we derive meaning from our ability to work and make money. This contravenes the reasons we tell students to study liberal arts, because education makes our souls free.

Online education advocates have been appallingly unalert to the limitations inherent in their model. From government studies to academic guidelines to the popular exposés linked in the prior paragraph, authors excitedly espouse classroom-free learning as education’s liberation. Even before these mass-market analyses, I remember an awestruck series of MacArthur Foundation white papers breathlessly expounding how digital technology would imminently render classrooms, institutional schools, and professional educators obsolete.

These books and studies all share one limitation, however: they evaluate digital learning venues according to responses from people who finished the courses. Even the US Department of Education, a fierce cheerleader for new technology in education, concedes when cornered that these courses feature an attrition rate approaching ninety percent. These courses particularly disadvantage poor students, minorities, and men—the populations already disadvantaged by the current system.

In an interview last week, Professor Thrun, you openly disparaged poor students for entering your company’s courses unprepared. But nobody is born knowing how to “do school.” Children model what they see growing up. I was fortunate enough, as you presumably were, to grow up in a household brimming with books, where my parents modeled self-improvement as a cardinal virtue. Therefore I started school already attuned to the learning process.

Your model places 160,000 students under one or two teachers’ guidance, as occurred with your celebrated Stanford Artificial Intelligence class. But teachers cannot guide 160,000 students. You cannot possibly read 160,000 papers, conduct 160,000 personal counseling sessions, or know 160,000 names. You can only offer standardized tests, which evaluate students’ rote memorization ability, and never determine whether they’ve thought about what you taught them.

Education is not about conveying information from one mind to another—or, it shouldn’t be. We don’t invite students to sit down and passively receive data into their otherwise blank minds. Such behavior invites helplessness and confusion—and, oh look, that’s how most students greeted your classes. Students may parrot your lessons without ever gaining significant understanding. Inexperienced students, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, need personal guidance to make the intuitive leap from fact to insight.

Let me state that another way: ours is not an information economy, because economies rely on scarce and desirable commodities. Information, today, is common as dirt. Rather, ours is a processing economy, where our ability to synthesize separate knowledge increments into greater wholes creates value, as you, Professor, did with Google Glass. Such processing requires guidance, mentorship, and nurturance, not an undifferentiated fact dump.

If I’ve learned anything at the factory, it’s that technology makes human discretion more valuable, not less. Machines are ultimately helpless without humans to guide them. But students entrained to passively receive information cannot guide anything, because they need guidance themselves. You yourself, Professor, have created a world where free-thinking minds making profound logical leaps are more valuable than ever. And you cannot create such minds by making students stare indifferently at a screen.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Snowpacked Mystic

Patricia Fargnoli, Winter: Poems

Winter usually hits Patricia Fargnoli’s adoptive New Hampshire home like a doubled fist, pounding neighborhoods and shrouding the countryside in heavy weather and long nights. People flee indoors, venturing out only with great deliberation and purpose. That is the winter in Fargnoli’s latest collection, not necessarily ice and wind, though she has that; but the enforced isolation, the period when people must keep alone with their own thoughts.

Unlike other prominent poets, Patricia Fargnoli came to poetry relatively late. She published her first collection in 1999, after a long, successful career in psychotherapy and social work. This gives her work a remarkable tone, simultaneously youthful and brimming with experiment, yet seasoned by life and hard experience. She’s both the kid testing her poetic limits, and the grande dame bestowing accumulated wisdom, as in “Winter Grace”:
If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and known it for its transience.
This imagery, at once somehow obviously true yet uniquely her own, bespeaks Fargnoli’s greater themes. Winter happens in intimate moments, times when people know one another in greatest depth, or face themselves wholly. Winter’s isolation, its enforced confidences, make people doff their masks. Repeatedly throughout this collection, Fargnoli describes what happens when people stop pretending and be who they are, including (perhaps especially) herself.

In keeping with this theme, Fargnoli judiciously decides which poetic conventions merit her loyalty. She mostly eschews rhyme, as contemporary poets generally do, but occasionally dances very close to it, when sound help emphasize her theme. (She shows remarkable awareness of words as units of sound, not just meaning, one of my pet issues.) And she wrestles stanzaic forms to serve her ends, as in “Plea to the Missing God”:
I am confined here living alone
indigent and like a snail.

They say you are loving. I salute you.
Here among the action of the wind

will your voice come to me?
Is it only echo, echo?

Will you say nothing
across the bones of what is hidden?

I am pregnant with words, please answer me.
That ragged single line dangling after those two-line stanzas jabs like a coffin nail, emphasizing the incompleteness that drives Fargnoli to write. Fargnoli’s heartfelt agnostic prayer thus physically recreates the feeling of desperation we all feel when isolation drives us to cry out into the dark. We don’t know, maybe actively disbelieve, whether anybody’s listening, but we recognize ourselves as incomplete, and in that moment, recognition is enough.

>Not that Fargnoli is utterly detached and bereft. Besides encounters with other humans, Fargnoli remains in constant conversation with other minds that aren’t always corporeally present. Her verses banter across distance and time with other poets; she cites Tomas Tranströmer, Ruth Stone, Charles Wright, and Thomas Merton, among others. Sometimes she builds upon themes other poets buried in her soul; other times, she disputes with them, struggling for closure.

In these poems, “winter” isn’t always literally present. “Glosa,” Fargnoli’s answer poem to Thomas Merton, depicts a sunlit outdoor encounter, verdant with Spanish splendor. Yet she concludes by emphasizing: this happened in the past. It’s done now. We were together in summer; it’s winter now, and I recall our encounter privately, knowing we’ll never recapture that single moment again. This winter isn’t a season, it’s a phase of life.

Fargnoli’s best poems have a hazy, dreamlike quality, moments that matter because they exist entirely within us. Several poems explicitly depict dreams, like “Dreamwork,” wherein a dream of intimate connection haunts Fargnoli long after she awakens. Others have dreamy hints, questioning whether we’re awake in a particular moment, like this from “Bellows Falls”:

Outside again. No one’s on the sidewalk.
Perhaps the cold keeps them in?
Or something else?
Then one old man comes from the north,
black overcoat, black stocking hat, tortoise shell cane
he taps on the walk like the Knock Code.
As he nears, he speaks, a low voice
as if you weren’t entirely meant to hear.
Fargnoli’s Winter is bleak, ghostly, and alone. Yet it brims with life, because humans inject themselves into the vacuum. This gives her work a mystical quality, yet it’s a mysticism that doesn’t reach for invisible worlds; Fargnoli seeks communion with another human soul, or with her own shadow spirit. She invites us into moments of stunning, unadorned intimacy. And she asks us to confront ourselves, too.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Waiting for Sherlock Season 3?

Jack Taylor, TV3 Ireland
Jack Irish, ABC1 Australia

The worldwide success of Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock hasn’t gone unnoticed by other film producers. Particularly the ninety-minute feature format, which permits greater character development and delightfully creepy slow-burn tension. So while we giddily anticipate Sherlock’s third-season debut in January, consider these two international mystery film series, which utilize a similar format.

“Galway is the graveyard of ambition.” So moans Jack Taylor (Iain Glen, latterly of Game of Thrones) in the first of three feature-length films. Taylor, a former senior lawman, drinks himself numb to squelch the realization that he’s only marginally above the criminals he pursues. People hire this desperate ex-copper to find what they cannot, because he’s good; but they hire him out of desperation, because he destroys and saves in equal measure.

Based on Ken Bruen’s novels, Jack Taylor follows its hero through Galway, Ireland, a city roughly the size of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and about that far outside the mainstream. Bruen’s Galway is deeply divided between its workaday masses and its casually violent undercurrents. These undercurrents include both organized crime and the Garda Síochána, Ireland’s nationally centralized police, whose omerta culture chillingly resembles the criminals they’re sworn to apprehend.

Taylor has a talent for finding what others want hidden. So when somebody asks him to uncover, say, a missing daughter, he accidentally uncovers the links between a Galway philanthropist and Sarajevo’s bleak history. Or when he tries to track a name the Catholic Church wants bleached from the tragedy of the Magdalene laundries, he reveals the secret his own mother shrouds behind cynical bluster and casual wrath.

Iain Glen as Jack Taylor
While Taylor resembles conventional noir detectives in certain ways—drunkenness, suppressed rage, frank sexual swagger—he lacks certain boilerplates we’ve come to expect. He isn’t a skilled fighter, for instance, and tends to get his ass kicked. He can’t act remorselessly, and tends to flagellate himself for unavoidable circumstances. And his practiced cynicism cracks under pressure. This makes him more volatile than stereotypical PI’s, and victory is never completely certain.

Jack Irish avoids Taylor’s suffering by not pretending he has his shit together. Guy Pearce (Felicia from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) plays Irish as a fragmented amateur, a relic who can’t reconcile himself with his past. Yet some vestige of his former honorable self keeps poking through, and when common decency calls, he acts. Unfortunately, his actions inevitably put others in harm’s way.

Jeffrey Walker’s feature-length adaptations actually make Peter Temple’s first two Jack Irish thrillers less bleak than the novels. Though that may be hard to believe: these movies present Melbourne, Australia, as a seething cauldron of official corruption, far-reaching secrets, and daring daylight violence. But Walker also elides portions of Irish’s personal history that might be too painful for television. Which says plenty, since Walker doesn’t hesitate to torture Irish, or by extension us.

Guy Pearce as Jack Irish
A former criminal attorney, Irish maintains his license, but spends his days collecting mob debts and fixing horse races. At night, he’s apprenticed to a local master woodworker. All this to numb the pain of his wife’s murder by a disgruntled client. Irish admits being a former alcoholic; now his intensive work schedule lets him maintain his protracted “dry drunk.” Not that anything actually numbs the pain.

Irish wants to forget his former life. But  intrudes upon his present, reminding him that debts don’t vanish just because he reinvented himself. When an old client dies clutching exculpatory evidence, he must revisit the law career he’s tried to obliterate. And when a family friend needs help finding a dissipated son, Irish discovers connections between his own history and Australia’s deep secrets. Nothing in Jack Irish’s world is ever simple; crimes’ connections run to the very bottom, and very top.

Both these film series brim with adult themes, including violence, language, and sex. Jack Taylor politely demurs from showing excessive skin, but Jack Irish revels in Australia’s well-known love of shock, and uses nudity as cinematic sucker-punch. That’s why you’ve never seen these movies on American TV, and why they aren’t suitable for young children. But their rich story development and savvy cinematic storytelling make them great grown-up fare after bedtime.

American networks once had smart movie-length mysteries like Columbo and early Quincy that accomplished the same artistic goals these series do. Yet somehow American TV hasn’t heeded Sherlock’s clarion call like other nations have. We’d love more elaborate storytelling with more fully realized characters, too! Well, until our networks recognize this unmet need, we’ll continue shopping globally for intelligent, ambitious thrillers like these two.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Getting Old Beats the Alternative

Alex Zhavoronkov, The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy

I’ve received some criticism for this week’s review of Alex Zhavoronkov’s The Ageless Generation, from others who’ve read the book. Some criticism has been public, some private. Most of it, however, purports that I’ve misrepresented Zhavoronkov’s science, particularly his rebuttal of claims that human overpopulation has catastrophic environmental consequences. I usually don’t answer such criticisms, but this topic matters enough, I’ll make an exception.

Zhavoronkov attempts to forestall environmentalist arguments at around the one-quarter mark by citing Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Fairfield Osborne’s Our Plundered Planet, famous tracts written before most living readers were born, purporting humanity’s imminent demise due to overpopulation. Ehrlich in particular remains a popular kicking boy for technological cheerleaders, because his dire scaremongering failed to materialize. Naysayers face only one setback: Ehrlich’s apocalyptic prophecy didn’t fail.

Okay, we don’t live on a planet desertified by overpopulation, although human population has doubled since Ehrlich’s book debuted in 1968. The Pope hasn’t certified birth control, our seas aren’t dead, and massive die-backs haven’t commenced. Ehrlich’s alarmism proved founded on poorly sublimated racism and sketchy understanding of human demography. This makes Ehrlich, and his fellow neo-Malthusians, look like screaming Chicken Littles at best.

But many of Ehrlich’s forecasts have transpired, though in less horrifying terms. In India, ancient forests have been clear-cut for firewood. China, for the first time in history, became a net food importer in 2008. Famine has been averted by broadening democracy and improved agricultural technology, but that technology relies on petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, and oil-burning heavy equipment. And petroleum is not infinite.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 seethes with articles about damage humans have inflicted on nature. Not potential damages projected by mathematical models or computer simulations, but real damage that has already happened, and continues right now. Species extinction, habitat blight, resource depletion, and environmental degradation which will take millennia to repair: it’s all happening now. And we’re causing it, you and I.

It doesn’t have to happen this way. Amending how we utilize resources, including human labor, could not only change the consequences we inflict upon our environment, it could improve human quality of life. According to the UN World Health Organization, ensuring girls have adequate education between ages 10 and 14 leads to smaller family sizes, reduced resource consumption, and greater prosperity. This is a matter of will, not technology.

I reiterate, Zhavoronkov’s prognostications on increased human life expectancy are both solid and exciting. I look forward eagerly to seeing what possibilities arise when humans reliably exceed the century mark. But such changes will have ripples outside standard economics. Zhavoronkov never says anything outright wrong in his entire book. But he suffers from excessively narrow focus, excluding important questions that exceed his domain.

Even within his domain, Zhavoronkov’s reasoning reveals limitations. An NBC report this week reveals that chronic disease, not old age, has driven up American medical costs, the exact opposite of Zhavaronkov’s claim. This sounds like an argument for universal health care, not redefining old age. Considering that children as young as ten now receive treatment for what we once called Adult-Onset Diabetes, public health at all ages should receive greater priority.

And while Zhavoronkov’s right that we must revamp our public pension system, what happened to private pensions? In 1975, half of all workers had some form of employer-funded old-age pension; today, that number stands at about one-sixth, mostly public sector workers. Private workers mainly have employee-funded 401(k) accounts. After the Enron collapse of 2001 and housing bubble collapse in 2008 hollowed out many 401(k) accounts, that’s hardly an adequate exchange.

I wanted to avoid this, but I’ll continue. Extending workers’ productive lives past eighty sounds fun for lab researchers, professors, entrepreneurs, or lawmakers. But in two years at the factory, I’ve visibly aged. My beard has gone patchy grey, I have crows’ feet, and I’ve become bald. My voice has grown hoarse, I have tendonitis in my right wrist and arch, and after an eight-hour shift, I limp. Some kinds of work age you terribly. The idea of doing this work as a great-grandfather is horrifying.

Alex Zhavoronkov presents a prospect for revitalizing American and international society, by keeping people productive longer. This sounds great. But such changes have consequences beyond themselves. We cannot change something so fundamental as productive lifespan, and expect the future to essentially resemble the past. I’d rather plan for the most likely consequences now, than get blindsided after it’s too late to change our minds.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Must the Old Always Get Older?

Alex Zhavoronkov, The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy

On page one, Alex Zhavoronkov boldly declares: “We will soon be able to slow the aging process itself.” Period. No qualifiers, maybes, or squeamish half-committed circumlocution. That boldness is initially refreshing in contemporary pop nonfiction, which too often meekly tries to forestall counterclaims. Except it quickly becomes clear why authors use qualifier language, because Zhavoronkov sweepingly excludes important implications arising from his thesis.

Dr. Zhavoronkov, a pathbreaking gerontologist and international éminence grise, details how recent innovations in anti-aging medicine, and breakthroughs expected anon, will change human expectations of old age and retirement. Instead of seniors getting older and more decrepit, their pensions burdening society’s safety net, new science will extend citizens’ productive years. Zhavoronkov predicts five to ten year gains initially, and much greater increases soon thereafter.

Zhavoronkov’s predictions are wholly exciting, especially since they’re backed with robust science. Rather than simple entropy, as many assume, aging proves predicated on complex networks of biological functions nobody suspected just ten years ago. Treatments exist, or will soon exist, for the most common causes of declining productivity, including arthritis, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Practical application of radical anti-aging treatments may begin imminently.

These predictions, delivered in Zhavoronkov’s scientifically precise but upbeat style, gets the blood pumping. Who wouldn’t rather keep making stuff and paying taxes than commence a leisurely stroll toward morbidity? (That’s rhetorical. Don’t answer that.) Problems arise, though, when Zhavoronkov explains how redefining age will change society. He basically lays a ruler against the upward arc of the last fifty years, draws a line out to infinity, and shouts “Yippee!”

I can’t buy that. Zhavoronkov’s calculus incorporates medicine, neoclassical economics, and nothing else. I’ve read too much physical and social science to accept this narrow forecast. Start with how we’ll power this research, and feed and employ workers remaining productive well into their eighties. (Assume changing birth rates lag behind mortality, which seems likely.) This requires energy, which currently means hydrocarbons. More people working longer will burn more carbon, with tragically predictable long-term consequences.

Zhavoronkov’s predictions will draw natural comparisons to Ben Bova and Ray Kurzweil, who’ve both described their vision for humans’ imminent transcendence of death. But James Howard Kunstler and others criticize these authors’ perspectives as shortsighted, since they implicitly assume nigh-unlimited potential energy for human use, which current science denies. I’d go one step further: all three authors assume we’ll have someplace to put these numberless immortals.

Humans, pursuing their appetites, have muddied the air, clear-cut jungles, silted rivers, acidified seawater, and caused massive species extinction. Society’s status quo already requires unsustainable inputs and discharges revolting waste into our air, water, and soil. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, new technology doesn’t guarantee we’ll use it any better than our old technology. A larger population, living longer, must change its ways or humanity’s terrestrial future looks bleak indeed.

Even Zhavoronkov’s key thesis, that youthful seniors can keep working productively, assumes the economy can absorb them. That’s hardly proven. It could simply compound mass unemployment, or worse. If seasoned workers maintain fresh-faced vigor into their eighties, this will impact actual young workers who, lacking experience, will find doors shut. This could extend adolescent dependency beyond young workers’ peak childbearing years. Zhavoronkov addresses this possibility in one sentence, in parentheses.

I could continue, but it gets nitpicky. Let me name one last risk. New pharmaceuticals generally start out very expensive, and remain so while the market will bear it. Imagine wealthy bosses, banksters, and connected government officials can afford these treatments and bestride the earth for (Zhavoronkov suggests) up to 160 years, while ordinary workers continue to peter out around 65. What prevents that devolving into drug-fueled, age-based peonage?

None of this negates Zhavoronkov’s science. Imagine what humans could accomplish with added decades to learn, dream, and build. If we could manage the Pandora’s Box Zhavoronkov’s science implies, the hypothetical possibilities truly make the heart soar. If we leave St. Augustine out of the discussion, the capacity for what humans could accomplish if we postpone death make everything in prior human history look small, purblind, and cribbed.

Rather, Zhavoronkov needs a Freeman Dyson or a Harlan Ellison to co-author his social vision, helping imagine ramifications beyond his areas of expertise. Zhavoronkov’s prose brims with potential, but he just ignores entire scientific and humanistic disciplines in crafting his rosy future. We must anticipate all potential outcomes, and read his words in context. Because we’ll either face the future we plan and build, or the future that finds us despite our denial.


Coda: After reading this review, Zhavoronkov sent me the following e-mail:
Hi Kevin,

I would like to thank you for posting a comprehensive and objective review of the Ageless Generation. It is a great pleasure to "meet" a high–level intellectual and well-versed in a variety of disciplines these days. Let me know if I can ever be of assistance.

Regards,
Alex
I want to publicly acknowledge Dr. Zhavoronkov for this message. After recent conflicts with authors who couldn't take criticism, it's refreshing to hear from an author confident enough to receive a review like this with grace and aplomb. Alex Zhavoronkov is a gentleman and a scientist, in the truest sense of those words, and while I cannot overlook his omissions, I find his science, and the man himself, solid enough to recommend both for curious, intellectually engaged readers.

Thank you, Dr. Zhavoronkov. Writers like you make reviewing a truly rewarding avocation.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Year's Best Alice Munro

Elizabeth Strout (editor), The Best American Short Stories 2013

Every year, after I finish reading The Best American Short Stories annual edition, somebody inevitably asks: “Was it any good?” As though that’s a yes-or-no question. I usually respond with: “Depends. What’re you looking for?” Every year seems dominated by some theme, some insight that doesn’t reveal itself initially, but only after scrutinizing multiple stories. This year, your response will depend on how much you like Alice Munro.

Munro became the first Canadian Nobel Laureate in Literature two days after this collection shipped. Pretty good for an author who only writes short stories, in a market where short fiction venues haven’t weathered the digital revolution well. If short fiction has any future in today’s marketplace, it’ll come from authors absorbing Munro’s influence. American literature once needed a thousand Mark Twains; today it needs ten-thousand Alice Munros.

Well, this collection offers twenty, including Munro herself. Ironically, Munro’s contribution to this year’s collection, “Train,” is perhaps the most conventional story I’ve read from her. It has her accustomed generational sweep, and eschews climactic peaks, preferring gradual revelatory patterns. Yet she retains a sequential narrative and keeps focus on one defining character. It’s surprisingly linear from today’s most quintessentially non-linear narrative artist.

Though this year’s other featured authors don’t merely mimic Munro, her influence pervades this collection. Like Munro, most of these authors favor introspective narratives that resemble one character’s personal memoirs, rather than action- or dialog-driven external events. Two stories even utilize the diary format. And most authors eschew Freytag’s Pyramid, the movement from exposition to climax to denouement, which one of my writing mentors called the “Male Orgasmic Story Model.”

Alice Munro
Instead, Munro and her votaries favor an arc of realization, as characters gradually uncover some concealed truth about who they are. Rather than one glaring moment when truth becomes unavoidable, these stories preponderantly prefer the friction that, with time, produces a pearl. Narrative becomes the process of discovery, not the history of moments. As Lorrie Moore puts it herein, “Mutilation was a language. And vice versa.”

Different authors use this arc to different purposes. Karl Taro Greenfeld, in “Horned Man,” gradually builds a Poe-ish tension that, in its final moments, never gets resolved, leaving savory dread in readers’ brains. Kirsten Valdez Quade’s “Nemecia” unpacks the influence two cousins exercised on each other, growing up Spanish in the English-speaking southwest. These stories showcase a dark side to what we might call Munrovian fiction.

Authors like Daniel Alarcón and Suzanne Rivecca display another face. Nobody would mistake any story herein for Pollyannaism, and only fools would seek happy endings between these covers; yet these authors refute hip nihilism. Rivecca’s “Philanthropy” describes the healing a social worker begins when she stops playing socially acceptable roles. Alarcón’s “The Provincials,” though, shows a young actor beginning maturity when he chooses what adult role he wants to play.

Not every author handles Munrovian influence equally well. George Saunders, in “The Semplica Girls Diary,” starts an interesting story rolling, poses timely questions… then just stops. I’m reminded of that advice so often given undergraduates: “This story ends where it should be beginning.” David Means’ “The Chair” features a protagonist who receives a spectacular narrative opportunity, but, largely finishes where he began, resisting any opportunity for Munro’s powerful revelatory arc.

If this collection suffers one notable weakness, I’d cite narrow aesthetic diversity. Of the twenty stories, two magazines, The New Yorker and Granta, contribute nine. The remaining eleven come from generously sponsored glossy magazines; quirky, experimental lit rags stuff the Honorable Mention section. This perhaps explains the preponderance of white and Hispanic authors, particularly semi-celebrities like Jim Shepard and Junot Díaz. (Didja ever think any critic would disparage Hispanic privilege?)

Of these twenty authors, ten teach university-level creative writing. Though I’m nobody to condemn academic writers, this seems a remarkable number, representing prestigious schools like MIT, Vanderbilt, and Stanford. Alice Munro just writes, that’s what she does, and it shows in her distinct vernacular style, which other authors mimic, but seldom capture. Does this reflect the editor’s horizons, or does it reflect who has time to write in today’s economy?

Notwithstanding such momentary hiccups, this year’s eminently readable collection collects prime examples, from today’s prestigious names and looming stars. All “best of” collections have subjective views, reflecting the anthologizer as much as the market. But in today’s turbulent magazine market, this collection demonstrates two important, almost inarguable facts: first, short fiction retains its place in cultural discourse. Second, we have seen the future, and it looks like Alice Munro.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Japanophile's Lament

Shiho Kishimoto, I Hear Them Cry

Young Mayu Asaka feels torn. An idealistic French priest has attuned her to humanity’s suffering, and now she hears unvoiced cries all around. But she likes wearing nice clothes, living well, and making love with her wealthy paramour, Shigeki. So she marries him, thinking she can cure the demons plaguing his dreams. Sadly, Mayu cannot heal herself.

Shiho Kishimoto’s first novel, published in 2003 and making its debut in English, will probably net warm reviews because it addresses important, painful themes. It’s already won prestigious Japanese awards. But as deeply as I feel for issues of domestic violence and abuses of power in parental and spousal relationships, I cannot disregard my old mentor’s writing advice: “How good your theme is doesn’t matter if your prose is shitty.”

Mayu, our first-person narrator, speaks in clichés constantly. On page one, we get: “My heart skipped a beat, sending shivers down my spine… lost in the mists… swirling haze of cigarette smoke… exhilaration sent my thoughts reeling… I was beginning to live my dream.” Clichés generally bespeak authors (or narrators) who haven’t thought through the unique situation. I can’t tell if Mayu or Kishimoto relies on such trite phrasing.

Who’s using the clichés matters, because Mayu doesn’t think deeply about anything. No, that’s incorrect. She frequently thinks deeply, but casts her thoughts outside herself; she creates complex narratives and imputes multifarious motives to everyone around her. But Mayu avoids contemplating her own actions. She falls in love rashly, disregards advice, and uses other people for crudely self-serving purposes.

Father Jean, a village priest with a passion for delinquent youths, teaches Mayu to care about life’s most defenseless denizens. She interposes herself into an abused girl’s violent case, helping ensure an abusive mother faces judgment. But this triumph makes Mayu feel powerful, and she quickly descends into messianic grandeur, marrying for wrong reasons, then nursing powerful grudges when not everyone accepts her assistance.

Can I make so bold as to call Mayu delusional? That may be harsh. Sure, she creates elaborate tales of deceit and hypocrisy based on fleeting evidence, as when she divines her husband Shigeki’s extramarital affair from a woman wearing similar earrings. But Mayu isn’t delusional, because all her self-told tales prove absolutely correct. Either Mayu’s secretly psychic, or author Kishimoto wrote in a hurry.

The latter hypothesis explains the passive way Mayu caroms from incident to incident. She experiences emotional extremes faster than an untreated bipolar teenager. On page 138 she’s “bubbling over with pride now that I had successfully reeled in Shigeki.” On page 139 (totally not kidding) she says: “I couldn’t forgive Shigeki for letting [his mistress] in during my absence.” Though by page 145, she’s forgiven him, because that’s how she rolls.

If only that were an aberration. But readers could play drinking games spotting every time Mayu elides important narration, rushing headlong into some unearned emotional climax. On page 73 she says: “I knew of nobody who would call Shigeki’s phone and say such a thing in the coquettish manner I’d used. Unless there was someone else.” Shot of whiskey for that one.

Elsewhere, when Shigeki’s violent side flares up, Mayu suddenly remembers him waking from nightmares during their courtship, which inevitably devolved into rough sex. Father Jean warned her that Shigeki had a wrathful side, but she ignored him. Wait, when did all this happen? She never mentioned it. She inserts it much later, because she decides suddenly that she needs it.

Then, after inventing blood-chilling explanations for insignificant events, Mayu misses one important fact from Shigeki’s childhood. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Shigeki Tachibana resembles Darkly Dreaming Dexter’s ethnic understudy. But everything goes away in the epilogue because Mayu and Shigeki have a kid. “His loathing for his stepfather had been peeled off, [and] his hatred had somewhat mellowed.”

Gulp.

I contemplated whether perhaps Japanese literature doesn’t share Western conventions of exposition, narrative, or clarity. But I’ve read Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa in translation, and found no such blatant hiccups. I also wondered if translator Raj Mahtani might’ve injected his own quirks. He never finds any consistency in, for instance, whether to translate Japanese modes of address, and changes patterns constantly.

I understand Kishimoto’s motivation. Her themes touch me deeply. Sadly, her storytelling doesn’t touch me at all. Running under 170 pages, this novel resembles an outline Kishimoto hasn’t finished writing yet. It’s sloppy, underdeveloped, and slaloms through key moments so fast, I closed the back cover and laughed. Ruefully.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Running and Playing in Meadows Full of Words

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 24
George A. Kennedy (translator), Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric


Rhetoricians, grammarians, and English teachers have hotly debated whether anybody can truly teach writing, or whether writing is merely an innate ability, since before I joined their business. But they haven’t always. Early Greek educators considered writing eminently teachable, and bequeathed posterity numerous texts on writing instruction—books which subsequent generations promptly forgot. Perhaps, against this age of standardized tests and state-approved textbooks, time has come to reclaim this heritage.

“Progymnasmata,” in Greek, means “preliminary exercises,” and according to classicist George Alexander Kennedy, Greek rhetoricians used this course of exercises to prepare students for intricate legal studies. Athenian legal tradition rewarded quick thinking, diverse knowledge, and practical eloquence. Thus, early education emphasized inventive logic, reasoning from evidence, and translating complex concepts into common language. Even outside the legal context, these skills remain instrumental, and largely untaught, in rudimentary writing instruction.

Kennedy translates four textbooks covering five centuries of pedagogy, and one later commentary clarifying how timeworn pagan methods survived into Christian-era education. Some of these books have never previously appeared in English. Though Kennedy, in his supporting content, proclaims his intent to make these texts available to his fellow classicists and critics, he also inevitably presents these volumes for parents and professional educators. We have only to claim them.

Ranging from twelve to seventeen exercises, these texts present mostly compatible programs, but demonstrate sensitivity to cultural and regional needs. Theon, writing in the First Century BCE, includes exercises on important speaking and listening skills—valued abilities in his late Hellenic generation, but largely irrelevant to later Roman authors. Aphthonius and Nicolaus present largely identical curricula, but Nicolaus combines several of Aphthonius’ exercises, for a more streamlined, working-class regimen.

Plato and Aristotle, depicted by Raphael
These four authors didn’t invent progymnasmata. Kennedy finds evidence that Cicero and Longinus expounded these exercises, though perhaps without matching systematic rigor. And he also suggests many classic Greek-language writings show signs of familiarity with these exercises, despite antedating the instructional texts, including the Bible, Thucydides, and Homer (though he concedes Homer is a stretch). Thus, these surviving texts probably represent a thriving educational culture we can only imagine.

Teachers would have worked students through these regimens around the onset of adolescence, when students had savvied constructing grammatical sentences, but retained youthful malleability. In American terms, these exercises were for middle-school students. They assume basic familiarity with their culture, such as expecting students to know Aesop; but they don’t require extensive grounding in literature or language arts. Thus, they’re eminently adaptable to modern American schoolrooms.

Most exercises ask students to play with words. All four texts assign students to retell an Aesop’s fable, expanding it to emphasize detail or contracting it to illustrate a point. Three texts involve “Ethopoeia,” or writing a speech in another author’s voice (Kennedy suggests Pericles’ famous funeral oration, in Thucydides’ History, is a likely ethopoeia). Such exercises invite students to experiment with language, making it exciting, full of life.

Other exercises encourage students to translate thoughts into words. Exercises in “Encomion” and “Invective” (praise and condemnation) invite students to combine factual analysis with emotional impact, important devices in Greco-Roman oratory. All four texts include an exercise proposing and defending a new law to improve society; every text except Theon culminates in this exercise, highlighting writing as a public, rather than private, undertaking.

Put another way, progymnasmata don’t require students to generate ideas from air. By playing with existing maxims and fables, writing students build upon existing wisdom, connecting ancient literature to their own context. Praising or condemning public figures, and proposing changes to their native legal structure, bind students’ writings to the ongoing debate surrounding them daily. Thus students improve their writing without needing to reinvent the wheel.

Plato famously disparaged rhetoric as merely a knack for persuading the gullible. But these rhetoricians would surely disagree: they see writing as a means for generating and defending ideas, not simple obfuscation. Moreover, this instructional regimen amplifies the innate link between having an idea, and explaining it. Progymnasmata require words not be orphaned from underlying thoughts; to utilize written language well, in this classical structure, requires mature, defensible reasoning.

Few contemporary teachers realize such nuts-and-bolts exercises even exist, persevering in writing instruction through brute-force repetition, because it’s what they know. If your school resembled mine, your teachers encouraged you to throw yourself against the bare page, hoping a five-paragraph profundity would emerge. How much more would we have learned had our teachers known these uncomplicated programs existed? Hopefully future generations have an ancient Greek opportunity to play with words.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Fowler's New Anglo-Japanese Blues

James Fowler, Falling Ashes: Haibun, Haiku, Senryu, & Other Poems

Remember your high school instruction on writing haiku? Remember counting syllables, imagining happy splashing frogs, and crafting something so ethereal and useless that you despised your own words? (Or was that just me?) Tear all that up, it has nothing to do with real Japanese haiku. Instead, behold this glimmering, untitled gem:
a taxi arrives
my neighbor takes down
her yellow ribbon
US Navy veteran James Fowler served an extended hitch in Japan, learning the language and the people’s ways, and emerged with a distinct fondness for traditional Japanese verse. Like the haiku above, they generally don’t have titles, and concise imagery matters more than syllable count. As above, true haiku usually have no titles, and leave eager, attentive readers with more questions than answers.

Note, for instance, that Fowler’s neighbor has memorialized her absent husband (son? brother?) with a yellow ribbon. Yet she doesn’t greet him at the gate; he has to purchase a ride home. A yellow taxi for a yellow ribbon? The memorial goes away, but the memory of her soldier’s absence cannot vanish so easily. Fowler captures a moment in time, but doesn’t let us process it flippantly.

Fowler gracefully appropriates traditional Japanese verse for a modern setting, expunging generations of accumulated Western fake rules. Sure, Matsuo Bashō wrote about waving reeds and temple bells, but these were contemporary touchstones in feudal Japan. Like Bashō, Fowler uses older forms to describe the world he sees, in brief, uncluttered moments of surprising clarity.

Also, Fowler combines forms much like Bashō did, such as the haibun, a brief prose essay interrupted by snippets of verse. Some haibun run under fifty words, a quick dip into a moment, as poetically compact as the poetry around them. Take, for example, the fleeting, possibly hilarious moment captured in “Yokohama”:

In Chinatown I try to pass a pastry shop, but the scent of sweet-bean-curd and the sight of steam rising from the dumpling basket entice me to enter. I buy a dumpling and half-a-dozen fish-shaped cookies.
I eat a cookie
three uniformed schoolgirls
giggle and look down
Fowler trades primarily in themes of outsidership. First as the gaijin outsider discovering Japan, then as the veteran relearning his homeland after a twenty-year absence, he brings a worldview uncluttered by lifelong learned prejudices. This permits him to inject his verse and prose with unforced clarity, and as in the haibun above, moments of remarkable comedy.

Skirting the boundaries between Eastern and Western civilizations, Fowler manages to evade tedious “Inscrutable Orient” stereotypes that annoy cultural explorers and literary critics. He doesn’t use Japanese poetry as virtuoso performance or glib finger exercise. His focus on haiku’s intent rather than Westernized form frees him to write, essentially, about himself.

In that regard, Fowler resembles less Matsuo Bashō, more Sylvia Plath. Not in form, but in skillful, almost invisible use of his own questions, doubts, and aspirations as poetic inspiration. Having married late, for instance, he composes in a simultaneously loving and unromanticized tone when describing his wife. As veteran of two wars, he achieves plainspoken objectivity about combat.

Moreover Fowler serves to revitalize Western poetry with a shot of Japanese frankness. Later in the book, Fowler writes several typically contemporary non-rhyming English verses. Yet he imbues them with an essentially Japanese image-driven timbre, eschewing typical American linguistic ornament, as in “Poem Made in the Shape of a Burning Buddhist Monk”:
This poem is made to be read aloud
on a crowded street and dropped,
with a match, into a beggar’s bowl.

This poem will lift up in a cloud
of flames. High above, the fire
will burst and feather down upon
the shoulders of those passing by.

There will be many poems read
in the memory of burning monks.
Tears will streak the sooty faces
of the ghosts. Ash will fill their cups.
Read from an Anglo-American perspective, Fowler resembles Sylvia Plath, but rather than making himself the object of his verse, he conceals himself behind images. We glimpse not the poet himself, but his shadow, cast by the images he chooses to foreground. This near-Buddhist clarity communicates with readers, without ever lecturing them, or shanghaiing their insight.

If Western schoolteachers have trivialized haiku, James Fowler reclaims their original essence for curious readers. Audiences grown discouraged on today’s glut of Seventh-Grade open mike poetry will find his near-complete lack of intrusive narration refreshing. And his clear, brisk images free language from its gathered clutter. Here’s hoping more Western poets discover this clarity, and make it a trend.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Aliens, Angels, and the New Modern Myth

Don Lincoln, Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos

Voltaire famously wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Modern society, increasingly without religion, could say the same about extraterrestrials. We need something to fill their role, and if they won’t present themselves, we’ll invent them. Fermilab physicist and science popularizer Don Lincoln investigates what aliens mean, and what science actually supports. He accomplishes some goals better than others.

Lincoln divides his investigation into two prongs. The first, and longer, section discusses how extraterrestrial life, as a concept, permeates popular culture. Beginning with Renaissance discoveries that forced freethinking cognoscenti to question humanity’s, and Earth’s, presumed uniqueness, Lincoln progresses through popular hoaxes, science fiction, and pseudoscientific ufology to describe alien life’s cultural and psychological arc.

Lincoln’s second section addresses what Aliens (spelled thus, signifying technology and intelligence) likely will resemble. Lincoln unpacks latest scientific analysis of life’s capacity to survive even hostile environments, and what current chemistry tells us about stable, abundant physical components. Will Aliens be humanoid, air-breathers, or even animals? Lincoln’s answers may astound even hardened science fiction fans.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s second angle will probably touch more readers, more deeply, than his first. A research physicist himself, Lincoln revels in scientific details, not only the latest discoveries and incontrovertible proofs, but thought experiments for what we could discover next. When he discourses on what might make plants intelligent, or how Aliens might survive oxygen-poor environments, his glee shines through, like a kid playing in the mud.

The first section lacks this undisguised glee. Though he runs over 100 pages, Lincoln never gets beneath surface readings of science fiction and pseudoscience. It takes little to say that 1950s UFO movies reflect Cold War anxiety, or that George Adamski’s beatific Aliens clearly replicate angel mythology. Lincoln simply name-drops these interpretations, and walks away. He doesn’t so much explore Aliens as catalog nearly two centuries of references.

These themes deserve better explication. Aliens’ cultural role seethes with unexplored potential. Is there any correlation between Aliens’ transition from mongrelizing enemy in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, to banal annoying neighbors in Men in Black, and the growing acceptance of American multiculturalism? Maybe. What about the changing role of military violence across the Star Trek franchise? Lincoln just doesn’t say.

He says plenty, though, about current hypotheses and new discoveries. Lincoln’s breakdown of probable extraterrestrial science runs only eighty-five pages, yet his compact, rich style and sly humor resemble great prior science popularizers, like Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan. He lovingly unpacks not only what we know, but how our knowledge has changed, and how prior assumptions have proved unsustainable. Lincoln may change your view of our universe.

A research physicist himself, Lincoln seems more comfortable with hard answers, or at least reliable data. Aliens’ culture role demands a Claude Levi-Strauss or Meaghan Morris, willing to dissect obvious answers to spotlight unasked questions. Aliens plainly serve moral roles in contemporary culture, permitting us to externalize aspects of ourselves that deserve scrutiny. Lincoln correctly writes: “What we think [Aliens] look like will tell us more about us than them.”

Copernican heliocentrism and Darwinian evolution changed how humans see ourselves and our universal status, Lincoln claims. We can no longer regard ourselves as Creation’s pinnacle, or the center of existence. Yet somehow, Aliens represent continuity with prior human mythology. Our desire for Alien contact puts a technological veneer on ancient narratives of worlds awash in fairies, djinn, and other beings we can’t quite grasp.

Anyone familiar with mythology will immediately recognize the persistence of archetypal folklore in Alien narratives. Barney and Betty Hill’s abduction account set the standard for Grey narratives, with malign gnomes inordinately interested in human sexuality and crossbreeding. But George Adamski’s “Nords” bespeak peace, transcendance, and interplanar brotherhood. Can anyone doubt the inherent angels-and-demons dichotomy there?

But Lincoln just name-checks that trope, and moves on.

Fortunately, Perlich and Whitt have established precedent for the sort of criticism Lincoln introduces, but doesn’t elucidate. Science fiction explores human potential, and human fear, in ways religion has largely abandoned, and what we love or fear about our future reveals covert truths about our present. Lincoln’s implicit assessment starts well, but doesn’t go far enough.

Lincoln’s brief, frequently exciting book makes a worthy prolegomenon to his topic. Its contrast between scientific insight and cultural paradigm will certainly amaze beginners on the topic. I just wish he went further. If he’d only dedicated matching vigor to his pop culture critique that he used on his science, he’d have an ironclad future classic.

Friday, November 1, 2013

In Praise of Whining

Working Class Values, Part Four

Good advice... until you consider the implications
I felt bad when I realized Cindy and I had spent over ten minutes of paid workplace time leaning on our brooms, bitching. If the boss caught us, we could’ve gotten reprimanded for nonproductive time use. Even without official action, my conscience plagued me. My parents raised me to disdain complainers, demanding I take ownership and, when aggrieved, act to remedy the problem. Complaining, I’d learned, is wasteful.

Except, Cindy and I have become good friends, bonding over our shared grievances. Studies show that the people who thrive in laborious blue-collar jobs generally have a “best friend” on the line, and Cindy has become my lifeline. Ordinary people use language as social glue, so why should I feel ashamed that the language we share consists of complaints? Is “No Complaining” a solid value, or learned middle-class uniformity?

Like all ethical values, our evaluation of complaining cuts two ways. Moralists see complaining as conceding defeat. Some people use complaints in lieu of productive action, preferring others’ condolences to actual redress. Such grumbling is self-serving and inherently egotistical: “Look at me,” the complainer cries. “I deserve special consideration because I’m so oppressed!” Actual underlying causes never get addressed, and solutions get postponed for future generations.

Yet this cannot describe all complaints, nor all complainers. Just as not everybody who drinks becomes an alcoholic, not every complainer furiously demands everybody’s pity. People complain for diverse reasons, including reasons downright admirable, even useful. Lumping all complaints together, and trying to expunge them altogether, robs our underclass from its one tool of resistance, and consigns people with genuine grievances to silence.

Commiserate. From the Latin: "to feel pity together"
Most obviously, complaining serves organizational purposes. Cindy and I, by voicing our perceived problems with management, reassure each other we’re not alone in our frustrations. The simple act of sharing unites us; now, rather than each suffering alone, we have a network. By combining our misery, we distribute hope, since neither of us must suffer in silence. We’ve become friends, but equally, we’ve become a people together.

For ordinary complaints, our bosses might even thank us for sharing them. By reassuring ourselves that our problems aren’t our own fault, we unburden our spirits, freeing energy we can dedicate to working better and improving our output. If I feel aggrieved, sharing that grievance with a fellow sufferer helps me stop punishing myself. Sure, shopping griefs to strangers multiplies the problem, but sharing griefs with similarly suffering peers divides it.

But not all complaints are ordinary. Can you imagine the Labor Movement of the 19th Century ever redressing the Dickensian misery of early industrial workplaces if workers had agreed not to complain? Just as regular complaining about small slights organizes friends into a network, sharing serious objections to outright injustice permits masses of people, especially the poor and disfranchised, to organize significant protests and seek constructive reform.

American philosopher Eric Hoffer notes that all mass movements organize themselves, at least initially, on oppositional foundations. That is, we band together not by our shared belief in God, but our shared hatred of the Devil. What groups hate motivates them to strive for a better world. Important social movements today, like the Tea Party and the #OCCUPY movement, developed positive values latterly, but organized initially around opposition to some perceived destructive force infiltrating American society.

Indeed, society itself may be essentially oppositional. Humans feared getting eaten by lions, lost in dark forests, or freezing to death, so we banded together to share responsibilities. I’ll make shoes so you don’t lose toes to frostbite; you split shingles so I don’t sleep in the rain. Despite ur-myths of Rugged Individualism, most people wouldn’t live Jeremiah Johnson style, because choosing between keeping warm, or getting this year’s harvest in, is pretty bleak.

Good advice. But nobody ever started a revolution alone
When citizens are powerless to act individually, whether through poverty or disunion or obscurity, shared complaints provide a sense of unity, permitting, even encouraging, groups to organize. While we may romanticize happy people with few gripes, such people have little motivation to try anything new. Seriously aggrieved people, unified by knowledge that they face some shared enemy, have strong motivation to accomplish something together.

Certainly, we cannot reward people who rehearse old resentments for selfish ends. Such people are mere lampreys, thriving by consuming others’ vitality. But sententiously forbidding everybody to complain, ever, as Sunday School pamphlets and well-meaning parents often do, robs society’s most powerless members of their most effective tool. Only when we voice our complaints, together, do we accrue the power to meaningfully redress them. Together.

Working Class Values
Part One: Sharing, Bellyaching, Sloganeering
Part Two: Reading
Part Three: Religiosity and Egalitarianism