Reading – & Now 2
A love affair with books
An appetizer: "The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.
"Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence."
– Roy Scranton, The New York Times, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene⩘ .
Related book: Roy Scranton published an expansion of his The New York Times article as a book, pictured above alongside the excerpt from the original article.
Related podcast: Roy Scranton talks with producer Mike Osborne of Generation Anthropocene⩘ , Nov 2015.
Translated and edited by Ken Liu
I found the tales in this diverse collection of 13 stories by seven Chinese authors—who are, among many other things, accomplished science fiction writers—by turns inspiring, challenging, puzzling, entertaining, touching, and above all, well worth spending some time with.
In his introduction, the anthology's translator and editor, Ken Liu—who is himself, among many other things, an accomplished author and winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards (see my review of The Paper Menagerie⩘ )—writes:
Like writers everywhere, today's Chinese writers are concerned with humanism; with globalization; with technological advancement; with tradition and modernity; with disparities in wealth and privilege; with development and environmental preservation; with history, rights, freedom, and justice; with family and love; with the beauty of expressing sentiment through words; with language play; with the grandeur of science; with the thrill of discovery; with the ultimate meaning of life.
I found much to enjoy within the worlds the stories of Invisible Planets opened for me. Here are a few of my favorite passages:
Plenty of room for imagination
From The Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan:
Pea finally said something meaningful. "Living is so…" He didn't finish his sentence. Tiring? Good? Stupid? You could fill it in however you wanted. That was why I said it was meaningful. Compared to his old way of talking, this new style was forceful, to the point, and left plenty of room for imagination.
Lving with an awareness of the closeness of death
In his dedication for his story, Tongtong's Summer, Xia Jia shares this poignant appreciation:
This story is also dedicated to all the grandmas and grandpas who, each morning, can be seen in parks practicing tai chi, twirling swords, singing opera, dancing, showing off their songbirds, painting, doing calligraphy, playing the accordion. You made me understand that living with an awareness of the closeness of death is nothing to be afraid of.
Singing in the wind
In the title story, Invisible Planets, Hao Jingfang relates the magical story of a storyteller enchanting her listener with glimpses into the lives on other planets:
Jinjialin is the last story I will tell you today. It's a short tale. I'll be finished soon. The people of Jinjialin possess bodies unlike the bodies of the people of any other planet. They are like soft balloons, or maybe like jellyfish floating through the air, transparent and loose. The surface of the Jinjialinians is membranous, like a cell's outermost layer. When two membranes touch, they can merge into one.
When two Jinjialinians encounter each other, parts of their bodies briefly merge and mix the materials inside. When they separate, the materials are redistributed. Thus, the people do not care much about their physical bodies. Even they cannot tell how much of their current bodies comes from strangers they met along the road. They believe that they are still themselves, and it's no big deal to exchange some materials.
But they don't realize that this sense of "self" is an illusion. At the moment when two of them merge, the two original selves cease to exist. They become a combined person, and when separated, two new persons. The new persons do not know all that transpired before their encounter and each believes that the self is the self, never having changed at all.
* * *
Do you understand? When I am done telling you these stories, when you're done listening to these stories, I am no longer I, and you are no longer you. In this afternoon we briefly merged into one. After this, you will always carry a bit of me, and I will always carry a bit of you, even if we both forget this conversation.
"You're saying that Jinjialin is our own world?"
Our own world? Which one? Can any planet have belonged to us? Or can we have belonged to any planet?
Do not ask me about the coordinates of these planets. Those numbers are the oldest mystical proverbs of the universe. They are the air between your fingers. You reach out to grab them, but when you open your hands, there's nothing. You and I and they meet for a moment, and we are fated to again separate. We're only travelers, singing songs whose meanings are obscure, wandering through the dark sky. That is all. You know they are singing in the wind, singing in the wind of a distant homeland.
A bit of understanding and empathy for strangers
In his afterword essay, What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?, Xia Jia has this to say about the gift that science fiction can be:
At this critical historic moment, I am even firmer in my faith that reforming reality requires not only science and technology, but also the belief by all of us that life should be better—and can be made better—if we possess imagination, courage, initiative, unity, love, and hope as well as a bit of understanding and empathy for strangers. Each of us is born with these precious qualities, and it is perhaps also the best gift that science fiction can bring us.
Tor Books, New York, 2016
Lee Smolin, Time Reborn
From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe
Narrated by Sean Pratt
In his preface, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin asks "What is time?" and goes on to state that "This deceptively simple question is the single most important problem facing science as we prove more deeply into the future of the universe."
Occasionally, I like to read or listen to books "written for the layman" about physics, astronomy, and cosmology. Even if I don't fully understand what is being shared—as is often the case—I think I get something out of these books; if nothing else, they make aware that there is much in life that I don't understand and that this reality we live in is much weirder than I can even imagine. (Black holes … quantum entanglement … I rest my case: any reality that contains those is seriously WTF weird!) For that reason alone, the time I invest in these books is well worth it.
In the preface to Time Reborn, Smolin says, "I have tried to make the arguments of this book accessible for the general reader without a background in physics or mathematics." Well, all I can think is that Smolin is so far out there that he doesn't really understand a general reader. I understood so little of this book that I don't really know what kept me engaged … except that sometimes I think that exposing myself to ideas—even if I don't understand them—can plant seeds that might come to fruition at some future time … and yes, I personally think time is real and one directional.
It didn't help that Sean Pratt's narration comes across, at least to this general reader, as a bit snarky. He frequently injects laughter into his reading as if to say, "Well, we all know how ridiculous it is to think this." Except I usually didn't understand why he was laughing, so I ended up feeling like the only one at a table that didn't get a joke that was just shared.
All that aside, I'm really glad I finished this book, because I appreciate tremendously Smolin's comments about our current climate crisis in his epilogue titled "Thinking in Time," the only section of the book I was able to actually understand. This is the clearest I've ever heard anyone explain the crisis we face and what we must do to survive it. I also love it that he says, "We're just the fortunate ones who live within a lifetime of the peak...."
As a species, we seem to be at the peak of our dominance of the planet's ecosystems and resources. We all know that the present situation is unsustainable. Unsustainability was bound to happen; it is always the result of exponential growth. We're just the fortunate ones who live within a lifetime of the peak and the crisis that will follow if we don't learn fast to act more wisely than in the past. If we persist in thinking outside time, we will not surmount the unprecedented problems raised by climate change. We cannot rely on the standard menu of political solutions, because those problems are defined by the failure of our present political systems. Only by thinking in time do we have a chance to thrive for centuries more. There was someone who for the first time had the courage to make her children safe by harnessing fire. Who will have the courage to realize that the safety of our children may depend on our learning to steer the climate.
… But suppose we've found the wisdom to avoid all this. What will we have learned along the way that made success possible? And what positive good (as opposed to the avoidance of disaster) will society have achieved by solving this crisis? The literature on climate change is typically couched in negatives. Over and over, we read about the dreadful consequences of inaction, but nowhere can we find a discussion of the ancillary benefits that accrue when we solve this problem. People who exercise and eat well find positive effects in being healthy that outweigh the motives of avoiding illness and early death. Might there likewise be positive benefits of living within an economy that fosters a healthy planet?
The consequences of overcoming the climate crisis are difficult to predict, because to succeed we have to do more than solve a global engineering problem. Even among those who appreciate the seriousness of the crisis, adherence to one or another of two opposing viewpoints, both false, delays real progress. For those who see the world in economic terms, nature is a resource to be exploited and transcended—and climate change is just an agricultural problem on a larger scale, to be managed by cost-benefit analysis. For environmental activists, nature is paramount and pristine, and can only be diminished by the encroachments of civilization; climate change, for them, is just another issue of preservation. Both miss the point, because both assume that nature and technology are mutually exclusive categories, so that when they clash a choice must be made between them. But an adequate solution to the crisis requires muddying the distinction between the natural and the artificial. It requires not a choice between nature and technology, but a reorientation of their relationship to each other.
The overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that it is we who are now destabilizing the climate, but it is also true that the climate has fluctuated suddenly in the past between very different states. If this happens again—whether triggered by our doings or not—it will have dire consequences for us. Because we're able to prevent or moderate major changes in the climate, we must do so—for the same reason that we must look out for and destroy asteroids that might collide with Earth. After we have resolved this emergency, we will be committed to a continuing regulation of the climate, to keep it in a range within which humanity can thrive. This means melding our technologies with the natural cycles and systems that already regulate the climate.
Once we understand how the natural systems regulating the climate react to our technologies, and we begin to operate our technologies and economies so that they work in harmony with the climate, we will have transcended the divide between the natural and the artificial on a planetary scale. The economy and the climate will be aspects of a single system. To survive the climate crisis, we have to conceive of and establish a new kind of system, a symbiosis of the natural processes determining the climate with our technological civilization.
We're accustomed to seeing ourselves as apart from nature and our technologies as impositions on the natural world. But whether we fantasize about our conquering nature or nature surviving us, we have reached the limits of the usefulness of the idea that we're separate from nature. If we want to survive as a species, we need a new way of seeing ourselves, in which we and everything we make and do are as natural as the cycles of carbon and oxygen we emerged from and in which we participate with every breath.
To begin this task, we have to understand the roots of the distinction between the artificial and the natural. These have a great deal to do with time. The false idea we have to put behind us is the idea that what is bound in time is an illusion and what is timeless is real.
Mariner Books, Boston, 2013
Tantor Audio, 2013
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees
Intriguingly narrated by Mike Grady
The subtitle of this book is: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, and the journey Peter Wohlleben takes us on really is a trip into a wondrous, secret world.
Blending the latest science, observations based on his many years of experience as a forester, and the pure wonder of someone who deeply loves and appreciates nature, he invites us to open our senses, our minds, and our hearts to what is really happening in our forests, both old growth forests, where natural rhythms and processes are flourishing, as well as managed forests, where the natural robustness of the forest has been disrupted.
This is, above all, an optimistic story, revealing what we can gain, even in the face of global warming, by protecting our existing old growth forests as well as establishing new preserves that can become, over time, new old growth forests, a gift for the generations to come.
I have always loved forests, from the time I was a boy playing in the woods surrounding our home and hiking and canoeing in the wilderness areas of northern Minnesota, until today, when I hike in the awe inspiring forests of the Rocky Mountains as often as I can. This book has deepened and enriched my understanding of what an incredible gift our forests are.
HarperCollins, New York, 2016
John Hershey, Hiroshima
Narrated by George Guidall
Stunning. Sobering. Horrifying. Inspiring.
Originally published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946⩘ . This edition includes a final chapter added by the author after he revisited Hiroshima nearly 40 years later to follow up with six people he interviewed for the original story.
John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Still the best spy novel I've ever read, primarily because le Carré gives the story all the room and time it needs to unwind gracefully.
There are moments that are made of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1974
Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Earth
It was a fascinating and at times strange experience to read this omnibus at this time, just as we are experiencing another unbelievably hot, dry summer, a year after we had one of the fiercest storms I've ever lived through, including damaging hail that went on for over an hour, and two years after we got hit with a 1,000-year flood.
Originally written 15 years ago as near-future science fiction, it now comes across as a story about now and the next few years, and much of it seems more science fact than fiction.
Sometimes it was challenging to keep straight whether I was reading the novel—which dwelt a lot on the idiocy of the political response to the global catastrophe unfolding due to climate change—or the actual news I was reading each day.
From the novel:
Many administrations and Congresses had feared and hated science, as far as Anna could see. They didn't want to know things; it might get in the way of business.
For Anna there could be no greater intellectual crime. It was incomprehensible to her: they did not want to know things! And yet they did want to call the shots.
To Anna this was crazy.… How could such people exist, what could they be thinking? On what basis did they build such an incoherent mix of desires, to want to stay ignorant and to be powerful as well?
From the actual news, the day after I read the previous passage in the novel:
One of Theresa May's first acts as Prime Minister was to move responsibility for climate change [from the now abolished Department for Energy and Climate Change] to a new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.
Only on Monday, Government advisers had warned of the need to take urgent action to prepare the UK for floods, droughts, heatwaves and food shortages caused by climate change.
The news came after the appointment of Andrea Leadsom—who revealed her first question to officials when she became Energy Minister last year was "Is climate change real?"—was appointed as the new Environment Secretary.
And, after former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd announced in November that Britain was going to "close coal" by 2025, Ms Leadsom later asked the coal industry to help define what this actually meant.
– Ian Johnston, Environment Correspondent. "Climate change department closed by Theresa May in 'plain stupid' and 'deeply worrying' move⩘ ." Independent, Jul 15, 2016
It's certainly challenging to focus on and respond to climate change. The impact of what we've done for the past hundred years are only now beginning to hit us over the head. The worsening impact of what we're continuing to do now will only slowly become apparent after some additional time … until we hit tipping points, which could happen in the next years or decades. In this sense, we're a bit like frogs in a pot of slowly warming water. One of the contributions of this book is that it helps make the severity of the impacts—and the overwhelming challenge of responding to them well enough and quickly enough to save ourselves—more understandable.
"The stakes just keep getting higher."
"Yes. That's why they call it climate change."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they're trying to pretend it's only about climate! When really it's about everything—it's everything change."
The story also shares a deep and passionate appreciation for nature, which helps highlight some of what we risk losing if we continue to stick our heads in the sand. One of the main characters—and what a character he is!—often turns to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson as a touchstone of sorts:
Mountains are great poets, and one glance at this cliff undoes a great deal of prose.
This isn't a perfect book. Robinson revised and considerably shortened the original three books that he wrote 15 years ago—combining them into this new edition that is, in my opinion, still a bit long at over 1,000 pages for the story that's told—and the shortening is in places a bit clumsy, leaving some jagged jumps in the storyline. Despite it's shortcomings, it's a book well worth reading.
Random House, New York, 2015
Peter Watts, Blindsight
Whoa! Wow! A brilliant and somewhat insane imagining of a first contact with an alien species that is really alien. This isn't just some cute bicycle riding alternative that we can easily relate to. This isn't even some nightmare punching out of our chests whose motives we can still somewhat understand. This is a form of being that, while Watts strove for biological plausibility, is as different from us as anything I've encountered in my wanderings through the wonderfully crazed imaginations of the best science fiction writers, a being that appears not to have self consciousness, yet also seems to be much more intelligent than us.
The only explanation is that something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a virus.
That's describing us in the equation of this first contact.
The long section of notes at the end of the book explaining some of Watt's theories and thinking (which, unfortunately, the author was forced by the publisher to halve) is as engrossing as the story itself.
Which brings us to one last question, lurking way down in the anoxic zone: the question of what consciousness costs.…
But while many have described the various costs and drawbacks of sentience, few if any have taken the next step and wondered out loud if the whole damn thing isn't more trouble than it's worth. Of course it is, people assume; otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out long ago. And they're probably right. I hope they are. Blindsight is a thought experiment, a game of Just suppose. Nothing more.
On the other hand, the dodoes and the Steller sea cows could have used exactly the same argument to prove their own superiority, a thousand years ago: If we're so unfit, why haven't we gone extinct? Why? Because natural selection takes time, and luck plays a role. The game isn't over. The game is never over; and so, neither can there be any winners. There are only those who haven't yet lost.
Tor, New York, 2006
A later note
I picked up Blindsight after reading a review about the "sidequel" Watts wrote that was recently published, Echopraxia. The review tweaked my interest in these related stories, so I figured I'd start with Blindsight. Because I appreciated and enjoyed Blindsight as much as I did, as soon as I turned the last page, I decided to dive right into Echopraxia.
Even though Echopraxia is just as chock full of mind-warping and challenging (in the good way) ideas as Blindsight, I didn't enjoy it as much. For one thing, I was too often confused about what was going on (though I learned by reading the reddit "Echopraxia Q&A. Questions Fended off by Peter Watts⩘ ." that two of the things that confused me were due to editing errors). For another, Echopraxia focuses much more on vampires and zombies, and though Watts takes a hard science sci-fi approach to both of these topics, I'm personally just not very interested in them. Finally, I didn't find the alien encounter nearly as interesting. Although I guess the entire book is about that encounter, for most of the book it was way, way in the background (this might be remedied by a second reading, but nope, not going to do it), and even when the story brought it into the foreground, I found it about as compelling as, well, a blob of slime.
But I did come across one snippet that I want to remember:
Nature, though. Nature always welcomed him. She passed no judgments, didn't care about right or wrong, guilt or innocence. She only cared about what worked and what didn't. She welcomed everyone with the same egalitarian indifference. You just had to play by her rules, and expect no mercy if things didn't go your way.
Craig Childs, Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth
Okay, let's just get this out of the way first: Craig Childs is crazy. He takes insane field trips around our planet—like walking across forbidding deserts in Mexico and Chile (a couple of the driest places on Earth) or rafting down flood-swollen Tibetan rivers that have never been run before—all in order to experience first hand what the end of life on Earth might look and feel like.
He's also incredibly generous, because he takes us there with him so that we, too, can experience these gut-wrenching field trips … from the comfort of our living rooms.
Life has been ending and restarting on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. From globe wrapping ice ages to global infernos due to meteor strikes or massive volcanic eruptions, each accompanied by mass extinctions, these changes have happened over and over again, and they will continue to happen until our sun burns out, turns into a red dwarf and consumes our planet. Until then, the Earth will continue to endure … we may not, but our planet will be fine.
We have been enjoying life in one of the gentle periods, the Holocene. During this time, the earth has been gradually cooling, creating an environment for us that is generally benign. We're likely fucking it all up by pumping unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere that may cause a collapse of life that is fairly sudden. We may well disappear, and we may take most of life with us, but likely not all of life. Our lovely planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas and some type of life will begin afresh the journey towards abundance. In the grand scheme of things, our follies seem remarkably insignificant and will be erased by time, leaving behind perhaps no more than a thin layer of CO² saturated dust.
Our version of the real world may be the most fleeting of pleasures.
This is a version of the world we greet with both fear and fascination: the collapse of a civilization. We are captivated by it, because no matter how confident we are in our modern infrastructures, we know it is possible. It is one of the options on the table.
I stopped, thinking I heard something. It was in the distance, a musical jangling. As I came closer, the sound continued, like chimes ringing in a prayer hall. I peered through the trees, expecting to see a humble house and a grinning bald man in a robe, a guru waiting for a follower to arrive. All I saw was sunlight through a clearing, and I moved to it.
Horses did not even look up. Fifteen of them, white and brown, browsed grass in a small pasture cleared out of the trees and filled with sunlight. They were hungry, freshly returned from a barley run, their withers still strapped with sweat from where they had carried loads. Each wore a copper bell, and each bell had a slightly different tone. As they nipped and tugged at the grass, the bells rang.
I stayed at the edge of shadows and crouched as the horses moved from place to place. Their manes and tails were neatly combed and ribboned with strips of colorful fabric. Big yellow teeth scraped up grass, leathery lips slapping as they chewed. One glanced at me for a moment, then returned to its task. The bells chimed and tinged, a small ensemble of musicians gathered for a recital.
Most earth scientists I have spoken with talk of the immediate future as if it were nothing. They fall back on the idea that millions and even billions of years lie before us, and humans cannot possibly destroy the earth. We are too young, too quick, too ephemeral to really count. They say civilization is all but gone. Our species is drowned out. Relax, be happy, life will continue. For as much solace as I take in the long view, I can never escape the ravishing authority of the present, the small ticking of minutes and even seconds. It is the moments of being alive that most hold our attention, while those moments are part of a much larger framework of millions of years. It all becomes inseparable.
If it's not already abundantly clear, I love this book. It provides such a wonderful lens through which to view ourselves within the grand scheme of things, and to have a good laugh. This too shall pass.
In the meantime:
Because we have mountains, we are alive.
Pantheon Books, 2012
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning
This is one of the stranger books I've read.
Ada Palmer teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago, which is deeply reflected in this story. Although it's set in the 2454, it is steeped in the style of The Enlightenment with frequent references to Voltaire, Diderot, and the perversions of the Marquis de Sade. As the author says on her website, adapalmer.com⩘ : "All my projects stem from my overall interest in the relationship between ideas and historical change."
My knowledge of history is … incomplete, and this story is dense with historical references about which I have only a hazy understanding (thank you, Wikipedia, for being a constant companion while I stumbled through this fog). There were several times when I grew frustrated enough with the story that I came close to putting it down without finishing it. Each time this happened I was surprised by a twist in the plot that piqued my continuing curiosity.
Toward the end of the book, I realized the story might not conclude. A quick search online confirmed that there is to be a part two, which will arrive at year's end. At that point, I found myself thinking that there was no way I was going to invest the time to read another volume of this story. Yet by the time I finished this first volume a short while later, I found myself back online to see if I could preorder volume two.
I wasn't going to write about Too Like the Lightning. I changed my mind when I found myself still thinking about it a couple days after I finished it, and realized that it has infected me with its ideas.
That's an intriguing accomplishment.
Tor Books, 2016
Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars Trilogy
For someone who enjoys reading Science Fiction as much as I do, it's surprising that I'm coming across these books—which together have won ten major literary awards—only now, some 20 years after they were published. But I'm glad, for two reasons: I was able to read them straight through, and while I was reading them, Elon Musk announced that Space X would attempt to land their Dragon spacecraft on Mars by the end of 2018, which really brought this story to life!
Before I share anything else, I have to admit that while I often appreciated Robinson's in-depth and colorful descriptions of places, characters, and events, there were times when the length of some passages drove me a bit crazy. In particular, I was nearly ready to scream with frustration while reading about one character's return visit to Earth to wander rather aimlessly around Provence. The only thing I could guess is that Robinson must've wanted to write off visiting Provence as a business expense and could only do so by including this tedious passage in the book.
That minor rant aside, I found this to be an intriguing and captivating story, and there were often evenings when I simply couldn't put the book down until I could no longer keep my eyes open. While there were times when I found myself thinking skeptically about the pace of innovation that made possible the rapid development and terraforming of Mars, I would then consider the rapid acceleration of technological advance just in my lifetime and had to concede that what Robinson describes is certainly within the realm of the possible, even if the timeline is perhaps a bit optimistic.
I especially appreciate the way Robinson used the settlement of Mars to explore the question of what might be possible individually, socially, politically, and economically if we could start over. Yes, it would be incredibly messy and challenging—and he certainly captures this—but it's glorious to dream about building upon what we have learned over the millennia, yet with the opportunity to begin with a flesh slate. One passage in particular caught my attention … so relevant to today:
"If democracy and self-rule are the fundamentals, then why should people give up these rights when they enter their workplace? In politics we fight like tigers for freedom, for the right to elect our leaders, for freedom of movement, choice of residence, choice of what work to pursue—control of our lives, in short. And then we wake up in the morning and go to work, and all those rights disappear. We no longer insist on them. And so for most of the day we return to feudalism. That is what capitalism is—a version of feudalism in which capital replaces land, and business leaders replace kings.…"
Another aspect of this story that is totally captivating to me is the beauty of Mars as described by Robinson, from the exquisite majesty of the untouched planet to the mind-boggling splendor of the terraformed environments. This is especially breathtaking when shared through the experiences of those who know Mars as the planet of their birth.
Bantam Spectra, New York, 1993, 1994, 1996
Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie
I first became aware of the much-lauded Ken Liu as he is the translator of the fascinating The Three Body Problem⩘ by Cixin Liu, the translation of which was the winner of the 2015 Hugo.
This is an entrancing set of short stories, including the magical The Paper Menagerie, the only work of fiction to sweep the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and the clever The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, which is sure to be interesting to any book lover. While some of the stories are a bit heavy with melancholy, overall, the sheer creativity and vividness of his writing makes this an uplifiting collection.
My personal favorite story is The Waves, which, through the words of a storyteller, tells the tale of the future evolution of our species through the achievement of physical immortality, to conscious machinery, and finally to patterns of energy.
It's interesting to reflect on the possibility that I may see The Singularity in my lifetime. And then who knows what may happen. Certainly the poetic possibilities painted in The Waves trace a potential path forward.
From the story An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition:
The universe is full of echoes and shadows, the afterimages and last words of dead civilizations that have lost the struggle against entropy. Fading ripples in the cosmic background radiation, it is doubtful if most, or any, of these messages will ever be deciphered.
Likewise, most of our thoughts and memories are destined to fade, to disappear, to be consumed by the very act of choosing and living.
That is not a cause for sorrow, sweetheart. It is the fate of every species to disappear into the void that is the heat death of the universe. But long before then, the thoughts of any intelligent species worthy of the name will become as grand as the universe itself.
Saga Press, New York, 2016
Requiem for the American Dream featuring Noam Chomsky
I rarely write about films I watch, but once in a blue moon, a film—almost always a documentary—really touches me, and I can't resist.
When I contemplate the appalling state of inequality in the U.S. today, as bad as we've experienced since just prior to the crash that led to the Great Depression, I wonder how our society possibly could've deteriorated to this level. It seems incomprehensible to me: how can the wealth that is accruing to a small sliver of our society be worth the horrendous cost to the foundations of the "American Dream"?
Then I watched this documentary, listened carefully to Chomsky's clear, insightful explanations, and it all became clear. A brilliant and invaluable film. No wonder he is considered on of our leading intellectuals.
I think the filmmakers summarize the film best on their website:
Through interviews filmed over four years, Chomsky unpacks the principles that have brought us to the crossroads of historically unprecedented inequality – tracing a half-century of policies designed to favor the most wealthy at the expense of the majority – while also looking back on his own life of activism and political participation.
In the film, Chomsky discusses the "10 Principles of the Concentration of Wealth & Power":
- Reduce Democracy
- Shape Ideology
- Redesign the Economy
- Shift the Burden
- Attack Solidarity
- Run the Regulators
- Engineer Elections
- Keep the Rabble in Line
- Manufacture Consent
- Marginalize the Population
While much of the message of this film is fairly bleak, Chomsky leaves us with a glimmer of possibility:
Well, my close friend for many years, the late Howard Zinn, to put it in his words that what matters is the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history. They're the ones who have done things in the past; they're the ones who will have to do it in the future.
A PF PICTURES production, 2015
Requiem for the American Dream website⩘
Adam Rothstein, After the Big One
The ground begins to move at 11:44 AM on a Thursday in April.... Cacophony swells from the city as if it is howling in response to the earth's call: car alarms, shattering glass, the thudding of bricks popping out of building facades, humans screaming in fright, and far off, echoes of what sound like dumpsters clattering to the ground from the jaws of garbage trucks.... It is the sound of the living surfaces that a city takes for granted becoming undone.
So begins a riveting story bringing to life the consequences of a major natural disaster as well as the critical necessity of being prepared for such an event. Written in a style described as "reported science fiction," it vibrates with authentic emotional intensity while remaining grounded in the latest related scientific studies and emergency response planning.
Though smaller in magnitude than the event described in this story, the 2013 flood here in Colorado brought us similar experiences: being cut off for days, having our lives upended for months, and experiencing our community's way of life being unsettled for years.
Illustration by Michael Bryne for Part 3 of After the Big One⩘
I look up and down the street. Many other homes are still intact. But without a city to connect it to, what good is a house? Portlanders look around them for answers, and see no one there to help but themselves.... There is no way around it: for the next four days at least, we will have to be able to take care of ourselves whether we like it or not.
But this new reality is not news to everyone. Some of my neighbors have been aware of this impending crisis for years. Even though the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake was just a slim possibility, they have been training as if it were a fact. And now, they spring into action. They are called the Neighborhood Emergency Teams, or NETs.... people who have lived in Portland for some time, scattered throughout the various neighborhoods, who care enough about their city and its future potential catastrophe to donate ... their time to be trained in first aid, basic search and rescue, and in the fundamentals of a good earthquake and emergency kit.
Many Portlanders, like me, stand around without any idea of what to do.... We're waiting for a signal, a direction, an inspiration or an idea that never comes, an order from a person that doesn't exist. For the first time, in the lives of most, we are on our own, without an authority to turn to or a procedure to follow.
We are rightfully panicked, because six hours after the quake, there is no official announcement, no emergency notification, no phone number to call, no uniformed official to ask. But in this panic, and through it, is where neighbors can help each other.
As we finally begin to get beyond our own disruption, I think it's only natural to rejoice in the slowly returning normalcy of everyday life. At the same time, this story serves as a powerful reminder that it's also wise to be prepared to take care of ourselves and our neighbors during extraordinary events.
Fortunately, like the Portlanders, we too have a local neighborhood organization, Lyons Prepared⩘ —a citizen partnership with our fire district—that is working to ensure we're prepared for any future emergency events that may come our way.
This is the lifecycle of cities. The scars of disasters of these magnitudes are borne by cities, mingling with an aging flesh. Until one day, the scars appear as normal, and the skin is ripe for more damage to find it.
After the Big One:
A fascinating related read: "The Really Big One⩘ " by Kathryn Schulz. The New Yorker. July 20, 2015.
Note: I mocked up the book cover for this review based on the illustration by Rebekka Dunlap for Part 2 of "After the Big One⩘ ."
Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog and The Cartel
Narrated by Ray Porter
This pair of novels, written ten years apart, are two parts of an ongoing contemporary story. Though novels, they seems to be well researched, reflecting the stories that have been reported in the news over the past few decades.
With a total listening length of nearly 44 hours, Winslow has plenty of time to develop deep, vivid background narratives providing context for how the various characters became who they are in the story.
It's harsh enough to read/hear any one of the real news stories about the drug trade—the havoc wrought on the lives of users; the brutal violence and corruption; the disruption of families, communities, and even nations—but to experience it like this, all at once and through the experiences of those deeply involved in so many ways, is stunning.
What a devastating plague.
An excellent documentary film related to the subject of these books: Cartel Land⩘ by Matthew Heineman.
Blackstone Audio, 2008 & 2015
Charlie Savage, Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post-9/11 Presidency
Our society faces some very complex challenges and issues that defy easy understanding and simple solutions, things like climate change, mass surveillance, big data, terrorism, drugs, income inequality, racial attitudes, environmental degradation, and poverty.
I feel a sense of responsibility to try to better understand these issues, so I read/listen to a lot of articles, podcasts, and books, as well as watch a lot of documentaries and other films about all of these issues. This book is an example of one I listened to out of this sense of responsibility rather than for enjoyment. In fact I did not enjoy it. I found it to be mostly a bit of slog to get through, and much of it depressed me. That said, it is well written and seems to be very well researched, and I consider the 28 hours I spent listening to it well invested.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this book is the reinforcement of something I've been long feeling: a disappointment that so much of what is happening today is done without the check and balance of real, public debate. Decisions are being made in government about how we wage war and surveil ourselves (as covered in this book), and decisions are being made by corporations about how big data is collected on us and how the corporations themselves are regulated (even though that seems like an oxymoron). Much of this is happening with little or no transparency, lacking the kind of robust debate and oversight that I think there should be from our elected governing bodies.
And in April 2015, in his humorous speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama said:
After the midterm elections, my advisers asked me, "Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?" And I said, "Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list." [Laughter and applause.] Take executive action on immigration? Bucket. [Laughter.] New climate regulations? Bucket. It's the right thing to do. [Laughter and applause.]
The liberal policy commentator Ezra Klein, citing this as well as Obama's zingers aimed at the press and his political critics ("A few weeks ago, Dick Cheney says he thinks I'm the worst president of his lifetime. Which is interesting, because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president of my lifetime. It's quite a coincidence"), argued that the joke was that Obama was saying what he really believed but was not usually allowed to say.
The tip-off there is, "‘It's the right thing to do,'" Klein wrote. "That's not a joke. That's Obama's actual justification for the aggressive executive actions of his second term—‘fuck it, it's the right thing to do.' But the norms of politics are such that he typically has to frame his actions as routine, dull, even necessary. He has to search for precedent and downplay the consequences. It's only on the evening of the White House Correspondents' Dinner when he can say what everyone already knows: his actions are huge, they are controversial, they push the norms of American politics, but fuck it, at a moment when American politics seems increasingly broken, Obama has decided to just go ahead and do what he thinks is right."
A few related articles:
- The Apple vs. FBI encryption debate: "If Apple aids terrorists and the FBI is Big Brother … whom do we root for?⩘ " by Sean Gallagher, Ars Technica, Feb 25, 2016. "In the post-Snowden world, a sizeable number of people believe that the US intelligence and federal law enforcement apparatus has lost (if it ever held) a claim to the moral high ground because of how the privacy of American citizens has been abused. But technology companies have been complicit in those efforts, whether willingly or not."
- "The executive order that led to mass spying, as told by NSA alumni⩘ " by Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica, Aug 27, 2014. "The problem does not begin with political systems that discourage transparency or technologies that can intercept everyday communications without notice. Like everything else in Washington, there's a legal basis for what many believe is extreme government overreach—in this case, it's Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981."
- "Obama administration closing in on rules to let NSA share more freely with FBI, CIA⩘ " by Megan Geuss, Ars Technica, Feb 26, 2016. "The New York Times is reporting⩘ that Obama administration officials are close to agreeing on new rules that would allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to share surveillance information more freely with other federal agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, without scrubbing Americans' identifying information first."
- "The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America's role in the world⩘ " by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, April 2016. A deep probing of how Obama views some of the conflicts he is dealing … or, not dealing … with.
- "Why Obama Should Pardon Edward Snowden⩘ " by Timothy Edgar, the academic director of law and policy at Brown University's Executive Master in Cybersecurity program, Lawfare, September 14, 2016. "The NSA's operations are essential to national security and to international stability, but it is hard to reconcile them with the values of a free society. Snowden forced the NSA to become more transparent, more accountable, more protective of privacy—and more effective. Today, the NSA's vital surveillance operations are on a sounder footing—both legally and in the eyes of the public—than ever before. For that, the United States government has reason to say, 'Thank you, Edward Snowden.'"
- "Why President Obama Won't, and Shouldn't, Pardon Snowden⩘ " by Jack Goldsmith, the Henry L. Shattuck Professor at Harvard Law School, Lawfare, September 16, 2016. "What I do not get, and what I have never seen Snowden or anyone explain, is how his oath to the U.S. Constitution justified the theft and disclosure of the vast number of documents that had nothing to do with operations inside the United States or U.S. persons.… "The losses of intelligence that resulted are not small things, since intelligence information, and especially SIGINT, is a core element of American strength and success (and not just, as many seem to think, related to counterterrorism).… The Constitution clearly permits foreign intelligence surveillance, and our elected representatives wanted these obviously lawful practices to remain secret."
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2015
Erik Hanberg, The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member's Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits
Recently I joined a nonprofit advisory board. I really love living here, so I feel very joyful to have an opportunity like this to give back to my community, but I didn't really know what it means to serve on a board so I did what I always do in situation like this and started reading everything I could get my hands on.
I've come across a lot of excellent resources, some of which I'll list below, but this little book is the gem that has given me a real grounding in the nitty-gritty of serving on a small, nonprofit board. Based on his own experience as both a board member and an executive director, Erik shared his insights in a voice that is authentic, wise, and down to earth. This excellent book for board newbies has left me feeling much better prepared to roll my sleeves up and dive in.
Serving on a board is a rewarding experience that will stretch your mental muscles and introduce you to new people you might not have met otherwise. It is enriching and a great way to give back to your community.
But that doesn't mean it is easy. My hope is that this book, or whatever piece of it that was most relevant to you, will help you get a lay of the land about your duties and the expectations you should have for yourself and your fellow board members.
Side x Side Publishing, 2015
Some of the other excellent resources that have been helping me get up to speed related to serving on a nonprofit board:
- Lucy Bernholz, Katherine Fulton, and Gabriel Kasper. "On the Brink of New Promise: The Future of U.S. Community Foundations⩘ ." Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. and Monitor Company Group, LLP. 2005. Companion site: The Future of Community Philanthropy⩘ .
- BBB Wise Giving Alliance Accreditation Criteria⩘ .
- The wealth of great articles at Stanford Social Innovation Review⩘ .
- Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard. The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle⩘ .
- Collins, Jim. Good To Great And The Social Sectors. HarperCollins Publishers, 2005
- The Overhead Myth⩘ , an initiative of GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Navigator.
An Apache Original: The Life and Times of Solidod
In 2012, when she was in her 80s, Solidod, the last living member of her village of Mescalero Apache who lived on the edge of Death Valley, published these stories of her life as an e-book, and also related some of the stories on Hearing Voices from NPR.
I am simply in awe. Listening to her tell her stories, then later reading her book, is an experience that has enriched my life. Her fortitude, her grit, her wisdom, her appreciation for the gifts of life, her fearlessness are all tremendously inspiring. From the moment she was born, she has faced much tragedy, yet her spirit has soared beyond, enabling her to live a life of amazing adventures.
Painting by Solidod: Me and my grandfather.
He is naming me Solidod, Daughter of the Sun.
My Grandfather taught me to listen. You hear some amazing things when you are silent. He taught me to track and call down the eagle and the red-tail hawk. I heard the boulders sing with the wind. I heard the rain sing with the thunder. I saw lots of double rainbows. I heard the tiny little sound the horny toad makes as he's digging his holes. I saw the tiny puffs of dirt as he throws the dirt out with his back feet. I have been in places so silent it seems like you can hear the clouds bump into each other.
For seven years, Solidod sailed the seas. The following story is from a time they were sailing near the Canary Islands.
Painting by Solidod: Sailing, trying to stay out of this world.
This day dawned bright and not so cold. We were glad to be heading for warmer weather. A lightening storm came up out of nowhere. It struck the main mast and hung there. The captain called it St. Elmo's fire. It was a great big green ball and it hung on top the mast and boiled around and around. He said "if it comes down that mast it will blow the boat apart." I said "what a way to go."
Photo of Solidod by Jake Warga⩘
I have learned in my life that being rich does not make you happy. Having a good soul does.
Amazon Digital Services, 2012