04-06-11:Frederik Pohl Recounts 'All The Lives He Led'
The Future Past
I can still remember one of the first sets of books I compulsively collected, the Ballantine releases of 'Day Million' and others by Frederik Pohl. He was one of the science fiction authors that marked my mind. His work shaped my tastes for decades to come.
Pohl has lived through decades he wrote about in science fiction, and consistently produced some of the best science fiction written. His own life would have been the stuff of pre-golden age science fiction, as he saw the world change into something unimaginable at the outset of that life. And, like a force-of-nature character in a science fiction novel he keeps coming back and showing us how to do it again and again. It's not surprising that his latest novel is 'All the Lives He Led' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; April 12, 2011 ; $25.99).
Pohl's latest shows that he still ahead of the game. While we in America tend to think that our seismic and volcanic activity is pretty much isolated to the West Coast and Hawaii, that's not always been the case. In late 1811 and early 1812, New Madrid, Missouri was the site of a series of earthquakes so intense they reputedly made the Mississippi River flow backwards. And underneath Yellowstone Park is a "super volcano" that National Geographic reported earlier this year was once again the cause of some concern. According to National Geographic: "Yellowstone's caldera, a 25- by 37-mile (40- by 60-kilometer) swath of Wyoming, is an ancient crater formed after the last big blast, some 640,000 years ago." That's a lot of Wyoming to go up in molten lava, should the worst case scenario come to pass.
'All the Lives He Led' is set in 2079, as the world celebrates another famous volcano, Pompeii. Yellowstone's caldera erupted in 2062, and turned America into a disastrous economic wasteland. Brad Sheridan, who born into a wealthy family in Kansas, has sold himself into slavery (to become an "indentured person") in order to escape the refugee camps. Now he's working as a "real" Roman in a virtual re-creation of ancient Pompeii. He's not the brightest light in the Christmas tree, but he's getting by — until the world finds a way to go even deeper into the abyss.
Pohl's novel is a fascinating look at what happens when virtual reality allows us to live in authentically re-created historical periods and ignore the world around us. It's not a prescription for happiness and stability. Told in the first person, 'All the Lives He Led' is a quick read that asks some tough questions of the reader. You get some great historical grace notes from Ancient Rome and some thought-provoking observations about terrorism and the ease with which mass murders have become possible. The nature of war is addressed as well; we now have the means to fight wars that don't, at first, look like wars. At this point in the proceedings, the earth itself has good enough reason to hold a grudge against humanity.
But we are superb killing machines, and Pohl's exploration of our ability to kill one another in new and exciting ways shows that he can write a thriller that keeps us one step ahead of tomorrow's headlines. Sure, Brad is a bit dumber than the reader, but then, Pohl's a very clever guy himself. He knows that we've pioneered not just new means of killing, but new means of making ourselves vulnerable. A dull populace is easily manipulated and easily controlled, but might not serve as the best defenders of the shattered remains of the American way. Our essential nature, unfortunately, is up for grabs. No matter how many lives we are able to lead, we can only suffer one death.
What, Probably Part One of Many
Reading begins with a selection, and that can be a problem. As Stanislaw Lem pointed out in his faux review of the book Pericalypsis (an apocalypse that has "already come to pass, but went unnoticed in the general haste"), if "finding seven grains of sand in the Sahara meant saving the world, they would not be found, anymore than would the forty Messianic books that have already long since been written but lost beneath strata of trash." Or: there are a lot of books out there. Add to that, magazines. Add to that, sites on the Internet, including this one. How can you find the books that are worth your valuable time?
Your first task here is to remember the goal; and to my mind, that is to achieve that state of Everyman's Meditation that reading makes so easy, so accessible, and so pleasurable. The unique combination of letting the words pour into your mind from the printed page, of assembling their meaning and letting that play out in the reading experience; this is what makes reading worth your time. Reading is not about being able to say you read a lot of Jane Austen. Take another look at the paragraph above; there are a LOT of books out there, a lot of things to read. How to find what suits you now, best, in this moment?
If you're already a regular reader, you may know where to look and what you like. But if you are not a reader, then beginning your search is not easy. How to narrow down the choices? One good way is to look back at what you read when you first started reading. Whether it was Winnie the Pooh or Harriet the Spy, your childhood reading can give you a solid clue as to what book might delight you now. Our brains are learning machines, and our neural pathways are altered by what we read. It is a mental activity that has physical consequences.
I was fortunate as a child to be exposed to a wide variety of reading. I loved the fantastic settings and creatures of Dr. Seuss — and to this day love them and the science fiction that embodies that aesthetic. I still have my Winnie the Pooh book, with its gentle fantasy and the poetry that externalizes the internal state of a child's vision. Not surprisingly, I still enjoy fantasy that hinges off that process of externalization.
But I also read Jack London as a child. Three works of his marked me; The Call of the Wild, White Fang and the short story To Build a Fire. The gritty realism and powerful pessimism helped to instill an appreciation of both literature and non-fiction in this reader. It's interesting that London also wrote science fiction; I never read his novel The Iron Heel, but I am convinced that the neural paths of my mind were well prepared for SF by London's fiction.
And finally — in a discovery that literally brought tears to my eyes moments ago — I remembered a series of books that I just loved reading, each one with the word "adventure" in the title. I have a memory of being so engrossed by one of these books, Underwater Adventure, that while I was reading in the car as my father drove the family down to Coyote Point, where we were going to launch our boat and go fishing, I barely looked up to see two cars collide with one another then both hit our station wagon head on. I went right back to reading Underwater Adventure.
And from these books, which I now find were a series written by Willard Price, I derived a simple and pure joy of reading — exactly what the author intended. Here's what he said shortly before he died in 1983:
"My aim in writing the Adventure series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behavior. Judging from the letters I have received from boys and girls around the world, I believe I have helped open to them the worlds of books and natural history."
I'll say. I have to admit that my father in particular was much opposed to my reading any overt science fiction or fantasy. But I still managed to read a Richard Matheson short story collection I found hidden on the shelf behind our couch — The Shores of Space. Reading Willy Ley's and Charles Fort's non-fiction about the weird stuff on the earth led me directly to Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Life Magazine's feature on the making of 2001 pointed me to the science fiction and non-fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, while a friend in fifth grade suggested I might like the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, with their covers done by Frank Frazetta; art that years later inspired scenes from Star Wars.
As an adult, I've discovered I simply like reading. I don't care about genre or content, it's the process, the meditation that works for me. And looking back at the pleasure I've derived from the first books I read, suggests that those looking for a good idea as to what to read can toss the lists of so-called "Great Books," and look back to their own childhood. What did you first read that you enjoyed? Find it; find an analogue. Find something you think you will enjoy, not something that is "good for you." Get your mind in that book — and the book in your mind. With reading, any book you enjoy is the best place to start.
04-04-11:Michio Kaku Examines 'The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100'
What makes us read? We're more immersed in more types of media now than ever before. Yet even those who habituate television and radio, those who haunt the Internet, take the time to write books. It's not easy. For many authors, it's not even fun.
But Michio Kaku is the sort of author who is having a blast every minute he's writing. You can feel his enthusiasm for the power of the written word, and this enthusiasm alone makes 'The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100' (Doubleday / Random House ; March 15, 2011 ; $28.95 ; 978-0-385-53080-4 ; 396 pages) a wonderful book to read.
Kaku feeds the reader's need for a passionate writer, an imaginative approach and an engaging, relevant subject. And yes, there is a story — our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live, as gods, a little less than ninety years hence. Kaku's book examines just how that will happen, and what it will mean.
Kaku's introduction sets the reader's expectations — the sky's not the limit, there are no limits. He does this by writing facts that are quite amazing with complete seriousness, such as telling the story of how a teenaged Kaku, "asked my mother for permission to build a 2.3 million volt particle accelerator in the garage."
I admit that I did a double take and wondered if this was the first of many Tall Tales of the future. It's not. The adolescent enthusiasm was real, the results were real and Kaku was well on his way to a life of science. (Good thing he didn't choose a life of crime!) This book is written for that boy, and any man or woman who has ever succumbed even for a moment to the wonder of discovery.
Kaku's methods for research are simple but his energy is inexhaustible. He interviewed over 300 scientists to get the background research right, and he lists every one. He required that they had working prototypes of the technology they spoke about, in a commendable effort to eliminate wishful thinking from the equations and extrapolations. He also spends a fair amount of time in the book looking at the history of how we got where we are today, to give credence to his history of the future.
And what a future! Kaku is an optimist, though he does on occasion suggest that things could indeed go very badly for us. If we decide to destroy the planet and ourselves in the process, we could very easily do so. But as Kaku goes systematically through the computer, AI, medicine, nanotechnology, energy technology, and space travel he has no problem accentuating the positive. The result is a rip-roaring reading experience. Kaku's prose is lively and his sense of organization is impeccable. He makes his case for the technology of the divine with a clear head and clean conscience. This is a book of thinking, not wishing and not wishful thinking.
Unlike others who engage in extrapolations, Kaku is not afraid to look at the Dismal Science, economics. He admits that we face challenges, but his vision here is as clear as it is elsewhere. It's an admirable chapter and an admirable almost-conclusion to the book. But it's not the end.
Having set up his concept of the Human Gods who will usher in the 22nd century, Kaku finishes the book with a vision of a day in the life of an average man. Here he coalesces the work of the previous chapters and writes a scene that is not exactly science fiction, but a personalization, as it were of his conclusions in the chapters that preceded it. It's refreshing and well done. If the man were not so committed to science, he'd make a fine science fiction writer.
As a reader of science fiction, I have to say that this is exactly the kind of book that set me down the path of reading so long ago. It's a blast to read it now, as Kaku's lively prose and clean style bring his visions to life. As a science fiction reader who is alive in the years I once read descriptions of in works of popular science and science fiction, I do have some reservations. My reading of Kaku's book suggests he might agree.
To my mind, change is overrated and overstated. Indeed, while many things have changed drastically in the past 100 years, in my lifetime, at least, suburbs have remained suburbs and cities have remained cities. Some of the details of how we live have changed significantly, but the broad outlines are the same. Everyone has to work for a living, we generally have to take some well-worn mode of transport to get there, and the aliens are nowhere to be found. Both Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey still seem like futuristic visions and not like historical fiction or works of mimetic reality.
Family legend has it that my great-grandfather was the first to fly across Brazil in a zeppelin. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly something I'd like to do — but we don't really have that technology cheaply, easily available. In some ways, technology has retreated in the past hundred years. We live well, but not so differently as previous generations.
I do indeed hope my grandchildren and great grandchildren live as gods. But I also hope that even then, they'll be able to buy and read books like 'The Physics of the Future,' books that will set their minds afire with hope and joy and wonder — and a judicious amount of healthy skepticism.
New to the Agony Column
07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse