Through Stranger Eyes is a new collection of my book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture, released in the Western Hemisphere by Nimble Press and in the Eastern by Altair Australia. Included: everything from carefully measured views on J.R.R. Tolkien to that infamous, outraged rant about the Star Wars saga! From sober reflections on Jared Diamond's Collapse, and Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, to scientific ponderings on Feynman and Gott, along with appraisals of great authors like Brunner, Resnick, Zelazny, Clarke, Verne, and Orwell... all the way to fun riffs on the Matrix and Buffy! More than two dozen reviews and commentaries that are sure to enlighten, entertain, possibly infuriate, and even make you laugh, but above all, offer some perspectives you never imagined before.
Introduction - Arthur Salm
I. Dreading Tomorrow: Exploring our nightmares through literature
George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy
The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears
The Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien vs The Modern Age
The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner
Alas Babylon, by Pat Frank
II. Tomorrow Gets Worse: Cinematic "sci-fi" and the betrayal of confidence
The Dark Side: Star Wars, Mythology and Ingratitude
The Matrix: Tomorrow May Be Different
III. The Dour Choice: Authors who complain
The Separation, by Christopher Priest
The Penal Colony, by Richard Herley
IV. Daring to Look Higher: Authors who strive
Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner
Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne
V. The Real World: Notions of progress, science, and danger in nonfiction
The Progress Paradox, by Gregg Easterbrook
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by Rebecca Solnit
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard P. Feynman
Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, by J.Richard Gott
The Fifth Essence, by Lawrence Krauss
Fortune or Failure: Missed Opportunities ad Chance Discoveries, by Alexander Kohn
The Art of Fiction, by Ayn Rand
VI. Reviews of Memorable Tales
Beyond Thirty, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Guilty Pleasure Can be Proud, Or Why Buffy Goes
Godspeed (or "Goodbye Warp Speed"), by Charles Sheffield
Rocket Boys, by Homer H. Hickham, Jr.
Ground Zero, by Fred Gambino
Paradise, Purgatory & Inferno, by Mike Resnick
When Heaven Fell, by William Barton
VII. Biographical Tributes
Jack Williamson, Poul Anderson, Harry Harrison, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford
Micro Tributes - Isaac Asimov, Jim Burns, Fred Gambino, Arthur C. Clarke
VIII. Through Stranger Eyes: The Odd Profession of Storytelling
How I do it... and advice to new writers
The Uplift Universe
David Brin Literary Bibliography (distilled)
What keeps Ayn Rand's ideas alive? Is there more to it than the devotion of her passionate followers, who have effectively taken over the U.S. Libertarian movement (and one Republican Presidential candidate)?
"Deep below her superficial adherence to Marxist teleology lies this ancient cycle, far older than the enlightenment, or even writing. It is the very essence of what Ayn Rand stands for. Her characters are the brash, virile, sturdy, innovative barbarians, born free and ready to seize destiny in their own two hands, ripping fortune out of the clutches of pathetic old-fart lords who are spent and bereft of cleverness or might. It's the oldest story, writ-new and draped with modernist garments. Even in her portrayals of sex, the closest parallel is a godlike Viking who kicks down the door and takes what he desires. Because he is the grandest thing in all directions. And because he can."
Will the future live long and prosper? See my New York Daily News article where I tackle the question.
"What always entranced me about Star Trek -- helping turn this physicist into a science fiction author was the vision it offered, exploring human destiny, confronting big issues and pondering a unique notion, seldom expressed anywhere else: that our descendants might somehow be admirable."
Seems I'm making appearances in a number of surprising pop-cult venues. See a recent spread that features a novel by yours truly, in a popular literary comic strip... the "Unshelved Book Club." I've also been interviewed for several episodes of a podcast "The Future And You."
Of course some of this is in reaction to the wildly pop-culture book King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape! (Smart Pop series) -- a fun and smart collection of 21 essays (including my intro) examining King Kong from every angle. (Some will surprise you.) But if you think that was something, just keep your eyes open for the next brash offering -- Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time (Smart Pop series)!
While reprinting this 10 year-old tribute to my dear friend, Jack Willaimson, I will also append a memorial addendum, on the day of his passing, November 10, 2006.
"Jack Williamson is no Yankee trader, but he might have been. His life is one long tale of hoodwinking fate, of turning adversity into advantage, and above all, changing the world through the sheer magic of his perceptions. By seeing the universe in a new way -- and conveying his vision through science fiction -- Williamson helped break the old spell that held human beings enthralled for so long. The tradition of static sameness. The old fear of innovation."
Shipping in June 2006, Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time (Smart Pop series) by David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover, with two dozen wonderfully articulate authors "testifying" either for the prosecution or the defense. Is SW fantasy disguised as science fiction? Does the series spread doom-pessimism about democracy? Has it been a let-down since "The Empire Strikes Back"? Does it even make any sense? Pick up a copy and be prepared for a wild, extravagant "trial" -- brash and entertaining and downright fun!
Appearing just before the arrival of the 2005 Peter Jackson epic, King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape! (Smart Pop series) looks at "an ape, but so much more. A proto-man, primitive, solitary and fiercely proud, representing everything about us that the architects and builders aimed to ignore, or leave behind." This book looks at all three films, and more -- it's a fun and smart collection of 21 essays examining King Kong from every angle. (Some will surprise you.) Read my introduction to the book, then decide for yourself.
For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit."
"Our neo-western civilization throngs with "human T Cells" -- educated, skeptical, independent-minded and ego-driven to pounce on some terrible mistake or nefarious scheme."
For a broad-spectrum look at the future, from near-term effects on biology, medicine and democracy all the way to issues of transcendence and human immortality (or at least living a very long time), see a series of three articles that were originally commissioned in late 1999 for AOL's Online Magazine, to commemorate the new Millennium.
"Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow's dangers. We all try to project our thoughts into the future, using special portions of our brains called prefrontal lobes to envision, fantasize, and explore possible consequences of our actions, noticing errors and evading some mistakes."
Carrying these themes a little farther, here's an essay on exploring the near future, titled "Can We See the Near Future? The Odd Way We Design our Destiny," which supplements a transcript of my interview on the Public Television show Closer to Truth.
"About a hundred years ago, people all over the world began drifting away from priests, kings and national flag-totems, transferring their loyalty instead to fervid ideologies -- models of human nature that allured with hypnotically simplistic promises. Often viciously co-opted by nation states, these rigid, formulaic, pseudo-scientific incantations helped turn the mid-20th Century into a hellish pit."
In light of the tense and tragic events of September 11, 2001, I've posted here a portion of a speech I gave in 1989... one that seems -- rather eerily -- to predict much of what we've seen happen. It's about a war between basic worldviews, or "memes," that are rooted far deeper in our hearts and minds than even nations and religions -- the things that we often think we are fighting about. Take a look, and judge for yourself if the predictions were prescient.
"There are presently four major worldviews battling over the future of this planet. These four combatting worldviews have little to do with all those superficial slogans that people have let themselves get lathered about in this century. Things like communism, capitalism, Islam. We have seen wars and death aplenty, but they weren't fought over such simpleminded ideologies. Not really."
Two anniversaries prompted essays about important works that affected our lives in the late Twentieth Century. In the first, a speech given at the 2000 Orwell Conference at the University of Chicago to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, I talk about how the greatest works of science fiction do not attempt to predict a future as much as prevent their own scenarios from coming true - an aim that Orwell achieved with fantastic success.
"History is a long and dreary litany of ruinous decisions made by rulers in all centuries and continents. No convoluted social theory is needed to explain this. A common thread weaves through most of these disasters; a flaw in human character -- self-deception -- eventually enticed even great leaders into taking fatal missteps, ignoring the warnings of others."
In the second article, commissioned to recognize the arrival of the year for which the epochal film 2001: A Space Odyssey was named, I discuss the unique light that the film sheds on a modern cliché... the absurd and easily disproved, yet tediously-repeated plaint that human wisdom hasn't kept pace with our technology.
"It is our attitudes that have undergone a transformation unlike any in history. All kinds of unjust assumptions that used to be considered inherent -- from racial, sexual and class stereotypes to ideological oversimplifications -- have been tossed onto the trash heap where they long deserved to go, in favor of a generalized notion of tolerance, pragmatism and eccentricity that seems to grow more vibrant with each passing year."
Did anyone notice how the much-feared and ballyhooed "Y2K Bug" fizzled? See my brief essay titled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Y2K" predicting this outcome, at iMP Magazine.
"The Y2K computer glitch, by attracting so much media attention, has seemingly acted as a sort of lightning rod for paranoiac fantasies, drawing much of the inevitable fin-de-siècle panic into a fairly harmless set of doom scenarios, none of them involving fire from the sky or Last Judgement. At worst (according to Y2K apocalypse warnings), we will all spend a few months eating canned food by candlelight, while listening to the Bill Gates trial ("It wasn't my fault!") on solar powered radios."
Read an article I published in Slashdot, titled "Giordano Bruno After 400 Years: A Pain in the Neck Who Would Be Treasured Today," which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the day when that profound eccentric was burned at the stake for views that would nowadays have made him a rich and famous crackpot.
"Few people know of him today. Tourists blink in puzzlement at his statue, now standing in the Roman square -- the Campo de Fiori -- where the Inquisition incinerated him. But his name wasn't always obscure. With a colorful personality and a flood of unconventional opinions, Bruno was a sensational figure as the 17th century drew to a close -- a prominent Renaissance thinker who, true to that complex era, mixed philosophy, religion, logic and mysticism while preaching a daring worldview that helped set the stage for what we now know as science."
When it comes to Earth's future, we tend to be offered two simplistic choices, either guilt-ridden pessimism or a pollyanna faith in market forces. Too much planning or too little. Here I reprint my lengthy review of Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. No society ever succeeded using the prescriptions we hear touted from today's Left and Right. But history does offer some alternatives.
"Amid his outpouring of dour facts, Jared Diamond pauses to wonder. 'What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?' Then, more generally -- 'How can a society have failed to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect?' It is in addressing this core question -- why do cultures so often falter? -- that his book shows both strengths and faults."
Will the first decade of the 21st Century be known as the time when our Scientific Age came to a whimpering end? The one trait shared by anti-modernists of both left and right appears to be disdain for our ability to learn and do bold new things. My published review of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, explores how partisanship can explain much of this collapse of confidence... and why partisan interpretations don't cover everything.
"Alas, "wisdom" is seldom obvious. We rely on politics to determine policy -- an improvement over the whim of kings. But politics, despite centuries of hard refinement, is still far more ego-driven art than craft. Habits of at least four thousand years seem to favor self-interest, hierarchies and dogma, instead of gathering evidence and cheerfully letting facts guide us."
On a related note, two recommended books that tout assertive problem solving are The Past And Future of America's Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth by Robert D. Atkinson, and Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. The first explores measures that would allow us to play our roles better in the world economy. The latter pursues Kurzweil's argument that our scientific competence and technologically-empowered creativity will soon skyrocket, propelling humanity into an entirely new age. I don't entirely agree. But boy, what a ride.
See my review (originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) of Robert O'Harrow Jr's book about privacy, No Place to Hide. O'Harrow is informative about many ways that big data companies aim for Big Brother omniscience while avoiding all accountability. Too bad there's no suggestion how to make things better. O'Harrow knows there are methods. Perhaps his next book will mention some.
"No issue has helped stoke this ecumenical sense of alienation more than the Great Big Privacy Scare. While the Information Age seems at one level more benign -- (the Internet won't directly blast, kill, mutate or infect us) -- social repercussions of new data-handling technologies seem daunting. Pundits, spanning a spectrum from William Safire to Jeffrey Rosen, have proclaimed this to be our ultimate test. I don't disagree."
The clichés that most hobble us are those we don't notice, because we accept them so readily. Like the common belief -- shared across the political spectrum -- that the world is going to hell. Or the truism that "our wisdom hasn't kept up with technology." In December 2003 I reviewed a new book that challenges this truism. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, by Gregg Easterbrook, suggests we may be better than we thought. There's a world to be saved and those who spread either complacency or gloom aren't helping. What we need is confidence and a sense that our efforts can matter. That will come, if we open our eyes to how much good has already been done.
"Are we ready, at last, to stop ridiculing those eager, can-do boys and girls who believe in progress?"
This article about The Matrix films appeared in Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present, a book of essays about the popular film series, edited by Karen Haber, and published in 2003 by iBooks.
Yes, Matrix is filled with "up yours" messages against some brutish authority. You cannot bond with a modern audience without those. Tolkien and Lucas do it with straw man baddies with red glowing eyes. That doesn't make 'em enlightenment tales. Demigods rankle me, naturally. Chosen ones. It can be done in a way that is pro-people. But rarely.
"Science fiction, in effect, has become a central battlefield in one of the most important disputes roiling in the human mind -- the decision whether to continue our obsession with hierarchies, demigods and the past... or to turn with confidence and wary optimism toward the future."
In December 2002, Salon Magazine ran another of my articles about popular culture. This one focuses on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, and how that famous trilogy has played an important role in the long struggle of romanticism against the modern world. The version on Salon was abridged. The full-length article can be viewed here.
"Millions of people who live in a time of genuine miracles -- in which the great-grandchildren of illiterate peasants may routinely fly through the sky, roam the Internet, view far-off worlds and elect their own leaders -- slip into delighted wonder at the notion of a wizard hitchhiking a ride from an eagle. Many even find themselves yearning for a society of towering lords and loyal, kowtowing vassals! Wouldn't life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly 'scientists' do today? Weren't miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of commercializing every discovery, bottling and marketing each new marvel to the masses for a dollar ninety-five?"
The appearance of Attack of the Clones has renewed interest in my original Salon article and followup essay about Phantom Menace, George Lucas and The Star Wars Universe, so I've added a new essay, exclusive to this site, in which I critique Attack of the Clones.
"I knew my piece in Salon -- about the many storytelling sins of George Lucas -- would raise a lot of heat out there. In the first day alone, I received over 900 emails... and this doesn't count the tsunami of commentary taking place at Slashdot and other discussion groups. Seems I struck a nerve."
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I still do science, but civilization seems more interested in my perspectives on the future. (Who am I to argue with civilization?) Let's face change with agility and hope, and meet the challenges ahead.