People who work together don’t need diplomats

Monday, March 4th, 2019

It’s a lot harder to pull off a twist ending today than 60 years ago. I was reminded of this while reading Philip K. Dick’s “The Defenders,” in There Will Be War. World War III has continued, with all the humans living deep underground, while an army of radiation-shielded robots, or leadies, continues the fight on the surface. Eight years in, some suspicious humans come to the surface to survey the devastation:

“As soon as you left, the war ceased. You’re right, it was a hoax. You worked hard undersurface, sending up guns and weapons, and we destroyed them as fast as they came up.”

[...]

“You created us,” the leady said, “to pursue the war for you, while you human beings went below the ground in order to survive. But before we could continue the war, it was necessary to analyze it to determine what its purpose was. We did this, and we found that it had no purpose, except, perhaps, in terms of human needs. Even this was questionable.

“We investigated further. We found that human cultures pass through phases, each culture in its own time. As the culture ages and begins to lose its objectives, conflict arises within it between those who wish to cast it off and set up a new culture-pattern, and those who wish to retain the old with as little change as possible.

“At this point, a great danger appears. The conflict within threatens to engulf the society in self-war, group against group. The vital traditions may be lost—not merely altered or reformed, but completely destroyed in this period of chaos and anarchy. We have found many such examples in the history of mankind.

“It is necessary for this hatred within the culture to be directed outward, toward an external group, so that the culture itself may survive its crisis. War is the result. War, to a logical mind, is absurd. But in terms of human needs, it plays a vital role. And it will continue to until Man has grown up enough so that no hatred lies within him.”

Taylor was listening intently. “Do you think this time will come?”

“Of course. It has almost arrived now. This is the last war. Man is almost united into one final culture—a world culture. At this point he stands continent against continent, one half of the world against the other half. Only a single step remains, the jump to a unified culture. Man has climbed slowly upward, tending always toward unification of his culture. It will not be long—

“But it has not come yet, and so the war had to go on, to satisfy the last violent surge of hatred that Man felt. Eight years have passed since the war began. In these eight years, we have observed and noted important changes going on in the minds of men. Fatigue and disinterest, we have seen, are gradually taking the place of hatred and fear. The hatred is being exhausted gradually, over a period of time. But for the present, the hoax must go on, at least for a while longer. You are not ready to learn the truth. You would want to continue the war.”

[...]

“It’s a certainty that the Soviets have been tricked, too, the same as us. But we have found out. That gives us an edge over them.”

[...]

“With a hundred top-level men, we could take over again, restore things as they should be! It would be easy!”

[...]

“As you can see, the Tube has been shut. We were prepared for this. As soon as all of you were on the surface, the order was given. If you had gone back when we asked you, you would now be safely down below. We had to work quickly because it was such an immense operation.”

“But why?” Moss demanded angrily.

“Because it is unthinkable that you should be allowed to resume the war. With all the Tubes sealed, it will be many months before forces from below can reach the surface, let alone organize a military programme. By that time the cycle will have entered its last stages. You will not be so perturbed to find your world intact.

“We had hoped that you would be undersurface when the sealing occurred. Your presence here is a nuisance. When the Soviets broke through, we were able to accomplish their sealing without—”

“The Soviets? They broke through?”

“Several months ago, they came up unexpectedly to see why the war had not been won. We were forced to act with speed. At this moment they are desperately attempting to cut new Tubes to the surface, to resume the war. We have, however, been able to seal each new one as it appears.”

[...]

“People who work together don’t need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table.”

[...]

“It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—”

[...]

“Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.”

Captain Marvel

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019

Back in 1939, artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker created a superhero called Captain Marvel, who first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 (cover-dated Feb. 1940), published by Fawcett Comics. You’ve probably never heard of that title or that publisher, but based on book sales, the character was the most popular superhero of the 1940s, outselling even Superman.

Whiz Comics No 02 Cover Captain Marvel

So, naturally, Superman’s publisher — which was National Comics, at that point, not yet DC — sued, alleging that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman. It was a ludicrous claim, but Fawcett eventually agreed to cease publishing Captain Marvel-related comics in 1953, when superhero comics weren’t selling well, anyway.

In the late 1960s Marvel Comics gained the trademark “Captain Marvel” — which makes a certain kind of sense — and legally had to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years in order to retain it, which led to a number of half-hearted efforts with a rather uninspiring new character, Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree Imperial Militia, who is sent to observe the planet Earth as it is developing technology to travel into space. This Captain Marvel was created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan and first appeared in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (December 1967).

Marvel Super-Heroes No 12 Captain Marvel

Then, in 1972, DC reintroduced the original character under the new trademark of Shazam — which was originally the name of the wizard who granted young Billy Batson his powers and the magic word Billy had to say aloud to transform into the (adult) superhero, with the powers of the “gods”:

The wisdom of Solomon
The strength of Hercules
The stamina of Atlas
The power of Zeus
The courage of Achilles
The speed of Mercury

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics cycled through a few more uninspired captains, before settling on Carol Danvers, formerly known as Ms. Marvel, as their Captain Marvel and the basis for the upcoming movie.

Captain Marvel No 01 Cover Carol Danvers

Nitric acid poured over cores of powdered aluminum in a rubber matrix

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019

One of the stories in There Will Be War features an Israeli missile launch, and the technical details stood out to me — particularly since I read Ignition! recently:

In thirty eight sealed chambers, far overhead, nitric acid poured over cores of powdered aluminum in a rubber matrix. Solid fuel boosters roared to life. At a forty five degree angle, all of the missiles, save one, soared upward.

At two hundred feet, the missiles leveled off. Robot control surfaces adjusted themselves. Jet engines caught the wind and fired into keening life. Although they had all been launched in the same general direction, as winds caught ailerons and rudders, they began to turn.

No one quite knows where the great captains come from

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle included Poul Anderson’s “Marius” in There Will Be War and wrote this preface to it:

In every generation there are those who can lead men to Hell. There are never many, for the secrets of that kind of leadership have not been written in books. No one quite knows where the great captains come from. They appear when needed — or they do not, and homelands die.

The great captains are not immune to the temptations of power; indeed, for those who can lead men to Hell, there is always the suspicion that they might be able to lead them to Heaven. If the generals do not think this way, we can be certain they will have followers to suggest the possibility.

Great soldiers are not often great governors. Sometimes they are: Julius Caesar was certainly preferable to most of his immediate successors and predecessors, Washington was certainly an able president, Mustapha Kemal was the best governor Turkey ever had. England has had able soldier kings. Napoleon reformed French society and developed a code of laws that has spread throughout the world, making one wonder what might have happened had the Allies left him in peace after his return from Elba.

Far too often, though, the habits of military power have been ingrained, so that the great captain becomes tyrant or incompetent — or both — as head of state.

The story involves a coup, in post-World War III Europe, to replace a benevolent dictator, before strongman politics become too ingrained. The academics behind the coup understand symbolic sociology — something like Asimov’s psychohistory.

Pournelle felt that the usual understanding of the story, that the scientific faction’s win was a win for humanity, was a misunderstanding:

Pareto, whose theory of the circulation of elites makes more sense than most contemporary sociology (and is worth a great deal more study than it receives), died in 1923. He was more interested in the description of society than in prescriptions for its change; to the extent that he was on record as favoring any social scheme it was classical liberalism of the sort espoused by Dr. Milton Friedman in this era.

[...]

Pareto wrote: “Had Aristotle held to the course he in part so admirably followed, we would have had a scientific sociology in his early day. Why did he not do so? There may have been many reasons; but chief among them, probably, was that eagerness for premature practical applications which is ever obstructing the progress of science, along with a mania for preaching to people as to what they ought to do — an exceedingly bootless occupation — instead of finding out what they actually do.”

[...]

Fourre and Valti are more concerned with theory — such as how many representatives shall be sent to the United Nations — than with such practical matters as rats and plague. And thus Fourre slays his oldest friend. Which of them is Marius?

Spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

I hadn’t even heard of James Warner Bellah before I came across his short story “Spanish Man’s Grave” in There Will Be War.

“This story is not science fiction,” Jerry Pournelle explains, “but it has its place in this anthology, for this is one of the stories that inspired Robert Heinlein to write Starship Troopers.” The connection is not obvious, but Bellah and his writing are inspiring:

Bellah was the author of 19 novels, including The Valiant Virginians (the inspiration for the 1961 NBC television series The Americans), and Blood River. Some of his short stories were turned into films by John Ford, including Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. With Willis Goldbeck he wrote the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In World War I, Bellah enlisted in the Canadian Army, and served as a pilot in the 117th Squadron of Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. These experiences formed the basis of his 1928 novel Gods of Yesterday.

In the 1930s he worked as a journalist for the New York Post.

During World War II, Bellah served in the United States Army, starting as a lieutenant in the 16th Infantry, was detailed to the General Staff Corps before Pearl Harbor, and was later assigned to Headquarters 1st Infantry Division, later with the 80th Infantry Division. Later he served on the staff of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in Southeast Asia. He was attached to General Wingate’s Chindits in combat in Burma, and to General Stillwell and to Colonel Cochran’s 1st Air Commando Group. He left the service with the rank of Colonel.

He was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of California beginning in 1952.

His short story “Spanish Man’s Grave” is considered by some to be one of the finest American Western stories ever written. His last script was A Thunder of Drums. Bellah’s depiction of the Apache is protested by some and lauded as realistic by others.

In the early stages of his career, Elmore Leonard modelled his style closely after Bellah’s writing.

He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles during a visit to his friend James Francis, Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles.

None of his works appear to be in print.

I collected a number of interesting passages:

  • “The experience of war never quite leaves a young man or woman. A great many are utterly destroyed by it. All are indelibly and subtly marked by it, because, for good or evil, the memory never quite leaves any of us.”
  • The fears of man are many. He fears the shadow of death and the closed doors of the future. He is afraid for his friends and for his sons and of the specter of tomorrow. All his life’s journey he walks in the lonely corridors of his controlled fears, if he is a man. For only fools will strut, and only cowards dare cringe.
  • Never the same route, for fear of forming military habits hostiles could depend upon.
  • For there are no soft-handed girls on the lone plains; only the echo of their laughter in dreams.
  • And a plains uniform is a poor badge of glory. Worn leather, reeking of horse sweat and body sweat. Shirts bleached to the blue of distant rain, the armpits white with salt rime. Battered gray beaver felt, threadbare on the head, with the sweatband stinking when you ease up the brim.
  • And no violins. No flowers. No band music. Only the dreariness and the loneliness and the final knowledge that you have flung down your youth into this empty void and that there your youth will die, far from the lights of cities, wasted forevermore.
  • “Effen it’s a homestead,” Tyree said, “it’s burnin’ down.”
  • Brown acid smell of horses. Green acid smell of men.
  • His fleshless hands at fifty-six were gray talons, and there was not enough blood left in him, after the years of his service, to take the iridescent blue from his lips.
  • A worn-out man, old before his time, drained by the Colors, sitting his mount a thousand miles down the wastelands, staring at distant smoke with his eyes closed.
  • “Mr. Pennell, there are only three things to remember out here. Always make them think you are in force, or will be soon. Always frighten them until they stop thinking and take refuge in Medicine. Then turn it against them, spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything. And always treat your luck with respect, so that it will never turn against you.
  • This far the gods will let a man go—to a cairned grave on a lonesome downslope where he may lie in sleep forever. But here another man takes over, for there is always smoke still ahead and the march goes on.
  • Your first man dead in violence is a sick thing in your mind for many suns and many moons, until the others fade its picture.
  • But you never forget the first white woman you see that the Apaches have worked over.
  • They saw the two halves of the dog first, and the dust and hair and clotted abomination of the ax, flung under the broken wagon. Flies were there, green and translucent, glutted lazy.
  • The man was roped and arched in final protest at the little field’s edge.
  • He had fought, like a panther. The ground was lacerated with his fight.
  • Corporal Bartenett found the woman—“Alice Downey Graeme, his Wife.” And there it was, and how can you say what it was?
  • Thirty Apaches, by the pony marks, blood-drunk and beast hot. Reeking to defile. Hair-tearing hands, grease slick. Fetid-breathed and shrieking with obscenity.
  • “A two-day start on us they got, and the girl they got, about ten, eleven years old. See there,” and he pointed. “Her go-to-meetin’ dress.” He shook his head at Pennell’s question. “No,” he said. “I don’t think the girl, yet. Only the mother. But I sure hope the girl ain’t big for her age, ‘cause we gotta long haul to catch up on ‘em, sir. I sure hope she ain’t—”
  • “Tyree,” he said, “you and Marcy fix Mrs. Graeme decently for burial. I want her to have something on. Unmarried men clear out of the area…
  • The book tells you how to force the march, but a good sergeant is better than the best of books, and deep anger is better than a sergeant. Space out to fifty-five paces and stagger the odd files twenty yards to the right. That keeps the dust down and gives the mounts air to breathe. Unbit to graze on all halts, even the shortest. Halt ten minutes in the hour, and forty minutes every sixth hour for watering. Trot twenty minutes every second hour, and lead for the full hour before watering call. And talk up the horses. Tell them what you want out of them, for you can always bring a horse in on your side with the right kind of talk.
  • On the day the first Apache fire spot was still warm when Ross Pennell put the palm of his hand on it, the night of that day he put in his own fires. Squad fires. Fifty paces apart along the skyline. Enough fires to indicate two companies and their escort train.
  • Crazy is like fever. On and off. But every time it comes, it stays a little longer, until you die of it or it breaks.
  • At first you can’t believe it when you come to plains’ end, for no painting can ever show it as it is. The frost blues and the silken yellows of the tablelands. The reds that are watered out to the color of broiled lobster claws. The purples that have distant church music in them. The greens that you can smell for sweet mown grass. All worked into one breathlessness and swept across the horizon. At dawn, there is a golden rim around it. At sundown, nothing contains its endlessness.
  • “For two days now, by daylight, they could have watched from the high ground and seen that there were no two companies behind us! If they had done so, they would have circled wide to try to hit us from behind. But they didn’t do that, so that means they still believe we are two companies, and they have run to Medicine to get away from us, they’ve run to Spanish Man’s Grave for sanctuary… and that’s what I’ve been trying to make ’em do!”
  • “The louder the band plays the worse the shooting! The less brain the more flags! Only a trained soldier looks right in a bright uniform! Listen, Tyree. If we get up high ourselves—” and he pointed up toward the mesa tops “—Spanish Man’s Grave will stand out to you and me like a cut thumb, for it’ll be a bottleneck on a route that no well-trained soldier would ever think of taking through the tablelands.”
  • “Those dead Spaniards,” Pennell said, “came through the easiest route. The fact that they were all killed means they must have laid themselves wide open to tactical murder. They’ve done it all through their history; that’s why they’ve got no history left to make.”
  • The Apaches sat about their fires, safe in the ancient power of Medicine. Sat on the robes of their long-dead warriors, robes that were sewn with the symbols of the massacre story. Robes that boasted and lied and gloated in their needle tracery. Robes that had been used so long that they were no longer thick enough to hold smells in them for long. They sat frozen in fear when they saw Pennell, their faces turned toward him, or rose in white, unbelieving panic as he called through cupped hands and his voice rang in the narrow defile like the voice of doom: “The little Graeme girl! Lie flat where you are!” Then he saw her… “She’s by the fire on our left, Tyree! Hand these bastards the bill!”
  • “And are you all right, Alice?” She curtsied again. “Yes, sir; I am now, sir.” She walked toward them slowly with the ancient and solemn dignity of all of womanhood. And she said, “But I’m awfully glad you came, for I was very frightened…” not to Pennell alone, but turning her head to all of them, looking at their red eyes and their scraggly beards, their haggard faces, but knowing them for her own, with silent gratefulness that seemed to reach out and touch them with warm hands, and soft. And the way of their own hard living was suddenly more worthwhile in that moment than all the emeralds of Hind and all the gold of Cathay.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder and harder to focus audiences’ attention on the movies that Hollywood deems most important

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

Warner Bros. found that viewers with myriad options tend to retreat to the programs most familiar to them:

It’s an experience any Netflix user can identify with: Sitting down to pick out a movie, scrolling through choices for an hour — only to settle, finally, on an old episode of “Friends.”

I must admit that I do find myself scrolling through options for far too long — especially for someone who ends up watching so little — but I definitely do not find myself settling on something old and familiar very often. (Another admission: I did enjoy the original Terminator a few months back, though.)

Just under 500 new TV series premiered last year — compared to 182 new shows in 2002, according to an annual report released by cable network FX. Netflix plans to release nearly 100 original movies and documentaries this year.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. households already have more than one streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, up from 59% two years ago, according to market-research firm Ampere Analysis; of these households, nearly 42% subscribe to three separate streaming services. And the two biggest Hollywood studios, Walt Disney Co. and AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., are preparing their own streaming services, set to launch by the end of this year.

Three-quarters of U.S. households have more than one streaming service? Wow.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder and harder to focus audiences’ attention on the movies that Hollywood deems most important. On Sunday night, Hollywood will gather to honor the most prestigious movies of the year at the 91st Academy Awards. On Monday morning, executives in Hollywood will likely wake up yet again to the news that fewer people cared to tune in to their big night—just as they did last year, when the telecast lost 6.4 million viewers, or about the population of Indiana.

I don’t normally approve of Schadenfreude

Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade before, and it recently came up in a comment thread, so I finally bought a (digital) copy and read it. The premise is that advanced aliens land on Earth, prepared to awe the locals, but the locals are a medieval English army, preparing to go to war. They rush the ship and slaughter the crew — save one blue-skinned prisoner:

Soldiers were trained to react when such things happened, not to think. The bow of Red John sang. The foremost demon lurched off the ramp with a cloth-yard arrow through him. I saw him cough blood and die. As if the one shot had touched off a hundred, the air was suddenly gray with whistling shafts. The three other demons toppled, so thickly studded with arrows they might have been popinjays at a contest. “They can be slain!” bawled Sir Roger. “Haro! St. George for merry England!” And he spurred his horse straight up the gangway.

[...]

The crew of the ship numbered about a hundred, but few carried weapons. We later found all manner of devices stored in the holds, but the invaders had relied on creating a panic. Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble. The ship’s artillery was ready to use, but of no value once we were inside.

Later, when the English army takes the captured ship to an alien-controlled planet, they see the same tactical flaws:

The trouble of the Wersgorix was that they had gone too far. They had made combat on the ground obsolete, and were ill trained, ill equipped, when it happened. True, they possessed fire-beams, as well as force shields to stop those same fire-beams. But they had never thought to lay down caltrops.

[...]

Yet it was scarcely fair. They had no body armor. Their only weapon for such close-in fighting was a knife attached to the muzzle of the handgun, to make a most awkward spear… or the gun itself, clubbed.

Further, the aliens don’t realize how primitive their opponents really are:

Now all the Wersgorix know about us is that we have suddenly come from nowhere and — if Branithar’s boasts be true — done what no other host has ever achieved: taken one of their strongholds! Would you not move warily, were you their constable?

In fact, the aliens struggle to accept just how brash their English foes are:

They could be a punitive expedition, I suppose. For reasons of military secrecy, they could have used one of our own ships and kept their most potent weapons in reserve. It doesn’t make sense. But neither does it make sense that barbarians would blandly tell the most powerful realm in the known universe to surrender its autonomy. Unless it’s mere bluster.

My 50th-anniversary edition opens with multiple introductions. In the first introduction, by Poul’s daughter, Astrid Anderson Bear, she mentions that the story was published as a novel in 1961 and lost the Hugo award to A Canticle for Leibowitz. I have to agree with her assessment: no shame there. (Incidentally, Canticle is not available for Kindle. My mass-market paperback is already yellowing. It seems like the kind of book that needs an acid-free paper edition — maybe the library-bound one?) Astrid goes on to describe her father’s interest in the Middle Ages:

A few years later, in May of 1966, Diana Paxson hosted friends and acquaintances at a small medieval-style tourney in her backyard, about a mile from the Grove Street house. That small gathering became known as the First Tourney, from which sprang the Society for Creative Anachronism, now a world-wide organization with tourneys and events happening most weeks, year-round. [...] And my father was an early and enthusiastic member, earning a knighthood for his fighting and additional awards for his poetry, and spent many happy hours in what is called the Current Middle Ages.

In another introduction, David Drake notes that the thoughtful core of the book is that technology is not intelligence — before he shares some fun “Easter eggs” in Anderson’s work:

It was rare for a magazine to run two stories under the same author’s name in an issue: the novelette was credited to Winston P. Sanders, a pseudonym that Poul used a number of times. The name is a joke. If you’ve read Winnie-the-Pooh, you may recall that Winnie is living “under the name of Sanders.” [...] Notice the name of the monk telling the story: Brother Parvus, a church name which he tells us he took from his nickname as a layman. So: his nickname was Little. He also tells us that he was a younger son of Wat Brown. Very coyly Poul has told us that the novel is by Little Brown, a very upmarket Boston publisher who most certainly did not publish The High Crusade or anything else by Poul Anderson until quite late in his life.

Another key point of the story is that primitive institutions, like feudalism, serve a purpose and have their strengths:

Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny than mankind has known, even in Nero’s infamous day.

[...]

The Wersgorix had no special affection for their birthplace; they acknowledged no immediate ties of kinship or duty. As a result, each individual had no one to stand between him and the all-powerful central government.

[...]

In England, when King John grew overweening, he clashed both with ancient law and with vested local interests; so the barons curbed him and thereby wrote another word or two of liberty for all Englishmen.

[...]

The Wersgor were a lickspittle race, unable to protest any arbitrary decree of a superior. “Promotion according to merit” meant only “promotion according to one’s usefulness to the imperial ministers.”

[...]

The Wersgorix had similar weapons, of course, but less determination to use them.

[...]

But the Wersgorix were not a knightly folk. They were more prudent and forethoughtful than we. It cost them dearly.

[...]

Indeed, this race had been supreme among the stars so long that only their soldiers now had occasion to develop a manly contempt for death.

[...]

[W]hile the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home.

[...]

Where it comes to intrigue, I’m no master of it myself, no Italian. But the star-folk are like children.

[...]

Well, on Earth there’ve been many nations and lords for many centuries, all at odds with each other, under a feudal system nigh too complicated to remember.

[...]

On our Earth, we’ve perforce learned all the knavery there is to know.

[...]

“They know so little about the detection and use of traitors out here,” he remarked to me, “that I can buy this fellow for less than an Italian city. Our allies never attempted this, for they imagined that the Wersgor nation must be as solid as their own. Yet isn’t it logic, that so vast a sprawl of estates, separated by days and weeks of travel, must in many ways resemble a European country? Though even more corruptible—”

[...]

I was thinking that the Wersgor type of government commands no fealty.

[...]

As I said before, the collapse of Wersgorixan was not unlike the collapse of Rome, and similar problems found a similar answer. His advantage lay in having that answer ready to hand, the experience of many Terrestrial centuries.

[...]

Their central government had always been a distant thing to them, a mere collector of taxes and enforcer of arbitrary laws.

[...]

Many a blueskin found his imagination captured by our rich ceremonial and by a government of individual nobles whom he could meet face to face.

[...]

Having little military tradition of their own, the Jairs, Ashenkoghli, and Pr?*tans did not realize how those cruel years welded bonds of loyalty between native peasants and English aristocrats.

This might make good reading for any high-tech force sent off to a primitive land.

What, in all this world, could bring the greatest happiness?

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Just as John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian was popularizing this bit of wisdom, Jerry Pournelle included it in his preface to There Will Be War:

There was once recorded a remarkable conversation between Genghis Khan and one of his soldiers. The Kha Khan asked a guard officer what, in all this world, could bring the greatest happiness. “The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse,” said the officer. “And a falcon at your wrist to start up the hares.” “Not so,” replied the Khan. “To crush your enemy, to possess his wife as he watches, to see enemies fall at your feet. To take their horses and goods and hear the lamentations of their women. That is best.”

Openly questioning Neovictorian’s Sanity

Monday, February 18th, 2019

I recently read Neovictorian’s Sanity. The novel is, in a sense, didactic. It purports to explain how the world really works. For instance, our narrator — and presumably our author — remembers researching the Virginia Tech shooting, where one panicked student kept repeating that “It’s okay, they’re coming, they’re coming to help us!”:

Lesson number one is, They are not fucking coming.

Our hero, Cal — who, rather ironically, goes to Stanford, not Berkeley — finds himself recruited by a “good” conspiracy (the Network, or the Outfit) to fight the “bad” conspiracy (the Order).

The “good” conspiracy seems to be based on — I kid you not — a thinly disguised version of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics — in this case, Heights, the new novel by Phillip Duke, announced in Analog Science Fiction, June, 1974, which grows into the ReHumanism movement.

Cal learns a lot from the Network, as these excerpts suggest:

  • Karsten taught that history wasn’t facts, or trends, causes, war and politics, Great Men or the power of the polis; history was a method of wisdom, the deep contemplation of which enriched understanding of men, women and societies. History revealed the gold and the dross of human behavior, and enabled more effective action in every area of life.
  • For instance, we know about a number of Soviet spies that were caught, working on the Manhattan project and secret military projects and the US delegations to Bretton Woods and the United Nations. But what about the ones that were never caught? I suspect a few spies spent entire careers undercover, retired well and died comfortably in their homes in the Virginia countryside.
  • The perfect crime isn’t the crime you get away with, it’s the crime that no one knows has even been committed.
  • “The ‘unseen,’ Mr. Black, might even be a group, an organization of sorts, but one that is silent. How would we know what effect such a group has had or is having on history? We know a good deal about Templars, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, the Black Hand and so on, but what if there are other groups around, that are operating in a shadow so complete that they might as well not exist?”
  • “Don’t show your cards”
  • “Do you ever get a feeling Cal, maybe you have since you were 12, 13, maybe even younger a feeling that you were almost like an alien observing earth from a distance, that your friends and family were often strange and stupid that everyone’s just acting acting acting all the time?”
  • “Do you feel that if it was necessary and right you could physically stop someone who was doing something bad and wrong, hurting innocent people, starting a war, threatening to use nuclear weapons, something like that?”
  • And put something in there that the herd will think is innocuous, and only the aliens will understand.
  • It’s your future actions and choices and accomplishments that influenced what happened today. Physics works both directions in time — you might consider that.
  • The Outer Church and the Inner Church. It’s universal, everyone from the Greeks and their Mysteries to the Templars and the Masons and the German dueling societies and the Ivy League fraternities use some variation on it.
  • “Because social science is just a branch of the Order, and its purpose is to keep the mass fat, dumb and happy, so the Order can continue to be the Order.” “The Big Order or the Real Order?”
  • Do nothing for one breath. Do nothing, then assess, then take charge.

What Neovictorian really has to answer for is his young protagonist’s decision to carry a 1911 with two seven-round mags.

Anyway, as I read, I like to note interesting words (or phrases) I don’t see every day:

  • peripatetic – traveling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short period
  • gloaming – twilight; dusk.
  • so mote it be – “So mote it be” is a ritual phrase used by Freemasons, in Rosicrucianism, and more recently by Neopagans. It means “so may it be”, “so it is required”, or “so must it be”, and may be said at the end of a prayer in a similar way to “amen”.
  • contubernium – The contubernium was the smallest organized unit of soldiers in the Roman Army and was composed of eight legionaries, the equivalent of a modern squad. The men within the contubernium were known as contubernales. Ten contubernia were grouped into a centuria.

Again, the book is didactic, and that means it works in references to other recommended books:

In his afterword, he explicitly mentions his favorite authors:

In some rough chronological order they include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout always makes me cry.

The late William Patterson Jr.’s fine biography of Heinlein, In Dialogue With His Century, recounts several “mystical” experiences Heinlein had as a boy. I had a few, as well.

Was the term “GEV” just a mistake?

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Back in 1977, Steve Jackson Games came out with a sci-fi wargame named after the giant cybernetic tank central to its futuristic setting, the Ogre. Other units included infantry, artillery, and highly mobile hovercraft — known in the game as GEVs, or Ground Effect Vehicles.

Years later I learned that a ground effect vehicle is not a hovercraft, or air cushion vehicle, but a winged airplane, designed to use the wing-in-ground-effect — the reduction in drag experienced by an aircraft as it approaches a height approximately twice a wingspan’s length off the ground (or other level surface such as the sea).

Winchell Chung, who runs the Atomic Rockets website and goes by the handle of Nyrath, did the original art for the game, and I recently asked him, was the term “GEV” just a mistake? Or were they not meant to be air-cushion vehicles (ACVs) originally?

He wasn’t sure, but he made three points:

  1. The draft rules described units as armored hovercraft. Not aircraft. Fast moving ground units. They were called GEVs.
  2. I vaguely remember reading that GEM [for Ground Effect Machine] was a synonym for hovercraft, and I assumed GEV was a variant.
  3. I used a Popular Mechanics cover as inspiration.

Popular Mechanics Tiger Sharks of the Vietnam Swamps

He swapped out the propeller in the back with twin jet turbine engines and made the skirt look armor plated:

Winchell Chungs GEV 1 Winchell Chungs GEV 2 Winchell Chungs GEV 3

Then he sent a trial drawing to Steve Jackson, who added his comments in red:

Winchell Chungs GEV with Steve Jackson's Comments

The clinging death

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

In Jack London’s White Fang, the wolf-dog goes through an ugly episode under the ownership of the ironically nicknamed Beauty Smith, an ugly man, inside and out:

At irregular intervals, whenever a fight could be arranged, he was taken out of his cage and led off into the woods a few miles from town.  Usually this occurred at night, so as to avoid interference from the mounted police of the Territory.  After a few hours of waiting, when daylight had come, the audience and the dog with which he was to fight arrived.  In this manner it came about that he fought all sizes and breeds of dogs.  It was a savage land, the men were savage, and the fights were usually to the death.

Since White Fang continued to fight, it is obvious that it was the other dogs that died.  He never knew defeat.  His early training, when he fought with Lip-lip and the whole puppy-pack, stood him in good stead.  There was the tenacity with which he clung to the earth.  No dog could make him lose his footing.  This was the favourite trick of the wolf breeds — to rush in upon him, either directly or with an unexpected swerve, in the hope of striking his shoulder and overthrowing him.  Mackenzie hounds, Eskimo and Labrador dogs, huskies and Malemutes — all tried it on him, and all failed.  He was never known to lose his footing.  Men told this to one another, and looked each time to see it happen; but White Fang always disappointed them.

Then there was his lightning quickness.  It gave him a tremendous advantage over his antagonists.  No matter what their fighting experience, they had never encountered a dog that moved so swiftly as he.  Also to be reckoned with, was the immediateness of his attack.  The average dog was accustomed to the preliminaries of snarling and bristling and growling, and the average dog was knocked off his feet and finished before he had begun to fight or recovered from his surprise.  So often did this happen, that it became the custom to hold White Fang until the other dog went through its preliminaries, was good and ready, and even made the first attack.

But greatest of all the advantages in White Fang’s favour, was his experience.  He knew more about fighting than did any of the dogs that faced him.  He had fought more fights, knew how to meet more tricks and methods, and had more tricks himself, while his own method was scarcely to be improved upon.

As the time went by, he had fewer and fewer fights.  Men despaired of matching him with an equal, and Beauty Smith was compelled to pit wolves against him.  These were trapped by the Indians for the purpose, and a fight between White Fang and a wolf was always sure to draw a crowd.  Once, a full-grown female lynx was secured, and this time White Fang fought for his life.  Her quickness matched his; her ferocity equalled his; while he fought with his fangs alone, and she fought with her sharp-clawed feet as well.

But after the lynx, all fighting ceased for White Fang.  There were no more animals with which to fight — at least, there was none considered worthy of fighting with him.  So he remained on exhibition until spring, when one Tim Keenan, a faro-dealer, arrived in the land.  With him came the first bull-dog that had ever entered the Klondike.  That this dog and White Fang should come together was inevitable, and for a week the anticipated fight was the mainspring of conversation in certain quarters of the town.

Then comes the clinging death:

Beauty Smith slipped the chain from his neck and stepped back.

For once White Fang did not make an immediate attack. He stood still, ears pricked forward, alert and curious, surveying the strange animal that faced him. He had never seen such a dog before. Tim Keenan shoved the bull-dog forward with a muttered “Go to it.” The animal waddled toward the centre of the circle, short and squat and ungainly. He came to a stop and blinked across at White Fang.

There were cries from the crowd of, “Go to him, Cherokee! Sick ’m, Cherokee! Eat ’m up!”

But Cherokee did not seem anxious to fight. He turned his head and blinked at the men who shouted, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail good-naturedly. He was not afraid, but merely lazy. Besides, it did not seem to him that it was intended he should fight with the dog he saw before him. He was not used to fighting with that kind of dog, and he was waiting for them to bring on the real dog.

Tim Keenan stepped in and bent over Cherokee, fondling him on both sides of the shoulders with hands that rubbed against the grain of the hair and that made slight, pushing-forward movements. These were so many suggestions. Also, their effect was irritating, for Cherokee began to growl, very softly, deep down in his throat. There was a correspondence in rhythm between the growls and the movements of the man’s hands. The growl rose in the throat with the culmination of each forward-pushing movement, and ebbed down to start up afresh with the beginning of the next movement. The end of each movement was the accent of the rhythm, the movement ending abruptly and the growling rising with a jerk.

This was not without its effect on White Fang. The hair began to rise on his neck and across the shoulders. Tim Keenan gave a final shove forward and stepped back again. As the impetus that carried Cherokee forward died down, he continued to go forward of his own volition, in a swift, bow-legged run. Then White Fang struck. A cry of startled admiration went up. He had covered the distance and gone in more like a cat than a dog; and with the same cat-like swiftness he had slashed with his fangs and leaped clear.

The bull-dog was bleeding back of one ear from a rip in his thick neck. He gave no sign, did not even snarl, but turned and followed after White Fang. The display on both sides, the quickness of the one and the steadiness of the other, had excited the partisan spirit of the crowd, and the men were making new bets and increasing original bets. Again, and yet again, White Fang sprang in, slashed, and got away untouched, and still his strange foe followed after him, without too great haste, not slowly, but deliberately and determinedly, in a businesslike sort of way. There was purpose in his method — something for him to do that he was intent upon doing and from which nothing could distract him.

His whole demeanour, every action, was stamped with this purpose. It puzzled White Fang. Never had he seen such a dog. It had no hair protection. It was soft, and bled easily. There was no thick mat of fur to baffle White Fang’s teeth as they were often baffled by dogs of his own breed. Each time that his teeth struck they sank easily into the yielding flesh, while the animal did not seem able to defend itself. Another disconcerting thing was that it made no outcry, such as he had been accustomed to with the other dogs he had fought. Beyond a growl or a grunt, the dog took its punishment silently. And never did it flag in its pursuit of him.

Not that Cherokee was slow. He could turn and whirl swiftly enough, but White Fang was never there. Cherokee was puzzled, too. He had never fought before with a dog with which he could not close. The desire to close had always been mutual. But here was a dog that kept at a distance, dancing and dodging here and there and all about. And when it did get its teeth into him, it did not hold on but let go instantly and darted away again.

But White Fang could not get at the soft underside of the throat. The bull-dog stood too short, while its massive jaws were an added protection. White Fang darted in and out unscathed, while Cherokee’s wounds increased. Both sides of his neck and head were ripped and slashed. He bled freely, but showed no signs of being disconcerted. He continued his plodding pursuit, though once, for the moment baffled, he came to a full stop and blinked at the men who looked on, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail as an expression of his willingness to fight.

In that moment White Fang was in upon him and out, in passing ripping his trimmed remnant of an ear. With a slight manifestation of anger, Cherokee took up the pursuit again, running on the inside of the circle White Fang was making, and striving to fasten his deadly grip on White Fang’s throat. The bull-dog missed by a hair’s-breadth, and cries of praise went up as White Fang doubled suddenly out of danger in the opposite direction.

The time went by. White Fang still danced on, dodging and doubling, leaping in and out, and ever inflicting damage. And still the bull-dog, with grim certitude, toiled after him. Sooner or later he would accomplish his purpose, get the grip that would win the battle. In the meantime, he accepted all the punishment the other could deal him. His tufts of ears had become tassels, his neck and shoulders were slashed in a score of places, and his very lips were cut and bleeding — all from these lightning snaps that were beyond his foreseeing and guarding.

Time and again White Fang had attempted to knock Cherokee off his feet; but the difference in their height was too great. Cherokee was too squat, too close to the ground. White Fang tried the trick once too often. The chance came in one of his quick doublings and counter-circlings. He caught Cherokee with head turned away as he whirled more slowly. His shoulder was exposed. White Fang drove in upon it: but his own shoulder was high above, while he struck with such force that his momentum carried him on across over the other’s body. For the first time in his fighting history, men saw White Fang lose his footing. His body turned a half-somersault in the air, and he would have landed on his back had he not twisted, catlike, still in the air, in the effort to bring his feet to the earth. As it was, he struck heavily on his side. The next instant he was on his feet, but in that instant Cherokee’s teeth closed on his throat.

It was not a good grip, being too low down toward the chest; but Cherokee held on. White Fang sprang to his feet and tore wildly around, trying to shake off the bull-dog’s body. It made him frantic, this clinging, dragging weight. It bound his movements, restricted his freedom. It was like the trap, and all his instinct resented it and revolted against it. It was a mad revolt. For several minutes he was to all intents insane. The basic life that was in him took charge of him. The will to exist of his body surged over him. He was dominated by this mere flesh-love of life. All intelligence was gone. It was as though he had no brain. His reason was unseated by the blind yearning of the flesh to exist and move, at all hazards to move, to continue to move, for movement was the expression of its existence.

Round and round he went, whirling and turning and reversing, trying to shake off the fifty-pound weight that dragged at his throat. The bull-dog did little but keep his grip. Sometimes, and rarely, he managed to get his feet to the earth and for a moment to brace himself against White Fang. But the next moment his footing would be lost and he would be dragging around in the whirl of one of White Fang’s mad gyrations. Cherokee identified himself with his instinct. He knew that he was doing the right thing by holding on, and there came to him certain blissful thrills of satisfaction. At such moments he even closed his eyes and allowed his body to be hurled hither and thither, willy-nilly, careless of any hurt that might thereby come to it. That did not count. The grip was the thing, and the grip he kept.

White Fang ceased only when he had tired himself out. He could do nothing, and he could not understand. Never, in all his fighting, had this thing happened. The dogs he had fought with did not fight that way. With them it was snap and slash and get away, snap and slash and get away. He lay partly on his side, panting for breath. Cherokee still holding his grip, urged against him, trying to get him over entirely on his side. White Fang resisted, and he could feel the jaws shifting their grip, slightly relaxing and coming together again in a chewing movement. Each shift brought the grip closer to his throat. The bull-dog’s method was to hold what he had, and when opportunity favoured to work in for more. Opportunity favoured when White Fang remained quiet. When White Fang struggled, Cherokee was content merely to hold on.

The bulging back of Cherokee’s neck was the only portion of his body that White Fang’s teeth could reach. He got hold toward the base where the neck comes out from the shoulders; but he did not know the chewing method of fighting, nor were his jaws adapted to it. He spasmodically ripped and tore with his fangs for a space. Then a change in their position diverted him. The bull-dog had managed to roll him over on his back, and still hanging on to his throat, was on top of him. Like a cat, White Fang bowed his hind-quarters in, and, with the feet digging into his enemy’s abdomen above him, he began to claw with long tearing-strokes. Cherokee might well have been disembowelled had he not quickly pivoted on his grip and got his body off of White Fang’s and at right angles to it.

There was no escaping that grip. It was like Fate itself, and as inexorable. Slowly it shifted up along the jugular. All that saved White Fang from death was the loose skin of his neck and the thick fur that covered it. This served to form a large roll in Cherokee’s mouth, the fur of which well-nigh defied his teeth. But bit by bit, whenever the chance offered, he was getting more of the loose skin and fur in his mouth. The result was that he was slowly throttling White Fang. The latter’s breath was drawn with greater and greater difficulty as the moments went by.

It began to look as though the battle were over. The backers of Cherokee waxed jubilant and offered ridiculous odds. White Fang’s backers were correspondingly depressed, and refused bets of ten to one and twenty to one, though one man was rash enough to close a wager of fifty to one. This man was Beauty Smith. He took a step into the ring and pointed his finger at White Fang. Then he began to laugh derisively and scornfully. This produced the desired effect. White Fang went wild with rage. He called up his reserves of strength, and gained his feet. As he struggled around the ring, the fifty pounds of his foe ever dragging on his throat, his anger passed on into panic. The basic life of him dominated him again, and his intelligence fled before the will of his flesh to live. Round and round and back again, stumbling and falling and rising, even uprearing at times on his hind-legs and lifting his foe clear of the earth, he struggled vainly to shake off the clinging death.

At last he fell, toppling backward, exhausted; and the bull-dog promptly shifted his grip, getting in closer, mangling more and more of the fur-folded flesh, throttling White Fang more severely than ever. Shouts of applause went up for the victor, and there were many cries of “Cherokee!” “Cherokee!” To this Cherokee responded by vigorous wagging of the stump of his tail. But the clamour of approval did not distract him. There was no sympathetic relation between his tail and his massive jaws. The one might wag, but the others held their terrible grip on White Fang’s throat.

I don’t think London would’ve been too surprised by those early UFCs.

Almost a vampire story, but with dogs

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

I recently listened to an audiobook version of Jack London’s White Fang and was surprised by how much the opening chapters resemble a horror story:

The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned his head until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across the narrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.

A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.

“They’re after us, Bill,” said the man at the front.

His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparent effort.

“Meat is scarce,” answered his comrade. “I ain’t seen a rabbit sign for days.”

Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for the hunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.

At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of spruce trees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at the side of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered on the far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, but evinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.

“Seems to me, Henry, they’re stayin’ remarkable close to camp,” Bill commented.

Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.

“They know where their hides is safe,” he said. “They’d sooner eat grub than be grub. They’re pretty wise, them dogs.”

Bill shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know.”

His comrade looked at him curiously. “First time I ever heard you say anything about their not bein’ wise.”

“Henry,” said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he was eating, “did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I was a-feedin’ ’em?”

“They did cut up more’n usual,” Henry acknowledged.

“How many dogs ’ve we got, Henry?”

“Six.”

“Well, Henry . . . ” Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his words might gain greater significance. “As I was sayin’, Henry, we’ve got six dogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an’, Henry, I was one fish short.”

“You counted wrong.”

“We’ve got six dogs,” the other reiterated dispassionately. “I took out six fish. One Ear didn’t get no fish. I came back to the bag afterward an’ got ’m his fish.”

“We’ve only got six dogs,” Henry said.

“Henry,” Bill went on. “I won’t say they was all dogs, but there was seven of ’m that got fish.”

Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.

“There’s only six now,” he said.

“I saw the other one run off across the snow,” Bill announced with cool positiveness. “I saw seven.”

Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, “I’ll be almighty glad when this trip’s over.”

Go ahead and read the first three chapters. They’re their own short story — almost a vampire story, but with dogs.

Dune does neither

Monday, February 11th, 2019

T. Greer recently mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists these books as required reading:

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit Books, ISBN: 0316005401
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550706
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), ISBN: 0803270763
F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume I: Rules and Order, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226320863
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Orb Books, ISBN: 0312863551
Frank Herbert, Dune, Ace Books, ISBN: 0441172717
Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, Harper Classics, ISBN: 006051275X
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Harper Collins, ISBN: 0060652942
James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, ISBN: 0300078153

Smith also requires students to read the prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and sections 125-169 in The Gay Science (or The Joyful Wisdom).

Smith’s discussion questions often pit one text against another:

  • What hope does Nietzsche place in the coming of the Overman? What obstacles does Nietzsche suggest stand in the way of the change the Overman might bring to the world?
  • Consider the links between the Bene Gesserit plan to create the Kwisatz Haderach described in the Appendix and Nietzsche’s ideal of the Overman.
  • How do the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit appear to differ in their quest for human perfection? Why does the emergence of hierarchies based on the cultivation of extreme human talent lead back to the sort of aristocracy this novel depicts?
  • Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?
  • How might someone following the literary and moral sensibility that Lewis fears might take root read the events of the novel to this point? The Harkonnen plot relies on the exploitation of the Atreides’ characters as much or more than it does on brute force. In what ways does their understanding rely on an understanding of the virtues Lewis suggests we need?
  • Consider Lewis’ arguments about what leads human beings to sacrifice themselves for a cause. How does this relate to the Fremen? To what degree have the Bene Gesserit and others in the novel embraced the quest for mastery Lewis describes near the end of the chapter?
  • What are the major moral features of Fremen society?
  • How does the Bene Gesserit plot to manipulate religion explain the Fremen response to Paul and Jessica?
  • What does it suggest to you that the Bene Gesserit never really articulated a reason they wanted to create the Kwisatz Haderach?
  • Lewis argues that efforts to “see through” first principles actually result in less understanding of our world than analyses that presuppose the existence of a natural law. Does this help us understand the Harkonnen’s myriad failures throughout the book in any way?
  • To what degree does Paul Muad’dib transcend the efforts of others to control him? In what significant ways do Lewis’ warnings about danger of scientific control over human life resonate in the novel? How does this seemingly differ from Herbert’s intent in writing?

I didn’t take to Dune initially, but it really stuck with me. T. Greer is not a fan:

Just don’t think Dune is that interesting in the questions it poses or deep in the answers it hints at. Really good science fiction tends to excel in the 1st; enduring literature excels in the last. Dune does neither.

The Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Bryan Caplan is a fan of dystopian fiction, but he had overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December, because he had feared a long-winded, clunky version of Economics in One Lesson — but he gave it a chance, and his gamble paid off:

I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow. People live in Stalinist fear and penury. Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was. However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society. When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir. The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it. In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too. But Hazlitt is a master of pacing. It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work. Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.

[...]

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers. (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”) What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused. Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951. Stalin was still alive.

The one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature

Monday, January 28th, 2019

One of the best-named TV Tropes is the load-bearing boss — the big bad guy whose death causes his whole evil lair to collapse, for rather ambiguous reasons.

What I didn’t realize was that the original Dracula had just such an ending, but it was edited out:

As we looked there came a terrible convulsion of the earth so that we seemed to rock to and fro and fell to our knees. At the same moment with a roar which seemed to shake the very heavens the whole castle and the rock and even the hill on which it stood seemed to rise into the air and scatter in fragments while a mighty cloud of black and yellow smoke volume on volume in rolling grandeur was shot upwards with inconceivable rapidity.

Then there was a stillness in nature as the echoes of that thunderous report seemed to come as with the hollow boom of a thunder-clap – the long reverberating roll which seems as though the floors of heaven shook. Then down in a mighty ruin falling whence they rose came the fragments that had been tossed skywards in the cataclysm.

From where we stood it seemed as though the one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature and that the castle and the structure of the hill had sunk again into the void. We were so appalled with the suddenness and the grandeur that we forgot to think of ourselves.

This leaves no evidence of there ever having been a vampire.