Stories that still work: Rescue Party (1946)

Rescue Party is a story about a ship from an alien galactic federation attempting to save people and cultural artifacts that it could from the doomed planet Earth. It was written in 1946 by Arthur C. Clarke and collected in:

Clarke, Arthur Charles. 2002. The collected stories of Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. (Find in a library).

Rescue Party holds up well with little suspension of disbelief required. The multi-species crew is plausible and sympathetic. The meme of “We’re the only ship in the vicinity” is still alive and well in the 21st Century. I believe it does a decent job in depicting Earth as a mysterious, alien world and in depicting the crew as good problem solvers. I really enjoyed their use of the Earth as a shield against Nova Sol and the use of Earth’s Moon to let them know when to activate their star drive. Reading the story I don’t notice any anachronisms, so I think it holds up well.

The main problem I have with Rescue Party is one that I’ve had with many science fiction stories, books and movies. Our sun is NOT going nova. Not now. Not ever. It will grow to be a red giant, definitely scarfing up Mercury and Venus and perhaps Earth. Long before that it will be hot enough to boil Earth’s oceans away. But it will be a gradual process. There will be no need for a six hour deadline. But since our sun going nova over and over again in fiction is not an artifact of 1946 that displays the story’s age, I’m not really holding it against Rescue Party.

 

Reference:

The Once and Future Sun                                                                           http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Lectures/vistas97.html

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Stories that still work: The Awakening (1942)

The Awakening is a story about suspended animation. It was written in 1942 by Arthur C. Clarke and collected in:

Clarke, Arthur Charles. 2002. The collected stories of Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. (Find in a library).

The Awakening, the story of a feared figure called The Master who was put into suspended animation pending cure of a heart issue holds up well but for one detail. His hibernation place was a “secret place above the snow line of Mount Everest” because there were “many millions in the world who would have sought out his body to destroy it.”

The top of Everest might have seemed like a secret spot in 1942, after seven failed efforts to climb the mountain. Today it is one of the heavier trafficked high mountains in the world. No place to put a cruel leader with so many enemies.

Aside from that, it was easy for this 20th Century reader to suspend disbelief as The Master was put under, how his place of refuge became lost and how he reacted to his very, very late resurrection. Along the way, we are treated to some accurate seeming descriptions of plate tectonics.

 

Reference:

Timeline of Mount Everest Expeditions – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Mount_Everest_expeditions

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Clarke was right about sci-fi ideas: Reverie

I’m working my way through:

Clarke, Arthur Charles. 2002. The collected stories of Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. Find in a library.

I thought it would be fun to highlight stories or commentary from this volume that I believe hold up well.

I start with Reverie, an essay written in 1939, which refutes the idea “All the ideas in science fiction have been used up!” His first argument is that even if all the ideas in science fiction were used up, that shouldn’t bother anyone. He argues that all the ideas in general fiction had been used up for centuries, but no one was afraid of that. As long as you have an individual way of treating a commonplace idea and good characterization, all will be well no matter the genre. I agree.

Clarke then argues that science fiction is in no danger of running out of ideas, stating “As long as science advances, as long as mathematics discovers incredible worlds where two and two would never dream of equaling four; so new ideas will come tumbling into the mind of anyone will let his thoughts wander, passport in hand, along the borders of Possibility.” Given that he was writing in 1939, I think history has proven him write.

If you ignore the examples of authors and stories that he gives to prove that science fiction is still fresh, this essay could have been written yesterday. Despite being a fan of science fiction from 1930s forwards, none of Clarke’s examples rang a bell for me. Without using Google, do any of the examples ring a bell for you?

Stories

  • The smile of the the Spinx
  • The human termites
  • Sinister barrier

Authors

  • Weinbaum
  • Fearn
  • Keller
  • Stapledon
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ALA’s Republican Problem

2016 Election Results by County

2016 Presidential Election Results by County. Courtesy of Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan. CC

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write since American Library Association (ALA) President Julie Todaro’s report on ALA’s “historic success” in getting members of Congress to sign “Dear Appropriator” letters in support of federal library funding.  A few days later, she sent an e-mail breaking down letter signers by party. The talking point included with the e-mail was: Bottom line/sound bite: essentially one-third of the entire House now supports BOTH IAL (Innovative Approaches to Literacy) and LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) at those levels in writing.

I took a different view and I think the rest of us ALA members should too. Here’s the breakdown provided in President Todaro’s 4/5/2017 e-mail for the House:

Support breaks down as follows followed by (D/R):

LSTA only: 23 of 144 (141/3)
IAL only: 25 of 145(145/5)
Both IAL & LSTA: 121 (119/2)
IAL or LSTA: 169 (163/6)

According to the US House website, as of 6/30/2017, the House had 193 Democrats, 240 Republicans and two vacancies. So, about 88% of House Democrats signed one of the two Library “Dear Appropriator” letters, but only 2.5% of House Republicans signed onto either. This is a serious support problem given that Republicans hold the House by a large margin. ALA’s gloss of that issue and the initial omission of reporting the party breakdown is very troubling.

Using ALA’s table of Senate Dear Appropriator letters, it seems that FOUR Republican Senators out of a caucus of 52 signed either the IAL or LSTA letter, for roughly 8% Republican public support. This matters more than the 40+ Democratic Senators who publicly supported LSTA funding because it’s a Republican controlled Senate.

Instead of celebrating success, ALA ought to be looking at what could be causing such a major difference in support.

I completely accept that libraries will never capture 100% of Congressional Republicans. There are two groups of Republican Representatives and Senators we will never get, despite our best efforts:

  1. Those who reject ANY federal role in supporting libraries and other cultural/memory types of institution.
  2. Those who mistake our profession’s efforts at inclusion and being a “place for all” as code for “special rights” for minorities of all kinds.

Based on the fact that IMLS and other library funding has passed a Republican-controlled Congress year after year, it is clear to me that most Congressional Republicans do not fall into either group above. So why do so many withhold public support? Why does it appear that supporting ALA efforts on library funding is good for Democratic officeholders but not for Republican ones? ALA ought to be finding out. Because if supporting libraries becomes a significant liability to Republican officeholders, then unwillingness to fund libraries will join unwillingness to sign letters.

This “ALA Republican Problem” extends beyond Congress. Look at the 2016 General Election Map by County again:

2016 Election Results by County

2016 Presidential Election Results by County. Courtesy of Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan. CC

The vast majority of these counties have one or more libraries AND voted Republican in the last Presidential election. In many of these places both the current President and his party’s state and local candidates won a majority. While the red areas of the map amount to less than half the US population, it likely is home to a majority of America’s public libraries. Libraries that must work with Republican local and state officials. Perhaps staffed by some Republicans. In this environment, it is not helpful to ALA to continue to be seen as a creature of one political party — particularly a minority political party (in terms of Congress, state legislatures and governments).

What should ALA do in response to this “Republican Problem?”

It must admit that it has one. Stop celebrating winning support from the minority legislative party. Make it standard practice to report the partisan breakdown in support of given legislation. Don’t make us ask for it.  In a Congress bound by the custom of only voting on whatever a “majority of the majority” wants, only support of majority members is meaningful. It will be painful to track advocacy efforts that way, but it will be a much clearer indicator of how persuasive ALA’s efforts are.

Reach out to current Republican library supporters in Congress. While the number of Republican “Dear Appropriator” signers was tiny, it was non-zero. The number of Republicans who ultimately support library funding is higher – though some of that is because we’ve had years of continuing resolutions. Ask the signers and library funding “yes” votes why they made these expressions of public support. Look at their states and districts. Is there something that makes them or their districts different?

Start inviting conservative library supporters to speak at ALA conferences. For a long time, ALA conferences have had nearly all liberal speakers. Not all ALA members are liberals and many library funders are definitely not. Isn’t it time that we broadened our speaking slots? Anyone who supports libraries at local, state or national levels should be welcome on ALA’s stage. Support for libraries as public institutions and respect for all people ought to be our only litmus tests for ALA major speeches. How about inviting a Republican signer of a library funding letter? Or reaching out to Red State Library associations to find a Republican mayor, legislator or governor who they credit with supporting libraries?

Identify Red State library associations that have good relationships with their funders and see what advice they give. In my time on ALA Council (2014-2016), I heard a lot of complaints about disconnects between big ALA and the state associations. This could be one initiative among many that might bring big ALA and the state associations into closer collaboration.

ALA and librarians in general must make this effort while staying true to our professional ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. The first step to making this effort and solving our “Republican Problem” is admitting we have one. 

REFERENCES

[alacoun] Summary/Breakdown of House IAL / LSTA Letter Supporters (4/5/2017) – http://lists.ala.org/sympa/arc/alacoun/2017-04/msg00002.html

[map source]  Maps of the 2016 US presidential election results by Mark Newman – http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2016/

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Book Review: Connecting Alaskans

I recently finished the book:

Hudson, Heather E. 2015. Connecting Alaskans: telecommunications in Alaska from telegraph to broadband.

If you live or frequently work in Alaska or rural communications, I highly recommend this book to you.  It is readable for an academic text, well researched, very well documented and has a robust index. It also appears evenhanded in the debate over whether government or private enterprise can do the better job in bringing modern communications to rural areas.

I came to Alaska in 1998 and I now have a role in statewide library internet access. Connecting Alaskans did a great job of bringing me up to date on how phone, satellite and now broadband communications came to be the way they are here. It also alerted me to educational and telehealth networks I not been previously aware of.

Two chapters were especially helpful to me. Chapter 14, “Alaska’s Local Telephone Companies” gave me context for several of the smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs) I work with. It also gave me higher respect for the gritty and tenacious way most of them got their start.

Chapter 7, “The NASA satellite experiments” documented work done in the 1970s to show the feasibility and usefulness of video and audio communication to rural Alaska, especially in the areas of telehealth and education. The promise and anecdotes from that era were eerily similar to the ones I and other technologists promote for broadband internet access. The technology did help, but the funding was not sustainable. Makes me wonder how we can keep someone from writing the same about rural broadband in 2047.

On a personal note, this book documented a fact that I have suspected for a few years. Part of what motivated me to move to Alaska in 1998 was the fact that at the time, Alaska was ahead of the technological curve. They had a high rate of online adoption for the time and seemed to be moving ahead to use telecommunications to tie Alaska into a future where location did not determine your educational or economic opportunities. While that was true in the late 1990s, the longer view of Alaskan telecommunications history seems to have been one of perpetual catch up, at least from the books perspective.

This makes me sad, but other parts of the book give me hope. Traditionally, Alaskans have been strong advocates for their state and willing to try new things to bring their people closer together. I hope we can rekindle that spirit in these hard budget times and build on the hard work done by the public and private sectors. That we can look past the purely economical and build Alaska communications that work for everyone.

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Exploring possible societies: Childhood’s End

I recently reread a science fiction classic:

Clarke, Arthur C. 1953. Childhood’s end. New York: Ballantine Books.

If you haven’t read the book, Wikipedia has a good synopsis. Part of the book describes a golden age of humanity prior to a leap in human evolution. Here is an excerpt from the book that probably would have led to its banning in 1950s America if it had been nonfiction (Apologies for non-gender neutral language. Childhood’s End was a product of its time.:

People could indulge in such whims, because they had both the time and the money. The abolition of armed forces had at once almost doubled the world’s effective wealth, and increased [robotic] production had done the rest. As a result, it was difficult to compare the standard of living of twenty-first century Man with that of any of his predecessors. Everything was so cheap that the necessities of life were free, provided by a public service by the community, as roads, water, street lighting and drainage had once been. A man could travel wherever pleased, eat whatever food he fancied – without handing over any money. He had earned the right to do this by being a productive member of the community.

There were, of course, some drones, but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerk, stockbrokers and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another.

One of the special powers of science fiction is that it can explore subjects otherwise off the table of normal discussion. In some ways this is as true now as it was in 1953.

With technological unemployment growing, I think it might be time to dust off these paragraphs and really consider the sort of society we might have if human work for pay becomes rare.

If you are aware of books with non-standard economic systems, whether liberal or conservative, please feel free to comment.

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Review (sort of) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

I recently experienced Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End in two media:

BOOK

Clarke, Arthur C. 1953. Childhood’s end. New York: Ballantine Books.

DVD

Hurran, Nick, Matthew Graham, Paul M. Leonard, John G. Lenic, Mike Vogel, Osy Ikhile, Daisy Betts, et al. 2017. Childhood’s end: the mini series.

Both stories were good, just different. My purpose here, other than to mention that I thought the book held up well despite being 50 years old, is to highlight choices that the miniseries made to change elements of the book and to offer some short commentary on those choices. If you haven’t read Childhood’s End, it’s best you either read the book or its Wikipedia entry before going further.

How the Overlords arrival is treated:

The book treats the initial arrival of the Overlords in a few pages, through the eyes of characters we never see again. Then it jumps ahead five years to a time that the Overlord’s rule is largely accepted by humanity.

The miniseries, by contrast, devotes a lot of time to Earth’s reaction to the Overlords’ arrival. It also focuses a lot of time to the reaction of characters who will be important later. Karellen, the Overlord Supervisor for Earth, goes to the trouble of speaking through whomever is the most important, yet dead person, of everyone’s life.

 

 

The “Key Event” that brings the Overlords to Earth

In the book, the US and Soviet Union are on the verge of building an “atomic drive” that will send a spacecraft to the Moon.

The miniseries updates this to Earth being on the verge of inventing a Faster Than Light (FTL) drive. This is sensible since we reached the Moon in 1969 and have sent robot explorers to all known planets in our solar system. In both the book and the DVD, the Overlords arrive to ensure that humanity does not leave its cradle prior to its next stage of evolution.

 

Overlords’ choice of spokesperson

Here we find a major divergence between the worlds of 1953 and 2015 (the original miniseries date).

In the 1953 book, the Overlords work through the United Nations, with  Rikki Stormgren, the existing UN Secretary General being the prime liaison between the Overlords and the rest of humanity.

In the 2015 miniseries, after decades of distrust sown about government, the Overlords go to great lengths to find an “everyman” to speak for them. Ricky Stormgren, a farmer from Missouri, becomes the “Blue Collar Prophet” of the Overlords. If he had been unwilling to perform the role, an 82 year old woman from South Korea would have been chosen.

 

The portrayal of “New Athens”, the Island of “Real Humanity”

In both the book and the miniseries there are people who reject the order that the Overlords have imposed on Earth. In both cases, a number of these people create a refuge on an island known as “New Athens.” But in my view the motivation and type of people on New Athens are portrayed VERY differently between the book and the miniseries.

The book treats New Athens as something that arose over several decades, the subject of intense planning and management using social psychology. The number of people on the island was limited to 100,000 to ensure meaningful social interaction and in hopes of rebooting creativity in the arts and sciences. There were strict psychological tests for adult would be residents. The residents of New Athens accepted much of Overlord technology in energy and labor saving devices, but rejected what they regarded as distractions.

The miniseries treats New Athens as an island of misfits who reject things like clean energy or any technology introduced by the Overloads. The island is open to all without psychological screening. Creativity is hoped for, but not planned.

While New Athens self destructs in both the book and the miniseries as a result of the worldwide loss of all children, how it is carried out could not be more different. In the book, island suicide by nuclear weapon is a community decision. Those who would rather live out the human race’s last days are allowed ample time to safely leave the island. In the miniseries, the destruction is carried out by a whack job who decides that his personal pain is so important he can destroy his whole community. People in his immediate vicinity try to dissuade him, but to no avail. Most residents had no idea what hit them.

 

Funny moments from the book

I’d like to close with a few quotes from the book that amused me. Perhaps you’ll find them chilling. These lines come from a scene where a couple new to New Athens is getting an orientation from an unnamed man. He provides the examples below (page 141 in 1953 Book Club Edition) to explain why humanity lost its creativity:

  • “Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?” (In 2017, one source estimates 300 hours of video are added to YouTube EVERY MINUTE).
  • “Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more.”  (In 2016, CNN cited a Nielsen study indicating that the average American spent TEN HOURS a day in front of various screens, much of it for entertainment.)

 

I’m not knocking Clarke here. A global computer network with mobile devices to allow this level of consumption was scarcely imaginable in 1953. I think even cable television wasn’t really on the radar yet. But still amuses me that the worse case scenario of smothering through entertainment in 1953 does not even begin to approach the scale of what we actually experience in the 21st Century.

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