Saturday, December 9, 2017

Swan Song

     Carrying on my quest to see which science fiction writers got closer to predicting the end of the world, while the threat of another catastrophic war hangs over the world. I see some writers still hope that King Arthur is still sleeping in a hill somewhere and will rise up and smite our enemies. Or Jesus. Wittekind. Siegfried. Someone. Aliens. Anyone?
     It might not be fair to call Swan Song a science fiction novel since it is labelled 'fiction' or 'horror' but I think of any novel about a post-nuclear world as 'science fiction'. It may be easily called fantasy since the main character Sue Wanda (Swan) has magical powers as does Sister who is looking for her. One can infer from this that women will be the agents (as givers of life) that will regenerate the devastated world. The character of the man with the scarlet eye is too easily identified with the devil, especially with the flies that come out of his mouth, but this is not the Christian world of A Canticle for Leibowitz. Swan can only be a Gaia figure with Josh and Robin as her Corn Kings. One cannot regenerate the world without one's male counterpart. This makes the man with the scarlet eye something far more primordial than Lucifer. Tolkien's Sauron leaps to mind with a description like that especially knowing that Tolkien based his novels on older heathen tales.
     There is always the assumption that there will be people who will want more than everybody else and will use violence to assert themselves. In a post apocalyptic world, survival will depend so much on mutual co-operation, I would think or hope that violent despots (the Negans of the world) would not arise so quickly. Some people would survive who are authority figures and people would rally around them as we are accustomed now to a certain social structure. One problem with any post apocalyptic world, is most authors ignore the fact that gasoline has a shelf life. In a world like The Walking Dead or Swan Song, people would not be driving around two years later, if only for the reason that the gasoline would not be useable anymore. So large scale movements like in Swan Song with tanks and trucks would not be possible or the type of battles that the Army of Excellence engages in to feed its members. Trebuchet, anyone?
    The book was published in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, but even then the Soviet Union was coming apart and the Cold War was winding down. It seems too easy to blame tensions between the U.S. and Russia for the use of nuclear weapons; especially when one considers nuclear proliferation and the ideologies that some nuclear countries subscribe to. Even in '87 North Korea was a problem and the world had seen the rise of radical Islam. Globalization has contributed a great deal to social and political instability, income inequality and mass migration. Few authors predicted this; perhaps science fiction(or fantasy) writers tend to be conservative in their views. With the exception of labour unions, few wanted to go against the free trade mantra. Nobody predicted a president like Donald Trump. And, there can be no mistake, someone like Trump was elected because large numbers of the American electorate have been disenfranchised and voted this way in protest.  Will he cause the end of the world? Hard to say. I still think we have a ways to go - 2020, if Professor Turchin's cliodynamics are reliable.
       So what did McCammon get right? I do not think you can approach the novel this way. It is very doubtful that this was intended as a predictor of the future. It seems rather that it is monomyth of the hero's quest in a modern setting and with female heroines.


Next up is Nevil Shute's On the Beach.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Speculated Aftermath of Global Nuclear War

     I could go on about literary allusions in 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' which would be fun but I want to discuss his predictions about our future. While I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us all. The nukes are still here but the powers that held them seemed to realize that there was no winning a nuclear engagement. So the Iron Curtain fell, Russia became if, not an ally, no longer our enemy.
     Part of the reason for nuclear pacts between Russia and the U.S. was due to the emotional impact of a 'made for television' film called "The Day After" made by Nicholas Meyer. Meyer had the idea of showing in as realistic way as possible what the aftermath of a nuclear war would look like. It appears from articles written about the production that he faced an uphill battle in showing the best guesses with no embellishment of any kind. It aired on ABC on November 20, 1983 to the largest audience a movie ever had. Its record stands. I was one of the audience that day.
     Walter Miller started his story six hundred years after the war with few snippets of information of what took place to devastate the planet. The reason for the 'flame deluge' is not given except that the Church taught that pride lead to world leaders ignoring their wise men and using the weapons given to them that were to guarantee lasting peace. Miller states the war ended within weeks or days. The film would give it but less than one day. Cities became puddles of glass, surrounded by vast acreages of broken stone. The strikes killed all life human, animal, fish and avian near the cities. Fallout killed large numbers of the rest. The few survivors roamed in search of safe places to live. In the years following, there was plague, hunger and madness and then came the Simplification, in which anyone who had any kind of learning was blamed for the bombs and killed.
     Meyer's film deals with the immediate aftermath of the war. He created a number of characters near a small city, Kansas City, and a possible prelude to war is reported in the background on radio and television as these characters go about their lives. Twenty-five years separate the creation of the two stories. The film is an accurate snapshot of a point in time six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It does not try to predict the future, it attempted to show what would happen if war broke out that year. For those of us following today's news, the U.S. mobilizations near the border of Russia and the invasion of Germany give one that sense of deja vu. The U.S. claims to hold the moral high ground and that it holds the right to police the rest of the world's nuclear ambitions and yet it is the only country to have used a bomb against a civilian population.
     Unlike Miller, Meyer knew the strikes would not just target large urban centers; they would also target military installations like missile silos, which were located in remote rural locations, so the devastation would be total. Meyer follows a few survivors as they bury their dead and slowly one by one succumb to radiation sickness.  The last scene is of one of the women giving birth in a clinic with no doctor and her scream at the sight of her child, who is not shown. It is a chilling for those who saw the intercontinental missiles leave and knowing they had 30 minutes at most before the response came. A professor rigs up a geiger counter and listens as the numbers climb, "Here it comes", he says.
    Miller felt that the radiation would cause many children born in the aftermath to be mutants and monsters. The aftermath of the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not show this to be the case. There was a slight increase in some defects but no two headed or otherwise deformed children were born. Agent Orange, a tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, used as a defoliation agent in the Vietnam War created worse defects in the offspring of those exposed to it.
     Meyer, too, felt that the radiactive fallout would doom people to a short life and a death by cancer although the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived full lives and experienced only a slightly higher level of cancer. Of course the entire surface of the world had not been carpeted with bombs, nor is it to be expected that the entire world surface would be destroyed. Some countries will not be targets.
    In 1982, Jonathen Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a look at nuclear war and its aftermath. He began by explaining the science behind nuclear fission, and the destructive effects of a bomb which, unlike a conventional explosive, has many. At the moment of explosion, the heat would be as hot as the stars and the pressure many times that of the atmosphere. Immediately radiation, i.e. gamma rays, would stream out as an electromagnetic pulse. Above the earth, this pulse would have the effect of knocking out electrical equipment by inducing a huge surge of voltage but that has never been tested. When fusion and fission have worn themselves out, a fireball takes shape. It absorbs xrays from the environment as it grows which then radiates back into the environment as a thermal pulse, a wave of blinding light and intense heat. This lasts about ten seconds and as it expands it emits a blast wave in all directions, flattening all but the strongest buildings and condensing air from the surrounding environment to create the mushroom cloud. A crater would be formed and the dust and dirt would mix in with the cloud. This dust and dirt is what will be the fallout as it returns to earth. Then there are the secondary effects on society and the environment which Schell (and Miller) thought might be even more destructive. There is also delayed worldwide fallout, the lofting of tons of debris from earth into the atmosphere and a resulting nuclear winter, and the third longterm effect would be the destruction of the ozone layer. He felt the primary concern was not how many people would die in the initial blast but if the ecosphere, particularly the ozone layer, could survive. He admitted to the true results not being known; it would still be better to speculate than to find out by experience.
     He went on to describe first hand accounts from survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the added info that the bombs did not touch the ground so very little dirt mixed into the cloud and the fallout was thereby minimal. Schell predicted that much of the U.S. would become a republic of grass and insects as these would survive the high doses of radiation. For most of life, he states a nuclear war would be a global extinction event.
      So the questions for most are - would there be any survivors and would that life be worth having and there is no answer for those.
     Ironically in the film, a pastor thanks God for destroying the destroyers of the earth. The president undaunted, releases a broadcast stating there had been no surrender, no retreat from principals of freedom and democracy. At a meeting of farmers discussing a government pamphlet to reconstruction generates some anger at the incongruities of the information but the film maker does not speculate if there would be a later backlash against science. One suspects people will be too desperate for medical aid and other comforts to want to destroy what little is left. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review - A Canticle For Leibowitz

     I cannot believe I never heard of this book before a couple of days ago. It is brilliant. I don't even understand the criticism that the part in the middle Fiat Lux is plodding.
    The book is divided into three sections, Fiat Homo (Let there be man), Fiat Lux (Let there be light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let your will be done).
     Fiat Homo is about a small monastery in a desert dedicated to a holy man, amusingly the Jewish Isaac Leibowitz, who had been an engineer at Los Alamos and who had attempted to save as much of science and books as he could before he was murdered by mob bent on ridding the world of the people who made the nuclear war possible. Indeed, a backlash against any scholar ensues and anyone who is literate is killed. The story begins with Brother Francis who is making his lonely vigil in the desert, fasting and meditating for the forty days of Lent, 600 years after the war. A pilgrim appears who, as time passes, becomes more apparently Isaac Leibowitz himself, raised up from the dead by God and doomed to wander the earth until the return of the Messiah. He remains near the shrine that honors his memorabilia (or relics) and occasionally interacts with the inhabitants of the monastery who maintain the shrine. The shrine was erected where he had been burned alive.
     Due to the intercession of the soon to be sainted Leibowitz, Brother Francis finds his vocation but also discovers a fallout shelter that proves the existence of Leibowitz and contains more of his writings as well as the remains of his wife. The process of canonization takes years and when it is completed Francis is sent alone to New Rome as his reward for creating a beautiful illuminated parchment as well as having been the witness to the saint's miracles. On his way to Rome, he is accosted by thieves who steal his parchment and on his way home, he is accosted by cannibals who steal his life. What remains of him is buried by the saint.
     Fiat Lux takes place 600 years after the canonization of Leibowitz. The world is experiencing an industrial revolution of sorts or renaissance. Humans have progressed to the point where technology is possible and the 'memorabilia' that the monastery has guarded and reproduced is now desired by the secularists who would built a new empire and, being illiterate and untutored, cannot benefit from the examples of the past. Leibowitz makes an appearance as an old hermit Benjamin. A mysterious one eyed Poet lives at the monastery. His name is unknown, he is a wanderer and non religious. Interestingly he considers his eye to be his conscience and claims it helps him to 'see' things that are hidden. These are attributes of Odin and one has to wonder if Miller intended him to be the god. If Leibowitz can wander the earth for 1800 years, why not Odin too? The Poet can see that the visiting scholar, who is a scion of the ruling dynasty of Texarkana, and the officers that accompany him are a danger to the monastery and its mission and leaves to avoid sharing the fate of the Brothers.  The fate of the monastery is not openly stated however, the Poet sees warriors in pursuit of refugees which includes three clergymen. The leader who wants to unite the continent under his own rule, pens a letter to Rome that is not dissimilar to one Henry VIII penned when he broke away from the Church over its' refusal to grant him a divorce. The dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of their treasures followed. At first not wanting to be involved but merely observe, the Poet assaults their leader who is hacking at a defenseless woman with a blunt sword. He is shot and dies contemplating the cavalry officer to whom he delivered last rites and a blow.
     Fiat Voluntas Tua takes place 600 years after the death of the Poet. The passage of time has made him a holy man like Francis and his bawdy poems are included in the sacred writings preserved at the monastery which still maintains its mission after 1800 years but the world is threatened by nuclear war once again. The Church has made provision for the continuation of faith by building a rocket and manning it with a priest, several brothers of the Order of St. Leibowitz, some bishops to consecrate new priest and some women and children. The one priest who will minister during the trip was chosen from the monastery, Brother Joshua. Joshua is one of the earthly names of the Son, an Anglicization of Jesus. Small wonder that Leibowitz, having come to the monastery as the rumblings of catastrophe have reached him, is struck by a rock thrown in the dark by Joshua at what he thinks is something slithering towards him. Leibowitz, having finally met the new Messiah, is inadvertently killed by him. Joshua has no idea what he had done but the author could have chosen many sounds to frighten Joshua and slither would be the sound of the devil. Get thee behind me Satan. Joshua and the chosen survivors leave for Rome and cast off just as the nuclear bombs proceed to extinguish all life on earth. It is left for the abbott to be the witness of the end of days, something that is the duty of all Catholic clergy - to serve as witness for the community and to keep its records.
      Walter M. Miller Jr. chose not to write a postscript to tell how successful the trip to the stars was. It is a bleak and yet humorous look at human history and speculate from the mistakes of the past that the future will include those same mistakes. The main difference will be the scale of those mistakes. One can laugh or cry about it. Miller does both. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Looking To The Future

     I have always enjoyed reading Science Fiction. My undergraduate alma mater carried a course on Science Fiction (which is often sneered at in literary circles as not really literature).  The head of the English department was looking at my transcript once and noted the course with surprise and delight. Surprise, most likely, because I was planning to major in Medieval Studies, and delight, it seems, because it was an attempt at embracing alternative forms of literature and I was willing to embrace it. The course did not last very long. It did introduce me to some new writers and new visions of what the future holds for humanity. Science Fiction writers are not just about big breasted alien princess and conquest, they have always considered the future  and social advancement which never seems very bright.
     So, I am considering some of the many dystopian novels I have read and what they got right and what they got wrong. First off, most novelists in the more distant past expected life to look more like the Jetsons by this point in time and second, nobody anticipated the rise of radical Islam and the effects of massive migration to the West on the West or the huge income inequality now present in the West.
     The first book that leaps to my mind is Kurt Vonnegut's 'Player Piano'. In the novel, Vonnegut accurately predicts that automation would make the productivity of the worker rise to a point that one engineer can run a whole factory of robots. He made the mistake of thinking the educated men of the executive class would realize that, without a middle class and disposable income, the consumer society is not possible. He thought the CEO's of the world would provide some means of income for people so that there would be a market for their products. He was wrong but Vonnegut, being a good man, could not anticipate how greedy and short sighted educated humans could be. The novel ends with a revolution and the machines being smashed but also with people failing to learn and the effort to rebuild society without replacing it with a better model begins immediately after the destruction. He did consider the flight of capital to third worlds in his other novel, 'Cat's Cradle', but failed to consider its logical conclusion since the world is destroyed by science's lack of ethics. A brilliant scientist created a new way for ice to stack itself and, without considering if it should be done, set about amusing himself with figuring how if it could be done. His children unwittingly unleashed this horror on the world with stupid self interest. They were not terrible people but, like many, figured their one little thing that would make their life better would not have a huge impact on the world. It did. In an uncontrolled chain reaction after Ice-Nine fell into the ocean, everything froze and nearly obliterated all life on earth, human and animal. The handful of survivors would struggle to go on emotionally after such a catastrophe. This puts one to mind of the first attempt to split the atom; the scientists who did so were not certain they could contain the reaction and that the entire fabric of the universe would not unravel but they went ahead and did it anyway.
     The second book that leaps to mind is Aldous Huxley's 'A Brave New World'. In it, individual freedoms vanish in exchange for security of home, job and place in society. Technology replaces the family and people take drugs to keep happy. Nobody suffers but nobody creates or loves or looks up at the stars and wonders. Crime and poverty are nonexistant but the life created by this planned society is not worth living. We see this world through the eyes of John, the outsider, created inadvertently by two members of this social order. He is raised on a free reservation but without being accepted as a member of that social group. Having been raised on reading Shakespeare, he is disappointed with the community that is organized but lacks intellectual or artistic enquiry and which his mother represented to him as a utopia. The leader of Western Europe declines to exile John to one of the islands where misfits live out their days. He is fascinated that John wants the right to be unhappy and wants to watch him a little longer. The experiment ends with John's suicide since he cannot assimilate into society and any means of finding an alternative community is denied him. Interestingly, Huxley's named the leader of Western Europe, Mustapha Ford, after the pioneer of the assembly line and the leader of Turkey who was leading that country into secularism not because he anticipated the later migration patterns but it was remarkably prescient. So Huxley's worry was that we would dumbed down so much that we would stop reading and thinking. Looking at millennials, that may be the case.
     He also deemed, accurately that we are social animals and need some sense of belonging somewhere, even if occasionally unhappy, in order for life to be liveable. This is the conclusion, Erich Fromm came to in his 'Escape From Freedom', in which he, as a psychologist, looks at historical forces to explain why people, having achieved democracy, would elect a dictator. He wrote that book in the 1930's in response to the rise of fascism across Europe but also accurately could see that 'monopolistic capitalism' was already then a danger to social equality and thought that unions had the potential give people the community and support they need. Churches should have been that force in people's lives but organized church is generally perceived by authors (and myself)  as being a tool to preserve the privileges and position of the moneyed classes. Huxley accurately predicted reproductive technology and but, like Vonnegut, failed to take into account the greed of the upper classes, their hatred of people outside their class, and their unwillingness to provide for people. Fromm was not trying to predict the future, his book was the backward glance.
     The fourth book has to be George Orwell's '1984'. The year came and went and people felt a sense of relief that Big Brother did not materialize but they were wrong. The rise of radical Islam has given governments new powers to suspend individual freedoms and privacy so that they can prevent terror attacks. The west has been in an almost constant state of war for decades. One premise of Orwell's book was the the government would artificially keep the country at war, although the enemies of the state kept inexplicably shifting, because social equality has to take a backseat in times of crisis. They ensure the crisis never ends and the need for surveillance never ends. The amusing thing is Orwell thought the danger came from Communism but it was unregulated markets that created the oligarchy with the means to effectively protect their hegemony although, I doubt they thoroughly considered the social instability that is arising from their policies. Again, underestimating the greed of the upper classes and overestimating man's altruism. To be fair, none of these have considered the huge growth of population and its impact on the environment or social stability and or the increasingly large numbers of refugees and the impact this is having world-wide. They anticipated war but it seems they assumed these wars would be imaginary and without consequences.
     There are so many novels. In my next post, I will consider some others.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Porro Omnes Fulgemus

It has been a while since I have done anything in Latin so I have decided it was time for a 'Beatles' song translated. I heard this on the radio yesterday and wondered how it would sound it Latin (as one does). Did my best. Modern colloquial English does not translate well into Classical Latin.
Answer will be in the column on the right.

Porro omnes fulgemus

Statim Erinyes te puniturae sunt,
In caputem te sic percussurae sunt,
te ipsum ordinare moneris
Mox morieris

Mehercule, quid est quod putatis
Ridens Amor praesens,
Mehercule, quid est quod tempatis,
Est solus tu faciens.

Statim Erinyes te puniturae sunt,
In facies aspecturae sunt
Ocelle, te ipsum ordinare moneris,
Res humanae coniungaris,
Mehercule, quomodo videbis
Ridens ad stultam per se me?
Di Immortales, quis te aestimas esse?
Astram Praeclarum?
Hem, rectus est!

Sic omnes porro fulgemus
Instar luna et astra et sol
Sic omnes porro fulgemus
Agite Omne!

Statim Erinyes te puniturae sunt,
ab  pedibus perculsurae sunt.
noscere fratros tui moneris
Omnes convenis.
Di Immortales, cur hic sunt?
Certene vivere in dolore et metu?
Di Immortales, cur ibi es
Ut ubique es?
Age! Portionem nanciscere!