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Friday, September 18, 2009

A Limerick

This is very 90s.  Nowadays that makes it dated, but someday it'll be historical.

If you can't glide on skates like Lipinski
And you're not filled with hate like Kaczynski
But you hunger for fame
You're ahead of the game
If you learn to fellate like Lewinksy

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Quotations from The World of Null-A

Many of the chapters in Van Vogt's classic The World of Null-A have epigraphs, most of them taken from  Alfred Korzybski's magnum opus Science and Sanity, the bible of non-Aristotelianism.  Most of them are credited by initials, and while some are obvious (AK is Korzybski; BR is Bertrand Russell) others are more obscure.

Chapter 1

Common sense, do what it will, cannot avoid being surprised occasionally. The object of science is to spare this emotion and create mental habits which shall be in such close accord with the habits of the world as to secure that nothing shall be unexpected.

Bertrand Russell,  The Analysis of Matter

Chapter 2

The gifted ... Aristotle ... affected perhaps the largest number of people ever influenced by a single man. ... Our tragedies began when the "intensional" biologist Aristotle took the lead over the "extensional" mathematical philosopher Plato, and formulated all the primitive identifications, subject-predicativism ... into an imposing system, which for more than two thousand years we were not allowed to revise under penalty of prosecution. ... Because of this, his name has been used for two-valued doctrines of Aristotelianism, and, conversely, the many-valued realities of modern science are given the name non-Aristotelianism. ...

Alfred Korzybski

Chapter 3

To be is to be related.

Cassius J. Keyser, Charles Sanders Peirce as a Pioneer

Chapter 4

Science is nothing but good sense and sound reasoning.

Stanislaus Leszcynski, King of Poland, 1763.

Chapter 7

To be acceptable as scientific knowledge, a truth must be a deduction from other truths.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Circa 340 B.C

Chapter 16

The human nervous system is structurally of inconceivable complexity. It is estimated that there are in the human brain about twelve thousand millions of nerve cells or neurons, and more than half of these are in the cerebral cortex. Were we to consider a million cortical nerve cells connected with one another in groups of only two neurons each and compute the possible combinations, we would find the number of possible interneuronic connection-patterns to be represented by ten to the power of two million, seven hundred, and eighty-three thousand. For comparison ... probably the whole sidereal universe does not contain more than ten to the power of sixty-six atoms.

Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity

Chapter 17

We copy animals in our nervous processes. ... In man such nervous reactions lead to non-survival, pathological states of infantilism, infantile private and public behavior ... And the more technically developed a nation or race is, the more cruel, ruthless, predatory, and commercialized its systems tend to become ... all because we continue to think like animals and have not learned how to think consistently like human beings.

Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity

Chapter 19

Even Leibniz formulated the postulate of continuity, of infinitely near action, as a general principle, and could not, for this reason, become recon¬ciled to Newton's Law of Gravitation, which entails action at a distance and which corresponds fully to that of Coulomb.

Herman Weyl

Chapter 20
Excitation rather than inhibition is important in correlation because from what has been said it appears that so far as is known, inhibition is not transmitted as such. The existence of inhibitory nervous correlation is, of course, a familiar fact, but in such cases the inhibitory effect is apparently produced not by transmission of an inhibitory change but by transmission of an excitation, and the mechanism of the final inhibitory effect is obscure.

Charles M. Child

Chapter 21

A famous Victorian-era physicist said, "There's nothing for the next generation of physicists to do except measure the next decimal place." In the next generation ... Planck developed the quantum theory that led to Bohr's atomic structure work ... Einstein's mathematics were proven out by some extremely delicate decimal-place measuring. ... Obviously, the next question is going to involve the next set of decimal places. Gravity is too little understood. So are magnetic field phenomena. ... Sooner or later somebody will slip in another decimal place, and the problem will be solved.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

Chapter 22

Quisnam, igitur sanus? (Who, then is sane?)

Horace, Satires, Circa 25 B.C.

Chapter 26
Nevertheless, the consuming hunger of the uncritical mind for what it imagines to be certainty or finality impels it to feast upon shadows.

Eric Temple Bell, Debunking Science

Chapter 30

In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods see everywhere.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Builders

Chapter 34

"What you say a thing is, it is not" ... It is much more. It is a compound in the largest sense. A chair is not just a chair. It is a structure of inconceivable complexity, chemically, atomically, electronically, etc. Therefore, to think of it simply as a chair is to confine the nervous system to what Korzybski calls an identification. It is the totality of such identifications that create the neurotic, the unsane, and the insane individual.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

No one goes to Mordor in February.

The scene in Lord of the Rings where, after the Orc attack, Aragorn and company decide to rescue Merry and Pippin, leaving Frodo and Sam to their own devices, has never made sense to me.  Two of these hobbits hold the Fate of the World™ on their finger, while two are just these guys, and Our Heroes go after the wrong ones.  Tolkien doesn't show us how that decision was really made, which I think went something like this...:

"We need to protect Frodo and Sam, even if it means following them all the way to Mordor."

"Mordor?  In February? No one goes to Mordor in February.  There's the bugs."

"Yes, the bugs."

"And the orcs."

"I'm not afraid of the orcs."

"Well, the bugs, then."

"There are the bugs."

"Minas Tirith, then."

"Shouldn't we at least try to find Frodo?  He does have the thingy, you know."

"The thingy?"

"You know, the thingy."

"Oh, the thingy.  Of course he does.  He's the thingy-bearer."

"We were supposed to help protect the thingy."

"But if we go after him, we'll just bring attention to the thingy."

"Bring attention?"

"Exactly.  It's a brilliant bit of misdirection. We'll fool him"

"Fool whom?"

"You know very well whom.  Him.  He has eyes everywhere."

"I thought just the one."

"Well, eye everywhere.  But if we go after Pippin and Merry, he'll think they're the important ones."

"Then he'll kill them!"

"It's a chance we'll have to take."

Childe Cycle: Odds and Ends

  • The Childe Cycle was published over a period of 48 years (41 years during Dickson's life.) Given that, it's a bit astonishing how closely Dickson kept to the original conception of, at least, the SF portion of the Cycle: Donal Graeme, over multiple lives, shepherding the human race through the next phase of its evolution. The only major change was the decision (which, as I've earlier, I consider unfortunate) to give Bleys Ahrens his own sub-series of books, parallel with the Hal Mayne books. Otherwise it would have been possible to finish off the Cycle with one last book, for a total of seven rather than six. (Or even to finish in six by expanding The Chantry Guild to include the final struggle between Hal and Bleys.) Compared to many other series that bloated and got out of control over time, Dickson did an admirable job of sticking to his original conception.
  • Dickson used a variety of narrative styles for the thirteen Childe Cycle works, which include nine novels and four short stories.  (There are also two early stories, "Act of Creation" and "Lulungomeena", sometimes listed as part of the Cycle because they both feature soldiers from a world called "Dorsai".  They seem to me, other than the use of this name, completely unrelated, and in fact Dickson never placed them in any of the Childe Cycle collections.)  Each of the main characters has a characteristic style:
    •  Donal (Dorsai!)/Paul(Necromancer)/Hal(The Final Encyclopedia and The Chantry Guild)
      Third person.  With each lifetime, it's a closer third person, so that the reader sees Donal from the outside, is told about Paul's feelings, and experiences Hal's.  This helps portray the additional empathy he gains with each life.
    • Cletus (Tactics of Mistake)
      Cletus is like Donal, seen from a fairly distant third person.
    • Bleys (Young Bleys, Other, and Antagonist)
      Bleys is treated like Hal; the reader experiences his feelings (such as they are.)
    • Amanda Morgan the First ("Amanda Morgan")
      Amanda is also close third person. Her story is an illustration of the Dorsai character; either first person or close third would work. I don't know of any Dickson works written in female first-person.
    •  Ian ("Warrior" and "Brothers")
      Both of the stories in which Ian is the main character are told from the point of view of another character: "Warrior" in the third person and "Brothers" in the first. Ian, a cold and distant man, is most naturally seen from outside.
    • Tam Olyn (Soldier, Ask Not)
      Tam tells his story in first person. He undergoes the largest change of any of the characters, and first person allows the reader to experience it directly.
    • Corunna El Man ("Lost Dorsai")
      Corunna is the other first-person narrator, for the opposite reason.  "Lost Dorsai" is the only story that has several equally important main characters, and having Corunna (who isn't one of them) narrate it helps provide unity. (Though it does require the somewhat clumsy device of having Corunna overhear a number of conversations.)
  • In the Warrior/Philosopher/Faith-holder paradigm that informs the Childe Cycle, the Philosophers get the short end of thestick.  We meet many heroic Dorsai, and no evil ones.  (We're told of one evil one, at the beginning of Dorsai!, but he's been utterly defeated by the rest, his home burnt and none of the survivors even willing to admit being related to him.)  We see some evil Friendlies, like Amyth Barbage from The Final Encyclopedia and the fanatic who murders Dave Hall in Soldier, Ask Not, but we're often reminded that they're exceptions, and Barbage is redeemed by Rukh Tamani.  The Philosophers are represented by Walter Blunt, who is at best an equivocal character, and Sayona the Bond, who has spent his life looking for the next step in human evolution but can't see it in front of his nose.  The most sympathetic Exotic we meet is Padma, but he's an observer and a bystander, like a court wizard who explains the situation so that the hero can actually do something about it. We never meet an Exotic as impressive as Jamethon Black or Henry MacLean.
  • The Cycle contains a mixture of non-genre material (politics and military science), science fiction proper (spaceships and advanced technology), and mental powers that amount to magic (the Chantry Guild's Alternate Laws and Donal's ability to control space and time).  Each work is a different mix of the three. Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake contain just one scene of magic each (respectively, Donal's ability to levitate and Cletus's to heal his wounded leg, and the latter could be viewed as merely self-hypnosis and biofeedback), while Necromancer has real, working magic in conflict with technology from beginning to send.  In the Cycle, magic is always done via the human mind's ability to draw power from a different sphere of reality (which is eventually called the Creative Universe), never by contacting supernatural spirits.  The Exotics have a non-theistic faith in the destiny of mankind, and the Dorsai a similar faith in their own strength and self-reliance.  While the Friendlies can accomplish great things through theistic faith, it's because their faith makes them stronger and braver, not because of any literal truth it might contain.  There's no sign that their God exists or has any effect on reality.  The Others seem to have no faith of any kind.  Dahno lives only to manipulate people and enjoy the wealth this brings him, while Bleys finds the universe cold, empty, hostile, and frightening.  What's ironic is that the Others' success at conquering the human worlds comes from Bleys's oratory about a great destiny for humanity that he himself has no faith in.
  • Resources:
    In addition to reading (and re-reading) the Childe Cycle books themselves, I found these two resources quite valuable:
    • "A Childe Cycle Concordance" by David W. Wixon (Dickson's assistant for many years and later the co-author of Antagonist), which can be found in the collection Lost Dorsai. It's an encyclopedia of the Cycle, with entries describing the worlds on which it takes place, the stars they orbit, the various human cultures, and the important characters. Published in 1993, it contains information about all the books though Young Bleys.
    • An interview with Gordon Dickson, which can be found here. It appears to have been recorded between the publication of The Final Encyclopedia and The Chantry Guild and discusses the Cycle in some detail.  Among the things it reveals is that the compression of the early novels, which many readers find preferable to the greater length of the later ones, wasn't Dickson's choice; his publisher at the time wouldn't allow anything longer.  Dickson would have preferred the books be longer, and indeed wrote longer ones once he was able to.
  • Triads:

    Triads, (e.g. lists of "the three XXX") are common in legends; in particular, the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends which includes some of the earliest King Arthur tales, is chock-full of them. The Cycle also contains many triads, including:
    • The Cycle itself, originally planned to be a triad of triads: three books set in each of past, present, and future. (The list of books set in the future was later expanded to six because of publishing length restrictions.)
    • The three main Splinter Cultures

      • Warrior -- Dorsai
      • Philosopher -- Exotic
      • Faith Holder -- Friendly
    • The three Amanda Morgans
    • Donal's three lives:

      • Donal Graeme
      • Paul Formain
      • Hal Mayne
    • The women who love Hal:

      • Amanda Morgan (the Third) -- Dorsai
      • Ajela -- Exotic
      • Rukh Tamani -- Friendly
    • The three men whose death Tam caused, and who forgave him in The Chantry Guild:

      • Dave Hall
      • Jamethon Black
      • Kensie Graeme

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Childe Cycle: Speculations on Childe

Suppose Dickson had lived to publish Antagonist.  Having brought the stories of Hal Mayne and Bleys Ahrens to more or less the same point, he would be poised to complete the series by writing Childe.  What would that look like?  To answer that question, let's reflect on the structure of the Cycle, and how often its past and future resemble each other.  The most obvious example is Tactics of Mistake and Dorsai!, and how they're almost the same story, one played out against a background of recent interstellar colonization and one in the context of the mature Splinter Cultures.  

Childe would have been the resolution of the battle between Hal, representing the outward-looking, creative part of mankind, and Bleys, representing our inward-peering, destructive side.   We've seen this battle before in Necromancer, where Walter Blunt wanted to destroy complex, technological society to build something that to him seemed simpler and more natural.   But that struggle between Kirk Tyne's vision and Walter Blunt's never becomes a war; instead, space travel allowed each one to pursue its goals, the technologists on Casssida and Newton, the mystics on Mara and Kultis, where, free of the need to battle stultifying over-mechanism on their own worlds, the Exotics turned from destruction to creation.   That is, the thesis of the Super-Complex and its antithesis of DESTRUCT! are resolved into the synthesis of the Splinter Cultures. 

Bleys is reminiscent of Walter Blunt;  when faced with a society that he dislikes, his plan is to destroy it, and not let the collateral damage worry him.  Bleys is generally seen as a dark version of Hal, but he's more specifically a dark reflection of Donal.  Like Donal, he has a vision of the future of humanity that's rooted in his childhood.  Both, by a series of clever tactics, gain near-supreme power in the universe in order to impose their vision on humanity.  Neither realizes the essential instability of a system that depends upon one mortal man who has no successor of the same caliber.  And both are responsible for the destruction of their brother/rival, though Donal is guilty of negligence and Bleys of malice. 

Let's assume that Necromancer gives us a template for Childe.  Some new development (in Necromancer it was space travel) provides a way for the thesis of Hal's faith in the human spirit and its antithesis of Bleys's pessimism about the dangers of the universe to become a new synthesis.  What could it be but the Creative Universe, which is, in Paul Formain's words "Something to which your Alternate Laws bear the same relation alchemy does to modern chemistry."  (Note also that to discover the Creative Universe, Hal has to join the Chantry Guild, which is based on a new reading of Blunt's original ideas.  The connections to Necromancer are everywhere.)  The essential difference between Hal and Bleys isn't only that they represent different halves of the race-mind; it's also that Hal, during the multiple lives that the Creative Universe has allowed him to live, has been able to develop empathy for and faith in humanity as a whole, which Bleys is still stuck in Donal's trap of needing to lead people to where he wants them to go.  

One more point: in The Chantry Guild, the final bridge needed to reach the tower in the Creative Universe, which represents Hal's goal of understanding the Universe and mastering its use, is Tam's Newsman's Cloak.  What does this Cloak represent?  I suggest two things.  First, Tam's conversion, so many years ago, from a purely destructive force to a positive one.  Second, the essential function of a Newsman, which is to seek out the truth and make it known, but not to fight: Newsmen are recognized everywhere as non-combatants.  

So, I think, the Creative Universe isn't used as a weapon against the Others; it's used as a means to persuade them, to educate them, and in particular to teach Bleys in one lifetime the empathy Donal learned in three and to remove the fear that motivates his destruction. Even to teach Bleys how to be, as he so desperately desires, Hal's friend. 

Highly principled people

Here we see highly principled journalist Chis Wallace cheerleading for Dick Cheney's torture regime.  What could be worse, you ask?  Someone defending Hitler as a misunderstood champion of peace?  Surely, not even someone as highly principled as Pat Buchanan would claim that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Childe Cycle: Pefectly Adjusted

"Perfectly Adjusted" is a short story that Sandra Miesel calls the "Satyr Play" of the Childe Cycle.   She refers to the custom among ancient Greek playwrights of accompanying a trilogy of dramatic plays with a burlesque comedy, often featuring satyrs, as an ancient form of comedy relief.  Often the satyr play would be thematically related to the tragedies.  While "Perfectly Adjusted" was originally published in 1955, well before any of the Cycle books, they do seem to share some ideas.  It's a kind of story which was common during the 50s: a traveler, arriving at a planet he's never seen before, finds that the inhabitants act in ways that seem inexplicably odd.  Moreover, their actions interfere with his goals and perhaps even threaten him.  He needs to determine what lies behind their behavior.  Having done so, he can find a solution to his problem, either by discovering an advantageous side of their oddness or by using his new insight to change them.  Sheckley must have written a dozen of these stories, and others came from Kuttner, Silverberg, Vance, and so on.  (Asimov's "Homo Sol" is the reverse case, where an alien finds that humans are strangely unlike the other galactic intelligences.)  These stories range between straightforward problem stories and broad farce.  In general, they subscribe to the clich├ęs in which a planet is less diverse than the real New York City, and spaceships are roughly as sophisticated and damage to them as easily repaired as a used Buick. 

In "Perfectly Adjusted", the hero finds a world with two societies: one a violent and dictatorial police state all of whose members dress in black, and the other a gentler group of psionic adepts who dress in bright colors.  They occupy the same city, yet neither seems aware of the other; for each, seeing people of the other sort is a pernicious (if common) hallucination.  (Note that this idea isn't original with Dickson; it goes back at least to "Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream", one of Vance's early Dying Earth stories.)  The hero alternates between almost being killed by the dictator and being mentally controlled by the chief adept.   In his spare time, he tries to help a pretty adept he's befriended.  She has been excommunicated for her persistent hallucinations and is only slowly persuaded that the hero isn't a hallucination too.  Having figured out that each society has a mental block against seeing dressed people in the other's color, the hero invents a machine that will disintegrate all the clothing in the city.   The result is that everyone can now see everyone else, half of whom they'd never heard of before (and all of them naked); escaping in the confusion, the (also naked) hero makes it back to his ship.  He and the pretty girl take off, fighting over the single spare suit of his clothing they've got left. 

I trust it's clear from the description that this story is about as broad as farce gets.  Still, it has some points of interest.  The two societies were originally different factions in the city; each assumes that it had conquered the other, which proceeded to die out.  The police state, which also runs a murderous space station that almost shot up the hero as he first approached the planet, exhibits the worst features of the military.  The adepts, convinced that their only accomplishment, their psi powers, make them homo superior, are like idiot savant parodies of the Exotics.  Both share a fanatical faith in their own virtue and the inferiority (technically, nonexistence) of any competing culture.  And what's necessary to end this division of humanity is a man who can see both sides and help them blend back together.  Given when this story was written, it's probably foolish to make too much of the similarities between it and the Cycle, but they are amusing.