Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Dune Ethos

I have long been a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books. I love their incredible energy and rich technical and social detail, but mostly I have been mesmerized by their special outlook on the human condition. This is best shown in the first four books, relating to the immediate family of Paul Atreides, the rebel prophet Muad’dib, from his father Leto’s accession to the planet Arrakis to the death of his son Leto II some 3,000 years later. I’m still an avid reader, but not such a fan, of the books that followed The God-Emperor of Dune. These later books lost focus on that family and became a tangled tale of religious intrigue, hidden spice hordes, grounded no-ships, and wild-eyed faux Bene Gesserit. Good reading, but not all that insightful.1

So what did those first four books (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God-Emperor of Dune) have that the others seem to lack? I call it the Dune ethos—in the sense of the guiding beliefs that characterize a person or institution—and it’s made up of many parts.

First, there are no fools among the major characters, no easy targets.2 All the villains are strong, wily, alert, self-aware, and motivated. The Imperium and its major players define a universe of caution and danger. It’s not enough that one take the normal human precautions against disease, accident, and a plunging stock market. Everyone in your play group is setting traps, sending assassins, and plotting your downfall. In addition to native wits and watchfulness, you need to prepare your own skills in self-defense, surround yourself with trusted, loyal, and capable friends—who are more like family members than servants and retainers—and reinforce their capabilities with weapons training, code words, battle language, and a stock of family atomics.

This is not a world I would particularly like to live in. Watching your back 24/7 and testing every bite of food for poison does not give one the leisure the think and dream. But the Dune ethos requires that in a dangerous environment, you prepare. You don’t wander about trusting to the kindness of strangers and hoping that your inherent inoffensiveness and soft answers will turn away wrath. I found this same sort of preparation in the face of adversity in the film of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless,” Don Corleone says. “Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” It’s always inspiring to see people who take their life situation seriously.

A second part of the Dune ethos is that human skill trumps technology. In the universe of the Imperium, ever-increasing mechanization and automation have already been discovered to be a trap and discarded on religious principle. When machines replace every human function, from working to walking to thinking, then humans become soft, weak, and disposable. The people of the Imperium know that humans must be strong and alert to survive in a hostile universe. And this universe has dangers far beyond mere human interaction: coriolis storms, giant sandworms, shigawire, and inkvines. You might use simple machines in your struggles, like knives and body shields, lasguns and ornithopters, but the intelligence directing them must be human and awake. This is a society that has given human development into the hands of the “Great Schools”—the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Mentats, the Spacing Guild—to teach and train human senses, responses, and intellect.

I happen to be a fan of technology and automation. I believe machines free the average human from back-breaking drudgery and repetitive tasks, enabling us to think, explore, discover, and dream. But if our machines ever become so all-encompassing that they bottle-feed us, put us to bed, and regulate our oxygen supply, then it will be time for a Butlerian Jihad against them. Until then, I treasure technology and mechanical innovation as an expression of the human mind.

What I like about the notion of the Great Schools is that human potential is limitless and largely untapped. With the proper training, any human mind can access and explore abilities of analysis and calculation usually reserved for autistic savants; any human body can access the speed, grace, endurance, and energy usually exhibited by yogis, ballerinas, and karate masters. The early Dune books were composed in the 1960s, which saw the birth of the human potential movement, and they absorbed that hopeful outlook.

The third dimension of the Dune ethos is the basic decency of the Atreides. Yes, they maintain a standing army, compose propaganda film strips, and attempt to hoodwink their enemies. But Duke Leto and the Lady Jessica understand that they must show trust and offer loyalty to their retainers and subjects if they are to expect these qualities in return. They create a place of safety and certainty amid the storm. Each of their notable retainers—the sword master Duncan Idaho, the knife wielding Gurney Halleck, and the strategist Thufir Hawat—has been raised by the family from questionable circumstances to a position of personal freedom and dignity. Life among the Atreides compares very favorably with the skulking, suspicious, fear-haunted lives of Harkonnen retainers.

As someone who has worked in business organizations for forty years, I can appreciate the management lessons available in Dune. Duke Leto warns his son to give as few orders as possible, because “once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.” In place of such micromanagement, the duke adopts and disseminates a pattern of values and establishes a sense of the way he wants things done. When his employees know what he expects of them, he can leave to their judgment how they will handle any particular situation. This approach is not only more flexible and efficient, but it builds a sense of purpose and pride into the employee. It’s better to enlist the support of fully involved human beings than try to program the actions of meat puppets.

Finally, the Dune ethos explores the limits of personal power. Paul Muad’dib is able to see the future so clearly that he can predict and avoid any trap. But in the end this prescience traps him, and he must hopelessly play out the steps of a dance which he already finds tedious. His son, Leto II, not only shares this prescience but also has access to the past lives, experiences, and wisdom of his every human ancestor going back to Agamemnon; he inhabits a massive, wormlike body covered with invulnerable scales; and he commands a galactic empire maintained by the personal loyalty of an army of fanatic female warriors. Yet he treasures the surprises that one alert human mind and opposing will can create for him. In fact, he plays against this opponent to neutralize his own superior abilities and engineer a death for himself that ensures the continuity of humankind.

I believe in human abilities and the free will to exercise them against an environment of chance and chaos. And yet I know that any single human life is inherently meaningless.3 The meaning is left for each of us to take and make our own … and yet … Learn to play Mozart, write the perfect love letter, bake the most intricate pastries—then die anyway and go to dust. You might create a moment of happiness among the people within reach of your playing, your letters, your baked goods. They too will die and go to dust. The only lasting personal monument is effort that increases human understanding and compassion, raises awareness, and advances the human species.

As an author myself, I know that the richness of feeling and experience that I call the Dune ethos is actually a product of the mind of Frank Herbert. Those early books tap into an understanding, values, and insights that cannot be simulated through clever scholarship or pasted on as an afterthought in the final edit. Through reading his books, we touch the man. That’s magical. And by touching us with his understanding and insights, Herbert transcends death and creates the only monument worth having.

1. I’ll tip my hat here to the other Dune books, written by the author’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. These sequels to the original books are admirable works of science fiction in themselves. I sometimes feel, though, that by mining and expanding on the tidbits that Herbert used artfully to suggest a backstory, they sometimes open too many doors and light too many lamps. For example, by showing Vladimir Harkonnen as a handsome, athletic, disciplined young man who only becomes bloated through a disease inflicted on him as an act of vengeance, we lose the sense of the original: that the Baron was a greedy spider whose vanity wanted to absorb the entire world into his own flesh. Because they often fail to reproduce the original Dune ethos, I sometimes find these follow-on books to be psychologically colorless.

2. Compare this robustness to the Honored Matre “Dama” in the later books. She’s so confident of her superior intellect, abilities, and personal ruthlessness that her enemies can knock her over all too easily.

3. See my blog The Meaning of Life from October 9, 2011.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hunger for Absolutes

It seems that something in the human mind is drawn to absolutes. Against a world that is littered with indeterminacy, half-truths, and shades of gray, we hunger for black or white, all or nothing, pure truth determined or damnable lie exposed. Examples are really too many to name, but I’ll try to examine a few.

Consider the fundamentalists in religion. Certainly, given the span of recorded history and the many different forms of public worship that have risen to prominence,1 one would think questions of how the world was created, what constitutes a good life, and what happens at the end of it would be open to debate and question. The cults of Allah, Amon, Baal, Brahma, Buddha, Enlil, Jove, Odin, Yahweh, and Zeus contain many common elements. From these, intelligent people might come together, discuss, and define answers to the questions of the ages.

But for every ecumenical council, there are a hundred sects claiming to know the one, true, real answer for all time. In America, you find these people sporting bumper stickers that read “Jesus is Lord” and “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” In the Middle East, you find them raging in the streets and crying for the death of anyone who questions—and so insults—their religion. Under stress, these people resort to a literal interpretation of their scripture, whether it be the Torah that was blended from the four Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly sources; the Bible that was translated at third hand from Aramaic, to Greek, and finally into King James’s English at the beginning of the seventeenth century; or the Quran that was transcribed in the original Arabic from the visions of Muhammad in the seventh century.

The quest for absolutes is not the province of religion alone. Our secular age has given rise to secular prophets like Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao. Each has his own book, his teachings, his maxims. Each has a vision for the future that his followers are supposed to adopt without question. Whether Communist or National Socialist, the adherents are not allowed to question or interpret. They are consumers, not apostles.

Humans crave absolutes in more than just their belief systems. Look at the early sciences, which supposedly followed principles of open-mindedness, investigation, and empiricism. Still, when we first gave up the idea of the Aristotelian, Earth-centered universe enclosed by the “perfect” celestial spheres for Nicolaus Copernicus’s Sun-centered system in 1543, the orbits of the planets were still presumed to be perfect circles. It wasn’t until a generation or two later that Johannes Kepler described them more accurately as ellipses or ovals.

In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus developed the taxonomy by which all animals and plants were divided into genus and species. A century later Darwin described the mechanisms—if not the actual chemistry—by which species arise. For generations since, people have accepted that the distinctions between lineages were—well—lines, boundaries that could not be crossed. Among the hummingbirds of North America, the ruby-throated (Archilochus colubris) was on one side, and the rufous (Selasphorus rufus) on the other.

Certainly, the ability to interbreed and the viability and fertility of inter-species offspring are general guidelines to speciation. But we have since learned that genomic variation runs deep even within species. While the genetic variation between humans (Homo sapiens) and our closest relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), might be as little as 2%, the variation between one human being and another due to gene copy number, mutations, short tandem repeats, and other technical differences may be as high as 5%. Analysis of human intestines and skin surfaces suggest that each of us harbors colonies of bacterial as genetically unique as we ourselves are. Recent genomic surveys of the oceans2 have shown that what we once thought of as microbial species are actually genuses, with their domains changing over distances as short as twenty miles. Life at the level of our DNA is messier than anyone thought.3

Of course, this preference for perfect circles and well-defined speciation in science might be called first assumptions. As new information comes in, these assumptions are refined to a higher level of complexity. But you really can’t say the same thing for absolutes in politics.

Political and economic theories account for some of the most subtle and devious questions that human beings have to deal with and the choices they have to make. The opportunity for evoking and then suffering unintended consequences in either arena is too great to forego the need for analysis and debate. Yet people repeatedly prefer simple, absolutist solutions and platforms that can be reduced to slogans. “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight”—as if the dispute between two nations could be resolved with a straight boundary line. “No Justice, No Peace”—as if justice was simple and obvious to administer, and peace a single, unified state. And now “We Are the 99%”—as if all the greed and evil could be contained in so small a population fraction as one percent, and as if the rest of society shared unified goals and needs.4

Simple economic systems—which ignore or try to contain the tendency of humans to make selfish choices, operate at different levels of efficiency, and obstinately try to work around the rules—usually end up in chaos and collapse. Systems like Marxism and National Socialism delude their theorists, as well as their followers, with the notion that they can create a new kind of human being with a perfected nature. These systems work admirably so long as people can be coerced, or programmed a young age, to ignore personal interest, devotion to family, and individual levels of intelligence and energy. The systems work perfectly with either angels or robots. With humans, they fail miserably. But they have the singular advantage of being attractively simple and absolute.

People in positions of power, who must administer a set of rules and ensure compliance, too easily fall into blanket assumptions about right and wrong and issue “zero-tolerance” policies. “That cheese spreader in your Lunchables package, Priscilla, falls under the school’s definition of a knife.” “The bottle of aspirin in your backpack, Cindy, violates the campus no-drugs policy.” No rule or law can be made to fit all possible situations, but harried administrators will try.

Humans were given better minds than this. Any lawyer or judge will tell you there is more than one way to interpret a statute or a contract clause. In this country, we spend huge amounts of time, effort, and money examining individual situations, mitigating circumstances, possible motives, and mental conditions to establish what might constitute justice. Rather than an annoyance, this effort is one of the glories of our society. We try to balance personal freedom with social stability. We attempt to permit a wide latitude of personal action while ensuring predictable social interactions and fairness for all concerned. It isn’t easy.

If people didn’t hunger for absolutes, they would consistently vote for politicians who promised “I’ll try to see all sides of the question” and “I’ll do my best, under the circumstances.” But the middle of the road is a lonely place these days. We hunger for the man or woman with a perfectly simple solution that can be explained in a ten-second sound bite. We’ll follow a dictator who will cut corners, scapegoat obvious villains, promise free bread, and make the trains that run on time.

Is this human stupidity? Laziness? Inattention to detail? In some measure, perhaps. But even smart people can enthuse about absolutely dumb solutions. Look at the number of educated intellectuals who have fallen for Marx’s convoluted premises and the promise to reverse the economic equivalent of gravity and make water flow uphill.

I believe the hunger for absolutes is a sign of people who are too busy to become educated and investigate for themselves. Most of us—perhaps even 99% of us—are too busy working to put a roof over our heads and food on the table, too busy taking care of squabbling children and aging parents, too involved in the mechanics of everyday life, to give our full attention to the larger political and economic issues of the day. We want a ten-second sound bite because we don’t have the time or patience to read a ten-page proposal.

When times are good, the economy’s booming, job market’s looking up, our savings are growing, and the seven fat years are here—that is, when we have comfort and security and a sense of alternatives being available to us—then it doesn’t much matter what political and economic choices we make. When we’re in good health and fortune smiles, it doesn’t much matter what god we believe in. But when the economy slows, the opportunities fade, the ground parches with dust, and the seven lean years arrive—then there’s no time to study the issues. We want solutions. Now.

I’m not saying that complex political choices and economic solutions should be left to a cadre of experts. Heavens, no! The opinions of the leisured classes occupying legislative chambers and lecture halls are no substitute for the personal interest of an informed citizenry. But I can wish for a greater public appreciation of the complexity of the world we live in. We are all human beings with different needs, wants, desires, skills, and insights. No one from the one percent wakes up in the morning and declares himself a villain; no one among the rest of us is a saint. The universe is not run by clockwork. And no orbit anywhere is a perfect circle.

1. We won’t go into private superstitions and personal fetishes.

2. Among them the voyages of the J. Craig Venter Institute’s Sorcerer II.

3. So much for the Platonic ideal—the presumption that an animal with as many different forms as the horse must derive from one perfect specimen somewhere in the mind of God, of which the horses in our fields are all just imperfect copies. Instead, the genus Equus merely passes through the noble Arabians and the racetrack Thoroughbreds along a spectrum ranging from zebras to donkeys. Making such distinctions is the business of humans and of no concern to the horses themselves.

4. And thereby doing away with the Pareto principle, which offers as a general rule of problem solving that 80% of the effects results from 20% of the causes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Aggression in a Polite Society

Robert A. Heinlein once wrote:1 “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.” One may not always wish to live in such a society—where a sudden wrong move might put you in a crossfire, or a careless word or gesture provoke a meeting at sunrise accompanied by seconds—but it would certainly be a different society than the one in which we live. If the people who promote Second Amendment rights to the extent of concealed carry on the public streets gain ascendance, we may soon find out just how different.

One anecdote may illustrate. Our young cousin and his wife used to belong to a gym in Vacaville, California. Among the other clients were the tattooed members of various local gangs. The wife noted that these people, for all their fierce appearance, were unfailingly polite: “May I please use the weights when you’re done?” In a subculture where any display of rudeness or temper is considered “disrespect” and met with a mortal challenge, you pick your words and your battles carefully. She also noted that these people were polite not only to other gang members but to the civilian clients and staff as well. Guarding your words and emotions appeared to be a full-time occupation.

Compare this to the world we see around us, especially as mirrored in popular culture—the movies and television episodes that feed back images of our society as entertainment. In the media, we see an endless display of “attitude,” whereby the hero or heroine establishes personal space through challenge, confrontation, and aggression. In life, we see people pushing past each other on the sidewalk, cutting each other off on the road, snarling, shouting, and finger-gesturing. Think of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy: “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”

In your neighborhood things may be a little better. I grew up in the East—in the Boston area and then in central Pennsylvania—and can remember a fairly high level of courtesy in everyday actions. I was raised to smile at people on the street, step aside when others are coming on three-abreast, hold the door if someone is following close behind me, help someone whose hands are full. Such actions cost a minimum amount of energy and provide a large amount of the grease that lets the gears of social interaction turn smoothly. The underlying thought was: Why aggravate people? Why make their day a little worse when you can make it a little better? This was part of every child’s training. It basically depends on thinking about and caring for others. It’s a matter of routine, short-form empathy.

I now live on the edge of Berkeley, California. This is the home of the Free Speech Movement and an enlightened, progressive society which is particularly caring for Planet Earth and for people who are less fortunate than others. It’s also the abiding place of the hippie ethos of peace and love. I guess people who have taken on such karmic sweetness give themselves a pass when they go out in public, because I am always amazed at the residual amounts of anger and disdain on display. Drivers cut you off on the road. Shoppers push ahead of you in line. Pedestrians saunter through the crosswalk at green lights—and slow down if they think you notice. And if you attract their attention at all, you get a snarl and a foul word.2

It wasn’t always this way, of course. California and much of the West grew up in ranching and mining communities. When you’re out riding the ranges or carrying around gold nuggets, it’s handy to holster a gun against encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, cutthroats, and card sharks. The sheriff’s jurisdiction usually stopped just beyond the last saloon in town, and you were on your own as soon as you got into the hills. That tended to be a polite society, unless you intended mischief or detected it in your vicinity.

With some of that earlier culture still in mind—and being an avid reader of past and future historical fiction, including Heinlein’s—I am generally appalled at the careless way that too many people in modern society push their attitudes in others’ faces. Of course, given the restrictions on weapons ownership in California,3 rude people will generally assume that the strangers they might be angering are disarmed. But some of those strangers might still have strong arms, hands that can be balled into fists, bad tempers, and a disinclination to be trifled with. Of course, if you swear in a stranger’s face and he hauls off and hits you, the law allows you to sue him for assault and battery. But that would be after the fact, wouldn’t it? In the meantime, you do run a risk of injury. This doesn’t seem to occur to most people.

Not only does our current society provide too many instances of outright verbal if not physical aggression, we also seem to have a growing epidemic of passive aggression. That’s when someone cuts you off at a corner and pretends not to see you. Or you ask someone to pass the salt and he or she drops it just short of your grasp. Or the person smiles through an encounter and then, when you’re not looking, spits in your soup, kicks your dog, or scratches your car. Passive aggression is any behavior that is actually meant intentionally but, if challenged, can be excused as carelessness or inattention and requited with a sing-song “Sorree!” Passive aggressiveness is enemy action under the cover of inoffensiveness. It is the choice of the weak, the powerless, and the cowardly. It is the aggression of slaves.

Overt aggression, verbal assault, passive aggression, and personal carelessness seem to be artifacts of a stressed society. People who are pressed for time, frustrated at the limits of their lives, and pushing uphill against burdens of job, family, commute, cost of living, taxes, and other stressors, will give themselves a license to “share the pain” with total strangers. Since you’ll never see these strangers again, why not make their day go a bit worse to match your own? Or such people believe it would take a saint like Mother Theresa to resist biting someone’s head off if he really got in your way. These are people who have lost their equilibrium and their sense of grace and honor.

On a crowded planet, with people stacked vertically into high rises, and even in suburbia the houses are wall to wall, with my picture window facing into your garage, with pressures building all around, and with more people self-medicating on alcohol and drugs in order to take up the strain—I’m not sure we want to introduce concealed firearms into the mix.

I am susceptible to the Second Amendment-inspired notion that incidents of casual street crime and house breaking tend to go down when the perpetrator can’t be sure the property owner won’t respond with deadly force. And I do most strongly advocate self-defense training and awareness for anyone.4 But I’m also not convinced that universal concealed carry—or even open carry—is the answer to our problems.

Until we begin to heal our society of its residual anger, thoughtlessness, and selfishness, arming that society might simply be an invitation to a war zone.

1. In the novel Beyond This Horizon (1942).

2. Some of this, granted, may go back to the progressive motto: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You rarely see these people harassing homeless panhandlers or pushing around the disabled. But as someone who stands tall, tries to dress presentably, and tends to smile at strangers, I seem to draw their generalized anger as one of the “comfortable.”

3. The law goes far beyond firearms to include almost any concealable weapon that might be used for attack or defense. See California Penal Code Section 12020.

4. The personal force that one learns in karate, judo, jiu jitsu, boxing, or other self-defense training requires awareness and application. The defense reflex may be instantaneous, but the situational awareness that ignites it is always a choice. Unlike a pistol, a punch or a kick can’t go off accidentally. And the responsible sensei works on the student’s emotional and moral balance as much as on stance and center of gravity.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Meaning of Life1

Sorry, but there isn’t one. At least, not the deeper meaning that most people are looking for: “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is life all about?” There’s simply no answer to those questions from the biological perspective—which as living beings is all we’ve really got. Cells don’t exist for a reason, and neither do birds, bees, sharks, dolphins, dogs, and howler monkeys. To look for and find a meaning you have to develop something beyond the body: a mind, a soul, or what you will.

Life as an expression of the making and breaking of atomic bonds—that is, millions of complex molecules coming together and breaking apart in millions of complex reactions—happens simply because it can. With the right mix of chemicals and an external energy source, you get the complex, entropy-reversing phenomenon we call life. On this planet, the covalently active atoms oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus, operating in a flexible, supportive matrix like liquid water, supplied with massive inpourings of sunlight or geothermal steam, yield life. On other planets, other chemicals, other matrices, and other energy sources may yield a different kind of life.2

Life as we understand it consists of layer upon layer of complexity. Complex long-chain molecules called polymers, the familiar DNA and RNA, store the formulas for, and coordinate the manufacture of, even more complex polymer molecules called proteins. Proteins fold in complex ways to provide surfaces covered with the right pattern of available electrical charges to attract two or more simple molecules and force the binding reactions—protein-assisted reactions are properly called “enzymatic reactions”—that will turn them into a larger, more useful molecule. Similarly, proteins and their charge patterns can attract large molecules and break them apart, which can be just as useful in the life process.

Almost any chemical reaction can be forced with the application or the release of a sufficient amount of energy, and sometimes these are large and disruptive energies. The wonder of enzymatic reactions is that they all occur at energy levels consistent with other chemical processes going on nearby. That is, pumping in the energy to make a particular peptide bond doesn’t freeze your insides—or cook them in breaking the bond and releasing energy. Enzymes moderate the heat of reactions and let you stay at a convenient body temperature.

Complex collections of these useful resulting chemicals form the membranes and inner working parts of cells—all coordinated by their enzymatic proteins and replenished by their DNA/RNA mechanisms. Collections of cells affect the environment around them, linking together to create complex structures such as bones, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. Groups of cells also coordinate in a complex fashion to create non-living materials such as tooth enamel, stomach acid, saliva, and tears. These materials function in the environment created by cells groups operating at a much higher layer of complexity—the body.

Within the human nervous system, the level of complexity rises many-fold. The human brain contains approximately 100 billion specialized cells called neurons, and each of these makes an average of 7,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. The resulting 100 to 500 trillion connections allow for recording, analyzing, and coordinating the body’s sensations, perceptions, and movements. From all this complex activity arises the phenomenon we call awareness and the ongoing processes of thought and memory.

These various layers of complexity take you from a collection of active chemicals in a pond to an organism capable of observing the universe, appreciating itself as a separate being, and wondering about its place and purpose in that universe. None of this complexity, however, will tell you why you exist, simply that you can.

The complexity that brings awareness won’t answer that final question. It will not tell you whether to dedicate your life to altruism, hedonism, or mysticism; follow the tenets of Buddhism, Marxism, Islam, or Dianetics; turn left or right along the political path; opt for a family or a career; enlist to fight for or against a tyrant; build a temple or a tomb.

As El Aurens says in Lawrence of Arabia: “Nothing is written.” And that’s a good thing. Our minds are assembled in complexity with sufficient innate programming that the basic mechanism functions. The optic nerve sends impulses that can be interpreted as accurate pictures of the world around us. The aural nerve carries impulses that we hear as voices or music. We can interpret meaning, call up memory, and imagine the future. But beyond that … only freedom.

If there is a God—that is, a complex, powerful mind and will, operating behind the scenes of what otherwise looks like chance, happenstance, and chaos—then He must be a subtle one. He did not create human beings out of all this complexity so that they would have ungovernable impulses that must then be governed by a set of rules you could write down in a book.3 He would not want us all forced to act in a choreographed pattern, like the linked movements of bird flocks and fish schools. That would be a universe of robots! Making programmable robots is obvious and … unsubtle.

If nothing is written, then each of us must write for ourselves. We must pick a path in life that lies within the compass of what we know, fits the span of our capabilities and interests, and remains compatible with our beliefs. But we each must recognize that beliefs can change when confronted with new views of reality. Interests will change in response to our imagination working on new opportunities. Capabilities can be acquired and improved. We start as buds in a sea of sensation and possibility. We are changed by that environment—and we change ourselves in response to it.

We can become anything we want. But we must choose carefully, because as we grow older, the path becomes steeper and the alternatives are harder to find and follow. And at the end—coming sooner than we like—we all die. We all have only so much time to identify, select, and develop the type of life that we will ultimately find satisfying and meaningful.

But still, within those strictures, “Nothing is written.”

1. You knew I’d get around to this eventually, didn’t you?

2. For example, carbon’s ability to give, take, and share up to four electrons enables it to form complex molecular structures. However, in an environment poor in carbon (atomic number 6), the element in the same position on the next row of the Periodic Table, silicon (atomic number 14), could serve the same pivotal role in a life-forming chemistry. Silicon-based life forms would be able to reproduce any chemistry that carbon-based life is capable of, but they would tend to be heavier because their constituent molecules would carry eight extra proteins and a like number of neutrons on each silicon atom.

3. If I believed in any god-as-creator, then it would be a mind that worked its actual decision-making processes far upstream of human life. It would be the mind that determined the structure of the atom and its complex electron shells that allow hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon to bind in these useful ways. That’s about as much winding up as the universe should get. After that, the power of the DNA molecule not only to record but also to mutate and change allows life to develop and the resulting creatures to evolve in response to their environment. A single creation of humankind, or any other species, in its current form would only have worked in the current conditions of temperature, oxygen concentration, water pH and salinity, meteoric bombardment rate, and a dozen other variables. Change any one variable by much, and you doom that life to extinction. To survive in a changing world, life must change. Any one species may die out—and it may have been a toss-up whether Homo sapiens or Tursiops truncatus became the dominant species on this planet (although I personally would vote for thumbs). But life persists and rolls with the punches. And because life is a complex use of common chemicals, it can exist anywhere in the universe, because the atomic structure of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and other elements of the Periodic Table is the same on Alpha Centauri and in the Andromeda galaxy as here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

In Praise of American Creativity

I have been hearing so much in the last couple of years about how this country has lost its edge: We don’t make anything anymore. We’ve lost the spirit of competition and innovation. We don’t know anything and can’t teach our children anything. We no longer have dreams or ambition. We, collectively, lack the energy to do anything except get up off the couch for another beer. To quote the replicant Pris from Blade Runner: “Then we’re stupid and we’ll die.”

Yeah, we just wallow in it. … And then you go to an event like Santa Rosa’s The Great West End & Railroad Square Handcar Regatta & Exposition of Mechanical & Artistic Wonders, which is also colloquially known as the “Steam Punk Festival.”1

This was no manufactured, slick ’n’ span commercial carnival or theme park put on for the benefit of gawking rubes.2 The handcars of the festival’s name were creations of individual imagination and energy: magenta turtles and white swans, H. G. Wells’s time machine, a yellow submarine, a Flintstones car on stone rollers, a rowboat on penny-farthing bicycle wheels &hellip: every outlandish thing that might ride on rails propelled by human power.

But it wasn’t just the handcar builders and racing teams who were there to show off. The crowd was thickly sprinkled with people in Victorian costume with sci-fi flourishes: bowler hats and vests, bustier tops and fishnet stockings, goggles and gadgets, ray guns and rocket packs, pinstripes and parasols. The vendors were the sort of booths you see at street fairs every weekend in the Bay Area—individuals selling handmade clothing, craft items, artworks, local and period foods—with a decided tilt toward 19th century costumes, jewelry, and memorabilia. If you didn’t get into the spirit of the thing, you just didn’t get it.

So, what was this? The last decadent gasp of a dying culture, spiritually retreating into a past that never was, in place of a future that never will be? Well … not to look around at the faces. This was fun. This was whimsy. This was people coming from all over the region to play in a consensual fantasy.

It reminded me of what I’ve seen for years at science fiction conventions: people in costume from their favorite books, movies, and television shows. The inspiration might be commercial, but the energy and effort that go into design, tailoring, and accessorizing beat anything a bride might invest in her wedding ensemble. No one shows up in a store-bought costume thinking he’s going to be anything but ridiculous. The whole point is to exercise your own imagination against a common theme.

Science fiction is not alone in this kind of creativity. All over the country millions of people attend annual and monthly events, conventions, conferences, and festivals celebrating murder mysteries, romance novels, comic books (ahem, “graphic novels”), super heroes, gothic horror, vampires and werewolves, historical miniatures and board games, military reenactments, jazz and ragtime music,3 classical and chamber music … anything that can be pictured, played, compared, confabulated about, and loved. If there’s a passion for it, there’s a meeting place for it.

I suppose the roots of these conventions and festivals go back to medieval Europe and the festivals held on a saint’s day, and then to festivals, holidays, and religious observances held in every culture. But the secular twist and the connection with some aspect of popular culture is particularly American. So is the urge to dress up in costume as if it was Halloween—another European festival that Americans have made their own.

Much as you might think our popular culture today is run by Hollywood and Madison Avenue—that we consumers just put our heads back like credulous turkeys, open our mouths, and let the evil masters pour in their homogenized goo and sludge—there’s actually a complex feedback loop going on. I won’t deny that a profit motive may drive the story lines and bend the images appearing in novels and brought to the big and small screens. But these conferences and conventions are also attended by writers, artists, producers, and designers. You can’t package and sell leading-edge imagery and imagination, whether in future fantasy or society murder, unless you have your finger on the pulse of the aficionados.

So is this the last gasp of couch potatoes who are too lazy and stupid to manufacture real goods and provide real value? Instead, we make costumes and dress up to play at fantasy? Hardly. American invention and ingenuity are doing just fine, thank you. We make more goods than the Chinese—it just doesn’t look that way because most of what you see imported from China are relatively inexpensive personal electronics and consumer goods. And even there, much of the value comes from American invention and design. What makes an Apple iPhone or iPad the coolest thing ever and worth a couple of hundred dollars apiece are the creativity and vision of people working in Cupertino, not the ten dollars worth of assembly work done in Shenzhen. The great story of American productivity is masked by the automation in our factories: Our low-skilled manufacturing jobs didn’t go to China; they went to a machine in Schenectady controlled by a computer programmed in San Jose.4 The economic genius of America now resides in designing the machines that people in other countries will build for pennies on the dollar.

And with all this, Americans of average education and means are still not a poor people. We’re not a third-world tragedy waiting to happen. Just the opposite. We have solved the ancient problem of human want. Here in the third year of a great financial collapse, we are still 91% employed. Our grocery stores still bulge with foodstuffs and consumables. The vast majority of our countrymen still have jobs, homes, cars, lives—much more stable and secure lives than during the Great Depression. Yes, there are also hunger, homelessness, and growing uncertainty. But amid the so-called collapse, we still have time to celebrate frivolity.

Look around you at the people going about their pleasures. This is something new in human history. This is the utopia of ease and comfort, of spirit and imagination, about which the writers and philosophers of a hundred years ago could only dream.

1. For those who are not aficionados of science fiction, steam punk is an extension of cyber punk that imagines the electron had never been tamed but the digital age happened anyway—and during the Victorian era. Charles Babbage’s difference engine meets the Jacquard punch card, and everything is driven by billowing clouds of steam. Jules Verne and Nemo’s Nautilus—especially in the Harper Goff design: all spiny and spiky with huge iron rivets and fierce, glowing eyes—are the epitome of steam punk.

2. Well, I came as a gawking rube, but that’s my role in all this.

3. Where the costuming runs to tuxedos, flapper dresses, straw hats, and garters.

4. See Automation, Work, and Personal Meaning from February 27, 2011.