Tag Archives: science

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

K S Robinson writes a great survival/adventure story. I couldn’t stop reading. Aurora is a real page turner. But Aurora isn’t on my list of favorite science fiction/fantasy. Why?

The plot is weak. SO many good ideas from the first section of the book just evaporate. Gone – when their further development would have been so interesting. Who were the five ghosts, and how do we account for them on a space ship? How many travelers went “feral”? What could be done about the difficulty of deciding who could have a baby, and when?

On the other hand, “Aurora” contained some wonderfully mind blowing plot twists. One involved the “structured forgetting” of an event that had the potential to destroy a small group (2000 people) that could only survive through intense, consistent cooperation. I’m always interested in schism and schismatics, and the meaning of “the rule of law”. When a sophisticated computer develops self awareness and identity, and then announces its role as “sheriff”, I’m intrigued.

I was, early on, a little offended by the computer-develops-personality theme, regarding it as being stolen from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But did Arthur C Clarke really invent that? Who did? In Aurora, it works well, and I enjoyed it. Interestingly, the emerging computer/person was first called Pauline, but later merely addressed as “Ship”, not even consistently capitalized. “Ship” seems to have taken a step back from human relationships when it’s first “friend” died.

Like HAL (in 2001), “Ship” had to intervene to save the project (interplanetary travel), taking steps as radical an interfering with the 3D printers used to produce objects required for survival and lowering oxygen levels to suppress violence. “Ship” prevented disorder from growing into warfare, if the term can be used within a group of only 2000 people. “Ship” also took over entirely, easing its passengers into hibernation when food supplies failed, and carefully reawakening them later.

The characters are not as well developed as in the author’s highly amusing New York 2140. Freya, the closest to a protagonist aside from Ship, baffles me. She becomes a leader unintentionally, and a symbol of the prolonged mental and physical suffering of all the space travelers. Finally making it back to earth, she speaks out on behalf of “involuntary space travelers” like herself, people born into their difficult if not fatal roles due to decisions made by their ancestors. How is this different from being the child of an immigrant? Perhaps it is an issue of scale. An immigrant (theoretically) gains a “whole new world”. A person born on a multigenerational space flight faces a very, very restricted existence.

Robinson is a prolific author, with 19 books and many short stories published. I will sample further before I decide how I think his works will stand the test of time, whether any of them can be classified as “literature”.

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.

“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.