Wednesday, May 17, 2017
The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (1956)
After having heard the name Alfred Bester knocked around in the various science fiction worlds I frequent, I dug up and read Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, which was awesome. Once I find a writer I like, especially in science fiction, I try to dig up anything else from them that I can read. By using the inter-library loan department at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library, I picked up the Hugo Award-winning novel, The Stars My Destination. It is even better than I could have imagined.
The frenetic pace of the plot, the twisted and amoral motivations of the characters, the deep exploration of what, at the time, was purely speculative science, and the morality inherent in the story all stand as predecessors to the dark cyberpunk novels of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. It is amazing to me that this novel was written in 1956. The top sci-fi/fantasy writers of the last 40 years all claim it as a primal source, as one of the best science fiction novels ever written. It is as good as promised and deserves to be read more widely.
The story concerns a man in the 25th century named Gully Foyle, who has been left for dead on a decrepit spaceship drifting through our Solar System. He survives for 6 months, until he sees a ship named VORGA, which sees his calls for help but does not stop to rescue him. His desire for vengeance against the VORGA, its crew, and the people who made the decision to not respond to his mayday overshadows everything else in his life. I do not want to describe too much because at every turn this book upends my expectations and proceeds to gain momentum, depth, and wonderment. It explores so much, from the strata of such a futuristic society to the machinations of the powerful against the powerless, to the possibilities, both good and bad, inherent in the human colonization of the Solar System. I do not want to ruin any of that for a future reader of The Stars My Destination.
Alfred Bester was a visionary genius right up there with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jules Verne when it came to extrapolating the possibilities scientific progress can bring. He was also a genius in the vein of Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, able to show the human need to use technology and to own it, oftentimes to our very own detriment. I hope more people read Bester’s work, and keep it alive for future generations. Stories like these are what made me love the genre of science fiction. They keep me hopeful that originality and beauty and intelligence can be found in old writing as well as in new writing. This is an awesome thing indeed.
(This awesome book is available for download as a PDF file here: http://americandigest.org/Bester,%20Alfred%20-%20The%20Stars%20My%20Destination.pdf )
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Black is the New White: A Memoir – Paul Mooney (2009)
I love Paul Mooney. Ever since my wife Elizabeth introduced me to the man’s genius, I have been a devoted fan. I have heard his comedy records, and have seen his stand-up specials. My wife and I were lucky enough to catch Paul Mooney live at the Houston Improv about 5 years ago. It was the best comedy act I have ever seen. As a fan of transgressive humor, there is no one finer when it comes to dealing with the topic of race in American life than Paul Mooney. Having absorbed as much of his work as possible I went ahead and dug up his 2009 memoir, Black is the New White.
This memoir is as much the story of Paul’s life as it is the story of his relationship with the comic genius Richard Pryor. It is the most important relationship in his life, perhaps second only to the love given him by the grandma that raised him, who he called “Mama.” He credits her with filling him up with so much love that he never needed to seek out the acceptance of anyone else. This made him immune to the sickness that befalls many entertainers, which is their desire for love and acceptance at any cost, which usually ends up ruining careers. This is also the reason that Paul Mooney has never sought validation from the Hollywood “community.” I think this stability is one of the reasons that Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney became so close.
Mr. Mooney knew from the start that the inner core of the genius Pryor was a needy, lonely, and desperate little boy who just wants to be loved. He sought out that love in drugs, drinking and women. He routinely would drive himself to near-exhaustion with drug binges, women binges, alcohol binges, etc. Add this to the already immense career pressure that Richard Pryor experienced once he became a house-hold name, and one can see how the calmness, the wisdom, the blackness, and the humor of Paul Mooney was a tonic for Richard. Their relationship is a great example of acceptance between friends, even though the knowledge of imminent self-destruction is ever-present. There was no way to turn his best friend from the path he had chosen.
Paul’s career, while not as stratospheric as Richard’s, has carried him through decades of Hollywood turmoil, racism, and idiocy. He includes many of his stage jokes in the book, and it is awesome to hear his voice in my head, as if it was speaking directly to me. He has always supported the comics around him, from giving John Witherspoon, Sandra Bernhardt and Robin Williams their first TV gigs, to opening for Eddie Murphy’s RAW tour, to helping Dave Chappelle craft the funniest comedy show of the last 15 years. Paul Mooney has never quieted down. He has never dumbed down his act. He continues to rail against the stupidity of racism and racist white people. As he states often in the book, his audience consists of “black people and brave white people.” That is a funny throwaway line, but it speaks a deep truth. Only the brave are willing to be ridiculed, understanding the jokes and the truth underneath the jokes. Bravery is critical to enjoy Paul Mooney’s comedy. The fearful get up and run away in the middle of Paul’s sets. He has done this since his start in the comedy clubs in LA. He knows that if some people walk out, it only reinforces the truths he is describing.While I wish that there was more about Paul’s personal thoughts and inner monologue in this book, I can understand the inclusion of so much regarding Richard Pryor. Not only was he Paul’s best friend but he was his hero as well, and no one in Hollywood will give you the unvarnished truth about Richard Pryor like Paul Mooney does. It is a funny, unforgiving, caustic, and honest book.
(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Black-New-White-Paul-Mooney/dp/1416587969 )
Friday, April 21, 2017
Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet – Stephen Jay Gould, Rosamond Wolff Purcell (2000)
Art and Science, my two most favorite subjects of human intellectual experience, are always conflated in my brain. Art IS science to me and science IS art, in that the exploration of idea in Art mirrors the exploration of fact in science, and in how the creative impulse of the human brain is equally critical to the scientific method as it is to artistic creation. These are not two separate worlds, and Stephen Jay Gould makes sure to repeat this refrain. In choosing to write essays based upon the intricate and scientifically-informed photographs of Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Mr. Gould lets his mind roam, drawing from both his experience in the sciences and his love of the arts, creating connections which are otherwise unnoticed.
I love books like this. Some of my favorite photographers work in the manner of Wolff Purcell. She searches the sometimes-forgotten archives of museums and institutes for items to add to her imagery, creating beautiful photographs which function as a work of modern art while also drawing the critical intellect to explore the subject matter empirically, as a scientist would. Mr. Gould uses the images chosen, one or two per essay, and then riffs upon what the artwork makes him think of. Sometimes it is an exploration of the affinity humans have for bilateral figures over radially symmetrical figures, and at other times he describes the deluded and self-righteous work of the person whose collection is being photographed. It is whatever comes to his fertile mind. Many of these images contain fossils, and as a paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould has an instant affinity with them.
In one essay, following an image of a painting in mid-restoration showing a “correction” once made to reduce the painting’s lewdness but now removed to show the original offense, he describes the concept of “layering.” This concept is evident in medicine, where most of the disease and infirmity occurs invisibly, under the skin. So many medical breakthroughs have been solely methods by which to look under the skin, such as the X-Ray, CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, etc. In an essay following a photo of an old disused fish fossil, Mr. Gould describes the concept of an “overlay.” This is the idea that a thing (1) must be older than another thing (2) if the first thing overlies or modifies the second thing in a manner implying the original presence of thing (1) alone. For example, you have a photo of yourself. You spill some ketchup on it and it dries, then a while later, part of it gets torn right where the ketchup was, then even later, someone puts a piece of tape over it all to keep it from tearing further. Someone presented with the final object could safely deduce that the tape was younger than the tear, which was younger than the ketchup, which was younger than the photograph. Geology works very much in this manner to differentiate between sedimentary layers.
This is actually the third such book in this series. I am going to have to request the other ones through the Inter-Library Loan system here at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library. They will make for some very thought-inducing reading! Bad ass.
(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Crossing-Over-Where-Science-Meet/dp/060980586X )
Monday, April 17, 2017
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge – Abraham Flexner (1939)
One of the most disheartening developments in education in my lifetime has been the emphasis placed on teaching students only the knowledge and subjects that have practical, or “useful,” content. Every year more and more people want their kids to study only the fields in which a great salary is guaranteed. Learning for learning’s sake is frowned upon by helicopter parents who push their kids to fit a predetermined mold. This is a huge disservice to the students. One of the greatest advantages of a University education used to be that you learned how to educate yourself for the rest of your life. This was what a well-rounded education was to provide. Critical thinking skills, deep curiosity about the world, a variety of experience and wisdom from a wide field of human intellectual endeavors, and the ability to be a well-rounded adult were all worthy goals in and of themselves, without regard to future employ-ability or salary. It is quite eye-opening to read Abraham Flexner’s essay from a 1939 issue of Harpers Magazine. He was confronted by the same problem 80 years ago.
I have never read a better argument for letting students, artists, researchers, and scientists explore anything and everything that may cross their minds, regardless of whether it applies to their respective titles or fields of study. Mr. Flexner explores the many fields deemed “useless” and finds that in each and every case, these useless ideas or curiosities either contribute greatly to the well-being of humanity as a whole (as in the case of the arts, music, and literature) or they end up adding another piece of knowledge to the vast amount collectively gathered by humanity, to be filed away until some other curious person finds it and uses that knowledge to create a new mechanism, or technology, or even just a new use for something already existing. There is no way to determine what field of study will lead to something “useful,” which is the whole reason that nothing a human is curious about is actually “useless.”
Mr. Flexner provides examples from various fields, each a seemingly unimportant exploration by a human mind that turns out to shine a light on a previously unknown corner of knowledge. He cites the then very current issues arising from totalitarian fascist states in Germany and Italy curtailing “frivolous sciences” and “useless” explorations. This led to many of the most genius humans on the planet to make their way to the United States, where they could join places like the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. This institute was solely dedicated to the search for knowledge and had such a minimal infrastructure that any one person could cooperate and learn from any other, allowing geniuses in science and the humanities to explore wherever their curiosity led them. Learning itself is what was cultivated.
I have always been intellectually curious about nearly everything in the world around me. There are many people who think that specialization is the true mark of genius or dedication, or intellectual rigor. These people, while they may achieve much, are missing out on the whole picture. I personally am an artist. I paint and draw and I love to study art. I am also a hardcore music fanatic. These two fields are not mutually exclusive to most people. I am also a deep, deep lover of all things scientific, especially the field and history of Physics. In this case, countless people cannot fathom that a human can be artistically inclined and scientifically inclined and enjoy both equally. I feel that, beyond the pure joy of learning itself, my scientific knowledge informs my art, and my art knowledge informs my scientific curiosities. I am also a hardcore sports fanatic, especially my beloved American Football and all my Houston, Texas sports teams. I have been ridiculed by sports people who do not think I am a “true fan” because art is not for jocks, and I have been ridiculed by the arts crowds for showing up to a gallery wearing a Texans jersey. These close-minded fools will never understand, and they will never learn, until they decide to explore what intrigues them without the fear of ridicule by the people in your chosen peer group. If only this great essay by Mr. Abraham Flexner was required reading in the schools. Share it with someone that has been stifled in their curiosity. It may change a life.
(This essay can be downloaded in PDF format from Harpers Magazine here: https://library.ias.edu/files/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf )