Showing posts with label Cordwainer Smith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cordwainer Smith. Show all posts

16 August 2018

The Best Anthologies Wake You Up


by Eve Fisher

The death of Harlan Ellison stirred up some old memories.  My first encounter with his work was from Outer Limits:  Demon With a Glass Hand.  I didn't know who the author was, and I didn't care - I was 10 years old, gobbling sci-fi by the yard, and a bit worried that I was some kind of demon seed myself, so the episode really hit home for me.

DangerousVisions(1stEd).jpgSkip forward 3 years and I read Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's ground-breaking sci-fi anthology.  Now, I'll tell you straight up, Harlan Ellison's story in that anthology was perhaps my least favorite - but I loved his introductions and epilogues for each story.

My favorite story was Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers", in which the hero discovers that there really are drugs in the water - but everyone in the world is having the same hallucination.  It's the anti-hallucinogens that create different realities for everyone.  That alone made me sit up and look around.  But what really stuck with me was this quote from Mr. Dick in the epilogue:
"The last word, however, on the subject of God may have already been said: in A.D. 840 by John Scotus Erigena at the court of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." Such a penetrating—and Zen—mystical view, arrived at so long ago, will be hard to top; in my own experiences with psychedelic drugs I have had precious tiny illumination compared with Erigena."
THAT still rings through my mind regularly, like a deep hum, like the cry of a peacock, like a distant bell.

It also caused me to start reading history.  Who were those Frankish kings?  What else did Erigena say or write?  Who influenced him?  Why was a Celt at the Frankish court?  All damn good questions that launched me - after a wildly improbable twenty years or so - into becoming an historian.

A good anthology will rattle your cage for years, which is why I don't let go of them when I find them.  (My copy of Dangerous Visions is tattered and brown-paged by now, but still readable.  It will see me out.)

There's 1962's "The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, 11th Series" edited by Robert P. Mills.  Among the great stories:
    Kurt Vonnegut 1972.jpg
  • The fabulously written Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, which introduced me to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and the idea of the Underpeople, derived from animals, who are given human form, speech, and intellect but have absolutely no civil rights.  If they make any mistake, they can/will be destroyed.  Something else that make me look at what was going on around me.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, about a world of enforced equality - to the lowest common denominator of everything.  
  • And the mystical, fabulously beautiful, The One Who Returns by John Berry, which gave me a new view of what a Yeti might really be.   
A more recent mystery anthology in my library is 1993s "More Murder Most Cozy", edited by Cynthia Manson, which has P. D. James' Adam Dalgleish uncovering a truly cold case - a Victorian May-December mesalliance that led to murder - in The Boxdale Inheritance.  Wonderful.  I also reread Melba Marlett's The Second Mrs. Porter every once in a while to try to figure out how she pulled off the most unique gaslighting I've ever heard of.

And then there are the weird collections you find in the antique stores.  A Treasury of the Familiar, chock full of poetry from the 19th century, Bible quotations, Washington's and Lincoln's political speeches, Edgar Allan Poe, Victorian songs, Spartan defiances, a little bit of everything.

The Holiday Reader, 1947, edited by Bernard Smith and Philip Van Doren (which instantly makes me think of Dorothy Parker saying, "I put myself to sleep counting Van Dorens"...)  This tome is divided into sections:  Stories (Hemingway to Hecht), Humor (Beerbohm, Lardner, Benchley, Parker, etc.), Travel (including Thomas Wolfe, Rachel Carson, and both D. H. and T. E. Lawrence),  Poetry (everything from sonnets to E. E. Cummings), and Eating and Sleeping (worth it for M. F. K. Fisher's Madame is Pleased) and Mystery Fantasy & Murder.

Whistle and I'll come to you illustration.jpgEspecial shout-outs to E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (which only gets more timely every year), M. R. James Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, (scared the bejeezus out of me) and Raymond Chandler's I'll be Waiting.   Imho, one of the best in this collection is Irwin Shaw's Search Through the Streets of the City, which is about as noir as you can get without a murder.

BTW, long ago I made a grave mistake and gave away a paperback collection of 50 Great Short Stories which included a story about a man whose male friends successively date this woman who is beautiful, intelligent, just amazing...  And she cares so tenderly, lovingly, for each of them as they contract this or that fatal illness.  And then he gets sick and she comes to take care of him...  Does this ring a bell with anyone?

Another great find was the 1957 "A Treasury of Great Mysteries".  I don't know how they got the rights to all of these, which include Christie's Murder in the Calais Coach, Du Maurier's Rebecca, Ambler's Journey Into Fear, and Chandler's The Big Sleep.  That right there made it worth the $2.00 charge.

Also a number of truly great short stories by most of the icons of 1950s mystery writing, including Inspector Maigret, in Maigret's Christmas, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason in The Case of the Crimson Kiss (a pretty severe lesson in choosing roommates), and the original short story Rear Window (William Irish).

But my personal favorite is Rex Stout's Instead of Evidence.
"Archie Goodwin," she said.  "You think I'm terrible, don't you?  You think I'm an awful woman, bad clear through.  Don't you?"
"I'm not thinking, lady.  I'm just an errand boy."
The funny thing was that if at any moment up to then I had made a list of the ten most beautiful women she would not have been on.  
You can't get much more noir than that.

12 March 2015

Riders of the Purple Wage


by Eve Fisher
Lately, a number of very famous people have been getting their knickers in a twist over Artificial Intelligence, or AI:
black and white photo of Hawking in a chair, in an office."The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."  Stephen Hawking
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out."  Elon Musk
Now I can sort of understand why.  The general premise for decades has been that some day the computers/robots will take over, and run us, with only two possible scenarios:
  • Great - Robots and computers will do everything for us, and we will live a life of luxury (according to the late great Frederick Pohl, too much so), comfort and security thanks to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics that protect mankind from the revolt of the machines.  
  • Bad - Everything by Philip K. Dick, and, of course, "The Matrix".  
Which it will be depends upon the mood of the times.  Currently, we're not a particularly optimistic species, so the common response is, "We're doomed! We're doomed!"  (Unless you're Sheldon Cooper, and then it cannot happen soon enough.)
Maybe.  Maybe not.  But what concerns me about the takeover of the machines isn't that they use my stasis body as a heat source while providing my mind innumerable alternative reality jaunts to keep me a content and unquestioning host organism.  Or even AIs killing us all (for one thing, logically, they'd do it quickly - only humans are sadists.  And cats.).  What concerns me is the simple matter of a paycheck.  Eating.  Rent.  Utilities.

Look, the main reason we have computers and robots is to do our work for us.  Anything boring, repetitive, heavy, dangerous, etc. - eventually, we'll make a machine to do it.  Calculators mean I don't have to add up the columns of figures for which they used to hire Nicholas Nickleby.  Payloaders mean we don't need an army of physical laborers hoisting earth. Tractors, etc., mean that today's Pa Ingalls doesn't need to muscle his way through the sod with horse and plow.  Computers mean I don't have to write everything out long-hand, or type it over and over again until it's perfect.  It's great.

hamburger robotOn the other hand, modern technology has eliminated and is eliminating a whole ton of jobs. Typesetters; typists; clerks; gas station attendants; innumerable factory workers; graphic designers; paralegals; low-level tax preparers; most farm hands; most farmers; bank tellers; airline check-in agents; retail clerks; accountants; actuaries; travel agents; most reporters, etc.  Soon there will be far fewer surgeons, teachers, and other high-level jobs as robots take over.  And in the fast food industry, the robots are coming to flip those burgers and make those fries.

The point is that, as we use technology to do 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of the work, we will also unemploy a significant number of people.  There will still be jobs, at all levels - just infinitely less of them.  Perhaps only a handful, here and there.  Which leaves the elephant in the room:  what do you do about the people?

Yes, everyone talks about retraining.  See a typical chirpy article on "The Future of Work" .  BUT, I've always had two basic questions:

(1) There is a significant number of people who can't be retrained.  Some will be too old, some will be too set, and some - frankly - whose mental ability to learn complex problem-solving skills is extremely limited.  I run into some of them at the pen.  (In case you don't know it, prisons are the modern housing facility for many of the mentally disabled, as well as the mentally ill.)  These are the people who are never considered in future planning talks, the ones that are ignored by all economists and pundits, but shouldn't be.  As I once said about a former student who was caught stealing, "Well, how else is he going to make a living?"

(2) If you have 250 people in a town, and there are only 100 actual jobs, it doesn't matter how much retraining you do.  There are still 150 people without work because there are no jobs.  Urbanize that.  Nationalize that.  Globalize that.

In Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage", he posited a society in which they coped with the problem of almost complete unemployment by giving everyone a salary just for being born.  It's enough to keep them housed and fed and hooked up to the Fido, a combination cable TV/videophone, along with a little wet-ware called a fornixator (you translate it).  To get anything else, you have to prove your exceptionality, but most people are happily occupied without it.  For those who aren't, well, there are wildlife reserves where they can go off and be weird - but they have to give up the purple wage.

Soylent green.jpgIt's a successful society, in its own way - and perhaps the only logical one. Because the truth is, sooner or later, in a society where technology is doing 90% of the work, there will have to be a "purple wage".
That, or
(1) society comes up with innumerable "make work" jobs, like picking oakum in the workhouse.  (Personally, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(2) the unemployed masses (a la "Soylent Green" or "Zardoz", etc.) will be pounding at the armored enclaves of the fabulously wealthy.  (As I said, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(3) a whole lot of people are going to have to die, leaving just enough to run the machines, and do the few jobs that still cannot be done by machines, and the fabulously wealthy (there is always a group of fabulously wealthy) to enjoy unending leisure.  Wall-E, call home!
      That, or
(4) The Matrix.

Anyway, here's the question:  As we pursue technological advancements, can we let go of the Protestant Work Ethic?  Let go of the idea that we are what we do?  Must people work or starve, even if there's plenty of everything except jobs?  Can we tolerate, support, even design a society where the norm for everyone (instead of just the wealthy) is "the leisured class"?

Now, you may think the last question is nonsense.  For one thing, we've been promised endless leisure for a century now, and most people are still working their butts off.  On the other hand, we do have more leisure than almost any other society in history.  This began with the industrial revolution, and one of the most interesting things about reading "Consuming Passions" by Judith Flanders is watching the development of ways for the working classes to spend their new-found leisure.  (Hey - they had all of Saturday afternoon and Sundays off!)  Thanks to advertising, sports, vacations, theater, and literature were turned into major industries.  (Drinking had always been a favorite activity.)  And, instantly, the pundits, poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers started decrying the horrible waste of human time and energy on trivia.  And talking about the nobility of hard work, piety, thrift, self-denial and sobriety:  for the lower classes only, of course.

File:Victorian cricket team 1859.jpg
Victorian cricket team

We have pretty much the same discussion going on today:  in certain circles, if you don't have a paying job, you're worthless.  (Unless you're wealthy enough not to.)  And the idea that someone who's unemployed has a television, a cell phone, and computer games for the kids - well, they're obviously spending too much money on all the wrong stuff.  Not to mention, if they have such things, they can't be "really" poor.

NOTE 1:  In Florida they give cell phones to the homeless, for a variety of reasons.  (Contact from parole officers, call-backs on jobs, etc.)
NOTE 2:  I'm always amazed at the people who check out other people's grocery carts and then post, outraged, if someone who's on food stamps buys candy or other luxury items.  (See this article for the alternative view:  People on Food Stamps Make Better Grocery Choices.)  God forbid the poor eat something other than gruel...

Basically, I'm leisured, you're lazy, and they're useless.

Anyway, today we've got smart phones, social media, computer games, Netflix, and innumerable other ways to waste what time we have (on the job or off) in the modern equivalent of Fidos and fornixators.  And it seems like the list is going to expand at algorithmic rate. Meanwhile, the list of available jobs is decreasing, at least geometrically, every time we turn around.  IF we get to where technology performs most of the work, and IF we get to where we have a regular unemployment of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 percent, can we change our thinking from "unemployed" to "leisured"?  Can we develop a new idea of what people "should" do?  Of what people are "supposed" to do?

Without work, what are people for?
"Tompkins Square Park Central Knoll" by David Shankbone -
David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons