Archive for the 'post-apocalyptic book club' Category

Post-Apocalyptic Book Club - Lucifer’s Hammer - Is This How to Prepare?

Sharon July 28th, 2008

I thought that during the second week on each book, I’d have us look at it as though it were a work of non-fiction, a preparedness manual designed to enable us to face the crisis they imagine.  I didn’t do this with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, because the whole point of the book is that the crisis is ultimately avertable.  But most of the works we’ll be reading don’t have that premise - they assume we have to face the crisis and go on.

Of course, the first question this raises is whether this is a realistic worry - something we have to be concerned about.  This is one of the other reasons (besides the fact that astrophysicists save the world) that I keep my husband around ;-) - he’s very good at analyzing the actual science of a scenario.  And the answer to this one is - yes. 

Now I don’t plan to convert this site to an asteroid-strike awareness one anytime soon, but a recent article in The Atlantic did explore the fact that large asteroid strikes are actually more common than was once thought, and that we don’t do a very good job of looking for them.  Generally speaking, the science of the strike in the book is quite accurate - including the evocative hot fudge sundae analysis.  The only significant thing (there are minor ones) they got wrong was the idea that a water strike was actually worse than a land strike - despite throwing up water,into the air, the dust thrown up by a land strike is actually a bigger deal.  But, for example, it is perfectly possible to imagine that we could not know that an object would strike us until right before it did, depending on how it came at us.

Still, I hope no one is panicking right now - while I generally agree with the author of the above article (and my spouse) that NASA would be better off spending more time tracking near earth objects, I still think there are better things to worry about than this, if you are not an astrophysicist or amateur astronomer, and can’t do anything about it anyway.  Put it up there with giant tidal waves and supervolcano eruptions in the category of “not my job to worry about.”

But many of the books we read will have far sillier premises (if we do the zombies, for example, I’ll expect you all to have zombie-preparedness kits ready), and most of them function fairly well as models of a kind of preparedness.  And since honestly, the preparations for most crises, likely and unlikely, from peak oil to zombie attacks to epidemics to nuclear holocaust really aren’t that different - there are some refinements, but essentially you need an evacuation plan and the resources to stay put - most of these books offer an exploration of how to get ready and how to respond to an immediate crisis.  So how does this one stand up.

 Our Hero, Harvey (only in the 1970s could Our Hero be named ”Harvey”) gets a little nervous when he thinks about the Hammer falling, and he does try and make some preparations for staying in place - if rather late, odd ones.  But, of course, the book tells us that “them” will begin rioting, looting and murdering not when they are hungry and desperate, but the moment the bad stuff begins.  So Harvey’s rather wise basic precautions turn out not to be all that useful - but Senator Jellison’s do (it helps, if you are planning, to have a compound). 

Harvey decides he and Loretta will survive on beef jerky (btw, don’t follow his instructions - the temps at which he dries them are too low for safety) and vitamins.  I will say, if you are making emergency plans, I’d suggest a vegetable here and there.  He also buys a lot of liquor, which isn’t a bad strategy, but since he knows LA is likely to be underwater, and liquor is in glass and hard to transport, is a bit of a strange choice.  But it goes with the manly themes - beef and whiskey are a man’s survivalism - none of this veggie stuff. 

Now Harvey does have grits, and this is genuinely useful and interesting - because we’re in a scenario when other people are stocking up, there’s already “unofficial” gas rationing, and Harvey is smart enough to buy stuff that other people won’t think of.  This is actually a very useful strategy, even if the world isn’t going to end - as prices of commonly used staples go up, those who can use unusual foods will have a flexibility that others won’t.  So grits and cornmeal become Harvey’s grain staple. 

And his making of pemmican (which generally has dried fruit in it, but doesn’t seem to) and storing of bacon will work, and are interesting - although again, I’d have put the effort into getting some veggies if it were me.  Filling the swimming pool with water is smart, as is using the old bleach bottles for water storage.  There is some good scenario modelling here - for example, even though Harvey knows he’s likely to have to evacuate, he does have a strategy for staying in place and making do - and that’s wise even for people who imagine that they might leave town in a more-likely crisis - because sometimes you can’t get out, or sometimes your evacuation plan might lead to a place even worse hit. 

Afterwards, we see a shift in people’s attitudes towards resources - the most immediate example of this is that Eileen tells Tim Hamner that he should save the pop-top of his beer can, because no one is making any more of anything.  No one ever explores the question of what one can do with beer bottle pop tops (I’m sure dozens of things), but there is a radical shift in the world works in people’s minds. 

Now this something that does happen in the face of the disaster.  Some of the assumptions about what shifts are made are disturbing, some are interesting, and some are both.  For example, a child has a tantrum because of the loss of television, and his father strikes him for the very first time, and explains that the days of instant obedience being necessary for survival have returned.  It is an interesting scene, precisely the implication isn’t simply that the father was angry about being interrupted by his son’s tantrum, but that he truly believes his children’s future may depend on their ability to obey when it is essential.

Of course the most interesting question is the one that many people get obsessed with - how do you sort out resources when there isn’t enough to go around.  I’ve articulated my own concerns about the fact that so many conversations *start* from this premise - that we create self-fulfilling prophecies.  But lifeboat games are interesting, and a fascinating subject for fiction - so how do we sort - by relationship, patronage and usefulness?  Or something else?

What do you think?


The Limits Thing and Why We Aren’t Mining the Asteroids

Sharon July 21st, 2008

One of the more fascinating sections of the book (pg 83 in my used 1977 paperback) is when the book brings up the original _The Limits to Growth_ - they are on the Johnny Carson show and Johnny starts asking about the merits of a manned probe to study comets.

“Johnny jumped in to give the show back to Sharps.  ‘But tell me, Charlie, what good will it do to study that comet?  How will that change our lives?’

Sharps shrugged.  It may not. You’re asking what good new research does. And all I can answer is that it always has paid off.  Not the way you thought it would, maybe.  Who’d have thought we’d get a whole new medical technology out of the space program?  But we did. Thousand are alive right now because the human-factors boys had to develop new instruments for the astronauts.  Johnny, did you ever hear of the Club of Rome?

Johnny had, but the the audience would need reminding ‘they were the people who did computer simulations to find out how long we could get along on our natural reasources. Even with zero population growth -’

‘They tell us we’re finished,” Sharps broke in.  “And that’s stupid.  We’re only finished because they won’t let us really use technology.  They say we’re running out of metals.  there’s more metal in one little asteroild than was mined all over the world in the last five years! And there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids. All we have to do is go get ‘em.’

‘Can we?’

 ’You bet!  Even with the technology we already have, we could do it.  Johnny, out there in space it’s raining soup, and we don’t even know about soup bowls.’

The studio audience applauded.  They hadn’t been cued by the production assistants, but they appluaded.  Johnny gave Sharps an approving smile and decided how the program would go for the rest of the night.  But there was a frantic signal: time for a Kalva Soap commercial.

There was much more after the commercial.  Whe Sharps got going he was really dynamic.  His thin bony hands waved around like windmills.  He talked about windmills, too, and about how much power the Sun put out every day.  About the solar flare Skylab’s crew had observed.  ‘Johnny, there was enough power in that one little flare to run our civilization for hundreds of years! And those idiots talk about doom!’”

In TMIAHM, Heinlein acknowledges that banging up against limits is an inevitable consequence of being human, admits that for individual humans, especially for those without balls enough to go kill things on the frontier, limits are a real problem. Niven and Pournelle, however, argue that there really aren’t any limits at all - and in fact, that the basic problem is that “they” (The Club of Rome doesn’t really have Clubs, so I’m not quite sure how this works) prevent them from using totally obvious, accessible forms of energy and resources like asteroids and solar flares.

NowI’m going to do a full post on the technical feasibilty of both TMIAHM and LH, because I thought it would be fun to post my husband’s professional analysis of technical feasibility, but I think it is worth noting here that much of the above is complete and utter bullshit.  We do not now and did not in the mid-70s have the technology to harness solar flares or mine asteroids - period.  Assuming that Sharps the character keeps up with his journals, he would be ummm…lying to the general public were this a reality.  Now the thing is that Pournelle and Niven did a lot of research on this - “Dan Forrester” is based on a real guy.  They were at JPL and Caltech and all these other places, so they presumably actually knew, as they were writing this story, that this was errant nonsense.  Pournelle’s Ph.d is in something closely enough related that I find it hard to believe that they just did shoddy research or believed what they were told - I think the book contains a couple of out-and-out technical falsehoods, designed to convince readers that the fact that we don’t have all the energy and resources we want is the fault of an ignorant public and a mysterious “they”who just don’t want us to. 

Frankly, I find this much more disturbing than the bigotry.  You see I used to be an academic, and while I’m hardly perfect, I still find the idea that you would explicitly misrepresent technical capacities, even in a novel, really repulsive - even more repulsive than the racism.  This is, I know, geeky, and yes, the standards for fiction are lower than in academia but it pisses me off - fine, try and make the point, but don’t lie to get there. 

But then again, perhaps it is necessary to lie to get there - this was written deep in the 1970s recession, in the energy crisis.  Perhaps the story has to lie to get its essential message across - that limitations, even the external limits of being hit by a comet - the problem is attitude.  A good attitude, and a firm belief in the power of science is what is needed.



Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Lucifer’s Hammer - Run, the Cannibals are Coming!

Sharon July 21st, 2008

Ok, I’m not going to try and pretend that I think this is a good book. In fact, I think it is a really, really dreadful novel.  Sufficiently so that sometimes it is funny.  So why am I making you read this? 

The thing is, if this was the “Post-Apocalyptic Novels Sharon Loves” book club it probably wouldn’t take us a whole year ;-).  A lot of the books are problematic, in part because it is really difficult genre to work in, in part because it is genre fiction - and even if genre writers are good (and some of them really, really are), they also come with genre audiences, and the *perception* of those audiences - particularly for older science fiction, we’ve got to remember that the widespread perception well past the 1970s was that the audiences were all teenage boys.  That means an enormous amount of pressure to write to teenage boys. 

But there’s more - Jerry Pournelle (who a friend of mine says “contaminates everything he writes”) is a serious survivalist - he edited a survivalist journal and a military technology person.  This novel doesn’t just represent an exploration of the issues, it represents advocacy for them - the idea that a disaster is going to be like this.  Because of this, I’m pretty ok with making fun of this book - besides the very 70s elements (which are funny), the messages are just downright appalling. 

I picked this book because people mention it a lot, which means a lot of people have read it - and I see it referred to periodically as evidence that “they” will come pouring out of the cities to eat us any time now, and thus we need to stock up on ammo and small personal tactical nukes.  I think the impact of this book has been far larger than it merits, and thus, I think it is worth talking about.

Ok, before I get serious, a brief interlude to make fun of this big wad of badness:

Now my own take is that my favorite part of this novel is the “genius astrophysicists will save us all” bit - which actually shows up in a couple of other novels. Now I actually had the foresight, when planning my bunker, to make sure that it contains an astrophysicist, and I recommend that all of you include one in your stocking up plans.  I often tell Eric that I married him primarily because of the Ph.d in Astrophysics, which means that he’ll be able to fend off marauding hordes and explain how to make everything - because, after all, we see in the novel that farmers are too dumb to realize that you can make bombs with fertilizers.  Woah - it is amazing what sciencey guys know!  Who coulda figured that out?

Other useful things you can learn from this book, if you are planning your bunker:

1. It helps a lot when you are trying to survive to bang a powerful person’s daughter.  Fortunately, this isn’t hard - the powerful person’s daughter is widely available and more than willing to spread it around - thus she can act as a pawn between the male elks banging their horns together and smile a lot.  Of course, you are most likely to get to do this if you are a tough journalist who can fly a copter, an astronaut, or a major local landowner.

2. Black people are very, very scary, unless they are in space.   Ideally they’d all be there, right?  They turn to cannibalism nearly instaneously - pretty much “Ok, we’re running short on cheetos - who do I eat first?”  They also like to set fires, torture people and do drugs, unless, of course, they are conveniently floating in space.

3. Women are good cooks.  They are also good at sex and having babies.  Occasionally one can ride a horse, drive a truck, go into space or do secretarial work - but these things rarely get in the way of their cooking, screwing and birthin’ babies.  Most of everything that happens after the apocalypse will not involve women much - fighting the cannibals is not a girlie job.

4. Chemical weapons and slavery are bad, of course, but because the enemy is going to be so totally, perfectly evil that they’ve passed humanity, it justifies what we do to them.  So mustard gas is definitely a good thing, and slavery is just what you gotta do - plus, with the slavery, they are mostly black anyway, so they’ll be used to it.  Definitely be prepared to use any means necessary, because the hordes will be inhuman.  Don’t worry about the morality issues.

5.  Farming is humiliating.  It would be worth any price to keep “the lightning” around, because otherwise, well, you’d be a farmer.  It would be wise, along with your astrophysicist, to keep a nuclear power plant in your yard, so that you don’t lose the lightning.  There will be, of course, no technical issues with keeping it going after a major asteroid strike. 

Ok, beyond mocking the book, I’m curious as to why people find this vision of the future so compelling - other than it looks like tv?  That is, it isn’t enough for there to be a disaster, there have to be clear “bad guys” to fight, and all the moral lines have to be unambiguous - if you are a good guy, you can enslave people, murder them, use chemical weapons and still be a good guy, because, well, you gotta.  And the bad guys where a giant flag that says “bad (very convenient when the flag is their skin color) guy”  Even when things do degrade into violence and war, which does happen, and is a legitimate scenario, it is rarely so clear cut.  Why are we so compelled to imagine that there will be actual wars with cannibal hordes? 

I have to say, I think this book and Heinlein’s _Farnham’s Freehold_ which both imagine African-American populations reverting rapidly to cannibalism are an example of just how terrifically *afraid* a lot of people are - that is, the idea that the people in cities are one disaster from coming out and eating us, literally devouring us is really just one step further from the widespread sense that we are one disaster away from people with guns coming to take our food.  I think the sheer level of fear of people in cities, especially non-white ones is really, deeply disturbing.

Margaret Visser, in her wonderful book _The Rituals of Dinner_ which is an exploration of the history of food sharing and table manners (totally fascinating book, btw) starts her discussion with an analysis of the rituals of cannibalism.  Cannibalism is a concept that we’ll see arising over and over again in these novels, so I think it bears some thinking about it.  And one of Visser’s central arguments is that cannibalism always lurks beneath the surface of our meals - that is, we are almost unaware of the degree to which our table manners and culture are constantly a reminder “I do not threaten you this way” - that is, much of our whole food culture is organized around NOT being cannibals.

 She says of the literary use of cannibalism:

Just because cannibalism has been so very successfully rendered taboo, it has always been one of the major “effects: a writer can rely one when he or she reaches for some fully fledged enormity, an atrocity to make our skins crawl.  For thousands of years cannibalism has seemed to us to be everything that civilization is not - which is why Homer’s hero Odysseus, in search of home, city, order and seemliness, must meet and vanquish such creatures as the cannibal Cyclops.  Cannibalism is a symbol in our culture of total confusion: a lack of morality, law and structure; it stands for what is brutish, utterly inhuman.  The idea is that, unlike cannibals, we are upright, orderly, enlightened, and generally superior.  But what we might use for symbolic purposes as an embodimnet of structureless confusion has nevertheless a basis in clear cold fact: cannibal societies have existed since time immemorial.  AS social beings, however, cannibals must inevitably have manners.  Whatever we might think to the contrary, rules and regulations always govern cannibal society and cannibal behavior.”

Visser goes on to observe that this is true even when the cannibals are very hungry - that cannibalism is always structured in ritual - it isn’t primarily a symbol of the breakdown of society.  In “Donnner Party” scenarios, people might eat the already dead, but the killing of human beings for meat is a very structured, acculturated process - but enormously taboo in our society.  So we symbolize it as the breakdown of everything, proof of inhumanity, but in fact, cannibalism is as mannered as our own table rituals, and in fact, a huge chunk of our dietary custom is designed - from our unwillingness to point knives at each other to the way we only ever use food terms for people’s bodies when we are being terribly derogatory.  That is, our customs say “we know, at some level, that  this could be us too” while our writings say that that’s impossible, we’re good guys.

One more fascinating point that Visser makes is that an exo-Cannibalist society (one where you don’t eat your friends and community members, just the enemies you defeat on the battlefield) *need* a continuing supply of enemies to devour - that is, they have to be warlike societies, constantly manufacturing reasons to go to war, because otherwise, the supply of meat dries up.  One of the fascinating things to me is that while we don’t eat people literally, we too have the same requirements - in our case, it isn’t our diet, but our economy, which is based on military Keynesianism (half the federal budget goes to warfare, and into the economy that way) is similarly dependent on enemies - that is, we’ve managed to make cannibalism utterly taboo, but not the culture that needs enemies to devour metaphorically just as badly.

Cannibalism is going to show up over again in this series - from Cormac McCarthy to SM Stirling, comparatively few of the writers can resist the chance to be this dystopian, to symbolize disaster so clearly.  I think when we see it, it is worth asking “What is the writer doing here?  Why cannibalism?  Do they need it as a symbol?  An exploration of fears?  Whose fears?”  It is worth asking also why the rush to respond to the disaster with the creation of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

 Thoughts?  I’ll be back with another post on this - could it happen?  My husband the science dude weighs in!  And more on limits.


The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club - Week 2 - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Redux

Sharon July 14th, 2008

Hi Everyone - This will be the last week of the PA Book Club on Heinlein’s TMIAHM.  Next week we’ll be discussing Niven and Pournelle’s  _Lucifer’s Hammer_, and in August we’ll move on to _Life as We Knew It_ by Susan Beth Pfeiffer and _The Gate to Women’s Country_ by Sherri Tepper (who won the reader voting), so you can start getting those Inter-library Loan orders in. 

Last week we got into a fascinating discussion of revolution, and its possibilities - or lack there-of in both our present situation and in the novel.  We also talked a little bit about the idea of limits, and about family structures.  I really enjoyed the discourse that came out of this.

I thought it might be interesting to talk about the larger idea of an “apocalypse” as a subject for literary exploration.  One of the reasons I wanted to begin with Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle is that they come from two very different, but tied together periods of science fiction writing. Heinlein is a golden age author, one of the first people to bring science fiction out of the pulp era into the mainstream - and it isn’t an accident that this mainstreaming of science fiction happened shortly after World War II, and after the first uses of the atomic bomb, when it became possible to imagine a worldwide apocalypse.

Now the truth is, a true world-wide apocalypse is extremely unlikely - although lord knows, we are doing our damnedest to create one with climate change.  But I think it is important not to underestimate the sheer psychological weight of transitioning, as Heinlein did, from a world in which world-wide nuclear winter (or some similar Holocaust) was unimagined, to one in which it became possible.   It is, I think hard for those of us who grew up in the post-apocalyptically-conscious world to imagine the way that changes our thinking - I suspect I have few (probably not none, but few) readers who were old enough in 1945 to really have grasped the fact that our sense of our place in the world changed so powerfully.  Thus, for Heinlein (and often for Clark and Asimov the other most famous Golden Age writers), I think it makes a certain amount of sense that the apocalypse is always in the background, usually far less explicit than in TMIHM - instead of direct apocalypses, mostly (there are notable exceptions) the writers of this era give us apocalypses past or narrowly averted - instead of thinking about how we might go on after the disaster, they leap ahead to a distant future in which we’ve survived, or get us off one more time.  I wonder if perhaps this is because it is so hard to imagine the disaster itself striking - and so hard to shake it off.

Heinlein was 15 years younger than TS Eliot, and younger than most of the early high modernist poets (Pound, Yeats, Stevens, etc…), but I think broadly of the right age to be thought of as a modernist (more Bishop’s era though) - shaped by the first World War, and harrowed by the second.  In the study of literature, genre authors are fairly rarely thought of as part of high literary movements - I’ve often wondered what would happen if we integrated those movements, consider Pound next to Burroughs, the pulps of the 30s with the high poetry of the 30s (yes, there are some scholars who do just this).  Science fiction spends a great deal of time depicting passages like these in minute details:

What is that sound high in the air  
Murmur of maternal lamentation  
Who are those hooded hordes swarming  
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth  
Ringed by the flat horizon only  370
What is the city over the mountains  
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air  
Falling towers  
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria  
Vienna London  375

The tie between the destruction of the self and the destruction of the outer world will arise again and again, and I’m interested in the ways we imagine it, and how that imagination changes in different eras.

Pournelle and Niven, born in the 1930s, children during WWII, come from a later era - one in which science fiction was much more mainstream than when Heinlein began writing, and one in which the world of science fiction and the world of the present had surprising overlaps - both Niven and Pournelle have advised governments on terrorism, Star Wars and the real possibilities of science fiction technologies on the ground.  The lines between plausible and implausible are less clear than they were when a Heinlein story was turned down because the idea of someone going to the moon was too inconceivable. 

This is a question I’m going to be interested in as we talk about the next two books in the series - Sherri Tepper is a science fiction writer of a later era still, where as Susan Beth Pfeiffer isn’t a science fiction genre writer at all, but a young adult author.  It will be interesting to talk about the conventions of books for younger people - Heinlein wrote TMIAHM having more or less just shaken off his role as primarily a juvenile writer, barred from sex or anything too controversial.  And when Heinlein shakes something off, be it socialism (yup, he was a junior socialist in the 30s, like a lot of Americans), he shakes it off hard, reminding us that there is no more passionate advocate than a reformed whatever.

I’m curious what people think - to the extent that you’ve read books in this genre, and to the extent that my readers represent different genres, I wonder how much generation affects one’s relationship to the idea of disaster.  Born in 1972, I’m the daughter of baby boomers who grew up in the duck and cover era, and the child of Reagan’s defense shield ads and Cold warmongering.  For me the disaster was always possible.  What is it like for you?

The other subject that interests me is the question of freedom.  As I began writing this post, I came upon Kurt Cobb’s latest essay, which I think is intriguingly connected to one of the central questions that Heinlein is interested in - how do you make a livable, non-authoritarian society, particularly in a densely populated future.  One of the fascinating things about Heinlein is that he honestly seems not to think this is possible.  One of my favorite moments in the book is this one, in which Stuart proposes an alternative to democracy:

 Stu said, “Professor, I’m glad to hear that you are anxious to stop being President.”

“So? You share our comrade’s misgivings?”

“Only in part.  Having been born to wealth, stealing doesn’t fret me as much as it does him.  No, but now that Congress has taken up the matter of a constitution I intend to find time to attend sessions. I plan to nominate you for King.”

Prof looked shocked.  “Sir, if nominated, I shall repudiate it.  If elected, I shall abdicate.”

“Don’t be in a hurry.  It might be the only way to get the sort of constitution you want.  And that I want too, with about your own mild lack of enthusiasm.  You could be proclaimed King and the people would take you; we Loonies aren’t wedded to a republic.  They’d love the idea - ritual and robes and a court and all that.”


“Ja da! When the time comes, you won’t be able to refuse.  Because we need a king and there isn’t another candidate who would be accepted.  Bernardo the First, King of Luna and Emperor of the Surrounding Spaces.”

“Stuart, I must ask you to stop. I’m becoming quite ill.”

“You’ll get used to it.  I’m a royalists because I’m a democrat.  I shan’t let your reluctance thwart the idea any more than you let stealing stop you.”

“I said, “Hold it Stu.  You say you’re a royalist because you’re a democrat?”

“Of course.  A king is the people’s only protection against tyranny…especially against the worst of all tyrants, themselves.  Prof will be ideal for the job…because he does not want the job.  His only shortcoming is that he is a bachelor with no heir.  We’ll fix that.  I’m going to name you as his heir, Crown Prince.  His Royal Highness Prince Manuel de la Paz, Duke of Luna City, Admiral General of the Armed Forces and Protector of the Weak.”

 I stared.  Then buried face in hands.  “Oh, Bog!”

Besides being quite funny,  I’m fascinated by this idea that the people are, in many cases, the worst possible tyrants to themselves.  I think that’s a genuine insight, and while I agree with Heinlein about comparatively little,  I do think there’s a truth there.  Now Heinlein handles the question by treating this largely as a joke, and by the idea that there’s always another frontier out there - Heinlein thinks that most people, left to themselves, will ruin anything, and the answer is to go out to yet another unruined place in perpetuity. 

In the absence of a frontier to escape to, this becomes an urgent question, and one that I think the relocalization movement has somewhat elided (Cobb even gives us something of pass on the subject, which is kind of him, but maybe not merited) .  The truth is that if we are to live sustainably, we’re going to need strong mechanisms to enforce sustainability.  Societal and cultural pressures can do some of it.  But those cultural and societal pressures don’t honestly exist yet - and instituting them will take time.  If we are imagining a more democratic society, how do we get the democracy around to recognizing the need to do sustainable things even when they are painful and unpleasant? 

That is, the will of the people has its limits - sometimes the people are idiots.  The truth is, that without Brown v. Board of Education, integration wouldn’t have happened - most Americans were quite comfortable with segregation.  Without an autocratic order (based on constitutional principles, but we all know that Supreme Court justices can use constitutional principles to get all sorts of places) , we might not have gotten to anything but “seperate but equal” - the same could be said of the Massachusetts court decisions that legalized gay marriage.  Ultimately, the push of benign leadership is sometimes necessary to drive the people where they ought to have gotten on their own, but couldn’t. 

Now of course, we all know that autocratic leaders come in all stripes - benign, outright evil and all the blurry grey areas in between.  And yet, it is a little too easy to romanticize democracy - I’m all for it, but I don’t think that those who imply that democracy is a magic tool that gets us where we need to go in and of itself are right. 

So one of the questions that interests me in relationship to this book is whether the inevitable slight to a regulated, and (in Heinlein’s view at least) emasculated (literally in Farnham’s Freehold ;-)), self-slavery is a likely result of any serious attempt to regulate ourselves.  I’m not so much interested in Kings here, as the ways we might regulate the tyranny of the people as we try and control ourselves?  Heinlein declines ever to consider the idea of controlling reproduction, for example - suggesting that doing so would be destructive to the very idea of freedom (and for Heinlein, freedom is largely personal - he may endorse freedom for a group, but he doesn’t seem to think that any group, other than the clan, perhaps, can hold on to it).  Is that true?  Can we have freedom and self-limitation together?  Thoughts?

Eliot, of course, plays with this question - for him, the question is in part whether it is possible for women to meaningfully self limit.  Twice we see a woman caught in a sexual bind - first there’s Lil, who is asked cruelly (and in one of the great all-time lines of poetry) “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” - she has five of course, and nearly died, but in saving her own life, she risks losing her husband.  In another, the secretary, who does not desire the caresses of the young man carbuncular, recognizes the inevitable (?) failure of resistance, and does not resist, playing with the blurry grey between date rape and thinking of England

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,  235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,  
Endeavours to engage her in caresses  
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.  
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;  
Exploring hands encounter no defence;  240
His vanity requires no response,  
And makes a welcome of indifference.  
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all  
Enacted on this same divan or bed;  
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall  245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)  
Bestows on final patronising kiss,  
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…  
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,  
Hardly aware of her departed lover;  250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:  
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’  
When lovely woman stoops to folly and  
Paces about her room again, alone,  
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,  255
And puts a record on the gramophone.

For Heinlein, people can’t self regulate because self-regulation is emasculating.  For Eliot, women, at least, can’t self-regulate because men aren’t quite emasculated enough by self-regulation.  It makes, at least for an interesting contrast, and I think, a useful way of thinking about the problem of self-regulation - it only works if everyone works together.  But how, how, do we achieve that?


Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Book 1: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Sharon July 7th, 2008

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said-
140 I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert.
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time.
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
150 Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
161 The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said.
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot-
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
171 Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

(TS Eliot “The Wasteland” From “A Game of Chess”)

I’ve been mulling over how to approach this book club discussion, since I’ve never done this particular kind of post before, and I thought I’d jump in with the reason I wanted to include it.  To me,  the real virtue of this book is that it is a depletion novel - and a novel about a powerful response to depletion.  That is, the crisis that the Loonies face in the book is pretty much precisely the one we face ourselves.  Consider this quote (pg 74 in my Ace edition), in which Prof, Wyoh, Mannie and Mike the conscious supercomputer are discussing whether Luna must revolt, to keep from depleting its water source.

“Okay, Mike - no cheap shipping, no transmutation: How long till trouble?”

“Seven years.”

“‘Seven years!’” Wyoh jumped up, stared at phone. “Mike, honey! You don’t mean that?”

“Wyoh,” he said plaintively, “I did my best.  The problem has an indeterminately large number of variables.  I ran several thousand solutions using many assumptions.  The happiest answer came from assuming no increase in tonnage, no increase in Lunar population - restriction of births strongly enforced - and a greatly enhanced search for ice in order to maintain the water supply.  That gave an answer of slightly over twenty years.  All other answers were worse.”

Wyoh, much sobered, said, “What happens in seven years?”

“The answer of seven years from now I reached by assuming the present situation, no change in Authority policy, and all major variables extrapolated from the empiricals implicit in their past behavior - a conservative answer of highest probability from the available data.  Twenty-eighty-two is the year I expect food riots.  Cannibalism should not occur for at least two years thereafter.”

“Cannibalism’!” She turned and buried head against Prof’s chest.

He patted her, said gently “I’m sorry Wyoh.  People do not realize how precarious our ecology is.  Even so, it shocks me.  I know water runs down hill…but didn’t dream how terribly soon it will reach bottom.”

I wanted to talk about this book because it it takes as a given that depletion of resources can lead to a vast crisis, and that we can not realize just how close we are until the very last moment.  Manuel, for example, is engaged for that reason, and that alone - he is not innately a revolutionary.  I think this is an interesting book, precisely because even though the literal situation is implausible (Hubby the Astrophysicist observes that there’s no water at all on the moon, nor any carbon in the rock, so not a chance we could farm it - but Heinlein couldn’t have known that), it is a really fascinating meditation on a situation not too far off of our present one.

So I thought an interesting place to start might be with this question of the value of the book as metaphor for our present circumstances is.  There are a lot of things not to like about Heinlein and this book, but I also think that there are a lot of things that are utterly fascinating in analogy.  What do you think?

The next question that occurs, then, if we’re to see this book in relation to our present circumstances is this - what about the response?  In the case of the Loonies, there doesn’t seem to be much choice.  But the book is a remarkably detailed handbook to revolution - and to the moral compromises that come with revolution.  That is, the revolutionaries aren’t able to remain purists.  They do a whole lot of things that are troubling, from the manipulation of the populace to actually inciting attack on their own population.  When the moral issue arises, Prof answers Mannie that necessity doesn’t justify his actions, it just makes them necessary. Mannie asks (pg 243):

“Still doesn’t say how to pay for what we are doing now.”

“‘How,’ Manuel?  You know how we are doing it.  We’re stealing it.  I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed; it’s the means we have.  If they ever catch on, they may eliminate us - and that I am prepared to face.  At least, in stealing, we have no created the villainous precedent of taxation.”

“Prof, I hate to say this -”

“Then why say it?”

“Because, damn it, I’m in it as deeply as you are…and want to see that money paid back!  Hate to say it but what you just said sounds like hypocrisy.”

He chuckled, “Dear Manuel! Has it taken you all these years to decide that I am a hypocrite?”

“Then you admit it?”

“No.  but if it makes you feel bettter to think that I am one, you are welcome to use me as your scapegoat.  But I am not a hypocrite to myself because I was aware the day we declared the Revolution that we would need much money and would have to steal it.  It did not trouble me because I considered it better than food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight.  I made my choice and have no regrets.”

The novel is unabashed in its assumption that Prof and Co. choose rightly - that it is worth paying that moral price when the price on the other side is so high.  But it is also very difficult for Wyoh and Mannie to accept that they must do personally unacceptable things in order to achieve larger ends. 

Is this a realistic handbook for radical change?  The book takes as a given (and of course, creates the given) that Revolution is a possible answer.  Is it in other circumstances, or just this one? 

Moving on to another subject, I’m not sure we really need to talk about Heinlein’s women - or do we?  I once read an essay somewhere (maybe Harpers?) about Heinlein that essentially said that his books were good until he discovered female nudity ;-).  And I actually think that may be true - his juvenalia are pretty good, and the young women in them are often less stupid than the grown women later on (if he can keep off his fascination with spanking and discolored behinds ;-P), but ultimately, in the case of this book, I think the book itself is good enough to make it worth ignoring the deep horribleness of Heinlein’s women (something you cannot say about any other Heinlein novel I can think of ;-)).  More interesting to me is the family structures.

And again, I think there’s an interesting metaphor here - we don’t have the “shortage” of women depicted in the book, but what we do face is a rapidly changing society, and probably a great deal of cultural and economic pressure to smaller family sizes.  Whether or not there are formal limitations on reproduction, post-peak economics are likely to make people reconsider childbearing in societies like ours, where children are a “cost.”  And that means an awful lot of older adults being supported potentially by a much smaller younger cohort, and many adults with only one or no children to support multiple extended families.  I’m wondering what you thought of the various family structures imagined by Heinlein in the book (we’ll pass rapidly over the idea that 13 year old girls should marry into line marriages with old dudes, I’m more interested in the larger question of the way family structures might be adapted to deal with changing circumstances)?

Finally, I start off our discussion of “The Wasteland” which I’m going to integrate with the other books, and tie towards them, with the end of the “A Game of Chess” section (a reader pointed out that the poem is available online here: if you want to follow along), with the Pub scene.  In it, a gossiping woman is talking about ordinary things, and an ordinary, if deeply tragic, family situation - a woman ravaged by childbearing and an abortion, trying to hang on to her husband while preventing further pregnancies - and over her discussion of dinner and dentistry and abortion comes the words  “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”  These are, of course, on one level, the words of the pub owner, closing up.  But earlier in this section of the poem, we have seen a chess game with Death, and it is Death who is equally insistent, who also says, whether you are done or not with your tale, when it is time, it is time. 

When I spoke at the Community Solutions Conference last year, I quoted these lines from Eliot several times, speaking of the rising sense of urgency I was feeling.  And I was reminded that the first year I spoke, I had mentioned that there were more people present in the room at the conference than plotted to create the American Revolution.  A lot of people told me how inspiring that reference was, but if any major plots were born that day, I haven’t been told of them (maybe I’m just not trustworthy ;-)).

So I guess the last question I have is this - for all the weaknesses of the book, and they are many and varied, Heinlein’s heroes, reluctant as they are, when confronted with the reality of HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME have the nerve to pay the price, to raise the stakes and to seek the redress they require.  We can argue that their moral compromises would be unacceptable in reality.  We can argue that their circumstances are not ours, but what I would ask is this - what is it time for in our present situation, and why is it so unthinkable to most of us (Derrick Jensen perhaps excepted) that we might respond so strongly, that we might change so radically.  I’m not suggesting any particular response, but I am asking why it is that our response, not just as a people, but as aware individuals  to depletion is so comparativel tepid (me too), so focused on soft responses, why we feel so powerless in relationship to our collapse?  Is that even a question worth asking? 

I’ll be fascinated to hear your answers - and there will probably be one more post on this subject later today.  If you have other questions for discussion, post them in comments and we’ll talk about them,


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