Book Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

Cover of the book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
by Alec Nevala-Lee
HarperCollins/Dey Street, 2018

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2018.

Nevala-Lee (Eternal Empire, 2013) presents a necessary addition to the history of science fiction: a critical look at the life and work of John W. Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding magazine and the central architect of science fiction’s golden age. This period, and the men most central to it, defined the path that still dominates the genre today. Part biography, part history, Astounding covers Campbell’s relationships with his most important writers (Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard); their tumultuous personal lives; the role their wives played in their careers; and the effect WWII and the atomic bomb had on the genre. Campbell and others truly believed science fiction could save the world. Nevala-Lee delves into the development of dianetics and Campbell’s split with Hubbard over Scientology. He also addresses the many biases, prejudices, and personal failings of these eminent men. At times, it feels like Nevala-Lee attempts to accomplish too much, and the mix of history with biography isn’t always comfortable, but it’s all necessary to understand how science fiction became what it is today.

Book Review: Dispatches from Planet 3: 32 (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond by Marcia Bartusiak

Cover of the book Dispatches from Planet 3: 32 (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond by Marcia Bartusiak
Dispatches from Planet 3: 32 (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
by Marcia Bartusiak
Yale, 2018

This review was first published by Booklist on August 13, 2018.

These 32 short essays cover major events in the history of astronomy and cosmology, ranging from the demotion of Pluto to the status of dwarf planet, the evolution of galaxies, the detection of gravity waves and neutrinos, and the role of time in the Big Bang. Bartusiak’s (The Day We Found the Universe, 2009) goal is to provide historical context for many recent discoveries and a summary of how we got to where we are now in the science of space, offered in easy-to-read, bite-size morsels. Many of these essays cover events from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, the period when modern cosmology was born, but the collection isn’t arranged chronologically. Rather, the essays are grouped, small to large, by topic, starting from the solar system and working out to the larger universe. Of particular value, several essays focus on women who did significant work, but who historically haven’t gotten credit. This is an informative and rewarding read for anyone interested in our understanding of the universe. Recommended for fans of Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn (2014).

Inherent Bias in Classification Systems

December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. Maybe it’s only librarians who care much about it but to us it’s a big deal.

The entire history of our profession has been a quest to organize information. Sometimes organizational schemas were focused on preserving resources, on merely keeping a list of a collection’s holding, and sometimes systems were intended to restrict access. Indeed, for most of our history, knowledge institutions were exclusive and exclusionary.

But beginning with the birth of public libraries in the 1800s, we conceived the idea that knowledge should be accessible for the betterment of all people. The challenge was—and continues to be—to find ways to accomplish this goal through practical application in real-world situations, in day-to-day activities.

Melvil Dewey’s system was a massive paradigm shift. It seems like such an esoteric thing to celebrate but realize this: before Dewey’s organizational scheme, there existed no universal method for organizing collections of materials, and too many systems were obscure and overly complicated, to the point where people were often discouraged from attempting to access them.

Dewey created a system that anyone could understand and use. For the first time, people could walk into a library and find what they wanted on the shelf, or explore the catalog, without the mediation of a specialist. In a real sense, the Dewey system effectively transferred our collections of knowledge out of the hands of specialists and into the hands of the general populace. *

Still, for all my appreciation and admiration of Dewey’s achievement, when a coworker asked if I wanted to participate in Dewey Day activities at my library, my response was this:

“I have no interest in celebrating the Dewey system. It’s an archaic monument to Western superiority and colonial oppression which obscures the diversity of human cultures and silences diverse voices.”

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A Personal Perspective on the Struggle for Civil Rights

Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.

He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.

This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.

Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.

While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.

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Searching for the Other

Human beings are monotypic: we’re the only species within our taxonomic genus. Monotypic genera are relatively rare—it’s unusual for there to be no other species within a genus, especially among higher level complex organisms. (*)

We weren’t always monotypic. We shared Ice Age Europe with Homo neanderthalensis for tens of thousands of years. We shared parts of the planet with H. erectus for much of our early existence. It’s possible we even overlapped somewhat with H. heidelbergensis (I don’t know what the scholarly consensus is on this—recent discoveries have complicated the origins of H. sapiens. There were also many more coexistent relatives during our early evolution.)

For well over half of our existence on this planet as H. sapiens, there were other people out there who were within our taxonomic genus but who weren’t our species.

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Why Tech Can’t Replace Manufacturing

[Author’s Note: This is adapted from a tweetstorm I posted recently.]

Many people yearn for the return of American manufacturing. Other people correctly point out that manufacturing is never coming back. The latter argue that we need to focus on creating new jobs, new kinds of jobs, and they point to the modern tech industry for this.

But the tech industry isn’t a present-day equivalent of our bygone manufacturing economy. It can’t replace it.

Consider: In the ’50s, a man who never finished high school could get a job working a factory line, and that job paid enough for them to raise a family and own a home. Nothing much, no frills, but a decent quality of life. They could learn new skills on the job and advance to more skilled positions. They could have a career and retire in some comfort.

Name one job in today’s tech industry that you can get without a high school diploma. Name one tech job that you can get without a college degree.

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Book Review: Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton

Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton
Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–1824 by Paul Kelton
University of Oklahoma Press, 2015

Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton is an essential challenge to the “virgin soil” thesis that has governed the standard historical narrative of the European colonization of the New World. Dr. Kelton argues that this narrative is too simplistic, and largely fails to comprehend or address the complexity of Native cultures during that period. Moreover, the “virgin soil” thesis is based entirely on the testaments left behind by European colonialists—who misunderstood Native actions and behaviors more often than not—and incorporates no significant input from Native Americans’ own historical knowledge.

Worse yet, the “virgin soil” thesis whitewashes the effects of the violence and oppression inherent in the colonization of the New World.

Dr. Kelton uses the Cherokee as an example of how the traditional narrative of colonization falls apart when asked to answer to the historical resources of a Native people. Moreover, he points out that even the reliable documentary evidence we have from the European colonists themselves doesn’t support the “virgin soil” thesis.

If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book will make you see things in a very different light. This is exactly what good history is supposed to do.

Book Review: The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Belknap Press 2015

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t the most comprehensive biography of Lewis Carroll out there. That’s not the author’s intention. Rather, he seeks to explore the available material on Carroll and Alice Liddell—much of which has never been published—as well as their historical context, to trace these elements to the genesis, content, and legacy of Carroll’s most famous works.

This is the biography of a literary creation more than a biography of its author or his Muse.

The book is structured in three main chronological sections, beginning with Carroll’s childhood and ending with Alice Liddell’s death, along with a prologue and epilogue:

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Public Libraries: STEM, Maker Spaces & the State of Modern Education

Please read this article. He makes an important point. The headline, as always, is composed to be divisive—his argument is more nuanced than the headline lets on.

Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous by Fareed Zakaria (posted by The Washington Post on March 26, 2015)

Let me start with this: STEM education is important. Despite the headline, this article doesn’t try to argue that it isn’t important.

Looking back at the history of education in this country, it seems to me that we were at our best, our strongest and most successful, when we had a balance across three arenas of study: liberal arts + STEM + vocational training. We need all three, equally. Liberal arts, in particular, is what stood us apart from much of the rest of the world during the 20th century. We also had far-and-away the most robust and most affordable vocational training in the world during the middle section of the century.

Liberal arts tracks have been under attack for pretty much my entire life, and prior. Vocational training in this country has been utterly gutted over the past decades. STEM education is important but I also worry that we emphasize it at the expense of reestablishing this three-pillared balance.

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Why I’m Fascinated by Ancient History

How History and Speculative Fiction Intersect

I’m fascinated by ancient history—the archaic and classical Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Mostly, though, I love studying paleoanthropology and archaeology—the Paleo- and Neolithic periods, the evolution of human kind and our spread across the face of the planet.

Recent history doesn’t particularly interest me. I understand the proximal importance of the Modern Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc., to the present day but it doesn’t capture my imagination. I look at the world during that time and I see something very much like the world I was born into. It’s too familiar to be fascinating.

I’m fascinated by ancient and prehistory because these eras are so vastly different from the world I live in. In a review I wrote of Madeline Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles, I refer to the “alien-ness of Bronze Age Greece”. I read articles like this one about Kennewick Man and it’s shocking to realize just how little prehistoric life resembles my own. How vastly different it was than anything I’ve ever known.

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