Why Science Fiction Matters

Star Trek
In the past two years, we’ve watched all the Star Trek series (on Netflix) from start to finish, and all the ST movies (on DVD). We just started watching the Battlestar Galactica series on Blu-Ray this past week (which we had seen some years back, but with long gaps between seasons). Both of us love scifi.

Although the first ST series was often more space opera than scifi (as the Star Wars series has been), it matured quickly into some complex, adult-oriented storytelling in the subsequent series (a sad failing of the first several Star Wars films was their failure to mature). BSG is even more mature, and thus more compelling. 

If wisdom comes with age, then Star Trek—the series that’s taught us diplomacy, morality, and workplace ethics since 1966—has to be up there with Kant and Nietzsche by now.

So begins “Why Star Trek Matters,” a 2016 article in Popular Mechanics, by Tom Chiarella. Or rather, a paen to Star Trek. I would say the same of science fiction generally: it matters, deeply, and across cultures and generations, and affects a wider cultural range than other literature. It matters in all its forms: written, visual, gaming, and audio.  But I also admit to a soft spot when it comes to Star Trek.

Science fiction — and the ill-defined, but closely-related speculative fiction — is a prism through which we can shine the light of modern issues and events to see how they play out in other situations and conditions, from the near to the distant future, here or on other worlds. In his book, The Future of the Mind (pp 55 and 57), Michio Kaku says,

The highest level of consciousness, which is associated primarily with Homo Sapiens, is Level III consciousness, in which we take our model of the world and then run simulations into the future… Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear.

Sounds like a pretty good description of science fiction, too. Wikipedia adds, “It has been called the “literature of ideas”, and often explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations.”

I’ve been a scifi reader for more than 60 years.  I distinctly remember standing in my backyard with my father one October night in 1957 and seeing a tiny dot of light move across the sky. It was the first satellite: Sputnik, and right then and there, I wanted to go into space. My first encounter with scifi literature, as I recall it, came soon after in the form of Tom Swift Jr. books. My parents started buying these books as birthday and Christmas gifts when I was seven. I loved those stories and collected the first 18 or 20 of them.

When I was ten, my mother suffered a stroke and went into hospital for much of the next two years. During that time, when I got out of school, I went to the local branch of the public library (Bendale, and it’s still there), only  a few blocks from my home. I would wait there until my father got home from work. During that wait, I read. A lot. I quickly went through what was age-appropriate for me in the small children’s section and turned to the books for young adults, which included a few science fiction (and fewer fantasy) novels. I don’t recall much of them although I read them all, but I can remember reading some by Andre Norton.

(The lines between fantasy and scifi are often blurred. I read both, but tended to prefer scifi. As Arthur C. Clark wrote in Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible,”…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Harry Potter fans take note.)

Back then, there wasn’t the same sort of literary machinery to produce young adult titles as there is today (no Harry Potter!). The selection of books considered age-appropriate, especially in the scifi category, even for older teens, was limited. It didn’t take me long to graduate into the adult book section and find the treasure trove of science fiction there. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Frank Herbert, and many more. I consumed them. I’ve been reading scifi ever since, often with the same sense of amazement and wonder I had when I first began reading it. I remember reading Frank Herbert’s stunning novel, Dune, when it came out in 1965 (I’ve read it three times since).

These stories were not just promises of a future, but for a young boy faced with a troubled and unsure present, they were an escape vehicle. After my mother returned home I continued to read science fiction as one of my primary literary interests (I also discovered and read the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs; a delightful mix of scifi and fantasy).

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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Big G and Me

GojiraOne of my fondest childhood memories is sitting between my parents on a warm summer night, on the front seat of the family car, watching a movie through the windshield, above the dashboard. A single, metal-wrapped speaker hung from the glass of the half-opened window on the driver’s side. A box of salty popcorn passed between us, soft drinks too. Around us were dozens of other cars, all facing the giant outdoor screen, their occupants nothing more than dark shadows. Behind us was a low, concrete building with a screen-facing opening where we could buy snacks and drinks.

It was a treat to be allowed to stay up late, far later than the usual bedtime, to go to the drive-in, and many a night I fell asleep on the backseat as we drove home to the cottage along the unlit, unpaved rural roads a few miles from the village of Penetang. My immersion in film culture began early in this environment.

The films we watched were mostly what are called B-films; standard drive-in fare, many of them shot in stark B&W. What I liked best were the monster and scifi films: The Attack of the Crab Monsters, Them!, Forbidden Planet, The Mysterians, and others. Often scary for a youngster, but mostly a lot of fun. Sitting there with the comforting presence of my parents in the confines of the small car while the stars shone above the big screen usually made it less scary. While we likely saw also other films there – musicals, thrillers, westerns, romances – the only ones I can recall are the scary ones.

From the latter half of the 1950s until around 1962, we went to the drive-in frequently every summer. Then, circumstances forced my parents to sell the cottage. I don’t think I ever went back to another drive-in theatre after that. I did, however, watch many similar films on the small, black & white TV set in our living room – rainy day viewing on the four or five channels we received back then. Once hooked, I didn’t stop watching.

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Kmise and Aklot ukuleles

I was somewhat skeptical when a representative from Kmise ukuleles contacted me recently, and offered to send me some of his company’s instruments to review. I had never heard of the company and never seen any of their instruments in music stores.

A bit of online searching showed them as a Chinese maker of modestly-priced instruments. Not just ukuleles, however: they offer a wider range of instruments and accessories (many are listed on Amazon), including singing bowls, harmonicas, kalimbas, u-bass, banjoleles, pickups, violin bows, effects pedals and more. (I plan to buy their U-bass to compare it to others I’ve had…)

Most of the Kmise ukulele line sells on Amazon for under $100 CAD, including many with a gig bag, strap, and tuner. That’s at the low end of a price range in instruments that can reach several thousand dollars at the upper reaches.

Their Aklot series (see the bamboo uke, below) is a bit more expensive than their other models, but not much. At that price, how good could they be? I asked myself. Well, I’d find out.

Kmise tenor and guitarleleI had not developed a good impression of most lower-priced ukuleles in the past. Most low-end instruments I’d previously encountered are mass-produced, with low-quality tuners and strings, poor action, poor intonation, mediocre sound. Fit and finish was not very good on those I had examined in the past. But I agreed to look the Kmise instruments over and review them.

A few weeks later, I received a mahogany tenor, a bamboo tenor (Aklot) and a mahogany guitarlele (a short-scale six-string guitar).

I was surprised – pleasantly so – by the build quality and the sound. While not super fancy, they were far better than anything at that price range I’ve seen in the past. I would have expected them to be selling for at least double and more what they list for, especially when they come with the gig bag and other items.

So let’s look at these three in a bit more detail.

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Baby, It’s Politically Correct Outside…

Double facepalmI must have travelled to another universe because when I awoke, the world had gone mad. Radio stations were pulling a popular, rather over-played, 74-year-old, playful holiday song because some folks thought it was about rape. Sexual assault. Or at least non-consensual sex. The media was full of Chicken Littles screaming that the cultural sky was falling if radio stations continued to play it. The song was subject of weighty opinions on editorial pages.

What is going on in this strange, politically correct and apparently unhinged universe?

Let me back up. Two items appeared simultaneously on my Facebook timeline this week: one was a video of a peacock strutting around, trying to win over a pea hen by flashing his tail at her. The other was news that Baby, It’s Cold Outside was causing such a furor that radio stations were banning it. But these Facebook items are actually two aspects of the same thing.

The song is a duet, a playful banter between a man and a woman about, yes, sex. But not sex as in explicit. Inferred, yes, perhaps implied, but never stated. And never forced. The peacock video is also playful banter, albeit wordless and nothing is forced.

There are a hundred or more shows on Netflix you can watch right now that include graphic nudity, sex and even rape that don’t even try to hide behind innuendo. The abysmally-written mommy-porn novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was graphically explicit – and so popular it sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Sex and seduction are in the Bible – read the Song of Solomon! As far as I know, no one is having these banned or burned.

Is there some strange hypocrisy at work here? CBC writer Jessica Goddard wrote,

…nothing says “happy holidays” like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction…
The accusation that Baby, It’s Cold Outside is about sexual assault is absurd unless you isolate the entire duet down to the lines “Say, what’s in this drink?” and “The answer is no.” That ignores the lyrics that suggest that same character internally wrestling with wanting to stay (“I wish I knew how / To break this spell,” “I ought to say ‘No, no, no sir’ / At least I’m gonna say that I tried”).

Baby, It’s Cold Outside is not pornographic or even bawdy. It’s about seduction and the age-old mating game. You know: the old tail-flashing peacock routine in the video a few tens of thousands shared without anyone being offended. You want bawdy, go listen to some madrigals or early Renaissance love songs.

If people were really kerfuffled about sexually explicit lyrics or misogynistic treatment of women, they’d have banned rap music years ago. No, this is unfathomably different.

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Astrology: millennials in search of woo hoo

Astology debunked“Astrology is not a science; there’s no evidence that one’s zodiac sign actually correlates to personality.” I was disappointed to read that line in a story in The Atlantic, a piece titled, “The New Age of Astrology: In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.

Disappointed not because it isn’t true – it is: astrology is woo hoo – but rather that writers still feel the need to state the obvious. It’s like a movie reviewer starting with “There’s no evidence that Batman is actually a real person.” Or a political columnist starting with “There’s no evidence Donald Trump can actually distinguish between truth and fiction.” Or a medical writer in an article saying, “There’s no evidence homeopathy actually works.” Some things are just so obvious they should not need to be repeated.

No one should ever have to remind others that astrology ISN’T a science. Or even an “alternate” belief because there’s no collective agreement on pretty much every part of it: hardly any two astrologers agree on interpretations, there are different types of charts and calculations used in different countries, the constellations are not the same as they were 3,000-plus years ago when astrology was first concocted, and constellations themselves are arbitrary associations of distant stars, not actual connections. Plus the whole thing was created before anyone knew about planets beyond Saturn, or the asteroids, or the moons of any planets.*

But sadly, what is evident to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking is not always so for many people on social media, where simplistic memes – the digital equivalent of bumper stickers – often take the place of informed discussion and learned conversation. In part it comes with the declining IQ from people not reading longer articles, newspapers or books. And as the article’s author, Julie Beck wrote,

…astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age. There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” pickup lines.

Internet erudition is an oxymoron. It has allowed people to put words or terms into their vocabulary of which they have neither knowledge or understanding.

Words show up in memes in entirely the wrong use or context. Political terms like liberal, socialism, fascism and communism are all highly misused (especially, it seems, by Americans). GMO, health, natural, detox and chemical are frequently misused by diet-fad followers and “alternate healthcare” providers. Creationists dismiss evolution as merely a “theory” with no evident grasp of what a theory actually means in scientific terms.

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