Monday, December 29, 2014

Gregory Benford: Still more from Anomalies

More stories from Gregory Benford's latest short story collection: Anomalies

Comes the Evolution"

The characters talk, endlessly, about "revolution," but the title of the story refers to evolution, a gradual change that takes place, when one species slowly becomes another.  Note the names of the characters: Lenin, Trotsky, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Emma Goldman.  She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

They see themselves as revolutionaries, but their plans show them to be something quite different.  Eventually they all come together to rejuvenate the Cause, but their plans, however, have evolved into 21st century versions whose new focus is not on changing governments but upon finding a safe haven where they can create a utopia.



Another of Benford's short stories that plays with the theme of religion and science.  An amateur astronomer has discovered that the moon is a few minutes ahead of schedule.  It's still in its proper orbit, but it appears to have somehow been transported to an advanced position.  This is impossible, of course.  Later it is discovered that several stars are also not in their proper position and appeared to have suddenly moved within an hour of the time the moon had jumped ahead.  This also was impossible.

One of the characters theorizes that the universe is a computer program and the sudden movements were the result of a bug in the program.  This, of course, brings up the question of the identity of the programmer.  Also, computer programs are normally debugged, here on earth anyway.  Will this program be debugged?  What effect will this possible bug have on earth and how will the debugging take place?  Will it also affect earth?  Eventually a new field of study emerges: one that is a combination of science, philosophy, and religion--the field of Empirical Theology. 


"Caveat Time Traveler"

This is a short story about time travel and some facts about human nature.  The title says it all:  Let Time Travelers Beware.  Human nature doesn't change.


"Lazarus Rising"
This is a tale of cryonics.  Carlos Forenza is 87 years old.  He has come in for his medical checkup.  If they find something that can't be cured or is extremely expensive to cure, they would put him into cryonic sleep and let the future decide when it was ready to deal with his problem.  They wouldn't even wake him to inform him of the situation.  But, something has gone wrong for he is awake, with his senses disconnected.  Clearly he has returned to consciousness before the process of putting him into cold sleep has been codmpleted.  Now, he has to regain control of his body and let them know that something had gone wrong.


"Isaac From The Outside"
This is a poem that brings in a number of  SF writers, one of whom, obviously, is Isaac Asimov.  The theme is simple:  one shouldn't make assumptions about a person from that person's writings.   The poem points out some inconsistencies between what these SF authors write about and how they live their own lives.

One topic covered is cryonics, about which many of these authors have written in various short stories and novels.  But, the poem goes one to ask the following: how many actually went beyond treating cryonics simply as a story element and looked into it as something they might actually consider for themselves? 

The next question should be the reader's question.  I've always considered cryonics simply as a story element.  But today there are companies in existence that will perform this service.  What about you?  Are you interested?

Hmmmm.  .  . I wonder how much it costs.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thomas Hardy: "A Nightmare, And The Next Thing

A Nightmare, And The Next Thing

On this decline of  Christmas Day
The empty street is fogg4ed and blurred:
The house-fronts all seem backwise turned
As if the outer world were spurned:
Voices and songs within are heard,
Whence red rays gleam when fires are stirred,
Upon this nightmare Christmas Day.

The lamps, just lit, begin to outloom
Like dandelion-globes in the gloom;
The stonework, shop-signs, doors, look bald:
Curious crude details seem installed,
And show themselves in their degrees
As they were personalities
Never discerned when the street was bustling
With vehicles, and farmers hustling.
Three clammy casuals wend their way
To the Union House.  I hear one say:
"Jimmy, this is a treat!  Hay-hay!"

Six laughing mouths, six rows of teeth,
Six  radiant pairs of eyes, beneath
Six yellow hats, looking out at the back
Of a waggonette on its slowed-down track
Up the steep street to some gay dance,
Suddenly interrupt my glance.

They do not see a gray nightmare
Astride the day, or anywhere.

-- Thomas Hardy --
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

Strange juxtaposition here--Christmas and a nightmare.  But, the nightmare seems to be that of someone who is alone.  With no one about, the familiar houses and buildings now suddenly seem strange.  There is no nightmare inside the houses where voices and songs are heard.  The three "casuals," on their way to a free meal are joyful as are the six in the waggonette heading for a dance.  The nightmare seems to be the exclusive property of one who is alone.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wallace Stevens: The Snow Man

             The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the juniper shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens --
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

One must be a part of nature--"One must have a mind of winter"-- to be able to look upon the winter scene and not invest it with human feelings--"and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind."   This is the pathetic fallacy, investing nature with human emotions, and it appears frequently in literature and in poetry and in common speech--the sullen cloudy sky, the raging storm, and the cheerful little breeze.

And, any who can avoid the pathetic fallacy "beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  In other words, this person sees only what is there and adds nothing to it.

I think this is what Emerson was saying in his essay, "Nature"  --.  .  .  nature is not always tricked  in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs is overspread with melancholy to-day.  Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.  To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire has sadness in it.  Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend.  The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

I think it is a reciprocal relationship in that we are influenced by what is about us and what we perceive is influenced by our feelings and thoughts at that moment.  Perhaps only a snow man can avoid the pathetic fallacy, "one with a mind of winter," one who is "nothing himself."   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXVIII

Second Edition: Quatrain XXVIII

Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
"The Flower should open with the Morning skies."
     And a retreating Whisper, as I awake--
"The Flower that once has blown forever dies."

This quatrain is yet another one that FitzGerald added to the Second Edition but then was dropped from the Third Edition.  What is also interesting is that the last line--"The Flower that once has blown forever dies"-- appears in the First Edition in Quatrain XXVI, but with three very different lines:

First Edition:  Quatrain XXVI

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
    One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

As you can see, the two quatrains have nothing in common, except for the last line.

The opening line refers to "Another Voice."  This refers us back to the previous quatrain in the second edition, Quatrain XXVII, in which a "Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,/'Fools! your Reward is neither  Here nor There,'";  the Here and the There refers to those who work for present and future rewards.  What seems confusing is the relationship between the two Voices and also the statements by the voices  in Quatrain XXVIII. Are they the same voice, one that "cries" when he is asleep and then again "whispers" when he awakes?

              Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
              "The Flower should open with the Morning skies."
                   And a retreating Whisper, as I awake--
              "The Flower that once has blown forever dies."

If he is asleep, then how does he know what this other Voice says?  Quatrain XXIX offers no help here, for it is almost identical to XXV in the First Edition in which this quatrain does not appear.
One point the quatrain seems to make is that, for flowers anyway, there is no reincarnation.  It blossoms and dies and does not return. 

This quatrain seems to have been just inserted, and it is, perhaps, for this reason that FitzGerald dropped it in later editions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Eric Hoffer: The Passionate State of Mind

No. 10

"The dislocation involved in switching from one passion to another--even its very opposite--is less than one wold expect.  There is a basic similarity in the make-up of all passionate minds.  The sinner who turns saint undergoes no more dramatic transformation than the lecher who turns miser."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

Essentially it seems that people who are passionate about something are much the same, be it sports,  politics, religion, music, wine, or anything you can think of.   It's only the object that is significantly different, not the emotion or intensity, for they are quite similar.  Is a fight between the supporters of two athletic teams any different really than a fight between supporters of two political philosophies or two religions?

Or at least that's what it seems to me he's saying. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Another Dream?

From Life is a Dream

We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream and I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life?  a tale that is told;
What is life?  a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams themselves are a dream.

-- Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681)
from  his play Life is a Dream
trans.  Arthur Symons

And speaking of plays and dreams, one mustn't forget Shakespeare.  Here Prospero refers to the illusions he's created for his daughter's wedding . . .
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
      The Tempest. Act 4, scene 1

.  .  . what else could he have in mind? 

Gregory Benford: more from Anomalies

Here are several more stories from Greg Benford's latest short story collection:  Anomalies

"Twenty-Two Centimeters"

This story plays with one of the present theories of the universe-- the membrane theory.  I'll quote from the story itself, as one of the characters expresses her problem with the theory, which is the same as mine.

"She did not really follow the theory; she was an astronaut.  It was hard enough to comprehend the mathematical guys  when they spoke English.  For them, the whole universe was a sheet of space-time, called 'brane' for membrane.  And there were other branes, spaced out along an unseen dimension.  Only gravity penetrated between those sheets.  All other fields, which meant all mass and light, was stuck to the branes."

The "physics guys" discovered another brane just twenty-two centimeters away from our universe, in another dimension, and signals emanating from it.  They developed a portal into the other universe and Julie and Al,  being astronauts, and not having to understand the theory or the mathematics, were chosen to pop through the portal and take a look.  And discover the source of those signals.  This is a first contact tale, rather unique I thought.  It also has a vivid description of the Counter-Earth and its inhabitants. 

"Applied Mathematical Theology"

Benford here plays with an important astronomical discovery that plays an important role in the present theory regarding the formation of the universe.  It is not a story with characters, but a journal article or something similar that gives an account of "(t)he discovery that the Cosmic Microwave Background has a pattern buried within it (which) unsettled the entire world."

     The temperature of this 2.7 K. emission left over from the Big Bang varies across the sky.  Temperature ripples can be broken into angular- co-ordinate Fourier components, and this is where radio astronomers found a curious pattern--a message, or at least, a pattern.  Spread across the microwave sky there was room in the detectable fluctuations for about 10,000 bits, or roughly a thousand words."

Naturally considerable controversy raged about the message, its creator(s) (if one), and implications to be drawn from this.  At first, the most disputed issue was its nature:was it a real message or just a random collection of fluctuations?

"One insight did come from this, however.  Benford's Law (not the author, and a real law), which states that the logarithms of artificial numbers are uniformly distributed, did apply to the tiny fluctuations. This proved that the primordial microwaves were not random, and so had been artificially encoded, perhaps by some even earlier process.  So there was a massage, of sorts."

It's a short article, almost three pages long and possesses a rather tongue-in-cheek resolution, which leaves everybody happy. 

"The Man Who Wasn't There"

This is a high-tech action story set a few decades in the future.  Islamic extremists are trying to reconquer Europe through the use of terrorist tactics and the courts.  Fully aware of the West's ability to intercept electronic communications, they have gone to a low-tech solution--human memory.  All plans and strategies are now committed to memory and communicated by certain Masters.  And, these masters are fully prepared to commit suicide rather than be captured.

The anti-terrorist squad has learned that one of these masters is now living in a compound in one of the suburbs of Paris.  They are preparing to attack the compound and have a few surprises in store for the terrorists.  One is an invisibility suit, comprised of optical fibers which transferred light waves around the suit.  However, it was still dangerous because it affected light only, not an actual object, such as a bullet. They also had one other surprise for the terrorist.

To get in and get the information, they have to be fast and efficient.

"The Final Now"

With a stretch, one might see this tale as a sequel to the earlier story,"Applied Mathematical Theology,"  a story about a message that seemed to be encoded within the Cosmic Microwave Background."  The message's existence had been thoroughly documented, but three questions still remained: who left the message, why was the message left, and what was the message.

The story begins:

He suddenly thought that they had not seen anyone for quite a while.  Amid the vast voyages, adventures, striking vistas--and yes, while basking in symphonies of sensation--they had not needed company.
        Even as twilight closed in.  But now--
        "Do you recall--?"  He asked, turning to Her, and could not recall an ancient name.  Names were unimportant, mere symbols, yes. . .but He did remember that names had existed to distinguish between multitudes.  When?  First task: to name the beasts.  When had He and She said that?

.  .  .
They were, of course, the two who gave tension to this finite, bounded existence.  This universeDuality was fundamental, as was helicity itself, which necessarily had to be included in this exponentially expanding space-time.

Creativity seems to require two--male and female.  They had also brought forth the Others, short-lived and limited creatures, but who yet had consciousness and intelligence.  These, however, were not completely separate beings for the Others were, in a sense, part of the He and the She.  They were brought forth to "To summon up insights that lie within the two of us, but that we cannot express overtly. To be vast meant having parts of yourself that you could not readily find.

He and She now realize that the universe is running downThey call forth one of the Others and tell him that the end time is near.  Upon hearing this, the Other said strongly, "I do not accept this."  At last, the point.  She said with love and deep feeling, "Then strive to alter."

 Perhaps this story provides the answers to the earlier story in the collection as "The Final Now" was published four years after "Applied Mathematical Theology."

Perhaps not.   

 Your thoughts?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Octavio Paz: some short poems


My steps along this street
             in another street
in which
              I hear my steps
passing along this street
in which

Only the mist is real

   -- Octavio Paz --

I have been in a thick fog or mist and there are strange sounds and strange visions immersed in there, along with me.


He walked among the crowds
on the Boulevard Sebasto',
thinking about things.
A red light stopped him.
He looked up:
the gray roofs, silver
among the brown birds,
a fish flew.
The light turned green.
As he crossed the street he wondered
what he'd been thinking.

         -- Octavio Paz --

I was not very alert when I first read this poem, but something bothered me about it--just couldn't put my finger on it.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn't find it until the third reading.  Perhaps I did see it the second time but refused to "see it."   Perhaps the colors distracted me as I read along--first red, then gray, followed by silver and then brown, with the silver being the only color that didn't immediately precede the noun it modified.  Who knows?  Maybe I'm just an inattentive reader at times (only at times I hope.)


              not on the branch
in the air
               Not in the air
in the moment

                  -- Octavio Paz --

A hummingbird--it's here, and then somewhere else, and then gone.

This one is very much like a haiku, or so it struck me.  I remembered it when I came across the following poem:

Basho An                                                 Basho An

The whole world fits in-                          El mundo cabe                       
to seventeen syllables,                             en diecisiete silabas:
and you in this hut.                                  tu en esta choza.

Straw thatch and tree trunks:                   Troncos y paja:
they come in through the crannies:          por las rendijas entran
Buddhas and insects.                                Budas e insectos.

Made out of thin air,                                 Hecho de aire
between the pines and the rocks               entre pinos y rocas
the poem sprouts up.                                 brota el poema.

An interweaving                                        Entretejidas  
of vowels and the consonants:                   vocales, consonantes:
the house of the world.                              casa del mundo.

Centuries of bones,                                    Heusos de siglos,
mountains: sorrow turned to stone:           penas ya pen~as, montes:
here they are weightless.                           aqui no pesan.

What I am saying                                      Esto quie digo
barely fills up the three lines:                    son apenas tres lineas:
hut of syllables.                                          choza de silabas. 

                                     -- Octavio Paz --

The first and third lines consist of five syllables while the second line has seven--the seventeen syllables of a class haiku.  In the fifth stanza, the second "penas" should have a tilde over the "n."

Basho, of course, is the most famous haiku poet in Japan.  I once purchased a book titled The Haiku Masters and was surprised to find that Basho was not included among them.  The editor in the Introduction explained that the Masters are those superior haiku poets who are second to Basho, who is not a haiku master, but the Haiku Poet.


A butterfly flew between the cars,
Marie Jose said:  it must be Chuang Tzu,
on a tour of New York.
                                       But the butterfly
didn't know it was a butterfly
dreaming it was Chuang Tzu
                                                or Chuang Tzu
dreaming he was a butterfly.
The butterfly never wondered:
                                                  it flew.

                  --  Octavio Paz --

This, of course, refers to a famous saying by Chuang Tzu, some thousands of years ago, in which he supposedly comments on the nature of reality--that one can't tell the difference between reality and a dream.  He said that once he dreamt he was a butterfly and then awoke, and couldn't decide whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu or Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly.  I always believed he was satirizing those pompous sages whose wise utterances consisted of obscure formulations.  They always reminded me of the following:
Seek clarity--        and you gain wisdom.
Seek wisdom--      and you gain obscurity.
Seek obscurity--    and you gain followers.

Octavio, of course, has many long poems, but those are for another day.

Which, if any, are the most interesting to you, and why?

All poems come from The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, edited by Eliot Weinberger and published as a New Directions Paperback in 1991.  Most translations are by Eliot Weinberger.