Archive for January, 2009

Oppenheimer bio on PBS

Posted in history, history of technology on January 31, 2009 by Matt

PBS in the last week aired a new documentary, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that captures well the great importance of Oppenheimer’s life in recent history, and how his story reflected the history of the world around him.

Oppenheimer’s story is one of the great parables of 20th century history. He grew up in an environment that encouraged careful consideration of morality and ethics. He breezed through school, struggling only in the laboratories of Cambridge, and became a respected academic as a professor at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He read widely in philosophy and eastern religion, but was involved in politics mainly as a sympathizer with various “causes” of the time. Then, during the war, he was scientific director of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb, and advocated for its use in the war. After the war, he became a respected advisor to the government on nuclear and scientific issues. But, when he advocated diplomacy with the Soviets to regulate development of the “super” or hydrogen bomb, the H-bomb’s supporters dug up incidents from his past to paint him as a Communist, and drove him out of the government. I can think of no other biography that so clearly illustrates the hazards of attempting to live a life based on nuanced convictions; and the danger to society of losing its greatest potential leaders if we allow zealots and partisans of any kind to villify the advocates of a carefully chosen middle path.

Compared to the biography American Prometheus, one of whose authors is interviewed in the film, The Trials is naturally not as complete, since two hours of television can’t possibly deliver the same depth as a 600 page book. The documentary also puts substantially more emphasis on the difficulties of Oppenheimer’s personality, his vicious verbal put-downs of fellow academics and clumsy relations with women, all perhaps rooted in a hidden lack of confidence. The television film is also less sympathetic to Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who is descibed as “an additional burden” during their years at Los Alamos.

The documentary does well at compressing the story of Oppenheimer’s youth, and detailing his early scientific life. It also gives a clear account of the reasons for his choice as Los Alamos lab director. In explaining the details of Oppenheimer’s feud with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss, the film is somewhat less than detailed about Oppenheimer’s position in relation to H-bomb development and diplomatic alternatives to maintain a balance of power with the Soviets without creating the super-weapon. Strauss’s and Teller’s enmity in the end led to his losing his security clearance and thus his position as advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission.

In addition to American Prometheus, there are of course many other biographies available, and in fact the transcript of the hearings that led to Oppenheimer’s dismissal from government was also published by the Atomic Energy Commission. Probably one of my dumbest shopping moves ever was not buying the transcripts when I saw them at BookBuyers used books in Mountain View. However, if you don’t have time for a book, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an excellent introduction into one of the most important stories in history, and highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, World War II, or the cold war.


Chinese Profiles

Posted in books, china, oral history on January 29, 2009 by Matt

I found the book Chinese Profiles, by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, randomly at the local used book shop. Dating to 1986, what was written as a book on contemporary Chinese culture has become a book of oral history.

The book is composed of 100 interviews with “ordinary Chinese”, taken over about a year leading up to publication. The “ordinary Chinese” include everyone from recent graduates unable to find work (a huge group at the time) to the brother of the last emperor of China, then a member of Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

In several of these interviews we see the beginning of present-day China. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were underway, and many of the speakers are engaged in private (or semi-private) business, working as hard as they can for a few extra yuan, and hoping to become the next 10,000 yuan household.

Another reflection on today is an interview with a magazine editor who mentions plans by “the authorities” to “stamp out ‘indecent’ magazines”, making the recent crackdown on “vulgar and unhealthy” websites look like business as usual.

Many of the subjects recall the cultural revolution, and another theme is the relative openness that allows these Chinese to reflect on those times more freely than before. We hear about “struggle sessions”, “going down to the countryside”, “learning from Dazhai”, etc., with somewhat guarded, but surprising, honesty about both positive and negative results. Probably even when the book was written both the authors and their subjects realized how quickly this openness could be reversed, as happened a few years later.

Definitely worthwhile if you’re interested in understanding Chinese culture and how it evolved to where it is today.

Asimov’s, March 2009

Posted in magazines, sf with tags on January 25, 2009 by Matt

This month’s Asimov’s is a mixed bag, with some excellent short pieces, but with the longer works trying to carry novel-weight heapings of characters and plot in their novella word-counts.

“Act One”, by Nancy Kress, a novella about natural and artificial genetic change (she doesn’t say “mutation”), how they affect their carriers, and how society reacts to them. The story is narrated by Barry, the business manager of Jane Snow, a Hollywood star who is now no longer young enough to get the bulk of movie roles for women. Barry is afflicted with achondroplasia dwarfism, which causes many of the people around him to react unpleasantly. When a shadowy organization called “The Group” begins introducing a genetic “enhancement” to the children of the willing rich, and then later a disease that causes genetic modifications in adults, Barry’s condition gives him a special viewpoint on these developments. The story is cleanly written, and the many characters well drawn, though perhaps the sheer number of characters is more appropriate to a novel than this shorter piece.

“Intelligence”, by R. Neube is a somewhat dark comedy that explores what happens when artificial intelligence turns out to be just as limited as the natural kind. Both the somewhat slow-witted human narrator, and his nearly-as-dense computer friend dig themselves progressively deeper into trouble through a series of wrong moves. This one is worth it for its uncommon look at AI.

Holly Phillips’s “The Long, Cold Goodbye” is the story of a woman trying to meet up with an old friend before leaving her home town in the face of some unexplained approaching catastrophe. The story leaves much unexplained, perhaps trying to keep its fantastic elements mysterious in the way of Gene Wolfe, but it ended up leaving me more confused than enchanted.

“Slow Stampede”, by Sara Genge, presents a finely-imagined world of bandits raiding caravans of immense “swamp elephants” on a low-gravity planet. The main character is well developed and very realistic, as a young bandit chafing at the authority of his tribe; but maybe he’s too self-confident and amoral to win our sympathy. He is also the only character to really be developed (perhaps reflecting his own self-centered point of view). The story ends with his marrying a character who has not been developed beyond a brief sketch. This, and other loose ends, makes the story feel incomplete. On the other hand, if this is an excerpt from a novel, there is plenty to build on here.

“Whatness”, by Benjamin Crowell, is an excellent short-short piece about efforts to clean up after a small mistake that manages to destroy all of space and time.

Finally, Harry Turtledove’s “Getting Real”, is a turnabout on history set in near future L.A. The turnabout is a replaying of the origins of the 19th century opium war, but now the USA is the backward and inward looking fading power, and China is the more-advanced superpower forcing vice on its victim. The plot moves along well, but is somewhat heavy-handed in linking up with history. As in Kress’ story, there are more characters than can be adequately developed in this story, though here the various p.o.v. shifts are handled more adeptly. Finally, the references to Chinese culture are somewhat clumsy, for example in naming the main Chinese character “Hu Zhiaoxing”, neglecting that zhiao is not a valid Mandarin syllable, (jiao is possible). So this name becomes a really uncommon three-syllable form: zhi-ao-xing, more easily pronounceable by Americans if written as “dzr-ow-sying”, which is really a mouthful. There seems to be a trend going to give characters names beginning with “zh” to gain that currently trendy exotic Chinese feel.

Of course, Asimov’s also has poetry, with “Cabaret” by J. E. Stanley being the standout this month, and columns, including further reflections on the work of Olaf Stapledon by Robert Silverberg.

Asimov’s, February, 2009

Posted in magazines, scifi on January 23, 2009 by Matt

Another late review, but what the heck… I’ll keep it short.

There are three stories to highlight here. The first is “Colliding branes” by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling, about two bloggers who get together to share the end of the world. The authors have great fun at the expense of the blogging sub-culture.

Next up is the beautiful but melancholy “The bird painter in time of war”, by Carol Emshwiller. Like much of Emshwiller’s work this one requires some emotional preparation to fully appreciate, but is quite rewarding.

The third notable story here is Steven Utley’s “The point”. I started out thinking this was yet another trip to the Silurian Epoch from Utley, possibly with some names changed for contractual reasons; but I was right to stick around for the ending, where a nice twist rescues the story.

Lois Tilton in IRoSF more or less sums up the remaining stories in the magazine: “Pelago” by Judith Berman, “The coldest war” by Matthew Johnson, and “the certainty principle” by Colin P. Davies. It looks as if she and I have agreed about everything here except Emshwiller’s story.

Other reviews appeared in The Fix, Suite 101, …

William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary

Posted in history, history of technology with tags , , , , on January 20, 2009 by Matt

note: Learned my first blogging lesson: Don’t post too quickly… after sleeping on this, I realized it could benefit from substantial revision.

Berlin Diary is a record of Shirer’s six years as a CBS radio reporter in Europe, as the Nazi occupation developed. It is also largely a history of Nazi propaganda and how it led the German people to war and villainy against the minorities among them. Americans often forget the history of the origins of the second World War, and of the first two years of the war, when America remained neutral. Here we see these years, until December of 1940, from the point of view of an anti-Nazi, but officially neutral, American observer.

As read today, the book chronicles an inevitable march of events, as the German support of the Spanish Fascists, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and the capture of the Sudetenland and Anschluss of Austria, without significant opposition from France or England (or the U.S.) leads to the eventual outbreak of war on the invasion of Poland, then months of “Phoney War”, and finally the invasion and collapse of Holland, Belgium, and then France. The book ends with Germany and the U.K. engaged in a war of bombers and propaganda, with Shirer leaving Germany feeling censorship had tightened to the point of making his position as a reporter irrelevant. Of course, when written, this was all current events, and part of the public debate in America on joining the war.

Shirer gives us a view of the Germans’ reactions and attitudes as this history unfolded. He also highlights the role of propaganda in forming German public opinion. Shirer shows how even when people don’t trust their news sources, knowing they are providing only propaganda, they are still influenced by them. He shows how the Nazis led Germans to believe that violence was justified in response to any slight against Germany, but that other nations were foolish to defend themselves with force against German invasion.

These elements of the story are probably the most valuable today. They show how dehumanizing our neighbors enables us to act horrifically, and they probably apply to every international (or civil) conflict that has lead to war since Shirer’s time.

Shirer also discusses the censorship he had to work under as a broadcaster. For instance, at some point the Germans realized that the term “Nazi” had acquired a negative connotation in the U.S., so they forbid him to use it in his broadcasts. Once the war had started, and British bombers were attacking Berlin regularly, they supplied the broadcast studio with a special “lip mic” that required Shirer to talk so close to the microphone that the outside sounds of falling bombs and anti-aircraft fire could not be heard, thus avoiding the perception that England could successfully attack them.

One omission seems strange today: the status of Jews in Hitler’s Germany is mentioned only obliquely. Shirer did investigate, and report on, Nazi exterminations of the mentally disabled, but events such as Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, in which Germans rioted across the company and tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps, are utterly ignored. Shirer only seems to notice the flood of refugees attempting to leave Europe (and finding few safe harbors) as the German army pushed outward. Was Shirer unaware of the extent of Nazi persecution, or did he think these crimes were so monstrous they could not be believed by his audience in America? Did he think that emphasis on the fate of Europe’s Jews would not be received sympathetically, and thus engaged in a bit of propaganda himself by downplaying it in the book?

In a much less momentous aspect, the book is also fascinating from the point of view of history of technology, because it goes into detail about the difficulty of broadcasting with the technology of the day, and some of the innovations Shirer (with colleague Edward R. Murrow) introduced to radio news reporting. At the time, broadcast facilities were limited to only a few stations in each European country, and Shirer had to have the cooperation of the German broadcast service to transmit his “talks” to the CBS New York station by shortwave for re-broadcast in America. Before they were invaded, Shirer made a point of encouraging Czech and Polish authorities to complete their own shortwave facilities to enable communication with the west in the event of war.

In the methods of broadcast news, Shirer also describes innovations made while he was in Berlin. For example, when he was hired, CBS’s policy was that its own news employees would not speak on the air, but only invite others, mostly newspaper journalists, to speak. Shirer (again, with Murrow) realized that in the event of war the newspapers would not scoop themselves by allowing their reporters to give their stories on the radio, and so managed to get the CBS rule changed at roughly the time of the Austrian Anschluss.

All-in-all, this 69-year-old book is still engaging, illuminating both the brutal consequences of propaganda-fueled nationalism, and, in a secondary thread of history, the technical means of carrying the news across continents. The Nazis may have employed propaganda in its most extreme forms, but this book should remind us to step back once in a while from everything we read, most importantly from news reflecting views we believe in ourselves, and check if we’re being manipulated by emotional words, selective reporting, or even outright lies.

F&SF going bi-monthly

Posted in magazines, sf on January 19, 2009 by Matt

A week late, I just saw this notice from the publishers, indicating Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine will change to a bi-monthly schedule, starting with the April (now April/May), 2009, issue.

Total pages for the year will be reduced by 10%. Presumably advertising will go down, since most of their ads are for new book releases, which aren’t going to double up in a single issue.

I hope this works out for F&SF, because they have consistently been the best source out there for the style of SF I enjoy, with the most polished authors.

Interzone 220

Posted in interzone, magazines, sf on January 19, 2009 by Matt

Just finished Interzone 220; blew through it, except for the first story, which I read last night, in one sitting. Overall, I’d say this issue is one of the better ones I’ve seen from IZ, with almost all the stories showing true professional craftsmanship.

First up is Jason Stoddard‘s “Monetized”. The premise is a world where every human interaction is a potential micro-marketing opportunity, brokered by omnipresent software agents carried in wearable (or implanted?) computers, a nice extrapolation from current “guerrilla marketing” techniques. The story itself is really pulling together pieces of a lot of other stories we’ve seen before, but its well-executed, and concluded with a satisfying twist.

Next is “Sinner, baker, fabulist, priest; red mask, black mask, gentleman, beast” by Eugie Foster, which I’d pick as the best of the issue. The story is about a society where, each day, citizens must don a different mask and play out a role associated with that mask. The first few roles of the first-person narrator, which include some rather extreme types, set the scene well, and also demonstrate his(?) complete lack of personality beneath the mask. This leads in to a reasonably simple plotline which reveals the mechanisms behind the mask society. A fantastic piece of worldbuilding.

Following Foster’s excellent piece is Rudy Rucker‘s “After everything woke up”, the greatest disappointment of this issue. Rucker is surely the biggest name in the issue, and hopefully that name sold a lot of copies for IZ, but this story doesn’t hold up. The idea is that after we “unfurl” the eighth dimension, we’ll be able to read the innermost thoughts of every object around us. This produces a fantasy of the order of a happy, smiling sun shining down on happy, woody trees and happy, rocky stones; but, oh dear!, Mr. Stream is grumpy. The idea of emotional inanimate objects is explained in terms of quantum mechanical computational potential, which neglects the fact that a stream needs all the quantum mechanical computational potential it’s got just to fall down hill. The fact that Rucker presents this kind of story not as fantasy, but as a likely near-future scenario, pushes it over the willing-suspension-of-disbelief line for me.

Following is the short “Spy vs. spy” by Neil Williamson. A clever story of Wile E. Coyote’s paranoid human alter ego in the era of Web 2.0.

Next is “Miles to Isengard” by Leah Bobet. It’s a kind of road-trip adventure with a message. A group of friends has stolen a nuclear weapon and are driving it across country in a rented big-rig truck, with intentions that aren’t revealed until the end. There’s musings on a immoral and over-protective government (that will hopefully seem dated in a couple of years), interesting character interactions, all well written into a smoothly plotted story.

The final story of the magazine is “Memory dust” by Gareth L. Powell. This is a golden-age throwback, complete with spaceships whose paint is “scoured to ash by the pitiless fires of hyperspace, a ruined alien city “like a smashed chadelier”, and an alien “last surviving member of its race”. In the end the merciless unhuman enemy resolves into something quite at home in modern sf. It’s a fine story, but if the hyperbolic tone of the quotes I’ve mentioned above could have carried through the entire story, it could have been a much bigger winner with me.

Finally, there’s an interview with Jeffrey Ford, whose work I don’t know, but which I’m now encouraged to look out for; and reviews that seem a bit more even-handed than last time—the most intriguing being for Fernando Meirelles’ film Blindness.