Thursday, September 25, 2014

Oregon's science fiction landscape

During the mid-1950s a journalist named Frank Herbert flew to Florence, Oregon to conduct research for an article. His subject: the use of poverty grasses to control the drifting migration of sand dunes.

By the time he left Florence Herbert had developed a fascination with ecological engineering. An interest that would drive him to write one of the all time best-selling novels in science fiction.

I finally got around to reading the first three follow-on Dune novels this summer: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. They're good. Very good, even though they lack the depth of Dune itself.

Each mostly follows a conspiracy to its ruin or fulfillment over the course of weeks or a few months. Nothing as epic as the semi-mystical enlightenment, vast sweep of planetary engineering, and years-long dynastic conflicts that made the first novel such an experience. And nowhere near the level of intense character development that accompanied the rise of the Fremen messiah, Paul Mau'dib. Revisiting this series, I immediately saw why I had such a hard time finishing the relatively terse and dry Dune Messiah as a twenty-something

That said, the follow-on books pull off a mind-bending exploration of post-human entities writen decades before post-humanism became a staple of the genre. A journey-look that kept me fully engaged this time around, a few years down the road.

By the mid-1960s Herbert was well along in exploring the headspace of humans who sense and conceptualize the world in ways not accessible to most of their family members, let alone the masses they rule as semi-divine sovereigns -- or as an apex predator in the case of Leto. At the same time, these are characters who remain anchored in the human world, even though it's a cultural and biological space in which Paul, Alia, Ghanima, and Leto II experience enormous difficulty making their intentions understood.

These ruling Atreidies are products of genetic augmentation through a centuries-long breeding program. Though environmental factors including the spice melange and their upbringing as nobility play a role in the expression and mastery of their powers.

On the often lethal stage of intrigue and war they mostly contend with other orders of enhanced human intelligence. The Bene Gesserit remain powerful actors on the extreme edges of human potential thanks to their refined training regime with its synergies of mind and body. The Guildsmen, enhanced by both specialization mutations and constant spice ingestion, share something of the Atreidies' prescient abilities as well as the dangers that go hand-in-glove with oracular powers. However, they experience nothing of the complex internal communal lives that the pre-born twins and Alia struggle to master. At the same time the trained superhuman empathy of the Facedancers makes the Teliaxians more dangerous to the other factions than even their shape shifting or advanced biotechnology. The only rivals to all of these enhanced or post-humans are technologists who are largely kept off screen and bounded by legalistic restrictions during the first four books.

It's this tense ecology of trans-, post-, and training-enhanced human intelligences that helps make the Dune universe such an exotic and high-concept place.

The three follow-on novels are very much worth your time if you're interested in byzantine politics, the viewpoints of post-humans living among humans, or just seeing what becomes of the Atreidies dynasty over the course of three thousand years. The biggest letdown, for me, is that the elite female adepts of the great schools and the post-human women of the Atreidies all end up foils for their male counterparts.

The novels are most definitely products of their time in that they ascribe several character traits and viewpoints to inherent differences between the sexes.

There are, in fact, some consistent differences between the sexes that we've zeroed in on over the fifty years since Dune was published. However, these are almost all subtle, exist largely on the borders of statistical significance, are often counter-intuitive. They're also best understood within an even larger spectrum of biology and culture that doesn't match up with the cultural assumptions that underlay the system of superhuman powers and military structure in the Dune novels. In God Emperor, Herbert's exploration of the differences between men and women in military environments is driven far more by Freudian psychology than historical militaries or anything found in biology.

All of that said, Frank Herbert was still a pioneer in the sheer amount of screen time and internal narration that he gives female characters. These books are, after all, 1960s and 70s science fiction novels. At that time women were often embodied ideals as seen by men in the pages of the genre, rather than actual characters whose perspective we get to inhabit. Herbert was well ahead of nearly all his peers in climbing that particular curve.

Even at a time when we've gone from seeing human nature as discrete poles to a spectrum with distributed probabilities, these novels are still well worth picking up. Largely because they offer a no-holds-barred glimpse of humanity as it might become, rather than what it was once thought to be.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Global entanglements

Those of us born between the end of World War II and the year 2000 grew up in what was probably one of the most peaceful periods of human history. That might sound like a gross oversight given some of the genuinely horrific events of those fifty plus years. After all, the best we can hope for is that the depredations of Mao killed only 30 million citizens of the People's Republic of China during the late 1950s. The separation of India and Pakistan set off waves of forced human displacement on a scale that dwarfed the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s in Eastern Europe and Africa. While the Cold War remained frozen in a tense deadlock in Europe for nearly four decades, clashes elsewhere between Soviet- and US-backed states or forces claimed the lives of millions in developing countries.

In the aftermath of the second world war there was much ongoing bloodshed in a world deeply wounded by 19th century imperialism and which continued to be wracked by conflicts spawned from Europe's totalitarian ideologies. Yet compared to the two centuries that preceded it, the Post War Era was considerably more peaceful. There were no direct wars between the great and superpower states, aside from short and clashes along borders, such as those between China and the Soviet Union during the late 60s. De-colonization reached its conclusion, and nothing remotely approaching the scale or intensity of 19th century imperialism took its place. Perhaps most importantly we not only avoided a third world war, but the intensity of wars dropped off.

The overall frequency of wars killing more people than present day traffic accidents has gone down dramatically following the end of World War II. In an even longer view, conflicts between nation-states during this period took place at a rate far lower than those occurring between early states, chieftainships, ancient empires, and tribal societies throughout much of the world.

This is certainly not a universally accepted thesis. Especially among those who view US participation in the Cold War and it's more recent military involvements abroad as crypto- or not-so-crypto imperialism. Others make an interesting argument that while the creation of modern bureaucratized states has lowered the frequency of war, it's also lead to a sharp rise in lethality of armed conflict when practiced by wealthier countries.

For me, an overall decline in human violence is an idea I feel largely comfortable accepting given the sheer scale of past wars and violent upheavals back when affected populations were vastly smaller. That, and when looking at the dramatic decline in homicides that accompanied the recent development of professional police forces. While far from complete, historic data, archaeological evidence, and (much more questionably) the paleo fossil record for humanity point toward a dramatic plunge in the number of deaths per 100,000 people attributable to war or peacetime murder.

Not coincidentally, a significant part of this decline took place in an age of unprecedented and deliberate global economic integration. This network of institutions and agreements was established by members of three generations who had paid an appalling human cost during two world wars, and who feared a possible dark age or even extinction level event that might accompany a third global conflagration.

Stringing the Loom

While the United Nations is the most visible and well-known diplomatic institution from that period, it was the cooperative monetary and trade agreements that did the most to enforce the peace between industrial, and more recently, post-industrial states. Primarily by deep entanglement via trade and making critical natural resources reliably available in international markets, rather than through the uncertainties of imperial maneuvering, conquest, and the small wars abroad that lead up to the cataclysm of World War I.

In this cooperative environment, European democracies with long histories of colonial rivalry and warring with one another as monarchies made it through the Post War Period and achieved a profound economic integration without armed conflict. At the same time, nations including Brazil, China, Ireland, Singapore, and South Korea successfully modernized, or at least brought modernization to large sections of their populations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union during the final decade of the period, the once widespread dread of World War III suddenly became almost quaint.

It's telling that instances of large-scale violence in the aftermath of the Cold War took place almost entirely in nations and failed states only loosely integrated into the global economy. The major exception was the 1991 war between Iraq and a coalition bent on preventing a major disruption to Persian Gulf oil supplies.

This successes of this system were not without their costs. During the 1950 and 60s open trade was a boon to the working class here in the United States, but the subsequent migration of industrial production overseas helped contribute to a long-term decline in blue collar wages and upward mobility. The movement of industry from democracies with strong environmental and workers rights regulations has also created environmental catastrophes in developing nations along with the re-emergence of sweat shop labor on scale not seen since the low points of the first industrial revolution during the 1800s.

It's also well worth noting that this cooperation and integration has been a driver for many of the economic activities and consumption patterns presently changing our planet's weather and oceans.

Wear, Tear, and Forgetfulness 

The Post War system of international cooperation that's helped keep the peace between major powers has been showing signs of fraying lately. In part from technological developments and deregulation that have made the world so tightly integrated that vast sums of capital can now flow between nations and reside offshore beyond the ability of states to regulate or effectively control. Some of the great powers have also recently staked open or apparent claims to ocean and land territories outside their borders, well beyond anything recognized under international law or tradition. This is taking place at time when cyberwarfare weapons allow states to hit each others' financial systems and national infrastructure with little warning and varying degrees of deniability. That, and to strike across distances that previously formed effective barriers to conflict.

Even more worrisome, the generations able to recall firsthand the devastation of great power warfare have largely passed away.

Just as depressing, in the West the economic institutions and agreements that made much of the current prosperity and peace possible have come under sustained fire from both sides of the political spectrum. The far right and even members of the moderate right often see voluntary international institutions as violations of national sovereignty, or even part of a sinister conspiracy against their homelands. Members of the present day left in Europe and North America often deride the mid 20th-century treaties and institutions of economic cooperation as extensions of the very imperialism they were meant to help end. There's certainly a wide lack of recognition on that side the political aisle here in the US that it was earlier generations of statesmen and activists largely on the left who were the proponents and architects of the international cooperative system.

At this point it's too early to pronounce the system in terminal or even steep decline. At the same time, a widespread failure of popular imagination around the world to compare the stability of Post War economic cooperation with the chronic warfare and financial upheaval that proceeded it is deeply worrying. However cliche it might sound, people who fail to look to the past risk the tragedy of repeating its worst episodes.