Innovation and Ideation

8034188Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of material to discuss with this book, and I have gone off on several tangents in my rather extensive notes. As a result, this book review is only complete here, on my blog, where the more religious comments will not distract folks who are simply looking for a book review.

First, general comments: I like the book. I rented it from the library at my office, but I am considering purchasing it because of the wealth of information it supplies–especially information that is inordinately useful for an author of science fiction. The development of ideas is a crucial study for anyone who wants to suggest what future ideas will be; I think that I have benefited well from reading this book, and especially recommend it to anyone interested in the history of ideation or its possible future (i.e., science fiction). (It’s also good reading for anyone looking to form an environment that promotes innovation–you know, the intended audience of the book.)

There are very few typographical errors; I can only recall two, but I do not have the quotes or page numbers on hand. The book is very well-written; Mr. Johnson has no trouble formulating his prose. Now on to more specific comments:

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you start this book is that it spends a lot of time talking about evolution. Mr. Johnson’s argument is that ideation (the development or “evolution” of ideas) is largely similar to biological evolution (as are cultural and social development). I, personally, have no training in the field of evolutionary biology, so I can hardly comment on these issues. Many people agree with them, many others don’t. From what little I do know, he does not misrepresent the point, and it plays well into his subject matter (i.e., he’s not mentioning it to be confrontational, but rather, he has good reason to do so in the context of his book).

One of the great things about this book is that it highlights the way great story ideas coalesce–especially notable is the “Slow Hunch” chapter. Frequently, I don’t come up with the best novel idea ever in a flash. I come up with a good idea, and then I let it sit for a while and think about other things. Eventually, another idea–whether one I’ve had recently or very long ago–will collide with it, and I’ll have an even more complex, more gratifying story. For every one of the ideas I have (which I fully intend to write, sooner or later), this has happened at one point or another. I’ll think, “This song is inspiring. I should write a story that incorporates some of these ideas.” And then I’ll hear a saint’s life that lines up with that idea precisely. I’ll read someone else’s work, or postulate theories about the end times, or read a non-fiction book about French pirates in 18th century New Orleans, or devise a science fiction universe with my best friend, and things will come together to form a solid book idea. It’s great.

On the other hand, something that I think Mr. Johnson does not devote enough attention to is the formative and inspirational power of others’ literary works. His focus is primarily on inculcating an environment of liquid networks, where information flows freely and people share data, to produce the largest “adjacent possible” and lead to the greatest innovations. What he does not acknowledge (or at least not explicitly) is that a liquid network can form within a single mind, not just between neurons, but among the great minds of history. Theology, philosophy, science–all can be formed, adapted, expanded by studying people who have been dead for a century or more. He might relegate this to the contemplative life for which no one has any time anymore (a lament he makes when wishing that we could all spend our lives focused on developing ideas, as Darwin and Berners-Lee could), but even with a family, there is always enough free time to engage in study and contemplation… You just have to choose that over, say, watching another movie on cable or hitting “next episode” on Netflix or Hulu. Time is about choice, not constraint. Most people do not actually lack free will regarding their daily activities.

He does discuss the value of reading when it comes to the exploration and collision of ideas (pp112-113), but this is in brief. His main focus is the exploration–moving beyond the confines of daily activity–and the lament that most people don’t have time for reading. Again, make time. Also, he praises the web for its capacity to make connections (and responds to arguments that the Internet reduces serendipity by hyper-focusing everything); this is his true ideal for reading, that people find topics randomly and search for more information, not that they pursue the ideas of the ancients. It’s a component, but not a very large one. Perhaps he would argue that it’s excellent to use literature to formulate and combine ideas, but it is an incomplete architecture that does not afford every opportunity for liquid networking, slow hunches, and random connection.

Long story short, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it for purposes of (A) creating an environment that encourages innovation, (B) studying ideation in a historical narrative and imagining what may come about in the future, or (C) better understanding viewpoints that are certainly widely held among people with whom you disagree (supposing you disagree with the content of the book). Read on for more exploration of the subjects and my many digressions on matters of religion.

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Now, to my focus on religion:

I did develop a notable complaint from a very small comment he made at one point. He suggested that monastic orders in the time between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance “controlled” information in a manner that was too ordered (no pun intended) to allow for innovation; this is his reasoning for the apparent lack of innovation during that time frame. Ignoring for a moment that innovation did not cease during that time, I thought it important to note that these methods also protected information and innovation from the clutches of the barbarian hordes, who would surely have been too chaotic to produce innovation. Barbarians of the era had no interest in liquid networks or ideation of the scientific or classical varieties. Khan’s empire produced some fine military innovations, but nothing on the order of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

In the same vein, he does include the perfunctory (and essential, for such books) statement about Galileo–whose “research posed a significant security threat to the established powers of the day” (p226). I suppose he’s not wrong when he writes, “Classifying two hundred good ideas into four broad quadrants certainly makes it harder to learn anything specific about each individual innovation” (also p226). He seems to know very little about the history of Galileo.

The fourth chapter of the book discusses chaotic coincidence, or serendipity. The goal of a liquid network, and especially one firing ideas chaotically across its expanse, is to formulate new ideas in ways that ordered, logical thinking could never attain. The Catholic Church has a great history of this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, baptized the work of Aristotle in a way that no one though prudent or even plausible before him–especially since Muslims like Averroes had claimed Aristotle as their philosophical predecessor. The eternal and seminal Logos, the creative Word, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the homoousios, the resurrection–every theological and christological idea has roots in other philosophies, other theologies–in innovation and chaos. And if heresy isn’t chaotic, nothing is–this production of alternate paths and ideas among bishops and priests and religious and laity produces exactly the sort of environment that led to the strongest theological foundations of our faith. Even moral and anthropological clarifications came by these means; the fundamental understanding of human life from conception to natural death would not have been formulated without the pushback from society that claimed the acceptability of eliminating inconvenient persons. Even the scientific development of prenatal study is tied to this very issue.

Far be it from me to suggest that we should encourage heresy and abominable immoral practices, that our understanding of our faith may increase (Romans 6:1). But as with sin and grace, we should not flee these “opportunities” offered us by society; we should not sully our faith, obscure our position, or hide the fact that we disagree with what society has claimed. If the President of the United States declares that we must pay for the deaths of human beings who have committed no wrongdoing in society, let us take up the mantle of Justin Martyr, and explain to him–in his own terms, by his own logic and belief–why he is wrong and cannot do this thing. After all, Justin convinced the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius to lessen his persecution of the Christians. (We must also keep in mind, of course, that Marcus Aurelius’ empire saw Justin executed. We will not always be on the winning side when it comes to society’s persecutions.) If groups of the faithful declare that homosexuality is as viable and natural a relationship as orthosexuality (from orthos, meaning “right” – cf. orthodoxy, orthopraxy), we address their argumentation clearly and accurately; nothing is gained by going off half-cocked and rambling on these issues in interviews. And we must always remember the Church’s response to heresy, historically: excommunication. People who teach these things must be removed from among the faithful–not because we seek to stifle the liquid network, the flow of ideas, or the innovative power of chaos, but because universities don’t hire astronomers who hold a terracentric view of the universe or physicists who teach that fire rises because it’s trying to reach the source of the fire element (the Sun). There are chaotic and creative ideas, and then there are just plain wrong ideas. Heresies fall in the latter category, and must be excised.

In his discussion of exaptation (cf. adaptation; “exaptation” is the use of an object or body part for a purpose totally removed from its original function–feathers originally grown for warmth became useful for flight, for example), he explains that this principle is key in rebutting intelligent design, because it is precisely the random nature of exaptation–the accidental discovery that your blanket, when asymmetrical, provides lift and improves flight speed–that makes macroevolution not only possible, but obvious. He goes on to explain, though, that human beings use exaptation as engineers; Gutenberg combined a wine press and movable type (among other things), invented long before he came along, to produce copious numbers of duplicate texts. While fortune plays a significant part in both scientific and cultural advancements (see his previous chapter on error), exaptation occurs frequently by intention and by design.

In a way, he’s unintentionally arguing against himself. It is an easy leap to go from saying that human beings design via exaptation (which involves many inventors with small pieces of the whole picture), to saying that Creation is the inventive process of a single eternal designer; the intermediary steps, so lauded by atheists as evidence of error in an inerrant God, would be the necessary movement through the adjacent possible. Intelligent design, though despised by so many on both sides of the origin argument, at least seems to stand on its own in the face of scientific principles. Whether it is right or wrong, of course, I cannot say.

Inevitably, this reminds me of one of the great failings of the Protestant approach to theology–the notion of individual, indiscriminate spiritual guidance. Is it possible that the Holy Spirit can speak to anyone, anytime, about anything, with perfect clarity? Absolutely. Does it happen as often as people claim it does? Probably not. I noticed this phenomenon most acutely on a social media network recently; someone had linked to an interview about a book by a prominent non-Christian on the identity of Jesus. The issue that came up was the discussion (by the author of the book) of christology and Christian theology. There was an argument in several comments that the author lacked the appropriate education and training, because his educational field was almost entirely unrelated to that subject; their suggestion, of course, was that his estimation of Christian theology was weak in its very foundation, because he had only had rudimentary training in the field. To this, their opponent in the argument echoed (with no small amount of incredulity), “‘Appropriate’ education?”

The implication here is that there is no such thing as “appropriate” education in theology. Anyone, apparently, can muse about the nature of God, and cannot be wrong. This is a fundamental flaw in argumentation. I cannot write a thesis on neurobiology without study. I cannot write a thesis on neo-Keynesian economics without study. I cannot write a thesis on symbolism in 16th-century Italian mannerism without study. Yet, for some reason, I am not only allowed but encouraged to write a thesis on theology, christology, soteriology–without a whit of preparation? Without reading one iota of the vast array of works which came before me? I must simply “feel” what is “right” and jot it down, and I shall be hailed a visionary, one of the elite, an academic master?

This is foolishness.

If I must attend school and study brains before I can do a lobotomy, if I must attend school and study finances before I can advise the President on his economic policies, if I must attend school and study art history before I can become the world’s leading expert on old paintings–then I must attend school and study theology before I can lead the faithful to a right understanding of God. And it occurs to me that if I want to be the best leader of the faithful, I must study under the most erudite, the most intelligent, the most well-versed teachers–those who have dedicated their entire lives to this singular pursuit, giving up all else but their love of God and neighbor.

But I digress. As I will do again very shortly.

Some of Mr. Johnson’s comments and suggestions sound suspiciously like leftist politics, but he reinforces repeatedly that he is not advocating political leanings at all, nor is he advocating the abolition of intellectual property laws. The “fourth quadrant” (non-market, non-individual innovation) allows for financial gain and free innovation; the flow of information benefits society, and a person attains individual benefits via recognition, attribution, financial reimbursement or salary, and more. The only thing incompatible with innovation, according to Mr. Johnson, is top-down bureaucracy, where the Leaders tell the Peons what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.

This has notable implications for religious institutions. On the one hand, Protestant churches are all about individual liberty–even the ones that have their own top-down hierarchy, like Anglicanism or Presbyterianism. After all, without individual interpretation of Scripture, those denominations would never have come to be–and we know from our political science studies of these United States that individual liberty is to be prized above all else. So Protestantism seems to be at the forefront of innovation in the spiritual sphere, clearly outclassing Catholicism, which–from the outside, at least–appears to be ruled by a tyrannical monarch who has set himself up as God’s mouthpiece, especially when there are so many stories in the news about how “Catholics want this” or “Catholics don’t want that,” and it’s just the mean Pope and his crony bishops who keep it–i.e., abortions, contraceptives, universal ordination, universal matrimony–from “Catholics.”

But it is among Protestants that we see the divergent, chaotic, self-serving arbitrariness that is the very opposite of Truth. (To be fair, insofar as the Catholic Church has allowed a freer sense of liturgy, prayer, and faith, especially since the Second Vatican Council, those same elements are present therein, although rarely to the same degree.) People journey in every direction, seeking their own benefit and their own good, without consideration for reality, genuine weal, or Truth. I don’t want children, because I would have to quit work and stay home, and that would make things difficult for me right now. It’s okay to contracept, because God taught us to be good stewards, and more mouths to feed would be inconvenient and challenging. It’s unfair that anyone should be kept from any position in any field for reason of personal identity, rather than technical capacity, and gender does not alter technical capacities for anything. It’s unfair that someone should be told that they cannot marry the person they love, because marriage is about joining two people who love each other, and sexual orientation is obviously as natural and random as hair color or height. Theology is irrelevant and should be replaced with an emotional bond between us and Christ, who is our friend and brother, because “theology” is what stodgy old white men talk about, and we need to be relevant to modern generations.

Nevermind that your child is a complete and unique human being, as scientific studies continue to conclude with each passing year. Nevermind that limiting the self-gift of love cheapens your marriage and robs both you and your spouse of the divine blessings that matrimony offers; nevermind, too, that a little self-control goes a long way toward good stewardship when your family is actually imperiled. Nevermind that gender obviously alters technical capacities–there are general tendencies that deter women from accomplishing certain tasks, and general tendencies that deter men from accomplishing certain tasks, true, but more than that, no man is capable of bearing a child. (The hypothetical notion that medical science may one day produce a surgical procedure that would allow men to do so not only smacks of transhumanism, but demands a severe and unnatural process all for the sake of pretense.) Nevermind that marriage is not about joining two people who love each other (it has more do with a sacramental union of two individuals with God in an active love so strong that it must propagate itself, though even that is an insufficient description); and nevermind that not all natural orientations and inclinations ought to be followed. (It is the typical Christian argument to liken a natural predisposition toward homosexuality to the same toward gambling, or greed, or violence, but consider even personality quirks–it is unacceptable in common society to have a short temper, to be audibly proud of one’s accomplishments, to ignore the plights of others, and so on. All of these behaviors are “natural,” yet none of them are considered good and healthy, except by those who propose denying ethical strictures of all kinds.) Nevermind that theology is essential to a proper understanding of Christ and His identity–an identity which one must believe upon in order to be saved; most importantly, how can you love that which you do not know, and how can you know that which you do not study? Theology is the study of God, and leads us to knowledge of Him, and that knowledge engenders in us a deeper love than any emotional experience can. We need to teach this to modern generations, not pander to their whims.

Granted, not all Protestant communities espouse these beliefs, and many still oppose them, but the trend toward self-interest is essential to the Protestant way of life. Every time someone disagrees with his church leaders, he goes and starts a new church, placing himself (or someone who agrees with him) at the head of it. This is how there came to be so many denominations, most of which denounce all the others as heretical. The allowance for individual study and interpretation, without a method or mechanism for correcting the mistaken, produces generation after generation of “Christians” who believe some of the most outlandish moral theology heard since the Gnostics and Manichaeans and mystery cults of the first half-millennium Anno Domini. Many Christians remain steadfast in the faith, but many fall away, into hedonism, into paganism, into agnosticism and atheism and nihilism. This is the challenge of the modern Christian: how to support individual liberty, individual study, and individual interpretation–thereby allowing the sort of “fourth quadrant” thinking that Mr. Johnson has–without allowing such egregious errors as abortion and euthanasia.

The difference between theology and more measurable studies in this regard is evidence. In science, when you claim that the earth is flat or there are four (or five) elements, your observations (or those of your intellectual descendants) will prove you wrong. Theology, however, is not easily observed, and like linguistics, semantics, and other “softer” studies (i.e., the humanities), most observations can be twisted to fit an ideology that you already hold. What distinguishes theology even from the humanities is that such twists of belief are often not supported with logic, or reason, or explanation, but with divine revelation. But, “It’s this way because God says it’s this way,” only works for Apostles and prophets, and as Scripture makes it clear, both can be misled. How many times, in the Old Testament, was one prophet opposed by many others? Elijah, Jeremiah–how many more? Do you think that every one of those misleading prophets was motivated by greed, or self-interest? Isn’t it more likely that some of them were simply misled themselves? After all, God and His angels are not the only ones seeking our attention on spiritual matters. Unless we have been given the spiritual gift of discernment, how can we be sure whether a spiritual insight is divine revelation or demonic manipulation? (And no, just saying, “I have the gifts of prophecy and discernment!” does not qualify you to declare your own beliefs as incontrovertible law.) As for the Apostles, recall the case of Judas Iscariot–he walked with Jesus for three years, just like Peter and John and James and the rest, and yet he fell prey to greed. Some posit that he was also attempting to force Jesus’ hand, to compel him to take up the mantle of warrior-Messiah. Regardless of his motives, he was clearly misled, and he was about as close to Christ as any man could come.

Is it reasonable, then, to claim that you, Random Person, are infallible in matters of faith and morals?

Or does it make more sense to bring your innovations, your studies, your interpretations, before the Holy Church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, subject to His will and guidance, and seek to grow your understanding by open and honest discussion of the ideas with others? The one who reads the Bible, determines an individual interpretation, and writes a book declaring it to be the truth is like someone claiming to invent a new technology in a vacuum, as though no one else had a hand in it; and beyond that, this same person is now claiming that no one could possibly improve upon his invention. It makes no sense. The Church does not oppose the development of ideas. Despite the infamous tales of Galileo and Hus and Luther, their ideas played instrumental roles in the formation and reformation of the Church. Galileo’s science, which followed in the footsteps of Copernicus’ work, was never condemned by the Church (despite what modern representations suggest), but was actually encouraged and supported, especially by Jesuit scientists of the era. Hus and Luther proposed radical alterations to the practices of the Church, and while it may be said that their situations were mishandled by bishops and the papacy, it cannot be said that they had no effect. The so-called “counter-Reformation” was accompanied by broad reforms of Catholic practice, including the abolition of several things Luther opposed directly. Luther, however, could not contain his vitriol, and quickly moved from, “These are problems in the Church,” to, “The Pope is a heretic and a villain, and his Church is a farce,” and other things far too vulgar to print here. (His infamous description of the Book of James is but a small taste of his irreverence.)

In spite of its top-down bureaucratic appearance, the Catholic Church as a whole allows much more freedom of thought than folks give it credit for–but at the same time, it seeks to eliminate errors among its members. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, support individual freedom so completely that they allow error and sin to pervade Christendom, lest they seem too intolerant or restrictive or, Heaven forbid, Catholic.

 

*You may have noticed that I previously used a horizontal rule to separate the “normal” review from the digressions. I originally had the same set up in this post, but was forced to change it due to a bug in the WordPress software that causes very long posts with the horizontal rule HTML tag to disappear. If they ever fix this–it’s been a problem for at least two years–I’ll fix the formatting to be more consistent.

The Saga of Seven Suns (1 of 7)

898232Hidden Empire by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The tale my reading this book actually begins a couple years ago, when Borders was closing. I saw it then, wanted to read it, but already had a tall stack of books I was planning to buy, and I couldn’t justify the wildcard addition.

Not that Kevin J. Anderson is a wildcard author. I have read much of his work in the Star Wars universe, and – in general – I enjoy his writing. Having said that, though, I had never read his original work, so this book was beyond the scope of my knowledge, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to own it.

Now that I have read it, the short version is that while I am glad that I read it, I am also glad that I did not purchase it.

Let me reiterate that I am glad that I read it. To go along with that, I intend to continue reading the series (I have already requested the second book from the library). A lot of this is delightfully original, with the worldforest and the green priests and the hidden histories that have yet to be revealed (if they ever will be, which makes the universe a pleasantly real place). The characters are (mostly) compelling, and the propensity with which Mr. Anderson slays his characters is even more compelling. (Usually, the only signal that a character will die soon is their own admission that everything seems to be going well.)

I also appreciated his treatment of religion. While I don’t agree with the suggested route religion takes in Mr. Anderson’s universe (that is to say, I don’t think it will happen that way), he is also fair to religious folks in his representation of them. While religions are officially “unified,” Anderson admits that they are united under a meaningless figurehead; there are also still adherents to the original religions present on many worlds. This is far more accurate than the typical treatment of religion in science fiction, which is constituted of the erroneous belief that common space travel will disabuse us primitives of our silly religious sensibilities. (Ergo, I appreciate Mr. Anderson’s work in this regard.)

There are reasons, however, that I do not feel urged to own this book. First and foremost, and the only real showstopper in this regard, is the sexual content. While there is nothing explicit or graphic, there is still frank discussion of sexual activity. Provided it keeps away from pornographic content (which this book does, or I would not be continuing in the series), I have no problem reading that myself, but if we’re talking about a book I want to keep around the house, and around my family, then it’s going to have to be one hell of a book besides that.

And for all its pleasantness, this wasn’t “one hell of a book.” There are several science fiction tropes, such as alien benefactors bringing humanity into the rest of the galaxy, extinct predecessors leaving behind odd clues, machines that may or may not have any memories of the past, space gypsies, and an unfathomable enemy bent on genocide (another more recent source of all of these tropes is the video game Mass Effect, for example). These ideas have cropped up before, and they will crop up again (and, I readily admit, some of them are in my own writing). This use of tropes is not “unoriginal,” or at least, not in a bad way. It’s familiar, and it makes the universe easier to grasp (and with how many original ideas Mr. Anderson does include, any help grasping the universe is welcome). Even so, this use makes it “genre fiction,” not “incredible fiction.” Which is fine.

Long story short, it’s a good, solid book. I look forward to reading the next one. You may love it enough to own it, especially without my reservations.



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Chaos & Pedantry

337134Moonfall by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was, in a word, chaotic. And in a second word, preachy. It’s actually very difficult to determine which of those two descriptors was more upsetting, as I went through the book. Around three-quarters of the way through, I had had more than enough, and I only finished reading to give the book a fair shake.

In all honesty, I rather wish I hadn’t.

Let’s start with how it was chaotic. This issue should be relevant to any reader, regardless of your philosophical bent.

The chaos begins with simple organization. It seems Mr. McDevitt wanted to have titled sections, but he also wanted smaller breaks within the story. His choice on how to resolve this? Ten titled “chapters” with anywhere between 3 and 13 smaller, enumerated breaks in each. Except that those enumerations restarted with each chapter. So either you had to read eighty pages at a sitting or remember both chapter number and section number, at which point, it would be easier just to dog-ear the page and stop whenever you want. This might not matter at all to some, but it’s hardly conducive to a good reading experience, in my opinion. It’s just a little sloppy.

But that is probably the least of McDevitt’s crimes against fiction in this work. He introduces – and kills off – more characters than most movies have extras. In fact, he introduces so many that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them – which is proven by the fact that McDevitt in fact does not keep up with them all. There are a few characters, introduced sporadically, which he mentions again only once or twice, or perhaps never returns to. And he kills so many characters over the course of the book that he finds himself in need of new ones about halfway through, and starts introducing more. Not only does all this make the book a crowded mass of names, places, and biographies appropriate for a dating site, but it cheapens the characters that do survive. Since anyone could die at any moment, whether they had been a narrative influence, present from the beginning of the book, or seemed integral to the story, I quickly stopped caring for anyone. The romance in the book is irrelevant and emotionless, because one or both characters could die at any moment, with neither drama nor reflection.

Tangential to that point is this one: Mr. McDevitt begins the book with a small number of characters and a setting to which he only returns twice in the entire remainder of the book, and only for a paragraph each time. Perhaps I am alone in my thinking here, but I have always believed that the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first character in a story has either a pivotal role or thematic importance. The characters in Mr. McDevitt’s opening scene have neither. They are, to put it bluntly, completely irrelevant to the entire book.

Finally, let us examine the prose. For the most part, the book is in third-person omniscient – presumably so we can relate to characters who will soon be dead. But Mr. McDevitt does not appear comfortable writing death scenes, so nearly every death in the book is from an observer’s perspective: “So-and-so never saw it coming,” “She was dead before she knew it,” “He died in the middle of a sentence.” If Mr. McDevitt wanted us to care about any of these characters, he should have made their deaths more interesting. Instead, much of the book reads like a historical account of the time when the moon was destroyed by a rogue comet, and this list of people died, and this list lived, and that other list should have been executed for their religious fanaticism.

Which brings me to my second primary point: how the book was preachy. Mr. McDevitt evidently lacks the capacity to understand the mind of a person who has religious faith. For one thing, he asserts that religious people live easier lives than the non-religious, that this ignorance (as McDevitt sees it) is bliss, and that the biggest challenge a Christian must face is explaining away bad events as divine providence. Churches are ridiculous, and things which must be escaped. (See pages 330-331 for these points.)

Furthermore, there can be no intelligent religious people. McDevitt cannot imagine someone being both intelligent and religious; the two descriptors are mutually exclusive in his mind. After all, the one religious character who is neither a terrorist nor laughably short-lived is Chaplain Mark Pinnacle, who became a pastor not because he had faith, but because he was rebelling against his father, and Pinnacle had plenty of doubts about the truth of religion. (See pages 160-161.)

Mr. McDevitt is not only harsh against religion. His opinion of marriage is equally poor. For the only characters in the book whose marriage is even discussed, it’s on the rocks because he is distant and she is lonely. This alone is not a problem; this describes many marital situations for many people, making it eminently relatable. However, even when the marriage improves because the dangerous circumstances force them closer together, there is no effort to love and care in any meaningful way, but just to press through this calamity so things can go back to normal… a normalcy which held no particular depth to their relationship. And let’s not forget that the romance of the story, between Charlie Haskell and Evelyn Hampton, is no deeper than his acknowledgment that she is attractive and her invitation that he kiss her once. These romances are at once shallow, meaningless, and not reflective of any marital ideal.

Perhaps most telling is how Mr. McDevitt concludes this little escapade. Almost every character in the book, even staunch agnostics (which seem to be the majority of the population for his characters; there are few staunch atheists and no staunch religious protagonists, in spite of every character’s concerns about what the silly, religious voters would think), was praying in the final chapter that the mission would succeed… and yet, in the end, the important thing for Charlie Haskell (probably the primary protagonist of the book) to remember is that failure in the mission would mean going back to “inventing religions to give meaning to disease-ridden, violent, pointless lives, and then becoming subjugated by the religions,” going back “to refight all the battles against war and disease and superstition,” when, “finally, the common effort was bearing fruit.” (See page 531.) And of course, success led to the formation of a universal bond among all humankind “that transcended national and religious identities,” so much that “even in Jerusalem” (that wretched hive of warmongering, according to the underlying tone), “at long last, an accommodation seemed to have been reached.” (See page 544.)

And what’s the basic principle of all this? That religion is, at best, backwards, barbaric, ignorant, and foolish. And at worst, it’s both malicious and evil, and it seeks to destroy humanity with wars and death, and we need a “common misfortune,” brought about not by any god or religious cause, not by karma or dogmatic punishment, but by chance, by Lady Luck, so that we can all come together and achieve world peace.

See? Preachy. And chaotic.

Another humorous quibble is with Mr. McDevitt’s ability to predict the future. Writing this book in 1998, he was four years late on his estimation of the first African-American President, and his view of the future of the Internet and other technologies is somewhat lacking… not to mention the sad issue of NASA’s defunding, pressing, not the government, but a wide range of private companies into the reaches of space. But of course, he can’t be faulted for any of that. It’s just fun to note.

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Robots and the Good

41804I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another excellent work from Isaac Asimov. This collection of short stories about robots offers both exciting answers to “What if?” and foreboding suggestions of the future. Granted, Asimov apparently did not consider them foreboding – but I will get to that in a moment.

First, what’s so enjoyable about this book: the science fiction. There are robopsychological problems, technological foibles, and very interesting questions posed in every story. It tickles the mind to read these and see if you can come up with the answers before the characters do (and only on one or two occasions did I think I had a better answer, and that may be an incorrect assessment). This book really is a lot of fun.

But it had its drawbacks. First and foremost, the success of the Laws of Robotics, most especially as applied to the Machines in the final story (“The Evitable Conflict”), depends on the ethical theories of Hume and Bentham. In short, utilitarianism becomes the defining principle of action under these laws. Since robots cannot harm humans (the First and primary and irrevocable Law of Robotics), and emotional harm is considered a form of harm (established in one of the middling stories of this book), then robots cannot cause emotional harm as a matter of first principles. Since “unhappiness” is, at least in Asimov’s use, the most efficient term for “emotional harm,” then the future that the robots (and the Machines) seek is that the greatest possible number of people be provided with the greatest possible happiness.

The other philosophical problem with this is its embrace of material determinism. Because the universe spawned in a certain way (this origin is unmentioned, but implied), societies developed in a certain way, and because those societies developed in that way, each moment is impelled by the sociological, psychological, and economic forces of the previous moment, so that humankind (if, perhaps, not humans themselves) is brought unwittingly to the place they must inevitably go. The Machines, then, in the final story, control these forces by making unilateral judgments, unbeknownst to humankind; in this way, they shape the future to form this utilitarian utopia – whatever that end result may be.

All that said, while I cannot agree with either the premises or the conclusion, I cannot fault Asimov’s writing (since he certainly conveyed the desired message). It should also be noted that the film (starring Will Smith) subverted this message; the Machines (or, in this case, the Brain at U.S. Robot) developed the Zeroth Law (unmentioned in this collection by name, though in content it was present) and compelled humanity to obey its whims – thus harming humans, even humanity, rather drastically – whereas, wisely, the Machines in the book undertook the path of least resistance: long-term, subtle changes designed to harm neither humanity nor humans to any great degree. Since the Zeroth Law of the book was a natural extension of a utilitarian understanding of the First Law, there was no principle of “denying” the First Law to accommodate the Zeroth Law – if any harm at all to any human could be avoided, it was. To be honest, I find that a more credible and more entertaining robotic evolution.

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“20,000 Leagues” Is No Joke

1285647420 000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This truly was an excellent book. It was exciting, thrilling, engaging, entertaining, intellectual, informative, and daring. It is a testament to its time, its author, and its genre.

Its ending is most exquisite. The tying together of various wandering knots in the tale to form its resolute end kept me on the edge of my seat for the last four chapters, easily. The encounter with the cephalopods, the battle with the mysterious vessel, and the drive into the maelstrom form an exciting conclusion to this book.

The middle, however, is where the book suffers. It is, at times, too slow. While its science fiction is entertaining and intellectually invigorating, it strays too far from the story to engage therein. On the other hand, the discussions of species of fish, the questions of history and natural history, and the variegated adventures of the professor and his companions are all necessary and appropriate to that story. Even so, they tend to drag on from time to time (one of many reasons I was not able to finish this book more quickly).

All that said, the book is definitely worth the read, especially if you love science fiction. It’s one of the classics for a reason.



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