Tag Archives: science

Lessons from The Terranauts: Filter bubbles have nothing on real bubbles

31 Jan

terranauts_tc_boyleIn a world being redefined by xenophobia and authoritarianism, reviewing books has seemed, well, frivolous of late. I read Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler last month, but was distracted by Trump before I could start a review draft. I tore through Han Kang’s The Vegetarian a week ago, but got sidelined by protests before jotting down any notes. I inhaled Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 on Saturday, but a murder mystery at sea seems silly when staring down an IRL humanitarian crisis. And don’t even get me started on George Washington’s biography—the man once graciously returned a lost dog to a British general, in the middle of a war. Donald Trump’s broadsides feel pettier than usual after even a few pages with the original founding father.

Still, reading a book—preferably one set in a time/place/galaxy far, far, away—can be a welcome reprieve these days, and I really went into T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts expecting to forget, for at least a few hours, about the particular brand of America we find ourselves in at the moment. I suppose, in some sense, the book did accomplish that: For a few beautiful hours, I disliked the characters in this novel almost as much as I dislike a certain newly minted leader of the free world.  Continue reading

Brave New World: Fav Quotes

23 May

There are a lot of interesting interactions in Brave New World, but by far the most interesting is a conversation late in the book between the Controller, the most powerful person in the London government, and the Savage, a young man who was born in a “non-civilized” compound and is suddenly exposed to the civilized world.

*Warning: To the extent that one can “spoil” this novel, I am a little bit here. Not because I’m giving anything away, but because for me this was the high point of the book. If I’ve managed to convince you to read it for yourself, skip this post.

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The Savage shook his head. “It all seems to me quite horrible.”

“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability.  And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by a passion or doubt.  Happiness is never grand.”

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“I was wondering, said the Savage, “why you had [the twins] at all—seeing that you can get whatever you want out of those bottles.  Why don’t you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus while you’re about it?”

Mustapha Mond laughed.  “Because we have no wish to have our throats cut,” he answered.  “We believe in happiness and stability.  A society of Alphas couldn’t fail to be unstable and miserable.  Imagine a factory staffed by Alphas—that is to say by separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities.  Imagine it!” he repeated.

The Savage tried to imagine it, not very successfully.

“It’s an absurdity.  An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work—go mad, or start smashing things up.  Alphas can be completely socialized—but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work.  Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle—an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course,” the Controller meditatively continued, “goes through life inside a bottle.  But if we happen to be Alphas, our bottles are, relatively speaking, enormous.  We should suffer acutely if we were confined in a narrower space.  You cannot pour upper-caste champagne-surrogate into lower-caste bottles. It’s obvious theoretically.  But it has also been proved in actual practice. The result of the Cyprus experiment was convincing.”

“What was that?” asked the Savage.

Mustapha Mond smiled. “Well, you can call it an experiment in rebottling if you like.  It began in A.F. 473.  The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas.  All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs.  The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions.  The land wasn’t properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were.  Within six years they were having a first-class civil war.  When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island.  Which they did.  And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen.”

The Savage sighed, profoundly.

“The optimum population,” said Mustapha Mond, “is modeled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”

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“Every change is a menace to stability.  That’s another reason why we’re so chary of applying new inventions.  Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy.  Yes, even science.

“I’m interested in truth, I like science.  But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger.  As dangerous as it’s been beneficent. It has given us the stablest equilibrium in history…But we can’t allow science to undo its own good work.  That’s why we so carefully limit the scope of its researches …We don’t allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment.  All other inquiries are most sedulously discouraged.  It’s curious,” he went on after a little pause, “to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress.  They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of anything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. True, ideas were were beginning to change even then.  Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.  Mass production demanded the shift.  Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t.”