“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

November is flood season in Austin. This year the rain has bucketed down with the startling abandonment the skies took to in Noah’s day. Punishment for electing Darth Vader president – or at least v.p. – of a highly armed and dangerous hyperpower? You decide. LI went for a walk, the day before yesterday, around the Lake, and discovered the water was well above the pedestrian path in many instances. The radio and newspapers go on with a professional air about low water crossings, a term you never hear except in flood season, and one which the newcomer to town, trucking around in his Ford Explorer, is probably going to have no familiarity with.

If this were a Live Journal, I’d have one of the gloom icons turned on next to mood.

However, we at LI have found that gloom has a limit. Really. A monetary limit. According to Slate’s review of Richard Posner’s new book, the upper limit for gloom is priced at 600 trillion dollars.

Posner’s book is about massive catastrophes, like the earth being nudged by an asteroid. Here’s the graf that caught our eye:

“Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely" disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10 million.”

600 trillion sounds rather jolly. Obviously Posner isn’t including lawyer costs, partly because, if the human race disappears, one assumes that lawyers will have nobody to sue. Of course, on one interpretation of the human race, it even includes lawyers. Which would mean nobody could sue anybody. Still, the sum is what? only one three hundredth of what has disappeared in terms of the U.S. budget over the last three years. It gives the accident a can-do air, doesn’t it?

Posner, apparently, began thinking along these lines after reading Margaret Atwood’s Orynx and Crax. We highly recommend that novel – in fact, in some review, we already have. Was that for the Chicago Sun Times? We forget.

LI always finds it puzzling that even smart weblogs, like Crooked Timber, seem to have a fan’s claustrophobic penchant for science fiction. Sci fi is fine, but it is sci fi, and the more it is recommended, the more we feel as though we were being transported back into the bedroom of some very smart fifteen year old boy. This kind of time travel we can do without. If that sounds snobby – well, you don’t get aesthetic criteria without snobbiness. We do not look down upon the idea that a story should revolve around a neat puzzle, but we prefer puzzles like: how is Raskolnikov going to free his mother from the burden of supporting him in St. Petersburg? Or how is Cousine Bette going to revenge herself on the Baron Hulot’s family? Or even, why does the map of Slothrop’s erections, plotted against London, exactly fit the map of the hits of the V2 rocket?

The latter is arguably science fiction-ish. However, it is also written. What we do not like about sci-fi is how it isn’t written – it is, rather, day dreamed, with writing being, at best, the accompanying mood music.

This is not, of course, universally true. Atwood’s book is an exception. And its distant precursor, H.G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods, is an exception, too. In fact, we think Wells’ sci fi work has been undeservedly neglected by critics who are scared off by the male adolescent rep of sci fi. Wells is one of the great English comic writers. He likes nothing better than to set some futuristic disaster in one of those shires of England where the merrie olde culture still belatedly lingers, poking its nose into everybody's business, and observe the consequences. His masterpiece on this theme is Invisible Man. In Food of the Gods, he imagines the kind of organic engineering that would lead to larger, much larger, Grade X larger, animals. The premise is that a mild mannered, bachelor scientist, Bensington, discovers a food supplement (“the food of the gods”) which he believes to have some extraordinary effect on the chemistry of organic growth.

This is how Bensington is stymied, at the beginning of chapter two:

“Mr. Bensington proposed originally to try this stuff, so soon as he was really able to prepare it, upon tadpoles. One always does try this sort of thing upon tadpoles to begin with; this being what tadpoles are for. And it was agreed that he should conduct the experiments and not Redwood, because Redwood’s laboratory was occupied with the ballistic apparatus and animals necessary for an investigation into the Diurnal Variation in the Butting Frequency of the Young Bull Calf, an investigation that was yielding curves of an abnormal and very perplexing sort, and the presence of glass globes of tadpoles was extremely undesirable while this particular research was in progress.

But when Mr. Bensington conveyed to his cousin Jane something of what he had in mind, she put a prompt veto upon the importation of any considerable number of tadpoles, or any such experimental creatures, into their flat. She had no objection whatever to his use of one of the rooms of the flat for the purposes of a non-explosive chemistry that, so far as she was concerned, came to nothing; she let him have a gas furnace and a sink and a dust-tight cupboard of refuge from the weekly storm of cleaning she would not forego. And having known people addicted to drink, she regarded his solicitude for distinction in learned societies as an excellent substitute for the coarser form of depravity. But any sort of living things in quantity, “wriggly” as they were bound to be alive and “smelly” dead, she could not and would not abide. She said these things were certain to be unhealthy, and Bensington was notoriously a delicate man—it was nonsense to say he wasn’t. And when Bensington tried to make the enormous importance of this possible discovery clear, she said that it was all very well, but if she consented to his making everything nasty and unwholesome in the place (and that was what it all came to) then she was certain he would be the first to complain.”

“One always does try this sort of thing upon tadpoles to begin with; this being what tadpoles are for.” This is what I mean by written. It is a simple sentence, a generalization that ends in a funny twist for a statement about biologists (it being, by this time, established that biology begins as a science just by excluding the idea of what something is “for”). However, the effect of “one” and “this sort of thing” is to give an airy familiarity to the generalization – as though the reader, too, was much engaged with tadpoles. Which sets us up for the come down in the second paragraph – for her Bensington meets the world, in the person of his Cousin Jane, and the world has distinct reservations about tadpoles, and would rather they stay where they were put by nature.

Bensington eventually hires an imbecile couple to feed his supplement to chicks. The results are disastrous, not only because giganticism within a avid and dimwitted creature like a chicken can lead to the endangerment of such edible critters as human babies if said chicken escapes the henhouse, but also because the couple have no neatness, and slop around the supplement – leading to its being eaten by rats, and sipped by wasps, etc., etc.

Wells, too, unlike most sci fi writers, has a sense of scientists outside of their dramatic role as the mouthpieces that must monologue on about conceptual puzzles. Wells shows them always bitching. And he shows them, mostly, concentrating upon the same trivialities that form the object of labor of most humankind. He has no mystifying respect for scientists whatsoever, which is nice. This is Bensington interviewing a couple to raise his experimental chicks:

“The eligible couple who were destined under Mr. Bensington to be the first almoners on earth of the Food of the Gods, were not only very perceptibly aged, but also extremely dirty. This latter point Mr. Bensington did not observe, because nothing destroys the powers of general observation quite so much as a life of experimental science.”

Of course, their dirtiness is the thing that leads to the first Food of the Gods disaster. Again, however, notice the attachment of the particular and the general in the last sentence. It is easy to see that Wells and P.G. Wodehouse come from the same generation.

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