26 February 2009

Philip Jose Farmer, RIP

I loved his Riverworld books and all of the short stories I read. He will be missed.
Philip Jose Farmer, one of the most
celebrated science fiction, fantasy and short story writers of the
1960s and '70s, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Farmer died "peacefully" in his sleep, according to a message
posted on his official Web site.

The longtime Peoria resident wrote more than 75 novels,
including the Riverworld and World of Tiers series. He won the Hugo
Award three times and the Grand Master Award for Science Fiction in
Farmer's celebrity in the science fiction world did not
translate to Peoria, where he grew up and attended college.

"I am obscure in Peoria," Farmer told The Associated Press in
1988. "I guess they don't read much around here."
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09 September 2008

Gil's All Fright Diner: Literary diner stack coming right up!

Gil's All Fright Diner
A. Lee Martinez
Tom Doherty Associates, 2004

Envision a diner stack: hash browned potatoes, hamburger and/or breakfast sausage patties, fried eggs sunny side up, buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, and a helping of grease, plus Tabasco. It certainly isn't the most nutritious meal, let alone health food, but there are very few folks I know who don't harbor the occasional craving. Call it satisfying junk food. So it is with Gil's All Fright Diner.

Just like a diner stack, Gil's is chock full of varied (and tasty) ingredients. Its plot conjures unspeakable Lovecraftian elder god cosmic horror type stuff (in pig Latin, no less), while stylistically it evokes the lighthearted New Southern Gothic of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries. The two protagonists' pickup truck breaks down in a tiny town in the Texas panhandle, the diner of which has become the focus for nightly zombie attacks which turn out to be something far worse: the first stages of The End of the World. There is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-flavor to the mix of teenage sexuality and black magic that is Tammy the teenage necromancer and her perpetually horny boyfriend/assistant, Chad. The town of Rockwood, the setting for the story, is suffused with a surreal atmosphere, sort of like Douglas Adams except Texan. And there's a sweet romance that breaks some taboos: it's between a vampire and a ghost.

The novel is actually more thoughtful than I initially gave it credit for. By having Earl, a vampire, and Duke, a werewolf, as protagonists, but more importantly as regular guys, the novel's very premise calls into questions our normal understanding of what it means to be monstrous.
"Pushing monsters away into childhood fantasies was much harder after you've become one. He'd discovered that most of the terrors that stalked the night weren't really terrors at all. They were mostly like regular folks, just trying to live their lives. As long as they were left alone they were perfectly harmless except for the occasional bite on the neck. Humans were the real terrors, always getting worked up and looking to kill something." (pp. 32-33)

Here's an example of that surreal quality that I mentioned. Zombie cows.
"Damn," Duke swore under his breath. This sort of thing would happen now....

Melinda raised her head and uttered a low, haunting howl. The rest of the herd joined her in a bloodcurdling moan that seemed to bubble up from the sulfurous pit of Hell itself.


Eyes full of unnatural hunger, loose lips smacking, the herd closed in. The clang of cowbells marked their otherwise silent advance." (p. 53)

I think that was the first time I actually had to catch my breath from laughing so hard. This is funny stuff.

Speaking of funny, there's the aforementioned Tammy, an Asian-American high school hottie who moonlights as Mistress Lilith, Queen of Night, contemporary priestess of the old gods. She's the perfect combination of The Wicker Man and Mallrats:
"[I]t was hard enough to resurrect the old gods without having to deal with curfews, groundings, and math homework. She didn't know what the big deal was. A C-plus was passing. Maybe she wasn't "living up to her potential," as [her dad] so often put it, in geometry, but in the new age geometry would mean little. Denise Calhoun has a straight-A average. It wouldn't save her from the special hell Tammy had in store for pig-faced sluts who thought they were so smart just because they knew all about planes and points and parallel lines and other completely stupid stuff that nobody ever used in real life." (p. 70)

The surreality of the town makes for good laughs too. After coming out as a werewolf to the sheriff, Duke discovers that the tiny town of Rockwood is a little different from most places:
"'Bout seven years back, had an outbreak of vampire turkeys. And four years before that, Charlie Vaughn's daughter got herself possessed. And the Stillman's scarecro took to wandering around at night and scaring the bejeezus out of the kids. Point is, Rockwood has itself an unusual history..." ((p. 85)

Vampire turkeys? And the sheriff's voice is written so clearly that I can hear the deadpan delivery in my head, and so I laugh all the harder.

Martinez describes our heroes' visit to Wacky Willie's Deluxe Goofy Golf, the only attraction in Rockwood:
"Wacky Willie had added the 'Deluxe' when finally ridding the thirteenth hole windmill of a stubborn family of bats after a great and terrible struggle that would forever be known as 'The Fearsome Bat War of Rockwood County' to Willie, but was usually referred to as 'That Time Willie Had To Get Rabies Shots" by everyone else." (p. 94)
"These incidents were a mere sampling of the many inexplicable events at Wacky Willie's. Willie had pamphlets made for the tourists. He'd even sold one which, at an asking price of five bucks, was something of an inexplicable event in itself." (p. 95)

The humor gets downright Monty Python-esque when the vanquished ghouls (or, more properly, the scattered-and-as-yet-still-animated parts of the vanquished ghouls) confront the approaching daylight and with it their collective doom:
Detached arms twisted to cover their squinting yellow eyes. They squealed in the ghoulish tongue.

"Bugger, I hate this part."

"Well, no point in complaining," another ghoul replied.

"True, true," a head agreed somewhere from the center of the pile.

"Moof glu tlak," a jawless head seconded.

"See you gents on the other side."

"Any plans?" the head atop the pile asked.

"Oh, nothing much," the buried ghoul replied. "Just float around in the sullen ether. Wait to be called upon again. Review my performance this go-around."

"I thought you did a marvelous snarl."


And then the sun poked its way over the horizon, and the melting began. Green flesh liquified. Eyes oozed from their sockets. Foaming bubbles boiled and burst in loud, popping splatters. The ghouls shrieked their death rattles. Not that any of it was all that painful for things that were already dead, but they were determined to enjoy their last remaining moments of form with a good screeching contest. (pp. 144-5)

"Bugger, I hate this part." " I thought you did a marvelous snarl." "A good screeching contest"! Need I say (or quote) more?

If you are in the mood for a tasty read worth every empty calorie, slide on up to the counter and give it a read.

06 August 2008

The Game Players of Titan: Speed Kills

The Game-Players of Titan
Philip K. Dick

Bindman Peter Garden has just lost his wife and the city of Berkeley in The Game. Luckily he still owns Marin County.

Winning or losing at the game of Bluff (a strange hybrid of Monopoly and poker) determines what property one owns and with whom one attempts to have "luck" (i.e., a sexual encounter resulting in conception). In other words, nothing unusual for a PKD novel.

In this imagined post-apocalyptic world, the human population has dwindled almost to nothing as the result of the "Hinkel Radiation" unleashed 130 years previously during a war between the US and China. (The protagonists have survived for over a century because of the removal of something called the Hynes Gland --- a standard pseudoscientific PKD plot device.) The circumstances are hazy, but it seems that after this war there was some sort of military interaction between the Terrans and the the vugs, a species of gelatinous, silicon-based telepaths from Saturn's moon Titan, which ended in a concordat and a permanent alien presence on Earth. This presence resulted in the establishment of the game of Bluff as a way of randomly mating humans in the hopes of finding fertile, "lucky" combinations.

Garden is determined to win back the city of Berkeley and to roll himself a new wife in the process. Unfortunately for him, the man who won Berkeley immediately turned it over to a broker who in turn sold it to Jerome "Lucky" Luckman of New York City. Luckman, who owns almost all the properties on the Eastern seaboard, can't wait to begin his conquest of the West coast. As Luckman prepares to make his move (literally and figuratively), Garden contacts Joe Schilling, a Bindman-turned-record-collector who lost his properties and status to Luckman in an earlier competition, and subsequently encounters the lovely Patricia McClain, a woman who lives in Garden's Marin territory with her husband and their children. It seems that, unlike most folks, the McClains have been blessed with much luck, even if they aren't game-playing Bindmen.

The California Bluff group, inexplicably named Pretty Blue Fox, gets a new member in the form of Carol Holt, who has been transferred from another gaming group, Straw Man Special, to marry Pete and play with his team. The ceremony, such as it is, is surreal:
Patience Angst said, "I'm vows giver this week, Bill. I'll administer the ceremony." She brought out the group ring which she passed to Pete Garden; Pete stood beside Carol Holt, who had not yet recovered from the news about Lucky Luckman. "Carol and Peter, we are gathered here to witness your entering into holy matrimony. Terran and Titanian law cojoin to empower me to ask you if you voluntarily acquiesce to this sacred and legal binding." (p. 43)

The institution is so sacred and holy, in fact, that it can be dissolved with the roll of the dice or calling of a bluff. (Dick does point out that since marriage was always implicitly about transmission of property and inheritance, "The Game merely dealt openly with what had been there implicitly before" (p. 54).) Yet Garden doesn't want to play with his new wife; he wants to play with Schilling, and after he loses his first game against Luckman with Carol as his partner, his resolve to play with Schilling only intensifies. Garden also has the hots for Pat McClain, which doesn't help matters, and so he chases after her, discovering in the process that she is a telepath. She reads his subconscious and discovers something there indicating that he that he may commit some sort of a violent act in the near future that results in a death. On that note, he leaves.
The next thing he knew he was riding in his car, high over the desert.
He knew, instantly, that it was much later. (p. 62)

It turns out that Garden has been in a fugue state for over two hours, during which time he has traveled from Marin to Carmel to Berkeley to San Francisco to the East coast. It is during this final cross-country flight that he awakens. And panics. Soon thereafter he discovers that Luckman has disappeared, although "discovers" is an odd word in this case because during his fugue state, it was Garden who was informing everyone else about Luckman's disappearance.
Facing the members of the group Pretty Blue Fox, Bill Calumine said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Jerome Luckman has been murdered and every one of us is a suspect. That's the situation. There isn't much more I can tell you at this time. Naturally, there will no Game-playing tonight." (p. 71)

As a consequence of Luckman's murder, Pretty Blue Fox is disbanded by the joint Terran-Titanian authorities until the murderer can be identified. Here's where the novel starts coming apart at the seams.

The authorities use their telepathy on the suspects and discover a blank space in Garden's mind, indicating his lost two hours. Memories begin appearing in people's minds as if they are being implanted. Carol reveals to Pete that they have had luck --- she has conceived --- and so Pete does what any man would do when told by his wife that he will be a Dad; he goes on a methamphetamine-spiked drunk that melts down into a full psychotic episode. During this episode, Garden visits Dr. Philipson, a famous therapist in Pocatello, Idaho, where he begins to suspect that many of the people around him are in fact vugs using their telepathic powers to disguise themselves as humans and manipulate others to their own ends. But are they really vugs or is this just an effect of the psychosis? He relies on the Rushmore Effect (i.e., a modest form of artificial intelligence) in his auto-auto to help him discern vug from human, since the Rushmore Effect cannot succumb to a drug-fueled breakdown. And it turns out that his seemingly crazed experiences are actually quite lucid --- there is a conspiracy of vugs manipulating humanity and suppressing human reproduction.

This is not a conspiracy of all vugs, though. Later in the novel Schilling and his attorney Laird Sharp learn from Dr. Philipson that Titanian attitudes toward Earth and humanity are divided; the dominant political force comprises the moderates who love to gamble and solve problems through gamesmanship (or is that gamesvugship?) while a small faction of extremists is deliberately holding down the human population. The latter are the ones who killed Luckman; not because he is unusually lucky at the game but because he is unusually lucky at fathering children. At least, this is what Dr. Philipson says before the Rushmore Effect in his car confirms that he is, in fact, a vug himself. With this revelation, Philipson uses his specialized psionic power to teleport the two to "a great plain, on which vugs, unmoving, rested at fixed spaces. ... This is Titan, a voice said inside [Schilling's] head" (pp. 153-4).

Schilling and Laird make it back to Earth to confront Philipson and discover that he is indeed a vug and an extremist to boot. Joe convinces Pete that they must reform Pretty Blue Fox and play the Game-Players of Titan, a prospect that sounds impossible --- while the vugs have no qualms about using their telepathic manipulations to win, human telepaths are barred from playing the game. Seemingly loyal allies reveal themselves to be pawns of the vug extremists, complicating matters so much that by page 185, it is almost impossible to sort out precisely who is on what side, what is the plot of the novel, and why the reader is still plodding along. With only 30 pages to go, though, the reader plods and is rewarded by a scene of Garden reaching into his pocket and finding his last two methamphetamine hydrochloride pills. He uses these to induce another psychotic quasi-telepathic state and somehow this allows him, his team, and humanity to win their game against the Game-Players of Titan.


Many critics heap praise upon this novel and laud it as one of Dick's finest. Maybe they all read it while on methamphetamines (demonstrating definitively that meth is a dangerous drug). Maybe they are vugs disguised as humans. Whatever the reasoning behind their assessment of this novel, I disagree wholeheartedly. This was easily the most confusing dog's breakfast of a novel I've read thus far in the course of the "PKD Project." Put it this way --- it had me yearning for the straightforward banality of Vulcan's Hammer. We know that Dick was literally "cranking" out much of his work during this time period, and so I suspect that the themes, as well as the style of this novel came directly from his amped experience; too bad that illicit knowledge didn't make the book any more fun to read.

There was an anti-methamphetamine ad campaign in the early 1970s whose slogan was "Speed Kills." Though I'm still alive, after reading this book I think I know what those ads were getting at.

24 July 2008

The Book of Fate: The Mystery of the Missing Masonry

The Book of Fate
Brad Meltzer
Grand Central Publishing, 2006

Have you ever gotten a few chapters into a book, put it down, picked it up again, finished it, and then wished you'd simply trusted your initial instinct instead of wasting that time? That describes my experience with this book to a "t." The Book of Fate has nothing to do with Freemasonry, in spite of what the front cover, back cover blurb, and author's note would all have you believe. The conspicuous Masonic compasses and square in the book's title serve only to fool the reader into thinking this is another Da Vinci Code or National Treasure.

In fact, it is a cockamamie political thriller whose cast of characters is almost as unbelievable as its byzantine plotting. There's President Leland Manning, who follows W in office; his wife, Dr. Lenore Manning; his aide, sometimes narrator Wes Holloway, who was shot by a ricochet during an assassination attempt leaving his face permanently scarred; the President's best friend Boyle, who was shot and killed during the same assassination attempt, only to turn up very alive eight years later; Wes' roommate Rogo, a traffic ticket attorney and devoted friend; Lisbeth Dodson, the gossip columnist who wants to be the next Woodward and Bernstein; and Nico Hadrian, a religious psychotic responsible for "assassinating Boyle" under the influence of a mysterious cabal called The Three.

Lest you suspect that "The Three" are Freemasons, thus explaining the cover and Masonic hoopla, you'd be wrong. Rather they are three top agents from the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service, who have been in cahoots to scam the government with expensive, phony intelligence. Somehow they connect to the assassination of Boyle, which was perpetrated by Nico because the Three easily convinced him that his father was (1) evil, (2) his mom's murderer, (3) a Freemason, and (4) conspiring with other Freemasons, such as the man he is to assassinate, Boyle. Nico's late father was, apparently, a Freemason (indicated by the secret tatoo of compass and squares on his ankle). But Boyle isn't a Freemason. The President isn't a Freemason. None of the Three are Freemasons. The plot doesn't revolve around a big Masonic secret. Instead Freemasonry was simply something that the Three associated (wrongly) with Nico's father and with Boyle in order to get Nico to pull the trigger for them. Make sense? No. Then you're following along nicely.

For the record, the book didn't totally suck. It was fun enough for an airplane or the beach, although the execrable plotting might induce headaches after one too many mojitos. Just don't expect it to make much sense and especially don't expect it to have anything to do with Freemasonry and you probably won't be too disappointed. How is that for damning with faint praise?

22 June 2008

Whores for Gloria: "Whores and undertakers are the only eternal optimists."

Whores for Gloria
William T. Vollmann
Pantheon Books, 1991

Difficult to read, impossible to put down.

That it came highly recommended by my good friend Michael "Berkeley Mike" McCamish, Ph.D. surprised me a little; after all, he's the same dude who recommended Mr. God, This is Anna a few years back, and that book is almost diametrically opposed to this one. I knew in the first few pages what about this novel had so gripped Mike, though, because I too felt its pull. Although I never lived in the Tenderloin or worked with the many homeless in San Francisco's Mission district like Mike did, I still experienced enough of that side of "the City" back in my years as a grad school poseur.

Whores for Gloria is sleek and obsidian, lit up like the marquee on the O'Farrell Theatre, gritty like the residue that flows down the gutter on Larkin, covered with bits of blackened bubble gum and the tang of stale urine. Its prose illuminates the sublime within a painful, despairing, unsparing reality--the street life of the homeless, whores, and junkies of the City by the Bay. This is shock value with substance, the darkest side of urban life--the ugly, the downtrodden, the "murdered whores with their cunts removed," the raped, the abused, the discarded. Vollmann's evocative prose and spare settings demand that the reader pick up the rhythm or get left behind. The story flows like a sewer (rather than a "stream") of consciousness, and even when the action takes place "outside" a character's head, it catches the flow of the streets, the lack of self-consciousness perhaps indicated by the consistent lack of quotation marks. Vollmann is definitely not a writer for those to whom the whole world must be "cutey all the time."
An aged blonde clopped by like a horse as she inhaled on her cigarette, and her face was lined with grief. --Laredo shifted her aching feet, wishing that the night would end although she was well aware that by the laws of astronomy the night would not end till morning; neither, it seemed, would the drunk on the pay phone. (p. 3)

The novel begins with Laredo, an undercover cop, watching Jimmy, one of the city's homeless thousands, laughing/crying into a pay phone.
The man laughed. He hung up. He winked at Laredo and sauntered off whistling. But Laredo was no fool. She knew that the pay phone had been broken for weeks. And she knew that the man was still crying. (p. 7)

Jimmy, a down-and-out Vietnam vet and full-time wino, pursues the mysterious "Gloria" (whose name made me think of the Christmas carol refrain, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo"). His regular visits to the streetwalkers, which vacillate between businesslike and brutal, are all carried out in her name.
The truth is that Jimmy tried never to stop thinking of Gloria. Even when he bent women over as they spread the cheeks of their buttocks apart so that he could fuck them up their assholes which bulged like the ends of sausage-casings, he was thinking of Gloria. (p. 18)

Jimmy begins to collect stories from his lady friends and seems intent on using these stories to "recreate" Gloria. One begins to suspect that perhaps Gloria is merely a figment of Jimmy's fevered imagination, rather than being a lover lost to whatever lament has brought Jimmy to this sorry state.
Jimmy was smiling; he was leaning back against a column of washing machines, fingering Melissa's memories as though they were breasts, the softness and succulence of them; he could twist them into different shapes as he sucked on them; he kissed their round pink areolae of sadness and tried not to mind them; he squeezed them and their nipples budded. (pp. 27-28)

Vollmann tears through the veil between the reader's perfect world and the unimaginable pain and desperation--that is still somehow also just everyday life--of those wandering through a fog of opiates, delirium, or shell shock.
Shit, he sighed. Every last one of us betrayed by the VC. Jimmy brainwashed, the Wrecking Crew all dropped dead, Riley God knows where, and me left to fend for myself here in the middle of motherfucking Hanoi, USA. Nothing to do, nothing to do. Wanna kill those Chinese Charlies! Come out and fight! he shouted.

Nobody came.

Guess I won that one, said Code Six, and he lay down on the sidewalk and went to sleep... (p. 124)

In the end we discover (or do we, given the tenuous grasp that so many of these wretches have on what we call "reality"?) that Gloria is real. And that Jimmy is no longer.
I turn around, man, and here comes Jimmy with his whore chasin' him! Usually were the other way around, weren't it? Damn! And she drilled his motherfuckin' ass, good and proper. Oh, man! --Code Six chuckled until poor Riley thought he must dissolve under the stench. -- Jimmy comes in, the bitch comes in, just lit him up, right there! And she killed him dead right in front of the whole goddamned restaurant, and there were about twenty people in there, cooks and all--right bare-ass from my eyes! I said, motherfucker, I was safer back in Nippon, man, 'cause at least that way I know where the field of fire is! And that was how Jimmy died. Died like a hero. I never did find out what he had done. But you might 'a' knowed his ass, man. And might 'a' knowed her! It was old Gloria! (p. 138)

As noted above, in spite of its incredibly dark, painful, and brutal subject matter, Vollmann's language and storytelling fill the entire book with a dark radiance that is redemptive if not hopeful. It turns out that, according to an interview with Vollmann, that there is a reason for this. He feels that prostitutes are very spiritual people, who give of themselves to save marriages and to provide comfort to the loneliest, most desperate among us. He noted that, at the same time they fill these essential needs prostitutes also spread disease and often rob their clients. If the ability to hold in one's mind two contradictory thoughts at one time defines genius, then Vollmann's novel certainly qualifies.

Thanks for the recommendation Mike!

The Empty Tank: Witty, grim, unflinching, hopeful --- essential reading when peak oil meets global warming

The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe
Jeremy Leggett
Random House, 2005

[W]hat makes the depth of the current global addiction especially bewildering is that, for the entire time we have been sliding into the trap, we have known that oil is in fact in limited supply. At current rates of use, the global tank is going to run too low to fuel the growing demand sooner rather than later in this century. This is not a controversial statement. It is just a question of when....

In a society that put a man on the Moon more than three decades ago, surely there can be no doubt that we could replace oil use if we seriously wanted to. I ask again, why have we not been fast-tracking the solutions to the problem long since? (p. 6)

I've read several books on peak oil, and this one is among my favorites. Geologist Leggett provides a compelling look at the coming topping point in oil production, the global catastrophe of global warming, and possible hope for the future, and he does so in a style that reads like well-crafted fiction. Interspersed throughout the narrative are Leggett's journal entries which reveal an intimate perspective on how all this theory and Big Picture stuff plays out in daily life.

First off, an admission. Based on the author photo on the book's dust jacket, I kept envisioning Leggett as the fired forklift driver in the British TV show The Office who challenges the wisdom of keeping Anton the midget on as a forklift driver. So that guy's voice was the one with which my mental vocalizer read the book. That, along with his absurdist, understated British wit (a la Monty Python and Douglas Adams), made the book a quite often funny read, in spite of the rather grim subject matter.

This wit is clearly on display in the Prologue, which tells the story of geological and human history from the Big Bang to the "The Two Oversights" of the 20th century. This account is told as if being related to alien anthropologists who have no vested interest in seeing history through the particular lens of their ideology or belief system. So along the way from creation to the present we encounter Apocalypse One, the catastrophic end of the Carboniferous Period which left behind a lot of coal; the "Two Great Underground Cookups," during which all oil and natural gas were created; and Apocalypse Two, otherwise known as the K2 Event or the end of the age of dinosaurs, 65 mya. Humans arrive on the scene in the last few milliseconds of the year that has been geological history, and develop agriculture and religion and urban civilization and almost continuous hostility toward one another:
Conflict avoidance was not, and never has been, our strong suit. At first we organized into tribes, and periodically killed the members of other tribes. Later we organized ourselves into city-states and built amazing cathedrals. But despite our inventing athletics as a potential substitute for war, we still couldn't think our way out of regular armed conflict, and our means of waging war grew steadily worse. (p. x)

In the last three centuries we learned to support all these endeavors by exploiting the fossil fuels from the Great Underground Cookups:
Just as [coal's dirtiness] was becoming very irritating, we found we could drill below the surface of the planet, pump oil, and burn that. We didn't even have to send children down to get oil. (p. xi)

(See what I mean about the wit?) The discovery of and reliance on oil lead to two big "oversights." Big Oversight One is that all the burning of this oil, coal, and gas has created global warming which has been ignored by the Number One Nation-State. This nation, not otherwise named (to protect the innocent, of course), happens also to be Number One Petroleum Addict, and in this capacity serves deeply entrenched vested interests:
[M]ore than 100 years of unconstrained burning of oil, and 200 years of coal, have created quite a set of vested interests....These vested interests have created a web of power that transcends the throw-weight of the nation states. This web has become, in effect, a kind of Empire. The Empire of Oil is loosely bound, and even capable of civil war, but is without the most powerful interest group on the planet.

These vested interests have prevented research into alternative and meaningful political action. Big Oversight Two is that, because all the oil we have was created during the Two Big Cookups, and so therefore is limited in quantity by definition, discovery and production of oil is peaking. What this means is simple, if unpleasant to contemplate:
Humans will no longer be able to run their lives and their industries on growing amounts of cheap oil. All we can expect thereafter is shrinking supplies of expensive oil....We will look for the alternatives to come to the rescue, but the alternatives won't be able to, or at least not in enough volume to make a big difference, because the Empire of Oil and its Culture of Suppression has held them back all the years of the Great Addiction. (p. xiv)

One or the other "oversight" alone would be bad enough to face, but the possible threat posed by the synergy of both is chilling. Luckily, Leggett recognizes the role that each of us play in shaping our collective destiny, and so does not completely relinquish hope:
As the impact of the oil topping point joins with the first wave of assaults by a climate going awry, is there any hope that we can avoid an unpleasant outcome? I fear not. The chapters to come will show why. But what we can do, collectively, is to stop the rot and have a second crack at getting things right beyond the unpleasantness....Because changes of course need hands on the tiller, involvement matters. This book is a call to arms. Let us take our stupidities with oil, which will be put under such a necessary microscope when the topping point hits, and turn them into a new beginning before it is too late. (pp. xiv-xv)

With this book, Leggett seeks to address three related questions: (1) how close is the peak? (2) why haven't we done something earlier? and (3) what can we do about it?

So how close is the peak in oil production? Leggett distinguishes between "late toppers" and "early toppers," i.e., those who think we've got 2 trillion more barrels of oil to exploited (oil companies, financial analysts, etc.) and those who think we've got around 1 trillion more barrels (in other words, the downside of the production curve). The difference between the two is, in Leggett's word, seismic. If the late toppers are right, then we have a few decades in which to work out plans for a smooth transition from oil and gas to alternative; if the early toppers are right, though, the peak may actually be upon us now.

Leggett discusses some key witnesses in support of the "early topper" school of thought including veteran petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, Chris Skrebowski (editor of the trade journal Petroleum Review), and Houston oil investor Matthew Simmons. If these folks are correct in their reading of the available data, then the situation we face may be summed up in this sentence from a report within the Department of Energy's Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves:
"A serious supply-demand discontinuity could lead to worldwide economic chaos" (p., 50)

Worldwide economic chaos.
And even if the early toppers are wrong in their estimates regarding the peak in oil production, the discontinuity between rising demand and falling supply will still be a reality due to a lack of investment in exploration and infrastructure:
Stated simply, it seems that even if an early topping point doesn't hit us, the results of two decades of negligence in investment in infrastructure and exploration will. p. (59)

After thoroughly scaring the beejezus out of the reader by marshalling all this evidence that the age of easy, cheap oil is rapidly coming to a close, with potentially catastrophic results, he introduces a variable that no other peak oil author I've read has mentioned: global warming.

A pair of diagrams on pages 75 and 76 says it all. The first is a graph showing a jagged line fluctuating between two extremes of atmospheric CO2, a minimum of around 175 ppm and a maximum of around 300 ppm, showing that these quantities have changed within a relatively standard range over the last 500,000 years. The last fraction of a millimeter of the graph, representing the last century, shows the concentration at the beginning of the 20th century (near 300 ppm) rocketing skyward, out of the normal range and in fact off of the graph altogether. The predicted CO2 concentration for 2100, based on current emission rates, is over 700 ppm, effectively off the charts and into "seriously fucking things up" territory. The second graph plots temperature fluctuations over the last millennium and reveals that they too fly off the charts during the 21st century, leading to an average increase of over 5 degrees globally. Which is disastrous. This stuff ain't controversial folks, and it ain't a liberal plot. The temperature of the Earth is rapidly climbing, most likely due to our increase of atmospheric CO2, and all we know about the consequences is that they won't be pretty.

So how did we allow ourselves to get into this mess? Leggett provides an answer by way of an historical overview of the age of oil, divided into two chapters. The first, "Before the Knowledge," describes how we dug the initial hole, while the second, "The Complicity Years," discusses the last few decades, during which we have known better but let all our nation's policies be dictated by a consortium of vested interests. Our inability to change our approach to energy and fossil fuels is pretty clearly revealed in our national response to the first oil shock, which hit in the form of the OPEC embargo against the US, in retaliation for its uncritical support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
In the first three months of the [OPEC] embargo, U.S. gasoline consumption had decreased by more than 7 percent. But, after the embargo ended, consumption shot right back up again. Apathy instantly reasserted itself in Congress. Almost 800 potential bills concerning energy had been circulating on Capitol Hill during the oil crisis, many of them intent on promoting the prospects for renewable energy, renewable fuels, and energy efficiency. But by July 1974 only eight of them had become law, and two of those involved the suspension of anti-pollution laws and the opening of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. (p. 101)

Once cheap oil went back online, all alternatives were back off the table. By 1975 Exxon was the world's biggest corporation, with GM and Ford also occupying seats in the top 10. We didn't learn and so the Second Oil Shock followed the Iranian Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq War. Although President Carter urged us to treat the fuel crisis as "the moral equivalent of war," Americans still didn't listen and willingly voted in Reagan and the last three decades of denial.

Of course, one could say that if these earlier oil shocks were survivable, even after a mistake like electing Reagan, then perhaps we shouldn't be too concerned about future oil shocks. Anticipating this, Leggett duly notes that the circumstances surrounding these first two oil shocks do not pertain to the coming megacrisis:
[T]he Saudis cannot pump faster as they did in 1980, there is no spare capacity anywhere, little oil is stockpiled, and there is little liklihood of new discoveries on the scale able to meet fast-growing global demand. Bad as it was then, it will be much worse when the next crunch hits. (p. 104)

According to ExxonMobil's Lee Raymond:
"I think the notion in the United States of energy independence, which was first proposed in the Nixon administration, was a poor concept thirty years ago and it is a poor concept today."There it is, just as he told OPEC. It couldn't be clearer. We choose dependency, and therefore overseas adventures by our military in support of our dependency. (p. 135)

There you have it. That's how we allowed ourselves to get into this predicament. The Empire of Oil made us into a nation of junkies who elect those promising to keep the fixes coming.

So what can we do about it? In his chapter astutely entitled, "What Can We Do About It?" Leggett outlines five basic arguments:

1. We can replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and do so rather swiftly.

Renewable energies comprise a big family of options including biodiesel, a hydrogen economy (energy storage with home solar-driven electrolysis), fuel cells, solar (electric) and solar (heat), wind power, etc. There are alternative, renewable sources for plastics too, which is important since more petroleum goes to those industrial uses than into fuel production. We can improve efficiency too. And of course, we can re-envision the situation to come up with some novel solutions:
    Currently, some 200 million of the world's 700 million hydrogen cars and trucks travel and park around America. If they were all hydrogen fuel cell vehicles they would have many times the grid's total generating capacity. What need then for nuclear, and coal- and gas-fired power plants? (p. 155)

2. We've waited too long, and so even with these technologies ramping up swiftly, we won't be able to cover the shortfall between now and then with any combination of fuel sources.

Economies will shrink, which is never a good thing for little people like me with jobs and families. Some are pushing for nuclear power to fill the gap (going so far as to discuss it in the pages of Mother Earth News), but Leggett thinks nuclear won't come to the rescue because (1) it will take even longer to get nuclear up and running to fill the gap than it would other sources of power, (2) investors don't want to back nuclear, particularly new unproven designs, (3) the threat of terrorism + nuke plants = bad idea, (4) disposal of waste is still an unsolved problem, and (5) nuke power's track record for accidents, cover-ups, etc. make it understandably unattractive. In short, nuclear is simply too risky in all ways to take seriously. (Although, sadly, that won't prevent our government from funding it, alas.)
Just think what renewable energy and energy-efficient markets could be doing by 2020, given even a fraction of the governmental and institutional support nuclear has been given for the last half-century. Come to think of it, just imagine what they could be doing tomorrow. (p. 159)

Renewable energy and fuel and energy efficiency will grow explosively.
Come whatever in other societal and economic sectors, people working in renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency will be in the front row of those who can help once widespread acceptance of the oil topping point and its implications had descended on the world. (p. 165)

Leggett makes the important point that looking at solar energy costs means comparing them to retail prices rather than generator costs, because PV solar power generation gathers the power right where it is needed rather than producing and shipping it over extensive power grids. The decentralized quality of solar means that it is incredibly competitive in terms of price when generating costs are factored in, something that nuclear and coal advocates never do.

4. Many will try to turn to coal to support the status quo --- this will basically be a life-or-death decision for the future of the planet --- renewables or polluting coal.
The coal industry is strangely hard-line. Here is a technology that is so clearly mortgaging the future--at best, torpedoing it at worst--and yet it continues to grow largely unapologetically around the world. Besides the future death toll from unmitigated global warming and dire air quality, there is also the actual death toll to date from getting the stuff out of the ground....In the face of all this, even if they genuinely reject scientists' arguments about global warming, you would think there would be a little humility, a little reluctance about the product, a little willingness to search hard for alternatives. No, not that I have seen. In all my years as an environmental campaigner, I have observed a clear distinction between the oil industry and the coal industry....The oilmen and women were capable of politeness, reasoned debate, and even changing their position. The coal men and women weren't; not that I ever saw, once. (p. 168)

So instead of looking at renewables, we get nonsense about "clean coal," coal gasification, carbon sequestration, etc. And for the effects of coal on the world, all you need to do is Google "Beijing" and "air quality." And yet coal looks easy and cheap when the energy panic hits, and it has lots of technoscience supporting the rush to "clean coal," usually from the same folks who want to put parasols between the Earth and the Sun to cut down on solar radiation. Very little systems thinking and a technoscientific culture that valorizes individual achievement (just think about genetic engineering and the lack of consideration of ecology) mean that the coal hoax may be perpetrated on an unsuspecting Earth at precisely the worst possible time.
[G]iven the research programs underway aiming to bolster the acceptability of coal in a warming world, the depth of denial in the coal and coal-related theocracies, and the scope for iconoclastic scientists to fan the flames of confusion--belief in the feasibility of burning a thousand billion metric tons of coal or more and getting away with it might be much greater too. (p. 173)

We can influence the outcome of the struggle over coal vs. renewables

Don't look to leadership from governments or corporations. According to Leggett it must come from individuals. (I must note that these options are not mutually exclusive, and that following merely the role of individual effort may be playing into the corporate trap of devaluing collective efforts.) One should follow Stephen Leeb's lead by encouraging enlightened self-interest when investing money--invest in a green future and lead the marketplace where you want it to be. We must act locally and in every way possible to reach the tipping point from which a new future is visible.

Legget concludes with another presentation for aliens, this time looking at the present and at a possible hopeful futures. Consumer Empire gets hit by warriors in commandeered civilian jetliners and retaliates, pitting its own Christian Fundamentalists against the Middle Eastern Muslim Fundamentalists in a Cycle of Hate.
In both the Consumer Empire and the Middle Eastern nation-states, Fundamentalism has thrived amid all this mayhem. In the Consumer Empire, many humans hold a belief that their version of God would let them trash the Earth and still join Him in His heaven. Indeed, the more quickly we trash it, the more quickly they would get to enjoy what they think of as the Rapture. Rapturist humans tend to care nothing about the fuel efficiency of their horseless carriages, tend not to give a damn about the alternatives to oil, and tend to be very keen on burning coal. They also figure that all-out war might be another way to join their version of God more quickly than letting things run their normal course, so they tend not to be averse to that either....

For humans who believe in Cosmopolitan Tolerance--simply stated, having a stab at learning from the lessons of history--things are beginning to look really very bleak as they stand today. (p. 189)

Oversights One and Two show up, the economy collapses as oil production peaks and there are no replacements, there's all sort of political repression taking place in Consumer Number One in the wake of the attacks, and then global warming kicks in and really fucks with everything. This is Leggett's prediction of what will happen. Not a lot of wiggle room in there, and as he has noted, it is definitely unpleasant. He doesn't end there, though. Rather he provides an optimistic vision of the sort of world we can bring about out of this wreckage, a new Renaissance in which the tipping point is reached and humanity chooses a future of alternative energy and power, which in turn leads to a general renewed interest in the local, in community, in place, and eventually leads to a stabilization of human population through the education and empowerment of women. Not a bad future at all, but one that will definitely take a lot of dedication and hardwork with no hope to see the results. Like building a cathedral or journeying toward the Promised Land.

13 June 2008

The Man in the High Castle: Dick's postmodern masterpiece

The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962

Juliana said, "I wonder why the oracle would write a novel. Did you ever think of asking it that? And why one about the Germans and the Japanese losing the war? Why that particular story and no other one? What is there is can't tell us directly, like it always has before? This one must be different, don't you think?" (p. 216)

I think this one is definitely different. Dick had been writing novels for over a half-decade by the time this novel--his only Hugo Award-winner--was published. Every Dick novel published in the seven years following Solar Lottery shared a similar storytelling style and quality of language. F
or want of a better term I'll say Dick was a "hack"; his novels were cranked out at amphetamine speed in order to pay the bills. This is not to say that these novels are bad--to the contrary, as I've indicated in my previous reviews, even from the beginning of his career Dick was obviously gifted with both an intellect and an imagination that he put to good use in his short stories and novels. It's just to say that his writing really wasn't all that special.

Until he wrote The Man in the High Castle. Here Dick plays by different rules, writing alternate history rather than dystopian speculations about the 1990-2000s. (I read somewhere that he was initially inspired to write an alternate history of the post-Word War II world after reading Ward Moore's 1953 alternate post-Civil War Bring the Jubilee.) Dick, demonstrating the sort of self-referentiality that initially drew me to his work, even has two of his characters chat about alternate history and whether or not it is properly called science fiction:

"[It's n]ot a mystery....On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction."

"Oh no," Betty disagreed. "No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise."

"But," Paul said, "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort." (p. 91)

And what an alternate present (i.e., 1962) it deals with. We learn about the history of this alternate world and how it diverges from our own through snippets of conversation and internal monologue. In 1933 President Roosevelt is assassinated and Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of the Third Reich. By 1942 the USSR has fallen, with the Slavs joining European Jews and Gypsies in extermination, and the Japanese have devastated the entire US fleet at Pearl Harbor. They subsequently conquer the West coast of the US, and the Nazis have taken over the East coast and begun the extermination of the Jews in NYC by 1948. Between the two coasts the high plains and Rocky Mountains constitute a buffer zone between the two global superpowers of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The novel recounts the chilling German holocaust on the African continent, the policy of high tech Lebensraum through space colonization, and the inevitable tensions in the marriage of convenience that is the Axis. And Dick reveals his suspicion, in the form of an aging and syphilitic Hitler, that literal rot and insanity lie at the root of the Nazi ideology:
And the horrible part was that the present-day German Empire was a product of [Hitler's syphilitic] brain. First a political party, then a nation, then half the world. And the Nazis themselves had diagnosed it, identified it; that quack herbal medicine man who had treated Hitler, that Dr. Morell who had dosed Hitler with a patent medicine called Dr. Koester's Antigas Pills--he had originally been a specialist in venereal disease. The entire world knew it, and yet the Leader's gabble was still sacred, still Holy Writ. The views had infected a civilization by now, and, like evil spores, the blind blond Nazi queens were swishing out from Earth to the other planets, spreading the contamination. (p. 29)

But Dick doesn't just stop with one alternate history of the world from 1933 1962. Within The Man in the High Castle is another novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy--a contraband alternate history of the world in which it is the US and the UK, and not Japan and the Third Reich, who are victorious in World War II. This world is not ours either, though, as Dick makes abundantly clear in a section that Freiherr Hugo Reiss reads in his office:
[I]n the U.S.A. the color problem had by 1950 been solved. Whites and Negroes lived and worked and ate shoulder by shoulder, even in the Deep South; World War Two had ended discrimination... (p. 135)

Any white American reading this sentence in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, would surely have felt Dick's rebuke. By 1950, "[w]hites and Negroes lived and worked and ate shoulder by shoulder"? In 1960, white Americans in our version of history wouldn't even use the same water fountains and cafe counters! Of course this alternate world has its own problems with colonialism and the like, but to those living under the boot of the Third Reich, the alternative reality presented in Grasshopper appears nearly paradisiacal.

It is interesting to note that this is not the only book which is central to the novel; the other book that continually resurfaces is the I Ching. In fact, as we discover at the end of the book, the I Ching has basically channeled Grasshopper through a man who is little more than a medium, Hawthorn Abendsen, the so-called "Man in the High Castle." Again and again the novel reminds the reader of the importance and power of writers, particularly those who write "what if" stories. The aforementioned
Reiss is captivated by Grasshopper, and his comments reveal the subversive, compulsive force of science fiction:
How that man can write, he thought. Completely carried me away. Real. Fall of Berlin to the British, as vivid as if it had actually taken place. Brrr. He shivered.

Amazing, the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke. No wonder it's banned within Reich territory; I'd ban it myself. Sorry I started it. But too late; must finish, now. (p, 105)

Dick experiments in other ways. Most of the dialog in the novel is in a dialect of English that captures the flavor of Japanese, with the absence of articles, unusual word order, and a stilted choice of words. Those white characters who interact with the Japanese regularly (and so have become internally colonized to some degree) even think in this dialect. And while Dick has regularly written non-linear plots, at least to the extent that the stories begin in media res, this novel is almost postmodern in its avoidance of a single master narrative. Instead, there are collected plot threads interwoven with the various narratives of the POV characters.

We have Ms. Nobusuke Tagomi with the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, a regular patron of Robert Childan's high-end antique boutique American Artistic Handicrafts. Here he purchases a "genuine Mickey Mouse watch" for Mr. Baynes, a Swedish businessman who turns to be an officer of Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence who has travelled from Germany in disguise to meet with Tagomi and a mysterious Mr. Yatabe, who is himself en route from the Japanese "Home Islands."

Then there is Frank Frink (born Frank Fink, a Jew) who works at Wyndham-Matson Corporation creating fake Americana for such unsuspecting antique dealers as Mr. Childan. Frink's ex-wife Juliana is a judo instructor living in the Rockies, in the neutral zone between Japanese and Nazi spheres of influence. Frank and his coworker/friend Ed McCarthy quit their jobs at Wyndham-Matson and begin a jewelry business, creating beautiful, original pieces of American art. At roughly the same time, Juliana begins an affair with an Italian truck driver.

Mr. Yatabe arrives for his meeting with Mr. Baynes and Mr. Tagomi, who are surprised to find that their visitor is actually Japanese General Tedeki, formerly of the Imperial General Staff. Baynes reveals himself to be Captain Rudolf Wegener of Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence, whose mission is to warn the Japanese about Operation Löwenzahn/Dandelion. It turns out that Goebbels plans, once he assumes control of the Reich as the next Chancellor, to nuke Japan ("The Home Islands") and consolidate Nazi control over the entire world. After the death of Hitler's successor, and the possibility of Goebbels becoming new chancellor, Baynes seeks Japanese support for a different Nazi leader. After the meeting, Nazi agents attempt to attack Baynes and are instead killed by Mr. Tagomi using the Colt Army revolver that he previously bought from Childan.
"Part of personal collection," Mr. Tagomi said. "Much fooled around in vainglorious swift-draw practicing and firing, in spare hours. Admit to compare favorably with other enthusiasts in contest-timing. But mature use heretofore delayed." (p. 162)

Tagomi also retaliates against the local Nazi authorities by directing that Frank Frink, who is scheduled for deportation and subsequent execution as a Jew, be released. It turns out that Frink's artwork, which had been taken on consignment by Mr. Childan's store and subsequently mocked by a young Japanese client as being suitable for export to the Third World, is actually possessed of a soul stirring power and beauty, and that this power has made quite an impression on Mr. Tagomi.

Frink's ex, Juliana, gets more deeply involved with Joe, the truck driver and Italian veteran of war. He wishes to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and so the two of them embark on a road trip to find his fortress home. As they approach their destination, she discovers that Joe is actually a Swiss assassin whose target is the Man in the High Castle. Juliana attempts to leave their hotel room. and when Joe bars her way, she slashes his throat with the razor with which she was previously going to kill herself. She makes her way to Abendsen's home and induces him to reveal the truth about his novel--it was written in collaboration with I Ching--and about life.
"The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same...

Evidently we go on, as we always have. From day to day. At this moment we work against Operation Dandelion. Later on, at another moment, we work to defeat the police. But we cannot do it all at once; it is a sequence. An unfolding process. We can only control the end by making a choice at each step...

We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious." (p. 207)

As always, Dick explores some deep themes in this novel. The role that the tiniest chance has in determining larger outcomes is evident throughout the story. For one thing, it is built into the genre of alternate history; whether Franklin Roosevelt lived or died in 1933 had long lasting repercussions for the people of the US and the world. So it is with the I Ching which is used by several characters throughout the book to make sense of and determine the appropriate response to a given situation. Dick also interrogates the distinction between reality and artifice, particularly in regard
to antiques and a slippery quantity an object's "historicity":She said,
"What is 'historicity'?"

"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?" He nudged her. "You can't. You can't tell which is which. There's no 'mystical plasma presence,' no 'aura' around it."... "It's all a big racket; they're playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it's the same as if it hadn't, unless you know. It's in here." He tapped his head. "In the mind, not the gun." (p. 52)

Embedding Grasshopper's alternate history of the world within his own alternate history allows Dick to take this question about reality and simulation to the next level, leading the reader to speculate on the meaning and possibility of multiple simultaneously interpenetrating realities and on the role of the individual reader in pinning it all down.

02 June 2008

Vulcan's Hammer: Interesting idea, too bad the novel kind of sucks.

Vulcan's Hammer
Philip K. Dick


Imagine. You write science fiction for a living. In the last seven years you've written at least one novel per year, along with dozens of short stories, and a good half of this output has described life in a dystopian future. In these visions of dark possibility, you've examined a handful of different ideologies around which we may organize a "perfect society"---whether randomness, relativism, "moral reclamation," or anti-space colonization prejudice---and found each wanting. So why not phase out the human element altogether and instead envision a planetary government run by a single omniscient machine, one free of our primate psychological hangups and irrational biases? What would that look like? Would it work?

Dick called this government Unity, this godlike machine Vulcan 3, and, in the format of a political thriller of sorts, he explored those questions. Alas, while there is a good deal of potential in the concept of a technocratic utopia gone bad (as evinced by scores of films about machines supplanting and/or annihilating humanity), there is little good about Vulcan's Hammer as a novel. It suffers from dull characters and a hackneyed, careening plot that would have left the rails if it hadn't been for that pat, sentimental conclusion at the end of the line.

There has been a third world war, and in its wake humanity has created a "one-world government" controlled by an artificial intelligence of almost unimaginable power. Unity is total in its scope: it educates the kids, employs many of the adults, levies taxes, and enforces its laws under pain of death by "pencil beam." Yet even in this paranoid panopticon, a movement of dissenters called the Healers has arisen, guided by a man called Father Fields. The novel begins when a young Unity agent is murdered while staking out a rally of Healers. The North American Director of Unity, William Barris, is perturbed by the absolute lack of response to the Healers on the part of Vulcan 3, but when his request for more information is refused on the grounds of a piddling technicality, his perturbation turns to mutiny and he travels to Geneva, to Unity headquarters, to meet with Managing Director Jason Dill face-to-face and find out why Vulcan 3 hasn't formulated policy regarding the Healers.

We discover that Dill has been secretly consulting with the predecessor to Vulcan 3, the aptly named Vulcan 2, and that the earlier model has warned Dill of a possible bug in the Unity system. Vulcan 3, it turns out, is so complex that for all intents and purposes it is not only intelligent but also alive; Vulcan 2 realized that if its successor were ever to learn about the Healers then it would do what any living thing does when threatened---defend itself. And with a near-infinite amount of resources, Vulcan's ability to wage war would be, like all other aspects of Unity civilization, total.

Dill's efforts to censor Vulcan 3's information intake fail, however, because Vulcan 3 realizes that there is something missing from all the data that Dill does feed it; its conspicuous absence is the very sign of its existence. Because his human attendant Dill won't do what is needed, Vulcan 3 devises flying robots ("hammers") equipped with pencil beams to be his eyes and talons. Vulcan 3 arouses the Unity organization to the presence of "enemies," in the form of Barris and Dill. The plot lurches from the heated trial of Dill before all the Unity Directors to the meeting with Father Fields where we discover that it was Vulcan 2, and not Fields, who was the mind behind the Healers to the scene wherein it is revealed that the wife of the murdered young Unity agent from the beginning is actually Fields' daughter, and, finally, to Barris' bombing of the central Vulcan 3 CPU. In the end, you can almost see the sunset they're staring off into as Barris, Fields, and Fields' daughters contemplate their rebuilding of a new Unity and a new world.

As my daughter would say, "Yawn."

23 May 2008

Out of Gas: Good intro to peak oil science, but look elsewhere for solutions

Out of Gas
David Goodstein
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004

We can hope, if we are wise, to alter the laws of peoples. But we cannot change the laws of nature. The intent of this small book is to explain the relevant laws of nature. The idea is to sketch out, for those who are not specialists, both the opportunities and the limitations that nature has provided for us. Only if we understand both can we hope to proceed with wisdom. (p. 19)

To this end Dr. David Goodstein, professor of physics at Caltech, has written a very readable introduction to the imminent peak in oil production and subsequent "end of the age of oil." Alas the book's greatest strength, its relatively narrow focus on the science surrounding fuel and energy, is also its biggest weakness when it comes to proposing solutions. After all, the problem of peak oil has as much to do with "the laws of peoples," or at least their habits and expectations, as it does with the laws of nature and raw technoscientific know-how.

He begins by describing something which is now a standard phrase in our household, "peak oil." M. King Hubbert was a petroleum geologist who predicted that the rate of oil extraction for the lower-48 states would hit a maximum value in the early 1970s (i.e., it would peak) and that it would rapidly decline afterward. Although his ideas were roundly dismissed in the shiny-happy 1950s, he found a more receptive audience during the fuel-challenged '70s. His prediction was based on three basic methods: (1) noting that increasing rates of resource use equal increasing rates of resource depletion, (2) assuming that rates of oil production will follow a bell-shaped curve, and (3) recognizing that the curve in production paralleled the curve in discovery, which has already peaked.

Goodstein notes that not all geologists heed Hubbert's warning, discussing oil in terms of the ratio of reserves to production (the R/P ratio) and concluding that we have oil aplenty for at least 40 to 100 years. As well, there is little agreement about the total amount of oil reserves left in the earth, and so all calculations based upon this uncertain amount must also necessarily be uncertain. His response is to note that Hubbert's warning is not about running out of oil per se, but about reaching a critical point at which the demand for oil will outstrip production:
Given that worldwide demand will continue to increase, as it has for well over a century, Hubbert's followers expect the crisis to occur when the peak is reached, rather than when the last drop is pumped. In other words, we will be in trouble when we've used up half the oil that existed, not all of it.

He then gives a cursory overview of the other energy sources available to us at this point in time. There are the much-discussed heavy oils, tar sands, shale oils, etc. whose exploitation will be expensive, slow, energy-intensive, and even more environmentally disastrous than conventional oil has been, and those cons are relevant only if we grant that these substances will ever be feasible to produce in quantity to begin with. Natural gas is a possible substitute for the oil on which we depend, but that would require an enormous overhaul of our entire energy infrastructure for a substance whose production will peak in a few decades, based on current demand levels. In other words natural gas is not a long-term solution. Although we have centuries worth of coal in the ground, it is highly polluting, dangerous to mine, and contains only half the energy of an equivalent amount of oil; additionally, to extract the same amount of energy from coal that we currently get from oil, we'd need to mine ten times as much coal as we do today. (To those who think this is reasonable, all I can say is here's your lamp and your pick, start digging.) Barring some crazy advances in technology (oil-based technology, I should add) nuclear fusion is a nonstarter, and nuclear fission, with good reason, is politically unpopular. So what options are available to us? What are the limitations reality imposes on how we can respond to this looming crisis?

Before Goodstein answers these essential questions (and because he is, after all, a life-long teacher) he provides crash courses in several areas, beginning with basic terms used in the discussion around energy. Global warming and the greenhouse effect aren't all bad, he says, because if it weren't for those gases and their warming effects, the Earth would be a pretty cold ball of rock floating in space. On the other hand global warming understood as "human-induced catastrophic climate change" is a very bad thing. Nuclear energy isn't all bad either, especially since all the energy we use ultimately comes from nuclear reactions in the sun. He also notes that while around 100,000 men and boys died in English coal mines in the latter half of the 19th century, the total number of deaths attributable to Chernobyl is around 2,500. (It isn't the most compelling argument for nuclear power, but it certainly makes visible the normally unseen human cost of fossil fuels.) We cannot conserve energy, which conserves itself as a fundamental law of nature; rather, we can learn to conserve our fuel. As Goodstein himself notes on p. 48, to say that there can never be an energy crisis "doesn't mean we don't have a problem; it just means we haven't been describing the problem in the correct terms." Because many of the books critical of peak oil use terminological sleight of hand to mislead readers into thinking everything is A-OK, this information helps provide intellectual self-defense against these status quo apologists.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to chapters on the history of energy, which describes the various forms of energy (e.g., kinetic, potential, thermal, etc.), the history and characteristics of electricity (a form of energy that is central to contemporary life), and the absolute importance of the idea of entropy, in which a fraction of energy used to do any kind of work will instead become disorganized heat energy. He describes a very vivid demonstration that he uses in his introductory physics lecture courses to underscore the implications of entropy: suspended from a long cord directly in front of his face is a 16-lb. bowling ball. After he releases it, he explains to his class that his confidence in the laws of thermodynamics, and particularly in the inevitability of entropy, allows him to stand in place as the returning bowling ball hurtles toward him. Of course, as should be obvious to anyone whose watched a pendulum, each swing is a little shorter than the last as the energy of the swing is dissipated due to the resistance of the air (i.e., friction, i.e., heat, i.e., entropy). This material was all absolutely fascinating, particularly when explained by such an obviously gifted science teacher, but I still find myself scratching my head about how it all connects to the theme of the book, which is the end of the age of oil.

Finally, Goodstein looks at some of our options for fueling the future in his chapter called "Technological Fixes." We could place a giant umbrella in space between ourselves and the sun, which he describes as a foolish idea. Limiting the damage done by our consumption of fossil fuels and the resultant production of greenhouse gas through carbon sequestration is feasible, although it has a variety of serious drawbacks, including the sad fact that there is little economic incentive to do so. (Sad how maintaining human life on Earth does not count as an economic incentive.) Goodstein feels that we might need to reconsider nuclear fission as a primary fuel source, in spite of all the dangers and difficulties with which it is fraught. Yet, even if the world were forced to use nuclear fission in this fashion, it is estimated that there is only enough uranium fuel (U-235) to last five to twenty-five years. And even if we could find more nuclear fuel, the world would have to build one Gigawatt nuclear plant every day for 30 years to supply the amount of energy we currently consume in fossil fuels. The only other option, he argues, is solar power--whether as photoelectricity, solar heat power, or indirectly as wind-generated electricity--and in order to harvest the most solar power, we'd need to do so with solar collectors in geosynchronous orbit, another sizable task. His conclusion, though, does not seem to follow from these premises, which would seem to suggest that we don't have a replacement for the fossil fuels to which we are addicted. Instead he falls back on faith in the "future technological fix" to keep from succumbing to the hopelessness of our present situation:

As this brief survey suggest, there is no single magic bullet that will solve all our energy problems.There is no existing technology capable of replacing the oil we will soon be without, nor is there any on the horizon that we can depend on to replace the remaining fossil fuels when they are exhausted. And if we permit them to become exhausted before replacing them, we may place the climate of our planet in grave danger. The best hopes for our civilization lies in technologies that have not yet arisen--possibly based on scientific discoveries that have not yet been made. Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances on many simultaneous fronts, based on principles we already understand: controlled nuclear fusion, safe breeder reactors, better materials for manipulating electricity, more efficient fuel cells, better means of generating hydrogen, and so on.

While I don't disagree with his assertion that we need to fund research into these various research programs, I'm hesitant to suggest that we can avert disaster through mere supply-side solutions. In other words, we are going to have to learn to be a lot less individualistic and more communal in orientation, exchange single driver vehicles for mass transit, eat less meat, have fewer children, and in general learn to replace our consumer culture with one that values relationships instead of retail.

Earlier in the book, Goodstein provides a best and worst case scenario based on Hubbert's prediction, and I feel this is an appropriate place to end my review of his book. In his best case scenario, we collectively wake up to the dilemma, develop a methane-based economy to bridge the gap to future fuels, and then use a combination of nuclear and solar power while we build an alternative energy infrastructure. In his worse case scenario, which really is worse case, we don't heed the warning, run out of oil, and end up burning lots of coal for energy, increasing the green house gases in the atmosphere, crossing a tipping point, and basically making the Earth unlivable.
No matter what else happens, this is the century in which we must learn to live without fossil fuels. Either we will be wise enough to do so before we have to, or we will be forced to do so when the stuff starts to run out. One way to accomplish that would be to return to life as it was lived in the eighteenth century, before we started to use much fossil fuel. That would require, among many other things, eliminating roughly 95 percent of the world's population. The other possibility is to devise a way of running a complex civilization approximating the one we have no which does not use fossil fuel. (pp. 37-8)

Thus Goodstein sets the stage for our near future. I don't agree with him that these two are the only possibilities, although they do seem to be good endpoints for a continuum of options. According to Jim Kunstler's The Long Emergency, our dreams of running a civilization that approximates our own, particularly our love of automobiles and the infrastructure that supports an automobile culture, are pipe dreams, and nothing more. On the other end of the continuum, while it might not be possible or even desirable to return to an 18th century existence, we can all certainly work on the demand side of the energy equation and learn to live much more simply and in a way that minimizes our energy consumption---using public transportation, eating less meat, walking through the park instead of the mall, etc.

In short, this is a great book for explaining the scientific basis for peak oil and the coming fuel/food/transportation crisis. With a lot of voices being well paid to write off "peakists" as whackos, this sort of book is invaluable for providing a solid, reasonable, scientific response. Unfortunately, the technoscientific fixes he provides aren't that compelling, as even he seems to suspect. All in all a good place to start, but not to finish, your peak oil reading.

17 May 2008

Dr. Futurity: Medical profession saves humanity, surfs temporal paradoxes

Dr. Futurity
Philip K. Dick

Jim Parsons, MD, 2012, born in 1980 wakes up in a world of foreign spires, colors, and nighttime skies. He has abruptly and involuntarily traveled through time to 2405 after some sort of radiant beam knocked his car off the guide beam and into the far future. There (or it is then) he saves a gravely injured woman's life, thereby discovering that doctors and the entire medical profession are viewed as criminal. In this future society the population has reached a steady state with zero-population growth and no natural births; new embryo formation is triggered only when someone dies.

Dick hints at an earlier nuclear war (the H-War) and a subsequent Age of Darkness. He also presents a future in which post-Columbian global white power has been supplanted by an interplanetary tribal culture and society. Future humans comprise one general ethnic type, a mix of African-American and Native American, and whites have been wiped out or racially integrated. The future's eugenicist culture views death as nature's way of improving the species and so poverty, disease, and other forms of "weakness" have been allowed to die off. In this future death is revered as the source of new, ever stronger life.

And so the head of the future government, Chancellor Al Stenog, exiles Dr. Parson to Mars.

His spaceship is intercepted en route (reminiscent of Purcell's kidnapping in The Man Who Japed). Parsons comes to a parched red plain devoid of water and life (except for a single fly!) and so he assumes he is on Mars. In a rather chilling scene, he discovers an extremely weather ed marker with his name on it and instructions on how to operate the time travel controls on the spaceship. Only when he sees the surface of the moon does he realize that this isn't Mars but the Earth and that he has traveled far, far into the future. (Shades of The Time Machine.)

The marker directs Parsons back to his future and to a tribal lodge whose inhabitants wrongly believed that it was one of their beacons which brought the surgeon. These tribal people, who obviously disagree with the dominant culture's views on death, request that Parsons perform surgery on their wounded leader Corith, who has been fatally injured by an arrow wound. Parsons, being a dedicated physician (and also attracted to Corith's exotic daughter), revives Corith after extracting the arrow, only to have it later rematerialize mysteriously in Corith's corpse.

Lifting her head, she gazed at him; her eyes seemed to have shrunk so that the pupils gleamed like tiny, burning points, no longer located in space but somehow hovering before him, blinding him almost. "Someone is working against us," she said. "They have it, too. Control of time. Thwarting us, enjoying it..." She laughed. "Yes, enjoying it. Mocking us." Abruptly, with a swing of her robes, she turned away from Parsons and disappeared past the ring of attendants. (p. 94)

To solve mystery of this second arrow, Parsons and Corith's relatives travel back to Corith's previous assignment. The year is 1579, the place is the Golden Gate, Northern California. Corith has come back in time to kill Sir Francis Drake in order to change history and protect the Americas from European colonization.

"My son Corith is responsible for the idea. Many years ago, when he was a young man like yourself. He was very brilliant. And so ambitious. He wanted to make everything right, erase the Terrible Five Hundred Years..."

Parsons recognized the term. The period of white supremacy. He found himself nodding....

"So my son went back. The the first New England. Not the famous one, but the other one. The real one. In California. Nobody remembers...but Corith read all the records, the old books." Again she chuckled. "He wanted to start there, in Nova Albion. But he didn't get very far." ...

That was their great plan. To change the past by going back centuries, before the time of the white empires. To find Drake encamped in California, helpless while his ship was being repaired. To kill him, the first Englishman to claim part of the New World for England....

One after another, he thought. Drake would have been the first, and then--Cortez? Pizarro? And so on, down the line. As they landed with their helmeted troops, they would be wiped out--the conquerors, the plunderers, and the pirates. Prepared to find a passive, helpless population, they would instead come face-to-face with the calculating, advanced descendants of that population. Grim and ready. Waiting. (pp. 101-2)

Parsons sees Corith's assassination attempt and realizes that Drake is in fact Chancellor Al Stenog who is in turn planning to ambush Corith. Parsons warns Corith, who hasn't met him yet and so doesn't know him, and who thinks he's bad guy (after all, he is white) who has come to attack him. Corith leaps at Parsons, they fight, and the doctor Parsons accidentally stabs Corith in heart with arrow one number.

Although they recognize the accidental and ironic nature of the time traveler's death, their sense of tribal justice still demands a punishment for the killing. Parsons is taken through time and stranded in 1597, after whites had departed for Europe, and is rescued after brief while (for him at least) by Corith's hottie daughter Loris, who is pregnant with Parson's child.

Parsons realizes that he must be responsible for the second arrow as well and conjectures that he will kill Corith the second time in order to protect himself from the reviving Corith, but being a doctor he cannot bring himself to harm his "patient." As he is prepares to flee, two young people appear from future and kill Corith with second arrow to heart. Parsons realizes that they the children are the children he had/will have with Loris, traveling back to 2405 from an even more distant future.

After they take him forward to meet Loris again, he decides to return to 2012. back to the same day from which he was swept, to his doting wife. The novel closes with him constructing the stone marker that will eventually save his life on that desolate future Earth.

It is an expansion of his earlier short story "Time Pawn", which first saw publication in the summer 1954 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Thus far in my "PKD Project," this has been the most fun novel to read, in terms of the pacing, the plotting, and the deft usage of tangled timelines and temporal paradoxes. I'd never even heard of this novel before I'd begun my project, and now I would recommend it highly to anyone.