Stephen Kahn

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Have a good life being strangled by Bianca’s hands at the movies

In Hard to tell on November 10, 2011 at 1:49 am

It’s about time for my new reader, joem, to get bored with my blog and wander away. However, Joe, I appreciate your dropping in.

All my life, I have been much more of a reader than a movie goer. I read much more science fiction than I watched science fiction movies. (My wife is the opposite.)

However, even though I started reading science fiction by the age of ten, my first science fiction traumas were cinematic. I bugged my father to take me to some science fiction movie about aliens; it scared me so much I bugged him to take me home, much to my disgust. It might have been Plan Nine from Outer Space [renowned as the worst science fiction movie ever made]. However, I watched a bit of that movie not long ago and it did not ring any repressed memory bells.

Then a year or two later, I went to see the movie version of War of the Worlds by myself. I stuck it all the way through, but for weeks afterwards I had nightmares about Martian death rays incinerating me

By twelve I could handle science fiction horror movies. My brother and I took our little sister to see Them (a movie about giant ants in Los Angeles) while we were living in Brea (small town in Orange County). We thought the giant ants were cool, but our sister was scared silly and ran crying into the lobby, much to the irritation of my brother and myself.

I can only think of one written science fiction story that really scared me: “It’s a Good Life,” by Jerome Bixby.

Almost as good at scaring me, however, was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bianca’s Hands.” I could not find a print version online; however, I did find a reading by Spider Robinson, though you have to wade through a lot of music and other stuff to get to the story.

Anarchy hive

In Good news, Humor on November 5, 2011 at 3:30 am

Just when I thought I had nothing that would interest anyone on the topic of science fiction, I read a couple of interesting comments, such as the one about Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. So I decided to continue. My thought now is to bounce back and forth between science fiction from literature and film and science fiction as it is coming true in our present time.

For example, I read about “hive minds”; now I wonder if the Internet is now turning human beings into a kind of giant hive mind creature communicating through email, blogs, Facebook. On the other hand, a couple of nights ago I attended a Transition Whidbey “potluck with a purpose,” to listen to Jonathan Moses, a political scientist/economist (who lives on Whidbey, farmed in Norway, and now teaches at a Norweigian College) talk about economic challenges of the present and future. He was a good presenter and had interesting presentation, but had difficulty keeping the program and the discussion going. As he said in a good-natured fashion, this is like “herding cats.” Everyone at Transition Whidbey seems to be in agreement about organic gardening, farming, and living, and about a thousand other values and ideas (hence we are forming something of a hive mind like creature), but everyone has a different idea about how it will come about and how it should proceed, so we seem to be a “hive mind” that is a total ADD/HD anarchy mind.

Militaristic, free-loving, libertarian

In Books, Hard to tell on October 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Of the three great “transition to modern times” authors who moved science fiction beyond pioneers such as A. G. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein was the most characteristically American in his life and writing, embodying and promulgating many of the most powerful and persistent American memes of the 20th and 21st Centuries. He had a tremendous narrative gift, helping readers slide down stories and values that they might otherwise have found unpalatable.

Some of these memes involved the sexual revolution and a return to a kind of animist theology, most on vividly on display in Stranger in a Strange Land. Some of these memes involved militarism, vividly on display in Starship Troopers, where humans battle alien slugs (stand-ins for Nazis, and Communists). Beginning with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he began to develop many of the themes and slogans now prevalent in libertarianism, such as the acronym TANSTAAFL! ( There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!)

I Wonder as I Wander

In Hard to tell on October 19, 2011 at 3:53 am

As far as I can see, humans seek transcendence. We know that we will die, that all life involves suffering, and most of us know that life is not fair — the wicked sometimes prosper and the good are sometimes punished for no particularly good reason.

An early remedy for this painful realization is to imagine that there is a reason for we suffer and to imagine that there is a solution for our suffering. This solution is now called religious belief.

Over the course of human existence, and even now, there have been thousands of religious beliefs, but through a process of competition, we are refining our way down to five main ones (in two categories).

One category might be described as Genetic belief, in that it is transmitted mainly through clan and culture. Three of the “big five” religious beliefs seem to fall into this group, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. I would describe the other two as Viral beliefs as they are transmitted not only genetically but also by persuasive memes and active proselytizing (Islam and Christianity/Mormonism).

One can expand, revise, and quibble about my attempt to summarize all of religious belief in less than 150 words, which is why at least 572,153,789,999,444,420 words (which I think puts in the quintillions, but I could be wrong) have been written over the course of human history explaining, analyzing, revising, reforming, and dissecting religious belief.

Most people are religious believers, but gradually people are losing religious belief. Now religious belief is something like spiritual nutrition. We can limit how much we drink and eat (in fact it is a good idea in many respects), but we can not sustain ourselves on nothing. So just as we need SOMETHING for our physical survival, we need SOMETHING for our spiritual survival. For example, this blog post by Scott Erb provides an excellent discussion of this very issue.



For some people, the drive to find transcendence was expressed by science fiction.

Why did I not become a traditional religious believer? I remember, pretty clearly given that it is now 57 years later, reading much of the Bible at the age of 10 and thinking, “This was either written by human beings or it was written by some being called ‘God.’ Sure seems to have the fingerprints of human beings all over it.”

I read quite a bit of varied material as a child, and by the age of 10 I was already reading some science fiction.

One of the most popular phrases in science fiction is “Sense of wonder.” I’ve interpreted it as a kind of substitute for religious belief. The three most popular science fiction writers when I began reading science fiction were Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Issac Asimov, often called the “Big Three” science fiction writers of their time. Each dealt with religious belief, societal organization, in different ways that still resonate today. (Like a Soviet encyclopedia, this wikipedia entry may have changed from what I read by the time you get to it.)




The dangers of meeting famous writers

In Hard to tell on October 16, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Instead, I am going to talk about science fiction. I will start with my father and the once well-known science fiction writer, A. E. van Vogt.

First, a little background.

My father was very bright, very angry, very unhappy, and very confused.

I know he was very bright because he was a bit of a child prodigy (as a chess player) and as an adult he worked as a computer programmer in the earliest days of the computer industry (helping a defense contractor prepare to send bombers to blow up the Soviet Union in case of nuclear war). (See Dr. Strangelove to get an idea of the times and the terrifying mission my father was marginally engaged with.)

I know Michael (my father) was very angry and unhappy because he was a terrible, angry father, and because my parents had a terrible relationship. I also know he was angry and unhappy because my grandmother, Agnes, was a bitter feminist pacifistic narcissist, so I presume she was a terrible mother. Also, my father grew up during the height of the Great Depression which was a generally bad time.

I think my father was confused because his father, Harry, was a charming and feckless dentist/alternative health practitioner who studied with John Harvey Kellogg, the pioneering alternative health practitioner so well described in T. C. Boyle’s brilliant and hilarious work of historical fiction, The Road to Wellville. My grandfather, Harry Kahn, was not portrayed in that book (which is closely based on historical events and real people), but he would have fit right in.

Apparently the main thing that Harry decided from studying from Kellogg was that enemas would cure and prevent all illness, so he gave lots of enemas to people all over Chicago, staring with my father and his three sisters, Diana, Henriette, and Naomi. Later my parents imprinted on J. I. Rodale, who founded Organic Gardening and was one of the leading lights of the organic gardening movement. I got a few enemas as a child, but mostly I was preached at about the evils of white sugar and the benefits of organic food, fresh eggs, and raw milk. As a child, I helped my family make compost, grow organic food, care for chickens and ducks, and I milked a cow and a goat and drank raw milk. It amuses me that I now make compost, grow organic food, and care for chickens. I omit the ducks, the cow, and the goats. We live in degenerate times. On the other hand, my daughter and granddaughter can stand to be around me, so maybe we are living in improving times.

Anyway, van Vogt began writing science fiction around 1940 and became one of the earliest “big thinker” science fiction writers who dreamed big and thought that visionaries such as himself could change the world. The most spectacular (and nutty) of this crew was L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of a new psychology/religion known first as Dianetics and later as Scientology. Van Vogt for a while allied himself with Hubbard and helped with his efforts to get his cult goin

My impression is that my father read some of van Vogt’s early work and was quite taken with the writer’s imagination and vision. Michael’s family was quite active in Chicago’s bohemian society of the late 30s and early 40s. One of my aunts, Naomi, became a ballet dancer, and later ballet teacher; one of her sisters, Henriette (still alive) strove (without success) to become an opera singer. My mother’s sister was married to a publisher, and her brother became an obscurely famous composer (who had a brief, passionate, and unhappy affair with my father’s sister, Diana). Apparently, at one of these (wild?) bohemian parties my father met the science fiction writer van Vogt. Before the meeting, my father was excited at the prospect; I guess imagining some sort of dynamic, visionary, charismatic leader. In reality, van Vogt turned out to be rather prosaic and uninspiring. “Don’t meet writers you admire; they will disappoint you,” my father said to me.

Interestingly, about 30 years after my father met and was disillusioned by his meeting with van Vogt, a fairly well-known science fiction writer and critic, Damon Knight, invited me to lunch at the University of Oregon Faculty Club. Although Knight was quite elderly and not in great health at that time, I found his personality charming and interesting, and was not disappointed at all.

As I was just reading a bit about both writers to refresh my memory, I was interested to discover that when van Vogt’s reputation as a writer was at its zenith, Knight reviewed him rather acidly and dismissively. (Knight, based on my meeting with him, was a pleasant and gracious individual in person, but as a critic he was severe with the writers he reviewed.)

The future could go either way…or both…

In Hard to tell on February 22, 2011 at 3:13 am

As a child and as a young adult, I read a lot of science fiction. As I got older, my taste for reading it mostly disappeared. In part, my interest diminished because the I saw the world around me turning into something like the imagined world I had read about, and it was less amusing and less attractive in “real life” then in the pages of a book.

Some of the science fiction I read when young was dystopian, describing civilization collapsing and worlds being destroyed or enslaved. Some of it was optimistic, imagining startling new technologies working for the benefit of humanity and discovering amazing new worlds, civilizations, and beings.

It can still go both ways, and perhaps both ways at once (as many stories predicted).

Humans may still land on Mars and explore more of space. Many diseases may be eradicated and life extended longer than is normal now. The cultures and races of the world may learn to live together in greater harmony and tolerance.

On the other hand, as peak oil diminishes, as we mine our fertile soil with factory farms, as fanatics get their hands on ever more powerful weapons, civilization may collapse.

This may all happen at once. A common theme in science fiction has been a few people surviving on other planets (most likely Mars) or on multi-generation “star ships” setting forth for other solar systems while earth disintegrates.

There are many possible variations and combinations. None of us can foresee the future with certainty. Who foresaw that a mixed race man would be elected President of the United States, or that Russia and China would turn into tyrannical “capitalist” powers, or that China, India, and Brazil would challenge the economic hegemony of the United States and Western Europe?