Tag Archives: Fiction

In an alternate universe, John lives, and the Beatles sing on

What if, in 1976 — six years after their breakup — the Beatles had actually accepted producer Lorne Michaels’ jokey invitation to get back together and perform on Saturday Night Live? Blogger MightyGodKing takes this as a starting point and imagines a mind-bending alternate timeline in which the Beatles reunite; John survives (for a good while longer); new albums are made (and sell in the millions); and Ringo is, crucially, much more than he seems (and hints at the unintended consequences of time travel). Some choice events:

December 14, 1980. Having “had a sit back” (Ringo) after [the new album] Eventually’s staggering success and taken time to concentrate on their own projects and personal lives, the Beatles make their first televised appearance as a group since the SNL reunion, appearing on The Muppet Show. (Lennon leaves New York for the first time in six months to do the gig, eventually spending the entire month of December in England.) The episode is the highest rated episode of The Muppet Show in the show’s history and the most watched television program of the entire year, beating even the news coverage of the 1980 American presidential election. The undisputed highlight of the episode is the “battle of the bands” between the Beatles and the Electric Mayhem (although Starr says his duet with Fozzie the Bear remains his personal favorite moment). Jim Henson would later say that the Beatles episode “rejuvenated” his joy in working on the show, which by that point he had begun to feel was growing stale: the show continues for another seven seasons.

January 7th, 1981. Lennon, Harrison and Starr attend the funeral of a New Yorker named Mark David Chapman, who committed suicide in mid-December and whose apartment, after the fact, was revealed to be a shrine to the Beatles. “I just felt, you know, responsible somehow, like he died because of us,” says Starr, although he refuses to articulate further on this point. Harrison agrees: “it’s amazing to think how great an impact we can have sometimes. You just want it so that you don’t have this kind of impact.” Lennon says nothing.

1983. The Beatles announce their first tour in thirteen years, but likewise announce that [Michael] Jackson will be going on tour with them as a one gigantic mega-concert event. The “Startin’ Something Again” tour plays packed stadiums and larger venues around the world for eleven months straight – the smallest concert played is 240,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, and the tour closes with a free concert in Central Park with an estimated crowd of one point three million people.

January 5th, 1984. Jackson and McCartney are filming a commercial for Pepsi when pyrotechnicians accidentally set Jackson’s hair on fire. Jackson is rushed to the hospital with severe burns, but dies of shock in the ambulance before he can be treated. The Beatles attend his funeral en masse. “He changed things,” says Lennon, “and that’s something I don’t say lightly.” Starr is especially saddened, saying “it wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Harrison says nothing. McCartney promises that Michael Jackson’s legacy “will not be forgotten” and pledges to make sure of this, although he is unspecific as to details.

2002-3. John Lennon, having never abandoned peace activism (his 1991 re-recording of “Give Peace A Chance” before the first Gulf War sparked much controversy), begins harshly criticizing the American buildup to war in Iraq, calling it a “pack of lies.” After the first round of peace protests are largely ignored by the media, Lennon goes on The Late Show With David Letterman and launches into a tirade, visibly furious that the protests were ignored. “Half a million fucking people in New York saying “we don’t want a war” and CNN doesn’t say a damn thing.” The soundbite becomes a flashpoint for debate over the war. Sean Hannity calls for Lennon’s deportation. Lennon offers to come on any show opposing his viewpoint: he receives no response.

Much more here. It’s an extremely well-imagined (and ultimately melancholy) bit of wish fulfillment, and as a Beatles fan it really makes me want to tear my hair out that I don’t live in this universe. There should have been more. There should have been so much more.

(Image from The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. Thanks to commenter Paul W. at FlickFilosopher for the link.)

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“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved”

Psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle expresses perfectly some of the qualms I have about our plugged-in, always-online, invasively interconnected lives:

The transcript is worth quoting at length (boldface mine):

We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn’t solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being.

The best way to describe it is, I share therefore I am. We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we’re having them. So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it’s: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. The problem with this new regime of “I share therefore I am” is that, if we don’t have connection, we don’t feel like ourselves. We almost don’t feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.

How do you get from isolation to connection? You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we’re at risk, because actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.

There’s much more, and the whole video is worth watching. And this seems like an apt place to point out that Kate Bush saw this coming:

A previous post on solitude and the need to unplug here. And I’ve also previously mentioned Bob Mondello’s provocative post on E.M. Forster’s prescient science fiction story “The Machine Stops,” which is worth reading here.

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“For learning, against usefulness”: The Phantom Tollbooth and the purpose of education

My mind has been on education a lot these days, as we take our fifth-grade daughter to visit middle school after middle school, analyzing and comparing notes, trying to decide which ones to apply to next year. It’s funny — though not all that surprising, I suppose — to see how all these presentations and open houses and tours help you refine in your mind what you think education is for. And so it was interesting to be in that frame of mind when I came across Adam Gopnik’s meditation on the fifty-year-old classic The Phantom Tollbooth (which I’d read to my daughter last year) and realized how Norton Juster was slyly writing about the point of learning itself, without ever saying that’s what he was up to:

As with every classic of children’s literature, its real subject is education. The distinctive quality of modern civilization, after all, is that children are subjected to year after year after year of schooling. In the best-loved kids’ books, the choice is often between the true education presented in the book — say, Arthur’s through animals at the hands of Merlyn, in “The Sword in the Stone” — and the false education of the world and school. The child being read to (and the adult reading) is persuaded that self-reliance is a better model for learning than slavish obedience. […]

[Milo’s] epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle. The point of “The Phantom Tollbooth” is not that there’s more to life than school; it’s that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling. […]

For “The Phantom Tollbooth” is not just a manifesto for learning; it is a manifesto for the liberal arts, for a liberal education, and even for the liberal-arts college. […] What Milo discovers is that math and literature, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, should assume their places not under the pentagon of Purpose and Power but under the presidency of Rhyme and Reason. Learning isn’t a set of things that we know but a world that we enter.

Juster was writing a comic hymn to the value of the liberal arts at a moment of their renaissance […] In “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the real moral sin is knowing too much about one thing: the Mathemagician who obsesses over quantities; the unabridged Azaz who lives off his own words. Against those who worried that the liberal arts could not help us “win the future,” Juster argued for the love of knowledge, and against narrow specialization. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was for learning, against usefulness. “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all,” Milo complains to Rhyme and Reason. They don’t tell him to listen to his inner spirit, or trust the Force. Instead, Reason says, “You may not see it now, but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else. . . . Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”

Exactly right.

Read the rest of Gopnik’s excellent piece here.

(via The Dish; image via Raptis Rare Books)

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The case for optimism, cont’d: The need for vision, and letting visionaries soar

Echoing Philip Reeve, Neal Stephenson calls on science fiction writers to once again imagine a bold future — “an over-arching narrative” that provides “a shared vision” — that can inspire scientists to make it real:

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees. […]

“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at [the FutureTense conference]). He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense.

Elsewhere, Thomas Friedman — a self-described “frustrated optimist” — tells WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook that the visionaries are already among us, waiting to be unleashed:

What always makes me an optimist about this country: it is still full of people who just didn’t get the word. They didn’t get the word that we’re down and out. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a slow decline. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a recession. And they go out and start stuff and fix stuff and heal stuff and organize stuff […] whether it’s on Wall Street today or in places that you’ve never seen before. […] What they tell you is that the country is alive.

If you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head […] because there is just a huge thrust coming from below, and as I’ve said ad infinitum, it looks just like the space shuttle taking off — all that thrust coming from below.

In That Used To Be Us, Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum elaborate:

We are optimists, but we are also frustrated. We are frustrated optimists. In our view, the two attitudes go together. We are optimists because American society, with its freewheeling spirit, its diversity of opinions and talents, its flexible economy, its work ethic and penchant for innovation, is in fact ideally suited to thrive in the tremendously challenging world we are living in. We are optimists because the American political and economic systems, when functioning properly, can harness the nation’s talents and energy to meet the challenges the country faces. We are optimists because Americans have plenty of experience in doing big, hard things together. And we are optimists because our track record of national achievement gives ample grounds for believing we can overcome our present difficulties.

But that’s also why we’re frustrated. Optimism or pessimism about America’s future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things. It also has to be a function of our will actually to do those things again.

More arguments for optimism here.

(via io9; image via Soulful Scribe)


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Miscellany: Waiting for Irene; Neil Gaiman kicks my lazy ass; girl scientists rock (and so does Kirsten Gillibrand); Harry Potter ends; more atheist fun

Well, I’m back (and wishing I could have brought Idaho’s clear night sky back with me). And now we’re hunkering down in our apartment, bracing for the flooding from Hurricane Irene, which is due to hit New York later tonight: we’ve got all our supplies, we’re a storey above ground level, and we’re not in a mandatory evacuation zone (though we’re pretty close to one). We’ll make it through just fine. Bring it on.

Some old links to share before I start with fresh posts:

In an inspiring interview, Neil Gaiman links writing to punk rock and tells aspiring writers to get off their lazy asses and Just Do It. M. Molly Backes says the same thing, in a post with some wise advice to parents of would-be writers.

Take that, Larry Summers: Girls are excelling in science.

Roger Ebert has a very insightful take on what’s wrong with the Republican party today, why they don’t speak for most Americans, and why, despite any short-term victories, the tide of history is against them. On the other side of the aisle, my awesome hometown senator Kirsten Gillibrand talks feminism, politics, and the next generation.

As the Harry Potter saga comes to an end: Chloe Angyal at Feministing.com talks about Potter and feminism. Michelle Dean at The Millions considers the powerful and sincere appeal of J.K. Rowling’s story to the unjaded reader or viewer in us, despite the literary flaws and the calculations of commercial forces that the series’ critics are happy to point out. Bringing Potter into the messy world of terror and counter-terror, Dan Nexon at The Duck of Minerva speculates on why Harry won; and in the aftermath of his victory, a Foreign Policy article on “Post-Conflict Potter” gives serious consideration to what happens next.

Paul Boghossian’s essay on morality in the Times sparks a fascinating discussion on moral relativism. I don’t think I have (at the moment) a firm opinion on the subject, but I like reading up on both sides of the issue. Sometimes Sam Harris makes a lot of sense, and sometimes he doesn’t…

Which brings us to God and Godlessness territory. The New Statesman compiles statements from many prominent atheists and agnostics explaining why they don’t believe in God. Paula Kirby, pushing back against Governor Rick Perry’s stupidity, sets the record straight on evolution and why it’s a threat to Christianity; Richard Dawkins chimes in. Hemant Mehta links to some great hard-hitting atheist billboards. And, playfully sticking it to Intelligent Design, Paul Simms publishes God’s blog (be sure to read through to the “comments”).

And that’s it for now. More writing soon, after the storm.

(Photo by Kateri Jochum for WNYC)

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The case for optimism, cont’d: On dystopian YA fiction and our missing utopian futures

Though his very excellent Mortal Engines series (drop everything and go read it now; you’re welcome) itself has strongly dystopian elements, Philip Reeve nevertheless criticizes the pervasiveness and unrelenting grimness of dystopian YA fiction today:

Half of the science-fiction stories that I read in my teens seemed to predict terrible ends for us all, but the other half concerned themselves with bright, shining futures in which human beings would spread out among the stars, having overcome such trifling problems as poverty, war, and racial prejudice. As far as I’m aware, no one in the YA field is writing things like that anymore: if they are, their books have yet to achieve the same high profile as the dystopias. It’s as if optimism has become so hopelessly quaint that we can no longer allow ourselves even to imagine a better future. […]

Yet the world in which we now live is actually far closer to the hi-tech futures that the optimists of the 1950s and ’60s envisioned than to any of the blighted wastelands that the doomsayers predicted. It’s true that many of science fiction’s sunnier visions seem naive today: racism and war persist; spindle-shaped rocket ships can’t carry us to Mars, and I still haven’t got the jet pack and flying car that I remember being promised. Yet in many ways, our society is kinder and safer, and some of today’s technologies are far more impressive than flying cars. Some of this may have come about precisely because the children of earlier generations were excited by fictional visions of a brighter future and ended up as the scientists and social reformers, innovative engineers and hi-tech entrepreneurs who helped to make it happen. What sort of future awaits a society whose young people are taught that there’s nothing to look forward to but decline and disaster, and that decline and disaster may be all that they deserve?

It’s entirely natural that YA authors should try to reflect the fears about the future that young readers feel, but I’m coming to think that we also have a duty to challenge the prevailing pessimism of mainstream culture. Dystopian fiction, while appearing to offer a radical criticism of modern society, is often deeply conservative. Portraying our civilization as doomed, it looks to the past for answers — to the rugged individualism of the frontier spirit, or a meek retreat to preindustrial ways of life. I’m happy to celebrate and recommend the excellent dystopian novels that I mentioned above, and I’m certain that there are many others every bit as fine, but I think what we could really use right now are a few utopian novels to set beside them.

Read the whole thing.

The image above comes from another fascinating article, Alexis Madrigal’s “The Lost Dream of Trippy ’70s Space Colonies.”

More reasons for optimism here.

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On identity beyond ethnicity, cont’d: “I am a Japanese writer”

From Dany Laferrière’s novel I Am a Japanese Writer:

The space police help identify you (Where do you come from?). Born in the Caribbean, I automatically became a Caribbean writer. The bookstore, the library and the university rushed to pin that title on me. Being a writer and a Caribbean doesn’t necessarily make me a Caribbean writer. Why do people always want to mix things up? Actually, I don’t feel any more Caribbean than Proust […]

As a teenager, I came across one of [Yukio Mishima’s] novels at the back of some old cupboard along with a bottle of rum. I began with a long gulp of liquid fire. Then I opened the book (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea) and a swarm of buzzing vowels and consonants flew into my face. They had been waiting forever for a visit. In a case like that, you don’t start classifying. You don’t look that gift horse in the mouth. Mishima’s book didn’t say to itself, “Well, well, here’s a good old Japanese reader.” And I didn’t look for a kindred spirit, recognizable colors or a shared sensibility. I dove into the universe that was set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. […]

I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot — they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?” I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.

(Photo via The National Post)

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