Applied Delany

In recent weeks I’ve developed the habit of listening to NPR’s Car Talk on my commute. It amuses me to listen to a show about automobiles while riding public transit, in addition to the pleasure the show itself provides.

Enjoyment of the show derives in no small part from repetition, and variation of that repetition. It derives less from the solution of tricky troubleshooting problems (though I do enjoy that aspect personally and professionally) as from the insults that the brothers deploy against one another, and more explicitly ritual aspects of the show: the closing credits, which consist more of puns and in-jokes than names or roles; the weekly Puzzler; and even the iconic braying-donkey laughs that the brothers loose upon the radio laughing at their own jokes.

This week I realized that, in a sense, this made Car Talk a very adult pleasure. One of my favorite Samuel R Delany quotes comes from Tales of Neveryon, where he writes:

Childhood is that time in which we never question the fact that every adult act is not only an autonomous occurrence in the universe, but that it is also filled, packed, overflowing with meaning, whether that meaning works for ill or good, whether the ill or good is or is not comprehended.

Adulthood is that time in which we see that all human actions follow forms, whether well or badly, and it is the perseverance of the forms that is, whether for better or worse, their meaning.

Various cultures make the transition at various ages, which transition period lasts for varying lengths of time, one accomplishing it in a week with careful dances, ancient prayers, and isolate and specified rituals; another, letting it take its own course, offering no help for it, and allowing it to run on frequently for years. But at the center of the changeover there is a period – whether it be a moment’s vision or a year-long suspicion – where the maturing youth sees all adult behavior as merely formal and totally meaningless.

Truly, the meaning of Car Talk inheres within the perseverance of its forms.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capitol” triology

Just this past week, I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Sixty Days and Counting, the third book of what Wikipedia calls his Science in the Capitol trilogy. (Actually, Wikipedia called it the “Science in the Capital” trilogy, but I changed it. And at least one source suggests that either form is correct, but I can’t shake the suspicion that they’re wrong. And at any rate, the relevant DC locale is Capitol Hill, so I’m sticking with it.)

The first book, Forty Signs of Rain, really blew me away: here was a book that tried to be about the way that science really operates, and the way that the American government and political system operate. In the novel, climate change forces both groups to confront their inherent limitations and to react to circumstances. Forty Signs of Rain really struck me because both politics and science operate essentially without heroes, though individual scientists and politicians may be iconic and seem heroic. The real work, in both cases, is systemic. Turning scientists and politicians into heroes in no small way discounts their very professions, and I admired Robinson’s work at trying to turn in an interesting thriller about climate change without real individual heroes.

I was less impressed by the second volume, Fifty Degrees Below. Perhaps Frank Vanderwal, one of the scientists, became too heroic. Perhaps the conspiracy angle that emerged seemed too implausible. But I did like some of the sections with Buddhists, and Vanderwal’s attempt to live a neo-paleolithic lifestyle, so I looked forward to the third volume.

Like some other reviewers, I found Sixty Days and Counting to be a significant disappointment: more heroics, less real science, less real politics. More conspiracy. The characters hurtle through flaming hoops to their appointed destinations without much real feeling. Force-fed Emerson and Thoreau, without any acknowledgment of the gap between their writings and their lives. Heavy-handed plotting and philosophizing on topics that Robinson handled much more deftly in the first two volumes. Worst of all, I had real trouble believing the endings, and the way each character’s story wrapped up.

In short, I loved the first volume in the trilogy, and liked the second, but think that Robinson really ran out of steam in the last volume. Hardcore environmentalists and socialists will probably approve of the didactic tone of the last book, which devolves from scientific fact to moralizing. I agree with Robinson that Global Warming is a critical issue that still isn’t being addressed adequately; and I further agree with much of his description of why that is so, but he makes those points adequately earlier in the trilogy without seeming shrill.