Posts Tagged ‘Catastrophes’

Cover of Tomorrow! by Philip Wylie(Tomorrow!, by Philip Wylie. Originally published in 1954 and reprinted many times; currently O/P, but available used)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Today, Philip Wylie (1902 – 1971) is remembered — if at all — for his 1942 book of social criticism, Generation of Vipers, but in his day he was a well regarded, popular writer. He wrote prolifically during  six decades for magazines and newspapers, and produced dozens of books, both nonfiction and fiction, and many screenplays, with at least ten of his books forming the basis for movies. One of his more popular novels was Tomorrow!, an early nuclear-catastrophe book.

It concerns a Soviet nuclear attack as seen through the eyes of the Conners, a white, Ozzie and Harriet-type family consisting of mom (Beth), dad (Henry), two sons (teenage Ted and older brother, Chuck, an Air Force officer), an eleven-year-old daughter (Nora), son Chuck’s love interest, nextdoor neighbor Lenore, and her parents, Beau and Netta, all living in the mythical town of Green Prairie.

Henry, Ted, and Lenore are heavily involved in Green Prairie’s civil defense activities (as was author Wiley in real life in Florida), and a mind-numbing number of words in Tomorrow! are devoted to describing civil defense preparations. Indeed, the book is in many ways a love letter to the civil defense program, which was a prominent feature of life in the 1950s, and one which will surprise modern readers.

Civil Defense symbol

The centerpiece of the book is a nearly 100-page, graphic description of the Soviet attack on the hometowns of the Conners and Baileys, the mythical twin cities Green Prairie and River City (one CD “prepared,” one not), set on a tributary of the Missouri River, presumably in Kansas or Nebraska. The description of the attack is the strongest, though not the most interesting, part of the book. Wiley doesn’t pull his punches when describing the effects of a nuclear bomb on a civilian target, and that description must have been sobering at the time.

The most interesting part of the book is the first part, which leads up to the section depicting war. It’s a lengthy, detailed portrait of middle class life in the early 1950s in mid-America. More than sixty years on, that life strikes one as unbearably stultifying.

The society Wiley portrays is religion soaked; the two love-interest characters are 24-year-old virgins; the characters by and large are interested only in material well-being and their families — and that not always in a healthy way; all of the characters use euphemisms rather than curse words; some of the sympathetic characters, who swear not at all, casually use anti-Asian and anti-black slurs; marriage with stay-at-home moms having six or seven kids is the norm; and the female characters have remarkably few options beyond that.

If Wylie was trying to induce claustrophobia and revulsion in the reader through this societal portrait, he succeeded (at least in the case of this reader).

The book, however, has some major weaknesses. The sympathetic male characters, plus Beth, are all boring as hell for the simple reason that they’re mostly if not entirely unconflicted — Henry and Ted entirely so,  Chuck mostly so. Chuck’s “predicament” is laughable: worrying about whether he’ll be able to afford a family on “only” an architect’s salary — he’d only be able to buy a bungalow on it (the horror!) — once he gets out of the service in a few months. As well, the male villain of the book, Kit, Chuck’s rival for Lenore, is also uninteresting, because he’s one dimensional. Take “pharma bro” and the “affluenza kid,” throw in physical cowardice, and you have Kit.

Two of the female characters, Nora and Lenore, chafing against the constraints placed on them precisely because they’re female, are more complex and hence more interesting, as are most of the unsympathetic characters, including Kit’s rich, arrogant, manipulative mother, and the Conners’ brown-nosing, social-climbing neighbors, the Baileys, Lenore’s parents. Wiley paints a venomous, entertaining portrait of these despicable characters — as anyone who’s ever read Generation of Vipers might expect.

Another major problem with the book, besides the boring male characters, is that Wylie devotes 14 consecutive pages (yes, 14 pages — over 4,000 words) to a political rant by his newspaper editor character, Coley. Wylie/Coley makes some still-valid points about the dangers of political witch hunts, the dangers of religious intolerance, and the importance of science and rationality, but such didacticism makes for lousy fiction. Even though I agree with most of the points Wiley made, I still found the rant interminable. (And, yes, it is Wiley speaking in the rant: there’s no conceivable reason for its inclusion other than that Wiley wanted to lecture the reader.)

Still another problem with the book — though it’d be unfair to judge Wylie too harshly for it — is in his portrayal of the aftermath of nuclear war. In the world of Tomorrow!, things are well on the way back to normal two years after the nuclear attack, bar continued rebuilding and an increase in miscarriages (treated in a remarkably cavalier fashion by the novel’s characters).

For most modern readers, there won’t be much of interest in Tomorrow! However, there is much for students of the political, social, and psychological state of America in the early Cold War period.

Recommended for such readers.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel. A lengthy free sample from Free Radicals is available free in pdf form.

Free Radicals front cover


What ShouldWhat Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night, edited by John Brockman. Harper Perennial, 2014, 497 pp., $15.99

reviewed by Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia

This is a collection of over 150 mini-essays–the longest is five pages–on a very wide variety of topics by a very wide array of authors. Familiar names include science fiction writers Vernor Vinge, Gregory Benford, and Bruce Sterling, SETI Institute head Seth Shostak, anti-aging researcher Aubrey De Grey, physicist Lawrence Krauss, astronomer Martin Rees, and skeptics/”new atheists” Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.

One slight problem with this collection is that its subtitle is not entirely accurate. Many of the pieces have little or nothing to do with science, and many of the authors are not scientists; the authors include Arianna Huffington and, with a two-sentence throwaway piece, Terry Gilliam. But this is a minor matter; most of the pieces deal at least tangentially with science.

Rather than cover only the standard (and mostly very real) threats to civilization and even human existence–nuclear war, nanotechnology, bio-engineered plagues, “the singularity,” climate change, coronal mass ejections and the collapse of the electric grid, etc.–that science and science fiction magazines and web sites endlessly chew over, the pieces in What Should We Be Worried About? go beyond such things (they are covered) to ponder matters such as fundamentalists out breeding rational people (with a consequent new Dark Age as a result), societal incentives toward irresponsible behavior, and the socially isolating effects of social media.

There are even pieces on what not to worry about, notably Shostak’s essay on “The Danger from Aliens” and Sterling’s essay, “‘The Singularity‘: There’s No There There.”

Shostak makes the point that while Earth’s radio/television transmissions would be undetectable at the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, using the largest radio telescope on Earth (the 300-meter Arecibo dish), any civilization capable of interstellar travel would very probably have far more sensitive arrays, that “any extraterrestrials with the hardware necessary to engage in interstellar warfare will be able to heft telescopes to the comparatively piddling distance of their home star’s gravitational focuse,” where their sensitivity would be increased “thousands or millions of times, depending on wavelength.” In other words, there’s no point in trying to limit transmissions now: the cat’s out of the bag.

Sterling is on shakier ground when he argues that because no powerful entities are putting major resources into artificial intelligence development (because there’s no obvious profit in it) and that “We’re no closer to self-aware machines than we were in the remote 1960s,” there’s no danger of a “singularity.” (The point at which machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. The question of whether a “singularity” would be a catastrophe,  as is almost universally assumed, is beyond the scope of this review.) Sterling’s first point is dubious. AI research goes on, unintentional consequences are a given. Also, Moore’s Law (that computer processing power doubles every two years) has proven true since Gordon Moore formulated it in 1970; so, should artificial intelligence ever emerge, it will almost certainly have the hardware to support it.

There are a few standouts among the mini-essays, including Shostak’s “The Danger from Aliens” and musician Brian Eno’s “We Don’t Do Politics” (on the perils of political disengagement). But almost all of the incredibly varied pieces in What Should We Be Worried About? are worth reading.

Highly recommended.

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