I’ve always enjoyed the idea of Philip K. Dick, but have to admit that I haven’t read as much of his work as I might like. After all, he is a difficul...moreI’ve always enjoyed the idea of Philip K. Dick, but have to admit that I haven’t read as much of his work as I might like. After all, he is a difficult author, so it is easier to enjoy his works in the adaptations of others. I have read some though and, based on that, The Man in the High Castle is the best I’ve read yet.
Dick has several problems as an author. His drug use and chaotic lifestyle are widely accepted explanations for the slap-dash quality of some of his output. It does seem sometimes as if he just tossed ingredients together to bring in cash after a major party, perhaps, or to replenish his drug inventory.
But High Castle is certainly not one of those poorly put-together works. He claims it was laboriously assembled by asking the i ching question after question, thousands of them. I discount that: even if true, the artistry comes from the author, since he must have asked his oracle some incredibly creative questions.
The primary difficulty that remains here is that Dick has trouble creating coherently emotional people. His characters are strangely affectless; when life is dealing them astonishingly odd or tragic outcomes, they blandly bemoan their fates without much passion, as if they were spectators in their own lives. If you’ve only seen the adaptations, you’ll have missed that. Only Keanu Reeves (in A Scanner Darkly) seemed to have that PDK stamp of bloodless authenticity, but I suspect that’s just Keanu.
But here in High Castle, that flaw is less in evidence because the nature of the story calls for many people to suppress their emotions. This comes from three factors. The story takes place twenty years after the United States has lost World War II, and most of the action is located in San Francisco, which is in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America. Since the “white” people are second-class citizens, they kowtow to the Japanese and keep their behavior and words under tight control. Furthermore, several key characters are involved in diplomatic work, which also calls for careful self-control. Finally, the ruling Japanese culture is depicted as very emotionally restrained, in which the display of emotion is considered distasteful. That aspect of Japanese life is also taken as a pattern for the subject people of the PSA, so people tend to be like the Japanese in this to the extent they are acceptable and successful.
So Dick’s major storytelling flaw only really affects a few characters, and two of those have some serious emotional difficulties anyway.
Enough about why High Castle isn’t bad — how is it good?
What Dick is famous for is coming up with ideas that no one else does, and specifically ideas that are imbued with a philosophical conundrum. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the question is what it means to be human. If ever-more sophisticated androids can pass as humans, are they human? What precisely is required to be considered human? For a police detective who’s job is to hunt them down and “retire” them, this becomes a very personalized dilemma.
In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said the problem of identity is personalized: if everyone around you forgets who you are, then what is left? If so much of our identity is embedded in what others believe and know about us, then what resides inside ourselves?
The most obvious “puzzle” in High Castle is the counter-factual story — the Axis powers winning World War II — and the role of the i ching. To me, neither of these fits the pattern of a classic PDK philosophical dilemma. So where is it?
I think it is better hidden and more subtle here, and deals with the relationship of the individual to their social collective. Dick paints the Germans, Japanese and Americans with broad strokes, but then places those cultures in opposition to one another and explores how that societal conflict plays out in individual lives, in individual actions.
Fairly early in the book, one of the major actors tries to analyze the German racial character. Later, the various factions within the German political world are identified, but at this point he tears into the German “race”. And he, Lotze, is playing games with his identity — is he Swedish? Jewish? German? Some of that is left unresolved to the very end. When told that, as a Swede, he is just like the Germans, he ponders.
Am I racially kin to this man? Baynes wondered. So closely so that for all intents and purposes it is the same? Then it is in me, too, the psychotic streak. A psychotic world we live in. The madmen are in power. How long have we known this? Faced this? And—how many of us do know it? Not Lotze. Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. But the broad masses . . . what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city, here. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth…? But, he thought, what does it mean, insane? A legal definition. What do I mean? I feel it, see it, but what is it? He thought, It is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, intuit it. But—they are purposely cruel . . . is that it? No. God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans. The conquering of the planets. Something frenzied and demented, as was their conquering of Africa, and before that, Europe and Asia. Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor: the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life; there was once only the dust particles in space, the hot hydrogen gases, nothing more, and it will come again. This is an interval, ein Augenblick. The cosmic process is hurrying on, crushing life back into the granite and methane; the wheel of life turns for all life. It is all temporary. And they—these madmen—respond to the granite, the dust, the longing of the inanimate; they want to aid Natur. And, he thought, I know why. They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God’s power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off.
He was getting a bit mystical at the end there, but this was a key passage for me. I’ve spent many hours wondering in a similar manner about the modern world, about how people can be so ideologically passionate that they miss how destructive they are, or want to be. The internal narrative is just right: that struggle to swing one’s focus around to what rings true, virtually debating with oneself. Anyway, his insight immediately called to mind George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and his examination of how foundational ideological premises can broadly sway entire cultures. [This also reminded me how disappointed and annoyed I remain with Lakoff — instead of pursuing these deep questions across many cultures and many times, he decided to turn into a partisan hack.]
I’m sure many would laugh at Baynes’ characterization of the German rassischer Identität, and I won’t exactly defend it. But I felt the same way about Lakoff’s tremendous oversimplification of conservative and liberal ideology: even as he reduced these to an almost comical abstraction, he was zeroing on an approximation of some fundamental truth. Just as you might call someone as “basically pessimistic person”, I think it is justifiable to find similar “basic” traits about social groups.
Dick uses those basic cultural truths in High Castle as marionette strings, inexorably tugging his characters around. And, in one case, showing how dislocated someone’s psyche can become when they are forced to act outside the bounds of that culture.
And we must be similarly affected. What are the “truths” our culture has imposed on us? The United States is big enough that different subcultures seem to be in almost diametric opposition. When our ideologies become destructive, are we are insane as Baynes decided the Nazis were? It is easy to see the lies others tell themselves, but... well: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Knowing how difficult that is, are we as doomed as the Nazis were? As the Soviets were?
With the best of literature, we find reflections of ourselves and our own times. This is Dick’s strength: even though his stories are often poorly written, the bones of those stories pose questions that are timeless.
Where does the individual end, and the collective begin?
This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906...moreThis is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. I can highly recommend it.
Much to the delight of info gluttons, Winchester as always ranges widely from the nominal focus of the book. Any reader looking for an in-depth history of the whys and wherefores of the earthquake and fire will be more than satisfied, as well anyone wondering about the broader surrounding topics.
Of course, if you want your author to go straight to the heart of the matter, this isn't your book and, furthermore, you really should forego any of Winchester's books.
By the way, this book was more personal to me than to most of you out there: I've lived in San Francisco for almost my entire adult life, and I'm a third-generation Californian (and almost a third-generation San Franciscan). I've backpacked for many years in the Sierras, thrown up millions of years ago by the mechanisms he describes in the book, and I felt connected to every scene he describes in the city.
Still, my reaction to this book isn't unalloyed praise. I think there were several false notes. The more obvious one was the connection to Pentecostalism. I agree it was an important phenomena of the time — actually, I wouldn't be here if my mother's parents hadn't found each other while attending a Pentecostal church during the depression. But the movement almost certainly would have taken off with or without San Francisco's earthquake; that kind of exuberant religiosity seems to be a fundamental part of U.S. culture. Despite the specific anecdotes that tie the two stories together, I felt it was really a post hoc, ergo propter hoc kind of connection, and detrimental to the book's focus.
The other significant annoyance was that several times the author referred to San Francisco and other places in close proximity to the fault as "very dangerous". Now, maybe when the Big One hits I'll change my tune, but substantially fewer than 1000 Californians have died in earthquakes in the past century. As I'm writing this at the end of April 2013, and the New York Times just reminded me that three years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (which killed 63 in the region), Los Angeles lived through the Rodney King riots, which killed 54. And, of course, at least 15 (and possibly many more) have just died in the explosion of a fertilizer company in Texas. Frankly, life is dangerous; everyone dies in the end.
Living in an earthquake zone does slightly raise the likelihood of dying prematurely (or being seriously injured), but there are many, many other factors that affect mortality rates even more. Coastal California — right along the San Andeas Fault — has a famously benign climate, for example. I suspect the overall health of the locals is higher because of it, and probably lengthens their life expectancy more than the earthquake risk shortens it. Winchester even makes fun of the residents of Portola Valley, a town that lies directly upon the fault line — amused at how they argue endlessly about whether and where to move this building or that, only to go back to sipping their sauvignon blanc. He agrees that their "way of life [is] quite unrivaled in its quality anywhere in the world", yet still thinks that there can be "no greater monument to hubris" that the choose to live there.
I suppose he really thinks they'd be better off somewhere else, but I think there's a lot of hubris in his assertion that he is right and several million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are being irrational. Perhaps he should have asked the scientists at the Menlo Park's USGS — the same folks he thanks for helping in his studies. After all, their office is on alluvial soil about eight miles from Portola Valley, and they undoubtedly live in the area. It apparently did not occur to Winchester to ask them what they feel about that risk.
I'll take the certitude of a quake and its consequent increase in my mortality over living elsewhere, thank you.
This is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and...moreThis is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and changes.
If you love San Francisco — or you're interested in rock 'n' roll, gay history, traumatic 70s racial politics, or even the 49ers football team, you'll probably find this book riveting.
If you're a San Franciscan, the public library has 52 copies to share out, although as of Christmas 2012, there are 206 requests outstanding, so you still might have to wait a while. Update, 27 April 2013: the public library has declared this a "On the Same Page" book, which means they want as many people reading it as possible at the same time to foster discussion. So there are now 120 holds on the first copy returned of 472 copies.(less)
Just after last year’s autumnal equinox I started an 80-or-so-mile backpacking trip down in King Canyon National Park, in the southern Sierra Nevadas....moreJust after last year’s autumnal equinox I started an 80-or-so-mile backpacking trip down in King Canyon National Park, in the southern Sierra Nevadas.
I’m sure people that don’t hike or backpack wonder what one does on such a trip besides strain and sweat and get tired and dirty. Well, one of the things I do is study the world around me. The high Sierras exposes a lot of geology that becomes quite fascinating once one starts looking closely, asking questions, and learning a bit. For example, the famous domes of Yosemite aren’t replicated in too many places — why? Well, it has to do with the kind of rock they’re made of, which depends on where and how that rock was formed, how quickly it cooled, etc.
I’ve spent plenty of time in Yosemite, but that last trip was a few hundred miles south, and I soon realized the geology was different in some intriguing ways. The rock around me had a lot more variation in color than I usually see in Yosemite, with green and beige as well as a wide range of grays. And quite a bit of pure quartz. I started wondering if King Canyon’s granite had a less pure chemical mix than Yosemite’s, which might also explain why it spalls and exfoliates differently, creating needle-shaped peaks instead of domes.
Now, just a few days ago, I finished a novel in which several of the characters spent a short time backpacking just a dozen or so miles north of where I had been, and one of their party was a geology geek, explaining that they were hiking to one of the purer portions of the Sierras, granite-wise. Specifically, he explained they were going up the Cartridge Pluton, which was one of the many plutons the Sierra Nevada batholith was composed of.
Well, we geeks love our technobabble, and I resolved to learn how to use this new terminology better — especially since I hope to hike the JMT in the next year or two.
So I figured there might be a book on the geology of the Sierra Nevada, and lo-and-behold, what I found was this book, Geology of the Sierra Nevada. That wasn’t so tough, it seems. It’s by the University of California Press’ California Natural History Guides, which is really nice: I’ve got half a dozen of their other guides, and they’re good stuff.
Well, there’s a lot of information in here, and I very much enjoyed devouring it, but it was too much to gulp down in one read. Much of the information is still in a jumble in my brain, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tell a coherent version of very many of these stories of my favorite mountains.
It covers the elemental side of the geology, of course, without getting into any deep detail regarding chemistry. Oh, sure it is mentioned that one kind of lava is higher in silica and another in iron, but I’m embarrassed to say that stuff just dribbles out of my brain. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy chemistry, I just have no pre-assigned place in my brain for the chemistry of rocks, so it isn’t staying put.
But then there’s the history of the geology. When did those tectonic plates do their thing, and how were volcanoes involved, and how did all those huge chunks of granite — er, “granitic rock” get there? And that tale is a good one, and helps explain the relationship between igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock. I’m still a bit unclear on where “granite” fits into that triad — sometimes it seems to be described as metamorphic, other times igneous. I think the answer might be that there are wide gray zones at the boundaries of igneous and metamorphic, and then again between metamorphic and sedimentary. But I’d have to get a real geology textbook to clarify that.
Oh, yeah, it turns out “granite” isn’t a word geologists use much, because it isn’t precise enough. The Sierras seem to contain at least half-a-dozen different kinds of different “granitic rock” in different locales, and they are what cause the different behavior.
The tales of John Muir and the other men (yeah, at that point and in this scope, pretty much all men) were also fun. We tend to think of John Muir as the old guy with the long gray beard, so it was a bit startling to discover he was the sheep-herding non-expert underdog in the Sierra’s geological debates (which were a rip-roaring topic of conversation back then).
Other folks interested in hiking or backpacking (or skiing, river rafting, rock climbing, etc.) should consider reading this. Hey, get too copies. One for the glovebox and one for the bathroom.
The rest of you who don’t know what you’re missing in the Sierras, well, you probably don’t need to bother. (less)
In its April 20th, 2011, issue, the Economist did an incredible eight-article special issue on California’s seriously dysfunction economic and governa...moreIn its April 20th, 2011, issue, the Economist did an incredible eight-article special issue on California’s seriously dysfunction economic and governance quandary. See here for an index (it appears to be outside the Economist’s pay-for-content wall).
This book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is listed first among the article’s sources.
Why would this series of articles (and probably this book) be of interest to anyone outside of California? The principle culprit is argued to be “direct democracy” — the ability of the impassioned mob to impose its will. My thesis is that the past few decades has transformed mass culture — television, then the web — from a relatively conservative elitist institution into one that now tremendously accentuates and empowers that same mob rule. If it arouses passions, it can be turned into profit, and the profit will be higher if those passions are further inflamed. The dysfunction that started in California for other reasons is spreading like a metastasizing cancer throughout American democracy.
Stumbled on a visit from the author to the SFPL, and was quite impressed by the prose. A tiny bit disappointed that he read from the mountain lion-Big...moreStumbled on a visit from the author to the SFPL, and was quite impressed by the prose. A tiny bit disappointed that he read from the mountain lion-Big Sur passage instead of the geology-of-the-Sierras passage, but I guess that's what his quick survey indicated the audience preferred. (It's just I'm planning on doing the JMT in six or seven weeks...)(less)
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes tha...moreRead this soooo long ago.
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes that add up to, more or less, a progressive liberal fantasyland.
Bad points I recall: the political upheaval that made the forgoing possible was implausible at the time, but worse was that the same inventory, above — which was the raison d'etre for the novel — also became tiresome. Think of it as a staged tour of a Potemkin village. Time after time, everything has somehow worked out exactly as the revolutionaries [author] wanted it to, showing how wonderful life would be if only people would share and follow through on the vision! Interfering details such compromises, radical changes that didn't work out so well, or even just the messiness of quotidian existence: none of these are permitted.
I might be mis-remembering. The downside of the revolution might have gotten more airplay than I recall, but that certainly wasn't what has stuck with me after twenty-five or thirty years. I also have no recollection of a plot, so I suspect it was mostly there in service to the guide tour of the author's vision.
One detail I do remember is that San Francisco's Market Street was torn up and the (supposedly) ancient stream that used to lie along that path was brought back to life. In the intervening years while on a congested and chaotic Market Street, I've often tried to imagine a stream and a garden path there instead.
Nice fantasy, but not really plausible enough to be an important book. (less)
A pocket (4 1/2" x 6", but 1" thick) guide to the plants of the Sierra Nevada mountains, including brief notes — when available — on which are edible....moreA pocket (4 1/2" x 6", but 1" thick) guide to the plants of the Sierra Nevada mountains, including brief notes — when available — on which are edible.
Uses a dichotomous key, which isn't a problem, but also is suffused with botanical jargon I can't seem to learn. Which really makes it hard to use for the uninitiated. If I somehow learn the common name for a plant, I could look it up in the index, and thus come in the back door. But just to find those tidbits of whether native Americans ate some plant, or used it as a nosebleed remedy?
Nope, especially not when Weeden's Foreword points out:
It is doubtful, however, that a person would care to exist on the Sierran cuisine. Though there are many edible plants in the Sierra Nevada, their taste is often disgusting, making the plants unpalatable except to someone actually starving. Aside from some of the juicy berries there are no savory morsels in the coniferous forests.
My curiosity was not based on the possibility of starving, so this is something of a damper. I do, however, still want to hunt up an example of Miner's Lettuce ("Montia perfoliata is edible raw or cooked. The stems and lvs are excellent in salads. The roots are edible raw or after boiling.")
This slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region af...moreThis slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region affected by San Francisco’s thoroughly confusing summer weather, which can include the entire bay region, the delta, and even much of the central valley and the Sierras.
There’s no evidence that Mark Twain actually said “The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco,” but the idea is correct. Several oddities of the geology and climate combine to give San Francisco very curious summer weather: a typical day is chilly and windy, much to the surprise of tourists expecting “California weather.”