Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, April 4, 2011

Too Many Words from the Final Figure of the Four

I was pleased, honored and surprised at the invitation to join this company of fine reader-thinker-writer-geeks. Before continuing with my introduction, however, by way of full disclosure, I must admit (with an appropriate measure of shame), that I've only read the first of Asimov's Foundation books. I promise to rectify the situation with all due haste. Actually, to be brutally honest, I've only been reading Science Fiction in earnest for about four years now. I read Wells and Verne as a child, as well as a couple of the great classics (Fahrenheit 451, 1984) in college, and the Dune books a few years later, but it wasn't until just a few months before encountering Mentat and Kir'Shara that I began seriously to pursue the joys, wisdom and insights of SF.

But once I did so, SF changed my life. Quite literally.

If it hadn't been for SF, I'd be about three months away from a solid six-figure salary right now, happily ignoring most of the environmental, economic and political turmoils around me. Instead, I'm not even a quarter of the way through at least four years on a grad student stipend and am, on my worst days, a doom-and-gloom junkie, and on my better days a raving leftist radical.

It was Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series that really woke me up, convinced me to care about politics, economics, emerging information technologies, corporate power, workers' rights and welfare, energy crises, freedom of expression, etc. It wasn't just his books that affected me though; it was also his blog posts and their comment threads, through which I was able to interact with him on an ongoing basis while reading. This opportunity to engage directly with the author and follow his commentary on real world events lent extra power to the punch delivered by his books... and compelled me to honestly examine my beliefs, priorities and career trajectory... and ultimately to throw a big fucking wrench into the works.

There were other influential works of SF as well. Iain M. Banks' books rubbed my face into the horror and lunacy of war, the futility of torture, the extremes of sentient suffering (both physical and psychological) and the dream of a Utopian intergalactic system of government that sparkled with hope in spite of the selfish, flawed beings on which it was built.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy was more practical. It provided plausible flesh and bone to my emerging view of the world and society... and helped me to visualize the imminent destruction of this planet that I love. It also gave me a vision of what a human society should (and maybe even could, one day) be. And it helped me to imagine what a path (however narrow and unlikely) from here to there might look like. Most of my current opinions on politics, economics and business were formed while reading these books.

Paralleling my exploration of the SF realm, however, have been my readings of Kir'Shara's blog posts (including those written under a previous alias) and my real-life conversations with both Kir'Shara and Mentat. They (as well as others, both live and in print) have provided bridges between the all-too-relevant SF in which I immerse myself and the dissappointingly-not-fictional political and environmental reality that is destroying our world.

The intent of this post was to introduce myself briefly, however, and I think that I've already failed. In his post below, Mentat made mention of his superhuman skills of procrastination. It is quite possible that mine are even greater (note, for example, that I'm the last of the four to post). I also tend to ramble on in a long-winded fashion and incorporate too many themes into a single post. But Kir'Shara knew all of my literary shortcomings in advance, so you, dear readers, may address your complaints to him.

Of greater interest than my failings, however, may be my potential offerings. What have I to contribute to this merry band? I'm a thirty-something grad student pursuing advanced training in public health (environmental health, specifically). I took a rather circuitous path to get to my current position. I studied international health and development thinking that I would save the poor people of the developing world from disease. I started medical school with similar ambitions. I finished medical school disillusioned with the medical profession and disgusted with the way in which physicians in this country are forced to practice. I started a pathology residency thinking that I'd found an interesting and lucrative way to pass the days before retirement. I wasn't exactly content with this, however, and eighteen months into the four-year program, when I experienced the above described SF epiphany, I'd already determined the following: 1) the current medical system is unsustainable, even in the best of circumstances and 2) fighting disease through diagnosis and treatment is a losing battle -- prevention is our only chance. These ideas, combined with my increasing recognition of, and concern about the doom of our global environment landed me in my current program, where I hope to find ways of improving health through identification and elimination of environmental hazards. This too is a losing battle, but at least there's the possibility of fighting for the health of thousands of people at a time rather than for that of just one... at the expense of the neglected thousands.

I recently encountered a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright:

A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.

I think I know how he intended it, but the more I consider it, the more alternate meanings seem to surface, some of which are appropriate to the medical and health care realm as a whole, and some specifically to me. Maybe I'll write a post about that quote sometime.

As for today... now that I've rambled on about myself for long enough, I'll give you a preview of a post that will likely appear in about two months. Today I started reading Mark Hertsgaard's new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. I'm to write a review of it for one of my classes, and it looks as though it will prove quite relevant to this blog.

More on that (and possibly other things) soon.


  1. Pleased to meet you, ilorien! I'm always amazed at the number of people I speak to who have been changed in a fundamental way by science fiction. The trajectories of people's lives are not generally changed by mysteries or romances or even "literary" fiction, but Sci-Fi seems to have that effect. I remember taking a creative writing course during my undergrad, and my supreme irritation when I was forbidden to write science fiction short stories because "genre fiction isn't art." So I had to suffer through workshops with a dozen undergraduates all trying to write "meaningful" fiction. Oy.

  2. Reave -

    The pleasure is mine. I've enjoyed and benefited from your comments over the past couple of years and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    As for genre fiction isn't art...


    Well... I do appreciate the boldfaced profession of an entirely worthless and unsubstantiated opinion from a self-proclaimed expert now and then (hey... that could apply to a fair number of my blog posts!).

    Anyway... Cheers.

  3. Here is an article in the Guardian, summarizing an article Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in the New Scientist (not available for free). In it, Robinson denounces the Booker prize for not recognizing the brilliance of British SF.

  4. I read KSR's article when it first came out! Great stuff, and spot on in his denunciation of the "genre isn't art" bullshit. If it were up to me the Mars trilogy would get the Nobel prize.

  5. Good sir ilorien,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, thank you. It made me smile. I miss you and K.

    Observations and reflections:

    I don't see how anybody manages to function in the American health care system. It's such a godawful nightmare; when I stop to think about it I almost want to throw up. Again and again I hear physicians talk about how insurance company bureaucrats and their allies in various health care administrative bodies force doctors to ration or eliminate care for their patients. It's insane.

    I need to add "Hot" to my reading list. I'm going to hold you to that promise of a review! I looked over the interview with the author at Amazon, and I like the way he emphasized facing the future honestly while still finding cause for hope.

    Goddamnit! So much to read. And soon I'm going to be up to my ass in torts, property, civil procedure and the like.

    Your personal introduction was perfect, and you will never get any complaints from blustery blathering me about long-winded-ness, and you have no literary failings that I'm aware of. So shut the fuck up! :-)

    I was struck by Reave's observation that science fiction trumps other genres and even Very Serious Literature as a source of life-altering realization. I was also struck by how your experience of an SF epiphany and awakening came later in life than mine, and in a more rapid, compressed fashion.

    For me, SF was always there, from the time I first became aware of my surroundings as a child. Flickering fantastical images on a television screen. The first that I remember were from an old British SF TV show called "UFO", which lasted for 13 episodes in 1970. I must have seen it a few years later, in the early to mid-70s, when I was around 4 or 5 years old. Then I encountered the original Star Trek. The first novel I ever read was the novelized tie-in to the original Star Wars, in 1977. I was ten. Shortly after that, I read the novel version of "Logan's Run", after seeing the movie version.

    Your post made me reflect again on a favorite concern, which is how being a lifelong SF fan has influenced who I am. Still hard to say. I think my general willingness to question established orthodoxies comes at least in part from early exposure to stories that did exactly that.

    And from mom's example; she isn't an SF fan but read SF as a youngster, and she had a questioning tendency like mine when she was a kid. And so she reinforced mine, as I was watching Captain Kirk puzzle out experiences on alien worlds. She made me watch the Watergate hearings and tried to teach me why challenging some guy called "the President" was important. My mom the artist taught me to look past established stereotypes when she modified the illustrations in one of my kiddie books, about construction workers, to make half of them female. I remember her taking me to some strange, unknown gathering of some kind, which she called "women's lib." Experiences that we have in early childhood really do mark us for life, in a variety of ways.

    Okay, time for bed now. Looking forward to your future posts!