Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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Recommended Reading: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

By TODD GLASSCOCK

51837639Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, 2016
Hardcover, 285 pages
 
Almost three-quarters of a century have passed since some 13,000 paratroopers dropped from the skies over Normandy a few hours before thousands more Allied soldiers would land on the beaches to begin the liberation of Europe from the Third Reich.

Those paratroopers dropped with anywhere from 90-120 pounds of gear, including parachutes, rifles, knives — some dropped with machetes — entrenching tools, flashlights, compasses and maps, packs of rations, and extra ammo and grenades. All this gear was meant to be used to survive anything Hitler’s Wehrmacht launched at them: bullets, bombs and bunkers or panzers, machine pistols and panzerfausts.

On their way down the paratroopers probably prayed not just that their lives and their comrades’ lives would be spared the barrage of flak coming at them, but that they had, on landing — and if they survived that landing — the guts and guns to fight the men firing that flak at them and at the planes that dropped them. We know they had the guts and guns. That’s well-documented.

What we don’t know is whether they worried if their iconic cotton-twill uniforms might survive the blasts of a grenade’s explosion or wick away their body heat as they marched from one Norman farm field through another. These sorts of worries are the meat of research at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. There, scientists test Kevlar body armor and its variations; they test fabrics to see which cling to the skin in the vacuum created by an explosion, worsening burns, or which cloth lifts away from the skin, lessening the damage the victim might endure.

When you think of military science, you might think of the marvels of engineering that might go into the so far hypothetical F19 stealth fighter or even the strategy and tactics a commander uses to launch a successful campaign.

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach explores the sort of military science performed at Natick, the kind that researches the best uniforms that protect the men and women wearing them from “all that modern warfare has to throw at them: flames, explosives, bullets, lasers, bomb-blasted dirt, blister agents, anthrax, sand fleas.”

It’s the unsung, behind-the-scenes science of warfare that Roach puts into the spotlight, the things rarely talked about in history books or heard of on the news, “the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, panic, ducks.”

Ducks? Exactly.

Unless you’re Elmer Fudd, I doubt you think of a duck as something that poses a risk to national security. But “birdstrike,” as the military calls the mass of geese, gulls, ducks and other birds that collide with Air Force jets, costs “$50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board.”

The Air Force tests birdstrike — so you’ll know— with an aptly named chicken gun, which hurtles chickens against jets at speeds of 400 mph or more.

Grunt is Roach’s fifth book. I’m currently reading her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which explores how cadavers have been used to aid the progress of medical science, and even of military science, as they were in 1893 when Capt. Louis La Garde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps experimented with what’s now termed stopping power of the then new .30-caliber Springfield rifle, firing the gun at a series of naked and unarmed corpses.

With the advent of ballistics gel, the military, as well as law enforcement, rarely use cadavers in weapons testing any longer — the freshly dead, as it turns out, aren’t good test subjects to determine stopping power. The already stopped often don’t react to damage from bullets in the same way the living or simulated living parts made from the gel do.

Actually, one primary task of the military now is to prevent its personnel from becoming corpses. One way to do this is to train medics in gruesomely realistic settings, as the 1st Marine Division does its medical corpsmen at Camp Pendleton. In its combat trauma management course, the Marines find themselves in the midst of a simulated Afghan village when all hell breaks loose during an insurgent attack.

Only, the corpsmen aren’t anywhere near Afghanistan; they are in a movie studio designed to give them the feel of war. Here, they find actors — in some cases amputee Marine veterans — screaming in agony as gouts of movie blood fountain from the same sort of special effects equipment that makes a mess of soldiers on screen. In the background all the while, as the medics tend the wounded, realistic sounds of combat blare out over speakers — audio from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

While these scenes are engaging, Roach gives us her best with the quirky stories ­ — sometimes asides in a chapter — that have the most potential for maximum gross-out factor, as when she turns to the subject of wound care using maggots.

She first encounters the fly larvae in Stiff, where she describes her visit to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. There, where forensics researchers study decay in cadavers in the name of law enforcement and solving murders, Roach notes “grains of rice” squirming in a man’s belly button. “It’s a rice grain mosh pit,” she writes with her characteristic sense of humor.

Only, these aren’t grains of rice. They’re maggots, which she decides to give a much more palatable name to — “haciendas”. In Grunt, she graduates to making roses roses and maggots maggots, when she visits wound care researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Maggots eat dead or decaying meat. “When the meat is part of an open wound,” Roach reports, “the act of eating performs upon the meal a kind of debridement. Debridement — the removal of dead or dying tissue — fights infection and facilitates healing.”

The last thing a wounded soldier trying to recover from those wounds needs is infection. Enter the WRAIR maggot therapists, who treat wounds using said fly larvae, to eat away dead, decaying, infectious flesh. These larvae, of course, aren’t grown in the wild but safely cultivated in sterile environments by the therapists — sometimes in home labs.

Having seen maggots at work before, Roach is less squeamish this time around: Maggot therapist George Peck places three of the wriggling larvae on the tip of Roach’s index finger. When they rear up in search of food, Roach likens them to puppets on Sesame Street.

It’s sort of a sweet scene — if you think of the maggots as, say, puppets or playful puppies. Then comes the kicker, when two of the larvae lift their companion up as if in celebration. Peck informs Roach, “They do cannibalize.”

Which, indeed, is what they do.

Roach peppers her book with scenes like this. At once graphic, yet somehow endearing, largely because throughout the book, Roach charms with her voice, a voice that is at once affable and serious. Voice and narrative always make a piece work.

Grunt works because of Roach’s voice and her ability to set scenes like those above. Still,  war is a grave, serious subject, and while Roach’s voice is often charming and witty, she never makes of her subject a frivolous thing.

She tells the story of the people involved in the science of war with humanity and depth, and how their work affects them.

Grunt ends poignantly inside the morgue and mortuary of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, where military autopsies are performed. Roach notes that since “2004, around 6,000 autopsies have taken place here,” all of men and women killed in combat.

Here, autopsies uncover more than the cause of death. They uncover what could save the next soldier’s life. The beefed-up, buff pectorals of many weight-lifting soldiers and Marines, for instance, have caused small needles to miss their mark when medics try to relieve air pressure off of shot-through collapsed lungs. Autopsies discovered this. Now, longer needles are used on buffer pecs.

In the end, however, war is about the dead, the dead young men and women going through the morgue and mortuary, and the question posed by one of the medical examiners, “Was it worth it?”

History shows us it was worth it to land behind the lines of the Norman coast in 1944. Still, it’s a difficult question to answer. Roach leaves us pondering that question with a final image. She sees a stepladder in the exam room: she learns it’s used by autopsy photographers to get perspective, to get the whole body in the frame.

“I guess war is like that,” Roach writes. “A thousand points of light, as they say. Only when you step back and view the sum, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point. Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.”

Losing my religion: Sam Harris and The End of Faith

faith cover

On that summer Saturday afternoon when I was about 4 or 5, my grandparents, my parents, and an aunt and uncle were circled in lawn chairs under the shade of a massive sycamore tree in my grandparents’ backyard, all sipping Dr Peppers and telling stories while I played with my toys.

The bearded plastic figure in my hand was, I suppose, a frontiersman wearing fringed leather, kneeling and taking aim with his musket, maybe on the hunt for a squirrel or a deer. But, that wasn’t what I was thinking when I held up the little plastic man to them and said, “Look, God’s shooting a gun.”

They all laughed. I’m sure I smiled. I liked having an audience.

Then, after the laughter died down, my grandmother looked at me, maybe a little sternly, and said, “We shouldn’t talk about God like that.”

Probably like any kid sternly addressed by an adult, I sheepishly looked away from her. I probably glanced down at the neatly manicured St. Augustine grass at my feet, the little ounce of pride I had in making adults laugh sinking faster than the Titanic. Shame probably overtook me. Probably all sorts of questions ran through my head: Had I hurt my grandmother’s feelings? Had I hurt my parents’ feelings? Had I hurt God’s feelings? Had I sinned? Would I go to hell for saying such a thing?

One question, however, was unlikely. At no moment, then, would I have asked myself, “Why?”

Why was it wrong to compare God to a plastic toy? After all, my idea of God was just as simplistic as that toy: the wise, gray-bearded man in a robe, peering down at us from the clouds. What harm was it in saying God looked like a toy? What harm was it to question any sort of faith?

None, of course. But it’s hard for a child to see that, even when the beliefs that faith put forward are childish. As an adult, however, no one should ever limit the questioning of faith, whether it’s your own or other’s because faith, the sacred, isn’t special, no matter what the faithful say.

“[M]ost of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday,” writes Sam Harris in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

The problem, as Harris notes, is that so many in the world sanctify the sacred to the point that it’s become dangerous not to question it.

The End of Faith sets down an extended argument in general why religion is detrimental to progress in the 21st century and beyond. It specifically addresses the detriment of faith-based religions like those of Judaism, Christianity and in particular Islam to humanity’s progress.

The book reminds me of a well-crafted series of seminars on philosophy, history, science, and relatively current events—we are certainly still reeling from 9/11 in what seems a life with perpetual war on terror in the background, a war by our current president and his churlish followers on our Constitution, and a long, drawn-out war for our hearts and minds from both left and right on science and reason.

At the time of its publication, Harris had graduated with his degree in philosophy from Stanford and was working on a doctorate in neuroscience. He has since received that doctorate and published several books on faith, reason, and science, including Letter to a Christian Nation, Lying, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.

He, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and others have become spokespeople for doubters, freethinkers and atheists worldwide and have been given the label, the New Atheists. Arguably, there isn’t really anything new about New Atheism — its ideas are as ancient at least as the ancient Greek philosophers — but few, except folks like philosopher Bertrand Russell, have been as vocal about it.

It wouldn’t be until I was in college that I would seriously begin to question the whys and hows and whats and ways of God, in attempt as Milton put it, to “justifie the wayes of God to men,” to justify God and his ways to myself.

Much of my delay in questioning my faith and beliefs came because I was afraid to do so, afraid, first of all, of questioning this alleged being in the sky that was only concerned, it seemed, with my well being as it regarded worship of him through a personal relationship with his alleged son.

In fact, according to his alleged infallible word I am a fool to say in my heart there is no god; I am corrupt, even filthy, and definitely hell bound.

Losing my religion, as REM or a Southerner might say, meant more than going crazy and getting a ride to the asylum. It meant eternal damnation.

Still, question I did. I moved from believer to deist—I was profoundly awakened reading Jefferson, Franklin and Paine—to agnostic and in times of crisis back to believer, until I finally came to understand I didn’t believe, and didn’t have to in order to be happy.

Yet, to this day, being a nonbeliever can cost you friends and family and even risk financial health. In some countries it literally means losing your head. In a world in which even religious moderates will look at you as if you’re the devil incarnate if you question their faith, it takes courage to be a freethinker, a skeptic, an agnostic or an atheist.

But, reading books like Harris’ The End of Faith gives nonbelievers a bit of quiet comfort, while simultaneously offering disquiet that in the 21st century reason and science are often impeded by religion.

Still, you might say, in the book, I found a friend—or rather a likeminded person—not in Jesus, but in Harris. Someone who finally articulated the ideas and thoughts and issues I’ve struggled with, mostly in silence as a closeted atheist.

In his Afterword to the paperback edition, Harris mentions that following the publication of the hardcover edition he “received a continuous correspondence from readers and nonreaders alike, expressing everything from ecstatic support to nearly homicidal condemnation.” Among those lending support were people like me, “embattled freethinkers living in ‘red state’ America.”

I’m not alone in the feeling that as an atheist, especially in the U.S., I’m alone in the world of nonbelief. As science writer Natalie Angier wrote  in the New York Times: “It’s not often that I see my florid strain of atheism expressed in any document this side of the Seine, but The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood.”

—Todd

Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

The Martian: A review

So, I must admit I am apparently the only person — at least on this planet — who hasn’t seen The Martian on the big screen, but I’ve finally jumped on the bandwagon and read the book.* (A nice review of the movie by Melinda Snodgrass is here. She reviews the movie and book and includes some of George R.R. Martin’s commentary about book/movie adaptation. I’ve written some about book/movie adaptation in a review of Sideways.)

Like most readers, I loved book. It’s the kind of SF I think even Sad Puppies might enjoy, given it has space ships and white guys sciencing the shit out of stuff. It does, I suppose hearken back to classic SF — whatever that is.

But, its appeal is Mark Watney’s voice and the gallows humor Andy Weir has bestowed on Watney’s character. (It almost seems as if Weir had Matt Damon in mind as he was developing Watney’s voice. Of course, that could simply be the hazard of reading a novel when a movie is out that makes the voice sound like Damon’s. Or could it be Matt Damon lives inside my head?)

The book also serves as a really good study of keeping the tension flowing in a story, although there are moments when you want Weir to let up a little, and maybe let someone have a picnic at a peaceful beach or something.

For a non-science guy like me, the science in it is readable and I have to commend Weir on that. Given he has a science background — computer science — I’m pretty sure he knows how to science the shit out of stuff, or at least research enough to make the science sound plausible. The science even got Neil deGrasse Tyson approval, and that’s no small feat.

So, read the book. It’s good fun. And eventually, I will launch out at some point to see the movie.

— Todd

___

*Editor’s note: I hope you will consider buying the book through this Amazon link. While I don’t want to be too agressive of a marketer, I would also like to monetize this blog a little. Thanks for your support.

 

Review: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka

Until I read his The Flicker Men, I had only known of Ted Kosmatka through his short fiction in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s. Now that I’ve read The Flicker Men, I’m glad I’ve met Ted in long form.

This SF-thriller drops faith and science into the pit with the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t universe of quantum physics wherein a washed out scientist, Eric Argus, replicates a double-slit experiment that lights up some alternate realities and potentially threatens the universe. At the same time, the experiment gains the attention of nefarious forces that include a televangelist bent on using Argus’s work to prove souls exist and what I would say were pan-dimensional beings. These forces pursue Argus and attempt to destroy his work and him before the whole of reality runs completely amok, if it hasn’t already.

Kosmatka’s style — his driving short sentences — hammers narrative forward. And he’s such a crafty storyteller, he’s able blend a complicated field of science into the narrative without relying heavily on infodumps.

Review of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World

The Drowned WorldThe Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is our future, or how our future was imagined by J.G. Ballard in 1962, about two decades before scientists generally began to notice and grow concerned about a significant spike in the Earth’s atmospheric temperature. The Drowned World, though, is not truly a novel about global warming–rising temps and melting icecaps result primarily from solar storms, an event humans can’t curb.

This drowned world is much like Earth’s Triassic period with humans thrown in the mix and struggling to resettle amid hungry iguanas and alligators. (For a perhaps more realistic SF novel of global warming as we now understand it, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain.) Ballard’s drowned world pits scientists like Dr. Robert Kerans and rogues like the bizarre and Kurtz-like Mr. Strangman against an environment that is physically and psychologically hostile toward humanity.

It’s good mix of 1970’s lost world movies like The Land Time Forgot and Heart of Darkness. The hallucinatory psychological adjustments humans have to make to this new environment are as intriguing as the drowned world itself.

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