beware, there be spoilers: Timequake

•7 May 2019 • 1 Comment

Timequake strikes me as a more directly autobiographical work than some of Vonnegut’s other novels, but he does make fairly extensive direct use of his experience in much of what he writes, at least amongst the novels. (Less so for the stories, or at least the ones I’ve read so far.)

Timequake is best described as partially autobiographical, in that the narrator seems to be largely Vonnegut himself, set by himself in the fictional context of the novel. The other main character is the oft-seen Kilgore Trout. And reading Timequake makes me realize that I might be great difficulty getting to know any one of my characters as well as Vonnegut knows Kilgore Trout.

I would also like to read the (alas non-existent) collected writings of Kilgore Trout, as he has some spectacularly wacky ideas, summarised in this and other novels,

Timequake, like Slaughterhouse Five, is a time travel novel of sorts, though like Slaughterhouse Five, it is somewhat non-traditional in how it makes use of time travel. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim moves backs and forwards in time, but only to other parts of his life. (Or so he tells the reader.)

In Timequake, everyone and everything (presumably throughout the universe, but this is never explored) jumps back in time by almost exactly 10 years, from February 2001 to February 1991, and then lives the exact same 10 years ago, without any chance of deviation from what they’d done before.

But they are aware of this, which is fine for the 10 years but becomes a key aspect of the novel, and the main stage for the heroism of Kilgore Trout, when we move past the jump point and 10 years of complacency and autopiloting become part of the catastrophe of the reestablishment of free will and agency. Things do get a bit messy for a while.

I’d like to finish here with an observation, but I’m not sure that I have something sufficiently pithy to say. Timequake is a good read but it will never be among my Vonnegut favorites; I have too much fondness for ice-nine and boko maru. But it does feel like a summary of sorts, or a summation. I have one more novel remaining, Hocus Pocus, and I’m curious to know how I’ll feel then.

beware, there be spoilers: Bluebeard

•6 May 2019 • Leave a Comment

I wrote a few weeks ago about the myth of getting even. And though I had set my 2018 reading project as the complete Vonnegut, I am behind. But I’ve given myself an extension until the end of June and I think I might make it.

Bluebeard is a book about modern art and an enjoyable read. Looking back, and I still have two novels to go, along with the short stories and the non-fiction writings, hence the extension until the end of June, looking back, one of the things I most enjoy about Vonnegut are his characters.

Rabo Karabekian, the narrator of Bluebeard, is a case in point. I found him to be a beautifully drawn character, Vonnegut make use again of some of his World War II experiences in setting the character. The delightfully named Circe Berman, perhaps more than Rabo himself, is someone I could very enjoyably spend an evening talking with.

This is not intended as a formal critique of Vonnegut and his writing, but I do find it interesting the extent to which he uses parts of his own experience. It shines forth in a way that I find illuminating, a lamp on a dark night. I haven’t explored the critical literature on Vonnegut, and so I don’t know what the current view is of Vonnegut as writer, but I am still finding him very entertaining.

I think one reason, though, that I hit the pause button earlier this year, though the pause was more of an emergent process amidst everything else, was that however entertaining a writer, I found it difficult to keep reading the one author.

Vonnegut has a clear style, and I will admit that over time and through reading, I found that style a bit swaddling, if that makes any sense. But having taken the break, I’m back to the last few novels and I’m also working my way through the short stories.

I’ll write more about them later, but I find among the short stories that I’m encountering some old friends, stories I remember more or less, but that I’d forgotten were Vonnegut’s. The Report on the Barnhouse Effect is a particular favorite of mine, and I hadn’t realized until a few minutes ago that it was his first published story.

And then the mind wanders into speculation. I don’t know the influences that one story, read early in one’s life, has on the other stories one wants to tell. I can see, as I sit down and plan or sit down and write, echoes of stories I’ve read wanting to be a part of what I’m writing, as though the ideas themselves feel they still have more to give.

Ultimately, I suspect, this all gets back to the discussion of where ideas come from, and beyond this, how many variations on a theme are possible. Infinitely many, I suspect, or at least a number large enough to be virtually infinite.

a meditation of spaces

•5 May 2019 • 1 Comment

On my drive today, I spent some thinking about the spaces in which I do things. There are some spaces, like the aikido dojo at the university (the martial arts room that we share with other clubs), with both a very strong sense of space and a change of attitude upon entering the space.

Green and red mats on the floor, with red mats on the wall and some of the most delightful bamboo wallpaper on the upper parts of the walls, the dojo is clearly intended for its single purpose. I suspect the other clubs who use the space are similar in this, but we have a clear ritual when we enter the room.

We bow at the door, and then once down the half dozen stairs, we perform a kneeling bow before walking on to the mat. On the one hand, I accept this as the accepted practice not only of the local club but also of the national and international groups of which we are a part.

But much more than that, this ritual helps me put myself in the right frame of mind. For many of the classes, I’m coming into the dojo after a full day in the office, and my mind is then full of the office, which is not helpful to the practice of aikido. So over time, I’ve used this initial short ritual of entering to help me set aside the office day and get myself in the right frame of mind for practice.

The drive today was to get me to Trigonos, where the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference is holding a writing retreat. Milford (for short) has been holding its September critique workshops at Trigonos for a number of years now, while the writing retreats are more recent.

I’ve attended several of the workshops and I’ve developed a similar sympathy with Trigonos as I have for the dojo. For me, this has become a space for writing in its different aspects: talking to other writers, writing, reading and commenting on pieces written by others.

Outwardly, I didn’t bow as I came through the door, but I did get hit by the waves of comfortable familiarity driving down the road, around the lake and into Nantlle. So this week, I am here to do some writing, in this place of writing.

Interestingly, my office at the university doesn’t have the same feeling. I suspect it’s because there are too many different things that I do in my work office, and so it’s difficult to have it as a space dedicated to one thing. Perhaps more on that later.

the myth of getting even

•15 April 2019 • 1 Comment

This is not a tale of revenge, nor it is the tale of a quest for number and arithmetic. Rather, it is an explication of the obvious. 

There will never be enough time. 

Getting even, catching up, these are but myths, stories we tell ourselves. I think I’ve written before about the danger inherent in going through all of the lists and making the one Great List That Lists Them All, and then becoming paralyzed by the volume of things to be done.

Nonetheless, I do it from time to time, and I’ll admit that it’s possible to form the habit of making and remaking lists, and lose sight of the fact that the lists are not an end in themselves. The lists are but a tool for doing, but making the list and checking it again and again is sometimes easier than the doing, as much as it can feel like doing.

So how to fight this project volume paralysis. I could go find a book and read it, either a book related to the topic at hand or not, and I do both quite a lot too. But as much as I enjoy and value reading, I do have to admit that reading in itself doesn’t take projects forward.

The tasks I set myself, the tasks others set for me with or without my explicit consent, the tasks that arise from the day job and hobbies, there will never be enough time to do them all. To finish the list. And I’m glad about that.

Yes, there are things that have been on the list for too long and that require some immediate attention. Yes, there are things that perhaps should be taken off the list, set on the side of the road and walked away from, though I do find that very difficult to do.

But I like the unavoidable fact that there will always be something more to work on. Ideas beget ideas, but it also takes time and effort to go from idea to finished product, be it a story idea or a math idea, or even the idea for a blog post. And yes, work lists have a different flavor to them, subject as they are to other people’s time constraints.

The quest for immortality is a common trope in science fiction, going back to the Fountain of Youth and before. But immortality wouldn’t help here. I suspect that if there are immortals out there in the wider universe, their lists will be long long long indeed, and this is a conversation they would also have had more than once.

And so now, I go boldly forth into the day, seeing what I can do on the list, advancing if not finishing, and I wish you all the best with your list as well.


coffee and the interconnectedness of things

•31 March 2019 • 1 Comment

Like many other people, I enjoy a cup of coffee (or several) in the morning.  And like many other people, the people around me are happy that I have access to coffee in the mornings.  But it is this easy access to coffee, alongside current events, that got me thinking.

Coffee reminds me of the interconnectedness of our world.  I live in a country that doesn’t, and indeed climatically can’t, support the growing of coffee.  (At least, not yet, but that’s a different conversation entirely.)

So for us to have access to coffee, particularly in the quantities to which some of us have become accustomed, we require the existence and maintenance of a significant, bordering on vast, physical and financial infrastructure that allows coffee to be grown somewhere, processed perhaps somewhere else, transported and ultimately sold in my local grocery store or coffee shop.

And this is true for so many things.  Take almost any product and substitute it for the word ‘coffee’ in the paragraph above and the paragraph remains true.

None of this is news.  Indeed, none of this has been news for centuries.  The extent to which global trade has broadened the range of products and opportunities available to each of us is clear just looking at the labels indicating country of origin.

What hit home for me this morning though is the extent to which I’ve come to take this global availability unreflectively for granted.  Though it isn’t always phrased in these terms, this is a point that apocalyptic fiction makes regularly.  When the zombie army washes over the land in World War Z, for instance, we see the occasional moments of life before global trade, when there’s no more coffee to be had.

It’s possible to view this global interdependence as a weakness, but I don’t see it that way.  Rather, I see it as a reminder of another basic theme in science fiction, the essential unity of humanity.

In our current world, there are differences between nations, between philosophies, and these differences sometimes result in wars and sometimes result in catastrophic inaction.  But these differences are our creation, and we should be able to resolve them and move forwards as the single family of humanity that we in fact are.

And this in turn leads to another theme in science fiction, though admittedly a less common theme, which revolves around the how behind this moving forward.  What might it take to create such a common direction of action.  What indeed.

infrastructure, in all its glory

•24 March 2019 • Leave a Comment

Infrastructure is under appreciated, a point that John Oliver makes exceptionally well. The physical infrastructure of electricity and water, sewage and now the internet, these keep modern civilization functioning.

Infrastructure requires constant maintenance, boring but necessary work to make sure that roads stay passable, that dams are strong enough to hold back the weight of the lakes behind them.

I learned an interesting fact some time ago, that a significant percentage (perhaps up to a quarter or so) of the traffic on the internet is just the internet keeping track of itself, so that emails get to their intended destinations and we can continue to stream old episodes of the Sopranos.

There is administrative infrastructure as well, and this is the infrastructure I’m more familiar with. Policies and regulations, policies and forms, I spend what seems some days to be a disproportionate amount of time working through these, making sure they’re doing what we need them to be doing.

I find infrastructure fascinating, I have to admit. I like working through the details of academic administrative infrastructure.

And then we come to the next question: what is the ideal shape of the infrastructure we are trying to build? For society as a whole, the shape of infrastructure will be of critical importance going forward, as will be the process of going from our current infrastructure to the infrastructure we will need in the future.

The same holds true of the administrative infrastructure we use to govern ourselves.

So. We have a meeting tomorrow, where we’ll continue to work through the details of how we should better govern ourselves, because like in all other things, there is nothing we do so well, that we cannot improve.

deep time and the shape of things to come

•17 March 2019 • Leave a Comment

I find myself thinking about time a lot these days.  I think a lot about what we might call shallow time, the day to day, week to week time that many of us use to order our lives.  So for instance, most days I will look at my calendar for the day to follow and see what awaits me.  I think about what I want to do versus what I have committed myself to do, and I try and reconcile those two things.

From this shallow time perspective, some days are harder than others, because some days, I have committed more of my time than I have on other days.  And such is the way of the world.

But I don’t want to spend any more time talking about shallow time here.  Discussions of shallow time get into principles of time management and other things that, while useful, are not where I would like to focus.

Rather, I have a different question in mind.  A wider question.  A deeper question, as hinted at in the title.  When we look out at the world, what do we see when we look at things from the perspective of deep time.

And this, I think, is an even harder thing to do, but it is a necessary thing to do in the world of today.  So what do I mean by deep time.  I don’t mean anything particularly deep, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The science fiction fan in me might say, deep time is what comes from considering the world from the point of view of an immortal living amongst us.

The university middle manager, which is where I first started diving into this question in some of its details, might say, deep time is asking the question, where will my university, and the university sector in general, and perhaps education in general, be 100 years from now, and how does that affect what we do now.

We are actually constantly being bombarded by this question, and I think that our reaction to this bombardment is one reason why we don’t think about it often enough.

Consider climate change.  The way we live today is fundamentally changing our world.  We read that in 50 year or 100 years, sea levels will have risen, and I believe that we don’t know how to process this information.  We don’t often ask, what does this mean specifically for my children and their children and their children, but perhaps this is the only reasonable perspective place to have this discussion.

So how do we change how we as people view events and processes that last far longer than a single human lifetime, much less longer than a standard human attention span.

I think the only reasonable answer comes down to education and to being willing to develop an understand of the difference between me as I am and me as I want to be and me as I see myself.  And this gets back to an earlier point, about the shape of universities in the world to come.  I think this has to become a fundamental part of our mission.

Looking back on what I’ve just written, I’m not sure the answer I’ve given matches the question I’ve asked.  But I do think it’s the best answer I can give, at least at present.  Unless of course the nefarious head of a transnational SPECTRE-like organization reads this and decides to take the organization in a different direction, but I think the chances of that are slim.