Books

Press An Elevator Button To Go Anywhere

Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” is a rare sequel that picks up at the same moment when the previous book left off.

Charlie Bucket and his family are aboard the “great glass elevator,” en route to the Mr. Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, when a piloting hiccup sends it hurtling into space. For those wondering if this is a “space elevator”—a transport you come across in hardcore science-fiction novels—it’s not.

It’s unlike a space elevator in that it doesn’t go up and down along a carbon cable whose one end is attached near the equator; the other, to a space rock. The “great glass elevator” is more like a spaceplane—an amphibian vehicle that can fly like an airplane in the atmosphere as well as sail in space—in that it has rockets for its mode of propulsion, but is unlike it in that it has no wings.

In fact, it’s an ordinary elevator that can do extraordinary things. It can go up, down, and sideways. It can ferry passengers to the netherworld by tunneling through Earth’s crust—powered by a force rooted more in magic and less in technology.

During the orbital adventure, the party saves an American capsule from invasion by hordes of weird, egg-shaped extraterrestrial lifeforms. Back on land, trouble hits again. Two different pills, one of which reverses aging and the other, accelerates it, wreak havoc when the young man’s grandparents take an overdose of them. They swing between getting too young or too old.

One mind-expanding thought that this novel threw up is that when a human being ceases to exist in material form, he or she goes from being a “Plus” to a “Minus.”

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Books, Clips

Is God A Behavioral Engineer?

Red Fez, January 13, 2018.

Our move to this hamlet, hugging the Hudson, happened quicker than what we were ready for. With the outcome that I didn’t take to the change of settling down in a new place all too well.

And it was in those difficult days that I began reading B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two,” half-expecting it to have some wondrous elements of science-fiction—flying cars, moving sidewalks, dinners that pop out at the push of a button—to put my mind in a better frame. But far from having these thrills, the novel is more along the lines of a monograph on “behavioral engineering” that reads like a cross between Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” and Plato’s “Republic.”

Passage after passage of debate between two men at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum—one, an advocate of pure science; another, of pure arts—makes for a monotonous, plodding read. But if one can sit through the dense dialogue, there are some mind-blowing postulates to be found at the end of it. One of which is that god is a behavioral engineer, of sorts.

Walden Two is a utopian community of some 1,000, in the middle of civilization. Its founder, T. E. Frazier, bins the philosophy that humans are innately good or innately evil and puts his faith in the power of science to regulate human behavior. They can, he reckons, be made good or bad; smart or stupid by changing the environment in which they grow.

This stems from his assumption that events in our lives fall under three tabs. To some, we’re indifferent. Others, we like and take steps to make them happen again. There are still others that we don’t like and take steps to keep them from happening in the future.

It follows then, that our habits and actions can be altered by agents external to us. And that power to direct our behavior or the stream of events in our lives is called “control.” Control, as commonly understood, has a negative connotation.

But the nature of the control that shapes the lives of the members of Walden Two has nothing to do with “force” or the “threat of force.” No one there is meted punishment or imposed a penalty or put in prison or exposed to pain. Nor do those in charge tweak peoples’ behavior directly, telling them what to do or not to do.

All they do is gently nudge their activities along a path that meets the Walden Two rules of conduct by creating conditions that they’ll either like or by removing those that they’ll not like. Doing so, they deem, increases their chances of repeating a particular behavior, a.k.a. “positive reinforcement.”

On the other hand, the society we live in is chiefly, governed by the school of “negative reinforcement,” which holds the reverse to be true. It supposes that by setting up a condition a person doesn’t like, such as being reprimanded for a wrongdoing, fired from a job, slapped with a fine, or put in handcuffs, it’s possible to change his or her errant ways.

Benevolent as the control at Walden Two is, its residents are robbed of the very essence of what makes us human, the ability to choose between different possible courses of action. The loss of “free will” is the greatest downside of the program at Walden Two.

But is it so very different from our own society? The notion of human freedom, Skinner reasons, is essentially illusory. Everything that happens in our world is outlined in a blueprint. Yet, at every stage, the individual seems to think that he or she is making choices.

“The same is true of Walden Two. [Its] members are always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do.” In reality, though, the managers see to it that they want to do only those things, which are in their own best interest as well as that of the entire group. Their comportment, therefore, is both determined and born out of free will. Paradoxically, though, they feel freer than we do—only because they’re doing what they want to do, not what they’re forced to do.

In a bombshell climax, the book pulls away from science and cultural technology and takes a turn toward religious cosmology. Frazier—who sees a curious parallel between himself and god—declares that in many ways, the establishment of Walden Two is closer in spirit to the creation of Earth as described in the Bible—that is, per a plan. Only his is the better plan. “The evolution of human intelligence may not have been deliberately planned. Perhaps we are merely reading a plan into the world after the fact. But Walden Two was planned in advance pretty much as it turned out to be.”

Walden Two operates harmoniously—as “heaven on Earth”—because its members willingly submit to being turned into the psychological equivalent of a G.M.O. product. If they’re not being fed mind-altering drugs, then the only other explanation for their cooperation is that they’re conforming out of loyalty to a hero or a ruthless despot. But Walden Two, surprisingly, has neither. In fact, no one even so much as recognizes its creator, even though he lives and walks in their midst.

A truly leaderless polity, its governance is carried out efficiently, silently, and invisibly by a bunch of men and women, some in charge of making policies; some in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the various divisions of Walden Two—but whose names only a handful know.

It surely doesn’t sound like any other place that we know of.

 

Books

Aliens In Shining Armors

An illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa, dating back to 1906, detailing the Martian invasion of London in “The War of the Worlds.”

It’s 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday in 1938. It’s the night before Halloween. Homes are lit with legions of jack-o’-lanterns, flickering with a pale orange glow. Black cauldrons sit bubbling on patios, under tangles of sprawling cobwebs. Dull white skulls peek out from behind gray headstones on lawns.

In that ghoulish atmosphere, listeners have their radios turned on. They’re waiting to hear “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” a CBS series of radio dramas produced and hosted by Orson Welles. The weekly show was a contemporary retelling of classic literary works performed by his theater company. On this particular evening, he was presenting “The War of The Worlds,” a science-fiction by H.G. Wells.

The program began with a summary of the weather, before bringing the groovy beats of a band, playing at a hotel in downtown New York. Abruptly, that was interrupted by a bulletin, reporting that a series of odd explosions had been detected on Mars.

Still later, popular programming was intermittently disrupted with a string of live broadcasts relating ominous events unfolding on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. They announced that Martians had invaded Earth and had launched a deadly attack all over the country.

That struck terror in the hearts of those tuned in. People had no reason to not believe what they’d heard on the radio, which, after all, was the dominant mass media of its day. Besides, many who joined it in midstream had no way of knowing that this was a performance, a play. A mere patchwork of noises and voices had created a reality so solid that panic-stricken civilians piled into their cars and trooped into the highways, desperate to flee the invasion.

Well, it was a clever prank.

Since then, the novel has seen many remakes and reboots, each reflecting the tension and complexities of a contemporary society. “The War of the Worlds,” the movie, released in 1953, takes us to southern California, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. In 2005, Steven Spielberg directed a 21st edition of it in which the epicenter of the attack is New York.

The settings in both these Hollywood productions are metropolitan regions on either coast of the U.S. In reality, though, if an extraterrestrial civilization were to ever drop by, it’s less than likely to pick Midtown Manhattan as the landing strip for its fleet of vessels. Nor is it likely to play favorites, choosing to make contact with the White House over the Kremlin or decide to deface the Statue of Liberty any more than the Stonehenge.

The book, published in 1898, is strikingly different from the numerous modern popular culture products it has spawned.

Its omniscient narrator—an English philosopher—recounts the terrifying developments that took place in the closing years of the 19th century. It begins with the crash of an “ordinary falling star” with a “greenish streak behind it” on Horsell Common, a wooded area close to his home in Woking, a town in Surrey. Observers rush to see what they think is a piece of space rock. It turns out to be a vast metal cylinder containing Martian intruders who embark on a swift conquest of England by a takeover of London.

No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.

Yet, across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

But directors haven’t attempted to locate the story in suburban Victorian England, possibly because they believe that it’d be less salable to the average moviegoer who’s so entertained by science-fiction blockbusters, full of gee-whiz energy that he or she would be inexhaustibly bored by an offering that didn’t have anything in the way of technological eye-candy.

But wait. Placing it in the original setting—in the 19th century English countryside—and rendering it in 3D would make it a steampunk gem, which, to fans of the genre would be a huge appeal.

The notion of “monstrous tripods, higher than many houses, “ropes of steel,” dangling from them, “striding over the young pine trees,” firing beams of white-hot laser into roads crowded with horse-drawn carriages, seems so radically out of place that it’d be a wonderful change from the standard fare. Taking the “The War of the Worlds” back to the past would add a layer of novelty to it.

Picture the Thames as a “red swamp,” choked by scarlet weeds or the streets of Sherlockian London as a “strange and horrible antagonist of vapor” passes through them, carpeting them in a black powder. To my mind, that’s just as eerie and lurid a landscape as a colossal ring hovering over a glittering capital. Only, one fills one with a sense of melancholy; the other, awe.

In the end, what the “the greatest power in the world” couldn’t defeat, the humblest of creatures accomplished. The Martians succumbed to the action of the countless pathogens in our ecosystem, some of which we’ve acquired a resistance to. But not without shaking humanity out of a sense of complacency.

We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for man.

The novel is a censure of our own kind. Wells cautions us against judging the Martians too harshly. “We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction” human beings have “wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”