Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

So Kate and Will have chosen Westminster Abbey for their wedding on April 29, 2011. Among their wedding guests will be some of the greatest lights of British science who are buried in the Nave. The guest list includes Sir Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford, JJ Thompson, Lord Kelvin and Charles Darwin.

There could be some drama at the reception if Newton and Darwin get to arguing about religion and science. Newton was a devout biblical literalist who computed the age of the universe as being 6000 years by measuring the “begats” in Genesis. Darwin, on the other hand, gave us the scientific theory of evolution that is still upsetting people of Newton’s religious temperament today.

Sir Isaac Newton, 1689

Sir Isaac Newton, 1689

Since the bride and bridegroom majored in art history in college, they might be more interested in their guests in Poet’s Corner, where Tennyson, Dickens and Chaucer share a cozy nook with Rudyard Kipling and Laurence Olivier.

The Brontë sisters are only commemorated, not buried, in the Abbey, as are Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Paul Dirac.

Dirac was well known for his verbal brevity. One apocryphal story learned by every physics graduate student at some time in their education has a student raising his hand during a lecture, complaining that he didn’t understand what Dirac had just said. Dirac replied with a brief, “Yes,” and moved one.

But what Dirac doesn’t contribute to the conversation will be more than made up by Oscar Wilde, who is likely to have guests in stitches with his wry social banter, even though he’s been out of circulation since he died 110 years ago.

This is what everyone seems to be wondering today. Why Mario Vargas Llosa and not Joyce Carol Oates? Why didn’t Nabokov ever get one? What about Flannery O’Connor or Salman Rushdie or Phillip Roth?

Please check this page before you register your own complaint.

Note that Alfred Nobel specified in his famous will that he leaves “one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency…”

Work of an idealistic tendency. Meaning work that deals with politics, with social issues, with matters of conscience.

This is why Mario Vargas Llosa and Jose Saramago and Orhan Pamuk and Herta Muller qualify for the Nobel Prize, but Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth sadly do not.

It’s hard to combine politics with art. You have to strike a very fine balance between the two. If you veer too much in either direction, you fail at both jobs at once.

A good example of this would be Tolstoy. Later in his career when he became very idealistic, his writing suffered a great deal. “Resurrection,” his most idealistic novel, is so filled with social commentary that the plot and the characters sink beneath the weight of it all, making the novel virtually unreadable to all but the most dedicated Tolstoy fans.

That’s one reason why Tolstoy never won the Nobel Prize. “Anna Karenina” is outstanding work, but it’s not idealistic. “Resurrection” qualifies as idealistic, but it’s not an outstanding piece of work at all.

It’s very difficult to combine art with a social conscience. Tolstoy found it so difficult that he issued a manifesto against all art. Shakespeare, Beethoven, his own earlier works, all of it.

Indeed, if Tolstoy had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, given his political beliefs in anarchism and his open disdain toward any form of organized authority, it is highly likely that he would have turned it down, and made such a huge public display of turning it down that those on the Nobel Committee who voted for him would have come to regret their decision deeply.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is reserved for writers who have managed to fight the battle between art and morality and win that battle by producing works of literature that are both outstanding achievements in art and also outstanding achievements in social conscience.

That’s a very difficult job and writers who manage to pull that off deserve to be singled out and honored in their own category apart from other great writers.

That’s what Alfred Nobel decided when he wrote his will and established the Nobel Prize in the first place.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new show on HBO that is reputed to be the new “Sopranos.” I disagree with that praise because it doesn’t go far enough. “Boardwalk Empire” is like “The Sopranos” with Ph.D.s in history, political science, sociology, American literature, and, last but not least, mass media studies.

You don’t just get a gritty gangster drama here, with desperate men making desperate decisions. You get the entire world of the 1920s, complete with traumatized WWI veterans, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, incubator babies, the newly-invented vacuum cleaner, women’s rights, and even contemporary literature.

The story begins on day one of that grand, disastrous American social experiment we now call Alcohol Prohibition. A hungry crew of pimps, racketeers, loan sharks and corrupt politicians has gathered in Atlantic City to carve up their respective territories in the newly-illegal alcohol business and celebrate the idiocy of the good moral folks in Congress who voted for an alcohol-free America.

There are many bloggers elsewhere doing episode recaps and pop culture analysis and so on. I don’t want to repeat their work. But there is one thing I’d like to point out here and that’s the way the American novel has been featured in the show.

The second episode is titled “The Ivory Tower.” It becomes apparent right away that this term refers not to the hallowed halls of academe, but to the novel by Henry James being read by recent Irish immigrant Mrs. Margaret Schroeder in her hospital bed, where she is recovering from a severe beating by her late husband Hans that caused her to miscarry their child.

Hans’s death was ordered by the show’s lead character, the crooked wheeler-dealer with a heart of gold, Nucky Thompson. He ordered the hit not just to retaliate for Hans’s savage act of spousal abuse, but also to throw the police a suspect for a even more savage murder committed during a hijacking of an illegal booze shipment by Nucky’s disobedient protege Jimmy Darmody.

Margaret comes to understand that the huge wad of cash delivered to her hospital bed by Nucky’s sheriff brother Eddie is a payoff for her silent complicity in the fiction that drunken, abusive Hans, a baker’s assistant, was the mastermind of the whisky heist and the murderer of the four hoodlums found dead in the forest.

Margaret quietly plays along with this lie, but in the end, returns the cash to Nucky, quoting George Sand on charity. Nucky, of course, thinks George Sand is a man, but the highly literate Margaret, once the parlormaid to a barrister, quickly sets him straight.

The brilliance that I’d like to draw attention to here is the role played by the novel after which this episode is titled. James’ unfinished novel attacks the corruption and privilege of the wealthy of the Gilded Age. James found himself unable to finish the novel when WWI broke out and brought real tragedy and sacrifice to the gilded selfish world he’d sought to indict as folly.

Henry James died in 1916. If he’d lived into the 1920s, he might have found the inspiration to finish his novel. Margaret certainly seems to find moral inspiration from reading James’ novel, enough to refuse the financial largesse being offered to her by the wealthy and corrupt and gilded Nucky Thompson.

As it turns out, the feds don’t buy the idea that Margaret’s drunken husband masterminded a robbery and a quadruple homicide, so Jimmy Darmody has to leave Atlantic City. Before he leaves, he has a painful argument with his girlfriend. Jimmy met her when he was at Princeton, before the war. They used to talk about books, she complains. What happened?

As Jimmy heads north on the train to Chicago, where he’ll hook up with his new partner in crime Al Capone (who suggested the booze hijack in the first place and did most of the killing), he’s reading “Free Air” by Sinclair Lewis. In “Free Air,” a woman travels by car across America from from New York to the Pacific Northwest, learning through the love of a good working class man to give up the snobbish ways of her upper class family.

“Free Air” was one of the first road trip novels in America, a predecessor to “On the Road” by the late, great Jack Kerouac, which in turn gave rise to road trip TV shows like “Route 66″ and “The Fugitive,” and road trip movies like “Easy Rider” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

There was no TV back in the 1920s. There was no HBO. People had to satisfy their craving for complex engaging human drama from the printed page in the form of the novel.

It’s very pleasing to see that “Boardwalk Empire” is paying homage to the American novel in such an intelligent manner that both informs us about history and adds layers of subtle irony to plot and character development alike.


The blog is back

I finally figured out a concept for this blog. My attention has always wandered between “the two cultures” as C.P.Snow called science and the humanities. The previous blog title was too far into the science camp. I’d like to write about fiction, too. Lately I’ve been thinking about the physics of fiction. If every story has a protagonist and a force opposing the antagonist, then every story can be described as a protagonist in a potential. Etc. More on this later. Goodnight.

The future of this blog and website

From what I’ve read in books about Asperger’s Syndrome and girls, it appears that there is a measurable difference between boy and girl geeks. Boy geeks tend to focus mostly on numbers. Girl geeks apparently divide their focus between numbers and language.

That describes me pretty well even today, when I’m trying to divide my time between keeping up with theoretical physics, expanding my website, working on this blog, and writing a novel.

It takes a lot of time to write a novel. So periodically I have to just forget that physics exists and enter the brain state necessary for writing fiction.

This blog is still in what I would consider a rough draft. I’m still going to experiment with themes and styles and features. I might move the location as well, so the url could change.

In the future, there will be more physics and math. I intend to blog through The Black Hole Wars chapter by chapter, starting in a few weeks.

I’ve migrated the Superstringtheory.com website to a new server and fixed many of the broken links and features. Eventually I intend to update the page code and the content and add new content on loop quantum gravity and so on.

I’ll be taking a fairly demanding fiction writing workshop over the summer, so the website update will probably not be happening until next fall.

Save Sarah Conner from Termination

I just read at CNN that Fox is considering canceling my favorite TV show Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles.

I agree with Josh Levs that TSCC is worth saving. This show offers what I’ve always been looking for in science fiction, since I was a little girl: sci fi with a strong independent female point of view.

But it’s more than just that. One could imagine a shallow, empty TV show with a strong female POV. The POV is just one element in the total package.

TSCC has come up with the total package: an array of strong characters with heartfelt emotions and mysterious agendas engaged in a fight to the death that somehow manages to offer a rich and detailed commentary on human nature and the ongoing human relationship with technology.

As was pointed a number of times by the esteemed sci fi authors in the Sci Fi Grandmasters panel at the LA Times Festival of Books:

Since the future hasn’t happened yet, all stories dealing with the future are really about the present.

TSCC manages to say more about the present than any previous entry in the Terminator franchise. That’s partly because the story is set in the age of Internet worms and programmable unmanned military drones. We’re closer to building SkyNet purely by accident than we’ve ever been before.

This rich proximity to technology is both an advantage and a threat to Sarah’s campaign to keep her son alive and stop SkyNet. Sarah and John can find information on the Internet, but a Terminator’s brain can now travel online and search online records to find them too.

In addition, the advent of AI now gives us a reason to empathize with the machines. When Arnold came back as a reprogrammed Terminator to proptect John Conner, he was an appealing character, but there was never any ethical dilemma for John or Sarah as to whether he should be treated as equal to a human.

TSCC offers us Cameron, the girl version of Arnie’s Good Robot. Cameron is written as more than just a reprogrammed robot. She acts like a super-intelligent young woman who lives somewhere on the autism spectrum, as was pointed out by a child psychologist who interviewed the “Conner family” in one episode this season.

This seemingly casual reference to the autism spectrum digs much deeper into the human relationship with technology than any of the Terminator movies would have the time or energy to dig.

It appears that there is a new generation of TV writers out there who have some deep and complicated things to say about the human relationship with technology, and they’re using science fiction to say them.

I could go on and on about my love for this show. Instead I’ll just say — this is a show worth saving.

Left to right: Scott Timberg, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Joe Halde

Left to right: Scott Timberg, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Joe Haldeman

I was a sci-fi fan when I was a little girl. I wish I could say when it all started. Maybe it was the giant pile of comic books at my babysitter’s house that turned me into a Superman co-dependent just like Lois Lane and Lana Lang. Or maybe it was the time I got the flu and someone gave me The Princess of Mars, the first book in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All my dolls traveled to Mars, even if I couldn’t.

Whatever it was that got me started, I lived more or less with my nose buried inside a science fiction book from the ages of eight until 21, when I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude
and abandoned sci-fi for magic realism. So I felt like I was coming back home after being away on a long trip when I listened to the Science Fiction: The Grandmasters panel at the LA Times Festival of Books on Saturday.

Writer and blogger Scott Timberg moderated the panel, which included three prodigious producers of prime science fiction dating back to the 1950s era of pulp novels and Amazing Stories: Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison and Joe Haldeman.

Silverberg began his journey as a child in New York City, enchanted first by the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum and then by the stars and galaxies in the Hayden Planetarium.

Silverberg's most acclaimed novel has been restored and reissued


“But not even a New Yorker can say `show me a live dinosaur’,” he said.

After reading The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, he realized that “fiction can take you anywhere.”

He found science fiction listed under “pseudo-scientific fiction” in the library and became a fan.

“Many kids had imaginary friends,” said Robert Silverberg said of his childhood sci-fi fandom, “I had imaginary galaxies.”

When he was 13, he got the idea that he could write science fiction for a living. “It was a silly idea,” he said, “but it turned out to be true.”

Silverberg’s greatest work is considered by critics and fans alike to be Dying Inside. First published in 1972, the novel has just been reissued in trade paperback with a preface by Silverberg. You can read more about the author this recent LA Times article by Timberg.

Harry Harrison’s novel about an overpopulated Earth Make Room! Make Room! made a huge impression on me as a young fan. I appreciated strawberry jam a lot more, for example, despite being allergic.

The film Soylent Green is based on the novel, but changes the story in several important ways. For example, in the novel, “soylent green” really is made from soy.

Harrison remembers being a sci-fi fan before sci-fi existed, when it was just pulp novels. He and his friends lived a “grim and grey” existence until they opened up a book and “light poured out.”

Joe Haldeman reminisced about “books with rocket ships on the spine.” I remember those books! I read every single one of them in the library, just like Joe did.

After he’d read every sci-fi book in the library two or three times, he started buying books from a used bookstore in his neighborhood.

“It was like having a heroin dealer next door,” he said.

Haldeman’s most acclaimed work is The Forever War, recently reissued in a “definitive version” with a large chunk of the story restored that had been cut out before it was published.

I missed Ray Bradbury’s talk because I didn’t get my tickets in time. They went on sale at midnight but I waited until 9am to hit Ticketmaster. Foolish me. The man is popular, let’s just say that.

Bradbury typed up the manuscript of his most iconic work Fahrenheit 451 in the Powell Library at UCLA.

He usually signs books on Halloween at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. He signed my copy of Farenheit 451 there.