It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.
What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.
Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.
Late last year scientists announced that a tunnel they’d found on the moon (remotely, of course) would make an ideal location for a human colony. The moon, you see, is quite cold and, lacking an atmosphere, constantly exposed to naked solar radiation. It’s a tough sell, even for first-time buyers. Still, with a little hole to crawl into, and some homey touches, this might be the future of humanity. Of course, offshore relocation has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning. Technically encumbered by the whole speed of light thing, we’re left with neighboring planets and moons that are either too hot or too cold, our species having evolved on the Goldilocks of solar system real estate. Moving to the moon might sound like a good idea right about now, but it’s going to take more than Two Guys and a Truck to get us there.
Fantasies of moving abroad come in two varieties—those of optimism and those of pessimism. Either things are going so well that we want to spread the evangel of our soaring success to the universe or things are looking so terribly Republican that even the dark side of the moon seems enlightened. There’s no question which phase we’re in at the moment. The moon is relatively close after all. It has been a fairly quiet neighbor over the millennia. We’ll want some good insulation, however, and despite the Weir version of Martians, we’ll depend on those back earth-side to send us some grub every now and again.
In ancient times the moon was frequently a goddess. Some ancient cultures pegged our satellite as masculine, but many saw her gentle light as more befitting a powerful female. Heading outside in the predawn hours with a full moon overhead is a pleasant, if chilly, reminder of just how bright our constant companion can be. Light without heat. Ancient desert-dwellers found the moon more benevolent than the sun, for night was relief from the fierce heat of day. Still, moving to the moon would meaning making a new world in our own image. Nothing, I suspect, would defile a goddess quicker. Our costly detritus already litters the once untouched face of Luna, and our size-nine-and-a-half prints are permanently left behind there. Heaven has always been that undiscovered country somewhere over our heads. The discovery of tunnels on the moon where we might snuggle down and be free may sound great. But we need to get things settled out on the ground first, otherwise our one and only satellite will merely become our next victim to exploit.
Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.
I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.
The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.
Not driving to work definitely has its advantages. Although studies suggest commuting takes a great toll on hapless riders, the stress of driving in traffic—more often just sitting in traffic—also takes its pound of flesh, and more. A recent snowstorm had me reflecting on this. Once in a while I like to demonstrate that the male of the species is worth keeping around, so after the Bomb Cyclone that closed schools and offices in the trial-state area a couple weeks back, I went out to brush off and start the cars. It’s not that women can’t do this, but it’s more the fact that nobody wants to do it that motivated me. Besides, I have a secretly fond memory of the years of enforced, Dr. Zhivago-esque labor on our Lake Erie snow-belt blessed driveway. My stepfather’s shack sat atop a long, unpaved driveway. Ironically, although he drove the borough snow plow, he insisted that we boys do the shoveling at home. Maybe that’s where I get it. A poor family, our winter coats were substandard and aching fingers and toes, not to mention frozen faces, were pretty typical. I hated every minute of it. Or did I?
Bundled up against the arctic winds that had brushed a noticeable breeze past my face the night before (in the present-day) when I climbed into bed, I stepped out in first light. Immediately the cold found the small gap between my gloves and sleeves and began to work it’s chilling magic. Before the powdery snow was even off the car my fingers were numb and painful, reminding me of an unfortunate frostbite episode as a child. Unconsciously I found myself smiling. I’m no longer forced to do this. Kindness is a far better motivator than hate. At least as a renter I didn’t have to shovel the drive.
Afterwards, inside an apartment that we all habitually decry as too cold, I quickly warmed up. There’s a pleasure in doing something so that someone else doesn’t have to. I miss that, working in New York City. Focused on getting to work, it’s far too easy to step past those for whom even a glance is a blessing. Those who sleep in cardboard boxes on nights like that through which I felt an annoying draft, although secure inside. I see the police “evicting” tenants of paperboard towns even as I glimpse Trump Tower in the distance. The storm they called a Bomb Cyclone. We clear the streets quickly so that we might get back to work and make more money for the one percent. Studies show commuting is killing us. It seems the cold is doing so as well.
When the president of the United States utters words too vulgar to print here, I think of the old They Might Be Giants’ song “Your Racist Friend.” The song is all about the indefensibleness of racism. We knew that back in the 1980s. What has made it acceptable now, in the highest office in the land? The fact that Trump is a racist was known to most of us well before he was “elected.” And, of course, the Republicans stand beside him. I feel sorry for the GOP, I really do. Those who simply wanted a fiscally conservative leader (wrongheaded in my view, but understandable) decided to go with a man who would want to revisit 1776, if he knew the meaning of the date, to ensure that this would always be white-man’s land. Hear this Republicans—by standing by Trump now you’re declaring, “He’s only saying what I’m thinking.” There’s no way to defend what he’s said about Africa, along with several nations elsewhere.
As we watch this bizarre space opera of an administration do its best pratfalls we don’t even have to go back all the way to the 1770s to wonder what went wrong. Bill Clinton was impeached for having an extramarital affair in the 1990s. Less than 30 years later we have a misogynistic, racist bully who’s on his third wife running this country like a casino. And the “Party of Lincoln” laps it up. They refuse to censure anything this bumbling excuse for a leader does. They’d be embarrassed, of course, but they haven’t considered, and refuse to consider, the consequences. I’m wondering what the musical 2016 will be like, but I have a guess.
As the Russia probe gets closer, the GOP tries to shut it down. That’s how we handle facts we don’t like now. Who would’ve thought that three decades on we’d be saying “mere adultery” was grounds for impeachment? Perhaps there were good people on both sides of that affair too. Science has demonstrated that “race” is a fiction, a human construct. But science no longer matters. Anything we disagree with we call “fake news” and FOX will be there to slurp it up and spew it wide. As Friday unfolded after 45’s statement about the status of an entire continent, his verbal incontinence still dribbling, his party rushed to defend “what he really meant.” What he really meant, he said. And what he said, if you don’t denounce him, is what you’re thinking too.
Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.
Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.
That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.
I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.
For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.
Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.