What did Return from the Stars get right?

I’ve been listening to Return from the Stars, which Stanisław Lem wrote in 1961. The book is set in approximately 2088 when a 40-year-old astronaut returns to Earth after 127 years of high-speed travel with consequent time dilation.

Lem’s vision of economics is pure Marx. Despite a proliferation of humans, there is no scarcity. Not only is electricity too cheap to meter, but also apartments, food, clothing, and transportation. It is unclear how this happened, but perhaps it is due to robots, which are the workers in restaurants and hotels (also free). On the third hand, the novel describes a “real” star who lives in a fabulous suburban villa. So there are some people who live way more luxuriously than others, but there is no mechanism for dealing with scarcity for lifestyle items.

Lem envisions the Kindle (on which Return from the Stars is now available), but not a public computer network to fill it up with content. (Computer networking existed in 1961, but the packet-switched wide-area networks with which we’re familiar weren’t conceived of for another few years.)

I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. … No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in the hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons—lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation. Only scientific publications having a very limited distribution were still printed, on a plastic imitation paper. Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. A handful of crystal corn—my books. I selected a number of works on history and sociology, a few on statistics and demography, and what the girl from Adapt had recommended on psychology. A couple of the larger mathematical textbooks—larger, of course, in the sense of their content, not of their physical size. The robot that served me was itself an encyclopedia, in that—as it told me—it was linked directly, through electronic catalogues, to templates of every book on Earth. As a rule, a bookstore had only single “copies” of books, and when someone needed a particular book, the content of the work was recorded in a crystal.

The originals—crystomatrices—were not to be seen; they were kept behind pale blue enameled steel plates. So a book was printed, as it were, every time someone needed it. The question of printings, of their quantity, of their running out, had ceased to exist. Actually, a great achievement, and yet I regretted the passing of books. On learning that there were secondhand bookshops that had paper books, I went and found one. I was disappointed; there were practically no scientific works. Light reading, a few children’s books, some sets of old periodicals.

So the bookstore is somehow linked via a network, but the network can’t reach into homes or pockets. Speaking of pockets, Lem did not anticipate wearable or pocketable technology. There are no smartphones. There is no email. People send telegrams at “the post office” (Lem didn’t imagine that Bad Orange Man would dismantle this institution in 2020!).

Lem envisions a world of fantastically advanced construction technology. Although the city of 1961 looked a lot like the city of the 1830s, he expected the cities of the 2080s to be spectacularly different. I.e., the very field that has been most stagnant he expected to undergo the most dramatic changes and the very field that has seen skyrocketing costs he expected to become almost free. (Again, maybe the prediction is based on the fact that Lem has envisioned a world in which there are 18 robots for every human.)

Lem correctedly predicted the end of monogamy (some real life history). There are still marriages, but they are brief and easy for one partner to dissolve unilaterally (not too many couples have children, so litigation over profitable child support isn’t possible). An old doctor advises the returned astronaut:

Once, success used to attract a woman. A man could impress her with his salary, his professional qualifications, his social position. In an egalitarian society that is not possible. … Take in a couple of melodramas and you will understand what the criteria for sexual selection are today. The most important thing is youth. That is why everyone struggles for it so much. Wrinkles and gray hair, especially when premature, evoke the same kind of feelings as leprosy did, centuries ago . . .

In other words, it is just like Burning Man!

Marriages, to the extent people bother with them, last about seven years before people move on to new/additional sex partners. Perhaps more commonly, marriages end automatically after a one-year trial period.

Lem completely misses the LGBTQIA+ rainbow wave. Nobody in the novel changes gender ID. Everyone identifies as a “man” or a “woman”. Cisgender heterosexuality now, cisgender heterosexuality tomorrow, cisgender heterosexuality forever!

On the other hand, the OLED section at Costco would not have surprised Lem:

I realized that what I had in front of me was a wall-sized television screen. The volume was off. Now, from a sitting position, I saw an enormous female face, exactly as if a dark-skinned giantess were peering through a window into the room; her lips moved, she was speaking, and gems as big as shields covered her ears, glittered like diamonds.

Big TVs are used as ceilings with video feeds so that everyone in this heavily populated Earth can see the sky.

Lem completely missed coronaplague and the terrified flight to the suburbs and exurbs. The multi-level cities he created would be the perfect breeding ground for an enterprising virus. On the other hand, he foresaw that humans would become dramatically more risk-averse and therefore it is fair to say that he foresaw cower-in-place as a response to the novel coronavirus. On the third hand, in trying to understand how an astronaut died, a character asks “Could he have had a corona?” (maybe we need to adopt this coinage?)

Lem is stuck in the European perspective that children are products of marriage (US vs. Europe stats). There are no “single parents” in the novel. But children are also essentially products of eugenics. Those who can’t pass an exam can’t breed:

It was considered a natural thing that having children and raising them during the first years of their life should require high qualifications and extensive preparation, in other words, a special course of study; in order to obtain permission to have offspring, a married couple had to pass a kind of examination; at first this seemed incredible to me, but on thinking it over I had to admit that we, of the past, and not they, should be charged with having paradoxical customs: in the old society one was not allowed to build a house or a bridge, treat an illness, perform the simplest administrative function, without specialized education, whereas the matter of utmost responsibility, bearing children, shaping their minds, was left to blind chance and momentary desires, and the community intervened only when mistakes had been made and it was too late to correct them. So, then, obtaining the right to a child was now a distinction not awarded to just anyone.

What’s the technology by which risk has been eliminated from this timid society?

Every vehicle, every craft on water or in the air, had to have its little black box; it was a guarantee of “salvation now,” as Mitke jokingly put it toward the end of his life; at the moment of danger—a plane crash, a collision of cars or trains—the little black box released a “gravitational antifield” charge that combined with the inertia produced by the impact (more generally, by the sudden braking, the loss of speed) and gave a resultant of zero. This mathematical zero was a concrete reality; it absorbed all the shock and all of the energy of the accident, and in this way saved not only the passengers of the vehicle but also those whom the mass of the vehicle would otherwise have crushed. The black boxes were to be found everywhere: in elevators, in hoists, in the belts of parachutists, in ocean-going vessels and motorcycles.

The other core technology is modifying humans in early childhood via “betrization,” which renders them incapable of perpetrating violence.

So… the big misses for this futurist were (1) Internet, (2) battery-powered personal electronics, (3) portable communication, and (4) stagnation, not innovation, in architecture and construction.

(Lem also failed to predict a world obsessed with politics. There are no materially comfortable people protesting BLM or anything similar in Return from the Stars. Material comfort has apparently made people content with whatever the government is. Lem didn’t anticipate that the richer a society got the more pissed everyone would be!)

More: read Return from the Stars.

As close as we’ve gotten in the pre-Musk/Bezos era… (from the Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center)

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Sexuality in Brave New World

Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, predicted that human adults, freed from the obligations of rearing children and caring for aging parents, would have sex with new friends at least once a week.

This was written in 1931, 40 years before the no-fault divorce revolution, 80 years before Tinder.

In the years since the novel’s publication, at least in the West, we’ve had progressively less social pressure to get married, stay married, and have children. Free of these pressures, what did humans in fact do? “The average number of sexual partners for each generation… from baby boomers to millennials” (The Sun) says that each generation in Europe (where Brave New World is primarily set) had sex with more partners than did the previous generation. So Huxley was right!

Would it be practical for Americans to adopt Brave New World sexuality? Behaving like a character in the novel, the typical student would have sex with at least 200 different partners during four college years. In light of the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein for acts that occurred years prior and that weren’t reported to the police at the time, a winning financial strategy would be to save physical evidence from each of these 200 encounters and then wait to see which of the 200 partners become financially successfully (it would be terrible luck if none ended up as a “one percenter,” right?). Then launch a criminal and/or civil rape case and demand compensation. The statute of limitations for a rape prosecution is now 20 years in New York, for example (CNN). By the time all of the litigation ended, there should be a substantial reduction in inequality (though maybe the litigators would pocket most of it and become the oligarchs).

Huxley imagined some tremendous advancements in technology. The book was written ten years before the first production line for helicopters was set up, yet every Alpha male seems to own an aircraft kind of like a Lockheed Cheyenne, one of the most advanced vehicles of the 1960s. But he couldn’t envision a simple system of contraception. Fertile women (there are only two genders in the book and the LGBTQIA+ rainbow was not contemplated) wear “Malthusian Belts” and undertake a complex bathroom-based process with the items carried in these belts to avoid pregnancy. When that doesn’t work, there is a high-rise abortion center large enough to warm the heart of any modern Democrat running for President.

(Speaking of aircraft, as noted in the previous posting on this book, Huxley doesn’t envision any form of radio navigation. The pilot-citizens of Brave New World follow a ground-based system of “lighthouses”. This is despite the successful use of radio navigation in in 1928 and 1929 (source) and a pioneering effort in 1920.)


  • “Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review” (Rev Gen Psychol. 2012 Jun 1; 16(2): 161–176): “Several scholars have suggested that shifting life-history patterns may be influential in shaping hookup patterns. In the United States, age at first marriage and first reproduction has been pushed back dramatically, while at the same time age at puberty has dropped dramatically, resulting in a historically unprecedented time gap where young adults are physiologically able to reproduce but not psychologically or socially ready to “settle down” and begin a family and child rearing”
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Revisiting Brave New World

Published in 1932, Brave New World is worth re-reading in every election year when politicians promise us salvation through technocracy. Today is the first day of the Democratic National Convention and presumably we’ll hear a lot about how the government can take care of all of our wants and needs (but without significantly higher taxes, except on “billionaires” and “the rich who are not paying their fair share” and maybe “corporations that aren’t paying their fair share”). Let’s see how many of Brave New World’s promises will be repeated this week.

Huxley was all in on what was then the infant technology of helicopters. The term “main rotor system” had not been coined and therefore the book describes “helicopter screws” on a vehicle that sounds like a Lockheed Cheyenne (pusher prop in the back and stub wings). Then stub wings and a tractor propeller it seems. Perhaps the author, writing in 1931, was aware of work by Étienne Oehmichen (1922-24) and Corradino D’Ascanio (1930). All of the pilots are Alpha males, though already in 1930 Amy Johnson had flown solo from London to Australia. (Hannah Reitsch would fly a practical helicopter for a German audience in 1938.)

Huxley had no vision of progress in information technology, despite the fact that there were some extremely capable punched card machines prior to 1931. Hence the need for Epsilons to serve as elevator operators and for all of the helicopter-airplane hybrids to be continuously hand-flown. Televisions, in their infancy in 1931 (history), were cheap enough to place at the foot of every bed in a hospital for the dying, but the only phones were landlines. Presumably the signals for the televisions were being transmitted via radio waves,

It seems as though there is an equal distribution of sexes within each caste, but Huxley couldn’t find any jobs for the female Alphas. He completely missed the trend toward women in management and high-level technical jobs. (He also completely missed the Rainbow Flag religion. Everyone is either male or female, though some females are sterile “freemartins”. Nobody has sex with a person adhering to the same gender ID. Nobody changes gender after being decanted.)

Humans don’t age in Brave New World. Technology is used to maintain health and vitality at roughly a 30-year-old’s level. This wears out the body so that people end up dropping dead at 60, but without a period of decline first. If we’re going to spend 20 percent of GDP on health care, maybe we should ask for this (though with a later drop-dead date please!) instead of what we are getting, which is to keep the ancients (like me!) hanging on despite total decrepitude.

The optimized Brave New World includes an ample helping of racism. Low caste members are described as being “part Negro” or “Octoroon”. But this doesn’t make any sense given the goal of complete harmony among men and women, which drove the technocrats to seek to generate humans in batches of 100+ with identical genetics. Why have more than one race? Maybe the “one race” would contain some genetics from multiple pre-Ford existing races, but everyone should have the same skin color. It can’t be because Huxley thought that only certain races had the necessary genes for low IQ. The low-intelligence babies are produced by putting alcohol into their gestation bottles.

Huxley’s character, Mustapha Mond, seems to predict that Americans who want to feel heroic will refuse to be happy about a buoyant economy and stock market under Donald Trump:

The Savage shook his head. “It all seems to me quite horrible.”

Mustapha Mond: “Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

One thing that Huxley gets absolutely right about the modern-day U.S.: opioid addiction. It isn’t exactly clear what soma is, but it seems to be an opiate. People feel great after taking it and also sleepy. There is no alcohol-style hangover after moderate indulgence. People who take too much will die.

Readers: Please let me know what the Democrats promise this week at the convention and whether any of it aligns with Brave New World!


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Book on the evils of settler colonialism…

… offered for sale on land once owned by Native Americans who were dispossessed by settler colonialism. From the window of the Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Where has the author, Rashid Khalidi, settled? Wikipedia says he’s a professor at Columbia, so presumably he is living on what was, until recently, Native American land (in case you want to argue that Manhattan was purchased, that’s also true of much land in present-day Israel).

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Brookline Public Schools approve a book about aviation

Good news and bad news for a friend’s 12-year-old…

Bad: he was sentenced to read a book by his teachers in the Brookline (Massachusetts) Public Schools.

Good: One of the choices was on an aviation theme. Maybe this won’t be a painful distraction from video games and learning about technology. Perhaps it will be Fate is the Hunter?

Reality: the assigned book, Fly Girl, turns out to be more about skin color than aviation.

From the Amazon page:

All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly. Her daddy was a pilot, and years after his death she feels closest to him when she’s in the air. But as a young black woman in 1940s Louisiana, she knows the sky is off limits to her, until America enters World War II, and the Army forms the WASP-Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida has a chance to fulfill her dream if she’s willing to use her light skin to pass as a white girl. She wants to fly more than anything, but Ida soon learns that denying one’s self and family is a heavy burden, and ultimately it’s not what you do but who you are that’s most important.


  • Bessie Coleman, a non-fictional pilot who identified as a black female
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Nobel Literature wrap-up: Peter Handke and Olga Tokarczuk

In “Americans don’t read the world’s best literature?” I wondered about why so few Amazon shoppers were reviewing Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, Nobel Literature recipients for 2018 and 2019.

Olga Tokarczuk was slightly less unpopular on Amazon so I read Flights first. The book mixes modern travel with some imagined old corpse preservation techniques related to modern-day plastination. A sampling:

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.

Wikipedia: As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project. It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads, like Athena out of Zeus’s. People bring to Wikipedia everything they know. If the project succeeds, then this encyclopedia undergoing perpetual renewal will be the greatest wonder of the world.

Every human body deserves to last. It is an outrage that it’s so fragile, so delicate. It is an outrage that it’s permitted to disintegrate underground, or given to the mercy of flames, burned like trash. If it were up to Blau, he would make the world differently: the soul could be mortal—what do we need it for, anyway—but the body would be immortal. We will never learn how diverse the human species is, how unique each individual, if we are so quick to condemn bodies to destruction, he thought. In the past, people understood this—but they lacked the means, the methods to preserve. Only the wealthiest could afford embalming. But today the science of plastination was developing very fast, perpetually perfecting its methods. Anyone who wanted to could save his body now, and share its beauty, its mystery, with others. Here is the wondrous system of my muscles, the sprinter would say, the 100-meter world champion. Look, everyone, at how this works. Here is my brain, the greatest chess player would cry. Ah, these unusual two grooves, let’s call them “bishop twists.” Here is my stomach, two children emerged from here into the world, the proud mother would say. So Blau imagined it.

The book was published in Polish back in 2007. Sex between professor and student was not something that would be front page news:

He arranged his personal life neatly, unproblematically. He felt decidedly better living alone; he quelled his sexual urges with his students, whom he would first feel out by inviting them for coffee. He knew it wasn’t allowed, but he was operating on the sociobiological premise that the university was his natural hunting ground, and that these women were, in the end, adults who knew what they were doing. He looked good—he was handsome, clean-cut, clean-shaven (from time to time he let his beard grow out, keeping it neat, of course)—and they were curious as magpies.

On what it means to be born into the world’s default language:

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us—we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt. How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures—even the buttons in the elevator!—are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them—they are accessible to everyone and everything!

On humans who imagine that they can “make a difference”:

In Australia, everyone in the environs would come out onto the seashore when the news was circulated that yet another disoriented whale had run aground. In shifts, people would charitably ladle water over its delicate skin and try to convince it to go home. Older ladies dressed like hippies would maintain that they knew what they were doing. Apparently all you had to do was say, “Go, go, my brother,” or, if need be, “sister.” And, with your eyes shut tight, transfer some of your energy into it.

All day, little tiny figures would mill about the beach, waiting for high tide: let the water take it back. Attempts would be made to fasten nets to boats and drag it out by force. Yet the great beast would soon become dead weight, a body indifferent to living. It’s no surprise people would begin to call it “suicide.” A small group of activists would appear in order to argue that animals ought to be allowed to simply die, if they so wished. Why should the act of suicide be the dubious privilege of mankind? Maybe the life of every living being has its own set limits, invisible to the eye, and once those have been crossed, life just runs out, on its own. Let that be taken into consideration for the Declaration of Animal Rights being drafted in Sydney or in Brisbane at just that moment. Dear brothers, we give you the right to choose your death.

Suspicious shamans would come down to the dying whale and perform rituals over it, followed by amateur photographs and thrill-seekers. A teacher from a village school brought her whole classroom, and the children were tasked with drawing “The Whale’s Farewell.”

… Although there have been instances of people managing to save the whales. In response to the great and dedicated efforts of dozens of volunteers, these whales would take deep breaths and head back into the open sea. Their famous fountains could be seen springing joyfully up toward the sky, and then they would dive down into the depths of the ocean. The crowd would break into applause.

A few weeks later they’d be caught off the coast of Japan, and their gentle, pretty bodies would be turned into dog food.

She loves airplanes almost as much as we do:

The plane takes off painlessly, on time; so once more the miracle has happened, of a machine as big as a building slipping gracefully out of earth’s grasp, soaring gently up and up.

The author was 45 years old in 2007. That’s a young mother in wealthier U.S. neighborhoods, but Tokarczuk was writing about the experience of middle age:

In the last few years she has realized that all you have to do to become invisible is be a woman of a certain age, without any outstanding features: it’s automatic. Not only invisible to men, but also to women, who no longer treat her as competition in anything. It is a new and surprising sensation, how people’s eyes just sort of float right over her face, her cheeks and her nose, not even skimming the surface. They look straight through her, no doubt looking past her at ads and landscapes and schedules.

On the death, from head injury and stroke, of a college professor leading a tour in the Mediterranean:

But the crimson inner ocean of the professor’s head rose from the swells of blood-bearing rivers and gradually flooded realm after realm—first the plains of Europe, where he’d been born and raised. Cities disappeared underwater, and the bridges and dams built so methodically by generations of his ancestors. The ocean reached the threshold of their reed-roofed home and boldly stepped inside. It unfurled a red carpet over those stone floors, the floorboards of the kitchen, scrubbed each Saturday, finally putting out the fire in the fireplace, attaining the cupboards and tables. Then it poured into the railway stations and the airports that had sent the professor off into the world. The towns he’d traveled to drowned in it, and in them the streets where he had stayed awhile in rented rooms, the cheap hotels he’d lived in, the restaurants where he’d dined. The shimmering red surface of the water now reached the lowest shelves of his favorite libraries, the books’ pages bulging, including those in which his name was on the title page. Its red tongue licked the letters, and the black print melted clean away. The floors were soaked in red, the stairs he’d walked up and down to collect his children’s school certificates, the walkway he’d gone down during the ceremony to receive his professorship. Red stains were already collecting on the sheets where he and Karen had first fallen and undone the drawstrings of their older, clumsy bodies. The viscous liquid permanently glued together the compartments of his wallet where he kept his credit cards and plane tickets and the photos of his grandkids. The stream flooded train stations, tracks, airports, and runways—never would another airplane take off from them, never would another train depart for any destination.

She’s a little more interested in dead bodies and plastination than I am, but I think that I can understand why she was awarded the Nobel Prize and would read more of her work.

Peter Handke, quoted in the Guardian:

I am a writer, I come from Tolstoy, from Homer, from Cervantes. Leave me in peace and don’t ask me questions [about political views]

After struggling to get through two of his books, I don’t see the parallel with these earlier authors (and don’t forget that Homer is not the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey; it was another Greek with the same name). Tolstoy, Homer, and Cervantes packed in a lot of plot and action. Handke’s books are short, but nonetheless the ratio of words to plot is high. Maybe they are more engaging in the original German, but there does not seem to be anything beautiful or clever about the language. The righteous attack Handke for his political heresy (e.g., PEN America), but I haven’t seen anyone say “Unless you have a Ph.D. in German literature you probably won’t enjoy these books.”

Readers: Were any of you brave enough to try out these authors?

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What folks at Harvard are reading

A recent selection from the Harvard Book Store

For the kids…

Lying to children:

(I don’t know how many people over age 50 would agree with “It feels good to be yourself” and certainly many of us would need a week to recover from sitting on the ground in those positions.)

The books popular with shoppers in Cambridge do not suggest a high degree of self-doubt, but just in case:

What about the #1 example of wrongness in our society?

On the unfortunate fact that not every American voter follows the lead of the coastal elite and the required “nonviolent rebellion” that is necessary to erase the illegitimate votes:

A 1973 book on now-discredited second-wave feminism (also known as “equality feminism”):

(In the 50-year interval since this was published, the term “Woman” now needs a definition!)

Without women (assuming the term “women” can be defined), we would not have Mickey Mouse (perhaps the Nine Old Men actually identified as women?):

More gender binarism on parade:

For those who don’t know where to start…

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Campusland: novel of sex and inclusion

Our ground school at MIT starts today (videos from last year linked from course web site). I’m hoping that there are no similarities with a recently finished novel: Campusland.


Colleges don’t make fools, they only develop them. —GEORGE HORACE LORIMER

How to be a popular university president:

The protesters spotted Milton and instantly became animated. “Hey, Milton! Divest from Israel now! Stop the murder!” cried one. “Divest now! Divest now!” Their homemade signs thrust up and down like pistons. Milton smiled and walked over. “It’s great to see everyone. Really great.” He began shaking hands, much to the bewilderment of the protesters, who didn’t know what to do other than shake back. “Keep up the good work, and welcome back to school!”

Unrealistic: Mom walks out and leaves potential cash-fountain daughter with rich dad in Manhattan (perhaps an extremely poor understanding of New York family law?) After Dalton, Lulu ends up at Devon University, in “Havenport, Connecticut” (Yale?).

Her application was pushed over the finish line with a substantial check. … Her politics, to the extent she gave them much thought, closely adhered to the agendas of the benefits and political fund-raisers to which she aspired. This meant that by default she was a Democrat, like Sheldon (or she would be, as soon as she figured out how to register). She supported all the causes of the moment. Lately, she’d memorized a wholly impassioned-sounding plea for transgender rights that seemed to play well. Not that she’d ever met a transperson, but she was sure if she did, she’d know how to use the correct pronoun. Pretty sure.

The Progressive Student Alliance decides to target an English professor who includes Mark Twain in his syllabus, but not any African-American authors. The class is canceled and the professor goes on administrative leave and the subject of an investigation by Dean Martika Malik-Adams, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. Lulu turns out to be his biggest defender against the diversity protesters, but things go south after a private moment in his office:

Lulu was drinking heavily, licking her wounds. She hadn’t told anyone about the incident in Professor Russell’s office, nor would she. There was nothing to gain from it. Sure, she’d been aggressive, but no one had ever turned her down like that, let alone heaved her unceremoniously onto the floor. Not even the ones with girlfriends. He must have known where she was going—she couldn’t have been more obvious, and she could feel him responding to her. How dare he humiliate her, especially after what she’d done for him!

After drunken sex with a frat boy, she falls and strikes a coffee table with her face.

Yolanda’s [graduate student RA] eyes narrowed. “Did someone do this to you?” “No, no one did anything.” “Something happened.” “Really, Yolanda, I just want to get a couple hours’ sleep and then get out of here…” “I smell alcohol, and your clothes are disheveled. What happened to you? Did you have sex with someone last night after drinking?” Yolanda’s eyes were now two slits. “Is there any other way it happens?” Lulu giggled, despite herself, which only made the pain worse. Why wouldn’t this woman go away? “You don’t understand. By university policy, a woman cannot give consent while under the influence. Sex under the influence is automatically assault.” Yolanda looked almost excited. As an RA, she’d had over thirty hours of mandatory training on sexual assault protocols, and she was sniffing the first opportunity to put her training to use. … Yolanda grew frustrated. “You’re not hearing me. In all likelihood, you’ve been raped, and on top of that someone obviously struck you. I’m a mandatory reporter, and— “A what?” “Mandatory reporter, which means I’m obligated by the Devon Committee on Title IX Enforcement to report this.” “Would you please relax? No one’s been raped.”

The book is in sync with the latest New York Times thinking that all U.S. wealth can be attributed to the profits of slavery (1619 Project):

One of the female students [occupying the president’s office] took up the reins. “This place, this place you call Devon, is white, white, white. It’s violent, in your face, everywhere you go. You, the university president, you’re white. It’s oppression. But know this: we owe you nothing. It’s Devon that owes us everything. We built this. This is ours. This place was built on the backs of our people, and yet we are second-class citizens on this campus!” The girl was so worked up tears were now steaming down her face. Milton nodded, as if in profound agreement, deciding not to point out that slavery was largely nonexistent in eighteenth-century New England when Devon was founded and was completely abolished by the time most of the current campus was constructed. But surely the girl was speaking metaphorically, and her pain was plainly real. “Please, tell me how I can help.”

[The occupation is eventually ended when the university agrees to require that all first-year students take a course titled “Identity and Privilege”.]

Lulu gets some inspiration from Columbia:

About halfway through, past the hard news, an article caught her attention. Called “Campus Nightmares,” it was about the wave of sexual assaults on American campuses. The victims—known as survivors—were bravely coming to the fore, exposing their pain for the common good. There was a lot about Emma Sulkowicz, the famous “Mattress Girl” at Columbia, who had carried a mattress around campus for an entire year to protest an alleged assault by a fellow student. Lulu thought there must be less exhausting ways to get attention, but she couldn’t argue with the results. Sulkowicz had become a campus celebrity and a feminist hero. She even got invited to one of Barack Obama’s States of the Union. Lulu googled Mattress Girl, and there were 2.7 million hits. Another girl had accused a teacher of assault and her whole campus had rallied around her cause. She was hailed with words like brave and pathbreaking and was said to be taking on the “power imbalance” between teacher and student. Something new was happening here. Victims as celebrities. Yolanda Perez had kept on her about that black eye last month, the one that forced Lulu to hide her first week in St. Barts. Perez had even shown up at her door with some woman from a campus feminist group. They pressed Lulu hard for a name, promising to “title nine his ass.” As much fun as it might be to get the hairy man-boy in trouble, Lulu didn’t have time for a bunch of dykes. As a likely English major, she was, however, intrigued that title nine was now being used as a verb. … She needed a plan. Simply being another run-of-the-mill “survivor” would not suffice. That market was getting crowded. Some of the early girls got a lot of play, sure, but only Mattress Girl had transcended her own campus. The mattress angle was clever, but it had been done. Lulu needed a bigger play, something original.

I don’t want to spoil the book too much, so let’s just say that she comes up with a brilliant plan.

The professor, meanwhile, goes through the Title IX process in front of Dean Martika Malik-Adams:

“Excuse me. A question, if I may. Where is the rest of the tribunal? If Ms. Coughlin is counsel, and Ms. Gomez is the stenographer, that just leaves … you.” “That’s correct.” “So where is everyone else?” “I am the tribunal, Professor Russell.” “Just you?” That lawyer warned him it might be the case, but Eph had found it difficult to believe that the university would put his professional future in the hands of a single person. “The majority of Title IX cases are adjudicated by a single person; it’s well within the federal guidelines. It’s a question of efficiency.” “Will there be an investigation? How does this process establish facts?” “I also perform that role, and it has already begun.”

Readers: is this factual or literary license? Can a university have a single person investigating and deciding Title IX cases, expelling students and faculty from campus?

Per usual, authors and editors don’t go a great job with general aviation. A rich alum is going to show up in his Gulfstream G650:

Since this was his first trip to Devon in his new iron, his people had had to call to make sure Havenport Airport’s lone runway had the necessary length. It did, if just barely.

(New Haven has two physical runways (four distinct numbers, one for each landing direction) and nobody would call an FBO or airport manager to find out the runway length, since this kind of information is available in public databases and web sites.)

More: read Campusland.

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Three-way Zombie Apocalypse

Native American and Eskimo/Inuit mythology is full of stories about human overpopulation leading to a catastrophic winnowing of the herd. (And then Europeans showed up and dumped about 350 million immigrants into what had been the Natives’ land! No wonder they love us!)

U.S. population is trending toward levels previously seen only in China and India. I wonder if that has inspired a batch of movies and literature about the near-end of the human race.

Maximum fun and minimum effort: Zombieland: Double Tap (i.e., Zombieland 2). I didn’t see the first one, but this left three of us in stitches. Rotten Tomatoes shows that our cultural overlords liked it (67%) while the rabble loved it (90%).

Maximum awards from critics: Severance, by Ling Ma, a “Best Book of the Year” from NPR, New Yorker, Amazon, et al. “Shen Fever” makes it to the U.S. as fungal spores in the containers of stuff that Americans keep ordering from China. Prior to the plague, the protagonist enjoys a life of casual sex and partying with other young people in Manhattan:

We’d created a makeshift Trump-themed dining table in our living room by arranging collapsible card tables end to end. Over this, Jane had laid a metallic gold tablecloth, weighted by a thrifted brass candelabra, and bouquets of fake plastic flowers she’d spray-painted gold. On the table were ironic predinner canapés: salmon mousse quenelles with dill cream, spinach dip in a bread bowl, Ritz crackers, and a ball of pimento cheese in the shape of Trump’s hair.

She works in a company that organizes book printing in Asia:

Things were different in Art. The clients weren’t so fixated on the bottom line. They wanted the product to be beautiful. They cared about the printing, color reproduction, the durability of a good sewn binding, and they were willing to pay more for it, alter their publication schedule for it. They donated to nonprofits that advocated against low-wage factories in South Asian countries, even as they made use of them, a move that showed a sophisticated grasp of global economics.

The author constructs a CDC-style handout:

In its initial stages, Shen Fever is difficult to detect. Early symptoms include memory lapse, headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Because these symptoms are often mistaken for the common cold, patients are often unaware they have contracted Shen Fever. They may appear functional and are still able to execute rote, everyday tasks. However, these initial symptoms will worsen. Later-stage symptoms include signs of malnourishment, lapse of hygiene, bruising on the skin, and impaired motor coordination. Patients’ physical movements may appear more effortful and clumsy. Eventually, Shen Fever results in a fatal loss of consciousness. From the moment of contraction, symptoms may develop over the course of one to four weeks, based on the strength of the patient’s immune system.

Suffice it to say that Manhattan becomes a ghost town and the protagonist strikes out on the road to meet up with a band of fellow survivors to mine shopping malls, houses, etc. Read the book and you’ll enjoy the plot similarities to Zombieland 2, which I don’t expect to be celebrated by NPR any time soon.

Maximum aviation theme and max popularity from readers: The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller. The protagonist is holed up at a mostly abandoned residential airpark with his 1956 Cessna 182 (that was the first year of production, so this may not be realistic). The remnants of humanity left in North America mostly attack each other with guns and knives (but why? there is plenty of land for everyone!)

In the beginning there was Fear. Not so much the flu by then, by then I walked, I talked. Not so much talked, but of sound body—and of mind, you be the judge. Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105, I know it cooked my brains. Encephalitis or something else. Hot. Thoughts that once belonged, that felt at home with each other, were now discomfited, unsure, depressed, like those shaggy Norwegian ponies that Russian professor moved to the Siberian Arctic I read about before. He was trying to recreate the Ice Age, a lot of grass and fauna and few people. Had he known what was coming he would have pursued another hobby.

I don’t want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day.

Mostly the intruders came at night. They came singly or in groups, they came with weapons, with hunting rifles, with knives, they came to the porch light I left on like moths to a flame.

Due to some small but telling lapses in accuracy, I don’t think the author is a pilot (e.g., he writes that the Nearest button on a Garmin GPS “gave my vector” to the nearest airport; vectors come from ATC, “the heading” or “the bearing to” would come from the GPS; he refers to his “pilot’s license number” instead of certificate and says it is “135-271” (FAA certificate numbers are 7 digits with no dash)), but he writes well about the experience of being in a small plane and landing in the backcountry.

Back then I took up flying with the sense of coming to something I had been meant to do all my life. Many people who fly feel this way and I think it has more to do with some kind of treetop or clifftop gene than with any sense of unbounded freedom or metaphors of the soaring spirit. The way the earth below resolves. The way the landscape falls into place around the drainages, the capillaries and arteries of falling water: mountain slopes bunched and wrinkled, wringing themselves into the furrows of couloir and creek, draw and chasm, the low places defining the spurs and ridges and foothills the way creases define the planes of a face, lower down the canyon cuts, and then the swales and valleys of the lowest slopes, the sinuous rivers and the dry beds where water used to run seeming to hold the hills and the waves of the high planes all together and not the other way around. The way the settlements sprawl and then congregate at these rivers and mass at every confluence. I thought: It’s a view that should surprise us but it doesn’t. We have seen it before and interpret the terrain below with the same ease we walk the banks of a creek and know where to place our feet.

The protagonist’s best friend is his dog:

I used to worry about the engine roar and prop blast, I wear the headset even though there is no one to talk to on the radio because it dampens the noise, but I worried about Jasper, even tried to make him his own hearing protector, this helmet kind of thing, it wouldn’t stay on. Probably why he’s mostly deaf now.

They bred dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn’t they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man?

The typical virus apocalypse book or movie assumes that humanity is in this together. One interesting twist in The Dog Stars is that, as best as the survivors in North America can tell, there are societies on the other side of the planet that are continuing to function normally.

Readers: Are we entering the golden age of zombie apocalypse literature?

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