Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Parallel Universes

The Gods Themselves 

The Gods Themselves

“Schiller. A German dramatist of three centuries ago. In a play about Joan of Arc, he said, ‘Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.’ I’m no god and I’ll contend no longer. Let it go, Pete, and go your way. Maybe the world will last our time and, if not, there’s nothing that can be done anyway. I’m sorry, Pete. You fought the good fight, but you lost, and I’m through.”   ― Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves is a story of two worlds that are struggling for power and survival, although they have never met. One world, the human's world, is so consumed with the need for free energy they are unwilling to give up their source of power, even though it may destroy all life in their Universe. The other world needs the energy pulled from the Earth's Universe because their own Sun is about to die. The scientists struggle against an unseen time clock to save their world.

The story is an ingenious and prescient yarn that touches on the issue of our civilization’s insatiable need for cheap, plentiful energy and our inability to accept the environmental consequences of that dependence. It is told across multiple parallel universes and has a description of a para-race of beings that is staggering in its complexity;  the novel is also a cautionary tale of scientific hubris and ego run amok and the cross-dimensional dissidents who try desperately to avert a crisis. With echoes of our own world’s current global energy crises and the environmental impact of our reliance on dirty energy sources, the book is an eerie reminder of the trade-offs we make in the name of progress and civilization.

Frederick Hallam, a scientist, discovers a substance, plutonium-186, that should not exist under the physical laws in the universe. It becomes more radioactive over time, shooting out positrons. This substance is transmitted to Earth from a para-universe in which physical laws are much different. This substance provides cheap, seemingly endless, and nonpolluting energy. Increasing amounts of it can be attracted by use of a device called the Inter-Universe Electron Pump. In exchange for plutonium-186, Earth provides tungsten; in the para-universe, tungsten emits electrons and thus provides energy.

The first section, “Against Stupidity,” details the Pump’s discovery from the point of view of Peter Lamont, who is writing a history of this scientific development. He decides that the Pump may transfer some of the physical laws of the para-universe to Earth’s universe (and vice versa), with the result that nuclear reactions in the Sun will grow stronger and the Sun will turn into a nova, wiping out all life on Earth. At the same time, suns in the para-universe will cool down.

Lamont warns about the possible dangers, but his warnings are paid little heed. He attempts to communicate with the para-universe aliens, aided by linguistic expert Myron Bronowski. Ultimately, they succeed, receiving a message that appears to warn that the Pump is dangerous but also appearing to suggest that authorities in the para-universe will not stop the process. It is up to humanity to do so.

The best part for this reader was the second section, “. . . The Gods Themselves,” where the locale shifts to the para-universe. The inhabitants include three types of alien children with different characteristics: Rationals, Parentals, and Emotionals. The Parentals give birth to the other two types, and one of each of the three types constitute a triad who occasionally melt together in a sexual process, experiencing pleasure but later not remembering all that took place during merger.

There are also Hard Ones, other aliens who do not melt. A Hard One is the adult form of a Rational-Parental-Emotional triad, constituting a permanent melding of the mature triad. A Hard One named Estwald began the energy interchange with Earth’s universe because of a winding down of the energy sources in theirs. The Hard Ones know that this may cause Earth’s sun to explode, but they still will not stop the process because that explosion would result in emission of a huge source of energy for them. An Emotional (Dua) is troubled by this and warns the people of Earth’s universe of the dangers of the Pump. It is then revealed that Dua is part of the triad that makes up Estwald.

In the third section, “. . . Contend in Vain?,” Benjamin Allan Denison, a scientist and past colleague of Hallam, becomes involved with a female Lunar tour guide named Selene. The Moons inhabitants have been unable to use the Pump there, but they wish to as a means of becoming more independent from Earth. Denison confirms that the Pump is a danger to the Sun’s stability but suggests that if there are two parallel universes, there must be more. The denouement of the story follows providing an adequate if not inspiring finish to this fine tale. Asimov's imaginative aliens and the suspense created by the scientists made this another classic from the prolific pen of Isaac Asimov.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Dante Notes, I

Dante and the Aeneid

The Portable Dante

The Aeneid was read by Dante and others and the first part of the epic poem can be read as an allegory for the journey of one's life. The surface meaning of the Virgil's poem is the travels and travails of Aeneas between the time he leaves Troy and arrives in Latium, where he will found the city that one day becomes Rome. But the allegorical reading is one which can be applied to any man including Dante. Aeneas demonstrates self-control in resisting the attractions of Dido while persisting in his mission and in doing so overcoming many obstacles demonstrating courage and fortitude. Most importantly for comparison with the Dante's poem, in Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas goes down to the underworld.

The visit to the underworld in the Aeneid also parallels a similar visit made by Ulysses (Odysseus) in Homer's Odyssey. Dante knew the story of Ulysses from Ovid who recounts it in his Metamorphoses (like Dante, Ovid suffered the fate of exile and expulsion from the city he loved and died without returning to it). It is this recounting that inspired the tale narrated by Ulysses in Canto 26 of The Inferno.

Robert Fagles points out in his introduction to The Aeneid that Dante's reaction when he recogizes Virgil ("Are you then that Virgil", Inferno 1.77) is a recall of Dido's question when she realizes who her visitor must be ("Are you that Aeneas . . ., Aeneid 1.738). There are other borrowings from the Aeneid, notably the same Charon ferries spirits across the same river and refuses to take a living passenger at first (Inferno 3.80). Further comparison between the sea voyage of Aeneas in The Aeneid with Dante's epic can be seen in the use of the sea-voyage image at the beginning of both the Purgatorio and the Paridiso.

In the twentieth century Hermann Broch began his novel of Virgil's last days, The Death of Virgil, with a similar motif of the ending of a sea-voyage with Virgil lying on his death bed in the entourage of Augustus. Beside Virgil in a small trunk was the manuscript for the Aeneid. And Primo Levi, in his autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz, recounts how he kept himself sane by attempting to reconstruct Ulysses' great speech in the Comedy from memory. These words provided a touchstone of humanity and civilization even that modern version of Dante's hell.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Imagination and Reality in Love



"Words meant such a very great deal to her --- and more than that, information conveyed by means of words --- that she wanted than to mean a great deal to everyone else."  Providence, p 113-14, Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner was an English art historian and author who presented a bleak view of life in her fiction, much of which deals with the loneliness experienced by middle-aged women who meet romantically unsuitable men and feel a growing sense of alienation from society.

If you have not read Anita Brookner Providence is a wonderful novel with which to start. I daresay you will not look back as you traverse some of her many (too numerous to count) novels of romance and the social difficulties of young women - and sometimes not so young - in love. In this one the protagonist, Kitty Maule, longs to be "totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful." She is instead clever, reticent, self-possessed, and striking. For years Kitty has been tactfully courting her colleague Maurice Bishop, a detached, elegant English professor.

Brookner uses Kitty's specialty of Romantic literature, the novel Adolphe by Benjamin Constant in particular, as a centerpiece of her interaction with her students. But this novel also reflects on Kitty's imagined relationship with Maurice. Kitty has a lively imagination; at one point while reading a novel her mind wanders to the famous story of Paolo and Francesca from Dante's Divine Comedy and she ponders their apotheosis of a kiss followed by death. As she slowly runs out of patience, Kitty's amorous pursuit takes her from rancorous academic committee rooms and lecture halls to French cathedrals and Parisian rooming houses, from sittings with her dress-making grandmother to seances with a grandmotherly psychic. About two thirds through the novel she sees Maurice praying to the Virgin and has an epiphany: "I am alone, and she leaned against a pillar, her throat aching." Her imagination could carry her only so far and her relationship of Maurice begins to seem ephemeral at best.

Brookner demonstrates her mastery of character and of the telling of detail in Providence. Touching, funny, and stylistically breathtaking, the novel is a brightly polished gem of romantic comedy tinged with regret. My favorite moments are the many literary references which warm the heart of this inveterate bibliophile. The best of Brookner that I have read is Hotel du Lac for which she was awarded the Booker Prize. However, if you do not want to start at the deep end you should try reading Providence first.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Commonplace Entry


From "Self-Reliance"

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

(Emerson's Essays, p. 38)