Orwell or Wells—Can Science Save Humanity?

Will Science save humankind, or lead us to our doom? The Internet is buzzing lately with various online outlets reprinting this article by Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, about a debate between H. G. Wells and George Orwell on this topic.

H.G. Wells, best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, believed science was the best hope for humanity’s future. George Orwell, an essayist, critic, and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, took a less optimistic view.

The article makes it sound like a lively back-and-forth argument ensued, but from the essays cited, it seems rather one-sided. In the early 1940s, H.G. Wells was in his late 70s and near death. George Orwell was in his late 30s, (though not too far from his own death at 46). From what I can glean, this was mostly Orwell criticizing Wells, not the other way around.

Before we explore the ‘debate,’ let me define terms. Science is a systematic process for gaining knowledge about the universe through experimentation. Since it involves the accumulation of knowledge, it’s unlikely that Science, by itself, can either save or destroy humanity. I think of Engineering as the application of scientific knowledge to design, invent, and produce useful products.

When both Wells and Orwell refer to Science, I think they meant to include Engineering. For the purpose of this blogpost, I’ll use that same shorthand meaning of Science.

Wells grew up in an era far different from Orwell’s. He saw the rapid development of science—automobiles, submarines, airplanes, relativity, skyscrapers, rocketry, and medicine—and foresaw amazing wonders that would benefit mankind. He figured the same scientific process that could produce those wonders could also lead to better government if we placed scientists in charge.

Let’s give Wells some credit, though. He was no Pollyanna. Many of his novels portrayed the misuse of science for destructive ends. But George Orwell seized on some of Wells’ more optimistic—though lesser known—writings.

In the early 1940s, Orwell watched with growing horror at the growth of Hitler’s Germany and saw it as the embodiment of Wells’ ideas, a nation of submarines, rockets, and airplanes, with science-minded people running the show. To Orwell, Deutschland was no Utopia. He castigated Wells in a couple of scathing essays.

In his article in The Conversation, Gunderman claims the debate is still relevant today. It’s been 75 years since Orwell penned his criticisms; have we learned enough to settle the argument?

Since that time, Science has split the atom to provide electricity, visited the Marianas Trench, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, put instant communication in our pockets, sent probes to explore the outer planets, multiplied crop yields, mapped the human genome, and extended lifespans through medical breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Science also brought us nuclear weapons, the Apollo 1 fire and two space shuttle disasters, Chernobyl, computer viruses, armed drones, and electronic spying. Soon, perhaps, an artificial intelligence Singularity may be looming.

In my view, science is a tool, like a knife or hammer. People can use it for good or evil. It amplifies our capacity for both. The concepts of good or evil reside in the individual human mind. To ask if Science will save humanity is like asking if a hammer will save humanity. It depends on how we use the tool.

The real question is whether our good natures will prevail over our evil ones. I think there are far more good people than evil ones, but the evil ones have greater influence per capita. For some reason, a few clever evil people can sway many good people to their side.

So far, across the span of human time our good natures have won out and the products of science have proffered more benefits than harm. On average, life is better now than in the past, for most. But it’s a close thing, and our history shows frequent backsliding.

Whether humanity achieves Utopia, destroys itself, or some outcome in between, Science will deserve neither credit nor blame. Only the human capacity for love or hate will determine our future. And that’s the realm of fiction writers like—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Happy Birthday, H.G. Wells!

Science Fiction pioneer H.G. Wells was born September 21, 1866, 150 years ago. Although he died in 1946, his works live on and inspire us today.

The novels of his I’ve read include The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and The Sea Lady. Most of those remain classics today.

h-g-_wells__c1890
H.G. Wells

As readers of my blog know, my main author-crush is with Jules Verne, but Wells gave us several archetypal story themes and ideas that Verne did not explore.

The two authors approached their writing differently, too. Verne strove for scientific plausibility and accuracy, but Wells concentrated on telling a good story and gave only a passing nod to the science.

After Verne read The First Men in the Moon, which includes an anti-gravity substance named cavorite, he wrote, “I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavorite? Let him show it to me!”

Despite my preference for Verne’s stories, I have to say, “Lighten up, Jules. If a scientist does invent an anti-gravity mechanism, your criticism will look antiquated. Further, you knew your gunpowder cannons couldn’t really launch men to the moon when you wrote From the Earth to the Moon, so you’re not a paragon of accuracy, yourself.”

As discussed by Steven R. Boyett, this dichotomy between scientific exactitude and telling a good story with a smattering of sciency stuff persists today in the arguments between hard and soft science fiction.

Returning to Wells, you do have to overlook his personal life and philosophy as you read his books. A believer in socialism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics, he also led a sex life that was, well, complicated. Fortunately, his early, less philosophical works don’t give hints of any of this.

afterthemartians5My readers know that Wells’ The War of the Worlds inspired my own story, “After the Martians,” so I owe him a great debt.

So, happy birthday, Herbert George Wells! Your legacy is looking great after all these years. Your works remain classics today, read and enjoyed by millions, including—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 25, 2016Permalink

Twain’s Attack on Cooper

In 1895, Mark Twain published “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a lengthy criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, especially his novels The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Since it’s one of the more famous examples of literary criticism, let’s explore it, as well as the overall reasons for such criticism.

Twain vs CooperIn Twain’s acerbic style, he starts by accusing three Cooper-praising reviewers of never having read the books. He then lays into Cooper, saying, “…in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” Twain asserts there are 19 or 22 rules “governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction” and says Cooper violated 18 of them. He lists those 18 rules.

Twain scorns Cooper for over-using certain favorite “cunning devices, tricks, artifices.” He also slams Cooper for some improbable events involving shore water undertows, cannon ball rolling, and footprint erasure by erosion.

At length, Twain ridicules Cooper for creating a forest stream of varying breadth, for conjuring a boat so big as to be unlikely to navigate the stream, and for having five Indians lay in wait for this giant craft and yet miss it when attempting to jump aboard. For several paragraphs, Twain then takes Cooper to task for scenes involving implausible target-shooting with rifles, and eyesight beyond human capability.

In Twain’s judgement, Cooper’s dialogue is inconsistent, and his word choices “dull” and “approximate.”

That’s the summary version of the “Literary Offenses.” Twain’s writing style is humorous and satirical, making the essay fun to read and accounting for its lasting popularity.

Once published, Twain’s essay itself became subject to criticism, and one fine example of this is “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  Schachterle and Ljungquist take Twain to task for attempting literary criticism while accomplishing little more than sniping at the physics of certain scenes. Twain, they say, gets some of his physics wrong, and in the case of the river craft and the awaiting Indians, fills in his own details to prove that Cooper’s scene wouldn’t work.

Laying aside the particulars of the criticisms, why would Twain write such an essay at all? Cooper couldn’t respond, having been dead some forty-four years. (In fairness, Twain didn’t reserve his barbs only for deceased authors. He criticized his contemporaries George Eliot and Robert Louis Stevenson as well.) That gap in time is illustrative, since Cooper wrote in the Romantic style, a style no longer in vogue in Twain’s time.

Was Twain trying to tarnish Cooper’s reputation? That was unlikely to suffer, Cooper having become a best-selling author whose works remained popular well into Twain’s era, and even now.

I suspect Twain, like many writers, chafed at the inexplicable popularity of other authors who didn’t write the way he did. In a sense, he’s criticizing the book-buying public. He’s saying, “Americans, here are the rules for literature, and I adhere to them in my stories. Why do you keep buying books by Cooper, who violates them at every turn?”

Still, who can explain why readers line up to buy certain books and ignore others? What makes a book popular? Strict adherence to Twain’s self-imposed rules doesn’t seem to be the answer; otherwise, we’d be reading little else but Twain.

Similarly, Jules Verne criticized H. G. Wells’ book The First Men in the Moon for using a fictional anti-gravity metal. Wells did not obey rules Verne imposed on himself, and Verne couldn’t understand why readers would accept that.

Authors are free to comment on other authors, of course, but should be wary of applying their own criteria of merit on others, or of assuming readers use those same criteria in their book-purchasing decisions.

I must admit, I’m glad Mark Twain never had the chance to criticize any books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

One more thing: remember Smashwords is selling many of my books at ½ price through the end of this month. These deals don’t come along often. Buy two or more!

After the Martians—the Story Behind the Story

It’s the question readers ask authors most often: “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve blogged about that before, but today I’ll reveal the birth of the idea behind my just-launched book,AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians.”

It wasn’t my idea at all.

My friend, fellow author, and critique group partner, Andy Gudgel, thought of the idea. Heaven knows where he got it. At one of our critique group meetings, he mentioned he’d like to write a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but his story would deal with the aftermath, with dead Martians lying around, but also their technology. After all, the tripod fighting machines would be still standing where they stopped. The assembly machines would be intact and stationary near the landing sites of the Martian projectiles. Even a few flying machines might be available.

Andy’s idea was that humans would then use these weapons in a very different version of World War I.

This notion captivated me, and I urged him to write the story. Each time he sent us manuscripts of other tales, I’d ask him about the Martian story. “This one’s good, Andy,” I’d say, “but when are you going to give us that War of the Worlds sequel?”

Then at one December meeting, (at which we exchange little gifts to each other), I unwrapped his gift to me, and there were all his notes, and his copy of H.G. Wells’ novel. A note stated he was giving his story idea to me. I should write the tale, since he would not likely ever get around to it.

Wow! That could be the greatest gift one writer could give to another.

I say ‘could be’ because of an emotionally painful event that happened to me some twenty years earlier. At that time, I belonged to a different writing critique group. One other group member had written more than half of his novel. As I recall, it involved a modern-day (well, mid-1990s) nuclear attack on the United States.

Sadly, this writer died young. He had not completed writing that novel, let alone sent it to any agents or publishers.

His wife wrote to me to say how much her husband had appreciated my critiques of his work, and said he’d wanted me to finish, and seek publication of, his novel.

With a heavy heart, I had to decline the offer, but found it gut-twisting to tell his widow that. To write a story, I must have passion about it and care deeply about it and about the characters. I just didn’t feel that way in this case. Moreover, even if I’d had that enthusiasm, I would have had to rewrite large portions of the other writer’s novel to make it mine, and would have felt terrible about not honoring the deceased writer’s wishes exactly, or not living up to his hopes.

In the case of Andy’s WotW sequel, he hadn’t started writing yet. He’d compiled some notes and a rough outline, but I decided to take the story in a different direction than he’d planned. I didn’t feel badly about that, since he hadn’t begun the actual writing and my passion drove me toward the story that became “After the Martians.”

That’s the story behind the story written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

World War One—After the Martians

One century ago, war raged across Europe. They called it the Great War then. The year 2018 will mark a hundred years since the ending of that massive conflict. Today I thought we’d examine an alternate history scenario. How might WW I have been different if H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had really occurred in 1901? My recently launched book, “AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians,” explores this scenario.

First, some background. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna created a sustainable peace across Europe. Half a century later, that peace had frayed. Five nations then dominated the mainland continent and vied with each other for supremacy—Austria, Denmark, France, Russia, and Germany (under Prussian leadership).

Otto_Fürst_von_Bismarck
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck

Enter Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, who combined the ‘balance of power’ concept with a pragmatic or ‘realpolitik’ approach to foreign policy. He ensured Germany maintained a changing web of alliances with two of the other powers, while engineering a series of short wars designed to unite and strengthen the German states while weakening enemies. After each war, he’d shift the alliances, always maintaining three on his side against two on the other.

This strategy sustained a workable balance until Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, after which he predicted, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

After that time, the European powers armed themselves against each other and tensions increased—the so-called “powder keg.” Without any minor wars to relieve this tension, the strain increased such that even a small event could trigger a major war. That’s what Bismarck had foreseen.

So far, that’s an interpretation of how things actually happened. Let’s insert a fictional twist. Assume the attack of The War of the Worlds really occurred, in 1901. In H.G. Wells’ novel, the Martians only invaded Great Britain, but it makes no sense for a superior alien race to restrict their assault to just one country, so we’ll suppose the Martians spread their forces more widely across the globe.

In time, the Earth’s bacteria sickened and killed the alien aggressors, but only after they’d wiped out a significant portion of the world’s population. Human weaponry of 1901 had been almost useless against the Martians, so our war machines lay in ruin. However, the aliens had left behind their tripod fighting machines, heat rays, “black smoke” poison gas, and some flying machines.

The nations of Europe, then, would have faced two choices. Stunned by the devastation of the Martian War and fearful of another attack from that planet, they could have joined forces and combined their energies to prepare for another assault by a common enemy. Or they could have examined the advanced Martian military technology and used it to refill the powder keg.

After the Martians assumes, as backstory, that the latter occurred. I postulate that the same triggering event—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—lit the fuse and set off the Great War.

Using the weaponry of Mars, WW I would have gone quite differently. Trenches would be useless against one hundred foot tall walking tripods with heat rays. Each side would have gone underground, using the Martian “assembly machines” to construct huge subterranean bunkers with hidden surface entrances.

Moreover, the heat rays and black smoke would have killed off the plant and animal life on every battlefield. There would have been vast areas of bare dirt. The combatants would have spared only the mountainous zones, since it would have been difficult to maneuver the tall three-legged fighting machines on sloped ground.

This is the (alternate) reality faced by my character Johnny Branch in my new book. As you mark the centennial of the real WW I, consider reading “After the Martians,” by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

H.G. Wells’ Fighting Machines — After the Martians

My upcoming story, “After the Martians”—to be released this month—features the fighting machines, or tripods, of H.G. Wells’ book The War of the Worlds. In that book, the Martians assembled the machines after their arrival on Earth, and they caused considerable destruction. At the end of the novel, the Martians all died from our terrestrial bacteria.

AftertheMartians72d“After the Martians” takes place in the world of Wells’ story, but sixteen years have passed since the alien attack. In my tale, humans make use of the Martian technology, especially the fighting machines, to fight World War I.

Wells depicted a fighting machine as being three-legged and about one hundred feet tall. He did not describe the carapace or main body of the machine, except to say that several flexible tentacles protruded from it. Two of these tentacles held a box with a lens from which shot the devastating heat ray. The tripod’s other weapon was a poisonous black gas.

Such a machine would have terrified the readers of 1897. Since then, the tripod from The War of the Worlds has become a science fiction icon, inspiring the walking weapons of Star Wars, the AT-AT and AT-ST.  Combining huge size with the human attribute of walking somehow adds to the horror.

In The War of the Worlds, we see the fighting machines from the inferior vantage point of puny human victims on the ground. In “After the Martians,” I take readers inside the carapace as human pilots control the alien machines to battle other tripods.

I enlisted the aid of a close acquaintance to make a wonderful 3D printed version of the fighting machine. (Frequent readers will recall my 3D printed Ring of Gyges from my story “Ripper’s Ring.”) For the tripod, she used a Printrbot brand printer, the Simple (Maker) Edition, and PLA filament.

3D printed tripod 13D printed tripod 23D printed tripod 3

The .stl files you need to print the fighting machine yourself are on the Thingiverse site, and the design is by FuzzySadist (William Myers). I added the wire tentacles, and painted the machine to be generally consistent with my story’s description.

Very soon, I’ll give you details on how you can get your own copy of “After the Martians,” by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

New Book Alert – After the Martians

That’s right. I’m announcing the upcoming launch of a new book in the What Man Hath Wrought series. It’s called “After the Martians,” and the cover is sensational.

AftertheMartians72d

Here’s the blurb for the book, an alternate history occurring after the events of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds:

In 1901 the Martians attacked Earth, but tiny bacteria vanquished them. Their advanced weaponry lay everywhere—giant three-legged fighting machines, heat rays, and poison gas. Now, in 1917, The Great War rages across Europe but each side uses Martian technology. Join Corporal Johnny Branch, a young man from Wyoming, as he pursues his dream to fight for America. Follow magazine photographer Frank Robinson while he roams the front lines, hoping to snap a photo conveying true American valor. Perhaps they’ll discover, as the Martians did before them, that little things can change the world.

Gypsy Shadow Publishing and I are planning for a book launch in early May. You’ll find more news about “After the Martians” here at this website, so check back frequently with—

Poseidon’s Scribe

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

Ex-Out Deus ex Machina

Strange term, that ‘Deus ex Machina.’ All it means is ‘the god from the machine’ and if your story’s got one, you probably don’t want it.

Deus ex MachinaAlthough the concept comes to us in its Latin wording, it dates from the plays of Ancient Greece. Performed in amphitheaters, these plays sometimes featured an actor playing the part of a Greek god, who would descend into the final scene apparently from the sky by means of a crane with ropes. The ‘god’ would solve the play’s central problem by means of magical powers.

Over time, the phrase came to mean the late and unexpected introduction in a story of a character, ability, or object that seems to resolve the story’s conflict in some miraculous way.

     Not Recommended
You’ll want to avoid Deus ex Machina (DEM) in your stories because it’s the mark of an amateur writer. You get positive points for burdening your protagonist with difficult dilemmas to solve. But you lose those points and more when you’ve painted your hero into a corner and you can’t get her or him out without resorting to some external savior entering the action at the end.

The presence of a DEM cheats the reader, who is expecting a story about the human condition.  The reader has, therefore, invested some emotional energy in your protagonist, following that hero along through all the conflicts, both external and internal. The reader is wondering how your protagonist will prevail. To introduce a DEM, therefore, is jarring and disappointing.

     Difficult to Avoid
Sometimes you’re working along with your manuscript and you find you’ve put your protagonist in such trouble that, try as you might, you can’t think of a way out. You like the story otherwise, and really don’t want to rewrite in a way that lessens the difficulty and allows your hero to win the day through innate virtues.

These are the times you might be tempted to call in the aid of a DEM. Again, for reasons noted above, it’s best not to do so. In most cases.

     When It’s Right
In the hands of a master storyteller, DEMs can work in two situations I’ve discovered: (1) when the author is making a larger point, and (2) in comedies.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the French army conquers the town, enters the Inquisition, and frees the narrator from his horrible prison. But Poe is making a larger point about life and the freeing of the soul to enter heaven when the clock (pendulum) of life ceases.

In H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, it’s true the invading Martians are defeated by tiny bacteria. But Wells is making a statement about Britain’s encounters with cultures having primitive technology. He’s saying that, but for the microbes, even mighty Britain would have been annihilated.

In Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian,” Brian is saved from a deadly fall by a passing alien spaceship. The DEM literary device is used here for comedic effect.

     A Final Example
If you’re really, really good, go ahead and use a Deus ex Machina. Otherwise, best to avoid them. Let your characters figure their own way out of their jams.

Hmm, as I write this, I have no idea how to end this blog post.

Enter Poseidon, appearing out of nowhere.
Poseidon: “Silly mortal. Just write ‘Poseidon’s Scribe’ below your other babbling text, the way you’ve signed off every other post.”
Me: “Oh, hehe. Thanks Poseidon. You mean like this:

Poseidon’s Scribe.”