Review: Earthworks

By Brian W. Aldiss

This is the sort of book that illustrates why I stopped reading SF published after about 1950 or so. It’s well written enough, though the main character suffers from hallucinations (leading to some pretentious feeling passages), but it’s negative in that Soviet-influenced way of the latter half of the 20th century: Overpopulation, not enough food, Africa ascending while the rest of the world wallows in despair.

The can-do spirit that informed SF from the first half of the 20th century is nowhere to be found—in fact, the very antithesis of it is here, so much so that the ending becomes obvious as soon as the necessary fact of the story is revealed. It might’ve passed for edgy in 1965, but it’s just misanthropic and nihilistic. All compounded by the fact that it was bad prediction fueled by the non-scientific Malthusian catastrophe.

But a lot of people like this sort of thing, and (as I said) the craft is good and the book is a quick and easy read.

Review: Plato’s Republic

By Plato? Socrates?

Benjamin Jowett translation

I had been reading excerpts of this for years when coming across various references to it, and finally decided to sit down and read it cover-to-cover. Well, sort of: I decided to read a little of it every day, and here we are 8 1/2 months later. It’s slightly longer than [book:The Secret Garden|2998] which I read in one night, but I wanted to give myself time to think about the various ideas Socrates was proposing.

I have long considered that Socrates probably had it coming (though mostly as a joke, not realizing it was a serious theory expounded upon in [book:The Trial of Socrates|51330]) and it is not hard to see how he could be a legitimate menace to Athenian society (and may have been, per I. F. Stone). There is a startling respect for the concepts of truth, justice and the nature of the human soul on the one hand—and a shocking lack of respect on the other for the practical consequences of the Republic he envisions. (Presumably, this really is Plato’s Republic and Socrates is just his proxy, but as Socrates’ student, we can probably also assume that many of the ideas put forth were at least inspired by Socratic teachings.)

The key question, and the passage I kept coming back to over-and-over again before determining to read the book in full was this: Is justice an intrinsic good or merely an extrinsic one. That is, are people just because they experience firsthand the benefit of it, or just because not not being just carries penalties? Given a world where you were punished for doing the right thing, and rewarded for doing the wrong, what would you do? This is in Book II, and the Republic in question is designed in the subsequent chapters to answer this, although it sometimes seems as though it’s going very far afield indeed.

This is where Plato’s Cave comes in.

In between all this good nooch is a blueprint for the most totalitarian society imaginable, much akin to Huxley’s Brave New World. Every one has their class, their job, women and children are public property, etc. etc. etc. It’s kind of jarring, and you can see why (after Socrates apparently aided and abetted the takeover of Athens by oligarchs) Athenians might want him dead.

And then there is the description of the various sorts of leaders. It’s not that I was shocked that Plato describes the current leadership of the world well—but I was shocked by HOW well. Presidents and Presidential candidates, Prime Ministers, the bureaucracy—the current mess the world is in was old news in Ancient Greece.

You can see the flaws here as well. The premise that one should observe with the mind rather than the eyes, while good in theory, in practice led to believing many things that are, well, observably false. When talking about the wise men who would run the country (or “soviets” as they called them in Russia), Plato short-changes us on how exactly they’re going to be enlightened to become these ubermenschen, untempted by material pleasures and glories.

There is some math involved. Actually, one of my favorite parts of the book is Socrates’ complaint that geometry is just too damn practical. People are always using it to do things rather than to think about things.

Heh.

We can forgive, I suppose, the notion that the ideal society, according to philosophers, is going to be the one run by philosophers. Even in Ancient Greece, they were in ill repute, though it is ascribed here to them just being too darned enlightened.

There’s kind of a twist ending here, too. (I guess this might count as a spoiler, though since it’s not really meant to be a twist, I don’t think, and this isn’t a narrative anyway, and Plato isn’t trying to make the bestseller list, it doesn’t really qualify.) But, basically, after proving that the nature of the soul is such that real rewards can only come from the pursuit of higher truths, and therefore Glaucon’s premise—that if one can act unjustly and yet be rewarded by society as though he were acting justly, it is the best of all possible worlds—is inherently false, he ends the whole book with the Greek version of Heaven is for Real.

I mean, the last book is about a Greek guy who dies, and sees people being judged for their sins and being punished (and ultimately rewarded accordingly), who then comes back to life days later (none of this “minutes” or “hours” stuff like we have today) to report to the Greeks that just and unjust behavior have extrinsic rewards and punishments accordingly. Very Zoroastrian, come to think of it.

Kind of defeats the point of the book if you ask me which of course you shouldn’t because what the hell do I know? Still, you can see why this book used to be mandatory for all in the Western world who would consider themselves “literate”. Definitely one of the greats.

Review: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

By Charles McKay

Magnum opus on historical fantasies in three volumes. There’s no part of this I didn’t like. Every book in every volume (my Gutenberg PDF has the bulk of the book in part one, followed by three more books devoted to alchemists, fortune tellers and magnetisers) is full of interesting historical stories of varying degrees of import.

It was good after hearing about tulips for so many years to finally read a detailed report, and to learn about parallels in England, France, and so on. But I also liked the little stories, like the mobs who disrupted an English theater in protest of a nominal price hike. And if you ever wondered whether or not people used to repeat stupid catch phrases prior to TV, Mackay helpfully (and disdainfully) catalogues a few recent (to him) phrases that caught fire among the rabble. (“What a shocking bad hat!”)

It’s a good reminder that as awful and crazy as the world seems to be today, it has ever been thus. Instead of housing bubbles, we had tulip bubbles. Instead of trying to turn sunlight into power, we had people trying to turn lead into gold. Instead of Internet flame wars, dueling was the madness.

Our major advance, I suppose, would be that we don’t generally kill people. We might cost a lot of people their livelihoods in our pursuit of social status, but we don’t actually stab or shoot them in duels.

So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.

I do think Mackay falls short where skeptics always fall short, which is believing that skepticism is a somehow more logical (or workable) viewpoint than being trusting. That is, taking the viewpoint that something isn’t true isn’t any more virtuous than taking the viewpoint that it is. It’s easy enough to dismiss the magnetisers for their quackery, for example, but one reason they were so successful is that they resolved issues conventional medicine could not.

It also allows one to ignore the quackery in conventional medicine. We can all see the flaws of medicine 175 years ago, but we’re inclined to believe modern medicine has things all nailed down.

Note that Mackay himself fell for a popular delusion in his own time—the Railway mania—which perhaps suggests, above all, that a little humility is almost always in order.