Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series


I have no special expertise in science fiction. I’ve read little of it. But what I’ve read I’ve selected carefully and most of it has been a joy to read. The league of SF enthusiasts is intense if not immense. Though the SF genre has attracted a hefty percentage of readers, this result has been hard-won. This is my impression from the sidelines, as it were.

My limited direct experiences with science fiction may be of interest to those fiction readers who have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and to those enthusiasts who care to know what a neophyte like myself might say about what he’s found worthwhile.

So here is the first installment in my recounting of those experiences . . .

Image.Book Cover.Job Comedy of Justice.Robert HeinleinI think the first author I read was Robert A. Heinlein. An excellent choice, I’m sure the experts would agree. (You may know him through some of the films inspired by his work.) The trouble is remembering which book came first—and whether there were others. I’m pretty sure it was Job: A Comedy of Justice. I like sustained, serious comedy, and I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament book of Job. Putting the two together would be quite a feat. Those who subscribe to my webpages will likely find this novel a tempting entry point for reasons that resemble my own. (Others, who do judge a book by its cover, may be drawn first to his book Friday.)

As a philosopher, I can appreciate Heinlein’s talent as an observer of the human condition and what a future society might look like, if we continue on our present course, or if dramatic changes happen to us (notably through the development of technology). Heinlein had metaphysical and epistemological interests, as well, but his sensibilities were quite different than my own. This is no reason to pass over his ouvre. I’m an advocate for reading outside your comfort zone and conversing with diverse perspectives. It’s an aid to understanding your own worldview, and accepting it more responsibly. And fiction is among the best ways to access alternative perspectives on reality and human experience. Literate science fiction can do that for you. (I think, also, of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not SF, but imaginative and contemplative, a far distance from where I stand intellectually, but by a clever fellow-traveler—on a motorcycle, to boot!)

Heinlein lived to be 80 years old, but his output was comparatively meagre for one with so great a reputation and influence. It shows that quantity is no match for quality. His total cast of significant characters, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously extensive. And you know an author’s influence is substantial when there’s a thriving online society dedicated to his legacy.

So that’s how it all started for me, and for that, I suppose, I’m in debt to Heinlein. But deep as my appreciation goes, I will never be considered a “Heinleiner.”

Note: For an exposition of worldview analysis within literature, I recommend James Sire, the book among his many that had the greatest influence on me. When I read it in the late 1970s, the book was called How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. It’s now been adjusted to How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, which doesn’t quite get at the essence of the book, I feel. It’s a book I wish I had written. But I couldn’t have done so when I was 18. Probably still couldn’t.

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Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck


UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)

Uncanny?

Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction


Battle of Borodino

Image via Wikipedia

Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

Now Reading “Little, Big,” by John Crowley


If you know the name Smoky Barnable, it’s because you’ve read all or part of John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big, or, The Fairies’ Parliament. Or—less likely—you’ve only read about it. I suggest this is unlikely because you probably haven’t read about the novel unless you are a reader, like fantasy fiction, and can’t resist when the accolades for a book are in the order of: Read more of this post

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