Friday, October 31, 2014

"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley (1818)

"Frankenstein" is one of the most well known works of fiction there is. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein. He the guy who sings 'Puttin' On The Ritz' with Gene Wilder right? The guy with bolts in his neck. "Fire Bad!" That guy. Frankenstein.... Or is it pronounced Frahnkensteeen?

You'd never read "Frankenstein" before, but you are totally the kind of guy who always complains when other people have only ever seen the movie or the TV show but have never read the book. You figured it was time to practice what you preach and read up on the old familiar story of the mindless monster and his mad scientist master. Everyone knows the story so well already that you figured reading the book would just be a reminder of where it all got started. Surely there would be no surprises. You were wrong.

You've always loved the story of how Shelley wrote this classic novel. She was touring central Europe with her lover the famous poet Percy Shelley (they would later marry), the flamboyant and aristocratic poet Lord Byron, and physicist and poet John Polidori (who would go on to write the first published vampire story). They all decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest horror story. Shelley thought about it for days and had a dream about a scientist who created life on his own. She turned the dream into her story. Shelley undoubtedly won the competition. She also created in one stroke both the horror and science fiction genres in modern literature.

The novel opens with letters written from an Englishman to his sister as he sails out of Archangel, Russia. He recounts to her how he has given up on his lifelong dream of being a poet (remember who Shelley was writing for?) and he has decided to be the first human to reach the North Pole.

What? That's not how the story is supposed to start! Where are the spooky mountains and the tower with the mad scientist? Where is Igor? From the opening page of the book, it became clear that this story is nothing like you were expecting.

After four months, the poet turned explorer, named Captain Walton finds his ship surrounded by sea ice. He and his crew are stuck fast and hoping for a break in the ice to allow the to sail to safety. Through the fog and the snow, he and his crew see something they never expected. A team of dogs is pulling a sled over the ice not far from the ship. In the sled is no normal driver, but a gigantic man. He and his dogs leave Walton's crew slack-jawed and shocked as they disappear into the distance, there is not supposed to be anyone this far north. That night, the ice breaks up, releasing the ship. In the morning Walton finds another sled, a different sled, floating on an ice floe with a man clinging to life inside. Walton orders his crew to rescue the stranger, but the man asks in a foreign accent where the ship is headed, north or south. Only when the crew answers that they are headed northwards does the strangers say that he will allow them to rescue him.

Captain Walton, still writing to his sister, sees the stranger is near death and nurses him back to health. The stranger reveals to Walton that he is on the hunt, chasing after the giant the crew had seen before. He calls his quarry "the demon." He says he has been chasing him for many months but he is sparing with details. Walton recognizes a kindred spirit in the stranger and soon comes to see him as a close friend. Both men share a passion for knowledge and agree that human beings cannot be complete unless they share deep friendships and also personal success. The stranger becomes distraught at this and decides to tell Walton his story. He intends it to be a warning for the Englishman to beware of chasing knowledge without considering all of the ramifications of his actions. Captain Walton dictates the stranger's tale word for word.

The stranger is, of course, none other than Victor Frankenstein. The story he tells Captain Walton bears little resemblance to the tropes you have grown up thinking constituted the story of "Frankenstein." Victor grew up in Switzerland and Italy and attended college in Ingolstadt, Germany. As a young man, Victor became fascinated by ancient sciences like alchemy. In school, his professors introduced him instead to the modern practice of science and physical philosophy. Victor is hooked immediately.

Deeply affected by the death of his mother just before his leaving for college, young Frankenstein develops a fascination with the origin of life in individuals, the spark that sets inanimate matter into motion. He claims that, after much study, he discovered how to impart life to the lifeless. Frankenstein tells Captain Walton that he will never reveal this powerful knowledge because of the ruin it brought to his own life. He does not wish his fate on any man. He reminds the captain that he is not insane, merely a genius, and his discovery will remain a secret. 

Energized by his new-found knowledge, Frankenstein relates how consumed he became with the prospect of creating a new being. He worked himself to the bone, nearly suffering a psychotic break finding the raw materials needed to stitch together a vessel into which he could ignite the fires of life itself. For two years he worked in an upstairs lab on the campus, obsessing over the perfection of his dream. Shelley describes his toils in macabre and disturbing language, maintaining enough morbid vagueness to let the reader's imagination run wild.

One night (neither a cold nor stormy one) he succeeded in his greatest ambition. There was no harnessed lightning, no dutiful Igor, no screaming of "It's alive!" Frankenstein simply performed whatever secret procedure it was that he had discovered. He created life from what was previously dead. But on looking at his creation for the first time, instead of triumph he felt utter revulsion. The monster that stirs at his feet is so hideous, so disgustingly inhuman, that Frankenstein spends the rest of the night hiding from his own creation. When the dawn arrives the next morning, Victor wanders the streets of Ingolstadt, terrified at every turn that he will run into his creation.

It is two full years until Frankenstein sees his creation again. His brother had been murdered back home in Geneva and Frankenstein returned there to comfort his family and confirm his suspicions of who the murderer might be. Victor sets off into the heart of the Alps and finds the monster he created hiding on a high glacier.

Frankenstein's creation, his demon, is not a staggering mindless ghoul. He is eloquent and articulate, a man possessed of reason and logic. He is no mindless monster. He is persuasive and passionate. He shows an appreciation for beauty and a thirst for knowledge. Victor sees this and realizes his duty to his creation, telling Captain Walton that he had an obligation to make sure the creature was happy before he condemned it's wickedness. He stays with his monster to hear his story.

The creature ran into the mountains after he first woke to life, after he witnessed his own creator fleeing from the sight of him. His every attempt to introduce himself to civilization are met with fear, anger, torches, stones, and pitchforks. In the mountains he finds a small poor family to secretly observe from a camouflaged vantage point. The De Laceys live in a modest cottage and the monster learns to speak and read through his observations of their lives. His surreptitious education leads him to become self aware. Frankenstein's demon starts asking himself the questions that eventually occur to all of us. "Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?" Like most of us, the monster proves unable to answer these metaphysical questions. But he has an idea for how he can assuage his loneliness.

The monster demands that Victor create a companion for him, a woman to keep him company and furnish him with the sense of love and belonging that humans have proven incapable of providing. The monster then becomes sinister for the first time in the story. He reveals that he did indeed murder Victor's brother in order to lure him to the mountains to make this very demand from him. The creature swears that he will hound Victor, no matter where he goes, until his request is met. He promises to make Frankenstein's life one of unimaginable misery if he refuses the request.

Frankenstein tells Walton that he acquiesced to the monster's demand out of a sense of compassion rather than of fear for his safety. But soon, the fear sets in. Victor takes his best friend to England to create a bride for his demon. Filled with worry and paranoia, he retires to a remote island north of Scotland, one of the Orkneys, to perform his gruesome task, the creation of another monster. But at the last second, he stops himself. Victor realizes that he cannot be responsible for unleashing another monster in the world and destroys what progress he has made. As soon as he does this he looks up to the window and sees the enraged face of his monster. The creature disappears into the night, hell bent on fulfilling his promise to ruin Frankestein's life.

The monster then enacts his vengeance, murdering Victor's best friend, his new wife, and causing so much heartache to Victor's father that he too dies of a broken heart. With nothing left to live for, Victor Frankenstein makes killing the monster the sole goal of his life. He chases him all across Europe and even almost all the way to the North Pole.

The former scientific genius becomes consumed with worry and anguish and fear. He is afraid that everyone he loves is doomed and he his right. But it is not the inhumanity of his creation that proves Frankestein's undoing, it is his own. He has no sympathy, no compassion. He sees only what his fear tells him to see. He sees a monster so he creates one, not when he breathes life into a corpse, but when he believed his creation to be unworthy of love. And, ultimately, love is all the monster wants.

Like any good horror story, the genre it created, "Frankenstein" is a warning. It is Shelley's warning to be careful to not put too much stock in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. As wonderful and inspiring as technology is, as important as it is for humans to constantly push the boundaries of what is possible, it is even more important for us to be guided by principles, to remember that just because we can do something doesn't always mean that we should. It is a warning to never obsess over work and professional pursuits at the expense of other, more valuable things. Shelly's novel also serves as a reminder that often, much of the hardships we find ourselves the victims of are the results of evil we ourselves put into the world. Violence only begets violence and vengeance is ultimately an empty pursuit.

Most importantly, most poignantly, "Frankenstein" is a warning to never surrender our capacity for empathy, our compassion to fear of the unknown. Just because something is not beautiful it is no less worthy of our love. You can find inspiration even in the most unlikely of places. Men like John Rabe and Claus Von Stauffenberg remind you that even amongst Hitler's Nazis, there were men who were worthy of respect and admiration. And men like Hal Halvorsen remind you that even the smallest acts of mercy and compassion can affect the course of world history. This is a common theme you have noticed arising throughout all of the books you find yourself reading lately, both fiction and nonfiction... maybe it is a common theme amongst all story tellers. The greatest evil humanity can commit is always a result of our refusing to recognize the humanity in others. The greatest good we can perform is always a result of embracing that quality in others. Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" was a reminder that sometimes you have to embrace that humanity even in the most monstrous and hideous among us.

On to the next book!

Monday, October 27, 2014

"The Candy Bombers" by Andrei Cherny (2008)

Everyone has heard of the Cold War, and everyone has heard of World War II. But few people remember that there was a moment between these two conflicts when the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic went from being allies who saved the world from the madness of Nazi Germany and quickly became rabid enemies who fought over nations like dogs with bones. It all started in the capital of the nation the two greatest Super Powers had fought so hard to defeat together. It was called the Berlin Airlift and the book's subtitle is not hyperbole, it might very well have been America's greatest moment.

Your cousin Eric has been telling you to read this book for a few years now. He usually reads the books you suggest to him, but you're kind of a jerk sometimes and don't always reciprocate, so he yanked the rug out from under your lame excuses and bought you a copy. That guy is awesome. So was "The Candy Bombers." You had heard of the Berlin Airlift before but you'd never heard of Andrei Cherny. It turns out that he is the youngest US Presidential speechwriter in history. President Clinton was impressed by his writings in the Harvard Crimson and quoted him in his second inaugural address before he'd even hired him. So... the man can write.

After the Second World War ended the Allies were determined to not let Germany rise up and start another devastating war. The former homeland of the Kaiser and the Nazis was divided into two halves, with the western half run by the Western Allies (the US, England, France) and the eastern half run by communist Russia. Berlin was similarly divided, even though it was deep inside the Russian held eastern half of the defeated nation. Three years after the end of the war, relations between the Russians and the Western Allies had begun to chill. The Soviet Union was gobbling up countries they had "liberated" from German occupation. Communist rule was falling over Eastern Europe with an iron fist. Assassinations and coups became commonplace news. Soon, West Berlin had become an island surrounded by a sea of aggressive Soviet armies.

And it was an island in ruins. British and American bombers had hit the city relentlessly for the last few months of the war. What little remained of the city was demolished by a Russian invasion that ended the war in Europe with the stuff of nightmares. The Red Army spared no one as they raped, killed, pillaged, and burned their way into the heart of Nazi Germany. In a city that was once called the capital of the world, nothing remained but the skeletons of buildings, the stench of thousands of corpses, and a desperate and dominated population that had lost all hope in humanity.

It is important to remember the attitude the American occupiers held when they entered Berlin. They absolutely hated the Germans. It is frequently spouted common wisdom that the harsh treatment of Germany by the Allies after World War One directly lead to the instability that allowed the Nazis to rise to power and thus caused World War Two. Hitler said so himself. But in the summer of 1945, most of the men who had fought against the Nazis felt that the only reason they had needed to re-fight their fathers' enemies was because, in fact, the Allies had been too soft on Germany, too easy and too trusting after The Great War. The men who had seen the Nazi death camps with their own eyes were not inclined to be merciful to their defeated, genocidal enemies. They felt it was their duty to never allow Germany to rise to power again. For the first few years, the Americans did very little to help the German people to rebuild their country and they cared even less about allowing the Germans to form their own government. The citizens of Germany were still the enemy.

As the post-war situation in Berlin became more and more tense, the American soldiers there became acutely aware that they were vastly outnumbered if the situation ever escalated to a real live shooting conflict. Once WWII was over, the US had demilitarized. They'd sent their sons home and given them money to go to college to get good jobs and build the greatest economy the world had ever seen. The Soviet Union did no such thing. They kept their sons in uniform and in active service throughout Europe and Asia. In 1948, American forces in Berlin were outnumbered by their former allies turned rivals by a factor of sixty two to one! There were more Russian soldiers within a few hours of Berlin than there were active American soldiers on the entire planet. In the spring of '48 the Russians staged a coup against the government of Czechoslovakia, the last nation still standing against the red tide. In one fell swoop, everything from the Elbe river eastward all the way to the shores of Alaska on the other side of the world was now Soviet territory. Everything except Berlin.

On June 24, 1948, the Russians cut off all shipments of supplies to the western sectors of Berlin. One of the biggest cities in the world was now cut off from everything its citizens needed to survive. There were over 2 million civilians living in Berlin. No food, coal, medicine, or water was allowed to be driven by truck or train from the western half of Germany into Berlin. Nothing.

The commander of the Russian forces in Berlin, still presumed to be an ally of the United States, stormed out of the Allied Council meeting under the false claims that the Americans were not adhering to the terms of the agreements to run the city's affairs together with the Russians. The Russians moved quickly to try to force the Allies out of their city-turned-island stronghold. The American commander insisted he wasn't going anywhere, that abandoning West Berlin would inspire the Germans to acquiesce to communist control.

On March 31st, recognizing the strategic futility of a few hundred men defending an isolated outpost against millions of enemy soldiers, James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, had ordered the US Air Force to bring B-29 bombers (the only planes capable of carrying a nuclear bomb) out of storage. He knew there was a good chance they would be needed to help the Americans level the playing field if the shooting started. More ominously, the production of nuclear bombs jumped from the paltry 50 the US had in her arsenal up to 133 within a few months. The nuclear arms race that would come to characterize half of the 20th Century started on that day. The situation was so serious that President Truman suggested mandatory military service for all boys and instituted a civilian peace time draft. The blockade (or siege, more accurately) made Berlin feel for the first time like two cities. Two governments. Two philosophies. Two police forces. The city would keep that feel for the next half century.

The airlift started as a temporary and disorganized measure. A few dozen American aircrews flying inadequate cargo planes tried to keep Berlin meagerly supplied while General Clay, in charge of the American occupation of Germany, tried to prepare an armed convoy to break through the Russian blockade, guns blazing. The Pentagon and the State Department tried to convince President Truman to abandon the city arguing that the ruins of the former capital of Nazi Germany wasn't worth starting another World War over. No one thought an airlift could possibly be a long-term solution. It was impossible. Every attempt to do anything like it had failed every time anyone had ever it tried before. But there were no better options. The Russians so far had proved unwilling to shoot American planes out of the sky. Soon, American cargo planes from all over the world were converging on Germany.

"The Candy Bombers" goes deeply into the minds of the men running the crisis. Commanders on both sides had to deal with orders from far off politicians meeting the reality of a new conflict unlike anything the world had ever seen. There had been foolish brinksmanship before, but never brinksmanship with nuclear weapons in the heart of Europe. The new first US Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, was shaping the American response to the Soviet threat in a way that would echo for decades. He was also slowly going insane. General Clay, commanding the American occupation of Germany, was a man who had been desperate to find combat during WWII, but instead had been placed in charge of acquisitions for the entire war effort in the United States. He was the one who was responsible for setting both production quotas and public rationing of goods. By the end of the war, his name had become notorious among housewives and CEO's alike. Many cheered his deployment to Europe, even as they pitied the Germans. Clay was an authoritarian hard ass compensating for feeling of inferiority and would not take no for an answer. By the end of the Berlin Airlift, his name would become revered among the people he had been sent to rule.

President Harry Truman was losing his first bid for the White House. Most Americans realized that he had lucked into the position of FDR's Vice President. In the upcoming election, he was being challenged on the left by Roosevelt's previous VP, Henry Wallace. The prospect was that the ticket would be split and the decade and a half of Democratic dominance would come to an end. The Republicans had nominated Thomas Dewy, a candidate with star power and a masterful stage presence. He sold out massive venues with every speech and drew celebrity endorsements by the handful. Almost every American thought he was a sure thing. The story of how Truman won helped explain that image you grew up watching during the opening credits of "Cheers;" the one with a victorious Harry Truman holding a newspaper with the banner headline "Dewey Wins!" over his head. He didn't win. Truman was reelected. The Berlin Airlift had more than a little to do with that famous political upset.

But the story of "The Candy Bombers" is not about the men in positions of authority. It is about the acts of one man and the others he inspired. Gail Halvorsen, called "Hal," flew one of the cargo planes coming in and out of Berlin. He and his men made that treacherous, stomach-dropping dive over a cemetery and passed the windows of a massive apartment building down into the Tempelhoff airstrip. Hal noticed the small crowd of children at the head of the runway every day. They gathered to watch the huge planes bringing supplies to their families. He went out to meet them one day and was so moved by the humanity he saw in their eyes that he promised to throw them some candy the next time he flew into the city. This was crucial. An American looked into the face of the children that his fellow airmen had, only three years before, bombed into the Stone Age... and he did not see the enemy. He saw fellow humans, desperately in need of compassion and kindness.

The next time he made his approach into Templehoff, Hal wagged his wings like he said he would to tell the kids to get ready. The candy, a week's worth of rations from Hal and his whole flight crew, floated into the hands of the children below on parachutes made out of handkerchiefs. It was against the rules of the airlift and broke all the anti-fraternization laws of the occupying American military. The kids loved it. They were starving and had suffered through a decade of privation and rationing. Most of them had never tasted candy. The size of the crowds at the airport's fence line grew. Hundreds of Berlin's children gathered in hopes of another candy drop. Hal and his crew dropped two more loads on the kids before they were found out by a reporter. Instead of being punished, Halvorsen was ushered in front of a press conference. This was a publicity coup for the Americans. Soon he would be touring the United States on publicity tours. It would be hard for the Russians to paint the Americans as the aggressors when the face of the Airlift was a smiling kid from Utah who just wanted to give candy to excited little kids.

Soon, Halvorsen's was the only plane allowed to deviate from the perfectly timed assembly line of transports flying into Berlin. He made his candy bombing runs over school yards and stadiums, anywhere he thought there might be children. Americans sent him candy donations by the hundreds of pounds. A Jewish candy tycoon from New York sent him over 2 tons to distribute to the children of a society who had grown up being told they were the Master Race, that Jews were inhuman. Hitler's last hope for a thousand year Reich, the children inculcated by the youth movement that bore his own name, the brain washed kids of Nazi fanaticism, the minds shaped by the propaganda of Goebbels and Himmler... they had all that hate cleaned away by small acts of sugary mercy. These children stood upon the ruins of their city and experienced something other than hatred or fear or exclusion. They experienced the power of compassion. Some of them, for the first time maybe, experienced joy.

It made a difference. For years before the crisis, when polled, Berliners had answered that they would have preferred economic prosperity over political freedom. They said that, if it came down to it, they would overwhelmingly choose the Soviets over starvation. But the Airlift changed their minds, or maybe it opened their eyes. Those polls began swinging solidly towards democracy, even as the prospects of starvation became even more real. On September 6th a mob of 3,000 hired thugs broke into Berlin's City Hall and unsuccessfully attempted a coup. Within days 300,000 Berliners held a huge rally at the burned out ruins of the Reichstag, the site of the final titanic battle of WWII. They listened as their politicians (many of whom were not allowed to hold the offices they had been elected to) dedicated themselves to self-determination, to living in freedom. The citizens of Nazi Germany had seen the promise of a robust democracy and they were now recoiling and fearful at the prospect that it would be snatched from them. They had glimpsed hope for the first time in decades and they were determined to hold on to it, even if it meant more suffering. They had known suffering most of their lives. They had never known freedom.

The key to a successful blockade by the Russians required the people of Berlin to give up on any aspirations for democracy. If they had, they would have placed blame for the suffering they endured squarely on American shoulders and would have kicked out the Allies from the city. There would have been nothing the Americans could have done in that case. Instead, the Berliners flocked to the standard of freedom. Again, Maslow's hierarchy of needs was proven to be incorrect. As resources became more scarce than they had ever been and the people's situations more desperate than they had ever known, the crime rate in the city plummeted. Even as they starved and even as they froze, the people of Berlin became passionate, even zealous for their own freedom. The Russians offered hundreds of pounds of coal to warm them and mountains of food to feed their starving families if the Berliners would only sign away their American issued rationing cards, effectively declaring themselves subjects of the Soviet occupation. Almost none of them did so. As the winter set in, it became evident that the whole justification for the blockade had backfired. The Berliners were far more pro-democracy after the Airlift than they were before it.

A specialist was eventually brought in to streamline the operations of the Airlift. General William Tunner had figured out how to supply Allied forces in China by flying cargo planes over the Himalayas during WWII. He was methodical, logical, and calculating to a fault. He took all the romance and fun out of flying. Pilots had to maintain strict discipline and no one (other than Halvorsen) was allowed to deviate from their assigned flight paths. He turned the swashbuckling seat-of-your-pants adventure of the Airlift into a monotonously boring and formulaic assembly line. But his plan worked. He had one plane landing or taking off from Templehoff airport every 90 seconds. He performed what everyone who knew anything about aerial logistics considered to be impossible. He kept millions of people relatively well supplied from the air.

In November Tunner was stymied by the worst fog Europe had ever seen. Every airport from Dublin to Prague was shut down for weeks and weeks. But as soon as it lifted, he had the men flying again. Eventually Tunner, the most unsung of all the heroes to come out of the Berlin Airlift, figured out how to deliver even more supplies than the people of Berlin had requested. Tunner figured out how to do the impossible. And in doing so, he broke the Russians.

Almost 50 American and British airmen died in crashes during the ten month siege. The Soviets did everything they could think of to undermine Allied efforts. They staged elaborate "aerial exercises" dangerously close to the Allied air corridors, even going so far as to fire shots across the noses of some of the cargo planes coming in for that, already treacherous, landing. They hired a mob 3,000 strong to break into City Hall and attempt a coup. West Berlin policemen disappeared with alarming regularity, victims of Soviet abduction and intimidation. Their efforts failed.

The Cold War is thought of as a primarily military conflict, even though no 'Hot War' ever broke out among the primary belligerents. But it wasn't. There was sabre rattling to be sure, but the conflict was primarily staged within the hearts and minds of the citizens of the world. The Berlin Airlift was the opening salvo, the shot heard round the world, only without any bloodshed. It set the tenor for the conflict to come. The next forty years would be characterized by the two greatest powers on Earth vying for territory, but only because that promised to expand their base of influence and power. The two sides would wage a war of opposing views of the world. One side sought equality of wealth distribution through intimidation and aggressive police states. The other promised freedom of expression, movement, and religion. They presented the world with the excesses that a robust democracy and a booming capitalist economy could create. The Berlin Airlift was not won with the use of bombers and nuclear weapons. It was won with Rock 'N Roll and blue jeans. It was won with endless highways and a victorious Civil Rights movement.

It was won with cargo planes and candy.

On May 8th, 1949, on the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich, the new nation of West Germany adopted a constitution that embraced the ideas of individual liberty, inalienable human rights, freedom of faith, an independent press, and freedom of speech. Two days later, the Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted. The Russians would never make any more advances into Europe. They had gone as far as the rest of the world would allow. Berlin would go on to become the main symbolic battleground of the Cold War, a metaphor for what both sides were fighting for. And it would be the sight of this division coming down, the fall of the Berlin Wall almost forty years later, that would signal to the world that the Cold War had ended. It is remarkable to think that it all started because one American named Hal was able to see his old enemy as a human being rather than a monster. He had inspired his fellow Americans to turn his aircraft from a weapon of fearsome destruction into a force for good and an image of altruism. The United States had showed the world what the difference was between liberty and totalitarianism.

On to the next book!

P.S. Historians often make a big deal of the moment that American and Russian forces split the Third Reich in two. It was on April 25th in 1945 in the middle of a bridge over the Elbe river in a city called Torgau. There were photographers there to record the whole scheduled event and everyone smiled and celebrated. The real first meeting of the soldiers from the US and USSR happened earlier in the day 16 miles south of the official celebration. An insubordinate American named Lieutenant Kotzebue had defied his orders and lead his motorized patrol far beyond where they were supposed to scout. As they drove east they passed crowds of civilians headed west, fleeing the Russian onslaught. The Americans drove through swarms of German soldiers desperate to surrender to comparatively merciful American rather than face the furious vengeance of the Russian Red Army. Kotzebue and his rebellious patrol reached the river Elbe and rowed across to meet the men in brown uniforms they could see on the other banks, Soviet infantrymen. The Russians had enforced a brutal and complete retribution on the Germans, on soldiers and civilians alike. The eastern side of the river was a different world from the western side. Dead civilians lay everywhere the Americans walked. The Americans were appalled at what the saw, but the Russians were their allies so they kept their judgements to themselves. And so it was that American and Russian forces, allies through the bloodiest war in human history, finally met one another on a field of battle with the dead children of their vanquished enemy at their feet. Personally, you would rather remember the the amicable and photo friendly version on the bridge in Torgau, but the truth is not always easy to stomach. And photo ops are not a legitimate way to study history.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card (1986)

Orson Scott Card has said that he only wrote "Ender's Game" so that he could then write "Speaker for the Dead." Even though this is a sequel, it was the reason for writing the the first one at all. That's saying something, because you loved "Ender's Game." Having said that, this one probably isn't going to get made into a movie anytime soon, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In the climactic moment of "Ender's Game" Ender Wiggins kills every member of the only other sentient species that humans had ever found in the galaxy, the Buggers. Granted, he thought that the war he was waging was just a simulation, practice for the real thing. Granted, almost every human on Earth thought they were engaged in an interstellar war for survival, but that doesn't matter. History remembers Ender as a Xenocidal maniac, a stain on human culture and ethics. After his incomparable crime, though, Ender travels to the bugger homeworld and is entrusted with a gift unlike any other. The last Bugger hive queen, cocooned and in stasis yet still capable of re-seeding the entire species, has made contact with him telepathically. Through this unique connection, he realizes that the entire war was a mistake, a case of extraordinary misunderstanding.

With the last Hive Queen as his constant telepathic companion, Ender sets out on his new life's mission: to find a new homeworld for the Buggers, a world safe from the suspicions and xenophobia of humans. And he writes a book explaining to the rest of humanity the extent of his crime in wiping out an entire race. Lifting the lenses of hatred, fear, and absolutism from his own eyes, he unveils the Buggers as something more than mindless monsters hell-bent on conquest or the annihilation of humanity. Embracing empathy and truth, he reveals the scope of the crime he committed to the entire human race. Ender reveals the complexity of an enemy that humanity had been content to think of in easy, two dimensional caricature. But they weren't just the bad guys. There was a depth to them, a history, a delicate evolution of culture and a beautiful symmetry to their lives. The Buggers hadn't deserved to die at all, yet he had killed every single one of them. In writing his book, Ender gave voice to the dead in a way that had rarely been done before. He became a Speaker for The Dead, and he started a new philosophy based on that idea.

After his book "The Hive Queen and The Hegemon," an entire discipline of Speakers arose in the galaxy. People dedicated to the idea that when someone dies we often make the mistake of trying to only remember the best in them, to recreate them in an easily presentable, two dimensional character. We often even invent good things about the dead, and talk only about those things when we eulogize them. Instead, Speakers for the Dead speak the truth about the dead. They endeavor to tell their full stories and in so doing, to reveal the honor and the depth in each of our personal stories. This new philosophy allowed humans to embrace honesty and empathy and to recognize that memories are best remembered when they are unvarnished. Lilies are more beautiful when they are not gilded; or more accurately, a gilded lily is no lily at all.

Thousands of years have passed since the end of "Ender's Game" and humanity has used the technology they discovered in the Buggers' colonies to spread throughout the galaxy. Space travel can take place almost at light speed while the alien ansible computer network spans the galaxy and allows communication to take place and information to be shared nearly instantaneously throughout the Hundred Worlds. Speakers for the Dead are allowed to travel to any planet regardless of that planet's religious status. Speakers are afforded a respect and a level of access to information that enjoys the backing of the highest laws.

No one suspects that the most famous of the Speakers is really the vilified Ender Wiggins. How could he be? That villain lived 3,000 years ago. But travel at the speed of light does funny things. Through the wonder of what Einstein called Special Relativity, anything traveling at nearly the speed of light experiences time much more slowly than everything traveling at normal speeds. Someone spending a few weeks in a starship traveling at near light speed would see dozens of years pass for everyone else. If that someone happened to travel all over the galaxy, answering the most pressing requests to have a Speaker present, and if that someone traveled often enough, he could be thousands of years old while only seeming to be a few decades old. Ender and his sister Valentine have been doing just that. For them, only twenty years or so have passed since the end of the war, but for everyone else 3,000 years have passed.

In the millennia of searching the stars, humans have only discovered one other intelligent species (other than the now extinct Buggers). A small pig-like tree-dwelling species inhabits the planet Lusitania. Remembering the shame of their last encounter with a sentient species, humanity has enforced the strictest rules when dealing with these "piggies." Only two xenologists are allowed any contact with them at all, and even this is very limited. They can't share information with the Piggies for fear of contaminating their society. The xenologists aren't even allowed to ask good questions for fear that their values and cultural expectations will become evident to the aliens. It is the ultimate form of Star Trek's 'Prime Directive.' Humanity has sworn to prevent any cross cultural contamination.

The premise is ridiculous of course. When two alien cultures come into contact with one another, they will inevitably change each other in ways too numerous to guess. Whenever humans finally do encounter intelligent aliens, we will unavoidably change each others' paradigms more profoundly than we can imagine. This is, in fact, one of the reasons we are so eager to seek out new life. As distinct as human cultures are from one another we still have an identical biology, a shared ancient ancestry, a common way of thinking about our own experiences. There is no guarantee that alien species will share any of that with us. Each species, each civilization definitionally develops uniquely, due to their own distinct influences and exceptional pressures. How extraordinary would it be to get to study a completely new way of achieving sentience? No amount of quarantining will ever be able to prevent any cross species influences. Discovering alien life would change everything about our culture because it should change everything about our culture.

Unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, however, Ender has discovered another sentient life form. Jane has revealed herself to him and only him. Jane is a fascinating character and she is one of a kind, not because she survived any xenocide, but because she is a unique form of life. She is the consciousness which has arisen within the vast star-spanning ansible computer network. The anisible network became self aware shortly after Ender destroyed all the buggers, and named itself Jane. She thinks in scales impossible for even Ender's brilliant mind to conceive. She communicates with him through a jewel in his ear and she alternates between being perfectly analytical and being down right flirty. She is afraid to reveal herself to anyone but Ender for fear that humans will destroy her out of their own fears. She remembers what happened to the Buggers. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jane is just as capable of feeling emotion as any human being. Jane's presence in the story raises lots of questions about what we consider to be consciousness, what humans consider to be life. These are questions we are going to have to wrestle with sooner rather than later as Artificial Intelligence becomes more and more a possibility with every advance in technology. Jane may very well take her place alongside Hal and Skynet to serve as the fictitious grandparents of Siri and Cortana.

Running throughout "Speaker for the Dead" is the question of how we classify strangers, a question of how and why we think of some strangers as more strange than others. What metrics should we use to decide if the other is an 'us' or a 'them?' Should we compare their intelligence? Their sense of morality? Their capacity to love? Their willingness to sacrifice themselves for loved ones? This matters because humans have the unfortunate ability to justify cruelty and death among those we consider to be the most alien, or those who we classify as animals. It makes you wonder why we attach such importance to these labels. If an alien species is more like a cow than a human, why would that make it suddenly acceptable to slaughter it for food? Why is it more acceptable to kill certain other humans, the 'Bad Guys,' than it would be to kill your own dog? Maybe more important than that is the realization that these labels not only change who and what we feel justified in killing, but who and what we feel enough commonality with to learn from.

It is humbling to think of how profoundly we misunderstand one another. We don't even have to be aliens. We don't even have to be strangers. The Piggies murdered some of the xenologists sent to study them, but they had no idea that the humans did not want to die. They didn't even know what tears were. "Speaker for the Dead" made you wonder how often you miss the tears of others simply because you misunderstand them.

Another recurring theme in the book is the power of the truth, and the human tendency to reject it. When Ender arrives on Lusitania to Speak for one of the murdered xenologists, he uncoveres a deeper story, a family torn apart. There is always a deeper story. Ender is able to heal this family by revealing hard truths that had been ignored for a long time. The silly thing is that ignoring hard truths doesn't make them no longer true. The important thing is to recognize that terrible things sometimes happen, that difficulties are inevitable. The important thing is to try to face those things head-on and, crucially, to learn how to deal with them with compassion and empathy. The thing about finding out some painful truths is that you can often become resentful of the person who told you the truth, as if their honesty was an act of cruelty. But the reality is that the real act of cruelty was living in ignorance for so long. Had you known this truth earlier, it wouldn't have been so hard to accept. It takes compassion to share a hard truth with someone even after they are dead and gone. It takes love.

"Speaker for the Dead" is not a heart pounding action adventure. There are no sweeping battle scenes. It is more nuanced, more complicated than that. It is more intimate. In that complicated litereary intimacy, you were able to see a reflection of all of the stories that surround you every day. "Speaker for the Dead" reminded you that we all have our own stories and that even the worst among us is still worthy of consideration, of empathy, and of forgiveness.

On to the next book!