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Author Topic: EP153: Schwartz Between the Galaxies  (Read 24924 times)
Russell Nash
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« on: April 10, 2008, 05:08:03 AM »

EP153: Schwartz Between the Galaxies

By Robert Silverberg.
Read by Stephen Eley.

This much is reality: Schwartz sits comfortably cocooned — passive, suspended — in a first-class passenger rack aboard a Japan Air Lines rocket, nine kilometers above the Coral Sea. And this much is fantasy: the same Schwartz has passage on a shining starship gliding silkily through the interstellar depths, en route at nine times the velocity of light from Betelgeuse IX to Rigel XXI, or maybe from Andromeda to the Lesser Magellanic.

Rated R. Contains some sex, some drug use. It’s a Silverberg story.


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hatton
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« Reply #1 on: April 10, 2008, 11:58:09 AM »

Wow... first comment, though I think I know why.  At the end of this story I was left with a great surge of lack of caring, understanding feeling or even perceiving that I had heard a story.

No, really, I did think about the words that I was using and the order in which I was putting them!  The entire concept of the story seemed to me to be that of a man born for another time, trying to make other people in his time live in the past.  During the course of his attempts, he has managed to drive himself mad. 

While I like the quote, "Body like dry bone, mind like ashes," I wonder if the attempt to live in two worlds is what's driving him mad, the drugs or the fact that he actually tries to explain what being a non-observant Jew is to an Antarean.
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qwints
Peltast
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Posts: 143


A fine idea, but who bells cat?


« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2008, 02:12:05 PM »

I liked this story, but I agree that I don't really care about anyone in the story. Maybe it's how far predictions of the end of history and melting pots were off that made the story ring hollow. Papua New Guinea has more than 500 languages, so the idea that it could turn it a basic American culture in just a few generations seems implausible. But the writing, unsurprisingly, is excellent.
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Brian Deacon
Extern
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« Reply #3 on: April 10, 2008, 03:02:44 PM »

I quite enjoyed this story.  It fired off a number of clusters in my head.  I visited my sister in Birmingham, AL over New Year's and was nauseated that it had been transformed into the same suburbia hellscape that I see here in North San Diego county.  Except that Carl's Jr. was called Hardee's, and you'll get sugar in your iced tea unless you ask for Not-Sweet-Tea.  Contrast this with my visit some 15 years ago when Alabama was less stripmallified, and my reaction was an opposite, but equally pretentious attitude of the Northern bigotry against Southerners.

I would disagree that the melting pot thing is overblown.  But just like my personal hovercraft, and 1984, it's coming in past deadline.  Although I could maybe sympathize with mourning over a loss of diversity, I think on balance we're moving towards more of the good type of diversity, and less of the pogrom-inspiring flavor.  It would be nice if we could all just get along, but I think the ultimate resolution of racism isn't going to be that we all suddenly become more tolerant, but that eventually it will be the rare person that will be able to say they are more than 1/8th any particular ethnicity.  I admit, that's not the most optimistic of opinions on human nature.

I think maybe Silverberg was more going for the meta thing, though, which is what I think Steve alluded to.  That we SF fans, as escapists, are sort of turning our nose up at the real world.

Oh, and as to the suburbia hellscape thing.  I can attest that Weeds is a brutally accurate depiction of sprawl as it is playing out here in SoCal.  I'm curious as to how much it resembles the rest of the country.  Maybe you guys have less Spanish tile on your roofs.
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Grayven
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« Reply #4 on: April 10, 2008, 04:55:00 PM »

Its a scary thought, that we'll never leave this world and it'll always be the only place we roam. I hope he's wrong.
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Nobilis
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« Reply #5 on: April 10, 2008, 11:19:52 PM »

The whole way through, the nagging thought that spoiled the whole story for me was:

It didn't happen that way.  He's wrong.

Culture wasn't destroyed, it was transformed.  Instead of Californians and New Yorkers and Londoners and French and Liberians, you have Republicans and Veterans and Furries and Soccer Moms and Unitarians and Fetishists and Podcasters.

The fact that the world's many varied cultures can't be pointed to on maps anymore doesn't mean they don't exist, and it doesn't mean they don't exist in as much variety as they used to.  You just can't go looking for them by flying around.
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bolddeceiver
Matross
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Posts: 226


Plunging like stones from a slingshot on mars...


« Reply #6 on: April 11, 2008, 02:31:14 AM »

I don't know, I feel like a lot of what this story predicted is pretty spot-on, or on the way to it (remember, this is set in 2080-something).  Sure, he missed the horizontal culture-formation, but the basic hypothesis -- there isn't anything in the world that's terribly foreign -- still holds.  Sure, there's, say, a subculture of podcasters, or republicans, or the anti-vaccine movement.  But any one of us could pretty easily slip into any one of those, immerse one's self in it, and become a part of it, in a way that one couldn't become a Ba'Mbuti pygmy.  And there is a general super-culture that we all participate in, even those of us so completely submerged in our particular subcultures.

The discussion of voluntary re-adoption of dead cultures (which, in the narrator's vision, did strike me as destructively luddite) also rang true.  I live in the state of Washington, where there is a running debate over tribal harvesting rights, most visible in the Makah whaling controversy.  You can also see this playing out in the field of dead/dying language preservation.  In the end, it does come down to a question of whether it is worth the resources to preserve and teach an aspect of culture that is failing to be competitive in the face of globalising culture.

And finally, I think he captured the ennui of the lost potential we all feel entitled to from our childhoods of reading space adventure SF quite eloquently, from the very start of the story.

Sure, it hasn't played out exactly like this (yet), but we still read Wells and Burroughs and Bradbury and Heinlein even though we know that martian life, if any, is microscopic and sparse.  Should that our own predictions come anywhere near as close.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2008, 02:33:59 AM by bolddeceiver » Logged
Chodon
Lochage
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Posts: 519


Molon Labe


« Reply #7 on: April 11, 2008, 06:32:16 AM »

Its a scary thought, that we'll never leave this world and it'll always be the only place we roam. I hope he's wrong.
That was my thought through the whole story.  It was really depressing to me that in another 70 years all we will have accomplished is shaving a couple of hours off a trans-atlantic flight and making more plastic junk that people don't want.  There weren't any quantum leaps in technology, just people doing the same old stuff we have been doing for the last however long.

I want to see some goddamned spaceships in my lifetime!  This story made me realize...really and truly accept for the first time....it's not likely to ever happen in my lifetime.

I think this story ruined my day.  Cry
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Darwinist
Hipparch
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« Reply #8 on: April 11, 2008, 08:27:06 AM »

Its a scary thought, that we'll never leave this world and it'll always be the only place we roam. I hope he's wrong.
That was my thought through the whole story.  It was really depressing to me that in another 70 years all we will have accomplished is shaving a couple of hours off a trans-atlantic flight and making more plastic junk that people don't want.  There weren't any quantum leaps in technology, just people doing the same old stuff we have been doing for the last however long.

I want to see some goddamned spaceships in my lifetime!  This story made me realize...really and truly accept for the first time....it's not likely to ever happen in my lifetime.

I think this story ruined my day.  Cry

Seconded.  I grew up watching Apollo and guys riding freaking dune buggies on the moon!  I thought by the time I was 40 humans would be patrolling Mars and headed to the stars.   What a bummer.   The Mars Rovers are cool and having scientific robots cruising Mars is quite an accomplishment but I was expecting bigger things by now.  I thought the story was good, but a bummer.   
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For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.    -  Carl Sagan
birdless
Lochage
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Posts: 581


Five is right out.


« Reply #9 on: April 11, 2008, 08:55:40 AM »

I usually don't like to state my opinions so strongly, but I'm tired and cranky and had high hopes about this week's EP so I'm going to be uncharacteristically blunt: I absolutely hated this story. I couldn't understand why someone who wants to rail against the homogenization of culture would decide to write a story where absolutely nothing happens instead of just writing an essay. I thought it was boring, pointless and fruitless. I'm going to stick to the old rules that say a proper story needs to have a plot. Sure, you can break the rules for the sake of freedom, art or even nonconformity, but if it isn't compelling, it's just winds up being pretentious.

Like Chodon and Grayven said, this story described a future with no hope. Now, I've seen it done where the portrayal of a grim, hopeless future inspires us to redouble our efforts, but this story was not that.
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Chodon
Lochage
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Posts: 519


Molon Labe


« Reply #10 on: April 11, 2008, 09:16:46 AM »

Maybe I should clarify: I don't think it was a bad story.  Just very, very depressing.  There was a story there.  It was about a guy who was as bummed that we aren't in outer space as I am, and dreamed about escaping it.  I judged the story by how it affected me.  Sure, it made me totally depressed that I really never am going to see some other solar system, but it made me think about how sad that was.  That's why it's a winner.

I want to go cry now.  I feel like I've just been told there's no Santa Claus.
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Those who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither.
birdless
Lochage
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Posts: 581


Five is right out.


« Reply #11 on: April 11, 2008, 09:35:31 AM »

Sorry, Chodon, I didn't mean to suggest that you said/thought it was a bad story. But I think I would have to submit that by your description of how it affected you, it was a bad story. It didn't seem to inspire you to do anything productive. It just made you cry. What's so winning about that (don't get me wrong, I understand the therapeutic value of a good cry)? Sure, we have to face cold, hard reality (e.g. no Santa), but 2080-whatever isn't reality, yet (please don't get into the metaphysical or quantum mechanics of that statement Cool).

I guess that raises a different question, though: does a story that evokes an emotional reaction—of any kind—make it a good story? Maybe even the answer to that question is subjective.
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Chodon
Lochage
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Posts: 519


Molon Labe


« Reply #12 on: April 11, 2008, 10:53:32 AM »

Sorry, Chodon, I didn't mean to suggest that you said/thought it was a bad story. But I think I would have to submit that by your description of how it affected you, it was a bad story. It didn't seem to inspire you to do anything productive. It just made you cry. What's so winning about that (don't get me wrong, I understand the therapeutic value of a good cry)? Sure, we have to face cold, hard reality (e.g. no Santa), but 2080-whatever isn't reality, yet (please don't get into the metaphysical or quantum mechanics of that statement Cool).

I guess that raises a different question, though: does a story that evokes an emotional reaction—of any kind—make it a good story? Maybe even the answer to that question is subjective.
I know you weren't trying to put words in my mouth.  I often go back and re-read my posts and find I rarely make myself 100% clear.  Then I need to re-post to make sure everyone understands what I'm trying to say.

I think that any emotional reaction to a story is good, whether it makes  one feel happy or sad.  I'm sure that after letting this story sink in a little more I'll do something to make things change so this future DOESN'T come to pass.  Here's an example:

I never used to believe in global warming, and thought that if it existed that it was a natural thing we would have to deal with.  Because of this I didn't really give a damn about the environmental movement or saving the earth.  One day in engineering school we had to calculate the percentage of the energy in gasoline that it takes to physically move the driver of the car from point A to point B.  I was mortified to learn that after calculating the efficiency of an IC engine, the weight of the car, the rolling resistance, air resistance, thermal losses, etc, it was only .02%.  That is sickening!  The other 99.98% of the energy from gasoline was WASTED!  With all that waste we must be having some sort of impact on the climate.  We just had to.  I had the same reaction that I had to this story, and was in a funk for a while.  Then I decided to do something about it.  I researched electric vehicles.  I wrote my congressman and asked him to support the Joint European Torus.  I am currently in the process of designing an electric bicycle conversion, and have all the calculations complete for a full EV conversion on a car (I just need the funding now). 


To make a long story short, I'm sure I'll come up with something I can do to get myself out of this funk about the story and turn it into a good thing.  I doubt I'll come up with interstellar travel, but I'll come up with something.
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birdless
Lochage
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Posts: 581


Five is right out.


« Reply #13 on: April 11, 2008, 12:14:57 PM »

That's very cool, Chodon! Unfortunately, I don't have the resources or the time to devote to going back to college to be able to contribute in that way, so for me the only reaction this story evoked in me was "Why?" which really isn't an emotion. And I don't count the aggravation I felt at listening to an hour (or whatever it was) of a story that I didn't find compelling in the least as an emotion. But I'm truly glad it did for you, seriously, because realizing you really did enjoy it causes my perspective to shift a little bit about art in general.

I tend to think in terms of art, because that was my field of study, and I agree that emotional reaction—regardless of what kind—is a good valid thing. I believe that if it evokes an emotional response, that makes it art. That doesn't necessarily make it great art, or mean that I have to like it, but I believe that's what makes art art. Thus the question, does an emotional response make it a good story or just valid as a story?

So for instance, Mondrian's grid-based abstractions do absolutely nothing for me except aggravate me that it's considered art. But some people might have a valid, non-pretentious reason for liking it and therefore it is art to them. So, whether I find the artistic merit in it or not, I guess I have to admit that it is art, even if it isn't for me, but I don't have to like it, or even call it "good."

Man, I love how this forum makes me think and re-evaluate/validate things. Does anyone else benefit from this place that way? This forum is art to me.

<edit: clarified which motif of Mondrian I was speaking of... and again for a typo>
« Last Edit: April 11, 2008, 12:18:27 PM by birdless » Logged
Chodon
Lochage
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Posts: 519


Molon Labe


« Reply #14 on: April 11, 2008, 12:36:47 PM »

Man, I love how this forum makes me think and re-evaluate/validate things. Does anyone else benefit from this place that way? This forum is art to me.
For sure.  Other people's opinions of stories has a huge effect on how I see them.  I'm amazed at how the same group of words can have such a different impact on people.

I still think a good story is one that effects people, good or bad.  My wife tends to agree with birdless though.  We saw "Children of Men" together, and she left the theatre, walked about 10 paces, and started SOBBING.  I mean, uncontrollable, can't talk through it, don't even try sobs.  I thought that meant she thought it was a good movie.  I was wrong.  She was mad I made her watch it.  To each their own I suppose.
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Those who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither.
Peter Tupper
Palmer
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Posts: 34


« Reply #15 on: April 11, 2008, 01:33:24 PM »

I can't say I feel a lot of sympathy for Schwartz. Setting aside the vexing questions of whether the world is getting more homogenous, and how that relates to peace and standards of living, the issue is romantic primitivism and the Great White (or in this case Jewish) Anthrolopologist.

When Schwartz talks about reading Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa as a young man, I could tell right away he had latched onto the heroic image of the anthropologist, a noble hero who travels into an alien, distant environment, has adventures (sexual, psychedelic and otherwise) among the "primitive" peoples there, and returns to tell the tale and show off souvenirs. It's more PC than the Great White Hunter with his gazelle head mounted on the wall, but the underlying assumptions and fantasies are the same.

It isn't the lack of cultural diversity in the world that Schwartz mourns, but the lack of a space for him to be heroic, as opposed to just another scholar. His fantasy is untenable, and all that's left for him to do is evangelize the romantic primitivist fantasy to people who feel the same kind of "colonial nostalgia," mourning for what you yourself destroyed.

Silverberg hints a bit at this, but doesn't really go far enough. In both frames of reference, Schwartz's "Others", Dawn and the not-male, are standard male sexual fantasies, beautiful, supportive, uncritical and available. The not-male even lets itself be taken as "female" by Schwartz with nary a complaint.

That's my chief complaint of this story, that it doesn't get post-colonial enough, though I guess for a story written in the 1970s that's to be expected.
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Mr. Tweedy
Lochage
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I am a sloth.


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« Reply #16 on: April 11, 2008, 04:29:19 PM »

Breaking the trend, I liked this alright.

I'll second the complaint that there were no compelling or sympathetic characters, but I don't think that compromised the lessons in this story.  A lesson is that comfort, tolerance and peace are not end-all virtues to be striven for.  A world in which everyone is wealthy, healthy and safe can still be a world that is not worth living in.  The assumption behind most secular moralizing seems to be that suffering = bad and comfort = good.  This story showed in an off-hand way that the equations are not so simple.  The story didn't do a particularly good job making that point–it isn't a classic by any means–but it is appreciated all the same.

More obviously, I love the potent irony of all the culture-clones standing and cheering for the value of diversity.  The same man giving the same speech to what is essentially the same audience over and over and over again until the sheer monotony is literally maddening... all in the name of promoting diversity.  That is a highly relevant satire for today's culture, I think, in which the popular use of the word "diverse" has come to mean "containing prescribed proportions of prescribed components."

A story with a good idea but mediocre execution.
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Peter Tupper
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« Reply #17 on: April 11, 2008, 06:59:21 PM »

Critiquing the story from a different perspective:

Thomas de Zengotita's book "Mediated" proposes a though experiment that always generates a lot of discussion:

Suppose that it was possible that the entire population of Earth would be guaranteed sufficient food, water, medical care, education and so on, and there would be no more war or poverty. The catch is that, in this world, no matter where you go, from Siberia to Argentina to Madagascar to New Zealand, everywhere looks like a southern California suburb.

This is guaranteed to get people talking about cultural diversity, how material conditions affect culture, the unfeasibility of Earth supporting 6 billion people at that level of consumption, but even that sidesteps the issue of who gets to decide. Ask the question of some child soldier or HIV-infected prostitute in Central Africa, and would they give a damn' about cultural diversity?

This puts Schwartz on the margins again, a crank who cares about something nobody else does, trying to save people from themselves when they don't really want to be saved. Those homogenized people who horrify Schwartz aren't starving or trying to kill each other.
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coyote247
Guest
« Reply #18 on: April 11, 2008, 08:52:32 PM »


I like this story, but Schwartz's plan to restore cultural distinction on Earth made me want to punch dolphins and break clay jars. The technourbanprogunitareccumenicalarianista in me I suppose.

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deflective
Hipparch
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Posts: 1171



« Reply #19 on: April 11, 2008, 09:02:41 PM »

interesting take on the story Peter, i hope to hear from you more often.

I liked this story, but I agree that I don't really care about anyone in the story.

none of the characters were particularly interesting me either (the comments have changed that) but that really isn't necessary in every story. this one was wide enough in concept that it was enjoyable even if you discount the characters.

I grew up watching Apollo and guys riding freaking dune buggies on the moon!  ...   The Mars Rovers are cool and having scientific robots cruising Mars is quite an accomplishment but I was expecting bigger things by now.

you post in a virtual discussion with people from everywhere in the world... big things have happened, they're just big in unexpected ways.
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