Thursday, August 21, 2008

Apocalypse Then

I have surreptitiously joined a science fiction/fantasy reading group -- I do the reading, but can't attend the meetings, which are, if not in another galaxy, at least far far away.

The current selection is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. It consists of three parts, each of which was originally published as a short story in 1955, 56, and 57. The three were then reworked and published as a novel in 1960. Canticle is a post-apocalypse story, set after a more-or-less undescribed nuclear holocaust. Miller wasn't the only one writing post-apocalypse novels (or short stories) at that time: George R. Stewart wrote Earth Abides (first winner of the International Fantasy Award; the apocalypse in that book was a disease that killed almost everyone in the world -- well, in the US,-- not a nuclear attack) in 1949; Nevil Shute's On the Beach came out in 1957; and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon appeared in 1959. For a very extensive bibliography, see Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, by Professor Paul Brian of the Washington State University at Puyallup.

Nuclear annihilation (by the Soviet Union -- back in the day, the US would not have started a war) was a major fear in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, hence the number of novels and short stories using it as a theme. Reading recently Mary Roberts Rinehart's mystery, The Swimming Pool, published in 1952, I was surprised to see a passing remark that the narrator was able to sell her family's summer home in upstate, rural New York because the buyers were worried about an atomic attack and wanted to get their family out of New York City. That was a throw-away line, very matter-of-fact. For a taste of the culture of the time, try Conelrad Central, a nifty site with too much material that I remember: 1950's "duck and cover" drills in school (in the event of a nuclear attack, curl up under your desk -- today the same drill is for earthquakes,) but also, Our Friend the Atom, a Disney Studios filmstrip and book. (I guess if it hadn't been for the Soviets, the atom would have been everyone's friend.)

Miller's atomic war, which occurred six hundred years before the novel opens, is referred to as "the flame deluge." Perhaps it's an allusion to Thomas Nashe's line "brightness falls from the air," with the accompanying refrain "I am sick, I must die / Lord have mercy on us." The Wikipedia article on Canticle (see link above) notes that Miller participated "in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino in World War II," and he wouldn't have been the only one to equate bombings with that line: Time magazine used it to title a June 8, 1942 article on the bombing of Germany.

Following the flame deluge, the "simplification" occurred: the destruction, by the survivors, of technology, books, and the people responsible (scientists) -- there's an implication that the backlash extended to all those who were educated. Somehow this seems less fanciful today than it might have in the 1950's: "let's kill the scientists, and all those intellectuals, and people who read for any reason except belief." Well, the future may be coming faster than we think, and, of course, not always in ways we expect.

Earth Abides had the same disappearance of knowledge, but it was gentler: the survivors focused on in the book simply didn't, or couldn't, learn what the main character could teach, and reverted over the decades to a happy ignorance. I read that book around 1960, and I have a memory of a scene where the main character and another person walk by the UC Berkeley Doe (the main) Library. The other person (maybe a child or teen) asks if there is information in there that could help them, and the main character says there is information, but it is beyond them all. Stewart, the author, was a professor at UC Berkeley, and, given that the main character was a grad student, I wonder how much that failure to pass on information reflects his views of the "next generation" of college/university professors.

A recent non-fiction book takes Earth Abides one more step -- it discusses what would happen if all humans suddenly disappeared, without any nuclear war. The World Without Us, by Alan Wesiman, is fascinating. He uses specific locations around to the world to discuss the probable effects the disappearance of humans would have, and has some very interesting examples of areas that have, in fact, lost all human population: Chernobyl, and a strip of high-rise hotels in Cyprus. On his homepage (click on the title link above) there is also a link to a USA Today article on the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, with a spectacular photo of a house now almost invisible for the foliage covering it -- that has to be kudzu. World Without is great background reading for any apocalypse novel: it's what would be happening in de-populated areas, regardless of the cause of depopulation -- war, disease, politics.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Choirs, Company Towns, and the Rest of Us

"Preaching to the choir" means directing your message to people who already know it/accept it - the implication is that the speaker is failing to address those who don't yet know the message.

We don't have many (if any) company towns anymore in the United States, but back in the past, when, for instance, a lumber company would set up and own entirely a town for its workers, -- see -- one could probably safely assume that the inhabitants would understand that "closed on a company holiday" would mean no stores were open on, let's say, the birthday of the company's founder. Even without the company literally owning the town, there might be so many people who were employed by either one business entity (think Hershey, PA) or by various companies in one industry (think of the cities in what is now the rust belt) that certain company-related dates would be well-known.

The library I work in is a distant satellite of a main branch in a city where some huge percentage of the population works for state government. When the main library decided about six months ago to standardize the telphone answering machine messages in all the branches, they unfortunately neglected to think of the branches outside of that quasi-company town.

My branch used to have a message that gave our normal opening days, with the hours, and then a statement that the library would be closed on (day of week/month/day) for the (name) holiday -- the message was changed after each holiday to reflect the next one. In December, the message would also indicate the days between Christmas and New Years that the library was open, since we got so many calls from patrons who thought we might be closed. No more. In true company town/preaching to the choir fashion, the new message has replaced those statements on closure (and the December special open days announcement) with a generic "closed on state and federal holidays." Quick: what's the name and date of a state holiday in March? How many holidays in February? Is one of them the 22nd? What about the day after Thanksgiving? What about the week between Christmas and New Years? What if a holiday is on a Saturday/Sunday -- will the library be closed on Friday/Monday? (Hint: the answers to the Saturday/Sunday questions are not the same, except for one holiday.)

There is a brief message that one can look on the "library's web page" for more information. Not much help if you are driving, and suddenly wonder if the library is open or closed. Not much help if you don't own a computer. Not much of an introduction to reference service in general.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Breaking News from SpamLand

One of today's spam messages was headed: Monsanto to genetically modify British Royal Family. The entire message was "Watch the Video" with a link to what would have undoubtedly genetically modified my pc at work as well as the library's entire system. Good thing that I have no interest in watching a video showing gene splicing. The subject heading, however, was very entertaining.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pay-for-it-yourself War

The online version of CNN today has a story about US troops having to pay baggage fees to commercial airlines flying them to war. What?

The story quotes Tim Wagner of American Airlines as saying, somewhat airily, "If they pay, they get reimbursed [by the Department of Defense,] so at the end, they don't pay a dime." Spoken like someone who has never tried to get any sort of reimbursement/refund from a government agency, other, maybe, than the IRS.

The Air Transport Association carefully washes its hands of responsibility by saying baggage policies are made independently by the individual airlines -- and it has no plans to ask for an across-the-board waiver of fees by troops going to war.

It apparently is not enough that the soldiers are risking their lives on at least two fronts (Iraq and Afghanistan - but stay tuned for updates) -- they also need to shoulder the cost of bringing their gear. Just how broke is the Department of Defense? Since it's paying for the airline tickets, maybe the airlines could just bill the Department for the baggage fees. Surely Mr. Wagner would be in favor of that -- after all, at the end, they (the airlines) wouldn't be out a dime.