Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Darwin's Children

Darwin's Radio is the second book by Greg Bear that I've read, The Forge of God being the first. I liked both as they are both good examples of my favorite type of sci-fi: near-future hard science fiction.

Set in the U.S. but with excursions to Europe, Darwin's Radio plays like a plague outbreak novel early on, not unlike The Hot Zone/Outbreak, and progresses to a more traditional science fiction later on.

The rapid spread of the endovirus SHEVA is seen as a typical, but deadly virus that seems to threaten a whole generation of newborns. The story is told through the actions of the scientists and researchers that would be involved in the containment of outbreaks. One of the primary scientists is an archaeologist who sees a link between a mummified family of neanderthals found in a cave in the mountains of Europe and the current "disease". Another is a research biologist who first sees that this may not actually be a disease but rather speciation ... the creation of a new species of human.

The reader can tell that Bear really researches his subject matter and if you are not careful, you can get buried by the minutiae of whatever he is writing about. In this case, evolutionary biology and infectious diseases. The premise is that evolution hasn't necessarily always been a gradual progression. In human history, and in current time in the case of this book, drastic changes have happened in as little as a single generation. It's a radical idea that has been realized in lesser species, but not in humans (as far as we know). That would explain some of those gaps in the fossil record.

Now Bear is not saying that this is really what can happen, and he goes out of his way in the afterward to explain that the biologists that he spoke to say as much. But he fills the story with enough details and plausible science, that the reader doesn't feel it is far-fetched. That suspension of disbelief is generally important for me and why I have always tended towards hard science fiction as opposed to fantasy. Explaining away things as "magic" can be a turn-off for me when reading fiction. Not always, however, as I obviously love Lord of the Rings and greatly enjoyed Harry Potter. But, in general, I like that foundation in science. Perhaps, it's the scientist/engineer educational background in me.

Darwin's Radio explores hot button topics of abortion, internment, the role of women and mothers in society, the government's role in outbreaks, religion and evolution, just to name a few. I like the book's exploration of how many different people (scientists, politicians, citizens) may do things that they feel are right but perhaps for the wrong reasons such as religion, fear, and intellectual pride.

Darwin's Radio won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo (sci-fi's most prestigious awards) in 2000. These accolades were well-deserved and I recommend this book. I own the book, but oddly enough, I read it electronically on my wife's Kindle. We've been checking out a lot of books through our local libraries' digital collections and I saw it listed there. Wanted to give her reader a test drive, I downloaded it. I have to say, despite still loving physical books, I thoroughly enjoy reading on the Kindle.

I also have this book's sequel, Darwin's Children, and will certainly read it soon while this one is still fresh in my memory.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Remember ...

"I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillence coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well, certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you ... More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives ..." - V in V for Vendetta

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Greed is not a virtue

Greed is Not a Virtue by David Koren of Yes! Magazine

We humans are living out an epic morality play. For millennia humanity’s most celebrated spiritual teachers have taught that society works best and we all enjoy our greatest joy and fulfillment when we share, cooperate, and are honest in our dealings with one another.

But for the past few decades, this truth has been aggressively challenged by a faith called market fundamentalism—an immoral and counter-factual economic ideology that has assumed the status of a modern state religion. Its believers worship the God of money. Stock exchanges and global banks are their temples. They proclaim that everyone does best when we each seek to maximize our individual financial gain without regard to the consequences for others.

In the eyes of a market fundamentalist, to sacrifice profit for some presumed social or environmental good is immoral. The result is a public culture that proclaims greed is a virtue and sharing is a sin.

Having established control of the institutions of the economy, media, education, government, and even religion, market fundamentalists initiated a global social experiment to test their theory. The results are now in.

The prophets of the older faith traditions were right. Our common future depends on rediscovering their truth and redefining our public culture and governing institutions accordingly.

The following are some of the more visible elements of Wall Street’s global campaign of moral perversion.

  • It uses control of media outlets, advertising, and politicians to shape and spread a global culture of individualistic greed, material self-indulgence, ruthless competition, and moral irresponsibility.
  • Through the pursuit and celebration of financial gain at any cost, it provides role models for immoral behavior.
  • It undermines democracy and the legitimacy of government by buying politicians to do its bidding.
  • It uses student loan programs to get the best and brightest youth mired in debts they can repay only by selling themselves to jobs that serve Wall Street interests.
  • It buys up and monopolizes control of the world’s land and water resources in anticipation of extracting monopoly profits by charging what the market will bear as scarcity increases.
  • It uses its financial power and creative accounting skills to manipulate markets and obscure market signals, as when helping governments hide their debt or helping corporate CEOs hide their insider bets against the future of their own companies.
  • It buys the deeply discounted debt obligations of hapless underwater homeowners and countries on the open market and then demands full value payment from governments or philanthropists who step in to lend a helping hand to the afflicted.
  • It puts in place global rules requiring that if a government introduces regulations that prevent a foreign corporation from harming or killing people with its toxic products or discharges, the country’s government must compensate the corporation for the profits it estimates it will lose.

By capitalism’s perverse moral logic, if a person sells toxic assets by knowingly misrepresenting them as sound, the fault lies not with the misrepresentation of the seller, but rather with the lack of due diligence on the part of the overly trusting borrower. When the assets prove worthless and threaten both the solvency of both the seller and the borrower, the logic says the party responsible for the misrepresentation has a moral obligation to demand redress from the government, “Buy my toxic assets at face value and make me whole so that I return to my trade in toxic assets, or I will be forced to stop lending and crash the economy.”

Step back to take in the big picture, and it turns out Wall Street market fundamentalists have proclaimed the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth to be virtues. In turn they have proclaimed the seven life-serving virtues of humility, sharing, love, compassion, self-control, moderation, and passion to be sins against the market.

There is a widespread sense that with Wall Street’s apparent recovery, the window of opportunity for serious structural change has passed. Such a judgment, however, is premature. Far from closing, the window of opportunity for serious change continues to widen as public awareness of Wall Street corruption grows and true and appropriate moral outrage builds.

Most psychologically healthy adults recognize in their heart of hearts the moral perversion of the old economy, but may fear to speak up because so many experts—including even some religious leaders—continuously assure us in so many words that greed is good, even that God wants us to be financially rich and financial wealth is a mark of God’s favor.

If all who share a mature moral consciousness find the courage to speak the simple truth that greed is driving us to collective self-destruction and cooperation is essential to our common salvation, we can put the perversion behind us and secure the future of our children.

While I don't share his assertion that the "prophets of the older faith traditions" had the right idea in general, I understand what he is saying. The concepts of common good and moderation have been turned into socialist mandates. Gluttony and selfishness are considered virtues. And our modern organized religions are at the front of the line of preaching a Rapture mentality that encourages consumption and fomenting of war. They will get what they wish ... an end to the world. But, they will be disappointed when there is nothing on the other side. Everyone has to understand that this planet, right here and right now, is both our Heaven and our Hell. It is what we make of it.

"We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all — by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians — be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us. How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing." -- Wendell Berry