Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Welcome to the machine

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been? It's alright we know where you've been.
You've been in the pipeline, filling in time...

(Pink Floyd)

I am nearing the end of my stay here in Chicago and ready to head south again.
I indulged in a long Metra ride across the city and dropped by my old place down at the other end of the lake shore. A warm summer day of those that makes you feel good just being in the city.

Where have I been? yes, where have I been? On the East Coast for a while, playing with the geeks of the biggest technocenter in the nation, then on the road around the world, round and round, time after time again. I was never back here, not even for a quick drop by and say hello to the old folks.

So welcome to the machine.
Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream? It's alright we told you what to dream.

What is the process by which one learns? How comes that a few years of graduate school turn out to be so essential even when you barely realize you had been there at all? We all carry some kind of imprint I suppose, which determines loyalties, scientific interests, our future - to some extent. Do we all need to have roots somewhere? Mine are too murky and complex to identify clearly, I owe my learning to too many different sources, in too many different places. And yet, and yet... where have I been? Welcome back, welcome to the machine.

I am flying south again. No surprises with the planes this time and I make it all right without being marooned in some airport along the way. Nice and warm down here on the Gulf of Mexico. A few days of heath and sunshine before moving again to more inclement climates.

I got hold of an interesting book here, which is a critical essay on the writings of the Strugatsky brothers. I believe this is the first time that their extremely interesting production is analyzed in the context of English language cultural and literary studies. Yvonne Howell, the author of "Apocalyptic realism" does not necessarily get everything right and has a bit too much of a tendency to read the mystic undercurrents of Russian culture too much in terms of overt (American style) religiosity, which does not apply to the cultural milieu of Soviet intelligentia, but a lot of things in the book *are* absolutely right and very intelligently discussed. The movement in the course of the brothers' production from a more optimistic view of "progressor" heroes observing (and perhaps guiding) civilizations to the path of development ("Hard to be a god", "Prisoner of power") to the darker sense of the alien Wanderers and not so alien Ludens of the later novels, proceeds along with a tendency for the alien to become internalized, a presence among us, a parallel group of people developing alongside humans ("The ugly swans"). The reference to the theme of Jewish culture in the Soviet and Russian context is sometime emphasized. Another theme is that of liminal cities, like the setting of "A lame fate" or of "A billion years to the end of the world" (also known to the English speaking public as
"Definitely Maybe"). The forest of "The snail on the slope" and its multiple hidden significances. The book is very interestingly written, for instanec in the analysis of the influence of other Russian thinkers (for example the philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov - who was, by the way, a very determinant influence on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the birth of the dream of space flight in Russia).

I think, however, that the book failed to amphasize sufficiently a very important component of the Strugatskys writings, which is the main theme in a lot of their stories, namely the ever present struggle between science and bureaucracy. Magnificently portrayed in novels like "The snail on the slope" or "Tale of the Troika" or "Monday begins on Saturday", as well as in "A billion years to the end of the world" (in the form of the struggle against the "homeostatic universe"). Any scientist reading these stories knows exactly what they are talking about, knows instantly how to relate to them, and can perfectly share the experience. Hardly anybody has managed (save for some of the Fred Hoyle novels at times) to convey this so brilliantly through science fiction in the way the Strugatsky brothers did. You need the first hand experience of a scientist to be able to talk about such things so precisely, and the frustration of one forced to work for many years in a highly bureaucratic environment. Thanks to them for being able to express so beautifully what we all feel!