Exploring science fiction’s Radium Age

The 100 best stories from Radium Age sci-fi, which ruled the early 20th century [Annalee Newitz – Ars Technica]

The so-called “Radium Age” of science fiction, 1904-33, popularized many themes that seem contemporary today: post-humans, the Singularity, zombie-populated dystopias, and more. It was a period when smart people could still be Utopians, many of them Socialists. The later rise of Naziism and the USSR put an end to that; later writers in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, the 1940s-50s, considered themselves wised up.

But the Radium Age writers could also be grim, writing stories that reflected the worker uprisings of the period, and the horrors of World War I.

To appreciate these novels, you have to reverse-engineer their historical context and realize that the bomb had not yet dropped and the Soviet Union hadn’t yet coalesced into an authoritarian regime. Imagine a world where we were hopeful about the future because we had no fear of weapons of mass destruction. And where we had not yet seen what fascism would do to the West but were still deeply worried about it. Instead of bombs, the spectre of World War I haunts many of these books with its senseless, overwhelming violence; there’s a good reason why some of them imagine poison gas as the ultimate horror. The Radium Age was also a time when unionization and strike violence were a part of everyday life in industrialized cities, and these conflicts gave rise to fantasies about what would happen when robots took over manual labor. Robot uprising stories begin during the Radium Age, when worker uprisings were changing the social landscape.

Evolution was still relatively new, and even more controversial than it is today. Writers then believed the misconception that evolution inevitably proceeds from inferior to superior forms, with the human race at the pinnacle. Science fiction writers of the Radium age wrote about mutant supermen who would threaten humanity; those themes continue right through until today in the X-Men series.

I recall when I was about 12 years old reading a 1935 story called “Alas, All Thinking,” by Harry Bates, where a time traveler from the present visits the Earth eons in the future, and finds the human race has evolved into a small population of gigantic, immobile heads, with shriveled bodies that can’t even support the weight of their enormous domes. The scientist, repulsed by what the human race has become, smashes the heads – killing them – and then returns to the present, driven mad by the futility of human existence. Even as a boy I thought (1) Killing people who haven’t hurt you first is wrong, even if they are giant heads and (2) It makes no sense for the events of millions of years in the future to make anybody feel life today is futile. The story puzzled me.

It’s only reading Lewitz’s essay that it occurs to me that this is really a story about good, muscular middle Americans conquering effete intellectuals, with their evil socialist and free love ideas. At about the time the story was written, Nazis were putting intellectuals in concentration camps, and not long after, the Communist Chinese and Khmer Rouge targeted intellectuals for genocide.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bates was a Nazi sympathizer, or supported the USSR, Communist China, or Pol Pot. Science fiction writers pick up ideas that are lying around on the ground and often don’t explore the roots of those ideas. Stephen King wrote about that in his book Danse Macabre, noting that many midcentury monster movies saw their monsters created by nuclear explosions. These moviemakers were tapping into fears of nuclear weapons, but it’s not like these guys were experts on nuclear policy. They were just picking up on what was lying on the ground.

Science fiction and fantasy has always had a strain of anti-intellectualism, which is baffling because writers and editors are intellectuals. Self-loathing much?

More about “Alas, All Thinking.”

Wikipedia: Harry Bates

Bates’s best-known story was “Farewell to the Master” (1940), basis for the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Back to biology

The future of machine intelligence might be biological systems [Caleb Scharf – Aeon]

Modeling a single human mind with current hardware – even if it could be done – would require the energy output of the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. And that’s just one person. To do the same for all 7.3 billion people would require the equivalent of 800 times the solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere.

By comparison, biological systems are staggeringly energy-efficient.

This suggests a solution to Fermi’s paradox. Intelligent aliens are out there, but like us, they’re biological, and find interstellar travel and communication overwhelming.

If life is common, and it regularly leads to intelligent forms, then we probably live in a universe of the future of past intelligences. The Universe is 13.8 billion years old and our galaxy is almost as ancient; stars and planets have been forming for most of the past 13 billion years. There is no compelling reason to think that the cosmos did nothing interesting in the 8 billion years or so before our solar system was born. Someday we might decide that the future of intelligence on Earth requires biology, not machine computation. Untold numbers of intelligences from billions of years ago might have already gone through that transition.

Those early intelligences could have long ago reached the point where they decided to transition back from machines to biology. If so, the Fermi Paradox returns: where are those aliens now? A simple answer is that they might be fenced in by the extreme difficulty of interstellar transit, especially for physical, biological beings. Perhaps the old minds are out there, but the cost of returning to biology was a return to isolation.

Those early minds might have once built mega-structures and deployed cosmic engineering across the stars. Maybe some of that stuff is still out there, and perhaps we’re on the cusp of detecting some of it with our ever-improving astronomical devices. The recent excitement over KIC 8462852, a star whose brightness varies in a way that cannot be readily explained by known natural mechanisms, is founded on the recognition that our instruments are now sensitive enough to investigate such possibilities. Perhaps alien civilisations have retreated to a cloistered biological existence, with relics of their mechanical-era constructions crumbling under the rigours of cosmic radiation, evaporation, and explosive stellar filth.

Our current existence could sit in a cosmically brief gap between that first generation of machine intelligence and the next one. Any machine intelligence or transcendence elsewhere in the galaxy might be short-lived as an interstellar force; the last one might already be spent, and the next one might not yet have surfaced. It might not have had time to come visiting while modern humans have been here. It might already be dreaming of becoming biological again, returning to an islanded state in the great wash of interstellar space. Our own technological future might look like this – turning away from machine fantasies, back to a quieter but more efficient, organic existence.

When did human beings start wearing clothes?

Interesting discussion on Reddit. Two answers:

Bone needles and scraped skins found in archeological digs suggest we started wearing clothes 100,000 to 500,000 years ago.

Body lice suggest a date of 100,000 years ago. Unlike other primates, human beings have different, but related, kinds of lice: One for the head, and one for the body. Head lice live in hair, and body lice live in clothes. The lice diverged about 100,000 years ago.

What do we know about when humans started wearing clothes? When? Where first?

A hundred thousand years of evolution — and now people can’t wait to get home from work so they can take off their pants.

Nope, this won’t be controversial

New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, lays out the evidence for a genetic basis to race and ethnicity.

The Amazon blurb:

Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story.

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.

Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years—to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.

Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits—thrift, docility, nonviolence—have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These “values” obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.

Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.

I loved Wade’s earlier book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors., which traces human development from 50,000 years ago to the beginning of recorded history.