The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth

28 August 2018

From Christianity Today:

Who was J. R. R. Tolkien? Nearly everyone knows him as the author of two of the most beloved books of the 20th century: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many also know him as a member of the Inklings and a close friend of fellow writer and scholar C. S. Lewis. Fewer know Tolkien’s work as a literary critic, a world-class academic in medieval literature, a linguist, an inventor of languages, and a visual artist or realize that he was also a devoted husband and father.

Much of this is captured this year in a nearly comprehensive exhibit at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries on Tolkien’s life and legacy. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” has been billed as the exhibit of a generation, and it is indeed that. But there’s a glaring omission: any mention of the author’s devout, lifelong Christian faith. Without that piece, we cannot have a true picture of Tolkien.

. . . .

The exhibit is certainly the most well-rounded portrayal of Tolkien to date. We see his imaginative capacity expressed in nearly overwhelming abundance, and we see a tender glimpse of his childhood and of his family life with his wife, Edith, and their four children.

The aim of the exhibit, as expressed in the catalog book, is “bringing to the public’s attention the fullest picture possible not just of the life and work of a remarkable literary imagination, but of a son, husband, father, friend, scholar and artist.”

. . . .

He was baptized as an infant in the Anglican cathedral in Bloemfontein. He followed his mother when she entered the Catholic Church. He was an altar boy at the Birmingham Oratory. After he was orphaned, his guardian was a Catholic priest, Fr. Francis Morgan, for whom he retained a deep respect and affection ever afterward. He was a regular Mass-goer throughout his life. He translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible. He wrote in his letters of the personal importance of prayer and the Eucharist. He, along with Hugo Dyson, played a crucial role in bringing C. S. Lewis to faith. Yet apart from a brief mention of Morgan’s guardianship, none of this is shown in the exhibit.

. . . .

Several examples of his Elvish calligraphy were displayed; one could have been selected from the prayers that Tolkien translated into Elvish, such as the Lord’s Prayer. Both the 1956 letter and this translation show the way that Tolkien’s faith, and indeed specifically his prayer life, had an influence on his writing—exactly the kind of influence we would hope to see emphasized in an exhibit on an author.

. . . .

There is also a small subset of readers and critics who emphasize Tolkien’s faith in the wrong way. Tolkien himself described The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (in a letter that could have been, but was not, quoted in the exhibit), but it is not a religious allegory, as Tolkien himself makes very clear. When I lecture on Tolkien to Christian audiences, I am often asked: “How can we use The Lord of the Ringsfor apologetics?” My answer is that we should not try to use it at all. As a literary critic, I recognize that skillful analysis of literature can yield great insight—including for apologetics—but if Tolkien’s work is used merely as a tool to convey an explicit Christian “message,” it is inevitably oversimplified and its effect deadened. It is possible that the Tolkien Estate and the Bodleian, in aiming for a nuanced portrayal of Tolkien, wished to resist this particular type of pigeonholing and were too cautious as a result.

. . . .

Tolkien himself was explicit about the theological foundation of his creative work, writing in his great essay “On Fairy-stories” that “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien’s granddaughter Joanna mentions that one of his fundamental values was “his profound belief in God.” Clyde Kilby, in an interview, remembered him as a “devout Catholic,” and his friend and fellow Inkling R. E. Havard wrote of “the depth of feeling” of his religious convictions, noting that these were “apparent … but never paraded.”

Link to the rest at Christianity Today

Noon in the antilibrary: Science fiction: What happens when fake news is everywhere?

19 August 2018

From the MIT Technology Review:

Marius cursed and jammed a mic stand between the crash bars of the TV studio door. “If SWAT’s on its way, we don’t have much time,” he said.

“I don’t understand.” Michaela, who up until a couple of minutes ago had been streaming their interview live, still sat on one of the oval chairs under the hot lights. “What are they talking about?”

The cube-shaped television studio had black-painted walls surrounding the bright stage area. Big monitors on the walls were showing the same “live” feed as they had five minutes ago, but now a red banner flashed at the bottom of the screens: ACTIVE SHOOTER AT COMPLETE PICTURES BUILDING.

Michaela pointed at a moving figure on the screen. “That looks like you—but—”

Marius nodded. “Uh-huh. Apparently I like assault rifles.”

Adan, their cameraman, had called up a local news feed after the first shouts of panic and confusion filtered through the studio’s thick doors. What it showed was entirely and completely not what the three of them were seeing. Marius was inside the windowless second-floor studio, empty-handed, yet the monitors showed what looked like a drone feed of him moving into and out of view through the building’s windows on the 10th floor. He was armed, and every now and then he would pause and shoot, calmly and methodically.

Marius shook his head in disgust. “Hey, Adan, could you give me a hand with this?”

The cameraman was hunched over his laptop. “Sorry, gotta figure out who’s hijacked our signal.”

“The same people who own the SWAT team,” said Marius. “But forget what I said. I think you’d better get out of here.”


“Look.” Marius pointed at the monitors. They were showing a jumble of witness cell-phone videos. “There!” A jiggly shot showed a man lying in a corridor, dead eyes staring upward, a dark stain on his chest.

“But …” Adan gaped. “That’s me.”

“Yes. This scene’s not real yet. Listen, Adan, I mean it: you need to leave. The SWAT team’s not on their way here to save any of us. They’re here to make sure that what’s up there”— he pointed—“matches what’s down here.”

Michaela stood up, staring at him. “So it’s real. The anti­library is real.”

“And soon, the antinet. Michaela, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I knew they might be watching. Figured they’d be mad if I revealed it, but I never imagined they’d do this.” With the door at least somewhat secure, he went to join Adan at the mixing console. “Any luck?”

Adan shook his head. “I don’t know whether they’re intercepting our feed in here, at the router, or somewhere outside.”

“All this footage,” said Michaela. “It’s being computer­-generated in real time? Like you said—by an antilibrary?”

“Yeah.” He smiled ruefully at her. “You got more than you bargained for, I guess. Honestly, I was only going to talk about Augmented Manners. I guess you pushed my buttons, I—”

“The SWAT team’s not on their way here to save any of us. They’re here to make sure that what’s up there matches what’s down here.”

“That’s okay.” She glanced at the monitors, a little rueful herself. “Digging for the truth is what I do, or used to. Apparently I’m good at it … What do we do now?”

The TVs showed a black armored personnel carrier plowing up the avenue, with the Complete Pictures building a few blocks ahead of it.

“I think,” Marius said with a grimace, “we’re about to disappear.”

Link to the rest at the MIT Technology Review and thanks to Jan for the tip.

A Novelist in Awe of Physics

17 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Should sci-fi be centered on human beings and human problems, as Theodore Sturgeon insisted long ago? Or is actual science vital for producing the “sense of wonder”? Most sci-fi authors these days lean toward the focus on people, no longer generating stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 “A Fall of Moondust” or Poul Anderson’s 1963 “Shield,” which had at their core a technical problem, or a technical breakthrough.

Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning” . . . swings firmly the other way. At the start Mr. Liu insists that all descriptions he uses of the titular phenomenon—in which lightning takes the form of floating balls of plasma—are based on historical records, and very strange they are. People burned instantaneously to ash while the wooden stools they were sitting on are left untouched; a man’s toenails burned off without affecting his boots.

The first quest, then, is for a theory to explain this intensely selective release of energy. The second is to find a use for it, if it can be controlled. Once ozone replaces gun smoke as the scent of the battlefield, ball lightning will succeed the tank and the nuclear bomb as the ultimate war-winner.

The theory, though, is what creates the wonder. We know about microscopic fundamental particles. Is ball lightning a macroscopic fundamental particle? If so, maybe the strangeness is quantum. When Mr. Liu’s protagonist Dr. Chen, whose parents were killed by a burst of ball lightning, and his colleagues create a thunderball gun, they find it works only in the presence of an observer. If you try it with the cameras off, it remains a probability cloud.

The trouble is that sometimes it works even when they have taken all precautions. So someone is observing, but they have no idea who. One thought is that ball lightning’s victims may continue to exist in a quantum state—like ghosts, in fact, trying to communicate. But how? The head theoretician says that once “you yourself become a macro-particle in a quantum state,” understanding the world will become a lot easier. Could this be reassurance? It doesn’t feel like it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Robot Peer Pressure Is the Newest Tech Threat to Children

16 August 2018

Perhaps a writing prompt.

Also, an example of a 21st-century problem.

From Gizmodo:

New research shows that children are more likely than adults to give in to peer pressure from robots, a disturbing finding given the rapidly increasing rate at which kids are interacting with socially intelligent machines.

An experiment led by Anna-Lisa Vollmer from Bielefeld University in Germany is a potent reminder that modern technologies can have a profound effect on children, influencing the way they think and express opinions—even when they know, or at least suspect, their opinions are wrong.

The point of Vollmer’s experiment was to measure the social impact exerted by robots onto both children and adults, particularly the way in which peer pressure from robots might contribute to social conformity. The results, published today in Science Robotics, shows that adults are largely immune to robotic influence, but the same cannot be said of children, who conformed to the opinions of a robotic peer group, even when those opinions were clearly wrong. This research means we need to keep a close eye on the social effects exerted by robots and AI onto young children—an increasingly important issue given the frequency with which children are interacting with social machines.

. . . .

Vollmer tested both adults and children. A total of 60 adults were divided into three groups: the alone group (the control), a group involving three other human peers, and a group consisting of three robots (the SoftBank Robotics Nao humanoid robot was used for the experiment). In two of every three tests, all three members of both peer groups (the human and robotic peers) unanimously gave the wrong answer. Consistent with other studies, adults often conformed to the opinions of their human peers, even when the answers were blatantly, obviously wrong. But the adults were not persuaded by the peer pressure exerted by the social robots, resisting the incorrect answers spouted by the machines. Interestingly, this result contradicts the “computers as social actors” (CASA) hypothesis, which states that, in the words of the study’s authors, “people naturally and unconsciously treat computers and other forms of media in a manner that is fundamentally social, attributing human-like qualities to technology.”

The same experiment was done with 43 children between the ages of seven and nine. The test was identical to the one given to the adults, except there was no human peer pressure group; it’s already very well established that kids are more susceptible to social influence. In this case, the researchers wanted to focus exclusively on the influence of robotic peers. Results showed that, unlike adults, the children were “significantly influenced” by the presence of robot peers, providing identical incorrect responses nearly 75 percent of the time.

. . . .

As the researchers write in the study:

In this light, care must be taken when designing the applications and artificial intelligence of these physically embodied machines, particularly because little is known about the long-term impact that exposure to social robots can have on the development of children and vulnerable sections of society. More specifically, problems could originate not only from intentional programming of malicious behavior (e.g., robots that have been designed to deceive) but also from the unintentional presence of biases in artificial systems or the misinterpretation of autonomously gathered data by a learning system itself. For example, if robots recommend products, services, or preferences, will compliance and thus convergence be higher than with more traditional advertising methods?

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

Every Ursula K. Le Guin TV and Movie Adaptation in the Works, So Far

15 August 2018
Comments Off on Every Ursula K. Le Guin TV and Movie Adaptation in the Works, So Far

From io9:

Stephen King isn’t the only author who’s becoming more and more prevalent on the big and small screens. It was just announced that Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi novelette Nine Lives is getting a movie adaptation, adding to the growing pile of Le Guin works that are reportedly in the works.

The accomplished author sadly passed away in January, but her written works are living on—not only in the long-awaited documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, but also in several planned adaptations of her classic novels and shorter stories. Most of them aren’t exactly in active production right now because these things take time, but let’s hope for some updates soon.

. . . .

Deadline reported today that writer and director Siri Rodnes (Grimm Street, Take Your Partners) is teaming up with writer Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) to make a film adaptation of Nine Lives, a 1968 novelette originally released in Playboy. Taking place on a remote planet named Libra, it centers around two mining location scouts named Alvaro and Owen who are upset to learn that their new workers are clones. It’s considered one of Le Guin’s only “hard sci-fi” works.

. . . .

Before Le Guin passed away earlier this year, she was working on a film adaptation of her 2000 sci-fi novel, The Telling, about a woman from Earth who travels to a planet where culture and beliefs are outlawed. Bayview Films is still eager to bring her story to the big screen, adding 20 Weeks director Leena Pendharkar as writer and director and star Rekha Sharma (Star Trek: Discovery, Battlestar Galactica) as protagonist Sutty Dass. No release date has been announced yet.

. . . .

Back in 2017, Left Hand of Darkness—considered one of the finest works in modern feminist science fiction—was picked up for a limited television series by Critical Content. The 1969 novel is about a man who’s sent to a planet on a mission to bring them into a planetary confederation, only to find himself unable to do so because of his ignorance of the planet’s culture. The inhabitants are ambisexual with no fixed gender identity. Le Guin was set to serve as consulting producer, before her passing. There’s been little word about this adaptation since then.

Link to the rest at io9

The Woman Behind James Tiptree, Jr.

2 August 2018

From JSTOR Daily:

When popular science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., acclaimed as an epitome of masculine writing, publicly revealed in 1977 that she was actually Alice Bradley Sheldon, readers were gobsmacked. “Tiptree” was known to be a pseudonym, but readers in the know had assumed it was the pen name of a guy in the CIA who couldn’t reveal his identity.

Alice Sheldon (1915-1987) certainly had a rather unconventional career. She worked in Army intelligence during WWII, when she became an expert in reading aerial photographs. For a time, she raised chickens. She did indeed work for the CIA. In fact, Tiptree’s biography was accurate except for the gender. At the age of forty, Sheldon went to college, eventually earning a PhD in experimental psychology in 1967. Then she took to writing science fiction. Her first story was published in 1968 under the Tiptree byline. She also used a number of other pen names, including Raccoona Sheldon.

. . . .

Sheldon called the name “James Tiptree, Jr.”—inspired by a brand of jams—”good camouflage.” Among her reasons for the masquerade: “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

. . . .

Kirkpatrick pays particular attention to the story “The Women Men Don’t See,” in which the male narrator thinks a mother and daughter going off with aliens are literally crazy for leaving Earth. “What women do is survive,” says the older female character to the narrator, “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” The narrator cannot comprehend why these two women would want out of a world where they aren’t seen as fully human. And he just doesn’t get why they don’t want to be “rescued” by him, either.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG notes that Amazon offers a  large collection of books by James Tiptree, Jr. , including one with an introduction from Ursula K. Le Guin and another that is part of a collection of stories by Hugo Award Winners (Houston, Houston, Do You Read?: “futuristic piece that takes a dim view of male sexuality.”)

The Man in the High Castle

23 July 2018

Here’s a teaser for Season Three of The Man in the High Castle:


And if you haven’t watched Seasons One and Two (and don’t want to do so), here’s a 30-minute summary:


Star Trek: Discovery Showrunner Says the Original Series Is Helping Season 2 Find Its Fun Side

21 July 2018

From i09:

The first trailer for the next season of Star Trek: Discovery looked surprisingly fun—especially when compared to the often-fatally bleak first season. It was full of cute jokes, great character moments, and late-1990s rock jams. So, where did this newfound levity come from? According to the showrunner, you can thank the first Star Trek TV series for that.

During a press conference for Star Trek: Discovery, io9 asked showrunner Alex Kurtzman how they’re balancing the look and feel of Discovery’sdebut with the first season of The Original Series, which feels like a huge departure from the grittier, more modern Trek franchises. How can they blend these two shows that are so tonally dissonant from each other? Turns out, by softening Discovery’s hard edges a bit.

. . . .

“I feel like tonally it’s probably a more buoyant season. Even those there are some episodes that are very very serious and intense, I think you’ll see in the first episode that there’s more balance between some of the humor that you’d see on TOS and the high stakes of the more modern versions of Trek.

I think obviously, last season was about war. And it’s tough to really stuff down and have a whole lot of humor when the stakes are so high, life and death is really what they’re dealing with every day… Tonally now, we’ve gotten to a place where the crew has more—even though the stakes are still high—there’s more downtime in the moments, which allows for more humor, which allows for a slower onion layer pulling open of character and the details of their own relationships.”

Link to the rest at i09


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