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Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: The Quiet Pools by Michael P. Kube-McDowell about Fans and Opponents of Humans in Space

Continuing with my reviews from 15-25 years ago of little-known science fiction from that time, here's my 1990 review, published in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, of The Quiet Pools by Michael P. Kube-McDowell (Ace, 1990),  not yet available on Kindle but it should be.  It explores a question that has long vexed me:  why are some people, like me, so excited about humans going out into space, while others view our excursions beyond our planet as a waste of time and money?

Michael Kube-McDowell has written a book about the ultimate predicament and opportunity of the human species. In view of the scarcity of serious books on this theme, Kube-McDowell's work would be important whatever the style and craft of its writing. But the book is a pleasure to read. I should also mention that it is a science fiction novel.

The theme of  The Quiet Pools  is the relationship of human beings, our planet Earth, and the universe that beckons beyond - more particularly, why this universe beckons to some of us but not to others - why, indeed, even bare consideration of this beckoning arouses immediate feelings in some of us about the necessity of our destiny in the greater cosmos, and equally powerful urges in others to protect our home planet from diversions of energy and focus on the stars.

Anyone who has been party to this debate for any length of time knows that it is beyond settlement by appeals to economic dividends, military advantage, or even scientific progress expected to result from human involvement in space. This is why the many books and studies that attempt to evaluate the meaning of humans in space from these quantifiable perspectives are unsatisfying. Shortly after the Challenger disaster in 1986, I participated in a small, high-level seminar at M.I.T. on how to keep the public enthusiastic about the space program. Scientists, bankers, and political scientists presented an impressive array of reasons; my own paper, wrapping up the session, was a discussion of missed technological opportunities in history, and how these failures to climb a ladder at hand often led to the slow dissolution of the civilization below.[1]  A reporter from The New York Times, generally friendly to our cause, remarked that these presentations had been logically convincing but emotionally unmoving. She was right. What can we tell the guy in the street to make him really want to spend his tax dollars on space, she asked. Tell him that until we go beyond our planet, we'll never really have a chance of knowing who we are and what we're doing here, I answered. She laughed - that answer sounded right to her, but she doubted it would have much impact on those who were already against the space program. She was right again.

Kube-McDowell offers an hypothesis for this schism in the human community, for the differences between those who aspire to and those who scoff at space, regardless of the evidence they present. His book is significant because it moves our consideration of space to this fundamental level, whatever we may think of the specific hypothesis he lays out. But his hypothesis is worthy of attention: he suggests that the champions and critics of human movement into the cosmos are expressing a genetic difference - the presence of a complex DNA factor in the champions, the absence of this in the critics - which runs back through all humanity and the origins of life on this planet. Wanderlust, Leonardo da Vinci vision, Phoenecian-Viking-Portuguese-Spanish-British sailing to ends of the Earth are all renderings of this trait which - deep in the 21st century in this novel - at last finds its ultimate goal kindled in the possibility of interstellar human diaspora.  But for those who lack this trait, the stellar kindling and inspiration is an affliction that will result in the final depletion and enervation of Earth - the relaxation of the planet into the "quiet pools" inhabited by salmon on their death bed, after they have released their eggs - and therefore must be opposed.

Kube-McDowell gives us much more than a mechanistic sociobiology as a tableau to consider this possibility. The expression of this genetic trait and its variants and absence in a tangle of rivetting social structures is as much the story he tells as the DNA code itself. A hundred years from now, a huge multi-national corporation works feverishly to launch what is hoped to be the second of five city-sized starships to Tau Ceti. The corporation is the successor to today's multinationals -- some of whose destructions of the environment are all too real and wellknown -- but this corporation of the future has somehow become more humanized, and when its director says she is doing the diaspora work not to the Earth but  for the Earth, she is telling the truth. The work is feverish because it has brought into being a "Homeworld" group of eco-terrorists whose leader will do almost anything to stop the diaspora, and the Earth from turning into a quiet pool, and whose followers are gripped by an inchoate, primal rage that boils forth onto the "star-heads" in ways that the leader never intended nor can control.

These, then, are the cheers and jeers, the keen yearnings and hot dismissals, of our own fledgling space travel era writ large and somewhat clarified by the end of the 21st century. This is the proper task of the novelist. In addition, we find in The Quiet Pools a myriad teeming of speculation on electronic publishing, artificial intelligence, three-sided marriages, surrogate motherhood (our hero is born of an ovum harvested from his mother after her death by her own hand - perhaps an attempt to escape this very motherhood), and similar technical and social detail that flesh out the story. But is the fundamental premise of the story, that differences in human response to existence beyond Earth are genetically based, correct?

Is Freud's notion of id, ego, and superego a literally real description of what goes on inside of our heads? Most psychologists think not, yet few deny that Freud's focus created an environment in which understanding of own psyches grew by leaps and bounds over what was known before. Kube-McDowell's book should result not in a mad-scramble search for a space-travel genetic code (it is but a sketch of a theory in a novel, not a full-blown study in any case), but in an awareness that human feelings about the stars and the future of our planet may run far deeper than is usually recognized. Many of us, for reasons we find difficult to explicate even with the best of language and facts, do indeed see our involvement in the universe as a matter of life and death for our species - as a matter far more profound than what most people expect to find in science fiction.

But the discovery of human factors presupposing logic and science has long been the business of philosophy and science fiction, with or without specific genetic backing. Such factors are the stuff of Kant's insistence that cognitive processing must come prior to experience if we are to make any sense of this world (or others); such factors figure in Chomsky's claim that the mechanism of language is elicited rather than learned; and these factors are tackled head on by Russell, Popper, and others who saw that rationality cannot justify its own existence - something else must happen first. Kube-McDowell is not unfamiliar with these complexities -  the hero of this novel recognizes that he has "an unreasonable faith in reason" - and his placement of the pain of the space debate and tomorrow's first migration to the stars in the pre-logical protein of our existence moves our consideration of these issues in the right direction. Which is not to say that we ought not be rational in assessment of our future in the universe - we must be - but that a rational assessment may well show that the roots of this difficult calling are far more ancient than reason.

Note 1. The conference was "Space Agenda: Context and Opportunity," sponsored by the Program in Science and Technology for International Security, M.I.T., convened by Russell Schweickart and Kosta Tsipis, April 3-6, 1986. My paper was "Cosmos Helps Those Who Help Themselves: Historical Patterns of Technological Fulfillment, and their Applicability to the Human Development of Space," later published in _Research in Philosophy and Technology_, vol. 9, ed. C. Mitcham (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1989), pp. 91-100.

"As a genre-bending blend of police procedural and science fiction,
The Silk Code delivers on its promises." - The New York Times Book Review

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