Thursday, July 2, 2020

Flirting with Syncretism • by Bruce Bethke

Once in a while it seems worthwhile to pull back the curtain and explain just how I got the idea to write something like yesterday’s “Culture Considered as a Generation Ship.” The piece didn’t really have a well-defined point of inception or a conclusion in mind when I began. Rather, a whole slumgullion of ideas were floating around and in play in my mind. In no particular order:
  • Henry Vogel and I were having a lengthy exchange of email concerning ideas for promoting the release of his latest novel, Hart for Adventure, which we’ll be releasing... next week, I believe. Among other things we decided to do a promotional sale featuring all of his previous novels, but there was a problem with The Counterfeit Captain, which put that book and its premise front and center in my mind.

  • At the same time I was copy-editing Helen French’s novelette, “Outrider,” which really put the whole generation ship concept into a prominent place in my forebrain.

  • At also roughly the same time I was trying to find the original file for “Jimi Plays Dead,” a story I wrote back in the 1980s about an A.I.-equipped electric guitar that in real time edits whatever its owner plays to make it come out sounding as it would have sounded if Jimi Hendrix had played it. At the time I wrote it, I thought the story was just pretty wiggy sci-fi. Now, I’m not so sure. (See the bit on autocorrect, below.) The original manuscript file, it turns out, was written using a program I no longer have and saved on a 5.25" diskette. It’d be faster to retype the story from the printed copy than to try to port and recover that computer file.

  • In the course of researching an unrelated matter, I ran across a cryptic reference to “the Scotch 206 scandal.” Given the amount of irreplaceable original content I have in storage on reels of Scotch 206 or 207 (same tape formulation; same problems; the difference in the part number has to do with the thickness of the polymer backing) this immediately got my attention, so I had to read up on it and ponder the implications. Interestingly enough there is a way to restabilize the oxides temporarily and recover content from tape that is beginning to delaminate, but the catch is, it only works once, and pretty much destroys the tape in the process. You get one shot at copying the content to another medium. No pressure there.

  • I’d recently read an article about researchers at UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology using a new laser technique developed by physicists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to recover songs and spoken-word recordings from thousands of previously unplayable century-old wax cylinders. The collection includes a large amount of material in California’s 78 native languages, many of which no longer have any living speakers. To be honest, this is the kind of applied science that really fascinates me.

  • In case you missed it, Merriam-Webster recently changed the definitions of some well-known and commonly used words. Seriously. Here in the Internet Age, you can’t even count on a word to mean what it meant yesterday. If you don’t find that disturbingly Orwellian, you need to read 1984 again. 

  • Free speech, censorship, and the general problem of people who can’t stand the idea that other people might not agree with them—these are topics that are always on my mind, but especially so lately. Do I really need to explain why?

  • Finally (I think), I happened to be in the room when my wife was having yet another battle with autocorrect, which insisted on changing the words she’d actually typed to be the words that Google in it’s infinite wisdom decided she should have typed. Again, while it at first seemed amusing, on further reflection, and particularly with “Jimi Plays Dead” floating around in the back of my mind, it began to seem like a disturbing harbinger of the world to come.
So you take all those ideas and observations, put them in the old cognitive blender, press the button for purée, and voila! A 1200-word column emerges!

And now, as your reward for reading the foregoing, here’s a sneak peek at Henry Vogel’s newest novel, Hart for Adventure.