Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Subject: Review: Otherness
Date: Thu, 9 Sep 2004 02:18:33 +0000 (UTC) Message-ID: <choehp$7sf$>

_Otherness_, David Brin. Short story and essay collection, dates ranging from 1985 to 1994.

I'd read this years ago, found a used copy recently, and re-read it. I still like it overall; I like the essays most.

(After writing all this, I think I don't know how to review short story collections well.)

"The Giving Plague": Reads like a Greg Egan story, complete with sociopathic protagonist and weird neurobiology. About as good as if it had been written by Greg Egan. This is praise.

"Myth Number 21": Lovecraft supershort mood vignettes meet Elvis. Or something.

"Dr. Pak's Preschool": The push to start our children's education at younger and younger ages gets pushed to its ultimate limits, with one twist, and then another. All right.

"Detritus Affected": Starts with an archaeological dig in LA's landfills. Turns seriously weird. Hard to discuss without spoiling it, not that I'd have much to say beyond still not knowing what was going on, or what the point was.

"The Dogma of Otherness": The first essay in the collection, describing what he calls the Doctrine of Otherness: "that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something of value to offer." Or that "it is a major reflexive dogma that there must be no dogmas." [Emphasis in the original. Brin's middle name is "Italics".] And then he has an imaginary, possibly based in reality, conversation with a crowd of people reacting violently to the idea that Otherness is a better way of doing things.

"But you can't say it's actually better than any other way. We have this so-called Doctrine of Otherness. Other peoples have their own cultural assumptions, of equal value."
"Aha! But by saing that, by stating that those other points of view have merit, you are insisting that your cultural dogma -- this Doctrine of Otherness -- is the best! You're a cultural chauvinist!"

There's an old objection to extreme forms of cultural relativism: if there's no absolute right or wrong, if all cultures are equally valid, and we shouldn't impose our values on other cultures, then why isn't our culture of imposing our individualist values on other cultures itself valid? Brin is kind of embracing that and turning it around.

He ends with saying that humans are neither the pinnacle or appointed steward of Creation, nor a curse, but we could be something like Elder Brothers and Sisters if we choose to be.

"Sshhh...": Looks like a Campbellian humans-uber-alles story. Turns out to be more subtle. Granny Weatherwax would approve.

"Those Eyes": Takes his observations about UFOs acting a lot like elves, and both acting like immature assholes, and how if there were benign aliens helping build the pyramids and such they left out things like flush toilets and printing presses and lenses, and turns them all into a story. I like.

"What to Say to a UFO": Essay followup to "Those Eyes".

"Bonding to Genji": His part in the shared world anthology Murasaki, which was fairly good.

"The Warm Space": Now this is the Campbellian story. Humans, AIs who are taking over, attempts at hyperspatial travel.

"Whose Millennium": Essay. Starts with a rapid survey of millennial feeling, ends with a response to Christians: "Is your God a shepherd who culls his flock or a Father who wants to see his children grow up? And why would He end things just when they're getting interesting?"

"NatuLife": Future story with lots of VR. "Piecework": Future story combining genetic engineering and surrogate motherhood, with a twist.

"Science vs. Magic": Essay. Picks at the differences between scientists and story magicians. Wizards tend to be solitary and aloof, guarding their secrets, co-exist with kings, not toilets, and not doing much of anything to help the masses. Better scientists collaborate, teach, and are surrounded by marvels. "She must be a team player, or fail." But magical tales can warn or inspire us, yadda yadda.

I re-read The Peace War recently, and noted that Paul Naismith acts a bit like a classical wizard. Secretive, and guards his secrets, hounded for years to take an apprentice but doesn't until he stumbles upon the Gifted Child. On the other hand, he has a good reason for being secretive: powerful people want to kill him. And he helps lots of people with his talent.

"Bubbles": A neat story on a grand scale, of a giant ship and where it ends up.

"Ambiguity", "What Continues... And What Fails": A couple of stories on the theme of black holes spawning other universes; the second uses Smolin's evolving universes idea.

"The Commonwealth of Wonder": The capstone essay, going back to Otherness and other odd aspects of our society. "Subjective reality is what I see and experience; objective reality is what's really out there. They aren't necessarily the same thing." He notes many mystics have figured that much out, but usually retreat to faith, meditation, induced mystical experience, or Cartesian pure reason to try to fix things. Otherness and science take the base idea, but change the fix:

"Hey, I may not evere be able to be certain what is absolutely Ture... but I sure as heck can work to find out what isn't! Moreover, I can improve my model of the world by slowly, carefully finding out what is truer than what I already know."

Old hat, if you've read Popper or Feynman or others, but I find it rarely hurts to see fallibilism again, or in new clothes.

Then he moves on to another of his own ideas, that our society is unique in having its Golden Age in the future, not the past. We're not decaying, we're building. As Dennett would put it, cranes vs. skyhooks. Tower of Babel vs. The Fall.

Then he introduces the reader to memes -- the essay was written in 1990 -- and discusses what he sees as 5 major memes battling over the planet: feudalism, machismo, paranoia, "The East" (homogeneity, respect for elders, discipline), and "Calm" (Otherness, tolerance, suspicion of authority, questioning.) He notes that "E.T." sends the message "If you ever encounter a weird stranger >from an alien race, by all means, hide him from your own people's freely elected tribal elders!"

I'd like to digress and saying that while watching "Roswell", a TV show with 4 human-appearing alien children (they were hybridized; no idea what the real aliens look like), with the usual X-Files "FBI out to get us" meme, I daydreamed of it turning out that the US government (Air Force?) knew all along who they were, and had arranged for the young alien kids to be adopted by human families. Possibly out of simple sentient compassion, but also out of the pragmatic idea that maybe dissecting the children of people who can cross between the stars isn't such a good idea.

A few years ago, though, I read of some purported official plans in case any aliens did land, and it sounded like a tagteam effort between the CDC, military, and INS. Sigh. At least the CDC actually has a case. The INS seems rude to me, and the military is just asking for trouble. I think I'm exhibiting my own submission to Otherness.

-xx- Damien X-)