Tag Archives: fiction

Reading Makes You A Better Person

Scientists have finally learned what book lovers have known for some time — reading fiction makes you a better person.

From Readers Digest:

Anyone who reads understands the bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book. It’s as if a beloved friend has suddenly packed her things and parted, the back cover swinging closed like a taxicab door. Farewell, friend. See you on the shelf.

If you’ve ever felt weird for considering fictional characters your friends or fictional places your home, science says you no longer have to. A new body of research is emerging to explain how books have such a powerful emotional pull on us, and the answer du jour is surprising—when we step into a fictional world, we treat the experiences as if they were real. Adding to the endless list of reading benefits is this: Reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.

Not all fiction is created equal, though—and reading a single chapter of Harry Potter isn’t an instant emotion-enhancer. Here are a few key caveats from the nerdy scientists trying to figure out why reading rules.

Rule #1: The story has to “take you somewhere.”

How many times have you heard someone declare that a good book “transports” you? That immersive power that allows readers to happily inhabit other people, places, and points of view for hours at a time is precisely what a team of researchers in the Netherlands credit for the results of a 2013 study in which students asked to read an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery showed a marked increase in empathy one week later, while students tasked with reading a sampling of news articles showed a decline.

Read the entire article here.

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Clicks or Truth

The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site Snopes.com puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

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Facts, Fiction and Foxtion

Foxtion. fox·tion. noun \ fäks-sh?n \

New stories about people and events that are not real: literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer and presenter, and presented earnestly and authoritatively by self-proclaimed experts, repeated over and over until audience accepts as written-in-stone truth. 

Fox News is the gift that just keeps on giving — to comedians, satirists, seekers of truth and, generally, people with reasonably intact grey matter. This time Fox has reconnected with so-called terrorism expert, Steven Emerson. Seems like a nice chap, but, as the British Prime Minister recently remarked, he’s “an idiot”.

From the Guardian:

Steven Emerson, a man whose job title of terrorism expert will henceforth always attract quotation marks, provoked a lot of mirth with his claim, made during a Fox News interview, that Birmingham was a Muslim-only city where “non-Muslims simply just don’t go in”. He was forced to apologise, and the prime minister called him an idiot, all within the space of 24 hours.

This was just one of the many deeply odd things Emerson said in the course of the interview, although it was perhaps the most instantly refutable: Birmingham census figures are easy to come by. His claim that London was full of “actual religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire” is harder to disprove; just because I live in London and I’ve never seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But they’re not exactly thick on the ground. I blame the cuts.

Emerson also made reference to the “no-go zones” of France, where the government doesn’t “exercise any sovereignty”. “On the French official website it says there are,” he said. “It actually has a map of them.”

How could the French government make the basic blunder of publicising its inability to exercise sovereignty, and on the “French official website” of all places?

After a bit of Googling – which appears to be how Emerson gets his information – I think I know what he’s on about. He appears to be referring to The 751 No-Go Zones of France, the title of a widely disseminated, nine-year-old blogpost originating on the website of Daniel Pipes, another terrorism expert, or “anti-Arab propagandist”.

“They go by the euphemistic term Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or sensitive urban zones,” wrote Pipes, referring to them as “places in France that the French state does not fully control”. And it’s true: you can find them all listed on the French government’s website. Never mind that they were introduced in 1996, or that the ZUS distinction actually denotes an impoverished area targeted for economic and social intervention, not abandonment of sovereignty. For people like Emerson they are officially sanctioned caliphates, where cops and non-Muslims dare not tread.

Yet seven years after he first exposed the No-Go Zones of France, Pipes actually managed to visit several banlieues around Paris. In an update posted in 2013, his disappointment was palpable.

“For a visiting American, these areas are very mild, even dull,” he wrote. “We who know the Bronx and Detroit expect urban hell in Europe too, but there things look fine.

“I regret having called these areas no-go zones.”

Read the entire story here.

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Sci-Fi Begets Cli-Fi

The world of fiction is populated with hundreds of different genres — most of which were invented by clever marketeers anxious to ensure vampire novels (teen / horror) don’t live next to classic works (literary) on real or imagined (think Amazon) book shelves. So, it should come as no surprise to see a new category recently emerge: cli-fi.

Short for climate fiction, cli-fi novels explore the dangers of environmental degradation and apocalyptic climate change. Not light reading for your summer break at the beach. But, then again, more books in this category may get us to think often and carefully about preserving our beaches — and the rest of the planet — for our kids.

From the Guardian:

A couple of days ago Dan Bloom, a freelance news reporter based in Taiwan, wrote on the Teleread blog that his word had been stolen from him. In 2012 Bloom had “produced and packaged” a novella called Polar City Red, about climate refugees in a post-apocalyptic Alaska in the year 2075. Bloom labelled the book “cli-fi” in the press release and says he coined that term in 2007, cli-fi being short for “climate fiction”, described as a sub-genre of sci-fi. Polar City Red bombed, selling precisely 271 copies, until National Public Radio (NPR) and the Christian Science Monitor picked up on the term cli-fi last month, writing Bloom out of the story. So Bloom has blogged his reply on Teleread, saying he’s simply pleased the term is now out there – it has gone viral since the NPR piece by Scott Simon. It’s not quite as neat as that – in recent months the term has been used increasingly in literary and environmental circles – but there’s no doubt it has broken out more widely. You can search for cli-fi on Amazon, instantly bringing up a plethora of books with titles such as 2042: The Great Cataclysm, or Welcome to the Greenhouse. Twitter has been abuzz.

Whereas 10 or 20 years ago it would have been difficult to identify even a handful of books that fell under this banner, there is now a growing corpus of novels setting out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, the story of a forest valley filled with an apparent lake of fire, is shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s prize for fiction. Meanwhile, there’s Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, set in a future New York, about a mathematician who deals in worst-case scenarios. In Liz Jensen’s 2009 eco-thriller The Rapture, summer temperatures are asphyxiating and Armageddon is near; her most recent book, The Uninvited, features uncanny warnings from a desperate future. Perhaps the most high-profile cli-fi author is Margaret Atwood, whose 2009 The Year of the Flood features survivors of a biological catastrophe also central to her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, a book Atwood sometimes preferred to call “speculative fiction”.

Engaging with this subject in fiction increases debate about the issue; finely constructed, intricate narratives help us broaden our understanding and explore imagined futures, encouraging us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. This can often seem difficult in our 24?hour news-on-loop society where the consequences of climate change may appear to be everywhere, but intelligent discussion of it often seems to be nowhere. Also, as the crime genre can provide the dirty thrill of, say, reading about a gruesome fictional murder set on a street the reader recognises, the best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife. Outside of the narrative of a novel the issue can seem fractured, incoherent, even distant. As Gregory Norminton puts it in his introduction to an anthology on the subject, Beacons: Stories for Our Not-So-Distant Future: “Global warming is a predicament, not a story. Narrative only comes in our response to that predicament.” Which is as good an argument as any for engaging with those stories.

All terms are reductive, all labels simplistic – clearly, the likes of Kingsolver, Jensen and Atwood have a much broader canvas than this one issue. And there’s an argument for saying this is simply rebranding: sci-fi writers have been engaging with the climate-change debate for longer than literary novelists – Snow by Adam Roberts comes to mind – and I do wonder whether this is a term designed for squeamish writers and critics who dislike the box labelled “science fiction”. So the term is certainly imperfect, but it’s also valuable. Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery. There are no spaceships hovering in the sky; no clocks striking 13. On the contrary, many of the horrors described seem oddly familiar.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Courtesy of the Independent.

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Computers in the Movies

Most of us now carry around inside our smartphones more computing power than NASA once had in the Apollo command module. So, it’s interesting to look back at old movies to see how celluloid fiction portrayed computers. Most from the 1950s and 60s were replete with spinning tape drives and enough lights to resemble the Manhattan skyline. Our favorite here at theDiagonal is the first “Bat Computer” from the original 1960’s TV series, which could be found churning away in Batman’s crime-fighting nerve center beneath Wayne Mansion.

From Wired:

The United States government powered up its SAGE defense system in July 1958, at an Air Force base near Trenton, New Jersey. Short for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, SAGE would eventually span 24 command and control stations across the US and Canada, warning against potential air attacks via radar and an early IBM computer called the AN/FSQ-7.

“It automated air defense,” says Mike Loewen, who worked with SAGE while serving with the Air Force in the 1980s. “It used a versatile, programmable, digital computer to process all this incoming radar data from various sites around the region and display it in a format that made sense to people. It provided a computer display of the digitally processed radar information.”

Fronted by a wall of dials, switches, neon lights, and incandescent lamps — and often plugged into spinning tape drives stretching from floor to ceiling — the AN/FSQ-7 looked like one of those massive computing systems that turned up in Hollywood movies and prime time TV during the ’60s and the ’70s. This is mainly because it is one those massive computing systems that turned up in Hollywood movies and TV during the ’60s and ’70s — over and over and over again. Think Lost In Space. Get Smart. Fantastic Voyage. In Like Flint. Or our person favorite: The Towering Inferno.

That’s the AN/FSQ-7 in The Towering Inferno at the top of this page, operated by a man named OJ Simpson, trying to track a fire that’s threatening to bring down the world’s tallest building.

For decades, the AN/FSQ-7 — Q7 for short — helped define the image of a computer in the popular consciousness. Nevermind that it was just a radar system originally backed by tens of thousands of vacuum tubes. For moviegoers everywhere, this was the sort of thing that automated myriad tasks not only in modern-day America but the distant future.

It never made much sense. But sometimes, it made even less sense. In the ’60s and ’70s, some films didn’t see the future all that clearly. Woody Allen’s Sleeper is set in 2173, and it shows the AN/FSQ-7 helping 22nd-century Teamsters make repairs to robotic man servants. Other films just didn’t see the present all that clearly. Independence Day was made in 1996, and apparently, its producers were unaware that the Air Force decommissioned SAGE 13 years earlier.

Of course, the Q7 is only part of the tale. The history of movies and TV is littered with big, beefy, photogenic machines that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Sometimes they’re real machines doing unreal tasks. And sometimes they’re unreal machines doing unreal tasks. But we love them all. Oh so very much.

Mike Loewen first noticed the Q7 in a mid-’60s prime time TV series called The Time Tunnel. Produced by the irrepressible Irwin Allen, Time Tunnel concerned a secret government project to build a time machine beneath a trap door in the Arizona desert. A Q7 powered this subterranean time machine, complete with all those dials, switches, neon lights, and incandescent lamps.

No, an AN/FSQ-7 couldn’t really power a time machine. But time machines don’t exist. So it all works out quite nicely.

At first, Loewen didn’t know it was a Q7. But then, after he wound up in front of a SAGE system while in the Air Force many years later, it all came together. “I realized that these computer banks running the Time Tunnel were large sections of panels from the SAGE computer,” Loewen says. “And that’s where I got interested.”

He noticed the Q7 in TV show after TV show, movie after movie — and he started documenting these SAGE star turns on his personal homepage. In each case, the Q7 was seen doing stuff it couldn’t possibly do, but there was no doubt this was the Q7 — or at least part of it.

Here’s that subterranean time machine that caught the eye of Mike Loewen in The Time Tunnel (1966). The cool thing about the Time Tunnel AN/FSQ-7 is that even when it traps two government scientists in an endless time warp, it always sends them to dates of extremely important historical significance. Otherwise, you’d have one boring TV show on your hands.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: The Time Tunnel (1966). Courtesy of Wired.

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Greatest Literary Suicides

Hot on the heals of our look at literary deaths we look specifically at the greatest suicides in literature. Although subject to personal taste and sensibility the starter list excerpted below is a fine beginning, and leaves much to ponder.

From Flavorpill:

1. Ophelia, Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Hamlet’s jilted lover Ophelia drowns in a stream surrounded by the flowers she had held in her arms. Though Ophelia’s death can be parsed as an accident, her growing madness and the fact that she was, as Gertrude says, “incapable of her own distress.” And as far as we’re concerned, Gertrude’s monologue about Ophelia’s drowning is one of the most beautiful descriptions of death in Shakespeare.

2. Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

In an extremely dramatic move only befitting the emotional mess that is Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train in her despair, mirroring the novel’s early depiction of a railway worker’s death by similar means.

3. Cecilia Lisbon, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides’ entire novel deserves to be on this list for its dreamy horror of five sisters killing themselves in the 1970s Michigan suburbs. But the death of the youngest, Cecilia, is the most brutal and distressing. Having failed to kill herself by cutting her wrists, she leaves her own party to throw herself from her bedroom window, landing impaled on the steel fence below.

4. Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

In life, Emma Bovary wished for romance, for intrigue, to escape the banalities of her provincial life as a doctor’s wife. Hoping to expire gracefully, she eats a bowl of arsenic, but is punished by hours of indelicate and public suffering before she finally dies.

5. Edna Pontellier, The Awakening, Kate Chopin

This is the first suicide that many students experience in literature, and it is a strange and calm one: Edna simply walks into the water. We imagine the reality of drowning yourself would be much messier, but Chopin’s version is a relief, a cool compress against the pains of Edna’s psyche in beautiful, fluttering prose.

Topping out the top 10 we have:

Lily Bart, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
Septimus Warren Smith, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
James O. Incandeza, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Inspector Javert, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Read the entire article here.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1829–1896). Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

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Greatest Literary Deaths

Tim Lott over at the Guardian Book Blog wonders which are the most dramatic literary deaths — characters rather than novelist. Think Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

From the Guardian:

What makes for a great literary death scene? This is the question I and the other four judges of the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize for medicine in literature have been pondering in advance of an event at the Cheltenham festival.

I find many famous death scenes more ludicrous than lachrymose. As with Oscar Wilde’s comment on the death of Dickens’s Little Nell, you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the passing of the awful Tullivers in Mill on the Floss, dragged down clutching one another as the river deliciously finishes them off. More consciously designed to wring laughter out of tragedy, the suicide of Ronald Nimkin in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint takes some beating, with Nimkins’s magnificent farewell note to his mother: “Mrs Blumenthal called. Please bring your mah-jongg rules to the game tonight.”

To write a genuinely moving death scene is a challenge for any author. The temptation to retreat into cliché is powerful. For me, the best and most affecting death is that of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. I remember my wife reading this to me out loud as I drove along a motorway. We were both in tears, as he says his farewell to his errant son, Nelson, and then runs out of words, and life itself – “enough. Maybe. Enough.”

But death is a matter of personal taste. The other judges were eclectic in their choices. Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist, admired the scenes in Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm. At the end of the chapter that seals the fate of the six men on board, Junger writes: “The body could be likened to a crew that resorts to increasingly desperate measures to keep their vessel afloat. Eventually the last wire has shorted out, the last bit of decking has settled under the water.” “The details of death by drowning,” Highfield says, “are so rich and dispassionately drawn that they feel chillingly true.”

Read the entire article here.

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Book Review: America Pacifica

Classic dystopian novels from the likes of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood appeal for their fantastic narrative journeys. More so they resonate for it often seems that contemporary society is precariously close to this fictional chaos, dysfunction and destruction; one small step in the wrong direction and over the precipice we go. America Pacifica continues this tradition.

From The Barnes & Noble Review:

Anna North is both a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Work Shop and a writer for the feminist Web site Jezebel. It’s no surprise, then, that her debut novel, America Pacifica, is overflowing with big ideas about revolution, ecology, feminism, class, and poverty. But by the end of page one, when a teenage daughter, Darcy, watches her beloved mother, Sarah, emerge from a communal bathroom down the hall carrying “their” toothbrush, one also knows that this novel, like, say, the dystopic fiction of Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin, aims not only to transmit those ideas in the form of an invented narrative, but also to give them the animating, detailed, and less predictable life of literature.

The “America Pacifica” of the title is an unnamed island upon which a generation of North American refugees have attempted to create a simulacra of their old home–complete with cities named Manhattanville and Little Los Angeles–after an environmental calamity rendered “the mainland” too frigid for human life. Daniel, a mainland scientist, argued that the humans should adapt themselves to the changing climate, while a man named Tyson insisted that they look for a warmer climate and use technology and dirty industrial processes to continue human life as it was once lived. The island’s population is comprised entirely of those who took Tyson’s side of the argument.

But this haven can only sustain enough luxuries for a tiny few. Every aspect of island life is governed by a brutal caste system which divides people into rigid hierarchies based on the order in which they and their families arrived by boat. The rich eat strawberries and fresh tomatoes, wear real fiber, and live in air-conditioned apartments. The poor subsist on meat products fabricated from jellyfish and seaweed, wear synthetic SeaFiber clothing, and dream of somehow getting into college (which isn’t open to them) so they can afford an apartment with their own bathroom and shower.

More from theSource here.

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Book Review: “Millennium People”: J.G. Ballard’s last hurrah

From Salon:

In this, his last novel, the darkly comic “Millennium People,” J.G. Ballard returns to many of the themes that have established him as one of the 20th century’s principal chroniclers of modernity as dystopia. Throughout his career Ballard, who died in 2009, wrote many different variations on the same theme: A random act of violence propels a somewhat affectless protagonist into a violent pathology lurking just under the tissue-thin layer of postmodern civilization. As in “Crash” (1973) and “Concrete Island” (1974), the car parks, housing estates, motorways and suburban sprawl of London in “Millennium People” form a psychological geography. At its center, Heathrow Airport — a recurrent setting for Ballard — exerts its subtly malevolent pull on the bored lives and violent dreams of the alienated middle class.

“Millennium People” begins with the explosion of a bomb at Heathrow, which kills the ex-wife of David Markham, an industrial psychologist. The normally passive Markham sets out to investigate the anonymous bombing and the gated community of Chelsea Marina, a middle-class neighborhood that has become ground zero for a terrorist group and a burgeoning rebellion of London’s seemingly docile middle class. Exploited not so much for their labor as for their deeply ingrained and self-policing sense of social responsibility and good manners, the educated and professional residents of Chelsea Marina regard themselves as the “new proletariat,” with their exorbitant maintenance and parking fees as the new form of oppression, their careers, cultured tastes and education the new gulag.

In the company of a down-and-out priest and a film professor turned Che Guevara of the Volvo set, Markham quickly discovers that the line between amateur detective and amateur terrorist is not so clear, as he is drawn deeper into acts of sabotage and violence against the symbols and institutions of his own safe and sensible life. Targets include travel agencies, video stores, the Tate Modern, the BBC and National Film Theater — all “soporifics” designed to con people into believing their lives are interesting or going somewhere.

More from theSource here.

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Book Review: Solar. Ian McEwan

Solar is a timely, hilarious novel from the author of Atonement that examines the self-absorption and (self-)deceptions of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard. With his best work many decades behind him Beard trades on his professional reputation to earn continuing financial favor, and maintain influence and respect amongst his peers. And, with his personal life in an ever-decreasing spiral, with his fifth marriage coming to an end, Beard manages to entangle himself in an impossible accident which has the power to re-shape his own world, and the planet in the process.

Ian McEwan’s depiction of Michael Beard is engaging and thoroughly entertaining. Beard hops from relationship to relationship in his singular quest for “love”, but very much on his own terms. And, this very centric view of himself extends to his own science, where his personal contributions don’t seem to be all that they appear. Satire and climate science makes a stylish and witty combination in the hands of McEwan.

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