Category Archives: Books

What is Extraordinary Voyages?

‘Extraordinary Voyages’ refers to the series of adventure tales written by the author Jules Verne, the man who may rightly be said to be the father of the science fiction genre. Verne (read a short biography here) is known for his predictive abilities and for his interlacing of fact and fiction in such novel and complex ways as to present fantastic ideas as foregone conclusions and far away places as right at our front door. His legacy and influence on those who followed him stretched into and through the 20th century.

In writing the Extraordinary Voyages, Jules Verne used imagination as a vehicle to carry people to the farthest known regions of knowledge and technological capabilities. Then he took them further. This was his great accomplishment, a creative leap that provided new possibilities and paved the way for future explorers to make his voyages a reality. A wide range of adventurers and scientists, from astronauts to polar explorers to other science fiction writers, have claimed Verne as one of their primary sources of inspiration. This is the reason for choosing the name for his body of work as the title of this blog. Imagination and a willingness to explore, traits that were embodied in all his stories, are central themes. Verne’s special role, that of a creator of possible realities, is tremendously important. Anything a person, or humanity as a whole, wants to become, they first have to be able to dream it. In the words of someone from a wonderful little shop known as the Imaginary Foundation.

Imagination is the factory that makes legends. It is the beginning of all achievement. To imagine is to perceive many potential futures, select the most delightful possibility, and then pull the present forward to meet it. Imagination has transported us from shivering in dark caves to triumphantly floating above our precious blue earth. It reminds us that reality is malleable and we are the architects of our own fate.

The first step to imagination is curiosity, the wonderings of a questioning mind. These wonderings have inevitable consequences. On the far side of curiosity and imagination lies discovery, that wonderful something, somewhere, that is waiting for us. And the bridge between curiosity and discovery is exploration, the searching and seeking that has permeated so much of human history. This is exploration on a very general level: the physical exploration of the world through travel and movement, the exploration of the workings of the universe through scientific discovery, and more personal exploration through reading and reflection. The fundamental link between all these things, the essential meaning of exploration, is the search for a better understanding of our world, our selves, and the connection between the two.

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Book Report: Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

Cover of "Player Piano"

Cover of Player Piano

I’ve just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952 when Vonnegut was a sprightly young 30 years old, and I thought I’d give some of my thoughts, along with a couple of quotes gleaned from the pages.

The essential story-line follows the trials and tribulations of Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager in a heavily automated post WWII America, a time when the country is run by engineers and managers and machines have all but supplanted the regular Joes and Josephines from their jobs. In this book, Vonnegut is exploring the meaning of work in our lives, and what a vital role it plays in giving us meaning and purpose.

“Go to the library sometime and take a look at magazines and newspapers clear back as far as World War II. Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production – know-how, not people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines. And the hell of it was that it was pretty much true. Even then, half the people or more didn’t understand much about the things they were making. They were participating in the economy all right, but not in a way that was very satisfying to the ego.”

In the book, Dr. Proteus is the director of the Ilium Works, a collection of automated machines responsible for much of the upkeep of daily life: plumbing, electricity, etc. The country is stratified based on IQ tests performed in high school, and those not intelligent enough to attend college and achieve doctorates have two choices for the future: enlist in the army, or join the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the “Reeks and Wrecks”), a construction crew responsible for all the low skilled manual labor that needs to be done. These two groups, the highly educated engineers/managers and their poorly educated countrymen, inhabit two entirely different social spheres.

As the novel progresses, Proteus has a growing unease with his place in society and the privileges that are afforded him on the basis of his IQ, and he begins to encounter more and more the detrimental effects of automation on society, from the restrictions it places on people wishing to pursue their individual goals, to the quashing of innovation and creativity in the face of an overwhelmingly rigid system. And above all, there is the sense that removing labor from the lives of people in some way dehumanizes them. There are fundamental connections between the work we do and the purpose we feel in our lives.

Though this book is about 60 years old, the issues it addresses are still very much relevant today, in particular this idea that automation (then it was machines, today we could add computers to the mix as well) are creating a U-shaped curve of available jobs, with peaks for low-skilled and high-skilled jobs and a hollowing out in the middle.

Without going into too much detail, the novel begins to take a turn when Proteus falls in with the Ghost Shirt Society, a collection of malcontents from both sides of the societal spectrum. Their aim is to overcome the trend of automation and restore work to what they view as it’s rightfully respected place.

“The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

‘Player Piano’ has some very strong ties to another book i have been reading through lately, ‘Small is Beautiful‘. This book, written by E.F. Schumacher and published about 20 years after ‘Player Piano’, deals with many of the same issues, namely the value of work and the downsides of placing efficiency and economic growth as end goals. I’ll do a book report on ‘Small is Beautiful’ when I’m done with it, but for now I’ll share a couple of passages that seem highly relevant: 

“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

“What technology has enabled us to do: namely, to reduce the amount of time actually spent on production in its most elementary sense to such a tiny percentage of total social time that pales into insignificance, that it carries no real weight, let alone prestige.”