Eugene O’Neill as Magician

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I would say that Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) is the greatest of all American playwrights in both quantity and depth. I can’t say just why it was that I decided to read all his plays I could get my hands on when in high school, except to say I found them compelling. I’d have to go back and reread them to find out why, I think.

But reading Travis Bogard’s Contour in Time reminded me of those plays, and two plays I saw, but didn’t read. Bogard analyzes all the plays, and relates them, especially the last plays, to O’Neill’s life, which I found fascinating.

O’Neill began writing around 1912. This was during or just after a stay in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Still only 24, he had worked as a seaman, seen a fair amount of the world, been married and had fathered a child. At about this time he divorced his wife, and didn’t see his son again for a number of years.

He began by writing one-act plays, few of which are well-remembered,  suggesting  that he served a fairly long apprenticeship before beginning to write the plays for which he is famous. His fame began with Beyond the Horizon, which brought him a Pulitzer Prize.

The 1920s were a prolific and experimental time for him, when he produced a great many of  the plays for which he’s still known: The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms and Strange Interlude, and others. In some of these he experimented with music, in some with masks, in one with asides, with the action stopped, so the actor could say what he or she was really feeling outside the lines of the play.

In time, however, he abandoned such experiments in favor of allowing the actors to express what he wanted. Instead of such experiments, he began writing from a level within himself so that his plays no longer portrayed a naive poet suffering in a crassly materialistic world, but of a much more sophisticated emotional depth. He was unusual as an artist in almost continuously improving his art. Such a thing isn’t unknown, but i’s also not unusual for an artist to do his or her best work when relatively young, and then hit a plateau. O’Neill seems to have had some psychological dynamic pushing him to continual improvement. He had something specific to express, and was never quite satisfied he had done so.

He was most specific about this in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which was about himself and his family. The names were changed, but the roles each person played were not. His father had been a well-known actor, but had made a lot of money from playing The Count of Monte Christo, a second-rate play at best. O’Neill despised him for debasing his artistic talent for financial security and social acceptance, the latter being unlikely at the time, when the Irish were still discriminated against.

His mother had also been an actor, working with his father, but had betrayed her own dream of being a nun. When O’Neill, the youngest of the two children was born, it had been a difficult birth, and had led to his mother becoming addicted to morphine. Hers seems to have been an emotionally as well as physically painful life, as she seems not to have liked sex, since it seemed to her to conflict with her religious feelings, so addiction served a purpose for her.

Jamie O’Neill, Eugene’s older brother, had Oedipal feelings for their mother, and never accomplished anything in life besides getting drunk and sleeping with prostitutes, with a single exception: he inspired his younger brother to write.

Jamie O’Neill’s feelings about his younger brother were mixed. On the one hand he hated Eugene for having caused their mother the pain that led to her addiction. On the other, he introduced his brother to both alcohol and prostitutes. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night he says to Eugene that in some sense he created his brother, the writer. He’s saying that he and Eugene are in some ways doubles, or doppelgangers. The idea behind this is that each of us has someone in the world to whom we are identical. In stories, when the doppelganger appears it’s bad news: the doppelganger appropriates the good things we’ve earned, while leaving us to be punished for things we haven’t done.

Bogard quotes Otto Rank as saying that stories about the doppelganger seem to be about sibling rivalry, and about neither sibling knowing just where their own boundaries stop, and the other’s begins. That suggests that O’Neill felt he might have stolen his success from the brother who had contributed to it by encouraging him to write. This made his final plays most painful to write, but also his best work. His family’s pathology was also his inspiration.

A Moon for the Misbegotten was O’Neill’s last play. It was about his brother, and evidently meant to exorcise his family’s torment. Following their father’s death, their mother had stopped taking morphine, and managed to keep away from it for the rest of her life. But with her death, Jamie O’Neill entirely lost control. Traveling by train with her coffin to where she was to be buried, he got drunk and had sex with a prostitute on top of the coffin, a very symbolic act, which also seems to have been factual.

There are only three characters in the play, and one of them is secondary. The other, besides Jamie, is a woman (possibly based on someone both brothers knew in New York City) who is large, raucous, and whom most probably think to be indecent, if not a prostitute. In fact, she’s a virgin, and a sensitive soul, who has had a rough life. In the course of their long interaction, Jamie confesses the incident on the train to her. I saw a production of this play on TV many years ago, and one of the few things I remember is the difficulty of his confession, how it almost literally stuck in his throat until he was able to bring it to the surface. Josie, the other character, is one of the few pwople who can understand Jamie, since she’s also one of the misbegotten. Bogard points out that such people can understand each other better than can the more fortunate. Giving her his confession is something of a gift; he needs absolution from her, he needs her motherly acceptance, and no one else has ever wanted her for  anything that would give her value. By giving him forgiveness, she enables him to lay his burden down, though only for one night.

Bogard makes it clear that Jamie O’Neill never had the good fortune to encounter anyone like Josie, who could ease his pain. After his mother died he drank himself to death, dying in a mental hospital in the 1920s, too physically and mentally debilitated to care for himself. O’Neill wrote this play then, out of kindness and forgiveness toward his brother for any harm he had tried to inflict, and to at last heal and lay to rest his family’s problems.

I see what O’Neill did as trying to perform a sort of magic that was well-intentioned, but didn’t work out. He went into a deep depression while writing it (which probably explains why his wife hated it) and Bogard reports that his days of writing were also days of crying. The feelings must have been nearly unbearable.

The production also went poorly, running into censorship problems, and closing before it could reach Broadway. By this time O’Neill may have been too discouraged to try to fix what may have seemed to be wrong with it. Besides any technical problems with the script, his family had been in crisis for some time. His daughter Oona had married Charlie Chaplin, a man some 40 years older than she (the significance should be psychologically obvious), his oldest son (by his first wife) had committed suicide, while his younger son had become a drug addict. All his children seem to have felt unloved, just as had the older O’Neills. Instead of exorcising his family’s problems, it must have seemed that his play had only reawaknened them. Ghosts of past suffering had taken on solid flesh, and repeated the same mistakes.

Eugene O’Neill’s creativity had allowed him to partially escape from his family’s suffering and make something positive of his life, which gave him fame and wealth. The record seems to show that it never made him happy, though, and the obsessiveness with which he wrote cut him off from his own children. He was a successful artist, but not a successful human being. He was unable to ever fully escape the trap his family had been entangled in, let alone help his own children to escape it.

Physical problems may have influenced his relative lack of writing in the last decade or so of his life. His hands trembled, so he couldn’t write in lonhand as he was accustomed to, he was unable to use a typewriter, and dictating to a stenographer didn’t seem to work either.

But maybe the primary problem was the sort of magic he had tried to work in the writing of his last plays. Some may wish to call the process he embarked on something else. Call it confession, if you like. That is also a powerful process that is known to facilitate healing. But that wasn’t enough in itself. He was working on the wrong level to solve his family’s problems and prevent their transmission to the next generation. He had dedicated his life to a solution that didn’t work. Add that to his physical problems, and trying to write again probably seemed too risky, and he probably felt too old and unwell to attack his problems in any other way.

So, it seems, he waited to die.

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L. Ron Hubbard Compared

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Ll. Ron Hubbard was an interesting person. His early adulthood was a bit chaotic, with some travel and then some success as a writer for what were known as the pulps: magazines printed on cheap paper where writers who weren’t good enough for the high class magazines got published. Hubbard wrote a variety of things, but probably more fantasy and science fiction than anything else.

That was during the 1930s. During World War II he joined the Navy, but didn’t have much of a career. He also hung around Jack Parsons, who  was working on rockets. practiced magic, and was associated with Aleister Crowley, notorious as a magician. Hubbard’s first son later said that his father practiced black magic and abortion, and that his later career was based on black magic. He may have been biased, though.

Hubbard was reputed to have said he’d like to start a religion, because that was where the money was. Whether he said it sincerely or  not, that’s what he eventually did, first writing the book Dianetics, then using that as the basis for founding the Church of Scientology.

The name Scientology seems to indicate that what’s taught there is based on science, but it’s not. I think Hubbard came up with at least one technique that could be helpful to people in the concept of engrams. These were the traumas that people experience, and everything associated with them that would bring the pain back to a person. The technique was to get the person to talk about the problems while connected to a device called the E-meter (something akin to a lie-detector), to reexperience the problems as much as possible, and to continue doing that until the emotion surrounding the trauma was dissipated. When one had done this with all traumas, one became Clear, in Hubbard’s terminology.

That’s not so different from psychoanalysis, which is odd, because Hubbard considered psychiatrists to be evil. I suspect some projection there. Others accused him of paranoia, and called his organization schizophrenic, though I don’t think Hubbard himself could be called schizophrenic in any usual sense. Paranoid, yes, and rather sadistic too, but not out of touch with reality in that way.

He may have come up with some useful techniques, but I don’t have to like what he did with them. He built an organization that shunned the outside world, in which he could do anything he wanted, and one of the things he liked to do was punish people.

Some of the people were members of his organization. Many of them did hard work for little or nothing, with Hubbard and the in-group reaping the benefits. He wasn’t too nice to children either. When he was busily sailing on his own ship here and there, he punished a four year old boy by locking him in a dangerous part of the ship for two days. Surely that’s excessive, esepcially for a child that age.

He also punished any outsider who didn’t think highly of Scientology. One woman who wrote an expose of the group was harassed by multiple lawsuites for a number of years.

So he may have had some real insights and abilities, but he used them almost exclusively for money and power. The author of the book I recently read said that one couldn’t simply call him a fraud, because he obsessively spent time working out his doctrine, while also strengthening his organization to make it invulnerable. A lot of people got hurt during that time, some of them who had been friends and people he’d depended on for many years. But most of the extensions of his basic ideas came out of his imagination, rather than any scientifically rigorous experimentation.

Contrast that with Robert de Ropp’s Warrior’s Way, an autobiography in which he comments on a number of outstanding people he met or knew of. For de Ropp, one can either be a warrior or a slave. A warrior need not be a soldier, or even violent. He or she faces each problem met squarely and honestly, though, and thereby acquires freedom. It’s much easier to be a slave, to lie to one’s self and others, follow the crowd, and simply exist, rather than really living.

De Ropp had a rather chaotic childhood, beginning in a fairly privileged family in England, until his mother died. Then his father, who cared little for him, sent him to his family estate in Lithuania, where he lived with the peasants, and learned the survival skills that they knew. Peasants always know how to survive, but always live near the edge too. If the weather one year isn’t conducive to agriculture, survival will be difficult through the winter.

He then got sent to Australia, was unable to do anything there, but managed to contact some of his mother’s relatives in England and return there for an education. He became a scientist, and so was able to support himself pretty well. But he said that he wasn’t totally a scientist, and named several of his other selves: the Magician, the Missionary, the Cynic, the Domestic Oaf, etc. These different selves often conflicted until he learned to keep them more or less balanced. He also, as a young man, was attracted (through his Magician) to mysteries, and met a number of people who claimed to and tried to teach them.

P.D. Ouspensky was the first of these teachers. He had studied with George Gurdjieff, then set himself up as a teacher, trying to teach the same things Gurdjieff did, but without Gurdjieff’s experience or knowledge. Still, he was a remarkable man. Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard were others interested in teaching and helping humans to improve, whom de Ropp knew slightly from this period.

De Ropp learned a certain amount, but wasn’t immediately able to apply it very well, and struggled in his personal life. He eventually left England after World War II for America to continue scientific work there, as well as to continue his interest in the human struggle for improvement. He had his share of difficulties and tragedies, but survived.

After the war he visited the farm where Ouspensky had spent the war in America. He wasn’t particularly welcomed there, and became resentful, wanting to tell people off. But when he went to the farm to do that he had a sudden vision of himself as he was, warts and all, and realized that any wrong any of the people there might have done to him was insignificant. Suddenly the Prayer of the Heart, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” sounded in his heart, as distinct from his head, and he saw more clearly than he ever had. He was asked to apologize and say he was wrong, and did so, seeing that he had been, and that he might as well apologize–it didn’t matter, compared with what he was then seeing.

Later he was able to briefly meet George Gurdjieff, and was tremendously impressed with him. Gurdjieff was by then near the end of his life, and de Ropp sensed a great sadness in him, and despite his power and wisdom, felt there was something wrong in where he was. He said of Gurdjieff that he embodied no fewer than four archetypes: the Magus, the Emperor, the Hierophant and the Hanged Man. It’s rare, says de Ropp, to meet any person embodying even ONE archetype, let alone four. But the more a person advances, the higher he climbs, and the more power he obtains, the more he is subjected to temptations that ordinary people can’t even imagine. Even the most enlightened can make mistakes. Perhaps Gudjieff had. Alan Watts later said there was too much Yang in what he did, referring to the Chinese concept of Yang and Yin. Yang is the active principle, Yin the passive.

Gurdjieff had certainly struggled. When he had set up his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man in France he had spent time directing what went on there, and then much time in Paris making money to support his project. His physical health wasn’t good to begin with, having had three almost fatal bullet wounds, as well as a number of diseases that had turned chronic. When he failed to get enough sleep his health got worse, and he drove into a tree at 90 kilometers an hour (having fallen asleep while driving) and almost died again. The aftermath of that accident had decided him to pursue writing as a way of conveying his knowledge rather than direct teaching, though he still hoped to do that on a large scale. He never managed to do so again, though, and died just as it seemed possible that he could. De Ropp comments that Gurdjieff knew how to control his body, so that he could possibly have lived much longer, but either he lost its balance, or his body had become too damaged to continue longer (he had another serious auto accident about a year before he died). Another writer says that Gurdjieff died of cancer, and had said that cancer and heart disease come usually from a life of conflict–something he had imposed on himself as a teaching method, among other things.

Hubbard never had the knowledge that Gurdjieff had. He was a conman as much as anything else. But his efforts were a lot more successful than Gurdjieff’s, perhaps because he didn’t try to be ethical, as Gurdjieff was. He promised personal power to people (Gurdjieff did too), but in a more familiar form, with a little mysticim tossed in for attraction.

To enhance his power he kept many Scientology members isolated, so they had no access to any other viewpoint. This, however, didn’t apply to his famous members. He concentrated on converting show business people fairly early, with John Travolta and Tom Cruise as possibly the most famous. They got catered to. Ordinary members didn’t.

After de Ropp had been in the USA for awhile, he moved his family to California, and met a number of spiritual leaders of one sort or another, at least in passing. He was at a meeting in which Timothy Leary talked about his ideas about what he wanted to accomplish. De Ropp thought Leary was courting martyrdom through too much publicity, and said so. Leary, whose hearing wasn’t good, turned off his hearing aid. De Ropp’s prophecy came true, as Leary’s career became tragedy mixed with farce.

De Ropp was excited about Carlos Casteneda’s books, and tried unsuccessfully to meet him. He found Casteneda to be an archetype too: the Trickster, with possibly his most successful trick having been to receive a degree from UCLA for a book of fiction. Casteneda’s wife later wrote about him, saying that he seemed to have accomplished what he had wanted (he had left her a number of years earlier), but that he didn’t seem to be very happy with what he’d achieved.

Another acquaintence was Alan Watts, who extolled what he called the “Watercourse Way”, or going with the flow, as people called it in the sixties. He wasn’t terribly happy either, in his later years, and drank too much, injuring his health and dying relatively young.

J.G. Bennett, one of Gurdjieff’s students, was another acquaintence; a very intelligent and energetic man. Too energetic, de Ropp thought. He took on too many large projects and spread himself too thin at an advanced age with uncertain health. He wasn’t young when he died, but could have lived longer and accomplished more.

On the surface, Hubbard was more successful than most of these, but I can’t esteem his achievements very highly. Maybe his techniques have helped people, but the organization he built to control his movement was totalitarian, and made mostly for the acquistion of money and power. And like most hierarchical organizations, there was plenty of jealousy, rivalry and infighting at the top. How was that supposed to help people?

Hubbard’s success is probably best characterized as being a cult leader. He seems to have been charismatic, was certainly imaginative, and adept at getting people to do his bidding. Such people aren’t all that unusual. I need mention no other cult leaders who have come to highly publicized bad ends. Too bad that he confined his efforts to such an area, when he could have done something better.

 

The Dead Lady of Clown Town Revisited

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I suggested a friend read The Dead Lady of Clown Town because I thought it inspiring and Christian in the best sense, and he’s a very strong Christian. I was rather surprised when he declined to read it because it was science fiction, so I suggested he read what I’d written about it. He didn’t seem to have a problem with what I’d written, but still disliked the story because it was based on Joan of Arc, but in this case the main character was a human being made out of a dog (the writer, Cordwainer Smith, had a number of characters in his stories made from animals, who were known as underpeople, and served a future society as slaves) and he thought this indicated that the writer was calling Joan of Arc a bitch.

I doubt this was the writer’s intention, but even if it was, I don’t think it was done to disparage the historical Joan of Arc. On reading the story it becomes clear that the story of Joan wasn’t the only thing the writer was talking about. In the future world of his stories humans take animals, make people of them and enslave them. In this country’s historical past one group of people took another group, enslaved them, and called them animals. Smith’s future world is almost an exact mirror image. Consider that the story was originally published in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and at least part of what Smith was writing about becomes clear.

Great good coming from unlikely sources is also not unprecedented. I suspect that Mary and Joseph’s neighbors had a poor opinion of her for becoming pregnant before getting married. From their perspective, Jesus was a bastard, something much more stigmatized then than today. How could anything good come from a bastard?

In addition, the grownup Jesus (a descendent of King David) associated with people his social class were not supposed to know: prostitutes, Samaritans, tax collectors and radicals. For many Jews of that time and place he must have seemed a very suspect character.

The historical Joan of Arc herself, so far as I know, was an ordinary peasant girl before the accomplishments that made her famous. A good many people of her time and place wouldn’t have associated with her either. The historical Joan and the Joan of the story share the fate of the historical Jesus of having sacrificed themselves for the good of others. Having done that, why should it matter to them or anyone else if ignorant people called them nasty names?

Just a few years after this story was written Martin Luther King also sacrificed himself. He didn’t know when it was coming, but he never expected to have a long life because of the hazardous duty he had under-taken. He didn’t shirk that duty, as the above characters also did not. We know that a great many people hated King, considering him even worse than a bitch or bastard. Should we be offended that they called him bad names, or merely consider the source?

We could also question God’s intentions in arranging Jesus’ birth so that it would look as if he were illegitimate. Why would he do that? I’m inclined it was at least in part to make people think more deeply about how good things and people can come from circumstances that most people would disdain.

I think Smith’s intention (if it was conscious) was similar: since his Joan was made from a dog, you could call her a bitch, but he never portrays her as behaving that way in the story. He describes her as a child, though with future technology she has been imprinted with many other personalities, giving her knowledge, but not experience. She knows from the beginning that she will have to die to carry out the prophecy concerning her, but seems not to falter in following the path of the prophecy. And even Jesus is said to have had his moment of doubt in the garden of Gethsemane, according to the New Testament. If Smith did indeed purposely call her a bitch (which I doubt), I think it was only to show how unimportant such names are in the light of great accomplishment.

There are explanations of the Crucifiction’s significance, but without divine understanding we can’t know if they are anything like a complete description of what happened. We know that one event changed history, while hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands other crucifictions apparently did not.

It seems to me that one of the points not usually emphasized in the New Testament story of Jesus is that holiness can come from anywhere and can go anywhere. It can cause humans to behave as if they were more than human, if only for a short while. After Jesus’s death his apostles became more than they had been before. During the Civil Rights movement people were courageous apparently to the point of insanity according to the ordinary human perspective. They put themselves in great danger to make life better for their people and at least potentially for their persecutors. How they obtained the courage to behave that way I don’t know if it’s possible to explain, except to suspect that they were able to love their enemies, as Jesus had commanded, at least for awhile.

I think it’s pretty clear that’s what Cordwainer Smith was writing about, and if in the process he seemed to call Joan of Arc a bitch, that’s at best a side-issue.

 

Existence

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David Brin’s novel, Existence, is built to be a very wide-angle lens, with a format similar to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and even more like John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. It takes quotes from a variety of sources, introduces many disparate characters in many places who eventually converge as the action heats up.

A lot of the novel is a survey of problems we currently face, and will continue to face some 40 years from now, when the novel begins. That’s the problem background, and a source called Pandora’s Cornucopia frequently is quoted concerning things that might drive the human race to extinction, including a number of human activities.

Natural catastrophes, like an asteroid falling out of the sky, are things humans have little control over, but others, like Artifical Intelligence, nanotechnology, meddling with genetic codes (our own, as well as other species), to say nothing of pollution of air, land and water are all mentioned.

This future world has already had some catastrophes, but has so far managed to survive fairly intact. There’s been use of atomic weapons, which fortunately didn’t go too far. The seas have risen to encroach shorelines around the world. Terrorism continues, and doesn’t seem likely to go away. And of course the future is uncertain. Industrial civilization has set a lot of processes in motion, and we don’t know the ultimate effects of very many of them.

But all of that is background to the main theme of the book: First Contact. That’s a science fiction term for the human race first encountering an alien race, and how that is likely to go. Actually, there have been a lot of first contacts between various segments of our planet’s population, and historically, the higher-tech cultures have usually treated the lower-tech cultures badly. If we met and alien race that is not human, the shoe might well turn out to be on the other foot.

Some people believe that the aliens who pilot the UFO’s (if you credit UFOs) are benign, more highly developed than we are, and yearn to help us solve our problems. That’s a hypothesis we shouldn’t take for granted. Extrapolating from our own nature as a species, it’s logical to expect that other races would be as much of a mixed bag as we. Maybe any race that can travel between planets and stars has evolved to a point that they are no threat to any other intelligent race, but it would be rash to assume so.

On the other hand, it would also be unwise to assume that other races are as malevolent as humans can sometimes be. George Gurdjieff, in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, has Beelzebub as an alien from another solar system who has been exiled to this one for some unspecified imprudent act. He’s very long-lived, having arrived on Earth early enough to visit Atlantis and the prosperous city of Gob in the middle of what is now the Gobi desert, and surviving until the present, though he is now relatively old. He has witnessed a large part of human development, and is generally not impressed. He says that most, if not all, planets in the universe contain life, and often intelligent life, and differentiates this world because it’s the only one in which three-brained beings (as he calls humans and their equivalents) kill each other. Probably coincidentally, C.S. Lewis came up with a similar scenario of Earth as under quarantine because of corruption in his science fiction trilogy beginning with Out of the Silent Planet.

Gurdjieff collected a great deal of information about a wide variety of things. Whether the above assertion is just a fictional device is a question I can’t answer, but it’s just possible he might have known something about the subject, as he seems to have done about many things most of us consider unknowable. One thing that encourages me to believe he may have is that he was not a naive man. He penetrated many secret societies, including those of revolutionaries, and had sustained three very serious bullet wounds, all of which left him close to death. He later lived through the Russian revolution, mostly in the Caucasus, which may have been slightly less virulent than in other places, but where you could easily get killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for seeming to be on the wrong political side. Such an environment doesn’t produce Pollyannas.

The type of alien contact described in this book is unusual: an alien artifact in which the downloaded personalities of a variety of aliens live. So the personalities met are virtual rather than actual, which doesn’t keep them from being intentionally misleading. When the artifact speaks first to humans, it says, “Join us.” Humans jump to the conclusion that means there’s some kind of organization of civilizations, perhaps similar to the UN that they’re being invited to join. It turns out differently. They are being invited to make more of the artifacts, which they will send on to other stars, and which will include some human individuals.

Humans had hoped for help with world and societal problems. The aliens offer them none. They say that all societies die, which makes the use of the artifacts questionable. What good do they do?

Whether or not all civilizations do die when they reach the approximate technological level that humans have reached is a question left open in the book, as is the question of just what the artifacts were supposed to do. We do learn that there’s been conflict between artifacts (and that there are a great many of them in the solar system besides the one first found), that many have tried (with some success) to destroy each other, and that there was an alien race in the asteroids  about to colonize the earth just before they were destroyed, long before humans had even begun to evolve. This whole process has been going on a VERY long time.

So much of what you want to know is left indefinite, leaving room for one or more sequels. There has obviously been a great struggle in the galaxy, presumably a political one, but we haven’t found out anything substantive about it by the end of the book. Humans have, though, wisely refused to send any artifacts to other stars, and use what seem to be artifacts (some 10 million of them) to form a telescope of unprecedented range and capability to try to find out just what has been going on. There the story is left.

It’s also unclear just how Earth’s problems have been solved sufficiently to be able to afford such an effort. Maybe the threat of aliens whose intentions are unclear, and just might be malignant has been enough.

One thing the novel is clear on, though, is that we can never really foretell the future. It’s always more complicated than we expect, with more factors than we can keep track of. One of the political groups in the book is the Renunciationists, who want to end technology to a large extent, which makes some degree of sense. The question really, though, is how to make use of technology without letting it make use of us, and keep a balance between it and the natural world that we depend on. Technology is neutral. It is controlled by human beings, and if human beings are unwise, as they frequently are, it can become evil, but it doesn’t have to be.

Similarly, we can fear and hate people of other ethnicities and beliefs, just as we might well fear and hate real aliens, no matter how well-disposed towards us they turned out to be. Treating any such groups decently, and looking for what the author calls positive sum games–situations in which all sides can win–is a better strategy than what we usually come up with.

Technophobes and fanatics of various types won’t favor such solutions, and one wonders just who will at this time in our history. That approach seems like one of the few that gives us a fighting chance to survive and make a good future for all or most.