Inferno (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Inferno1Abandon all hope… she’s reviewing another NivPourn book.

A comedy: less divine, more contrapasso. Perhaps a small penance for those bloggers who make fun of old classics, including that awesome time-travel story you loved when you were eleven and now you haven’t the social-awareness and maturity to admit to the shortcomings of things you enjoy. I’m sure I had it coming.

In Inferno, Larry and Jerry’s 1975 novel serialized in Galaxy, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter (Jesus reference! Jesus reference!) dies after a drunken fall at a science fiction convention. He recovers to find himself in a timeless void until his guide, some guy named Benito, rescues him from a bottle and takes him through the vestibule and into the ten circles of Hell. The rational, agnostic Carpenter prefers to think he’s in a far-future theme park called Infernoland. Modeled off of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Niven and Pournelle parody the pedantic mindset of the Hard sci-fi writer.

But, when even Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are surprised by the success of one of their books, you know you have stumbled upon an INSIGNIFICANT MOMENT OF GENRE HISTORYYYYY.
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A SciFi Monkey Story


”’Japanese Macaque”’ (”Macaca fuscata”) October 4, 2004. One of Iwatayama Monkey Park’s 170 monkeys. Photographer: David Turner {{GFDL}

I was at a workshop this week, and the presenter imparted this lovely bit of [misleading] wisdom:

In a 30-year study of the behavior of Japanese Macaque monkeys, one population of monkeys was given crates of sweet potatoes covered in dirt. At first, the monkeys ate the sweet potatoes and spat out the dirt, but one day, a young monkey discovered that water could wash off the dirt. That monkey taught the water trick to all of its hip little friends, and finally, grudgingly, the young monkeys taught the older generations how to wash their potatoes. Eventually, all of the monkeys washed their potatoes before consumption.

When the researchers estimated that the hundredth monkey had learned to wash its potatoes, the washing behavior was suddenly observed among populations of monkeys on other islands! The researchers determined that this behavior was proof that positive behaviors, when shared by a community of one hundred or more, can metaphysically leap into other populations, without any verbal or proximate contact, or monkey wi-fi. 

The researchers called this The Hundredth Monkey Effect.

We’re talking about psychic monkeys, people!

The presenter shared the story in order to illustrate the power of deliberate, positive behavior, and the importance of youth culture (although the youth component is left out of the stories I’ve found online).

That’s lovely, really, but the story is misleading, and the science is false, which the above link explains further down into the article. Still, the presenter believed the story and explained it as proven scientific fact, and the audience was entranced. But as soon as she started talking about behaviors leaping across space, byway of quantum physics (she really said “quantum physics”), I called, “Bullshit.” (Well, I muttered “bullshit” to myself and started googling for the deets on my phone.)

Anyway, it turns out that Japanese macaque monkeys can swim. And critical thinking is an important skill. And, it is possible to be a skeptic and enjoy SF, and recognize the difference.

Has anyone heard this story before? It was a first for me, but apparently it’s a common tale.

And, if you like scienc-y, critical thinking things, you should check out Science Book A Day, my favorite nonfiction book blog. I was flattered that Mr. PopSciGuy himself, George Aranda, asked me to provide a list this week of some my favorite scienc-y Sci Fi books. It was quite a task, but I did my best to sample from many styles and decades. I’ll also keep it posted on the “Suggested Reading Lists” link on the left side bar.