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Peregrine flight

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Modern Primitive


I am an extremely ignorant human being. Not necessarily stupid, but well, rather dense and uninformed. I was thinking to myself the other day about several post apocalyptic, end of the world scenarios and realized just how helpless I would be in a traumatic event, like a prolonged electro magnetic pulse breakdown or the like.

Put Robert Sommers in charge of getting our ship back on its feet and we have a serious problem, ladies and gentlemen. For instance, construct a simple battery. Well I sort of remember, you can use a lemon, right? Need an electrical conductor like copper, am I getting close? Truth is, my number one priority would be finding vodka, I'd most likely use the lemon to fashion a crude gimlet and watch Ragnarok and the final breakdown drunk. And if I stumbled upon the way to actually making a battery, you think I could conceive of an application for it?  Like assembling a hundred monkeys with typewriters and thinking that if you give them enough time you will get War and Peace.

Fire. How many of you could recognize flint in situ? And know where to mine or procure it in its natural state? Not I. Forget the campfire, that is unless you remembered to bring plenty of matches.

If I did not have the benefit of several thousand years of institutional knowledge, would I have any idea that the earth was a round body orbiting the sun? Doubtful. Count me in as one of those hairless apes who would probably be engaged in some fervent daily incantation to encourage helios to rise up off this flat surface every morning after its dip over the edge of the world.

Would I have the capacity to recognize that Polaris stayed fixed in its position? Don't think so. But the ancients did. Watched the heavens so closely that they chronicled meteor explosions on the moon in the eighth century. Or knew that five planets moved across the starry vault, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Eratosthenes, a greek living in Egypt in the third century b.c.e. figured out both the distance to the sun and a pretty good approximation of the actual circumference of the earth by measuring the reflection of sunlight down his well on June 21st. Think I could do that? Not a chance.

Aristotle, Pythagoras, Curie, Newton, Pasteur, Einstein, Tesla, Marconi. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but how many of us have a clue of how to get from there to here? Not me.

We have our computers and brittanicas and a web that allows us to summon the sum total of accumulated knowledge in a hypersecond yet we remain functionally illiterate, or should I say, I do. Fix a car? Please. Short of rapping on a solenoid with a wrench, I am pretty much toast. Could I temper steel? Or figure out the mathematical precepts behind a slide rule? No. Make or more importantly, identify penicillin? Right...

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I am reading a bunch of science fiction these days, a pleasure that I haven't afforded myself in some time. Not the new stuff, but rereading some of the greats. Yesterday I read Frederick Pohl's magnificent short story The Gold at the Starbow's End from 1972. America launches a bunch of hip kids into space, towards a planet that may or may not actually exist, Alpha Aleph. They start playing with the I ching, sex, drugs, number theory and get super smart and well, I don't want to blow the ending. Great story. Also read Kornbluth's Two Dooms.

It is a danger sometimes to revisit the books you loved in childhood and see how they hold up to a more mature scrutiny. I tried it with Hesse last year and it was a disaster. Narcissus and Goldmund and Journey to the East, two books I had once loved, were now pretty much unreadable. What had I been thinking? Or have I devolved somehow?

Yesterday I went to the Bottom Shelf and picked up a Zelazny story I hadn't read in 40 years for fifty cents. Looked for William Morris's Well at the Edge of the World but no William Morris fiction currently in the library system. I went back to my computer and ordered a couple Lord Dunsany books from childhood, one in hard cover. Will revisit the gods of Pegana and several other treasures of my youth. One of my old hard bound books, Tales of Wonder, long lost, is now worth over five hundred dollars. Who knew?

Truth be told, I am looking for one specific story from the time and honestly can't remember either the author or title. But I am confident that if I immerse myself in the old neighborhood, it will eventually present itself to me.

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I have a short story in mind of my own brewing. Need some space and time, will see if I can pull it off.


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