Author Archives: Mike White

Do we still need science journals? What are the functions of science journals anyway?

In my latest Pacific Standard column, I write about Nature Publishing Group’s new read-only access policy, allowing subscribers and select media outlets to share links that tunnel through the paywall. I argue that it’s time to get back to basics: We need to ask, why do we have science journals, and do we still need them in the 21st century?

Ever since their inception, science journals have served three primary roles:

#1 They disseminate research findings to the community

#2 They provide quality control by organizing peer review

#3 They serve as a record of priority and research accomplishment

In his Very Short Introduction volume on economics, the economist Partha Dasgupta has a nice explanation of how these functions of a journal were an important innovation of the Scientific Revolution, as a way to provide incentives for researchers to produce and share knowledge as a public good: Continue reading

Apocalypse 1908: The First Anthropogenic Climate Change Novel

Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Evacuation of England (1908)

Digging the Panama Canal in 1907

Digging the Panama Canal in 1907

One of the pleasures of reading older post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing how the major themes and plot ideas of today’s genre were first introduced more than one hundred years ago. But just because writers came up with these great ideas doesn’t mean that their books are any good. Many of them are; however the American writer Louis Gratacap’s pioneering post-apocalyptic novel wins the prize as the most turgid and unreadable novel I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ll admit it: I didn’t actually read the whole book; my reading quickly changed into a slow skim. Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute has the same opinion:

Gratacap’s range was wide, incorporating much material which has become central to sf, but his books are overlong, choked by his compulsive didacticism, and nearly unreadable today.

So why bother with The Evacuation of England? Because Gratacap came up with a major innovation that is absolutely central to post-apocalyptic SF today. To my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong), Evacuation is the first novel in which civilization is destroyed by a natural disaster caused by human beings. It’s the world’s first anthropogenic climate change novel. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1906: The Origins of the YA Dystopia

Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman (1906)

p064-insertThe Doomsman opens in what seems to be the primitive past: A young man sits on the shore of a bay, dressed in a tunic. In the forest behind him are the heavy wooden walls of a stockade, a clue to the defensive nature of life in this sparsely inhabited country. But not everything fits. The young man is looking across the bay at a vague, dark outline of some tall structure, while in his hands he holds a book: A Child’s History of the United States. He is sitting on the shores of New York, looking out at what’s left of Manhattan.

It would make a great opening shot for a movie — a YA post-apocalyptic movie. The Doomsman is, like After London, one of the earliest examples of the post-apocalyptic YA adventure. The plot follows the familiar pattern: A restless boy is trying to understand his society and discover how it fell from its seemingly more glorious and technologically marvelous past. Excitement, danger, and romance ensue; the boy proves his manhood, discovers the secrets of lost technologies, and seeks to win the girl. (The gender pattern here wouldn’t be swapped until decades later.) Much of what appeals to us in present-day YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games is here in Doomsman, in a form that only feels a little dated. Continue reading

The next new wave of science fiction will be Chinese

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, tr. Ken Liu

Back in the middle of the 20th century, during the height of the Cold War, Soviet science fiction was an exotic commodity. As Judith Merril wrote about her 1966 anthology of Soviet SF:

[This anthology] contains some startling insights into the philosophical premises of the contemporary imaginative outlook in the U.S.S.R. And it provides a rather shocking reminder of how uneven the exchange has been so far.

For nearly a century, the center of gravity for science fiction has been the U.S and the U.K. But there is much in “the rest of the world” (as one anthology somewhat condescendingly puts it) that English fans never get a chance to read. More than fifty years after Merrils’ anthology, the exchange between U.S and foreign science fiction readers is still uneven, with very little foreign SF being translated. Some of the great works of the Strugatsky brothers remain in print in the U.S. And Stanisław Lem is still the great exception; nearly all of his works are available in English. But by and large non-English science fiction doesn’t really exist for American readers. Continue reading

End of the World 1906: The Haunted Apocalypse

George Long’s Valhalla (1906)

Valhalla1906Post-apocalyptic worlds are always haunted. The empty ruins of great cities, the artifacts of lost technologies, the mouldering books, and the memories of the vanished civilization make it clear that the survivors are now living in the world of the dead. In George Long’s Valhalla, the haunting is literal: the world is now one great hall of the dead, with a billion spirits ready to lend their ghostly hands to help the survivors build a better future. While it’s stiffly written and poorly plotted, this short book is nevertheless an interesting artifact from that optimistic time before the First World War. As he describes a new civilization rebuilt under the guidance of the dead from the last one, Long suggests that the root of human dysfunction is simple: jealousy of love and power. Without jealousy, there would be no serious conflict and people will get along just fine.

Like The Purple Cloud, Valhalla is one of those post-apocalyptic books where the world has been almost entirely depopulated, but those who are left don’t really have to struggle for survival. Living in the aftermath of the greatest natural disaster ever, Long’s characters don’t worry about the challenges posed by nature; more threatening are the challenges they pose to each other. The catastrophe itself is a vaguely described series of events that resemble the biblical apocalypse: Continue reading