Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dancing with the Internet

1. Another "earth-like" planet bites the dust.

A trinary star system. Alpha Centauri AB, a double star, on left; Beta Centauri on right; Proxima Centauri, circled in red is at 5:00 relative to Alph.

Too bad, because it's real close by, circling Proxima Centauri (the "proxima" is a dead give-away), the closest star to ours. The planet is only 30% more massive than earth (1.3 earths) and circles Prox within its "habitable" zone. Alas, there is more to "earth-like" than size and distance from its sun. It has to be the right kind of sun. Prox is a red dwarf. (No, not that Red Dwarf.) Which means the planet must orbit real close to the star (0.05 AU), and hence whirl real fast (1 year = 11.2 earth-days). This probably puts it into tidal lock, with one side always facing the star and the other in perpetual night. Red dwarves are stable, but given to periodic petulant outbursts: X-ray flares that could strip water vapor from the atmosphere and sterilize the sunside of the planet.

Yeah, earth-like.

2. Was the Early Universe Cream of Wheat or Oatmeal?

Robert Scherrer, a cosmologist at Vanderbilt, wonders how lumpy the early universe was.

3. The Madness Continues

I bet you didn't know that data and statistics were racist. Neither did TOF! And yet, according to a "discipline" called "QuantCrit" and "Critical Race Theory", which sound awfully serious and academicalistic, they apparently are.
Quantitative research enjoys heightened esteem among policy-makers, media, and the general public. Whereas qualitative research is frequently dismissed as subjective and impressionistic, statistics are often assumed to be objective and factual. We argue that these distinctions are wholly false; quantitative data is no less socially constructed than any other form of research material. The first part of the paper presents a conceptual critique of the field with empirical examples that expose and challenge hidden assumptions that frequently encode racist perspectives beneath the façade of supposed quantitative objectivity. The second part of the paper draws on the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) to set out some principles to guide the future use and analysis of quantitative data. These ‘QuantCrit’ ideas concern (1) the centrality of racism as a complex and deeply rooted aspect of society that is not readily amenable to quantification; (2) numbers are not neutral and should be interrogated for their role in promoting deficit analyses that serve White racial interests; (3) categories are neither ‘natural’ nor given and so the units and forms of analysis must be critically evaluated; (4) voice and insight are vital: data cannot ‘speak for itself’ and critical analyses should be informed by the experiential knowledge of marginalized groups; (5) statistical analyses have no inherent value but can play a role in struggles for social justice.
-- David Gillborn, Paul Warmington & Sean Demack. "QuantCrit: education, policy, ‘Big Data’ and principles for a critical race theory of statistics." (Race Ethnicity and Education, Vol. 21, 2018 - Issue 2: QuantCrit:Rectifying Quantitative Methods Through Critical Race Theory.)
Reading between the lines, TOF suspects the authors are writing about quantitative analysis in something called social "sciences," and in this TOF actually agrees with them. As Daniel Dennett observed regarding efforts to study "religion" in the social "sciences,"
There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. 
which is essentially the same complaint as made by Gillborn et al. Of course, to them, it is all in service to white (is there any other kind?) racism. When your only tool is a hammer, everything becomes a nail, and one can never expect a paper appearing in a journal entitle Race Ethnicity and Education to discover a case of no racism!

However, TOF disagrees with them that reified numbers are themselves racist, let alone that we may "interrogate" them. One may as well call genes "selfish." LOL. It is entirely possible that data are used by racists -- we note that all three co-authors are white and therefore, ipso facto, racists (though TOF notices a deficit among those who find society "deeply rooted" in racism to include themselves among those entangled in those roots); but it is more likely that their confreres have been using statistics ineptly in an effort to imitate real scientists. Their efforts to measure the immeasurable are cute, but calling a questionnaire an "instrument" does not make it the equivalent of a micrometer or a telescope.

It is not likely that confirmation bias has allowed the authors to see that this applies equally well to "studies" of religious believers, "free will," Republicans, conservatives, or any other targets of their colleagues' gimlet eyes.

4. A Lament for Canada

By David Warren may sound familiar to more southern [USAn] ears. The whole is worth reading.
We confront today a State which has taken upon itself an interventionist rôle in every aspect of daily life; which claims an authority far beyond that of the Church in the most remote theocratic corner of the Dark Ages. And through modern technology, neutral in itself, the State has acquired absolute power to enforce its authority and its whims.

We have what I now call the State as Twisted Nanny, imposing her insatiable will on the motherless children of our post-modern orphanage, now that the traditional family is largely destroyed. Twisted Nanny treats her “clients” as wayward children, of no individual significance, and with “rights” only insofar as they are organized in groups for whining, and need to be bought off. 
-- David Warren, "News to a foreign country" (Essays in Idleness)
Commenting on the "media," he goes on to say:
"I would call very few of my former [journalist] colleagues Leftists or fanatics of any kind, or even uncritical supporters of the mainstream progressive agenda. In private, many will utter things that would explode the heads of the politically correct — if they were listening. But first they look around to see who is listening. That caution, about being overheard, is a sign of our times.
###
Never expect the agents of publicity to be on your side; think one step ahead of them, instead. They won’t be on your side today or tomorrow, or until the day that you win everything, and even then, they won’t be on your side. For they will be on the side of power and comfort, as they always were. If the whole country turned Mediaeval Catholic, tomorrow morning, they would kneel and take up their Rosaries; and have as much faith as they had the day before."

 5. Le Steampunk Ancien

Mark Koyama, an economist at George Mason University specializing in economic history, law and economics and institutional economics, enthralled by an alt-hist novel, Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale, asks, "Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?"

The short answer is, "Of course not." The rather longer answer, by Mr. Koyama, is "Sure could have!" He writes:
"Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own. The novel throws new light on our own attitudes to terrorism, globalization, torture, and the clash of cultures. It is highly recommended."
Well, whatever. When the only mental tool you have is a hammer, all of history is full of nails. Another possibility is that Jesus was of no particular secular consequence at the time, and it was Rome that was into torture and globalization, and wrt to the Jews [and the Gauls] was on a roll clash-of-cultures-wise. Not to mention the Persians. with whom they were more-or-less in a permanent state of clash.

Mention is made of Heron of Alexandria's invention of the "steam engine" in Early Imperial times and suggests that this did not catch on because the vast number of slaves meant human labor never lost its economic comparative advantage, almost as if Progress™ were a given unless something "impedes" it. This analysis loses its charm when we realize that Heron's aeolipile was not in fact an engine of any sort. That is, it could not do work, for the excellent reason that the arts of metallurgy were not sufficiently advanced to produce steam boilers sufficient to retain the necessary pressures to drive jack. Prior art matters. 

Dale, a lawyer, speculates that an early industrial revolution might have been realized had Archimedes not been killed during Marcellus' sack of Syracus. But this supposes that Archimedes was an inventor of some practical kind based on yarns about his inventions during the siege, some of which are downright fantastical. Now, these gadgets had been built well before to illustrate theorems in geometry and just happened to be sitting there when the Romans showed up. Others had done so in ages past, only to be denounced by Plato for involving base matter in what should have been the pure spiritual pursuit of geometry. In Plutarch's Life of Marcellus (written ca. AD 75 about events that took place in 212 BC) we find the source for these stories and learn that:
Yet Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, of the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration. 
 IOW, it is unlikely whether, had he lived, Archimedes would have been the Spark of an Industrial Revolution. The mental attitudes were not there. He certainly had not been so up to then. As Brian Stock wrote in "Science, Technology, and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages," [the Roman’s] "daily experience led him to believe that nature’s forces could be imitated, even placated; he was less sure they could be understood." In the same essay he adds, "The failure of Greece and Rome to increase productivity through innovation is as notorious as the inability of historians from Gibbon to the present to account for it."

37 comments:

  1. Help me out with Plutarch. I've been reading his Lives and can't tell: are his praises of what modern me sees as ludicrous practices sarcastic? Or is he a standard pagan praising pagan things? Sometimes he sounds very "Brutus is an honorable man!" to me, but then I think I'm probably just projecting...

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    1. Probably just projecting. When he writes about the omens associated with the deaths of the greats, that was just standard practice.

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    2. I figure the overall rhapsodic accounts are just standard bios. I was thinking more of stuff like "well, this type of military training for boys may *sound* terrifyingly harsh, but he was such a great guy that it was actually wonderful!" or "parades of nubile maidens may seem like a weird idea, but this man was amazing so we know it must have worked really well!"

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  2. Tom,

    There's a Catalan young adult novel that's alt history called La Republica pneumatica. I haven't had a chance to read the books (there are 2 so far) but the authour very generously gave me his glossary. He explains the alt history and yeah Christanity was wiped out in the Claudian restoration of the republic. But there was another similar religion called the Way of the poor for the lower classes.


    Reading through the glossary, the alt history is actually quite logical and coherent using Heron's steam machine as the point of departure.
    I'd really like to read the books because I want to discover how he deals with the whole metallurgy and energy questions for the Roman industrial revolution.

    xavier

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    1. Usually, it's hand-waving, because Late Moderns don't know why it took so long and, as I said, we assume that technological progress is the default mode. But then we have to explain why there was no technological revolution or scientific revolution anywhere else in the world.

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    2. Tom

      No argument from me. From the little i've read of Jaki, the key was Christanity with a long gestation period to work out theological questions

      xavier

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  3. If the authors of your paper can't even understand that "data" is a plural, how can you trust anything they say?

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    1. Sometimes "data" is treated as grammatically uncountable, in English. At which point "datum" becomes something like the singulative number found in Welsh. (In Welsh, the word for something like "single blade of grass" may be an inflection of the word "grass".)

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  4. It is true, though, that slavery was a big factor in the lack of technological progress in most of the world; and the lack of it (legally at least) in the Latin West a factor in their unique advancement in that area. (I say "legally at least" because there was apparently a lot of black-market human-trafficking in the medieval world, as in ours, though their slaves seem to have mostly been kitchen drudges instead of "sex workers".) Slaves are labor-saving devices, they don't use labor-saving devices.

    Indeed the fact they brought slavery back may be why there wasn't all that much technical advancement in most of the Renaissance, except in weaponry (a field in which the Romans, too, were often quite innovative—probably because war was a freeman's pursuit). Though the tech did precede the abolition of slavery, in the modern instance—that the North was industrialized was still a factor in their abolitionism. (Of course, you might actually prefer to be a plantation slave to being a 19th-century factory worker. Cotton picking doesn't entail contracting phossy jaw and you're a lot less likely to lose a limb.)

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    1. On the other hand, 19th-century factory workers did not get flogged for missing their quotas, their families could not be taken away from them and sold, and they were free to go where they liked outside of working hours. And with ingenuity and luck, you could work your way up and out of a factory job. A good many of the great inventors, engineers, and industrialists of Victorian times got their start as mill hands. And then there was Joseph Wright, who started off working in a quarry at the age of six, and ended by being an Oxford professor. Rather tricky for a slave to pull that off.

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    2. No need to tell me why slavery was bad. But 19th century industrialism was also bad—so bad, it made people mistake Karl Marx for a historian and economist.

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    3. And in the 18th century, people mistook Jean-Jacques Rousseau for a philosopher and political scientist. And nowadays we have Noam Chomsky. The existence of successful charlatans is no index to the badness of life at any particular period.

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    4. Rousseau tapped into the subconscious assumptions of the post-Reformation world: he basically preached secularized Calvinism with a reverse Total Depravity (though the Noble Savage actually figured less in his thought than in that of many of his contemporaries). And he asserted a truth then neglected, the Rights of Man, though like all heresiarchs he tried to make it stand alone instead of with countless other truths.

      Chomsky came along in the heyday of pervasive propaganda (and of the advertising guru), and the death throes of modernism. And all his sins on his head, to assert, in the era of existentialism and postmodernism, that there is human nature, even merely in language, is to assert a truth. Like Rousseau he broke that one truth out of its place among the others and tried to make it a whole worldview, but like all heresies his, too, lived by what it retained.

      Every era gets the charlatans it deserves, generally people who latch onto one truth contemporary society is ignoring—hence why their dupes experience them as a revelation.

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    5. Reversing Total Depravity into a denial of Original Sin altogether, is by this point probably the big "post-Calvinist" error. Marx has it too. It's not a coincidence he came from Prussia, the one part of Germany that went Calvinist in the Reformation; it's not a coincidence Rousseau was from Geneva. And both studied history in England, the other big Calvinist center. It's also not a coincidence that all revolutionaries since them have had the Puritan's view of art: it's basically evil unless it preaches a moral. You must've noticed that element in people like the Tumblr SJWs. They also have the mindset found in that other great Calvinist institution: witch-hunts.

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  5. Speaking of tabs, did you see this interview? https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/03/13/a-conversation-with-patrick-moore/

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  6. Mr. Flynn, for school I have to do a paper on a career I desire to pursue and I chose to be a science fiction writer. One thing that is needed for my paper is a questionnaire of a person who is a science fiction writer. Since your'e a science fiction writer, may I you questions about your writing career?

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    1. Okay, but I don't think I have had a typical career. For one thing, it's never been full time.

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    2. Okay, Question 1: What inspired you to be a science fiction writer?

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    3. When I was a small child, my father told my brother and me bedtime stories about aliens that turned out (as we learned later) to have been cribbed from Damon Knight ("To Serve Man") and Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles). Good night. Sleep tight. His uncle used to tell him bedtime stories about Gordo of the Moon, illustrated with cartoons, so who knows how far back that goes. Later, we made an 8mm move called "Around the World in 80 Frames" in which my brother and I staffed a wheel-shaped space station (made of a plastic model and superimposed by trick photography (as SFX was then called) over a blackboard and billiard ball-planets, while a third brother played various earth inhabitants over which the station orbited and whom we observed. So it was natural that when we were 10 or 12, my brother and I began writing our own tales -- in pencil, in spiral notebooks, illustrated with cartoons made with Magic Markers, back when Magic Markers gave off genuine volatile organic compounds. Later, we found or Dad's stash of Galaxy and If. At the library, we ran through every SF book in the children's section, then talked the librarian into letting us check out SF from the adult section. I still have some of the "stories" that my mother saved that he and I banged out on an old Smith-Corona manual typewriter.

      IOW, there was never a time when we didn't imagine that we would one day write SF stories. I still have rejection slips I earned in childhood.

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    4. Wow, that's an incredible story. Question 2: Which author or authors would you say are major influences on your writing style?

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    5. Robert A. Heinlein
      Poul Anderson
      L. Sprague deCamp
      probably others of whom I am not consciously aware. I have been told some of my stories have "imitated" writers whose stories I have never read, thus proving telepathy! Or perhaps that the kind of story may perhaps shape the style of writing.

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    6. Question 3: How much money does a science fiction author like yourself make off your work?

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    7. Money? Why, we do this for sheer love, with never a thought to recompense!

      Well, okay. Editors, in a fit of insanity sometimes insist on pressing silver into our palms or, more usually, a few coppers. It is certainly not the royal road to wealth and prosperity and few indeed are the writers who have ever made a living writing full-time. In fact, you will notice that the short-story magazine, where most writers once learned their craft, has virtually disappeared. This is largely because (imho) that while the Great Inflation reduced the dollar to its intrinsic value as a finely engraved piece of printed paper, payment by the magazines has not changed much from the 1950s.

      Neither, for that matter have payments for novels. A first-time sale will get an advance of perhaps a couple thousand dollars and unless you are very very lucky, that's all the money you will ever see.

      Technically, payments for novels are different from payments for stories. The latter are "non-employee compensation" while the former are "advances against royalties." The book publisher agrees to turn over to you an agreed percentage of the cover price of the book. This will vary depending on your perceived attractiveness on the shelf and will often slide as more copies are sold, and different rates for hardcover, trade paper, mass market paper, e-book, etc. This is all complicated by the fact that book marketing is in arrears and on consignment. That is, booksellers don't pay the publisher until after the book is sold but the publisher registers the sale when the bookseller orders it shipped. So there is a time lag when the seller might return unsold copies for credit. The advance is a gamble by the publisher that the book will earn enough in royalties less returns to cover the nut of the advance. Once the book has earned enough in royalties to cover the advance already paid, it is said to have "earned out" and new money is now due the author. These are paid every six months. Sadly, most books never "earn out."

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    8. Question 4: Where would be the place for baginning science fictiin writers to start out at? Which magazine or publisher, to be more specific?

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    9. I can only tell you where it was in the 1980s. Things may be very different now, and I am no longer a "beginning" writer. Generically, you want a place with an editor. That means someone other than yourself. Self-publishing guarantees acceptance; but it also pretty much guarantees no advance in your craft and no advance against royalties.

      Secondly, you want an editor with skill. Hack editors can do more harm than good. An editor who was also a successful writer is a good sign, but not a necessary one. The late David Hartwell was a very good book editor; Gardner Dozois now retired from Asimov's magazine was a renowned story editor. There are others. I had a great relationship with Stan Schmidt at Analog magazine. He never made a suggestion that did not improve a story.

      In SF, the Big Three are: Analog, Asimov's, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Naturally, there is a crowd at the door trying to get in. Then there are a host of smaller 'zines that come and go. The smaller 'zines may be easier to break into, but they often don't pay as well -- below professional rates or only in copies (not money!), especially those with literary pretensions. My first acceptance was a story submitted to a contest at Galileo magazine, which Charlie Ryan accepted for regular publication instead; but the magazine folded before it appeared and I never got paid. After a time in which Charlie tried to shop an anthology, I sent it to Analog, where Stan bought it. In those days, Analog paid on acceptance, so there I was with a couple hundred bucks in my hot little hands.

      Book publishers do take "over the transom" submissions, but you are usually better off finding an agent first. For a first sale, agents won't get you a better deal, but they can get you noticed. They are beginning to fill the niche that editors used to fill at the big houses. The problem is a lot of agents are full up and aren't taking on new clients.

      Hence, the recent rise of self-publishing, enabled by e-publishing and short-run presses. It fills the niche once inhabited by vanity presses with the advantage that you don't have to pay the press, or at least not much to see your name in print. The advantage is that you bypass all the agent-editor-marketing stuff. The disadvantage is that you have to be your own agent, editor, and marketing department when you should be writing your next book. It's not enough to write a book and publish a book. You have to get it distributed and you have to get people to take notice of it.

      These really are different skill sets, and a writer can be so in love with his own words, he can't see that all that lovely prose should be ruthlessly chopped out and left on the floor. (Compare the early Heinlein to the late Heinlein when he had become too big and famous to edit.)

      A local writers group can be a good place to get in touch with other writers. They often run annual cons where agents and editors show up.

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    10. Question 5: What do you think is the importance of science fiction in today's society?

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    11. Virtually none, from an objective viewpoint. A bit of a diversion.

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  7. Question 6: What do you enjoy most about writing science fiction stories?

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    1. A chance to exercise a skill and create imaginary worlds.

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    2. Question 7: What advice would you give to an aspiring science writer?

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    3. Hard to say. It depends on where the writer is starting from. First and foremost (assuming you meant 'science fiction writer') is to study the field. This is primarily to avoid repeating story ideas that have been done to death; but also to find the kinds of stories that excite you. (If they don't excite you, you won't be able to excite others.) In short fiction, it's a way of learning the kinds of stories that appeal to different editors; in long-form it's a way of discovering what novels are popular in the market right now. The point is not slavish imitation, but perhaps to find an entree into the market by introducing your own stories in a particular way. In my own case, I had been reading Analog for years before I sold my first story there. Curiously, reviewers commented that my stories were atypical of the magazine while the editor said that they were perfectly suited for it.

      The other reason for reading the good stuff is to study how the author worked the magic: look at the plotting and pacing, the characterization. A useful exercise is to take a story (or book) that you liked and start typing it verbatim. At some point you will find yourself taking the story in a different direction, but hopefully maintaining the writing. Do not try to sell the story, because the beginning at least will not be yours; but it may help hone your own writing skilz.

      Joining a writers group is helpful, too, as long as you don't take their input slavishly -- or reject their criticisms out of hand. It's your story, but an outside set of eyeballs is often helpful. You may ask a friend to do this, but friends are apt to give stamps of approval for fear of offending you, so choose friends wisely.

      By the same token, there are often seriously good writing seminars for beginners. I had the opportunity to take one many years ago by the mystery writer John Dunning, now alas aged and infirm. It was a gold mine. Be sure the instructor is a published writer, preferably successful, preferably not self-published. (Nothing inherently bad about self-published; but you are not your own best editor.) The local community college often has a decent writing class.

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    4. I should add for science fiction: you should keep current in the realm of popular science.

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  8. At this moment I am going away to do my breakfast, after having my breakfast coming again to read other
    news.

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  9. Mr Flynn, may I ask, what is your opinion on E.E. "Doc" Smith and his novels? I have gotten the first three books of the Lensman series and I am wondering that I should get the rest. So what do you think?

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    1. I enjoyed them in my youth; but I suspect they would not hold up in my old age. Not only is the science way out of date, but I'm pretty sure the social context would be as well. They belong to the gosh-wow smash-bang era of SF. If you have read the first three and enjoyed them, you will probably enjoy the others. We don't need deep literature for every reading experience. But there are other writers from that era that I find hold up better. Edmund Hamilton wrote some nice books -- The Haunted Stars, City at World's End -- along with his "world wrecker" adventures.

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    2. Would you say that his Skylark series is similar, considering they were written over a span of four decades?

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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