Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | June 19, 2011

Sarah Vowell on History

“I write books about history for people who do not care about history…and I call these people ‘Americans.'”

-Sarah Vowell, talking to Carson Daly, via Put This On.

I’d link to Hulu, but it’s a tremendous timesuck. You’re much better off watching the video at Put This On.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | March 30, 2011

On the Radical Pleasures of Re-Reading

I got to meet Joe Haldeman last semester. He’s a science fiction author, and one of my idols. His pen is sharp, acerbic, and his sense of irony is diamond-tipped. When I first read his books, of course, I understood none of this.

Take his classic, The Forever War. It’s a fantastic military science fiction adventure. His characters are clear, his future physics (always a sticking point for writers of realistic sf) is spot-on, his combat scenes are intense. These are the things I understood when I was in high school. I had a very different politics then, too, and so I understood Haldeman’s universe as an ugly, territorial place. Civilized humanity was right to fight the Taurans for its little corner of the cosmos, and when it turned out that the whole conflagration was based on a misunderstanding, well, at least we had the war heroes and their noble sacrifice. It was classic Greek tragedy, with aliens.

Later, after college, I encountered and was absorbed into a more complicated political universe, one with a less definite phenomenology and a murkier ethics. I reevaluated what I knew of American history. As historians love to say, I “complicated the narrative.” And I read The Forever War again, this time at a level beyond its value as an exciting hard-sf romp. Before extraordinary renditions, CIA black sites and waterboarding, before the invasion of Iraq, before the rise of a shrill, reactionary opposition after November 2008, The Forever War was a good story. Now, for me, it’s a morality tale about the human cost of war in the era of acronyms. It’s about the danger of our enduring faith in superweapons, and about our damning tendency to shoot first. And it’s about a crucial lesson of the war in Vietnam: that understanding war only in the tragic mode does a disservice to the dead by absolving everyone, top to bottom, of responsibility.

So now I put it to you, hugemistakers: what books have you re-read, and what has that re-reading meant to you?


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | March 8, 2011

In which I have a small revelation

Historians love to talk about the “so what.” This is a good book about refurbished historic homes on Providence’s Benefit Street, you say? Well, so what? If it’s just a series of fawning descriptions, it’s fluff. But if it’s an argument about preservation, or about the multivocal immigrant histories those restored facades might be obscuring, well then, see, we’ve got a “so what.”

But if the “so what” is a useful tool in talking about historical arguments, it sure has a sharp edge. My problem is that I can’t help but ask the same question of myself, pretty much all the time. Why do history? Why read these books? Why bother at all to consider history as a facet of modern life? I just finished a book tonight on ethnic cleansing in Europe in the twentieth century. Turns out this author sees elements that transcend the particularism of ethnic cleansing as a phenomenon that flared in Germany and Poland in 1939-1945, in the Soviet North Caucasus and the Crimea in 1945, in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the wake of Germany’s defeat. Sounds good, author. Bravo. But I have to ask: so what?

But sometimes I come across answers. Ned Kaufman, in an essay that concludes a book on the history of preservation in America, offers this civic-minded “so what”:

“Many Americans can afford to take their heritage, or history, more or less for granted. An increasing number cannot and will not. African Americans, for example, whether descendants of southern plantation slaves or free blacks in seventeenth-century New York, have a stake in the accurate presentation of American history, one that records both their sufferings and contributions, and sometimes that simply acknowledges their presence. Many other groups in American society have a similar interest, not in order to complain (or boast) but because history offers a way to establish a presence within the public space of political and cultural discourse…and without presence, one can hardly hope for leverage. History can’t provide adequate housing, end discrimination, or prevent redevelopment, but it can contribute to the debate that is necessary to achieving these goals.” *

That’s the “so what.”


*Page, Max and Randall Mason. Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States. New York: Routledge, 2004.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | February 25, 2011

History by the numbers

Hao and Huajie, statisticians extraordinaire, have delivered another visualization of my science fiction data. This one plots the frequency with which themes occur alongside other themes–that is, how often a story has the themes of, say, “alien encounter” and “technophobia” at the same time. The width of the connecting lines indicates the relative frequencies of theme convergence. This pretty picture is one component of this project’s broader goal: a dynamic visualization of how themes in American science fiction changed between 1945 and 1965.


Mid-project now. The mercenary statisticians from the math department are going all Francis Bacon on the data I’ve amassed, twisting and torturing it into surrendering its secrets. There aren’t any conclusions yet, really, because the data set is incomplete. But who needs conclusions when you have mind-melting visualizations like this?

Science fiction themes, atmospheric nitrogen levels, or koala synapse activity? No one knows!

Next step: the multi-variant analysis.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | February 3, 2011

Better than finding a twenty in your coat pocket!

So I’m reading. Cold War science fiction, of course. I’m flipping pages, flipping pages, carefully, of course, because these are pulps and the paper was fragile in 1953, for god’s sake, and then WHAT? WHAT! Top left corner! An authentic, honest-to-god Isaac Asimov signature!

From Amazing Stories, August 1965. The story was first published in 1939.

A flurry of excited emails ensued. This must have been when Asimov visited the UMass-Amherst campus in 1966 at the behest of the UMass Science Fiction Society and the Distinguished Visitor’s Program. He visited once more, in the ’70s; a remastered version of his speech is playable in my Uncertain Futures exhibit.

(Thanks to Rusty, who remastered the reel-to-reel!)


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | January 25, 2011

This is what the base of a mountain looks like

Three reading lists.

Comprehensive exams in 16 weeks. Subtract two for compiling notes and scanning previously-read books. Subtract one more for planning and draft-writing the comps themselves. That leaves 13 weeks of reading to cover 53 books.



Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | January 14, 2011

Visualizing Change (…and not in a self-help kind of way)

First, a self-indulgent plug: my Uncertain Futures web exhibit won the National Council on Public History’s Student Project Award for 2011! NCPH is the primary organization for public historians, our own AHA, and they only give out one student project award each year. Needless to say, I’m pumped to have won.

But I’m also pumped because this confirms my previously untested hypothesis that PEOPLE LOVE OLD SCIENCE FICTION. Even non-fans get into the cover art, and the general aesthetic, of Cold War-era sci-fi. This is really good news for my next project.

This semester I’ll be skimming through roughly 1,200 science fiction stories from three major magazines: Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The stories will cover the period 1945-1965. I’m going to classify each story according to a home-made taxonomy of themes (up to four themes per story). Then I’m going to work some statistical black magic with the help of the UMass math department’s squad of mercenary statisticians, and when the smoke clears I am going to–stand back, now–VISUALIZE CHANGE OVER TIME. I have in mind something like this, a dynamic visualization that shows how themes in major science fiction magazines shifted in the first two decades of the Cold War era:

Will keep this blog updated as the project unfolds. Right now, I have approximately a kajillion more stories to read and classify.

Now, a preemptive defense of my project. I understand that reducing a story to a category or two isn’t fair to the story or the author or the genre. To this I say: too damn bad. Reducing people to their ethnicities or their tax brackets is no more fair, but we need the data to make policy. How else can we draw conclusions about large groups of things, if not by extracting relevant data and ignoring everything else? And besides, I’m a fan. I’m one of the good guys. I grew up with science fiction, and I care about the genre. This project is an insider’s labor of love, not an outsider’s ruthless deconstruction.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | December 5, 2010

Joe Haldeman at UMass!

Friday night I saw Joe Haldeman speak at UMass. Haldeman is a seminal science fiction writer, and far and away my favorite author. His sentences are cut gems, hewn from important ideas and then reduced to glittering concision. He said he only spends about three hours a day writing.

Haldeman’s most important (and most widely read) book is The Forever War. It’s been billed by some as a play-by-play rebuttal of Heinlein’s militaristic Starship Troopers, but Haldeman said on Friday night that’s not true. The book is a staggering indictment of war. The main characters are draftees, compelled to fight a war against an incomprehensible enemy on the other side of the galaxy. The relativistic effects of their almost-as-fast-as-light travel mean that when they return to earth, centuries have passed, though to them it’s only been months. Everything has changed. Everyone they knew is dead; their former home is as alien as things they’d been trying to kill.

The book is really about Vietnam, and the profound sense of displacement many servicemen felt upon returning from that war. Haldeman served, but not willingly. He was drafted. He told the audience that he was a pacifist then and that he’s one now.

I spent a blissful fifteen minutes talking to Haldeman after he gave his remarks, and he signed my copy of Starbound, his most recent book. I don’t go all fanboy very often, but in this case I made an exception.


Posted by: pittsburghtrademarklawyer | December 1, 2010

Lawyer Jokes


I’ll accept the challenge and will use my five minutes (or, if you want to put it in terms of billable hours, my “o.1”) to address the subject of lawyer jokes.

We’ve all heard them.  They range from the predictably annoying (Q. “What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?” A. “A good start.”) to the fairly amusing:

The professional pet peeve that I’ll share is the serial misuse of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI — “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” as a criticism of lawyers, a sort of literary lawyer joke.

Why does this bug me?  One reason is that the quotation is most likely an argument for the importance of lawyers (it’s the member of an angry mob trying to bring down the state that’s being quoted here, after all).

But it may not be that straightforward.  The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog has some nice analysis here.

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