Saturday, May 10, 2008

The second law of thermodynamics and frustrated, abrupt endings

I just finished reading a biography of one of my favorite writers, James Tiptree Jr., called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips.  As you can tell from the title, James Tiptree Jr. was in fact a woman, a fact she hid for several years in the seventies while writing her most important stories and carrying on a dizzying array of correspondence (as J.T.Jr.) with many other writers, editors and fans.  

A biography, of course, always tells the story of a life, and a good one places that life within the context of the subject's time and place.  A great biography lends unexpected insight and characterization into a particular milieu through the lens of the subject's life, work and thought. The John Adams biography I recently read framed the unusal opportunity that our founding fathers had to create a new government from scratch through the actions and ideas of a man who even more unusually fully undertood the unique position that he and his fellow patriots were in.  James Tiptree, Jr. explored the disquieting complexities of our modern century, from the horrors of war, the immense leaps of technology and the social battles over gender and ethnicity through the incredible, troubled life of Alice Sheldon, who was known in her youth as the first western child ever seen by the African Pygmies and grew up to be an artist, a photo-interpreter during WWII and later in the fledgling CIA, a doctor of psychology and eventually a writer of some of the most groundbreaking science fiction of the 70's.  

Her best work is all shorter works, short stories and novellas, and is exciting, confident, startling, shocking, empathetic, imaginative, detailed, fast-paced; superlatives abound.  And she provided the small science fiction community endless fodder for speculation as to who James Tiptree Jr. really was; most felt it was the pseudonym of some young stud in the intelligence field, though from her unusually insightful stories on gender there were some who suspected that he was a she (or that he was gay).  

I don't really know where I'm going with all this.  It's a great biography, read it.  Her fiction is even better, read it.  Most of her best work is collected in a collection called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.  What I kind of wanted to talk about was the connection I felt with her while reading the book.  Ridiculous, I know.  She was so different.  From a different age and place entirely, she had a life full of travel, several wildly divergent and ambitious careers, two marriages,  a life as a woman, before modern feminism; she was brilliant, mercurial, with wild mood, I'm not like her at all. 

But I just kept coming across little things that resonated so strongly.  I'll mention three.  She was obsessed with the idea of negentropy, which is the concept of a system or process that moves against the ongoing entropy that is slowly but surely pulling the universe apart into a cold, mostly empty shell of drifting bits of matter, as elucidated in the second law of thermodynamics.  From page 186: "She began to explore a theory that could reconcile her pleasure in learning and making things with doing good for others.  If her enemy was time, she argued, then it ws also the second law of thermodynamics.  That law, sometimes called 'time's arrow," states that the universe is entropic: it tends to lose energy, become disorganized, move toward death and decay.  But earth supports a local condition of negative entropy: its life has evolved from lower to higher states of organization.  Mathematician and cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, among others, had suggested that negentropy, and perhaps life itself, could be defined as everything that adds to information or organization."  

What a concept!  At the risk (in fact certainty) of being indulgent, I'll quote from a journal entry of mine, from a couple of years ago: 

Well, apparently, I can't figure out how to cut and paste text from a word document into a blog post!  When I do it, the text I wanted appears outside of the text block, and doesn't show up if I save it.  Frustrating.  I don't have the energy to re-type all that stuff from my journal.  It's probably just as well; I should save myself the embarrassment.  And now I'm just going to stop.  I shouldn't really post this at all, but I can't stand to have written all these words and not put them up here.  Maybe I'll fix it someday after I figure out how the cut and paste thing.

Have a good day!

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