If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Tag Archives: Science Fiction
“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
― Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
To continue with my (self-congratulatory at best and vain at worst) series of Coursera essays, here is the 340-word essay on H.G.Wells I wrote for my free online ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course.
One of the major elements of science-fiction literature is to attempt to predict or speculate about possible future events which might come to pass if mankind traverses a certain scientific and moral path. Wells, however, forces us to stop on the way and consider the journey itself—what happens when we presume to being enlightened, as the masses in ‘The Star’, but in fact, are as blind as the people of ‘The Country of the Blind’.
“Common-sense was sturdy everywhere” , Wells writes sarcastically. In the face of catastrophe, nine out of ten men on earth are “scornful, jesting, […] inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful” . He even equates common-sense to “barbarism and savagery”; the men, with “unalterable convictions”, scorn the respectable mathematician and go about their businesses unheeding the star. Similarly, the blind men mock Nunez and steadfastly stick to their beliefs—”it was an article of faith with them” . So much so that in order to cure Nunez of what they think are delusions, they decide to surgically remove his eyes and thus make him “perfectly sane” . “Thank Heaven for science”, Yacob says , and again Wells hints at the dangers of vainglory.
In both the stories, Wells warns us against intolerance and self-aggrandizement. Science enlightens mankind so that at any point in time we know more than we did in the past, but we should also realize that knowledge is illimitable, that there are many things we haven’t yet discovered. Just as the blind men lived in a world of their own making and limitations, so can we live either in a blind valley of a world or choose to open our eyes to truth and wisdom. Like the mathematician, we can hold “all the universe […] in the grip of this small brain” , the only requirements are acceptance and humility. Otherwise, one day someone will truthfully say that “Man has lived in vain.” 
 The Star, by H.G Wells
 The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells
Posted from WordPress for Android
Yesterday would’ve been Douglas Noel Adams’ 61st birthday, had he still been with us. However, he stays alive in the hearts of millions of hitchhikers-of-the-galaxy, and in the hearts of those who still practice the art of Zen driving (you never ask for directions; you simply choose a car that seems to know where it’s going and follow it. You may not go where you intended to, but you’ll reach where you’re supposed to).
So, in honour of my favourite author, I’m wearing my favourite H2G2 T-shirt today.
Note: I’ve wrongly attributed the quote is to Zaphod, it was actually said by Ford Prefect.
Also, if you haven’t read any Douglas Adams yet, I strongly urge you to get your hands on one asap. You don’t know what you’ve been missing! And a further motivation if you like Doctor Who: Douglas Adams actually wrote a couple of episodes for the fourth Doctor (played by Tom Baker).
I have to confess, I find ebooks and my Kindle Reader app extremely convenient. All I have to do is keep my phone charged, and I can access tons of books anytime and anywhere. Well, they’d be a ton if I had hardbacks for all of them!
Having said that, I still carry my usual, on average, 2.5 books in my backpack for long trips. I can still spend hours in a bookstore (and do so at least once a month), and my library card is always maxed out. That is why for the WordPress poll, my vote went to ‘paperbacks’. However, I don’t really know why I love paperbacks more than ebooks. Probably I’m just a traditionalist and paperbacks remind me of all the great times I’ve had with books: laughing at Suppandi’s antics, having adventures on the Faraway Tree, solving crimes (actually, if I’m honest, ‘being perplexed by’ would be closer to the truth) with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Dirk Gently, falling in love with Mr. Darcy and Robert Kincaid and all the various heroes of the gazillion romance novels I’ve read so far, Hitchhiking the Galaxy with Arthur Dent, and basically doing everything inside my imagination that I’ll possibly never do in real life.
Nostalgia. That’s what makes things precious.
Last year in June I enrolled in a 10-week long online course provided by Coursera. Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that collaborates with many top universities and offers a wide range of free online courses. It’s a great place to look for free world-class education.
It was the first time I was participating in a massive online open course (MOOC for short), and my course was “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. On Jan 22nd, Coursera relaunched this course, now 14 weeks long. The lecturer is Prof. Eric Rabkin, Professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan, and the objective of the course is to understand how Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in particular provide insights into our own minds and into the functioning of the world.
The format of the course was very simple. It was divided into 10 sections (one for each week). Each section comprised of a short reading, an essay assignment, peer review, and video lectures. Every week we were supposed to read a book or a couple of short novels, and write a 300 word essay “to enrich the reading of an intelligent, attentive fellow student”. That is to say, we had to write about something that we found particularly insightful or interesting about the plot, theme, style, structure, imagery or allusion etc. in the book. We were not supposed to write book reviews, and we were not supposed to discuss non-literary matters (we had to focus on the book itself).
This was followed by peer review. Each student was given a minimum of four(anonymous) essays to grade (anonymously again) on two counts: form and content. ‘Form’ consisted of structure and grammar of the essay whereas ‘content’ meant insight, argument and examples. The grades were quite simple too: for each category, we could give a grade of either 1(poor to can do better), 2(average) or 3(outstanding), so that the final grade ranged from 2 to 6. I used to think of it in terms of OWLs: 2=Poor; 3,4=Acceptable; 5=Exceeds Expectations; 6=Outstanding. There are no ‘Troll’s and ‘Dreadful’s since giving ‘0’ wasn’t an option.
One of the great things about this review system was that reviewers were also asked to comment on the essay they just read; for both ‘form’ and ‘content’ they were asked to write about at least one thing they liked, and at least one thing that the writer could do well to improve/change. I was fortunate in my reviewers; most of them had something to say to encourage me as well as to help me write better.
After the peer review submissions came the lectures. Every week Prof. Rabkin released a series of videos dealing with the week’s reading, which helped us understand the novel itself and all the general subjects it dealt with. For example, the first week we read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Prof. Rabkin talked about the brothers themselves, how and why the book came into being, about the morality of fairy tales, natural symbols and colour symbolism in the stories, how to read the back story of a story, etc.
And it was a wonderful experience! I got to read a number of wonderful authors–Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ursula LeGuin (‘The left hand of darkness’), the Grimms, Lewis Carroll (‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’), Ray Bradbury (‘The Martian Chronicles’), Cory Doctorow (‘Little Brother’), Mary Shelley(‘Frankenstein’)–rediscovered Edgar Allan Poe and fell in love with him all over again and re-read many wonderful books (Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, H.G.Wells’ ‘Country of the Blind’ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, a few of Poe’s short stories). ‘Discussion forums’ was a resource all by itself, I found out many amazing things there. I got to read other people’s essays and most of them were amazing, especially with regards to content, but also form; I learnt a lot from my fellow students. Most importantly, I managed to complete the minimum required 7 essays+reviews, and got a great grade (70%, based on participation, i.e. for completing 7 out of 10 assignments) and even a certificate to show for it! I was so thrilled with Coursera and with my first MOOC experience that I’ve already completed one other course (and got my certificate), am in the middle of four courses, and enrolled in half a dozen others.
Although it’s possible that the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course has a different format and grading policy this time around, it should be a great experience for anybody who loves books in general and science fiction in particular.
Coursera is a great place for anyone who loves to learn. They provide such a wide variety of courses–Humanities, Biology, Medicine and Healthcare, Astronomy, Computers, Maths, Business, Social Sciences etc.–that I’m sure everybody can find something of interest there. Not only that, but most courses require no prior specialized background to enroll in a course. If the wide variety of courses on offer make you confused, just remember this:
“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.