Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thunderbirds, Heroism, and Suicide Bombers: A Teaching Moment

While discussing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, one of my students in a history class asked how suicide bombers could do what they do. I told them a personal story. The Thunderbirds were a high-performance United States Air Force aerobatics team of six pilots who flew T-38s back in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I had gone to a church event where two Thunderbird pilots came to talk. I was too shy to go up afterwards and shake either of their hands.

The following day I was among the tens of thousands up at Hill Air Force Base standing along the runway watching the Thunderbirds go through their paces. It was very impressive. Then we noticed that a plane was missing and there was a spiral of smoke coming from the south, beyond the end of the runway. The fire engines went roaring down the runway while the remaining Thunderbirds continued with the rest of their show.

Many people had stopped their cars along the road at the end of the runaway to watch the show. The plane’s engines flared out and the pilot had only a moment to make the decision: eject or ride the plane into the ground in order to try to protect the bystanders. He rode the T-38 into the ground, crashing in an empty field, though a horse was decapitated.

He essentially committed suicide. I asked my class: what was that pilot? It was a somber class, but one student volunteered, “A hero.” Exactly. He chose to die for a higher cause; in his case, saving the lives of others. Suicide bombers die for a higher cause, not a cause that we believe in, but often a cause that their community, friends, and comrades believe in. They are heros or heroines to their fellow believers. For them, their lives have meaning, and their manner of death is noble and honorable, just as that Thunderbird pilot’s life and death had meaning.

I agree that there are essential differences between the two. The pilot died in order to save lives, while the suicide bomber died in order to take lives, but war requires death and sacrifice. Often deaths during war are random, while the suicide bomber has chosen to assert control over their own death in order to make their life worth something.

Just to complete the story. At every air show that I have seen at Hill Air Force Base since then, the police make sure that no one parks at the end of the runway. The pilot had a wife and children that he left behind and he was one of the two Thunderbird pilots that had attended the church event the night before. I googled the event and found that it happened on May 9, 1981.

Posted: 20 June 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time

Daniel Keyes died one year ago at the age of 86.  He lived a full life and his death is not a time for sadness, but to appreciate the singular accomplishment of his life.  He wrote "Flowers for Algernon," which I consider to be the greatest science fiction story of all time.

In that odd way of ranking art, we often like to describe something as the finest example of such and such.  "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov, is often touted as the best science fiction story ever published.  While I like "Nightfall," it never really affected me emotionally, just intellectually, and I disagree with the ranking.  When the Science Fiction Writers of America were voting, they only ranked stories from before 1965.  First published as a short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, "Flowers for Algernon" also ranked high in the voting, but “Nightfall” won.  I suspect that Nightfall won because Isaac Asimov was such a commanding presence within the community of science fiction writers, and while “Nightfall” was his best work, it was one of many outstanding works.  As for Keyes, while he published other work, "Flowers for Algernon" shines so brightly that he almost feels like a one-hit wonder.

I was an adult before I read the story and I am not going to describe what happens.  Read it yourself.  According to the New York Times obituary, Daniel Keyes said that “the character of Charlie occurred to him while he was teaching a special needs class; a student approached him at the end of the period and asked to be transferred out of the ‘dummy’s class’ because he wanted to be smart.”

After Keyes wrote the story, the editor of one science fiction magazine thought that the story was “good,” but would be “great” if he changed the ending.  Keyes refused and published in another magazine and won a Hugo Award for best novelette of 1960.  The editor at Doubleday also wanted a different ending for the later novel.  Keyes again refused.  Both editors were wrong.  This is a great example of an artist sticking with his original vision and being rewarded.  A different ending would have compromised the power of the story.

“Nightfall” is essentially a gimmick story, based on a single idea, while "Flowers for Algernon" confronts the central issue that forms the core of scientific inquiry and the themes of science fiction--that is, intelligence.

Even in a modern world, where race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are often obstacles to succeeding, the greatest obstacle to success has always been the lack of intelligence.  Being intelligent is an enormous asset, as are the accompanying traits of conscientiousness, perception, emotional control, and the ability to sacrifice for long-term goals.

What makes us human is our minds and “Flowers for Algernon” teaches us how precious that intelligence is.

Posted: 15 June 2015