Today was another day of head-scratching moments. A recent poll conducted by The Economist finds that nearly half of people who voted for Donald Trump claim to belief that the online conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex slave operation from a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. The same poll found that 60% of these voters believe the false claim made by Donald Trump, repeating online conspiracy theories, that “millions” of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, and half believe Barack Obama was “probably” born in Kenya. People will literally believe anything TV and the internet tells them, so long as it supports their political affiliation. When polls register number this high, we have passed to the point where facts have any authority. All is now propaganda.
Perhaps this is why it was not terribly surprising to see the New York Times publish a piece analyzing Facebook “likes” for various TV shows sorted by zip code. By matching the “likes” to zip codes, they produced maps showing where each show had greater or lesser number of fans. The map for Duck Dynasty correlated quite closely with the map of counties that voted for Donald Trump, while Family Guy correlated most closely with Hillary Clinton, though the bigger finding was the urban and rural areas have almost polar opposite tastes in television.
There are problems with the methodology, of course: Facebook “likes” are not necessarily representative of actual ratings, and they also tend to favor younger viewers and the most enthusiastic fans of a show. Because all TV shows have such low ratings now (except for the very biggest of hits, less than 2% of the population watches any given show), and because presidential elections are (mostly) a binary choice, any program that has a hint of a political point of view (as Duck Dynasty does thanks to its stars’ endorsement of Donald Trump) will almost certainly draw overwhelmingly from supporters of one candidate. It’s also worth noting that just because an area has a higher than average percentage of fans, that doesn’t translate into absolute numbers of viewers.
More interesting is the correlation between apocalyptic programs and rural viewership. The Walking Dead and Supernatural both were strongly correlated with rural white populations, while other supernatural programs like American Horror Story was much more urban and The Vampire Diaries managed the unusual trick of drawing almost equally from urban and rural viewers. This suggests that neither supernatural themes nor the horror genre connect most viscerally with rural white viewers, but rather apocalyptic themes of everything going to hell. That probably explains why sadistic crime dramas are also more popular in rural areas with large white populations.
Not that this is a particularly good transition, but since I’m on the subject of speculative fiction, I’ll move from horror to science fiction to discuss an article that annoyed me today.
This morning I received this week’s eSkeptic newsletter (disclosure: which I have written for in the past), and it contained a review of James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History, and wow but did reviewer Chris Edwards offer some wrong claims in reviewing Gleick’s history of the idea of time travel. To start, Edwards credits H. G. Wells not just with inventing the “scientific” time travel genre (as though an imaginary machine is “scientific” in any sense other than flattering the reader’s preference for fake technology over pretend magic) but also for another feat: “The man single-handedly invented the discipline of World History.” Seriously? Just because he wrote a popular, if flawed, Outline of History (1919/1920)? The concept of a work of “universal history” is ancient in origin; the Greek Ephorus wrote the first known universal history of the world. Eusebius’ Chronicle, its medieval imitators, and especially George Sale’s Universal History (1747-1768) were more ambitious and more complete than Wells’s work, and Sale’s, if any, is probably the true foundation of “world history” as an attempt to chronicle the development of the whole world, not a small part of it.
Edwards next provides a very mixed-up history of Wells’s time travel fiction, and it wasn’t clear to me whether the fault lay with Edwards or Gleick. I checked Gleick’s book, and the fault is Edwards’s:
The point of this discussion appears to be to point out that The Time Machine by H.G. Wells turned time travel into a mechanistic possibility when he moved beyond a concept from his earliest work titled The Sleeper Awakes that featured a man simply sleeping for a long time in a comfortable chair. “Machines improved upon magic armchairs” writes Gleick and “By the last years of the nineteenth century, novel technology was impressing itself upon the culture” (p. 31).
The Sleeper Awakes is not an early work. It was published in 1910, postdating The Time Machine. I presume that Gleick is referring back to the earlier version of the novel, When the Sleeper Wakes, published in 1898. Either way, both versions were published after The Time Machine in 1895, and even longer after Wells’s first stab at using “mechanistic possibility” for time travel in “The Chronic Argonauts” in 1888.
Neither version of Sleeper has anything to do with “magic armchairs.” Granted, the character does fall asleep in an armchair, though he wakes up in a glass-enclosed bed. The conceit of the novel is essentially this: What if Rip Van Winkle had a bank account with compounding interest? In the novel, the “Sleeper” takes an experimental insomnia cure and ends up in a coma that preserves him unchanged for 200 years. As a consequence, his wealth has gradually compounded to the point that the trustees who manage it have become world-controlling plutocrats who need him unconscious in order to keep power.
Edwards confused the order of Wells’s books, but worse than that, he also misread Gleick. The reference to the “magic armchair” doesn’t refer to Wells at all but to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a. In Search of Lost Time), which likens sleep to time travel, and which figuratively refers to the chair in which his hypothetical sleeper dozes off as the “magic armchair.”
These are very minor but annoying errors that compound to support Edwards’s favored view of intellectual history, where magic gives way to metaphysics, and metaphysics to mechanisms. It is for this reason that Edwards devotes the majority of his review to parsing the various laws of physics that might or might not govern time travel, as though the purpose of time travel literature were to speculate on the science of it rather than what the characters gain and lose through time travel, and what lessons encounters with other times and places might provide for the present. The mistakes, small as they are, contribute to Edwards’s almost teleological view of literature in which a particular species of science fiction (what critics would call hard SF) exemplifies the ideal of the speculative fiction genres, primarily by coming closest to appealing to the biases and preferences of scientists. The trouble is that literature isn’t science and science isn’t literature, and to praise one for aping the other is to reduce both.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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