Cosmos: a review 40 years later

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980.

One day of January 2017, I bought Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show, and decided to read it… in 2019

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980. As many millenials, I discovered Cosmos through the 2014’s remake of Carl Sagan’s TV program by Neil de Grass Tyson. I loved this series when it was released and how accessible it made it for about anyone to understand the physics of our universe and why it’s important to care about it. I seldom knew about Carl Sagan and his work. I happened to know that he wrote Contact, and co-wrote the script of the film adaptation, and I wanted to watch his TV program, but never managed to find the time⁽¹⁾.

One day of January 2017, while visiting the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum of NYC⁽²⁾, as I was stumbling upon the space shuttle on the deck, I saw that they were selling Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show. So I bought it, and decided to read it… in 2019 (remember, time, and stuff).

I’m not gonna go into the particular, because it is dense, and as NdGT’s show, it goes back and forth between the past and the future, the extremely small and the immensely big. This coming and going is necessary to understand one important aspect of the universe: everything is linked. As Carl Sagan talks about the immensity of the universe, he tells about the probability of sentient life somewhere else, and he argues, according to our propensity to fuck things up, whether other civilisations can go past the nuclear age or if any advanced society is doomed to annihilate itself in an instant.

And that’s the objective of this book/series: tell us to wake the fuck up. Especially in the late 1970s, when the nuclear apocalypse seemed closer than ever, that with the existing nuclear arsenal, all human life (and most life) could be sacrificed in an instant. Not because world leaders wanted to use it, but because they were afraid the other party would use it first. Today, this threat hasn’t disappeared, despite the apparent end of the cold war, but the danger isn’t as immediate as it used to be. Still, the problem is still relevant. We don’t know what conflict might come upon us, and the nuclear weapons are still here.

And he doesn’t shy himself from global warming and climate change either. The problem was forcibly silenced by politics of all sides in the 1980s but nowadays we all see the effects and it’s probably the most pressing matter that we have to tackle if we are to survive on this planet. Carl Sagan talks in a lot of details about this issue and what can be done to deal with it. No need to say that the relevance of his argument is ever more convincing now.

I wanted to talk specifically about one event related by Carl Sagan at the end of the book: the destruction of the Alexandrian library. Even though the world has changed a lot since then, we live in a time when there is a resurgence of obscurantism led by very powerful people. The Alexandrian scholars used to gather every piece of scientific and technological works in a single place, and that’s what doomed it all. Works that didn’t have a copy would be likely destroyed with the library and a huge portion of antique knowledge has been lost forever, only to be rediscovered centuries later when science was again possible.

Today it would be unlikely that all this knowledge would disappear, since our capacity to copy extensively (virtually infinite in the Internet era) in a decentralised system has made it impossible to destroy, but there are still places that could very well get cut from all this important knowledge and still cause problem to the rest of the world (looking at you, US of A). Such an event could have an impact on decades or centuries. Or we could just get nuked.

So I think that Cosmos is an important book to read, even though there are a few obsolete information, mainly mysteries that have been resolved or technological challenges that have been overcome in the last 40 years, but overall, the relevance of the subject is still, well, universal.

(1) Ok, I binge watched the entire Gilmore Girls, and Friends twice since then. Don’t judge me.

(2) That’s a museum on an aircraft carrier. Just the place is incredible. You should check it out if you go to NYC and like technological stuff.

Quick review: The Handmaid’s Tale (book)

In this review, I am talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Artwood and published in 1985, in which Offred, a young handmaid, is sent to a family to be the surrogate womb of a couple that can’t carry, in a society where women have no right anymore.

The Handmaid’s Tale is getting more popular now thanks to the recent Hulu series, but since I don’t subscribe to Hulu, I decided to read the novel instead. Written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, the Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the nation of Gilead, a post-USA theonomic state that is run through a very literal application of the bible. Basically the utopia of white christian (male) supremacists. In this wonderful new country, we follow Offred, who has fallen really low in the social hierarchy, first because she is a woman, and then because she tried to escape this magnificent paradise. The really wise men in power probably didn’t understand why on earth (which is flat obviously) she’d want to do that, so they placed her in the very charitable position of being the surrogate womb of an unlucky couple who can’t have kids, and that way, maybe God will forgive her for her sins. Or else she’s a useless eater, and she would get the rope treatment, 3rd Reich style.

It’s not a story of great heroes. It’s a story of survival and resilience. It’s the story of the people who end up living in a despotic government and keep their head down, accepting every humiliation hoping that some day they will see brighter days. People are not all ready to fight. Here, the resistants seem to exist, maybe, but they are in the background, while Offred is the narrator. It’s her story, her struggle to stay alive until she can find a way out. She tells it from the beginning: she intends to survive. She will do everything she’s asked to do, because she has no other choice. She tried her luck once and she was lucky she wasn’t executed or sent to a labour camp, thanks to being able to carry a child, so she will carry one again, for someone else, and maybe have a better opportunity later. But what opportunity? That’s the biggest question mark. She doesn’t know what would become of her after she gives them a child, especially since it’s the beginning of the new government and they don’t really have thorough regulations on the matter. But she only have hopes, hope that her daughter is fine, hope that maybe her husband has survived, and that’s the only thing that keeps her going.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a really great and frightening story. It’s great because the story is so well crafted that it seems all so plausible. And it’s frightening because, well, it seems so plausible, especially when we hear what some US officials say nowadays. This tale shows us what’s the worse that could happen if we let evangelists and christian extremists run a country, and the thought I couldn’t get out of my head all the time I was reading was that in this novel, the government falls after a coup d’état, but in my opinion this kind of situation is more likely to happen without a civil war. With years and years of carefully escalated despotism, until the time it becomes impossible to stop it without a fight, a theocratic government could be installed without a real struggle. Maybe they didn’t think that it was plausible back in the 80’s. After all, the only example they had of a new theocratic government was Iran, and it had to go through a violent revolution to put it in place, so I can imagine they didn’t think people would willingly vote for the same person who would gleefully take that right to vote away from them, even though it happened before.

I can only recommend this novel. It’s a cautionary tale in the same vein as 1984 and deserve the same appreciation, while we are still allowed to read.