The best books on urgent menaces to the human species

Howard Bruce Franklin Author Of Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War
By Howard Bruce Franklin

Who am I?

My twenty books have won top awards for lifetime scholarship in American studies, science fiction, prison literature, the Vietnam war, and marine ecology. My writing is just part of my six decades as an activist for peace and justice, which made me a major target of the FBI’s operation COINTELPRO and led Stanford to fire me from my tenured professorship.  I then taught for 40 years at Rutgers University in Newark as The John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies. 

I wrote...

Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War

By Howard Bruce Franklin,

Book cover of Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War

What is my book about?

America. The 1939 World’s Fair and World War II shaped my earliest views of America. Then I worked in factory sweatshops and on tugboats amidst the wars for New York Harbor. I flew as an Arctic navigator and intelligence officer and later helped set up the Vietnam deserter network in France. Then I joined the revolutionary movement of the sixties and seventies. Crash Course is a revolutionary history of America and a meditation on Homo sapiens, the most intelligent species on planet Earth, the only known species that has figured out not one way, but two ways, to make our planet unsuitable for our continual existence: nuclear war and global warming. 

The books I picked & why

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Star Maker

By Olaf Stapledon,

Book cover of Star Maker

Why this book?

No other book has influenced me so deeply. Arthur C. Clarke wrote it is "probably the most powerful work of imagination ever written." As I now reread Star Maker, published in 1937 when I was three years old, I still find passages so profound that they send my mind into orbit. The book takes us through time and space to a future when that entire conscious cosmos yearns to meet its creator. It ends with a prophetic awareness that “the struggle of our age was brewing” and the hope that our species can make it “before the ultimate darkness.”

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

By Daniel Ellsberg,

Book cover of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Why this book?

Russia and the U.S. each possess a Doomsday Machine: a weapon that could wipe out our species. If either launched their thousands of nuclear ICMBs, that would probably doom us, even if the other did not retaliate. So argues Ellsberg, who confesses his role in creating the menace.  (None of the seven other nuclear nations have more than a few hundred, as a deterrent.) The book’s invaluable history includes multiple occasions when either Russia or the U.S. came perilously close to triggering Armageddon. When I was flying in the Strategic Air Command, we launched three times. Barely before it was too late, we were recalled. But that was before ICMBs; ICMBs can not be recalled. Read this book and spread its message.

The Ministry for the Future

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Book cover of The Ministry for the Future

Why this book?

The gruesome first scene of The Ministry for the Future dramatizes the disaster that global climate change will soon give us. The novel assumes an international organization with some responsibility to future humans and other beings, and awareness of what we humans must do to survive. Kim Stanley Robinson offers us a compendium of tasks—geoengineering, new economic systems, and sail vessels, currency based on carbon reduction, et al. The political and economic forces behind global warming fight back, so there is an underground organization that responds with violence. When I asked Stan if violence will be necessary, he pointed out the novel is not a how-to-do manual. This profound volume should be read by everyone who wants to help save us from our colossal folly.

Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler,

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

I taught Parable of the Sower in my science-fiction class shortly after it was published in 1993. The novel begins in 2024 and ends in 2027. Rereading today scares the hell out of me because its vision of a divided and privatized and drugged up America, with hordes of desperate homeless people and remorseless gangs of thieves and rapists, now seems so plausible, perhaps imminent. Lauren, the teenaged super-empathic narrator, hasn’t seen a California rainstorm in six years. In California, we are close to that already. On her four-year hellish trip, Lauren composes Earthseed: The Books of the Living, a scripture for the community of Acorn, a seed that might begin to fulfill the Parable of the Sower.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

By Herman Melville,

Book cover of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

Why this book?

Melville’s first novel calls “the white civilized man” “the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.” Billy Budd, his final work, predicts the triumph of militarism and war. My first public speech against the Vietnam War began with a quote from The Confidence-Man (1857). I’ve read it many times and published an annotated edition, so I can guarantee you that every time you read this book you will get more out of it, just as I do. The steamboat Fidele sails down the Mississippi. A Christ-like passenger disappears. A negro cripple lists passengers we should look for. Avatars of the confidence man bamboozle representative Americans. After the sun sets, slave states are on both sides of the southward voyage, a mysterious “Cosmopolitan” appears, darkness envelopes the boat, and its destination seems to be the apocalypse.  What is this book about? America. Our species. Where we are headed. 

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