Monday, December 22, 2014

Cities of Future Past

                A recent Facebook piece on the ten most dangerous cities in America got us thinking about the link between urban blight and science fiction.  The cities chosen in the piece were, with the exception of Detroit and Memphis, mostly located in the vicinity of a larger metropolis  and were cited because of their high crime rates.  But the pictures accompanying the sparse captions were more telling, for they showed trash-strewn vacant lots, boarded up storefronts and decaying houses, that is to say, the back story for station house statistics.  At some point in our nation’s past, all these cities, such as Camden, Oakland, and Little Rock, showed great economic promise.  Yet the convulsive forces of economics and politics left them to rot.  Many other similar cities could be added to the list if one considers that the more successful ones are merely doing a more effective job of compartmentalizing their blight into mini-disasters, such as Homewood next to Pittsburgh, Roxbury in Boston or the currently famous case of Ferguson, Missouri.  Core areas can be tarted up with development grants to keep the tourists happy in their security cocoon, but outlying disctricts often literally pay the price by collapsing into neglect.  The area west of Chicago’s Garfield Park is an example, as are the rings of blight around Houston, successively written off as the megacity expanded.   Urban governments have dynamited the once-troublesome public housing complexes, sometimes with odd results, as in the case of Boston’s transforming Columbia Point into a branch of UMass.  However, as with the abolition of state psychiatric facilities after the 60’s, the misery did not cease to exist, but dispersed into rundown welfare motels or nomadic homeless populations.  As in the depression of the 30’s (no longer dubbed Great, because it’s obviously not the last), seasonal hobo camps are popping up everywhere an anonymous patch of woods will give them cover.  They remain invisible because their inhabitants hide from police, census workers, and even many charitable would-be helpers.  The governments breathe a sigh of relief at this, since localities want to hush up such detractions from their real estate values and the feds refuse to include them in unemployment statistics.
The fate of New Orleans, which we mention briefly in our novel Life Sentence could be a major case in point.  Following the predicted devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, there was an ensuing breakdown of human institutions all around the Big Easy.  Many police and emergency workers abandoned their posts to evacuate their families – understandably so, since there was no realistic evacuation plan.  Prisoners were left to their fates or forgotten as guards saw to themselves.  Only with the arrival of the National Guard reinforcements was there an improvised attempt to control looting or to scour neighborhoods for survivors.  Within the Superdome, a microcosm of misery developed among the disparate refugees, with some leaping off balconies as though Judgment Day was at hand.  Finally, the once-teeming Ninth Ward and parts of New Orleans East were simply red-lined by the banks and deserted, becoming an eerily precocious urban wasteland.
 In the postindustrial world, there is a possibility that such mini-disasters could become generalized, link up and expand into an extended dystopia.  Paul Verhoeven’s vision of Detroit or even the more laughable portraits of the Bronx in Escape 2000 or the City of Angels in Escape from LA may prove increasingly to be prophetic.  It is probably no accident that a Dutchman gave us the most coherent image so far of future urban desolation,  Even in relatively prosperous Holland, urbanization is taken most seriously, adhering to a wider European concern with the phenomenon.  A visit to any European city will make this immediately obvious.  Mass transit will whisk the newcomer immediately from Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle or Rhein-Main into a center city of lively and attractive pedestrian zones.  Contrast this with Washington or Los Angeles in our own country.  The down side is that even Europe faces the ubiquitous conditions imposed by corporate economies.  They have simply pushed their mini-disasters to the periphery, most noticeable in Paris’s infamous banlieue or southeast London.  Properous economies may be able to avoid this cycle for a time.  In the years it has taken to replace a gaggle of buildings destroyed in 9/11, China has built dozens of entire new cities.  Yet a glance around the world at the squalor surrounding Lagos or Cairo will show that the developing world seems to replace every success with a plethora of failures.  In the matter of urban decay, the human race is paradoxically united.
Some recent sci fi films even postulate that the beautiful people will simply abandon a decaying Earth to live on satellites or on Mars.  This is a logical, if not necessarily probable, outcome to contemplate.  In some ways, an orbital platform is the ultimate gated community.  The rich would no longer need Latino security guards and the limpiadoras could be robotic.  No need for poor-doors in the dwellings.  Better than a luxury suite at the Super Bowl, since there would be no need to be jostled by the hoi polloi in the parking lots.  Just as billionaires are lining up for trips beyond the ionosphere in space tourism ventures, rooms in the still-unlaunched (and government-assisted) Bigelow Space Hotel are already booked.  Near-Earth may be the Hamptons of tomorrow.

Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the over-populated Earth of Soylent Green or of Asimov’s Caves of Steel has become more and more threatening to Generation X and Millenials. Studies show that young people are increasingly aware that a future in something resembling Beaver Cleaver’s Springfield may be more illusory than George Jetson’s floating hi-rise.  They are more receptive than their forebears to the challenges of global warming and the prospects of alternative energy sources, more concerned with cleaning up the oceans and negotiating population dynamics.  Ultimately, that may be the only way we will ever really manage (or deserve) an interplanetary destiny.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's Next, Ice Pirates?

      Now that the word on comet ice has come in from the Rosetta space probe, do we need to change our ideas about water in space?  Rosetta’s powerful chemical “sniffers” have found that the gasses emitted by its target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, show its ice contains less deuterium than earthly water.  Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen that contains a neutron, as well as the usual proton and electron.  This detail confirms some earlier comet observations and threatens to topple the widely-held theory that our planet’s water come to us mainly from comets.  It would seem that all the water in comets from the Oort Cloud in our outer solar system may be deuterium-poor.  So now the search for terrestrial H2O among the planets switches to the asteroids, which are already high on the NASA to-do list for a variety of other reasons.  However, just because the outer solar system’s water may be deuterium-poor, this doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to chuck out all our existing concepts of space travel and exploration.
     In the campy sci-fi film Ice Pirates, conceived by Stewart Rafill and Stanford Sherman, the scarcity of water in a futuristic universe leads to a string of adventures and escapes for the heroes, who make their living by appropriating the liquid from a monopolistic superpower.  Ice cubes are an interplanetary unit of exchange.  In the film, the dearth of water is partly due to the monopoly, which goes so far as to destroy planets endowed with a rich supply.  While there is also a panoply of sci-fi material that posits the opposite scenario of worlds awash in endless seas (one thinks of Atreides' planet Caladon in Dune, for one), the perspective of a relatively waterless cosmos is well represented in other writings.  Yet, we have to remember that Rosetta's discoveries did not say that comets have no water, only that they have a different kind.
     It would seem unlikely, on face value, that deuterium-poor water would prove useless for humans.  The small quantity of extra neutrons in our planet's "deuterium-rich" water may simply be an insignificant difference to our physiology, though one supposes that some research may soon begin to examine this question.  Furthermore, even if comet water proves to be unsuitable for consumption by the human body, that is hardly the end of its applications.  More importantly, water may eventually be an essential element of fuels for future space vehicles, regardless of the percentage of deuterium involved. 
     As for water becoming a target of pirates as well as astronauts, the case seems even slimmer.  After all, water is a simple combination of two of the more abundant elements in the universe, hydrogen and oxygen.  An adequate supply of the two can easily produce their combined result.  For a technology capable of interstellar travel, this would not seem to be a “three-pipe problem.”  By its very nature, piracy involves multiple factors, for besides requiring a substance worth stealing, piracy on Earth has always required the geographic factor of “choke points,” straits or channels which concentrate commerce and make ships vulnerable to pirate raids.  This has been true from the earliest mentions of pirates in Greco-Roman seas and on the rivers of ancient China right up to our current pirate hot spots, namely the Gulf of Aden, the Malacca Strait, and the Niger Delta.  The universe may well eventually provide shipping lanes among the stars, but its vastness argues against the concentration of targets within a narrow area.  Space, unlike the Earth’s oceans, offers three or more dimensions for its ships.  If interstellar civilizations guarantee the security of difficult passage points by some form of forceful patrol, space piracy would probably prove unlikely.  Earth’s pirates almost invariably fled from even the most token military force and only fought naval ships when they were cornered.  In addition, manpower would prove far more difficult to come by in an interstellar setting.  All that is needed for piracy in Somalia, Sumatra, or Indonesia is a hopped-up fishing launch and a few miserable men armed with weapons less formidable than one could find in most suburban neighborhoods of America.  African peasants armed with Kalashnikovs are not going to cruise in outer space.  While pirates have always proved resourceful when conditions favored their development, those conditions on a spatial scale would be far more daunting than any faced by pirates in our history. 
     Ice and water will continue to be attractive, and perhaps crucial, commodities in our exploratory future.  Nonetheless, these materials may play a less important role in the eventual concepts of wealth than organic substances, such as chlorophyll or complex proteins.  As we prepare for our next “giant step,” a manned mission to Mars, we will face increasing reminders that much, much research is necessary here on solid ground before we can come to grips with even the most fundamental molecular and organic conundrums that space travel will present.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Earth -- The Opportunity Too Rich to Pass Up?

Here is the link to our article in Eerie Digest entitled "Getting Real About First Contact: The Ferengi Hypothesis," which we hope you will enjoy and maybe even honor with a comment.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

      Here is the link to our article, The Cringing Arghh!" from our wonderful friends at the emagazine Eerie Digest:

It deals with the way sci fi movies have treated the reaction of terror and speaks, among other films, of this early Peter Graves/Bert I. Gordon product, "The Beginning of the End."  It is certainly not the only sci fi film to feature the "giant bugs" that Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) bemoans in "Ed Wood," but it is the only one we can cite off-hand where the culprits are grasshoppers and the apocalyptic battle takes place on a postcard of Chicago's Wrigley Building.  None of the grasshoppers in the film are armed with the teeth you see in the poster, but instead sport their natural, very active mouth parts.  MST3000 provides a wonderful rifftrack that fails to hide some of the Minneapolis-based MST staff's pet peeves about the Windy City.  In most ways the film is short on science and everything else except sheer fun, but it does cause us to speculate about how the constantly present and constantly stifled nuclear terrors of the 50's and 60's may have incited people both to scream and to laugh in an effort to preserve their sanity in an officially ultra-controlled but really out-of-control world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An American Empire on Mars?

     Are there plans under way to turn Mars into what India once was for the British raj -- the jewel in the crown of an interplanetary empire? Or will there be a more sinister form of corporate domination that flashes a company logo instead of the flag of a nation?  On the one hand, NASA includes foreign astronauts in missions to what is optimistically called the International Space Station.  But on the other hand, the Obama administration has given its blessing to the corporate ownership of space, not merely through Space Dragon and other privately-produced launch vehicles, but also through plans for a privately-owned "Space hotel" that will charge future travelers a million dollars a night for accommodations.  Too wild to take seriously?  Over ten nations have already made reservations for the Bigelow Space Hotel.  
      Significantly, Obama is pushing plans to allow corporations to lay claim to asteroids and mine them as private property.  Given the bankruptcy of government projects such as Bush’s back-to-the-Moon push and Obama’s aborted human mission to Mars, are we destined to witness an expansion of capitalistic exploitation of off=world resources under the umbrella of a token US government presence that will actively discourage competition from other places on Earth?  Peter Hyams’s vision of space mining in the forward-looking film Outland focuses on a Jovian moon where a giant corporation, under the aegis of a league of industrialized nations, extracts ores through gruesome practices that call for the intervention of a lone, embattled federal marshal intent on preserving some scale of human value.  This may not be far from the truth if laissez faire economic practices are allowed to flourish unsupervised and uncontrolled.  In the Chemical Corridor of Louisiana, where I used to live,  plants were sealed off by private security armies that would not allow local police or fire departments past their gates. 
          So far, the greed for gold, platinum, titanium, and rare earth minerals is so great that governments – notably our own – have done little to even hint that capitalism will not have a free hand in our solar system.  Historical precedent suggests that this is a suicidal course to follow.  There is one asteroid that is estimated to contain a greater supply of gold and other precious metals than the entire supply now on the surface of this planet.  The best known example in our past of such an influx was that of fifteenth century Spain, where instead of leading to universal prosperity, the overflow of riches promptly sunk a thriving economy into massive poverty, to the advantage of a small class of unproductive hidalgos. 
     Such a super-rich class, already being produced by the burgeoning wealth gap in our society, is already licking its lips at the possibility of obtaining huge land grants on Mars for their personal advantage.  Be assured that if Mars is settled, it will not be by humble homesteaders like the Great Plains or the Old West, for the good reason that individuals will not be able to simply stock a Conestoga and join the wagon train to lay out stakes to their allotted acres.  On Mars, billionaires are in the process of buying up all those claims for pennies on the dollar, and settlers will only be admitted as peons – the space age equivalent of Walmart employees. In fact, the bloated accounts of the Walton family make it a potential player in the upcoming land grab of all times. 
          So far, the United Nations has pretty much kept its head in the sand on these issues.  But it is time they started to look skyward and to arrange for Earth’s expansion into space to be preserved from the pressures of short-term greed and sheer imperialism.  It is imperative that an effort be made to establish that, like Antarctica, other bodies in the solar system should be maintained as a common heritage subject to the oversight of international law, with consideration for all of humanity, and not just corporations disguised as individuals or oligarchs disguised as companies.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Earliest Sci Fi?  Part II

                Most sci fi enthusiasts look back to H. G. Wells or Jules Verne as the founder of the genre, but its roots actually lie in 17th century France.  An excellent place to begin is with the strange novel The Estates and Empires of the Moon and The Estates and Empires of the Sun published anonymously in 1657 and 1662.  Known by various other titles in translation and sometimes under the collective title The Other World, these visionary books are the work of Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a swordsman and philosopher generally recognized as the main figure in Edmond Rostand’s 19th century drama of the same name.  The real Cyrano was much more complex than Rostand’s long-nosed matchmaker, however.  Besides his reputed skill with a blade (rumors once had him taking on a mob of about 100 enemies at the Tour de Nesle), Cyrano was a daring thinker, frequenting the most daring and dangerous free-thinking circles of his age and excelling in theatre as well as in fiction. Many of his favorite authors, such as Bruno, Pico, and Cardano, had been banned by the church and sometimes arrested by the Inquisition.  Thus, it was for good reason that he did not publish his science fiction during his lifetime, but instead circulated it in samizdat-fashion as manuscripts among his trusted friends. 
                Amazingly, Cyrano boldly advanced into both hard (technological) and soft (intellect-oriented) science fiction.  His protagonist (anonymous in the first volume and dubbed with the anagram Dyrcona in the second) becomes interested in space travel after a night on the town with some drinking buddies and has a holographic close encounter associated with a passage in the works of the Italian scientist Cardano.  He ponders different means of achieving flight and first attempts to ascend with the aid of a matter-phase-transformation device based on evaporation.  This contraption actually sends him aloft, but not far enough, since he lands unexpectedly in early Quebec.  Trying a different kind of machine, he accidentally discovers the power of rockets and launches himself into space during a Midsummer celebration.  When he reaches the Moon (Cyrano precociously describes the Moon’s own gravity field), he is surprised to meet a succession of other earthly visitors, all figures from the Bible, who have preceded him.  Their methods of propulsion are all different from his own and range from the most fanciful (taking advantage of high water during the Deluge) through the metaphysical (prefiguring the astral projection in Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series) and including the most interesting to our time (a device based on electromagnetism).  However, terrestrial ex-pats are not the Moon’s only inhabitants in Cyrano’s universe, and he soon falls into the hands of an indigenous race of intelligent centaur-like creatures.  Soon after, he makes friends with an entirely different kind of life form, a long-living “corpse parasite” that reanimates and inhabits the dead bodies of other species, imparting wisdom through his cadaverous disguise.  Such a bizarre possibility has been revived often in sci fi, from the comical zombies in Ed Woods’s Plan Nine From Outer Space to the character of Jadzia Dax in Star Trek : Deep Space Nine.  The equine Selenians have quite a few technical wonders of their own, including entire cities that can move in sync with the weather.
                Perhaps the most interesting forecasts in Cyrano’s work concern not technology, but biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics.   The Selenians place the newcomer in a most awkward encounter situation, since they are reluctant to consider him an intelligent being.  Instead they try to turn him into a pet and to breed him with a Spanish gentleman who has already fallen into their clutches.  Their ambiguous relationship may be an original incidence of gay issues in outer space.  Eventually, with the help of his shape-changing friend, “The Demon of Socrates,” the protagonist shakes off the assigned identities of an ape or a bird and convinces the Selenians that he possesses something approaching their intelligence.  As he masters their musical language, he discovers that the Selenians enjoy an almost Utopian existence, complete with nearly free sex, a highly regulated and ridiculous form of warfare, and an advanced form of homeopathic medicine.  He becomes especially intimate with one of the females in the royal court – an implication of the first interspecies sexual encounter in the history of science fiction.  As the first volume reaches a crescendo of religious satire, the protagonist is whisked back to Earth in mysterious fashion, but later, once again with the assistance of the Demon of Socrates, he navigates to the vicinity of the Sun in a spacecraft of alien design that is apparently proton-powered. 

                There is a new translation of Cyrano’s work by Sophie Lewis, under the title Voyage to the Moon, that makes it more accessible to twenty-first century readers than those of Lovell, Aldington, or Derreck.    Hopefully, it will bring new awareness to sci fi followers of the contributions of this great pioneer who acted as a major influence on the 19th century masters who launched the genre in popular fiction among the English-speaking reading public.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

In the beginning...

From the earliest days, humans drew on their imaginations to picture the universe.  Odin's great horse Sleipnir, a strange hybrid of a giant stallion and the trickster god Loki, was one of the first ways they envisioned to travel between the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos.  Strange couplings, sex and violence were there from the onset, and Odin would not have found it strange that mankind's first ventures beyond the realm of Midgard involve military applications such as spy satellites and the mysterious X37B.  As we contemplate the next jump, to Mars, who knows what odd adaptations will ensue for earthly organisms that face the trip?  As we delve into the future, we encounter again and again the perspectives first conjured through the eyes of the past.  James and John Gaines, authors of the forthcoming adventures of Klein and Entara.