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.