Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A.E. Van Vogt and the Craft of Consciousness

                Despite the decline of reputation his works have suffered in the past two decades and the continued disdain of many of sci fi’s luminaries and power brokers, the works of A. E. Van Vogt continue to exercise a strong, if ghostly, influence on the development of the genre.  He was always somewhat of an outsider to part of the sci fi community, being not only Canadian, but a prairie-sprung, particularly rootless Canadian at that.  His short stories have long enjoyed admiration, sometimes grudging, from most of the sci fi community.  His novel-length works have not enjoyed this privilege.  Widely slammed as episodic, wandering, stylistically indefinite, and poor in character development, the longer works (still brief by contemporary standards) are easily overlooked by too many readers and writers.  The fact that several were pieced together from previously published stories without much of a linking apparatus does not help matters.  Nor does Van Vogt’s fleeting association with the preliminaries to Scientology.

                How can we overlook, on the other hand, works that have had a major impact on sci fi television and films?   It is impossible not to concede that the series of works on the War Against the Rull, the Space Beagle journeys, the Weapons Makers, and the Worlds of Null-A have been echoed in Star Trek, Enemy Mine, and Alien, among other iconic developments.  Also noteworthy is the homage of Philip K. Dick, who found a liberating freedom of imagination in Van Vogt’s writings.
                Ironically, a closer look at Van Vogt’s stylistic “shortcomings” can provide a clue to why they may not be shortcomings at all.  First, consider that Van Vogt’s stories have always had a more enduring  level of acclaim in Europe than they have had in North America.  His novels continue to fascinate the public in France, for instance.   French readers are explicit about their attraction for him:  they class him as a surrealist.  The movement of Surrealism was born in France just after World War I, an heir to the tradition of Dada that had grown in neutral Switzerland during the conflict.  Tristan Tzara passed the baton for the movement, willingly or not, to André Breton.  Many artists, including Hans Arp and Man Ray, joined the Parisian group that sprang up and soon became a dominant force in the creative world, the main non-fascist inheritor of Modernism. Chronicled in Breton’s text Nadja, the early surrealists strove to achieve psychic effects that gave birth to artistic impulses.   One of their favorite techniques during the époque des sommeils was to provoke and record dream visions.  Van Vogt stubbornly carried forth a similar method, having himself awakened throughout the night so that he could jot down impressions from his dreams.  Many of these dream impressions are said to form the basis for his writings.

                Furthermore, surrealists sought to create art forms that rejected all prevailing forms of logical continuity.   They considered logical predictability and verisimilitude to be anathema to the process of authentic creation.  The ideal surrealistic image was supposed to involve an intuitive, instant, and powerful linkage between two logically discontinuous elements, as in Paul Éluard’s famous line “The Earth is blue like an orange.”  Van Vogt’s essential component of “Nextian” thinking, which indeed owes a debt to some theories of verbal semantics, also appears to be even more closely bound to the practices and objectives of Surrealism. 

                It is no accident that the successful translator of Van Vogt into French was none other than Boris Vian.  Vian’s own influential novels, L’Arrache-cœur and L’Écume des jours are prime examples of the same literary aesthetic.  The first involves a devastating critique of the materialistic logic of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and the second develops an approach to human values that is daringly intuitive and dismissive of rational explanations.  No one could understand Van Vogt more perfectly than Vian, who captivated the minds of French youth in the 70’s.  It is these very discontinuous elements that have motivated most negative opinions of Van Vogt in America.  Our North American prejudices are completely understandable, since our literary consciousness has been shaped mainly in the mold of Hemingway’s prose.  Faulkner and Fitzgerald occasionally “strayed” into discontinuous styles, but these instances were glibly explained away in various ways by North American critics in such a way as to preserve the notion of their absolute claim to logic and verisimilitude.  Our authors who eventually incorporated surrealistic elements into prose fiction, such as Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth, were either marginalized or squeezed somehow into a race/class/gender paradigm.  When, in the wake of the Hispanic movement of Magical Realism, certain surrealistic effects actually became “legitimized” in authors like John Irving, Michael Chabon, and even Philip Roth, their heritage was essentially occulted.

                As usual, it is the unusually associative mind of Philip K. Dick that can bring us back to a more complete view of Van Vogt’s importance.  Dick’s own obsession with “paranoia” is intimately connected to a rejection of the rationalistic construction of both story and history.  The symbolism of the I-ching in The Man in the High Tower, much more than a touch of the orient, embodies his proximity to Surrealism and to Van Vogt’s Nextianism.   “No man is a king in his own land” says an old French adage.  This definitely applies to Van Vogt.  As political borders continue to shift and blur, let us hope that he may regain a North American reputation at least equal to that which the rest of the globe confers on him.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Election of the Inhumanoids

                One of the most iconic images of late 20th century science fiction movies is the scene in Independence Day where a huge alien mother ship that has been hovering over the White House obliterates the building, and presumably all that it stands for, in one shattering blast of pure energy.  One of the most beautiful features of this picture is that it is so unnecessary: the control of our world is already in the hands of a power that is divorced from, if not totally inimical to, humanity.  I don’t mean “humanity” simply as a DNA strand, but rather humanity as a system of ethical values that doesn’t stop at the boundaries of our skin. 
The approach of the season of horror (I’m speaking not of Halloween, but of the upcoming November election cycle) brings this topic to the forefront.  It is horrible because we are overwhelmed by the realization that our cherished idol of the elective process is generally hollow in a world where the candidates are pre-selected and, apart from the make-up called campaign promises, very much the same.  Choosing among them, almost always a matter of the least of many evils, reminds me of a wonderful episode of the Three Stooges where the boys find themselves in a medieval dungeon.  They are given the irrelevant choice of how their execution will take place: do they choose to have their heads chopped off or be burned at the stake?  Moe and Larry, like so many of us, try to apply micro-ethics in this situation and opt for decapitation as the quicker alternative.  However, Curly shows that choice is absurd in such a dilemma by selecting immolation because “a hot steak is better than a cold chop.”  We are all about to be asked, both next month and more importantly next November, whether we prefer to have our heads chopped off or be burned at the stake.
Of course, I exaggerate (as do the Stooges and all others who engage in satire as the only permitted form of anarchy).  We have an array of far more numerous equally disgusting paths to the same outcome.  On the ends of the political spectrum there are even two extreme candidates tolerated because the system finds it easier to let them deplete their bank accounts rather than simply suppressing them.  These are Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul.  The former advocates a new approach to government in which collective concerns would corral the unbridled forces of corporate capitalism and transnational financialization.  The latter advocates reaching the same ends through the resurrection of individual control of the economy in a discrete nation-state.  Neither will win the election, so bleak days lie ahead, but some of us can try, like Platon Karatayev in War and Peace, to try to find one decent potato in the bottom of the rotten sack to get us through to the next day of our forced march to oblivion.
One issue the Inhumanoids will stay away from is immigration reform. After all, it would only call attention to their own alien aspects.  Since they represent financial imperatives that are fundamentally non-human and non-humane, they cannot even appeal to a human ethnic voter base.  Oh, Trump can play his little jingoistic charade.  Everybody expects it now.  It resembles the guys in the second Battlestar Galactica that were always spouting off about the Cylon menace while they were trying to take over the ship themselves.  Can Trump be a closet Cylon?  Or Carson?  Or Hillary?  I don’t think Cruz is one – he’s more of a Cylon wannabe.  He has something of the Renfield in him, groveling around the Kochs and the Adelmans and asking when he will be allowed to feast on creatures with blood, instead of spiders and roaches.  Yes, his could be a truly Gothic presidency.
One of the Inhumanoids will control the country after 2016.  Whether that face sports the almost atomic shine of Ted Cruz’s cheeks, the surrealistically tyrannical hairdo of Donald Trump (reminds me oddly of the Harkonnens in Dune), the creepy mock-submissive expression of Ben Carson or the deceptively grandmotherly visage of Hillary (is Baba Yaga underneath it all?), it will simply provide a mask for the Big Money that will steer our Republic over the bounding economic seas.  Whoever it is will obediently sign the checks for all the cost-plus contracts the Pentagon can dream up, even if it involves installing an Iphone on every square foot of the ocean floor to monitor the fish in case they are communicating with ISIL.  Whoever it is will obediently look at all the photos of OMDs dished up by the CIA, DIA, DEA, or other alphabet soup entity and agree that we should invade somewhere.  (Invade?  No, that’s no good – liberate? Democratize? Pacify? Get Publicity to come up with a new brand!) Corporate financialized capitalism is content to give the orders and stay out of sight as much as possible.  It will not even provide an obvious clue to its influence, like Ahab’s leg stumping over the deck of the Pequod at night.  We, the motley crew of America, will not even have that much awareness of the maniacal obsessions that guide our destiny. 
In the meantime, we suckers are treated to the Punch and Judy Show, the campaign debates.  It is true that the Democratic Party seems to have canceled its act in the show, but the Republicans have more than made up for it by multiplying the candidates to such a degree that they won’t even all fit on the same stage. Psychologists have recently determined that an overabundance of selections actually makes it more difficult for an individual to achieve a desirable  solution, and this campaign season certainly proves their point.  This is a show that is guaranteed to make the audience take notice, though the choreography and props allow only for limited permutations: Punch can grab the bat and hit Judy or Judy can grab the bat and hit Punch.  Who will score the most points this time? – Rubio? Mario? Carly Fiorino?  Princess Daisy?  Ironically, the most foolish puppet is the public, who dutifully assemble every so often (and even pay money) to have their intelligence insulted in this manner.

Denouement: there will be a “winner” because there has to be a winner and the winner will take all and deliver it like a rolled-up newspaper to the feet of its plutocratic master.   On that bloody morning after the 2016 elections, the best an individual human, a Mensch, can hope for is to be the one tin soldier that walks away.  Not like the movies.  They offer hope, albeit in the form of myth.  Villains, kaiju, those Mysterians with their funny noses, are always defeated.  In Independence Day, there was Bill Pullman to pull us up by our bootstraps and declare that humans had won because they had made a smoking mess out of… pretty much everything.  Hey, wait a minute, didn’t he start out as Lone Starr in Spaceballs?  Let’s see… he saves the galaxy by exploding a vacuum cleaner, marrying a Druish princess and blowing Rick Moranis to the Planet of the Apes, which is really the Dead Zone on Earth of the Future.  It’s all abundantly clear. Why can’t the campaign debates provide something as coherent or as entertaining?  We’re supposed to get bread and circuses, promised to us two millennia ago, and this isn’t much of a circus.  And what about the bread?  Oh, it’s called Soylent Green?  Available at bargain prices like Obamacare.  And come January 2017, it will come in a brand new wrapper named…?????

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Exoplanets: Why There May Be a Lot More Than We Currently Know

                The relatively recent discovery of exoplanets in other star systems has been one of the most exciting developments in early 21st century science that has strengthened the traditional sci fi interest in the possible existence of non-human intelligent life.  So far, the majority of exoplanets identified have belonged to a class of celestial bodies that includes “gas giants” such as Jupiter and Saturn.  Only a few years ago were the first planets found that could have structures similar to Earth, thus presumably more likely to harbor the conditions for life resembling our own.  However, based on our local observations on this planet, such bodies would have to occupy a habitable zone, neither too close nor too far from their stars, so as to sustain liquid water and temperatures conducive to Earth-based life.  Given these restrictions, astronomers have not yet found an ideal candidate, a “Goldilocks Planet”or twin to Earth that would give a very high probability of life, much less intelligent life.  A good summary of the current state of the search is Dr. Sten Ostenwald’s article in the Huffington Post, “Exoplanets: The New Age in Planetary Science” (3/10/14).
                Results in our so-far-limited scrutiny of the Milky Way Galaxy’s planets therefore lead us back to the nagging question of the Fermi Paradox: if intelligent life is out there, why haven’t we seen any of it?
                A positive answer to this conundrum may be closer than we realize if we look at our own prejudices in analyzing distant star systems.  We humans have been lucky, but also unlucky perhaps, in that our own solar system is so neatly arranged.  The arrangement is a disk.  Around our sun, the planets fall into a neat, nearly circular array, all lined up in roughly the same plane.  Only about six degrees of variance exist between the orbits of Earth and its neighbors, a serendipitous fact that helped humans discover some facts about near space long before we could begin to go there.  The existence of such an ecliptic of planets is something we more or less take for granted. 
                Certainly, the ecliptical view of things has influenced our observations of exoplanets so far.  This is because we can determine their existence not by sight, but by recording variances in the radiation reaching us from their stars as the planets pass in front of them relative to Earth, creating in effect a mini-eclipse at a tremendous range, detectable by only the finest instruments.
                Another question imposes itself: what if there are exoplanets out there that are not orbiting their stars in such a way as to come between the star and Earth?  After all, we have no way of proving that all stars have ecliptics similar to our sun.  There may conceivably be stars where planetary orbits do not form a flat plane at all.  And even if they do, as some theories about the formation of solar systems suggest, why would an exo-ecliptic necessarily have to be co-planar to the direction of Earth?  It is true that our galaxy’s spiral structure might tend toward a “universal” coplanar coincidence, but so far there is nothing to suggest that it would be as uniform as that of our own solar system.  In addition, many stars exist in clusters or other environments that might exert gravitational influences that would override coplanarity. 
                The bottom line is that any given star might have perfectly well-developed planets similar to Earth that have not been discovered, and may not be for a long time, simply because their orbital angles do not allow us to observe their existence.  How many undetected Earth-like planets may lie out there?  It is a problem to be considered no doubt by the mathematics of symmetry until we can refine our methods of observation.  Several sci fi films have jumped ahead to posit the existence of an Earth twin within our solar system, orbiting the sun exactly opposite Earth so as to be undetectable.  Given the fluctuations in Earth’s own orbit, this kind of extreme symmetry would be most unlikely.  The films that have featured it, such as “Gamera versus Guiron,” have been filled with so many more facetious elements that the possibility was not seriously considered. 

                This should not stop us from investigating the likelihood of actual “hidden Earths” in other star systems, since they may only be hidden by our own angle of vision.  We can never exclude the existence of the strange, the unheimlich, until we are a bit more positive about the exact nature of our current planetary Heimat.

Friday, September 18, 2015

     Soyez les bienvenus, amis francais!  Etant un ancien habitant de Dijon, ou j'ai pour la premiere fois rencontre Stanislas Lem, je suis d'autant plus heureux de vous accueillir a notre blog.  N'hesitez pas a partager les derniers developpements dans la science fiction francophone.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Welcome to our new viewers in China and Germany!

Both countries are making great contributions to the future of space exploration, the former through the exploits of their taikonauts and the latter through massive participation in the European Space Agency and its numerous projects.  This reminds me of the favorite sci fi movie, First Spaceship on Venus.  A Germano-Polish production (Der schweigende Stern, Milczaka Gwiazda) based on Stanislau Lem's novel Astronauci, the film portays an international expedition including the German pilot Brinkmann and the Chinese linguist Tchen-Yu, who along with their colleagues try to solve the riddle of a message from Venus that eventually reveals sinister intentions.  Though the Venusians turn out to have disappeared long ago in an atomic holocaust that they were preparing to unleash on Earth, both Brinkmann and Tchen-yu (along with their African friend Talua) bravely sacrifice their lives so that the rest of the explorers can return to the home planet.  The scenes on Venus are often characterized by surreal effects far ahead of their time.  The film also features a precocious robot named Omega who adds to the interplay between the humans.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

                                          Building Robot Characters
                                          By John Gaines

                One of the greatest challenges of writing a science fiction novel is designing robots and technology.  Many robots of early science fiction were simple automatons, capable only of silently fulfilling their master’s commands.  From the Mechanical Men Superman once fought in a Max Fleischer cartoon to the imposing Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, early robots served primarily as tools, instruments whose defining characteristics were their physical forms rather than their personalities.  One of the early innovators of robotic characterization was Isaac Asimov, whose Robot series created the first concept of encoded robot behavior (the Three Laws of Robotics) and robots who possessed well developed personalities, dialogue, and characterization.  Asimov’s robotic characters such as R. Daneel Olivaw went on to inspire popular androids such as Data of “Star Trek: the Next Generation” and created a demand in the science fiction fandom for compelling, memorable robots.  Life Sentence and its sequel offer a unique perspective on how sentient robots could interact with humanity in the future, continuing the speculative fiction tradition of questioning the place of robotics and artificial intelligence in the years ahead.

                As we began writing Life Sentence, there were no sentient machines.  The early chapters I worked on took place on the planet of Domremy and had very minimal interaction with robots, as the frontier planet did not have access to high-tech manufacturing.  The few robotic characters I created for the Domremy scenes were service automatons with no free will, simple tools to aid the colonists in various tasks they didn’t have the training to do themselves.  Towards the end of the process of writing Life Sentence, we decided that we finally needed to create a sentient robot for a pivotal sequence.  We created Doctor Torghh, a robotic physician.

                Torghh was intelligent, thoughtful, and unique among the characters we devised for Life Sentence.  He was the only thinking robot we created for the first novel, and we created him as a modular robot who could plug instruments and needed equipment into himself to utilize him—the ideal doctor of the future!  Although Torghh’s appearance in Life Sentence was quite brief, we enjoyed creating the character so much that we decided to give him an expanded role in the sequel, as well as a companion robot named Rack.

                 Incorporating these new characters into the world of Life Sentence has proved a particularly interesting challenge for me.  For the longest time, I had perceived the world of Life Sentence as being one where only humans and other organic characters truly “mattered”; most of my effort went into Klein, Ayan’we and the other organic characters.  After we agreed to utilize Torghh and Rack extensively in the sequel, I faced the difficulty of having to change my own beliefs about the universe we created in order to make Torghh and Rack true central characters.  How would a robot fear for its own mortality? How would it perceive and interact with other automatons?  And how would they perceive the world of living beings around them?  All these things cycle through my mind as I create the sequel of Life Sentence, the possibilities of a world in which robots could be the equals of humankind…or surpass us.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Creating Creatures
Jim and John Gaines
              We thought you might be interested to know that we will be conducting a presentation on August First at the Virginia Writers Club annual symposium at the Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottersville, Virginia.  The subject will be "Creating Creatures," and it will draw on classic science fiction creatures of the past, as well as some of our own creatures from the novels Life Sentence and Spy Station.  Here are the descriptions from the symposium program and a set of questions we will be distributing for discussion.

                We will discuss approaches to creating non-human characters in science fiction and other literature.  This will involve both From-Evolution-Out and From-Environment-In techniques, with examples from our Entara & Klein Cycle of novels and other sources.  Participants will be invited to sketch out their own non-human characters based in the FEO and FEI methods.  We will also consider the possibility of non-human-model robotic creatures.

Some Essential Questions

1.       1.  Much modern sci fi assumes that extraterrestrial creatures would be humanoid and largely anthropomorphic in both body and thought.  This was not the case in the earliest sci fi and there is no reason it should be now.  After all, Earth is currently undergoing its sixth extinction period.  Humans were not around for the first five and may not be after this one.  Given the almost infinite possibilities for planetary environments and the extreme unlikelihood that any which developed intelligent life would follow the chance-filled history of Earth, shouldn’t we look at other possible evolutionary scenarios?
2.      2,   Is there any good reason why another intelligent race should have similar values, associations, patterns of thought, and social organization as humans, given the fact that these are not shared by other Earth-bases species?
3.       3.  How would other environments, other evolutions, other histories, affect extraterrestrials and the  way they communicate (or fail to) with humans?
4.     4.  What simple biological facts could influence other intelligent races differently from us?
5.     5.  What possible sources of cooperation and conflict could arise between various different life forms?
6.     6.  What are the possibilities and limitations of comparison with human behavior?
7.     7.  How could other creatures adapt to the exigencies of factors like space travel?

8.     8.  Assuming that some forms of extraterrestrial intelligence may be generally “robotic,” what might the consequences be if they were not created by humans?

Hello New International Friends

We'd like to welcome our new international viewers from Bulgaria and Romania.  We are delighted to share our posts with you.  We also invite you to visit the James Gaines and John Gaines Facebook pages, where we often share items of sci fi interest.  We look forward to your comments, too,

Monday, June 29, 2015

      Are We Safe From Meteors?

     Does this look like a place hit by a meteor?  The quaint town of Noerdlingen, Germany, lying between Munich and Stuttgart, certainly looks peaceful in  this view from its ancient church tower, known to locals as the Daniel.  But about fourteen and a half million years ago, a meteorite more than a kilometer in diameter slammed into the earth,creating a crater over twenty-eight kilometers across. The force was so great, equivalent to nearly two million Hiroshima-style bombs, that tons of diamonds were instantly compressed into existence.  The native stone in the town's buildings is peppered with tiny, glistening jewels.  Rocks were thrown hundreds of of kilometers away, into what is now the Czech Republic. Despite endless years of erosion, the giant crater is easily visible from space and the rim can be traced through the surrounding woods and fields.   A smaller crater in nearby Steinheim, thought to be formed by a fragment of the same meteor, is more easily appreciated from the ground, since it is under two kilometers wide.
     The recent flyby by a meteor much, much smaller, raised some alarms on Earth, although scientists had calculated that it would miss our planet by a fortunately large margin.  Still, it is almost inconceivable how much damage to our present civilization an impact on the scale of the one that formed the Noerdlingen-Ries crater would produce.  To avert such a catastrophe, measures are being taken.  Earlier this month, NASA announced a new initiative to investigate possible ways of dealing with approaching meteors with nuclear weapons, as portrayed in the sci fi movie Armageddon.  The agency also recently released a  map showing impacts with small meteorites called fireballs or bolides over the last couple of decades.   Furthermore, a study by Stefan Hergarten and Thomas Kenkmann of the University of Freiburg reveals that almost all of the large impact craters on Earth have already been discovered and that the theories about the rareness of such collisions are probably correct.  
     The news from Freiburg offers some comfort for those worried, like Chicken Little, that the sky is in imminent danger of falling.  Further comfort may come from the fact that our space programs are now mainly focused on asteroids, comets, and meteors.  The impetus for this interest is not, it is true, simply a matter of prudence.  Greed plays a large part, since the prospects of asteroid mining are driving the imaginations of NASA authorities and private enterprise alike.  One asteroid has been identified that might contain many times the total amount of gold ever found on Earth.  This would be nice to have in one's bank account, but before we start hallucinating about the benefits, we should remember that the discovery of vast new sources of gold in Mexico and Peru by the conquistadores wound up destroying the economy of Spain just at the moment it was about to dominate most of Europe.  At the same time, we need not be so pessimistic that we ignore the opportunity to control our planetary destiny better than we do now.  Nuclear bombs have a privileged place in Washington's psyche, but hopefully scientists can also point out possibilities of rerouting meteors with new technology such as ion drives.  
      We can never count ourselves as totally safe from meteors.  Our understanding of events out at the edge of the solar system, in the mysterious Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, is still too incomplete to rule out the appearance of some "unscheduled" visitor from space bashing into our world. However, if we follow the advice of the reporter at the end of The Thing From Another World and "keep watching the skies," we may preserve Noerdlingen behind its quaint medieval town wall (one of only three remaining in Deutschland) and the rest of us in our cities, suburbs and farms.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Just a quick note of welcome to our new viewers in Venezuela, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Ukraine.  Add a comment if there's something you'd like to discuss.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

     What do prizes have to do with sci fi?  Oh, there are the Hugos and the Nebulas and such and those are marvelous stimulants for our imagination, but I'm not thinking specifically of literary prizes.  
     Then there was the government's prize for the development of supply rockets for the ISS that led to the emergence of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences as private entities for space transport.  This was an unqualified success, and we will return to it later.

     In the larger world of prizes, though, several factors make us wonder about their effectiveness, at least in the present context.  Consider the prize of prizes, the Nobel.  Regardless of the enormous prestige and undeniable financial comfort that results from receiving the prize, does it really serve as a stimulant for achievement?  The instance of President Obama's peace prize gives pause for thought.  He was awarded it for calling an end to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but neither has ended.  Despite our having our way in running those countries through Western-approved (if not installed) regimes, the fighting, the bombings, and the recruitment of further militants rages on.  Other Peace Prize recipients have been so fortunate as to be murdered shortly afterward by their own countrymen.  Of course, these may be exceptions, but they are noteworthy ones.  The Nobel is awarded to many great scientific researchers, as well.  Usually it comes relatively late in their careers, as a crowning achievement to their initiatives and sacrifices.  Was it really necessary, or even instrumental in producing those results?  Probably not.  Those men and women would have forged ahead in their crusades without the carrot of the Nobel being held before their noses.  There is still a common value in recognition, whether or not it is a stimulus as well.

     Much the same can perhaps be said if we step down a notch to the so-called MacArthur "Genius Grants."  These five-year fellowships have been awarded for decades to promising individuals in a surprising number of fields.  According to the foundation's own guidelines, they are not necessarily directed to a single designated outcome, such as the design of a building, the writing of a book, or the establishment of a particular institution.  I have always been interested in hearing a sort of longitudinal report on what happens to the recipients after they receive the awards.  A nagging doubt makes he wonder if any wound up the worse off for the honor, like the "lucky" individuals on the old television show, "The Millionaire," who frequently crashed soon after their success.  To hope that the awardees would go on to live full and happy lives would certainly be a desirable outcome for these worthies.  Yet, the question remains: in terms of strict effect, what do the awards do?

     So often in our society, prizes seem essentially "rigged" beforehand.  Reading the astonishing variety of reactions to the recent Wayweather-Pacquiao championship boxing match, it seems that many fans are disappointed.  Commentators cite the fact that the "take" was already largely calculated before the match began, assuring that both fighters would be so wealthy that the decision would not have much influence on their subsequent lifestyles.  Many fans felt that one or both of the fighters was just going through the motions and failing to deliver a performance worthy of the high price. I would take exception to this, since anyone who has spent even one round in the ring with a trained boxer knows that it can be an experience so grueling that questions of dollars rapidly fade from relevance.  Could a bigger purse, a super-prize, have made them produce what some of the fans wanted?  Perhaps a better question is: might not such a super-prize have been more meaningful if both men had been able to confront each other at the height of their abilities, rather than late in careers that the boxers were making superhuman efforts to maintain and extend, knowing that they were a step behind, a punch slower, than they once were.

     This brings up the fundamental question -- and here we jump back into the future -- of what we really want to use prizes for.   What are the collective goals?  Are great journeys one of them?  Can a great journey into our solar system be one?  Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg, in Around the World in Eighty Days, sets out on his adventure to win a bet that was essentially a financial prize. Henry Stanley crossed Africa in pursuit of Doctor Livingstone, motivated by a prize in the form of a commission. Both were effective in producing desired results, despite hardship.  Both involved considerable risk, as did the ventures of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.  Elon Musk, father of SpaceX, sees the colonization of Mars much in terms of a prize objective, one the company is already planning for before a prize is offered.  Will he, will we, be willing to go all fifteen rounds until the final bell sounds?  Do we really want to?  These are questions waiting for answers.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Giving It All Away?

by James and John Gaines

     A recent op ed article in Popular Science discussed the advisability of trying to communicate proactively with intelligent aliens.  It gave prominence to Stephen Hawking's warning that broadcasts may attract dangerous attention to the planet,making it a target for nomadic alien intellects that would treat our world as nothing more than a disposable resource.  But then it went on to suggest that perhaps such "Here I am!" messages might be justified on grounds that give cause for doubt to any skeptical mind.

      Just as specious is the purportedly practical argument that intelligent contact would allow us a shortcut to solving our planet's foremost problems: disease, starvation, traffic jams, pollution, or the difficulty of making a good hollandaise.  Why should we assume that an alien intelligence would be interested in alleviating these woes?  Would aliens not object that most of these are problems that we could certainly address, if not completely dispel, ourselves.  Our own planet's historical record provides ample proof that a "civilized" culture does not race to solve the perceived problems of a "primitive" culture, but rather to address its own, and to impose conditions on the primitives that generally exacerbate rather than ameliorate their general state of being.  To put it one way, the might only help us with the hollandaise in order to see if we tasted good in it.  

      One underlying rationale for such messages is that we should do it simply because we can.  Even in the relatively closed system of life on Earth, the ethical bases of the assumption are questionable. Most consequences of human action within our atmospheric bubble are fairly well known, or at least predictable.  This has not prevented our philosophies from constructing elaborate systems of checks and balances to restrain actions undertaken on no better justification than because it is physically possible to do.  The consequences of human actions in a cosmic environment, where there are literally no limits to the dimensions of activity and no baselines for establishing predictable reactions, are far more daunting.  This is not to say that we humans should contradict our own natural and eventually unavoidable curiosity.  Yet it does reinforce the necessity for careful reflection on any actions outside our planetary sphere, even when actions may seem benign or "natural."
     The article in question goes on to offer several "safe" ways that communication may be undertaken, ranging from setting off a kind of colossal laser fireworks display to broadcasting the entire Internet into outer space.  The latter possibility could lead to some amazingly negative outcomes that make one wonder how it could be proposed in the first place.  The article's major justification seems to be that it would allow for easy translation because it would make available such a huge sample of material.  Therein lies a problem.  It would not be just a sample, but an effective (though not permanent) totality.  

     A first question to be asked: do we really want the rest of the universe to know how stupid we are?  So much of Internet communication consists of porno, reports on lethal military and criminal adventures, or simply insipid Facebook posts and chats!  Might not a true interplanetary intelligence legitimately conclude that our race is merely insane or too undependable to work with?  There is such a thing as knowing too much that you really don't want to know.  

       A second question: is it really a good idea to tell a potential partner EVERYTHING?  The Internet includes our planet's entire economy, its defensive systems, its most vital needs, its biological secrets, and the accurate location and importance of every man, woman, and child, as well as most of our fellow inhabitants.  Can we assume that an alien intelligence is just some Daddy Warbucks eager to please our every whim, and not a collection of beings with its own agenda that may or may not include us?  To broadcast even an unsifted compendium of our knowledge or communication into space would be tantamount to giving out all one's bank accounts, one's tax returns, one's family history, one's criminal record, and one's most embarrassing moments to a potential blind date. Furthermore, in this case, we would not even know if the "other" was remotely like us or what it meant by a date.  I propose that if we do communicate, maybe it should be more in the nature of a mathematical "speed date" -- an encounter where we could gain some knowledge about what we might be dealing with, without giving away more information than we are comfortable with.  As one contemporary commercial states, "Like comes before love.  Like is good."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Take Me To Your Leader!"

by James F. Gaines

One of the oldest myths of First Contact is the famed punchline, “Take me to your leader!” uttered by an alien upon landing on Earth. Just imagine if that were to happen today. A visitor asking to be conveyed directly to Barack Obama would soon receive a letter from 47 Republican senators hinting that we might legislatively secede from Outer Space! Moreover, it was not just recently that the preposterousness of a face-to-face meeting with one or more of our planet’s leaders was pointed out by forward-thinking sci fi creators.

In the 1951 Robert Wise film classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the interplanetary messenger Klaatu, having landed right behind the White House, emerged from his shining saucer with a marvelous gift and a desire to see the President and was promptly… shot. In vain did he insist on his peaceful intentions and reiterate his request while recuperating in Walter Reed Hospital. (In retrospect, this very treatment seems amazingly indulgent; one can easily see contemporary scientists plant the injured traveler on a slab and start dissecting him – i. e. ET). Does Klaatu get to see the Leader? No, for the President sends a distinguished flunky who informs him that such an interview can only take place behind hermetically closed doors, rather than in the world arena Klaatu seeks. Other world leaders are no more comprehending than Harry Truman, since the British PM and the Soviet Chairman seem unable to decide where to meet each other, much less someone from another world.

Does the alien persist? Certainly not. Neither Wise nor original short story writer Harry Bates imagined that a being who could traverse so many million miles would be a moron. Klaatu elegantly escapes and seeks out more understanding humans. He has to go pretty far down the food chain before he succeeds in finding a candid boy named Bobby and his stenographic mother Helen (Bobby naively explains, “She’s a real secretary, not like that man they call the Secretary”). The numerous humans in between Bobby’s broken little Benson family and the President are more likely to resemble the latter in their mixture of fear and contempt for aliens, be they doctors, soldiers, Klaatu’s bureaucratic and bigoted fellow boarders at the rooming house at 1412 Harvard St. NW, or Helen’s treacherous fiancé Tom Stephens. In his greed for diamonds, power and recognition, Tom rats out Klaatu’s disguise as Mr. Carpenter and almost gets our little orb incinerated by the mechanical policeman Gort. The only exception to Earth’s hostility, other than the Bensons, is Professor Barnhardt, an enlightened by ultimately ineffectual scientist whose plans for a global conference are ruthlessly quashed by the commander-in-chief and his minions. Only Klaatu’s personal inclination to forgive and forget, following his death and Christ-like reanimation by Gort, offers some redemption for an apparently undeserving planet.

Surely, one may object, mankind has come so far since 1951 that such a scenario could never play out today. Reality check: the Cold War has been heated over. America is even more fear-crazed over Vladimir Putin than it was over Molotov and Khrushchev, and Putin hasn’t even taken off his shoes! Once again, we are trying to topple Iran, though this time the targets are Ayatollahs rather than the vaguely socialistic Mohammad Mossaddegh. The nations cannot get together to decide how to tackle the imminent demise of our own world from pollution of the bottom couple of miles of our atmosphere, never mind matters beyond the ionosphere. Suffice it to say that a twenty-first century Klaatu would have no better recourse than the 1951 model.

Richard Attenborough reminded television viewers recently in an overview of his career that our ape ancestors first applied their collective intelligence to more or less cannibalistic hunting, which is still reflected in today’s chimpanzees. We are still in many ways naked apes. Louie Thoreau’s BBC documentary on America’s Most Dangerous Pets featured one of the most prominent chimp wranglers of our day, who proclaimed that he felt much safer among 500 lb. Siberian tigers than among chimps, since their devious primate minds were always watching, waiting, and actively plotting for ways to unleash their lethal aggression. Politicians, the chimps of our marble domes, are, for their part, far more likely to display humankind’s negative characteristics than any potential upside. They would make most undesirable partners for a First Contact situation.

Perhaps ET had it right after all. Marooned on a scary world, he sought out the company of kids and stayed hidden among them as long as he could. Revived from death, not by human doctors but by his own kind, he telekinetically separated himself from NASA and the CIA and offered to initiate none of them to the secrets of space travel. The only things he consented to take back to his realm were a potted plant and the boy Elliott. Presciently prudent. Humans have an undeniably morbid tendency to neglect knowledge that is merely beneficial in favor of that which is destructive. Ned Land on the Nautilus. Put an astronaut on ET’s craft and he would bypass the medical suite and immediately search for a phaser to retro-engineer. All that passes for sophistication in the human mindset may one day in the future be interpreted as something closer to psychosis by beings with interplanetary capacities. Or at least we can hope so.

Ergo, it is not inconceivable that a future alien initiating First Contact would short-circuit the paths of power and opt for colloquy with a child, a woman, or a member of some neglected group. To return to Klaatu, we must recall that his original search for contact with heads of government had a specific and sinister motivation: it was those people and those alone who controlled the dangerous means (presumably, nuclear weapons) that had put the continued existence of Earth in jeopardy. With the help of Dr. Earnhardt, Klaatu devised a stunning demonstration of alien technology that could not be overlooked by the leaders he wished to reach, and who had so callously spurned him. Resorting to Plan B, he fulfilled his mission without having to unleash the awesome punitive power of his robot companion. More definite than the questionable, unstated response of Presidents, Chairmen, and other poobahs was the effect of the humble Bensons, who presumably provided reliable proof that our race was not irrécupérable. It puts one in mind of the Bible. When the Lord had decided to push the Reset button on Sodom and Gomorrah, he sent angels for a First Contact with Lot. Had he sent them to the kings or chief priests, they might simply have jumped in their helicopters (sorry, chariots!) and headed for Camp David or some other more secure spot in the Fertile Crescent, keeping their lives, their gold, and their sins to themselves. The humble Lot, unlike his leaders, actually tried to bargain the Lord out of this firestorm by offering to find ever-dwindling numbers of men as righteous as himself. Of course, it didn’t work, and even Lot lost his salty wife and a good part of his righteousness, too, after he fled the doomed cities of the plain. Nonetheless, life went on.

This is not a bad goal. It is worth remembering. Maybe we should engrave it on the NASA headquarters. And the White House. And even the Capitol, if Congress doesn’t immediately disavow or deface it. “Life must go on!” We should keep it foremost as we talk about exploiting the planets, bringing back treasures of precious substances, going where no man has gone before (So what, maybe somebody else has gone there before) or “discovering” life (Duh, it’s already been discovered by somebody or it wouldn’t be there at all). We won’t really be ready to take our own destiny in hand until we realize that it may depend on trusting and understanding somebody ELSE.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

First Contact – The Germ Scenario
By James and John Gaines

                The February, 2015 issue of Popular Science has a thought-provoking article by Corey S. Powell entitled “Have We Found Alien Life?” (pp. 34-39 and 70).  It reports on the research by USC scientist Kenneth Nealson into a one-celled organism called Shewanella oneidensis that appears to be able to grow uniquely on the charges from an electrode.  This allows the bacterium to “breathe rocks” in a way unlike other earthly creatures, but perhaps like others that may be discovered eventually in outer space.  The article goes on to examine, in parallel, possibilities of microbial life on other planets of the solar system and ways to go about detecting it. 
                Nealson’s discoveries, while not oriented specifically towards alien biology, bring up the sensible scenario that when we make contact with other-worldly life, it may be us doing the contacting, and the life may not be intelligent by any existing standards.  Of course, this type of first contact scenario poses a number of significant risks that have been imagined in part by science fiction in the past.  H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds treats the matter in reverse, since technologically superior and malevolent Martian invaders are eventually laid low by germs from earth.  B-movies of the 1950’s were concerned, in contrast, with the dangers to Earthlings from germs that would come to earth accidentally.  In the case of The Blob, an amoeba-like organism survives inside a meteor and winds up absorbing the tissues first of an imprudent hermit and then of much of the population of an isolated town.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers imagines a different sort of cosmic fallout in the form of spores that grow first into exaggerated peapods and then morph into humanoid form, taking over the psyche, as well as the body, of the nearest human.  These pod creatures are not strictly speaking microbial or one-celled, but the idea is similar.  Other films, such as The Crawling Hand, feature some kind of contagion that comes back to Earth with a space explorer and spreads (in this instance with merciful slowness) into the human race before it is stopped.  It is not quite clear in The Crawling Hand that the organic processes are due to a new species or simply to radiation-induced mutations of human cells, but as one can deduce from the title, this drive-in fare is more concerned with the sexual attributes of its “Swedish” female lead than with hard sci fi. 
                In more recent times, the discovery of quasi-microbial remnants in meteorites and the apparent evidence of water on Mars have revived speculation about microbial life that could be soon proven on one of the near worlds.  Some anxieties have arisen over the possible contamination of our own ecosystems by these strangers.  During the exploration of the Moon by Apollo astronauts, there had been relatively little concern that moon rock samples might pose any dangers.  For one thing, there was ample evidence that the Moon would be sterile, given the fact that water was not positively identified there until after the missions were finished.  Secondly, the samples were quite limited and were subject to careful scrutiny.  Thirdly, the astronauts themselves functioned to some degree as canaries in the coal mine, since the return to Earth was not instantaneous and any glaring peril might presumably unveil itself during the flight back.  After extended examination, moon rock samples were eventually distributed far and wide, so the fact that they have produced no discernible damage proves retrospectively that any anxieties were unnecessary.
                However, this comforting lack of extraterrestrial life so far may not hold true for future expeditions.  Asteroids, the immediate target for NASA missions, might seem to pose no greater danger than the moon rocks.  We must keep in mind, though, that one important goal of asteroid encounters is potential mining.  One wonders if importation of tons of material would be treated with the same scrupulous care as NASA’s tiny samples, especially if the goal were not pure science, but commercial capitalization.  This still limited risk is multiplied many times when it comes to samples from some of the other interesting bodies in our solar system, such as the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune.  Besides satellites like Triton and Europa, which might have submerged liquid seas, other worlds may sustain underground microbial life.  Powell’s article specifically mentions Mars, Titan, and Ganymede as places that might sustain rock-consuming microbes not dissimilar to the ones discovered by Nealson and his team.  In regards to the Saturnian moon of Enceladus, Powell says, “hydrothermal vents below its South Pole… would be natural homes to rock-breathing microbes” (35).  NASA certainly embodies much of mankind’s present knowledge about biochemical contamination and could be counted on to apply what it knows, but in view of severe budget restrictions and the general neglect of much hard scientific R & D on a worldwide scale, we wonder if what we know now might really be enough to protect our planet against possible contamination. 
                In this regard, two additional B-movies deserve consideration.  It! The Terror from Beyond Space and 20 Million Miles to Earth postulate more substantive imports in the form of vaguely reptilian and bipedal creatures that are brought back on spacecraft.  In It!, the importation is strictly involuntary and unknown until after the return trip is initiated.  The ET kills several of the crew and menaces others before a drastic solution is found in the form of depressurization of the ship.  This was a good enough idea that it was duplicated years later in the film Alien, where the danger of exposing Earth to its dragon-like creature was far more explicit.  In 20 Million Miles, on the other hand, the importation is deliberate and the Venusian is thought to be utterly harmless until it is exposed to the air and rocks of Earth, which make it grow into a giant that terrorizes Rome before succumbing to a mere bazooka.  Leaving behind the sensational appearance of both monsters, let us ponder the means of transmission rather than the exterior, since a real danger may not come from something that roars or looks like a dinosaur.  The It! scenario, where a stowaway bacterium would not be discovered until it is already on the way to Earth and holds, so to speak, a human crew as hostages, is a frightening possibility.  In a worst case, it might lead to the termination of the mission and its human component.  A 20 Million Miles eventuality might be all the more ghastly, since control on our own planet could not be preserved simply with nets or bazookas. 
                Returning to the Nealson characterization of his organism as “rock breathing,” it may be worthwhile to examine a particular risk of an organism “hiding” itself inside the Earth.  Humans generally tend to think of the Earth as a vast machine for decontamination, rendering harmless everything from nuclear waste to plague remains.  However, what if a rock breathing microorganism got under the surface of our most important rock – this planet?  We who are mainly limited to controlling the surface of the planet do not currently possess the means to reasonably decontaminate the Earth itself I an alien microorganism managed to establish itself below us.  What could be the potential effect of a life form that could digest the very underpinning of our existence?  Only one sci fi example exists, as far as we know, of such a threat to Earth’s minerals, the rather far-fetched film Monolith Monsters, in which alien crystals begin to grow disproportionately and dehydrate any living things that come in contact with them.  Ironically, they are easily conquered when a dam is breached near a salt flat and the flood of sodium chloride dissolves them into harmless sand.  Yet this threat is literally superficial and does not begin to approach the complexity of having to deal with a harmful organism proliferating underneath the outer crust of the Earth. 

                So to “get real” with this admittedly unusual sort of scenario, what could be done?  First, it seems prudent that a containment area away from the Earth would be a good idea.  The Moon might be a possible candidate, but let’s not forget that, thanks to tides, the Moon is also an important part of the Earth’s environment and may not make a good celestial guinea pig.  Better would be a moon around the Moon, since NASA is already proposing to tow an asteroid into lunar orbit as part of its preparation for missions to the Asteroid Belt and Mars.  Such an installation might cost more than one on the lunar surface, but would add a useful degree of separation in a worst case situation.  Secondly, it would be important to test possibly life-bearing samples not only in a vacuum, but in simulated Earth-like conditions.  If earthbound industries and laboratories are the eventual destination, it follows that we would have to be sure that organisms would not get out of hand if they were exposed to oxygen, moisture, cosmic ray protection, and the other privileges we enjoy.   Lastly, some consideration should be given to conducting materials processing at a location above the Earth’s surface.  This would be enormously expensive in the beginning, but might actually pay for itself to some degree by greatly reducing the mass of material that would have to be moved from space to Earth, given the fact that navigating our atmosphere is the most expensive and dangerous part of such transport.  Ultimately, it may be impossible to completely eliminate the danger of harmful exposure to organic life if we are determined to travel beyond our present home.  On the other hand, failures like the Challenger disaster should convince us that safety has to come first, especially on a planetary scale.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Closed-Loop Meme


                                                "Closed-Loop Meme"
                                                 by John Gaines
               A closed-loop meme is a concept used as a form of cultural shorthand between a select group to express a concept or emotion as a form of shorthand.  Although all memes function as a form of “cultural compression” in terms of abbrievating a concept to those “in the know”, closed-loop memes are unique in that the symbolic language they use is almost impenetrable to outsiders.

                One of the most famous uses of closed-loop meme in science fiction occurs in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, in which Picard must communicate with an alien being who communicates only in narratives from his species’ mythic cycle. Picard ultimately solves the problem of communication by understanding the common features of the alien’s narrative descriptions and the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The episode details the difficulties of cross cultural communication and the necessity to finding a common thread between cultures to connect them; without an understanding of the Gilgamesh legend, Picard could not have solved the puzzle of understanding the alien’s speech, which was entirely a form of closed-loop meme referencing its own legends.

                The concept of a closed-loop meme is often used as an intentional safeguard of knowledge between members of a subgroup to prevent infiltration from outsiders. In Life Sentence, the first book of the Domremy cycle, the religious group of Dissenters use a symbolic language called Crop Talk to communicate with each other to prevent their messages to each other from being decoded by the authorities. The main character, Klein, is introduced to the language of Crop Talk through a friend, and his communications in Crop Talk with the Dissenters form a major part of the novel’s plot.
                Although closed-loop meme can be used to safeguard minority groups for benevolent purposes, it can also be used to nefarious ends.  Our as yet untitled second book in the Domremy cycle portrays the flip side of closed-loop meme; a society where it functions as a tool for oppression and ignorance rather than the preservation of knowledge and group identity.  The Garanian species is ruled by a monolithic “Unity” government that preserves order and its own existence at the expense of individual joy and choice, and much of this is accomplished by eliminating knowledge of the planet’s history from all but a select ruling echelon.  Within this echlelon, concepts from the planet’s past, before its Unity government had arisen, are illustrated through a series of symbolic historical references that make no sense to the vast majority of the planet’s population, who are only taught a distorted version of history through “Approved” historical texts.  As the main Garanian character, Tashto, is deployed to a peace conference, he uses the rare opportunity to interact with other cultures to try to understand his planet’s history and how the Unity government came to be—and what truly came before.

Friday, January 23, 2015


First Contact: the Quarantine Hypothesis

By James and John Gaines

                Back in the 1950’s, the noted physicist Enrico Fermi developed a line of thinking now called the Fermi Paradox, which stated, roughly, given the mathematically good possibility of intelligent life on other planets in the galaxy or the known universe, why had none of them made contact with humans or left something to demonstrate their existence?   He might well have looked across the lunch table when he developed these thoughts, since he was at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the middle of a nuclear lab complex, talking with a group of scientists that included Edward Teller, the godfather of the hydrogen bomb.  Let’s keep this context in mind as we develop the discussion.
                For all his off-the-cuff brilliance, Fermi’s paradox does leave considerable room for doubt.  His mathematical calculation of Intelligent Life probability fails to take a few important things into consideration, most notably the factor of universal entropy.  In figuring the tens of billions of years that “early” galactic civilization(s) may have had to spread across space, he did not recognize that life develops on planets and that planets, and the stars that enable them, also have a lifespan.  In fact, many are developing or disappearing right now, within our own, so far short, human window of IL.  Thus, geologically and astrophysically, a civilization does not have forever to get its message across.  
                Moreover, we have to consider that there may be such a thing as a Species Threshold that applies to the situation.  By that, we mean that each species has an evolutionary “window” between the time that it emerges from a determined existence (i. e. homo erectus) and the time when it is capable of ending its existence through overpopulation, conflict, or perhaps other processes of degeneration.  Humans have had only 10,000 years or so of anything we deem civilization.  We still have only a partial idea of how life and intelligence develop, much less of how they may become extinct.  In Fermi fashion, we can consider that we are probably typical in this respect and that other forms of IL would be subject to the same phenomenon of a Species Threshold, possibly absolute, possibly not.  The concept that an interplanetary IL civilization would arise and simply stay the same, continually able to initiate first contact with another IL, therefore seems counter-intuitive. 
                We can conclude that even under a best-conditions scenario, IL first contact chances may be less than Fermi optimistically calculated.  Assume, though, that Fermi is not far off the mark and that there is now at least one IL form in the galaxy that might be capable of contacting us but hasn’t.  This apparently willful neglect in turn suggests that something like the Star Trek version of Prime Directive is at play: interstellar civilizations may have an avoidance policy in effect regarding life forms that have failed to achieve a given level of achievement.  Science fiction has posited this situation many times, beginning perhaps with Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.  Contemporary variations are too numerous to list.  It is worth mentioning, in addition, that we humans have not proven so far to be a very encouraging study group in some ways.  Other than a few exceptions like the Great Wall and the Pyramids, humans spent long centuries without producing progress observable from space.  Even as late as the nineteenth century, the energy footprint of a great city like London, Beijing, or Baghdad would have been miniscule compared to purely natural phenomena like major volcanic eruptions.  Our first radio broadcasts, arguably the best long-range testimony to our technology, would have been gibberish to a passing IL presence.  They may have been completely ignored, since they were merely analog forms of audio tracks (and who says other ILs even use the same bands and conventions of audio communication that we do?) in a plethora of different languages, not even sensibly digitalized.  The same holds true for television, keeping in mind that the first broadcast capable of reaching even the nearby space of our solar system was of a speech by a fellow named Adolf Hitler.  Of course, the next major observable event would have been the first explosions of the atomic bomb, which accelerated with mind-numbing speed to ever larger, more powerful, and obviously aggressive bombs. 
                We arrive more or less inevitably at the realization that IL life forms in our vicinity may not want to hasten a first contact.  If you heard that a boy from a house way down the street had just murdered part of his family, would you invite him into your yard to play?  Not bloody likely.  Better to make sure that you did not attract his attention in any way.  A Stellar Quarantine might in this case seem to be a scenario that reduces the risk for an IL form in our spatial neighborhood, whether or not the neighbor decided that we were worthy of further observation at all (this will be treated in a late post). 
                At this point, we are tempted to argue, as cock-eyed optimists, that surely the human race had proven that it is capable of better things than World War II or Mutually Assured Destruction.  We have the UN, the Internet, Neil Armstrong on the Moon, the Hubble Telescope.  Doesn’t that prove that we have a worthy side to our existence?  The trouble is that all of our advances, especially in the direction of space, have been driven by a military motive that may not seem like acceptably civil behavior to the neighbors.  Our first satellites were launched on rockets designed originally to destroy London and Moscow, if not New York.  Sputnik caused a virtual panic in military applications that quickly spread into the outer reaches of our atmosphere.  For one Hubble, we have scores, perhaps hundreds, of active spy satellites pointing the wrong way, back down toward Earth, sending drones with explosive payloads to the eradicate the villain-du-jour.  The Space Shuttle was designed primarily not for the inoffensive International Space Station, but to deliver unspecified military machines into orbit.  Now that the Space Shuttle is mothballed, it has been replaced by the secret X-37B vehicle.  No one is supposed to know what it’s doing on its long robotic missions, but we think we can be sure it’s not surveying crops or tracking bird migrations.  All this astro-military activity could not help but send a message to an IL observer that we humans may not be ready to learn how to pop up unannounced in other planetary systems. 
                When immigrants came to the booming USA in the early 20th century, they had to pass through Ellis Island.  Not because Americans wished to embarrass them or keep better track of them or help them adjust to a new environment, but to quarantine disease carriers before they could set foot on Manhattan Island.  Whether our physical microbes are damaging to extraterrestrial IL forms, we cannot know yet, but we can reasonably surmise that our mental microbes are probably strictly undesirable.  We may be in the Ellis Island Infirmary of interstellar relations at this very moment.  Our future will be judged by one factor, and only one: whether we can cure ourselves of our undesirability.

Friday, January 9, 2015

“Getting Real About First Contact – The Conquistador Hypothesis”
By James and John Gaines

                In the first installment of this series, “The Ferengi Hypothesis,” we promised to return to the possibility that aliens contacting the Earth may do so, not to eradicate or consume humanity, but to enslave them.  This topic already has a very large science fiction footprint, ranging from movie classics such as “This Island Earth,” where humans are to be a subservient race to the more advanced Metalunans on a colonized Earth, to the laughable “Future War,” where humans have been abducted to serve silly cyborgs on a distant world.  Popular culture has further explored the prospects of various kinds of alien abduction, often with the goal of “high-jacking” the human race through the introduction of alien DNA, a long-running theme in the television series, “The X Files.”  Such widespread interest shows that this contact hypothesis, though in many aspects not the most likely, does deserve a deeper scientific and anthropological investigation.
                Science would suggest that the usefulness of humans as off-planet slaves would be pretty limited.  Preparations for a trip to Mars have shown that even for such a short journey, in cosmic terms, our species is not well-suited.  We require rather large amounts of food, moisture, breathable air, and waste treatment facilities that make interplanetary travel – at least with our present imaginable technology – very difficult.  “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which had the advantage of Arthur C. Clarke’s probing mind, proposed to solve these problems by keeping the larger part of an interplanetary crew in some form of suspended animation.  NASA’s plans for a Mars mission do not include this scenario, but it is still unclear how our physiology would stand up to the everyday effects of space travel.  Much of the experimentation on the International Space Station and other orbital missions has concerned the deleterious influence of prolonged weightlessness, but this problem is probably less serious than that of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays.  Recent prospects of enveloping a manned Mars vehicle in layers of common plastics may prove useful, but their overall efficacy has yet to be proven.  Furthermore, these short-run considerations are only part of the problem, because as the film “Avatar” postulates, mankind’s abilities to function even on “earthlike” planets may be limited by all sorts of toxicities in alien ecosystems.  In addition, humans on an alien world would be subject to attack by alien micro-organisms and could easily suffer the fate of the Martian invaders in Wells’s War of the Worlds, felled by the most humble of unfamiliar life forms.  It would appear that, all in all, the value of human beings as space slaves would probably be rather low.
                More plausible is the possibility that aliens may desire to exploit the human race in situ, keeping them on Earth to perform various tasks the aliens judge unsuitable for themselves.  This is the key to what we call “The Conquistador Hypothesis.”  As with “The Ferengi Hypothesis,” we believe that useful speculation in this direction can take place in consideration of previous examples on our own planet, especially first contacts made during the Age of Discovery, when Europeans began exploiting native cultures.  While noteworthy comparisons can be made with some parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, the most massive examples come from the New World, where Spanish and Portuguese colonies sought to set up slavery-based economies for the benefit of the “mother countries” across the oceans. 
                The large-scale enslavement of Native Americans became a priority concern of the Spanish as soon as Christopher Columbus’s second journey to the Indies.  He longed to enslave the hostile Carib tribes, despite initial opposition from the Crowns, but also took over a thousand Arawak slaves and sent several hundred to Spain.  The fate of these transported slaves was similar to what is described in previous paragraphs about humans transported to other planets: they died in huge numbers during and immediately after shipment.  In fact, they proved less movable than African slaves who were already being imported as house servants and luxury court servants by the Portuguese.  However, in the meantime, Columbus was pioneering another sort of in situ slavery to collect the newfound gold on the island of Hispaniola.  His scheme deserves close attention because it is fiendishly systematic and applicable on a large scale.  After corrupting or intimidating all the leadership of the Native American tribes, Columbus established a gold quota that each individual had to render to the Spanish, in exchange for which they obtained a metal token to be worn for identification.  Any natives without a token were subject to cruel and immediate execution.  As administered by Columbus, this system failed, inasmuch as it provoked often violent resistance from the enslaved, rapidly destroyed the very infrastructure that made implementation possible in the first place, and produced very little profit.  Within a generation, most of the Native American population of Hispaniola was eradicated.  On the other hand, this failure was due to cluelessness and stupidity on the part of Columbus and his minions.  An alien power contacting Earth could easily avoid the pitfalls by carefully maintaining human elites to administer an exploitative system, sweetening the pot for them by distributing a fraction of the profits, and managing terror in a more selective process to ensure the compliance of human slaves.  As we suggested in “The Ferengi Hypothesis,”  the mere possibility of such an approach makes it absolutely essential in the case of first contact that tight cooperation be maintained among human leaders and that protocols to avoid corruption be in place before contact occurs.
Columbus was only the first of the Conquistadores, and tactics changed as the Spanish Empire moved onto the American continents.  In Mexico, Cortes raised the divide-and-conquer strategy Columbus had dabbled with among native tribes to a fine art.  Recent historians such as Peter Koch, in The Aztecs, the conquistadors, and the Making of Mexican Culture, have shown how Cortes would pretend to befriend one tribe, offering military and economic assistance in order to obtain information and logistical support, then move on to an adjoining area where the process would be repeated.  His most brilliant coup was to inveigle the Totonacs, Cempoallans, and even the originally hostile Tlaxcalans into aiding his advance against the Aztecs, since these harassed peoples had bitter scores to settle with their oppressors on the other side of the sierra.  The Aztecs, prey to political and spiritual confusion, allowed the Spanish and the allied horde to approach until it was too late.  Aztecs had maintained their dominance over surrounding tribes through a combination of bloody terror through human sacrifice, combined with a strangely benign form of “flower wars” that obtained slaves without destroying the main source of needed manpower.  Perhaps they thought the Spanish would continue their strategy in such a way as to offer them, in turn, military support against other peoples.  In any case, their response – a combination of bluster, mumbo-jumbo, gifts, and honors – was a pathetic failure.  Once the Aztecs had been slaughtered in a series of battles, all Mexico lay at the feet of the Spaniards and they systematically asserted rule by mollifying native groups at first and then ruthlessly crushing any opposition.  Though the Aztec king Monteczuma has been critiqued and psychoanalyzed by generations of scholars who blamed him personally for the downfall of his regime, today’s world leaders show that they have learned little from history.  The modus operandi of the current American president in particular shows marked similarity to Monteczuma’s approach to “international” problems, and there is no indication that Barack Obama would behave differently in an interplanetary situation.  In fact, his recent insistence on “American exceptionality” would invite any tricky alien strategist to use a typical Cortes policy co-option to obtain his aid in subduing any parts of the planet unwilling to comply with the “advantages” being offered them. 
Of course, the goal of the Spanish invasion of Mexico from the beginning was precious metals.  Cortes was only sent to conquer them after intelligence had provided adequate proof of a fortune to be dug out of the earth.  The development of large-scale mining , as well as the construction of a European-style infrastructure of palaces, forts and churches, required huge pools of physical labor in a country where the wheel had not yet been put to economic use.  Other types of labor-intensive exploitation, such as harvesting lumber and cultivating plantations, accompanied the administrative projects.  In most cases where the Aztecs had already established the bases for slavery, it was simple for the Spanish to redirect manpower to their own priorities.  When necessary, less docile elements of the Native American population could be forcefully “settled” around mission churches, where the priests, under the guise of spiritual conversion, would also provide intelligence and surveillance for the forces of order, at the same time instilling an ideology of total obedience and an idolatry of poverty among the populace.  Humans could expect, in the event of a Conquistador-type contact, that the same process would be followed: divide-and-conquer politics, assimilation of existing earthly channels of authority, phased economic domination, and installation of an ideological system (perhaps based on digital communication?) to ensure the progressive elimination of resistance and the transformation of the consciousness of the slave population.  Again, the only obvious way to impede such a program is a pre-coordinated opposition from the very earliest point of encounter.
Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in many ways mirrors the Cortes strategy in Mexico and that of other minor conquistadores in other parts of the Americas, but adds one glaring addition: kidnapping.  Pizarro’s expedition was in some aspects much more vulnerable than that of Cortes, at least until he arranged to be admitted to Cuzco and in a commando-like operation kidnapped the Incan king Atahualpa.  Rafael Varón Gabai describes in Francisco Pizarro and his Brothers: The Illusion of Power in Sixteenth-Century Peru the intricacies of the carrot-and-stick approach employed by the Spaniards while the Incas were locked in internal feuds.  When Pizarro demanded ransom for the king’s release, it appeared to offer the Incans the prospect of reestablishing the status quo ante and perhaps ousting  usurpers from their territory.  Yet the very value of the ransom they raised assured that the Spaniards would never do any such thing.  The rooms full of treasure so ignited the greed of the conquistadores that they were incapable of relenting.  Of course there was a certain amount of palace intrigue involved in Atahualpa’s fate, which in some aspects bore more resemblance to The West Wing or House of Cards than to the type of human-versus-alien shootout that is the stock of sci fi thrillers.  Yet it is not impossible that a first contact encounter on the conquistador model might involve a small number of operatives entering the White House or the Pentagon and engineering a kidnapping situation, either on a small or large scale, that would occult their ultimate goal of systematic enslavement and exploitation.  There is no reason to think that this would involve a ransom in the form of gold or other precious metals, but rather perhaps items that might not seem so valuable to the man in the world’s streets.  After all, for the Incans, gold was not really an article of everyday utility or a staple commodity, but rather a substance reserved for certain politico-religious purposes.  If first contact occurs, we should not blindly assume that the scale of alien values will resemble our own.
While Cortes and Pizarro set up structures that were effective in assuring vast amounts of human labor for the New World mines and for the plantations that followed, it is worthwhile,  in order to glean some possibly useful lessons, to look at one more conquistador who failed.  De Soto’s expedition, no less impressive in military might than that of his earlier countrymen, set out from the vicinity of Tampa Bay with a goal of subduing all of present North America.  He actually covered more ground than either Cortes or Pizarro, but wound up dying miserably (perhaps at the hands of his own men) without obtaining precious materials and, more importantly, without establishing a superstructure for slavery.  His army annihilated several tribes in the Southeast, especially the Mobiliens whom he hoped would be the Aztecs or the Incas of North America.  They eradicated many more indirectly through imported diseases, since the majority of the tribes identified by him had ceased to exist by the time subsequent explorers visited the area.  The pigs he brought along for food even changed the ecology of the region when they escaped and began to breed in the wild.  For all this, though, he failed to achieve dominance on a human level.  The main reason seems to be that the majority of Southeastern tribes seem to have been wary of his motives, uneager to interact with him, and capable of ongoing military resistance against a vastly superior technological force.  The first two factors are probably the most crucial.  De Soto was never able to assemble auxiliary enforcers like the Tlaxcalans or to worm his way into a local power structure.  When he did try to do this with the Mobiliens, they eventually reacted with fanatical fervor, preferring death to the last warrior rather than submission.  Their sacrificial example served as a powerful deterrent for other people who might have fallen under De Soto’s sway.  Despite the fact that Southeastern Native Americans represented a panoply of ethnic and linguistic groups, they were able to achieve a majority, if not unanimity, in their rejection of the newcomers.  Though this seeming victory was impermanent and came at a heavy price, twenty-first century humans owe it to themselves to be aware of this history.
Enslavement of indigenous groups was not universally successful under the conquistadores.  In some colonies, the Spaniards were able to use priests to implement and enforce an ideology that they were actually improving the indigenous peoples by “making them work” in virtuous ways, as Richard Lee Marks points out in Cortes, the Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico.  But where local conditions prevented the brainwashing of the Native Americans, there was an alternative.  For the Portuguese in Brazil and for the Spanish in the Caribbean area, a hybrid form of slavery was developed, as African slaves were massively moved to the Americas.  The history of African slavery, over-simplified in current school texts and in the media, was actually too long and complex to trace here in detail.  The main point pertinent to our discussion is that members of a different “race,” but of the same species, were enslaved to function in a slavery system originally conceived for Native Americans.  Given the conclusions reached in preceding paragraphs about the difficulty of transshipping human slaves to other planets, we should not forget that it may be easier for exploitative aliens to transship humans to other parts of the Earth in order to exploit their economic program.  In fact, it would be much easier to do so today than in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, since large population elements from some parts of the globe are already yearning for migration according to their personal economic imperatives.  It is not inconceivable that a conquistador-type alien power would actually offer to facilitate population migration as part of a larger enslavement plan.  This was already done to some degree by human colonial powers with residents of India who were enticed or coerced to migrating to other lands as part of an imperial scheme, leading to the presence of Indian ethnicities still active in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean islands.  A conquistador contact might seek large-scale re-engineering of the Earth’s populations in ways quite different from the Spanish Asiento system that accounted for the biggest percentage of African slavery in the past.  There is a danger that this could be combined with a form of creative outsourcing that would invite existing corporations on Earth to take advantage of the colonizing profit, above and beyond the control of existing human governments.  It would be silly to believe that aliens capable of travelling from star to star would have no other way of controlling humans than putting a collar around their neck, especially if the lure of a living wage would induce them to cooperate of their own volition with schemes that might be far beyond their comprehension. 

This last point, the vulnerability of Earth’s current population to manipulation through simple material demands, brings up the larger issue, already hinted at in the first installment, of the necessity for a social preparation for contact on our pre-contact planet.  While hunger, disease, environmental degradation, and ignorance to unaddressed all over our world, gaping opportunities are arising for an external force to seize.  The best preparation for ill effects of first contact is probably not to invest in exotic military programs that might prove as useless as the Maginot Line in World War II, but rather to upgrade our planetary population generally by forging a more fit, intelligent, and cohesive human race.  If we don’t, it could be that our neglect is preparing us instead to walk right into the shackles of an unknown kind of servitude from beyond our Solar System.