Sunday, May 21, 2017

Star Wars and the Election of 2016

    People of many persuasions are scratching their heads to explain what happened last fall in the presidential popularity contest, but they are overlooking many factors, perhaps because they are too rooted in the past to see into the future.  They say soldiers are always trying to fight the LAST war instead of the one they are in, so why not consider a different type of war to explain what happened? A Star War!  

     Let's take as a starting point that by the time Hillary Clinton faced up against Donald Trump in November, she had already lost.  She lost a long time before she started running against the Donald. In fact, it was obvious that she had lost at her party's nominating convention, and actually some time before that. Oh, she could in fact have beaten Trump, but she had already made decisions that rendered that impossible when she and her staff and her DNC friends so badly underestimated what was happening to the only other campaign in town, that of Bernie Sanders.  

    Hillary's brand of candidacy was set in stone before the primaries began (and in fact remains in force among the DNC establishment):  she was going to sweep the female vote and the minority vote even more effectively than Obama had done, and she was going to raise humongous sums of money to blow away any Republican opposition.   She took the second half of this strategy to such a point that she not only raised more than she needed for 2016, but was already piling up cash and promises for 2020.  It was a done deal -- how could she lose?

     Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, another candidate believed in something other than electoral technology.  Remember, Hillary was essentially running from Coruscant.  New Yorkers seemed not to care that she did little for them in the Senate but run for higher office.  Eh! That had happened before. Wall Street didn't give a rat's derriere what had happened in Benghazi or Kiev, or anywhere else as long as it didn't disturb their balance sheets.  In fact, there was always somebody poised to make money over another little war.  And as for the Times, they loved her cuddly relationship with Netanyahu and were prepared to blame any misfortunes on the Putins and Xis of the world.  

    On the other hand, here was this character running from Tatooine.  Vermont, the pits of the United States in political terms: small, remote, sparsely populated, and poor.  And their champion a geezer who looked even older than Clinton and whose only power seemed to be "an elegant weapon from a more civilized age," rewarmed Cold War non-communist socialism.   For heaven's sake, nobody even remembered that old saw -- those old crackpots had been subverted and replaced by the Blairs and Hollandes and Merkels.  Or had they?  Among the youth of the USA, Sanders' sensible socialism slashed like a light sabre.  They were a generation whose future had been sold out, forsaken, beguiled by the promises of a "sharing economy" that they were quick to realize was no more than a new kind of  wage slavery without rights, unions, or pensions.  They had grown up with fifteen-year wars that were going nowhere, crusades against all sorts of invisible enemies and evaporated paradises.  They were willing to believe in a Force and still are.

     Hillary was confident she could prevail.  She and her husband had run Democratic Conventions before, and thanks to that heritage, she possessed the Death Star of party politics -- the superdelegates who could un-vote any challenge.  Trump even made things so much easier, because how could Sanders refuse to submit with such an awful alternative confronting the nation?  But she just didn't get it.  Sanders knew deep down that he was probably going to lose, but he knew what he had to do to at least offer some future to the kids who were willing to try something new.  What was it Obi-wan said to Darth at the end of their duel? "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."  Hillary never realized that she could not win because she had always already discounted Sanders and his rebels.  She refused to admit her weak points, and there was not just one exhaust port that was not adequately shielded against ALL attacks.  

     Of course, the struggle is far from over.  In this galaxy, the Death Star of the two-party monopoly was never destroyed; in fact, it  was barely damaged.  The Sanderistas will have to count on some rough moments ahead. There will be more than one rout at Hoth to deal with. Yet this rebellion seems to have a lot of room to grow, as fewer and fewer of the youth accept the barrage of propaganda that is served up about the economy, foreign affairs, acceptable morality, or other chapters of the Prosperity Gospel that is forced on them.  Science fiction is speculation par excellence, but then again, so is politics, as anyone who ever doubted that we would be ruled by an orange-haired clown other than Bozo or Ronald McDonald can attest.  Reality may turn out to be stranger than science fiction.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Greenhouses on Mars? --Some Things We Still Need to Know

      Donald Trump recently ordered NASA to send men to Mars by 2020, at at most 2024 and they wisely replied that it wasn't going to happen.  In this post, we want to examine a few biological reasons why we need a lot more experimentation before we talk about colonization.  In science fiction the viability of agriculture on alien worlds or even in deep space has often been taken for granted.  Consider the greenhouse that Sean Connery's character destroys in Outland, the ridiculously undersized plantations in generation ships like the one in Space Mutiny, or the floating remnants of national parks defended by  Bruce Dern and his bots in Silent Running.  But the truth is that we have precious little information on how plants would exist (or not) far from the vicinity of Earth.

     So far, our expeditions to Mars have focused only on machines.  Can we assume that photosynthesis, the key to any kind of agriculture, would function the same, or function at all, on the surface of Mars?  Is the light on Mars sufficient to allow plants familiar and useful to humans to grow in any sufficient quantity to provide food, oxygen, and waste recycling? Optimists will immediately reply that all will be well once a bit of terraforming is done. However, we should probably make sure that is true, or at least likely, before we begin the immensely expensive process of modifying the atmosphere of the Red Planet.  Even if we are able to construct a magnetosphere to reduce the atmospheric erosion of solar bombardment, would it be enough to enable a viable agricultural infrastructure?  It would seem necessary to observe some kind of plant growth experiments in the vicinity of Mars in order to determine if it works.  And we cannot begin this possibly "polluting" activity until we know a lot more about whether there is already any kind of microbial life on that world.   We cannot afford to take it for granted that great forests would simply spring up as they do in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.  

     Even if terrestrial plants could be coaxed into growing in an existing or easily altered Martian atmosphere and soil, that does not in itself solve all the problems.  One great menace to Earth's plants today is the massive decrease in pollinator populations.  After all, it is not enough just to plant seeds, for the plants must be able to reproduce themselves in the new environment.  Some plants can be pollinated without zoological help, but would they be able to prosper not just for a single season, but in such a way as to re-enrich the soil to a point where continual production is guaranteed?  One element in soil quality is the lowly earthworm, but now we need to know also if that whole collection of creatures could also function sufficiently well beyond the Earth's orbital neighborhood.  Even the experiments performed with biologicals on the ISS are not enough yet to answer these questions.

     It is worthwhile to ponder also who would be the farmers of a colonized Mars.  On Earth, the people who own and manage farms are not necessarily the people who do the work. The majority of human farmers could never afford the price of transportation to another planet. Would governments or corporations be able to persuade them to make the leap?  In our novel Life Sentence, we examine the vicissitudes of agriculture on the colonial world of Domremy.  Most of the  manual labor can only be procured by transporting prisoners, as happened in colonial Australia.  But on Domremy, the majority of the convicts are inept at agriculture and the only success is among a refugee religious sect, The Circle, which has learned subsistence farming the hard way on Earth.  Can you picture NASA's astronomical engineers spending a back-breaking day hoeing rows of vegetables? John Deere will not be right down the road to provide specialized machinery to replace manual work, either.  It is hard to imagine Earth-based governments or corporations paying the transport bill for farm workers without any established proof of profitability.  

     There may even be difficulties in constituting a panel of experts to mull over these problems.  The scientists of Cargill and Monsanto are used to dealing with inalterable terrestrial conditions that they can easily master and mold to their demands, even if it means using economic arm-twisting to force distant farm populations to grow commercial crops, engineering new genetic creations to fit the market, or displacing whole communities thousands of miles to accommodate Big Ag.  The rules will be changed on a new planet. Even the questions to be asked may be radical departures.  They will have to be asked and solved by people on the ground, not in the board rooms.  The issues of agricultural subsistence are being constantly avoided on this planet, lest they disrupt the large-scale economies of multinationals.  Can NASA, ESA, the Russians, or maybe even the Indians or the Chinese reach down to consult practical farming communities to help in the propective greening of Mars?  If so, it might be better to start sooner than later.  In dealing with Mars, mankind will not have the luxury of the many "throw-away" colonies that failed during our own colonial period.  Without careful preparation, our settlements on Mars might become Lost Colonies that would make Cuttihunk, Roanoke Island, L'Anse aux Meadows, or Parris Island look like sedate tea parties.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why Attend Science Fiction Conventions?

In the three years since we have become active in the science fiction community, we have come to discover the many advantages of science fiction conventions, known among the crowd simply as cons. We have attended several in the immediate area of our home in Virginia, and there are at least two more in this state alone that we look forward to visiting. Within driving range in North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, there are several more, and Jim will be present out of state for the first time later this year at the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity meeting in Columbia, Maryland. This does not even begin to mention some of the even larger cons, such as San Diego's famous Comicon or the many overseas cons that have proliferated over the years. Participating in any con involves some time and expense, which often runs to three days and several hundred dollars unless the venue is within commuting distance. However, we have found that the experience is invaluable in a variety of ways and no aspiring author or fan should miss the opportunity. Here are a few of the specific reasons to attend a con.

First of all is education in the sci fi profession, particularly for indie authors like ourselves, who do not have large publishing houses to coordinate the plethora of activities involved in bringing out a book. While there are resources, in print and otherwise, that offer guidance not only in writing a text, but in the subsequent stages of editing, formatting, publishing, marketing, and publicizing, there is no substitute for plunging yourself into an environment where hundreds of authors and fans are brimming with first-hand information that is more up-to-date than almost anything in print. Furthermore, at con panels, one can ask questions and get an immediate and frank response, along with personal reactions to all sorts of situations that can bewilder any neophyte. We gathered precious tips on how to negotiate the myriad complexities of self-publishing, after having spent a couple of years delving into the maze of agents and large or small publishers with only modest results. The publishing industry is in such a state of flux that timely information is absolutely necessary in order to avoid missteps. Once one can follow trails laid out by more experienced hands, the self-publishing road is not at all as difficult as it may seem at first glance. From working with Kindle Direct and CreateSpace, to finding a good cover artist and copyrighting, cons can provide links to virtually any question one may run into.

In addition, cons give very palpable examples in marketing and publicity. At most cons, there are authors who are engaged in readings or signings – these are perfect examples to follow in the distribution of one's own books. You can develop strategies that will work for getting your own books to the public. In fact, there are so many different types of examples, that you can pick strategies that seem appropriate for the particular type of book that interests you. You can compare, mix and match dozens of approaches to find one that best suits your own goals and capabilities as a writer. We have always been amazed at the openness and generosity of accomplished sci fi authors who are willing to welcome new voices into the fold and to share their pitfalls and triumphs with newcomers. This is priceless for us, because like most authors, our first love is writing itself, and the skills and methods involved in sharing a book with the public demand a completely new orientation that can be daunting to the normally introspective bookworm. Just grasping the fact that presenting anything from a stand-alone novel to a whole sci fi series requires a long-term investment of thinking and effort, rather than an overnight business success, is a crucial step in reaping the rewards of interaction at a con.

At a convention, a writer soon realizes the wide scope of the sci fi community, since the span of
subgenres, as well as associated genres like urban fantasy, steampunk, comic horror, etc., is present everywhere. Ideas abound in often overwhelming profusion. One soon sees that the novel aspects that originally seemed so isolated and incomparable are part of a universe of speculation reaching out in every direction through time and space. Needless to say, you walk away from a con with a million new notions about character, plot, timing, dialogue, research, and every other facet of the construction of a story. One the one hand, it's humbling to take into account how much everyone else is already doing or has done, but on the other, the perspectives for new creation open up so much new territory that you are dying to get back and start putting new things on the page. Space is mighty big, but there you are in the middle of it, zooming along with the other pilots. You perceive just how good writing can be and you yearn to make yours better and better. This educational process is probably just as important for other types of fiction, from romance to detective, yet it's all the more vital in sci fi, where the liberation of the imagination is sine qua non. Finally the time comes when you step from the status of privileged spectator and learner to that of panel participant, for there is always a passing of the baton and one needs to be ready when the time comes to assume a role of peer among peers.

Of course, cons also offer pure pleasure. Though we are not adept at the complex art of cosplaying, we have come to appreciate and enjoy the elaborate masquerades and costume contests that are part of just about every con. To see the rooms and halls filled with elves, gremlins, aliens, heroes, robots, and monsters is every bit as exciting as carnival. It creates a visual medium where the concrete normality of banal life can be turned upside-down, privileging the new and unexpected. There are also frequently screenings of experimental films, show-casings of cutting-edge music and dance, and exhibitions of art closely related to sci fi and fantasy. Each con has, as a natural economic feature, vendors of every imaginable type of object, clothing, book or cd, jewelry, or geegaw. Other cons will have booths to attract people to their upcoming events in own locations, often with their own particular topic or featured star. Finally, there is the gaming. Whether it be board games, arcades, RPGs, or any other ludic form, it is bound to be available in some form at a con. Where else can you gather at the drop of a hat a half-dozen friends fascinated with the same game experience and willing to pass several hours in delightful concentration as they work out the mysteries of an old favorite or a new game that has not even been released yet to the general public?

As you can understand, cons offer a total experience. For those of us who have grown tired of waiting in lines for the standard kinds of programmed amusements or bored with poring over the details of a publishing plan, the con provides a breath of fresh air and a tonic to restore our creative juices, free of the pre-packaged brands that litter our daily lives. Try it, join in, become part of the celebration, lift yourself in spirit and skill. Come to the con.