Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Busy Month in Space

A great deal has been going on in space over the past 30+ days.  Just yesterday, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceplane made its most successful flight to date, reaching an altitude of over 80 kilometers, which qualifies it in NASA terms as having exited the atmosphere.  Virgin Galactic is something like the old X-15 program in that it ascends under a duel-fusilage jet airplane for the first part of the trip, then separates and mounts to the target altitude on rocket power through parts of the ionosphere to thin on oxygen for ordinary jets.  Unlike X-15, Virgin Galactic's mission is lucrative rather than scientific,  eventually to charge a quarter of a million dollars a pop to transport high rollers into suborbital space.  Over a hundred space pigeons have already anteed up.  It may seem that Branson's scheme, along with such other ventures as the Bigelow Space Hotel that is being tested on the ISS, is little more than astro-tourism attached to the flames of late-stage capitalism.  Yet science fiction writers like ourselves have already incorporated more ambitious astro-tourism into our stories, and we believe that Carnival Cruises to Mars and the Outer Planets may not be just a pipe dream, depending on what transformations happen down here on Earth over the next half-century.

Going a bit farther out, the vehicle carrying China's Chang'e-4 moon lander has reached orbit and seems poised to touch down on the Dark Side for a historic first.  Previously missions have orbited the Dark Side without landing, since the Moon's tidal locking necessitates a communication relay via a dedicated satellite, which China pre-positioned several months ago.  Some parties see this as a dangerous expansion in the same terms as China's occupation of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, but with the nation effectively shut out of most space activity by potential partners, they have little choice but to go it on their own, or else (unrealistically) give up on space exploration.  Chang'e-4 does carry an international payload, with components designed in Germany, France, and Britain as well as their homeland, which suggests that China, which has already been quite active in launching satellites from other nations, will continue to welcome cooperation outside the atmosphere, and hopefully inside as well.

Reaching still farther, two significant asteroids are about to be probed by shadowing spacecraft: Japan's Hayabusa-2 approaches closer and closer to Ryugu before attempting to set its lander on the unusually uneven surface and collect samples, while NASA's Osirus-REX readies itself to gather an even bigger scoop of the "primitive" carboniferous Bennu.  Hayabusa-1 has already succeeded in bringing back material from another asteroid for study and the results of the two currently active missions promise to add greatly to human knowledge of the Solar System's small fry.  While NASA seems chiefly interested in both asteroid mining and employment of asteroids in future Mars missions, another even more important application of these explorations is to enable Earth to defend itself in the future from possible asteroid collisions of disastrous proportions.  Recent geological work on our planet, permitted in part by improved satellite sensing, has shown in the last few years that such collisions have been even more numerous than previously thought, especially because of the discovery of an as yet mysterious crater beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice.

One step beyond, NASA's Insight lander has touched down just days ago and begun to send images that will soon be joined, if all goes according to plan, by a deeper analysis of the Martian subsurface than any obtained to this date.  This type of data is essential not only to the eternal question of what type of life, if any, developed on the Red Planet in ancient eras and whether any traces may still linger today.  Moreover, an eventual human landing, foreseen for the 2030's or beyond, requires a greatly enhanced picture of the planet's environment before it is deemed feasible to permit even the shortest currently envisioned stayover of at least two years, given the restrictions imposed by relative orbital trajectories.  While there are persistent rumors of ultra-fast engines being developed that would greatly shorten travel time and make human landings more amenable, for now work proceeds on schedule on the RS-25 engines for the SLS rocket that would power at least the preparatory steps for the great leap envisioned by the likes of Bradbury and Heinlein.  Once again, though, the key factor in success may be the cooperation of the peoples on Earth to fulfill the enormous logistical needs of Mars travel at the same time as we deal with the staggering challenges of overpopulation, famine, climate change, and war.  It is not impossible that a private individual like Elon Musk or a coalition of individuals may be able to bypass global problems to make the first moves.  What would have happened in the Age of Discovery without Prince Henry the Navigator, Isabella of Castile, Francois I, the overseas companies of Holland and England, or the Czar's intrepid Cossacks daring to forge ahead beyond the most practical and guaranteed interests that held others back?  Will the transnational or the individual achieve more than traditional regimes can hope?  Jules Verne's isolated geniuses like Robur the Conqueror and Captain Nemo were far ahead of their time, but ultimately succumbed to failures from within and without.  

Meanwhile, in the lonelier expanses beyond the last known planets of our system, another old traveler named Voyager 2 has left our vicinity to venture into what NASA has termed interstellar space, joining three mechanical predecessors.  Technically, it is still in the realm of Sol, since it has yet to even enter the Oort Cloud of comet-like debris that extends more millions of miles into the cosmos.  Stephen Hawking, before his untimely passing, expressed doubt about whether it was a good idea to advertise humanity's whereabouts with these "notes in a bottle."  Waggish wits on Facebook joke about aliens becoming indignant at pictures of naked bodies and musical tune lists cluttering up their galaxy.  One hopes at least that our artefacts don't wind up as target practice for a Klingon warship or morphing into homicidal AIs as they did in various Star Trek stories.  Chances of any encounter for these flotsam are of course in the range of hit-or-miss carried to an almost infinite power.  On the other hand, prospects of a directed probe sent toward the Centauri systems would loom more and more possible, should a major breakthrough in propulsion technology occur.   Just what could or should be probed begins to take on philosophical, if not pressing, importance.

Of course, not every month will be as exciting as this one has been.  Still, it is within the range of imagination that sometime at least one may be quite a bit more exciting.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Launching Tonight: Bepi-Colombo Planetary Probe

Tonight at the Kourou spaceport in Guyane (French South America) the European Space Agency in association with JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, launched an Ariane 5 rocket carrying the Bepi-Colombo probe, the first interplanetary vehicle devoted uniquely to the planet Mercury.  Passing vehicles have previously flown by the world nearest to the sun, but this one is specially designed for the grueling environment of Mercury, which varies from over 400F to nearly minus 300F on the dark side.  Long thought to be  tidally locked, Mercury does rotate, with boiling metal pools turning into ice fields. This makes the possibility of a habitable "twilight zone" between the two extremes virtually impossible.  However, I remember as a child reading a comic book where space travelers had colonized this narrow ring around the planet and dealt with its unbelievable extremes.  It was one of my first impressions of science fiction and remains fixed in my imagination.  Let's hope for more astounding revelations from this adventurous mission.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why Americans Ignore Space Science

     This morning I was interested to find several references in foreign news services to the docking of Japan Space Agency's Kounotori 7 space freighter with the International Space Station.  I had heard nothing about it.  I consulted CBS, ABC, NBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.  Not a word.

     Such ignorance illustrates the reason why most Americans are woefully ill-informed of developments in space.  As with the Olympics, American media simply ignore any international item that does not directly concern our narrow national concerns, especially military ones.  The media in this country pay scant attention to science in general.  Whereas quality information services such as Deutsche Welle and BBC have whole sections devoted to timely reporting on science, American media frequently have none, or at most a tiny "faits divers" department that reprints out-of-date notices.  In Germany, even small local papers have a well-documented department devoted to scientific matters.  Germans, for instance, are likely to know that the current mission commander on the ISS is a German astronaut.  However, even when American media rarely mention this important person, they usually forget to specify that he is not an American.

     The science ignorance is not astounding, considering that American enterprises seldom require or even encourage scientific knowledge among their personnel.  University majors in "broadcast journalism" generally avoid science, concentrating more on the details of makeup, camera angles and fashionable dressing to the exclusion of such "hard" subjects.   US journals, dependent on sound bites, distributed official news releases, and snippets from our single wire news source, systematically avoid in-depth reporting of any kind -- and complicated explanations of matters scientific altogether.

     Unfortunately, the majority of my countrymen would dismiss my interest in Kounotori 7's success as worthless attention to a minor, routine little space delivery.  Yet it is precisely the accurate accomplishment of "routine" activity that makes space exploration possible.  The fact that such activity is increasingly international is important.  Deutsche Welle recently discussed the revelation that there are now 70 space-faring nations, whose cooperation is vital to increasing human knowledge.  Kounotori contains, among other things, an experimental mini re-rentry vehicle that may open a plethora of options for space operations.  Hayabusa 2's current activities on the asteroid Ryugu may be even more far reaching.

     Those in the worldwide sci fi community need to maintain open investigation of the best international news services in order to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments that affect our reading, writing, and curiosity.  Unless there is a rapid and fundamental turnaround in the way American media operates (and this is unlikely), such a global viewpoint must inform our imagination into this increasingly old century and the ones that will follow.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

BRICS countries are really coming in on the blog

But so far there is one exception

Where are our friends from South Africa?

Come and enjoy our sci fi fest

Friday, September 21, 2018

Happy to Have New Viewers from Japan Today

Especially with the Exciting Achievements of JAXA up on asteroid Ryugu

There's a Lot to be Proud of!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Welcome to new visitors from Bulgaria, Chile, and Argentina!  Follow the blog to stay informed about new posts as they are added.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Witajcie Polskich Przyjaciol!

Great to have new readers in Poland, the homeland of the fantastic science fiction pioneer, Stanislaw Lem.  Please let us know of any new books about space travel and other themes that are new in your part of the world.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Wow, Aussies are really weighing in!  50% as many viewers as here in the USA and helping to push our worldwide viewership above the US level!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Happy to see new viewers logging on from Ukraine and Brazil!!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

About Those Golden Asteroids...

     Asteroid mining is one of the current buzzwords of interplanetary capitalism.  In 2017, an asteroid estimated to hold $50 billion worth of precious metals such as gold and platinum passed about four times the distance to the Moon from Earth.  Venture gurus are already salivating at the chance to lay hands on such wealth.  US-based Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries,  as well as Britain's Asteroid Mining Corporation, have started to plot out the feasibility of reaching, capturing, and exploiting the metallic asteroids that whiz by our planet.  Of course, most asteroids are of the stony variety and offer much less attractive prospects for instant enrichment.  But Harvard astrophysicist Martin Ellis has estimated that there may be about 10 near-Earth asteroids rich enough in precious metals to invite large-scale mineral exploitation.

     The stakes are dauntingly high.  Cal Tech sources have proposed a cost of $2.5 billion to construct an asteroid-mining spacecraft, as opposed to the $1 billion cost of opening and operating a new platinum mine on Earth.  Yet there is something about the shimmer of precious metals that has always lured humans into even the most dangerous and high-risk enterprises.  The scale of imaginative greed is mind-boggling: MIT scientists have estimated that a single 500-meter asteroid could produce up to 175 times the entire Earth's annual output of platinum. In particular, the body with the designation  2011UW158 is thought by some to offer a profit of $2 billion in platinum.  Some other metallic asteroids are evaluated at over $1 trillion.

     There is supposed to be some legal framework to prevent the neighboring sections of the solar system from becoming a new Wild West.  The United Nations is mandated by treaty to make sure that space is administered fairly for the benefit of all humankind.  Yet, American courts have already handed down decisions that effectively vitiate this oversight, claiming that anything in space is the property of whatever people or corporations lay claim on it.  The USA has effectively claimed ownership of all the asteroids it can land on and is preparing to do just that.  Moreover, Trump's recent proclamation of a completely American Space Corps shows that our nation plans to militarize space, in contravention of other existing international treaties and agreements.  When ore is at stake, history shows us that even the treaties recognized by the United States mean little.  When gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, solemnly deeded by the government to Native American tribes in remuneration for previous land-grabs, Gen. G. A. Custer quickly contrived reasons to annihilate the Sioux people.  Though he was punished at the Little Big Horn, plenty of other generals and politicians lined up to complete the scheme.  Antarctica is already a lesson in point.   Despite statutes guaranteeing its non-partisan preservation, our nation has led a slew of greedy powers rushing to stake out every inch of the continent, polluting it with nuclear reactors even as the first buildings go up.  There is no doubt that as soon as an opportunity presents itself, capitalist powers will put the solar system up for grabs with no holds barred.  

     There are more than just ethical reasons to pause and give thought to this scenario.  There is the cold, hard fact of economic history that has unrolled here on Earth already.  Within less than a decade after Spain "discovered" the New World, conquistadores began pumping out unbelievable quantities of gold and silver that startled specie-starved Europe.  Just as modern wealth accrues directly to the CEOs and stockholders, bypassing a dwindling middle class, Native American treasure, redubbed Spanish, was not the property of the Spanish people, but was personally owned by the King.  Like our current congress, he had one favorite destination for this money -- armies to allow him to conquer the world.  The USA has bases in 170 countries.  The Spanish crown was the early modern equivalent, lavishing budgets on forces that made war on the entire world.  From their throne in Madrid, the monarchs gobbled up the Holy Roman Empire, Germany, Austria, Italy, the Low Countries, the islands of the Mediterranean, the coast of North Africa and dreamed of going further still.  The waste was unprecedented in the course of time.  Yet, with all of this expense, Spain could not conquer London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Istanbul.  Where are all those armies, all those fortresses, now?

     With this in mind, one might be tempted to think that worst case scenario for asteroid mining might be the danger of universal war, but one would be wrong.  The most insidious effect of the influx of Spanish gold was not on the front lines, but behind them, in Spain itself.  It operated not by the bloody laws of war, but by the inexorable processes of wealth itself.  Between 1500 and 1600, in the heart of the siglo de oro, when Spain might have been expected to achieve paradise on Earth, its economy collapsed.  A 300% inflation in prices impoverished the majority of its inhabitants.  The tide of too much cash drove up prices for the limited products and means of life available.  Money was spent by the rich on foreign luxury goods, while Spanish businesses could not compete and folded -- perhaps an early analog to today's outsourcing.  At the same time, an instant and unshakable severe trade imbalance grew and the outflow of wealth stifled local initiative.  Bedazzled by the temptation to borrow on its seemingly limitless bonanza, the Spanish government itself became insolvent.  Between 1557 and 1596, Spain defaulted four times due to military costs and the impossibility of taxing its penniless population.  

     What would happen to our world economy if, within only a few years, Earth was flooded with many times the accumulated mass of precious metals now on the planet?  As with Spain, Earth would be in danger of seeing precious metal itself start to lose its value.  Gold would be the most critical culprit, for most of the world's major countries support the value of their currency to some degree with it.  What if the vaults of Fort Knox, dwarfed by quantities of interplanetary gold, suddenly became like Deutschmarks in the 1920's, enough to buy a handful of potatoes?  Fine, you say,  ban the gold or stock it up on Mars and we will be fine.  It is true that no existing governments are leveraged on platinum or even less flashy minerals like cobalt, magnesium, rare earths, copper, or aluminum, but a massive influx or these or other extraterrestrial materials could wreak untold havoc on markets.

     The time to start planning for a panic is before the panic happens.  To rely only on "affected industries" would be folly.  The are and will continue to be blinded by what George Soros calls the Speculative Function (seeing what you yearn to see) rather than by the Analytical Function (seeing what is).  We will need the best kinds of glasses to read into the secrets of this future, and they had better not be rose-colored.  Otherwise the Gold of the Asteroids might follow the Gold of the Indies, right into the dustbin of history.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Altered Carbon: Sleeves, Stacks, and Physical Bodies

One of the most dramatic elements of the streaming Netflix series Altered Carbon is the idea that humans could transform their consciousness from one body to another.  In this case, the modus operandi is the ability to download all biological brain functions onto a glorified dvd called a stack.  The stack is loaded or unloaded into a device implanted into the base of the brain.

People's bodies have thus come to be regarded as mere organic "sleeves," husks into which stacks can be transferred.  The bond between a personality and its corrresponding body is thus an elective and arbitrary choice, as much so as the choice of a piece of clothing.  Biology itself yields to the digital patterns it produces, which transcend physicality.  Nevertheless, the timeline acknowledges a sort of "ghost in the corpus" by admitting that restacking can involve difficult issues of body-mind adjustment, particularly in the case of warriors sent to distant planets, as we shall see below.

One of the undeveloped areas behind this universe is why everyone on Earth would be fitted with a stack device in the first place, even though only the very rich are allowed to receive new bodies when their old ones wear out, thus approaching immortality.  After all, the stacking technology is vaguely described as coming from an alien source and therefore being beyond the human imagination itself and presumably very expensive.

Added to this is the stipulation that most Roman Catholics -- apparently the only remaining organized religion in this timeline -- refuse to permit themselves to be "restacked" because of their belief in an afterlife.  However, some Catholics in the series cheat a bit on this rule under the assumption that they can access heaven anyway.   Have Buddhists, who seek to escape the karma cycle as an ultimate spiritual goal, ceased to exist?  Or Muslims, whose attitudes to the afterlife seem inherently opposed to resleeving?  Or have Hindus, who seek reincarnation into a higher lifeform, opted for a do-it-yourself approach?

One could argue that the dystopian future government, the Protectorate, enforced a universal stacking law to this effect.    Yet the influence of the Protectorate seems to be rather vestigial, inasmuch as much of the power and authority has been transferred to monster-sized private businesses that do not hesitate to put organizations like the police into their subordinate places at any opportunity.  Moreover, such an ordinance would seem to be egregiously inefficient for two reasons.  First of all, the many-bodied, quasi-immortal Methusalehs, or Meths, are only a small fraction of the population and would need only a limited supply of very perfect bodies to replace their used ones.  Beyond that, there would be little need for "stacking" the consciousness of the vast majority of humanity, which is destined to be worthless and totally fungible, given Earth's state of overpopulation and general misery.  Why go through the expense of storing and preserving the lives of billions of individuals when they would only be thrown away like old video cassettes from Blockbuster?

The creators of the series mitigate this somewhat by postulating that ordinary folks could rent another sleeve for special occasions.  Detective Ortega's abuela avails herself of this fancy to celebrate the dia de muertos before she dies, choosing the body of a burly male biker.  It is unclear when or how the stack of the biker was able to recuperate his body and get reloaded into it, if ever.  It stretches the imagination to believe that, in such a disorganized and corrupt society, some kind of stack bank would keep track of these transfers and enforce the integrity of a system of exchange.   Nor is it understandable where the profit for average people would lie within such a system.

This question of the disposition of bodies is further complicated by the existence of cloning.  Only the most wealthy members of the Protectorate system seem to be able to afford successful cloning, which for some reason must be more difficult than massive stacking and restacking, though this seems counterintuitive in some ways. After all, limited cloning technology already exists and requires only a supply of hosts to bring the cloned child to fruition.  This would not seem to be an insurmountable obstacle in a society where commoners' lives are cheap.  Perhaps the problem arises when one assumes that the clones can be produced in fully adult, stack-ready forms that presumably would then be fitted with a stacking device.  The paradox of what to do with the innate digital component of a clone's biological brain is sidestepped.

The universe of Altered Carbon would then have to contend ultimately with the dilemma raised in the Peter Graves movie Parts: The Clonus Horror.  In this somewhat naive film, eminent people have clones produced by a secret institute that accelerates their growth from embryo to adult.  Eventually, at physical maturity, the clone is terminated and put on ice to serve as an organ bank for the owner.  The brain-death of the clone is not an issue, as many of them are lobotomized prior to termination if they grow too inquisitive.  However, one inquisitive clone who escapes and discovers the truth of his existence is enough to put the whole system and institute in jeopardy.  Would clones in Altered Carbon be lobotomized somehow before being restacked?  Could this be done without impairing the functioning of the digital individual stored in the stack?  It certainly poses a sticky issue for the timeline.

It is interesting that Altered Carbon sometimes falls into a trickier continuity problem as it seeks to solve or avoid some of the most time-tested science fiction conundrums.  For instance, though the series postulates interstellar travel and warfare, it avoids the speed-of-light barrier by simply proposing an alternative.  In this timeline, bodies cannot be moved from system to system in a timely way, but stacks can, through light-speed digital transmissions called needles.  This allows for specially trained interstellar warriors called envoys to be transmitted to waiting sleeves on other worlds.  The main character in the series, Takeshi Kovacs, is such an envoy, the last remaining after his cohort is suppressed for a dimly motivated rebellion against the Protectorate.  Besides the motive for the uprising, numerous nagging inconsistencies present themselves.  Is Kovacs's body, presumably a Eurasian, also a Eurasian on various distant worlds?  It would seem strange to have a "library" of sleeves at each battle station getting stale while waiting for a needled stack to flash in.  Furthermore, Takeshi is given a Caucasian cop's body when he is reanimated on Earth to solve an industrialist Mech's murder.  Surely Earth, of all places, would seem to have an adequte "body library" to allow for a more practical match-up.

This begs another question: what protocols govern the preservation of "ordinary" sleeves obtained from body-dead humans?  Why not simply substitute uniformly cloned receptor bodies?  This would seem an obvious result of any economy of scale in the stacking process.  If it appears redundant and pointless to preserve and archive all digital personalities in the form of stacks, would it not be even less efficient to do so with "unoccupied" physical bodies of every type and description?  Given the totalitarian nature of the Protectorate, would not the alternative of eugenics be a more likely solution to many of these situations?

The terrific appeal of Altered Carbon lies perhaps in its ability to present its timeline in the genial form of film noir, complete with a convoluted plot worthy of Raymond Chandler.  This invites the viewer inside the bodies and minds of Kovacs and Ortega so quickly and seamlessly that we do not pause to consider the thornier technical issues.  Vicarious substitution is far easier here than in earlier digital mind transfer scenarios such as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank or even the Matrix line of films.  Overdrawn even hints at this without realizing it, since protagonist Aram Fingal works through his struggles with his displaced consciousness in the form of adventures grafted from Casablanca.  On the other hand, a film like Total Recall could raise analogous quibbles, did it not move so quickly from one blast to another.  There is even a metatextual ending to the action, as Quaid and Melina muse over whether their recent adventure was truly real, or just another illusion.  Its model, the writings of Philip K. Dick, generally depended on such a suspension of disbelief in the face of chaos that the finessing of technical considerations was a given.  In any case, Altered Carbon  is a great leap forward, for the essence of science fiction has always been to pose ever more probing questions in an unsure universe.

Monday, June 11, 2018

An Age Without Trust: Science Fiction on Linear TV

               Every year in roughly the first two weeks of May, broadcast and cable networks announce their yearly cancellations like clockwork.  Many TV series pass unlamented and are quickly forgotten, victims of low ratings, attrition, old age, or simply apathy.  However, some cancelled series still have a devoted, angry fanbase ready to yell once the announcement comes, and The Expanse was one of them.  When SyFy announced its cancellation a few weeks ago, its viewers were so upset that many of them threatened to abandon the channel altogether.  Although it can be tempting for some commentators to dismiss such emotional responses as “overreaction”, this cancellation fits a pattern of negative behavior in terms of how linear networks treat their speculative fiction series that makes such disgust by science fiction fans completely understandable.

               Sci fi series on broadcast networks often have short and unpredictable lives.  The Fox network has had a long-lived reputation for giving its series a quick cancellation, from Space: Above and Beyond in the 90s to Firefly in the early 2000s to Almost Human in the 2010s.  Even series that manage to survive their first season have no guarantee of longevity on Fox; witness Lucifer’s abrupt third season cancellation, even though the writers were so certain of a renewal that they ended the season on a cliffhanger!  Most other broadcast networks don’t even bother with sci fi, except the CW, which typically only approves properties owned by DC Comics.

               With their emphasis on niche audiences and lower production costs, cable channels would seem to offer a better potential for sci fi series to succeed than on broadcast TV.  Yet cable channels are just as prone to cancelling their sci fi series as broadcast networks in favor of “reaching out to a wider audience”.  SyFy is particularly bad about frustrating its viewership by cancelling its series in the third season, as they had cancelled Dark Matter roughly a year before The Expanse.  BBC America has also been proven likely to cancel any sci fi series that isn’t Doctor Who, doing in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency at the end of its first season.

               Streaming platforms have proven to offer a strong audience platform for science fiction series, in contrast to the linear cable and broadcast stations of today.  Amazon began its streaming platform with an adaptation of The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, and quickly “uncancelled” The Expanse after SyFy abandoned it, ensuring that a fourth season would exist on Amazon Prime.  Netflix has greenlit and showcased numerous sci fi series already, ranging from the family-friendly Lost in Space to the dark and gritty Altered Carbon.  Also encouraging is the fact that the streaming platforms seem much less likely to do a surprise cancellation with no resolution than the broadcast and cable networks; Netflix even went through the trouble of funding a 2 hour ending movie for the cancelled series Sense8, an action unthinkable for broadcast networks.  This suggests that the future of sci fi “TV” may not be in linear TV at all, but in the more fertile grounds of streaming.  Could a better future for audiences of speculative fiction be had away from the world of overnight ratings and early summer cancellations?    

Friday, May 25, 2018

Sunday, March 4, 2018

This Con Was a Blast!

Mysticon is an annual event held in Roanoke, Virginia at the base of the famous Blue Ridge Mountains.  It draws 400-500 visitors and has an ambiance all its own.  This year John and Jim were invited as guests.  We took part in a number of sessions, chairing two each.  John was drafted at the last minute to lead one of his, on the Marvel comics universe (comics being a major focus of the con), and did such a good job that he was commended by the organizers.  He also chaired a session on "All Things Sherlock," especially the latest media versions.  Jim chaired "Let's Take Flight" and "Judging a Book by its Cover." . In addition, they did a signing and two readings from the Forlani Saga novels, joining scores of authors who shared their new works with the fans.  

Like most cons, this one covers a wide range of genres from science fiction and fantasy through horror and steampunk, besides hosting an extremely popular cosplay competition.  It is unique in that it includes a great many sessions on film.  Jim had the pleasure of watching four new films by production crews from Virginia an was particularly entertained by a horror-comedy flick entitled "The Last Air B&B" and a screen version of Lovecraft's "The Beast in the Cave." All in all, over 120 short and feature length films from every continent but Antarctica, many of them premieres, were shown.  Several popular media guests were present to represent the acting and production side of film-making.   For many years, Mysticon has also extended a welcome to professional wrestlers.  This year's guests included ECW hardcore legend Tommy Dreamer and his lovely and multi-talented associate, The True Original Gata (Monique Dupree), along with Jimmie Valiant.  Nor was music left out, as bands Bella Morte and The Vailix, along with DJ metro Angel, led the Saturday night concert.  The musical enthusiasm spilled over into the onsite restaurant/bar at night, as a cosplayer in dinosaur array had a host of adults and kids dancing through the evening.

With a pleasant venue at the Holiday Inn Tanglewood, Mysticon is a great three day experience.  But planning ahead is recommended, as the main hotel fills soon after the event is announced and badges may become scarce as the conference date approaches.  The Roanoke area is a hotbed of interest for speculative fiction, film and cosplay.  Many enthusiasts are drawn from the entire surrounding Middle Atlantic and Appalachian region.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Characterization and Sexuality in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

     Several months ago, I promised a return to the analysis of this fascinating film to supplement what I said earlier about its espionage element.  It is now time to look at Valerian and Laureline as a couple.  Here, as with the earlier topic, Luc Besson departs from the usual paradigm of space opera and science fiction in general.  When women are present in the genre, which is not always the case, they assume a passive function from the earliest days of Flash Gordon or Rocky Jones serials.  They are usually simple objects of sexual desire, sighing Dale Ardens or Vena Rays waiting to be won (usually rescued from alien menace) by the heroic beefcake male leads.  This model persisted well into the 50's and 60's in the case of spacegoing women like Ann Anderson in It!The Terror From Beyond Space or “Irish” Ryan in Angry Red Planet.  There were some mild exceptions, as when Beverly Garland's Claire Anderson in It Conquered the World tries ineffectually to kill the okra-like alien or when Gloria Talbott's Marge Farrell struggles psychologically with her doppelganger husband in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.  However, it is usually men with weapons who eventually get the job done (in the latter case, with an assist from German shepherds).    The woman's options are limited, even as  Claire takes up arms in a fit of romantic jealousy and Marge tries to get help from her gynecologist.  Anne Francis's ingenue role of Altaira in Forbidden Planet and Faith Domergue's more intellectual Ruth Adams in This Island Earth still fit within this category, despite certain nuances. 

     Those women who did display sexual strength or aggressiveness in early sci fi films were often portrayed as fiendishly motivated to the point of ridicule. Cat Women of the Moon is a comical example of this, as are the more serious (?) Queen of Outer Space and Queen of Blood.  Since the latter was based on a Soviet forerunner, one can see that this pattern of female passiveness was not strictly limited to Hollywood.  Queen Cleolanta of the Rocky Jones television series and its spin-off films, while not really a man-killer, is unmistakably labeled as a freakish woman, plagued by penis envy and troubled relations with the males on her homeworld of Ophiucus (oddly pronounced on screen as something close to “officious”).  Only at the end of the plot loop and under the benign influence John Banner's Bavarro (in his pre-Sergeant Schultz days), does she do a “face turn” and assume a more properly passive approach to things.

     Of course, later movies did begin to widen the role of the spacewoman, giving her unprecedented strength, as demonstrated by Sigourney Weaver's Ridley in Alien or Helen Mirren's Tanya Kirbul in 2010.  Neither female figure, though, is really involved in an intimate relationship, so the impact of a strong female presence in the heterosexual couple is not realized.  Star Wars' Princess Leia, is certainly a special case, for her complex character evolves from adorable supplicant to tough prisoner (“Aren't you a little short to be a storm trooper?”) to worthy comrade warrior, to deliverer of Han, to slave, to Diane Fossey-like ewok-whisperer to legitimate hookup for Harrison Ford.  Despite this depth, it is the nearly porno image of Slave Leia that seems to stick most firmly in the memories of many fans, to the point that some objected to her posthumous turn as a senior stateswoman in Last of the Jedi.  In fact, it is worth noticing that other women in the latest Star Wars films have met with increasing hostility from some audiences that decry the “feminization” of the series.  This can be linked to a backlash that has grown to include certain critics of Blade Runner 2049 and even Wonder Woman.  Part of the sci fi public is unusually troubled by the tendency to present female protagonists in more realistic and multi-dimensional roles.

     It is in this context that we must consider Valerian.  Besson shaped his film uniquely and developed the comic strip original in interesting ways.  For one thing, he did not allude to Laureline's background as a time traveler from the medieval world, perhaps because Americans still see fainting damsels in distress rather than the strong, independent female figures that often appear in the real Middle Ages, from Joan of Arc to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie de France to Louise Labé, Héloise d'Argenteuil to Hildegard von Bingen.  Besson is able to reference Laureline from the beginning as a very matter-of-fact person who, though not unmoved by Valerian's beautiful face, rejects his status as a tombeur de filles with a huge digital black book.  She makes it clear that she will not consider consent unless he shapes up and undergoes a major psychological shift.  This effectively reverses the sex roles, making the “normal” factor of heroism irrelevant.  They will have to cooperate as equal partners in a common mission whose outcome does not necessarily entail a sexual reward for the male.  Moreover, Valerian is the one who is allotted the duty of self-examination that is normally foisted off on the object of desire.  His position is complicated by the fact that he doesn't seem to know where to begin because his previous line of conquests has been so effortless. 

     Into this dilemma comes the crucial catalyst of the shape-changer Bubble.  The dance that Bubble performs before the goggle-eyed Valerian is far more than a standard Hollywood set piece.  In fact, the numerous nods in the performance to motion picture precursors such as The Blue Angel and Cabaret only serve to underline the fact that this performance tops them all, inasmuch as it goes beyond the level of illusory seduction to hit at the very heart of desire.  Bubble is the ultimate in seduction, yet her real shape can never succeed in attracting Valerian – only offering him a ghost of pleasure.  The spy becomes aware of this through the shock of revelation and simultaneously develops the quality of compassion, as he realizes that the ultimate in sexual attractiveness is all the more painful to the seductress than to himself, the object.  Bubble's unrequited love becomes an exemplum to Valerian, leading to a discovery of humility that has more in common with chivalric romance than the explosathons of most contemporary action movies.  After Bubble's sacrificial death, Laureline can finally judge the questing knight who has shown his worthiness, not through self-realization of a predetermined destiny, but through the agonizing elective process of change. 

     Yes, this is conceptually “deep.”  It postulates a level of appreciation much more intricate than the standard fare of movies and television, just as the savoring of a fine wine requires more than the instant gustatory satisfaction of a bottle of Coke that is always going to taste the same.  It is worth the time and the effort.  If sci fi is to remain a viable, inventive genre in this rapidly changing world, it depends just as much, if not more, on this type of psychological inception as it does on the refinement of eye-catching design or special effects.