Wednesday, June 15, 2022
Saturday, June 4, 2022
Time To Move On
This world has been too much with us lately, as almost everyone seems to have been behaving badly and disgust has weighed heavily on most of us. Nevertheless, we have to break free eventually from the all-too-predictable patterns and occupy ourselves with a bit of forward-looking thinking. Other than financially-centered space tourism for the very rich, most projects appear to be stalled and both science and fiction struggle to make progress in a fragmented world. So it is with gladness that I read of China's plans to complete their orbital space station with their next taikonaut mission. As the (less and less) International Space Station, from which the Chinese have been systematically excluded, spins toward a likely re-entry around 2025, their project assumes more and more importance for those interested in the future of space. It will be most interesting to see how the station develops -- whether it will lead to cooperation with other nations or stay an essentially nationalistic endeavor. That may partly depend on events on this side of the Pacific, as the relationship between America's NASA and the newly-formed military Space Corps, as well as corporate ventures, becomes clearer. Surely the war in Ukraine will have some effects on the course of exploration, as well. Already, the international movement of such key materials as titanium, cobalt, and rare earths has become more dicey. Eventually, this may come to affect rocket engine supply. As the spate of politically-imposed trade and banking sanctions expands, some projects face likely delays. Some of the players, such as the European Space Agency, are already feeling the results of the international tensions, since sanctions have eliminated the role of Russia in missions launching from Kourou, French Guyane. All the money being directed to a massive rearmament in Europe, coupled with economic deterioration in the wake of what promises to be a protracted state of war or near-war in Ukraine and other areas, is bound to siphon off funds that could otherwise be pointed toward scientific exploration. As cyber warfare heats up between East and West, this situation may grow more acute. Will there be a Zephram Cochrane out there somewhere who may push us forward despite our petty savagery? It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds, for there is bound to be an unfolding, for better or for worse.
Saturday, February 26, 2022
Sorry, but we're not very good at writing with kanji. But we wanted to say hello to those new viewers in Japan who have been dropping by lately. Please feel free to leave some comments on sci fi events in Japan, where I know there are many, many fans with very sophisticated ideas. Welcome!
Sunday, January 23, 2022
Wake Up, Washington
The New Year has already given America a great deal of impatience with the deadlocked government that seems so concerned with in-fighting that it has forgotten even terrestrial matters, but for those of us concerned with space, the situation is -- if anything -- worse. The last administration made a colossal error in creating a Space Force that splits attention away from NASA and threatens to focus exclusively on military exploitation of the solar system. The actual management of exploration and scientific research seems to be falling by default to other nations (ESA, Japan, India, China) or to corporations who will steer all efforts to producing profits exclusively for themselves (Bigelow, Boeing, the Musk complex or the Bezos complex). The latter won't even pay any taxes back to the Treasury, but will drain it at every opportunity and demand bailouts the second any venture turns bad. That's right, Washington, double down on your bad decisions!
Of course, this negative feedback loop may well continue because the one place some of that money may go is into the back pockets of politicians in the form of campaign contributions. Certainly, American politics has developed into an endless, unregulated campaign for office that distracts "lawmakers" from their assigned task. They wind up spending more than 70% of their time sucking up to money sources instead of taking care of the public's business. That makes them perfectly content to treat the planets and stars as a mere commodity, rather than a goal for the human heart and mind.
The questions that preoccupy those of us who are interested in the rest of the universe are fobbed off as trivialities. It reminds me of an old tv show called "Carter Country," where the chubby political boss would toss aside any matters brought to his attention to some inept lackey and say, "Handle it, handle it."
Well, Washington, maybe it's time some of us should respond, "No, YOU handle it! That's what you're being paid for. So along with galloping inflation, pestilence, random migrations, pollution, misdistribution of wealth, homelessness, rampant violence, and a few other trivialities, DO LOOK UP for once!" Put NASA back in charge, stop worrying about uniforms for space commanders, set some clear goals hammered out by people who know the science, try to play well with the other children in the park, and take the final frontier seriously for a change." And I'm speaking about both sides of the Aisle of Indifference. There are many of us out here (and maybe out there) who are watching and as Klaatu says at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still, "We will be waiting for your answer."
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
If Aliens Watch Us, What Do They See?
Star Trek: First Contact was always one of my favorite films in the series. Who can resist its clever play on the time scale, with part of the bridge crew visiting the past, Lily Sloane thrust into an unimaginable technological wonderland, and inquisitive Vulcans ushering Zefram Cochrane's Earthlings into a stellar future? And all the while the ruthless Borg tinker with all dimensions of time in their fanatical quest for assimilation. Yet I cannot prevent myself from pondering, each time I revisit this movie, whether Gene Roddenberry's probing visions are completely in sync with the possibilities that could present themselves in an interspecies encounter between our race and space-faring extraterrestrials.
With each viewing, I appreciate more and more the way the character of Lily Sloane provides a necessary focus to this temporal relativism. She is such a genial Everyperson, emotionally shaken by the endless expanses of space, the mind-boggling science that has constructed the Enterprise, and the shock of finding herself face-to-face with a Klingon or a hive of malicious cyborgs, but adaptable and confident enough to plunge into these realities with an admirable sang froid. It is through her that the spectator makes contact. She is a perfect lens to the brave new world -- more so than Cochrane himself, who experiences considerable difficulty dealing with a projected other self personified by the worshipful Georgi Laforge.
What troubles my imagination most is not, however, the reactions of the humans, but rather those of the alien Borg and Vulcans. Taking into account the entirety of the Star Trek timeline, the Borg had been aware of Earth and its inhabitants for a rather long time. Nonetheless, their determination to conquer our planet and assimilate humans seems to come with brutal suddenness. Admittedly, their hive mind would not be likely to waste time debating how to treat us. Their blitzkrieg approach to interplanetary contact had already been established in TNG. They had acquired near-total understanding of Earthlings through Locutus, and even though their cube that had shattered thirty-nine Federation ships in the Battle of Wolf 359, the attack in First Contact again involved only a single, albeit modified, ship. Had they developed some deep-seated hubris that made them underestimate Starfleet despite their ability to destroy the initial assault? Had they assumed Picard would have forgotten all the secrets he accessed as Locutus? Their tactics seem more and more questionable, no matter how clear their motivation and goals.
If the mindset of the Borg begs some questions, that of the Vulcans seems even less plausible in many respects. The key point that bothers me is: why did they chose to land at Cochrane's base so quickly? The explanation offered for their landing attempts to satisfy the demands of verisimilitude. A small Vulcan vessel on some routine business had been drawn to Earth by the warp signature of Cochrane's rocket and the unprecedented nature of that technology had compelled them to come have a look. On examination, though, this thesis starts to unravel. (Let us first set aside the question of whether the Vulcans had noticed the actions of the Enterprise and the Borg Sphere prior to Cochrane's launch.) It must be assumed that the Vulcans knew that there had been no previous warp signature in Earth space and how could they have that assumption without previous knowledge of Earthlings and their history? After all, Vulcans have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and logic. Nor were they distant strangers to our solar system. Had they missed the fact that Earth had just experienced a major cataclysm caused by its own violent inhabitants? Was it not dangerous to physically land on a planet potentially crawling with other hostile organisms besides human beings?
The Star Trek canon itself, especially from TNG on, provides ample evidence that the Federation took the Prime Directive quite seriously, to the point where its scientific expeditions established safe and completely secret measures to monitor the development of pre-space-faring cultures. Even on present-day Earth, we are learning to establish distance in some contact situations, as shown by the reluctance for relief missions from Australia and New Zealand to expose the Covid-free inhabitants of Tonga from unwanted contamination. The "just drop in" attitude does not square with the dispassionate, respectful behavior of most Vulcans.
So we should pause before imagining that alien visitors would simply barge into our ecosystem. Both visitors and prospective hosts would potentially have much to lose through precipitive action. The visitation protocols might be much more like that of a Native American or a Viking emissary, who would wait before the door to be noticed and acknowledged before entering into another's space. Even on our own world, there are significant cultural differences in the procedures involving private space. We should not, therefore, picture little green men (or any other culture) marching up and demanding "Take us to your leader." Especially so, if they have been standing off and analyzing the transmissions we started sending out in the twentieth century, including the televized speeches of a friendly fellows like Adolf Hitler.
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Dystopian Cities of the Future
The prospect of an age where Earth's cities and the civilization that builds and inhabits them fall into ruin or dysfunction is as old as literature itself. Even before "the grandeur that was Rome," the Book of Genesis speaks of the annihilation of the Tower of Babel by a heavenly power that also strikes the Cities of the Plain, Sodom and Gomorrah. Plato mentions the annihilation of Atlantis. Later, archaeology discovered physical evidence of vanished cities, from Pompeii to Mohenjo-Daru to Tikal. When not expressly destroyed by the hand of God, these troubling cityscapes posed intriguing mysteries for humans who tried to grasp the significance of their downfall and whether a similar fate awaited many a modern metropolis.
H. G. Wells brought the ruined city into science fiction in several of his works. War of the Worlds has London and all the other capitals of Earth utterly destroyed by Martian invaders. Orson Welles's famous radio broadcast and subsequent film versions brought the same fate to New York, Los Angeles, and Washington in stunning technicolor. The Shape of Things to Come and The Time Machine show a similar downfall of civilization wrought by the hand of mankind itself, leaving survivors scuttling about to survive in sewers or crumbling buildings. Wells opened the door to a vision of dystopia that resonnated particularly with the nuclear generations that did not need to imagine the horrors of the Blitz, the Dresden and Hamburg firestorms, or Hiroshima. Reality more than reinforced the possibility that the "proud towers in the town" would one day stand watch over a desperate and degraded human race struggling in their decaying remains.
The 1973 film Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison's chilling 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, moved the image of the dystopian city of the future even closer by showing that it could happen not through some interplanetary or geopolitical catastrophe, but simply by the natural evolutionary trends of human population explosion. Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, and Leigh Taylor-Young portray people crammed into a mega-city to live like rats in confined quarters and polluted conditions, ultimately ground into sustenance for the cannibalistic survivors of the species. Harrison's rabble are even more helpless than Wells's Eloi, who were bred as food for the atavistic Morlocks, since they become degraders and consumers of themselves.
Above all, the post-Apocalyptic visions of the 1980's brought a deluge of possibilities ever more immediate than Soylent Green's 1999 timetable. In John Carpenter's 1981 Escape from New York, the Big Apple is already rotten at the core and uninhabitable, except as a hellish prison where only a total desperado like Snake Plissken can thrive. One year later, Ridley Scott would release Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, featuring a nearly psychedelic presentation of moldering Los Angeles teeming with leftover Asians and such genetic misfits as Germanic dwarves, inhabiting the cyclopeian fragments of sodden skyscrapers.
What captures our attention today, though, is a different prediction of the corporatization of the city depicted in a pair of simplistic and sensational (yet unusually prescient) Italian sci fi films directed by Enzo Castellari: 1990: I Guerrieri del Bronx (aka The Bronx Warriors, 1982) and Fuga dal Bronx (aka Bronx Warriors 2 or Escape From the Bronx, 1983). Capitalism plays a more direct and apparent role in the urban system in these movies than in most predecessors. Through manipilative real estate schemes, financial powers actually design the degradation of the existing city from Castellari's viewpoint.
Castellari's Bronx was not entirely visionary, moreover, since it already existed in a ruined form. The Italian filmakers had only to go into the streets of the delapidated borough without having to construct expensive sets. Through a combination of parastic landlords, drug culture, white flight, financial redlining, political corruption, and related phenomena, the Bronx had already transformed itself through a "natural" evolution into a dystopia. This was merely the most photogenic possibility available for the opportunistic Italians, since similar forces had long been at work in other American centers, albeit not in such a remarkably convenient fashion. Most commonly, vast areas of urban waste typify America's "sprawl cities," bloated population centers unconfined by natural boudaries of water or terrain that relentlessly expand to devour surrounding counties. One thinks of Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit, for example. As the most desirable homes and business locations increasingly move toward the periphery, concentric rings of blight are left behind, surrounding a skyscraper core that becomes a dead zone by night. Without a policy of real estate renewal, homes and buildings fall into disrepair, become crack houses, and are burned down or squatted by addicts, gang members, dealers, runaways, petty criminals, and homeless folk. The Bronx situation was somewhat different from this pattern in several ways, but nevertheless it served as a more-than-adequate tableau for the futuristic projections of Castellari and company.
The antihero of the Bronx dyptich, a stolid biker named Trash, is the focus of Bronx activity. His crew, the Riders, reign over an anarchic area disputed by a colorful assortment of other gangs, spanning a variety of members that range from inarticulate mutants to roller bladers to some who look like rejects from A Chorus Line. Their Bronx has no normal economic activity, lacking even providers of food, drink or gasoline. Having once lived on the edge of one of these "commodity deserts" in Philadelphia, I can attest to the fact that this unlikelihood is all too true in today's America and that human beings somehow manage to put up with it, even if it means carrying weapons to go to the distant grocery store or planning a virtual commando raid to fill the gas tank. As in Castellari's films, it is a fact of life that Big Capital simply declares parts of our cities "off limits," chokes off the economic activity, and only sends in its police watchdogs under rules of engagement that would prevail in Kabul or Baghdad as much as in South Central.
After Trash's fellow Riders are killed off in a bloody holocaust at the end of the first film, he becomes an urban nomad who is forced into a vengeful pact with some anarchist psychopaths to seek for retribution against a capitalist militia that barbecues his parents. A single real estate giant has managed to gobble up title to the entire Bronx and is forcefully removing or exterminating the remains of its population in preparation for a huge construction project. All of this is somehow motivated by undescribed financial forces, but in today's world of virtual chicanery and cryptofinance, such lack of detail becomes surprisingly plausible. Of course, another bloodbath "concludes" the film, without restoring anything of value to Trash or his fellow displaced persons and without doing any discernible damage to the business forces behind the hardship.
This lack of specificity has turned out to be eerily prescient. The actual Bronx has been, in fact, largely torn down and replaced with more lucrative (for the time being) investments, a New York real estate heir has become POTUS, and the primitive Bronxers have disappeared into the fetid pool of American economic failure, removed to graveyards, carcerial institutions, or new economic dead zones that are developing just now. If anything, Castellari's prophecy is itself transforming into a kind of cultural ruin as new economic developments push the dystopian vision into a new phase.
What captures our attention today is the corporatization, not just of the tenement jungles like the old Bronx, but of the entire spectrum of American urban and increasingly suburban housing. A greater and greater fraction of habitable American real estate is slipping out of the hands of individuals and families and into the hands of corporations. The housing and mortagage crisis of 2008 brought more attention to this rapidly accelerating trend. Its roots, nonetheless, go further back. One notable contributor was the collapse of the Savings and Loan institution and the displacement of all mortgages into the coffers of banks or collatoralized credit institutions. This marked an inevitable step away from private ownership of housing toward corporate control -- control that became more and more centralized as thousands and thousands of banks fused into only a handful of huge "too-big-to-fail" corporations. Another step was the inception of reverse mortgages. This was marketed as a boon to needy elderly folks, but was designed to take massive chunks of real estate away from family heirs and put them into the hands of megalandlords, including superbanks, real estate trusts, hedge funds, and specialized mutuals. Both the mortgage crisis and now Covid have caused a disproportionate transfer of real estate ownership away from individuals, often burdened with tricky "underwater" mortgage commitments, and into the realm of impersonal financial management organisms. The archaic single family home is already being replaced by flimsy, ephemeral "townhouse" clusters that will decrease in value in a decade. The apartment warrens of Soylent Green are not far over the horizon, especially for today's youth, yoked into "gig contracts" that will leave them without resources or a roof over their head as they are pushed out of the fungible employment market.
It may not be as jazzy as a battle in space or as bone-chilling as a drooling xenomorph, but the rent is a bigger futuristic monster for America's youth than anything George Lucas or Ridley Scott has yet imagined. Cheesy as Castellari's Bronx dyptich may be, it may well turn out to be a voice for future sci fi speculation as its imagination turns into the reality of dollars and yuen.