Whenever aliens unexpectedly visit Earth, it’s inevitably reminiscent of Independence Day or The Day the Earth Stood Still; us versus them, and only one will live to see tomorrow. Mr. Cawdron breaks from this tired trope and takes Xenophobia and our first encounter with aliens in an entirely different and fresh direction.
For the first time in my reading experience, the story of humanity’s first encounter with a wholly alien species takes place not in urban America or at a military base, but in Africa during a civil war. Dr. Elizabeth Bower, a physician with a humanitarian relief organization, is forced to decide to stay in a war-torn country at her own potential peril, or pull out with the American peace-keeping forces which have been recalled due to a massive, unknown, alien ship that appeared in orbit.
What unfolds during her escape and tenuous encounter with one of the alien organisms is nothing short of brilliant when addressing what such an encounter might be like when there is no similarities or means of communication between the two species. Try to imagine a blend of a mature version of E.T. and Full Metal Jacket!
This first contact is entirely plausible, and we will be so lucky to have Dr. Bower on our side.
“Peer Through Time” by a new science fiction author David T. Pennington was released in January 2015.
Pennington presents to us a future where time travel, seemingly naturally occurring vortex, is a possibility for only a few individuals, and can be a bit unpredictable when one might end up once they enter it. He takes us on a journey through time with a young woman, Carmela Akronfleck, who is trying to save her family by manipulating the past from a killer in the future.
I really like the premise of the novel. It is new and a fresh fusion of time travel, treatment of temporal causality, and perhaps inevitability. Pennington did a very good job of weaving characters in and out, forwards and backwards though time. It undoubtedly would have given me a migraine to figure out the story arcs if I were the author, but it is presented in a way that was understandable, easy to follow and believable as he reveals each character’s history to the reader.
And if that wasn’t enough, Pennington nicely layers the story with a murder-mystery, action, and a sentient android struggling to find his place in the human world.
Time travel, murder, mystery, and androids – it has it all! Well done Mr. Pennington!
The latest novel by author Vaun Murphrey, “Changeling” is a new and exciting adventure of the chimera heroines from the first book of The Weaver Series, “Chimera”.
“Changeling” takes the continuing storyline and character development of Cassandra and Silver to a new and different place, solidly landing the series into the science fiction genre. Murphrey’s world building and alien cultural development is refreshingly reminiscent of the subtle but important details one experiences when reading Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood”.
As you follow the young heroines through the book it not only engages you as a reader, but also spurs memories of your youth and how you might have reacted had you found yourself 14, alone on an alien planet, and with unknown forces tenaciously trying to kill you. Murphrey is gaining momentum and is an author to watch!
Just finished reading the debut release of “Chimera” from the talented writer Vaun Murphrey, and I found it easy to read and a satisfying story that had me thinking about it between the times I had to sit and read!
“Chimera” is a very interesting novel that presents ideas from both worlds of sci-fi and one could argue paranormal. It takes some of the most challenging ideas and techniques in writing and storytelling and roles them into one novel. Never have I read a book that was written in dual first person point of view and dealt with: psychology of imprisonment, teenage angst and self-discovery, not knowing who to trust and who were the good guys, world building, and traveling in space and in the mind.
As you learn about the world of Cassandra (lead character) you’re swept into the whirlwind that becomes her life, driving you wantonly into the next book of the series. While Cassandra is only thirteen, I feel that it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Anyone who can do that gets thumbs up from me. Good job!
I recently had the pleasure of reading Shad’rah – Book One of the Kiyor’lin Series by author Neil Orr. The book falls solidly within the fantasy genre but while brining some familiar character personalities that are part of any good fantasy troupe, it does bring to the table new takes on old fantasy stereotypes.
The land of Kiyor’lin is full of fresh fantasy faces, from dwarves who historically didn’t really get along with anyone, elves who with time have gotten over their superiority complex, humans who “arrived” in the land a few generations ago from another world, to a society where the different races and species rarely let their differences fly in the face of their mission.
Orr even turns the comfortable genre on its head by replacing the typical, strong, battle-worn protagonist with a young elf king who has to date refused to accept his place in life. And through the course of the adventure, grows into his own, becoming who his team and his kingdom needs him to be.
Like any good adventure, there is evil that has risen again and now threatens all of the kingdoms in the land of Kiyor’lin. While the ultimate battle and defeat will not be realized in Book I, there is plenty of action and violence to keep the Conan’s of us satisfied, and leaves you with the desire to pickup and read the next book.
It’s not often these days that you run across new fusion of genres that really works well. I finished reading Adamar by Scot C. Morgan recently and it lives up to such a distinction.
The book opens with the reader being introduced to a character named Adamar the Magnificent in what appears to be an AA meeting attended by those who have given up, but have forgotten to quit showing up to the meetings. For all intents and purposes the thirty-something Adamar is a washed-out magician who has allowed alcohol take over his life. The story quickly jumps to scenes introducing other characters, their histories and relationship which will prove important as the story progresses.
We are introduced to Carl the astrophysicist keeping watch for a beam phenomena from space which occurred when he was very young and they wait for it to occur again; to Woeden, a barkeep who tells wonderful stories of his conquests and battles that keep the clientele amused and endeared to him; to a company watchmen, Tolev, who seems to be a tad bit sadistic for his own good.
Right as we are getting to know these characters and their lives, suddenly we are turned on our head when elements of real magic and creatures of fantasy occur here in 21st century Earth as the long awaited beam reappears. Through a series of events resembling six degrees of separation, these very disparate characters are brought together and are taken to the far reaches of a science-fiction universe and others.
The book is easy to read, has good pacing and will leave you feeling satisfied, having enjoyed a good story.
Link to Amazon: http://http://www.amazon.com/Adamar-Hennion-Chronicles-Scot-Morgan-ebook/dp/B00FMI4XGM/
This morning while I was preparing to leave for work, I had one of those moments of clarity, where Truth just stands up and demands your attention. I have always been a bit of a neat freak when it comes to certain parts of my life. While my office (which was my bedroom when I was single) may be highly cluttered, it is organized in its own methodical (hint: maniacal) way. However, when it comes to the rest of my life, I like it to be free of clutter and mess; something about clutter just depresses me and puts me on edge.
*photo courtesy of www.ladcblog.org
However, this morning for some reason the clutter in my life seemed to reach new levels—or at lease my awareness of it did—such that it’s my guess that it pushed me over the edge to a whole new awareness. Yes, it was that bad. Costume bumble bee ears, trucks that climb walls, footballs, magic faerie wands, marbles, dominos, colored beads, dance shoes, matchbox cars & trucks, fluffy tutus, little people play-scapes, dolls, stuffed animals, colored balls, cards, Lego pieces, scattered puzzle pieces, plastic food from the pretend kitchen, endless toys from sonic, foam building blocks, mountains of story books, a herd of assorted shoes, random pieces of clothes, and the occasional dirty dish…only to catalogue the fist five square feet as you walk in the door—or out the door as was the case this morning.
Right as my blood pressure began to build and my temples began to throb and my depressive pity-party tape began playing the greatest hits of “Why is my house always cluttered with toys and other people’s stuff?!?”, a deep roll of thunder lumbered by outside with the approaching storm. At that moment, I was struck with clarity that made my shoulders lower, my muscles relax, my blood pressure returns to normal, and the pity-party program go silent. I’m not kidding, this is no embellishment.
I was hit in the face with the reality that these days where my children leave parts of themselves—the toys they most play with—all over the house and our very lives will come to an end sooner than I would like to admit. One day they will be loading up their respective cars and moving out to start their own lives and taking their clutter with them. And I was also reminded that I am blessed to have a partner in my life who for fourteen years has shared bits and pieces of herself with me, too. Things could very easily, on any given day, take a turn and I would no longer have her clutter in my life.
It is hard to now imagine my existence without all of what I’ve described filling my life. If our lives are to be inevitably inundated with clutter, what better things could there be than what our children have brought with them? At what point in the remainder of my life will it be socially acceptable to have my house strewn with children’s toys which are clearly being played with and loved? What might one day take the place of these toys and little-people clothes? Perhaps bills, magazines, his and her shoes, occasional electronic devices and charging cords, breakfast’s dishes, a purse…but no fire trucks, baseball bats, Barbies, princess coloring books…I think you see my point by now.
The dichotomy for us is that our life is such a temporal, transient experience, but yet we daily get bogged down in the minute to minute minutia that allows us to so quickly lose the bigger picture and the true nature of the gift we receive each and every day. I forget that what annoys me today, I will miss tomorrow. I forget that the fact that my children can find fifty things to do besides brushing their teeth—just because they think it’s fun—is but a fleeting scene, as soon they become teenagers with the weight of the world and their future sitting heavy on their shoulders. I forget the inappropriate games they like to play with their food while at the restaurant which provide entrainment and laughter will soon be gone with the accepted behavior of us boring adults.
So tonight as I arrived home, I opened the door and was greeted by a cacophony of noise; my daughter greeting me with a bear hug and a smile. I looked over to the table covered with afternoon snack plates, coloring books, today’s art projects, reading books, and an iPad. I kick a ball out of the way and sidestep a scooter and have to duck beneath some yarn web my children constructed from our banister, all en route to hang up my jacket. The den floor is filled with an elaborate wooden train track set and the couch is populated with a stampede of My Little Pony’s who undoubtedly earlier in the day had freed the pink monkey and Peter Rabbit from the tyranny of the Lego pirates who were now sailing the seas of the rug. On my way upstairs, the steps and the landing midway up were filled with blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals, of which I was later informed, was their “nest” for the afternoon. On any other day, I would have been irritated that they had not cleaned up after themselves, but today I felt blessed.
Okay, I guess I should first say that the genesis of this piece is due to a discussion I was invited into by my editor, Todd Barselow, who likes to throw these types of topics over the fence to me from time to time just to watch me geek-out. Knowing I can’t resist, I think he finds it amusing to get me engaged in technically discussing the feasibility of obscure ideas.
The question put forward was, “Will telepathy be the next functional evolutionary step for humans?” Many of those involved in the discussion thought it possible and probable (via evolution) and that it would be exceptionally cool and game-changing when it happens. And some even thought that some individuals already have this capability in today’s world. As you read a little further, I think you may be surprised to learn, as was I, what I concluded once I started following the breadcrumbs left by science and society.
While I am not addressing whether or not people have this ability today naturally, I will simply say, “Let’s look at what we know, what science tells us, and go from there.” So, hold on to your boots, and let’s first take a stroll through the land of biology.
Biology tells us (and I will not even address the religious sector and associated views on creation and evolution), and for grins we’ll say that some form of evolution is why we’re all sitting around our computers right now contemplating this very topic, that every function and capability of every life form on Earth is here because of some manifestation of successful evolution that helped ensure the propagation of the respective species. Most evolutionary mutations are thought to be due to successfully keeping one’s self from being eaten or having helped one chase down and eat the slower, weaker members of the species. Of equal importance is increasing one’s chances of successfully propagating one’s own genetic material. Other than that, any mutations that occurred and have persisted would have to have been random and at no cost to the host, or at least the negative effects do not manifest until after the age of propagation.
The last major driver of evolution, or successful mutations, comes in the form of a response to the environment where you’re just trying to survive so that you can even think about chasing down your next meal or propagating.
So, taking these well-established observations into account, we can now look at the human body and the possibilities of our species developing the capability of telepathy. But first, shouldn’t we consider what telepathy is? Thoughts transmitted from one person to another without touching or communicating via eye contact, communication technology or speech. So that leaves communicating via the energy spectrum higher than visible light, or energy waves longer than infrared light, subatomic physics and magic (souls speaking to souls falls in the latter category).Also, let’s look at the astounding work of Mother Nature. After 14 billion years, to the best of our knowledge, she has produced not one single life form (and I’ll only speak to those in existence today) that can communicate in any energy frequency higher than that of ultra-violet light. Why is that? Well for one, it requires producing more energy than is thought possible via mitochondrial processes. Additionally, the energies at those levels that are energetic enough to penetrate the skin to get to the sensing organelle would be damaging to tissue—UV light, sun burn, ouch. And to look at the other end of the spectrum, you have infrared, microwave, radio, long waves from sound waves and theoretical gravity waves. While we know that whales and other animals communicate using very low sound frequencies below what we can hear, and some animals even use the sound and vibrations of sound through the ground to communicate. But we don’t have any examples of any communicating via micro- or radio waves and certainly not via gravitons!
So in looking at nature as she stands, we would have to learn how to communicate at the very high frequencies at the risk of frying our brains or at the very low frequencies, having to apply to the FCC to get our thought channels licensed and install rabbit ears on our heads. Of course there is always the solution via quantum physics and magic, but we might as well add walking on water and solving world peace to the wish list.
However, there is hope for all of you who wish to beam your thoughts into my head! There is evidence that the complexity of life (specifically of the chromosomal complexity) on Earth since the beginning of days has been increasing at a logarithmic rate similar to Moore’s Law (a theory really). If you would like to know more about this topic, you can read my piece titled My Great-Grandfather was an Extra-Terrestrial – Chromosomal Complexity Is Older than Earth. So that would imply that the genetic complexity of life on Earth will in all likelihood will continue to become more complex—hopefully it will be us that benefits and not some mega-brainiac, über-cockroach or some soul sucking GMO soy plant (thanks to Monsanto) that eats Manhattan.
Some might argue that we are approaching our own genetic singularity where we become an entirely different species due to superior traits through manipulation, or out of necessity due to pollution or lack of food and water. I’ll run with the more positive of the two scenarios where we are proactive in “improving” our genome and will argue we are already on the path for developing the capability for human telepathy. Yep, we’re already well down the road …
Remember what I was saying earlier about the frequencies that would be required? Now let’s look at our smart phones of today. Through technology that translates our voice, video, texts, emails, FB posts, and twitters into a language that can be sent wirelessly via radio waves to another devise that decodes it and puts it in a format that your brain can make sense; e.g. the receiver’s phone, we have the astounding capability of rapid and dense communication today.
During my short lifetime we have progressed from being tethered by a phone connected to the wall, transmitting the signal via endless miles of copper lines via electrical conduction and sending thoughts via snail mail on paper, to an age where I can send my rapid-fire thoughts to millions within seconds and have the collective knowledge of the entire world at my fingertips! All of this can be done today wirelessly, and all via a relatively low-power and compact technology which continues to shrink daily.
I would dare guess that as we make these technologies smaller it will become fashionable to have them implanted in our body so that you can speed up your tweeting by merely thinking about it. Additionally, there is ongoing research in augmented reality where user-defined information is overlaid on reality as we know it providing potentially any information, from identifiable information of the people you pass on the street to the menus of the restaurants you drive by on your way home after work. And even today there is research on bio-feedback that allow people to control everything from computer cursors, to remote-controlled toy helicopters, to artificial limbs—all through thought—and there’s progress being made daily on those fronts.
Additionally, it is not that much of a stretch to see how the technology will become more and more “biological” and less “non-bio” as we learn to interface it more efficiently with our bodies. And there my friends, we now have telepathy in humans. It might not happen in our lifetimes, but I’ll guarantee our great grand kids will see it—assuming we don’t wipe ourselves out before then.
It was a long journey, and thanks for hanging in there, but now you see how we can-and-will credibly develop and evolve by our own hands in such a way that humans can communicate telepathically; all the time staying within the accepted laws of physics and evolution!
Yargo is the one and only venture into science fiction by the renowned author of Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann. It was found amongst her estate sometime after her death by her husband who in turn published it on her behalf in 1979.
I, like many adults these days who seek out and read this book, am someone who first read it as a teenager in the late 70’s and 80’s when the book reached the zenith of its readership. As is true with many fond memories from our youth, once re-experienced as an adult, often the re-visitation of the memorable event doesn’t live up to those recollections from childhood. I have experienced that with a few cartoons and movies of which I had the greatest of memories and so is the case with this book.
Mrs. Susann was an intellectually gifted young lady and is reported to have scored near 140 on a standardized IQ test. It is perhaps this intelligent and inquisitive mind, driven by curiosity and the need for stimulation that led to a life of many “interesting” inter-personal relationships, marital strife, along with a very active role in the society pages and the limelight.
Perhaps she was ahead of her time in taking on the writing of this novel in the late 1950s. The story is of a very young lady, Janet Cooper, who at the age of 21 is abducted by aliens by accident and ends up traveling to another solar system, to our own Venus and with the threat of being sent inevitably to Mars.
In reading this story nearly seventy years later, the many technical mistakes and inaccuracies with their space travel, the alien environments, and life forms encountered are very noticeable. However, if one takes into account that this was written around the time of the first artificial satellite about Earth, before humans had even gone into orbit, before we went to the moon and only had fuzzy images of Venus from terrestrial telescopes, much of it is easily forgivable and should be treated as a snapshot of our understanding of the cosmos at the time of writing. And therein lies the difficulty of seeing into the future and writing science fiction; sometimes you just don’t get it right.
Another characteristic of the book that can be forgiven due to the era in which it was written is the style of how the characters are portrayed. The dialogue and thoughts of the main character sound reminiscent of any female actress on the silver screen during the 1950s where most women were weak and had trouble formulating thoughts or defining who they were without the aid of a man. Had this book been written in this style and published today, I would suspect that most women would be insulted at the dependent, many times emotionally weak woman as the lead character. But again, when you take into consideration the time of writing you can smile at how quaint life must have been in that simpler era, move past this and enjoy the story.
The original title of the book was Yargo: A Love Story, but it was later shortened to just plain Yargo. I suspect, and could argue the fact, that this is because only the last ten percent of the book had anything that could remotely resemble a love story. The remainder of the book on the surface has more to do with taking a raw look at what it is to be the emotional creature we call human. While it is unclear really what subplots and subtexts Susann intended, now in the early part of the 21st century, one could read that the majority of this book is more of a coming of age for the heroine. But upon closer inspection, it can be said that it is more of a veiled venture to explore what it is to be a strong woman in the 50’s (think Agatha Christie, Queen Elizabeth II, etc.) where a woman must be like a man, unfeeling and aggressive, to be taken seriously and what Susann feels women inevitably lose in the process.
Yargo is a fine piece of work if it is taken in the context that it directly reflects society at the time it was written, which has its own merit as a time capsule of sorts. However, by today’s standards for acclaimed science fiction, it would be considered a fine rough draft; fine in concept and overall plot. It would intrigue me to be able to take this story, modernize the characters, fix the technical aspects and re-release it to possibly have a new generation fall in love with it all over again.
Update on my soon-to-be-relased science fiction novel In the Days of Humans: Third Exodus.
– The cover art and layout is finished – check!
– The book banner ad is finished – check!
– The last read through with my redlines is finished – check!
– Incorporate my final redlines in next two weeks.
– Book trailer is in work.
– Finial editing – send off to editor by end of the month.
– Final formatting for paper and electronic copies.
– Published by the end of summer barring any unforeseen events.
When I pick up a book by a new author I rarely spend any time looking into the author’s experience or history—other than if I recognize the name—before I begin reading the book so that I can really appreciate the story on its own merits without having the author’s personal demons or the axes they had to grind casting shadows over the work. There is time for that after I read the work. That’s just the way I roll.
Lilith’s Brood is actually a collection of Octavia Butler’s first three books in her Xenogenesis series, and while having the books bound together does make for a long read, in many ways it is beneficial for the reader mainly because it enables the reader to keep engaged in Butler’s world from one novel to the next. Beyond the obvious convenience of it, it aids in the transition to the next novel; as each book is told from a different character’s perspective. And for a reason I have yet to discover, in book three Butler decided to shift from third person perspective to that of a first person narrative. Although she executed the POV technically correct, I did find it distracting to shift character viewpoint two-thirds of the way though this combined novel. Having said all of that, I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit.
What’s the book about already?! Good question. I think it is safe to say that it is a book that clearly will mean different things to different people depending on their personal viewpoints and biases. So, whether that makes Lilith’s Brood a work of art, like an impressionist painting, or a novel that refuses to commit in obviousness, I’ll leave to you to decide for yourself. However, I would argue for the former and I would even state that it was on par with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. While Butler takes more of a frontal assault on the underlying aspects of the human condition in comparison to Heinlein, and at times tends to beat that respective drum heavily and often, this is not necessarily a bad thing as some of us need the repeated reminder.
Book one of Lilith’s Brood begins with a woman, Lilith Iyapo, who awakes in an isolation chamber of sorts. The first few chapters are a well-written account of her bouts of consciousness between repeated lapses of sleep and her interaction with her captors despite the fact that they are unseen and non-verbal. With time it is revealed that they are an alien species called the Oankali, who arrived at Earth as the environment was collapsing after a great nuclear war. The Oankali scoured the planet to find all living humans—healthy, sick, or nearly dead—and placed them in suspended animation so that they had time to learn about this new species and determine how to best heal them and their ailing world. The Oankali have their own interesting physical manifestation oddities and characteristics that I won’t spoil for you, and they are quite bizarre in some ways which made it difficult for me to truly understand and visualize them until well into book two. However, considering when these books were written, Butler’s knowledge of biology and how the aliens would merge, interact, and respond to the human body is amazing. It was unclear to me if she could have had a better accounting of the biological actives between the humans and the aliens had she been a biologist herself.
The Oankali’s primary point of existence and driving motivation is to find new life forms with which to combine and enrich their respective DNAs, an activity that they refer to as a “trade”. And from their perspective—since it is such an integral part of their being—they feel that all parties are the better for it and it would seem that it is almost outside their ability to comprehend that perhaps the other species might not have the same opinion. The fact that they will no longer be the same as a species is perfectly acceptable and it is largely beyond their comprehension how life could be in any way different.
I found the way that Butler represented the Oankali and their motivations was profoundly insightful. She was adept at showing how the actions of the Oankali came across to the humans as devious and manipulative. By the end of book three, the reader, with an open mind to entertaining other viewpoints, is able to see that the Oankali really had no ill will or malice toward humans and actually had the best of intentions for all. And in doing so, she was able to hold us up to a mirror to show a little more of whom we are as a species. Butler goes a step deeper with the motivations of the Oankali by showing us that they are not just a wandering species haphazardly causing world-wide genetic disruption across thousands of worlds, but a species that understands that they bring change to these worlds and in their hearts truly believe that both are the better for it. This merging of life forms to them is as natural and as foregone a conclusion as the sun rising each morning is for you and me. To them it is not something that is an option and their existence depends on it; it is just part of what they are.
By giving this level of depth to the aliens, how they are a product of their biology, and laying clear that the Oankali had given up any false pretenses of importance to anything other than what they are as a biological organism, Butler asserts that if we do the same for ourselves we would understand that much of what we are is directly tied to our primal instincts. On the opposite side of the coin, Butler repeatedly and effectively shows the ugly side of what it means to be human. By placing humans in very believable, stressful situations, where rarely are rational decisions made and most resort to violence, Butler reveals an unattractive part of who we are. She reminds us how thin the veneer of society and civility can be, how fast it can all fall away, and how quick we can be to judge that which we cannot understand.
Major themes through the books are that of mating, joining, sex, and the recombination of DNA. To some it might seem over the top, but in the end I think that Butler did an amazing job of dragging the reader through the mire of what really drives us as humans to make the point that we are, at our most fundamental level, sexual creatures whose primary goal in life is to reproduce and ensure the success of the next generation. We tend to want to ignore this fact and pretentiously relegate that aspect of our humanity to a technicality or act of entertainment only. But in the world created by Butler, everything was taken away from humanity and all that remained was coming to terms with joining genetically and sexually with the Oankali, which have three genders as part of their biological framework, or living with an extended longevity and a sterile life trying in vain to find meaning. Butler adds another layer of complexity and moral questioning by forcing the reader to live a life through a few of the human’s eyes where they had to confront their own sexuality in very real terms and make life-altering decisions on such. It is only after one of Lilith’s hybrid children, Akin, who was kidnapped by the sterile human resistors and forced to live with those who refused to take part in what they considered unholy and unnatural, do the humans begin to have the Oankali hear and understand their cause. Through learning about the human part of itself, Akin made it a personal mission to convince the Oankali that the humans deserved the choice to live genetically un-joined with them if they so chose and in a place that would not be destroyed when the Oankali left. In the end, Akin left Earth to set up a colony on Mars with the commitment from the Oankali to provide what was necessary for the human’s survival; it would be a very hard life, but it would be a life free from the Oankali.
After two generations of Lilith’s Oankali-human, hybridized progeny, Jodahs, genderless and a first of its kind, when going thought its final maturation cycle had left to set up a new town that would one day grow into a colonizing ship, and would one day venture out into the stars to repeat the life cycle on another world. This new town would be the first group of truly hybridized Oankali-human unions with each generation of children becoming more different from their parents and a completely new species unto themselves.
Butler tackled other conditions of humanity and other readers have defined underlying meaning mirroring the plight of African Americans, slavery, and biblical mappings. While such themes were not readily evident to me, I will leave those interpretations for the reader to decide and draw meaning from. Butler is by all measure a unique woman in the science fiction genre with her gender, race, and cultural background. All of this unique diversity manifested in a truly unique world that still stands to teach us a little bit about ourselves.
The other day I stumbled across a thread in one of NASA’s internal discussion forums where a few engineers were debating the finer points of a recent article in the MIT Technology Review that discussed a paper recently published titled, Life Before Earth, by Dr. Alexei Sharov. Dr. Sharov stated quite simply that due to the complexity of our genetic code and the time it took to reach this point, life on Earth likely evolved someplace else and found its way here. I won’t go into too much detail from the MIT article or the paper itself—both are listed below—but I will summarize the cogent points I think will be important to most here.
A lot of what follows will likely not fall within the nice tidy boxes of what many have been taught of the beginnings of life and how we became the humans that we are today via religion, creationism, or evolution, but I ask that you keep an open mind as you read and entertain the possibilities as discussed here. I’m not here to convert anyone, just to provoke a little thought.
The 10,000 ft Level:
Sharov’s premise for the paper revolved around applying Moore’s Law, which is most widely known to describe and predict the doubling of computational power in processors, as a method to describe the complexity doubling of the genetic material of life on Earth. Moore’s Law essentially is plotting the log(x) of the variable of interest as a function of time. When plotted it will show a linear increase with time and provides an accurate predictor of the time required to double the variable of interest. Since its formulation, it has been applied to describe the doubling of various performance, memory and miniaturization evolutionary changes in electronics as a whole. A relatively new application of Moore’s Law is in describing the increasing complexity of systems like networks, circuit boards, software, organisms and ecosystems. Sharov postulated that by using actual samples of genetic material that we have found in fossil records along with the genetic mapping that has taken place to date to describe the genetic evolution of the different species on Earth, then one would easily see that over time the rate of the increase of genetic code complexity and the non-redundant functional nucleotides of the DNA of organisms is described very well by Moore’s Law. Taking those sources of data, when plotted against time in billions of years, it follows what one would expect when applying the principles of Moore’s Law.
Sharov then states that since Moore’s Law fits nicely to all the data available regarding genetic complexity in recent history and shows a consistent logarithmic growth in complexity, that one could use Moore’s Law to extrapolate backwards to determine the genesis of the DNA building blocks. In doing so, and taking into consideration the rather large value of uncertainty, the calculated time for initial genetic building blocks far pre-dated the accepted age of our planet by an additional 2.5 billion years.
Details! Oh the Details!
The author additionally wanted to differentiate how complexity is to be used when defining genetic complexity. As stated before, genetic complexity was defined to be the non-redundant functional nucleotides of the DNA. This was intentional as the general genome size can increase with time at a different rate due to the accumulation of redundant or additional copies of genetic code segments, and it is to date unclear how these redundant segments of code factor into the functional complexity of the organism. The functional complexity of the organism is defined as the change in the capabilities of the organism with no-to-minor change in the actual genetic code. An example of a change in the functional complexity of an organism would be to compare the complexity of human behavior some twenty-thousand years ago to today’s human behavior. We undeniably have become a much more complex organism than our forefathers. He further points out that both genetic and functional complexity can happen without any obvious manifestation in the morphology or the form or structure of the organism as a whole, which further complicates the problem and demands that the analysis only focus on the non-redundant functional nucleotides of the DNA to define a consistent measure over time.
By graphing the genetic complexity of available fossil records along with current day species that represent simpler organisms of times past and seeing the tight correlation to Moore’s Law, Sharov extrapolates backwards in time and calculates that the genesis of the genetic code would have to have occurred approximately 9.5 billion years ago (+/- 2.5 billion years). The first thing that jumps off of the page with this finding is that it is dramatically misaligned with the current understanding of the scientific community regarding the age of our Earth and when Life is presumed to have begun.
Sharov references a paper by Jørgensen whose premise was since all of the physical systems of nature follow the second rule of thermodynamics—as do many systems engineering and economic principles—so should the evolution of life follow a similar model of an organism’s work efficiency with respect to time, described as exergy. Exergy can be defined as:
“In thermodynamics, the exergy of a system is the maximum useful work possible during a process that brings the system into equilibrium with a heat reservoir… Exergy is the energy that is available to be used.” – Wikipedia on Exergy
Additionally, to address how exergy and the increased efficiency relates to an organisms evolution, “Researchers in these fields describe biological evolution in terms of increases in organism complexity due to the requirement for increased exergy efficiency because of competition for limited sources of exergy.” – Wikipedia on Exergy
So in this framework, the theory of exergy works well in concert with an aspect of Darwinian theory that states one of the evolutionary drivers is the ability to acquire more resources or procreate more successfully, using the same or diminishing amounts of resources, will dictate the emergent life forms and long-term success of the organism. Jørgensen’s use of derivatives of exergy, eco-exergy density (kJ/g), and eco-exergy flow rate (kJ/g s), places the origins between 5-6 Billion years ago and similarly doesn’t fit within the current age of the Earth of 4.5 billion years.
Just to bring home the implications of what was just said: two different approaches, one based upon genetic samples and chromosomal complexity mapping, the other based upon the second law of thermodynamics, both independent of one another, and both map well to Moore’s Law of increasing complexity, and both indicate that in the absence of addition of hyper-exponential growth during the early phases (which is unlikely due to the probable hostile primordial environment), the building blocks of life most likely had to have evolved someplace prior to the formation of our planet.
Yeah, but …
Admittedly, these are some astounding conclusions that make one step back and take pause. However, before one jumps too far off of the conventional tracks of the history of life as we now know it, we should take a closer look at the respective papers. It should be noted that both authors reference each other’s papers off and on dating back to 2000. Don’t misunderstand, there are lots of additional references in the respective papers, but only these two make the astounding claims discussed here. That in itself is not a problem necessarily if there are not many people working on this topic, but it would imply a limited set of data and people to fully explore the theory with sufficient peer review to date.
Also, Sharov’s paper does go into deep detail on the possible early chemical reactions that might have taken place and what would have had to occur for them to be sustainable and reproducible. He spent quite a bit of time talking about self-assembling molecules, compositional assemblies and how heritable surface metabolism may have evolved into RNA. He also spent some time talking about how it was possible that an organism could have survived interstellar transfer to the Earth. All of this is very interesting, but even to the slightly above average reader like myself, it was easy to get lost in these side discussions when really what I would arguably say the point of this paper was that life had to come from someplace other than Earth based upon genetic complexity and Moore’s Law. The level of detail and discussion given to these other topics almost overshadowed what I would have considered the most important point of the paper.
Similarly, Jørgensen would wander off into calculations, data and discussions that were not obvious as to how they tied into the primary discussion of the paper, and in the data in the tables it was often hard to discern units and how they supported the paper’s premise. Here is an example of what I refer to:
“The exergy flow rate graphs include values for galaxies, stars and planets. The galaxies were formed about 12 billion years ago, the first stars about 9–10 billion years ago and the first planets about 5–8 billion years ago. The solar radiation (which can be considered almost 100% exergy) amounts to 4×10^26 J/s and its mass is 2×103^0 kg giving an exergy flow density of 2×10^−4 J/kgs, rooted in an enormous eco-exergy density in the order of 10^13 J/kg. The Milky Way Galaxy has 2×10^11 stars, which are responsible for most of the exergy flow, corresponding to about 1038 J/s, including super novas, black holes, etc.”
There are always Implications and Ramifications!
So what are the implications of the building blocks of life, or maybe life itself, originating someplace other than Earth? Well, more than one would first imagine, and all having nothing to do with how this would rock the worlds of the religious community.
First, if it came to Earth from interstellar space, it must be wide spread across the universe or at least our local neighborhood. This is completely plausible given that we have first-hand experience with bacterial spores that have been reported revived after 25-35 million years of dormancy, and recent experiment results from the ISS where bacteria that was exposed to the extreme temperatures and vacuum of space have survived just fine. This also would imply that if the Earth was seeded with life, then so were the other planets, moons and satellites in our solar system and any which could support the basic needs of life might still have some vestige today, including Mars, Europa and Enceladus.
Second, if this model of genetic complexity is correct and it has taken roughly 9.5 billion years to evolve intelligent life as we know it, and if the generally accepted age of the universe is 13.77 billion years old, then there is a miss-match in the possibility that Earth was seeded by some intelligent, extra-terrestrial life form. The universe would have only been roughly 4 billion years old, 6 billion too young to have intelligent life running around, to have seeded the Earth by an intelligent species. Sorry, your ancestor was not an ET; at least not your common ancestor.
Third, with the exception of the length of time it might have taken to get from the host of origin to the Earth, there might not be anyone out there much more advanced than us. The Drake Equation, which has been popularly described as the equation that predicts the number of active civilizations in the Milky Way, may not be completely realistic mathematically. The Drake equation is largely a statistical probability of expressing the numbers of civilizations that could exist based upon the number of stars, solar systems and planets that could support life, etc. However, much of what has been talked about in these papers is that the evolution of life, and furthermore intelligent life, under ideal conditions is a time dependent function. None of the components of Drake’s equation are represented as a function of time, therefore making it a stead-state equation and not time dependent and it doesn’t take into account the amount of time required for solar systems to form and arrive at a state which could support life, the Goldilocks Zone, or how long life would take to recover after major mass extinctions as seen in our own planet’s history.
Additionally, there is the Fermi Paradox (or Fermi’s paradox) that states that there is an apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization and humanity’s lack of contact with, or evidence for, such civilizations that must be framed with respect of the potential implications of these two papers. The most obvious answer might be that since it takes almost 10 billion years to develop intelligent life—assuming you consider humans intelligent—then the reason we haven’t heard from anyone is largely because we are the head of our class. We may be leading the evolutionary charge into space—for the galaxy!
Fourth, if Moore’s Law is incorrect and cannot be used to extrapolate backwards in time to determine the genesis of the formations of biological life in the early universe or even on Earth, then we truly meet a new paradox. The current Moore’s Law complexity curve shows a logarithmic growth in genetic complexity of life on Earth in recent history. So for the Moore’s Law approximation to be incorrect and for life to have actually formed here on Earth since its creation, then the early years of the formation of organic molecules and associated complexity doubling would have to have occurred at a much more rapid, hyper-exponential rate than the current growth rate.
For this to be possible, it would have to have changed in an exponential manner and increased from the current logarithmic rate in arguably more harsh conditions and requiring random interactions—near Brownian—to facilitate any of the early formation and combination of the genetic building blocks. Of course, one way out of this problem is to argue that that life could have evolved at a faster rate elsewhere (not on Earth), where perhaps conditions for the evolution of self-assembling organic molecules were much more conducive than on early Earth and thus facilitated a hyper-exponential rate that would be required to make this timeline feasible. While this can always be a possibility, it is one that would remain unverifiable for a very long time, and even in ideal laboratory environments today, we have had only limited success. Sharov addresses this in the paper as well:
“Despite the success of copying an existing bacterial genome (Gibson, et al., 200, humans have so far failed to invent a single new functional enzyme from scratch (i.e., without copying it from nature), and have had limited success in imitating existing enzymes (Bjerre, et al., 200. Thus, it would be hard to make a primitive living system that does not resemble anything that we observe on Earth.”
Fifth, the applicability of Moore’s Law could all be completely wrong. Yep, we might be dealing with processes that do not fit nicely into the Moore’s Law and change due to higher order functions with time and we are only seeing the first order pattern due to lack of data. If you think about it, according to these authors, the building blocks of life had to have started close to 10 billion years ago. Also consider that the start just began to form roughly 12 billion years ago (+/- 1.5 billion years). So that would mean that self-organizing and reproducing organic compounds would have been in existence a very short time after the first stars began to form. Certainly not an impossibility, but it would have required that everything fall into place exactly very early in the universe’s existence.
So, what’s the Bottom Line?!
“So, what is the Bottom Line and how does any of this relate to my life?” you ask. The short answer is that none of this will change your day-to-day life in any meaningful way. This is a relatively new theory and still needs to be discussed widely across the scientific community and finish the peer review process. But if the math and support data is correct, then the implications as discussed above are astounding!
However, the longer answer in my opinion is much more interesting and speaks much more to who we are as humans. The interesting part of all of this is that in our daily lives we constantly want to change our art, our technology, our cars and our architecture just to name a few. All the while there is significant inertia against changing who we are on a personal level. We (and I speak generically over the course of history) don’t like it when the racial or religious status quo changes. We don’t like when political parties change over. We don’t like the changes to the culture that is brought in by the youth. We don’t like it when athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. And heaven forbid we change our genes to eliminate disease before it happens or makes us stronger or smarter.
The reality is that we exist in a situation where we want the world to change in ways that are convenient to us, but in no other way. Whenever change implies that we may, on a personal level, become redundant and unable to compete for sport or resources, we fight the forces of nature with all that we have. But in nature, you can only hold the course of the river for so long before it will go on the path it is meant to take. We cannot stop the wind from scattering the sand on the beach. Whenever a species cannot change with time it either becomes a genetic dead end or becomes extinct. Yes, the cockroach and the crocodile have changed very little over the last several million years and continue to survive, but they also became nothing more. And at some point in the future, a new emergent species is likely to surface to fill the vacuum of complexity that the universe demands to be filled.
One thing is clear, with our rapid population growth, reduction of natural resources, the exponential growth in our computational and communication technologies along with our understanding of genetics and how to engineer them; change will happen. We can embrace it in a deliberate way, or it will happen upon us in an ungraceful and likely undesirable manner.
We are at, or are rapidly approaching, the threshold of a change for our species. In recent history—the last ten thousand years—we have been undergoing exponential evolution in our functional complexity, doubling every twenty years. No one can argue against the fact that our collective civilization is much more complex than it was back then. And in geologic time, that is relatively just a fraction of a second since life appeared on Earth. Now the questions are: Will we be like the child of steel and flint who burns bright and hot, but lives only briefly? Will we be like the dinosaurs that covered the entire planet and dominated the top of the food chain, only to be all but forgotten with time due to our own hand or through nature’s, and replaced by another species such as artificial intelligence?
I think the real struggle most people have, and I think it has some roots in religion and the fact that for most their concept of time is directly tied to the relativity it has to their lives, is to understand and accept the fact that we are not the final product of Nature. Most people do not want to consider that we are just an evolutionary step in one part of this thing called Life. But for the first time in all of our knowledge (granted, limited to only this planet), we humans of today are the first species ever to be able to contemplate its own evolution and have the power, techniques, technology and means to affect it in a deliberate way! Wow! Just let that sink in for a moment…
In recent years there has been talk of a ‘technology singularity’ that is rapidly approaching where true artificial intelligence (AI) comes into being and humans almost instantly become irrelevant, supremely inferior and a threat to the existence of the artificial intelligence. After the singularity, it is impossible to project what the future of AI or what the human species might be given our lack of experience with true artificial intelligence and the fact that humankind will no longer be the most intelligent, and powerful, life form on the planet. However, Sharov argues that with the exponential functional complexity growth rate in areas of biology, genetics, molecular biology, cyber-human physical interfaces and communication, that there will be a ‘biological singularity’ that will occur long before that of the technological variety. A period where we will have the capability to fundamentally change our genetic makeup, augment our intelligence either genetically or via some form of human-AI combination. And in reality it will probably be ‘needed’ for those who can afford it to maintain their edge in society and the marketplace. Some shirk from the thought of people changing themselves to get ahead and for the sake of money, but this is what natural selection has been doing for billions of years. The only difference is that we will be actively affecting the outcome of evolution in a very rapid way.
When I sit outside this afternoon and feel the cool breeze on my skin in opposition to the warmth of the sun, and hear the birds sing and I watch my children playing make believe in a wooden fort or nothing at all, I feel nostalgic in that this could be the last generation that is able to experience life and the world the way I do today. That may be because we actively change ourselves in new and yet un-conceived ways, or we resist the change and allow a vacuum between the change of our functional complexity and our morphology, and we are replaced by a more complex emergent species via environmental collapse or via the eventual technological singularity. But then I turn on the news or read the news stories on the internet regarding the environment and the horrific actions of man. And when I consider that there are several natural forces working against our future, I am lead to believe that perhaps a steep change in who and what we are would not be a bad thing, so long as we could maintain some part of what we are today.
Perhaps we should take a Zen-like approach to all of this. We should accept and celebrate the things that are guaranteed to us—one of which is Change. Once one realizes that change is inevitable and that we are just a snapshot in time of what we call the human organism, we can embrace what is going on and what will come in the future. So instead of fearing the changes, we only need to make sure that the changes pass the filters of morality and what is ultimately in the interest of good for our species. For me, I see this as very liberating and fundamentally exciting to know the potential that we have ahead of us and what we might become. Yes, that would mean that I very well might become redundant, but Father Time was going to see to that anyway…eventually.
Recently, after the following article surfaced talking about NASA’s effort with Warp Drive, I received several questions regarding the technology and if NASA was really that close to its development. The wide interest has prompted me to provide a response to all.
A NASA scientist claims to be on the verge of faster-than-light travel: is he for real?
By Konstantin Kakaes – Posted 04.01.2013
“Terry, what’s the word on this project in the NASA circles? I LOVE the idea of this but wonder how fringe it’s considered in the community.”
Clearly the PopSci article comes across as more whiz-bang, technology-enabling, new era of space travel, a fair bit of ego stroking, with little discussion on the likelihood of true success. While there are other versions of that article and announcement that provide more of a balanced view, I wanted to highlight this one due to its popularity and far-reaching consumption.
I do want to be very clear in saying I’m whole-heartedly behind White’s efforts and praise his ability to secure funds for a project that is not part of NASA’s current mission portfolio in this very arid budgetary environment. However, today I advise restrained optimism, and hope to put things in perspective; first to temper one’s expectations in our world of instant gratification, and second, when NASA isn’t warping us around the galaxy in five year’s time, NASA isn’t brow-beaten as a waste of tax-payer’s dollars.
In all fairness, White’s testing is barely in the Proof of Concept phase. And clearly since there is no program or directive for NASA to do this work, then he is doing this on a shoe-string budget that has been scraped by the center to give him some “investigation dollars”. In my opinion, that alone is a significant achievement! When dollars are being taken away from the program that supports maintaining the astronaut’s health for the space station, I find it amazing that somehow he is able to receive money to develop such a fantastical technology.
I have said for many years that the single most important technology we as NASA, or the human race, should develop is propulsion technology that far exceeds our current capabilities. When it takes several months, one way, just to reach our closest planet that is remotely habitable, it drives all sorts of design issues that make it not only very difficult to conceptualize, but very, very expensive. The inordinate amount of time spent in transit requires multiple levels of redundancy in safety systems, incredibly high mean time between failure (MTBF) capabilities in your systems—which in itself is very difficult to convince yourself when you only have enough money to build a prototype and the final vehicle. Then there is the trade between redundant systems and keeping the overall mass low enough to get onto whatever rocket you have available to get the vehicle—or pieces of the vehicle off of the surface of Earth—lest you have to incur more expense by developing an entirely new launch vehicle. Then there are the provisions for water, food and air for the crew for the entire trip, which in turn drives the technology to recycle as much air and water as possible, which in turn drives complexity of the system, propensity for failure and geometric cost growth. And while not last on the list, you have to take into consideration your propulsion technology and required fuel. Our current capability of solid and liquid rockets, using primarily hydrogen and oxygen, require the vast majority of the overall vehicle weight—generally +80%—just to address the required fuel, fuel tanks, pumps and pluming.
However, if you could shorten the trip time to Mars, for example, to just a month each way or less, then most all of what I have stated before are OBE (overcome by events) as we say at work. If you can get there in a month then you do not need to worry with a lot of the failure scenarios and contingency plans. They will only be traveling in space for just a month each way requiring one sixth the consumables required for humans and if something were to go wrong, you only need them to be able to survive for a month before the rescue vehicle arrived from Earth. With current technology and cost of vehicle construction, if something were to happen on the way to Mars and they were not able to return to Earth, they would be on their own to survive for years, waiting for another vehicle to be built and sent, if at all. So yes, having a paradigm shift in the propulsion technology is not only required for us to do any meaningful exploration, but in order to make it cost effective. Even if faster-than-light propulsion is not possible, just by developing a system that approaches the speed of light would be a marked improvement in reduction of overall design complexity and associated costs.
Now to appropriately set people’s expectations. Despite what you see on TV and what Edison was capable of doing in his lab by himself or with a few assistants, it is not possible to design the technology that warps the very fabric of the space-time continuum in a small lab funded on a shoe-string budget. Plain and simple. Sorry to say it, but that’s reality. The days of one person developing a game-changing capability are long past simply due to the resources involved and pushing the boundaries of technology and physics. In our history we were able to build things like telescopes that do not require a standing army. But even telescopes have moved into the realm of complexity and cost which are well beyond what one person can do or afford: see any of the large planetary or space-based telescopes in the last forty years. So you might ask, “Why can’t we develop warp drive or something like ‘Mr. Fusion’ in the garage? Maybe I’m just a jaded government employee… ” Well, maybe I have my days, but I would argue that the best way to predict the future is to look into recent history. So, let’s look at what it took to develop the technology that we have been living with for the last 60+ years: Fission reactors (a.k.a. nuclear reactors/bombs—what have you).
The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939 (through roughly 1946), but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion (about $26 billion in 2013 dollars). Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and producing the fissionable materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons. Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. – Wikipedia “Manhattan Project”
That’s right, 26 BILLION dollars and over one hundred thousand people just to split an atom which is something nature is inclined to do anyway—see the laws of entropy. So, let’s talk about doing something similar, but what nature doesn’t willingly want to do, except only in certain situations like the Sun: Atomic Fusion. In general, you are fighting all of the strong and weak forces associated with atomic and subatomic forces, but in the case of the Sun, the intense gravity and associated heat and pressure allow it to occur. Yep, to make it happen on Earth, we have to re-create what is going on in the center of the Sun. Do we somehow think that a technology, such as warp drive, which is so radically different than those two examples is somehow going to be possible with a fraction of the effort and resources? Anyone remember “Cold fusion” from 1989? Two men, one lab, one beaker, a few bubbles…Enough said.
We’re all familiar with the cartoon “…then a miracle occurs…” that describes what many of us have experienced at work while making our project plans seem credible or while trying to get our masters or doctoral research to match our expected thesis results. But if we look back over the technological history of humankind, you don’t see these ‘beyond comprehension’ creations by our own hands. We see a lot of discoveries of naturally occurring phenomenon that were not created by us, just observed. Electricity? Well it existed before, we just learned how to conduct and control it. Penicillin? Again, that organism existed for a long time without our help; we just observed what it did to microbes. Fission? We didn’t invent it, we just learned how to make it happen when we wanted to and to some extent control the resulting release of energy. Warp Drive? Well, my suspicion is that if we are going to replicate or control what occurs naturally, we first have to understand gravity and/or the driving mechanisms behind worm-hole theory, and it will take a non-trivial amount of resources.
In comparison, if it takes billions of dollars each year to try to develop a stable fusion reactor—which has been funded by some of the best minds in the world for the last 20+ years and having accepted and understood mathematics and physics—what is the likelihood of this gentleman and his one lab being that close to solving the problem of warping space with the pittance of funding he has received? My personal, semi-informed opinion, is if his funding and staffing profile doesn’t change, he will likely retire still trying to understand the actual mathematics involved in the unexpected results he will inevitably see, just to get his proof-of-concept to work.
I reiterate, I fully support White’s efforts and hope beyond all measure that he is one day successful. But I also want to help temper people’s expectations such that the enormity of the problem is sufficiently framed so that expectations are realistic. As a tax payer, I want you to understand that it is way more complicated and expensive than you are being led to believe by the media. It is partly the media’s desire to sell you an exciting story that leads you to believe that you are only years away from living in the Star Trek universe. The other is the very sad reality of what engineers and scientist are required to do to build enough interest and excitement in order to secure the funding required for their work.
In closing, let me say that there would be nothing that would warm my heart more than one day be able to utter the words, “Please take us to Warp Factor 5, Mr. Sulu …”
Falling Free, written by Lois McMaster Bujold, a New York Times best seller, was the winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It takes place onboard an orbital transfer space station around ‘the shining rim of the planet Rodeo’. The main character and later hero, Leo Graf, has been brought to the space station to teach a group of genetically engineered humans welding and general construction techniques. These humanoids, called quaddies (which I won’t go into so as not to spoil the story), had been developed to be perfectly adapted to work and live in the weightlessness of space. In theory, the GalacTech corporation (who developed the quaddies) thought this would be a cost-effective alternative to dealing with the long-term and costly effects of space on their normal human workforce. On a personal side note, having worked with several people who have actually been in space, I can say anecdotally that just about all of Bujold’s descriptions of how people move and act in space and its deleterious effects, were amazingly accurate. This was particularly surprising considering it was written in 1988 when NASA was still quite young in terms of understanding the effects of space itself.
Graf’s mission changed from teaching these ‘products of science’ to be the next generation of superior space workers, to being the savior of these kind and extremely naive ‘quaddie children’. He was made aware of the corporation’s desire to dispose of the quaddies—albeit different from you and I, but people none the less—once gravity-plating technology had been reported to soon be available. Although expected to be expensive, the new gravity plating would still be more cost effective to use with ‘normal’ humans rather than taking care of the thousands of quaddie workers they were currently raising and would take care of for their natural life spans.
While it was not clear if it was the author’s intention to make a social statement regarding unregulated corporations, it is my opinion that it’s a good example of what could happen if corporations are left to themselves without regulation and how they can conveniently rid themselves of ethical liability and responsibilities via mountains of bureaucratic paperwork and ambiguous legalese. Bujold provided a reasonable layout—from GalacTech’s position—of a very credible ‘disposal plan’ regarding how to take care of the quaddies once and for all and place the overall fate of the engineered workers within the realm of plausible deniability. In reading through the plan, it honestly made my stomach turn at how similar it sounded to any one of many stories that we have heard in the news in recent years.
The story is actually a prequel to the Vorkosigan series, it takes place 200 years before the next book, and none of the characters are carried forward into the storyline of the series. It was written later to provide some back story to how the series came about. Bujold mentions in her notes that she intended most of the books to be able to stand by themselves in terms of story, plot, and characters, but she felt that Falling Free would add some depth to the overall storyline and add a Genesis-like back story.
The characters are well developed, none are overly complex, and they stay fairly constant. The exception is Graf, who has a change of heart in terms of what he will eventually achieve on this work assignment, and decides that he must be the one to stand up for the defenseless. In writer’s terms, this is an example of where the main character’s motivation changes while his character for the most part stays the same. The bad guys are pretty easy to spot and only get less congenial as the story progresses. And while Graf doesn’t always know about it, he does benefit from help given by some characters whose conscience gets the better of them within the antagonist’s camp.
While the lack of significant complexity might turn some readers off, I did not find it too distracting, because for me the story was about hanging in there to find out how the quaddies were going to survive when all of the odds were stacked against them. How did they do it? Did they make it? Well, that’s for you to read and find out. Enjoy!
A few mornings ago on the way to work I was listening to the radio and a piece by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius called Finlandia was aired. Quite a beautiful piece of music in its own right. Mid-way through the piece, I heard a reprise of a Christian church hymn that became an early favorite of mine as a child which was put to the same music, Be Still, My Soul. I think part of my love for the piece stemmed from listening to my grandfather belt out the chorus in his superb English baritone voice and diction that was as smooth to the ears as any fine cello. Listening to him power out this moving piece of music backed by a three hundred year old pipe organ and the voices of the congregation in the echo chamber of an equally old church, stirred my soul beyond what I can convey here. “Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last.” I can hear the music and many voices all filled with the love and faith that these words promise. Even now, as I write this, my heart chokes my throat and tears well in my eyes. Funny the things that bring back the strongest of memories fueled by emotion.
I can only imagine that Sibelius hoped to move the souls of his people similarly with the same passion he had in his heart when he wrote this piece. Finlandia was first written in 1899, originally the final movement of a larger musical poem. The whole symphonic work was called Scenes Historiques, or Historic Scenes, where the final movement was named Finland Awakens. Later it was reworked as an independent piece, adapted to piano and then for choir, and renamed to what we know now as Finlandia. The original score was composed when Finland was still under Russian rule, as a protest against the increasing government censorship and control over their national newspapers. The piece is filled with turbulence and powerful movements that symbolize the struggles of the Finnish people for independence throughout their history.
To provide a little Finnish history, from one non-Finn to my other non-Finn friends, from the 12th until the start of the 19th century, Finland was a part of Sweden. Later in the 19th century it became an “autonomous region” within the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution. Taking advantage of their keeper’s in-house turmoil, the Finnish stated their intent for a Declaration of Independence, which was followed by a civil war with some support from the German Empire. After a brief attempt to establish a monarchy in the country, Finland became a republic. However, it was not destined to be smooth sailing from that point for our beloved Finns. Finland’s experience of World War II involved three additional separate conflicts spanning from 1939 through 1945 ending with the expulsion of Nazi forces from their land. These are referred to by the Finnish people as the Winter War, Continuation War and the Lapland War respectively. So, in light of their record of being controlled by people not of their culture or even a similar language for the previous seven hundred plus years, the desire to have an independent nation with its own sense of identity and self-determination ran deep within the Finnish people.
Towards the end of Sibelius’ piece, it enters into the slow movement that I recognized as the hymn from my childhood. For Sibelius it was a promise to his people of a day after the struggle, after the seemingly perpetual strife, when they could realize a country for themselves and of themselves. The music crescendos into an emotional release that lets the heart relieve itself of all of the trials and tribulations that it has carried. This, too, was for the Finnish people. His promise to them was that one day this would be possible and they too would be able to lay down the things that weighed heavy upon their hearts and souls and shed the foreign rule that oppressed their daily lives.
Sibelius’ intent was not lost on the Finnish people. In 1941, words were written by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi to the hymn version and it soon became one of the most important national songs of Finland. Upon seeing the popularity of lyrics applied to the Finlandia movement, Sibelius replied, “It is written for an orchestra. But if the world wants to sing it, it can’t be helped.” Admittedly, the hippie inside of me is quite partial to the version “This Is My Song” written in 1934 by Lloyd Stone. It is a song and a prayer that speaks to the fact that all of the important things in life are the same no matter what land you call your home and that it is the author’s prayer that they may have the peace that he prays for, too.
Through the years that have passed since the first release, the music has spoken to those outside of Finland and is now played and loved by people all across the globe. Not because it was sung by my grandfather, not because they are Finnish, not because they are in defiance; but because it is recognized by our Soul and It is moved.
T. R. Hill
P.S. Thanks to my long-time Finnish friends for keeping me honest.
Someone asked me a little while ago, “What music inspires you when you write?” I thought that was a very good question, and not having personally spent a lot of time considering why I ‘do what I do’, I decided to sit and do a little self-analysis and research. In the process, I discovered some interesting things about myself and others regarding how music shapes our lives and habits, and for reasons probably different than the person asking might think. This short trip of understanding how music effects the creative process will take us off the beaten path and into the wilderness of neural-cognitive science, but stick with me, I promise it will be worth it. You’ll never listen to music the same way again!
Many people use music to help them engage in whatever they have to accomplish that day or to drive their mood in the desired direction. Be it to energize for a work out, take the edge off the daily commute, to calm down after a hectic day, or to reminisce about a lost love. Once we begin listening to music it shapes our reality at that instant via several different mechanisms that lie within our own brain: memories of our past, projection by living vicariously though the singer/composer, empathy for the singer/writer, or just letting the beat and rhythms of the music stir what is primal within us all.
Personally, when I’m listening to music it resonates with my emotional psyche more than any other aspect. Some uniquely moving pieces of classical and modern orchestral works, and the rare vocal piece, can move me to tears or fill me with the confidence and energy to take on the world. And when I say that at times it has the same effect on me as that of a religious experience, I don’t exaggerate much. The cleansing of the soul, the renewal of emotional energy, the sheer appreciation of the beauty and complexity of something so much greater than myself, all manifest themselves for me through the music. Having spent a large portion of my life as one of the devout and faithful, the similarities in the experiences for me are indistinguishable.
But back to the question at hand; “What music do I listen to?” Well as you can gather by now, my answer will be, “It depends…” Clear enough? In all seriousness, I use music to tap into my emotional core to stimulate the feelings needed for the article, story or scene at the time. It is my belief that by activating the auditory-emotional linkage, which then stimulates the memory regions of the brain, the creative tendencies are able to manifest themselves more freely. Being a visual thinker, once the creative juices start to flow and the image processing parts of my brain get fired up, then the good stuff starts to flow onto the page. And believe it or not, this is largely not Terry’s mumbo-jumbo. Study after study has shown that retention of information increases dramatically with each new sense that you involve during the learning process. , So why would not the reverse be true? I know several people that work this way, but most do not spend their time asking why as I have.
The science behind music and the brain, thanks to twentieth and twenty-first century technology and scientific endeavor, has begun to unravel the mysteries of the brain and how it makes us who we are and visa versa. As a Stanford study suggests , music, regardless if it is classical or rock, helped people focus while studying, and by extension other tasks as well that require focused attention. Granted this changes with person-to-person depending on their preferences. Personally, any music that doesn’t have lyrics is useful to me in this manner; however, once the lyrics start to be sung, I find it distracting. Why is that? Well, it has a lot to do with the way the brain processes information, music, and how you learn. I am a visual, but primarily an auditory learner. Therefore, when I hear a voice, I start focusing in on what is being said, be it a person in front of me, someone on the phone or a singer in the background. But I digress.
Now, back to focusing of the mind. By listening to music, effectively you are keeping a portion of your mind focused…and distracted. In reality, very few of us are capable of applying 100% of our focused attention to anything for any length of time. Very few have this laser focus and society generally labels these people who are capable of it as having savant-like tendencies. Interesting isn’t it? So for the rest of us, we constantly have to re-focus our conscious mind on the task at hand as it can very quickly become bored and wander off on irrelevant, tangential thoughts. The next thing you know, you’ve read two pages and don’t remember anything that you read. Much like many of you now.
However, music helps distract the brain so that the creative centers can work and not be regulated. Similar to when your mind relaxes prior to sleep and random ideas and connections are made from seemingly nowhere. Additionally, and this is where I get a little metaphysical, your subconscious works on problems all the time in the background of your mind and will subtly push them to your conscious mind once a solution has been worked out. A large part of problem solving actually occurs in the ancient (evolutionarily speaking) unconscious mind. As our primate predecessors evolved, they solved problems before they developed the conscious mind to realize they were solving problems. Some refer to this as the reptilian mind, which was an early stage in our brain’s evolutionary development. Generally, this reptilian mind dealt with the basic functions required for survival: food, sex, assessment of threats (fight or flight). All of these required problem solving and taking action based on concluded solutions.
Each and every day, much of what you have been thinking on consciously or have experienced through everyday activities gets funneled down to the subconscious mind which is not only comprised of the reptilian brain, but also of the paleomammalian brain which added complexity of the reptilian behavior and also added in family structure inclinations and then neomammalian complex, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception. The short version of all of this is that there are core thought processes that are going on behind the scenes of our conscious mind that we are unaware of unless we quiet our conscious mind and let them bubble up through the different levels of abstraction and formulation to something that is understandable to our normal thought process. This is why we typically have these ‘Ah HA!’ moments of creativity out of the blue, solutions in our lives to plot problems we may have, or to great new ideas for stories.
An analogy that might help simplify all of this would be in how you interact with your personal computer or smart phone. Most of us do not begin to understand how the 1’s and 0’s of the data and software are routed, acted upon, sent through the myriad of circuitry to drive and act upon our inputs to the graphical user interface (GUI). What goes on behind the scenes does not remotely resemble what we experience when using the computer. Basically, our conscious mind is simply the GUI of our unconscious mind and psyche. A lot of good stuff is going on behind the screen that we are not generally aware of, but we have to open up a window and let it come to the surface.
Also, in studying the brain researchers have learned that music probably has been a part of us since very shortly after we developed the ability to comprehend emotions. What MRI scans have shown  is that music stimulates a very old part of the brain that in turn simulates emotions and physical responses! It does this in conjunction with the use of a natural forming stimulant called dopamine, which is also associated with rewards such as food and sex. This is why we get excited when we listen to music, we feel energized, our heart rate increases, we get chills, goose bumps or we relax and out heart slows. Additionally, research has shown that the brain does not remain in a static fixed state and reinforces its connections based upon its repeated stimulus. That is defined as the plasticity of the brain. Researchers have shown that the brains of musicians are slightly different than non-musicians and react to music very differently. While I did play the French horn for eight years when I was young and have enjoyed singing in various venues during my life, I do not classify myself as a musician. However, it might explain why music does affect me at the emotional level that it does.
Some of the most compelling new understanding of the brain and creativity now sheds more light into those who create new worlds and societies in their mind and can somehow paint these places in the minds of others. Yes, the storytellers and authors of the world. Researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health have found through extensive study that in the brains of freestyle rap artists there are unique areas that are associated with creative thought formation and are independent of the actual formulation of words and speaking. A surprising finding was that the creative thoughts originate deep within the left side of the brain and then get handed off to the right and more traditionally creative part of the brain for further formulation and development.
“It is interesting in this context that self-generated, stimulus independent behaviors appear to be initiated by midline frontal regions well before subjects consciously experience the intention to act.
… This is not inconsistent with the experience of many artists who describe the creative process as seemingly guided by an outside agency.
…This suggests that the conscious, deliberate, top-down attentional processes mediated by this network may be attenuated during improvisation, consistent with the notion that a state of defocused attention enables the generation of novel, unexpected associations that underlie spontaneous creative activity.”
My goodness! I still haven’t answered the question, have I? Well, I have gone the long way around to make the point that I use music like a tool when I am writing or even just clearing my mind to let the ideas just bubble to the surface. For example, when I am driving to and from work—which is where I do a lot of my thinking for new stories, plot lines, etc.—and a piece of rousing orchestral music is on, I begin to think about major action scenes in stories, space ships skimming along the tops of ravines on alien planets, and endearing heroes making speeches to persuade the remaining few to push through the last mile. You get the idea.
If the story is there, waiting to go onto the keyboard and I need to focus, then I tune into the Pandora channel Tibetan Moon and go to work. If there is the right romantic scene that needs a nice soulful pacing, then that channel also works well. Slow piano pieces always seem to put me a reflective mood and Chopin never disappoints, which is conducive for the self-reflection of my characters ironically enough. Maybe not.
If the characters or the current scene requires some cultural influences, then I try to pick out music that is representative of the culture in focus. For example, my current manuscript contains a portion that takes place in Africa. So naturally enough, I went in search of some music that might tie me in a little closer to the myriad of unique cultures present there. However, the play list was probably not what you might have expected. I found a couple of modern artists that grew up on various parts of the continent and then went on to write orchestral works that verge on new age music. It worked quite nicely and took me to the continent and a spiritual place quite readily. Now, unless you want to listen to Johnny Clegg or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, then finding new and current music of the people can be difficult; again steps in Pandora to save the day. Their selection of African Jazz is very nice, but these are but two examples of what is possible.
Some other genres of music I find so utterly disturbing that I can only listen to it for brief moments, just enough to place my mind in the appropriate place to write. For example, if there is scene where the character is undergoing some extremely horrific event or is in some type of psychotic state, then I find very heavy metal/death metal, or even the soundtrack to ‘Dawn of the Dead’ as an example, will usually do it quite well.
It is no accident that I haven’t called out many specific artists. To me, it is less about who is playing and more about what is being performed, how it makes me feel and the cascade of creativity and reflection that follows. For each of us is different, so too will be what works for you. Not that I am promoting Pandora, despite my multiple references, with a little creativeness in setting up some channels on your own, you can create seemingly never ending streams of music that will let you write for hours without you having to get up once to shuffle the CDs or load a new playlist on your iPod.
There you have it, the complete path from your selection of music, its progression through the primal parts of your brain and back out again in the form of great ideas and new stories to tell. In closing, as I write this one of my favorite pieces of music, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, plays in the background. Oh what hidden garden will I find? Butterflies? Spaceships? What encounter with a hidden stranger might take place under the full moon…?
A few months ago, I took the opportunity to watch a movie that I would not have normally jumped into right away. However, I do force myself to venture into the unknown from time to time for good measure. I decided to give ‘Lunopolis’ a try. It was written and directed by Matthew Avant and released in 2009.
“The film is presented in found footage style and takes place in the weeks preceding the rumored events of the 2012 End of Days prophecies. Two documentary filmmakers discover a mysterious device and begin to unravel a conspiracy involving the moon, time travel, and a very powerful organization who will stop at nothing to protect their secret.”
The director’s approach at framing the story is not new or unique as it uses the premise of ‘Hey, I found these video tapes of these guys who found something weird and I have pieced them together and you won’t believe what they found. I wonder why these guys are now missing …?’. The same approach was used in ‘Trollhunter’ (Norwegian: Trolljegeren) written by André Øvredal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it, but you can’t use it as a major plot element in movies too frequently, or in close release proximity to one another otherwise people just roll their eyes. I actually thought both used the technique effectively and I would also recommend Trollhunter for those looking for something a little different.
Lunopolis had the look and feel of a low-budget indy movie, well, because it was–extremely low as a matter of fact. But that is not a bad thing, especially in the world of high budget movies that do not always make a return on their investment for what is arguably a minimal increase in production quality. I must say that the special effects that were used were integrated so well that they looked completely natural and not out of place with the grainy look and feel of the production. So, I give a ‘two thumbs up’ on the special effects!
Based upon an obscure set of coordinates on the back of a photo, the two lead characters (wannabe sleuths of the fringe) find a piece of hardware that was left in the basement (which very much resembled an expansive underground government lab) of a seemingly dilapidated, and quickly sinking, shack in the middle of a swamp, and spend the movie trying to determine its function and who might have made it. Twists and tales from former engineers that they are able to find and their own tests would lead you to believe what they found was a rudimentary time machine. However, through their journey they stumble right into the middle of quite possibly the most powerful cult in history.
Toward the end of the movie the story line devolves into the world of causality, and the creation of a multiverse as a ramification of doinking around with history via time travel. From my understanding of how it all works, they seem to get most of it right, but some aspects that were critical to the storyline didn’t quite follow the latest theories and have to be excused for the sake of the film.
It will require the watcher to do a little thinking of your own to figure out some of the subtleties; no spoon-feeding allowed here, in which case it might not be for everyone. However, if you are looking for something off the beaten Hollywood path, I say give it a try.
A few days ago I attended the funeral of a friend and co-worker’s wife who was in her early forties like myself. Losing a repeated battle with breast cancer, she left behind two daughters and a son, all under ten. The church was filled almost to capacity with surely four hundred people in attendance, probably over a third were co-workers from NASA. All a testament to who she was and how far her circle reached. Everyone spoke of her convictions in her faith, her involvement with the community, her family, and her love of life; but it wasn’t quite enough.
This scenario has unfortunately been all too common to those in and around my life these days. Perhaps it is circumstance or just the season of my life, but over the last year and a half I lost count after twenty of my friends, spouses of friends and family members, and parents of friends have passed away. I try to attend to pay my respects to those who have passed on, but also to show support to those who are still living. Although I must admit that each and every one seems to get harder for me as the years pass. Instead of Life making me harder and more callous, I seem to have missed the lesson being taught and have gotten soft hearted. Instinctually I identify with the survivors, the children, the spouses and viscerally place myself in their shoes, feeling their loss, their pain, and the vacuum left behind. I cannot help but imagine how this all must seem and the confusion as to why their mother will not be coming home and the sadness they must feel. I cannot help but feel the all consuming sense of loss and emptiness of the spouse; not knowing how they will make it through tomorrow. This is not a place I want to be or voluntarily place myself, but I have to fight to stay away. And thus, to me, funerals suck!
Additionally, my personal convictions about my spiritual life add to the difficulty for me. For all intents and purposes, I would call myself and spiritual agnostic. Not a popular thing to say, but there you have it. So what does that have to do with any of this? Well, for me it means that in this life of mine, each day I have the opportunity to get out of bed and see the sun rise, and have my daughter give me a hug when she gets up and tell me she loves me, to have my son smile and tackle me as I sit on the floor, and to have the warm embrace of my wife every day. Each of these are a gift so valuable they cannot for a second be wasted. Each and every day is immeasurably special and cannot be retrieved or done over.
For me there is no guarantee of a life there after, no guarantee of something better waiting for me later down the road in the hereafter. This too makes each of my days more precious as they are my only opportunities to experience this wonderful experiment called Life. Each day is an opportunity to explore what it means to be this creature we call Human. Each day is a unique snapshot in time where we can fully wallow around in all of the gut-wrenching, heart-filling, awe-inspiring, blood-chilling, hell-depressing, life-affirming emotions that make our sole existence unique.
On a personal note, having a brush with death at the age of sixteen I had the eye-opening experience then which gave me the perspective that of this life, we only get to ride once. After that, your ride is over and your ticket expired. From that point on, I have tried to live life with no regrets, “what ifs” or “if onlys”. If I go to bed at night and I didn’t achieve something or make a difference, it’s only my fault, no one else’s. I take full responsibility for my actions, my mistakes, and my successes. So, if you ever wonder why I am always running at 110% or have chosen the path that I have, it is because for the last twenty five years I have been aware of how close death is to me. And I fully realize that one day I will no longer be able to stay ahead, at which point my ride in this life will be over. But until that day, I get to spend time with other souls that are trying to make their way through this maze of life.
At the funeral the priest related a story of a vacation trip that my friend and his wife had taken where they were on a hike to climb a mountain. My friend stopped about half way up to admire the view and to rest his feet, and mentioned the beautiful the panoramic view. His wife said, “Yeah, you’re right, it is beautiful. But think how beautiful it will be if we keep on going!” That was her attitude in life and one that I understand and share. Yeah, your life is good now, but think how much better it will be if you climb a little higher! Think about all of the wonderful sights you will see, experiences you will have, the wonderful people you will meet, and the invaluable relationships you will form. And at the end of the day, the material things are nice, but it’s the relationships in your life that are where the true gold in your life lies.
I challenge everyone who reads this to live each day like it might be your last. Consider your daily problems and irritations in a similar light to help put them in the right perspective. And I tell you something, through this view glass, you will be amazed at how it dramatically changes your daily priorities and life goals.
So to you I say: Love your family like there is no tomorrow. Hug them so tight it hurts. Unchain your mind of preconceptions and prejudices. Watch the sun rise. Run the extra mile. Feed the hungry. Care for the lonely. Go skydiving. Touch the soul of another. Swim with the dolphins. And for goodness sake, howl at the moon! Go ahead and climb on up to the top of the mountain – because I hear the view is astounding!
I have been asked, “Which authors do you enjoy reading and which ones have influenced you most?” Well, that is a tough question. I think that most people assume that I would naturally gravitate to science fiction authors, and I will mention a few that have captured my interest and help shape my views. However, I must express that I hope that I am like most people and have many authors of many different genre that all bring something very different to the table on a personal level. I feel that it is very important that people regularly make it a point to pick up a book of a theme or style that they might not pick up on first choice. By exposing ourselves to something different and getting out of our comfort zone, we allow new ideas and experiences in our life that might normally lie well outside. And for those that might be shy, or adverse to, major life changes (in reality) then exploring life, a very different life, via a book is a safe way to go about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes; if I may use the metaphor.
It is my opinion that without the variety of experiencing other lives, cultures, histories, viewpoints, etc. we limit ourselves, our perspectives and our potentials for this world. And those that know me well, know that I value my very diverse group of friends from all of the different phases of my life who are scattered across the globe, in most of the different religious and socioeconomic groups. I hold that important in my personal relationships as I do in what I expose myself to in terms of books, music, and of course movies. To make the point: while someone who likes to read Plato, who can recite Shakespeare and can provide all of the trivia associated with both are obviously impressive. However, the people who are equally comfortable and regular in reading sci-fi, auto-biographies, history, fictional history, thrillers, etc. I find to be much more impressive and personally inspiring to me. They are the ones who are willing to take the chance on something very different, open their minds to the new and unfamiliar – and sometimes uncomfortable – ideas. But I digress …
Each category of literature brings to the table its own unique quality that no other can, and that is what I find so rewarding to read and write in each. For example in general terms to name a few: History allows the victors to document what transpired (and I say that only half tongue-in-cheek), Fiction allows you to tell a story that might have happened or one that is almost too incredible (and comes in two flavors by the way) to happen to most of us. Romance: see fiction, but with more sweaty sheets and pillow talk; Western, reliving the west the way we wished it could have been; and Biographies, a spotlight on the life of one person. Thrillers/Horror allows us to talk about directly, or embody figuratively, what it is that is making us nervous as a society; Fantasy allows us to explore worlds that would exist if the laws of physics were merely suggestions. And where I stop tonight: Science Fiction – the place were we can let the imagination explore all the possible permutations of our future in terms of technology, biology, science and space, and even other worlds and cultures, but in general you still are bound to the possible. The great part is that within each one you are allowed near limitless freedom!
In all honesty as a pre-teen I started with the Hardy Boys mysteries and then ventured into the world of fantasy and sci-fi with Piers Anthony. Later I thoroughly enjoyed many of the works of Joel Rosenberg, his series of The Guardians of the Flame, and other fantasy authors. I can go into any of these later if anyone would like. Later, as a teenager and twenty-something, I began to focus on the classics (required reading often, but still enjoyable), science fiction, theology, religious texts of other cultures, advanced mathematics for the masses, and random works of fiction.
And in hind-sight, I should add a sub-group to the science fiction realm. You have the authors that are there to tell you a fantastic story and provide a little escapism, and them there are those that are the Steinbeck’s of sci-fi. They are there to yank you out of your comfort zone, throw this big, ugly socio problem in your face, but framed in an alternate reality, in a galaxy far, far way – far enough away so that we are comfortable enough to pick it up and to really allow ourselves to address it in part. Tonight I will focus on one of the first science fiction author that fell into the latter category and caught my attention and helped me step back and rethink parts of my everyday life. Others may disagree with me, and that is okay – that is their reality. I speak of Robert A. Heinlein.
History: I could not begin to do justice in capturing the life of this man. Some might say that he was a free spirit that was not bound by the traditional roles and constraints of his time. Others would say that he was a man that was lost most of his life not knowing where to set his anchor. Growing up in Missouri, spending his formative years as a young man in the military during the late twenties and early thirties, various stints at participating in state and local politics, associations with Isaac Asimov, silver mining, worked as an aeronautical engineer for the Navy during WWII, real estate sales – these were many of the endeavors he explored during his life, with a healthy dose of writing everything from Boy’s Life to controversial science fiction. Not surprising, during that very varied life, he wore out his welcome with two wives, but found his true mate in Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld, wife number three, whom stayed with him for his last forty years.
The first book of his I read of his was Stranger in a Strange Land. I won’t go to the effort of writing something that is equally well as you can find in Wikipedia:
“Protagonist Valentine Michael Smith is the son of astronauts of the first expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned after the crew died, Smith was raised in the culture of the Martian natives, who possess full control over their minds and bodies (learned skills which Smith acquires). A second expedition some twenty years later brings Smith to Earth. Because he is heir to the fortunes of the entire exploration party, which includes several valuable inventions (most particularly his mother’s Lyle Drive, which makes interplanetary travel economical), Smith becomes a political pawn in government struggles. Moreover, despite the existence of the Martians, under terrestrial law Mars was terra nullius, wherefore according to some interpretations of law, Smith could be considered to own the planet Mars itself.”
This is not a book report for this novel, but suffice it to say that I first read the unabridged version of the novel that his wife made available in 1991 after Heinlein’s death in 1988. Originally the work was required by the editors at Putnam to drastically cut its original 220,000-word length down to 160,067 words, but she later released the original as a tribute to what he would have wanted and to have the work been understood as it was initially intended. At the time, it was probably the longest novel I had ever read and found it a bit daunting in the beginning, but once I was pulled in by the first few chapters, there was not doubt that I would stay along for the ride.
While the book obviously has significant space and future technology elements, the focus of the story is more about analyzing many of the social and political norms at the time from the perspective of a human that had been raised by a completely different species, and through the various attempts to re-integrate him into his “rightful” culture and social families.
Naively, not realizing the statements that Heinlein had laid within the novel, it caught me a bit off guard when it was presented to me during the journey of the story. In short it was the first time that I had been required to re-evaluate much of my society and cultural values, and in hindsight probably was influential to later values and ideas that I still hold true.
P.S. I am a strong supporter of editors and English majors – they make me look good as is evident by the raw content found here.
I was monitoring one of the internal NASA social media channels this morning and was reading a thread dedicated to “Do NASA Employees Believe in Extraterrestrials?”. The premise of the question itself I thought was interesting and amusing, but some of the dialogue and discussion that followed I found quite thought provoking – the following two quotes in particular. And being that this is a page dedicated to science fiction, I thought it would be an appropriate forum to share with you.
“[There are] many planets but few the right size in stable orbits around stable stars at right temperature and mass. Earth is about 5B years old. Life appeared very early in that history but intelligence arrived only after 98% of the Earth’s stable lifetime, due to solar luminosity increase Earth may be uninhabitable in 100M yrs. So intelligence could easily have missed the boat and there probably must be along period for life to exist first. I suspect life exists elsewhere but intelligence may be pretty rare.”
“No matter what the Drake equation might indicate, there are really two and only two alternatives – either there is, or there isn’t. So far, there hasn’t been any evidence I count as substantial that would indicate that there is. The consequences of either option being proved would be profound. If there isn’t – then the future of intelligent life in the universe depends entirely on the actions and decisions of the people we see around us every day. That is the scariest alien story I’ve ever imagined. If we discover that there is, indeed intelligent life elsewhere on a different planet – IT DOESN’T CHANGE THE CONSEQUENCE. The future of intelligent life in the universe still depends on the actions and decisions of the people we see around us every day.”
Wow! On both counts.
The first point boils down to this: until we develop the technology to span the unfathomable cosmic distances, we will never be able to “make contact” with any other intelligent species – no matter if the universe is literally teaming with intelligent life or if there are just a couple of oases! The second point I find even more profound. In our universe, on the topic of life elsewhere, there are only two options: Life exists elsewhere, or it doesn’t. It’s that simple.
What this person (he happens to be an astronomer) goes on to say is that if you belief (for whatever reason) that Earth is the only foothold of Life – intelligent or otherwise, – then the future of Life in the universe is up to us. Wooh! That’s right. If we don’t take care of our business here and end up ruining the planet or don’t protect it from asteroid/comet impacts or we successfully mutually annihilate ourselves; that may be the end of the story for Life in the universe and that responsibility weighs on our shoulders.
The second part of the premise states that if you assume Life (intelligent) does exist elsewhere and were are able to make contact, visit, etc. either by our own means or they come to us, then it still depends on the actions of everyone around us today, or tomorrow, or the next day. To say it a different way, let’s say that ET came to visit us tomorrow, how would we act? Would kill them off out of fear or misunderstanding of their intentions? Would we accept them with open arms not knowing or understanding their intentions? Will we have prepared ourselves to know how to handle the situation or even be able to possibly defend ourselves if the case may arise? The answers to those questions are all predicated on what the people around you would do, or the decisions that they could/should make today.
Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot and examine it from the position that we are the ET visiting another planet where there is intelligent life. First what are we doing today to make that a reality tomorrow? Then assuming we can find them and get there, how would we handle first contact? How would we make sure that our intentions were not misunderstood? Again, all of these answers would all be made by the people around you and the ones we see on the media streams every day. That should set you back on your heels.
But regardless of which scenario comes to pass, the point I hope that I have made is this: How we handle and behave regardless of the scenario, the continuation of Life in the universe – regardless of your religious or scientific convictions – is up to us, through our collective decisions, today.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
— William Butler Yeats
I saw this quote this morning and it really spoke to the core of one of my strongest beliefs; education.
Because we as a modern society do treat it as a pail to be fill in preparation for some life that we are then ready and complete, we march along after school wondering when it is that we will arrive at this destination and begin what it is for which we were meant and prepared. This in turn for many leads to frustration, depression and disillusion later in life.
In reality, there is no destination; except in each and every moment. To sound cliche’, tomorrow is not promised to us and yesterday cannot be reclaimed. So that leaves today. Through education, we can see all things in today as they are, not what they are rumored to be, and experience it for all that today has to offer without the veils of blissful or subversive ignorance, beliefs that aren’t, but with the glory and majesty of what it is!
Some have asked me why I write or how I got started writing science fiction when it seems so far removed from the discipline of engineering and our widespread reputation of being horrible and uninteresting writers. While the latter still remains to be disproven in my case, I thought I would sit down tonight and see if I can figure it out for myself.
Do what you enjoy – I enjoy writing, I always have. I’ve had a longstanding belief that the “written word” was one of the mediums that allows us to best express ourselves in exactly the way we want to be presented to the degree of effort we want to invest in it. However, I am a full believer in keeping the editor’s guild in business, so I intentionally use bad grammar and punctuate horribly, just so that I can keep them in business.
You can use all the words you want to use, say it in the way you want to say it and can put it on paper so that you and others can go back to what you said exactly. Unless you are an incredibly gifted orator, not many of us leave an argument or a romantic situation without saying to ourselves, “Awe man, I should’ve said THAT!” or in my case, “Damn! I wish I hadn’t SAID that!”
In 2012 I went through a life re-evaluation and determined that over the course of my life I had accumulated a lot of stuff that I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t good for me. We all get busy doing the things that we “should do” and we end up not where we “thought we ought to be”.
So, my wife and I sat down and talked about all the ways we could decrease the “suck” in our lives and increase the “awesome”. And for me, spending every spare and stolen moment writing was a major step in the right direction, along with some financial re-planning, radically changing our eating habits and a re-alignment of my home-work life balance. And to date, the writing has been an outlet for my creative side that is not massively disruptive to the day-to-day activities of my family.
Bucket List – Whether it is the situation where I got to the point in my life that I was conceited enough to think that I could produce something that others would enjoy reading, or if it was the fact that several of my friends have become wonderful writers and thus inspired me to warm up the keyboard, who’s to know where between the two I fall. But, at the end of the day, there was an item on my Bucket List to write and publish some of my written works. So this past summer I confronted myself, “If not now, when? Life is not getting any slower or easier, so I might as well get started.” However, it will take time to finish, polish and make ready most of them, so they will be rolled out over time.
Maybe I Was Pre-Programmed – When I first started college, I had a remarkable English teacher who first challenged me to engage my creative writing side. Once, after reading a particularly challenging assignment that exposed all kinds of emotionally sensitive areas, Mrs. Jane Bouterse (http://old.texarkanacollege.edu/~mstorey/faculty/2005award.html) said, “Terry, you are a young man who has a lot to say, but you need to find your voice.” For many years I didn’t really know what she meant by that, but I always remembered the words as they struck me as strangely important at the time. Now, a few decades later, I finally understand what she meant. I guess the analogy that I can offer is this: it’s much like making wine; it takes wine time to reach something that can be considered drinkable. It has taken those years for my ideas to percolate, and for my life experiences to shape me into a person who might now have something to offer back.
Storytelling – It’s in the Blood – Telling stories is intrinsic to who we are as humans. The most primitive societies were formed and centered around food and storytelling. It’s how we communicated. All of our written historical information comes from storytelling; not documentation for the sake of documentation. All of our historical literature is in the form of stories to communicate the human condition, morals, ethics, the tragedies of catch-22 scenarios and to allow yourself to be completely immersed in an alternate reality with the luxury of pulling the virtual rip-cord when you’re ready to return to your every-day reality. It is who we are as a species. Even today, given the opportunity, we will sit and listen or watch or read a story someone is telling to us before we will opt to sit down and read the dictionary or How to Code C++ for Dummies. Granted, I do have some friends that do not quite conform to my theory, but I consider them victims of their educational degrees.
But Why Sci-Fi?
Now to the second question of why I choose science fiction, and in particular dystopian science fiction. Well, in short, it’s just who I am.
I know, I know. I owe you more than that.
As you know, I have spent the better part of two decades working in many different areas of the space industry—everything from advanced exploration design reference mission planning, to technology development, to support of existing space suits onboard the Shuttle and ISS. So, that is the obvious link to space. And of course, like most men, I have a love for Star Trek, Star Wars and the ilk.
However, the other part to writing science fiction is the ability to look into the future and create credible worlds, situations, threats and technological innovations. Arthur C. Clarke was one of the most notable in recent history who was able to do it with such logical extrapolation and clarity; it seemed as if he had his own desk-top wormhole into the future. You have to understand the technology—real or yet to be developed—that might be credible in the future and still obey the laws of the universe of which we live and as we now know them to be. The science fiction readers can be a tough crowd if you can’t connect the dots between the world of the future and what is possible in the time and the physics available.
Looking into the future and understanding trending of data is something that I have done all of my life. As a child I would always run all the possibilities, the conversations and how they would all likely play out—knowing the parties involved—to determine the course of action that would allow me to get away with the most. Then in college it took a fair amount of planning and speculation about the future and my ability to pass all of my classes to determine what I needed to do to get a job that paid a decent wage. Additionally in college, and then once I arrived at NASA, my job was deeply geared toward looking at raw data and developing the mathematics to understand where a vehicle was—for navigation purposes—and then integrating it into the future. I won’t go into the complexities with all of that, but suffice it to say, you start to build an intuition regarding the trending of data, data signatures and what will happen in the future, etc.
As my career developed, I decided that there were quicker and easier ways to kill myself other than writing the computer code for the aforementioned mathematics, so I delved into the world of project management. In hindsight, the tools that I had in my tool chest for developing navigation algorithms were particularly useful in assessing the different project metrics and extrapolating them into the future for the purposes of determining any possible risks to the project. Additionally, the mathematic principles learned regarding vehicle control theory mapped nicely to the implicit behavior of managing a project and a group of people. It worked so nicely, I published a first of its kind paper on the topic. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=5747643&tag=1
The last key ingredient, or life experience as the case may be, was becoming a parent. Those of you who are parents and/or project leads or managers, you will sit and nod your heads as you read the next part. To this day, I am not clear if being a parent made me a better project manager or vice versa. Largely, the skills required are the same for both. Basically in the new, more civilized world in which we live, it is no longer acceptable to chastise your employees or beat your children. So, the remaining stick in your toolbox is leadership through influence. The key parts are being able to communicate in a clear and concise manner as possible to gain buy-in. And the second part is to be able to identify the employee’s/child’s weaknesses—excuse me, growth opportunities—extrapolate into the future as to how they will develop and make corrective actions early as possible. All the while, you do these things in such a way they think it is their idea and are left wondering what exactly you do for a living.
So there you have it. Visualizing, imagination, looking into the future as a child to stay out of trouble, looking into the future as a project manager to stay out of trouble. And working with astronauts doesn’t hurt either…