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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Space Exploration' Category

Damp Squibs: Non-News in Space Exploration

Saturday, January 5th, 2013


Biologists interested in space exploration are consistently delegated to the back of the stellar tour bus, if we’re allowed on at all. We’re Luddites who harsh everyone else’s squee, you see. We keep pointing out that radiation is not kind to living tissue, whether gametes or neurons; that uploading to silicon chassis is not possible as an alternative to carbon bodies; that human babies cannot be hatched and reared by robots at planetfall; that living on extrasolar planets poses huge problems and dilemmas even if they’re quasi-compatible. And that since FTL and warp drive are and will always remain science fiction, we need to at least tackle, if not solve, some of these issues before we launch crewed starships for long exploratory or migratory journeys. This year, there were two non-news items in the domain that brought these matters once again to the fore.

The earlier of the two was the disclosure that “NASA scientists might achieve warp drive” based on Alcubierre’s theoretical concept (by using a Jovian weight’s worth of exotic matter as likely to exist as stable wormholes). Beyond its terminally wobbly foundation, the concept also doesn’t take into account that such folding of space would destroy nearby star systems (and almost certainly also the starship) via distortion of the local spacetime and/or massive amounts of radiation. It’s also unclear how the starship could be steered from within the “negative energy” or “tachyonic matter” bubble. This means that even if fast space travel were possible using this method, it would still take lifetimes to safely reach a planet within a system because local travel would by necessity be at sublight speed.

More recently came the non-news that radiation causes… brain malfunction, as if the term “free radicals” and “radiation damage” were not in the biomedical vocabulary since before I entered the discipline in the mid-seventies (let alone the in-your-face evidence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts or the Chernobyl meltdown). Radiation, especially the high-energy portion of the spectrum, breaks atomic bonds directly and indirectly by producing free radicals. Free radicals start chain reactions: lines of descendants, each of which can damage a biomolecule. Radiation causes mutations in the DNA, which is bad enough, but it can also result in other errors: protein misfolding, holes in cell membranes, neuron misfiring. And although cells have several repair mechanisms to counter these insults, they have evolved for the radiation burdens of earth.

All these effects at the molecular/cellular level converge into two large rivers: for dividing cells, cancer; for non-dividing cells (most prominently gametes and brain neurons), death. Kill enough cells, past the brain’s ability to rewire and reroute, and you get neurodegeneration: if the most affected region is the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s; if the cerebellum, ataxia; if the hippocampus and parts of the cortex, Alzheimer’s; if the frontal lobe, frontotemporal dementia; if the Schwann cells of the myelin sheath, multiple sclerosis. Incidentally, radiation also affects electronic devices – something to keep in mind for even short interstellar journeys.


On earth, we are subject to a good deal of radiation from natural causes (radon, solar flares) as well as human-made ones (industrial, occupational, medical, airport X-ray machines). Cosmic radiation constitutes about 5-10% of our total exposure. That will be very different in space, where bombardment by galactic cosmic rays will be both chronic and acute. And whereas cosmic radiation on earth is moderated by the solar wind, the earth’s magnetic field and the layers of atmosphere, none of these protections will be present on a starship. Shielding options are inadequate or, like warp drive, sheer fantasy – which makes this risk one of the major showstoppers to star travel. The best candidate is the most low-tech: water.

Scientific papers that discuss these outcomes, from both inside and outside NASA, have been around since at least the early nineties. So what exactly is new in this study that is making the customary rounds in various space enthusiast sites and blogs? In a word, nothing. In fact it’s a bits-and-pieces study that reaches miniscule, non-surprising conclusions. The adage “labored as if for an elephant and brought forth a mouse” is particularly apt here. As for the originality of its discoveries/conclusions, it’s like hitting someone’s head repeatedly against a cement wall and concluding that such blows eventually cause, um, skull fractures.

At the same time, the authors of the study decided to gild their tinfoil lilies. They used a double transgenic mouse strain engineered to develop amyloid plaques of the Alzheimer’s-associated variety. Despite this loading of the dice, they saw changes in plaque size and numbers and in amyloid processing only in the male irradiated mice. Even the small shifts they saw are far less important than laypeople think: for a while now, the consensus in the field is that plaques may be neutral warehouses. In particular, plaques seem to be a sidebar for sporadic Alzheimer’s which is 90-95% of the disease cases. Many people have heavy amyloid plaque loads with zero cognitive impairment. As is often the case with mice studies, they subjected them to overwhelming amounts of the perturbing parameter (in this case, iron nuclei) that nevertheless represents a simplified subset of what they’d encounter in a real journey. Finally, they saw neither inflammatory microglial activation nor changes in amyloid clearance. They did see changes in a couple of behavioral tests, although in most of them the error bars overlap, which means “not statistically significant”.

The obvious experiment that might give remotely useful results would be to do such studies with a mouse strain that is not merely wild-type but aggressively outbred. However, that would still be superfluous, even if we set aside the limited usefulness of mouse models for human brain function. We already know what would happen during long interstellar journeys, and more or less why. I propose that we use the time and funds spent on irradiating guaranteed-to-develop-disease mice to develop effective, and preferably low-key, shielding. Radical-clearing drugs are also an option, although the favorite defaults bristle with their own host of problems (teratogenicity for retinoids, tumorigenesis for mitochondrial boosting). Like most complex problems, there are no silver bullets to counteract the iron-nuclei ones of galactic radiation. It will have to be done the hard, slow way – or not at all.


Relevant papers:

H White (2012). Warp Field Mechanics 101.

JD Cherry, B Liu, JL Frost, CA Lemere, JP Williams, JA Olschowka, MK O’Banion (2012). Galactic Cosmic Radiation Leads to Cognitive Impairment and Increased A? Plaque Accumulation in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS One 7(12):e53275

Planetfall at the World SF blog

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

The World SF blog just republished my story Planetfall, which first appeared in Crossed Genres issue 13, December 2009.

Like many of works, Planetfall is mythic space opera and belongs to the larger universe I discussed in The Next Big Thing.

Image: Tanegír Sóran-Kerís, by Heather D. Oliver (click on the image to see a larger high-resolution version).

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.

Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

Monday, October 8th, 2012

A blog game called The Next Big Thing has been making the irounds. It involves answering questions about your work in progress or new piece that you’d like to become the next big thing, then tagging more writers to propagate the wave.  I rarely write about work in progress, but I got tagged by Ann Leckie, the editor of GigaNotoSaurus, so here we are.  For the next round, I name Laura Mixon, Christine Lucas, Alex Jablokov, Melissa Scott and C. W. Johnson.

The Stone Lyre main cast, clockwise from top left: Nifar of Drige (Veldir); Kevrad tegri Durath (Nireg); Ardenk tegri Durath (Nireg/Behtalka); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Linarme of Drige (Veldir)

1. What is the title of your book?

Except for occasional standalone pieces, my fiction takes place in a large universe that starts in Minoan Crete and goes into the far future when humans inhabit distant earthlike planets (my stories Planetfall also takes place in it).  Within this context, I currently have two works in progress.  The first is a novelette, The Stone Lyre, that has a completed sister story, The Wind Harp [ETA: the latter has since been published in Crossed Genres].  The second is a novel that is the beginning of this universe, titled Shard Songs.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sea with many tributary rivers.  Myths feed into it, and my people’s history; my love of languages and songs; the desire to envision women-equal or women-dominant societies that are not reverse-oppressive; the concepts of genetic engineering that allows non-destructive human adaptation to earth-like extrasolar planets and of stable wormholes that enable fast interstellar via neuronal interaction with the ships.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a hybrid of epic myth, kinship saga, alternative history and space opera.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have a very strong sense of my characters: what they look and sound like, what they feel and think beyond just the plot matters at hand.  So I envision not specific actors, but specific age-frozen characters played by actors.  Shard Songs has too many dramatis personae to show because it extends from the deep past to the far future (with jumps – it will be neither a doorstopper nor a first of endless sequels).  The main casts of The Stone Lyre and The Wind Harp are shown above and below.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

The Stone Lyre is a reversed-gender Orpheus story fused with the distortions caused by interstellar colonization.  Shard Songs tells of the decipherment of Linear A (the Minoan script, later used to write Mycaenean Greek), of past and future women rulers and their consorts (polyandry is fairly common), of lost homelands, and of rifts and time loops created by stable wormholes.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Given the content and style of these works, their chances of becoming agented are close to nil.  Editors of semi-pro magazines, themed anthologies and small presses have expressed provisional interest in all three.  If none of these pan out, I may publish the two novelettes as a singlet on my own or bide my time until I have enough linked stories to approach a small press.  The appearance specifics of Shard Songs will depend on several parameters.  One of them is the trajectory of The Other Half of the Sky, the upcoming feminist mythic space opera anthology that I conjured into existence.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I essentially write my fiction like a palimpsest: a continuous single draft with multiple passes.  When I sit down to write a story, I know the beginning and the end and I tend to write that kernel in a single burst.  What is usually hazier is the middle.  I write the scenes that are clear, then let the back of my mind meander and weave.  As soon as another scene becomes clear, I write it down, polishing as I go.  I wrote The Wind Harp in two bursts of about three weeks each.  The same is happening with The Stone Lyre.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

That’s a hard question to answer, since they don’t really belong to a specific genre.  Within SF, their closest kin are probably Cherryh’s Union/Alliance cycle and Jablokov’s twinned novels – Carve the Sky and River of Dust.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have no idea, unless it was my chronic insomnia.  The various segments sprang into my mind almost fully formed as far as the scaffolding went.  I continue to elaborate the plots, characters and cultures, of course – but I have lived in this universe so long that its foundations are lost in the mists of time (*laughs*).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, nothing like the thing itself.  Here’s a passage from The Wind Harp.  The narrator is Antóa Tásri, a young diplomat on a mission that may save hundreds of lives – and perhaps persuade a very difficult culture into an alliance:

Just then, I heard a low hum behind me.  Through the barrier came the Tel-Kir who had harassed the Sedói.  A whiff of barely suppressed triumph hovered around him.  He went to the dais, touched the edge of Teg-Rav’s over-robe.  A discharge ran through his fingers and the musk in the room got overlaid with the acrid scent of burnt flesh.  When he withdrew his hand, I saw spots of blood glisten on the garment.  The dull throb behind my eyes sharpened to a fiery spike.  I felt such spikes whenever I faced a Tohduat who could not – or would not – control his Talent.

“Please greet our guest,” Teg-Rav told him.  He stood stock-still, looking down at me from his great height.  “Properly this time, Tan-Rys.”  The scent in the room turned slightly bitter and his yellow eyes flickered like brush fires.  He ostentatiously went on one knee, touched my ankle.  Unlike her, he was easy prey, I sensed him think.  We’ll demand his ship’s weight in water.

“Do you wish to best your adversaries?” I challenged him as he snapped upright.

“With your puny help?” he jeered.  I inhaled and spoke as fast as I could, switching to the tonals forbidden to all but the Dor-Nys.

“I brought a drug that can put some of your people into temporary suspended animation.  This will let you repair the reservoir ducts without a Whittling.”  I kept addressing her but pinned my gaze on him.  “Do you want to protect your people as you have vowed to do?  Or do you seriously think that capturing the Melhuat’s low-Talented brother will be your salvation?”

“I should have pulverized you when I had the chance!” he growled.  I dove for the floor.  A needle from his arm darter flew through where I had just stood and buried itself in the wall.

The Wind Harp main cast, clockwise from top left: Antóa Tásri (Ténli); Teg-Rav, Dor-Nys of Kem-Fir tower (Gan-Tem); Tan-Rys, senior Tel-Kir of Kem-Fir tower (Gan-tem); Ferái Kámi-o (Ténli); Serkadren, Melhuat of Behtalka (Behtalka); Talsekrit, Tohduat third rank (Behtalka)

Galley Cover for The Other Half of the Sky

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Few people see galleys and galley covers, the crucial but invisible scaffoldings upon which a book is erected. Yet as much thought and care goes into their preparation as into that of the final book, because they’re its early scouts into the world.

The cover of The Other Half of the Sky is unfurling, and it will be a nova. Until that ignites here’s the galley cover, designed by our publisher, Kate Sullivan of Candlemark and Gleam (click on the image for a larger hi-res view):

When I released the anthology TOC, I included teasers for each story but not for my introduction. Here is its opening:

Athena Andreadis, Dreaming the Dark

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” – Monique Wittig, Les Guerillères

Being a voracious bookworm, I came to science fiction very young. My first well-remembered book was the unexpurgated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. By cultural background and temperament, I didn’t like the Leaden … er, Golden SF Era. I preferred the Silver Age and the New Wave, with their explicit charters to push boundaries and write worlds and characters with more depth and flavor than cardboard. And since my mythology and history haunt my dreams and steps, it’s also not surprising that one SF mode I like is space opera.

Most people conflate opera with Wagner. Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And herein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination.

Postscript: the authors participating in the anthology have their own takes on it. Two particularly entertaining views are those of Alex Jablokov and Sue Lange.

The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 2

Monday, September 17th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Part 1

To give some examples of what I feel is missing and limited in representation in Psychology of Space Exploration, there is but a brief mention of what author Frank White has labeled the “Overview Effect”. As the book states, this is the result of “truly transformative experiences [from flying in space] including sense of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence, and universal brotherhood.”

Clearly this is a very positive reaction to being in space, one which could have quite helpful benefits for those who are exploring the Universe. The Overview Effect might also have an ironic down side, one where a working astronaut might become so caught up in the “wonder and awe” of the surrounding Cosmos away from Earth that he or she could miss a critical mission operation or even forget what they were originally meant to do. Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter may have been one of the earliest “victims” of the Overview Effect during his Aurora 7 mission in 1962. Apparently his very human reaction to being immersed in the Final Frontier in part caused Carpenter to miss some key objectives during his mission in Earth orbit and even overshoot his landing zone by some 250 miles. Carpenter never flew in space again, despite being one of the top astronauts among the Mercury Seven. It would seem that in those early days of the Space Race, having the Right Stuff did not include getting caught up with the view outside one’s spacecraft window, at least so overtly.

Image: Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA

Another item largely missing from Psychology of Space Exploration is the effects on space personnel after they come home from a mission. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong became the first two humans to walk on the surface of the Moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, is one of the earliest examples of publicly displaying the truly human side of being an astronaut.

Although not revealed publicly until 2001 by former NASA flight official Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., in his autobiography Flight: My Life in Mission Control, the real reason Aldrin was not selected to be the first one to step out of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle onto the Moon was due to the space agency’s personal preference for Armstrong, who Kraft called “reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic.” Aldrin, on the other hand, “was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first [to walk on the Moon].”

Even though Aldrin was a fighter pilot during the Korean War, earned a doctorate in astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and played an important role in solving the EVA issues that had plagued most of the Gemini missions and was critical to the success of Apollo and beyond, his lack of following the unspoken code of the Right Stuff kept him from making that historic achievement.

Aldrin would later throw the accepted version of the Right Stuff for astronauts right out the proverbial window when he penned a very candid book titled Return to Earth (Random House, 1973). The first of two autobiographies, the book revealed personal details as had no space explorer before and few since, including the severe depression and alcoholism Aldrin went through after the Apollo 11 mission and his departure from NASA altogether several years later, never to reach the literal heights he accomplished in 1969 or even to fly in space again. Although Aldrin would later recover and become a major advocate of space exploration, he is not even given a mention in Psychology of Space Exploration. In light of what later happened with Nowak and several other astronauts in their post-career lives, I think this is a serious omission from a book that is all about the mental states of space explorers.

The other glaring omission from this work is any discussion of the human reproductive process in space. NASA has been especially squeamish about this particular behavior in the Final Frontier. There is no official report from any space agency with a manned program on the various aspects of reproduction among any of its space explorers, only some rumors and anecdotes of questionable authenticity.

As with so much else regarding the early days of the Space Age, that may not have been an issue with the relatively few (primarily male) astronauts and cosmonauts confined to cramped spacecraft for a matter of days and weeks, but this will certainly change once we have truly long duration missions, space tourism, and non-professionals living permanently off Earth. As with daily life on this planet, there will be situations and issues long before and after the one aspect of human reproduction that is so often focused upon. Unfortunately, outside of some experiments with lower animals, real data on this activity vital to a permanent human presence in the Sol system and beyond is absent.

I recognize that Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a historical perspective on human behavior and interaction in space. As there have been no human births yet in either microgravity conditions or on another world and the other behaviors associated with reproduction are publicly unknown, this work cannot really be faulted for lacking any serious information on the subject. What this does display, however, is how far behind NASA and all other space agencies are in an area which will likely be the determining factor in whether humans expand into the Cosmos or remain confined to Earth.

So Far Along, So Far to Go

What the Psychology of Space Exploration ultimately demonstrates is that despite real and important improvements in how astronauts deal with being in space and the way NASA views and treats them since the days of Project Mercury, we are not fully ready for a manned scientific expedition to Mars, let alone colonizing other worlds.

Staying in low Earth orbit for six months at a stint aboard the ISS as a standard space mission these days gives an incomplete picture of what those who will be spending several years traveling to and from the Red Planet across many millions of miles of space will have to endure and experience. If an emergency arises that requires more than what the mission crew can handle, Earth will likely be a distant blue star for them rather than the friendly globe occupying most of their view which all but the Apollo astronauts have experienced since 1961.

Image: Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule. Although she never flew in space, Cobb, along with twenty-four other women, underwent physical tests similar to those taken by the Mercury astronauts with the belief that she might become an astronaut trainee. All the women who participated in the program, known as First Lady Astronaut Trainees, were skilled pilots. Dr. Randy Lovelace, a NASA scientist who had conducted the official Mercury program physicals, administered the tests at his private clinic without official NASA sanction. Cobb passed all the training exercises, ranking in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates of both genders. Credit: NASA.

Regarding this view of the shrinking Earth from deep space, the multiple authors of Chapter 4 noted that ISS astronauts took 84.5 percent of the photographs during the mission inspired by their motivation and choices. Most of these images were of our planet moving over 200 miles below their feet. The authors noted how much of an emotional uplift it was for the astronauts to image Earth in their own time and in their own way.

The chapter authors also had this to say about what an expedition to Mars might encounter:

As we begin to plan for interplanetary missions, it is important to consider what types of activities could be substituted. Perhaps the crewmembers best suited to a Mars transit are those individuals who can get a boost to psychological well-being from scientific observations and astronomical imaging. Replacements for the challenge of mastering 800-millimeter photography could also be identified. As humans head beyond low-Earth orbit, crewmembers looking at Earth will only see a pale-blue dot, and then, someday in the far future, they will be too far away to view Earth at all.

Now of course we could prepare and send a crewed spaceship to Mars and back with a fair guarantee of success, both in terms of collecting scientific information on that planet and in the survival of the human explorers, starting today if we so chose to follow that path. The issue, though, is whether we would have a mission of high or low quality (or outright disaster) and if the results of that initial effort of human extension to an alien world would translate into our species moving beyond Earth indefinitely to make the rest of the Cosmos a true home.

The data recorded throughout Psychology of Space Exploration clearly indicate that despite over five decades of direct human expeditions by many hundreds of people, we need much more than just six months to one year at most in a collection of confined spaces repeatedly circling Earth. This will affect not only our journeys and colonization efforts throughout the Sol system but certainly should we go with the concept of a Worldship and its multigenerational crew as a means for our descendants to voyage to other suns and their planets.

This book is an excellent reflection of NASA in its current state and human space exploration in general. As with the agency’s manned space program since the days when the Mercury Seven were first introduced to the world in 1959, we have indeed come a long way in terms of direct space experience, mission durations, gender and ethnic diversity, and understanding and admitting the physiological needs of those men and women who are brave and capable enough to deliberately venture into a realm they and their ancestors did not evolve in and which could destroy them in mere seconds.

Having said all this, what I hope is apparent is that we now need a new book – perhaps one written outside the confines of NASA – which will address in rigorous detail the missing issues I have brought to light in this piece. This request and the subsequent next steps in our species’ expansion into space – which will also eventually take place beyond the organizational borders of NASA – cannot but help to improve our chances of becoming a truly enduring and universal society in a Cosmos where certainty and safety are eventually not guaranteed to beings who remain confined physically and mentally to but one world.

The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 1

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Early on the morning of February 5, 2007, several officers from the Orlando Police Department in Florida were summoned to the Orlando International Airport, where they arrested a female suspect. This woman was alleged to have attacked another woman she had been stalking while the latter sat in her car in the airport parking lot. Judging by the various items later found in the vehicle the suspect had used as transportation to the Sunshine State all the way from her home in Houston, Texas, her ultimate intent was to kidnap and possibly conduct even worse actions upon her victim.

While such a criminal incident is sadly not uncommon in modern society, what surprised and even shocked the public upon learning what happened was the occupation of the perpetrator: She was a veteran NASA astronaut, a flight engineer named Lisa Nowak who had flown on the Space Shuttle Discovery in July of 2006. As a member of the STS-121 mission, Nowak spent almost two weeks in Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS), performing among other duties the operation of the winged spacecraft’s robotic arm.

It seems that the woman who Nowak went after, a U.S. Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman, was in a relationship with a male astronaut named William Oefelein. Nowak had also been romantically involved with Oefelein earlier, but he had gradually broken off their relationship and started a new one with Shipman. Oefelein would later state that he thought Nowak seemed fine about his ending their affair and moving on to another woman. However, by then it was painfully and very publicly obvious that Oefelein had not thoroughly consulted enough with his former companion on this matter.

NASA would eventually dismiss Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut corps, the first American space explorers ever formally forced to leave the agency. NASA also created an official Code of Conduct for their employees in the wake of this publicity nightmare.

Now I have no documented proof of this, but I strongly suspect that the Nowak incident played a large but officially unacknowledged role in the creation of the recent offering by the NASA History Program Office book titled Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA SP-2011-4411), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, as well as the director of Interstellar Message Composition at The SETI Institute.

Quoting from a NASA press release (11-223), which appeared about the same time as the book:

Psychology of Space Exploration is a collection of essays from leading space psychologists. They place their recent research in historical context by looking at changes in space missions and psychosocial science over the past 50 years. What makes up the “right stuff” for astronauts has changed as the early space race gave way to international cooperation.

The book itself is available online in several formats.

From the Right Stuff to All Kinds of Stuff

It may seem obvious to say that astronauts are as human as the rest of us, but in fact our culture has long viewed those who boldly go into the Final Frontier atop a controlled series of explosions otherwise known as a rocket in a much different and higher regard than most mere mortals. Even before the first person donned a silvery spacesuit and stepped inside a cramped and conical Mercury spacecraft mated to a former ICBM for a brief arcing flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, NASA’s first group of human space explorers – known collectively as the Mercury Seven – were being presented from their very first press briefing in 1959 as virtual demigods who had the right skills and mental attitude to brave the unknown perils of the Universe.

Image: The Mercury Seven stand in front of a F-106 Delta Dart. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mercury Seven astronauts were not just men: They were an elite breed of space warriors ready to conquer the Cosmos who also represented the best that the United States of America had to offer when it came to their citizens, their technology, and their science. The nation’s first space explorers may have been ultimately human and limited in various ways, even flawed, but the agency’s goal was to keep any issues in check through their missions at the least and preferably during their full tenure with NASA.

By the time of Nowak’s incident, astronauts may not have been the demigods of the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but they were still looked upon as highly capable people who ventured to places few others have gone and who did not give into human passions beyond a few moments of wonder at the Universe, realistic or not. This is why Nowak and Oefelein’s behaviors were so shocking to the public even four decades after the first generations of space explorers.

There are two reasons why I brought up the dramatic events of 2007 with Lisa Nowak: The first is my aforementioned hypothesis that what took place between the former astronaut and her perceived romantic rival led to NASA feeling the need to examine their policies regarding the human beings they send into space and formally documenting the resulting studies.

The second reason is that Psychology of Space Exploration needed more of these personal stories about the astronauts and cosmonauts. Now certainly there were some of these throughout the book: The Introduction to Chapter 1 relays a tale about a test pilot who was applying to be an astronaut who told an evaluating psychiatrist about the time the experimental aircraft he was flying started spinning out of control. The pilot responded to this emergency by calmly leafing through the vehicle’s operating manual to solve the immediate problem, which he obviously did.

Nevertheless, more of these kinds of stories would have not only made the book a bit less dry as it was in places, but they would have added immeasurably to the information content of this work.

As just one example, in Chapter 2 on page 26, the author mentions (from another source) that the Soviet space missions “Soyuz 21 (1976), Soyuz T-14 (1985), and Soyuz TM-2 (1987) were shortened because of mood, performance, and interpersonal issues. Brian Harvey wrote that psychological factors contributed to the early evacuation of a Salyut 7 [space station] crew.”

The problem here is that the book then moves on without going into any details about exactly what happened to curtail these missions. Knowing what took place would certainly be useful in making sure that future space ventures, especially the really long duration ones that will be of necessity as we move past our Moon, could be the difference between a secure and functioning crew and a disaster.

Incidentally, the author noted that the Soviets, who were usually reticent about giving out many technical details or goals on most space missions manned and robotic, were more open when it came to the experiences of their cosmonauts and showed more interest in their physiological situations in confined microgravity situations than NASA often did with their astronauts.

The Soviet space program also had a longer period of actual experience with humans living aboard space stations starting in 1971 with Salyut 1 (or Soyuz 9 in 1970 if you want to count that early space endurance record-holding jaunt) which NASA did not share between their three Skylab missions in 1973-1974 until their joint involvement with the Soviet Mir station in the 1990s. Having the details from that era would be of obvious benefit and interest.

Image: The MIR station hovering over Earth. It deorbited in March 21, 2001.The station was serviced by the Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and U.S. space shuttles, and was visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 12 different nations. It endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. Credit: NASA.

Granted, as with a collection of research papers such as this, there are plenty of references. Finding the stories this way is not a problem if you are doing your own research and using Psychology of Space Exploration as a reference source, but for the more casual reader it could be a bit of a disappointment when these items are not readily available.

While I think most people who want to learn more about how our space explorers are affected by and respond to and during their missions into the Final Frontier will find something of interest and value throughout this book, Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a reference work that goes into levels of certain details as befitting literature of its type while missing a number of others which I think are just as important for a comprehensive view of human expansion into space, both in the past, the present, and most vitally the future.

The ultimate goal of putting people into space is eventually to create a permanent presence of our species beyond Earth. That is the grand aim even if their initial underlying purposes were more geared towards engineering and geopolitical goals. This is similar to the history of the early navigators who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the New World, for they too had other plans initially in mind, although the ultimate result was the founding of the many nations that exist in the Western Hemisphere today.

Part 2

The Other Half of the Sky: Table of Contents

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony. At the end of this post is a widget designed with great care and flair by Kate Sullivan, our publisher, that displays the excerpts as a beautiful mini-book.

I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves. [ETA: so does the cover, which eloquently embodies the anthology’s contents.]

The Other Half of the Sky

Athena Andreadis, Introduction: Dreaming the Dark

Melissa Scott, Finders
Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel
Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere
Sue Lange, Mission of Greed
Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa
Joan Slonczewski, Landfall
Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima
Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars
Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought
Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask
Martha Wells, Mimesis
Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost
C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted
Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask
Christine Lucas, Ouroboros
Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Let the storytelling begin:

Melissa Scott, Finders

A thousand years ago the cities fell, fire and debris blasting out the Burntover Plain.  Most of the field was played out now, the handful of towns that had sprung up along the less damaged southern edge grown into three thriving and even elegant cities, dependent on trade for their technology now rather than salvage.  Cassilde Sam had been born on the eastern fringe of the easternmost city, in Glasstown below the Empty Bridge, and even after two decades of hunting better salvage in the skies beyond this and a dozen other worlds, the Burntover still drew her.

Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel

Dunya stopped just outside Phineus’s unit to calm herself down. Otherwise she would burst in and start screaming at him. That was no way to start a check-in meeting with one of her refugees.

That gave her a chance to realize that she looked like hell. She’d already had one fight that morning, with her daughter Bodil, and afterwards she had rushed out, unsnapped and unbrushed. It was hard enough to manage someone like Phineus, all Martian and precise, without giving him more ammunition about how lax things were here, among the asteroids.

Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere

Trill walked home through the Rainshadow Mountains with Adia, her former mentor.  Not alone.

The sky had been high all day.  Now, with evening, it came low, wetting them and their surroundings with mist.  Silver beaded the fuzz beneath their feet.

Adia was tough, though an elder.  She walked steadily, without complaint.  She ought to have been tired even before they started; she and Trill had spent the week teaching a cohort of tens-to-thirteens how to weave buildings.

Sue Lange, Mission of Greed

In the third week after gagarin123 landed on an unnamed planet sweeping through a solar system claimed by ValeroCorp, First Mechanic Bertie Lai’s chance for fame slowly swirled down the shitter.

And just yesterday things had been moving along swimmingly. René Genie, the mission biologist, had not yet found sentient life; the geologist, Aadil Alzeshi, had discovered beautiful 1.4.  Specifically, he’d hit some pitchblende with enough uranium in it for ValeroCorp to recoup the cost of this mission.

Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa

There are breezes, like the ocean breeze, which can set your pulse racing, dear kin, and your spirit seems to fly ahead of you as your little boat rides each swell.  But this breeze!  This breeze wafts through you and me, through planets and suns, like we are nothing.  How to catch it, know it, befriend it?  This sea, the Antarsa, is like no other sea.  It washes the whole universe, as far as we can tell, and the ordinary matter such as we are made of is transparent to it.  So how is it that I can ride the Antarsa current, as I am doing now, steering my little spacecraft so far from Dhara and its moon?

Joan Slonczewski, Landfall

Most college sophomores spent their summer running toyworlds while catching sun at air-conditioned disappearing beaches.  Jenny Ramos Kennedy spent hers at the Havana Institute for Revolutionary Botany, which students called the Botánica. At the Botánica, Jenny worked with ultraphytes, Earth’s cyanide-emitting extraterrestrial invaders. Could she discover how to engineer ultraphyte chromosomes–to control them genetically, before they poisoned the planet?

Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima

When Dine Paloan asked this woman, Alakie, to leave before destruction arrived, she refused at first.  She had trained to be Paloan’s pilot, but this Alakie had never thought she would be leaving without Dine.  So instead of accepting the Dinela’s wishes, this Alakie helped to send Paloan’s other tokens back to Cassin, and she stayed.

Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars

The derelict ship ward was in an isolated section of Outsider space, one of the numerous spots left blank on interstellar maps, no more or no less tantalising than its neighbouring quadrants.  To most people, it would be just that: a boring part of a long journey to be avoided–skipped over by Mind-ships as they cut through deep space, passed around at low speeds by Outsider ships while their passengers slept in their hibernation cradles.

Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought

Cat’s Cradle turns into Painted Handkerchief turns into Dish of Noodles turns into Manger turns into Fishing Net.  These are but the first of the Two Hundred Variations developed by bored human children on the Long Journey.

I was once one of them.

Young Ket hums as zie holds up zir hands, the string wound tight around the fingers. Zie glances at me and I wave back. Zie has the same long graceful neck and bulbous body as zir parent, Tunloji. Watching zem is like watching a younger version of my lover.

Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask

Mar-teri broke her confinement to burn alsar for her dead sisters.  Under thin moonlight she stepped out of the unmarried adults’ caravan for the first time in two months–stones crunching under her feet, chives brushing against her bare ankles–carrying the bunch of alsar she was supposed to burn in her caravan. As if honouring them from afar could be enough.

The opening lines of Falna’s song slipped into Mar-teri’s head. Such a fierce song, when the woman wearing Falna’s mask channelled generations of anger–how Mar-teri had longed to wear that mask!

Martha Wells, Mimesis

Jade spotted Sand as he circled down from the forest canopy, a grasseater clutched in his talons.  She said, “Finally.”  It would be nice to eat before dark, so they could clear the offal away from the camp without attracting the night scavengers.

It was Balm who said, “I don’t see Fair.”

Jade frowned, scanning the canopy again.  They were standing in the deep grass of the platform they had chosen to camp on, and it was late afternoon in the suspended forest and getting difficult to hunt by sight.

Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost

I hate planets.  Filthy, heavy, smelly, and this one was leaking.

“It’s rain,” Rida said.  “It’s not a leak, it’s part of their exchange.”

“It’s snow.”  Tai lurked just up corridor, close enough that I could hear him both hard and via the uplink.  “Rain is the wet one.”

“This is wet,” Rida objected.

“Can we focus?” I demanded.  “Rida?”

Braced on the rim of the rock pool by the bistro hatch, Rida flashed me a capture of his desk screen, with the vid of our target unshifted.  “She’s still talking, boss.”

C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted

The Door wasn’t so much heavy as reluctant to move, as if they were carrying it, one at each end, through molasses.  “Why is it like this?” Saiyul asked as she leaned into the resistant thing.

Ashil shrugged the best he could with his hands full. “How should I know?”

A bead of perspiration slid down Saiyul’s face, right into the scar on her cheek. It had healed, mostly, but it itched where her oxygen mask rubbed against it.

Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask

If you had asked Eduw if he loved Grania, he would have been indignant. Naturally he did. He loved all his targets.

Not at first, of course. He was put off. That scar that marred her face, it hurt to look at. It wasn’t an uncommon condition, despite what the meddies said. Some people rejected plas-flesh. It didn’t take, didn’t renew lost skin, didn’t rebuild damaged features. For some it even seemed to make things worse.

Christine Lucas, Ouroboros

The dead philosopher came out of his cavern only when both the moons of Mars were below the horizon.  Or so the legend claimed.

Under a clear sky over the Martian wilderness, Kallie focused her hearing and sought the faintest sound that might confirm his existence.  Nothing. The nanobots lining her auditory nerves redoubled their efforts. Still nothing. Yet. She turned her attention towards the base at northeast, under the shadow of Olympus Mons. No alarms, no sirens, no one on her trail. They hadn’t noticed her absence. Yet. But they would, and they’d unleash the Enforcer.

Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Matt Sunderland gazed at the Earth, which was just edging out from behind the Moon. From the L2 platform, Luna, of course, dominated the sky, a vast gray globe half in sunlight, half in shadow, six times larger than it would have appeared from his Long Island home. Usually, it completely blocked the gauzy blue and white Earth. On the bulkhead to his left, the Mars or Bust flag still hung, its corners fastened by magnets.

Mars or Bust.

Image: Girl under the Milky Way, by Babak A. Tafreshi

The Launch of the First Stage Approaches

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

As many of you know, I decided to conjure an anthology of original stories that are (broadly interpreted) mythic space opera with women protagonists. I will be releasing the TOC of The Other Half of the Sky in the next few days.

In the meantime, Charles Tan interviewed me for the World SF blog specifically about the anthology. This interview is a bookend to an earlier one I gave to SF Signal. The two give a lot of insight into what I wanted to achieve with this venture:

The World SF interview

The SF Signal interview

Keep eyes on telescopes for the next stage of the launch!

Image: Eleni Tsami, A Fisherman of Ares Vallis

The Charlatan-Haunted World

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA.  Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13:

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.

The Other Half of the Sky

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I made three appearances in this year’s Readercon: I gave a talk about transhumanism, I was part of a panel that discussed time travel and — last but very decidedly not least — we officially unveiled the SF anthology I am editing. We now have a publisher, as enthusiastic about the project as we are: Candlemark and Gleam, headed by Kate Sullivan. Kay Holt of Crossed Genres, my co-editor in this venture, put together a neat flyer for which she did artwork that reminds me of black-figure Attic vases.

The anthology will bear the title The Other Half of the Sky. Here’s what I said in my outline:

“Women may hold up more than half the sky on earth, but it has been different in heaven: Science fiction still is very much a preserve of male protagonists, mostly performing by-the-numbers quests.

The Other Half of the Sky offers readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: Starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…

As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.” Everything.

The panel flowed like a sea swell. Four of the authors invited to participate in the anthology (Sue Lange, Ken Liu, Vandana Singh and Joan Slonczewski) discussed it along with Kay and me. Alex Jablokov, another of the invited authors, was also there to lend moral support. We discussed why we embarked on the venture, why we think it covers less-trodden ground and how each author conceived their story within the framework I constructed.

Each participant brought up unique and interesting items pertinent to the larger concerns of the anthology. Among them: interactions with aliens that play out differently from the standard “colonize/annihilate” mode; the reciprocal influence of language and perceptions; the fact that you can have space opera with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones; the complex requirements for space travel and their intersection with our needs on this planet.

The audience was eager to know when the anthology will appear (spring 2013, barring unexpected obstacles) and asked if we plan a series! So we seem to have struck a chord — maybe even a new melody on the old instrument. I want to thank everyone who helped create this intricate tapestry of a discussion.

Image: art for the anthology flyer for Readercon by Kay Holt.

“Arsenic” Life or: There Is TOO a Dragon in My Garage!

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism — title of the paper by Erb et al, Science, July 2012

Everyone will recall the hype and theatrical gyrations which accompanied NASA’s announcement in December 2010 that scientists funded by NASA astrobiology grants had “discovered alien life” – later modified to “alternative terrestrial biochemistry” which somehow seemed tailor-made to prove the hypothesis of honorary co-author Paul Davies about life originating from a “shadow biosphere”.

As I discussed in The Agency that Cried “Awesome!, the major problem was not the claim per se but the manner in which it was presented by Science and NASA and the behavior of its originators. It was an astonishing case of serial failure at every single level of the process: the primary researcher, the senior supervisor, the reviewers, the journal, the agency. The putative and since disproved FTL neutrinos stand as an interesting contrast: in that case, the OPERA team announced it to the community as a puzzle, and asked everyone who was willing and able to pick their results apart and find whatever error might be lurking in their methods of observation or analysis.

Those of us who are familiar with bacteria and molecular/cellular biology techniques knew instantly upon reading the original “arsenic life” paper that it was so shoddy that it should never have been published, let alone in a top-ranking journal like Science: controls were lacking or sloppy, experiments crucial for buttressing the paper’s conclusions were missing, while other results contradicted the conclusions stated by the authors. It was plain that what the group had discovered and cultivated were extremophilic bacteria that were able to tolerate high arsenic concentrations but still needed phosphorus to grow and divide.

The paper’s authors declined to respond to any but “peer-reviewed” rebuttals. A first round of eight such rebuttals, covering the multiple deficiencies of the work, accompanied its appearance in the print version of Science (a very unusual step for a journal). Still not good enough for the original group: now only replication of the entire work would do. Of course, nobody wants to spend time and precious funds replicating what they consider worthless. Nevertheless, two groups finally got exasperated enough to do exactly that, except they also performed the crucial experiments missing in the original paper: for example, spectrometry to discover if arsenic is covalently bound to any of the bacterium’s biomolecules and rigorous quantification of the amount of phosphorus present in the feeding media. The salient results from both studies, briefly:

— The bacteria do not grow if phosphorus is rigorously excluded;
— There is no covalently bound arsenic in their DNA;
— There is a tiny amount of arsenic in their sugars, but this happens abiotically.

The totality of the results suggests that GFAJ-1 bacteria have found a way to sequester toxic arsenic (already indicated by their appearance) and to preferentially ingest and utilize the scant available phosphorus. I suspect that future work on them will show that they have specialized repair enzymes and ion pumps. This makes the strain as interesting as other exotic extremophiles – no less, but certainly no more.

What has been the response of the people directly involved? Here’s a sample:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, first author of the “arsenic-life” paper: “There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data.”

Ronald Oremland, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s supervisor for the GFAJ-1 work: “… at this point I would say it [the door of “arsenic based” life] is still just a tad ajar, with points worthy of further study before either slamming it shut or opening it further and allowing more knowledge to pass through.”

John Tainer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s current supervisor: “There are many reasons not to find things — I don’t find my keys some mornings. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Michael New, astrobiologist, NASA headquarters: “Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism.”

At least Science made a cautious stab at reality in its editorial, although it should have spared everyone — the original researchers included — by retracting the paper and marking it as retracted for future reference. The responses are so contrary to fact and correct scientific practice (though familiar to politician-watchers) that I am forced to conclude that perhaps the OPERA neutrino results were true after all, and I live in a universe in which it is possible to change the past via time travel.

Science is an asymptotic approach to truth; but to reach that truth, we must let go of hypotheses in which we may have become emotionally vested. That is probably the hardest internal obstacle to doing good science. The attachment to a hypothesis, coupled with the relentless pressure to be first, original, paradigm-shifting can lead to all kinds of dangerous practices – from cutting corners and omitting results that “don’t fit” to outright fraud. This is particularly dangerous when it happens to senior scientists with clout and reputations, who can flatten rivals and who often have direct access to pop media. The result is shoddy science and a disproportionate decrease of scientists’ credibility with the lay public.

The two latest papers have done far more than “challenge” the original findings. Sagan may have said that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but he also explained how persistent lack of evidence after attempts from all angles must eventually lead to the acceptance that there is no dragon in that garage, no unicorn in that secret glade, no extant alternative terrestrial biochemistry, only infinite variations at its various scales. It’s time to put “arsenic-based life” in the same attic box that holds ether, Aristotle’s homunculi, cold fusion, FTL neutrinos, tumors dissolved by prayer. The case is obviously still open for alternative biochemistry beyond our planet and for alternative early forms on earth that went extinct without leaving traces.

We scientists have a ton of real work to do without wasting our pitifully small and constantly dwindling resources and without muddying the waters with refuse. Being human, we cannot help but occasionally fall in love with our hypotheses. But we have to take that bitter reality medicine and keep on exploring; the universe doesn’t care what we like but still has wonders waiting to be discovered. I hope that Felisa Wolfe-Simon remains one of the astrogators, as long as she realizes that following a star is not the same as following a will-o’-the-wisp — and that knowingly and willfully following the latter endangers the starship and its crew.

Relevant links:

The Agency that Cried “Awesome!”

The earlier rebuttals in Science

The Erb et al paper (Julia Vorholt, senior author)

The Reaves et al paper (Rosemary Rosefield, senior author)

Images: 2nd, Denial by Bill Watterson; 3rd, The Fool (Rider-Waite tarot deck, by Pamela Cole Smith)

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 2

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a coda by Athena)

Part 1

Burroughs’ Influences

ERB had several strong influences while creating the fictional world of Barsoom. One came from his experiences in the late 1890s as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Grant in Arizona (still a US territory at the time). The vast desert landscape of the Southwest served as a geophysical model for his drying and dying Mars. The surrounding Native American population became the Tharks. The native women – whom he found to be haughty, beautiful, and very proud – may also have served as ERB’s involuntary muses for Dejah Thoris.

ERB’s other prominent influence for the formation of Barsoom came from a fellow who was also a resident of Arizona around the same time: Percival Lowell. A member of a very prominent Boston Brahmin family, Lowell became fascinated with Mars after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing a series of long, straight dark lines on the Red Planet starting in 1877. His intense and focused interest in Mars (along with his wealth) led Lowell to build a professional observatory in remote Flagstaff, Arizona, where he felt he could properly study our neighboring world to better discern its compelling features.

Lowell and others soon came to the conclusion that such formations had to be artificial in nature. Lowell believed that a race of beings much older, wiser, and more advanced than humanity dwelt on Mars. These Martians built a vast network of giant canals to bring water from their arctic regions of ice to their cities on and near the equator. Their plan was to stave off extinction as their ancient world began to dry up, taking the native flora and fauna with it in the process. Lowell and his followers thought they were witnesses to the last great act of an alien civilization.

Lowell’s hypothesis for Mars were not completely pulled out of thin air, for his ideas were based on a combination of contemporary thoughts and observations: From what astronomers could see through their telescopes about the Red Planet from their vantage point on Earth many millions of miles away, the fourth world from the Sun appeared to be more like our globe than any other place in the Sol system. Mars possessed two white polar caps, an axial tilt and rotation rate very similar to Earth’s, and light and dark regions which changed in color, shape, and size through the long Martian seasons. Many conjectured that these mobile surface markings were the life cycles of native plants or even the migration of animals.

Another idea popular at the time was the Nebular Theory of solar system formation. This plan declared that the outer worlds cooled and condensed first ages ago from the cosmic cloud of dust and debris that would become our Solar System. These places would thus develop  the conditions to support life sooner than the worlds closer to the warming Sun. As a result, the outer planets would also one day find themselves becoming less able to sustain their ecosystem sooner than the inner planets. This is why Lowell concluded there were canal-building intelligences on Mars without being able to actually see any such beings to learn whether he was correct or not.

Whether Percival Lowell was eventually right or wrong about the true state of the Red Planet ultimately mattered little to authors such as ERB and H. G. Wells. They found in Lowell’s ideas a fertile field for their imaginary worlds, though of course in Wells’ case, the Lowellian conditions on Mars served as a literal springboard for his octopus-like inhabitants to seek a better place to live, by force no less, thus creating the alien invasion scenario that remains popular to this very day. The only major difference between Wells’ creatures and their fictional descendants is that they now spring (mostly) from worlds circling other suns.

In contrast, ERB’s Martians remained on Barsoom despite the similarly debilitating environmental situation. There was and is a lot of high technology across Barsoomian society in both the novel and the film, including aerial flying machines, but they did not seem to focus on space travel, if you exclude the Therns’ guarded method of celestial transportation. Nevertheless, at least Helium appears to have had some rather powerful ground-based telescopes, as in the film version Dejah Thoris eventually realized that John Carter was a native of Jarsoom, while in the novel the princess was well aware of human civilization on Earth long before Carter arrived on her world.

Obviously the main reason I am emphasizing the John Carter connection with Lowell’s Mars is due to its important influence in bringing about the world of Barsoom. My other motive for bringing up the era defined by what Lowell created, pursued, and essentially preached about the Red Planet – namely from the latter half of the nineteenth century to July of 1965, when the American robotic probe Mariner 4 revealed with its t relatively crude images of the planet’s surface and other measurements a shockingly Moon-like Mars – is to highlight a period of astronomical history that is both fascinating in its own right and a relevant lesson in our current pursuit of extraterrestrial life.

John Carter did give some tantalizing hints about the Lowell era of Mars at the beginning and end of the film, very briefly displaying some real early hand-drawn maps of the planet. Included among these charts was one of the famous Lowell maps of the Martian canals, where it turns out that ERB rather closely modeled the various city-states and other features of Barsoom upon in numerous cases. See here for the details:

I also took special pleasure in noting that John Carter’s tomb looked rather similar to the one Percival Lowell was buried in on Mars Hill at his Flagstaff observatory in 1915.  It is these touches and obvious indication that someone did their historical research which I appreciate very much.

While it is clear to us (and a number of astronomers from that era) that Lowell went much too far in speculating on what the Martian canals were all about (sadly, even the canals turned out not to be real but rather optical illusions caused by real surface features being just beyond the resolution of most telescopes), his influence and imagination were the important catalyst in spurring both classic works of fiction and the people who would go on to study and explore the real Red Planet. A film about that era could be quite successful in my opinion. Certainly there would be enough real excitement, romance, and drama to work from.

Final Thoughts – The White Messiah

When Athena initially asked if I was interested in writing a review of John Carter, we briefly touched upon the “White Messiah” complex that exists in most films such as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and certainly the John Carter series.  Of course one could not create a John Carter story absent of its white male American hero without radically changing the focus and point of what ERB was trying to do (in addition to making a living at writing): to get American boys to become manlier like their forbears were presumed to be.

While researching John Carter, I read that ERB was concerned about the growing population move from the farms and fields to more urban areas.  ERB felt that boys who were not able to spend their youths hunting, fishing, and partaking in other outdoor activities were in danger of losing their manhood and possibly becoming – gasp – intellectual sissies!  So ERB conceived of a character that would inspire young males to become bold, daring, and adventurous (along with pursuing beautiful women) under the guise of an entertaining plot.

I have my doubts that this idea was actively considered or even known of by the makers of the John Carter film.  If anything, the snachismo concept Athena has written about here in her blog was quite in play:  John Carter was still indeed a manly man, but he was also shown to have a sensitive and caring side, including a back story that did not exist in the novel so far as I know.  And for a “Gentleman from Virginia” of the Nineteenth Century, Carter recognized and respected Dejah Thoris’ numerous abilities, despite her being – gasp – a woman.

The White Messiah idea does have some literal merit for John Carter (note the initials).  This article in Slate magazine goes into some interesting and revealing depth on the subject.  One has to wonder why our society seems to always be waiting and hoping for one particular individual (or even an advanced ETI) to come along and save the rest of us from ourselves?  Is it just because we are social mammals hardwired to defer authority to an Alpha Male?

While works like John Carter were not really aimed at exploring this topic, they can stir us to move beyond these basic plots and concepts to create our own ideas and stories of worlds and beings who think and operate in ways different from our current culture.  After all, that is one of the key features of science fiction, to imagine alternate scenarios and societies and see how they might play out.

It was nice to see on the big screen a fairly well done rendition of and tribute to a series that inspired so much of our popular science fiction stories today.  Now that a century has passed, I think it is time for cinematic science fiction to start graduating to more complex and daring concepts, which we did see a few times in the pre-Star Wars era.  If done and sold right, I think audiences are becoming sophisticated enough to handle stories outside the mainstream “comfort zone”.  At the very least, perhaps next time we will have a story about a Dejah Thoris type who simultaneously inspires young women and saves the world.

Athena’s coda: I already expressed my views of how well-made/progressive I deemed the JCM film in part 1.  ERB is one of the forefathers of the grittygrotty contingent in SF/F.  Its members are invariably linked with regressive tropes, evopsycho paradigms that extol reactionary mores as universal (the Alpha Male canard among them – there are no such creatures in the human species, biologically speaking) and hack writing.  I won’t list names, lest I spread the disease; nevertheless, it’s indicative that this contingent went ballistic because the JCM film updated the novel to lighten its deeply reactionary nature vis-à-vis women and non-whites.

Percival Lowell’s social prominence and wealth allowed him to indulge in his passionate hobby, and concrete good came of it: namely, the discovery of Pluto (he could have spent his money on golf clubs or financing conservative politicians).  However, it was already widely accepted during Lowell’s heyday that the Martian canals (a mistranslation of Schiaparelli’s original term, which meant channels) were natural formations.  It’s entirely likely that his “maps” of Mars and Venus were in fact depictions of his retinal blood vessels.

Mars, by dint of all its intrinsics as they gradually unfolded before us, has been a perennial object of fascination.  The issue of whether it once did or still does harbor life has not been resolved and I, for one, am all for a crewed expedition that will not only attempt to definitively answer this question but will also be useful in showing up the pitfalls and limitations of longer space travel.

On the art side, it’s true that there hasn’t yet been a film depiction of Mars that does it justice.  The obvious candidate (for a series rather than a standalone film, given its length) is Stan Robinson’s trilogy.  But for my taste, the hands-down choice would be Alexander Jablokov’s River of Dust: it shows a Mars that harbors a precarious but culturally vibrant underground human colony after a terraforming attempt failed, and it overflows with mythic echoes, dramatic situations that matter, exciting ideas, unique settings and vivid characters.

Images: Lowell’s “map” of the Mars south pole (1904); Lowell’s mausoleum; Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the solar system (NASA/JPL); Alex Jablokov’s marvelous River of Dust

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 1

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a dissenting coda by Athena)

There is an interesting parallel between John Carter as the main character of the Mars series of adventure novels begun by Edgar Rice Burroughs (from here on called ERB) one century ago this year, and the recently released Disney film of the same name.

Both arrived on their respective worlds – the fictional man Carter on planet Mars, a.k.a. Barsoom, and the motion picture John Carter in cinemas all over planet Earth (a.k.a. Jarsoom) – with relatively little fanfare. Both Carters initially encountered natives who had no real idea who they were and were ready to kill them off. Yet somehow both survived their hostile environments and slowly earned the understanding and respect of their newfound worlds, eventually going on to change things for the better and having a wild time in the process.

Now of course the film version still has a long road ahead to achieve its equivalent of what the novel hero achieved in his fictional and serialized lifetime. To be honest, I do not know if it will ever become as popular and influential as the novels were in their day, if for no other reason than too many other fictional series influenced by the ERB works have left their much stronger mark on the cultural mindset in the intervening century. In addition, while John Carter is better than I feared, the very ironic fact that it looks rather derivative of the very genre it spawned may permanently hobble its journey across the cinematic and cultural landscape.

So why should I make a big deal out of a film and series that its parent company will probably write off as a financial loss, one that most of today’s audience is almost totally unfamiliar with, and in truth its core plot was not terribly original or new when ERB produced its first installment back in 1912?

For the following reasons: The film did not become the bloated mess that I thought Hollywood was going to turn it into (and which many film critics who I do not think would know or understand science fiction and its history if they proverbially bit them continue to insist it is while mentioning its big budget in the same breath). The John Carter series deserves to be honored, understood, and appreciated for all it has done both for science fiction/fantasy and for influencing later real scientists like Carl Sagan, who talked about his love for the series as a youth in an episode of Cosmos. Finally, the real story and history behind the influences – hinted at in the film – that spawned John Carter and affected our views of life on Mars and elsewhere are more than worthy of being reintroduced to new generations as well.

The plot of John Carter is essentially that of ERB’s first novel in the series, A Princess of Mars: Confederate war veteran and Gentleman of Virginia John Carter goes into a cave in the Southwestern United States and wakes up millions of miles away on the planet Mars. There he meets several of the remaining native populations on that world, all of whom are battling with each other and the elements as Mars is slowly drying up. Carter’s Earth-developed muscles allow him to jump quite high and punch very hard in the lower Martian gravity, abilities which quickly earn him the awe and respect of key natives. In the end, our hero defeats the bad guys, wins the hand of the beautiful Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, and then involuntarily ends up back on Earth.  Carter spends most of his Jarsoomian exile trying to get back to Mars and his wife, which he eventually does.

I must confess: I did not read any of the John Carter novel series until rather recently, despite knowing about them for most of my life. I am not a big fan of fantasy fiction and that is what I considered these works to be. I also assumed that the prose would not have aged well in the intervening decades.

I have since read the first novel and, like the film, found it to be not as bad as I feared. Both were rather entertaining and I found myself actually caring about the characters, always a key point for me with any story. As just one example, I recall being both surprised and moved when it was revealed in the novel that Sola was the daughter of Tars Tarkas.

Based on past experience with Hollywood’s efforts at science fiction (and John Carter really is basically SF and not fantasy), along with Disney’s historical habit of making major changes in their productions to suit their intended audiences and their less-than-stellar promotional efforts for this film, I expected John Carter to be an expensive and flashy mess, one that was as much about the original A Princess of Mars as the “re-imaged/re-invented” Star Trek film from 2009 was about the original Star Trek television series: A shell resembling the franchise but full of hot air and junk underneath. Instead I witnessed a film that actually got the main characters and plot points, along with the essence and feel of the novel – no small feat there. I just wish that more people were aware of this and could appreciate it. Ironically, science fiction is starting to become more “acceptable” to the mainstream audience due to the reimaged Battlestar Galactica and especially The Hunger Games series, whose first film came out right after John Carter and financially steamrolled our Martian hero and every other current movie in its path.

I found the film to capture the feel and look of the novel as I and others imagined it quite well. From the flying battle cruisers to the appearance and behavior of the warrior Tharks, this cinematic world of Barsoom is one I think ERB would have said well matched his visions of his creation.

There were a few notable changes from the novel, most of which only make sense in light of the medium and era. One was the addition of clothing on John Carter and the residents of Barsoom. In the novel, most natives went either naked or nearly so and did not even think twice about being in such a state (Dejah Thoris only wore strategically-placed ornate jewelry, for example). John Carter even arrived on Mars sans clothing. For obvious reasons the film could not replicate this situation from the novel; besides, it probably would have been too distracting even if such a thing were allowed by the modern film industry.

The women of Barsoom fared rather well from their “modernization” in the film, though it should be noted that even in the first novel I did not find them to be just the damsels-in-distress one might be led to believe from the decades of artwork depicting that alien world.

The two main Martian city-states depicted in the film, Helium and Zodanga, employed female soldiers as readily as male ones. I had to wonder if this situation was due to the fact that the Martian environment was dying and people and resources were in ever-dwindling supply, but no one ever seemed to question or even react to the idea of women in their military. The audience was not given enough cinematic time to learn very much about these societies in any event.

The Thark Sola was an intelligent and compassionate individual in addition to being a strong warrior. She endured a fair deal of suffering from her harsh culture to remain true to herself and her beliefs. Sola also became open to new ideas as the story progressed, such as flying, despite her father and chief Tars Tarkas earlier intoning that “Tharks do not fly!”

The most notable woman of the series is of course Dejah Thoris. While she remained a beautiful princess and the focus of John Carter’s admiration and desire, for the film Dejah also became a highly capable scientist as well as a warrior who more than held her own in battle. When the Helium leadership was ready to cave in and acquiesce to the demands of the Zodanga leader to marry Dejah in the hope of saving their society from defeat and destruction, Dejah was the only one who not only balked at this forced union but saw how Helium’s being united with the more barbaric city-state of Zodanga would actually undermine her culture and eventually all the people of Barsoom.

Dejah’s demonstrated scientific knowledge and technical skills were strong enough that the main “bad guys” of the film, the highly advanced species known as the Thern, considered Dejah to be a serious impediment to their plans for Barsoom while simultaneously admiring her abilities. As for the actor who played the Princess of Helium, Lynn Collins was an excellent choice for the character. She not only played Dejah with both intelligence and an air of royal nobility, Collins’ years of martial arts training also showed convincingly in her numerous scenes of hand-to-hand combat – including the several occasions when Carter got behind Dejah for protection!

The Thern are another cinematic modification from the novel. In A Princess of Mars, Martian natives make a trip down the River Iss when they feel ready to pass on from this life. They believe at the end of that river is where they will meet the goddess Issus and go on to a paradisiacal afterlife. Instead the mythology and the journey are a trap set by the Thern, descendants of the White Martians, who use monstrous creatures such as the white apes to kill and eat the unwary pilgrims and enslave or consume in turn those who survive the ordeal.

In the film, the Thern are an advanced alien race (they appear as humanoids but can also shapeshift) who travel from one inhabited world to another and “feed” off the energies expended by the native populations as they struggle with each other and use up or neglect their planet’s natural resources. One Thern named Shang implies to Carter that Earth and humanity are next on their menu once they are done with the dying Barsoom.

The Thern have a very interesting and quite alien technology which looks like a tangled mass of blue fibers, whether it is one of their structures or a weapon (Dejah Thoris recognizes its artificial nature). They also travel between worlds by sending “copies” of themselves similar to a fax using a medallion that operates on specific verbal commands. Whereas in the novel, Carter mysteriously arrives on Mars after simply falling asleep in a cave, our hero is accidentally transported to Barsoom by Thern technology. While of course there is no actual explanation given as to how the mechanism works, the audience is at least handed some kind of plausible reason for Carter’s celestial journey that is no worse than using a faster-than-light drive for a fictional starship. Besides, the JC series is all about the destination, not the journey.

The film version of the Thern left me wondering if perhaps there are advanced societies in the galaxy who view other alien species as lesser creatures to either be ignored or utilized for their own purposes. While they held some genuine admiration for Dejah Thoris, I got the impression that their whole attitude about using Barsoom until it was dry and dead and all the other worlds they have come across could be summed up as “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

I have often wondered if an advanced ETI, using the Kardashev Type 2 or 3 labels for simplification, would mow over whole worlds and species as they developed their interstellar existence in the same way a construction crew would run over an ant colony on their building site. I would like to think that such sophisticated and experienced beings would be a bit more sensitive than that, but we are still so very clueless about anyone else in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.

Athena’s afterword: Unsurprisingly, my view of John Carter (henceforth JCM) is far more jaundiced than Larry’s.  JCM is dull, curiously inert, with zero frisson or sensawunda despite the non-stop eye candy.  Although the novel it’s based on predated and influenced Star Wars, Avatar, etc, it was a given that the film’s late arrival would doom it to looking stale unless its makers were truly bold.  Pressing Pixar’s Stanton into service made success a possibility but Disney standard hackery prevailed: the deletion of crucial words from the film’s title (Mars, because other films with Mars in their titles bombed; Princess, because… it might give the film girl cooties) signals this fatal lack of conviction.

True, JCM is not a total failure; however, given its semi-infinite budget and the longueurs recognized even by its champions, this is a pathetically low bar.  It’s a near-failure even as film space opera — which by tradition has low standards for coherence, opting instead for assaultive FX pyrotechnics.  Of course, JCM’s science is non-existent even within its own silly framework (example: the intermittence and variability of Carter’s locust-like jumping abilities).  At least, unlike Cameron’s Na’vi, Stanton forbore from putting breasts on female Tharks.  In fact, JCM’s core failure lies in its clumsy, generic narrative and its paper-thin worldbuilding and characters, for whom it’s impossible to care.  Additionally, by being mostly faithful to the novel, JCM’s makers reproduced its highly problematic underpinnings.

The cultures in JCM are based (snore) on ancient Rome and the Celtic and German nations that opposed it  – as filtered through the lens of someone who learned history from comics or fifties Hollywood films.  JCM’s obvious muscular-christian underdrone further underlines its poverty of imagination.  There is no internal logic to the conflicts: they must simply exist, so that 1) we can see the neat-o flying machines and 2) the savior can become indispensable and lead his disciples to victory.  Its pace is as lumbering as its six-legged war beasts; neither its tone nor its visuals ever coalesce.  The relentless battles and fights are choppy and muddy.  The dialogue is clunkier than that of Lucas (a feat I considered impossible), the characters look and speak like Pharaonic wooden statues and the two leads have as much chemistry as pet rocks.  The aptly named Taylor Kitch, blander than lo-fat cottage cheese, doesn’t deserve Lynn Collins’ hot chili and the best that can be said about Thoris and Sola is that neither is a bimbo… or a blonde.

The clichés that literally sink JCM have dogged Hollywood space operas even in their self-labeled progressive incarnations like Star Trek: the White Messiah who out-natives the natives and has their princesses begging for his babbies; the lone feisty-but-feminine metal-bikini-clad woman among a sea (desert?) of men, bereft of any female interactions; the total absence of mothers, when even the non-dyadic Thark family structure gets twisted into providing Sola with a father; natives as noble savages who prevail, Ewok-like, over much superior technology once they choose the right (non-native) leader; hierarchical dog-eat-dog warrior societies; imperial rule by charismatic autocrats as the sole viable method of governance; the dog-like mascot whose sugary cuteness could elicit a full-blown diabetic coma.

People will undoubtedly try to argue that ERB was “a man of his time”.  This is an excuse used ad nauseam for other SF/F “founders” such as Tolkien – who in fact was deemed a regressive throwback even by his own circle before he got canonized into infallibility by his acolytes.  Ditto for ERB.  As one example, John Carter is a “gentleman of Virginia” who served with distinction in the Confederate Army.  Romantic lost causes aside, it means that ERB deliberately made his hero someone who chose to uphold the institution of slavery.  And, of course, the names… oh, how they thud!  Zodanga.  Woola. Tardos Mors.  Barsoom (rhymes with bazoom and va-va-voom, underscored by the Frazetta opulent pornokitch depictions so adored by Tarzanist evopsychos).

Such material can be salvaged in only two ways: either by radical re-imagining (which briefly was the route of the Battlestar Galactica reboot before it collapsed under its maker’s pretensions) or by being played as stylish high camp (which was why the Flash Gordon 1980 remake was such a breath of fresh air).  Like a good bone structure underneath flesh gone to flab, there were glimpses of what might have been had Stanton and his paymasters been braver.  But that would be a parallel universe where Barsoom truly came alive.  Stanton tries to elicit extra sympathy (and remind us of Wall-E) by dedicating JCM to Steve Jobs – but his latest opus resembles a clunky, bloated Microsoft PC.  It makes me once again think how immensely grateful I am that The Lord of the Rings was not directed by an American.

Images: John Carter (Taylor Kitch) realizing that not even super-jumping abilities will get him out of this mess; Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) all undressed up with nowhere to go; Dejah Thoris and John Carter trying to find escape clauses in their contracts; Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) in WTF? posture.

Part 2

Poetry for the Solstice

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

My poem Mirror Twin just appeared in Stone Telling 6. It is a twin in more ways than one: it is the mate/prequel to Spacetime Geodesics, which appeared earlier this year in Bull Spec 6.

Eleni Tsami generously gave me permission to use a black-and-white version of her haunting Spaceborn (to the right — click on the image to see a larger version) as the accompanying art, and the editors of Stone Telling granted my wish. As is customary in that venue, there is also a recording of me reciting the poem. The opening lines:

Starship navigators live
by renunciation and arrogance.

Happy Solstice!

My Views on the 100-Yr Starship Study in Stereo

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Immediately after my discussion of Kepler 22b, Christopher Jones interviewed me for I first met Chris when he interviewed me about The Biology of Star Trek for Suite 101.

This time around, Chris asked me to opine on the 100-Year Starship symposium, long-generation starships and the future of humanity on- and off-earth.

Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— William Butler Yeats, Second Coming

The last few years have been heady for planet hunters. First the hot Jupiters; then the will-o’-the-wisp Glieslings and their cousins; and in the last year, the results from the Kepler mission which detected planetary systems in the low thousands; one of these is Kepler 22.

Kepler 22 is a G5 type star (our sun is G2, about 10% bigger and hotter) 600 light years away with a planetary entourage. For anyone who was in a sequestered jury room or a silently running nuclear submarine, what got splashed across the news media on December 5 was the confirmation that one of the Keplerings is a super-Earth (2.4 times the radius of our planet) that is solidly within the habitable zone of its primary – habitable defined as the region where water can remain liquid. It circles its primary in 289 days and its estimated average temperature is a balmy 22 C/75 F if (big if) it has an atmosphere thick enough for a mild greenhouse effect.

That’s what we know, and it’s important and exciting enough. Here’s what we don’t know, which makes the exclamations of “Twin Earth!” annoying: we don’t know its mass (though the wobble velocity puts an upper limit of 36 Earth masses on it), its composition, the composition of its atmosphere or if it has any moons. Equally annoying are the suggestions to name it The Christmas Planet or the barely less mawkish Hope, right down there with the naming of putative Gliese 581g something like Betty (not even Elizabeth, which at least would celebrate an unforgettable historic figure, plus several literary ones).

The Kepler findings are pinning down the still-loose middle terms of the Drake equation by strongly indicating that most suns have planetary systems, and most planets are of the small rocky variety. Of the approximately 2,000 systems Kepler tentatively identified, about fifty have planets within the habitable zone, of which perhaps ten are “Earth-like” (loosely defined).

Half a percent may not sound like much. But given the quarter trillion suns in our galaxy, the numbers mount up quickly. Plus, of course, the size and location of the newcomer inevitably raises expectations: if Kepler 22b is rocky and has decent amounts of water and a reasonably thick atmosphere, the probability of life moves into the “likely” zone. So it’s not surprising that the Allen Array turned its dishes in the direction of Kepler 22 (no requests for Warren Zevon yet, but the night is still young) – or that the concept art is coming in thick and fast.

It is a great pity that Kepler 22b is so far. Even expeditions with quasi-exotic propulsion systems (or exceptionally nice humans in flawless arkships) would take a long time to reach it. But the lengthening list of not-quite-Earths is a powerful enticement not to abandon the faltering beacon of space exploration. Once again, I will close with what I said about Gliese 581g:

“Whether [Kepler 22b] is so hospitable that we could live there or so hostile that we could only visit it vicariously through robotic orbiters and rovers, if it harbors life — even bacterial life, often mistakenly labeled “simple” — the impact of such a discovery will exceed that of most other discoveries combined. Unless supremely advanced Kardashev III level aliens seeded the galaxy like the Hainish in Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen, this life will be an independent genesis, enabling biologists to define which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial.

At this point, we cannot determine if [Kepler 22b] has an atmosphere, let alone life signatures. If it has non-technological life, without a doubt it will be so different that we may not recognize it. Nor is it a given, despite our fond dreaming in science fiction, that we will be able to communicate with it if it is sentient. In practical terms, a second life sample may exist much closer to home — on Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus. But those who are enthusiastic about this discovery articulate something beyond its potential seismic impact on biology and culture: the desire of humanity for companions among the sea of stars, a potent myth and an equally potent engine for exploration.”

Images: 1st, one of the four Kepler 22b imaginings by space artist Ron Miller. 2nd, comparison of Sol and Kepler 22 (NASA/Ames/JPL).

Spacetime ‘Branes: The Multiverse

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

by David Darling

Today I have the pleasure of hosting my friend David Darling, an astronomer and well-known science writer, who will update us on the multiverse. Dr. Darling has written many books of popular science, including Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology (in which he mentions my views on Rare Earth and the Anthropic Principle). He also maintains a much-visited website, The Worlds of David Darling that contains The Internet Encyclopedia of Science. His latest book, Megacatastrophes!: Nine Strange Ways the World Could End, his second collaboration with Dirk Schulze-Makuch, will appear next spring.

The multiverse, or theory of many universes, is very much in the news right now because some recent work strongly suggests that it might be true. The basic, mind-boggling idea is that “out there” is more than just the bubble of space-time we happen to live in – what we call the Universe. There are trillions and trillions (and trillions and trillions…) of other universes. Don’t even bother trying to imagine them all or your head might explode.

Surprisingly, the word “multiverse” has been around for a long time. It was coined way back in 1895 by the American philosopher William James, although he probably had something quite different in mind than what modern scientists are talking about.

And what are they talking about? Here’s the first problem we run into in tackling the multiverse concept. When scientists talk about the multiverse they can mean different things. To a cosmologist – someone interested in the origins and evolution of the universe as a whole – the multiverse is a consequence of the nature of the vacuum, which isn’t as empty as we usually suppose. The cosmologist’s multiverse stems from something called chaotic inflationary theory, which itself is a variety of the theory of cosmic inflation. In a nutshell, our universe is like a bubble of spacetime that spawned from a great foaming ocean of spacetime that’s always existed and always will exist. In it’s first few moments, our universe expanded at a fantastic rate before settling down to a more sedate rate of growth. But beyond our universe are other, similar bubbles – other universes – each expanding and each with their own physical constants and laws. One estimate puts the number of such universes at an outrageous 10 to the power 10 to the power 10 million (in other words 1 followed by 10 to the 10 million zeros – aargh!).

On the other hand, to a quantum physicist – someone who deals with the very smallest things in nature – the concept of the multiverse is a different beast. If you believe in something called Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which a lot of quantum scientists do, every time an observation is made at the quantum (super-tiny) level, the universe splits into all the possible outcomes that could happen. I’m not even going to get into what counts as an “observation”! Some people say it has to involve a conscious or sentient observer (like a human being); others argue that any measuring instrument will do. It’s complicated. But the underlying message of Everett’s theory is that any time an event (such as a collision between particles) is watched, the universe splits in various ways to take account of all the possible outcomes. Needless to say, this gets pretty crazy pretty fast! If every outcome of every minuscule watched event gives rise to an entirely new universe, then the total number of universes in this quantum physical view of the multiverse is beyond mind-boggling.

So there are these two different multiverse scenarios – the one of the cosmologist and the one of the quantum physicist. And they aren’t mutually exclusive. They could both be right. Trying to figure out the consequences if both types of multiverse are real and co-existent very quickly overwhelms my brain’s paltry (and diminishing) collection of neurons. But let’s just focus on a couple of particulars. In the quantum physicist’s multiverse, there are bound to be a lot of universes that are very similar to the one we live in. In fact there are going to be a lot of universes with other you’s – some of them only very slightly different from the one that we’re in right now. The cosmologist’s multiverse also allows for a vast number of universes, but the chances of almost exact copies of you is more remote. Instead, the cosmologist’s multiverse is populated by an incredible variety of bubbles of space-time in which the laws and basic constants are expected to vary widely. Probably very few are capable of supporting life.

Another distinction between the two types of multiverse is their fundamental nature. The cosmologist’s multiverse is a bit easier to grasp. Put it this way, if there were a parallel you in a bubble-universe that was the product of chaotic inflation then this other you would exist in the familiar three dimensions of space. But an alternative you in Everett’s many-worlds picture is a much more esoteric affair: a creature living in a different quantum branch of something called Hilbert space. Not being a mathematician, I won’t try to explain what Hilbert space is (Google it, if you’re interested). Suffice it to say, it’s an extremely important concept in quantum mechanics – but far from easy to visualize.

Now the exciting thing is, physicists are getting close to being able to test if the multiverse is real. If there are other universes beyond our own, then it’s likely we may have bumped into them in the past, resulting in the cosmic equivalent of fender benders. The impacts ought to show up as dents in the cosmic microwave background – the now much-cooled afterglow of the Big Bang. For some time, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite has been mapping the microwave background to an unprecedented level of precision. The results will be out soon and may confirm the multiverse theory.

On a different front, theorists have made a discovery that goes to the very heart of quantum mechanics. They’ve shown its very likely that something called the wavefunction – the most important concept in the physics of the very small – isn’t a mere wave of probability as previously supposed, but a real physical object. The most far-reaching conclusion of this is that Everett’s many-worlds interpretation is correct and the quantum physicist’s multiverse is also a fact.

So get ready for expanding horizons. Just a few centuries ago, people thought there was only one sun. Then it turned out the stars were suns too. Then we discovered that our Milky Way Galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, was just one among many galaxies. Then it turned out that galaxies were arranged in clusters, which in turned formed superclusters. Now it seems our universe is just one of an unbelievable number of other universes. Who’s to say the hierarchy doesn’t extend beyond the multiverse?

Images: David Darling, Life Everywhere; bubble universes, Sally Bensusen/SciencePhotoLibrary.

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Sic itur ad astra (“Thus you shall go to the stars.”)
— Apollo, in Virgil’s Aeneid

Last Friday, several hundred people from a wide cross-section of the sciences and humanities converged on Orlando, Florida, to participate in the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year Starship symposium.  As the name tells, this was a preliminary gathering to discuss the challenges facing a long-generation starship, from propulsion systems to adapting to extraterrestrial homes.

I was one of the invited speakers.  I won’t have the leeway of long decompression, as I must immediately submerge for a grant.  However, I think it’s important to say a few words about the experience and purpose of that gathering.  Given the current paralysis of NASA, activities like this are sorely needed to keep even a tiny momentum forward on the technologies and mindsets that will make it possible to launch long-term crewed ships.

Open to the public, the event lasted two and a half days, the half being summations.  Content-wise, half was about the usual preoccupations: propulsion systems, starship technologies, habitats.  The other half covered equally important but usually neglected domains: biology, society, ethics, communicating the vision.  The talks were brief – we were each given 20 minutes total – and varied from the very broad to the very specific.  The presentations that I attended were overall high quality (though I personally thought “exotic science” should have been folded into the SF panels); so were the questions and discussions that followed them.  The age distribution was encouraging and there were many women in the audience, of which more anon.

Some aspects of the symposium did dismay me.  Structurally, the six or seven simultaneous tracks (with their inevitable time slippages) not only made it hard to go to specific talks but also pretty much ensured that the engineers would go to the propulsion talks, whereas the historians would attend those about ethics.  The diversity quotient was low, to put it mildly: a sea of pale faces, almost all Anglophones.  Most tracks listed heavily to the XY side.  This was particularly egregious in the two SF author panels, which sported a single woman among nine men – none with a biological background but heavy on physicists and AI gurus.  It was also odd to see long biosketches of the SF authors but none of the presenters in the official brochure.

Most disquieting, I sensed that there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations.  This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF.  Joanna Russ showed this well in We Who Are About To…  So did Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in Dead in Irons.  But neither story got the fame it deserves.

On the personal side, I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and finally seeing in the flesh friends whom I had only met virtually.  I was gratified to have the room overflow during my talk.  My greatest shock of happiness was to have Jill Tarter, the legend of SETI, the inspiration for Ellie Arroway in Contact, not only attend my talk but also ask me a question afterwards.

I hope there is sustained follow-up to this, because the domain needs it sorely.  Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship.  It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success.  Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably.  I will leave you with three snippets of my talk (the long version will appear in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society):

“An alternative title to this talk is ‘Distant Campfires’. A Native American myth said that the stars are distant campfires, where our ancestors are waiting for us to join them in storytelling and potlatch feasts.  Reaching and inhabiting other planets is often considered an extension of human exploration and occupation of Earth but the analogy is useful only as a metaphor. To live under strange skies will require courage, ingenuity and stamina – but above all, it will require a hard look at our assumptions, including what it means to be human.”


“In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet.  Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.”


“If we seek our future among the stars, we must change for the journey – and for the destination.  Until now, we have participated in our evolution and that of our ecosphere opportunistically, leaving outcomes to chance, whim or short-term expedience.  In our venture outwards, we’ll have to overcome taboos and self-manage this evolution, as we seek to adapt to the new, alien worlds which our descendants will inhabit.

One part of us won’t change, though: if we ever succeed in making our home on earths other than our own, we will still look up and see patterns in the stars of the new night skies.  But we will also know, each time we look up, that we’re looking at distant campfires around which all our relatives are gathered.”

Images: 1st, sunset, September 27, 2011, Sarasota, Florida (photo, Athena Andreadis); 2nd, Spaceborn (artist, Eleni Tsami)