Sunday, August 21, 2016

Guilty Pleasures: Starship Troopers

Whatever its other cultural merits, the decade 1990-99 did not leave us many great science-fiction movies. Most of its offerings were bad sequels and expensive dogs like Stargate. The exceptions mainly subverted or played around with established SF tropes. Men in Black gave us a twist on the First Contact theme (the Aliens are here and we've secretly absorbed them into our culture), Galaxyquest both lampooned and paid homage to fandom, and The Matrix cleverly inverted the occult modern fantasy genre typified by the X-Files (there isn't a fantastic world just below this one's surface – our everyday world is the fantasy). While marketed as a space-war action movie, 1997's Starship Troopers fit into this subversive sub-genre.

The source material which Starship Troopers subverted was Robert Heinlein's now-classic novel (1959). Heinlein set his tale in a future society where flogging is legal, voting and office-holding are restricted to veterans, military service resembles a civics lesson, and war redeems all participants, or all of the good guys anyway. Heinlein did recognize that he needed to tell an actual story, so he included a halfway-decent coming-of-age story and a space-war narrative, in which humans in power armor (a concept RH invented) fought a race of alien insects. The author made it clear, though, that he mainly wanted the novel to showcase his speculations on civic virtue; since RH originally wanted to market Starship Troopers as a young-adult novel, he also indicated that he wanted people to take his vision seriously.

The movie, directed by Paul Verhoeven, does take Heinlein more seriously than perhaps even he intended. Verhoeven and script writer Ed Neumeier recognized that a society so wedded to redemptive violence and skeptical of social democracy would quickly become fascist, so they presented Heinlein's humans as, essentially, space Nazis. Rather than preach against Heinlein, however, the filmmakers turned the movie into propaganda for the space Nazis: structuring the first act of the film as a high-school drama, the second as a recruiter's vision of boot camp (ample food, coed showers, a tough-but-fair drill sergeant played by Clancy Brown), and the rest as elements of a special-effects-intense war movie with lots of scary bugs and explosions. Video newsreel clips provide a window into the giddily-militaristic larger society. Private Johnny Rico's (Casper Van Diehn) rapid ascent in rank and loss of his family and colleagues, including the attractive athlete who dies almost immediately after seducing him (Dina Meyer), tell us how one becomes a real adult in this society. Rico's brilliant friend Carl (Dougie Houser) provides an alternate model of maturity, as he evolves from teen psychic to mad scientist to, essentially, an SS officer, or at least someone with the same wardrobe.

In the end, the surviving good guys fulfill their short-term missions, and the movie tells us “They'll keep fighting – and they'll win!” - though perhaps with more emphasis on the first than the second part of the phrase. The audience is left unsure whether they've been had, which is perhaps the point.

I'm sure Heinlein's more humorless fans, the kind who dominated the 2013 Worldcon, hated this film. Serves them right.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Them Bones: Mother Nature Shows a Little Mercy

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Them Bones, 53-59:

Weather plays a more important role in Them Bones than in most SF novels. Waldrop doesn't let the Sun People, or Bessie and her archaeologist colleagues, forget that they live at the mercy of powerful natural forces: flooding rivers, irate mammoths, and powerful storms. That Nature is more merciful than Man one can infer from the fate that befell Madison Leake's twenty-first-century contemporaries, who conquered the natural world and then destroyed themselves. As long as human beings respect Nature's power, natural forces can cut them a little slack.

Madison's fourth chapter begins with a natural disaster in the making: a violent storm approaching the Sun People's town: a “huge black thunderhead,” glittering with lightning. The townsfolk have differing attitudes toward the storm: members of the Buzzard Cult welcome its destructive force, chanting and “rocking” on their feet in a ritual reminiscent of the Ghost Dance (p. 56), while others join Sun Man in praying to the Woodpecker. Took and Sunflower are otherwise preoccupied, as Sunflower has begun birthing her child.

The storm begins, and Waldrop lays on the effects pretty thick. The great cloud rolls over the town, revealing a green and violet underside. The rain comes in sheets, accompanied by thunder “loud as a 155” (55). (Given that Private Leake is narrating the chapter, I assume he means a 155mm artillery piece.) Lightning lances down, igniting several huts and detonating the temple. Sun Man stops chanting long enough to organize a fire brigade. Chilled air rolls in and a hailstorm begins. "We don't have weather like that where I'm from," Madison laconically notes. I take it he was from one of the coasts - even today, the Midwest and Mississippi Valley can have storms just this violent.

In the midst of the storm Madison sees Sunflower, and the midwife, and a small, covered bundle that Sunflower carries in her arms, very quietly. Waldrop doesn't tell us what has happened to the baby. We don't need to guess.

The rain abruptly shuts off, and the silence becomes so profound that Leake can hear crickets, flames, people splashing through puddles. Then he sees what has interrupted the storm: the massive, serpentine length of a tornado uncoiling from the cloudbank, headed straight for town.

Madison, moved by what force Waldrop does not say, drags Sunflower to the summit of the temple mound and displays her dead baby to the storm, as if to say “Enough!” And at this point Waldrop segues, not for the last time, from sci-fi into magic realism. 

The tornado, which has been sucking up “trees, alligators, fish, boulders” (58) now misses the town – the funnel cloud lifts off the ground, glides over the temple and houses, and sets down off to the north. Everyone sees “a huge flat sheet of light," possibly lightning, more likely a magical special effect, "envelop[ing]" the temple and its surroundings. The storm, as subtropical storms often do, abates quickly. 

Spared from destruction, the townsfolk proceed to the temple to give thanks. All except Madison and Took and Sunflower, who know what they have lost.

Coming next: Bessie learns of the mounds' mythic past.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No Galactic Civilization for You (Part Three)

If population pressure won't push human beings out of the Solar System, and the pursuit of mineral wealth won't carry us far (before compound interest overtakes us), our concern for species survival might still propel us across the galaxy. Last spring Stephen Hawking made a public statement in favor of interstellar exploration and colonization, arguing that humans should not “keep all our eggs in one fragile basket.” Without extrasolar colonies, all of humanity could succumb to a local extinction-level event like a gamma-ray burst or asteroid collision.

While I agree with Professor Hawking's sentiment, I believe that finding a haven for humans and other terrestrial species – I assume we'll want to save them too – will prove quite difficult, and take much time and expense. Extrasolar planets are more common than we used to think, but terrestrial life forms will need water, Earthlike gravity (too much or too little will fatally stress circulatory and skeletal systems), and a breathable atmosphere, conditions which we will only find on a small minority of planets. The third condition poses the real problem: free oxygen is rare without some sort of indigenous life form, presumably carbon-based, to generate it. Alien life would excite and stimulate us intellectually, but presents colonists with problems. It may generate prions and allergens and other toxins deadly to humans, or to the Earthly creatures we bring. It probably will not be biologically simpatico with terrestrial organisms, products as we are of several billion years of separate evolution under an alien sun, so we will have to replace it with our own imported species, which raises serious ethical questions. If somehow we find alien species which we could safely eat or exploit, they may not want to coexist peacefully – they may want to eat us, and may become quite good at it, as Robert Wilson posited in one of my favorite SF novels.

Building settlements on a lifeless alien world, or terraforming a near-Earthlike one, comprise possible alternatives, but more expensive ones than colonizing a planet with free air and water. Of course such worlds already exist relatively nearby, in our own Solar System.

The question with which I started this series is “Will humans colonize the galaxy?” and while I obviously can't provide a definite answer, I still don't think we will have a motive to do so. Finding a single extrasolar biosphere haven for humans and dolphins and penguins and brine shrimp and other Earthly creatures is a worthy and even necessary goal, and in the longer term we will probably need two or three of them as extinction insurance. I don't think we'll need a galaxy full of them, and since we'll have to travel a long distance and spend a lot of resources to find and colonize a suitable New Earth, limited need and high expense will keep the number of them small.

Friday, June 3, 2016

No Galactic Civilization for You (Part Deux)

Expanding on my earlier look at one of the motives that might (but probably won't) impel human beings to colonize the galaxy, I'd like to examine a second colonial motive – the acquisition of scarce resources – and the reasons why it will probably not create a galaxy-spanning human civilization.

We can certainly find plenty of valuable resources beyond Earth's atmosphere: precious metals like iridium, germanium, osmium, and platinum, and “volatiles” (to use John Barnes' term), particularly water ice, which miners can use to generate water, oxygen, and rocket fuel. Pace television shows like V and Battlestar Galactica, water abounds in our Solar System: most asteroids are comprised of ice and carbon, as are the rings of Saturn and other gas giants, as are the countless comets that drift in the Oort cloud and occasionally fall sunward. Meanwhile, the asteroid belt offers mineral resources beyond the dreams of avarice. The hard SF writer and physicist Stephen Baxter estimates that even a fragment of a mid-sized asteroid (over 500 meters in diameter) could yield a trillion dollars' worth of rare and precious elements, and NASA estimates that our asteroid belt contains over one million asteroids of one-kilometer size or larger, of which 20-25% are of the nickel-iron and silicate variety likeliest to harbor more valuable metals. Other asteroids one may find in the Trojan Points (where Jupiter's and the Sun's gravity counter-balance one another) and in various solar orbits in the inner Solar system.

I think it very likely that other star systems also feature abundant resources. Earth-like planets might prove rare (depending on how broadly one interprets “Earth-like”), but as Norman Spinrad recently reminded SF readers, the Solar System is far from unique in its diversity of elements and ices and worldlets. Even interstellar space is “full of icy and rocky comets...Oort Clouds and Kuiper Belts...even free-floating organic molecules.” However, while one can imagine a future human civilization burning through 250,000 asteroids' worth of industrially useful metals, and a few thousand comets' worth of water, I find it much harer to imagine that civilization spreading at an exponentially increasing rate through the galaxy in search of new stellar systems to suck dry.

What will dramatically slow expansionist space miners is another concept developed by John Barnes: "you can't outrun compound interest." It takes resources - spacecraft building and maintenance, fuel and provisioning, crew recruitment and training, vacuum construction work, etc. - to set up extra-terrestrial mining operations and ship the end product to Earth. Those capital resources are not limitless and one could profitably employ them in other ways; using them to mine asteroids and comets incurs an opportunity cost, which (very roughly) equates to the interest rates that capitalist economies charge for the hiring of capital. Interest rates in 21st-century industrial economies are low and I suspect they will remain so in a space-faring civilization. However, interest payments grow and compound over time; even at one percent interest per annum, a loan will double in size in 75 years. 

In the early-modern epoch, companies could profitably undertake trading missions (like voyages to China) that took several years to complete. But a multi-decade interstellar voyage needs to generate much higher profits to justify tying up resources for so long a period of time. At light speed*, spacecraft will take decades to travel between even relatively close star systems. A 50-year voyage would cost 165 percent of its initial investment cost after one factors in interest payments (or opportunity-cost-equivalents) of one percent per year. A longer voyage, say from Earth to the vicinity of Betelgeuse, would take over 500 years and require a return of more than 10,000 percent on the original investment to break even. A flight across the Milky Way would take 50,000 years and require a return on investment of 6 * 10 ^200**, assuming anyone at the bank will still care by then. (Note: they will.)


John Barnes, The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky (1986)
Stephen Baxter, Manifold: Space (2000)
Arthur C. Clarke, The Songs of Distant Earth (1986)
Norman Spinrad, “Very Hard Science Fiction,” Asimov's, June 2016 (quote 110)

* Interstellar spacecraft won't be able to travel at lightspeed, or anything close to it. Remember that Norman Spinrad quote about interstellar space? A spaceship traveling at a significant fraction of lightspeed will suffer ablative damage from hitting particles as small as hydrogen and helium atoms. One traveling at close to C will lose most of its hull before it finishes its voyage, especially if it hits something larger than a helium atom.

** The current gross world product of Earth is about $80 trillion, or 8 * 10^12 dollars. If every star system in the Milky Way had an Earthlike planet with the same economic output, they would generate approximately 8 * 10^23 dollars. Just sayin'.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

No Galactic Civilization for You

A recent video by Kurzgesagt asked if modern physics supplied a boundary, an absolute limit, to human expansion into the universe. The answer, apparently, is “yes:” humans cannot travel* beyond our own Local Group of galaxies, because “dark energy” propels other galactic clusters away from us at velocities too great to match. If lightspeed imposes an upper limit on spacecraft – and it must, because faster-than-light objects propagate backward in time, violating causality – we can explore our galaxy and Andromeda and a couple of dozen nearby dwarf galaxies, but no further.

The author presented this as a sad story, from the standpoint of a future “Type III Civilization” that has colonized and exploited the entire Milky Way galaxy. Permit me to say, though, that we twenty-first-century primitives need not mourn, because even creating a galaxy-spanning civilization probably lies beyond humans' capacity. We may develop the means, but I doubt we will ever have the motives to colonize an entire galaxy, let alone the rest of our Local Group.

Sci-fi writers, and historians, have adduced several possible motives for interstellar colonization, none of which seems likely to push us all the way through the Milky Way (100 billion star systems, remember) except perhaps in a distant, post-human future. Let us look in this post at one of them: population growth.

Overpopulation sounds like a reasonable motive for extra-solar colonization, especially when one realizes how rapidly human population has grown in the past couple of centuries – from one billion people in 1800 to more than seven billion today. SF writers like Harry Harrison and Larry Niven, and nonfiction authors like Paul Ehrlich, opined in the 1960s and '70s that the global population was headed for the 20 or 30 billion mark, and that war and famine would necessarily result. Since then, however, human fertility rates have declined, not for Malthusian reasons but as a result of economic growth in poor countries. In a modernizing, industrializing country, it makes more economic sense to have fewer children and educate them than it does to have many untrained children to work in the fields or mines. Smaller families also make more practical sense when access to modern medicine relieves couples of the need for “replacements” for those who die, and when birth control gives women more reliable control over their own fertility.

We have no reliable way of predicting fertility rates in the future, but we can speculate based on historical evidence from the last few thousand years. On that basis high population growth looks more like an anomaly than an inevitable trend. It usually resulted from innovations in food production and medicine, like the adoption of American crops in Europe and China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the development of medical antisepsis and antibiotics in the early twentieth century, and the “Green Revolution” in agriculture later in that century. More common is slow growth or stasis,** punctuated by crashes that wipe out several centuries of growth, like the epidemics that beset the early-modern Americas. I think it unlikely that we'll have another pandemic on the scale of the Black Death, but I do note that there are quite a few industrial countries that are losing population to parents' practical economic decisions: Japan, Russia (though poor health is also to blame there), and much of western Europe. Growth is leveling off in formerly underdeveloped nations like India and China. Within the next century, I suspect that the world's demographic growth rate will regress to the historical norm: slow to nonexistent. (The “hockey stick” of demographic growth will, in short, prove part of a sigmoid curve.)

In the longer term, we may see occasional population spurts like those mentioned above, but human historical trends and technological advances both militate against sustained high growth. Short-term growth episodes may eventually leave planet Earth with 20 or 30 billion people, but not for several more centuries. By then, humans should have found ways to house those people here on Earth: constructing denser and more livable cities, environmentally re-engineering desert or tundra for human settlement, and/or building artificial islands and reclaiming land from the sea. Further forward in the future, we will probably find ways to render some of the other worlds in our Solar System, like Venus and Mars, inhabitable by human beings.***

Or, by then, more imminent disasters than population growth will have destroyed us and our works. More on those in another post.

* Technically, spacecraft can travel outside the Local Group, but they cannot reach other galactic clusters – only empty intergalactic space.

** In medieval and early-modern Europe, for instance, any multi-generational population growth at all was considered high.

*** This assumes that space travel becomes as inexpensive in the future as trans-oceanic travel became in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the heyday of global travel and colonization.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Them Bones: The Great Old Ones

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Them Bones, 40-41, 44-46, 65-69:

After spending a few days in Took-His-Time's village, Madison Leake decides it will make a good place to wait for his fellow time travelers, and settles in for a long stay. He hides his carbine, trades in his uniform for a breechcloth, and begins accompanying Took on his fishing trips to the river. During one of these, Took, using a fishing spear tipped with three copper barbs, manages to kill a giant river creature of some kind. Canoemen bring the body ashore: it is a manatee, broad-flippered and flat-tailed, a lily pad still drooping from its bristled mouth. (Nice touch, that.) Madison notes that manatees had nearly gone extinct in his time, even before the nuclear war. Back in the Mississippian era, they are plentiful.

Waldrop identifies himself as a science fiction writer, but many of his stories don't seem to match the genre's archetypes; almost none feature space travelers, galactic empires, or aliens. Like mainstream SF writers, however, Waldrop knows how to evoke what the fans call “a sense of wonder,” in this case the wonderment one feels at seeing the dead come back to life. The homely details that Waldrop provides about manatees and passenger pigeons, and for that matter the awkward birds in his famous story “The Ugly Chickens,” make these lost creatures resonate with our senses, and impart life to them. Many's the story written about nostalgia, about longing for a vanished past, but few are the authors who can make us nostalgic for vanished species.

The novel returns to this theme a couple of chapters on, when winter arrives in northeastern Louisiana, and with it the first snow, “tick-tick[ing]” (65) on the walls of the huts, blanketing the town. Hamboon Bokulla and Dreaming Killer come to Took's house early that morning with bad news, though Leake doesn't understand what they're saying in such rapid-fire fashion. He nonetheless agrees to accompany the three men to the northwest, past frozen pools and snow-covered trees, four kilometers from his home village. The quartet eventually arrive at a small farming hamlet whose houses and fields have been torn up by something unseen. Took confers with the villagers, then he and Madison and their compadres follow a huge set of footprints to the west.

The group reaches the cause of the disturbance: “A mountain made of hair,” twelve feet high, with protruding tusks and trunk, “tar-drop eyes” (68), and a trumpeting call like a giant tuba. Took addresses the “old one” (67), and bids him depart, lest he capture its spirit with the pipestone he carries. (Clearly, pipes represent powerful items, presumably because they bridge the earthly and spiritual realms.) The creature regards Took and Leake with an enigmatic expression, perhaps weariness, then, very slowly, heads off to the west.

This scene requires a bit of license on Waldrop's part, as we have no evidence that wooly mammoths survived in North America, or anywhere else, into the fourteenth century. Dreaming Killer does say of the colossus “Not many of those left,” but there probably shouldn't be any. On the other hand, Waldrop is beginning to indicate that there are some elements of his Mississippian setting that differentiate it from the real thing, such as pipestone makers that know Greek, and (as we shall see) eccentric tornadoes.

Coming next: Did someone say "eccentric tornadoes"?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Anomalies Accumulate, Storm Clouds Congregate

Them Bones, 47-49, 60-63

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Back in the 1929 storyline, some new crew members arrive at the mounds. Their leader, Dr. Jameson, is “the color of dust” (48) – light brown eyes, hat, and clothes. He examines the horse bones and cartridge that Bessie and Kincaid discovered, suggests the former might have appeared in a very late Mississippian site, but then concludes the whole anomaly is “a hoax” (48). Despite his limited imagination and dusty appearance, Jameson appears in this chapter to add some color and tension. He says he'll need a drink, which reminds readers that Prohibition is underway and strong drink hard to come by; he reminds Bessie of his “role model,” Roy Andrews, which lets Waldrop mention Andrews's famous fossil dinosaur eggs and evoke the theme of extinction; and he establishes a time limit on the excavation, noting it has been raining upriver for two days. The mounds are on the floodplain, and everyone still remembers the great Flood of '27.

The weather becomes more ominous when we rejoin Bessie and company later in the day, a hot and humid day with clouds piling up to the north. Work has resumed at the site, and Washington and the other diggers have started a “test trench” projecting into the base of the large mound. Bessie sketches the excavation, drawing a grid over the landscape while the work crew reifies that grid with trenches “straight as a ruler” (61). She reflects how long it took the Coles-Creek-era Mississippians to build the mounds, digging up dirt with hoes and carrying it in baskets. Even in discussing the twentieth century Waldrop never lets us stray too far from the past.

Kincaid, Jamison, and Bessie pause late in the day for water. The digging crew have begun a new trench while other workers sift dirt through screens. The male archaeologists have found no signs of an intrusion or other anomalies. Bessie, who has been able to take in the larger picture, has spotted a new peculiarity: the large compound mound consists of two different kinds of dirt, which means that the base was built at one time and the conical second level at another. That, and the horse bones and cartridge in the small mound, and the anomalous siting of the two mounds on the plain rather than the nearby bluff, deepen the mystery.

And the tension mounts as well when, at chapter's end, a wind blows through the camp, accompanied by the sound of thunder. Bessie and the workers are relieved, but the readers realize they shouldn't be – a storm is coming. Good for Waldrop for taking what might have been a dusty archaeological procedural and adding a bit of external drama to it. Though there's already enough mystery in the mounds to create dramatic tension: who or what built the later section of the larger mound, and whose horse was that anyway?

Coming next: We meet the Great Old One, and perhaps a river manatee or two.

Image above is of Roy Chapman Andrews, ca. 1925, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.