Tuesday, June 30, 2009

- - - 'And We're All Gonna Die!'

As associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Iris Wagman Borowsky, authored a study that hit the news yesterday.
"Challenging the notion that risky behavior reflects a youthful sense of immortality, a new study has found almost 15 percent of American teens believe they will die before age 35 -- a perspective strongly linked to risky behavior...."

"...The interviews revealed that nearly 15 percent of the teens believed they had just a 50-50 chance of living to age 35...." (Forbes)
The good news is that 85% of teens in America don't think they'll die young. Still, it's not good when one in seven make decisions based on the assumption that they've got something like 20 more years left to work with, instead of around 60, on average.

The Forbes article gives an overview of how the study was conducted, and a relatively brief discussion of why so many kids might have such a distorted view of their life expectancy, why it's a problem, and what might be done about it.

Forbes quotes Dr. Borowsky extensively. One of the things she said relates to this blog's topic.
" '...Positive media messages also play a role. These are all things that might prevent the development of a pessimistic view among youth.'..." (Forbes)
"Positive media messages" - let's look at that, in terms of how people view the future.

And the Future will Bring: Disease, Destruction, Dementia and Death?!

I was born during the Truman administration, and most of my teen years were spent in the sixties. I remember the trailing edge of a era when science and technology were presented as wonderful tools that would make the future brighter.

And I noticed when popular attitudes toward science and technology were getting back to the Mary Shelley mindset. Technology, industrial tech in particular, started being viewed as a Frankenstein monster that would turn on its creator.

As for the future: Our civilization was doomed by an impending ice age when I was in high school; by the time I graduated, a butterfly expert named Paul Ehrlich had quite a few people convinced that a sizable chunk of humanity would die horribly in the seventies and eighties, and that there wasn't anything we could do about the coming famine.

We got disco instead: which, although probably not one of the greatest achievements of western civilization, didn't actually kill all that many people.

Flame Throwers, Mutants, and Armored Dune Buggies

And, we got movies. Lots of movies: And those are just the memorable ones. With the Cold War still going on, I suppose all those germ warfare or post-nuclear-holocaust movies with rampaging mutants, fiery explosions, and armor-plated dune buggies were almost inevitable. Quintet has an almost nostalgic air about it now, with it's future ice age setting.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not criticizing the movies, although they're not exactly in the same class as Citizen Kane. As entertainment, they're junk food for the mind: fun, diverting, and not a health problem, if taken in moderation.

But I think there's a tendency for movie-makers to make their fictional futures grimly dreary. Maybe they don't want their colleagues to think they're producing or directing escapist fantasies.

Think Bladerunner (1982) and Judge Dredd (1995).

It's not all doom, gloom and vile frogs in the movies since the seventies, of course.

The future of The Star Trek movies, whatever one may think of them, carried through the largely optimistic view of times to come that I think helped put the original television series on America's cultural map.

Ecological Disaster, Cancer Everywhere, Humanity is Doomed?!

The parents of today's teenagers were, for the most part, growing up when those movies were released. From somewhere in the sixties up to the present, doom and gloom weren't limited to the movie theaters. Actually, in some ways the fictional futures of Judge Dredd or Bladerunner were downright cheerful, compared to what we were told is coming.

The 'everything causes cancer' craze has been over for quite a while, replaced partly by lists of foods that cause heart attacks, and foods that prevent heart attacks. Just to keep things interesting, the lists kept changing.

It didn't matter anyway, because the coming ice age and/or nuclear Armageddon had been replaced by global warming and acid rain, and human civilization was doomed. Never mind civilization. Humanity itself may be extinct soon.

I'm overstating it, but that sort of 'and we're all gonna die' refrain seems to run through quite a few American sub-cultures.

No wonder one out of seven teens think they've got a 50-50 chance of lasting another two decades. Under the circumstances, they could be seen as optimists.

Deadly Plagues? Nuclear Armageddon? Humanity Reduced to a Handful? Been There, Done That

Like The Omega Man, I'm immune - to the hopelessness that's a characteristic of so much fiction. I think it helped, being an avid reader with a pretty good memory. After a while, I noticed that the dire predictions weren't panning out.

As a wannabe author, I'd probably reject the gloom-and-doom future on aesthetic grounds. It's an approach which may have been over-worked.

Besides, although I'm no Trekkie, I'd rather write about a fictional future that was more than one more devastated Earth.

Which reminds me of Buck Rogers (1939) and the Flash Gordon television series (1954-1955).

That'll have to wait for another day. At 934 words so far, this post is quite long: and I've got more tasks to finish today.

Related posts: In the news:

The Story of Mankind in 79 Words

Long ago, many races of primates lived in the tropical forest. One slow, weak race was driven into the grasslands and left there to die.

Most of them did.

But some survived. Their descendants learned to use sharp sticks and make fire. Later they learned to make stone tips for their spears, and hide scrapers. Later still, they learned to make intercontinental ballistic missiles and bulldozers.

Then they returned to the forest, leveled it, and built a shopping mall.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"The Dream" - a Short-Short Story

Here's something I wrote about eight years ago. At 650 words, I doubt that it's 'marketable' as a short story, but I rather like the thing. It originally appeared in "Brian's Attic" on my Brendan's Island website.

The Dream

Brian H. Gill

He woke, heart racing, breathless, wet with sweat, in the starlit time before dawn. He shuddered when something touched his arm. It was his wife.

"Again?" she asked, rolling her belly onto him. Soon she would bear his first child.

"Again," he gasped. He waited until his breath came more easily. "The same thing. It was awful."

She waited. He would talk soon. Perhaps then he would sleep.

"There were people everywhere," he said. "I couldn't walk twenty paces without passing another's camp. Too many people. I walked and walked, and finally came to open land."

She shifted, making room for the baby. Ord was talking now. He would tell her about his dream: the same one he had each night, now. Then he would relax, and she could sleep again.

"It was a meadow, but not a real meadow. All the plants were the same, in rows." Ord frowned. "Somehow I knew that people had put the plants there, and would eat them later."

"I walked through the meadow, and through another, then another. I never saw another hunter. But there was a camp nearby. More than just a camp. The people had made huts, like we do in winter, but huge. And there were more huts than we saw when the Clan gathered."

"They couldn't live like that! There were too many people, too little land, and no one was hunting! I might be able to support me, and you, on that land, but even then it would be hard. Game wouldn't like those strange meadows. And with so many people, all in one place, there would be war soon over who would walk out and bring back food for his people. Then they would starve."

"I kept walking."

"Finally I came to another cluster of camps. It was even more crowded than the first one. I walked to the center of the camps."

"People were busy there, but they were not hunting and not gathering food. They were moving little sheets of something like birch bark around, fiddling with complicated things I couldn't understand."

"And there were so many of them. All together. All in that one place. And somehow I knew that this cluster of camps was just one of many, many clusters. More clusters than I could count, and many of the clusters were much larger than the one I was in."

"Only a few even knew how to hunt. And to them hunting was something they did for pleasure. Think! A world where only a few know the joy of the hunt."

"And then I woke up."

His wife made a sympathetic sound and put a hand on his arm. He lay quiet until she was asleep.

Then Ord, hunter, warrior, mighty with club and spear, soundlessly arose and walked to the brow of the hill where they camped. Below, in the twilight before dawn, he could see a strange meadow someone had cut out of the valley. All the plants were the same in that little meadow. He had talked with the hunter who lived there.

It didn't seem natural to him, tied to a plot of land so that one could be sure of a few bits of seed and berry. It seemed even less natural after those dreams.

The sun was up now. His wife was stirring. Ord threw down the stone spear tips he had exchanged for a pile of furs. Fire-sharpened spears had been good enough for his father, and his father before him.

Ord knew better now. He would have perhaps one more child, then no more. His descendants would never be tempted, or forced, to crowd together as the people in his dream. They would never make those strange meadows. They would never spend their lives away from the hunting grounds.

Ord turned his back on the valley and the strange meadow, and returned to the forest.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2001


Friday, June 26, 2009

Predicting the Future: a Look at a Will Be that Was

My settings, for the most part, will be somewhere in 'The Future.' To do a plausible job of describing - and showing - these settings, I'll need to do a little research. That's nothing unusual. Telling a story that's set in an unfamiliar time and place means that the author needs to either learn about the setting: or make up details and hope that no reader spots it.

Since 'The Future' for the early 21st century isn't here yet, I have to make up the details - but want to make them plausible. One way to do that is to look at past predictions, and learn from their work.

About eight decades back, people - some of them - seemed quite sure what The Future would look like.

A PATHETONE WEEKLY newsreel from the 1930s:

"1930s Futuristic Fashion Predictions"

lamaladietropicale, YouTube (March 11, 2009)
video, 1:37

People in The Future didn't wear clothing with quite that sort of style, but many women in western countries do wear pants now, we have portable radios and telephones: and quite a few of us wear our cell phones, beepers, and other communications equipment on our belts.

That was Then, This is Now

Here's something that people may be viewing around the year 2085:

"Futuristic Japanese Cars"

diagonaluk, YouTube (December 18, 2008)
video, 1:27

Some of the vehicles look practical - although I'm a bit dubious about the mini-car with two micro-cars inside - and something like them might be in common use not too long from now. Some of the designs might even be the 2085 equivalent of the Volkswagon bug.

Since my stories will be part text and part graphics, I need to design a plausible 'future world.' And, I want to avoid making these fictional futures look too much like either knockoffs of contemporary visions of the future, or 2009 fashions with futuristic flourishes.

Related posts:

Excerpts and Inspirations

"...Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (closing lines)
"...A moment later I thought, 'But when alone - really alone - everyone is a child: or no one?' Youth and age touch only the surface of our lives...."
That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis (p. 21, 1967 printing of 1965 Macmillan Paperbacks Edition)
Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs
after many a vanish'd face,
Many a planet by many a sun may roll
with the dust of a vanish'd race.

Raving politics, never at rest–as this poor
earth's pale history runs,–
What is it all but a trouble of ants in the
gleam of a million million of suns?...
Vastness, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (opening lines)
"...And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought...

"...for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die...

"...Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Related post:

Digital Housekeeping

I've added tracking code (don't worry: I'm not collecting data on individuals) and advertising to this blog. It's a bit of a chore, but part of the process.

About the tracking code: I use WebSTAT and Google Analytics to keep track of how many browsers view each blog post, how long the page is displayed, and other non-personal information. I'm neither equipped, nor interested, in tracking individual visitors. On the other hand, I do need to know what sort of traffic my blogs and websites experience.

About the advertising: Being independently wealthy, or have an obliging brother like Vincent Van Gogh's, might be nice. But since I'm not in either position, I have to make money somehow. Providing advertising space has a pretty good effort-to-income ratio.

A blog by my alter ego, Narcissus-X, expresses the views of someone who is more conventionally 'artistic.' Judging from the latest post, "Narcissus-X Broods on Anguish and Art," I think Narcissus-X may be losing it.

But I'm getting off-topic.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting Details Right: The Vast, Huge, and Very Large City Of The Future

There's a science fiction story I read in my youth, and re-read recently, in which the author paints an evocative word-picture of a City Of The Future. It is on an over-populated (what else?) Earth, where the terribly huge population will face starvation (what else?) if there is the slightest perturbation in production of food.

So far, nothing new. That sort of setting is almost standard, although it was a trifle newer fifty years ago.

Here's the problem.

The author did a fine job of describing this enormous, enclosed city, vast almost beyond imagination, layer upon layer of moving walkways, ramps, corridors - you get the idea. Huge. Enormous. Far beyond anything of our period.

More accurately, beyond anything of the period in which the author wrote.

That wonderful description of a vast city-world would work fairly well today, except for a couple of details.

The author described where it was, and told the reader how many people lived in it.

In terms of geographical extent, his super-city was almost exactly where the built-up area on the east coast is - with Washington, D.C. in the south, and New York City in the north.

And the population of American's coastal 'megalopolis' is, if memory serves, roughly the same as that of the author's super-city. Just one difference. The author very clearly indicated that his super-city was crowded with people. Really, really crowded.

Now, I understand that there's continuous urban development between Washington, D.C. and New York City: But it's not all as densely built up as the south end of Manhattan Island. And the last I checked, Jenny Craig was still making money with a weight-loss plan. Starving, Americans aren't.

And the Lesson is: Check Your Numbers

The author, who should have known better on several points, failed to do some basic math. In written science fiction, I like to think that the author did a little checking: and if there's a city of a given area, with a given population, and limited vertical development: that the 'overcrowding' or lack of same will add up.

Today's east coast megalopolis is more built up than central Minnesota, where I live: but it's not a vast enclosed labyrinth, level upon level of swarming humanity, either.

I still like the story, but now I have to work harder to get that willing suspension of disbelief.

Getting Details Right: Cityscapes

I spent part of today studying - and rejecting - a setting in a series of stories I hope to create with my oldest daughter. The period is a little over 14 centuries from now, and this specific setting is a (for the time) mid-size city.

I'd first thought of a design based on the Shimizu Corporation's proposed 'pyramid' for Tokyo Bay: an outsized space frame of struts running along the edges of a matrix of octahedrons. Like many visionary designs, the Shimizu pyramid looks very cool, requires materials that aren't available yet - at least not commercially - and, in my view, vastly underestimates how much infrastructure needs to be devoted to moving people around.

I made a pretty good start, I think, on a transportation system/building ration that looks reasonable: when I realized just how complicated the model would be.

Here's the deal: these stories are, as currently imagined, going to be comics. "Graphic novels," if you want to sound grown-up, or manga, if you're looking at some of our inspirations.

That means that, at a minimum, some of the settings will have to be drawn. And, since I plan to make heavy use of 3d modeling software, 'virtually' constructed.

I've created a moderately complex setting or two, but nothing approaching the Shimizu pyramid. Since it's an open framework, at least a rough model of the entire structure would have to be constructed.

Back to the drawing board.

I'm using some of the research I did for the pyramid: including the traffic circle and (even better) roundabout. Those systems of handling intersections are visually interesting, give a moderate degree of flexibility for 'serious' design, and could - in principle - be automated.

A real-world example of a roundabout is The Magic Roundabout in Swindon (between London and Bristol). There's a pretty good writeup about Swindon's roundabout in the Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


In ancient times, after humanity reached the stars, but before the Mandate of Heaven was restored to the Middle Kingdom, there were heroes.

Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space: A New Blog

When I was in my teens, I wrote a science fiction story: about 5,000 words. It surfaced, a few decades ago, during a bit of re-organization: and wasn't half as embarrassing as I might have feared.

It's time to try again.

This blog will be where I make notes, ruminate on backstory, potted biographies, and other impedimenta which may or may not help get a readable story done.

You're welcome to stop in from time to time, and see what's happened since your last visit: but I can't promise a finished narrative.

The fragments, drifting in from the deeps, may prove interesting, though.

Privacy Policy

Nothing spooky here.

These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

I do not collect information on individuals visiting this blog. If you leave a comment, I'll read what you wrote: but I don't keep a record of comments, apart from what Blogger displays. (In other words, the only record of what you write or who you are will be what people see at the bottom of the post.)

I do collect information about how many hits this blog gets, where they come from, and some technical information. I use the WebSTAT service for this purpose - and all that shows is which ISP you use, and where it's located.

You can stop most of Webstat's data gathering by disabling cookies in your browser. I don't know why you would, but some folks do.

I'm also an AdSense affiliate, so Google collects information on what I've written in each post: but that's mostly my problem.

I'm also considering starting an affiliate relationship with DAZ Productions. You should be able to keep DAZ and Commission Junction, their provider of affiliate services, from collecting information by - again - disabling cookies in your browser.

And you can keep DAZ Productions from finding out anything about you, by not buying any of their products.

Again, I don't know why you would: but some folks do.

Or, rather, don't.